Don’t Eat Octopus; Read About Them!

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When I was in Scotland last year I picked up a copy of the book Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith. It is on sale for Kindle readers at the moment, and a recent article I read brought the issue of eating octopodes back to my attention.

The book is a fascinating journey into the mind of an octopus. It discusses how these creatures came to be and their place in the natural world. It includes chapters theorising on how their minds may work, on the physiology of a cephalopod body and how this might relate to their alien minds, detailed descriptions of their behaviour in the wild, and how this speaks to the presence of a deep inner life that is surprising in its familiarity as well as its alienness.

Octopuses (and their equally brainy relatives cuttlefish (and to a lesser extent squids)) have often been recognised as intelligent animals. However their nature is so peculiar to our own, and their path to intelligence so different, that we often forget to take this into account in our treatment of them in our anthropogenic world. Unlike the majority of the other animals we are quick to recognise intelligence in (dolphins, chimpanzees, orcas, wolves, etcetera), octopuses are not social animals. So while there are convincing theories that social animals develop intelligence in order to function in a complex society, this kind of thinking leave the solitary octopus, tellingly, all by itself.

But the exclusion isn’t just an unconscious or capricious one; it is also a legal expulsion in many instances, where octopuses, and other cephalopods, are not afforded the same animal rights as other species, though their capacity for suffering is almost beyond question. Indeed after reading this book I felt a profound sadness in learning about the behaviours of some of these animals, particularly when I learnt that on average they only live for around two years, yet express an inner life and personality that seems a shame flourish on this earth so briefly.

This is why, ever since finishing the book last year, I have made a point of raising the issue of consuming octopuses more and more with those around me.

Yes I know, I am one of those annoying people that seeks to impart my ethical beliefs on what arrives on your plate. But when I bring this up. I hope I am being more persuasive and rational than the average exhortation to leave an animal off ones menu.

Indeed, my argument isn’t to stop eating all animals in general (at least not yet), but rather when it comes to what animals we choose to eat, that we make better decisions as to what should and should not find its way to the end of our forks. In particular when we are deciding whether or not to eat an octopus, I think special consideration needs to be given to its intelligence, and its species place in the environment.

Octopuses are extremely intelligent and complex animals; they are able to use tools and solve intricate problems, to the point where we like to measure this cognitive ability against our own human development (how many times have you heard an animal’s intelligence to rival that of an X year old child?).

From an environmental point of view it is also important to note that octopuses are carnivores, so their place in the food chain is different than that of the various herbivorous land species that we cultivate from the wild. Given that most all octopuses that we consume have been caught in the wild, harvesting these animals from an ecosystem that is already arguably being overfished, is only going to cause more trickle down effects that we aren’t even yet fully aware of.

But, humans being humans, we are looking into the problem of octopus meat being wild and not farmed, and not for the first time I am dismayed by our ability to innovate and overcome problems, rather than optimistic about it.

Our current inability to farm octopuses is not an obstacle we need to overcome, but rather a boundary we need to respect.

And yet according to an article I read yesterday on Vox, scientists are hard at work figuring out ways to farm these intellectual creatures. Rather than try and regiurgitate the facts of the article here, I will leave you to read it there if you are interested. But I think one salient point the author makes is the unique point we find ourselves in at the moment.

We live in a world where currently we factory farm many animal species, causing who knows what kind of suffering and despair. I don’t doubt that in generations time we will still be eating meats of some sort, but I highly doubt it will be extracted in the same manner, and that the way we do things now will be looked back on with remorse and revulsion.

But right now we are at a point where we can stop one point of future regret. Currently we do not factory farm octopuses, and it would be easy to ensure that this never come to pass. It is a good test for our more environmentally minded population to see if we can be this forward looking now, The majority of us acknowledge the harm we are causing the environment, but can we turn this understanding into preventative action? That will be the real test.

I particularly liked this chunk of the article:

There’s a bigger picture here. Jacquet pointed out that one of our biggest struggles this century has been to mitigate or fix many of the harms we’ve done in the course of modern industrialization — climate change, garbage in the oceans, factory farming, pollution.

“We’re constantly trying to scale back problems we’ve caused,” she said. “What we’re trying to do here is to stop a problem before it starts. Let’s do something preventative for once instead of dealing with this problem 40 years from now.” In that sense, combating octopus farming is a rare chance to exercise the foresight that we often wish previous generations had exercised.

I will leave you with that food for thought. Apologies for the poor quality of this post, I churned it out pretty quickly in the hopes that the book is still on sale (was around $3 when I last looked).

I highly recommend this book as an eye opening look into a truly fascinating animal, and  an interesting attempt to try and imagine not just how an animal might experience the world, but how an animal so distinct from us and our mammalian kin might develop their own form of consciousness.

Buy this book!

Source:

https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/1/31/18203959/octopus-factory-farms

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February 2017 in Books

Well I did it (kind of). I made it through February without purchasing any new books!

What’s that you say? What is that handsome hardcover book currently gracing the mantle in my lounge room…

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Yes fine, I admit it; I bought David Attenborough’s book when my son and I saw him live last month. But as this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, I figured I could count it as memorabilia, rather than an actual book purchase.

But apart from that one technicality, I didn’t purchase a single book last month; hoorah!

So, in keeping with my tradition of giving extremely late catch ups for the previous months reads, I present all of February’s reads.

Livia Lone

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I first discovered Barry Eisler books on my honeymoon. I grabbed a copy of One Last Kill, the fourth book in his John Rain series, from the airport as a quick read for the plane ride. I was hooked.

A holiday in Sydney was just the right setting to read this book. An unfamiliar location, staying at swish hotels; it was the exact environments mentioned in the book!

Eisler’s writing is so detailed, his understanding of the craft so complete. His books have given me a much greater appreciation for spy craft, and whats more it has made it extra difficult to suspend disbelief when I watch anything involving espionage or counter-survelliance.

“That character should run a surveillance detection route” “There is no way they wouldn’t have seen that tail” “What a sloppy choke point”. These are the kinds of things that enter my mind during movies all the time now.But that all being said, I am much happier for this education; ignorance is not bliss, the truth is always a better state of being.

So when Amazon, with their relentlessly fine-tuned recommendation algorithm, sent me an email about the release of this book, I couldn’t resist.

This is my first non-John Rain Eisler read, and I was not disappointed. All the same attention to detail was still there, but with new exciting characters along for the ride.

The story follows Detective Livia Lone as it concurrently tells her story of being sold into child slavery by her parents, and of her current life trying to track down her sister, and prevent others from suffering her same fate.

Livia is a compelling character. Her origin story is fascinating, and borders on superhero, were it not for the cold-blooded nature of her vigilante actions. Less Batman, more Punisher. But given her targets of her vendetta (child slavery and rape) you are rarely sympathetic to those she dispatches.

Eisler signature combat writing is also on display here, with Livia being an expert in wrestling and brazilian jujitsu. And as dry and technical as detailed explanations of chokeholds may appear, it really gives me not only a greater appreciation for the art itself but also an extra dimension when viewing my sons own black-belt level martial arts.

Hopefully in the future this book will move from the ‘stand alone’ section on Barry’s website, and we can get some more adventures centred around Livia Lone.

The Reluctant Yogi

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For a while now I have been interested in the idea of yoga, but I could never get over all the……wank.

I understand that there is a lot of scientific evidence for the benefits that yoga offers, and that intuitively the stretches and meditative qualities it possesses would be good for the body and mind. But when people start talking about chakras, or energy, I quickly lose faith in their objective nature.

So I was really looking for a more objective analysis of yoga; what is it, how does it work, and is it the thing for me?

This book was exactly what I was looking for. A guide to yoga written by a journalist who approached it from an equally skeptical standpoint. And while at some points it might sound like she has drunk from the yogi Kool-Aid, she is always quick to explain her experiences in a rational manner, and to point out that these experiences are not always a commonly shared affair.

All this being said, i have yet to salute the sun, or imitated a dog, no matter the direction it faced. Bt it has given me a far greater understanding of yoga and how it might eventually find a place in my life. It is reassuring to know that there is much secular basis for undertaking the practice, and that so many of its benefits can be divorced from the mumbo-jumbo that is often touted as being an intrinsic part of yoga.

One day I shall get out my yoga mat and start reaping these benefits, but until then I will have to make do with the occasional stretch.

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life

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This book really delivered on the second part of its title; it really opened up this whole other dimension of life.

When I told people I was reading a book about microbes they usually commented on whether it was making me become a germophobe, or was I now revolted by all the things I was learning were squirming around in the microsphere. But really the opposite is true. Instead of being disgusted I was fascinated. Instead I found myself embracing this new, grander view of life.

Perhaps this isnt the best thing after all. I now feel less worried about the bacteria flowing through the world around me. hopefully this doesnt lead to a loss in hygiene practices…

Anyhow, this book is fast looking like a favourite of 2017. Much like last years The Genius of Birds altered my perspective and allowed me to look at our feathered friends through a new lens, now I am constantly reevaluating the world around me as representing only a small fraction of what life has to offer.

The book is full of interesting tales that really turn around a lot of the things you thought you knew. Like how hospitals are realising the benefits of leaving windows open occasionally, to help keep the microbiome of the building more on balance. The theory being; that if you clean too much, you effectively wipe the microbial garden clean, which allows some of the bad microbes to take root like weed in an empty lot. Keeping many of the neutral bacteria and other mini-life in the environment actually halts the growth of some of the nasty ones, thus keeping eveything safer.

I cant recommend this book enough for anyone who wants to start really understanding the complexity of the world we live in, and the wonders that this extended view of life offers us.

Graveyard of Memories

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My second Barry Eisler book of the year, of the month even! After enjoying delving back into the authors writing at the turn of the month, I was pleased to find this book awaiting me on my kindle.

February’s goal of not buying any new books definitely worked in my favour here, because I wasn’t even aware of having purchased this book, and so it could have gone for years without finding its way onto my read list. But after finishing I Contain Multitudes one night and struggling to find the energy to reach my bookshelf (beer may have played a part), I instead delved into the depths of my Kindle, and found this beauty.

A prequel to the John Rain series, this book finds our anti-hero in the streets of Tokyo just as he finds himself unwittingly entering the workforce as a professional hitman. He isn’t as polished as the John Rain we have come to know and love, but his central character traits are definitely on show. Whats more, we get to watch on as the signature elements behind the character begin to form. His fastidious nature, his ‘rules’, his love of jazz. All of that starts here, and starts convincingly.

My only criticism with regard to unplanned prequels, is that you begin to wonder why none of these events were really mentioned in the subsequent tales of the character. So much of what happens here is formative, and yet other story elements are never mentioned in the following books. And given we are told these stories in first person and are privy to the stream of consciousness of Rain throughout them. The fact that the girlfriend he has in this book for instance, is ever mentioned again, is questionable.

But hey; i get the practicality of this, and while it was something that entered my mind, it didn’t stop me loving every chapter of this book.

Barry Eisler is a very reliable writer, and if you have liked anything he has written before, then you are in for a good time here.

Invasion

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This was my last book of the month. As you an see by the above quote; it is a bit of a weird one. As I mentioned with some of last years books, I like a good hook. That initial weird sentence that gets you intrigued. So when Amazon sent me this book with the premise of hairy beach-ball shaped aliens invading earth, and hacking into government systems, I couldn’t turn it away.

The book started off quite intriguing. The aliens were bizarre, different from the usual sci-fi invaders. Their motivation was mysterious, and their means were quite frankly, amusing. The main character was compelling, and funny, so I was engaged enough to continue on, despite the story offering no real direction at first.

But in the end it turned a bit preachy. Rather than giving me the point of view of some aliens intelligence, instead it felt like I was being told how to solve all of earth problems by some idealistic liberal (and don’t get me wrong I am a big fan of leftist style politics). In the end it all seemed too human, too much like a straw man argument brought to life.

So while I was slightly losing interest in the story, I was determined to finish it off, due to my belief in some kind of last minute twist that would provide the adequate pay off.

And then, I was confronted with this:

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Argh!!


 

Well I am feeling good about my February readings. I learned new things, enjoyed some reality escapage, and broadened my understanding of the world. Whats more, I didn’t spend a cent on new books.

But March, oh March; you are looking good!

First of all, a new Kim Stanley Robinson book! My favourite author by far. So much of who I am is down to reading this mans books in my formative years. And with this instalment set in a  future still dealing with the effects of man made climate change, I am really looking forward to seeing what it has to say.

Then, the beginning of the new John Scalzi space opera arrives with the novel The Collapsing Empire. I have read the first three chapters over here and it was pretty damn good.

And lastly, Luna: Wolf Moon. I had never heard of this author before, but last years Luna: New Moon blew me out of the water, so I am really looking forward to this instalment, especially if it involves (as the title hopefully suggests) of the wolf pack mentioned in the original book.

Here is to March (which is already over a third over, but none of these books have arrived yet!).

MM

 

January Books In Review

Like many people, I begin each new year with an enthusiasm for changing habits and achieving goals.  I start off quite optimistic, and with a confidence that defies reason; especially given the many years of failed resolutions scattered to the wind behind me. But this year I nevertheless still took stock of a bunch of things in my life, and set myself some challenges for the months ahead.

And so now, like the Roman god for whom it was named, I shall look back at the month that was January 2017, and then ponder the month to come.

Books and Reading in 2017

This year one of my goals is to read more books than I buy. This comes on the heels of last year’s goal of simply reading more books, that eventually settled on an end goal of 40 books, which I just barely managed to achieve. I did however notice the worrying pattern of buying around 50% more books than I needed to, and this is what prompted me to adopt this year’s goal. I still want to read more, and am hoping to exceed the 40 mark from last year. But I think it more important to start curbing my indiscriminate book buying.

So how have I gone this month? Not that well.

I read four books this January, Tools of Titans, United States of Japan, The Obstacle is the Way, and An Abundance of Katherines. however, I also bought, The Fault in our Stars, The Reluctant Yogi, The Daily Stoic, and Livia Lone. My only solace is that I technically bought Tools of Titans last year (literally 11:59 on New Year’s Eve), so my official numbers are:

Books read: 4

Books bought: 7

I shall have to reign in the spending next month for sure, as March contains the release of the next book by my favourite author (Kim Stanley Robinson), as well as a follow up to 2015’s amazing read, Luna: New Moon (nothing like twilight I assure you).

So what did I read:

Tools of Titans

Do you ever read a book, or listen to an interview and try to take down a few little nuggets of truth for later digestion? Then this is the book for you.

Tools of Titans contains the distilled knowledge of almost 200 interviews that Tim Ferriss (author of the 4-Hour Work Week, 4-Hour Body, etcetera) has conducted with people he defines as ‘titans’. And what exactly does a person need to do in order to be considered a titan? Well, to put it simply, then need to be successful in whatever their endeavours are.

But one thing I like about this book is that it doesn’t seek to sell you the One True Path™ to living a good and successful life. Rather it is a compendium of wisdom, gathered from an array of sources, and provided in simple easy to read chunks. Too often people define success with one overly-simplified metric: money. Rich people are successful, and all us other shmos are just struggling to reach this ideal. Tim clearly doesn’t think this is so. In his quest to interview and learn from these titular Titans, he has picked sources from an array of fields. You will find lessons garnered from Hollywood actors, army soldiers, authors, chess prodigies, as well as the expected billionaires and motivational speakers.

The sheer size of the book may appear daunting to some people, but it is this diversification that allows it to tackle so many different readers. If you are just wanting tips on health and fitness, there are a bunch of people waiting to give you their advice. Perhaps wealth is your main concern, then skip ahead to the section titled thusly. Sure, you may be overwhelmed with the number of people on offer here (and yes there are contradictory suggestions abound), but browse and select at your own discretion, and as the book says: the good shit sticks (which out of context sounds like terrible advice…).

Indeed, this is one of those rare books that I would recommend you read on your Kindle (or whatever e-reader you prefer), because you will want to highlight and take notes a lot along the way. In fact, there were so many good quotes in here that I would have saved time by highlighting the things I didn’t think were important!

I couldn’t recommend this book more to anyone out there who is searching for answers. To what questions I metaphorically hear you ask? I don’t know. What questions do you have? Because this book is pretty much just a bunch of answers to life’s many questions, collected and organised in a way that is surprisingly helpful considering its helter-skelter nature.

The United States of Japan

The more I think back about this book, the more I enjoyed it. Sure, there are things about the ending I would have wanted to go differently, but overall the experience was enjoyable. What’s more the world that was created within it was fascinating. I am sometimes torn when I read an alternate history, because I am so fascinated by history, and how things could have gone differently, that I would be happy simply reading an alternative historical timeline. But likewise, if you have a whole novel that spends half its time trying to shoehorn in exposition and info-dumps about their fictional history, it can ruin the flow of the actual storyline. United States of Japan for me handles this balance pretty well. There are constant references to the alternative history that lead to America being fractured between Japan and the Nazi’s after World War Two, but the fact that it takes place in a conquered nation that is still battling against this state of affairs makes the references to the past relevant, and expected.

That being said, I was annoyed when near the end of the novel there was a bunch of interesting additions to the world building that we never got a good enough chance to explore, and I hope there is a sequel that can delve into this further.

For instance, [minor spoilers], there is an underground American resistance to the Japanese empire (obviously) who are still Christian, however we learn there was an additional religious figure added to the traditional Christian trinity after World War II. A real life freedom fighter called Lilith, who died for the cause at the hands of the Nazis, and who is now an integral part of the Christian faith. I want to know more about that! But sadly we don’t hear much about that in the main storyline.

Without going too far into it, the story follows a government official in charge of censoring video games, and a government agent tasked with tracking down the creator of an illegal game that seeks to subvert the Japanese rule of west coast America. Though it is set in the 1980’s, there is plenty of cyber-punk style tech at play, as well as some giant mecha action for those interested. But the central mission keeps the story moving at a brisk pace.

So overall the story is engaging, and the characters are interesting. It is great to have two main characters who are presented to us quite simply and in an unremarkable way, but who then go on to slowly change and unravel, until we get major revelations about them both that highlight just how wrong we were. These are not the simple characters we thought, and each have their own hidden complexities, but ones that still perfectly explain their actions to begin with, and how they were presented to us.

A definite recommend to anyone who likes alternative history, or science fiction, or books…

The Obstacle is the Way

I love philosophy.

But sometimes what I really think, is that I love the idea of philosophy. Because when I get into the nitty gritty details in dense philosophical texts, I struggle. There are so many fascinating facets of philosophical thought; what does it mean to exist, what is good, what is the nature of knowledge? All these are interesting things to ponder, but they also seem so detached from the daily struggles and problems faced by the average man.

This book however is about that most rare of philosophies; the practical philosophy.

In particular, stoicism.

There has been a bit of a resurgence of stoic though of late, particularly when it come to the Silicon Valley start-up mentality that is pervading much of the self-help/life-improvement literature out there. In fact, I initially got onto this book through its being mentioned on Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans (see above), himself a successful start-up investor.

The stoic school of thought is one that you can latch on to from a variety of different world views. A Christian can be a stoic, as can a Muslim, or a Buddhist; because this school of thought is about how to approach the problems we find in life, not about any underlying metaphysical nature of reality. The book itself goes to great pains to point out that this stoic outlook isn’t even something that you have to be aware of having. You can approach the world with this attitude simply because from a rational standpoint, it makes sense. Learning about stoicism is like stumbling onto truth, rather than having to define some truth to fit into the world.

Reading this book has really helped me with looking at my life more clearly, particularly at a moment when I have a bunch of uncertainty heading my way. This book teaches things like having a proper perspective of how these obstacles challenge us, and keeping a realistic understanding of what we can control in our lives. By accepting what you cannot change, and concentrating instead on what you can control, you ensure your energy is focused in the right direction. Simple advice, but something we so often lose sight of.

Sure, you could get angry and frustrated at every inconvenience that comes your way, but what does that expended energy accomplish? Nothing. Best instead to accept these uncontrollable factors in your life, and focus on what you can control; yourself, your actions, and your will.

Like the book says, the solution is simple, it just isn’t easy.

I highly recommend this book to any human, living their life.

An Abundance of Katherines

January for me was a month dominated by the Green brothers. I iron my shirt in the morning while watching Hank on Crash Course explain psychology to me, listen to the Dear Hank and John podcasts walking to and from work, and then enjoy catching up on the latest Vlog Brothers videos available on YouTube. But considering I had heard so much talk about John’s books (one in particular; you know the one I mean) over the past however many years, I figured it might be worth investing a bit of time actually reading some of his work.

I was sceptical at first that these books would really have much to offer me, as I don’t consider myself the target audience. But after discovering books like The Rosie Project last year and being pleasantly surprised waltzing out of my comfort zone, I was willing to take a chance with John Green’s novels. So, when I saw a double pack on sale I snapped them up.

It contained the nearly ubiquitous The Fault in Our Stars, but I was more interested in An Abundance of Katherines, mainly due to the cryptic sounding blurb:

When it comes to relationships, Colin Singleton’s type happens to be girls named Katherine. And when it comes to girls named Katherine, Colin is always getting dumped. Nineteen times, to be exact.

On a road trip miles from home, this anagram-happy, washed-up child prodigy has ten thousand dollars in his pocket, a bloodthirsty feral hog on his trail, and an overweight, Judge Judy-loving best friend riding shotgun–but no Katherines. Colin is on a mission to prove The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, which he hopes will predict the future of any relationship, avenge Dumpees everywhere, and finally win him the girl.

Love, friendship, and a dead Austro-Hungarian archduke add up to surprising and heart-changing conclusions in this ingeniously layered comic novel about reinventing oneself.

That, and a cursory flip through the pages (which realistically isn’t going to offer much insight usually, but this time actually turned up something interesting), showed me a couple of math formulas as a part of the storytelling, and I was sold.

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And graphs too; who doesnt love graphs.

I quite enjoyed the story. Sure, it was different than my usual reads, and not something that will likely find its way onto my regular reading lists. However I am still looking forward to polishing off the rest of John’s books at some point in the future (even if I can’t help hearing John Greens voice narrating every page in my head!).


On to next month’s reads. I am going to do my best to purchase zero books this month (shocking!) so that I might actually start approaching my goal of more books read that bought in 2017. Because at present the less-than-encouraging progress graph looks like this:

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But one book I know I will read is I Contain Multitudes by Ed Wong. I have been waiting a while to devour this book about the microbes that live within us since its release last year, but kept it at bay due to a need to give my brain a break from the non-fiction that had taken up so much of my reading time.

MM

2016 in Books: A Review

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Cat for scale

Intro

Last year I wrote a rundown of the books I had read, which ended up spurring me on to giving a continual update to what I have called #2016inBooks.

 

I started off without any concrete goal in mind because I honestly wasn’t sure how much I would be able to read. But after I started churning out a few books, and got a better idea of my reading capacity, I started narrowing in on a goal of 40 books for this year. A goal which I am happy to say I achieved (just).

But first of all, life is about learning, so what did I learn from this exercise?

I learnt that I buy far too many books.

This year I think I bought around 60 books; I don’t know exactly as it was difficult to track, what with all the eBooks and so forth swirling around my cloud. But surely the fact that I don’t even know what I have bought this year is a sign that I have a problem.

Hello everyone my name is Mathew, and I am a book-o-holic.

And while I would like to defend this glut of books by pointing out that there is a $6 bookshop near my work, or that a lot of them are Kindle books that Amazon keep sending me ruthless sale emails describing; the fact of the matter is that even at an average of $10 a book this is $600 a year that I am spending, and only getting $400 worth of value from.

Sure, I will get around to reading them all someday (at least that is what I tell myself). But unless I can get my annual number of books read higher than my annual number of books purchased, this magical day of book-readiness will only arrive once I am broke, or in a nursing home.

So this has led me to one of my goals for 2017. It is going to be hard, it is going to require discipline, and sacrifice. But next year my goal is to read more books than I buy.

Who doesnt love graphs?

Now, before I get into the nitty gritty, here are some quick stats of my 2016 reads:

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Last year was pretty much 50/50 for digital versus physical books, this year I have slightly more additional tomes on my shelf than I do ones and zeros in my Kindle. Given the lack of space on my bookshelf, this might be something I have to attune in 2017.

2016-in-books-category

I try and keep a good split between fiction and non-fiction each year, and did pretty well this year. I find that non-fiction books take a lot out of me, but also give a lot more of a permanent benefit as well. Fiction books are also great, and I love churning through a story to help unwind; but for me, I see a large part of my reading goals being advancing my knowledge and understanding of the world (and the people in it), rather than purely recreational.

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2016-in-books-months

I was pretty happy with this trend overall. Sure I had some fizzle months, but they usually coincided with busy time, be it renovations or busy holidays. All in all averaging around three and a half books a month seems a good effort. Let’s see if I can keep it up in 2017!

Now, onto the books themselves.

When I mentioned to people my goal of book reading for this year (and mention it to people I invariably did), I often got asked what books I would recommend. So I figured here I would pick my top five books, the books that I think people would most get a kick out of. Then after the fold, I have written a bunch of ten-word synopses of the rest of the books for those who don’t want to read much more, and followed that by my somewhat more detailed thoughts on each book.

Enjoy!

My top five:

These top five are the books I recommend most from this years reading. Paradoxically they might not all be what I consider the best books, but they are the ones that left the biggest mark on my year of reading.

The Genius of Birds

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Every now and then you read a book that challenges a perception you have, and allows you to see something in a new, and one would hope more accurate, light. This year this was that book.

There is a common misconception about bird intelligence. Think for instance of the term ‘bird-brained’ and you aren’t likely to imagine that this points to someone’s markedly higher intelligence. And yet after reading this book, I can’t help but wish that it did.

Early natural philosophers looked at birds as nature’s ultimate economisers. In their pursuit of the ability to fly birds had hollowed their bones, shortened their arms, developed light-weight beaks, and these early thinkers even assumed that this trend extended to their brains, which were said to have been miniaturised in order to shed dead weight. That’s right early scientists actually thought that birds had sacrificed the size of their brains with a view to becoming lighter in order to fly.

We now know that this isn’t the case. Indeed bird brains appear to be highly efficient, and many even share similar structures to that found in human brains, and believed vital for higher thought functioning.

I think one reason why this book was so transformative for my everyday thinking is due to the pervasiveness of birds in our modern life. You can go days without seeing any wild marsupials going about their quotidian routines. If people cross paths with a reptile on any regular day, it is usually regarded as a thing of note (particularly if it slithers). But think of how often you spot a bird on an average day. Usually it’s a magpie foraging in the urban landscape, perhaps a crow on a rooftop, some pigeons begging in the street, or resourceful little sparrows fluttering about your daily walk. Indeed I would challenge you to spend a day in an urban environment and not see a bird.

Birds are a visible, and vital, part of our urban menagerie.

So while I was reading this book I had constant material around me to keep me thinking. I would watch as sparrows navigated their way into the restaurants I was eating at. I would see crows peering down pipes looking for hidden morsels. I would imagine the thoughts of a magpie as it stared back at me with an intensity that surely must denote consciousness.

I swear to you, read this book, and you will have a new appreciation for our avian friends. You will marvel at the stories of birds learning the alarm call of different species, so they can cause them to flee a non-existent attacker, leaving their food free for pillaging. You will be amazed to learn that pigeons have been trained to be able to differentiate between different art styles, whether it be post-modern, or cubism. Learning about how Japanese crows utilise passing cars and pedestrian crossings to crack nuts will blow your mind, as will the fact that at least one bird (the excellent grey parrot Alex) has even asked an existential question (“What colour am I?”).

What’s more, it will give you a greater understanding and appreciation of what exactly it is we mean when we talk about intelligence, particularly in the face of growing evidence that things like consciousness are not binary states, but rather a continuum that wind find ourselves arrayed along. And the whole point of this book is to show that as far as the continuum goes, birds are not that far apart from us.

The Vital Question

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This book was another essential read, thought also a definite struggle if you aren’t a scientist (which I am not). So you might wonder why it is in my top five if it is questionably accessible for the average person. Well, the reason it is included here is because if what much of this book theorises ends up being proven accurate sometime in the future, then this is the kind of book that will help people understand a truly momentous groundwork in the nature of the universe.

Reading this book gave me a lot better understanding of not only what life is, but how life could have potentially originated.

That life can come from non-life is something that I think a lot of people take for granted. After all, we have enough evidence to show that it happened, and it is easy to picture in your head the idea of a primordial soup that is often bandied around as the crucible that life emerged from. But beyond this basic understanding, I had never put much thought into it. Science will get there one day, I figured, and so left it at that.

But what I failed to take into account is that science is currently on its way ‘there’, so I don’t need to wait until the end of the journey to start looking at the scenery along the way.

I had a similar awakening when I read my first Richard Dawkins evolution book and realised that even though I understood evolution in principal, I never really actually understood the mechanisms of it in any great detail. So where his works opened my eyes to the way evolution actually operates in the real world, Nick Lanes The Vital Question has done a similar thing in showing me the way life functions as it does, and some genuine pathways for this to emerge from a set of common physical conditions.

The book not only offers a plausible explanation for how the first forms of life could have appeared on our planet (hint: deep sea hydrothermal vents seem promising), but it also provides in-depth and detailed arguments as to why life would take the form it does today. Why would there be cells, why would these cells end up creating multicellular life, why are there two sexes, and why do we have mitochondria? These are all questions that this book seeks to answer, and it provides compelling (if not difficult to understand) reasons for why life, as we know it here on earth, might not be too different from life elsewhere in the universe.

If you are in any way interested in this kind of thing, in the origin of life, or the possibility of life on other planets, I highly recommend giving this book a read. Yes much of it will go over your head, and yes you might not be able to fully digest that which hits you around brain height. But you will gain a better understanding and appreciation of the nature of the problem and the possible ways that science will be able to address this beguiling mystery of our origins.

The Old Man and the Sea

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Reading a good Hemmingway book is like going to a museum to see something famous. It has enough cultural gravitas that even if you don’t exactly agree with its prominence or importance, you at least know you are experiencing something significant to history and society. That being said, I really did enjoy this book, both for its intrinsic worth, but also for the thrill of finally reading a Hemmingway tale.

The main reason I am adding this book to the list is for the sheer accessibility of it. As far as critically acclaimed Nobel Prize in Literature writers go, Hemmingway seems very approachable. And at a mere ## pages long, you can easily finish this story in one sitting, then stand up and say proudly, “I have read a Hemingway, and I understood it!”.

This is in part the approachability I mean. Sure you can go out there are read Gatsby, and then analyse the themes and motifs. But what I loved about Hemingway’s story of a man and his battle with a big marlin, is the simplicity of it.

I always disliked English at school, even though I was ostensibly quite successful at the subject, I could write a persuasive piece quite well (I got an A+ for our final essay in year 12, the subject of which was why impressive facial hair is a must for any dictator), and reading was something I have always loved. But I think the thing about English class that really irked me was the forced meaning that was jammed into every little thing. What’s more, that these interpretations were more often than not a subjective opinion plastered onto the story with questionable veracity.

How do you now that is what the author meant, I would often say (or something in that vein) before being kicked out of class.

Then, after finishing the book and deciding to do some research on it online, I was amused to find that amongst all the theorising about the inner meanings of Hemmingway’s story (the old man is Christ, the fish represents communism, the sea is a stand in for mortality, etcetera, etcetera) that there were some telling quotes by the author himself:

“No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in …. I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.” – Ernest Hemingway in 1954

“There isn’t any symbolism,” Hemmingway wrote to critic Bernard Berenson. “The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man … The sharks are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”

So get out there and read this book for what it is!

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?

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I love it when I find a book on some weird little part of our lives that ends up being explaining how it is actually some vast and fascinating facet of the world we live in. Take this read for instance; I loved telling people I was reading a book about the role chickens played in human civilisation.

Chickens!

What appears to be one of the most mundane of animals has a truly amazing part to play in our history. As this book goes on to argue, no other animal had arguably played a more important role in human history, bar the human animal itself. Chickens have served many purposes; ritual sacrifices, providers of meat, eggs, entertainment, symbolism; everything is covered in this book.

But why, of all the books I read, is this in the top five? Because it gives you a greater appreciation of something in the world that would most often be overlooked. Chickens are a part of the background of our society. A cliché farm animal. We buy their meat in nondescript packaging, we cook the best chocolate cakes with their eggs. Our cultural sound of waking up is a beeping alarm clock, but we also all recognise a rooster crowing as the same thing.

Chickens are boring, you might think. But they are only considered boring because they are ubiquitous with human civilisation, and that speaks to their true importance. No other animal has pervaded human cultures as much as the humble chicken, and this book explains why this bird, domesticated from a jungle fowl in a small area of south-east Asian, was able to take such a prominent role in the development of our modern species.

Therefore I recommend this book to anyone who wishes to understand their feathered friends a little better. Or to those who find random little facts like the following interesting: The cock is ironically one of the minority of birds that has no penis.

The Three Body Problem

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Of all the books on my top five list, this one is perhaps the least life changing of all. It didn’t furnish me with any new knowledge, or outlook on life. I don’t really have a greater understanding or appreciation for anything in particular having read it, but that isn’t what all books are about. Sometimes books are just about being entertained.

But then again, perhaps I am not thinking deep enough here. This was another one of those ‘I have to see what all the fuss is about’ books. Reviewers have been raving about Liu Cixin’s work for ages, and when an English translation was on the cards the hype grew more and more. Even Obama was caught reading the thing!

So this book was interesting for me because it was one of the first major Chinese books I remember hearing a lot about in western media, the other being The Fat Years, which I read in 2014. I found that to be a fascinating read, as these aren’t books that just happen to be written by a Chinese person, but are books that take this Chinese identity and weave it into their stories (as I imagine western authors do in theirs, though I can’t see this from my internal frame of reference).

I loved the experience of reading this novel. Of stepping out of the usual western science fiction authors that I am used to, and seeing how such speculative fiction is handled from a background that is different to my own. And as a friend of mine recently said; “books teach us about the years we didn’t/will never live“. So maybe I was too quick to dismiss this book as not giving me any new outlooks or appreciations. It certainly allowed me to step into a new frame of reference and gave me a greater understanding of elements of Chinese history and culture.

But beyond all that, the story is a truly compelling read. It balances mystery with character development as we slowly tease out what is happening to the main characters, and what the underlying conspiracy is. What’s more is sets us up for the next instalments, without leaving you completely wanting. It isn’t just the beginning of a story, and the fact that the main characters in this series are generally only present for one instalment is I think a refreshing way of separating out the different themes in each novel.

I won’t bother going into what the story is about as I think this book is best approached like the matrix; you can’t be told what it is, you have to see it for yourself. Come at the story with an open mind and enjoy the ride!


Ten Word Synopses

Book No. Title 10 Word Synopsis
1 Seveneves Moon explodes, people escape to space, five-thousand years later; recolonise
2 The Water Knife Massive drought in the future, people carve up water supplies
3 My Beloved Brontosaurus Learn about all the new scientific discoveries about amazing dinosaurs
4 Old Mans War Old people given superhuman bodies, sent to fight intergalactic wars
5 An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth Astronaut gives tips for how to live a happy life
6 In the Heart of the Sea Whale sinks whaleship, people survive on sea, eat each other
7 Railsea Trains hunt massive moles on a sea of rails; adventure!
8 First Grave on Mars Early settlers on Mars have to solve their first murder
9 The Three-Body Problem Chinese sci-fi about contacting aliens using our sun; interesting consequences
10 Tilt People uncover a conspiracy about global warming, and China too!
11 The Rosie Project Genius with possible Asperger’s decide to find a wife; hilarious
12 Superintelligence Philosopher explains the likely consequences of developing an artificial superintelligence
13 The Rosie Effect Same genius tries to deal with marriage and impending fatherhood
14 The Dark Forest Humanity tries to deal with a coming alien invasion; awesome
15 A Calculated Life Artificial human tries to understand her place in the world
16 The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures The title of this book is already over ten words!
17 Drunk Tank Pink Explains a bunch of different ways our brain tricks us
18 Aurora Generation ship sent to a star finally arrives; problems ensue
19 Heartland of Manga: Tokyo and San Francisco A collection of stories from an expat living in Japan
20 Young Hitler An analysis of how Hitler’s youth shaped his future self
21 The Genius of Birds An in-depth look at the deep intelligence of birds
22 A Kight of the Seven Kingdoms Short stories set in Westeros long before Game of Thrones
23 The Happiest Refugee Memoir of Ahn Do’s journey from refugee to comedy star
24 Quirkology Collection of quirky studies surrounding the human mind and behaviours
25 Waking Up An attempt to explain spirituality as distinct from religious experience
26 Temple Race for an ancient artefact pits heroes against modern Nazis
27 The Vital Question Scientist explains how modern science believes life could have arisen
28 The First Executed woman comes back to life with superpowers; seeks revenge
29 Money: The Unauthorised Biography Explains the history of the concept of money and humanity
30 Why Did the Chicken Cross the World Interesting analysis of the part chickens played in human civilisation
31 Deaths End Humans struggle with aliens for the solar system’s ultimate fate
32 Ghost Flight Race to a secret plane that crashed in the Amazon
33 Mythomania Bunch of essays about random things; lots of French criticism
34 The Four Legendary Kingdoms Hero drugged and awakens to a fight to the death
35 Locked On Spies uncover terrorist plot they must foil. Presidential campaign too.
36 Play At Work Discusses the important parts games can play in our work
37 Homo Deux An analysis of how humanity’s future may come to pass
38 Sleeping Giants Girl discovers giant hand underground. Become scientist to study it
39 The Old Man and the Sea Old man goes out to sea; catches a large fish.
40 1913: The Eve of War Seeks to explain how 1913 lead to World War One

2016 in Books: The Whole 40 Reads

And finally, my thoughts on each of these books:

  1. Seveneves

    My first introduction to Neal Stephenson, and my first read of the year. Would recommend if anyone finds the concept of the moon randomly exploding as intriguing as I did. Also, the title is a palindrome, and a mild spoiler, so I don’t mind giving a quick rundown of the major arcs below.
    The story consists of three major sections; First where the moon breaks apart and humanity has to prepare for the coming destruction of the surface of the Earth, Second where those who managed to flee struggle to try and find a way to survive in space, and then Third where the descendants of the survivors start to recolonise the earth’s surface.
    This was a great read, even if the third act seems somewhat disjointed from the first two. I love a good hard science fiction book, and this delivers in spades.
    5 out of 5 bolides.

  2. The Water Knife

    I had seen this book on so many lists of what to read in 2015 that I was keen to get it read early in 2016. But I have to say, thinking back, it doesn’t seem all that memorable of a read. Sure, I liked the premise (a future of water scarcity in the United States pits the haves against the have-nots), but the delivery wasn’t quite what I was expecting. This may be more a failing on my part than on the books however.
    3 out of 5 arcologies

  3. My Beloved Brontosaurus

    Dinosaurs are awesome! That is something that filled my head for years as a child, and it was great to re-immerse myself in the world of Mesozoic marvels once again. But what was perhaps more fulfilling about this read was the exhilaration at learning new and exciting dinosaur news. Who would have thought that even after 66 million years since the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs, that there would still be more to learn!
    Add to this the fact that I am raising a son who is equally dinosaur crazy, I found this was a great way to share an experience with him. Ever since he started learning about some of the newly discovered giant carnivorous theropods he would always ask me “Why is T-Rex so famous when Spinosaurus is longer, and Charcharidontosaurus is bigger?”. When I explained this was mainly due to an accident of history where T-Rex was found first, and just became more famous, he set it upon himself to not be a fan of T-Rex because everyone else is. That’s right he is a jaded dinosaur connoisseur; only the best and newest animals for him.
    Highly recommend this book for those who love dinosaurs as the fascinating animals that they were, and not just Hollywood monsters. Or for those of you who want to be able to keep up with the cool, hip new dinosaur lingo.
    5 out of 5 pregnant t-rex’s

  4. Old Mans War

    This novel starts with the memorable line: “I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”
    To me this is what speculative fiction is all about. Get hooked instantly with a premise that makes your mind wonder at the possibilities; who wouldn’t want to know more? But what more would you expect from the writer of the amazing Redshirts (a must read for any Star Trek fan)?
    John Scalzi is a sci-fi superstar at the moment, so getting to read his early work was a great experience. This story follows the titular old man, who signs up for the army near the end of his life. In this future, however, joining the army means being given a genetically enhanced super body, and sent across the galaxy to fight in humanities’ colonisation wars, against a plethora of weird and engaging alien species.
    Throw in a bit of intrigue regarding a mysterious special forces group, and a bunch of genuinely funny moments, and you have a thoroughly entertaining book. Would recommend to anyone who is a fan of military science fiction.
    4.5 out of 5 genetically enhanced super bodies

  5. An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth

    This book had sat on my shelf for almost a year before I managed to get it finished.
    But I am glad I finally got back into it. Space exploration was a big interest for me early in the year, what with SpaceX doing all its awesome things, and the exploration of Pluto still fresh in my mind. So it was great to read about the current state of space exploration from an eyewitness point of view.
    But perhaps the best part about reading this book were the lessons that Chris Hadfield sought to impart about life in general. About how to approach challenges, or generally how to approach life. One of the stories he told has even had a marked effect on my son, who often says “What would a palaeontologist do” when considering his actions, much as Chris said that his desire to be an astronaut motivated much of his early thinking. Having that goal early, even if it isn’t something that he was 100% going to achieve, helped give him direction, and it is exciting to see Harrison taking that initiative. Even if it is only being employed to find motivation to do homework!
    Worth a read if you enjoy people’s memoirs, books that help give you a toolset for living a better life, or just if you plain like space stuff.
    5 out of 5 Space Missions

  6. In the Heart of the Sea

    Who would have thought that reading a book about some guys stuck in a boat would be so enthralling!
    I had heard about the tale of the Essex in the past, about how it inspired the novel Moby Dick, and then about how it was to be turned into a movie, so I was keen to read this book before I watched the film. What I didn’t know at the time was that this was a non-fiction book, rather than a historical novel. So where I had been expecting a narrative, instead I found an in-depth analysis not only of what happened, but of things like the effects of starvation on the human body, analyses of the whaling trade, and discussions of the economy of the island of Nantucket.
    But surprisingly, I was hooked. It was truly a fascinating read, to be able to throw your mind back to a different time, to understand the workings and drive of a whaling ship, then witness as their intended prey fought back, scuttling the ship, and sending the men within on a journey of despair across a deserted ocean.
    Even though I was initially disappointed that the book wasn’t a novel, after seeing the film I think it was the better of the two experiences. Reading about how the men suffered aboard their wayward whale-boats really made me appreciate the story a lot more, especially their slow and painful resorting to cannibalism (a fact which seems to happen all too quickly in the movie…).
    4 out of 5 cannibalised crewmen

  7. Railsea

    What a strange book. Set in a world where the seas are great wastelands covered in rails (no water), and people ride around in trains harpooning massive moles. You would think that knowing this was the basis of the book would have prepared me for the weirdness. It did not.
    My wife is currently reading this to my son, and they are constantly highlighting for me the bizarre nature of the book, whether it be the constant use of ampersands, the convoluted and intricate structuring of sentences, or simple the bizarre monikers employed by Meiville.
    That being said, I actually enjoyed the tale of Sham Yes ap Soorap (an example of the weird names), and his adventures hunting moles on the railsea. I like the strange concept of captains of moletrains chasing their ‘philosophies’ (in the form of some symbolic prey) in order to give their lives meaning. So interesting to have a character’s motivation laid out so clearly, yet still somehow still vague given the alien nature of the world they live in.
    I had heard much praise for China Meiville’s work, which was my initial reason for purchasing a book of his. But the reason it was Railsea, as opposed to another one of his novels, was simply because it was the only one available at the $5 bargain book shop! So I feel I need to perhaps aim to read one of his more popular books, in order to get a better understanding of what all the fuss is about.
    3.5 out of 5 Gigantic Moldyworps

  8. First Grave on Mars

    A quick, cheap Kindle read that I found somehow and read over two nights. My penchant for all things Mars drew me to its title no doubt.
    It is a nice little whodunit set on the planet Mars (hence the title). We follow a group of three who are sent to Mars as part of a crowd-funded ‘Mars One’ style reality show experiment. There are people already stationed on the red planet, but when our heroes arrive, no one is there to greet them. They soon find the original colonists are fractured and divided, with one of them discovered dead.
    Who was responsible? I guess you have to read it to find out. Or actually, no you don’t, as you don’t even discover the murderer in this short tale!
    I was a bit disappointed with the brevity of this read, but as it got me hooked, I can’t complain too much, provided the sequel comes out this year!
    3.5 out of 5 murdered Martians (conditional on how the rest of the story pans out)

  9. The Three-Body Problem

    (See above)

  10. Tilt

    This novel at first seemed like an intriguing conspiracy tale; a mystery set amid the world of climate science. But slowly evolved into something much worse.
    And I am sorry, but I am going to post a spoiler here, because I feel like the whole plot of this book was based on a premise that is at best ridiculous, and at worst recklessly misleading. So read no further if you don’t want to know the ending of this story.
    ***Spoiler Alert***
    This is a book about how climate change is a hoax.
    Or more accurately, it is a story about how climate change is real, but it was created by a nefarious group in order to melt Antarctica and access its oil reserves. Yep, that’s right. And they way that climate change happens in the book? They get the Chinese to build the Three Gorges Dam and a bunch of cities in order to pile up a bunch of weight in China, and change the balance of the earth thus tilting it (ehh, get the title now) and warming up the Antarctic.
    Now, part of me is sorry to spoil this, as the novel is clearly written for this to be a mystery slowly solved, but I don’t want people falling into this read and being disappointed at being misled, as I was.
    That all being said, I initially liked a lot of the story. The thriller portions of it were well done, the characters interesting enough. The writing was good (though perhaps too much talk of boners for my liking). I just didn’t like the whole reveal in the end, and the fact that all of this story was built on a foundation of bullshit ruined it for me. End though I know it is just fiction and I should take it for what it is worth, when the underlying premise of a story isn’t convincing or compelling for me, the whole thing falls down like a house of cards.
    But hey, at least Trump has some late night reading he can enjoy.
    2 out of 5 global warming conspiracy theories

  11. The Rosie Project

    This is a stand out read for me this year for two main reasons.
    Number 1: Because I really liked it.
    Number 2: Because I didn’t expect to read any romantic comedies.
    Yes that’s right, a romantic comedy. A rom-com; that’s how I would describe this book. And while that category isn’t really the kind of thing I usually read, I find that for any section of culture or society that I am generally not a fan of, there are always exceptions where if the job is done right, it can be appreciated even if it isn’t your usual cup of tea.
    The story follows a genetics expert who decides it is time to get a wife, so he approaches the problem with the same scientific rigour that he applied to his work life, and to the rest of his life. Imagine Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory, if he were a bit more well-adjusted, and more of an eligible bachelor (read this as good looking and fit), and you will have an idea how things progress.
    Then in the sequel (The Rosie Effect), the addition of an impending baby causes the main character to again devise a project plan for this life changing event.
    Like I said, I really enjoyed this book and its sequel. I had seen it in bookshops for ages, but never really considered it a potential read until it appeared on Bill Gates blog as a recommended read. I have become somewhat of a Bill Gates fan of late; his optimistic attitude regarding the world’s problems is refreshing given the tendency for doom and gloom to dominate the news. So I was intrigued as to why this book would feature so prominently on his must-read lists.
    Being the nerd that I am, I enjoyed the rational way that the main character approached so much of his life. I laughed out loud many times as I could see some semblance of me in the mind of the main character. Well worth the dive into uncharted waters.
    5 out of 5 immaculately prepared cocktails.

  12. Superintelligence

    Dense. That is what I think of when I recall this read; dense. Such a hard book for me to get into, not because it is boring, or a difficult read exactly, just because it is such an in-depth ‘thinky’ book. You can’t really grab it for a few minutes catch up lest you will forget the multitude of alien concepts that have been introduced for your cogitation.
    But the main reason I wanted to read this book was because of the lofty and importance of what it is tackling. Well, ok, the real reason is because I heard Elon Musk thinks it is important, and thus I wanted to see what the big deal was about. At any rate, with AI playing a bigger part in our lives as each year goes on, eventually humanity may have to deal with the possibility of a superintelligence being developed. And if that day ever comes, we will be glad that Nick Bostrom wrote this deep analysis of the consequences and possible strategies, for dealing with such a thing.
    4 out of 5 hegemon superintelligences

  13. The Rosie Effect

    See above

  14. The Dark Forest

    After delving into the first book of this trilogy by Chinese author #####, I was keen to pick up the next instalment and see how our characters would face the challenges thrown up at the end of the previous story.
    The concept of nothing but the human mind being put under surveillance by our alien nemeses was intriguing, as was the game theoretical nature of a lot of the back and forth between those working for humanity, and those seeking to destroy/supplant it. In my mind, this was the strongest instalment of the trilogy.
    5 out of 5 Wallfacers

  15. A Calculated Life

    I have to say, this book really slipped through the cracks when it comes to leaving an impression on me for the year. I believe I bought it in a drunken Kindle binge and read it rather quickly, but as for the effects of the book, I can’t recall.
    The story follows a never quite adequately explained artificial human who works at a firm where she uses her advanced brain to analyse data and come up with trends/predictions for her human co-workers to capitalise upon. Much of the book deals with how these non-humans live their lives, and how they fit into society.
    It was an engaging read in a sense, but it never seemed to pick up the pace, or take the story down any of the intriguing paths that I could see posed by this fictional world.
    3 out of 5 potentially interesting sequels?

  16. The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures

    Yet another book that slipped its way into my Kindle due to a deviously targeted eBook sale email from Amazon. But I am glad my impulse buy resulted in a somewhat revealing read.
    This book is a collection of writing surrounding the history of the human race, whether it be first of all explaining how we came to be, or then going on to analyse how the idea of a family tree works. It then delved into the more pressing issues of our time when it comes to our personal history; our genetic identities, and how things like cheaper genetic sequencing will soon change the way many of us not only view ourselves, but also live our lives.
    But one thing that truly stuck with me from this book was its discussions about race. In particular, how much race is a construct of society, and culture. Sure people may be quick to point ou the glaring physicality of race in many ways (skin colour being very prominent). But at the end of the day, the author makes a good case that race is really only something made up in our minds, and really the more important this is our own personal histories, and how they make us the people we are today.
    4 out of 5 sequences genomes

  17. Drunk Tank Pink

    I was fascinated by the titular Drunk Tank Pink of this book; a colour that studies showed had a pacifying effect on people. Put a drunk in a cell painted with this particular shade of pink, and their aggression would noticeably decrease.
    I bought the book looking for more interesting things like this, for a kind of Freakonomics experience where they show you the little hidden mechanisms that drive our world in unexpected directions. And while I did get a lot of interesting examples of stuff like this, the book seemed to veer more into marketing tricks and psychological hypothesis than it did the actual unveiling of simple rational rules governing our world. I go the feeling that a bunch of these things are studies that don’t always produce the same results as often as you would like, and that there was a lot of assertions going on that didn’t quite make a convincing enough argument. So interesting ideas, but ones that made me feel like I had to do more reading in order to understand them.
    2.5 out of 5 tenuous causal links

  18. Aurora

    My only re-read for the year, but one I am glad I undertook. Kim Stanley Robinson is not only my favourite author, but as I re-read more of his work I am beginning to see that he is also, in part, the author of many of my own personally held views. Back in 2014 I read the Mars Trilogy all over again, and it really opened my eyes as to how much these books influenced me in my formative years. I have blogged about as much in the past.
    But, now that I am apparently formed, it is still great to open up a KSR book, and really delve deep into some stellar hard science fiction.
    This particular story deals with a generation ship travelling to the nearby star Tau Ceti. Generations have passed on the ship, and it is years away from arriving. Like all KSR books, it delves into the daily lives of those on board and approaches things from a realistic, hard science fiction point of view. There are no simple plot lines here, no good guys and bad guys; his stories read more like history than fiction.
    So whereas other authors might have alien monsters as obstacles, Aurora deals with the slow decay of systems, the complexity of the structures used to keep humans alive, and the possible moral consequences of confining future generations to an unchosen life aboard an interstellar vessel.
    As with all of his books, I highly recommend it.
    5 out of 5 reversions to the mean

  19. Heartland of Manga: Tokyo and San Francisco

    I blogged about this book over here, but basically it is a collection of vignettes (this is a new word for me, so hopefully I am using it correctly) from an ex-pat Australian living in Japan. I actually know the author, which is kind of cool, and enjoyed the read as this was yet another step into unfamiliar reading styles for this year.
    4 out of 5 refreshingly different reads

  20. Young Hitler

    A fascinating Kindle Short read that examines the early life of Adolf Hitler, the world he lived in, and how his youth, and the environment around him, shaped the man who would go on to shape the Second World War.
    One of the main things I took away from this book was the importance of not treating Hitler like he was some evil freak of history. Sure we like to look at Hitler, and many of the Nazi’s as aberrations in history; rare examples of truly evil humans. But the problem with this is that it does the opposite of normalisation. It abnormalises them. It makes them seem less like real things, a real part of humanities past. The problem with this, of course, being that by treating Hitler as some strange form of evil incarnate, we miss out on the mundane, regular, human drives that produced such a man from early 20th century Germany.
    This seems all the more pressing thing to realise right now, when there is this wave of nationalism apparently spreading across the globe, and with misinformation and racial tensions being stoked everywhere, it is all the more vital that we remember that humans are simply that; humans. We can learn from the mistakes of the past, but we can’t afford to forget that they are the result of humans themselves, and not some evil form beyond our control.
    5 out of 5

  21. The Genius of Birds

    (See above)

  22. A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

    Three tales of Dunk and Egg, the Titular Knight, and his squire.
    As with many things G. R. R. Martin, not everything is as it appears in these tales (including Egg). But unlike the Song of Ice and Fire novels, I found these to be a much more easy-going read. They tell the tale of a newly formed knight and his companion travelling across a Westeros that seems more real than the Game of Thrones world simply because it is going about things in a quotidian way. There is no overarching storyline in the background driving everything to some ultimate climax. But there are also threads linking them all together., Hints at larger things going on I the background, and how the forces of history are still at work, somewhere.
    A must read for anyone having Game of Thrones withdrawals.
    4.5 out of 5 Quarrelsome Targaryen’s

  23. The Happiest Refugee

    This book sat on my shelf for two years before I got to it, and then I finished it in one sitting! It was fascinating to read about the life of Ahn Do as it was so different, yet so similar, whilst also being so mundane, and at the same time surprisingly relevant. To read about a family’s arrival in Australia as refugees, and then follow them as they create a life for themselves is something I think many Australians need to hear these days.
    Ahn’s story is one of perseverance, of hard work, and of family. It is also predictably funny where it counts, and I challenge anyone to not read these pages with Ahn’s voice narrating in your head.
    4.5 out of 5 Australian stories

  24. Quirkology

    This book showed up enough on one of my favourite YouTube channels (VSauce) that I just had to grab my own copy.
    Quirkology refers to the multitude of scientific studies conducted by professional scientists into the strange little idiosyncrasies of life; the quirks. Things like why people’s name often reflect their occupation, or how people in dangerous situations will be more likely to find people sexually attractive. Or even how people are more likely to do well in a game of trivial pursuit if they are told beforehand to think about a professor (or conversely will do worse if they think about a football hooligan).
    Worth a read if you are interested in the weird and fascinating way that our world works.
    4 out of 5 cases of nominative determinism

  25. Waking Up

    I read this book by Sam Harris as I have been hearing more and more about the benefits of things like meditation in your daily life, and wanted to get a secular point of view about this.
    This was however somewhat of a mistake on my part. The subtitle of this book explains that it is about “Searching for Spirituality Without Religion”, and while I was fascinated to try and understand what exactly is meant by spirituality (especially when it is offered by one of the Four Horsemen), ultimately it didn’t scratch the initial itch that has spurred its purchase.
    I am all for the concept of meditation, the idea that such a practise can be good for your mental health makes intuitive sense to me. And I am keen to try and harness this tool for myself at some point in the future (unfortunately I haven’t been able to convince myself that 20 minutes a day of meditation is time better spent that say, 20 minutes of Xbox, reading, playing with my son, or relaxing with my wife; but I am sure I will get there!). But where this book lost me was its focus on a concept of spirituality that was never quite elucidated enough for me, not to mention its extolling of psychedelic drug use as a path to self-enlightenment.
    I did, however, gain insight from this book, and at the end of the day that is always a good thing. I have a close friend who has gone down the path of spirituality recently, and it was valuable to have this book as a sort of a roadmap to his experiences, and to understand some of the things he discusses with me. While I don’t think that spirituality without religion is something I need (nor spirituality with religion I might add), I am glad I read this book.
    So for now, I am happy sticking with my regular explanation for how I face and explain existence, without having to resort to using the word spirituality to describe any of it, as this still seems to me to be some failure of vocabulary, like when people speak of the soul, rather than their own mind/body.
    3.5 out of 5 illusions of the self

  26. Temple

    I think Matthew Reilly has established his style to such a degree now that instead of pointing out that this read was a fast-paced actions extravaganza, I can just point out that this story was very Reillyesque. I get exactly what I want from every Matthew Reilly book I read, and this was no exception.
    A mysterious idol deep in the South American jungle. Opposing forces struggling to control a mighty power. Thrilling chase scenes. Kick arse characters. Modern day Nazi’s. Historical intrigue. This book has it all!
    4.5 out of 5 against the odds feats of derring-do.

  27. The Vital Question

    (See above)

  28. The First

    I love the fact that my Amazon Kindle gives me access to a bunch of aspiring and new writers. So when I heard the story premise for this little read I was hooked: a woman is framed for the murder of her husband and sentenced to death, but awakens on the execution table with superhuman strength, near invulnerability, and a taste for revenge!
    Add into the mix a secret government lab, an elite team of special forces, and some mech-suits, and you are onto a winner.
    4 out of 5 bulletproof superladies.

  29. Money: The Unauthorised Biography

    Money is just something I have never understood easily. While it seems simple enough on the outside (“Money can be exchanged for goods and services” – economic theorist Home Simpson), it took many explanations by my PhD having wife for me to understand the basic concept of depreciation (how exactly again can it be that I can depreciate things?).
    So I was keen to get this book and learn as much as I can about the history of money, from Sumerian all the way up to Bitcoin. And while I have achieved part of that goal, I also struggled a bit with this read. The writing tries to straddle the line between a finance textbook, and an entertaining non-fiction read, but more often than not falls on the side of academic theory.
    Which hey, is fine and good if that is what you are looking for. I am sure than many more financially minded people would read this book and find it the perfect blend of history and theory. But for me personally, I need a bit more hand-holding to get me through this kind of thing.
    All in all, an interesting read, and I learned a lot from it. But I think I need to find a book that helps build the trunk of my financial knowledge a bit more before I can understand a lot of the minutia thrown about in texts such as this.
    3.5 out of 5 financial crises

  30. Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?

    (See above)

  31. Deaths End

    What a mind-bending read! Almost literally in some instances.
    When you are reading a book where some characters explore into the fourth dimension, you know you are going to be in for an interesting read. But then to also find out that part of this book includes things being ‘two-dimensiontalised’, and that you are going to have to try and understand how to visualise such things. Now suddenly my brain starts to hurt.
    Yet hurt in a good way. Why not be challenged if you are going to delve into the world of science fiction, why not hope and look forward to being confronted with these interesting speculative storylines.
    As the final installation of the Remembrance of Earths Past trilogy, I was pleased to see that this story not only brought an end to the saga (amongst other things), but also that it was refreshingly different from each other installation. Sure there were some familiar characters, but as with The Dark Forest, our main character was someone new, and the overall theme of the book was again positioned elsewhere.
    I highly recommend delving into this fascinating tale of alien contact/invasion/cooperation/etcetera.
    5 out of 5 dimensions of weirdness

  32. Ghost Flight

    I was intrigued to read Bear Grylls first foray into adult fiction. I have long been a fan of his show Man vs. Wild, so when I read the blurb about a mission into the jungle, I knew I would be in for a good time.
    Grylls writing reminds me a bit of Matthew Reilly’s. Indeed this is the second book that I have read this year that involves a rush to some historical thing in the South American jungle, where competing forces battle to get there first, and one of the sides might just be Nazi’s.
    The story was compelling from cover to cover, the characters interesting enough for me to want to get the sequel right now (but I am on a book buying diet).
    4 out of 5 mysterious crashed planes of possible Nazi origins

  33. Mythomania

    I did not like this book.
    That isn’t to say that it was a bad book exactly. I just didn’t get the point of it. I bought it hoping for an analysis of how myths pervade modern society; instead, I got a bunch of random disjointed essays that spoke of subjective things as if they were objective. I don’t think I need to read an essay about Judge Judy, and an analysis of why socialites like carrying small dogs really doesn’t pique my interest.
    I just kind of hate read the last portion of the book because I didn’t like it wasting my time, but felt committed to making my target of 40 books.
    (But again I shall point out that a lot of these books get low scores, not as an objective judgement of the books intrinsic worth, but more so because I have made a wrong choice in the book I have decided to read.)
    1 out of 5 regretful book purchases

  34. The Four Legendary Kingdoms

    I won’t spoil the surprise in the book, but I will point out that I totally nailed it ages ago. And it was pretty much exactly what I wanted, but I hope the same thing happens next book.
    But without further tapdancing around the secret, I think I explained earlier than Matthew Reilly is a very consistent author, and that by the mere mention of his name, you should know that adrenalin will soon be pumping once you turn that first page. This book was no exception.
    Our hero(es?) awaken in a cell, and have to fight a mysterious stranger to the death, and this is jus the introductory challenge, with many more nail-biting chapters awaiting. I love that Reilly is sticking with his Jack West Jr. character as it is refreshing to have Australian characters to follow on their world wrapping adventures. And yes while this one mostly takes place in a mysterious city under the ground, there is enough action (and setting up of future action) to keep you satisfied as you burn through the adventure.
    5 out of 5 fights to the death

  35. Locked On

    I had read a bunch of Tom Clancy books years ago, and always enjoyed the action and intrigue, but for ages I couldn’t find the book that was next in line for the Jack Ryan Jr. series. But, being that I have the most awesome wife of all time, I was gifted the missing tome late last year.
    I don’t want to make it sounds bland or predictable when an author is true to form, but for me, Tom Clancy is a bit like Matthew Reilly in that you always get what you pay for. This particular tale follows the exploits of the off-the-book intelligence/assassination organisation known as The Campus as they face yet another imminent terrorist threat. It also includes the presidential campaign of Jack Ryan as he seeks to get re-elected, and watching this amidst what was happening in the U.S. at the time was a bizarre experience (I read this book as Drumpf was being elected, and it made me long for a president who could speak in cogent sentences).
    4 out of 5 convoluted terrorist plots

  36. Play at Work

    As someone who has consistently aged at the same rate as the average age of a gamer, I was keen to pick up this book and see how some of the principles of gaming can be applied to the workplace.
    Given the exponential rise of information technology in the workplace, it is no surprise that people are interested in accessing the power of games, whether it be through the power of gamification, the implementation of leaderboards and competition, or simply the collaborative and creative nature of humans which is so efficiently harnessed through games like Minecraft.
    But while there are many great stories to tell about how games are changing our workplace, I think a lot of what is covered in this book is more than just an explanation of how games help us work, but rather an acknowledgement of how technology is helping us work. Though perhaps what I should have taken from this book is the fact that technology and games are converging in such a way that the two things are blending ore and more each day.
    I don’t know, I honestly just like reading about tech, and this book served that purpose well.
    3.5 out of 5 arbitrary game points

  37. Homo Deux

    This is the spiritual successor to one of last year’s best read: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari‎. And whereas the previous book was an overarching history of homo sapiens from their evolution right up till today, this new book is a sort of history of our species in the future…
    I know what you are thinking; a history book about the future? But trust me it is an interesting read. As unpredictable as the future may be, it is fascinating to witness as a historian seeks to identify the patterns of history, and apply this thinking to how thing might pan out in the not too distant future.
    This leads to some intriguing ideas, like the abandonment of the self due to AI being better at understanding who we are, or the dissolution of work when automation takes over much of humanities wants and desires.
    Well worth a read, but if you haven’t read Sapiens, I suggest you start there.
    4 out of 5 post-humans

  38. Sleeping Giants

    Very engaging read with an initial hook that keeps you glued to the page. A young girl falls down a hole in the woods and lands on a giant metal hand. Years later she is the scientists charged with learning more about the mysterious artefact, and tracking down similar pieces across the world.
    I was surprised by the format of the novel, where every chapter is essentially some written record or transcript of an interview. But I have to say it worked out very well, both as a way to give info dumps about the science fiction portion of the story, but also to elicit the thoughts and introspections of the main characters.
    I look forward to the sequel.
    4 out of 5 giant robotic body parts

  39. The Old Man and the Sea

    (See above)

  40. 1913: The Eve of War

    My last read for the year, and just barely had the time. You may have noticed the odd sneaky short read on here, a couple of Kindle singles and a novel that is more of a short story; but I think the worth of a read is not dictated solely by the length, and this little pre-World War 1 primer was exactly what I was looking for.
    Do I understand fully now the causes of World War 1? No, I do not. But it has given me a greater understanding and appreciation of the complex nature of the conflict, and how history is rarely a simple affair.
    In Crash Course World History (a series of YouTube videos by John Green that I highly recommend everyone watch at least twice), John states that historians like wars because they have a simple start and end date. Yet as with most things history, this turns out to not be as simple as people would like. World War 1 is a perfect example of this. Not only are the borders of a wars timeline fuzzy, but as this book shows even the borders surrounding the accepted reasons for a war taking place can move and shift over time.
    World War 1 still fascinates and confuses me, but at least now I have a better understanding of the length and depth of my ignorance, rather than just blindly accepting the stock standard stories that go along with it.
    5 out of 5 geopolitical powder kegs.

Note: something else I have learnt from this 2016 in Books: it takes ages to write up your thoughts on 40 books, especially when you read them over the span of a year. So as 2017 makes its way around the sun, I think I might do a mini review after each book, and then do my ten-word summaries or something else next January.

2016 in Books: Books 30 to 34

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I haven’t posted an update of my reading progress or this year in a while, so guess it is time for a quick catch up.

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Book 31: Deaths End

First off, the final part of Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past sci-fi trilogy. I was really looking forward to seeing where Liu was going to take his story of impending alien invasion. Each entry in this trilogy has followed a different character and presented itself as a unique take on the idea of alien contact, and alien invasion.

The last instalment was no exception. It was a great read, and as expected Liu took the tale to extreme corners of the imagination, whether it be three-dimensional being entering fourth-dimensional space, or the terrifying account of people and cities being destroyed via ‘two-dimensionalisation’. This story was quite gripping, but also a very intensive effort.

Having finished the entire trilogy this year I definitely recommend it.

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Book 32: Ghost Flight

After the dense thinkathon that was Deaths End, it will be good to get back into a light adventure novel. Having watched my son enjoy some of Bear Grylls children’s novels, I decided to see what kind of a story Bear is able to put together for us adults, and picked up a copy of his first adult novel; Ghost Flight.

I have to say it was a pretty cracking read, kept up a good pace of action, and had a story intriguing enough to keep me guessing. As one would imagine, there was a bunch of tradecraft and survival skills thrown in, with detailed descriptions of things like parachute deployments, and best practice for jungle trecking; but that was part of the fun of reading a Bear Grylls novel. If anything, it reminded me of one of my favourite authors, Matthew Reilly. I shall be getting the sequel soon…

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Book 33: Mythomania

I don’t know why I bought this book on my Kindle, and honestly, I am struggling to get through it. The premise sounded interesting enough; a modern analysis of how myths are still alive in our current era, whether it be through the persona of the president’s plane Air Force One, or a critical analysis of the Kardashians tv show. Each chapter is a small essay on some obscure topic, with analogies to myths from humanities past, and frequent references to French philosophers. And while some of its topics are interesting (neon lights and their place in culture for instance), others seem to be trying too hard to analyse trivial topics (I don’t need to hear that much about Judge Judy thank you).

I am finding this book hard to finish actually, as too often the author’s views seem stolid, or perhaps just too disparate compared to my own. When he decries the modern e-reader as an inferior experience to physical books for example, and complains about the need to have an electrical cord attached, I can’t help but feel he is just trying to rationalise a personal preference. Funny though as I am reading it via my awesome Kindle.

I shall finish the book however, as though it isn’t at the top of my books for this year, I have nevertheless learned from it.

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Book 34: The Four Legendary Kingdoms

Matthew Reilly! Some people balk at his writing, but honestly I love it. His stories are a romping great read, and as long as your expectations are aligned accordingly when you pick up his latest stories, you are rarely disappointed. I won’t spoil what happens in this one, as fans of the series will like to enjoy the ride along the way. But I will say that it was great to have a new Matthew Reilly book in my hands. Reilly seems like one of those rare authors whose presence you can feel alongside you when you read the book; you can tell that he is having as much fun telling the story, as you are reading it.

Can’t wait for the next one, but until then I will have to make do reading Hover Car Racer to my son, in an attempt to indoctrinate a new young mind to the wonders of Matthew Reilly.

Now, on to my next book…

Book 25 for 2016: Waking Up

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I am an ardent atheist, and have spent a lot of time over the years engaging with religious people online. Though I think I have a pretty good handle on a lot of the arguments presented for religions, I always stumble when people start talking about spirituality.

What the hell do people mean when they say they have a spiritual experience, or that they are spiritual people? It has always seemed like some extraneous addition to the human condition, something that I can easily do without; akin to astrology, or having a favourite AFL team.

To me it has always seemed that those struggling to explain spiritual experiences are simply in need of a good thesaurus.

Recently however some other ideas connected with this have been showing up on my radar with increasing frequency. Constant posts on the web extol the virtues of meditation as confirmed by science, I read a great article the other day about how Buddhist thought can be applied to modern psychology theories, and one of my old university friends appears to have embraced the spiritual side of life with a bizarre  fervour.

So when Sam Harris’ book appeared in an Amazon Kindle sale, I couldn’t help but click buy. I have had some great success this past couple of years with realigning my thinking on topics by finding the right book on the subject. Whether it be The Compassionate Carnivore helping me to square the circle that is my taste for meat, but distaste for killing animals, or The Better Angels of Our Nature giving me a new optimistic view of humanity’s moral progress through history; I have learnt never to doubt the transformative powers of a well written bunch of words.

And while I don’t expect to become spiritual myself, I am hoping that by understanding this phenomenon in other people, it will give me a better understanding of how a thing like this fits into their lives.

#2016inbooks #spiritualshmiritual

Book 24 for 2016: Quirkology


One of my favourite channels to watch on YouTube is Vsauce. For those of you who haven’t watched any of these videos, i highly recommend you go check some of them out right away. They cover everything from mathematics, science, culture and art, but always from a perspective that you likely never looked at before. One video questions why your ‘bottom’ is actually in the middle of you, another questions when will will run out of music.
During a recent binge watch, I noticed this book popping up numerous times in the references, as well as the author’s name on other videos and articles. So when the book appeared at my local $10 book shop I couldn’t resist.

Quirkology refers to the multitude of scientific studies conducted by professional scientists into the strange little idiosyncrasies of life; the quirks. Things like why people’s name often reflect their occupation, or how people in dangerous situations will be more likely to find people sexually attractive. Or even how people are more likely to do well in a game of trivial pursuit if they are told beforehand to think about a professor (or conversely will do worse if they think about a football hooligan).

#2016inbooks #superfluoushashtag

2016 in Books: Books 16 to 23

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It has been a busy couple of months, with end of financial year stuff appearing at work, along with renovations at home, a weeklong trip to Tasmania, and general disarray; this has really taken a toll on my reading time!

I have however, reached a milestone in my #2016inbooks: I have passed 20 books completed, which is the total number of books I read last year. And while I concede that some of these books are quite short (with a couple being Kindle Singles), I plan on redoubling my efforts to get a bunch of hefty reads under my belt.

Now, time for a quick recap on the reads that I have managed to cross off my list:

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Book 16: The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures by Christine Kenneally.

This book was a Kindle sale item that came along just as a series on heritage and DNA was showing on SBS so I was the perfect target. It is a fascinating read that goes through the various aspects of our history as told through DNA, whether it be explaining how the very idea of genealogy developed over time, through to the dark era of eugenics, and then onto the modern era of genetic testing and genotype mapping.

I was hooked from the get go, with the book inspiring me to delve into Ancestry.com and build up my own family tree. Definitely worth a read if you are interested not only in your own family history, but the history of humans throughout the ages.

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Book 17: Aurora by my favourite author Kim Stanley Robinson.

This book was a read from last year that I kind of read again by accident, or as much as one can read a book by accident I suppose. I had previously bought the book on my Kindle when it was released, but my awesome wife picked me up a physical copy as a surprise last month, which precipitated this year’s read.

Last year Aurora, it really took me by surprise. At the time I considered it quite pessimistic for a book by KSR, who I usually see as presenting very realistic approaches to modern day utopian thinking. So I think when I first read this book I was taken aback by what I perceived as a disparity between what I was expecting, and what I received.

Being able to tackle the book again however, I was able to separate my expectations, and really focus on the story; and I loved it.

Set on the tail end of a generation ship’s journey to a distant star Aurora is a hard science fiction tale that deals with the repercussions of isolating a group of humanity, and earth’s environment, in a closed system, and sending them out to fend for themselves for hundreds of years. I won’t go into it in any more detail, as the story takes some interesting twists and turns, but I highly recommend investing some time with this book, particularly if you like your sci-fi full of chunky ideas to sink your teeth into.

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Book 18: Drunk Tank Pink

An impulse buy from the $5 book shop, this book reminded me of Freakonomics, but if it were written from a psychological/marketing perspective. A lot of interesting insights into human behaviour and how our minds work. The title itself refers to a particular shade of ink that appears to sap people of their strength (hence the use in drunk tanks), but delves into everything from how we interact with the environment, how other influence our actions, and how the tiny little things in life can often have grand and far reaching consequences.

The scientific rigour is a bit lacking in this book, but that seems to come with the territory when dealing with this form of popular science book. So while it may bring to bear many interesting concepts and questions, you will have to delve into the literature a bit yourself if you want to be more thoroughly convinced.


Book 19: Heartland of Manga: Tokyo and San Francisco

I have written about this read separately, and you can find that piece here.


Book 20: Young Hitler, a Kindle Single by Paul Ham

World War 2 always has such a strange, perverse attraction to me. I am fascinated by it, and love watching movies or TV shows set during this dark part of our recent history, but it seems strange to voice this opinion without sounding, well, terrible.

Recently my own son summed up this ambiguity when he said to me “Dad, I know it sounds strange, but World War 2 is my favourite war.” It does sound strange, but I totally get it.

There is something fascinating about that era; about the world at war, fighting on a scale never before seen, with advances in technology that boggled the mind, and at the centre of it all a struggle of ideas and ideals.

And of course at the centre of much of this are the great individuals that helped shape the stream of history: the Churchill’s, Roosevelt’s and Stalin’s. But perhaps the longest shadow cast on this era is that cast by Adolf Hitler.

I am often put off reading books about the World Wars because of the sheer scale involved, and thus the commitment required to try and wrap one’s head around this significant part of our recent history. So when I noticed a book by Paul Ham on the Kindle Singles list, I was excited. Kindle Singles are small self-contained reads, and Paul Ham is best known for his works on twentieth century wars, so I figured this might be a good place to start.

And it was.

Young Hitler has a very well define scope; it wants to talk about Hitler’s youth, and how this shaped him into the man he would become. One thing that has stuck with me is how the author goes to great effort to show that Hitler was a human, not in an attempt to humanise him, but rather as a means of illustrating that the existence someone like Hitler wasn’t some evil being devoid of humanity; he was an evil human being.

This quote I think says it all:

“On the other hand, it is lazy to brand Hitler a monster, a psychotic killer, the incarnation of evil and then walk away as if our job is done, as it suggests that he was a rare and inexplicable phenomenon, a freak of history whom we’re unlikely to meet again, rather than a man with banal, commonplace ideas who reflected the darkest prejudices of European society.”

We have to strive to understand things like Hitler, because if we paint history with too wide a brush we risk letting the important little truths slip between the brushstrokes.

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Book 21: The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman

A very eye-opening book about the heretofore unappreciated intelligence of birds. I love a good science read, and I love learning about the natural world; combine these with a gifted writer, and this has become one of my favourite books of the year. Sometimes I read a book, and enjoy it, but it fails to have that little extra that sticks with you; that changes your view on something, or enlightens you about something else.

This book was not one of those books. The Genius of Birds is one of those reads that helped create a new facet of my mind. I am now an ardent proponent of bird intelligence. I look at birds differently, I look at my dog differently; I even look at myself differently. So many of the anecdotes will stay with me, whether it be the Drongo mimicking a bird’s alarm call to frighten it away and steal its food, or the fact that pigeons can be trained to differentiate between impressionist paintings, and cubist paintings. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in birds, in the various theories of intelligence, or who just likes a fascinating read about the world around them.

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Book 22: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R. R. Martin

Withdrawals from Game of Thrones led me to this read. A collection of short stories set 100 years before the TV show all following a knight and his squire. Not quite on the same scope as GoT, nor even the same tone, but an engaging read nonetheless. It was interesting to see stories set in Westeros, but from a more quotidian point of view.

Failed to slake my hunger however, so back to the forums and YouTube compilations of Jon Snow’s awesomeness for me.

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Book 23: The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do

The note on this book is from my 30th, almost two years ago… So I was happy to finally be able to check this book off my list.

It was a thoroughly great read. Anh is a very funny dude, and a great writer. The book really bring across just how down to earth and humble he is, but also shows how introspective he can be. Reading about his life, and particularly about how his childhood, and his parents, influenced the man he became, really spoke to me.

“There are only two times”, his dad used to say “theres now, and theres too late”. This seemed like a great motivational tool and indeed Anh presents it that way at first. But it also ended up being born from a pivotal (and tragic) moment in his fathers life. This book really highlighted for me the strange way that life takes us on a journey, without us ever really knowing it at the time. Much like how Kierkegaard said “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”.

Given the state of things in Australia (the election of Pauline Hanson for starters), it is great to read this story of a refugee family coming to Australia, and making their life here. Anh’s story starts with his family escaping from Vietnam in a boat, something that should still resonate with Australians these days, but instead we find a growing apathy toward the plight of refugees from politicians from both major parties.

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Anh goes into racism a few times in the book, but mostly has positive things to say about his families treatment from the Australian public. I worry that the same story won’t be replicated by those refugees finding their way to our shores presently.


Now to get back into the swing of things, and start knocking over some more tasty reads.

#2016inBooks #accidentalrereadsarethebestrereads #needtoreadmore #GeniusofBirds #TheHappiestRefugee

 

Thoughts on Heartland of Manga: Tokyo and San Francisco by Craig Atkinson

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[Full Disclosure: I know the author of this book, he is a childhood friend of my sisters. And while I would argue that this hasn’t influenced my opinion of the book, it is definitly the reason why this book was made known to me.]

Heartland of Manga: Tokyo and San Francisco  is a small collection of pieces written by Craig Atkinson, an Aussie expat living in Japan.

This book is not the kind of read I usually fill my nights with. Indeed the best thing I can relate it to on my bookshelf is a book purchased years ago by Tim Winton. But sometimes it is great to slip out of your comfort zone, and really embrace something new and different.

I like being transported to different worlds. This is in part why I love reading science fiction so much; to imagine strange new worlds, concepts, or technologies, and see how they would play out in reality. But a good book can obviously be about more than just some currently unattained reality. As one of my friends once remarked to me online, “Books teach us about the years we didn’t/will never live“, and this book does exactly that.

It gives me an insight into parts of the world I have ever been, cultures I haven’t encountered, and viewpoints i had never glimpsed before. It made me look up what a Golden Week was, and wonder what exactly people were eating when they tucked into some yakisoba.

Some of the vignettes are probably first hand accounts, retellings of Craig’s experiences over the years, but others seem to be fictional sorties brought about due to his experiences out in the world. Two such stories tell the contrasting viewpoints of a simple silent encounter in the Japanese night. A small flicker in time between two people, whose inner thoughts are brought to life. I liked how the writing captures the little things in life that tell so much about ourselves, but that go unsaid:

The type of conversation that would last for hours if verbalized, but when it’s unspoken like this, it only lasts a few seconds.

One of my favourite chapters is simply titled Baseball, and describes a local match taking part in Japan. The narrator casually explains what he sees around him, whether it be a description of the current game, the season, or the people surrounding him; slowly a picture is painted of what it would be like to be there. But also you get little insights into life, like the following observation of a family that had attended the game:

The game seems to have brought the family a little closer together. That closeness was not something that could have been bought for the small price of a few tickets in the outfield, but with something money can’t buy: time.

So true. So obvious, and yet it was a thought that I hadn’t really taken he time (heh) to really absorb.

I am a big fan of saving quotes on my kindle, especially when they ring true for my past experiences, or offer some insight into life in general. In the following quotes I can see a reflection of myself at certain points in my life, and it is always bracing to see fiction hold a mirror up to your psyche, if only to have the opportunity to empathise, and reflect:

I think loneliness can sometimes be manageable when surrounded by familiarity.

If he had the courage to do what he wanted, to live unrestrained, how life might be different.

And lastly, in a self referential kind of way, this quote sums up my feelings about this little read:

(…)like a good book, that even when you reach the last page, you still search for a hidden chapter until you realize the story is complete and embedded in your soul.

I did want more, and I hope in the future I will find a few more reads coming my way.

MM

Book 12 for 2016: Superintelligence

Book 12 for 2016: Superintelligence
I have had this book waiting in my kindle all year, but it seems so daunting being written by a philosopher, and tackling some heady issues. Thus I had been picking some easier reads instead of delving in.
I have to say though, I do like the grand nature of the issue being tackled. Sure it may sound like science fiction, but if we are indeed working towards artificial intelligence, even a little, then this is clearly an issue, and a possible threat, that we need to be devoting our time to understanding.
So while the book itself may not solve any of the problems it elucidates, indeed many of these problems may never even come to be true, it is nevertheless a worthwhile undertaking simply to try and wrap our heads around the idea of Superintelligence, and how it will impact humanity.
It reminds me of one of my favourite Bertrand Russell quotes, where the philosopher explains why he thinks philosophy is a worthwhile pursuit. It’s worth reading, despite it being one of the largest sentences I can recall reading (it has two semicolons!):
“Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.” – Bertrand Russell, Problems of Philosophy
#2016inbooks #Superintelligence #ElonMuskWillSaveUs #bertrandrussell from Instagram: http://ift.tt/1Vxft7Y