Swimming With Dolphins

The daughter and I were lazing around one night a few months ago: she, reading me snippets from her Harry Potter book and gushing about Patronus charms, and self, reading out snippets from mine, The Cosmic Connection By Carl Sagan.

I was reading the fascinating piece on Elvar the Dolphin. The daughter’s favorite animal is a Dolphin. She has drawings of mermaids with Dolphins everywhere. The sea fascinates her in ways that amuse us. Dolphins, mermaids and narwhals enchant her mind, and her endeavor is to become one if possible.

So, obviously, I read the whole piece out to her.

wind-in-the-reef.jpgElvar had the brilliant scientist stumped after a brief interaction. Elvar-the-dolphin and Sagan-the-human, on being introduced, started playing a game initiated by Elvar wherein he swam to Sagan, and thumped his tail completely drenching Sagan. When after the fourth splashing, Sagan refused, the dolphin swam up to him and said ‘More’. Completely flustered with this turn of events, Carl Sagan ran to his fellow neuroscientist friend and said he might have heard the Dolphin say the word, ‘More’. To which the neuroscientist said that Elvar the Dolphin knew upto 50 words in English, and could use them in context.

It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English — up to fifty words used in correct context — no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese. – Carl Sagan

A marvelous essay that only serves to remind us about the virtues of humility. We can barely understand other languages that fellow humans speak, and are quick to erect barriers between ourselves, but here was a dolphin willing to pick up English in order to engage with human-beings.

“You know Amma? Dolphins are so lovely right?”

I nodded. I did love the little flubberty gibbets.

“I think I know what my patronus is – My patronus must be a dolphin. I love them amma. They are so magical and real too.”, she said her eyes gaining that dreamy quality that often accompanies magic.

So, imagine how we felt when on our recent vacation to Mexico, the husband had booked a ride with Dolphins.

We were first introduced to a pair of dolphins – a charming male and female, called Manta and Sole. We hugged, patted and kissed them. I have never in my life touched something that soft, warm, and plush pulsing with the robust health of life. I coo-ed with that tone of voice I use around babies, and the daughter tried her best to distance herself from me in embarrassment, unlike the dolphins, who seemed to enjoy the attention.

‘Would you like to ride with them?’, asked the instructor, and I got to tell you that I was apprehensive. I mean – weigh the facts. Dolphins can swim at the stupendous rate of 20 miles per hour. I swim, if you can call it that, at the rate of 2 strokes a minute, stopping to gulp water in between, spluttering a bit, gasping, coughing and rasping, then regaining my breath before taking another deep gulp to sustain myself for 2 strokes.

Would a Dolphin for the first time experience condescension? I had to find out.

It took me what felt like 20 minutes to swim a couple of hundred meters out to where the dolphins could meet me. I huffed and puffed, and flawlessly executed the gulped-water, sputter and choke routine before I felt able to say I was ready. The moment I nodded, she gave them the signal.

In under a second, I felt the dolphins streak toward me under water, and they were there wiggling their fins under my arm and assuring me in their playful way that all was well. Their faces looked like they were smiling which I suppose is a gift they are born with. Their demeanor indicated none of that condescension or judgment that I was dreading, but simply an amused curiosity.

In another second or two, they had deposited me on the shallow end. The pictures reveal an ecstatic look on our faces as we were carried gently ashore by the dear creatures. My heart was bursting with joy. Maybe my patronus changed to a Dolphin too.

dolphin_swim

If we truly were smarter than Dolphins, we would be totally giving you the works in Dolphinese. What I can do is to dance like they did for us.

I only hope their interaction with us was a happy one too. Boink – Thank-You in Dolphinese.

Cybotic Leaders or Alien Invasions?

I am reading a book called Mind, Life and The Universe: Conversations With Great Scientists Of Our Time. It is a compilation of interviews with scientists. It is fascinating reading. Holding one book letting one know so many areas in which one knows nothing is nothing but humbling.

One interview is with Jane Goodall. She says that what struck her as horrifying while studying chimpanzees was the fact that they could identify with a clan and go on to attack, maim or kill fellow chimpanzees belonging to a different clan. Similar to what human beings do to each other. Somewhere along the evolutionary cycle, our genes seem to have mutated thus – to identify race and religion and any number of extra associations and look down upon others.

Carl Sagan, in his book, The Cosmic Connection, writes about how if an alien civilization were observing us now, they would think that what we value most is violence. For that is what is available as entertainment and that is what being streamed into our homes everyday, and what our children engage in, in the form of video games.

(https://nourishncherish.wordpress.com/2015/10/09/the-wind-in-the-reefs/)

Last week, we did not need aliens to observe and see what is taught to us. A twitter bot, Tay, written by humans was let loose in the internet to learn and respond like a real user (The future is not far when a good cybot becomes the President of a country). Within 24 hours, we had turned Tay into a racist, misogynist, abuse-spewing user. Who can blame Tay for learning to be a racist jerk in one day? If that is what we are teaching twitter bots, could it be what we are teaching our children in a slower, sturdier manner?

I quote from article below:
http://www.cnbc.com/2016/03/30/tay-microsofts-ai-program-is-back-online.html

“Unfortunately, in the first 24 hours of coming online, a coordinated attack by a subset of people exploited a vulnerability in Tay,” Lee explained. “As a result, Tay tweeted wildly inappropriate and reprehensible words and images.”

How do we teach an algorithm empathy? As Jane Goodall said, “Only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our true potential.”

https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/09/30/jane-goodall-empathy/

I remember a P.G. Wodehouse book, Right Ho Jeeves, in which Jeeves (that all-knowing butler who saves his young, idiotic, but thoroughly good-natured master, Bertie Wooster many times over) says, that the best way to unite warring factions is to introduce a common enemy.

chimp

It looks like an alien invasion might save us from ourselves. If those aliens are only 0.1% percent more evolved than us, we can be their chimps.