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!)