Author: Sreedevi Viswmbaran

Review: The Mother of All Questions

The Mother of All QuestionsThe Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my second Rebecca Solnit Book. An author, who promotes any kind of ‘ism’ tend to be a little rigid on their views in my opinion. That’s why I mostly resist being part of any kind of ‘ism’ and I keep that in mind when I read a book as well. The moment you commit yourself to any kind of ‘ism’, it curtails your free thinking and forces you to realign your thoughts along with the ‘ism’. I disagree with few parts in the book, still, I loved it. The book helps us create a new perceptive, just like her book ‘Men Explain things to me’. Maybe I lack the depth to understand it better, at this point, I would go with a three star for this book and be adding it to the ‘must reread list’ because I think a little ‘evolved’ me would appreciate this book much better.

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Review: Me Before You

Me Before You (Me Before You, #1)Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this one to binge read over the weekend and it didn’t disappoint me. Even watched few scenes from the movie and totally hated it. Emilia Clarke has totally overdone the whole thing IMO. Thought I liked the non-conventional light read, what intrigued me is the controversy that followed. #mebeforeeuthanasia was such a powerful debate that I found my opinions swaying to the other side, every time I read an article about it. Even now, I still can not make up an opinion about the whole thing. Anyway, at the end of the day, I am a little less convinced about the love story in the book and a lot more confused about the choice between selfishness and love. Well, I liked the read and it kept me hooked so gets a three rating from me.

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Review: 1984

19841984 by George Orwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A scary book which makes you realize the perils of mass surveillance. The book starts with three very powerful lines, WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. You will almost be nodding your head in agreement by the time you finished reading the explanation for the three. Spoiler here -> it doesn’t end in a conventional way where the evil is conquered in the end. Rather, you will be fully convinced how and why Mr. Smith would ultimately agree 2 + 2 is 5. A book impregnated with quotes to ponder and my favorite one would be “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”

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Review: The Wit & Wisdom of Tyrion Lannister

The Wit & Wisdom of Tyrion LannisterThe Wit & Wisdom of Tyrion Lannister by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A perfect book to read when you are dead tired waiting for Winds of Winter. Reminded me of all those times when I love-hate-ed the Lannisters. But having said that, this book never takes away the gnawing boredom of waiting for the Winds of Winter. OMG, I read the series when my daughter was a tiny little one year old, now she is almost ready for KG and I am still waiting to know if John Snow is actually dead or not.

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The illusionists of our time

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Data, the center point of Digital Revolution has become an Oil-like commodity which India had got plenty on its own. But are we really equipped to handle the new Data-bloom in the digital space? With the raging Facebook Data Leak debate going on, it is high time we pay attention to the numerous social media platforms and apps in our digital devices which leech data without we even realizing it. It is crucial that we become aware of what happens to our personal information and other details stored on the web by multiple players. Personal data, starting from the crucial biometric to the seeming innocuous internet browsing data, needs to come under scrutiny when privacy is concerned.

While Privacy is a constitutionally protected right of an Individual, there are many places where we give or required to give our personal data consensually. The Government and other State Institutions, Hospitals, Financial institutes they all collect and store our personal information in some form, mostly in digital format. Owing to the structure of the society, they do have some accountability to protect the data. What about the ones which are outside the safety net of accountability? How do we ensure the security of the data we share with the private players or rather How do we ensure the security of the Data that private players collect via apps and social media? Though we give ‘consent’ to many of the data siphoning apps by clicking ‘Agreed’ to legally binding policies, who actually reads the wrapped text policies before clicking ‘Agreed’? The recent Data leak from Facebook reminds us once again that, Data is never going to be safe with private players who use Data monetization to up the dollars in their stash.

What do the small and big corporates do with the data harvested by the social media and other apps? ‘Targetted advertisement’ would be the easy one-word answer. While the small corporates may use data as a commodity to be traded and transacted, big conglomerates seemingly use the large pool of data to feed their self-evolving AI programs and data mining which eventually helps them to identify patterns and user behaviors which in turn help in better marketing. The market of Data is very vast and it reminds you of The Matrix where bioelectricity is harvested from ‘enslaved’ humans. As we unearth more and more dubious facts from Facebook and its dallying with user data, we see how deep is the surveillance web of this private players.

What if Facebook uses its own tools to scan through your messages and photos for flagged contents? How does it affect a law-abiding individual, who has nothing to hide? Now it would be the apt time to recall facebook’s one of the most notorious mood influencing project which was apparently failed and shelved due to mass protest. There is no telling how dangerous this “emotional contagion” can be considering how Facebook has spread across a range of demographics. The ability to create such illusory ideas in a user’s mind makes the big conglomerates a potential threat to the society as a whole thus calls for a high regularization of such illusionists.

We already know how the intricate algorithms can mine the data and tell about our likes, dislikes, routines, preferences, favorite actors, people we follow etc. Maybe they can even figure out our political, religious affiliations as well. But as long as the beneficiaries are the benign targetted advertisement of products only, we may even be good. But as we see, it does not strictly stick to that. Every day reports come out how Major Elections across the globe, Major decisions with larger economic impacts like Brexit, etc might have been influenced by deception of Data in Social Media. If any Organization is powerful enough to influence emotions and opinions, resourceful enough to create illusions of truth as needed, it is only matter of time before they monotonize the same.

Data sharing across multiple platforms, camouflaged as time-saving is prevalent everywhere in the Digital world, it is not limited to Facebook. The mysterious bag you added to Amazon cart which keeps following you wherever you go in the web, the targeted ads appear on every website you visit based on the google search history, we do not even pay heed to this slight invasion of privacies or not even bother to change the settings. When Google search prompts you with tailored texts based on your previous searches, when Google assistant politely reminds you of your doctor’s appointment based on a mail you receive, rather than taking it as a convenience feature, you should be wondering, whether you want billion dollar foreign conglomerates to know literally all your secrets. The way things get evolved, time is not far away when insurance companies combine data from your fitness tracker apps and your grocery list to make a profile of your health and determine your premium accordingly.

“AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization. It brings dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy,” – Stephen Hawking

Coming down to the granular level of Data, Where is the 0s and 1s of the Data that is collected from us saved? Most of the Social Media we use in India belong to foreign Corporates who have cloud servers on foreign lands and comes under their law of the land or maybe there is still some dubiety on that. Authorized Government authorities of that country, unauthorized snipping off by hackers, we never know who has access to data. It is integral to have a legal standing for Data handled by the private players in India. There is a recent directive from Ministry of Electronics and IT, to store Government Data on Cloud servers located in India. While It is true that giving a legal boundary to data reduces the chance of Data abuse and gives some accountability to the private players about the data they harvest, it beats the idea of the borderless web. Maybe that’s why we need technologies like Blockchain with a distributed storage of information. But till those technologies come into effect, we need to have some regulations in place.

Your digital footprint reveals a lot about you. Your personal information, financial information, political and religious affiliation, many things which you may or may not want to share can be derived from your Digital footprints.Shutting off the social media and other digital platforms from our daily lives is not an option, but it is imperative for a user to know the details of what that user has consented to share and the details of Data user has shared so far. Above all, it is high time, India, with its thriving pool of engineers has its own worldly recognizable Social media platform. And as a parting quote, I leave you this.

“Big Brother is Watching You.”
― George Orwell, 1984

Review:No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance StateNo Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I loved the first few chapters of the book. Thought it would be one of the groundbreaking books of its kind. Those chapters were not less than fiction and but then the whole focus of the book moved on to defending the author under various circumstances. It is understandable that the whole justifying thing should come under the purview of the book, but should have been crispier. I would have liked to have more on Snowden. But his presence is limited in the first chapters. There are no two ways about the truth. But the book was disappointing.

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Review: Burnt Shadows

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie portrays the journey of a Hiroko Tanaka, a girl of Japanese Origin, across multiple geographies and cultures. The story begins with an arresting image of three bird-shaped burns on her back, an indelible reminder of the world she has lost. From there, the story slowly unravels the interwoven stories of Weiss, Burton and Ashraf Families, spanned across generations. Hiroko, a survivor of August 9, 1945, Nagasaki Bombing, Hibakusha as they say in Japanse, travels to India to meet her late fiance, Konrad Weiss’s sister Elizabeth Burton.

As the backdrop changes to Delhi’s summer and it’s blazing Gulmohars, Hiroko finds a surprising, yet a truehearted friend in Elizebeth Burton and a soulmate in Sajjad Ashraf. Amid India-Pakistan separation in 1947 and the subsequent violence, Hiroko and Sajjad find themselves married and are forced to settle in Karachi, Pakistan unexpectedly. The fate keeps bringing Hiroko under the shadow of many historic events like the Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki, India Pakistan Partition, Afghan war, Nuclear tensions in Asia and the 9/11 bombing. It is moving to see, how a survivor of such mass destruction still holds on to humanity until the end of the book.

Burnt shadows are as poetic as it can be, and a new meaning unravels in front of you each time you read it. The author has carved every character with such a finesse that the situations and emotions characters go through, will create a lasting impression on you. Occasionally, the writing seems to be the excelling point than the story, especially in the end.

The story is cast in a huge geographical and cultural canvas.The juxtapositioning of noted massacres of human history and the personal loss and sorrow is notable. The author brilliantly positioned love and humanity in such a contrasting environment of war and yet managed to invoke the right emotions without confusion. The wartorn Urakami, Delhi on the verge of Partition, Refugees at Karachi, the rawness of 9/11 bombing, the list of historical events author has picked to tell the story goes on.

Sajjad stood up quietly and walked over to her. “There is a phrase I have heard in English: to leave someone alone with their grief. Urdu has no equivalent phrase. It only understands the concept of gathering around and becoming ‘ghumkhaur’—grief-eaters—who take in the mourner’s sorrow.”
― Kamila Shamsie, Burnt Shadows

Along with geographical grandness, Author also handles the nuances of multiple cultures very well. Many characters in the Novel come across multiple cultures as part of their journey and it is wonderful to see how each of them assimilate an entirely foreign culture, still, keep a part of their heart true to their own. The unfamiliarity of a new culture, the reluctance in pursuing its ways, and the inevitable acceptance after knowing it in depth, this cycle is a recurring theme with every character and the author does it with a distinct emotional portrayal for each character.Another motif you find all over is that of a story of ‘Spider and Islam’. Two families, The buttons, and The Ashrafs, with deeply interconnected roots, go through a series of events having a similar theme as that of ‘Spider and Islam’. As a reader, it is interesting to discern this patterns.

Another notable portion comes towards the end when author pits two popular ideologies, which are at odds. She does it with such nuances that, its impossible not to empathize with both of them. Abdulla, a conservative Muslim, who finds himself at the wrong end of the law and Kim Burton, still raw from the wounds of 9/11 and her personal loss,  come together in the end to voice out the obvious religion versus terrorism arguments.My favorite part of that entire dialogue is a soft toy analogy using which author choose to show, how dissimilar backgrounds and situations lead to opposing beliefs in individuals and how difficult it is not to sympathize with both the ideologies. Both the arguments have its own standing in the reader’s mind.

Considering how elaborate author was in the beginning, I am rather disappointed with the abrupt ending . I looked up from the last chapter as an unsatiated reader who could do with a little more specific ending. Despite this little glitch, I enjoyed the read and really took my own sweet time to savor the book. Some of the quotes from the book have turned my favorite now. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a memorable read