5 Books of 2017 that Influenced Me Greatly

It’s that year-in-review time of year. To clarify: these are the books published in 2017 that most profoundly influenced my thinking. I clarify because I’ll probably do a list of books that I read in 2017 but that were published in previous years.

5.) Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman: Gaiman’s take on classic tales of Norse Mythology shows that one can bring great value with a fresh look at old art. However, beyond the “steal like an artist” sentiment of not getting locked into building something brand new, these stories show the Norse to be exceptional storytellers. All ancient cultures had a mythology, but not all of them were equal in producing stories that are timeless and work across cultures.

 

4.) The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston: This book taught me two things: First, that there is still much to be discovered right on terra firma. We talk as though the only new vistas of knowledge are to be found in space or places like the Mariana Trench, but the days of terrestrial discovery are not past. Second, there is a lesson of common fates of humanity across time. A lot of this book is about a parasitic disease that infected several of the expeditionary team, as well as speculation about how the same disease might have influenced the civilization that abandoned the titularly referenced city.

 

3.) The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur: Kaur’s books combine poetry and art. Both are crude but heartfelt and evocative. Both of Kaur’s books have struck a chord with readers, and that resonance seems to be about the candid and bold nature of her art.

 

2.) Behave by Robert Sapolsky: Sapolsky tells readers that one can’t look at something as complex and bewildering as human behavior through the lens of any one academic discipline and get a complete and satisfying picture. Sapolsky considers the best and worst human behaviors through the lenses of biology, neuroscience, endocrinology, human evolution, and more.

 

1.) Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal: The authors of this book examine the various ways people achieve what they call ecstasis. Ecstasis is a state of mind in which one loses one’s sense of self, and all the muddling factors that go with the self, such as self-criticism, fear of failure, and the feeling of working against everyone and everything else.

5 Books to Introduce You to Your Gut Microbiota

5.) The Wild Life of Our Bodies by Rob Dunn: This book takes a broad look at the role that hangers-on have on  human life.

 

4.) The Psychobiotic Revolution by Scott C. Anderson et. al.: This book focuses on the role that our gut microbiota have on our mental well-being–which increasingly appears to be substantial.

 

3.) Missing Microbes by Martin J. Blaser: The focus of this book is on how our love of antibiotics in every form– from pills to antimicrobial soaps–is killing us by denying us microbiotic diversity and robustness.

 

2.) 10% Human by Alanna Collen: Collen’s book addresses many of the same issues as the other books mentioned, but–as the title suggests–it emphasizes the fact that a human has 10 times as many hangers-on of other species as it does cells that are contiguous to the body. (If you’re wondering how this could be, it’s because the human body has some pretty big cells [some macroscopic, in fact] and the bacteria and other single-celled species tend to be relatively tiny.)

 

1.) I Contain Multitudes by Ed Young: This is probably the most highly-regarded of the books on this subject. It was considered one of the best science books of 2016.

5 Insightful Sentences from Literature


It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane. 

Philip K. Dick in VALIS

 

And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.

John Steinbeck in East of Eden

 

Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation.

Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms

 

There is a sense in which we are all each other’s consequences.

Wallace Stegner in All the Little Live Things

 

There are some things that are so unforgivable they make other things easily forgivable. 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Half a Yellow Sun

5 Ways the World May Be Weirder Than It Seems

Werner Heisenberg famously said, “Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.”



5.) Ancestor Simulation: The idea that we could be in a simulation isn’t only a staple of science fiction–e.g. The Matrix. It’s been given serious thought by thinkers who aren’t exactly on the lunatic fringe–most famously inventor /entrepreneur Elon Musk. The core of the argument goes like this. 1.) We are getting better and better at making simulations ourselves. 2.) At some point we will achieve a simulation indistinguishable from reality. 3.) If 2 is true, then it’s vastly more likely that we are already simulations because if it can be done, it probably already has been done many times over. (Thus, we’re more likely to be in one of the simulations than so-called “base reality.”)



4.) Mathematical Universe Hypothesis: Max Tegmark proposes that the universe may be–at its core–a mathematical structure, making us self-aware substructures. This may sound like a different way of stating the preceding hypothesis, but not necessarily. The simulation hypothesis suggests certain motivations of a simulation creator. MUH doesn’t require a creator or an objective. It could be the nature of reality at it’s most basic.



3.) A Holographic Universe: This idea sprang from thinking about what happens to the information when something falls into a black hole. The idea being that the information is trapped on the outside of the event horizon–i.e. information for a three dimensional entity stored in two dimensions. As physicists pondered this, some concluded that it might be that we are a projection of data, or–alternatively–much of what we see when we look out into space is.



2.) One of Myriad Universes: The idea that our universe is one of many (or an infinite number of) universes comes in several flavors and is a prediction of several theories widely given credence. In some versions, all the universes have different sets of laws and constants such that many flash in and out of existence and only a small proportion are capable of hosting life (but the math of infinity is weird and a small proportion of the infinite may also be infinite. I don’t know, I’m not a mathematician and the infinite never mattered in economics because ground zero is that everything is limited but desires.) This answers the Goldilocks zone issue nicely–i.e. we couldn’t exist if the equations and constants that govern our universe were very much different, but if there are many universes with many sets of laws then we just happen to be in one of the ones we can be in–hence, credulity remains unstrained. Other versions propose universes with the same laws such that there could be an infinite number of you living out lives that may be slightly different than yours (or–for that matter–in which you might be the Supreme Galactic Overlord.)



1.) Time is slowing: A couple Spanish physicists have suggested that the universe might not be expanding at an accelerating rate (as is the consensus view in physics,) but rather time may be slowing. This slowing would be anticipated to continue until one final moment is captured frozen in time–note: said point would be long after the Sun swallows the Earth.

5 Bits of Wisdom from The Matrix Movies

5.) Wisdom: Choice is not as it seems.

Quote: No, you’ve already made the choice. Now you have to understand it.
Said by the Oracle to Neo in “The Matrix Reloaded” as they discuss a dream in which he sees Trinity falling.

Interpretation: Studies in neuroscience have repeatedly validated the notion that by the time we think we’re making a decision at a conscious level, we’ve already made it on a subconscious level. While many suggest this means that the verdict is in and free will is completely illusory, another way of looking at it is that one must understand one’s decisions in order to begin to regain the rudder on one’s life.



4.) Wisdom: Courage elevates: or, if you don’t run, he won’t chase you.

Quote: He’s beginning to believe.
Said by Morpheus to Trinity in explanation of why Neo isn’t running from Agent Smith in the subway.

Interpretation: My mother used to say, “If you don’t run, he won’t chase you” with respect to being chased by my older brother. It seemed like insane advice at the time; the alternative to being chased being beaten down. However, now I can see that even taking a butt-whooping elevates one’s spirit over engaging in prey behavior.



3.) Wisdom: Rationality is a thin veneer.

Quotes: Beneath our poised appearance we are completely out of control. & It is remarkable how similar the pattern of love is to the pattern of insanity.
Said by the Merovingian to Morpheus, Trinity, and Neo.

Interpretation: While one might like to dismiss the Merovingian’s comments as the cynicism of a hedonist, the undeniable fact is that we have animal biology and it influences us more than we pretend.



2.) Wisdom: The world contains more Cyphers than not.

Quote: Ignorance is bliss.
Said by Cypher to Agent Smith as he plots his subversion in order to be put back into the Matrix.

Interpretation: Most people are happy with their illusions, rely on them as coping mechanisms, and will respond unfavorably to attempts to strip them way. The illusion in question may not be so much that the world is completely fake as much as biases such as the self-serving bias (i.e. people attribute successes to their inherent awesomeness but blame failures on external sources.)




1.) Wisdom: There are limits to being cerebral.

Quotes: Don’t think you are, know you are. & There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.
Both are said by Morpheus to Neo. The former quote is delivered in the sparring program when Neo isn’t performing up to his potential. The latter is said after Neo & Trinity rescue Morpheus and Neo tries to tell Morpheus what the Oracle revealed, but Morpheus quiets him with said words.

Interpretation: I hope I haven’t muddled this bit of wisdom by choosing quotes in which Morpheus uses the word “know” in two different ways. In the first quote, Morpheus contrasts knowing with thinking, and he means that Neo must not treat it as an intellectual exercise, but rather feel its inherent truth deep down. In the second quote, he contrasts knowing with doing, and in this case “knowing” is the cerebral / thinking activity in comparison to doing (i.e. “walking the path.”) However, the gist is the same, you must approach some things–to use the Oracle’s words–balls to bones.

5 Ways in Which Poets Are Mistaken for the Insane

“He’s right behind me, isn’t he?”


5.) Sound Seeking:
If anything  looks more insane than walking down the street talking to oneself out loud, it’s talking to oneself out loud in rhyme and alliteration in a disjoint fashion while counting off beats on one’s fingers.

 

4.) Emotion Evocation: If your writing comes across as a cry for help, you may be a deeply troubled individual. Or you may be a poet trying to induce a reader to feel.

 

3.) Clarity & Codes: Because there may be no literal meaning to your verse, the reader may suspect that you’re writing in code to your imaginary pink bunny rabbit. Faced with the humbling possibility that he or she may “just not get it,” most people prefer the alternative explanation that you’re a rambling lunatic.

 

2.) Playing the Odds: Let’s be honest, there have been a lot of poets who slipped into the abyss. Poe, Pushkin, Plath, Pound, and several poets whose last names didn’t begin with the letter “P,” were all afflicted by mental illness.

 

1.) Violent Reactions to being Interrupted:  A poem under development is a house of cards that needs only the subtlest gust of wind to be obliterated. Poems in the works are gauzy and fragile. So, as one is trying to wedge words together into a solid construct, one is occasionally interrupted. When this happens, one may instinctively pimp slap the interrupting individual like a Zen master trying to make the point that there is no point.

5 Thought-Provoking Novels About Mental Illness


5.) Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

Premise: A young woman who attempted suicide is told that in the process her heart was damaged and she now has only five days to live. While it might seem that this would be all the same to a suicidal patient, it turns out to matter.




4.) Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Premise: The lead character, Toru, doesn’t suffer from mental illness, but his life is shaped by those who have. He must decide between two women. One of whom, Naoko, has been institutionalized since her boyfriend, Kizuki, committed suicide. Kizuki had been Toru’s high school best friend, and this weighs heavily in Toru’s feelings of obligation. Add into this Naoko’s roommate–a sage influence in Toru’s life, despite being institutionalized herself.



 
3.) Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Premise: An adolescent boy, Caden Bosch, is transformed from a model student to a paranoid schizophrenic. The title refers to the deepest point on Earth, down in the Marianas Trench, and comes into play because the institutionalized Bosch believes he’s on a ship who’s Captain thinks all the treasure in the oceans got swept to the deepest point.




2.) Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Premise: The unnamed narrator meets the eccentric Tyler Durden and soon Fight Club is born. It’s fueled by a feeling that men have been tamed to be turned into consumers. However, the underground fights are only the beginning, and our lead character is dismayed to discover that from the Club has sprung Project Mayhem with a nefarious terrorist plot.




1.) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Premise: Randle McMurphy has convinced authorities that he’s insane for the purpose of getting out of hard labor in prison and into a “cushy” insane asylum. The ward is run by the iron hand of Nurse Ratched. McMurphy on the other hand is rebellious and unruly. The clash is inevitable. McMurphy increasingly disrupts Ratched’s sedate and harmonious ward (re: heavily drugged and cowed into submission.) The story is told from the perspective of a patient named Chief Bromden who has the staff convinced that he’s deaf and mute. Like McMurphy, he’s not what he appears. The book is a scathing indictment of how mental health care was conducted in Kesey’s day.

5 Exercises to Wed Your Yoga and Calisthenic Practices

5.) Anything plank (a.k.a. adho mukha dandasana / santolanasana): Who knows how long planks have been a feature of yoga? Plank postures are a fixture in Hatha Yoga, playing a role in most versions of Surya Namaskara (sun salutations), and being used to both to build core strength and to prepare for arm balances.

Planks have also gained immense popularity with calisthenic practitioners. In my gym class days, sit-ups and crunches were the go to ab exercises. No more. Now many bodyweight fitness practitioners are ditching sit-ups and crunches altogether for a number of exercises deemed more effective–include many variations on the plank.

High plank (adho mukha dandasana)

 

Low plank (chaturanga dandasana)

 

Forearm plank variation with leg up

 

High plank variation with alternating limbs extended

 

Side plank (vasisthasana)

 

4.) Back bridge (a.k.a. Chakrasana): This is another yoga classic that’s being brought into calisthenics training in a big way. You may note a recurring theme in my selections for this post, exercises and postures (asana) that help to build shoulder joints that are strong, stable, and yet sufficiently flexible. This is a big challenge for bodyweight workout practitioners. One can get stability by bulking the muscles up, but if you don’t have the range of motion to achieve proper alignment, it’s not going to do one a lot of good.

The back bridge (chakrasana, or “wheel pose”)

 

3.) L-sit (a.k.a. Bramcharyasana): Of course, the other recurring theme (besides building shoulder stability) is core strength. This exercise is both a yoga classic and is probably as old as gymnastics itself. Its Sanskrit name, Brahcharyasana, means celibate’s pose–but as far as I’m concerned that’s purely optional.

L-sit (Bramcharyasana)

 

2.) “Supermans” (a.k.a. shalabasana [locust pose]): Another core exercise, but one that strengthens the back muscles.

“Supermans” (shalabasana)

 

1.) Handstands and Handstand Preppers (a.k.a. adho mukha vrksasana): This practice isn’t just about looking impressive. As mentioned above, it’s hard to build shoulder joints that allow enough stability and range of motion to have the command of one’s body that one would like. Our shoulders are optimized to maximum mobility. That helped our ancestors to be awesome throwers of spears and rocks, but it makes it tough to support our weight in an inverted position. The handstand is a good way to build stability in the shoulders.

Handstand (adho mukha vrksasana)

 

If it’s too hard, use your legs to stabilize you (but still try to get that straight up-and-down arm position)

 

If it’s too easy, start doing push-ups

5 People You Probably Didn’t Know Did Evil

This post was inspired in large part by a tidbit about whiskey heir James Jameson (#1, below) in a book that I’m reading called “Crossing the Heart of Africa” by Julian Smith. It may have also been influence by having recently seen the surprisingly awesome “Wonder Woman” film, in which a central theme is the notion that good and evil vie for each person’s soul. (Note: I say “surprisingly” only because the DC movie universe has mostly been floating stinkers in recent years.)

 

I should note that when I started researching, there were an astounding number of candidates for the slots on this list, and so you may have a favorite example that didn’t make the list (please feel free to comment on any prime examples that I missed below.) As for criteria, I tried to avoid including people who just said horrifying things, who acted in an irresponsible or nit-witted manner that didn’t rise to the level of evil, or who were forced to make “lesser of two evil” decisions during time of war or national emergency.

 

I also didn’t have the time or energy to get into the he-said-she-said of politicians, because in America ideological types accuse people from the other party all manner of evil, constantly. So I didn’t wade into whether George W Bush personally flew the planes into the Trade Center towers via drone-style cockpit override technology, or whether Barack Obama had all nuclear spent fuel jettisoned onto the Arctic Circle to manufacture a climate change crisis. (Note: neither of those is a real thing, please don’t quote.) But, beyond that, I tried to pick candidates that would come as a surprise, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone that a politician did evil. (Frankly, people would be more surprised if they didn’t.)

 

5.) Chuck Berry: He had secret tapes made of women doing their business in the toilets at his restaurant. I don’t want to be moralistic and get into people’s kinky proclivities with this list, but this breach of trust rises above and beyond.

 

4.) Alexander Graham Bell was a dick to deaf people. The inventor of the telephone advocated for eugenics, and, specifically, trying to breed the deaf out of existence. Sure, if you invent the phone, the people who can’t use it might not be your favorites, but trying to eliminate them… that’s just cold.

 

3.) Mohandas K. Gandhi: I said I wouldn’t pick on purely verbal hideous acts, of which Gandhi had a number from suggesting rape victims were responsible to supporting honor killings to racial slurs against Africans (quite a shocker for someone battling British racism so vehemently.) As far as actions, sleeping nude with his under-aged great-granddaughter is pretty vile behavior. It’s said that he was trying to challenge his celibacy, but you don’t need to bring kids into whatever oddities you need to prove to yourself. 

 

2.) Che Guevara: He had countless people executed without trials or due process. I included him because I assume that not all among the vast number of people who wear his face on their t-shirts are aware of this dimension of his character. Certainly, he was no worse than Lavrentiy Beria (Stalin’s Secret Police Chief), but I’m unaware of any idolization of Beria.

 

1.) James Jameson: The whiskey magnate bought an 11-year old girl so he could sketch her being victimized by cannibals in Africa. 

5 Thoughts on the Conscious Mind in Martial Arts Training

In recent years I’ve spent a lot of time trying to quiet the conscious mind in order to let the subconscious do what it does best. There’s a lot of terminology that’s used to describe the mind state in which one’s actions are effortless and one can adjust swiftly to unforeseen challenges: e.g. “in the zone,” the Flow, Zen mindset, and (in the Kotler and Wheal book I just reviewed) ecstasis. However, regardless of the name, one key to this state is a reduced activity of the part of the mind that’s self-critical and overly cautious, and that requires not letting the conscious mind do what it’s prone to do.

 

However, taking a course on mauythai advanced fundamentals recently has reminded me of the important roles the conscious mind plays in learning. The challenge is to use the conscious mind effectively–without letting it running amok.

 

The conscious mind is largely driven by anxiety about uncertainty. This makes the conscious mind a planner and worst-case scenario generator extraordinaire. (In meditation, I’ve begun to not only note what thought popped into my head before I dismiss said distraction, but I also have a classification scheme of kinds of thoughts, and “planning thoughts” are probably the most common type of thought to hijack my mind.) This planning / forecasting  proclivity can be beneficial if one is doing a job that requires such planning, anticipation of possible hazards, and the need to adjust to complex difficulties. However, it can also make one neurotic, overly risk-averse, and pessimistic.

 

So, here are my five thoughts on the conscious mind in martial arts training.

 

5.) Feed the right wolf:  There’s a well-known story about a Native American man telling his grandchild that inside each person there are two wolves at war, one good and one evil.

The child asks, “Which one wins?”

The old man replies, “The one you feed.”

 

This is a variation on the theme–not so much about good and evil as about positive and negative outlook. In martial arts training there are often competing emotional states. On one hand, there is often anxiety about either being injured or even about the embarrassment of being bested. (Surprisingly, it seems like the magnitude of the latter is often greater than the former.) On the other hand, there is an intense thrill that comes with making progress. For those who don’t understand how martial artists can put themselves through what they do, this is the part for which you’re probably not understanding the intensity of the high. When it clicks and you’re getting it right more often than you previously did, the feeling is transcendent.

 

So, when one sees either of these two feelings arising, choose the latter. If one notices the anxiety, remind oneself the promise of that awesome feeling of having it fall together.

 

4.) Scanning for lapses in form: The process of learning a martial art–like any movement art–is repetition of the movements until they become ingrained in one’s procedural memory. Early in the process, this feels clunky as one has to scan for imperfections in form with one’s super-intelligent but slow and cumbersome conscious mind. However, increasingly, the body begins to incorporate these movement patterns and they start to become second nature. The trick is to keep this in the moment and not let one’s thoughts linger on what one just got wrong, or any perceived ramifications of getting it wrong.

 

3.) Try visualization: This once would have been thought hippie guff, but now it’s entered the mainstream. Of course, the advice from #5 must be kept in mind. When I think of the technique of visualization, I’m reminded of a story that Dan Millman told about a girl that he was coaching in gymnastics. He came to check on her only to find her repeatedly cringing and grimacing. He asked what was going on, and she said she kept falling off the balance beam whenever she visualized her routine. It sounds silly, but attitude is a powerful thing, and I lot of people sabotage themselves in ways not much different from this. It’s your mind, you have the power to do the move perfectly every time, if you take the proper mindset.

 

2.) Conscious mind as governor of action and agent of trust: The subconscious mind can be feral. As one spars, one has to match speeds with one’s opposition so that learning can take place. While sparring looks reminiscent of fighting, the goal of sparring is learning, whereas the goal of fighting is winning (or–as a minimum in actual combat–not being destroyed.)

 

This is another role for the conscious mind. It can keep reminders to the fore to keep one’s movement appropriate to the occasion. It can inject an awareness that there’s a relationship of trust rather than warring competitiveness between. That one needn’t respond at the same magnitude that one would under attack.

 

1.) Dropping the Conscious Mind Out of the Equation: While the conscious mind is critical in the learning process, eventually one must do something that feels uncomfortable, which is shifting subconscious operations to the fore and quieting the conscious mind. Overthinking can be death in tests, competitions, not to mention, I’m told, actual combative situations. At some point you’ve got to have some trust in what you’ve trained to do up to that point. It might fail you, but not necessarily as spectacularly as if you let your conscious run amok, getting caught in a death spiral of self-criticism and futile guesswork.

 

Since I’ve been watching quite a few muaythai fights recently at the Rangsit Boxing Stadium, I’ve begun to wonder just how useful corner advice is. I know that people think it’s beneficial because it’s done in droves. Not only is the fighter’s trainer trying tell them what to do, but also his parents, his siblings, his granny, and a hundred random people who may or may not have put money on him. It would be interesting to see a scientific study of how fighters performed who tuned everything out between rounds versus those who tried to take in all the advice. I tried to look up whether any such study had been done, but a cursor Google search came up empty.

 

What comes of all the corner talk?

What comes of all the corner talk?