Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sapiens Review

Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens manages the tricky feat of being one of the best history books of recent years and a book with which I have profound and deep disagreements. It pulls off this one-two because of its incredible ambition. Whereas tomes five times as long have been written about a single individual, Harari burns through the history of the human race in a little more than 400 pages. The pure quantity of information he conveys on the reader, the brilliant way he educates us on a a number of topics, the wonderful counterintuitiveness of many of his explanations, and the shockingly clever writing throughout the book make this a must read for any intellectually-engaged person.

Too often, prose in popular history books is drab and boring. Harari has no such problem. Take this passage on the rise of wheat: instead of saying we master grains, Harari writes "these plants domesticated homo sapiens, rather than vice versa."

He continues: "Wheat didn't like rock and pebbles, so sapiens broke their back clearing the fields. Wheat didn't like sharing its space, water, and nutrients with other plants, so men and women laboured long days weeding under the scorching sun. Wheat got sick, so Sapiens had to keep a watch out for worms and blight....Wheat was thirsty, so humans dug irrigation canals or lugged heavy buckets from the well to water it. Sapiens even collected animal faeces to nourish the ground in which wheat grow."

But it's not jus the prose that is clever. Chapters analyzing if and how human beings wiped out other species on Australia, the role science and technology played in imperialism, and his interesting happiness analysis toward the end of the book all show a brilliant thinker at the top of his game. Harari's belief that humans have succeeded largely because we are able to divine imaginary stories that become collective belief is powerful and often persuasive.


Before I go on to my more serious disagreements with Harari, let me point out the flip side of some of the strengths of the book.

First, while the writing is mostly wonderful and vivacious, sometimes it becomes too cute for its own good. Harari says "few of us understand how electricity does all these things [works in more than a cursory way], but even fewer can imagine life without it." This misplaced attempt at breezy writing is just wrong. More than 1 billion people still live without electricity. Not nearly that many people understand the science behind it deeply.

Second, Harari's opinionated, counterintuitive takes at time seem selective. He has no problems consistently calling the religions of the world make-believe, something billions would find offensive, but steers much more gently around racial and gender issues.

Third, Harari seems to pick and choose explanations for phenomena in a random way at times. Take the well documented trend of decreasing violence and an increasingly peaceful world since World War II. Harari says "scholars have sought to explain this happy development in more book and articles than you would ever want to read yourself." True, and the overriding answer to this question is the Pax Americana: the United States has been an incredible force for peace in the world in a way no other nation ever has.

Harari's subsequent explanations demonstrate this without ever actually referring to the U.S. His explanations are that the "price of war has gone up dramatically" because of the invention of the nuclear bomb, that the prize of war have declined, third that the economic benefits of peace have become greater, and fourth the global elite is dominated by people who value peace.

All true, and all phenomena caused by the U.S. The nuclear bomb was of course developed in the U.S. by U.S. scientists and Harari writes that "the Nobel Peace Prize to end all peace prizes should have been given to Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow architects of the atomic bomb." On the second count, Harari mentions that the benefits of war have gone down. He cites only the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait as an example of war for plunder. Of course, the result of that invasion, was a U.S. led coalition to defeat Iraq. The main reason countries don't invade other countries now is because they know the U.S. won't let them get away with it. On the third count, peace has become prosperous because of the U.S. led international order which established the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and of course the United Nations. Countries that join these U.S, founded institutions can grow rich quickly (see South Korea); those that ignore them stay poor (see North Korea). And finally, the global elite still comes more from the U.S. than any other nation.


On to the major disagreements. I've only read two reviews, and both take Harari to task for his overly counterintuitive take on the cultural revolution. Bill Gates- who also loved the book- found this to be the biggest issue with Harari's work. I too found this to be problematic but found Harari's work to stem from his general pessimism on humanity.

He writes in the afterword: "unfortunately, the Sapiens regime on Earth has so far produced little we can be proud of. We have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires, and created far flung trade networks. But did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world? Time and again, massive increases in human power did not neccessarily improve the well-being of individual Sapiens, and caused immense misery to other animals."

I think this is entirely wrong. On the count of human welfare, we don't have to worry about getting mauled by a tiger, butchered in our sleep by another tribe, or worry about a minor wound getting infected and killing us. Our lives are much longer, much better, and much easier, than our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Harari overly romanticized hunter-gatherer lifestyle from the first chapter on and is way too down on our modern era.

The animal welfare count stands up stronger but is still flawed. The analytical move that we humans tend to make is valuing only the welfare of our species. This seems untenable to me: if some species are capable of happiness and suffering (and they are) than it seems that should be taken into account by public policy.

But sapiens have risen to the top of the foodchain and come to dominate the world precisely because our mental and emotional ranges are significantly greater than that of animals. If I kill a cockroach for my fiance, I would guess that the utility gain she gets from having the cockroach dead and the utility gain I get from having her not talk about the bug anymore would far outweigh the utility loss to the cockroach and his compadres. Even though obviously this is a more dramatic in the life and death of the cockroach than it is for the human couple, the utility gain from the latter is still greater than the utility loss from the former because we are significantly more complex beings.

For cows and pigs, the same logic still applies, although cows obviously have more going on inside than insects. Nonetheless, I think its fair to say humans get a lot of utility out of eating these two animals (myself included). Though I don't think we have the scientific evidence to make a clear utility calculation, my strong hunch would be that the aggregate welfare to humans from eating meat would outweigh the aggregate losses to animals.

Regardless, there seems to be clear public policy solutions to Harari's concern. First, tax the hell out of meat (especially from mammals) and subsidize fruits and vegetables. There would be clear winners and losers from this policy, but it would probably improve health in the rich world as well as benefitting our fellow species. Second, pour endless funds into companies looking to capture the taste of meat without actually using animals. Some companies are already making real progress on this. It's strange Harari does not bring this up.


Just because I found strong point of disagreements, doesn't mean that Harari's work isn't a masterclass of history. Read it, to learn, enjoy, and question your own views.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Academy Awards- Predictions and Comments

The Oscars are always political, but they will be more so than this go around. Last year, there was fury over no acting nominations for people of color. With a Black Muslim all but locked in to win a major award, and African American actors likely to take home at least two golden statues, tonight's ceremony will focus on the President rather than Hollywood.

Well, kind of. The biggest awards of the night are likely to go to classic Hollywood fare, La La Land. If this is the case, it will be the fourth time in six years that the Academy saw fit to honor a film at least partially about the show business industry (see The Artist, Argo, and Birdman). 

But while the ultimate winners may provide more evidence of Hollywood self-adulation, the nominees show Hollywood's ability to tell stories set all over the country and around the globe. Manchester by the Sea is a sympathetic portrait of New England's white working class, Hell or High Water is about economic desperation in the Southwest, and Hacksaw Ridge tells the tale of the stunning strength a rural Virginian derives from his faith.  Hidden Figures concerns discrimination against the black intellectual elite, while Fences shows the aftermath of discrimination against the black athletic elite. Moonlight is about growing up poor, black, and gay while Lion is one of the best portrayals of developing country poverty ever put on a film. For a bunch out-of-touch coastal elites, Hollywood directors, actors, and screenwriters sure seems better able to empathize with people from other backgrounds than the rest of the country. While it might be cool to hate on our celebrity brethren, perhaps we should try learning something from them instead.

Alas, onto the nominees. I'll use the reliable should win, will win, should have been nominated format.

Best Picture:

Will Win: La La Land
Should Win: Moonlight
Should Have Been Nominated: Silence

This is a pretty impressive group of nominees. While I'm not sure 2016 had a masterpiece, the overall depth of the year's films solidly exceeds any other year this decade with 2012 as a possible exception. Scorsese's brutal, brilliant, and ambiguous Silence was a little too much for audiences and Academy voters alike, and its absence from the final list is pretty glaring. But a lot to like here, and I think you could make valid arguments for just about every nominee. But it's La La Land's prize, barring a shocker.

Best Director: 

Will Win: Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Should Win: Barry Jenkins: Moonlight
Should Have Been Nominated: Martin Scorsese, Silence

Same pattern here. Chazelle's win will be well deserved,  he is pretty clearly an auteur extraordinaire. But the vibrancy and color with which Jenkins imbues Moonlight is pretty stunning for a film that was once a play.

Best Actor:

Will Win: Denzel Washington. Fences
Should Win: Denzel Washington, Fences
Should Have Been Nominated: Andrew Garfield, Silence

Most money is on Casey Affleck, but I think Denzel will eke it out. He's beloved by the industry (and just about everyone), and the fact that he also directed himself will score him some bonus points with behind the camera voters. Garfield's deeply moving performance in Silence is significantly better than Ryan Gosling's solid but by-the-numbers turn in La La Land.

Best Actress:

Will Win: Emma Stone, La La Land
Should Win: Ruth Negga, Loving
Should Have Been Nominated: Amy Adams, Arrival

The winner of this year's Oscar got an asterisk attached to their golden figure the moment Adams name was shockingly bypassed on nomination day.

Best Supporting Actor:

Will Win: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Should Win: Dev Patel, Lion
Should Have Been Nominated: Ashton Sanders, Moonlight

Ali has long been an incredibly underrated character actor so it will be nice to see him get some recognition. But Dev Patel keeps Lion from completely falling apart during its weak middle section, and then brings the film home to its deeply moving conclusion. Speaking of biases, the Academy seems to have something against younger actors: both Sanders' performance as teenage Chiron in Moonlight and Sunny Pawar as kid Siroo in Lion, deserved a nomination.

Best Supporting Actress:

Will Win: Viola Davis, Fences
Should Win; Viola Davis, Fences
Should Have Been Nominated: Janelle Monae, Hidden Figures

There are three performances here that would win in a normal year: You could make a plausible argument that the two best acted scenes of the year were when Michelle Williams runs into Casey Affleck on the street and Naomie Harris's tableside confession to Chiron in Moonlight. But Viola Davis's gargantuan performance in Fences, in a borderline lead role, will make her one of the most deserving winners of this category in the Academy's history. 

Best Original Screenplay:

Will Win: Kenneth Longergan, Manchester by the Sea
Should Win: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Should Have Been Nominated: Jeff Nichols, Loving

If La La Land wins this one, you know it's got picture and director locked up.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Will Win: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Should Win: Eric Heiserrer, Arrival
Should Have Been Nominated: Correct Nominees

This group of nominees forces the question: should the best screenplay that happens to be adapted to film win, or should the best screenplay taking into account the difficulties of adaptation take home the trophy. If its the former, Fences should win (in which case the deceased playwright August Wilson will win for his utterly brilliant work). Fences literally is a filmed version of the play- no adaptation necessary. Eric Heiserrer's job with Arrival involved actual adaptation, so for me, he gets the golden man. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

Martin Scorsese' Magnum Opus on Faith (Do not read unless you have seen the movie)

Silence is one of Martin Scorsese's finest films, which is really all that needs to be said about it. It's not as masterfully paced as Goodfellas, as carefully plotted as The Departed, nor as vibrant or politically thoughtful as Gangs of New York, and it doesn't have a seismic performance like DeNiro in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. But the film is an utter masterpiece through and through.

Silence is about faith. It does not lend itself to pat readings, but I think some explanations are better than others.

The very core principle of the film is that faith is deeply personal and should be respected. But Silence is a a great film because it goes beyond that: Scorsese delves into the question of how should one react when the deep underlying tenets of a religion conflict with cherished practices and commandments. This question could not be more relevant today to debates in the Pope Francis era of the Catholic Faith or for questions regarding the modernization of Muslim practices. Scorsese comes, correctly in my view, with a preference for underlying principles over practices and specific commandments.

Let me explain why this is the position he takes. First, Father Rodrigues often tells others to apostasize. But he holds out himself: he sees himself as a martyr figure. We tend to take his point of view, but when Father Ferreira tells him that this view is arrogant- that comparing oneself to Jesus is immodest- this is a powerful rebuke.

Second, Father Garrupe did not apostasize and his fate is telling. He desperately swam out to sea to save those drowning. But all he does kill himself while not saving the other. His body floats in the water, face down. His is not the death of a martyr, but the death of a man who impractically failed to renounce his faith to save others. Standing from afar, Rodrigues wants him to give in. He can see that it is stubborness and to some extent self-importance for Father Garrupe not to make this mental and spiritual sacrifice, but he cannot yet see this so plainly when he finds himself in the same situation.

The ending is also telling. I have seen multiple criticisms of the coda to the film: Silence keeps going for 15-20 minutes after the dramatic event of the film has passed. Scorsese is a man who knows how to end a movie: you can't be one of best directors of all time without that skill. He has shown himself willing to end a film immediately after a startling burst of action (The Departed), after a dramatic event with a short and surprising coda (Taxi Driver), and conventionally but incredibly effectively (Raging Bull, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, and Hugo). It is noteworthy that the other Scorsese which drags on longer than expected towards the end of the film is his other film about the Christian faith: The Last Temptation of Christ. The dragged out ending in Scorsese's 1988 film is about Jesus's last temptation.

All of this is to say that Scorsese carefully works on his endings. Scorsese didn't haphazardly plot the last 15 minutes as some critics suggest because Silence was a long-in-the-making passion project of the director.

Rather, the film's conclusion is a careful demonstration of the fact that you can take the man from his faith, but you can't take the faith out of the man. A man can still believe even if he does not follow all of the formalities of his religion, so long as in his actions he stays true to the spirit of his faith.

An essay could be written about virtually every character in the movie, all of whom are deeply human. Silence also has important things to say about the tradeoffs between religious freedom and societal cohesion and the balance between blind faith and empathetic tolerance which could spawn tomes of scholarly debate.

More than anything, however, Silence is a devastating reminder that religion is a human exercise meant to benefit the people who have inhabited or will live on this Earth. We may not agree on the deities we pray to, the stories behind our religion, or even many of the principles that underly our beliefs. But we should all agree that we are our brother's keeper.