It’s summertime here in Eastern Europe, and after suffering through a freezing winter with lots of snow, it’s nice to finally not needing to wear 20 layers of clothing just to throw out the trash. Summers are also the perfect time for catching up on some overdue reading.

Here are some books I’ve been reading (and re-reading):

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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

In one sentence: humans were able to conquer the planet because they were able to believe in collective myths that other species couldn’t (and still cannot) do.

This is probably one of the most interesting and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read. The book’s author, Yuval Harari, does a masterful job of compressing the entire human history into a very enjoyable and elucidating read. This ain’t your typical history book.

The main question he asks is why were the Homo Sapiens were successful in conquering our planet and not some other species (including our ancestors Homo Neanderthals).

The answer was that we were the first species to think in terms of something that only existed in our collective imagination. Monkeys can see trees and rivers, but we were able to see not only trees and rivers, but also Jesus Christ, the Bible, Argentina, Germany, Microsoft and Bitcoin, something that no monkey can do.

In other words, we were we able to come together in huge numbers by believing in a certain myth. Whereas Mount Everest is a real mountain, one that you can touch and climb, the United States of America only exists in our collective imagination. If tomorrow, people stopped believing in the US, it would cease to exist (remember USSR?), but Mount Everest would still stand exactly where it is whether we chose to believe in it or not.

This enabled us to build things collectively that monkeys and lions could never do. This explains the existence of countries, companies, factories, religions and virtual currencies.

According to Harari, history is roughly divided into three phases: agricultural, cognitive and scientific. During the agricultural revolution, humans went from being hunters and gatherers to growing and maintaining agriculture farms. Harari calls this phase a mistake because we were essentially domesticated by wheat by doing more work than before while getting back less value.

After the cognitive phase came the scientific phase, which continues up to this day. Measured in terms of history’s span, this phase is relatively short, lasting only a couple of hundred years.

Here are some passages that I found very interesting:

Any large-scale human cooperation — whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe — is rooted in common myths that exist only in peoples collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins.

States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights — and the money paid out in fees.

Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.

Voltaire said about God that “there is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night.”

And what are the characteristics that evolved in humans? ‘Life’, certainly. But ‘liberty’? There is no such thing in biology. Just like equality, rights and limited liability companies, liberty is something that people invented and that exists only in their imagination.

 

Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future. It’s founded on the assumption that our future resources are sure to be far more abundant than our present resources. A host of new and wonderful opportunities open up if we can build things in the present using future income.

 

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Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

In one sentence: As technology improves, our beliefs will increasingly shift from believing in ourselves to believing in the algorithms and AI that will know about us more than we know about ourselves.

This is Harari’s sequel to Homo Sapiens. The book starts by quickly reviewing the concepts discussed in the previous book, namely the fact that humans were able to conquer the world because they believed in the collective myths.

The second part of the book talks about the “religion of humanism.” According to the author, humanism is essentially the belief that humans themselves are sacred. This has lead to things like human rights, the abolition of the death penalty, etc.

In order to illustrate his point further, the author recounts a time when the German Chancellor Angela Merkel was telling a young Palestinian girl that she’s being deported after her asylum application got rejected. Not wanting to leave Germany, the little girl immediately started to cry. Initially, Angela Merkel was firm with her rejection, but in the face of public outcry, she eventually relented and granted her asylum.

Harari explains how humanism is shown through the depiction of war. Few centuries ago, wars were portrayed as something romantic and beautiful. Typically, there was a glorious general riding on the horse with the soldiers fighting being portrayed as little dots.

This has since been reversed. The soldier is now featured prominently in the foreground. He’s usually confused and dazed as though he’s not quite sure what he has gotten himself into. There’s none of that romanticism as before. War is rough. People die. War is fucked up. That’s the message.

The third and final section of the book deals with the different religions that might replace humanism. Harari’s main argument is that our world will be filled with artificial intelligence and algorithms, humanism will cease to function because humans will no longer be considered to be sacred.

One of his central arguments against humanism is the existence (or lack of) of free will. Do we have free will? Are we doing something because we want to do something or are we merely controlled by genes and DNA? To illustrate his argument, he recounts an experiment where special chips are attached to rats’ brains that control their movements. These rats feel they’re acting on their free will but are really controlled by humans.

What will be the point of humans when the algorithms will know us better than we know ourselves?

The last part of the book reads mostly like science fiction. Harari talks about the different ways that AI will do things that we already do better and more efficient. On one hand, it’s difficult to disagree with what he’s saying. Self-driving cars will certainly be safer and more efficient than having your own car and only using it few times per day. But on the other hand, one can only speculate that a lot of great and amazing things will happen thanks to data. Google knows everything about you, so it seems more than likely Google will tell you who to date, who to marry, where to live, etc. Why not? Data will solve all the problems.

While I enjoyed the last part, it felt a little forced. It’s as though Harari tried really hard to prove that data will solve everything simply because it’s doubtful that humans have any free will. Although it’s hard to disprove something that can’t be proven, what will happen in the future is really anyone’s guess. I mean, we’re living in the 21st century and still drive cars instead of flying in our personal spaceships as people predicted. Technology doesn’t evolve as rapidly as we think. Nevertheless, Harari’s predictions are interesting and definitely worth pondering over.

Although this book was great, it didn’t have as much “meat” as the first one. The first one was mind blowingly awesome. This one was just awesome. Both books are more than worth your time.

 

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True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

In few sentences: when a person doesn’t take responsibility for his own problems, he starts blaming others for his problems. Absolving responsibility leads people to join all kinds of mass organizations like cults.

I first read this book in 2012. I liked it so much that I re-read it a couple of months ago. The central theme of this book is political systems like Nazism, Fascism, and Communism are the result from the people’s dissatisfaction with their everyday life. Essentially, if a person feels hopeless and useless, he’s much more likely to join a mass organization instead of diligently working on solving his own problems.

Although we no longer have Nazism or Communism, the ideas in this book are still applicable today. For example, we have Feminism and there are lots of men who blame all their women (and non-women) problems on this ideology. The truth is that, instead of worrying about some abstract ideology, one can use that energy to improve and become a better version of oneself. Instead of worrying about some ideology, one can focus on your own self-development and endeavors.

This is partly what makes America unique and successful. People come to America to “make it” which generally means building a business. No one expects for things to just fall into their lap. So, if the person is busy minding his own business, he doesn’t have time to mind someone else’s business; he doesn’t have time to join some other organization or fight for some abstract ideological cause. It’s only when people don’t have anything meaningful to do or feel that their lives are hopelessly meaningless, do they have the incentive to join some mass movement whether it’s some religion, a political party or some cult.

This book is a classic that should be read by pretty much everyone. Here are several passages I enjoyed:

The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready is he to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.

Every established mass movement has its distant hope, its brand of dope to dull the impatience of the masses and reconcile them with their lot in life. Stalinism is as much an opium of the people as are the established religions.

Freedom aggravates at least as much as it alleviates frustration. Freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual.

They demonstrate the fact that we can never have enough of that which we really do not want, and that we run fastest and farthest when we run from ourselves.

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The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion

In few sentences: conservatives and liberals view the world differently because of different moral codes. Both are right in their own way.

I read this book because I wanted to understand why Liberals and Conservatives view the world so differently, and why America has been so polarized, especially as witnessed during the recent (2016) presidential election.

According to the author, one of the key differences between liberals and conservatives is liberals believe that people should be rewarded equally, but conservatives believe that people should be rewarded proportionally. That is, if I work harder than Joe, I should be rewarded more than Joe. I should make more money and have better living conditions.

This is why liberals are always for bigger governments, one that takes money from the rich and gives them to the poor in the form of social services. The conservatives believe in the smaller government, one that minds its business and lets people be rewarded according to their efforts. Immigration is another contemptuous issue. Conservatives want less immigration; liberals want more.

He makes is that we do something first and then rationalize our behavior later. Our moral codes are chiefly emotional. We do something as a result of an emotional component and then justify our behavior using different words and ideologies.

If there’s one actionable lesson you’ll learn from this book is that you should never argue with a random guy on the Internet, something I see happening all the time. It’s pointless. I never do it. And neither should you.

Although I enjoyed this book, I felt the author didn’t explain some of the moral belief systems as deeply as he should’ve. He mentions that conservatives are more likely to support “sanctity” such as a religion but doesn’t really explain as to the deeper reasons why.

Why do some people are outright disgusted while seeing two men kissing? And some people are perfectly fine with it? Is it biological or cultural?

Why are some people more tolerant of immigrants than others? Is it biological or cultural?

Why are some people more accepting of religious than others? Is it biological or cultural?

After reading this book, I still can’t answers these questions. The author doesn’t really explain besides simply saying that it’s a combination of nature and nurture.

Still, I recommend this book to everyone who wants to understand why you can have life-long best friends suddenly turn into bitter enemies after a Presidential candidate win an election. (I’m pretty apolitical, and I don’t have much against Trump, but one of my closest friends who lives in San Francisco hates Trump with a passion). Even families can have irreconcilable quarrels due to politics or economics.

Here’re some cool quotes:

Once people join a political team, they get ensnared in its moral matrix. They seen confirmation of their grand narrative everywhere, and it’s difficult—perhaps impossible—to convince them that they are wrong if you argue with them from outside the matrix.

We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital.

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Escape from Freedom

In few sentences: people must be told what to do. If they’re given freedom and aren’t told what to do (democracy) they will run to those who will tell them what to do (dictatorship).

This book was written in 1941 just as Nazi Germany’s tanks were steamrolling through most of Europe. The book’s main argument is that while democracy is a great form of government, it’s not without its faults because people simply don’t know what to do with all the freedom they’re given. As Winston Churchill has famously said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

In a way, this is something that modern societies have been struggling with since liberalism became the dominant political system in the West. If you look at more conservative societies, there’s always an inherent structure. Patriarchal societies are much more structured than the liberal ones (i.e., compare America and Eastern Europe). So, if people are given freedom to do what they want, they do what they want without any regard for some structure.

To be sure, there are inherent disadvantages to democracy when the nation is under stress such as during rapid economic growth (China) or during a war. In both cases, decisions need to be made rapidly by informed individuals and not left to chance as a result of a vote.

The question is this a good or a bad thing? That depends on how you look at it. The author argues that people must be able to exploit this freedom instead of running away from it (something the author calls “running from freedom” as opposed to “running to freedom”). The solution is to exploit this freedom and do what you want without worrying what others think.

Having said that, I believe that democracy freedom is here to stay. Democracy in the world has only increased and it’s doubtful that some kind of dictatorship would return and replace it. It’s up to each individual to use this freedom to help us reach our own potential.

Here are some cool quotes:

Man does not suffer so much from poverty today as he suffers from the fact that he has become a cog in a large machine, an automaton, that his life has become empty and lost its meaning.

The feature common to all authoritarian thinking is the conviction that life is determined by forces outside of man’s own self, his interest, his wishes. The only possible happiness lies in the submission to these forces.

 

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Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power

In few sentences: multinational companies operate without any allegiance to any government; they act like empires all on their own, going where there’s money to be made.

I was originally attracted to this book because of its travel element. Being a huge global corporation, ExxonMobil simply goes where there’s money to be made. And, indeed, reading about its adventures from Russia to Nigeria to Iraq to Venezuela and Indonesia, was like going on a backpacking trip to some remote and interesting hotspots.

From an ExxonMobil perspective, each country with access to lots of oil and/or gas came with its unique set of problems. In Russia, the company’s challenge was finding a way to take majority ownerships of the oil wells; Putin wouldn’t sell the rights to any oil wells, and would only work with oil companies as “service providers.” In Nigeria, the main problem was adequately securing the facilities against armed gangs who worked in collusion with the Nigerian army and police. In Indonesia, it was being smack in the middle of the civil war and then being sued in America for alleged human rights abuses. In Venezuela, it was dealing with an incoming socialistic government lead by Hugo Chavez who wanted to use oil as his personal piggy bank to promote his “socialistic revolution.”

One of the most interesting things happened in Iraq right after the invasion in 2003. One would think that with Americans invading the country, all of the country’s oil would automatically be given to American oil companies, but it was simply not the case. In fact, Iraqi government vowed to own 100% of the oil wells in the country and then auction the rights to build platforms to foreign companies in exchange for the oil royalty split. Initially, the government set such a low per-barrel royalty that none of the bids were successful. Ultimately, thanks to some prodding from the American government, ExxonMobil was eventually awarded nice concessions in some lucrative oilfields.

The book describes the intricate workings of a large corporation from how it manages its vast finances to how it lobbies the US government and everything in between. For instance, the company would ask the US government for help getting access to lucrative oil friends in authoritative countries, but after business was established and the oil was freely flowing, it would reverse course and prefer that the government stopped intervening. Later on, if something went wrong down the road (e.g., disagreements with the country’s government or, in most cases, a dictator), it would contact the US Embassy for assistance.

Another thing I enjoyed was learning how the sudden wealth transformed the lives of the host country’s governments. One particular example was the government of Equatorial Guinea, a small Spanish-speaking country in West Africa near Nigeria. As oil revenues approached $300mm per month, with most of it flowing to the pockets of the country’s elite, the dictator’s son went on the shopping spree and began buying all kinds of stuff in America and Europe, including a bunch of Ferraris and Mediterranean-style mansions in Los Angeles and France.

While this book isn’t packed with as much raw per page wisdom as the others on the list, it’s a faced-paced book where you learn a ton of stuff that you otherwise wouldn’t know, that is, unless you’ve spent many years working in the oil industry.


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James Maverick

James Maverick

James Maverick used to work in a cubicle as a code monkey in Silicon Valley. Then, in 2007, he quit his job and a one-way ticket to Brazil. Ever since, he continued to travel, visiting over 85 countries and living in more than a dozen of them. He loved his location-independent lifestyle and has no plans to live in America.
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