Book Review #22: The Power of Habit

The Power of HabitThe Power of Habit is about making and breaking habits to become more effective. It’s a scientific explanation of the psychology behind behavior, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Charles Duhigg. I regularly use tools like Lift to build and maintain habits, but this is the first book which I’ve read on the topic. It does not disappoint.

Here’s why you should read this book: it will very likely make you a better person.

Excellence & Habits

One of my favorite quotes is from Aristotle and it reads: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Over time I have grown to fully embrace this way of thinking. The amazing thing about habits which bring you closer to excellence is that momentum makes them easy to maintain once the habit it set.

This book explains why and how that happens, and it essentially boils down to choices. When you develop a habit, fewer things you do become choice.

For example, I have developed the habit of making my bed every day. I don’t wake up and make a decision about whether or not I should complete this task, I just do it because it’s become automatic. Once that habit is locked in, I acquire another one that I work on incorporating into my routine, like doing 25 push ups. Once you have that down, move onto another. Starting new habits is difficult, but maintaining current habits is easy. This is clearly just the tip of the iceberg that is The Power of Habit.

Cue, Routine, Reward

These three steps are the building blocks of all habits. If you want to adopt a new habit, you begin with finding or creating a cue.

Habit loopDuhigg uses running in the morning as an example.

If you want to start running in the morning, your cue might be to put your running clothes next to your bed. The reward could be the endorphin rush or the sense of accomplishment you get from running. Perform this action and your brain will quickly begin expecting the reward. That’s when the behavior becomes automatic. The cue itself triggers both the routine and the craving for the reward itself.

To the right is an image which shows what the cue, routine, reward loop looks like.

When Good Habits Cascade

Keystone habits are a particularly fascinating concept discussed at length in this book. A keystone habit is a habit which has a cascade effect into other areas of your life. Everyone has different keystone habits, but Charles Duhigg cites making your bed as one of these. In the book he says:

Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget. It’s not that a tidy bed causes better grades or less frivolous spending. But somehow those initial shifts start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold.

Once you identify these keystone habits, changing them can lead to change or create other habits. You may have noticed a similar effect when you cross an item off your task list: you suddenly have renewed enthusiasm to tackle what’s next. Keystone habits work with a similar principle of momentum, which Duhigg calls small wins.

Favorite Passages

I highlighted 75 passages in this book. It is absolutely filled with useful information.

“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,” William James wrote in 1892. Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness.

Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. This effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage. An efficient brain requires less room, which makes for a smaller head, which makes childbirth easier and therefore causes fewer infant and mother deaths. An efficient brain also allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, and, eventually, airplanes and video games.

We can choose our habits, once we know how. Everything we know about habits, from neurologists studying amnesiacs and organizational experts remaking companies, is that any of them can be changed, if you understand how they function.

Conclusion

This is an outstanding book which expertly fuses storytelling, everyday life and science. It’s not only fun and interesting to read about how people like Michael Phelps have changed their lives and the world through their habits. It can have a profound effect on your life. I deeply enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

Rating:

5 Stars

The Power of Habit on Amazon

Note: after publishing this, Charles Duhigg kindly tweeted at me. Follow him on Twitter @cduhigg

Published on November 25, 2014

Book Review #21: Before Ebola

Before EbolaWhat’s scarier than the ebola virus? Trekking into the dark jungles of Northern Angola and seeking out ebola amidst a major outbreak. That is what the author of this book, Peter Apps, did in 2005.

Years ago I read The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, which is an amazing book that I recommend, about how in 1989 the ebola virus appeared at a research lab in Reston, VA. At the time, ebola was like a terrifying campfire story about a mythical virus that liquifies your insides. But it was a virus restricted to villages in Western Africa that had little chance of spreading to the developed West.

Fast forward to 2014: over the last year the dialogue over ebola has been impossible to ignore as Western Africa has struggled, and failed, to contain the virus as it spreads to major cities in Africa and around the world. In the current epidemic there are over 15,000 deaths with 95% of those occurring in only three countries: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

In light of this renewed worldwide attention on the virus, Reuters correspondent Peter Apps published this book about his experience confronting the Marburg virus in Angola in 2005.

The Marburg Virus & Peter Apps

Marburg virusEbola and Marburg are two varieties of filoviruses, which encode their genome in the form of single-stranded RNA (in layman’s terms, they are known as thread viruses). They both cause severe disease in human and primates in the form of viral hemorrhagic fevers with a very high mortality rate. They are extremely efficient killers. So much so that their lethality greatly limits their mobility – viruses of this type kill infected hosts too quickly to spread.

Before Ebola is about Peter Apps’ first journey into Africa, to report on the spread of Marburg within northern Angola for Reuters.

The bulk of this book takes place in the Uíge province of Angola, a mythically isolated and dark region of the country, where Marburg suddenly and mysteriously started killing. The Reuters news team went into the region to investigate, speaking to fear-stricken locals and following a path of corpses that the virus had left behind.

In most cases the infected, and the families that attempt to care for them, have almost no concept of how the virus works. As with the AIDS epidemic in Africa, a fundamental social misunderstanding of the nature of the illness prevents an effective response. They refuse to burn or bury victims, but choose instead to leave the corpses lying idly about, afraid to touch them as the virus moves unabated from one host to the next. Health workers, themselves not knowing what to do, died by the dozens.

Fortunately for Peter Apps, his journey into the dark heart of Angola lasted only a few days.

Favorite Passages

We took our leave and shook hands. In Uíge, it felt a much more meaningful gesture.

Looking back on those days, nine years later, I am trying to gauge what it taught me. As I write this, the largest-ever outbreak of Ebola is terrorizing West Africa. Thousands are dead, including well over 100 health workers. Still, more are volunteering to fly in. For whatever reason, this Ebola has managed to make the jump that other strains and Marburg never managed. It has leapt from isolated outbreaks to major cities and multiple countries.

Fear is a complicated thing when it comes to public health. After a point, even sophisticated knowledge about the danger of cancer does not stop people from smoking. HIV/ AIDS has failed to put southern Africans in particular off sex.

Conclusion

This book reads like a diary entry detailing the events of Peter Apps’ trip into the Angolan hinterland. It is very compact and very personal, but it did not grip me. It’s a sensible report of the author’s brief exposure to the Marburg virus in Africa, but it is not extraordinary. If you’re interested in reading about ebola, I would first recommend The Hot Zone by Richard Preston.

Rating:

4 Stars

Before Ebola: Dispatches from a Deadly Outbreak on Kindle

Published on November 21, 2014
Video

Song of the Day #162: Just Us

Shlohmo – Just Us

Shlohmo is a Los Angeles based music producer well known for his warm, dream-like, syncopated sound. This song is off his 2011 album titled Bad Vibes.

Check out Shlohmo on Spotify.

Published on November 21, 2014

All In One Festival

Last weekend we hosted a few out of town DJs: Siesta and Luce from Shanghai and Oshi from Beijing, for a warehouse event in Chengdu. It’s fun to get outside of the normal venues that I play at in Chengdu and experience something a little different. This location is in Chengdu’s East Music Park (东区音乐公园) which is a remodeled manufacturing district of the city.

All in One Festival Chengdu

All in One Festival Chengdu

All in One Festival Chengdu

All in One Festival Chengdu

Published on November 12, 2014

Photos from Halloween 2014 at Dojo

This year, finally, Halloween fell on a Friday night. In late August we decided that we’d host a Halloween party at Dojo, and that finally went down almost two weeks ago. We had two areas of music with 12 DJs at this event, but most importantly, lots of amazing costumes. Below are a few photos, but at the bottom of this post there’s a link to the full set of photos.

Halloween at Dojo

Halloween at Dojo

Halloween at Dojo

Halloween at Dojo

Halloween at Dojo

More Halloween 2014 Photos
Published on November 12, 2014

Book Review #20: The Heart Never Dies

The Heart Never Dies“Life is too short to play it safe” says one criminal to another. And that theme of dangerous audacity is the ever-present core of The Heart Never Dies, a blood-soaked story of vengeance.

Bob Worthington is a broken, elderly man desperately trying to reconnect with his grandchildren who have been estranged since his adult son committed suicide. He jumps when he receives the chance to earn $800,000 for delivering a stolen art piece across the country – an ancient Egyptian statue called Sekhmet. But the job he’s hired to do, and the Sekhmet object itself, hold secrets which will change Bob’s life forever.

Supernatural Suspense

This is the third book that I’ve read and reviewed by Steven P.R. (the first two being The Turning and A Pocket Full of Needles) and several of the same common themes are present here: hot pursuit, themes of justice and morality, and shocking horror.

Sekhmet statueThe Sekhmet statue in Bob’s possession is supposedly endowed with magical properties. According to Egyptian legend, the Sekhmet statues were used by Pharaohs to destroy their enemies. Sekhmet warriors were granted powers by the statutes. They lived for hundreds of years and had extraordinary strength and supernatural abilities, which eventually turned them into crazed, ruthless killers. To eradicate the source of their power and stop them, the Pharaohs destroyed hundreds of Sekhmet statues.

Bob is in possession of one of the only known Sekhmet statutes still in existence, and it unexpectedly confers its mysterious ancient power to him.

Bad Cop, Good Criminal

Appearances can be deceiving, and the moral condition of characters in this book is often in direct conflict with who they appear to be.

An example from the opening scene: a Virginia State trooper who allows two kidnappers with a young girl in their trunk escape a traffic stop because they produce snuff films which the trooper is an enthusiastic fan of. The films are part of a series of snuff films called Tickle Me Time which is broadcast via the internet to an exclusive group of members who pay $1,000 a month for the privilege of witnessing people be tortured and killed.

In The Heart Never Dies the villains are evil incarnate, and the protagonist is an every-man justifier suddenly enabled by an ancient deity.

The assembly of the characters and scenes is reminiscent of a Tarantino film: abstract, colorful, plucky and savage. Justice and morality are strong themes, as several characters identify with a higher force that guides them to take dramatic action. At times it reads like a fantastically violent interpretation of the Bible, with a righteous protagonist guided by a moral obligation to do right.

As in most Tarantino films, the conclusion is a bloody, poetic mess that almost no one survives.

Favorite Passages

Melanie woke up groggy as hell. The lampposts outside cast faint orange streaks through the blinds of the motel room. She rubbed the spot where Bob should be lying. The mattress was cold. She turned on the lamp atop the nightstand. Dark shadows fought the light. She strode to the bathroom and flicked the switch. She splashed her face with cold water. More awake.

The pulsing red eyes of Sekhmet were indicative of something. The cold breath it let out coursed through his body with some kind of mystical essence.

“Go,” Marcus said. She knew where to go and headed over to the basement door as she had done eight times already. The lacerations on her back were still healing. There were bruises between her shoulder blades and on her arms and on the nape of her neck and along her ribs. When Bob noticed the bruises, it made his blood boil. He knew why God had brought him here. He would serve as God’s almighty fist.

Conclusion

As with the previous two books by the same author, I enjoyed this book and read it quickly. Like the others, it too possesses similar themes of supernatural powers, retribution, and answering a higher call. It is incredibly violent, and that certainly means this book is not for everyone. But if you’re a fan of the lurid and highly animated style of Quentin Tarantino and Hunter S. Thompson, this is likely to be a book that you will really enjoy.

Rating:

4.5 Stars

Published on November 11, 2014

Book Review #19: Do the Work

Do the WorkDo the Work is a 2011 book written by Steven Pressfield about productivity, procrastination, and getting things done. It is a follow-up to his much more well-known book titled The War of Art. Like The Obstacle is the Way, this book is largely about re-contextualizing everyday challenges.

On Resistance

Do the Work begins with a quote which sets the fluid and poetic tone which is carried throughout: “On the field of the Self stand a knight and a dragon. You are the knight. Resistance is the dragon.”

Resistance is something that we all face. In many cases, the more important a task is, the more staunchly we resist the completion of that task. Projects started and never completed, commitments begun but never fulfilled, and so on. Although the title of this book is starkly simple, its content is imaginatively described.

Our own reluctance to follow through is described as resistance, and takes the form of procrastination, uncertainty, and a fleeting sense of priority. In no way is this resistance to be taken lightly or underestimated, as Pressfield clearly and repeatedly states that “resistance’s goal is not to wound or disable. Resistance aims to kill.”

Slay the Dragon in 109 Pages

The knight and dragon metaphor used throughout the book is about going directly through the obstacle that prevents you from completing any given task. It is the no-nonsense “get it done” mentality that underpins the colorful anecdotes that this book is composed of. This interesting combination of simple action-based instruction and vivid imagery is easy and fun to read, which makes this 109-page book fly by in a single sitting.

Favorite Passages

Start before you’re ready. Good things happen when we start before we’re ready. For one thing, we show huevos. Our blood heats up. Courage begets more courage. The gods, witnessing our boldness, look on in approval.

If you’re writing a movie, solve the climax first. If you’re opening a restaurant, begin with the experience you want the diner to have when she walks in and enjoys a meal.

Resistance is not the towering, all-powerful monster before whom we are compelled to quake in terror. Resistance is more like the pain-in-the-ass schoolteacher who won’t let us climb that tree in the playground. But the urge to climb came first. That urge is love.

Navy SEAL training puts its candidates through probably the most intense physical ordeal in the U.S. military. The reason is they’re trying to break you. SEAL trainers want to see if the candidate will crack. Better that the aspiring warrior fails here—at Coronado Island in San Diego—than someplace where a real wartime mission and real lives are at stake.

When we experience panic, it means that we’re about to cross a threshold. We’re poised on the doorstep of a higher plane.

Conclusion

The forethought and mindset required to effectively complete the tasks that you commit yourself to is invaluable. At just over one hundred pages, it’s hard not to recommend this book because the energy investment that it asks is low while the potential bounty is enormous. I enjoy Steven Pressfield’s no-nonsense writing style and found this book to be more impactful than I thought it would be. I think it’s likely that I’ll read this again when I’m mired in the trenches of some major challenge.

Amazon link: Do the Work

Rating:

4.5 Stars

Published on November 11, 2014

Game Review #7: Bitcoin Billionaire

Bitcoin BillionaireBitcoin Billionaire is a newly-released casual game about mining Bitcoins, the virtual currency. It’s developed by Noodlecake Studios, who made Super Stickman Golf, a very solid game released in 2011 that received a design award from Apple.

Last week a new episode of South Park titled Freemium Isn’t Free aired which hilariously pokes fun at free to play mobile games. The joke is that free to play games are dumb and simple waiting games, and of the most well-known freemium games in particular, this is very accurate.

Bitcoin Billionaire is a perfect example of the situation described in South Park. But a less funny truth omitted from the South Park episode is that sometimes games can be completely mindless and still lots of fun.

Bitcoin Billionaire is one of those. In terms of unique and interesting gameplay, it is a barren wasteland.

No Skill Required

The first interesting thing to note about Bitcoin Billionaire is that on the surface, it might seem to only barely meet the criteria for a game. There’s almost no skill or strategy involved since the game involves the following gameplay mechanics:

  • Tap anywhere on the screen to earn Bitcoins
  • Invest the Bitcoins you earn to receive passive income and increase the amount you earn per tap
  • Spend BTC to access unlockable items like a pet dog and penthouse apartment

That’s it. There is no cooperating with other players, nor real strategy involved. Tap, upgrade, and then keep tapping and keep upgrading. The game only requires persistence, to keep tapping and keep upgrading. At no stage of the game do anything but numerical values and pixel-art interior design objects change.

Bitcoin Billionaire

Clever Monetization

One of the chief criticisms of the freemium business model is that it’s difficult to find enjoyment when everything is behind a paywall. Bitcoin Billionaire smartly allows players to be passively as well as actively monetized, reducing the pressure on players to spend actual money.

When faced with a costly upgrade, players have two options to overcome the block aside from simply investing an exorbitant amount of time:

  1. Make an upfront purchase of the premium in-game currency (“Hyperbits”)
  2. Elect to watch a brief video advertisement or allow a banner ad to appear for 30 seconds

As is now common knowledge, it’s normal for 98% of players in a freemium game to never spend money. Revenue is accrued from the 2% of paying players, a small percentage of which will be high-spending players who will usually make up the lion’s share of the revenue in a typical freemium game. What Bitcoin Billionaire does with optional video ads and banners is attempt to monetize the other 98%. They cleverly make these completely optional, which I suspect makes players much more likely to endure, and in many cases, even choose to watch all of them and collect the speed-up benefits.

Currently, not even a week after release, Bitcoin Billionaire is ranking within the top 200 grossing apps in over 15 countries. This game has good reviews, tons of downloads due to a feature by Apple, and is monetizing well. It’s important to note that the ad revenue which this game collects is not factored into the top grossing chart figure, so the actual take is even higher than the chart position indicates.

Mindless Joy

There’s no skill to hone in this game aside from persistence, so what makes it fun?

Its weakness is the same thing that makes it fun: it’s ridiculous. I rode the subway yesterday and tapped the screen on my phone furiously with two hands for about three minutes while someone across from me just stared. I had just unlocked the downtown apartment and got the aquarium and fast computer upgrades, all of which are pixel art visual details which change nothing in the game. Is this game dumb? Oh, absolutely.

But it’s also satisfying seeing your fake Bitcoin count continually rise. The pixel art style of the game has charisma and the developers take every opportunity to make the in-game items varied and interesting. Like the Medicinal Herb Farms investment, which when purchased prompts your character to say: “Herb farming, man, is like, so good for you.”

This game knows exactly what it is, and it unfolds with a keen awareness.

Conclusion & Rating

In many ways I feel that Bitcoin Billionaire highlights what’s really unique about mobile games. This would never work on another platform. The act of performing mindless and repetitive activity at various points throughout your day only to collect fake Bitcoins is appalling, even in the context of mobile games. But in this case, even this vain and purposeless task isn’t without some charm.

4 Stars

Bitcoin Billionaire on the iTunes App Store

Published on November 11, 2014