Book Review – Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology

Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic PsychologyVehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology by Valentino Braitenberg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have never read a book similar to this one! It’s amazing and will make you think and wonder at each step.

The book consists of following two parts:

In the first part the author shows how to build autonomous bots using plausible electrical / mechanical design. These bots resemble to small robotic vehicles. The initial designs are simple and give the basic idea to the reader. And every new vehicle builds on a previous one and adds more features and complexity. The most curious feature of these vehicles is that although they are purely mechanical, their resultant behaviour is similar to human emotions like love, fear, aggression etc. At one point the author even argues that these vehicles can ‘get’ new ideas or even follow a sequence of thought but sometimes it is not very convincing.

Many parts of the book throw light on current day artificial intelligence and machine learning concepts like Turing machine, prediction, classification, concepts similar to gradient descent, correlation vs causation etc.

One of the main lesson of this book is “the law of uphill analysis and downhill invention” which is highlighted multiple times. It means that it is comparatively easy to design a system having some desired characteristics (downhill invention), on the other hand given a system as a black box it is very difficult to come up with its exact design details (uphill analysis). This becomes evident in numerous vehicle designs in the book.

In the second part of the book, the author links back to research in biology which is aligned to the concepts discussed in the first part of the book. This part might be tricky to understand specially for people with non-bio background. Even I just skimmed through this part.

Overall, it’s a very intriguing read! However, it is a bit difficult to understand and might require multiple reads through some sections to get it.

This book also makes me wonder that if these simple designs can lead to such complex behaviour in these vehicles then our brain and associated system is way more complex than than and it is hard to even imagine the kind of resultant complex behaviour it leads to in humans (which it actually does)! Also based on uphill analysis, given a specific human behaviour, it is hard to find how exactly it pans out in the backend system of our body.

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Book Review: Humankind – A Hopeful History

Humankind: A Hopeful HistoryHumankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is like a ray of hope in the current times of global pandemic, inter-community disruptions, natural disasters and more. All of us need to be reminded in the intrinsic goodness of the humankind, even though sometimes it might be hard to see. The core idea of this book is that humans in general are kind and trustworthy. And the author builds on this idea throughout the book across diverse aspects like education, business, government and more.

The book has many interesting and well researched case studies like the real life version of the fictional story from Lord of the Flies. What might have happened on the Easter Island than the usually believed story of war, mass destruction and cannibalism. There is also an in-depth analysis on some of the expected questionable events / experiments like the Stanford Prison experiment, Milgram’s shock machine experiment and Catherine Susan Genovese’s murder in NYC. In all these cases, an alternate picture based on detailed research is presented which completely changes the point of view.

The models of our day-to-day systems will be very different and enriching when they are built from a trustful point of view rather that the existing models which are usually distrustful by default. There are interesting examples where the application of these principles has brought remarkable change. Management, of example in a top down manner with strict way of doing things can be counter productive. There is an interesting example of Blok’s model of management where small teams are given full autonomy which has been very successful and created a win-win situation for the company as well as the employees. As the author say, “Because nothing is more powerful than people who do something because they want to do it.”

Further, education is looked at from the opposite of current day industrial / factory model. Importance of play, where the children are left free to experiment and explore is highlighted. Agora model of education which give a lot of autonomy to kids to design their own learning paths is presented which builds much more well-rounded individuals. “You can’t teach creativity,’ writes psychologist Peter Gray, ‘all you can do is let it blossom.”

Next example shows how cities and governments might look like when then are run autonomously using participatory models of governance. There is also an interesting discussion of the Elinor Ostrom’s model of the commons countering Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. Finally, the author gives examples where even in the most complex scenarios like handling prisoners, controlling police or even wars, it is possible to bring a positive change with models based on trust and compassion.

Being kind in not easy. As it is mentioned towards the end of the book, “To believe people are hardwired to be kind isn’t sentimental or naive. On the contrary, it’s courageous and realistic to believe in peace and forgiveness.” Also this strategy won’t be successful in 100% scenarios, however as the author says, “ accept and account for the fact that you’ll occasionally be cheated. That’s a small price to pay for the luxury of a lifetime of trusting other people.”

This book is powerful and can change the way we perceive the world. It breaks a lot of myths and also discusses many counterintuitive findings like compassion rather than empathy is better when interacting with others. It also presents numerous examples where a culture of trust, autonomy, goodness and compassion can build much better systems. This book restores hope in humankind and shows a way where we can be the change we want to see in the world, by being kind!

Book Review: Educated

EducatedEducated by Tara Westover

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A memoir which shows the power of resilience, hardwork and hope!

The book has been brilliantly written. The life of the author is very different from most of our lives, so much so that sometimes it almost seems like fiction. And then we realize that it’s true and the author has actually lived through these experiences.

In the first part the usual lifestyle of the author and her family with a variety of incidents is laid out to give an idea to the readers of a survivalist lifestyle. In the second part she describes the challenges of starting formal education as a 17 year old and the violence which she faced at home. The third part shows the importance of home and family sometimes even when they might not be supportive and acknowledge the reality.

It shows how valuable a family which accepts and supports you is. Despite all the challenges (sometimes each day seemed like a challenge) the author not just conquers the adversity, but rather she aces it. She and a couple of her brothers did their Ph.D. from some of the best graduate schools in the world. She acknowledges her life and its challenges in the formative years and decides to look ahead and move forward when her family breaks ties with her.

It also shows the importance of education and learning. It is nice to see how the author’s world view about a lot of things which she believed, transforms when she studies and learns in depth about it. As the author at one point mentions, “An education is not so much about making a living as making a person.” This book also shows that it is never too late to be the person you want to be even if one has faced the worst circumstances in life. A spirit of hope, trust in oneself and ability to work hard can make a difference at any point in life!

Book Review: The Theory of Being

The Theory of Being: Systems science from a traditional Indian perspective

The Theory of Being: Systems science from a traditional Indian perspective by Srinath Srinivasa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are a few books out there which can completely change how we think and model the world around us as well as ourself, and this book is one such book!

Most of us perceive the world and ourself in a machine hermeneutic way. It is discussed in detail in the first half of the book. Basically it is a mechanised design where everything is a component of the overarching system and performs its defined role. We may ourself not know how deeply such principles are ingrained in us, and affect our day to day decisions and actions!

In the second half of the book, a new model is introduced titled Theory of Being (as the title of the book). It completely contrasts from the machine hermeneutic way and looks at everything as a being. All the related terms and concepts are explained in detail and clearly distinguished from the usually believed meaning of those concepts. For example, most of us think that dharma means religion, but actually it doesn’t! Overall, the theory is just mind-blowing! Once we understand it, it completely changes our point of view. It is elaborated how this theory can be used to rethink and redesign systems with suggested steps which can be taken in order to build sustainable systems. Finally, the book ends with an intriguing vision of how the future might look in both machine and being oriented worlds!

The core principles of the Theory of Being come from the Indic thought. However, if we pick a related scripture and read it, it is really hard to understand and more importantly difficult to relate. This book presents an interpretation of that Indic thought which is understandable and relatable to a person who has some basic knowledge of systems thinking, basic mathematics and game theory. This book also shows how little we know and how superficial and flawed our knowledge is regarding our our own rich Indic systems and theories.

Also, this is one of those books, from which one can understand something new, every time it is reread! I have read some parts of this book multiple times and every time I got some new insights to ponder! Many lines lead to an aha moment! An amalgamation of the core theory along with lots of interesting examples, personal experiences and anecdotes, makes it an amazing read!

P.S.- I have had multiple insightful discussions on many concepts and ideas presented in this book with Prof. Srinath and these discussions have greatly helped me in understanding it with more clarity.

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Book Review – Eat Pray Love

Eat Pray Love is a true story of Elizabeth Gilbert or ‘Liz’. This book motivates us to face all the challenges of life boldly, not to give up, to listen to one’s heart and most importantly to make ourselves content and happy. The book has been written in a very beautiful way. No doubt it is a bestseller.

Liz is married and has everything in life one can dream of. But she is not happy. So after struggling a lot she ends her marriage. After divorce she is filled with sorrow. She can’t see what is happening in her life. And thus she goes into depression. It is one of the most difficult phase of her life. She loses a lot of weight and thinks of self-destruction. Finally she realizes that no one else can make her happy. So she will have to make the efforts herself.

She always wished to learn Italian language. It had no specific reason but she just wanted because she liked it. Secondly through a friend she came to know about a spiritual guru whom she made her guru. She wanted to visit her ashram in India. Finally a few years back a medicine man had read her hand and told her that she would come back to Indonesia and he would teach her everything.

108 is considered to be a good number. So this book has 108 chapters. The book is divided into three parts each of 36 chapters. So Liz decided to take a one year break and spend 4 months each in Italy, India and Indonesia (3 I’s).

This part describes her stay in Italy. She learns Italian from a person there and teaches him English. She has a great time in Italy. She make a lot of friends. She spends most of the time eating 🙂 in Italy. Every day she visits new restaurants and enjoys a variety of sumptuous food like pizza and pastries etc. Slowly she starts feeling good and regains the lost weight.

The next part of the story leads to India. She stays in an ashram near Mumbai. She learns meditation. In the beginning it is very difficult for her to meditate and concentrate. But slowly she learns everything. She discovers tranquility and peace within herself.

The last part leads to Indonesia. There she again meet the medicine man. She helps a lady to buy a house for herself by asking all her friends to contribute. And finally she finds love again. She meets Felipe and both fall in love with each other. Since both are divorced they are not ready to marry immediately however both are ready to lead a happy life together.

To know more what happened after Eat Pray Love the author has written the book Committed. Overall EPL is a good book. You will enjoy reading it. And at some points you can easily relate with Liz. Happy Reading 🙂

Here’s the trailer of the Eat Pray Love movie –