Performance-enhancing book: Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans

the-tim-ferriss-show-podcast

Tim Ferriss and trusty steed Laura keep me inspired and happy through each and every commute. 

Just as with fiction I tend to fall down the rabbit hole, I get excited when I find a good resource covering one of my more “real” areas of obsession.

I find a new font of inspiration and information and sort of suck them dry like a vampire, until I have consumed everything they have to say and grown stronger. Hmm, perhaps more of a parasite.
Unflattering self-depictions aside, recent examples include the financial freedom blog of Mr Money Mustache (nearly 500 posts, worked through gluttonously and chronologically) and the 100-odd hours of The Minimalists’ podcasts so far released.
Eventually, I find, I absorb the message. I’m converted. I get it. I know the Minimalists’ stories and catchphrases so well I listen to them more like a soothing old bedtime story now than a source of excitement. I’ve done the projectsjoined the cult.
But a slightly different case is the Tim Ferriss Show,  the podcast in which optimisation junkie Ferriss conducts long-form interviews with the world’s top performers across myriad fields, deconstructing their habits and back-stories in an effort to find out what habits lead to success.
Ferriss is also author of business classic The Four-Hour Workweek, health hacker bible The Four-Hour Body and learning-method deconstruction The Four-Hour Chef. He is so adored it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s more star-struck, him or his famous guests.
(Imagine my delight, incidentally, when finally my nerd prayers were answered this week and Ferriss bowed to fan pressure to interview Mr Money Mustache in the latest episode).
This show never gets old and never runs out. You never learn it all. It’s the personal development equivalent of a gold mine that runs to the other side of the earth. You could never hope to read all the books recommended, follow up all the little side routes and innovations you hear about. I’ve read two of the books, bits of the others and listened to more than 200 hours of interviews and yet feel I’ve barely scratched the surface.
I have the books on Kindle, but am planning to buck my own minimalist trends and buy them in hard copy to keep for more easy and frequent referencing. And throughout the interviews, there are certainly common themes, but there is far more variation than there is repetition, and the recurrences are, in themselves, fascinating.

This was the reasoning behind the book, an attempt by Ferriss to capture and distill the best of all his interviews thus far, and draw the connections between them. I approached it with greedy anticipation, having bought it for myself as a Christmas present (though I had to get it on Kindle, the city bookstores having sold out).

It’s a diamond-hard read without an ounce of fat, and includes plenty of new material and insight into Ferriss’ personal struggles. But a word of warning: don’t bother if you’re not seriously into personal challenges and life-hacking. Otherwise it will quickly overwhelm. Even a medium-level devotee such as I found many of the concepts covered (it is divided into sections Healthy, Wealthy and Wise) too advanced for me, at least in terms of finance, exercise, diet and biomedical science. But even if you skim over parts, that, he says, is the way he intends the book to be read. More like a buffet than a three-course meal (my words, not his).
And it’s endlessly stimulating. I love knowing there is always more out there to learn, about people, the capacity of an individual mind and body to reach extreme performance. It’s humorous and fast-paced, and at 700-odd pages, you can skim the parts you’re not up for yet without feeling like you’re not getting bang for your buck.
Cool features include a comprehensive reading list from each interviewee, and a cartooned spirit animal for each based on how they imagine themselves. My advice is get it in hard copy, devour it for fun, then go back and drill down.
Happy nerding!

Hercule Poirot is alive and well in The Monogram Murders

hannah-monogram-murdersI was dubious when I heard modern crime writer Sophie Hannah was approved by the descendants of Agatha Christie to resurrect her detective Hercule Poirot, beloved by many.
So dubious I avoided it on its release in 2014. I read positive reviews, which mentioned Hannah’s chops as a crime writer, her love of all things Poirot and her faithful promise she  would cut no corners in dusting him off for a new case.
This was good enough for the family, but inexplicably still not good enough for me, so I just eyed it suspiciously in bookshops every time I passed it, stroking the cover creepily but still not quite trusting.
I love Poirot, OK?
Dipping my toe in, I assessed Hannah’s skills by reading her Kind of Cruel, which I found highly satisfactory, twisty and mucky like all good crime.
Finally took the plunge on The Monogram Murders and – ! – was not disappointed.
This has the wit and psychological insight Hannah clearly already commands, and that obviously made her an ideal choice for the project.
It’s also, more importantly, so spot-on rendition of Poirot that – and I feel disloyal, but – I just can’t tell the difference. I can actually hear David Suchet speaking the lines. The rhythm, the cadence, the humour; all perfect.
It’s uncanny, as though the Belgian detective, quirks, mannerisms, wardrobe and all, has stepped prissily from the yellowed pages of Agatha Christie into another woman’s book, where he is rendered in loving, lifelike detail and doesn’t even have the grace to look embarrassed.
Strait-laced young detective Catchpool makes a good solid foil, just the kind Poirot needs to shine. The murders, too are very Christie. Three corpses are found laid out in three different rooms of the same hotel, each with a monogrammed cufflink in his or her mouth.
The plot is full of classic Christie tropes and features, though I will not say what they were for fear of spoilers, and is quite as convoluted and macabre as Christie at her nastiest.
Yet nothing feels contrived or formulaic. It does not feel exactly like Christie and yet I could not put my finger on any difference. You can feel the confidence and the the fun the author has had, and it is infectious. A joy to read.
I’ve caught up just in time – the family must have been happy, too, because her second Poirot mystery, Closed Casket, is now on shelves. Hurrah!

Am I stupid? The kind of existential crisis only Don DeLillo can cause

Nicholas Branch has unpublished state documents, polygraph reports, Dictabelt recordings from the police radio net on November 22. He has photo enhancements, floor plans, home movies, biographies, letters, rumours, mirages, dreams. This is the room of dreams, the room where it has taken him all these years to learn that his subject is not politics or violent crime but men in small rooms.

Is he one of them now? Frustrated, stuck, self-watching, looking for a means of connection, a way to break out. After Oswald, men in America are no longer required to lead lives of quiet desperation. You apply for a credit card, buy a handgun, travel through cities suburbs and shopping malls, anonymous, anonymous, looking for a chance to take a shot at the first puffy empty famous face, just to let people know there is someone out there who reads the papers.

Branch is stuck all right. He has abandoned his life to understanding that moment in Dallas, the seven seconds that broke the back of the American century.

delillo-libra

When I studied literature at uni it was my task to probe deeply into one work of literature at a time, painstakingly dissecting each then fossicking through the rubble for its secrets. On these I was welcome – nay, expected! to write 3000 words. I failed to appreciate this luxury at the time, not knowing or caring that the public like to read things online for perhaps one minute; maybe, if they are very interested, two.

Now that my day job, like so many others’, requires bounding from task to task, email to email and snatching fragments of time for ‘deep work’ that feels as difficult as giving birth (note, I have never given birth), I look back on that time with wonder.

Immediately after it, I avoided ‘hard’ books, plunging through as much crime fiction as I possibly could, and while a murder mystery is one of life’s purest pleasures, the deep reading mind is like a muscle. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Sometimes I fear I have lost it altogether, and nowhere as much as in the attempt to read Don DeLillo, a postmodernist author described aptly by New Republic as “master chronicler of American dread” in a recent article about how it’s high time he won the Nobel prize already.

Each book is entirely different in subject matter to the last. White Noise, perhaps the most famous, I dissected at university. This story of a professor’s terror of death after an ‘airborne toxic event’ hits his town was one of the best books I have ever read.

Cosmopolis is about a genius billionaire financier who spends the whole book taking a limo across town to get a haircut, encountering various riots and lovers along the way. While it was startlingly inventive I probably, honestly, only got through it because it was relatively short. Later, I thought about watching the movie, a 2012 David Cronenberg production starring Robert Pattinson, but I think I abandoned this idea within minutes. I hope the adaptation of White Noise now underway does better.

Underworld was a massive tome of 1000-odd pages sparked by the parallel events of the 1991 New York Giants’ Superbowl win, and the Soviet Union’s explosion of its first nuclear bomb. It was widely acclaimed as a Great American Novel. I lugged on a camping trip a year or two ago, read a couple of hundred pages, admired the incredibly beautiful writing, then turfed it in favour of something easier.

Turns out even in ideal surroundings, I couldn’t muster the necessary concentration. I was full of theories at the time after a bout of minimising that if I wasn’t enjoying something, I shouldn’t bother, life too short, etc, but it was likely just a cover for the towering ineptitude I felt, failing to force my fragmented modern brain to focus.

So when I recently arrived at Libra, I was full of determination to get some intellectual gumption. Libra, as ambitious as the rest of DeLillo’s novels, blends fiction and fact to recreate the lives and events that coalesced into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Threaded throughout it are flash-forwards to the life of Nicholas Branch, an ageing CIA official assigned to write the secret history of the assassination, for Agency eyes only. He has been supplied with every possible material and left alone for years. Decades, even. He thinks they might have forgotten he’s on the payroll. He goes to sleep in his chair sometimes, surrounded by papers and countless words in a room the Agency has paid to fireproof.

He has his forensic pathology rundown, his neutron activation analysis. There is also the Warren report, of course, with its twenty-six accompanying volumes of testimony and exhibits, its millions of words. Branch thinks this is the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred.

Everything is here. Baptismal records, report cards, postcards, divorce petitions, canceled checks, daily timesheets, tax returns, property lists, postoperative x-rays, photos of knotted string, thousands of pages of testimony, of voices droning in hearing rooms in old courthouse buildings, an incredible haul of human utterance. It lies so flat on the page, hangs so still in the lazy air, lost to syntax and other arrangement, that it resembles a kind of mind-spatter, a poetry of lives muddied and dripping in language.

Documents. There is Jack Ruby’s mother”s dental chart, dated January 15, 1938. There is a microphotograph of Lee H. Oswald’s public hair. Elsewhere (everything in the Warren Report is elsewhere) there is a detailed description of this hair. It is smooth, not knobby. The scales are medium-size. The root area is rather clear of pigment.

Branch doesn’t know how to approach this kind of data. He wants to believe the hair belongs in the record. It is vital to his sense of responsible obsession that everything in his room warrants careful study. Everything belongs, everything adheres, the mutter of obscure witnesses, the photos of illegible documents and odd sad personal debris, things gathered up at a dying – old shoes, pajama tops, letters from Russia. It is all one thing, a ruined city of trivia where people feel real pain. This is the Joycean book of America, remember – the novel in which nothing is left out.

Branch has long since forgiven the Warren Report for its failures. It is too valuable a document of human heartbreak and muddle to be scorned or dismissed. The twenty-six volumes haunt him. Men and women surface in FBI memos, are tracked for several pages, then disappear – waitresses, prostitutes, mind readers, motel managers, owners of rifle ranges. Their stories hang in time, spare, perfect in their way, unfinished.

It was slow going at first, with me hampered by my lack of understanding of the events of that Cold-War era, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the relationship of JFK with his people, the street life of Dallas, Miami and New Orleans, which may as well be on another planet to Perth, Western Australia, 2017.

I spent the first quarter of the book Googling details I felt, with shame, that I should already know. My eyes glazed over at times. I was spurred on by the moments of just utter perfection I stumbled upon like treasure.

The dog lay throbbing in the shade.

Frank Vasquez showed up with a wife, two kids and some food. The wife and kids took a peek at the visitor. Wayne waited for someone to say, “Mi casa es suya.” He got a little charge from the Old World graces. But they slipped back inside, leaving his smile hanging like a rag on a stick.

One hot afternoon, I lay down in front of a fan, away from my mobile phone, and told myself I could not get up until I had read solidly for an hour. This helped get me over the hump. I finally joined the slipstream. I became absorbed.

I almost began to feel as though I were reading a crime novel as this reminded me, in its beautiful ugliness and powerful sense of place, of James Ellroy’s L.A Confidential, also set in the 1950s.

But between its chronicling the FBI, CIA, New Orleans crime lords, and their circling a stumbling Lee Harvey Oswald like hawks, it returns repeatedly to Branch, locked in his study receiving more and more reference material.

Language begins to loom as a character as much as any other, and perhaps the most powerful, able to oppress those who seek release through it but are unable to control it – not just Branch but Oswald too, whose disability in reading and writing completes his isolation even as he tries to harness words to lessen it.

It was his goodbye to Russia. It signified the official end of a major era in his life. It validated the experience, as the writing of any history brings a persuasion and form to events.

Even as he printed the words, he imagined people reading them, people moved by his loneliness and disappointment, even by his wretched spelling, the childish mess of composition. Let them see the struggle and humiliation, the effort he had to exert to write a single sentence. The pages were crowded, smudged, urgent, a true picture of his state of mind, of his rage and frustration, knowing a thing but not able to record it properly.

He went back to the first day, fall of 1959, jumping right in, writing in a child’s high fever in which half-waking dreams, dreams with many colours, can seem a state of purer knowledge…

Always the pain, the chaos of composition. He could not find order in the field of little symbols. They were in the hazy distance. He could not see clearly the picture that is called a word. A word is also a picture of a word. He saw spaces, incomplete features, and tried to guess at the rest.

He made wild tries at phonetic spelling. But the language tricked him with its inconsistencies. He watched sentences deteriorate, powerless to make them right. The nature of things was to be elusive. Things slipped through his perceptions. He could not get a grip on the runaway world.”    

DeLillo creates a man at the mercy of forces much larger than his own choices;

“He walked through empty downtown Dallas, empty Sunday in the heat and light. He felt the loneliness he had always hated to admit to, a vaster isolation than Russia, stranger dreams, a dead white glare burning down. He wanted to carry himself with a clearer sense of role, make a move one time that was not disappointed. He walked in the shadows of insurance towers and bank buildings. He thought the only end to isolation was to reach the point where he was no longer separated from the true struggles that went on around him. The name we give this point is history.”

This point is arrived at not logically, not by reason, but inevitability.

Plots carry their own logic. There is a tendency of plots to move toward death. He believed that the idea of death is woven into every plot. A narrative plot no less than a conspiracy or armed men. The tighter the plot of a story, the more likely it will come to death.

The novel closes in a hypnotic exploration of the endless looping replay of the terrible shootings on screens both of Kennedy and of Oswald. They somehow never get to the heart of what happened any more than Branch, locked in his maelstrom of paper, can.

By its wrenching close, I’m mesmerised. DeLillo will never be light reading. There is no reason he should be. He has to be one of the world’s best writers and you meet him on his terms. Read it and weep… and remember, the best things don’t come easy.

 

Of motherhood and shame: when to fight, when to flee?

Bra shopping. It’s not easy at the best of times. But for a stressed mum with a new baby at home, toddlers in tow and self-esteem at historic lows, a good dollop of shame can push you right to the edge.

Kim Tucci felt ashamed. But she's not alone - and there's a scientific explanation.

Kim Tucci felt ashamed. But she’s not alone – and there’s a scientific explanation. Photo: Facebook

We are all familiar with terms such as mother-shaming, mother-guilt and ‘mob mentality’, which can lead people to avoid someone in need, as much as they might a crime in progress.

The #stopmomshaming hashtag is invoked in discussing Hilary Duff kissing her son and Pink microwaving her coffee; mums choosing bottle or breast, work or home, ignoring crying or attending to it, helicopter-parenting or browsing Facebook on their phone while at the local park.

Whatever their choice, these women tasked with providing an endless source of brightness and strength for our newest members of society can be felled at any moment with a weapon known simply as The Look.

Read more here at WAtoday

Seven TV shows I abandoned in 2016

This list is riddled with spoilers, but they’re all very old news, so you should be all right.
It's not you, House of Cards. It's me.

It’s not you, House of Cards. It’s me.

There’s something about my life these days that makes me battle to become absorbed in a TV show, and so fickle I’m ready to quit at a moment’s notice.
The Ministry reckons it’s not the shows, but that I’m changing – probably valuing my time more highly. I was maybe more excited about other things in my life than about TV shows in 2016, making it harder to sit still for anything longer than 20 minutes… and boy, is it hard for find a decent 20-minute show these days.
So maybe the below shows deserved my neglect and eventual abandonment, maybe not. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else fell out of love at the same points or for the same reasons.
The Good Wife 
We quit late season five, after the certain shocking event I will not mention here even given my spoiler warning, just in case you decide to begin and finish this show based on my review, because I had it spoiled for me (oh God, the pain). I adored this show in its first few seasons, a fantastic drama with a compelling lead actress, beguiling premise, dramatic overarching storyline and also excellent episodic legal procedural plots. By season 5 the Ministry and I had started to go off it, thinking the plot lines were coming off the boil, and I grew miserable about the demise of the Will-Alicia relationship. I think the tension of that relationship was a major driver for the series, so when they were over, it lost magic for me. I somehow tolerate it less and less these days when shows make me miserable. Then The Event happened and I got way more miserable. I made it through maybe one or two more episodes and just couldn’t face any more.
I’d still heartily recommend starting the series. But I couldn’t finish it.
Game of Thrones 
Oh, be quiet, it’s not that shocking. See previous notes about things making me sad. Early GoT was so funny, sexy, sharp – and emotionally, it grabbed you by the throat. But by season five I was no longer being amused and titillated and amazed as I was early on. I was damned sick of being emotionally grabbed by the throat. Scenes got nastier and nastier. I felt like the show was in a race to the bottom of how awful and depressing shows could get. Then someone burned a nine-year-old to death at the stake. Then a sad princess got raped onscreen. Again, I started wanting out. I love gratuitous on-screen violence as much as the next man, but this was no longer enjoyable. I felt like I needed to knock back a scotch and clench a length of rope between my teeth just to get through an episode. The quality of the surrounding storylines and character development didn’t feel as though it was worth watching all this horror.
The Ministry watched season six without me, though he pretty much related in detail everything that happened in every episode. The final couple of episodes he watched, then insisted on showing me highlights reels, fast-forwarding the boring bits. I will concede the closing episodes looked pretty badass, and the Ministry says the makers have decided on fewer episodes for season seven, with higher budgets and a laser focus on quality (and I hear maybe some revenge for poor ole Sansa). So my attempt to quit this show might weaken when season seven comes out.
Breaking Bad
I know. Everybody just loved Breaking Bad. Mums, dads, probably sweet little old grannies, meditation teachers, everyone. For a while it was the name on everyone’s lips. I’d tried to watch it when it first came out and gave up at season two. This time, I tried again, and I only made it up to perhaps early season three. I knew it was supposed to have this amazing build and then a jaw-dropping finale, but again, this show just felt like it was no fun for me. I just felt depressed by it. Bryan Cranston is fantastic in the role. It’s got tension, humour, comedy and style in spades. I wanted to push through the horror of the end of season two, but it just felt too bleak for me.
Orange is the New Black was hilarious, edgy and original - made for binge watching. And one day, the binge was over.

Orange is the New Black was hilarious, edgy and original – made for binge watching. And one day, the binge was over.

House of Cards
I guess we’re starting to see a pattern. Another brilliant show that I just felt too dirty after watching to go on with season three. A brilliant first couple of seasons, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to keep going. I’m a sap, OK? I’d hoped for redemption for Doug. I didn’t get it. I got sad again. I’ve heard the new seasons are amazing. Yes, there’s definitely a pattern beginning here. It’s not you, TV. It’s me.
Girls
The Ministry reminded me I’d abandoned this one, surprising me somewhat, because unlike the others, I didn’t so much quit Girls as much as forget to keep watching it. I would forget, then remember and go back, then my interest would flicker and die again. I’ve Googled, and I believe I last forgot to keep watching around season four episode seven.
I related to it so hard at first (well, the me of 10 years ago who still lives on inside related to it) but the cringe factor frequently outweighs the awesome for me. However, it remains incredibly frank and perceptive about the experience of being a young woman – I kind of think men should be made to watch this for educational purposes – and manages to be likeable despite its characters being anything but. I’ve got a vague intention of restarting, this show, but it’s very vague. And I think the Ministry is hoping his education is complete.
Suits
This was a little different to the others in that I never loved this, and conked out in less than a season. I just couldn’t quite seem to work up any care factor. I don’t think it had the necessary style or swagger, though its attempts were obvious. We only made it through less than a season, so I haven’t given it much of a chance, but what the hell – life’s too short to watch TV shows that bore you. I don’t think I’d recommend this show to anyone. Even if they were terribly bored.
It should have been written by Aaron Sorkin. Then it would have been better.
Orange is the new Black 
This was a bloody fantastic show. The first two seasons I loved. In fact, this show and The Good Wife were the only ones in the list that prompted me to binge-watch. But I think I just felt that by the end of season two, neither the Ministry nor I were that interested in new storylines going forward, and we made a mutual decision to quit. We just felt like we’d had the best of what the show has to offer. I could be wrong. But I don’t think I am. It was a good time, but not a long time.
I look forward to quitting many more shows in 2017.
But lest you think I’m just impossible to please, I’ll be back soon with a list of shows I did NOT quit in 2016.

Rogue 1: The best Star Wars movie since Star Wars

Well, you know what I mean.
Disclaimer: this post is written by someone who came to Star Wars late in life and does not have ingrained knowledge or fandom, just normal fandom. 
Woot!

Woot!

The previous instalment in this franchise, The Force Awakens, while good – and a big relief even for me – seemed like the bar was set at “just don’t fuck it up” and that’s what they achieved … a return to Star Wars of old.
Finally, Rogue 1 breaks new ground. The feel of it can can best be described as a war movie, with a vintage look that blends it nicely with the original trilogy, while mixing in modern CGI and special effects.
The characters are stronger overall than they were in The Force Awakens, with no disrespect to Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, who were a highlight. Bonus points are awarded here for a strong female lead and another excellent droid in K-2SO.
This movie stands alone beautifully, but also weaves its storyline seamlessly into that of A New Hope, along the way addressing a plot hole nerds have been complaining about for years.
And I mean seamlessly!  The end of this movie was so well done our entire theatre actually burst into spontaneous applause as it ended. And you can’t really give better feedback than that.

High Hazard

WA’s shark mitigation strategy is based on sophisticated science – so its hunt-to-kill policy for sharks that are “a serious threat” remains controversial.

Aftermath of a shark bite at Mandurah, WA.

Late in the spring of 2000, businessman and father Ken Crew had his leg torn off by a great white shark in shallow water metres off Perth’s Cottesloe Beach.

Another swimmer dragged Crew from the water, in full view of bystanders and Crew’s wife, but he bled to death on the sand.

“Making matters even worse was the water was full of blood and the shark, for whatever reason, stays there and circles,” says researcher Christopher Neff. “It’s breaking news in every home; everyone is screaming, ‘Kill the shark!’

“The government, after a long and unfortunate delay trying to contact the minister for permission, while the public is freaking out, then fishes – without success – for the shark, which is long gone.”

There have been 55 incidents of unprovoked shark bites in WA since the start of 2000, according to the Global Shark Attack File – 14 of them fatal. But Crew’s death, forming a cluster with the deaths of surfers Cameron Bayes and Jevan Wright off South Australia in the same year, was a tipping point for Western Australia, says Dr Neff, a public policy researcher at the University of Sydney whose professional life has revolved around examining people’s – and governments’ – responses to shark bites.

Read more in an interactive feature at WAtoday