My Favourite Non-Fiction books

The following are the 10 non-fiction books that I have loved and cherished the most.

10. Freakonomics – Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt

The description says it is a work of a rogue economist who explores the hidden side of everything. The book supposedly merges economics and sociology, but the importance of statistics in all this is what fascinated me about this book. I had scant regard to statistics. I often felt that it supposedly illuminates the truth with data, but too obscure to grasp. This book made me see it in a different light. It may be more sociology than anything else. But it definitely shows us a thing or two about how systematic collection of data is crucial to the pursuit of truth.

9. Blink – Malcolm Gladwell

The tag line says “The power of thinking without thinking”. I am not a huge fan of the word “Intuition”. It is a pretentious word that people use to describe emotions that they have not bothered to place yet and Blink is a book almost entirely about intuition. Gladwell explores how we may not know what we know. I do agree. There are plenty of things our subconscious knows more than the conscious mind. Nice book. I still don’t like that word.

8. Naked Ape – Desmond Morris

This book explores humans as it would explore any random animal and gives wonderful insight into many things we take for granted. This is the first book I ever read on the topic and I have a soft corner for it. The most interesting part for me was getting to know the territorial behavior in animals. There was a part about rearing the young that went clearly over my head when I read it first. Maybe I should give this one a try again.

7. Tell-tale brain – V.S. Ramachandran

V.S.Ramachandran makes topics like Capgras syndrome, mirror neurons more approachable. As someone who loves shades of colors with a passion, I found synaesthesia quite fascinating. People with synaesthesia can see sounds, taste colors and have other perceptions that a normal person does not have. After doing some cursory browsing on the given topics, I found that what Ramachandran has said in his book about mirror neurons has faced a certain extent of criticism. But then again, who wants to read a book that hasn’t faced enough criticism.

6. Cosmos – Carl Sagan

Cosmos is less a book about the cosmos and more a book about the men who made sense of the cosmos. We learn a lot about the men who first thought that the earth was spherical and those who found that the Sun was the center of the solar system. While we are at it we learn something about ancient beliefs. Sagan had the knack of being profound without sounding like a bore.

5. Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens begins around the Ice age and guides through the major historical events. We have come to equate history with wars, but Harari guides us through the beginnings of agriculture (which he deems a bad thing), domestication of animals, the advent of money, religion and other things which we now take for granted.

4. Red Queen – Matt Ridley

So Zog, the alien, lands on earth and learns all about sexual reproduction. They just clone themselves when they feel like having a baby and they are fascinated by our world of love, marriage, attraction, sexual jealousy etc., which are frankly… alien to them. Before giving her a top rating, her boss asks her what sex is for. Why is it any better than asexual cloning? Zod admits that even the humans did not know the answer for sure. From there the first third of the book, tries to go to the world when sexual reproduction first made its mark on planet earth. Ridley himself admits that this part maybe boring for most people, but was a fascinating read. Later the book treads regular Mars-Venus arguments but with more élan.

3. How the mind works – Steven Pinker

This book has taken up a rather sprawling subject and you’d think that it would struggle to find a direction. But this book was a wonderful journey in facts and thoughts. He begins explaining what robots do and then explains how even simple human tasks are much more complex than what the most complex robots can do. This is of course a given. We all know that even simple organisms are more complex than robots. But it is not a straw man argument. He kind of uses it to explain the complexity of the stuff we do on an everyday basis. He moves on to more familiar territory of how evolution shaped human emotions to be what they are.

2. Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins

Definitely the best book Dawkins ever wrote. My #1 favorite is also by Dawkins but technically, this is his best. Selfish Gene was not easy to understand as I involuntarily objected to everything Dawkins was saying. Molecules of DNA acting as if it has a mind of its own and individual animals and plants being merely steps DNA’s progress to immortality is not something I could grasp immediately but it is a powerful allegory to explain something rather difficult to understand. But once I did understand what he was getting at, I felt a sort of ephemeral happiness.

1.     Ancestor’s Tale – Richard Dawkins

The book starts with modern humans taking a journey to the beginning of life. We meet our ancestors –Ape-like ancestors, Monkey-like ancestors, early mammalian ancestors and fish-like ancestors and then the journey continues into invertebrates and finally those proto-creatures than were neither plants nor animals. It is safe to assume that most people aren’t very interested in worms or fungi. But Dawkins makes it all sound so fascinating and I do plan to read it one more time when I can.


Baby steps in Meditation

The decision to give meditation a shot came when I saw an image in Pinterest that said, “You’d never know what you are missing in life until you meditate 20 minutes a day.” It was the beginning of January when I was eager to clean up my act so I thought “Why not?”

I did not exactly take to meditation like fish to water. I was (and am) suspicious. So here is what I learnt.

The beginning was the easiest. Pick a place, wear comfortable clothes, dim lights to a certain extent, make sure you are happy with the fan’s speed and the air conditioner’s settings and off you go to the land of deeply breathing in and slowly breathing out. You breathe slowly and all you think is “Woo hoo, look who is meditating” but with a calmer quieter inner voice. This is simplicity itself. I was sure that this is one of those things that I just did naturally well. The next day was even better but I was getting slightly aware that my lungs were not used to this workout and was asking me what the hell I was playing at.

But soon the power of concentration and meditation decreased. I don’t quite know why this was so. Maybe I was not approaching meditation with sufficient reverence anymore. I started getting hungry during meditation time. I hardly found the time and when I did find the time, it did not feel good anymore. I was losing the meditation mojo I already had.

I had to add a few more rules like light snacking before meditating and not attempting meditation when too sleepy. But what are the tangible benefits that I can speak off? Is it really worth my time to spend close to 20 minutes?

Frankly the main point of meditation seems to be that you are not checking Whatsapp messages or twitter feed or Facebook feed, so instead of the outside world telling the mind what to think, the mind is permitted to be itself. At this time my mind doesn’t become less active. It becomes more active and reviews the parts of my life that needs more thought. I remember friends I need to catch up with, I remember that it is high time I visited my dentist and I remember that it has been some time since I returned blogging. But I also get time to reflect that what someone said was probably not what they meant. I take time to read between the lines. Delightful parts of my childhood pops in and in this process the thoughts get in line and the innards of my mind appears to be clean and dust free.

Is there any practical use? Yes. As I was saying, commitments you have been procrastinating and pushing aside will haunt you more and you will get more done. You’d review yourself and that will result in small changes. Perhaps you will find that you consciously drink more water or that you consider keeping away from someone who has been a gossipy presence in your life. Or may be you’d decide to enroll yourself in a Karate class after all these years. I am not sure what you will change after you start meditating. But something will change.


Logging off online games… for now

I used to look in awe at the world of gaming where people crashed cars and shot enemy soldiers with elan. I couldn’t get around to doing so. I certainly tried Road Rash and a few of those games. Even Harry Potter video game where we are supposed to learn a few spells left me cold. I certainly was not prepared to handle Voldemort in the last stage, when I could close the game app instead.

But the world of gaming understood. It realised that not everyone is willing to step into mazes and slay dragons. It offered games for tamer people. I have a 3 hour commute (including to and fro) and these games keep me company and in a very seemingly benign way. Soon I had secret goals that I wanted to achieve and saw the common pattern in these various outings. Logging in every single day without missing your streak gives you such big rewards and you for a time don’t see nothing wrong with filing it under everyday must dos. Just go in and come out and a good 150 gold coins/boosters are credited and you see no harm in it.  You see more gold than you do in real life and they fall into your storage with a clinking sound. Delightful.

The one thing that I object in all these games is the way the game tries to trick you into clicking the “Buy gems/coins/” button. Not once have I consented or even been tempted to buy extra help but it grates on me when they try incesstantly.

I have seen both medical and casual articles put this addiction down to serotonin overdose. Be that as it may as the Big Boss mania overtook Tamil Nadu, I realised for the first time why I was captivated with this world. It was devoid of jealousy, backbiting, two timing and other stuff that exhaust me. That isn’t how I want to wind up my days. I prefer to sink into a pillow and feed my fake cows or serve hamburgers to fake hungry customers for I know where I am with these predictable creatures. But the time has come to swear off online games. At least until the end of 2017, I will not be logging into any of these games. I found twitter just as exhausting with all the hustle and bustle. I deleted that app too.

So what am I going to fill my time with instead? I don’t know, but it is not going to be another online game.

Quick Look:

-> In Candy Crush, you swap colored candies. So much more challenging than it sounds. I stopped crushing candies at 1550 or so.

-> In Clash of Clan is all about raiding neighbours to build your own strong defenses. It does not feel so bad as all that once you do start doing it. I took Clash of Clan as a sort of challenge. An ardent clash of clanner may not see his game as a benigngame what with all the cannons and mortars. But CoC is suffiently cartoonish to look past that and it to me felt not very different to the other games I obssess over. I just build one wall after another with the same ardent fascination that a child builds a lego wall.

-> In Township, you get to plant wheat and corn and use them to make bread and cornflakes. Or you feed them to cows and milk them and make milk based recipes. Soon your fields are extremely productive and so are your mines and foundry and farms and factories. And your zoo. Feels and looks delightful. Best way to finish your tiring day. Easily the one game which made me lose control of time.

-> In Cooking fever, you get to serve hamburgers and cool drinks but cook much more complicated stuff including exotic desserts. And all this without the mess and the heat of a real kitchen. I did not reach dizzying heights there.  I am not built for this sort of thing. It is exhausting. I watched videos and saw that the game gets more maddening as levels progress. So I quit.

Book Extracts, Books, Uncategorized

The American Native and the Moon Spirits

An extract from Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I found it delightful. 🙂

In the months leading up to their moon voyage expedition, the Apollo 11 astronauts trained in a remote moon-like desert in the western United States. The area is home to several Native American communities, and there is a story – or legend – describing an encounter between the astronauts and one of the locals. One day as they were training, the astronauts came across an old Native American. The man asked them what they were doing there. They replied that they were part of a research expedition that would shortly travel to explore the moon. When the old man heard that, he fell silent for a few moments, and then asked the astronauts if they could do him a favour.

‘What do you want?’ they asked.

‘Well,’ said the old man, ‘the people of my tribe believe that holy spirits live on the moon. I was wondering if you could pass an important message to them from my people.’

‘What’s the message?’ asked the astronauts.

The man uttered something in his tribal language, and then asked the astronauts to repeat it again and again until they had memorised it correctly.

‘What does it mean?’ asked the astronauts.

‘Oh, I cannot tell you. It’s a secret that only our tribe and the moon spirits are allowed to know.’

When they returned to their base, the astronauts searched and searched until they found someone who could speak the tribal language, and asked him to translate the secret message. When they repeated what they had memorised, the translator started to laugh uproariously. When he calmed down, the astronauts asked him what it meant. The man explained that the sentence they had memorised so carefully said, ‘Don’t believe a single word these people are telling you. They have come to steal your lands.’

Books, Harry Potter, On Writing

Where do I begin?

I am not sure why don’t write regularly on the blog anymore. It isn’t as if I don’t have time. I do. It isn’t as if I don’t have topics anymore. I have plenty of those. And it isn’t as if I have moved on to any other platform to express myself. I do not know anything better than a blog to express your thoughts.

I want to write about Hermione and what she means to me. I want to write about voyeurism. I want to talk about the story tellers who told me more than just stories. And that is just the beginning.

It is just that I am now getting very aware of how difficult writing can be. None of the topics I want to pick next is going to take an hour or two. Each is worth a month of obsession. But how long can a woman wear a swimsuit and stare at the deep end of the pool? Some day you have to take a plunge.

The next post will be about the Potterverse. So what intrigued you most about the Harry Potter Universe? Tell me so I know where to begin.


The dog-lovers and the rest of us

I was listening to a conversation between a mother of a 3 year old daughter and the owner of a 3 year old dog. The conversation was held most amicably but I could see how different their stances were. I was not a part of that conversation but could identify strongly with one of them. If you think your dog is like your child, here are a few things that I would like to tell you.

Firstly, I teach my daughter to behave herself and teaching her manners was not easy. She learnt to say hello, please and thank you when appropriate when she was very young. If your dog non-verbally displays similar manners, I will pat its head and be nice. If not, admit that you are a bad parent/owner. I have seen very well-mannered dogs that will understand the guests and come to cuddle only if invited. Teach your dog that. Child-rearing is not about buying toys and cutting birthday cakes and running on the beach sand. It is about helping the child make sense of the world she is brought into and if you are a dog-owner, the same is expected out of you too.

Don’t say “Dora is not a dog”. Of course she is. She is a canine. She barks and howls and has four legs and a tail. You love the dog like a daughter and that is your right. That does not mean that the barking is a cute sound or that the growling dog has to seem less than intimidating in my eyes. The dog does not become an honorary child in the view of the world and it doesn’t have to. Dora probably likes being a dog.

Don’t feed the dog with your hands; it freaks the rest of us out. Tell the dog that begging for food at the dining table is not a decent habit. Think how you’d feel if I did the same with a komodo dragon and expected you to be cool with it. That is the extent to which dogs freak us out.

I can’t talk on behalf of the rest of the non-dog-loving population, but I personally do know and understand that dogs are intelligent and sweet and loving. Anecdotes about how Dora loves nail polish and begs for it will not make me an instant dog-lover. It is possible to expect a decent distance even after appreciating the complexity of canine (or feline) behavior.

Think twice before you say “Children are more annoying and I hate them.” I understand that you love your pet like a child and most people are not going to give heartfelt condolences when you lose your pet to old age or illness. They will not understand if you take the day off when the dog is sick. But just don’t say “I hate babies” to a parent of a human baby. It is incredibly rude.

Maybe it is different in other countries, but I think here in India we have neither got the hang of managing our own pets nor respecting the pets of others.

* The whole “I hate babies” brigade should probably be a separate topic. So many people like to say that they don’t like babies, that it is almost a trend now.


The acid question

I recently noticed this. Whenever I have the mildest disagreement with a man and then go ahead and discuss it with a woman her response is always, “Please be careful, he might turn spiteful and throw acid on you”. I don’t mean a specific woman but women in general.

I am almost always amused at this reaction. It can make sense if I had a huge public row with the man in question and insulted him in such a way to hurt his pride or if he has shown any evidence of having obsession towards me. But often this is about very mild disagreements the way a human person disagrees with another human person.

Have we really gone too far in teaching women that men should be kept at a safe distance? Do we vilify men too much? Where do we get the “Aiyayo ethavathu pannira poraan” from?