Wednesday, January 31, 2018

BookMarks #34: Fire And Fury

Title: Fire And Fury: Inside the Trump White House
Author: Michael Wolff
Genre: Non-Fiction, Politics, Contemporary History
Setting: White House, Washington D.C, USA in the year 2017

Presenting the “inside” story of the events at the White House post the election of Donald Trump as the President of United States.

The byline of the book is misleading as the book is less about Trump and more about his ex-Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. The narration is from Bannon’s perspective, from his taking control of the Trump campaign, his rivals in the President’s inner circle and ultimately his departure/firing. The book ends with what seems like an announcement for Steve Bannon’s own presidential campaign for 2020.

Lots of gossip is presented about the inner circle of the White House and the many comings and goings in the President's staff. It also portrays quite an unflattering picture of Trump and his family. Well, that's to be expected, given that it is based on interviews conducted with a fired employee.

If the book is to be believed, Trump and his team did not expect to win the election and thus had no preparation for its aftermath! And now they are bumbling along while as Trump tries to become “presidential” while those around him try to figure what is going on in his head and how to make him focus on the important work!

“It is going to be as wild as shit” – an apt closing line of the book which is presented as a mix of gossip and facts. Or what president Trump would call “Fake News”.

Previously on BookMarks – Nikola Tesla 

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Republic Day Parade

26th January - Republic Day. Celebrated across India as the day when the Constitution of India came to force. The highlight of the day is the Republic Day Parade broadcast live from Rajpath, New Delhi. And it is also something which I make it a point to watch. This year decided to capture some notes and thoughts while watching the nearly three hour long telecast of the Parade.

Republic Day is probably one of the very few occasions when the TRPs of DD-National reach the sky, even in the homes with cable TV. And with good reason too, as the parade, a showcase of India's military might and cultural heritage, is also a visual treat. Or as the Doordarshan anchors keep on refraining - a विहंगम दृश्य। A phrase which has been going on from time immemorial!

The telecast has patriotic music running in the background throughout. One of the more popular songs is the AR Rahman version of Vande Mataram, nowadays played more frequently than Bankim Chandra's version, our National Song! "Saare Jahaan se Accha Hindustan Hamara" is played almost throughout the telecast, either as background or by many of the marching bands. Don't think there has been a greater irony than the fact that its author Iqbal is also the man who conceptualized Pakistan! Opinions do change with time! Or the fact that the song was originally composed in Urdu - a language which many extremists would deem anti-national these days!

Before the Parade, the dignitaries pay tributes at the Amar Jawan Jyoti at the India Gate. The Amar Jawan Jyoti was added in 1971 as a tribute to the unknown soldier who died fighting for the country. While the India Gate was built by the British to commemorate the soldiers who died during the First World War. And has names of those soldiers inscribed on it. The British may have left, but many of their symbols remain, including the sense of pomp and ceremony. 

The President's Bodyguards - India's most elite force is still a cavalry regiment, in this day and time! After all, somethings never change! Also the Presidential Chair has Ashok Chakra embossed (noticed it for the first time today). And coming to the Chief Guests - why call ten Heads of State at one go? And if you are calling them, do they all become Chief Guests or Guests of Honour (Important Question)?

The most sombre part of the ceremony is the gallantry awards being given posthumously to the family members. Pride and sadness all mixed together.

And now for the actual parade, a set of important questions and observations:
  • Are the missiles and other equipment on display the real thing or just models? And if it is the real thing, wouldn't they be better utilized for bolstering our defenses?
  • The marching contingents and their bands, all moving in unison, present a splendid sight, a truly विहंगम दृश्य.
  • We have a camel mounted regiment, which also has its own camel mounted band. Wonder which regiment would want to march just behind them given that the camels would hog all the limelight as well as dirty the roads!
  • And then come the tableaus depicting our cultural heritage. I liked the Madhya Pradesh tableau, which had a kid taking a selfie in front of Sanchi Stupa - a true blend of the ancient and the modern.
  • Also, quite a few tableaus depicted Buddhist imagery. Probably a nod to the ASEAN countries who were the Chief Guests for today's Parade. Also Buddhism is Indian tourism's biggest selling point.
  • The Bravery Award winners come riding in open-top jeeps. I liked it more when they were brought on elephants!
  • And finally the highlight of the show, the daredevil motorcycle riders! And this year this was an all-women contingent of bikers !
In all, a great show. But also a reminder of what India can truly become if we try to make it as the one promised in our Civics text-books!

P.S. The Twitter thread of my live-tweeting!

Monday, January 15, 2018

BookMarks #33: Nikola Tesla

Title: Nikola Tesla
Author: Sean Patrick
Genre: Biography
Setting: Late 19th & early 20th Century USA
Published: 2013

A short biography of Nikola Tesla.

The book’s byline says: “Imagination and the Man that invented the 20th Century”. And true to this premise this is a book in two parts - a biography inside another book. It tries to define what is a genius, how imagination plays a role in shaping a genius and then uses the life of Nikola Tesla as an example of a genius.

My key takeaways – Tesla lead an interesting but lonely life, wherein his genius was not fully appreciated by those around. His genius also led him to big battles with another contemporary great Edison, in whose firm he worked. “Battle of the Currents” seems an interesting subject to explore further. 

JP Morgan’s acts in the book seem to be the very caricature of a ruthless banker!

Also, the World’s Columbian Exposition of Chicago in 1893 seems to have been quite a remarkable event. And not just for the speech by Swami Vivekananda! 

And finally, its high time that all textbooks remove Marconi as the inventor of radio. There are too many claimants. As per this book, Tesla was one. And as every Indian believes so was J C Bose. Inventions, discoveries and patents are a complicated mix!

Overall, a short good book which makes one question the conventional knowledge and makes one explore further.

Previously on BookMarks – The Shoemaker and the Elves 

Monday, January 08, 2018

BookMarks #32: The Shoemaker and the Elves

Title: The Shoemaker and the Elves
Author: Jacob Grimm & Wilhelm Grimm 
Genre: Fiction, Fairytale, Children
Setting: Germany
Published: 1812

A shoemaker lands in troubled times when a cheap shoe seller sets up shop. His fortunes change as he receives help from the elves.

A very simplistic tale of how good can overcome evil but can have deeper interpretations also. It also has lessons in free market dynamics, issue of quality and price, and finally captive labour and slavery. But it is best enjoyed just as a simple fairy tale!

On further reading found that there are many versions of this faorytale (not unlike our great myths!), with each version following the broad guidelines as above.

Previously on BookMarks: The Bestseller 

Friday, January 05, 2018

BookMarks #31: The Bestseller

Title: The Bestseller
Author: Ajitabha Bose
Genre: Fiction, Romance, Pocket Book
Setting: India, Contemporary
Published: 2017

Boy gets a job, meets a girl, they fall in love, get married, and then tragedy strikes their blissful life. Boy fulfills girl's dreams.

The byline says - India's Smallest Love Story. The book, or rather a mini-novel, is really small and very pacy. It is a potpourri of emotions packed in a small helping. Each chapter moves fast and yet is also detailed. And we reach the end. Hardly takes 15 minutes to finish it. Perfect for your commute. 

Also, provided a welcome change from the meandering style of George RR Martin!

Previously on BookMarks - A Dance With Dragons

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Goodbye Twenty17

Its time when calendars are changed. As we begin another year, its time to take a step back and look at the year gone by, before the madcap pace of life catches up.

The Year MMXVII A.D. was quite an eventful one. The signs were there at the very beginning. At the stroke of the midnight hour, as the world celebrated and cheered the arrival of a new year, me ran helter-skelter hunting for the Uber which would take me home from the airport. A home which during the course of the year had a change of address as well. Guess, those early moments set up the tone for the year, which was filled with lots of commuting! Flights, Taxis, Buses, Trains - long and short and many!

The commuting time increased. To pass it, cultivated new hobbies, like catching Pokemon on the roads. But after some time, the attraction wore off and it was just a drain on the battery. Then discovered the Raj Comics App for reliving those childhood memories. And finally moved on YouTube lectures – benefits of a 4G connection and a longer commute.

The travel map expanded quite a bit and was also filled with loads of history lessons. There was the first ever European trip into Italy – the land of pizza, football, gelato and Christianity! Also travels to Ajanta, Ellora and Rajasthan. Every trip adding more items into the “bucket list” than the ones being checked off. Also, the more I learnt, the more I realized that like Jon Snow, I know nothing about the world! 

Had decided to post one picture on Instagram everyday. It was only in early June when the streak broke. Maybe this year. All this travel has ensured that there is no dearth of pictures to be posted!

Reading is something which I would want to do more, but somehow seem unable to! Reading speeds have drastically reduced! Although did manage to complete the entire series of A Song of Ice and Fire. Best book that I read this year, would be Sapiens. Certainly a book which makes you think of your own position as a human being in this world.

New Experiences – trying different food items, catching the setting Sun over the sea, spending a day selling pottery at an Arts festival, exploring different cities on foot, walking the high-rope, somehow surviving a major wardrobe malfunction with least embarrassment, a long rain-drenched return from work as the city got flooded, tea at a tapri in the cold morning, and closing out the year with a bonfire.

So onward to 2018, which has already had a crazy start. Looking forward to learning more and staying happy and healthy!

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

2017: The Year Gone By

How do you remember the year gone by? Especially a year like 2017 which was an amalgamation of events with “fake news” and “alternate facts”! So as we step into 2018, why not take a look back at some of the happenings & non-happenings to remember the year gone by

1. News Grabber-in-Chief of the Year 
The one and only Donald Trump who declared war on basically everyone (except his trusted friend Vladimir Putin). He was always in headlines, as befits his position as POTUS, but almost always for the wrong reasons – began by quoting Bane in his inaugural speech, calling Meryl Streep (an 18 time Oscar nominee) an over-rated actor, fighting with the news broadcasters, having skirmishes with nearly all government agencies, engaging in Twitter battles, and a war of words with Kim Jong Un (where barbs included “madman”, “dotage”, responding with “fire & fury” etc.). There was no way, you could keep him out of the news.

2. New Arrival of the Year
Zealandia - the 8th Continent: We always thought New Zealand was a bit different, with more sheep than humans. Also probably why Peter Jackson, chose that country as the setting for Middle Earth. Now we got confirmation that it is indeed a separate continent altogether. Well, schoolkids will now have to remember one more name in their geography classes.

3. The Comeback Kids
Both maybe on the wrong side of 30 and recovering from multiple aches and pains but Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal shared all the 4 Grand Slams in the year, while their rivals lost their way. No one seemed a bit unhappy about it though (maybe except the male singles Tennis players). And if the average fan was happy seeing them together on the court facing each other, Imagine the happiness when they played doubles together! (video). May they take the rivalry to new heights in 2018 as well. And just for fun, a video of them reciting Kipling’s If.

4. Word of the Year 
We have two contenders: Covfefe - an accident by Trump and Farrago – a rant from an irate Shashi Tharoor. Both trended and generated lots of memes. Personally I prefer farrago as it is a very good example of a rodomontade. 

5. Self-goal of the Year
There was an epic secrecy exercise carried by HBO to prevent spoilers and leakages of its “piece de resistance” – Game of Thrones. But hackers still managed to get some access and threatened to leak scripts and scenes of unreleased episodes. Till.... HBO accidentally leaked one of the episodes prior to telecast! 

6. The Indestructible
To the list of indestructible items we have a new addition - Salvador Dali’s moustache. The artist’s body was exhumed for a DNA test and after 28 years of being buried, the famous Dali moustache was still intact!

7. A New Citizenship Category
Saudi Arabia now has a robot citizen – by the name Sophia. It was a year in which Saudis were in the news for unusual reasons – the Vision 2030 document, women being allowed to drive, permitted to enter stadiums, reopening of theaters etc. But giving citizenship to a robot certainly takes the cake.

8. Whats in a Name?
Ask the World Taekwondo Federation who changed their name to World Taekwondo. Reason to ensure that there are no negative connotations with its initials which matched with one of the most popular slang expressions of modern times!

9. Battle of the Year
Soldiers of two most populous countries of the world locked in a standoff in a cold terrain, both countries loaded with nuclear weapons. And the soldiers engage in a fistfight and throwing stones at each other! We might be in the 21st century A.D., but thankfully the armies brawled like they were in 21st century B.C.!

10.Viral Song of the Year
Despacito – which took over as the most played video on YouTube. Have no clue of the lyrics (remember Gangnam Style), but the music is fun

So that was 2017. Wishing all readers a very Happy 2018!

Monday, December 18, 2017

BookMarks #30: A Dance With Dragons

Title: A Dance With Dragons
Author: George RR Martin
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Setting: Fictional continents of Westeros and Essos in the medieval times
Published: 2011

Tyrion is taken by Varys to Pentos, where he is put up with Magister Illyrio who suggests to join up the cause of Daenerys Targayren to which Tyrion agrees. During the journey, Tyrion discovers that Rhaegar’s son, Aegon is alive and had been kept hidden by Jon Connington who is plotting to place him back on the Iron Throne. On the way, Tyrion is kidnapped by Ser Jorah, who had been exiled by Daenerys. Jorah intends to win back Daenerys’s favor by presenting Tyrion to her. They are accompanied by a dwarf girl Penny. During the journey they are taken by slavers and sold as slaves to the Yunkai. Tyrion, Penny & Jorah escape and join the free company of Captain Ben Plumm, who had earlier deserted Daenerys.

Aegon is taken to the Golden Company, who swear allegiance to him to win back the Iron Throne. Jon Connington takes back his home lands to prepare it as a platform for Aegon’s return to power. However, he has suffered from the deadly greyscale which he keeps hiddene.

In Mereen, Daenerys faces multiple troubles from former slave-owners, the sons of Harpy and her growing dragons who have taken to hunting down sheep and cattle and even children. Daenerys is forced to keep her dragons under leash. However, Drogon, the biggest of the three makes his escape. Daenerys marries Hizdar Loraq in a bid to bring peace to Mereen. As the fighting pits are opened, Drogon arrives creating havoc all around. Daenerys tries to stop him and is carried away to the Dothraki Sea where she is found by Khal Jhaqo, another Dothraki Lord. In Daenery’s absence, Ser Barristan Slemy takes Hizdhar in his custody and attempts to govern the city.

At the Wall, Jon Snow tries to fit into his new role as the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. He has to fend off Stannis, who wants them to join his cause. Jon brokers peace with Tormund and the other wildlings, giving them passage through the Wall, attempts to settle them in nearby lands, forges a marriage pact with Northern Houses and brokers a deal with the Iron Bank. However his attempts do not find favour within the Watch and he is stabbed multiple times by his Brothers.

Stannis executes Mance Rayder, the king-beyond-the-wall, before going on an expedition to get more men and take over Winterfell from the Boltons. However, the party is caught up in a snowstorm. However, Mance had been switched with another wildling by Melisandre. Based on Melisandre’s prophecies Jon sends Mance to Winterfell. 

Beyond the Wall, Bran and his companions Meera, Jojen and Hodor are able to reach the Three-eyed-raven aided by the mysterious Coldhands and the Children of the Forest. The Three-Eyed-Crow teaches Bran how to become a seer. Bran communicates to Theon in Winterfell using his new abilities.

Ser Davos journeys across Westeros in a bid to gain allies for Stannis. The Manderlys offer Stannis allegiance in return of Davos being able to rescue one of the Stark boys who was presumed dead.

Ramsay tortures his captive Theon, who now calls himself Reek. With Reek’s help, they secure the castle of Moat Cailin from the Iron men. Ramsay’s father, Roose Bolton arrives with Jeyne Poole, who is pretending to be Arya Stark. Ramsay married Jeyne, believing her to be Arya. After continuous torture from Ramsay and guided by Bran’s messages, Theon with the help of wildlings sent by Jon escapes with Jeyne and reaches Stannis’s army, which had been snowed in on its march to Winterfell and meets his sister Asha, who is a prisoner.

At King’s Landing, Cersei confesses to some of her sins. As part of her atonement she is made to walk naked through the town. At the Castle, Qyburn introduces her to his creation Ser Robert Strong, a newly appointed member of the Kingsguard.

In Dorne, Prince Doran prepares his own plans to counter Cersei, who has sent him the promised head of the Mountain. He also sends his son Quentyn to marry Daenerys, but is too late, as Daenerys is married to Hizdhar. In a bid to win Daenerys' favor, Quentyn tries to free the dragons but is burnt to death in the attempt.

The real Arya Stark continues training at the Temple of the Many-faced God in Braavos after getting her vision back.

In the Epilogue, Varys returns to Kings Landing and kills Grand Master Pycelle and Kevan Lannister. 

And there are white ravens signifying “Winter has come”.

This is the 5th book in the series, A Song of Ice and Fire. The story runs in parallel to A feast for Crows, focusing mainly on characters missing in the previous book. 

The book seems like reading a collection of parallel stories in the same universe, rather than one big novel, and the story meanders a lot, specially in comparison to the TV series. Even our comic book serials have more linkages between characters.

The show and the series now have seemingly no relation. Many dead are living and vice versa. Many characters do not exist and many are in a different place altogether. Many endings are uncertain as well. But it adds to the charm of reading even after having seen the entire series! And even for those who read the books previously, the show is a different beast altogether, having skipped and moved ahead in many parts.

Previously on BookMarks: Catch-22

Thursday, December 14, 2017

BookMarks #29: Catch-22

Title: Catch-22
Author: Joseph Heller
Genre: Fiction, War, Satire
Setting: An American air force base in Italy, during the 2nd World War
Published: 1961

Short Summary
This is the story of Captain John Yossarian, a bombardier in the US Air Force based in Italy during the Second World War. The novel narrates the experiences of Yossarian and his fellow airmen, as they go about doing their “duties” while planning to return home.

Catch-22 – The title itself is the book's single biggest contribution to the English language. It describes an impossible situation, a set of paradoxical conditions from which there is no escape. The pilots in the novel need to plead insanity to escape flying any more missions. But their very act of making an insanity plea shows that they are sane and are thus fit to fly more missions. Thus showing that there is no escape.

The narration is pretty weird (probably the reason why it is in most “greatest novels” lists). The story moves in the form of a “jalebi”. One event doesn’t necessarily lead to another. But one incident refers to a previous narrative, sometimes taking it forward, sometimes filling up the backstory and sometimes hanging out as a loose thread to be tied up much later. Overall making it slightly difficult to keep track of the happenings in this non-chronological tale.

There are attempts at humour even in the light of tragedy, making the tragedy even starker. After all, it is a tale of war. There is blood and gore and black humour. As the novel proceeds, it grows grimmer, as we see our characters die one after the other, while also coming face to face with the horrors of war. There is an attempt of the airmen to retain their sanity in light of the goings-on. They question war itself, but carry on with their”duties” while also fighting their own bureaucracy, which at times is an even bigger enemy than the Germans (whom we never see). They are just a bunch of weary men eager to go back home. Nothing sums it up better than the contrast in attitude between Yossarian, a war “veteran” and his roommates who are fresh joinees. 

My favorite line from the book – “that men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance”. A reminder to the warmongers the world over – that the soldiers dying in the war are also real people. Especially to those who think that bringing up soldiers dying at the borders is a good analogy for any cause.

One word about Milo Minderbinder and his M&M transportation using fleets of fighter aircraft from both sides. There is war and there is business. Sometimes they go hand in hand. And somebody can run a profitable business empire at the sidelines of a world war as well.

Previously on BookMarks: A Feast for Crows

Sunday, December 10, 2017

LearnNBlog #12: The Shortest Chess Game

I learnt the basics of chess at a relatively young age of 6 years. (I say relatively because there are kids who go on to become Grand Masters by the time they are 13!). Always found the 64 square board fascinating. Was quite a passionate follower of the game (Woke up in the middle of the night to watch live the Kasparaov-Anand World Championships Match in the 90s). Over time, chess took a backseat. However, recently, have rediscovered chess - thanks to a combination of, a longer commute and 4G data connection! And this has led to some interesting learning.

All this while, I thought it took a minimum of 4 moves to win a game of chess - the Scholar's Checkmate. Basically attack the king's bishop pawn through a combination of a bishop and queen to win via mate. So this used to be my standard opening attempt. Try to arrange my pieces to attack the king's bishop pawn (regardless of which colour I played), while also ensuring that I am not the victim of the same attempt. Sometimes would also need to throw in a knight which would delay the proceedings. However, four moves was the minimum requirement to win this. Also being a victim of this combination was one of the basic chess learnings!

Recently I learnt that there could be a complete game in just 2 moves (!) with Black emerging the victor. And there are a few options in this as well.
Move sequence
  1. g4 e5
  2. f3 Qh4+ Black wins by checkmate!
Alternately - White can move either g or f pawn in any sequence and the f pawn can be moved either to f3 or f4. Black can move the e pawn to e6 or e5. 

And just like that realized that there are so many things we can learn and keep learning.

Links & Other Readings
Previously on LearnNBlog: 14th February & Bhagat Singh

P.S. Also remembered that it has been months since I post a LearnNBlog! Need to show more sincerity here. After all it's not the "Learn" part which is an issue but the "Blog" part!