BOOK REVIEW: Superhuman by Rowan Hooper

Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our CapacitySuperhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity by Rowan Hooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page


There are mounds of books out on the science of maximum human performance, be they on mind-hacking, sports & exercise science, or some combination thereof as applied to a particular pursuit. Hooper creates his niche by way of a broad and varied selection of topics, including: language learning, singing, running, achieving longevity, and sleeping. For the reader who is interested in the topic of how top performers in a given domain achieve that supernormal performance, it makes for an interesting read. However, it may leave some readers scratching their heads as to who the book is aimed at. It should be noted that several of the topics addressed are of much more broad-ranging appeal than those I mentioned (e.g. focus / attentiveness, bravery / courage, and resilience.)

The book is divided into three parts on “thinking,” “doing,” and “being,” respectively. The four chapters in the first part investigate the heights of intelligence, memory, language, and focus. The chapter on language deals with how some people are masterful polyglots, speaking many languages, as opposed to the harder to investigate question of how someone becomes William Shakespeare. Throughout the book, there is a mix of stories and interview insights from those who are peak performers as well as discussion of what scientific studies have found. The former makes up the lion’s share of the discussion, and the central question with of science is how much of peak performance is genetic and how much is built.

Part II, on doing, has three chapters, exploring the topics of bravery, singing, and running. This is where one really sees the book’s diversity. Books like Amanda Ripley’s “Unthinkable” address the question, among related questions, of why some act heroically, and there are a huge number of books on how to be the best runner or singer one can be, but not a lot of books take on all three questions in one section. The book on singing focuses on opera singers who belt out their tunes largely sans technology – i.e. there’s no Milli-Vanilli-ing L’Orfeo. The chapter on running gives particular scrutiny to endurance running.

Part III investigates why some people live longer, are more resilient, sleep better (or do well with less sleep,) or are happier. Since Buettner’s “National Geographic” article on “blue zones” (i.e. places where a disproportionate percentage of the population live well beyond the average human lifespan,) there’s been a renewal of interest in what science has to say about longevity. As mentioned, the chapter on sleep covers the topic from multiple vantage points. Everyone needs sleep, but some perform best with ten or more hours of sleep while others are extremely productive on four hours a day, and some can cat-nap periodically through the day while others need a single extended and uninterrupted period of sleeps. Wisely, Hooper doesn’t simply take on the question of why some people are happier than others in the book’s last chapter, but rather he asks the more interesting question of why some people who have every reason to be morose (e.g. paralyzed individuals) manage to be ecstatically happy.

The book has a references section, but there isn’t a lot of ancillary matter (i.e. graphics, appendices, etc.) It’s a text-centric book that relies heavily on stories about Formula-1 racers, opera stars, ultra-marathoners, and other extraordinary individuals while investigating the subject matter.

I enjoyed this book. I am intensely interested in optimal human performance across a range of skills and characteristics. So, I guess when people inevitably ask who the book is directed at, it’s directed at me and others with this strange fascination. If you have that interest, it’s for you as well.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Painted Word by Phil Cousineau

The Painted Word: A Treasure Chest of Remarkable Words and Their OriginsThe Painted Word: A Treasure Chest of Remarkable Words and Their Origins by Phil Cousineau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

The Painted Word is a collection of interesting words with definitions, insight into each word’s origins and evolution, and interesting or humorous usages. These aren’t all GRE words (massive and mostly useless words that have little value beyond impressing admissions committees.) Many of the words will be familiar to readers without huge vocabularies. On the other hand, there will be words that are new to even New York Times crossword puzzle solvers.

As the title suggests, there’s a little bit of an art-related theme. However, I’m not sure I would have noticed this if it hadn’t been for the title. There are a number of colors included among the words—colors known mostly to interior decorators and not to most heterosexual men. There are also a few artistic styles (e.g. intimism.) However, the bulk of the words aren’t clearly related to the fine arts. Many of the entries are loan words, i.e. words that have been used in English literature or other English-language media but which are of foreign origin.

I’ll include a few of the words that captured my own interest:

Autologophagist: one who eats his / her own words
Bafflegab: language that misleads—intentionally or not
Cataphile: a lover of catacomb crawling
Inkhorn: an over-intellectualized word
Lambent: shining with soft light on the surface of something
Millihelen: the amount of beauty that would result in the launch of a single ship.
Monogashi [Japanese]: the sigh or sadness of things
Sonicky: A great sounding word—coined by Roy Blount Jr.
Oculogyric: eye-rolling
Phlug: belly-button lint
Snollygoster: a shrewd but corrupt politician
Ubantu [Bantu / Xhosa]: the interconnectedness of all things

This book is full of fun insights and statements. I learned that “hush puppies” were literally carried to throw to noisy dogs to get them to stop barking. There are many interesting and humorous quotes. For example, Brendan Behan said, “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.” Brief vignettes are used to help give depth of understanding to words. One such story is about a Luddite looking upon the operation of a steam shovel who said to his friend, “Were it not for that steam shovel, there would be work for hundreds of men with shovels…” to which his friend replied, “or thousands of men with teaspoons.”

I enjoyed this book. You don’t have to be fascinated by the minutiae of semantics to find it readable and interesting. It’s not as much like reading a dictionary as one might suspect.

View all my reviews

7 Perqs of Life in India

1.) Vegetarian restaurants: While I’m not of the vegetarian persuasion, my wife is. This can make finding a mutually acceptable restaurant a pain. However, it’s vastly easier to pick a restaurant in India. Except for the very rare American-style steak house, she can eat anywhere and the menu will be at least half vegetarian.

In Atlanta, I’d estimate that she could eat healthily and well in about one in five restaurants. American Southern cooking doesn’t offer one a side of green beans without a ham bone in it. I’d say we’ve cut our restaurant selection time to about a quarter of the time it took in the US.


2.) Cheap books: While English is secondary to Kannada as the spoken language here, it’s not second  in the bookstores by any means. Bookstores are common and offer some new options. I’ve spent a lot of time in bookstores, so I usually don’t see a lot that’s new, but there are books printed by Indian publishers here that don’t usually appear on the shelves of Barnes & Noble.

And, unlike in Cambodia where books are  cheap by means of photocopying, the books here aren’t cheap by virtue of stiffing the writer.


3.) Amazon: On a related note, I can still buy Kindle books just as easily as I did in the states. There are some websites that don’t work here, such as Hulu and Netflix, but Amazon operates just fine.

4.) Walk-centric life: Bangalore is not an easy city to walk in because the traffic is horrendous, there is no system for traffic lights, and sidewalks are about as dangerous as walking in the street. (If your eye isn’t constantly on the sidewalk, you might just plunge into a sewer.) However, being in the heart of the city, there’s nothing I need that I can’t get via a short walk.

5.) Servants: I haven’t mowed lawn, swept a walk, done laundry, or washed a dish since I left the US, and yet it’s always done. After a brief period of feeling awkward, it’s beginning to grow on me. The hardest part will be going home, once I’ve become accustomed to a certain level of service.

6.) Climate: There’s been a pleasant breeze coming through my window pretty much all day. I haven’t had to use the AC since we’ve been here. And it’s starting to not rain every night. Of course, this one is not so much about India as Bangalore specifically. On the whole, India’s climate is not so pretty.

7.) Loan words:  I suspect it’s harder for the locals to talk about foreigners behind their backs here than most countries because there are so many English loan words. They’ll be a couple of locals talking in Kannada, and you’ll here: “Waa-wah-waa-wah-waa-wah-super convenient-waa-wah-waa.” So it’s like having a rudimentary grasp of a language, you can kind of get a feel for the general drift of what is being talked about-even if you don’t know any specifics. At least this makes bad-mouthing foreigners a mental exercise.

TODAY’S RANT: Pronunciation Police

Pronunciation is tricky.

Pronunciation is tricky.

If you’ve ever had someone tell you that any water can be put in a pot (for pronouncing drinking water pot-table rather that po-table), then you may be with me here. If you frequently exercise your perogative, rather than your prerogative, you may agree. Have you had sherbert, or only sherbet? Do both your eggs and oxen have yokes?

If you’re not with me, you –my friend– might be the person on the right in my little stick cartoon.

I’m as anal about language as the next writer, but let’s try to dial down the pretentiousness. The big question I have for pronunciation police is this: What in your experience with the English language has led you to believe it is a phonetic language?

For those who think English is phonetic because they learned it via “Phonics,” let me expose you to a poem that says it more eloquently than I ever could. (I would attribute the poem, but it is to my knowledge owed to that most prolific “Anonymous” chap.)

Hints on Pronunciation for Foreigners

I take it you already know
of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps.

Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead-it’s said like bed, not bead.
For goodness sake, don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat.
They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for pear and bear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose
Just look them up–and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward.
And font and front and word and sword.
And do and go, then thwart and cart.
Come, come I’ve hardly made a start.

A dreadful language? Man alive,
I’d mastered it when I was five!

If you still don’t believe that the language can handle multiple pronunciations, check out what the experts say.