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Life! She goes!

Time is flying by rapidly. Summer is almost 25% over — which means I’m getting closer to going home to the dogs, the kitty, and the Caity. Not too much to report, but I thought peeps might like to see what my month has looked like thus far. Check out the pics & Youtube vid below to see what I’ve been up to!

Exams are done! Funk yeah!

Yesterday was the last day of my exams, and now I don’t even know what to do with myself for the next 3 days before I ship off to cowtown. Actually — I’ve got a pretty good idea. I’m going to get started on this earth-shaking book on Capital in the 21st Century, run, fight a cheese-grater, and go golfing with Frits. Other than that, here’s a quick peek at what my 1-Second-Everyday video is starting to look like (I’ve been on-and-off forgetful for the last week unfortunately).

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg

The Power of Habit is another book about how our brains work. Instead of insights and creativity though, The Power of Habit deals with things like, you guessed it, habits and addiction and free will. This book was separated into what could have easily been three shorter books based on different levels of habitual action – personal, small groups (such as a business), and communities.

The book asserts that habits govern almost every aspect of our lives, and can be broken down into a basic structure of: a cue, a routine, and a reward. It argues that while habits can be powerful, they can also be molded and changed to suit our desires and goals – and all that one needs to do it implement the basic structure. To change old habits into new ones, use the same cue and reward, but change the routine. For instance, a smoker would first catalogue themselves to understand the cues that make them smoke, and how they feel afterwards, or the reward they get from smoking. Once understanding this, they can forcibly practice a new routine after the understood cues to achieve the same reward. Simple in theory, but in practice, each individual is different. I feel like I can relate to the process however, as every morning when I get into my truck and get ready to go to work – I start thinking about going to Tim Hortons. Getting into my truck to go to work is my cue, getting a hot coffee and greasy breakfast sandwhich is my routine, and being warm and full is my reward. It’s powerful enough that as soon as I sit down, I start thinking about Timmies. I’m confident that I can change this practice to start saving calories and money.

But alas, my battery is running low, and after typing five other review, I’m getting tired of talking and thinking about books. Of the three sections of this book, I found the personal topics to be more inspiring than the rest (it’s easier to control myself than others), but did enjoy the other two. It was also interesting at the end when the author started talking about the implications of habits, and who is actually in control of themselves and when. For example, and man with a history of sleepwalking had, for the first time, a night terror (where all but the most primal part of your brain are shutdown and non-functioning – but your body can still move) and strangled his wife in his sleep because he thought he was grappling with an attacker in the house – was contrasted next to a lady who gambled compulsively and lost her house, he savings, and her inheritance. The murderer was found innocent while the gambler was found guilty, for reasons I’ll let the book explain. One thing that BLEW MY FUCKING MIND, was that it mentioned people with Parkinsons disease, and a large class action law-suit and many individual trials are ongoing, as their medication does something to their brain, and makes them have nearly uncontrollable temptations to gamble – this blew me away because I recalled working at the casino, and seeing lots of people (more concentrated than I see them at other public places) with Parkinsons on the table games and slot machines, which made me feel bad.

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

Drift, by Rachel Maddow, is about Americas military power, and how it has slowly been becoming unchained from it’s historical roots. It takes a fascinating look at (older) current events, and talks about why they likely should not have happened and how they ultimately ended up happening. A long and unforgiving tug-of-war between the legislative and executive branches of the US political system has been raging for the power over the American military.

The book goes into large detail about how todays wars America is involved in, although lasting a decade or more, no longer have the cultural shock that other wars such as Vietnam and the Korean “conflict” have generated. It’s not necessarily being desensitized by an overabundance of war related media, as some would believe – but largely due to the privatization of war that is responsible for this fact. Checks and balances were put in place historically to ensure that wars weren’t just started willy-nilly, and they’ve slowly been removed and eroded. For example, it used to be impossible to go to war without calling in the National guard and army reserves, which meants uprooting citizens and civilians from their daily life to face an enemy and their bullets – which did not go unnoticed. But in today’s world of private military contractors, reserves that are more solider than civilian (and it’s more shocking to see them at home than at war), and secret unmanned drone programs – it’s easy to see how the American people are losing touch with, and faith with not only their military, but government.

I enjoyed Maddows writing style a persuasive use of rhetoric. She tends to go on powerful rants in text just like she does in person or during interviews. Her writing style  largely reminded me of Richard Dawkins, sans all the big fancy words and British accent that plays in my head when reading his words. If you’re at all interested in politics, history, patriotism or military, you’ll probably enjoy Drift as much as, or more than, I did.

Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer

Imagine by Jonah Lehrer, has been one of the most interesting books I’ve read all summer/fall. It is largely oriented around discussing how our brain actually works, and a lot of the time, these faculties aren’t under our control.

A few sections of this book caught me off guard, because I had just thought about it within a week or two previous to reading it in the book. For instance, I was in my work truck, and Nickelback started playing on the radio. I’m not a big fan of Nickelback (or the radio in general), so I began to think about why I didn’t like Nickelback as much as other artists. I came to the conclusion that it had something to do with how the instrumentals and lyrics seemed clichéd, over-used, and predictable (repetitive verses & power chords, featuring very structured lyrics about drinking and fighting on a Saturday night). Almost this very same topic was covered in the first chapter of the book, and discussed using Bob Dylan as an example – as he had almost quit music to stop himself from regurgitating the same clichéd folk songs. Dylan had retreated to a cabin to stop thinking about music and relax. That’s when it happened. Dylan started (and couldn’t stop) writing in the cabin. The right hemisphere of his brain was vomiting out a constant stream of less structured, and more metaphorical songs – from which emerged a song that launched a generation of music – Like a Rolling Stone.

This book covered a wide range of factors that influence creativity, from having warm showers or going on a walk (I’ve often had a Eureka! moment shortly after walking away from an exam of some sort when I’ve stopped thinking about it), to how many and what kind of people you surround yourself with in projects and general daily life. It talks about these factors, and why they happen to be factors. It talks about insight and puzzle solving, and how the right hemisphere of the brain is in charge of making more abstract connection between loosely connected ideas – thus helping on think outside the box – and how it can be influenced by having a warm shower, going for a walk, or even smoking a bit of marijuana. It talks about how typical classroom brainstorming where there’s no criticism and only pats on the back is largely a futile exercise, and demonstrates how corporations such as 3M, Pixar, and Google rely on the cross contamination of departmentalized groups (be them people, ideas, or resources), and how their “brainstorming” sessions involve constructive criticisms that groups thrive off of.

Imagine was an exceptionally interesting book to read, and I believe a lot of the information contained within could largely be utilized if kept in mind – and I tend to try. Knowing when to take a walk, or when to have a cup of coffee – understanding that I can thrive off of group work instead of only dreading it – have fantastic potential for myself as a budding engineer and current student. I think almost anyone could get something useful out of this book, but if not, at the very least, it’s always fascinating to come a few steps closer in understanding the underlying mechanisms of our brains.

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Tricked Us, by Michael Moss

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Tricked Us, by Michael Moss was a fascinating book to read. What I found most interesting in this book was the fact that, while I came into this book knowing that processed foods are obviously processed and not very good for you – I didn’t really think about it very often. This book helped change that. Maybe just by the act of consciously reading an entire book oriented around the three pillars of processed foods, or maybe the content of the book really struck me – but I’ve already started looking at foods differently.

I’ve been trying to eat healthily for some time now. Before reading this book, I’ve stopped drinking sodas, started exercising, and stopped eating as MUCH crap as before – and all that has helped me lean up and drop about 30 pounds. Salt Sugar Fat talks a lot about nutritional aspects of these three components, and about how bad they are. It also, fascinatingly, talks about the science behind making people crave these ingredients – through focus groups, calculated bliss points, and scientific studies – we are hooked on what’s not good for us. Too much salt causes hypertension and increases our chance of heart problems. Sugar messes with our bodies in a whole host of ways, from diabetes to addiction, and our bodies love it. The issue with fat was mostly centered around caloric intakes and energy expenditure imbalance, except for the case of saturated fats, which again, cause heart issues.

For anyone interested in nutrition and health, this is a cool book to read. Or if you’re interested in finding out about how food processing giants have meticulously figured out how to capture/hook/tantalize us, and are locked with one another in a capitalistic death spiral towards higher profits and higher sugar/fat/salt loads, then I would also recommend you give Salt Sugar Fat a once over.

The Cool Impossible, by Eric Orton and Christopher McDougall

Book number two that I’ve read recently, and subsequently forgot to articulate my thoughts about. The Cool Impossible by Eric Orton and Christopher McDougall, is closely related to Born to Run by Christopher McDougall (Eric Orton was Chris’s Coach for the climactic 50mile race at the end of Born to Run). However, it focused more about the fitness, strength (physical and mental), and technique in running – whereas Born to Run presented  a broad scientific background for how people are essentially running machines.

I was absoloutely captivated by this book – If I recall correctly, I think I read the whole thing from start to finish in less than 10 hours. I haven’t gotten a chance to try many of the strength / stability exercises listen in this book (I’m living in a tent for the summer, and workout equipment is hard to fit in my dome), but they seem appropriate for anyones level, novice to advanced. I did, however, practice trying to run with proper form, as detailed in the book, and I like to think it made a difference. By lifting my knees and driving my leg upward / forward as I run (step over those logs), and being conscious of where I was landing on my foot, I substantially improved the pace of my running. I had never run so fast, so easily, for so long. One of the other lessons that was emphasized greatly in The Cool Impossible, that I feel like I ignored, was “Listening to your body”. In terms of strength, technique, mental focus, injury prevention, physical exhaustion, hunger, dehydration, nutrition, and other areas, the most important thing you can do is listen to your body.

It was a pretty short book, and I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who reads this (nobody), so I’ll try to finish this off with a one sentence summary of how I felt after putting the book down. Born to Run inspired me to start running, but The Cool Impossible inspired me to start running stronger and better – and I believe it helped me approach that goal.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

A few weeks (or a month) ago, I finished reading Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan. I should have written about it right away, but was quickly distracted by another book. Either way, here is a quick summary of my thoughts on Zealot.

I’m not very well versed in any field of history, let alone biblical history. That coupled with my largely incomplete understanding (or complete ignorance) of religion, I think, helped me approach this subject with a fairly open mind. I think a lot of the arguments presented in the book were fairly sensible. The historical Jesus was a fairly common that existed within the world as it was then – and not quite so different from many of the other prophets before him. Zeal was a common trait of the times, and being highly contagious, Jesus was no exception.

Obviously, it was the biblical/metaphorical/legacy of Jesus – contorted, twisted, sculpted, and revised until a certain and very specific Jesus was created. I don’t remember most of the details of the book (all those names of ancient towns, kings, and priests sound the same to me, and are hard to recall), but the book seems to be based, maybe not on hard evidence (there is a lack in this category supporting any idea from so long ago), but on perhaps solid common sense and inference.

One can see how this book might cause a bit of a commotion within religious (Christian/Catholic??) circles, as it more or less simply calls their prophet – their lord and savior – a regular, blindly zealous, yet largely inspiring common that was crucified just the same as every would be king, son of god, son of man, prophet or messiah that had come before him. The book also goes into details of how the biblical Jesus is just a hyperbolic memory of the historical Jesus.

Either way, books based on religious topics aren’t really favorite thing in the world – I find the subject exhausting and redundant, but it’s good to read up on things that I’m more or less oblivious to, I suppose. At the end of the day, for an activity I’m not really a fan of (religious history – even if it is largely critical of a religion), Zealot was a well written, and detailed argument (from my largely non-existant understanding of the top) of how the life and death of the historic/actual Jesus is likely to have occurred and been perceived in the world of Jesus’ time.

Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Be forewarned – this was a long read, and will likely be a longer than usual ‘review/thoughts/rant’. This book, to me, was a challenge to get through – especially after just having read Silvers book on prediction The Signal and the Noise. Before I begin with my criticism of this book, I’ll lay out briefly how I feel about the content. I found that after having struggled to get through the introduction and early stage of the book, I agreed with a lot of what Taleb has to say – but perhaps not quite as strongly, and certainly not in the way he presents (mostly articulates) it.

To be antifragile is to be not only resilient to randomness, variance, volatility, unpredictability (and however many other ways you can say ‘things you weren’t expecting to happen’), but also to gain or benefit in the event of volatility. It took me a little while to wrap my head around the idea of being able to benefit from volatility, but Taleb makes good use of a couple figures when he argues that a person that is Antifragile can benefit from volatility only in systems that are non-linear –the more extreme or unlikely an event that occurs in a system, the more radical and extreme the response will be (picture a chart of an exponential response).

One example of this that is fresh in my mind (I think) that seemed to make sense would be if you were to essentially bet against the ‘economy’ (or bet that there would be a financial system collapse – through the magic of the stock market). If you were to have reason to expect that this is a wise bet to make (you see the 2008 mortgage derivative swap whatever thing coming), over time you’d be wrong for a little bit – but you’d would only be losing small amounts of money (at the low end of the exponential curve). When the extreme, unpredictable event (called a Black Swan in the book) happens, you cash out big-time. Another strong example of antifragility (or a lack thereof) is how a child that is allowed to play in the dirt, get cuts and bruises, expose itself to lots of sunlight and new bacteria (or germs or virii or whatever) while its immune system is in its highest rate of development – you could likely assume that it would be ‘stronger’ than a child raised in a sterile room, covered in sunscreen, and using sanitary wipes after touching anything. One of my favorite examples – that coincidentally relates to me due a recent change in my exercising – is how barefoot or minimalist running strengthens your feet by allowing them to adapt or react to terrain using all the muscles in your foot, instead of protecting them with over-cushioned running shoes. My feet are becoming antifragile.

Throughout the book, Taleb engages in vehement bashing of academia and academics, and while at some points it was pretty repetitive and tactless (often saying things like “evidence schmevidence”), I tend to agree with the argument he was presenting. You can only really learn so much in a lecture or a textbook, and to understand how the real world tends to actually function and operate, you have to jump in there – and this doesn’t require much more than a bit of initiative, let alone a Doctorate. Ranging from the ignorance of people that think they know what they’re talking about because they went to school for six years and wrote their thesis on this or that, to the absoloutely treacherous record of politicians and ‘economists’ predictions and models used to forecast how things are going to go (with no punishment for their complete inaccuracies) – there’s shocking lack of practical knowledge compared to pure academia that happens to run the world. I didn’t exactly enjoy how much Taleb talked about ancient philosophers (I’m sure mainly because I’m completely ignorant of this subject – and all the names just sound like they’re from God of War to me), but a few of the quotes and proverbs struck a chord with me. In regards to trying to attain a deeper understanding of things he says, “the sea gets deeper as you go farther into it”, or as I like to think “I know enough to know that I don’t know much” – something that I think many people should open up to.

Taleb argues that true knowledge and entrepreneurship is attained not fom high level academia – but from tinkering, or trial and error. I agree with this to a large extent, but not entirely. I would argue that university level education provides a sort of launch pad – and then the rest is about diving in and seeing what you can figure out. I can probably truthfully say that of the things I truly understand – I’ve only really gotten a grasp of them from troubleshooting them (taking out the broken bits of a computer until it turns back on), and learning from why I broke something in the first place. Reverse engineering is underappreciated. I rarely tend to make the same mistake more than once, and I feel confident that I can learn how to do just about anything – because I understand the true mechanisms behind understanding mechanisms.

So as I said – there’s a lot in this book that I agree with. It was hard to get through, however, because of an over-abundance of ancient philosophy and literature that I’m not well versed in, and it kind of reads (much like this post, I’m sure) like a mad-man’s manifesto because I don’t think it was edited (he mentions on multiple occasions that book editors are among the things he hates the most – editors shmeditors). While my talk of this book was not very brief, there was a lot in this book — I’m sure I missed half of it, and forgot a quarter — so you may want to read it yourself. That being said, there were lots of interesting blurbs and quotes that I liked, so I’ll end with a few of them.

–          “Food would not have a taste if it weren’t for hunger; results are meaningless without effort, joy without sadness, convictions without uncertainty, and an ethical life isn’t so when stripped of personal risk” (in other words, volatility can be a good thing, working hard can be worth it, put your money where your mouth is or shut up, and people will fuck you over if they’re never held accountable).

–          “We a suckers for the sophisticated” (A lot of people will buy into anything with a bit of math behind it – equip your bullshit detectors)

–          In regards to minimalist running shoes… “In a way they are selling us the calloused feet of a hunter-gatherer that we can put on, use, and then remove upon returning to civilization.”

–          In regards to big pharma and medications “the non-natural needs to prove its benefits, not the natural” (Smoke weed errry day)

–          “I am not here to live forever, as a sick animal”

–          “We sacrifice ourselves in favor of our genes, trading our fragility for their survival. We age, but they stay young and get fitter and fitter outside us. Things break on a small scale all the time, in order to avoid large-scale generalized catastrophes.”