“It was as if the universe, the whole of it, had become a sort of Library.” The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter.

The Time ShipsIn this very worthy sequel to the The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, the time traveller meets his younger self, both of whom share my distrust of complexity …

I met Moses’s eyes, and I recognized there a certain righteous anger, an infuriation at the foolishness of mankind, which had informed my own, younger soul. I had always had a distrust of the advancement, willy-nilly, of civilization, for it seemed to me an unstable edifice which must one day collapse about the foolish heads of its makers; and this Modern State business seemed about the most extreme folly, short of actual War, I had heard in a while!

Baxter does a brilliant job persuading us, by the time the novel is done, of the potential triumph of the mind …

I could see — suffused in every wisp of gas, in every stray atom — meaning and structure. There was a purpose to the orientation of each atom, the direction of its spin, and the linkages between it and its neighbors. It was as if the universe, the whole of it, had become a sort of Library, to store the collective wisdom of this ancient variant of Humanity; every scrap of matter, down to the last stray wisp, was evidently catalogued and exploited … Just as Nebogipfel had predicted as the final goal of Intelligence!

Wheat Belly by William Davis. Wheat is dessert and should be handled as such.

Wheat is sugar. Dessert. That’s what I’m taking away from Wheat Belly by William Davis.

Wheat is not what it used to be. The first wild wheat to be cultivated was einkorn with 14 chromosomes. Soon after einkorn naturally bred to produce emmer with 28 chromosomes. A few thousand years ago, emmer mated to produce Triticum tauschii, with 42 chromosomes. This sort of breeding between grasses was a relatively rare event. Relatively recently, humans started tinkering with the genetic structure of wheat, breeding it for higher yield and for resistance to disease and drought and heat. Modern strains cannot even survive without chemical support. There are now thousands of offsprings that are thousands of genes apart from the original einkorn.

Modern wheat can do all sorts of baking gymastics that einkorn could not do. Pastries, cakes, you name it. Wheat is yummy just like a Mars bar. A hit of wheat has a higher blood sugar response than white sugar. Besides fattening the belly, the insulin response causes a drop in blood sugar and a two-hour cycle of hunger. Wheat causes hunger. It is a vicious addictive cycle. It explains the carb addiction I have struggled with for years. Indeed, reducing my wheat consumption has helped me kick my habitual snacking. Carbs are not the worst of it. Wheat is about 10-15% protein, about 80% of which is gluten. For some people, gluten causes celiac disease, potentially a very serious immune response. Many people avoid gluten these days but the remaining proteins are also problematic, causing allergic and anaphylactic responses.

Davis recommends a complete elimination of wheat from one’s diet. This may be the right choice for some people, especially if they are suffering from obesity or the many other symptoms he documents in detail. My personal response is more moderate. I accept that wheat is essentially dessert, and I will handle it as such, not as a part of a healthy diet but as an occasional treat.

Catch Me When I Fall by Patricia Westerhof. The Dutch were better than their theology, good people looking after one another.

It is the Family Day long weekend in Ontario, a fitting time to chat about Catch Me When I Fall by Patricia Westerhof. Westerhof, now there’s a Dutch name, like all the others in this book. There’s the “Van” crew of course, like Van Dyk. There’s an abundance of Frisians, the Northerners, all ending with the letter “a”: Boersma, Dykstra, Veenstra, Zylstra. I am a Miedema and grew up with people just like them. There are many immigrant stories in Canadian literature, but few Dutch ones. Dutch immigrants were a quiet, practical lot, quick to assimilate. Westerhof’s collection of eleven loosely related short stories is a rare treat.

The immigrant story is not a new one but the Dutch perspective is unique. The church was the core of this community. Religion was heavy-handed and the book’s title was well chosen. The “fall of man” is central to Dutch theology. Of course there was doubt. In “Unfailing Mercies”, Sarah stands in front of the church for the ritual Profession of Faith. She ponders, “How casually she had drifted into the faith, agreeing to believe.” When Reverend Post asks her to commit her life to Christ, she feels an urge to laugh then panics. Personally, I declined to undertake the ritual. It was my point of departure from the church. Still, in general, the Dutch were better than their theology, good people looking after one another. I still love to sing the old hymns.

The stories touch on all the memorable points, the difficult ones and the beautiful. There was the Dutch school with all those young blond heads and blue eyes. These immigrants were not so much victims as bearers of prejudice — against the Catholics, blacks, gays, you name it. Still, in the war many Dutch people risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis who occupied their country. There was the food! Meat and potatoes, soup with maggi, boterkoek with butter, apple pie and ice cream. My diet has changed considerably too since those days, but fond memories.

Westerhof’s stories are often sentimental and this works because the Dutch are sentimental. That, and stubborn. Wooden-shoed and wooden-headed. In “Probability”, Ellie is never as confident as her aptly named friend, Will. “Maybe the certain answers of his faith made him feel there should be certain answers for everything.” Westerhof nails it there. Belief in a grand design has a way of programming you to see the world in a structured way. Now Will is dead. What will she write for a eulogy? Well, Westerhof’s book is a eulogy of sorts, a testament to a past time that still echoes with love in me. Thank you Patricia.

The Stark Reality of Stretching by Steven Stark. Important for everyday health and athletics.

The Stark Reality of StretchingI am visiting my brother this weekend. He asked if I like mussels. Funny, I said, I am just reading a book on muscles. Yes, I have been that dumb about muscles and stretching. To correct that, I read The Stark Reality of Stretching by Dr. Steven Stark. Good stretching is important for everyday health and prevention of injury. It increases power and prevents injuries for athletes at every level.

The key to understanding muscles is myofilaments, the muscle fibres that contain overlapping proteins called myosin and actin. A stretch is the sliding elongation of these fibres caused by the proteins sliding past each other. A bit tough to visualize, that. Here’s a better description of what happens. One, in a stretch, start from a point of zero tension. Two, load a single muscle or muscle group. The muscle contracts. It shortens. Three, find the point of first awareness of tension, and hold. Less tension is best. Four, the muscle will naturally relax, losing the tension. Five, the relaxation causes the sliding elongation. It stores energy in the muscle that can be used for action.

The book provides very detailed stretch instructions, but only for the weight-bearing muscles of the lower extremity: glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, groin, calves, and hip flexors. Stretching these muscles is vital for preventing chronic ache in the knees and lower back. The principles are the same, I suppose, but I wanted to see the same level of instruction for upper extremity muscle stretches as well: shoulders, back, biceps, triceps, arms, chest, forearms, and sides. I found some nice visual references for the whole body stretches by google-image-searching “stretches”. Stark’s book is still great for understanding how muscles work and inspiring a good stretching routine.

The Magician King by Lev Grossman. In the end, she “won ugly” but she won.

The magician kingIn The Magicians young Quentin discovers that magic and the Narnia-like realm of Fillory are both real. In the sequel, The Magician King, Quentin is a king, but it is the story of Julia that turns the pages. In the first book, Quentin was handed an education in magic, while Julia was denied admittance and had to figure it out on the street. This book tells her painful journey, a testament to alternative education. “That was the thing about the world: it wasn’t that things were harder than you thought they were going to be, it was that they were hard in ways you didn’t expect.” She gave up at times, “when your sacred intentional community collapses, it’s time to suck it and sell silverware instead.” In the end, she “won ugly” but she won. That part I liked and merits this short review. I suppose I should share Lev Grossman’s Gen-X wit and get his video game metaphors but I generally do not care for them. Overall, a nice light January read.

Deadly Harvest by Geoff Bond. Obesity is not a problem of excess but of want for good food.

Deadly HarvestJanuary seems like a good time to write about health and fitness. I have learned more about diet and exercise in the past five years than the 40+ previous years. This learning was prompted by the mid-life observation that I was obese. Yikes. I have turned that around completely and am fitter now than when I was 30. I’d like to share a fundamental lesson — diet is more important than exercise. Maybe this is a mistake only men make, but diet accounts for about 70% when it comes to weight loss. Exercise is important too, I give it 30%, but regular exercise is more for mental than physical health. I learned about diet from many sources and one important book is Geoff Bond’s Deadly Harvest.

Using research in nutritional anthropology, Bond asserts that humans are still tropical creatures and our diets best suited to that build. The human species emerged in East Africa over a million years ago, homo sapiens 190,000 years ago. It was only 60,000 years ago that we left Africa and migrated to the rest of the world. The Africa savanna was formative in the building of our bodies. Our homeland was savanna — open rolling grasslands, occasional trees and shrubs, many lakes and rivers depending on the season. The temperature was mild to hot with unpredictable rain storms. We shared our home with animals. Evidence for the savanna lifestyle is gathered from the San Bushmen. Women spent considerable time gathering plants and roots, concentrating on 15-20 species that were reliable to find. Men engaged in hunting, usually small game or larger ones with sporadic results. They were healthy and lived long lives. The savanna pattern continued for 2000 generations.

About 11,000 years ago people started farming. Everything changed. Grains and legumes were introduced into our diets. Farming caused us to settle in fixed locations. Housing and property were established. Chemicals and fertilizers were invented. Mechanization and food processing expanded. Food was preserved and transported. Farming led to a diet for which our bodies were not designed and caused poor health, hence the book’s title, Deadly Harvest. Obesity is not a problem of excess but of want for good food.

Bond provides an “Owner’s Manual” for the human body, simple rules that have worked for me:

  • Three-quarters of your diet should be low starch plants and fruits. Think greens and dark berries. My daily lunch is a hearty salad. Many dinners are stir-fry, soup or vegetable stew.
  • One-quarter of your diet should be protein. I cured carb addiction with protein bars.
  • A tenth of your calories should come from specific fats: Omega 3 and Omega 6. I am now pescetarian rather than vegetarian, i.e., I eat fish.
  • Avoid grains, legumes and potatoes. They contain sub-lethal does of poison that our bodies cannot handle. I have greatly reduced my bread consumption, though I still like a hearty whole grain bread with my vegetable soups.
  • Avoid dairy. Antigens attack our immunity.
  • Feel hungry thirty minutes twice per day. Glucagon is the hormone that converts fat to sugar in the bloodstream. Blood sugar must be low to activate it. I allow for that hungry feeling late morning and late afternoon, i.e., no snacks.

I am not purist — I allow occasional indulgences in my diet — but this basic pattern has put me back on track to health. I hope it is of benefit to you.

Why Does the World Exist by Jim Holt. Our universe may have started as a hack in a physicist’s lab.

Why is there something rather than nothing? Any world view worth its salt needs an answer to this question. I recently read two books on the subject: Why Does the World Exist by Jim Holt, and A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss. Of the two, I preferred Holt’s “existential detective story” because of its humbler, broader approach.

There are creation myths, Christian and otherwise. A creator brings the world into being out of nothing or out of chaos. People generally think creation myths are just nice stories, but any move to take them literally invokes quick criticism. There is a problem with creation theories. Where did the creator come from? Self-created of course, or eternal, but then why can’t the universe be self-created or eternal?

A logical person might argue, look, there is either going to be nothing or something. When there’s nothing, there’s nobody there to notice. Something is bound to turn up sooner or later. See, there’s something. A Buddhist would not agree. Is there something, really? One does not get something from nothing. The substance of things is an illusion. The universe never came into being.

Does nothing exist? Heidegger said you can’t use the verb, “is”, when it comes to nothing, as in, “nothing is”. As usual, he invented a new word, “noths”, “nothing noths.” It may be nonsensical to try to talk or think about nothing. Logical positivists preferred formal logic and empiricism to account for the world. One of Wittgenstein’s main propositions is poetical and wise, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”.

Physics proposes a new answer. Our knowledge of the universe has expanded. We have empirical proof that there was a big bang, a point in time when the universe began, likely from a random quantum fluctuation. If the sum of energy in the universe can be accounted for, there is no need to invoke a creator. This answer introduces the notion of the multiverse, the possibility that many different universes can exist, each with its own set of physical laws and constants. I am intrigued by the cheeky suggestion that our universe may have started as a hack in a physicist’s lab in another universe, initialized with values then launched for expansion. I begin to think of physics as religion, only better because it can be proven. Consider entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, energy always dissipates, nothing lasts. It’s a good explanation of just about everything, the fate of the universe and my balding head.

Of course each solution sets up its own problem. If our universe came into being because of a hack in another universe, where did the first universe come from? We circle back to the beginning. Does it even make sense to talk about other universes? Doesn’t the definition of universe necessarily include everything? Recursion is the trick and curse of origin questions.

Making Music for the Joy of It by Stephanie Judy. A plastic brain and a tin flute.

Making music for the joy of itOne of the happier research findings of the 21st century is that the adult brain is not a fixed thing but continues to develop through life. This phenomenon is called neuroplasticity, or “plastic brain”, and I am testing it by learning my first musical instrument, a tin flute. To aid in this pursuit, I am reading Making Music for the Joy of It by Stephanie Judy.

The book is intended for beginners, tackling myths about tone deafnesss and the mysteries of reading music. Some of the book is general adult education, e.g., find a time and place to practice. It is also a larger meditation on the meaning of practice. For some there is a satisfaction in doing this thing called practice. At the same time, as Judy suggests, I find myself capable of more sophisticated techniques if I allow myself to just play. “In the place we call Music, improvisation is that window off to the side — an irresistible view for some musicians, all they ever look at, really.”

The mapping technique is a fascinating way for beginners to learn new music. Skilled musicians can usually approximate a new piece on a first pass. My attempts are clunky and error-ridden even after many tries. The mapping technique involves taking passes at different depths. Study the music briefly, noting just a few things that make sense, then improvising though without the music. Successive passes will add observations and detail until the player gets the hang of the whole piece.

“People only half listen to you when you play. The other half is watching.” Yikes. I suppose my greatest hope and fear is that someday I will be good enough to perform with and for others. I assumed this event would be in the distant future. Judy suggests that playing music with one’s family is not only a delight but also a comfortable way to learn performance techniques. Brilliant. I am rehearsing Joy to the World to play for my family at Christmas. A dream come true.

Introducing the Enlightenment by Spencer & Krauze. There is a second sense of the term.

The Age of Enlightenment was an 18th century movement that started in Paris and spread across Europe to the American colonies. It was shaped by scientists like Bacon and Newton, advancing the application of natural laws to the understanding of all phenomena. John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding was an essential work arguing, against Descartes, that all knowledge is derived from experience. It mapped the foundations for scientific psychology. The novel emerged in philosophy and literature, including writers like Daniel Defoe and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Voltaire advocated for civil liberties and was influential in the American and French revolutions.

These thinkers and many more are surveyed in a fun little book called, Introducing the Enlightenment: A Graphic Guide by Lloyd Spencer and Andrzej Krauze. I often enjoy these short guides, either as an introduction to a subject or a review of it. You can get the same information from Wikipedia, but not the clever graphics. I was previously well-served by a book with a similar format, Introducing Critical Theory by Stuart Sim.

The Enlightenment was an important movement. It introduced the first encyclopedia, the collection of many branches of knowledge into a single place. It advanced scientific knowledge and the arts, atheism and religious movements, economics and industrialism. Secular and intellectual, it was the foundation of modern Western philosophy. It can be credited or blamed with the advance of technologies that characterize modern life. Some say that this movement concluded in tragedy with our two world wars. Many still struggle to invent new disciplines and technologies, hoping they will yet save us from the increasing complexity of life.

There is a second sense of the term, enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment was known for its application of reason and analysis. The second sense is not rational in the same way, but refers to a complete apprehension or gestalt experience that transforms a person or situation. Call it spiritual enlightenment. Note though that the rise and decline of Christianity maps better to the Age of Enlightenment. Spiritual enlightenment is associated with Eastern philosophy.

Too Big to Know by David Weinberger. Life has always been too big to know.

Too Big to KnowMy mother grew up in a little village in Friesland, a northern province of the Netherlands. Her family farm was near a canal where she skated with her friends. Today it is rare to have the freezing temperatures for hard ice. My mother says life was simpler in the past. I asked, did it feel that way at the time? She looked at me sharp in the eye. No, no it didn’t. She lived through the depression and Nazi occupation in World War II. It is an illusion that life is more complex today than in the past.

In Too Big to Know, David Weinberger explains how the shape of knowledge has changed. In the past we had traditional knowledge and it was associated with print. Academics would follow a disciplined scholarly process of researching and writing papers and books, the source of classic facts. It seems a nice orderly process, but Weinberger knows this picture oversimplifies things. He attributes the oversimplification to print: “The limitations of paper made facts look far more manageable than they seem now that we see them linked into our unlimited network” (40). Today knowledge is not book-shaped but network-shaped like the web. No longer written by a single expert on one particular subject toward a fixed conclusion, knowledge is more an interactive dialogue of people weaving different subjects together with changeable outcomes.

It is a good thing that our information technology has adapted to better handle the messiness of thought. “To think that knowledge itself is shaped like books is to marvel that a rock fits so well in its hole in the ground” (100). Still, messiness is not itself a virtue. If print makes knowledge seem too tidy, that is also its strength. Chaos is tamed by filtering out distractions and crackpots, fixing reference points to allow for evaluation, distilling knowledge from data, allowing for a period of consensus and informed actions.

Life has always been too big to know. I have written elsewhere how the Dutch immigration shaped a people of the book. Reading the bible provided a focus and refuge amidst the uncertainty and hardships of starting a new life in a strange land. Digital information technologies extend our abilities with the true messiness of life, but networks are still leaky buckets. The fixity of print remains the gold standard for knowledge.