Review | Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus front cover
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I restarted Homo Deus this week, as I had previously been put off by the reviews which claimed it was far less impressive than Sapiens (which I had enjoyed). But the more I read Homo Deus, the more ambivalent I became about whether or not to continue reading. I felt like Harari’s style could work when applied to topics that I’m already interested in such as AI and big data. Yet, Homo Deus quickly fell from being interesting to infuriating, as I learned just how badly it misrepresented one of its main subjects. (See the The Turning Point section below for details).

The Starting Point

The first few pages impressed me, as Harari painted a memorable picture of an improving world. Within the prologue there are some fascinating ideas and questions that are worth thinking about. Pages 71-74 go in to the history of garden lawns; this narrative shows how ideas about what an object means travel across countries and over time, and how those ideas become unquestioned assumptions baked into our societies and world-views.

Homo Deus also keeps the same casual and accessible writing style as Sapiens. Harari’s explanations contain bursts of flair, like rhetorical devices, assonance, and pop-cultural references, that make the text engaging and occasionally humorous. It almost reads like fiction, and sometimes that’s a downside; its smooth nature meant I found myself sliding from one chapter to another and then suddenly realising that I hadn’t questioned whether the segues and connections Harari made were logical as a result.

As I kept reading, my opinion of the book kept changing even within pages. There are paragraphs which contain thought-provoking questions, and which make predictions that have to some extent been shown to be correct. For example, Homo Deus contains this description of how targeted algorithms might affect voting:

“in future US presidential elections, Facebook could know not only the political opinions of tens of millions of Americans, but also who among them are the critical swing voters, and how those voters might be swung. Facebook could tell that in Oklahoma the race between Republicans and Democrats is particularly close, identify the 32,417 voters who still haven;t made up their minds, and determine what each candidate needs to say in order to tip the balance. How could Facebook access this priceless political data? We provide it for free.”

This was written in 2015, before the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal was widely publicised, but its certainly close to what happened. At the same time, Harari makes other predictions that have already been proven false. Talking about Microsoft’s Cortana, first developed just a year before Homo Deus was written, Harari envisions that;

“Next thing I know, a potential employer will tell me not to bother sending a CV, but simply allow his Cortana to grill my Cortana….As Cortanas gain authority, they may begin manipulating each other to further the interests of their masters…”

That’s already wrong, because Cortana is being switched off from most of its planned customer-focused purposes, even on Microsoft’s own devices. Harari’s rush to ascribe world-changing powers to the 12-month-old Cortana is a red flag that should make readers question how many of his other predictions could be similarly over-hyped.

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Review | Toksvig’s Almanac – Sandi Toksvig

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I received a small pile of books for my birthday last month, and Toksvig’s Almanac was the one I wanted to get stuck in to first. As I only knew of the almanac genre as being something from the 1700s/1800s, I sort of assumed they had been rendered obsolete by the internet, so first I went to a dictionary to check that I knew what an almanac actually was.

Here’s the history lesson for anyone who wants it: an almanac is a usually-yearly publication that holds information about multiple subjects at once. Ancient almanacs contained information about all sorts of topics that farmers, sailors, and astronomers would need. They were like a focused encyclopedia that covered what those readers would need to know in the year ahead. This included planting dates for crops; dates for natural events like eclipses and cultural events like holidays; plus celestial information like when stars and constellations could be seen. Modern almanacs still exist, though they expand the concept beyond farming and calendars into statistics, history, and collections of facts.

As a reference book, Toksvig’s Almanac isn’t really meant to be read from beginning to end (although it can be). It also isn’t meant to be a exhaustive dive into any of the individual people featured, which Toksvig makes clear in her introduction. Toksvig’s Almanac is a collection of jumping-off-points, a signpost pointing readers to the existence of hundreds of names, stories and events so that they can learn more about the ones that interest them. Its main focus is a chronological tour through the year, which highlights a different woman on each day. (To do this, it also has a good introductory explanation of the Gregorian and Julian calendars, and of why September-December seem to be in the wrong place in our calendar – short version, blame Augustus Caesar!).

The entries for each date are supplemented by quotes, poems, information about worldwide holidays and festivals, and longer entries about stories that connect multiple historical figures. The entry about how suffragists began to use cookbooks to spread political education and information about the suffrage movement to women was the most novel of these for me, as its a connection that I would never have thought to look into without being informed about it from outside.

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Review | Hello World – Hannah Fry

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I received Hello World for Christmas along with a few other books, and it was my favourite of the set … I actually abandoned one of the other books part-way through as this one was so much more appealing.

Hello World opens with the famous chess battle between grandmaster Kasparov and Deep Blue. Fry shows how Kasparov’s shock defeat wasn’t caused by Deep Blue’s mechanical power, but by how Kasparov interpreted and reacted to the computer’s actions. The engineers who programmed Deep Blue’s algorithm tactically let it appear hesitant. Deep Blue couldn’t play mind games, but the programmers understood human reactions well enough to make Deep Blue seem like it could, which threw Kasparov off his game.

This example lays out one of the three principles which run through the book – that we often blindly trust algorithms because we see them as infallible machines rather than instructions written by other humans. The other two principles are first that all systems, whether human-led or machine-led, are flawed, and second that algorithms and humans working together creates a better future than either rejecting algorithms or replacing humans with algorithms.

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Review | Because Internet – Gretchen McCulloch

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The blurb for Because Internet calls it “essential reading for anyone who has ever puzzled over how to punctuate a text message or wondered where memes come from”. But this book is not a fussy “how-to” guide for internet etiquette. Instead, it’s a broader look at how the weird world of the internet has changed how we use English.

McCulloch’s primary point is that writing produced on the internet – from Twitter and Tumblr to reactions and memes – is important because it lets linguists explore the missing piece of a linguistic puzzle.

We use different versions of speech – formal and informal speech – at specific times and contexts. While the same is true for writing, informal writing has historically been nearly impossible to study. McCulloch argues that our current era of internet communication marks the first time that linguists have been able to see people’s spontaneous informal writing in real-time. Positioning internet writing as the key to a previously-inaccessible aspect of studying language is a powerful approach, and this chapter conveys its importance well.

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Review | Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole – Dr Allan Ropper and Dr Brian Burrell

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Reaching Down The Rabbit Hole is a collection of medical stories from patients at the renowned Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Jointly written by neurologist Allan Ropper and neuroscience researcher Brian Burrell, the book melds Ropper’s perspective and experiences with Burrell’s extensive notes and related information.

“If (an aneurysm) reaches a critical size and form, it can burst open with the entire force of the body’s blood pressure. Blood then fills the spaces around the brain in a split second and causes a thunderbolt of a headache that no one forgets and many don’t survive.”

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Review | Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything – Lydia Kang and Nate Pedersen

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10 years ago, I took a GCSE history course on Medicine through Time, which was so engaging for me that I now credit it as part of why I ended up studying science communication. Since then, medical history has stayed as one of my cyclic background interests.

Quackery aims for a tone somewhere between a medical history textbook and a standard popular-science narrative, then strikes that note precisely throughout. It focuses on information about historical treatments, figures and ideas, rather than any autobiographical elements or personal narratives. Because Quackery is so consistent, it skirted the edge of monotony when I read much of the book in one sitting. However, the authors’ quick pace, and their frequent dry-humoured side notes and reactions, liven up the text.

“Edinburgh physician James Young Simpson was another nineteenth-century pioneer in anaesthesia. That is, if pioneering meant inhaling random substances with your colleagues, just to see what would happen.”

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Review | In the Land of Invented Languages – Arika Okrent

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Although we use language in everything we do, we rarely need to wonder about how our languages could be improved. Even if we do, the thought of making a whole new language to fix those flaws seems ridiculous.

Language creators, from scientists to philanthropists to eccentric sociologists, take centre stage in “In The Land of Invented Languages”. The book makes sense of invented languages — languages developed by just one person — by explaining why some of those languages were developed and what the inventors were trying to achieve by creating new languages.

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Review | The Violinist’s Thumb – Sam Kean

A hardback copy of the book The Violinsts Thumb.
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Biology is a conspicuous weak spot in my knowledge. My psychology education taught me a little about neurons, neurotransmitters, and brain structure. Beyond that, my main biological knowledge is trivia about platypi. So I read The Violinist’s Thumb less to learn about specific topics than to better understand how all these concepts of DNA, genes, cells and chromosomes related to each other.

The introduction sets up a powerful tension between the  scientific value gained by understanding DNA and the fears thrown up by confronting our genetic building blocks. From there, we discover the parallel stories of Gregor Mendel and Friedrich Miescher, who first isolated genes and DNA. Using these building blocks of genes, Kean leads readers towards larger structures such as chromosomes, viruses, humans, and human cultures.

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Review | Scientific Babel – Michael Gordin

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This year, about 2.5 million scientific articles will be published. Roughly 90% of them will only exist in English. So how and why did English become the default language for scientific work? If that question interests you, you might appreciate Scientific Babel.

Scientific Babel is about the languages we use to create scientific knowledge, and how the “language of science” has changed over time. It’s partly a history of science, and partly a discussion of how languages and cultures rise and fall.

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Review | The Integration of Psychology and Theology – John Carter and Bruce Narramore

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When I was a psychology student and in my “learn everything about Christianity” phase, I discovered a book called “The Integration of Psychology and Theology”. Then I forgot to ever read it. By the time I eventually started reading the book, it logically shouldn’t have meant anything to me. But I found value in how the book was written and how it approached both topics.

Integration…  does exactly what you would expect; it talks about why people perceive conflicts between psychology and theology, and whether these conflicts can be overcome. It was written by the Rosemead School of Psychology, an APA-accredited University which aims “to train clinical psychologists from a Christian perspective”. The book lays out four potential ways in which someone can view psychology and theology:

  • Psychology and theology are in direct and irreconcilable conflict, so one must eventually override the other.
  • Both fields appear to have common ground because psychology is a subset of theology.
  • Psychology and theology are like two trains on separate tracks, which don’t need to interact or to confront each other.
  • Psychology and theology are separately valuable fields which have the potential to work together based on their underlying principles (This is the book’s main argument).
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Impressions | The Two Cultures – CP Snow

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I was introduced to “The Two Cultures” during the first lecture of my scicomm MSc. When we were talking about scicomm history, “The Two Cultures” stood proudly on our timeline alongside documents which were fundamental to the field. So I wanted to read it for myself.

Originally “The Two Cultures” was a lecture, presented by scientist-turned-fiction-author C. P. Snow in 1959. Snow’s titular cultures were “people of the humanities and literature” and “people of the sciences”. In the lecture, Snow sketched out  divisions between these cultures, with anecdotes from his experiences as a novelist amongst scientists and a scientist amongst literary intellectuals. He blamed this cultural divide on Britain’s education system, which forced people to specialise in one subject too early and prioritised humanities at the expense of science and engineering.

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Review | A Mind of Its Own – Cordelia Fine

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Books that ask “what’s wrong with our brains?” are a current pop-psychology staple. Cordelia Fine’s A Mind of Its Own was ahead of this trend, as it was first published in 2005.

A Mind of Its Own explores ways in which our brains don’t make sense and cognitive biases that funnel us down faulty mental shortcuts. The book starts with the bias equivalent of little white lies, detailing how almost all of us are biased to see things as a little easier, happier, and less flawed than they really are. From this gentle introduction, Fine talks us through the progressively larger mental failings discovered through social psychology studies.

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Review | Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

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I first noticed Sapiens because of its polarising reviews; its readers seemed divided over whether it was one of the greatest books in existence or one of the most pretentious. With my curiosity piqued, Sapiens jumped to the top of my to-buy list.

As I haven’t studied much biology or early history, I expected that Sapiens might be a challenging read. However, I was surprised by Yuval Harari’s clear writing style – Harari generally limits jargon words, and he uses conversational language rather than unnecessarily academic sentence structures. The challenge in reading Sapiens comes from its ideas, not its style.

“imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively”

“This is why today monogamous relationships and nuclear familes are the norm in the vast majority of cultures, why men and women tend to be possessive of their partners and children, and why even in modern states such as North Korea and Syria political authority passes from father to son” .

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Review | The Disappearing Spoon – Sam Kean

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I’ve previously read Kean’s third book, The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons, which I found very informative and fun to read, so I was looking forward to reading The Disappearing Spoon.

Initially, The Disappearing Spoon was a more difficult read than Duelling Neurosurgeons, although that’s partly because I have less background knowledge about chemistry than I do about psychiatry or neurology. In comparison to Duelling Neurosurgeons, TDS is denser and more complex. While I could read a chapter of Neurosurgeons in one go and follow its major ideas and mechanics, I couldn’t do the same with TDS. Instead, I needed to stop and retrace my steps frequently to ensure I was keeping track of how new details related to previous information. (This applies most to the early chapters, which focused on the chemicial knowledge required to make sense of featured elements.)

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Review | The Accidental Scientist – Graeme Donald

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I picked up a copy of The Accidental Scientist thanks to its title- one of my favourite scientific topics is how luck has influenced science and medicine, so this book seemed like a good idea.

The Accidental Scientist is a short and fast read which covers the story of various inventions such as Botox, explosives, and telephones. Each 8-12 page chapter starts with one invention as a theme. From this point, single-page subsections handle each link in a chain of discoveries. This book is concise by necessity, as it aims to pack a large collection of trivia in tightly limited space.

As a result, every sentence has a role; either moving the chronological narrative onwards or bringing in a new character or development. Nothing here is padded or wasted. While admirable, the speed and constant progress also results in some individual stories losing their impact and gravity. Given what has been shown here, plenty of the events in single chapters could fill their own book if treated differently. For example, I found the section on nitroglycerin and the Nobel family a little disjointed when compared to other sections- keeping track of the many names, inventions and connections discussed in sequence was difficult.

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Review | The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons- Sam Kean

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I’m revisiting my pop-science book collection, partly to get back into a habit of reading and partly to look at the range of styles available in popular science writing. First on my list is Sam Kean’s The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons.

Duelling Neurosurgeons initally surprised me by not opening with duels or with neurosurgery. Instead, it dives into the world of sleep paralysis, an experience often compared to possession or even alien abduction.

Once the sleep paralysis scene is set, Kean then pulls the rug out from under it by explaining how the near-supernatural experience is caused solely by physical circuits and responses. This unorthodox opening demonstrates his message- that small physical brain events can produce irrational, unexpected, and even spiritual/religious-seeming changes – in an accessible way which makes the idea easier to grasp.

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Review | Fun Science – Charlie McDonnell

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I’ve recently finished Fun Science by Charlie McDonnell, and after reading it I’m surprisingly impressed both by the book itself and its potential value for science communication.

Firstly, some context. Charlie McDonnell is a filmmaker/musician/ vlogger/presenter… and now author. Last month he released Fun Science (the book), inspired by his 2011 YouTube series of the same name. Fun Science (the show) has also returned,and covers topics included in the book. (A playlist of all of the YouTube episodes is below).


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