Skip to content

Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow by Yval Noah Harari

March 3, 2018


Homo Deus is much-lauded, sprawling survey of the march of progress for our species and what the future holds. Harari, a historian and anthropologist, pulls from the fields of history, sociology, biology, economics, religion, philosophy, behavioral science and technology to lay out, in short, where we’ve been and where we’re likely to go.

Like Steven Pinker, Harari makes the case that despite the rather glum coverage of the state of our world, humans have actually made incredible progress. Disease, war and famine, which used to regularly decimate large swaths of the population, are much less significant today. We live in a time of abundance, of relative peace and security, of exponentially accelerating technology. Diseases—even epidemics—are wiped out faster and faster. The likelihood of another Black Plague or Spanish Flu is very low.

And the occurrence of war had decreased significantly. With the relative scarcity of the past, wars of plunder were common. It was common for one country to invade another to steal its resources, enslave its people, or capture its land. National borders shifted regularly. It is not the case any longer. In the developed world specifically, there is more stability than there ever has been. We are far more likely to die from overconsumption of food than starvation. And despite the hype terrorism receives, “for the average American or European, Coca-Cola poses a far deadlier threat than Al Qaeda.”

The second part of the book dives into liberal humanism, where Harari attacks the notion that we have free will. He makes the argument that humans are controlled by biological algorithms, that we are products of our DNA, making every decision according to our hard-coding. He chides those who cling to a belief in free will, comparing them to the churches clinging to the notion that God literally created all the animals despite the evidence of Darwin, etc. (“Humans are masters of cognitive dissonance, and we allow ourselves to believe one thing in the laboratory and an altogether different thing in the courthouse.”) To Harari, this is a settled matter—we may believe we operate with complete freedom, but science shows otherwise.

In the third section, Harari looks at the future, suggesting that, “the same technologies that can upgrade humans into gods, might also make humans irrelevant.” We may all be replaced by robots, not just in our jobs but in our lives. We always assume that we are the end result of evolution, but it’s much more likely that we are just another step on the way to a higher-order species in the same way the Neanderthal was a step toward Homo sapiens. And the next evolution may be as much technological as biological.

This is an incredibly thought-provoking book. The second and third sections are much more speculative. I’m not sure if I fully buy Harari’s argument that humans are purely algorithmic creatures. And although he posits that his predictions are more than just futurism, it’s hard to see much of a difference. Still, it’s a mind-expanding read. He dabbles in all sorts of trivia and threads interesting tangents throughout. He forces us to question many of the things we take for granted in our day-to-day lives, including that our day-to-day lives actually exist:

“For all you know, the year might be 2216 and you are a bored teenager immersed inside a virtual world. A game that simulates the primitive and exciting world of the early 21st Century. Once you acknowledge the mere feasibility of this scenario, mathematics leads you to a very scary conclusion. Since there is only one real world, whereas the number of potential virtual worlds is infinite, the probability that you happen to inhabit the sole real world is almost zero.


Related Reads: 

How to Create a Mind by Ray Kurzweil

The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku


The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle

March 3, 2018


I first read this book in 2008. I reread it again as a part of a group reading assignment at work. On second reading, I completely agree with my 2008 assessment. This book is about 25% empowering brilliance and 75% New Age gibberish, wrapped in a package that is pretentious and condescending.

The central premise—that most of our pain comes from living in the past or future vs being present in the moment—is life-changing if one can really internalize it and put it into practice. The ability to control our minds and keep our thoughts from running to distracting or dark places can bring an inner stillness and peace that can transform our health and our outer presence in the world.

But the pull of the past and the future are strong. We live in the past because it is so tied to our identity. Without the past, who are we? Thus we relive moments, fill our minds with regrets, second-guess our decisions. In reality, there is nothing to be done about the past. And many of the things we associate with our identities—our religion, work, social status, possessions, nationality, accomplishments, past experiences—are ephemeral. Furthermore, there is evidence that reliving painful moments can have the same physiological effects as the original experience. By conjuring the painful memory, we are experiencing all the stresses and pain of the experience again. The past is gone, if we can just let it be gone in our minds.

We live in the future because it is where we are potentially headed. But it often becomes a source of worry and pain. The dread we carry for an experience that may not even happen is unnecessary pain. Even if it does happen, the extra fear only serves to make the overall pain worse.

This is all easier said than done, of course. But the central premise is that time is an illusion. The only thing that is real is the present moment. And our greatest gift to ourselves and to the world around us is to be present in this moment. To listen to others with our being, not our wandering mind. To recognize that “compassion is a deep bond between ourselves and all creatures.”

Control over our inner thoughts is central to many eastern practices and religions. In the west, it’s often more a matter of therapy, though the practice of mindfulness is becoming more prevalent. If this book helps popularize the notion, it should be celebrated. But the format of this book and its length is irritating—not something you want in a book about finding inner peace. It has an unnecessary question-and-answer format and the author comes off as insufferably arrogant. I’m currently reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s How to Sit, which I find much better.

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

March 3, 2018


When reading Mindhunter last year, I was reminded of how much I liked Sherlock Holmes stories growing up. So when I saw the entire collected works of Sherlock Holmes stories (all 63 hours read by Stephen Fry!) for a single credit on Audible, I jumped on it.

A Study in Scarlet was the first appearance of the legendary Holmes and Dr. Watson. It appeared inconspicuously and without acclaim in 1887, in an English magazine called Beeton’s Christmas Annual.   Watson, the narrator, has returned from the war in Afghanistan. Seeking lodging in London, he meets Sherlock Holmes. In what would become his signature, Holmes surmises Watson’s story based on only a few quick observations. Watson is stunned, enchanted. And the rest, as they say, is history.

This book is significant as the first in the Holmes canon, but is otherwise not nearly as good as later works. It involves a murder mystery, but the entire middle section concerns a flashback to Utah in 1847, backstory to the mystery. But the flashback is way too long and relatively uninteresting. Holmes and Watson feel more like bookends—they deserve to be in every scene.

Holmes remains a fascinating character. His leaps of “deduction” (often pointed out to be more inductive) are the equivalent of Jackie Chan fight scenes—totally unrealistic but delightful in their absurdity. And Holmes is a wonderfully mixed bag as a character. He’s arrogant, sometimes rude, a drug addict (cocaine and morphine), but brilliant. In what I thought was one of the more peculiar moments in the book (maybe also just a sign of the times), Holmes tests his theory of the murder by feeding a concocted poison to his dog. The dog seems unaffected, so Holmes adjusts his mixture and tries again. The dog then dies, delighting Holmes. A mixed bag indeed.

I’m looking forward to the next 50+ hours of Holmes.



Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic by David Frum

March 2, 2018


I was much more interested in reading this book than Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. Trump is an easy target, but I prefer to see him hit by people from his own side of the aisle. Although many in the modern GOP might call Frum a traitor, he is a conservative. I disagree with him on many political positions, but I massively respect his intellect and desire for civil discourse. He believes—and I agree—that the Republican party jumped the shark when it aligned itself with (or was taken over by) the Tea Party. Trump is a symptom of this shark jumping.

Even before Donald Trump thrust himself forward as a presidential candidate, American politics had been veering toward extremism and instability. Trump seized a dark opportunity, but that opportunity had been opened and enlarged for him by others. Trump’s election was a system failure, but the system did not fail out of the wild blue yonder.

But Trump is a historical disfigurement of the Presidency, a superlative combination of immorality and incompetence. He is often compared to Nixon, and the line from All the President’s Men, Frum points out, is apt of the election, possibly prescient of the current situation: “The truth is, these aren’t very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

Trump and his cronies are carrying out a crusade of anachronism, trying to turn back the hands of globalism and technology to a time when America thrived on manufacturing and extractive industries, when the U.S. wasn’t a cultural melting pot (a time that never really existed), when Americans didn’t criticize their leadership (also a time that never existed).

Trump himself is an amalgamation of some of the darkest of America’s traits. A bigot, a charlatan, a robber baron, an opportunist. He sees women as trophies, money as the object, and his elected office as a kind of kingship. Every decision he makes is filtered through how it will benefit him. Because he rewards loyalty over talent, he has surrounded himself with a cadre of yes-people in dangerously over their heads (“The Trump White House is a mess of careless slobs.”).

But to accuse Trump of being incompetent and morally bankrupt is not worth a book. What Frum sees is something more insidious. He sees Trump as corrosive to the very fundamentals of American democracy. He sees Trump, and Trumpism, as a force so potentially damaging that America may never recover. He is the wedge between Americans, and there is little reason for him to stop hammering it in.

“Trump gambled that Americans resent each other’s differences more than they cherish their shared democracy. So far, that gamble has paid off.”

Trump is intentionally setting a course of isolationism and protectionism, through policies, by bad-mouthing our allies and by reneging on our agreements.

He is pulling a page from the dictator playbook by deliberately attacking the notion of truth (fake news, alternative facts, etc.). Absent a discernible truth, there is no foundation for discourse. He relies on cries of “fake news” or “liberal media” to drown out any fact checking. He creates his own weather system of disinformation that plays to the unfortunate talent of Americans to believe almost anything that supports what they believe to be true.

Trump claims that the electoral college is rigged (it is, intentionally, and Republicans have recently benefitted from it twice, in 2000 and 2016), while his party is blatantly suppressing voter turnout to favor them in state elections (“Between 2010 and 2016, some twenty states rewrote their laws in ways that made voting more difficult, often with blatantly partisan effect.”).

And there is the Russia thing. The investigation is ongoing, but at the very least there is obligation for the President of the United States to show grave concern for an attack by a foreign nation on our electoral system, which Trump only answers with, “There was no collusion.” Time, and Robert Mueller, will tell. Trump seems unconcerned with defending the U.S. from another attack, perhaps because admitting the first attack would be admitting to an election that was, at least in part, rigged in his favor. This, for a man who still insists he won the popular vote and the crowd size at his inauguration…etc. etc. etc.

Frum admitted in a recent interview that he wrote this book fast. The urgency of it, he felt, was important. It feels like a fast book, reads like a fast book. He makes very good points, though they are somewhat scattershot. But his central theme is that this presidency is different. Trump is a turning point. We can decide to continue down this path where we erode our democracy, destroy our standing in the world, value our party identity over our identity as Americans, or we can see the sickness before us and choose a path more reasonable. Trump can be the DUI that forces us to face the fact that maybe we have a drinking problem and should attend rehab. Or we can ignore this warning  until we wrap ourselves around a tree.

The thing I have most grappled with in the Trump era, and why this book was not an enjoyable read, is that it’s a reminder of how incredibly disappointed I am in our country. Because none of this is surprising. This was a deliberate choice. Like I said, I really like and respect Frum. But this book is an easy case to make. It was also a pretty easy thing to envision before Trump was elected. Yet people decided, for whatever coalition of reasons, that this man was somehow the choice to make to lead this country. This terrible, immoral, bag of air and meanness. I find that deeply, deeply saddening.

When this all started to happen, I thought of a parable about a snake I’d heard in a movie. I didn’t realize it was an Oscar Brown poem. And I was surprised when Frum points out that Trump loves to read the poem (changing lines to suit his needs) at rallies. It’s the parable of a woman who finds a sick snake out in the cold. She brings it into her house and nurtures it back to health. Then one day, the snake bites her. As the woman is dying, the snake says to her, “You knew I was a snake when you took me in.”

Trump was in the news recently for reading the poem as part of a xenophobic bit about Syrian refugees and being called out by the daughter of the author. He is seemingly unaware of what is so obvious. He is the snake. He is the poisoner. There was nothing about him or his behavior that can surprise anyone. But a snake is a snake. So shame on us. Shame on us for inviting the snake in.


Related Reads:

Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen

Why Romney Lost and What the GOP Can Do About It by David Frum


Motorman by David Ohle

February 21, 2018


I need to do a better job of tracking where some of my books come from. This one has been on my shelf for a while, and I have no idea if it was a reco from a friend or came from a review. If a reco, I’d love to go back to the person and ask why the heck they recommended it.

“The only virtue of this absolutely atrocious book is its brevity,” Kirkus Review wrote of Motorman when the book was released in 1972.

I won’t be so harsh. It’s an interesting read, though it oozes post-60s experimental fiction, like maybe it felt like there wasn’t anywhere else in the real world to go, so the author drops us into a surrealist, post-apocalyptic dreamscape that maybe made some sense to him when he scribbled this down. There were likely drugs involved. In the introduction, its suggested that Ohle was just transcribing Bukowski’s dreams. I don’t like this book enough to think about whether or not that’s a joke.

This is a kind of sci-fi noir. Moldenke, a man who has been rebuilt after an injury in the military, runs on four sheep hearts and is missing an eye. He is after two men—Burnheart and Eagleman. Eagleman, best we can tell, is a kind of mad scientist, responsible for at least one of the several moons that now circle the earth.

I won’t go on, but to say that it’s not a completely unenjoyable read. It moves along, there’s some good imagery, and the world is an intriguing, if demented, vision of the future, where fluids and organic matter play as big a role as technology. This book lies somewhere between Bukowski’s Pulp and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, neither of which I cared for either.






Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

February 11, 2018


John Darnielle is also a singer-songwriter who goes by The Mountain Goats. This, his debut novel, caught my attention when it came out in 2014 because I’m a fan of his music. But the reviews were great as well (as is the name, as is the cover). With all this, I finally got around to listening to the audiobook, read by Darnielle. It doesn’t disappoint, and I ended up finishing the full audiobook in two days.

Through chronological jumps, Darnielle reveals the story of Sean Perkins, inventor of Trace Italian, a role-playing game based on a post-apocalyptic world imagined by Perkins. Players correspond with him through the mail, playing god to his world as the players send their moves and he responds with the consequences of those moves. In addition to their correspondence about the game, players often disclose personal details about their lives. Sean detects in them kindred spirits, nerds and outcasts looking for escape and adventure. But as they play, the escape offered by the game becomes too real for some. One player, frightened by his obsession with the game, uses his move to commit suicide with his character. And two other players begin acting out their player’s move in real life.

We also learn that Sean has been terribly disfigured in a shooting, though Darnielle unveils the exact circumstances of the shooting slowly throughout the story. Sean’s recovery, his interactions with his caretakers and the reactions of people he encounters create a major thread of the narrative.

Wolf in White Van explores some of the same themes of Darnielle’s music—teenage loneliness, nerdy pursuits of 1980s and pre-internet 1990s, obscure pop culture references. Like millions of teenagers, Sean is socially awkward and emotionally distant from his parents. With Wolf in White Van, Darnielle has created a world that is familiar but wildly inventive, dark with dreamlike imagery but sensitive and poignant. I was expecting the book to be pretty good, but was blown away.

Anyone who loved Ernest Kline’s 2011 Ready Player One will likely appreciate Wolf in White Van. And I enjoyed hearing Darnielle’s reading of it. He has a dry, Demitri Martin-esque delivery that complements the story well.

Bonus: The Mountain Goats, “Love, Love, Love”


Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

February 11, 2018


Steve Martin’s autobiography of his life from childhood through his successful stand-up career is charming, insightful, at times sad and, not surprisingly, hilarious. He nostalgically walks us through his childhood jobs—selling programs at Disneyland, working in the magic shop, his early stage shows and comedy gigs—all which had a big influence on his later showbiz career. The autobiography is focused—most everything is part of the story of his career. But it is also very personal. Martin reveals that his father, a failed actor who was sometimes physically abusive and mostly emotionally abusive, impacted his entire career. Even at its height, the elder Martin refused to give Steve credit for making it big. When Steve first appeared on Saturday Night Live, his father panned the performance in a review in the newsletter for the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, of which he was president.

Otherwise, it is a fun and fantastic ride Martin takes us on. For readers, such as myself who know Martin more for his movies than his standup, it’s interesting to see how groundbreaking his act truly was and what created his desire to do something different than other comedians of the time. From a creative point of view, it is awesome to see how varied his inspiration was. He was a philosophy major for a time, an avid art collector, and very much influenced by the avant-garde art scene of the late ‘60s. In one part, he describes how he wrote a bit based on some logic puzzles he’d read in a textbook written by Lewis Carroll. There are also moments of insight when he interacts with other celebrities, such as the time Johnny Carson tells him during a commercial break, “You’ll use everything you ever knew.” Martin says that that’s been true, and recalls using his childhood rope tricks in the movie Three Amigos!

My favorite part of the book, however, is the turning point of his career, when he really finds his groove. He’s at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, playing for a crowd of about 100 in a room with a small stage. At the end of the show, the audience sticks around, but there are no wings to the stage for Martin to exit, so he has to just tell them the show is over, which they think is a joke. When he gets off the stage and walks out of the room and out of the building, they think it’s still part of the show and follow him. So he takes them across campus, where they come upon an empty swimming pool. Martin tells everyone to get in. They do. He then proceeds to possibly invent crowd surfing, right there on the spot.

Ten years later, he is playing to crowds of 19,000. He talks about the crush of fame and the paradox of being as famous and lonely as he has ever been. He acknowledges that yes, celebrities want celebrity when it is convenient and anonymity when it is not. But in the end, you empathize and understand why, in 1981, he walked off the stand-up stage and never returned.