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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Skinny Habits: the 6 Secrets of Thin People

I wanted to read Skinny Habits: the 6 Secrets of Thin People because I was genuinely curious. Are there things that people who seem to have willpower and lots of healthy habits do differently than other people? I've actually chatted a bit with my mom on this topic because she can go to a party and say no to a piece of cake. Even though, like her, I don't really like cake, I find myself saying yes to having a piece (and often regretting it). Well, let's see what Bob Harper has to say on the topic!
As the title suggests, Harper believes there are six habits "skinny" people (I think he actually means "healthy" people) do: make contingency plans, consciously push back, reengineer their environments, challenge themselves, rest for success, and dress for thin. Some of them seem pretty straightforward (for example, when you're well rested it's easier to eat healthier because your brain isn't in need of sugar to stay awake and focus). Some of them I wasn't sure what he meant (push back against what?) And some I was genuinely interested in the strategies (how do healthy people make contingency plans)? Well, only one way to find out: let's read!

The book starts off with some basics on how the brain works. I have a degree in psychology, so nothing was really new to me, but I read it anyway as a refresher (and to see if there was anything new since I got my degree). After that comes the habits.

I really liked the chapter on contingency plans. Harper starts out by explaining the power of if/then statements ("if I have to go to the party, then I will talk to x people before hitting the buffet table"); if/then statements are a useful tool for helping you change ANY habit, so this is great knowledge for everyone to have!

The next habit, pushing back, is all about arming yourself with rational thoughts so you can push back against the irrational thoughts that pop up when you slip up. So like going back to myself, if I were to eat a piece of cake and catastrophize the experience ("I'm such a screw up, I'll always be unhealthy" sort of thing), this chapter gives you the tools to fight those thoughts.

Habit 3 (halfway through the book!) is all about reengineering your environment. Harper talks about changing your social environment to have more healthy conscious friends and changing your physical surrounding (particularly your micro environment) to reflect better eating habits, too. Things like taking cookies off your counter in favour of a fruit bowl or using a smaller dinner plate.

Habit 4 is to challenge yourself. Basically, Harper is saying that you need to have hobbies and interests that you are passionate about and that will keep you learning. People without hobbies often turn to food out of boredom.  

Habit 5 is all about getting enough rest. Harper talks about both getting a good night sleep and general relaxation to beat stress. In particular, he looks at the awesome health benefits of meditation, yoga, and belly breathing.

The final habit is to dress for thin. This goes back to the whole idea of "fake it till you make it" with the goal of fooling yourself.

So those are the six habits healthy people have. Harper doesn't say anything revolutionary; these six habits are all common sense. They're also backed up with science, which made Skinny Habits a good read if only to refresh myself on that (particularly the psychology related to these habits!)

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Book of Jhereg: Teckla

I can't believe one book can change my mind about a character so completely.

Up until this point, I've really enjoyed the adventures of Vlad Taltos.  Sure, there are issues with the stories, but I've felt like they were mindless fun reads.  All of that changed when I read Teckla.

Teckla is about Vlad's wife Cawti getting caught up in an Easterner and Teckla revolution.  Vlad doesn't want her to be part of it.  But instead of trying to talk it out civilly, they get into argument after argument.  Then Vlad goes and sulks for awhile cleans the apartment or wanders the streets, goes and talks to people, then repeats it all over again.

The start of the book was really weird.  A revolutionary guy by the name of Gregory shows up at Cawti's and Vlad's.  He tells them that a fellow revolutionary, Franz, was murdered.  This is the first that Vlad had heard of Cawti's involvement with (and really the existence of) said revolution.  So after Gregory leaves, the two of them go on a long walk and argue.

I'm going to add here that it took me awhile to figure out this was exactly what Vlad was mad about.  Their argument wasn't detailed in any way, so I wasn't sure what the issue was.  I thought that maybe Cawti had gotten involved with these people and maybe slept with someone.  But no, she was just involved and I guess Vlad didn't want her to (because it could get her killed, too, I think). 

Vlad keeps trying to dissuade Cawti.  But every time he tries to "talk" to her, he makes sarcastic remarks or just starts off angry, which sets her off, too.  So of course nothing gets resolved between them.  At one point Loiosh actually tells Vlad that this has been happening (which is when Vlad finally tries to have a conversation with her, but of course it's a bit too late because she's already moved out).

I'd like to point out here that Cawti never felt like a real person, even though this book was in some ways about her.  That was a real shame in my opinion.  It was almost like Vlad had her on this pedestal, thinking that this was what she was; he never seemed to know (or actually want to know) the real person that she was.

So anyway, in the middle of their marital issues is the revolution and the Jhereg who owns the piece of the city where the Easterners live.  That guy first wanted Vlad to kill Franz (but Vlad turned it down, not really knowing anything about the revolution at that point).  And then wanted Vlad dead....you know what, I honestly don't remember WHY he wanted Vlad dead.  In the middle of the repetitive and boring action I lost track of why.  Anyway, so Vlad needs to stop the assassin, stop the other Jhereg, and stop the revolution so his wife doesn't get herself killed since she won't listen to "reason."

At one point, Vlad even decides that the only way to save her life is to kill all the leaders of the revolution (who happen to be Cawti's friends).  This goes directly against his whole moral of not killing Easterners.  Loiosh also didn't like that plan and said as much, but couldn't come up with a reason why they shouldn't do it.  The only thing that stopped them was the appearance of a ghost (which, while plausible in the setting, seemed kind of weird.  Why couldn't he have had second thoughts when he was about to go through with it?)

Honestly, anytime Vlad was talking to one of the revolutionaries was kind of painful to read.  He was accusing them of sticking to their ideals at the cost of innocent people's lives while he was honestly guilty of the same (remember, his solution was to kill everyone at one point).  It was also tough to read because Vlad and the revolutionaries both firmly had their minds made up about what they believed and neither side (with maybe the exception of Kelly, the revolutionary leader) was willing to even listen to the other side's viewpoint (at least without bringing their preconceived notions firmly into play first).  That was fine at first, but when it kept happening again and again, I really lost patience with the whole thing.

One thing that I found really interesting was that the revolution in Teckla reminded me of the Occupy movement in 2011, even though Teckla was written in 1986.  As far as I can tell, there wasn't anything in the early 1980's that was similar (although I admit I did only a quick Google search, so I might be wrong).

So yes, that was my opinion of Teckla.  I really didn't like it at all. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Magic: The Gathering Volume 1

Wow, it's been awhile since I've read anything Magic the Gathering.  According to this blog, the last thing I read was the Shadowmoor anthology, which I read back in 2009.  I've read other books, but that was before starting this blog (so pre-June 2008).  It's been even longer since I've read any comics.  The only one I honestly remember reading was the Nightmare comic, which would have been sometime around 1995 when it came out (I liked that it was a standalone comic, but I admit it was a bit confusing at the time.  I've since reread it and it made a lot more sense to me.  I guess it was an issue with my age - I may have been a bit too young to get it at first).

Anyway, so I picked up Magic: The Gathering Volume 1, which was written by Matt Forbeck and drawn by Martin Coccolo.  It's the story of Dack Fayden, a planeswalker thief.  He steals an artifact from the Cult of Rakdos on Ravnica.  When he finally manages to catch his breath after doing so (the Cult was not happy with him liberating them of their artifact), he examines it and discovers that the lady who wielded it last was the one who destroyed his village.  So he sets off to Innistrad to find her.

I definitely enjoyed reading Magic: The Gathering Volume 1 (wow I wish it had a better title than that).  But I found it a bit short.  And unfortunately the library doesn't have the second volume in the series (or any of the other ones).  So it's going to be awhile before I can read any more (and find out where the heck Fayden went at the end of this - I want to guess whatever plane the Arabian Nights set takes place on (Arabia?) but I have a feeling I'm wrong).

I also want to say, I love the idea of a Planeswalker thief.  Once he gets a hold of something, how do you stop him?  He can just waltz right off of your plane!  Awesome!

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Book of Jhereg: Yendi

So today I finished Yendi, the second book in Steven Brust's Book of JheregYendi was a rather interesting read, especially since, in terms of publication, Yendi is the second book.  You see, it actually takes place before Jhereg.  So this is the book that shows you the first time Vlad died and was revivified.  It also shows you how he met his wife, Cawti (who he is already married to in Jhereg).  It also shows us why he decided to make the best spy network.

It was also a little weird to read Yendi after some of the revelations that came in Jhereg.  Particularly concerning how the souls of the Dragaeran work (and Vlad's soul in particular). 

But anyway, Yendi is the story of how Vlad became more of a power in his city's underworld/mafia.  He has worked his way up as a sort of mafia boss, controlling a small territory.  Things have been going really smoothly for the last little while.  But then one of his neighbours, Laris, decides to move in. 

And unfortunately for Vlad, Laris is well connected and seems to know everything about the Easterner.  While Vlad knows basically nothing about Laris.

And many of Vlad's friends cannot really help him.  The Dragonlords Morroland and Aliera cannot get involved directly in the affairs of the Jhereg (particularly in a Jhereg/Jhereg war).  Sethra seems to have a similar issue (although I'm honestly not sure if she's a Dragonlord or a Dzur Hero, and what exactly the difference is).  But when Vlad is attached by the famous assassins, the Sword of the Jhereg and the Dagger of the Jhereg, he's going to need all the help he can get! 

Especially when he finds himself falling love with one of them.

But everything is not what is seems.  What looks like a simple grab for more power and territory starts becoming a crazy plot that spans centuries.  A plot that only a Yendi could conceive of.

Once again, I found myself loving Brust's writing.  The story of Vlad Taltos is a lot of fun, and I'm super glad I've got more to go!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Book of Jhereg: Jhereg

I bought The Book of Jhereg last year, when my brother and I were going to a conference that the author, Steven Brust, was going to be at.  Unfortunately neither of us read it in time (my brother had a copy of just Jhereg which was missing some pages; I didn't receive my copy of The Book of Jhereg until a few weeks after the conference).  So now, with that same conference coming up in a month and a half, we both decided it was time to read!

The Book of Jhereg is actually the first three adventures of Vlad Taltos, Jhereg, Yendi, and Teckla, collected into one volume.  According to the author, these are not the chronologically first three books (just the first three that were published).

To make things a bit easier, I've decided to review each of the three books separately here on this blog.

Jhereg was a good introduction to Vlad Taltos (and Steven Brust's writing).  It gives the story of how Vlad got his familiar, the jhereg Loiosh.  And then it skips ahead and gives us an adventure in their lives many years later.  Vlad, now an assassin with his own business, is hired for a big and seemingly impossible job.  A Dragaeran has made off with a lot of money.  And Vlad has to make an example of him.  The catch is that he has to do it before word of what the Dragaeran did gets out to the public.  Which gives him only a few days and not nearly enough time to study his quarry and plan the hit.  And of course when he does find the Dragaeran, things go from bad to worse: he is hiding in Castle Black, protected by the lord (who happens to be one of Vlad's friends/employers).  With the clock ticking, how will he get the Dragaeran without starting a war or dishonouring his friend?

Jhereg was honestly a lot of fun.  I loved all the characters, from Loiosh's asides to the Dragaeran cousins Aliera and Morrolan's bickering (to put it lightly).  Brust also did a great job worldbuilding: the Dragaeran empire seemed like an interestingly complicated place (made moreso by the Dragaerans' long lives - I mean, someone can spend 10 years planning something and it's considered a "short time.")  There were a couple of revelations that, while interesting, seemed a little out of place.  I think they're something that will be built on in later books (or at least I hope they will be!)  I also would have liked to know how the characters all met (particularly Vlad, Aliera, and Morrolan).  Jhereg touched on these things, but I felt like there was a lot more to the story that I would like to know.

So anyway, that's Jhereg.  I hope the fun continues in the next book, Yendi.

Friday, May 8, 2015

You CAN Train Your Cat: Secrets of a Master Cat Trainer

I have many, many books I feel that for one reason or another I should be reading. For one thing, I'm going to a conference at the end of June and want to be ready for it. For another thing, I have around 130 books sitting around here that need reading. But when Gregory Popovich's You CAN Train Your Cat: Secrets of a Master Cat Trainer showed up at work, I sort of dropped everything in order to read it.

First, some back story: several months ago now, I adopted an adorable and super lovable cat. And while I love him so much, it's been a bit frustrating at times trying to keep him off the stove or away from food. And now that it's warmer out, he wants to be outside all the time. And not leashed either. So yeah, it's frustrating as the two of us are trying to negotiate our relationship.

So when I saw Popovich's book at work, I knew I needed to read it. Popovich is the founder of the World Famous Popovich Comedy Pet Theater, in which he has cats (and some other pet animals) perform tricks. Now, I'm not interested in making my cat perform tricks. But I was hoping Popovich would have some incite into how to better train my cat around the house.

Popovich's book can pretty much be summed up with the following: patience, positive reinforcement, and a loving attitude will train your cat.  It's basically really logical stuff. Cats don't ever forget a bad experience, so negative reinforcement isn't the way to go. And any time your cat isn't behaving, check for other reasons (like are you paying enough attention to him or her?) Have patience with your cat, and they will try to please you as best as they can. 

Oh, and if you're trying to get them to do tricks, you have to look at what the cat likes to do, and work with that. And of course, never punish them for NOT doing a trick - they're a cat, not a robot that performs on command.

So basically, for my purposes, Popovich was saying to just keep doing what I'm doing. And that's reassuring in itself. There's no magic secret to training your cat. Just be a loving owner and have patience.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

419

My mom read 419 a few years ago.  She really liked it and asked me to read it, too.  I had every intention of reading it, but for various reasons, I didn't get to it until now.

419 is a complicated story.  It's about Laura Curtis and her family dealing with the aftermath of her father's death.  It's about internet scams originating in Nigeria.  It's about the greed for oil in the Western world.  And it's about a pregnant woman walking away from Sharia law. 

I won't lie: I had a hard time getting into this book.  I was very intrigued by Laura Curtis and her family.  The police begin trying to determine the cause of her father's death.  Originally Laura is a suspect, but it becomes clear that her father's death was a suicide. Around that point, 419 starts looking at Winston, a 419er from Nigeria.  Winston hangs out in internet cafes, trying to find stupid oyibos who will fall for his stories.  He ends up working for a man known as Ironsi-Egobia (who is a sort of crime-lord in Lagos).  After that, the book follows a woman with no name who is walking away from her home because she is pregnant.  And then the book starts following Nnamdi, a boy from the Delta.  Nnamdi started working for the oil companies when they recruited men from his village.  When he was laid off because relations between the Nigerians and the oil companies were deteriorating, he ended up taking a job transporting oil in a transport truck.  Up until here, I had a really hard time with the book because nothing seemed connected to anything.  I got invested in some stories, but had a hard time with others.  And the book went weirdly between them: it would follow one character, then the next, adding a random chapter of Laura here and there.  My mom was the one who encouraged me to actually keep reading; she told me the whole thing manages to come together somehow.

And she was right.  It did.

Nnamdi ends up finding the nameless girl.  He brings her back to his village.  But the village is no longer safe for the two of them because it is now in the middle of a (guerrilla) war zone.  So they make their way to Lagos at Nnamdi's mother's insistence; she says he has a cousin there who will help him.

That cousin's name is Ironsi-Egobia.

And that's how everything manages to come together.  Laura makes her way to Nigeria in an attempt to get her father's money back and somewhat inadvertently draws the wrath of Ironsi-Egobia.  And now it's not just money she needs to get out of Nigeria, but herself as well.

419 is a beautifully written book, even while dealing with some rather ugly subject matter.  I though Will Ferguson had some very lovely turns of phrases.  While I had a difficult time with it until near the end, now that I'm done I feel like it was worth the read.