Humble Book Review: A Brief History of Time

Wormholes, time travel, the Big Bang… these are all things that have been touched upon by many science fiction writers, each with their own take on the many mysterious concepts. But the initial concepts weren’t plucked out of writers’ imaginations to captivate readers; they were theorized by a long line of philosophers and scientists, trying to piece together the universe as we know it, and to come up with an answer for all the greatest questions ever posed.

And with A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking summarises as best he can the current state of the largest mysteries ever worked on, such as; Is the universe expanding? Can we travel back in time? What happened before the universe was created?

I’ll admit that even though it is quite a popular book, being a best-seller for many years, I’m not quite sure who his target audience was. I have a bit of a scientific background, but about two thirds into each of the chapters, I was completely lost and couldn’t follow the threads of thought. Those deep in the scientific community might not enjoy this due to the short time spent on each massive topic, needing a better breakdown. Those laymen of the world (myself included) might struggle to even follow the first premises given in the first few paragraphs.

Basically, I found myself nodding absently every now and then, with the voice murmuring in the back of my head saying yeah, seems legit or I guess so.

Because of the prevalence of science fiction in recent decades, I’ve encountered many of the topics in sensationalised form, so at least I didn’t come into this book completely blind.

It’s great to see the humility in admitting that we are still a very long way from understanding the way the universe ticks and that we may, in a few more decades, come to know just a little bit more in the search for the one universal explanation that ties everything together.

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Humble Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years is a fascinated read for anyone interested in human history, in how we have developed and spread as a species, and just how certain civilisations conquered others to arrive in the states that they are now.

Specifically, Jared Diamond attempts to answer a very important question; why was it that Eurasian civilisations were able to survive and conquer other nations, instead of the other way around? Presumably, 13,000 years ago, each of our human ancestor settlements across the globe were in the same position with respect to technology, so why was Eurasia successful? While answering this question, Diamond also refutes the controversial idea that Eurasian rule is due to any form of inherent advantage in Eurasian intellect, morals, or genetic superiority.

Tackling the aforementioned refutation is particularly important, as unfortunately, many people in well off societies seem to believe it.

Diamond quite successfully argues that rather than inherent advantages, gaps in power and technology stem from several opportunistic advantages in geography and environmental standings, which caused some positive feedback loops, resulting in auto-catalytic growth.

What started it all, was the slow migration from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies, roughly 13,000 years ago. From being able to domesticate various plants and animals, tribes could begin to stock surplus supplies, and provide for non-food producing members, such as chiefs, scribes, etc. Once you free up time to focus on non-food related activities, societies can begin to expand, giving rise to population booms.

With population booms come epidemics, which, over time, survivors develop a resistance to. When these disease-resistant members invade small tribes in other parts of the world who have never been exposed, the germs can decimate untouched bands and tribes, often well in advance of the invaders themselves.

Back to the question; why was Eurasia so fruitful and not another part of the world? This mainly rests on the abundance of domesticable plants and animals compared to other continents, and the fact that Eurasia lies on an east-west axis, as opposed to north-south like the Americas or Africa. With different latitudes, comes different suitability of crops. They could not expand north-south, due to snowy regions, unseasonable tropics, or harsh deserts. But they could expand east-west, which Eurasia could accommodate.

All of this is quite fascinating, and my modest summary simply cannot do it the proper justice. However, it seems that Diamond goes over some points laboriously, to really drive home a small point, or will revisit an answer several times. Either that, or it’s been a while since I’ve read such a long non-fiction book! But I guess it helps, I could sum up the book pretty well, as it was drilled into me.

This book was mentioned by the great Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, known for his book & online course Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I strongly advise you check out his work before this, as he sums up the agricultural section of humankind quite well – Guns, Germs, and Steel is a great knowledge addition to it.

Humble Book Review: Silk Road

My partner has recently been holding a curious fascination with what is known as the dark web. In turn, I delved into the available information in the ‘safe’ internet we all are familiar with, also known as the clear web. The more I had read, the more I wanted to know about it. The internet we know comprises of only 4% of all web pages – 96% resides in the dark web. Think of that unsettling iceberg metaphor – most of it you can’t even see. And the services provided on the dark web range from the subjectively illegal such as drug trafficking, to the downright morally abhorrent such as human experimentation, child pornography, and torture.

Silk Road by Eileen Ormsby details the rise and fall of one of the more tame sections of the dark web; encrypted online drug vending. It explains how another critical invention – the purely digital cryptocurrency Bitcoin – allowed Silk Road, the first of it’s kind, to flourish into the ‘eBay of Drugs’ with a dedicated fan base that may have come for the safer drug purchases, but stayed for the libertarian revolution, helmed by the infamous online persona Dread Pirate Roberts.

This was a great read, primarily because the author held a very level and informative tone about the overall drug trafficking trade that didn’t slip into a manic fever, like the majority of columnists and television news reporters so often do. And there was good reason to not wear the loud critic’s hat, because against the mainstream media’s expectations, Silk Road actually flourished into a civil online community with helpful advice on overcoming addiction, safe use of drugs, and the site even had a resident qualified doctor to answer user questions for free (or very small voluntary donations).

However, nothing lasts forever, and the combined efforts of the LEO (Law Enforcement Officers) scouring for human mistakes, the big-time scammers misusing customer trust, and the crippling hacking events, had all played a part in the original movement’s downfall.

The supposed capture of the enigmatic Dread Pirate Roberts, the man behind it all, accelerated the site’s demise. But in a world centred on anonymity, is the man the police captured so easily the same man that was so very careful and paranoid online?

Ormsby, Silk Road’s community, and I all have our doubts. Hence, the book doesn’t really reach a satisfying conclusion, because it seems to suggest that the Silk Road story is far from over. But the inclusions of interviews and quotes from people who were a part of the community, and letters from Dread Pirate Roberts himself, all make for Silk Road to be a great insight into a world few know about and fewer visit themselves.

Check it out for yourself here.

Reading in 2015: Surprises and Great Anticipations

As the year 2015 draws to a close, I can’t help but reflect on the wild ride that came of it. Personally, I quit my unsatisfying desk job, and decided to move to Beijing for 5 months, ineffectively flailing my limbs as I taught English in a Chinese boarding school. That brought on a whole new tidal wave of challenges, with my learning a foreign language from scratch being the most prominent.

However, something that has remained consistent throughout these new experiences has been my hunger for truly memorable books. No matter where I am, no matter how isolated I feel or how difficult life seems, I can isolate myself even further, locking myself into a book, and use the pages as walls to barricade me from reality. Not that reality is something to be avoided entirely, but it needs to be witnessed from another perspective at times, a perspective that can be found in amazing universes created by gifted authors.

So, with my busy slice of reality, I didn’t take my 2015 reading challenge lightly when I chose to read 20 books. After completing my 20th novel yesterday, I wanted to reflect on the year of literature I’ve experienced; fiction and non-fiction, classics and contemporary, well-received and shunned. So, here is my list for 2015:

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