A perfect, textbook parable of Buddhist transformation. 191 pages, ★★★★★
The great “Western Disease” is rapidly spreading around the world! The disease is called, “I will be happy when…” When I get that money, when I get that racy car, when I get that new house, when I get that promotion. — Foreword
It seems contradictory to review a book that says, “Don’t evaluate this book—evaluate yourself” on page ix.
Protagonist Ignacio Rodríguez—he might as well be called Ignoramus—is a stereotypically stressed businessman who’s worrying about hitting his company’s performance targets and bullying his staff to “try harder”.
Ignacio’s stress-induced, non-fatal heart attack prompts his doctor to prescribe some rest. He resists at first, but eventually—reluctantly—seeks the help of a spiritual guide who shows him how to improve his life through restful, mindful meditation and by cultivating compassion. (See my review of Cultivating Compassion here.)
After following the master’s advice, every aspect of Ignacio’s life improves: his marriage, his relationship with his children, his sales performance, his company’s profits, his physical and mental health, and his happiness. His co-workers even get along better with each other. Compassion spreads.
The Secret of the Seven Seeds is a slightly-too-perfect version of a life transformed by Buddhism. Being fictional, the transformation story is more ‘textbook’ than in Tiny Buddha, which was autobiographical. Both books inspire, but The Secret of the Seven Seeds is more parable than legend. Read whichever one works best for you.★★★★★
“It is gratifying for an author if a book remains in print; it is even more gratifying if no amendment has to be made because of new evidence” — page xi.
Thus, these two outdated statements, left uncorrected by new evidence humoured me:
“The term, “Negro” is used in this book to refer specifically to a West African black with sickle-cell anemia” — page 4.
“The actual population [of India] today is nearly 700 million” — page 11.
But the contradictions stop there. The book suddenly becomes gripping, describing historical events with interdisciplinary knowledge and an excellent arts/humanities/scientific balance. Here are just a few fascinating snippets:
Quinine (without quinine, there’d be no WW2, no Panama Canal, and only 100 million people in India)
Sugar (cultivating sugar was brutal work; about one slave would die per ton of sugar produced)
Cotton (Liverpool was built to cater to the slave-trade)
Tea (an interesting history written from a purely colonial perspective)
Potatoes (the Irish harvested corn very differently due to the unique climate)
Coca (Popeye’s spinach binges were actually shots of cocaine; but Middle America knew no better and per-capita consumption of spinach soared sixfold in a few decades)
Sweet thoughts in this book include:
“Potatoes floating ashore from the wrecked Armada in 1588 were alleged to have colonised western Ireland” — page 238.
Another thought-provoking snippet is this:
“The illegal drug scene is an oddity that if the opiates and the coca derivatives were legalized, the drugs themselves would be cheap and there would be no criminality, no drug scene and much less money-laundering and thousands of addicts would foreshorten their lives and the genes which give rise to addiction (which may or may not exist) would not not multiply as they do now” — page 295.
I think there’s room for a sequel that features another five plants: hemp, cocoa, corn, rice and bananas. Each of them changed the world profoundly, and each come with an abundance of interesting stories to tell.
The topics in this book are so broad, so important, yet so little-known, that they make for excellent conversation. I wish for a sequel. ★★★★★
When most of us were playing with toy cars, trains and planes, Venter was playing with the real thing. He satisfied his thirst for adrenaline by pressing pennies on railway tracks (to his disappointment, new U.S. pennies are too robust to be flattened by trains); by using bicycles to chase airplanes during takeoff (before the runway area was protected by an unscalable fence); and built engines with his friends and their parents.
His science career got off to an unusual start as a medic in Vietnam. He writes that the grotesque scenes of violence and disease spurred his desire to work in the field of medicine after his return from duty. But his actions toward the end of the book indicate that his desire to “help people” would always remain subordinate to his giant ego: an attribute that benefitted both him and his companies later (and, arguably, the sequencing industry) in the political and ethical minefields of human genomics. Evidence shows that it was not a “medic’s benevolence” but a relentless desire to win that would keep him so motivated.
Venter is best-known for sequencing the first human genome (his own genome!) with Celera Genomics. A more popular, publically-funded initiative to sequence the human genome was already underway, but Venter’s company was first to claim victory. On the day of Venter’s historic announcement (which was at the White House, with heads of state present via video-link), 46 per cent of Americans in a CNN/Time poll responded that Venter’s efforts bore “negative consequences” because his superiors ruthlessly patented the genes they discovered (on an unrelated note, biological patents have gotten out of hand: one patent was granted for a peptide sequence so short it could fit onto Twitter). Venter’s rebuttal can be summarised as, “I have always known that only a tiny proportion of human genes have yielded profits. The only viable alternative to patenting those genes would have been to keep the codes secret—which would have benefitted no-one”. Basically, “I could have done worse”.
Venter has always known that only a tiny proportion of human genes have yielded profits. The only viable alternative to patenting those genes would have been to keep the codes secret—which would have benefitted no-one.
Venter’s own genes are interesting. He starts by joking that his billion-dollar genome scan revealed the gene SRY (the gene for testes), which make him (as a man), “more likely to commit crimes, go to prison, be depressed, be addicted, get cancer, be violent, get rich, and die young”. He continues intermittently with descriptions of his genetic makeup: OAC2 gave him blue eyes, DAT1 contributed to his ADHD, MAO created his thirst for adrenaline (expressed through ever-larger yachts in later life), his DRD4 makes him less susceptible to addiction and schizophrenia, and his FTO type helped him keep a lean figure. His 5’HTTLPR made sure he didn’t get long-term depression, and while he prefers to work in the evenings, he’s not a “night owl”, which we can tell by looking at his Per2 and Per3 genes. Most interestingly, he is one of the lucky 1% of individuals who possess the rapid caffeine degradation gene CYP1A2, which eliminates the long-term side-effects of drinking coffee (cancer, heart problems) almost entirely. He describes many more.
Now, I really want to get my own genome analysed. It’s only $399 for a basic SNP scan from http://www.23andme.com. Genetic research is now advanced enough to make the investment worthwhile. For the insight it provides, it’d be money very well spent. ★★★★★
A self-employed salesman’s glorious transition to adulthood 317 beautifully-produced pages, ★★★★★
We all loved Steve Jobs‘ biography. Steve Jobs was a white slumdog millionaire, who followed his heart from poverty to the same superstardom that surrounds L. Ron Hubbard and Chairman Mao. Steve Jobs was the American Dream personified twice, with international reach: some Chinese youths even sold kidneys to buy an iPhone or iPad 2. If you loved the recent Steve Jobs biography, then you’ll connect with Decoded, too.
Jay-Z’s story is similar to that of Steve Jobs. Both their fathers left when they were young. Both were excellent showmen and both of them succeeded in business. Both became extremely successful in more than one field. Both were supporters of Barack Obama. Jay-Z didn’t enjoy the success on the same scale as Steve Jobs, but his starting point was also much lower (“…you could get killed for being on the wrong train at the wrong time”). Their climb was roughly equal.
“You could get killed for being on the wrong train at the wrong time” — Jay-Z
Jay-Z is a professional salesman. He started aged 13 by selling crack cocaine to supplement his single mother’s income, when a couple of characters from his inner circle introduced him to poetry to vent stress from the job. To date, none of this early-age poetry has ever been published.
Jay-Z kept (relatively, aside from selling crack cocaine) out of trouble and kept doing what he loved. He kept writing poetry. The skills he learned from selling crack cocaine (life’s too short; don’t do drugs; stay away from trouble; everyone’s trying to get their hands in your pockets) hardened him for the dog-eat-dog environment of the music industry, which he describes as “one of the most ruthless industries in America”.
“Being a recording artist on a major label is probably the most exploitative contractual agreement in America, and it’s legal.” — Jay-Z
Decoded helped me understand the journey I took in 2011. I used to crave the salaried office jobs that Jay-Z criticises (“American Dreamin'”, page 30), with the water cooler conversation (page 79) and the safety net of having a fixed salary (“Freakonomics”, page 75). Most of these jobs (especially corporate finance) are just as socially-useless, money-obsessed and unfulfilling as selling crack cocaine on the street. They bring large paycheck at the expense of huge social damage; and Jay-Z reminds us that subprime mortgages are much worse than crack cocaine. ★★★★★