Splash! She jumped with glee.
Drenching all around her, she whirled,
grinning, ‘It’s started raining!’ while
leaping into puddles, dancing in the rain.
A bit sad, she knew the summer was over.
Visits to cousins and grandparents,
sweet mangoes and pampering relatives,
No schoolwork, she played till it got dark,
relishing the cold water down her throat.
But she must bid the summers goodbye,
when one day it gets cloudy,
windy and loud very quickly.
Petrichor, pitter-patter followed by
swaying trees, and a cup of warm tea.
Blues, greens and browns,
No more sepia and scorched earth,
it’s time for cloudy skies, vivid colors.
Drinking it all in, she welcomes the rains.
Watching a race between raindrops-
cannibal drops gobbling the puny ones-
streaking across the window while her
father got her a corncob with extra lime.
Grandma always said, ‘First rains are lucky’
She took no chances, danced in every rain.
It always seems like summer lasts forever
until the first rains of next year, each year-
and she always knows where she’ll be when
the monsoon arrives, when it finally rains.
Splash! She jumped with glee.
I think a very underrated feature of many big-picture questions we have is the feature of ’emergence’. You can picture emergence as how something may take on a whole new characteristic or form when its scale is sufficiently enlarged. The parts by themselves wouldn’t have it, the feature is only visible when taken as a whole. For example, water is wet. But is a single H2O molecule wet? How could it be- it is merely electrons and protons of two different elements existing in a weak electron bond. But you put billions of H2O molecules together in a liquid form (not solid, not gaseous)- it becomes water, and it becomes wet.
There are universal examples to this- for example, you cannot point to a single isolated point on a leaf as making the forest look green- the greenery is just a function of millions of individual plant cells reflecting a certain spectrum of light wave and absorbing the rest through its cell membranes. Light is a feature that happens when a million photons collectively provide the feature of brightness. Features emerge with scale, in other words. There’s plenty written about emergence per se, so enough about that.
I stumbled onto this concept by way of researching AI ethics in terms of ‘conscious AI’- the bugbear that spooks many and which many smarter people seek to dismiss as impossible and an ‘anthropomorphic’ concern- that it is silly to treat AI as human beings and assume they would also stumble into their version of consciousness.
This made sense to me too, until Max Tegmerk’s brilliant Life 3.0 (relevant at page 364) argued that consciousness is simply subjective experience. Any non-living thing, like a self-driving car, is carrying out the inputs of its software the same way our hands shift gears as directed by inputs from our brain. Tegmerk’s argument, in short, relies on the idea that consciousness may be an ’emergent’ feature based on the vast amount of information processed and transferred throughout our nervous system. If an AI is capable of processing that much information, how can we assume that the processing of that information itself doesn’t provide a fair bit of ‘consciousness’. The link between us evolving from non-living blobs and consciousness has also been explored in some Kurzgesagt videos (here and here)
Interestingly, ‘muscle memory’ is also a function of neurons firing in our brain reflexively, but cannot be said to be conscious actions- as we don’t feel ourselves subjectively experiencing doing that task, and only as having done it (past tense). Another curiosity to think about- are reflexive muscle-memory based tasks no different from a fan spinning or a word document opening, i.e., automatic actions following an established direction triggered by external stimuli? Tegmerk’s book left me questioning a lot of my assumptions on the uniqueness of humanity itself. Solid read.
Coming back to emergence itself. The feature of emergence obviously is necessary in understanding how we came to be, and what ‘conscious’ entities we may leave behind in the future. But I’d like to think of another reason to highlight its role here. The idea of emergence may singularly encapsulate words such as ‘consistency’, ‘maintenance’ in terms of fitness. One doesn’t become fit by a day’s work, but rather as a result of a system of many tiny parts working together long before the emergent feature of fitness is visible. Same goes for becoming a guitarist, learning how to cycle, dance or read words. A systemic upgrade only possible through millions of minute upgrades internally over time. It also serves as a reminder of our own power as an individual- by showing us how every individual action may seem immaterial or insignificant, but adds up through emergence. Each voice or action counts, if not by itself, but as a part seeking to find or serve a whole- the intended purpose.
These are not new concepts, of course. But I thought it was noteworthy how such a core concept could have universal application in explaining the dynamics of nature, the history of our universe, evolution, and consciousness; while also laying down a marker in terms of behavioral or societal encouragement. It also felt that being aware of this feature may help get us through those times when results aren’t immediately visible or apparent- they are, and every small part matters.
I remember the waves
when I first saw the sea-
not at all what I
imagined them to be.
As I walked into water,
into waves full of deceit-
noisy, salty, angry, stuffy,
moved sand beneath my feet.
The sand stuck to my soles,
clothes wet, clingy and cold.
Somehow, I cut my toe and each
new wave rifled through my soul.
I took a dip in the water, salt,
infernal salt in my nose and eyes.
My hair all itchy, my tongue all dry,
a new entry to the things I despise.
I do not like the sea.
Clearly, it’s the hills for me,
and the sea shares my apathy.
Next time this comes up,
I’ll gladly let the sea be
and focus on something
that takes me anywhere but the sea.
Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A speculative but realistically framed look at life in the age of AI. More specifically, this book contemplates advances in AI that result in human-level ‘artificial general intelligence’ and above- that an AI would be ‘capable’ to do multiple things just like we humans can (as opposed to today’s AI that is narrowly tailored to one role e.g. chess). The author puts forth a convincing case that such advancement may result in an exponential boom of AI ability- propelling such AI systems to artificial super intelligence.
A book that sets out the foregoing, in a credible yet explainable manner, is by itself instantly a must-read for every person curious about the future. What makes this book special is that it takes the chance offered by this premise to do a deep dive into the concepts of consciousness, goals and intelligence- deriving them from first principles in the context of such phenomena developing in non-living entities. Excellent. Lastly, what makes this book a bona-fide 5 starrer is that each chapter has a summary section at the end. Given the nature of the book, it was understandably felt necessary, but the skill of Tegmark’s writing often ensured that the summaries did not feel necessary.
View all my reviews
I ask you this question,
are you living for something?
Or are you merely living within,
letting the world pass you by as you
watch and barely feel your own presence?
Is this a false illusion?
Are you seeing the world pass you by,
as you sit still, discontent with sitting,
not realizing that you are on a moving train
and what you see is relative to your motion?
Is your life not itself a moving train?
The journey has commenced when you sat,
and it’ll get you where you need to go,
as you sit still and go with the flow.
Do you ever feel like you’re not moving,
unless you physically feel that change?
Do you believe that you’re moving in that train-
just like you’ve never seen yourself grow,
even though you were not what you are now?
Passive change happens without you moving,
but is that enough for your soul? For your present?
Your future will not be the same,
no matter whether you do move, or do not.
Passivity never gives you control, just change.
Control comes from seeing yourself move,
so disbelieving you are that you may not
believe change happens any other way. But it does.
There’s always change in living within, but
true control comes with living for something.
Do you fear not changing, or
just not controlling that change?
It sounds like a good time- when
you tell me you are taking the train and
love dancing in the rain, and I see you blush
again when I say next time, we’ll take the
train and we’ll be dancing in the rain.
It sounds like a good time- when
I see your eyes shine at the corn cobs when
they start to crackle, the coal spits off its sparks
and we sense the sparks ourselves and move
closer together and hold each other’s hands.
It sounds like a good time- when
we look up to the skies, and we have been
drunk for quite some time, but the stars
are shining bright and we stay quiet for a while,
before I say I spot my star, and look right
into your eyes, and we kiss under the moonlight (oh yes).
It sounds like a good time- when
you find me in the corner of the bar and
we sway gently to the music and feel so
mellow and I know that the rain and the train,
the corn on the cob and the sky lit by moonlight
have never been so beautiful to me than
since I met you.
It starts with a stupid lump in my throat-
“Why does my face feel so hot?” Tears.
Tears brim and flow from helpless eyelids,
trickle down my cheeks and wet my lips.
I hastily wipe them away. Is today the day?
For a moment I held it in, shook my head,
exhaled and thought “Be ashamed!
A tear is a child’s ploy, a tear is the
weak’s device, to fail to cope is to cry.”
My grief didn’t stop for my pride.
I buried you three days ago, Eddie.
I fronted up and reacted the mature way,
only showing anger, only being snappy,
only hating people with sympathy,
only removing all your traces before I cry.
Why am I crying now? I had enough warning
when you turned old and didn’t fight a bath,
when you couldn’t lift your legs anymore,
The day when you didn’t move for a walk,
and went right where you sat, best friend.
I watched the syringe, your misery complete,
as you passed on to an endless sleep.
Did I honor our love? I grieved. Did I weep then?
No. I sulked, though- and hit my hand on things.
I never did that when you were around. I used to
talk to you when you put paws on my chest, no?
It’s hit me today, and you aren’t here to see it.
I loved you Eddie, I love you still- and I will cry.
A tear is a helpless plea, it’s a shout I cannot
voice- anguish which I cannot bear to retell.
It hardly comforts. But it helps me breathe.
Do these tears ease the pain of losing you?
No, not today. “Breathe, breathe, repeat, and
maybe a good cry. We’ll see how tomorrow goes.”
My neighborhood has a very predictable morning. Flowers bloom in March. It rains in July. It’s hot in May and cold in December. Regardless, the municipality cleaning ladies roll their cleaning trolleys up the streets every day, parking it from time-to-time as they sweep up plastic and other garbage from the streets and fling it into the trolley. The edges of the streets are always strewn carelessly with cars and bike- free roadside parking under tree shades for my neighbors. Hawkers selling bananas and vegetables push their carts, shouting out to attract attentive housewives. Dogs walk their people, searching for familiar places to resolve their morning business. Maids in multi-color sarees walk by, stepping over puddles and potholes, to their jobs.
Occasionally, and almost intentionally, nothing happens on the streets. That’s the time for leaves stirring, reminding me of their existence. The pink flowers join in, waving to the gentle breeze. Occasionally, I see shiny globules of raindrops hanging on by sheer force, unwilling to be vacated so easily. Sometimes I see them descend on an unsuspecting victim after a strong gust of wind or merry children shaking the tree and running away.
A gong from the 6X6 feet temple at the intersection breaks the reverie. All of a sudden, bikes rush to and from the main road, cars honk their warning to blind turns, goods carriers race to restock local retail stores in time, and hawkers resumed their announcements. An old man walks out to his porch in a sleeveless undershirt with a cup of tea and the day’s newspaper folded under his arm. My neighborhood is fully awake by now. I hear shutters opening and employees heading out for the day. By noon, the neighborhood is silent again, save for the whistles of pressure cookers and the sound of television in houses. The regular hopeful morning is replaced by the regular sleepy afternoon.
It has pretty much been this way all my life. My neighbors have devised routines of comfort and have found comfort in routines.
(A Dhruv Somayajula hyperventilation based on absolutely true events)
I woke up to a harrowing experience, no less a battle than Cannae, Panipat and Plassey, though the numerical odds between the combatants were quite level. The following is my mission report:
“0900 hrs – June 11, 2021 – The Battle of the Almirah
This huge, winged and shiny beast of a cockroach started it, using guerrilla warfare methods of showing up, freaking me out immensely, ducking under an almirah and showing up again after I gave up kicking the cupboard to provoke it to face me in open field. Very rope-a-dope.
I ran out, got that cockroach spray from the kirana store next door, started spraying it at the last crevice I saw it exiting. After spraying nearly half the bottle under the almirah and yelping war cries bravely, I looked down at my legs and saw that cheeky little shit scurrying from behind me into the zone of chemical warfare.
I jumped up 2 feet in the air and honestly felt my heart in my mouth. I dislodged that, jumped around while spraying the pest from all angles, until it finally lay there vanquished- immobilized, comatose, and possibly dead.
I couldn’t afford to take any chances, you see. It was war. With a brisk ‘take no prisoners’ attitude à la Eisenhower, I gingerly put a paper beneath it, a paper above it, and stamped out the rebellion, all the while clenching my teeth and saying ‘oh God, oh God, oh God’. I could see that I’m a ruthless general but also a very green foot soldier.
I then held the paper with both hands as far as I could from my body, ran to the dustbin and dumped it in there, taking care to use a broomstick to bury it deep within the dustbin. ‘Take no chances with resurrections’- that’s my motto.”
It has been an interesting morning.
I am a big fan of Disney’s Pirates of the Carribean franchise, and the history of pirates and their depiction in general. Which is why I jumped at the chance to read this book and pen some thoughts to spread some love for the piracy trope.
The novel Treasure Island by RL Stevenson was first published on November 14, 1883. This novel is a coming-of-age story, narrated by Jim Hawkins in first person about his adventure when he was a teenager. Jim aids his parents in running the Admiral Benbow inn off the coast of the Bristol Channel. A pirate named Billy Bones visits the inn one day, and decides to stay in the inn for a long time. He passes away after a confrontation with a former crewmate, and it is revealed that he had a treasure map in his possession. A series of events follow, involving the recruitment of gentlemen by the local squire leading the expedition, setting sail for a tropic island for the treasure buried by Captain Flint, and the events happening aboard the ship en route to the island and most importantly, the events on the island. The reader is treated with a lot of action, sharp intelligence and honey-tongued oration. Stevenson, and centuries of pirate imagery, can help us visualize the events unfolding quite easily, and it is altogether a very enjoyable novel.
Treasure Island builds on many previously written fiction and non-fictional accounts of piracy, and lays down the groundwork for much of what we consider now as pirate-lore. Some of the tropes of piracy originally introduced in this book are:
(a) The image of a pirate having a peg-leg and a talking parrot, sourced directly from the character of Long John Silver.
(b) The chant ‘Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum; Drink and the devil has done to the rest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum‘.
(c) The idea of treasure maps and scavenger maps with treasures/prizes marked with a large ‘X’.
(d) The use of the black spot as a summons among pirates (this term also made an appearance in the Pirates of the Caribbean series).
For the uninitiated, the black spot in Treasure Island was a piece of paper which was blackened on one side, and had a collective decision taken by the crew in the other. In the book, Long John Silver is deposed as captain by the pirate faction and is given a black spot, but avoids being deposed by pointing out that the crew had mutilated a Bible to make the black spot, distracting the crew with superstitions until he could win them over again with new information on the treasure.
The book also uses symbolism to solidify what we consider defining traits of piracy-
(a) No desire to seem honorable– The book symbolizes the difference between the ‘honest sailors’ and the pirates, with the ‘honest pirates being God-fearing Christians who act for King and country. They are also shown as people who follow orders of their captain, and are true to their word. The doctor, who is a part of this expedition, even treats and bandages the pirates after the two camps have commenced hostilities. There’s an accurate line by the pirate Israel Hands on this note, when he talks to Jim Hawkins “For thirty years, I’ve sailed the seas, and seen good and bad, better and worse, fair weather and foul, provisions running out, knives going, and what not. Well, now, I tell you, I never seen good come o’ goodness yet. Him as strikes first is my fancy; dead men don’t bite; them’s my views – amen, so be it.“(sic)
(b) Self-destructive hedonism– Long John Silver, while briefing his fellow sailors of the treasure on Treasure Island and the opportunity to make away with it after disposing off the ‘honest sailors’ sailing with them, referred to pirates as ‘gentlemen of fortune’. He sums up the hedonistic, live-in-the-moment, brash trope of the pirate with the following sentence- “Here it is about gentlemen of fortune, They lives rough, and they risk swinging, but they eat and drink like fighting-cocks, and when a cruise is done, why it’s hundreds of pounds instead of hundreds of farthings in their pockets. Now, the most goes for rum and a good fling, and to sea again in their shirts.”(sic)
The pirates in the book are frequently depicted as needing alcohol to satiate themselves and return to their world of normalcy, even feeling better after having brandy despite suffering open wounds, against all medical sense. Finally, the first pirate introduced to the reader, Billy Bones, dies of overconsumption of alcohol despite having strictly been warned to lay off it by the local doctor on peril of death.
However, Long John Silver is shown to be a prudent person, advising other pirates to save their monies and having himself sold all his belongings and entrusted his life savings with his wife. He is also shown to be aware of, and fearful of, the eventual punishment of piracy- death by hanging, and attempts to plea bargain his way towards leniency from the protagonists of the novel. In portraying this, Stevenson adds a layer of complexity and gravity to the depiction of pirates and trying to avoid a trope of irresponsibility for all pirates.
Stevenson does not delve into the motivations for piracy in Treasure Island. Some of the motivations for piracy which existed in the 17th century included push factors such as:
(a) lack of on-shore opportunities for lower-class families;
(b) lack of social mobility and regular wage structures in aristocratic England; and
(c) ‘honest’ work at sea meant either merchant ships or the navy. Seamen in these jobs were treated harshly, beaten and punished for the slightest reasons, and had no say in decision-making. On the other hand, pirate ships usually ran with some form of democracy, with pirates sailing on a ship being assured voting rights on certain plunder and the right to depose and elect a captain.
to the pull factors of:
(a) the complete monopoly of sea routes on continental trade;
(b) tacit approval and unofficial state policy by the Crown and Parliament to allow the loot of Spanish fleets ferrying cargo and valuables from Spanish colonies in the Americas;
(c) tacit permission for piracy by recognizing them as privateers for the above reason
(d) unregulated domains with massive potential for pay-offs,
(e) examples of famous successful pirates, as below:
Famous Real Life Pirates:
(a) Captain Henry Avery who looted a Mughal fleet on its way towards Mecca, and made off with valuables valued today at over $130 million (this treasure was never found, for any treasure enthusiasts), and
(b) Captain Henry Morgan, who went on to be appointed as the governor of Jamaica by the Crown, serving as a great example for successful pirates to move upwards in society. He is a familiar face to many, as the eponymous logo for Captain Morgan’s Rum today.
The central story of Treasure Island has been covered in many adaptations since. One of my favorite works on this is the prequel television series Black Sails, which described how the treasure was originally left at Treasure Island and the back-story for Captain Flint, Long John Silver, Billy Bones, Ben Gunn, Israel Hands etc. Treasure Island is a short and easy read, and enormously fun to discover the roots of so many tropes. I would recommend having a dictionary or Google open to visualize the nautical nomenclature being used, if the reader so desires.