The Boy, The Horse, The Fox, and The Mole – Charles Mackesy

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In the year 2018, Charles Mackesy, a cartoonist for the Spectator and a book illustrator for Oxford University Press, updated his Instagram account with a curious drawing. A drawing of a boy and a mole. Mackesy chose the caption, ‘Tales from the underground. Another mole day I think,’ for his picture. Little would Mackesy have imagined the trajectory which this seemingly innocuous picture would take barely a year and more from the date of his uploading it.

At the time of writing this review, the picture-book, “The Boy, the Horse, the Fox and the Mole has sold more than a million copies world-wide. The initial image of the toddler and the little mole was embellished by Mackesy with the addition of a horse and a fox. This intriguing and atypical combination of characters engage in philosophical musings that warm the cockles of every reader’s heart. Extraordinarily simple, yet intricately profound, the dialogue between the four characters dissect the colour and hue of human emotions and pave the way for a serious bout of introspection.

As Mackesy himself exclaims in surprise, “I put that up on Instagram and forgot about it, and the next thing I knew was that hospitals and institutions had been using it, and the army had been using it for PTSD, it went crazy. I wasn’t aware of it. Occasionally I’d get emails saying ‘I hope you don’t mind we used it in our therapy unit, it’s helping people realise it’s a brave thing to show weakness’.”

Mackesy elucidates that the four protagonists, are but different pieces (metaphorically stating), of a single individual. The boy is a fount of curiosity, the mole is always on the look-out for gastronomical delicacies (cakes in particular), the fox is a loner and can hardly be persuaded to engage in any meaningful conversation, and last but not the least is the horse, which is the Socrates and Aristotle of the Group, juxtaposing wisdom with wit.

The picture-book has some arresting captions that sear into the conscience of the reader, making her sit up, draw a deep breath and reflect. For example, when the boy asks the horse what’s the bravest thing the latter has ever said, the horse replies, ‘help’. Digest this.

No wonder this book has taken the world by storm. A raging hit across both sides of the Atlantic, the book continues to encourage and inspire. People are so taken away by the characters that they have begun tattooing the same on their bodies. In a world racked by political turmoil of the nature of Brexit, and ravaged by internecine civil wars triggered by a myriad of causes ranging from religion to power, “The Boy, the Horse, the Fox and the Mole” is a welcome release and a much required respite. Arguing that there is still ample room for kindness to be an uncompromising facet in today’s world gone insane, Mackesy instills a healthy dose of hope and optimism.

The book reaches the apogee of its purpose when the boy responds to the mole when the latter asks, ‘what’s your best discovery?” “That I’m enough as I am.” This spontaneous, fulfilling and meditative understanding that in spite of numerous flaws and innate deficiencies, every human being brings something to the world, that is unique and which is himself/herself, is the quintessential and sacrosanct lesson embedded within the confines of the book.

The stupendous reactions the book has provoked across geographies and the tremendous influence it has generated is best captured by Alice Vincent, writing for the Penguin publications. “People have found The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse a balm and an uplift”, states Ms. Vincent. Further elaborating her statement, “Lynsey Ritchie was given the book when she was half-way through 15 rounds of chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. ‘It just touched a nerve,’ she tells me. ‘It was so refreshingly simple, uncomplicated and fresh.”

Every so often, there arrives a book that grabs the reader by the scruff of her neck and proceeds to give her a godawful shake. A shake which even though painful, constitutes an inevitable necessity for the uplift of character, inducing of empathy and instilling courage. A shake that brings to the shaken, the very perception of verisimilitude and the ultimate realization that there is attached to every life, a genuine and noble purpose.

Dear reader, I leave you with this line from Mackesy to reflect, react and reminisce:

‘Tears fall for a reason and they are your strength, not weakness.’

COVID-19 & a world gone nuts

(Photo Credit: Crispina Kemp)

When the body was fished out of the tranquil and still water, it was a godawful sight. Bloated, decomposed and beyond recognition, the corpse did not look human even. Yet just 48 hours ago this Ronald McDonald turned humpbacked whale was a living breathing individual, and an actor. A profession that got him lynched.

The blows rained down upon him like a torrential downpour. “Kill the bastard!”, “The son of a gun spat at the bank of buttons inside the elevator!”, “Don’t spare the sadistic wretch!” Expletives were liberally hurled along with the punches, slaps and kicks. When the actor started hemorrhaging, blood started spouting out of every orifice in his body.

The alarmed crowd retreated. A panicked individual threw the body over the bridge. By the time the dust had settled, the film crew came back. The actor died valiantly filming an awareness video on the COVID-19 virus.

(Word Count: 149)

Written as part of the Crimson’s Creative Challenge #68 More details regarding this challenge may be found HERE.

Don’t Blink – James Patterson

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After a long hiatus with fiction in general and James Patterson in particular, I picked up “Don’t Blink”, and suffice it to say the experience was on expected lines. Racy, intriguing and thrilling, Mr. Patterson engages his readers from start to finish with a plot that is tight and a narrative that progresses at a breathless tempo before finally climaxing in a crescendo of converging impossibilities.

Nick Daniels is a journalist who plies his wares for the “Citizen” publication. Headed by Courtney Sheppard an enterprising and ambitious journalist heads the paper. Nick, harbours an unrequited love towards his boss. Nick whilst on a trip to South Sudan, is saved by the skin of his teeth, from being skewered- literally – by the militant Janjaweed, when Dr. Alan Cole, the pioneering humanitarian doctor cum adventurer extraordinaire whisks Nick away to safety in a rickety jeep that is pursued by a hailstorm of Janjaweed bullets.

However, the encounter in South Sudan is made to look like a game of hide and seek played by a bunch of egregious kindergarten kids, compared to the perils faced by Nick on his return to the United States of America. Having offered the interview of his life, Nick heads to Lombardo’s Steak House in Manhattan. Waiting for him at the glitzy restaurant is Dwayne Robinson a.k.a The Bronx Bomber. The once darling of every Yankee fan, Robinson is an ostracized soul having walked off the pitcher’s mound—with no explanation at all—after game six of the World Series many years back, costing the city the win. Being a man who bleeds the Yankee stripes, this is an irresistible opportunity which Nick would be a madman to refuse.

But for a small glitch. Just when Nick pulls out his tape recorder and waits for the tarnished legend to spill his guts, a pair of eyes belonging to a patron next table is nonchalantly scooped out (yes you read that right) by a man who while maintaining an ice cold veneer while performing this macabre deed also proceeds to make corpses out of two policemen in plain clothes.

Being an inadvertent witness to this mayhem, Nick’s life takes the most unenviable arc curving towards the fire from the frying pan. A phalanx of characters, each one more notorious in both appearance and acts then his (there are no femme fatales in the novel, sorry for the spoiler) predecessor, haunt and hunt Nick, not necessarily in that order though.

Will Nick extricate himself from what seems to be a certain road to perdition forms the bulk of this fictional pot boiler from Mr. Patterson. Mixing his usual with corny punchlines, Mr. Patterson intersperses morbid humour with high octane action sequences. During the process, as may be expected, both logic and reality take a back seat – as they necessarily should!

“Don’t Blink” as the title suggests is a one-sitting read as the pages disappear in a frenzy of conundrums and dilemmas. In the event you are exhausted after a tryst with some heavy reading, and are looking for a relaxing evening to spend with a book in tow, “Don’t Blink” might just be the perfect antidote.

PS: You also might want to arm yourself with a Laphroaig 15-Year-Old Scotch Whiskey.

It’s Not About You: A Brief Guide to a Meaningful Life – Tom Rath

It's Not About You: A Brief Guide to a Meaningful Life

Rajinikanth is one of the most famous silver screen personalities in the annals of Indian cinema. He is also known for his spiritual inclinations and innate altruistic predilections. In a public gathering he once famously quoted that if one was to be aware of the date of his/her shedding the mortal coils, every remaining day until that day of reckoning would be an absolute torture. One person who can relate to this philosophy is one of my all- time favourite authors, Tom Rath. When he was just sixteen years old (or young), Mr. Rath was diagnosed as having a fatal genetic mutation, one that basically shuts off the body’s most powerful tumour suppressor. This was after what was supposed to be a routine eye test. What this meant was that in addition to large tumours that were already growing on his left eye, Mr. Rath was likely to have kidney and pancreatic cancer, and tumours in his spine, brain and adrenal glands. If this list was not daunting enough, Mr. Rath also lost the vision in his left eye, post multiple surgeries.

But at the time of this writing, Mr. Rath has braved the odds and lived to tell his tale. And, what a fascinating tale it has been! A prolific author, Rath has penned many bestsellers that have changed the contours of his reader’s perspectives. In “It’s Not About You”, his shortest book till date, he juxtaposes wisdom with fortitude. Asserting that life is not just about oneself, but about what you do for others, Mr. Rath, conveys to his readers the most fruitful way to lead a contended and enriching life.

Battling the dreaded von Hippel-Lindau condition, Mr. Rath has been an inspiration to millions across the globe. Echoing the late great Randy Pausch on how it takes the realization of mortality to develop an outward focus, Mr. Rath emphasises that life is about what you put back into the world and not what you take out of it.

He illuminates his readers about an empirical research finding which revealed that “kids who battle cancer somehow emerge stronger when compared to peers who have not faced a similar challenge. In particular, when children twelve and older battle cancer and survive, they are more likely to experience what scientists call post-traumatic growth.

Mr. Rath exhorts us to invest in people who matter the most. Relying on a finding by researchers, Mr. Rath informs us that if one is able to have at least five positive exchanges for every negative exchange in a given day, it should carry forward and energise the networks around that person. Such persons, incidentally, are five times as likely to have a very high sense of well-being.

For facilitating positive exchanges, Mr. Rath argues that it is imperative for one to assume the role of both a positive questioner and a keen listener. Both of these qualities are in peril, courtesy, the information age. As Mr. Rath illuminates his readers, in a study titled, “The iPhone Effect”, which was based on an experiment with two hundred participants, and examined the effects of the mere presence of a smartphone on a conversation, the researchers revealed that anytime a smartphone is visible, even if it is not ringing, vibrating, buzzing or even powered on, it degraded the quality of the conversation for everyone. In the cases where the phone was visible, the participants had lower levels of empathetic concern and found the conversations less fulfilling. The people who took their phones out were essentially saying, “This device comes before you and this conversation.”

Inspired by his grandfather, with whom Mr. Rath wrote the bestseller, “Strenghtsfinder”, Mr. Rath recollects the poignant story, where after being diagnosed with a gastroesophageal cancer (advanced stage), his grandfather Don Clifton collaborated with Mr. Rath to finish their bestseller in record time. The book titled “How Full Is Your Bucket?”, was based on the concept that filling in others’ bucket provides more contentment than dipping into another’s. To paraphrase Mr. Rath, “Contribution starts when you see beyond self.”

It may seem preposterous if one was to claim that life’s quintessential philosophies were all packed within the confines of a thirty-five-page book. But then again, it’s quality that matters than quantity. Mr. Rath, in his inimitable style and using an imprimatur that has by now become a trademark, manages to pull this feat off in a brilliant fashion.

To which we shall remain indebted to him.

What We Need to Do Now for a Zero Carbon Future – Chris Goodall

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In an eminently readable, superbly researched and extraordinarily crisp book, businessman, author, and climate change expert, Chris Goodall sets out a range of what he terms are urgent measures which Britain has to adopt, if it has to cut its Carbon emissions down to zero. Currently, the UK Government on Climate Change has identified a rather bleak scenario, whereby, the year 2050 would see only about 60& of all electricity being generated from renewables. The remaining gas generation, as Mr. Goodall informs his readers, would result in over 150 million tonnes of COemissions, collected and permanently stored in depleted North Sea oilfields at prohibitive costs.

Spanning an entire spectrum with reasonable and radical proposals constituting its two extreme ends, Mr. Goodall’s suggestions would not just involve significant monetary outlay but also necessitate a paradigm shift in otherwise well entrenched beliefs. The following is a summary of the salient takeaways of Mr. Goodall’s recommendations:

(The heading of each solution in bold is attributed to the reviewer)

  1. The future is Renewable Electricity

Mr. Goodall postulates an audacious plan to increase renewable electricity generation twenty-fold. This will not only take care of the country’s electricity needs, but would also generate spare electricity. Such spare electricity, Mr. Goodall states may be converted into Hydrogen, which in turn may be utilized to manufacture power when either solar or wind energy are sparse. Electricity generated in the form of Photovoltaic cells, onshore wind farms and offshore turbines are a few potential alternatives. Hydrogen generated via a method of electrolysis is also an avenue that needs to be explored since Hydrogen in addition to possessing a high energy content, also brings to the equation the virtues of a near zero carbon footprint. Companies such as Statkraft are already realizing the enriching benefits of Hydrogen as a store for surplus renewable energy. A gas grid operator in the Netherlands, Gasunie, is embarking on a project to convert Hydrogen into low carbon aviation fuel. Another company Sunfire, using an equipment provided by Climeworks, a Swiss venture, is planning to develop an aviation fuel refinery by taking recourse to an innovative technique termed Direct Air Capture

   2.  Going ‘Local’

Mr. Goodall advocates both ownership and operations of renewable energy resources by towns and cities. Such urban ‘microgrids’ would be on the same lines as the German ‘stadwerken’ distributing greater than 60 percent of all German electricity. A comparable example is also provided by a technology in the United States popularly known as LO3. This microgrid in Brooklyn, facilitates homes and businesses to buy and sell electricity from each other.

    3.   Home is where the ‘Hearth’ Is

Homes in the UK are responsible for 15 percent of the domestic emissions, predominantly via burning of gas in central heating boilers. The solutions offered by Mr. Goodall are a complete shift to electricity, switching away from Methane to hydrogen and insulation of all homes with solar panels on the roofs. A whopping million homes a year would need upgradation to achieve Carbon neutrality by 2050.

     4. ‘Drive’ Electric

Mr. Goodall informs us that more than a quarter of emissions in the UK is courtesy, transport. His solution is for transportation to go ‘electric’. Improving public transport, using car-pools, having dedicated lanes for bikes on the lines of some of the cities in The Netherlands, and seriously concentrating on the vehicle-to-grid battery storage technology, ought to be the way forward.

      5. The ‘Fly’ Factor

Mr. Goodall bemoans the fact that the British constitute one of the heaviest users of air travel (emitting 7 percent of carbon in the process). While alternative substitutes such as using vegetable oils and bio fuels instead of aviation fuel/jet fuel is a possibility, the costs attached to such a radical alternative are putting it mildly, obscene. For e.g. as r. Goodall highlights, “at cruising altitude, a large jet using 100 percent bio fuel would consume the equivalent of 40,000 square meters of palm oil production an hour.” So what are the possible and practically implementable alternatives? Developing sources of synthetic fuel made from hydrogen; Rewilding Britain by funding projects of afforestation; and self-imposed curbs on non-essential flying

      6.  ‘Wear’ with discretion

Around 3-4 percent of UK’s carbon emissions are attributable to the fashion industry. This is essential because of what Mr. Goodall terms to be the working of a ‘linear economy’. The linear economy commences with extreme environmental pollution, in countries of manufacture, and is followed by a limited period of use, and finally concludes with an intractable waste disposal problem. The choices offered by Mr. Goodall in this sphere are pretty rudimentary and fundamental such as buying fewer, high quality clothes and prolonging their use; restricting purchases to shopping at vintage and charity shops, as well as on sites such as eBay and Depop; resizing clothes instead of discarding them, courtesy customized alteration outlets such as Oxford Alterations. One of the most sustainable fashion companies in the world Patagonia and its CEO Rose Marcario are already at the forefront of making fashion an ecologically sustainable industry.

      7.  Eat ‘Green’

In what has to be one of the most controversial and interesting chapters in the book, Mr. Goodall goads his readers to abhor meat and go on a completely vegetarian diet. This is due to the fact that a whopping quarter of the current global emissions are generated from food. Beef and lamb constitute formidable sources of greenhouse gases such as Methane. Paraphrasing carbon footprint expert Mike Berners-Lee, Mr. Goodall informs us that a cow uses 100 calories of food to make just 3 calories of meat. Growing heritage varieties of grains such as the ones being pioneered by John Letts, a seed specialist also aids an abets a low carbon footprint. Moving agricultural production indoors towards ‘hydroponics’ and ‘tray’ farming is also a potential emission reducing endeavor. Companies such as Jones Food Warehouse, 80 Acres etc. are already engaged in this novel method.

     8.  It’s ‘Geoengineering’

In addition to the usual suspect that is Carbon Tax and rewilding measures, Mr. Goodall also highlights a couple of radical and futuristic methods to help us make the transition towards zero emissions. The first such scientific exercise is called cloud whitening. Under, this technique, tiny particles of sea water are sprayed above oceans. This enables a greater portion of the sun’s energy to be reflected back into space. Stephen Salter of the University of Edinburgh is an ardent fan of this method. According to him, a fleet of 300 ships working together would have the impact of winding back temperatures by about 1.5 degrees Celsius. Not just that. 10 cubic meters of tiny drops a second, according to Mr. Salter, ‘could undo all the [global warming] damage we’ve done to the world up until now’.

The second ingenious method referred to as Solar Radiation Management (SRM) involves releasing Sulphur into the stratosphere. This method has an impact similar to cloud whitening, but much further away from the earth’s surface.

However, as Mr. Goodall admits, both the methods come with their innate flaws and the cost factor is not something that will induce eagerness amongst Climate Change proponents.

At the time of this writing, a team of Argentine researches astonished and most importantly alarmed the world by revealing that Antarctica had experienced its hottest day ever, hitting a high of 69.35 degrees Fahrenheit (20.75 degrees Celsius), thereby breaching the previously recorded high of 20 degrees Celsius. If this does not provide monument to the accelerating pace of global change nothing else will. It is high time that we dust ourselves off, stop remaining ostriches with necks buried deep in the sands of condescension and do our own bit towards preventing a global calamity, which might be nearer than what we have smugly assumed to be.

Reading Mr. Goodall’s book might be the first step towards such a move.

Big Data – An Introduction – Subu Sangameswar

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“Big Data – An Introduction” by Subu Sangameswar is exactly what the title professes the book to be. A succinct, short and simple introduction to the topical concept of Big Data. American organizational theorist, management consultant and author, Geoffrey Moore once said, “Without big data, you are blind and deaf and in the middle of a freeway.” In an era characterized by exponential leaps of technological advance and knowledge accumulation, no company would like to find itself not only blind and deaf, but in the middle of a metaphorical economic freeway. It is access to data that prevents organsations from taking the path of Moore’s perdition.

As Mr. Sangameswar reveals, in the year 2010 alone, more than 13 Exabytes of data was mined across the world. To make sense out of this number, this is over 50,000 times the data in the Library of Congress! In a shape up or ship out competitive heterogeneous world, Big Data confers competitive advantages to such an extent that organisations exploiting its worth are more likely to outperform their peers by over two times. So what exactly is this Big Data and its attendant features, scope, advantages and perils? Here are some of the salient takeaways from Mr. Sangameswar’ s work:

  • Big Data encompasses data that is epitomized by scale and complexity. The term ‘Big Data is not solely restricted to describing the data element. It also envelops the tools, processes, and procedures that enable an organization to create, manage and manipulate data;
  • Big Data, in its normal parlance includes traditional enterprise data, machine-generated and sensor data, and social data;
  • Big Data, as to be expected, is gargantuan in size. McKinsey Global Institute estimates that data volume is growing 40% per annum and is expected to grow 44 times between 2009 and 2020;
  • The three classical ‘hallmarks’ of Big Data are Volume, Velocity and Variety. Mr. Sangameswar terms these the ‘3Vs’;
  • The volume of data generated globally is close to unthinkable. Bernard Marr writing for the Forbes magazine informs his awed readers that There are 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created each day at our current pace, but that pace is only accelerating with the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT). Between 2016 and 2018 alone, 90 percent of the data in the world was generated;
  • Velocity refers to the rate at which the data manifests in an organization before, in turn, being processed. Great stress is emphsises on the turnaround of the data by organizations. The speed at which data is not just captured, but analysed as well, can make or mar the process of decision making;
  • Variety refers to the various forms and shapes that the data arrives in. Images, videos and texts are all myriad varieties of data that lend themselves amenable for identification, filtration, analysis and evaluation;
  • Realising the impact that Big Data can have upon a business, entrepreneurs and organisations have evolved Models of Big Data with a view to adapt and prosper. While some models concentrate on employing data to create new products, yet others involve brokering this information. A third model builds networks to deliver products at the relevant time and location;
  • While Big Data comes with its own advantages, it would be absurd to view it solely with rose tinted glasses. Big Data has its own set of perils and pitfalls. Separating the wheat from the chaff and noise from the signal is a perennial challenge of Big Data. How does an organization effectively capture the most relevant data and deliver it to the right people at the right time?
  • Rules of security and guarding against a breach of privacy is the single biggest challenge of Big Data. As Cambridge Analytica and Facebook demonstrated, data and information can wreak havoc upon even the sovereign prospects of a nation as was the case with The United States of America and the Trump election fracas;
  • The primary framework of Big Data involves four distinct phases – Capture, Integrate, Analyse and Share. Capturing involves weeding out noise from signal and assimilating the relevant data. Integration involves getting the captured data ready for analysis. Analysis involves statistical analysis as well as Data Mining. Finally Sharing results in dissemination of data to the appropriate audience via the most relevant medium;
  • There is a plethora of tools available in the market for facilitating Data Analysis on a gigantic scale and size. Apache Hadoop, for example, brings the ability to cheaply process humongous volumes of data. MapReduce provides a framework for writing applications that process significant amounts of both structured and unstructured data;

To use the now abused cliché which is quotes with a frequency bordering on the irritating, “Data is the new Oil.” Big Data is a powerful medium which bestows upon the user, immense potential, both economic and social. However, an injudicious use of Big Data would also, in all probability, lead the cavalier organization towards unintended consequences. Big Data brings along with it the biggest risk of data privacy. Organisations such as Amazon, Google and Facebook make use of sensitive data, personal customer information and strategic documents. With the world awash in confidential data a data breach at one single point may be enough to create pandemonium. Reputations may go up in smoke as may painstakingly built fortunes and fame. Not to mention legal actions and punitive penalties. Taking measures for data privacy is no longer a paean to appreciable initiatives or best practices. It is an uncompromising mechanism of inevitable compliance.