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!

Book Review: Algorithms to Live by

Algorithms to Live by: The Computer Science of Human Decisions

Algorithms to Live by: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Algorithms to Live by is one of my top favorite books! I’m a CS grad student and I have studied all the topics mentioned in this book like sorting, caching, overfitting, networking, game theory etc in great theoretical depth. After reading this book I think it can be understood and enjoyed by both CS and non-CS people. However, CS folks can relate to the things mentioned in the book even better as they have background knowledge about it!

All the chapters are well researched and presented in a way that it almost feels like reading a story. With real-life incidents, day to day examples and quotes it makes an awesome read! It is one of those books which one can randomly reread. Some of the lines have philosophical undertones and on reading it especially in connection to the topic being discussed, the mind just goes WOW!

Some of the everyday things that can be tackled by algorithms as presented in this book are finding the perfect house for rent, finding a life partner, why not to consume too much news as it disturbs our priors, how our tastebuds have overfitted over the years, how evolutionarily speaking our brains are at an optimum state, links between networks and effective communication, alternate email auto-replies, group interactions and its complexities and many more!

Some of my favorite lines from the book are:
* Outcomes make news headlines but processes are what we have control over…We can hope to be fortunate, but we should strive to be wise.
* If changing strategies doesn’t help, you can try to change the game. And if that’s not possible, you can at least exercise some control about which games you choose to play. The road to hell is paved with intractable recursions, bad equilibria, and information cascades. Seek out games where honesty is the dominant strategy. Then just be yourself.
* It turns out there is no Godfather quite like God the father.
* James Branch Cabell – “The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.”
* Communication is one of those delightful things that work only in practice; in theory it’s impossible.
* Our judgments betray our expectations, and our expectations betray our experience. What we project about the future reveals a lot – about the world we live in, and about our own past.

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Book Review – The Power Law of Information

the_power_law_of _information

How many times have you read a non-fiction book and you were left amazed with reality ? Well, “The Power Law of Information” is one of those books. We are all so busy with the day-to-day happenings in our life that sometimes we fail to see how some things affect us so powerfully and literally change our lives. One of those things is “information”. 2.7 Zetabytes of data exists in the digital universe today and it is growing at a very fast rate. Earlier information was not available so easily and effortlessly.  But today the easy availability of information has transformed our lives. This book shows how the huge availability (and sometimes the unavailability) of information affects us in different ways.

The book has been written in lucid and easy-to-understand manner. For the technical people, there are mathematical equations and lots of graphs for a better and in-depth understanding. However the best thing which i liked was that, even if one is not familiar with the mathematical stuff, one can easily get the gist of what the author wants to convey. There are lots of practical, real life examples and anecdotes. There are some case studies to validate the point. All this makes the book an interesting read and an eye-opener about the impact of information in our life. This book can be specially useful for the people who are intrigued by the Internet, the world wide web, the social networks or about information in general

Earlier it was believed that information networks are similar to physical or material networks. However it is clearly shown here that information networks have unique and different properties like information can be reused, it can be easily replicated etc which are not found in the material network. Information follows the power law, i.e. a small number of entities have a high value and a large number of entities have a small value. It is such a unique and important property that it has its place in the title of the book. Information networks are non-linear since people in the network interact with each other and may be connected in loops. It is also friction-less since the feedback fully affects the information network. Studying and predicting outcomes in such networks can be extremely complex but that’s the way reality is !

In this book, ‘information’ has been analyzed from all the perspectives. Firstly information itself and its properties and how it affects us is discussed. Various parameters which affect information and different ways to model information are studied. Also how we as humans can make beneficial use of this information despite our fallacies, biases and bounded rationality makes an interesting read. Other social factors like herd mentality and satisficing behavior are analyzed with some interesting examples. Money is also in some sense, information. The book concludes on the topic how money affects the world. There is a detailed bibliography and further reading for the interested readers. Overall it’s an amazing book filled with lots of practical examples and a great read over the weekend.

Age is just a number

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” ~Mark Twain

Days, weeks, months and years pass. And so do birthdays ! But does anyone feel “grown up” with each passing birthday ? Atleast i don’t. If you do please let me know what it feels like. A birthday is like a milestone for me. An indicator of the amount of time i have spent on Earth (in this lifetime 😉 ). A reason to celebrate, enjoy and party ! But i don’t feel anything different from my previous birthdays. May be next year i will, or probably not. No idea. Probably for me age will always be just a number !

I think more than the birthdays, its those special moments of wisdom which make us feel big. For example, when we help someone, when we face our fears, when we make BIG decisions, when we follow our heart/brain and not what others say, when we find happiness in doing things and so on … I think these moments make us wiser and older. It is the experience we have from these moments that makes us mature. And thus due to this reason i think it is possible that people celebrating bigger birthdays may not always be mature and in similar way, sometimes the young ones may be. It all depends on the experiences we have had. The people we have met. The friends (and enemies) we have made. The books we have read. The lessons we have learnt. The choices we have made. The decisions we have taken. The roads we have walked.

On a lighter note, when i was small and innocent and didn’t know the ‘reality’, i believed that i would grow taller on my birthday 😛 My parents tell me that i would ask them to measure my height before the birthday night as i would be taller the next day. Seriously we as children can have strange and funny beliefs.

My friends liked this idea, so i thought i would share it with all. How many of you feel that the day for which you waited so long, i.e. your birthday just flies away ? The next day, it feels like a dream. And then you have to wait for whole one year to celebrate it again ! So the idea is to celebrate “Birthday Month” instead of just “Birthday”. For the whole month, daily do something you like doing. Make each day special in its own way. Also celebrate the birthday. In this way, you won’t feel that your birthday just zoomed away. You will be enjoy each and every moment of the entire birthday month. Thanks to Mom and Dad for this wonderful idea 🙂 Also how about celebrating “Birthday Year” ? Lets make every moment of our life special ! After all its OUR life !

Do you want to know what is your actual mental age ? Try this fun test online -> http://www.mbti123.com/mental/en/

“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” ~Satchel Paige

Book Review – Half a Rupee Stories

Half-a-Rupee-Stories-by-Gulzar

Half a Rupee Stories is a book written by Gulzar and translated by Sunjoy Shekhar. If you have ever heard a song written by Gulzar then i am sure you must be his fan ! He is a world renowned poet, lyricist and director. The language used by him is simple and easy to understand and most of all it has the power to touch the heart.

Half a Rupee Stories is a collection of 25 short stories. I will say that it is a collection of 25 gems. Each story touches the heart and leaves a message for the soul. It has real life lessons learned after years of experience. Some stories are filled with suspense and thrill while others highlight the various issues faced in life in a unique way. It has real life stories of Javed Akthar (his nick-name is Jaadu :)), Sahir Ludhianvi and Kuldip Nayyar. Many locations of the stories are located around the border regions. There are also some stories of  Mumbai. The best thing which i liked about this book is that it shows us how to find a bigger and higher meaning from our daily experiences. It shows how to look at life from a broader perspective. Thus i will say that this book is a must-read !

All the stories in a line –

  1. A story based of faith, trust and miracle.
  2. How 100 rupees changed someone’s life !
  3. A story of friendship.
  4. A story of slum for the perspective of the people living there.
  5. Rain and flood.
  6. A boat-cleaner can also be a king.
  7. A glimpse of the life of the people who live on the footpath.
  8. Connection across LoC.
  9. “Over”
  10. All for a ram fight !
  11. Hilsa fish and the newspaper headline.
  12. How wars affect lives and souls !
  13. Story from paradise-Kashmir.
  14. A freedom fighter’s life.
  15. A swayamwar.
  16. “Half a Rupee”
  17. God is a superman.
  18. Love story between a bird and a kite.
  19. Lessons from an orange.
  20. Earthquake.
  21. Shortcut, an accident, fate.
  22. The biggest pickpocket.
  23. Grandparents love.
  24. Grandpa’s love for grandchild.
  25. The transformation.

Daily Prompt: Burning Down the House

My Top 5
My Top 5

Your home is on fire. Grab five items (assume all people and animals are safe). What did you grab?

  1. Laptop
    All my study material and projects are in my laptop. So it gets the first priority. I will also take the HDD along :).
  2. Books
    I just love my books and novels. At any cost i cannot imagine getting them burned down to ashes.
  3. Autograph Book
    I have the autograph of my teaches and dignitaries whom i have personally met. Its an instant trigger to the past sweet memories.
  4. Mobile
    How else will i contact my parents and near and dear ones to inform that i am OK ???
  5. Certificates + Trophies + Medals
    I just don’t want to lose these precious things as well.

What do you think ? What would you chose ??? Quite difficult ! Right 😀