BOOK REVIEW: The End of Killing by Rick Smith

The End of Killing: How Our Newest Technologies Can Solve Humanity’s Oldest ProblemThe End of Killing: How Our Newest Technologies Can Solve Humanity’s Oldest Problem by Rick Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Before one dismisses this book based on its seemingly pollyanna title, I’d suggest one think of it as an opening volley in what promises to be a series of crucial debates that will play out — one way or another — in the years to come. I believe Smith, founder and CEO of TASER and Axon, did a great job of presenting an argument for the pursuit of a range of technologies and policies intended to curb violence, as well as anticipating, presenting, and debating many of the opposing arguments. The book’s tone is more pragmatic than its bold and controversial title might suggest. That said, I don’t agree with all of the author’s conclusions by any means; though I do agree these questions need to be thoughtfully considered and debated.

I’d put the technologies and policies Smith advocates for into three basic categories. First, those that are nearly inevitable given societal winds of change and the nature of technological development (e.g. nonlethals becoming the primary weapons of the law enforcement community, automated systems being deployed to curb violence in schools, and ending the war on drugs.) Second, those which may be laudable, but which are hard to imagine coming to fruition in the world we live in [or are likely to see in the foreseeable future] (e.g. nonlethals becoming the primary [or exclusive] weapons of the military.) Third, those which are so full of the peril of unintended consequences as to be, frankly, terrifying – if not dystopian (i.e. the use of surveillance and profiling technologies to ACTIVELY attempt to prevent crimes that haven’t yet happened.)

Instead of describing the contents of the book chapter by chapter, I’ll discuss its ideas through the lens presented in the preceding paragraph – starting with the seemingly inevitable technologies. The central thrust of this book is that nonlethal technology needs to be developed / improved such that nonlethals can take up a progressively greater portion of weapons deployment and usage, with the aim of ultimately replacing firearms (and other lethal weapons) with nonlethal weapons. It’s important to note that Smith doesn’t suggest such a replacement could happen at present. He acknowledges that nonlethals are currently not as effective and reliable at incapacitating a threat as are firearms, and he isn’t advocating that people be put at risk by having to defend themselves with an inferior weapon. However, it seems reasonable, given the tremendous technological advances that have occurred, that nonlethal weaponry could become as or more effective than firearms.

If that doesn’t seem reasonable, I would remind one that firearms aren’t – as a rule — as instantaneously and definitively incapacitating as Hollywood portrays. One can find numerous cases of individuals still moving with a magazine’s worth of bullets in — or having passed through — them. (And that’s not to mention the lack of precision that tends to come with throwing a projectile via a controlled explosion.) The point being, one isn’t competing with perfection – so one doesn’t need to be perfect, only better than an existing [flawed] system.

Smith addresses the many dividends of nonlethal weapon usage over that of the lethal counterparts, and there are many. For one thing, killing isn’t easy on anyone (anyone who’s right in the head any way.) Even when a killing is legally justifiable and morally defensible (or even state-sanctioned) it often still results in traumatic stress. For another, there is the reduced cost of getting it wrong, and the adverse societal impacts (e.g. revenge killings) that result from wrongful deaths. Long story short, if one can produce a nonlethal that’s consistently as effective at incapacitating threat, it’s hard to make a rational argument for not fielding said weapon. The example of an automated system to respond to school shootings is an extension of the nonlethal weapons argument, as it’s ultimately based on nonlethals deployed by drone (or robotic system.) The chapter on the war on drugs (ch. 15) bears little discussion as it’s no news that that “war” has been a failure and a phenomenally ineffective way of addressing a societal problem.

That brings us to the laudable but unlikely category in which I put military use of nonlethals as primary (or exclusive) weapons. I’m not saying that military nonlethal weapon systems won’t continue to be developed, improved, and deployed. Given the degree to which war of late features non-state actors and unconventional warfare, it’s possible to imagine such weapons playing a dominant role in specific operations. After all, military members aren’t exempt from the psychological costs of killing. However, military forces deploying into a war zone with nonlethals as their primary weapons is almost impossible to imagine, especially considering the diversity of conditions and opponents for which a military needs to be ready.

In warfare, there is something called the “force multiplier” effect of wounding an enemy over killing an enemy. That is, if you wound someone, it takes two people to carry him or her, plus a chunk of a medic’s time. So, one can imagine four people being out of the fight because one person is severely wounded, versus the one person who would be out of commission (the dead person) if the individual were wounded. To be fair, Smith imagines technology (drones and robots) doing the heavy lifting. Still, it’s hard to imagine how one side in a conflict wins if they have to transport, warehouse, feed, and care for every enemy that is incapacitated while the other side is just killing away. Even if that one side is much more automated, it seems tremendously expensive – even for a relatively small-scale war.

That brings to me chapter five, which I found chilling. That chapter considers how artificial intelligence and surveillance programs (albeit with judicial oversight and other protections) could be used to anticipate crimes so that law enforcement could actively go forth to try to prevent them. (If this sounds a lot like the Tom Cruise movie loosely based on a PKD story, “Minority Report,” it’s because it essentially replaces the three pasty precognitives with computers and offers a bit more oversight. While Smith cautions against taking fictional stories too seriously, he employs some fictional scenarios that I believe might be as a pollyanna as the Spielberg film is dark.) At any rate, the word “actively” is crucial to my concern. I’m all in favor of what has historically been known as “preventive law enforcement” — activities such as putting more patrols in high crime areas, youth mentoring programs, and programs that inform people and businesses about how to be harder targets. However, the idea of police going out and engaging people as though a crime has been committed when none has been conjures images of cities on fire.

First, such an approach is predicated on watching everybody – at least everybody’s online activity – all the time. Which seems both dystopian and of limited effectiveness. [What percentage of people who post on FB that they want to shoot someone are likely to do so?] What about the judicial oversight and related protections? When is a warrant issued to surveil or arrest a person? The warrant is issued based on something an artificial intelligence system already flagged, meaning a government entity is watching everybody’s behavior on a constant fishing expedition. I’m not fond of that idea at all.

Second, we aren’t nearly as good at forecasting the future as we think. Violent crimes are rare and often spontaneous events, and that puts them in classes of behavior we are particularly bad at making predictions about. And, we haven’t eliminated the trade-off between type I and type II error. Imagine there is a question about whether individual X is to be detained based on what the AI spit out. X either was or wasn’t going to commit a crime. We can imagine a four-way matrix in which two of the solutions are correct (i.e. 1.) X was detained and was going to commit a crime; 2.) X wasn’t detained and he wasn’t going to commit a crime.) However, since we can’t know the future [like, at all] the potential remains for mis-estimating whether X was going to commit a crime. So, we have two potential errors (i.e. 1.) X wasn’t detained but he was going to commit a crime [and thus did]; 2.) X was detained but he wasn’t going to commit a crime [wrongful detention].) So, we want to minimize the first error because any violent crime is unacceptable? We go out and shake down more high risk individuals. While we succeed in preventing crimes, we also end up with more wrongful detention. Our legal system’s requirements with regards evidence suggest that as a society we are averse to wrongful disruption of a person’s freedom. Hence, while a “preponderance of evidence” is sufficient for cases where one might lose money in a civil case, if one might be imprisoned, the standard becomes “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Wrongfully detaining an individual when a crime was committed may be sad, but doing it when there is only a suspicion that a crime might likely be committed is tragic.

Of course, under present standards one can’t detain a person for very long. So you let them go, and maybe they do the crime – whether or not they intended to in the first place (ever heard someone say, “if you’re going to treat me like _______, I’m going to act like _______?” I’ll admit that it’s a bit far-fetched but if the system spurs one crime in a million subjects detained that wasn’t going to happen, is that acceptable?) Alternatively, one could place surveillance on the individual. In which case, one is essentially living in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Congratulations. It seems to me this approach offers either huge costs for a marginal gain, or you go full dystopia and knock out crime at a horrifying cost. Neither way seems appealing, but – then again – I am not willing to pay any price to keep anything bad from ever happening to anyone.

I found this book to have some fascinating ideas and to spur my thinking on subjects I might not otherwise have considered. While there was a significant bit that I found unsavory, I also discovered some ideas that were intriguing and worth pursuing. I would highly recommend this book for those interested in issues of technology and policy.

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BOOK REVIEW: Perfect Breathing by Al Lee and Don Campbell

Perfect Breathing: Transform Your Life One Breath at a TimePerfect Breathing: Transform Your Life One Breath at a Time by Al Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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It’s not an exaggeration to say that there is no set of yogic practices with a greater power to transform one’s life than breathing exercises (pranayama.) With this in mind, I’m always on the look out for new sources of insight into breathing – be it from free-divers, Buddhists, sports scientists, yogis, martial artists, or else-wise. This book provides an overview from a diverse set of experts with descriptions of a number of different breathing practices (e.g. Taoist qi gong, yogic pranayama, a practice for runners, etc.,) but it takes as its central tenet a six-second breath that it recommends as the titular “perfect breath.”

Breathing practices are often underestimated. People, after all, figure that they’ve been breathing every day of their lives, so who can teach them anything on the subject. The idea of reading a book on breathing is right up there with watching the paint dry or the grass grow for excitement. Unfortunately, in parts – many densely pack up front – the authors do too little to dissuade readers of this belief. In early chapters and sprinkled throughout, the book is rife with truisms and banal comments that will leave the rankest neophyte thinking they aren’t going to learn anything of value. That said, I’m glad I kept with it, because the authors convey some powerful insights by telling the stories of people from various walks of life who’ve achieved great things by improving their breath.

The book is organized around a central structure of breathing as a tool for improvement of body, mind, emotion, and spirit. This is sound approach to covering the topic, and the discussion of breath as a means to emotional control is particularly beneficial and welcome. It could be argued that the coverage of the topic of spirituality could have been jettisoned without much loss. The authors talked around the subject in away that was vague and insubstantial. To be fair, they may have been trying to avoid running afoul of individuals who were either secular / scientific (non-spiritual) or who had strong sectarian beliefs on spiritual matters.

The book has seven parts. Part I consists of two chapters that offer an introduction into the topic. These could have been pared down without substantial loss of value. Part II (Ch. 3 – 8) is entitled “Your Perfect Breath” and it discusses developing awareness of breath, body, emotion, spirit, and introduces the fundamentals of how one should breath the “perfect breath.” Part III (Ch. 9 – 12) explores the role that breathing practices can have on improving health outcomes. It’s well established that the body puts healing / rebuilding on hold under high stress, when the sympathetic nervous system is engaged. Breathing practices can help trip parasympathetic (rest and digest) activity. Part IV (Ch. 13 – 15) is of particular interest to athletes and those who want to perform better at some physical or mental activity. In addition to discussing both physical and mental performance, the authors devote a chapter to what is sometimes called Flow (Csikszentmihaly) or The Zone, and how breath can play into quieting the mind to facilitate said state. Part V (Ch. 16 – 19) is about breathing as a means to take control of one’s emotional life. People in the throes of emotional turmoil are unlikely to notice how that turmoil influences their breath, but it has a major impact — and it’s a two-way street, i.e. one can help mitigate excessive emotional response through breath. Part VI (Ch. 20 – 21) is devoted to spirituality and the nexus of breath and prayer or meditation. The final part (Ch. 22) explores the idea of the final breath. I thought this was a valuable discussion, given the tremendous anxiety of coming to one’s last breath and its impact on people’s lives.

There are no graphics in the book. They aren’t greatly missed, but might have been useful in places. (It’s probably more accurate to say the authors could have gone into more depth if they’d used graphics and not stayed in such vague territory.) There is an appendix that lists and briefly describes the included exercises, and the e-book / Kindle version includes hyperlinks to the detailed description in the book’s interior. Having a link to the practices is a useful feature. There is also a short section of recommended readings.

While it took me a bit of time to get traction in reading this book, once I did, I learned a great deal. I would recommend it for anyone who is interested in an overview of breathing practices for health, emotional control, and increased physical performance. The authors transmit expertise from a broad range of experts from various walks of life.

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BOOK REVIEW: TED Talks Storytelling by Akash Karia

TED Talks Storytelling: 23 Storytelling Techniques from the Best TED TalksTED Talks Storytelling: 23 Storytelling Techniques from the Best TED Talks by Akash Karia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a brief guide to storytelling and story building, particularly as it pertains to public speaking. Its emphasis on TED Talks is just to capitalize on the popularity of that forum as well as to draw widely known examples. There are no novel insights offered in this book. It’s the same information one could find from many other sources. However, it’s concise, well-organized, and uses examples pulled from popular TED Talks, and so readers may get some synergies from familiarity with a given speaker’s delivery.

The book is organized into nine chapters. The first introduces the topic by explaining why stories are so much more effective than other approaches to public speaking. The second chapter is about hooks and conflict. The third chapter is about the twist or element that makes the story interesting—as opposed to a straightforward accounting of events. Chapters four through six are all related in that they deal with providing the sensory and other details necessary to make the story come alive for the audience member. Chapter seven is about the effectiveness of stories with a positive message. Chapter eight steps back and examines the overall flow of the story with key way-points of consideration. Chapter 9 is a summation of key points. It’s mostly a list of the 23 bullet points that were made throughout the book, each of which is also located at the end of its respective chapter.

I’d recommend this book for anyone preparing for a public speaking engagement. However, I should point out that the price seems to be higher at the moment than when I bought it. I wouldn’t recommend spending a lot on the book because the information is so widely available.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Story of the Human Body by Daniel Lieberman

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and DiseaseThe Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease by Daniel E. Lieberman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The story that this book tells is of a human body adapted and optimized for hunting and gathering that has been thrust by agricultural and industrial revolutions into conditions for which it is ill-suited. The central idea is that of the “mismatch disease.” The mismatch in question is a mismatch between the lives humans were evolved to lead and the ones that we have developed through cultural and technological progress. The human body is governed by what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “anti-fragility” or what biologists call “phenotypic plasticity.” Both terms say that our bodies get stronger when exposed to physical stressors and weaker in the absence of such stressors. We’ve now used culture and technology to reduce exposure to such stressors, while—at the same time—food is more available than ever and is in calorically dense / nutritionally sparse forms. This mismatch accounts for many problems. Of course, technology has also allowed us to reduce our exposure to dirt and germs, and this, after being once a boon, has begun to swing us into dangerous territory.

The 13 chapters (including the introduction) are divided into three parts in a logical manner to address the book’s objective. After an introduction that lays groundwork for understanding human evolution in a broad sense, the first part describes human evolution up to the point where culture became dominant force for our species. It clarifies how we became bipedal, how our diets developed, how we got smart, and the ways in which the aforementioned characteristics are interconnected. The second part shifts from Darwinian evolution to cultural evolution, and—in particular—elucidates the effects that the agricultural and industrial revolutions had on the human body. These cultural forces act much faster than evolution. While some argue that humans aren’t really subject to evolutionary forces anymore, owing to cultural and technological advances, Lieberman points out that Darwinian evolution does still effect humanity, but its effect is muted by comparison to fast-acting cultural developments. The final part looks at humanity in the present and projects out into the future. It considers what effect an over-abundance of energy and a declining need for physical activity have had on our species, and what can be done about it.

This book is thought-provoking, well-organized, and uses narrative evidence and humor to enhance readability. (A discussion of the absurdity of products in the Skymall catalog—e.g. luxury items for pet—is a case in point.) It certainly gives on a good education about human evolution. Furthermore, while there are many books out there that deal with mismatch as a cause of diseases like obesity and diabetes, Lieberman also addresses under-explored issues like postural problems from chairs, the influence of shoes on running gait, and the development of nearsightedness because of our close-focusing ways.

I’d say the book’s greatest flaw comes in its discussions of solutions at the end. The author puts all his eggs in the basket of wholesale solutions aimed to make society as a whole improve, while he could do more to share the details of what individuals can do to solve their own problems. Lieberman considers why natural selection won’t solve problems of mismatch and dysevolution. Then he considers how research and development and educational campaigns can only provide partial solutions. His ultimate solution is suggesting regulatory paternalism—e.g. what economists call Pigovian taxes–taxes designed to change behavior by making bad behavior (in this case sedentary lifestyles and over-eating / malnutrition) more expensive. Perhaps such solutions (which will remain political untenable for the foreseeable future in the US, at least) may be necessary, but one shouldn’t conclude that readers with better information and ways of approaching the problem can’t make a difference. I say this based upon the fact that a substantial (if minority) portion of the population is already doing the right thing—eating right, exercising, and not succumbing to modernity’s creature comforts. I, furthermore, say it as a one trained as an economist who has seen easier attempts at paternalism fail over and over again.

I’d recommend this book. I think it gives the reader insight into the problems caused by being evolved to be one thing while being groomed by culture to be another.

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BOOK REVIEW: You Are Your Own Gym by Mark Lauren

You Are Your Own Gym: The bible of bodyweight exercisesYou Are Your Own Gym: The bible of bodyweight exercises by Mark Lauren
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As the title suggests, this is a guide to bodyweight exercises, and—specifically—periodized callisthenic training without equipment. Periodization is an approach in which the volume and intensity of workouts is in constant flux, as opposed to the regular approach that used to be the norm. It’s with regard to coping with a lack of fixed equipment that this book really seeks to separate itself from the many high-intensity interval training (HIIT) books in bookstores today. Obviously, calisthenics require much less equipment than weight training. However, without at least a pull-up bar and dip bars, it’s hard to get a well-rounded bodyweight workout. You Are Your Own Gym shows the exercises done with makeshift apparatus where necessary. Some of the suggested substitutes look safer than others, and a few of them (e.g. door pull-ups) work muscles a little differently than the basic. However, the examples get one into the habit of considering how one can use one’s environment creatively to get a good workout. [I would recommend exercising caution and safety when using the demonstrated improvised methods.] Even if one has access to equipment in day-to-day life, frequent travelers often have trouble getting a good workout in on the road. This book can be helpful in assisting one in avoiding the dead spots in one’s training regimen due to inability to get to a fitness facility.

The author, Mark Lauren, is a former Combat Controller and Special Operations fitness instructor. For readers who aren’t familiar with the US Air Force, Combat Control is one of two special operations career fields in the Air Force (excepting pilots and crew who fly special operators around.) Combat Controllers usually serve with Army Special Forces, facilitating the provision of air support in the midst of combat operations. Lauren certainly has the bona fides to write intelligently on the subject.

The book consists of 12 chapters, but it’s the penultimate and final chapters that present the meat of the work. Chapter 11 presents a thorough collection of bodyweight exercises organized by the area of the body worked. In most cases, the exercise descriptions include a photo, as well as modifications to provide a more or less strenuous version of the exercise. The latter feature makes Lauren’s program nicely scalable. The reader can optimize exercises to his or her needs.

The last chapter lays out the program. Because varying the characteristics of the workout is the key to the periodization approach, varied workout structures are discussed. These include well-known approaches such as interval sets, super sets, and tabatas, as well as less familiar approaches such as stappers (cycling through a fixed number of repetitions of a few exercises for a set amount of time without rest periods—but with a low enough number of reps to avoid failure) and ladders (i.e. long sets in which one does on rep, rests for one, does two reps, rests for two, etc. up to just before the point of failure, and then working back down to one rep in a symmetric manner.) While one can certainly make up one’s own workout with the knowledge gained to this point in the book, there are 10-week sample programs at four different levels (starting with beginners and working toward advanced practitioners of calisthenics.) If you’re not sure which level is right for you, the author provides a set of exercises that one should be able to carry out as a minimum to begin work at a given level.

The first ten chapters deal with a range of subjects including: diet, strength training myths, motivation, intensity, and the nature of bodyweight exercise. These short chapters lay out basic concepts helpful to engage in the program. There are three appendices that discuss equipment issues, a summary of guiding principles, and a discussion of the science of the program. The latter is beneficial, given some claims by the author that old school fitness buffs might find hard to accept–such as the lack of need for high volume endurance activities for cardio (i.e. one doesn’t need go for a run to get cardio benefits.)

I found this book to be beneficial. I like the fact that Lauren addresses the science of the approach rather than just throwing his approach out there with all the fad workouts. I found the advice to be sound, and have become more creative when considering how I can get a good workout on the road as a result of reading the book. As I write this, I’m in the 10th (and final) week of one of the sample workout sequences. I believe I’ve gotten good strength workouts from the program. I enjoy the scalability of the program, and have taken advantage of both easier and harder variants of the exercises.

I’d recommend this book if you’re looking for a bodyweight exercise program—particularly if you travel a lot, don’t have access to fitness facilities, or just like to workout at home.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar

The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal PracticeThe Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice by T.K.V. Desikachar

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book’s author, T.K.V. Desikachar, was the son and student of T. Krishnamacharya. If you’re not a well-read and/or Indian yoga practitioner, there’s a good chance the latter name means nothing to you, and yet your practice has likely been influenced profoundly by him. He was the teacher of B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and Indira Devi. Iyengar, who recently passed away, popularized the use of props (blocks, straps, bolsters, etc.) as a means to achieve proper alignment until one’s flexibility was sufficient to achieve perfect alignment without assistance. Jois developed the vigorous and flowing Ashtanga Vinyasa style of yoga, which is the direct ancestor of Power Yoga—a popular style among fitness buffs in the West. Indira Devi was a Westerner actress who took an Indian name and was among the first teachers to introduce yoga to America and to adapt it to American needs. While Desikachar wrote the book, his father’s presence is seen throughout the book in photos and quotations.

After reading the book, it will not come as quite the surprise that T. Krishnamacharya was teacher to several of modern yoga’s most innovative teachers. A central concept of Krishnamacharya’s teaching philosophy was that yoga is a personal path that must be optimized to the individual. That’s what this book tries to do. Its aim is not to teach one yoga for all, but to help individuals tailor yoga to their own needs.

The Heart of Yoga is divided into four parts. The first two parts form the core of the book, and make up the bulk of its length. The first introduces yoga at a basic level and then goes on to impart practical lessons on asana (poses), pranayama (breathing exercises), and bandha (locks.) The second part instructs on the philosophical aspect of yoga, and how an individual can bring these concepts into their life. This includes ideas that are traditionally associated with Yogic philosophy as well as those of Samkhya (Yoga and Samkhya are two of the six orthodox schools of Indian philosophy, and are closely related.)

Part III of Desikachar’s book is his translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras with commentary. Some will appreciate that the sutras are written in Sanskrit, a Romanized phonetical Sanskrit, and in English. In addition to this, Desikachar’s commentary not only elaborates on each sutra individually, but offers insight into how they are grouped and what meaning their organization conveys. For those who have read Yoga Sutras, you’ll know that they consist of 196 lines of instruction, each so laconic as to be cryptic. Commentary is essential, particularly if one is reading the translated sutras and doesn’t have the historical, cultural, or linguistic background to distill the meaning from these mega-concise aphorisms.

Part IV is called the Yoganjalisaram, which is a poem of 32 stanzas each consisting of three to six lines. “Poem” might be a misleading description. Each Sloka (i.e. like a stanza) is a lesson in yoga. It touches on diet, physical technique, philosophy, and religion.

In addition to what I thought were well-written, concise, and informative chapters, there are a number of ancillary features that are beneficial. There’s an appendix that describes some of the prominent historical texts that are commonly referred to throughout the book. Another appendix provides a series of asana sequences that are consistent with the teachings of Part I of the book. There is a glossary of terms that are used throughout the book. Up front there is an interview with T.K.V. Desikachar that deals mostly with his father’s approach to yoga. In addition to the many photos of Krishnamacharya, simple line drawings are put to good use to convey ideas where necessary.

I think what I found so appealing about this book is that the author has a pragmatic, down-to-earth, and open-minded approach to yoga. Some yoga books are way out there in the stratosphere, and their ethereal qualities don’t inspire confidence in me that the author knows of what he/she speaks. Others are doctrinaire about absolutist beliefs and values one “must” hold to be a true yogi or yogini. Desikachar is neither an ideologue nor flighty. He may have benefited from his education as an engineer. His lessons are presented simply and practically, so as to give confidence that he knows of what he speaks.

I’d recommend this book for any practitioners of yoga–be they beginner or advanced. It provides food for thought for bringing yoga into one’s life at a physical and psychological/philosophical level, and in a personal way.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Peace by Morihei Ueshiba and John Stevens

The Art of PeaceThe Art of Peace by Morihei Ueshiba

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The edition of The Art of Peace that I read is divided into three parts. Part I is a brief biography of Morihei Ueshiba, who was known as Ō-sensei to Aikidō practitioners and other admirers. Part II contrasts the art of war to Ueshiba’s art of peace. Part III is a collection of aphorisms and brief statements outlining the art of peace.

Ueshiba is the founder of Aikidō, a martial art that was derived in part from Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu, but which is distinct from that art in many ways. (e.g. the lack of set forms and emphasis on randori.) Along with Jigorō Kanō, Gichin Funakoshi, and a few others, Ueshiba is one of the pioneers of gendai budō, modern Japanese martial arts that take as their primary aim non-bellicose objectives like sport and self-defense. This is in contrast to the koryū budō (kobudō) which evolved primarily for war fighting. In contrast to Kanō’s Judō, which was first and foremost a competitive sport, Ueshiba’s Aikidō offered a particular approach to self-defense that was purely defensive and in which movement was harmonized to the opponent’s actions so as to perpetrate the least violence possible.

The biographic portion of the book is intriguing, but on a few occasions drifts from biography to hagiography. I feel that the suggestion of supernatural abilities does a disservice in the telling of Ueshiba’s story. By all accounts, Ueshiba was an accomplished and highly skilled martial artist, and I would like to read a full biography of his life (a biography exists, but I can’t comment on how well written it is yet.) Given Ueshiba’s pacifistic views, it would be easy to dismiss him as a pie-in-the-sky idealist who had no idea of the realities of the world. I don’t believe that is the case. However, when the biography tells stories of god-like superpowers, it makes it hard to take the man seriously as a martial artist. Either Ueshiba was skilled as an illusionist / mentalist (a distinct possibility) or some of the stories were embellished to deify the man. The story that comes to mind is one in which Ueshiba voluntarily faced a firing squad and emerged unharmed due to either ninja-like or Hollywood vampire movie style actions. This story is attributed to one of his students, Gozo Shioda, who passed away in the 1990’s.

We may get an indication of the roots of this appeal to the supernatural in an early statement about Ueshiba’s childhood fascination with individuals like En no Gyoja and Kukai who are themselves attributed supernatural abilities in stories. Ueshiba is clearly a man of faith. He suggests life should be lived on basis of 70 percent faith and 30 percent science. Full disclosure: I’m more skeptical than Descartes, and obviously favor an outlook more firmly rooted in science and rationality.

Part two includes extensive quotes from Ueshiba himself. It contrasts the arts of war with Aikidō in mental and physical aspects. A core theme of the book is that the martial arts shouldn’t be about learning to die, but rather learning to live. Ueshiba criticizes the past Shoguns who used the art of war to control people. Ueshiba’s views on the purpose of martial arts are stated in this part. From a physical point of view, Ueshiba emphasizes the lack of forms in Aikidō (Bruce Lee echoed similar sentiments on this subject.) There is an interesting comparison of Ueshiba to swordsman and Zen master Tesshu Yamaoka (about whom John Stevens also wrote a biography.)

Part three reads like the work of an ancient yogi in places, and, in other places, offers the stern admonitions to train hard that one would expect from a martial arts teacher. A recurring theme is that the martial artist should purge himself of pettiness, be it in the form of being judgmental, materialistic, fearful, selfish, or malicious. He goes as far as to say, “Be grateful even for hardship, setbacks, and bad people.”

Another theme is that one should strive to be natural and to make one’s movement natural. Ueshiba’s advice in this book is about virtue and the mind, and rarely strays into the subject of physical tactics. It does offer a little advice about types of distancing, where one should place one’s gaze, the power of circular movement, as well as discussing technique in the abstract. This is not a criticism. There are other books to learn more about physical technique. However, one should be aware that if one would like to know what Aikidō looks like, this isn’t the book for you.

This thin book provided me with a great deal to think about. I’d recommend it for martial artists, as well as for those interested in the life of this extraordinary man.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Tao of Bruce Lee by Davis Miller

The Tao of Bruce Lee: A Martial Arts MemoirThe Tao of Bruce Lee: A Martial Arts Memoir by Davis Miller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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While one expects this to be a biography of Bruce Lee, the first half of it is much more an autobiography of the author that is loosely themed around Bruce Lee’s influence on his life. It’s an unusual book in this regard. However, while my description may induce visions of a dismal read by a self-absorbed author, it’s really not so bad. The latter half of the book is much more tightly focused on the events of Bruce Lee’s life—or, more dramatically, his death.

To be fair, there’s not much material for a Bruce Lee biography. Few lights have shone so bright that, while brief, they provided decades of afterglow. Bruce Lee was just in the news last week as he was made a character in a new MMA video game—over 40 years after his death. (It might seem odd for Bruce Lee to be featured in an MMA game, but while movie Bruce Lee showed us high-flying, high-kicking kung fu, Bruce Lee the founder of Jeet Kune Do emphasized the ability to fight at all ranges, against opponents of any style, and in a pragmatic fashion.) But Bruce Lee the movie star delivered only four completed movies as an adult (though he had a childhood acting career unrelated to Kung fu.) Martial Artist Bruce had only one real fight that anyone knows about and even it remains a subject of great controversy to this day. There are competing claims about who came out on top, to what degree, and how. According to the book, there’s not even much of a sparring record of which to speak.

With the proceeding information in mind, it might not be such a surprise that the author took the tack he did and still produced only the slim volume that he did. Miller’s description of his own life pulls no punches and he spares himself none of the embarrassment incumbent in being a young man seeking to emulate the squealing man with the fists of fury. He doesn’t come across as the narcissist that one might expect from a person who devotes at half of a biography of a global superstar to his own obscure juvenile years. In fact, his profile is of a scrawny kid who got his fair share of wedgies and other bully-induced torments. The autobiographical parts are more homage than self-aggrandizement.

Just as Miller is honest about his own lost pubescence as a scrawny kid, he will win enemies with his frankness about Bruce Lee and those in the gravitational pull of the kung fu superstar. Those who deify Lee will no doubt be displeased to read intimations that he died not on a walk with his wife and from a rare adverse side-effect of a prescription—but non-illicit–drug, and instead died on the bed of a lover from a hash or pot overdose.

Furthermore, Miller tells of how Bruce Lee told his students to stop teaching Jeet Kune Do, because Lee was worried about where it was going. Miller goes on to report about how Bruce Lee’s martial art went awry according to many. Then there is the suggestion that Lee had little first-hand fighting (or sparring) experience on which to build such a combative art in the first place.

However, the overall portrait of Lee is of an exceptional human being, and one who had such a wide range of influence, from fitness to philosophy. While the Bruce Lee physique is now much sought after and regularly seen among movie stars, all the leading men of Lee’s era were doughy by comparison. (One may look no further than his Way of the Dragon nemesis, Chuck Norris.) Lee wasn’t just a movie star and martial artist; he was also a philosopher and thinker. While it’s true that he didn’t produce much in the way of novel ideas, by Hollywood standards he was a regular Algonquin Roundtable member. Lee oozed charisma so powerfully that after all these decades he’s almost as likely to be seen on a T-shirt as Che Guevara—don’t ask me why the Latin American Guerrilla fighter is so popular in silk screen, but that’s beside the point.

To sum it up, this isn’t a book about Bruce Lee, it’s about how his life and death shaped so many other lives—starting with Miller’s. While I didn’t count pages, there seems to be about as much space devoted to the events surrounding Lee’s death as the events of his life. Of course, there’s a bit of sensationalism, but inquiring minds want to know. People are intrigued about how a man who looked to all appearances to be one of the healthiest men on the planet could have died so young. (It’s an interesting irony that Bruce Lee’s almost complete lack of body fat—estimated at under 1%–could well have exacerbated his oversensitivity to whatever substance killed him.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone curious about the life and death of Bruce Lee.

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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: 250 Things… by Chuck Wendig

250 Things You Should Know About Writing250 Things You Should Know About Writing by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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You’re not going to get any visionary insight from Wendig’s book. What you will get is a lot of practical advice on writing salable commercial fiction delivered in a concise and humorous package. However, be forewarned, Wendig’s humor isn’t for everyone. It’ll appeal most to frat boys and others who enjoy the gratuitously bawdy.

The book really is arranged as a list of 250 pieces of advice on writing commercial fiction. These items are arranged logically into chapters covering topics such as character, setting, plot, description, screenwriting, and marketing your manuscript. The book offers a good way to review a lot of information if you enjoy the author’s sense of humor.

Rather than recommend the book without reservation, it may make more sense to make a couple lists of my own.

List I: People who will love this book.
-If you watch Robot Chicken and Archer, you’ll love this book.
-If you want to be the next Chuck Palahniuk,…
-If you send freakish porn to co-workers and are shocked by their stunned silence,…

List II: People who will hate this book.
-If you watch Downton Abbey and The MacNeil Lehrer Newshour, you’ll hate this book.
-If you want to be the next Chaucer,…
-If you are a deacon or lay minister in your church,…

Wendig’s language doesn’t leave a lot of room for middle-of-the-road views. His attempts to entertain as he informs will make the book quite readable for some and unpalatable for others. However, I suppose if you’re in the Venn intersect of those who watch both Downton Abbey and Robot Chicken you might have middling views on the book.

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