Lack of Integrity

Close to 10 years earlier, when I worked in a bank, I heard a very unusual story. The Indian Government allowed a tax exemption of upto INR 15,000 for medical bills and there was a huge nexus of chemists, doctors and employees who would submit fake bills to secure the tax benefit without having spent the money. At one extent, it was the Indian “jugaad” mentality – why let go of easy money when all it takes is a little bit of nudge and wink, and at another extent, it was a fight against the government – why pay taxes on this portion of the income.

So coming back to the story, a senior executive of a leading MNC bank asked his secretary to submit the medical bills for the tax benefit. She, in all seriousness, got a fake bill from a nearby chemist and submitted it. However the annual audit by the compliance team selected this gentleman at random, and discovered the bill had irregularities. The senior executive ended up getting fired for malfeasance and so was the secretary.

At that time, a lot of folks were saying ” Bad luck for the guy, he got caught. If he had been more careful in the bill, he would have been fine”. Others were complaining that the punishment was too strong for the nature of the crime. It’s then that a senior person in my team commented – ” The punishment is appropriate because it’s about lack of integrity”.

I think a lot about that statement these days. It’s like I see the same problem everywhere I look – in private firms, in startups and not least, government bodies. Voter ID cards dont get made unless the elections are coming and even then it’s the political parties pushing for the cards and then using our names in their member list. Startups seem to think its not wrong to defraud investors and the general public, be it when it comes to critical sectors like healthcarefinance or even renting a house. The Government is perfectly fine not taking responsibility for any of its actions, be it a blue-on-blue attack by the IAF on its own helicopter or the rampant abuse and misuse of data and the NRC.Where the army is perfectly fine dropping a veteran like a hot potato because he is a Muslim and hence not a citizen anymore.

We are at a tipping point. This lack of integrity is what we are teaching our children and the larger world. There will come a day when our children treat us similarly and when the outside world doesn’t care a damn about our words because we don’t have honour or integrity.

Adapting Martin Niemoller’s famous poem –

First they came for the tribals, and I did not speak out—because I was not a tribals

Then they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Muslim

Then they came for the others and I did not speak out—because I was not one of them.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

By Sudharsan Narayanan Posted in General

Top Non Fiction Reads of 2017 Part II

Work and an addition to the family have kept me busy and hence I have only now gotten around to finishing this post. The earlier part of this post was published in January but hopefully, you all are still interested in this part.

Science

3) Rust the Longest War by Jonathan Waldman

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Corrosion and rust is probably not as sexy as mutations, space robots and Artificial  Intelligence. But the second law of thermodynamics applies across every bit of our lives – Entropy grows. And the easiest way to see that measure of entropy is rust. Rust is there in every part of our lives, and this book lays bare how little we know about it and how tough it is to fight a continuous battle, every second of every day.

2) Why Dinosaurs Matter by Kenneth Lacovara

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Traditionally dinosaurs, like dodos, stand for an evolutionary failure. It’s easy to call big firms as dinosaurs and the implication is that they are slow to adapt and will eventually die out. Kenneth’s new book explains how if we were to compare the time that dinosaurs spent on earth to the time we humans have spent, it would be the comparison of a football field to a speck of grass. Not to mention that from an evolutionary perspective, they learnt how to swim, fly and become the deadliest predators the world has ever seen( Anyone remember the XKCD comics on Raptors). The past being our guide to the future, it makes sense to understand and remember the dinosaurs.

1) The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

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Till the age of 30, Alexander Humboldt couldnt step outside Europe despite desperately wanting to travel and explore. I can sympathize with the desire to go out and explore new worlds, but even I want some material comforts and more importantly information on what the worlds would be like. Alexander Humboldt roamed the world, discovering new specie and giving us insights into the world the colonials had created. He brought to light the rapacious nature of the colonists who had destroyed so much in terms of culture, civilization and natural beauty to get some scant wealth.

A lot of what he thought he was discovering for the world, was already known to locals but he went onwards, sharing his information with Europe through letters and later his five volume treatise. The book could have dealt more with his adventures in Mexico and Peru but none the less, it’s a remarkable read about a discoverer and adventurer who opened up new vistas for many.

Technology

3) Commodore – company on the edge by Brian Bagnall

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Not many know of Commodore 64s. A few old videogaming enthusiasts and some older folks who started their IT careers in the 90s may still remember them. But they were the first true personal computer company, much before the likes of Apple, IBM and Dell. And this book shows how they destroyed themselves while building some of the cheapest and best PC kits out there. Brian Bagnall brings out how greed, hubris and lack of trust by the founder brought down a company which went global much before its competition.

2) Hatching Twitter by Nick Bolton

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A lot of us know the bare bones story of how Twitter was created by Jack Dorsey and Elliot Williams. What was largely unknown until this book came out, was the contribution of Noah Glass and other members. The best part of the book is that it isnt a hagiography and no one is spared, be it Williams or Dorsey. Reading the book and then Antonio Garcia Martinez’s Chaos Monkeys helped me understand why Twitter never really understood where it stood. The dichotomy of the two founder’s philosophies forever left it in limbo.

1) The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner

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Today, many in the world consider Google, Facebook and Uber as pioneers in research and development. What many fail to realize is that research in these firms is mostly prioritized towards short term, immediate business impact research vis a vis long term scientific research. While Google , Microsoft and IBM do have research labs focusing on long term research, they have to keep asking themselves – Are we ready for the next leap of science & technology? Will we be able to retain our talent and innovate such that the organization survives?

The book addresses not just how Bell Labs initially kickstarted their research and innovation efforts but how it was able to sustain it for decades. The most important lesson from the book is that it is not just necessary to get talented people and provide them the resources but you also need a human catalyst. In Bell Labs, these human catalysts were not necessarily the most famous scientists (Shockley/Shannon and others) but managers and other scientists who helped get scientists together.  It also highlights how AT&T’s monopoly gave it the financial bandwidth and the operational layout to test diverse innovations and discoveries, which would only garner returns over decades.

Espionage

4) Into the Lion’s Mouth by Larry Loftis

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There are just too many folks claimed to be the inspiration for James Bond, starting from Ian Fleming himself. This book makes a strong case for Dusko Popov, a Serbian double agent who successfully played both MI6 and the German Abwehr. A legendary womanizer, he was also able to calmly lie even when confronted by the Germans on multiple occasions. The book reads less  like a biography and more like an action novel which was one  of the drawbacks. But a great read, none the less.

3) Legacy of Ashes,a History of the CIA by Tim Weiner

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A running joke stands that CIA means Caught in the Act. Tim Weiner’s book is a scathing analysis of how the CIA has bungled, sidestepped and miscalculated at every step of  the way. Starting from its inception in the 1950s to post 9/11, at every point the CIA has been caught flabbergasted and left with little to no knowledge of the reality. What is left, apart from profligate spending is a history of mistakes and failures.

2) The Man with the Poison Gun by Serhii Plocky

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In the last decade, Russia has become bolder. We see assassinations not just of dissidents in Russia, but also opponents of Putin and Russia across the globe. At such times, it makes sense to look at the past of the KGB when they sent assassins to kill dissidents. The NKVD recruited Bogdan Stashinsky, who was no professional killer. In fact, his bumbling initial efforts almost led to his being arrested. After some years as a murderer for the KGB, he turned himself over to the West Germans because he didnt want to break up with his German wife. Interestingly, he had to prove in court how he killed Ukrainian dissidents, which forced the KGB to stop planning assassinations on foreign shores for quite some time.

1) Tiger Trap by David Wise

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The recent ZTE imbroglio and more recently, the concerns over Dupont industrial espionage seem to highlight that China is playing the same game that US tech companies and the NSA were playing for decades. But China has always been a “lambi race ka ghoda” in the sense that they have been spying on countries around the globe for political and industrial reasons for decades.

Tiger Trap explains how the Chinese were successfully able to extract military and industrial secrets over the last few decades. Their strategy has included sending students to learn at universities and then join research labs across domains and industries, as well as wining and dining Chinese Americans who return to the homeland to teach. This multi-pronged strategy has given them rich returns while using the riches of the Chinese market as a Damocles sword over the US Government and private firms. So much so, that even though the FBI counter intelligence agents have been compromised  by the Chinese Secret Service, little news has been released so far.

War

3) SAS Ghost Patrol by Damien Lewis

There has been a lot of furor over Otto Skornozy’s Stormtroopers dressing up as American soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge. I only recently learnt that the SAS had a patrol which donned German fatigues to attack Tobruk in 1942, which covered 2000 miles of desert to attack the fort. Possibly one of the craziest war stories I have read, it is definitely up there with The Last Battle by Stephen Harding.

2) Force Recon Command by Alex Lee

I remember the movie Hard Target where I first heard about Force Recon Marines. Since then I have searched for books about them but unlike the SEALs/ SAS , Force Recon has limited exposure. So this book was a breath of fresh air with a varied set of anecdotes and reminiscences. The author brings the jaundiced American view that they were saving democracy and could have won the war if they were given adequate political and military freedom, comfortably forgetting the fact that the NVA had superiority both in terms of people and tactics.

 

1) The Bear went over the Mountain by Lester Grau

This is a compilation of Soviet documents and military publications which throw light on Russian tactics and learnings during their Afghanistan War. It’s a funny take on many of the stories, as this was initially meant for students of the Frunz academy in Russia. The commentary by Lester Grau is to provide some clarity for non Russian historians/ readers. I liked the tone and style of writing and it gives a great perspective of the challenges faced by the Russians in their version of Vietnam.

Feel free to share feedback, comments and book recommendations.

 

 

Top Non fiction reads of 2017 – Part I

Much like 2016, the last year was a very good year in terms of non fiction reads. To look at my previous lists, check out 201620152014, and 2013 . I am going to split this up into two parts –

Part I will cover History, Indian non fiction and Memoirs

Part II will cover War, Espionage and Science & Technology

History 

5) The Black Hand by Stephen Talty

Thanks to Mario Puzo and the Sopranas, almost everyone knows of the Mafia and the Code of Omerta. But much before the Mafia became what it is, the Black Hand created an atmosphere of fear and almost ensured that Italians would not be allowed in large parts of the US. Ironically, it was the efforts of another Italian who ensured that the Black Hand never reached the heights it may have.

4) The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie English

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Most of us have heard of how the librarians of Timbuktu saved thousands of manuscripts from the hands of the Islamic terror groups in Africa. Not only does the book cover the story of these brave librarians, but it also paints a beautiful image of what Timbuktu once was, and how it has changed over time. In many ways, the book is a reminder of how easy it is for us to forget the knowledge that lies not just in reading history but also understanding how history is written. At the same time, it’s not a hagiography of the librarians as it raises several valid questions about the process and the risks faced by them.

3)  The Spider Network by David Enrich

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When one hears the name Spider Network, one almost expects a James Bond-ish story starring spies, beautiful women and adventure. This book is about the machinations of LIBOR, a word designed to lull most people to sleep. But as one goes deeper into the book, it hits hard that these machinations affected many individuals at a personal and professional level but the key culprits got away scot free. In many ways, it’s also a deep reflection on how our financial systems have become engineered to get the returns while the common man takes on the risk and more often than not, the losses.

2) Red Notice by Bill Browder

At a time when Donald Trump is being attacked on his Russian ties, one needs to read and share books on how dangerous Vladimir Putin and his pet oligarchs can be. Many know of the poisoning of Alexander Litvenko, but few know that the biggest threat to Putin so far has come from the hands of a banker. Bill Browder charts the story of how Russia was like the Wild West a few years earlier and how his attempts to drive out corruption and take on the oligarchs led to him being exiled and his lawyer being murdered.

1) Raven Rock by Garrett M Graf

Most Hollywood movies show the President standing tall in the White House or in the middle of a war room meeting during a nuclear attack. During 9/11 the President spent most of his time up in the air but even that had it’s limitations. Raven Rock is the story of how the US Government has long planned to save the elite few at the cost of the many. A mind- blowing description of the Continuity of Government plans of the US, it takes us from the 650 acre Raven Rock complex, buried in a mountain to the plans made to save the Liberty Bell and the Declaration of Independence. It also takes us through the history of these plans and how in some ways, these plans are a reflection of how serious the US takes the possibility of Mutually Assured Destruction.

Indian Authors

3) Bhujia Barons by Pavitra Kumar

In some senses, Haldirams is more global than most Indian brands. But what I didnt know is that there are three different Haldiram’s brands and each one of them stake a claim to being the best one out there. The book takes one not just through the evolution of the family business but through the ups and downs of the members, including criminal cases and business setbacks.

2) Epic City by Kushanava Choudhary

For Bengalis and Probashi Bangaalis, Kolkata is both the city of hopes and dashed dreams. This book is a call to many folks, those who remember the wretchedness of Bengal and Kolkata and yet the warm nature of the residents and also those who remember how it swings from one extreme to the other. For those looking to understand why Kolkata has become the hell hole it is, this is a small introduction to the reasons behind it.

1) Himalayan Blunder by J.P. Dalvi

With a lot of sabre rattling in the heights of the Himalayas, I got curious as to how did our last war with the Chinese really happen? I ended picking up Brigadier J.P.Dalvi’s book on our misadventure and it is a excoriating take on how a bunch of politicians and a few timid senior soldiers ended up taking India to the brink of defeat. It took me back to the books and articles on Kargil where the Army had limited rations and next to no support equipment. J.P.Dalvi’s book also clearly enunciates how politicians micromanaging the Army can lead to disaster (a very important insight considering how our politicos want our Army to take on Pakistan, China and any other opponent)

Memoirs

3) The Sniper by Simo Hayha

We all see Hollywood movies where one man takes on an army and….wins. One would think it’s nonsense but when the Russians invaded Finland in 1942, they ended up facing folks like Simo Hayha who killed dozens of Russians with a bolt action rifle. The book is a great biography of the sniper , taking us from the time before the war to how he lived post the war.

2) Cry Havoc – Simon Mann

Frederick Forsyth quotes in one of his book “Cry havoc and let loose the Dogs of war”. Simon Mann is one of those mercenaries who started out trying to save his investment and ended up running multiple coups in Africa, till he ended up on the losing side and spent many years in prison. It’s a great take on how the Western powers have continously ended up interfering in the politics of African nations and choosing to believe that they know what is best for African politics and nations.

1) The Long Haul by Finn Murphy

Finn Murphy is that rarest of authors – a person with a undergraduate education in literature who spent most of his life in a blue collar job. Murphy does a great job of not just explaining what a move entails but what it really means in terms of transportation. The best parts of the book are where he drops small nuggets about the infrastructure of America- be it how the odd and even numbered roads lead into or out of a city – or how towns and cities across America have changed for the worse. The anecdotes are poignant and throw light not just about how blue collar jobs are treated but also about how immigrants are treated.

Feel free to share recommendations on books in these categories that you have read and enjoyed.

Top Fiction reads of 2017

2017 has been a year where my reading of Longreads and non fiction went up dramatically and fiction took a backseat. It’s only in the last few months of the year that I could once again find a few authors, both Indian and foreign to read. For previous years lists, take a look at 20162015, 20142013 and 2012.

5) The Sympathizer by Viet Thayn Nyugen

The debut novel of Viet Thayn Nyugen, this is a story of a man stuck between two worlds, one who has seen the joys and benefits of a free world and still chooses idealism. Having read this story after seeing multiple seasons of The Americans, I saw many parallels and think there is a great opportunity for a web series/graphic novel. A very different take on the Vietnam war and its consequences, from the POV of a Vietnamese.

4)The Song of the Shattered Kings by Bradley P Beaulieu

Once there were thirteen tribes and now there are twelve. The story of what happened to the thirteenth tribe is beautifully done with an Arabian Nights twist and a strong female protagonist. This series differentiates itself from many other “Eastern” fantasy series both through the strength of the characters  and the twists and turns of the plot. With very few cliches in the first two books and some interesting twists so far, it would be interesting to see where this series is headed next.

3) The Takeshi Kovacs series by Richard Morgan

Now that Netflix is coming out with a TV series, a lot of interest has been raised about this series and it is slightly embarrassing to say that I hadn’t heard about or read this series earlier. It’s a continuation of an age old question – what defines a human being – is it the consciousness or the physical presence. Equally important, if there is a copy, who is the original?

2) The Red Sparrow series by Jason Matthews

It’s nice to read of a spy thriller series where the spies are not perfect. They mess up, they have emotions and more often than not, those emotions lead to those around them getting hurt. The Red Sparrow trilogy has a strong female protagonist but could do with focus on some of the secondary characters. One hopes for even better books from the author who , like John Le Carre, has spent time in the land of shadows and mirrors and underspoken truths.

1) American War – A Novel by Omar Al Akkad

Omar El Akkad’s book is a sharp criticism of where America is headed , be it in terms of ignoring the radicalised masses outside their borders or their growing ignorance of the impact of Global warming. It describes an America changed by war and flooding where people have changed so far that it’s difficult to justify their decisions and yet the reasons for those decisions are starkly clear. The novel summarizes the old adage -” The one thing common to all wars, is misery and it’s beneficial only for a chosen few”

Honorable Mentions –

Literary Fiction –

  1. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan – A historical fiction novel which talks about Brooklyn of the early 1940’s as women found new roles. There are moments redeemed by Jennifer Egan’s prose but the plot gets stretched a little too much
  2. The Zookeeper’s War by Steve Conte – Offbeat, yet heart touching. The story of an Australian woman who ends up taking care of the inmates of Berlin Zoo during the War.
  3. Vanity Bagh by Anees Salim – A dark comic novel, which does a great job of showing how a story can move back and forth across that thin line of reality and fiction

Fantasy –

  1. The Powder Mage trilogy by Brian McCelan – Very cinematic flourishes, with lead characters who are passionate, driven and seem to have few faults. That said, a good read for one of those days when you want a quick fix
  2. Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson – While I love Brandon Sanderson’s attention to details and the detailed worlds he creates, I started getting kinda vexed around 2/3rd into the final book of the Stormlight Trilogy. I got the sense he had lost his way for a while in the book and finally wanted to bring it to an end, much like how the Eragon series had to be finished in the third book as the author had publicly proclaimed it would be a trilogy.
  3. City of Miracles by Robert Bennett Jackson – The series comes to an end with a beautiful flourish and with much attention shown to the second character, Sigrud de Harvaldson. The politics, machinations and stories reaches a new level as the story moves from the fights of humans to the fights of gods. Possibly one of the best fantasy series of this decade
  4. Fall of Dragons by Miles Cameron – The Traitor Son series started as Young Adult fiction but changed over the second and third book.In the final book a lot of attention has been given to the details of the mechanics behind a successful campaign. It will be interesting to see if more novellas are built in this world by the author, to focus on some of the other characters.

Others –

  1. Artemis by Andy Weir – Andy Weir hasnt been able to bring the same magic as the Martian to his next book. While the plot sounds interesting, one expected a lot more from an author who showed finesse in terms of character and plot development in his previous book.
  2. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman – Neil Gaiman does a great job of introducing folks to the stories and myths of Norse Mythology but one gets the feeling there is so much he left out while compiling this set.
  3. Orbital Cloud by Taiyo Fuji – One of the more unusual sci- fi stories I read this year, it had a great start but petered out midway.

Please feel free to share books you liked this year in the comments

By Sudharsan Narayanan Posted in General

Monsoons and Tea

I have never been a huge fan of tea-bags. Somehow the act of brewing tea , with its steps and the smell of tea in the air, has always been an important part of the entire experience of having tea. Specially when the monsoons come, when a cup of tea is the perfect complement to the pitter patter of the rain and the smell of petrichor.

But recently when Tea-Culture sent across a box of teas, I was pleasantly surprised to see that these teas proved as good, if not better than some of the tea I have brewed in the past.

The first joy was that of unboxing the present. Tea-Culture sent across a lovely wooden box with individual compartments for their different varieties along with a small primer on each of these teas.

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Apart from the attractive packaging and the crisp instructions, what struck me was the focus on non-traditional teas. So while many of us may have tried a green tea or an Earl Grey, the chances of us trying out a Imperial White or a Rooibos tea are far lower.

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So here’s a quick summary of my individual reviews of the teas.

Rooiboos –

Actually Rooiboos is a herb, which serves as an infusion. I got a hint of vanilla flavor, which coupled with the smoky nature of the drink, reminded me of single malt whiskey for some reason. But a refreshing brew, and something much suited for an evening cup, after a long day.

Imperial White –

Imagine Jasmine flowers being left in water for a while. That’s pretty much how this tea tastes. It’s light on the tongue and can be very refreshing if you have had a heavy lunch and want something to make you feel better (speaking from personal experience)

Kashmiri Kahwa –

I have had Kahwa while traveling and have also brought back home some and brewed it. This tea-bag comes reasonably close to the brewed version but could do with some improvements in the taste. None the less, an improvement on some of the other Kahwa tea-bags out there.

Darjeeling and Earl Grey –

Both of these are very well known flavors and multiple varieties are available in the market. While these tea-bags are good, I would still swing towards the brewed variety, specially for Darjeeling tea, as there is something almost magical in that first whiff of the brew.

Oolong –

My experience with green tea is somewhat limited, both owing to personal taste and limited availability. I felt the Oolong tea was a bit extra roasted. Possibly the only set of tea-bags in the box which I have been reluctant to hoard.

Sencha –

The description said “Japanese green tea with a hint of seaweed” . It kinda reminded me of the time I first learnt about sushi and wondered how the Japanese had such weird tastes. Sencha is one tea where I have learnt to be careful with the temperature of the water because with hot water, it becomes more acidic while with warm water, it has a more subtle taste.

Chamomile –

While Chamomile is also a relatively well known infusion, these tea- bags were quite good, almost on par with the tea I have been served in some high end cafes in Bangalore.

Two points which I felt Tea-Culture could improve upon –

  1. Teas like Rooibos and Sencha are relatively lesser known in India. But these countries have other types of tea which may also prove interesting. I would have rather tried out some of those rather than Darjeeling/Kahwa
  2. China has a huge selection of green teas and white teas, many of which are unknown to Indians. Rather than selecting the Oolong tea which is famous, Tea Culture could identify some of the lesser known varieties

Overall, this was a great experience and I am hoarding the last few tea bags because I am going to regret it once my stock of Rooiboos and Imperial white gets over. A shoutout to Tea Culture and Blue Ocean for getting me this set of teas to try out.

 

Top Non Fiction Reads of 2016

2016 has been a spectacular year in terms of Non fiction reading. So much so that it was a 3:1 ratio for non fiction to fiction reads this year. So rather than just choosing my top 5, I decided to choose my 3 favourite reads across certain genre. For mentions of previous years, check out 2015, 2014, and 2013 .

History – Global

1. Treasure Islands, Tax Havens and the Men Who stole the World – Nicholas Shaxson

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Since the recession of 2008, bankers and the global elite have been viewed with some level of suspicion. But nothing quite rips up the blanket and shows them for the venal, greedy creatures they have become. The best part of the book is the detailed financial investigation of the tax havens and the people who support them. The worst part is the realization that there is nothing anyone can do to stop this or help the victims. In that sense the book leaves you with a growing sense of indignation, disgust and despair at the state of the world.

2. The Bear Trap – Afghanistan’s Untold Story by Brigadier Mohammed Yousuf

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While the Western Nations suffer losses on a daily basis in Afghanistan and now Syria, it’s a good idea to go back to a book published more than 2 decades back but which still rings true. For fans of the cold war, this highlights how the United States worked with Pakistan’s ISI to arm the very “freedom fighters” who now attack them. The Bear Trap is a great historical reminder that in Afghanistan allies today may become opponents tomorrow but the playing ground stays the same, since the time of Gunga Din.

3. The Wild duck hunt chase by Martin J Smith

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Now this may seem a bit of an odd selection, considering the earlier books in this list but it’s a lovely read none the less. Turns out that the US Government funds one of the largest federal programs for conservation through a duck stamp competition, which is funded for by hunters and artists. The book beautifully captures both the eccentric nature of the contest and it’s participants, not to forget the art lovers who actually enjoy the paintings.

Indian Authors – History

1.  A Feast of Vultures – The hidden democracy in India by Joby Joseph

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Like the book on tax havens, A feast of vultures pulls away the veil from our Indian politico-industrial complex. The book highlights who is the victim of the politics or industrial decisions taken at the centre, be it the tribals of Orissa or the arms agent imbroglio. It also tells the tale of how the East West airlines was taken down

2. India’s War by Arjun Subramaniam

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More often than not, Indian historical books are either written by Indian retired army officers or by foreign academicians. Arjun Subramaniam’s book is an effort to throw some unbiased light on the history of the Indian Armed forces both pre and post independence. What I love about this book is that rather than romanticising the Indian Army , it highlights the flaws both in terms of thinking and in terms of execution.

3. The ToI Story by Sangeeta P Menon

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While Sangita Menon’s book is a bit of a hagiography of Vineet Jain, it’s a good history of the evolution of the Times group. What comes out clearly is the clarity of the Times Group founders about how content has changed from being a differentiator to being a commodity. The Times Group ‘s digital strategy has driven a move from a margins driven strategy to a revenue driven strategy which focuses on eyeballs and visibility. The book is a good analysis of how the attitude of media owners and the editorial team has moved over time.

Indian Authors – Memoirs

1. Half Lion : How PV Narasimha Rao transformed India by Vinay Sitapati

In recent times, there has been a lot of talk about PV Narasimha Rao’s accomplishments and how the Congress has denied him his place in history. Vinay Sitapati’s book throws light not just on the crucial years of liberalisation but gives us an insight into how PV Narasimha Rao learnt at every stage of his political career, be it in state or at the centre. At the same time, Vinay doesn’t shy away from showing the negative traits of PV Narasimha Rao, be it in his interactions with colleagues and subordinates or his behaviour towards his family members.

2.Idli , Orchid & Willpower by Dr Vithal Venkatesh

While I have seen many a Kamat restaurant, it’s only after reading this book that I learnt about India’s first Ecotel being set up by the Kamat Group. This book is more on the lines of a personal diary – it talks little about family members or other people who might have played an equal contributing role in the advancement of the protagonist but is fairly honest and scathing both in terms of self appraisal and opinions about others. The key take away for me from this book was the fact that we have an Indian hospitality chain which has been entrepreneurial not just in terms of differentiating themselves from others but also in terms of trying out new concepts and locations.

3. Panther Red One by AirMarshal S Raghavendran

Unlike in the West, we have fewer Air Force and Naval officers who have penned their memoirs and given us a glimpse of the lives they lead in protecting our Nation. Air Marshal S Raghavendran ‘s memoir is a delightful recollection not just of his own accomplishments in the Air Force, both as a fighter pilot and a planner, but also a superb analysis of how the Indian Air Force grew out of the shadow of the Royal Air Force to become an independent wing of the armed forces in India.

Science & Technology

1 . Losing the Signal by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff

Many technology/ consumer companies have vanished when they have failed to keep up with the changing times. Xerox and Kodak are names which immediately come to mind. Blackberry has been recently added to that list. For a company which got two things perfectly right – connectivity and simplicity, it’s sad that they failed to capitalize on it to beat the rest. While the book has some sections which can really drag, overall the access to the founders and core team helps the authors build a captivating story.

2. The Grid by Gretchen Bakke

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Even now in India, electrification of our villages is a distant dream. While the govt claims numbers and people look at alternatives, it is important we consider what the Americans are having to go through now. Their electrical grid is creaking at the edges but is not just about towers and wires, it’s more about the delicate ecosystem of suppliers, consumers, corporations and small businesses centred around the business of power. It’s crucial we understand where and how the power, which enables our smartphones, laptops and Wifi routers is generated and transmitted and more importantly, what are the long term costs of sticking with the status quo

3. Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez

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Chaos Monkeys , as a book, could have been improved significantly but is still a valuable guide to Silicon Valley. While much has been written about or made films about, in terms of Silicon Valley, this book focuses on three broad aspects – Business and policy based analysis of Venture capital, digital marketing which has been the broad revenue potential for Silicon Valley startups , and finally helping the ordinary reader understand the mindscape and background of the people at Silicon Valley.

Others

1 . The Fix : Soccer and Organised Crime by Declan Hill51ytw6m2boolIt’s mildly amusing that I finished reading this book barely a week before the FBI finally took up cudgels against FIFA. With corruption and gambling spread across four continents, this book is a detailed insight into how soccer has moved from a people’s game to one associated with the taint of money. While the author could benefit from an editor’s touch, both in terms of tightening the language and improving the character descriptions, he has done a great investigative job.

2 . Elk Stopped Play and other Stories from Wisden’s Cricket around the World

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Wisden’s magazine has this superb column titled Cricket around the World which talks about anecdotes about cricket, sent in by readers and journalists from around the globe. It brings together a compilation of stories from over two decades of Wisden’s coverage, as well as original material that places the stories in context and expands upon the incidents and personalities involved.

3. I am America and So can You by Stephen Colbert

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If you have watched the Colbert report or other shows by Stephen Colbert, you may have some idea of what to expect from this book. If you don’t, then by picking up this book, you will have severe doubts most of the time about whether the author really means what he has written/ said.While the book navigates different topics and some essays turn out really well ( the essay on higher education, for example), it had scope for improvement as well.

 

Top fiction reads of 2016

As 2016 crawls to an end, it’s time to take stock of the books I have read. For previous years lists check out 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012.

5) The Last Policeman – Ben Winters

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Imagine, if we knew the World is definitely going to end. That we knew the exact date when the world, as we know it, would cease to be. And there are no Hollywood moments here when countries can send rockets or a team of enterprising white folks(with a token Asian/Black guy) to save the world.

In that scenario, all bets are off. So if a policeman tries to solve what looks like a suicide, it would look very weird for him to put in all that effort. But the book is not just a murder mystery. It’s also a great look at how sometimes routine and habit is what enables some of us to stick to what we do. And how sometimes the desire to complete something helps us exceed our wildest expectations. I recommend the first book of the series as a great murder mystery and a dystopian fiction novel .

4) Moonglow – Michael Chabon

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I have been a Chabon fan since I read the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. While some authors usually start repeating themselves, be it in terms of style or tone or characters, Chabon has resolutely tried his best to avoid that. From comics to baseball to struggling writers to vinyl records, he has spun stories around varied themes. His latest book is a mix of memoir and fiction and where one ends and the other begins is particularly tough to decipher.

With parallel themes playing out – a love story between the narrator’s grandparents, political history of the cold war and the author trying to come to terms with his growing old age, the prose grabs your attention and keeps you riveted to it. An excellent read, if only for the way Chabon crafts sentences which jump out in your imagination like comic book images.

3) Fifth Season – N K Jemisin

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In a sense, this year has been very suitable for escapist reading. In other words, fantasy and science fiction genre publications have been  a large part of my reading list this year. But the Fifth season seemed to me the reverse of most of the fiction tropes. One of the rare series with strong feminine lead characters, the series makes us ask ourselves certain truths about who oppresses whom and what are the systems of power that lie both in developed and developing states.

The Fifth Season takes place on an Earth which is beset by seismic events and horrible weather conditions. Humans live on a single continent and mostly prefer to stick near the center with a few brave folks staying in the extremes and have learned to survive by following certain rules and storing food. Jemisin’s world building skills are good but her ability to peel the story , layer by layer is what sets her apart . Little wonder she won the Hugo award for this book.

2) The Alchemy Wars – Ian Tregillis

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For years, people have spoken of the dangers of artificial intelligence. Be it movies like I, Robot or HAL 9000 in 2001 an Odyssey, we always think of how when we imbibe objects with intelligence, they may end up being inimical to humanity.

Ian Tregillis brings up an alternate history of the world, set in the time of trading greats like the Dutch and the French. Here the Dutch have created robots which follow their orders and have become mechanical servants while the French fight against the Dutch and their mechanical servants.

The beauty of the series lies not just in the world and the flawed yet interesting characters but in the questions it throws up. The most important one being – What is free will? In a sense, the series asks readers to introspect if with our growing dependence on computers, AI and technology, we ourselves are giving up free will to be bound by the masses and the elite few who guide our opinions.

1 ) Death’s End series – Cixin Liu

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The Death’s end series is a marvelous look at how science fiction has evolved in China. Moving between different times (past, present and future), it tells us the story of how Humanity has first contact with an alien civilization and its actions thereafter. The series touches not just upon space, astrophysics and philosophy but also highlights agriculture and history.

It shows us both the best and the worst of mankind. In that sense, it is a succinct description of how the rest of the universe probably sees us from afar, a bunch of folks capable of incredible kindness and self sacrifice and of shocking greed and moral emptiness.

Honorable Mentions

This time, the list of honorable mentions is a fair bit longer than last  time so I am going to break it down by genre.

Literary Fiction –

Ghachar Ghochar – Short yet sweet, this translated book of Vivek Shanbag deserves a wider audience. While it’s a great novella, it could have become a superb novel, if some of the characters had been fleshed out further .

Rogue Male – Geoffrey Household wrote this novel in 1939 which talks about What if someone had been in position to kill a dictator but fails and is then on the run. This novel is also said to have inspired David Morrell’s First Blood, now immortalized in the Rambo series.

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe – This short book talks about a man who swindles his village to get money for a trip to Paris where he can buy a bed of nails from Ikea. But in an attempt to save some money, he ends up through multiple misadventures, all of which teach him humility and perseverance.

Fantasy

Stiletto – Daniel O Malley’s sequel to the Rook. While the Rook had a great storyline, the Stiletto doesnt match up and flounders at time, trying to bring in more characters. The lead character has now moved on from her amnesia and is trying to keep up with the new

Spider’s War – The final book of the Dagger & Coin series lives up to the high standards of the predecessors. Economics and statecraft play equal roles in helping bring war to an end and drive peace.

The Tiger & the Wolf – Adrian Tchaikovsky brings to life a world of human shapeshifters who live by harsh rules. He uses not just the lead characters but also the associated characters and background stories to create a rich world where the different animal tribes have to live with each other, yet fight each other for supremacy and survival.

Others

Armada – Think of a world where video games are designed to help us prepare for an alien invasion. Imagine finding out that the fate of the world lies in the hands of kids who desire nothing more than to fight this war. Ernest Kline’s Armada is an interesting take on whether video games are an institutional attempt to get future generations to accept war as something not to get their hands dirty with, but to play on a computer screen.

Four Legendary Kingdoms – I am an unabashed Matt Reilly fan and he has come to understand that making books like film scripts may not be enough. His previous book, the Tournament was a step in that direction with more focus on character building. Taking forward the earlier Jack West series, this book ropes in more of Greek mythology and hopefully we will see a much richer world of characters.

A Midsummer’s Equation – Part of the Detective Galileo series, Keigo Higashino’s latest book  brings to mind many elements of Salvation of a Saint and Devotion of Suspect X. Transplanted from Tokyo to another part of Japan, the intrepid detective duo get back to unraveling the case, albeit with more finesse.

Over-dependency

I recently came across a very interesting article on how the introduction of GPS and smartphone navigation apps of the likes of Google Maps and Waze is leading to reduction of brain size and location awareness in humans

In the last few years, I have successfully introduced my parents to e-commerce and cab apps and also got them to use smart phones. It has come with some challenges (pocket dialing and payment issues ) but has also helped them explore alternatives. At the same time, I often worry if this overt dependence on technology is going to bite me in the long run.

While we are moving to a “on demand” economy, where everything from travel to food to conversations can be summoned at will, we also lose out on building other essential skills. Some skills are more obvious (the ability to navigate in the absence of internet/ GPS devices) while others are more soft skills ( negotiating with shopkeepers /autowalas ) . But the most worrisome aspect is the inherent loss of patience.

We have become an on-demand generation , who have inhumanly high standards as a customer but don’t expect the same from our clients. Every service provider/ product company is expected to be on time and perfect 100% of the time. Following the Silicon Valley approach, we go gaga over storytelling instead of product.

Sooner rather than later, the highs are going to end. Ola and Uber will bring fares that will match radio taxicabs and a lot of us are going to regret the GoI not investing in infrastructure. Similarly restaurants are going to end up seeing a massive drop in deliveries through food apps once the convenience fees ramp up. But worst of all, at some point, Google or Apple is going to sell the data collected through these apps to the advertisers we hate on TV.

 

By Sudharsan Narayanan Posted in General
Aside

One of the annoying things about Facebook is their insistence on showing what you posted on this day 5 years back or 7 years back. More often than not, I cringe on seeing the posts and the language used. Sometimes, the pics bring about memories. Memories of trips taken, of long midnight discussions over cups of hot tea in college or celebrating someone’s birthday. Sometimes it triggers memories of a friend who is no longer with us , which can be disheartening (although it’s infinitely creepier when Facebook suggests said dead friend as someone who can be added to the network) . But it also helps me take a step back and look at how far I have come in the last 4 years.

As more and more articles come out about startups shutting down or losing their way, I am reminded of the time in 2011 when I took a leap of faith. It was a time when Bangalore didn’t have Starbucks filled with aspiring entrepreneurs meeting angel investors, when Uber was not a verb , when “family friends” didn’t mind suggesting that they could introduce you to their son/ nephew working in Infosys who could get me a job. Many things have changed since then but some things have remained the same. The Indian mentality still is more about questioning how someone failed rather than acknowledging that failure is not a crime or a mistake.

We are a risk-averse country. Yes, a Foodpanda has fallen, TinyOwl looks to be on the way down. And many others will probably fall. While it’s easy to point fingers at them or laud the others, it’s entirely possible that the people in this organisations(or most of them) tried their very best to make it a success and the others have won the race not just by merit but sometimes by being at the right place at the right time. In the last few years, I have seen firms struggle to raise funds, struggle even after raising funds and sometimes even after their strongest efforts, end up with nothing in the bank to pay debtors and employees.

So here’s to the losers. Because while the winners have the adulation and adoration of the masses, they know a fall is never far away. But for the losers, there is only space to climb up.

Leap of Faith

Top Non fiction reads of 2015

It’s been a hectic year but there have been some lovely non fiction reads this year. On the lines of previous years(2014 and 2013 ) , check out this year’s top reads

5) All the Shah’s Men – An American Coup by Stephen Kinzer

In a world where America has painted Iran as an evil country with sinister objectives, it is useful to get a counterpoint. This book explains how Iran changed from a country which once adored America and expected America to support it’s aim for independence to a country which decided it would never seek help from any foreign power.

It’s particularly important because the root of Middle eastern politics and terrorism might well have been the stupid actions of the Britishers and Americans who refused to give up cheap oil and wanted to keep plundering the natural resources of another nation. One can say that there are strong parallels to the current story in Afghanistan where the US and other allies have focussed less on understanding the true problems but forced their interpretation on the people.

4) The Box – How a shipping container made the world smaller by Marc Levinson

The iPhone we wait for eagerly, the new shirts and sometimes that attractive foreign fruit, all arrive at our shops through shipping containers. Shipping and freight was highly disorganised till the 70s. This was because of multiple reasons. Different stakeholders had no inclination to make changes to bring in innovation or improvements and customers didnt care . It was only the advent of the Vietnam War which brought changes into shipping.

Shipping containers didn’t just make it easier for customers to receive products all year long. It changed the traditional paradigm of seating factories close to their raw material sources and brought in an era of outsourcing and expansion. In a sense, Indians and Chinese can thank the Box for bringing us our current status.

3) Elon Musk’s Memoir – Ashley Vance

Elon Musk is treated as a visionary or as a lunatic, by different people. It’s hard to argue against his passion and risk taking ability – Imagine putting all the money you made from a sale into two startups at the same time. And making them successful. This memoir is a great accounting of Elon Musk’s vision and how he views risk and reward. While people keep comparing Musk to Tesla, I would rather look at him as an Edwin Land of our times. Passionate about quality but at the same time clear about  ensuring the customer experience is perfect. A must read for technology  fans /space fans/ entrepreneurs.

2) The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace

I am not much of a wine aficionado. I have tried wine once in a while and have never heard of any of the famous vintners. This book is not so much about fine wine but about how easy it is to fool and deceive people who want to be known as different. In a sense, it is about the consumerism of our era where people are willing to spend huge amounts of money not because they want something but because they have been told that they must have it. As Goebell once said ” If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, eventually people will believe it.”

1 ) Console Wars – Sega versus Nintendo by Blake J Harris

Much like Betamax and VHS, the fight between fans of Sega and Nintendo may never end. One defined gaming for multiple generations, another made gaming cool for the kids of the 80s. Much before XBox, Playstation and others came into the market, Nintendo made everyone help a plumber save a princess. This book talks about the difference of cultures between Asian and European/American companies. While Asian companies think of monopolies as acceptable, Americans believe in the free market principle. In the end, the story of Sega and Nintendo is about the clash of cultures. Where Sega was American in terms of free choice and branding, Nintendo was about focus on quality not quantity and a slow but steady approach . These same lessons apply to an Apple versus Samsung, a Foodpanda versus Zomato and many others.

Honourable Mentions

Memoirs –

  1. The Outsider by Frederick Forsyth – Frederick Forsyth has some of the best thrillers to his credit – The Day of the Jackal and The Devil’s Alternative come to mind. In a sense, his autobiography is a continuation of his books – he gives just enough details to give a glimpse into the inner world of espionage and thrills but also shares an insight into how he became a writer.Vignettes of his life as a reporter and an MI6 agent give an understanding of how he matured as an author and gained the ideas which became great thrillers. A must read for fans of the Cold War thriller genre
  2. Walking the Amazon in 860 days by Ed Stafford – In April 2008, Ed Stafford decided to walk the length of the Amazon. In other words, from one end of South America to the other. Equal parts daring and craziness, the book talks about how the Amazon has changed yet some parts have never changed in centuries.
  3. The Negotiater by Ben Lopez – What happens when one is kidnapped. It’s the negotiater’s job to get the victim back at as low a cost as possible.

Indian Non Fiction –

  1. The Descent of Air India by Jitender Bhargava- For those of us who have complained about the matronly air hostesses, the poor service and the white elephant that Air India is, there was a time when they trained Singapore Airlines. The story of how they fell from grace, because the stakeholders preferred to play politics rather than let them run the company
  2. The Great Game – East India China – The Great game was first played in India and was even referenced in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. This book talks more about this Asian border is the volatile frontier for the next great game
  3. Hello Bastar by Rahul Pandita – Naxalites are reviled in India. But how do these ordinary villagers and tribal folks become Naxalites. A compelling read

Science –

  1. The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage – For a book written in 1998, much before the Internet exploded, this book is still a great tale. It talks about the development and growth of the electric telegraph and how in many ways, the story of the Internet is an example of history repeating itself.
  2. The Man who loved Only Numbers – The story of Paul Erdos, a mathematician who lived only for mathematics. A delightful read for math fans

Espionage

  1. The Spy’s Son by Bryan Benson – When the CIA finally caught one of their best station officers for treason and put him in jail, they never expected that one day he would train his own son to share more information with the Russians
  2. The Emperor’s Codes by Michael Smith – While a lot of attention is cast on Enigma and the work of the British codebreakers, the Americans worked equally hard on solving Japanese codes. It resulted in some of the major victories of the war.

Sports

  1. Omerta – Sepp Blatter’s FIFA Organised crime family
  2. Peter Obourne’s Wounded Tiger – History of Pakistani Cricket

War

  1. Operators in Afghanistan by Michael Hastings – The article lead to the resignation of Stanley McChrystal. The book is a great insight into why counter insurgency doesnt always work
  2. Special Forces Pilot – While most of the attention is driven to spec ops soldiers, few people notice that the support team works as hard and sometimes faces as much danger.An interesting read about the lives of the people who help the Special forces reach where they need to go.