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.”

Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness, by Scott Jurek and Steve Friedman

I picked up Jurek’s Eat and Run yesterday and couldn’t put it down. I finished it in one day – my own personal marathon of reading (plus it was pretty short). I found it to be a genuinely inspiring, although somewhat depressing tale of running and chasing your own limits. “Sometimes you just do things”, as Jurek often quotes of his father throughout the book struck a chord with me – I often tell myself that “it is what it is” in the same manner. I like to know why things are, but sometimes, you just need to understand that you just need to do things, and they are what they are.

I’ve been trying to get myself into somewhat of a running frame of mind, training for my first half marathon. Miniscule in distance compared to 150mile ultra marathons, but I feel the principle is the same. Running is an easy and natural movement, and anyone can do – but running for just a little bit longer each time takes something else. Finding your edge and pushing past it is what it takes. Going as far as you can possible go, and then going a little bit more. Running is more mental than I had previously imagined it would be, and I was happy to read that one of the strongest ultra-runners of all time felt the same way.

Jurek speaks of “the zone”, or “the sudden, Zen-like clarity that comes when you least expect it, often when your body is pushed to the limit” in Chapter 14. I think that I’ve chased down and tasted Satori once or twice before – I was running, and it was so easy and light that I forgot that I was even moving (I don’t even think I could hear the music in my headphones). It was crystal clear, it was blissful, but it was ephemeral. Jurek immediately follows his talk of satori with, “Satori can be sought, but it cannot be held”, which certainly was the case with myself – like all drugs, the high doesn’t last.

Other than a few motivational snippets and spiritual guidelines, I took away a little bit of advice for improving my eating and running. Jurek is an avid – but not obnoxious – vegan, and has a recipe for a vegan meal at the end of each chapter. I can’t exactly try them out right now, as I’m living in a tent without a blender, and the construction crew would never cease ridiculing me while they eat their hourly hotdogs – but I’m excited to try them out when I get home (I love a mean guac, salsa, burritos, and rice. What could go wrong?). As far as running advice is concerned, the big thing I took away other than the mental strength and focus required was in regards to stride rate (I also learned that a single stride length is the distance covered after both legs have pushed off the ground – not each individual step). Jurek mentions that most elite or professional runners try to maintain a rate somewhere in the range of 85~90 strides per minute. For this, he also recommends finding music at that BPM (beats per minute) or double that. I’m excited to try it out and see how it works, and then (hopefully) start lengthening my strides once I build up more endurance and strength.

For being a short book, I tried to keep my talk about it short – but it seems that I got lost in the zone I often find myself in when I start to type. I understand what Jurek calls Satori, and plan on chasing it down. All in all, Eat and Run was a good read. Lots of delicious sounding recipes at your disposal at the end of each chapter, more encouraging statements and mental preparation than I expected, and even a little bit of advice on how to improve. For a budding runner, or even veteran mileage killer, I think most people would get a kick out of Jureks book.

The Signal and the Noise: Why Some Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t, by Nate Silver

I originally heard of this book, like many other books I’ve read, from either The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report. I can’t remember which, but they’re practically interchangeable. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad that most of my recommended reading comes from satirical news shows, but hey, at least I’m reading something. Despite being introduced to myself on what is essentially comedy television, this was an exceptionally well thought out exploration into the world of statistics, Bayesian reasoning, and their applications.

Silver mixes some great (albeit nerdy) jokes into the world of analyzing and scrutinizing seemingly endless data – which was a good call, because I don’t think most people are quite as interested, or have much of a technical background, in the realm of statistics and signal analysis. I think what really made this book so enticing for me was the fact that I had just finished a course in my engineering education regarding Instrumentation and Data Analysis, which was essentially a crash course in statistics, probability, and leaned heavily on Bayes theorem. Now that I think about it, I actually recall that the professor in that course mentioned Silver by name (he was in the news prior to that for having just correctly called the American Presidential election almost perfectly) during class one day – I don’t remember if he plugged his book or not though.

This book hit the target on so many of my interests and hobbies that it was almost eerie. I don’t exactly analyze baseball, or basketball – but I avidly follow hockey and was pretty impressed when EA sports was correctly able to predict the winner of the Stanley cup one year (the Blackhawks), and almost got it right the next year (my beloved, runners-up Canucks), and it made me think about the practical ways to break it down and analyze it. Silver even spent an entire chapter on poker, which will always have a soft spot in my heart. Although it isn’t related to my academic or extra-curricular interests, I spend a lot of time looking at weather forecasts due to the fact that I’m currently stationed on a construction project that is easily slowed down by adverse weather, so the weather forecasting section was fascinating too, and I didn’t realize how exceptional of a job is done and how much progress was made in this field.

I could continue elaborating about how much I enjoyed each chapter, and about how Silver described each concept so well that it just rolls into your brain for later use – but I think that would spoil the book for you. I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Signal and the Noise, and it helped me see the forest for the trees, and reaffirm how useful it is to approach the world with a probabilistic attitude instead of a binary yes/no view. From 100 year storm events, and hypothesis testing, to confidence intervals and Bayes theorem – there wasn’t a part of this book that I didn’t enjoy. If you have any interest in statistics or data analysis, you should read this.

 

A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, by Lawrence Krauss

In Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing I was presented with a wonderful explanation of a deep understanding of our place in the cosmos as we know it today.

Krauss delivered compelling evidence (theoretical calculations as well as direct observations) arguments for a multitude of the wonders of the universe. Ranging from the Big Bang of the universe itself (firmly grounded in reality with evidence from measuring the redshift of stars being moved away from us do to the expansion of the universe, as well as essentially what is a map or infant photo of the universe at a meagre 300,000yrs old) to the shape of the universe – the breadth of knowledge currently held by todays scientists, cosmologists, physicists, astronomers, and many other professions is truly astounding.

Two of my favorite people to learn about – Richard Feynman and Christopher Hitchens, I assume, one for physics brilliance and the other for eloquence and attitude – are mentioned throughout the book, which made it all the better, as I felt that I could relate to many of the idiosyncrasies of each. The quantum world still seems to largely elude my understanding, but various diagrams (initially doodled by Feynman), wonderful analogies, my furthered university education (familiarizing myself with electromagnetics and a light introduction to the world that is quanta), and a noticeable patience in writing helped me make heads or tails (or both, or neither) of the idea that virtual particles whip in and out of existence in infinitely small amounts of time – given that a paired anti-particle is created (or perhaps used to destroy a third) – as long as a conservation of energy is maintained.

My only criticism of Krauss’ (otherwise impeccable) work is an exceptionally minor (I was tempted to use the word quantum here, but I didn’t…. But then I did) one – in that he uses the word facetious frequently in the early stages of the book, and the phrase (however appropriate it may be) “when the dust settles” throughout. It’s a very finicky and self-serving complaint, so I don’t think it will bother anyone else. Along with that, I’m hardly one to be delivering criticism in that regard, as I’m a poor writer at best, and had to look up the definition of facetious to fully understand what it meant.

I won’t spoil any more of the surprises, but if I’ve learnt one thing, it’s that if you aren’t completely ruling out the idea of reading this fascinating book, then it’s only a matter of time that you’ll be nose deep in the wonder that is our cosmos. If you get any sense of awe from the vastness of the universe, I highly recommend taking the scientific, empirical, beautiful journey that is A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing.

http://www.amazon.ca/Universe-Nothing-There-Something-Rather/dp/1451624468/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1372633960&sr=8-1&keywords=a+universe+from+nothing

Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall

My good friend Brent Brento Abel recommended this book to me, and I have never been more pleasantly surprised by a friends advice than this. I’m not even sure if he had read it or only heard about it, but however it happened, I’m glad it found its way into my world. It all started with Brent telling me, on one of our runs along the Bow River in Calgary while I was in town, that I run wrong. This wasn’t any major surprise to me, having always known in my heart that I was retarded, but something inside me wanted to fix it and run correctly – and I think this book helps explain it.

Born to Run, by SOMEONE, is not only a wonderful story – through its tale of various ultra-marathons and adventures through Mexican mountain ranges – but also a brief (yet appreciably deep) history of running (in biological, anthropological, and sport senses), and a light analysis of the science or physics of running through various anecdotes and interviews with physiotherapists and professional trainers.  I have adopted some of the practices and mentalities from Born to Run that really struck a chord with me, which subsequently caused my girlfriend to refer to me as a functioning hippie – something that can only be construed as a compliment in any sense of the term.

In conclusion, Born to Run changed the way I physically run, and the way I approach running mentally – and I encourage any aspiring runners to give it a read (I read it in just over a day, but it WAS a pretty slow day at work). If you don’t read or run (or you don’t do either) then you should probably start. We were all born to run, and I for one, plan to try to start living “Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast” — Just like the Tarahumara.

http://www.amazon.com/Born-Run-Hidden-Superathletes-Greatest/dp/0307279189/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1372542597&sr=8-1&keywords=born+to+run

Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, by Naomi Klein. My review / thoughts.

Having begun this book with a vast ignorance of history – especially economic history – allowed me to indulge myself in a constant barrage of new information, which is my favorite part of reading any  book. That being said, the content of this book was absoloutely fascinating and captivated me from start to finish. I’m beginning to understand that I use the phrase a mind-blowing amount, but this introduction to the powerful rise and expansion of ‘disaster capitalism’ blew my mind. At some points, the rhetoric was shockingly (no pun intended) convincing of the pervasiveness of governmental corruption throughout the many nations used as examples – from Bolivia to Russia to the USA. Other points, however, caused me to think aloud that Klein had taken a page from the oft mentioned Kubark manual (perhaps with foresight and good reasoning) and been overly repetitive in her attempt to hammer some issues home.

The content of the book seems to be significantly backed up with identifiable sources (though I’ll likely not read any of them), which lends even more to the gravity of the implications within. Never having heard of Milton Friedman before, I figured he seemed like a capable scapegoat – where it would be easy to lay blame at the foot of his tombstone – but it began to become more and more clear that the neoliberal doctrine asserted by himself, fellow faculty, and army of students such as the Chicago Boys were a visible force in each of the free-market-explosion episodes where somehow the repressions (and often slaughter) of thousands of people went  not only un-related, but often even unmentioned.

Being a relatively younger reader (a 26 year  old, white, Canadian male with no economics or history education) than what I assume her typical audience would be (and older person who may have faced any form of repression), I was relieved when Klein made her way into more present day disasters that I have some knowledge of such as Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 tsunami in the Sri Lankan and surrounding areas, and the War in Iraq. Using these recent tragedies as examples brought things into the real world for me rather than the long gone, fairy tale world that is the past.

I was enthralled, and enraged throughout my reading of this book until the very end, where I was beginning to fill with a slight sense of hope and optimism. I feel like this book may have opened my eyes at home in regards to the weight that political figures can push around behind closed doors (things come to mind like omnibus bills passed by the current Canadian majority conservative government), gluttonous wasteful spending (seen in the ever increasing cost of unnecessary fighter jets), and corporate corruption in desperate nations abroad (SNC Lavallin involved in multiple cases of bribery and governmental interference). I believe that the information gleaned from reading this detailed account of unchecked capitalism of free-market obsession will stick with me, and hopefully prepare me for the day where my personal shock treatment (hopefully, never) arrives. With the current flood situation in Alberta, I’m keeping an ear to the ground to see if anything happens.

 

http://www.amazon.com/The-Shock-Doctrine-Disaster-Capitalism/dp/0312427999/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1372541469&sr=8-1&keywords=shock+doctrine

Reflections on my first eight weeks back in school

As everyone that reads my blog (AKA nobody but myself) surely knows — I have been attending school again since September. I made the choice to return to school and complete my engineering degree, and reign supreme over lesser peasants and my mental faculties. That being said, I’m genuinely surprised about how many of these (aptly named) “lesser peasants” have no doubt stumbled their way into the same engineering program that I’m registered in. If these fools are the caliber of human being permitted into engineering, I weep and fear for our future. These cretins are going to get us all killed because they’re unintelligent, foolish drunks, and arrogant fuck-heads.

These nit-wits are absolutely, dumbfoundingly, inconceivably stupid. I realize that people go to school to learn things, and nobody is expected to know everything right away — that’s not what I mean. The type of intelligence I’m referring to in this sense is more of a practical, “common sense” intelligence. For example, on of these future plagues of the earth, instead of taking notes, decided to take pictures of everything with the camera on his iPad. While this in itself isn’t the worst idea I’ve heard of, it gets worse when you look at the details. This class is in a lecture hall that seats 300 kids, and he sits in the back of the room. I`ll even give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume the photos come out readable. What really confuses me about this, is that the content we take notes on, and what he photographs, are just a powerpoint presentation the professor posts online at the end of the class for all to see. So not only is this simpleton not taking notes, or writing anything down, he`s taking pictures of a powerpoint presentation he`s free to download to his computer, and ultimately annihilating the quality and readability of the slides.

These knuckle-dragging, mouth breathers are stumbling, drunken embarrassments. I understand that people like to go out and get drunk and maybe get a little rowdy from time to time — I`ve certainly thrown my fair share of lawn furniture around the yard. My antics, as entertaining as they were, pale in comparison to these genuine train-wrecks, not only in frequency, but also in a complete disregard for safety (of themselves, their friends, and the public) and hygiene. This all stems from the fact that I have, unfortunately, been riding the buss home lately, so I have been presented with the misfortune of listening to these goons shout their stories at on another in between bursts of laughter and expletives. I have plenty of examples — but I`ll share just the one I heard this evening. Two young lads sitting beside me were reveling in their antics just this weekend past. They went out with twelve of their friends from the school of engineering. Fourteen prospective engineers, and only one of them had the intelligence to bring a vehicle. No matter, they managed to fit 11 people inside this small Jeep, and three hung off the back bumper. I`m assuming the only reason they fit so many people inside is because they were all very well lubricated (albeit socially, but that still helps when you`re in a backseat sandwich), as they had been “smoking mad blunts and crushin some fuckin beers all fuckin night long“ — including the driver, the narrator of our story. Once loading up the inside and outside of the car with drunken pink gorillas, the driver, in his inebriated glory, decided the best course of action was to drive the very heavy car filled and covered with 13 of his peers at 70km/hr, dodging and weaving through wherever they were. Two of the three gentlemen on the back bumper jumped off well before the vehicle got up to speed, but the remaining one as well as the ELEVEN inside the vehicle were unlucky (read: dumb) to linger around until the driver lost control and slammed into a tree. Nobody inside was hurt, as there was likely no room for anyone to move, making a booze scented airbag of pubes and fat — but the young man on the back flew off the Jeep and knocked his head during his deceleration. He ended up getting a concussion and drinking for the rest of the night, insisting he was fine — so fuck him, I don’t care if he lives or dies.

These beef-headed children are all arrogant, entitled bastards (and bast-ettes, as the girls aren’t any better). I’d get into it, but I wont. I have boatloads of homework to do, and I’m tired of this anyways.

Highdea #1

Today was a good day because I had a good idea. I keep hearing about “life hacks”, which are essentially pieces of advice that make random things in your life easier. Today, an old homeless guy came into Caitys cafe, picked up a “Buy 10, get 1 free” stamp card — stamped the whole thing, and then left. I presume he plans on coming back when another girl is working. That’s when it dawned on me.

“Bum-life hacks”.

So to all you homeless people out there, just go grab a buy 10, get 1 free card, stamp the whole thing, and come back later. Because nobody is enough of an asshole to yell at you about jacking a free coffee every now and then.