Books : The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

9 09 2013




The National Library had this “mystery brown bag” scheme where you go to the book counter and pick out a small brown bag from a tray of bags and read the mystery book in it. I cheated. The first few books were some sappy romance novels so I kept putting them back until I chanced on this one.

Originally titled “Men who hate Women” I found Stieg Larsson’s thriller a little slow at the beginning. I had heard mixed reviews from different people. One friend hated it and stopped reading while another one was raving about it. It was dark, though once you get over the early part of it, you get a little desensitised and focus on the thriller/suspense aspect of it. I was also goaded on by Phillip Pullman’s endorsement on the cover so although I put the physical book down for almost a week, I looked up the library’s online service and borrowed the digital version (the Trilogy) to read on my iPad.

On one hand, it has a multi-layered complex plot, however, I did find myself questioning the plausibility of it sometimes especially with regards to the unlimited technological capacity of the protagonist. Nonetheless, this was a great read and I would highly recommend it to anyone who can stomach the dark themes. The universe also surprised me when I bumped into a Ms Salander later in the week 😉

Next up, I recently finished reading Subhas Anandan’s Autobiography.

Books : Once Upon a Time in the North

27 07 2013
I have not been to the library in a while, much less read fiction. It was a surprise that I found this little book left lying around the marketing or finance books as I was lazing around. I am not entirely familiar with Pullman’s writing though I have watched the Golden Compass.

In general, it is hard for a movie to do justice to the ideas in a book. However, if my fuzzy memory serves me well, the flavour of the Golden Compass movie, seems consistent with the flavour of this little prequel. It is about Lee, a ballooning aeronaut, who finds himself on an Arctic Island and get’s acquainted, in a matter of hours, with it’s politics and out of nowhere, becomes a player.
I appreciate the themes of skepticism, questioning the status quo and the added layer of “magical realism” when it comes to people and their daemon’s. I like the fact that Pullman keeps the “magical” element subtle and minimal. Overall, the book is easy reading, as I read it exclusively over a few bus trips. It makes me rather curious to start reading the rest of the His Dark Materials series.
I am considering reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo next.

Med school advice … from The Devil

24 07 2012

Mephistopheles and Faust, 1925 illustration by Harry Clarke

While on my trip to Frankfurt, my friend took me to visit the Goethe House and I was inspired to read Faust to complement that. Goethe, who lived in the mid 1700s is considered one of the greatest German writers. His play Faust is about a bet that the Devil makes with God to prove that he can lead the best of men astray. Faust the protagonist, is a polymath dissatisfied with his academic  knowledge and makes a wager with the Devil

This is an excerpt from Section IV – The Study which I copied from Project Gutenberg’s edition of Faust (You can skip my sappy commentary and read the original uninterrupted). While Faust is away and getting ready to travel, a student approaches his study. The devil disguises himself as Faust and imparts his pearls of wisdom to the student. The devil in this scene  comes across as part wise senior and part troll. I am including some interpretations, which may not have been intended by Goethe, but it’s a fun exercise.


I’m tired enough of this dry tone,–
Must play the Devil again, and fully.


To grasp the spirit of Medicine is easy
Learn of the great and little world your fill,

Doctors are human too, hence the essence in Medicine is simple. Applying it requires understanding of both the large scale (populations, clinical signs) and tiny (bacteria, genes)

To let it go at last, so please ye,

You will forget most of the stuff you learnt in the first few years

Just as God will!
In vain that through the realms of science you may drift;
Each one learns only–just what learn he can:

You can study alot but there is only a limited amount of information you can fit into your head

Yet he who grasps the Moment’s gift,
He is the proper man.

Paying attention to what is in front of you now, i.e the patients in all their intricate glory, is ultimately what will help you

Well-made you are, ’tis not to be denied,

Yes, you are the creme-de-la-creme

The rest a bold address will win you;

I’m not sure what this means but perhaps it’s something like, people will give you a fancy title.

If you but in yourself confide,
At once confide all others in you.

I think there are two interpretations here. Firstly, if people feel that you can keep your mouth shut (i.e What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas) people will trust you. The other could mean, if you’re in tune with your own emotions, it’ll be easy to empathise and understand people.

To lead the women, learn the special feeling!
Their everlasting aches and groans,
In thousand tones,
Have all one source, one mode of healing;
And if your acts are half discreet,
You’ll always have them at your feet.

Don’t know what on earth he’s saying here. Really.

A title first must draw and interest them,
And show that yours all other arts exceeds;

Half of it is in the title. Heard of the Placebo Effect?

Then, as a greeting, you are free to touch and test them,
While, thus to do, for years another pleads.
You press and count the pulse’s dances,

Yes. Patients trust you. And they will let you examine them in ways no one ever has. Of course, you are interested in things about them which no one else ever would be, like the number of times their heart beats in a minute.

And then, with burning sidelong glances,
You clasp the swelling hips, to see
If tightly laced her corsets be.

So apparently, someone with a loose corset is innuendo for being a loose woman. Alright, here’s where you listen carefully. Whatever your patient’s background, you treat them with respect. Don’t be a douche bag and take advantage of them. Or somebody gonna get hurt real bad.


That’s better, now! The How and Where, one sees.


My worthy friend, gray are all theories,
And green alone Life’s golden tree.

Medicine is about life and death and it’s not meant to be entirely studied from a book. Go out there to the real world and see it for yourself, it’s pretty exciting. Also medical textbooks are damn boring.


I swear to you, ’tis like a dream to me.
Might I again presume, with trust unbounded,
To hear your wisdom thoroughly expounded?


Most willingly, to what extent I may.


I cannot really go away:
Allow me that my album first I reach you,–
Grant me this favor, I beseech you!

The student is so overwhelmed by the prep talk that he demands an autograph.



(_He writes, and returns the book_.)

STUDENT (_reads_)

_Eritis sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum_.
(_Closes the book with reverence, and withdraws_)

This is a quote from the Bible. Genesis 3:5 says, “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil”. I’m warning you here. Once you start studying, you will never look at the world in the same way again. Your side of the world will be full of death, disease and suffering. Though, I won’t say that is necessarily a bad thing, you did sign up because you want to help people right? Nonetheless, your worldview will take some adjusting and once it does, you will come to … well, that’s a topic for another time.


Follow the ancient text, and the snake thou wast ordered to trample!
With all thy likeness to God, thou’lt yet be a sorry example!

This reminds me of my high school days when we did a little bit of literature. I actually read through a study guide for this chapter and two posts by a Professor of the Arts. I didn’t like the study guide too much, it had a different interpretation than which I intended but the Professor’s ideas on the Biblical quote and Gray is all Theory are interesting.

Finished Reading! Classic Feynman

25 11 2011

I actually originally borrowed this book some time around 2009 before I was preparing for my finals. It’s the biography of one of my favourite physicists, Richard Feynman who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his work, with his colleagues, on Quantum Electrodynamics. I remember long nights in PGP reading this book in my bedroom and staring at the ceiling. I never really made it past the halfway mark and I was done with my finals and it was time to move out of the dorms. I never thought about that until I was walking around in the library one day and I saw that same copy.

Reading it was a way of reliving those memories, and making sense of my current situation. Back then passing an exam was such a worry, these days, it is quite a different kettle of fish. You get to experience, thankfully only secondhand, the spectrum of human suffering from poverty, disease and death. It reminds you for a while that maybe exams aren’t the biggest problem in your life. Yet it replaces that with an even greater existential uneasiness, I’m not saying this book solved all of those problems, but I thought it helped.

Classic Feynman beautifully narrates in first person the epicness of the physicist from his childhood all the way to the time where he worked on the committee to investigate

the Challenger disaster in the late 80s. What I took away was how he was playful and probing with everything he did, be it dissecting radios as a child, subatomic matter as a graduate student or the organisational management and engineering processes of NASA. His curiosity drove him to learn drawing from his artist friend and the bongos while he was on sabbatical in South America.

I read the chapter on Feynman’s meeting and marriage with Arline, his sweetheart while he was working on his PhD. I was once again reading this in my bed after a long and

Feynman in Apple's Think Different Campaign posters

challenging day at the hospital. He relates the story of how he diagnosed his girlfriend with Tuberculosis while all the doctors missed it. He of course, being modest, never did question any of Arline’s physicians because TB was the first differential in the textbook and he assumed (like all of us do) that the intelligent doctors would have considered it and ruled it out. He finds out later that they didn’t and he kicks himself for not speaking up. It reminds me of all my tutors drilling in our heads to question everything we see in the hospital, because our patients deserve that level of thoroughness and sometime we, miserable medical students, might spot an error which no one else might. I like how we are trained to be critical and am extremely happy to not have any of that rote-learning crap shoved down our throats.

Back in the story, Feynman marries Arline despite her diagnosis. In those days when TB was not that well treatable, it might have had as poor a outcome as some kind of advanced cancer. Every weekend, he makes a trip from Los Alamos, where he’s working on making the Atomic Bomb, down to the hospital where Arline is being treated for her TB. He has all sorts of adventures during this period where he learns to crack safes, skirt the military censors while writing letters to his wife, and of course, work on the physics and engineering behind the bomb. Towards the end of that chapter, no surprises, Arline dies. I cried that night.

It’s a colourful mosaic of the life of a brilliant an inspiring physicist and I get some of my values and attitudes from him. Like many of the books I do read cover to cover, I would highly recommend this book. If there is one takeaway, it’s Arline’s advice to Feynman, “What do YOU care what other people think?”.

To get a flavour of his character, I would recommend this interview with him, so you can almost imagine him narrating the book to you as you read it.