Homo Deus [A Review]

Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari

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   [Image courtesy of Goodreads.com]

 

I think I prefer the first book (see my review for Sapiens).

For this second book, I actually like the little nuggets of fact and theory more than the book in its entirety. The first third of it read like a rehash of the first book, the second third was too philosophical for my liking, and the final  third depressed me. 

What surprised me was that the last chapter ended with two three-point summaries, where the author argues that the three most important processes in the world right now are (and I quote):

  1. Science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms and life is data processing.
  2. Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
  3. Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves.

According to Yuval Noah Harari, these three processes raise three key questions (and here I quote again):

  1. Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
  2. What’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness?
  3. What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?

I suppose it’s good to have a summary at the end, but I thought the book ended rather abruptly, and I’d have preferred a more optimistic projection of the future. There are already too many dystopian views of technology and the future, and while Homo Deus does not exactly offer a pessimistic projection of what can possibly lie ahead, the arguments in it do point towards a possible future in which “free will” will cease to exist and Sapiens will be overwhelmed by data and algorithms. 

And so, if the author is correct, does it mean Sapiens will eventually cause our own extinction?

VERDICT: Read this book either for its nuggets (on historical developments, scientific developments and philosophical theories) or the detailed arguments behind the summary at the end of the book if you’re curious about them. Otherwise, I would suggest you find something that will give you a more optimistic view of our future.

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Sapiens [A Review]

Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

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   [Image courtesy of Goodreads.com]

Wow, what a read.

I learnt that sapiens went from the middle of the food chain to the top because our ancestors knew how to cooperate in large groups. And they did that by creating myths – institutions and systems that sapiens believe in. Of course, this is not the only juicy bit from the book, but it was the most striking one for me.

The book raises more questions than answers, and I suppose that is good in a way, and totally expected of an academic writer. Yet, it can get frustrating sometimes, especially when I found myself going through the same section more than once, trying to get to the point that the writer was trying to convey.

Nevertheless, the book is written in a simple style, and certainly does not read like a boring history paper. The writer has tried to communicate big concepts in simple language, and I think he has managed to do it.

The last couple of chapters are more forward-looking, and talks about future possibilities very briefly. He recently published Homo Deus, which is like a “sequel” to this book. Some say it’s an unworthy extension of Sapiens; others find it an equally good read. I’m going to try it out!

VERDICT: Because the scope covered in the book is so wide, do not expect detailed descriptions of what happened in the history of human development. But if you’re looking for something that will help you understand our past and think about what it means for our future, try this book.

Being Mortal [A Review]

Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande

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   [Image courtesy of Goodreads.com]

 

This is one of those books that give me hope, and yet make me worry about the future at the same time.

Having just gone through my grandmother’s passing last year, and facing two sets of aging parents from both my husband and myself, the thought of one’s mortality has been on my mind recently. Hearing about my husband’s colleague’s struggle with his elderly mother and a sister who has recently been diagnosed with cancer actually made it worse.. This was when I finally picked up the book, even though I had come across it some time back. I had thought it would be too depressing then.

Reading the book brought clarity to the questions we should be asking, when one is dying and time is short. Medicine and doctors, as opposed to common belief, do not have all the answers. But doing so requires a big shift in perspective, not just for the one dying, but also for the caregivers and onlooking loved ones. The writer has not only managed to capture all these through an engaging storytelling of cases he has come across, but also through his own experiences.

Yet, what worries me is that our ecosystem and society may not be ready for such an enlightened approach towards death. I’m glad this book has forced people to think about the limits of medicine and doctors, and what is possible beyond traditional nursing homes and medical treatments that may not be the best options sometimes.

VERDICT: This is a must read for everyone, not just folks who are in the healthcare industry. Because we are all mortals.

Irresistible [A Review]

Irresistible, by Adam Atler

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Nope, this is not some saucy, titillating romance novel with the picture of a half-naked man and a scantily dressed woman in a hot embrace.

Instead, the cover picture shows a lit smartphone. It’s a book about behavioral addiction and how technology can make it worse. It’s also about how contributing elements in behavioral addiction can be used to grow good habits.

Interestingly, the way the book was written (it’s short and to the point; there are lots of stories; it’s well-organized and allows a step-by-step easy, progressive understanding of the points put forth) can be addictive for the reader. At least it was for me. This is despite the fact that many of the points and arguments in the book were not new to me. I’ve seen many articles, columns and papers written on this topic. What Atler has done is put everything into a concise and highly readable piece that tells us the history and psychology of addiction, how businesses and game developers are using a combination of technology and psychology to hook people (for good or bad), and how not to get addicted. There is even a chapter on what parents can do to prevent kids from falling into that trap from young.

Midway through the book, I was so curious about seeing the theory explained in action that I actually logged on to the Apple App Store and downloaded a few top-rated games to try, just to see if they had the psychological hooks designed into them. 

They all had, some more than others.

I like to think that being conscious about those hooks somehow saved me from being sucked into the games.

VERDICT: The book can be an enjoyable read, whether you are into game development, social media marketing, or just concerned about your kids spending too much time online.

Neither Civil Nor Servant [A Review]

Neither Civil Nor Servant, by Peh Shing Huei

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   [Image courtesy of Kinokuniya]

 

I’ve long heard of the legendary Philip Yeo from friends in the civil service who have had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it) to work in organizations led by him. I’ve also read numerous infamous quotes from him in other people’s memoirs or books on Singapore’s history. But I’ve only seen him speak in person once, and frankly, I wasn’t impressed by his mastery of the English language. What impressed me was the clarity and conviction with which he spoke, something sorely lacking in many of the public servants I see today.

Peh did a pretty good job in putting Yeo’s life achievements in a clear and succinct way that makes the biography a simple yet meaningful read. The Q&A at the back of each chapter gives the reader his direct responses to some of the issues described in the chapter, and provides a really good insight into how the man thinks.

I was actually sorry the book ended so quickly, because I was still thirsty for more of Philip Yeo’s war stories!

VERDICT: If you’re looking for new inspiration on leadership and talent management, this might just be the book for you.

Against Empathy [A Review]

Against Empathy, by Paul Bloom

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   [Image courtesy of Amazon.com]

 

The title caught my eye when I was combing the bookstore for something interesting to read over the holidays.

The first thought that came to my mind was in the form of a big question mark. In terms of book-shopping, that’s a good thing for the author, because that means I might be curious enough to buy the book, and I did, hoping I would learn something new from it.

Right from the beginning, Bloom defines empathy as simply feeling what another person is feeling. Period. It has nothing to do with kindness nor morality. So when I see someone else in pain and I feel empathy for that person, I’m simply feeling his pain, but that does not necessarily motivate me to help him. 

While Bloom writes clearly, it took me a while to digest his arguments, because they are against the common belief and assumptions about empathy being a good thing. In fact, I had to constantly remind myself about how Bloom defines empathy. I wouldn’t say I have totally internalized the arguments in there, but I think I’ve learnt a few things:

  1. Empathy is actually not good for personal well-being. If I have a strong sense of empathy, it means I tend to always let others’ feelings overwhelm me, and that’s probably not a good thing for my emotional and mental health. 
  2. Empathy in a relationship is not actually a good thing either. This seems to be against our gut instinct – isn’t it good if my spouse can feel what I feel and be more understanding towards me? Well, Bloom says understanding does not necessarily require empathy, only cognitive empathy. Imagine you are feeling upset. Would you prefer an equally upset spouse who can feel your pain, and hence is also incapacitated to do anything, or one who just understands without feeling your pain, and is therefore calm enough to offer you compassion, consolation and help? 
  3. Empathy is a good servant but never a good master. It’s like anger, and Bloom argues empathy is probably also a cause of some of the violence and cruelty we see in the world, especially when people decide to take justice into their own hands.

I think the sub-title covers what the book is about more than the main title. Bloom is urging us to use reason to think through moral issues instead of letting emotions lead us. Rational compassion will make this world a better place, not just empathy.

I don’t think I do Bloom justice by trying to explain some of his arguments in a few sentences here, and especially when the proposition is so controversial. All I can say is that I felt his pain when I tried to put his points into a few words on this page. 😐 

VERDICT: If your curiosity is piqued by the title like I am, or if you are a psychology buff, this should be a fairly well-written and thought-provoking read.

The Tao of Pooh [A Review]

The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff

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   [Image courtesy of Goodreads]

In case you’re wondering, yup, I’m on a reading binge this holiday season.

I discovered this old book in a local bookstore better known for its range of stationery and assessment books. I’m glad I picked it up, because it’s a really fun and enlightening read.

I’m not sure if the explanations on Taoism in the book are accurate, because I’m not exactly familiar with the original teachings, but the writer did give me a different perspective of Pooh’s sometimes silly but lovable actions. And yes, a fair bit of the book gave me the “hmmm…” moment.

My favorite “enlightenment” happens to be about time, and here’s what that particular paragraph said:

“The main problem with this great obsession for Saving Time is very simple: you can’t save time. You can only spend it. But you can spend it wisely or foolishly. The Bisy Backson has practically no time at all, because he’s too busy wasting it by trying to save it. And by trying to save every bit of it, he ends up wasting the whole thing.”

[If you’re a fan of the Pooh stories, you’ll probably know what’s a “Bisy Backson”.]

The book is easy to read, but the philosophy explained in the chapters will likely take one some time to digest (and put into practice).

I’m now tempted to get my hands on the original Pooh stories.

VERDICT: This is a perfect read for the stressed busy bees amongst us, especially if you think it’s time to slow down, smell the flowers and better experience life.