books

Somewhat shamefully, the first thing I did after reading was look at reviews of Sapiens online. Here are some:

“The thing to keep in mind Sapiens is a very reductionist, surface level glance at what is a staggeringly complex topic that absolutely requires all the nuance and context that comes with it. Harari almost entirely ignores that.”

or this or this or this or this….

Here’s my centrist take on a four hundred page encapsulation on the entire history of humans: Sapiens is not meant to be judged as a history book.

Most history books are well-documented, nuanced, but can only capture a single element of human history. Harari takes the inverse approach so we can hear an atomic bomb being dropped on July 1945 on a timescale that spans hundreds of thousands of years.

Sapiens is an opportunity for Harari to be a curator of interesting ideas (often fueled by first principles). Here are a few ideas:

  • Real peace is the implausibility of war. There is no war right now because there is less and less to gain by fighting. e.g. China can’t take over Google by taking over Silicon Valley. There are still some places with war for gain like Iraqi invasion of Kuwait for permanent oil fields.
    • This made me ask questions about the implausibility of war in today’s conditions. Would a new world order or a country defaulting on debt result in war?
  • Intimate communities being replaced by imagined communities. e.g. Madonna fans instead of neighborhood BBQ.
    • Is this why marriage rates are dropping, less dependence on nuclear and immediate intimate communities? What is the end state? Should I try to create online communities?
  • Natural-law religions (human norms and values founded on belief in a super human order e.g. liberalism, nationalism, or capitalism, etc.) replacing traditional religions (e.g. Christianity).
    • What are prevalent contemporary natural-law religions (that we might not be thinking of)? How do these religions fall out of popularity? Will the capitalist story lose credibility at late stages?
  • The first chapter of Sapiens sets the stage for an insignificant animal. The final chapter compares Sapiens to god: Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?
    • This book to be something akin to Jeff Bezos’s 10,000 year clock (tiktok, site), a symbol for long term thinking. What is our current path of acceleration? What is our current trajectory of manufactured want?

There are many more ideas in this book, using history as a backdrop.

I kind of know nothing about human history. So honestly, all the critical commentary about this book being overly reductionist or having cherry-picked evidence kind of flies over my head. I was left asking questions that I might not otherwise be asking, and I consider that a win.

Some more meat and potatoes here.

You might use the word ‘eclectic’ to describe this book.

We get to hear retrospects from people who have climbed mountains we might otherwise never climb. There are essays from hopeful people mistreated in maximum security prison to elderly couples with cracks in their relationship, from struggling homeless meth addicts to a closeted mom during the cultural revolution.

I think it makes more sense for me to share some passages. Below are some passages or ideas that stood out to me:

(1)

“The reader who sits alone with a novel, a poem, or an essay in hand is free to let all her literary prejudices and predilections wander happily where they will. The delightful anarchy of the uncensored, undefended, even eccentric thoughts that spring to mind while she is reading constitute a significant part of the reading experience. “This is wonderful!” she might declare recklessly to herself after ten pages, or “This is going nowhere,” or “God preserve us from these sentences!” As there is no opinion to account for, no position to defend, no argument to take on, the declarative mode is hers to make use of without reservation.

But once this same reader opens her mouth about the same novel, poem, or essay to anyone, she’s in for an exchange—“You think this is good? It’s trash.” “This kept you up all night? It put you to sleep”—that may arouse primitive anxieties not only about one’s judgement, but perhaps even some fundamental sense of well-being.” – from Introduction.

(2)

Bidders of the Din is about some college kids in jail, moved to maximum security, trying to find hope in a place of destitution. Below are some passages:

“Bid was something entirely different, more like a purpose or raison d’etre. It was all about how you did your time, like finding a hobby or hustle to get you through your bit. For many guys it was about winning, no matter what the endeavor was. Others just wanted to make money. Some guys used it as a way to occupy their minds. For everyone, though, it was about escaping the slog of captivity” …. “He said that if I could find this thing—this sense of purpose—it would make all the difference in my life. Without it, he said, my sentence would feel like an endless misery. “Do the time,” he said, “don’t let the time do you.””

And then later in the essay: “After a while, the very idea of time as something quantifiable faded away. I wrote all day, every day, year after year. I devoted myself entirely to the ideal as if it would not only lead to redemption and forgiveness, but also to a sense of purpose. I owed it to those I’d hurt—the victims, my family—and also to myself.”

(3)

Gender: A Melee is about sexuality and the fading gender distinctions. I have always thought sexual orientation (and all deviations from the sexual norm including gender norm) as genetic. However, only after reading this did I realize bimodal gender roles are being continuously weakened, causing further deviations from the traditional order. Maybe the rise of feminism and the rise of transgenderism aren’t different stories; there are non-genetic forces redefining traditionally bimodal norms.

The dissolution of binary gender had social outcomes that reinforced the differences between sexuality. For example, many Trump supporters were trans as a platform to support ‘anti-feminism’.

(4)

The Rough Ride is about a doctor trying to find empathy treating a particularly difficult patient. Below are some passages:

“But as I got to know her, she began to reveal more of her struggle to stay sober, her estrangement from her children, money problems, and interpersonal difficulties. Those vulnerable moments made it easier for me to understand her and feel closer to her…”

Only later after being hurt by the police after she was the one who wanted to kill herself, we realize she’s black: “”Don’t ever call the police on a Black person, “ she continued, interrupting my attempt to sort out my feelings.”

Takeaways from the book:

  • What important truth do very few people agree with you on?
    • People who have been playing the game a long time gain by things existing in the same way, but you can gain by thinking about a problem differently. They are all just rent collectors.
    • Find bubbles by looking for untrue lingering old beliefs.
    • Secrets exist. Leaders of sectors don’t say things because they don’t want their company to fail. What are people not allowed to talk about / information restricted / do not know enough about? e.g. nutrition, etc.
    • Zero-to-one company is a conspiracy to change the world
  • Competition is bad
    • Google (monopoly) is worth 3x more than all airline companies combined (competition) because competition reduces profit. The more we compete, the less we gain.
    • Fight for career advancement, paying more for academia, etc.
  • Zero-to-one business, characteristics that it will be a monopoly
    • e.g. Facebook or AirBnB using technology to change how we do things
    • Proprietary tech, network effect, economies of scale (scalable without adding much, e.g. software), branding
    • Start as a startup targeting a small niche and then dominate, don’t disrupt because it’s not good to directly compete with monopolies. Strong initial team. Good culture and mission.
  • The power law
    • When investing (choosing companies to invest in), don’t pick a wide basket like most VCs. You are not trying to win the lottery. You want to hedge in winners.

These are just ultra condensed pickings from the book. Some more meat and potatoes here.