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The brightest sparks sometimes fade the soonest

The Shiva Trilogy, Parts 1 and 2

Came across this series while browsing bookstores in India. Thanks to vacation time, I could polish off the first and second parts in four days, just like old times! The first book is titled “The Immortals of Meluha” and the second is “The Secret of the Nagas”. I can’t remember the last time I’ve finished books any faster. Probably during my undergraduate years.

In this fictional twist on history, there were in 1900 BC two main kingdoms established in the Indian subcontinent — the Suryavanshis in the west, in the region we know as the Indus valley; and the Chandravanshis in the valley of the Ganges in the east. South India was home to a civilization of outcasts — the Nagas. In the Himalayan tribes dwelling near Mansarovar lake is born a man — Shiva — who is destined to become a God, the prophecised “destroyer of evil”. The Suryavanshis, whose kingdom and way of life is under attack from mysterious forces, discover Shiva and look to him to be their savior, even as he remains unsure of how exactly he is to fulfill his destiny.

The action and events of the plot are fast paced, even though the descriptions are somewhat threadbare. However, after the travails of going through never-ending series like the Wheel of Time (I’m still struggling through it), I was rather happy to trade verbosity for a plot that actually moves. The first part of the first book feels a little too predictable but the plot soon develops a number of very interesting twists. Through the two books, the focus moves to the fundamental question Shiva was born to answer — what is meant by “Evil”? It is simple to destroy an object, a person, a civilization or a species, but how does one destroy the abstraction of evil?

The book is most interesting for its parallels to, and interpretation of, Hindu philosophy and lore. The question of ‘what is evil’ of course is one such parallel, but there are plenty of others — the nature of Shiva and his family — wife Parvati and son Ganesha; the caste system; the legend of Kashi. Amish Tripathi has managed to spin a fabulously interesting tale, and I look forward to the third part of the trilogy which is probably coming out sometime next year.

The name of the wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

I hadn’t read fantasy fiction in quite a while and decided to give this book a spin based on many recommendations.

The first of a series, the novel is about an accomplished but world-weary magician, Kvothe, who has all but retired and become an innkeeper in an insignificant little town, to all intents and purposes just an ordinary man. Two people know better though, his apprentice, who lives with him; and a story-teller, a Chronicler who comes to seek him and hear his story. Although times are bad, evil is afoot, and dark forces roam the world, most of the book is in fact a flashback, the tale of how young Kvothe was separated from everyone he knew and overcame many a challenge to go and study at the University, a place where many things are taught, including science, history, engineering and magic. Like many fantasy stories, the plot is a variation on the hero’s journey, and our hero makes his way from humble beginnings, has many talents, fights personal enemies and evil forces, struggles with love, exudes a noble spirit and is blessed with friendship.

Told from the point of view of an older man who seems to be incapable of world-saving heroics, however, the story is put in startling perspective. It’s clear that there is no happily-ever-after ending here (not yet, anyway). Young Kvothe’s reminiscing story remains unfinished in the book and will presumably be continued in the next.

Rothfuss has a nice, easy, writing style that really shines out occasionally. The prologue is beautifully written and sets the mood of the novel perfectly. And he’s brilliant at telling stories within stories. Of course, his book is about someone telling a story of his past, but although that story has a very everyday kind of feel and flow, within that story there are characters that tell stories in a dramatic, epic style that is delightful to read. I wished there were more of those, I’ll admit.

Looking forward to the next book.

The myths of innovation, by Scott Berkun

A great book of insights, history and reasoning about the process of innovation. I think Scott Berkun chooses the perfect way to go about describing innovation — debunking the myths and half-truths that have cropped up about it since the term became overly abused in corporate and business communication. The work is far from merely showing the negative though, Berkun shines light on the subject via this process. Debunking the myths is only the first step to get you thinking in the right direction.

There are ten chapters in the book, all of them focused around a specific idea or myth. Many of these ideas are interrelated, however and here are the central ideas that I took from the book.

Innovation is a result of much hard work, not a random epiphany. This is the first chapter but the point is made throughout the book. The ‘epiphany’ to which innovation is often attributed (apple falling on Newton’s head, Archimedes’ eureka moment) is at best the final piece in a large jigsaw puzzle in which assembling the other pieces was hard work, and the puzzle would never be complete without any single missing piece. This goes beyond one person; the book makes a compelling argument that many innovations are the result of the labors of many people who contributed to the field before (standing on the shoulders of giants), as seen so often in science where many revelations were seemingly simultaneously arrived at by people working independently. Moreover, many breakthroughs are often the result of teams rather than individuals.

Seen in the bigger context, innovation follows a densely branched structure rather than a linear path. The histories try to conveniently explain away innovation by means of a simplistic story, but the reality is much more complex. Many innovations happen by accident — Flickr was started originally as an MMORPG before it’s creators realized it would make an amazing photo sharing service by itself. There were many designs for the automobile before Henry Ford’s, running on everything from electricity to steam to gasoline. There is usually a multitude of ideas around a problem that co-exist before one idea wins out and history marks its inventors as innovators. Sometimes, the best ideas don’t win. Adoption of an innovation is subject to cultural, political and economical forces; the QWERTY keyboard is far from the most efficient way to type yet it doesn’t look likely to be replaced with any so-called “better” alternatives.

“Creativity is the child in the park.” One of my favourite quotes from the book, it makes the point that innovation is about experimentation, playfulness, and willingness to examine ideas and throw them away without tiring. It’s important to be broad-minded rather than narrow-minded, to be wiling to adapt and change. One of the hardest-hitting points that Scott Berkun makes is that former innovators are the least likely to recognize innovation in their field even if it’s staring at them in the face, because they believe in their own way so much that they’re blinded to new possibilities. Which is why, time and time again, behemoth-sized companies are regularly beaten by nimbler startups, (think Barnes and Noble vs. Amazon, Nokia vs Apple, Western Union vs Alexander Bell).

The arguments made in the book, though by no means foolproof, are nevertheless compelling, and more importantly, thought provoking. If nothing else, the book gets different circuits buzzing in your brain, and that’s worth every page.

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” — Goethe

Weekend media notes

Saw ‘Visual Acoustics – The modernism of Julius Schulman’. Fantastic documentary about a fabulous man. He’s one of the best known architectural photographers of the 20th century; and covered much of America’s modernist architecture. His dedication to his work, brilliant ideas, curiosity, humour and vitality even in ripe old age are inspirational. Not to mention the absolutely stunning photography.

Last week’s New Yorker (the May 16th edition) has a couple of delightful articles related to the tech industry. One is “The Creation Myth”, written by Malcolm Gladwell, which uses the evolution of the computer mouse from invention to commercialization as the backdrop for a discussion of how inventors (Douglas Engelbart), researchers (Xerox PARC) and entrepreneurs (Steve Jobs) contribute to the growth of a product. The other is “The Fun Factory”, which is about life at Pixar; probably the best place to work on the planet. Animation movie-making, history and technology are discussed but what I came away with was just how much these guys love their work and the incredible attention to detail that goes into it. I recently went to a Pixar exhibition and picked up this book on Pixar and I’d highly recommend that as well. Sadly, neither of the New Yorker articles is viewable subscription free.


Who colours the colours?
What shapes the shapes?
Is it my hand that draws?
Though I seem to hold it
Did I pick this brush?
Who is it that paints?

Show yourself, ghost!
You have much to answer for.

Recipe for a great start to summer


1 sunny weekend afternoon
1 portable grill
4 stalks of fresh corn
1 significant other for making pomegranate-blueberry-banana smoothies
2 garden chairs
1 copy of the latest New Yorker

and, most importantly…

0 mails from co-workers.

Less, by Marc Lesser

Who could resist reading a book called Less by an author called Lesser?

The book’s subtitle is “Accomplishing more by doing less”. The focus is to try and resolve what the author calls the “busyness” problem — having so much to do in life that we do none of it deeply enough or satisfyingly enough. We end up chasing to-do lists without acknowledging any meaning in our tasks. This can potentially leave you with a fragmented mind and a vague lack of direction.

Typically these issues are addressed using time management and/or prioritization techniques; like those described in the famous “Getting things done” book and method. This book is different in the sense that it leaves the solution rather open ended but describes a mental model to describe the problem and offers corresponding structural solutions. The model is described in five categories.

Fear is the first category; it is explained as the reason one can end up not attacking a challenge head-on — and hence end up being unproductive. Fear of failure, of looking foolish, of not having chosen the wisest path, of doing something new and so on.

The second category is assumptions. Our brains are great at learning and hence make a lot of potentially harmful associations automatically. For me, a classic example is meetings. I generally dislike meetings and am wired to assume they’re a waste of time the moment they’re set up. Yet there are productive meetings and unproductive ones; having a pre-conceived judgment that any meeting is a waste helps nobody.

Third is distractions. We live in a world constantly interrupted by e-mail, tweets, texts, which is bad enough, but because of that our minds have lost the habit of focus. Checking my RSS feed is no way to “take a break”, because it keeps my brain spinning and offers little in a the way of relaxation. Yet there’s just so much input these days, thanks to the Internet (more on this in an upcoming review of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr), that we think it’s a good idea to fill every waking moment with processing information; which in a long term disaster for our ability to concentrate.

Fourth, resistance. This could be a book in itself (and is, check out “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield). The tendency to let an inner critic add a set of limiting beliefs to one’s identity that prevents venturing out to unknown and unfamiliar territory — the place that spawns creativity.

Finally, the book talks about tackling “busyness”. I’ll describe this one with an example that Lesser quotes from “Extraordinary Golf”. Studies show that amateur golfers have a demonstrably better swing when they’re asked to swing without having to actually hit a golf ball. We limit our performance simply by being overly conscious about our performance. This, of course ties in all the themes from above and is meant to.

The strategies offered to deal with these are a combination of psychotherapy, lifestyle suggestions and spirituality. I feel that having this model in your head, however, is half the battle. And certainly the few strong suggestions that I try to do regularly in my life, like physical exercise and meditation certainly help exactly as suggested. Other suggestions include tactics for self-awareness, such as writing out or reflecting on our fears, assumptions and habits.

There’s a lot of food for thought in this surprisingly small book — around 150 pages. Of course, not everyone faces these problems in the first place; but I certainly found it very useful. Marc Lesser is also a business coach / consultant and I was fortunate enough to be in one of his classes, and I love how he makes his point with simplicity yet laser-like clarity.

Bad education

n + 1 mag has a hard-hitting piece about American higher education:

Since 1978, the price of tuition at US colleges has increased over 900 percent, 650 points above inflation. To put that in number in perspective, housing prices, the bubble that nearly burst the US economy, then the global one, increased only fifty points above the Consumer Price Index during those years. But while college applicants’ faith in the value of higher education has only increased, employers’ has declined. According to Richard Rothstein at The Economic Policy Institute, wages for college-educated workers outside of the inflated finance industry have stagnated or diminished.

As faculty jobs have become increasingly contingent and precarious, administration has become anything but. Formerly, administrators were more or less teachers with added responsibilities; nowadays, they function more like standard corporate managers—and they’re paid like them too… Department of Education estimates that by 2014 there will be more administrators than instructors at American four-year nonprofit colleges.

On teaching as learning

He wore a cowboy hat and he said, “write software that could cook me bacon.”

That was one of the responses I got this morning, when I asked a class of 30-odd students what they’d like to do after learning programming. It was an introductory Python programming class, and we mostly covered the basics, like variables and types, loops and conditions. At the end though, I like to give students a taste of the power of programming. My co-teacher and I showed them simple library to extract and parse RSS feeds, with CNN and BBC as examples. By the end of the class, the bacon dude — a high school student — had written code that filtered the sports feed from ESPN to show only the stories about his favourite sports team. It wasn’t cooking bacon, but for a 15 year old it was impressive.

I’ve been a volunteer teacher for the past two sessions of Splash, Stanford’s community outreach education program in the Bay Area ( if you’re interested in participating). Splash’s rather appropriate motto is “Education for students, by students.” I’d agree — every time I’ve taught anyone, either informally or formally, I’ve ended up learning something myself. Not that I lack access to smart people working on cool things. But I see so much more of pure joy at discovery and learning in young students, even when compared with any work environment; no matter how conducive to innovation and fun.

It’s that spirit that I learn when I teach. Not that work isn’t fun; I can’t be more thankful to be working in a company, in an industry and in a community that largely considers having fun at work a core value. And we all do have fun — but, counter-intuitively, that’s partly the problem. I find it easy to forget amidst the pleasantness that there is such energy that can be released when truly appreciating the possibilities of something new that you’ve just learned. Occasionally teaching someone is just a way to keep that thought alive in my mind.

I hope the cowboy writes that cooking code someday; though for the sake of his health and mine I hope it’s a salad.