Kimmerer, Robin Wall
It is hard to be critical of a book like this, where I fully empathize with the intentions, have nothing but respect for her genuine emotions, and a book written with such beauty and grace. Yet, I could not agree with her interpretation of the relationship between humans and the rest of nature and the ethical basis of her argument.
There is no doubt that our ancestors maintained harmony with nature through trial and error. Practices that were not sustainable were eventually discarded for very practical reasons. What remained were those practices that worked over long periods of time. This is true of all ancient groups across the whole world. These practices helped them survive in an unforgiving world and worked while the populations were small. Many of the practices that could feed a few hundred million world population cannot feed eight billion. In my country, India, many indigenous people practice setting fire to mountains, cultivating on the fertile soil left behind for a few years, and then moving on. This practice was sustainable then but can hardly be encouraged today. Therefore, whenever we see a nostalgic longing for the wisdom of our ancient ancestors, we have to ask ourselves whether that wisdom still applies today. We also must admit that human knowledge is constantly growing, and every practice must be judged by the knowledge we have today and not what we knew hundreds of years ago.
The author's main thesis is based on a spiritual understanding of the relationship between different living things. She believes this spiritual dimension is distinct from our rational and scientific understanding of nature. She believes that without this spiritual dimension, we will never understand or respect nature. I not only find this view extremely limiting, but I also find it insulting to all the people who have developed a deep respect for the interdependency of species not through their ancestors but purely through scientific understanding and are devoting their lives to protecting nature. I agree that we should all show respect and gratitude toward what sustains us and consciously resist the pure objectification of the things we consume. That is a terrible attitude, pampered by a greedy market economy. Fortunately, this has started to happen with many of our younger generations. For most of them, the scientific facts convinced them to adopt a different perspective and not the spiritual sense showcased by the author.
To support her spiritual view, the author applies terms such as "wants," "knows," and "understands" to plants and animals as if there is a conscious attempt on their part to do what they do. This is completely misleading and unnecessary. A plant growing in a polluted land does not have a grand plan to revive the land but is simply surviving because it can. It is only through our scientific understanding that we can understand these intricate relationships. The knowledge of her ancestors was also empirical scientific knowledge, discovered through trial and error over generations. Believing in a spiritual connection between us and nature can, in extreme cases, can lead us to absurd situations, like the hunter she describes who goes out to hunt with a single bullet and waits for that specific deer who is ready to give his life and somehow communicates it to the hunter. It is hard for me to imagine anyone can believe such a sentiment. Of course, I have nothing to say if someone is motivated by such spiritual thoughts, I just don't want someone to preach to the world that it is the only way we can help nature.
As described in the book, some of the terrible things we did to our natural system are being questioned and reversed. At least in the world's developed economies, things that industries were allowed to do even thirty years ago are no longer tolerated. All around us, we see attempts to correct those mistakes. They may not be adequate, and much more is needed. However, this change of heart is not a result of a spiritual understanding but because people realize, purely through rational means, why the old ways are not sustainable and will bring us great pain.
The author is consistently critical of how scientists view the world, with dispassion and reductively (as if it is a foul word, forgetting that most of our scientific understanding would not have happened without reductive analysis). I think one of the problems was her exposure to mediocre scientists who criticized her unconventional yet scientific questions. Most of the science's success stems from the fact that moderately useful science can be done by mediocre scientists without possessing any deep philosophical understanding. She could have developed a different attitude if she had met more thoughtful scientists in her formative years.
Having said all that, I am glad I read the book. The descriptions are exquisite, and her emotions are palpable, even when I could not resonate with her.
Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment (****)
Nobel Prize winning scientist, Daniel Kahneman challenged the popular understanding of human thinking with his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. We learned that a good part of our decisions are not made through deliberate, conscious, and logical thinking, as we would love to believe, but through automatic subconscious processes and then rationalized by our brain. In his latest book (coauthored with other scientists), he takes on a bigger challenge, challenging the predominant belief that the biggest and perhaps only enemy of our institutional and professional decision-making process lies in various psychological biases.
In the last couple of decades, many researchers have exposed and cataloged dozens of human biases we suffer from, mostly without realizing it. It was eye-opening when experiment after experiment proved that we all suffer from these psychological impediments. In this book, Kahneman and his coauthors expose another, often more significant source of error, randomness or noise. While it is relatively easy for us to understand biases, understanding noise requires statistical thinking, and most people lack the skills to do so. In my experience, even trained scientists often fail to think statistically, which is the source of many scientific misinterpretations, especially in biological sciences.
Through carefully planned experiments and analysis of real-life data, the authors show evidence of system-wide noise wherever we look. Doctors, judges, recruiters, and teachers display noisy decisions that fall outside of biases and are often more expensive to the company or society.
The book discusses many practical ways to reduce noise in decision-making, but it would be very difficult to eliminate. One method that shows significant promise is to rely on rule-based processes or algorithms. We have seen an increase in algorithm-based decision-making in recent years, and there has also been a proportionate increase in scholarly work that exposes inherent biases in such methods. The authors admit that algorithms can be biased, but so do humans. While it is possible to systematically reduce the bias in algorithms, it is hard to do so with humans.
The conclusions drawn by this thoroughly researched book would annoy many liberal thinkers, as the alternatives are far easier to understand and support from a political and moral standpoint. But a scientist's job is to look for the truth, whether they are politically palatable. In that respect, it is a very important book, and as the conclusions affect everyone in our society, they should be considered with due respect. I know for sure the decisions I make in my professional life will not be the same after reading this book.
Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution (****)
This is probably the fourth Rovelli book I read, and he always impressed me with his depth of understanding, his beautiful narration, and his poetic vision. However, this time I was a bit skeptic. I was expecting yet another popular science book attempting to explain Quantum Mechanics, but in the end making it more mystical and ununderstandable. I was wrong.
He tells a beautiful story of how this amazing science came about, the main players involved, and most importantly, why it is so mysterious. However, the most unique aspect of this book is his description of his interpretation of Quantum Mechanics based on relationships between different entities. This is a far more convincing interpretation of this physics than unprovable and unsatisfying many world interpretations. There are aspects of this interpretation that I found unsatisfactory, like the Schrodinger’s Cat example, but still it is so much closer than anything else.
I never found anything worthwhile in Quantum Mechanical explanations of consciousness, which has gained some popularity lately. However, Rovelli makes an interesting connection between mind and Quantum Physics in term of relationships. It is beautifully thought provoking.
Termination Shock (**)
What happened to the creativity of the writer who could write innovative novels like Cryptonomicon, Snowcrash, or Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. to end up writing something with the unveiled ambition of a big-budget movie being made out of it, either in Hollywood or perhaps Bollywood? It desperately tries to incorporate every conceivable ingredient that could make an enjoyable movie -- a pretty modern-day queen, exotic locations, hand battles, tough and invincible men, and lots of spectacles.
Geoengineering to fight climate change is a serious topic, and a much more thoughtful book could have been written about it to give us the complex consequences and arguments for such an action. However, this is not it.
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (*****)
This book surprised me in many ways. First of all, the concept of the book is entirely novel. It is a dictionary of made-up words describing various states of the emotional life we find ourselves in. Our languages have extremely fine-grained words for things, but the paucity is apparent when we look for emotional states. The author's thesis is that it is this paucity that makes all of us believe that the emotions we feel are uniquely personal and unshared by other human beings when in reality, no emotional state is truly unique. Many others must have felt the same way but could not label them with a word. I think the best proof of that is why fiction and poetry resonate with us. The writers find a way for us to discover that our intimate feelings are reflected by the author.
Being a "dictionary," each entry is entirely independent of others and can be read in any order. You can open a random page and start reading. It is like a book of poems. The only difference is that the author tried to express the feeling as simply as he could, while a common pattern among many poets is to make things obscure unnecessarily. I am not generalizing, as sometimes such complexity is necessary, but I am not fond of poets trying hard to make things more complex than they need to be.
Not all the words/emotions covered by the book are surprising, and some of them are almost cliched, but there are so many surprising gems scattered all over the book that kept me engaged and curious. The writing and metaphors are beautifully sensitive.
I have two other very personal reasons to enjoy the book. I work for Merriam-Webster (and Encyclopaedia Britannica), and so words have a special meaning for me. Made-up or not, this book also celebrates the importance of words in capturing our civilizations and carrying them forward. In fact, made-up words and definitions were always used by major dictionaries as a way to legally protect against plagiarism. Here is a less pragmatic reason to invent words. I also make art, and so many of these words can be used to inspire new art, which I aspire to do.
Cold Enough for Snow (****)
A deceptively simple narrative where nothing really happens, but it creates an atmosphere that is simultaneously familiar, unremarkable, yet transcendental. The author intentionally makes it sound like someone casually talking about a trip to Japan with her mother and imperceptibly slips in deeper thoughts that are hard to define but leave a profound mark on the reader. A debut novel with lots of promise.
Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control (****)
I am in the same camp with the author, that the issue of computer superintelligence is of utmost importance and should be discussed at all levels, even if we believe it is far away. However, there is a large group of people, especially within the AI community, who are trying to minimize the importance of the issue for various reasons. The author, in this book, goes into great detail discussing these objections. He leaves out that small minority, and rightly so, who still believe machines can never be truly intelligent. As if there is some non-materialistic magic in the arrangement of atoms inside our skull.
The first half of the book covers the basics and could be useful to a newcomer in this field. Next, he covers the debate about whether we should take Superintelligence as a serious threat, and he does a great job of supporting his argument. The final section is his thesis about how we can minimize the risk that may come from the emergence of superintelligence. While I could agree with the general idea of doing AI where the objective function shifts from a machine's perspective to one that incorporates human objectives, I am not sure of the actual practicality of its implementation. How will we incorporate such notions as human wellbeing, altruism, or humility, without the machine understanding the entire story of human existence? Perhaps I am missing the details of this approach, and a sufficiently intelligent machine will be able to pick it up from all the examples we can provide.
I will be eagerly waiting for further development in this area, and the recent, though mild, trend to include structural thinking into AI research rather than hoping deep neural networks can lead to general intelligence alone.
The Magic Mountain (*****)
It is one of those books that I always wanted to read, but the sheer heft of it made me hesitate. I generally try to manage a couple of such books each year, where a tremendous reputation is challenged by a very long length. I'll be honest, sometimes, such gallant attempts end up with me constantly checking the width of the pages that are read to the width of the remainder. Fortunately, this was far from it. In fact, I was sad when the book ended, and I had to leave the strange world of the alpine sanatorium.
From the very first sentence, Mann creates a mesmerizing world around the people who call this sanatorium home. The atmosphere is at once claustrophobic and magical, depressing and hopeful, utterly strange and perfectly normal. It is this surprising ambiguity that makes it one of the most remarkable novels I have read. It is impossible to put my finger on what exactly the author is trying to say. Some people see a clear metaphor of Europe around the great wars. I fail to do so, and I believe that is what makes it a great novel. Yes, it does touch upon that history, but it touches on so many different things. I never believed that novels that can be easily defined can leave a long mark, and this is a great example of that.
Like the great Russian literature, especially Dostoevsky, many of the characters often go into long monologues, trying to establish their philosophical views. This is definitely not realistic, and it takes a while to go past such an intentional style. But soon, as with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I accepted it as part of his literary style and accepted it as a device to draw these complex characters and, more importantly, as a device to discuss the philosophical and political debates of its time.
There are two persistent themes running through the book. The first is the place that illness and death hold in defining ourselves and adding meaning to life. The second and most remarkable is the author's meditation about psychological time. He was clearly influenced by the work of Einstein in redefining time and space. He took this scientific view and tried to use it to understand psychological time.
An amazing and memorable experience.
There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness (****)
Carlo Rovelli is a rare breed of science writer, an active physicist with the mind of a philosopher and the soul of a poet. I was mesmerized by his book on Time where he tackled this most enigmatic topic at once as a modern physicist and as a poet, without diluting each other.
This book is a collection of essays he wrote over the last ten years, usually for Italian magazines and newspapers. The topics cover a wide range of subjects, from the history of science to philosophy to politics. I would not say there is a strong thematic connection between them other than his personal outlook on things, which is beautiful and refreshing. I wish there were more people in our over-specialized world with his range of interests and perspectives.
On a personal note, he often refers back to his youth and his participation in the 1977 left movement in Italy. This reminded me of my youth, towards the end of the sixties and early seventies when my state of West Bengal and my city of Calcutta were engulfed in a left student movement. The nature of the movements was somewhat different, but the spirit was the same -- a passionate chase toward a fairer world. Eventually, we all grow out of such idealistic dreams, but they leave a deep mark and teach us to look at the universe differently. I am seeing sparks of that again in today's youth -- a desire to change things for the better, and I hope Carlo Rovelli is noticing it too. He warns us of the dangers of nationalism in one of his essays, but did he foresee, a few years ago, that Italy would be under an ultra-right nationalist regime?