Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Amazon Kindle Touch and Fire

From the Amazon web site

For the longest time - 15 or so months actually - there has been hype about competitors to the 800lb gorilla in the tablet market, Apple iPad. The iPad has sold almost 30 million tablets so far, and is on track to sell close to 10 million tablets in the last quarter of this year.
Most competitors have fallen to the hubris of going after the iPad with premium pricing, unwilling to think of their products as having to compete on price. This vanity has seen at least two major vendors fail in the tablet market, or at least have to contend with sales figures that pale in comparison to the iPad.


For several weeks there were rumours, nay, there was a deluge of rumours of Amazon building a tablet. This tablet, even before any credible details were known, was pitched as yet another in the long line of wannabe competitors to the iPad. The first clues that Amazon may well be serious about the tablet market emerged when it was, yes, rumoured again, that the price would be $250 or thereabouts.


Today Amazon had an event where they announced four products:
Kindle Touch - at $99, Kindle, Wi-Fi, 6", at $79, and Kindle Fire - at $199. The Kindle Fire is a full-color tablet with multi-touch capabilities, and the $199 price undercut even the most aggressive rumours that had been floating about the Kindle.

What is clear is that Amazon believes that wafer-thin margins, coupled with Amazon's massive customer database, legendary customer-focus, and targeted content will make the Kindle Fire a blockbuster hit. Because customers will have easy access to the Amazon store, they will likely buy more. This is what Amazon has seen with its Prime membership - a fixed price of $79 per year entitles the customer to unlimited 2-day shipping, with no minimum purchase required. Sales have exploded because the $25 barrier to free shipping was eliminated. Impulse shopping no longer had to wait for the $25 threshold to be breached. Gratification came via free shipping. Amazon hopes the same will happen with its tablet. Of course, wafer-thin margins and cross-subsidization is to be expected.

It remains to be seen how Apple will respond to this new, and very credible threat to its iPad franchise. The iPad has an incredible amount of mindshare as well as marketshare, not to speak momentum, so any impact to the iPad will not be felt for at least a couple of quarters. Furthermore, lack of 3G means that the Kindle Fire's impact in the enterprise segment will be limited, since business users will demand 3G connectivity, not to speak of access to business apps available on the Apple iTunes App Store. Nonetheless, given how fierce a competitor Apple is, they will certainly be taking a very, very close look at the Kindle Fire.

If the Kindle Fire is successful, it is a given that Apple will introduce the iPad or something similar in this screen size. Apple has a hugely successful product in the iPad at a 10 inch screen size. Their hardware contracts and the contract manufacturer's factories are all tooled for churning out millions of 10 inch screens. If there is a market for a 7 inch tablet, Apple would have been silly to NOT disparage that segment till such time as it could bring out its own 7 inch tablet. And that is exactly what it has been doing, by calling 7 inch tablets "dead on arrival". If the Kindle Fire is successful, then Apple does not really lose much by introducing its own 7 inch version. Apple will surely gain some Kindle Fire customers by doing so, but it will also do so at the cost of cannibalizing its own 10 inch tablet. A 7" tablet from Apple will necessarily to be cheaper, and also have lower margins - therefore Apple would hurt Amazon for sure, but also at the cost of denting its own profitability. Apple is however orders of magnitude more profitable than Amazon, so it can afford a hit to its bottom line.

The new Kindle Touch has these new features:
NEW - X-Ray
Explore the "bones of a book". With a single tap, see all the passages across a book that mention ideas, fictional characters, historical figures, places or topics of interest, as well as more detailed descriptions from Wikipedia and Shelfari.
Light and Compact
Our all-new sleek design sports an 11% smaller body, with the same 6" screen size, and is 8% lighter, only 7.5 ounces.

Simple To Use Touchscreen
Kindle Touch features an easy-to-use touch interface. Turn pages, search, shop books and take notes quickly and easily.
Kindle Touch, Wi-Fi, 6" E Ink Display - includes Special Offers & Sponsored Screensavers
Kindle, Wi-Fi, 6" E Ink Display - includes Special Offers & Sponsored Screensavers
Kindle Fire, Full Color 7" Multi-touch Display, Wi-Fi

The new Kindles launched by Amazon, Sep 28 2011





Media and analyst reactions (updated Oct 4 2011):

Media and analyst reactions (updated Oct 2 2011):
  • Publishing News: Amazon vs barrier to entry - O'Reilly RadarAmazon's new Kindle Fire has the potential to disrupt the tablet space, but what Amazon did this week may actually be a much bigger deal with much broader implications: it lowered the ereader barrier to entry. And it lowered it on a mass-market level — at $79, the low-end Kindle arguably becomes an impulse buy.
  • Amazon's New Kindles Will Explode the E-Book Market - Forbes
    Between November of 2010 and May of 2011, the number of people in the United States who owned an e-reader doubled from about 6% of the population to 12% of the population, according to Pew Research.
    But what’s interesting is that the Harris poll also shows that people who buy e-readers end up reading more books than they used to. I can attest to that – I credit my Kindle with getting me back to reading books. Owners of e-readers buy more books, and end up reading more. That’s a recipe for a lot more sales.
  • Amazon's "Prime" challenger to the iPad - O'Reilly Radar
    If you haven't noticed, creating and executing mobile platform plays is really hard. Just ask HP, RIM, Nokia and Microsoft.
  • Amazon Publishing: How it controls whole book supply chain - Sep. 27, 2011
    Amazon's low-priced bestsellers and Kindle e-reader are famous for changing the book industry. What's not so well known is how deeply Amazon's tentacles reach into all parts of the industry, including its growing interest in inking deals with authors to publish some of the hit books Amazon sells.
    Booksellers and publishers are crying foul, saying they're being cut out of the chain by an aggressive Goliath. But some authors who have recently signed with Amazon Publishing say the company simply offered them a better, fairer deal than traditional publishers.


Media and analyst reactions (updated Sep 30 2011):
  • Rough Type: Nicholas Carr's Blog: Beyond words: the Kindle Fire and the book's future Nicholas Carr has an expectedly contrarian and curmudgeonly take on the Kindle Fire, and not for reasons of its competitiveness vis-a-vis the Apple iPad.
    The press coverage of the Fire has largely concerned its immediate commercial prospects: Will it challenge the Almighty iPad? But the real importance of the Fire is what it presages: the ultimate form of the e-book. Historians may look back on September 28, 2011, as the day the book lost its bookishness.
  • PlayBook in trouble, if not dead, says analyst - Computerworld While not directly attributable to the Amazon Kindle Fire announcement, it highlights the state of most of the non-Apple tablet manufacturers.
    Research in Motion's PlayBook looks to be in trouble, as it appears that the smartphone maker has stopped production of the tablet and is actively considering getting out of the business, says Collins Stewart semiconductor analyst John Vihn.
    "We believe [RIM] has stopped production of its PlayBook and is actively considering exiting the tablet market," Vihn wrote in a note to investors. "Additionally, our due diligence indicates that RIM has canceled development of additional tablet projects."
  • Kindle Fire Tops Amazon Best Seller List - Personal-tech - Tablets - Informationweek While not even available for shipping yet, Kindle Fire is already the top-selling gadget, based on pre-orders, on the list of Amazon's most popular electronics items. 
  • Cunningham Says Amazon's New Kindle to Hurt IPad Sales - The Washington Post
    Chris Cunningham, co-founder of Appssavvy, says quite correctly that Amazon is "cool", like Apple. HP was not considered cool: another reason why its Playbook flopped, but in its meteoric firesale bust proved that a low-enough price point could trigger an avalanche of sales.
Media and analyst reactions:
  •  I, Cringely » Blog Archive » Kindle Fire: Take three tablets and call me in the morning - Cringely on technology
    I have said often enough that if there's a successful 7" tablet, Apple will make one.
    Analysts will wonder how the Kindle Fire will affect iPad sales. It has to. I’ll be buying three Kindles, for example, rather than one iPad. So I’m predicting Amazon will have a hit and Apple will take a hit, but so what?  Wasn’t something like this going to come along eventually anyway?  If Amazon mightily validates the smaller form factor so scorned by Steve Jobs, you can bet Apple will follow with a seven-incher of its own.  Game on!
  • Fire - cdespinosa's posterous
    Sounds pretty audacious. Via @amcafee (tweet)
    Amazon will capture and control every Web transaction performed by Fire users. Every page they see, every link they follow, every click they make, every ad they see is going to be intermediated by one of the largest server farms on the planet.
  • Bezos Portrays Pocket-Sized Fire as Service, Not Tablet - Bloomberg
    Almost giddy with excitement, Bezos retrieves one by one the new crop of dirt-cheap Kindle e-readers --- they start at $79 --- from a hidden perch on a chair tucked into a conference room table. When he’s done showing them off, he stands up, and, for an audience of a single journalist, announces, “Now, I’ve got one more thing to show you.” He waits a half-beat to make sure the reference to Jobs’ famous line from Apple Inc. (AAPL) presentations hasn’t been missed, then gives his notorious barking laugh.  
  • Amazon's Kindle Fire just nuked the tablet market: Winners and losers | ZDNet
    To quote, "In a nutshell, we’re entering a near disposable e-reader/tablet era that will split the market between Amazon (consumption based profits) and Apple (high end brand profits). Every technology company caught in the middle is going to have some serious problems."
  • Amazon Silk: Weaving a new browser | Digital Media - CNET News
    Somewhat obscured in all the coverage is Silk - Amazon's "cloud accelerated browser" that leverages Amazon's EC2 cloud service.
    Amazon's solution is what it calls a "split-browser," a method that makes use of local processing for some things, while tapping into its Elastic Compute Cloud to process and serve up content faster than users might get it directly from the device.

    That approach is similar to that of Olso, Norway-based Opera, which in 2005 debuted its Opera Mini browser.
  • Kindle Fire as iPad killer? Yes. It's the price, stupid. | Molly Rants - CNET News
    Molly Wood at CNET thinks "Amazon, not Apple, just mainstreamed the tablet market. The company's new Kindle Fire tablet, a 7-inch touchscreen device powered by Amazon's content ecosystem and priced at just $199, may be an orange to Apple's iPad apple, but I'd argue that it's an iPad killer all the same."
    And furthermore, "The problem is that hardly anyone actually needs an iPad. And as tablet usage starts to shake out, it's more and more apparently that a low-cost option with fewer features will actually suit most people's first-world needs."
  • Amazon Introduces Tablet That Undercuts iPad’s Price - NYTimes.com
    “We have many customers who tell us they don’t want touch,“ Mr. Bezos said. “We’re going to sell many millions of these.” 



Amazon Kindle Press Conference - September 28, 2011, New York City



© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Puffin Mahabharata by Namita Gokhale

The Puffin Mahabharata, by Namita Gokhale
(Flipkart.com, IndiaPlaza, Amazon.commy review on Amazon.com)
Lavishly illustrated. Ideal for children to read on their own.
5 stars

For people looking to introduce their children to the Mahabharata, there are several options. For decades the standard has been C Rajagopalachari's Mahabharata. Then there is the Amar Chitra Katha version. There are countless other versions available.
So what's new and different about this version?

Several.

For one, this book has been lavishly produced. The paper is thick and glossy. The hardcover book makes you want to pick it up and read it. The cover is a bright yellow, with the young Arjuna, Drona disciple, taking aim at a wooden bird perched on the branch of a tree. This in itself is one of the famous stories within the Mahabharata. The production quality of the book is  important when it comes to children's' books. It is important that a child like a book at first glance - which is the cover. Opening the book and turning the pages the child should find something on each page to want to read it. Once drawn to the book, there is enough in this epic to hold a child's attention, but it is important to make a child want to pick the book up. The large print, crisp printing, adequate spacing between the lines, the shiny and glossy feel of the paper, and colorful watercolor illustrations - all go a long way in attracting the child's attention and then holding it.

Secondly, the illustrations by Suddhasattwa Basu, painter, illustrator and animation filmmaker, are of high quality. Every second page you find an illustration. Some are spread over the entire page. Each illustration is tied to the story, which helps children tremendously. Looking at an illustration helps them identify the episode in the epic. The illustrations are an integral part of the book.

Thirdly, the story itself is very well written by the author, Namita Gokhale. There are a couple of instances where the narrative may need to be whetted by an adult, but by and large it is suitable for pre-teens. The language itself is simple without being dumbed down.

Fourthly, this is a long book. The intent is to cover a lot of ground with respect to the several strands that run through the epic, without making things overtly complicated. At 200 pages, this is not a book most children will finish in a single sitting. By breaking things up into small chapters, the author makes it possible for a child to stop at a logical point and then pick the book up again later.

I would suggest, that parents serious about making the full use of a child's interest in the Mahabharata, to read and keep handy Devdutt Pattanaik's Jaya with them. They can use Jaya to supplement the child's knowledge of the epic, as well as use the endnotes after every chapter in Jaya to bring up topics of discussion on important events, as well as start a discussion on such topics as karma, boons, curses, dharma, and so on.

As is to be expected of translations of the Mahabharata, the translator brings his or her own perspective to the epic. That includes casting characters in a slightly different light than popular perceptions, choosing to include or exclude certain events in the epic, and retelling some events slightly differently. This book is no different. Krishna, for instance, does not play as pivotal a role in the story as in, say, BR Chopra's teleserial adaptation. Karna gets the full measure of the author's sympathy, as the tragic hero who lived and died alone. The climactic battle of the Mahabharata, fought between Duryodhana and Bheema, is ended by Bheema who flings his massive mace at Duryodhana's thighs, without the prompting of Krishna. And so on...

At a cover price of Rs 499, the book is not cheap. However, you can get it at a 10%, 20%, or more discount from several online retailers. Last I checked this book is available for a whopping Rs 200 off (that's 40%)  the cover price, for Rs 299, from India Plaza. Check it out.





© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Fern Creek Resort, Kodaikanal

When you go visit Kodaikanal, there is no dearth of places to stay at. Trip Advisor itself lists more than 50, with prices ranging from Rs 1500 per night to as much as Rs 8000 per night. MakeMyTrip lists at least four hotels that cost upwards of Rs 4000 per night.

The Carlton at Kodaikanal for long has been the preferred hotel, located by the Kodai Lake, and generally praised by all. Room rates are, expectedly, not cheap. Rates at the Carlton can run as high as Rs 14000 per night during peak season for the cottages. And that is expensive.

The The Fern Creek Luxury Resort, Kodaikanal (TripAdvisor) is one of the newest additions to the hotels in Kodaikanal. Strictly speaking it is not a hotel, but more a collection of about seven or eight luxury tents. They have been in operation for less than a couple of years. Their visibility on search sites is primarily because of the efforts they put in to request guests to post reviews on the travel site, TripAdvisor. Because their service is outstanding, guests are happy to oblige. This is an excellent example of combining high-quality service with smart marketing.
One thing to point out however. If you are a family with young children, you will probably want something bigger like the Carlton. While the Fern Creek does offer an entertainment room with movie titles to play on the DVD, the property is more geared towards those wanting something offbeat.


The office and dining room building.

This time with a long-exposure night shot.

A huge tree visible from the resort.


One of the rooms. A nice spring mattress bed. The bathroom is beyond the curtain at the end of the room.

A wardrobe, and TV is visible in the room. Each tent gets Tata Sky satellite service and backup power.

View from one of the tents.

Entertainment room. There is a collection of about 50 DVDs there. A carom room is at the back.

Fireplace at the resort.



Dining room of the resort.

Prices (per day/night):
  • Rs. 5500 - only breakfast.
  • Rs. 6500 - Bed Coffee/Tea, half-day sight-seeing trip in a private car once during the stay, lunch (in the resort or packed), high tea & dinner.

© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Palace of Illusions

The Palace of Illusions: A Novel
The Palace of Illusions: A Novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
(The Palace Of Illusions from Flipkart.com, my user review on Amazon.com)
5 stars
Illusions - material and emotional. Divine birth, yet human frailty and failings. 
Draupadi is one of the pivotal figures in the Mahabharata. She is also one of the least written-about figures in the Mahabharata. The valor of Arjuna, the righteousness of Yudhishtra, the strength of Bheema, the cunning of Shakuni, the sacrifice of Ekalavya, the tragedy of Karna - we all know about and much has been written about these characters. But Draupadi, the woman with five husbands, the woman who would not tie her hair till they were washed with the blood of Dusshasana? What about her? This book tells Draupadi's story, in Draupadi's words, through Draupadi's eyes. This book is thus also a retelling of the Mahabharata, partly so, as seen through Panchali's eyes.

It is a strikingly successful effort on all counts. The writing is very engaging, the pace never slackens, and even though you know the story and how it will end even before you start the book, it still holds your attention and keeps you turning the pages. You look forward to the author's interpretation of events - like Draupadi's swyamwar, or her meeting Kunti after Arjuna has won the swyamwar, or the dreaded disrobing at the hall of Hastinapur, or even her meetings with the sage Vyasa.

Despite some shortcomings, I consider this a worthy addition to the recent works on the Mahabharata.

The book's title, "The Palace of Illusions", refers to the Pandavas' palace at Indraprastha, built by the asura architect Maya. The palace where Draupadi felt secure, and safe. Which turned out to be an illusion. This is also the palace that so angered the Kauravas, where Duryodhana was insulted by Draupadi, setting in motion events that would culminate in the eighteen terrible days on the dusty battlefield of Kurukshetra thirteen years later.

I have a few observations worth pointing out about some of the pivotal relationships between the central characters.

The relationship between Draupadi and Krishna is dwelt upon. That Krishna played a key role in Draupadi's swaymwar has been written about. Why he had Draupadi choose Arjuna, and not Karna, is never quite revealed. Which is just as well. The Mahabharata does not dwell on the issue, leaving it as an exercise for philosophers and the lay public alike to wonder about. While Krishna is generally portrayed in texts as having left behind his flute and his playful attitude in Vrindavan and Gokul, this book portrays Krishna as having kept some of his playfulness with him, even as he navigated the tortuous paths of the Kuru clan, towards the finale on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

The relationship between Draupadi and her mother-in-law, Kunti, could not have been simple or straightforward. That Kunti had Draupadi share herself among five husbands would not have gone down well with Draupadi. The tension between the two women forms an important thread through the narrative of this book.

Draupadi and her brother, Dhrishtadhyumna, were both born out of a holy fire, a yagya, performed by their father Drupada, to avenge his insult at the hands of the Kuru guru, Drona. The yagya is also metaphorical for the fire of revenge that burned inside Drupada over the years. Both brother and sister had a divine purpose.  This purpose also served to act as a bond between them. Brother and sister shared a deep bond of love and caring. This is yet another important thread that runs through the book.

The story of Shikhandi, one of the most mysterious figures in the Mahabharata, also figures in the narrative. He was a brother to Draupadi. Born a woman who turned into a man by the time he was grown up. Born, like so many other characters in the Mahabharata, for a reason. His being a rebirth of Amba, born to avenge her insult in a previous birth, at the hands of Bheeshma.

Among all the elders at Hastinapur, it is with the grandsire Bheeshma, Ganga-putra Devavrata, that Draupadi feels most comfortable with. It is a tragedy that the grandsire lets her down on that tragic day in the royal hall. One more tragedy in the long list of tragedies that dots the epic.

The disrobing of Draupadi, at the hands of her brother-in-law, her "devar", is possibly the most pivotal moment in the entire Mahabharata. This is the shameful episode that put the seal of finality on the fate of the entire Kuru clan. This "cheer-haran" episode has been written about by philosophers, by people debating ethics, morality, and more, and even by feminists arguing on both sides of the fence, so to say. However, in the book, this episode is hurried through. In less than three pages or so, the author is done with it. Inexplicable. The insult at the hands of the Kauravas, and at the hands of Karna, is what fueled the anger of the Pandavas for thirteen long years. But the author is somewhat reticent to dwell on those events. Maybe the sheer ugliness of this act actually repels the author. Or maybe because so much has been written about it there is nothing really to be gained by spilling more ink on it.

Finally, Karna. The one truly tragic figure in the Mahabharata who suffered a raw deal at the hands of everyone in his life. From birth to death. Honest in his life. Cheated by everyone. The eldest Pandava. Denied his lineage, abandoned by his mother, taunted by his brothers, cursed by his guru, insulted by the woman who should have been his wife, and cheated even on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. In Devdutt Pattnaik's retelling of the Mahabharata - Jaya (see my blog post), Draupadi admits to being secretly in love with Karna, and knows and believes that a husband like Karna would not have gambled her away in a game of dice like Yudhishtra did, and would not have allowed her to be shared among four brothers, like Arjuna did. Yet it was Draupadi who refused to let Karna participate in her swaymwar by calling into question his birth. Karna returned the insult by calling her a vaishya in the Kuru hall. Yet, this relationship that never was, is the longest and deepest thread that runs through the book.

To add one point of contention: in the epic, or at least in all the translations and re-renderings I have come across, it is Draupadi who laughs and remarks, "the blind's son is also blind" (andhe ka andha - अंधे का अँधा), when Duryodhana falls into a pool of water at Indraprastha. In the author's rendering, it is a maid that says this, with Draupadi admonishing the maid. Seemingly minor, but I think totally uncalled for. Drauapdi does not become a lesser or greater person for this failing. 

While at a couple of occasions the narrative turns a bit too much like a Mills and Boon romantic tale of unrequited love, this angst ridden relationship is indeed what forms the backbone of this book.

There are some reviews that describe the Mahabharata as a male-oriented tale. While that may be true from some points of view, it is wrong to paint it as being entirely male-dominated. There are innumerable instances where the female protagonists play pivotal roles in the epic. Draupadi is one for instance. Gandhari, the Kaurava mother is another: by refusing to bless her son with victory during the battle in Kurukshetra, she deprives Duryodhana of victory over his cousins. Amba, who vows to kill Bheeshma, is reborn as Shikhandi, and fulfills that vow on the tenth day day of battle. And so on...

Some other posts on the holy town of Kurukshetra from my blog:
Book Resources



 

Kindle Excerpt:


Footnote:
I could not get my review to post on Amazon.com. I kept making edits and I kept getting an automated response from Amazon.com that said, "...Your review could not be posted to the website in its current form..." I took out words like "disrobing", "blood", "cursed", etc... but to no avail. I finally truncated the review as much as I could. This below, is the version of  the review that finally made it to Amazon.com, though I really can't imagine how you can write about Draupadi and the Mahabharata without using these words, which are really quite germane to the text.

Draupadi is one of the pivotal figures in the Mahabharata. She is also one of the least written-about figures in the Mahabharata. The valor of Arjuna, the righteousness of Yudhishtra, the strength of Bheema, the cunning of Shakuni, the sacrifice of Ekalavya, the tragedy of Karna - we all know about and much has been written about these characters. But Draupadi? This book tells Draupadi's story, in Draupadi's words, through Draupadi's eyes. This book is thus also a retelling of the Mahabharata, partly so, as seen through Panchali's eyes.

It is a strikingly successful effort on all counts. The writing is very engaging, the pace never slackens, and even though you know the story and how it will end even before you start the book, it still holds your attention and keeps you turning the pages. You look forward to the author's interpretation of events and her take on the complex relationships between the characters in the book.

Despite some shortcomings, I consider this a worthy addition to the recent works on the Mahabharata.

The book's title, "The Palace of Illusions", refers to the Pandavas' palace at Indraprastha, built by the architect Maya. The palace where Draupadi felt secure, and safe. Which turned out to be an illusion. This is also the palace that so angered the Kauravas, and Duryodhana, setting in motion events that would culminate in the eighteen terrible days on the dusty battlefield of Kurukshetra thirteen years later.


© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

WH Smith


WH Smith (Wikipedia, website) is an international retailer that also has outlets at several airports. Terminal 3 (T3) at the New Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport has one such outlet. Apart from aesthetically pleasing arrangements of books in the store, they also have several bestseller lists. I counted at least three such lists. There is a non-fiction list, an "Airport Editions" chart, and an "Indian writing" chart. I suppose the Airport Editions list is based on the bestselling books sold across all airports in India? Or perhaps just at that store? Doesn't matter really, because if you put up anything on a list it tends to sell even more. It is the psychology of queues, applied to book sales.

Go over the list and it's quite informative and entertaining in its own right. There was a bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love, some time back. So now, obviously there is a book that borrows, so to say, liberally, from that - Eat, Pray, Eat. Some Indian authors feature prominently, with books like Rover of Smoke, Last Man In Tower, and so on... The recent bestselling phenomenon - Amish Tripathi, with his Shiva trilogy is there at the top in the Indian writing chart with his second book, The Secret of the Nagas. Arun Shourie, India's finest journalist, takes a break from his usual path to pen a book on suffering and religion, Does He Know a Mother's Heart. When you hear a book described as "nuanced and thoughtful" you know it is being damned by faint praise on the one hand and that it is sure to be controversial, perhaps deliberately so. Since I have not read this book, or any reviews, I really can't say more - Bose In Nazi Germany. On the other hand there is Siddhartha Mukherjee's outstanding debut work on cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies (Flipkart.com, my review blog post).

Most curiously, for me, is a book on yoga and stress, that has a buxom person with much less clothes than you would care to see, or not see, on the cover of a book on yoga and stress. Hmm... the author, or publisher, or both, are evidently stressed enough about the book's sales to put a semi-nude person on the cover of a book on yoga. Maybe the book is not really intended for reading as much as for gazing?

Since people passing through airports are supposed to be knowledgeable and erudite about world affairs, and because India and China are the happening places, it is therefore required that you also sport a book on the two countries under your arm. Where China Meets India, by Thant Myin-U, is on the list. But be forewarned! This book is more about Burma (Myanmar) than India or China. But then again, this gives you an opportunity to expand the topics you can pretend to be an expert on.

In 1966, W H Smith originated a 9-digit code for uniquely referencing books, called Standard Book Numbering or SBN. It was adopted as international standard ISO 2108 in 1970, and was used until 1974, when it became the ISBN scheme. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wh_smith]




© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Couple of links about memory

Couple of links related to books I read recently.

Stephen Colbert had interviewed Nicholas Carr, who in his latest book, The Shallows (my blog post), wrote  that thinking of the Internet as offline memory, on tap at all times, almost infinitely extensible, and just as powerful and identical to the human brain's memory, is a fallacy.
There was a short segment on Colbert Report on the same topic. Watch for yourself.

Embedded video from The Colbert Report

On the topic of memory, Amazon.com has named Moonwalking with Einstein (see my blog post) one of their ten best books of the year so far, and #2 in nonfiction - so blogged the book's author, Joshua Foer.
Watch this example of the technique of "Memory Palace" at work in this video.

Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (see my blog post on the book, and my review on Amazon.com), walks us through the process of constructing “memory palaces”—an age-old memorization technique currently exploited by the world’s leading memory champs and mental athletes. Psychologist and memory expert Lynn Nadel explains why this trick is so powerful and how it leverages some the brain’s strongest faculties. 
Joshua Foer had also appeared on Stephen Colbert's show.

Embedded video from the World Science Festival video


Kindle Excerpt of The Shallows



Kindle Excerpt of Moonwalking with Einstein



© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson

Before I Go to Sleep: A Novel
Before I Go to Sleep: A Novel (Kindle edition, Flipkart.com, my user review on Amazon.com)
Wiping the Slate Blank, every night.
4 stars
What if you could not form new memories. This is a topic that has been dealt with in the scientific community and in books, based on real-life instances of people who suffered from this awful condition. This topic has been covered in movies also, most memorably in Memento (DVD, Blu-Ray), and recently in India in the Hindi movie starring Aamir Khan, Ghajini (Blu-ray).
This book, by debutant novelist SJ Watson, covers familiar territory, but with a twist. Christine wakes-up in the middle of the night, in an unfamiliar house, in a stranger's bed, to a face in the mirror she does not recognize. She is forty-seven years old, and she cannot remember the past twenty  years of her life. The twist in the tale is that she can remember what happens to her during the day, but as she sleeps, her newly formed memories drift away. She keeps a diary to jot down what she experiences each day. That diary provides her with a semblance of sanity, but also throws up a chilling warning that she doesn't know how to handle. Her husband takes care of her, but is he hiding things from her? Or is he simply trying to be gentle by not telling her things that would only cause more heartbreak, only for her to forget the next day. There is a doctor who is trying to help, but is he? What about her college friend, her best friend, but has now moved to New Zealand. Or has she? Are people hiding things from her, or is she being paranoid, insecure because of her condition?
This is a fast-paced, well-written story, with an ending that will most likely cause your hair to stand on end. Some may figure it out before the climax, some may not. There are some holes in the story and plot that are best left un-pondered. Like the length of the diary that would seem to grow to the point it would take Christine all day to go over it, given the details she jots down into. A little adult content that seems a bit gratuitous. It is nonetheless a fascinating read.
"The face I see looking back at me is not my own. The hair has no volume and is cut much shorter than I wear it, the skin on the cheeks and under the chin sags, the lips are thin, the mouth turned down. I cry out, a wordless gasp that would turn into a shriek of shock were I to let it, and then notice the eyes. The skin around them is lined, yes, but despite everything else I can see that they are mine. The person in the mirror is me, but I am twenty years too old. Twenty-five. More."
Some books I have read recently that also dwell briefly on this condition, anterograde amnesia:  Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (my review, on Amazon), The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (my review, on Amazon), Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (my review, on Amazon), and Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else (my review, on Amazon), among many others.




Kindle Excerpt



© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Monday, September 5, 2011

What Is Node

What Is Node? (O'Reilly link, my user review on Amazon.com)
3 stars
Node.js, or simply "Node", is a server-side solution for running JavaScript (it by itself is NOT JavaScript; "in fact Node is a C program" that you feed JavaScript), and in particular, for receiving and responding to HTTP requests. ... and is "concerned with network programming and server-side request/response processing."

For getting started, the book(let) includes the code for a basic "Hello World" program, and links to download Node from nodejs.org. There is an example and description of using JSON with Node, the evils in eval() in Node, and how to get past the evils (like use JSON.parse() )

Given that this is a short book; 18 pages including the cover, TOC, and other blank pages, where does this leave you? Well, if you are a Node programmer, then this book offers nothing.
If you want to get started with Node, then there are other, more detailed books out there.
If you are a non-programmer, do not have the time or inclination to delve into a 300 page book, but still want to know at least **something** about Node, no matter how basic that may be, then, well, this book may be for you. You could get information on Node from a lot of technical websites out there, so spending $$ on this book may not be a good idea, in my opinion. What does make this book a bargain is the fact that it is free.




© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.