Book Review: A Beautiful Math

A Beautiful Math: John Nash, Game Theory, and the Modern Quest for a Code of NatureA Beautiful Math: John Nash, Game Theory, and the Modern Quest for a Code of Nature by Tom Siegfried

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An amazing book which beautifully blends numerous diverse areas into a unified narrative of game theory.

It presents a complete timeline of game theory from its past, present and future! There is discussion on how many areas evolved and how a need for a science arose which could address systemic issues instead of specific problems. Next, there are details of how the foundations of game theory itself were build mainly by von Neumann, Morgenstern and John Nash. Initially it was thought to be applicable mainly in the area of Economics, however soon it was found that these principles could be applied to a variety of fields. Next, the author highlights how diverse areas like network science, cognitive science, physics, chemistry, maths, quantum theory and many more can be connected to game theory to solve much bigger challenges. This in turn has lead to further developments in game theory as well.

The book concludes with a vision towards the future where the author believes and argues that game theory will play the prime role in coming with a Code of Nature i.e. a science which can connect all the dots and integrate the diversities of all the scientific disciplines to come out with a unified theory.

In my opinion, this book is more intriguing and exciting read, if the reader at least has some basic background knowledge of some of the areas like game theory, network science, cognitive science etc. This book gives are birds-eye view of game theory, dives deep into some of it key aspects and amazingly connects it to so many other areas! It is a must read for someone interested or working in the area of game theory!

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Book Review: The Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad GitaThe Bhagavad Gita by Eknath Easwaran

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Bhagavad Gita is like a guide book for successfully navigating through human life and achieving the highest goal of moksha. Its original verses are in Sanskrit which might be difficult to grasp for most of us and thus there are lot of its translations available from simple to complex, concise to detailed etc.

This translation by Eknath Easwaran is another classic (previously I have read his translation of The Upanishads and it is equally amazing!). He follows the following style throughout the book: he gives an overview of the chapter highlighting some of the key shlokas, describing deeper insights, connecting to other texts and summarising the chapter as a whole. In the next part, all the shlokas are translated in simple English which is easy to understand.

I think this is a nice book to get started on understanding and inculcating the lessons of The Bhagavad Gita. The shlokas are not explained in great detail but on the whole it gives a big picture by delivering the core message of each chapter. After reading this version and understanding the overall message, one can read more detailed translations of the The Bhagavad Gita, if interested. Also, it’s important to apply some of the learnings shared in The Bhagavad Gita in our own lives, and this book is definitely helps in imparting those key messages and action points.

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Book Review: The Educational Heritage of Ancient India

The Educational Heritage of Ancient India: How an Ecosystem of Learning Was Laid to WasteThe Educational Heritage of Ancient India: How an Ecosystem of Learning Was Laid to Waste by Sahana Singh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A amazing, succinct book which takes a look at the system of education in India during the ancient times, during Mughal rule, during British rule and since independence.

* Ancient times
In great detail the book describes the rich Indic education system. It describes the times when education was highly valued, people travelled long distances (sometimes across continents) to learn, where there was a complete ecosystem which supported education and people pursuing it, where both men and women had equal opportunities to learn and where the scholars were experts in their areas of excellence and were far ahead of their times!

* During Mughal rule
This educational ecosystem was intentionally destroyed by the Mughal rulers who invaded India. They destroyed these institutions, burnt libraries and killed the scholars all across India. They were responsible to flung back India centuries behind in its knowledge and scientific pursuits.

* During British rule
The British rule further ruined even the remnants of Indic education system. Their strategy was to create a population which is unaware / hates its own heritage. And to impart an ‘English’ education to them in order to create a population which can be ordered to work but which cannot think for itself.

* After Independence
Sadly, the details of the murder of education system and the rich ancient culture in general by the previous rulers has not been presented correctly to the citizens even after independence. Sometimes the very people who caused this massive destruction have be glorified in the books. It’s high time that we the people, are aware of the rich educational / cultural systems of ancient times and how they were destroyed by the rulers in the past.

Educational systems are the foundation of any society. Educational institutes from schools to universities impart not just knowledge of different areas but also builds minds which can solve unknown challenges of the upcoming times! Thus if the educational system is broken, then the population itself is not capable enough to face the future, which in turn leads to an unstable, sub-par society.

Also, I don’t think we need to go back and copy the exact models of ancient educational systems. Some of the key aspects of the ancient education system can be adapted to the current times to build better educational systems today. The key take-away from this book is that we should be aware of our rich educational heritage as well as how it was brutally destroyed by Mughal / British rulers. Sometimes just accepting the past in itself is a big step towards progress. Finally, we need to rethink and redesign the current day educational systems so that it is good enough to create a society that can tackle the problems of tomorrow!

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Book Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Art of Racing in the RainThe Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow! What an amazing book this is! It has been narrated by Enzo who is a pet dog. It is almost like Enzo’s autobiography. It shows how the world would look like from the perspective of a witty and intelligent (and sometimes philosophical) dog. It’s very well written and gradually builds the story for the reader. Some parts are just emotional roller coasters!

Enzo is Danny’s pet (who is a racing car driver) and in this book we look at Danny’s life from Enzo’s point of view. It has all the elements which one would expect and experiences even in real life from love, friendship, family, joy, sorrow, adversity, perseverance, following one’s dreams and more. It is filled with ups and downs and the story just flows such that it’s difficult to keep this book down. And it’s all so well narrated and the characters in the story so well crafted that the readers can easily relate and see it all happening in front of their eyes.

Also throughout the book, there are metaphors between racing and life and most of these are really good, like this one: “But racing in the rain is also about the mind! It is about owning one’s own body. About believing that one’s car is merely an extension of one’s body. About believing that the track is an extension of the car, and the rain is an extension of the track, and the sky is an extension of the rain. It is about believing that you are not you; you are everything. And everything is you.”

Also I would like to add that I just loved it’s ending! Actually it is one of the best endings ever! It just leaves the reader feeling happy, satisfied and a bit sad…

On the whole, it’s a must read for dog lovers and I guess people who don’t like dogs will also liking dogs after reading this book! Someday, if I have a dog, I hope he is like Enzo! 🙂

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Book Review: Meditations

MeditationsMeditations by Marcus Aurelius

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book indeed is an insightful read!

It was on my books-to-read shelf since some time. I had another version of this book and it was a difficult read. I could not read it beyond a couple of chapters. Then I picked up the edition translated by Gregory Hays and this was a great read. Specially the long introduction in the beginning lays a nice foundation covering multiple aspects like Marcus Aurelius’s life, stoicism, as well as discussion about the contents and style of the book. This gives the reader an idea about what to expect ahead in the book.

Content wise the book is filled with learnings and lessons learnt by Marcus Aurelius. Although I don’t agree completely with his philosophy but most of the messages in the book are deep and thought-provoking. As mentioned in the Introduction, Marcus wrote this book for himself and it wasn’t to be published or read by others. And this is clearly reflected in the style of the book. Although the book has chapters, but it does not seem to have any logical separation of the content. Also some of the ideas keep repeating throughout the book. Probably, it throws light on things which Marcus frequently pondered upon. In my opinion, it might be interesting if all the thoughts can be arranged topic wise. Also it will make a nice calendar book with a message to ponder each day.

Some of my favourite lines from the book are:

  • “People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul.”
  • “The tranquillity that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do.”
  • “The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”
  • “If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.”
  • “Our own worth is measured by what we devote our energy to.”
  • “The soul as a sphere in equilibrium: Not grasping at things beyond it or retreating inward. Not fragmenting outward, not sinking back on itself, but ablaze with light and looking at the truth, without and within.

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Book Review: The Upanishads

The Upanishads

The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Upanishads are one of the oldest Vedic scriptures of Hinduism / Sanatana dharma. The Upanishads are also known as Vedanta as they are taught in the end while imparting Vedic knowledge. Originally these are written in Sanskrit and are very difficult to grasp or understand as it requires high proficiency of Sanskrit. This book comes with simple translation of the shlokas in English which is easy to comprehend and understand.

The book covers 10 + 1 principle Upanishads rekindled by Shankara and also has briefs on 4 of the more recent Upanishads. The format is as follows: Each Upanishad is introduced in some detail by the author highlighting some of the key aspects and shlokas of the Upanishad as well as some elaboration on it. In the second part, the shlokas are presented, translated in English. This give the reader an opportunity to think and interpret the shlokas from their own perspective. Some Upanishads are short and succinct whereas others are comparatively longer and more descriptive. Some are conversational (Katha, Prashana) while others seem more poetic (Chandogya, Shvetashvatara, Aitareya).

Content wise, it is a treasure! The Upanishads are very crisp with respect to the message they want to convey to the reader. The word Upanishad means “to sit down near a teacher”. Thus, mostly its content is in the form of a dialog between a seeker and a Guru. The seeker / student asks some of the pressing questions which are answered in detail by the Guru. This type of dialog format makes it interesting and easy to grasp the message. Also the questions asked are some of the questions we might sometimes think of, for example, What happens to a person when he dies?, What is our true Self?, How can the Self be realized?, Can one be immortal?, What is the cause of the universe?, What is the true power of our body? etc. Thus, the Upanishads are the perfect scriptures for the curious, the learners, the explorers and the seekers!

Each Upanishad has a key message to convey. Collectively the Upanishads’ main idea is the importance of Self-Realisation and how it can be achieved. This core message is conveyed across all the conversations in the Upanishads. Also I like the way in which it’s so scientific and logical and inspires the seeker to try out the techniques in order to obtain the expected results. It gives the autonomy to the seeker to choose their path and also foretells that they will get the results accordingly. It is not a scripture which says “thou should do this!”

Some of the shlokas are truly polished gems:

“You are what your deep, driving desire is.
As your desire is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your destiny.”
[ Brihadaranyaka IV.4.5 ]

“What is here is also there; what is there,
Also here. Who sees multiplicity
But not the one indivisible Self
Must wander on and on from death to death.”
[ Katha II.2.10 ]

“As a tethered bird flies this way and that,
and comes to rest at last on its own perch,
so the mind, tired of wandering about…
settles down in the Self”
[ Chandogya VI.8.2 ]

“Knowledge is two-fold, higher and lower.
The study of the Vedas, linguistics,
rituals, astronomy, and all the arts,
Can be called lower knowledge.
The higher is that which leads to Self-realization.”
[ Mundaka I.1.4 ]

“Meditation, control of the senses
And passions, and selfless service of all
Are the body, the scriptures are the limbs,
And truth is the heart of this wisdom.”
[ Kena IV.4.8 ]

This book is definitely to be read multiple times. It will give new meaning and insight, every time it is read. It has also inspired me to read some of the advanced commentaries on the Upanishads to understand it in more depth. More importantly, it shows how useless our actions and efforts are in achieving happiness and joy using the sense organs to interact with the external world, when true, everlasting peace and joy lies within our own Self!

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Book Review – Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology

Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic PsychologyVehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology by Valentino Braitenberg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have never read a book similar to this one! It’s amazing and will make you think and wonder at each step.

The book consists of following two parts:

In the first part the author shows how to build autonomous bots using plausible electrical / mechanical design. These bots resemble to small robotic vehicles. The initial designs are simple and give the basic idea to the reader. And every new vehicle builds on a previous one and adds more features and complexity. The most curious feature of these vehicles is that although they are purely mechanical, their resultant behaviour is similar to human emotions like love, fear, aggression etc. At one point the author even argues that these vehicles can ‘get’ new ideas or even follow a sequence of thought but sometimes it is not very convincing.

Many parts of the book throw light on current day artificial intelligence and machine learning concepts like Turing machine, prediction, classification, concepts similar to gradient descent, correlation vs causation etc.

One of the main lesson of this book is “the law of uphill analysis and downhill invention” which is highlighted multiple times. It means that it is comparatively easy to design a system having some desired characteristics (downhill invention), on the other hand given a system as a black box it is very difficult to come up with its exact design details (uphill analysis). This becomes evident in numerous vehicle designs in the book.

In the second part of the book, the author links back to research in biology which is aligned to the concepts discussed in the first part of the book. This part might be tricky to understand specially for people with non-bio background. Even I just skimmed through this part.

Overall, it’s a very intriguing read! However, it is a bit difficult to understand and might require multiple reads through some sections to get it.

This book also makes me wonder that if these simple designs can lead to such complex behaviour in these vehicles then our brain and associated system is way more complex than than and it is hard to even imagine the kind of resultant complex behaviour it leads to in humans (which it actually does)! Also based on uphill analysis, given a specific human behaviour, it is hard to find how exactly it pans out in the backend system of our body.

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Book Review: Recursion

RecursionRecursion by Blake Crouch

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pick this book only if you have the time to read it till the end. It cannot be put down in between!

I liked the book Dark Matter and thus Recursion by the same author has been on my to-read list for some time. One day I randomly picked it up and just could not keep it down.

The book starts with two parallel stories of Barry and Helena and it seems that there is no connection between the two. However, gradually as the story builds up, the reader starts guessing that they might meet at some point in the timeline (and they do). The key idea of this book is that one can travel back in time by going back to a specific past memory using special equipment. There are an intricate set of rules based on which it all works out, as well as some mind-boggling(literally) consequences.

As the title itself reveals, there are multiple recursions in the story where the key characters live multiple iterations of their life. This book reminds me a bit of the movie Inception in that sense. Overall, they full timeline gets a bit crazy and complex but that’s the fun of this book! And the book is so perfectly written that the story blazes through at some points and is much more elaborate and descriptive in others. This creates a strange effect for the reader!

Also in my opinion, the ending is not at all shocking or unexpected as one would like it to be. The possible ending is hinted in the book before it actually happens and then it happens in the exact same way. I would have been great if the ending had an element of surprise rather that being one which the reader expected.

There might be some inconsistencies in the story related to some specific events but overall the book is an amazing read and a true mind-bender indeed!

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Book Review: Math with Bad Drawings

Math with Bad DrawingsMath with Bad Drawings by Ben Orlin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you like maths, then you will love this book and if you don’t like maths, then probably you will start liking maths because of this book. I have been reading Ben’s blog posts (which also have similar stick-figure drawings) since a few years and I finally decided to read this book. One is lucky to have teachers like him who can inspire not just about the subject but about learning in general!

The book covers a variety of aspects of maths as well as “real-world” scenarios where maths is required. There are sections on maths and mathematicians (it’s my favourite section), geometry (with many cool use-cases!), probability, statistics and more.

The writing style is simple and easy to understand, not like the usual math books! Also, it’s filled with wit and humour. Mostly people cry about maths but I guess this is one of those rare books which makes people laugh! And then there are these hand-drawn illustrations of stick-figures (they are so expressive!) which make the topic fun and also drill down the key points!

A couple of my favourite quotes for this book are: “To do good work, you’ve first got to engage with nitty-gritty details. Then, to do great work, you’ve got to move beyond them.” and “Creativity is what happens when a mind encounters an obstacle. It’s the human process of finding a way through, over, around, or beneath. No obstacle, no creativity.”

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Book Review: Humankind – A Hopeful History

Humankind: A Hopeful HistoryHumankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is like a ray of hope in the current times of global pandemic, inter-community disruptions, natural disasters and more. All of us need to be reminded in the intrinsic goodness of the humankind, even though sometimes it might be hard to see. The core idea of this book is that humans in general are kind and trustworthy. And the author builds on this idea throughout the book across diverse aspects like education, business, government and more.

The book has many interesting and well researched case studies like the real life version of the fictional story from Lord of the Flies. What might have happened on the Easter Island than the usually believed story of war, mass destruction and cannibalism. There is also an in-depth analysis on some of the expected questionable events / experiments like the Stanford Prison experiment, Milgram’s shock machine experiment and Catherine Susan Genovese’s murder in NYC. In all these cases, an alternate picture based on detailed research is presented which completely changes the point of view.

The models of our day-to-day systems will be very different and enriching when they are built from a trustful point of view rather that the existing models which are usually distrustful by default. There are interesting examples where the application of these principles has brought remarkable change. Management, of example in a top down manner with strict way of doing things can be counter productive. There is an interesting example of Blok’s model of management where small teams are given full autonomy which has been very successful and created a win-win situation for the company as well as the employees. As the author say, “Because nothing is more powerful than people who do something because they want to do it.”

Further, education is looked at from the opposite of current day industrial / factory model. Importance of play, where the children are left free to experiment and explore is highlighted. Agora model of education which give a lot of autonomy to kids to design their own learning paths is presented which builds much more well-rounded individuals. “You can’t teach creativity,’ writes psychologist Peter Gray, ‘all you can do is let it blossom.”

Next example shows how cities and governments might look like when then are run autonomously using participatory models of governance. There is also an interesting discussion of the Elinor Ostrom’s model of the commons countering Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. Finally, the author gives examples where even in the most complex scenarios like handling prisoners, controlling police or even wars, it is possible to bring a positive change with models based on trust and compassion.

Being kind in not easy. As it is mentioned towards the end of the book, “To believe people are hardwired to be kind isn’t sentimental or naive. On the contrary, it’s courageous and realistic to believe in peace and forgiveness.” Also this strategy won’t be successful in 100% scenarios, however as the author says, “ accept and account for the fact that you’ll occasionally be cheated. That’s a small price to pay for the luxury of a lifetime of trusting other people.”

This book is powerful and can change the way we perceive the world. It breaks a lot of myths and also discusses many counterintuitive findings like compassion rather than empathy is better when interacting with others. It also presents numerous examples where a culture of trust, autonomy, goodness and compassion can build much better systems. This book restores hope in humankind and shows a way where we can be the change we want to see in the world, by being kind!