producing explosives from thin air

July 31st, 2019

I have finished this book and will post two additional passages that interested me, because they taught me something I was previously unaware of. Here is the first passage. A second will follow shortly. I highly recommend reading the entire book, as I was tempted to post more excerpts from it. Read the rest of this entry »

our need for cognitive dissonance

July 28th, 2019

Here is a passage from Harari’s remarkable bestseller to illustrate how each page provides a generous helping of food for thought:

Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change.
[…]
[One of many examples] is the modern political order. Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality. The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.
[…]
Consistency is the playground of dull minds.
[…]
…. [Contradiction is] such an essential feature of any culture that it even has a name: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture.

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (McClelland & Stewart, 2014), pp. 164-165.

dozen as a unit of measure

July 21st, 2019

Here are my promised findings! According to Wikipedia,

The dozen may be one of the earliest primitive groupings, perhaps … because it has the most divisors of any number under 18. The use of twelve as a base number, known as the duodecimal system (also as dozenal), originated in Mesopotamia.

This makes sense to me, since units of 12 rather than 10 allows even division into halves, thirds and quarters. Read the rest of this entry »

weights and measures

July 21st, 2019

The United States is the only industrialized country that has not yet completely converted to the Metric System. The British system (no longer in legal use in the UK, its colonies or the Commonwealth) is particularly confusing. It is impossible to summarize, but Wikipedia explains the history of UK measurement in detail. Read the rest of this entry »

the invention of Arabic numerals

July 20th, 2019

Did you know that Arabic numerals were not invented by the Arabs? I didn’t, until I read about their history in a bestselling book of Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. Here is the relevant passage from his “Brief History of Humankind”: Read the rest of this entry »

equality and inequality

July 2nd, 2019

I finished reading Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s new book some time ago, and would like to pass on to readers of Thought du Jour a few passages that I found of particular interest.

I especially liked chapter 4, titled “Equality”, though it discusses inequality more than equality. Here are some brief passages from the chapter. Read the rest of this entry »

my path to pension reform

June 19th, 2019

My interest in pension reform began 19 years ago, in April of the year 2000. I was at an OECD conference in Prague, listening to presentations of two World Bank economists (Estelle James and Dimitri Vittas). At that moment, it suddenly dawned on me that an ideal pension system should provide basic pensions for everyone, funded pay-as-you-go from general government revenue, allowing citizens who desire more than basic income in retirement to save in any way they please, without subsidies, tax breaks or coercion from government. This was my ‘Eureka’ moment.

When it was my turn to speak, the very next day, I spoke with excitement and enthusiasm. The conference was on private pensions, so the audience did not react warmly to my talk. Nonetheless, I presented my core ideas orally, and drafted a discussion paper (“Three Pillars of Pensions?”) immediately after the conference. Read the rest of this entry »

artificial intelligence and human stupidity

June 12th, 2019

I am continuing to slowly read this wonderful book, and will occasionally point out parts that particularly interest me. Here is one such part.

The danger is that if we invest too much in developing AI and too little in developing human consciousness, the very sophisticated artificial intelligence of computers might only serve to empower the natural stupidity of humans. We are unlikely to face a robot rebellion in the coming decades, but we might have to deal with hordes of bots that know how to press our emotional buttons …, and use this uncanny ability to try to sell us something–be it a car, a politician, or an entire ideology. …. We have already been given a foretaste of this in recent elections and referendums across the world, when hackers learned how to manipulate individual voters by analyzing data about them and exploiting their existing prejudices.

Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Penguin, 2018), pp. 70-71.

democracy, dictatorship and AI

June 9th, 2019

Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s new book is fascinating, so fascinating, in fact, that I am reading it at a slow pace. There is simply too much to think about. Here is an example, from chapter 3, “Liberty”, subtitled “Big Data is Watching You”.

In the late twentieth century democracies usually outperformed dictatorships because democracies were better at data processing. A democracy diffuses the power to process information and make decisions among many people and institutions, whereas a dictatorship concentrates information and power in one place. Given twentieth century technology, it was inefficient to concentrate too much power and information in one place. ….This is part of the reason the Soviet Union made far worse decisions than the United States, and why the Soviet economy lagged far behind the American economy.

However, soon AI [artificial intelligence] might swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. …. The main handicap of authoritarian regimes in the twentieth century–the attempt to concentrate all information in one place–might become their decisive advantage in the twenty-first century.

Yuval Noah Harari. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Penguin, 2018), p 66.

war and human stupidity

June 4th, 2019

Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari (born 1976) teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has authored two international bestsellers: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016). His latest book, which I just borrowed from the Victoria Public Library, is titled 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018). Of  its 21 chapters, I began with the 11th – “War” – because I am a convinced pacifist, so wanted to see what this famous historian had to say on the subject. I was fascinated, so decided to write a TdJ blog before reading the rest of the book.

Sapiens covers the past, Homo Deus the future, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century the present. Is there anything left for another book of Harari?

Read the rest of this entry »