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Artiman: Book reviews by Dr. Ajit Singh, former Biolmagene CEO
 

Artiman: Book reviews by Dr. Ajit Singh, former Biolmagene CEO

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Read this executive summary where Artiman ventures team member Dr. Ajit Singh shares his list of top 10 book reviews. A gist of each book is described in the order of his preference. The categories ...

Read this executive summary where Artiman ventures team member Dr. Ajit Singh shares his list of top 10 book reviews. A gist of each book is described in the order of his preference. The categories for this year’s list are Fiction, Philosophy, Management/Economics, History/Politics, Science and Mathematics.

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    Artiman: Book reviews by Dr. Ajit Singh, former Biolmagene CEO Artiman: Book reviews by Dr. Ajit Singh, former Biolmagene CEO Document Transcript

    • 2013 Top-10 Book Review Ajit Singh “Panta rhei,” said Heraclitus. Change is the only constant! In 2008, when I left Siemens to move to the Silicon Valley, I used the phrase “sea change” to describe what was happening. Those were changes around me, in my environment. I responded to the changes, but the core within me remained quite still. Five years later, I have experienced the opposite. 2013 has been a year where my external environment, my ecosystem, was very stable. The changes I experienced were within me. There are two changes that I find most observable. Over the years, my self-image has been one of an impatient person – with tasks as well as with people. This is one aspect of my personality where I have experienced most change. In 2013, I have found myself to be immutably patient, despite the fact that my surroundings – both tasks and people – tested me to the fullest. Second, I am a seeker – of adventure, but alongside stability. On the balance, however, it was adventure that I sought more in the past. I believe that I am changing in this dimension too. My inner gravitational pull is towards stability. Professionally, this was a year where I had to act more (often) like a CEO and less like a VC. As such, I had to rely far more on patterns of the past than on first principles. While drawing upon patterns has the comfort of familiarity, it sure is an antidote to creativity. Now that is an uncomfortable terrain for me. This is something I need to reverse. Whether the reversal will require that I change something within me or in my environment, time will tell. I do realize one thing: this is a change that I will have to cause, with conscious action. Some of you have heard me tell the following story. My father used to correct errors – of spellings, grammar, and occasionally of style – in the letters I used to write to him (in long hand, blue ink on paper, fountain pen and all). In one of my letters, written in 1983, he crossed out the word “from” in a sentence that read, “… one of my earliest memories of learning from you” and replaced it with the word “with”. The teacher learns too, he commented. If it weren’t for the students that I have surrounded myself with, I’d be learning very little. All the new authors and themes that I have explored this year came from their recommendations. This Top-10 review is Serial Number 20. The categories for this year’s list are a slight variation from the past: Fiction, Philosophy, Management/Economics, History/Politics, Science, and Mathematics, plus a guest appearance form my daughter Gunita. As in all the previous years, the criterion for including a book in my Top-10 list is very personal: Is this a book that I am likely to read again? Fiction 1. James McBride, The Good Lord Bird, Riverhead Books, 2013 James McBride’s The Color of Water was the very first book I had reviewed when I began my Top-10 list in 1993. That was a personal memoir. While the poignancy and the circumstances of a child born of a Jewish mother and a black father growing up in the Bronx were impactful in their own right, it
    • was the broad-spectrum of characters and their human failings and contradictions that made the book delectable. Living up to the expectations that McBride set in his first work of writing twenty years ago is a tall order. The Good Lord Bird delivered, and then some. It also won the 2013 National Award for fiction. Anyone who has read and enjoyed the account of abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry would love to read McBride’s fictional account of events leading up to it. Anyone who has not would want to dive into that phase of American History after reading The Good Lord Bird. The book begins in 1857 against the backdrop of anti-slavery turmoil in the Kansas Territories. The protagonist, Henry Shackleford, is a young slave. John Brown arrives at the scene, and as a result of a scuffle between him and Henry’s master, leaves town with Henry. The twist: Brown believes that Henry is a girl, and nicknames “her” Little Onion. As the story unfolds, Little Onion finds himself an unwilling ally in Brown's anti-slavery crusade, leading all the way up the scene of the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 – a key trigger point for the Civil War. The Good Lord Bird is a skillful amalgamation of facts and imagination, of history and mystery. And it shows McBride’s mastery of prose and idiom. “He was like everybody in war. He believed God was on his side. Everybody got God on their side in a war. Problem is, God ain’t tellin’ nobody who He’s for.” When I first read Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in my teens, it was a very difficult feat. It was a required reading, so I managed using the MBD “kunji” - the Indian equivalent of Cliffs Notes. Ten years later, I understood what it meant to develop a character as unlikeable and as interesting simultaneously, when I watched Mickey Rooney play Huck in a (1939) film rendition of the novel. The Good Lord Bird is written in the same spirit and rhythm. A must read! American Civil War is a theme that receives a very cursory treatment in schools and history texts outside the US. If you did not grow up in the US and missed that entire chapter in the world history, try Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz – my own personal favorite on the topic. 2. Pascal Mercier, Perlmann’s Silence, Grove Press, 2005 This book came as a surprise gift from a friend many years ago (as did the author’s earlier book, Night Train to Lisbon). I read the book just a few months ago after hearing Isabel Allende’s comment, “A treat for the mind. One of the best books I have read in a long time.” The protagonist of the story, Philip Perlmann, is a linguist. Grief stricken over his wife’s death, he finds himself at complete loss of words and confidence in his ability as an academic. In the midst of this inner vacuum, he is invited to deliver a keynote at an international conference. Knowing that he will have nothing of substance to present, he takes a shortcut by resorting to plagiarizing the work of a brilliant Russian colleague, Vassily Leskov, on how memory is informed by language. The plot takes an unexpected turn when Leskov decides to show up at the conference.
    • As the story evolves, we find Perlmann constantly trying to balance guilt with rationalization, juxtaposed with a poignant narrative of his loss of self-confidence and self-image. Quoting Alberto Manguel of The Guardian, “… Perlmann feels that it isn't his intellectual ability that is seeping from him, but the very notion of who he is: his identity behind the academic identity… it is the breaking point that allows the troubled scholar a deep, rich, complex search for the meaning of self.” The theme of the interplay between one’s identity and one’s work has been explored extensively in Sociology, Psychology, and of course, fiction. If you want an academic discourse on the subject, Erik Erikson is my author of choice. Start with his 1968 classic, Identity: Youth and Crisis. For a lighter treatment, try Jack Nicholson’s 2002 film, About Schmidt. Both are delectable. . 3. Isabel Allende, Maya’s Notebook, Harper Collins, 2013 I often evade the question when I am asked who my favorite author is. It is easier for me to name, say, five most favorite authors of fiction, or my (two) favorite contemporary Latina writers. That said, if I was forced to name my ONE author of choice, it will have to be Isabel Allende. I have read every single one of her books, and have reviewed most of them on my Top-10 lists in the past. I had heard about Maya’s Notebook during a get together with Isabel Allende in Nov 2012, organized by (my other favorite Latina author) Carolina de Robertis. However, the English translation was not to be released until 2013. This book was my daughter, Pavita’s, gift to me. Here is the protagonist Maya Vidal’s introduction of herself, on Page 2. As the Chicago Tribune reviewer John Barron notes, “What sets Maya's Notebook apart from the usual teen-in-trouble fare is the soaring redemption Maya finds in Chile. The village's peaceful pace is a tonic to both Maya and the reader. Sheltered from the havoc, she is introduced to a world of simplicity and everyday magic. It's a place where the food comes from the earth and the sea, where all property is ultimately communal, where sea lions can become friends, where drugstore medicines are used only when all other remedies fail, and where the dead sometimes make appearances.” “My name is Maya Vidal. … I am nineteen years old, female, single – due to lack of opportunities rather than by choice, I am currently without a boyfriend. Born in Berkeley, California, I’m a US citizen, and temporarily taking refuge on an island at the bottom of the world. They named me Maya because my Nini has a soft spot for India and my parents hadn’t come up with any other name, even though they had nine months to think of it. In Hindi, maya means ‘charm, illusion, dream’: nothing at all to suit my personality. Attila would suite me better……”
    • Allende is a master at teasing out oddities and contradictions through dialog, rarely relying upon narrative. She does it adeptly in Maya’s Notebook, not only in juxtaposing facets of Maya’s complicated personality, but also of the culture(s) that surround her. There is something else that made the book really interesting for me. Many of the scenes could have been straight out of Breaking Bad. Philosophy 4. Giulio Tononi, Phi: The Voyage from the Brain to the Soul, Pantheon Books, 2012. The book is on consciousness, a theme I have explored amply in my Top-10 in the past. My favorite authors on this topic are Oliver Sacks, V.S. Ramachandran, Gerald Edelman, and Antonio Damasio. Here’s what Oliver Sacks has to say about Phi, “Giulio Tononi is a man of bold and original mind who has developed a fundamental new theory of consciousness. In Phi, he calls on all the resources of drama, metaphor, and the visual arts to present his scientific insights in the form of imaginary dialogues in which Galileo meets Francis Crick, Alan Turing, and other major thinkers of the twentieth century. This is an astonishing (and risky) literary device, but Tononi pulls it off triumphantly. He makes the deepest neuro-scientific insights come alive.” The style of the book is reminiscent of John Casti’s Cambridge Quintet, covered in my Top-10 fifteen years ago in 1998, where the future of intelligence gets discussed over an imaginary dinner hosted by C.P. Snow, with guests including Erwin Schroedinger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, J.B.S. Haldane, and Alan Turing. Phi begins with Tononi introducing Galileo as he tries to understand consciousness during a dream. In the spirit of Dante's Divine Comedy, Tononi invites Francis Crick, Alan Turing, and Charles Darwin to introduce Galileo to different aspects of consciousness. Crick draws upon the biology of the brain to give his rendition of consciousness. Turing debates the ability of machines to produce conscious behavior with Galileo. Expectedly, Darwin delivers a naturalist perspective of how consciousness has evolved. Galileo coins the term “Phi” to encapsulate the “integrated” view of consciousness. Phi captures a conscious organism’s ability to differentiate between states, and to integrate. Tononi is a professor of psychiatry and he holds the David P. White Chair in Sleep Medicine at the University of Wisconsin. He is the coauthor, with Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman, of A Universe of Consciousness. I was first introduced to his work through his article “New Hypothesis Explains Why We Sleep” in the July 2013 issue of Scientific American. If you would like to get a general idea of Tononi’s thesis and his style, watch the video titled, “In search of Sleep Function” on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEbyITI13zg. He is brilliant. Also, one of my all-time favorites on consciousness is V.S. Ramachandran’s A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, from my Top-10 of 2004. If the subject of consciousness is of interest to you, this is a great book to start with.
    • Management / Economics: 5. Jean Derez and Amritya Sen, An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions, Princeton, 2013 Pavan Verma said in Being Indian (Top-10, 2007), “Every statement that is true for India, its exact opposite is also true.” Verma’s observatory was social, cultural and political, and the book was a light but entertaining read. While being of an entirely different academic league, the book by Jean Derez and Amritya Sen addresses the same underlying contradictions with an economic lens. Verma’s work was mostly narrative. An Uncertain Glory is narrative, critical, and prescriptive. The book has been reviewed by writers of such acclaim as Alex von Tunzelman (Indian Summer, Top- 10, 2007), and Jyoti Thottam, former South Asia Bureau Chief for Time magazine. I can hardly do justice to the breadth and depth of the work. Having toyed with the idea of moving to India at least three times over the past ten years, my commentary is one from a limited, personal field-of-view. Let me start with the end. There are two possible interpretations of the prescriptive element of the book. First – a far-left leaning approach with extensive spending on social welfare. The second interpretation is a call-for- action to rewrite public policy and investment in public awareness (not necessarily public welfare). I personally lean towards the latter. Needless to say, public policy without monetary investment will not move the needle on its own. However, the rate-limiting factor is not availability of capital. Instead, the rate-limiting factor is the corrupt system that allocates and deploys the capital. That’s where public awareness can make a difference. It is the first interpretation that evoked criticism from the advocates of privatization. The most fierce of these rebuttals comes from Jagdish Bhagvati of Columbia University. However, as Tunzelmann puts it in his review in The Telegraph, “…if the Indian hard Right means to rebut this book, it will need more than snarky retorts and hysteria. Drèze and Sen’s thesis is built on sober statistical analysis. Their writing is straightforward, brisk, witty in places, and shot through with real passion.” This brings me back to my personal field-of-view. On the balance, I lean heavily towards market deregulation and liberalization, and am very upbeat on India. My disappointment stems mostly from the apathy and lack of engagement on part of the educated youth. According to a recent MOSPI statistic, with very few exceptions (such as public vigils that followed the gang rape of Nirbhaya last December), the turnout of the 20-something youth at rallies focused on broad-based issues such as corruption is at an abysmal five percent. Likewise, youth involvement in volunteer programs of social good is amongst the lowest anywhere in the world. Concern about safety is the most cited reason for lack of hands-on engagement. What’s disconcerting, however, is that even in the social media channels, where the concern for safety is all but non-existent, the discourse is dominated by gossip, parties, cricket, Bollywood and upstart consumerism. In a landmark study by Rachana Bhangaokar and Dulari Mehta, “Youth Civic Engagement in India: A Case in Point” published in Psychology and Developing Societies (2012 24: 35), the authors, after presenting a wide array of statistics, lament, “… it can thus be summarized from the review that groups of civically engaged youth in India are a minority and their numbers are rather limited.” The eternal optimist in me is still bullish on India, and mostly a subscriber to Derez and Sen’s thesis.
    • History / Politics 6. S. Frederick Starr, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamarlane, Princeton University Press, 2013 Growing up in India, I had very limited exposure to American and European history. By contrast, history of the Middle East was covered in ample detail in high school – mostly because of the nearly five hundred years of Middle Eastern influence on India. Outside of school, the first book of Middle- Eastern origin that I remember having read was Shahnama, or The Persian Book of Kings by Firdausi. I read the mid-1800’s English translation done by James Atkinson during my second year in college (the inspiration was an Iranian classmate of mine in Banaras who had a replica of the 1601 edition in Farsi). Once in the US, I was re-united with this theme in 1986, when I shared an office at Columbia with a Turkish and a Greek graduate student. They introduced me to Peter Mansfield’s Ottoman Empire and Its Successor. It wasn’t until after September 2001 that my friendship with a Jewish physician inspired a very serious interest in Middle Eastern history. Recommendations for What Went Wrong by Bernard Lewis, Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths by Karen Armstrong, and When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World by Hugh Kennedy – all came from her son. I picked up a copy of Lost Enlightenment just a few months ago while browsing at the Stanford bookstore. It was the preface that drew me in: “This book was written not because I knew the answers to the questions it poses, or even because I had any particular knowledge of the many subjects and fields it touches upon, but because I wanted to read such a book. It is a book I would have preferred someone else to have written so I could enjoy reading it without the work of authorship. But no one else took the assignment. Central Asia as yet has no chronicler comparable to Joseph Needham, the great historian from Clare College, Cambridge, whose magisterial, twenty-seven- volume Science and Civilization in China has no equal for any other people or world region. And so I backed into the task, in the hope that my work might inspire some future Needham from the region or from among scholars abroad.” During a period of nearly five centuries from early the 800’s to late 1200’s, Central Asia was at the center stage of the world’s advancement in urban planning, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, music, and of course trade and economic development. I learned this in high school, and again when I read Bernard Lewis nearly ten years ago. Starr adds two new dimensions to the story. One, he chronicles the lives of the people whose achievements led this period of enlightenment. Second, he explores the many competing theories about the cause of the eventual demise of this era, drawing upon evidence from contemporary accounts and triangulating between writers from different regions within Central Asia. While I use Middle-East and Central Asia interchangeably in this note, I do so because of the cultural influence of one over the other, the origins of the personalities covered in the book, as well as the fact that most of the original sources that Starr draws upon were written in Arabic. A great companion to this book is From the Ruins of the Empire: The Intellectuals who remade Asia by Pankaj Mishra, also published in 2013.
    • 7. Charles Krauthammer, Things that Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes, and Politics, Crown Forum, 2013 I am very ambivalent on whether I should like Charles Krauthammer. When I moved to the US in 1985, Reagan was “in power,” and Krauthammer began writing a syndicated column for the Washington Post. Not having even a cursory understanding of the U.S. Politics then, I enjoyed reading his commentaries. In late 1989, I was staying in Berlin with two journalists, when his essay The Unipolar Moment, encapsulating his view of the US as the sole superpower got published. This was shortly after the Berlin Wall came down. You can find a copy at: (http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/20044692?uid=3739560&uid=2134&uid=2&uid =70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21103184078697). For ten years, I was hooked to his essays. Then, he started his tenure as a political analyst and commentator for Fox News. I had an ideological problem in following his work. I re-engaged, when in a 2003 column, Krauthammer coined the term Bush Derangement Syndrome to describe "…the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency—nay—the very existence of George W. Bush." (As an aside, Krauthammer was a board certified psychiatrist before he jumped into journalism full time). Krauthammer is decidedly one of the most powerful voices in American conservatism. Things that Matter brings the best of Krauthammer’s wit and opinion in a single volume, and covers issues as wide ranging as US foreign policy, feminism, evolution, death penalty, and bio-ethics, to name a few. His far-right leaning views notwithstanding, he speaks his mind freely, and his line-of-sight is frequently at odds with conventional wisdom. Almost as frequently, it is the latter that yields. All said, the book is worth reading, cover to cover. For a quick introduction to his style and patterns of thinking, there are two videos that I find interesting. The titles are self-explanatory. a. http://dailycaller.com/2013/12/22/krauthammer-i-dont-believe-in-god-but-i- fear-him-greatly-video/ b. http://video.foxnews.com/v/2842776815001/charles-krauthammer-on-the- collapse-of-obamacare/ Science: 8. Thomas Suddendorf, The Gap: The Science of What Separates us from Other Animals, Basic, 2013. This is by no means a new topic. Much has been written on the subject by authors of very diverse trainings and backgrounds. There were three reasons for me to pick this book. First, I don’t believe I have reviewed any work of Australian origin; Suddendorf was born and brought up in Germany, but
    • he teaches at the University of Queensland in Australia. Second, this is the most “integrated” view I have come across – bringing together findings from studies in development psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology. Finally, the table of contents is very inviting: i. The Last Humans ii. Remaining Relatives iii. Minds Comparing Minds iv. Talking Apes v. Time Travelers vi. Mind Readers vii. Smarter Apes viii. A New Heritage ix. Right and Wrong x. Mind the Gap xi. The Real Middle Earth xii. Quo Vadis? He takes an inductive approach. He first studies those traits that are merely amplified (actually, significantly amplified) in humans compared to other animals. He then highlights two traits where the human mind is very distinct – the ability to imagine scenarios, and the drive to connect with other minds. If you are unsure, try http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLBfJYnXFU4. This TEDx talk is likely to draw you in. If you end up reading the book, there are two very interesting supplementary reads that you should also consider: Henry Gee’s The Accidental Species, and Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them. 9. Richard Dawkins, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, Ecco, 2013. Richard Dawkins needs no introduction. I have covered four of his dozen-plus books - The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, The God Delusion, and The Greatest Show on Earth - in the past. This book is an Autobiography – the first ever in my Top-10 (outside of Isabel Allende’s memoir, The Sum of Our Days). I have included it mostly because it is a story of the forming and maturing of Dawkins’ mind, starting with his childhood in Nairobi, through his time at UC Berkeley, to Oxford. If you have read and have liked any of his writings, the autobiography is a must read. Mathematics 10. Simon Singh, The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets, Bloomsbury, 2013. I must confess that I had not watched a single episode of The Simpsons until I read this book. I got turned off by a diatribe delivered by Bart Simpson in the first 30 seconds of an episode sometime in the early 90’s, and I announced a moratorium against watching it. How silly of me to have dismissed an entire chapter in the American popular culture and social evolution –not because of lack of time
    • but by jumping to a (judgmental) conclusion too quickly. (For the record, I do watch South Park.) I got introduced to Simon Singh’s writings through Fermat’s Engima, and I find his style and depth an absolute treat. I read The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets in one single long plane ride. To draw you in, here is a factoid. The writers who weave in math into The Simpsons scripts have the following credentials: Stewart Burns, B.S. in Mathematics from Harvard, M.S. in Mathematics from UC Berkeley; David Cohen, B.S. in Physics from Harvard, M.S. in Computer Science from UC Berkeley; Al Jean, B.S. in Mathematics from Harvard; Ken Keeler, B.S., Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics from Harvard; Jeff Westbrook, B.S. in Physics from Harvard, Ph.D. in Computer Science from Princeton. If you were a Simpsons watcher, you probably know all of the mathematical undercurrents anyway. If you were like me, it would be a good time to watch a few episodes. In either case, the book is a work of sheer brilliance. Guest Appearance: Gunita Singh 11. Melanie Joy, Why we Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An introduction to Carnism, Conari Press, 2010 I personally think this is a must-read for anyone interested in psychology, the nature of human decision-making, and the sheer complexities of the human mind. This book is groundbreaking in its bluntness, and while it certainly may provoke the reader for a number of reasons, I encourage everyone to read it with an open mind and a reflective, analytical attitude. Not only is it extremely well-written, but it is a relatively short read. Joy cogently describes how the animal agriculture industry requires members of society to remain unaware of the realities of industrialized factory farming. Many of us have had pets or have experienced a bond with an animal, whether a cat, dog, or another creature. We understand that animals have emotions, desires, and complex volitional capacities. Joy explores how agribusiness perpetuates key myths (e.g.: eating meat is natural, normal, and necessary) in order to generate complacency for the rampant abuses taking place against animals behind closed doors. Her argument is simple: we are compassionate people. All of us are capable of feeling tremendous empathy, and fundamentally, none of us want animals to suffer because - if given the choice - we would choose not to subscribe to the violent ideology of animal exploitation. This is why agribusiness aims to take our choice away by hiding the truth as effectively as possible, whether with claims of custom, nutrition, etc. This book sheds much needed light on the dismal experience of farm animals (10 billion land animals per year are slaughtered in the United States), but it also explores human psychology and the "psychological acrobatics" in which we often participate to rationalize certain decisions. We are all imperfect, yet our innate drive toward goodness lends us tremendous potential to make this world a better, safer place. I am a very passionate animal advocate and going vegan 18 months ago was one of the best decisions I ever made. I seek not to promote a specific agenda by including this book in my father's book-list; rather, my goal is to encourage us all to understand the magnitude of the choices we make as consumers. For a full-lecture version of the book, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vWbV9FPo_Q.