Showing posts with label book. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Reading the Martian, and book experiments


I’ve been travelling in Sydney trains for a few months now. I spend about 40 mins travelling one way, so its more than an hour of commute each day. Though the distances covered is larger than those I covered in Bangalore in the same time, or any Indian city, I would venture. And good thing about my commute, there are always seats ! Even during the rush hour, you could find seats to slid into. So I figured the best way to spend time on these commutes would be to listen to podcasts, or just read a plain old book when the batteries die down.

I’ve been also running a crazy experiment of sorts. After I finish reading a book, I leave it on the seat. There. Abandoned. For the next commuter on that seat. You see, the building I live in has a library of abandoned books. Books which their owners throw out when its too much cargo when they move out. So its a free library ! I’ve read and left about four books on the trains so far. Just finished reading Andy Weir’s The Martian. This novel was turned into the hit 2015 movie by Ridley Scott. The movie was Ridley’s best work in this decade, in between all those Alien duds.

I could see why the book was a hit, its a story of survival in the harshest conditions. Its a fight against nature, and the cosmos itself. Its a story of the whole earth uniting to save one man stranded on a distant planet. But I also could not see why the book was such a hit. Its nerdy. Its full of long jargon, longer, meticulus calculations, and technological exposition. Engineers and scientists would love this kind of thing, but anybody else would find it..hmm…boring. Repititive.

I didn’t !

I loved it. Most of it. But then even I got bored of all those calculations, error variance, and best estimates. There is a lot more of the story happening in the book, which got cut out of the movie. And that was good, because there is no way a 2 hour movie could capture this much techno-babble.

We all know what happened to the stranded fictional astronaut Mark Watney. He is eventually rescured after 500 days alone on planet Mars. But the book goes into great detail to explain all the problems he and the NASA team faced along the way. There is a journal entry for most of the 561 sols he spend on the planet. There are other subplots not discussed in the movie.

Like the incident during the drilling of the second rover’s rood. Mark accidently shorts out the electronics on the pathfinder, and loses his ability to communicate with earth.  This is not shown in the movie. But in the book, Mark has no choice but communicate one way using stones arranged in morse code on the route he follows across Mars.

Or when the rover tumbles into the crater.

But I still had questions, which I hoped would be answere in the books, but was left disspointed.

For starters, Mark is extermely optimistic. Like, he is the most optimistic literary character I have read till date. He beats Robinson Crusoe hands down. Its unnatural , the guy simply does not give up. He does talk to himself a lot, but he voices his optimism clearly. I wanted to know the why he was so. Wanted to know about his childhood, his college days. Was he in the forces ? Does he belive in a god ? What pulls him to earth ? Was it his family ? Speaking of family, neither the book nor the movie tries to shed light, what kind of family did he grow up in ? Does he have siblings ? A girlfriend ? His best friend ?

Another question, this is more of a tease. The story mentions that Mark travels more than 3oo days travelling across Mars in rovers. He was carrying all the equipment to keep him alive, but he was not carryin a porta-toilet or something. So, where did he poop ? How ? And how did he cook the food he brought along ?

But what I find most astonishing is the passage of time. 500 days is almost 2 years. He spends a lof of that time travelling, and completing all sorts of tasks. Its easy to say 100 days of travel. But Mars has a barren crust, its the same shade of red everywhere. 100 days of travelling through it is not at all easy, with no one to talk to, and having to be alert all the time. At some point, one will at least think of giving it all up. But not Mark.

Anyway, despite all of this, the book is still a good read. The epilogue in the movie is missing in the book. It ends with Mark’s rescue from the planet. Science, technology, humany ingenuity and persistence, this is what the story is about.

Now that I finished reading it, I am going to leave it on the train tomorrow. For someone else to enjoy.











Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Who reads book nowadays ?


No really, who reads books today ? Text books prescribed in schools and colleges…well, they still have their takers. But I am talking of all those novels and long form literature. Buying those hardcover books is sheer waste of money. As I recently found out. You see, I had a bunch of these old novels lying around the house. And in order to make space, I decided to get rid of them. Now in the past, I used to drive straight to  the second hand book store, where the book-loving-sales/agent would give me at least 40% of the cover value of the books in return. Higher if it is an non-Indian author, and even higher for hard cover books instead of paperbacks. Enough money to go buy another brand new book.

So imagine my surprise when this time the seller blankly refused to take the book. No one reads them, he tells me. Nowadays everyone buys soft copy. By that he meant the PDF/EPUB versions of books sold online. He then further proceeds to make me an offer. I can exchange my 3 year old Tom Clancy novel for another book by the same author, and pay him 50 rupees for his inconvenience. So, he wants my money AND the book.

No thanks, I respectfully declined. And then gave the book, and a few more I had to the kabbadiwala. Those road side dealers of paper and scrap. I got the worth of the book in the weight of its paper. About 15 rupees. I had bought some of them for 750/- plus.

This was today. But then something else had happened around two weeks prior. We got a free promotional copy of the Hindu at our doorstep, with the advertisement: one year subscription rates halved !. What used to cost 1800/- a year will now just cost 900/- for one years subscription to the paper. They were actually giving them away for its paper’s weight. Now I have never taken a newspaper subscription during the 10 years I have lived on my own. But I could see that more and more people were turning of these physical news feeds.

Back home, I used to have my own little collection of english novels I loved to read, even when I knew the whole story in my head. But they too went into the garbage when the paper in them started to disintegrate.

So this lead me to ponder, who are the ones still reading physical books and subscribing to newspapers today ? Maybe they are still popular in small towns and deep within villages. But within the cities, it no longer makes sense to spend money on them, when you can get the news for free. And the books for slightly more than free.  In a way, mass media and book publishers are also being disrupted, they will have to find a new way to price their products within the spare budget of today’s smartpone wiedling techies, if they want to stay in business. No one seems to be doing anything about it. Digital is the way forward.

But I still miss the joy and smell of a good book during a rainy day.


PS: My favourite authors are Agatha Christie, Michael Crichton, and P G Wodehouse. I have read every work they have created.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Predictable Mr Dan Brown


I finally finished reading Dan Brown’s new novel. Yes, he is still writing, and he still has got a few tricks up this harris tweed sleeve. I remember the first time I read his novel, it was the DaVinci code, which I read more than 10 years ago. My dear friend Tomci loaned me his original copy. Back then, I was gripped by the narrative, transported instantly to Paris, and London, the setting of the story. This was before the internet had penetrated our lives like it has today. There was no way to verify the claims mentioned in the book, and one simply had to take it at face value. Being  non-christian, I was not offended by the book, but was smiling mischeviously with a I-knew-it smirk. An author with the guts to write, I remember thinking to myself.

Not anymore. Since the day he found his style, he has stuck to it. Religiously, for the lack of a better term. His latest book is equal parts boring and interesting. Boring because it is completely predictable. The settings, the characters, some of the lousy dialogues, and excrucitating detail. And interesting because the book again talks of the rivalry between science and religion. Most of the ideas presented in his latest books are not original, he has taken some ideas and theories presented by others and neatly packaged it. But man of man, it is so boring. Brown needs to find a new characther, or a new genre.

Just a few chapters into the book, I grew suspiciuos of the charachter Winston, and suspected him to be the mastermind orchestratin the crimes about to be committed in the story. There is another, young female companion for Robert Langdon to talk to, who is again a subject matter expert from science, complimenting Langdon’s own expertise in symbols. The whole story takes place over a few hours, less than a day. But the mastermind has planned it all for weeks , or even months. And in the end, predictably, Robert Langdon saves the day, and reveals the secret. He will live for his next adventure. Something about an ancient cult trying to prove aliens exist on earth among us…..

Again the latest book has attracted negativity from religious circles. I find it fascinating that even in this day and age religious evangelists use technology to criticize…well, science ! The question of where we came from is the oldest question mankind has asked. Brown has distilled some long standing ideas into a quick two day read, there is no need to question his faith because the ideas itself are not his original. Until the real truth is revealed, I think the dialogue should be kept open.

And comging back to Origin, well, nothing in it is original. Its a merge of all this previous charachters and style in a new setting and facing a graver threat.


In a 2006 interview, Brown stated that he had ideas for about 12 future books featuring Robert Langdon. Oh no….



PS: I lied, This time, I did not ‘read’ the book. I listened to it. On audiobook. Some chaps have uploaded the audiobook version directly on to youtube, and it can be accessed for free.

Friday, December 2, 2016

They destroyed Inferno

Been very busy nowadays, at a new job in a new role. So it was after a long time I got the time to watch a movie. Inferno. Yep, based on the novel by Dan Brown. Tom Hanks returns as Langdon. And Ron Howard as director. Which is why I was confused as to why they made this movie. This is the same team which made Apollo 13.

To be honest, the source material wasn't that strong to justify this movie. I was unimpressed with the book when I came out, and remember feeling Brown has lost his touch. In Inferno, the subject matter is not mainstream, the legends and history is not something which would attract public attention. The Lost Symbol, which had some American history conspiracy in it, would have been a better choice. Not many know about the importance of Florence, or have heard of Dante.

I think they should now stop making these movies. Brown's plots just gets clumsier , and clumsier. And now its totally predictable. Every novel has Langdon waking up in a hotel/hospital/room , being chased by police/secret service/FBI/CIA and bad guys/mafia/crazy cult. He is helped by a young , attractive and super-smart female, and the whole story gets over in like..24 hours. And I still don't buy the fact that Langdon is able to keep all those details of symbology in his head, he practically knows every work of literature created by the great artists.

In addition, they changed the story. Which was the biggest disappointment for me. In the book, Zobrist does not create a plague, but a virus which renders half of the human population infertile, so that there is some population control in the coming generation. But the movie version paints him as a foolish genius, who wants to kill people.

So right when I thought they could not go wrong with making Inferno, they have managed to mess it up completely.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Losing the Signal - The Blackberry Story


There's too much work at office nowadays, I don't get any time to catch up on my reading. But every now and then, there is buzz about some new book and you just have to read it.  A few weeks back there was a general buzz in the news about Blackberry, formerly Research In Motion. It seemed that Microsoft was keen on buying the dying company. And two Globe and Mail editors were about to publish a book about the rise and fall of Blackberry. Two online newspapers had published excerpts from the book, and they covered the general theory that it was Apple's iPhone that brought down Backberry's smartphone business. The excerpts read like one of those TV documentaries were scenes were re-enacted and interviews explained them in detail.

I had to read this book. And so I did. I got myself an pirated online .epub version of the book and read it over the weekend. It was indeed a good read, and here is what I learned.



  1. The story of Blackberry is one of those untold or unheard of success stories of technology companies from the 1980s. Their story starts around the same time Microsoft and Apple started business, but never got the same kind of media spread. So they have been in business for 30 years, but they earned worldwide praise for their devices for only about 8 years, from 1999 to 2007, then they Blackberrys were the definition of a smartphone.
  2. Mike Lazaridis (born Mihal), the founder and long serving co-CEO of the company, was an engineering genius. He used to fix broken things right from childhood, and helped out fixing stuff in his school, and this set the stage for his career in the emerging telecom industry. He was the son of immigrant parents from Istanbul, his family had limited means, and he did many odd jobs in his neighbourhood and school (selling self-made quiz buzzers at one point) before he found his calling in world of electronics and communication. He built his own oscilloscope ! When he started engineering at the University of Waterloo in 1979, they had one IBM 360 computer !Discouraged with the world of big business, he decided to be his own boss by starting a consulting company that designed computer solutions for local technology companies. He and his friend Doug Fregin dropped out of University weeks before the course completion and in an unintended nod to the many lessons they had yet to learn about running a business, Lazaridis and Fregin formally registered their new company under the name Research In Motion Ltd. on March 7, 1984.
  3. At first, the company designed custom electronics for companies in Canada, and then they jumped onto the wireless communication industry designing & manufacturing pagers, the only cheapest way back then to transmit non-voice data. They worked with Ericsson to change the one-way paging system into two way, and then decided to do something about bringing e-mails to a hand held device. At the time, the only way to access e-mail was via a desktop or laptop computer. Palm was selling a wireless devices they called the Personal Digital Assistant, but it had no e-mail, only Contacts and Calendars could be shared. Mike Lazaridis himself used one, and wanted to bring these new technologies into their own range of offerings.
  4. The name Blackberry was not coined by anybody at Research in Motion. Instead, they hired Lexicon Branding, a local company renowned for its gift of selecting memorable brand names, particularly for nerdy high-tech products like Intel's Pentium and Apple's powerbook. The codename for the new device was PocketLink, and most of RIM liked and wanted that name. Somebody at Lexicon had written soothing words on a whiteboard to throw around ideas for the new name, and the words included “summer vacation,” “melons,” and “strawberry”.Next to the name of the red fruit, one of the employees had scrawled “blackberry.” It was the 40th and last name considered for the new device and Laziridis liked it instantly.
  5. The Blackberry was never intended for every user on the planet. At the time, network speeds barely allowed full HTML page browsing, and RIM wanted to sell their dedicated , encrypted e-mail services on the expensive phones to top executives who would appreciate the product. When other companies were designing multiple phone models for every demographic like age group, profession, language and country, RIM produced the same kind of phones with only a few differences between them. In 2001, they were struggling to meet sales demands for their phones, because no other manufacturer had any similar offerings. They had a plant in Waterloo in 2002 to make the phones, but they did not take the risk of opening more plants in other countries, specially third world countries. This was the main reason why their phones were priced high, and it is a mistake other companies did not make.
  6. RIM had the technology to put a full HTML web browser on a phone for years, but US and Canada network operators prevented them from doing that, fearing it would clog up their network. Steve Jobs at Apple had full control of his company, and told AT &T that they would not be involved in the design of the Apple phone at any point at all, and that they would have to support full web browsing and multimedia on the network, even the licensing deals. AT & T had no choice but to take up the offer. This is the reason why the iPhone looked cooler when it came out, it boasted of all the features other companies were denied to put on their own phones.
  7. RIM never considered Apple a threat, because while RIM was making sophisticated phones for the executives of the enterprise, Apple's phone was more like a multimedia device, and RIM predicted the new phones would clog up AT&T's network. It did. The network got so overloaded, people started complaining of dropped calls and slow internet. But what RIM did not predict was that the users didn't really care. Apple sold millions of phones in their first month alone,  more than the sales of RIM's Pearl in the last quarter. RIM took their time in responding with a touch device called the Blackberry Storm, but its touch-cum-press-down-screen proved to be a disaster, every one of the first phones had issues and had to be replaced. If RIM had designed a touch screen similar to that of the iPhone, things would have been different.
  8. There were other issues as well. A few months before the iPhone launch, RIM was hit by a patent related lawsuit from NTP Inc, a shell company, which would reap millions off RIM's profits for years. RIM was in talks with Motorola for a takeover, but those talks fizzled because Motorola did not want to sell them their patents. Motorola went down, was bought by Google, and then sold to Lenovo. RIM also had a scandal regarding back-dated options for their stock.



However towards the final chapters of the book, what plays out is that the reason the company failed in the end is the same reason they had succeeded in the first place : exclusivity. RIM did not make phones for everyone, just the elite. They sold fewer phones than rivals all through history, but those were expensive phones for the enterprise worker. Sure they were built sturdily, had great battery life, and the unique keyboard and encrypted e-mail system, but these were custom made for those who needed it. Also, a big part of RIM's revenue came from loyalty, a Blackberry user had to buy the overpriced phone all right, but then they also needed to pay RIM a monthly usage fee to use the Blackberry network for secure e-mail. And this licensing fees comprised a big part of the companies revenue. Once a Blackberry user decided to ditch the service, that loyalty was lost. And so was the monthly fee. After the i-Phone, whenever the two CEOs had to discuss on the probable next steps they could take, the decision was always between maintaining Blackberry's exclusive and signature keyboard+service system and following Apple's lead of a large multitouch smartphone or licensing BBM to other vendors, and they chose exclusivity each time. This constant pattern of choosing the lesser of two evils eventually undid whole company.

All in all, it was a good read. Some really good investigative journalism, sounded too much like a documentary screenplay. But a great insight into the another part of the technology industry from the eighties.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

N R Narayana Murthy - biography - Ritu Singh


Generally I do not read biographies, even the ones which are recommended of famous, successful people. That's because these books always go into a praising mode, highlighting every good decision and milestone achieved by its subject person, and hiding away the bad decisions and mistakes. Its specially worse for autobiographies, where the author might delve into a self praising monologue at times. The most used word in such a book would be the single letter word: 'I'. Its always 'I' did this, 'I' did that. 'I' fought, 'I' persisted and 'I' succeeded.

So it was with a little doubt that I chanced upon a small paperback biography of NRN, retailing for less than 100 Rs/-. I was surprised no one mentioned this to me, surely much more has been written about people who have achieved just 1% of NRN's success. So , off I went, and finished the book in 2 hours. (Yep, my old speed reading skills are still with me.)



I couldn't help write something about this book, and it's enviable genius subject. The book itself is written in the simplest english you could find, with no big words to show off the author's control over grammar. There is a little flashback-style to it, NRN's childhood days are covered only from the third chapter onwards..but most of the book is in chronological order. The last two chapters are about Infoys and the Infosys foundation, and I felt it was more like an advertisement than part of the memoir. But the book covers NRN's life from this childhood days till until he stepped down as CEO, and some more. There are some rare pictures from various stages of his life. Kids are gonna love this  ! not to mention the target audience - young twenty something Indians looking for inspiration.

What I could infer:

1: NRN is highly intelligent. There is no denying his brilliant mind allowed him to grasp things others would overlook. He was smart enough to get selected for IIT. Twice !. And then, he went to work over there. There is a part in the book where NRN felt that his life and work at Patni was too slow, and he wanted to speed up. There is a school of thought that brilliant people are generally more successful, but nothing has been concluded.

2: Hard work. NRN proved time and again that there was no substitute for hard work. The book makes it very clear that he worked well into the night, and weekends and holidays in his initial struggle at Infosys often having to neglect his personal life as well. This was one reason why he didn't want his wife to work at Infosys, because he didn't want his family to be neglected. The other, was that he is a man of principles, and didn't want it to look like nepotism.

3: Save. Save whatever you can. During the first years at Infosys, the Murthys kept a strong watch on what they did with their earnings. 1980's India was just getting liberalized, money was hard to come by. The book makes it clear that the Murthy's saved whatever they could, without wasting anything on luxuries. The first office setup was in their spare bedroom !Sudha Murthy used to walk 4 kms to her office, it is mentioned in the book. And the women used to cook for their colleagues.  And they did not have even have a TV at home for a long time. (But then, all they could watch was Doordarshan, right ?). NRN used to meet his clients on bi-cycles and scooters ! Nowadays, just to show off, vendors will rent out cars when they go on client visits. Saving was an important reason why Infosys survived. And grew. The credit-card swiping, expensive-smartphone wielding youngsters of today would never understand the meaning of this simple 4 letter word- save- and how much it can change your life.  NRN and Infy only began spending when the company turned profitable, and only went public long after that. There is something evergreen to be learned here.

4. Values. He is a man of principles. And words like honesty and integrity were more than just words for him. NRN did not simply want to deliver something to his customers, he wanted to build relationships. When he and his six colleagues left Patni, they never poached any clients. And when they faced beurocratic issues in India, they chose to persist and wait. The book says they used to make a lot of phone calls from a public phone, because they did not have a phone of their own ! And when they travelled abroad, they tried to save every nickle and dime, so that that money could be re-purposed positively for the company.  NRN still travells in business class.

Having said all this, it is sad that Infosys, the company built upon such strong core values, is no longer that place.  Yes, they have a huge campus. They provide facilities to their employees no other Indian company can boast of. But the workforce itself is bloated. Today in a typical project, only 10% of the team members work. And they do about 90% of the total work. The rest are simply on the team for billing purposes. Attrition rates are high. They way they judge and select talent is skewed. This year they gave their employees their lowest ever hike, according to the papers. Of the seven founding members, except NRN, all have turned into millionaires with other business interests. NRN was called back to the company when management failed in leading the company positively.

Looks like the management at Infosys is the one who was to read this book. They have to know where they came from.  And for anyone dreaming of starting up a billion dollar enterprise.