DAILY PHOTO: Cemetery Next to Thiên Mụ Pagoda

Taken in December of 2015 in Hue

Taken in December of 2015 in Hue

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BOOK REVIEW: Fight Like a Physicist by Jason Thalken

Fight Like a Physicist: The Incredible Science Behind Martial ArtsFight Like a Physicist: The Incredible Science Behind Martial Arts by Jason Thalken
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

When I saw this book’s title, I imagined a bloodied and battered Poindexter in a bow-tie–a professorial type dying in a puddle of his own bodily fluids as he calculated the Bayesian probability of winning given that initial beating. After all, physics is a highly cerebral activity, and being cerebral in a fight is a certain path to a beat down. However, Thalken makes a good point with his explanation of the title (and the book’s theme.) He’s suggesting that one use tactics and techniques that are supported by evidence and rooted in a sound understanding of the science of combat—as opposed to mindlessly doing whatever your sensei tells you or–worse yet–just muddling through on a combination of instinct and ignorance. In short, be skeptical, but inquiring. It turns out that there is a time for a fighter to be cerebral, but it’s when they are making decisions about how to train.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part explains how classical mechanics can help one to be a better fighter. There are four chapters in this section that deal with center of mass and its crucial role in a fight, the differences between high momentum and high energy strikes and how each is achieved, differences in circular versus linear paths and where the advantage in each lies, and what simple machines (i.e. levers and wedges) can do for a fighter. This section is what one would expect from such a book. Unlike the second section, which deals largely with sport fighters, the advice on offer in the first section is as applicable to those involved in self-defense or other real world combative situations as it is to fighters in the ring.

The second section examines the issue of concussions and brain damage in some detail, including consideration of the degree to which gloves and headgear do—or don’t—make one safer. The reader gains great insight into the mechanics and neuroscience of a knockout. While the majority of the section offers advice for those engaged in combative sports, the last two chapters take a bit of a turn. The first of these two deals with the myths perpetuated by Hollywood—which, let’s face it, is the source of most people’s information on what combat is. Debunking the notion that a person who gets shot is always and everywhere instantly incapacitated is a central theme this chapter. The last chapter deals with the issue of pseudoscience in the martial arts, and the insanity of believing one can defeat an opponent with chi (also qi, or—in Japanese Romanization–ki) or mind power alone. These last two chapters seem like a turn from the main theme of the book, but they do stay under the umbrella of the martial arts through a scientific lens.

While this is a book about science, it’s readable even for an educated non-scientist. All the math is put in boxes that the reader can opt to skip, or to follow, depending upon his or her comfort level with equations. There is no complex jargon, nor any incomprehensible concepts. The physics is largely high school level Newtonian mechanics.

Diehard believers in the supernatural or pseudo-scientific conceptions of the universe should be warned that this isn’t the book for you unless you like your sacred cows flame-broiled. You won’t learn about chi (qi) in this book except to be reminded that it’s a make-believe concept.

I’d recommend this book for those who are interested in how science can be applied to the martial arts or human movement more generally. It’s short, readable, and offers some interesting food for thought.

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DAILY PHOTO: Boats on the Sông Thu Bồn

Taken in December of 2015 near Hoi An

Taken in December of 2015 near Hoi An

DAILY PHOTO: Give Me A Sign, Oh Lord–Not That Kind

Taken in December of 2015 in Saigon

Taken in December of 2015 in Saigon

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We saw this little chapel flanked by huge billboards for a vocational college and a beer. If anyone else was out on the river-walk that night, looking steepleward for answers, he must have concluded that he should settle for a career in HVAC repair and get wasted at his earliest convenience.

DAILY PHOTO: Cave Dining

Taken on January 1, 2016 in Bai Tu Long Bay

Taken on January 1, 2016 in Bai Tu Long Bay

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One of the interesting experiences to be had on a junk boat tour in Vietnam is dining in a cave. This cave used to be employed as a shelter for fishermen during storms. Given all the rocky skerries in the bay, I suspect being in a boat in a storm here would be terrifying. However, the caves are now prohibited to those without a license. Because the fishermen took to lopping off stalactites and stalagmites because they make for impressive mountains for bonzai displays–and those displays can be big money makers when done well.

 

An example of what I’m talking about can be seen below.

This one was located at the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long in Hanoi.

This one was located at the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long in Hanoi.

DAILY PHOTO: Hanoi Opera House by Night and Day

Taken on December 30, 2015 in Hanoi

Taken on December 30, 2015 in Hanoi

The scaffolding was a stage erected for New Year’s Eve festivities. I assume the flowers and lights were part of that function as well, but my experience is limited; I only saw the Opera House before and after New Year’s Eve. (We were on a junk boat over the holiday itself.)

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DAILY PHOTO: On the Perfume River (Sông Hương)

Taken on December 25, 2015 in Hue.

Taken on December 25, 2015 in Hue.

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Sông Hương is called the Perfume River because in the autumn flowers that fall into the river give it a sweet scent. I discerned no notable scent, but we were there in December–so maybe we missed it. 

BOOK REVIEW: And Another Thing by Eoin Colfer

And Another Thing... (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, #6)And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

The Earth is about to be destroyed, again. To save it, Zaphod Beeblebrox and friends need weave together a web of improbable conditions including getting Bow Wowbagger–the immortal alien whose pastime is insulting every person in the universe—to take him to Asgard so that he can get Thor to “dissuade” the tirelessly bureaucratic Vogons. Fortunately, the possibility that a genuine god might prove up to the task of smiting the immortal insult-slinger once-and-for-all is enough to gain his compliance. Thor, on the other hand, will take some convincing after Zaphod’s high jinx resulted in the mighty god’s abject humiliation.

Facing precarious business conditions, the publishing industry is reluctant to let anything as trivial as the death of a popular author derail the gravy train of a successful series. James Patterson, having proven that an author’s involvement can be an inconsequential factor in the selling of books, paved the way for wave of books written by authors who who’ve passed on (e.g. Eric Van Lustbader has already written three times as many “Bourne” novels as Robert Ludlum, and a new author is taking on the “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” series that was immensely popular a few years back.) The problem is that not all novels are James Patterson’s formulaic “Alex Cross” crime novels; some writers have a unique voice—if not a genius. Some authors do matter.

It’s hard to imagine a better example of an author who mattered to the success of his books than Douglas Adams. It’s not that no one could be as funny as Adams, but rather that his brand of funny isn’t so easily to emulate. This is the nature of humor. Consider stand-up comedians. Among them there are some who could be fed material written by anyone about anything and they would be funny in the same degree (for good or bad.) However, there are others whose funniness is tied to their voice and the material that they either developed or molded to their peculiar nature. Adams had a peculiar nature.

It seems to me that there are two possible outcomes for someone trying to emulate Douglas Adams. The first is that they try to be original, but copy the style of Adams. That book seems like it would be impossible to make worthy of more than one star. The other possibility is for the author to use Adam’s own tropes and ideas to provide the humor and then to stick heavily to Adam’s original material with respect to story. Such a book would be derivative in the highest degree, but might not suck entirely. The best I could rate such a work would be mediocre, which is where I think “And Another Thing” is. It’s not that Colfer isn’t a good writer or a sharp guy; it’s that he took on a task that was doomed. Perhaps, I should say kudos to him for challenging himself to such a daunting task.

Personally, I think H2G2 should have been allowed to be laid to rest. (Frankly, having read all five of the original series books, I thought the stories began to drag as the series progressed relative to its original greatness. In other words, I’m not sure whether Adams, himself, could have added anything worthy to franchise.) However, having said all this, I must admit that I would’ve found this book an enjoyable read if I didn’t know that the best of it was just the result of standing on the shoulders of a giant.

Read it or don’t. It’s readable, enjoyable, derivative, and utterly unnecessary in equal proportions.

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DAILY PHOTO: Balancing on the Keshava Plinth

Taken on January 26, 2016 at Keshava Temple

Taken on January 26, 2016 at Keshava Temple

BOOK REVIEW: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky

Why Zebras Don't Get UlcersWhy Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Sapolsky’s book examines why stress and stress-related illnesses are rampant in humans. As the title suggests, prey on the Serengeti Plain, animals that are chased by fierce and fast predators, aren’t nearly so likely to suffer the ill effects of stress—despite living in a harsher world than most of humanity. To oversimplify, this has a lot to do with the fact that one downside of our big brains is an ability to obsess about what has happened and what might happen, and our sympathetic nervous system (i.e. the fight or flight mechanism) can be triggered even when there is no immediate threat in reality. In short, humans can uniquely worry themselves to death. Sapolsky gets into much great detail and lets the reader know what is known and what remains to be uncovered with respect to stress.

In almost 600 pages, arranged into 18 chapters, Sapolsky covers human stress in fine detail. While it’s a book written for a lay audience, it’s not a quick and easy read. The book discusses topics like the action of neurotransmitters and hormones, and, while it assumes no particular science background, it does assume a broadly educated and curious reader.

The chapters begin by looking at the stress mechanism from a physiological perspective. It then considers stress with respect to specific illnesses, the relationship between stress and various other topics in human being (e.g. sleep, pain, and memory.) The final chapter offers insight into how one can reduce one’s bad stress and one’s risk of stress-related illness. Among the most interesting topics are what personalities are particularly prone to stress-related illness and why psychological stress (as opposed to stress based in immediate real world stressors) is stressful.

Sapolsky has a sense of humor and knows how to convey information to a non-expert audience, but this isn’t the simplest book on the subject. It’s an investment of time and energy to complete reading this book, but it’s worth it if one’s interest in the subject is extensive enough. One of the strengths of the book is that it stays firmly in the realm of science. Because stress has been wrongly considered a fluff subject, many of the works on the topic—even those by individuals with MD or PhD after their names—have been new-agey or pseudo-scientific. This book stays firmly in the realm of science. Sapolsky explains what the studies have shown, and he tells the reader clearly when there is a dearth of evidence or contradictory findings.

If the reader has a deep interest in stress-related health problems, I’d highly recommend this book.

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