Reposting this entry from my earlier blog; this was originally posted in March of 2011

Review of the book: “The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains” 

by Nicholas Carr

A very enjoyable and thought-provoking read. The basic proposition of this book is that the internet is impacting our brains in a very profound way and that this diminishes some of our most important human faculties. Specifically, the author suggests that humans are losing the ability to engage in deep thought and the ability to maintain a sustained attention span. This is attributed directly to our increased use of the internet and the world wide web. 

Carr lays out what I thought was a very well constructed case even though his eventual conclusions might seem a bit overly alarmist. Carr builds his case by going through several examples through history. These include the evolution of the book and the written word as well as several “tools of the mind” such as the map, the clock, the typewriter and eventually electronic media such as radio, television, computers and the internet itself. This background is well researched and well presented. As an example Carr illustrates the debate between Socrates, a proponent for the oral tradition of knowledge transfer, and his disciple Plato, who was more sympathetic towards the written word. 

Carr then ties these in with well-established theories from the world of neuro-science. The “plasticity” of the human brain is explained using theories from neuro-science. Carr explains that modern neuro-science has clearly established the fact that the synaptic structure of the human brain adapts to the methods of thinking that are most frequently exercised. In the past, our use of tools such as maps or books caused our brains to adapt to a certain form of thinking. Similarly the internet with its myriad of web pages, inter-linked across each other, is causing our brains to get wired in a manner that is more efficient at absorbing short quick nuggets of information. At the same time we are spending less time exercising the brain with activities that require sustained deep thought such as reading a book. This is causing our “plastic” synapses to get re-wired in a way that makes it harder to engage in deep thought and much easier to jump around between multiple nuggets of information. There is plenty of evidence for this all around us, Carr argues, as we are all finding it harder and harder to sustain attention span or read books cover to cover. He argues that this is the loss of a very important human faculty since it is precisely this ability to engage in deep sustained thought that has resulted in many of the miraculous inventions of the last few centuries. Carr hastens to add that he is not implying that the internet is all bad since clearly it is a huge boon to society and democratizes information on a much larger scale than even Guttenberg’s invention from a couple of centuries ago. The benefits of the internet are too many to list; however it is only to our own benefit to also at the same time understand the flip side of all this.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Carr’s book and strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in neuro-science and the impact of technology on humanity.

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Reposting this entry from my earlier blog, originally posted June 2010 …

I came across a beautiful little film while browsing around in Netflix recently.  “Man on Wire” is an award winning documentary about the historic high wire walk by Philippe Petit across the twin towers of the World Trade Center back in August 1974. The film is scripted in a docu-drama format and describes the years of preparation leading up to this historic event and eventually the prior night and actual morning of the walk itself. As I learned later, the film has won several awards including Oscar for the best documentary feature of 2008.

The film follows the career of Philippe Petit, French high wire artist, through some of his early exploits such as walking on a high wire across the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the Harbor Bridge in Sydney Australia. Actual footage from those events is interleaved with recreated enactments of the preparations that Philippe and his cohorts went through for the World Trade Center attempt which is referred to as “Le Coup” (The Coup) by Philippe and his team.

The most exciting part of the film is when it describes how Philippe and his team crept up and hid in the top floor of the twin towers the night before Le Coup. As one might expect, plenty of drama unfolds as the team hides from the tower night guards, launches their ropes and cables across the towers (using a “bow and arrow” no less) and survives a series of snafus to finally get the cable ready by early morning.

The details of the walk itself make for exhilarating watching as well. Although unfortunately it was not possible to have video footage of the walk, there are several beautiful still photographs taken from the roof as well as from the ground that vividly capture the beautiful moments of Philippe’s walk. In some of the photographs Philippe is seen smiling and delighting in his “crime” and in others he is seen lying down (thats right!) on the wire or kneeling on  one knee and delivering his trademark salute.

The film stayed with me for a long time after I had watched it. I plan to go out and get a copy of Philippe’s book (released initially as “To Reach The Clouds” and recently re-released under the title “Man on Wire”) and learn more about this extra ordinary person and this historic event (“the artistic crime of the century”).

 A beautiful slide show by Jean Louis Blondeau (one of Philippe’s team mates) is here.  For a preview of the film, check out the Youtube clip below.

Reposting this from my earlier blog: entry dated June 2010 …

The book: A Short History of Nearly Everything

The author: Bill Bryson

I first read this excellent book nearly 5 years ago on a long trans-pacific flight and was blown away by its brilliance. Since then I have re-read it a few times, a chapter or two at a time, and continue to find this to be an exceptionally engrossing re-read.

Author Bill Bryson has produced an epic that describes in layman’s terms many of the most important scientific facts and discoveries known to human kind. Bryson’s brilliance lies in his style which combines delightful humor with wonderful insight into (and commentary on) the people and personalities behind the science. All of this is backed by meticulous research including interviews with eminent scientists across the globe; Bryson clearly does not want to get any of his science wrong.

The author takes us on an exhilarating ride that starts with explaining the “Big Bang” birth of our Universe and  then goes back and forth cutting a swath across different branches of science through many different periods of scientific progress. The great discoveries in physics (ranging from Newton and Halley to Einstein, Bohr and Dirac) are described in detail along with wonderful anecdotes from the lives of the people involved. The fantastic discoveries in geology, plate tectonics, fossil science are covered in extensive detail. Biology, genetics and evolution are topics that get substantial treatment as well. One aspect that the book is not particularly good at however is acknowledging and describing the great work done outside of Europe and America including the great scientific discoveries in ancient India, Egypt and China. Perhaps the intent of the author was to focus on recent scientific work (over the last two or three hundred years) and hence there is little mention of the great scientific work done at other times and in other parts of the world.

All in all this book is without doubt one of the great books that I have read on science. I highly recommend this to any one with an interest in science and how human kind evolved to learn as much about the world around us as we do know today.

A Short History of Nearly Everything is available at all major book stores including Amazon.com. Here is a link to the book at Amazon where you can also read through the first few chapters of the book and get a look at Bryson’s brilliant writing style.


I wrote this post back in January 2010 on my earlier blog. Steve Jobs was very much alive at this time and pretty much at the top of his game at Apple. As I move my blog in July 2012 to wordpress (with mobileme web hosting getting decommissioned) I think I need to retain the original post even though things have obviously changed quite a bit since then and a lot more people have seen this video since. The original blog entry follows …

An old but very popular video on YouTube; you may have seen it already. It is a very beautiful and eloquent reminder to all of us about whats important and whats not in life specially for us technologists; I just had to include this here.

Watching this video has reinforced my conviction that truly great engineering is motivated by a deep and sincere appreciation of the sanctity and purpose of life and society.

Susan Blackmore gives a compelling talk on the universal applicability of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Richard Dawkins famously introduced the notion of a “Meme” as the second form of information replicator beyond the “gene” and made a case for these memes being carriers of information evolution just like genes are carriers of biological evolution. Susan Blackmore now makes a case for a third form of replicator which she refers to as “Temes” (short for “Technology memes”).

I enjoyed this talk primarily due to the persuasive and dramatic manner in which Susan tries to make her case. I felt the case for “Temes” was a bit weak or at least incomplete because it wasn’t clear as to what distinguished a teme from being just a special case of a meme that happened to be programmed by a human into a computer. Nevertheless, the profound nature of this topic and the dramatic delivery style was certainly very thought provoking.

Hello Dear Reader

Welcome!

The first few articles are re-published from my earlier blog that I maintained over on the MobileMe web hosting service. With that service now having been decommissioned I decided to move the blog over to WordPress.

Please feel free to browse around and perhaps let me know what you think.

Sanjeev