books etc.

Get Tough on Comfort

Michael Easter’s book The Comfort Crisis makes the argument that our way of life in America is too comfortable relative to our ancestors. He argues that in some cases, we’ve gone too far with making sure we’re always comfortable and that it’s negatively affecting our physical and mental health.

Easter outlines 5 broad areas of comfort and suggests how we might address them. Here’s a broad outline of his ideas along with some of my own thoughts:

  1. Do really hard things. Occasionally do something extremely hard—so hard you feel like you might not accomplish it. Very much along the lines of David Goggins or Wim Hof, both of whom say that we usually quit at just a fraction of our potential. These types of challenges are intended to build mental strength more than physical. They provide good stress that fortifies us and give us confidence for when life throws us challenges that we otherwise might feel are too hard to overcome.
  2. Being bored sometimes is good. Boredom creates fertile ground for new ideas. It forces us to know ourselves and be okay with being alone with ourselves. It spotlights the things that we need to work on.
  3. Feel hunger. Fasting is trendy these days (who would have guessed?) and the science to back it up as beneficial seems to be there.
  4. Think about your death every day. This Stoics, the Bhutanese, and the Buddhists know what’s up. Keeping death in mind helps us remember how precious life is and what a miracle each moment is.
  5. Carry the load. Working out should look more like what our ancestors used to do—carrying heavy stuff long distances across rough terrain. Our gym workouts are mostly strength focused and isolate our muscles in unnatural ways. We burn fewer calories that way and excercise fewer muscles.

Check out the book for more. It’s well written, engaging, and goes much deeper than what I’ve written here.


The Seventh Sense

The core idea behind The Seventh Sense is good. “The Seventh Sense, in short, is the ability to look at any object and see the way in which it is changed by connection.” Networks are changing the world and the implications of hyper-connectedness are changing the economy, politics, social relationships and just about everything else. As far as I can tell though, Ramo doesn’t bring much new to the table.

He’s done his homework for sure. There are dozens of great references to all kinds of work that is happening around connectivity and networks across all fields. In fact, this is the most impressive part of the book, the sheer breadth of stories, quotes and books he references. I learned a lot from these and it’s why I’d recommend the book to others.

The problem is that he doesn’t seem to have evolved and refined his own theory of networks deeply enough to tie all the disparate information together into a cohesive, actionable argument. Instead, the seventh sense seems to encompass nearly every idea Ramos finds cool. He resorts to breathless arguments and empty statements like “Many of our current leaders like things as they are. The words ‘potential’ and ‘threat’ rhyme in their consideration.” He often alludes to vague promises and threats that will come from our increasingly networked world without being able to clearly attribute them to any concrete idea that can be pinned down to a seventh sense.

Ironically, Ramo seems to have self-diagnosed the flaw with his book in the very first chapter. He tells a story of his zen master giving him some tough, but wise council.

“You know you can’t just understand this easily,” Master Nan said sharply. He was a little angry with me, I could see, for asking such a direct question—and he was also using the Chinese teaching technique of driving students through a range of emotions. Chinese philosophers believe we learn differently depending on how we feel. Terrifying, intimidating, or praising a student is often more effective than explaining an idea to them. Nan was working on my humiliation bone now: “This isn’t like some idea I can sell you and then you can just go and use,” he continued, his voice rising. I saw the focused intensity of the twenty-one-year-old who had recruited his own mountain army. “This is going to be hard.”

There’s potential here but, my opinion, it’s not fully realized.


ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror Book Review

ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror is a very well researched history combined with first-hand accounts of the rise ISIS, its relationships with other states and groups in the region and throughout the world, along with insights into its motives, actions, and agendas.

If you’re like me and not already particularly knowledgeable of Middle Eastern news and geography of the past 10+ years, you’ll probably have some of the same struggles I did to keep up with all the names and places. If you can allow for some ambiguity though, the second half and final third of the book in particular are very well worth it. If you don’t want the history, get the book just for the epilogue. The conclusions are harrowing.

Weiss concludes in part, that despite losing ground in places like Ramadi, ISIS is gaining ground elsewhere, even if it is not completely controlling the cities in a more traditional sense:

“ISIS continues to rule more or less uncontested in al-Bab, Minbij, Jarablous, Raqqa, southern Hasaka, Tal Afar, Qa’im, and outside the city center of Ramadi.” … “ISIS has compensated for its 10 percent territorial losses in Iraq by gaining 4 percent in Syria, though you wouldn’t know it to listen to US officials.”

“What’s amazing is how we keep making the same mistakes over and over again, in Iraq but also in the broader Middle East,” Ali Khedery told us. “I’ve seen senior American officials waste time tweeting about the number of air strikes. Who cares about these tactical developments? Sunnis are being radicalized at record proportions. A counterterrorism approach isn’t going to work with ISIS. We saw that in Iraq, and we’ll see it in Syria.”

It’s easy to think of ISIS as just a bunch of extreme Islamist fundamentalists, because on the surface that’s pretty accurate. The more nuanced view is that ISIS members arrive with diverse motives and backgrounds. Some were displaced Ba’athist Iraqi’s, others prison converts brought in by fellow charismatic Syrian inmates, and there are many who seem to have joined ISIS out of some type of expediency, hopelessness, or hopefulness. The resulting diversity has strengthened ISIS by bringing expert statesmen (of sorts), computer and weapons experts, PR and media manipulators, and not a few people with proper military backgrounds. Because of this diversity, ISIS often acts more as a state than a typical terrorist organization.

Despite this facade of legitimacy, ISIS is reprehensible in every way. It’s an organization led by heartless murderers, torturers, and rapists as they so brazenly exhibit in their own propaganda. They are well-organized manipulators and terrorists in every sense of the word. They should be stopped. How to do this is unclear, but pacifism isn’t an option. Understanding ISIS is not pleasant or rewarding but it is necessary, especially for those with political or military influence. This book should not be missed.

books Knowledge

The Marginalia Time Machine

A few years ago I started writing the date in the margins of books when I underlined or took notes. When I revisit books it’s been fun to see when I was there last and to get some context for notes in the margins.

Give it a try! It’s a an easy tip that adds just a bit more enjoyment to reading.

books Software Technology

The Slow Death of Digital Books

In 2007 Amazon released the Kindle. It was never a beautiful device, but it solved a problem with reading on screens–the discomfort that some people feel after looking at a lit screen for a long time. Still, it is a very flawed device. Browsing a Kindle book is tedious. Page refreshes are jerky, and just like in the old days of TV, everything is black and white.

In 2010, Apple released iBooks. At the time, the realistic page curl animation was pretty hot stuff. Apple wasn’t the first to do it, but iBooks popularized it the effect. It felt like the beginning of a digital book renaissance. It was a small step, but surely the innovation would continue with Apple at the lead of the pack?

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Something happened though. Since the introduction of the Kindle and iBooks there have been only incremental improvements.  A lot of similar software and hardware has come out, but almost no real innovation has made its way from prototype to production.

Maybe the halting pace of innovation is why we are now seeing a resurgence of paper books. Innovation in robotics, virtual reality, and AI are announced almost daily. Yet the technology around something as prevalent and important as books has almost completely stagnated.

A Light in the Dark

There are however, some good examples of people trying to make digital books better.

Check out this concept video from a Korean company called Kaist back in 2012. It’s far better than anything available today but years later, hasn’t made it to market.

Or, this prototype of a phone that turns pages when you bend it:

Why Can’t We Have Nice Things?

I’m not really sure why things are this way. The closest parallel to the stagnation in ebook technology I can think of is PC laptops. Despite the enormous market, there are very few PC laptops that approach the quality of Mac laptops. This might finally be changing over the last couple years, but it’s been a very slow change.

I don’t think we can dismiss digital books by saying that people are happy with the state things are in now. Look at all the attention that the Kindle gets every time they release an update. If it’s a sign of consumer interest, it seems to indicate that a company who came in and really shook up the ebook hardware and software market would potentially do very, very well.

books etc.

Musings on The Amazon Book Store

I recently visited the Amazon book store, currently the only one in existence. I came away with mixed feelings. The best part is that the prices are the same in the store as online. Other than that though, there’s not much good to say about it. It’s small, the shelves are much too close together making the entire store feel uncomfortably crowded. The worst part is that it’s stocked only with the best selling and highest rated books on Amazon. This results in a very shallow selection picked purely by popularity. Your chances of discovering a forgotten treasure are next to nothing. We left and went from there to Third Place Books. It was a breath of fresh air. As nice is it is to pay less, I’ll stick bookstores like Third Place or El Ateneo when I’m shopping IRL.

books philosophy psychology

The Myth of Staying Forever Young

If anyone understood the human condition, it was Joseph Campbell. This is him in 1949 on what he calls the ‘inverted emphasis’ of staying forever young:

It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid. We remain fixated to the un­-exercised images of our infancy, and hence disinclined to the necessary passages of our adulthood. In the United States there is even a pathos of inverted emphasis: the goal is not to grow old, but to remain young; not to mature away from Mother, but to cleave to her. And so, while husbands are worshiping at their boyhood shrines, being the lawyers, merchants, or masterminds their parents wanted them to be, their wives, even after fourteen years of marriage and two fine children produced and raised, are still on the search for love—which can come to them only from the centaurs, sileni, satyrs, and other concupiscent incubi of the rout of Pan…

He is principally directing this criticism to men who refuse to grow up, but also to women for fulfilling the vacuum of finding good men by appealing to fantasy where reality comes up lacking. The youthful reluctance to pull away from the mother that he describes is very Freudian. At the end of life we are faced with another, this time Jungian, conflict:

What is difficult to leave, then, is not the womb but the phallus—unless, indeed, the life-weariness has already seized the heart, when it will be death that calls with the promise of bliss that formerly was the lure of love.

The purpose of these descriptions is to point out the place for myth in our lives. Myth and ritual help us to cease to cleave to our mothers when we are young, then to accept death when we are old. It moves us through life in a way that is sublimely, universally human. Without myth, we go through these transitions alone, clumsily. With myth, we are part of something bigger, part of the hero’s journey. As Campbell says, with his unique and chilling talent for language:

Full circle from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come: an ambiguous, enigmatical incursion into a world of solid matter that is soon to melt from us, like the substance of a dream. And, looking back at what had promised to be our own unique, un­predictable, and dangerous adventure, all we find in the end is such a series of standard metamorphoses as men and women have undergone in every quarter of the world, in all recorded centuries, and under every odd disguise of civilization.

That discovery, that our plight is not unique but is a “series of standard metamorphoses” should be liberating and unifying. It elevates our tribe from being the small group of people we know personally to being the human race.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces p. 10-11