Archive

Review

Pictured is a massage chair from Abans. It’s made in China, costs about a lakh and comes with a one year warranty sans the grinning analyst. Work just bought one for us to relax on and having tried it twice, i kind of like it.

Of course, it’s never going to replace an actual masseur/masseuse. It doesn’t really help much in the leg area for instance. The air bags on the leg extensions that you see only squeeze your legs every second or so (at highest intensity) and is not going to really do any damage to all those knots that you didn’t even know you had.

But the upper body area is different. There are thick finger like objects under the surface that move up and down, they can either simply press or knead, or do something in between that is called a ‘flap’ (go figure). It feels like a giant hand massive enough to pinch your back between its fingers. The chair has three intensity levels, but the lower two are are more suited for little girls, and Jerry.

Disappointingly the head gets no treatment, the neck treatment is mostly cursory and doesn’t quite hit the spot, the shoulders and back however feel great after about fifteen minutes, and that is enough.

Would I pay a lakh for it? I wouldn’t have the disposable income. But i suppose it makes sense for a company to do so. Something to suggest at the next team meeting?

Some of the earliest cartoons i remember were dubbed by Titus Thotawatte. They included Pissu Poosa (Top cat), Walas Mama (The Beary Family), Dostara Hondahitha (Dr. Doo Little) and Haa Haa Hari Haawa (Bugs Bunny). These were freakin A cause in the early nineties regular kids only had access to lame local sing along shows and Sesame Street, and even Sesame Street gets a little square from time to time.

TV was different then. Things like GI Joe, Ninja Turtles and Speed Racer came along somewhere in 94 – 95 when MTV started broadcasting. You only had two channels before that, Rupavahini and ITN. Looking back, most of the content on these channels should have been enough to put even an entertainment starved kid to sleep, but we definitely got by. Shows like Knight Rider, That’s Incredible and Robin Hood were blockbusters. These weren’t dubbed, thank God. there was also a Japanese show called Oshin which was dubbed, i never quite got the hang of that though.

In my experience, a lot of dubbing sucks, but some dubbing is better than the original. The cartoons i mentioned above are just as good, if not better than the original. Definitely better if you’re a kid unaccustomed to the English language and aspects foreign culture. TT’s productions were completely localized down to the very last detail. From names, customs to Music (the theme to Dr. Honda Hitha is a baila hit) . More importantly he was funny, extremely so. Not in the tired slapstick way you find in most Sinhala movies but in an understated, sarcastic genuinely witty way that hits you deep inside so that you can laugh at it even when you’re twenty six. His work also sent strong positive moral vibes, a good thing.

The work of TT was probably essential in shaping young minds which would otherwise have been forced to feed on the intellectual equivalents of Justin Bieber. Things were a little bleak back then, or seem so now. The JVP had just been crushed under a wave of violence and the EELAM war was accelerating. I guess the country couldn’t spare a lot of attention for us kids. So a lot of people from my generation remember TT’s work with fondness. He passed away yesterday. And Pissu Poosa makes me think of a more lovable version of Mervyn Silva, but that’s probably a stretch.

For a full list of Titus songs see here.

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our BrainsThe Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas G. Carr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The phrase ‘…the internet has on our brains’ reminds me of zombies. In The Shallows Nicholas Carr discusses the affect the Internet has on our brains. And he pretty much thinks we are turning into zombies.

He first pooh poohs the alarmist ideas earlier communication technology philosophers had about the debilitating effects of (in reverse chronological order) the TV, the radio, the type writer, the printing press, reading silently, the book and even writing (Those who rely on reading for their knowledge will “seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing.” They will be “filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom.”) back up to the time when men needed to remember everything to be in the know, and then comes up with an alarmist idea of his own:

“THE INTERNETZ IS EATING YOUR BRAIN!!”

Or rather, it is eating up our thought processes. Filling us with shallower knowledge. Externalizing our memories. Reducing our capacity for intelligent deduction.

“What we’re trading away in return for the riches of the Net—and only a curmudgeon would refuse to see the riches—is… “our old linear thought process.” Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind” – the Internet mind?

Now i get distracted on the internet as much as any other person. In fact i have stopped writing this review and returned to it about 3 times already. It has come to a point where i can scarecely work if im plugged into the net. Its annoying really. You know you’re not important enough to get an email every minute but you check anyway. Facebook updates aren’t going anywhere but you keep checking in some bizarre social-network OCD. The internet pickles your mind so much that you can spend an hour on it and it will feel like 15 minutes, and worse; you won’t even have achieved anything in that time. Its a black hole alright, a black hole that drags in your attention and time.

But even so, i think the notion that the Internet spells a unique death to intelligence and thought is somewhat far fetched. And may be one of Carr’s more spectacular claims. Indeed most of the evidence brought to bear on brain activity seems to indicate that the grey matter in our heads is uniquely plastic, and extremely adaptable. So who is to say it won’t eventually adapt to a world of technology and internet as well?

Parts i liked about the book

1. The heavy chit chat about the human brain, synapses, plasticity and the way it facilitates information flow. The different areas of the brain used in language and information processing.

2. The bits about memory and how its construction. Long term memory versus short term, the unique way the brain uses memory to mull over, analyze and make deductions based on knowledge (Carr says this capacity is especially threatened if we are outsourcing memory to computers). I can now confidently say a thing or two about the Hippocampus and cortices. And no the former is not a higher education institute for large bull shaped amphibians.

3. The discussion on the history of books and the advancement of the written knowledge. Basically a tale of increased knowledge with diminishing mental capacity to hold it all. Although i found his thoughts on ebooks rather speculative and alarmist again.

4. The chapter on Google. Carr inevitably paints Google as almost an arch villain to traditional intelligence, with its manic drive to compartmentalize information and feed us ‘shallow’ search paragraphs. In fact the idea for the book came from an article Carr wrote titled ‘‘Is Google Making us Stupid?

Carr argues that all the clutter and distraction of the internet is making it hard for us to concentrate for long enough on a single task (like reading text) for us to absorb it enough to ensure that it passes from being mere information to proper knowledge. His question is whether all the mucking about clicking links and checking mail is destroying our cognitive ability to gain knowledge.

And I agree with him. To a certain extent. I don’t think it is a social phenomena that we have to be a the mercy of though. The internet has good and bad, and if you can’t take the good and leave out the bad it reflects badly on you, and maybe you do deserve to become stupider than you are. Turn off your email, turn off your PC, go read a book. Try and read a book which disses the internet, like this one.

Zombie Apocaplypse: Closer than you think

View all my reviews

WARWAR by Sebastian Junger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Junger’s ‘war’ is more ‘battle’ than war since he only talks about the situation of a platoon of soldiers stuck in a remote valley in Afghanistan who are apparently unaware of the sweeping developments in the bigger picture of war.

His soldiers are fighting machines, equipped with the brawn and the intelligence necessary to cope with an environment of severe and unpredictable gunfights interspersed with long periods of boredom. The ones with the bloodlust survive.

His soldier is not a person ideologically aware of the reasons for the conflict, and fights the war for a reason completely different to what its government fights it for.

The soldier is a being who has ended up at the army for one of various reasons, and only few of them are born from a deep sense of patriotism. the word patriot, in fact, is barely mentioned in the whole book. They fight for their ‘bothers’ or platoonmates and sacrifice their lives not for the American cause but for the cause of saving the lives of their fellow soldiers.

War gives them the exhilaration and high they know they will never get from anywhere else whilst also slowly tearing them apart psychologically. I think the lack of a non superficial overriding cause to fight slowly tears them up on the inside. They question God, and everything else and ask why? but can’t answer the question when one of their ‘brothers’ die. It’s kill or be killed in the Korengal valley, nothing else matters. or barely even figures.

This is a bloody disturbing state for a soldier. Junger spent 15 months among them and his love for them is apparent, this love also tears away the veneer of ‘objectivism’ that you may think such a ‘journalistic’ attempt should maintain. But objective and journalistic is what this book is mostly not, but that doesn’t mean to say it completely isn’t these things either.

It is just objective enough to present everything in a way that you can draw your own conclusions, and just about journalistic enough to be a calm narrative with a sufficiently high intellectual hand to give you enough material for analysis. Overall well written (i especially like how Junger has adopted the jargon ridden military panache to his language). It may not be a book you will like for the reasons you think you are supposed to like it for. But its surely something you can walk away with understanding from.

View all my reviews

The Grand DesignThe Grand Design by Stephen W. Hawking
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I don’t really know what to think of this. Hawking talks about the universe in pure incoherent terms. The explanations he uses are usually the kinds of things you take as axiomatic in sci-fi novels as the authors way of setting up a background for a complex world.

It also reads a bit like a fanatical espousing; a dubious theory called M-Theory is put forward as being the ‘only possible’ candidate for a universal theory explaining the whole of the workings of the universe in one go.

Newtons laws are only capable of explaining reality within a certain frame. and as object get smaller and we move to the atomic level, Newtons laws crash and are replaced with what we call quantum physics. After this introduction we are taken into what are possibly groundbreaking versions of the universe that are implicated by the presence of this weirdness that perpetuates the quantum world.

Without really explaining exactly how, Hawking suddenly takes us from the somewhat understandable conclusions reached by the latest science in quantum physics through a gamut of assumptions and propositions and ‘ideas’ to the conclusion that the universe can create itself.

Plainly unconvincing and driven with ifs, even Hawking’s perceptions of God and religion seem to me to be based on some early Christian idea of it. He triumphantly exposes some of the weaknesses of the Catholic church’s version of astronomy. Somewhat akin to Galileo propounding Copernicus and sticking it to the face of the Church. He is like a physicist of the renaissance, still sticking it ti the church in a time where even the church knows that only some of what it says is probably correct.

The good: he explores creation and brings forth a powerful theory that can possibly shed light on how (and in the methodology how) it all came about. Unfortunately, by repeatedly bringing in God to the equation and by unconvincingly trying to tell his readers that he does not ‘need’ to exist, Hawking succeeds only in undermining and distorting his message.

View all my reviews

How many of us assume too much about what we know? The human race is obsessed with its knowledge. In The Black Swan, Nassim Nocholas Taleb take an example of people laughing at primates in a zoo, looking at their funny impersonations of humans and their primitiveness. But it’d be quite sobering if those people knew that some species far superior to them were looking and laughing at them.

Civilizations have risen and fallen, and what we easily forget is that they all thought they were the bees knees and the primal wolfs howl. We look at them now and we laugh, but a thousand years later (if we last that long) when the internet is a relic, we’ll undoubtedly be laughed at by humans who consider themselves far superior to us.

The Black Swan

This is an even that is 1) completely inconceivable before it happens, 2) causes much chaos when it happens and 3) is explainable retrospectively. Works like this: People imagined all swans to be white. All they could see were white swans and no one had ever seen anything different; so the lack of evidence to prove the existence of a black swan was taken as proof of no evidence of a black swan. All that changed of course, when they discovered the existence of an actual black swan.

Take your pick of latest global/local major events; 9/11, the Financial Crisis, The Asian Tsunami, the end of the EELAM war, the 18th amendment etc. all Black Swans. Taleb’s argument is that the majority of the world’s events rest entirely on these Black Swans. Most of the impact to our world happens because of these unpredictable events. And therefore most models like the Gaussian Bell Curve and Modern Portfolio Theory are redundant when it comes to actually telling us anything about how the world works.

He also underscores the role of luck. And the Casanova syndrome. Casanova was a player (the womanizing variety) who considered himself to be somewhat of a scholar. The problem with Casanova was that he was always in money problems. But, by virtue of his wit, charm and sycophancy he would always find a way to bounce back. Naturally this caused him to speak somewhat boastfully of his innate capabilities and traits that gave him much resilience in the face of difficulty. But Taleb’s argument is that this was all a result of one thing; simple luck.

To illustrate he points to all the other players who would have constantly got into trouble but eventually found that they didn’t have anyone to pull them out of it. They all perished on the way and so, were never heard of again. And since we only heard Casanova’s boastful argument, and don’t really know how many close shaves he may have had in getting there, and how many of his breaks were due to things he actually did, we automatically assume him to be some sort of superman. And lap up his latest book on how to stay out of financial troubles by virtue of one’s wit.

Distorted History

The silent evidence never gets highlighted because historians never look at the graveyard. Only the survivors are present n the history books. We only know the results of history or the forward process, we do not know the  backward process of it.

For example, keep an ice cube on the floor and watch it turn into a puddle of water. Now ask someone who just walked into the room to tell you how that puddle came to exist. He’d come up with all sorts of theories to explain its existence. Some one could have spilled it, the roof may have leaked. Even if he hits upon an ice cube. He’d be hard pressed to tell you the shape of that ice cube. Similarly with history. To quote:

The first direction, from the ice cube to the puddle, is called the forward process. The second direction the backward process, is much much more complicated. The forward process is generally used in physics and engineering the backward process in nonrepeatable, nonexperimental historical approaches.

All we can see when we look back are the outcomes of history. The inputs we decide ourselves by analyzing other factors and creating a narrative that sort of explains the result we see. This is the narrative fallacy.

Take the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The end of the war in itself was somewhat of a Black Swan. At the time it was totally unexpected, Its impact was significant on our lives, and it was immediately explainable retrospectively. A lot of talk went around about the specifics of our battle strategy, the integrity of the leadership and the bravery of our soldiers went around. But was that all?

The change in the geopolitical landscape undoubtedly helped. In the emergence of China as a global power interested in engaging in its own brand of neo-colonization, the government found a ready ally to completely aid it in pursuing the LTTE. Unlike the cessationist and inconsistent support of the UN, the US and Western Alliance; countries like Iran, China and India were readily supportive of a quick end to the Sri Lankan conflict so they could move in for their ound of flesh. I’m not saying this is precisely the scenario, but geopolitical change did create a big difference to the levels of freedom Mahinda had. Other reasons could have contributed to the war’s end too. But we may never know all of them.

Knowing that we don’t know

We are generally epstemologically arrogant. That is self satisfied and protective of what we know. This is what makes us carry out engaging conversations at parties and at tea shops. Having an opinion makes use feel good and anything that challenges that opinion we try to fight off tooth and nail. Sometimes it’s better to just have an opinion but be very open to the fact that you may be wrong. Saying ‘I don’t know’ is nothing to be ashamed of. It maybe even intellectually superior to clinging onto some idea for which you don’ have the full facts. Worse, you might not even know that you don’t know and be one of those particularly difficult type of individuals to have a meaningful conversation with.

So i finally got my Kindle.

First off what the hell is it? The Amazon Kindle is an e-book reader. An e-book reader is a device that allows you to read books that are in an electronic format in a way that is aimed at maximizing your reading experience. If you’ve tried reading books on a computer you’ll have encountered at least some of the following problems; portability, strain on the eyes, uncomfortable reading positions, distractions etc.

An e-book reader puts your e-book in a situation as close to a real book as you can make it without sneaking 500 printouts from your office computer. Hardcore readers will find one very useful. Although there are tons of e-book readers out there, the Kindle was the first one to go mainstream. What i have is version 3.

Its pretty simple, you load your books onto it via computer. Or you can use Amazon’s whispernet service to directly download the books you buy from Amazon.com via Wi-fi. The K3 has a 3G version as well but 3G services do not extend to Sri Lanka because there is no local service provider to support it.

The Experience

First time i picked it up and started reading i wondered if it really was as great as they said it was. It only took a little bit of getting used to though, and now i’m pretty much a big fan. Its lighter than a paperback, smaller than most and can be easily held and operated with one hand.

Some 3.5GB of space means that you can carry more than 3000 books, thats pretty much your whole library along with you. I didn’t realize how cool this was until I wanted to switch books in mid-read. No getting up and hunting for the thing or cursing myself for not bringing an extra traveling bag with the ten other books I was reading simultaneously; a couple of clicks, and i’m reading what I wanted.

You can take it anywhere you want. Put it in a protective case, shove it in your bag and you’re good. The battery lasts a supposedly 3-4weeks on the Wi-fi version. That’s good even for long drawn forays into outer space (that last for 3 or 4 weeks).

The high contrast screen (much advertised) is fine to read books on. As you can see from the pic below, there isn’t much of a difference. And yes, you CAN read it in bright sunlight, but the screen is not backlit so you can’t read it in the dark. Amazon also offers a range of kindle covers that come with a LED lamp that you can use to read in the dark but it will cost you a pretty rupee or two.

hard to tell the difference

Navigation could be better, i’m currently trying to figure out an easy way of sifting through the books on the device. So far the best way seems to enter a keyword to search for it. Something i like is the search and highlight features. You can search for any word or phrase and the device pulls up every occurrence of it in your whole library in seconds. Useful if you’re trying to track down an interesting passage and can’t remember where you read it. You can also highlight sections of text and add notes, much like going at a real book with pencil, except you don’t feel guilty at its desecration.

The portability i love. When i read lying down i sometimes read on my side. And with a regular book this means that i have to turn over to my other side when i flip the page, not fun if i’m already sleepy. The Kindle eliminates that problem. Wahoo!

Where to get books

Now the biggie, you’ve got your Kindle which you spent a good chunk of your income for and now you’re looking for books to read. Well there are two ways you can go, legit or illegit. Tons of books are available for download on torrents. A bit of googling will sort you out soon.

Slimmer than your average drug addict

The Kindle supports a few common e-book formats. Lit, PDF(not so great), text, mobi and Amazon’s own e-book formats. EPUB, one of the most common formats used, is not readable. But if you get yourself a good e-book management software, i suggest Calibre, you can easily convert any file format into a Kindle compatible one (Mobi is the best). The software also allows you to organize and manage your collection and can even sync with the Kindle and act as an interface between the kindle and your device. Useful because the Kindle doesn’t have its own software system for your PC like the I-pod does.

Amazon also sells e-books at prices lower than their paperbacks. Most new releases come out in e-book format as well and you’ll only need a few seconds to buy it. Amazon offers great free previews of upcoming books and also has a large collection of free and cut price e-books. The availability of books will change depending on where you live and books bought off Amazon are DRM protected and can only be read on one device.

There are online libraries that have massive collections of free books. Manybooks and the Internet Archive are goods places to start.

Buying a Reader

There are a lot of other e-book readers out there and Barnes and Noble’s Nook is the closest behind the Amazon Kindle. The Sony reader is another choice with a great range of sizes. A key thing to look for is readability, some people prefer reading on LCD screens but to some LCD screens can be irritating. Size is another thing you’ll need to consider. The Nook is more open than the Kindle and provides no barriers to transfer books between devices. They have also come up with a color version that looks pretty neat. Look for country specific stuff like do they deliver it here and what the cost is too.

You can buy the Kindle after a few clicks at Amazon.com. They deliver it free to Sri Lanka if you use Super Saver shipping. I am not sure about how the customs charges will be when it gets here though. Good for you if you kow a customs guy or can tip him a couple of hundred and get it released free. The Wi-fi only version costs $139, approx LKR 16k. You can buy a case for the kindle at the same time. I suggest going for a Kindle 2 case, much cheaper and not much different. Always pick items with Super Saver shipping, some items may not ship to Sri Lanka.

In Summary the K3 is a pretty great little machine and it is very good at pretending it is not a machine at all when you read from it. The dimensions, weight, technical details etc can be found on Amazon.com and a thousand other blogs so i stuck to what struck me most about it. To me, it is no different to reading a real book. The neat freak in me loves the organization and compactness of it. People who cherish collections of physical libraries might miss the point, and Babbage has a good piece on the illusion of e-book ownership.

Tree huggers can find comfort in the vast number of paper saved and carbon absorption ensured. If you’re planing on getting an e-book reader and have questions i can help.

%d bloggers like this: