October 14, 2017

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History - Elizabeth Kolbert - Book Review

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I grew up in a Sub Urban area with lot of vegetation around. As I grew up, the place was just being swallowed up by more and more houses. One of the hassles of the vegetation was that we used to get lot of uninvited guests to our home - weird insects, bats, worms and scary Snakes. One of the key lessons I was taught as a kid was what to do to protect myself from Snakes. I vividly remember a few six foot long venomous Vipers that we spotted in home. Today, the area has completely become an Urban jungle. Snakes have disappeared with more houses. We are happy with the fact that we need not worry about those snakes. But what has happened to those snakes? How has the loss of habitat affected them? What about other harmless insects and bats? A few endemic species could have disappeared. All because of us - Human Beings. This book, 'The Sixth Extinction' is exactly about this. How Human Beings are causing the sixth major extinction event of the world and how it is happening right in front of our eyes.

I was looking for a book in the last minute before my flight. I randomly came across this book on Amazon and decided to give it a shot. One thing I worried was that the book would turn out to be one of those preachy materials on the ill effects of Global Warming. This book by Elizabeth Kolbert is exactly that, but the author conveys it with a well strung research, tales and subtlety. Being a Journalist, the author has done justice to the job by spending a lot of time with fossil collectors, museum directors, biologists and conservationists to bring home the point of how we (Human Beings) are destroying the planet.

While unsurprisingly, the major cause of the Sixth Extinction is Global Warming, the author also points out to other strong factors that weigh in - Fragmentation of Habitats due to developing Urban Clusters and Forced movement of Species across continents, both knowingly and accidentally.

The author starts the book with how various species of Frogs have started disappearing in the recent years across Latin America. Frogs have been one of the resilient species on the face of earth. They have survived for the past 250 million years. Now, they have suddenly started disappearing. After a lot of research, it has been identified that Chytrid Fungus causes this. Chytrid Fungus is not a native found in Latin America. Humans have introduced it somehow and they have started playing havoc. These species that causes havoc are known as Invasive Species. Evolution would have equipped the frogs to save itself from known dangers, but then it never came across this Fungus in the past millions of years. Across the years as humans started travelling, we have introduced so many of these species.

What I really loved about the book was the abundance of information provided -

  1. How Fossils were identified and unearthed in the 19th century and the efforts of Georges Cuvier and Charles Darwin identifying the fossils and establishing the first theories on Extinction of Species.
  2. The relationship between increasing latitude and increasing number of species. While in the poles, there is nearly no diversity, there is abundance of diversity near the equator given the favorable climate.
  3. How Global Warming is making the Ocean more and more acidic - Water absorbs excess Carbon Di Oxide to form Carbonic Acid. This in turn affects the calcification process required to form Coral Reefs which are the base of Ocean Life.
  4. How it is not only animals that move, but also trees with change in temperatures. Some trees expand itself at a rapid rate through pollination and in the process negates the space for less invasive species.
  5. How the chances of a species survival reduces with reducing habitat and fragmentation. Certain species are endemic to Islands and they often disappear soon. The same happen with increasing Urbanization.

It has been established that we are not the only Human Species that has lived in this planet - one of the key human species that has lived alongside us is Neanderthals. It has been established that on an average nearly 4% of our DNA contains Neanderthal DNA. It has also been established that Human Beings or Homo Sapiens in specific were the main cause of Neanderthals extinction. After a long struggle, Neanderthal's DNA has been established. They are almost same as that of us. But over the years, some change has happened that has made us so dangerous. Some tiny little Gene has made us so superior to the rest of the species - that we have even killed our sister species. So, the author wonders what is this 'Mad Gene' that causes that change.

The author finally concludes with a positive note by capturing some of the super human efforts taken by conservationists to protect the few endangered species and says our hope is that. While, we have singly killed all those species, we also go in great length to protect the remaining species. Countries like Australia and New Zealand have strict Biosecurity laws to protect their native species. If the Mad Gene signifies despair, the same Mad Gene signifies Hope as well.

On the flip side, I found that the author had used too many Biological names for the Species which became too tough to follow at a point. I would rate this as one of the best books I have read about our planet and the species that live on it. Having read Yuval Noah Harrari's 'Sapiens' augmented this book very well, as Sapiens had established how we became the conquering deadly species that we are.

If you have a little iota of guilt that we cause to the environment, this book is a must read!

April 9, 2017

The Ocean of Churn - Sanjeev Sanyal - Book Review

The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading 'The Land of Seven Rivers', I was fascinated when I read that Sanjeev Sanyal has written a book focusing on Indian Ocean, a key geography oft missed out in the history books.

The author has a very interesting pattern of writing books - he knows the drawbacks of contemporary history books. History has often been looked at from a linear and singular perspective. We say that the British invaded India and ruled us for 200 years, but often miss out on other countries fighting in our territory and the Indian kings who helped the British and other happening of those times. Second, history often glorifies the victors and suppresses the losers. So, we have heroes and villains when most of them were actually people with shades of grey. Third, the western world believes only in written piece of evidence. The author believes that Oral verses continuing over centuries can't be ignored. The same stories have been spread across different countries and cultures. They might have shades of fiction, but they do have a tinge of reality as to what happened really in those times.

The book covers the happenings of events around Indian Ocean from the early human settlements to the recent world wars. He covers both sides of India as to how the western part of the country traded with the likes of the Romans, Arabs and how the eastern part traded with the likes of Indonesia or Malaysia. The trade has had a long cultural impact in many countries. Particularly the South East Asian countries still have a lot of cultural similarity with the South Indian states. There are a lot of temples spread across these countries. Temples played a key role in the trade as they acted as banks of those days.

In the later part, there is a lot of focus on Europeans as to how they started trading for Spices like Pepper and Nutmeg with the eastern countries and went on to colonize them and fight violently for territorial disputes. A very interesting aspect here is that the Europeans have often collaborated with the local kingdoms and hired mercenaries to fight the battles. So, all the while when we imagine that it was British fighting India, it was the Indians on behalf of British fighting the Indians.

The author also touches upon Religion and the way Religion helped kingdoms and tribes across history. It is little wonder that Religion still fires up people and unites them to fight for something or the other. Still lot of the Asian countries have statues of Hindu gods and they peaceful worship them before worshiping Lord Buddha or they attribute them as Pagan Gods. The trade also had a wide impact on Language. Most of the South East Asian countries have languages originating from the Brahmi Script.

The final part focuses on the World Wars and how the east Asian countries widely affected don't get mentioned anywhere in the war related documents. Many Indian soldiers fought on behalf of the British and similarly many Asian soldiers were involved and countries affected by war including the likes of Malaysia and Singapore. It is also interesting that the Indian Naval officers strike was a key reason for British to exit India as the Indian Soldiers played a key role in enabling British administer India.

It is interesting that certain landscapes got shifted from One hand to another hand during the colonial rule. In 1667, the Dutch forced the British to hand them an Island in the Indonesian Archipelago which grew Nutmegs in exchange for a big Island in North America. It was considered a big victory. The big Island turns to be Manhattan. Looks like Real Estate investments have remained tricky over centuries.

Books like this are very rare for they cover a very wide spectrum of things and gives you a very new perspective to History. If you are a history buff, get in, get immersed and come out with a refreshing view.

April 2, 2017

Visiting the iconic MCG!

Hi Guys,

On a day when Dhoni’s six sealed the World Cup for India six years before, I’m back here writing a blog post on a cricket ground. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that the first cricket ground I would walk in my life would be the Melbourne Cricket Ground or ‘The G’ as it is called simply. Despite being so close to the iconic Chepauk Stadium in Chennai, I have never been inside.

Being in Melbourne on a short official trip, we were so close yet so far from the ground on the first four days when we had to put up with the hectic office hours and meeting preparations. On the final day, we had our return flight in the afternoon. But, I and my colleague were determined to not miss the opportunity to see the historical ground.
The G - from Outside
The G was two kilometres from the city centre we stayed and we decided to walk the distance bracing the chilly morning weather. After a serene walk along the Yarra River and a beautiful bridge, we were at the stadium by 9.50 am, 10 minutes before the first official tour kicks off. The 75 minute tour costs AUD 23. For AUD 31.50, you get in a combined pass for MCG and the National Sports Museum which is also in the same complex. As we were chasing time, we opted only for the ground tour. At 10, we were introduced to our tour guide, an elderly lady from the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC). She was somewhere in her 70s or 80s, but she was the most energetic amongst the touring group and we had a tough time matching her pace (It’s a pity that I forgot her name). Along with the two of us, there were five others – two from England and three from Australia, meaning it was a group passionate on Cricket.
From the turf!
The tour started with us being let into the grass turf, where our guide explained the history of the ground and stands. The ground was established in 1853, when the settlement was just pouring in. The ground hosted the first ever test match in 1877 when 30,000 people attended the spectacle (it was a significant population of Melbourne back then). The ground has four stands – the great Southern Stand which makes a semi-circle and then Ponsford Stand, Members Pavilion and Olympic Stand which together make another semi-circle. With a seating capacity of 100,024, MCG is largest cricket ground by capacity. I have always been awestruck by the four layered seating arrangement of the MCG and that is what makes the stadium so special to me.

The Great Southern Stand - and the four layered seats!
We were slightly disappointed that the turf was being converted into an Australian Rules football turf for the AFL season that kicked off just the previous day. It would have been greater to see the ground with the cricket pitch, but still it was magnificent. After a couple of photographs for later memory, we were taken across multiple facilities across the four levels. Since, I will run into multiple pages if I describe about all of them, I am writing some of the significant ones.

While this is the home ground of the legendary Sir Donald Bradman, the MCC has made lot of credits to WH Ponsford who was overshadowed by Bradman during his hey days. This includes the stand named after him. There was names of all the players who has played for Victorian state (the state were Melbourne is located). The Home and Visitor change rooms has names of all players who has scored centuries or taken a fifer here. Bradman has scored 9 centuries here and our guide being a big fan of Bradman was going mad about it. They had pictures/photos of all the Australian teams that had travelled to England starting from the 19th century. All the statistics, pictures, photographs, artworks had to do with Test Cricket. I guess MCC recognizes only that as pure cricket.
A plaque in memory of WH Ponsford
There were lot of special amenities for the MCC members including a fine dine restaurant and a great view of the ground from the Long Hall (made in similar lines with the Lords, except that batsmen don’t walk through this one). Another special feature about the ground was the library, which our guide told is one of the best sports libraries you would come across. Anyone is free to walk in here on Weekdays and refer to the books. They have a copy of Wisden from 1916 (due to World War only one of them was published and is worth millions in value in today) and the first dictionary that had reference to cricket back in the 1600s. Of course, these are locked and are there only for display.
The Long Hall!
It was interesting to see the olden day steel benches on display and our guide was saying that with cushioned seats the facilities for spectators has very much improved. A century back, spectators were supposed to stand and watch the match in the searing heat. The ground had hosted both 1956 Olympics and 2006 Commonwealth games. There were multiple plaques and arts in memories of those events. There were lot of artworks made specifically for the 150th year of the ground.
Those ancient Steel benches!
Three stand out features to me – the ground was very accessible from the city – there was a train and tram station just outside. From city center, we were able to walk without any traffic interference. And the second one was that the entire stadium was friendly to physically challenged people including special seats for them across the stands. The final one is that they have captured and displayed the entire history of cricket in the ground and evoke strong memories out of it!
A view from the one of the ground's balconies - From Left( Practice Tennis Court, Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne Skyline including Eureka Skydeck, St Paul's Cathedral) and Train/Tram tracks just beside the stadium
Soaked in the history for the entire duration, it was time for us to come back to real world and rush to catch our flights back home… The G will always have a special place in my heart!

Happy Reading!!!

February 22, 2017

Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Mankind - Yuval Noah Harari - Book Review

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Quite often I get this thought, 'The universe is large. There are so many galaxies and our solar system is nothing more than a speck. Earth is even smaller. Yet, we are the only known living beings. The history of Earth is so vast and it has been there for millions of years. Humans have been there for significant part. Yet, we live in a space with so advanced technology and process complicated stuff out of a tiny little thing in our head known as Brain. Why are we destined to do this?' Yuval Noah Harari has tried to explain this in the book Sapiens. It is an attempt to explain how have Humans come to this stage.

The author defines three main timelines in the history of Homo Sapiens

1. Cognitive Revolution (70000 years ago)
2. Agricultural Revolution (10000 years ago)
3. Scientific Revolution (500 years ago)

When we co-existed with the animals out there in the wild, we were not on top of the food chain. The ancient stone tools discovered were not designed to kill animals. They were used to break bones and eat the marrows inside (So, the big Cats hunt and then lesser animals eat the rest and then scavengers scavenge and after all that humans broke the bone and ate the marrow). Being that weak, Sapiens had a lucky intervention in the form of Cognitive Revolution. Most animals can communicate in some form, but none as detailed and as sophisticated as a Human. This created knowledge and helped humans form groups and communities. It is interesting that Gossips form an important means of communication. It helps establish trust (and it continues till the day).

This was the phase when we were Hunter-Gatherers and Foragers. The author defines this as the best period of Sapiens. They had a relaxed lifestyle, worked less and were fit as they ate a mix of all nutrients. Interestingly, our liking for Sweets has been hardwired from this age. Sweets were such a rarity then and evolution made Sapiens gorge on any sweet they find as it provides abundant energy.

Accidents have always been an important cause of turnaround in Human history. Agricultural revolution was no less. A few Hunter Gatherers found that the wheat they gathered spilled on the way and new wheat grass sprouted. Thus started the domestication. The author further says that it was actually plants like Potato, Wheat and Rice that domesticated us than we domesticating them. Growing these required lot of energy - you had to settle down, plough, remove weed, water and it consumes lot of time. And you end up with one type of food as against the Hunter Gatherers. And due to settling down the human population arose significantly. Thus bigger societies were forming with a big hope of tomorrow, although the life of a farmer was worse than that of a Hunter Gatherer. Hence, the Author calls Agricultural Revolution as the 'Biggest Fraud' in Human History. And this curse continues to chase us today as he says,

'How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.,'

Agricultural Revolution led to unification of mankind in a way that could never happen with animals - we started having Fictional realities like Money, Country, Kingdom, God which doesn't exist in nature. The author digs deeply into three main factors that led to mass unification of Humans - Money, Empire and Religion. All of this leads to Trust and enable unification. As he writes, It is interesting how deep the author goes into each of them and analyze the pros of cons of each.

He also touches upon and pity the domesticated animals that are treated in a very cruel way. 'Domesticated chickens and cattle may well be an evolutionary success story, but they are also among the most miserable creatures that ever lived. The domestication of animals was founded on a series of brutal practices that only became crueler with the passing of the centuries'

In the final part, the author analyzes the reasons for Scientific Revolution starting out of Europe and how it changed the course of the world. He believes is started because the scientists accepted Ignorance in first place. They were ready to explore and gain knowledge. The kingdom supported them and eventually they conquered the world. He also explains the rise of capitalism and interlinking of capitalism and science.

Finally, the author touches upon two aspects - the first one was something that I didn't expect the author would touch upon - Happiness. He tries to find out what exactly Happiness is and how do we define that. The last 50 years have infact been the best part of Homo Sapiens existence. In the entire past history, there was no such time of peace. Yet, does it impact happiness. We live longer than our ancestors. Are we more content? He feels that more research should be done in the field.

The final concluding piece is the future of Homo Sapiens - Will we become Amortal? Will AI take over? Are we Cyborgs today? He looks into various possibilities that might become true.

The depth and width of knowledge covered in this book is amazing. Every page has new information and he has tried to capture it as vividly as possible. Summarizing the book might provide some insights, but reading this book is something very different.

Finally, there are few people who say our generation is the worst of the lot and our ancestors were close to nature. The author disagrees, 'The romantic contrast between modern industry that “destroys nature” and our ancestors who “lived in harmony with nature” is groundless. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of life.'