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Showing posts from 2011

An interview with Samit Basu

This is an interview with Samit Basu,  one of my favorite authors. I have a feeling that had he been British or American with a snazzy bestseller name he would have won a closet full of awards by now. I have enjoyed reading his work immensely and his debut, the Gameworld trilogy(as I have made clear here ) has the effect of sticking to my hands whenever I pick it up and leaving only when its done . Heck I even enjoy reading his 140 character tweets . His last two novels Terror on the Titanic and Turbulence are great rides, written with a verve and panache that few authors match. He has also written short stories(One of which was in an anthology of erotic fiction) and comics. All in all he is just a fantastic talent and US and UK readers should get a taste of his work soon when Turbulence is published there. You wrote this trilogy called the Gameworld trilogy(which was absolutely gobsmackingly brilliant and fantastic by the way). Any plans on doing another trilogy soon.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman : The mind is stranger than we supposed it was

Thinking fast and slow is the culmination of the decades of research of Daniel Kahneman and his  posthumous colleague Amos Tversky. (For the ones who give weight to awards Kahneman is a Psychologist who won a Nobel Prize in Economics, a strange quirk) Daniel Kahneman talks about how minds are divided into two systems System 1 and System 2. System 1 is our intuition, the fast one, the quick and the default decision maker. System 2 is the rational one, the one that does the hard thinking. Kahneman of course makes the point that System1 and System2 are convenient abstractions and are only models that make it much easier to think about how the the mind works. The best way to describe the book would be say that it resembles Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, only its a lot more rigorous. He talks about several human fallacies and how man is in fact not rational but can be manipulated. He talks about experts in which fields are really experts. He points out that to truly become an expert

In the plex by Steven Levy : Making sense of how Google does what it does

If you ever wanted to find out how Google does what it does In The Plex is the book. I have read a few Google stories and none are even remotely as good as this. Steven Levy was granted a lot of access and he made full use of it. The book is rich in detail and deftly puts together the way Google took search, a concept no one thought could be monetized successfully and turned it into a money spinning machine. Many products are given short shrift but that is understandable given the scope and breadth of the tale. Levy paints the broad strokes using Search, Gmail, Android and Chrome as the anchors. He also takes us through what Google went through in China and how censorship and governmental controls made the time a tumultuous one. He talks about the impact that Google has had and the privacy concerns that crop up all time. Its a brilliant, fascinating and intriguing read about what makes Google tick. It talks about its reliance on data above all else, its grandiose ambitions

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson : A megalomaniac's tale

Steve Jobs is A sublime biography. Its beautifully written and presents Steve Jobs in all his avatars. From a megalomaniac to a supreme charmer. I read this in a single stretch in one go so so that must mean something. Isaacson brings out the contradictions of a man at the cutting of technology who lived like a monk nonetheless. A man who repeatedly says that its not about the money but becomes a millionaire and cheats his best friend Steve Wozniak out of his fair share of the profits. The way he disregards authority but is the most commanding person around himself. How even though he liked to hack other people's work(telephone lines and the like) and wouldn't allow the same to his products.(People will screw things up if they can open them) It is also an intriguing look at his years of failure, after he was ousted from Apple and went on to found NeXT. The creation of Pixar is present as well. It is an intriguing look at the dynamics and how he ran it differently fro

Chapter 4 - Karna finds a home

Adhiratha stepped out of his house. He had just had an argument with his wife Radha. He was part of the Suta community of Charioteers who lived by the banks of Ashwa, one of the sub tributaries of Ganga. The fire as always had started out with a small match. It was their usual discussion on children or rather why they were unable to have them. They had tried everything. They had gone of year long trip of all the major temples in the country. No guru's feet had been untouched by the two of them and there was no esoteric remedy that had been left untried. All of this was of course to no avail. To compound matters their neighbors seemed to have absolutely no trouble in having kids. Indeed they turned them out by the dozen it seemed. Only yesterday had they gone to celebrate one of those births. Understandably this put them in a bad state of mind. They were among the few childless couples still around. When they walked they could hear whispers questioning her fertility and his impot

Chapter 3 - The Birth of Karna

It had been a few days since Durvasa had left. Kunti was by the river having her bath. She had always liked the river and she recalled leading the sage and his acolytes down to clean themselves up. This brought her thoughts to what Durvasa taught her just before they left. "These sages are strange beings" she thought. "Imagine saying a mantra, invoking a god and having a child out of it all". She practically laughed out aloud. What Durvasa hadn't envisioned was the innate curiosity in any human especially in a Kshatriya woman. Kunti saw the Sun smiling down at her and decided to invoke the mantra with Surya, the Sun god as the subject. It would be an understatement to say that she was surprised when she saw Surya standing beside her in all his radiance and glory. Kunti believed in the gods but never believed that they actually came down to earth. She was an agnostic to put it mildly. Despite being taken back Kunti couldn't help but notice that Surya

Chapter 2 - Kunti learns a Mantra

Preparations for the arrival of Durvasa were in full swing. The Brahmins were busy perfecting their intonations and enunciations. (Usually they could get by with many mistakes and even chanting the wrong mantras but Durvasa and his retinue would spot it in an instant.) The preparation of the food, lodging arrangements were supervised by Kunti in name only. The king had ensured that his entire advisory was on the task and that Kunti merely knew what was going on. He was after all trying to do what was best for the kingdom. Sage Durvasa and his retinue finally arrived. They were spotted by the tower guards and information was relayed across stating that a band of safron wearing mendicants has been seen. Durvasa of course was the leader of the pack. He was the only one sporting a beard while the rest were bereft of hair from head to toe. (These brahmins never did anything by halves, either they had beards upto their feet or they had nothing, Tapasya(meditation in plain english) was th

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan : A debut for the ages

Imagine a world(or a galaxy rather) where your mind can be downloaded into any body(called a sleeve) you desire at a cost of course. This is the premise that Richard Morgan starts out with in Altered Carbon , his debut novel. The rich live forever, have backup memories that are synced with data banks. The poor suffer as always. Takeshi Kovacs is dead. He had no intentions of coming back to life. It is at this point that he is brought back from the dead to investigate the murder of Laurens Bancroft, who is of course extremely rich, powerful and has all the latest bells and whistles . Takeshi Kovacs happens to be an envoy(a part of an elite military unit trained specifically to adapt to different body types). It builds in classic noir fashion where a murder turns into a much larger conspiracy. Its amazing how far Morgan takes the concept of mind and body being separate(he calls them stacks and sleeves). Multiple copies of the same person exist. Takeshi Kovacs calmly talks to s

Endymion by Dan Simmons : Pitch perfect thriller set way into the future

Endymion is the third book in Dan Simmons Hyperion Cantos series and it is quite simply brilliant. Endymion is driven by its characters, indeed the science fiction elements are incidental to the story.(Not to say that the science isn't well done of course). The characters are fascinating and their dilemmas draw you in. The plot is very complex(to say the least, there is time travel, there is AI and what not) but in broad strokes it is about  about a certain Raul Endymion who is named after the planet Endymion. He somehow gets caught up in a rescue mission but rather than doing the rescuing ends up being the one rescued. The pursuers are the more interesting lot though and their harrowing space travels are described in great detail. The writing is top notch. Dan Simmons is a deft writer choosing his words carefully and keeping the plot on a tight leash. He has this ability to paint pictures with words which shines through particularly in Endymion. Hyperion Cantos a

Moneyball by Michael Lewis : An unputdownable study in how to value things with

I think you could give Michael Lewis a random set of numbers and he would still be able to build a narrative to tie them all up. Moneyball is about Oakland A. A baseball team which doesn't have much money but they still manage to win games(a lot of games) and make the playoffs. To achieve this Billy Beane(their general manager) and Paul(their statistician, a Harvard graduate straight out of college) redefine the metrics they will use to measure player performance. In essence it is about seeing value where no one else does. It is also about figuring out where players are overvalued in the baseball market. Right from the outset Michael Lewis draws you in with Billy Beane. Billy Beane is archetypal perfect baseball player, the perfect athlete whose career does not play out the way it is expected to. This causes him to have a healthy disrespect for  gut instincts and conventional ways of measuring value. This is in essence how the tale is setup.   Michael Lewis brings out

An interview with Mark Charan Newton

This is an interview that I had the opportunity to do with Mark Charan Newton, who was gracious enough to oblige. Mark Charan Newton is the author of the Legends of the Red Sun series of which three books have been published. The books are self contained and are some of the best written fiction out there. I reviewed City of ruins here  which I thought was a fascinating read from start to finish. If there is an author that you want to read he would be a good start. Anyways enough of the introductions and onto the main stuff. In City of ruin the characters who are the most heroic are also the most socially deviant. Commander Brynd Lathrea and Jeryd to name a few. Is this a deliberate choice? I think I find socially deviant characters more interesting! It's certainly not a conscious choice, though - I mean, it's a case that these particular characters have an certain, different outlook on life, and therefore make for slightly unusual perspectives on a story. As lo

Crytonomicon by Neal Stephenson : A sprawling World War epic that will leave you smarter

The first book of Neal Stephenson's that I picked up was Anathem and I found that to be really tough going. This one though turned out to be a totally different beast( and a beast it is, at around 1100 pages). I was hooked in the first 100 pages(although admittedly it took me really long to finish) Cryptonomicon connects two story lines one based in World War II and the other in 1990s internet era and they are connected by some strange family coincidences. There is a lot of math and computer science going on here and Neal Stephenson does an admirable job of explaining it all. This is a geek novel if ever there was one with the most developed character being a fantasy card playing, slightly round around the paunches unix loving geek.The novel is very detailed in everything that it does and Stephenson takes great pains to explain everything that is being talked about and even goes so far as to provide equations. Heck there is a perl script thrown in with the actual text

On Success and Perception

Success changes most things but the thing it does really well is change perception. He is a micromanager. He gives no one any freedom, everything has to be exactly as he says, He is a bloody control freak. On succeeding he is called a perfectionist. He is too set in his ways. He never listens to anyone. He never takes any advice. On succeeding he is said to have conviction in his ideas and having a vision no one else had at the time. He is an arrogant bastard. He is rude to people. He doesn't hesitate to expect the best out of people. He lacks all social niceties On succeeding he is said to have a cavalier disregard towards rules. It is said that he makes his own. He doesn't get what he should say in any situation. He has this tendency to blurt out anything that strikes his fancy. On succeeding it is said that he always speaks his mind irrespective of the situation he is in. He is quiet. He doesn't know how to make his presence felt. On succeeding he is said t

Freedom of speech

Freedom of speech is an interesting concept because people always think that they should have it but the asshole next to him doesn't deserve it. In most places freedom of speech is an ideal and indeed the rules and the media do their best to ensure that it remains an ideal. Indeed I doubt there is any place where there is actual freedom of speech. Shoaib Akhtar can come in and say, write whatever he wants to about Sachin and it shouldn't really matter because he has the right of expressing his opinions.(His opinion might even be an informed one seeing that he actually bowled to him several times). Nobody should be allowed to ban his book event simply because he presents disagreeable views. No book should be stopped from being published because it offends someone's religious sensibilities(Harry Potter, Satanic Verses etc etc). A release of a movie should not be stopped because it handles a difficult subject or indeed dares to present truth but alas the real world is no

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short history of Nearly Everything is Quite a fantastic book. Enjoyed it immensely and laughed a lot as well.  The blurb mentions it as the finest rough guide to science and I cannot think of a better description. Bill Bryson takes on dry subjects with ease and makes them interesting and even fun. The title is an apt description because the book really is about everything. More intriguing than the science itself is the brilliance with with Bryson describes the quirky and eccentric scientists all the while adding his own wry observations. You can buy A Short of Nearly Everything here .

Before I was famous - An artist rants

When I was a not so famous musician, I played what I liked. Now I just play the same songs over and over again. Few listened to what I sang and played about but at least the admirers I had were genuine. Then I had to get famous and people admired me because other people admired me. They looked up to me not because of what I did but simply because others did or they thought that others did. The critics were equally harsh. The fools did not give a damn about what I wrote, what I sang about. They criticized to be different, basing their own opinions on someone else's. At least the admirers I had before were genuine. -From a musicians autobiography

City of Ruin by Mark Charan Newton : Mature fantasy with a great cast of characters

A fantastic read from start to finish. The book in essence is about a detective solving many murders and a general trying to hold of alien beings from invading Villirien. This is straight off inspired from the Bas Lag novels of China Mieville and I couldn't escape the feeling that I had while reading Perdido Street Station.(Which is a good thing) . There are vivid creatures at every turn but Mark Charan Newton doesn't bore with with details and the book never gets expository. Indeed its amazing how much he reveals through bits of conversation along with the biases and racism inherent in any city. He also has a taste for the macabre and the deaths are truly terrifying when they happen. Also the author has a healthy fascination for Whisky. Its a well written and a very accomplished novel and Mark Charan Newton can add me to his growing list of fans. I look forward to seeing what he does next. You can read City of Ruin here .

Gone Baby Gone

So yesterday I saw Gone Baby Gone, A  crime thriller and one of the best I have ever seen.  A bit of googling later it turns out to be based on a book by Dennis Lehane, the guy who penned Shutter Island. Dennis Lehane has this knack of taking common situations and making them morally ambiguous by the end and Nothing shows this off better than Gone baby gone. The opening lines of the film are the most poignant. In that southern drawl of his Casey Affleck delivers the lines "I always believed it was the things you don't choose that makes you who you are. Your city, your neighborhood, your family. People here take pride in these things, like it was something they'd accomplished. The bodies around their souls, the cities wrapped around those. " The things we cling on to most are not our own but hand me downs. From here on in the movie gets even better holding your attention with the case of a disappeared young girl and the twist in the end just makes th

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

This is a story of a time machine operator who talks about time a lot of the time but its more a memoir of a father son relationship. There is sadness and melancholy in equal parts. Also this book gets extremely meta meta in parts. Its probably the geekiest book on father son relationships currently in existence. A good and light read (Although you will get a headache if you dwell deeply on the time loops and start mapping out the time travel like I did). You can buy  How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe  here

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald : Nano tech in turkey with prose that would make Booker winners jealous

This is McDonald's third in his novels about developing cities in the future. The law of trilogies tell me that this will be his last in the series for some time to come. The Dervish house is set in Turkey which is at the heart of a nano tech revolution. River of gods was about AIs in India and Brasyl about Quantum in Brazil so I think he has got his bases covered. The plot deals with a few characters linked by a Dervish house and a bomb blast which turns out not to be one. The thing with McDonald is that you know what you are going to get. You know that the prose is going to be bloody brilliant, the plotting is going to be virtuoso but he always manages to surprise. This one is no different. There are passages of such staggering beauty, sections of such brilliance that they make the book worth reading all on their own. No one can meld philosophy and and an action sequence in a single breath the way he does. Also no one, no one writes a football game the way McDonald do

Science Fiction and Fantasy

At its best Science Fiction remakes reality in the way no other genre can. It allows us a glimpse of the future, of unknown lands that we could not have thought of before.  It expands our collective imagination in the way little else can. It is important to remember that everything begins as a thought in someone's mind. Everything starts out as a sketch, an outline on a piece of paper.  This is precisely why a lot of the NASA scientists acknowledge the influence that Science Fiction has had on their work. To read Science Fiction and Fantasy requires at some level a suspension of disbelief and buying into the world that the author sells to you but paradoxically Science Fiction also makes you question the basis of society and everything that you see around you. In a way it exposes one to the hypocrisies latent in human nature. To those who make the argument that Science Fiction is not literature do yourself a favor and read something by China Mieville, Ian McDonald or Paolo Ba

The second time around

It is on a second reading that books really reveal themselves for what they are. You know the big picture so your attention is on the gears that move the world around. You can pick up the subtle clues that the author has left behind and most of all you can really appreciate the writing. Indeed the works of most good authors feel so much better the second time around. I recall reading Harry Potter, the Bartimaeus trilogy, the his Dark Materials trilogy, Lord of the rings as a kid but it was only when I read them again that I took note of themes, leitmotifs that I had not registered the first time around. Indeed anything by Gene Wolfe almost demands that you read it again simply because you cannot possibly understand what is happening the first time around. Every good book deserves to be read twice. I have found this to be true in life as well. It is only the second time around that we do things properly, it is only the second time around that we avoid making the mistakes that we made th

Neil Gaiman

There isn't much that can be said about Neil Gaiman. All that has to be said has been saidand here is an attempt to say it again. He is one of the world's most popular authors and he wrote this piece called George Martin is not your bitch for which George Martin I think will be perennially grateful. His prose has a poetic quality to it along with being deceptively simple. Remember what is simple is not easy. Indeed what looks simple in the hands of a master is terribly tough to do when one attempts to do the same on his own. His words have a grace that is altogether his own and yet derived from years of reading and standing on the shoulders of giants. The way he writes it seems it all just pops out but of course that is not the case. I suppose the annoying thing is that he makes it look all so easy. American Gods - His de facto novel(He writes comics as well and hence the qualifier) masterpiece. American Gods displays a vast knowledge of mythology. The gods themselves we

Brasyl by Ian McDonald : Quantum Physic in Brazil with a lot of great writing

How does Ian McDonald do it. He delighted me with River of Gods. He surprised me with Cyberabad Days and Brasyl is an absolute beauty. There are three parallel stories all set in different times in Brazil. The one I liked most is set in the 17th century and is about a prise Luiss Quinn(that I remember after two weeks ought to speak for the book). The sword fights are the equal to anything that Alexandre Dumas does in Three Musketeers and the writing is fantastic. I also learnt a lot of strange facts about a lot of strange things including the origin of computing. The second arc is set in the present and concerns itself with a reporter on the hunt of disgraced Goalkeeper who lost Brazil the fateful final against Uruguay. This probably has the best description of a football match that I have ever read. (Admittedly I haven't read many but its hard to see how it can get better than this). The third strand is set in the future and I found it to be the most confusing. Qua

The windup girl by Paolo Bacigalupi : A future without Oil and genetic engineering

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi  (Don't even try to pronounce the author's name,  I gave up after a few tries) is an extraordinary book. Its hard to see how this is his first novel (Even China Mieville wrote King Rat first up). The book is about the near future and is set in Thailand. The world has been afflicted by a plague due to which new food varities need to be developed again. Human tinkering has produced new cpecies and of course since we have run out of fossil fuels new energy sources have to be found. It is against this backdrop that a rich cast of characters comes to life. The plot concerns itself with a Mr Anderson Lake a factory manager who is actually in Thailand on a covert mission to get the aforementioned foods which somehow Thailand has managed to procure. The other characters includes Enmiko the windup girl, a yellow chinese who has had to migrate to Thailand.  This is a wonderfully realized tale. Bacigalupi walks the tightrope between expositi

Parshurama's presence of mind

Jamadgini was a great sage, among the most powerful of his era. As can be imagined he lived the most austere of lives with no fancy bells and whistles. Revathi was his wife. They also had five sons, the youngest of them being Parasurama(Literally meaning Rama of the axe(Parasu)). Parshurama would later attain fame as the killer of the entire Kshatriya race and for being a supreme warrior brahmin. Once it so happened that as Revathi was filling up water in the mornings as she usually did, she happened to see Gandharvas and Apsaras frolicking and enjoying themselves. They were beings of such beauty and grace that she could not help but imagine herself amongst them partaking in their activities. While she was imagining things, the pot in her hand slipped thereby breaking the spell. Revathi was too shaken to make any sense of things. She ran back not taking care of the trees and their thorny branches. By the time she arrived back to the ashram she and her clothes were in tatters. Jamadgini

A super sad true love story by Gary Shteyngart

A brilliant book. Just goes to show that funniest books are actually tragedies. The future it presents is eerily close and feels scary to say the least. I hope the what he says does not happen but a small part of me says that it will. The novel is set in a America of the future and is largely about the story of the Lenny Abramov, a jew who also happens to be a Russian immigrant and a  much younger Korean Eunice. The world goes haywire even as they develop their relationship. Everyone uses a device called an apparat which seems like an extension of cell phones. This is an innovation that tells you everything you need to know about the room, How you rank and what your various indexes are. Scary to say the least. Funny when applied to the predicament of Lenny. Reading is frowned upon and thought to be outdated. Its all streams, images and visuals in the future. In short it takes every predicament that seems to be affecting the world at present and extrapolates it. A beautiful nove

On the advice giving blogs

It is amazing how many people are giving advice and earning money out of it these days they do nothing but sprout bullshit doing nothing on their own. The stupid self proclaimed experts who know nothing of the field they talk about. This self esteem movement is doing more to lower self esteem than anything else ever before. Every self help book shows you what you need to do to achieve inner piece. How the fuck does someone decide that they have the answers to all the problems in the world. Its all bullshit folks, its all bullshit.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons : Storytelling at its absolute finest

What an outstanding book Hyperion turned out to be. (The cover is extremely tacky though. Brings to mind the old adage, don't judge a book by its cover) Seven pilgrims are chosen and tell their tales en route to Hyperion of how they encountered the Shrike. A god who can play with space and time. The stories are magnificent, each is a novella in itself. There is a reverse aging story that puts Benjamin Button to shame. The first is a story about encountering an alien but not so alien species. There is story of lovers who age at different rates thanks to one of them having to travel in space.  The best one however is told by a poet about his muse and writing, getting his books published,  I suppose this is Dan Simmons way of taking a dig at the publishing industry. Absolutely fantastic and beautifully written. Dan Simmons writes with a deft touch and it is obvious he is well read with many references to the poetry of John Keats but all this doesn't come in the way o

Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald : Short stories set in a divided India of the future

Cyberabad Days is an absolutely fantastic collection of stories of varying length. I never thought science fiction set in India could be done so well until I read this and River of Gods. The way Ian McDonald writes it seems that he has lived in India forever and his observations about the culture, the ways the caste system works, the preference for a male child are spot on. His prose is electric and Ian McDonald turns even spiritual discourses into absolute page turners. Indeed it is amazing that the best science fiction on India has been written by someone British. There are seven stories in all each of them covering ample terrain.My favorites include  1) The little goddess A child who is annointed as a goddess gets thrust into the real world the moment her blood is spilled. She becomes a carrier of high level AIs. Absolutely brilliant. 2) Vishnu at the cat circus Places the whole of river of gods novel into context. A tale of how a genetically re engineered Brahmi

On Hans Zimmer

I have been listening to quite a lot of soundtracks lately. Two composers in particular stand out, Hans Zimmer and Clint Mansell. I have written about Clint Mansell over here . Hans Zimmer has somehow managed to score a lot of my favorite movies including Inception, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight , the Gladiator, Sherlock, Pirates of the Caribbean just to name a few. In fact chances are that if there is a movie's score you like in the last decade its by Zimmer.(Apart from Lord of the rings of course :)) The thing about Zimmer though is that he is able to deliver even in movies that are not particularly good. Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons come to mind immediately which feature some great violin solos courtesy Joshua Bell. Here are a few of my favorite tracks. Put your headphones on and listen. Discombulate from Sherlock Red Warrior from The Last Samurai Time from Inception Jack Sparrow's Theme Science and Religion from Angels and Demons