Friday, February 2, 2018

Week Two, February 9: 7:30 pm: Chapter One, pt 2 (pgs. 40-70)

We will continue the conversations begun last week about rights, suffering and justice, and also look at:

1. What does "citizenship" mean in a globalized world?  
2. Mona's death "changed everything" for Akhavan. She "spoke truth to power" at 16 years old. What lessons are drawn from her story?  
3. What is it that draws humans to pursue justice for others?  
4. The title of this chapter is, "The Knowledge of Suffering." What does it mean to "suffer"? How do we choose which (if any) suffering to work towards alleviating? At what cost?

And whatever other questions/comments you bring to the session with you!

See you there, next Friday evening at 7:30pm.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Week One, January 26: Some questions for discussion...

We'll begin but exploring these questions, and probably more, as time permits...

- What are "Universal Human Rights" - how do we know we have rights?  Who gets rights and who doesn't?  Who gets to decide those questions? What do we make of the claims of "cultural relativism as challenges to that universality" e.g., sharia law?  
- What is suffering?  Is feeling injustice the only means of understanding injustice? What have your experiences of injustice been? 
- The Prison of Identity; what is Identity and how do WE identify?  What are the positives and negatives of "Identity" and belonging? Why do we seem to push to identify an "Other" among us?  
- How is Multiculturalism re-shaping Identity politics around the world?

Monday, January 22, 2018

Week 1: Getting Started!

Our winter book study all set to get rolling, but we've decided to bump back our start date to give everyone a chance to catch their breath after a wonderful holiday season!

January 26th is our new kick-off date! Join us at 7:30 in the West Hill lounge.

We have a few copies of this year's title for sale through the kiosk if you'd like to get a jump on reading.

Our cost for the book is $17.50, or you can pick one up at your local book store.

 "In Search of a Better World"

by Payam Akhavan 

"A work of memoir, history, and a call to action, In Search of a Better World, the 2017 CBC Massey Lecture, is a powerful and essential work on the major human rights struggles of our times. In February of 2017, Amnesty International released their Annual Report for 2016 to 2017, concluding that the “us versus them” rhetoric increasingly employed by politicians is endangering human rights the world over. 
Renowned UN prosecutor and human rights scholar Payam Akhavan has encountered the grim realities of contemporary genocide throughout his life and career. He argues that deceptive utopias, political cynicism, and public apathy have given rise to major human rights abuses: from the religious persecution of Iranian Bahá’ís that shaped his personal life, to the horrors of ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, the genocide in Rwanda, and the rise of contemporary phenomena such as the Islamic State. But he also reflects on the inspiring resilience of the human spirit and the reality of our inextricable interdependence to liberate us, whether from hateful ideologies that deny the humanity of others or an empty consumerist culture that worships greed and self-indulgence.

A timely, essential, and passionate work of memoir and history, In Search of a Better World is a tour de force by an internationally renowned human rights lawyer." -


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Week 9: What Comes Next?

Hello West Hill Sapiens!
What a wonderful time we've had together these past months; the rich thoughtful conversation, the laughs, the coming together of old friends and the welcoming of new ones have made this session of the book study a wonderful success.

But we are not quite done yet!
This Friday, May 5, we hope you will join us one more time for our pot-luck dinner of finger foods and treats, and we are counting on you to bring new (or re-plugged) book titles for consideration as our next book for the fall/winter study session.

Marion Cruickshank has warmly offered to open her doors to the group for this special meeting, so this Friday May 5th head over to 67 Satok Terrace.  MAP.

Please join me in thanking Deb Ellis, Wei Djao and Ken Bole who have been excellent facilitators and the most wonderful binding for our group. Special thanks to those who pinch hit when we needed you, who could ask for more!

It's been wonderful to have you along for the read.
See you all soon,
annie​ ​

Friday, April 21, 2017

Week 8: April 21: Chapters 19, 20 and Afterword

Chapter 19: And They Lived Happily Ever After

1. Happiness. How do you define happiness and how do you know when you are “happy”?
2. If money and illness don’t affect happiness levels over time, then what does? How do
expectations or comparisons play a role?
3. Why do we seem to need pharmaceutical interventions so much more now, than in the
4. To what degree is genetics responsible for our happiness? (Keeping us at certain levels?)
5. Does marriage produce happiness, or happiness produce marriages? :)
6. Pg. 391 Meaning in life. The author argues that “any meaning people ascribe to their lives is
just a delusion.” Thoughts?
7. Does happiness depend on self-delusion?
8. Buddhist meditation practices - ‘People are liberated from suffering not when they
experience fleeting pleasures, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of
feelings and stop chasing them.’ Agree/Disagree? Anyone using these practices willing to
share your experiences?

Chapter 20: The End of Homo Sapiens

1. Is our scientific intelligence (e.g., our ability to modify genes) outpacing our ethical/moral
2. How do you feel about GMOs? Would you eat a potato that had some genes from an Arctic
fish (to be frost-resistant)? What about bacon from a pig with a worm-gene to make it
3. If we are able to bring back species like Wooly Mammoths and Neanderthals, should we?
What rights would that Neanderthal man or woman have? Would we have the right to take
his/her life at a certain age (18?) to examine the brain to “identify what biological change
produced consciousness”?
4. How far do we go? E.g., Cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Would healthy people use it to get
super-memories? Implications? How will money play a role in these decisions?
5. pg. 407: Currently looking to develop “a direct two-way brain-computer interface that will
allow computers to read the electrical signals of a human brain, simultaneously transmitting
signals that the brain can read in turn.” The author asks the following questions:
1. What if they can link a brain directly to the Internet?
2. What if they can link several brains to each other?
3. What might happen to human memory, human consciousness and human identity if the
the brain has direct access to a collective memory bank? Would people lose individual
6. Pg. 408 Suppose you could back up your brain to a portable hard drive and then run it on
your laptop. Would your laptop be able to think and feel just like a Sapiens? If so, would it
be you, or someone else?
7. What if computer programmers could create an entirely new but digital mind, composed of
computer code, complete with a sense of self, consciousness and memory? If you ran the
program, would it be a person? If you deleted it, could you be charged with murder?
8. Personalized medicine - matches treatment to DNA. But what about privacy? Do insurance
companies get access to our info? Can they refuse us if we have genetic predispositions for
9. Do you believe that scientists will be able to engineer spirits as well as bodies? Will there
be something/one that will “look at us as condescendingly as we look at the Neanderthals”?
10. “The real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?’, but ‘What do we want to
want’? What does this mean?

Afterword: The Animal That Became a God

1. “We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles - but nobody
knows where we’re going.” :) Where do you think we’re going?
2. The author asks his final question: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and
irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?”

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Week 7: April 7: Chapters 16, 17 and 18

Our readings for this week, for those who like to keep up, are Chapters 16, The Capitalist Creed, Chapter 17,  The Wheels of Industry, and Chapter 18,  A Permanent Revolution. However, even if you've fallen a little behind, please come out regardless to enjoy good conversation, make closer friendships, and hopefully broaden and deepen your perspective. Who knows how much longer Sapiens will be here?

Chapter 16: The Capitalist Creed

1. 307- “What enables banks - and the entire economy - to survive and flourish is our trust in the future.  This trust is the sole backing for most of the money in the world.”
308 “Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future. It’s founded on the assumption that our future resources are sure to be far more abundant than our present resources.”

Is that human foolishness or brilliance at work, here?

2. Business looked like a zero-sum game…You could cut the pie in many different ways, but it never got any bigger.”  This meant that, if one person got ‘richer’, someone else must be getting poorer - which explains why so many cultures developed a bias against wealth (as sinful).
311 - Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations .“…[A]n increase in the profits of private entrepreneurs is the basis for the increase in collective wealth and prosperity.”
i.e. Greed is good; by becoming richer I benefit everybody, not just myself. Egoism IS altruism.
Greed is good for the collective. Being rich meant being moral.

Are there any ways in which Smith’s theory was right?  What was problematic about it? 

3. 322 “Today some people warn that twenty-first century corporations are accumulating too much power.”
Agree or disagree?

4. 323 - Story of the Mississippi shares - people given a fantasy story, sold everything to invest — believed they’d found “the easy way to riches.”
323-4:  Mississippi story  -  stocks became worthless; the big speculators sold in time and emerged unscathed.  The little guys lost everything - many committed suicide.
What IS that, in humans?  When will we learn?  Similarities to the Bernie Madoff story of the last few years — a recent suicide connected to him, just this month.  

5. 329  - The rise of European capitalism - hand in hand with rise of Atlantic slave trade. 
“Unrestrained market forces, rather than tyrannical kings or racist ideologues, were responsible for this calamity.” 331 - “did not stem from racist hatred towards africans - those involved rarely thought about the africans.”

Also the Great Bengal Famine - financed by upstanding Dutch - loved their kids, gave to charity — but had no regard for the suffering of 10 million Bengalis.  

How is it that a human can be kind and good in many ways, yet participate in something horrific and be indifferent to others’ suffering?

6. Capitalism - 2 answers to its critics:
1.      capitalism has created a world that nobody but a capitalist could run
2.     paradise is just around the corner - the pie will grow and everyone will get a bigger piece (never equitable, but enough to satisfy everyone)
Do you agree with either of these arguments, and why?

Chapter 17:  The Wheels of Industry - The Industrial Revolution

1. 341 ‘Life on the Conveyor Belt’
“The Industrial Revolution was above all else, the Second Agricultural Revolution.” 

What does he mean? 

2. “Farm animals stopped being viewed as living creatures that could feel pain and distress, and instead came to be treated as machines.” “The industry has no intrinsic interest in the animals’ social and psychological needs (except when these have a direct impact on production).”

“Just as the Atlantic slave trade did not stem from hatred towards Africans, so the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity.  Again, it is fuelled by indifference.”

What are the similarities or differences in these two instances?

3. 347 “The Age of Shopping”

A new ethic:  Consumerism
For most of history - scarcity, frugality, austere ethics
Today - we buy countless products we don’t really need, and that until yesterday we didn’t know existed.
What are the outcomes of this for us as individuals, as society, as a world?

Previous ethical systems - paradise, but only if you overcome all your vices. Here, it’s the opposite - this ethic allows you to give in to all of them. 
Chapter 18:  A Permanent Revolution

1.352 - Time, clocks
Subject only to the movements of the sun and the growth cycles of plants.
No uniform working day.  Modern industry care little about the sun or the season. It sanctifies precision and uniformity.

Do you think this has been a good/helpful change for most of humanity?
How has being on the clock affected you, for good or for ill?

2. He points out (355) that we are surrounded by things showing us the time, all the time.
How does that affect your psyche? Is this similar to always having your phone in hand, always ‘being connected’?  Do you experience more joy or relaxation when you don’t know the time, or does that make you anxious?

3.Collapse of the Family and Community
Before - the nuclear, extended or community family took care of all our needs
Now - the state does.  Health, construction, education, law and order, etc.

That has had good and bad outcomes - where would you say the balance lies?  Are we better off with more from the state and market, and less dependence on family? 

4. The mantra was, “Become individuals”, “be more independent.” 
Do you think we have become either of those things?

5. 365 He argues that it’s almost impossible to identify a defining attribute of our time, except for constant change - like defining the colour of a chameleon.
What would YOU say is a defining attribute of our time?

6. 366
“Real peace is not the mere absence of war.  Real peace is the implausibility of war.” 
The law of the jungle - plausible scenario of war within one year.  Today, for most polities, there is no plausible scenario leading to full-scale conflict within one year. 

How does that make you feel?  Relieved? Surprised? Doubtful/skeptical?

7. 372
“Never before has peace been so prevalent that people could not even imagine war.”

The following were some of the reasons he cites as to why we live in a time where people can hardly imagine a war.  Do you believe these reasons are enough to prevent another world war?
1.     The price of war has gone up dramatically
2.     Wealth today cannot be plundered and taken - it’s human capital and technical know-how
3.     Peace is more lucrative than ever - foreign trade and investments have become all-important
4.     Global political culture has shifted - the elites see war as bad and avoidable.
5.     The ‘tightening web of international connections erodes the independence of most countries,’ lessening the chance of one of them starting a conflict.

Week 6: March 24: Chapetsr 14 and 15

Those of you still on schedule will have read Chapter 14, The Discovery of Ignorance, and Chapter 15, The Marriage of Science and Empire by now. If you haven't yet, no problem, you can read it when you're ready. Or not...

Chapter 14: The Discovery of Ignorance

1.     Pgs 249-250 - Harari writes, “Science needs more than just research to make progress. It depends on the mutual reinforcement of science, politics and economics.”
How has scientific development been influenced by politics and economics? How do you see that happening today?  Should this be happening?  Why or why not?

2.     pg 251 - “The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance.”
What did he mean by this? How does modern science’s view of ignorance compare to how the ancient traditions viewed ignorance?

3. Pg. 254 - “One of the things that has made it possible for modern social orders to hold together is the spread of an almost religious belief in technology and in the methods of scientific research, which have replaced to some extent the belief in absolute truths.”
Is human society exchanging religious belief in deities for religious belief in science and technology?  What does that mean? Is this good or bad?

4. pg. 256  - “Newton showed that the book of nature is written in the language of Mathematics.” 
What is your reaction to this?

5. Pg. 262 - “Today many Americans believe that the solution to terrorism is technological rather than political.”  E.g. Nanotechnology for bionic spy-flies; brain research for FMRI scanners to read people’s thoughts, etc.
a)    Do you agree that the solution to terrorism is technological; why/ why not?
b)    Should tax dollars be put toward these endeavours?  (If not, why not?  If so, what would you take the money from, in order to put it here?)
c)    If these were already developed, what would be your rules about how they should be used?  E.g., Ok to use, but only in foreign countries (e.g., spy flies)? Would you vote for or against brain scanners/thought readers being used at Pearson Airport, if it made it safer to fly?
d)    What are you thoughts on this, in the current climate of Russia-gate in the US, and the reports of TVs being used to spy on people?

7. “People still suffer from numerous degradations, humiliations and poverty-related illnesses, but in most countries nobody is starving to death. In fact, in many societies more people are in danger of dying from obesity than from starvation.”
Your thoughts? 

8. Pg. 267-271 - For science - death is a ‘technical problem’; people die technical failures - heart attack, cancer, infections. The leading project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life. A few serious scholars suggest that by 2050, some humans will become a-mortal.”
Do you think this immortality is a wise and moral use of resources today (why/why not)?
Can you imagine the world in 2050, from a science/technology perspective?  What does it look like?  Would you want to live in that world, as you imagine it?

9. Pg. 272 - 274  “Most scientific studies are funded because somebody believes they can help attain some political, economic or religious goal. To channel limited resources we must answer questions such a ‘what is more important?’ and ‘what is good?’  And these are not scientific questions….Science is unable to set its own priorities.
Where do morals, ethics, philosophy etc. come into play in the decisions re: what to fund and what not? If you were the King/Queen and could make the decisions/ set the priorities, how would you handle this?  What ideologies could help make those choices? Could you create one? 

Chapter 15: The Marriage of Science and Empire

1.      Harari argues that the “Scientific Revolution and Imperialism are inseparable.” What does he mean?  Some examples?

2.     Pg. 284 - “European imperialism was entirely unlike all other imperial projects in history.  Previous seekers of empire tended to assume that they already understood the world. Conquest merely utilized and spread their view of the world…In contrast, European imperialists set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories.”

3. p 285 - The story - or legend - about an encounter between astronauts-in-training and a Native American has a pretty powerful ending. 
What were your thoughts/reactions to that?

4. Pg. 286 -  The Empty Maps.
Imagine living in a time when there was no certain map of the earth.  Columbus was so sure that the scriptures and his current understanding of the world were right that even when he literally landed on information to the contrary, he still refused to believe it.
Do you think it’s possible we have similar blind spots today, as individuals and/or as a nation? A world? What might they be? What stops us from seeing them?

5. P 290 -291 - The Chinese also sent out explorers (Zheng He) - in fact, with far more ships, and far larger crews. The difference?  He did not try to conquer or colonize the countries he visited.  “What made Europeans exceptions was not their outstanding technological edge - it was their unparalleled and insatiable ambition to explore and conquer. The Europeans were the oddity - “…to sail to distant and completely unknown lands full of alien cultures, take one step onto their beaches, and immediately declare, “I claim all these territories for my king!”
Why do you think the Chinese explorers had such a different mindset from the Europeans?  How might the world look today, if everyone had gone out with a similar viewpoint/mindset to the Chinese (for good, or for ill)?

6. Pg. 300 - 301
Knowledge really was power for the European conquerers - in what sense(s)? 

7. Pg. 301 
What was the “White Man’s Burden”?
8. Pg.  302 - 304 - “The place of racism in imperial ideology has now been replaced by ‘culturalism’…We no longer say, ‘It’s in their blood.’  We say, ‘It’s in their culture.’”
How do you see that playing out in the world today?  What’s the danger?