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Archive for October, 2011


BOOK REVIEW

Gods Without Men
By Hari Kunzru, Penguin – Hamish Hamilton, Price: £ 17

Reading “Gods Without Men” is like taking a Night out with Shyamalan. One gets to inhabit a vast desolate Mojave desert with a mystic rock formation called the Three Pinnacles, meet an array of disparate characters including ‘a glow boy’ and get lost in supernatural subplots that attempt to straddle pre-18th century America with the present.

In one large sweep we come face to face with wandering Coyotes, Spanish friars and conquistadors, white adventurists, wild west settlers, hippies high on sex, drugs and inter galactic communication and last heard, an army camp that simulates Desert Storm battles to train men for war.

It’s a novel that walks in circles, the plot nebulous. The themes that the writer picks, contemporary and ambitious – interracial relations, the Wall Street Crash, media witch hunt, America’s obsession with UFOs and war in Central Asia.

Predictably, Hari Kunzru steers clear of India, but his prose carries its NRI echo. While describing American Punjabis he irritably notes, “Wherever in the world you happened to be, in London or New York or Vancouver or Singapore or Baltimore – you really lived in apna Punjab, an international franchise, a mustard field of the mind.” Elsewhere, select words pepper the narrative – nazar (for evil eye), pagal (for mad), maderchod (to describe US) and so on.

The grand themes of interracial relations, the Wall Street Crash and the modern media are tackled in the central story that looks at a young couple, Jas and Lisa, living in circa 2008 New York. Jas is Jaswinder Matharu an MIT educated son of Sikh immigrants working at the Wall Street and Lisa Schwartzman, a Jew from the American east coast. All is well, till Lisa gives birth to their son Raj.

Born autistic, bringing up Raj becomes a chore. The couple wonder, if they have been cursed as their extended families offer culturally different solutions. Eastern fatalism meets western free will. Jas concentrates on earning high stakes with a Wall Street hedge firm that bankrupts Honduras economy, while Lisa gives up her work as an editor in a publishing firm to look for innovative ways of helping their son.

When Raj gets lost on a family trip to a Californian desert park the roles reverse. Devastated by her loss and hounded by a relentless media glare that demonises the couple, Lisa turns to God, while Jas tries to rationalize Raj’s disappearance and subsequent reappearance. Raj’s return becomes a miracle for Lisa. Not so for Jas who starts doubting whether Raj is his son at all.

Another story set in circa 1950s, attempts to satirise America’s obsession with outer space and its 1970s hippie moment. In this story, an aeronautics engineer erects an electric system near the Three Pinacles to send signals into space and is rewarded with a UFO visit bearing ‘pure Aryan type – pale skinned and grey eyed’ people called ‘Merku’ and ‘Voltra’.

Soon after other ‘star people’ wanting to ‘heal the dreadful wounds of the world’ collect around the Pinnacles giving birth to hippie sect called Ashtar Galactic Command. Kunzru tries to spin a cult like atmosphere and evoke hippie moments but ends up packing Woodstock into Star Wars.

Then comes the most disturbing story of the lot. It talks of an army base that contains a faux Iraqi village – Wadi-al-Hamam, peopled by real Iraqi asylum seekers – recreated in the middle of the Mojave desert. This is the training ground for the marines.

The story has no link with the rest of the book except for a tenuous connection in which a protagonist from the army base – a teenage girl of Iraqi descent comes across Jas and Lisa’s son wondering aimlessly on the base. The story is so stylistically different from the others that it appears to have been added for the sole purpose of allowing Kunzru to make his observations about Iraq war.

There are other stories that make their appearance but most of them are stillborn to the plot. Like the Spanish priest, Fray Garces, who establishes a mission in 1778 to convert the local neophytes to Catholic faith or the tragic story of the scar-faced anthropologist, who begs his half white-half Indian son to save his documentation of the Coyote language and legends.

In this collage of stories it is impossible to tell what anchors the book. While the setting of the Three Pinnacles ostensibly locates the geographical and temporal core, the moral terrain remains enigmatic.

(An edited version of this review appeared in Mail Today issue dated 16 October 2011 here http://epaper.mailtoday.in/epaperhome.aspx?issue=16102011)

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BOOK REVIEW

I am Feeling Lucky – The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59
by Douglas Edwards, Publisher: Allan Lane, Price not mentioned

Rules are that there are no rules. In 1999 two Stanford graduates founded an internet startup company that had no strategy plan, no business plan and no explanation for how they are going to provide the best search engine. All they had to show to prospective funders and venture capitalists was a Doonsbury cartoon in which entrepreneur Bernie says, “if someone comes along with a smart engine, one that actually works, [all other] companies will evaporate overnight.”

And that’s what Google did. It made Yahoo and AOL directory-based search obsolete and gave the world a key-word based search engine that threw up answers faster and more accurately than any other.

Writer and former Google employee, Douglas Edwards records this in his recent book chronicling the early days of Google called, “I am feeling lucky – The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59.” He, notes that initial years of Google expansion was based on PageRanker, a licensed Stanford programme that enabled indexing of the web pages according to the importance given to them by visitors/ readers.

Edwards, who was Google’s first director of consumer marketing and brand management between 1999-2005 serves up instances when rules were broken even as they were being upheld, as one product after another was rolled out.

One of the earliest Google mottos “Don’t be evil” was put to question when Google tied up for the Amazon affiliate programme. Through this programme Google would serve up ads in the search stream that would lead users to click on Amazon (which earned Google its pennies). This upset users that now realized that search could be advertisement driven. To control the damage, Google developed, coloured backgrounds for text ads. But the damage had been done, and for better or worse, people became used to the new form of ads that appeared not as pictures or banners but as text.

A similar pandemonium arose when Google launched its Google Toolbar and later, email service Gmail. The toolbar collected user behaviour pattern without user knowing it and the email threw up ads responding to words used in private email exchange.  In both situations user privacy stood compromised in favour of either gathering behavioural data or ad revenue or both. For Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, the company was not an ad network but it is obvious that it did take its role as ad-placement-company as seriously as it did its relationship with authoritarian regimes like China.

In Edwards words, Larry and Sargey did what they thought right and the Google brand tagged along for the ride, “Internet search engine was just a business,” he says in the aftermath of 9/11 (when Google was approached by FBI to provide sensitive user data to track down terrorists), “it was not a public watchdog.” Yet he recounts the company was acting like “a well meaning bystander attempting a CPR” by agreeing to search its logs for US intelligence services.

It was also not a news agency. After all Google didn’t have it’s own team reporting from ground zero. But it did create an aggregating site that later came to be known as Google News, an engineering product developed by its Indian origin engineer, Krishna Bhat.

Edwards, through the book appears to say that to expect social and moral integrity from a business is misplaced. As a beneficiary of the substantial Google shares his reasoning is simple, we made great products and good money.

The planet however, has not been same since. Google too is no longer what it was. Today, it has other googleys up its sleeve. Such as exploring ways of running cars by computers or more interestingly, exploring the potential power of biotechnology and nanotechnology in artificial intelligence.  Edwards nails it when he says that there is no doubt that Google’s founders have a vision. But that vision has come at a cost of its relationship with its users. Openness, honesty and disclosures are relative terms in Google search.

(An edited version of this review appeared in Mail Today dated 2 October 2011 here http://epaper.mailtoday.in/epaperhome.aspx?issue=2102011)

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