Book review: It’s understandably not easy to follow up from a masterpiece

“Homo Deus: a brief history of tomorrow” by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens is one of my top 3 favourite books of all time, so I had such a tremendous expectation for this sequel. In retrospect, it is still a brilliant book with vast range of topics filled with plenty of data and insights that are signature of Harari. Some parts are even world class.

However, almost the majority of the contents are stretched a little too long, and give the feel like they are only the extended notes that didn’t get the cut in Sapiens. Moreover, it is not really a direct book about the future, in which I expected to be like the brilliant last chapter in Sapiens. But instead it dwells quite some time in history, thus the overlapping feel with his 1st book.

And when we finally arrived at the predictions of the future? Nothing is really new, although to be fair I have read, watched, and listened to a lot of interviews with Harari talking about this book.

All in all, when reading this book, I can’t help but feeling like when I’m watching the 8th season of Game of Thrones. Sure, it’s brilliant on its own. But when we compare it with the early 7 seasons it becomes obvious that it’s a rather disappointing follow up from the build up.

Already bought his 3rd book though. And I remain a massive fan.

Book review: Lessons from the 1st Stoa

“Stoicism and the art of happiness” by Donald Robertson

Modern Stoicism is largely based on the wonderful thinking of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca through their “main 3 books” of Meditations, Discourses, and Letters, respectively. This is because these books are only a handful of surviving bodies of Stoic writings left that are almost fully intact (with only 4 books out of 8 of Discourses survived).

But these 3 wise philosophers were all part of the so-called 3rd Stoa, the 3rd generation of “Late Stoa” in Rome. So what about the wisdom of the founding fathers of Stoicism, the 1st generation of “Early Stoa” in Ancient Greece? Well, it is said that there are only 1% of surviving Stoic materials left in the world, with the “main 3” dominate the canon, while everything ever written by the founder Zeno have all but disappeared. And so I thought.

This book is different than the rest of 7 modern Stoic books that I’ve read so far, because besides discussing the teachings of the usual 3rd Stoa it also provides the teachings from the 1st Stoa such as Zeno, Cleanthes, and what growingly becomes my favourite Chrysippus, as well as many other Stoic philosophers. And the stories are simply astonishing.

Firstly, I never knew that Pythagoras (the math triangle guy) had such an interesting life and philosophy (and many cult-like followers too in Ancient times) which the Stoics like to refer to. Then we have the story of Paconius Agrippinus, a highly regarded Stoic philosopher who responded with a complete composure when being informed of his impending death execution, by finishing his lunch with his friends.

But my favourite got to be the story when Macedonian king Antigonus II, a powerful political and military leader, came to visit Zeno to listen to his teachings, and Zeno was completely unconcerned when he met the powerful king. Because Antigonus had power over nothing that Zeno saw as important in life and he possessed nothing that Zeno desire about.

Furthermore, the book also has a neat “try it now” section in every chapter, which consist of the suggested Stoic lesson for us to practice for the topic. My absolute favourite is got to be contemplating life as one big festival, with us getting a ticket to attend Glastonbury or the modern Olympic games or any art event. Like the sequence of life, we attend festivals to absorb the experience, to learn a thing or two from it, to enjoy it fully but to never get too attached to anything in it because we’re only a visitor and it is only a temporary gig. When things get rough, it’s okay because it’s the nature of chaotic festival. And when it’s time to wrap up the event, you don’t get upset by it but instead you just leave the event bringing fond memories along with you.

As a reader (and dare I say, a practitioner) of Stoicism it delights me that up to this point I found the numerous modern books on Stoicism as complementary for each other rather than competing. While one focuses on the history, others adapt the lessons into modern-day contexts. While some focused more into the academic discussions, others are more targeted towards bite size day-to-day implementation. And this book is no different, it serves as another piece of Stoic puzzle by dwelling deep into the origins and the formation of the philosophies that becomes the Stoic principles.

Thus, it is a form of injustice if we compare the modern books on Stoicism against each other, as each have different purpose that serve the greater good. Instead, in the quest of reading all available books written on Stoicism I am absolutely estatic, wait, hang on, nay, I’m preferably indifferent that there is another excellent book that provides yet another new angles on the Stoic philosophy. And this one, happens to be written by the founder of the influential Stoicon.

Book review: How children succeed

“How Children Succeed: grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character” by Paul Tough

Firstly, children who grow up in a stressful environment will find it hard to concentrate at class, difficult to follow directions or rules, hard to rebound from disappointments, or difficult to just sitting still. It is because stressful environment negatively affects the part of the brain called prefrontal cortex, which is critical for our ability to self-regulate. A case in point, almost all of the cases of “troubled kids” have uncontrollable bad tempers and attitude, which are rooted from their stressful encounters at home or their surroundings. So we really are the product of our environment.

Secondly, but the good news is children whose parents (especially mother) or guardian are attuned to their mood and responsive to their cues will produce a securely attached children, where early attachment creates a positive psychological effects that could last a lifetime. Moreover, if children grow up in a nurturing parental environment where there are a lot of comforting, physical affections like hugging, and reassuring talks since birth, they will have a stronger and braver character. So a good or bad parenting is the absolute key in a child’s character development, no matter the surrounding circumnstances (remember how in the movie “Life is Beautiful” Guido can turn a horrifying Nazi concentration camp into a fun game for his unknowing son).

And thirdly, it is vital for parents to teach their children since infant the ability to manage their inflamed stress system and to restore themselves to a resting state, which includes teaching them how to calm down after a tantrum or a bad scare. And when the child grows older, they will also need to learn about discipline, rules, and limits. And perhaps most crucially, they also need a child-size adversity appropriate for each of their age levels, a chance to fail and get back up on their feet without help. This is the best gift a parent could ever give to their children, the chance to develop self-control, persistence, grit, curiousity, conscientiousness, and the self-confidence that they can handle anything life throws at them.

These are the 3 key messages of the book, where the author back them up with scientific findings and illustrate them with plenty of real-life great examples. And this is how children succeed.

Book review: The science behind the Wim Hof Method

“What Doesn’t Kill Us: How freezing water, extreme altitude, and environmental conditioning will renew our lost evolutionary strength” by Scott Carney

This is a phenomenal book. It is the story of our long-lost superhuman capability that we once possess, and the science behind the ability to consciously control our immune system and body temperature. It is also a book largely about Wim Hof, and his unorthodox method that surely will change the way we practice medicine and could even save humanity in the future.

So, who is Wim Hof? the Dutchman holds 26 official Guinness Book of Records, he climbed pass the death zone altitude at mount Everest (around 7500 metres) wearing nothing but shorts and shoes, he dipped into ice bath for nearly 2 hours and his body temperature didn’t plunge, and he can hold his breath under water for 10 long minutes.

Moreover, the “iceman” can also run at a high altitude without suffering from altitude sickness, he completed a full marathon above the Arctic Circle in Finland wearing, again, nothing but shorts and shoes despite the temperature was close to -20 degree Celsius (-4 degree Fahrenheit), he ran another full marathon in the scorching hot Namib desert without training and without water (and like a badass re-hydrated afterwards with a beer). And all of this are achievable thanks to his method.

Perhaps the best part of this insane achievements is, despite looking like a hippie and behave like a funny madman, he routinely asks scientists to measure and validate his “crazy” method. Method that are continuously verified to be legitimate, including by the MIT lab. Method that is not genetically available to his “normal” twin brother without practice. Method that is teachable and trainable to anyone, including you and me. And this is where this book excels.

Now, while the book is not about Wim Hof per se, it is a testament on Wim as the absolute superstar in this particular bio-hacking subject. Thus, it has Wim at the cover, Wim for the foreword, Wim for the first few chapters, and Wim again at the last few concluding chapters. But the space in between? It’s the juicy science stuff.

At the core of the book lies Brown Adipose Tissue, an inactive “brown fat” deposit within our body that plays an important role in insulin sensitivity and packed with mitochondria that acts as the power generator for the cells (the ATP). It is a “hidden function” in our body that Harvard researcher Aaron Cypess discovered can be ignited to instantly keep our body warm (the thermogenesis process).

Previously, scientists used to believe that only babies had brown fat since birth (to protect the body from the outside-world cold exposure), but the fat disappears by the time most people reached adulthood. However, recent studies suggest that adults have small reserves of brown fat (usually stored in small deposits around the neck and shoulders), and more importantly some brown fat can be “recruitable” by converting white fat (the normal fat that we have) into brown fat, which can be done most effectively by exposing our body to cold water. And this is where Wim Hof breathing method come in play.

So how does it work? First you inhale deeply through your mouth or nose, filling your belly and chest with as much oxygen as you can, then exhale gently through your mouth. And repeat the sequence 29 more times in short and powerful bursts. On the 30th sequence inhale deeply, then exhale all the way (let all the air out), and then hold your breath for 1 minute or until you have the urge to breathe again. Then take one big gulp of inhale, and stop breathing again for 15 seconds. And exhale, release all. Repeat this whole sequence 1 more time. The breathing method brilliantly trigger both sympathetic and parasympathetic responds in our body (more on that shortly).

Note that you should do this breathing method sitting down in a safe place (not while driving, for example), and in the middle of the 30 sequences you could start feeling light-headed, tingling sensations in your body, or erupted by a sudden emotion (several people even burst out crying for no reason) and that’s normal, it’s the body reaction that we can instantly feel from the method.

And here’s the scientific explanation. Neuroscientists have found that every inhale that we take nudges our sympathetic nervous system (which will increase our heart rate, dilating our pupils slightly, heighten our alertness), and every exhale prods our parasympathetic nervous system (which will slow down our heart rate, constricting our pupils, and calming us down). While normally every inhale is matched with an exhale, by spending more time exhaling and less time inhaling we can produce a net change towards our parasympathetic nervous system (like the 2nd part of the Wim Hof Method, where we hold our breath for 1 minute after we exhale all the way).

And conversely, if we inhale more than we exhale (like in the first 30x rapid breathing in Wim Hof Method) we’ll create a fight-or-flight condition within our body, where the sympathetic nervous system is activated by the hypothalamus by sending signal through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands will then respond by pumping epinephrine (or more commonly known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream, which will prop up our immune system, produce anti-inflammatory effect, give us the boost of energy, and trigger the redistribution of blood to the muscles that will keep us warm.

In other words, by net-inhaling in rapid successions the Wim Hof Method fooled our brain to think that we’re in a danger, and trigger it to produce the adrenaline that normally appears when we are chased by a tiger, or have to lift a very heavy falling wall during a fire, and in any other life and death situation. And the 2nd part of the method then relaxes our body to calm state, in order to prevent a prolonged adrenaline rush.

This same adrenaline is what protected Wim during a lab experiment where he was injected with a bacterial endotoxin, which should normally affect our immune response. But through the breathing method, Wim demonstrated that he can voluntarily influence his autonomic nervous system, and thus he can consciously control his immune system and treat it as a barrier against the disease. To show that he is not the anomaly, Wim then teach this to 12 other people, and all of them also didn’t get any body reaction when injected by endotoxin.

The Wim Hof Method is not a new phenomenon, however. It is a similar method used by the Tibetans to adapt their body in high altitude, the same approach implemented by the Inuits to withstand the freezing cold, similar like the aborigines and the Kalahari bushmen that use a method to remain warm in plunging temperatures at night without clothes on, and interestingly archaeological findings suggest that it’s even the same technique used by the Neanderthals to survive in the cold.

It is also similar like a long tradition of semi-mystic practices such as Tummo breathing and Prāṇāyāma yoga, although these two have the opposite objection to Wim Hof Method where it relies on parasympathetic deep breathing to induce a “hypometabolic state” where autonomic and mental arousal are minimal.

And true to his superhero-like narrative, Wim did not initially discover his method through science or training, but through pain after his wife committed suicide and left him alone with his 4 kids and little money to get by. This is when the ice cold water of the nearby lake became his sanctuary, the saviour that healed his pain. And in time, through trial and error the superior combination of the cold and his breathing method turned him into a superhuman capable of breaking various limitations that were thought humanly impossible. And it didn’t kill him.

Book review: My sanctuary

“How To Enjoy Your Life and Your Job” by Dale Carnegie

Every once in a while, I resort to Dale Carnegie after a long streak of reading books on various topics. I do this because as a man who lived in the 1890s – 1950s he produced the clearest good-old-fashioned values, which fittingly feels at home after a long journey outside. And this book is no different.

Published in 1970, the book is a some kind of summary of his 2 most famous books, “How to win friends and influence people” and “How to stop worrying and start living”, which are then catered to the particular subject displayed as the title of this book. While the book is published posthumously, it has the familiar Dale Carnegie’s style of writing, the endearing pop references from his time, complete with his template of heart-warming examples to illustrate the points that he’s trying to make.

And similar with his previous 2 magnificent best-sellers, and a 3rd one about public speaking (equally excellent), this book also teased me into highlighting every single paragraph, because they all seem to be important. But that’s how home should feel like, wouldn’t you agree? It’s that feeling of ease and security when you’re inside the house, where nobody is judging you, where there’s nothing but love, where every single item in the house is important and valuable for you. And that is what this book is for me.

Book review: The silver song of a lark

“Klopp: bring the noise” by Raphael Honigstein

This book reads like the Chicago Bulls documentary “The Last Dance”, with all the going back and forth in Jürgen Klopp’s different periods in life, from childhood to Mainz to Liverpool to Dortmund to Liverpool back to his punditry days in Germany, back to Dortmund, and so on. And it’s gripping.

The author has a special way to depicts a scene and brings us into the mood in the stadiums, in the pubs, and you can just taste the emotions among the supporters. And it is reflected in the book, which gives the overall context and “feel” around the development of Mainz, Dortmund, and Liverpool within Klopp’s respective periods in life, from the wreck at the beginning for each club to the few years of building up the team until its success stories for Dortmund and Liverpool.

But most importantly, in between the stories the book also brilliantly captures the essence of Jürgen Klopp’s tremendous, larger-than-life, personality and the wisdom and intellect that match it. Hence, it is similar with reading books about basketball’s John Wooden or American football’s Vince Lombardy, where we can learn so much more from the great men and from the lessons that they teach us for life outside their respective sports.

Yes, the core of this book is about Klopp’s strong values, it’s about his work ethic, his natural charisma, his clear conscious between what’s right and what’s wrong. One single passage in the book perfectly describes this philosophy: “But unlike Bill Shankly, Klopp has never believed that sport is everything. It can’t be. ‘If life would be judged at the end, and you stood at that door, and somebody asked you “Did you win something or not?” that would be really strange. But: “Did you try everything to improve the place you’ve been in, the house you lived in, the mood, the love?” “Yes, I tried, every day.” “Then come in.” And all the other guys, who won ignoring all the rules, all the laws – I think they have to use another door. I didn’t do that much in my life. But when we won it felt incredible (because) we always won it in the right way. You have to be patient. You have to work harder than others. You have to try, over a long period. Then you have a chance.’”

His philosophies, of course, also projected in his footballing approach. He’s very demanding but fair, he always push his boys to the limit but never throw them discouraging critics. He’s the ultimate authority but he’s “one of them”. He parties with them, exchange jokes with them, the hugs, oh the many hugs, and he genuinely value everyone at the club from top to bottom. In fact at the start of his tenure in Liverpool, he gathered everyone in one room, from players to the toilet cleaner and the lunch lady and ask them introduce to one another, to create a togetherness atmosphere in the club.

And he’s also good at protecting his players: “The Liverpool boss also reminded his men again about the pact he had made with them shortly after coming into the job in October 2015. ‘When you win, it’s down to you and when you lose, it’s down to me,’ he had told them in a bid to ease unspoken concerns about the new, complex and very demanding playing style.”

Now, I know love is a strong word but even if he kills a puppy at this very instance, I bet every Mainz, Dortmund, and Liverpool supporter will still see him as a saint. That’s how much Klopp is loved by the entire city of Mainz, the entire city of Dortmund, and by Liverpool fans worldwide, and it is a testament to his great character.

As a biased Liverpool fan, whose club just won the first English title in 30 years thanks to this err, saint, with many records broken in the process, this book is like the icing on the cake. It is the perfect book for the supporters. Thank Fowler that he’s our manager.

Book review: The best of Stephen Hawking

“Brief Answers to the Big questions” by Stephen Hawking

This is a mind-bendingly incredible book. It asks 10 big questions in science and in life, with Stephen Hawking gives the most thought-provoking answers.

The questions are: 1. Is there a God? 2. How did all begin? 3. Is there other intelligence life in the universe? 4. Can we predict the future? 5. What is inside a black hole? 6. Is time travel possible? 7. Will we survive on Earth? 8. Should we colonise space? 9. Will artificial intelligence outsmart us? 10. How do we shape the future?

The book itself is relatively thin, and the title literally says BRIEF answers. But it sure does feel voluminous and heavy weight, due to its condensed content.

It is one of those books that gives me the physical feel that my brain is being stretched and expanded to the limit of my ability to comprehend. And it’s fantastic. If what reading a book does for our brain equals with lifting weights for our body, then this book is one massive weight that we train with the assistance of the best possible personal trainer.

Different types of people in this pandemic

There are few kinds of people in this pandemic, which reflect their true personality:

  1. The fact checker: they seek the facts and adapt their life according to the reality on the ground.
  2. The conspiracy theorist: they see the world through the lens of conspiracy theories, and tend to believe hoax forwarded messages of the cause of the pandemic, the cure, etc, without verifying it. Even if we show the massive evidence that contradict their view to them, they won’t believe it.
  3. The judgemental: they have a certain judgement on everything and everyone, and will only selectively accept the facts or news that justify their biased views. E.g. I still hang out with my friends with no social distance protocol because they’re nice people.
  4. The dismissive: in the age of information overload, being ignorant is a choice. This type of people believe, with so little information as their basis, that the pandemic thing is so hyped up and overdramatic, just because they’re not bothered to see what’s really going on while everyone else around them are panicking. They only see the panic and not the cause of the panic.
  5. The clueless: they don’t know what’s going on, doesn’t have the initiative to find out what’s going on, and instead live life unchanged as normal. Will accept any bogus information at face value from anyone that they respect or believe, without fact-checking.
  6. The overly paranoid: and then we have the opposite. They know what’s going on, get drowned in the sea of information and misinformation, and become overly paranoid and can even be paralysed by their own scary thoughts (which is always worse than the reality on the ground).

Some are the archetypical of the type, while others are a mixed of the 6 types.

For true Liverpool fans out there

This is for the time Jay Spearing became a regular in the lineup, for every time Erik Meijer came off as a substitute, when David N’Gog was the only senior striker we had, for every, God, damn, Lovren blunder.

This is for that Gerrard slip in 2013-2014 season, for the painful 1 point difference last season, and for the 2008-2009 season when we also gave away our leading position to end up as a runner up.

This is for the dark days of Gillett and Hicks, where we were only hours away from becoming bankrupt. This is for Adidas who abandon us when our ship was sinking.

This is for Thiago Ilori whom we never get to see him play, for that Jamie Carragher’s block tackle on Torres’ first debut for Chelsea, Robbie Fowler’s 4 goals against Middlesbrough December 1996 that started my love affair with football, that Xabi Alonso goal from half way line against Newcastle.

This is for walking through the storm together, through the wind, through the rain, to walking on though our dreams be tossed and blown, with our heads held up high. Until we finally reach the end of the storm, and arrive at the golden sky. They did it! We did it! We fuckin did it!

Book review: Read it with a massive grain of salt

“The Room Where It Happened: a White House Memoir” by John Bolton

This is a God-awful book. For a start, there’s a lot of gibberish to take in, in a writing style that is not well structured, and not to mention the flow of the book that keep following where the author’s rants want to wonder within the chapters, which is messy.

The book is written by the infamous John Bolton, a grade A a-hole that is never trustworthy to begin with. It is the warmongering defense advisor who got fired by the megalomaniac Donald Trump because he’s too aggressive. And this book looks more like a justification of his decision makings during his time as Trump’s advisor rather than a reflective memoir, which is ironic because by “telling it all” Bolton actually shows that he’s indeed one of the main problems in Trump administration.

For example, Bolton actually advised Trump to attack Iran after the country downed an unmanned American surveillance drone (that Iran caught spying in their own backyard). Had Trump jump into the idea, the US would have started multiple conflicts with thousands of casualties. Furthermore, that decision by the US to walk out from the Iran nuclear deal? That’s Bolton’s idea. Also the decision to seek regime change in Venezuela, and, again, the provocations to go to war with them (which Trump didn’t follow). And Bolton even remarks that the US “endured eight years of Obama mistakes” regarding the US’ diplomacy approach towards North Korea and Iran.

Perhaps what makes it even worse, Bolton wrote this book with the smugness, the insulting biases, and the strong believe that his views are the right one and everyone else are wrong and stupid, and that he’s not at fault for every atrocities America have done following his advice.

Don’t get me wrong, I can still enjoy one or two parts of the book, especially the behind closed door conversations between the world leaders, such as the conversations in the meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un (and their entourages, including Bolton) in Singapore. Or the behind the scene mayhem in White House to issue a response over Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Also intriguing is the book’s revelation about the concern by Erdogan on the conviction of senior official of Turkish bank Halkbank, Mehmet Atilla, where the ongoing investigation for financial fraud could actually implicate Erdogan and his family.

Ultimately, though, if we can take only few things from this book it’s this: one, Donald Trump is more appalling than we thought he is (he thought Finland is part of Russia, didn’t know that their strongest ally UK has a nuclear weapon, but never bothered to read the daily briefings to be less clueless). And two, John Bolton makes Donald Trump looks like the calm and collected one on foreign policy.

With that in mind, in the end of the day it’s certainly not worth anyone’s time to read the book, even if you got it for free via the PDF version that have been widely circulating. The cost may not be your money, but it’s your time.

Skim read the book if you must, as have I, but don’t waste your precious time diving deep into a trash that may not even be true (some of his claims are denied by others who were in the same room). And even if it’s true, at this point it won’t change our opinion on Trump, it will only add to his already long laundry list of shenanigans that act above the law, in which nobody seems to be able to stop (that thing Trump said about Muslim concentration camp in Uighur, as claimed in the book, are you really shocked?)

So instead, just read the many great coverage of the book in the media, because it’s still an interesting angle and insight into the Trump World. That is, if you can trust John Bolton.