Review #49: Masters of Doom ★★★☆☆

It is not all doom and gloom!


This was a strange choice of book to begin a new year with but it is one of those things that pique your interest and you follow through with it. Stranger still is the fact that I never completed a level in any of the id games, let alone Doom. I do remember starting up the shareware version of Wolfenstein 3-D and the demo for Doom 3, but the session never lasted more than a few minutes. In fact, I remember returning a copy of the Quake II to a vendor stating technical issues when in fact I disliked the game. Gratuitous violence was never my thing. Yeah, I am one of those ‘story’ guys that John Carmack might have so despised. The only game I could relate to throughout the book was Deus Ex, which incidentally happens to be my best game of all time.

Musing #39: Reflecting on Marx, Nietzsche and Freud

I presume it wouldn't have occurred to me to mention these personalities in the same sentence, were it not for the 3-part 'Genius of the Modern World' series. Having not read the works of these authors, I never had the opportunity to develop a perspective of the ideas coming from these great minds. Hence, it was nice to finally understand the life and the works of these personalities. It is true that my opinion is now based on the portrayal of these minds in the TV series but I can't imagine getting a better retelling and interpretation than from historians and scholars dedicated to the subject.

The common thread across all 3 episodes is that while the ideas emanating from these minds were revealing, they were extremely controversial for their time and continue to be so. Of the three, history has been kinder to Freud than Nietzsche and perhaps to a lesser extent Marx. Yet, their ideas continue to be as relevant today as it was when first put forth. The basic structure of the society hasn't changed much over a century and a half with religion still occupying a prominent place in society and the capitalistic economy being still driven by the masses for the lopsided benefit of a select few. Thus, it is very easy to understand where these thoughts are coming from and where they are leading to.

However, what history has taught us is that things take a turn for the worse when ideas change to ideologies. That was precisely the case with the Bolshevik revolution that provided a new lease of life to Marxism and the unfortunate perversion of Nietzsche's Ubermensch by the Nazis. On the other hand, war proved to be of much more beneficial to Freud's psychoanalysis with the discovery of PTSD. History has since been more focussed on the political impact of these ideas than the ideas themselves which has perhaps lead to a lack in appreciation of these ideas and the circumstance surrounding them.

In our hearts, we wouldn't wish for the dystopia that is associated with the works of these authors. Yet, it is simply impossible to not ponder whether we are already on that path to self-destruction. While the last century witnessed the worst of humanity through two world wars, it is very unlikely that the world would need another war for humanity to dive deeper in to the abyss. Humanity is numbing itself through distractions rather than facing up to the challenges that the world poses. While religion has been the predominant sanctum of distraction in humanity's history, burgeoning means of entertainment have taken hold in recent years as a means of escaping the drudgery of life. That makes it all the more pertinent to question the meaning of life as we live through it, not only as an individual but as a society at large.

Review #43: The One Device


As a technology enthusiast, there was no escaping this book. I refer to technology rather than a company because I have never been an ardent Apple or Google fan, having only recently switched from Android to iOS. At the same, it wasn't a case of eagerness to read the book as it was the fact that I was bombarded with references to the book wherever I went, be it on podcasts or tech sites. Hence, I was able to put the book further down my reading list until I finally came across it a few days back.

Going by the book's name and the timing of its release, it would be valid to presume that it has the blessings of Apple and would offer candid insights from the who’s who of the iPhone team. However, as the book makes it clear upfront, Apple's veil of secrecy extends to the extent that no current (and some former) employee can share their story on the record. Hence, the book instead relies on the recounting by other industry stalwarts as well as anonymous Apple sources. This kind of anonymity can impact the credibility of some of the stories but in this case, it can't be helped and it certainly seems to fit the narrative. The other aspect is that one may be beguiled in to thinking that the book would only be focussed on the immediate story of the device's inception, however that is thankfully left to the eponymous last chapter of the book. As a result, the book is able to tell a much more holistic story than would have been possible if it had been focussed on the device alone.

As soon as you start reading the book, it becomes evident that the author is extending a thread from Steve Jobs' biography with his allusion to the "lone inventor" and the author admits to as much. While being repetitive, it is essential to do so because one must see past the mist of Steve Jobs to understand the significantly substantial efforts put in by thousands of others. In fact, the hard headedness of Steve meant that others had to put in far more onerous efforts to help him see the light of the day, only for him to take all the credit. At the same time, Steve paved the highway to success that few other leaders can, bogged down by the immense bureaucracy within the company.

The initial chapters of the book make it amply clear than the iPhone was a significant evolution than the revolution it was proclaimed to be. Another case of standing on the shoulders of giants. This is essentially the premise of the book as it unearths the origins of all that made the iPhone possible. It is humbling to think that century-old satire rather than science fiction accurately portrayed the state of affairs in the 21st century. Even then, the patent arts littered throughout the book indicate how ideas have to wait for years in order for technology to catch up and portray them as revolutionary.

A couple of topics that have always been associated with Apple and the iPhone are conflict mining and the state of working conditions in factories. Both these aspects are covered in detail in the chapters "Minephones", "Lion Batteries" and "Designed in California, Made in China". It is in a way mortifying to think of the people, especially children, whose livelihood depends on cheating death daily to ship the materials for the iPhone. The book is even replete with an adventure in Foxconn City, a humbling insight in to the human price of the iPhone. Of course, Apple has taken steps to ensure better working conditions but that doesn't help those who continue to work in abject conditions for other manufacturers, especially Chinese ones that have less regard for human rights.

As much as users may be pedantic over the iPhone's appearance, it is heartening to see the same level of attention being shown to its components by the author. Hence, the later chapters focus on the origins of Gorilla Glass, multi touch, image stabilization, sensors, processors, antenna, Siri and security enclave. This makes for an interesting read and again emphasizes the notion that the iPhone was more evolutionary than revolutionary as it managed to reap the benefits of miniaturization over the decades and integrate them in a rather appealing package. At the same time, it seems that the author tries a bit too hard in associating modern technology with erstwhile relics like the volvelle because it fits the narrative from his perspective. The book also captures the once prolific jailbreaking scene which has since slowed to a crawl with incremental feature and security updates in iOS. Nonetheless, it was great to hear from the various personalities involved in it as my exposure was simply limited to running the tools bearing their name.

As I have glossed over previously, those expecting an origin story of the iPhone, ought to find solace in the last chapter of the book. Of course, the build up to it is scattered across the chapters, without which you wouldn't be able to identify the characters involved. However, the emphasis once again is on the sacrifice of the unsung heroes involved in the creation of the device. While the sufferings of the designers in US might not have been at the same level as those involved in mining and assembly, there isn't denying the fact that the one device has claimed its fair share of victims along the way.

Reflecting on the book, it is apparent it was meant to be a reference on the iPhone and not so much about an iPhone. It is historic in context and therefore will stand the test of time as an accurate reflection of the iPhone's legacy on its 10th anniversary, much more than Apple's pretentious photo book. However, the book is by no means a page turner and could have benefited significantly from being tauter. While a good story has certainly been told, it hasn't been done in a particularly engaging manner. Still. this is a recommended read for anyone interested in technology and smartphones, rather than just the iPhone.

Musing #36: The Next Big Thing


I just started reading 'The One Device' the other day and have made it past the first couple of chapters wherein the book briefly touches over Apple's transition to innovation after its lost years. Of course, this is not the first time I have come across the story as the Steve Jobs' biography covers it in much greater detail. However, the underlying message to take away is that well-executed ideas can make a huge difference to the fortunes of a company, even though the innovation may be more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Although the situation is far from similar, reading this phase of Apple's history makes me ponder over the flux the Indian IT industry finds itself in now. If anything, the requirement for innovation in the industry has been expedited. However, what comes around in the public domain sounds more like Orwellian Newspeak. The mention of AI, Automation, Cloud, Digital, Agile in the broadest of terms seems to have little more intention than to placate the shareholders. After all, shareholders in India seem to be a particularly emotional bunch going by the swings that take place after an obvious piece of news is shared by the media. This has necessitated the use of these terms along with others like Big Data, DevOps which have been in circulation for a pretty long time, enough for them to not be considered as part of a novel strategy. Yet, it forms the basis of optimism for a huge industry and its employees.

Ideas need execution to be successful. The basic tenet of the Indian IT industry has been cost arbitrage and providing services for cheap. Unfortunately, the same strategy seems to be permeating itself in the “new” fields. Hence, when the industry speaks of AI, it isn't referring to top of the line machine and deep learning. Instead it alludes to automation of basic operational tasks based on limited algorithmic branching. Even the innovation that does occur in this space is not happening here in India but through talent hired abroad with the usual instruction based implementation being passed on to cheaper coders in India. Similarly, the digital revolution through products and platforms is based on imitating the functionalities of well-established software at a fraction of the price. It is thus a case of simply picking the low hanging fruit.

Establishing any roadmap is based on industry trends and a fair bit of optimism. One certainly must move along with emerging technologies but the success of any buzzword isn't guaranteed. Case in point is that of Virtual Reality. Not until a few years ago, it was seen as the next big thing. Cost has always been attributed as a key factor in the uptake of VR. However, that isn't the case for something like Google Cardboard. It certainly offers a basic experience but at the same time illustrates the fallibility of VR. Beyond the initial novelty of the experience, it becomes very difficult to get people to come back again. One can only take so many rollercoaster rides, scenic walks and museum visits in isolation. Gaming and interactive story telling might be expected to alleviate this but VR has become part of a vicious circle wherein it has been unable to attain critical mass which has in turn kept content creators from investing too much in it. The VR industry is taking recourse by cutting hardware prices for high-end headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive but unfortunately it seems destined to be niche. As has been the case in the past, mobiles will have to lead the way. However, it seems inevitable that AR experiences as those that will be provided by Apple's ARKit will be the mainstream option for once again it is just a case of incremental innovation.

This brings me back to the Apple and iPhone story. All the pieces of the puzzle were long in existence but none of them were put together in the manner which made the iPhone seem like magic. The next big thing might will not be a revolution but a simple evolution that seems like magic. Being ahead of time is as much as a failure as being late to the party. What one needs is a bridge between the present and the past such that people find the journey to the future much more exciting than the destination itself.

Review #35: Steve Jobs (Biography)


There are some people you look up to but don't exactly idolize when growing up and for me Steve Jobs was one of them. Growing up with stories on the Silicon Valley meant it was hard to escape Steve Jobs and his antagonist for the most part - Bill Gates. I am unsure how I first came across the Apple story but the notable ones I remember from the 90s are the 'Triumph of the Nerds' and 'Pirates of the Silicon Valley'. Subsequent to it, I suppose I again got a good whiff of Apple when reading Wozniak's iWoz about a decade back. Although I wasn't piqued by any of the movies, Hollywood's sudden interest in Steve Jobs got me to finally pick up his biography, albeit 2 years later. When starting out with the book, the question on my mind was whether it was going to add anything significant to the Apple story that is so inextricable from Steve Jobs.

Turns out that when a biographer has spent years with the subject and has dedicated 42 chapters to it, then there is an awful lot to know. The only other Walter Issacson book that I have read previously is "The Innovators" where the story itself wasn't new but the perspective of the personalities involved in it was. Here again, Isaacson masterfully brings out the personality of Steve Jobs, even as the story tends to sway chronologically. It feels genuine because it overcomes the so-called "reality distortion field" and doesn't try to powder over the imperfections and failures of Steve Jobs as a human being. As is already mentioned in the book, it was odd of Steve Jobs to cede control for once and the book is much better because of it.

While the garage to spaceship story of Apple is well documented, there are quite a lot of tidbits to take away from the book. The "why would Xerox give away its secrets" question had me perplexed based on the depictions I had previously read or seen and hence it was satisfying to know that it was once again a case of money doing the talking, or rather getting reticent engineers to give away their secrets. While the "1984" ad was iconic, the book got me to check the awful "Lemmings" commercial for the first time. Similarly, it had me searching for his narration of the "Think Different" ad which inevitable leads to Cook's speech at Steve's funeral. While Steve may forever be known for his Midas touch, the book poignantly lays out "Steve's folly" that worked against him and his company. It is hard to believe that Apple would have sold more "Bicycles" than "Macintoshes", but it was yet another case of Steve trying to change something he didn't come up with rather than accept it. Anecdotes like his failure to realise the appeal of the iPod Mini or the ROKR deal indicate that his business acumen was not infallible.

Since Steve Jobs meant the book to be one for his children, it is no wonder that there is also a lot of focus on his personal life. His contradictory stance to those around him feels incomprehensible throughout. His dehumanising trait is captured not only in his distant relationship with his daughter Lisa but also with those he shared a very close relationship. His refusal to give Andy Hertzfeld a bonus because he was on leave or his decision "to give zero" shares to Kottke are shocking examples of his lack of empathy. Such instances are so common through the book that you tend to desensitise and think of it as a case of "Steve being himself", a defence often put forth by Steve. All said and done, he still seemed to have a soft spot for the Woz, an exception among the rules.

While Steve might have not set the standard in human relationships, he certainly did so in board rooms. The famous board room battle with Scully is certainly a highlight of the book but more so because of the build up to it wherein we not only get to know the personalities but their personal connect or the facade they maintained of it. However, his mini-battle with Amelio during NeXT's integration with Apple and a bigger one with Eisner from Disney make for far more interesting reads.

The part that I relate to most however is his business principles. "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication" and yet the lack of complexity is generally seen as a manifestation of inability by many in the corporate sphere. Similarly, division of a company in to semi-autonomous divisions with separate PnL is often seen as empowering even as it leads to shortsightedness and incohesion that often hinders the company in the grander scheme of things. A natural consequence of this is the alienation of employees within the same organisation who also fail to connect with the organisation's vision. Similarly, a company's fear of cannibalisation often indicates its lack of confidence in its own products. Also appreciable was his ability to prove wrong seasoned business analysts like Christensen and to create a market rather than research it.

At the end of it all, this is a book that leaves you with a lot to ponder over. A story that follows a theme usually doesn't stick out but this one does because of the contradictions of its primary character. A perfectionist who was far from perfect himself. An unemotional wrecker of people's spirits who'd express his own emotions in tears. A bold leader who'd break in to sweat when meeting his hero. A Zen minimalist who created objects of indulgence. For all the contradictions, one consistent factor was his desire to push humankind forward and for that the world is a better place.

Musing #4: Feedback to the TOI


Your article ‘Man dies while trying to board train…’ immediately brought into recollection an eerily similar experience of mine which thankfully didn’t end in tragedy.

Being a Mumbaikar for life, I have always had a fascination for trains and considered the Western Railways to be a lifeline throughout my school and junior college days. However, my graduation and post-graduation institutes were located along the Central line and like countless other Mumbaikars, Dadar became a hub of my life for half a dozen years as I switched daily from the Western to the Central line. It was in one such instance that I was caught with my feet dangling in the air from the end of the very same platform mentioned in your article. Perhaps, I too may not have lived to tell this tale, but for a good samaritan who pulled me up and the suppleness of my young body.

To put such accidents down to just the irresponsibility of catching a moving train is simplifying things a bit too much. One has to delve in to the mind of the commuter at that bustling moment. In a city where time is money, “catch me if you can” is a way of life that wholly extends to public transportation, be it a train or a bus. With the average human capable of running at a bust of speed of 20 km/hr if not more, there will always be a window of opportunity of catching a train as it accelerates out of the station. To a commuter, watching a pertinent train start from standstill while being on the platform is perhaps as frustrating as watching paint dry.

Thus, the railway authorities need to take in to consideration instinctive, rather than logical thinking while designing a train or a platform. It doesn’t help that the bridge in question opens up right at the first compartment and that too in the direction opposite to movement. But, the railway authorities need to provide for a window of around 3 seconds at peak running speed along with deceleration which shouldn’t amount to any more than 25-30 metres extension at both ends of the platform. The railways do owe its commuters that much irrespective of their lack of critical thinking.

Since then, I have wised-up enough to not catch a train in motion, but I have been unable to extend the same intellectuality to BEST buses whose drivers cherish testing your athletic abilities, especially when you happen to be the sole person boarding the bus. The mention of BEST also brings in to attention another article of yours titled ‘Dedicated bus lanes can revive BEST’. My only suggestion here is that policing of dedicated bus lanes ought not to be left to policemen alone but to CCTV cameras fitted on the “dash” of the bus. This would help in identifying any violators, albeit ex post facto.

Hope these words reach the right ears to make a difference.

Addressed to the author Somit Sen chiefly apropos this article.

Review #5: Kindle Paperwhite (Previous Generation)

Kindle thy love for books!


I had been eyeing the Kindle for a couple of months prior to my recent purchase, but was holding out for the announcement of the 2014 models. The 'Voyage' essentially sealed it for me in favour of the Paperwhite 2. All that remained was to wait for an offer to turn up during the festive season and sure enough, it has become available (at the time of writing) for an effective price of 8099 (8999 + 10% cash back), a cracker of a deal if I may say so.

There isn't much left to say about the purchase since it is the best e-reader for the price, supported by an even better ecosystem. The device should allow partaking in extended one-handed reading sessions, something nigh impossible on my iPad Retina (3rd gen). I was able to transfer my prior purchases from Google Books without too much hassle and the Kindle Personal Documents Service works really well.

For the record, the unit shipped was the 4 GB European variant (starting serial 9017) featuring software version 5.4.3.2 out of the box, leaving no scope for apprehension. Now, all I need to do is rekindle my love for books, something that had fallen by the wayside since the halcyon days of yore.
Originally published on Amazon on 4th October 2014.