Sunday, February 20, 2022

Stupidity Infection: Reading remedies

 Yesterday, I finally finished Moby Dick.


Since the onset of the pandemic and the first strict lockdown, I felt as if I was on a desert island or in some other form of solitary confinement but with access to books. It is at times like this that one thinks of what remains to be done in life. For many today, that, for some extraordinary reason, involves bungee jumping. For others, especially since lockdown curtailed bungee jumping avenues, it became a chance to read the books one should read in a lifetime.

Time in such periods of solitary confinement becomes both endless and terribly short. One thinks about the time one has left on earth, in this odd combination of flesh and consciousness. Physically, we can only explore so very little of the world. And, temporally, we can only be in the now, physically speaking.

The only way, then, to be able to see a great deal of the world and to travel past our lifetimes in either direction, is to read. Great books describe places and things and people and more. They are a passport that is always valid to visit anywhere and anytime.    

And it is thus that I consumed War and Peace.

I felt a twinge of regret that such a book was not suggested to me when I was very young. After gobbling up the Tolstoy tomes, I fell upon that whale of a book – Moby Dick. And nibbled my way through the giant. Again, I wondered why such a book was not handy when I was at my most bookwormish. Yesterday, I completed the huge Herman Melville early in the day.

Around mid-afternoon, the Internet became sluggish and stuttered to a standstill. I spent some time investigating my offline hoardings – chanced upon some books I’d forgotten I had or had mislaid in my drive. I organised some other things too and finally, switching on a defrag, I took my Kindle and curled up on a sofa, looking forwards to 100 Eternal Masterpieces of Literature that I’d found there for free.

Alas, it had not been downloaded. And so I turned to the Kindle app on my phone and it is there that I found The Brothers Karamazov

Now I have read some Dostoevsky back in the day. I was terribly terribly young then and very odd. And so I read or tried to read The Idiot in French.

I would hardly browse a few pages before I became Prince Myshkin. 

Now, several decades later, I’m ready to take the plunge again to try and discover why so many people say one should read Crime and Punishment 

and why so many film versions of the Brothers book continue to come out.

And this is what I read:
Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a landowner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place. For the present I will only say that this “landowner”—for so we used to call him, although he hardly spent a day of his life on his own estate—was a strange type, yet one pretty frequently to be met with, a type abject and vicious and at the same time senseless. But he was one of those senseless persons who are very well capable of looking after their worldly affairs, and, apparently, after nothing else. Fyodor Pavlovitch, for instance, began with next to nothing; his estate was of the smallest; he ran to dine at other men's tables, and fastened on them as a toady, yet at his death it appeared that he had a hundred thousand roubles in hard cash. At the same time, he was all his life one of the most senseless, fantastical fellows in the whole district. I repeat, it was not stupidity—the majority of these fantastical fellows are shrewd and intelligent enough—but just senselessness, and a peculiar national form of it.
I was already unable to suppress a smile – such brutal truths and so eternal and yet as gentle as neighbourly gossip. I read a great deal more without feeling restless – it was that easy.

But it was not really my choice for my next read which was perhaps a Thomas Mann as some of his books are held in high esteem by my partner and I have never read anything of Mann. 

In the meantime, I’d also like to finish A Country Doctor's Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov.


Even if lockdowns no longer loom, you are always free to retire to your desert island and open the treasure chest of books waiting to be read. Don’t waste your time on trash from the present for the works that have survived time hold many secret messages for you which will, time and again, help you through all the troubles of life whatever they may be and, if not, they will entertain and enrich you infinitely beyond anything bestsellers can supply. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Maxwell's Demon: a useful devil!

Demons are scary and Maxwell's Demon is bound to be even more so. Maths and physics frighten many of us as much as any ghost or devil. But did you know that physicist James Clerk Maxwell, in 1867, actually birthed a demon in a thought experiment? 

In the thought experiment, a demon controls a small massless door between two chambers of gas. As individual gas molecules (or atoms) approach the door, the demon quickly opens and closes the door to allow only fast-moving molecules to pass through in one direction, and only slow-moving molecules to pass through in the other. Because the kinetic temperature of a gas depends on the velocities of its constituent molecules, the demon's actions cause one chamber to warm up and the other to cool down. This would decrease the total entropy of the two gases, without applying any work, thereby violating the second law of thermodynamics.

Most demons are rather useless in practice, because they simply don't exist. However, Maxwell's demon has helped scientists, pointing the way to overcome problems even in concrete aspects of life. 

To understand more about Maxwell's demon, try How Maxwell’s Demon Continues to Startle Scientists:

Ideas like this could prove useful in designing more efficient thermal systems, like refrigerators, or even in developing more advanced computer chips...

But, if that's too much too, try a short story based on Maxwell's pet thought experiment: Maxwell's Demon Went Down to Georgia.  

And, if that is also not your cup of tea, try this:

While too many humans still cling to beliefs about supernatural beings, and while such persons often end up causing devilish horrors in real life, there are also a number of people who prefer to flex the muscles of their brain to learn more about the world in which we live. So let's put all our mythical monsters into fiction where they belong and enjoy them only in stories.  

Our children would do better to learn more about Maxwell and other great minds than be brainwashed into primitive belief systems which are causing barbaric bloodshed in the present. James Clerk Maxwell produced his first scientific paper, “On the Description of Oval Curves,” when he was only fourteen! If parents can focus on reading to improve their knowledge of the world, rather than on consuming best sellers, would it not give a nation's children a better chance at improving the world? 


Saturday, October 16, 2021

Tolstoy's War and Peace: a tale of two families

War and Peace was much in the news in India some years back. Apparently, it was considered a dangerous book by some arm of the law. But did the noise it created incite interest in the book?

Leo Tolstoy - a painting by Ilya Repin
Not for me, at least. In my case, the tipping point came early in the pandemic when some people began online readathons to keep sane during the lockdowns. And what can be better for the purpose than books that people insist should be read in a lifetime? So I began the big book.

I began it on June 4, 2020. However, I seem to have suddenly picked up the pace in more recent months. Certainly it was after I came across an article which looked at reading for 30 minutes a day and covering some 30 pages in that rhythm. And thus it is that I finished the book sooner than anticipated.

It is an easy book to read and holds your attention most of the time. People love family gossip. War and Peace is as easy to get into as is the TV series, Friends. And, while friends are many in the book, the story mainly revolves around two families: the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys.

The Rostovs are father and mother and their three children. There is also a poor relative, a girl called Sonia. But our attention from the start is focused on fair young Natasha, the little daughter running hither and thither at a grand party for the grownups. Although we will plod through the wastes of war after all that partying, she will linger in our memory and slowly but surely emerge as the love interest for Prince Andrew Bolkonsky, one of the major figures in the story.

Though Natasha’s confidante is mostly poor Sonia, she is equally at ease with both her brothers. And the destinies of the two major families in the story are further cemented when the elder brother, Nicholas, falls in love with Andrew’s sister, Princess Mary.

While both families are wealthy and from noble lineages, the Rostovs reach ruin as the elder son incurs gambling debts but their father is no less responsible for rapidly running through the family’s finances.

And, lastly, there is the youngest son, Petya, with whom Natasha continues to enjoy childhood joys well into her womanhood.

Last but not least is the long suffering Sonia who is in love with the elder brother, Nicholas. Having no money of her own, she spells tragedy for the family if Nicholas marries her and so it is soon established that this is a lost cause.

In contrast, the Bolkonskys are an aloof lot. An eccentric father spends his days in study and torments his frail daughter out of contempt. He is rather more proud of his son who, in any case, respects his aged father.

We meet most of this star cast early and mostly in the grand settings of ballrooms and at dinner parties. Except for the elderly Prince Bolkonsky and his daughter who live in exile.

Then comes the war – Napoleon has marched into Russia. Prince Andrew goes to battle as does Nicholas. And, in time, Petya too.

The volumes of the book that deal mostly with the war do not mention much about the rest of the family but there is a break in hostilities and we return to the families. Andrew comes back from being a prisoner of war to find his wife on her death bed from childbirth. It is a dark tragedy for him, compounded by the guilt he experiences as he had pure contempt for his childlike wife.

However, when his mind is more settled by working for the welfare of the peasants who toil for him,  and in the course of traveling for work, he stays a night with the Rostovs and there he becomes aware of Natasha. 

The seeds of love are sown and bear flower when he meets her next but his ill tempered father does not view the match with favour and so Andrew chooses to stay away from Natasha for a year.

As fate will have it, when his return is imminent, a scoundrel seduces Natasha and is about to elope with her. The bid is foiled but rumour spreads and Andrew coldly sets Natasha free of their engagement.

War returns to tear the families apart and, this time, Andrew is fatally wounded.

Battle of Moscow, 7th September 1812, 1822
by Louis-Fran├žois Lejeune

Natasha serendipitously nurses him to the end and, somehow, that love is vindicated. 

Yet, somehow too, his death sets his sister free to marry Nicholas. Thus the story closes with the two families becoming very close.

Besides these two families there are, of course, several others but those are not shown to us in as great detail.

Taking these two families as background, Tolstoy paints for us a grand canvas of Russia in that time and exhorts us to remember how terrible war is.

Families lose dear ones in war. Even unarmed women and children get killed in battles. Wars destroy the finances of a nation, affect agriculture and lay low edifices that have taken years to build. The heart of a nation beats in its household hearths. War plunders not only the wealth of a country but decimates the peaceful pace of family life.