Terrorism – A Very Short Introduction, Second Ed. by Charles Townshend (2011)

terriosimIn any case, it is, in the end, not so much the actions themselves that are characteristic of terrorism, as their intended political function.   …terrorism is a distinctive form of modern political agency, intended to threaten the ability of a state to ensure the security of its members – and thus its claim to legitimacy. 4-6

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Townshend discusses the trouble of defining terrorism, and distinguishing it from terror, war, crime, tyranny, and other related phenomena. Then he discusses the roots of terror as a modern problems, and discusses manifestations of different types of terror: revolutionary, nationalist, religious. Finally, he discusses the problems of combating terrorism, especially within liberal democracies, which he argues are especially vulnerable to terrorist attack.

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Deep Work – Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (2016)

deep thinkingThe Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.  14

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In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport argued that to succeed in the modern working world, people must develop skills that are rare and valuable. Rare and valuable skills allow people to make more money, and have more autonomy and engagement with their work.

In Deep Work, Newport argues that people develop rare and valuable skills through deep work, defined as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacities to their limit.” Petty distractions prevent people from completing deep work, and Newport provides some thoughts as to how you could incorporate more deep work into your life. The returns to deep work are nonlinear; you get more out of one hour of deep work than three hours of shallow work.

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Meditation Retreat

MedeitationNothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

This past weekend, I attended a vipassana meditation retreat, my third retreat of this kind. Vipassana meditation (Wikipedia) is simple, but not easy. The general idea is to focus your attention on the physical sensations caused by breathing. When your mind wanders to other sensations or thoughts, you observe those thoughts without becoming entranced by them, and without judging them. In the words of Matthew Brensilver, “When we’re in the bubble of thought, we don’t know that we’re thinking.”1 The intention is to step outside the bubble of that individual thought—which allows no mental space for anything else—and notice the thought as another object that has appeared inside of your mind. Then, you should gently return your focus to the sensations of breathing.

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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (2015)

sapiensJust imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions. 31

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Harari sketches the general arc of sapiens’ (modern humans) history, from their lowly beginnings as just another variety of human, to their current status as earth’s dominant species. He chunks the story into major revolutions: the cognitive revolution—when we out-thought and out-communicated the other varieties of humans; the agricultural revolution—which allowed for much larger populations and institutions; the unification of humans—through imperialism, money, religion, and imaginary concepts; and the scientific revolution—which provided the technology to control our experiences to an unprecedented degree. Within these sections, Harari explores many unconventional and politically incorrect ideas.

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Humanism: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Law (2011)

humanismReligion did not create morality. Rather, religions merely codify the kind of basic morality to which humans are naturally disposed anyway. 82

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Law defines humanists as those who would largely accept or endorse the following positions: 1) science and reason are useful and should be applied widely to guide our lives, 2) atheism or agnosticism, 3) no afterlife or reincarnation, 4) moral values exist and are important, 5) individuals are responsible for making their own moral judgements, 6) life can be meaningful without God, and 7) secularism—the state takes a generally neutral stance toward religion.

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The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths by John Gray (2013)

silence“If there is anything unique about the human animal it is that it has the ability to grow knowledge at an accelerating rate while being chronically incapable of learning from experience. Science and technology are cumulative, whereas ethics and politics deal with recurring dilemmas.” 75

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Gray continues his critique of humanism, expanding on the arguments he makes in The Soul of the Marionette and Straw Dogs. Gray argues that material and scientific progress do not cause ethical or moral progress, that humans by their nature are unsatisfied, and that consciousness—the ceaseless chatter within our heads—is the primary burden of humans. It’s a burden that animals, in their silent inner lives, do not have to carry. Humans cannot escape this burden, and the effort of struggling against it is in fact the cause of even greater suffering.

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Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom (2014)

superintel…attempts to build artificial intelligence might fail pretty much completely until the last missing critical component is put in place, at which point a seed AI might become capable of sustained recursive self-improvement. 29

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Bostrom argues that the development of superintelligence is inevitable, and it must be developed in a very careful, considerate, and controlled way—on the very first try—if humanity is to benefit from, or even survive, its presence.

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