India after Gandhi – the lesser known story

India’s story if told, either by Indians or otherwise generally falls in two categories – either exalt the rich cultural diversity, great empires that ruled i.e. the India that was, or the India that was epitomized by Gandhi – the non-violent, non-cooperating, peaceful freedom seekers. It is not that there is a problem with either of the portrayals. Neither is wrong and both need the due consideration that history can give them. After all, they are indeed vignettes that can’t always be viewed with a historian’s perspective (especially if you happen to be Indian).

But, there is the story of another India. The India post-independence. August 15th 1947, the British decided to leave India (never mind that Lord Mountbatten chose this day to coincide with the Japan v-day). It was not that the life of the man on the street suddenly shifted from one of indentured servitude to one of unfathomable freedom. It was not that independence declared by the British meant, that India became a prosperous nation suddenly.

For the last 63 years of being independent, India as a nation worked towards changing its image from a country of snake charmers and half-naked people to be reckoned as a world force. And it is this journey that doesn’t get too much attention. My guess as to why – because nation building  possibly doesn’t have the pizzazz of, say, winning freedom or victory in wars. To attempt an analogy (may be a little corny!), may be getting India to where it is now is like a marriage while getting its freedom is like a wedding.

And it is this humdrum, mundane, diplomatic relations, economic progress and bilateral talks (yes, most of you are yawning already) that Ramachandra Guha documents (may be documents is possibly not the best word to describe it) in the book – India after Gandhi.

If I were to attempt to write about the contents and each chapter, this blog post will grow very large. Mr.Guha tries to cover every important aspect of the business of nation building; trying to name as many civil servants that he can. And that, I think is in a way tribute to the men and women of the IAS/IFS and the various government services who toil in the background doing the hard work, while the politicians dictate policy (nope, no references to Sir Humphrey Appleby here 😉 ). But this book is not about the civil services. It is about India, its rulers, its riches, its people, the struggles, the riots, the elections, the differences, the wars and more importantly, the opinion that Indians had (and continue to have) of their country. This book might not be a thumping statement of patriotism, but this is a quiet reminder of the journey so far.

As the author very interestingly points in one of the final chapters –

Sixty years after independence, India remains a democracy. But the events of the last two decades call for a new qualifying adjective. India is no longer a constitutional democracy  but a populist one

And that is also one of the central themes of India post-independence. The leaders at the helm of affairs. Some of them are well known, like Nehru, Indira Gandhi, A.B.Vajpayee; but there are a lot more who are known in their little spheres of influence. For example, Potti Sreeramulu – the man who gave up his life to allow for the reorganisation of states on linguistic basis; V.K.Krishna Menon – the defence minister when India went to war with China; J.B.Kriplani – one of the active dissidents of the Indian government and countless others, who don’t popup in immediate  memory when Indian politics is discussed; but each of whom have left an impact like no other.

This book is a historical. For me, this book is like viewing India the way my dad does. An India where abject poverty was a way of life, bureaucracy hassles were something you assumed to be omnipresent, riots were something you were scared of but had to deal with, elections were for some part (in the middle class) dealt with a whiff of cynicism. A life of quiet sleepy times, where growth was completely state controlled. From an India like that, to a vibrant India where things surprisingly are still pretty much the same (or sometimes worse); where politics is still considered the last refuge of the scoundrel and where the middle class’ voter turnout might not (I don’t have the numbers for this) be as high as it should be. But still, India moves on. One should not assume that the indifference to things is what survives this nation. Nothing could be further from the truth. But somehow, and that somehow is a mystery to everyone in the world, this nation of 1.2 billion people of various cultures, languages, religions, states are striving to stay united as one country.

And this book brings about the appreciation of the monumental effort required. A must-have for anyone who is interested in the India that it is now; and how it reached where it has. In defense of the author – the 800 pages of the book is not possible to document 63 (or 60 when the book was published) years of the country’s growth. For the fact that such a book was attempted, I must thank the author.

The Story of Jews – recommended read

If you are someone who wants to know more about the history of the Jewish religion and want to get it all in one place, then there might be a book for it. And the bonus that it doesn’t feel like a voluminous explanation of the origins of the religion is definitely something you’d like. I chanced on the book by Stan Mack – The Story of Jews.

Contrary to most of the books which might prefer prose, this book is written in a very approachable style. It is full of pictures (almost like a cartoon strip) and the history is depicted with pictures (with a dash of humour interspersed). The book is like the Amar Chitra Katha publication of books, you might have read if you were a kid growing up in India. The Panchatantra, Ramayana and others were published by Amar Chitra Katha in a way that made all these stories very fascinating for me, as a kid.  Stan Mack’s writing style is similar making it very easy for anyone to read more about the history of the Jewish religion without having to  go through large scholarly works.

The book starts with the history starting around 2000 BCE, with Abraham and explains the various phases of the growth of the religion, including the recent (as in a few centuries old) developments. For me, this book was a place to get the chronological order of the various events that happened in the growth of the Jewish religion and the development of the Jewish Diaspora.

What I found very appealing in the book is that there aren’t any heavy religious overtones; rather the narrative is more based around facts (or atleast I think they are). I think the book is written with a historical perspective rather than with a religious one. So, if you are someone who is interested in the history of things (including religion), this might be a good read. I don’t think even the author would professes this book to be of scholarly nature, but it sure is as important, in the genre of writing. A recommended read.

On a related note, I could never find a book in India which covered the history of the Jewish religion; so for me, this book is a one stop location to know more about the history of one of the oldest religions in the world. Notwithstanding the reviews on Amazon stating that the book is not completely accurate, I think it still is worth a read. I don’t know enough to validate if indeed the book is historically accurate or not, but my guess is that a renowned author would have done his due diligence.

The story of numbers

Review of the book – The Story of Numbers by John McLeish. Suggested read.

Have you ever wondered what a number is ? It is not some sort of a philosophical question. What exactly is a number – something that lets us count ? Yes, that definitely it is. But are they real entities (no Mathematical pun intended!) ? Are they some sort of abstract entities which are completely out of the reach of human thought, with our counting merely a manifestation of this higher thought ? Or are they merely contrivances for making trade and barter easy? Well, this post is not about discussing what numbers are or what we think they are, rather it is about a book by the same name by John McLeish.

So, is the book about numbers, or as the title suggests about how Mathematics has shaped civilization. I’m certain that it is not about the latter. The book doesn’t deal with how Mathematical discoveries shaped civilization or the decisions made by the generations part of those civilizations. So, is it the story of numbers, well, in part yes, in part no. It is more of history of numbers than story of numbers (is there a big difference I wonder !). Should you read the book – yes, go ahead read it. It is a brief overview of how we humans have started counting and our perceptions about numbers – from the initial evidence of counting, to the Babylonians, the ancient – Egyptians,  Greeks, Chinese, Indians right to where we are now. It is not a complete record of the history of the numbers, but it is enough of a record to pique one’s interest about the history of arithmetic and logistics (calculation as defined by the ancient Greeks).

The book chronicles the various civilizations – Sumeria and Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Arab, Jewish, Mayan, Indian, Chinese and the contributions done at various times by each of these civilizations. This post is going to be too small to describe all of those, but the majority of Mathematical innovation done by these civilizations were to solve practical problems – like finding out how to organize the queens for the Chinese king or handling fractions. Most of the time was spent in finding specific solutions rather than general ones, though, things seem to have changed with the Arab introduction of algebra.

The description of the modern times (so to speak) from Francis Bacon onwards is rather lacklustre. I would have preferred that the author spent more time on the historical times trying to provide more anecdotes on how the Mathematical innovations shaped civilizations. Nevertheless, I would suggest this book to anyone interested in the history of one of the very basic thing we take for granted – the number :). Will rate it a 8 out of 10, for the effort in trying to get the historical details about numbers. That sure is worth the time spent.

As an aside, in case you are interested in Mathematical feuds, listen to this interesting program about the history of Calculus.

World’s most famous Math problem – don’t bother to read this one!

I found this book in the library and wondered how a book to describe the proof of one of the toughest problems of Mathematics – Fermat’s last theorem could fit in 80 pages. I am no mathematician, but I watched the documentary about the proof and knew a little bit of history of the conjecture (now theorem of course). This site has the links to the video on YouTube. The conjecture that Fermat propose is rather simple; it states that there is no n (where n > 2) which satisfies the equation a^n + b^n=c^n. For the case of 2, this is the Pythagorean triple and has been proved, well, for a while !!

Fermat’s last theorem, or FLT as it is referred to was proved by Sir Andrew Wiles (he wasn’t knighted when he proved it) in 1993 (when he published it first, and republished it with corrections in 1995). As any Internet search would reveal, the proof is not something that even a well trained mathematician would understand unless and until (s)he knows a lot of advanced mathematics.

So, I was curious how somebody could have fit the proof in 80 pages of a book. And boy, I was so wrong. This book is no where close to the proof. On the contrary this book merely has the title and nothing else. Except for some part of the first chapter, the book does not touch the proof at all. And there are parts wherein the author expresses doubts about the validity of the proof. Like I said, I am no mathematician, but I think something like this will attract enough peer review that vacuous doubts like this would have been squished. The book is, like one of the reviewers on Amazon.com mentioned, a way to cash on the opportunity of the interest in the topic. The only thing I thought was interesting in the book is that the author manages to collate some interesting conjectures in Maths together. That is the only saving grace for this book. And also, I found it irritating the author quoting other books like The Mathematical Experience. It almost felt like a sales pitch for the other book.

I would not suggest this book to anyone, even if they have to pick it up from a library. And while you are at it, check the timeline for Fermat’s last theorem (and note, there is a midi file that is going to start playing when you open the page ! ). And like this site suggests, there seem to be books by authors which cover this proof exclusively. Hmm, Simon Singh has a book on it. I bet that is going to be an interesting read.

Creating a world without poverty

The book -  Creating a world without poverty by Muhammad Yunus is part historical anecdote and part suggestions to the actual theme. So, if you are expecting a complete treatise on how social business can provide a viable alternative to capitalism, you might not be very pleased.

The book is divided into three major parts

  1. The promise of social business
  2. The Grameen experiment
  3. A world without poverty

Each of the parts have multiple chapters delving more on the major section. The second part – The Grameen Experiment talks in detail about the genesis of Grameen bank and the growth of the Grameen group. It also details the growth of their first major social business – Grameen-Danone. If you are looking for specifics of the growth of Grameen-Danone, then this section is very interesting. Dr.Yunus goes on to describe the struggles the group went through to get the venture starting. And they are no different from anything an entrepreneur in the profit making business (PMBs) world would face.

Before that though, the first part is where Dr.Yunus differentiates the for-profit model of businesses, which he calls profit making business and the for-social-profit model of businesses which he calls social businesses. In his own words

..we need a new type of business that pursues goals other than making personal profit – a business that is totally dedicated to solving social and environmental problems.

….A social business is not a charity. It has to recover its full costs while achieving its social objective. .. And this makes all the difference in defining social business and its impact on society.

The foundation for social businesses is that humans are multi-dimensional and profit making is not the only drive for people. This is the most appealing part for me in the idea of social business. And the social business is not something that lives off hand-outs. It creates value for its customers by not only creating products and services but also by benefiting the society at large. Dr.Yunus then goes on to elaborate on the various facets of social businesses and how they differentiate themselves in their mission. The chapter 2 in Part I majorly deals with what defines a social business.

Like I mentioned, part II is dealt with the Grameen experiment and concentrates on Grameen alone. Of course, while reading about the Grameen story, one also picks up various titbits of interesting information. For example, Dr.Yunus talks about the story of trying to design a production plant for Grameen-Danone yogurt. It is about how Guy Gavelle, director of industrial operations, APAC tried to design a very small plant for the production of yogurt, instead of the usually large production plants that Danone created.

Part III of the book expands on the idea of social business. How the social business market place would look, how one could create a stock market where social business could be invested in. How the profit sharing mechanism of social business could be. He also talks about how IT can help in to further the cause of social businesses.

So, should you read this book ? If you are someone interested in social businesses and want to know how one can create a business whose primary motive is not profit, then yes, there are few refreshing ideas in the book. If you are a die-hard capitalist who sincerely believes that a free market is impartial and helps in making society better, you might learn a thing or two about how social business can operate. I would rate the book a 6 out of 10. There are some part of the book, specifically the ones related to Grameen which I thought didn’t belong in the book. What I would have loved to see in the book is more description of the pitfalls of social business or how the social marketplace can compete with profit making businesses. All said and done, there might not be a level playing field between social businesses and profit making businesses in terms of operational costs and hence the cost of the final product. Social businesses though have the ability to appeal to a different sense of people – but can that sense overtake the more pressing economic impact ? How can one work out a strategy where a social business could derive maximum value (both in terms of profit and social impact) from every unit of money invested. These were some topics I thought would have been more relevant to the book and could add more interest in the idea of social businesses.

Even if you don’t read the book, I suggest that you read the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize lecturePoverty is a threat to peace. It is so fitting that a man and the organization which provided credit to poor people were awarded the Nobel Peace prize. May be in that is where the value of social business is ! 

How to change the world !

How to change the world is very simply put, a compendium of social entrepreneurship stories across the world. Like the subtext on the cover of the book says, it is a bible in the field (NY Times reviewed it thus). It is a must-read if you are interested in social entrepreneurship. I would rate the book a 8 out of 10. I’ll explain where I thought the book fell short. Here is a summary of the chapters of the book.

The book is structured with real life stories of people interspersed with a few thoughts from the author about social entrepreneurs, their ideas and how they manage to scale their ideas. The author chronicles the stories of

  1. Ashoka Foundation and its founder Bill Drayton. Ashoka foundation is sort of VC for social entrepreneurs. Note that I said, sort of, Ashoka is more than that. It helps entrepreneurs network, helps them get access to resources amongst other things.
  2. Fabio Rosa – the guy who helped the cause of rural electrification in Brazil. This story is very inspiring – an engineer who wanted to make a difference in his own little way and how he had to struggle with the existing establishments to get this point heard
  3. The lady with the lamp – Florence Nightingale. I was surprised to see the story of Florence Nightingale in this book. But there were so many historical facts about here that I did not know. Florence worked tirelessly to ensure that proper facilities were available for soldiers during war-time (makes you wonder why one needed to work so hard to ensure that soldiers fighting for a cause get proper care !)
  4. Jeroo Billimoria, the lady behind the childline number in India – 1098. Childline network is now a reality in most of the Indian cities, but the effort to get this number wasn’t easy !
  5. Erzsébet Szekeres the lady who worked hard in Hungary so that disabled people could have decent living conditions. Again, she had to take an anti-establishment stance to do her work. In her case it was even more important, as her son was also differently abled, which made the cause even more personal for her.
  6. Dr. Vera Cordeiro who started the RENESCAR, to reduce the re-admittance rate into hospitals of poor kids in Brazil. Her work was to ensure that the families were supported once the kids leave hospital, so that the chance of the kids contracting the same diseases is reduced.
  7. J.B. Schramm who worked with high school students in USA to help them get into college. Given the high dropout ratio of kids after high school, Schramm worked with kids in school, helping them prepare the essays, arrange for financial aid, so that they can get into college.
  8. Veronica Khosa, a nurse in South Africa who wanted to ensure that the very poor, terminally ill had decent medicare. Given that she is a grandmother and still works so hard, kind of makes age a moot point for making a small difference.
  9. Javed Abidi who worked for disability rights in India. Thanks to his work and the work of NCPEDP, the disabled people in India have a reservation in jobs, till the civil services level ! The chapter also shows the apathy of Indian administration with respect to disabled access to public places. When Stephen Hawking came to India, they put up disabled access to the Qutab minar, but once he left, the ramps were removed. There was a case that needed to be filed in the courts to ensure that the ramps stayed ! How insensitive can the administration get ? And it is not the administration alone, it is the political system too. There is the anecdote of the opposition walking out during the winter session of the parliament in 1995. As a kid I remember vaguely about the disability bill, but reading about it now made me realise how much of work had to go into getting a legislation into place !
  10. James P Grant, the director of UNICEF who wanted to ensure that the kids in developing nations have access to proper medical care, specifically ensuring that they did not succumb to diarrhoea. He apparently used to carry ORS packets in his pocket to goad premiers of countries to initiate legislations in their countries ! Again, is the civil administration so self-centric ? I am not attempting a pot-shot at the administrations, but stories like this make me wonder about it.

Apart from these major stories, there are stories of other entrepreneurs in other chapters. The other chapters in the book detail

  1. The challenges faced by Bill Drayton and Ashoka foundation
  2. The role of the social entrepreneur
  3. The drive that the social entrepreneur has, to the level that they seem to be possessed by the idea
  4. How the entrepreneurs always strive for social excellence and how they handle new challenges
  5. The practices of the innovative organizations and what are the qualities of social entrepreneurs

The chapters on the innovative organizations and social entrepreneurs are particularly interesting to read. The four practices of innovative organizations that Bornstein details are

  1. Institutionalize listening
  2. Pay attention to the exceptional
  3. Design real solutions for real people (something like this a simple stove)
  4. Focus on human qualities

Then he goes on to enlist the qualities of social entrepreneurs.

  1. Willingness to self-correct (your aim is important but that doesn’t mean you can’t make mistakes !)
  2. Willingness to share credit (it might be your idea or effort, but there were others who were participating in it. No (wo)man is an island !)
  3. Willingness to break free of established structures (being a rebel is possibly not a bad idea 🙂 )
  4. Willingness to cross disciplinary boundaries (I don’t know much about this, won’t work as much)
  5. Willingness to work quietly (well, I guess that says it all )
  6. Strong ethical impetus (at the end of the day it is not necessarily a for-profit model you are working for isn’t it )

So, where does the book fall short ? I think the book had a strong inclination for Ashoka fellows. It is not to undermine the work of Ashoka, but it would have been nice if there was mention of other people who were brave enough to break off the established structures and do something socially relevant. I am sure there are institutions like The Banyan all around the world. If by means of a book like this, these institutions reached a larger audience it would have done those organisations some good. May be the author had a social responsibility to tell the stories of these kind of institutions too. May be !

Nevertheless, it is a wonderful book to read. Definitely inspiring and more importantly it chronicles the hard work of people who we generally don’t know ! The quiet folks behind the change that is happening slowly; people who do it not for the glory but because they genuinely believe that they need to make a difference. It is that conviction and the courage of people like those that need to be appreciated and if possible emulated. Read the book, if not anything you might be inspired to do something, however small it is !

The Golden Ratio – a good time killer

The first thing you need to know about is the Golden Ratio before you want to know about the book by Mario Livio. The ratio simply put is: a+b : a = a : b i.e. the ratio of the sum of the parts of a line segment to the longer segment is the same as the ratio of the longer segment to the shorter one. Now, one would wonder why is this particular ratio (whose value approximately is 1.6180339887) be such an important thing. It is this exact thing that Mario Livio tries to unravel in this book.

This book is not much about the theory behind the number, though in the appendix he does provide proofs for various theorems (I didn’t get a chance to look into the proofs). The central idea of this book is to enlist all the disciplines where the golden ratio could be found, and to debunk the myths of the presence of the ratio in various places. For example, the idea that the pyramids were designed with the golden ratio in mind, is something, he shows with data as not a valid thing. He goes on to explain about various other instances where the data was fudged a little to get the golden ratio into the picture. The nice thing about the book is that it is a good mixture of history and mathematics. Livio goes to great lengths in getting all the historical information regarding the ratio. Information about various artists, mathematicians and how there was a mutual influence which probably lead to the propagation of the ratio.

One of my favourites in the complete book is the explanation of how the Fibonacci sequence is related to the golden ratio. When Livio explains this, there is an aha ! moment wherein one can see how two of the most important concepts of mathematics are so beautifully intertwined. Another interesting application of the golden ratio, is the Aperiodic Tiling which later was found within quasi crystals. Livio explains how the tiling which Roger Penrose was trying to find out more about as a hobby, later on were discovered within quasicrystals. Livio also explains about the Elliot wave principle, though the description is rather limited (we now know of black swans and quants with bad simulation potential).

The golden ratio seems to exist in a lot of places – from botany to the stock market. This brings up the question about the universality of the number. Is it indeed, the divine number as people in the past thought of it as ? Did God create the number and let us mortals try to find out where all this number manifests itself ? This is the question which Livio tries to answer in the last chapter – is God a mathematician? This chapter is an interesting read in trying to understand the philosophy behind mathematics in general. And looks like the next book from Livio is also titled the same !

So, should you buy this book? I’d say if you are interested in mathematics and history of mathematics, go ahead and buy it. But, be ready to be bored once in a while when he tries to explain the golden ratio applications in paintings or when he tries to get into a very descriptive mode about ancient architecture. I’d rate the book a 6 out of 10, and will suggest it to anyone who is interested in mathematics in general.

Undercover Economist – a definite read

I found this book in the Strand Book Festival. I thought this might be another of the freakonomics bandwagon books, trying to spice up economics for the economically-challenged (hmm, was the pun intended ?) like me. So, is it really another of the mass consumption Economics unravelled sort of books ? I’d say it is not.

Tim Harford ensured that the content of the book doesn’t merely remain an interesting read of cases, but also backs it up with some concepts of Economics. It is almost the case of reading an applied economics book (I am not sure if such a subject or book exists, but that is what the book feels like).

So, what does Tim deal with in the book. He picks up everyday happenings (the micro if you might), like the coffee we buy, the traffic we deal with, the stocks we might be interested in buying and the larger picture happenings (the macro so to speak) and tries to model those happenings into the economic mould. I think that is the key aspect of the book. Tim doesn’t let go of his economist hat at no point. The idea is to still ensure that laymen like me can understand the concept of economics he is trying to explain.

A case in point is the first chapter – who pays for your coffee. I think making this chapter the first one might have been a rather smart decision, given that it sets the tone for the whole book. In this chapter, Tim explains that the reason why certain coffee shops charge a premium for their coffees, and no matter what might seem the case, their margins of profit are not really high per coffee. He also talks about how the specialized coffee makers (in UK) despite charging premium on the coffee, don’t really help better the livelihood of the coffee farmers in Africa. In the Crosstown Traffic  chapter, he explains the economics of rush hour pricing of the roads and how a local government can benefit from the tolls on the roads. (this kind of model, I guess will not work in India, the reasons being way too obvious). In the why poor countries are poor chapter, he goes on to explain why developing infrastructure, education and health is important for countries to become rich. Merely having a wealth of natural resources doesn’t make the country very rich, rather it is the reinvestment of the wealth back into the country that makes all the more difference. He takes the example of Cameroon, and explains the things that were done wrong. He even goes to explain how a dictator might benefit from the policy decisions if rightly taken, but which are most often not done.

As you can see, most of the book is about the contemporary era, where we see things happen and try to unravel why they happen the way they happen. And it is not that Tim leaves each chapter without a solution – that is the key. Each chapter tries to provide a solution which Tim thinks might help in solving the problem. All in all an entertaining and educating read. If not anything else, it helped me realise that the Cafe Coffee Day counter at work is not making most of it its profits from the small cappuccino priced at 6 INR, but from the cafe mochas, cafe lattes, the black forest cake, the sandwich (priced at 30 INR) and the rest over priced items :).

I will rate this book an 8 out of 10. The loss being, sometimes the drift which the author doesn’t seem to control. A definite recommendation for anyone, irrespective of their interest in economics.

Fooled by randomness – may be even the book was bought that way !

Fooled by randomness, book review – can be skipped !

I bought this book, after reading great reviews about The Black Swan. I didn’t want to miss on an author’s first book before another rave reviewed book. I must say, I wasn’t very much impressed with the book. My mood vacillated from being moderately interested to outright bored as I was finishing the book. I am not sure how good The Black Swan is, but I think this book can be skipped. If I were to rate this book – a 4 out of 10.

So, how can such a smart man’s book be so bad ? For one, this book has a feel that the man has something to gripe about. He seems to have an answer for pretty much everything happening in the financial scene or the relationship of mathematics / probability with the financial scene. As a learned man, who is a professor and who was on the ground, I think he might have developed a good eye for detail, but denigrating every other (or atleast coming across as one) author / professional working in the financial scene felt a little too far fetched. There are sections in the book wherein I could not make any sense of the flow of thoughts. People might be modest when they write that they don’t have a central idea in a book, but in this book, one can’t find a central idea. It feels that the author derives a great narcissist pleasure to harp on the same idea over and over, till the extent that the reader is painfully made aware of the lack of any other refreshing idea in the book – that people in general are bad at probability, and that they really can’t read much from the happenings of the stock market.

There are parts in the book, where I felt if the author’s braggadocio in relating ancient Greek / western mythology with the happenings was irritating; because one could have skipped those parts without loss of either meaning / conext. Another sore point is the lack of continuity between one chapter to the next. It could have been me, but by the time I finished the book, I didn’t know what the previous chapters were about !

So, what are the nice parts of the book ? Some of the examples he talks about are refreshing. The comparisons between the brokers’ lives do reveal certain parts that people generally overlook. His explanation of the calculation of odds is simple and can make a layman understand. But the only thing that is required is patience to find the signal amongst noise ! Based on this book, will I go and buy The Black Swan ? Hmm..may be not. I might rent it from a library than buying it.

Behind Deep Blue – an average read

Feng Hsiung Hsu’s book, Behind Deep Blue is the chronology of events that finally resulted in IBM’s Big Blue computer defeating Gary Kasparov. The text under the title (hmm, is sub-title the word for this ? or is there a better word ?) goes something like building the computer that defeated the world chess champion. If one were to not read anything more from this, then the book does justice. But, if you are expecting more details into the guts of it, then you might be disappointed. I give this book a 5 out of 10, and suggest you to borrow it if you can.

So, what is good with the book. The nice things about the book are when the author describes the design hurdles. Any large, parallel system throws up its own set of design hurdles. The author explains, sometimes technically (good if you are the technical sort), how they went about designing the system. How certain parts were set for the hardware and some for the software. There are also interesting notes about the various chess strategies, though he does not dwelve deep into it.

What is not so good about the book. Well, the book is more of a biography of the IBM Big Blue. Parts about its genesis, its design and then the calm after the storm. There are lots of personal details, including the author’s collaboration with people in CMU and then in IBM. These details, interspersed between the technical sections of the book, can sometimes catipulate the reader’s interest. I thought, lesser content regarding this, and more regarding the system itself would have made the book a lot more interesting.

This book made me wonder, where does one draw the line when trying to explain a system. Building a large parallel system is a challenge, and most people can’t fathom the challenges faced in designing something as large as the Big Blue. So, if one were to explain to a layman, there are lots of parts – the interesting ones, which might need to be skipped. It is an interesting thought, and I shall try to write about this some other time.