Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Optimism over despair - Noam Chomsky & C.J. Polychroniou

This is a collection of interviews to Noam Chomsky on US and world affairs, conducted by C. J. Polychroniou and published in the magazine Truthout. The topics are: American politics, neoliberalism, economics, social issues, environment, the war on terror, refugee crisis and many more.
Being a collection of separate interviews the book might not always been coherent or homogeneous, and is sometimes repetitive. However Chomsky always appears to be extremely informed and sharp minded. What he seems to be most concerned about is social inequality at various levels: those self fueling mechanisms whereby the richest tend to exert an ever stronger hold on politics, which in turn will operate in a way that will make them more rich, and therefore more politically influential, and so on.
Political parties, especially in America, but in the European Union as well, have become representatives of the business world, with slight differences. The working class is not actively represented by any faction and tends to get inspired by populistic movements mostly controlled by their traditional class adversaries. Big corporations tend to ignore key problems like global warming or social inequality. And all this seems to be getting worse and worse.
The situation might appear desperate. But Chomsky, as the title suggests, seems to be optimistic about it. Mostly because he thinks that those who are not rich and powerful can manage to organize themselves and be actively playing a decision making (or influencing) role. It has already happened before. Why not again?

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Eating animals - Jonathan Safran Foer

When Jonathan Safran Foer, the American novelist, was about to become father for the first time, he started to wonder what the best way to feed his child would be, and particularly whether a human being born in the 21st century should eat animal products. Or what animal products they should eat. That question started a comprehensive research on the food industry, especially factory farming. Foer read lots of books and articles, interviewed factory farm employees, traditional husbandry farmers, slaughterhouse workers and activists. He even sneaked into a number of intensive farms to see for himself what was going on (the public is not allowed to enter the plants; his numerous requests to be admitted for visits were always ignored - not even turned down, outright ignored).
Foer claims that people nowadays consume animal products with the same type of awareness and moral responsibility of their great grandparents. Only the food industry has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Our ancestors used to eat the little meat, fish, eggs and dairy products they could procure by themselves or from their neighbours. Nowadays animals are farmed and slaughtered in huge industrialised complexes that have engineered species and procedures aimed at cutting production cost and time. Basically they are manufacturing “things” rather than raising living beings. This raises serious ethical, environmental and health questions. Those are exactly the questions Foer is trying to answer in his book.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

School blues - Daniel Pennac

Maybe not everyone knows that Mr. Pennacchioni, AKA Daniel Pennac, the world renowned French novelist, is also a school teacher.
In this book Pennac writes about his days as a school dunce. How frustrated this made him (and how upset his well educated parents were about it), how he finally managed to find motivation, become an educator himself and even achieve success as a writer. Four teachers actually “saved” him. One of them by asking him to write a novel, secretly, a chapter at a time, for the whole duration of the school year.
This is a book about students with difficulties, demotivated teachers and dedicated ones, teaching attitude and methodologies. It also deals with what social factors can make schooling a failure and how that list of factors has changed over time. To make his points Pennac skillfully alternate autobiographical stories and more or less fictional dialogs.
What you are about to read is an essay on pedagogy, written like a novel, by an ex school underachiever who pursued a career in teaching and became a famous writer.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

A man (Un uomo) - Oriana Fallaci

At the time of publishing this book was categorized as a novel. Well, it’s not: it is the real story of Aleksandros (Alekos) Panagulis, the Greek poet, revolutionary and politician who opposed the military junta that ruled the Hellenic country from 1967 to 1974. Oriana Fallaci - the famous Italian journalist and writer who was in a relationship with Panagulis since he was released from jail until his death in a controversial car accident - tells the story of a man who deserted from the military in the aftermath of the coup, refused to live abroad as an exile like most of the other opponents did, staged and carried out a failed assassination attempt on the junta leader, was captured and endured harsh psychological and physical tortures without ever bending to his interrogators’ requests, defended himself in court, was condemned to death and - after the sentence was revoked due to international pressure on the junta - was finally jailed in a solitary cell for five years, until his liberation as a result of a national amnesty. The book also recounts the author’s romantic relationship with Panagulis and tries to sketch a portrait of the protagonist through his ideals, talents, idiosyncrasies, controversies, strengths and weaknesses. A man who thought that the end of the dictatorship didn’t necessarily mean the end of the regime, who tried to prove that the new ruling clique was just a civil counterpart of the military one. He did this all by himself, without the support of any of the parties or organisations involved in the transition, and for this - the author claims - he was finally assassinated.
If you don’t know much about that important piece of European history this book is definitely a good place to start.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

The uninhabitable earth - David Wallace-Wells

This book about climate change - global warming in particular - is a tough one. Both because it’s not an easy read - especially the first part, so full of technical details, facts and figures, many, many of them - and because it’s a very alarmist text: the worst case scenario that it depicts is a grim one. And even if you take into account the base case scenario, well, it’s not a merry one either. Basically, we might be doomed. Damage has already been done, and that will hardly be fixed in the near future. Even worse, more damage is being added by the year, at a considerable speed. We might just have a few decades to reverse the tide before it’s too late, and judging by the global level of commitment and coordination, that could turn out to be an extremely long shot.
The author lists the elements of chaos unleashed by anthropogenic global warming: heath death, hunger, drowning, wildfire, disasters no longer natural, freshwater drain, dying oceans, unbreathable air, plagues of warming, economic collapse, climate conflict. We’re not talking about some tipping point reaching which disaster will occur: it’s an ongoing process, already underway, that will entail a lot of painful readjusting. Each one of the listed elements gets worse with increasing temperatures. Just consider the “disasters no longer natural” item, for instance: plot the trend of the number and severity of recent tropical storms and wildfires and see if you smell anything funny. Follow that trend and try to figure out what it leads to. Then apply the same thought experiment to all the other elements in the list. Scary, right?
As I said, this is not an easy read, but it might be worth the effort: you might be skeptical, but what if this is accurate? Change happens quickly. Time is crucial.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

The man who mistook his wife for a hat - Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is not just a physician who writes book: he’s a literary talent who happens to be a brilliant neuroscientist. The set of clinical cases he deals with are told with academic accuracy and a style worth of a talented short story author. Patient after patient, syndrome after syndrome, the reader learns how evolved and sophisticated the human nervous system is, and how catastrophic a minor glitch in one of its numerous components can be. We also learn how (fortunately) rare those glitches are, and how science can help cure the corresponding illnesses.
Some of Sacks’ patients also exhibit special talents in specific fields, which help them compensate for their inabilities. Particularly interesting, in this regard, is the section on the developmentally disabled. These individuals, though sometimes affected by serious lacks of motor and intellectual abilities, are gifted with spectacular numerical, musical, mnemonic, poetic, theatrical or narrative talents. Skills that can be noticed only when looking for potential rather than defects. This is an important lesson that Oliver Sacks learned through his professional work and prolific collaboration with the most prominent experts in the field, such as the great Russian scientist Alexander Luria. I feel it is also the most important lesson we can learn reading his books.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Mythos - Stephen Fry

Reading list. Item #25
I’ve read this book on a trip to the Greek Dodecanese archipelago. How appropriate.
You can find references to Greek mythology pretty much everywhere in Greece: names of islands, cities, restaurants, drinks, hotels, temples. Even the world renowned Greek hospitality has been interpreted as an Olympian sacred rule, any breach of which is punished by Zeus with mighty thunderbolt attacks.
If you wanna learn (or refresh your memory of) the sequence of events that led from chaos to the basic elements of nature and from there to Titans, Olympian Gods, countless other kinds of immortals and finally to human beings, and you don’t feel like reading Homer, Hesiod, Ovid or some boring handbook for lazy students or shallow tourists, you might want to give Stephen Fry’s book a try.
What is more fascinating about the Gods of the Greek mythology - as compared to the almighty God of the main monotheistic religions or the elusive Asian divinities - is how similar they are to us: jealous, vengeful, vane, narcissistic, even pathetic at times.
Stephen Fry doesn’t try to interpret, explain, or shed light on Greek myths: he just tells them. And his book reads like an engaging novel. Enjoy it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Talking to strangers - Malcolm Gladwell

Why are we so bad at understanding whether a stranger is telling a lie? And why is misunderstanding or misinterpreting among humans so frequent? Why do we jump at hasty conclusions about others yet think of ourselves as complicated beings that deserve effort, empathy and lengthy analyses to be properly understood?
Malcolm Gladwell explanation is an intricate mix of three fallible (yet often useful) human tendencies: 1. default to truth (we believe what people say until the evidence against it is overwhelming), 2. transparency (we think we know what people think or feel based on stereotypical behavioral patterns, mostly learned from novels, movies or TV shows) and 3. coupling (people don’t necessarily do certain things just because of the way they are but also because of where and when they happen to do those things).
The wonderful array of examples used by the author to make his point includes: Ponzi schemers, people who committed suicide, dictators, spies, sexual assault perpetrators and victims, murder suspects and police agents.
One of the reasons why I like Malcolm Gladwell is that in his books he often tries to relate some major social issue to a pattern, so that by working on that pattern the situation can be improved and the world can become a better place.
This is the closing line of "Talking to strangers": “Because we do not know how to talk to strangers, what do we do when things go awry with strangers? We blame the stranger”. Isn’t it true?


Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Freakonomics - Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

“A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.” That’s how Steven D. Levitt defines himself and his work. He’s one of the most famous economists in America and yet he admits knowing little or nothing about micro and macro economics, political economics, econometrics and all the other typical branches of the subject. What he’s good at and what he likes to do is asking any sort of interesting questions and using the best tools economics provide in order to find good answers to those questions.
Examples: Which is more dangerous: a gun or a swimming pool? What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? How much do parents really matter? The answers are often surprisingly counter intuitive, though backed up by solid facts and data.
Levitt has been doing this kind of research all his academic life and yet, when asked to write a book about it, he had doubts, he didn’t feel like writing it by himself. Then he met Steven J. Dubner, a journalist who was writing a profile on Levitt for The New York Times Magazine. They liked each other and decided that they would co-author the book.
One of those interesting reads that might redefine one’s own worldview.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The order of time (L'ordine del tempo), Seven brief lessons on physics (Sette brevi lezioni di fisica) - Carlo Rovelli

My reading list is back. It won't be called "Pandemic reading list" anymore though.
I’ve already introduced Carlo Rovelli when I talked about my theme-based parallel reading experiments (Rovelli's Helgoland along with The Tao of physics and The way of Zen).
“The order of time” is a sort of return trip to "Time city": we could call it “time traveling”, even though it’s not exactly what we mean by that expression. The first leg of the journey is away from the idea - or “intuition” - that we have of time. Here we learn for example why time is not absolute (time is neither the same here and there nor for you and for me) or why it is not necessarily proceeding in one straight direction (from past to future). Then we stop a moment and we consider what we know about time and what we don’t know but can assume about it. Finally we travel back to where we started and we try to understand why, if time is not what we perceive, we do sense it like that.
“Seven brief lessons on physics” is unsurprisingly organized in seven parts, each one dealing with a different aspect of modern physics: Einstein’s general relativity, quantum mechanics, the architecture of the cosmos, elementary particles, gravity, black holes (plus probability and time) and our role in the universe.
As I already mentioned we live in an ever more strongly science-driven world and we can’t understand much of it unless we are familiar with the basics of physics, biology, evolution and genetics. Rovelli’s books constitute some the best tools available to start this journey.


Thursday, June 3, 2021

The grand design - Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

Pandemic book list, 21st item. This might well be the last one. I’ll keep reading, of course, but I hope I won’t update a pandemic-related list anymore.
I remember Stephen Hawking's appearance on the TV show “The Big Bang theory”: he was witty, self-ironic, clever, opinionated and self-confident. He totally SheldonCoopered Sheldon Cooper himself!
Well, that’s pretty much what his writing style feels like.
Even though the author doesn’t use complex formulae and equations, a couple of the book chapters require some effort and possibly a little scientific background. Making it to the end of the book is rewarding though: answering some of the most apparently unanswerable questions human beings have been asking for centuries is possible. We don’t know everything - maybe not even much - about us, our past, our future, nature and the cosmos, but we are getting somewhere. We’re not totally lost in our quest for explanations and knowledge.
And yeah, nature might have done it all by itself, without any metaphysical help whatsoever. The best thing is that this version of the story is not sad or disappointing at all. On the contrary, it’s fascinating, mesmerizing, even poetic somehow.
Happy learning everyone.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Upheaval - Jared Diamond

Pandemic book list. 20th item.
In “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Collapse” (see previous posts), Jared Diamond explains why civilisations respectively rise and fall.
In “Upheaval”, on the other hand, he tries to understand how countries cope with momentous crises. He takes into account six examples that for a reason or another he’s related with: Finland (USSR invasion), Chile (Allende’s politics and Pinochet’s coup), Germany (post WWII shock), Japan (Commodore Perry’s fleet threat), Indonesia (Suharto’s counter coup) and Australia (post colonial era shock). He also tries to trace a parallel between nations' and individuals' approach to crises, and concludes that the two levels have a lot in common.
In the final chapters Diamond speculates on whether the US, Japan and the whole world are taking the right steps to cope with their current crises.
Interesting book, even if you are just curious about the six crisis examples.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Blink - Malcolm Gladwell

Pandemic book list. 19th item.
The year is 2005. The location is Borders bookstore, Wheelock Place, Orchard Road, Singapore. A store that, for all I know, might not exist anymore. I’m leafing through a copy of Blink. I’ve just read a review which tickled my curiosity. After skimming through a couple of passages I close it and think: “Nice introduction! Interesting subject! I won’t buy it!” Just like that. A sudden, unconscious decision, based on a very first impression and pure intuition. Not much thinking involved, or not at all. I used the very mechanism described in the book to reach that conclusion. Malcom Gladwell beautifully explained why I didn’t purchase his masterpiece and opted for a collection of short-short stories instead.
Fifteen years later I did Blink justice: I bought it and read it. It’s typical Malcolm Gladwell: witty, original, full of insightful examples. An excellent introduction to the subject of the adaptive unconscious, the mechanism that enables us to make decisions and reach conclusions rapidly, without much information. How it works, when it kicks in, its strengths and weaknesses. Read the book if you wanna learn how to use it well and avoid its pitfalls.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Helgoland - Carlo Rovelli, The way of Zen - Alan W. Watts, The Tao of physics - Fritjof Capra

Theme based parallel reading.
I’ve already tried parallel reading before: I used to switch between novels and non fiction, or poetry and prose. This time I went a step further: I chose three books based on a common theme.
1. In Helgoland, Carlo Rovelli, starting from the island where Werner Heisenberg had his first major intuition, takes us on a journey through the history of quantum theory, the revolutionary scientific paradigm that over the last century has changed the way we look at nature and our place in it.
2. Watts’ “The way of Zen” has introduced millions of westerners to the various currents of Eastern mysticism.
3. Finally, in The Tao of physics, Capra tries to outline the parallels between the two subjects: western physics and oriental philosophy. Even though some of Capra’s claims have been nullified by recent findings, the main idea of a convergence between the two outlooks still holds true. Carlo Rovelli confirms this in a chapter of Helgoland where he talks about the great Indian thinker Nagarjuna, and how an ancient book can provide possible answers for the questions modern physics is dealing with.
I recommend both the books and the parallel reading technique.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The power of now, A new Earth - Eckart Tolle

A good thing about the current pandemic is that I’ve had plenty of time to read. I'm currently updating a list of the best books I’ve come across so far. Please see my home page for the previous entries.
17th item: a pair of books.
In his most famous works the spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle, drawing from his own experience and various mystical traditions, addresses an old theme: how to deal with emotional problems and improve one’s life.
The message is both simple and powerful, and by no means new: we all tend to identify with a fictitious second self (aka ego), which creates a strong sense of separation between us and the outer environment, including other people, causing an incessant accumulation of emotional pain. This fictitious self feeds itself on memories of the past and expectations/fear of the future. These timeframes, though, don’t actually exist, as the only real moment is the moment we’re living now, i.e. the present.
Tolle then proceeds to explain how we can get out of this vicious circle and how this is gonna improve our own lives and the whole world.
Some call him condescending, others know-it-all. Many claim that he changed their lives. Like him or not he has something interesting to say and knows how to tell it beautifully.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

O Jerusalem - Dominique Lapierre & Larry Collins, From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas, L. Friedman

A good thing about the current pandemic is that I’ve had plenty of time to read. I'm currently updating a list of the best books I’ve come across so far. Please see my home page for the previous entries.
16th item on the list.
The Arab-Israeli conflict, besides defining the personal histories of the millions of people directly involved in it, has had a strong impact on many aspects of the life of pretty much anyone living anywhere for the past 70 years.
Yet, although we are continuously targeted with loads of information about political tensions, uprisings, attacks, retaliations and diplomatic efforts, few - if any - of us have a clear idea of when, how and why it all started. In "O Jerusalem" Lapierre and Collins tried to condense years of research, documents and interviews to connect the dots and shed light on the first phase of the conflict: its background, events and main characters.
I first got to know about these two authors during a long trip to India, almost 20 years ago, when I read “Freedom at midnight”, a wonderful account of the dissolution of the British Raj and the ensuing India-Pakistan partition. Reading their books is more than learning: it’s feeling the events as if you were living them, except that once you stand up from your sofa you are still alive.
Bonus: if you are interested in the recent developments of the conflict you can read “From Beirut to Jerusalem”, another gem on the subject written by the American journalist Thomas L. Freedman.


Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Enlightenment now - Steven Pinker

A good thing about the current pandemic is that I’ve had plenty of time to read. I'm currently updating a list of the best books I’ve come across so far. Please see my home page for the previous entries.
This 15th item reminds me of Hans Rosling’s “Factfulness”, a book that we saw together a few weeks ago. The topics and the goals are similar, even though the former is somehow more challenging and philosophical than the latter.
Like Rosling, Pinker makes extensive use of facts, charts and data to prove that despite what progress critics might say, in the past two centuries the world has become a better place. Length and quality of life, health, welfare, safety, peace, knowledge and even happiness have all improved, not just in the west, but worldwide.
As the subtitle suggests this amazing progress has been achieved thanks to the three pillars of the Enlightenment movement: reason, science and humanism.
The enlightenment methods and achievements are not to be taken for granted, though. They must be continuously kept safe from various threats, including cultural pessimism, religious fundamentalism, postmodernism, tribalism, authoritarianism and all sorts of destructive romantic ideologies.
Read this book and join Steven Pinker in this noble endeavor.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The art of happiness - The Dalai Lama

A good thing about the current pandemic is that I’ve had plenty of time to read. I'm currently updating a list of the best books I’ve come across so far. Please see my home page for the previous entries.
#14. Few people will deny that Tenzin Gyatso, also known as the Dalai Lama, is one of the most charismatic and amazing people alive. He’s the political leader of Tibet, the most popular Buddhist spiritual guide and an inspiration to people from all walks al life.
He’s authored many books and although he’s extremely erudite, clever and wise, I happen to fancy his thinking style better than his writing one. I say this will all due respect. I just find his prose a bit weak, his explanations a little repetitive, verbose and not always easily accessible to non Buddhist readers. His teachings are extremely valuable though, and I find that they are best conveyed by this collection of interviews, written by the American psychiatrist Howard Cutler (together with the Dalai Lama himself, of course).
Through a series of beautifully written questions and answers the Dalai Lama and Cutler explain us why the path that leads to happiness is an inner rather than an external one.
This book might change they way you think, act and live. You should give it a try.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Collapse - Jared Diamond

A good thing about the current pandemic is that I’ve had plenty of time to read. I'm currently updating a list of the best books I’ve come across so far. Please see my home page for the previous entries.
Item no. 13. Jared Diamond, once again. If “Guns, germs and steel” (see my home page for a dedicated chapter) was about the buildup of human societies, this is about the opposite problem: societal collapses (or barely avoided ones).
As the author himself explains: “I compare many past and present societies that differed with respect to environmental fragility, relations with neighbors, political institutions, and other input variables postulated to influence a society's stability. The output variables that I examine are collapse or survival, and form of the collapse if collapse does occur. By relating output variables to input variables, I aim to tease out the influence of possible input variables on collapses.”
Read this book and learn why Greenland’s Inuits made it whereas Vikings didn’t, why Easter Island's society collapsed while Tikopia’s one thrived on, why the Mayas and the Anasazis irrevocably damaged their environment though Tokugawa-era Japan and Germany managed to save it.
Learn, learn and learn, that’s what reading Jared Diamond is all about.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Trainspotting - Irvine Welsh

This list seems to suggest that I’m not much into novels. It’s not true: I’ve read hundreds of them. It’s just that these recent months have been more of a “not fiction” period for me. Let’s talk about a novel then, for a change.
This is a cult. Everybody has seen the movie. I’m not gonna get into the typical dispute: “The book is better!”, “No, the movie is!” What I can say is that they surely are quite different.
First of all: one thing is watching some Scottish actors speaking their lingo, another is rendering that same effect in writing. The book is in English but the the dialogs are written the way Edinburgh junkies from the ’80s-’90s would talk! I think that Irvine Welsh was the first to try something like that. He’s somehow created a new pattern that have been widely used ever since.
Second, the movie sticks to the classic pattern of a story: beginning, development, climax, ending. The book, on the other end, is more of a window on a life segment: it starts where the author begins to focus on it and it ends when he stops looking at it. It clearly extends beyond both ends, even though we never get to see what happens there. I should actually have used the plural, as the novel deals with the life segments of a set of characters: Renton, Spud, Sick boy and Begbie.
Read it even if you’ve watched the move. Read it especially if you have watched the movie. That’s what I did, and I’m glad.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

River out of Eden - Richard Dawkins

As I already mentioned when I reviewed Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The gene”, we live in an increasingly science-driven society, and one can’t really understand much of it without some basic knowledge of biology.
In this book Richard Dawkins compares life to a river of genes, flowing through time using organisms (including humans) as temporary vessels. The title is obviously quoting a Biblical passage, and that’s not a coincidence.
This work somehow summarizes the topics covered by the author in his previous books: darwinism, common ancestry, natural selection, utility functions, evolution’s past, present and future. This and the fact that it’s a relatively short and easy read makes it a perfect place to start a wonderful journey.
Bon voyage!

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

21 lessons for the 21st century - Yuval Noah Harari

We already met Yuval Noah Harari twice. If “Sapiens” is about our distant past and “Homo Deus” tries to explore what lies ahead of us, “21 lessons for the 21st century” focuses on the missing segment: the one that sees us, rather than our ancestors or descendants, as main characters: the present.
This work is actually a collection of essays that deal in turn with some of the most sensitive issues we face today. Some of the topics are: automation, bio-tech, big data and AI, fake news, nationalisms, religion, terrorism, unemployment, education and immigration.
The book ends with a meaningful yet unexpected advice, something I’ve been addressing in previous posts as well. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna spoilt it, though.
To sum it up: inspiring and insightful as usual. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Outliers - Malcolm Gladwell

Have you always thought, like myself, that in order to excel in any one field you must be wonderfully talented, extremely skilled and very persevering? Well, it’s true, you need all that, but unfortunately it’s not gonna be enough. What else, then? That’s what this book is about.
We already know that Malcolm Gladwell’s trick to writing a good book is…examples, examples, examples! Very revelatory examples. And here are a few good ones.
What do you need to become a top Canadian hokey player besides, of course, talent and hard work? Well, it helps if you were born in the first quarter of the year. Surprising, huh? And how do you get to be the most famous rock band of all time? Countless round the clock gigs at a bunch of underground Hamburg’s nightclubs. And to turn into a tech tycoon like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Bill Joy? You’d better be born around 1955 and have unlimited access to a rare (for that time) modern computer, or live next door to a cohort of senior HP engineers.
Opportunity and legacy, that is.
Enjoy your reading.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Wherever you go there you are - Jon Kabat-Zinn

A good thing about the current pandemic is that I’ve had plenty of time to read. I'm currently updating a list of the best books I’ve come across so far. Please see my home page for the previous entries. Eighth item. For those of you who are interested in, curious about, already into, or even skeptical of meditation, this is a great read. It’s a very serious dive into the realm of mindfulness, offering the best of both worlds (meaning East and West) about the topic: Jon Kabat-Zinn is an American professor emeritus of medicine and has been a student of some of the world's most famous Buddhist teachers (the Dalai Lama, Thích Nhất Hạnh, Seungsahn). He went on to found the Stress reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts, where he teaches the MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) course.
This is arguably his best work on the subject. Get ready to awake to the endless possibilities of each present moment.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Factfulness - Hans Rosling

A good thing about the current pandemic is that I’ve had plenty of time to read. I'm currently updating a list of the best books I’ve come across so far. Please see my home page for the previous entries.
The seventh item on this list is an eye opener, and very encouraging at that.
Hans Rosling spent the last decades of his life asking people a set of very simple questions about the state of the world. For example: in all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school? What share of the world’s population don't have enough food to meet their daily needs? How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years? In 1996, tigers, giant pandas, and black rhinos were all listed as endangered. How many of these three species are more critically endangered today? How many people in the world have some access to electricity?
The correct answers are based on the most reliable and updated sets of official data, and this is very important. The results are astonishing for various reasons. First of all the great majority of the targets scores very badly. Second, we're talking about students, academics, scientists, journalists, Nobel prize laureates, politicians, business executives! Third, if they just picked random answers they would do much better (a chimp choosing tagged bananas would beat them, as the author cunningly points out). Fourth, they systematically tend to pick the most negative answer, as if this were reflecting their pessimist worldview.
Why do they do that? They are probably influenced by cherry picked media coverage, politicians' hidden agenda and biased activist propaganda. These reasons don't seem to be telling the whole story though. There probably is something else, a natural human tendency to dramatize, to prefer catastrophic explanations over reasonable ones.
Read this book to learn how to get a more accurate worldview.
And remember, the situation can be both BAD AND BETTER. The fact that it's not always good doesn't mean that it's getting worse.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Homo deus - Yuval Noah Harari

A good thing about the current pandemic is that I’ve had plenty of time to read. I'm currently updating a list of the best books I’ve come across so far. Please see my home page for the previous entries.
Yuval Noah Harari strikes back. If his "Sapiens" (introduced here along with Jared Diamond's "The third chimpanzee") answers the "Where do we come from?" question, "Homo Deus" addresses the "Where are we going?" one.
It's an excellent blend of anthropological, economics, social, psychological, scientific and technological topics.
One of the most daring, inspiring and insightful volumes you can find on a bookstore shelf. Pick it up and give it a try (don't forget to pay for it first!)

Thursday, January 28, 2021

The gene - Siddhartha Mukherjee

What a nice book is the fifth item on this recommendation list. See my home page for the previous entries.
In his masterpiece Siddhartha Mukherjee traces the history of genetics, from the Moravian monk Gregor Mendel’s experiments on pea crops to 21st century scientists’ human genome mapping. It is like a crash course in history of biology, minus all the complicated organic chemistry details, plus a bit of suspence, insights, drama and family history. 
I don’t think one can really understand what’s going on in these first decades of the third millennia without a basic knowledge of biology and genetics. There are plenty of excellent free online courses on the subject, but if you are not keen on that or just want a very accessible introductory overview, this book is a great place to start.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The tipping point - Malcolm Gladwell

Item number four. Let’s look at epidemics from a different, non health-related angle.
In “The tipping point” Malcolm Gladwell explains how ideas, messages, products and services can spread like viruses do. All they need to become viral is the perfect balance of three ingredients:
1. The law of the few - not all the infected/infectious individuals are the same: a successful chain of contagions includes connectors, mavens and salesmen.
2. The stickiness factor: how memorable is the underlying message?
3. The power of context: time and place count.
All the authors mentioned in this list have a special gift (sometimes more than one): Malcolm Gladwell’s one is his ability to make all his points clear and inspiring by use of a set of extremely revelatory examples.
Although the book was published over twenty years ago its message is still valid today.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Sapiens - Yuval Noah Harari, The third chimpanzee - Jared Diamond

Third item on the list. This is actually a pair of volumes. As usual, see my home page for the previous entries.
Do you want to know why we - as in "we, humans" - are the way we are? What makes us similar to other living beings (hence "the third chimpanzee")? What makes us different? Why our brain works the way it does (hence "sapiens")? Why we do the things we do? And why some of us do those things a little differently? Most importantly, do you want to know how we evolved to be what we currently are?
Yuval Noah Harari and Jared Diamond will brilliantly answer all those questions and many more.
Harari is a new entry on this list, whereas we have already met Diamond (Guns, germs and steel). They are two of the finest writers I've read. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Guns, germs and steel - Jared Diamond

Time for the second item on the list. See my home page for the first one.
In "Guns, germs and steel" Jared Diamond (one of my favorite authors) tries to answer one of the most debated questions of modern times: why have some Eurasian civilizations managed to conquer others, and not the other way around?
It's a book for those who have a very convincing answer to it: some kind of Eurasian intellectual, moral or genetic supremacy. As convincing as wrong, as a matter of fact. And it's also a good read for those who think the previous answer is wrong, and as a consequence are right, but lack a convincing explanation for that claim.
Finally, it's a book for anyone who's always wondered what the answer to that question is but has never managed to find it.
This gem has been around for more than twenty years and has been read by lots of people, yet there still seems to be plenty of confusion about its topic. Read it and spread the word!
P.S. this is just the first of Jared Diamond's works on this list.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Spillover - David Quammenn

A good thing about the current pandemic is that I’ve had plenty of time to read. Over the next few weeks I’m gonna post about some of the best books I’ve come across so far.
Here's the first one.
Are you fed up with the Covid related schizophrenia? With overdramatic media coverage, contradictory expert opinions or negationist-conspiratorial social media content? Are you looking for a solid source of information, possibly not boring or too technical?
David Quammen's Spillover has it all: facts, figures, history, interviews and an enjoyable narrative style.
P.S. it was written in 2013!