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Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs by Muhammad Yunus

Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity's Most Pressing NeedsBuilding Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs by Muhammad Yunus

My Rating★★★★☆

Is Yunus the only practicing (as in the type who never came across the proverbial armchair yet) nobel laureate in economics? (his field is, if not the nobel)

His ideas and beliefs are rooted in and grown from the experience of running what sounds like hundreds of companies and offshoots and sister concerns – almost all successful, launching an entire industry and redefining one of the oldest businesses of the world.

Yet, in spite of full awareness of the credentials of the author, everything inside a reader militates against the seemingly utopian picture Yunus paints. You want to shout at him: all this is fine but REALITY is different! But the reader forgets – Yunus has seen and succeeded in the stark reality of one of the poorest, most torn landscapes in the world and he is proving that the ‘reality’ that economics teaches us is a very constrained reality. All the talk of incentives being the fuel of the human growth engine fall flat. But you don’t give in, you keep drilling deep holes in every cheerful statement of Yunus throughout the introductory chapters, after all you have years of economic training to back you up.

Finally Yunus gets to the case studies, and you read on with growing astonishment that the very principles outlined earlier, the principles that you had in your economic wisdom so thoroughly cut into pieces, all seem to just work on the ground. You scratch your head and try to figure it out. Then you forget your criticism and congratulate yourself on your own positive outlook towards humanity. Until next time.

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Posted by on September 20, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the HumanitiesNot for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum

My Rating★★★☆☆


Indian parents take pride in a child who gains admission to the Institutes of Technology and Management; they are ashamed of a child who studies literature, or philosophy, or who wants to paint or dance or sing.

Nussbaum wants to change this situation with this manifesto, with this call to action. With the very poignantly titled Not for Profit, Nussbaum alerts us to a “silent crisis” in which nations “discard skills” as they “thirst for national profit.”: a world-wide crisis in education. She focuses on two major educational systems to illustrate this: one in the grips of the crisis and in its death-row. The other carelessly hurtling towards it, undoing much of the good done before (and worse, the USA is a leader in most fields, and rest of the world may well follow where it leads).

What is this developing crisis? Nussbaum laments that the humanities and the arts are being cut away, in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world. Seen by policy-makers, parents and students as nothing but useless frills, and at a time when nations must cut away all useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market, they are rapidly losing their place in curricula, and also in the minds and hearts of parents and children.

This is most prevalent and inevitable in the placement-based institutions, especially the IITs and the IIMs and the newspapers that hawk their successes, that measure their success purely on the drama of placements and on the excess of the pay-packages. This sort of a higher education orientation also changes the early school cultures, with parents having no patience for allegedly superfluous skills, and intent on getting their children filled with testable skills that seem likely to produce financial success by getting into the IITs and the IIMs.

Nussbaum says that in these IITs and IIMs, instructors are most disturbed by their students’ deficient humanities preparation. It might be heartening that it is precisely in these institutions, at the heart of India’s profit-oriented technology culture, that instructors have felt the need to introduce liberal arts courses, partly to counter the narrowness of their students.

But it is not really so. Even as professors struggle to introduce such courses, as students at IIM, we have an all-encompassing word for anything that comes anywhere close to the humanities: “GLOBE”, and boy don’t we love using it. This throughly derogatory terms sums up the purely career-minded, profit-driven orientation of education in India’s elite institutions. I now feel a sense of complete despair at every laugh shared in the use of this expression. With the standards of success thus set, is it any wonder that the culture is seeping across the education spectrum?

After this dispiriting survey of Indian education, Nussbaum says that the situation is not as bad yet in the US due to an existing strong humanities culture in the higher institutions, but issues the below caveat:

We in the United States can study our own future in the government schools of India. Such will be our future if we continue down the road of “teaching to the test,” neglecting the activities that enliven children’s minds and make them see a connection between their school life and their daily life outside of school. We should be deeply alarmed that our own schools are rapidly, heedlessly, moving in the direction of the Indian norm, rather than the reverse.

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Posted by on August 24, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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A Companion to Ethics by Peter Singer

A Companion to EthicsA Companion to Ethics by Peter Singer

My Rating★★★★☆

Singer takes a different approach with this book and instead of culling from existing literature, he calls for essays and the result is an eclectic mix of essays that exhibit a wide range of contemporary’s takes on some of the classic and current problems that philosophers wrestle with or theorize about. It consists of some fifty original essays. These essays deal with the origins of ethics, with the great ethical traditions, with theories about how we ought to live, with arguments about specific ethical issues, and with the nature of ethics itself.

As Singer puts it, a quick summary might go like this: in the first part, we see how little we know about the origins of ethics, how ethics in small-scale societies takes forms very different from those it takes in our own, and how the most ancient ethical writings already reflect a variety of views about how life is to be lived. Then the great ethical traditions are put on display; and we find divergence of opinion not only between the different traditions, but within each tradition itself. The history of Western philosophical ethics shows how, from the earliest Greek thinkers to the present day, old philosophical positions have resurfaced at intervals, and old battles have had to be fought out all over again in more modern terms. When, in Part IV, the volume moves from the past to the present, we are presented with many theories of how we ought to live, and about the nature of ethics, all plausible, sometimes disagreeing with other approaches.

The many voices makes this a valuable collection in that the method provides a level of over-all detachment that a single author tackling multiple philosophies might find hard to achieve. Here each of the authors are (presumably) scholars who wanted to make a distinct point and Singer is okay with accepting that the book might not have any coherence beyond being a companion to the many schools; but the reader also develops a sense of convergence of ideas as the book moves from the past to the present and from questions to possible solutions. What is striking at this point is the unexpected extent to which writers who had started from quite different places all seemed to be heading in the same direction.

That is the strength of the book. It lays out the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle but leaves it to the reader to divine if there is an overarching outline connecting them. And a book on philosophy should always endeavor to let that thrill be the reader’s.

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Posted by on August 16, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy

 

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On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks by Simon Garfield

On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World LooksOn the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks by Simon Garfield

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A collection of entertaining anecdotes. Not particularly mind expanding, not at all knowledge-expanding, unfortunately. One good sample tidbit is that the popular ‘Hic sunt dracones’ (here there be dragons) is just a misrepresentation, those words never permeated medieval maps after all. Another is the origin of the expression ‘orienting oneself’. If the bulk of the anecdotes were similarly obscure or offbeat, the book might have been worth it. The poetical intro by Dava Sobel is the best chapter. Not for Mapheads, this one. Not the right kinda trivia.

Another tidbit for the curious (from the second best chapter in the book): Steinberg’s Manhattanite’s view of the world – the precursor to many of the maps that invade your facebook timelines periodically.

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“The parody has been parodied many times, but the best modern parallel, and certainly the rudest, is to be found in the work of the much travelled Bulgarian graphic designer Yanko Tsvetkov. Tsvetkov, who works under the name Alphadesigner, may well have constructed the most offensive and cynical atlas in the world, all of it stereotypical, some of it funny. His Mercator projection entitled The World According to Americans showed a Russia labelled simply ‘Commies’, and a Canada labelled ‘Vegetarians’. He has also produced the Ultimate Bigot’s Supersize Calendar of the World, which includes Europe According to the Greeks. In this one, the bulk of European citizens live in the ‘Union of Stingy Workaholics’, while the UK is categorised as ‘George Michael’.”

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Posted by on August 13, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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The Economist Presents: Economics: Making Sense of the Modern Economy by Simon Cox

Economics: Making Sense of the Modern EconomyEconomics: Making Sense of the Modern Economy by Simon Cox

My Rating: 2 of 5 stars

It is easy to be stunned by the manifest foresight that a book like this can showcase. But the reader has to remember that in a magazine like The Economist, a number of contrasting ideas about the current world economy would always be sloshing around. To later make a selective compilation of those articles that proved to be ‘prophetic’ is an exercise in exclusion that is designed to present a false sense of confidence or analytical foresight. Just because a collection of articles from a magazine turned out to be quite close to the mark, there is no reason to believe that any random article you might pick up from this week’s Economist will be of equal predictive value.

I have nothing against the magazine or the book. I greatly enjoy the magazine and to a more moderate extent liked the book as well. But the blatantly triumphant endnotes trumpeting the date of each article and a further note on how the world actually played out was grating to say the least.

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Posted by on July 15, 2013 in Books

 

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Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník

Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century

Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník

My Rating★★★★★

It is hard to put a finger on what this book tries to do but it does something important. It narrates history in a detached way without giving any undue importance to the ‘major’ events. It is one of those rare instances when its brevity is the greatest strength of a historical narrative. It is not that lacks in detail detailed, don’t get me wrong here. It does go on about how people did things to each other and developed theories about each other, about how people and nations thought and acted, about large numbers and statistics of war, and about how absurd it all was. It never says in so many words that it was absurd, of course. But it makes you realize that when history is told by someone who has (or seems/ attempts to seem) no agenda or alliances or a spirit of inquiry or even an interest in educating the readers (etc.) but is just told, told as if it is just something that happened – then that narrative has the power to show you how small everything was and how collectively we are a bunch of such magnificent buffoons. There is a touch of Douglas Adams in there somewhere, in that humor and in the sad irony that keeps on putting a half-smile on the reader’s face despite the subject matter being dealt with (Hint: I am not talking of Adams’ sci-fi books here). It is only apt that Ouředník is also the translator of Beckett and Queneau and perhaps most pertinently, of Rabelais.

This should be required reading for students of History – even as we learn about the great nations and the of great wars and of the heroes and of the generals and of the great science and its advances and of turning points and tragedies, we should also learns perspective and learn that history was just about a large bunch of people making decisions that would always seem absurd (like the proverbial best-laid schemes…) to everyone but themselves – either to other countries or at least to posterity . And that would be a valuable lesson… I am not doing justice to this, as I said it is hard to put a finger on what this book does. Just read it?

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Posted by on May 7, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Makers of Modern India by Ramachandra Guha

Makers of Modern India

Makers of Modern India by Ramachandra Guha

My Rating★★★☆☆

To make the Indian experience more central to global debates is one aim of this book. Another, and perhaps greater aim, is to make Indians more aware of the richness and relevance of their modern political tradition.

After such bold claims, I was disappointed to find that the book is in fact an anthology of Indian political writing. I strongly feel a commentary would have been better to meet the professed aims of the book and could have been made more impact-full with short relevant extracts

The questionable set chosen as “Makers of Modern India” include nineteen famous and not-so-famous names:
Rammohan Roy (Part I); Syed Ahmad Khan, Jotirao Phule, Tarabai Shinde, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Bal Gangadhar Tilak (Part II); M.K. Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, B.R. Ambedkar, M.A. Jinnah, E.V. Ramaswami and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (Part III); Jawaharlal Nehru, M.S. Golwalkar, C. Rajagopalachari, Rammanohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan and Verrier Elwin (Part IV); and Hamid Dalwai (Part V).

As a contemporary alternative to Argumentative Indian, I am not sure it succeeds – except by showing that a connected tradition built on boldness, challenge, contest and contrast existed in the vast correspondences that contemporary Indian thinkers were capable of producing. Guha illustrates this in a way by showing a connected series of thoughts evolving by bouncing around between the set of characters above, original thoughts arising and then being furiously debated and progressing in dramatic point-counter-point fashion (mostly Gandhian ideas of course, but still…) towards action and sometimes even more dramatic reaction in the crucible of Indian Democracy.

The essentially disputatious nature of this tradition is manifest throughout this book. The pity is that very little of this intellectual ‘tradition’ was meant for mass consumption or was based on a focused and sustained attempt at analyzing and evolving systems of thought but seem to be individual contributions to individual problems – a method that has always plagued Indian political thought and has probably resulted in the poverty of thought post-independence.

That sort of integration is probably what is needed before India can submit the results of her social and democratic experiment to the world and from it evolve a new conception of democracy relevant to a more diverse world than that existed when democracy was originally conceived. Guha has taken a first step in this direction and I sincerely hope a more synthetic attempt will follow one day.

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Posted by on May 5, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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