Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Book Review: The Imagination Matrix by Stephen Aizenstat

Just below the reaches of your conscious mind, beyond the personal and collective human experience, is the Imagination Matrix.

I normally keep myself away from self-help books, especially the ones that say things like, "A quitter never wins and a winner never quits", and prescribe quick fixes like looking in the mirror and aggressively shouting, "I am a winner and y'all are losers". I've already read a truckload of them and have realised that the self in self-help is, in fact, the writer and not the reader. While picking up the advance copy of The Imagination Matrix, provided by the publisher Sounds True through Netgalley, I thought it was a book about the neurological process of imagination.

The book, written by Stephen Aizenstat, a depth psychologist, is a guide to enhancing creativity and innovation by tapping into the power of imagination. The Imagination Matrix is a generative force that is present below the surface of our daily experiences. Beyond the deductive and rational thought process that is inculcated in every human being through institutional education, the writer claims there is a realm of imagination, and it is possible to tap into that and produce radically new solutions to our everyday problems.

The writer introduces different facets of the Imagination Matrix like the four Quadrants, Soul Companions and Imaginal Intelligence in the first part of the book titled Internal Discovery. It details how one can take the plunge into the powers of imagination by practicing the skills of what the writer calls The Dig.

The second part of the book, titled In The World, elaborates on the real-life applications of connecting to the Imagination Matrix and how one can benefit from it in different walks of professional and personal life. It elucidates the concepts of Illuminated Consciousness and Imaginal Healing. It also describes ways to deal with the disruptive and intrusive technological advances that we are witnessing now.

The concepts of the book are very interesting to know about. It doesn't have the boastful and self-advertising tone that self-help literature normally adopts, which I loathe. The writer provides theoretical and practical backups for all the concepts that he introduces. I could see that he has crafted his theories by synthesising varied ancient and modern thoughts, myths, psychological studies, literature, and science. One could clearly see in the concept of the Soul Companions, the influence of the Indian worship system of deities and the Tantric practice of using imaginal beings for self-development.

While the book gives a very good theoretical background on the Imagination Matrix and how it can be beneficial for innovative and creative living, I felt that it failed to provide a practical route map to use it effectively. For me, this book is like a driving instructor who teaches his students about the workings of an automobile in the tiniest details and then asks them to open the door, sit down, and drive the car. A novice trainee needs some more handholding to acquire any practical advantage from all the theoretical lessons, which, to be frank, are illuminating.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Book Review: Islands in Deep Time by Markes E. Johnson

What image does an island bring to mind? When I hear the word island, I get a feeling of solitude and defiance. I imagine a lone figure battling silently against all the wild attacks thrown from all four sides. Islands in Deep Times is a book written by geologist Markes E. Johnson that tries to demystify paleoislands for the layperson. I received an advance copy of the book from its publisher, Columbia University Press, through Netgalley in exchange for feedback.


A few months ago, I got a chance to travel back in time by reading a book titled The Universal Timekeepers, which described the science behind using isotopes of elements for precise dating of objects and events. This book takes you through a similar experience, where you progressively travel through time by exploring paleoislands, their shorelines, and the biological fossils found in them. Paleoislands are landscapes that preserve information on the geography and ecology of the past. By studying their coastlines, we are able to arrive at conclusions about the environment of the earth and the continental structure in the past.

The writer takes us to twelve islands of different sizes and located in different parts of the earth, on which the keys to understanding the past are preserved. The journey begins at Mount Monadnock, located in New Hampshire, about which Ralph Waldo Emerson has written a poem titled Monadnoc. Monadnoc isn't an island in the conventional sense because it is not surrounded by water. But there was a time when it was.

Right now it is a sky island, and monadnock is the name that is used to identify such sky islands all over the world. Wind and waves erode the banks of the islands over time, and an ecosystem develops according to the force of the natural forces. By studying the erosion that these coastlines have undergone and the kinds of fossils available, it is possible to decipher the properties of these ecosystems.

We are then taken to more such islands in deep time, all over the world, and progressively exposed to different eras in the past in which the ecosystem existed. The wearout of the rocks helps us reconstruct the continental structures of those periods. From the Baraboo archipelago in Wisconsin, which dates back to the Cambrian period (around 500 million years ago), to the Cape Verde and Seychelles archipelagos that date back to Pleistocene times (125000 years ago), we are able to witness the evolution of continental plates and the biology of the present states through these pages.

Islands in Deep Time is an interesting book if you love to learn more about nature and its evolution. I loved the detailed explanation with which the writer elaborated his findings. The book follows the style of a travelogue, and we are made to participate in the excursion that he and his team underwent in these regions. Wherever the description took a difficult technical turn, accompanying maps, photos, and pictures helped a lot. I was especially fascinated with the several photos of fossils, which made me marvel at the long periods, spanning millions of years, when earth had only invertebrate life form or when all the present continents were combined together and several permutations and combinations they underwent to reach the present state.

The book ends with a chapter dedicated to the sacredness of islands and the need to preserve these immense storehouses of knowledge and wisdom from the deep past. It makes you connect more with nature and realise that we are just very minor players in the history of our planet.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Book Review: AI Rising by Leslie D'Monte and Jayanth N. Kolla

 Artificial intelligence is the most fascinating and, at the same time, the most disruptive of the technologies ever put together by humans, and with every passing minute, we are being propelled deeper into it. We are already well ahead of the point of no return. Already, AI algorithms are being used in several facets of our lives, like the recommendations that we receive while browsing YouTube or binge-watching Netflix. We have all tried out ChatGPT, the AI chatbot that can provide answers on many subjects. Before embracing the impending AI onslaught, it will help to know more about AI, its impact on us, and the ways in which it can be harmful.

AI Rising: India's Artificial Intelligence Growth Story is a book written by Leslie D'Monte and Jayanth N. Kolla that tries to demystify artificial intelligence for regular folks. It follows an Indian perspective and details the history, the present state, and the possibilities and challenges that technology faces in India. I received the book from its publisher, Jaico Books, through in exchange for feedback.

The book contains valuable information about several new ways in which artificial intelligence is already making an impact on people's lives, right from a farmer to the CEO of a corporation. It can be used to recommend entertainment solutions, diagnose patients, improve the efficiency of agriculture, predict natural calamities, or automate industrial production. It can also be used for manipulating the public, controlling the information flow, toppling governments, manufacturing killing weapons, and rendering millions of people unemployed.

India is currently the fastest-growing economy in the world and the most populated country. It is imperative that India participate actively and contribute liberally to the propagation of futuristic technologies like AI and quantum computing to sustain its growth streak. The book gives a comprehensive picture of the AI scene in India and can help people with limited knowledge about the technology understand it and get an idea of the ways it is going to impact them professionally and personally.

The book is written in four parts. The first part gives a brief description of the workings of artificial intelligence. The second part, which takes up more than half of the book, elaborates on the present status of AI in India. The third part stresses the need to regulate AI technology using a strong policy by the government, as the technology is prone to several biases that impact decision-making.The fourth part, about the future of AI, speculates on the several routes the technology can take in its future course.

AI Rising is a valuable resource to understand how the proliferation of AI is going to impact the lives of common citizens. AI is an invasive technology that has the potential to make our lives easier, less cluttered, and more comfortable. At the same time, it may render several job profiles obsolete. The book can be useful to form a perspective on how to use it to the advantage of the reader.

I loved the book because it doesn't entangle itself in technological jargon and is very approachable. At the same time, it is very thorough in the application part, which may be of considerable interest to the non-technical population. It has a very balanced perspective about the strides that India has made in its AI journey and also about the long way it has to further travel to overcome its rivals in the field. It doesn't gloat about the technology, nor does it demonise the dangers. Some parts of it felt repetitive, and the figures and charts included in it were too juvenile, like copy-pasted from a PowerPoint presentation. But still, I consider the book to be one for mandatory reading.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Book Review: The Upstairs Delicatessen by Dwight Garner


"It’s a slim volume about what I’ve taken away from a lifetime of reading and eating, lessons both creaturely and philosophical."

The Upstairs Delicatessen is a book written by American journalist and editor Dwight Garner in which he tries to blend two of his passions—books and food—which for him are a pair like Simon and Schuster. I have already read many of his articles in The New York Times, a fact that I came to know only when I googled his name after finishing the book. I received an advance copy of this book, which is to be published by the end of October this year, from the publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux through Netgalley in exchange for my feedback.

The book, as its tagline clarifies, is on eating, reading, reading about eating, and eating while reading. Some of my fondest memories of eating food in my childhood were in the company of delightful children's magazines and books borrowed from the library. My mother used to scold me for reading library books while eating, reminding me of all the dirty places in different homes I might have had access to in the past. My father used to joke that if a plate of cockroaches were fried and served, I wouldn't notice it as I used to be fully submerged inside my book.

Dwight Garner borrows the title The Upstairs Delicatessen from the critic Seymour Krim, who liked to refer to his memory as "that profuse upstairs delicatessen of mine." Garner borrows liberally from the writings on different kinds of food by different kinds of writers. You'll find quotes, anecdotes, and pearls of wisdom from novels, memoirs, cookbooks, poems, stories, and food reviews.

The writer arranges all of them in five parts: Breakfast, Lunch, Shopping, Drinking and Dinner, allowing himself an interlude that features Swimming and Nap. The backbone of the book that binds all these together is Garner's own daily experiences, thoughts, and preferences. There is also an introduction in which the writer obliges the formality of an autobiographical description, also garnished with a generous helping of quotations.

The book throws a barrage of literary quotes and references continuously at the reader—one or two at least in every paragraph. If you are a sucker for quotations or are looking for new books and authors to read, The Upstairs Delicatessen is a treasure trove. You get to know a lot of tidbits about a lot of writers and about how they process their food, both literally and figuratively. When you think of it, knowing how Alexander Dumas cooked his food seems like unnecessary trivia, but once you read about it, it becomes one of the most precious specks of information ever to be processed by your brain.

The observations made by the author are also very quotable. He describes the writing of the journalist Tommy Tomlinson: "His writing makes you want to lick the page." He writes that seeing a person with a book or magazine these days is like glimpsing a wolf in the forest. My only issue with the book is that it provides an information overload, and you won't remember most of it by the time you finish it. But you could always read it all over again. So no complaints.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Dictatorial Roots of Rajnikant's Jailer

 Rajnikant's latest movie, Jailer, is turning out to be a definitive blockbuster, finally putting his years-long dry spell to an end. I watched the movie last week and loved it for what it is—a larger-than-life crime thriller that can be categorised into a special genre birthed by the South Indian movie industry, the mass masala. It consists of its own ingredients, like an interval block, punch dialogues, brutal action that defies gravity, and most importantly, a hero who is deified in every single shot that he appears (which is around 99% of the running time), using stylized shots, and an ear-splitting background score.

After watching it, I glanced through its reviews on social media. Many of them had issues with the development of the plot and the characterization of the protagonist. To discuss the subject on a deeper level, we need to traverse spoiler territory. So if you don't want spoilers of the plot, I would advise you to stop reading now.

In the movie, it is shown that Tiger Muthuvel Pandyan, our titular jailer, brought up his son to be an upright, sincere person who ends up being a cop. When the son goes missing, suspected to be murdered, after following a gang that deals with idol trafficking, Jailer goes on a rampage of vengeance. He is aided by several nefarious characters from his dangerous past. The puzzle that several viewers had was that if the jailer is an upright cop who wanted his son to be one like himself, why does he keep connections with these dubious personalities and take help from them to exact his revenge?

Jailer kills his son when he understands that his son was deceiving him as well. His son turned out to be using his father for his own gains and finally refused to surrender when confronted. Another question from viewers is about the moral right of the jailer to kill his own son when he himself is not that innocent.

When I watched the movie, I never found anywhere a claim that the character of the jailer was a good person. In the flashback in which a de-aged Rajni chews the scene effortlessly in Tihar jail, it is shown that he is the one who makes the rules, and his expectation is for all the others around him to just follow him without any questions. If anyone questions his rules, he will go to any extent to punish them. He has no qualms about using the help of other criminals for that purpose, as shown when he uses Jackie Shroff's men to ambush the gang of the Hyderabadi politician who dared to threaten him.

So effectively, Jailer is a dictator and wants others to follow what he says blindly. The rule that he set for his son was to be a sincere person. He goes to extremes to make it happen. He forgets his past and becomes domesticated, as can be seen in the opening scenes. When his son goes missing, he tries to be the same and let the law find him. But the moment he realises that the police won't be helping him for obvious reasons, he starts plotting his revenge. From then on, you see his transformation into his old self. It is evident that he transforms entirely in the scene where he orders his wife around.

When the jailer finally confronts his son, he persuades him to follow the rule—to surrender. It is not his regard for or respect for the law that makes him demand it from his son. It is only OCD that makes him force his son to follow his rule that his son should be a sincere person in his life. When his son refuses, he has no other choice but to remove him.

So it is evident from the movie that the jailer has a serious dictatorial vein in him. He makes rules for everyone under him and ensures that they are followed. Any questioning will result in severe retribution. All the brutes who helped him on his way of vengeance are criminals who merely obeyed him in the past. Presumably, he helped them back and let them continue their ways. (Shivrajkumar's character seems to have mend his ways, but he is not shy about making a return like the jailer when needed.)