Book Review: Integral Meditation by Ken Wilber

I’ve been making a conscious effort to be more mindful in various aspects of my life. Somehow, I stumbled upon this book (perhaps it was a Goodreads recommendation), and thought the blurb sounded interesting. Could this be what I need to take my mindfulness practice to the next level?

Uhhhhhhhhhhh. What?

First, the good news: I finished it!
The bad news: Seriously, what did I just read?

Okay, sure, maybe I should have been more familiar with “integral theory and practice” before I started reading this, (“more” meaning, any sort of familiarity at all). But come on, the blurb sold me: “a radical approach to mindfulness—combining an ancient meditation technique with leading-edge theory, resulting in a powerful new method of self-transformation.”

The 240ish something pages start off interesting. Ken Wilber makes an effort to explain what integral mediation is and how we can use it to grow up (not just wake up / achieve nirvana). This is the first I’d heard of “growing up” used in this context. Wilber uses various stages of human societal evolution as an analogy for the different aspects of growing up and becoming a better, more aware / awake person.

As the book goes on, it goes deeper down the rabbit hole of how awake you should be for given stages of your personal development and steps are needed to achieve the next level.

But as you progress through the book (and presumably through the levels), things seem to make a lot less sense and start to sound downright silly.

A random, out-of-context quote that highlights some of the word soup you’ll need to wade through:

“This, needless to say, was not an incentive to contemplative development, and the religious engagement of individuals increasingly focused on legalistic creeds, codes, and mythic-literal dogma of a particular stage of spiritual Growing Up, namely the mythic-literal. And so we ended up with the two major problems with religion in today’s Western world: no spiritual Waking Up, and rather low levels of spiritual Growing Up. Taken together, this is a cultural disaster of the first magnitude. I just can’t emphasize enough what a staggering nightmare this has been for Western civilization.”

Ultimately, it was a lot of random words jumbled together that I don’t entirely understand. There might be a time and place for reading it and getting something out of it, but I don’t think I will ever get there.

If you’re a Wilber fan, there’s probably a lot here you’ll like (it seems like others do). If you have no idea who this dude is and it’s your first time wading into one of his books (like me), I wish you the best of luck.

★★☆☆☆

Book Review: One Minute to Midnight by Michael Dobbs

“I think this is scarier than the Cuban missile crisis,” said my mom, as we recently chatted on the phone about the current events in Europe and the lack of response by the West due to the threat of nuclear war.

That seemed a bit extraordinary  — but then again, I realized how little I knew of the Cuban missile crisis. Sure, President Kennedy seemingly went “eyeball-to-eyeball” with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1962 and the world was this close (*makes pinching motion*) to nuclear armageddon. The Soviet Union eventually blinked and the world breathed a sigh of relief.

I’m always one to dig into history, and given the relevancy to current events, I decided to find the best book I could about this topic.

Oh, wow. This was a doozy.

It’s an hour-by-hour account of those stressful 13 days in October of 1962, switching between Washington DC, Moscow, and everywhere in between.

It’s surprising how close we actually were to war.

Kennedy agonized over whether to invade Cuba to remove the missiles, knowing that Russia would probably respond in kind in Europe. He had to balance the more hawkish elements of his cabinet (those who favored immediate airstrikes) with more diplomatic suggestions (remove nuclear missiles from Turkey and seemingly backstab a NATO ally).

A number of mistakes and miscommunication along the way didn’t help:

  • A U2 on a reconnoissance mission over Cuba was shot down by a Russian SAM site and the American pilot was killed. A highly ranked supervisor was off duty, so subordinates took it upon themselves to shoot down the plane, believing it to be part of an imminent attack on Cuba.
  • At the same time, a U2 on a high-altitude air sampling mission over the North Pole got lost, due to the aurora borealis (and being unable to properly sight stars for navigation), and ended up over Russia. Miraculously, the U2 made it back to Alaska (just barely). Russian fighter jets were scrambled to intercept the plane. American fighter jets were also scrambled to escort the plane and defend it, if needed. The kicker: the fighter jets were armed with nuclear-tipped air-to-air missiles and the pilots had ultimate authority on whether or not to use them. Fortunately, the Soviet fighter jets had returned to base by the time the American planes met up.
  • A Russian submarine that was being chased and harassed by American naval forces (who were dropping practice depth charges and grenades into the water) couldn’t surface at appropriate times to get the latest communications from Moscow. The captain of the sub feared that World War 3 could have already begun and they didn’t know it. The kicker: the sub was equipped with a nuclear-tipped torpedo that the captain had authority to fire if they felt they were in mortal danger.
  • NORAD reported an (erroneous) missile launch reading from Cuba that was headed toward Florida. By the time military officials realized it was a false alarm due to a configuration issue, the “missile” would have already landed.

Kennedy’s defense secretary, Robert McNamarama, was later asked how we managed to survive and avoid a nuclear war:

Luck. Luck was a factor. I think, in hindsight, it was the best-managed geopolitical crisis of the post-World War II period, beyond any question. But we were also lucky. And in the end, I think two political leaders, Khrushchev and Kennedy, were wise. Each of them moved in ways that reduced the risk of confrontation. But events were slipping out of their control, and it was just luck that they finally acted before they lost control, and before East and West were involved in nuclear war that would have led to destruction of nations. It was that close.

May we always be as lucky.

Book Review: The Storyteller by Dave Grohl

Edit: I wrote this on the morning of March 25th. Later that day, we find out news that Foo Fighters drummer, Taylor Hawkins, died while on tour with the band in Colombia.

An excerpt from the book on the fast friendship between Taylor and Dave:

“Taylor and I had become practically inseparable since he had joined the band the year before, becoming devious partners in crime from day one. During his stint as Alanis Morissette’s drummer, long before he became a Foo Fighter, we would bump into each other backstage at festivals all over the world, and our chemistry was so obvious that even Alanis herself once asked him, “What are you going to do when Dave asks you to be his drummer?” Part Beavis and Butthead, part Dumb and Dumber, we were a hyperactive blur of Parliament Lights and air drumming wherever we went…”

—-

One way to know I’m getting old is that I’m reading (and enjoying!) all sorts of biographies. Some of the more recent ones I’ve read are about Bad Religion and Kurt Cobain. There’s something especially fascinating about sitting down and learning about the people who shaped the soundtrack to my adolescent life.

Anyway, The Storyteller by Dave Grohl has been on my to-read list for a bit now. He’s always seemed like such a character and though I don’t consider them one of my favorites, I’ve definitely enjoyed listening to the Foo Fighters over the years.

His story seems so improbable. (Interestingly, I said the same thing after reading Heavier than Heaven: “Also, after reading this, I think it’s incredible and seemingly improbable that Nirvana actually happened.”)

How did this guy go from a scrawny, goofy high school dropout who was just bashing on the drums for Scream (and then onto Nirvana) to fronting a mega rock band, collaborating with some of the biggest names in music, appearing / performing at countless awards shows, the White House and appearing on Saturday Night Live more than any other musician?

Luck, being in the right place at the right time, and raw tenacity. Plus, being open to whatever the universe throws at him and always up for going along for the ride.

He reflects on his life as he’s gotten older:

“Sometimes I forget that I’ve aged. My head and my heart seem to play this cruel trick on me, deceiving me with the false illusion of youth by greeting the world every day through the idealistic, mischievous eyes of a rebellious child finding happiness and appreciation in the most basic, simple things.”

Aye, I hear that!

He writes about how much music affected and shaped his life and it’s so true. How he spent countless hours practicing guitar and drums by playing along to his favorite bands. I can relate — I remember looping songs over and over again so I could try to nail certain guitar riffs and trying to imagine the slightest bit of what it would be like to be a rock star.

The book is a quick read and I found myself wanting more details about every aspect of his life. But I found myself laughing out loud at a number of parts, and nodding my head in agreement in others (the passages he writes on being a dad and how much his daughters mean to him got me good).

Anyway, if you appreciate Dave Grohl, the Foo Fighters, or rock music in general, you’ll probably dig this.

Book Review: Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder

Bloodlands cover

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, I found myself glued to Twitter, reading updates and reactions. As the war ground on and Russia increasingly attacked and destroyed civilian infrastructure and lives, I saw various people mention an informative book that details some of the struggles Ukrainians (and Poles and Belarusians) have endured over the last 100 years due to murderous policies of both Germany and Russia and the geographical location between these two countries.

How do you realistically review a book like this? You really can’t. It’s an insightful and depressing look at humans at our worst. When discussing the horrors of World War II, we often think about the raw numbers of dead — 14 million people explicitly murdered between 1933 and 1945.

It’s a number that is so huge that it makes no sense and it’s impossible to understand. How could something like that happen?

This book explains how. In excruciating detail, it dives into the famines induced by Stalin’s collectivization of farms, which caused the starvation of 3 million Ukrainians.

It examines Stalin’s Great Terror (700,000 victims in 1937 and 1938, many of Polish ancestry) and the killing quotas Moscow imposed.

The killing and imprisonment quotas were officially called “limits,” though everyone involved knew that they were meant to be exceeded. Local NKVD officers had to explain why they could not meet a “limit,” and were encouraged to exceed them. No NKVD officer wished to be seen as lacking élan when confronting “counter-revolution,” especially when Yezhov’s line was “better too far than not far enough.” Not 79,950 but five times as many people would be shot in the kulak action. By the end of 1938, the NKVD had executed some 386,798 Soviet citizens in fulfillment of Order 00447.

It explains how German armies marched through towns, rounding up Jews to murder.

…then they lined up the prisoners against a wall at the bank of the Vistula River and shot them. Those who tried to escape by jumping into the river were shot—as the one survivor remembered, like ducks. Some three hundred people died.

…in one case a hundred civilians were assembled to be shot because someone had fired a gun. It turned out that the gun had been fired by a German soldier.

…in Dynów, some two hundred Jews were machine-gunned one night in mid-September.

…then they drove several hundred more Jews into the synagogue and set it on fire, shooting those who tried to escape.

And on, and on, and on.

From front to back, this book is just a sea of destruction and despair. But it’s important history to know and remember.

A salient point this book makes that equally applies to current events as we see endless news of Ukrainians being murdered, and cities and homes destroyed:

“Jewish resistance in Warsaw was not only about the dignity of the Jews but about the dignity of humanity as such, including those of the Poles, the British, the Americans, the Soviets: of everyone who could have done more, and instead did less.”

Slava Ukraini.

Book Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

The pandemic forced a change in the way many knowledge workers work. Many of us have shifted to working from home — some roles are permanent.

I’m fortunate to be in such a position, but it’s been both a blessing and difficult to adjust to.

Distractions are frequent. From regular Zoom meetings, Slack messages and various alert notifications, to email. I think a number of people (myself included) are over compensating in our communication styles.

For software engineers, this causes a lot of context switching. And that’s generally a bad thing.

Context switching can lower productivity, increase fatigue, and, ultimately, lead to developer burnout. Switching tasks requires energy and each switch depletes mental focus needed for high cognitive performance. Over an entire workday, too many context switches can leave developers feeling exhausted and drained.

The impact of context switching lingers even after switching tasks. Cognitive function declines when the mind remains fixated on previous tasks, a phenomenon known as attention residue.

I’ve recently felt myself feeling drained and less productive that usual. While browsing a thread on Hacker News, a comment on Hacker News suggested that someone should read Deep Work by Cal Newport for ideas on how to regain focus and minimize distractions. It was the first I’d heard of that book.

It was pretty enlightening and I was pretty hooked!

It has a number of self-help style steps (that are somewhat obvious, in hindsight) that you can take to improve your situation and increase productivity (e.g., carve out set times when no one can bother you, like early in the morning or late at night, keep consistent times, set reasonable expectations and have a plan, don’t wing it).

But it also had shared some interesting research on how our brains have been rewired to have shorter attention spans, thanks to all our fancy pants technology.

“Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, Nass discovered, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate. To put this more concretely: If every moment of potential boredom in your life—say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives—is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where, like the “mental wrecks” in Nass’s research, it’s not ready for deep work—even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.”

Yeah… guilty.

Anyway, definitely want to put some of these ideas into practice. It was a quick read and had some concrete steps on how to improve attention and focus that I can start using immediately. Excited to try it!

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Book Review: The Hidden Life of Trees by by Peter Wohlleben

I added this to my reading list last year after finishing up Nick Offerman’s book, “Where the Deer and the Antelope Play.” I’m glad I did.

Written by a German forester, it shares insights and discoveries made over the course of his career.

Combining both scientific research and personal insight from his own experiences, it sheds some light on this fascinating flora, from how they’ve (slowly) adapted to their environments, how they support and nurture each other, and how they communicate.

But the most astonishing thing about trees is how social they are. The trees in a forest care for each other, sometimes even going so far as to nourish the stump of a felled tree for centuries after it was cut down by feeding it sugars and other nutrients, and so keeping it alive. Only some stumps are thus nourished. Perhaps they are the parents of the trees that make up the forest of today. A tree’s most important means of staying connected to other trees is a “wood wide web” of soil fungi that connects vegetation in an intimate network that allows the sharing of an enormous amount of information and goods. Scientific research aimed at understanding the astonishing abilities of this partnership between fungi and plant has only just begun. The reason trees share food and communicate is that they need each other. It takes a forest to create a microclimate suitable for tree growth and sustenance. So it’s not surprising that isolated trees have far shorter lives than those living connected together in forests.

The relationship between fungi and trees reminds me of another book that’s on my to-read list: Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake.

Anyway, this was a fascinating look into something that I honestly take for granted. After finishing this book, I immediately wanted to go take a walk through a forest.

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

Book Review: Immune by Philipp Dettmer

Immune

Given the current state of a global pandemic that can severely affect your health (and given the fact that we recently tested positive to the pathogen responsible), this book was an especially relevant read.

It’s an easy to read (and often hilarious) look into how our immune systems work. The incredible complexity of our bodies is amazing, but Dettmer uses all sorts of analogies to make things easy to digest.

For example:

“You can imagine the MHC class II receptor as a hot dog bun that can be filled with a tasty wiener. The wiener in this metaphor is the antigen. The MHC hot dog bun molecule is so important because it represents another security mechanism. Another layer of control.”

The book goes into various detail about how our bodies fight off bacterial and viral infections, the response to an allergic reaction, and how things like vaccines work.

In fact, the whole section on vaccines was especially interesting and particularly devastating to those of the crazy anti-vax persuasion. Prior to the COVID-19 epidemic, one of the biggest anti-vaccination campaigns was against the measles vaccine.

I’ll admit to not knowing much about measles and took it for granted that I was immunized from it. After reading this book, all I can think is, holy crap, what a horrible disease to have willingly chosen to get! Measles actively destroys your immune system and makes you lose immunity to other diseases.

“So in the end, being infected with measles erases the capacity of the immune system to protect you from the diseases that you overcame in the past. Even worse, a measles infection can wipe away the protection that you might have gained from other vaccines, since most vaccines create memory cells. Therefore, in the case of measles, what does not kill you makes you weaker, not stronger. Measles causes irreversible, long-term harm and it maims and kills children.”

Overall, this was a quick, easy and enjoyable book. Highly recommended!

Immune by Philipp Dettmer

Book Review: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Art of power

I’ve slowly been working my way through presidential biographies and just finished this book about Thomas Jefferson. (Obviously, this is going very slowly, as he was the third president of the United States).

One thing that has struck me as I’ve read through three books is how my impressions and opinions of various founding fathers has evolved:

After reading “Washington by Ron Chernow”:

  • George Washington: Sometimes aloof, a reluctant leader that seemed indecisive. Also self conscious about his teeth.
  • John Adams: Arrogant, argumentative. Short and bald. Seems like a total dick.
  • Thomas Jefferson: Charismatic yet condescending. Non-confrontational yet passionate. Politically savvy. Introvert.
  • Alexander Hamilton: Ambitious, eager, whip smart.
  • Ben Franklin: Wise old sage.

After reading  “John Adams” by David McCullough:

  • George Washington: Sometimes aloof, a reluctant leader that seemed indecisive.
  • John Adams: Righteous, passionate, good and loving husband and father. Prolific writer. Deeply interested in human behavior and feelings.
  • Thomas Jefferson: Humorless, spendthrift. Flirt. Defensive. Incapable of compromise. Seems like a total dick.
  • Alexander Hamilton: Smart kid with great ideas.
  • Ben Franklin: Wise old sage.

And now, after reading “The Art of Power” by Jon Meacham:

  • George Washington: Sometimes aloof, a reluctant leader that seemed indecisive. Yet he was not the hero America deserved, but the hero America needed.
  • John Adams: Misguided monarchist. Power hungry.
  • Thomas Jefferson: Thoughtful philosopher. Defender of individual rights. Patient. Methodical.
  • Alexander Hamilton: Wrong about everything. Preferred a British style of government. Along with John Adams, seemed like he wanted to tear up the constitution and destroy America. Seems like a total dick.
  • Ben Franklin: Wise old sage.

Bottom line: Biographies paint the subject in the most favorable light and throw everyone else under the bus.

I really enjoyed digging into his life and his underlying philosophies. I’ll admit to not knowing much more about Jefferson other than he was the third president of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence, and his mug and home adorn each side of our five-cent coin.

He was a savvy politician, deep thinker and someone who was completely curious about every facet of life, science and technology.

And man… he really did not like Alexander Hamilton.

Another thing that I didn’t really pick up in previous biographies was the struggle and friction between northern and southern states, 50-some years ahead of the Civil War. There were threats of succession (by Northern states, no less!) in the early 1800’s due to his election and the political power that Southern states held.

Both this book and the John Adams biography went into a lot of detail about their early friendship, the animosity the grew between them while Jefferson served as Adams’ Vice President and the subsequent rekindling of their friendship in the years after Jefferson left office as the third President. They ended up exchanged something like 360 letters with each other until they both died… on the same day:

July 4th, 1826 — the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Bonkers!

So long to an eternal optimist

Desmond Tutu speaks at Civic Center Plaza.

In 2008, I was fortunate enough to attend a talk and rally by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in support of Tibetan freedom at the United Nations Plaza in San Francisco. This rally was held ahead of the controversial 2008 Olympic torch relay that was making its way through San Francisco during the week.

Much later, I read “The Book of Joy”, a series of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In my opinion, it’s one of those rare and potentially life changing books. Two men, who have both faced many challenges, share how they managed to remain optimistic and hopeful despite the incredible challenges they’ve faced in their lives.

What a kind, beautiful soul and someone that we needed in our world today.

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

This is an absolutely beautiful (yet heartbreaking) memoir written in the midst of World War II.

Completed in 1942 (and sent to his publisher just days before he and his wife took their lives), it provides an intimate and fascinating look at life in Europe during the end of the Victorian Era and through two world wars.

I think one of the most striking things about this book (especially in the later pages) is how mournful, almost hopeless, Zweig is about the state of Europe and the world as a whole. And it’s no surprise, right? He was an Austrain Jew who saw the home and the people he loved destroyed.

Take this passage, written about Paris. He lovingly describes his time in Paris after he graduated from university and how it was a city that could always make people happy.

“I had promised myself a present for the first year of my newly gained freedom—I would go to Paris. Two earlier visits had given me only a superficial knowledge of that city of inexhaustible delights, but I could tell that any young man who had spent a year there would be left with incomparably happy memories for the rest of his life. Nowhere but in Paris did you feel so strongly, with all your senses aroused, that your own youth was as one with the atmosphere around you. The city offers itself to everyone, although no one can fathom it entirely.”

And then a paragraph later, we get to the hard truth about the time period this book was written in:

“Of course I know that the wonderfully lively and invigorating Paris of my youth no longer exists; perhaps the city will never entirely recover that wonderful natural ease, now that it has felt the iron brand forcibly imprinted on it by the hardest hand on earth. Just as I began writing these lines, German armies and German tanks were rolling in, like a swarm of grey termites, to destroy utterly the divinely colourful, blessedly light-hearted lustre and unfading flowering of its harmonious structure. ”

Another powerful aspect of this book is that while reading, we know that he would soon take his life and he’d never get to see how this tragic story (World War II) ended and how the cities, art and music he loved would eventually recover.

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig