All the rest of the books I read this year
I’m back dating this posting to yesterday because I had it mostly written but didn’t quite get around to finishing it before I had to leave for a New Year’s Eve party last night.
When I last wrote about books I’d read this year, I needed to read four more books to achieve my goal of reading 18 books in 2018. I’m happy to report that I have exceeded this goal, as I read 6 more books! Here are (very) brief synopses of the books.
Earlier in the year, I read the book “Brain Rules“, from which I learned a whole bunch of cool stuff about the brain and how we can apply what we know about how the brain works to be more effective at teaching1. So I decided to read one of his subsequent books, where he talks about what we can do to keep our brains in tip-top shape so that when we get older, it will keep working well!
Some fun facts that I learned from this book:
- Things that you can do to add years to your life and keep your brain healthy well into your senior years: reading, learning, teaching, speaking many languages, exercising, dancing, being social, being grateful, mindfulness2. These are all things that I love to do ((Well, learning languages is something I’ve always wanted to do, so now I have even more incentive to do it!)!
- Teaching helps you keep “your brain sharp over a fund of knowledge”. I find this to be so true! It’s one of the things I really love about teaching!
- Learning to play music improves executive function – including working memory!
- Reading actually associated with longevity. “Seniors who read at least 3.5 hours per day were 17% less likely to die by a certain age than controls.” “The readings has to be of books, long form”. Reading newspapers articles, for example, has a smaller effect. (I wonder if reading tweets or Facebook posts would do any good at all?)
- “For every year of education experienced, cognitive decline is delayed by 0.21 years.” (So basically, I’ve staved off cognitive decline for a zillion years).
- “People who’ve spent a lifetime in mentally and physically demanding environments are much more efficient at using whatever brains they carry into their elder years. They’re also more neuroanatomically “nimble”, more flexibly able to create alternative neural circuitry when they originals become injured.”
- “Productive engagement” refers to the idea of “experiencing a novel idea and actively, even aggressively, engaging it.” The best way to do this: “find people with whom you do not agree and regular argue with them”. It’s important to “experience environments where you find your assumptions challenged, your perspectives stretched, your prejudices confronted, your curiosity inspired.” I think it’s important to note that this means you need to argue in good faith and be open to different points of view and new ideas. So often people argue from their firmly entrenched opinions and don’t actually engage with the ideas of the other side. That’s not going to help your brain at all!
- Another thing that is good for your brain: writing down 3 good things that happened to you today, including
- what good thing happened
- why it happened
- Despite the stereotype of old people getting more and more grumpy: “Happiness increases in older populations as long as they stay healthy”.
- Another stereotype about old people is that their memory gets bad. But it actually depends on the type of memory.
- “Semantic memory, a memory for facts, doesn’t erode with age”
- “your vocabulary actually increases with the passing years”
- “procedural memory (nonconscious retrieval […]) remains steady as the years go by, although some studies also demonstrate a slight improvement”
- working memory and executive function does get worse with age 🙁
- episodic memory also gets worse with age (and it peaks around 20, so I guess I’m already well into decline on that one). In particular, remember the source of something is harder to remember (rather than the facts)
- processing speed declines with age. “On average, you lose about ten milliseconds of speed for every decade you live past age twenty”
- it becomes harder to ignore distractions as you get older
- “tip of tongue” (you feel like you know something but can’t quite articulate it) and “room amnesia” (getting to a room and thinking “what did I come in here for?”) are both real things
- Wisdom can be thought of has “having a richer model of he world that enables deployment of established behavioural repertoires” – and that increases with age
- Your brain will compensate for decline – when one part stops working well, it recruits neurons from other parts of the brain to do the needed function. I just think that is really cool!
- There’s no such thing as multitasking, as you can’t actually do two things at the same time – you are actually just switching back and forth between the two things. Scientists use a better term “divided attention” and it gets harder for us to do as we age.
- “If you want to diminish cognitive decline in old age, you must start accruing sleep habits in middle age.” This is definitely my Achilles heel – I sleep very solidly, but I don’t get nearly enough sleep.
- Sleep allows the brain both to consolidate memories and to remove the waste products that build up during the biochemical processes that happen during the day (and your brain consumes a lot of energy, so there’s a fair bit of work to be done to remove those waste products!)
- You should get 6-8 hours of sleep per night – getting more or less than that increases the risk for mortality! But, of course, that’s on average – individuals do vary in how much sleep they require.
- Seligman’s “well-being theory” consists of “five contributing behaviors” that are basically “a to-do list for people of any age interested in authentic happiness” and make up the acronym PERMA:
- Positive emotion – regularly do things that make you feel true pleasure
- Engagement – in activities that are meaningful to you – things you can really lose yourself in (e.g, a good book, movie, sports, etc.)
- Meaning – do things that give your life purpose
- Accomplishment – set goals at things that require you to “achieve mastery in something over which you currently have no mastery at all”. Train for a marathon or learn a new language, for example.
- People who feel younger than they are do better on cognitive tests. Apparently doing so by 12 years is the best (e.g., if you are 42 and you feel 30, you will rock those cognitive tests).
- Apparently lab rats can detect if a researcher is male or female and they get more stressed out if they are male. This is not really something that going to influence my behaviour re: healthy brain aging, but it just blew me away when I read it!
- Scientists have done experiments where they hook up the circulatory systems of old and young mice (so that the old mice are exposed to young blood) and they find that virtually ever organ, including the brain, sees positive changes! They are now embarking on experiments in humans where they inject plasma from young people into patients with Alzheimer’s – results are not yet available (or at least weren’t at the time this book was written). I’m curious what the results will be!
Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris
- I have mixed feelings about Sam Harris. I like some of his work where he talks about stuff like rationalism and mindfulness, but I find myself increasingly getting annoyed by his views on a whole host of other things he talks about on his podcast, as I find him to come across quite arrogant and talking about things he doesn’t seem to know a lot about as if he were an expert. But I knew this particular book was about things like mindfulness, which I am interested in, so I decided to read it.
Here are some quotations that I liked from this book (along with some of my thoughts):
- On the importance of context:
- “The burn of lifting weights, for instance, would be excruciating if it were a symptom of terminal illness”. I’ve heard Harris use this example before and I like it – I find it helpful to think about this when I’m experiencing things. It’s probably especially meaningful to me as someone who really enjoys the burn you get from working hard at the gym.
- “We always face tensions and trade-offs. In some moments we crave excitement and in others rest. We might love the taste of wine and chocolate, but rarely for breakfast.”
- “Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves.”
- “It is your mind, rather than the circumstances themselves, that determine the quality of your life.” We can’t control our circumstances, but we can decide how we want to react to them.
- “We continually seek to prop up and defend an egoic self that doesn’t exist.” It’s much easier not to overreact or be defensive if you don’t take yourself to serious. If there’s no “self”, there’s no need to defend it!
- “Most of us let our negative emotions persist longer than is necessary. Becoming suddenly angry we tend to stay angry – and this requires that we actively produce the feeling of anger.” Recognizing this can help us to not stay angry for as long as we might otherwise. We’ve all experienced times where we are really angry or sad and then something happens – maybe a phone call that causes us to pay attention to something else, and the anger or sadness disappears. We can do something similar by being mindful to the feelings of anger or sadness.
- “Thinking is indispensable to us. It is essential for belief formation, planning, explicit learning, moral reasoning, and many other capacities that make us human. Thinking is the basis of every social relationship and cultural institution we have.” “But our habitual identification with thought – that is our failure to recognize thoughts as thoughts, as appearances in consciousness – is a primary source of human suffering.”
- “Meditation requires total acceptance of what is given in the present moment. If you are injured and in pain, the path to mental peace can be traversed by a single step: simply accept the pain as it arise, what doing whatever you need to do to help your body heal. If you are anxious before giving a speech, become willing to feel the anxiety fully, so that it becomes a meaningless pattern of energy in your mind and body.”
- “However, there is a different between accepting unpleasant sensations and emotions as a strategy -while covertly hoping they will go away – and truly accepting them as transitory appearances in consciousness.”
So, I need to explain why this insane book is on my list of books I’ve “read” this year. I didn’t actually read the book, but rather I listened to the first season of a podcast called My Dad Wrote A Porno in which a man named Jamie reads an erotic novel (the aforementioned “Belinda Blinked”) that was written and self-published by his dad, to his friends James and Alice. They are all in the entertainment business and are absolutely hilarious as they completely skewer the book for its terrible writing, nonsensical “plot”, very poor understanding of anatomy, and so forth. But since they read the whole book, that means that I heard the whole book, much as I would had a read it as an audiobook (just with a whole lot of added commentary), so it totally counts as a book I read this year!
This is a book that I first heard about when the author, Andrew Yang, was on the aforementioned Sam Harris’ podcast, in an episode that didn’t actually drive me crazy (which is rare these days). I found what Yang was talking about quite interesting, so I decided to read his book. It’s basically a book about how so much jobs are being automated and if society doesn’t do something to separate labour from income, we are going to be totally screwed. The book is American, so it talks most about the US situation, but a lot of it is applicable to Canada too (other than the health care stuff). There’s lots of facts and figures about the type of work that can be easily replaced by robots and algorithms (did you know that “truck driver” is the most common occupation in 29 states? and that “automation has eliminated 4 million manufacturing jobs in the US since 2000”? And that there are 95 million working-age Americans who don’t work?). If there’s anything routine about work , it came probably be easily automated – and that isn’t just blue collar jobs, a lot of what lawyers, doctors, and accountants due is quite routine. Ultimately, the book is building a case for why there should be a universal basic income (including talking about places where they’ve already been doing some form of UBI).
In the book, he talks about how a lot of jobs these days are quite precarious – temp or contractor jobs with no benefits. This is especially problematic in a place like the US, where your healthcare is tied to your job. The book also notes that tying healthcare to employment actually discourages companies from hiring (since healthcare is a signficant added cost when you hire people, whereas robots don’t need healthcare). Also, tying healthcare to jobs results in “job lock”, i.e., people staying in a job just because they need the health insurance and it makes the labour market less flexible, as people can’t go where better jobs are in case it doesn’t work out and they end up with no health insurance.
He also talks about how “companies are not paid to perform certain tasks, not employ lots of people.” If they can get those tasks done through automation and that’s more efficient than hiring people, they will do that.
A few other interesting things in the book:
- When you are struggling financially, you lose mental bandwidth. So being financially insecure results in less fluid intelligence. Having a large part of your population financially insecure will mean society can do a lot less intelligence-wise.
- When we feel we are in a situation of scarcity, people become more tribal and divisive. Decision making gets worse. They don’t do things that relate to “sustained optimism” – like starting a business, getting married, or moving to a new place for a new job. This is a lot of what’s happening in the US right now.
- Different parts of the country are seeing different levels of abundance vs. scarcity. (Makes me think of the William Gibson quotation: “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”)
- Studies show that working class boys consider schoolwork to be “feminine”.
- College-education women don’t like to marry non-college education men.
- “Peter Frase, author of Four Futures, poins out that work encompasses three things:
- the means by which the economy produces goods and services
- the means by which people earn income
- an activity that lends meaning or purpose to many people’s lives.”
- We need to separate these things, as automation will be able to produce many of the goods and services without workers, and yet people still need income and purpose.
- Universal basic income “almost became law in the United States in 1970 and 1971, passing the House of Representatives twice before stalling in the Senate”.
- Two arguments against UBI that are “completely oppositional”: “First, work is vital and the core of human existence. Second, no one will want to work if they don’t have to.”
- People also argue that UBI will increase drug and alcohol use, but the research shows that it does not. Also, “it’s not like a lack of money is presently keeping people from using opioids and alcohol.”
- “Andy Stern jokes that most of the upper-middle-class children he knows have something called “parental basic income”: their lives are partially subsidized by their parents. Cell phone bills, rent guarantees, family trips and vacation, and so on all come out of the Bank of Mom and Dad.”
- The market does not reward what is really important: “There is limited or no market reward at present for keeping families together, upgrading infrastructure, lifelong education, preventive care, or improving democracy.”
- People thought that MOOCs (massive online open courses) were going to replace universities because people could learn everyone online for free. But they didn’t. Just providing content is not enough for people to learn. A lot of learning occurs between the people – teachers and students. “No one would consider putting a child in an empty classroom with a textbook “eduction””.
- “We know what works – better teachers, better cultures, teamwork, and individualized attention. We’re just not very good at delivering these things. We fall in love with scale and solutions that promise more for less.”
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Lord of the Flies is a book that many people read in high school, but somehow it never ended up on my reading list. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, as it’s one of those classic books where there are so many pop culture references to it, that I felt like I was missing out for not having read it. It’s on my list of 101 things to do in 1001 days, so reading it helped me complete my goal for reading 18 books this year *and* got an item checked off on my 101 list.
I have to say that I basically knew the plot of this book based on the Simpson episode that was based on the book (which I now want to go and re-watch to see which jokes I have missed on previous viewings of that episode).
Data Management for Researchers by Kristin Briney
I read this book as part of the preparation for a course I’m going to be teaching on data management. And I have to say that not only was it a great book for that purpose, but it also gave me some ideas of things that I can be doing better in my own work!
I’m not going to go over all the things that I learned from this book, as that would probably bore 99.9% of people. If you want to hear about it, you should enrol in my course! 😉
- Incidentally, I’m trying to apply what I learned from that book – and from having seen John Medina speak – to the new course I’ve developing at the moment. [↩]
- But in particular, the type of mindfulness that’s been studied and shown to be helpful, as tonnes of people have written books about “mindfulness” since it started to become popular, and not everyone has it right. [↩]