Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The currents of space (Written by Isaac Asimov) - Published in 1952

Isaac Asimov was a prolific writer, somebody who write fiction and non-fiction in vast numbers, starting with writing science fiction stories that magazines would scoop up (although sometimes if one magazine rejected it, another would take it). He has even written science textbooks, and during a period in his career, was so interested in writing non-fiction books that he practically stopped writing his science fiction. Over his long career, he is most famous for 2 specific series of science fiction books, these being the books about robots (in fact, there is this logical set of laws called The three laws of robotics that he introduced in his books), and the Foundation series (about a massive galactic empire of the future, and how it starts to fail because it is too big and full of inertia, and needs to be replaced by The Foundation).
The Currents of Space is one of his early novels, having been published in 1952, before the first spaceship went into orbit and before a lot of research into space had really been conducted. Although it is to be said, Asimov's novels are not so much about science fiction as they are about describing societal behavior of human societies of the future, their problems, their evolution, and so on. If you read these books and love them, you will love all the Asimov books, even the ones which are not his best (such as The Currents of Space),



Part of the future as per Asimov is where mankind has gone through several rounds of settlement in planets outside the solar system, with society either using robots or totally staying away from robots. Now, millions of world have been settled, and the Galactic Empire, based at Trantor as the center, is slowly forming, absorbing worlds in order to grow. There are planets which are independent, although there are political games happening between Trantor and these planets. One of these planets is Sark, which rules another planet called Florina. The reason to keep Florina subjugated is that for some reason, a wonderful fiber called 'kyrt', grows here, and here only. All attempts to grow it elsewhere to the level found on Florina have failed. Continued capture of Florina ensures that Sark has the market for 'kyrt' and earns massively. Sark has setup a captive bureaucracy on Florina and rules with an iron hand (this entire set is based on the concept of Southern slave-owners having slaves to work on their cotton fields).
The novel starts with a person trying to communicate a major discovery, but is captured and a psychic probe is applied, which ensures that the person will reveal their secret, but also loses a large portion of mental capacity and becomes like a child. That is Rik, who is found on Florina and is struggling to get mental capacity back. A girl in Florina takes care of him, even though she works in a mill and has quotas to meet, helped by a local Florinan official, who seemingly works for Sark. The story spins further and further, with Sark trying to determine exactly what is happening, agents for Trantor trying to put their own finger here, and the ever growing memory of Rik and his realization that something serious is about to happen to Florina.
Read this novel; it's not very long but is decently interesting.

The currents of space (Written by Isaac Asimov) - Published in 1952

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

World War 2 Book - The Day of Battle (Authored by Rick Atkinson)

For most people, their knowledge of the Second World War in terms of action are some battle scenes - Pearl Harbor, the African theatre, Battle for Stalingrad, Dunkirk, and the Normandy landings. One of the largest theaters of action during the 1943-44 phase (besides the Russian offensive on the Eastern front) was the action in Sicily and Italy. If you were to ask people besides historians about what happened in Italy during the Second World War, most people can only talk about Mussolini, but not too many more details. The Italian campaign was a significant campaign, involving men from many different countries (British, British commonwealth and territories, the Poles, and the American army). For the American army, it was significant. Their introduction into the African battle theater was not very positive, since the German army out-fought them. In the European theater, called the Fortress Germany because the Nazis controlled most of the continent, attacking the Italian theater would bring in the Nazi war machine to defend Sicily and Italy.



Another massive advantage that this entire theater brought to the American army was the blooding that it did to the army. It exposed it to war where it defeated the German war machine at many fronts, forced the development of tactics. At the same time, it also exposed them to the problems of war, with fierce German resistance preventing the movement at many fronts. The landings of Anzio provides lessons to armies even now.
The advantage of this book is about the research that has gone into providing the details of the various battles and confrontations that happened during this stage. The defeat and push back of the German armies from Sicily and evacuation from the entire island was a series of skirmishes and battles, with the German armies not being a pushover, fighting hard and also being intelligent thinkers. During the entire campaign, the German army essentially took over the Italian war campaign from the Axis side, with the Italian army not being too much in the picture.
During these battles, not everything was positive. There were failures from the various army leaders and generals, some of these were removed from their command positions during the course of these battles, and the person who developed a great reputation during these battles was also forced to relinquish his command and go into exile (this being General Patton, who slapped 2 soldiers for what he believed was cowardice and had to face severe problems when these slaps became public knowledge).
The book provides a lot of details of the entire campaign, something that a student of the war effort, or one who wants to read about this entire campaign. A must read book.

World War 2 Book - The Day of Battle (Authored by Rick Atkinson)

Monday, October 12, 2015

Political commentary: A history of the US Republican Party

In the charged political atmosphere of the United States as of today, there is a clear divergence between the 2 political parties - the Democratic and the Republican Party. Supporters of either party criticize the prevalent policies and trends of each party - the Democratic party is seen as a liberal party which is more supportive of minorities and more supportive of give-aways to the poor; the Republican party is seen as more conservative, more trying to attempt financial balancing, representing the white old section of the country which somehow feels that the country is moving away from the principles that have been in vogue for the past century. Supporters of either party feel that the other party is being irrational and not representing the best for the future of the country.
However, it would surprise a lot of people if they heard about history, about how the party have changed their spots over the years. How would people feel if they realized that the Republican Party was the party to which Lincoln belonged, and how the Democratic party was the one representing the south and on the losing end of the Civil War. It was the Democratic Party that was called the party of traitors, trying to break the union and fighting to support slavery. It is this history of the Republican Party that is sought to be explained in this book, first released in 2003, and then re-published in 2014.




The book covers the entire history of the Republican Party, its more than 150 years history and covers the response of the Party to the election of Barack Obama, and the weak candidates that the party set against him. One caveat is that the book is written by a person (Lewis L. Gould) who identified himself to have liberal leanings and hence is a supporter of the Democratic Party. So, the book seeks to be objective and tries to present the history of the party, covering the various twists of the evolution of the party into its current form.
One major chapter in this transformation was the period of the 1950's-1960's, or even more specifically the 1960's when the Civil Rights movement was at its peak, and where the Democratic Presidents brought in the various acts to ensure the total removal of segregation, a step which the party also realized that meant that the Democratic Party had lost the support of the south for a generation, a gap that was quickly taken up by the Republican Party. At a time of rapid change in society, the Republican Party was able to take on the mantle of appealing to people who sought stability and the values that they had seen in their young times, and who valued conservatism. The book is certainly worth reading, for a supporter and even for those who don't understand why the Republican Party is what it is.

Political commentary: A history of the US Republican Party

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Stars, Like Dust (Published in 1951) - Authored by Isaac Asimov - Not regarded as one of his better novels

This novel is different from the other novels of Asimov; for one, there is a lot more action (if you read the Foundation or even the Robot novels, there is a lot more play of society, of thought, of classes, of intrigue, but not so much action). However, at the same time, it is not really a very strong novel; if you read it, you might think some lesser writer had written it as compared to the author who wrote the original Foundation novel at approximately the same time.
Isaac Asimov was an incredibly prolific author. Over the years, he has written a massive number of book, but he is not only a science fiction write. For many years in between, he was also involved in writing a large number of non-fiction books, and this period saw him write very few science fiction, being more involved in writing these books. However, he is more known for his science fiction writing, and more specifically for the Foundation Series as well as the Laws of Robotics that were present through his books. Even though we do not have the kind of robots that he introduced in his books, the same ethical debates about the capabilities of robots that we produce is based on the discussion of the 3 Laws of Robotics.




One of the problems of his different stages of writing these books was that he would try to stitch the same thread and history in the books he had. However, stitching this book into his future chronology was always going to be difficult. For those familiar with the Foundation, this book was about a time period before the establishment of the Galactic empire founded on Trantor, and Earth is known (which it is not known any more during the Galactic empire).
Actually, the plot of the novel can make the head spin a bit. It is about conspiracies, and quests to escape the tyranny of a particular set of people, called, wait for it, the Tyranni (because they come from the planet Tyrann). They control a set of 50 planets, located near the Horsehead Nebula, and one way to ensure that these plants remain in their control is by limiting the amount of knowledge of science and space travel in this area.
The hero of the novel is Biron Farrill, who is studying at University, and whose father, a powerful leader, called the Lord Rancher of Widemos, was executed by the Tyranni, and how his own life would be in danger, and in fact, there apparently is an attempt on his life. He is advised to travel to one of the captured planet called Rhodia, and after that, his life is a series of dueling and escaping from the Tyranni and their agents. A lot of their quest is for a rebellion world, where there is the seeds of a rebellion against the Tyranni and which they must find, while they are being chased so that the rebellious world can be found and the rebellion stopped. And so on, but the end of the novel is disappointing.

The Stars, Like Dust (Published in 1951) - Authored by Isaac Asimov - Not regarded as one of his better novels

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Down and Out in Paris and London (Published in 1933) - Authored by George Orwell

Published in 1933, Down and Out in Paris and London is author George Orwell’s first full length work. A 2 part memoir on the after effects of financial crisis the world over, especially after the Wall Street crash of 1929, this book is very different from most in its genre. The reason being that Orwell did not spout about the hardships of poverty and financial difficulties from the sidelines; but was very much living the nightmare - first in Paris, as a teacher, and then in London, where he recorded his travels.
The first half of the book deals with Orwell’s experiences in Paris, especially when he finds that he has only 450 francs on him. After putting a down payment of 200 francs as rent, he tells himself that he will somehow manage on 250 francs till he finds a better job than his present work situation, which offered him only 36 francs a week for teaching students. However, disaster strikes in the life of Orwell, in the form of a robbery. His remaining measly 250 francs get stolen from his room, leaving him with 40 odd francs which he had on himself. To make matters worse his students quit, leaving him 36 francs a week short. He explains vividly how it felt to be poor and on the brink of starvation every day.
Orwell describes for the readers how there was an abundance of food everywhere, staring at him through windows, making him dream and plot of grabbing a hot loaf and running, maybe even putting some in his mouth before anyone could catch up to him. Poverty and hunger are almost always accompanied by idleness.




Orwell finally turned to a Russian friend by the name of Boris, for help. However Boris was in a far worse state than Orwell, surviving on 2 francs a day and sleeping on the floor. But, the two get together and start looking for jobs. They find some luck when they are both given jobs as “Plongeurs”, at Hotel X. Their job is basically to wash the dishes and help serve the patrons. Orwell describes with revolting clarity how the richer the patrons were, the more unhygienic and dirty their food would be. While everything looks clean on the outside, the kitchens and other areas which were not open to guests, remained filthy and pest ridden.
They barely scraped by on the money from Hotel X. Soon after, both Orwell and Boris went to work for a Russian hotel, which was even worse. From there, Orwell managed to score a job in London. However, he arrived in London only to find that his to be employer has changed his mind. Once again homeless and jobless, Orwell now provides detailed descriptions of what it means to be jobless in London.
London, where a jobless wanderer cannot even sit on the pavement to rest his heels for fear of being arrested, turned out to be much worse during unemployment and financial distress than Paris. Forced to wander the streets, Orwell provides a very constructive view of the homeless people in London, known as “Tramps”. He believes they should be given small plots of land to farm and grow their own food. He does not think them to be lazy but those who are stuck in unforgiving circumstances.
While all the events that occurred in the book are stated to be true at some point or the other, Orwell has definitely taken some creative liberty in the arrangement of the events. Though entirely factual, the sequence of events and their narration for a more dramatic effect does make the book part fiction. But, overall the book is an authentic read on poverty and hunger during the world’s financial crisis, especially since it is not a third persons point of view but written by someone who was surrounded by these challenges himself.
Except for a bit of racial slurring, particularly where he describes people, the book is a must read. But then again, Orwell has compiled his memoirs at a time when racial slurring was not looked down upon with the same hatred as it is today. A must read for anyone who wishes to understand what a majority of the world’s population went through after the Wall Street crash of 1929.

Down and Out in Paris and London (Published in 1933) - Authored by George Orwell

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Burmese Days (Published in 1934) - A book by George Orwell

A fictional novel based on the Imperial rule of Burma in the 1920’s, Burmese Days is yet another fine piece of work by author George Orwell. Having lived in Burma from 1922 to 1927, Orwell has created a fictional story based on his adventures, exploits and experiences of Burma under the British rule. This book took particularly long to get published. First on account of the many years it took Orwell to write it, and then on account of the fact that publishers, including Orwell’s usual publisher, shied away from publishing something which could be termed as libel. Eventually the book was published not in London or any part of Europe, but rather in the U.S in 1934.
The book was termed as inaccurate on many accounts especially by the Burmese people, who felt that Orwell’s account let their people down. Orwell had replied to this general outrage and feeling, by saying that it may have been harsh ad unfair, but most of it is him reporting things through the means of fictional characters, just the way he saw it.
The story begins with 3 central characters, a local corrupt Burmese magistrate by the name of U Po Kyin, who has been scheming for a place in the prestigious British club. However he knows that as long as Dr. Veraswami, a man of great reputation, stood in his way, he did not stand a chance. To make mattes more difficult, Dr. Veraswami is shown to be good friends with a pukka sahib, John Flory. And as long as the good doctor remains friends with this European man, U Po Kyin cannot be a member of the club.




He schemes to malign the name of the doctor, and even attempts to send a letter to John Flory subtly threatening him. He spreads rumors about how the doctor holds strong “anti-British” feelings and is disloyal to the British rulers. Meanwhile, John Flory’s story unfolds. He feels lost and alienated because of the many years he has spent in Burma. He feels the British are not there to be good administrators but to plunder and seek out their own vested interests. When he voices his concerns to Dr. Veraswami, the doctor is concerned and tries to steer him away from these negative thoughts.
Flory has also kept a Burmese mistress. However, his preconceived racial notions make him feel that it would be best to have a British wife. His dreams seem to be coming true when Elizabeth Lackersteen, the orphaned niece of a local timber firm manager arrives. He rescues her from a supposed attack of a water buffalo and the two of them instantaneously get along. They bond over the next few days and even go out shooting together, where he shoots a leopard and promises to give her the skin as a gift.
However, Flory does not know all that much about Elizabeth and how she secretly hates the foreign country and all its locals. She chooses to hide these facts from Flory when he is about to propose. However, the proposal gets cut short when Elizabeth’s aunt learns that a certain military police lieutenant by the name of Verall arrives. Her aunt feels that Verall would prove to be a better match for Elizabeth and throws a deliberate wrench in the “love” of Elizabeth and Flory by telling Elizabeth of Flory’s Burmese mistress.
Flory tries everything to get her back but to no avail. In the meantime some incidents spark up a riot in the small town. The anti-British riot is only gotten under control because of the work done by Dr. Veraswami and Flory. As a result Dr. Veraswami is given a seat in the prestigious club. Verall leaves unexpectedly and without informing anyone, leaving Elizabeth heartbroken. Seeing this as an opportunity, Flory swoops in and proposes to Elizabeth. She is thrilled and agrees to marry him.
However, U Po Kyin who had been seeking an opportunity to destroy Dr. Veraswami finds his chance at the wedding of Elizabeth and Flory. He sends Flory’s old mistress to create a scene at the wedding, which results in Elizabeth storming away and telling Flory she wants nothing to do with him. Heartbroken and miserable, Flory kills himself and his dog. Soon after, Dr. Veraswami is also released from his post in the British club, which he relinquishes to Kyin. But before Kyin plans on how he will atone for his sins now that he has been given this position of power, he dies of apoplexy. An interesting read which has a strong basis in reality. Many of the characters described in the book are said to be true. Orwell uses his experiences in Burma in the 1920’s, to create a story about the colonial life in a way which is as realistic and unsparing in its view of people, cultures and races. The book is a fine example of social metaphysics, which explains that what other people think will contribute and create reality.

Burmese Days (Published in 1934) - A book by George Orwell

Friday, May 15, 2015

Twelve Days of Terror: Shark Attacks in 1916 - Terror on the beach and in a creek

Shark attacks are one of the most scary horrors that people think of when they think of going into the water. The prospect of a perfect and unfeeling predator swimming silently to a person in the water, and biting large chunks of flesh, causing a death by horrific blood loss is bound to scare even the most courageous of people. The rattling off statistics that the number of deaths caused by shark attacks is mostly in the single digits worldwide and hence very unlikely to happen does not reduce the scare. Even now, the prospect of a shark in the waters can bring all the swimmers out of the water; although studies which show that sharks and people swimming side by side in the waters off Sydney show that sharks just don't attack people; there are some reasons why an attack would have happened.
But why this fear of sharks ? Why this unsettling feeling when there is even some news of a shark in the water ? A lot of people based it on a very popular movie called 'Jaws' (released in 1975, and based on a novel by Peter Benchley, published in 1974), which showed a small beach town terrorized by a great white shark and how people died in these attacks. The prospect of such a common pastime, going to the beach and swimming in the water, suddenly becoming so dangerous, stayed in the minds of people and caused the movie to become a major event (and a marked negative influence for the health of the many species of sharks). But the novel was not just fiction. It was based on attacks that took place in 1916, during the First World War, in the waters off New Jersey, where a great white shark not only killed people in the water off the coast, but even came inland in a creek and killed more people (for a total of 4 dead and one badly injured). These incidents have all been forgotten, if not for this book, whose author Richard Fernicola did extensive research on these attacks and describes these events in terrifying details.

Book: Twelve Days of TerrorMovie: 12 Days of TerrorMovie: Jaws

Doing research on these attacks was not easy. The attacks happened nearly a century back and recollection of these events was not easy. Further, the First World War was happening in that timeframe, which made research so much time later even more difficult, The book does not only describe the events which happened, but also provides a lot of information about sharks and why the attacks could have taken place. And how did the author get interested in this story ? He heard a conversation about these attacks, which caused him to get interested, and led to a lot of research and finally the emergence of this book.
The book also provides information about the nature of the attacks and describes the wounds caused on the dead and the survivor; something that most modern day attacks do not actually describe. What is most interesting is the research about why the attacks could have taken place, and if you see modern documentaries that research shark attacks, in a lot of cases, there are conclusions that it was some activity of man (or in some cases, natural causes) that in turn change the behavior of the shark and could cause these attacks.

Twelve Days of Terror: Shark Attacks in 1916 - Terror on the beach and in a creek