Telecom Man: Leading from the front in India’s Digital Revolution – Brijendra Syngal & Sandipan Deb

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In a memoir that is part educational and part explosive, Brijendra Syngal, the former Chairman and Managing Director of Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL), pulls no punches in laying out bare not only the evolution of the telecom sector in India, but also the rot that permeates the inner corridors of Government and the echelon of bureaucracy. Mr. Syngal, popularly referred to as the ‘Father of Internet & Data Services in India’, has penned what can rightfully be termed a ‘no holds barred’ memoir. “Telecom Man” is a book that while making some people squeal with unbridled delight, would send some others squirming and scurrying for cover. But most importantly it reveals the trajectory that the path towards revolutionizing an industry, painstakingly traversed.

Displaced by partition when he was just seven years old, Mr. Syngal punched beyond his weight to graduate from the hallowed portals of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur in the year 1961. As Mr. Syngal himself points out, only seven students, (including Mr. Syngal himself), mustered the courage to take up electronics engineering as a discipline. After a brief tenure with the electronics conglomerate Philips, Mr. Syngal joined the Department of Telecommunications, a lumbering public sector behemoth. He distinguished himself by setting up receptor stations and microwave towers in isolated regions raging from the scorching sands of the Thar desert, snake-infested jungles of Assam and the snowy treacherous heights of Kashmir. But it was at VSNL that Mr. Syngal found his métier.

Goaded by Sam Pitroda, and bolstered by a spirit of patriotism, Mr. Syngal resigned from a cushy job with INMARSAT and arrived in India to face a welter of intransigence and cacophony of babel at the corridors of India’s leading provider of telecommunication services. Soon after assuming charge, Mr. Syngal set out three priorities for VSNL: the 18,190-kilometre South East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe-2 (SEA-ME-WE2) undersea cable that would be laid from Singapore via India (if we participated) through the Middle East up to the UK, through three continents, international subscriber dialing, and the needs of the Indian software industry.

Under Mr. Syngal’ s stewardship, Under Mr. Syngal’ s leadership, VSNL ‘s gross revenues rose a mind boggling 215 percent from $515 million to $1.6 billion. The entity’s market capitalisation climbed stratospheric heights reaching 355 percent, from $0.9 billion to $4.1 billion, while profits ascended 666 percent, and gross revenue per employee 204 percent. VSNL also floated what was at that time the biggest Global Depository Receipts (GDR) issue out of India and the third largest out of Asia (Excluding Japan). However, as Mr. Syngal himself pithily illustrates, it was not all hunky dory for him. He was shunted out of VSNL in an acrimonious fashion by the NDA Government which suspected him of ‘being on the take.’ This was largely triggered by a stash of cash found in the house of Pandit Sukh Ram, who at the time of such a discovery was the Telecom Minister having succeeded Rajesh Pilot.

The two most interesting chapters in the book are the ones dealing with the initial GDR bid by VSNL which ultimately turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, and the colossal scam that was the 2G Spectrum allocation fiasco orchestrated by a brazenly corrupt and unashamed coalition Government. The GDR launched in 1994 was, according to Mr. Syngal scuppered by some vested interests, which included Pandit Sukh Ram himself. Ordering Mr. Syngal to appoint a particular banking organization to oversee the GDR issue, Sukh Ram turns incendiary upon hearing that Mr. Syngal was following well-established protocols to appoint underwriters and bankers to manage the issue. In the author’s own words, “While the selection process was going on, I got a call from Sukh Ram. ‘What is this beauty parade you are running?’ were his irate words, I remember clearly. He ordered me to award the contract to one particular American investment bank. I had already heard from the grapevine was that this investment bank may have come to some ‘arrangement’ with him, most probably a certain sum to be paid per share issued. The three top guns in the firm involved in the VSNL GDR bid were all Indians.”

But the most engrossing and controversial chapter in the book is reserved for what has gone down in the annals of Indian business and politics as one of the most infamous, if not the most infamous scams in the history of global telecom. Boasting its own moniker, the “2G Scam”, shook the very foundations of faith reposed by the citizens of India in its politician. When the dust ultimately settled, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG)pegged the losses arising out of irregularities in the allocation of Second Generation spectrum, at a dizzying 1.76 lakh crores. Mr. Syngal, who at the time of the scam was employed in a consultative capacity by Dua Consulting, opines that the genesis behind the scam lies in what he terms, “Coalition Dharma”, a quagmire that is the outcome of a loose set of parties possessing different ideologies but cobbled together with the sole intention of being in power. A Raja, the then telecom minister representing DMK, and who spent some time in jail before being acquitted, blatantly over ruled the directives stemming from even the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on judiciously allocating the finite natural resource that is spectrum instead of shoddily distributing the same on a first come first served basis.

While the book makes for a racy and riveting read, the only blotch, if it can be termed that, is a constant blowing of one’s own trumpet in an uncomfortably conspicuous manner. While there is no denying the achievements and efforts of Mr. Syngal in transforming a once lethargic Public Sector Undertaking into a cutting edge corporation to be reckoned with and even revered, more discretion could have been employed in extolling his own virtues. Certain passages in the book that are more self-paeans than factoids, take the shine out of the book to some extent. For example, consider these lines, where Mr. Syngal describes a botched attempt by Beni Verma, a Minister to shunt him out of his job: “I started using my contacts and encircled him. I had good friends in the Left. I went to Gurudas Dasgupta, MP from the Communist Party of India. In Uttar Pradesh, I knew legendary hockey player K.D. Singh Babu’s family, who were close to Mulayam Singh Yadav, to whose party Verma belonged. Then I got hold of Satish Chandran, who was principal private secretary to Deve Gowda. Pressure was created from all sides on Beni Verma, such that he could not sack B.K. Syngal. One day, the ladies from K.D. Singh’s household went to Beni Verma’s home at eight in the morning. Now, Beni Verma did not wake up before eleven. He was woken up and informed that these women had come. He emerged, clutching his dhoti, all flustered. The ladies told him, ‘Please do not meddle with Syngal saab’s case, otherwise we’ll see you in the city square of Lucknow.’ ‘No,’ stammered Verma, thoroughly confused. ‘It’s under consideration (vicharadhin hai). No decision has been taken yet.’”

Despite passages of the ilk of the ones mentioned above, “Telecom Man” makes for some stirring read. All those who are blithely under the impression that the telecommunications industry in India begins and ends with Sam Pitroda – with Pitroda himself blissfully basking in such undeserving limelight – have to necessarily read this book to understand and appreciate the endeavor of a man, known in political circles as “The Bulldozer” who in his inimitable, irascible and irreverent manner, brought about a paradigm transformation to the fortunes of telecommunications in India.

Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness – Susannah Cahalan

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For a sprightly and vibrant New York Post reporter, purgatory began with two innocuous looking dots running down a purplish vein in her left arm. Paranoia about bed bugs, extermination agency visits and a frenzied bout of maniacal cleaning later, Susannah Cahalan realises that bug bites was not her real concern. Assailed by self-doubt at work, which results in a fumbling fiasco of an interview with John Walsh, the host of “America’s Most Wanted”, Cahalan starts exhibiting behavior veering towards the psychotic. Rifling through the emails and closet of her boyfriend she begins ascribing ulterior motives to his accumulation of memorabilia, courtesy his exes. As a precursor to the maddening seizures that would subsequently go onto rack her, Ms. Cahalan experiences a piercing migraine-like pain lancing through her brain, accompanied by a tingling in her left hand, which ultimately goes numb.

MRIs, and neurological diagnoses reveal nothing significant or impaired until Ms. Cahalan experiences full blown seizures. She undertakes a journey, lasting a month – both physically and mentally – to hell and back, during the course of which she experiences a tryst with a slew of experts, a cocktail of assorted drugs and potential lapses in prognosis that might have left the twenty-four-year-old not only in the throes of a permanent state of debilitation, but also, in all probability, killed her.

It takes the ingenuity of a Neurologist; the intrepid researching proclivities of yet another, rounded off by a dogged perseverance exhibited by an unrelentingly optimistic support system constituting family and friends to bring back Ms. Cahalan from the brink of hopelessness. Eager to absorb in its most intimate detail, the primary cause of her agonizing experience, Ms. Cahalan, – piecing together video footage recorded by the hospital, interviews given to her by the doctors who treated her, journals maintained by her estranged parents who used the written medium to communicate with one another, and conversations with her dutifully stoic boyfriend – reconstructs in marvelous detail her experiences in a gut-wrenching, heart rending, yet life-affirming book titled, “Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness.”

With this endeavor, Ms. Cahalan does yeoman service to the world of medicine. The condition that besieged her was an extremely rare auto-immune disorder going by the convoluted name of anti-NMDA-receptor autoimmune encephalitis. This is a disease occurring when antibodies produced by the body’s own immune system attack NMDA receptors in the brain. NMDA receptors are proteins that control electrical impulses in the brain. Their functions are critical for judgement, perception of reality, human interaction, the formation and retrieval of memory, and the control of unconscious activities (such as breathing, swallowing, etc.), also known as autonomic functions. The ignorance prevalent towards both the identification, evaluation and treatment of this condition is starkly illustrated by Ms. Cahalan in her book: “In the spring of 2009, I was the 217th person ever to be diagnosed with Just a year later, that figure had doubled. Now the number is in the thousands. Yet Dr. Bailey, considered one of the best neurologists in the country, had never heard of it. When we live in a time when the rate of misdiagnoses in the United States has shown no improvement since the 1930s, the lesson here is that it’s important to always get a second opinion.”

After being prescribed an eclectic concoction of anti-psychotic, anti-depressing and anti-seizure drugs, Ms. Cahalan receives a proclamation of Schizoaffective Psychoses from a battery of doctors working on her ‘case.’ It takes the intervention and intuition of a Syrian born neurologist Dr Souhel Najjar, – who also has the peculiar habit of tugging away at his mustache – to attribute a name to Ms. Cahalan’s condition, as against taking refuge in idiopathic surmises and conjectures. At the core and crux of Dr. Najjar’s diagnosis, lay hidden, an elementary and fundamental test popularly known as ‘The Clock Test.’

The clock test found a mention in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders only in 1987, a full three plus decades post its conception, and since then has been employed to diagnose problem areas of the brain in Alzheimer’s, stroke, and dementia patients. A patient is told to draw a clock and fill in all the numbers, 1 through 12 on a blank piece of paper.  Ms. Cahalan’s clock had numbers drawn on only the right side. Because of contralateral functioning of the brain, meaning that the right hemisphere is responsible for the left field of vision and vice versa, Ms. Cahalan’s clock with numbers all over the right hand side revealed that the right hemisphere—responsible for seeing the left side of that clock —was compromised.

Ms. Cahalan confesses in no uncertain terms in her book about the hand of fortune that combined with her fortitude to facilitate what ultimately turned out to be a happy ending. Dr. Josep Dalmau, a neurologist and researcher had performed cutting edge research in the domain of auto immune diseases and his efforts resulted in the identification of receptor-seeking autoimmune diseases that occur in the brain, making the anti-NMDA-receptor variety still rare but not unique. “These discoveries finally will give names to diseases vaguely referred to as “encephalitis of an unknown origin,” or “psychosis not otherwise specified,” or not given any designation at all.”

Yet another factor aiding Ms. Cahalan as she courageously waged her battle against her unseen enemy was the assured existence of a safety net, both in the form of financial security and a support system in the form of family and friends. While banking on the human element for support might be available for many sufferers, not every sufferer can boast the luxury of adequate monetary resources to help them tide over such an insidious, but completely treatable ailment. “It had cost $1 million to treat me, a number that boggles the mind. Luckily, at the time I was a full-time employee at the Post, and my insurance covered most of the exorbitant price tag” admits Ms. Cahalan.

Adding to the fact is the daunting prospect of facilitating the appropriate screening procedure for all affected. Quoting professor of psychology, Philip Harvey, Ms. Cahalan writes, “How practical would this screening be?” asks professor of psychology Philip Harvey. “Lumbar punctures for everyone? That’s an impossibility.” As Ms. Cahalan informs and educates us in a painstakingly lucid fashion, mental illness suffers from an unfortunate combination of well-entrenched beliefs, stereotypes and received wisdom. An organ as complicated as the brain cannot be treated for any inhibiting conditions by taking recourse to accepted wisdom and set precedents, even though both attributes may provide the foundational scope for further investigations.

It is imperative that more attention be bestowed to understanding the nuances underlying these types of auto immune disorders, especially considering the number of children who are being diagnosed as suffering from it. In the poignant words of Ms. Cahalan, In the late 1980s, French Canadian pediatric neurologist Dr. Guillaume Sébire noticed an unusual pattern among six children he treated from 1982 to 1990. They all had movement disorders, including involuntary tics or excessive restlessness, cognitive impairments, seizures, normal CT scans, and negative blood work results. The children were diagnosed with “encephalitis of an unknown origin” (or what was colloquially known as the Sébire syndrome), a disease that lasted on average ten months. Four of the six children made what could be called a full recovery. His hazy description of the disease persisted for another two decades. An earlier paper, written in 1981 by Robert Delong and colleagues, described “acquired reversible autistic syndrome” in children. The disease presented like autism, but two of the three children studied (a five-year-old girl and a seven-year-old boy) recovered fully, while an eleven-year-old girl continued to endure severe memory and cognitive deficits, unable to remember three words provided to her after only a few minutes had elapsed. Now, studies show that roughly 40 percent of patients diagnosed with this disease are children (and this percentage is growing), but children present the disease differently from adults: afflicted children exhibit behaviors such as temper tantrums, mutism, hypersexuality, and violence.”

Voices of reason like that of Ms. Cahalan would go a long way in ameliorating to a great extent the pernicious impact of condition such as auto immune encephalitis, thereby supplementing the tireless efforts of doctors such as Dr. Najjar and Dr. Dalmau. Ms. Cahalan also is at the forefront of a new nonprofit foundation called the Autoimmune Encephalitis Alliance, having founded the same to conduct research and spreading awareness. An effort which no doubt would result in ennobling many a life which otherwise runs the risk of being plunged in despondency with nary a hope for redemption and relief.

The Winning Sixer: Leadership Lessons to Master – W V Raman

THE WINNING SIXER: LEADERSHIP LESSONS TO MASTER by [W.V. Raman]

Woorkeri Venkat Raman was a former opening batsman who represented India at the highest levels of international cricket. A lazy elegance embodied his approach at the crease. The southpaw, now the coach of the Indian Women’s National Cricket team, brings to bear the same languid approach that characterized his batting to the realm of writing. In a book titled, “The Winning Sixer: Leadership Lessons to Master”, Mr. Raman dwells on the quintessential facets that symbolizes a leader as he/she goes about performing feats which otherwise elude the most of majority.

Employing a narrative style that is engaging and easy on the eye – an art for which he was renowned when executing his role as a master craftsman with a willow in hand – Mr. Raman resorts to providing examples of stellar leaders in the domains of both sports and non-sporting spheres such as business, in combination with easy to remember principles grouped under a single alphabet. Lest the reader become apprehensive, Mr. Raman neither takes refuge in a deluge of incomprehensible ‘isms’ – as is unfortunately the fashion these days – nor tries to obfuscate the main purpose in a maze of verbiage.

Mr. Raman chooses his examples with care and clarity. Punctuating somber and serious instances with incidents that have humour embedded within, Mr. Raman ensures that the reader’s attention span remains rooted. A classic example is one that involves the West Indian legend and arguably the world’s greatest all-rounder Sir Garfield Sobers. To quote Mr. Raman, ‘Sir Garfield (Gary) Sobers, the former West Indies captain, made a declaration to prevent a Test match petering out into a boring draw. West Indies lost that Test and Sir Gary was severely criticized. When he reached the next venue, he was asked at immigration, “Have you anything to declare, Gary?” He replied with a wry smile, “Not after the last one, my friend”. Even for someone as revered as Sir Gary, there is no escape if a calculated risk backfires in sports.’

Mr. Raman attempts to instill various tenets of leadership in a manner fundamental and lingering. He dishes out wisdom in ‘batches’. Hence we have the ‘5 Cs’ (credibility, clarity, connect, control and conviction), rubbing shoulders with the ‘5Ts’ (Truth, Time, Tango, Thrift and Theatrics). Each element is then related to a real life incident involving the travails, tribulations and triumphs of famous personalities. For example, in describing the seemingly peculiar element of ‘Tango’, Mr. Raman holds forth: ‘Successful leaders are alert about their listening-to-talking ratio. They realize the importance of getting as much information as possible from others, which greatly helps in their decision-making. In fact, I have heard business leaders state that the one who listens the most is the best communicator.’ There must be reasonably equal participation in a conversation, with the listening ratio higher than the talking ratio. Tango encapsulates these two important aspects. Equal participation and yet achieving a higher ratio of listening to talking is the hallmark of Stephen Sackur, who anchors HARDtalk on BBC TV.’

Similarly, the indefatigable spirit brought to their game by Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble get a special mention in the book. Mr. Raman, most importantly conveys to the reader a fact which is mostly experienced only by a sportsman/woman and the angst relating to which remains largely underappreciated, if not downright unappreciated. A sportsman, beset with a serious injury and attempting to make a comeback faces a future that appears to be not only unpredictable, but insurmountable as well. The mindset of the affected persona as he/she attempts to get his/her professional career back on the rails, is illustrated in a deeply poignant manner by the author. Resorting to the heart warming and commendable examples set by Laxmipathy Balaji, a former India pacer and Pullela Gopichand, former All England Open Badminton Championships winner and the much lauded coach of India’s most famous badminton champions of the likes of Saina Nehwal and P.V.Sindhu, Mr. Raman demonstrates how both sportsmen refused to accept injury as a cul-de-sac in their career, before battling all odds to triumph over adversity.

Similarly, the sacrifices and phlegmatic decisions made by Sania Mirza to focus more on doubles thereby letting go of her aspirations to make her mark as a singles player of prominence is described by Mr. Raman in a very lucid and articulate manner. Mr. Raman also exhibits his undisguised admiration for Richard Branson, the maverick entrepreneur par excellence and Frederick Forsyth, the master story teller of the action genre. Talking about Richard Branson’s and his ‘out of the box’ Edward De Bono like exploits, Mr. Raman elucidates: “It is also interesting that he is advocating employment for felons/ex-offenders who have finished their prison sentences. The rationale is that if they are not given jobs, they might be forced to go back to committing crimes, which is an absolutely different way of seeing things.’

Two other sporting personas who make frequent appearances in the book on account of their leadership skills are Kapil Dev, former World Cup winning cricket captain of India and one of the world’s greatest ever all-rounders, and Jeev Milkha Singh, the son of legendary Olympian athlete Milkha Singh, and an Indian professional golfer who became the first player from India to join the European Tour in 1998. Jeev Milkha Singh has won four events on the European Tour, becoming the most successful Indian on tour.

But the one story that warms the very cockle of the reader’s heart is the one involving Vasudevan Baskaran, who skippered the Indian hockey squad that bagged the gold medal in the 1980 Olympics. In describing ‘Giving’, one of the ‘5Gs’ which Mr. Raman whips up, he states: …” Around that time, by sheer chance, he was asked to take over as the coach of the Indian junior hockey squad. But, given the volatile situation prevailing within the hockey fraternity then, he was not sure if the time was right, and therefore, he asked for time to think over the offer… He was not sure if he himself was updated enough as a coach, because hockey had undergone some changes in format since the time he had last played the sport. Then one evening, as he was walking past a small piece of land, he saw a young boy wielding a hockey stick in a limited space. Seeing that child, a lot of emotions ran through Baskaran and he made the decision to take up the offer, but only after completing a coaching course. The important point to note is the high sense of responsibility champions have while giving.”

“The Winning Sixer” is interspersed with incidents and illustrations that both inspire and facilitates introspection. More than everything, it also provides confidence to the reader that leadership need not be a trait restricted to a chosen or privileged few.

PELICANS

(PHOTO PROMPT © J Hardy Carroll )

The aviary looked was a sight to behold. Against the twilight, the rubicund and squat flowers stood upright in a dignified manner.  The horn bills and pelicans had gone stuttering in search of scraps of food. However the beauty merely flattered to deceive. The Environmental Protection Agency had a new set of masters who were enslaved to capitalism. Employing the words ‘Global Warming’ and ‘Climate Change’ was downright a sacrilege. Funds for preserving and protecting the environment were diverted to the more glitzy spheres of entertainment and energy. If climate was a pariah then coal was king.

Screw them Hornbills!

(Word Count: 100)

This story was written as part of the FRIDAY FICTIONEERS challenge, more about which may be found HERE

For more stories based on the above prompt, click HERE 

Uncommon Knowledge: The Economist explains – Tom Standage

Image result for Uncommon Knowledge: The Economist explains – Tom Standage

How carrots became orange (orange here does not refer to the fruit, but the colour) or why Australians stand so divided over Kangaroos, are not questions which we, during the course of tiding over our daily travails, pause to ponder over. Tom Standage, a journalist, author (his books include “A History of the World in Six Glasses”; An Edible History of Humanity; and The Turk: The Life and Times of the Eighteenth Century Chess Player), and the deputy editor at The Economist, proposes to answer these and many other questions of a similar bent in the book “Uncommon Knowledge: The Economist Explains”. While a number of contributors have brought their heads together to churn up a list of heterogeneous and wide ranging questions, Mr. Standage essays the role of the editor.

True to its title, “Uncommon Knowledge” is an eclectic compendium of selected facts ranging from the bland to the bizarre. Divided into broader sections with imaginative headings such as ‘little known explanations to stretch your mind’, Globally curious: particular proclivities from around the world’; ‘Speaking geek: Science and Technology’ etc. “Uncommon Knowledge” is a bouquet of minuscule chapters each giving the reader a peek into a world brimming with peculiarities and characterized by oddities.

The book begins with a sprightly chapter that sets the theme for all those succeeding it. On the 18th of April, 2018 at a celebration that glorified the 50th anniversary of Swaziland’s independence from Britain, its king Mswati III (who apparently has fifteen wives), made a startling announcement. He proclaimed that he was changing the name of his country to “eSwatini” since more often than not, people abroad were referring to his country as Switzerland.

While the usual suspects such as Climate Change and Global warming make their mandatory, albeit essential appearance in the book, other intriguing facets such as “Who owns what in space” make for some thought provoking reading. The book goes on to educate the reader that Luxembourg in 2017 earmarked 200 million Euros to invest in space mining companies. While we are informed that the world over the cost of violence against women, taking into consideration direct spending on counselling and health resources, as well as projections of lost productivity, adds up to a whopping 2% of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), we are also provided heartwarming assurance about a powerful new gene editing tool called CRISPRcas9. Gene drives based on CRISPRcas9, we are informed can be engineered to target specific bits of the chromosome and insert themselves seamlessly into the gap, thus ensuring a copy for every gamete. This novel technology may one day wipe out the scourge of Malaria. For the genetically, technologically and scientifically inclined, here is a visual representation of the prowess that is gene technology:

Mosquito

India’s capital Delhi gains some publicity which it would do extremely well to avoid in future. “Dirty air kills some 30,000 of Delhi’s inhabitants a year – and that is a low estimate some doctors say, if you take account of effects as varied as higher rates of lung cancer, diabetes, premature births, and according to recent research, even autism.” However, even with a daily average level of suspended PM2.5 – fine dust – that is six times what the World Health Organisation stipulates to be the maximum safe concentration, Delhi does not possess the dirtiest air in the world. That inglorious distinction is the preserve of yet another city in India, Kanpur.

While India is battling a dangerous combination of smog and smoke, its restless neighbour China is coming perilously close to decimating the global donkey population. Yes, you read that right! Ejiao, a gelatin produced by boiling and refining donkey skin, and considered to be an elixir by the Chinese is the prime culprit for the vanishing beasts of burden. While the number of donkeys in China have fallen from 11 million in 1990 to 5 million in 2016, the donkey population in Botswana fell by 60% from 2011 to 2016, and a fifth in Lesotho. However, the poor donkey’s loss is the bald eagle’s gain. Once listed as an endangered species, the bald eagle, the very symbol of the United States of America, has again soared back into prominence. A raft of preservation laws has combined with the banning of chemicals such as DDT by the Environmental Protection Agency, to ensure that the number of nesting pairs of these majestic birds is more than just substantial.

Mr. Standage, brings to bear a refreshing and lively flavour of wacky and wicked humour to complement even facts that are somber. For example, in a Chapter titled, “Why The Mediterranean will eventually disappear”, – and in which extremely existential references are made to findings by scientists such as Christopher Scotese, (a geologist at the University of Texas) about the potential shrinking of the Atlantic, and an eventual collision of California with far-east Asia – a passage reads thus: “these scientists are in the enviable position of being able to say things that will never be disproved, as it is unlikely that humanity will be around to see the next super-continent form.”

Although concise in their sweep and crisp in their coverage, Chapters are supplemented with graphs, diagrams and charts to convey the primary message. Easy on the eye and bereft of verbiage, the narration is engaging and racy. A cross between an encyclopedia and a pocket book, “Uncommon Knowledge” is a veritable addition to any bookshelf of value. These byte sized jewels of information, in addition to perking up the interest of the reader and piquing her curiosity, also strive to open many windows behind which lie people, places and propositions about which having at least a fundamental knowledge is not just be advisable, but might soon become essential considering the pace at which our world is progressing.

By the way, China rents out its pandas because…

Technology vs Humanity: The coming clash between man and machine – Gerd Leonhard

Image result for Technology vs Humanity: The coming clash between man and machine – Gerd Leonhard

A seminal discourse today involves evaluating the virtues and vicissitudes of what is being seen as brazen forays into the world of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. While egregious companies, venture capitalists, tech entrepreneurs, and pioneers of cutting edge technology wax eloquent over the undiminished benefits that would constitute outcomes of this research into hitherto unchartered territories, a counterfactual caution is issued by a few of their counterparts, who fear that man ultimately would become subservient to and subjugated by machines. So will we be the immortal all-conquering Gods inhabiting a veritable utopia that cocks-a-snook at Thomas More’s famous satire or would we, in a phenomenon of pathetic reductionism be reduced to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s or Aldous Huxley’s lab rats, scurrying to and fro in sequestered scenarios while our robotic masters look down upon us with derision and disdain?

Humanist/Futurist, Author, and Explainer/Designer, Gerd Leonhard takes this existential conundrum head on in his extremely readable book, “Technology vs Humanity”. At the core of this deep book is the distinguishing features between happiness as a hedonistic concept and happiness in the Aristotelean vein of eudaimonia. While the latter describes the notion of living in accordance with one’s daimon, which we take to mean character and virtue, that leads to a good life, the former refers to an ephemeral and temporary state of happiness primarily driven by dopamine surges.

This distinction becomes extremely vital because the technological changes which we are collectively going to experience as humanity is not going to be sequential. As per Mr. Leonhard, we need to be prepared to adapt to a change that will be exponential, combinatorial, and recursive both in its wake and sweep. Mr. Leonhard opines that anihilistic technology is a far cry from self-actualization. Leonhard argues that technology or its advancement should not find itself perched atop the pile in a Maslow’s pyramid of needs hierarchy. “Technology is entirely nihilistic about the things we humans truly care about. I believe it cannot and should not move up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid from helping with basic needs towards love and belonging, self-esteem, or self-realization.”

Mr. Leonhard identifies, what he terms are ten Megashifts that will combine to alter the future in ways unimaginable. The megashifts are:

  1. Digitization
  2. Mobilization
  3. Screenification
  4. Disintermediation
  5. Transformation
  6. Intelligization
  7. Automation
  8. Virtualization
  9. Anticipation; and
  10. Robotization

These Megashifts with their preternatural possibilities and ingrained perniciousness have the potential to both make and mar our future. Hence Mr. Leonhard’s coinage of the term “HellVen” (a combination of Hell and Heaven”) to illustrate the possible trajectory these Megashifts might take.

Mr. Leonhard makes an extremely interesting and important dissimilarity between algorithms and ‘androrithms.’ According to him, it is the facet of androrithms that confers the traits of humanism in us. “What makes us human is not mathematical or even just chemical or biological. It involves those things that are largely unnoticed, unsaid, subconscious, ephemeral, and unobjectifiable. These are the human essences that I like to call androrithms that we absolutely must keep even if they appear to be clumsy, complicated, slow, risky, or inefficient compared to non-biological systems, computers, and robots.” A simpler way to assimilate the essence of androrithms would be to grasp the tenet of the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s ‘Dasein’.  Dasein is a German word that means “being there” or “presence”. Dasein rhymes with “existence”, and found a mention in Heidegger’s magnum opus Being and Time. Heidegger uses the expression Dasein to refer to the experience of being that is peculiar to human beings. Hence while machines may mirror the traits of human beings and surpass their once masters in intelligence, they will never be able to either experience or emote the philosophy of Dasien.

Thus while radical optimists such as Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis chose to amplify and themselves exemplify the positive scheme of AI (deservedly so), Mr. Leonhard advices judiciousness and prudence. “As much as I am enthralled by STEM breakthroughs, I believe that we urgently need to create a counterbalance, one that amplifies the importance of truly human factors. In contrast to the STEM acronym, I have recently started calling this CORE: creativity/compassion, originality, reciprocity/responsibility, and empathy.”

Drawing on the works of the likes of James Barrat, the author of the hugely popular. “Our Final Invention” – and incidentally one of my favourite Science & Technology authors – Mr. Leonhard makes a spirited case to proceed with great discretion in so far as the realms of Augmented Reality (AR); Virtual Reality (VR) and Brain Computer Interface (BCI) are concerned. Rooting for the creation of a Global Digital Ethics Council (GDEC), Mr. Leonhard proposes a definition of ground rules and the establishment of most basic and universal values such a dramatically different, fully digitized society should imbibe.

Mr. Leonhard also argues for the preservation and protection of a set of inalienable rights in a burgeoning digital world. These rights are:

  • The right to remain natural;
  • The right to remain inefficient in so far as humanness is concerned and not be reduced to machine efficiency;
  • The right to disconnect
  • The right to be anonymous
  • The right to employ or involve people instead of machines

While the first 4 rights are self-explanatory, the fifth right raises interesting questions. Mr. Leonhard argues that “We should not allow companies or employers to be disadvantaged if they choose to use people instead of machines, even if it’s more expensive and less efficient. Instead we should provide tax credits to those that do, and consider automation taxes for companies that dramatically reduce the number of employees in favor of machines and software. Those taxes would need to be made available to retrain people that became the victims of technological unemployment.

However, imposition of any steep penalty might not be adequate to enforce this right since considering the deep pockets of giant multinationals, no monetary levy might be sufficient to act as a deterrent. Mr. Leonhard also provides his readers with a list of strawman arguments, which he himself concedes might need to be further refined, honed or revamped for ushering in a degree of equanimity between man and machine. Some of these arguments are:

  1. Understanding the exponential nature of the future;
  2. Perceiving opportunities and threats.
  3. Becoming better stewards of humanity.
  4. Incorporating ethics into technology
  5. Understand the progression or regression from magic-manic-toxic, the path which an obsession with technology takes
  6. Supplement STEM with CORE
  7. Distinguish between real and simulation.
  8. Ask Why and Who.
  9. We should not let Silicon Valley, technologists, the military, or investors become mission control for humanity— no matter what country they are in.

As James Barrat famously quoted in his “Our Final Invention”, “As I’ll argue, AI is a dual-use technology like nuclear fission. Nuclear fission can illuminate cities or incinerate them. Its terrible power was unimaginable to most people before 1945. With advanced AI, we’re in the 1930s right now. We’re unlikely to survive an introduction as abrupt as nuclear fission’s.”

Mr. Gerd Leonhard’s clarion call to be part of “Team Human”, a concept popularized by Doug Rushkoff, an American media theorist, writer, columnist, lecturer, graphic novelist, and documentarian represents an effort to prevent the fossilization of mankind’s identity and its sacrifice at the altar of dangerous technology. “Technology vs Humanity” is thus, a plea for the preservation, if not downright redemption of the values that make the human species singularly unique.

DARBAR – Emperor Rajini holds Court

Image result for Darbar + Poster

Prior to reviewing the hotly anticipated A.R. Murugadoss directed movie “Darbar” starring Superstar Rajinikanth (Rajini), that hit the screens on the 9th of January, 2020, a disclaimer is in order. I am an impossible, incorrigible and inveterate Rajini tragic. Hence there is an inevitability attached to the fact that a degree of bias would creep into my evaluation. Having said that I promise to be as objective as possible striving hard not to compromise assessment at the altar of adulation. So, not being Mark Antony’s Brutus, who after all was an honourable man, here goes!

First things first. “Darbar” is NOT “Baasha.” There is an unfair proclivity amongst critics and laymen alike to compartmentalize the Rajini Filmography into Baasha and post-Baasha periods. Employing Baasha as the gold standard against which its successors are judged is doing injustice both to the Superstar as well as his Directors. “Darbar” is 169 minutes of glorious Rajini mayhem, mania and mannerisms. Both Karthik Subbaraj, initially with “Petta” and now Murugadoss have phenomenally succeeded where the likes of Shankar and Ranjit have colossally blundered with Enthiran -2, Kabali, and Kaala respectively. The great poet, author and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore once famously said, “a mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand that uses it to bleed.” Murugadoss grasps this nuance to perfection and produces an entertainer that is by, for and of Thalaivar.

Aadithya Arunasalam (“Rajini”) a top cop is posted to the throbbing metropolis of Mumbai to put paid to a proliferating menace of substance abuse and trafficking in women. Arunasalam engages in a burst of extra judicial killings that reek of utter disdain and remorselessness. Managing to get to the root of the problem, Arunasalam succeeds in nabbing Ajay Malhotra (Prateik Babbar), the son of Vijay Malhotra (Nawab Shah), a business tycoon and the mastermind behind the purveying of drugs in the city. But when Hari Chopra (Suniel Shetty), a dreaded gangster who made a veritable mockery of the police force 27 years earlier before fleeing abroad, makes a menacing return to his motherland to wreak vengeance by targeting Arunasalam and his daughter Valli (Nivetha Thomas), all hell breaks loose.

In a plot that is if not gripping, exhilaratingly engaging, Rajini rules the roost. In a performance that mirrors “Padayappa” for entertainment quotient, and Petta for ‘Rajinisms’, “Darbar” is both Murugadoss tribute to Rajini fandom and Thalaivar’s offering to his fanatical followers. Oozing patented style that has made him one of the greatest entertainers in the annals of Indian cinema, Rajini holds Court, in what undoubtedly is his personal “Darbar.” There are the uncompromising slow motion fight scenes where antagonists come in bunches only to dispatched in multifariously unbelievable ways. Defying gravity they remain painfully suspended in thin air, before being ordered by their punisher to pay heed to the immutable laws of Physics. One of the highlights of the movie is a fight sequence in a railway station, the choreography of which is an exquisite paean to the charisma of Rajini. In more ways than one this is an age defying performance by the Superstar who at the time of this review is 70!

Although the introduction scene of Rajini takes on the contours of a by now expected panache, it is a tad bit weak by his own standards. A very clever and logical take on Rajini’s age is seen in the expectant albeit hesitant approaches made by Arunasalam towards Lily (Nayanthara). The crowning glory of the movie however is reserved for the interactions between Arunasalam and his daughter Valli (“Nivetha Thomas”).

Suniel Shetty as Hari Chopra is a looming Damocles Sword hovering over the head of Arunasalam. Considering the fact that he is making a comeback to the silver screen after a long hiatus, his role could have been meatier and substantial.

Nivetha Thomas as Valli holds her own in a performance that can only be termed brilliant. Effortless, effervescent and energetic, she is the most soothing foil to Arunasalam’ s raging temper. Yogi Babu as Kaushik is his usual natural self. Nayanthara plays the role of a charming and self-effacing woman who nurses an admiration for Arunasalam that goes beyond just camaraderie. However, her role is unfortunately one that just makes up the numbers.

Anirudh with his racy composition and an addictive background music proves why he is one of the most formidable young talents to be reckoned with in the musical world currently.  “Summa Kizhi” has all the hallmarks of a Rajini anthem. Santosh Sivan, with the free reign that he seems to have been accorded dishes out what is virtually a magical treat.

With the impudence of an Alex Pandian (coincidentally Murgadoss’s inspiration for this character), the impetuosity of a Petta and the inevitability of a Padayappa, Rajini reigns supreme as the Emperor of his Darbar. Even Manik Baasha would have approved of Aadithya Arunasalam, at least in so far as their methods of dispensing justice are concerned. But then again, I am not comparing.