books miscellaneous

90 Second Book Review: Stumbling on Happiness

I must admit that I don’t quite recall where I first heard about the subject of this quick review, but as has happened many times, that intergalactic portal that sorts through the thousands of books I’d like to read and picks the right one at the right time to send my way did its job and I found myself in its possession.  Dan Gilbert’s work falls into that interesting category that is blend of psychology, biology, evolution, anthropology and self help.  It’s extremely readable, which is a great asset since the message is so important.
When I’m done with this review, I will end up putting it on the shelf next to Haidt’s “Righteous Mind” which argues that rather than humans being Rational, we are actually “Rationalizing”, i.e. we apply a rational framework to our decisions post hoc as a way of telling ourselves and our friends a story about why we did what we did.  Haidt argues that this reversal of the commonly accepted cognitive process stems from basic evolution – it’s just the way we are wired.
Gilbert, in “Stumbling on Happiness” similarly argues that due to a series of evolutionary accidents our brains work in some particular ways that run counter to the stories we tell ourselves about how they work.  The rational animals story and the captains of our own ship story have been with us for a long time and its only now with the bright light of scientific inquiry are we learning that we may have been fooling ourselves.
While there are some detractors, many great philosophers will claim that happiness is the ultimate virtue, since happiness is sought as an end in itself, and not as a pathway to anything else.  In Stumbing on Happiness, Dan Gilbert constructs a compelling story about why humans are so bad at actually being happy.  Even better, he offers practical advice on what we can do about it.
Gilbert states his thesis early on:

We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain – not because the boat won’t respond and not because we can’t find out destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope*.
*(a made up word he uses to describe the mental “device” we use to predict the future).

Before Gilbert can describe why we’re so bad at predicting what will make us happy, he spends some time defining what happiness is, and just as importantly for a work attempting to take a rational approach, how we can measure it.  Gilbert spends a few pages discussing the fact that defining happiness is not that easy and one of the main reasons is that seeking is often seen a selfish or petty.  Thanks Puritans!  What he settles on is the basic idea that happiness is a subjective experience, so the person best situated to measure happiness of any particular individual is that individual themselves as long as you do as much as you can to control for the distortions caused by memory and social norms.
With a working definition and measures of happiness, the next three sections focus on the three failure modes of imagination which make it such a bad tool for predicting what will make us happy.  The first of these he calls “Realism” which refers to the fact that our imagination works so quickly, we often don’t even notice that what we are thinking is imagined.  This can lead to confuse imagined ideas with real ones.  Which leads to making decisions on things we think are true when they in fact aren’t…but we think they are.
The next failure mode of imagination he calls “Presentism” which argues in the opposite direction of the first failure by claiming that despite our ideal about imagination, it’s really not all that imaginative in that our imagined futures are very often extremely similar to our actual presents.  If Realism is all about the imagination working to well to be useful for accurate prediction, presentism is all about it not working well enough.
Gilbert calls the third and final imagination failure mode “Rationalization” which is all about how hard it is for us to accurately predict how we will think and feel about the future we imagine for ourselves once we get there.  Realism and Presentism keep us from being good forecasters about what will happen next and Rationalization seals the unhappiness deal by making sure we will most often be wrong about how we’ll feel about it on the off chance we happen to get lucky and correctly predict future events.  The basic idea of rationalization is that humans are way more resilient than most psychologists would give us credit for.
Gilbert provides the strongest evidence for this when he applies his objective happiness measurement to people that have undergone a specific tragedy (loss of a love one, terminal illness) and those who haven’t but that he asks to imagine how they would feel if they had.  Those that actually have had the experience are consistently happier than those that haven’t imagine that they would be if they had.  In short: we can get used to pretty much anything.
Fortunately, Gilbert doesn’t end his book here, on an “all is lost” tone.  He offers a way out, although he immediately says that he does this knowing that almost no one will take it.  Gilbert claims there is a simple way to see through the mirages provided by hind sight and foresight: find people that have recently, or even better are currently, doing what you are thinking about doing or have stopped doing what you are thinking about stopping and ask them how they feel.  You will likely feel the same.
However, this rescue comes with a caveat: most people wont chose this path due to what I have always known as the “special snow flake” argument.  “I’m special.”  “I’m different.”  “I’m complicated.”  Gilbert calls BS on these and a thousand other similar claims, at least when it comes to what makes us happy.  In the realm of happiness we humans are all more or less the same.  What makes other people you know happy will more than likely make you happy and vice versa.
Thinking about some big life change and not sure whether to pull the trigger?  Or already decided, but not started?  Find someone in your circle of friends, friends of friends, acquaintances, or even random people you search for on the internet that have done the same and ask them how they feel. Then relisten to what they tell you.  You’ll be happier for it.

books miscellaneous

450 second book review: A quintet to clear the decks

It’s been a while since I’ve posted any book reviews.  It’s not that I haven’t been reading…it’s just that I haven’t taken the time to write up my thoughts and impressions.  But no more.  With this post I am clearing out my backlog of book notes and clearing the decks.  In no particular order, here are some quick notes on books I have finished in the last few months:
Amusing Ourselves to Death
I started and finished this one most recently.  I ran across a copy in the portal where the gods send me books to read from my too long/unprioritied wish list (AKA Half Price Books) a few weeks ago and read it in about a week.  It was written more than three decades ago, and although Mr. Postman sets his sights on Television, he makes a few mentions of the threat posed by “Micro-Computers” ;-).
His general argument is that television fundamentally alters the nature of discourse as compared to print.  A “print culture” has cohesion of thought based on the fact that everything in print is placed in context.  Based on that context, the reader has the ability to ferret out any contradictions and thus determine the truth of any claims made by an author.  Shifting to television, Mr. Postman writes:

The fundamental assumption of that world (refering to the world of television) is not coherence but discontinuity.  And in a world of discontinuities, contradiction is useless as a test of truth or merit, because contradiction does not exist.

I would argue this is even more true of more recent media such as twitter and facebook.  Don’t even get me started on vine!  An alternative explanation of his thesis is that Huxley was right and Orwell was wrong.
The first half of the book establishes the argument, then the second half explains the impact of the change from print to television as the primary media for discourse on news, religion, politics and education.  Hint: none of the impacts are positive.
The book ends with a couple suggestions of how to restore conhesion to discourse.  In that discussion he writes what I think is actually the most interesting idea in his book:

Public conciousness has not yet assimiliated the point that technology is ideology.

Mr. Postman admits that the suggestion first is unworkable, at least in America: eliminate Television altogether.  The second suggestion, using the school system to give people the tools to “help the young learn how to interpret the symbols of their culture”, is held up as the only option.  As prescient as the rest of Mr. Postman’s book is, this hope seems awfully naive by comparison.
This is Why I Came
I discovered this book via a review from The Atlantic. , which I subscribed to earlier this year in an attempt to look smart to my mail lady.  (Actually I suscribed to Reason magazine the same day.  Nothing makes me giggle as much as when The Atlantic, Reason and the NRA magazine all show up in my inbox the same day.  I think I’ll subscribe to the National Review and Foreign Affairs next year ;-).
As a work of fiction, this is a bit of a change up from my normal reading list, but it was well worth it.  The story starts and ends with Bernadette entering and exiting a confessional, but in reality that is just a “prop” for Ms. Rakow to tell her real story: the woman’s rewriting of all the major stories of the Bible.  Those of you that believe in the Bible as the divinely inspired word of God might stop reading here, but stick with me (or at least skip down to the next review).  The Atlantic review is better than anything I could write here, so I won’t attempt any deep analysis, rather I’ll focus on the few things that spoke to me personally.
Bernadette seems to be motivated to come to confession (repeatedly from what I can tell) from some deep seated guilt about her doubt.  Her doubt is so deep, that she took up the task of rewriting “the greatest story ever told” into something that she could relate to.  In that way, This is Why I Came, may be on of the most “protestant” pieces written since Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle church, in that it is quite literally a personal retelling of the stories that we all know.  In those stories, Bernadette is reflecting back what her interpretation of what she hears when she is told the story of Adam and Eve or Jesus in the dessert.  What I find fascinating about this aspect of the story is that in the end, the priest who hears her confession points out that rather than acting as a source of guilt, Bernadette’s doubt should be seen as her gift:

To doubt the God you believe in is to serve him.

The idea that asking questions (i.e. doubting) is a gift in a religious context is so refreshing to me in an age of increasing dogma from many religious circles is a breath of fresh air.  In Bernadette’s stories, I saw her getting closer to an understaning of the Universe and her place in it.  And if that’s not what religion is supposed to help us do, then I am not sure what it’s for.

War of Art
Changing gears completely to a immenently practical book, this could end up being a really short review since the most imporant this I can say is that everyone reading this should click the link above (no, it’s not an affiliate link), but this book, and read it from cover to cover as soon as it shows up.  Seriously, JUST READ THIS BOOK.
What’s it all about you might ask?  In a word (Mr. Pressfield’s word in fact): Resistance.  The resistance that keeps you from living the life you really want.  The resistance that keeps you from having the relationships you really want.  The resistance that keeps you on the bench instead of doing the only thing that will make you better…which is doing something.
Steven Pressfield is a fiction writer, but this book is squarely in the “how to” genre.  Pressfield describes his process for getting off the dime and doing the hard part, described so well in this quote from Jerry Pournelle (not cited in The War of Art, but great nontheless):

The hard part of writing at all is sitting your ass down in a chair and writing it. There’s always something better to do, like I’ve got an interview, sharpening the pencils, trimming the roses. There’s always something better to do.

Resistance takes many forms, but the most common one is fear.  Pressfield has the most wonderful take on fear that I have ever read:

Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.

Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.

In these few words, he turns fear from something you should be afraid of (duh!) into an indicator of what you should be paying attention to.  This one idea is worth 10x the price of the book.  Buy it and read it anyway.

The cultivation of the ability to notice where my mind is that I have been developing through my mindfulness practice combined with this simple idea has helped me recognize what’s important (hint: it’s what I feel resistance to getting done), explore the source of that resistance and then overcome it to get things done.  This approach has put me more at peace than anything else in the last few years.


Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.

(NB: in full disclosure, I didn’t read this book, I listened to it.  For this type of book listening worked great, so if the prospect of sitting a reading casuses you resistance (see what I did there), then download an audio copy)
Free Will
I’m starting to realize that this post is a reflection of my magazine subscriptions and iTunes music library.  That is, it might one day be used to prove some sort of mental error.  This book is anothe left turn.
I first heard of Sam Harris at last year’s Porcfest and ended up subscribing to his podcast shortly thereafter.  For those of you that don’t know, Harris is one of the so called “New Atheists” along with folks like Chrisopher Hitchens and Dan Dennet.  Harris is a neuroscientist by degree and profession (in addition to being an author and “personality”) and he comes at everything with a seemingly level (cold some might say) scientific rationalism.
I continue to read and listen to things from Dr. Harris for two reasons: he is not afraid to engage in precisely the sort of discourse that Mr. Postman feared television was killing (side note: I do wonder what Mr. Postman would think of podcasts as a medium?) AND because he makes me think.  At the end of half of my thinking about what he has said or written, I find myslef agreeing with him.  At the end of the other half, I find myslef disagreeing with him, in some cases violently (which is to say severely…I mean no harm ;-).  In the case of Free Will, it is most definitely the latter.
In this rather shor book (and I mean that as no disparagement – I like the fact that he can make his points directly and doesn’t feel the need to go on and on) Dr. Harris makes the case that free will as it is commonly perceived is an illusion.  I think he tries to make the case that this does not place him in the determinist camp, but I must admit that this point wasn’t entirely clear to me, nor did I fully grasp the difference between his view and that of the classical determinists like Bertrand Russell.
What I did grasp, however, was the thread of the main argument backing up his claim, which to me seems to be this: since we are neither concious of every possible option available to us nor we in control of every particle of our beings, free will does not exist.  If Dr. Harris was not an atheist, he might state it like this: free will is illusory since we posses neither the mind nor the will of God.
This seems like a rather binary position to me.  Since we can’t control and know everything, we can’t control or know anything.  What really bothers me (and in some ways makes me think I don’t fully understand Dr. Harris’ chain of reasoning here) is that it seems horribly inconsistent with what else he has written and said.
For example, he is perhaps best known as a vocal opponent of poltical islam and its reaches into international terrrorism (which as an aside, I always like to bring up to my more fundanmentallt religious friends since its something they agree on with a devout atheist ;-).  If I understand his view on free will, then Dr. Harris should say that a terrorist blowing himself up on a bus or flying a plane into a building was predetermined at the moment that universal inflation began billions of years ago.  But he doesn’t say that; he seems to be awfully sure that something can and should be done about the problems posed by political islam.  Perhaps he would say that he doesn’t have any choice in saying that either?  As I said, he makes me think and in this case he’s made me think about the limits of materialism.  I believe in science and rationalism, but as Godel tried to (and perhaps did?) prove any system is either complete or consistent.  It can’t be both.  Dr. Harris seems to disgaree.
Radical Acceptance
And now for a u-turn from the previous book.  I learned about Tara Brach on the Tim Ferriss podcast.  I’ve been interested in Buddhism for the last year or so.  No, I’m not ready to ship off to Tibet quite yet, but I do find fascinating the corrleation between Buddhism and Stoicism as well the Buddhist mindfulness and meditation practices.
There is a little bit of “woo-woo” in this book, but I was able to get past it and retain some pearls of wisdom.  Dr. Brach opens with a discussion about first listening to and befriending yourself.  She asks the interesting question “If I talked to others the way I talk to myslelf, would they want to be friends with me?”  From here she goes trough a whole series of exercsies to first recognize your self talk for what it is, then to simply accept it as the path to moving forward.
I think the most important thing to understand about the book is that the word “acceptance” as its used here doesn’t mean saying “it’s OK” to everything or “turning the other cheek.”  Rather I took it to mean identifying things as they are.  Not fighting against the current state of reality.  Reading the facts on the ground as they are, accepting them as true.  Once you have done that you can then decide what to do next.  In this way, acceptance in Buddhism is very much like the input stage of the Trivium: coming to understand things as they are.  Another fascinating cross-over between seemingly very different ideas.  Anytime that happens, I get the sense that there is some universal truth being uncovered.
If you are looking for some ideas about how to be a better friend to yourself, this book is a great place to start

So there you have it.  5 book reviews and 5 things checked off my to do list.  Now to finish up a few more of the three or four books I am in the middle of.  Then I can finally visit that mystical book portal again.

books miscellaneous

90 Second Book Review: The Prophet

I am honestly starting to believe that Half Price Books is connected to some otherworldly dimension that sends books from the realm of forms into my physical reality when its time for me to read them.  The Prophet is the most recent example of this.  From what I can recall, I think I became aware of this book on an “ask me anything” Tim Ferriss podcast where he threw the reins to Naval Ravikant.  The episode posted on Jan 30, I am sure I listed a few days later, HBP did its interdimensional portal thing a few days later, reading and now this review.
There won’t be much too this particular review since this is one of those books that you just have to read to get.  Essentially its a short book of prose poetry written in an almost biblical style (think song of songs, not deuteronomy) on various topics that at one time or another are of interest to anyone thinking about the deeper meanings in life.  For example, here is the excerpt on freedom (the idea that seeking freedom can be its own shackle resonated with me deeply):

And an orator said, “Speak to us of Freedom.”

      And he answered:

      At the city gate and by your fireside I have seen you prostrate yourself and worship your own freedom,

      Even as slaves humble themselves before a tyrant and praise him though he slays them.

      Ay, in the grove of the temple and in the shadow of the citadel I have seen the freest among you wear their freedom as a yoke and a handcuff.

      And my heart bled within me; for you can only be free when even the desire of seeking freedom becomes a harness to you, and when you cease to speak of freedom as a goal and a fulfillment.

      You shall be free indeed when your days are not without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief,

      But rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound.

      And how shall you rise beyond your days and nights unless you break the chains which you at the dawn of your understanding have fastened around your noon hour?

      In truth that which you call freedom is the strongest of these chains, though its links glitter in the sun and dazzle the eyes.

      And what is it but fragments of your own self you would discard that you may become free?

      If it is an unjust law you would abolish, that law was written with your own hand upon your own forehead.

      You cannot erase it by burning your law books nor by washing the foreheads of your judges, though you pour the sea upon them.

      And if it is a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed.

      For how can a tyrant rule the free and the proud, but for a tyranny in their own freedom and a shame in their won pride?

      And if it is a care you would cast off, that care has been chosen by you rather than imposed upon you.

      And if it is a fear you would dispel, the seat of that fear is in your heart and not in the hand of the feared.

      Verily all things move within your being in constant half embrace, the desired and the dreaded, the repugnant and the cherished, the pursued and that which you would escape.

      These things move within you as lights and shadows in pairs that cling.

      And when the shadow fades and is no more, the light that lingers becomes a shadow to another light.

      And thus your freedom when it loses its fetters becomes itself the fetter of a greater freedom.

And here is another one that I found interesting, although the ideas were not  new to me, about teaching:

Then said a teacher, “Speak to us of Teaching.”

      And he said:

      No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of our knowledge.

      The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness.

      If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.

      The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding.

      The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that echoes it.

      And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither.

      For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man.

      And even as each one of you stands alone in God’s knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in his knowledge of God and in his understanding of the earth.

And so it goes for roughly 30 or so topics.  At less than 100 pages (and available free online) just go ahead and read it already.  There will be something in there that will help you out regardless of where you find yourself.

books miscellaneous

90 second book review: Mindfulness

I’m not sure when I first became aware of the concept of mindfulness (or present moment awareness, living in the “now”), but I think it had to be when I read this quote from C.S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters:

The humans live in time but our Enemy* destines them to eternity.  He therefore, I believe, wants to them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present.  For the present is the point of time at which time touches eternityOf the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them.  He would therefore have them…either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the pleasant pleasure.

Since then the idea has rattled around in my head until about a year ago I resolved to start meditating.  Everyone from Tim Ferris to Daniel Siegel to Sam Harris made a strong connection between mindfulness and meditation, so it seemed clear that if I wanted to be more mindful, if I wanted to grab ahold of that freedom that Screwtape wrote about to Wormwood, I had to start meditating.

My initial attempt lasted for about a week (two if I am being generous).  Despite my best intentions, and a few good guided meditation tracks, I just couldn’t make it stick.  I couldn’t make it a habit.  Then last year I heard about the subject of this quick review: Mindfulness, Finding Peace in a Frantic World.  It’s co-authored by a clinical psychologist and a journalist, so no “woo-woo” (OK, a little woo-woo, but not to the point that it was distracting) and its very well written.

The book begins with an introduction to a few basic concepts.  There are two new (toe me) main ideas that I took away from the opening chapters: being vs. doing mind and the concept that effective meditation is not a mind devoid of thoughts.  The being vs, doing mind concept says that there are two modes of the mind: a doing mode which is all about accomplishing a task.  This is where our habits and rational mind exist.  And a being mode, which is all about taking things in as experience.  The authors argue that most of us spend far too much time in doing mode at the expense of being mode.  I found a strong correlation between these ideas and that of the Trivium.  Doing mode is equivalent to rhetoric, or output.  Being mode is equivalent to grammar, or input.  If we spend all of our time outputting, and not enough time inputting then over time the model we base what happens in between (logic) becomes corrupted; it becomes out of touch with the reality that is around us.  I want to get things done, but I see now that having my mind in doing mode all the time actually isn’t the most effective path.  Being mode allows you to recalibrate the model of the world I carry around in my mind, on which I base all my decisions, so that those decisions can be more effective when they are played out back in that world.

The concept of effective meditation not being a mind devoid of thoughts is a game changer for me.  I realized that I wasn’t bad at meditation simply because I couldn’t immediately drop into some sort of zen state – mind like water.  Rather, it’s called practicing because no one ever gets really good at it.  Each time my mind wanders is not a failure, but rather an opportunity to notice what has happened and direct my attention back to whatever I happen to be focusing on in this particular session.  It’s actually the noticing and the gentle redirection that IS the practice.  With this understanding in mind, my first few meditation sessions after reading the book where much more successful – I saw the effects of being able to notice when my mind had wandered or been distracted outside of the meditation, through the day and was able to catch myself and stay focused on whatever my intention was at the time.

The meditations I started after finishing Mindfulness are described in the core of the book, after the introduction.  The authors prescribe an 8 week course with specific guided meditations each week.  The goal is to complete the prescribed meditation for the week 6 out of 7 days, then move on to the next week.  Each prescription includes a single or in some cases a series of audio tracks to guide you.  What clicked here for me was not the audio tracks however, I had tried guided meditation before.  This attempt was different because I had a why.  The book explained the goal and the principle behind each meditation.  It wasn’t just a soothing voice telling me to focus on my breath.  I knew why I was doing it.  As odd as it may sound, what finally got my doing mind quiet enough to let my being mind step forward was a reason, a “why”.

I’m into week 6 of the 8 week course so far and I can already see results.  I do notice when I am getting distracted and can get myself back on track much more easily.  I do notice more of whats around me and what’s happening and am spending less time living “from the neck up” or “lost in thought.”  When I am in doing mode, it is a much more conscious decision and the results seem to be much more effective and directed.  Most of all, I my overall goal is starting to shift from happiness, to peace.  I can see clearly how I can be more at peace, how a “mind like water” can emerge as part of my daily life by spending some time focusing on how unlike water it can be during meditation.

As a complete novice, I can say with some level of confidence that I think everyone would benefit from meditation.  Just like starting to exercise or eat better, you just have to get past whatever hang-ups you have and stick to a plan long enough to see the differences that make it a habit.  Mindfulness got me past my hang-ups and gave me the plan.  If you think you are ready or need the benefits that living in the present, pick-up a copy and give it a try.

books miscellaneous

90 second book review: Man's search for meaning

The subject of this book review is yet another Half Price books find: Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.  Unlike a lot of the books on my recently read pile lately, this one didn’t come from the Tim Ferriss podcast, but rather a recomendation from Bill Buppert over at zerogov from Porcfest a few years ago.  Like most of the books I have picked up at HBP over the past few years, I took it as a sign that it was time for me to read it when I happened to see it there.  It was actually a “double” sign that I saw it all since it was in the psychology section (reasonable, but not somewhere I normally browse) and its really short so its really narrow so hard to spot.
Dr. Frankl was a holocaust survivor who later developed a system of treatment called logotherapy.  The second part of the book goes over the logotherapy system in laymans terms.  That was interesting, but the part that captivated me was the firs, which describe his experiences in the concentration camps.  Early in the opening section, Dr. Frankl echoes Nietzche when he writes:

Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.

From there he goes on to outline the three basis “whys” people can adopt as their raison d’etre:

  • by creating a work or doing a deed;
  • by experiencing something or encountering someone;
  • by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

The first two he discards as relatively self explanatory / well understood, focusing on the third.  Dr. Frankl makes a clear distinction that for this third “why” to work, the suffering has to truly be unnecessary, meaning we have done everything we can do to alleviate it and it is truly something we can not avoid.  This “why” doesn’t help you if you simply have a victim mentality.
The focus on unavoidable suffering and the attitude you take towards it reminds me of the little bits I understand about Buddhism and Stoicism.  For example, this quote would be at home in any of the Buddhist or Stoic texts I have read:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

What makes Man’s Search for Meaning different from any of the other books I have read are the combination of being written by someone that tested their philosophy through the most demanding conditions imagined and came out the other side even more convinced of its merit and the recency of the events he had to live through.  All of the other accounts of those that had their philosophies put to the test are centuries old or are written by people who mostly have first world problems by first century standards.
Dr. Frankl was able to find happiness in one of the most grim situations that I can imagine.  Because he knew that:

Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.

books miscellaneous

90 second book review: Sapiens

This is a gapper review.  I actually finished this book several months ago, forgot (or neglected) to do a quick review at the time, added it to my to do list where its been sitting there for the better part of 3 months.  Thankfully, I just finished another (audio) book (review forthcoming….soon….since this one has been jamming up all the other reviews for the five or six books I have finished since I realized I missed this one) which is helping me to see the folly in leaving things on my list that long, so this morning, I am going to hammer it out, despite my fear that it won’t be perfect…or even very good.
The subject of this review is Sapiens.  Sapiens is one of a long list of books I first heard about on the Tim Ferriss podcast.  It came up in rapid sequence on a few interviews as one of the books lots of folks in Silicon Valley were reading.  That alone didn’t really interest me; what got me was the basic premise: the author, Yuval Noah Harrari, attempted to look at the evolution of the human species from a detached, non-human lens, the same way a biologist might look at a newly discovered species of deep sea plankton.
This is a book of many, big ideas.  I can see why it has captivated the intellegensia of the valley.  It starts with the fundamentals, describing how physics begat chemistry which begat biology which begat history.  From there it goes on to try to answer the basic question: why have homo sapiens taken over the planet?  The basic answer seems to be that we evolved from a tribe of story telling monkeys.  It was our ability to tell each other stories that allowed us to shift gears, from depending on the slow mechanism of biological evolution, to the much faster mechanism of cultural evolution.  This seems related to (but stop far short of) to the narrative construction of reality concept put forward by Bruner.
From this basic premise, Professor Harrari, goes on to investigate some of the most important stories our particular band of story telling monkeys has come up with in the past 5,000 years.  I found his two chapters on money and religion (which interestingly are the bread in a sandwich around a chapter on imperialism) to be fascinating high level overviews of these two topics, with some interesting intersections.  Hararri intertwines says that money and religion are both stories we tell each other, but with one important difference:

Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas a religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something

Its seems to me that Harrari would be more comfortable at a Starbuck’s full of occupy wallstreet folks than in the local chapter meeting of the Carnegie foundation, with insights like this in his chapter on capitalism:

The capitalist and consumerist ethics are two sides of the same coin, a merger of two commandments. The supreme commandment of the rich is ‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!’ The capitalist–consumerist ethic is revolutionary in another respect. Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal. They were promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum. In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist–consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money and that the masses give free reign to their cravings and passions and buy more and more. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. How though do we know that we’ll really get paradise in return? We’ve seen it on television.

That being said, I didn’t really see his politics get in the way, or alter his main insights, some of which can be gleaned from his “iron laws of history”, which he sprinkles through the book.  Some examples:

  • Luxuries become necessities which then span new obligations
  • Every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable
  • What looks inevitable from hindsight was far from obvious at the time.

Harrari has written an important, albeit ambitious book.  It seemed to me to loose some steam near the end, in its explorations of artificial intelligence and other potential “next chapters” in the history of the story telling monkey tribe know as homo sapiens.  That being said, overall it is a worthwhile read and may be one of the best books I have picked up in the last year.  It covers everything from history to philosophy, from science to economics.  I think you would be hard pressed to finish it and not come away with at least a few new ideas or perspectives.
While biology is clearly an important evolutionary force so things like GMO and life extending technologies deserve our attention, its much clearer to me after reading Sapiens that equally important are the stories we tell ourselves, both individually and as a group.  Terrence McKenna might have been on to something when he said:

The syntactical nature of reality, the real secret of magic, is that the world is made of words. And if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish.

books miscellaneous

90 second book review: Waking up to the dark

At last a book that made it into my to read pile from something other than a podcast (although I must admit that I think I at least heard of the research mentioned at the start of the book on a podcast at some point): Waking Up to the Dark – Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age by Clark Strand.  This book was the subject of a discussion group at my church last week, so I grabbed it and read it the week before so I could sit in on the discussion.  It’s rather hard for me to categorize this book, so I won’t.  It’s very clear Mr. Clark is a mystic, but I can’t really say of what type.  He’s a Catholic buddhist maybe?  Do those exist?
The book starts with a exploration of some sleep research conducted Ekirch and Wehr about sleep patterns when artifical light is taken away.  What they found was that after some time (a few days to a few weeks), all of the study participants fell into a similar pattern: lying still, falling asleep for a few hours, waking into a near meditative state, then falling back to sleep for a few more hours before dawn.  While this research has been called into question, Strand uses it as a launching point to make his case that light is the source of all that is wrong in the modern world.  Light, and one of its specific byproducts: an over abundance of consciousness.
When I first came to Strand’s thesis, I was a little suprised.  I knew from the Preface and a few of the stories he shared that he was deep into Buddhism and as such it seemed strange to me that he would claim that too much conciouness was a bad thing.  My impression is that Buddhism seeks enlightment in the form of a universal conciousness; a conciousness that is one with all.  However, what I think he really meant to get across was that too much rationality, or to much “doing mind” (as opposed to “being mind”) is the problem and the byproduct of artificial light.  I may be wrong, but if that was his point, it seems far less shocking to me.
But it does bring me to my biggest criticism of the book: definitions.  Throughout the book I was never quite sure what Strand was talking about.  He takes a left turn midway through and starts relating his mystical encounters with the embodiement of the dark, a 17 year old auburn haired girl whom he has “visions” (not sure he would call them that) of repeatedly, eventually engaging in dialog.  I think he was trying to draw some analogy between how modern society has suppressed the feminine as an analogy to the suppression of the dark…but I could also have been missing the point entirely.
One point I did not miss, and is the source of my other criticism of the book, is the overt environmentalism.  There are several places where he leaves the spiritual realm and talks directly about how we are running out of oil and killing the planet.  It seemed strange to me that for most of the book he argues that there are forces at work which are larger than humanity and that, despite our best efforts, we will ultiamtely succumb to while at the same time arguing that humanity also has the capability to ruin everything.  Again, I might be missing the point, or making to much of a black and white distinction, but it would seem to me that we are either masters of the universe or just along for the ride.
Despite these two criticisms, I did enjoy the book and would reccomend it to anyone looking for something that comes from a fresh perspective.  I think Strand calls for a return to balance – between light and dark, between masucline and feminine, between doing and being.  That resonates with me.  In the end the lack of clear definitions make the book similar to long form poetry: each reader will interpret it in their own frame of reference, taking away their own meaning.  If you are looking for a quick read (less than 150 pages) that will get you thinking, Waking up to the Dark delivers.  Although what it delivers may be completely up to you.  Strand certainly looks at a number of things in a new….light 😉

books miscellaneous

90 Second Book Review: Influence

Influence made it onto my to read pile from listening to some now forgotten episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast.  It actually may have been a few episodes that I listened to in close proximity.  Each time it was referenced as one that “everyone” has read and since I hadn’t I added it to my Amazon wish list.
A few weeks later, I was on my way to a rather important meeting and had the urgent need to actually influence a few people.  With an 8+ hour flight ahead of me, I went out on a limb, purchased the paperback and spent an extra couple bucks to get the Kindle version so I could start right away (via Match Book – a very cool Amazon service I had just learned about a week or so prior).  Lucky I did since I had had to head to the airport a few hours before the UPS man showed up with the hard copy.
Kindle in tow, I read about half of it on the flight over and finished it on the way back.  That tells you the first thing you need to know about this book: it’s an easy read.  In a little less that 300 pages, Cialdini covers the 6 basic mechanisms that people can use to influence others:

  1. Reciprocity
  2. Commitment and Consistency
  3. Social Proof
  4. Liking
  5. Authority
  6. Sacrcity

He dedicates a chapter to each and gives lots of good examples of how each works, some in pretty suprising ways.  For example, in the chapter about reciprocity he gives an example of a boy scout asking him to buy a $10 raffle ticket.  When Cialdini refuses, the scout “offers” to relent and only ask him to buy a $2 chocolate bar.  The scout has “given” hom something in the form of not pressuring him to buy the more expensive raffle ticket, so he feels internal pressure to reciprocate and buy the chocolate bar…even though he doesn’t like chocolate.  He ends each chapter with examples that have come in from readers of each mechanism at work – either by them or on them.
And really that tells you the second thing you need to know about this book: it’s mostly just a set of “tricks” to get people to do what you want.  I think its most useful for those who want to defend against these tricks more so than those that are looking for a scientific / psycholgical explanation of why they work.
Cialdini concludes with the basic premise that all of these mecahnisms work because they are natural shortcuts to decision making that have evolved over tens of thousands of years.  To Cialdini’s credit, he actaully closes with a screed against anyone who would use these shortcuts to deceive (i.e. as tricks):

The real treachery, and the thing we cannot tolerate, is any attempt to make their profit in away that threatens the reliability of our shortcuts.

If its true that “everyone” has read it, then you might as well too. (trying my social proof influence there ;-).  In all seriousness, it was worth the read, but its ending up on my shelf next to others of its ilk.  It’s a bit like Krav Maga is to a finer martial art like karate: quick and too the point with none of the theory.  Both have their place, but if you want to dig deeper and understand why people react the way they do to outside infleunces, you may want to look elsewhere.  In a more recent Tim Ferriss podcast I added something that might fit the bill to my wishlist.  If I have an urgent need to influence someone, you can read the review here.

books miscellaneous

90 second book review: Our Mathematical Universe

Not sure where to start with this one, so I guess I will start at the beginning.  First, a disclaimer: I am not afraid of reading above my weight class, and while I think I’ve bulked up a bit, there is still a ways I have to go before I will fully grasp all of Our Mathematical Universe.  Don’t let that scare you off though – even though I know there are ideas I didn’t fully grasp, as well as ideas that I didn’t even notice were present, I still thoroughly enjoyed reading it.  Besides, you are probably a lot smarter than I am.

After reading, Our Mathematical Universe, I finally understand what Schrodinger’s Cat (thought) experiment was trying to demonstrate. (No, not this)

This book made its way onto my to read pile courtesy of the Sam Harris podcast (aside: I am still struggling to determine if I am a Sam Harris Fan or Hater.  I think I’m a bit of both).  The book’s author, Max Tegmark, is a physics professor from MIT.  Our Mathematical Universe is his attempt to make his ideas about the ultimate nature of reality accessible to the masses, in the tradition of those like Richard Feynman.  His basic idea is this: reality is math.  No, not that reality is described by math, but at it’s core actually IS math.  Unites, featureless.  Just quantity and relationship.
While that may seem like a pretty straightforward (if potentially hard to believe) claim, it has some pretty hard to grasp consequences, specifically that we exist within a four level multiverse.  I’m not going to cover all the details of the four different levels, but merely comment that level 1 was pretty easy for me to grasp.  Level 2 I think I almost understand.  Level 3 lost me.  And I think I get level 4 too – but I have doubts.
What fascinated me most about this book is the connections I found with topics ranging far beyond cosmology and particle physics.  If I worked at Half Price Books and Our Mathematical Universe was on my cart to be shelved, I could just as easily put it in the Philosophy section (or even Buddhism) section as the Physics section.  This is not to say that the book isn’t scientific.  As Dr. Tegmark points out, quite rightly, for a theory to be scientific, you don’t have to be able to test all of its predictions, only some of them.  Rather, the ideas he touches on sound similar to those I’ve been reading in those other areas.
Take for instance the ideas about the perception of time passing that comes in the chapter talking about the relationship between physical reality and mathematical reality:

Subjective perceptions of duration and change are qualia, basic instantaneous perceptions, just as reddened, blueness or sweetness.

Compare that to this quote from Zen Buddhist master Ch’an Master Hui-neng, writing in the 7th century:

In this moment there is nothing that comes to be. In this moment there is nothing that ceases to be. Thus there is no birth-and-death to be brought to an end. Thus the absolute peace in this present moment. Though it is at this moment, there is no limit to this moment, and herein lies eternal delight.

Or the discussion of self concept:

I’m arguing that your perceptions of having a self, that subjective vantage point you call “I”, are qualia just as your subjective perceptions of “red” and “green” are.  In short, redness and self-awareness are both qualia.

Sounds like the same idea as Anatta to me.
I also found some interesting implications for my objectivist friends:

If you believe in an external reality independent of humans, then you must also believe that our physical reality is a mathematical structure (emphasis added)

Looks like the Randians need to study up on their math ;-).
There are a few other ideas that were new to me, but also struck me as deeply insightful in a philosophical sense.  For example in a discussion about the level 4 multiverse, Dr. Tegmark draws a few conclusions from the idea that we live inside a mathematical structure that seem profound (to me anyway).
First an interesting idea coming from a math and physics guy:

Infinity is a convenient assumption, but not part of reality.

He goes on to explain that infinity helps us solve a certain class of math problems, but just like Newton’s laws of motion are only useful on objects of a particular scale, the assumption that there is an infinity sub dividable space may just be a “convenient” stand in, for lots and lots of granular space that is too hard for us to measure and count.
Then a few ideas about “initial conditions” which come from some discussion about the permanence of mathematical structure and the concept of space time being fixed and unchanging:

Initial conditions aren’t about our physical reality, but about our place in it.


Although we though all this information (referring to initial conditions) was about our physical reality, it was about us.

and finally:

Apparent arbitrary initial conditions are caused by multiple universes, apparent randomness is caused by multiple you’s.

Ponderous, man, really ponderous.  Seriously, I’m not sure what to take from these specific ideas, but they strike me as being really important to understanding my place in the universe and perhaps provide an alternative perspective to the things that happen to me in daily life.  More meditation and processing is required.
The last idea that jumped out comes later in the chapter on the level 4 multiverse.  He writes that there are 3 basic mathematical concepts with well defined relationships: formal systems, computations and mathematical structures.  He goes on to wonder if there is something even more fundamental at the base of these three ideas that we have yet to discover.  For whatever reason, this made me wonder if that is something we can actually understand?
Let me explain.  In Sapiens (which it just occurred to me that I never did a review of here….thought I was caught up after this one…sigh…), Harari argues that the thing that makes humans unique/powerful when compared to all other animal species is our storytelling ability: our ability to create myth, fiction, and story and to communicate it to others.  Some have taken this further and claimed that our internal reality is only understood in the context of narrative.  No, this isn’t “tell a story and it’s true”, but rather the idea that the only way our brains can actually comprehend anything is through story.  If this is the case, then I wonder the core beneath formal systems, computations and mathematical structure is so abstract, so absent narrative, that humans are unable to understand it?  This seems similar to the idea of the Tao: if you can talk about it, it’s no longer the Tao ;-).
In the end, I am really glad I heard about this book, bought it and read it.  While I’m sure there is knowledge I am leaving behind in its pages, it has opened up and connected some ideas for me that were previously disorganized.  If you feel like stretching a bit, or are more of a Physics and Math Zen Master, then I highly recommend it.

books miscellaneous

90 second book review: A Lapsed Anarchist's Approach to Building a Great Business

A few weeks ago I had the chance to visit Ann Arbor, MI for a week for business.  I drove up late on a Sunday for an all day people performance review meeting on Monday that was a precursor to a larger meeting for the middle of the week and then a team meeting at the end.  Hopefully that week met my meeting quota for a while.

After the first day of meetings, the group I was with setup a dinner a mile or so away from the hotel we were staying in at Zingerman’s Roadhouse.  It was a very nice meal (I had some ribs that were quite good), but I didn’t think much of it otherwise.  On the short drive home, I happened to see a “Zingerman’s coffee” sign on the grocery store across from our hotel.  Hmm?  Next morning, I boarded the bus to the farm where we were having our large team meeting and as we pulled up the sign read “Zingerman’s Cornman Farms”.  Who is this Zingerman?  Why does he seem to own half of Ann arbor?  And does he have a famous pig?
I never discovered the answers to any of those questions, but I did learn quite a bit about the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses over the next few days.  (As near as I can tell Zingerman’s is name the original founders made up, but I am sure there is a better story than that…).  I learned that Zingerman’s grows its own organic vegetables for its restaurants on its farm. I learned that Zingerman’s makes its own cheese and butter at Zingerman’s creamery.  I learned that Zingerman’s got its start as a Deli (that is still there today) in the 80s in downtown Ann Arbor.  And I learned that one of the founders wrote a few interesting books.
Ari Weinzweig came to speak to our group on the morning of the last day.  When he introduced himself as a lapsed anarchist and went into a quick spiel on how he spent lots of time reading early 20th century anarchist literature when he was in college and how it he sees it clearly applying to how business should be run, I was hooked.  Although I normally am not one to introduce myself to strangers, I felt compelled to introduce myself to Ari.  We talked for 10 minutes or so and I walked away with copies of his first three business books (he has more in the works).
The first in the series is called a Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business.  The feel of the book is best described as a cross between Murray Rothbard and Tom Peters.  Its all the energy of the best modern, progressive management books but comes from a perspective of free will and individual choice being the best only way to really get things done.  The main part of the book is a collection of essays on topics ranging from the “12 Natural Laws of Building a Great Business” (these should come as laminated cards that ever leader can stick on their monitor) to the need for systems (which he admits as an anarchist, lapsed or not, was difficult for him to accept).
For me the most impactful essays focused on vision.  The “vision” term gets thrown around a lot mostly by corporate PR hacks and high priced consultants.  Ari’s description of a vision as simply a story that describes what life will be like for you, your team and your customers when you get to where you are going at some reasonably distant, but not too far, point in the future, in my opinion, is far more useful than the corporate speak laden visions that adorn so many plaques.  Words on a plaque never made anyone do anything great.  A shared story of where you are headed though – that can be inspiring.
In the epilogue, Ari writes:

Sometimes I think of my life as being bookmarked: not so much in the usual sense of marking pages with pieces of paper, but in the sense that so many of my ideas are bracketed by somewhat random reading selections that happen to coincide with what is going on with (and around) me at the time I crack open the covers.  Books often pop up for me at fortuitous times.

This happens to me too all the time as well.  I read pretty widely and have a huge to read pile and a Amazon wish list in the thousands.  Despite all these variables, it does seem to be more times than not that I end up cracking the covers on something helpful for whatever I’m facing at the time.  That has certainly been the case in reading a Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business and I’m sure it will be true for the other two I added to my to read pile (once I get through the other 4..or 5…or is it 6? other books I am in the middle of…promised myself not to start anything new until I finish at least half of them).
For anyone looking for a good business book from a practitioner and a true believer I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  For anyone looking for all that AND a viewpoint consistent with free choice and individual empowerment, I guess I have to find a way to recommend it just a little higher.