Welcome in the middle of nowhere

For all the wandering hobbits of the middle earth…

Tag: Book Page 1 of 2

How to be a Stoic – Massimo Pigliucci – 2017

How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern LifeHow to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a very enjoyable and practical book on Stoicism. It strucks a very good balance between historical context, theory, anecdotes and examples, and practical exercices.

It would have been a perfect read if not for what I think is a rather poor way of handling the fear of death. One of the important point of the Stoic philosophy is to allow its students to learn to accept death has inevitable and natural, as indifferent.

With that said, nowadays, we are slowly coming to an understanding of the process of aging, and it is reasonable to think that we might engineer an end to it. Of course, some people get a little to excited by the prospect of technological solution to aging and makes some quite outrageous predictions (I’m thinking about high profile transhumanists who contend that any day now we’ll be able to upload ourselves in machines).
And here the author uses these extreme examples to make a rather nasty strawman attack on the will to cure aging. And I think a rational and Stoic evaluation of the topic can show he is wrong:

Does a Stoic denies that we should cure any disease, or for that matter, try to prevent any suffering, whatever its cause, that befall on other human beings? I think not, I think the author would agree that it is a good thing (a preferred indifferent) that modern medicine reduced child mortality, put an end to ugly disease like smallpox,… And why should aging be any different? Anyone that knows of an aged person (that is anyone) can see the immense suffering it causes. In fact, thanks to the material progress enjoyed in the recent centuries, I contend that the suffering and deaths caused by aging surpass that of any other single causes in the world, being malnutrition, malaria, famine,… I don’t think Stoics would agree that they are kind of sufferings that should never be alleviated, or that some people deserves to suffer because of simply their circumstances.

I’ll pass on the poorly thoughts and usual arguments against bringing an end to aging. It is not immortality (you still die of all the other causes), it does not cause runaway overpopulation (the growth rate of a population is actually inversely proportional to the lifespan of its constituents), and finally it is no more hubris that any endeavor undertaken since humans are humans, from leaving Africa for the unknown, crossing the Pacific on rafts, building shelters against the elements,… In short it is not hubris, it is using what is our Nature, Reason, to solve a problem causing so much human sufferings.

Of course, as Massimo Pigliucci writes himself elsewhere in this book, you have to put the words of a person in the context of the society he grew up with. So I will not hold too much of a grudge for him for reflecting the still mainstream view of the “naturalness” of aging.

I know this last paragraph make me sound arrogant but it is not my intention nor how I feel. We all have our biasis, and reason and discussions is how we can try to overcome them. I may be wrong and blinded by my own hubris, who knows.

Apart from this huge rant on a very specific chapter of this book, this is a very useful and enjoyable book, which I will carry dearly with me to help me become a better person.

View all my reviews

Two Cheers for Anarchism – James C. Scott – 2012

Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity and Meaningful Work and PlayTwo Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity and Meaningful Work and Play by James C. Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This little book aims to challenge our preconceived notion and bring a little more anarchy in our society. No in fast, as the author says in the introduction, most of our daily social interactions are anarchic in that they are spontaneous and not regulated/controlled by a third party (think your friends, family, the way you walk on sidewalks,…). The point is just to remember this, to remember that sometimes, often, decentralization, emergent order (from chaos), in short Anarchy, works better than hierarchical static(st) order.

I didn’t find all the arguments equally strong, but my statist biais could be working here. I am thinking about the arguments against quantitative measures which I found beside the point though important points in themselves.

All in all, this was a thought provoking read which helped rewrite my world-view a bit.

View all my reviews

Becoming the Iceman: Pushing Past Perceived Limits – Wim Hof, Justin Rosales – 2012

My review on Goodreads.com:

Becoming the Iceman: Pushing Past Perceived LimitsBecoming the Iceman: Pushing Past Perceived Limits by Wim Hof
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The writing is really really bad, as the other reviewers have already pointed out. I almost turned down the book after the first few chapters, but kept on…. and I’m glad I did. As poor as the writing is, the stories of Wim Hof and Justin are inspiring, really inspiring. I motivated me to incorporate cold showers in my daily routine and enjoy the numerous health benefits that Wim Hof is an extreme example of (I mean, 39 bpm resting heart rate at more than 50? Controlling the autonomic nervous system consciously? That’s something everyone should strive for).

So thanks to the authors for the inspiring book.

View all my reviews

Starship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon – James Benford, Gregory Benford – 2013

Starship Century: Toward the Grandest HorizonStarship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon by James Benford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fascinating read. The mix of science and science fiction really stirs our imagination and allow us to dream a bit about a possible

The only issue, and it is a serious, are the numerous typos. There really was a spellchecking work that has not be done.

View all my reviews

Le fabuleux pouvoir de votre cerveaux – Deepak Chopra – 2014

My review on Goodread.com:

Le fabuleux pouvoir de votre cerveauxLe fabuleux pouvoir de votre cerveaux by Deepak Chopra
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book presents some fascinating ideas. However it’s too bad the authors don’t argue more for some of their core precepts. One of the central thesis of this book is that we have a “mental”, a conscious self that has a free will. And yet never anywhere is it argumented for. There is nothing in our conscious experience that proves that we have free will. All we can be sure is that there is light, that we are a witness to what happens in our brain.

In fact, I would argue that if their conclusion is true, that we are all part of a unified consciousness, it makes more sense that the will and the sense of self is “simply” a product of the brain, with the conscousness being merely a silent observer of this particular process, rather than each of us being individual conscious agent, with free will, that may at the same time be part of a unified consciousness.

But overall really exciting and thought-provoking book

View all my reviews

Les Furtifs – Alain Damasio – 2019

Note: french version is below.

It is the first time I read the author, et I liked his style a lot, his numerous wordplays, the beauty of the text. The story of the Furtifs (Stealth) is very original and well thought out, it is thrilling, inspiring, and touching.

There is one thing that bothered me though; the political message.

It is screamed out, violently, all through the book. In a hateful, negatif way, totally irrational way. Alain Damasio is fighting Evil, called interchangeably money, capital, capitalism, liberalism. For him, all these words are synonymous, they represent absolute evil. But the thing is, they are not synonymous. Capitalism is not liberalism which is not the dystopia described here, a neo-feudal society, mix of big business and the State, a crony capitalism that has little to do with classical liberalism. Damasio’s understanding of economy can be sum up by: commerce is predation, private property is theft and wealth is “economic brutality”. Win-win exchange, positive sum game, that doesn’t exist in his world. You get rich only when someone else get poorer. Here Alain Damasio is a perfect product of the huge echo chamber that the french speaking media world is. And yet, it is true that there are problems to solve. That an elite of wealthy people and business use political power to keep or increase their privileges at the expense of the people. That the financial system is a mad vampire. That the idea Damasio suggests, extreme decentralisation of power in myriad of small “communes”, myriad of (competing?) models to try out, is very challenging and interesting. But all that is hidden under a mass of hate, jealousy which weight on the story and prevents any rational thinking. And also darken the poesy of the text.

Furthermore, I have to react to the other themes of the book. To start with, the demonization of technology.

His intuition is that technology dehumanizes and “devitalizes” us. Here the author is very conservative: the idea of human and machine blending, the idea of technological enhancement is out of the question: human beings are perfect as they are, let’s not change anything. Yes we have, right here and now, everything we need to be happy. But life is impermanence. No species is frozen in time, and for Homo Sapiens, technology is part of our evolution. Technology is the daughter of biology. An eye or legs are machines “invented” by Nature. A silex or a smartphone are organs evolved by humans. A car, a washing machine, a computer, they are just organs created to enhance us. Crude, imperfect, but less so with time. More integrated in us, more efficient, less polluting.

Damasio is quite vocal on technology in other public appearances. For him, technologie today gives us more power (what we can delegate) but shrinks our potency (what we can do ourselves). He often takes the example of GPS, which reduces our brain’s ability to move in space. But in fact that’s not true. Our ability to move in space hasn’t shrunk, it changed form. GPS is, for now, badly integrated in us, so badly so that we don’t feel its abilities as ours. But that’s an artificial distinction. Do you know how to walk? No. You learned it one day, how to balance yourself on 2 legs, but you forgot how to do it consciously a long time ago. There is a circuit in your brain that knows how to walk. If it is damaged (localized brain damaged), you won’t walk. True, there’s more chance for you to lose your GPS or that it stops working. But that not a fundamental difference. GPS abilities are as yours as the speech center in your brain. The writer recognizes it also, since he calls these smart sensors and trackers as a “second skin”. Yes, these are our new organs. Do we need them to be happy? No. So does they make us less happy? No. We can make use of our judgement with technology. Purposefully filter all the ads, messages and notifications we receive from machine. Keep mindful of the way we perceive the world (for example, not letting algorithms curate our news feed). Since the birth of agriculture, we kept modifying our environment, ever faster, much too fast for our genes to follow. Our evolution mode changed, it is no longer only genetic, but also cultural and technological. But we never ceased evolving. Luckily. Life is change.

And to finish, the symbolism of the Furtif. The Furtif represents the ideal we should aim at for the author. It is a being in perpetual metamorphosis, a synthesis of vegetal, animal, mineral,… and totally anonymous, escaping any tracking. Anonymity as an ideal of society. Individualism taken to the extreme, where society has no control over the individual, who is totally free and can disappear forever in the darkness of anonymity. The anonymity of the Furtifs is opposed in the book to the dystopia of a panoptic society in which all humans are endlessly watched by myriad of trackers and sensors (it is not clear if elites are also watched). It is another theme of predilection of Damasion; the idea that technology makes easier horizontal control between humans thanks to surveillance, and that it is a bad thing. And this is quite surprising from him. Indeed, anonymity allows all sort of anti/a-social behaviors to flourish. It allows the rich to hide their gain and avoid taxes. It allows elites to conspire against the people. And even in the “utopia” he describes, anonymity is the enemy: In the isle of Javeau-Doux for example, comrades that do not do their part are expelled. This is a good old social control, and it works only as long as what you do can be seen by others. Transparency is a bad thing only when it flows one-way. When light shines only on the people and elites stay in the dark. However the remedy is not complete darkness, but pervasive light. Light on everyone’s bank accounts. Lights on the chambers where laws are written. Lights on the meeting between businessmen and politician. Etc… A community exists only by the ties between its members, and those links only exist by a mutual understanding, a mutual control, a mutual trust born in the light.

To conclude, it is a thrilling adventure and a good anticipation, but it is darken by the ideological aprioris of the author. It is entirely possible that in fact, my own aprioris are spoiling this read. And maybe, probably even, this violence was a way to push the reader out of his numbness, a reader who often comes from the same ideological mold as the author, and thus will more easily resonate with his rage. But whatever the reason, this negativity spoiled my read.

And the french translation

Je découvre l’auteur, et j’ai bien aimé son style, ses jeux de mots incessants, la beauté de ses textes, il joue a fond son rôle d’écrivain. L’histoire des furtifs est très originale et très bien vue, et elle nous tient en haleine (presque) jusqu’à la fin, elle est émouvante, inspirante parfois.

Il y a une chose qui m’a gêné dans ce livre, c’est le message politique.

Il est crié, violemment, tout au long du bouquin. De façon caricaturale, de façon enragée, haineuse, bref assez négative et pas du tout rationnelle. Alain Damasio se bat contre le Mal, qu’il nomme interchangeablement l’argent, le capital, la capitalisme, le libéralisme. Pour lui tous ces mots sont synonymes, ils représentent le mal absolu. Mais synonymes, il ne le sont pas. Le capitalisme n’est pas le libéralisme qui n’est pas la dystopie qu’il décrit, qui est un modèle néo-féodale, une alliance de big business et du pouvoir politique, du capitalisme de connivence, qui n’a rien que peu à voir avec la philosophie libérale. Sa compréhension de l’économie se résume à considérer le commerce comme la prédation, la propriété comme le vol et le luxe comme de la “brutalité économique”. Les échanges gagnant-gagnant, les jeux à somme positive, ça n’existe pas, tu ne t’enrichis que parce qu’un autre s’appauvrit. Bref, en cela, Alain Damasio est parfaitement représentatif de la chambre à écho qu’est le monde médiatique francophone.  Et pourtant oui il y a des problèmes à régler, oui il y a une clique de riches et d’entreprises qui utilisent le pouvoir pour conserver et augmenter leurs privilèges au dépens du peuple. Le système financier est un vampire fou. Et oui l’idée que Damasio propose, la décentralisation extrême en millions de petites “communes”, de modèles à expérimenter en parallèle (en competition?) est très intéressante. Mais tout cela est noyé sous une couche de haine, de jalousie rageuse qui plombe la lecture et empêche tout réflexion. Et qui assombrit du même coup la poésie du texte.

Par ailleurs, je ne peux m’empêcher de réagir aux autres thèmes centraux du livre: Pour commencer, la diabolisation de la technologie.

Son intuition est que la technologie nous déshumanise et “dévitalise”.Sur ce point, l’auteur est finalement très conservateur: l’idée d’une fusion homme-machine, l’idée d’une “augmentation” par la machine est mal, l’être humain est parfait comme il est, il n’a pas besoin de changer, ne touchons a rien. Oui nous avons tout ce qu’il nous faut pour être heureux. Mais la vie est impermanence. Aucune espèce n’est figée, et pour l’homo sapiens, la technologie fait partie de notre evolution. La technologie comme continuité de la biologie. Un oeil ou des jambes, c’est des machine “inventée” par la nature. Un silex ou un smartphone , c’est un organe créé par l’Homme. Une voiture, une machine a laver, un ordinateur, tout ça ce ne sont que des organes qu’on se crée pour nous augmenter. Encore très grossier, très imparfait, mais de moins en moins. De plus en plus intégrées en nous, de plus en plus efficaces et moins polluants. La technologie est née avec l’Homme, avec le premier silex. En cela elle est tout autant naturelle que la biologie.

Cette présentation de la technologie dans ce livre renvoie à ses prises de position publiques sur le sujet: pour lui, la technologie aujourd’hui nous donne plus de pouvoir (la possibilité de faire faire) mais réduit notre puissance (la possibilité de faire). Il aime à prendre l’exemple du GPS, qui réduit la capacité de notre cerveau à s’orienter sur une carte et dans l’espace. Oui, mais non. Notre capacité à nous orienter n’a pas ete reduite, elle a change d'”organes”. Le GPS est suffisamment, pour le moment, mal et peu intégré en nous que nous ne percevons pas ses capacités comme faisant partie intégrante de nous. Mais c’est une distinction artificielle. Est-ce que vous savez comment marcher? Non. Vous avez un jour appris à marcher, a balancer votre corps sur deux jambes sans tomber, mais vous ne savez pas consciemment comment vous faites. Il y a un circuit de votre cerveau qui sait le faire. Si ce circuit grille (un dommage localisé dans votre cerveau), vous ne marcherez plus. Il y a surement plus de chances que votre GPS tombe en panne, que vous le perdiez,… mais ca reste une difference de degre, pas de nature. D’ailleurs l’auteur le reconnaît implicitement en parlant de “seconde peau” pour ces capteurs et traqueurs intelligents. Oui ce sont de nouveau organes pour nous. Est-ce qu’on en a besoin pour être heureux? Non. Est-ce que ca nous rend plus malheureux pour autant? Non plus. Cela n’empêche pas de faire usage de discernement. De filtrer intelligemment les sollicitations de la technologie, les publicites, les messages et autres notifications. En restant attentif à la façon dont nous percevons le monde (en clair, en ne laissant pas des algorithmes choisir pour nous les informations qu’on reçoit du monde). Depuis l’avènement de l’agriculture, nous n’avons cessé de modifier l’environnement dans lequel nous vivons, de plus en plus rapidement, bien trop vite pour que nos gènes suivent. Notre mode d’evolution a changé, il n’est pas seulement génétique mais également culturel et technologique. Mais d’evoluer, nous n’avons jamais cesser. Heureusement. Le vivant est changement.

Pour finir, le symbolisme du furtif. Le Furtif représente l’idéal vers lequel nous devrions tendre selon l’écrivain. Un être en perpétuelle métamorphose, synthese du vegetal, de l’animal, du mineral,… et completement anonyme, echappant a tout traquage. L’anonymat comme ideal de societe. Un individualisme poussé a l’extreme, chaque individu pouvant échapper totalement au contrôle de la société, libre de tout, libre de se retrancher dans les pénombres de l’anonymat a jamais.  Un anonymat des furtifs mis en opposition dans ce livre avec la dystopie d’une société panoptique, dans laquelle chaque humain est sans cesse observé par des milliers de capteurs et autres traqueurs (il n’est pas clair à quel point le pouvoir échappe à cette surveillance). C’est un autre thème privilégié de Damasio, l’idée que la technologie rend de plus en plus possible le contrôle horizontal entre les humains par la surveillance, ce qui serait un mal. Et c’est quelque part surprenant de sa part. En effet l’anonymat permet l’épanouissement de toutes sortes de comportements anti/a-sociaux. Il permet aux riches de cacher leurs gains, d’echapper aux impots. Il permet la conspiration des élites contre le peuple. Et même dans les utopies qu’il décrit, l’anonymat est l’ennemi: Dans l’île de Javeau-Doux par exemple, les camarades qui ne font pas leur due sont expulsés. C’est un bon moyen de contrôle sociale, qui ne fonctionne que parce que ce que tu fais peut être observé par les autres. La transparence n’est un mal que lorsqu’elle est à sens unique. Lorsque la lumière ne brille que sur le peuple et que les élites restent dans le noir. La solution n’est pas le noir totale, mais la lumière partout. Éclairer les comptes bancaires de tout le monde. Éclairer les chambres où sont décidées les loies qui vont gouverner les hommes. Eclairer les rencontrer entre politiciens et hommes d’affaires. Etc… Une communauté ne vit que par les liens entre ses membres, et ces liens n’existe que par une connaissance mutuelle, un controle reciproque, une confiance née dans la lumiere.

En conclusion, une belle aventure et une belle réflexion d’anticipation sont gâchées les aprioris idéologiques de l’auteur. Il est possible qu’en réalité ce soit mes propres aprioris qui m’est gâche la lecture. Et peut-etre, probablement meme, que cette violence était une manière de pousser le lecteur à sortir de sa torpeur, un lecteur qui bien souvent aura baignée dans un moule idéologique similaire à celui dans lequel a grandi l’auteur et donc entrera plus facilement en resonnance avec sa rage. Mais quoiqu’il en soit cette négativité m’a pour ma part pesé.

Robopocalypse – Daniel H. Wilson – 2011

RobopocalypseRobopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Would probably make an awesome sci-fi action movie. But I guess I expect too much for a book, especially a sci-fi book. I want it to make me think, dream, imagine what the future can be like.

View all my reviews

World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humans and Machines – Michael Chorost – 2011

This book is formalizing perfectly my thoughts for the future of mankind: How to better link humans through technology, specifically mind to mind technology. It was a fascinating account of how we might interface brains between them, using existing technologies (that still needs to be much improved upon).

The book was also telling the personal story of its author, how he found meaning, how he discovered the power of touch, of real human contact, and how he found love. This might seem completely how of place for such a book, but it is not. On the contrary, he knew we could accuse him of wanting to replace humans by a mindless zombies dystopia like the Borg in Star Trek. So the author used his personal experiences to stress the importance of rediscovering human relations and sense of community. To illustrate how a technology that would allow humans to share emotion over the internet might be more humanizing that current communication systems.

The book imagined how a global self aware consciousness might emerge and what form it could take.

In short, this is a very inspiring book. I hope it encouraged entrepreneurs to explore the possibilities of brain-computer interface. Certainly I will be paying close attention to the field and help if I can make this dream come true.

The Years of Rice and Salt – Kim Stanley Robinson – 2002

This book is the kind of science-fiction that takes place in the past. More exactly it is an alternate history fiction.

To call it “science fiction” is actually a bit of a stretch. The book tell of the history of humanity after the Black Death entirely decimated Europe, through the eyes of a few protagonists that lives through many reincarnation. This is quite a stretch for science, and it through me off a bit.

But after a while, it grew on me and I could enjoy the book though certain lyric discussion on religious matter were a bit of a stretch. It still made for an interesting book, but don’t expect many surprise: the history of technological and scientific progress is the same. This is actually the “thesis” of this book: to show that Europeans are not specials, that with them humanity would have followed the same trajectory. This is a thesis based on liberal faith rather than science, but I think it is true: life tends to evolve toward increasing complexity, which science and technological development certainly are a sign of.

Earth in Human Hands – David Grinspoon – 2016

Earth in Human Hands is an optimistic book about our future, and the future of our planet. And in an unexpected way it touches upon a topic that has been of increasing interest to me these last few months: mind to mind communication. Well, not explicitly of course! It is a book about ecology and human and what to do with all of our power.

But the author revisited with insistance the “Gaia Hypothesis”, the idea that the planet is a single organism, with each elements interacting with all the others in endless feedback loops. And for the author, the humans could become a precursor to a planetary mind, the planet becoming self aware. No mind to mind communication here, but the idea is certainly a variation on the subject of integrating everything under a global and conscious entity. In a sense, it already is integrated, though we can’t say the planet is yet self-aware. Only by massively increasing the brain to brain bandwidth could we achieve that. But I disgress.

This book opened my eyes on just how tightly everything interacts with everything. For example, the CO2 in our atmosphere is absorbed into the ocean, integrated with organisms that die and fill up the bottom of the oceans, to finish in the Earth’s crust, then in its mantle, then back into the atmosphere when volcanoes erupt. This cycle keeps the climate under control, avoiding runaway greenhouse. That is until a species became so successful as to fill the whole planet with themselves and CO2 faster than the ocean can pull out. This just shows how fragile our planet is.

But no doomsday gloom here, no hatred of humanity, no wish to return to a pre-industrial state. David Grinspoon is not opposing human civilisation and ecology, on the contrary, he makes the case that only through our ingenuity, through moderation, through maturity, through worldwide cooperation, can we overcome the challenges that we created for the planet, and help it to enter a new eon he coined the “Sapiezoic”, an eon when the planet becomes self-aware.

This is a message for ecology we can all get behind!

Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet's FutureEarth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future by David Grinspoon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a great read. There were so many powerful ideas crammed into it, though it certainly could have been written with a bit less anecdotes about who is who and did what etc

But all in all a very hopeful message for humanity.

View all my reviews

Page 1 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén