Energy’s Digital Future: Harnessing Innovation for American Resilience and National Security – Amy Myers Jaffe

Energy's Digital Future | Columbia University Press

Amy Myers Jaffe, the Managing director of Climate Policy Lab and research professor at Tufts University Fletcher School, brings her enviable experience in the field of energy to bear in her revealing, relevant and rousing book, “Energy’s Digital Future.” In an era where the conventional concept of the term energy is almost turning out to be anachronistic, Jaffe’s book is all about the perils of creating path dependencies that may lock in the world in lock step with a set of infeasible alternatives, and the solutions that policy makers, individuals and institutions can employ to extricate the world from such path dependencies. Although primarily written from an American perspective, “Energy’s Digital Future” finds universal bearing across the globe, in so far as its core propositions are concerned.

Jaffe informs her readers that the concept of electric cars, that is assuming so much of traction these days, was birthed as early as in the 1900s when electric cars, taxis and trolleys were commonplace in the United States. General Electric even developed a charging hydrant called the “electrant” for these vehicles. In fact, Henry Ford and the inveterate inventor Thomas Edison were close to collaborating on a technology involving batteries. However the First World War put paid to the pioneering efforts of the two visionaries. The first path dependency on gasoline was created when in 1921, Thomas Midgley discovered the anti-knock properties of tetraethyl-leaded gasoline. Since then we have created an energy world with inter linked path dependencies that has seen trillions of dollars being sunk into pipelines, and behemoth oil and gas infrastructures.

But as the pitfalls of fossil fuels and the dangers of climate change are becoming all too real, the world is seeing a revolutionary and paradigm shift towards digital energy. We are moving towards what the late Nobel Prize winning chemist, Richard Smalley termed, ‘new basis for energy prosperity.’  Transformational technologies such as on-demand travel services, automated vehicles and robot taxis, data and GPS assisted logistics, decentralized electricity microgrids and 3-dimensional printing all pose significant challenges to the entrenched concept of traditional energy. Even though some of these technologies are extremely exorbitant, it is only a matter of time before the advantages bestowed by economies of scale would start kicking in making these novel technologies common.

However as Jaffe illustrates, the United States seems to be exhibiting a degree of lethargy in embracing this change. From opting out of the Paris Climate Accord (at the time of writing, President Joseph Biden has rescinded his predecessor’s decision, thereby reinstating the US back into the Paris Agreement) to scrimping on Research & Development, the world’s foremost superpower seems to be ceding miles and acreage to China, in the rapidly evolving spread of Digital Energy. Quoting Robert Atkinson, President of the Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank, “to the extent the United States continues to lose technological capabilities to China, US technological advantage in defense over China will diminish, if not evaporate, as US capabilities wither and Chinese strengthen.” A classic case in point being the Digital collaborations being proposed by Xi Jing Ping under his grandiose Belt and Road Initiative, a gargantuan scheme that proposes to lock in a greater part of the world in a “China-dependent trap”.

Russia currently delivers 500,000 barrels of crude oil a day to China via the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean (“ESPO”) crude oil pipeline. These oil deliveries are a “payoff” for a whopping $25billion Chinese loan to the Russian pipeline entity Transneft and state oil monolith Rosneft. As acclaimed author, Bruno Macaes writes in his book, Belt And Road Initiative: A Chinese World Order, “in December 2017, Sri Lanka formally handed control of Hambantota port to China in exchange for writing down the country’s debt. Under a $1.1 billion deal, Chinese firms now hold a 70 percent stake in the port and a 99 year lease agreement to operate it.”

Whether it be in the realm of Solar Power, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics or Drone Technologies, China’s ambitions are untrammeled and unrestrained. However, such technologies represent dual-use capabilities, that is they can be employed for enhancing both civilian and military capabilities. Hence as Jaffe educates her readers, the aspersions cast over and the trepidations associated with Chinese firms such as ZTE and Huawei Technologies. The latter firm in particular, with a 15% global market share over 5G technology has been rumoured to be a state sponsored vehicle for aiding and abetting Intellectual Property (“IP”) theft.  

However it is not all gloom and doom for the US. This is where the meticulous, measured and methodical research of Jaffe finds resonance in the book. One can find inspiration in the innovation ecosystem that was incubated by DARPA that spawned revolutionary advances in the field of Science and Technology. With the burgeoning discoveries of shale in the Permian basin, the US has even become a net exporter of oil, thereby negating the doomsday prophesies of geologists and commentators such as Colin Campbell, Kenneth Deffeyes, Marion King Hubbert and the rest. Hence the US now needs to focus attention on “peak” demands rather than “peak” supplies. The single most important economic concept in the dynamics of climate change, according to the Yale Economist William Nordhaus is the “social cost of carbon.” This represents “cost in dollars of the long-term damage done by one ton of carbon dioxide in a given year.” This makes Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (“CCUS”) technologies critical.

Jaffe provides a set of recommendations which the US can mull about in gaining ascendancy over China and the rest of the world in a new Digital Energy future:

  • Creating public-private energy R&D partnerships modeled on the likes of Sematech (Semi-Conductor Manufacturing Technology). Sematech represented a consortium of 14 American semi-conductor manufacturers, and was instituted to counter the threat of Japanese expertise in the field of semi-conductor technology;
  • The US policy with respect to technologies such as AI, AVs and drones etc must take into account the potential of these technologies to reduce carbon emissions in sectors such as transportation, electricity and manufacturing;
  • Permitting utilities to share in revenue gains and cost savings from installing storage that can balance supply and demand on the grid and optimize system performance;
  • Facilitate utilities and owners to be “prosumers”, that is treating them as both owners and integrators of range of power suppliers;
  • Transparency on the part of autonomous fleet providers and owners in so far as collection and use of passenger data is concerned; and
  • A more nuanced policy in so far as ties with China are concerned in the areas of carbon capture and sequestration, Direct Air Capture, clean water technologies, health and food supplies

Alexander Karsner , a Senior Strategist at X, the innovation lab of Alphabet Inc describes an inflection point by using the phrase “Kodak Moment.” The United States might just be on the verge of such a Kodak Moment in so far, as the future and success of Digital Energies are concerned.

Amy Myers Jaffe’s timely and essential book might just have brought us a ticket for a ringside view of such an inflection point.

(Energy’s Digital Future: Harnessing Innovation for American Resilience and National Security by Amy Myers Jaffe is published by Columbia University Press, and will be released on the 13th of April, 2021)

The Banker Who Crushed His Diamonds: The Yes Ban Story – Furquan Moharkan

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At the New Economy First Annual Banking and Finance Awards at London in the year 2008, India’s YES BANK was awarded the prestigious ‘Most Innovative Bank in India’ honour. Yet, just twelve years later there was placed a moratorium on the bank upon instructions from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). The RBI superseded the Bank’s Board and appointed as an administrator, Within a day of the moratorium, the RBI had also proposed a reconstruction scheme under which the Indian Banking behemoth State Bank of India (‘SBI”) could take a maximum 49% stake in the restructured capital of the bank.

So how did a bank, which at one point in time was the fourth largest in India plummet to depths of despondency from an imperial pedestal of ascendancy? The answer, or at any rate the primary answer being, Rana Kapoor. The flamboyant co-founder of YES Bank operated in the form of an unfettered tyrant treating a service utility as a personal fiefdom and running it to ground by embracing a set of policies, downright unscrupulous.

Deccan Herald’s business correspondent, Furquan Moharkan, in his newly released book, “The Banker Who Crushed His Diamonds”, tries to blow open the lid on the Rana Kapoor saga that brought a veritable bank down to its knees. Laced with interesting anecdotes and intriguing corroborations, Rana Kapoor’s escapades are both sordid and stunning. Living life to the hilt in a gaudy manner, Kapoor was given to flaunting wealth and power. As Moharkan illustrates the banker splurged Rs 1280 crore for an apartment block that sat on approximately 14,000 square feet, right next to Mukesh Ambani’s home Antilia. Rana was also bestowed with the moniker of “lender of the last resort.” Usually the sole prerogative of the RBI, this title provided ample testimony to YES Bank’s suspect lending practices with Rana at the helm. Charging a hefty upfront fee, which could be shown as ‘profits’ to boost the bank’s books, Rana had a chequered history of lending to failed and failing entities such as Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, Essel Group, DHFL, Jet Airways, Cox & Kings, CG Power, among others.

YES Bank was incorporated by Rana Kapoor along with Harkirat Singh, formerly of Deutsche Bank and the banker responsible for Deutsche Bank’s first foray into venture capital with an investment in India’s first venture capital company, Indus Venture Capital India Private Limited, and Kapoor’s own brother-in-law, Ashok Kapur a former banker with stints at ABN Amro Bank and ANZ Grindlays Bank. Rana soon installed himself at the highest seat of power in the bank by unceremoniously ousting Harkirat and running roughshod over his brother in law. Ashok Kapur was tragically felled by a hail of terrorist bullets in the ghastly Mumbai terror attacks of 2008. In early 2003, Harkirat, set off to Mauritius for a family vacation. “Back in India, Rana thought of doing the unthinkable. He convinced Rabobank to place bets on him as managing director (MD) and CEO, and Ashok Kapur as the CEO. Till then, Harkirat was completely unaware of the decision. He came to know when he returned to India after a week. How were they able to pull it off? Apparently, Rana had bribed one of the senior Rabobank officials in India. ‘He had bribed a senior Rabobank guy with £1 million,’ one person, who was part of the redressal process between the three parties and knew the situation inside out, told me while I was writing this book”, informs Moharkan.

Rana was driven not only in his ambitions but also ultra-aggressive in his practices as well. Not only was Rana good at collection, he would also go to any extent to get the job done. “Once at YES Bank, he was not getting repayments from one of his small-and medium-scale enterprise borrowers. The client was out of the country. When he returned, Rana sent a car to receive him at the airport. From the airport, the borrower was directly driven to Rana’s cabin on the ninth floor of Nehru Centre. There, Rana, according to a former YES Bank employee present in that meeting, using Hindi cuss words told him: ‘Tune mera paisa liya hai. Tu lautaayega kya yeh paisa, warna tujhe uthaaunga (You have borrowed my money. If you don’t return it, I will get you kidnapped).”

Kapoor’s business model was encapsulated in a phenomenal piece carried by the Economic Times, post the collapse of YES Bank. According to the article, when a promoter of a mid-sized shipping company desperately wanted  Rs 3.5 billion and no bankers entertained him, Kapoor offered him a whopping Rs 5 billion over a period of 12 years. The condition was that the promoter was bound to pay Rs 500 million or 10% of sanctioned loan as an upfront fee.

Kapoor’s shocking banking practices were called out by the global financial services firm UBS in 2015, when it published a negative report about the asset quality of YES Bank’s books. As Moharkan informs, was the regular practice with YES Bank and Kapoor, a complaint was filed against UBS alleging that the findings were biased, motivated and unrealistic.

When the sun finally set on the Kapoor saga, “The bank had reported a staggering loss of Rs 18,564 crore in October–December. The loss is the biggest-ever quarterly loss by any bank in India, toppling the Rs 13,417 crore loss by the PNB in 2018 by over Rs 6100 crore. During the quarter, the bank’s gross bad loans surged to an astounding Rs 40,709.2 crore, more than doubling in just three months from Rs 17,134 crore. The gross NPA percentage of the bank stood at an unprecedented 18.87 per cent.”

However, what could otherwise have been a rousing and riveting book is marred and tarnished by an absolutely unforgivable editorial job (or a complete lack of it). The book is replete with grammatical and spelling errors, not to mention disjointed, and in some cases even incomplete sentences. It is unthinkable that a publisher of the repute of Penguin would totally fail in their basic responsibilities of performing even a rudimentary grammar check on a book before deeming it fit for ultimate publication. The errors riddling the book at times take away the very inclination of the reader to continue ploughing through the mess. The publishers would do well to redress this shockingly shoddy effort before printing the next edition at least.

For example consider this sentence: “Rana was appointed as consul for the Republic of Cyprus since 2002. In 2015, Rana was appointed as the consul general of the Republic of Cyprus, Maharashtra, at a time when a high-level delegation led by the President of Cyprus was planning to visit India in 2016…” Even a fallacy of Geography could not have succeeded in placing Cyprus squarely within the territory of Maharashtra.

Yet another blooper: “On 7 June 2015, he resigned as co-CEO of Deutsche Bank, along with Initially, Anshu was also accused of misleading German Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin) — a charge on which he was later given a clean chit.”

On the whole, “The Banker Who Crushed His Diamonds” is a book that is both interesting as well as exasperating. Interesting for the content and exasperating for the unbelievable quantum of unimaginable and schoolboy editing errors littering the pages.

How To Avoid A Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need – Bill Gates

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In one of the initial passages in his book, Bill Gates confesses that he might be an ‘imperfect messenger’ trying to convey the grave import of the cause and consequence of climate change. However, he goes on to transport that very same message in an admirable manner throughout the book. “How to Avoid A Climate Disaster” is more a primer into the perils of Climate change and the potential solutions that can be implemented in a practical manner to mitigate such risks, than a dense and impenetrable dissection of the associated Science. Gates exhorts his readers to be mindful, always, of two key numbers, 51 billion and 0. While the former represents the tonnes of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere on an annual basis, the latter number is the targeted emission rate that the world should aspire to achieve by 2050, at the latest. The usual suspects contributing to this gargantuan emission number are fossil fuels (responsible for approximately 27% of the emissions), manufacturing (contributing roughly 31% of the emissions), agriculture (18%), travel (16%), and residential and commercial heating devices (6%).

However, Gates also acknowledges that transitioning from fossil fuel to renewables and realtering the way in which we grow our food, manufacture our essentials and keep ourselves cozy would entail its own set of practical challenges and logical impediments. This is where the notion of a “Green Premium” kicks in. Green Premium is nothing but the difference in costs between a product that involves emitting carbon and an alternative that is absolutely carbon free. As Gates proceeds to illustrate, “the average retail price for a gallon of jet fuel in the United States over the past few years has been around $2.22, while advanced biofuels for jets cost around $5.35 per gallon. The Green Premium is the difference between the two, which is $3.13, or an increase of more than 140 percent.”

Gates also informs his readers that Gates that as a matter of principle he has made a conscious choice to divest his stakes in fossil fuel companies. “I don’t want to profit if their stock prices go up because we don’t develop zero-carbon alternatives.” But such divestments alone would not constitute solutions to the problem. What is needed is a concentrated, concrete and comprehensive structural set of global reforms that would lead to a convergence of thought, deed and word on the part of all the nations constituting our Planet. Gates’ idea is to formulate a set of measures and ideas that could be put into play at the ensuing 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, Cop26, in Glasgow. 

Drawing on the work of Vaclav Smil, an authoritative voice on the energy sector, Gates also demonstrates the challenges involved in transitioning between alternative energy sources. “In 1900, natural gas accounted for 1 percent of the world’s energy. It took seventy years to reach 20 percent. Nuclear fission went faster, going from 0 to 10 percent in 27 years. Between 1840 and 1900, coal went from 5 percent of the world’s energy supply to nearly 50 percent. But in the 60 years from 1930 to 1990, natural gas reached just 20 percent. In short, energy transitions take a long time.”

Gates admits his bias in one sphere of decarbonization in particular, electricity. He writes. “If a genie offered me one wish, a single breakthrough in just one activity that drives climate change, I’d pick making electricity: It’s going to play a big role in decarbonizing other parts of the physical economy.” Gates also dwells on the contributions made by the immortal Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug to the field of agriculture by using innovative techniques. Borlaug developed varieties of wheat with bigger grains and other characteristics that allowed them to provide much more food per acre of land—what farmers call raising the yield. However, as Gates illustrates the process of farming as well as consuming meat contributes its own bit to the dangers of carbon emission. A process scientifically termed enteric fermentation, causes bacteria inside the cow’s stomach to break down the cellulose in the plant, fermenting it and producing methane. This induces cows to belch and fart away, Gates highlights the advantages of cutting down on meat eating while not compromising on the taste of meat itself. “One option is plant-based meat: plant products that have been processed in various ways to mimic the taste of meat. I’ve been an investor in two companies that have plant-based meat products on the market right now—Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods— so I’m biased, but I have to say that artificial meat is pretty good. When prepared just right, it’s a convincing substitute for ground beef. And all of the alternatives out there are better for the environment, because they use much less land and water and are responsible for fewer emissions. You also need less grain to produce them, reducing the pressure on food crops and the use of fertilizers too. And it’s a huge boon for animal welfare whenever fewer livestock are being kept in small cages.”

Gates also talks in a passionate manner about the pioneering efforts of CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) in the realms of climate change. CGIAR research aims to reduce rural poverty, increase food security, improve human health and nutrition, and sustainable management of natural resources. It is carried out at 15 centers. A dizzying alphabet soup of CGIAR collaboration partners include Africa Rice Centre, CIFOR, ICARDA, ICRISAT, IFPRI, IITA, ILRI, ICIMMYT, CIP, IRRI, IWMI, CIAT, ICRAF and World Fish.

Gates concludes his book with a clarion call for governments, companies, investors and individuals to come together with a motive and purpose to bring down the Green Premium. While the Government can formulate relevant policies to either make the carbon-based version of something more expensive, or make the clean version cheaper, investors and corporates can change their buying behavior to employing cleaner alternatives, investing in research and development, supporting clean-energy entrepreneurs and startups, and advocating for helpful government policies. Finally, individuals can influence the market by their purchasing habits. Opting for an Electric Vehicle or a plant based food results in a powerful ‘signaling’ effect to which companies would ultimately have to pay heed.

Gates has the last word when he says, “We need to accomplish something gigantic we have never done before, much faster than we have ever done anything similar,” pushing through “a consensus that doesn’t exist” and accelerating “a transition that would not happen otherwise.”

We may already be more than a tad bit too late.

A World Without Work: Technology, Automation and how we should respond – Daniel Susskind

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“A World Without Work”, sans any semblance of doubt has to be one of the most influential and powerful books penned in the 20th Century. Addressing a topical issue, the author, a Fellow in Economics at Balliol College, Oxford, sets out in a measured, methodical and meticulous style, the attendant challenges and the probable solutions. The issue dwelt by Daniel Susskind in his book is that of “technological unemployment.” The displacement of humans by machines is neither a novel concept nor an ingenious postulation. Right from the time, mankind has evolved as an intelligent species, convulsions of technology has played a seminal role in both development and displacement. However, to paraphrase Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, this time it may be different. An unimaginable surge in the esoteric realm of artificial intelligence has spawned a veritable ecosystem that is ripe for automation. Automation, that ensures that not only can machines perform more adroitly than human beings, but also exploit an exponential degree of bottom-up intelligence attribute to exacerbate productivity as well. A frightening case in point – the extraordinary exploits of Alpha Go that beat the prevailing board game “Go” champion Lee Seedol.

John Maynard Keynes is credited with popularizing the “technological unemployment”. The “Manure crisis” that plagued the United States during the 19th century and early parts of the 20th century amplified the tumultuous changes that technology could birth. 21 million horses trampling the streets of America plunged an entire nation under a stinking pile of manure. Just when it seemed that the nation would suffocate from the perils of ‘horseshit’, the motor car made an appearance.  At the time of writing this review the number of horses in the US hardly exceeds the 2 million mark. Similarly, the Industrial Revolution changed the very lexicon of work. The innovations in England during this period procreated a whole new form of technology that was hitherto unimagined. The inventions and innovations also led to disgruntlement and despair, when workers worried about their jobs being ‘taken away’ by technology began disrupting businesses and destroying machines. The terminology “Luddites” is a direct result of an apocryphal worker named Ned Ludd, who as an apprentice allegedly smashed two stocking frames in 1779 and thus became emblematic of machine destroyers.

But as Susskind illustrates with searing quality while technology is responsible for a substitution effect, it also produces a complementary force. This complementary force has three preternaturally beneficent effects, namely, the productivity effect, the bigger pie effect, and the changing pie effect. For example, bank tellers were in the dread of the havoc that automated teller machines or ATMs could wreak on their jobs. But as Susskind illustrates, the ATMs actually spurred customers to use banks more, thereby increasing the number of bank branches and also the number of bank tellers, who were freed up to do tasks other than dispensing cash.

This complementarity of technology was elucidated in great detail by the economists David Autor, Frank Levy, Richard Murnane. Their postulation now commonly known as the ALM Hypothesis, after the names of the proponents, highlights the fact that jobs are not colossal, but an agglomeration of tasks. Where the nature of the jobs are routing, they are ripe for being automated. Non-routine tasks are usually not amenable for automation. However, as Susskind informs his readers in a world characterized by rampant technology, the lines between routine and non-routine stand blurred. Lots of office jobs for example are assumed to be routine. This prompted the former Bank of England Governor and currently, Vice Chairman and Head of Impact Investing at Brookfield Asset Management, Mark Carney to exclaim that it was time for a “massacre of the Dilberts.” Machines of the modern era are not just capable of performing routine activities, but as AlphaGo illustrated in searing detail, are also extremely capable of executing tasks that require cognitive skills and affectations, traits that are ‘non-routine’ by all stretches of imagination. As the founder of Netscape founder and world renowned venture capitalist Marc Andreessen immortally said, “software is eating the world” and that in the end, there will be only two types of people left: those who program the machines, and everyone else. Susskind writes, “economists had thought that to accomplish a task, a computer had to follow explicit rules articulated by a human being — that machine capabilities had to begin with two-down application of human intelligence.” But machines are “now deriving entirely new rules, unrelated to those that human beings follow. This is not a semantic quibble, but a serious shift. Machines are no longer riding on the coattails of human intelligence.” However, pioneers in the field of technology and communication seem to be oblivious to this fact whether intentionally or in ignorance. When IBM’s Watson beat the reigning champions at ‘Jeopardy’, American scholar of cognitive science, physics, and comparative literature, and the Pulitzer Prize winner of the bestseller, “Gödel, Escher, Bach”, Douglas Hofstadter pooh poohed the achievement alleging that Watson was ‘vacuous.’ The philosopher John Searle, the mind behind the famous Chinese room experiment lamented that that by developing Deep Blue, IBM was giving up on the science of Artificial Intelligence.

Or take the example of the black-taxi drivers of London. The advent of GPS tools such as Waze have made the prodigious bank of “Knowledge” that is a pre-requisite for such drivers to procure a license, almost redundant. Having said that, Susskind argues that the pace of automation would neither be uniform nor harmonious. The progress of automation will take place at different paces in different places, not least because the cost of the alternative to automation will vary. Countries aging faster will automate faster, while legislation and cultural proclivities will exert a huge influence  in setting the automation pace. But in the end analysis, there is no eliding automation. “Nothing is certain in life except death, taxes, and the relentless process of task encroachment.”

Such a “task encroachment”, Susskind opines, leads to two kinds of unemployment: frictional, and then structural. Frictional technological unemployment refers to a paradoxical situation where while there are still jobs, not everybody is adequately equipped to handle them. Structural technological unemployment on the other hand arises when a human is replaced in one job, and even though the productivity effect, the bigger pie effect or the changing pie effect means that another job is created, that new job is performed by a machine, and not by the displaced human. David Schloss, a British economist, presciently predicted way back in 1892 that there is no guarantee that the additional work will always be done by humans instead of machines.

Susskind labels himself as a technological realist, and not an apologist for technological determinism. Hence his exhortation that technology would lead to positive progress in so far as alleviation of poverty and income inequality go. But what should be the strategy to be adopted by economies when almost 25% of the workforce is expected to be permanently displaced and dislocated even? One potential solution could be the role that a ‘Big State’ could possibly play to alleviate the tumultuousness caused by unemployment. Such a Big State will take on the responsibilities of redistributing income and wealth. The State can also raise taxes steeply, and clamp down on siphoning of wealth to tax havens.

Another solution could be Conditional Basic Income (“CBI”) instead of the commonly advocated Universal Basic Income (“UBI”). He expresses an understandable degree of skepticism when he writes that he cannot envisage the futility involved in making available a sum in the form of UBI to say, a Mark Zuckerberg. Susskind also calls for restricting the economic might and political power of the disruptive “Big Tech”. Most importantly, Susskind proposes that we would need to alter in a paradigm manner, the concepts of how, when and what we teach. Embellishing the taken for granted “STEM” skills or a targeted focus on the liberal arts would prove to be helpful to address the issue of frictional unemployment. The need of the hour is an education system that makes even leisure productive.

Susskind has all his tracks covered – and much more!

The Final Solution: A Story of Detection – Michael Chabon

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For a crime novel or a novella to be penned, it is almost taken for granted that a de riguer template is an indispensable necessity. Or at least this was what S.S.Van Dine insisted with his “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.” In addition to the compulsory presence of the detective, triggered by the committing of a heinous crime, a few other unavoidable accoutrements need to partner the crime and its solver. Clues, that are both apparent and hidden, an unbiased attitude on the part of the detective etc.

We are not privy to the fact as to whether or not Van Dine influenced the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”, but in “Final Solution”, Michael Chabon dishes up a delectable feast for his readers. The throes of the Holocaust are hauntingly imminent as they permeate the pages of the book, yet remaining startlingly invisible. While the octogenarian detective is never mentioned by name, an unmistakable allusion to his trusted companion, the magnifying glass, around whose bezel, “an affectionate inscription from the sole great friend of his life” can be found, leaves us in no dilemma that the protagonist in question is none other than Sherlock Holmes. “The Final Solution” might also be a clever take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem.” A disquieting problem where Holmes plummets to his unfortunate and untimely death at the Reichenbach Falls while grappling with his nemesis, Dr. Moriarty, only to resurrect at the hands of his creator on account of immense pressure from the fans of the series.

A nine year old Jewish boy named Linus Steinmann, who is wont to keep a permanent silence has an exotic parrot for company. Given to reciting bits and scraps of Goethe and Schiller, in addition to the occasional Gilbert and Sullivan, the peculiar parrot named Bruno also reels out incoherent and inchoate sequences of German numbers. This singularly peculiar habit of the parrot in spewing out numerals raises more than just eyebrows when it is ascertained that Steinmann is a refugee from Nazi Germany. Could these seemingly senseless numbers contain the key to treasures unimagined such as Nazi Codes or Swiss Bank Accounts? Things take a murky turn when the parrot is mysteriously abducted and a newest occupant of the vicarage where the boy resides is found murdered with a great bit of the back of his head caved in. When all suspicious land on the wastrel of a son of the vicar, Reggie Panicker (the Senior Mr. Panicker being a native of Kerala who comes to settle in England as a result of marriage to his senior’s daughter), the distraught Panickers have nowhere to go but to the legendary aging bee keeper who as per legendary folklore has bested innumerable foes and solved the impossible of mysteries.

With obstinate knees that creak and a withered body that aches and groans, Holmes sets out solve both the mystery relating to the abduction of the parrot, and the brutal murder of the latest occupant of the vicarage. The penultimate chapter of the book is entirely narrated from Bruno’s perspective thus making for some picturesque reading. There are unmissable shades of Joseph Conrad, especially in the final two chapters.

The book ends with Holmes ruminating wistfully on the welcome prospect of a smile on the boy’s face which otherwise is set in a perpetual state of grimness. “The business of detection has for so many years been caught up with questions of remuneration and reward that although he was by now long beyond such concerns he felt, with surprising vigor, that the boy owed him the payment of a smile.”

Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future – Elizabeth Kolbert

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Elizabeth Kolbert is to environmental journalism what Norman Borlaug was to the agricultural revolution. Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, “The Sixth Extinction” could be placed on the same pedestal as Rachel Carson’s immortal conscience awakening work “Silent Spring”, in so far environmental awareness and revolution are concerned. While Silent Spring poignantly pulled the lid over the pernicious impact of DDT and other pesticides on the ecology, “The Sixth Extinction” brought to bear with brute force the imperilment that the “Anthropocene” era brought along, as its handmaiden.

Kolbert is back again at her seraphic best, exquisitely blending wisdom and wit with wistfulness in her latest work, “Under a White Sky”. Kolbert in this concise book (just under 210 pages), illustrates a few instances of innovative endeavours instituted by man to resolve climate issues, which in the first place were created, courtesy ingenious plans implemented by man himself! In Kolbert’s own words, this is a book, “about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.”

“Under The White Sky” is divided into three parts: Down The River; Into The Wild, and Up in the Air. Down The River begins with Kolbert making a boat trip, traversing up the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The main purpose of the trip is to inspect electric barriers put in place by The United States Army Corps of Engineers to keep away the invasive breed of Asian Carp fish from the river. But how did this particular breed of fish that is considered to be a delicacy in China, reach the shores of the United States? Asian carp were imported into the Mississippi River basin in the 1960s as a biological Weed Wacker to control invasive plants. But the cleanser turned out to be the most consummate predator. Both consuming and conceiving with a vengeance, the carp wreaked havoc voraciously, “outcompeting the native fish until they’re practically all that’s left.” As Kolbert informs her reader, “be careful what you wish for. Atmospheric warming, ocean warming, ocean acidification, sea level rise, deglaciation, desertification, eutrophication-these are just some of the by-products of our species’ success.”

From the Mississippi river, Kolberg sets off to New Orleans. Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has what seems like an insurmountable task ahead of it. Plaquemines, a parish with a population of 23,042 as per the latest census of 2010 has the distinction—a dubious one, at best—of being among the fastest-disappearing places on earth. “A few years ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officially retired thirty-one Plaquemines place names, including Bay Jacquin and Dry Cypress Bayou, because there was no there anymore. And what’s happening to Plaquemines is happening all along the coast. Since the 1930s, Louisiana has shrunk by more than two thousand square miles. If Delaware or Rhode Island had lost that much territory, America would have only forty-nine states. Every hour and a half, Louisiana sheds another football field’s worth of land. Every few minutes, it drops a tennis court’s worth.”

“Into the Wild” has one of the most interesting and thought provoking chapters in the book. The Devils Hole pupfish’s (Cyprinodon diabolis), entire population is restricted to a single desert pool in Nevada. With a view to preventing the Devils Hole pupfish from being driven to extinction, researchers have constructed a $4.5 million simulacrum of the Devil’s Pool to accommodate a backup population. This imitation that impersonates the minutest intricacies of the original pool, warrants constant caretaking. But the conservation of the Devils Hole pupfish, as Kolbert illustrates has not always been an exercise in conscious foresight. In January 1952, President Harry S. Truman added Devils Hole to Death Valley National Park. Truman envisaged the protection of “peculiar race of desert fish” that lived in the “remarkable underground pool” and “nowhere else in the world.” as meriting the utmost priority. But that very spring, the Department of Defense detonated eight nuclear bombs at the Nevada Test Site, about fifty miles north of Devils Hole. The following spring, it detonated eleven more bombs. These nuclear tests were directly at cross purposes with the proclamation of conservation of an endangered species. To make matters worse, an egregious developer named Francis Cappaert, nursing a dream of transforming the desert into an alfalfa paradise, began pumping water from the aquifer. The water level in Devils Hole began a dangerous trend of depletion. By the end of 1970, the pupfish’s spawning area had shrunk to the size of a galley kitchen.

Up In The Air deals with urgent efforts instituted or proposed to be implemented in the realm of geoengineering to suck CO2 out of the air. This logic of “negative emissions” has found favours with many physicists and geoengineers, prominent among them being Klaus Lackner of the Arizona State University, and David Keith, a professor of applied physics at Harvard. Although sounding outlandish, some of the geoengineering methods proposed by its advocates seem to be part of the scanty arsenal available to humanity to reduce Carbon emissions. Just consider this proposal that has at its nub the employ of machines called, “auxons.” To paraphrase Kolbert, “The auxons would be powered by solar panels and, as they multiplied, they’d produce more solar panels, which they’d assemble using elements, like silicon and aluminum, extracted from ordinary dirt. The expanding collection of panels would produce ever more power, at a rate that would increase exponentially. An array covering three hundred eighty-six thousand square miles, an area as large as Nigeria but, as Lackner noted, “smaller than many deserts,” could meet all the globe’s electricity demands many times over. This same array could also be put to use scrubbing carbon.

An even more fantastic suggestion is the use of specialised custom made aircrafts flying at extraordinarily  high altitudes (as high as 60,000 feet) to inject Aerosols into the stratosphere.  Dubbed a Stratospheric Aerosol Injection Lofter, or SAIL, these aircraft would entail development costs would of about $2.5 billion. Deploying a fleet of SAILs would cost another $20 billion or so per decade.

Kolbert illustrates with astounding perspicacity both the enormity of the global warming challenges staring humanity squarely in the face and the woefully inadequate tools and techniques available to counter them. Paradoxically, the more absurd a proposed solution, the more is the compulsion to adopt the same and adapt to it. From shooting diamonds into the sky (literally) to replicate the cooling effects of a gargantuan volcanic eruption to CRISPR technologies to engineer genes of invasive species which once were touted to be of indispensable value, our tryst with the environment surrounding us has been a Quixotic comedy of errors. But we as a species have transcended the realms of tolerable experimentation and progressed into the touchy terrain of tyrannical extinction. We have succeeded beyond imagination in driving so many species to their extinction, that we are forced to resort to the only method of “assisted evolution” to least preserve the breed that are still living and breathing. “As for the forms of assistance they rely on, these, too, are legion. They include, in addition to supplemental feeding and captive breeding: double-clutching, head starting, enclosures, exclosures, managed burns, chelation, guided migration, hand-pollination, artificial insemination, predator-avoidance training, and conditioned taste aversion. Every year, this list grows.”

And as Kolberg somberly reminds us, we are still none the wiser in our deeds, or rather misdeeds.  

Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness – Philip Goff

Image result for Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness – Philip Goff

Philip Goff is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Durham. He is also an unabashed apologist for panpsychism. In his rousing and compelling book, “Galileo’s Error”, he makes a measured and reasoned plea for upholding the virtues of panpsychism as a rational ally for plumbing the mysteries and myths associated with the complex and abstruse subject of consciousness. The subject of consciousness has been a duel between two warring factions whose respective logic are placed on two extreme ends of a philosophical continuum. On one end of the spectrum stand the dualists. Following in the footsteps of the indomitable philosopher Rene Descartes, the dualists posit that the mind and body are distinct and separable. The dualists dispute the notion that the mind is synonymous with the brain. The other end of the continuum is inhabited by the materialists. Cocking a snook at the dualists, the materialists are firm in their conviction that mind, and consciousness are by-products or epiphenomena of material processes (such as the biochemistry of the human brain and nervous system), without which they cannot exist. As Goff highlights in his book, the most vociferous and popular proponents of materialism are known by the now famous moniker of  “The Four Horsemen”. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett constitute the contemporaneous torch bearers for the philosophy of materialism.

Panpsychism attempts to take a more altruistic and reductionist view on the subject of consciousness. As Goff writes, “Panpsychism is the view that consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of physical reality….They [panpsychists] believe that the fundamental constituents of the physical world are conscious, but they need not believe that every random arrangement of conscious particles results in something that is conscious in its own right. Most panpsychists will deny that your socks are conscious, while asserting that they are ultimately composed of things that are conscious.”

Panpsychism also suffuses an element of altruism and innate benevolence in individuals towards the very ecosystem that surrounds them. This is due to the singularly unique fact of attributing the feature of consciousness in a ubiquitous fashion to both animate beings as well inanimate objects. Goff attempts to corroborate the munificence of panpsychism by taking recourse to various empirical references. Suzanne Simard, of the University of British Columbia, injected trees with isotope traces, and revealed a complex web of communication between trees, which she had dubbed the “Wood-Wide Web.” “Communication happens via mycorrhiza structures, which connect trees to other trees via fungi. The trees and the fungi enjoy a quid pro quo relationship: the trees deliver carbon to the fungi and the fungi reciprocate by delivering nutrients to the trees. A dense web of connections is formed in this way, with the busiest trees at the center connected to hundreds of other trees.” Another example is that of Monica Gagliano, a research associate professor at the University of Western Australia in Perth, who remarkably demonstrated that pea plants can be subject to conditioned learning.

Goff liberally relies on the articulations and theories pioneered by the physicist Arthur Eddington, and embellished by the brilliant Mathematician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell. Both Eddington and Russell opined that there was nothing in the Physical Sciences that illuminated the intrinsic nature of the ‘stuff’ constituting the world. The physical sciences only elaborate manner in which stuff interact with each other. But they are woefully inadequate in explaining what they are. For example, an electron is described in extraordinary depth with respect to its properties, qualities and interactions with other elements. But what exactly is the essence permeating and defining an electron is beyond the remit of the physical sciences.  Consciousness, however, is the only fundamental feature that accords an element of certainty.

The title of Goff’s book itself derives from a fascinating proposition put forward by the Italian Physicist Galileo. Galileo placed the language of mathematics at the highest observational pedestal when distinguishing material properties from their sensory qualities. In this brilliant man’s imagination, all material objects inhabiting the world can be identified with the following characteristics, only: Size, Shape, Location and Motion. But what about the sensory qualities then? Doesn’t the audacious stripping away of the sensory qualities from the purely physical attributes create an obvious gap when it comes to fathoming the import and gravity of material objects? For example, taking the example of a lemon, what explains the yellowness of the lemon, its smell and the sour taste. Galileo had a ready answer to this conundrum, informs Goff. The solution was – the soul. “For Galileo, the lemon itself isn’t really yellow; rather yellowness exists in the soul of the person perceiving the lemon. Likewise, neither the sour taste nor the citrus smell are really in the lemon; rather they’re in the soul of the person tasting or smelling the lemon.”

But this formulation, on a plain and simple reading, reeks of escapism. Excising the sensory qualities only because they are not amenable to the same degree of explanation or elaboration as is the preserve of the material properties, poses more difficulties than providing solutions. “However, Galileo’s philosophy of nature has also bequeathed us deep difficulties. So long as we follow Galileo in thinking (A) that natural science is essentially quantitative and (B) that the qualitative cannot be explained in terms of the quantitative, then consciousness, as an essentially qualitative phenomenon, will be forever locked out of the arena of scientific understanding. Galileo’s error was to commit us to a theory of nature which entailed that consciousness was essentially and inevitably mysterious. In other words, Galileo created the problem of consciousness.”

In the year 1994, philosopher David Chalmers, was amongst the participants who had gathered at the first Science and Consciousness’ conference in Tucson. Chalmers stunned his audience by proposing that instead of addressing ‘easy’ problems, such as what happens in the brain when we learn, remember or recognise, there was an urgent need to concentrate on what he termed was ‘The Hard Problem.’ Chalmers asked, “why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?” What links a purely physical object such as the human brain with the invisible but perceivable consciousness? Panpsychism, argues that consciousness pervades everything. As Sheldrake once opined, “Panpsychism is not a new idea. Most people used to believe in it, and many still do. All over the world, traditional people saw the world around them as alive and, in some sense, conscious or aware: the planets, stars, the earth, plants and animals all had spirits or souls.” Goff confidently claims that “in twenty years’ time the idea that panpsychism can quickly be dismissed as ‘crazy’ will seem, well, crazy.”  

“Galileo’s Error” is at once simple and complex. While the notions of dualism, materialism and panpsychism are explained in a smooth, flowing and easy to rasp manner, thinks become extremely dense and heavy when they venture into the realm of the ‘Gedankenexperiment’. Esoteric and convoluted concepts such as Quantum entanglement, Superposition etc pose formidable challenges to the unsuspected and the uninitiated. In fact, one of the most alluring aspects of Goff’s book, is the reference to a plethora of thought experiments. Thus the reader is dazzled by the “what it is like to be a bat” argument of Thomas Nagel, “The Black-and-White Mary experiment by Frank Jackson that has at its nub a genius neuroscientist Mary, who knows everything there is to know about color but grows up in an entirely black-and-white environment, the Chinese room argument of John Searle, the Theory of Relativity propounded by Einstein, and of course The Hard Problem of David Chalmers.

“Galileo’s Error” a quest inducing work of consequential proportions.

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know – Adam Grant

Image result for Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know – Adam Grant

“Think Again” by American psychologist, bestselling author and professor of organizational psychology at the Wharton Business School, Adam Grant, is known wisdom repackaged efficiently and repurposed expertly. The nub of Grant’s latest book is rethinking the art of thinking. Received wisdom, stale conventions and entrenched dogmas have, according to Grant not just permeated our thoughts but have also succeeded admirably well in influencing our very approach to both personal and professional lives. A stereotypical obsession with standing circumstances, makes us, in the words of Grant, ‘mental misers.’ The technical term for such a rigid attitude is cognitive laziness. The handmaiden of status quo, cognitive laziness couches us in illusory relief and imagined comfort. This is also known as the seizing and freezing phenomenon.

Grant encapsulates the phenomenon of justifying accepted norms, by taking recourse to a theory propounded by Canadian-American political Science writer Philip Tetlock. Tetlock opines that as we think and speak, we tend to lapse into three different ‘professional’ modes. As we think and talk, we often slip into the mindsets of three different professions: preachers, prosecutors, and politicians. When our sacrosanct beliefs are under attack, we don the garb of a preacher, delivering sermons to preserve and protect our views. When we perceive another individual’s, belief sets to be false, we seamlessly go into the mode of a prosecutor pointing out flaws and poking holes in opposing arguments. Finally, when the need of the hour is to effect defection from the opposing camp to our own, we become politicians garnering for support and consensus. While this in itself is not an undesirable trait, unflinching adherence to it may turn out to be costly.

Grant sets out the example of the maverick genius Mike Lazaridis to illustrate the pitfalls of the ‘3P’ Approach. An innate genius, Lazaridis upended the world of technology and telecommunications with the Blackberry. Yet when the company was valued at a whopping $70 billion, and Apple was just an irritating but formidable pretender to the throne, the brilliant Lazaridis failed to see reason. Firmly entrenched in his opinion that what people did not want on their mobile phones was a computer, he sacrificed both market share and possibilities at the altar of obstinacy. Even when one of his premier engineers exhorted Lazaridis as 1997, to add an internet browser, Lazaridis instructed him to focus only on email. A chance for redemption materialized in the year 2010, when Lazaridis was goaded on by his team to feature encrypted text messages. But Lazaridis nursing an apprehension that allowing messages to be exchanged on competitors’ devices would render the BlackBerry obsolete, put paid to the hopes of his engineers. The rest, as we all know is history. First Apple, and then Samsung raced paced Blackberry, first reducing it to be a mere blip before finally finishing it off.

Lazaridis, although blessed with immense intelligence was in the throes of two types of biases that drove his decision making strategy. Confirmation bias: seeing what we expect to see, and desirability bias: seeing what we want to see. As Grant writes, “These biases don’t just prevent us from applying our intelligence. They can actually contort our intelligence into a weapon against the truth. We find reasons to preach our faith more deeply, prosecute our case more passionately, and ride the tidal wave of our political party. The tragedy is that we’re usually unaware.” John Maynard Keynes is famously attributed with this telling quote, “when the facts change, I change my mind.” It is this propensity to adapt oneself to changing circumstances and fact patterns, that serves as a weapon against these two biases.

Grant appeals to all of us to inculcate within us the bent of a scientist. A scientist is at once curious and humble, While she possesses an insatiable thirst for knowledge, she also derives immense pleasure in knowing that she is wrong. For erring, during the course of a research, in itself is a smart experiment that yields some knowledge. For example, during the course of a lecture by Grant, Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, found out that a sphere relating to his research was wrong. Kahneman’s reaction was one of pure joy – he was now less wrong than before! However, the world seems to be far removed from such acts of self-introspection. On the contrary, there is a massive overdose of the “Dunning-Kruger’ Syndrome. The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias hypothesis that people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. 

Grant also highlights the fact that people are usually informed by an innate bias called ‘binary bias.’ “It’s a basic human tendency to seek clarity and closure by simplifying a complex continuum into two categories. To paraphrase the humorist Robert Benchley, there are two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.” The legendary debate between Daniel Goleman and Jordan Peterson over the preponderance of Emotional Quotient (“EQ”) and Intelligence Quotient (“IQ”) being a classic case in point. While Goleman remains steadfast in his stance that EQ matters more for performance than IQ, thereby accounting for “nearly 90 percent” of success in leadership jobs, Jordan Peterson, argues that “There is NO SUCH THING AS EQ”. According to Peterson, EQ is “a fraudulent concept, a fad, a convenient band-wagon, a corporate marketing scheme.” Grant points out that both men of great reputation and stature have failed to recognise that the concepts of EQ and IQ have relevance, but in different settings and circumstances.

Grant offers thirty key takeaways at the conclusion of the book to nurture and foster a sustained and consistent practice of rethinking. This thinking about thinking that has some innovative and pleasing shades includes:

  • Learning something new from each person that we meet;
  • Embracing and not moving away from constructive conflicts;
  • Practicing the art of conscious and persuasive listening;
  • Asking what drove people to originally form an opinion;
  • Acknowledging common ground during the course of engaging in debates;
  • Refraining from asking kids what they want to be when they grow up

“Think Again”, inspires the reader to reevaluate and rethink accepted conventions, taken-for-granted beliefs and deep-rooted tropes. And as Grant illustrates this can be done by having fun too!

Midnight Express – Billy Hayes with William Hoffer

Midnight Express: Hayes, Billy, Hoffer, William:  9780751541984: Books

7th October 1970. William Hayes is all set to board the Pan American Flight No.1 at the Yesilkoy International Airport in Turkey. The incoming flight from Teheran will take him home to New York via Frankfurt and London. The prospect of homecoming, however, would need some providential co-operation and laxity on the part of the Turkish airport security. For, taped to Hayes’ chest underneath his turtleneck sweater is two kilos of the recreational drug, hashish. Hayes luck runs out as a last minute ‘surprise’ body check at the tarmac to deter potential ‘skyjackers’ results in both the detection of the drug and detention of the passenger.

“Midnight Express”, is the harrowing real life story of William “Billy” Hayes and his incarceration in some of the most inhospitable conditions a man convicted of a crime, can ever envisage. Tried and sentenced to a ridiculous term of 30 years for attempting to smuggle hashish, Hayes finds himself tossed away into the bowels of an unhygienic prison manned by a trio of inhuman wretches, who are euphemism for guards. Sagmalcilar is a resting place for the damned and the degenerate. Filthy, raucous and chaotic, it is segregated into various ‘kogus’ (dormitories or wards in Turkish). The privileged and tidy kogus is reserved for the ‘kapidiye’ (the much feared Mafiosi who keep even the prison authorities in constant dread). The left over kogus is for the lesser mortals.

Hoping to get an “insanity certification”, Hayes, gets himself transferred to an observatory named Bakirkoy. If Sagmalcilar is hell, then Bakirkoy is an absolute inferno. Deranged people, wallowing in filth and hallucinations, openly defecating wherever it pleases them and wandering about without a stitch on rambling to themselves, is a sight which Hayes cannot stomach for long. Failing in his endeavour to get a “crazy certificate”, Hayes moves back to his old prison. He finds solace in the company of four foreign inmates, Arne, Charles (a fellow American from Chicago), Max and Popeye. Spending time in their midst provides him with a sense of solace and suffuses a surge of optimism.

Hayes however finds a glimmer of hope when he is transferred to a prison on the picturesque Imrali Island after serving out 5 years of his sentence. A new Turkish Government has put in place an amnesty scheme that takes away 12 years from Haye’s original sentencing period of thirty years. Considering reward for good behaviour as well, and a possible US-Turkey agreement to deport American prisoners, Hayes is assured by his lawyer and the American Consulate that he would be required to serve, at the maximum, just three more years. But having experienced Turkish mendacity on more than one occasion, Hayes is wary of any promise that would only flatter, to ultimately deceive. He decides to take matters into his own hands. He formulates an escape plan, that is audacious in its sweep, and downright deadly in its wake. Rough weather usually results in a multitude of boats being moored off the coast. Many of these boats have attached to them small rubber dinghies. Hayes would wait for one such night where the weather is rough, before swimming towards the nearest dinghy and rowing it away from the island. He would after reaching the nearest island make a run for the Greek border via Istanbul. All this if he even survives the rough seas and the dangerous rocks dotting the coastline. In spite of repeated entireties from a distraught family, an obdurate Hayes is hell bent on pulling off a Houdini act. After a patient wait for over two weeks, the weather gods oblige him with a torrid night and Hayes puts his plan into action. Whether he will succeed in not just taming the elements but triumphing in his efforts to gain freedom forms the climactic portion of the book.

A fast paced one sitting read, Midnight Express is definitely not for the faint hearted. Whether it be the torments that are a way of life at Sagmalcilar, or the jaw dropping intransigence of the Turkish legal system, where the word “justice” transcends from being a noble concept to a n impotent misnomer, to the insane escape itself attempted by Hayes, the book is gasp inducing. Beads of sweat automatically form on the brows of the reader as the suspense and anticipation leaves her absolutely poleaxed and stupefied.

Midnight Express – A James Bond saga in real life!

Radical Humility: Essays on Ordinary Acts: Rebekah Modrak & Jamie Vander Broek

Radical Humility: Essays on Ordinary Acts: Modrak, Rebekah, Vander  Broek, Jamie Lausch, Ahuvia, Aaron, Belk, Russell, Blow, Charles, Boothman,  Richard C, Brown, Ruth Nicole, Buss, Sarah, Callard, Agnes, Clemetson,  Lynette, Danienta,

“Radical Humility” edited by artist and writer, Rebekah Modrak and Jamie Vander Broek, art librarian at the University of Michigan, is a “feel good” assemblage of essays penned by an eclectic agglomeration of authors. One common theme unifying these contributions is the notion of humility. Thus we have, among others, philosophers evoking the Socratic principle of humility in acknowledging the gaps in our knowledge, scholars extolling as “making failure”, the unfortunate efforts in 3D printing endeavours, and film makers reminding their viewers about the contributions made by “losers”, which at times even tower over the virtues of winners. Unlike the run of the mill self help books that specialise in flogging dead horses, yet professing the discovery of an earth shattering piece of wisdom or principle, “Radical Humility” leaves it all to the reader, preferring to just inform her on the advantages of being humble, by taking recourse to real life examples.  

The book kicks off with an inspirational essay titled “Free yourself by choosing the plain crackers“ by Rebekah Modrak. Fleeing a stifling university culture in Ann Arbor, Modrak spends five weeks in the nondescript town of Aurora in Nebraska. Antithetical to the ubiquity of materialism, Aurora seems to be an exercise in minimalism. While the buzzword in the Ann Arbor was “visibility”, Aurora seems to revel in the concept of “anonymity.” Armed with a University Grant, Modrak embarks on a 5 week residency on a farm, as a part of which she conducts a series of interviews with the townsfolk. Carpenters, custodians, construction workers, senators and mayors alike patiently set out their views and silently glide out of the room with no care or concern for titles or epithets. Leading a life of absolute frugality, the people of Aurora value one tenet of human nature over all else, humility.

Philosopher Agnes Callard and poet Troy Jollimore, both draw parallels – in different essays – to Socrates and his mode of contemplating life to drive home the power of humility. History’s premier philosopher adopted a singularly unique method of passive interrogation, to supplement, and supplant both his as well as his interlocutor’s understanding on various aspects of human knowledge. The unfortunate yet privileged subjects of Socrates often found themselves in a state of “aporia”, or confusion, from which there was no retreat. And yet, after each episode, they all left the scene that much wiser. Jollimore in particular, highlights the perils that would emanate from harbouring a misguided notion that one’s opinion, even on complex matters trumps that of those around them. In fact, in a 2015 poll conducted in the United States, more than thirty percent of Republican Primary voters and almost twenty percent of their Democratic counterparts confidently reiterated their support for a bombing of Agrabah. Agrabah, by the way is the fictional nation that is the creation of Disney in their animated film, Aladdin.

In a profoundly moving piece, Richard C. Boothman, former trial lawyer and current Chief Risk Officer for the University of Michigan Health System, explains the importance of and pre-requisite for humility in the healthcare system on the part of both care givers and patients. Highlighting two tragic cases, Boothman underscores the invaluable power and potential of humility to not just forgive, but to heal as well. Lamenting the “deny and defend” culture that has permeated the world of medical care, Boothman bemoans the fact that healthcare has constructed a fortress with its own waiting rooms, its own language and an inimitable social system that encourages usage of buzz words such as “patient engagement.” Ushering in a radical change, Boothman and the University of Michigan decided to bare their hearts and souls to the patients and admit to inadvertent human errors that had calamitous consequences to not just the patients, but their families as well. This astonishingly benevolent decision however created immense backlash, as Boothman informs his reader. While the President of the American Medical Association lampooned Boothman’s actions as “reckless”, a group of famous scholars called the approach, “an improbable risk management strategy.” Monumental testimony to the altruistic strides which healthcare yet has to take.

Lynette Clemetson, Director of Wallace House, University of Michigan, in her essay, “Journalism in an era of likes, follows, and shares” underscores the need for unobtrusiveness in a reporter that would lend an element of humility and dignity to his/her work. Drawing inspiration from legends in the business such as Steven Strasser, David Fahrenthold, Gwen Ifil, Michele Norris, Robin Toner and Michel Martin, Clemetson emphasizes the need to be humble and yet hold on to what one values in an uncompromising manner. “Don’t get in the way of your story”, “Hold onto what you value”, and “check the small details” are her key takeaways.

In a shot, albeit powerful contribution, Mickey Duzyj, the creator of the Netflix documentary series, ‘Losers’, highlights the precocious contributions that are made by athletes who in their own sporting career suffered meltdowns at various stages that ensured that success forever eluded them. French golfer Jean Van De Velde, made a capital meal of his chances at the 1999 Open, thereby covering himself in perpetual infamy. However, banishing this bitter memory away, he championed a more noble cause, and in the process raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for impoverished children in the capacity of a UNICEF Ambassador. Similarly, Surya Bonaly, a black figure skater became an outcast following her tantrums after finishing second in the 1994 World Championships. Now a paragon of humility, Bonaly dons the mantle of a mentor by taking charge of young athletes of colour. She always warns her students that an “obsession towards medals can destroy them.”

“Radical Humiliation” is a modest, unpretentious and honest collection of simple thoughts all of which converge towards one overarching principle. Inculcating and implementing the quality of humility. As Russell Belk, the Kraft Foods Canada Chair in Marketing, and York University Distinguished Research Professor, says in his essay, “humility is largely voluntary; humiliation is largely involuntary. Humility is a choice made with dignity. Humiliation is imposed from without as a result of callousness and prejudice.”

We agree!

(Radical Humility will be released by Belt Publishing on the 16th of March, 2021)