The Vault of Vishnu (2020)

I had purchased all Ashwin Sanghi books up to Sialkot Saga as and when they came. I purchased The Vault of Vishnu on pre-order. When the book came I realised that Sanghi had written more books in the interim that I had missed.

Book Cover – The Vault of Vishnu by Ashwin Sanghi

During this time, I was trying new techniques of reading multiple books at the same time. In mid-May this year, I realized I could not read like this. I also found that I could not read the next book until I broke the log jam by writing a review about it on my blog. In fact, this log jam affected everything else in my life as well. Hence, I am writing this now to break the log jam so I can go on to my next book.

I always liked how Sanghi wrote his book from multiple stories that coalesce some where in time. I particularly liked the leisurely pace at which the book started. I kept switching between books until I wrote the review for the 7 Brief Lessons in Physics and then I finished the book in one sitting. Now, you might understand why the second paragraph of this review was essential.

The book neatly merges facts and fiction. For all the facts, Sanghi has a nice appendix with all the reading he did to research for the book. It merges timelines across time and space. It merges spies and history. I like how his writing style has improved so much since the Rozabal Line.

Official trailer of The Vault of Vishnu by Ashwin Sanghi

When I read the title, The Vault of Vishnu, my Malayali mind immediately leapt to the Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvanantapuram and the hidden vaults under the temple. That is why I ordered the book. Turns out the referenced temple is the Chidambaram Temple in Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu.

Sanghi begins his novel with the events that happened at Doklam in 2017 between India and China. Given the situation at the border now, the novel may be relatable? Then the story moves between India and China and across centuries. Even in the novel, we are dependent on help from the Americans for intelligence. There is reference to limitation of RISAT-2 which keeps an eye on India’s borders with China and Pakistan. There are references to our glorious past – especially the Cholas, Indian contributions to Kungfu and Shaolin and Bodhidharma (no Indo-Chinese fiction book is complete without him).

The story line of the Chinese monk travelling to get to India is a little slow through the book and adding a map to understand the path he took would have been a great add.

For me, the book reemphasizes our open borders between India, China, Persia and Central Asia. Knowledge, legends and myths have traveled on these roads for centuries and the modern nation-state has sought to destroy these ancient connections. I think we are poorer as a result.

From the books page on his website, I realised that he has published many more books than I anticipated. I am yet to read The Keepers of the Kalachakra in his Bharat Series, all books in his Private Series and some of his later books on his 13 Steps series. I had read 13 Steps book on wealth and luck.

7 Brief Lessons on Physics (2015)

I was listening to the On Being podcast where Krista Tippett was interviewing Carlo Rovelli. Rovelli is an Italian physicist working with the Quantum Gravity research group at Centre de Physique Theorique in Marseille, France.

As soon as the episode was over, I went over to Amazon and ordered the book he had been talking of – Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. This is an English translation of Rovelli’s Sette brevi lezioni di fisica written in 2014. The book was translated into English by Simon Carnell and Eric Segre in 2015.

In his discussion, I felt that there were still parts of Physics that I would like to explore and read up more on. Although the book does not have footnotes that would help me to learn more. It is an intense book packed with information. I read this book between March 17, 2020 and finished it on May 26, 2020. The book is 79 pages long.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics Cover, Fair use, Link

The first lesson of the book explores Einstein’s theory of general relativity published in 1915. But, before we get there we have to realise that in one of his three papers written in 1905, Einstein suggested that time is not the same for everyone. The Theory of General Relativity suggests that gravity is the curvature of space.

In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with Quantum Mechanics. In 1900, Max Planck conducted an experiment to measure the electric field in a hot box. For calculations, he considered energy to be lumps of energy that he called quanta. While the results agreed, it disagreed with what was known till then about Energy.

In 1905, one of the three papers that Einstein submitted showed that Planck’s view of the world is true. He showed that light is made of similar packets, called photons. This paper birthed the field of Quantum Physics. The rest of the second lesson explores how Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg flesh out the field of Quantum Physics with Einstein objecting and rejecting the results that the field proposed.

The 1905 introduction to the paper begins with “It seems to me that..”. Rovelli suggests that genius hesitates and great scientists doubt till the end.

The third lesson is a chapter filled with diagrams. The reason why is explained beautifully by Rovelli, thus:

This lesson is made up mostly of simple drawings. The reason for this is that before experiments, measurements, mathematics and rigorous deductions, science is above all about visions. Science begins with a vision. Scientific thought is fed by the capacity to ‘see’ things differently than they have previously been seen.

Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lesssons in Physics, Third Lesson, pp 21-22, 2015, translated into English by Simon Carnell and Eric Segre

The diagrams refer to how our view of our world changed from Earth below to sky above to us being in an ordinary solar system in an ordinary galaxy. The diagrams describe the structure of our universe.

The fourth lesson talks about particles. It goes into the development of quantum physics and then ends up discussing the various issues related to the Standard Model. The Model is a series of equations that has “never been taken entirely seriously by physicists” and seem to them “piecemeal and patched together”. The Model when applied directly leads to nonsensical predictions. A process called re-normalization is used to make them sensible. One of its limitation is an inability to explain dark matter. However, this Model provides the best answers to the phenomena we witness in the universe.

The fourth lesson also introduces an important concept. It introduces us to a “world of happenings, not things”. He explains:

The nature of these particles, and the way they move, is described by quantum mechanics. These particles do not have a pebble-like reality but are rather the ‘quanta’ of corresponding fields, just as photons are ‘quanta’ of the electromagnetic field.

Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lesssons in Physics, Fourth Lesson, pp 30, 2015, translated into English by Simon Carnell and Eric Segre

The fifth lesson introduces us to a conundrum in the world of physics. General Relativity is our best theory that explains things at the cosmic scale and which led to the development of fields like Cosmology and Astrophysics. Quantum Mechanics provides our best theory that explains things at the quantum scale and led to the development of fields like atomic physics, nuclear physics, physics of condensed matter, etc. However both these fields do not agree with each other.

Many theories are being postulated to try and bring these two laws together and fit them together. The author himself is part of such an effort called Loop Quantum Theory. He is part of one of several groups trying to integrate the two theories.

The sixth lesson deals with concepts of heat that I was not aware of. The nature of time is dependent on nature of heat.

The difference between past and future only exists when there is heat. The fundamental phenomenon that distinguishes the future from the past is the fact that heat passes from things that are hotter to things that are colder.

Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lesssons in Physics, Fourth Lesson, pp 51, 2015, translated into English by Simon Carnell and Eric Segre

He then says that the answer to why heat flows from hot bodies to clod bodies is very simple. It is just probability. The rest of the chapter flows from probability towards the concept of the heat of black holes. This still unanswered question brings together the field of quantum mechanics, general relativity and thermal science.

The book is a lot of information to take in about 79 pages. Even writing this review of the book took me more than a week. I don’t think I have done justice to the book. But, writing more would have become the equivalent to just writing the book here. What I have sought to do here is to try and build an outline of the book and introduce you to the mysteries that pulled me towards reading the book.

This is a book that provides a simple, deep understanding of the Physics of the twentieth century. It helps you understand where we stand and throws a light on where we are headed.

George Saunders

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders is a book that cannot be categorized. It is a dystopian novella, a science fiction read, a satirical take on our times, the 21stcentury Animal Farm in a way, and perhaps more.

Written in 2006, almost fourteen years ago, this novella is still so frighteningly prescient. We are living it in a way, in almost every country. Most countries of the world today have their own Phil, and their reign isn’t brief.

Vivek Tejuja, in his review of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

Litanies of Dutch Battery (Malayalam, 2003)

ലന്തൻബത്തേരിയിലെ ലുത്തിനിയകൾ (2003, Litanies of Dutch Battery) is a Malayalam novel written by N S Madhavan (twitter: @NSMLive). N S Madhavan is a short story writer and a columnist. This is the first novel he wrote 33 years after he started writing. This is the first Malayalam novel that I listened to on the Storytel app.

The novel traces the life of a little girl born and raised on an imaginary island off the coast of Kochi. The novel, has for its back drop the period between 1951 to 1967. It looks at the influences of the rise of Communism in Kerala and the Church in the locality through the eyes of the girl. It goes through various histories that affect the area and various oral stories that the people here spoke of and are perhaps now forgotten.

The narrator on the app is Edakochi Salim Kumar, who is a kadhaprasangam artist. It took me quite a while getting used to his pronunciation of Malayalam words. But, once I got the hang of it, it was a great listening experience.

I have mostly read English translations of Malayalam novels. This is perhaps the first time that I had the patience to sit down and listen through an entire novel in the original Malayalam.

I am not going to review the book since I don’t feel qualified to do it justice. There are two parts that I liked in the book and I am going to put them down here for future reference.

The year is 1957 and news arrives in India of the Soviet success in launching the Sputnik satellite. The Communist party cadre in Dutch Battery are celebrating the win over America. Kids make fun of the cadre saying they launched balloons into the sky and hence the Soviet achievement is no big deal. The cadre explains that balloons fall back to the ground after travelling some distance but the Soviets used a rocket that flies at a high speed to escape Earth’s gravity and put a satellite into orbit.

There are quite a few references to ship building around Kochi and also references to war stories including one about Pakistan bombing Kochi and how one bomb fell on a newly reclaimed part of Willingdon Island in Kochi. People claim to have experienced a lights out but no one ever saw the bomb being dropped nor explosions.

There is a nice interview with N S Madhavan where he talks about his novel and some of the historical references that make it into his novel.

The Third Way

A few days back I had written a book review of The Money Tree by Chris Guillebeau. Guillebeau has been posting a video a day on his YouTube channel in lieu of a book tour that got cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The video I am referring to clarifies some of the concepts in the book about the Third Way that I seem to have misunderstood. More, in the text below or better still watch the video in full, of about 34 minutes.

All the ways that he talks about earning money are things one can do independently. So, a corporate job does not come as one of the ways. The first way is therefore starting one’s own retail business. The second way is founding a startup. He says that in both these ways, one requires capital, has to take risk and there is a long time frame. It is also something that is dependent on other people and hence, is something that is beyond your control.

So, in the Third Way, he suggests:

  1. Start quickly
  2. Without spending money
  3. Using your existing skills/knowledge

The Money Tree – Chris Guillebeau (2020)

I first read about Chris Guillebeau when I read his first book – The Art of Non-Conformity and read the blog of the same name. Then, I was bitten by the travel bug and had dreamed of travelling far and wide. I did not want to go to all the countries in the world as Chris had but wanted to learn about what that life would be like.

The Money Tree, 2020. Image Credit: Chris Guillebeau

Having a steady government job then meant that I did not read his follow-up books about The $100 Startup and Side Hustle School. When I moved back to a private firm, I dusted out my old links and newsletter subscriptions and re-discovered Chris.

I bought his new book, The Money Tree (Amazon Affiliate Link to buy the book) knowing that relying on one stream of income is not a sustainable way to make a living nor does it give enough savings to save for the future. I purchased it on Audible and finished listening to it in a day.

The book is written in the form of a story. The thesis of the book is that having a source of income other than the job you have at hand is not a bad thing. He says that working on your own, doing something you enjoy gives you a high. It gives you confidence and impacts other areas of your life.

The book gives ideas, builds a first person experience of going through the journey that you as a reader might have. The protagonist, Jake, goes on this journey from being in debt, relationships in ruins and perennially forgetting the important things in life to a place where he has confidence, has more courage in his personal and work relationships and has things in perspective. He does this with a help of a support group that meets to discuss these ideas under the able guidance of a guy, Clarence.

Chris wrote this book before the COVID-19 pandemic. But, given the lock down and expected downturn in the economic conditions, I think this book deserves your time. His insights attempt to take you through a space between a full time corporate job and the gig economy. I already see many people offering their services online and some even earning for these services.

Think of something you’re good at, help people and earn money.

The Rudest Book Ever (2020) – Shwetabh Gangwar

I heard of Shwetabh Gangwar on the day my credit got added to my Audible account as a suggested book for me. Reading about him, found out that he was a professional problem solver on Instagram using the handle @mensutra. He also has his own YouTube channel where he has been more active lately.

His book, The Rudest Book Ever (Amazon Affiliate Link) is built around three ideas –

  • People are weird
  • Rejections are common
  • We are not special

He then builds these three ideas up throughout the book applying it for fields like relationships, career advise, use of social media etc. Personally, I really loved the Chapter on how to think.

To me, with my limited experience came across as someone who apes the style of GaryVee and applies principles that I have heard on some Osho talks but falls vaguely in between. An interesting book to browse through especially if you have the airs about you being someone special and who are not used to accepting rejections easily.

Immortal for a Moment (2018) – Natasha Badhwar

I began reading Natasha Badhwar’s column for The Mint Lounge every Saturday before my marriage. Since, I began, I have got married and have become a father. The best way to write this review is perhaps to quote her to explain her writing. I don’t think I can do any justice writing it myself.

As usual, I am getting the reading all wrong. I am reading her last book first. Immortals for a Moment (Amazon Affiliate Link) is her second book after My Daughter’s Mum (Amazon Affiliate Link). It took me about two months to read the book starting on January 3 and ending on March 4. Some of the chapters are overwhelming and the depth of the matter leaves you thinking for quite a few days after you reading. Her writing made me observe my wife and my relationship with our daughter.

Let’s start with the title of the book. This quote comes towards the end, in between the last and the penultimate chapters –

Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence.

Tennessee Williams

Most of Badhwar’s writing is routine, day to day happenings. But, as they progress, they somehow catch a glimpse of the eternal laws. She writes somewhere:

Stories trick us. A story that starts off looking like it’s my story turns out later to be everyone else’s story.

Natasha Badhwar

She talks about how writing helped her create a record of happenings that let her look back at her life and spot trends that she would have missed otherwise in her conversation with Amit Varma. In the book, she writes:

Writing connects the stories. The writing brain is usually not the social self. It is slower and smarter. Writing forces me to understand and unravel, rather than judge.

Writing makes us read better. I scour words by others, looking for sentences that say what I have also felt. I look for worlds that are more honest than the one I am stuck in. I am forced to become honest to deserve entry into a better world.

Writing can be a pious activity, like a prayer after a bath. It has to be done with a clean and honest intent. Its purpose is to focus our own mind so we can draw on our abilities.

Natasha Badhwar

Reading the book during a particularly troubled times in the backdrop of the CAA-NRC protests, I found some of her writing reflective. Especially since some of the arguments are with people we love.

I have given up on arguments without bothering to engage. But I am holding on to the belief that people are more than what they say they believe. It’s a waste of time to take them personally.

Natasha Badhwar

One of her observation made me learn about something I experienced in my past life as a bank clerk. Each document with a different spelling of the same name. But, only in the documents of the poor. It seemed that so many updates to the names that I made makes sense in light of this sentence:

‘We are poor,’ she said. People get offended if we have good names.

Natasha Badhwar

I’ve never felt particularly attached to any home that I have lived in so far. However, this definition of a home that she provides, makes me reconsider my own definition of home:

Home is a place you create inside yourself, we discover. It is a landing ground whenever we need to touch base with our own selves. The further we travel to immerse ourselves in an unfamiliar world, the closer we get to ourselves.

Natasha Badhwar

Her insights into parenting alone will require reading the book and her pieces in Mint Lounge. But, this is the crux, according to me, or my interpretation of her work:

One of the biggest lies of parenting is that the parents are always right. The second lie is that it is the children’s responsibility to make their parents happy when they grow up.

Natasha Badhwar

A passage of the book that I stayed with for a really long time was this:

Perhaps the greatest delusion of my life has been the belief that the world in which I was a child may have been the dark ages, but the world in which I have grown up to be an adult has to be far more enlightened and equitable than before. Social norms and attitudes that perpetuate injustice have remained tenacious. The news remains the same. Questions that had remained unanswered when I was a child still demand answers. If I do not want my daughters to internalise that violence is the inevitable fate of women in our society, I have to find a new language to speak to them. ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,’ Audre Lorde wrote in her book of essays, A Burst Of Light. The first time I had read this sentence, it cut through my cultural conditioning like a sheath of light. It demolished the notion that putting everyone else’s needs before one’s own is a virtue to be extolled.

Natasha Badhwar

Listening to people like Naval Ravikant speak, it seems to me that each generation is improving. This is the sense I’ve had. I do not reach a similar conclusion as she reaches reading the words of Audre Lorde. But, having a daughter and thinking from the point of view of my wife, I can see the pulls of social norms and attitudes affecting their thinking. It left me with the question of this difference in the way of looking at the world between men and women.

I’d just like to end to let you think through this thought near the beginning of her book:

In the beginning, we love like our life depends on it. Then we learn to live, because our love depends on it.

Natasha Badhwar

Her writing is simple, her observations are mind blowing and I think reading her work, whether in Mint Lounge or this book is worth your time. These are themes that we don’t think about in the course of our day.

Tiny Habits

Brett McKay talks to Dr B J Fogg for Episode 581 of the Art of Manliness podcast. Below are my show notes for the episode. The episode discusses Tiny Habits (Amazon Affiliates link), a book that Fogg has written.

Tiny Habits

Fogg proposes the Tiny Habits method of behavior change. He talks of habits not in terms of breaking them but in terms of untangling them. Think of behavior change the way you would untangle the mess of wires to straighten out your headphones. Changing habits is a process where you move from the easiest to the most difficult.

Fogg suggests that long lasting behavior change happens by changing really small habits as part of a routine. Imagine you want to make a tiny change. Fogg suggests identifying a routine attached to the change that you require. Inserting the habit as part of the routine and then slowly increasing the number of repetitions.

As an example, if you want to inculcate the habit of flossing your teeth, he suggests flossing just one tooth after brushing your teeth (routine). He suggests that we stay with one tooth as long as we want. He also gives us the freedom to do more when we want to. The number can go up. You can floss three teeth or just one. The over-achievement on the day you flossed three teeth acts as motivation for you to do just a little more. This turns this into a behavior change of flossing the teeth after you brush it.

The Three Elements – Motivation, Ability and Prompt

Behavior change here involves three elements – motivation, ability and prompt. Fogg defines motivation as the driving force which energizes you to certain behavior. He suggests that there is a compensatory relationship between motivation and ability. Ability here stands for you knowing how to do a certain task. He says that when it is harder to do something, the motivation needed is more. When it is easier to do something, you don’t need too much motivation. He recognized this compensatory relationship over an eight year period of study! He warns us that we over-estimate our future motivation to do certain things. Hence he warns us from depending on motivation as a way to change habits.

He also warns us from thinking of our aims in abstract terms. Losing weight, reducing stress etc are outcomes. He suggests that tweaking systems and processes will lead to these desired outputs. He believes that the habits should involve less time, less effort and little cost to implement to be successful.

Here, he brings the concept of prompts. He thinks that there are three types of prompts – personal prompt, context prompt and action prompt. He says that personal prompt involves you or someone else reminding you that you need to do a habit. Context prompt is a notification that alerts you to do a habit. An action prompt involves using a routine as a prompt. In our example above, brushing your teeth is a prompt for flossing them. He says personal and context prompts are not effective. He thinks that action prompts are the most effective way to initiate long lasting habit change.

In My Opinion…

Listening to this podcast, this seemed like a more scientific version of Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits. It also seemed similar to James Clear’s Atomic Habits but with different terminology. Saurabh also spoke in his blog about changing habits for the new year and hence I thought this might be worth sharing. I would personally, rather follow James Clear method.

I loved what he says about celebration, though. This is his value addition to the habit change journey, in my opinion. He suggests that celebrating these small habit changes with a celebration make you feel successful. He says that these emotions get attached to the habits and re-wires your brain that converts these habits into part of your life. He suggests teaching children to celebrate after their every small habit change.

Caring for Yourselves

Perhaps the greatest delusion of my life has been the belief that the world in which I was a child may have been the dark ages, but the world in which I have grown up to be an adult has to be far more enlightened and equitable than before.

Social norms and attitudes that perpetuate injustice have remained tenacious. The news remains the same. Questions that had remained unanswered when I was a child still demand answers. If I do not want my daughters to internalize that violence is the inevitable fate of women in our society, I have to find a new language to speak to them.

‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,’ Audre Lorde wrote in her book of essays, A Burst Of Light. The first time I had read this sentence, it cut through my cultural conditioning like a sheath of light. It demolished the notion that putting everyone else’s needs before one’s own is a virtue to be extolled.

Natasha Badhwar, Children must triumph over their parents, Immortal for a Moment (2018,Amazon Affiliate Link)