Friday, January 29, 2016

Heretic, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali - Review

Heretic - Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now
by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Good start, but runs out of steam early on, and gallops mostly on hot air after that.

That Islam needs a reformation, and urgently, is not in debate, for most. The unfolding tragedy of the civil war Syria, where an estimated forty per cent of its population (yes, two of every five people) has been displaced as a result of the largely Shia-Sunni conflict is just one example. Islam is often said to be in the same state as where Christianity was a few hundred years ago. "Reformation" helped bring in a gradual moderation of the more violent and extremist facets of Christianity - especially the Church. While the zealous streak of "soul-harvesting" and proselytization by missionaries still threatens serious unrest wherever it rears its ugly head, it is nonetheless an undeniable fact that Christianity of the twenty-first century looks little like the Christianity of the medieval ages. Ali calls for a similar "reformation" in Islam. This book however does not succeed in making a cogent case for such a reformation, nor does it get down to specifics in any coherent way that could provide a basis for serious discussion - beyond what can be found by a quick reading of Wikipedia or even Twitter. What little usefulness the book offered is however drowned out by an uncritical adulation of everything western and a blind faith in western social mores as a panacea to all ills of the Muslim world. This book is perhaps targeted at the western reader who is looking for comforting validation of existing stereotypes about the Arab and Muslim world - it may provide a comforting cocoon, but will not shed light on the vexing issue that is in crying need of serious debate.

Long review:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's rise from a Somalian refugee escaping a forced marriage, to seeking asylum in the Netherlands, to becoming an elected member of the Dutch parliament, to her landing at the Harvard Kennedy School, and becoming a target for jihadis and the recipient of endless death threats, evokes admiration for the single-minded courage that she has shown in the face of such unremitting intimidation from fundamentalists over the years.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Tales from the Mahabharata 17 - Charity

When trying to opine on an epic like the Mahabharata, perhaps the most appropriate way to keep one’s ego in check to be reminded of a verse from Ch 279 of the Shanti Parva, Moksha Dharma, that describes among the reasons for grief being "a foolish person who is eloquent." I pray that I avoid the curse that otherwise may befall the eloquent but foolish person!

Yudhishthira, Bhisma
[credit: Mahabharata, Gita Press]
The festival of lights is with us. There is talk of giving and charity and receiving and wanting and wishing in this time of Diwali. It is only appropriate that we take a look at a story about Lakshmi, found in Ch 218 of Shanti Parva, Moksha Dharma. Indra saw Shri emerge from Bali. Bali had seen better days; he now roamed the earth in the form of an ass, bereft of all his riches, his power, his glory. Indra, never one to let go of an opportunity to gloat, approached Bali, taunting him. In-between their dialogue, Indra saw Shri emerge from Bali. Intrigued, he approached her. She replied, "I am known as Duhsaha and also known as Shri, Lakshmi. … Dhata and Vidhata cannot control me. Time determines my movement." Shri then asked Indra to bear her; i.e. she had left Bali because he had left the path of dharma, had become intoxicated with power. She wanted to reside elsewhere. Much as Indra was a jealous god, even he knew his limitations. And by the way, we know that Indra is to blame (or should take at least substantial credit) for the start of the Bharata dynasty, for wasn’t it on his bidding that Menaka, the celestial apsara, descended down on earth to tempt Viswamitra from his tapasya. Wasn’t the union of that distraction the birth of Shakuntala, who would become the mother of Sarvadamana. Sarvadamana - who would go on to be known better as Bharata? Indra replied to Shri’s request, "There is no single man amongst gods, humans, or amongst all beings, who is capable of bearing you forever." Shri then asked Indra to divide her into four equal parts. And thus Shri was vested one quarter on earth, one quarter in clear water, one quarter in the fire, and one quarter in the virtuous

Sunday, January 3, 2016

India A Sacred Geography, by Diana Eck - Review

India: A Sacred Geography, by Diana L Eck

Diana L. Eck "is professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University and is Master of Lowell House and Director of the Pluralism Project." She has written an atlas of sorts of the connectedness and shared mythology that binds the people of the Indian subcontinent with Hinduism.

While I have not yet completed reading the book, I did want to pen down and share my thoughts based on what she has written about two sacred places that are associated with Lord Krishna and Lord Rama. These are Dwarka and Ayodhya.

Friday, December 18, 2015

E-Commerce in India - A tide lifting many boats

India, with an estimated population of 1.2 billion, had more than 900 million mobile subscribers in 2014. Of these, about 150 million were smartphone subscribers. As more and more people get connected to high-speed Internet, mostly via smartphones, it is estimated that there will be more than 400 million smartphone subscribers in India by 2018. India has already gained the attention of the world's leading Internet companies. India is Facebook's second largest market in terms of monthly active users, the largest market for WhatsApp, the fastest growing market for Twitter, and so on. The implications on e-commerce are even more significant. The e-commerce market in India, which is expected to cross $25 billion in 2015, has attracted billions of dollars in venture capital funding, giving rise to a second e-commerce boom in the country. Unlike the dot-com boom at the turn of the century, that was driven almost wholly on the illusory metrics of and "page-views", with little to no real revenue behind those "clicks", the story this time is different. The e-commerce boom in India is a tide that is lifting many boats.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Rearming Hinduism, by Vamsee Juluri - Review

Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia and the Return of Indian Intelligence Paperback, by Vamsee Juluri (@VamseeJuluri)

Who controls the history of a people controls the people. Colonization of the land is easier to fight than colonization of the mind. Who gets to define Hinduism today? Should they? For those who have, what's their agenda, their motives? For those who support, what drives them?

Academia in the United States has a well-deserved reputation for independence, and exercises far greater intellectual honesty - for the most part - than compared to, say, many of the leftist-controlled institutions in India. This streak of honesty breaks down, however, when it comes to Indology, and especially Hinduism studies. Almost without exception, Hinduism as a subject in US academia has for decades been in the control of the racists, the xenophobes, the bigots, the supremacists, and at times the outright insane! Like the person who insisted in an "acclaimed" book that "most of India" lay in the Northern Hemisphere (for the record, and this is not a matter of opinion - all of India is entirely within the Northern Hemisphere; not "most", but every square-inch. In fact, the southernmost tip of India - Kanyakumari - is a good 800 kilometers north of the Equator, and has been that way for at least the last 15 million years)!!!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Rise of the Robots - 3

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future
Martin Ford

Part 3 of 3 (part 1, part 2)

As 2014 drew to a close, the Indian IT industry was rocked by rumours that TCS (the largest Indian IT company by annual revenues) had completed an internal review and had initiated lay offs of thousands of employees - mostly in middle management. Some stories talked about a number as high as 30,000. The saga finally ended with a round of clarifications and denials by TCS and some well-deserved opprobrium over its inept handling of the needless controversy. What the fracas however served to highlight was a stark truth that's been staring at the Indian IT industry for some time now - the skills that the typical Indian IT worker possesses are mostly undifferentiated and prime candidates for automation.
What is worse, from at least one perspective, is the fact that (smart) humans have built technology that has becoming adept at "engineering the labor out of the product." One will need to be particularly myopic to not also recognize that "the machines are coming for the higher-skill jobs as well." This much should have been clear in part two of this series, through the examples I cited from Martin Ford's book.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Rise of the Robots - 2

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future
Martin Ford

Part 2 of 3 (part 1)

Machines have been able to do mechanical jobs faster than humans, with greater precision, and for longer periods of time - the cotton gin invented in the eighteenth century for example. The inevitable loss of jobs called for a re-skilling of the people affected, and the mantra went that you had to pull yourself up by your socks, learn a new skill, and get productive again. Martin Ford's book shatters that illusion. There is not a single profession left - whether unskilled or skilled, whether in technology or medicine or liberal arts, whether one that can be performed remotely or requires direct human interaction - that is not at threat from the machines. Whichever way you slice and dice it, you are left facing one or the other variation of a dystopian future, with stark income inequalities, a substantial population that will require doles on a permanent doles, and the concomitant social upheavals.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Rise of the Robots - 1

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future
Martin Ford

Part 1 of 3

"I'm smart; you're dumb. I'm big; you're small. I'm right; you're wrong. And there's nothing you can do about it."

Thus spake Harry Wormwood in the movie "Matilda". This well could be the message that robots will have for us in the not too distant future. The dramatic improvements in the speed, the accuracy, and the areas in which computers have begun to comprehensively outperform humans leads one to believe that while a so-called singularity may well be some ways off, the more immediate effects of this automation are already being felt in permanent job losses. In a country like India, which has used digital technologies quite effectively in the last decade and a half to grow a $150 billion IT-BPM industry, the impact could be devastating - especially where an estimated 10 million people are employed.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Deepavali 2015

Deepavali (also called Diwali in much of North India) came this year on the 11th of November, 2015. The date, as per the Gregorian calendar, is quite meaningless. But if you look at this tithi (date) according to the Hindu calendar, light strikes! It was Ashwin amavasya, of Krishna paksha. Which means it was a moonless night. As Rama and Sita, along with Lakshman, returned to Ayodhya, the stars were the only heavenly bodies that provided light.  Thus the residents of Ayodhya, having waited for more than fourteen years for their prince, lit lamps to light the way. In more ways than one, they were dispelling the darkness that had persisted in Ayodhya for many years. 

Yugas have passed, but the thought and tradition lives on.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Tales from the Mahabharata - 15 - When Bhima Was At a Loss of Words

Bhima throws an elephant at Karna
(credit: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
That Bhima was a man of action is not in dispute. One could write an epic in itself on Bhima's love for letting his actions do the talking. But do not think his words lacked a punch either! Far from it. Bhima was never short of strong words either. Let us examine a few instances.

Yudhishthira's weakness for gambling combined with his ineptness at the game to hand over his kingdom, liberty, his brothers and wife to the Kauravas. Bhima had watched quietly as Yudhishthira had gambled away - losing round after round - everything, but Droupadi's insult in the assembly hall was too much for him to bear. He turned to his elder brother and spoke - "O Yudhishthira! Gamblers have many courtesans in their country. But they are kind even towards those, and do not stake them in gambling. ... I think you committed a most improper act in staking Droupadi. She did not deserve this. ... It is because of her that my anger descends on you. I will burn your hands. O Sahadeva! Bring the fire." [Dyuta Parva]