Umberto Eco: A Tribute

Umberto Eco is one of the authors whom I really admire although it has been several years since I read his books. Popular culture knows him as the one whose Foucault’s Pendulum foreshadowed medieval conspiracy theory fiction such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. He is also known as the author of The Name of the Rose which is a detective story set in medieval times and was made into a movie starring Sean Connery.

He was an expert in the medieval history of Europe and a Professor of the mysteriously named field of Semiotics. No one else has done more to popularize this field and its use in interpreting historical findings. His knowledge of these two areas were ingrained in his thinking as a philosopher and his writing.

Semiotics refers to the study of signs, their interpretation and use in communication, and their link to language. Since these are a lot of heavy words, let me give you an example that we can all relate to. I had a twitter account under a different name. When I created this blog, I wanted a matching twitter account (no, I don’t really use it!) but “@nilambar” wasn’t available. I was under the invisible time pressure we all feel when creating a username on online signup forms. So in my panic I was searching the screen and my room for some clue.

Here is a screenshot of the top right section on twitter:


This + “nilambar” = “quillambar“! I know the end result is extremely cheesy but let me explain how my brain worked: Green post button with feather logo -> a feather is used to make a quill which is used for writing -> rhymes with nil -> bingo!

After observing the icon, this whole cognitive process took less than a second. This is a simple example that shows how a sign (feather) combined with context (writing), produced an idea (quill) that produced a word (something related to writing + the rhyming?). There are probably interesting neuro-biological aspects to this as well but we will stick to the subject here. Semiotics is basically a formal study of such processes from the perspective of history, language and communication. Eco wrote definitive textbooks in his main field of Semiotics.

He also wrote more accessible essays where he deployed these skills. After a visit to the US, he wrote essays published as Travels in Hyper-reality that explore the reasons for America’s fixation with living life larger or in recreating reality (replicas of the Oval Office or installations in Disneyland) based on his observations.

He was an expert on the medieval and Renaissance period in Europe. He could connect historic development right from the crusades and the inquisition to modern times. But I don’t think Eco wrote a popular or academic book that purely covered history unlike for example, William Dalrymple’s research on Afghanistan or the Mughal times in India. Instead he liked to combine a lot of historical fact with handcrafted fiction and his most well-known novels do exactly that.

As a widely read person, he felt every book referred to many others consciously or not. Nassim Nicholas Taleb speaks about the massive library of Eco in his book, The Black Swan, and calls it the “anti-library” of which I wrote here. Taleb also calls him encyclopedic.

He wrote a set of essays, On Literature, that demonstrates his wide range of reading. One of themes was that Literature reinvents itself with the sensibilities of every passing age. The other theme was on the nature of writing. The last essay here, “How I write” has some immortal lines on the last page:

“There is only one thing you write for yourself, and that is a shopping list… One writes only for a reader… Whoever says he writes for himself is not necessarily lying. It is just he is frighteningly atheistic. Even from a rigorously secular point of view.

Unhappy and desperate the writer who cannot address a future reader.”

He combines knowledge of semiotics, history and literature into his fiction as demonstrated in The Name of the Rose:

  • The name of the book is not explained in the book and has no connection to the story. Later in a postscript he said that he chose this, “because the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left”
  • The protagonist, William of Baskerville, is a play on William of Occam (known for the Occam’s Razor principle) and Sherlock Holmes
  • Jorge Luis Borges, who was the inspiration for many of the “magic realism” writers in South America like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was a favourite of Eco. The main antagonist in this book is inspired by him. Borges wrote about a labyrinthine Library of Babel, in a short story. Eco sets a lot of the action in his book in a similarly modeled library.
  • The inquisition and fixations of the dark ages play a big role in this book. There is a theme of searching for heresies and punishing new ideas; destruction of books and scrolls that may contain knowledge that contradicts theology.

He also wrote commentary about the now. A set of essays titled Inventing the Enemy starts out with an idea that if one doesn’t have an enemy then one must invent it. He shows that even to have an identity (as a person or a group) that has some self-worth means we must invent an “other”; something foreign and repulsive – an enemy. It shows when you look around in today’s connected world. You can have enemies who you never see or speak to, provoke, draw reactions and deliver counter-reactions, and thereby establish and celebrate your identity as opposed to the “other”.

Eco left us earlier this year and will be sorely missed but his entire body of work says that what he wrote will endure and reinvent itself. May he rest in peace.

Is this is a good use of your time?

I decided to raise this question putting at risk my meagre readership! Your decision to read this probably comes at the cost of some of your “free time”. When we are working, our employers structure our time so we don’t need to worry about managing it. This typically takes 30-70 hours a week depending on the type of work you do. Sleeping and daily ablutions probably take up another 70 hours a week. This gives you 28-68 hours of “free time” that you need to plan for.

On average humans are very poor at utilizing their time:

  • If our time at work was used effectively, better productivity in a meritocracy would lead to better rewards. This means a focus on creating processes and practices that avoid day-to-day firefighting instead of living in the crisis. However, this doesn’t happen. So fear and panic about our jobs or deadlines become the main motivators to accomplish anything at work.
  • The less said about how we use our free time the better. We might want to do X or learn Y or spend time with Z but we usually end up watching cat videos and scrolling through our social media timelines most of the time.

There are some who are completely fine with this or don’t see this as a problem. This post is not for them. This post is for those who want to do more or better but are unable to. Procrastination is the term normally used for this. A task is already defined either by the person or their employer or others. The task is ignored until the last moment. When the deadline is close, it is worked on and somehow completed but not with very good results. Tim Urban who writes at is now a world famous procrastinator who wrote extensively about this specific issue.

Let us use the Eisenhower Matrix to understand this better. You divide everything you do into 4 quadrants based on urgency and importance:


  • You have to do Quadrant 1 items. This is the work crisis or home crisis that cries for immediate attention. This some times needs high CPU usage but adrenaline will help you navigate this.
  • Quadrant 2 is where all the great achievements lie. This needs sustained high CPU usage and there will be no adrenaline to push you. Even most bosses will not push you to do these types of tasks unless you are at a higher level of management.
  • Quadrant 3 can be loosely labeled as “Somebody Else’s Problem” that you have made your own. You can delegate these to the right people and save your time but more often than not you don’t.
  • Binge watching a bad soap opera is a good example of Quadrant 4. All the time we spend entertaining ourselves could also be counted here. It is very hard to spend zero time here because even a hard working brain needs some rest. But mostly we overstay in this quadrant.

Why is living in Quadrant 2 so hard? I had posted about a book; Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann; that talks about how the mind works. The mind is easily distracted even when making important or complex decisions. Basically it likes to keep CPU usage low. Staying in Quadrant 2 requires a couple of high CPU usage activities:

  • Deciding what to do: planning, setting objectives or outcomes
  • Doing it effectively: execution

In a workplace, “Deciding what to do” is a leadership responsibility. “Doing it effectively” is a joint responsibility of all employees including leaders. For your personal time, you are responsible for both. Being consistently good at this is hard. You can read Tim Urban’s perspective here. He says you can make it easier on yourself by setting challenging goals in fields that come more naturally to you and easily motivate you. You can also publicize some of these goals in your circles so that you now feel some invisible pressure to deliver. You can literally set a fire by quitting what you do today because panic is a big motivator.

But most of all, you succeed by having the mental discipline to stay in Quadrant 2. This means that first we must plan and set objectives and then for the bulk of the time focus on the moment and execute. We all know that if we actually are focused for the bulk of an 8-hour work day, we will achieve great things. But we don’t!

Are there tools that help you with “focusing”? Interestingly, there is one powerful tool which is over 2500 years old. The new age form of this is called Mindfulness. Buddhist tradition ascribes this to the Buddha and says that this is what helped him concentrate and focus on the problem he was analyzing (the nature of human suffering). Academics still debate whether Buddha’s core teaching was this mental method as a way to analyze complex problems or the canonical doctrine of The Four Noble Truths. We don’t know for sure because the Buddhist chronicles were written down only a few centuries after Buddha died. As an Indian I can feel proud that India was the origin for both physical training practices like yoga and mental training practices like mindfulness! The sad part is that both of these are considerably less popular in India compared to the West.


What is mindfulness? It means intentionally focusing on your present experiences without distractions. This is basically what we need to live in Quadrant 2! The good thing is just like you can build muscles by physical training, you can build your concentration skills by mental training. You can start with the traditional practice called anapanasati which literally means mindfulness of breathing and then escalates into more and more advanced steps to train your mind to focus.

Does it really work? There has been a lot of scientific research into mindfulness. Research has shown that it actually modifies the brain by shrinking primitive impulse centres like the amygdala and enhancing and better connecting the parts that control attention and concentration. It therefore makes us less of a slave to stress and even to pain. Knowledge industry leaders have already taken notice and Google has a Head of Mindfulness.

You can try this at home using a simple starter video like the one below:

I’ve not gone beyond 10 minutes and I always get distracted. But if you stick with it for at least 8 weeks, you will see results. Trainer-led sessions will obviously help to begin with. There are more advanced steps you can try as you become an expert.

Managing time effectively is critical to achieving stuff in life (if you are into such things). When we consider super-achievers like Einstein (when working as a patent clerk and publishing Nobel winning papers) or Elon Musk (disrupting 3 different industries by age 40) or that guy who became a VP at your office at 35; after accounting for genetics and pure luck what remains that probably explains their success is their relentless discipline in living in Quadrant 2.

P.S: Before I sign off, I need to get back to the title of my post! Is this a good use of your time? If you think not, I can still live with it because you will probably thank me later! Those of you who think otherwise, thank you for your time…



Countries, Borders and Regime Changes

Control over limited natural resources and trade routes along with the associated ego boosts have ensured that map-making is a near permanent occupation. The current nationalism debate in India reminded me of reading Return of a King by William Dalrymple (a thoughtful birthday gift from my dear friends!). This is a history of the first Anglo-Afghan war which raises interesting points on the accidents that create a country; whether it can sustain itself as one and what compromises are needed. So let us use the Afghan example to understand these points.

Living in India, the best way to think about Afghanistan is like a buffer zone which prevented continuous migration but every now and then “pumped” people through down the high mountain passes. Many stayed back in the Indian Subcontinent and helped create the amalgamation of humanity we see today and some plundered and managed to return home. The plunderers were normally based in today’s Afghanistan or a few in Uzbekistan. Why is this a “pump”? Now and then people were pushed into Afghanistan due to various reasons (war or famine in their homeland or a sense of adventure or a disinherited prince with an army etc.). Afghanistan by design cannot support a large population (especially a surge) due to its aridity and difficult terrain. So whenever an unsustainable number of people accumulated in Afghanistan they had 2 choices – go back home or ride through the passes to the comparatively awesome Indian subcontinent.

We first take a quick look at the map (source):


It does look Victorian like the side profile of a lady wearing a fancy hat with a feather to boot! The feather marked in blue, otherwise known as the Wakhan Corridor is a “geographic cul-de-sac” (quoting Wikipedia) created by the forces that made modern-day Afghanistan. We will come back to this later.

Another look at wider view with more topographic and political details (source).


When you look at the map the country doesn’t make any geographic sense:

  • The Hindu Kush mountains cover a good part of the middle of the country cutting the country into several pieces that don’t connect logically.
  • The many rivers that start in the mountains of Afghanistan, flow in half a dozen different directions with most not reaching the sea: The Swat river empties east into the Indus but some like the Helmand, Harut and Harirud end in the Sistan basin Iran/Afghanistan and others like Murghab and Amu in Turkmenistan.
  • The region south of Kandahar is a logical continuum of Balochistan which is now part of Pakistan and is a sandy desert called guess what – Registan
  • The region east of the road from Kandahar to Ghazni is a sort of dry desert between the Hindu Kush and the FATA highlands in the Af-Pak border beyond which lies Quetta
  • There is a small valley (Jalalabad) between the Hindu Kush and Safed Koh ranges. The Khyber pass is on the Safed Koh range on the road from Jalalabad to Peshawar (in the plains beyond the Safed Koh in Pakistan)
  • Surrounding the Hindu Kush are a short expanse of plains or plateau before you hit the Uzbek, Turkmen or Iranian border. Given the superiority you have when occupying the highlands you can radiate a bit of control over the surrounding plains/plateaus but you cannot occupy an Iran or Uzbekistan! Conversely an Iran or Uzbekistan cannot radiate control into the Hindu Kush mountains. In other words, a geographic stalemate.
  • When they tell you that you could reach the Indian Subcontinent in historic times by climbing either the Khyber or the Bolan pass it is only a half truth.
  • To go from Kabul to Jalalabad (the modern highway is still dangerous) you have to first cross the Khord Kabul pass, the Tezin pass and the Jagdalak pass. Then and only then you may cross the Khyber to reach the Subcontinent proper (Peshawar).
  • The Bolan route is no easier. From Kandahar you cross the Khojak pass through to Quetta after which you may attempt the Bolan pass. If you decide to avoid all the mountain passes then you just trek through the registan!
  • Winter is extremely cold and summer fairly hot along with frequent earthquakes on the Hindu Kush. The elements truly hate you here!
  • To control a mountain pass you need to have strong supply lines. If party A controls Peshawar and party B controls Jalalabad then the Khyber is truly no man’s land in between. This is today’s situation. In historic times Peshawar has been controlled by the Afghans but it was difficult to maintain supply lines from across the Khyber and this was not sustainable always. There are some smaller mountains between Islamabad and Peshawar but this is not an insurmountable difficulty in modern times.
  • Quetta lies between 2 passes and has changed hands historically several times between rulers of Kandahar and of the subcontinent.
  • It is extremely challenging for an attacker from beyond Afghanistan to reach the Subcontinent because reaching Kabul itself from Bukhara or Samarkand means crossing another two or three mountain passes!
  • The Hindu Kush and the Registan are key in truly defining an “Indian Subcontinent” because without these it would be a free pass for all!
  • Therefore, a short trip from one city in Afghanistan to another means crossing a couple of high mountain passes or passing through deserts etc. etc. In historic times this mean every valley and mountain pass had its own tribe whose easiest economic activity was to terrorize any caravans that made the mistake of passing through. To make a trip across these roads you had to pay a “treacherous geography tax“. If you didn’t pay up a horde would ride up on horses and slaughter an already tired caravan. These tribes have made money this way since very ancient times (think pre-silk road) and they still do
  • However, no one tribe could take over the country because of all the above geographic challenges. An uneasy equilibrium was maintained. Tribes had reputations to maintain with huge egos. If one tribe defeated another and took control of a pass or valley, no one forgot. There was always a fight-back even if it came two generations later. They just fought each other until an external force (like the British) appeared and they united momentarily against them. Even the Taliban had to fight the Northern Alliance (ethnic Tajik, Uzbek and others) during its rule.
  • Ranjit Singh of Punjab (undivided) is kind of responsible for the disturbance in the equilibrium when he conquered Peshawar (Khyber Pakhtunwa) and the FATA. The British (and later Pakistan) inherited this. It is hard to say where the equilibrium is but these areas are definitely within the influence of the Pakhtun/Afghani tribes and therefore a big problem for present-day Pakistan. The Durand Line cutting through Pakhtun areas was defined after this disturbance in the equilibrium by a momentarily more powerful British. Afghanistan never really recognized this line, signatures be damned! The Durand Line intrudes a bit too much into the mountains that are not very amenable to control by subcontinental powers.

In light of the above, creating a country here with a strong central power just doesn’t make common sense. So when you read reports of Warlord A (probably Uzbek) controlling Mazar-i-Sharif or Warlord B (probably a tribal from near Quetta) controlling Kandahar, don’t be surprised anymore. Central powers have always had to give local tribes and group broad autonomy to survive even for brief periods and therein lies a possible solution to this problem. Anglo-Afghan wars (there have been four of them since the 1830s), typically start because someone behind a British (or American) desk did not understand these ground realities. The script then follows: dislodge the regime in a matter of days, install a puppet ruler, put soldiers on the ground, struggle to keep supply lines going, take casualties from insurgents, retreat. And repeat! Dalrymple just replaces a handful of names in the first Anglo-Afghan War history and voila you have the current Afghan situation already documented. 

The British tried controlling Afghanistan (grossly overestimating that the Russians could overcome the above geographic challenges and reach India!) and had to retreat with heavy losses. Time and again the central power (Taliban is the latest) in Afghanistan was easily removed but were able to prevent any stability by savaging supply lines passing through difficult deserts and mountain passes and continue an insurgency.

As promised we will also tackle the question of the Wakhan Corridor raised earlier. This is an extreme rugged and high altitude landscape even for Afghanistan but it was on the main trade route from Badakhshan (northern Afghanistan) to Yarkand in the Pamirs and China beyond. This was one of the routes of the Silk Road and ancient celebrities like Marco Polo are said to have crossed this. The northern border was defined as the edge of the Russian empire (as it is along the Pamir river) in an Anglo-Russian Treaty and the southern border was defined by the Durand line. China lies beyond this corridor and now refuses to open it for trade. So the Wakhan Corridor was just to ensure that no part of Russian territory touched British India.

Is there a solution?

  • Unite the historic tribes either by drawing a new line or by making the line irrelevant. This means Peshawar comes under some question and so do the northern regions in Pakistan like Swat. Pakistan will obviously disagree but it might help their security. Even Balochistan will need some rethink on similar lines to improve the current situation.
  • Define smaller geographic units using geography and ethnicity and not lines drawn on maps by bureaucrats sitting in their offices. Provide heavy regional autonomy with only foreign affairs and military (not police) centrally controlled. Try to include the Pakhtun territories currently part of Pakistan in this framework and make nationality irrelevant?
  • Have a Presidency that rotates between tribes but with elected executives to run the Government?
  • Tax trade routes (old formula) and devolve most of it to the tribes (officially regions). Even current tribal borders sometimes are not at equilibrium! This needs to be addressed.

Is this a general problem?

  • Yes, Iraq is an example where borders were drawn by artists in Europe and small ethnic groups were split 2 or 3 ways. Equilibrium will be restored and until then we will see fake equilibriums (Saddam) or real chaos (now).
  • Sudan already split
  • The Balkans after the break of the Austro-Hungarian empire
  • In all of these places regime changes don’t help because of the underlying weird borders.
  • A geographically well-defined country can sustain itself for long periods. Island countries truly demonstrate this! But rivers and mountains that naturally separate ethnic groups should be given primacy over temporary disturbances when defining borders in a civilized world. In this sense, the Indian Subcontinent is a fairly well-defined geographic unit. If only …
  • Then again does a truly civilized world need borders? The answer is no. But not all countries, ethnic and religious groups are ready for such a world for it would demand compromise and compassion from all. Something we sorely lack in these times.


I might have got stuff wrong here because I don’t do this for a living. I read Dalrymple’s book about an year ago and have also read up extensively on articles and write-ups on the Afghan situation. I don’t have any direct experience though so don’t quote as original research please!




Memory and Writing: Recording Literature

Who has not heard of their own culture’s sagas and epics? In India we are brought up on stories from a body of literature called the Itihasa, a corpus that includes the well-known Mahabharata and the Ramayana and several Puranas which were all probably composed by bards. These may have originated as the bards’ paeans to their respective kings and embellished further by generations of state-funded poets have now taken a form that is difficult to interpret in a historic sense. The language of the itihasa is believed to be the vernacular of several regions and times (Prakrit(s)) until they were standardized in Classical Sanskrit at different points after 500 BC. The Vedas on the other hand were regarded as sacrosanct and were composed by different schools in what is now referred to as Vedic Sanskrit, considered much more fluid and adaptable than the strict Classical Sanskrit of the grammarian Panini. Vedic Sanskrit itself had a significant period of evolution from the early hymns of the Rig Veda to the Upanishads.

Using a crude analogy, while the Itihasa can be considered today’s equivalent of dinner-table stories usually narrated to entertain a king or an audience; the Vedic corpus of literature was considered the (meta)-physics of the age starting with praises to various Gods and trying to describe physical reality and the nature of the soul. The needs for preservation were therefore different. The Itihasa could be violated in form and substance which is the reason they are nearly useless in historical studies. There are hundreds of versions of every story each localized to the unique needs of the region where the version originated. The Vedas needed to be preserved as is but due to the nature of its content it is also not a powerful tool to understand the people and culture of the age very well. Writing is the best option to preserve a text but it took hold much later in India as the materials (palm leaves?) were not durable and oral tradition dominated almost until printing presses were introduced. Prior to the advent of the Brahmi script in India, both traditions had to be recorded orally.  What one does not realize or takes for granted is the impact of memory on this process.

Imagine I recite a verse several pages in length and it is your responsibility to ensure you can repeat it without error 5 years later! Now imagine that I will not ask you but ask my grandchild to ask your grandchild to recite the same 50 years later! This led to specialized systems simply to preserve a text. The widely criticized rote system of learning in India today can possibly be traced back to the mnemonic devices needed to preserve the ancient texts. A scholar would memorize the text in several different ways and recite them along with his colleagues several times a month. Backward if needed! Maintaining the integrity of several thousand verses across a millennium until it could be written down takes a lot of doing. Today when we listen to Vedic chants we focus on the rhythm and its capacity to reach the divine. We forget why the chanting came into existence. Chanting was one of the many mnemonic devices needed to preserve literature in the absence of writing when the integrity of the text was the ultimate objective. To ensure the devotion of scholars to learn and preserve the texts there are several verses that only focus on the benefits of the chanting and the divine nature of the rhythm and sound. This stupendous achievement of preserving a text was recognized by UNESCO as valued heritage. This is because there are very few known ancient traditions from cultures dating from times prior to when they assimilated writing into their literature. Copious amounts of ancient literature are therefore lost to us simply because memory wasn’t enough and writing wasn’t available!

The sad part is that while the objective of preserving the Vedas in India was achieved, the numbers of those who can could understand and explain the meaning of the verses has dwindled. In fact, even starting in the late 1st millenium BC, Buddhism and Jainism flourished because vedic chants mingled with ritual were incomprehensible to those who were supposed to benefit from it and even for many who conducted it! These newer traditions in turn also couldn’t hold their own partly because writing was still not prevalent. Today much of what is known about Buddhism and its literature comes from sources in Sri Lanka, Thailand, China and Japan where the oral traditions persisted till writing took hold. We learn of the Buddhist Councils held in irregular intervals after Buddha’s passing whose sole purpose was to discuss what was canonical and what was not in the absence of writing. Experts with strong memories were worth their weight in gold! However, a thousand schisms duly ensued and after a not so brief flowering, Buddhism was forgotten from memory for a thousand years in India!

Students of the future who study the modern era will have other problems though. The problems have moved on from preservation to interpretation. There are now several written versions of any event driven by the biases and the memories of the individual writer! Memory even when retrieved and written down within a few hours is a fickle thing.