Prisoners of Geography – Book Review

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World by  Tim Marshall is an enjoyable read that traces the worlds geography  and its impact on today’s geopolitics. I picked this up on a whim as the description seemed to indicate an enjoyable refresher on the state of the world as it came to be in terms of geopolitics. The maps were pretty awful to research on my kindle paperwhite and I had to resort to getting the paperback to navigate the maps better.


A lot of the worlds problems today remain as gridlocked as they were at the origin despite decades of evolution and political talks ( think border and territory conflicts across the globe – Israel/Palestine, South China sea, South America and the list goes on). This book is not a comprehensive treatise on the evolution of those problems but a great overview. It does a good job in identifying the factors that drive the national interest and conflict in these areas and the impact of the countries dealing with the limitations/opportunities that their geography has bestowed them with.

I never did realize the importance of navigable and intersecting rivers or natural harbors that impact the destinies of countries. Here are some of my observations and notes from the book.

  • Russia – The books kicks off with the author highlighting the 100-year forward thinking of the Russians and the obsession with “warm water” ports with direct access to the ocean unlike the ports on the Arctic like Murmansk that freeze for several months. This limits the Russian fleet and its aspiration to be a bigger global power. While the oil and gas and being the 2nd biggest supplier of natural gas  in the world brings its own geographical advantages and prop the country up, its aspiration remain for fast maneuvering  to move out of areas like the Black Sea or even the Baltic Sea to counter a feared NATO strike. The author describes moves like the annexation of Crimea to be moves to construct more naval ports to boost its fleets. Countries like Moldova and Georgia ( and propensity to the west)  have a huge bearing on foreign policy and military planning. Interestingly , ‘Bear ‘is a Russian word, but per the author the Russians are also wary of calling this animal by its name, fearful of conjuring up its darker side. They call it medved, “the one who likes honey.”

It doesn’t matter if the ideology of those in control is czarist, Communist, or crony capitalist—the ports still freeze, and the North European Plain is still flat.

  • China –  The Chinese civilization, over 4000 years old that originated around the Yangtze river  is today comprised of 90% Han people united by ethnicity and politics. This sense of identity pervades all aspect of modern Chinese life and powers its  ascent as a global power. The massive Chinese border touches Mongolia in the North, Russia,Vietnam, Laos in the East and  India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the West with various levels of protracted conflicts/disagreements. For example – The India/China border is perceived by China as the Tibetan-Indian border and integral to protect the Tibetan plateau which could open a route for an Indian military push into the Chinese heartland never mind the low probability of that ever happening. The book provides a brief overview of the origin of the Tibet occupation and the worlds attention to it. The author says that if the population  were to be give a free vote, the unity of the Han would crack and weaken the hold of the communist party.  The need for  China to extend its borders and grab land it perceives as its own also extend to the seas. The growing naval fleet and its need to assert supremacy in the south china sea also fuels conflict with Japan and its neighbors. Scouring the length and breadth of Africa for minerals and precious metals in return for cheap capital and modern form of debt slavery is another strategy to dominate the world. This part of the book did not offer any new insight however a society that  holds unity and economic progress as the highest priorities is definitely admirable considering the “developing” status that it once had.
  • Unites States –  The geographical position of invulnerability, fertile land, navigable river systems and the unification of the states ensures prosperity and greatness for the U.S. The author goes into the evolution of the states as they came together after the revolutionary war such as the Louisiana purchase, the ceding of Florida by the Spanish, the Mexican war to acquire Mexico and the purchase of Alaska.  Post world war 2 and the Marshall Plan, the formation of NATO then assured the US of being the greatest firepower across the world.The author deems the Russian threat largely seen off and insists China is the rising power that the US is concerned about (as the current geopolitical climate in 2021 validates). The domination of the sea-lanes will occupy the attention with numerous potential flashpoints. Self-sufficient in energy will continue to America’s position as the preeminent economic power. Overall, this section was well summarized with the progress of American domination despite hiccups over the centuries like the great depression. I still think the author painted a rosier picture than the current situation suggests. Post-pandemic, it remains to be seen if these assertions still hold with all the internal struggles faced in the American society with respect to race relations, inclusivity and attention to a wide variety of social issues.

The California gold rush of 1848–49 helped, but the immigrants were heading west anyway; after all, there was a continental empire to build, and as it developed, more immigrants followed. The Homestead Act of 1862 awarded 160 acres of federally owned land to anyone who farmed it for five years and paid a small fee. If you were a poor man from Germany, Scandinavia, or Italy, why go to Latin America and be a serf, when you could go to the United States and be a free land-owning man?

  • Western Europe – Again, the geographical blessings in this case ensured an agreeable climate mostly to cultivate the right crops at large scale, the right minerals to power the industrial revolution and abundant natural harbors. This led to industrial scale wars as well as Europe remains an amalgam of linguistic and culturally disparate countries yet remains an industrial power. The contrast between northern and southern Europe in terms of prosperity is attributed to industrialization, the domination of Catholicism, and the availability of coastal plains. Spain, Greece, U.K, Germany, Poland, Denmark, Sweden  and the contrasts in their economical status are discussed and  attributed to geographical limitations.  I was hoping the  author provides more than a passing nod to the concerns of immigration and prejudice. Prejudice against immigration and the rise of nationalism remains on the rise across the world and its troubling to see this rise of hate groups, holocaust deniers and all other abhorrent tribes that debase basic human ideals of equality, peace and harmony.  The demographic change with the inverted pyramid of older people at the top with fewer people paying taxes to support them in the future needs to be reversed and the benefits of legal immigration need to be given greater attention rather than burying them under misdirected xenophobic fears.
  • Africa – This was an enlightening section on the lack of utility of African rivers for transportation due to waterfalls and natural obstacles. Africa developed in isolation from the Eurasian landmass and the author asserts that the lack of idea exchange played a huge part in its under development. Sub-saharan exposure to virulent diseases, crowded living conditions and poor health-care infrastructure has also impeded growth. The great rivers of Africa—the Niger, the Congo, the Zambezi, the Nile, and others—don’t connect to its own detriment. The 56~ countries have relatively unchanged borders over the years along with the legacy of colonialism which like most parts of the world divided societies on the basis of ethnicities. The rise of radical Islamist groups has been attributed to the sense of underdevelopment and overall malcontent. On a more positive note, every year roads and railroads are fueling infrastructure boom and greater connectivity with rising education and healthcare.

“You could fit the United States, Greenland, India, China, Spain, France, Germany, and the UK into Africa and still have room for most of Eastern Europe. We know Africa is a massive landmass, but the maps rarely tell us how massive.”

  • Middle East – Another witness to the ancient civilization that rose from the fertile plains of Mesopotamia. The largest continuous sand desert that  British and French colonists carved up as part of the Sykes-Picot carving reflects some of the unrest and extremism today. Its interesting that prior to Sykes-Picot, there was no Syria, Lebanon,  Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Israel, or Palestine. These are all modern entities with a short history unified by versions of the same religion. Conflict and chaos have ruled supreme in some of the countries ( Iraq, Lebanon etc) while prosperity from the oil fields have propelled some to the world stage (UAE). Lot of detail on Iran-Iraq history, Palestine, the failed promise of the Arab spring, Turkey and others. The complexity of the demographics and religious idealism compounds an already volatile region.

Sykes-Picot is breaking; putting it back together, even in a different shape, will be a long and bloody affair.

  • India & Pakistan– A population of 1.4 Billion pitted against another of 182 million with impoverishment, volatility and mistrust at both ends. Post-pandemic, this section is dated as the imminent Indian emerging economic power described by the author is no longer a reality at least in the near term. Had to skip over this section as there wasn’t much I didn’t already know.
  • Korea and Japan– Tension between the Koreas is well known to the world and the author describes the origins of the Hermit kingdom and the lack of strategy from the USA in dealing with the problem. The 38th parallel was yet another hasty line of division and an uninformed repetition of the line drawn in the aftermath of the Ruso-Japanese war of 1904. I have fond memories of visiting Seoul years ago and it was interesting on how the concept of unification was welcomes by some of the South Koreans I had the opportunity to interact with (peering through the binoculars in the DMZ to the North Korean side was a thrilling experience and emphasized the proximity of the two sides). Not sure if that is the general sentiment but there is enough justification there considering the Northern nuclear power in control of a dictator. The Japanese post-war stance is described in detail and the author contends the increasing Japanese defense budget displays the intent of resolve against Chinese threats.
  • Latin America– Limitation of the Latin America originates from the historical inequality, the reluctance of the original settles to move away from the coats and the lack of subsequent infrastructure in the interiors. Geographical limitations plague Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Argentina despite natural resources. The civil wars of the 19th century broke apart independent countries with border disputes that persist, naval arms races between countries like Brazil, Argentina and Chile held back development of all three and drug cartels have devastated societies. The Panama canal’s newer rival – the Nicaragua Grand Canal that has a huge Chinese investment across the continent seem questionable in terms of value to Latin America.
  • The Arctic– The effects of global warming are alarmingly showing in the Arctic coinciding with the discovery of energy deposits. The complex land ownership includes land in parts of Canada, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States (Alaska). The melting ice has far flung ramifications globally in terms of projected flooding effects in countries far away as Maldives. The melting ice has also opened up new transportation corridor that hugs the Siberian coastline and more access to energy reserves much to the interest of multiple countries that are now jostling for superiority including Russia building an Arctic army.

The word arctic comes from the Greek arktikos, which means “near the bear,” and is a reference to the Ursa Major constellation, whose last two stars point toward the North Star.

A lot of rich detail in the book on various nuances of the geographies and this was an enjoyable read however it did make me pessimistic as status quo or deterioration of the situation in a lot of these geographies has been the norm. As the 21st century progresses, there is not much indication that change is afoot unless a planet threatening situation like climate change becomes a forcing function to minimize petty squabbles to focus on larger resolutions. Being Idealistic or moralistic will not jive well with the ideas in this book and the way forward is to think of creative and new ideas to resolve a lot of these global problems. Great ideas and great leaders need to arise to challenge these realities and put humanity first.

As the author ruefully writes:

” A human being first burst through the top layer of the stratosphere in 1961 when twenty-seven-year-old Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made it into space aboard Vostok 1. It is a sad reflection on humanity that the name of a fellow Russian named Kalashnikov is far better known.”


A couple of other reads recommended to me are Peter Zeihan’s “The Accidental Superpower” and Robert D Kaplan’s “The Revenge of Geography”. I look forward to reading them as well.

2020 in Books

Booklist

I usually set reading goals at the beginning of the year to counter the array of distractions that have dented my reading habit over the last few decades. goodreads is great for maintaining some accountability and I’m in awe of some of my friends who seem to knock out 80-100 books easily every year despite their hectic work lives. I tried to veer myself away from my usual mix of management/leadership books this year to reignite fiction reading. The results were mixed thanks to massive mood swings through the year and I ended up with a random mix of tech, biographies, music, non-fiction and horror/sci-fi tomes that helped distract me from a depressing year.

Complete list of books here.

Some notable ( and not so notable) reads this year:

Greetings from Bury Park by Sarfraz Manzoor: A Springsteen tribute along with an immigrant experience? Sign me up! After enjoying the Blinded by the night with my better half, I had to get my hands on Sarfraz Manzoor’s ode to the boss amidst the backdrop of immigrant life in 80s Luton. The book is set in a “non-linear” timeline mode which may put off some readers but I found it a wonderful read albeit with some cliched moments probably dramatized. It also took me to pilgrimage of the boss’ older catalog and some of his late 80s/early 90s work that I love.(Think Tunnel of Love/ Human Touch era). As a huge music fan and an immigrant who traveled halfway around the world to chase dreams built on the foundational goals of exposing myself to new cultures/thinking and seeing my favorite musicians in live arenas in the flesh,the book resonated with me on the universality of music across cultures.

The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age: India is a land of skewed levels of haves and have nots at an unprecedented scale. You don’t understand it till you see it and even when you see it, your understanding is peripheral at best when confronted with the magnitude of the problem and the inequality at scale. James Crabtree’s detailed tome on the lifestyles of the rich and famous in India helps decrypt the inequalities and the “crony capitalism” that ensures the system stays that way. The nexus between politics, Bollywood, business tycoons are all deciphered out and connected together to explain the irony of situations like a ~2 Billion dollar personal home in Mumbai towering over a squalor of a million people in a nearby slum.

Tesseract by Alex Garland : I’m a big fan of Alex Garland’s works – 28 Days Later, The Beach, Sunshine and Ex-machina. On top of it all, he slam dunked the best version of Dredd on us innocent fans and immortalized Keith Urban in that role. I had huge hopes for Tesseract but it ended up being a random story of disparate characters linked together by the thinnest of chances and a shallow plot. Not his finest hour and I could not wait to finish this as it felt as slow as  drug-induced slow-motion sequences in Dredd which were way more enjoyable. Still a huge AG fan regardless.

Seven years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer: Heinrich Harrer’s discovery of Tibet deserves it own post.

Devolution by Max Brooks: Anyone who has read World War Z knows the doom-laden nightmarish scenarios that the author can generate and this one is no exception. Obnoxious characters dealing with first-world problems in their isolated eco-friendly community encounter an even more ominous situation with Mt.Rainier erupting and get blockaded. Hell breaks loose in the form of rampaging sasquatches who ( thankfully in some cases) start taking out the characters one by one. A personal journal left behind serves as the narrative and tons of interesting sasquatch legends abound including this one of Roosevelt’s own” encounter” with the sasquatch.

The Long Walk by Stephen King: Big fan of the king. The plot and premise was great here but it did slow down towards the end. On hindsight, this book is probably best enjoyed via an audio book while on the treadmill. Overall an OK read.

Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North: Travel log of Ibn Fadlan , a tenth-century diplomat who, in 922 AD, was sent on a mission from Baghdad to the far north by the caliph Muqtadir. His journal serves as an important account of life in mordern-day Russia/Middle east and the areas in between. Repetitive and slow moving in places , the book abounds with interesting details on the trading routes, strange customs, vikings raids, savage rituals, food habits, wealth management, religion and a disconnected world at a strange dark time.

Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre: The Best of H. P. Lovecraft by H.P. Lovecraft : Lovecraft (despite his controversial views) is the master of horror fiction and I’ve always enjoyed the predictable nature of a classic lovecraft pulp. More so for the constant reminders that much of what we know is unknown and we are all inconsequent specks of dust in the vastness of time ( To somewhat paraphrase Carl Sagan, if the entire history of earth was compressed into 365 days, humans would have existed for ~30 seconds.) Usually a Halloween ritual, this year was no different with Lovecraft to distract me from the horrors raging outside. This collection has all the usual ones including Call of Cthulhu, Dunwich Horror and the Shadow over Innsmouth.

Idea Makers: Personal Perspectives on the Lives & Ideas of Some Notable People by Stephen Wolfram : Short biographies of giants in the filed of mathematics/computer science. Despite the authors inclination to insert the use of Mathematica tool into a “what-if” scenario into every biography, this was still an enjoyable read. The author is a giant in his field and I suppose some level of braggadocio is expected. The fascinating backstories into characters like Leibnz, Babbage, Feynman and Ramanujan is written powerfully and by someone with the grasp of minutiae of their research areas which is awe-inspiring. My highlights here.

Tech

The tech books followed a predictable pattern of excellent reads this year helping me keep abreast of work-related topics mostly focused on Spark, Databases and ML.

Database Internals: A deep-dive into how distributed data systems work by Alex Petrov: Informative but would have preferred more examples with practical scenarios. No code and this all mostly conceptual. Some good references to papers for subsequent reading. The first part of the book deals primarily with storage and covers an in-depth discussion of b-trees and types. The second half is focused on distributed systems and has useful sections on consensus protocols. Concepts like “2-phase commits” are explained well with figures. However, the lack of practical examples/code and overall dry subject matter made this a laborious read. Good book to reference theoretical concepts. 

Practical Deep Learning for Cloud, Mobile, and Edge: Real-World AI & Computer-Vision Projects Using Python, Keras & Tensorflow: Plenty of examples and links for more research. The material is too vast enough to make an all encompassing book but this delivers in terms of practical tips. Lots of practical tips provided that will find a place in any serious ML engineer repertoire. The consolidated list of tips are worth the book alone. Excellent comparisons of Raspberry Pi, Jetson Nano, and Google Coral. The reinforcement learning sections could have used some more practical examples in areas like q-learning but overall great read and reference material.

Music

The books this year included Van Halen ( Eddie R.I.P), Megadeth, Glyn Johns amongst others.

Hard to Handle: The Life and Death of the Black Crowes–A Memoir by Steve Gorman: Great read start to finish. The Black Crowes were one of the many soundtracks of my teenage years in the 90s. The first three albums are seminal works that stand out despite having to contend with changing musical climate with the rise of grunge and the decline of hair metal. The book is a page-turner for anyone even vaguely familiar with the Black Crowes. It made me go back and re-immerse into the catalog especially with albums like By your side which is an underrated gem produced by the great Kevin Shirley and their successful but short-lived collaboration with Jimmy Page – Live at the Greek. Gorman’s insight as a founding member and the frank admission of all the dysfunction makes up for a great story. Im a huge fan of Rich Robinson’s use of open G tuning and this book has led to more inspired practicing in that vein.

Overall 35 books for the year which I can hopefully better in 2021. Current reading list here.

Book Review – The Great Mughals & their India

As someone who lived through learning ( and forgetting)  Mughal history consumed via droll and biased textbooks through Middle School growing up in India, Dirk Collier’s The Great Mughals and their India  is a captivating look at the lives of the Kings of the Mughal dynasty that rose from the ashes of the Delhi Sultanate and disintegrated spectacularly through a thousand cuts gradually inflicted by their own regional enemies and the British. 

Mughals


An added benefit of visiting Delhi to see family is always the getaways to tourist attractions with the captivating tombs, forts, monuments that one can find as remnants of the Mughals. This book has been on my wish-list for a while and its been a wonderful ride through Mughal influence on Indian architecture, politics, philosophy, culture and outlook albeit through the eyes of a Belgian.

The book primarily covers the chaotic, brilliant, pathetic, conquests, defeats of the Mughal rulers in the order of their appearance starting with the  descendant of Timur and Genghis Khan  – Babur.

Babur, on the run from Uzbeks, sought refuge in India and destiny ensured that his descendants never left.

The unbiased commentary of the author on the subject is a refreshing change from the usual divisive literature available that I have come across. In the current political climate of rising nationalism and divisive politics, the Mughal era, in certain eras, seems to be the epitome of tolerant views and harmony amongst people of different religions , at least as described here.

The book takes you on a galloping ride through the highs and glory of Akbar to the lows and bigotry of Aurangzeb, from the magnificence of Shah Jahan’s imagination to the pitiful incompetence of Shah Alam. 

The earlier Hindu dynasties (Mauryas, Guptas etc) including Ashoka predominantly covered Northern India and cannot really be seen as ruling the entire sub continent. This was also largely the trend in the Mughal empire except for Akbar whose rule of over 100M inhabitants (1/5th of the world’s population) covered vast territories across India.

I found myself reflecting on the remarkable fact that the Mughal dynasty was all but a blip in the annals of Indian history which kicked off in the Indus Valley in 3300 BCE. The book does an amazing job of putting these 331 years into context while being cognizant of its impact to future generations.

  • Homo sapiens in India: Around 75,000 years ago.
  • IndusValley (Harappa) Civilization: c. 3300–1300 BCE
  • Vedic civilization: c. 1500–500 BCE
  • Spread of Buddhism and Jainism: 500–200 BCE
  • Maurya Empire: 297–250 BCE
  • Ashoka the Great: 304–232 BCE
  • Hindu revival and classical Hindu civilization: 200 BCE–CE 1100
  • Gupta Empire/golden age of Hinduism: CE 320–550
  • Late classical civilization: CE 650–1100
  • The Hindu-Islamic Period Early sultanates plus trading colonies: 1100–1857
  • Mughal Empire: 
    • Babur: 1526–1530
    • Humayun: (1530–1556)
    • Akbar the Great: 1556–1605
    • Jahangir: 1605–1627
    • Shah Jahan: 1627–1658
    • Aurangzeb: 1658–1707
    • The ‘Lesser Mughals’: 1707–1857
  • Their rivals and successors Maratha Empire: 1713–1818
  • Sikh Empire: 1799–1849
  • Afghan Empire: 1747–1862
  • British East India Company: 1757–1858
  • British Raj: 1858–1947
  • Independence, partition and beyond: August 1947 to the present

The last book I read on this subject years ago was WIlliam Darymple seminal study on the “The Last Mughal” which seemed to reach the heights of authoritative study on this subject. However, Dirk Collier’s easy style of writing and his genuine reflections on the state of affairs through every stage of the empire makes this a much more endearing read to me.

Babur :

The founder of the dynasty though a stranger in a strange land torn between grandiose ambition to rule large swathes of territory and nostalgia for his central asian home. Excerpts from his memoir are filled with longing for Central Asia and Kabul. Considering he was a forced immigrant fleeing Central Asia, he had no special affliction for the climate, food or people. India was more of a consolation prize when faced with the reality of Uzbeks occupying his beloved Samarqand.

Humayun:

Humayun who was born in Kabul, had life full of contradictions as he spent years of incompetence losing his inheritance, wandering about in exile with warriors of questionable quality and then regaining his throne with Persian help. A life spent in harems and opium addiction.  Strangely, also a voracious reader and builder of contraptions, patron of scholars and artists and highly knowledgeable in arcane matters like plants, herbs and metals. It was his misfortune that his regime coincided with the rise of Sher Shah Suri whose competence in government and military matters eclipsed anything that Human could throw at him. His innocuous death tripping on a library staircase epitomizes his life. This is well described in the book with the quote from  British orientalist and historian Stanley Edward Lane-Poole (1854–1931):

‘his end was of a piece with his character. If there was a possibility of falling, Humayun was not the man to miss it. He tumbled through life, and he tumbled out of it.’

Akbar:

The first of the Mughals emperors born in India, Akbar’s eventual empire stretched from the heartland of India down to central India. Akbar lies at the center of Mughal achievement in India (barring the Taj Mahal) due to his impact to the military, cultural, political and economic development that had never been seen before.

A micro-manager with a real interest in his royal duties, the book mentions charming stories about him wandering in disguise in the streets to gauge the efficacy of his rule. Universal tolerance to different forms of worship led to the concept of ‘Din-e-Ilahi’ emphasizing one god without divisive religion that combined the best of Hinduism and Islam. In some ways this was a failure that did not outlast him but its reflective of his forward thinking and rationalist views which were driven by an obsession to find the truth. Interestingly his interstate’s towards organized monetization led to development in design for the royal coin .

His cultural impact was astutely planned by forming alliances with non-Mughals and shrewd military acumen inspiring his forces with his own daring in the battlefield. The book also has interesting anecdotes of his encounters with the Portuguese who landed on the Indian shores who ostensibly set up trade and evangelize. The accolades go on and the book offers many details and insights in this glorious period while also inspecting his motivations for actions that helped cement his place. 


Jahangir:

Known for drunken depravity, cruelty and excesses, Akbar’s successor was at the opposite end of the spectrum. The book refers to this reign almost as a placeholder between Akbar’s and Shah Jahan’s reign with no notable achievements apart from the constant struggle to keep the inherited empire intact. The reign here was characterized by kindling religious difference, orthodoxy and wanton destruction of non-islamic religious places. This notably set the stage for the absolute division of the empire that would ultimately, decades later  help the British pick apart the fragmented empire. There are also some contradictions and some historians disagree on this achievements and contribution. This should be an interesting read.  Some great quotes here:

 ‘I never saw any man keep so constant a gravity,’ affirms Sir Thomas Roe, the first English ambassador to the Mughal court.

“the only emotions apparent on his stone-cold face were extreme pride and utter contempt for others. “

Shahjahan:

References to Shahjahan are always accompanied by the Taj Mahal and his reign gets credit for the  best example of Mughal architecture and a symbol of India’s rich history rightfully. However, he is also reported to be another self-centered, humorless fundamentalist though of a lesser degree than his predecessor. Post the death of Mumtaz Mahal – he seems to have delved deeper into orthodoxy and bigotry. He abolished Akbar’s solar Din-e-Ilahi calendar, replacing it with the conventional lunar (Hijri) calendar. From a civil and military administration point of view, most of the empire seems to have been squandered. Myths around the blinding of the builders of the Taj Mahal are debunked by the author and shredded for their lack of authenticity. 

Aurangzeb:

Characterized by some expansionism through the subcontinent but the hold was precarious at best with revolts all across the empire. Another religious bigot whose life was consumed warring against his brothers ( notable one being Darah Shikoh) . Another walking contradiction, he also expressed genuine interest in other religions while doing nothing to unite his own empire. He is universally reviled by non-islamists while being depicted as a pious servant of god by his apologists. His acts against non-muslims were yet another assault on the unified fabric that his great-grandfather had worked so diligently for. In many parts of India, he is known for his role destroying a lot of religious structures that had centuries of existence before his reign. Some great observations made by the author for this period include the rise of militant Sikhism thanks to his hounding of Sikh religious leaders. The rise of Shivaji the great Maratha is well documented here with the various stores of legend picked apart and debated. Another descriptive anecdote that does not disguise the author’s contempt for this period:

“In 1666, it was proudly announced that the emperor’s invincible armies had conquered ‘Tibet’; in actual fact, it merely meant that a petty local chief in the stony wastelands of Ladakh had been bullied into building a mosque and minting coin with Aurangzeb’s name – hardly worthy of a ‘universe-conquering’ monarch.”

Post- Aurangzeb :

This period was a succession of Mughal kings characterized by mismanagement,corruption and squandering of their empire.   Notable incidents include the ruler Farrukhsiyar’s imperial firman of 1717, granting duty-free trading and territorial rights to the British East India Company  which opened the gates for what was to follow. Barely , thirty years later the Persians under Nadir Shah would sack Delhi plundering and murdering its citizens including carting away the kohinoor diamond to Persia. This was essentially the death knell to the empire and further worsened the anarchy.

Overall, this was a great impartial summary of the mughal chronology and the impact it had on future generations. The author’s credentials re-enforce an objective view to the entire period without being unnecessarily romanticized by the majesty of certain phases and cultural folklore. Interestingly, the Mughal empire was at its zenith when it had its most tolerant and just empire in power which is a lesson to be learnt even in modern times of regionalism and divisive politics that break apart societies.

Laplace and the law of small data

One of my recent favorite reads is The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian/Tom Griffiths. In the age of “big” data, encountering uncertainty and little data is also a norm in our daily lives and Laplace offers us a rule of thumb to make an optimized decision event with one observation.

Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace is a ubiquitous character in the annals of Science history in the 1700s and my undergraduate Mathematics years. The term “inverse Laplace transform” would be met with an uncontrollable shudder during finals especially if you had allergies towards solving differential equations using integral transforms.

The Marquis de Laplace

However, a few decades later and with the prevalence of matrix operations and linear algebra in deep learning and by extension my overall appreciation for advanced mathematics, I’ve been fascinated by some of his work. Laplace was a mathematician and physicist ands appears all over the place in the field. He is known as the “French Newton” , a bonafide virtuoso with contributions like the Laplace transforms, Laplace equation, Laplace operators amongst other things. If that weren’t enough, he also enlightened the world with theories on black holes and gravitational collapse. He was also a marquis in the french court after the Bourbon Restoration (which as much as it wants to does not refer to the weekend festivities in my backyard, it actually refers to a period in French history following Napoleon’s downfall ).

Laplace essentially wrote the first hand book on Probability with “A philosophical essay on probabilities” – a magnificent treatise that reflects the author’s depth of knowledge and curiosity. A bit dense in parts but a fascinating look at 18th century French life from the eyes of a polymath. Unless a deep researcher in Probabilistic history, the material is organized well enough to comb through points of interest. Part 1 is a “philosophical essay on probabilities” while part 2 is an “application of the calculus of probabilities”.

Laplace’s rule of Succession primarily solving the Sunrise problem is extremely important to compute probabilities when the originating events have the same probability.

Every day the sun same up n times in a row, what’s the probability it will rise tomorrow? One can imagine he got ridiculed for it since we have never known/experienced a day the sun never rises and hence it is the end of the world if it’s not going to rise the next day. More specifically, the problem does not seem realistic considering it assumes every day is an independent event ile random variables for the sun rising on each day.

We have evidence that the sun has risen n times in a row, but we don’t know what the value of P or the probability is. Treating this P as unknown brings to fore a long standing debate in statistics between frequentists and Bayesians. As per the Bayesian point of view, since P is unknown, we treat P as a random variable with distribution. As with Bayes theorem, we start with prior beliefs about P before we have any data. Once we collect data, we then use Bayes rule to update this based on our evidence.

The integral calculus leading to deriving this rule is masterfully explained here in this lecture on moment generating functions (MGFs) by Joe Blitzstein. Amazing explanations if you can sit through the detailed derivations.

The probability of the sun rising tomorrow is n+1/n+2 or as Wikipedia puts it:

” if one has observed the sun rising 10000 times previously, the probability it rises the next day is  10001/10002 = 0.99990002. Expressed as a percentage, this is approximately 99.990002%  chance.”

Pretty good odds it seems.

Essentially per Laplace, for any possible drawing of w winning tickets in n attempts, the expectation is the number of wins + 1, divided by the number of attempts + 2.

Said differently, if we have n experiments which each results in success (s) or failure (n -s), the probability that the next repetition will succeed is (s+1)/(n+2).

If I make 10 attempts at playing a musical piece and 8 of them succeed, per Laplace – my overall chance at this endeavor is 9/12 or 75% of the time. If I play it once and succeed, the probability is 2/3 (66.6%) which is intuitively more reliable than assuming I have a 100% chance of nailing this the next time.

Some fascinating quotes –

“Man, made for the temperature which he enjoys, and for the element which he breathes, would not be able, according to all appearance, to live upon the other planets. But ought there not to be an infinity of organization relative to the various constitutions of the globes of this universe? If the single difference of the elements and of the climates make so much variety in terrestrial productions, how much greater the difference ought to be among those of the various planets and of their satellites! The most active imagination can form no idea of it; but their existence is very probable.”

(Pg. 181)

“the transcendent results of calculus are, like all the abstractions of the understanding, general signs whose true meaning may be ascertained only by repassing by metaphysical analysis to the elementary ideas which have led to them; this often presents great difficulties, for the human mind tries still less to transport itself into the future than to retire within itself. The comparison of infinitely small differences with finite differences is able similarly to shed great light upon the metaphysics of infinitesimal calculus.”

(Pg. 44)

 “The day will come, when, by study pursued through several ages, the things now concealed with appear with evidence; and posterity will be astonished that truths so clear had escaped us”

Laplace quoting Seneca

Probability is relative, in part to this ignorance, in part to our knowledge. We know that of three or a greater number of events a single one ought to occur; but nothing induces us to believe that one of them will occur rather than the others-

Laplace, Concerning Probability

The Rule of Succession is essentially the world’s first simple algorithm for choosing problems of small data. It holds well when we have all known possible outcomes before observing the data. If we apply this in problems where the prior state of knowledge is not well known, the results may not be useful as the question being asked is then of a different nature based on different prior information.

Seven years

Seven years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer

The author along with his friend, the resourceful Peter Aufschnaiter, takes you on a journey of 1000s of miles over hostile territories at a time of limited resources during the mid 20th century.  The first part of the book deals with the author’s numerous escapes and hardships that were overshadowed by his tenacity to get to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa◊We’ll sync on this next week internally for any options.

.Seven years in Tibet the tale of Austrian Mountaineer Heinrich Harrer’s trek through Tibet and his relationship with the 14th Dalai Lama. The Tibetan culture described before the Chinese invasion points to a simplistic life driven by a feudalistic society. I found the read immersive and had to pause many times to reflect back to a time that people today can never experience. The captivating descriptions of monks being carried on palanquins in Lhasa and the resplendent Potala Palace which was the home of the Dalai Lama leave a lasting impression.

The Dalai Lama , forbidden to mingle with the locals, would gaze from the Potala’s roof at Lhasa street life through a telescope and found a willing companion in the author who eventually rose to become the tutor regaling the young boy with his worldy experience. There are vivid descriptions on Tibetan rituals and the rustic but charming Tibetan way of life before the proceedings were rudely interrupted in 1950 by Mao Zedong’s invading army. The Dalai Lama’s flight to India from a chasing army was marked by the consecration of every building he stayed in during the journey as a holy place. That amazing journey is documented here.

The story ends at the foothills of the himalayas where the Dalai Lama still resides at the upper reaches of North India’s Kangra Valley in Dharamsala.

Harrer seems to be one hell of a renaissance man being a mountaineer, teacher, gardener, architect, civil servant and photographer besides being the part of the team that made the first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland. More importantly, he captures the times with his simplistic writing and takes the reader on a breathtaking journey. I found my self riveted by the journey more than the destination.

“One of the best characteristics of the Tibetan people is their complete tolerance of other creeds. Their monastic theocracy has never sought the conversion of infidels.”

Heinrich Harrer

Peak

A great book, well-worth sharing, that I recently read is Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericcson and Robert Pool.

What does it take to become an expert?

This is an intriguing subject which consciously or subconsciously plays a part in our professional and personal lives, as we constantly strive to better ourselves.

The book busts the myth that some of us are born with vastly superior talent far out of the reach of others. Using the example of the famous ‘child prodigy’, Mozart, Anders deconstructs the ideology of unattainable intrinsic talent. Yes, Mozart was gifted. At age 4 when most kids were playing with the 18th century wooden version of Lego in Salzburg, this son of a musician was surrounded by musical instruments and learning to shred on sonatas under the watchful eye of his father.

This runs in parallel to the ‘10000 hours of practice‘ theory, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. But that’s where the similarity ends. The book goes on to describe the futility of ‘naive practice’ or generic practice – as most kids forced to attend piano lessons every week would also attest to.

‘Purposeful practice’ is defined by quantified goals with small steps that lead you to an improved ability to attain your goal. This resonated with me as I personally have fond memories of my teenage years wood-shedding on a musical instrument for seemingly infinite hours. This led me to attain a high proficiency in spite of not having any innate musical gene. Purposeful practice means focused practice with regular feedback from a mentor. It also involves pushing the boundaries gradually to advance to the next level.

However, mastery comes with a higher level of practice, which Anders terms as ‘Deliberate Practice’. In addition to Purposeful practice, it is based on proven techniques developed by experts in the past. It entails intense, methodical, and sustained efforts to fulfill your aim. For example, memorization has well known documented techniques that have relentlessly pushed human ability to retain information as evidenced by memory contests. Similarly, violin training techniques developed over centuries, and studying virtuosos like Paganini offer the true path to mastery.  The seeker must identify the absolute best in the field and carefully study the method to attain mastery.

Even with all the great points the author makes, it is still obvious that some endeavors like gymnastics or specific sports that require certain physical attributes may not be attainable regardless of practice. The book does not sufficiently counter this. Yet, regardless of what any book or expert says, there is really no all-encompassing established way for mastery. Just because I have driven for many years, pretty sure I won’t be a NASCAR-ruling “Ricky Bobby” anytime soon. This is because there is no deliberate practice on nailing the finer aspects here. Similarly, just because I try to belt out the aria “Nessun dorma”in the shower, does not mean I will emulate Pavarotti anytime soon. That’s the point.

 “This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.” – Anders Ericsson

If you want to do better than what you are doing right now, this book may benefit you. As a parent, the book was also a great reminder on the importance of focused methodical training as opposed to a one-size-fits-all curriculum that is sometimes inculcated in our children. Highly recommended.