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Monday, January 23, 2017

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

I had a hard time enjoying this book by Harari, not because it is not good or interesting --- it is very interesting, but the (inevitable) scatteredness irritated me every few pages. The author was overly ambitious and crammed as many ideas as he could into a small space. It's against my temperament to move on, as quickly as the book does, from one thought to another, without an urge to dig deeper and make connections between some of them. This might be the other extreme of Nassim Taleb, who would pound a perfectly good but not very complex idea to death with 200 more pages than necessary. I find them both to be enlightening but often frustrating.

To me it is only viable to take a couple of the ideas and look closer. I was particularly struck by a subsection in Chapter 8 No Justice in History. The author wrote:

At least since the Agricultural Revolution, most human societies have been patriarchal societies that valued men more highly than women. No matter how a society defined "man" and "women", to be a man was always better.

He went on to point out that sociological and biological attempts to explain this phenomenon have failed so far. Not being a student or scholar in gender studies, I cannot determine whether he is right or there are indeed illuminating theories buried in some university's archives.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

1913 or 1938?

I have been chatting with my Chinese American friends for weeks about the geopolitical and global economic outlooks in the next few years. Whichever way I look at it, the barrel of dynamite sitting between China and US is going to blow up in some shape or form. Both sides need it to blow up, because they have run out of alternatives. They just can't help themselves. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times recently compared today to the eve of WWI. The similarities are striking.

Mr. S refuses to heed my paranoia, but I continue to plot my doomsday scenarios. Not that I want the worst to happen, but it really does seem the most logical outcome given the current conditions. All the other options are rapidly receding into the fog.

I have to admit that, beneath the anxiety and dread there is a sliver of thrill. I was born in 1973, barely escaping the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. I never thought that, in my lifetime, I would witness such historical events as Hemingway or Christopher Isherwood or my parents did. From moment to moment you don't even know whether you will survive the next day! Is there anything more life affirming?!

The somewhat comforting elements of peace are two: 1) China does not have nearly enough long-range nuclear warheads to attack across the Pacific Ocean. 2) At the moment Russia has very little reason to get into any conflicts with US (Why would he? Putin's going to run the show of American national politics.)

So I'm sitting here on the brink, dangling my legs over the abyss, and shivering with a morbid curiosity. It is like the moment immediately after the boy king Joffrey unexpectedly had Ilyn Payne chop off Ned Stark's head, and I'm watching in the crowd through the eyes of Arya Stark or Uncle Yoren, with only a vague anticipation of the storm of swords to descend. There's also a faint whisper that I should write it down --- what it's like to live in January 2017 --- and take a snapshot of the sharp smell of snow halfway between the clouds and the earth.

I suppose we'll find out what is going to happen to the world, once George R. R. Martin finishes his damned book The Winds of Winter.

Timon of Athens

During the intermission of Timon of Athens at Folger, I eavesdropped on a discussion among the 3 persons (who looked like a mother with t...

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