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.

Daughter’s First Day at School

Today is my daughter’s first day at school. She is in Nursery.

First, let me acknowledge my privilege in being able to afford a school that is starting on time during a pandemic. The classes are online. Being able to afford a separate laptop for her with enough internet bandwidth to attend class and for me to work from home is a blessing.

We were thinking of moving to Kerala in May 2020. I was working from home and schools were not slated to open till September 2020 this year. The interstate pass system had opened. We were applying for passes planning to drive down to Kerala. The request got rejected. On the evening of the same day, we got an email from my daughter’s school that school would open with online classes on June 10, 2020. June 10 is the day schools normally open in Maharashtra, where we are based now.

This stopped us from seeking a pass to go to Kerala and we decided to stay put here. Although classes are online, we were not sure how easy it would be to travel between Maharashtra and Kerala at some point in the future.

Many of the smaller private schools and government schools have still not opened and are wondering how to ensure that everyone can access academic content. There are concerns around content delivery and access. My daughter’s school has assumed that it’s parents have the privilege to access a laptop or a smartphone at home with good bandwidth.

A few days before the announcement, I was listening to Rukmini’s podcast, The Moving Curve. She was talking about the importance of opening up schools and day care facilities as a precursor to parents returning to work. In India, working parents choose and depend on schools to take care of their kids most of the day to enable them to go to work.

In a recent episode, Rukmini spoke of how a disruption of even a year in the student’s academic track leads to a loss in pay of about 15% per year later on in life. That’s getting one pay grade less than one deserves for the rest of life.

This helped me realize the importance of privilege of being able to have my daughter attend school now.

I was watching this video in Malayalam of efforts people are taking to prepare their child for school online. Cleaning up the background, setting up a desk for studying and providing water and sufficient lighting during studies. There are also health considerations like keeping a safe distance between the child’s eyes and the screen.

Online class about to begin… video in Malayalam

I lent the table and chair I was using for working from home to my daughter. We put a sofa cushion on the seat so that the camera is at the correct height that she can be seen. We have moved furniture around so that the background is our wall. We also did a few test runs with my parents last night.

My daughter’s classes are on Microsoft Teams, a software that even I was only introduced to last year while I was working with State Bank of India. She has her own email id for accessing content and for school work.

My best wishes for everyone who are on this journey.


There was a gulmohar tree right outside my house.

Gulmohar before it bloomed. Image credit: Pradeep Mohandas

We moved into this building only last July. I never noticed this tree because I never sat in our balcony overlooking the tree. I didn’t have the time nor the inclination. I was mostly staring into a rectangular device.

After the lockdown, my family sat in the balcony in the evening. It started as a ritual to enjoy the afternoon tea with a cool breeze to keep us company. This practice also gifted us some magnificent sunsets.

The blooming gulmohar seen from our balcony. Image Credit: Pradeep Mohandas

As the gulmohar bloomed, my wife identified it. After that we looked at it each day as it bloomed and turned into a place of refuge for winged refugees and a stray cat.

Devleena @ Numer8

Episode 22 of the NewSpace India podcast had Narayan Prasad (NP) talking to Devleena about her company, Numer8. Numer8 is a Mumbai-based data science company that uses data obtained from Earth observation satellites to solve problems like disaster management, coastal community monitoring, infrastructure monitoring, wildlife, and biodiversity protection.

The present episode of the podcast talked about fishing and how Numer8’s app Ofish helps in this regard. They provide a mobile application to the fisherman who use the app to determine places to fish and also see what price they can get from the market for their catch. The fishermen use the app using transponders that were fitted on the boats by the respective State governments. Some also rely on mobile networks. At the same time, Numer8 also provides a dashboard to port authorities to protect the coasts and prevent over-fishing.

The app supports Tamil, Sinhala, English, Marathi and Bengali languages currently. It protects data obtained from satellite by providing limited field of view of about 20 km, with no data provided for fishing beyond 20 nautical miles and also not sharing data to fishermen in other countries.

The geospatial data is primarily sourced through NASA and Europe’s Sentinel data. Devleena says that timely data from ISRO has been an issue but they hope to use data such as the Ocean Colour Monitor data from OceanSat.

There were also two other brief discussions that I found interesting and I note them here for my own reference.

The app is an example of a downstream application of geospatial data. This means data obtained from satellites is provided to a customer in an easy to use format. This has been difficult to do in the Indian situation with not many companies looking at these downstream applications. As much as we need private companies to build space hardware and software we also need companies that can use the products obtained from putting satellites in orbit. Numer8 is one example of such a company.

In the past, ISRO has sold its fishing data to the Fisheries Department and relies on the Fisheries Department to get the data to the fishermen, who are the end user. This ended up with fishermen having data that they did not understand and spending too much time at sea to obtain their catch. This was the transmission of data from Government agency to another Government Agency which relayed the data to a Customer (G > G > C). The presence of Numer8 inserts a private entity in this supply chain. So, the flow of data becomes (G > P > C). This led to improvement in way by which data was presented to the end user or customer and ensured that the data was used by the same. The Private company studied the end user, found out why existing products were not used and made sure that the data was usable.

The second point related to Numer8’s contribution to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Devleena said that theirs was the only startup that presented to the UN that the oceans could be as much a source of food as land. Numer8 suggested that better data could feed people while ensuring that ocean fish population was not over-fished.

Varane Avashyamundu (Malayalam, 2020)

I got my wife a Netflix subscription for a month and the first thing we got to seeing is the Malayalam movie, Varane Avashyamundu (transl. Groom wanted). We had missed watching this in the theatres in February. The story starring Shobhana, Suresh Gopi, Dulquer Salman and Kalyani Priyadarshan and marks the directorial debut of Sathyan Anthikad’s son, Anoop Sathyan.

The movie begins with a single mother – daughter duo looking for groom for the daughter and ends with the daughter selecting a groom for her single mother. But, intertwined in this simple narrative are various societal issues. These include broken marriages, single mothers, adoption, Army men who return from Service but unable to survive in Society and many more. These were issues that Sathyan Anthikad also covered in his movies in the 1980s and 1990s. That Anoop Sathyan covers some of the same issues in 2020 is quite telling.

Shobhana is a single mother who has escaped from a broken marriage. Lalu Alex plays a supportive brother who helps her escape and supports her as she is living life. Her daughter, learning from her mother’s experience thinks a love marriage is destined for failure and attempts to find a groom for herself. She uses matrimonial websites to find her match.

Suresh Gopi plays a troubled military officer who has done great things while in the Armed Forces but struggles to fit in into Society. He says he finds it easier to face the enemy than to tell a woman that he loves her. He undergoes psychological treatment from a Doctor as he tries to fit into Society.

Dulquer Salman is an orphan who has been “adopted” by a TV series star grandmother. He has his own love life collapse during the movie with his colleague who flies away to the US to pursue her career. He then finds love again, with Shobhana’s daughter.

I think the movie tries to throw light on several societal issues that no longer get too much coverage in Malayalam movies that once were it’s mainstay. I think some of the questions that the movie raises are still not fully answered in our Society today. I enjoyed the performances of all the main protagonists – Shobhana, Dulquer Salman, Kalyani Priyadarshan and Suresh Gopi.

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.

Do Nothing (2020)

The following are notes of a podcast interview Brett McKay did with Celeste Headlee. Headlee is a radio journalist and author of the books We Need to Talk and Heard Mentality besides Do Nothing.

Do Nothing
Image Credit: Celeste Headlee

It has only been about 200 years since the industrial revolution that human beings are living the way we do now. Before the industrial revolution and for a large part of human history, human beings worked in spurts. There were spurts of intense activity and work and then there were long periods of relaxation. As an example, Headlee says that peons and serfs worked less than a year.

From Task-based to Time-based Work

With the onset of the industrial revolution, work switched from being task based to being time based. Before the revolution, people worked on a task and then rested till they got their next task. With the coming of factories, people worked by the hour. Their pay was not by the output they produced but by the amount of hours they worked.

Earlier people demonstrated their wealth by the amount of time they spent in leisure. Now, people demonstrate their wealth by showing off how busy they are. Headlee says that people were almost brainwashed, perhaps by the education system, to believe that we are considered more productive by working more hours. This belief is unsubstantiated by research.

Research, even from the 1950s, show that people who worked 12-20 hours per week were more productive than people who worked 50-60 hours per week. It was noticed that employees who work 50-60 hours per week and took little time-off, vacations and paid leaves were less effective and got only a 6% pay-raise compared to employees who worked 12-20 hours per week.

Also, changing pay from a time-based method to a task-based method has advantages for both the employer and the employee. Task based methods are more efficient as the employee tries to spend the least time to get the work done and leave. Task-based method is considered more humane, boosts morale on accomplishment of task and gives joy on completion of the task. Employees on time-based method of payment may spend more time on other pursuits while completing the task.

Taking a Break

Headlee says that taking a break should involve a break from all screens. She says that when we open our smartphones and check email, shop or stay on social media, our brain thinks that we are still working. It cannot distinguish between these activities, done for work or pleasure. So, when we think we have taken rest, we have actually not taken any. When we keep pings from our email program or notifications on our smartphone on, the brain goes into a ready mode all the time expecting and ready to do a task.

Home Work

Headlee says that at the end of a long day at work, we don’t look forward to coming back home. She says that the reason could be not having anything to do at home. Some people fell lonely at home or even isolated. Some also treat home as something they have to work on or even as a chore. They treat all home work to be top of the class with each thing to be shared with the world. As an example, it can’t just be a simple garden, it has to be the ultimate garden with all the bells and whistles. We are not satisfied with what we have.

Earlier, people used to return home to spend time with family and participated in tasks or hobbies that did not have a capitalist value. Women sew and men worked on their workbenches and fixed things. Now, when the call came for stitching cloth masks at home, we didn’t have sewing machines at home and if anything broke, we could not fix our own stuff without help from a technician. Headlee suggests that we do something that you simply enjoy as a hobby and which may not have any capitalistic value.

Means Goals and End Goals

Time-based tasks created the efficiency cults we see today. One way to escape this based on examples like sewing and fixing our own stuff is to understand the difference between Means Goals and End goals. Means goal follow the SMART acronym whereas End Goals do not follow the SMART acronym. We must try to create End Goals and use it to trim the Means Goals by seeing if the latter helps in the accomplishment of the former.

Using a Phone as a Phone

One of the radical ideas that Headlee suggests based on research is that one uses the phone as a phone. As discussed above, a smart phone tricks the brain into thinking that we are working when we think that we’re taking rest. Besides this, she says that the human voice carries information and depth that other humans know to identify immediately. Text can lead to a lot of misinterpretation that a call can solve in minutes. She says that listening to a person making a case for a point of view makes a person with an opposing view more considerate about the person’s stance. It fosters connection.

Headlee thinks that people are getting disenchanted by the over-use of video calling services like Zoom because the presence of a screen indicates to the brain that it is work. This makes us feel more tired after a video call. Teleconferencing has been proven to be as effective as being in the same room with other people.

Human connection

Humans are pack animals. We need a sense of belonging-ness. If the need for human connection is not fulfilled, it has been shown to lead to earlier death besides having several health consequences during a person’s lifetime.

Headlee thinks that when we re-emerge after the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to rethink the human connection to work. She hopes there is a global reconsideration of working hours, having a healthy work-life balance and creation of more pro-human habits (habits that don’t kill us).

She hopes that in going back, we don’t just go back to an era before smart phones but to an era before the industrial revolution.

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.