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Thursday, 3 January 2013

a few good books...




My goal going into 2012 was to read 50 books - which along with all of the articles, research, blogs, and papers I read -  thought was a pretty lofty proposition.  Well, it turns out, I doubled that number, and was able to get through 100 complete, and mid-way through another half dozen.  I decided to devote at least an hour a day to reading (most days were significantly more), and I actually found that 100 books was quite comfortable.  Most are read on my iPad or iPhone Kindle app, and I even found the time to transfer all of my notes and highlights into Pages files, and re-highlight and note them for easier later review.  

Many folks have asked my what my favorite reads of 2012 were, so here it is - a few of my favorite books of 2012 (in no particular order).  Note that this does not imply that they were actually written in 2012 - just that is when I read them...


This Will Make You Smarter - John Brockman
In my mind, the best book I read last year - by far.  
Brockman is a literary agent who represents many high-profile scientists and communicators, and runs a primo website called Edge.org, which serves as a ‘meeting point’ for many of the world’s top “scientists, artists, philosophers, technologists, and entrepreneurs who are at the center of today's intellectual, technological, and scientific landscape”. Giving the inspiration of Edge to “a failed art experiment” by his late friend, James Lee Byars, Brockman recalls:
"...that to arrive at a satisfactory plateau of knowledge it was pure folly to go to Widener Library at Harvard and read six million books. Instead, he planned to gather the 100 most brilliant minds in the world in a room, lock them in and have them ask one another the questions they'd been asking themselves. The expected result – in theory – was to be a synthesis of all thought."
Building upon a concept developed by CP Snow in the late 50s detailing the parallel universes of the “two cultures” of art and science, Brockman expands on the “third culture” - one which focuses on closing the gap between the literary intellectuals and the scientists, allowing for direct communication between the two.   “We live in a mass-produced culture where many people, even many established cultural arbiters limit themselves to secondhand ideas, thoughts, and opinions. Edge.org consists of individuals who create their own reality and do not accept an ersatz, appropriated reality. The Edge community consists of people who are out there doing it rather than talking about and analyzing the people who are doing it”.

The current list of contributors is impressive. It includes Richard Dawkins, Craig Venter, Steven Pinker, George Lakoff, Daniel Kahneman, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Kathryn Schulz, Jonah Lehrer, Lawrence Krauss, Aubrey de Grey, Kevin Kelly, Martin Seligman, Nicholas Carr, David Eagleman, Jonathan Haidt, and about 600 others. 

Every year, on the anniversary of the launch of the site, Brockman poses a question, and invites his participants to answer it.  This past year, the question was “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”, and the answers have been collated into this book.

From the preface by David Brooks: “The ideas presented on Edge are speculative; they represent the frontiers in such areas as evolutionary biology, genetics, computer science, neurophysiology, psychology, and physics. Emerging out of these contributions is a new natural philosophy, new ways of understanding physical systems, new ways of thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions”.

Nicholas Christakis is one of several scholars to emphasize that many things in the world have properties not present in their parts. His essay on holism is a personal highlight:

“Holism does not come naturally. It is an appreciation not of the simple but of the complex—or, at least, of the simplicity and coherence in complex things. Unlike curiosity or empiricism, say, holism takes a while to acquire and appreciate. It is a grown-up disposition. Indeed, for the last few centuries the Cartesian project in science has been to break matter down into ever smaller bits in the pursuit of understanding. And this works to some extent. We can understand matter by breaking it down to atoms, then protons and electrons and neutrons, then quarks, then gluons, and so on. We can understand organisms by breaking them down into organs, then tissues, then cells, then organelles, then proteins, then DNA, and so on. Putting things back together in order to understand them is harder and typically comes later in the development of a scientist or of science. Think of the difficulties in understanding how all the cells in our bodies work together, as compared with the study of the cells themselves. Whole new fields of neuroscience and systems biology and network science are arising to accomplish just this. And these fields are arising just now, after centuries of stomping on castles in order to figure them out.”


Creative Thinkering - Michael Michalko
The concept of ‘thinkering’ was introduced to me through the writing of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and further explored through Brent Pottenger’s website (founder of the Ancestral Health Symposium), where he writes an interesting blog called the Healthcare Epistimocrat. 

Actually coined by Michael Ondaatje in ‘The English Patient’, the original meaning of Thinkering referred to an active form of thinking, while ‘tinkering’ with the hands. Creativity expert Michael Michalko defines it as “combination of the words thinker and thinking. Enfolding the two words into the one word thinkering symbolizes how both the creative personality and the creative-thinking process, like form and content in nature, are inextricably connected”, and identifies the synthesis of seemingly dissimilar concepts as a key step in the creative process.  Although the narrative can get a little repetitive, I appreciated the concept, and his examples, and have personally followed through on many of his recommendations. 

“Creativity in all domains, including science, technology, the arts, and day-to-day living, emerges from the basic mental operation of conceptually blending dissimilar subjects. When analyzed, creative ideas are always new combinations of old ideas”.


Mastery - Robert Greene
Like his first book ‘The 48 Laws of Power’, this book is destined to become a classic.  Using both historical and modern-day examples of how such figures as Mozart, John Coltrane (I especially enjoyed this section), and Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava (Calgarians will be familiar with Calatrava, as the designer of the controversial ‘Peace Bridge’) mastered their professions, Part ‘self-help’ guide, part ‘Outliers’, part ‘Talent is Overrated’,  but much more than that, I found the brief historical essays not only instructive, but also very interesting, and I would place this book in my top five of 2012.

“In the first phase, we stand on the outside of our field, learning as much as we can of the basic elements and rules. We have only a partial picture of the field and so our powers are limited. In the second phase, through much practice and immersion, we see into the inside of the machinery, how things connect with one another, and thus gain a more comprehensive understanding of the subject. With this comes a new power—the ability to experiment and creatively play with the elements involved. In the third phase, our degree of knowledge, experience, and focus is so deep that we can now see the whole picture with complete clarity. We have access to the heart of life—to human nature and natural phenomena.”


Antifragile & The Bed of Procrustes - Nicholas Nassim Taleb
If there’s a smarter dude out there right now, I haven’t found him.  Best known for writing ‘Black Swan’ in 2007, (which predicted the global market crash), Taleb has since written two more books: 2011’s ‘Bed of Procrustes’, and the recently released (and soon to be classic) ‘Antifragile’. Both are excellent, and highly recommended.

“Globalization creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse. Financial Institutions have been merging into a smaller number of very large banks. Almost all banks are interrelated. So the financial ecology is swelling into gigantic, incestuous, bureaucratic banks – when one fails, they all fall. The increased concentration among banks seems to have the effect of making financial crisis less likely, but when they happen they are more global in scale and hit us very hard. We have moved from a diversified ecology of small banks, with varied lending policies, to a more homogeneous framework of firms that all resemble one another. True, we now have fewer failures, but when they occur .... I shiver at the thought.”
“The government-sponsored institution Fannie Mae, when I look at its risks, seems to be sitting on a barrel of dynamite, vulnerable to the slightest hiccup. But not to worry: their large staff of scientists deem these events "unlikely".”
Nicholas Nassim Taleb - Black Swan, 2007


The Warrior Diet - Ori Hofmekler
One of the original ‘paleo’ diets, I re-read Hofmekler’s book this year, and found that it holds up well among the ever-growing list of primal-paleo material.  Slightly different from the typical paleo fair, as it proposes to cover all aspects of life.  I especially like the emphasis placed on ‘unleashing the power of your instincts’, which appears throughout the book.  The logic is simple, and involves a vacillation of the sympathetic with the parasympathetic, by eating lightly during the day, and heavily in the evenings.  It’s the way I personally eat, so I connect well with this book.

“The main “trick” is to retrain your body; teach it to become more instinctive.  You can do this by avoiding most foods during the day...and once you’re done “fighting the battles” of the day, you can eat as much protein, vegetables, and carbs as you want - even if it means eating the equivalent of three meals in one seating”.


Challenging Beliefs - Tim Noakes
Noakes is a legend in the scientific community.  Best known for his advent of the ‘Central Governor Theory’, Noakes is the latest to jump on the paleo bandwagon, and dedicates a long chapter in his book to his specific story of how he changed his mind on food, switching from a traditional ‘carbist’ to espousing a protein and fat-heavy, primal way of eating, quite convincingly presenting his argument.  I also found the chapters on over-hydration, cricket, and the central governor very interesting. It’s a very enjoyable read.

“...true humility that comes from the very real fear of failure; the fear that the day will come when no matter how hard they have trained and prepared, they will fail”.


The Righteous Mind - Jonathan Haidt
‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ is Haidt’s first book, and was perhaps my favorite book of 2011.  It introduced the now well-known concept of the ‘Elephant and the Rider’ (used by the Heath brothers in the excellent ‘Switch’).  I didn’t enjoy ‘The Righteous Mind’ quite as much as The Happiness Hypothesis, but this mainly due to his writing style, which I found a little preachy at times.  Regardless - definitely worth the read.

“One of the greatest truths in psychology is that the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict...desire and reason are pulling in different directions.  I see the right way approve it, but follow the wrong”.


The Chimp Paradox - Dr Steve Peters
Dr Peters is a bit of a legend in the UK, where he is lauded as being one of the main cogs in the wheels of success that has been British cycling.  Sir Chris Hoy attributes much of his success to the work of psychiatrist Peters, and this book is his attempt to popularize his concept of the ‘chimp and human’ - essentially, ‘dumbing down’ the duality that exists in the human brain that is now recognized by almost all neuroscientists.  Similar in theory to Haidt’s ‘elephant and rider’, Peters presents his concept with admirable simplicity - surely one of the reasons he has been such a success working with athletes. A very useful ‘sport-psych primer’ for coaches and athletes alike.  Peters has recently joined the staff at UK Athletics, and I look forward to seeing how the presence of he and his team will influence the sport in the UK.  

“You and your chimp typically have an uneasy relationship that frequently involves compromise and conflict.  It is often a battle for power between the two of you.  The chimp is far stronger than you are, it is wise to understand it and then nurture and manage it”.


The Art of Learning - Josh Waitzken
This was recommended to me by Dan Pfaff, and is an excellent study on the development of learning practice, wrapped up in the narrative of former chess prodigy (and subject of the 1993 movie, ‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’), Josh Waitzken.  Although I found his writing to be occasionally over-the-top, and overly dramatic, the book contains much insight on the ‘art of learning’. 

“The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity.  Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety”.


Time’s Arrow - Martin Amis
A fabulous (and classic) book from British writer Martin Amis.  This was a particularly interesting read, as it was written in reverse chronological order.  Recommended to me by UKA doctor, Rob Chakraverty, this one will make you think - the last few chapters being perhaps a little disturbing, with a controversial take on one of humanity’s greatest atrocities (I won’t give away what it is).  Readers seem to either love or hate this book, some calling it gimmicky and denigrating its ‘trickery’.  I personally loved it, and would compare it favorably to Amis’ more popular work ‘London Fields’. 

“He sheds the thing he often can’t seem to bear: his identity, his quiddity, lost in the crowd’s promiscuity. My presence is never tinier. But it’s the same story. Render up your soul, and gain power”.


The Secret Race - Tyler Hamilton & Daniel Coyle
Possibly the cherry on the top of the Lance Armstrong fiasco, Hamilton and Coyle’s book was conveniently released around the same time as the USADA investigation into Lance was reaching a climax.  The book is very well written (as you would expect - being co-written by Daniel Coyle of ‘Talent Code’ and ‘Little Book of Talent’ fame). An excellent and revealing look inside the world of professional road cycling, with a specific focus of the rampant usage of illicit performance enhancement drugs and other illegal practices in the sport (such as blood doping).  A real ‘page turner’, I think I read this in one sitting.  

“(US National Team coach) Chris used to tell me to stay within myself, but I never understood the sense of that.  To me the whole point is to go out of yourself, to push over and over until you arrive somewhere new, somewhere you could hardly imagine before”.


Richer than God - David Conn
I’m a Manchester City fan.  Have been since 1976, when I saw Dennis Tueart score at Wembley with an overhead kick to beat Newcastle United in the League Cup Final.  ‘Richer than God’ is the story of their four-year old take-over by Abu Dhabi United Group, which has famously mad the club the ‘world’s richest’ (or at least the club that is owned by the richest owners).  It is a fascinating story vacillating between the 30 year disaster that befitted the club following the second coming of Malcolm Allison, and the extremely professional, and corporate atmosphere that now exists. The story combines the history with the personal narrative of the author, who is a lifelong City fan, who like many, have become slightly disenfranchised by the current state of the professional game.

“...football is a stronger religion than religion.  Perhaps in ancient times, when churches or temples were the only great buildings in a land of woad, where there was little music, colour, smells or mystery outside places of worship, they must have been awesome experiences.  But modern-day religion, in draughty buildings needing appeals to maintain, with ageing congregations assembled out of a sense of duty, belonging, or guilt, finds it hard to compete with the thrills and glories of the stadium”.


The Death of Sigmund Freud - Mark Edmundson
I’m not a real big fan of Freud’s, but I found this book to be fascinating.  It details his long battle with throat cancer, his struggles to finish his final book, the impending Nazi occupation of Austria, and his eventual move to Great Britain. Some great insight into an enormously interesting period of history, expertly written Mark Edmundson.

“Human beings, Freud suggests, wish perhaps more than anything else to find the Truth, the one right way to live in the world, and then to organize their lives around it. One of Freud’s major hypotheses in the last phase of his work is that people would usually rather have Truth through union with what is greater than themselves than have pleasure that they can enjoy for its own sake, moment to moment and day to day. It often feels better to have absolute meaning in life than it does to have stimulation, variety, complexity—a world rich and marvelous but not entirely explicable. The cost of a relatively open-ended existence can be fierce anxiety—anxiety most people are desperate to discharge as expeditiously as possible. Recall Hitler’s telling lines: “The masses love a commander more than a petitioner and feel inwardly more satisfied by a doctrine, tolerating no other beside itself, than by the granting of liberalistic freedom with which, as a rule, they can do little, and are prone to feel that they have been abandoned.”

Freud suggests that the qualities that culture has associated with women—love, nurture, care—are not ultimately the qualities that human beings want to spend their lives pursuing and possessing. What we seem to desire most, men and women both, is to get ourselves into stabilizing contact with power and authority. We want to find those things, subordinate ourselves to them, and to do so we will, if necessary, forego love and all the other intimate human satisfactions. In his late writings, Freud stops thinking so much about the Oedipal desire of the mother, which he comes to feel that individuals may be able to surmount in time, and begins thinking more about the human hunger for patriarchs, about the need for kings”.


The Dharma Bums - Jack Kerouac
Semi-fictional account depicting the years following ‘On The Road’ of Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac.  A great ‘simple’ read that basically just follows the two main characters around as they climb mountains, walk through the woods, and discuss Buddhism. Despite this - or because of it - I still really enjoyed it

“Light a fire, fight a liar, what’s the difference, in existence?”


I Was Blind But Now I See - James Altucher
I really like Altucher’s writing.  His blog is excellent, and he continues to be extremely prolific (he has plans for writing another four books in 2013).  ‘I Was Blind...’ is his latest work, and maybe his best.  I highly recommend at least exposing yourself to some of his writings - especially contrarian views of many deeply-held beliefs, such as home-owning and college. The good news is he makes his books available on Amazon really cheaply, so there is no excuse not to read them.

“The goal is not necessarily to believe the opposite of all the things we’ve been programmed to believe, but to separate out who we are from our beliefs, so that we can truly examine them, scrutinize their roots, and be able to look at them from all 360 degrees instead of just the acute sharp angles that have been shoved at us almost since birth”.


The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
Appearing often in American ‘best of’ lists, Fitzgerald’s classic did not disappoint, and I’m looking forward to checking out the movie.  Beautifully written, this was another that I read in one sitting. 

“There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.”


The New Evolution Diet - Art de Vany
Called the ‘grandfather’ of the modern paleo movement, deVany has been living in the paleo way for a quarter century, and this book is his foray into the publishing world.  Although it is quite slim on research, and much of the information is a little out of date (or just wrong), this is a classic of the field - if for no other reason than it was written by de Vany, a living positive embodiment of the benefits of ‘ancestral living’. He has also been ‘on-line’ for going on 6 years (although - curiously - his site is a pay site, so not too much use for most of the information is available elsewhere for free).  Sort of a mash-up of Taleb and Wolf (but not writing anywhere near as well as either of them), de Vany’s work gives a slightly different view on the whole paleo thing.

“Your least frequent, most extreme exertions will have the greatest impact on your fitness.  The peak moments of a workout count far more than the amount of time you spend working out...when a workout becomes an unvarying, monotonous routine, it loses its effectiveness”


Steal Like an Artist - Austin Kleon
Fabulous book detailing the ‘remix culture’ - the current trend of combinatorial creativity, perhaps best explained by a quote from TS Elliot:  “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; and poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different”.

“You are a mash-up of your life”.


The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt - Edmund Morris
This was a big read - an amazing three volume expose on the life of one of America’s greatest presidents.  His life was truly inspiring, and Morris brings it to life brilliantly. Although close to 3000 pages in total, this was probably the book(s) I most looked forward to picking up again after I had put it down.  The first volume details Roosevelt’s rise to the presidency, the second the presidential years, and third, his post-presidential years up to his death.  A fascinating expose of a fascinating man in a fascinating period of world history.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat”.

6 comments:

  1. Hey Stu, great list, thanks for sharing. I'll read some. I have two for you too: The talent code (Daniel Coyle), a must read! The second one is "Bounce" from Matthew Syed. And i recently finished reading "steal like an artist" from Austin Kleon. Great way of thinking! Ciao, Rogier Ummels

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    Replies
    1. thanks Rogier...I really enjoyed 'The Talent Code', but not a big fan of 'Bounce' TBH. Too many leaps of faith in my opinion. I love the overall message of these types of books - ie. lots of deep practice for thousands of hours, and you can succeed - a great message to our kids, for sure...but far too simplistic - it may be the case for table tennis players, but sprinting, weightlifting, swimming, etc. is a different story. Picking you parents correctly remains the most important factor to success in most 'competitive sports'...

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  2. Hi there, the January edition of Books You Loved is open for entries. Here is the link Books You Loved January Edition Please do pop by and link in a post about a book/s you loved. Maybe this post? Cheers and Happy New Year!

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  3. Stuart, thanks for linking this in. We are starting to get a lovely collection of book links. I have just signed up to follow you by Google Reader. A follow back to Carole's Chatter would be wonderful – or are you already following? Cheers

    Ps If you would like email reminders of future editions of Books You Loved, just pop by and comment and include your email - I won't publish it - and the reminder will be by bcc so it will remain private

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