BOOK REVIEW: The Like Switch by Jack Schafer

The Like Switch: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Influencing, Attracting, and Winning People OverThe Like Switch: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Influencing, Attracting, and Winning People Over by Jack Schafer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Written by a former FBI behavior analyst, this book presents tips on how to build rapport — be it with a co-worker, a love interest, or the subject of an interrogation. There’s not a lot of material in this book that’s surprising or unexpected, but the stories of counter-intelligence operations and criminal investigations make for greater intrigue than the typical book of this nature. (Though the most common type of story in it may be the tale of “how I got a free upgrade from an airline employee,” and that’s probably not that different from what one would read in a similar book by a corporate trainer with a more mundane resume.)

One aspect of this book that did seem unique was how much discussion is given to laying the groundwork of a friendship. Schafer emphasizes the need for patience, and he uses an example of cultivating a spy that involved a Special Agent placing himself in proximity to a target day after day before he ever exchanged so much as eye contact, let alone speaking. Interestingly, the epilogue shares a similar story from a historical memoir that shows both how effective these tactics are and how long they’ve been around. I wouldn’t be surprised if a civilian expert on these issues would say, “that’s fine if you need an ultra-light hand to cultivate a spy, but the same tactics may be a little too glacial for finding a mate or building a customer base. Personally, I don’t know how well Schafer’s approach translates to the work-a-day world, but I can imagine that if one parked oneself along a potential love interest’s route for week after week they might form the opinion one is either spineless or a stalker long before one got a chance to share eye contact.

The book consists of eight chapters, plus some front and back matter. The first chapter, entitled “The Friendship Formula,” sets out some banal concepts about the need to put oneself in proximity with one’s “target,” and then to build the frequency, duration, and intensity of said proximity events. However, it goes on to introduce some of the fundamentals that are elaborated upon later.

Chapter two focuses on pre-conversational activities. This largely involves non-verbal facial expressions and body language, but it also gets into issues such as appearance. Chapter three is about a central concept that Schafer calls “the golden rule of friendship,” which is basically the idea that people like individuals who make them feel good about themselves. Of course, people may distrust flatterers, and so the direct approach may not always be the best approach. The chapter therefore addresses pitfalls as well as sound tactics.

Chapter four is about what the author calls “the laws of attraction,” which are a series of ideas used to get the subject to look at one in a favorable light while avoiding the pitfalls of being too ham-handed. These are just ways to seem more appealing, often by capitalizing on (or making clear) existing causes for the individual to like one. But sometimes they involve deck-stacking activities such as in the case of “the law of misattribution.” In misattribution one shows up when an individual has been exercising so that maybe he or she will mistake the exercise-induced endorphin high for positive feelings towards one. There is a mix of ethical and exploitative approaches, and some ideas that might be of benefit for gaining a temporary upper-hand with someone one doesn’t have any long-term concern about might not be wise to employ with someone with which one might want a long-term relationship.

Chapter five is where one gets around to talking to the target of one’s desired rapport. As with the preceding chapters, this is as much about what not to say as it is what to say, but the single biggest point is to do more listening than talking. That is, give the target plenty of opportunity to talk about his- or herself and be cognizant of what they are saying, rather than preparing one’s own words. This is easier said than done given all that one must keep in mind, and the non-verbal cues one is watching for, etc.

Chapter six returns to non-verbal communication territory, and emphasizes testing one’s efforts to build rapport while simultaneously noticing the signs of whether it’s going well or not. This allows one to adjust one’s strategy (or to know it’s time to give up.)

Chapters seven and eight include material that one won’t necessarily see in competing books. Chapter seven is about maintaining the relationship that one has established. A lot of this chapter is about conversational strategies for defusing tense situations, lessening the friction in the relationship, and getting what one wants without building animosity. The last chapter takes one into really different territory by discussing on-line relationships and the building thereof. In large part, this chapter is a cautionary tale of the risks of entering a relationship given the lack of all the non-verbal cues. There are several cases of how individuals managed to portray themselves as something they weren’t.

I found this book interesting and beneficial. Its strengths include a tight focus; it doesn’t blast one with information by fire-hose, but rather offers a few simple ideas to focus on and hammers them home. The organization was logical, basically building up over the course of a relationship / interaction from being in proximity to making eye contact to conversing to weathering an argument. I also found that the book used photographs effectively. Non-verbal communication is much more effectively and efficiently communicated by photograph, and the author used many color photographs for this purpose. There was even a series of plates that acted as a quiz, asking the reader to put the knowledge she’d acquired to use, with an Appendix serving as the quiz key.

I should mention that some jerk tactics are scattered throughout the book – by that I mean approaches designed to dupe and / or manipulate the target. These may be fair game for interrogating criminal suspects or terrorists but some could backfire upon one when put to use in a relationship that demands more trust. Usually, the author isolates himself from these tactics by telling us it was something his student or a suspect once mentioned. For example, he describes pickup artists going to an ATM kiosk, plucking up receipts showing large balances, and then using said receipts when it came time to give a girl his number as a means to subtly plant the lie that he was wealthy. Mostly, the book seemed to separate itself from the many “how to be a successful creep” books that are out there, as is noted by the chapter on fostering long-term relationships.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in the dynamics of building relationships.

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BOOK REVIEW: How to Live on 24 Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett

How to Live on 24 Hours a DayHow to Live on 24 Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This is a book about free time management. Bennett proposes that one use one’s non-working hours for self-betterment, and offers advice on how to go about it. It’s a single volume from a larger tract entitled, “How to Live.”

The book was written in 1908, and it’s at once archaic and ahead of its time. How is it archaic? While the book is slim–less than 40 pages–it’s verbose by present-day standards. However, the prose isn’t so purple as to be unreadable. Also, some passages won’t be relatable to modern-day readers. (e.g. Bennett counters the argument—apparently common in early 20th century Britain—that one can’t start one’s day before one’s servants have awoken, and asking them to get up an hour or two earlier is so 18th century.)

More importantly, one must exercise caution because some of the advice isn’t sound in light of recent scientific research. The best example of this is the idea that one should summarily cut an hour and a half or two out of one’s sleep time. This can work for some, but as blanket advice it won’t produce wholly positive results. To be fair, there are still people giving this advice, e.g. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In my view, two incorrect principles inform this belief—one is wrong in my opinion, and the other is being gradually killed by science. The first is the Western attitude that rest is a form of weakness that we—unfortunately—are forced to put up with, but which we should try to minimize (and even be vaguely ashamed of.) Rest is an essential part of the productivity formula. (Bennett both recognizes and denigrates the value of downtime.) The second notion is that sleep is just rest for the mind. There’s substantial evidence that sleep plays a major role in memory consolidation as well as ramping up healing actions into full gear.

How is the book ahead of its time? Let me say that I mean ahead of it’s time for early 20th century Britain. In some parts of the world, the ideas I mention have been around for thousands of years. First, Bennett describes the importance of training the mind to not be in a constant state of flux, so that one can be less reactive and subject to petty impulses. Bennett doesn’t use the terms “meditation” or “mindfulness” (he talks about “concentration”), but what he describes is meditative practice. What he describes is a bit more cerebral than one would recommend for a beginning practitioners of meditation in light of what we know from the people who do this stuff really well (e.g. Buddhists and Yogis.) While Bennett says that the one can use any object of concentration, he recommends passages from Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. (Two stoic philosophers.) Note: I’m not disregarding the virtue of reading and actively thinking about the ideas of the Stoics. I’m just saying that it may take some preliminary concentration work on breath or a mantra to get to a place where one can get what one wants out of it.

Second, the book suggests that one rethink one’s notion of happiness. Then, as now, it was common to think that—or at least behave as–if one accumulated enough wealth / stuff, one would achieve a state of happiness. Of course, there’s no evidence that that’s the case, and building evidence that it isn’t. Third, Bennett recognizes the folly of trying to make a massive change all at once. He suggests that one start with an hour-and-a-half a few times a week, and build from there as is manageable as long as time is available.

This volume consists of twelve chapters of a few pages each. The chapters start by introducing the premise—that one has 24 hours a day and roughly 16 of those are ones that one can use as one wishes. Bennett discusses why one would want to do more with this time, what the challenges are, and how one can structure a program of self-development. There are a couple of chapters that discuss the mind and concentration, as mentioned above. However, the program goes beyond mere concentration. There are chapters on the arts, serious reading, and dangers to avoid when starting such a program–as well as my favorite chapter entitled, “Nothing in Life is Humdrum.”

Perhaps the most controversial suggestion in the latter part of the book is that one shouldn’t include novels in one’s “serious reading” time. It should be noted that Bennett isn’t telling one not to read novels, he’s just saying that they shouldn’t be part of one’s mental development regime. Instead, he recommends poetry and non-fiction. His point is that novels don’t challenge the mind. One can certainly see how this is true of today’s sweatshop commercial fiction or the YA novels that dominate the best seller lists, but harder to understand why it’s true of “Ulysses” or “Moby-Dick.”

Given the proviso that one should take what is useful and discard the rest, I’d recommend one give this a read. It’s particularly ripe for consideration if one feels that one has surrendered one’s free time to social media, TV, and brain candy books.

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BOOK REVIEW: Night School by Richard Wiseman

Night School: Wake up to the power of sleepNight School: Wake up to the power of sleep by Richard Wiseman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book is a two-in-one. It’s a pop sci book covering the science of sleep. However, it’s arranged as a self-help guide to teach one how to get the most from one’s sleep life. It covers a wide range of sleep related issues from how to minimize jet lag to how to master lucid dreaming. It also describes the sometimes dire effects of not getting enough quality sleep. Along the way one also learns about interesting anecdotes and research that may not change your quality of sleep, but could prove interesting or useful nonetheless—such as the research that shows a strong correlation between the position in which one usually sleeps and one’s personality.

The meat of the book is divided up into eight sections (called “Lessons” in accord with the theme of “Night School.”) The first few lessons begin with general background on sleep and sleep deprivation, and cover how much sleep one needs and how one can achieve the best possible sleep life. Then the book delves into more specialized topics such as night terrors, sleepwalking, “power napping,” and the question of whether one can really learn in one’s sleep. The last couple chapters deal with dreaming (normal and lucid.)

Along with the eight lessons, there are also eight assignments. Most of these assignments are surveys that help the reader understand what will work for them best specifically—as not all sleep advice is one-size-fits-all. However, there are other assignments like a mid-course recap exam, a call to attempt interpreting one’s own dreams (as opposed to relying on the generic dream interpretation guides which the science suggests are bunk,) and a suggestion to start a dream diary—with instructions for how to go about it.

Another nice feature of the book are its boxed discussions of relevant research on such topics as segmented sleep (instead of sleeping through the night), narcolepsy, snoring, children’s sleep issues, etc. There’s also a Conclusion that reviews key information from the book in the form of a refutation of the common myths that abound on the subject of sleep, as well as a “manifesto” that repeats key elements of advice on good sleep. It’s a scholarly work, and so it include source citations.

I learned a lot from this book. Granted a lot of the advice is commonsense (e.g. sleep in a dark, cool, and quiet place), but there are plenty of not so obvious tidbits as well (e.g. red light is okay, but blue light will keep one from sleeping.) There are also a lot of fascinating stories in the book to keep one interested.

I’d recommend the book for anyone who wants to learn to improve their sleep lives.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success by Andy McNab and Kevin Dutton

The Good Psychopath's Guide to Success: How to Use Your Inner Psychopath to Get the Most Out of LifeThe Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success: How to Use Your Inner Psychopath to Get the Most Out of Life by Andy McNab
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The central premise of this book is that psychopaths have a range of traits that help them succeed. These traits include thick skin, focus, fearlessness, charisma, and coolness under high pressure. The “good” in “good psychopath” is used to describe individuals who have psychopathic characteristics while retaining the ability to play by societal rules—at least to the extent necessary to stay in good stead with the law—as well as to recognize the ramifications of their personalities. If you thought you were going to learn how to get away with a tristate prostitute killing spree, you’re looking into the wrong book. The book does discuss what differentiates good from bad psychopaths, but it’s clearly addressing the former.

Unlike Dr. Dutton’s previous book, “The Wisdom of Psychopaths,” this book is a self-help book rather than pop science. It’s designed to help anyone channel their inner psychopath. If you’re already a psychopath, it may help you think about how you can apply your natural tendencies to getting what you want in life. If you’re not a psychopath, it’ll advise you on how to go about facilitating the growth of characteristics that serve psychopaths. McNab serves as the psychopath in-residence, offering stories and his own experience, while Dutton is the scholar trying to lend a more objective understanding of the subject.

The book’s organization is straight forward, there is a prologue plus three chapters that outline the subject and lay out the key concepts, and then chapters 4 through 10 each address one of the seven essential characteristics of the good psychopath. These include proclivities like non-procrastination, being confident, being oneself, taking criticism with ease, being persuasive, living in the moment, and reducing the influence of emotion in decision-making / behavior. These seven chapters are the heart of the book, and they explain how to think about and advance these personality characteristics.

One strength of the book is the use of stories and jokes to convey ideas in a reader-friendly manner. However, some of these stories are clichéd. On the other hand, a number of them come from the career of McNab, and he—as a former SAS member–had a more fascinating career than most. Also, many of tales and anecdotes come from the interaction of this scholar / warrior duo. The chapters also have quizzes that will help the reader evaluate their level of psychopathy, and the e-version of the book is linked to on-line versions of the quizzes.

I can imagine a range of responses to this book from love to hate. There’s one way to love this book (despite its faults), but two ways to hate it. The most obvious way to dislike it, but probably not the most common way, is substantive. One may object to a range of virtues such as coolness under pressure and living in the moment being labeled psychopathic. However, if this was a problem for the reader, one probably wouldn’t purchase (or, being psychopathic, steal) the book. Reading the blurb would tell one what to expect in that regard.

The more likely reason for hating this book is stylistic. The authors wrote it as though they were speaking to the reader, and we know there are good reasons for one’s written style of communication being different from the spoken word. The first such reason is that spoken language can confuse when one is lacking non-verbal information streams. In this case, there are two authors who haven’t merged into one voice, but instead retain their distinct voices. This means that one may have moments of not knowing who’s speaking. Such confused moments usually don’t last long because the authors work hard to create widely different personas. Dutton is the PhD with an erudite / nerdy bent, but who works to come off as the cool professor whose class one might enjoy taking. McNab is the psychopath, and he’s a soldier to the core. Still, even the occasional half sentence in confusion is distracting.

The second reason for writing differently than speaking is that one doesn’t know to whom one is speaking. Not everybody digs f-bombs and bawdy jokes. Those who do will probably find the style neither distracting nor offensive. Many readers won’t have a problem with the language, but will nonetheless find the authors’ attempts to come off as cool to be distracting or irritating. Working to appear cool wears well on 13 year olds, but seems a little pathetic in grown men talking to an audience of other adults.

I found this book interesting and I’d recommend it for people interested in personal development. However, I can’t say that I didn’t find the style of the book grating on occasion.

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How to Kill a “Cereal Killer” and Restore Halloween

cereal killerI know what you’re going to say. Why would I want to murder a cereal killer, a taco belle, a holy cow, a pig in a blanket, a deviled egg, or any of the other bearers of bad Halloween punnery? First, you want to kill someone.  You don’t have to admit it to me and I’d advise against admitting it to the District Attorney, but at least admit it to yourself. Second, if you kill the person you really want to kill (e.g. your boss, the tax man, your personal trainer, or your hairdresser—sorry, low blow) you’ll be the lead suspect. Therefore, you need to find a way to vent your homicidal rage into productive outlets, and I’d argue that the killing of punsters is community service. You shouldn’t even think of it as murder. It’s more like culling the Halloween herd. Forest fires kill, but the next year the forest is more lush and beautiful than ever before.

 

Now let’s get down to the real reason to conduct your own Halloween killing spree. Because it’s the perfect time for the perfect crime. Think about it.

  • Anonymity: Except for the lazy people who wear a T-shirt with “Halloween Costume” printed in unimaginative block letters, everybody is in makeup or has their head stuffed in some stinking mask that five people have thrown up in within the last three years. This makes it almost impossible to identify suspects. The lazy bastards would be eliminated immediately anyway because it takes commitment to be a homicidal maniac.
  • Relative Inconspicuousness: You won’t be the only one who’s apparently blood spattered. Besides Marti Gras and full moons, what other nights can one say that. There will be large numbers of people wielding weapons and looking creepy. What better time to blend in?
  • Distraction: If I might be granted a brief diatribe. Halloween used to be the holiday of terror, but no more. Valentine’s Day may be the holiday of romance (or florists), but Halloween is the holiday of sex. However, you can use this trend to your advantage. There’s a great deal of distraction to be garnered from the proliferation of sexy nurses, sexy waitresses, and sexy actuarials. When the girl whose costume is painted on rather than worn walks through the room to get a single potato chip, that’s a good time to jab the hypodermic into the neck of the nearest drunk pun and get the hell out of dodge.

 

So how will you choose your target? First, as indicated, it’s best to pick someone who’s inebriated because no one will realize they’re dead–and not just passed out–until they begin to stink. Don’t worry, finding a drunk won’t be hard. At a given Halloween party there will be four designated drivers for the 150 people in attendance—so 148 people will be completely hammered. [No, my math is not that bad. Two of those designated drivers are cheating bastards. If you kill a pun who’s a cheating designated driver you’ve hit the trifecta—OK, maybe my math is that bad. At any rate, you get bonus points. ]

 

Next comes the question of determining whether the costume is a pun or not. This can be harder than it seems. Sure there are the easy ones I mentioned above (and others like Kevin “Bacon” [Kevin nametag on a meat vest], “Bat” Man [w/ Louisville Slugger], Down for the Count [Dracula with a blowup doll orally affixed to his crotch region], Spice Girl, Dust Bunny, Formal Apology [tuxedo-clad man with “sorry” written on his tie], etc.) that will be immediately obvious.

 

However, what if one sees a guy in a Grim Reaper costume with a bag of pot. Perhaps this is just someone who likes to imbibe. However, if the pot is dayglow green, then you may have a “the grass is greener on the other side” who desperately needs killing. The key is that one must pay attention to the details. Sometimes the costume will be poorly done. Imagine a fine “Tom the Cat” costume with three misshaped spheres feebly stapled to the crotch region. This is a “horny as a three-balled tom cat” who must die.

 

On the other hand, you should avoid reading too much into costumes. Say you see a girl who looks like a stripper. You shouldn’t engage in some Rube Goldberg-esque thought process in which you conclude that she is saying, “All that glitters is not gold–because sometimes it’s a stripper.” Said woman may merely be costumed as a stripper, or might be a stripper who just got off stage and didn’t have time to go out looking for a costume.

 

When in doubt, if the costume doesn’t seem to make a lick of sense, it’s probably someone’s sense of clever gone awry and you shouldn’t feel bad about friendly fire against a non-pun.

 

Finally, some general rules of thumb (BTW: feel free to kill anyone dressed in a giant mitten with a page of the tax code taped to the thumb):

  • Only kill one pun per party. Being a killer of puns is like being a Marine Sniper—except that it’s completely illegal and involves no honor whatsoever—my point is that if you loiter in place you’ll get pinned down by the Vietcong. It doesn’t matter whether the party in question has the best pigs in a blanket (i.e. the hors doeuvres, not the cutesy couple costume), the best DJ, or the sluttiest witches, maids, librarians, or geologists in town. Don’t get greedy. Get in and get out—well, you can grab a handful of those delectable pigs in a blanket on the way out, but then get out of the house!
  • Never wear the same costume to more than one party. The police call that a clue. You have to be like Kathrine Heigl in that 27 Dresses  movie—which I never saw. Do the quick change like Clark Kent between parties. That brings me to an alternative killing scheme whereby you can kill anyone who’s dressed as a character from a romantic comedy.
  • Don’t consume a lot of legumes, high fiber foods, beer, or Taco Bell before your outing. Just because no one will see your face inside that barf-splotched mask doesn’t mean they won’t be able to smell you. Plus the zippers in costumes are unreliable, and you don’t want a case of Taco Trots to hamper your evening’s fun.
  • Don’t wear a costume that’s too menacing. You want to be able to point to someone who is nearby, completely innocent, and who looks like a killer and say, “she did it.” Also, don’t wear the “Identity Thief” costume in which one has name tags all over one’s outfit with different names. First, it plants the seed of criminality in the mind of those around you. Second, it’s a bad pun and may result in your being stabbed. Which brings me to the ultimate rule:
  • Don’t wear a pun costume yourself, it may result in your being stabbed. I’m not saying that I once stabbed a prostitute with a Seeing Eye dog who turned out to be just another good-hearted Halloween killer because “love is blind,” but…

 

I hope this guide to perpetrating a Halloween massacre has been helpful. I think we’d all like to bring the fear back to Halloween like all the Saints who partied down on All Saints’ Day Eve intended. So, whether you’re a first time killer or you’ve been around the block (another potential costume cliché to kill), a few simple steps will keep you out of the hands of the slutty cops—or regular cops.

BOOK REVIEW: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The AlchemistThe Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This is a short and simple book. Its premise can be summed up as “follow your dreams and all will work out.” It’s about a shepherd boy from Andalusia in southern Spain who yearns to travel. He sells his flock and sets out to do just that. Over the course of the book, he crosses North Africa from Gibraltar to the pyramids of Egypt and back. Along the way he faces many setbacks and barriers, but his willingness to adopt a positive attitude and roll up his sleeves and get to work allows him to overcome these obstacles. As he travels, mysterious guides and mentors–most notably the title-roled Alchemist–show up along the way to induce him to keep going rather than giving up.

As with The Coroner’s Lunch, which I reviewed a couple of reviews back, there’s a supernatural component to this book that seems superfluous. First, the supernatural element doesn’t add much to the story. Second, to my mind, if you are trying to sell the notion that you can make your dreams come true (in this self-helpy sort of way), having your character live in a world of magic detracts from that message. The take away for the reader may be, “Sure, the shepherd boy could do it, he lives in a world in which people can turn lead into gold. In my world, bound by laws of thermodynamics and whatnot, things are not so simple.”

You will note that my middling rating is anomalous. Having skimmed through reviews of this book, I found they were overwhelmingly divided between 5 star and 1 star reviews. It’s rare for one to see the same book being cast both in the best and worst book role by various readers. However, that seems to be the case for this book. Some people adore this book and consider it life-changing. Others think it’s oversimplified tripe for granola-munching potheads and/or six-year olds. I suspect that Coelho is quite pleased. I know—as a writer—if you can’t get someone to love your book, you want them to despise it. Mediocrity doesn’t put one in good stead for building readership. Hate is a passionate response; it means the book struck some kind of chord. Clunkers are remembered just like perfect melodies; it’s the so-so performances that vanish into the background—or the bargain bin.

Unlike the lovers and haters, I found this book to be just alright. It presents some good ideas, but not novel ideas, and it does so in a clear but not brilliant way. It wouldn’t hurt to read it as it’s very short and highly readable.

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BOOK REVIEW: How to Lose Friends & Irritate People by Laszlo Wanky

Cover_How_to_Lose_Friends

 

How to Lose Friends and Irritate People by Laszlo Wanky

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

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Wanky pays an homage to Dale Carnegie’s seminal self-help book by calling it, “a book for its time–that time being one in which people were lonely, pathetic, and didn’t understand social networking.” The author’s central premise is that we live in very different times, and today people are inundated by Facebook friends they neither like nor find interesting. Furthermore, Wanky goes on to argue, gone are the days when likable people are  liked. We live in an era in which douche-bags and drug-addled celebrities are gods among men. The book offers many headline examples, such as how Miley Cyrus’s career crashed as the sweet and admirable Hannah Montana, but then she caught her second wind by adopting the persona of a meth-addicted prostitute.

 

Roughly half of the book is dedicated to how to find success in defriending unwanted virtual amigos. Wanky suggests that the usual tactic of subtly “un-adding” people almost always fails because people are too “wussified” to make it stick. The only effective strategy, according to the author, is to trick others into removing you from their list of pseudo-friends. Be forewarned, however, being uninteresting and annoying is not enough–one must be spectacularly despicable. This is hard for most people–whom Wanky calls “the sychophantic masses”–because they slobber over being liked. Wanky devotes three chapters to helping people get over their love of being liked. The most cogent of these chapters is, “Kim Jong Un or Gandhi: Who Ya Wanna Party With?

 

The aforementioned chapters also help set up Part II of the book, which explains how one can put a skyrocket on one’s career by borrowing the techniques of the likes of Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, and Piers Morgan. Wanky shows how, like these individuals, one can be thoroughly unlikable while having people hang on your every word.  Again, three chapters form the core of this part of the book. They are: “Loud = True”, “Bombastic Fact Picking for Beginners”, and “Your Hairstyle Makes You Sound Stupid.”

 

I’m not going to pretend that Mr. Wanky’s language is fluid or graceful.  The author’s prose is colloquial… at best. A typical sentence–seen in chapter 8–is, “If ya wanna get with the boom-chiggy-booms, you gotta shout those fart-monkeys down, cause if they hear ’em they’ll all be like, ‘who’s the fart-monkey now, bitch, who’s the fart-monkey now?'”

 

The book’s strengths include its incredible brevity. Weighing in at only 26 pages, four chapters consist entirely of 27-syllable haiku. It also features fine graphics such as a picture of a “fart-monkey” that any grandmother would be proud to stick on their refrigerator. (The color choices were bit odd, but Wanky was clearly limited to the 16-color box of Crayolas.)

 

I’d recommend this book for anyone who doesn’t like friends and who really despises people’s indifference toward them. I have no doubt that by following Mr. Wanky’s recommendations, one can become a thoroughly loathsome individual in a matter of days.

 

Lastly, Happy April Fool’s Day.

 

 

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of MeditationThe Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation by Thích Nhất Hạnh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book by the renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, activist, and poet, Thich Nhat Hanh, offers pointers on how to live a life of mindfulness. Like most of Hanh’s works, this one is brief, concise, and the front and back matter account for about as much verbiage as the chapters themselves.

The seven chapters that make up the book proper examine mindfulness from various angles, with various approaches, and have a loose organization. The most readable of these chapters–owing to its narrative format–is the last, which retells a Tolstoy story about an Emperor who receives three questions and–unable to find suitable answers by offering a reward to his subjects–dons a disguise and visits a hermit sage. Needless to say, the sage (and life events) enlighten the Emperor, and the answers revolve around the theme of mindfulness. Among the most thought-provoking of the chapters is one that proposes that one take one day of the week to focus on mindfulness. Hanh offers advice on how to best select and structure such a day.

While the appended matter of some of Thich Hhat Hanh’s books can read like filler (intended to reach a page quota), that isn’t so much the case with this book. The most valuable of the appendices gives 32 exercises for building mindfulness. Many of these exercises are variations on a theme, and some are much more extensive than others, but it’s a crucial section and might even be called the heart of the book. Likewise, there are five sutra translations that will be appreciated by readers who are actually Buddhist. (Non-Buddhists may find the sutras to be a less colorful and more repetitive restatement of what Hahn has told them in the chapters. If one pays attention to the chapters and does the exercises, reading the sutra’s isn’t necessary for those who are not students of the religion.)

There is an odd postscript by one of Hanh’s students that is like those I’ve seen in other Hanh books. It’s an odd little testimonial. I put it in the filler category as anyone buying the book knows who Thich Nhat Hanh is and about the accolades he has received and, therefore, they don’t need a prologue telling them how awesome he is. It actually detracts from his persona as a wise man, because it makes one wonder who inspired the little ego trip. I suspect this is more a publisher desired addenda than an author inspired one, but, at any rate, it’s not useful. It can be interesting to hear about the war days, but there’s an outlet for that. Furthermore, I would think the place to tell us how awesome the author is would be at the beginning of the book–not the end. If one gets to the back matter, he must have done something to impress one.

I’d recommend this book for meditators, would-be meditators, and anyone who thinks that life is slipping through his or her fingers because of constant stress and a runaway mind.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney

The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert WorldThe Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World by Marti Olsen Laney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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A number of books have come out about introversion in recent years. Most of these books seek to dispel common myths about being introverted, such as:

a.) Introverts can and should change teams to the extroverted
“light side” as soon as possible.

b.) There’s something psychologically wrong (re: neurotic or even psychotic) with being introverted.

c.) “Introverted” is synonymous with:

1.) Shy (i.e. having social anxiety disorder)
2.) Schizoid
3.) Anti-social
4.) Self-centered (in the pejorative sense–a more neutral meaning could be said to be true by definition.)

This isn’t to say that one can’t be both introverted and any of the above, but one can also be extroverted and any of the above (including, believe it or not, shy—i.e. it’s possible to be an extrovert with social anxiety disorder.)

Where Dr. Olsen Laney’s book tries to carve a niche is in teaching introverts how they can conduct their lives in an extrovert-centric world so as to maximize their effectiveness and minimize their exhaustion. One will note that her advice doesn’t advocate attempting to become extroverted. In fact, one of the most interesting and informative sections of the book is chapter 3, which explains the differences in brain chemistry that result in introversion or extroversion. While some of the conditions mistaken for introversion–such as shyness–can be overcome or trained away, introversion is hardwired into the brain.

The book’s ten chapters are organized into three parts. The first part explains just what defines an introvert, what traits commonly mistaken for introversion aren’t introversion, and the physiological roots of introversion. The second part consists of four chapters that delve into problems faced by introverts in four critical domains: relationships, parenting, socializing, and work. The final three chapters present the prescription for modifying one’s behavior to keep one’s energy up in the face of the demands of modern life. It’s really all about energy—how we use it and replenish it differently. The external world—most notably interaction with other people but also anything of a chaotic environment—drains the energy of introverts faster than that of extroverts.

As one reads through the book, there are many tips for mitigating the negative effects of common introvert characteristics seen as problematic in an extrovert’s world. It should be noted that some of these are genuine problems (i.e. how one metabolizes food) and others are a matter of perspective (i.e. lack of conviction v. open-mindedness.) These “problems” include: difficulty making quick decisions, difficulty with word retrieval, lack of investment in one’s own ideas (“wishy-washy” in extrovert lexicon, but arguably open-minded), tendency toward over-stimulation, lack of inclination to engage in [prolonged] eye contact, proclivity to metabolize food quickly with resultant blood sugar drops, proclivity towards sedentariness, and a tendency to fail to delegate work and reward job completion—if one happens to be the boss.

I found this book to be enlightening. There were many ideas I found myself agreeing with (e.g. using hobbies and activities as a means of controlled interaction.) There were only a few pieces of advice that I thought poor (i.e. picking a weekend day to lay in bed or on the couch all day—reading or otherwise.) While it may seem logical that movement would drain energy in contradiction of the goal of restoring energy, I find being sedentary beyond a certain number of hours to be a huge energy drainer and that periodic movement is necessary and restorative to keep my energy level robust. (And I’m about as introverted as one gets by the criteria established in the book, most of which apply to me.) Of course, there are variations among introverts–just as among extroverts—not only with respect to the degree of introversion but also with respect to specific characteristics experienced. (e.g. Some introverts may not find that all of the criteria in the preceding paragraph apply to them.)

I’d recommend this book not only for introverts, but for those who interact with introverts in key ways (e.g. familial relations, significant others, bosses, employees, etc.) Non-introverts may find some sections are more helpful and necessary than others, and may not find they need to read from cover to cover.

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BOOK REVIEW: How to Meditate by Lawrence LeShan

How to Meditate: A Guide to Self-DiscoveryHow to Meditate: A Guide to Self-Discovery by Lawrence LeShan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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LeShan’s book offers a secular and scientific guide to meditation. By secular, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s devoid of mention of religion. On the contrary, How to Meditate delves into a wide variety of meditation styles that have roots in religion, and it quotes from spiritual teachers across a range of religions–including the mystic branches of Christianity and Islam. I mention the latter because the book seems tailored to bringing individuals into meditation that do not normally think meditation as being their bag, which could include atheists, secular humanists, or those whose religious practices don’t involve a mystical component. I just mean that the book is secular in that it doesn’t advocate a specific religion or suggest that one needs to hold any particular spiritual beliefs to benefit from meditation.

Also, by scientific I don’t mean to suggest that the book gets bogged down in the minutiae of EKG’s or the like. How to Meditate is readable to the general reader, except perhaps for chapter 11, which deals with using meditation in psychotherapy. [However, by the author’s own admission, one can skip that chapter with no great loss if you aren’t a therapist.] What I do mean to say is that LeShan takes an approach to meditation that is grounded in real-world, observable results. He tells the reader of the mental and physical benefits of meditation as they are discussed in the scientific literature.

In other words, if you think that meditation is only for hippie-types who believe in auras and astral planes, this book may convince you otherwise. On the other hand, if you’re one who believes in auras, astral planes, or the idea that only one true guru / path exists, you’ll probably be miffed by this book. There are a couple of chapters devoted to ideas that people believe that both have little evidence of grounding in reality and which detract from meditation. This includes ESP, auras, strange maps of reality, and guru-worship.

The core of the book is chapter 8, which explains how to do meditations of eleven different kinds. The book addresses single-point awareness, breath counting, thought watching, bodily awareness (specifically, Theravada Buddhist style meditation), word association (1,000-petaled lotus), mantra meditation, meditation on “I”, movement meditation (particularly Sufi-style), sensory awareness, safe harbor meditation, and unstructured meditation. The first ten are all types of structured meditation, and an earlier chapter is devoted to distinguishing structured from unstructured approaches to meditation. There is also an earlier chapter that discusses a broad taxonomy of meditation and sub-classes of meditation.

The book is logically arranged for the most part. It begins with a chapter on why one should meditate. This first chapter sets up two chapters that deal with the psychological and physiological effects of meditation. There is one oddity of organization. The core “how-to” chapter is bookended by a chapter on ESP and one on various pitfalls of spiritualism. It would seem these two chapters should go together as they both deal with things that detract from meditative practice, and not with the central chapter wedged between them.

The last couple chapters and the Afterword aren’t as beneficial for the general reader as the first 3/4ths of the book or so. One of those chapters is the aforementioned chapter for psychotherapists and the other deals with the social significance of meditation. The last chapter before those that I found superfluous, however, is one addressing the question of whether one needs a teacher to learn meditation. This pro and con discussion seems like a good way to end this book.

There is a long afterword by Edgar N. Jackson that adds a perspective on what we should take from LeShan’s book. I suspect that if page count were not a concern the book would have ended on the chapter that talks about decisions about a teacher. The last two chapters and the Afterword seem to have been added for the twin-fold purpose of hitting a target page count and to add a couple of niche audiences—namely students of psychology and fans of Edgar N. Jackson (i.e. Christians with an interest in mystical approaches to their religion.)

Overall, I’d recommend this book for those who are new to meditation, those who are seeking to expand their practice to new types of meditation, and those who are interested in the mind in general. As I mentioned, if you think of meditation as a route to see the glow of chakras or to commune with the dead, this probably isn’t the book for you—you’re likely to find its disregard for such otherworldly endeavors to be unappealing.

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