Books of 2017, Part I

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These are 40% or so of the books from last year, in reverse chronological order of reading. In the next post, I will include the rest of the books, plus the various lists and top titles: best overall, most important, most mind-blowing, most useful, and some special categories. The first three are courses, which are about the same time investment as a long audiobook. All are nonfiction. Enjoy!

Everyday Engineering: Understanding the Marvels of Daily Life (2015) by Prof Stephen Ressler (Great Courses). This 36-lecture course was one of the meatiest, most useful I’ve ever taken from The Teaching Company/Great Courses. Ressler is a superb instructor who has the gift of explaining everything with instantly graspable lucidity. His handcrafted demonstrations bring the concepts to life and burn them in your visual memory. How do they build dams? How is electrical power generated, transported and distributed? How does your POTS (plain old telephone service) work, and why is it so damn indestructibly reliable?

This was my long-overdue education in how the modern world functions — the 7 engineering systems houses comprise, to water use and disposal, power, trash, the combustion engine, transportation engineering, traffic, railroads and sustainability. For me, this was a massive unraveling of the mysteries of the built environment, and feel as if I understand the world much better. I watched it at 2x speed on my iPad (the desktop interface won’t let you change speeds), making it a supremely worthwhile 9-hour investment. 10/10

Plant Science: An Introduction to Botany (2016) by Prof Catherine Kleier (Great Courses). I knew next to nothing about botany, so I dug up this course. So much fun! Kleier is an energetic teacher who does not shy away from the occasional atrocious pun. Her style is a bit discursive. Instead of a strict top-down or bottom-up approach, she uses a well-known plant (e.g. ferns) as a lead-off point to a more general topic (e.g. vascular plants), thus keeping the lessons engaging. 24 lectures of 30 min each. 8.5/10

The Science of Energy: Resources and Power Explained (2015) by Prof Michael Wysession (Great Courses). How is power generated from coal, hydro, natural gas, fracking, tar sands, solar, wind? How is that power then stored and distributed? How does the smart grid work? Wysession explains everything with great clarity, laying out the tradeoffs each form of energy creates, and the solutions humans have come up with. I listened to the audio version; the video version is probably richer. 9.5/10

The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life (2015) by Bernard Roth (ebook and print). Roth is one of the co-founders of the Stanford d.school, one of the originators of design thinking, and a professor of mechanical engineering for 40 years. His book is, indeed, partly about achievement. More than that, it’s a collection of life wisdom from a very smart, accomplished, empathetic doer, maker, and teacher who has figured out how to get results from himself and students.

Foremost in Roth’s teachings is bias towards action. Instead of waffling and ruminating, “don’t get caught up in how you’re going to get it just right. That’s what causes people to shut down and never get started. Avoid the desire for perfection right out of the gate. Instead, tell yourself that you’re prototyping your screenplay or your dress. The final version can come later.”

Some of his suggestions may seem radical, but they’re just part of standard d.school curriculum, e.g. getting rid of reasons for doing things. You don’t need them, and they’re all bogus anyway: “Many reasons are simply excuses to hide the fact that we are not willing to give something a high enough priority in our lives.” Substitute all manifestations of “but” with “and.” When you gather up your intention and concentrate your attention, you will move mountains.

There’s a ton of actionable advice here, such as a list of 22 ways to get unstuck (e.g. lists, idea logs, humor, conversation, exercise, compressed conflict, mind maps, working backward), and the “Your Turn” exercises at the end of each section. This is a tremendously useful and encouraging book for anyone whose creative endeavors could use some more bias towards action. 9.5/10

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (2017) by Florence Williams (ebook & print). “We don’t experience natural environments enough to realize how restored they can make us feel, nor are we aware that studies also show they make us healthier, more creative, more empathetic and more apt to engage with the world and with each other. Nature, it turns out, is good for civilization.” Williams gamely camps with neuroscientists in Colorado, experiences shinrin yoku (“forest bathing”) in Japan, straps on a portable aethelometer (soot-measurer) in DC, rambles in Scotland, hikes in Finland, and visits a Korean “healing forest.”

Through her chatty anecdotes, she presents the evidence that nature strengthens your immune system, lowers stress, increases creativity, decreases rumination, and calms down hyperactive kids. I appreciated her exposition of the great E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, which “posits that peaceful or nurturing elements of nature helped us regain equanimity, cognitive clarity, empathy and hope.” Minimum recommended does of nature: 5 hrs/month. An excellent and persuasive popular science book. 8/10

The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It (2015) by Jane McGonigal (ebook and print). “The latest science reveals that stress can make you smarter, stronger, and more successful. It helps you learn and grow. It can even inspire courage and compassion.” A popular lecturer in psychology at Stanford, McGonigal provides ample evidence to support the radical thesis that stress can be good for you, provided that you think of it as friend rather than foe. You can do this by reframing “anxiety” about an upcoming performance as “excitement”, which is physiologically identical. Or by re-thinking threats as challenges. Or by watching a video about “how stress can increase physical resilience, enhance focus, deepen relationships, and strengthen personal values.” Or by just telling someone “You’re the kind of person whose performance improves under pressure”, which increases their actual performance by 33%. Or taking 10 minutes to write down your core values.

Some of these interventions continue to work months and even years after they have occurred. “The things that protect us from the dreaded dangers of stress are all attainable”, and McGonigal eloquently conveys the science and practical steps to attain them. This is a potentially life-changing book that can positively affect your health, success and relationships for years. 8.5/10

Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag (2008) by Michael Tonello (ebook and print). After uprooting his comfortable life in Provincetown for a promising job offer in Barcelona, Tonello finds himself stranded in a strange city without the means to support himself when the job falls through. He happens upon the online world of Hermès aficionados, and quickly finds himself making a mint selling scarves and then handbags of the luxury marque on Ebay. His discoveries of the tricks for acquiring dozens of Birkin handbags (price tag: $7000-$100,000) around the world, for which there is supposedly a 2-year waitlist, and the sale of his goods to obsessively acquisitive clients, is entertaining, insightful, and dishy. Tonello’s knowingness, candor, and humor keep the book from becoming just a chronicle of human vanity — I laughed out loud several times. That said, there’s only so deep one can go with a tale of luxury consumption, and immersion in that world even for a few hours can cause a craving for status trinkets even in the most austere of us. 7.5/10

The Power of Persuasion: How We’re Bought and Sold (2005) by Robert A. Levine, Ph.D. “The psychology of persuasion emanates from three directions: the characteristics of the source, the mind-set of the target person, and the psychological context within which the communication takes place.” Thus begins this revelatory and sobering treatise on the ways humans fool themselves and others. A professor and practicing psychologist for 40+ years, Levine signed up to experience firsthand the persuasive techniques of people like car dealers, door-to-door salesmen (Cutco knives), and cult leaders (the Moonies). One of his key insights: no one is impervious, not even you. The persuasiveness triad: “perceived authority, honesty, and likability.” Americans are particularly susceptible to the authority symbols of titles, clothing, and luxury cars (see: current US president). Decisive, swift talkers are no more sure of their facts than more hesitant counterparts, but they create an impression of confidence that audiences perceive as more expert and intelligent. The more jargon you use and the less a jury understands a witness, the more convincing she appears.

Aside from the dismaying news that we’re all patsies waiting to be taken, the book is full of entertaining, insightful stories on scoundrels ranging from psychics to gurus. Moonies recruit in a trademark sequence of “pickup, first date, love bomb”, creeping up on victims with imperceptible subtlety that ultimately ensnares them. Levine’s account of the 10-step method of car salesmen was particularly revelatory and unsettling in the frankness of its manipulation.

The most gripping part of the book was Levine’s depiction of the final hours of the Jonestown cult of Rev. Jim Jones, during which 900 members committed suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Flavorade, even after witnessing their own infants’ agonizing death throes. To read the transcript of the recording of those hours, and how people just like you and me were rooting for their own demise out of loyalty to a demented and malevolent leader, is to understand how tyranny works, and how it is happening right here, right now.

Disrupt You!: Master Personal Transformation, Seize Opportunity, and Thrive in the Era of Endless Innovation (2015), by Jay Samit (ebook & print). “You have a choice: pursue your dreams or be hired by someone else to help them fulfill their dreams. The great disruptors constantly reinvent themselves and their careers. They never fear losing their jobs, because they create jobs. They control their own destinies. This book is written to answer two very basic questions: How did they do it? How can I do it? The third question is entirely up to you: Will you do it?” I knew Jay from our Los Angeles networking group. I respected the clarity of his thinking and a communication style that cut through bullshit like an argon laser. His book does not disappoint. “Being a disruptor is simply a state of mind. It is the ability to look for opportunity in every obstacle, to respond to every setback as a new beginning.” Equal parts about both personal and industry disruption, it’s one of the best books on entrepreneurship I’ve read in recent memory.

Whether as a self-employed entrepreneur or top executive in companies like Sony and EMI Music, Samit is a master of taking calculated risks. His anecdotes about creating technologies slightly ahead of their time, reinventing himself multiple times, and accomplishing the seemingly impossible are bold, instructive and inspiring. Read it for a potent shot in the arm that just might awaken the entrepreneurial spirit in you. 9/10

Just Kids (2010) by Patti Smith (ebook and print). Winner of the National Book Award. “My small torrent of words dissipated into an elaborate sense of expanding and receding. It was my entrance into the radiance of imagination.” Smith’s description of her long, improvised childhood prayers to God is also an apt initiation into her hardscrabble beginnings in New York City. Hunger, homelessness, chance meetings with Robert Mapplethorpe that bloom into a union, and their insistence on being artists in spite of having neither a path nor the means to tread it — this is as good as origin stories get. The prose has earnestness and poetry, as well as a vivid portrayal of an epoch of creativity and turmoil. A touching book. 9/10

Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness (2012), by Scott Jurek & Steve Friedman (ebook & print). Chris McDougall’s fantastic Born to Run piqued my interest about Jurek, so I was curious to know more. This is a fun and easy read about Jurek’s start in the sport and the races he’s run. It’s also about his gradual journey from the standard American junk food diet to one that is wholly plant-based. Every chapter ends in a vegan recipe that is easy to make and delicious-sounding.

Lest his self-effacing voice fool you, please remember that Jurek is a total badass who has won the grueling Western States 100-miler seven times (and the murderous Badwater 135, and dozens more). That’s 100 miles of non-stop running, folks. What I could not fathom was how he could go ahead and not only start a 100-mile race with a sprained ankle swollen to the size of a melon, not only finish that race, not only win it, but also set a course record. This is the kind of madness that strips me of rational powers, leaving me with jaw agape at what humans are capable of doing. Read it to be inspired and bewildered, especially if you’re a runner. 8.5/10

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (2014 revised edition), by Lt Col Dave Grossman (ebook & print). My friend who’s a prison educator and eloquent speaker on violence and restorative justice turned me on to this book. Since its initial publication in 1995, this book has become required reading at the FBI Academy, DEA Academy, West Point, US Marine Corps, and US Air Force — and for good reason. Main thesis: killing comes unnaturally even to soldiers whose own lives are at stake, as evidenced by the low shooting rates (15-20%) in the Civil War, WW I and WW II. This changed with Vietnam, where extensive training in desensitization and reflexive shooting got the rates up to 95%.

What did not change, however, was the traumatic effects the killings had on the soldiers committing them. Grossman — Army Ranger and psychology professor, amongst many other credentials — is about as omnicompetent and thoughtful as humans come. He places much of the blame for our cultural desensitization to killing on violent entertainment. The depictions of battle experiences can be gut-wrenching, and yet the glimmers of nobility amongst the obedient carnage is cause for hope. Required reading for understanding modern civilization and the warfare that supports it.

Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything (2017) by Ulrich Boser (ebook & print). This is the first time I ignored the warning of reviewers about a book and got it anyway because it happened to be the Amazon Editor’s Pick for Best Science Book of the Year. Well, it’s actually kinda mediocre, especially compared to such powerhouses as Magness & Stulberg’s Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, Benedict Carey’s How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How and the magisterial Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson. Sure, it contains lots of stories, which is one of the oft-discussed learning tools. But the stories don’t really make strong, memorable points.

The unfortunate fact is that this book contains a lot of mistakes — sloppy, avoidable ones. The phalanx of writers and editors going through this book misspell “gaffe” as “gaff” a dozen times — funny if it were intentional. Mistakes like these diminish my trust in the source.

I appreciated the very useful 10-page “Took Kit” summary at the end of the book. If you have no exposure to the science of learning, you will pick up some interesting and actionable information from Learn Better. Otherwise, I refer you to the other books mentioned above. 7/10

The Heart to Start: Win the Inner War and Let Your Art Show (2017) by David Kadavy (ebook & print). “The same way a rocket needs to escape the gravitational pull of Earth to get into space, your art needs to escape the pull of ego to get into the world. You’re going to need some serious fuel to make that happen.” I’m a perennial fan of punchy, exhortative get-off-your-ass books such as Stephen Pressfield’s classics The War of Art and Turning Pro, Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, and Seth Godin’s entire oeuvre. This book by the creator of the Love Your Work podcast is a welcome addition to the genre. I’ll be rereading its 140 pages often for rocket fuel. 8.5/10

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2015) by Mary Beard (ebook and print). Superb revisionist history of Rome. Beard writes with one eye on historiography: Where did the story come from? How reliable are the sources? What’s the most plausible interpretation? As such, she compels us to reconsider many tropes of Roman history we have come to accept as fact (e.g. Caesar was great, Caligula was awful), and to have a relationship with it that informs modern manifestations of power, tyranny, wealth, war, governance, corruption, and civic life. 9/10

The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well (2013) by Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield (ebook & print). Fun vignettes of 36 highly accomplished individuals of eclectic talent: athlete (Martina Navratilova), chef (David Chang), teacher (Erin Gruwell), neuropyschologist (Richard Restak), erotic film maker (Candida Royalle), activist (Constance Rice, who’s totally unlike her sister Condi), entrepreneurs (Tony Hsieh of Zappos and Bill Gross of Idealab) and many more. I felt as if the book did not hold together as a whole, since the path to success is always meandering and the 36 people dispense contradictory advice.

That said, these people are doers par excellence, and reading their accounts is a shot in the arm for those who could use a dose of inspiration. Also, the short interviews contain a lot of condensed wisdom from world-class performers. The one from Richard Restak on brain science was particularly good, as was the one on hostage negotiation.

If you’re hungering for exposure to a pleasant potpourri of fascinating information that you may not have otherwise sought on your own, this is a fun book to read. But if you are looking to improve your performance, the two indispensable books are Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by K. Anders Ericsson and Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness. 7/10

The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience (2014) by Kent Kiehl, Ph.D. (ebook & print). Kiehl has is one of the few scientists in the world to take a mobile MRI unit into maximum-security prisons to scan the brains of dozens of remorseless criminals. Whereas the average North American male’s score on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist is 4, these serial rapists and murderers score 30 or above. “Lack of empathy, guilt or remorse; glibness; superficiality; parasitic orientation; flat affect; irresponsibility; and impulsivity” characterize psychopaths.

There are some fascinating facts here. The triad of bed-wetting, fire-setting and animal cruelty “predict a child who is on a trajectory toward future severe antisocial behavior as a teenager and adult.” Psychopaths cannot grasp abstract concepts, rarely know details about their children, are hard to startle, and do not get distressed by being in prison. Case histories of inmates like “Gordon” with his attempted artful long con on a still-green Kiehl, and the utterly vicious “Shock Richie”, are sobering and instructive. Presidential assassin Charles Guiteau was a psychopath while John Wilkes Booth was not, making for an interesting historical comparison.

About half the book is a mildly self-congratulatory memoir of Kiehl’s illustrious scientific career; less of that may have made for a stronger book. Otherwise, this is very useful stuff. Read this to sharpen your detectors for the 1 in 150 people who fit the psychopath profile so you can protect yourself from them. 8/10

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2007) by Chip & Dan Heath (ebook & print). Great book! Review upcoming. 9/10

The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest (2012), by Dan Buettner (ebook & print). Dan Buettner’s fantastic 2012 New York Times Magazine Article, “The Island Where People Forgot to Die”, was my introduction to Blue Zones. Are there places in the world where people disproportionately live to be 100 or more? And if so, what’s their secret?

With the backing of National Geographic, Buettner and his crack team of top-notch scientists went around the world and found 5 places that fit the strict Blue Zones criteria: Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; the Seventh-Day Adventist community of Loma Linda, California; and the Greek island of Ikaria. These regions have a disproportionately high population of centenarians, up to 50 times the US average. But even more remarkable, their centenarians are independent at a rate far higher than in the US and Europe: 90% vs 15%. What’s going on?

Having gone to medical school and read the NYT Magazine article, I thought I knew what was in the book and thus postponed reading it. Big mistake. Buettner and team are incredibly thorough in their approach, uncovering details about living a good life that casual observation would miss. And they back every one of their conclusions with as much data as they can.

Definite patterns emerge amongst the various groups. All of them foster a strong sense of community and intergenerational cohesiveness. In Costa Rica, there’s a 99-person village all descended from one person, and there’s a touching picture of a blissed-out 104-year old lady holding her great-great-granddaughter. People hang out with family and friends every day, and the elderly live with their offspring.

All the communities eat a mostly plant-based diet. Exercise is also built into their daily activity. Although it’s safe to say that none of these people have ever stepped into a gym, every day they till fields, work gardens, tend sheep over hilly terrain, and walk around.

Some other data points also emerge. Several of the communities incorporate goat milk products in their diet, which is more nutritious than cow’s milk. Red wine features prominently in the two Mediterranean communities, with Sardinian Cannonau offering an extra dose of antioxidants. Almost all the communities eat diets rich in beans.

There are several reasons I urge you to read the book in its entirety. First, there are a lot of practices worth incorporating into your own life that I don’t have room to mention in detail, e.g. “ikigai”, your reason to get up in the morning; “moai”, a group of friends who meet regularly; and turmeric.

Second, by reading the stories of all five communities, you not only get the details but also the gestalt of living a long and fruitful life. Is there a worldview that predisposes to healthy longevity?

Third, the healthy, functioning centenarians profiled will turn your preconceptions of aging upside down. They also have sterling advice to offer: “Eat your vegetables, have a positive outlook, be kind to people, and smile.”

Fourth and most important: do you really have something better to do than learning how to live a long, productive and healthy life? If so, I’d like to know what that is. In the meantime, I also got the book for my parents, and would encourage you to do the same. Its life-affirming message is invigorating and wise for all future centenarians. 10/10

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (2017), by Masha Gessen (ebook & print). I just knew this book had to be dangerously good when I saw all the 1-star reviews by trolls on Amazon. So I bought it immediately. I had read several of Gessen’s meticulous and eye-opening New Yorker pieces, but this book takes it to a whole new level. And happy to report that it has since won the National Book Award, haters be damned.

Gessen tells the story through seven dramatis personae, each “both ‘regular’, in that their experiences exemplified the experiences of millions of others, and extraordinary: intelligent, passionate, introspective, able to tell their stories vividly.” They give first-person accounts of the everyday ordeal of surviving in Russia while staying true to oneself. Like Zhanna, daughter of popular opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and activist in her own right, whose life demonstrates some of the consequences of opposing the regime: exile, incarceration and murder. The story of Masha the journalist illustrates the perils of truth-telling. Pioneering psychotherapist Marina Arutyunyan tries to shepherd modern mental health to Russia through lacerating thickets of state-mandated ideology. Openly gay Lyosha tries to advocate for oppressed minorities without getting fired from his precarious university post.

Through the lives of the protagonists, Gessen weaves the last century of Russian history. Stalin’s self-cannibalizing reign of terror is particularly chilling: “Stalin’s terror machine executed its executioners at regular intervals. In 1938 alone, forty-two thousand investigators who had taken part in the great industrial-scale purges were executed, as was the chief of the secret police, Nikolai Yezhov.” Stalin once invited an old friend from Georgia to Moscow for a reunion, and after lavishly wining and dining him, had him executed before dawn: “This could not be explained with any words or ideas available to man.”

And that is the most astonishing aspect of this book: it is not fiction. The protagonists’ experiences are so logic-defying, so disheartening, and such violations of basic human decency as to exist in a separate universe that no novelist could concoct. And yet, this universe has its own internal logic. Perhaps it’s best explained through Hannah Arendt, whose three-volume “Origins of Totalitarianism” Gessen deftly scrunches down to a few essential paragraphs: “What distinguishes a totalitarian ideology is its utterly insular quality. It purports to explain the entire world and everything in it. There is no gap between totalitarian ideology and reality because totalitarian ideology contains all of reality within itself.”

And yet, the book reads like a novel, which is why I don’t want to give away too much. Who is Homo sovieticus? For whom do Russians vote in the “Greatest Russian Ever” (aka “Name of Russia”) contest year after year? What’s going to happen to Boris Nemtsov after he defies Putin? Do our heroes avoid getting beat up and arrested at the demonstrations? Why is Putin so popular in Russia?

One pervasive theme of the book is the hegemony of doublethink over the Russian psyche. Coined by Orwell in 1984, doublethink is the necessity of maintaining two contradictory beliefs for survival, e.g. publicly supporting the government ideology while knowing that it oppresses your very existence.

This is some crazy-making stuff that Russians have had to endure for over a century. And still, there are people who fight for truth, healing, and freedom. Over and over, they rise to attend banned protests very likely to land them in jail (or worse). Their stories of stupendous bravery and selflessness consistently inspire.

And lest you as a Westerner think that you’re somehow safe because, oh, this is something happening elsewhere, please note that the recent rise of authoritarianism in countries like America takes its playbook straight out of Russia. Attacks on the press, construction of alternate realities, propagation of disinformation, persecution of minorities, and the shameless grabbing of executive power: it’s all happening right now.

And you know what else? We’ve seen it all before: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao. So don’t read this book just because it’s a riveting account of life in what’s still an undiscovered continent for most Westerners. Don’t read it just because it’s a tour de force of journalistic craft and bravery. Read it because it also informs your life as an American, German, Frenchman, Hungarian, or anyone who values the freedom of human life and ideas, and so that you may be impelled to action. 10/10

The Sky Below: A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed (2017), by Scott Parazynski and Susy Flory (ebook & print). Emergency physician, world-class mountaineer, Space Shuttle astronaut, International Space Station repairman, inventor, pilot, explorer, scientist, entrepreneur – these are just some of the lives Scott Parazynski has lived so far. With an exuberant yet gentle voice, he takes us along some extraordinary experiences, like a spacewalk repair of a billion-dollar solar panel, an Antarctic sojourn, and his second life-threatening attempt at the Mt Everest summit.

I particularly appreciate the book’s Kindle in Motion format, allowing me to enjoy the vivid photos, animated diagrams, and full-motion video from the Shuttle, ISS and outer space on my iPad. It enhanced the experience of reading the book, making it even more visceral. Thanks to these, never again will I mistake the Northern approach to Everest with the Southern one, or forget to wear my tactical galoshes to the mouth of a live volcano. Click to see the cover image on Amazon – it’s trippy.

Well-written and fun to read, this is the kind of book that leaves a smile on your face and inspires you to do even more daring things with your time on Earth. 8.5/10

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970), by Dee Brown (ebook, print & audio). The United States of America is a nation founded on genocide. The continental US was the ancestral homeland of millions of natives inhabiting it continuously for 40,000 years. Somehow, this vast territory became the domain of white settlers. How? During the massive westward expansion of the US all the way to the Pacific coast in the years 1840-1890, this was the general procedure:

1) Invade Native American (aka Indian) territory by making trails, building railroads, staking land claims, stealing livestock, or just attacking them without warning.
2) Provoked Native American tribes fight back to reclaim their hunting grounds, get back their livestock or their captives, or take revenge for the murders white people committed.
3) Settlers complain to the US Government, which now sends overwhelming force to attack the tribe.
4) Even though massively outnumbered and only possessing primitive weapons, the tribes inflict huge casualties on the US Military or outright defeat them.
5) The US Government makes a treaty with the tribes, granting them rights to a diminished, marginally livable territory, supposedly in perpetuity, and forbidding trespassing upon Indian hunting grounds and pastures. In the meantime, they forcibly march the Indians on foot to their new territory hundreds of miles away. Many Natives perish in the marches.
6) The Native Americans do not read or write English, so with each treaty, the US routinely swindles Natives out of vast swathes of their territories. Many are confined to restrictive, barely habitable reservations. Their government-issued food rations are meager, or stolen, or of inedible quality provided by profiteers. Widespread disease and death ensues.
7) Within 1-5 years, the treaty is violated by white settlers who want to mine gold, raise cattle, build railroads or make trails through the supposedly sacrosanct Native American territory. The US Government fails to enforce its own treaties. The tribes have no choice but to undertake the defense of their lands.
8) Completely ignoring their own treaties, the US Army takes this as justification to exterminate the Native Americans. Their usual modus operandi is to attack unarmed villages without notice, moving down everyone, including women and children. They all fervently believed in Gen. Sheridan’s maxim, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
9) The few surviving Native Americans are confined to unlivable reservations far away from their homelands. Most die of disease, malnutrition, or broken hearts.
10) Repeat cycle for any remaining tribes until all are exterminated or confined to reservations.

The pattern of genocide is similar to how the Nazis exterminated Jews. First, Native Americans were declared subhuman, and therefore worthy of slaughter. This was completely accepted public opinion amongst white Americans.

Second, the Americans controlled all the means of creating and disseminating information, which they used to create outright lies and propaganda to further demonize Natives.

Third, once the tribes were overpowered and captured, they were confined to reservations, which functioned just like concentration camps.

Fourth, whites used manufactured, quasi-religious doctrine such as “Manifest Destiny” to justify breaking the treaties they themselves had written up, then invade more territory. America’s destiny was to go from sea to shining sea. The Natives just had bad luck to be in the way, and had to be removed.

Before reading the book, I knew that non-Indo-European place names in the US were of Native American origin. Twenty-six of US States have Indian names, as do hundreds of cities, counties, lakes, mountains and rivers. And you know what? 99.9% of the owners of those names were murdered by the US Government.

If everyone knew about the atrocities committed against the indigenous people, seeing these names – like Nantucket, Seminole, Tuskegee, Massachusetts, Algonquin, Alabama, Tennessee – would have the same emotional valence as signs saying “Auschwitz”, “Buchenwald” and “Treblinka.”

But most people don’t know, because history is written by the victors. And when I was a kid, we watched Westerns and played Cowboys and Indians, and everyone knew that the Indians were the bad guys.

Except that we were wrong. The Indians were the good guys. They were peaceful animists with venerable cultures who had figured out how to live in balance with their environment for 40,000 years. They had a real sense of honor and right and wrong. They were tremendously brave, in a way that astonished their white assailants. They were not afraid of death. And every white person who got to know them well became convinced of their nobility of spirit.

If it weren’t for the Indians teaching the Mayflower pilgrims how to hunt, build homes and farm, all those white people would have died in their first winter, and there would be no Thanksgiving holiday. Instead, the white people grew in number, overtook and massacred the peaceful Indians who just wanted to be left free to live like they had for the 40,000 years prior. The Native American culture was a humanistic, just and ecologically sound one, and the Western world is impoverished for having destroyed it.
Most Indian tribes did not have a written language. Dee Brown’s detective work to find these stories told from the Indian side, dig up government archives, and come up with a cohesive narrative, is nothing short of Herculean. The details of the battles, the marches and councils are alive — and heartbreaking. Americans may want to think about how reflexively proud they want to be of a military that has been a force for genocide and imperialism whose last just war was WWII. 10/10

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2007) by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin (ebook, print & audio). This is an extraordinary book about a singular human. J. Robert Oppenheimer (“Oppie” to his friends) is perhaps best remembered for being the father of the atomic bomb. But he also had outsize talents in almost every department of human endeavor, from literature to oratory to horseback riding to sheer charisma — a true 20th century genius. His movements at the highest level of science and politics define an era: the development of quantum mechanics, WWII, nuclear physics, the Cold War, the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and much more.

Bird and Sherwin took 15 years to write this book, and you can tell: the amount of detail is astonishing (and perhaps excessive). They take pains to provide a comprehensive picture of a stupendously talented and driven man whose flaws and powerful enemies turned him into a tragic figure. Read it for a deep understanding of the advent of modern physics, the characters in it, the making of the atomic bomb, the genesis of the Cold War, and the world it created. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. 10/10

Entrepreneurial You: Monetize Your Expertise, Create Multiple Income Streams, and Thrive (2017) by Dorie Clark (ebook & print). Solo entrepreneurs, small business owners, domain experts, location-independent knowledge workers, or those who aspire to work for themselves instead of being a corporate cog, take notice: “Becoming a recognized expert these days doesn’t always lead to money. The elephant in the room of modern entrepreneurship is that even people who seem to be at the top of their game aren’t always monetizing successfully. Learning to make money from your expertise is a different skill set from what’s needed to become excellent at your work or well-known in your field.”

What I like about it:

1) It’s concise, well-researched and inspiring. Dorie is not only a first-rate chronicler of the rapid changes in modern work (through the other books in the trilogy, Reinventing You and Stand Out), but she’s also lived at the forefront of these changes. She’s held jobs all the way from stringer for a local newspaper, to political campaign staffer, to corporate consultant. If she’s a sought-after speaker and independent consultant now, it’s all via bootstrapping and sheer hustle. Her story and that of other successful entrepreneurs gives you a roadmap for us to follow.

2) Radical transparency. Dorie provides dollar figures for how much more (or less) money she made as a result of certain changes, as well as those from such luminaries as Pat Flynn. Most books shy away from such disclosures. EY openly features this information crucial to setting realistic goals and expectations.

3) Practicality. Dorie provides concrete actions for the three steps to sustainable monetization: building your brand; monetizing your expertise; extending your reach and impact online. And then, she gives us seven golden tactics for accomplishing those three steps: coaching/consulting; public speaking; podcasting; blogging; live conferences; online communities; and selling products.

Dorie illustrates each of these tactics with real-life examples from top-flight practitioners. For example, for podcasting, there’s Jordan Harbinger (The Art of Charm) and John Lee Dumas (Entrepreneur on Fire). For blogging and email list-building, there’s James Clear (400,000 emails!). For conferences, Jayson Gaignard of Mastermind Talks; for community building, Ryan Levesque. The stories of their process to success are very motivating.

Although the strategies and tactics Dorie enumerates are accessible to all, you should know that every one of these profiled people has an exceptional work ethic, starting with Dorie herself. These are elite hustlers at the top 0.1% of the population. Are you willing to commit to the work?

If so, then Entrepreneurial You provides a fantastic framework that will not only save you years of wasted effort but also provide you with ample yes-you-can motivation ammunition. Dorie Clark has written the go-to reference for prosperity, impact and fulfillment in the internet age. Get it to go big. 9/10

Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World (2015) by Matthieu Ricard (ebook, print and audio). I picked up Altruism at Matthieu Ricard’s reading in San Francisco two years ago. Ricard is a remarkable man: Tibetan Buddhist monk with over 30,000 hours of meditation under his belt; French translator to the Dalai Lama; PhD from Institut Pasteur under Nobelist François Jacob; and current title-holder for “world’s happiest man”, according to brain scans done at Richard Davidson’s lab.

This kind of book is required reading in my line of work, especially when written with the rigor and depth that Ricard brings. At 43 chapters and 849 pages, it’s has the heft of a brick, and the density, too, with tangled sentences like this: “It now had to be demonstrated that people don’t act solely in order to avoid having to justify their non-intervention to themselves either.”

A magnum opus like this takes 5-10x longer to read than the average book. But the rewards can be immense. Ricard brings massive evidence arguing for altruism as an essential part of our human and animal makeup, even beyond the genetic arguments of kin selection. This has far-reaching consequences in how we run our lives, interact with others, and treat the planet. 9.5/10

The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World (2017), by Anthony Brandt & David Eagleman (ebook & print). How do exceptionally creative people — like Leonardo da Vinci, Bach, Chopin, Einstein, Edison, Picasso, Steve Jobs — come up with and execute their ideas? What makes the book special are vignettes of 200+ artists, scientists, composers and engineers you haven’t heard of yet, and all the cool ideas they’ve come up with as they “bend, break and blend” old ideas to create new ones. The book’s fluid writing style and 200 illustrations make for fun, fast reading.

Some essential new concepts I learned:

  • “Skeuomorphs” are “features that imitate the design of what has come before.” Nothing is 100% new.
  • Every emerging billion-dollar industry is already 10 yrs old
  • To come up with great ideas, embrace error so you can proliferate lots of options
  • The 20% Rule: the brain seems to prefer visual stimulus of 20% complexity
  • The greatest creators (eg Picasso, Edison) were just insanely prolific. The more stuff you make, the more likely that some of it will be great.
  • Let young minds embrace the arts: “This is because the arts, due to their overtness, are the most accessible way to teach the basic tools of innovation.”
  • Although it can teach you much about the process of innovation, this book’s not a creativity how-to book per se. For that, I recommend Edward de Bono’s classic Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step.

This is a great read for scientists, writers, inventors, artists, musicians, and eternally curious folks who could use an extra shot of creativity. Dozens of fascinating stories of perseverance, ingenuity, and breakthrough – e.g. self-healing concrete, carbon-fiber violins, or James Dyson’s 5,127 vacuum prototypes (!) – demystify innovation, humanize it, and just might catalyze a world-changing story of your own. 8.5/10

Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers (2016) by Tim Ferriss (ebook & print). This is quite possibly the most useful single book I’ve ever read. It’s a collection of interview highlights from Tim’s podcast, so there’s no central theme to it other than Doing Things Better. If you don’t mind the inferiority complex you’ll develop from hearing about all of these world-changing folks, you stand to learn a lot. It’s a hefty beast, best read piecemeal as a book of reference rather than something to finish in one weeklong sitting. 9/10

The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How (2009) by Daniel Coyle (ebook & print). The information in this book has kept well even though it’s 8 years old. How does the tiny island of Curaçao produce a hugely disproportionate number of world-class Little Leaguer baseball players? What’s the secret to Moscow’s run-down Spartak Tennis Club suddenly churning out Grand Slam winners? Where did all these South Korean female golf champions come from?

Coyle travels to hotbeds of talent all over the world to distill the essence of exceptional performance. Deep practice (aka “deliberate practice”) is essential, involving practicing to the edge of one’s ability while getting timely feedback. Some kind of spark seems to be necessary to fuel the “rage to mastery.” It’s interesting that a disproportionate number of historical figures — Caesar, Napoleon, Washington, Jefferson, Newton, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Twain — were orphans. And finally, having a master coach definitely helps. There are priceless insights into the slow, attentive, straightforward ways legends like John Wooden got results. Coyle’s odd obsession with myelin as the alpha and omega of learning and mastery is misplaced. Otherwise, the book has a ton of actionable information for creatives and teachers. It’s also fun to read. For just the usable facts and none of the stories, I refer you to Coyle’s The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Skills. 8/10

Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Skills (2012) by Daniel Coyle (ebook and print). A concise summary of the principles from Coyle’s The Talent Code. 8.5/10

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison (2016) by Shaka Senghor (ebook & print). The author committed an impulsive drug-related murder at 19, for which he was incarcerated for 17 years. In a chronologically discursive narrative, Senghor recounts how his impoverished Detroit childhood and broken family led to involvement with drugs, violence—and prison, when the story really begins. Senghor’s violent ways land him in successively harsher prisons, including three years in solitary confinement. His stories of prison life are candid, bleak, gritty, and harrowing, sparing us no detail when it comes to “shitcake” attacks, gratuitous rape, and improvised shivs put to vengeful use. With time, Senghor sees the futility of his anger, finding a way to reconfigure his injured heart and mind towards compassion. Read it to understand life in American inner cities, the street drug trade, the justice system and the current prison crisis. Hell of a story. 8.5/10

The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987, revised 2012) by Richard Rhodes (ebook, print & audio). This is the greatest nonfiction book I’ve ever read. It won the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award, so others seem to like it, too. It’s really more magic trick than book. It was not enough to write mini-biographies of 30+ towering figures—Oppenheimer, Einstein, Bohr, Fermi, Szilard, Teller, Rutherford, Leslie Groves, Roosevelt, and that’s just in the first quarter of the book. It was not enough to track down all the letters they wrote to one another, and the declassified records of confidential conversations and surveillance. It was not enough to explain the rise of modern physics — quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, radiation — in lucid prose accessible to the layman and accurate for the scientists. It was not enough to chronicle the advent of WW I, Hitler, anti-semitism, Fascism, and WW II, and place them all in their historical context.

Rhodes’ magic trick is to put you at the very edge of history, when the likes of Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger are trying to explain the unexplainable by creating a whole new field of science, bizarre and counterintuitive, as if you’re there, and it’s all new — like being at the world premier of Beethoven’s 9th. As a former physics student who studied this stuff in textbooks long taking the science for granted, I felt like Rhodes gave me access to that primal mind searching in the dark for answers to the mysteries the universe. Exhilarating stuff.

The story of humans cracking the atom and harnessing nuclear energy is arguably The Greatest Story Ever Told (sorry, JC), and nobody tells it better than Richard Rhodes. Tuck in for a fun, mind-expanding ride. 10/10

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) by Susan Cain (ebook & print). I had successfully avoided reading this for 5 years, confident in the assumption that it was not written for raging extroverts like yours truly. But the ebook was on sale, so I had to find out what the fuss was about. How does the other half live? Cain points out that introversion is not a choice, and that states of quiet contemplation are responsible for a disproportionate amount of humanity’s greatest hits. I particularly appreciate her takedown of the bloviating loudmouth, an archetype that has enjoyed far too much success in US business and politics (see: presidency).

That said, I do not buy the main premise of the book: that introverts and extroverts are constructed from completely different blueprints. Why? Because everything she says about extroverts is true of me, as well as everything she says about introverts, depending on context. Do I appreciate moments of intimacy? Why yes. Do I enjoy raging parties? Absolutely. “Highly sensitive”? Yup. Blabbermouth? You bet. All depends on when and where. This kind of monism — the One Thing to Explain It All — seems to characterize a lot of science writing done by non-scientists (also see: Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Coyle). Real science is far messier than that.

There is some evidence that one side of the amygdala is slightly larger in introverts. Aside from that, there is scant hard data behind the “introvert” designation. Until there is some kind of genetic marker that not only tests for introversion but also shows it’s mutually exclusive from extroversion, I will continue to assume it’s a context-dependent tendency rather than a hardwired trait.

Even so, it’s a worthwhile book. There’s a tremendous amount of useful advice on how to handle the loudmouths, pick a suitable career, and navigate introvert-extrovert relationships. If you happen to classify yourself as an introvert, I can imagine this being a very empowering read. 8/10

The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons from the World’s Happiest People (2017) by Dan Buettner (ebook & print). A National Geographic cover story hooked me into this book, and happiness is my beat anyway, so there really was no avoiding this one. The central idea: if you set up a framework for a more satisfying life, you’re more likely to have one.

Pleasure, purpose, pride: these are the three intertwining strands constituting the robust rope of happiness. The Danes, perennially at the top of world happiness surveys, have a lot of their basic needs met by their generous government services. Danes also have a strong community ethos, so they join lots of clubs and engage in purposeful activities. Costa Ricans, who may have an even stronger community ethos, have lives full of pleasurable moments or “positive affect”: walking to work, joking with friends, playing with their kids. Singaporeans work 60hr weeks to get the 5 C’s: car, condominium, cash, credit card, and club membership. They take pride in their accomplishments, and that supposedly makes them happy. The description of their harried, materialistic, cramped lives seemed the antipodes of happiness, but for now, I’ll take Dan’s word for it.

What I really appreciate about Buettner’s work is his thoroughness. He goes into the field with a bunch of scientists, gathers the data, crunches the numbers, and presents us with the best practices. That’s why this book led me to his first Blue Zones book (on longevity) which I consider definitive (also reviewed here). He’s particularly clear-eyed on the benefits of positive psychology hacks: “They may work in the short run, but they almost always fail over time. They’re quick fixes that may evaporate before you know it.” To be happy in the long run, structure a happy life.

I read this book in a day and highlighted 240 passages. It’s fantastic, and should be required reading for all bipeds. As a bonus, the appendix has a collection of Top 10 happiness practices from top experts for individuals and countries. 9.5/10

The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block (2011) by Hillary Rettig (ebook). Artists, especially writers, who would like to overcome procrastination and produce more, take notice. Rettig decriminalizes procrastination and prohibits self-shaming: “The use of shame and coercion as motivational tools, even on yourself, is not just immoral, but futile. They yield not growth and evolution, but, at best, short-term compliance. They also sabotage the creative process.” Instead, she identifies perfectionism as the real culprit and Compassionate Objectivity as its antidote. She offers six more solutions, as well as how to implement them, such as:

• Develop the Habit of Abundant Rewards and No Punishments: rewards yourself a lot for getting stuff done

• Build Your Capacity for Fearless Writing via Timed Writing Exercises: I’ve found setting a timer to be miraculously effective. Get it get stuff done.

I’m also a huge fan of her Three Productivity Behaviors: “(1) showing up exactly on time, (2) doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing, and (3) doing it uninterruptedly (except for small breaks) for long periods of time.”

I particularly appreciate Rettig’s unequivocal advice to self-publish your books, entirely bypassing the sclerotic traditional publishing industry. She validates the suffering of authors at the hands of prima donna agents and capricious publishers who aren’t really invested in your career. Taking control is the best decision you can make, and more profitable to boot.

In its 182 pages, this book contains zero padding and more actionable wisdom than books three times the length, all coming from a well of deep compassion and understanding. I’ll be referring to this one for a long time to come. 9/10

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (2010) by John Vaillant (ebook & print). Siberian tigers hunt bears. That’s how badass they are. Okay, but why should you read a book about a search for a man-eating Amur tiger, the world’s largest land predator, in the most remote parts of the earth? Because it’s one of the best damn books you’ll ever read, that’s why. And in the process, you’ll learn about Russian history, Communism, Russian-Chinese relations, Siberian tundra and taiga, tiger lore, perestroika, tiger physiology, the Afghan war, poaching, black markets, being a nature warden, extinction, duty, vengeance and survival. Vaillant’s sorcery is in his ability to take you inside the head of the hunted villagers, the hunters, and the Amur tiger, as if you were there. The whole thing reads like a thriller, and yes, you will probably stay up way too late reading it. I came away with a deeper appreciation of the majesty of nature and our place in it as current top predator. 10/10

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (2014) by Peter Pomerantsev (ebook & print). A 21-year old Russian supermodel jumps to her death from her Manhattan balcony. A month later, another does the same. The owner of a successful chemicals factory is arrested by five black-suited goons inside her luxury gym and tossed in jail for 3 months for no stated reason. Eventually, the charge is revealed to be “making chemicals.” On a Saturday night in Moscow’s most exclusive nightclub, old, potbellied oligarchs audition young gold-diggers looking to score their next sugardaddy. Stories like these make “surreal” the perfect descriptor for this book. Pomerantsev, an Englishman of Russian extraction, is summoned to Moscow to make reality shows for a state-sponsored TV station. His deep access to the underbelly of Russian life makes for stories that are at turns darkly hilarious and utterly heartbreaking. The writing is sharp, witty and riveting, reading with the speed of a guilty-pleasure novel. Except that everything Pomerantsev recounts actually happened. 9/10

The Lessons of History (1975) by Will & Ariel Durant (ebook & print). I came to this via Ray Dalio’s Principles (also reviewed) in which he mentioned this as one of his favorite books. “War is a nation’s way of eating. It promotes co-operation because it is the ultimate form of competition. Until our states become members of a large and effectively protective group they will continue to act like individuals and families in the hunting stage.” Say what? Or: “Probably every vice was once a virtue—i.e., a quality making for the survival of the individual, the family, or the group. Man’s sins may be the relics of his rise rather than the stigmata of his fall.” If you spend 40 years of your life writing an 11-volume history of all civilization, you too may be able to come up with mind-blowing nuggets like that. In the meantime, we can read the Durants’ 128-page condensation of their masterpiece. 9/10

Transformational NLP: A New Psychology (2017) by Carl Buchheit and Ellie Schamber (ebook & print). This book begins with a comprehensive history of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, where you will find pioneering insights from Grinder, Bandler, Dilts and Steve Andreas. This leads into the exposition of Transformational NLP, as developed by Jonathan Rice and Buchheit himself. This passage about picking unsuitable partners summarizes a lot of its principles:

“The creature brain does not care whether or not the human brain is happy; it cares only about its survival in physical reality. In the remarkable non-logic of creature-level association, the terrible pain of abandonment (in this example) becomes necessary for continued survival precisely because it could have been fatal, but was survived. Because this terrible pain has been survived, it becomes an experience profoundly associated with survival, and actually becomes essential for future survival. Something that is essential for basic survival cannot be permitted to change even a little bit, so the patterning that controls it will be quarantined. Once it becomes quarantined, unless there is an unusually effective intervention, the patterning will never change. Consequently, the core decisions/ beliefs generated by this patterning will never really change, no matter what happens later. The person will go through his/her life both resisting and expecting abandonment, hoping and working for love while waiting to be unwanted and left.”

The book also offers deep insight into how to effectively heal the past: “The goal is to empower the client to view the past not as a fixed source of immutable loss, but rather as a dynamic wellspring of creative decision-making and learning.”

Carl’s been at this for over 30 years, so his observations and therapeutic strategies come from a deep well of experience. There are insights on every other page of this book that would take lifetimes to realize on one’s own. This is essential reading for therapists who want to achieve breakthroughs in treating clients or healing yourself. 8.5/10

Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong (2017) by Eric Barker (ebook & print). This book is so chock-full of useful information that I highlighted it over 200 times.

What do I like about it? First, it’s full of great stories that stay with you. There’s James Waters with his mental strategies that got him through Navy SEAL training, a Harvard MBA, and a White House job. There’s Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, the illegal Mexican migrant worker boy who became a world-renowned neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins. There’s Spencer Glendon with the debilitating ulcerative colitis who became a world-class money manager anyway. Dozens of vivid, funny, inspiring stories of ingenuity, grit, and optimism here.

Second, Barker amply supports all recommendations with research findings. So you will learn fascinating, counterintuitive concepts from social psychology, behavioral economics, game theory, neuroscience, genetics and evolutionary biology. It reminds me of Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, another great book that’s full of ingenious mindhacks.

Third, it’s full of usable unconventional wisdom. Were pirates the progressives of their day? Why do so few valedictorians become millionaires? Why do jerks succeed? (Hint: they ask for what they want and self-promote to their bosses.) No one book will turn you into an overnight success, but this one has a lot of signposts for living a happier, more fulfilling life. You’d be wise to read and share it. 9.5/10

Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection (2017) by Sharon Salzberg (ebook, print & audio). Salzberg is one of the pioneers to bring Buddhism and meditation to the West. With a voice like a wise, compassionate aunt we all wish we had, she conveys principles of lovingkindness, mindfulness and connection through stories and simple exercises. A centerpiece of the book is the RAIN protocol to handle negative emotions: Recognize it, Acknowledge it, Investigate it with a sense of openness and curiosity, and Non-Identify with it — it’s not you! This is not just one of the foundations of Buddhist psychology, but also of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — excellent life advice that totally works.

The exercises are not just effective but also easy to implement, e.g. for practicing lovingkindness, forgiveness, and handling anger. I felt their effects immediately and intend to incorporate some into my daily routine, like the one about extending love to neutral passersby.

And then there are the final five pages in which she summarizes the whole book. This was the most concentrated wallop of wisdom to hit my face in a long time. If you feel like you could use more love in your life, here’s the recipe book. 9/10

Pause: Harnessing the Life-Changing Power of Giving Yourself a Break (2017) by Rachael O’Meara (ebook, print & audio). Americans live amidst a culture of misplaced priorities. The richest country in the history of the world is also the only industrialized nation with no mandated paid maternity/paternity leave. Only 4% of companies allow extended paid leave. Work defines people’s identities, and overachievers believe that being busy is the highest virtue. Nothing could be more effective in self-inflicting misery. O’Meara exhorts us to pause and reconsider this mindset and its ramifications: how you got in this mess, how to get out of it, and what to do upon re-entry into polite rat-race society.

Things I like about this book: tons of case studies that you may identify with, including those from self-help luminaries like Gabrielle Bernstein and Danielle LaPorte; step-by-step instructions for initiating your pause; introduction to incredibly useful concepts like self-validated intimacy and strengths finding; great sections on meditation and digital detox; cool exercises, like the “ten-second micro-pauses” of taking 6 deep breaths or breathing into your palms; easy to read.

O’Meara has done a great service by highlighting the importance of taking a pause and providing the tools to make it happen. If you think you’re too busy to pause, that’s like thinking you’re too out-of-shape to exercise: you need this book, stat. I’m hoping this is the beginning of not just a good idea but a great movement to change people’s attitudes towards leading more balanced, happy lives. 8/10

Principles: Life and Work (2017) by Ray Dalio (ebook, print & audio). This is three books in one: memoir, life advice, and business advice. Dalio is the founder of Bridgewater Capital, the world’s largest hedge fund, which he started from nothing in 1975 to $150 billion in assets today, amassing a $17 billion personal fortune along the way. What impresses me about Dalio is that he arrived at his wealth mostly through very careful decision-making and self-observation, which he was then smart enough to encode as principles. That kind of meticulous thinking led to his firm foreseeing the crash of 2008 and even profiting from it. This book is the end result of those principles time-tested and market-validated over 40 years.

Dalio’s frank style of describing his triumphs and mistakes keeps this book from lapsing into self-aggrandizement. He’s hobnobbed with every major world player over the past 4 decades, making for some fun anecdotes. The work principles that have made Bridgewater famous worldwide for its radical transparency forms a firm foundation that many companies would be wise to emulate. 9/10

Open (2009) by Andre Agassi (ebook, print & audio). A friend loaned this to me when I was in Bali, and I read it in one sitting. André hated tennis. He nevertheless became the #1 player in the world. The coaching of his maniacal Persian dad, leaving school, joining the brutally spartan Bollettieri Academy, acting out, pink mohawks, famous wives and girlfriends, insanely loyal friends and coaches, the relentless pursuit of excellence, Pete Sampras the eternal nemesis, depression, marriage, divorce, re-marriage — it’s all in here. Even if you didn’t follow tennis in his time, this is a rollicking, laugh-out-loud, poignant story. I also picked up a huge life-lesson from it: the best in the world become that by having coaches. So glad I found out for myself why this book was so stupendously popular. 9.5/10

Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis (2017), by Annie Jacobsen (ebook, print & audio). Usually books about psychic phenomena either go full-believer or full-skeptic. Jacobsen, however, just reports on the stories and the evidence pro and con from interviews and declassified government documents, letting you make up your own mind.

Some of the characters are professional charlatans — albeit charlatans hired by British intelligence to successfully convince Rudolf Hess to fly to England to get captured (apparently the Nazis were suckers for astrology). Some, like Uri Geller, I couldn’t really figure out. Others are legitimate scientists who earnestly believed they could make headway in this field using the scientific method. These quixotic quests are fun to read, especially when you hear how much money the US government poured into it and how afraid they were of the Russians being ahead.

But the stuff that blew me away were the accounts of remote viewers who actually got results. I mean, in a trillion tries, no one should be able to close her eyes, enter a meditative state, and visualize the location of, say, Muammar Ghaddafi’s chemical weapon stash. And yet that’s exactly what some of these people did — repeatedly, with documentation to prove it. Some of the main players in the US parapsychology program have criticized this book for its cherry-picking and incompleteness. But no one has said that remote sensing doesn’t work, and nobody knows about the programs that have not yet been declassified. Possibly the most mind-blowing book I’ve ever read. 8.5/10

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (2005) by Jack Weatherford (ebook, print & audio). Seasoned historian Weatherford is Genghis Khan Fan #1, and his revisionist history painstakingly reconstructs Genghis’s milieu, upbringing, motives, conquests, and reign. Still keeping in mind that Genghis Khan was responsible for the biggest slaughter in world history — between 20 and 40 million people, depending on who’s counting — he did pioneer many advances during his rule: meritocracy over nepotism; religious tolerance; citizenship for conquered peoples instead of captivity or oppression; patronizing the arts and sciences; and crazy effective leadership. The impact of the man on world history was cataclysmic, and this eminently readable book brings you up to speed on him. I read it in both audiobook and ebook forms. Many big-name CEOs and entrepreneurs swear by this one. 8.5/10

Stick With It: A Scientifically Proven Process for Changing Your Life for Good by Sean D. Young (ebook & print). Fantastic book! Review upcoming. 9/10

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (2017) by Matthew Walker (ebook & print). This is easily the most important book I read in 2017. Why? Because there is nothing more important in your life than sleep. And Westerners (especially Americans) are chronically sleep-deprived, leading to unnecessary car crashes, illness, and depression. We also have terrible sleep hygiene. I’ve been researching this topic for my own book, so I know this is the only decent, up-to-date book out there on sleep. And it’s fantastic. Walker is a renowned sleep researcher himself at UC Berkeley, featuring some of his original findings in the book. All adults interested in their own health should read this. 9.5/10

Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power by Meghan L O’Sullivan (ebook, print, & audio). Main premise: the rise of unconventional energy sources in the US — shale gas and oil plus renewables — will reduce American dependency on foreign energy, tipping the balance of power away from the Middle East, Russia and China and back towards the US. As one would expect from a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, O’Sullivan’s research is meticulous in supporting her thesis. It’s an up-to-date account of the flow of global energy and its concomitant distortions of the fields of power and diplomacy, and a good complement to Daniel Yergin’s definitive The Quest (also reviewed here). O’Sullivan served as an advisor in Iraq under Bush II, so a lot of her observations on petropolitics are firsthand. Her political leanings may also account for her treatment of unconventional gas and oil (read: fracking and tar sands) as unalloyed boons, sidestepping their well-documented environmental hazards and unsustainability. 8.5/10

The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World by Daniel Yergin (ebook, print & audio). Yergin is the pre-eminent scholar on global energy. Intimidated by the sheer bulk of his tomes (the other being The Prize, for which he nabbed another prize called the Pulitzer), I had avoided them till now. But the audiobook was a manageable way to digest this work piecemeal. It’s safe to say no other book has helped me understand global dynamics of energy and politics better than this one.

Yergin is a master storyteller, weaving together a compelling narrative out of the encyclopedic amount of data he covers — Saudi Arabia and ARAMCO, the Kuwait war, Iran, Angola, renewable energy, Russia, China, and scads more. His exposition on the natural history of the petrostate — a country rendered inherently unstable because of its heavily petroleum-dependent income — and the rise and fall of Cesar Chavez in Venezuela was particularly memorable. A contemporary classic. Read it to better understand your world. 10/10

Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (2011) by Joshua Foer (ebook & print). I’m probably the last person on the block to read this, probably because I was already a student of memory techniques when this came out and had a feeling that this would be more story than instruction manual. About that, I was right. It’s a good yarn nevertheless, as Foer starts out as a rank beginner and ends up winning the World Memory Championship under the tutelage of Grand Master of Memory Ed Cooke. It’s a pleasant entrée into the quirky and obsessive subculture of memory competitions — and also mnemonic techniques, if you know absolutely nothing about the topic. For the techniques, I recommend Tony Buzan’s Use Your Perfect Memory or Ed Cooke’s Remember, Remember: Learn the Stuff You Thought You Never Could. 8.5/10

Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull (ebook & print). This is the manual for building a great company. It’s also the tale of Pixar’s creation, growth, and well-earned triumph. Both a world-class computer scientist and illustrator, Catmull is a mashup of Steve Wozniak, Walt Disney and Gandhi, minus the annoying parts. Pixar arrived at its culture of collaboration, flat hierarchy and radical innovation through a lot of trial and error. And none of its success was pre-ordained: both Toy Story and The Incredibles, were stopped and completely re-done. The book is chock-full of pointers for storytellers, technologists and leaders who want to be world-class at their craft. Bonus: Catmull’s contrarian insider perspective on Steve Jobs, having worked with him for 25 years. 9/10

Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout and Thrive With the New Science of Success (2017) by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness (ebook & print). One of the best books I’ve read on improving personal performance. Full review upcoming. 9/10

The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too) (2017) by Gretchen Rubin (ebook & print). As a rule, I am skeptical of personality profiles. None are scientifically validated, except for the OCEAN framework (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism). The rest are fabricated from thin air with scant experimental support, especially frameworks like the Enneagram and the laughable Myers-Briggs inventory. Sure, you can ask people two questions, like “Do you like barbecued spare ribs?” and “Are you a cat person or a dog person?”, and end up with a 2×2 matrix that tidily divides up the population into 4 categories. But does that have any predictive value outside of a person’s tendency to attend or avoid barbecues with dogs at them?

This book is a follow-up to Gretchen’s last book, Better Than Before, in which she lays out the Four Tendencies that emerge from the answers to two questions: “How do you handle internal commitments?” and “How do you handle external commitments?” Good with both makes you an Upholder; bad with both makes you a Rebel. Obligers are good with external commitments but bad with internal ones; Questioners are the inverse.

The problem is that, depending on time of day, fullness of tummy, looming deadlines, who’s President, and how well last night’s poker session went, I will give different responses to Gretchen’s questionnaire. Sometimes, I’m an Obliger; other times a Questioner; and less often, a Rebel or Upholder. These are not hard-wired aspects of a personality encoded in genes, and to her credit, Gretchen does call them tendencies rather than traits.

Gretchen’s thoughts make up only about half of the book. The other half comprises quotes from her blog readers, talking about how the tendencies show up in their lives. All that said, the book was hugely useful in one respect: it made me realize that I work much better when I have external accountability. That insight alone is fully worth 3 hours of my life and $15. 8/10

Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It – Dorie Clark 907-10

The Art of Seduction (2003) by Robert Greene (ebook & print). When this book first came out in 2003, I was hugely impressed by it. A grand tour of seduction through the ages, it brimmed with tales of chutzpah, daring and ingenuity from the likes of Cleopatra, the Duc de Richelieu, Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, and of course, Casanova. Ten years on, having created many books, courses and seminars on human courtship, I am significantly less impressed.

First off, half the characters cited in the book are fictional. That means nothing that they did actually happened. Count Valmont of the Les Liaisons Dangereuses fame makes about five appearances, which is four too many for someone who never existed.

Second, all the real people in the book had a vested interest in exaggerating their exploits, because that’s what seducers do. So their stories aren’t credible either.

Third, a lot of these guys seemed to have unlimited cash and time on their hands. The Duc de Richelieu would buy the house next door to his object of desire and tunnel through a wall; Casanova spent all kinds of time and money to go to operas and masquerades to ply his trade. These are not tactics necessarily available to the average 21st century schmoe.

Fourth, nobody depicted in the book is alive. Is there not one person amongst the 7.5 billion living worthy of emulating, with verifiable stories and usable techniques? Also, Greene himself is a bit of a hermit. Not speaking from experience makes for a thin book.

If you are looking for an entertaining, philosophical read, this is a good one. And I love all the fun marginalia from classical literature, from Sappho to Ovid to Laclos. The 48 Laws of Power is still a classic, but if you’re looking for an instruction manual on seduction, you may want to look elsewhere. 7/10

A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age (2017) by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman (ebook & print). Claude Shannon was an original genius. He basically came up with the science of information theory out of sheer nothing. Now, the entire planet runs on his brainchild. He also had a lot of fun thinking, tinkering, and having a grand old time as an MIT professor. The authors are not scientists, so they when it comes to the sheer poetry and chutzpah of Shannon’s science, they can only go so deep. Still, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read on one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century that more people need to know about. 8/10

Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations (1993) by William Ury (ebook & print). “The essence of breakthrough strategy is indirect action. It requires you to do the opposite of what you naturally feel like doing in difficult situations.” Ury, the grandaddy of the Harvard Negotiation Project, proposes a five-step “joint problem-solving” protocol as the way to get past no: “only they can break through their own resistance; your job is to help them.” The steps: go to the balcony; overcome the other side’s negative emotions by listening to them; reframe the problem; build them a golden bridge; use power to educate. Also remember the five important points along the way to a mutually satisfactory agreement: interests, options for satisfying those interests, standards for fair resolution, alternatives to negotiation, and proposals for agreement. I highlighted 122 passage from this book, so there’s a plethora of practical wisdom here. 9/10

59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute (2009) by Richard Wiseman (ebook & print). Bonding over shared dislikes works better than discussing shared enthusiasms. Active listening does not improve relationships. Sit in the middle of a table to make a good impression. Rhyming persuades. Wiseman, perhaps the only person with the job title “Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology”, offers bite-sized, scientifically validated tips on happiness, persuasion, motivation, creativity, attraction, relationships, stress, decision making, parenting and personality. Fun, fast, stupendously useful read. 9/10

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016) by Trevor Noah (ebook, print & audio). Can I tell you how great this book is? I mean, did you ever wonder how a mixed-race South African kid ended up hosting The Daily Show? This book chronicles that astonishingly unlikely journey from the slums of Soweto where Noah’s mere existence was a crime, since whites and blacks weren’t supposed to talk, let alone have kids together. Growing up “colored” in apartheid South Africa where racism was the law of the land meant Noah fully belonged to neither the world of whites nor the blacks. But he knew how to hustle. His incredibly poignant relationship with his lioness of a mother had me crying more than once. Damn.

The audiobook benefits from Noah’s comic timing and dead-on rendition of myriad accents and languages. I laughed out loud many times; I don’t think I’ll every forget his story about DJing the bar mitzvah with Hitler (seriously). In the meantime, you and I have no idea how bad black South Africans had it — the shit is bananas. Hilarious, heartbreaking, uplifting and enlightening, this is one extraordinary book to nourish your soul. 10/10

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016) by Matthew Desmond (ebook & print) I am not the first person to call this a tour de force, and I won’t be the last. To write this book (which started out as his doctoral thesis), Desmond took it upon himself to live in the neighborhoods he studied: slums, ghettoes, and trailer parks in poor, dangerous parts of Milwaukee. What he found was explosive, eye-opening and heartbreaking. At the heart of urban America, a robust business model exists for landlords to systematically exploit poor tenants through loopholes in the law. The result is an underclass trapped in cycles of poverty, drugs, malnutrition, poor health and crime. After reading this, it’s impossible to see America’s inner cities, law enforcement, and politics the same way. A well-deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize. 10/10

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us) (2008) Tom Vanderbilt (ebook, print & audio). I put traffic in the category of “the ubiquitous unexamined” — aspects of life that surround us so completely that we never bother to question how they work (electricity and water are two other ones). This long but eminently readable tome covers all aspects of traffic engineering, which turns out to be a serious science with huge explanatory power over our daily lives. He also does a fine job of describing the psychology of traffic, and why we are at our worst when driving. Stress levels of the average commuter match that of a fighter pilot! I have a much better understanding of the complexities of the urban environment. Although I may not have any less road rage than before, it feels nice to know where it comes from :) 8.5/10

Pause: Harnessing the Life-Changing Power of Giving Yourself a Break (2017) by Rachael O’Meara (ebook & print). Americans live in a culture of misplaced priorities. The richest country in the history of the world is also the only industrialized nation with no mandated paid maternity/paternity leave. Only 4% of companies allow extended paid leave. Work defines people’s identities, and overachievers believe that being busy is the highest virtue. Nothing could be more instrumental in the self-infliction of misery. O’Meara exhorts us to pause and reconsider this mindset and its ramifications — how you got in this mess, how to get out of it, and what to do upon re-entry into polite rat-race society.
There are tons of case studies that you may identify with, including luminaries like Gabrielle Bernstein and Danielle LaPorte; step-by-step instructions for initiating your pause; introduction to incredibly useful concepts like self-validated intimacy and strengths finding; great sections on meditation and digital detox; cool exercises, like the “ten-second micro-pauses” of taking 6 deep breaths or breathing into your palms; easy to read.
O’Meara has done a great service by highlighting the importance of taking a pause and providing the tools to make it happen. If you think you’re too busy to pause, that’s like thinking you’re too out of shape to exercise: you need this book, stat. I’m hoping this is the beginning of not just a good idea but a great movement to change people’s attitudes towards leading more balanced, happy lives. 8/10

 

My First Nomad Cruise: Learning, Friendship and Open Bar on the High Seas

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Lisbon, September 2017. I’ve spent a few pleasant weeks there. I think to myself, “Self — you’ve been living outside of the US for about 8 months now. And you’ve got a conference to go to in October. Shouldn’t you be thinking of ways of getting back to the US, like maybe eventually? Also, your country called, and it needs you.”

Fair point. But I was in no hurry to return, especially with Agent Orange in power and Greed as the national religion. How could I get back to the States, but slowly? Maybe on a boat. That moves slowly. And stops in a lot of places.

This could be the best idea I’ve ever had, or the worst. Anchors aweigh!

At a talk I attended the very day I had the boat idea, somebody mentioned in passing this thing called “The Nomad Cruise.” Excuse me, what is this? 14 days on the water, 4 ports of call, and a full program of talks and workshops covering everything from marketing, web design, photography, cryptocurrency, financial planning, and other topics of interest to location-independent entrepreneurs. Oh, and unlimited food and booze. The cruise would be leaving in seven days from Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. Price: eminently reasonable.

I’ve never been on a cruise. I don’t know anyone on this cruise. I have no idea what is going to happen. Where do I sign up?

I. Who are these Digital Nomads anyway?

Location-independent workers are a recent thing, but not that recent. Even a pioneering book like Tim Ferriss’s 2007 The Four-Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich — the closest thing to a Bible of Digital Nomadism — was merely describing a trend already well under way. What’s new is the acceleration of this demographic trend due to a few factors. Some of them are push factors, some of them pull:

  • Advent of the freelance economy. Long-term employment is diminishing.
  • Advent of location-independent jobs. If you’re a graphic designer, personal coach, writer, virtual assistant or online entrepreneur, you can work from any café with an internet connection.
  • Ubiquity of internet connections, even in remote areas.
  • High cost of city living without a commensurate quality of life.
  • Political unrest.

Of course, there are as many reasons for going nomad as there are nomads. Personally, I had wearied of San Francisco’s coupling of high cost of living with mediocre standard of living. I asked myself, what else could I get for $2500/month in rent besides deficient-to-absent public transport, impossible parking, rampant petty crime, exorbitant taxation, pointlessly expensive everything, needles and humanure everywhere on the streets, and an embarrassing homeless problem? After November 2016, for the sake of my sanity, I was also eager to put as much distance between myself and Agent Orange as possible. My fellow American refugees felt similarly.

Many of the nomads shared my reasons for hitting the road. For some, price arbitrage is a motivating factor. At $1000 a month, you would be living in penury in a place like Paris. In the US, you would be below the poverty line, qualifying for government assistance. On the other hand, you can live very well on that budget in a place like Bali, Guatemala, or Chiang Mai (as illustrated by Chris Dodd’s well-crafted video). And you get an ocean view!

Here are some of the circles I noticed in the big Venn diagram of nomads:

  • Young folks with limited income who dreamed of seeing the world, and finally did something about it.
  • Entrepreneurs with passive income and location-independent jobs who figured it would be fun to hit the road for a while.
  • Dedicated nomads perpetually on the move, with little intention to return to their home country.
  • Political semi-refugees from where the atmosphere can get oppressive: Hungary, US, Poland, England.
  • People at a transition point in life: divorce, breakup, career change, or major health-related event.
  • Watersports enthusiasts who just need to surf, kiteboard, scuba etc.
  • Cryptocurrency enthusiasts.
  • Entrepreneurs leveraging cost arbitrage to get their startups off the ground on minimal cash.
  • People from affluent countries whose robust social services afford its citizens the latitude to take extended trips, e.g. Netherlands, Germany, Sweden.

Following that last observation, most of the Nomad Cruisers were from Germany and the Netherlands, with sizable contingents from

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Dispatch from Barcelona: Las Ramblas, Terrorism, and the Fabric of Trust

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If you were to create a river flowing with humans instead of water, it would look a lot like Las Ramblas (La Rambla to the locals). Night and day, at all hours, people walk up and down the middle of the famed boulevard. It’s wide enough to accommodate twenty bodies shoulder-to-shoulder, plus a sidewalk restaurant on each side, plus a lane of traffic in each way, plus conventional sidewalks and stores at the far edge.

And yet, a few days ago, the flow of humanity was so dense and turbulent that I could not walk in a straight line more than 10 meters at a time. The mix is variegated, multilingual, multigenerational. In one five-minute stretch I heard English, German, Danish, Swedish, French, Arabic, occasionally Spanish and even Catalan! Families amble and feud, college kids frolic and gawk, stag parties stagger, and seated white-haired vacationers sip on sangria, watching the river flow by.

The particular threat to straight-line walking is the smartphone-addled amblers – a global phenomenon hardly specific to Las Ramblas, but rendered particularly treacherous here through sheer numbers. People looking at on-screen representations of the world instead of the real thing are liable to plow right into you unless you’re looking sharp and wearing your dancing shoes.

Yet, underlying the seeming chaos, there is an order. People don’t run into each other. The wind-up microcopter salesmen launch their wares skywards but catch them before they land on unsuspecting heads. Nobody trips. And I’ve never seen a fight. All of this can only arise from implicit rules harbored so deeply as to not need to be spoken: We coexist peacefully. We look out for each other. This is a safe place.

Yesterday, at 5.14pm, I got a text from a local friend asking if I was okay. She spoke of a van plowing into the Las Ramblas crowd. The unspoken contract had been violated.

At night, a miasma of pain and bewilderment permeated the air of Barcelona. The Festa de Gracia, the mad weeklong fount of creativity and zest that envelops the Gracia district with miles of offbeat recycled decorations and music, had been put on hold. And, unimaginably, Las Ramblas was shut down. Around 2am, I decided to walk the 1.5km from my neighborhood of Poble Sec to Las Ramblas to see the dried up river from up close. On the way, I walked through several neighborhoods normally bustling at this hour – Raval and Ciutat Vella. No one was there except for homeless folks who had nowhere else to go. And Las Ramblas was cordoned off for the night.

Earlier that evening, I had paid a visit to my favorite local pintxo bar, L’Atelier de Blai. Lisa, the young woman sitting next to me at the bar, worked a block away from where the accident happened. She had heard the screams of the crowd and run out to see the injured folks on the street – bodies with limbs contorted at unnatural angles, some dying, some already lifeless. She ran back into the store and pulled down the metal shutters until the police told them two hours later it was okay to come. She went to a hotel and asked if they could be kind enough to call her a cab: “Yes, after we get one for the other 200 people waiting ahead of you.” She had certainly earned her glass of white wine for the day.

There is an invisible but ubiquitous fabric interconnecting all humanity – indeed, all life on Earth. Whether we realize it or not, we are one giant superorganism, intricately dependent upon one another. It’s easy to see that relationship between, say, a bee and a flower. But it may not be as immediately obvious how my life connects with that rowdy English tourist, or the Catalan grandmother wheeling her groceries home. But it does, and it’s the only way things can ever work.

What the terrorists did was to punch a hole through that fabric of trust and deep interdependence, thereby declaring themselves outside of it. Outside of the fabric there is only death and exile – a fate to which Muslim extremists like the ones who drove the truck routinely consign themselves.

The good news is that the fabric heals itself. And people have the power to accelerate the healing – by choosing to trust, to live, to keep rambling on Las Ramblas. I am happy to report that today, Las Ramblas is open again.

The criminal justice system removes from society those who have willfully damaged the fabric, lest they do more harm.

But state institutions of justice have less latitude to act against those who intend to damage the fabric, even when they declar it publicly – say, through a white supremacist rally. So we must take it upon ourselves to protect it actively.

When someone marches in Charlottesville or anywhere else under a Nazi banner, they are declaring unequivocal intention to do harm. Believe them. Look up from your mere representations of the world and realize that the real world is not as safe as it used to be.

These people want to hurt you if you don’t agree with them, and kill you if you don’t look like them. So you need to let them know that it’s really not okay.

Often they will be too caught up in their own hurt to reason with them. And if you punch them in the face first, you become more like them, defeating our own purpose.

But you can help accelerate their declared intention to exile themselves from society.

The first step is to examine your attachment to aspects of your own identity which you did not get to choose – your nationality, your hometown, your religion, your sexual orientation, name, and even your gender. If you’re doing this because you’re a New Yorker, Jewish, black, Muslim, white, a woman, gay, an immigrant, whatever – it’s already the wrong reason. All those things were just the roll of the dice. Let them go.

Your circle of self either embraces the whole of the world, or you’re just doing this for selfish, tribal reasons that can just as easily turn you into one of the bad guys.

Once you realize that you’re defending all sentient beings, you’re on much better footing. And yes, National Parks contain sentient beings, and you’d better believe they’re under threat, too.

Next, you must seek out and uproot the sources of anger and hatred in yourself. Anger clouds your judgment and makes you less effective, and we need your mind to be sharp here. As William Blake said in Auguries of Innocence, “To be in a passion you good may do/ But not if a passion is in you.” Instead of letting the anger consume you, feel just enough of the anger to let it to propel you.

Hatred is an even bigger problem, as it tends to redound on itself, making you miserable and less effective – and once again, more like your enemy.

The solution? If your circle of compassion embraces the entire world, this has to include your enemies, too. Having compassion for them precludes hating them.

This is probably easier said than done. The central story from the Bhagavad Gita is instructive: Arjuna’s relatives have unfairly usurped the monarchy from him and his brothers. So now his army is arrayed against that of his uncles and cousins. But how can he fight and kill his own relatives?

His charioteer happens to be a pretty wise person – Lord Krishna in disguise, who just happens to be the creator of the universe. And he tells Arjuna that he will do this because it’s his dharma – a mixture of duty and fate: “Put your heart at the lotus-feet of the lord, and plunge into the heat of battle.”

If you are a decent person, then your duty and fate is to protect all sentient beings from forces of harm. You are the guardian of the web of life. Luckily, in America, this dharma thing is a familiar concept. We call it doing your job.

And yeah, it’s your job now. And mine. There isn’t anyone else. So get organized. Protest. Publicly identify white supremacists, Nazis and Trump supporters. Make it difficult for them to have jobs, relationships, permits. Donate to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, and any other number of effective organizations that right-wingers want shut down.

And through all of it, above all, maintain your humor. If there’s one overarching thing that Fascists, Nazis, right-wingers and totalitarians have in common, it’s this: they’re utterly humorless. They’re just not funny. How many pictures of laughing dictators have you seen? Exactly. And they can’t stand being made fun of (see: Trump’s reaction to Saturday Night Live sketches). Srdja Popovic’s brilliant Blueprint for Revolution depicts humor as the central tool for nonviolent resistance.

So take a deep breath, and take stock of your own prejudices, and embrace the whole world with your heart. Like a Zen master, detect then uproot the sources of hate. Get clever by reading Blueprint for Revolution, get creative, get motivated, get organized. And see if, instead of getting livid, you can chuckle a little at the absurdity of it all. You’ll be even smarter and more effective that way.

Then go ahead and do your job. The whole river of life is propelling you forward.

Bali: Rules for the Road

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Bali scootersMost of the people I know here in Ubud have had some kind of scooter accident, from mild (gash in foot) to severe (broken hand) to life-threatening (concussion with broken leg and jaw). Scooters are the way to travel in Bali. Since there’s no way around them, might as well learn how to be safe on them:

Always wear a helmet. No ifs, ands or buts about this one. Make sure it’s a good one, and get a full-face helmet if possible, a $40 investment. Unless you don’t think your head and face are worth 4 gin-and-tonics.

First look right, then left. Like England and Australia, people drive on the left side of the road here, so look right first when crossing or merging. The corollary to that is “left turn easy, right turn hard.”

Keep feet inside footwell. Inside the footwell, your feet are protected. Outside of it, it can get snagged by trees or other motorbikes, or run over by cars.

Flip down your helmet visor when riding. The other day, a bat flew into my face at 30km/h. I didn’t have the visor down, but I was lucky that it mostly bounced off the helmet and only grazed my face. So now I always pull the visor down. At scooter speeds, a bug can shred your cornea. Protect your face and eyes when in motion.

Always wear closed-toe shoes. No exceptions to this one, folks. It’s unbelievably easy to injure your feet on a scooter — e.g. drop the kickstand accidentally on your foot, and voilà, now you need five stitches. Wearing real shoes instead of flip-flops prevents a whole host of minor disasters.

Slow way down when it’s raining. Your brakes don’t work nearly as well in the rain, and neither do those of others on the road. Avoid driving in the rain if possible, but if not, slow way the hell down.

Gravel and sand are the enemy. Gravel and sand eat scooters for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They make your traction and balance go to shit, then devour you whole. Avoid them.

Don’t pass if you don’t need to. We’re in Bali, not New York. Relax. Enjoy the warmth of the diesel exhaust on your face. Passing might save you 10 seconds; not turning into road pizza by an oncoming truck saves your whole life.

Merge with authority. Punch it when you’re about to get on the road so you can rapidly match the flow of traffic. This is one of the times when speed makes you safer.

No drinking. Even one drink compromises your focus.

No distraction. There are many attractive, minimally dressed women on the sidewalks. Wait till you get to yoga class to check them out — they will still be there. While riding, look only straight ahead.

Beware of dogs, kids, and tourists. All three are highly unpredictable and will wander onto your path, oblivious to danger or honking. Bali dogs are particularly spaced out, with zero respect for road rules.

Beware of mud and dog poop. They make the road far more slippery than you think. Riding onto a patch of either one could mean losing control of your bike.

Expect the unexpected. Oncoming trucks switching into your lane; extra-wide loads; vehicles going the wrong way; cars backing out onto your path; man-eating potholes; flash floods; drivers passing you while you’re passing; dogs sleeping in the middle of the street; chickens falling out of the vehicle in front; sudden traffic stoppage — all these happen on Ubud roads regularly. Anticipate the strange, and always pay full attention.

Impresssions: Bali

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There are no sidewalks in Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali. There are sidehikes, and sidetreks, but no sidewalks. First, there is the matter of elevation. Sometimes the sidewalks are raised 30-60cm from the roadway, then slope down to meet the road at a storefront or driveway, which is every 5 steps. Then the sidewalk disappears without warning, and you’re sharing space with scooters, motorcycles and cars. And by “share”, I mean that, should traffic flow require it, these cars will gladly clamber on to your supposedly inviolate walking territory, exercising right of way by sheer size and made-of-steelness.

Second, there are sidewalk hazards. Many of the sidewalks cover drainage ditches underneath, and they have holes — fist-size, foot-size, leg-size, and whole person-size. And if you’re not watching where you’re going, you can break a fist, foot, leg or whole person. Some holes require jumping over — like, a Carl Lewis-style running leap. As a gesture of courtesy, the locals often put a long stick in these holes, so you can spot them better — or impale yourself on them, depending on how close you’re paying attention. There are also tree branches that cut through the space of the sidewalk at a 45° angle, which means you can easily brain yourself if you’re talking to someone while scanning the ground for person-breaking ditches.

Then, there are the people hazards. These sidewalks are narrow — basically, one Westerner wide. When you come face-to-face with a Balinese person, that’s easy: you break left, because people drive on the left here. But what if you come across another Westerner? There are a ton of Aussies and English people here, who will instinctively break left. But with the right-hand driving folks, you never know. A quick two-step shuffle ensues, usually to the tune of Uptown Funk, and with any luck, both parties pass intact. When in doubt, break left — it’s the law of the land.

Most of the Balinese you encounter on the sidewalk will not be walking; they will be sitting in wait for you. The females will all think your name is Massage; the males will all call you Taxi. Every fourth storefront in Ubud seems to be a spa, and every able-bodied male seems to have a side-hustle as a gypsy cabbie (car, scooter or both). By my estimation, while sidehiking in Ubud, for every minute of walking time, you get 5 offers of motorized transport or professional kneading.

Of course, you only deal with the sidehike nonsense if you’re enough of a chump to walk in the first place. Because every native man, woman and child is on a scooter (aka motorbike, moped, or matic). At first glance, the Ubud scooter traffic looks like madness and chaos — more like the flow of a tropical river than any discernible traffic pattern. Lane lines? Absent. Traffic lights and stop signs? Haven’t seen any yet, and decorative when they do exist. What you do see is people from age 10 to 70 on scooters in every imaginable combination: single, double, whole families, an entire hardware store (while the guy takes orders on his phone), and the winner: a lady nursing her baby.

By law, people are required to

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Hella Important, Mind-blowing, Super-useful and Fun: 100 books I read in 2016

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screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-11-26-37-amAt the beginning of 2016, I decided to devote more time to my favorite activity: reading. I set myself a rough target of two books a week, and got through 110 of them. Below are capsule reviews and ratings of about 100 of those, categorized into the following 5 headings: Hella Important; Mind-Blowing; Super Useful; Fun & Fast; Loved it!; Heart-Expanding; and More. Note than I’m counting audiocourses as books, some of which are much longer than the average audiobook (36hrs vs 6hrs). If a book looks like it doesn’t have a review, it means I put it in more than one category and the review’s coming right up.

Enjoy, and please chime in with your own reviews, reflections and recommendations in the comments!

HELLA IMPORTANT!
These books aren’t necessarily the most fun to get through, but they’re talking about something super important that is probably affecting your life right now.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport (ebook and paper). The most behavior-altering book I read in 2016. Georgetown computer scientist Newport differentiates between deep and shallow work, making the case that a life of meaning has more of the deep than the shallow. A roadmap for fulfilling your purpose in life, which I intend to fully deploy in 2017 and beyond. 10/10

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle (ebook and paper). We’re in the midst of a social revolution, and not in a good way: digital communication is eating away at face-to-face interaction, with measurable, scary and disastrous effects on our minds and relationships. Turkle places the problem in its proper apocalyptic context and proposes some solutions. 9/10

The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, Adam Gazzaley MD/PhD and Larry Rosen PhD (ebook and paper). You can’t multitask. Period. The authors, a renowned neuroscientist and a psychologist, provide the scientific evidence for how distractions and interruptions of high-novelty digital media degrade our brain function, productivity and relationships. An accessible and thorough presentation of an extremely important, timely topic. My full Amazon review here. 9.5/10

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State, Graeme Wood (ebook and paper). Who really gets ISIS anyway? Even to an educated audience, they seem like a jumble of acronyms, leaders, factions and philosophies falling somewhere between incoherence and chaos. How did they come about? Are they real Muslims? What’s up with the beheadings, amputations, and sex slavery? What compels so many seemingly nice young men to leave everything behind and join them in Syria? This brand-new book places IS in an historical, religious, geographic and ideological context so by the end of it we can all say, “Aahh, now I get it.” The encounters are kinda amazing. Full review here. 9/10

Tribe: On Homecoming & Belonging, Sebastian Junger (ebook and paper). Pretty short as far as audiobooks go, but it packs a wallop. Junger gets deep into the human psyche’s need for affiliation and fellowship, and how that manifests (or doesn’t) in the modern world. 9/10

Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World, Srdja Popovic (ebook and paper). Loved this book! Enough to review it twice, push it on all my friends, and befriend the author. Srdja knows what he’s talking about. As one of the founders of Otpor!, he masterminded the nonviolence movement that eventually toppled theSerbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Later he and his colleagues consulted with the nonviolent movements in the Maldives, Egypt, and Burma. This book draws upon these frontline experiences: what worked, what didn’t work, and how to do it better. Read my rhapsodizing review here. 10/10

Girls and Sex: Navigating the New Landscape, Peggy Orenstein (ebook and paper). Hoo boy. Sobering, sometimes terrifying stuff here. Our girls are in trouble, and Orenstein shows us

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The San Francisco Lectures Resource

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Many great public organizations in San Francisco put on high-quality talks and book readings. Here are some of the good ones I’ve encountered:
1. The Commonwealth Club: The grandaddy of them all, 112 years strong. They hold 2-3 talks per day, in SF and Silicon Valley. $100 yearly membership pays for itself if you attend two talks a month. They get all the world-class speakers, and practically every major new book goes through here. Inforum is their celebrity arm.
2. City Arts & Lectures: Weekly talks by names big enough to fill the Nourse Theater in Hayes Valley.
3. Jewish Community Center of SF: very high quality speakers once or twice a week at the JCCSF in Pacific Heights on a variety of topics in science, arts and humanities.
4. Being Human: great speakers on neuroscience, mindfulness, spirituality. Frequency is sporadic but quality high; their last talk was with the amazing Prof Robert Sapolsky. Annual 1-day conference is worthwhile.
5. Wisdom 2.0: talks and workshops on the intersection of mindfulness, business, spirituality and technology. 4-day annual conference in Feb.
6. Odd Salon: series of short (10-20min) talks on a given theme on Tuesday nights. Sample themes: Revenge; Undead; Anomaly; Intrepid; Dystopia.
7. The Long Now Foundation: deep thinkers on science, technology, humanities and the future giving “seminars on long-term thinking.” 2-3 talks/month. Totally worthwhile membership. Founded by the legendary Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame, who conducts all the interviews and then sends you email summaries of them. Their bar, The Interval, was voted one of the best 20 new bars in the country – check it out.
8. Spirit Rock: daily classes, workshops and retreats on mindfulness, meditation, well-being and personal growth. A true treasure in Marin, 45min from the city. Jack Kornfield, the closest thing America’s got to the Buddha, teaches there.
9. Consciousness Hacking: Wed night gatherings with neuroscientists, technologists, meditators and entrepreneurs interested in the functioning of the brain and how to enhance it. Cool community.
10. Nerd Nite: monthly lighthearted gatherings with short, TED-style talks on scientific topics, with the occasional big event on an aircraft carrier or even Alcatraz. Quality varies, but usually a fun young crowd. Chapters in SF and South Bay.
11. Book Passage: bookstore chain that hosts a ton of readings in its SF and Marin stores. Everybody comes through here. Probably the least-mobbed place to meet your favorite author for free. Check their site for listings.
12. Books Inc: The other SF bookstore chain that hosts a ton of readings.
13. Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE): Based in Palo Alto, so a bit of a haul from the city. Periodic lectures and workshops with big names in psychology, mindfulness, meditation (eg Dalai Lama).

There are more (e.g. World Affairs Council), but I’ve only listed ones that I have personal experience with. If you have a noteworthy venue in mind that I haven’t included, please mention it in the comments!

The Ultimate Party Playlist: To Not Suck as a Party DJ, Play These Songs

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djgoofyThere’s an epidemic sweeping the land that hardly anyone talks about, infiltrating dining hall parties, Cambridge college bops, reunions, weekend conferences, bar mitzvahs, weddings, and all sorts of other mission-critical gatherings. It usually strikes around 9pm on a Saturday night, when partiers are most itching to get their groove on. Some of these people have taken time off work or study, hired babysitters, and even made nice with their exes to bring this window of free time into existence. And if they’re white, they’ve probably been drinking since 4pm the prior day for the prospect of actual dancing on this fine night. And what do they get instead of a chance to get down? A big fat let-down, that’s what.

I’m talking about the epidemic of crappy djs, which is harshing the mellow of many a partygoer. There you are, hoping to hop around to some thoroughly recognizable party anthem — say, “Vogue” by Madonna. And instead, you are confronted by some unfamiliar pattern of beats and words to which you cannot shake your booty, no matter how hard you try. And you notice that everyone else on the dance floor feels the same way, evidenced by their standing around, mobbing the bar and definitely non-dancing. And yet, the dj seems blithely oblivious to this fact which is as obvious as a polka-dotted pink rhinoceros, as he keeps on spinning song after non-danceable brick of a song.

What the hell is going on here? I could speculate on the etiology of this degenerative neurological condition which makes djs crawl deeper and deeper into the Hole of DJ Snobbery & Pretense, as they try to introduce fresh new tracks to these unwashed masses, and do oh-so-clever beat-matching between songs so unrelated that you will break your ankles trying to dance to them consecutively.

But you know what? The partiers don’t care about your cleverness, or your command of bands so esoteric they hardly exist, Mr/Ms DJ. Really. They think of you in the same way as the bartender, the server, the party planner: staff. Which means that you’re expected to do an unobtrusively good job, but will inspire serious wrath if you fuck it up. Especially if you’re the dj, because everyone is paying attention to your work. And did I mention that they’ve been drinking for the past 16 hours? You definitely want this crowd on your side, brother.

Now if you’re some kinda name-brand dj with an unpronounceable name like Deadmau5 or Aviciiiiiiii that people have paid specifically to hear —  be my guest, mess with your audience all you want. Hell, you already got paid your 100 grand — what do you care? But if you’re a hired party dj, you’ve got one job and one job only: to keep the dance floor bumping.

Luckily, being a party dj is not terribly hard work. I know this because I used to do it at the now-mythical house parties I used to throw in Cambridge (MA) many moons ago. I didn’t write any of the songs or play any instruments, and yet the dance floor was always full of sweaty, writhing bodies making out with each other. My point is that it’s not like the dj’s a composer or musician even. You’re just selecting a song and playing it for the audience. Hell, you even know which songs people generally like: they’re called hits. All you’ve got to do is read the crowd a little, and play them what they like. The crowd’s reaction gives you instant feedback on how well you’re doing. Simple.

So if the dance floor empties, it’s not because your audience is uncool. Mark my words: the audience is never uncool. If they aren’t dancing, that means you’re bad at your job, dj.

Fortunately, there is a simple remedy. There are songs out there that are so stupendously catchy and danceable that hardly any sentient being that’s not on life support can resist wiggling to it. These are the Irresistible Boogie Initiator Songs (IBIS).

Now Mr DJ, you may think that these songs are cheesy. Or played out. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. However, people love dancing to these songs. Some of these songs are the musical equivalent of pigs in a blanket: not terribly nutritious, but oh-so-tasty. Forgive the mob their mob tastes, and play what they want. And remember that some of these songs are masterpieces of the pop genre (“Hey Ya”, “Twist and Shout” and anything by Michael Jackson or Prince come to mind).

Generally, if people are able to sing along to a song, it’s a good song to play, so long as it’s somewhat danceable. For example, Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” is only marginally danceable, but when you play it, people will be too busy belting it out huddled around a beer-bottle microphone to notice.

Familiarity is a key criterion here: a solid IBIS will take people back to their college days, to high school, to their first kiss, to any number of pleasant memories associated with that song. And if you do a good job, the party you’re dj-ing will go into that same bin of positive association to draw upon for the future.

Now I know there’s some serious dj out there reading this and fuming: what about crowd-reading, song selection, sequencing and beat-matching — these are serious skills! Yes, but there’s software that can do most of these things now, such that anyone can be a competent dj for party purposes. Hey — if Paris Hilton can do it, then I’m gonna guess this ain’t neurosurgery.

In the interest of protecting all party djs out there from the fulminating wrath of drunken partygoers, I have compiled below a list (in no particular order) of IBISes that will have audiences from 18 to 48 screaming with glee, taking off their heels and grinding on strangers. The songs that will empty the bar and fill the dance floor instantly are marked in bold. And readers: if you are at a party where the dj is sucking, copy this list and hand it to him/her. The guests will thank you for it. And if you’ve got a song that you think I should include on this list, please mention it in the comments! If we’re going to stop the epidemic, we’re gonna need all the help we can get.

  • YMCA – The Village People
  • Just dance; Poker face – Lady Gaga
  • Hey ya – Outkast (quite possibly the all-time champion)
  • Shake it off – Taylor Swift
  • Groove is in the heart – Dee-lite
  • 1999; Kiss; Erotic City; Let’s go crazy – Prince
  • Billy Jean; ABC; The way you make me feel; Rock with you; Gonna be startin’ something; Don’t stop till you get enough – Michael Jackson
  • All night long – Lionel Richie
  • Yeah – Usher
  • This is how we do it – Montell Jordan
  • Can’t stop the feeling; Rock your body; Señorita; Like I love you; SexyBack – Justin Timberlake
  • I will survive – Gloria Gaynor
  • Come on Eileen – Dexy’s Midnight Runners
  • Got Your Money – Ol’ Dirty Bastard
  • Cheap Thrills – Sia
  • Wake me up – Avicii
  • Centerfold – J Geils Band
  • Living on a prayer – Bon Jovi
  • Love shack – The B-52s
  • Tainted love – Soft Cell
  • Happy – Pharrell Williams
  • Crazy – Gnarls Barkley
  • Jungle Boogie – Kool & the Gang
  • Heart of Glass, Rapture – Blondie
  • Bulletproof – La Roux
  • Titanium – David Guetta/Sia
  • In da club – 50 Cent
  • Wake me up before you go-go – Wham!
  • Jump Around – House of Pain
  • Here comes the hotstepper – Ini Kamoze
  • Hideaway – Kiesza
  • A little respect; Chains of Love – Erasure
  • Just can’t get enough – Depeche Mode
  • Rio – Duran Duran
  • Girls and Boys – Blur
  • I love it – Icona Pop
  • Call me maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen
  • Smells like teen spirit – Nirvana
  • Brown-eyed girl – Van Morrison
  • Take me on – a-ha
  • Hypnotize – Notorious BIG
  • Uptown Funk – Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars
  • Last Nite – The Strokes
  • I’m coming out – Diana Ross
  • Get up – James Brown
  • Single ladies; Crazy in love – Beyonce Knowles
  • Toxic; Baby one more time – Britney Spears
  • Dirrrrty – Christina Aguilera
  • Twist and shout – Beatles
  • Mr Brightside – The Killers
  • Like a prayer; Vogue; Ray of Light; Holiday; Like a virgin; Express yourself – Madonna
  • Regulate – Warren G
  • Don’t you want me – The Human League
  • Gold digger – Kanye West
  • Mo’ money mo’ problems – Jay Z
  • Get Lucky – Daft Punk
  • Moves like Jagger – Maroon 5
  • I wanna dance with somebody – Whitney Houston
  • Dancing Queen – ABBA
  • Boom boom pow; I gotta feeling – Black Eyed Peas
  • Low – Flo Rida
  • Party rock anthem – LMFAO
  • We found love; Umbrella – Rihanna

For Millennials: The Guide to Using a Telephone

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oldschoolphoneHey there, people born after 1985! I noticed that a lot of you are having issues with your smartphone’s simultaneous real-time voice chat app, also known as The Phone. So just in case you don’t want to turn yourself into a pariah and die alone and friendless, here’s a short guide to how The Phone works:

1. You do not have to ask permission to call someone in the same way you have to ask for permission to, say, marry them. You can just call them. If they can answer, they will. If they cannot, then they will see that you have called and/or left a voicemail, and call you back at their leisure.

2. Calling someone is not considered an unpardonable intrusion into their lives. In fact, a single two-minute phone call has been known to replace 5 days of meandering inconclusive texting. Come to think of it, calling is often the less intrusive choice, since I can’t drive, cook or have sex while texting. Talking can be hands-free and practically attention-free, while texting requires at least one of my hands and all of my attention. Far more intrusive.

3. Talking to people is how you make friends. Texting people is how you lose them. Your pick. Unless you enjoy annoying your friends with cryptic messages like “Let’s meet at mine at the tar”, “You’re she nest” and “I realty hike you,” you need to get on the horn (= more hip slang for “The Phone” — you’re welcome!) and actually speak to me, so I can say “what the fuck was that gibberish” when you don’t make any sense.

4. The term “dial” refers to the circular number dials that used to be on phones. You would stick your forefinger in a number hole, turn it around all the way for each number, then wait for the ringing signal to speak to someone. Crazy, huh?! Now of course you can say “Call Madison” to Siri, or just lick the smartphone screen, and it will do the same thing. Hell, you don’t even know what Madison’s number is and never will, and she’s, like, your bestie, you spoiled little brat you. But, hey, I’m not jealous — oops, I mean jelly — because you’re gonna be senile by like 50, because you never had to actually use your brain to remember 2000 phone numbers like we did.

5. Expect the unexpected. Talking to people on the phone can be daunting. For starters, anything can happen. It’s not like you can prepare your remarks for 3hrs, show them to four of your friends for editing, and consult on le emoji juste to end it with before sending it out. Nosirreebob — it’s all happening in real time. Someone could ask something tricky like, “Are you having a good day?,” and then your Conversational Response Decision Tree explodes out into a gazillion branches — do I go nonchalant? stoic? or do I actually risk real vulnerability and tell ’em that my hair’s frizzy and I’m broke? Luckily, there’s always Toastmasters. And for top-notch public speaking training, there’s also KNP Communications — if we’re good enough for 70+ members of Congress, we just might be good enough for you, too.

If you have a face, you could also practice talking to people face-to-face — y’know, IRL. Really good warm-up for talking on the phone.

6. Know how to end a conversation gracefully. Another scary thing about the phone: how do you get off it once you’re on? It used to be you could say “Gotta run”, but that doesn’t work anymore because everyone knows your phone is on you when you run (and also when you’re driving, eating, peeing and showering). So the way to gracefully end a conversation in 2016 is to say “Gotta swim.” People totes get that, especially if you mention it’s breaststroke.

7. Answer phone calls on your birthday. One day a year, it’s your birthday. People are very likely to call you on that day. Now some of them may be trying to sell you sketchy time shares in Reno. But most are calling you to hear your voice, wish you a happy birthday and express their gratitude for your existence on Planet Earth. So unless you’re inside someone’s skull removing a medulloblastoma, or beating back ISIS with your bare hands, you are not doing anything more important than speaking to friends who for some reason still seem to care about your text-only negligent ass. Pick up the fucking phone on that day whenever it rings. All day long.

8. Hanging out > phone call > text. Have you ever said to a friend you’re hanging out with, “Hey, you’re really interesting and all, and I am toootally enjoying your company, but someone else just came along who may or may not be as interesting, so I’m just going to cut you off right here mid-sentence, because who knows!” No? You’ve never done that? Of course not, because that would the definition of a dick move, and you are not a dick. However, every time you pick up an incoming phone call, or check your phone for a text when you’re already talking to someone else, that’s exactly what you’re doing. S0 stop making dick moves already and talk to me.

9. You can use the phone to get to know people. You do not need to have a baseline of deep trust, intimacy or a condom before you talk to someone on the phone. This is because talking on the phone is one of the ways you establish trust and intimacy with another person — y’know, getting to know them and stuff, at a safe distance. And if you think texting is better than talking for establishing trust, why not try telegrams, too! STOP. And skywriting! Oh, and for our dinner tonight, you should look up at the sky where Orion would be around 7.30pm — I’ll be putting up the venue there in red smoke. Come hang out with us and talk. Don’t miss out, ’cause then you’ll be totes jelly.

Dr Ali Binazir is a speaking coach and pitch doctor at KNP Communications and the author of The Tao of Dating: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Being Absolutely Irresistible (ebook, paperback and audiobook), the highest-rated dating book on Amazon for 4+ years. You may reach him at abinazir(at)knpcommunications dot com.

“When Breath Becomes Air”: A call to life before death

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“Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.” — T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

whenbreathbecomesairI picked up When Breath Becomes Air (hardback; ebook; audiobook) at about 10pm on the first day of spring by a recommendation from the inimitable Jesse Kornbluth. From his and other reviews, I roughly knew what the book was about: death. What better time to meditate on death than on the very cusp of Earth’s re-awakening?

In one sitting, it was read. It’s a tonic against the unreality that assaults us in the world today — politics, entertainment, advertising, broken promises, missed meetings — because it’s the most real book I’ve read in recent memory. Paul Kalanithi is 36 years old, and chief neurosurgery resident at Stanford Medical School. Every day, he opens up people’s skulls with a drill and saw, dissecting through the dura and meninges to get to a tiny tumor in the cerebellum. One false move of his scalpel by 2mm, and instead of a productive career and fatherhood, his patient is fully paralyzed for life. This is not about shifting around some spreadsheet numbers or holding meetings with middle management about shareholder value, folks. Kalanithi’s work is at the interface between thriving and withering, life and death, every day.

And then, Kalanithi’s life takes a turn for the even more real: he himself is diagnosed with lung cancer. At that point, he has to decide whether he will be spending the remainder of his time on Earth dying or living — a span of 1 to 10 years, depending on disease progression. He chooses to live: to rehabilitate himself and go back to full-time surgical practice in spite of his exhausting chemotherapy regimen; to repair his marriage; to have a child; and to write this book. I am very glad he made that decision.

It turns out that Kalanithi’s time on earth was much closer to the lower end of the predicted range, which makes his story even more poignant and the creation of this book even more heroic. Between 100hr weeks at the hospital, mind-fogging chemotherapy, and a newborn, when did he write?

This is a book that stays with you. It’s a lucid exposition from a consummate insider on the practice of medicine and work of healing. When can doctors heal? What do they tell patients when they can’t? How do they react when a patient dies? How do they convey that news to the family? Is life always worth living?

Paul’s days were numbered, and he knew the number was small. But so are ours. If you’re 25, that number is 18,000 to 20,000. If you’re 45, it’s closer to 13,000. If your light plane crashes, or you have a mountaineering accident, or have a freak untreated food poisoning, that number could be much smaller, like it was for my three friends who died in the past year, all under the age of 35.

So the bad news is that we’re all going to die, folks. Especially you. The good news is that every moment that you live is a gift. You can have that fact impressed upon you by a terminal diagnosis. Or you can read When Breath Becomes Air. Let that inform your days, and you just may infuse every moment of your existence with greater meaning, purpose, and joy.

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Madrid: 13 Observations

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1) Stylin’ clothes. People here dress sharp. Not a lot of velour tracksuits with flip-flops.

2) Jesus do they party. Clubs don’t get going till well past 1am, and the streets are filled with people till 4am, but only on days that end in Y.

3) Free food. There is a tradition of giving away tasty little tapas snacks with your drink order. Or with your tapas order, like your tapas had tapas offspring or something. I love this tradition.

4) Rampant smoking. The memo that smoking cigarettes is one of the dumbest, foulest things you can do as a human being has not reached these parts. People of all ages, especially youngsters, smoke like they’ve got lung and life to spare (truth: you absolutely, positively do not).

5) Parking. This is a nation of champion parallel parkers. The streets are narrow, parking spots tiny, and somehow these guys wedge their cars in with 10cm between themselves and their neighbors. Amazing.

6) Smartphone addiction. Spaniards love their smartphones every bit as much as Americans, obliviously walking into intersections while staring at their screens like the best of New York and San Francisco.

7) Low obesity. There are no fat madrileños. The overweight people are almost exclusively tourists.

8) PDA. This is the capital of public displays of affection. In the airport, at the bar, on the sidewalk, a guy will grab his girl and start a serious, extended make-out session with zero compunction.

9) Trains. The trains are amazing — polished, gleaming, graffiti-free, air-conditioned beasts of modern transport efficiency. And Madrid has three layers of public transport: the CERCANIAS city train, the metro, and buses.

10) Globally homogenized youth culture. In their manner of dress and ornamentation, Madrid kids are indistinguishable from their American counterparts in San Francisco or Brooklyn (and Berlin and Paris, for that matter). Hipster style is the same, with the beards, hairdos and skinny pants. Septal nose rings, random tattoos and those ghastly earlobe-expanding washers also abound, perhaps even more so than in the US.

11)  Ubiquitous free internet access. These people are big on public WiFi (pronounced wee-fee). It was not just in every small cafe and tapas bar — it was in the buses. Damn.

12) Silent Spanish. There are a few facial gestures Spaniards make that are unique to them, which is how I could tell them apart from the foreigners before even speaking to them.

13) Tapas! Holy cow. The variety of ingredients, the flavors, the combinations were astonishing. Pinchos (or pintxos, the equally common Basque spelling) are the tiny snacks put on a single piece of bread, like Spanish sushi. I found the broadest variety (if not necessarily the cheapest at 2.70 euro a pop) at this converted old movie theater called Platea. It’s in the swanky Salamanca neighborhood near the city center, and you need to check it out: two floors of tapas and food shops, one full restaurant, one gleamingly suave cocktail bar, and a DJ spinning bumping tunes the whole time.

Platea, tapas heaven, Madrid Sept 2015

Platea, tapas heaven, Madrid Sept 2015

The Science of Sleep: A Talk With Matt Walker

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mattwalker

Last night I attended Matt Walker’s conversation with Indre Viskontas as part of the City Arts & Lectures series at the Nourse Theater on the science of sleep. He and Indre did an excellent job of conveying a ton of useful information in a conversational format that was both accessible and entertaining. Some highlights from the talk:

1. Sleep is so important from an evolutionary standpoint that organisms will develop byzantine mechanisms to make sure they get their shut-eye without becoming dinner. For example, marine animals (e.g. dolphins) sleep with one brain hemisphere at a time. And when a flock of birds sit on a branch, the birds in the middle will go to sleep with both hemispheres. The birds on the sides, however, will sleep with only one hemisphere and keep one eye open as a lookout – the opposite eye from the birds on the other end. Then, after a while, they will turn around and switch hemispheres, close one eye and open the other! That way, they always have a 360-degree lookout for predators. This is a movie I would pay to watch.

2. Every language that Walker has looked into has an expression for “sleeping on the problem” as a prescription for

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The Commencement Address That Harvard Will Never Let Me Give

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Dear Super High-Achieving College Grad and parents now deep in educational debt, except for those who are rich enough to cough up the whole $200 grand no problem —

You may want to adjust your seat right now, because I’m about to be a major pain in the ass. Today, I’ve got some good news for you and some bad news.

Actually, I’m just kidding. It’s all pretty much bad news. And here’s the summary: You kids just spent what could have been the best 4 years of your life stressing out way too much, way too often over shit that simply did not matter, and acquiring knowledge that you’ve already forgotten or will never use again*.

After you leave Tercentenary Theatre today, everything that you did in college – every deadline you met, every bullshit paper you wrote, every exam you crammed for, every all-nighter you pulled, every comp you passed or flunked, and every extracurricular you ran – all of that gets summarized into two measly lines on your résumé. And nobody will ever care about any of that shit again.

What’s even worse is that these 4 years have laid down a pattern for the rest of your life, which you will now spend the next 20 years of your life trying to unravel. But only if you catch on to how bad it is now, instead of living in a fog for the next fourscore.

Right now, you’re like a greyhound – a sleek, fast, racing machine bred to

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San Francisco 2013-14: The Zeitgeist of the City

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On the morning of Tuesday, 6 November 2012, I walked to Joslyn Park to cast my ballot for the US Presidential elections for the last time in Santa Monica. I then visited my parents up the road and had lunch with them. After taking a picture with them wearing their little “I Voted” stickers, I got in my car and drove up to San Francisco.

The move to San Francisco was a belated one. As early as 2009, I had ventured up north and checked out an apartment a friend was getting with the idea of becoming housemates. He wanted an answer the next day, I wasn’t ready to make a decision that fast, and perhaps not entirely willing to trade in my two-bedroom, two-bathroom beachside pad for a 10’x10’ room in a shared apartment. The opportunity passed.

And yet, I repeatedly found myself in San Francisco which favorably impressed me each time. TEDx SF invited me to come speak on creativity in November of 2009, and the people I met were very interesting indeed. Then, every other month, I’d find myself in the Bay Area to visit friends for weddings and other special events. In fact, I had three sets of close married friends (two in Oakland, one in San Francisco) who always welcomed me and subtly campaigned for my move to the Bay. Two other close friends also made the pilgrimage from Los Angeles and made murmurs of approbation.

Moreover, all these great

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Ten Reasons Why I’m Skipping Burning Man in 2014

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“Let’s go.”
“Whaddya mean ‘Let’s go’? I spent all of last week trying to convince you to go, and you mumbled and waffled and made lame excuses and said no. Now, all of a sudden you want to go?”
“I changed my mind. Let’s go.”
“Just like that? Well screw you and your fickle ways. Let’s go.”

180min before the dust

180min before the dust. Incidentally, what’s on the bench is ALL of our stuff. Ahh, the days of simplicity…

I had been aware of Burning Man for a couple of years before finally deciding to go in 1997. There would always be some article about the best parties in the world in a newspaper of record like Maxim (which totally kicked ass then, by the way). I’d make a mental note along the lines of “Hey, that does sound like a good party,” then promptly lose said note for its lack of adhesive quality in my cranium — and with it, the intention to plan this quixotic desert excursion.

But this time around, things were

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It’s not you — actually, it is you: friendship-terminating linguistic pet peeves

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1) “Homogenous” instead of “homogeneous”: The correct word rhymes with “you’re a genius”, not with “erogenous.” Yeah, I know the verb is “homogenize”, so homogenous sounds right, but it’s totally, completely and utterly wrong. Note: “homogenous” is a word, but it’s rarely used and means homologous or of same origin. Unless you’re a professional evolutionary biologist talking about phylogenetic trees, leave it alone and you’re a genius.

2) “Compliment” vs “complement”: In the salad bowl, the fennel turned to the orange rind and said, “My, you look zesty today.” Unless you’re on ‘shrooms and this kind of thing happens to you regularly, then you may not say “compliment” when you really mean “complement” — you know, like when something goes well with something else. When it’s complementary and stuff. Don’t even tell me they’re close in meaning, because they’re about as close as Guinea and New Guinea.

3) “Processes” being pronounced “process-ease”: If you’ve got a Latin word ending in -is like “nemesis”, the plural is “nemeses.” Most of the time. Some of these Latin words are Greek-derived, though, and the correct plural substitutes -ides for the -is, as in “clitorides” for “clitoris.” (See, your day just got more interesting.)
I go down this rambling path to demonstrate that unless the singular form is “processis”, there is no way that can turn into “processeeeeez” when pluralized. It’s a faux-erudite overcorrection that I’ve heard committed by professors (professors!) and others who should know better. Stoppitalready. I don’t care that people have been doing it for so long that now some dictionaries consider it acceptable — it’s still wrong. This argument is not going to be one of your success-eez. See? It does sound retarded.

4) “Laissez-faire” being pronounced “lay-zay faire”: Look, I know that words like “Missouri” and “dessert” screw up the whole rulebook and turn a double-S, which should be even more S than a single S, into a Z. But you know what? That never happens in the original Frenchish. So laissez-faire is pronounced “lay say fair”, always, and if you continue to disagree, you’re azzazzinating two languages, not just one, and being just plain lay-zay.

5) “Relative” vs “relevant”: If you think that this error is not relevant to you, then I really hope we’re not relatives.

Oh, we’re just getting started here…

Book Review: On Looking – Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes

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A fabulous blogger whom I hold in great respect turned me on to Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. And who was I to resist eleven walks with expert eyes? If the whole point of life is to see a little better, then I’m all for a book that can expand my vision.

Here’s some of what I really liked about the book:
• The expert walk vignettes are very engaging, and Horowitz has a beautifully poetic writing style. The book is a joy to read. I finished it in two sittings, one of them late into the night. This is thriller-level readability, folks.
• The experts really do have super x-ray vision in their domains. Their vision is so different, in fact, that when you enter their world, you feel as if you’re moving around in a virtual reality overlay of a whole new dimension. Plants, animals, insects, rocks, letters, sounds you had never considered, all rise to attention’s surface in 3-D relief.
• The book is a bounty of

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“Days of God”: A thrilling firsthand account of the Iranian Revolution

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“Is that the sound of firecrackers, Mom?”

“No. That’s the sound of bullets, Ali. You should stay inside.”

That was my first revolution, in January 1979. We lived in the upper-middle class North Tehran neighborhood of Saltanat Abad (“Monarchyville”), but I could still hear the report of gunshots from Jaleh Square far south. What were people fighting over? To a six year old, it didn’t make any sense.

The standard narrative of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 reads something like this: The Shah was a dictator who did a fair amount to build up and reform the country but was also profligate and repressive. He used the Savak, his secret Police, to silence and torture dissenters. Eventually, his time came up, and a monolithic popular uprising brought Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini, a.k.a the Ayatollah, to power.

That’s not even close to the whole murky, thrilling and heartbreaking story.

James Buchan, the author of Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences, was a student in Tehran in 1973. From that vantage point,

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On pain and how to handle it

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On the morning of Saturday, March 15, I woke up to shooting and stabbing pain down the right side of my neck, upper back and right arm. The pain encircled my ribs and was literally breathtaking.

I figured I must have slept with my neck in a funny position and a little massage would relieve it. But there was no part of my neck and back that my visiting friend could touch without eliciting a howl from yours truly. So I called my acupuncturist and bodywork specialist Steve, who was kind enough to accommodate me on short notice. Although the session gave me some relief, I realized that this was a different beast than a simple stiff neck.

Eventually, I found an experienced physical therapist/bodyworker based in San Rafael named Al Chan, whose deep knowledge of anatomy combined with his iron paws (I call his technique “Ow now, wow later”) helped put me on the mend.

This article is not about the clinical course of my ailment, though. This is aboutpain – where it

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Life, Death, Youth, the Red Book, Oprah and Truth: Harvard Commencement and Reunion 2013

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One of the things that I remember best from my 15th college reunion was looking over at the 20th reunion people and noticing how impossibly old they looked. These were some paunchy, bald folks in dad jeans, with crevasses on their faces and the teenage kids responsible for said erosion. That would never happen to us whippersnappers of the Class of 1993.

Well, it did. And I’m glad it did, since the alternative (e.g. death) is neither novel nor exciting.

Like a wedding, a college reunion is an occasion of almost unalloyed joy. You get several days to catch up with long-lost friends on years of stories, all in the midst of an endless banquet. You meet the heretofore mythical spouses (“Oh! Someone actually agreed to commit her life to you — that’s great!”), you hug their impossibly cute kids, have great conversations, remember old times, and drink far too many Cape Cods strong enough to remove paint and half your liver.

Another similarity with weddings is that a reunion is a gathering of victors. If you’re broke, sick, alcoholic, getting a divorce, grossly out of shape, prematurely aged, going bankrupt, tangling with the law or otherwise on the receiving end of a bad fortune cookie, you’re probably not going to show up. At a place like Harvard, the impulse to avoid the scrutiny and comparison of peers is perhaps even stronger. What, you haven’t published your third bestselling novel yet? How many IPOs? Not the head of Neurosurgery? No tenure? Only spoken at TED Mainstage once? No Pulitzer, MacArthur or Nobel? Why are we friends again?

The Class Report

Exacerbating all of this is the Class Report, better known as the Red Book. Every five years, we are encouraged to

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How to Write and Publish Your Book in 30 Days: A Guide for Busy People

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Lately, I’ve been talking to many of my friends about getting their books published. Not that they have big, fat manuscripts lying around just waiting to be published. No, no — most of these people aren’t even thinking about writing a book. I’m the one who says they have a book in them that’s itching to come out. They were just minding their business, perfectly happy with their non-authorial existence, until I waltzed along and persuaded them that their lives were empty and meaningless without getting their noble thoughts down in book form for posterity to enjoy.

I’m exaggerating here, but only a little: I do believe that most people have a book in them. I’ve self-published all of my books so far: The Tao of Dating: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Being Absolutely IrresistibleThe Tao of Dating: The Thinking Man’s Enlightened Guide to Success With Women, and Best Dating Advice I Ever Got: 3000 Women Pick Their Favorite Love Tips.* And as an independent author and publisher, it’s my goal to help as many people fulfill their authorial ambitions as possible. Because it has never been easier in the history of mankind to write a book, publish it, and make it available to millions of potential readers — and to even make a buck doing it all.

In this article, I’ll endeavor to tell you about the steps you need to take to write a book and publish it, fast, even ifyou believe you have no

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Dr Obama, Vaccination, and the Health of a Nation

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Recently I read about a new movie about a person with polio. “Wow. I’m really lucky not to have gotten polio,” I thought, for the first time ever. A tingly wave of gratitude washed over me for functioning limbs that can run, dance and kick a football.

Come to think of it, nobody in the U.S. has polio these days. And the disease has been nearly eradicated worldwide. Why?

Because of vaccination, that’s why.

In fact, as you are sitting there, reading this, chances are you don’t have measles, mumps, pertussis, diphtheria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, or TB. It’s no exaggeration to say that vaccines are the single advance most responsible for the elevated standard of living in industrialized nations today.

At the same time, it’s a pretty sure bet that you’re not sitting there thinking, “Omigod! I just noticed that

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‘God’s Hotel’ by Victoria Sweet: A Profoundly Human Book

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A book that can delight you through its entertainments or instruct you with useful knowledge is a good book; one that does both is a great book. Rarely, a book comes along that not only instructs and delights but also deepens your humanity, carving out extra space inside us to carry even more compassion. God’s Hotel by Victoria Sweet is such a book. [A hat-tip to Jesse Kornbluth of Head Butler for introducing me to it.]

There were many reasons I enjoyed this book, which is really many books at once:

1) The author, Dr Victoria Sweet, who has a PhD in medieval history as well as an MD, shares the ancient Latin and Greek etymologies of many terms used in patient care today. Hospitality, community, charity – what do they really mean? Through her stories about her time taking care of patients, Dr Sweet shows how those formed the three foundational principles of Laguna Honda Hospital.

Hospital comes from hospitality, the root of which is hospes, which means both ‘guest’ or ‘host’. This is how Sweet explains this:

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Impressions: Amsterdam

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  1. Included with your admission ticket to the Concertgebouw is free coffee and tea before the concert, and wine at intermission.
  2. Sandwiches come with knife and fork.
  3. The biggest hills in town are bridges.
  4. An intersection can have separate traffic lights for pedestrians, bikes, cars and trams. They are not necessarily synchronized with each other. Each segment of the street has separate lights (i.e. there’s a light to the first traffic island, then another).
  5. The fanciest cars on the road are taxis – late-model Mercedes E-Class.
  6. Trash is deposited in huge subterranean bins which are picked up and emptied by giant cranes.
  7. At an intersection, both cars and pedestrians yield to bikes. Cars are especially careful, since they’re liable for all damages from collision with a bike.
  8. People are not big on curtains. Half the homes don’t even have them, and the other half are cavalier about pulling them shut.
  9. There are no Dutch restaurants outside of Holland.
  10. In the same way that London has lots of

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Taoism in Three Easy Pieces

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It must have happened to you hundreds of times.

There you are at a cocktail party, holding a mojito in one hand and holding forth on everything and nothing with the other, eliciting nods and knowing chuckles from your audience. You look good. Life is good. Then someone asks out of the blue, “So what the hell is this whole Taoism thing about?”

Aw man. Not that again. I mean, is it Taoism with a T, or Daoism with a D? And what’s that yin-yang symbol thingie anyway? Not your area of your expertise, not your bowl of porridge, not in your wheelhouse. End of your cocktail party mojo.

This is a pretty common condition, as I recently found out. A friend who was intrigued by Eastern philosophy but hadn’t the occasion to study it yet asked me what Taoism was all about. Mojito in hand, three basic principles came to mind which I thought you would find useful as a quick introduction, so you’re properly armed for next time it comes up:

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Partial Continuous Ecstasy: Can You Reside in Bliss Around the Clock?

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I want you to stop what you’re doing right now and really pay attention to… your breath. Slow down your breath, and make an effort to feel the air as it enters your nose.

Maybe even pinpoint a particular molecule of air, and follow its path as you feel it move along your airways, as you become conscious of every part of your body it touches.

First, feel it slide into your nostril. Then, slowly, it caresses the inside of your nasal passages, up and over into the back of your throat, down into your trachea. Slowly now – become aware of and really feel every little bit of

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What I learned at SXSW 2012

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I recently got back from the South By Southwest Conference and had a marvelous time. One unusual thing that happened this time around was that several people asked me, “Why are you here?”  It was a bit like asking why do you drink water, or what’s the big deal about this whole breathing thing anyway.

And yet, a trivial question it is not.  In fact, I very nearly didn’t go this year, so it’s important for me to remind myself why I do take 6 days off from work, buy a non-cheap pass, pay for non-cheap airfare and scrounge for accommodations in an overstuffed Austin during the second week of March every year to go to SXSW Interactive (NB: to add the Film and Music portions would frankly be too much). Here are my five reasons:

1) Encountering new ideas.  SXSW consistently pulls to its stages some of greatest minds in science, business, technology, entrepreneurship, journalism and all-around awesomeness.  Because there are so many stages, these speakers have incentive to share their best work with us lest we leave for another of the 35-40 simultaneous talks.  This year alone, I was lucky to catch talks by neuroscientist David Eagleman, inventor Dean Kamen, game designer Jane McGonigal, Mathematica creator Stephen Wolfram, and X Prize founder Peter Diamandis (about all of whom I will share below).

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Notes from a great conference

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I just came out of a four-day conference (which shall remain nameless), and it was such a life-affirming, mind-expanding, invigorating experience that I thought I would share my notes.  I got doused by a downpour of novel ideas from disparate fields in the many talks I attended.  Here’s a sampling, in no particular order:

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Why I can’t stand the freakin’ holidays

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There used to be a time when I really liked the holidays.  Heck, it was vacation!  Any excuse for no school was a good excuse for no school.  It was actually called Christmas vacation then, until it was politically corrected so it would both include all the bellyaching factions who wanted to be included and not offend the atheists, agnostics, and Flyingspaghettimonsterites.

But I digress.  Let’s get to the heart of the matter: why Christmas vacation sucks.  I know my fellow curmudgeons are out there, and thanks to the internet, they too can find a few words to warm their shriveled little Scrooge hearts.  Read on:

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The best languages to learn in college and beyond

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One of the biggest pieces of advice that I dispense to the rising Harvard freshmen is to take language classes.  Harvard does a fantastic job of teaching them, they’re a super-useful lifelong skill, and they’re generally an easy ‘A’.  You just can’t go wrong.

The big question is, which languages should you take?  Here’s my take on which to take, with a rough rating for each.  I’ve taken French, Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, Portuguese, Arabic and Chinese lessons, so those are based on firsthand experience:

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The Fatal Flaws of Traditional Publishing (or: Why You Should Self-Publish)

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In 2005, I left my job at a fancy consulting firm to start an online publishing business.  That’s when I started to go to publishing conferences, just to see how the industry worked (and to wander like a crackhead at a dealer’s convention, but that’s a separate story or two).

Trained as a physician and business consultant, my mind has a tendency to spontaneously diagnose problems and notice what’s weird.  For an industry that is presumably invested in its own perpetuation and success, the counterproductive practices I noticed about the publishing industry were very strange indeed. Some practices (like

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Why really smart people have a tough time dating

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I have a mini-confession to make: I wrote the Tao of Dating books specifically for really smart people (both women and men).  The writing of the books was precipitated by the endemic dating woes on the Harvard campus, as I observed them as an advisor and, earlier, wallowed in them as a student.

Those kids graduate and pretty much continue to have the same dating woes — only now with fewer single people around living in the same building and sharing meals with them every day.  So if they had challenges then, it gets about 1000 times worse once they’re expelled from the warm womb of alma mater.

From my observations, the following dating challenges are common to most smart people.  In fact, the smarter you are, the more

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What are the chances of your coming into being?

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A little while ago I had the privilege of attending TEDx San Francisco, organized by the incomparable Christine Mason McCaull.  One of the talks was by Mel Robbins, a riotously funny self-help author and life coach with a syndicated radio show.  In it, she mentioned that scientists calculate the probability of your existing as you, today, at about one in 400 trillion (4×1014).

“That’s a pretty big number,” I thought to myself.  If I had 400 trillion pennies to my name, I could probably retire.

Previously, I had heard the Buddhist version of the probability of ‘this precious incarnation’.  Imagine there was one life preserver thrown somewhere in some ocean and there is exactly one turtle in all of these oceans, swimming underwater somewhere.  The probability that you came about and exist today is the same as that turtle sticking its head out of the water — in the middle of that life preserver.  On one try.

So I got curious: are either of these numbers correct?  Which one’s bigger?  Are they gross exaggerations?  Or is it possible that they underestimate the true number?

First, let us figure out the probability of one turtle sticking its head out of the one life preserver we toss out somewhere in the ocean.  That’s a pretty straightforward calculation.

According to WolframAlpha, the total area of oceans in the world is 3.409×108 square kilometers, or 340,900,000 km2 (131.6 million square miles, for those benighted souls who still cling to user-hostile British measures).  Let’s say a life preserver’s hole is about 80cm in diameter, which would make

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‘Tous les Matins du Monde’: a great movie

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Last night I finally had the chance to watch a movie that I had on my ‘must see’ list for a couple of centuries — Tous Les Matins du Monde (1991), directed by Alain Corneau, after a novel by Pascal Quignard.  It’s a fictional story based on historical characters.  Gérard Depardieu plays Marin Marais, a viola da gamba player and court musician to Louis XIV.  As a young man (played by Depardieu’s son Guillaume), Marais was a student of M. Sainte-Colombe, a recluse after the death of his young wife.

The movie is about music, love, betrayal, regret, longing, and the meaning of true art.  It has a largo pace, with long takes allowing you to imbibe scene and nuance.  It’s hard to imagine a Hollywood movie allowing any one character to speak as long as the young Marais in his first visit to Sainte-Colombe, where, in an incredibly discursive and ballsy monologue, he makes his case for being taken on as the maestro’s student; or to have so many scenes of uninterrupted bucolic beauty; or to dare to dwell on close-ups conveying worlds of meaning with the subtlest of facial gestures.  Although the score is ravishing — put together by Jordi Savall from his own and the protagonists’ compositions — in a movie about music, the silences sometimes speak the loudest.

In my research into the movie, I made a heartbreaking discovery: Guillaume, who plays the preposterously handsome young Marais, died of a freak lung infection in 2008 at only 37.  That this eerily paralleled some of the fictional action underscored the film’s pathos.

In the end, if the best art compels us to nobler thought and deed, Tous les Matins du Monde certainly qualifies.  Should you watch the movie — to paraphrase Coleridge from the closing lines of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner — a sadder and a wiser man (or woman) you shall rise the morrow morn, and more human.

The Persian Primer: How to Understand and Properly Make Fun of Iranian-Americans

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Everywhere I turn these days, Iranians seem to be in the news. Back in the home country, the women are causing tremors through sheer power of thought and implied hotness under the tents they wear. Both the women and men are causing minor tremors in the US, becoming culturally prominent in ways that I can no longer ignore. And it’s not just here in Los Angeles – they’re everywhere!

Iranian authors are all over the bookstore: Marjane Satrapi with Persepolis; Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran; Roxana Saberi’s just released Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran; Firoozeh Dumas’s Funny in Farsi. Shirin Ebadi took the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Nasim Pedrad is our very own Saturday Night Live cast member. The founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar, is Iranian. So is Firouz Naderi, the head of NASA’s Mars Exploration; Omid Kordestani, Senior VP at Google; hundreds of super-genius university professors; and about 12 million doctors and dentists, one of which has made you say ‘aaah’ in the past week.

Unfortunately, there has not been a commensurate rise in Iranian-American jokes. There are jokes about Irish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Polish-Americans and Italian-Americans. (To be fair, there are also no German-American jokes, but what is there to make fun of? Punctuality? Good hair? Superior engineering? But I digress.) Heck, there are even jokes making fun of Southeast Asian drivers.

But who’s making fun of Iranians? Nobody. Except for Iranians themselves, like Maz Jobrani and his riotous US Census videos. Most likely, this shortcoming stems from

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Danny Hillis and Robert Thurman in conversation: Science, Religion and Ethics

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I just got back from a talk with Robert Thurman and Danny Hillis at the Skirball Center here in Los Angeles. It was about religion, science and ethics, bringing together Danny’s viewpoint as a scientist and Robert’s viewpoint as a Buddhist scholar. Basically crack cocaine for my brain.

Thurman is the leading Tibetan Buddhist in America, a professor of religion at Columbia and buddy of the Dalai Lama. He’s just one seriously cool guy – take my word for it.

Danny Hillis is a genius. For me, the idea of genius isn’t just about being smart and having the intellectual horsepower. It’s about generativity, about making things. Well, in his spare time, Danny Hillis created the 10,000 year clock to illustrate his concept of ‘the long now’ – the idea that it’s a good idea to lead our lives now as if we’re having impact way beyond our own lives and that of our children. Hence, ‘long now’.

He’s also made a computer out of tinkertoys and been a Disney Imagineer and a zillion other things. I’d never met Danny in person, and the one thing that I noticed is that this guy is massive. He’s got these meaty bear paws, is at least 6’3”, and has the biggest head I’ve seen on a person. In fact, you could easily fit two of my heads inside his.All them neurons need a home, I tell ya.

But enough introduction. The conversation started civilly enough. Thurman talked about the 3 jewels (or refuges, or rattanas) of Buddhism:

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Beijing 2008: Cultural, Culinary and Linguistic (Mis)Adventures

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Around January of this year, my friend Randall and I started to discuss the possibility of visiting China for the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Randall had been taking Chinese lessons for some time, and I was itching for an excuse to start them myself. After some back-and-forthing over phone and email, we carpe’d the diem on February 27, when Randall purchased a brace of plane tickets to the Imperial City. Alea iacta est — the die is cast; can’t go back.We would arrive in Beijing on Sunday, August 3, five days before the opening ceremonies of the Games of the 29th Olympiad.

Before I launch into the story, you should recognize that neither Randall nor I is a rabid sports fan. In fact, we couldn’t be bothered about organized sports at all. Our interest was in seeing China, breathing its air (but not too much), eating its food (way too much), practicing its language, and witnessing the spectacle of the games up close. And if we caught an event or two, even better.

Having attended the Games in Athens in 2004, I just wanted to marinate in the unique atmosphere the Olympics create: revelry and friendly competition between all nations; being amidst some of the most talented, hard-working, accomplished young folks on the planet; witnessing the spectacle of human achievement; seeing which country’s fans got wasted the most. Athens was an amazing experience, and I was eager to repeat it Beijing-style. As it turns out, Athens also became the touchstone by which Beijing would be judged, as Greece and China went about hosting the world’s biggest party in dramatically different ways.

Incheon our way to Beijing

If for some reason the story of our trip were to be read in Mrs Golding’s English class, she’d say that our stopover at Seoul/Incheon International Airport was an example of foreshadowing. Why? Seoul was awarded the hosting of the 1988 Olympics. At the time, Korea was at best a developing nation, their most visible product being

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The New Yorker Conference 2008: A Hail of Big Ideas

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Last year was the first time The New Yorker magazine organized a conference around innovators. At first, I was a bit skeptical, especially since the whole affair lasted just a day and cost a pretty penny and a half. But over the weeks, as every issue of the magazine teased me with yet another brilliant speaker eager to share presto-neato ideas with the world, I decided to plunk down — to find that it was sold out. I had already bought my plane ticket to New York City, so I flew in anyway and spent some quality time with friends. Of course, not before making a quasi-valiant effort at socially engineering my way into the conference — le système D, as the wily French put it.  But pan out it did not, leaving me resolved that this business of being shut out of overpriced conferences will never happen again.

So when the 2008 edition of the conference was announced, I made a big sticky note of the date and time online registration opened, and hopped on it mere seconds after the e-doors opened at 9.00am PST on February 6, 2008. This time the conference cost two pretty pennies, but clearly that was not going to deter this here man on a mission. I was in, baby, in. Later I was informed by one of the kind organizers that I was the very first registrant. Zealotry = results.

Fast forward to the morning of Thursday, May 8. I arrived by cab on a rainy New York morning before the whimsically imposing InterActive Corp (IAC) Headquarters building by the Chelsea Piers. The first impression I got of this building was of a giant wedding cake, with a lot of reflective meringue frosting, if that makes any sense. The swoopy lines and curvilinear facade practically scream “Frank Gehry was here.” And the frosted glass with the transparent bands makes it look like the entire building is

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Rio de Janeiro

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When I arrived in Rio de Janeiro’s Antônio Carlos Jobim International Airport (confusing three-letter symbol: GIG), it had more of the feel of the tiny Treviso airport (trip to Croatia, Summer 2003) than one serving a city of 8 million. João was holding up a card with my name in the small receiving area — let the royal treatment begin! — and directed me towards my cab. I found it heartening that a country would name one of its biggest airports after a composer — namely, “Tom” Jobim, the man who wrote the lilting tones of The Girl from Ipanema (in Portuguese: A Garota de Ipanema). Can you imagine an American airport being named after Irving Berlin or Aaron Copland instead of some dead president? Ladies and gentlemen — I had officially arrived in a place that was Different.

There are shiny airports, and then there are not-so-shiny airports. Airports tend to reflect the rest of the city. JFK is marginally shiny. LAX is shiny. Amsterdam’s Schiphol is way shiny. Heathrow is gleaming. GIG is not shiny. And Rio itself is great, but shiny it is not. In fact, it may even disdain shininess.

The drive through Rio immediately reminded me of Tehran, another vast metropolis with upwards of 8 million people, lots of culture, and great disparities in wealth. As we drove towards our condominium in Ipanema — about as far from the airport and downtown area as you can get — we went through the favelas, the slums made famous by movies like City of God (Cidade de Deus). I had imagined these shantytowns to

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Penguins and the Meaning of Life

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A couple of nights ago, I had the pleasure of seeing The March of the Penguins, the acclaimed Luc Jacquet documentary.  The screening room at the William Morris agency did the sweeping Antarctic vistas and majestic aerial shots of the movie justice, and some friends were on hand to
share the experience.  If you haven’t seen the movie, it follows the breeding ritual of the emperor penguin, one of the few animals that
makes its home on Antarctica (where I hear beachfront real estate is still eminently affordable — buy before everyone else catches on to
this whole global warming thing).

The story goes something like this.  Towards the end of the Antarctic summer, penguins rocket out of the water and start a
migration en masse to the breeding grounds where they were born. Now penguins are pretty picky about their real estate.  Because
they will be particularly vulnerable during this time, they need to be far away from predators.  They also need to be in a place where

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Costa Rica

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As with all trips, there was some pre-departure hesitation before leaving for my cousin’s wedding in Costa Rica last week.  Right at that metaphorical threshold which has “Go” on one side and “Stay” on the other, all the demons of habitude and hebetude rise from the nether regions of the psyche and insinuate themselves into your internal dialogue with such profound pronouncements as “Dude, it’s gonna cost you money”, or “It’s going to be so different — you sure you want that?”  The tautological reasons, even though they generally come under the “It’s a feature, silly, not a bug” heading, seem strangely compelling at the moment you’re about to plunk down hundreds of hard-loaned bucks and several days of life for what is basically a deliberate venture into the unknown.  For such occasions, it’s handy to have a rule to live by (rules being, in my book, what you use only when common sense fails).  My rule is simple: When in doubt, go.  So go I did. 

The 1.05am departure from LAX arrived in San Jose’s Juan Santamaria Airport to a blazing 8am sunshine through crisp skies, resulting in an industrial-strength reset of my circadian clock by a solid 2 hours.  The airport is named after the wily drummer boy who torched the wooden fort where the crazed invader William Walker had taken refuge in February 1856. Walker fled as a result, Costa Rica was

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Confessions of a bookaholic

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It all started innocently enough.  I was having a little promenade on the Promenade here in Santa Monica when I saw the shop window.  At first I tried to ignore it, but resistance was futile.  Slowly, the decidedly straight path my feet were on turned into an arc, like an electron deflected by a magnetic field, as some mysterious force drew me towards the front entrance.  Oh no, not again — I had just promised myself last week that I was going to lay off for a spell.  Go cold turkey.  Force of will.  And I had been doing so well.  But I saw the wares in the shopfront, in all their seductive shapes and colors, and before I could muster up some resistance,

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Why you should not go to medical school — a gleefully biased rant

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In the few years since I’ve graduated from medical school, there has been enough time to go back to medical practice in some form, but I haven’t and don’t intend to, so quit yer askin’ already.  But of course, people keep on asking.  Their comments range from the curious — “Why don’t you practice?” — to the idealistic — “But medicine is such a wonderful profession!” — to the almost hostile — “Don’t you like helping people, you heartless ogre you?”

Since it’s certain that folks will continue to pose me this question for the rest of my natural existence, I figured that instead of launching into my 15-minute polemic on the State of Medicine each time and interrupting the flow of my Hefeweizen on a fine Friday eve, I could just write it up and give them the URL.  So that’s what I did.

Now, unfettered by my prior obligations as an unbiased pre-med advisor, here are the myriad reasons why you should not enter the medical profession and the one (count ’em — one) reason you should.  I have assiduously gone through these arguments and expunged any hint of evenhandedness, saving time for all of you who are hunting for balance.  And here are the reasons:

1) You will lose all the friends you had before medicine.
You think I’m kidding here.  No, I’m not: I mean it in the most literal sense possible. I had a friend in UCLA Med School who lived 12min away, and I saw her once — in three years (UPDATE: twice in 4 years). I saw her more often when she lived in Boston and I was in LA, no foolin’.

Here’s the deal: you’ll be so caught up with taking classes, studying for exams, doing ward rotations, taking care of

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“Can I help?”: A Sojourn in Cambridge

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A late welcome from the banks (and BoGs) of the Cam

It is a Sunday morning here in Cambridge, with an absurdly forceful wind whipping through town, ripping off tree branches, launching horizontal raindrops at pedestrians at relativistic speeds and making cyclists ride at oblique angles just to maintain balance. It’s been nearly three weeks since I arrived here, having left on a Sunday afternoon to arrive at the Monday morning opening ceremonies of my course with 150lb of luggage in tow. Just days before, I had been told by the course assistant director that “There’s no reason for you to show up before October 5”, only to be informed the next day that orientation begins October 7. As it turns out there were many reasons to be present before the 5th — somewhat symbolic of the slapdash nature of this course, as it is the first time it’s being done. More on that later.

It is just after brunch at the Caius College (pronounced “keys”) dining hall, which comprised two fried eggs, a croissant, a bowl of yoghurt, a glass of Minute Maid orange juice, canned pear tomatoes and beans, and a raft of bacon and sausage and hash browns which I dodged — all notable because they form the essence of the Full English Breakfast experience.

I’m sitting here in the computer room, in the basement of the Caius College Library, right next to the Senate House. The latter is a rectangular building in the grand neoclassical style, where the Praelectors of the various colleges lead their graduating gowned flocks to receive their degrees, each college marching in the order of their founding (Caius is fourth, after Peterhouse, Clare College and Pembroke College). But, pray tell, where is the Senate House — or, more specifically, what street is it on? The answer can initiate you into the some of the folly and madness that is Cambridge (and, ultimately, England).

You see, the Senate House is technically on King’s Parade (not King’s Parade Street — just King’s Parade), on what I consider as the main Cambridge U drag. Except that the northern edge of it starts being called Trinity St. But the southern edge becomes Trumpington St. What you start to notice is that over the course of 500 yards, this street changes names 4 times: St John’s St, Trinity St, King’s Parade, Trumpington St, Trumpington Rd (see http://www.cam.ac.uk/map/v3/drawmap.cgi?…), and it’s not the only street that does this. So, even armed with an address such as ‘6 Trumpington St’, you can have a hell of a time finding a place, because you are never really sure which street you’re standing on unless you already know the town well. Add to that the capricious nature of numbering houses (sometimes alternating even and odd on opposite street sides, sometimes not) and the sporadic presence of street signs, and every new address becomes a new adventure.

But these names are old, old, and going against 750 years of history remains a losing proposition around these parts. And, until the 19th century, the Colleges had hegemony over the town, to the extent of setting prices for such things as bread and ale. So the little stretch of street in front of Trinity College will be called Trinity Street, and 50 meters up, in front of St John’s College it’s St John’s St, hallelujah and amen.
And to put in perspective how old Cambridge is, just think of this: when Sir Isaac Newton, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematicks, was writing his Principia Mathematica, Cambridge was already older than Harvard is now.

Keep that bike off the pavement, mate

In the battle against archaic addressing, your best weapon (save memorizing the damn map — oops, I mean memorising) is speed. And that is achieved through the humble bicycle. Even beyond the spire- and cornice-lined streets, it’s the preponderance of bicycles that struck me most upon first arriving here. Every bicycle rack, street sign, and building wall is festooned with metal and rubber, spoke and mudguard, three or four deep. There being at least three times as many cycles here as there are things to fasten them to, most of the two-wheeled conveyances are freestanding, leaning against a wall (which, by the way, would NEVER happen in Boston — the bikes would simply vanish).

Almost all streets are marked with cycle paths, even one-way ones having a little bike lane going the opposite way. And, at the top of every hour, as lectures let out, a stream of pedalers floods every street even more than before. Students, professors, fellows, rich people, poor people — everyone cycles. Those who have children of their own wear helmets; the rest (85+%) meander blissfully bareheaded. In sheer volume, Amsterdam ain’t got nothin’ on this town when it comes to bikes (NB: I have since been to Amsterdam, and I sit corrected. Still — whole lotta bikes.)

And so, wishing to be part of the wheeled and mobile masses, on my second day here, I set out on a bike hunt. You will be shocked to find that I
bought the first bike that I found at the first bike shop that I visited (those who know me well realize the improbability of such an event). There
it was: a Trek 700 hybrid, fully tricked out in the Cambridge Urban Geriatric package — mud guards front and back, front and back lights (required), rear rack (for passengers), chain guard (to save your trouser cuffs — key!) and the all-important front basket. An older gentleman had customized his bike for commuting, found that his knees couldn’t take the strain, and returned it less than a week after its purchase.

I immediately recognized how much time and money I’d have to spend to get a bare-bones bike to have all these accoutrements, and how I could never get them for a mere £150 ($230 or so, and rising). So, relinquishing my penchant for rock-devouring aluminum moutain bikes or speedy racing bikes, I plunked down on the spot for this incredibly practical instrument, and have enjoyed many a ride with nary a pant rip, chain-oil smudge or a wet rear, even in driving rain.

Now you would certainly be looked at askance if you were to tell an English person that your last bike used to rip into your pants. Or that you like to ride on the pavement. Because ‘pants’ around these parts means ‘underwear’, and ‘pavement’ means sidewalk. So you can imagine my mild bewilderment when, on my first day on my trusty steel steed, I was told that riding on the pavement was strictly forbidden. And when you say something is ‘pants’, that means it’s no good. (On the other hand, if something is ‘the dog’s bollocks’, then it’s grrreat — ‘brilliant’, in
fact.)

Now some of these differences aren’t strictly deadly, e.g. ‘tap’ for faucet and ‘post’ for ‘mail’, ‘lorry’ and ‘lift’ for truck and elevator. But, as a driver and cyclist, you can get into real trouble if you don’t know ‘give way’ means ‘yield’ and if you have no idea what a ‘rising bollard’ is.

Ahh, the rising bollard. See, there are certain zones of the city which are closed to all traffic, except for buses and taxis, at certain times of day. The borders to these zones are marked by ‘Caution: rising bollards’ signs, and woe betide he who obliviously or willfully drives onto the division zone, because from the very heart of Mother Earth majestically rises a ‘bollard’ — a metal column or pylon 3 feet high – impaling the car smack on its engine or transmission, instantly destroying it. Now the car-cass (ha) has to be towed, and the shame-faced driver has no choice but to pay something like a £1000 fine. Wild stuff.

And so the real shock of the new hit me as soon as I started cycling. ‘Stay on the left side, because it’s the right side’, my initial mantra, proved less helpful than it sounded. So I just decided to follow the direction cars were parked. That was a bad idea, because cars park facing either direction, on both sides of the road. OK, follow other cyclists and drivers then. Turnabouts (rotaries) go clockwise, not anticlockwise (counterclockwise) as I learned the hard way, and right turns are the dangerous ones, as oncoming headlights remind me time and time again which country I’m in.

One thing that I have yet to get over is the momentary horror of passing a car on the left, looking inside and seeing a small child in the driver’s seat (eek!) or, even worse, NOBODY in the driver’s seat (double eek!). Two and some decades of conditioning is hard to live down in two and some weeks.

Gonville and Caius is the baius knaius

Let’s get back to the initial story of my arrival here. Now, on that very Monday, I actually did not have a full acceptance from Cambridge University — or, more specifically, the Board of Graduate Studies. This latter institution is responsible for handling the affairs of graduate students here, and they do a magnificent job of devouring, swamp-like, any correspondence, email or phone call that comes their way without actually responding, and of generally doing business at the speed of a rapidly advancing glacier. Hence, my affectionate title for them, ‘The BoGS’ (which, in local parlance means, perhaps even more appropriately, ‘the toilets’).

Anyway — for whatever reason, even though the Bioscience Enterprise Programme, my course of study, had accepted me in early June, these swamp dwellers had not (long and complicated story which I hope you will never hear), so on Monday morning, I was homeless and addressless. Luckily, through the intercession of Dr Joe Herbert, the course director, on Tuesday evening I had been accepted at Gonville & Caius College, one of my top 3 choices, and the next week received an actual letter from the BoGS welcoming me to Cambridge. The amusing part of the story is how, fast on the heels of my acceptance to Caius College, I received my first letter from them the next day (even though I had no address) — the bill for the term’s charges. They can be on the ball when they really want to, you see.

Gonville & Caius was founded twice — once by Mr Gonville in 1348, and the second time by (you guessed it) Dr Caius. Now, for whatever reason, his name is pronounced ‘keys’ — some latinization of ‘Keyes’, which was fashionable in his day. But this gives our college double Cambridge snob status. First, because only yahoos from the outside even mention the ‘Gonville’ part; and second, because of the way ‘Caius’ is pronounced. Magdalene College has the trick pronunciation (’maudlin’) and Peterhouse the trick name (not ‘Peterhouse College’; just Peterhouse), but Caius got both. Of course this is also great fun to play with, as you can send a message to your fellow Caian (’kee-an’) saying ‘plaius excuse my snaius’ with a knowing chortle, har.

Since the original Dr Caius, this place has been a haven for medical students (aka ‘medics’) and natural scientists (’natskis’). Lots of the streets and buildings are named after famous alumni: Harvey Court and Harvey Road are tributes to old William, the Western discoverer of pulmonary circulation c. 1628 (Ibn an-Nafis, the Arab physiologist, did it first c. 1250). Glisson Road, where I live, is named after Dr Glisson, discoverer of the eponymous capsule of fibrous tissue encasing the plumbing that goes into the liver.

On my second day in Cambridge, as I was exiting the College one evening, I had a near run-in with one of the more famous living Caians. First I thought it was a handicapped student, but then I realized that I had narrowly avoided collision with none other than the current Lucasian Professor of Mathematicks, Stephen Hawking.

When Jesus, Christ, Corpus Christi and Trinity sit to dine

There are 32 Colleges at Cambridge, and the students harbor the same fierce and irrational loyalties towards them as we all do to arbitrary elements of identity like country, religion and name. Some are more hoity-toity than others (Trinity being the ne plus ultra); some are more liberal (Kings). All are absolutely enamored of their rules and traditions. One of the surviving traditions is that of Formal Hall.

Dinner is served in two seatings: 6.20 and 7.15. At the second seating, all students are required to wear their academic gowns before sitting down at the long benches of Caius Dining Hall, listening to a Latin benediction, and sharing a three-course meal which ranges between being repulsive to marginally edible. The ploy for getting the students to show up in spite of the shoddy cuisine is to mandate the pre-purchase of 16 meal tickets, at £4.50 each (about $7), which is certainly much easier than providing good food. One saving grace is that we are allowed to bring our own wine to the table and share with whomever we want, with a loosely enforced limit of one bottle per person. If you just asked yourself, “Wait a second there — shouldn’t one bottle per Homo sapiens be enough?”, read on.

As it turns out, drinking in general and wine in particular provide a cornerstone — nay, THE cornerstone of Cambridge life. When I first read The Double Helix at the tender age of 15, what struck me most was how much of business, even of Watson & Crick magnitude, was conducted at pubs, over beer. Every College has its own pub, open to everyone, with absurdly cut-rate drink prices (pint of cider £1; pint of beer £1.50; shot of tequila £1.40 — dangerous!). Every Wednesday we have after-dinner port at 8pm, which goes on and on and on. And regularly there are fancy dinners (the last of which was the Graduate Matriculation Dinner) where we sit with the Fellows of the College, eat from a menu written entirely in French (of course ‘pommes de terre’ taste better than potatoes!) and have 4 different courses of wine, capped off by your choice of port or claret, passed around in a crystal decanter, around in a crystal decanter, around in a (burp) crysal descanter, roight.

Unfortunately, these occasions are the only time when we dine with the Fellows. The professors and such always eat at the High Table, which is not open to students, graduate or non, and this hierarchical arrangement echoes itself throughout English social structure. My hopes for having regular chats with Prof Hawking have thus been temporarily dashed.

Of course, no account of a sojourn in England is complete without some mention of how unlike (and, by implication, inferior to) America it is. None of you know me as a cheerleader of things American, but I cannot help but notice some peculiarities of life here. The most amusing is easily the hot & cold faucet arrangement: in every sink, they are separated by 2 feet of space, such that thou shalt scald thine hands or
freeze them, but though shalt never wash them under a temperate stream of water. Seeing as how some of the tubs and showers actually have the technological wonder of the mixer tap incorporated, I am dumbfounded as to why sinks should be so deprived.

There is also a strange fondness for rules and an unabashed willingness to enforce them, even to perfect strangers. In my 12 years of cycling nearly every day in the States, people reminded or reprimanded me only a handful of times for my kamikaze tendencies, even in the most flagrant case. But here, somebody says something nearly every time. The most surreal incident was when I was locking my bike, and a friend that I had not seen in 3yrs called my name, prompting me to exclaim ‘Holy fucking cow!’, to which a grey head stuck itself out of a Caius College office window and said, emphatically, ‘No. NO.’ This lifetime had not prepared me for that.

At risk of flagrant generalization, what epitomizes my experience here is the phrase with which shopkeepers greet you: “May I help?” For some time, I have found the absence of ‘you’ at the end of that query to be particularly jarring, and my over-philosophized explanation is thus: they don’t really much care about ‘you’ here, as evidenced by the absence of customer service and the presence of the National Health Service. Collectively, people matter (hence, rules and the penchant for them); individually, not so much. Here, rules are rigid physical things that you run into, as if hitting a wall; not at all nice and bendy like back there, and not at all guidelines for when common sense fails. And saying ‘Can I help’ instead of ‘Can I help you’ conveys the same amount of warmth and sincerity as saying ‘I love’ instead of ‘I love you’.

Hey, America may not be so great, but at least sometimes they fake it well when it counts. (NB: My English friends have since brought to my attention that they feel exactly the same way about American rules, especially when it comes to bars and carrying ID. Acknowledged.)

Of course, you’re all more than welcome — nay, encouraged — to visit. There’s really no place like Cambridge (except for Oxford), and it’s quite fun for a quick swing-through.

 

Travels in Red America

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About a month ago, I had the opportunity to visit parts of the US that I had not seen before. Having lived mostly in Boston and Southern California, I had left the vast middle portion of the country unexplored. So I welcomed the mission to get some work done in San Antonio, Dallas, Ft Worth, St Louis and Cleveland. The cities were lovely: San Antonio’s Riverfront eating/shopping district was quite charming even late on a sleepy Monday night; Dallas had an upstart, upwardly mobile feel to it with a very lively youth culture (and exceptionally welcoming people); and St Louis seemed to have much more to commend it than just a big ol’ arch. I was particularly gratified that in my 24-hr sojourn in St Louis, I very nearly got caught in a hailstorm of 2-inch ice pellets and a tornado. To this here left- and right-coaster, that was as quintessentially Midwestern an experience as having an earthquake and brushfire would be to Joe Sixpack visiting LA for a day from Kansas City.
Although my time to roam amongst the natives was limited, I thought that a scan of the area radio stations from the comfort of my rental car would be a step towards capturing the local zeitgeist. And so, armed with the craftily-named ‘Scan’ button of the radio, I listened. The very first station that tuned in caught a female voice singing the chorus of a song: ‘God is with us.’ The second station was talk, not music, and sounded like a speech or a sermon — something about Michael looking across the water to see Jesus walking on it. The next one was a Christian rock station. Of the seven or so stations that I scanned before settling on some classical music, four were broadcasting either Christian music or preaching. Now an evangelical radio station per se is not anomalous, but what struck me was the preponderance of such formats in these markets. Clearly all these stations have an audience to make them economically sustainable. Although my survey was informal, you would never get such a high percentage of Christian stations in Los Angeles, New York City, Boston or San Francisco. I’d even argue that there isn’t a total of 4 such stations on the FM dial in any one of those markets.
OK, so what? In my last blog entry, I talked about my surprise at finding out about the vastness of the evangelical book market. And these travels along the highways of Middle America, where billboards urge passersby to accept Christ as their savior at a weekend-long revivalist retreat, confirmed my suspicion of the existence of an America with which I am less familiar: what the journalists have been calling ‘Red America’, after the infamous map of the 2000 Presidential election showing the states voting for Gore in blue (mostly seaboard states) and those voting for Bush in red (the inland states). The designation ‘Red America’ is particularly ironic, since the color red has historically carried strong anti-American connotations: first symbolizing the perceived Native American threat (the ‘red man’) to homesteaders in the nation’s earlier years; and then standing in for Communism (the ‘Red Menace’) from the early twentieth century till 1989 (and today to some extent).
This evening I had the privilege of seeing Robert Reich, the Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, give a speech at the United Methodist Church in Venice, CA. He was his usual self-deprecatingly funny self, opening with: “All these years in public service have worn me down. I started out being 6’2″, and now look where I am.” Although me may stand a mere 5 feet tall, his persona and charisma more than filled the room. He talked about many subjects, including his forays into Red America along his cross-country drive from Cambridge, MA to Berkeley, CA with his eldest son. At the roadside diners, he would sometimes be approached by locals (“because I looked peculiar”), who would engage him in discussion with a “You’re a Democrat, aren’t you?,” to which he would respond, “Yes, and I’m proud to be one.” After the native would proclaim himself/herself a Republican, Reich would ask why he/she would vote for Bush. According to Reich, the near-unanimous response in all of these states was “because he’s honest” (which elicited audible groans from the Venice audience). After Reich presents his interlocutor with a few incontrovertible counterexamples to this trope, the native changes his tune and says, “Well, it’s really because he’s so folksy.” Aaaah. So that’s it — somehow W’s good ol’ boy talk and broken English conveys to these Reds that he’s one of them, in spite of his blue-blood pedigree and life of perpetual privilege. The surprising and even encouraging part of Reich’s report was that, after only 3 or 4 minutes of presenting some simple facts about the current administration’s record, many of those he spoke to were quite willing to admit, “Well, y’know, maybe I won’t be voting for him after all.”
All of this brings me to this question: Is America really as divided as the red-blue map would make us think it is? Reich would have us reconsider that, and there’s evidence to support that. You can see the red-blue map from the 2000 election at this site  http://www.makethemaccountable.com/misc/…). If you scroll down further, you will see another quite ingenious (and utterly logical) map that colors each state in a blend of blue and red in its proportion of Democratic and Republican votes cast in the 2000 elections. What this map shows is that almost all of America, with the exception of a handful of stronghold states (CA, IL, NY, MA, RI, HI for the blues; ID, NB, WY, UT for the reds) is more or less the same shade of purple. So perhaps there are more of the 40% self-identified evangelical Christians in those red states, who may identify with the Bush born-again persona and some its attendant dogmatism, and maybe they did vote for him in the 2000 elections in greater proportion. But in the end, we all want to be able to stand tall as Americans and be proud of the values of freedom, tolerance and high-mindedness that has made this country great, prosperous and a model of hope. And all Americans are smart enough to know that no amount of folksiness can ever make up for a compromise of those values, or being worse off then they were four years ago, or the threat of being drafted to an unjustified war, or having their sons and daughters come back from halfway across the globe in a body bag. Reich’s note of pragmatic optimism, echoing that of Clinton in his BEA speech three weeks ago, resonates with me. The American people have consistently chosen and will choose unity, democracy still works, and we’re gonna be alright. Now get out there and get the word out.

Meanderings Amongst Words: Book Expo America, Chicago, 2-5 June 2004

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People have brought to my attention that my blog here has been gathering e-dust, languishing in the vast underworld of unheralded, undersubscribed blogs. It ain’t for lack of material — lord knows all kinds of zany things have been happening. So, best to write up the events of last week before they get corrupted and ultimately deleted by the editorial caprices of that gentle tyrant, memory.

I spent the better part of this past week at Book Expo America in Chicago. I arrived in the Windy City — so-called apparently because of its fickle political affiliations and not the hearty sweep of air through its skyscraper-fortified corridors — on a Tuesday night, and through some strange convergence of fate, all of my

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Castes in the Bhagavad Gita

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Friday night I attended a talk by Chris Chapple (pronounced like ‘chapel’), professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University, on the Bhagavad Gita. I’ve just started reading the Bhagavad Gita, half out of pique, since TS Eliot has this habit of referencing it gratuitously in his work and I’ve been re-reading some of his stuff lately, half out of complementarity, since along with the Tao Te Ching it is one of the main texts of Eastern philosophy, and half out of morbid curiosity since I’d never gotten around to reading it. And yes, Mr or Ms Smartypants, I’m fully aware that three halves make for one and a half, and one and a half of everything makes for a fuller life, and I like it better that way; thanks for noticing. Anyway. One cool thing about the Gita — basically a conversation between Arjuna, the super-warrior wracked by guilt and indecision before the imminent bloodshed of his kinsmen, and Krishna, his charioteer/advisor, who is really an avatar (earthly incarnation) of the powerful god Vishnu — is that it makes for a powerfully dramatic story. And, in the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna/Vishnu, a great deal of wisdom is passed along, much of it in the vein of Lao-Tse and the Tao. But every once in a while, something like this creeps in:

Krishna: If I did not continue to work untiringly as I did, mankind would still follow me, no matter where I led them. Suppose I were to stop? They would all be lost. The result would be caste-mixture and universal destruction (italics mine). Bhagavad Gita, Ch 3

So ‘universal destruction’ and ‘caste mixture’ are uttered in the same breath here. OK, so maybe this is just an aberration, they’re not really serious, right?

We know what fate falls/ On families broken:/ The rites are forgotten,/ Vice rots the remnant/ Defiling their women,/ And from their corruption/ Comes mixing of castes:/ The curse of confusion/ Degrades the victims/ And damns the destroyers. (Ch 1)

Well. Glad we made that one clear. I’m only up to Chapter 4, and there have already been 4-5 mentions of how caste-mixing is the ultimate evil, almost as bad as deep-fried chocolate bars or voting Republican. Could it be that this book of scripture — as influential in India as the gospel of Hinduism as the Bible is to an American audience — could have perpetuated the hereditary Indian caste system for centuries while holding back the development of egalitarianism even to this day? Could it be that the priesthood, the Brahmins, the members of the highest caste and the only ones capable of writing, conveniently slipped in these oppressive clauses in the otherwise transcendent, timeless narrative of the Gita? I’ll read more before I decide, but in the meantime I refer you to my particular translation, published by Barnes & Noble, which is not only quite easy to read but also has a magnificent introduction by Aldous Huxley, who not coincidentally, names the escapist drug in the epochal Brave New World after Indra the thunder-god’s favorite hallucinogen — soma.

Affluence as blessing and disease; tipping in the USA

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Recently I spent a weekend in Las Vegas, and before I go on any further, let’s go through all the possible nicknames for that town and get it out of our system: Lost Wages, Sin City, Lust Vegas, The Meadows (you’d think ‘vegas’ would be Spanish for ‘arid lifeless desert’, but it’s not), insert your favorite nickname here. Now every time I go there I have a blast, as long as I limit my sojourn to 48hrs or less (and even then, I need to undergo a full mind-and-body disinfectant scrubbing before I’m fit to re-enter proper society, but that’s a story for a different late Sunday night). A particularly surreal moment occurred when I was in the poker room of the Mandalay Bay casino, overlooking the sports book. There, amidst the solid burghers and dedicated hedonists betting on ace-king or Dudley’s Dignity the harness-racing horse, two monitors were turned to CNN, which just happened to be showing an undercover special on trafficking and prostitution of minors in Romania. The contrast between this industrial-strength dose of reality and the foam upon the foam that Vegas rests on was sobering. Of course, both scenarios are real, in the sense that they are both occurring and constitute economic activity. However, I will hazard to say that the Americans in that poker room were experiencing a higher standard of living than the hapless Romanian abductees. The US is a remarkably affluent society, as even its poorest members enjoy a remarkable degree of abundance. Merriam-Webster online weighs in on the word thus  www.m-w.com):

affluence, n. 1 a : an abundant flow or supply : PROFUSION b : abundance of property : WEALTH

But let us abstain from conjecture and refer to the facts instead: per annum, the average American consumes 7960 kg of oil equivalent and 730 pounds of paper; use 484,000 gallons of water; own 844 TV sets and 774 vehicles per 1000 people; and consumes 269 pounds of meat (compare these figures to those for China: 880, 73, 116,000, 292, 16 and 104, respectively). (Source: National Geographic, 3/04, p 91). From this and anecdotal evidence (I’m living in Santa Monica, CA now — enough said), we will conclude that there is much abbondanza in our fine country. But abundance, a complicated boon like all others, has its side effects. Too much of it can make you ill or just plain kill you. Back to Merriam-Webster:

disease, n. : 1 : a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning : SICKNESS, MALADY
2 : a harmful development (as in a social institution)

To me, ‘dis-ease’ implies an absence of ease — something absolutely ubiquitous in our hyper-affluent society even under the most cursory scrutiny. Too much food and leisure results in large paunches, sluggish bodies and clogged arteries, antitheses of ease if they ever existed. Traffic, overcrowding, pollution, time pressure, and covetousness compromise mental ease. Affluence means distancing oneself from the ‘real’ preoccupations of sustenance (finding food, shelter, clothing) and instead getting embroiled in monitoring our body fat percentage, following fashion, and losing a month’s salary at the roulette table. It means affliction with diseases like depression, anxiety, bulimia, anorexia and fibromyalgia which did not exist for 99.8% of recorded human history.

Let me make clear that I am not advocating some kind of atavism (although in the old days, the physical requirements of daily sustenance had some stress-relieving effects that desk jobs don’t provide), and Hobbes’ point about ancient man’s life being ‘nasty, brutish and short’ is probably true. Nor am I a fan of austerity — the greatest act of worship is in acknowledging and celebrating the bounty of the earth. However, it would seem that too much of a good thing ceases being a good thing. Affluence can make you sick. Yet, perversely, that same affluence has managed to procure the salves against these maladies — bypass surgery and simvastatin, credit cards and equity loans, psychiatrists and Zoloft — such that we can mollify their symptoms for three quarters of a century before succumbing to the cumulus of decay.

But fret not, my dear readers, for there is a solution. It’s called yoga.

The Dream Factory (or: Walking Sunset Boulevard on a Thursday night)

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Last night I attended a reading of an avant garde-ish book called Pills, Chills, Thrills and Heartache: Adventures in the First Person at Book Soup, the rather eclectic bookstore on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, right across from Tower Records. After the event, which primarily made me wonder whether terminal hipness can only be achieved through large-scale consumption of drugs, I took a walk on Sunset, just to observe, and perhaps to see. In the unwritten code of LA cool, it is clearly not permissible to

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What is cool?

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For some reason this popped into my head while dining on pansit, a filipino dish. Perhaps it was something in a Time magazine article on John Kerry, which made me wonder. Now normally these thoughts go unacknowledged and experience their own exponential decay, with no herald of their birth nor record of their demise. But now I have a blog, which is precisely for this kind of fleeting thought-form to have its moment of exposure to retinas not my own. Of course, dear reader, now you get impatient — ‘Which thought, for godssakes?’ Ah yes. I was thinking what constitutes ‘cool’ and ‘coolness’. Such a bandied-about term, and one that at best has a Justice Felix Frankfurter definition to it (“I know it when I see it”). In fact there was a good part of one Simpsons episode devoted to deftly defining ‘cool’ (or at least demonstrating its undefinability). So, in the fine tradition of the reductionist, I will say that coolness is a mix of several components. Tolerance is one of them — to ‘be cool about something’ means that you do not bludgeon it with your judgment. A corollary to that is imperturbability — if you are cool, you tend not to get too riled up, emotional, defensive about things. But the mix of imperturbable and tolerant merely makes for mellow; there must be other factors involved. Edginess and an independent spirit certainly qualify, as does a tendency to care for others (although I would argue altruism is not a requirement of cool, but an adjunct). Talent is good. Egolessness is good, although there are some industrial-strength braggarts out there who love themselves so much, we sometimes find ourselves swept into their world and find them undeniably cool (e.g. Muhammad Ali). I think if I were to pick one characteristic to round out what makes cool, it would be competence. Without manifestation, talent means little and fails to communicate itself. So, until the next revision, here are the x-y-z axes of cool, the Holy Trinity of Tolerance, Imperturbability, and Competence.
Question for follow-up: Which other countries and linguistic traditions have an equivalent word for ‘cool’? How many of them have appropriated it from America? Is ‘cool’ an American concept at its heart?

Masses rejoice: my first blog!

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Hey there, boys and girls. I suppose you can now welcome me to the digital age, and to this populist phenomenon called the blog. I’m not quite sure what its purpose is, and I’m even less sure why I signed up for it. But I suppose the self-aggrandizement associated with having a law.harvard.edu blog is just too juicy to resist. I’ve just returned from a class at Yoga Works (led by the infamous Vinnie Marino), and I feel as if my whole body has been pulled through the eye of a needle. Now does that tentatively qualify me for admission to heaven, or do I have to do it all again when I’m rich while riding a camel? All you New Testament scholars out there kindly clarify.

So I would surmise that part of the function of this whole blog thing, besides self-indulgence (duh), is to provide a forum for all the heretofore voiceless individuals to express themselves publicly, sans censorship or fear of reprisal. That’s nice, but taken to its theoretical limit, reading other people’s blogs would require several lifetimes, and so if enough people blog, blogs simply become reduced to fancy electronic diaries that can vanish in the blink of a server that the world can peek into if it had time. It follows that some blogs are more equal than others, and some convergence has to occur as certain prominent blogs get more readership than others (the 80/20 rule again, manifesting itself once again in the context of a network). So, with any luck, my blog will be one of the ignored ones, and my miscellaneous incendiary ramblings will go unnoticed by the objects of my disaffection, and I will have an excuse to exercise the writing muscle, which shall soon become the source of my vast income and impending immortality, hallelujah and amen.

This is already more fun than I thought.
Cheers for now
AB

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