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Unforgettable tales of human endeavour

Nidhi Mathur


$img_titleIslands Beyond the Horizon, Roger Lovegrove, Oxford University Press, Pp 224 (HB), $ 29.05 

THE author, renowned naturalist and RSPB Director of Wales for 27 years, recounts unforgettable tales of human endeavour, tragedy and heroism about islands which have experienced the impact of human settlers – such as the small island of Arctic hunters who were shipwrecked on tiny Halfmoon Island for six years. Most often, he reports on mankind’s negative impact: the exploitation of birds for food and the elimination of native vegetation for crops. He has visited the world’s most remote islands and thus is an expert on 20 most fascinating islands ranging from the ice-locked Wrangel in the Arctic to storm-bound South Georgia off Argentina; from the Mykines in Greece to the Polynesian archipelago of Tuamotu. He shows that whether it’s distant, offshore, inhabited or uninhabited, tropical or polar, each island is a self-contained habitat with its delicately balanced ecosystem of plants and wildlife and its own mystique and history.

Very large islands, such as Madagascar, are detached fragments of continents, separated millions of year ago when Gondwanaland broke up and all the constituent continents except Antarctica began to drift north. The British Isles likewise are continental in their geological origins. Small islands, however, are characterised by their physical limitations, emphasising their individuality and defining their vulnerability.
Of all the far-flung oceanic islands covered in this book, Wrangel Island, which supports a unique wealth of Arctic wildlife, has had a discontinuous history of human occupation, traceable back to 17,000 years BC at least and lies in the frozen Chukchi Sea. It is a mountainous island with its uncountable throng of seabirds and legions of sea mammals.

Chinijo Archipelago has an islet called Graciose which has a birdlife comprising stone curlews, Kentish plovers, trumpeter finches and spectacled warblers along with pipits and wagtails. Jan Mayem, with its volcanic origins, looks white and black and breeds ‘blue fulmars’ with dark grey plumage. “Everything here really is overwhelmingly black or white, with the exception of the scattered patches of moss-green,” says the author.

A Portuguese navigator found  Ascension Island which is a precious treasury of rare seabirds, ancient reptiles and endemic flora. It has a massive rat population apart from frigate birds, boobies, tropic birds and noddies as also the sooty tern, known locally as ‘wideawake’ on account of the ceaseless calling of the birds in the colonies. Green turtles and hawksbill turtles can be seen foraging around the island.
Fernando de Noronha, liberally scattered with brilliant marigold flowers, supports extreme wildlife, terrestrial birds and seabirds like, frigatebirds, Noronha elaenia, virco and eared doves. Also found here are turtles, whose presence has encouraged the birth of TAMAR, a landmark marine conservation programme. What is best here are the dolphins which make for spectacular viewing.

There are 12 more tiny islands described thus in the book. What is common to many of them is that they are changing and will continue to change. Cruise liners can be seen with more tourists visiting them, which will undoubtedly change the islands’ priorities and perceptions.

(Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX 2 6DP, UK)

Is another meltdown awaiting the West?

Nidhi Mathur


$img_titleTime to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline, Edward Luce, Little, Brown, Pp 304 (HB), £ 12.80 

EDWARD Luce is a name that would ring a bell among the Indian media for he worked as Financial Times’ South Asian bureau chief, based in New Delhi between 2001 and 2005 and again as its Washington bureau chief from 2006 to 2011. He is now chief Washington correspondent.

Portraying a depressing picture of the current state of America, Luce provides an insightful narrative on the origins of United States’ current economic and political malaise. He presents a highly disturbing picture of the state of American society and of the total failure of America’s elite to come to grips with the real problems facing the country. This is a book determined to spark a debate among liberals and conservatives as it advances a carefully constructed and controversial argument, backed up by interviews with key players in politics and business. He says that the United States is losing its pragmatism and the consequences of which will soon leave the country in a mess.

He views varied issues that are set to affect the position of the United States the world over – the changing structure of its economy; the continued polarisation of American politics; the debilitating effect of the “permanent election campaign”; the challenges involved in the overhaul of the country’s public educational system; and the health or sickness of American innovation in technology and business.
He also explains that the United States in terms of how it governs itself is no longer very pragmatic. Here the ills afflicting the economy are mostly highlighted, especially the pronounced shift of America’s wealth from wages and salaries towards business income in the past quarter of a century. Corporate profits as a share of the American economy had climbed to their highest level since the eve of the Great Depression while wages had fallen to their lowest. For most middle-class Americans it meant year of declining incomes when the top one per cent “were reliving the Gilded Age”.

 The author does not predict America’s collapse but expresses his scepticism about the country’s ability to sharply reverse her fortunes. Its title implies that America has not yet begun to think seriously about the consequences of where it is headed. Nowhere is this deficit more seen than in American politics. If the county is to restore its competitiveness, it will need to do many things, a few of which will be possible without a much more effective federal government. “In today’s world, smart government is a critical ingredient of national competitiveness. Unless America can address the government’s role in a more pragmatic light, it may doom itself to continued descent,” fears the author.

In a more detailed review, the first chapter looks at the changing structure of the US economy in which the impact of technology and globalisation has reduced its earning potential of a large share of the workforce while catapulting the most productive elites into a different hemisphere.

The second chapter looks at America’s steep challenge in overhauling public education. It asks whether America can refurbish a system of worker training that is shortchanging most of America’s labour force.
Chapter 3 looks at the health of America’s chances of remaining the world’s leader. Silicon Valley continues to be the most dynamic place on the planet to start up a company and the likeliest parent of disruptive technologies. But, if the valley’s secret source is to be found in its distinct blending of place, money and talent, then only “place” can be firmly relied upon to stay put.

The fourth chapter looks at the waning prospects for overhauling of the federal government, which, in spite of repeated efforts at reforms, remains part of the problem.

The fifth chapter looks at what is driving the continued polarisation of America’s politics. The author feels that it has become fashionable to talk of America’s “broken politics”, but unlike most fashions, this looks to be more durable.

Chapter 6 looks at the increasingly debilitating effect of the “permanent [election] campaign”, a trend Barrack Obama has exacerbated and in many ways come to embody.

The final chapter looks at America’s swindling options in a world where the pace is increasingly being set elsewhere. Many Americans believe it is still within their power to determine whether the country retains its global prominence, but it is within its power to reverse its increasingly plutocratic internal character.
The book concludes with what it begins, that is, can the fortunes of the middle class be revived? Must the Americans wait for another shock, along the lines of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown to stir itself into action?

(Little, Brown, Book Group, 100 Victoria Embankment, London EC4Y 0DY; www.littlebrown.co.uk)

Inspiring tales of women achievers

Manju Gupta


$img_titleBreaking Barriers, Janaki Krishnan, Jaico Books, Pp191, Rs 195.00

THOUGH there is a poor representation of professional women at the senior levels in the corporate sector and in business, one sees a marked increase in female entrepreneurs in many professional streams. This shortcoming could be a case due to the struggle a woman has to make to manage a career and personal or family commitments simultaneously. While some have succeeded in striking a balance between the two, there are countless many who find the challenges too many to confront.

This book presents short inspiring portraits of 12 women who had the determination and drive to break barriers in the male-dominated fields and succeed in their respective careers simply due to their hard work, desire to learn and take advantage of the opportunities that came their way. They happily juggled their roles of daughter, souse, mother and caregiver, working both at home and outside. It, however, is sad to find that in India, women make up about 35 per cent of the total workforce in the country, despite constituting roughly 50 per cent of the population.

Normally a girl child is brought up on the notion that her main aim in life is to get married and start a family – that is her defining destiny because a career is seen as secondary only. Here one is happy to read about Ishita Swarup, founder and CEO of 99labels.com, which sells branded apparel and lifestyle accessories on her online portal. She subliminally gives the message that she could have a career but it would always be secondary to that of her family. She graduated in management, launched Orion Dialog where, “I made all the mistakes that I possibly could in this time. That was my learning school.” She adopted a baby girl and continued to look after her while working in her “liquidation company for their excess inventory.”

Another remarkable woman is Jessie Paul, CEO, of Paul Writer Strategic Services, who graduated in computer science from Trichy and after acquiring experience at Ogilvy & Matter, joined Infosys followed by Wipro to start Paul Writer Strategic Services in January 2010. She loves managing and hosting conferences, though the basic “output is writing the marketing plan for a client.”   

Dr Suman Sahai, founder of Gene Campaign and a genetics scientist working in the University of Heidelberg in Germany, returned to India to take up the cudgels on behalf of the farmers, representing rural India, under the umbrella of her organisation.

Vandana Luthra, started VLCC Healthcare despite being married into a conservative family. She started with 12 persons but now employs 6,000 people across India and overseas.

Uma Ganesh, founder of global Talent Tracks, passed out from FMS before working at NIIT and Aptech to gain experience. She started her own organisation where job aspirants are trained also company employees and in her words, “Our job is to be a lifelong partner with the candidates rather than just stepping at making them employable.”

Renuka Ramnath, CEO, Alternate Asset Management, spent 23 years in the ICICI group before launching her own private equity firm in 2009 and has the backing of Indian banks, financial institutions and overseas investors, including pension funds.

 After reading about the lives of these women, who refused to succumb to family or societal pressures, one is pleased to find that women are emerging out of their cocooned existence to make a mark, though they have yet a long way to go.

(Jaico Books, A-2 Jash Chambers, 7-A Sir Phirozshah Mehta Road, Fort, Mumbai 400001; www.jaicobooks.com)

 

A peep into regulatory capitalist systems

Jayant Patel

$img_titleFinance:
The Discreet Regulator: How Financial Activities Shape and Transform the World, Isabella Huault & Chrystelle Richard, Palgrave Macmillan, Pp 288, $ 100

 

THE present age has been described as one of “regulatory capitalism” and its manifestation is the expansion in the number and range of regulatory agencies. This has been a direct offshoot of the global financial crisis that began in 2007 and accelerated in September 2008 by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, making one question on the damaging role of large banks with no geographical limits. The prime objective of the book is to show how financial activities shape and transform the world. 

At a time when regulation of the financial sector is the talk of the global village, this volume argues that organisations in the financial industry are a powerful “rule-making engine” (as stated by Zald and Lounsbury in their paper) and are themselves discreet regulators of the markets in which they function. Based on a series of case studies related to the construction and structure of financial markets or the emergence of new arrangements, the book shows that financial markets are the seat of regulatory processes initiated and developed by core-capitalist financial institutions, such as banks and audit firms. It emphasises the growing role of finance, financial markets and shareholder-concepts of value as “key drivers of capitalism”. It brings out the fact that actors that appear to be the objects of regulation, or at least do intervene only at its fringes, are in fact “discreet regulators”, supplying the institutional framework that fosters market creation and globalisation.

The concept of “discreet regulation” forms the backbone around which the chapters of this volume are organised.
Part I focuses on the actors themselves acting as networks of influence and their characteristics. Part II highlights the tension between the state and the market and the different kinds of joint regulation empirically identified. Finally, Part III examines the concrete processes of rule-making.

To discuss the chapters threadbare, one finds that Chapters 1 to 4 of Part I present the four types of actors that relay the power of finance in addition to the major investment banks. In Chapter 1, Morales and Pezet seek to advance the understanding of how the notion of financialisation materialises and operates in a concrete organisation. Rather than focusing on the role of financial markets, they analyse how financial rationales are mobilised, enacted and appropriated in a firm. In Chapter 2, Ramirez studies the role played by the group of multinational audit firms, known as the Big Four (Deloitte, KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young) in the implementation of an international system of standards for accounting and auditing. In Chapter 3, Leuglet analyses the daily routines unfolding in financial firms and markets besides documenting how compliance officers interpret regulatory texts, how they manage ambiguities and how they use written devices to spread regulation through practices, thus contributing to the actual design of markets. In Chapter 4, Taupin examines perpetuation of the regulatory order by the stakeholders of the credit rating industry by analysing various comments collected during the public consultations held by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the 2000s to describe the proposed regulation of the credit rating industry. 

The other chapters turn to the relationship between the state and the market regarding financial regulation.   In Part III, the various papers explore the process of rule-making, arguing that financial actors produce rules, standards and norms with reference to the production of ideas and the construction of legitimacy and to the way the main players tackle ambiguities.
In short, the objective of the book is to explain how society is in fact jointly regulated by public authorities and private actors and to explore how the joint regulation is dominated by financial actors.
(Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire, RG21 6XS; www.palgrave.com)

 

 

A good selection of contemprory Indian writing

Dr  Vaidehi Nathan


$img_titleShe Writes: A Collection of Short Stories,  Random House India,  Pp 195 (PB), Rs 299.00

SHE Writes: A Collection of Short Stories by 12 women, who were chosen from a competition by Random House is a good selection of contemporary writing. Three themes were given to the women to choose from. The themes were encapsulated in three famous quotes/lines: Woman in the city - ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’ from Gone With the Wind; Growing up in India – ‘Experience is the name every one gives to their mistakes’ – Oscar Wilde; and The Man in my Life – ‘Being with him made her feel as though her soul had escaped from the narrow confines of her island country into the vast, extravagant spaces of his’ – The God of Small Things. The theme line had to be incorporated some how into the story.

What is interesting about the stories that the women have carried their regional flavour into the narration, urban or rural. And being woman-centric they are emotionally rich and hence the reading fulfilling. The story of Michelel (The Tourist) who gives her heart and body to a man only to learn that she was just a one-time fling for him, the story of a withered tree, intertwined with the story of the working girl who passes by it daily (Revelation), the sad married life of Noyona (A Tale of Destiny), each of the story is engaging and absorbing. Man-woman relationship dominates the narrations in various shades. And they are all identifiable personalities, who could have been in any of our lives. Simplicity is the hallmark of all stories. The volume is a definite valuable addition to the fiction section of the book shelf.
(Random House India, Windsor IT Park, 7th Floor, Tower-B, A-1, Sector 125, Noida 201301, UP)

Reminiscences of a maverick scientist

Manju Gupta


$img_titleThe Fractalist:  Memoirs of a Scientific Maverick, Benoit B. Mandelbrot, Pantheon Books, Pp 352,  $ 19.40

THE author, who is the creator of fractal geometry and a research scientist at IBM, has become famous for transforming our understanding of information technology, economics, fluid turbulence, non-linear dynamics and geophysics. He writes in this memoir and captures the memories of a visionary who loved nothing better than studying complex multi-disciplinary concepts, making unparalleled contributions to science, mathematics and the arts during the process.

Erasmus Darwin was born on November 20, 1924 to a Polish Jew family in a Warsaw ghetto. His grandfather Szolmo knew only Yiddish while Erasmus knew only Polish, which prevented them from communicating with each other. The family practiced Judaism and Szolmo left Vilnius in Lithuania to take advantage of the economic opportunities in booming Warsaw.

Erasmus’s uncles were highly educated intellectuals, poets, scientists and mathematicians. He found his father and mother always arguing but who remained clear headed about their sons and taught them to be self-confident. They worshipped individual achievements but never achieved what they wanted and deserved, he says. He was deeply influenced by one of his younger uncles, Szolem, a mathematician. He went to study in Pubic School 24 for Boys but the Depression of the 1930s saw the situation getting worse and so his parents managed to move to Paris in a charter train full of refugees. In Paris he joined the elementary school and learned to speak French. He studied for two years at Lycee Rollin where he was “way ahead” in academics. He leaned French and Latin. The family moved to Tulle, where he made some very good friends.

On reaching the age of 20, Erasmus entered a new stage of life when things wouldn’t be so tough “but the past cannot simply be left behind, especially a past like mine, so sharply synchronised with the Depression and the war. I never had any leisure time to ‘find myself’ – except for my wild mathematical dream.” He became the only foreign student to study at Ecole Poltechnique in 1945-47. It was a military academy. He left for Caltech in California, USA before returning to France in 1949 to become an Air Force reserve lieutenant. It was at this stage that Beethoven’s symphonies – “which I had not heard until I was twenty – were a revelation beyond words.” Opera and music became a passion with him. In 1950, he became a student of mathematics at the University of Paris, searching for a good topic for doctoral dissertation. He completed his Ph.D. in five years on the title ‘Games of Communication’. He then left for Paris in 1954-55 when he was deeply influenced by Paul Levy. In 1955, he married Aliette after knowing her for five years. He received his Ph.D. degree in 1952 and started teaching at the University of Lille. Soon he got a summer job at IBM in New York, where he started researching on fractal geometry of nature. He was called to Harvard where he took up teaching of Applied Sciences. He began to give lectures at MIT, Yale and the College de France in Paris. He coined the word ‘fractal’ before writing his book, The Fractal Geometry of Nature.

The author arouses the reader’s curiosity about fractal geometry besides providing some understanding of financial variability and erratic physical phenomena among other things.

(Pantheon Books, 1745, Broadway, New York, New York 10019;www.randomhouse.com)

Residential segregation in the world’s large cities. A study

Manju Gupta

Segregation
: A Global History of Divided Cities, Carl H Nightingale, University of Chicago Press, Pp 536, £ 21.38

 


$img_titleTHIS book is about residential segregation in cities around the world through the spread of coercive measures by powerful institutions and intellectual networks.
At Baltimore, Maryland, in December 1910, the whites began clamouring for new ways of asserting their political supremacy over the African-Americans by desiring a new technique of racial control, called ‘segregation’. In the name of segregation, the United States had passed laws since about 1900 to relegate the blacks to inferior Jim Crow schools, trainers, railroad station platforms, waiting rooms, theatres, restaurants, public bathrooms, amusement parks and even public water fountains. Employers and white workers imposed colour bars that kept certain high-prestige jobs off limits to blacks. Laws that prevented blacks from voting helped to reinforce the system.

The surge of enthusiasm for urban residential segregation resonated “not only in the United States, but even in Africa, the natural habitat of the black man.” Urban segregation designed to enhance elite groups’ power and wealth extended back to the ancient cities in Mesopotamia when a holy temple was built in the city of Eridu exclusively for the gods and from which ordinary mortals were kept out.

European colonial segregation dates as far back as the Middle Ages when English colonies in Ireland and Italian merchants in eastern Mediterranean reserved separate parts of overseas colonial towns for themselves. The idea of separating a ‘black town’ from a ‘white town’ dates back to 1700, when British officials demanded colour designations in the city of Madras.

The word ‘segregation’ was used for racial isolation in Hong Kong and Bombay in the 1890s. Monumental segregated colonies went up in places like Rabat, in French Morocco and New Delhi, in British India, signalling new arrogant ambitions for urban planning based on separate racial zones.

This book offers an update and elaboration of the fact that not only the idea that residential colour lines have proliferated across the world but also the main point that such movements to segregate cities spread because they were interconnected. Segregationists always worked within three kinds of institutions that were critical for West’s rise to global dominance – the governments, networks of intellectual exchange and institutions associated with the modern capitalist real estate industry. Of these, the empires of Britain, France and the United States supported and replicated by far the largest number of local movements for racial segregation across the world, relying on smaller-scale national, colonial or municipal government as well.

The author takes the reader on a sweeping voyage across time and space, ranging from the ancient roots of modern practices.
(The University of Chicago Press, Chicago – 60637)

 


 

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