Starship Troopers

Robert A. Heinlein is one of the demigods of science fiction. However, I was not so impressed when I read his The Moon is a Harsh Mistress many years ago. Recently, I got interested in watching the Starship Troopers movie, which is supposedly an interesting take on Heinlein’s book of the same name. That led me to give him a second chance.

Starship Troopers gets off to a fantastic start. Using the point of view of a Marine named Johnny Juanito, we are thrown into the midst of an inter-planetary war set in the future between humans and arachnids (bugs from another system) and the Skinnies (another species) caught in the middle. Heinlein takes the US Marine Corps into the future and into space and gives them spaceships, Cherenkov Drive (faster-than-light space travel), capsules (to make jumps into planets) and armor exoskeletons. We follow Johnny’s schooling, choosing between the Marines and his dad’s business, his boot camp experience, his early battles and finally his rise through the ranks to leading a platoon.

This is a totally military novel, albeit one set in the future. The bugs are just a sideshow. The bugs have workers, soldiers, brainies and queens, and the latter three need to be fought and eradicated on every planet. That’s about it for the bugs. Most of the novel is a manifesto for why the military must be supported wholeheartedly by the populace. Many of the principal characters and many of the chapters are dedicated to Platonic dialogues making the case for the military, the necessity of war, the chain of command and why only those who have served in war should be allowed to vote or stand for office!

The novel has a fantastic first act, but it slowly goes downhill from there. It is not just the pro-military stance, but Heinlein simplifying or dumbing down gender (“females make for better pilots, males make for better soldiers”) or other species does not really help. On the plus side, the novel is a fast read. Johnny’s boot camp experience is quite memorable and so are the friends he makes there and on his first adventures. So the novel left me with a mixed taste and I am not so sure I will trying anymore Heinlein novels in the future.

ISBN: 9780441014101

Rating: 3/4

The Astonishing Color of After

I typically do not read books labeled as Young Adult (YA). I did not realize that The Astonishing Color of After was a YA novel and by the time I did, I was so interested that I had to persist. This debut novel by Emily X. R. Pan begins moments after teenager Leigh’s mother Dora has slashed and killed herself. One of the nights following her death, Dora visits Leigh as a red bird and leaves her a box filled with artifacts from her past. With that box and incense sticks she discovers at her mother’s parents home in Taiwan, Leigh starts on a journey to find answers to the many questions she has about the red bird and her mother.

This novel is literally suffused with color. Our narrator Leigh is an art student and her emotions are always described through colors. There is a lot about Taiwanese and Chinese history, language, culture and food in the story. But the overarching character is depression, which killed Dora. The word depression itself appears way late in the book, only towards the end of a series of incense-fuelled magical flashbacks through which we see how a talented and loving mother descended bit by bit into it and how it affected her family.

For a debut novel this one is surprisingly good. From the Author’s Note at the end, it is apparent that Emily based Leigh on her Asian-American self and the death on a similar suicide in her own family. That might be why I felt that the story and characters to be genuinely interesting and the family and teenage moments as intense. Suicide and depression are delicately handled and I discovered a lot about this subject through this book. The real problem with this book is that it is too long at 450 pages. The first half is especially stretched out and it is only in the second half that everything gets very interesting. Emily throws in a few filmi twists too in the climax. This was a thoughtful read, but I would have loved the experienced a lot more if it had been way shorter.

Rating: 3/4 (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†)

ISBN: 9780316464017

Ready Player One

Ready Player One

I picked up Ready Player One on a whim. The movie had been out recently and I felt like I had to read the book before watching it. Our teenage protagonist Wade Watts lives in the dystopian future world of the 2040s. The world is afflicted with global warming, poverty and economic decline. Folks are living in stacks, tens of trailer homes piled on each other. Most people, including Watts, spend their waking hours living life as avatars in a virtual reality multi-player world called OASIS. James Halliday, the benevolent creator of OASIS passes away leaving behind his fortune to the person who finds 3 Easter Eggs he has left inside OASIS. Wade’s avatar Parzival and other gunters start spending all their time looking for these eggs. After a few years of this quest (not kidding), when Parzival figures out the first clue and finds the first egg, he begins on a treacherous journey filled with new friends and mortal enemies.

This book is nothing but a full-dose hit of 80s nostalgia: it is choc-a-bloc full of references to 80s computers, video games, TV series, movies and music. The quest, the clues, the virtual world gunters live in, everything revolves around these references. It is quite impressive how much research Ernest Cline has done to weave obscure game references and other details right into the plot. The premise is fantastic and the world is built up beautifully in the beginning. The plot though gets weaker after the first egg is won. Parzival makes four memorable characters as friends: Aceh, Art3mis, Daito and Shoto. But an evil rival corporation named IOI is also introduced as a comical movie-style villain. The quests after the first one are quite watered down, not even seeming as hard to win as the first one. Another niggle is that the decaying world outside OASIS is not of concern to anybody in the book. Everybody is happy spending their entire lifetimes inside OASIS. Ready Player One turned out to be a riveting unputdownable nostalgia-fest that I loved experiencing, but I can easily see why most non-geeky readers will not find it so.

Rating: 4/4 (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…)

ISBN: 0307887448

Riding the Caltrain

Caltrain engines and cars at the SF station.

Some notes about Caltrain after riding it a few times recently:

  • Caltrain is a single train line that runs from SF to San Jose. It has stops at all the important Bay Area cities that lie on this path.
  • Information about schedules, stations and fares are at their website.
  • There two different schedules: for weekdays and for weekend.
  • Trains:
    • There are 3 types of trains described on the schedule.
    • Local: One of these runs every hour. This will stop at all the stations along the route. This one takes 1h 30m to complete the full route from SF to San Jose (or the other way around).
    • Limited-stop: There are a few of these during rush hours. This one skips some of the stations. This one shaves 15 mins from the Local and finishes the full route in 1h 15m.
    • Baby Bullet: There are a few of these during rush hours. This one skips more stations than Limited-Stop. This one shaves 15 mins from the Limited-Stop and finishes the full route in 1h.
    • All Caltrain carriages are double-storey, like double-decker buses. Seating is comfortable. I saw that most office folks make work calls or work on their laptops on the ride.
    • You can take your bicycle on the Caltrain. There are 2 cars with bike racks inside where you can fasten your bike.
  • Fares:
    • The entire line is broken into 4 stages. Your ticket price will depend on how may stages your route from source to destination spans.
    • To ride the Caltrain you can buy tickets, passes or use your Clipper card.
    • If you use the Clipper card, remember to tap both before you board at the source and after you get down at your destination. There are Clipper card tap stations along the platform at all stations except SF, where they are inside the station.
  • Stations:
    • Accessibility: SF station is 20 mins walk from the financial district. You might be able to find MUNI or railcar stops closer. For the rest of the stations, accessibility can be a hit or miss. There might be VTA buses or train stations near the Caltrain station. Else you will need to take Uber or have family/friend drop you off or pick you up.
    • There are no toilets at any of the stations, except SF. The SF toilet is super-dirty and super-smelly, and seems to be used mostly by homeless folks.
    • If it is raining or sunny, there is no shelter or overhead cover on the platforms at almost all stations, except SF.
    • The displays on the platforms at the stations show time and status of two upcoming trains.
  • A ticket checker will do a round checking tickets on each ride. If you did not buy the right ticket, you will get a notice of violation and fined $90 or so. I saw this happen to a tourist who had mistakenly bought a single-stage ticket and was traveling across multiple stages.
  • The ride is comfy. For occasional visits to SF for single folks, couples or friends, Caltrain seems better than being stuck on slow-moving 101 in a car, dealing with traffic entering SF and then finding and paying for parking. For families with kids, Caltrain is difficult because I didn’t see much parking for cars near Caltrain stations and also young kids need a child seat if you take Uber.

The Devotion of Suspect X

The Devotion of Suspect X

A divorced mom Yasuko and her daughter Misato are harassed by her ex-husband, they knock him down and kill him in a fit of anger. A math genius neighbor Ishigami, who has a secret crush on the mom, steps in to help the conceal the murder. The body of the ex appears beside a faraway riverside the next day with the face smashed in and fingerprints burnt off. The police are clueless until a physics genius Yukawa takes interest in the case. What follows is a brilliant chess game, for every hole that Yukawa uncovers it turns out that Ishigami had already planned for it way back when he concealed the murder. How did he do it?

I had just recently enjoyed another Keigo Higashino novel The Name of the Game is a Kidnapping. On the suggestion of AK I picked up The Devotion of Suspect X after that. I expected another delicious caper. But this one went beyond expectations to be the most intelligent murder mystery I have ever read!

When an amateur attempts to conceal something, the more complex he makes his camouflage, the deeper the grave he digs for himself. But not so a genius. The genius does something far simpler, yet something no normal person would even dream of, the last thing a normal person would think of doing. And from this simplicity, immense complexity is created.

As the reader, the only thing you know more than the police is the true identity of the victim and the culprits. Ishigami’s game is top notch, having thought of every possible loophole ahead of time. As the reader and the police discover one weakness after another, we are only shocked to discover that it was expected to be discovered and cannot understand how he did it. Higashino builds such a watertight plot that I could not figure out anything until the moment he would choose to show his move. What results is a nail-biting experience. Two final puzzle pieces late into the novel finally let us understand Ishigami’s genius and maniac nature. The first piece is gory and was something I had been suspecting all along. But the second piece was pure genius and turns your entire hypothesis upside down. A story that is no less than a brilliant magic act.

Rating: 4/4 (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…)

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

I must admit that I find finishing a Murakami novel requires a bit of effort. I have started and given up on a couple of them in the past year, but had no such trouble with Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. This is a translation to English by Philip Gabriel. In the novel, Tazaki was part of a group of five close friends and this friendship was at the core of his formative years in Nagoya. But one day after Tazaki moved to Tokyo for college, the group completely rejected him without providing any reason. It took many years for Tazaki to tide over the grief of this separation. When he finally found a like-minded partner Sara, she convinces him to visit his friends once again and find out why they banished him.

Unlike The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, there is very little of his fantasy or magic realism here. I mean it is Murakami, so there are still some weird dreams here and there, but the main plot sticks to the real world. I loved the telling of memorable days in school and struggles to find oneself in adult years. The reading experience quite reminded me of The Sense of an Ending. Tazaki and his friends are fleshed out skillfully and that makes it very easy to connect to one’s childhood years and friends. Old crushes, unexplored affections, diverging interests in our adult years, everything makes a beautiful and poignant appearance.

Murakami is known to be a huge classical music fan and much like his other novels, he and his characters refer to a lot of classical music here. Even the book’s title is a reference to a classical music suite. Since Tazaki designs train stations, I was hoping there would be a lot of references to Japanese train stations and train systems. Here I was left wanting because we are only thrown a tiny bone about the JR Shinjuku Station, and that too at the end. If you are looking to start on a Murakami, this novel might be easy to read and straightforward to enjoy.

Rating: 4/4 (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…)

Excerpts:

“It’s the first thing I always say at our new employee training seminars. I gaze around the room, pick one person, and have him stand up. And this is what I say: I have some good news for you, and some bad news. The bad news first. We’re going to have to rip off either your fingernails or your toenails with pliers. I’m sorry, but it’s already decided. It can’t be changed. I pull out a huge, scary pair of pliers from my briefcase and show them to everybody. Slowly, making sure everybody gets a good look. And then I say: Here’s the good news. You have the freedom to choose which it’s going to be — your fingernails, or your toenails. So, which will it be? You have ten seconds to make up your mind. If you’re unable to decide, we’ll rip off both your fingernails and your toenails. I start the count. At about eight seconds most people say, ‘The toes.’ Okay, I say, toenails it is. I’ll use these pliers to rip them off. But before I do, I’d like you to tell me something. Why did you choose your toes and not your fingers? The person usually says, ‘I don’t know. I think they probably hurt the same. But since I had to choose one, I went with the toes.’ I turn to him and warmly applaud him. And I say, Welcome to the real world.”

Tsukuru wondered how much time people spend simply commuting to work every day. Say the average commute was between an hour and an hour and a half. That sounded about right. If your typical office worker, working in Tokyo, married with a child or two, wanted to own his own house, the only choice was to live in the suburbs and spend that much time getting to work and back. So two to three hours out of every twenty-four would be spent simply in the act of commuting. If you were lucky, you might be able to read the newspaper or a paperback in the train. Maybe you could listen to your iPod, to a Haydn symphony or a conversational Spanish lesson. Some people might even close their eyes, lost in deep metaphysical speculation. Still, it would be hard to call these two or three hours rewarding, quality time. How much of one’s life was snatched away to simply vanish as a result of this (most likely) pointless movement from point A to point B? And how much did this effort exhaust people, and wear them down?

Indian passport renewal in California

I had to recently renew an Indian passport for a family member in CA, USA. This post is a collection of notes from that experience.

  • Who handles it: The entire passport renewal process is handled by CKGS in the US.
  • Types of renewal: There are two ways to renew your passport: normal and Tatkal. Normal process might take 4-6 weeks, Tatkal is within a week or so. Tatkal fee will be $100 or so more on top of the normal application fee.
  • CKGS online application: The online application at CKGS might take 0.5-1 hours to complete. If you need Tatkal, note that you need to follow the process detailed below before you do the online application.
  • Tatkal:
    • If you need Tatkal, you will need to first email CKGS and provide the necessary documents as email attachments. You can find the email address, the email format and the documents required on the CKGS Tatkal information page. It is a good idea to provide a reason for why you need Tatkal in the email. (For example, “I need to visit India for visa stamping in a month on date DD/MM/YYYY and would like to have a new passport for that.”)
    • CKGS will forward your request to the Indian Embassy.
    • CKGS will get back to you by email whether your Tatkal request was accepted or not by the Embassy.
    • We found that this process takes 2-3 workdays.
    • If your Tatkal request got approved, then remember to choose Tatkal both in the CKGS online passport application form and in the Indian government’s passport application form.
  • Indian passport application:
    • After the CKGS application is done, CKGS will lead you to the Indian government’s passport application page. Here they call renewal as re-issue. This application too might take 0.5-1 hour to complete. Once you finish you need to print out the application.
    • If you are keeping your Indian address in the passport, the Indian passport application will require an Indian phone number. I gave my parent’s number and had no problems.
    • You can make small changes to your passport details: fixing parents’ names, adding spouse name or fixing address. Each of these might require you to add necessary documentation in your package. The CKGS checklist (see below) will mention those documents.
    • If you are adding a spouse name, then you will need to add a notarized copy of your marriage certificate to your submission.
    • If you are fixing your parent’s name, then you might need to submit a notarized copy of your birth certificate or your parent’s passport first and last pages.
    • If you are fixing your Indian home address, then submit a self-attested copy of your Aadhaar card.
  • After your Indian passport application, you go back to CKGS application and enter the Indian passport application number and other details. You finish the CKGS application by paying the fee using your credit card.
  • Checklist: CKGS application process ends with a checklist of documents. You need to print it out and use as the reference list of documents needed to submit. The old passport is the only original document on that list. Rest are photocopies of documents, some of them need to be self-attested, some need to be notarized. Remember that all the documents need to be printed single-side only.
    • Note that the CKGS checklist did not list the documents I would need to submit for fixing errors in passport. For example, it did not list marriage certificate when I added spouse’s name to my passport. To be on the safe side, I notarized photocopies of these documents not in their checklist.
  • Documents: Use the checklist to print out the required documents. Print single-side in color.
  • Notarizing documents: For the documents needing notarization, search in Google Maps for notary to find some place nearby. I was able to find a notary who charged $5 per page. Note that for documents requiring notarization you need to sign them in front of the notary. Do not sign them beforehand.
    • If in doubt, just notarize. For example, the notary said I might not need to notarize the second page of my I-797, but I did it anyway. You want to avoid any back-and-forth with the Indian Embassy that might delay your application by days or weeks don’t you?
  • Photos: US passport-size photos are needed. Checklist misleadingly says 4 photos are needed. I found that only 2 photos are needed: 1 for the Indian passport application and 1 for the Change of appearance/signature form.
  • How to submit: At the end, CKGS allows you to choose whether you want to submit documents in person at the CKGS office or send them by Fedex/UPS. If you choose the latter, CKGS will give you the shipping labels to print on your package when you send them.
  • There is no option of picking up the passport at CKGS office. New passports are always shipped to your address by Fedex/UPS.
  • Submit in person:
    • Since CKGS office was in SF which is nearby, we chose to submit the documents in person.
    • If you pick this option, you cannot later switch to sending documents by Fedex.
    • If you pick this option, the applicant has to go in person to submit. You cannot send someone else in your place.
    • CKGS office is closed on Indian holidays.
    • When you submit, your documents will be checked and you will be given a submission number to track status on CKGS website.
  • Updates:
    • CKGS will text and email you updates for each step of the process: received at CKGS, sending to Indian embassy, got back new passport from embassy and when passport is mailed out.
  • We used Tatkal and the whole process was finished in 1.5 weeks.