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HT Picks: The most interesting books of the week

This week’s good reads include a new history of Ranjit Singh’s life and times, an exploration of the many ramifications of algorithmic decision making, and a book on trees

books Updated: May 03, 2019 17:41 IST
HT Team
HT Team
Hindustan Times
Sikhs,algorithms,Netflix
Ranjit Singh’s life and times, the ramifications of algorithmic decision making, and a book on trees on our reading list this week! (HT Team)



THE CAMEL MERCHANT OF PHILADELPHIA BY SARBPREET SINGH

242pp, Rs 699; Westland

In 1801, Ranjit Singh, the young scion of a petty fiefdom in the Punjab was declared the Maharaja of Punjab. The young man went on to carve out a kingdom that stretched from the borders of Afghanistan in the west to those of the British Raj in the east – the lush hills and valleys of Kashmir, the barren mountains of Ladakh and the fertile plains of his native Punjab. The British dared not engage in military adventures against Ranjit Singh, but valued him as an ally who would keep their western frontier safe.
The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia brings alive the king’s dynamic court and his tumultuous but effective reign. In his court was Akali Phoola Singh, the tempestuous leader of the militant Sikhs who won Ranjit Singh some of his most notable victories, but never fully submitted to his authority. The teenaged Muslim courtesan, Bibi Moran, was the love of the emperor’s life. Josiah Harlan, a Quaker from Philadelphia (the camel merchant of the title) rose to become a trusted administrator, only to defect to the Afghans. Jean Baptiste Ventura and Jean Francois Allard formed the king’s famed French legions and rose to the highest ranks of the empire’s armies.
Sarbpreet Singh’s compelling new history of Ranjit Singh’s life and times humanises a great emperor without glossing over his flaws and foibles. He examines the maharaja’s complex relationship with his mother-in-law, Mata Sada Kaur, arguably the chief architect of his ascension to the throne, just as candidly as he does the rise of the Dogra brothers, who began as humble soldiers and went on to scale unimaginable heights of power and glory in his court.
This is an unusually nuanced and complex image of Maharaja Ranjit Singh – a must-read for everyone interested in Indian history. *


A HUMAN’s GUIDE TO MACHINE INTELLIGENCE BY KARTIK HOSANAGAR

262pp, Rs 599; Penguin

Through the technology embedded in almost every major tech platform and every web-enabled device, algorithms and the artificial intelligence that underlies them make a staggering number of everyday choices for us: from what products we buy to where we decide to eat, from how we consume our news to whom we date and how we find a job. We’ve even delegated life-and-death decisions to algorithms – judgements once made by doctors, pilots, and judges. In a Human’s Guide to Machine Intelligence, Kartik Hosanagar surveys the brave new world of algorithmic decision making and reveals the potentially dangerous biases to which they can give rise as they increasingly run our lives. He makes the compelling case that we need to arm ourselves with a better, deeper, more nuanced understanding of the phenomenon of algorithmic thinking. The way to achieving that is understanding that algorithms often think a lot like their creators – that is, like you and me.
Hosanagar draws on his own experiences designing algorithms professionally, as well as on examples from history, computer science and psychology, to explore how algorithms work and why they occasionally go rogue, what drives our trust in them, and the many ramifications of algorithmic decision making. He examines episodes like the fatal accidents of self driving cars; Microsoft’s chatbot Tay, which was designed to converse on social media like a teenage girl, but instead turned sexist and racist; and even our own common, and often frustrating, experiences on services like Netflix and Amazon. A Human’s Guide to Machine Intelligence is an entertaining and provocative look at one of the most important developments of our time and is a practical user’s guide to this first wave of practical artificial intelligence.*


CITIES AND CANOPIES; TREES IN INDIAN CITIES BY HARINI NAGENDRA AND SEEMA MUNDOLI

243pp, Rs 499; Penguin

What lies at the intersection of history, culture and ecology in urban India? Trees.
Native and imported, sacred and ordinary, culinary and floral, favourites of various kings and commoners over the centuries, trees are the most visible signs of nature in cities, fundamentally shaping their identities. Trees are store houses of the complex origins and histories of a city’s growth, coming as they do from different parts of the world, brought in by local and colonial rulers. From the tree planted by Sarojini Naidu at Dehradun’s clock tower to those planted by Sher Shah Suri and Jahangir on Grand Trunk Road, trees in India have served, above all, as memory keepers. They are our roots: their trunk our pillars, their barks our texture and their branches our shade. Trees are nature’s own museums. Drawing on extensive research, Cities and Canopies is a book about both the specific and the general aspects of these gently life-giving creatures.*

*All copy from book flap

First Published: May 03, 2019 17:40 IST