Tetris

A tetris block moved down and hit the base.
But the game suddenly changed & slowed its pace.
It’s not known when or which block will come next.
How will it position and align and where it will rest.
So now the tetris block waits for blocks to fall unstudied.
To arrange in rows so that the game can proceed.

Image by Comfreak from Pixabay

Book Review: A Life on Our Planet

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A Life on Our Planet by Sir David Attenborough

A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future by David Attenborough

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A book like this can only be written by someone like Sir David Attenborough. He has not just written about the things elaborated in this book, but he has actually lived and experienced it. And this lifelong vision brings up long-term big picture which is clearly evident in this book.

The key takeaway of this book is that we humankind as a whole are close to the tipping point of long term sustainability and survival. If we continue to act in the way we have in the past with massive deforestation, melting snowcaps, ruining oceans, increasing global temperatures and more, the future is bleak. However, we are smart and innovative and have solved grand challenges in the past and we are capable of doing that now. It is an urgent need of the hour to work in ways such that we can sustainably coexist on the only place we know, our planet Earth!

The book is wonderfully organized. It starts with a section on the experiences of Sir David Attenborough around the planet, of his journeys around the world capturing wildlife on camera so that we could watch it from home. It is like reading NGC / Discovery! However, the adverse effects of exponential unsustainable growth are evident and presented with real-life examples. The next section looks at the future and predicts what will happen if we proceed to act as though everything’s fine. And the picture is definitely scary! Next section is how we the mankind can take steps in order to move towards an alternate version of a more sustainable future with a lot of biodiversity and where everyone can coexist. And it is presented in very well defined indicators. It is almost like a dashboard of key factors on which our survival depends which is called the doughnut model. Final section highlights how building a sustainable future is the greatest opportunity for our generation indeed! We can together build the future we imagine!

Major changes are required in many aspects of our lives, like adopting a plant based diet, recycling every thing that is used, using clean energy, minimizing carbon footprint and in general empowering everyone around the world. And it won’t be sufficient if just some people do it. We need to build a system where it makes sense and is possible for everyone to adopt such lifestyle. Thus everyone including the government, agencies, regulatory bodies and individuals need to come together will a common initiative to build a future we want.

Only when we give back more than we take, can we bring back balance in the ecosystem. In the past, drives for saving a specific species have worked, now it’s time to take steps for the “whole natural world”. We are not “saving the Earth” but rather “saving ourselves” by building a sustainable future.

Profound and highly insightful book! One of my best reads of 2020!

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Book Review- Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective

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Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective by Kenneth O. Stanley and Joel Lehman

Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective by Kenneth O. Stanley and Joel Lehman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the most thought-provoking books I have read. And I could relate even better because I work in the area of AI like the authors and many of the examples and the final case-study is from this area. Also it’s inspiring to see such deep insight coming from the tool they built called Picbreeder.

The core idea presented in the book is that “objectives” are unnecessary and rather a hinderance while solving “complex” problems. Objectives might be useful for simple problems where it is easy to chart out a path to the goal. However in case of more complex problems where the route to the goal is not known, objectives cause more harm than good.

Next, an alternate model is presented called the novelty search. It finds solutions based on how “interesting” the solution is rather than how close it is to an “objective”. The authors connect this idea to the stepping stones, which is a great analogy. They argue that a complex goal lies somewhere in a hazy lake with a very low visibility. It is difficult or impossible to reach a specific goal in this lake and an objective in this case is like a “broken compass”. However, it is much more relevant to explore the lake by finding new stepping stones based on novelty or interestingness and how many new stepping stones it can lead to. True success lies in exploring the space of the lake rather than trying to reach a specific imaginary point.

Finally, a variety of use-cases are discussed from education, innovation to evolution and AI where a novelty based approach makes more sense rather than an objective based approach.

This book presents an intriguing idea which can literally change the way we operate in life. Sometimes it gets a bit repetitive but overall it drives the point. I highly recommend this book!

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Goal vs Process

In this post, I’ll elaborate on the two kinds of approaches we can have while working on any task– goal oriented approach and process oriented approach. We’ll see what do we mean by these approaches, how these are characteristically different, some interesting examples of both these approaches for the same task and finally if one of this approach is better than the other.

Goal oriented approach primarily focuses on the end goal of the task. With this approach, we try to reach that aim in the easiest possible way. No wonder, we optimize and do whatever least is required to reach the goal using this approach. How something is done– is not as significant as long as we finally obtain the goal. Also two people who have achieved the same goal are similar from this point of view although they might have taken different paths to reach that goal.

On the other hand, process oriented approach focuses on the way of achieving a goal rather than the goal itself. With this approach, we care about how things are done. There is an inherent motivation to do things well rather than just getting things done. With this approach, we are okay if it takes longer to get something done if we are able to improve the process. And when we look at two people who might be at same level, we focus on how they reached where they are instead of where they are.

Let’s take an example, consider a student who is learning a new course. A goal oriented student who aims for an A grade will do what it takes to get that grade. He might not focus on aspects of the course which will not contribute in adding to the grade. On the other hand, a process oriented student will focus on learning all the skills he can from that course. There is an intrinsic motivation to actually learn and know more about a variety of aspects of the course.

Similarly, take a person working on a project at his workplace. A goal oriented person will do whatever he has been told to do, and nothing more. On the other hand, a process oriented person cares about the work he is doing and takes ownership of the project. He does not just stop at doing what he has been told. But goes a step forward and thinks of ways in which the project can be improved by maybe automating something, updating the algorithm of a module etc.

Also, it’s not the case that goal oriented people don’t care about the process and process oriented people don’t care about the goal. It is not just possible but likely, that a goal oriented person follows a process and a process oriented person has some goal. Thus both these aspects go hand in hand. But the approaches tell what we primarily care about while working on anything– is it the end-goal or is it the process of achieving a goal?

In my opinion, mostly it is lot more fun to do things in a process oriented way instead of goal oriented way. In goal oriented approach, we think that we will be happy when we achieve the goal. It is indeed true that we are happy on achieving a goal, but that happiness and satisfaction is short-lasted and pretty soon we are ready to go after another goal. On the other hand, following a process oriented approach, one can be happy of following a particular process and there is also great satisfaction is improving a process. If we quantify the total satisfaction, I’m sure we are lot more happy and satisfied following process oriented approaches rather than goal oriented approaches.

Failures strike much harder in a goal oriented approach. There can be a variety of reasons due to which we might not be able to achieve a goal we planned to achieve. And a goal oriented approach makes it much harder to accept failures, and it is likely that instead of learning from the failures, we might take these failures personally due to our inability to achieve a goal. On the other hand, failures are very different in a process oriented approach. Failures are about a particular process not working well for the task at hand. And there are always other alternate ways to try and different lessons to learn. Thus it is easier to understand, accept and learn from failures this way!

Goal oriented approach is useful in situations where it is urgent to get something done. Sometimes the intense pressure can be useful to innovate and optimize the way of achieving a goal. It can be productive and useful in the short run. However it might be difficult to sustain this approach during the long run.

Goal oriented — Stepping stones || Process oriented — Steering ship

I thought of an interesting analogy of these two approaches. A goal oriented approach is like jumping on stepping stones. We are completely focused on landing firmly on the next stone and then on the next stone and then on the next stone. All our efforts and vision is focused and directed on the stepping stones and everything else in the background is a blur. On the other hand, process oriented approach is like steering a ship. Ofcourse one has a goal to reach but in this case, the primary focus is on how the ship is steered. Also on the journey, one can look at the scenery around, spot birds and fishes and enjoy. It is not a distraction from reaching the goal, but overall a more satisfying experience.

Thus, we can approach the things we want to do in life using either of these approaches. And the same thing can be done very differently using either of these approaches and in turn it can be a very different experience for us. Process oriented approach can let us enjoy and learn during the journey while goal oriented approach can make us strongly pursue the desired outcomes! Finally the choice lies in our hands regarding which approach we choose!

Image Credits:
1. Stepping stones – Background photo created by kjpargeter – www.freepik.com
2. Steering ship – Vintage photo created by v.ivash – www.freepik.com

Book Review: Cities and Canopies

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Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities by Harini Nagendra

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fun and informative book with details of not just the trees of Indian cities but with lots of childhood memories, historic events, poems and recipes interleaved! Reading this book feels like talking with fellow nature loving friends. Although it is an easy read, it is well researched and has been written by authors who are expert ecologists and researchers in this area. I throughly enjoyed reading this book and came to know of many interesting facts which I wasn’t aware of.

Some of the most common trees like banyan, peepul, tamarind, palm among others are covered. Apart from the usual facts, there are references to different events which happened in context of trees, references of some of these trees which can be found in our scriptures, how they have evolved over time to become part of the system, poems written by some famous poets around trees and also fun dishes which can be made using parts of these trees.

Along with trees, overall ecosystem around the trees is also discussed. From birds and insects which reside on trees, the effect of trees on environment, how tree plantations and grooves were protected by the commons in the past, movements to save trees, positive effects of having trees around to medicinal properties of parts of trees, everything is are covered.

This book also took me down the memory lane. While reading the authors’ stories of games played around trees I was reminded of the great times I had with friends around trees. From climbing trees and riding it as ships, playing hide and seek among trees, collecting raw mangos and guavas, collecting caps of eucalyptus flowers and many more memories.

This broad perspective with respect to trees makes us aware and ponder on trees around us. It highlights how important and urgent it is to have trees specially in the concrete jungles of cities. I’ll definitely be more cognizant of trees in my future walks. Almost everyone likes trees, but this book can rekindle our love for trees and a green surrounding in general! Hoping for a second part of this book covering more trees (specially mango tree) and more stories and events around trees!

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Book Review – Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth

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Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever thought of a comic book about maths, philosophy and logic? Well that’s what this is! It’s a fun and cool comic based on the life of Bertrand Russell which is almost close to reality. We see how the foundations of logic and maths were laid by eminent people during that time amid war and strife. Overall it’s an interesting read with some pretty nice graphics! Also it’s a quick read. I guess it is even more fun if one has read or studied some of the concepts discussed here atleast at a high level. Would love to read more books like these which depict science stories via comics!

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Book Review: The Midnight Library

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The Midnight Library by
Matt Haig

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, it’s an amazing book with a very unique storyline!

In the beginning, it is a bit slow and glum, and I’m happy I didn’t leave the book at that point. Actually the story is just building up initially.

The lead of the story, Nora, is just tired of her life and her life is filled with regrets. On a particularly bad day when a lot of things turn out badly for her, she just loses hope and meaning to live and decides to take her own life.

However, there’s a twist and that’s where the book begins. Between life and death, she reaches a library, where there are infinite books where every book is a version of her life from the current point onwards. She can choose any book and try out a different life! And come back to the library when a particular life is too much for her and try another one.

This part makes an interesting read and we understand many aspects of Nora’s personality and life, like her dreams and ambitions, her family and friends, her personal and professional life. And while experiencing multiple Nora’s lives, even we have many lessons to learn on the way. It highlights the importance of following one’s dreams rather than someone else’s dreams. It shows that a life with name, fame or money might not always be how we thought it would be. Sometimes how small and insignificant things in our opinion, might turn out to be so important. It shows the importance of meaning, direction and hope in life. And finally, most importantly, that we are the sailors of our life and we can always change the direction where we are heading! We might not always get what we expected but we have the power to choose what we should do next.

The book has some nice lines, which are quote worthy, some of my favorites are:
* “Sometimes the only way to learn is to live.”
* “And there is no right way to play; there are many ways. In chess, as in life, possibility is the basis of everything.”
* “If you aim to be something you are not, you will always fail. Aim to be you.”
* “In becoming everyone, you are becoming no one.”
* “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
* “We don’t have to do everything in order to be everything, because we are already infinite.”

Also, it has a great ending!

Overall, it’s a thought-provoking book which makes us ponder on our lives. Ofcourse it has some sadness and despair but it also highlights the transformative power of being oneself! It touches on #MentalHealthAwareness so well!

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Book Review: A Beautiful Math

A Beautiful Math: John Nash, Game Theory, and the Modern Quest for a Code of NatureA Beautiful Math: John Nash, Game Theory, and the Modern Quest for a Code of Nature by Tom Siegfried

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An amazing book which beautifully blends numerous diverse areas into a unified narrative of game theory.

It presents a complete timeline of game theory from its past, present and future! There is discussion on how many areas evolved and how a need for a science arose which could address systemic issues instead of specific problems. Next, there are details of how the foundations of game theory itself were build mainly by von Neumann, Morgenstern and John Nash. Initially it was thought to be applicable mainly in the area of Economics, however soon it was found that these principles could be applied to a variety of fields. Next, the author highlights how diverse areas like network science, cognitive science, physics, chemistry, maths, quantum theory and many more can be connected to game theory to solve much bigger challenges. This in turn has lead to further developments in game theory as well.

The book concludes with a vision towards the future where the author believes and argues that game theory will play the prime role in coming with a Code of Nature i.e. a science which can connect all the dots and integrate the diversities of all the scientific disciplines to come out with a unified theory.

In my opinion, this book is more intriguing and exciting read, if the reader at least has some basic background knowledge of some of the areas like game theory, network science, cognitive science etc. This book gives are birds-eye view of game theory, dives deep into some of it key aspects and amazingly connects it to so many other areas! It is a must read for someone interested or working in the area of game theory!

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Book Review: The Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad GitaThe Bhagavad Gita by Eknath Easwaran

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Bhagavad Gita is like a guide book for successfully navigating through human life and achieving the highest goal of moksha. Its original verses are in Sanskrit which might be difficult to grasp for most of us and thus there are lot of its translations available from simple to complex, concise to detailed etc.

This translation by Eknath Easwaran is another classic (previously I have read his translation of The Upanishads and it is equally amazing!). He follows the following style throughout the book: he gives an overview of the chapter highlighting some of the key shlokas, describing deeper insights, connecting to other texts and summarising the chapter as a whole. In the next part, all the shlokas are translated in simple English which is easy to understand.

I think this is a nice book to get started on understanding and inculcating the lessons of The Bhagavad Gita. The shlokas are not explained in great detail but on the whole it gives a big picture by delivering the core message of each chapter. After reading this version and understanding the overall message, one can read more detailed translations of the The Bhagavad Gita, if interested. Also, it’s important to apply some of the learnings shared in The Bhagavad Gita in our own lives, and this book is definitely helps in imparting those key messages and action points.

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Book Review: The Educational Heritage of Ancient India

The Educational Heritage of Ancient India: How an Ecosystem of Learning Was Laid to WasteThe Educational Heritage of Ancient India: How an Ecosystem of Learning Was Laid to Waste by Sahana Singh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A amazing, succinct book which takes a look at the system of education in India during the ancient times, during Mughal rule, during British rule and since independence.

* Ancient times
In great detail the book describes the rich Indic education system. It describes the times when education was highly valued, people travelled long distances (sometimes across continents) to learn, where there was a complete ecosystem which supported education and people pursuing it, where both men and women had equal opportunities to learn and where the scholars were experts in their areas of excellence and were far ahead of their times!

* During Mughal rule
This educational ecosystem was intentionally destroyed by the Mughal rulers who invaded India. They destroyed these institutions, burnt libraries and killed the scholars all across India. They were responsible to flung back India centuries behind in its knowledge and scientific pursuits.

* During British rule
The British rule further ruined even the remnants of Indic education system. Their strategy was to create a population which is unaware / hates its own heritage. And to impart an ‘English’ education to them in order to create a population which can be ordered to work but which cannot think for itself.

* After Independence
Sadly, the details of the murder of education system and the rich ancient culture in general by the previous rulers has not been presented correctly to the citizens even after independence. Sometimes the very people who caused this massive destruction have be glorified in the books. It’s high time that we the people, are aware of the rich educational / cultural systems of ancient times and how they were destroyed by the rulers in the past.

Educational systems are the foundation of any society. Educational institutes from schools to universities impart not just knowledge of different areas but also builds minds which can solve unknown challenges of the upcoming times! Thus if the educational system is broken, then the population itself is not capable enough to face the future, which in turn leads to an unstable, sub-par society.

Also, I don’t think we need to go back and copy the exact models of ancient educational systems. Some of the key aspects of the ancient education system can be adapted to the current times to build better educational systems today. The key take-away from this book is that we should be aware of our rich educational heritage as well as how it was brutally destroyed by Mughal / British rulers. Sometimes just accepting the past in itself is a big step towards progress. Finally, we need to rethink and redesign the current day educational systems so that it is good enough to create a society that can tackle the problems of tomorrow!

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