Sunday, March 27, 2011

Nudge : Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness - Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein

The book build on a premise that we humans are poor at making decisions. Without proper guidance ( nudge) and direction, we often tend to make poor choices. Most our decisions are biased and based on the way it has been arranged. Using various example, the University of Chicago Professors, explains the vulnerability of human in front of options. They tend to follow the status quo, methods of approximation, the herd mentality or peer references. Human also have the strong loss aversion tendencies and are very conscious about the 'spotlight effect' ( thinking others are observing you). Classifying people into 'Econ's ( people with basic economic inclination and can be influenced by economic incentives ) and 'humans" who are usually not so educated and can be influenced by nudges and incentives. The decision from the Econs are based on 'reflective' behavior while that of 'humans' are more 'automatic'. ( There you go, another two terms after Econs and Humans are 'reflective and automated' systems of response)

After a brilliant part 1, where the principles and basics are explained, they authors explains its relevance and importance of "choice architecture" in the daily life , from financial planning , medical options and to social and environment issues. Taking his arguments further, he talks about the role f governments in helping the citizens in using the right choice in medical, financial and social area by choice architecture and appropriate nudge. "Nudge" in their parlance is "any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people's behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives". Free market,economy with its basic architecture of choice and campaigns can mislead the individual and this is where the state to take the necessary steps to help the individual.

Coining the word `libertarian paternalism' , Thaler and Sunstein takes the arguments of state monitored and articulated process of helping decision making. Policies like "Opt-out" instead of Opt-in" and making the default as the most appropriate and work the other choices around this, he says we can bring about significant changes in the way citizens make choices. The say, "We oppose bans; instead, we favor nudges."

The synopsis and the details are here in this wiki page. Beyond the first part of behavior economics, the books turns into some sort of political and social issues. Typical to these kind of books, it is abundant with examples and proofs, often beyond what is necessary.

I'm not sure how much of the later part of the book can be practised. However, this is a very good and engaging read ( especially the initial parts) with a whole lot of case studies and proof points.

Penguin Books

304 Pages

Rs 350

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Turing's Delirium - Edmundo Paz Soldán

New age literature is breaking free from the same old narrative style and the subjects. The technological advancement and the usage of these medium have started appearing in the mainstream literature in the new century. Blog entries, e-mails and web and internet have started appearing often, albeit in the younger lot of writers. Soldan's Turing's Delirium also employs these effectively. What he does well is mixing up the old age style to the newer methodology pretty well. There are technical errors at a few places but that can be overlooked. His the sci-fi, virtual world thriller set in Bolivia, is interesting for this reason apart from his brilliance as a writer.

Cryptography is the theme and its the tussle of the old age tradition carried from the dates of Egyptian rulers , through the modern world, looking for evidences in the writing of Victorian elitists, in Shakespeare, in Bacon following it through the period when the cryptanalysis have taken the main stream of military intelligence especially during the first two world wars. This later enhanced in scope and technology during the cold war era and was used by various rulers around the world for quelling rebellion against their own regime.

Miguel Saenz, nicknamed 'Turing' ( after the legendary code breaker) is the center of the action. An old established 'code-breaker' worked for the dictatorship of President Montenegro during his peak, in the secret establishment called "Black Chamber", established by a mysterious American Albert. Black Chamber as the name suggest is the center of all the dubious information. Now the dictatorship is overthrown, and after a couple of democratic experiments, President Montenegro is back in power as a democratically elected leader. The absence of work and the change of leadership ( Albert is decaying in his apartment , abandoned and hallucinating, awaiting death ), moved Miguel's position to a mere record keeper. The new leadership believe in the newer ways of breaking codes using sophisticated softwares and the fresher recruits with new engineering and software skills.

However, the new challenge that posed to the regime is the constant attack on its websites, and that of leading multinational firms, especially the company that distribute power to the neighborhood. The company ( an Italian-American joint venture) had increased the rate recently after the Electricity was privatised by the government, resulting in widespread protest and agitation. The opposition is now active and there are skirmishes and police action to curb the agitation. It is during this time, there is the new form of cyber attack on the government and the leading companies. The so called cyber terrorism is supposedly lead by the underground hacker community of adolescent students, and is lead by one Kadinsky. Its now the responsibility of the 'Black Chamber' to nab the terrorists and bring them to justice. As expected, the hackers are always a step ahead of the authorities and with their clandestine activities, not easy to track. The only way to get to the thick of the action is to have someone from their own community. It is the teenage daughter and 'nerd' Flavia, daughter of Miguel who was identified as a capable candidate to help them in this mission.

This is the story at the fore front. Soldan uses the multi narrative technique to tell a fast paced gripping story. The cyber world of "Play Ground" where most of the counter Government and the anti - transnational activities are groomed and coordinated by people ( called the Resistance) with secret identities and unknown background joining for the cause. On the real time world of Miguel is copin with his troubled family life, Flavia being a computer genius and a hacker seldom come out of her room, Ruth developing distaste on his activities and his direct/indirect involvement in the atrocities of the regime during dictatorship. His affair with the drug addicted prostitute, whom he is being the guardian and provide for. He is also fighting his own trauma resulted from the guilt of his actions as the truths are now uncovered of his earlier success. Albert on his death bed having visions of the time of World War II, and the stories of successful code-breaking effort, helping the allied forces giving an edge over the Germans.

There is much more serious affairs running at the back ground. It is the revenge of the atrocities of the earlier dictatorship. As in the case of every dictatorship, there are stories of torture and killing of innocents and those who stood for justice. Two individuals are in pursuit of bringing this out. Ruth, the history professor at the University, wife of Miguel, has her research concluded on the involvement of Black Chamber ( that includes her husband) in the killings during the regime. Justice. Cardona, a former minister in the Montenegro government is planning his revenge of the death of his first love Martha. There are murders , cyber crimes , games and twist and turns in the narrative to keep the interest of the readers with some decent finish.

The book is of multi narration. The story is told by various participants, giving us a peep view of their character and their thinking. Hence the language and style vary dramatically from one narration to the other. Rightly so, and voice appropriate to the character. This , on the other hand, suffers from being brilliant writing in one chapter to mediocre in the next. ( I shall give the benefit of doubt to the original, as this might have suffered during translation - so, I hear from my friends from that part of the world). The book, also takes critical look at the globalisation and privatisation of national resources in a very subtle way. Under the pretext of a cyber thriller, Soldan covers these two serious topics of dictatorship ( Montenegro is modelled around Hugo Banzer Suárez, dictator from 1971 to 1978 and an elected president from 1997) and the repercussions of the globalisations in Latin America very well.

A good , fast paced , new age cyber - political thriller with parts of brilliant writing.
Turing's Delirium ( 2003)

Edmundo Paz Soldan ( translated from Spanish by Lisa Carter 2006 )

Mariner Books

291 Pages
Other reviews : Complete Review , Mostly Fiction

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Encounter : Essays - Milan Kundera

"the sense that we have come to the era of post-art, in a world where art is dying because the need for art, the sensitivity and the love for it, is dying."

My initial enthusiasm of this writer ( during the 80s and early nineties) after reading "Life is Elsewhere", "Unbearable lightness of being" , "The joke" etc were taken a beating towards the end of the century. I did not particularly like Slowness, Ignorance or Identity. It is during this time that his non-fiction books started attracting my attention. All of them from the Art of the Novel to the Curtain were brilliant, explaining the aesthetics of art he is an expert. His new release, "Encounter" also treads the same path of his earlier non-fiction works. A collection of essays written and published over a period of last 20 years.

It is interesting to learn about one writer's understanding and views about other novels of the same era and genre, and especially by some one like Kundera. In his earlier essays, he was looking at some of the classics, and trend setting novels prior to 20th century. In this, he had given us the glimpses of some of the major 20th century novels albeit in very short essays. Its one single theme, or an observation or a paragraph that he writes about. Like, " I was reading One hundred years of Solitude when a strange idea occurred to me; most protagonists of great novels do not have children" or the observation of sexualities in the work of Philip Roth and and the second half of 20th century in general, post D H Lawrence era. He also examines the works of Juan Goytisolo, Luis Ferdinant Celine and Dostoevsky.

The homage to Anatole France based on the "The Gods are Thirsty" is an outstanding piece. A writer whom "people managed to keep the name on the blacklist" has a new life here. Explaining why the Gods are Thirsty is understood outside France than within it, Kundera's hypothesis can be applied to any historical fiction in general.
This explains why historical novels have always been better understood outside its own country than within it. For such is the fate of any novel whose action is too tightly bound to a narrow historical period: fellow citizens automatically look for a document of what they themselves experienced or passionately debated; they look to see if the novel's image of history matches their own; they try to work out the author's political stances, impatient to judge them. The surest way to spoil a novel."
In a letter to Carlos Fuentes, he observed the constellation off great writers in the eastern Europe , who changed the landscape of novel during the early decades of 20th century. He cites the names of Kafka, Musil, Broch, Gombrowicz . Similarly, in the sixties and seventies another great constellation of writers from Latin America " continued transforming the aesthetic of the novel; Jaun Rulfo, Carpentier, Sabato, Marquez and others. The modern avant Garde writers, he says, "
proclaim their own modernism for the novel, they did it in a purely negative way; a novel with no characters, no plot, no story, if possible no punctuation: a novel that came to be called the anti-novel." But he prefer to call " not as an anti-novel but an arch-novel. The arch novel would, primo, focus on what only the novel can say; and secundo, would revive all the neglected and forgotten possibilities the art had accumulated over the four centuries of its history."
In another billiant homage to the Martiniquan poet Cesaire, he discusses the possibilities of using multi lingual or bilingual use of language. Mixing Creole with French, the way Brazilian writer's liberty with Portuguese or Spanish American writers with Spanish. Another essay looks at the now forgotten writer Curzio Malaparte, of Italy and his novel the "Skin". I haven't read any of these, hence can only judge from his take on these books.

Other important essays includes few on the music of Leo Janacek, Xenakis and Schoenberg. He also dedicate one chapter on the lives of exile in " Elsewhere", and started the book with an essay on Francis Bacon, with a discussion on his induced deformity on the paintings he created. Inspite of the weak initial pages, this book is another profound study from one of this brilliant writer and intellect of the current era. I said weak because the essays are short ( often 3 to 4 pages) and have the potential to develop into a full fledged essays on their own. Being a random collection of essays ( unlike 'the curtain' or 'art of the novel'), there is no continuity or progression from one chapter to other. But his intelligence, analysis and insights are a treasure to the reader.
Encounter : Essays ( 2009)

Milan kundera ( translated by Linda Asher 2010)

Faber & Faber

178 Pages
Other Reviews : NY Times, Guardian

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Leela: A Patch Work Life - Leela Naidu

I am not familiar with the actress Leela Naidu. Do not remember seeing an of her movies. She is not from our era of actors that I am familiar with. However, the person who gave the book to me is from that time. It is only later did I learn about Leela Naidu, the erstwhile Miss India, the cover girl of Vogue as the one of the most beautiful woman in the world, wife of poet Dom Moraes.

This is not a typical biography. It is a collection of her random incidents, not arranged in any chronological order, nor in any level of importance. interestingly, it does not have much about her on personal life, her child hood, her education or any details of her initial failed marriage with to the Oberoi clan. She also manages to skip all those unpleasant memories of her life from being discussed. Leela Naidu, writes the book with a disclaimer "This is the Leela I know. She had an eventful life by her own understanding of it and she thinks you might like to hear about it"

She brings out names after names from every where. The book starts with an anecdote, of Price Yusupov, the alleged murderer of infamous Rasputin, appear naked at the door of her Grandma, escaped from asylum , where he was taken in and fed upon. She also writes about one 'Bennito Mussolini' who used to work for her grand father at his factory, to be expelled from job for thrashing a co-worker's hand with a red hot metal rod..

Leela Naidu, has very good style of writing, of course supported by Jerry Pinto. She has a keen observation, and an acute sense of humour and srong convictions. Though she write about the major incidents in her life, and do get the attention of the reader; the attention is to the character and is not necessarily associated with Leela. Her acting classes with Jean Renoir, the help and guidance from Ingmar Bergman for a complication post child birth, the meeting of Salvadore Dali, who wanted to use her as a model for Madonna, the accidental chance to pose for vogue , each are intriguing in its own way.

On her personal attribute, we could see a strong person in support of the weaker section of the society. Be it the villagers of UP in their fight against the land mafia, the right to use the road during the religious ceremony, the one man( woman) fight against the plight of extras in the film shooting sets, the support for better food for the animals ( elephants ) during the shooting of a film were enough proof for her conviction and willingness to go to any extend to get things done towards what she believe. In the earlier chapters, she tells us the racial slurs and difficulties she had to face during her student years, and she slams India as one of the most racist countries in the world, with our age old caste systems and the way the lower classes treated by the rich.

Born to a celebrated scientist, Ramaiah Naidu, who worked with Marie Curie, later head their research and a French woman,an Indologist, she had a very European upbringing with Indian roots. As she puts it elsewhere in the book, "Daddy is Cafe, Maman is milk and I'm 'cafe au lait''. Widely read, learned music and dance, multi lingual ,with sharp brains added with her beauty and was set to take her into greater heights.

Her career in movies did not go as well as expected. After rejecting an offer from Raj Kapoor to sign in for four movies, she did manage to get few roles in the Hindi movies, to be directed by none other than Hrishikesh Mukherjee about which she says, "I do not remember my first day of shooting perhaps because I did not suffer from stage fright. According to me, stage fright is about waffling. It happens when an actor will not stay in the moment".

Her professionalism, her demand for script before signing, the perceived intellectual air around her, possibly would have come in as hindrance to her career. Though, each of the eight movies that she acted, where noticed. First movie with Hrishkesh Mukherjee, followed with the first production of James - Ivory, "The house Holder" , Trikaal with Shyam Benegal were critically acclaimed. Comparing the style she says : "What Renoir gave me was a basic understanding of the way in which a text was only a frame work and how each interpretation brought something new to that framework. What working with James Ivory did was to throw me back to my own resources because he said almost nothing."

She is not regretting her lost opportunities. After refusing to sign for Raj Kapoor, she seems to have missed many more including that of the lead role in David Lean's Dr.Zhivago. "You saw me posting the that letter ? It was to Geraldine Chaplin. She was my second choice for the role". Her observation on Arundhati Roy, with whom she worked in one film ( Electric moon) is noteworthy. "I must say I admire the way Arundhati has turned her status as celebrity author into a catalyst for the causes she cares about, but there was very little of the caring Ms Roy on the set of Electric Moon."

Leela was married twice, both ended in separation. The first, in her teens, were to the Oberoi family, with whom she had twins even before turning twenty, The bitter law suit of separation and the lost battle for possession of the daughters must have devastated her, and it is until late she got into her second marriage with poet and childhood acquaint Dom Moraes. This marriage which lasted longer was also not discussed in the book. however the second part of the book was more on her life post her film career and her travel around the world working for Dom, in his various literary pursuit, often working as his translator cum secretary .

Jerry Pinto , in his foreword explains that 'everyone who met her has a Leela Naidu story. This is her version.' This is not a life story, it is a parts ( patchwork as she say) of her life, as chosen , rather carefully, and told. I believe, apart from some of the curious incidents, there is no significance of this book in any genre of writing. There are no personal life insight, there is no multicultural imbalance and truggle, there is no heart breaking experiences. She was clear that the "book would have nothing to do with my life... It's only about the funny anecdotes and the sad historic ones I came across". And, that's all is there to this book.
Leela - A Patchwork Life ( 2010)

Leela Naidu with Jerry Pinto

Penguin Viking

180 Pages

Rs 450
Other reviews : Outlook , DNA India