The Bookshelf Review E.1 – Spirituality, Ego, AI and More…
Reading has always been one of my favourite hobbies. From the time I was little, I would stay up late to read books by the faint light through the crack in my door. Before I knew it, I was finishing well over a dozen books every month.
Reading remains one of the most rewarding forms of entertainment that I enjoy. Whether it is reading science fiction and fantasy or learning about the latest in the world of science, I can’t get enough.
I love reading and sharing about what I read. I’ve wanted to write a review series for years, but I kept putting it off.
One of my main driving forces is understanding how the world works. I’ve probably read hundreds of books during my life and I still know next to nothing about the way that everything works. However, I have learned some things and that is what I want to share in this review series.
Its not just books that I wanted to review. In this series I will review documentaries, non-fiction movies, books and more. Along with the reviews, I will also provide recommendations for my favourites.
Over time, I will build up a list of recommendations and maybe even more individualised reviews for each.
This month, I read seven books and watched one documentary.
- Brain Apps: Hacking Neuroscience To Get There – J.M. Best and Robert G. Best
- Waking Up: Searching For Spirituality Without Religion – Sam Harris
- Code of the Extraordinary Mind – Vishun Lakhiani
- The Next 100 Years: A Forecast For the 21st Century – George Friedman
- Ego Is The Enemy – Ryan Holiday
- The First 20 Hours: How To Learn Anything Fast – Joshua Foer
- The Dark Net – Jamie Bartlett
- AlphaGo (documentary)
A few of them were average, but some of them were fantastic and I would definitely recommend giving them a look. But first, lets get on with the reviews.
I don’t know when I first encountered this book. It has been sitting in my Audible wishlist for quite some time now. When I first looked at it, I found the premise really interesting. The main idea of the book seemed to be that, if we view our brain like a computer, then it is reasonable to believe that we can upgrade it like a laptop or a smartphone.
If we could add on a series of “apps” for the brain, then we could hack our potential and live in a much successful state. Personally, I love this idea. Though the concept wasn’t necessarily original, its approach was.
The book posits that there are seven things which can contribute to being successful including using creativity, goal setting and forming good habits. With continued use of the seven “brain apps”, they will become automatic and we will become more successful – over time.
I really liked the unique approach the premise of this book. It also had a really interesting mixture of scientific evidence and anecdotal evidence. This is often uncommon in most self-help books who typically rely on historical evidence of extraordinary people or one-off stories in a modern context. This was quite a refreshing change of pace and it was fairly balanced.
However, I personally don’t like the idea of brain “hacks”. As far as I can tell, there is no way to “hack” the brain. We can reduce inefficiencies but there is no way to make the brain superhuman simply by practising more at it.
I also didn’t like how obvious some of the concepts were. Of course deliberate practice will make you better at something. This can be expressed in a few words and does not need a whole chapter to be dedicated to it.
SMART goals are another pet peeve of mine, but that will be for a later blog post.
Overall, I would give this book a rating of:
It was an interesting read, but there is nothing new in the book except maybe a few interesting anecdotes.
I really enjoyed this book.
I’ve been seeking to understand how a spiritual practice can have a place in my life. I’m not much of a fan of religion, so it has been a question I’ve struggled to answer.
Sam Harris is one of the foremost thinkers of our generation. He has an astonishing intellect, a deep mistrust of organised religion and, most importantly, a respectful, open-mindedness so often missing in the so-called “sceptic community”. Of course, he is not without his controversies, but who isn’t.
In this book, he discusses how there can be spirituality and enlightenment without religion or reliance on higher powers. He demonstrates how religion or any other organised religious or spiritualistic practice is non-essential for someone to explore their own spirituality.
We are connected to everything, but not through some kind of magical sense. He demonstrates that enlightenment can be found through realising that we are not our thoughts; we are both the thinker and the observer of those thoughts.
There were two ideas that stood out most clearly to me. The first was that certain drugs were a useful shortcut to having spiritual experiences, but that shortcuts aren’t always the best way. The other was that failing at meditation is successful meditation. Losing your attention and focus and bringing it back time and time again is what makes someone successful at meditation in the long term.
It was well structured, respectful, open-minded and, most importantly, scientifically based (though it was not overwhelmingly scientific).
However, it was written in a typically over-wordy way. So often ridiculously complex words were used to describe a simple concept. This can be potentially alienating for some readers and distracting for others. I often found myself having to pause my reading to look up what a word meant or to try and figure it out from context. This took me out of what was very often an immersive experience.
Overall, I would give this book a rating of:
A great read with some spectacular ideas, but it is certainly not for everyone.
The Code of the Extraordinary Mind
I confess to being somewhat disappointed with this book.
I had bought it a few years ago, but never finished it. At the time of discovering the book, it was marketed as a completely uncommon self-help book. It was meant to be fresh, with new ideas and new concepts that could make you see the world entirely differently.
By the end of this book, my perspective on the world was unchanged.
Here is a brief summary of this book:
We are surrounded every day by rules that don’t work any more. They are antiquated and designed for a very small minority of people to win. Challenging these rules is the way forward and these cultural rules are made to be broken. By challenging and breaking these rules, you can also be extraordinary.
It was well written and had some funny anecdotes such as a guy who bought an island, declared it to be sovereign, tried to secede from the United States of America and even went on to offer “foreign aid” to the USA. I found the story funny, though I took it with a grain of salt – quite rightly, the secession was never legally recognised.
However, this was a pretty average self-help book.
I have a strange love-hate relationship with the self-help industry and this book has just served to remind me why I stopped buying into the “religion of self-help” wholeheartedly.
This book’s main focus is to help you see that breaking cultural rules is the path to success. This is not the case. It is simple a path to success. Many people have been successful, even when following the “brules” of the “culturescape”.
This brings me to my next criticism of this book. The author has created new, unique words as a kind of veil for the very ordinary concepts that we already know. Below are some examples and why I think they are bullshit:
- “Culturescape” – literally another word for culture
- “Brules” or “bullshit rules” – literally another word for societal rules
- “Unfuckwithableness” – this one was particularly annoying as it refers to a state in which nothing can ever bother you due to your level of enlightenment a.k.a. delusional thinking
I give this book a rating of:
An absolutely ordinary self-help book. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The Next 100 Years
This was another book that I picked up several years ago, but never actually read. Having read it in its entirety now, I wish I had read it when I bought it in 2014.
The author’s main conjecture is that you cannot predict the global future by relying on common sense. In the 1900s, it was unthinkable that there would be a war of the magnitude of The Great War or World War I as it is more commonly known. After WWI, it would have gone against common sense again to predict a second world war, yet it happened. This bears out all the way until today.
Common sense could never have predicted a collapsing European Union, a TV celebrity as the president of the most powerful nation on the planet or that Fidel Castro would be praised as a symbol of freedom upon his death by politicians and celebrities throughout the world.
Another main idea that he presents is that the world goes through a massive shift every twenty years or so, technologically, militarily, scientifically and in any other way that you can think of. He also demonstrated that every time we have tried to fix a problem, we have created a new problem from that solution.
I really liked that this book was not simply pro-American. It was a realistic view of the world and was massively entertaining, though probably entirely fictional. Some things have occurred as predicted though, such as Japan and Turkey’s economic rises and China and Russia’s decline beginning, though nowhere near to the extent predicted in the book. Also, there are a couple of chapters dedicated to a war which begins in space and I found it hugely entertaining. Will it happen? Probably not, but it was really fun to read.
Granted, at times it could be a little ridiculous, but it was highly enjoyable and well worth the read. I give this book:
It’s a fun read, but don’t take it too seriously – even the author doesn’t.
Ego Is The Enemy
So, full disclosure, this would be the third time I have read this book.
That right there says something.
I very rarely read a book twice. For me to re-read a book typically suggests that it means a lot to me. Ryan Holiday is one of my favorite current authors and I would love to sit down to talk with him one day.
Ryan Holiday was a man who shot to stardom and then quickly tumbled back down. He was consumed by his ego, as were his mentors, and he paid the price for it. Now, even though he is still massively successful, he espouses a simple philosophy: your ego is your greatest enemy and it will destroy you if you give it a chance.
This book has genuinely made me think quite deeply about why I want to achieve some of the things in my life. I started to question why I was doing anything. It forced me to take a deep look at myself and start cutting out some of the trash from my life. Because of Ryan Holiday, I am now taking a much closer look at the Stoic philosophy and what we can do to keep our egos in check.
This book has a delightfully simple, but powerful philosophy: ego is the enemy.
This book is a:
I would highly recommend this book to anyone I know. It continually changes me and challenges me every time I read it. I will likely read this book again and again. It is a truly inspiring work.
The First 20 Hours
This book seems to be the perfect foil to the popular book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It moves entirely away from the concept of “mastery” in favor of what I will call “effective learning”.
Mastering a subject takes time. Most of us simply don’t have 10,000 hours to spend learning something. Instead, what if we could spend a minimum of twenty hours of deliberate practice in something, rapidly acquiring the skill to the point that we are good enough at it to enjoy it?
In this book, Josh Kaufman shows that whilst mastery might be out of reach of most, competence is within reach of everybody. By breaking down learning a subject or skill into its component parts, the author shows how anything can be learned.
Most books on learning are full of information with little practical advice and fewer practical examples. Here, Kaufman gives concrete examples breaking down how he learned six different skills with a completely transparent method. He spends very little time with filler information and gets straight into the main subject pretty quickly – not very common in most self-help books.
One of the things that I enjoyed most was hearing the author of the book sing in 2x speed. Learning to play the ukulele and sing at the same time was a particularly interesting chapter. However, because I listen to all of my audiobooks at 2x speed (try it and it will change your reading life forever), I had to contain my laughter when I heard him sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. That definitely added to my enjoyment of the book, though it was unintentional from the author.
He did sometimes take a little time to really break down each of the areas and I personally found that a bit boring. I also found the section on coding extremely dull.
Overall, I would give this book a rating of:
A great book with some interesting ideas.
The Dark Net
This was yet another book which had sat on my shelf for far too long. I wish I had read this book sooner.
It was truly phenomenal.
When I bought it, I thought that I was going to take a trip into the darkest corners of the deep web. I thought it would be full of stories of fugitive hackers, cyber-criminals and the worst of the worst. At first, I was disappointed that this was not the case. However, what I actually got was far more informative than I could have ever wished for.
I learned that the so-called “dark net” is not some shadowy part of the internet. It is everywhere. From internet trolls – actual ones, not just the soft-core critics that the media freaks out over – to websites glorifying and encouraging teenagers to self-harm, become anorexic and commit suicide, I learned more from this book about the internet than in my twenty-three years of life previous.
I was so delightfully naive that it is almost not funny.
In this book, I learned what I always knew deep down: the internet is a wonderful place filled with wonderful people. It is also the complete opposite.
Jamie Bartlett did a tremendous job to pack this book full of information and examples whilst maintaining neutrality. Even five years after its release, this book still holds up with what is happening currently. He shows that the internet has been a messed up place since its inception and it will likely never change.
This book gets a rating of:
I would highly recommend that you read this book, though not if you have a particularly sensitive disposition. Disclaimer: this book makes numerous references of self-harm, suicide, extremism and even child abuse and worse.
This was the first documentary that I have watched for a while and, my god, it was amazing.
It explores a team of scientists, researchers, and programmers who build an AI system which beats the worlds most talented player of the board game Go – the most complex board game ever created.
This 2016 documentary demonstrated that AI is developing much faster than we thought it would. It was thought that it would be several decades before AI could even begin to outwit Go masters. In fact, it was unthinkable.
You get to follow the world’s premiere Go player as he goes from confident in his odds of winning against the program to complete and utter humiliation at the “hands” of an AI system that was openly mocked by the Go community.
For me, it was a complete inversion of the classic underdog story. At first, you are rooting for the AI. However, at a certain point in the five games, you can see that Sedol (the Go player) becomes increasingly more stressed, depressed and humiliated.
One of the stand-out moments for me was watching his daughter begin to cry and having to leave the room. She had never seen her father in that state before. I genuinely found it upsetting to watch someone who was obviously a genius get calmly and coldly dismantled by a computer program which, at certain points, simply messes with him.
I kept flipping between wanting the AI (the initial underdog) to win and then wanting Li Sedol (the true underdog) to win. It was both awe-inspiring and terrifying to watch.
This sense of fear and wonder permeates everything about this documentary.
It was truly incredible to watch.
I easily give this documentary a rating of:
I cannot recommend this documentary highly enough. It is something that you have to see to understand the gravity of what is occurring in the field of AI research at this very moment.
That’s it for this month.
Though I learned a lot in the past month, I hope to learn more in October. I have loved recapturing a sense of awe about the world which I have not experienced since childhood.
I can’t wait to share what I’ve learned in the upcoming month.
If you want to keep an eye on my list of recommended books, documentaries and more, then check out my Recommended page.