The Oraganized Mind

Despite my several attempts to oThe_Organized_Mind_hardcover_coverrganize information in different ways, I am still to find a way that works decently for me. My job frequently requires synthesizing a lot of information,  and to do that I need to quickly retrieve information, often stored in different digital formats across multiple machines.

Retrieving information is primarily a function of how one’s brain processes and organizes information, and how information is organized in physical or digital space. Poor organization puts a lot of stress on brain’s limited resources and I get frustrated when I am not able to recall something easily.

The frustration led me to invest in a comprehensive study of whatever that can help me in organizing stuff in a better way. The Konmari method, made popular by the book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” is great for un-cluttering the life but did not help me much in  managing information and how I can use or understand my mind so that I can organize better.

But The  Organized Mind does a great job in that regard. There are a lot of great tips but more than that it is also an exciting read on how our mind manages, organizes information. What I like most about the book that it goes beyond suggestions/tips and explains the rationale and science behind it. It surely makes my life a bit easier.

Malice – Another gem from Higashino

Keigo Higashino is referred as ‘the Japanese Stieg Larsson’ on the cover of this book. I think this is a very bizarre comparison if I consider the plot and writing style of these two authors. The comparison can only be justified if we consider a) both write crime fiction, and b) both have been bestsellers in their respective countries. Anyway, I am happy if this comparison brings more people to read to this master storyteller’s work. wpid-PastedGraphic-2015-01-4-13-38.tiff
Malice, written in 1996, is the third book by Higashino to be translated in to English from Japanese. The other two books “The Devotion of Suspect X” and “Salvation of a Saint” are among the best murder mysteries that I read in last five years. In both these books, readers were aware of who committed the crime but the mystery was how the murders were committed. In Malice, we know who committed the murder but the mystery was why the murder was committed.
Kunihiko Hidaka, a bestselling author, was found dead by his wife Rie and friend Nonoguchi just before he was to move to a new country. Detective Kaga, ex-colleague of Nonoguchi, gets the responsibility of the case and soon he discovers major flaws in Nonoguchi’s alibi. Nonoguchi, a writer himself and aspiring to be a bestseller author like Hidaka, confesses his crime but there were many missing pieces in his confession about the motive of the crime.
Higashino narrates the story through Nonoguchi’s and Kaga’s written accounts of the event during the investigation. The two main characters of Malice are writers and there is a lot of discussion of meeting timeline and writing styles, yet Higashino’s prose is bereft of any literary-ostentatiousness. Higashino is easy on his readers.
Malice is another gem from Higashino. I am eagerly waiting for his other works to be translated in English.

The Goldfinch – A very short review of a rather long book

wpid-TheGoldfinch-2014-12-16-20-24.jpg
I just finished “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tart. A really bulky book (784 pages) and on top of it this is a very slow book. I read some glowing reviews of this book and since I was planning to read something other than a murder mystery or thriller I chose to read this book. This was anyway the first book from this author so I had no clue about what kind of experience I am going to have.

This is a story of a son who lost his mother in a bomb blast in a museum and gained multi-million dollar painting “The Goldfinch”. The whole book is about a dead mother, a lost painting and growing up years of a grieving son. However, the supremely detailed narration is drab and dreary. I kept on going through this book, searching for things that made this novel the most talked about bestseller fiction of this year. The Independent and many others summarized this as a gripping page turner that describes modern day life. Surely my reading taste is different than many of these reviewers. Although, there are still some readers who will agree with me.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hours Bookstore – A nostalgic read

Some places might not be very exotic, scenic or on people’s list of must see-must visit but often they offer something that many places do not: nostalgia and comfort arising out of familiarity. The neighbourhood park where one spent many of the childhood evenings playing with friends is one such place. If we take this analogy to stories, Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hours Bookstore is one such story. This is a story of 24 hour bookstore which employs a recession-hit, out-of-the-job website designer Clay Jannon.

A simple story which takes you through some of the familiar world of books and technology. There is an undercurrent debate on traditional books/bookstore vs the modern technology; and a fistful of elements taken from mystery and suspense thrillers thrown in there. The story forces one to move from one page to another, but for me reading the book was akin to visiting the neighbourhood park of my young days. There were a lot of things to make me feel nostalgic or relate to the story. Clay was a web-designer, loves technology (is a MacBook/iPhone/Kindle guy) and loves book

Mr. Penumbra’s quaint bookstore is not a normal bookstore, it has mainly arcane and cryptic books for a devoted clientele. Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore has a higher purpose and Clay Jannon, the bookstore clerk, is not supposed to know that. But the curiosity gets better of him. With the help of his friend ( a lady who works at Google ) and Google’s tech-tools, Jannon tries to figure out the true story behind this unusual bookstore full of books containing gibberish.

Robin Sloan provides interesting glimpses of a modern metropolitan life, and pervasiveness and potential of technology. However, the story takes a formulaic path in the end and is only salvaged by the characterisation and the narrative.

Decoded – An Unusual Thriller

Although, Decoded blurb and reviews considered the book to be a thriller, it is surely not a thriller in the traditional sense. It is a languid and intriguing story of a mathematical genius who worked for a top secret cryptography unit of Chinese government. However, this is surely worth a read for its beautiful, poignant  and intelligent portrayal of a life of a mathematics genius.

I had never heard of Mai Jia or any of his works before this book, but the glowing reviews and the bestseller status of this book made me pick this one. Also, since this year I am reading translated popular fiction of different countries, this book fit very well in my reading plan. In China, Mia Jia is a literary sensation and his work has been adapted in movies and television serials.

The blurb of this book and all the online reviews, highlight that this book is a thriller, about cryptography, code breaking etc., but I did not find any elements of a thriller or mention of these themes in first 100 pages. However, this book is not boring, on the contrary, the first 100 pages gave a very interesting snapshot of China in 1960s and described the childhood of a socially awkward mathematics genius Rong Jinzhen.

The story turns into a new direction, more familiar to the genre of spy thrillers, when Rong Jinzhen gets recruited by a mysterious character and disappears from the normal life to join the cryptography section of China’s military intelligence. Rong gets the task to solve two legendary ciphers PURPLE and BLACK, developed by his long time friend, professor and mentor who now works with Country X. Mai Jia (the pen name of Jiang Benhu), reproduces the development in the field of mathematics and cryptography with details that very few can provide. As Jiang Benhu, Mai Jia spent a significant part of his life in intelligence unit of People’s Liberation Army, and he borrows a lot from his personal and professional life to enrich the story.

Once Rong joins the cryptography unit, most of the story describes the challenges of cryptography, application of mathematical logic in cryptography and joys and frustration of code-breaking. Rong’s success makes him a national hero and a reverential figure in China. However, in subsequent turn of events he loses his mental balance.

The story does not start like a thriller and it also does not end like a thriller. The end of the story leaves some questions unanswered and might not be palatable to people who grew on Dan Brown, Lee Child or Baldacci. But as I said earlier, this is not a typical thriller.

Buying eBooks in India ?

A few weeks ago, Apple opened its iTunes music and movies store for India users but Apple bookstore is still not available for Indian users. Similarly, Google Market/Google Play does not offer its vast collection of ebooks to Indian users. The Indian stores Flipkart and infibeam do offere ebooks but their collection is nothing much to talk about. The only option Indian users have is to buy books from Amazon kindle store.

This is strange considering India is a booming market for tablets. And, many of the tablet users do use the tablets as ebook reader but when it comes to buying ebooks they do not have many optoins. Recently, we saw Amazon launching its outdated ebook reader Kindle in India and Asus launching its Nexus tablet. Although, ebook readers are not going to find much market here (even globally they are losing out to tablets) but people are looking forward to buying ebooks and reading them on iPads or android tablets. But eBook lovers do not have many options. As of now, there is only one option. Buy ebooks on Amazon and download kindle app for reading books on your devices (luckily the app is available for all your devices and for all operating systems). However, the prices of ebooks/kindle books are more than the price of hardcopy edition of the same book in India. I wish google play or Apple bookstove soon start selling ebooks in India till then we are better buying hardcopies of the books.

Powered by Qumana

The Mind of the Market

For someone who works on ‘understanding markets’ and is familiar with previous works of Michael Shermer, picking “The Mind of the Market” from the bookshelf was an impulsive decision. And, the blurb made it clear that I have an interesting read for my weekend.

Shermer, drawing extensively from behavioral economics, neuroscience, psychology and evolutionary biology, offers his explanation of our seemingly irrational and often unpredictable economic behavior. Shermer, en route to his explanations, builds an excellent repository of cutting edge research in several disciplines and provides his readers a plethora of interesting examples and theories which have been part of great debate among academics; this itself makes his book immensely valuable and enriching. He starts with drawing parallels between Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Adam Smith’s invisible hand makes a cogent argument about interconnectedness of these two seminal works and how they affect behavior. His rebuttal of ‘Homo Economicus’ might not be very convincing to some but it does provide some good insights nonetheless. 

“Morality of the market” and “morality and market” are the two themes you will come across in many chapters.
While Shermer confesses the limitation of research findings when applied to real life settings, yet he does resort often to the same for his arguments. Shermer cherry-picks cases and examples to establish the creativity and efficacy of markets and its self correcting mechanism; and this has invited a fair amount of criticism to this book. This was almost expected if you consider that Shermer is also known as skeptic and wrote a scathing criticism for Ayn Rand’s philosophy in his essay “The unlikeliest cult in history” , in this book Shermer the skeptics takes the back seat and Shermer the libertarian emerges very strongly.

Reading list – 2011

Fiction
1. Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro Kazuo
Highly recommended if you are looking for a good thought provoking science fiction.  A mushy story about the lives of clones who were raised to be ‘donors’ for human beings. Was shortlisted for Booker in 2005.

2. 1984 by George Orwell
I read a couple of dystopian novels recently. This was surely one genre defining novel. Does not need any recommendation.

3. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Probably the most widely read novel by an African author. Loved this book, reading this book was a pleasure. Simple story, simple writing, great impact.

4. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevesky
One of the greatest Russian novels. You will love the struggle of ‘the original’ protogonist  with the materialistic society. The tragic love story of Prince and Nastasya adds a number of new dimensions to relationship and love.

5. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
The second dystopian novel that I read this year.

6. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain
A very highly rated crime novel. Some people put this novel in top 100 novels of last century. Did not impress me that much, story seems too familiar.. probably I read too many adaptation or saw different versions of the story in some movies.

7. Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
Somehow finished it. I am not a big fan of horror stories, Stephan King’s writing and story telling skills made me tolerate this one.

8. Along came a Spider by James Patterson
Wanted to read some light fiction and picked the Alex Cross series for time pass. Nothing much to write about here. A time pass.

9. Max: Maximum Ride by James Patterson
Juvenile fiction. Well just picked it out of curiosity and lack of other options.

10. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
I read this 15 years ago, could not get much of this book at that time. Re-read it.

11. 2666 by Roberta Bolano
A slow and very lengthy novel. Over 1000 pages. It was an ordeal in patience and test of my passion for reading as the story did not move much in first few hundred pages.

Non-Fiction
12.I hope they Serve Beer in Hell by Tucker Max
Curiosity. Yes, that’s why I picked the book.

13. May I hebb Your Attention Pliss by Arnab Ray
By One of my favorite bloggers who turned author. A great satire on our life in eighties and nineties.


Night Train to Lisbon

Some stories gradually grow on you and some characters seem that they have been made from ingredients picked from your own life. And when this happens in a book, which is written lyrically and full of erudition, for readers like me, it is a something mesmerizing.
A few weeks back I finished Pascal Mercier’s “Night Train to Lisbon”, a book originally written in German and later translated in several languages. The theme of book is delightful mix of philosophy and suspense. This concoction is very much expected as Pascal Mercier is pseudonym of philosophy professor Peter Bieri. The philosophy does not seem to take precedence, often case with most of the philosopher cum writers, it unfurls itself subtly with the story.

When I saw the blurb of the book, I was immediately tempted to grab a copy and I did just that. A middle aged teacher of Classics walks out of a class to explore life of an enigmatic Portugese doctor, a few pages from a book written by the doctor pushed him on an uncertain journey. The teacher, Gregorius middle aged, relatively well ensconced in his life, walking out on sheer impulse and on pull of an enigma, is in itself awe inspiring considering the way we cling to nugatory inane stuffs.
Though the book intrigues you when Gregorius walks out but soon relegates Gregorius to a secondary role, he just becomes a prop in emergence of a larger than life character of Portugese doctor Prado. Prado is our typical larger than life hero who resides in almost everyone , struggling to come out but succumbs to cruelties of rational mind and selfish emotions. A hero, whose personality is carved with a mute conflict between a father and a son, a conflict which stemmed from deep love and unexpressed expectations, Prado is gifted in many ways.
The life of Prado is portrayed in the book in many stories told by Prado’s friends and his sister to Gregorius. Marcier’s virtuoso story telling makes each of phase of Prado’s life and his struggle come alive in front of your eyes with exquisite stories told by different characters in the book. Gregorius goes on to discover Prado and his extraordinary life, punctuated by many events depicting superlative emotions, and this discovery for him becomes a self-discovery.
This is surely one of the better books I have read in recent times, would recommend to anyone who savors intelligent well written fiction.

My Reading List, 2008

Fiction

  • Sacred Games By Viikram Chandra
  • Bandicoots in moonlight by Avijit Ghosh
  • The Girl with Dragon Tatoo by Steig Larsson
  • Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Non-Fiction

  • Egonomics by David Marcum and Steven Smith
  • The Cult of Amateurs  by Andrew Keen
  • A Perfect Mess by David Freedman
  • Super Crunchers by  Ian Ayres
  • Wikinomics by Tapscott and Wiliams
  • How to change the world by David Bornstein
  • Stick to drawing comics, monkey brain! by Scot Adams
  • Getting things done by David Allen
  • The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
  • The Stuff of Thoughts by Steven Pinker
  • Madness and Civilization by Foucault

Half Read / Unfinished Books

  • Imagining India by Nandan Nilekani
  • The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner
  • Hot Flat and Crowded by T. Friedman
  • Dreaming of Jupiter by Ted Simon (Thanks Srey for the gift.)
  • India: The Emerging Giant by Arvind Panagariya
  • Phantoms in the brain by Blakeslee and Ramachandran
  • Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  • Tribe by Bruce Parry

Surely I could not read a lot of fiction this year and spent a lot of time on  non-fiction/ pop-economics. Though I wanted to read some good fiction titles. I bought many books last year and I think I need to speed up my reading to consume them this year.