Sunday, May 12, 2019

Review: The Brain that Changes Itself

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain ScienceThe Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A very interesting book. The examples that Dr Doidge has given are out there in the open domain for all to see. Very inspiring and thought-provoking. I was particularly fascinated by the story of Cheryl Schiltz whose brain learnt to use the tongue for balance instead of her inner ear even after her "prosthetic" device was removed. However, this opens up quite a field of discussions. I mean assuming neuroplasticity to be a valid phenomenon, can a left-handed person become right-handed or vice versa? Can a mental form of constraint-induced therapy switch sexual orientation? Can people on the spectrum learn the "empathy" factor missing in their mental makeup and become neurotypicals? Can sociopaths learn to perceive other people's emotions? I bet these questions are just the tip of the iceberg!

We can obviously see through the numerous examples given that the brain does have a remarkable capacity for rewiring itself and adapting it's structure. But based on this very hypothesis, there's a ton of quackery out there too. What if this opens the floodgates for every quack, con, mystic or guru to shove their s**t down the gullible throats of innocent people under the huge umbrella of "neuroplasticity"?

And even more dangerous; what stops institutions from using techniques outlined by neuroplasticists as some form of mandated conditioning for neurodiverse populations to "turn" them into neurotypicals? The entire spectrum of genetically wired anomalies of the brain can be brought under the ambit of mandatory conditioning for "straightening them out".

A prickly topic indeed. The science may be solid, but I doubt we are mature enough yet to understand it's implications.


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Monday, March 11, 2019

Review: Bajirao - The Warrior Peshwa


Baji Rao: The Warrior PeshwaBaji Rao: The Warrior Peshwa by Jaiwant E Paul
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just like Bajirao overshadowed his younger brother throughout his life; geopolitical events in Maharashtra have relegated Bajirao to the sidelines of history. Maharashtra is Shivaji and our vision often ends there. Sad but true. Adding to the problem is Bollywood. With the romantic angle of Bajirao's life often hyper-emphasized and nowhere more so in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's extravagant epic "Bajirao Mastani"; we have boxed Bajirao the personality. We forget that he was a military general par excellence and that he never lost a battle. We forget that he was an unorthodox progressive for his age and that he ate meat and drank mead in an environment that was oppressively conservative. He preferred the company of his soldiers than the rich confines of the palace and we've forgotten that Bajirao was much more than his love affair with Mastani.

With detailed evidences, citations and corroborated events in history; Jaiwant E Paul tries to correct this gross injustice. The title itself moves away from the usual hoopla about Bajirao's love life. From his conquest of the central plains to his sudden attack on Delhi, Jaiwant E Paul has chronicled the life of a military tactician par excellence. A very interesting read that gives perspective to the Peshwa ascendancy before its eventual decline into extravagance and debauchery. One wonders what would have happened had "brahminical patriarchy" been more liberal and allowed an inter-caste marriage and what would have happened if Bajirao had lived another decade....

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A belated post which I had saved in my drafts. Publishing this after a delay of around 6 months. Consider this as something which should have published in August 2018

According to wikipedia - 
A motor reflex, or reflex action, is an involuntary and nearly instantaneous movement in response to a stimulus. A reflex is made possible by neural pathways called reflex arcs which can act on an impulse before that impulse reaches the brain. 
Me and the wife always used to fight over the remote in our quaint little place in Airoli, Navi Mumbai. Whether it be the television remote or the air conditioning, it was always diametrically opposite views. As far as the air conditioning goes, I like it pleasantly chilly; she likes it warm. It was therefore always a standoff. I liked 21 degrees centigrade, she preferred 25. 4 degrees can make all the difference when it comes to a bedroom and a sauna. Like in all marriages, we had to compromise. We would switch on the AC AND the ceiling fan with a timer. 21 degrees with a fan switched on for 30 minutes would give enough wind-chill to sustain us for the next few hours of a movie or a nap. We had the same air conditioner installed in the bedroom as well as our "den". And we'd use the same protocol in both rooms. It was our own brand of weird and crazy. But this arrangement gave me the habit of always switching on the timer as soon as I switched on the AC. It became a reflex. If i pressed the power switch of my AC on, my thumb would immediately move over to the timer which was exactly below the power button. 

For the past few weeks I am staying in a hotel room. Heck, the past couple of years have been uncertain and volatile. I've been travelling hither and tither. New assignments, new people, new challenges. I've wrapped up my affairs in Mumbai, moved to Pune . . been on business travel periodically. Been living out of a suitcase. This whole "phase" was crystallized in my mind and the impact of it all came crashing down on me in one simple reflex motion - the AC remote in my hotel room. I returned today evening to the hotel room in question, dumped the week's supplies onto the table and crashed onto the sofa in front of the TV; much like I was wont to do at home in Airoli. I grabbed the air conditioner's remote, switched it on and my thumb automatically moved down to find the timer. And then it came crashing down. I was no longer in my lazy-boy and my den. Or my bed. The Airoli chapter had closed. 

One simple reflex action. That's all it took for memories to come crashing down on me like the flood waters out of a dam. The brain is such a funny thing. I had nothing on my mind just five minutes before I took the remote into my hand. And just five minutes after; I was on a roller-coaster ride down memory lane. The fights and the hugs, the jabs and the kisses. The evenings spent wandering around the suburbs, the late nights spent working, the movies in our den where we'd installed two insanely expensive recliners in front of our large-screen TV, the small nook of our lives that we created like two birds building a nest . . it all came crashing down on me because of one reflex motion. 










Today I am on the cusp of a new assignment, a new city and a new country where I wait for my wife to join me so we can settle down and build another nest. I look forward to creating similarly pleasant and everlasting memories in this new place. But I shall always look back on yet another Mumbai chapter of my life with fondness and nostalgia. This city has given me life-long friends, memories to cherish and has nurtured me to become the man I presently am. Invisibly and in the shadows, she shall continue to guide me with a steady hand in the future as well. As the cliched saying goes; you can take a person out of Mumbai, but you can't take Mumbai out of a person. But most of all, I shall cherish my small apartment and the quaint corner we built. We created the decor, we chose the furniture ourselves; bit by bit, rupee by rupee. We set it up with our own hands. We fought and we cried there. We lived, loved and laughed there. We returned there each evening to lick our wounds and to rally for the next day. We sallied forth on our weekend excursions from there. It was our base, our lauch-pad. We called it home. We thank Mumbai for this home and for some of the memorable moments of our lives.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Review: The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew

The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew by Lee Kuan Yew
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fascinating story. I know there are two schools of thought about Lee Kuan Yew and I know the issue is too complex to be answered so simply. But what immediately struck me is that the story of the Singaore riots is uncannily like the story of Godhra. Certain parties wanted to create a communal rift between Malay Muslims and the Chinese and they used the media to malign Lee and take advantage of said rift for ulterior motives. Very similar to what happened in Gujarat when certain elements used the media to create the perception of Modi being a despot and a dictator. Modi was blamed for 2002 and Lee was blamed for the 1964 riots. Replace the UNMO/Malaysia with the Congress, PAP/Lee with BJP/Modi, Utusan Melayu with NDTV and you have basically the same plot.

But putting the India perspective aside, the book is a fascinating insight into how Singapore was formed despite the Brits not wanting it to be formed, the Malays deep hostility towards Singapore, presence of Communists and the nefarious pressure of Sukarno. Say what you will about Lee, the small nation is now considered one of the most developed in the world. Given it's turbulent history and it's unfortunate geopolitical situation, that's quite an achievement.

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Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Review: A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A gripping tale. First off, for all the criticism that he's getting; Comey's physical description of Trump is worth less than a page out of 293 pages. If one is so offended by it, one can ignore it. Trump himself is mentioned only after Chapter 12. No doubt he might be the reason Comey wrote the book, but it's a story worth hearing and Comey sets the stage to show that his stand with Trump is not new for him and that he engaged in similar tussles with previous presidents (albeit on a whole other level)

Also, I didn't see the book as Comey tooting his own horn. I saw the narrative as a man trying to remember leaders in his life and narrate what he's learnt from them. He doesn't come off as high-handed either. His story is well told, and makes for interesting reading not just for Americans but for anybody. As for Trump, I'm not American and so it's not my place to comment on American politics.

Coming to leadership lessons; Comey's not saying anything new. Ethical leaders need to respect individual dignity, ethical leaders teach by setting examples, ethical leaders give space to learn by allowing mistakes and so on and so forth. But the difference is that Comey talks about these "fundas" through real-life scenarios. You see the practical impacts of things done right and things done wrong. And you can relate to all the incidents. Because all of us in our careers have worked with such leaders. We've come across good leaders and we've come across bad leaders. Just like Comey. We've made mistakes and learnt from them because good leaders have protected us but taught us; and we've been bullied by bad leaders who've second-guessed and under-cut us. And that's what makes this book such a good read. As a normal guy trying to do the right thing, you can relate to Comey's experiences.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Review: The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh

The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh by Sanjaya Baru
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One feels sorry for Dr Singh. You can see this situation so many times in organizational dynamics. To be your own man, sometimes you have to put your foot down and stand up to your own people. If you're not allowed to make decisions, you can't be a leader. At such times, one should step aside; as Baru seems to have advised his employer.

The book itself is a revealing insight into the chaos and mayhem that was UPA-1 and 2. Again, this is typical of an organizational unit that has multiple vested interests and a sycophantic setup instead of a synchronous team and a strong leader. Despite the praise Baru lavishes on Dr Singh the person, the incidents he recounts (also corroborated by the news we've read) present a poor picture of Dr Singh the leader. He comes off as a bureaucratic and submissive lackey despite Baru's best efforts to humanize him.

In hindsight, it is also very clear why the current dispensation is able to function so much better. Modi's natural decisiveness, low tolerance for the "Lutyens elite" and other bullshitters, a clear line of authority, his own choice in terms of creating a cohesive, united team and complete autonomy in decision-making. No wonder there's so much more achieved in terms of effective policy formation and holistic decisions.

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Review: 1991: How P. V. Narasimha Rao Made History

1991: How P. V. Narasimha Rao Made History 1991: How P. V. Narasimha Rao Made History by Sanjaya Baru
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mr Baru begins by recounting a class lecture in which he asks the students about the relevance of 1991 in Indian polity. He was surprised to note that the answers were mundane. If he asks a similar question today, I wonder how Mr Baru will feel. We have all read about liberalization in 1991. But in all honesty, I doubt many people understand the bigger picture by looking at liberalization along with the end of the "License Raj" and India's foreign policy at the time. With all these things placed in perspective, Mr Baru tries to give PV his due.

Rightly so I feel. Especially given the way the Congress mistreated him and relegated him to a side-note in its chapters. A very notable quote in the book sums it up - "It is a sad commentary on this nation of ours that we do not know who our real heroes are and do not know how to honour them." What is shameful is that even in his death, he was denied a rightful place alongside other leaders of the country in Delhi. Only in 2015 was a memorial built for PV at Ekta Sthal.

Besides talking about PV's reform measures for the Indian economy, the book also showcases how PV gave the Indian National Congress its last chance at democracy. They had a real shot at breaking away from its feudal mindset and dynastic politics with PV at the helm. We've all seen the aftermath of this. PV was made a scapegoat for Babri and the Congress lost its golden chance at truly becoming an independent, meritocratic setup and sunk into the sycophantic throes of a feudal family-owned business. One wonders what would have happened if PV had managed to free the Congress back in the 90s from the clutches of "The Family".

Overall, a thought provoking book.

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