Category Archives: Reviews

What is it like to be a bird?

Bird-sense-cover.jpg

Cover of Tim Birkhead’s book Bird Sense

Can we ever know what it is like to be a bird? As poetic as the question may appear to be, it’s fascinating how the question has captured the attention of a bunch of  scientists, artists and other professionals ranging from neurosurgeons, ecologists, physiologists to bird illustrators and medieval travellers. The fascination with bird flight is possibly as old as language itself. Birds are among the early cave paintings, be it in the subterranean caves discovered by teenage boys at Lascaux, or the paintings of Genyornis in cave paintings in Northern Australia that could be 40,000 years old, dating to the time when man set foot on that continent. In Bird Sense, Tim Birkhead who has written fascinating stuff on history of science, birds and birdwatching and has edited the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Ornithology, makes a narrative synthesis of the historical and contemporary knowledge on what it is like to be a bird. An extremely intriguing question throwing up questions such as “Is this know-able?”. Such philosophical meanderings have clearly not deterred several scientists from designing simple and elegent experiments to try and understand this. Continue reading

Review of Pankaj Mishra’s “A great clamour”

I picked up Pankaj Mishra’s latest book “A great clamour: Encounters with China

Pankaj Mishra's A Great Clamour

Pankaj Mishra’s A Great Clamour

and its neighbours” at the Raipur airport, on my way back to Bangalore from a short consultation on tribal health. I have discovered a deep interest in China, after my month-long stay in Beijing and my conversations with several public health researchers from China. Continue reading

Hinduism by Kshiti Mohan Sen

With a foreword by his better known grandson, Amartya Sen, I picked up this Penguin

Detail of mother and child from 5th century AD now at the LA County Museum of Art

Detail of mother and child from 5th century AD now at the LA County Museum of Art

paperback 2002 reprint of Kshiti Mohan Sen’s 1961 book last year at a Kochi bookshop. With only 138 pages for a very grand title “Hinduism”, the book seems overambitious from its cover itself. Yet, I found it to be a fairly comprehensive account of the history and (then in the 60s) present of this religion with which many people in the subcontinent identify themselves with. Continue reading

Tibet, Tibet: A review

Meanwhile, at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los

Tibet, Tibet by Patrick French

Angeles, the Dalai Lama blessed a new Shi-Tro mandala (a three-dimensional religious sculpture) in front of a large, paying audience. The mandala had been created by a Tibetan monk who ran a local Buddhist centre, assisted by his American wife, who worked in creative marketing for Warner Brothers Records Inc. She had generated volumes of publicity, using the slogan “Shi-Tro Happens.” The Los Angeles Times described this as “marketing the mandala in a hip and humorous way.” So, there was the Dalai Lama, up on stage, Shi-Tro happening, the ceremony compered by the requisite Hollywood star, in this case the actress Sharon Stone, famous for lacking underwear in the movie Basic Instinct, but this time wearing a feather boa and bare feet. After musing aloud for a while about how she might introduce the Dalai Lama, she finally settled for, “The hardest-working man in spirituality … Mr. Please, Please, Please let me back into China!” The fact that the Dalai Lama came from Tibet was momentarily lost….

– p.122,  Tibet Tibet by Patrick  French

Patrick French’s 2003 book on Tibet was my first book on this fascinating region. Having just returned after 6 weeks behind the great firewall, my eagerness to read more about Tibet had only increased. For, in a premier University campus, no less, was I prevented from reading the Wikipedia article on Tibet, leave alone any Dalai rant that sought to destabilise the “national unity of the motherland”. Apart from several experiments with proxy servers and overconfidently trying to set up Tor, I finally came to terms with the stupendity of the Great Firewall of China, despite Winter & Lindskog’s spirited efforts (PDF from arxiv) at “understanding of China’s censorship capabilities and … more effective evasion techniques”. Continue reading

A confused biodiversity congress: First impressions from the 2nd Indian Biodiversity Congress

For every complex problem, there is a simple solution, and it is invariably wrong

Madhav Gadgil, quoting HL Mencken at the 2nd Indian Biodiversity Congress

I had an opportunity to attend the 2nd Indian Biodiversity Congress that started

The Congress was fairly well attended with many young students and academia, but crucually lacking policymakers

today in Bangalore. What was quite amazing was the diversity of speakers in terms of their background/disciplines and the political establishment line-up for the inauguration (Veerappa Moily, Ananth Kumar, R Ashok and few others). Both of these only augur well for the biodiversity movement in the country. But a scan through the very poorly edited “Book of Abstracts” reveals (to my mind) the confusion among the contributors and editors as to what the congress means and should stand for. Continue reading