Richard Dawkins is an amazing scientist. I have always thought so and this first part in his autobiography trilogy do reinforce my favorable view on Dawkins. His greatness, in my opinion, primarily lies in his unequaled ability to convey science to the general public using a language which should make him eligible for the Nobel prize in literature (seriously!). His book, the selfish gene is probably the book that have meant the most to me personally, all categories, and reading excerpts from it in this book made me remember what a great book it was, and still is. In fact, reading “An appetite for wonder”, made me decide to re-read Dawkins original best-seller (which I am now doing).
Yes, Dawkins is a fantastic writer and scientist, but this book, on the whole, did not live up to my admittedly high expectations. Perhaps others will disagree with me but I am not personally very interested in great people’s childhood, unless it is truly extraordinary. Yes Dawkins grew up in Africa and that was probably interesting, however, I would personally have preferred if this section was significantly shorter or left out.
The book gets more interesting when Richard gets into Balliol college, Oxford. As a University teacher one of my favorite sections of the book was Dawkins description of the education system in Oxford. Their system in which students each week study a new topic by reading up on the scientific literature and try to form hypotheses, and then discuss what they have learnt with tutors who are also leading scientists made me, well… jealous. He claims that students at oxford never asked the question, “will this be on the exam?”, which is a question I get all too frequently…
Following his description of the education system in Oxford a semi-interesting description of his early years in academia follows. The book, in my opinion reaches its climax towards the end when Dawkins discusses and reads excerpts from the Selfish Gene. I realize it may sound nerdy but just hearing a few lines from that book can increase my pulse significantly, and it was interesting to get to understand how the book came about. I was also pleased to find out that, like myself, the great writer Richard Dawkins does not write his book in one go. Rather, every sentence that he writes have been written and re-written many times. Like the natural selection of biological organisms, this way of writing should lead to evolution of better sentences and in the end a better book. This is certainly the case with the Selfish Gene.
I am not a stereotypical feminist feminist. I think that there is overwhelming evidence demonstrating that men and women differs from each other, and not just because of cultural or environmental influence, but because men have a Y-chromosome whereas women do not. I also think that these differences mean that the ambitions of men and women can differ leading to different life choices. For example, men more easily fall in love with and seek to acquire power while women values family more. This does not mean of course that any specific man has to be a certain way, merely that there are small average differences between the two sexes.
I hope that the above is sufficient to convince any reader that I really am not an obnoxious feminist, and therefore readers should trust me when I say that this book is also not a “feminist book”. The authors nowhere argues that men and women should be equal or that men are evil or anything like that. Rather they argue that men and women should have equal rights and that granting this is actually a win win scenario for everyone on the planet. While the discrimination against women, which is still widespread in the world today, entails a huge amount of suffering for the victimized women, men would also benefit it these practises were halted. A country in which half the population is stuffed away in the closet will never reach the same heights as a nation in which everyone contributes with their own set of skills. China’s economic takeoff occurred when women entered the workforce, and the wealthiest (and happiest) nations on earth, are those where the law does not distinguish between the sexes.
To be sure, the fact that men would benefit should not be the most important argument for halting discrimination against women. It should be self evident that, from a moral perspective, men and women should be granted equal rights and equal opportunities at birth. What they decide to do with their lives should be up to each individual (as long as it means no harm to others). If someone is against equal rights for men and women they should probably not read this book, but then again, if anyone holds such arcane opinions I doubt that they have read much at all…
Over 14 chapters the two journalists visit various “women issues”, such as sex trafficking, maternal care, freedom of speech, family planning, contraceptives, sexual abuse etc. In each chapter they provide statistics, making sure to use realistic estimates rather than the inflated numbers reported by some organisations. They also exemplify the different issues with stories about individual human beings, noting that such stories are necessary for the reader to understand, and act. Some of the more surprising statements in the book is that maternal health is actually not a very cost-effective way of helping women. If we assume that there is only limited funds more lives can be saved by providing condoms and iodine, and education. The authors also assert that sweatshops have been a blessing, especially for the women. If we again look to China, these sweatshops have allowed women to climb the career ladder and many of them now live comfortable, productive and fulfilling lives. It is easy for us in the west to be nostalgic about Chinese people riding bicycles in the countryside but it can become a bit absurd when westerners think they know what type of life is right for Chinese women.
With a combination of anecdotes and statistics to back them up, the authors provides a comprehensive overview of the challenges that remain with us when it comes equality between the sexes. They also show us how the world will improve if we meet these challenges, not only for the women but for everyone.
This was a great book. It had just the right balance of anecdotes, mathematics, scientific studies and history to offer the reader a comprehensive and informative, yet thoroughly enjoyable introduction to the field of randomness. As the author rightly points out, again and again, people are blind when it comes to the role that chance or randomness plays in their lives, which is in fact very big. We tend construct our life narrative around situations where we made a decision that seemed to be crucial, which makes it seem as if we have been in the driving seat for much of our life. Still, most people can come up with seemingly random events that shaped the rest of their life. For example, I would never have met my wife had I not turned down a job one summer 10 years ago and I would not have ended up as a scientist had my grades been good enough to become a psychologist. If you would change just a few minor details in my history, and I might have lived a completely different life today.
Mlodinow begins the book by discussing some real life examples where people often fail to see the underlying mathematical truths. When a company does well, a CEO is rewarded with sometimes ridiculous bonuses, only to be fired the next year because the company suddenly did fare so well. This is the case despite the fact that fluctuations in the market are inescapable. The same is true in the world of sports where managers are frequently fired following dips in form which necessarily occurs if luck is a factor which it always is in sports.
After this introduction Mlodinow goes through the history of probability theory. I was surprised to learn that the Greek really didn’t get probability. They were excellent when it came to mathematical axioms and deducting knowledge, however, they apparently thought uncertainty had no place in maths and therefore ignored the field entirely. More than a thousand years passed before a man began to investigate the rules of probability in the mid 16th century. His name was Cardano and he was, of course, a gambler. With some very elementary knowledge regarding uncertainty, Cardano won lots of money which he used to finance his studies in Medicine.
Mlodinow continuous to move through history, while also making sure that the reader understands the theories that are being developed. Among others one encounters Galileo, Pascal, Bernoulli and Laplace who all worked on probability in different ways. One learns about the normal curve, chaos theory and bayesian statistics. Again, everything is written in an engaging yet simple fashion and I personally felt I learnt a lot even though I have studied statistics at University.
This book also deserves credit for being the first to explain the Monty Hall problem in a way that made me feel I really get it. Imagine you are a contestant on TV show, there are three doors and behind one of them is a car, while the other two doors have goats behind them. You pick one door (that you don’t open), then the TV host open one of the other two doors behind which there is a goat. At this point you have to choose to open the door you picked initially, or switch to the other door. What do you do? Even though more than 90% in polls, as well as thousands of mathematicians, passionately believed that it did not matter whether or not you switched, the correct answer is in fact that you will double your chance of winning if you switch to the other door. As Mlodinow explains you really have to guess which of the following two scenarios you are in:
The door you initially picked was the correct one (chance one third). If you switch you will find a goat.
You initially picked the wrong door (chance two thirds). Since the host will always open a door with a goat the correct one is the one the host did not open and which you did not pick. If you switch you will win.
In other words, if you picked the wrong door initially you will win if you switch and since it is more likely to pick the wrong door than the right door your chances are better if you switch.
In the last part of the book, Mlodinow return to the role that randomness plays in our life. After he has convincingly demonstrated how great this role is he arrives to the question of how one should act in the face of such uncertainty. Given that our successes or failures to a large extent are a result of random events, should we just stop trying? No! Mlodinow eventually arrives at the quote that is the title of my review. If you want to increase your success rate, you should increase your failure rate. Those who succeed in the end tend to be those who try again and again and again i.e. those who throw the dice over and over again will, eventually, end up with a six. Having read this book, I am determined to go out in the world and start failing. Thank you Mlodinow for the inspiration and for this excellent book!
I once began reading the bible. However, I only got a few chapters beyond genesis before the dull language and pages after pages of genealogy forced my attention away to other things that seemed more relevant, such a fly sitting on the wall. So, when I read the synopsis of “God is disappointed in you” I thought that this book was for me, and I was certainly right.
In his introduction, Mark Russell, assures the reader that, yes, everything in “God is disappointed in you” is indeed in the bible. Russell says that he has merely excluded the excessively boring parts and rephrased conversations so that a modern reader can actually understand the dialogues. I am sure that many people (especially those who praise God) will object to Russell’s presentation, and I have not fact checked any substantial portion of the book, however, in those cases where I have compared God is disappointed in you with the bible (King James version), it gives an accurate account of the stories in the bible.
Even though I knew that the bible was filled with a lot of crazy people doing even more crazy things, the extent of the madness still baffled me. To actually read the stories in the bible confirmed that the bible is certainly no masterpiece. The bible can be compared to the Grimm fairy tales, with all its cruelty and magical stories, only much more boring. Surely, this book cannot have been written by God(!?), and if so, God is a terrible writer, which may not be so strange given that he appears to be occupied with making weird rules and committing genocides left and right...
The hacker network known as anonymous has become very influential and receives much publicity in the world today. Yet people in general know very little about how Anonymous is actually organized or how many people are active in the network.
In this book, author Parmy Olson, takes us backstage and tells the story of ~5 core members of this renowned hacker network. Jake a.k.a. “Topiary”, a social outcast teenager on the Shetlands, was for some time the voice of the hacker network. Kayla, a highly skilled hacker whose identity still appears uncertain. Sabu, a mexican immigrant living in the US… among others. The their shared belief that the internet should be entirely free brought these people together and through their combined expertise they managed quite a lot of havoc in the real world. Together they brought down web pages belonging to the Church of Scientology as well as the Tunisian government. Other than high profile hacks such as these the members also did multiple hacks on social network sites which are actually kind of horrific. The book also describes how the members were identified and ultimately arrested. Still as anyone who has seen the news lately knows, anonymous did not disappear with these arrests. A strength and a weakness of their organisation is their lack of… organisation... The members do not know each other personally, they do not have a leader or a chairman steering the boat and anyone can perform a hack in the name of anonymous and thus move the agenda of the organisation.
What this book does particularly well is to give you insight into how anonymous is organized (and how it is not organized). You will learn about the types of attacks that are typically employed by the network as well as how they protect their real identities (though they were ultimately unsuccessful). The reader of this book will also learn how to protect one's identity online and how not to get fooled by social hackers. All in all, it is a very good and informative book and well worth a read if you are at all interested in anonymous or hackers in general.
I am as confident as one can be that God does not exist. I believe that we live in a materialistic universe (in the philosophical sense), and that our brains and bodies are governed by natural laws, although randomness may also play a role. These beliefs which I find to be more or less self evident are hard to reconcile with a belief in an afterlife. Thus, when we die we cease to exist. Would I have preferred an afterlife such as those described in the “holy books”, where you wake up to find 72 virgin, or where you hang around with God and your dead relatives who are no longer capable of evil? Yes, I think so, but believing in fantasies don’t make them true, and I prefer realism to fantasy.
So, where do atheists such as me find comfort when facing death, of one self and of others? That is what this book is about. Greta Christina, an atheist with a big heart, tries to tackle the existential anxiety that some atheists may feel and that everyone who is not an atheist, assumes that atheists feel. Over the course of this rather short book Christina puts forth half a dussin or so reasons why death is not really that bad even though (as she herself admits), immortality seems kind of attractive…
The first comforting though according to Christina is that change is an integral part of life, and that life would be really boring if there was no change. Each moment in our lives is unique, and that is part of the excitement of life. I agree with this analysis of course, although I don’t know if it is comforting when facing death. It is still sad that one day my brain will not be able to experience more unique moments. The second reason she gives is that in a way we will always exists. When we die, the people we knew will still remember us. As Christina says, Paris does not cease to exist because we are not in Paris. I don’t think this is a good comparison because the city with its dynamic activity still exists even though we are not there whereas my brain will not exist when I die…
The other comforting thoughts that Christina puts forth are not as comforting as they are sobering. First she says that fearing death is natural and that sometimes it is better to just live through the anxiety because you will eventually come out on the other side. Then she says that complaining about death is like complaining that you only won a hundred million on a lottery, referring to the fact that we are very lucky to have been born in the first place. Of course I agree with all this and she expressed these thoughts well, but death is still sort of a downer.
To summarize, this relatively short book summarizes atheist reasoning about death. I doubt that any reader will walk away feeling that death no longer bothers them, at least it did not have that effect on me. Also, too much of the book was spent complaining about religious people ego try to push their ideas on atheists going through a difficult time. While I agree that such Christians are indeed a nuisance, I think that such complaints do not belong in this book.
First of all, I agree with other reviewers who says that the ~first third of the book is not particularly interesting. Basically the reader learns that Harris early on desired a career on television, and eventually he ended up at abc. Readers who are not specifically interested in Dan Harris could skip this. However I was impressed by Harris frankness concerning own excessive egocentrism, which is a theme present throughout the book.
The best part of the book starts after Harris suffered his panic attack on television. (Out of curiosity I actually went online to check out this panic attack and it did not seem nearly as bad as described in this book). This panic attack, caused in part by Harris use of cocaine, triggers a crisis following which this middle aged man, like so many others, starts to search for meaning. First he has a short flirt the famous gay/anti-gay pastor Ted Haggard, who Harris thinks is crazy but is still kind of impressed by. Even if Dan Harris never seems to seriously contemplate becoming an evangelical, this story about Ted is actually quite entertaining. Harris quickly moves on to self-help Guru’s meetings with, among other, Deepak Chopra. Harris is intrigued by their claims that they never succumb to their own feelings. Yet Harris also observes that for a man who claims to be so immensely “spiritual”, Deepak Chopra seems to care an awful lot about PR and selling stuff. I liked how Harris asks self-help guru’s and spiritual leaders the kind of questions I would ask them like for example “so it doesn’t bother you if you really need to go to the toilet and you can’t?”. Deepak, unlike some more sane people that we meet later, maintains that it doesn’t bother him (yeah right)...
Harris eventually decides that self-help is terrible when it comes to practical advice and moves on. He then finds buddhism. To my surprise, Sam Harris, a renowned skeptic, is one of the people who encourages Dan Harris to learn mindfulness.
The remainder of the book basically describes how Dan Harris gradually buys into meditation, mindfulness and other Buddhists practises. However up until the end Harris maintain at least some distance, and his mantra that he had become 10 percent happier, is sobering and makes the whole story much more believable (unlike say self help gurus who claim to always be at peace). Indeed this title was one of the reasons I even gave this book a chance.
When I bought this book I expected an entertaining description of outlandish wall street traders "flashing" their wealth. While this is indeed one of the books ingredients I realized that I had completely misinterpreted the word "Flash". It refers not to flashing as in showing off, but to flash as in very fast.
The book describes how so called high frequency traders earn money by instantly responding to changes in demand of stocks. Those with sufficiently speedy computers and internet connections can make a profit by essentially jumping ahead in the que, buying a certain stock and then selling it again to the guy who actually wanted it, at a premium. I was surprised to learn that such trades actually accounted for a huge majority of the trades on US stock markets.
The book also have a hero called Brad Katsuyama, founder of the IEX stock exchange. Brad who appears to be a normal and humble, yet smart Canadian fellow noticed how the price of stocks increased whenever he placed an order. Following some detective work, Brad figured out how the high frequency traders profited by abusing the system and he set out to stop this by creating a new stock exchange, immune to the typical tricks employed by the high frequency traders.
The book was thus more limited in scope than I had originally thought. Yet it was both interesting and funny, just as I have come to expect from Michael Lewis. The extent of the measures taken by Wall Street people to improve the speed of their internet by even a few nanoseconds (like paying to have a computer moved within a server facility), was particularly entertaining. The reader will encounter a number of colorful characters and despite the rather technical nature of its subject, the book rarely gets boring or dry
In this book the Swedish professor, Svante Päbo, who is currently running a lab at the Max Planck institute in Leipzig, tells his tale about how he ended up sequencing the Neanderthal genome. It is a well balanced tale which contains just the right mixture of personal details (including that he is bisexual and that he had a long affair with a woman married to a colleague), and science.
To my relief Päbo skips over his early childhood and jumps straight to the time when he studied medicine in Uppsala. Having worked with DNA sequencing Päbo wondered whether DNA could be extracted from old samples. First he tried a cow liver that he had stored in the lab for some time. When he realised that this was no problem obtained tissue from an egyptian mummy (which he had been interested in for some time). Though it involved some difficulties (describes in much detail in the book), Päbo managed to extract DNA from the mummy as well. When he sent his manuscript to a professor at Berkeley, the professor, who did not realize that Päbo had not even earned his PhD, asked if he could not come and spend his sabbatical at Päbo’s laboratory. Since Päbo did not have a laboratory, he ended up going to Berkeley instead.
What impressed me most about Päbo, is how he has managed to pursue one important goal (sequence the Neanderthal genome), for more than two decades. He has approached this goal in a methodical, stepwise manner, so that in retrospect, everything makes sense. Päbo also makes an effort to describe the often advanced methods used to attain his goal. For me (I have a PhD in neuroscience but only superficial knowledge about DNA), the level was just right, however, I think that even readers who have very little prior knowledge can learn a lot.
In parallel with this scientific tale, Päbo describes the Neanderthals and the world they lived in before they went extinct 30.000 years ago. Indeed one of this book's thrills is learning what the discoveries in the laboratory says about the life of our ancestors. Fire example, it was long thought (and still believed by many), that Neanderthals were an inferior race who went entirely extinct. However Päbo's discoveries indicate that Neanderthals were dominant to us and that because of interbreeding between our race and Neanderthals, modern humans actually have some Neanderthal DNA in them (some more than others).This interplay between scientific theory and its implications, methodological developments and what it tells us about our ancestors also makes this one of the best books I have read when it comes to illustrating the scientific process. Despite his success, Päbo at least appears to maintain an all important skeptical attitude towards his own work and he is careful not to make categorical claims when they are not warranted.
All in all the Neanderthal man is an impressive scientific story told by an impressive scientist. I would not be surprised if, in a few years, Päbo receives a well earned Nobel prize.
In Boomerang Michael Lewis tells a number of stories illustrating the folly that was all too common in and around 2008, when the financial crisis hit the world economy. The first scene is Texas, US, where the author meets Kyle Bass, who became famous when he got rich from betting that sub-prime mortgages would go bust, which of course they did in the most spectacular manner. Since then, Bass has moved on to other types of bets, namely bets that nations will go bust. Bas thinks it is an inevitability given the amount of debt nations have accumulated. Indeed, when private businesses such as AIG, and large banks needed bailouts worth hundreds of billions of dollars, nations basically took over the debt. In some countries these bailouts means that the nations, which in the end means the citizens of those nations, have enormous debts. It appears unrealistic that they will ever be able to pay it off, and Kyle Bas bet that they will not.
Following this first encounter which sets the scene, Lewis travels to Iceland, Greece, Ireland, and Germany, before heading back to the state in the US which according to this book is in the most trouble… California. Lewis is a master when it comes to telling stories that are informal and amusing, and yet at the same time illustrates the economic events that lead to the 2008 meltdown of some economies. In Iceland for instance, Lewis meets with a fisherman who, before 2008, realized that he could make more money if they borrowed japanese yen at a 3% interest and used them to buy Icelandic kroner which rose by 16% a year. The resulting wealth of Iceland was insane considering that they only have 300.000 inhabitants. Iceland, via money trickery, became so rich that they were able to buy several of the UKs biggest banks meaning that Iceland had to pay when the bank was in trouble, which of course they could not…
In the last chapter we meet (to my surprise), no other than Mr. Governator i.e., Arnold Schwarzenegger. In describing this encounter, Lewis manages to simultaneously write about Schwarzenegger's maniac style bike rides through intersections with heavy traffic, and California's fiscal policy and potential collapse. After having read this book I see both California and Arnold Schwarzenegger in a new light
While I did learn new things this book did not fundamentally change me or the way I see the world. Still, it is not often you find a book which is as educational and at the same time entertaining, as Boomerang.
This is one of the worst books I have ever read. I bought it hoping that it would provide me with some good reasons for eating meat (which do exist, see for instance the intelligence squared debate called “Don’t eat anything with a face). However, this hope was brutally slayed, something that I realized quite early in the book. The basic argument that the authors try to convey, without any ambition whatsoever to be objective or factual, is that large global, industries in general, and the meat industry in particular, only care about making money and have no interest whatsoever in animal welfare or producing good meat. Small meat industries on the other hand respect their customers, and make sure that their animals live harmonious fulfilling lives meaning among other things that the animals are allowed to have sex before they are slaughtered. Coincidentally the authors are running a “small” old fashioned meat business, and therefore, according to their own logic, are God's gift to us meat consumers. No bias there... (irony). Seriously, it seems that the authors in this book have not progressed from the developmental stage where people are either good or evil.
My hopes were temporarily raised when the authors raised the question why everyone cannot just be vegetarians. Finally, I thought, now they will provide me with the cannon fodder I need to thrash the next vegan that comes along proclaiming meat abstinence (although in the back of my head I knew that this was a very naive hope indeed). I cannot say that I was surprised that their only argument for eating meat is that we have evolved to do so... In other words, it is in our genes to eat meat and therefore it is silly to try and stop people from eating it. This is a silly argument because there are many things we have evolved inclinations towards such as violence, domination over others etc, but who would say that there is no point in trying to stop people from killing each other because we have evolved to do so. The percentage of people who are killed by other people has gone down drastically since humans first evolved and I have no doubt that we could make a society where meat consumption is reduced as well. That is, we do not have to, and often should not, follow our evolutionary instincts. The book says nothing about the nutritional value in meat (which is hard to replace) or maintaining ecological systems or any other rational argument for eating at least some meat. In other words, there are good arguments for eating meat, but you will not find them in this book.
To be completely fair, some of the underlying points the authors are trying to make I think are basically sound. I agree that the meat industry at large have too little respect for animal welfare, and I also think that it is probably good to aim for more quality instead of quantity (though I realize that everyone might not so privileged that they can make this argument). However, the negatives associated with this book by far outweighs the positives. I would not recommend this book to anyone... not even at gunpoint
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