Category Archives: Books

Life’s great pleasures

“I know you’re not married, but if you were, can you imagine paying somebody to screw your wife?”

“No…” I said slowly, unsure what he was getting at. But before I could relax my eyebrows, he answered for me, “Of course not,” pausing before making his point, “It’d be the same thing as paying someone to walk your dog, why would you? It’s one of life’s great pleasures.”

Should I blame it on the fumes, I wondered?

We were hanging in a yoga studio out after working late installing a new floor. The new flooring was interlocking blue foam squares, which arrived bound together in stacks of fifteen.

After unstacking the squares and interlocking them like puzzle pieces, the off-gassing of petro chemical fumes was in high gear. The place smelled like a flip flop factory, a sickening sweet new car smell times twenty.

Then he started in about his college wrestling days as being one of his life’s great pleasures. Maybe he was breathing too many fumes because next he began trying to crush me into the new mat with wrestling moves. Kinda disrespectful, fighting in a yoga place right?

People don’t really care I guess. I remember seeing a church converted to a restaurant. And the restaurant was called “Christians.” That struck me as disrespectful somehow. But maybe it’s just no different than what cell phones and bottled water did to pay phones and drinking fountains.


Tyler Cowen and reading

Here’re a couple of observations from Ryan Holiday about Tyler Cowen the bestselling author, economist and thinker. Tyler has a blog called Marginal Revolution that I check daily.

Read However You Want — People are amazed at how much Tyler reads (it’s a lot) but they miss that he has his own set of rules for doing it. He skips around. He quits books he doesn’t like. He might read a novel from only the perspective of one of the characters. He’ll ruin the ending. He just does whatever—and so should you. This isn’t for a test. It’s for your own enjoyment (he does the same with movies apparently).

Knowledge Compounds — I think what he’s also saying there is that the value of reading compounds over time. Reading more makes you a better and faster reader, learning about stuff makes it easier and faster for you to learn more.

I read a lot, but I haven’t found that I’m reading faster as time goes by.

How to be a stoic

The stoic philosopher  Senaca said, “Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

Elif Batuman wrote “How to be a Stoic” for The New Yorker last year. Here’s a shortened version of it:

Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher, was born a slave, around 55 A.D., in present-day Turkey. The first line of his manual of ethical advice, “Some things are in our control and others not”—made me feel that a weight was being lifted off my chest. For Epictetus, the only thing we can totally control, and therefore the only thing we should ever worry about, is our own judgment about what is good. If we desire money, health, sex, or reputation, we will inevitably be unhappy. If we genuinely wish to avoid poverty, sickness, loneliness, and obscurity, we’ll live in constant anxiety and frustration. Of course, fear and desire are unavoidable. Everyone feels those flashes of dread or anticipation. Being a Stoic means interrogating those flashes: asking whether they apply to things outside your control and, if they do, being “ready with the reaction ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’ ”

Most of the pain in my life came not from any actual privations or insults but, rather, from the shame of thinking they could’ve been avoided. Wasn’t it my fault that meaning continued to elude me or that my love life was a shambles? When I read that nobody should ever feel ashamed to be alone or to be in a crowd, I realized that I often felt ashamed of both of those things. Epictetus’ advice: when alone, “call it peace and liberty, and consider yourself the gods’ equal”; in a crowd, think of yourself as a guest at an enormous party, and celebrate the best you can.

Epictetus also won me over with his tone. If you want to become a Stoic, he said, you’ll suffer losses and humiliations and yet every setback is an advantage, an opportunity for learning and glory. This is a very powerful trick.

Epictetus’ advice about not getting angry at slaves is this simple exercise: “Starting with things of little value—a bit of spilled oil, a little stolen wine—repeat to yourself: ‘For such a small price, I buy tranquillity.’ ”

Born nearly two thousand years before Darwin and Freud, Epictetus seems to have anticipated a way out of their prisons. The sense of doom and delight that is programmed into the human body? It can be overridden by the mind. The eternal war between subconscious desires and the demands of civilization? It can be won. Now cognitive-behavioral therapy is based largely on Epictetus’ claim that “it is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them.”

If you want a good place to start checking out Stoic philosophy try Ryan Holidays’ book “The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living.” It’s a daily bite sized nugget from various Stoics accompanied by a short discussion of the quote. In a nutshell, use your own judgment about what’s good and ignoring what’s beyond your control.



Gary Taubes on Joe Rogan

Gary Taubes is a science journalist with a new book, “The Case Against Sugar” (I’ve read both of his earlier books, both are well researched and compelling).

The first one is called “Good Calories, Bad Calories” presents the role of insulin as the culprit of diseases of civilization such as obesity, diabetes, and cancer. It’s very thorough and verges on being almost like a text book.

His next book was a more accessible version of the first book. And this third book seems to be along the same line.

Taubes recently appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast. During their two hour plus chat they covered most of the information the Taubes has uncovered about the role of refined carbohydrates in disease. It’s eye-opening stuff.

If you listen to this entertaining interview, you’ll get most of what you’d get from reading the book(s). Joe asks the questions you’d likely ask and bores down on the big ideas. Some of the information is getting traction and for a better understanding of what’s going on with what we eat give this interview between Gary Taubes and Joe Rogan a listen.

The Simple Path to Wealth

the simple path to wealthI just finished reading “The Simple path to Wealth” by JL Collins. It’s a book about money that I’d recommend to everyone.

The bare bones concept is that if you can avoid debt, save most of what you earn, invest your money (in a very low cost indexed fund), and leave it alone, then with a bit of time you’ll wind up financially independent. The particulars he gives are important along with the whys and how-tis. And he does it all in an engaging and down to earth way.

Don’t take my word for it, here’re some reviews and endorsements from other readers:

– By the end of the book you find yourself wondering why it took someone so long to put these thoughts to paper and bundle it all into one package. For someone just starting out on this journey, congratulations, you just won the lottery after having read this book. For someone a few years into their working career, you still have plenty of time. And lastly, for someone over half way through their working career, tomorrow is never too late to start.

– It’s the only book I’ve ever read it’s in entirety on a phone!

– Imagine a book that can teach you everything you need to know about investing in one afternoon. Now suppose that the book is insightful, well researched, filled with wit and humor, and can help you achieve better investing results than over 80% of professional investors. The Simple Path to Wealth is that book.

– He doesn’t ask his readers to take his word for it. He explains how he reached his conclusions.

– …he stresses the importance of money in our society, while writing a book that people who do not really care about money will actually find interesting and actionable.”

– JL Collins gives an approachable, well-structured guide to understanding what money is (and is not), how to protect it, how to make it work for you, and ultimately how to make sure that you master money so it doesn’t master you.

– It’s a book about freedom – the freedom to be your own master by escaping the traps of debt and wasteful spending and letting your money work for you.”

– Jim advises new investors to ‘Stop thinking about what your money can buy.’ and ‘Start thinking about what your money can earn.’ Money is much more than the things it can buy. It represents the energy of our lives. Do you want to exhaust that on stuff and clutter, or use it to buy freedom.

– Jack Bogle and Warren Buffett undoubtedly would give JL Collins a thumbs up.

– If you’re too cheap to spend eleven bucks on the one book that will finally make you rich and happy, then don’t come crying to me in six months when you find yourself destitute, friendless, eating cold pork-n-beans out of a can at the public library, and creeping everyone out.


sapiensA long time ago I worked on the Space Shuttle program. We had weekly meetings using overhead projectors in a darkened meeting room.

During one of these meetings while looking around the room at the older guys, it dawned on me that they’d all worked on the Apollo program. It was a prideful recognition – here was my tribe and they’d put men on the moon.

I didn’t know them really. I guessed that they were probably putting in their time until they retired. A few of them were star performers and the others more likely drones. But they were all Sapiens and had contributed to something big.

Here’s what stirred up that memory. I’ve been reading a book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. The book is about how we, Homo Sapiens, came to dominate the planet, for better or worse.

Along the way, he covers our brother and sisters in the genus “Homo” who didn’t make it, but live on, in a small way, because researchers are finding that all  non-Africans have a little bit of Neanderthal DNA.

The same is true for the genes of Denisovan Man. Denisovan genes have been found in modern Sapiens too.

Sapiens left Africa around 70,000 years ago and covered a lot of ground. Researchers suspect that Neanderthals and Denisovans weren’t the only extinct members of the Homo genus we interbred with.

Sapiens the book knits together the pieces of our ancestry that are becoming clearer with new research techniques.

It’s a fascinating story of evolution about early timid humanlike creatures who morphed into the most dominating creature on the earth.  It’s story well told.

Does it spark joy?

cool pattern on a potAlfred Hitchcock said, “Movies are like real life but with the boring parts cut out.” What things are you dragging along in your life that don’t serve you anymore? Why hang on to those things?

I just finished a book about decluttering called “The life-changing magic of tidying up” by Marie Kondo. It’s hard to believe there’s enough advice on decluttering to fill a book, but there is.

Kondo is an expert at helping people declutter their homes and there’s a three-month waiting list for her help.

Her book covers her experiences and the techniques that she uses to help people streamline their accumulated stuff.

Her central technique is determining whether or not something “sparks joy.” If it does, keep it. Otherwise out it goes. When you hold something it should be bringing you surprise and delight, not a gotcha feeling arising from having to store and manage that thing.

According to Kondo sorting through your stuff should be treated as a one time event (a celebration of sorts) after which your decision making will be refined enough to prevent another build up of stuff that doesn’t spark joy in you.  “Why? Because tidying is not the purpose of life.” she says.

There’s an important hierarchy for sorting. She insists that the easiest stuff to get rid of be tackled first – your clothes. You need to save the hardest, photos, for last. Her reasoning is that you’ll be strengthening your decision making ability by following a particular order: clothes, books, papers, random stuff, sentimental possessions, and photos.

Another clever part of Kondo’s decluttering technique is bringing everything in a category, say clothes, to one spot in your house before deciding what stays or goes. In other words, don’t do your sorting room by room. All the clothes must be in one location.

She has other tips to make decluttering more successful. Do it alone, especially don’t let your Mom be there. Another is using black plastic bags for the discarded stuff to discourage “re-evaluating.”

This book is a great place to start when you’re ready to declutter your life. One of her client realized that, “Letting go is more important than adding.”

If simplicity really is the highest form of sophistication, start by getting rid of the boring parts.

Cool Tools

UnknownIf you loved the “Whole Earth Catalog” (WEC) you’ll love “Cool Tools,” a book curated by Kevin Kelly. The subtitle is “A Catalog of Possibilities.” It’s a book you can get lost in. Over and over.

It’s an actual book, coffee table sized, with 462 pages in color, printed on glossy stock, presenting a collection of more than 1,500 tools. The word “Tool” is broadly used to include items and ideas that really work, are well priced, easily found and are reviewed by people who’ve actually used them.

If you didn’t love the WEC, you should stop reading because this is about how much this book is liked. Or you should stop so you can go out and buy a copy of “Cool Tools,” if you loved the WEC.

You don’t need to know anything about the WEC, Kevin Kelly, the cool tools blog , or the story behind it to be captivated by some of the stuff and ideas inside this book.

Here’re some snippets from the reviews at Amazon that’ll give you an idea what other people think about it:


“my favorite book to come out in 2013.”

“a conversation-starter”

“a completely different experience from reading the same material online”

“Kelly and his crew have put together the most exhaustive, inventive and mind bending selection of stuff I’ve ever seen.”

“…in addition to hand jacks that can raise 7000 lbs., the Teeny Turner (a pocket-sized driver), portable band saws, and laser measuring tools, you can find the best source on how to buy a car cheaply, make a low-budget movie, brew your own beer, rear an optimistic child, design a logo, win a fight, soak in feral (!) hot springs, learn to swim efficiently, prepare for a natural disaster, vagabond the world, do something dangerous (and live to tell about it), …”

“Open it at random and you experience something like being six again, with a child’s sense of delight and wonder at how clever people can be and what abundance this world holds.”


“for people who love learning-and doing.”

“it’s a wish book and a daydream book and a down and dirty reality book. Nothing since the WEC has been as continually fascinating and educational.”

“This is the most exciting book I’ve seen in years.”

I’ve been dog-earing the pages that have things I like and noticed the other day there’re probably as many dog-eared pages as plain ones.

Emergency nail clippers?

emergencyNeil Strauss’ book “Emergency” is a story of change, chronicling his transformation  from a soft, city bred, cafe hopping, hipster to a tougher more resilient, self-sufficient man.

The realization he was vulnerable to forces that he couldn’t cope with started around 2000 with the Y2K frenzy, and then became reenforced by the 9/11 attack, followed by Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, and finally Bush’s  2004 reelection.

Morphing into a more self-reliant person for Strauss occurred over several years of pursuing and mastering a long list of skills he lacked such as outdoor skills, how to exist off the grid, what to do in emergencies, becoming a paramedic, and so on. And then he wrote a book about his experiences.

He’s a proponent of keeping a “bug out bag” (BOB) around to grab quickly when the shit hits the fan and you need to leave in a hurry.

I’ve looked at lists of what various people recommend including in your BOB. They all have lots in common such as a fixed blade knife, water purifier, fire starter, etc.

One thing that’s missing from most BOB’s is the humble nail clipper. Not much to say about nail clippers. If you find yourself needing a bug out bag, your situation is probably pretty bad. The more things you can do to make your life more normal will make getting by easier.

If you’re in a dire situation for an extended time you’ll need to cut your nails at some point. Unless you’re a nail-biter, cutting your nails with a knife won’t be something you’d have done before. Having a nail clipper with you might just make your life a little bit easier during a prolonged break from civilization.

Commonplace books

notebookI’ve been keeping “commonplace books” since my teens but until recently I didn’t know they had a name.

A commonplace book is a hodgepodge of someone’s collected ideas, quotes, snippets of overheard conversation, observations, or info that reflects your particular interests. Commonplace books are a way of compiling, organizing, and remembering knowledge – traditionally it’s been by writing. Basically you’re backing up your brain.

Its name, the commonplace book, is unfortunate because its meaning isn’t obvious these days. The name comes from Latin and has persisted for hundreds of years. Famous, and not famous, people have kept commonplace books, for example Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, HL Mencken, and Bill Gates.

Keeping a commonplace book isn’t complicated. When you’re reading something that really hits you, jot it down. It can just be bits of writing you find inspiring or interesting. Maybe a piece of advice, a recommendation, a pointer, or someone’s (maybe your own) insight.

You can use stuff from your commonplace book later to help with ideas for writing, talks, or projects. Commonplace books can be reorganized into a more meaningful patterns sometimes.  Some people even use index cards instead of a a book so they can better reorganize  their hodgepodge of ideas into something more connected and accessible to them.

Using a cheap notebook is a good idea so you won’t feel intimidated about putting ideas into a fancy journal. I also now use the internet for saving things, although writing something down is the better way.

What isn’t a commonplace book? Commonplace books aren’t journals, diaries, or a record of your travels that would normally be introspective and in chronological order.

Here’re two examples of recent additions for my commonplace book. First, a short one about reading and books:

Seeing someone reading a book you love is seeing a book recommending a person.

And here’s a longer clipping about exercise research:

What’s supported by the research is: train hard. The rest is hard to prove. Lots of approaches work. There’s no justification for being committed to just one way. More research is needed on things like frequency of training and whether split or whole body training is best.

…looking at the evidence (in scientific studies) you find:

intensity matters – recruiting as many fibers as possible
one set per exercise
any sort of resistance seems OK (free weights, machines or bodyweight)
concentric, eccentric or isometric contractions all work
repetition speed is important in that you need to maintain tension on the muscles
rest between sets and exercises doesn’t matter much
full range of motion isn’t that important
doing endurance exercise at the same time doesn’t hold things back
muscles and parts of muscles grow at different rates
a few weeks off won’t make your gains disappear and might help when you train again.

Your reward from having commonplace books far outweighs your effort in creating them.