Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Happiness Project

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

I discovered this book when investigating habits.  Rubin, whose current book is due out in March and is on habits, has a really good blog.  She seems to have a particular knack for categorising things into types and she is also very good at debunking the one size fits all idea.  To discover happiness or to change your habits you must first understand your basic nature and then behave in ways which work with that nature rather than going against it.  She also does her research for her books 'live' as it were, and you can follow her progress on her blog.  

So, I'd meaning to read this book for a while and I'm glad I finally did.  This is a very personal and honest book - by the end of it you feel as though you know Gretchen and her family, husband Jamie and daughters Eliza and Eleanor, very well.  Gretchen is also very aware of her own self, her strengths, weaknesses, positive and negative attributes and her attempts to become happier within the confines of those are fascinating.

This book is a diary of her year of deliberately working on her sense of happiness by following all the traditional and modern psychological advice around on the subject.  She picked 3 or 4 'resolutions' to work on for each month and kept a resolutions chart to log how well she did with each one on a daily basis. In December she attempted to do all of them.  Did it work?  Well, there was no objective baseline test to measure how happy she was at the start of the year compared to how happy she was at the end but she certainly felt that she was happier - and surely if you think your are happy then you are?  

Whilst some of her resolutions worked and others didn't, the biggest factor in the whole experiment was, in fact, her use of the resolution chart to monitor what she was doing daily.  This acted as a constant reminder every time she felt herself slipping back into her old habits.  This is one of the biggest factors I have found when trying to change anything, for instance when I changed my diet and went Primal, logging my food in is the best way to keep myself on track. You cannot change what you don't measure.   She also makes a very important point in December about the difference between goals and resolutions.  Goals are something you strive towards and can either achieve or fail, they have an end point and when you reach that point you can stop.   Resolutions, on the hand, are actions you resolve to take regularly - daily, weekly, etc.  They are ongoing and permanent. So, if you want to be healthy a goal of running a marathon or losing a stone might be motivating but in itself it doesn't lead to permanent change.  You might go on an aggressive, expensive shakes-only diet and lose the stone, but if you immediately go back to eating how you did before then you might as well have not bothered.  If you train regularly for a marathon, go out and run it and then put your trainers in the bin as soon as that medal is around your neck then you have not changed anything.  But setting a resolution to not eat wheat and sugar or to walk for an hour every day will have a long term effect on your health, will become a habit, will become a part of who you are.  There will be days when you can't keep that resolution - sometimes you have to eat a slice of birthday cake, somedays you just can't fit the walk in, but that is not the end of the resolution and you can pick it straight back up the next day without too much detriment to your health.

So Rubin had some interesting resolutions over the course of the year but there were a few other techniques she used which I really liked. As she developed the resolutions she was going to try each month she actually developed some overarching principles which would underpin all the resolutions and provide a default standpoint when in doubt.  I really liked this idea and I think I might work on my own.  

Hers provide a good starting point and they are:

  1. Be Gretchen
  2. Let it go
  3. Act the way I want to feel
  4. Do it now
  5. Be polite and be fair
  6. Enjoy the process
  7. Spend out
  8. Identify the problem
  9. Lighten up
  10. Do what ought to be done
  11. No calculation
  12. There is only love
She also came up with a list of the Secrets of Adulthood - the lessons she felt she had learned with some difficulty as she had grown-up.  These are the things that are obvious really but you repeatedly bang your head against and have to remind yourself - obviously everyone's are different but a few resonated with me:

  • People don't notice your mistakes as much as you think
  • It's okay to ask for help
  • Do good, feel good
  • Bring a sweater
  • By doing a little every day you can get a lot done
  • What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while
  • If you are not failing you are not trying hard enough
  • It's important to be nice to everyone
  • If you can't find something, clean up
  • You don't have to be good at everything
  • Most decisions don't require extensive research
  • You can choose what you do; you can't choose what you like to do
  • Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good
  • What is fun for other people may not be fun for you - and vice versa

With these guiding principles in place and a resolution chart the actual activities she undertook were interesting and some were useful ideas that are worth giving ago.  What I took from the book more than specific activities though, was that a deliberate choice to be mindful of things like 'act more energetic' or 'go to sleep earlier' can actually result in more energy and better habits.

This book was as much biography as it was self-help and I enjoyed it all the more for that.  Not sure if it is one of those I will re-read  but I will continue to be an avid follower of Gretchen's blog and I do recommend the book.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Dogs by Ray and Lorna Coppinger

Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviour and Evolution

As many people know I am fascinated by evolution and what it means to us on a daily, practical basis.  I think we are likely to be fitter, healthier, calmer, more productive and more successful if we work with our evolutionary biology rather than against it, which is why I follow a Primal diet.

I am also quite fascinated by the domestication of animals.  Although I'm with Jared Diamond in thinking that agriculture was the biggest mistake mankind ever made, I believe the domestication of animals was not something we could have undertaken on our own.  We had to have some kind of consent and co-operation from the animals being domesticated.  There are very, very few species which can be domesticated which is why so-called civilisation took so long to reach places like America and Australia - they just didn't have the animals which contributed so much to the development of complex societies such as horses.  From a genetic point of view though, domestication is good for an animal species.  It is a trade-off.  A good, safe life for a quick death which quickly leads to an increase in numbers compared to life in the wild. (I will not argue that modern domesticated animals necessarily get a 'good' life anymore and I feel we have reneged on our part of the bargain in many cases, particularly with regard to factory farming and CAFOs.)

Pets are animals that don't quite fit the criteria for domestification that horses, cattle, sheep and pigs do though, so I wondered how they came about.  The domestification of cats seems fairly logical and straightforward.  The start of agriculture meant grain stores.  Grain stores attract mice and rats.  Mice and rats attract cats, and humans, quickly realising the service cats provided, gave them shelter and protection.  I don't imagine cat behaviour has changed drastically since then.  They still wander in for a warm bed and a lap when they feel like it and now they usually don't even have to bother working for their dinner.  Ultimately however, if humans stopped keeping cats tomorrow, they would still be able to survive.  They haven't lost their hunting instinct and they aren't reliant on humans.

But dogs are a different story.  Dogs are completely reliant on humans, so how and why did dogs evolve in the first place?  I assumed they evolved before agriculture to help humans with hunting but that seemed quite a bizarrre and utterly unique situation in nature so I decided to find out more. After a little search on Amazon I came across this book which looked interesting.  Turns out it was absolutely fascinating and turned everything I thought I knew about dogs on its head.

The authors of this book certainly have the credentials and know what they are talking about unlike many so-called dog behaviourists.  Not only are they actual biologists, they have also worked for many years with hundreds and hundreds of dogs.  Worked, being the operative word.  As part of their research into the biology of dogs they have worked extensively with the herding and guarding dogs in Europe who travel miles and miles each spring and autumn with their flocks and herds.  They have researched hunting dogs in all kinds of societies and spent many years breeding, training and racing champion dog sled teams.

The first point they made was that dogs evolved relatively recently and were not directly evolved from wolves.  They no more evolved from wolves than domestic cats evolved from lions or we evolved from chimps.  At some point in their history dogs, along with jackals and coyotes must have shared an ancestor with wolves same as we evolved from a common great ape ancestor along with chimps and bonobos, and cats, tiger, lions, panthers, jaguars, pumas, lynx, cougars, leopards, etc evolved from some common cat ancestor.  But dogs are not directly descended from modern wolves.  In fact they are very different animals and have very different and distinct behaviour and traits.  This means that all those famous dog trainers that tell you that you have to be the pack leader and alpha dog are just plain wrong.  Dogs don't, and never have, worked in packs.  In fact dogs, don't and never have, hunted by themselves. 

Dogs are, in fact, scavengers.  They have much smaller heads, and consequently brains, than wolves and much smaller and weaker teeth.  They are just intelligent enough to get what they want through stealth and scavenging but are nowhere near as intelligent as wolves.  The archetypal dog is not some noble beast which looks like a wolf - such as an Alsation or Husky.  No the archetypal dog, from which all modern 'breeds' are descended, is the village dog; the medium sized, ordinary shaped, brown village dog as seen wandering everywhere in India.  The dog was not domesticated by humans deliberately to do a specific job but in fact domesticated itself in rather the same way as the cat.  When humans started to gather in villages or small settlements as they transitioned from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one based on agriculture, they created dumps or middens. These middens contained Mesolithic rubbish including plenty of both animal (abbetoir) and human waste.  Wolves would never have gone anywhere near these human settlements as their flee instinct is too strong but dogs were scavengers with relatively high flee instincts.  The braver ones would have had rich pickings on these Mesolithic rubbish dumps and consequently their chances of survival increased.  Each generation would have got braver and more accustomed to human activity until they reached the stage where, as in many socities around the world today, they existed comfortably alongside humans with the people effectively ignoring them or just seeing them as waste disposal units.  This is exactly how Indian people see dogs and was a point of much fascinating discussion with both my Indian guests when they stayed here and when I stayed there.

The book then goes on to explain how, from these ordinary, not very useful dogs, people in different societies and circumstances began to accidently encourage the development of certain traits in dogs and from these the main types of working dog developed.  One interesting point they made was that the huge herd guarding dogs such as the mastiff, were never developed to fight off predators such as wolves from a flock or herd.  Their purpose was to merely be present and make a lot of noise.  That was all they needed to do to keep the wolves at bay.  A dog would be highly unlikely to beat a wolf in a fight but wolves are nervous and flighty and don't get into a fight unless they really have to.  Their size developed from other needs such as keeping warm in the mountains and having sufficient reserves for the incredibly lengthy journey from highland to lowland and back again they have to make with the flocks each spring and autumn.  The descriptions of the flocks undertaking this journey with their guard dogs and shepherds is one of the highlights of this book and it is tragic that those journeys are almost always undertaken by truck these days - another example of us sacrificing the 'good' life of our domesticated animals. 

The development of other working dogs such as sheep dogs used for herding and dogs used for hunting is described in detail and the authors do a brilliant job of explaining how each trait has developed and how the so called intelligence of various breeds is nothing more than a job specific behaviour trait.  Collies are 'differently' intelligent to greyhounds not more so - it is just that some of their behaviour looks more intelligent to the uninitiated. And none of them come close to being able to work out some of the things a wolf can if needs be.

A fair proportion of the book describes the attributes and behaviour and training of  sled dogs - the dogs most often compared to wolves - and again it is clear that they bear no resemblance to wolves in reality and the last thing a dog sledder would want would be a wolf on their team.

The book is written by expert biologists and occasionally gets a bit technical with biological detail but I found it fascinating throughout.

However, here comes the caveat.  I loved this book but would most dog lovers?  Possibly not.  The authors are not too keen on the concept of dogs as pets and some people might take offence at their point of view.  They are are absolutely scathing about the practice of breeding dogs for shows and to fit some artificial concept of a particular 'breed' standard.  Most so-called breeds have only been around since the nineteenth century and are the result of aggressive, sexual isolation and in-breeding by humans.  The authors have no time for these practices and, to be honest, neither do I - sorry those friends of mine who keep 'pure-breeds'. I even felt a bit cruel that we don't go out and 'work' our rescued lurchers but at least they are cross-breeds and a reasonable walk and short fast run does fulfil their genetic expectations.

Another area that the authors were scathing about was the way in which guide and assitance dogs are trained and the terrible waste that involves.  For one thing most of these guide dog programmes put too much faith in the right 'breed', ending up with dogs who fail because of medical conditions caused by in-breeding.  Then, because of the high rate of failure, the dogs aren't trained for their job until they are about 18 months old - far too late to instill the necessary traits into a dog.  The dogs are put into unfamiliar situations and expected to carry out pointless and meaningless tasks (in the dog's view) for people they don't know and then the trainers wonder why they have such a high failure rate.

I found this a really fascinating read and it has certainly made me view dogs in a new way. If you want to know more about dogs but aren't emotionally invested in the idea of a pure-breed being better than a mongrel (or the idea of a pure-breed being acceptable at all) then I can wholeheartedly recommend this book. 

Saturday, 3 January 2015


December was a bit of a disaster for blogging, although not reading.  This was mostly because my office, my 'room of one's own' was being re-plastered and decorated.  One thing I learnt is that not having my space throws all my routines out and I don't function well without routines.  I also had flu for a week and for a couple of days I couldn't move, not even to read.  I then had a couple more days in bed where all I did was read but I was in no fit state to write about them.

Anyway, in December, I managed to read a fair bit of ordinary fiction - so nothing that really ticked any boxes on my 80 book challenge and nothing much worth an individual post.

The Devil's Workshop by Alex Grecian.
I have read some of these Victorian detective stories before and I really enjoy them.  Great fun, pacy and intriguing.

The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price
Now this was fascinating, if a little silly.  It is a novel for teenagers about a company that build a time-travel portal to go back to the 16th century to mine for coal and metals (no-one ever explains how the Industrial Revolution could have happened if all the coal had already been mined before the 19th century but never mind).  Unfortunately, the scientists and geologists have a spot of bother with the locals stealing from them.  An archeologist called Andrea is doing some field research by living with the locals, a clan called the Sterkarms, and this story explores how she is caught in the middle between the people she has grown to love in the 16th century and her bosses in the 21st.  I really enjoyed this book and thought it was great fun.

206 Bones by Kathy Reichs
Typical mystery thriller.  Pathologist Temperance Brennan discovers links between the deaths of several elderly women and in doing so becomes a target herself.  I enjoy books like this when I don't want to think too much and it did the job.

The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths
Another detective mystery but this one set in the UK.  This time it is a forensic archeologist who discovers something untoward and gets mixed up in a real murder case.  Another enjoyable, absorbing, pacy book.

I'm sure I read more fiction than this but can't remember what at the moment.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey

I have a copy of the new book Northanger Abbey by Val McDurmuid.  Now, I am quite a fan of McDurmuid, especially her Wire in the Blood series. However I am a Jane Austin devotee so I'm not sure if I fancy someone else messing around with them.  Of all the 'new'v ersions, therefore, this was the only one I was willing to give a go. (Whoever has done a 'new' version of Emma there is no way I will read it!).

Anyway, before I start that book I decided it was time for a re-read of Northanger Abbey as it's been a long, long time since I read it, unlike Emma which gets a regular re-read. 

Northanger Abbey is quite a short novel and has a fairly simplistic storyline.  One striking thing about it is that it is remarkably post-modern.  The novel, as a literary form, was really only just developing when Austen was writing, and it had something of a reputation for being shallow entertainment for foolish young women.  This particularly applied to the fashon for the Gothic Novel popular with teenage girls (no change there then).  In Northanger Abbey, Austen's heroine is one such young lady who adores the works of Anne Radcliffe, particularly The Mysteries of Udolpho and who is completely preoccupied with it.  

Like all Austen novels her heroine's chief purpose is to find herself a suitable husband.  What is interesting about Catherine Morland, however, is just how unpreoccupied with this essential task she is.  She is far more interested in finding a female friend, and of course, with her beloved novels.  

Catherine first becomes friendly with Isabella Thorpe, whose brother John is her first suitor, and who in her turn becomes engaged to Catherine's brother James..  Far from encouraging John though, Catherine is completely oblivious to his overtures and considers him something of a boor.  

Then Catherine meets Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor and she is much taken with them, as much for the romantic notion that they live in an old abbey as for themselves.  Catherine is invited to stay with the Tilneys and almost gets herself into trouble when she lets her imagination get carried away with her, applying the plot of one of her beloved Gothic novels to the household situation.  

As usual in an Austen novel there is plenty of misunderstanding over friendships and fortunes before the rightful lovers are united.  

Northanger Abbey is really not Austen's best work but it is clever, self-reverential and once again, in a time when women were seen as chattels, Austen has created a heroine who is principled, independent of thought and thoroughly herself. 

I really enjoyed my re-read and I wonder now, what Val McDurmuid will do with it.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Rethinking Positive Thinking

Rethinking Positive Thinking by Gabriele Oettingen

Finally!  A book about optimism and positive thinking that is based on science.  And the result is surprising.  

We have been told for decades that positive thinking is a good thing, every time we have a negative thought we should reframe it in a positive way, and that being optimistic is healthy.

Turns out this is all wrong.  People who regularly indulge in positive self talk and fantasies are less productive than people who are more realistic.  Visualising yourself living a life of luxury, running a successful business, being fit,slim and healthy, etc. means you are far less likely to achieve those goals.  

In this book Oettingen details the research she has undertaken over more than thirty years, in both Germany and the USA, into the effects of positive visualisation and fantasies.  Turns out these activities are excellent for lowering stress, reducing blood pressure and increasing one's ability to wait patiently or to endure less than ideal circumstances.  They are so good, in fact, at calming you down that they actually reduce the energy, motivation, will and desire to take action to achieve one's goals.  Helpful if you are stuck in a situation you have absolutely no control over, like people living in East German before the Berlin wall came down, but not much help for anyone that actually wants to get something done.

Thankfully Oettingen's research did not stop there and she looked at what actually did work in helping people to achieve their goals and take action.  Again the result was a surprise.  It turns out that mentally rehearsing everything going right won't help but visualising all the obstacles and things that can go wrong will.  When her study participants fantasised about achieving a cherished goal and then fantasised about the obstacles one of two things happened.  Either the dreamer decided their goal was unachievable, the obstacles insurmountable and the outcome not worth the effort and they stopped wasting their time on the goal or they decided the opposite and almost immediately took action to make their dream a reality.

Like all good psychology experiments the results seem like common-sense with hindsight but we are so used to the self-help community peddling the notion that we can 'think and grow rich' or that the abundant universe will answer our prayers that this common-sense notion seems quite radical.

Oettingen takes us one step further on this journey towards action by looking at the most effective way to plan for our success and this is through using an 'if... then' formula.  Unlike most planning which is vague and ineffectual an 'if... then' formula provides us with a specific action to take and a specific time or situation to take it in.  This is the kind of planning that builds habits and helps us to avoid temptation.  If our goal is to get fit then the vague idea to 'do more exercise' becomes a concrete plan 'if it is 6pm then I will go to the gym'.

Although this is a scientific book based on solid scientific research, Oettingen does provide an easy to use formula for making the most of her research.  To provide the best template for the kind of thinking required to start taking action, she came up with the acronym WOOP.  There are even two apps available - one for school students and one for adults - which provide this template for you.

WOOP stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan.  The idea is that you spend some time visualising your wish, vividly picture the outcome you want and how good it will feel to achieve that goal, then picture the obstacle(s) standing in your way. At this point you will probably realise whether your wish is achievable or not.  Allowing yourself to really feel the benefit of the desire will help you to decide how much you really do want it.  By then focusing on the obstacles in your way your creative mind will come up with all sorts of solutions and as you dig deeper even get to the bottom of the 'real' obstacle which will inevitably be some behaviour of your own which you can change.  At this point the 'if... then' plan will be easy to construct.  It is essential that the process is done in this order.  Over many experiments, Oettingen discovered that visualising the obstacle before the outcome led to no increase in action.  

Obviously better results were achieved by subjects who used the WOOP formula regularly but even those who only used it once found themselves subconsciously moving closer towards their goals.

Overall this was a fantastic book with real detail and depth, solid scientific experiments and practical steps to take.  There was no 'secret' involved, no abundant universe or 'higher power' just harnessing the power of your own mind to get you what you want.  Brilliant. 

2 Month Update

So far I have read 11 non-fiction books and 9 fiction books (although 4 of those are from the same series).

I am averaging 10 books a month and some of the non-fictions have been whoppers (Cornelius Owen I'm looking at you!).

At this rate I will have finished the 80 book challenge by August and that's not taking into account that my rate will go up whenever there is a school holiday and I am currently studying for the Primal Blueprint Expert Certificate which is taking up most of my non-fiction reading time.

Might have to make the challenge 120 books instead of 80!!

Two for the price of one...

Quick review of two more books by Philip Reeve - the last two in the Mortal Engines series.

I'm actually counting all four of these books as one YA book in my challenge.  You wouldn't want to read these two if you hadn't read Mortal Engines and Predator's Gold.

Infernal Devices by Philip Reeve

This book catches up with Tom and Hester 15 years after Predator's Gold.  The main protagonist this time is their daughter Wren who has inherited her mother (and grandfather's) love of action and adventure and will do anything to escape their safe but dull existence on the now stationary Anchorage.

The war between the cities and the Anti-Tractionist League still rages and Wren's actions hurl herself, plus Tom and Hester once again, into the midst of the conflict.

I really enjoyed this book, more so than Predator's Gold.  Hester's true warlike personality is revealed although we are still sympathetic towards her but Wren is a cleverly written composition of the opposing traits that Tom and Hester exemplify.  She is as brave, fearless and mercenary as her mother and also as thoughtful, empathetic, caring and morally robust as her father.  As such she makes for a fantastic heroine and role model for teenage girls; much better then the two extremes of Hester and Freya fighting over Tom in the previous book.

A Darkling Plain by Philip Reeve

The final book in the series which brings the story to a complete and satisfying conclusion, tying up all the loose ends of all the different characters.