Book Review: Bhimsen

Bhimsen is an interesting take on Mahabharata from Bhima’s POV. The book strips all the characters of their divinity and magic and are presented as normal human beings. The realism, and the description of the war scenes are outstanding. Bhima’s character is also pretty good. In spite of being more talented he kind of has to wait for his turn and is forced to take the second spot at every instance. His frustration with Yudhisthira’s hypocrisy and favoritism is pretty valid.

I have often felt that Krishna and Bhima would have had a deep and significant relationship, very different from Krishna and Arjuna but no less significant. But the book does not explore that dimension. The depiction of Draupadi as a blood thirsty sex addict was pretty lame. And I think Krishna’s character is much more impressive than what is brought out in the book.

The book is a translation from the original in Malayalam called Randhamoozham, it can be downloaded from here –

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Incarnations: India in 50 lives

Super book on Indian history. Brings into focus a lot of people, whose stories often get missed while writing about India’s history.
Some of the interesting stories that I liked or were completely new to me are – Visveswaraya, Chidambaram Pillai, Birsa Munda, Krishnadevaraya, Basavanna, Malik Ambar, Panini, William Jones and Jamsetji Tata.
Names I felt that could have been given a miss – Mirabai, Nainsukh, Indira Gandhi, MF Hussain.

Overall, good book, and an interesting take on Indian history.

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Avatar: The Last Airbender

Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Promise

Brings out the complexity in Yu Dao, a post-war Fire nation colony, pretty well. The story build up, the conflict and the eventual resolution were pretty good.

Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Search

Nice book, ties up the loose ends from the original series about the backstory of Zuko’s mother Ursa. The connection between Ko the face stealer and ‘the mother of face’ spirit was also interesting.

Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Rift

The premise of the story is a rift between Toph and Aang over protecting the heritage of Air Nomads. It is a bit less interesting than the other four.

Avatar: The Last Airbender – Smoke and Shadow

Azula pretends to be a dark spirit, Kemurikage and tries to overthrow Zuko from being firelord. Among the four nations, fire nation history is pretty interesting. Wish they would delve deeper into Air Nomad history like that of Guru Laghima, the spiritual leader for Zaheer.

Avatar: The Last Airbender – North and South

It is a bit like ‘The Rift’ except it is set in the southern water tribe. The story is okay.

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Depravity of Madhwa Matha

  • Muslims break Ramzan fast in Udupi Krishna temple
  • I think it is a pointless exercise. It was likely initiated by Pejawara Swami and was probably well meaning. But it is very shallow.
  • This kind of reminds me of Congress holding Iftar parties when they were in power. They would hold these grand Iftar parties, and court the Mullahs and Maulvis, support their Madrassas and the Muslim/Sharia law board in the name of minority rights. While what the poor of the muslim community need is education and healthcare, but they only got corruption and apathy and tokenisms.
  • Morality for community leaders usually lies in bettering their own lot, while ensuring they do not step on others toes in the process.
  • Madhwa Matha has their own gurukula. They need to make this school competitive, so that kids who learn there will actually pick up real stuff( like in other private schools) not just rituals and traditions. This need not be in conflict with their own agenda of teaching Sanskrit, Vedas and Madhwa philosophy. Pejawara Swami will do better to invest his resources in this direction. But I doubt they will do this.


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Formal Education

  • Nice post on Futility Closet –
  • The fact that Abraham Lincoln had less than a year of formal education ought to tell how overrated state controlled, regimented public school curricula is.
  • One of the things America gets right is the freedom to pursue alternative education paradigms, like homeschooling for instance.
  • In India it is too state controlled, which is why subjects like History quickly become propaganda of the ruling dispensation.
  • Sound ideas about changing education paradigms –
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The Future of (Digital) Media

  • The current state of mainstream media(MSM) sucks, not just in India but world over. It is riddled with fake news, biased reporting, and crappy op-eds. Some examples –
  • Which is why proliferation of internet and media/mobile technology was a game changer. Everyone had a cheap and accessible platform to air their views, fact check false reports and challenge the biases and prejudice of powerful journalists and editors. Anyone with a mobile camera can shoot a video and broadcast it on youtube. That is amazing power in the hands of the common man, against people who believed they can be the high priests and gatekeepers of public opinion.
  • Obviously strong political forces across party lines started to game this feature of internet and digital media technology. And they used the very same medium to bulldoze their views and spread fake news and propaganda using whatsapp messages and such.
  • Arnab Goswami’s Republic TV claims that it will challenge this corruption in the media, but I strongly doubt it. It will be like the Fox News of India. Just like NDTV, but the other side of the coin.
  • So what do we do for reliable honest news reporting and journalism?
    • Do we just take news from different sources, be vigilant and fact check before we accept a news report. This can hardly be a solution.
    • But we don’t want the government regulating the media either.
  • I am very optimistic about this new media venture called Wikitribune started by the Wikimedia foundation, and managed by Jimmy Wales. They plan to crowdsource fact-checking of news articles, and build a community of journalists and volunteers to have a non-partisan news outlet. This might very well be the solution to the current problem of how the market dynamics has ended up creating unabashedly partisan media outlets like Republic and NDTV.
  • Wikinomics is a nice book illustrating some of the successes of crowdsourcing. I am hoping Wikitribune will also be one of them.
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Career Thoughts

  • Last few years I have been thinking of the general direction in which my life has been going and where my career will go from here on.
  • So far there have been only three subjects/topics I have wished I could make a career out of. Things that have interested me and captured my imagination and things I have felt I have a natural talent for –
    • Physics in BASE – more specifically statistical physics, rigid body dynamics, fluid mechanics.
    • Economics when I was in Surathkal – The statistical aspect of economics and some of the social theories around it. One of the books that really got me hooked to the subject and showed nuance in the different narratives was ‘Fault Lines’ by Raghuram Rajan. It was brilliant.
    • Statistical Machine Learning in grad school – The focus of my grad school was graphical models and inference procedures. Came closest to actually build a career around it, unlike the other two( probably why it hurt the hardest when I missed it)
  • All three subjects have a strong aspect of statistics to them and machine learning and econometrics borrows a lot from statistical physics. In statistical machine learning especially, a lot of the framing of ideas came from Physics. One can see this by reading the narrative around concepts like partition functions or undirected graphical models. Models like Restricted Boltzman Machine or any Energy Model for that matter use Gibbs distribution to represent distribution over different states. Concepts like variational inference, or markov chain monte carlo came from statistical physics. The language adopted in these fields also comes from Physics.
  • Which is also why people from statistical physics find it easier to move into lucrative careers in Data Science/ Machine Learning and Econometrics.
  • Hopefully I should be able to do something meaningful in one of them. ( By machine learning I don’t mean the big data jobs.)
  • And do something useful here –
  • Unfortunately I feel like I have lost my edge in the last couple of years, like here – and


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Utility of Philosophy

This is an awesome passage from one of Michael Sandel’s lecture which I want quote here –

  • Philosophy is a distancing even debilitating activity.
  • One of Socrates’s friends Callicles tries to talk him out of philosophizing. Callicles says that Philosophy is a pretty toy if one indulges in moderation at the right time of life. But if one pursues it further than one should, it is absolute ruin. Callicles says, take my advice, abandon argument learn the accomplishment of active life, take for your models not those people who spend their time on these petty quibbles, but those who have a good livelihood and reputation and many other blessings.
  • Callicles has a point because philosophy distances us from conventions, from established assumptions and from settled beliefs. Those are the risks, personal and political. And in the face of these risks there is a characteristic evasion. The name of the evasion is cynicism. Its the idea that we didn’t resolve, once and for all, either the cases or the principles we were arguing when we began. And if Aristotle, and Mill, and Kant and Locke haven’t solved these questions after all these years, who are we to think that we here can resolve them. Maybe it is just a matter of each person having his or her own principles and there is nothing more to it, no way of reasoning. This is the evasion of cynicism.
  • To which Sandel offers the following reply: it’s true these questions have been debated for a very long time, but the very fact that these questions have recurred and persisted may suggest that though they are impossible in one sense, they are unavoidable in another. And the reason they are unavoidable and the reason they are inescapable is that we live some answer to these questions everyday. So cynicism, just throwing up your hand and giving up on moral reflection, is no solution. Emmanuel Kant described well the problem with skepticism when he wrote “skepticism is a resting place for human reason, where it can reflect upon its dogmatic wanderings but it is no permanent place for permanent settlement”. “Simply to acquiesce in skepticism”, Kant wrote “can never suffice to overcome the restlessness of reason”.
I think Callicles is right. I think Nandan Nilekani had also made this point when he said that solutions to India’s problems should not be ideology based but solution based.
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Is BJP = Cong + Cow?

  • Some time back, Arun Shourie, one of the very few honest politicians in independent India, disillusioned with the Modi government said that BJP = Congress + Cow.
  • I think his criticism, though not completely lacking merit, might be a bit pre-meditated. But the Modi sarkar was not voted into power to implement the existing laws with efficiency. There is no doubt that Modi is capable of both hard work and efficiency but there is a need to change the existing laws. That was the whole premise of the 2014 election.
  • It is to be conceded that a lot of the changes needed requires a 2/3rd majority in the Lok Sabha and BJP is making good progress in winning elections.
  • We can say that BJP is Cong + Cow if by 2024 a good chunk of the following changes are not put in place.
    1.  Abolish the first amendment. The 1st amendment of the Indian constitution mandates reverence to all religions and and FOE is contingent on the wishes of the incumbent govt. FOE should be irrespective of the govt and should allow irreverence to all religions, like the 1st amendment of the US constitution. (Highly unlikely they will do this)
    2. Abolish the RTE act. It prevents the poor from getting affordable education. Open up higher education sector for private players.
    3. Bring back strong land and property rights.
      1. Put a muzzle on the waqf board.
      2. There are a lot of powerful people squatting on lands at the exchequers expense.
    4. Abolish article 370
    5. Bring a uniform civil code and show the Sharia board their proper place.
    6. Remove the anti-beef laws from the preamble. Ram mandir is not communal but anti-beef laws are.(Highly unlikely they will do this)
    7. Urban infrastructure improvement by changing the incentives and accountability structure that currently exists. Make the mayor more powerful and accountable and not the municipal corporation. Change the tax system such that a good chunk of city taxes go to the city administration and not the state. Remove free parking and have paid parking. I don’t think the whole smart city thing is a big deal
  • Except for point 1 and 6 the other things can be argued to be pretty much in line with the Sangh Parivar agenda of cultural nationalism. If they are able to do this then we can confidently say that Arun Shourie was wrong.
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Why ‘Liberals’ are failing

I have used the word liberal in quotes because I believe India has very few real liberals, but a lot of douchebags who roam around calling themselves liberals. And it for this reason that liberals, for want of a better word, are hard to take seriously.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta recently wrote this article – Sinking Valley. He accuses the Indian establishment of being in denial about the realities of Kashmir, hence unable to win the hearts of the Kashmiri people which military force alone cannot accomplish. What is funny is that Mehta has written the whole article not mentioning even once the problem of Islamism and the abomination of Sharia law that exists in the valley. And he accuses others of being in denial. Thats rich!

I don’t know if there is any difference between the separatists and rabid Islamists in the valley, but Mehta does not even attempt to address that. I have often read news articles where lot of Kashmiri folk go with the mantra “Sharia or Shahdat( martyrdom)”. Frankly we should help them with their Shahadat plan but not cede an inch to Sharia.

It is this denialism that is stopping the larger population from trusting these self-proclaimed ‘liberals’. And this also manifests as a lack conviction when they try to go after the murderous anti-beef lynch mobs. Unless ‘liberals’ learn to unequivocally condemn all movement that are overtly or covertly trying to push Sharia law, they will keep losing. They should separate Muslim culture and art from Islamic law. One is acceptable( good if you are into arts and stuff) the other is plain abomination.

I had once read a comment about Mehta on the interwebs that he is a permanent outrage machine, who has nothing to offer in terms of ideas or solutions but has something to say about anything any govt tries to do. I think it is pretty accurate. The work of academics should not be just criticism, they should be able to suggest credible alternate solutions at least in a few situations, if they wish to retain some amount of credibility.

There is this awesome passage towards the end of the movie ‘Ratatouille’ that I think is very apt here. I will try to quote it here –

In many ways the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy the position over those who offer up their work and their selves for our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fine to write and to read. But a bitter truth that we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent and new creations, and New needs friends. Last night I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my conceived notions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s motto – ‘Anyone can cook’. But I realize only now that I truly understand what Gusteau meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gustave’s,  who is in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon hungry for more.

I feel Mehta might be the textbook case of a critic who fails the above test. I have never seen him praise /approve of anything. (I could be wrong of course, I have not read all his works)

Also I dislike the intelligentsia’s habit of using the nation’s capital while trying to refer to the govt. I think it is stupid. They should either say the Indian govt/Indian establishment or say the union governemtn/ central government/ federal government. Throughout the article he keeps referring to New Delhi, as though that is the whole of India.

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