What I’m Digging Right Now. How About You?

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I don’t do this sort of thing too often, but who doesn’t love change? I usually write about why my brain isn’t working quite right or simply describe what’s going on in there. But I thought I’d take a break from love and meaning to talk about stuff I’m enjoying on some level, even if just a tad superficial.

A. The first thing is a book called Why We Make Mistakes: how we look without seeing, forget things in seconds, and are all pretty sure we are above average by Joseph T. Hallinan. This is perhaps the longest book title on my shelf and leaves nothing to the imagination. I’d say the best thing about this book is written in a splash quote on the cover, “Chock-full of fascinating examples.” says Scientific American. It’s exactly the case. If you wanted studies, this book as them in spades. You can see where you could possibly improve in awareness and decision making. It’s an easy read though, and not too hung up on ideas that are tough to wrap your head around.

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B. Music by Sleater-Kinney. I slept on this band for about 15 years and am pretty disappointed in myself. In my heyday I would go to the record store at least once a week to look at the new releases and when The Woods came out it was featured on the end of the aisle display for months. Every time I saw it, I would think, “I need to check them out later” because they had a lot of buzz, but somehow I never ended up doing it. They released a new album last year and I finally got on board. Probably, like most people, because of Portlandia, but whatever the cause, I’m glad I was forced to check them out.

C. Skateboarding videos. I’ve never been a skater, and might never be, but I’ve started watching skateboarding videos and love them. They are essentially the perfect embodiment of failure and success and how hard it is to reach a goal. Most people, including me, aren’t exceptional at anything, and sometimes while working to be exceptional, we forget how hard it actually is. Some of these videos are people learning tricks, with a hundred failed attempts because landing a single new trick. How many people experience that in their daily lives? How many times do you fall every day?

Quickfire round:

Coffee: how can anyone dislike coffee? It’s so versatile. Something sweet? Got you. Something strong? Got you. Tired? Not anymore. Awake? Good, stay that way. Need something to sip after dinner while chatting? You’re good. Give me all the coffee.

Mini-heaters: Mostly stay in one room and see no need to heat the entire house? Problem solved.

Bad-ass Quotes: “Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.” Pablo Picasso. Come on, man. Who doesn’t feel the weight of art when someone says something as awesome as that.

That’s it for me, for now.

What have you been diggin’ lately? Anything caught your eye, ear, taste?

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What I’m Digging Right Now. How About You?

The Books of 2015: 100 BOOKS!

In 2015 I decided to shun most other activities and read. Mostly I wanted to read for information rather than for fun. I want to think about life and why it matters and, unfortunately, not a lot of fiction does that. Plus I want to study human behavior and its relatives which means I always need information. To break up all that, I would read comic books (trade paperbacks mostly) and fiction. My goal for 2015 was to read 100 books. The number didn’t really matter that much, my real goal was to read a lot. Around December I realized I was close to 100. I had read around 85 or 90 by December and thought 10 books in a month would be hard. I was right and I essentially failed. But Christmas came and so did a few trade paperbacks (6), an art book about Freud, and I was on my way again. On New Years Eve I had read 96 books. I was able to read one book that day then read three children’s books to wrap up the year on an even 100.

I think the hardest part about doing something like this is how consistent you have to be. There were times when I had no interest in picking up a book. And when that happens I don’t want to force it, and I don’t think it would help in the long run if I did. What I try to do is find something that will ease me into it again. Around the time I read The Martian I was feeling a bit drained. Then based on a recommendation I picked up the book and tore through it. I loved it and was back to enjoying myself again. There were a few weeks throughout the year that I didn’t read at all and those weeks did probably kill my chance to hit 100 books or more without resorting to bending the (self made) rules.

It was a fun exercise though and I plan on doing it again this year. Unfortunately things are a little more busy this year so 100 isn’t even half realistic, but I want to read as much as possible. Keep the computer powered down. Don’t turn on the TV. Let the iPhone chill.

 

Again, the number isn’t that important and I wouldn’t even say I hit it, but here is the list of the 100 book/comics/children’s books I read this year.

 

  1. Humblebrag: The Art of False Modesty by Harris Wittels
  2. This Idea Must Die edited by John Brockman
  3. Swamp Thing Vol. 5 by Alan Moore
  4. Swamp Thing Vol. 2 by Scott Synder
  5. Animal Man Vol. 2 by Jeff Lemire
  6. Gotham Central Book One by Ed Brubaker
  7. Gotham Central Book Two by Ed Brubaker
  8. Just Call Me Superhero by Alina Bronsky
  9. The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills by Charles Bukowski
  10. Batman and Robin Vol 3 by Peter J Tomasi
  11. Funny Girl by Nick Hornby
  12. Letters by Kurt Vonnegut
  13. And So it Goes by Charles J Shields
  14. Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave by Adam Alter
  15. Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman
  16. Thinking edited by John Brockman
  17. Why So Slow?: The Advancement of Women by Virginia Valian
  18. Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio
  19. The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack by Nicholas Gurewitch
  20. A Better Life: 100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy and Meaning in a World Without God edited by Chris Johnson
  21. Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life by Douglas Kenrick
  22. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  23. Batman: Birth of the Demon
  24. Weiwei-isms by Ai Weiwei
  25. Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril by Margaret Heffernan
  26. Perv by Jesse Bering
  27. Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) by Carol Tavris
  28. Batwoman Vol 2 by JH Williams III
  29. Batgirl Vol 4 by Gail Simone
  30. Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders
  31. Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar
  32. Fables Vol 1 by Bill Willingham
  33. Fables Vol 2 by Bill Willingham
  34. Fables Vol 3 by Bill Willingham
  35. Fables Vol 4 by Bill Willingham
  36. Fables Vol 5 by Bill Willingham
  37. Fables Vol 6 by Bill Willingham
  38. Fables Vol 7 by Bill Willingham
  39. Fables Vol 8 by Bill Willingham
  40. Fables Vol 9 by Bill Willingham
  41. Fables Vol 10 by Bill Willingham
  42. Fables Vol 11 by Bill Willingham
  43. Fables Vol 12 by Bill Willingham
  44. Fairest Vol 1 by Bill Willingham
  45. Fairest Vol 2 by Lauren Beukes
  46. Fairest Vol 3 by Sean E Williams
  47. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Taleb
  48. Stardust by Neil Gaiman
  49. The Widow’s Children by Paula Fox
  50. Do You Think What You Think You Think? by Julian Baggini
  51. Dead Man Upright by Derek Raymond
  52. The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers
  53. Looking for Alaska by John Green
  54. Happiness by Matthieu Ricard
  55. The Upside of Your Dark Side by Todd Kashdan
  56. Redirect by Timothy D Wilson
  57. I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional by Wendy Kaminer
  58. The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell
  59. The Duck That Won the Lottery by Julian Baggini
  60. Open All Night by Charles Bukowski
  61. Love is a Dog From Hell by Charles Bukowski
  62. Like Life by Lorrie Moore
  63. The Science of Sin by Simon Laham
  64. Sham by Steve Salerno
  65. Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion by Carol Tavris
  66. Rethinking Positive Thinking by Gabriele Oettingen
  67. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  68. The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar
  69. Batwoman vol. 3 By JH Williams III
  70. Batwoman vol. 4 by JH Williams III
  71. Wytches by Scott Snyder
  72. Out of Character by David DeSteno
  73. Batman vol 5 by Scott Snyder
  74. The Martian by Andy Weir
  75. The Myths of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky
  76. The Soul Fallacy by Julien Musolino
  77. Complaint by Julian Baggini
  78. The Upward Spiral by Alex Korb
  79. Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman
  80. Neurocomic by Hana Ros
  81. An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks
  82. US(a.) by Saul Williams
  83. Constructive Wallowing by Tina Gilbertson
  84. Meaning in Life and Why it Matters by Susan Wolf
  85. Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
  86. Phantoms in the Brain by V.S. Ramachandran
  87. Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens
  88. Blind Spots by Max H Bazerman
  89. The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt
  90. The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan
  91. The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow
  92. Thinking of Answers by A.C. Grayling
  93. Bitch Planet vol 1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick
  94. The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen
  95. My Planet by Mary Roach
  96. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  97. Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sednak
  98. The Missing Piece by Shel Silverstein
  99. Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss
  100. Sigmund Frued by Ralph Steadman

 

A few comments. None important.

There are about 40 popular science books in that list. That’s not too bad. Those books are hard for me to read. Not only is the language different and unusual, it’s not easy (for me) to read facts and figures. When numbers and statistics come up, I try my best to understand them which means reading things a few times. There are also some high concepts. Meaning and happiness. Defining and exploring those ideas is more work than one might think, but that’s philosophy for you. Those philosophers love explaining. I also take a lot of notes on the science-related books which of course slows progress further. That number is pretty good for me, especially considering all the other books I threw in.

To be honest, comics/trade paperbacks (which are a collection of a story arc from the run of the comic, and usually around 150-170 pages) saved my list. I think if I read more fiction I’d have still read a lot of books, but sometimes I can’t get into fiction at all. Lorrie Moore, William Gay, Vonnegut, and Paula Fox write amazing fiction, but others are too dramatized for me. That’s why I tended to go to comics this year. They don’t give much of an illusion to being true to life (though there are human moments).

 

Just for my sake. For me, a science type book (depending on the difficultly) takes around 4-5 days to read. More if it’s exceptionally hard and less if it’s too pop. A novel takes around 2 days. Some take longer (Lolita took me weeks because I couldn’t get into the flow and set it aside to read other books) and some can be breezed through in a few hours. For instance, I think I read The Martian in a day, though it’s one of my favorites of the year.

The Books of 2015: 100 BOOKS!

Book Review

The aforementioned “more book reviews” never turned up even though I’ve been reading like a man possessed, or like a man laid up in bed because he twisted his knee under himself while cutting down a massive tree (and holding a chainsaw that he somehow managed to put down without cutting an arm or leg off). Moments ago, I finished reading The Upside of Your Dark Side by Todd Kashdan and Robert Diener. The topic of the book is fairly easy to surmise from its name, but pretending we’re all idiots for a moment, it’s about the beneficial qualities of the emotions that are generally thought of as negative. This ranges from guilt to anger to mindlessness (intuition). This book is so refreshingly accessible while always taking the time to support the ideas they discuss by referring to specific research. Every problem I had with Happier – in regards to how it was written, not the content – was perfect in this book. It never drifts into the self-help platitudes, but doesn’t weigh itself down with overly scientific, dry analysis. It’s still a quick read even though all the materials are there if you feel like diving deeper into the concepts and research (and I do).
I don’t want to just summarize the book but I’ll give a few bullet points I found interesting.

Benefit of confusion – Students who were initially confused by the material but worked through their confusion did better on tests than peers who understood it right away.

Benefit of not forgiving – “Spouses who forgave physical or verbal aggression were likely to receive more of it, whereas those who were unforgiving enjoyed the precipitous decline in spousal aggression.”

Experiential avoidance. Attempting to bury unwanted thoughts or feelings.

Research by Kate Harkness “shows people prone to depressed moods also tend to notice more details.” Especially facial expressions. Better at seeing danger approaching and lying.

Benefits of guilt – June Tangney found criminals that felt guilty had much lower rates of recidivism. Also, people in general are less likely to drive drunk, steal, use illegal drugs, or assault another person.

Bad Happiness:
“1. Your happiness can interfere with long-term success.
2. The pursuit of happiness sometimes backfires, ending in unhappiness.”
Happy people are less persuasive, are too trusting and are lazy thinkers.

Lastly, there’s something called the wanting/liking bias. This bias was only briefly mentioned but I loved it. The example they used in the book was when someone might really want a dog, but not particularly like having the dog with all the less enjoyable jobs necessary to take care of it. Who can’t relate to the wanting/liking bias? How many times have you really, really wanted something, got it, and didn’t derive the joy you thought you would? Frequently the idea of something is a lot better than actually having it. It’s unfortunate we aren’t better at noticing this tendency naturally. It might take a lot of disappointing purchases before you start to consider the importance of the downsides, and some never do.

There’s much more in the book and all the claims are backed up with plenty of research. Loved it.

Book Review

Poetry

There’s a lot of shit in here. I guess that’s how it goes with poetry. You read 50 in a sitting and wonder how many impacted you and you realize it doesn’t really matter. As long as one gets you somewhere. Takes you home or back in time or into your future. Either way, you’ve got something out of 50 pages of a collection in a book. Better than a lot of fiction. A lot of fiction takes you into a fantasy which can be fun. And it can take you somewhere more important. But that’s not as common. Give me a hundred poems, with 98 being shit and I’ll say it’s successful. Hopefully the ratio is better than that, but truly good ones are rare. Maybe I’m exceptionally dense and I don’t get it. I make no claims of sophistication. But give me one and I’ll be happy. One that takes me somewhere close to truth. Serious or a joke, I don’t care. Love or hate or fear, I don’t care. Pile on the shit as high as you can. I’ll take my one and be satisfied. If you write that one, thank you. You’ve done something special if not entirely difficult. We aren’t laying bricks after all.

Poetry

Learning About Death

Maybe I was never taught to deal with death or maybe I’ll simply too sensitive.

A few minutes ago, I stumbled on a children’s book hat made me tear up just by reading the description. It’s about a young girl who is full of curiosity and wonder. Every day from the same chair, her father reads her story after story instilling this love of life in her. She learns about all kinds of things and is thrilled by the possibilities of life. Then one day she sits down in front of her fathers chair and it’s empty. He’s gone. My heart breaks with this fictional girl’s. Her solution to this pain is to take her heart out of her chest and place it in a bottle she hangs around her neck. She loses her passion for life. The curiosity leaves her. She forgets all the tales her father told her and lives a strict and safe life until one day she encounters a girl on the beach she used to love. This little girl is full of the wonder she used to contain and she realizes how much life she is missing by limiting herself to what’s safe. Eventually the little girl helps her get her heart out of the bottle and back where it belongs even though the risk of being hurt is still out there. Sometimes, it’s worth it.

I read the wonderful description of the book here. (let me know if the link doesn’t work). If you don’t want to click on the link it’s a book calledĀ The Heart and the BottleĀ by Oliver Jeffers. It sounds and looks amazing and I bought it instantly. I hope, someday, to read it to my niece and though it’s sad, it’s important to learn about. I wish it weren’t.

 

 

Warning: I only read a description of the book and am probably filling my summary with my own fears.

Learning About Death

10 Favorite Authors: Part 2

I’ve returned with the conclusion to my widely praised series counting down my favorite authors of all time. Here we pick up with numbers 5 to 1. This rather arbitrary and silly list is bound to come to an explosive conclusion. Sparking vigorous debate and heated name calling from all sides involved. Who will survive? Who would want to?

5. V.S. Ramachandran

Personable. Engaging. He loves what he does and it shines through in his writing. When someone talks about their passion it can be the most boring thing in the world or the most inspiring, and V.S. is inspiring. Perhaps most well known for his mirror box to treat phantom limbs, he’s been pumping out books every few years with great research and great ideas. He isn’t afraid to project into the unknown, either. It’s adventurous. It’s pure curiosity. His work with split brain patients turned me on to the field of personal identity that I’ve been in love with ever since. It’s accessible to newcomers and detailed enough to keep (at least) amateur scientists reading.

4. Matt Ridley

He’s perhaps my favorite science writer. The only problem is he’s a zoologist and I’m not. Most of his books that I’ve read have a heavy evolution bend. Still, his book The Red Queen, is one of my all time favorites. The Agile Gene was equally fun. If you want to learn about fairly technical ideas wrapped up in wonderfully engaging writing, then I can’t recommend anymore more than Matt Ridley.

3. Charles Bukowski

I have a weird feeling about Bukowski. His writing appeals to a younger version of me, but I can’t help but love how disgusting and simple it is. He’s an asshole and there’s really no way around it. But so am I. And so are most people. In addition, I think there’s always an undercurrent of wishing he were different. That he wants to change but life isn’t typically accommodating. He didn’t publish or get at all famous until late in life so most of his writing is about the years he was no one and had no means to change his life. I think the struggle of knowing your faults, wanting to change, and failing, is what’s so relatable. He is the worst parts of us that we usually do our best to ignore. That’s what allows me to enjoy his writing even when it’s sort of unfashionable to admit it.

2. Kurt Vonnegut

I don’t know what to say about him. He is the author that single-handedly made me interested in reading again. Reading Cat’s Cradle made me want to read everything in sight. Without it, I would have never picked up another book for a long time and may never have read the book that pushed me to go back to college. No one I’ve read can deal with social issues as entertainingly and intelligently. If you aren’t interested in the satire, the books are good enough to keep your attention anyway. He’s a strong storyteller with an amazing knack for finding the simple words we often miss. He frequently feels like a folk philosopher, couching his big ideas into small stories.

1. Richard Dawkins

Most people know this name because of his part in the “new atheist” movement and the many, many religious debates. That’s unfortunate, because while I think he is still doing good work, he is one of the best science writers of all time and more people could do with knowing him for that. The Selfish Gene was amazing. The writing itself is brilliant (especially for a first book) and the ideas were groundbreaking (and he gives credit to the pioneers of the ideas like W.D. Hamilton and George C. Williams). He continued this in the more technical Extended Phenotype (1982) that clearly displays his scientific pedigree. The Blind Watchmaker made me want to study science. His love of science is infectious much like V.S. and Sagan. He has the ability to return you to a childlike state of wonder. To make you curious. He is a true master. If you only know the name from youtube debates about god, I think you should visit one of his older books.

10 Favorite Authors: Part 2

10 Favorite Authors*

Numbers 10-6 of my favorite authors so far in my life. I like a lot of different genres of books and though I mostly read non-fiction pop-science books, I also really love fiction. There’s a mix of both in the following list and hopefully, you haven’t heard of a few of these authors. Feel free to share some of your favorites. I’m always looking for more to read.

10’s. Oliver Sacks and Carl Sagan

Yes, I’m cheating right off the bat. Oliver Sacks is just plain captivating. He writes in such a fun and smart way that you feel like a better person after every page. Some people criticize him for using patients to sell books. I can see where that would come from, but I don’t know enough about the issue to have an opinion. I put Carl Sagan with Sacks because he invokes a similar feeling of enjoyment. There aren’t too many big ideas that are difficult to wrap your head around in their books. My single issue with Sagan is that his books sometimes contain a lot of dated material. Aliens were a massive (and annoying) conspiracy theory when Sagan was writing and so he spends a good deal of time talking about stuff like crop circles. He also talks a lot about the space program as it was 30+ years ago, so his books can drag. But there’s still gold in there and he’s one of the best science educators of all time.

9. William Gay

This one might be my most irresponsible inclusion. I’ve read a single book by Gay, but Provinces of Night is probably in my top ten of all time. It might be in my top 5. If the rest of his work is even near as good, he easily will be my third or fourth favorite author. That said, the rest of his work could conceivably be shit, and he’d fall off this list entirely. I’ll read more of his books before I publish this list in the New York Times.

8. Lorrie Moore

I haven’t read enough of Lorrie Moore to put her any higher on this list. That’s completely my fault. I have loved everything I’ve read. She has a perspective that I almost never get. That of a real, interesting, troubled, but trying to figure it out, woman. It’s as if, for me, a manic pixie dream girl became a fleshed out human being. The problems aren’t cute quirks. She isn’t playfully vague in order to appear to have depth. She doesn’t exist to fix the problems of a protagonist. I’ve really enjoyed Paula Fox for similar reasons, but have only read one of her novels and can’t include her on this list in good faith or what-have-you.

7. Nick Hornby

If I felt any guilt for enjoying his work, this would be the only guilty pleasure on the list. What I mean is the guilt would be different. I feel some sense of guilt for liking Bukowski but I’d have a hard time categorizing him as a guilty pleasure because he’d never be played on the radio. Bukowski is like a bad punk song. Weird, abrasive, angry, but I just can’t help but hit the play button. Hornby is more like a pop song. Simple and relatively easy to consume. But I don’t feel any guilt, because I don’t think those are bad things. I can turn on the radio and nod my head to a perfectly crafted Michael Jackson song, and I can pick up a Nick Hornby book and love every moment. When this type of book is done wrong, it’s as embarrassing as Iggy Azalea, but when it’s done right, it’s Thriller.

6. Haruki Murakami

My only problem with Murakami is that some of his books tend to meld. The common theme of reality-bending, dream-like experiences, makes it hard to keep the books straight. But the writing is simply too good to ignore. My complaint might only be relevant to me, anyway. I read a handful of his books in a row and might have over-saturated myself. I still love his writing. Even my least favorite of his was great to read.

Honorable mentions:

Paul Bloom – Great science writer.

Upton Sinclair – Need to read more of his work. The Jungle is an all time favorite.

Michael S. Gazzaniga – Brain science.

Neil Gaiman – Amazing fantasy.

John Kennedy Toole – Died too young.

Dan Ariely – Lots of fun.

*Though this idea isn’t novel (no pun intended… damn it, no one will believe it wasn’t intended) new, I saw it on a blog last week and can’t remember who it was. Credit to that person, and if it was you, let me know so I can link to your post.

10 Favorite Authors*