Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

A speedy overview of the past 70 some millennia of humanity. Self-aware without being modest about its proclamations. Very 2014 in its optimism to dread ratio, but with enough forewarning that things might slip at any moment that it doesn’t appear naïve when being read in 2019. A few observations:

  • The book’s main thesis is that civilization as we know it lies on many, many figments of our collective imagination: states, laws, human rights, religions, corporations, etc. The last hundred years have sped this up, pulling people apart from families and other tangible local communities and into fictive constructs such as nations, sports teams, organized religion, and other forms of fandom. Are Twitter and Facebook communities more or less real than these, and if more, are they why people have been having a hard time suspending their disbelief?

  • Many religions are poked, proded, and pulled apart by witty turns of phrase, but Harari turns dead serious whenever buddhism is discussed. Unlike christianity and islam, buddhism gets whole running paragraphs of in-depth explanation. Did the book need a religious disclaimer?

  • His go-to example for discussing nationalist myths is Serbia. It figures. Kudos for doing it respectfully.

  • Another thesis is that capitalism lives by using up future resources in form of credit, which in turn produces and enlarges those very same future (now present) resources. In addition to being a very Predestination way of seeing things, does that support or conflict with Tyler Cowen’s thesis in Stubborn Attachments that we tend to — but shouldn’t — discount the future? Maybe we (or capitalists, at least) are at the same time optimists by thinking the future will be better by default, but also saying to hell with it by using those perceived future benefits now, to the detriment of future people? To this non-economist modern capitalism looks like an underbaked ideology.

  • This is the best-looking and best-made soft cover edition of a non-fiction book I’ve ever read.

Written by Yuval Noah Harari, 2014

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Flashpoint: Trieste

A history of the Trieste kerfuffle between Tito and the Allies immediately following WW2, but also an overview of the many warring sides: Non-soviet Allies, the Soviets, Tito’s partisans (“Yugoslavs” but also sometimes “Slovenians” and “Croats”), Chetniks (“Serbs”), Ustashe (“Croats”), Italian communists, Italian fascists, Italian non-communist non-fascist partisans, and let’s not forget the Nazis. Whew… At least the French are out of the picture.

It’s biased towards the Americans and the British, but then that’s not surprising considering the author. All other sides being equally horrible — according to the book at least, and it’s a lazy though intellectually safe stance to make — it manages to be sort of objective but then in a lot of cases resorts to citing some not very objective secondary sources written in the background of a much bigger kerfuffle in the 1990s. Jennings is no Ron Chernow, and even less of a Robert Caro. The region needs someone of Cs’ tenacity and attention to detail to untangle even the footnotes of Balkan history like Trieste. I can’t imagine who would be able to tackle a Power Broker-like biography of Tito, but I’d be happy to read one.

Written by Christian Jennings, 2017

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Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

A biography of the Rockefeller patriarch. It’s a messy book, but then it was also a messy 97 year-long life. A few highlights:

  • He benefited from starting his business, unencumbered by monetary or ideological debt, just when one of the greatest technological leaps of human history occurred. What got him all that money was luck and ruthlessness more than business acumen (what others thought) and religious zeal/hand of God (what he thought). His subsequent mostly failed business ventures confirm this.
  • Even so, it is his religion that led him to become the world’s greatest philanthropist, and also set up a template for modern billionaires on how to donate most of their fortune formally and on a grand scale. Yay for religion, then?
  • Rockefeller’s company Standard Oil and other trusts emerged at a time when legislature couldn’t keep up with rapidly evolving technologies; by the time laws caught up, it didn’t matter. Private data and human attention are 21st century oil.
  • You also have corrupt politicians, populist presidents, and progressive and gender/racially sensitive (dare I say woke) but ineffective intelligentsia. It all seems very familiar.
  • A search for “John D Rockefeller” on youtube brings mostly conspiracy videos and hilarious reenactments. I did find one video of the man himself in which he looks eerily like my grandmother.

Written by Ron Chernow, 2004

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The drunkard’s walk: How randomness rules our lives

An introduction to the normal distribution and to our incompetence in dealing with probability. Since it covers a different type of probability than “Fooled by randomness”, and only skims the heuristics and biases discussed at length in “Thinking, fast and slow”, it works well as a prologue to both books. This trio should be mandatory reading for premeds, by the way, with the rest of Taleb’s Incerto rounding out an advanced curriculum. They would for sure have served me better than the anemic statistics textbooks I had to plough through in the early ‘00s.

Written by Leonard Mlodinow, 2009

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Buffet: The making of an American capitalist

I’m glad the author, Roger Lowenstein, didn’t even attempt to appear impartial in this, Amazon’s most highly rated of Warren Buffett biographies. It’s the reverse of a Power Broker hit job: in the reprint afterword, Lowenstein is wistful about not getting more praise from Buffet while the aforementioned is signing the author’s personal copy at a conference. How wonderful it would be if our heroes loved us as much as we love them.

Granted, Buffet is an easy person to love, what with being an aw-shucks Midwestern pro-government regulation democrat who is modest, smart, and also one of the richest people in world. That he first earned his money off of America’s addiction to sugar and shopping, followed by tobacco and war, followed by decidedly inegalitarian buddy deals, all while neglecting his wife to the point of her leaving, and his children to the point of their becoming New Age musicians, just supports his claim to being the most American of all American heroes. Kudos.

Written by Roger Lowenstein, 2008

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A Wrinkle in Time 👎

So much wasted potential in this one. It could have been a great movie for both children and adults, a Labyrinth for the age of CGI and social justice. Instead, it’s a confused, hurried mess in which lots of Stuff happens for no good reason; a Michael Bay extravaganza for your middle-schooler. My daughter (6) liked it, but even she questioned a major plot point. “But, why did X become evil, daddy?” I’ve no idea, Honey, and I’m not sure the screenwriters gave it much thought either.

Such is the faith of many book adaptations; this one even more so, having had to pass through the Disney committee wringer. I haven’t read the book(s? That’s how much I know about the potential franchise) but I’ve read and watched enough fantasy to know that 1) your made-up world needs to have rules, and 2) if you break them, it better be for a good reason. The few week rules set in the Wrinkle’s first half are promptly broken at the half-time, with no explanation and nothing to replace them. Instead you get a holodeck of a planet, where anything can happen: hurricane in a haunted forest turns into a Stepford wives cul-de-sac turns into a crowded beach, and no there is nothing connecting those dots.

Which is too bad — each one of those scenes would’ve made a good episode for the second season of the unmade Wrinkle TV show, perfect for Disney’s new streaming service. Such a waste.

Directed by Ava DuVernay, 2018

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Ending medical reversal

The first thing I picked up after taking the hematology boards was this gem from Chicago’s medical royalty (Adam Cifu) and everyone’s favorite oncologist (this is of course a joke — you know that people hate your guts, Vinay).

I didn’t, and still don’t, care much for the title. It is ambiguous: if medical reversal means overturning an established practice that was based on weak to no evidence once stronger evidence comes along — usually in the form of a (multi-center, blinded) randomized controlled trial — why on earth would you want to end reversals? Well, the book is about how to stop those kinds of practices from becoming established in the first place, which would indeed end medical reversal, but an easier way to stop them and one that would be endorsed by most of industry and many researches would be to just not look. “Ending Medical Reversal the Hard Way” is therefore a more appropriate name.

Title aside, I agreed with pretty much everything they wrote, from reforming medical education, through stopping direct-to-consumer marketing and direct-to-academic (not their words) payments, to having more people participate in (simpler, cheaper, and fairer) randomized trials. I enjoyed their honesty and clear style, and wished my medical school had at least a passing resemblance to the one they proposed (if you thought US medical education leaned too much on basic science-oriented and was heavy in professorial mechanistic proclamations, try the average European med school). Granted, I work in a federal research hospital and focus on some of the rarest of the rare diseases; but that only makes me shake my head in disbelief more when my colleagues who specialize in breast or lung cancer, not to mention coronary artery disease and diabetes, randomize enormous numbers of patients to search for minute differences in surrogate outcomes.

Written by Vinayak Prasad and Adam Cifu, 2015

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Stubborn Attachments

This is as close to a “Rules for Life” book as we’ll get from Tyler Cowen, and if you’ve listened to his podcast or followed his blog what’s inside won’t surprise you — but it will make you think. Which is good: surprise is overrated anyway, and things that depend on it don’t do well on re-reading/watching/listening. I’ll be coming back to this one.

Cowen argues that growth is good even when it doesn’t benefit everyone all the time. There are things that can grow that you can’t measure (like happiness, life satisfaction, health, culture, feeling of superiority [I may be misremembering some of these]), so don’t focus on wealth only but instead on Wealth Plus. Also, distant future is just as important as the near future, so don’t sacrifice long-term prospects for short-term gains. Speaking of future, we can’t predict it, so even though tiny decisions can influence it in an oversized manner we should stop fretting over those and focus on the big picture: which is to chose policies that provide the greater sustained benefit sooner. Finally, common sense morality can usually steer you in the right direction, but if it feels like it’s not, remember everything else in the book and you should be all set.

That’s all well and good, except that I kept imagining someone from Serbia — currently a second-world European kakistocracy — living by the standards of this book. Hilarity ensued: for things would be included in Wealth Plus that Cowen hadn’t foreseen (the ability to redraw borders, to name one), and common sense morality would include good doses of nepotism, chauvinism, and the desire to cheat the state (yes, yes, I know, #notallserbs).

So the first thing that’s keeping this book from being great is that it can’t be universally applied — it was written by an American for his fellow Americans who have lost their way — and doesn’t explore, or even mention, the implications of his vague concepts of Wealth Plus and common sense morality being different around the world.

The second is that shortly after admitting that economists don’t have crystal balls (the twelve-year-old me would have loved to put parentheses around “crystal”), he goes on to compare hypothetical policies based on their projected rates of growth well into the future. It may be my lack of an economic background speaking, but how can those two go together?

But do read the book. After my first pass I can say it’s good, if not great. For me as a doctor the idea of delaying gratification for long-term gains felt familiar. The oncologist in me would add that inflicting harm for a known long-term benefit is also reasonable and depending on the alternatives even preferred. Of course, it took centuries of wading in the dark before medicine got to the point where it could with any certainty predict the outcome of its interventions. Are social sciences there yet?

Written by Tyler Cowen, 2018

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Applied minds: how engineers think

I wanted to like this book more than I actually did. The title is seductive for those of us who work with people’s very unengineered fleshy bits: would it help if we added some engineering tools to our mental toolbox? Well, maybe it would, but this book couldn’t help me find them, being more of an essay on why I should think like an engineer rather than an instruction manual on how.

Apparently, you need a lot anecdotes anecdotes to explain the Why; stories zip by so fast they gave me whiplash. There are too many narratives and not enough thoughts: instead of just buttressing the main point or two, the anecdotes take center stage, sprinkled with outlines of different ideas that never become central.

For a book about engineering, I expected better construction.

Written by Guru Madhavan, 2016

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If on a winter’s night a traveler

The book is almost forty years old but it could have been written yesterday. It is short, smart, punchy, and very, very meta. It also makes me want to learn Italian, though I understand William Weaver is a good translator.

Written by Italo Calvino, 1981

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