BOOK REVIEW: The Martian by Andy Weir

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

If you like suspenseful science-fiction, humor, and are fascinated by science, you must read this book. I’m not kidding.

The premise is a simple cast-away story, except that it takes place on Mars—an environment in which a human can’t last for seconds without a lot of properly functioning technology. Astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead when a severe storm blows in, impaling him with a piece of metal, knocking out his vital statistics monitor, and blowing him into a drift. Having lost visual contact with Watney, showing no vital statistics, and facing the toppling of the crew’s escape vehicle by high winds, the mission commander decides that she can’t risk the lives of the entire crew to cart Watney’s body back home. The thing is; Watney isn’t dead.

The book is a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows associated with events that nearly kill Watney—either in an instant or by making his long-term survival impossible. The botanist / engineer must figure out how to survive for four years (until the next Mars mission is due—if it doesn’t get cancelled) with less than six months of supplies. (The mission was supposed to be one month but was aborted in the first week, but there were five other crew members whose rations were left behind.) If you think Tom Hanks had it bad in Cast Away, imagine having to produce food on Mars.

This book taps into the visceral feeling that works so well in the movie Gravity (but Weir does more homework on the science.) For tension, it’s hard to beat being adrift in space, utterly isolated from one’s species—or any species for that matter–and knowing you will die when your resources run out.

The main character, who is the only character for the first six chapters or so, is intensely likable. Mark Watney is funny, intelligent, self-deprecatingly humble, and can confidently problem solve in the midst of any crisis. If there’s a critique of the realism of this story (as sci-fi goes it is extremely realistic), it’s that Watney is preternaturally skilled at adapting to complete solitude. However, I don’t deduct for this, because if it showed him at the depths of despair that someone in his circumstance would inevitably go through, it wouldn’t be nearly as pleasing a book to read. If you’ve read a lot about sensory deprivation and / or what happens to prisoners over long stints in solitary confinement, I’d suspend the disbelief that might come from that knowledge and just accept that Watney is exceedingly good at saying, “Pity-party over. It’s time to make this work.” In short, humorous Watney is just a lot more fun to read than would be a despondent astronaut.

I think I’ve been clear that this is an outstanding book, and everyone should read it. I guess if you absolutely hate science (of any kind–because there’s botany, biology, physics, chemistry, engineering, etc. all rolled up into this book), you may find that it’s hard to stick with the glut of scientific / engineering discussions coming at you. Still, you shouldn’t hate science that much—what the hell is the matter with you. Weir writes in a readable style and the reader doesn’t get awash in minutiae. (For example, Watney even names the unit kilowatt-hour/sol [sol=a Mar’s day] the “Pirate-ninja” to make it more palatable and humorous.)

Read it. You’ll like it. Also, don’t wait because the movie is supposed to come out in the Fall.

View all my reviews

DAILY PHOTO: ’56 Memorial in the Városliget

Taken in Budapest in December of 2014

Taken in Budapest in December of 2014

This monument was dedicated in 2006, on the 50th Anniversary of the 1956 Revolution. In the autumn of 1956 there was an armed attempt to revolt against the Soviets and the puppet government they’d established in Hungary. After several days, Soviet forces withdrew, and–to wishful thinkers–it looked like the Soviet yoke might be thrown off. However, the Soviets came back with great duplicity and brutality and crushed the uprising.

From the side.

From the side.

From the back.

From the back.


READING REPORT: January 30, 2015

Welcome to my second weekly dispatch on what I’ve been reading. Owing to my weird approach to reading, I tend to finish books in clusters, and this week I polished off the novel The Martian, the horror short story anthology 999, and three nonfiction books (Principles of Tibetan Medicine, The Key Muscles of Hatha Yoga,  and How Pleasure Works.) The only one of these that I’ve completed a review on is Principles of Tibetan Medicine, but reviews of the others will be in the works in the upcoming week(s.)

The star of my completed pile was Andy Weir’s The Martian. It’s a spectacular science fiction read that’s engaging from beginning to end. Readers who love science will find it particularly fascinating and well-researched. For the yogis and yoginis out there, Ray Long’s book on muscles as applied to Hatha Yoga is well-organized, easy to follow, and easy to use.


The completion of several books this week creates openings in what fiction and poetry I’ll be reading on Kindle in the coming weeks. Drum-roll please… I will be starting the following books this week:


1.) Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan: Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature back in 2012, and this 2006 book is about a benevolent land owner who is killed on orders by Mao Zedong, and is subsequently reincarnated as a series of farm animals.



2.) I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison: The title of this collection of short stories is also the title of the most prominent piece in it. The 1968 Hugo winning story is a post-apocalyptic tale of artificial intelligence run amok.



3.) The Aeneid of Virgil: I’m overdue to read this epic poem by the famous Latin poet written during the first century B.C.


In nonfiction, I made an impulse purchase this week that I’m about half way through reading. It’s called Zen Mind, Strong Body and it’s by Al Kavadlo. I’m having minor buyer’s remorse, not because it’s a bad book, but because it turns out to be a collection of blog posts, and so I could have probably gotten all this for free by digging around the world wide web a little. (Moral: always read the fine print on the dust jacket. I wouldn’t mind, but it was a bit pricey for rehashed blog posts.) Kavadlo is a personal trainer and advocated of calisthenics and advanced bodyweight exercises, and he has many interesting ideas on both mind and body. It has provided some interesting food for thought, but I don’t really need the hundreds of pictures of the author with his shirt off.



I’m about halfway through Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest book, Antifragile, and would like to make some headway on that in the upcoming week. While I’m a fan of Taleb’s work, I’ve gotten bogged down in this one because it keeps going and going and going on about a rather simple concept–i.e. that some things become stronger or more robust when exposed to stressors. I’m not sure the book needed to be this long. I suspect that Taleb is the kind to throw a world class tantrum if an editor took a hatchet to a word of his writing–and now he has the following to make it work. He’s a smart guy and raises many excellent points, but he seems like a major prima donna. At any rate, maybe he’ll surprise me in the second half with something novel and interesting–in lieu of endless restatement of his (admittedly fascinating) thesis.



I also started a book a few weeks back called Zen and the Brain by James H. Austin that I’d like to get back to. It examines what science has to say about the practice of meditation from the perspective of a neuroscientist who’s also a Zen practitioner.



At the end of last year, I did a post about the Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge. It’s a sort of scavenger hunt for readers. There are 25 categories of books, of which one is supposed to read at least one book each. If you can count the same book for several categories (I don’t see why not as long as they fit the description) then I have so far covered seven categories. (Not bad for the first month of the challenge.)

-Collection of short stories: 999: New Stories of Horror and Suspense

-Author of a different gender: Tears in Rain (Rosa Montero) and Principles of Tibetan Medicine (Tamdin Rither Bradley) [Both females]

-Science-fiction novel: The Martian

-Collection of poetry: Leaves of Grass

-A book recommended for you by someone else: The Key Muscles of Hatha Yoga

-A book originally published in another language: Tears in Rain  (Spanish)

-A book published in 2014: The Martian (Some might dispute this as it was self-published in 2011, but not picked up by a publisher until 2014.)

DAILY PHOTO: Mossy Rubble

Taken in October of 2012 at Angkor

Taken in October of 2012 at Angkor


Vinyāsa: A Few Thoughts

IMG_1254I attended a Vinyāsa Workshop this weekend at a1000Yoga in Bangalore. The workshop was taught by Bharath Shetty, who is the founder of the IndeaYoga Shala in Mysore, and who was a student of–among others–B.K.S. Iyengar.


The word vinyāsa has multiple meanings, but most commonly–and in this case–it refers to a style of yoga in which postures are linked together through transitional movements. (And, importantly, these transitioning movements establish a flow of breathing throughout the practice.)  Vinyāsa practices tend to be vigorous and challenging because one keeps moving when one isn’t holding a posture (i.e. there’s no down time), and the transitions require a lot of lifting oneself up, which necessitates a strong core and reasonably strong arms / shoulders.


Vinyāsa practices can have fixed-sequences (the same asana, or poses, are always done in the same order) or not have a fixed-sequence (the details of the practice will very from one session to the next.) There’s a great argument for the practice of a fixed-sequence. That is, one can get beyond focusing on crude alignment details and put one’s mind on fine details of breath, drishti (focal point), and keeping a slight tension in the perineum. Such facts can slip away when one is struggling to get the sequence and postural details down pat.


However, there’s a great counter-argument against fixed-sequence programs. The counter-argument goes like this, “If you get so bored out of your wits that you quit, you will also never get to the part where you focus on higher level details.” My advice would be “know thyself.” In other words, if you can keep to a fixed-sequence, you should. However, if your practice will peter out without constant fresh challenges, don’t force yourself into a fixed-sequence box. It’s better to take longer to get to a higher level of practice than to quit.


The most famous fixed-sequence vinyāsa style is the Ashtanga Vinyāsa system handed down by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. (Note: some people call this system Ashtanga Yoga, and others don’t like that name because it implies that this system is heir apparent to Patanjali’s yoga as described in The Yoga Sutras.  [In other words, there’s an argument that that name was already taken.] Furthermore, Jois’s system isn’t really any more of an Ashtanga Yoga [in the Patanjalian sense] than any other Hatha yoga style because it focuses on only a few of the limbs (i.e. asana, pranayama, etc.) at least until one gets to very advanced stages of practice.


The most famous vinyāsa style without a fixed sequence is probably Power Yoga, although many people practice classic Hatha asana in a vinyāsa.  Power Yoga emphasizes core strength building, and was originally developed by Ashtanga vinyāsa practitioners to give one the workout of Ashtanga vinyāsa without its monotony.


This was my first experienced with a fix-sequence vinyāsa program other than Ashtanga Vinyāsa, so I didn’t know what to expect. This was the second workshop I’d attended by Bharath Shetty, so I knew that he was a skilled and knowledgeable teacher. However, I didn’t know what Indea Vinyasa, itself, would be like.


It turned out to be much like Ashtanga Vinyāsa. The general organization is identical. That is, there are two versions of Surya Namaskara, a standing sequence, a floor sequence, and a finishing sequence. Note: I’ve only been taught the first series of each of these systems, and so I can’t say how they vary at more advanced levels.


The Surya Namaskaras of Indea Vinyāsa mirror those of Ashtanga Vinyāsa, but they aren’t identical. The Indea Vinyāsa Surya Namaskara-A is slightly more involved, and includes an Utkatasana. The Indea Surya Namaskara-B, like Ashtanga Vinyāsa, features Warrior I, but doesn’t include Utkatasana (chair pose.)


The standing sequences of the two systems are identical. However, the floor sequence is very different. The Ashtanga Vinyāsa preliminary series (as mentioned above, both systems have multiple series) focuses heavily on forward bends, but the Indea Vinyāsa  preliminary series is more balanced between forward and back bends. The finishing sequence is also quite similar between the two styles.  The sarvangasana-halasana-karnapidasana-matsyasana sequence is the core of both finishing sequences.


DAILY PHOTO: Vörösmarty tér Lepény Vendor

Taken in December of 2014 in Budapest

Taken in December of 2014 in Budapest

This is the finished product.

This is the finished product.

Lepény is a Hungarian street-food that some might call a folded over pizza and others might call a flat-bread sandwich. It’s bread (like pizza crust) topped with cheese and various vegetative and / or meaty toppings and cooked on a grill. (I just realized it could also be considered a fancy grilled cheese that starts from a ball of dough and not from pre-made bread.)


Anyway, there aren’t nearly as many lepény vendors as there are for say Kürtöskalács (the cylindrical sweet bread that is so very, very awesome), but the vendor at the Vörösmarty tér Christmas market always had a massive line. (We did discover that part of the long lines had to do with the temperamental nature of the wood-fired grills they used and the long time it took to cook one if they let the fire die down too much.) Still, people stayed in line, and that speaks somewhat to the tastiness of this treat.

DAILY PHOTO: Re-enactors at Work

Taken during the Summer of 2011 in Suomenlinna Sveaborg.

Taken during the Summer of 2011 in Suomenlinna 

Inside the fortifications at Suomenlinna, actors re-enact scenes from history past.

BOOK REVIEW: Principles of Tibetan Medicine by Dr. Tamdin Sither Bradley

Principles of Tibetan MedicinePrinciples of Tibetan Medicine by Tamdin Bradley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Full disclosure: let me first state that I’m a scientific-minded person and skeptic by nature, and if you’re expecting a review by a true believer, you may be disappointed.

A couple of questions may arise from the disclosure above. First, why do I feel I need to make such a commentary? Well, because this is a book about a system of medicine (i.e. gso-ba rig-pa) that developed within a country that was isolated for centuries and in which every aspect of knowledge was infused with and influenced by religious belief—both pre-Buddhist and Buddhist. Because of this, while some of the advice offered is surely sound, some of it is—from a skeptic’s point of view—bat-shit crazy. For example, there are herbal and dietary preparations to aid in digestion that may be completely sound and reasonable, and then there is the idea that Zombie spirits (one of 18 types of evil spirits) cause constant shivering.

The second question is, “If I’m not a believer, why read the book and review it?” For one thing, as I indicated above, I don’t think that just because the beliefs behind the “theory” of this system of medicine are baseless, it means that there is nothing in the book that is true or of value. The theory is that there are three kinds of energy (Loong, mKhris-pa, and Bad-Kan) and that excesses or deficiencies cause health problems. But it’s a 2500 year old system of healing; certainly they learned a thing or two in the process. It’s quite possible that they have learned things that scientific medicine has not. (Consider for example, Tibetan Buddhist monks have repeated and verifiably demonstrated capabilities—i.e. consciously controlling autonomic systems, that Western medicine would have thought impossible.)

The analogy that I always use is with kid’s Christmas presents. Parents hide the presents, and tell the kids that if there’s any tampering with them the kid won’t get anything but a lump of coal (you say that was just my parents?) Anyway, the kids find the packages, but are afraid to invasively tamper with them. Therefore, they feel the heft of them, they shake them, and they listen to said shakes. From that limited investigation, they develop a theory. The theory may be spot on, it may be completely wrong, or over several gifts it’s probably a combination of wrong and right. However, the question of whether the present does what it’s supposed to (i.e. bring joy) is not closely connected to the child’s theory, because it’s based on the parent’s observation of what the kid likes. That, my friends, is why systems of healing that are based on notions that are empirically wrong sometimes produce good results.

Second, while I’m a believer in science, I don’t always believe that Western medicine (rooted in science as it may be) consistently does a good job. Part of this is the fault of economists, policy types, as well as lazy patients who’ve created a system in which medicine only pays off if it can cut one open or give one an expensive medication. This leaves room for alternative systems of medicine that may not be so scientific, but that allow for the fact that changing patient behavior is often key to improving health.

I’ve taken a long time to get to the actual review, but I thought the reader should know from whence this reviewer was coming. The book is a little under 200 pages long. Its 11 chapters are logically oriented, and it’s easy to navigate the book. The author writes in a readable style, and jargon and foreign terminology aren’t a problem. It doesn’t have an index, but each chapter is broken up into many smaller subunits–so finding what one is after shouldn’t be hard.

The chapters cover the history of Tibetan Medicine, the nature of gso-ba rig-pa, the theory of Tibetan Medicine, causes of illness, human anatomy and physiology (not of the physical body as we know it), common diseases and illnesses, treatment techniques involving changing diet and behavior, medicinal treatment, representative case histories, and the nature of the Tibetan Medicine physician.

It’s not clear who the target audience for this book is. It’s not a self-help book as the implication is that the patient should see a doctor of Tibetan Medicine and not self-prescribe. Furthermore, while the book provides a good overview of Tibetan Medicine, it’s not an all-inclusive description by any means. The book seems to have been written primarily to make individuals aware of Tibetan Medicine and to give enough insight into the system that readers can differentiate it from Traditional Chinese Medicine or Indian Ayurvedic Medicine, both of which display similarities and differences.

I’d recommend this book if you’re interested in alternative approaches to healing, or if you’re interested in Tibetan culture in detail.

View all my reviews

DAILY PHOTO: St. Francis of Assisi Bird Bath of Pécs: Two Views


Taken in Pécs in December of 2014.

Taken in Pécs in December of 2014.

DAILY PHOTO: Sikh Temple Guard

Taken in Delhi in November of 2013.

Taken in Delhi in November of 2013

One doesn’t see many spear and sword wielding guards anymore. This was taken at the Sikh Temple on Chandni Chowk, i.e. the Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib.




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