“Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it. Just as great and princely wealth is scattered in a moment when it comes into the hands of a bad owner, while wealth however limited, if it is entrusted to a good guardian, increases by use, so our life is amply long for him who orders it properly.”
Seneca The Younger was a roman stoic and a philosopher who lived in the first century AD. He was an advisor to emperor Nero, and ended his life after being accused of being a participant in a plot to kill him. Nero ordered him to commit suicide. Which he apparently did stoicly. Throughout his life he seems to have been quite a prolific writer and more than 100 of his letters have survived. I picked up this short little book because I have an interest in roman history, I’d heard about Seneca and last but not least the book was short.
Just like this book is short many people complain that their life is short too. Seneca shows in this letter that contrary to our own impression, life is long enough. The problem is that we are squandering most of it on things that doesn’t matter.
“Nobody works out the value of time:men use it lavishly as if it costs nothing. But if death threatens these same people you will see them praying to their doctors.”
Seneca also makes a point in saying that existing is not the same as living. Many people are “inprisoned” by their preoccupied life. They are not really living. So what is the best life you can lead? Well.. According to Seneca you should do things that you enjoy, and you should strive to improve yourself and your world. Every moment you are not striving towards your goals you are wasting. It is hard do disagree with this even though it might be painful to fully accept.
It still amazes me how relevant this book is still today. Almost two millennia after it was written. Today we waste our time on social media, watching mindless reality shows or a mindnumbing drama series on Netflix. We may have invented alot of stuff since this book was written, but humanity hasn’t changed much.
“Learning hos to live takes a whole life, and which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.”
This is the second book in The Dresden Files, a series that follows the adventures of private detective and wizard Harry Dresden. It is set in present day Chicago and mixes the hard-boiled detective novel with paranormal creatures and magic.
True to the genre, the novel starts with a damsel in distress. Kim Delaney approaches Harry, which is almost broke. Also true to the genre. She wants to know how to use magic circles to contain powerful creatures. Dresden blows her off, she ends up dead, and the story kicks off from there.
“With a sense of humor like that, you could make a living as a garbage man anywhere in the country.”
A series of murders occur, and the victims seems to have been torn to pieces by large animals. Strangely enough most of them occur at full moon. The police believe they are chasing a serial killer, but Harry realizes that they are dealing with werewolves. The local Mob boss Johnny Marcone and the FBI also gets involved. Things get quite hairy (pun intended) and Harry almost ends up dead. But it all sorts out towards the end. I liked the surprising twist.
The novel is fast paced, full of action, and is narrated by Harry Dresden himself. Just like the classical genre is supposed to be. It’s a fairly easy and quick novel to read. I enjoyed it, and will probably pick up the next one in the series. When I say that I read it I meant listened to the audio book.
“I hadn’t gotten beaten up twice, shot, and nearly strangled to get taken out by a misguided werewolf bitch.”
A book that is not easy to forget would be All Quiet on the western front by WWI-veteran Erich Maria Remarque. I read it many years ago but decided to read it again since WWI ended 100 years ago this fall. In 1914 the world stumbled into a war which lead to several empires falling, many million dead and endless suffering world-wide. It’s a very important lessons for us all.
The technological improvements and knowledge about genetics is truly about to change alot of attitudes about what makes us human, and how our personalities are made.This knowledge will lead to amazing discoveries and personalized medicine. Genetics and genetic modified organisms (GMO) will save many many lifes in the years to come. I sincerely encourage people to read books such as Blueprint, How DNA makes us who we are, by Robert Plomin. Or Dine Geniale Gener by Dag Undlien, professor in genetic medicine.
Some of the best books of the year, according to yours truly, must be:
Factfullness – Hans Rosling Most of us are not aware of the progress that has been made in the world within the last few decades, not to mention within the last century. Hans Rosling demonstrates in his book the huge improvements that have been done, and that things can still be bad. He shows how important it is to have a close relationship with data, the scientific method and to critiqual thinking. We have to not endulge our instincts and our feelings (especially fear), because they very often leads us astray. Or in his own words:
“I am not an optimist. Im a very serious possibilist. Its a new category where we take emotion apart and we just work analytically with the world. “
Enlightenment Now – Steven Pinker In Enlightenment Now – The case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, Steven Pinker demonstrated the improvements the world has made the last few centuries, what caused them and what this means for dealing with the challenges of today such as climate change, populism, political and religious extremism. This is probably one of the best and most important books I’ve read ever. Pinker has the same mindset as Hans Rosling in the way he emphasizes critiqual thinking, investigating the data and follow it to where it leads. Pinker writes elequently and is well worth the read. If you rather see his lectures they are easy to find on Youtube as he is a very active public intellectual. Oh yeah! This was the first review that got published in a real magazine! I got published in Fri Tanke, which is the member magazine of The Norwegian Humanist Assosiation.
Origin of Species – Charles Darwin This is perhaps the most important book of all time. Because it connects us humans to every other organism on Earth. It is, however, not the easiest book about evolution you could read. There are several modern and more up-to-date books you could read. But if you’re interested in the topic I encourage you to read it. Last year I read Darwins travel journal: The Journey of the Beagle. This is a much more interesting book for the general public in my opinion. It is easier to read and it describes Darwins thinking and how it evolves as his journey goes on. There are lots of very interesting descriptions og people and places as well. An incredible adventure by an victorian gentleman.
“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Cosmos – Carl Sagan
The book follows the award winning tv-series with the same name and has a corresponding 13 chapters. This was the best-selling science book ever published in the English language,and was the first science book to sell more than half a million copies. Carl Sagans way with language and story telling is only matched by very few. I can definitely recommend this book and not to mention the tv-series. Just read the final passage.
“For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begyn to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars: organized assemblages of atoms: tracing the long journey by which, here at last, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and to the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.”
The sixth extinction – Eliabeth Kolbert This is a tragic love story to our planet and the destruction we bring. The extinction rate has been high ever since we left Africa 40-50 000 years ago. The last few species of the Mega Fauna are being hunted to extinction as we speak. This book is an amazing read, but it is also tragic. I really hope books like this one might help humanity slow down and even stop our destruction of our planet. There is no planet B.
On Tyranny – Timothy Snyder Several countries now struggle with right-wing nationalist politicians gaining power. They exagerate some problems and make other problems up, and they play on real worries alot of the population have. Timothy Snyder demonstrates in this book that this is in no way a new thing and has lead to fascist, nazi and communist regimes all over the world before. This book is basically a manual for protecting our liberal democracy to prevent it from being brought down by fear, superstition and the seemingly strong-men who opt to “help us”. It’s a short and quick read but one that I hope as many as possible do.
The hidden life of trees – Peter Wohlleben
This is another amazing book about the relationships in nature. This time the focus is on the larger organisms. namely the trees. It turns out they communicate with eachother, with insects and with other organisms. Several plants produce chemicals that are harmful to grazers. whether those be large herbivores such as giraffes or smaller insects such as different types of ants or beetles. Either way other trees pick up on the scent from these chemicals which leads them to increase their own production before they are targeted. Trees cooperate with fungus and can help each other through the root systems. Peter Wohlleben even coined the term Wood-wide-web to describe this phenomenon. Very eye-opening book. And I promise you won’t look at trees the same ever again.
Insektenes planet – Anne Aslaug Sverdrup-Thygeson (Planet of the insects)
The title of this book translates to “The planet of the insects”, and I’m not sure it has been translated to english.
It is about all the intricate relationships between insects, plants, fungus and not to mention us animals. Very interesting book and you really appreciate the little buggers much more. My favorite story from this book must be the relationship between a moth, ants and the oregano bush. The ants help bring oxygen down to the root system through their pathways. But at the same time if they become too many they will start to eat at the roots. The plant is not a passive victim here, but release the classical oregano odor. which invites a moth that drops its caterpillar into the ant nest. The caterpillar feed on the ants and reduce their number to a level that won’t hurt the plant. Amazing!
“If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” E.O. Wilson
All in all it’s been a really good year when it comes to reading. I’ve managed to read a book every two weeks, which is way more than I could hope for. I´ve logged a little more than 30 books and written 15 reviews all in all. I had a goal of reading and reviewing at least 20 books in 2018. Which means that I achieved the first part and even read 50% more than my goal. Unfortunately that came at the price of not writing enough reviews. Who knows.. Maybe I’ll write some of the reviews in the year to come.
I think I’ll set my reading goal at 15 books for 2019. If I post a new review every three-four weeks I should be good. Speaking of posting I need to find a new platform as the current one is closing. Maybe I’ll start the new year all fresh with a brand new platform. I’ll check out WordPress as I’ve heard alot about them. Not to mention that the ever watchful eye of Facebook has been showing me advertisements for WordPress. Sure would be a petty to let the algorithm down.
I usually end my reviews with giving each book a rating. In this case I’ll give the entire year 2018 a rating of 5 out of 6 stars. Good year!
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters…lies a small and unregarded sun…orbiting this.. is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet, whose lifeforms are amazingly primitive.”
The adventure starts out at Arthur Dents, the main character, house. Outside the house is a bulldozer and lots of construction workers who are there to tear down his house to make room for a road. Arthur is refusing to move, which momentarily stops the bulldozer. After a while Arthur is talked into going to the pub with his friend Ford Prefect. Down at the pub he reveals that he is in fact an alien and the entire Earth is about to be destroyed. The Vogons are destroying the Earth because it is in the way of an intergalactic space road of some kind.
Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent is saved from being annihilated together with the every other being on Earth by hiding in a Vogon spaceship. You might think having your planet destroyed might lead to a panic attack. And you are right. Arthur Dent freaks out, but luckily Ford Prefect is carrying an intergalactic guidebook. Precisely.. you guessed it.
The Hitchhiker´s Guide to the Galaxy. and the cover reads “Don´t Panic” in big letters.
The adventure continues with one hilarious absurdity after another. and you can never really know what to expect next. Its a great read and if you think it´s quite similar in style to Monty Python, you are right. Douglas Adams did do some work as a screen writer for them.
“on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so muchthe wheel, New York, wars and so on whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man for precisely the same reasons.”
We meet a depressed robot, the president of the universe, and even a super computer who has calculated the answer to life, the universe and everything. Yup.. you guessed it. The answer is 42! We encounter the Babel fish, which is a little fish you insert into your ear and thereby translates all languages for you. There are falling blue whales and we are all encouraged to always carry a towel. Which is the most useful thing you might ever carry.
This book has been waiting for me since my early teens, when I first tried to read it. I remember several of my friends kept quoting the book all the time. I even had a text based computer game on the Amiga 500, which I did play a little. So I should have read it a long time ago, but for some reason I never got around to it. Until a few months ago, when I found it on Storytel.no, which is a Norwegian supplier of audio books. It was even narrated by no other than Stephen Fry
I had an amazing experience listening to the book when I was out running or doing my daily commute to work. Several times throughout the book I had experiences of deja-vu. It turns out my head was more soaked in references to Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy than I previously thought.
The book is satirical and pokes fun at, among other things, human self importance and at religious beliefs. Especially in light of the size or age of the universe.
“Space, it says, is big. Really big. You just wont believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think its a long way down the road to the chemists, but thats just peanuts to space.”
It seems to me like one of the central themes in the book is that the world is huge, old, absurd and we might never really understand it all. Things are usually not what they seem. When we get to roused up we should simply stay occupied and remember the cover from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe. Meaning the book mentioned inside this book. “Don´t Panic!”
I´ve played tabletop roleplaying games for a few decades now and Shadowrun was the first game I got really involved in. Since the mid 90s it is still one of my favorite games. The world of Shadowrun is a futuristic cyberpunk dystopia mixed with magic and cybernetics. The classical fantasy people like elves, dwarfs, trolls, and not to mention dragons are also thrown into the mix. Large corporations run the world and hire shadowrunners, criminals or disposable assets, o perform illegal activities. This roleplaying game has been one of the most popular games to date and it spawned several computer games, board games and even card games.
We follow the mage Elijah and his team of runners, which are a mixed group with a troll street samurai (warrior beefed up with cyborg machine parts, a goblin rigger (someone logged on to his vehicle), and an elf physical adept (martial arts expert with magical powers). They start out in Seattle where the roleplaying game is centered and they quickly travel to other parts of the world. The groups task is locating and stealing a map with magical properties.
“Shoot strait, conserve ammo and never ever make a deal with a dragon!”
– Shadowrun proverb
Along the way they encounter the new kind of racist organisations such as Humanis, which are not so concerned about the skin tone people have. They are prejudiced against metahumans, meaning elves, dwarfs, orcs and trolls. “Why bother about that brown fellow when that monster over there has hands the size of shovels?”
The group travel to Chicago, which in the 2070s have been infested by huge insect spirits and other fierce creatures, they venture down to the new land of Amazonia. After magic returned to the world the rainforest took on a life of its own. Lets just put it that way. Eventually they end up in Antarctica where the entire climax of the story takes place.
Fire & Frost is a pretty good cyberpunk action novel if you ask me. But then again I know the world of Shadowrun pretty good. I could recognize all the different aspects of the game such as the magic, how integrated technology is into everything, the cyberware etc. The story goes south in every meaning of the word when team members decide to backstab each other, which is just like the world of shadowrun usually is.
A good upside to the book was that it had some pretty short chapters which made them easy to squeeze into a rather busy schedule.
All in all I enjoyed this book! If you just started playing the game and want to get a good feel for the universe this would be a good read for you. Or if you read the old Shadowrun novels you will definitely get a kick out of this one. I am not sure someone not familiar with Shadowrun would enjoy it as much though. But who knows?
Rating: I give it a solid 4 out of 6!
Tell me what you think in the comments.
Robert Plomin (october 2018) “By disentangling the effects of nature and nurture rather than assuming that nurture alone was responsible for who we are, this research produced startling results that suggest a completely different way to think about the roles of nature, nurture and their interplay in making us who we are.”
The discussion of nature or nurture has been raging on and off ever since DNA was discovered. Robert Plomin, an American psychologist and geneticist, gives the reader a brief insight on the methods they use to study the relationship between genetics and psychological traits. We also get a short tour of the history, methods that failed, and what we´ve learned the last few decades. This also leads to some pretty interesting implications.
There are similarities that run in families. And it was assumed it was due to the shared environment. But families also share genetics. In order to separate nature (DNA) and nurture (the environment) there has been two main methods; adoption studies and monozygotic (MZ) twin studies. In adoption studies the children do not share DNA with the adoptive parents so similarities would have to be caused by the environment. And likewise MZ twins are identical exactly because of their biology. But being raised in the same family it is still difficult to separate the environment from nature. The most powerful studies are studies of MZ twins separated at or close after birth. Being raised in completely different environments means that any similarity they share will have to be purely genetics.
It is no surprise that identical twins, monozygotic (MZ) are, well, identical in most things. What was new to me was that even though some identical twins have been reared apart they are still very similar. Not only in appearance but also in personality, interests, and behavior. ” ..MZ twins reared apart are almost as similar as MZ twins reared together, indicating that what makes them so similar is nature, not nurture.” page 19
The study of twins makes researchers able to determine how much of the variation of a trait that is caused by variation in genes. The genetic variance between the height of twins is not surprisingly quite high, but not a perfect 1.0. Fraternal twins is closed to 0,5, which is due to the fact that they share on average about half their genes. Fraternal twins (dizygotic) are just like any other siblings, since two different sperm fertelize two different eggs. From this pattern geneticists can infer that height is a very heritable trait, with most of the variation in the population due to variation in genes.
Cognitive abilities is also quite heritable, but not as much as height. The variance is about 0,75 in identical twins, and between other siblings it is less than 0,5. The correlation for intelligence was the same for adopted children and their biological parents as for children reared by their biological parents. The correlations between these adopted children and their adoptive parents, who share nurture but not nature, hovered near zero. page 54
The book is full of examples like this. A certain trait is somewhat correlated between parents and their children. Sibling usually have a correlation about 50% which is because they share on average 50% of the genes, (while their environment is very similar).
Throughout the book Plomin makes a strong case for genetics has a large impact on just about every psychological trait they have studied. But the genetic studies also quantify to what extent the environment (meaning anything from accidents, chance to education, upbringing, social network etc) affects different traits. “genetics provides the best evidence we have for the importance of the environment independent of genetics. That is, heritabilities are never even close to 100 per cent, which proves that the environment is important.” page 32
Most traits are affected by many different genes. Some traits are affected by thousands of genes. So called single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS) can determine whether a genetic variant is associated with a disorder or a trait. Because a trait is more or less affected by the number of genes traits fall in a spectrum. This in turn means that the abnormal is normal. Syndromes or genetic disorders are therefore extreme parts of the spectrum. This will lead to two huge implications. First of all it is now possible to anticipate which individuals that might develop certain disorders such as anxieties, dementia or psychosis. We knew that certain disorders ran in families but before proper genetic studies psychologists would have to wait for symptoms before trying to help people. Now we can monitor people and try to prevent disorders from occurring in the first place.
Genetics is not purely deterministic, however. Genetic influences are probabilistic propensities, not predetermined programming.
“Evidence for genetic influence has been found for home environments such as chaotic family environments, for classroom environments such as supportive teachers, peer characteristics such as being bullied, neighborhood safety, being exposed to drugs, work environments and the quality of ones marriage.” page 44.
The last one is particularly interesting. According to Plomin MZ twins have a higher corrolation than DZ twins when it comes to divorce. Which indicates that their genetic makeup is a major factor whether people can maintain a stable relationship or not.
The Flynn Effect, the effect where IQ increases for every generation, has general been explained by an improvement in education, health, food, safety and other factors that increase human wellbeing. Basically the IQ has been increasing because the environment has been improving. I was hoping that Plomin would discuss this. Unfortunately he didn’t. Plomin also fails to support his claims that environmental factors are mostly accidental and poorly understood. I would like to know how he can say that.
Because genetics is such a large factor in determining our psychology Plomin encourages us all to have more empathy and tolerance towards each others misfortune. When a disorder such as obesity is so closely tied to our genetic makeup we should simply stop fat shaming people who are overweight. They need empathy, help and understanding, not ridicule. The same goes for many other aspects of our personality.
The Human Genome Project was a landmark study that mapped all the genes in the human body and it started a revolution. It cost many many millions of dollars to complete. With increased computer power and the much better analytical tools we now have the ability to analyze anyones DNA for a very low price. There are several commercial companies offering to “help us”. Now millions of people all over the world are contributing to companies such as 23andme, Myheritage,Ancestry There are ethical questions about this for sure, but the researchers will have endless data to work with. One of the studies mentioned in the book was based on the DNA from more than a million people!
Needless to say a book like this gets a lot of attention. Most reviews are pretty good, but some warn people about the implications of this new knowledge.
Here are just a few of the reviews I found: The Guardian The Standard Nature National Review
Basically this book is really interesting and I can highly recommend it. At times I had to wrestle with my inner cognitive dissonance, but I guess that is healthy. It is hard for a layman like yours truly to determine whether the science is valid or not. The author says the genetic basis for our psychological traits have been replicated many times. And I do note that none of the reviews I´ve seen disagrees with the science itself.
Pinker argues that we should not have too much faith in the news. Media focus on negative events, we overestimate this and larger picture gets unnoticed. We are not as rational as we would like to be, and a combination of this, lack of information and different cognitive biases leads to an overdramatic world view.
The middle part of the book is a thorough account for how the world has improved in almost every possible way. Topics such as average life span, happiness, economic wealth, health access to food, medicine, war, inequality, peace, safety, education, gender equality, and democracy is given a separate chapter each. You could read these topics chronologically, but you could equally also read them in any order you like.
The share of people living in extreme poverty was about 90% not even 200 years ago. The percentage of people in extreme poverty has been dramatically reduced since then, the absolute number has been more than halved since the 1970s. Despite that the world population has increased from 3,7 billion to 7,3 billion! The share of people living in extreme poverty is now less than 10%! Max Roser, economist at the University of Oxford and founder of Our World in Data, has been quoted saying that the news papers could have run the following headline:The number of people in extreme poverty has been reduced by 137 000 since yesterday! every day the last 25 years.
The impression that the world was a much better place is therefore not just a misunderstanding, but a fundamentally wrong view of the world. There can be no question of which was the greatest era for culture; the answer has to be today, until it is superseded by tomorrow.
Even if Pinker wants to show how the world has moved forward and is much better today he does not trivialize the challenges we are facing with the climate crisis. He means that this crisis should be dealt with using the tools weve inherited from The Enlightenment. The climate crisis is a global problem we have never encountered before. An increase in greenhouse gases like carbondioxide and methane leads to increased ocean levels, more extreme weather, droughts some places and more flooding in other locations. Which in turn can lead to failed crops. National and international crisis follows. To stay within the 2-degree goal the amount of greenhouse gas has to be reduced to at least half within this century and by much more within the next.
Connection between energy production and progress
Today we get about 86% of our energy production from fossil fuels. The majority of our energy use goes to heavy industry, transportation, buildings and agriculture. Needless to say, ridding the world of fossil fuels a monumental task.
Energy channeled by knowledge is the elixir with which we stave off entropy, and advances in energy capture are advances in human destiny.
Pinker makes a valid point when he claims that this is nothing we can fix just by recycling our garbage and eat organic food, which uses a much larger area of land mass than intensive agriculture. A main part of the climate crisis is that it is a tragedy of the commons. It is a global problem and needs to be solved globally. And not by reducing our use of energy. An often overlooked problem is that reducing poverty, increased education, better health care and all other fruits of progress requires vast amounts of energy. The solution of the climate crisis cannot therefore be cutting the use of energy to start with. Even if renewable energy sources have a certain potential they are simply not ready to replace fossil fuels just yet.
Nuclear power as the solution to the climate crisis
Pinker basically shows how fossil energy production is far worse for human suffering, death, and the climate crisis than nuclear power is. Compared to fossil fuels this should be a no brainer. He concludes therefore that we should shut down coal plants and build a lot more nuclear plants. Not the other way around like a lot of countries like Germany, India and China does today.
Towards the end of the book Pinker talks about reason, science and humanism and what threatens these values. He shows that when people of very different background sits down to make common rules they very often end up with a form of secular humanism. The most known examples are the American declaration of independence and the UN declaration of human rights. It is Pinkers opinion that a humanistic moral, that you get from UN declaration of Human Rights, should be the guiding moral for the development of society. And to be clear he does not imply atheistic humanism exclusively. All forms of liberal humanism whether it is in the cloak of a lutheran, muslim, or buddist is a part of this larger concept of humanism.
Warning of all forms of extremism
Pinker warns us about right wing extremism, left wing communist romantisism and Islamic extremism. All three political ideologies have millions of deaths on their conscience, and they struggle towards a eutopian world. Together with populism and nasjonalism they threaten to dismantle the stabile institutions weve had in place since world war two.
Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.
Radical change is counter productive according to Pinker. We simply have to do more of what we are already doing. Pinker is probably more positively inclined, without being a naive dreamer.
Progress is not an automatic process and will not happen at the same rate all the time or in all places. But just like weve solved many other problems todays challenges will also be solved. As long as we cherish the values and ideals like reason, science and humanism.