Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow

Yuval Noah Harari (2015)

A determined effort to step back from the small-scale considerations – climate change, obesity, that sort of thing – and focus on the force that transcend these problems and are driving the changes in society and technology that we see all around us.

Harari sees three primal desires driving the twenty-first century: to defeat death, to engineer the human mind and emotions, and to achieve practical omnipotence in addressing real-world problems. And he explores all three of these desires with the perceptiveness of a historian while demonstrating an impressive scientific depth of understanding.

This is a book full of passages to make one think. Is religion just a technology for imbuing events with meaning? – and if so, are humanism and science just religions, advocating a different set of values? Is science really about the acquisition of power, rather than about the acquisition of knowledge or understanding? As a scientist myself I don’t think I’m looking for power, but I have to say I’m less confident about that belief applied to science as a whole after reading Harari’s analysis.

Harari rides his ideas to their logical conclusions, in the emerge of trans-humanism and Data-ism as alternative driving ideologies for the twenty-first century. The former looks to upgrade humans, and therefore to introduce real empirical inequalities between upgraded and “natural” humans; the latter regards everything through the lens of data processing, and so argues that humans need to step aside in favour of the unconscious but intelligent algorithms we’ve created. He then spins round and argues that both these trends are destructive of liberalism and the core of current humanist thinking, and so are essentially political as well as philosophical and technical questions. It’s an impressive feat and, if we believe it, poses massive challenges – not least in finding a common language within which to discuss them and determine a way forward.

5/5. Finished Saturday 24 February, 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy

Maggie Berg (2013)

The changing face and style of academia is a constant fascination to academics (like me). Many authors have commented on the increased managerialism they encounter, the excess of rules and the limitation of free inquiry and free teaching. Part of this might be regarded as the professionalisation of academia in the face of increasing demands from numbers of students, and their (very reasonable) expectations in the face of the financial costs they now (often personally) face. And it’s undoubtedly true that, while we’d like to think that all academics are able to manage their time and efforts so as to balance equitably the needs of research and teaching, some don’t do this and (typically, although it happens the other way round too) neglect teaching in favour of more career-enhancing research and esteem activities.

The core question is really quite simple: what is the right balance between independence and supervision for people who are experts both in their own fields and in passing on the passion, drama, and techniques of those fields to the next generations? It’s one the resists simple solution, but that doesn’t stop administrators and governments trying to shift the balance towards control. There are huge dangers in this from stifling free expression to impeding the exploration of new ways of educating – but it’d be foolish to ignore the benefits in terms of raising standards and ensuring learning outcomes.

The debate is weakened, in my opinion (as a science academic), by the focus that such works always have on the humanities: indeed, they’re often phrased so as to exclude people like me, as though we were mere technicians and not “proper” academics. This book doesn’t make that mistake, but still deals almost exclusively with the challenges of the humanities, which often feel devalued and sidelined by the resources thrown at “STEM” subjects.

I have to say that my own institution doesn’t – yet, at any rate – exhibit any of the pathologies described by the authors, so part of the book for me is a warning tale of what to avoid in the years to come. It can also be read as a manifesto of what needs to be preserved, or re-acquired, if we’re to keep academic healthy and questioning.

4/5. Finished Saturday 24 February, 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Ancient Greeks: Ten Ways They Shaped the Modern World

Edith Hall (2014)

The history and effect of Greece told through ten claimed characteristics of the Greek mind and civilisation. It’s a strong claim and, while it makes for a reasonable read, doesn’t quite pull off the effect that the author intended. It’s hard say why, as the writing is clear and as erudite as one would expect from a classics professor at a leading university. Perhaps it’s the lack of any clear necessity in choosing these particular traits, which leaves the whole assemblage feeling perhaps a little cherry-picked to make scholarly points.

3/5. Finished Saturday 24 February, 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Zoomable Universe: A Step-by-Step Tour Through Cosmic Scale, from the Infinite to the Infinitesimal

Caleb Scharf

There’s nothing in the least pretentious or precious about this book. It’s a straightforward tour through over forty orders of magnitude, from universal-scale gravitating structures to quarks and then on down to the Planck length, the theoretically smallest distance. In many ways this resembles a 1980’s popular science book for early teens – and given how much I enjoyed those at that age, it’s hardly a surprise that I loved this one too.

5/5. Finished Saturday 24 February, 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Spider Network: The Wild Story of a Math Genius, a Gang of Backstabbing Bankers, and One of the Greatest Scams in Financial History

David Enrich (2017)

Another exploration of the financial crisis, this time the manipulation of Libor by a group of bankers: one can’t really call them a cartel or gang, I think, as that implies a conspiracy and direction that was absent. And that’s what makes the story so interesting to me: that a group of individuals essentially self-organised by looking to their own interests into a collective defrauding of most of the Western world.

And they were so unaware! – not simply in the sense of defending themselves, but in their inability to see beyond the horizons of the “game” of finance, to the fact that they weren’t living in a closed universe where their actions lacked wider implications. The protagonist is clearly clinically Aspergic, but one has to wonder to what extent all the players had somehow managed to shut off their peripheral vision.

I think the story also has implications for regulation that have been raised before: how do you deter people who don’t believe their actions are criminal? It’s not that they don’t think they’ll be caught: it’s that they don’t see they’ve anything to be caught for, and that strokes at the heart of a lot of regulation. The fact that society falls on them post facto might be somewhat satisfying, but it doesn’t prevent recurrence, not least because none of the more senior players face meaningful sanction. There are still a lot of crises to come until ww come to terms with this.

4/5. Finished Saturday 11 November, 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)