Toby’s books on the shelf

We went to Undercover Books in Christensted on St. Croix so my dad could look for Birds of the West Indies (which they had, and which Dad did get a copy of). While we were there, Steve noticed that they had copies of Tobias Buckell‘s books on the shelf, including this signed copy of Xenowealth. (Sorry, Toby, for carelessly covering part of your name in the photo!)

A great bookstore, by the way. Excellent SF section, excellent selection for tourists (books on local history, pirates, etc.), great selection of books for locals, books by local writers prominently displayed. I also really like their tortoise-under-a-book logo.


A short dialog

“I have finished my book,” I said, closing my library book.

“I have finished my book,” Jackie said, closing her library book at the exact same moment I closed mine.

“How syncronisical,” I said.

“Yes,” Jackie said. “Syncronisical is exactly what it was.”

“It’s a good word,” I said.

“Yes,” Jackie agreed. “It doesn’t get used often enough.”

Lift by Daniel Kunitz

My brother shared this comic with me a while back. I think it captures something—something about CrossFit, but also about how people react to anyone who’s “really into” anything.I’m not a crossfitter, but my expanding interests in fitness and movement have produced similarly horrified reactions to the prospect of having to engage with me on the topic—less frantic only because people are not literally trapped in an elevator with me.

I bring this up because the recent book Lift, by Daniel Kunitz, can be read as a love song to CrossFit (although he has done a pretty good job of discreetly tucking away most of the CrossFit stuff near the end of the book).

The book is more than just one thing, and even more than a love song to CrossFit it’s a fascinating cultural history of fitness.

Kunitz uses the term New Frontier Fitness to refer to the whole emerging cluster of practices centered around the idea of “functional” fitness: CrossFit, MovNat, Parkour, AcroYoga, obstacle course racing, and any number of gymnastic and calisthenic exercise practices. Kunitz doesn’t mention Katy Bowman’s work, but it obviously fits in as well.

Doryphoros MAN Napoli Inv6011-2A key thesis of the book is that the motivating genius of New Frontier Fitness is not without precedent: It springs directly from ancient Greek ideals of fitness, and he references both ancient Greek representations of a fit body (such as the Doryphoros sculpture) and statements by ancient Greeks not unlike Georges Hébert’s admonition “Be strong to be useful.”

This cluster of ideas—in particular that fitness was a moral and social obligation, but also that functional fitness produces a beautiful body as a side-effect (rather than as a goal)—largely disappeared after the Greeks, except in tiny subcultures such as the military. It has only reemerged in the past few years as the various things that Kunitz refers to as New Frontier Fitness.

In between—and the 2000-year history of this makes up of the center of Kunitz’s book—there were many things that were not this particular tradition of functional fitness, but instead were aimed at producing a particular type of body (body-building, aerobics, etc.)

It’s impossible for me to talk about Daniel Kunitz’s Lift without comparing it to another book—Christopher McDougall’s Natural Born Heroes. They are similar in at least two ways. First, they both compare modern fitness culture to that of the ancient Greeks. Second, they both appear to have been written just for me.

A third book that I read recently but haven’t written about is Spark, by John J. Ratey, which overlaps in the sense that all talk about intensity as a key aspect of exercise to produce functional fitness. (If all you’re interested in is appearance and body composition, you can get most of the way there with a diligent application of low-intensity exercise, but some amount of intensity is highly beneficial for functionality and brain health.)

All three books are worth reading.

Image credits: CrossFit Elevator comic by Ryan Kramer from ToonHole. Doryphoros photo by Ricardo André Frantz.

Book review: Breaking the Jump by Julie Angel

breaking-the-jump-coverI’m not sure exactly when I discovered parkour. Its first mention here in my blog is in May 2014 when I talk about starting to practice precisions and shoulder rolls.

By then, Julie Angel had already finished a PhD and created a large body of photos and videos on parkour.

I came across her work fairly early, and immediately appreciated its strength, so I was delighted to learn that she was writing a book. I bought a copy as soon as it came out, and spent last week reading it.

I’d read some about the early history of parkour, so I knew about David Belle as an individual and the Yamakasi as a group, but this was largely my first exposure to the other early practitioners as individuals—and a bunch of interesting individuals they are.

Early in the book Angel takes a stab at tweezing out the many threads that went into making parkour something that appeared in this place at this time: The urban planning that produced the built infrastructure in Lisses and that also drew in the immigrant population that lived there. The life- and family- histories of the handful of young men who became the Yamakasi. The kinds of men they were. Angel never really pins down exactly why these young men produced parkour when no one else had done so, but it’s a credible effort at answering a question that’s probably unanswerable.

Because on the one hand, many other groups of young men could have created parkour. Most of the key traits of these young men—a certain facility with movement; a willingness to train very, very hard; a tendency to push one another to ever greater efforts (and to let themselves be pushed)—are not that rare. Although many young men are clumsy or lazy, you need only look among the national-level competitors in any boys or junior individual sport, or even at any good high school sports team, to find both movement skill and the capacity for hard training.

More important than those things—which are, as I say, fairly common among young men—was an ethos that leaned against that willingness to push and be pushed. It’s an ethos exemplified in some of their sayings—things like “Start together, finish together,” and “Be strong to be useful.” Everyone was pushed outside their comfort zone, but no one was pushed to attempt anything that he didn’t know he could succeed at. It is surely the reason that early parkour practitioners had such an incredibly low rate of training injuries whether from accidents or from overtraining. (Would that runners were as durable.)

New to me—and a perfect example of that ethos—is the picture Julie Angel gradually paints of Williams Belle. Younger than the others, he was someone I hadn’t even been aware of until I read the book. Williams is portrayed as having all the movement skill and all the willingness to train very, very hard as any of the other pioneers, but lacking the ego of David Belle, and possessing teaching methods that seem uniquely gentle.

She has Stéphane Vigroux saying this about Williams:

On the surface it was the same training school, but somehow the energy and feel when observing Williams was different. . . . From the first jump . . . Williams had known that the discipline should be about helping and sharing with others.

It makes Williams sound like someone I’d like to get to know.

Angel includes a good look at the prehistory of parkour—Georges Hébert and others—and a look at contemporaries who created things that overlap—people like Erwan Le Corre—but it’s not really about them. Most of the book is about the early practitioners. But only most of the book. A little bit—maybe ten or fifteen percent—is kind of a memoir of Julie Angel’s own experiences beginning with parkour. Her stories of her struggles to break her own jumps, learn to balance on a rail, or simply to attend her first class are very effective at illuminating the journey of the founders.

Maybe she used every such story she had—at least, that’s the only good reason I can think of for including so few, because frankly, those bits are some of the best bits in the book. If she wrote a longer memoir of her own journey learning parkour, I’d buy it.

If you’re interested in the history of parkour, and especially if you’re interested in understanding what it meant to those early folks—what it meant to work together, to train very hard, to confront their fears and overcome them together—this is an outstanding book

Breaking the Jump: The secret story of parkour’s high-flying rebellion by Julie Angel.

Book review: Don’t Just Sit There by Katy Bowman

DJST-coverI no longer remember the precise path through which I came to Katy Bowman’s work, but it must have gone something like this: Parkour to Georges Hébert to Erwan Le Corre to Katy Bowman.

Once I found her Katy Says blog, I stuck around for a while—binge-reading the trove of posts I found there, watching the related videos, and listening to back episodes of her podcast. That material, together with what I found in her then-newest book Move Your DNA, went into a piece I wrote for Wise Bread that suggested natural movement as a way to get fit that was doubly frugal—no cost for the gym, plus you get to do some of your exercise while you’re working.

Unbeknownst to me, Katy was on the verge of publishing a book on just that topic and when I shared my article with her, she offered to send me a review copy of Don’t Just Sit There.

Katy’s thesis in brief is that your body responds to the forces applied to it by adapting itself: moving toward the most optimal form for dealing with those forces. The forces it experiences are wildly diverse—gravity, the continually changing pressures caused by clothing and by breathing, the stretching and compressing of all parts of your body as you move them, the activity of your intestinal biome, etc. Your body as it is now includes a lifetime of accumulated adaptations.

If you had spent your life moving as humans moved during the period in which the human form evolved, your body would have adapted itself most excellently. But you probably haven’t. You’ve probably spent your life sitting in chairs, wearing shoes, riding in cars, and doing a hundred other things that no one had ever done until just the last few hundred years—things that have produced a relatively novel set of forces, resulting in a set of adaptations that are probably not ideal.

Among those adaptations are many things that are considered diseases—osteoarthritis and osteoporosis being two of the ones most obviously related to the history of forces applied to your body. But most “lifestyle” diseases like high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, type-2 diabetes, allergies, and asthma also have their roots in adaptations to the lifetime history of forces applied your body.

It is these adaptations—and the resulting disease processes—that explain why sitting all day is an independent risk factor for all-cause mortality, even for people who exercise regularly.

And that is the starting point Katy has chosen for this book. Sitting all day is clearly bad for you, but what should one do instead? Using the model that Katy provides, it is easy to understand that simply replacing sitting all day with standing all day is not an improvement. The problem is not any particular posture; it is maintaining a static posture for hours each day. Specifically, it’s the forces produced by maintaining a static posture for hours each day.

What’s good about this insight—that many disease processes are deeply related to your body’s response to the forces applied to it—is that it is very easy to apply different forces, and thereby produce different adaptations: Adaptations that make your body stronger, more functional, and more healthy. These different forces can be produced by engaging in natural movement.

It is, of course, no easy thing to overcome the results of a lifetime’s movement history. You probably can’t even think of many of the things that all humans did daily for millennia, and without a lifetime of practice, you wouldn’t be able to do them well. If you tried, you’d surely hurt yourself—your adaptations have produced a body that can no longer do certain things.

Happily, Katy’s book provides exactly what you need: a program for safely achieving the capability of filling your day with natural movement—without hurting yourself, and without hurting your productivity. (I was going to say “and without losing your job,” but it’s more than that. Katy is endlessly productive, and clearly cares deeply about your ability to be productive as well, whether you have a job or are simply doing work you think is important.)

This provides the core of the book. There’s a chapter on how to stand (because your lifetime movement history has probably produced habits—and a body—that don’t make it automatic to stand in proper alignment). There’s a chapter on how to sit (for the same reason, plus you probably have a chair that encourages poor posture). There’s a chapter on the small movements that don’t even need to interrupt your work. There’s a chapter on the larger movements that probably do interrupt your work, but only for a minute or two.

All that is preceded by a chapter on building a workspace that doesn’t lock you into one or a few static postures, and then followed by a short group of chapters that use all the preceding information to build a specific program with exercises that build toward filling your workday with natural movement.

What I like best about the book is that it constructs a model for how to think about all these issues. Instead of finishing the book wishing that you could ask the author the right way to deal with this or that particular workplace situation, you can figure it out on your own by applying the principles presented.

If the book has a flaw, it is only that some of its recommendations are based on specific research, while others are simply Katy’s well-informed gut-instinct about what would be better—and the distinction is not always well-marked. For example, there’s an excellent reference to research on the health effects of light pollution to justify suggestions for dealing with lighting and screen time. The related suggestions for engaging in “distance eye-gazing”—that one take “a quick glance every five minutes, and more extended gazes every 30 minutes”—don’t include a reference. I suspect this is because there has not yet been any research to quantify whether those specific time periods are frequent enough and long enough to significantly improve outcomes, but the book doesn’t say.

If you do work—whether for a living, or simply because you’re trying to accomplish something—this is a great book. It’s filled with actionable tips for adapting your workspace to allow you to fill your time with natural movement, and it provides a program for doing so. Most important, it constructs a model for understanding the underlying problem, meaning that you can adapt the program to your own situation.

The paper book is the text portion of a multi-media program with audio and video as well as an ebook. I haven’t seen it, but having heard and seen audio and video created by Katy, I don’t doubt that it is also excellent.

You can buy the paper book Don’t Just Sit There by Katy Bowman from Amazon. (That’s an Amazon affiliate link.) Or you can buy either the paper book or the multimedia program directly from the publisher.

As a bonus, here’s video of Katy filling an hour of work with exercise and natural movement, run at high speed so you can watch the whole hour in just a couple of minutes.


Some human movement books

I mentioned a while back that it looked like Christopher McDougall’s new book had been written just for me. Now that I’ve read it, I can say it was just what I was hoping for.

Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by Christopher McDougall.

It’s a book written in three layers. First, it’s the true story of a group of resistance fighters on Crete who kidnapped a Nazi general and undertook to smuggle him off the island into the hands of the British. Second, it uses that story to explore the ancient Greek ideal of heroism, and to talk about how the ancient Greeks had figured out how to make people into heroes. Third, it talks about the author’s own efforts to develop those same traits—strength, skill, compassion—in himself, and to use those capabilities in his travels across Crete in the footsteps of the resistance fighters.

It appealed to me for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that McDougall has followed much the same path I have—running, barefoot running, parkour, then natural movement.

It’s a meaty book. There’s the adventurous war story, there’s the history of the Greek traditions of fitness and martial prowess (and their martial art, pankration), and there’s the personal anecdotes. But even the anecdotes are more than just “I tried these things and they seemed to work.” McDougall does his research, talks to experts, provides his references, and then tries stuff out and reports on his successes and failures.

The stuff on blending endurance exercise with a low-carb diet was fascinating—and new to me, even though the primary work dates from back in the 1980s. Other stuff, such as the work being done on the importance of fascia for strength, power, and speed is genuinely new.

Highly recommended.

While I was waiting for Natural Born Heroes to come out, I was casting around for something to tide me over—something to fill the space of wanting to read about natural movement—and happened upon a book by Mariel Hemingway from a couple of years ago.

Running with Nature: Stepping Into the Life You Were Meant to Live by Mariel Hemingway and Bobby Williams.

This is not a meaty book. Comparing it to McDougall’s book, it’s as if someone left out both of the first two layers, and wrote a book that was just the personal anecdotes. Some of the “information” in it is just wrong and some of the rest is pretty dubious, but I found it easy to read past the nonsense, because much of the rest of the book made so much sense.

Mariel Hemingway—a pretty girl (now about my age) from a family of celebrities—grew up without a good model for how to live a happy life. Prone to depression, and viscerally aware of the malady’s dangers (a frighteningly high fraction of her relatives either committed suicide or ended up in mental institutions), she had to invent her own self-care regimen.

The regimen she came up with has much in common with my own (and this probably has a lot to do with why I like it). It’s pretty obvious stuff: exercise as play, ample rest, healthy food, plenty of sunlight and fresh air—with some very specific notions that I haven’t implemented yet, but that are probably great ideas, such as making your sleeping area really dark.

I recommend it, but I’m glad I checked it out of the library rather than buying a copy.

After finishing the McDougall book, I was again bereft of a compelling book on human movement. Into that empty space came a book by Jonathan Gottschall.

The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch by Jonathan Gottschall.

Gottschall was an adjunct professor of English who came to realized that his career had peaked. All he could expect was years of teaching English Composition to kids who didn’t want to learn until he eventually annoyed a critical mass of administrators who would then quit renewing his contract, leaving him unemployed. At about the point where this realization became something that he could no longer ignore, he noticed that the vacant former hardware store visible from his cubicle had reopened as a mixed martial arts gym.

Looking out the window, he gets the idea that he’ll start working out at the gym, and then gets the idea that he could fight an MMA-style cage match and write a book about it: The Professor in the Cage!

I happened upon this book in an author interview with the Art of Manliness. It sounded like it might be an informative exploration of the intersection of human movement arts generally with the fraction that are martial arts, as well as being a fun story about taking on a challenge.

Part of the reason that it’s fun is that the author is quite open about the genre that he’s writing in. It’s a stunt book, a type of book which has a certain structure—the author gets in over his head, and writes self-deprecatingly of his struggles. He doesn’t try to disguise the fact that he’s doing that: He knows it, and he knows that you know it.

But it’s also very interesting when the author isn’t getting beat up, because it’s not just personal anecdotes; it’s also a scholarly exploration of ritual violence. He talks a lot about why men engage it in, why women mostly do not, how dueling cultures came to develop, and why they die out. Those aspects of the book are well-researched, with extensive notes, and strike a pretty good balance between the evolutionary and sociobiological basis of the difference between male and female choices and the sociological and anthropological ones.

He also looks at the question that the modern “cage match” fights were supposed to answer: which martial art is the best? (Answer: It turns out that wrestling/grappling styles beat punching/kicking/boxing styles. A grappling-focused style of ju-jitsu totally dominated the MMA cage match fights, until all the fighters learned enough wrestling to hold their own.)

It was especially interesting to read after having read the McDougall book. Both look at the Greek tradition of fitness and both talk about pankration, the ancient Greek martial art, which turns out (unsurprisingly, because it’s both a striking and a grappling art) to look a whole lot like modern mixed martial arts.

I recommend it. Very interesting.

Now I am again between books about human movement, and am having to make do with fiction.

Tobias S. Buckell’s Sly Mongoose

Sly Mongoose by Tobias S. Buckell

Pat Rothfuss:  “Oh my paws and whiskers! Well, mostly my whiskers.”
“Oh my paws and whiskers! Well, mostly my whiskers.”

So, Toby had a little contest, where he asked for captions for this picture of Pat Rothfuss in cat ears.

I’m not normally a contest sort of guy, but the prize this time was a copy of Sly Mongoose.  I’m a fan of Toby’s work and had bought Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin in hardback, but my income has been a bit constrained since I became a full-time writer.  I’ve cut back on book purchases, and Sly Mongoose was among the things I’d have liked to buy but hadn’t.  So, I entered (with the caption shown), and I won!

When the book came, I set aside Anathem to read it right away.  (Seriously. As I said, I like Toby’s work.) Here’s some thoughts.

I’m always a little cautious of books about a hyper-competent hero.  It’s a kind of story that’s hard to do well. To provide some dramatic tension you either need hyper-competent villain or else you need to cripple your hero.

There’s nothing wrong with doing those things–you just need to do them in an interesting way.  Toby’s efforts to cripple Pepper (both physically and emotionally) serve the purpose in a craftsmanlike way.  But his villains are where the story really comes to life.

The floating cities of Chilo are in opposition, because it’s a hard place for humans to live–some are doing pretty well, while others are just getting by.  In the greater universe, the Ragamuffins are in opposition to the Human League, because they have different visions for human progress.  They’re both opposed to the alien Satraps (because they have a really different vision for human progress), but not every human is, because the aliens have a lot to offer an individual human.  I’ll let you read the book to find out just whom the zombies are in opposition to (although I expect you can make a pretty good guess).

Because I’m me, I always notice whether a novel has the economic underpinnings done well, and Toby does a great job with that–the tough life in the floating city of Yatapek, and the better life in some of the more prosperous cities.  It’s good stuff–illuminating the story, while staying in the background where it belongs.

If you like space opera, big battles, spiffy weapons, cool aliens (and cool alien places), and stories of tough people doing their best in difficult circumstances, Sly Mongoose is one of the best new books out there.  Zombies are just an extra special bonus.

[Updated 2011-03-30: Because a lot of people come to this post on searches about Patrick Rothfuss, I wanted to mention that I talk a bit about him and his writing in my post Characters who learn.]