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.