Saturday, July 15, 2017

Solomon, Scott (2016): Future Humans - Inside the Science of Our Continuing Evolution

What is it about?

This book is - at least with respect to its basic setup - about two things: (1) whether and how the human race still evolves (per biological evolution; natural and sexual selection), and (2) how this evolution could unfold in the future.

The bulk of the book is devoted to discussing different mechanisms of biological evolution with numerous examples from human history as well as from the animal and plant kingdoms more generally. In addition, the book quite convincingly makes the case that despite "modernization", biological evolution has not stopped in the human race; e.g. genetic evolution through sexual selection may be even more pronounced today as it has been in the past because people move throughout the globe in increasing numbers and therefore mixing of different gene pools happens in greater extend than ever before.

However, the "future humans" content - despite being prominently featured in the book title - is very, very thin. Yes, the author discusses the mechanisms through which future evolution may play itself out (e.g. the effects of diminishing exposure to various beneficial and harmful bacteria in the post-industrial Western world), but there is quite little "end results" speculated about.

Was it good?

My feelings towards the book are mixed. In a way, the book very nicely builds towards the main deliverable: what future humans would be like - the conceptual-theoretical-empirical foundation is very solid.

But then, the main deliverable does not really materialize, which is something of a disappointment. At least I expected to read towards the end of the book about whether we would have, say, larger heads (brains), evolve into several different species and so on, but apparently the author has not dared to venture into such speculations -- the book is published by Yale University Press.

But, in this case perhaps it would have been more honest towards the reader to drop the notion of "future humans" from the title, as the book does not really paint a picture of future humans -- though it excels in spelling out the mechanisms which will bring about those future humans.

The main take-away for me?

Perhaps the main take-away for me was - perhaps a bit paradoxically - how little we know about genetic mechanisms. According to the book, in very many cases it is well-established that genetic mechanisms are responsible for evolutionary outcomes both in short and long term, but next to nothing is known today how those mechanisms precisely operate.

Who should read the book?

The book, in my opinion, should be considered mostly as a good popularized introduction to evolutionary biology and not a account on how future human beings will look like. Conceived like this, the book can be recommended to anyone interested in evolutionary biology. But then again, in this category there probably is not a shortage of excellent popularized accounts, such as those authored by Richard Dawkins, for example.

The book on Future Humans

Hatcher, John (2009): The Black Death - A Personal History

What is it about?

This is a curious book. It is written by a professional historian, but is written as a "semi-fictional" story. That is, the story running through the book is fictional by nature, but it is written as far as possible based on historical facts.

The book is situated in Suffolk, Great Britan, in the rural parish of Walsham le Willows, for which there are excellent historical records available for the focal period of 1340s to 1350s. Consequently, the characters and other contextual aspects can be based quite well on historical facts such as court records.

The story is told with the parish priest, Master John as the main character. Consequently, the perception by the common people towards the pestilence appear quite theological in nature -- which well might have been the case in the absence of modern medical knowledge. However, there voice of the story is that of an external narrator.

Welcomingly, each of the chapters begins with a non-fictional contextualizing section, which provides the current historical knowledge of the issues presented in the fictional story in the chapter.

Was it good?

The book is fascinatingly set up due to the "semi-fictional" style. Moreover, the historical-factual sections at the beginning of each chapter clearly add value and more generally make the story more compelling.

Actually, the historical-factual sections make even better reading than the fictional story itself. Namely, it is somewhat evident that the author is not very experienced with writing fictional narrative -- for example sometimes the narrative reverts to the form of "this happened, and then this, and thereafter also this" without much nuance and vividness.

Overall, however, the book paints a compelling and interesting picture of what it was like to live through the black death (or one instance of it) during the Middle Ages.

The main take-away for me?

The main take-away for me is probably the vast difference in world view between us today and the people living in the Middle Ages. Namely, if the book is to be believed, fortunes and misfortunes were explained during the Middle Ages to a large degree theologically, and consequently prayer and all kinds of religious rituals were primary in combating, say, a pandemic disease -- which, from the modern Western post-industrial standpoint is largely if not entirely futile.

Who should read the book?

I think that anyone interested in the black death of the Middle Ages more in general would find the book quite interesting. However, if one seeks a thoroughly enjoyable fictional story to read, this book may not be the prime choice to make.

The book on The Black Death

Dunn, Rob (2017): Never Out of Season - How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future

What is it about?

The book on the other hand provides a historical account of how our food supply has developed since the start of agriculture until today (more efficiency, less variety) and on the other hand sounds the alarm concerning how the current overly engineered and focused food supply is also highly risky.

The risks stems from a high degree of reliance on just a handful of crops (and within those, just one or two varieties with highest yields), because a problem with a particular crop such as rice or corn (e.g. a pest or a plant disease) could significantly hurt the food system in its entirety.

The book contains a number of alarming examples - such as the potato famine in Ireland in the 19th century - in which cases serious problems or even deaths due to hunger resulted when one major food source was attacked by a pestilence such as the late blight disease in the case of the Irish potato famine.

Was it good?

The book is a good balance between historical case narrative (with which it opens, too), review of current biological knowledge and informed prospects, and sounding of alarm.

A book like this may quite easily cross the line between "reasoned worry" and "alarmism", but this book stays within the reasoned category.

The historical narratives, for me, constitute the best contents of the book. For instance, the protection of potato varieties for future planting purposes in an agricultural institution during the siege of Leningrad in the 1940s was highly fascinating to read -- some of the personnel practically died of hunger while protecting perfectly edible potatoes and other plants because they wanted to preserve those for future people to plant.

The main take-away for me?

Well, the main message of the book has to be the main take-away; that we are creating increasing risks by building our food supply around ever fewer food plants -- we are placing our eggs increasingly in one basket.

Who should read the book?

The book on Never Out of Season

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Deary, Ian J. (2001): Intelligence - A Very Short Introduction

What is it about?

This is one of the books in Oxford University Press' Very Short Introductions series; this time on intelligence.

The book basically sets out to provide an accessible overview of what we (the scientific community) know about intelligence as a result of more than a century of research on the subject.

The book opens with a methodological discussion (an excellent primer on basic statistics) followed by a first proper chapter on the definition of intelligence (or intelligences according to some accounts).

Quite a bit of the about 120 pages is devoted to the "nature vs. nurture" discussion, i.e. whether genes or the environment matter more for a person's intelligence. There seems to be no definite conclusion yet, but I got the impression that they are roughly speaking equally important.

Was it good?

The book is very accessible, starting from the opening discussion on basic (psychology research) statistics. Throughout the book, the discussion is very down-to-earth even though the contents are drawn from academic research, and in many cases in large scale meta analyses covering decades of scientific research.

The style of the book is notably calm - fitting to a book by an academic publisher - even to the degree that it is quite difficult to draw any memorable punchlines or main messages from the text.

The main take-away for me?

I was most intrigued by the discussion about how intelligence - or mental abilities in general - develop and persist over time (mainly chapter 2). It turns out - again based on rigorous empirical scientific research - that most mental capabilities don't deteriorate (absent any detrimental medical condition) from the 20s to 30s until somewhere in the 70s or later. Those which do deteriorate mainly have to do with the absolute swiftness of information processing.

Thus, in general terms, people don't become less intelligent even very late in their life.

Who should read the book?

I would recommend the book for anyone who is interested in intelligence - what it is, how it develops and how we can study it. However, this interest should be somewhat 'serious' because the book does not deliver catchy one-liners but rather syntheses of academic findings.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Lipson, Hod (2016): Driverless - Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead

What is it about?

This book is about autonomous cars - their past, present and future.

However, the book not only discusses autonomous cars themselves, but to quite a notable degree covers the underlying technologies as well. Perhaps the most notable such examples are artificial intelligence and especially "deep learning", machine vision (with optical, laser and radio technology) and computer and software technology in general.

In addition, the authors very welcomingly discuss also the derivative social effects which would result from widespread adoption of autonomous cars (e.g. loss of certain jobs, changes in urban landscape, economies of urban, sub-urban and rural areas etc. Furthermore, the book does a good job in discussing some of the most obvious ethical questions such as how to value human life, because such a value is needed when an autonomous vehicle is in an emergency situation forced to choose between two or more courses of action all of which involve fatalities and/or damage to property.

Was it good?

The book is very interesting and reads quite well. At places, the authors get close to that stylistic line which irritates me in contemporary non-fiction books (overly colourful language, hyperbolic analogues etc.), but don't get there.

I especially appreciated the extended discussion on underlying or enabling technologies (e.g. how a neural network works, what affects its performance and how this have developed over the past decades, and how neural networks can be and are being employed in machine vision/sensing such as in autonomous vehicles), as this gives one a substantially deeper understanding about the current state and foreseeable future of autonomous cars.

Moreover, I equally liked the discussion concerning societal and ethical issues. This, actually, sets this book apart from may other contemporary non-fiction books especially on technical subjects, because the authors explicitly admit that there currently seems to be to much simplistic hype around autonomous vehicles.

The main take-away for me?

The main take-away for me certainly was an increased understanding about the technical complexity of making autonomous cars reliable and eventually "mainstream". For example, detecting a human progressing slowly while carrying a large dense object as human is very, very difficult to pull off with machine sensing. Yet, this must be routine with 99.9999% accuracy if autonomous vehicles are to become ubiquitous.

Who should read the book?

The book certainly requires some interest in the subject and an engineering mindset (neural networks, laser distance detection...), but anyone at all wondering about how advanced autonomous cars currently are and how (or whether) they become commonplace, should certainly read the book.

The book on  Driverless

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Line-In Publishing: Sociology - Exploring Human Society

What is it about?

This is a basic text on sociology, like a basic undergraduate textbook on "Sociology 101" course.

Hence, it starts with describing what sociology is (as an academic and intellectual discipline) and how sociological research is conducted, and then proceeds to discuss key themes in sociology such as the society, organizations and organizational behavior, the family, crime etc.

As a very notable feature, all the major topics are discussed through three sociological lenses: functionalist theory, conflict theory and symbolic interaction,

Was it good?

The book is extremely accessible - it discusses the topics in a very down-to-earth way and with no particular hurry or an use of highly specialized vocabulary. At times, this may convey a slowly progressing impression, but every once in a while I found myself really contemplating quite basic issues such as my conception of the family, or how very basic processes operate in my workplace. Thus, the very basic nature of the book actually turned out to be a benefit for me.

Moreover, the choice to run all the key themes through the three lenses - functionalist theory, conflict theory and symbolic interaction is a very good choice: in this manner all the themes appear in different light depending on which of the lenses one uses to look at issues.

The main take-away for me?

My take-away perhaps is at a meta level. Namely, that sociologists have accumulated quite a bit of well-reasoned and researched knowledge which is fully applicable but undervalued in many walks of life. For example, I would claim that at most workplaces people are perplexed by issues (say, for example, difficulty of making changes in work processes) which would be crystal clear and obvious for a sociologist - and even for a sociologist living half a century ago.

Who should read the book?

I would recommend the book for absolutely everyone. Especially if one has not studied sociology before, this book is a stellar place to start.

The book on Sociology

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Lefèvre, Edwin (1923): Reminiscences of a Stock Operator

What is it about?

The book is a biography of a stock trader (or speculator), reportedly covering the life Jesse Lauriston Livermore.

The book is set in early 20th century (the book was originally published in 1923), and is organized chronologically and organized around highlight events (often particularly successful or unsuccessful or otherwise "teaching" trading campaigns).

Was it good?

The book is extremely good. Not only is it written in a very entertaining and personal style, but it also dispenses quite poignant observations of the human condition.

Indeed, one could say that the psychological observations of human nature and general psychological tendencies are the most valuable content in the book.

And even if one is not interested in any such observations, the book makes quite entertaining reading nonetheless.

The main take-away for me?

Besides the insights about inherent human psychology, a thought that I constantly kept on having throughout the book is "that wouldn't work today". And, in fact, the author (the narrator) admits in the very last pages of the book that his exploits had become increasingly difficult already in the 1920s: there was more stocks traded, more information to digest (impossibly much already in the 1920s), more stringent regulations on insider trading (a very central phenomenon in Livermore's exploits, though he himself was not an insider) and so on.

In any event, the book illustrates very nicely how the speculators got their name and stereotypical character in the early 1920s: already then the speculators were wholly uninterested in the "real" economy, only looking for how the "stocks acted" for the purpose of turning a profit on stock price developments.

Who should read the book?

If one is at all interested in financial economy and the stock market in particular, reading the book - despite its peculiar historical context - is time most assuredly time well spent.

The book on Reminiscences of a Stock Operator