Homo Deus [Book Review]

I’m finally recovering from my broken clavicle, so this will be the last book review for a while. I can at least run again, but I still can’t throw my yo-yo without causing the screws in my bone to cause some uncomfortable pain throughout my shoulder.

So let’s just get to the book.

Homo Deus. And it’s quite the heavy book. It’s not excessively long, but it’s thick cover and pages make it feel more like a tomb that you could cast spells from. But I still read all 400 pages.

The odd thing I learned about this book is the reasoning why we should care a little bit about history. History gives us a perspective on why we are in the situations that we currently have to deal with. It also gives us light on the assumptions that we feel we have to live up to. The book gives us an example about lawns; how a symbol of wealth and royalty became an affordable commodity that now the middle-class family can maintain. It takes up so much time and effort, yet it’s one of the most prized components of owning a home.

I personally prefer berry bushes and rock gardens, but I do just enjoy a nice apartment. Minimal upkeep-based responsibilities!

And history is over two-thirds of this book. And you wouldn’t really think it because the description on the book is how the author, Yuval Noah Harari, is going to predict the future of human kind. This work is on the transformation of homo sapiens to the futuristic species “Homo Deus,” the next generation of humankind in possible evolution terms. But this is only in the last third of the book. You NEED the history to follow his thought process in order to be in alignment with these theories.

The history itself is very well written. And it’s in a form that I actually enjoyed. It wasn’t about “who did this”, and “this event did that”; the junk that you would find in textbooks. Homo Deus paints a bigger picture and summarizes these overflowing trends on politics, religion, science, and how our faith in these themes has evolved through time.

The book also details our faith in the 21st century of humanism, the belief that we are individuals that control our fate by our own free will. This has been paired with our massive success in science and technology. In the dark ages, the society looked to a higher being for a bountiful harvest, a healthy family, and their “pre-labeled” rank within society. Religions were the corporations of the past which collected taxes, owned land, and even decided judgement based by ancient scriptures and environmental signs.

But now we can fertilize our crops, vaccinate our kids, and go to school to develop our own career. When someone has a medical emergency, we may pray for a fast recovery, but that’s after we call 911 and show our faith in humanity for a medical remedy.

But the trend in science has not been able to prove that we are individuals, but more or less “dividuals” that respond to external inputs from what we sense in our environment and a computed output based on our neural wiring and our current biochemical/hormonal stimuli. We are essentially complicated algorithms with a side effect of conscience. And at this rate of technological progression, there will be a time where computers and electronic networks will surpass almost all human capabilities in terms of algorithmic calculations.

This book doesn’t really discuss the issue on what to do with all the jobless personnel. It’s about how we are slowly putting less faith in ourselves, but in the data that we are collecting about ourselves and having another algorithm crunch those numbers for us. We wear wristbands that count our steps. We have Amazon and Facebook track our likes and purchases that can then recommend more links to follow and items to buy. More people are putting pure faith in online matching sites to see who’s compatible with whom in terms of long-term relationships.

It’s now easy to read your genome and discover which traits you are prevalent in, so the medical system can deliver us preferred lifestyle choices. From controlling our binge-eating of high sugar content, to staying out of the sun more, to even having preventive surgery done before cancer can take place and becomes metastatic (spreading).

While we as a society have had drastic improvement in old age issues; including starvation, plague, and war; the trend has now moved forward towards enhancing the healthy. As companies and algorithms control the data, wealth, and land of the nation, it leaves the majority behind. Possibly all of humankind. This isn’t as much of a state of poor, impoverished population. Rather, it’ll look bleak compared to genetically enhanced and extremely wealthy minority that has more of a say in how the mass population’s faith in the data will guide their lives. And even then, this minority of “Homo Deus” will still be in the same predicament; the only difference is that they will have more money to spend.

Overall, there’s a lot more to the book that what I wrote about in this review. And regardless of all this information, the book flows extremely well. The content is well sewn together, and there’s enough detail to feel satisfied in each topic without losing the reader too much (and there’s 30 pages of bibliography to back up its facts).

I personally would enjoy having a personal algorithm take the load of personal decision making off my back, and at least give me a detailed schedule / to-do list that I could follow. I feel like I spend enough time worrying about how this single bachelor is going to spend his Friday evenings and the following weekends.

But in that same case, I wish there would have been more “predictive branches” of the possible futures that we could have. Yes, I know there’s no definitive way we can know how it will unfold. But it’s also fun to imagine what it will entail. But there’s still enough of that to truly give this book a good rating. Thank you, Harari.

The Black Swan [Book Review]

So this is the book review that I dreaded typing up for a variety of reasons. The book is on a great topic, but the layout and style of writing was not only hard to follow at times, but it almost contradicts its seriousness.

Imagine meeting a stranger in a bar, and he/she is telling you his/her experiences (startup/relationship/travel/etc) that you DO find interesting. However, that person, while being quite intoxicated, incorporates a lot of unfamiliar and dark sarcasm, goes off on multiple side tangents, and never tells his experiences a temporally cohesive way (from start -> finish ).

That’s this book……….The Black Swan, on the Impact of the Highly Improbable. As an ex-stock/bond/money trader, when Nassim Taleb’s (the author) career was “thrown under the bus” (or liberated in his terms) due to the stock market crash in 1987 (?), he switched his pursuits to the study of philosophy and its correlations to modern economics. This has resulted in the creation of his Incerto, a 4 book set (5 if you count the technical companion) on these specific topics.

The Black Swan is about how unforeseen, yet significant effects have drastic effects on the marketplace, social trends, and scientific advancements. The term black swan comes from a time when no one could possibly imagine there ever being black swans. It’d be like locals in Africa believing in pink elephants. But then they did find black swans in Australia! Who saw that one coming?

Well, the difference between these swans and Taleb’s economic black swans is its level of impact. Let’s be serious here, dark birds isn’t making anyone rich anytime soon.

For Taleb personally, it was the stock market crash during his early career. No one saw it coming, and his company went under as a result. In 24 hours, he went from feeling like he had a stable job to being completely lost, career-wise. You can lose your home to an unforeseen storm, break a bone due to a tree root out-of-sight, or catch your perfect spouse having an affair. All these things could be perceived, but those involved don’t consider such occurrences until after the event, when they can finally see them in hindsight. And then become over-protective for a time period afterwards.

Truthfully, most black swans don’t just happen overnight. However, their impact is never felt until it’s too late for the affected parties.

The people on wall street don’t trade like the stock market’s going to crash tomorrow. Do they have a plan if it does? Do all marriages sign prenuptial agreements? Does every house come with a bomb shelter? There is this realization that we limit the commitments on the way our world works, focus on the close possibilities, and ignore the possible extremes.

Black swan events can also be positive (for most parties). The invention of penicillin was a positive black swan, causing a sweeping effect in modern medicine not initially foreseen. In fact, most scientific discoveries were found through mistakes. Kevlar was an accidental discovery while DuPont was creating materials for other applications. Microwaves from the cosmic background of the universe were found when builders of a microwave detector found “unwanted noise” in every direction they pointed it at. Even recent discoveries, including CRISPR-related proteins (discussed in my previous book review) wasn’t found directly due to gene-manipulation research.

Thus, this book highlights some unique ideas on the topic of black swans:

  • You can’t predict WHEN a black swan incident will occur. If you could, it’s not a black swan. People would prepare for it, and it would have no drastic effects. You can’t determine the next stock market crash from the last two years of data. Like a turkey can’t predict from experiences in its caged (or “cage-free”) environment when it’ll become a family-cherished meal.
  • Black swan occurrences are often “under-predicted” by most “experts” (a term that the author likes to truly emphasize on). Most economists utilize standard textbook probabilities, the most popular being the Gaussian curve. While it is useful for physical limitations (body shape, particle physics occurrences, etc), it does not apply to economic limitations (personal salary, book/movie sales, stock prices, etc.).
  • Luck plays a major role in winners and losers. While you can study all the successful start-up big-shots and CEO multi-millionaires of the world, no one studies the graveyard of millions of untold stories from failing enterprises and garage band enthusiasts. And if you studies both, you would find the same characteristics in both parties. Confidence. Determination. Charisma. I’ve read many excellent books in my lifetime, but why did Harry Potter get so much attention? In most cases, it’s about being in the right place at the right time which separates success and failure.
  • Beyond Harry Potter, there isn’t a long list of books that even come close to its level of popularity. In the world of global commerce and digitization, the market has become a winner-takes-all concept. One person/group gets all the sales, while the others flounder. Writers, musicians, actors, (starving) artists? And once in the system, advertisement can keep the momentum and drown all others out except for a few major competitors (Coca Cola vs. Pepsi / Starbucks vs. Tim Hortons / NSync vs Backstreet Boys [yes, it’s kind of a stretch]).

The book is divided into thirds. The first part is mostly focused on mental and psychological theories that drive the massive impacts black swans have (due to their unexpectedness). However, this was the section that I remember the LEAST about. Due to his philosophical background, the writing style was personally hard to follow. With addition to the additional sarcasm and relatively boisterous approach (in terms of both word selection and objectives), I spent the first 100 pages calibrating to this style, learning to absorb his work efficiently.

The second and third sections deal more with business theory and practice with some overflow of ideas from the first segment. The lines between each section were quite gray (like it didn’t have specific chapters or sections). But more importantly, it personally felt like there wasn’t much of a flow in general. It felt more apparent as I approached the end of the book, so I believe its there is one IF you look deep enough. But you can easily be misguided into feeling like you’ve bought a book on random though exercises.

It’s as if you’re looking at a reflection of an object from collection of broken mirror shards. Due to the randomness of the mirror shard orientations, it takes a bit to take in the information before one can imagine the full picture.

But this is what makes the book unique. The author doesn’t write in a style that editors would desire, in order to help maximize book sales. If he did, he would be selling his soul to those believing in Mediocristan (the world of black swan non-believers) and contradict the main point of his book entirely.

So while you may never be able to truly prepare for a black swan, the best way to strive living in the world of Extremistan (our world with black swans) is to keep your eyes open and stay flexible. Become familiar with what you truly have control of and don’t become too dependent on external factors.

And don’t run for trains. In the case of life’s possible outcomes, it’s only painful if you’re chasing an almost improbable expectation to catch a ride on.


Note: I plan to read at least one more book of his in the future (Antifragile). It’s also a bigger book, so it’ll be an experience. Hopefully, I’ll have a better understanding of the author and his method or writing afterwards.

Life at the Speed of Light [Book Review]

I love the idea of biological engineering. I (wish to) believe it is the next, upcoming scientific revolution after the dot com and big data achievements that we are experiencing even today still. In actuality, the big data revolution didn’t do too much to the economy, in relation to the previous revolutions, due to it’s lack of physical products created; it more digitized and improved our knowledge and efficiency on already available technologies. But it’s still awesome.

But what if we could truly program biological machines to do our bidding. What if instead of conducting multiple chemical syntheses to create a pharmaceutical drug, we can tell a bacteria to do it instead? We can change a bacteria’s DNA to create function specific enzymes which help create the drug at a fraction of the required energy costs. Just feed the bacteria sugars and nutrients in a test tube, wait a few hours, and distill the compound afterwards. If we can do that with penicillin from fungi, what stops us from doing it for all chemicals (within reason, of course).

And it’s not just limited to chemical synthesis. Using controlled viruses and DNA-targeting proteins, we can eliminate genetic diseases enhance specific traits in already growing organisms. “Bio-machines” could even introduce more or even enhanced versions of mitochondria into our muscles.

If we could introduce chlorophyll into our skin cells, which could absorb light and already present CO2 in our bloodstream to produce sugars for our body, could help or truly eliminate world hunger (if you don’t mind being a weak Hulk)? I mean, there’s got to be a way for us to re-engineer chlorophyll-like organisms to absorb specific wavelengths of energy so they look pink, tan, brown, or dark (whatever your preference). We could even group them into “energy freckles!”

With a glass of wine, I think I could go on this subject for a while. The problem is that there’s SO MUCH THAT WE DON’T KNOW. Trust me, I started college in biomedical engineering and transitioned early on into Biochemistry and Molecular Biology [before eventually moving to electrical engineering for job security (and LASERS)]. The proteins we do know that are utilized in molecular biology research (ex. PCR and CRISPR) were found indirectly, and their uses were found after their unexpected discovery. Initially, the discovered organism made from these cells and we filtered them out afterwards. Now, we can code small bits of RNA to mass produce proteins though translation. But we still can’t say, “I want a truly novel protein that can do Y, so I’m going to code a RNA chain so it reads X.”

We still aren’t sure what all the DNA in the human genome does. There’s simple stuff like “This region codes for a protein.” That’s easy; just look for start and stop codons. And then there’s promoters and inhibitors, which may not code for anything, but still play a role in “what’s being made” and “how much to produce.” And sometimes there’s inhibitors to promoters to a gene. And there’s possibly hundreds if interwoven genetic effects for “how your nose looks,” “how much fat your body prefers to store,” and “how fast are you to pick up walking during your infancy.”

With their being so much “dark energy” waiting to be discovered, and I respect any branch that pushes into this vast unknown. And that’s why I was so excited to read this book, Life at the Speed of Light. The book, as depicted on the back cover, is about how the author J. Craig Venter, and his team created the “first synthetic organism.”

Of course, the term “synthetic organism” deserves its own chapter (which it did). If you transplant genes from one cell into another, is that artificial? Do you need to create everything from scratch: the DNA, membrane, cytoplasm……the Endoplasmic Recticulum [even the synthesis of that one stumps me]?

What Venter’s team conducted was the creation of a synthetic DNA for a surviving and self-replicating organism. After accumulating research from his and other groups, one can determine the bare minimum gene sequences for a cell to function. While there’s a lot of solid knowledge in why, there’s also a lot of “Well, if we knock this gene out, we don’t see reproduction. So it MUST be necessary.”

This book describes the two major factors that the team had to overcome.

1). You can’t just tell a machine to write a ~500,000 DNA sequence from scratch. There’s no “magic black box” that allows us to do it. What we CAN do is create small segments, like ~5,000 sequences each. You still have to splice them all together to complete the final DNA product (which could take a while, if you don’t know how). Essentially, each segment have to have it’s unique “lock and key” ends which will find their mates in a test tube. And since you can’t have 100 unique keys and mix them all at once, there’s a lot of partial mixing, separation, amplify, repeat. Of course, you have to make sure that the final product is compatible with the host, which is problem #2

2). How do you get that massive DNA strand into the cell. It’s huge! While it’s possible, you can’t just do it with ANY organism. At least not yet; we would probably require some nifty vector viruses to pull that off. The team even had to create a second complete genome, since their original design was basically obliterated by the host cell during “DNA absorption”. Lesson learned. Know compatible cells; add in some chemicals allowing for DNA permeation, mix, and cross your fingers. There’s a million cells and a few million DNA molecules floating around. The success rate is small, but the numbers are high.

But it actually worked; the whole process only took ~10 years. While they only made the DNA from scratch, that’s essentially the important part. I mean, we can make simple cellular membranes by mixing soap and water. Then, blow a bubble. That’s pretty much it.

Fascinating science, but how was the book? Between you and me, I would be hard pressed to recommend it as a worthwhile read unless you had a college level biology course. The book’s initial chapters cover more of the history of “what is organic” and “what specifies the backbone of our cells.” And when it comes to the chapters on DNA and cell synthesis, it comes fast. And hard. I got enough to understand what was going on, but a lot of details still slipped my mind.

And that’s the first half of the book. His group’s accomplishments in molecular/synthetic biology and the history preceding it. Then the book starts to die. Slowly yet with an acceleration that I found quite uncomfortable.

After praising his new synthetic cell (which even has its own email address written into its DNA code), there comes the following chapter of “what is a synthetic organism,” which was quite brief. And then, the last 50 pages almost felt like a rant of interesting side research activities, science fair projects, and random extrapolations of possible directions in general science.

In the chapter “biological teleportation,” it starts out with quantum entanglement. Which has NOTHING to do with the topic. It’s kind of correlated to the fact that now we can send data from one spot to another, and we could have a machine at the end that can receive the data and do biological engineering samples. But I can guarantee it’s not going to be through entangled particle communication anytime soon. And even if it did, we can transport ANY sort of data through the method: lab results, XUHD (eXtremely Ultra High Definition) media, and R2D2 holograms (Why not. When you can can play oracle, anything is possible).

The last 50 pages felt like the editors told the author that his original story wasn’t long enough for a book, so just throw something to the end to make it look impressive in the consumer’s hands. It’s not like most people ever get halfway through the book, anyways. Right….?

But besides that last bit, the book’s excellent. There I said it.

Think of it this way. Even if customs getting back into the USA is a major taxation on your mind and spirit, you are still going to have a fantastic time while in the rain forests of Costa Rica. I did, at least!



Note: If I was born 50 or 100 years later, I totally would have stuck with molecular biology. Right now, I’ll be lucky enough to be alive just to see where this finally ends up going.