thoughts on being, doing and becoming

Mecha Samurai Empire: Peter Tieryas takes us on a personal journey of robots, politics and pop-culture inside the USJ

For USJ fans, Mecha Samurai Empire is the long anticipated follow-up to Tieryas's alt-history, sci-fi novel, The United States of Japan. Mecha isn't a sequel, but rather another story inside the USJ universe told first-person through Makoto Fujimoto's (Mac to his friends) journey into the elite Mecha Corps of the Japanese Empire. Tieryas's prose is quick and witty, with a deeper look at life in the alternate universe he created, originally inspired by Philip K. Dick's, Man in the High Castle.

It would be easy to see Mecha Samurai Empire as an obvious dive into robot battles, but Tieryas manages to traverse complex societal, and very personal psychological ground—what it means to serve the whim of politicians, having friendships across cultural divisions and the impact of negative self-image. While fans clamored for a sequel to the rousing USJ, Tieryas wrote Mecha Samurai Empire, which feels more personal. Layered into the first-person narrative is a nuanced look into the USJ world view—the allegiance to the structure of a divinely ordained emperor, the way other countries view political and cultural structures outside of their own and even how they approach technology—that could be easily overlooked in a casual read.

Philosophical waxing aside, Mecha delivers on the expectations from the title with well-crafted action sequences between human-controlled anthropomorphic creatures. The battles are fierce and the technology is well thought out with just enough magic to keep the focus on what is happening in the story. The struggle between the Empire, the Nazi regime and the NARA (National Revolutionaries of America) is real and the weapons they would use to keep the peace and incite war make for a great time between two covers. Pick up the book for the mechas, but get lost in the journey of Mac and his friends in the lush culture of The United States of Japan.

Wherein me and my brethren are immortalized into the world of USJ

The Day Before My First Triathlon

I don't know what professional triathletes do the day before a race, I don't even know what age-groupers, like myself, do for that matter. I can see what gets posted on Instagram, but we all know social media isn't real life, don't we? To prepare for my first triathlon (where the 40-49 year olds will run into the ocean at Main Beach at 8:20 a.m.) I decided to do what I do best these days, listen to what's deep inside and move from that place.

The mindset I've tried to maintain for the week leading up to the race is "joyful gratitude" for the opportunity to compete in an Olympic distance triathlon. It was only two-and-a-half months ago that I was waiting to ride out of of Cow Palace in San Francisco on my single speed bike to ride 550 miles to Los Angeles. Four months ago, I had my 16th surgery related to complications from Crohn's. I spent most of 2017 under the care of my Stanford surgeon. I'm six years out from a totally different life, living in a different state, inhabiting a different body, with different worries and outlook on the future.

I've done the hard work. Playing in the ocean, taking off on my single speed up Highway 1 and running down West Cliff in Santa Cruz with all these other athletes is a gift I never expected two years ago when I got on that bike for what felt like a last grab at life. Except I imagined it, thirty-some years ago. My family was on a flight to Salt Lake City, heading for Denver, and the man sitting next to me on the plane was headed to an Ironman competition. He explained to ten-ish year old me what an Ironman was, and I was consumed by wonder at what these people were setting off to do in Kona. A few minutes later our plane was struck by lightning, the power cut out and we began to spiral out of the sky. The oxygen masks fell and this man pulled one over my face. The plane recovered and made an emergency landing. While the intense moments of fear are etched in my psyche, equally so is this man's Homeric description of an "Ironman" and a fascination with the drive to test our mettle and live mythically.

I woke up this triathlon-eve feeling a fire sparked off of a pilot light that has been burning inperceceptibly deep within—
I've never been terribly competitive and haven't "competed" in anything since junior high. Even at that age, I was the kid with a lot of heart, not particularly skilled or talented. As I got older, I was more interested in the journey and adventure than the finish line
—I suddenly felt like I had to get on the course to give that flame, some direction, patience and purpose. I went for a slow ride up and back West Cliff, along the ocean, where the bike and run race would take place. Then switched to a run. Slow. Just a taste. Looking at my watch after the run, my slow pace was the efforting of a month ago. Game on.

While I knew my body needed to burn a bit off, I also knew I needed to reserve as much of me as possible. While riding, I listened to The Glitch Mob's, Justin Boreta, on The Duncan Trussel Family Hour podcast (http://www.duncantrussell.com/episodes/2018/9/13/justin-boreta) on my Coros helmet. Duncan has a good sense of humor and an occasionally bizarre intellect that spun into some strange tangents, but worked well talking around spirituality, creativity and Justin's recent project, Imagine. Imagine is a meditative musical experience, where Boreta added an ambient electronic track over a Ram Dass meditation from the seventies (http://smarturl.it/RamDassXBoreta). Duncan and Justin talk about his journey to this meditation, what he was trying to express and how the collaboration with Ram Dass came about.

After I finished my run, I sat down to listen to the Imagine track—with a good set of over-the-ear headphones—and got lost (and found) in the thirty minute meditation. The sonic landscape created by Boreta suits Ram Dass's tone perfectly, an equal guide to the now forty-year-old transmission. People have been asking me if I'm ready for the race. My answer has been some variation of, "well, anything I could do about it has already been done.". After my session with Boreta and Ram Dass, I feel ready, not just for the race, but for who I want to be while racing and how I want to feel when it is over.

My race number, 64, is a good one—a multiple of two, the second exponent of eight, the cube of four. Add the numbers together to get 10, the first double-digit number. In numerology, 64 is the number of self-determination and family focus. One website said the number 64 indicated a triumph over a major struggle of self.

In the Imagine meditation, Ram Dass has us explore, Tat Tvam Asi, sanskrit for "I am that too", an acknowledgement of the relationship between self and Everything.

As my daughters would say, "literally, same".

FONK and Robin Sloan's Sourdough

Hey @airjoshb, going to @robinsloan’s talk at Santa Cruz Bookshop on Tuesday?

"YES! see you there?", I tweeted back, leaving 121 empty characters that could have been used to admit that I had only just heard of Robin Sloan days before and the only thing I knew about him was that there were now two people, whom I have a geeky level of admiration for, that were alerting me to his book.

The 19 characters I did use (and my internal response of "of course, now I have to go") led me to the discovery of FONK (fear of not knowing), a close, but previously unknown, cousin of the dangerously addictive FOMO (fear of missing out). With a bit more research I discovered Sourdough sounded quintessentially San Francisco and right up my alley.

At the book store my friend made me realize I had already missed out by not reading Sloan's first book, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, a cult-level piece of geek fiction. Sloan charmed the audience immediately with tales of how Sourdough came to be — stories of foodie intrigue he had dug up and how he trained a neural network to generate the music of the Mazg, a fictional ethnic minority from the book (also the name of a mysterious protein that is conserved by bacteria). When Sloan pulled out the custom stamp he had made to personalize the books with the latitude and longitude of the book talks, I was all in.

Despite my enthusiasm it would be several months before I heard Sourdough calling to me from the shelf — I picked the book up and dove into Sloan's San Francisco. Sourdough is the story of a young robotic arm programmer, transplanted to San Francisco from Michigan, who begins to spiral out from the pace of startup life. Through strange circumstances surrounding a pair of Mazg brothers, whom she had been ordering a mysterious #2 spicy soup and sandwiches from, she was gifted a crock of sourdough starter and a short lesson on how to care and bake with it.

Lois's journey with a living, microbial community sends her on a journey from engineer to the world of baking and San Francisco foodies. Having grown up in Alaska where the prized ferment had been brought from the Bay Area with the gold miners, I could identify with the obsessive nature of sourdough. The source, age and pedigree of starters in Alaska can cause fierce debate with only a few acceptable lineages. I confess, I have had some of these prized starters and am ashamed to say I have lost or killed more than one in my travels.

Sloan's writing reads like your favorite friend who tells the best stories, with depictions that are sort-of-like what could have really happened, but embellished with just enough magic to make even the most mundane situation (like feeding sourdough starter) feel fantastical. Sloan surrounds you with the languages of food and engineering to make you feel like you are in the know, sucking you in farther into his fiction. I suspect that a measurable percentage of Sourdough's readers immediately started googling "sourdough starter", "robot arm kits" or both.

The day after I finished the book I noticed on Twitter that my friend had just interviewed Sloan on her podcast. My FOMO and FONK went directly to envy. The interview is more of what I have already described about Robin Sloan, charismatic with thoughtful answers to interesting questions, like this final bit of advice for writers (which is really great advice for us all),

"There's a real power ... fuel that comes with the ruthlessness of giving yourself a really tiny project, starting it and finishing it and announcing it is done."

Elecia and Chris's conversation with Robin feels like being with old friends and that is the crux of my recommendation for Sourdough — definitely read the book, but be prepared to fall into the author's orbit and don't blame me if you start hanging on every tweet about his recent foray into small batch olive oil production and jump on the wizard.limo bandwagon.

Whether in person, on Twitter or on the page, Sloan has a unique ability to make you feel special, sprinkling details and clues like crumbs for you to follow. I don't think "San-Fi" is a real genre but it should be. The mystique, technology and endless sub-cultures of San Francisco blend into great fiction in the mind and words of a writer like Robin Sloan.

Art is the making it

At twenty-one, already a college dropout, I talked my way into one of the most exclusive art schools in Boston, The School of Museum of Fine Arts, with only a couple of sketch books I had filled while traveling across the country by train. My final acceptance depended on the success of a show I would put together at the end of the semester, judged by a group of peers and faculty. The semester-end exhibition is how “grades” work at SMFA and was one of the many things that drew me so passionately there. Everything dripped of art — even the walls and surfaces were coated with student art, layered and expanded on over the years.

My first course, Art as a Process, existed to tear down everything you thought you knew about art. We drew five second stick figures of live models who contorted themselves into positions impossible to capture. We made prints of primary shapes and worked with newsprint endlessly, making our art look like kindergarten projects. One fateful day we carved a sphere out of plaster, that had been molded in cool whip containers, with a random assortment of tools. We were to make the sphere taking as little material away as possible, sitting around in a circle, silent, for three hours.

“After this exercise we typically lose about thirty percent of the class,” the professor began, “some of you will get angry or frustrated, some of you will cry and some of you will never come back.”
We looked around at each other, smirking and making jokes. How hard could it be to shape a ball out of plaster? Not long for some, within minutes a few people had already finished. Sets of eyes shot up from their work, boggled, questioning themselves, “How did they do that?” followed by, “Why haven’t I finished?”.

An hour goes by and I could not get this thing to round out right. I poked my head up, several people had finished and were sitting smug and quietly, but there were many more looking like they were trying to figure out what was going wrong. Two hours in, the guy next to me was beating his sphere into shape with a wild look in his eyes and a rasp in his hand, plaster flying off as it became wet and ragged.

People were starting to crack. I got up and went out for a smoke. The group outside were venting, gloating or just sobbing. One fellow student says, “I’m not going back in there,” throws her pack over her shoulder and walks into the dark.

I went back into the silent room where the circle of students was now more of a ring with body shaped dashes missing. I sat down to get back to work, my neighbor’s ragged mush of plaster sort of lumped on the floor. He sat, legs pulled to his chest, arms draped over them, head hung low in the safe cave he had created.

In my mind, I knew exactly what to do and yet the odd shape from the contours of the cool whip container had made something that was defying my every move. I had made something that resembled more of an M&M and it seemed no matter what I did, I could only make a smaller M&M.

I gave up on the odd-shaped ball before the three hours was up, “It is what it is.” I told myself, “I made an M&M”, owning it as best I could. The entire spectrum of success and failure sat in what barely passed as a circle anymore, the professor’s prediction of losing a third of the class was eerily accurate. The time up, everyone was looking around, judging ourselves against the work of the people around us. The professor spoke,

“Some of you will carry this thing around with you for your whole life.”

People laughed, most just got their things and walked out. I scoffed at the time, but smile every time I look over and see it on my bookshelf. It was the single greatest moment of learning I ever experienced and has shaped, to some degree, everything I’ve ever done or tried to do since.
Getting the idea of the perfect “sphere” in our head was the trick the professor pulled. We’re so conditioned to do what we’re told, knowing our actions will be judged, that we don’t allow ourselves to get lost in the expression of the idea in our head and, instead, act as we think someone else wants or expects us to.

Fast forward twenty years

Walking the halls of Stanford Hospital is not far off from walking around an art museum. Art is everywhere, donated or on loan from private collections, from Hokusai block prints to a stunning Lichtenstein behind the reception desk in one of the surgery centers where I have spent too much time. Along with those pieces of fine art are plenty that will make you think to yourself (or say to whomever may be walking with you), “They call that art?”, or exclaim, “My little brother could have made that!”.

A couple of weeks ago, while walking the halls after having surgery (you have to get up three times per day so the nurses can check-off boxes on your status whiteboard), I was struck by something that I thought I understood, and had been holding on to that goofy plaster ball as a reminder of, for the last twenty years.

Art exists, simply, in being made.

The end product doesn’t make something art, the doing it does. The process of creating is the only place art actually lives — making you as much as you are making the art. 

If something is inside you and never comes out, it is merely a theory of what you might make from your imagination. After you create, the product of your art no longer belongs to you, it becomes open to interpretation, criticism, evaluation and often acts as a proxy for others to try and understand the maker. 

No amount of explanation or even recording will capture the essence of making art because art happens in real time between you and the medium, between what’s inside you and the universe outside.

One of the few absolutes in this life is no one can duplicate or even come close to understanding your experience. Maybe your little brother could have made that same painting, but he didn’t. Even if that little guy painted precisely the same blue square, it wouldn’t be the same, your art disappeared the moment it was finished — the piece hanging on the wall is only a representation of a time in which art was made — even you are looking at it in the halo of the epiphany that created it.

What matters is that you create. Engage with what is inside of you and play with the moment as it comes alive in the material world.

You have been recruited by the Star League

Last night while walking around the halls of Stanford Hospital where I have cumulatively spent over a month in the last twelve, I started feeling the rush of something new coming at me. Trying not to come across simply as being overwhelmed post-surgery (or just heavily medicated with a variety of controlled substances), I struggled to find a way to communicate what was happening with Amanda, who has been through every moment of this journey with me.

Our exploits over the last six years started simply with, “my stomach doesn’t feel well” and quickly escalated to losing ninety pounds in three months and then eighteen procedures and some permanent, life-altering changes, including moving our family to a whole different state to get better care in the proceeding years. This long, strange trip has left me with no discernable fragment of my previous existence (cellular turnover) aside from memories (some memories are even lost from being so sick), experiences (many of which I’d like to forget) and relationships (some of which I have intentionally moved away from). I have previously written slices of the strange and often difficult chapters of the enchiridion of my experience, but whatever this was, it was new.

In this culminating moment, I grasped for something simple, a metaphor.

Stage 1

Finding yourself in a sudden crisis, in my case a health crisis that came to be diagnosed as Crohn’s, an auto-immune, or more specifically, one of two Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, is like waking up inside a rocket that only moments before launched itself toward space. Once launched — in the first stage of acceleration — there is no going back, no stopping what is happening, you can only hang on and try to stay conscious as millions of pounds of thrust hurl you into the atmospheric unknown above.

Things are incredibly fragile in this stage — the strength of the vehicle needed to withstand the pressure of the upper atmosphere layers, the millions of variables that have to be within acceptible thresholds to avoid catastrophic failure and the scope of the minutiae, which is both unknowable and critical.

Your emotional fragility is irrelevant at this stage. This is happening, and you are a passenger.

Millions of man hours of direct experience and a pedigree of knowledge have been spent calculating how to best guide you through this process — procedures put in place, software written to rotate at the precise moment needed to maintain the proper trajectory and a team of some of the smartest and most well-trained people (hopefully) are all paying attention to those variables and thresholds to get you through this first and very dangerous part of the trip.

You are in Newtonian territory — some unbalanced force has created motion in the equilibrium of your steady state, sending you on a journey. At this point an additional and well caclulated applied force is required to change that motion. Newton’s third law points out, each action has
an equal and opposite reaction, so you have to factor that in as well.

Note: If there are catastrophic failures, they often happen here.

Once you punch through the upper layers of the atmosphere, the next thing that happens is separation from the rocket, leaving you with only the propulsion and systems that have been pre-prepared and packed along with you into a very small, life-supporting capsule. Your entire life and world as you know it has become very small.

Before the capsule begins to travel under its own power, there is a gap where forces are no longer being applied externally and you are floating, or more accurately, traveling under inertia — Newton’s second law — residual motion waiting for another force to act on it.
The space, floating between external forces, is where I suddenly found myself last night.

Stage 1 is complete

The first thing that rushes in to your consciousness (unless you have the rush of consciousness itself) is an exclamation to the heavens of survival (you made it!) and a spike in things like adrenaline, various endorphines and dopamine, giving you a sense of euphoria that feels not all the way stable or safe. I have waited so many years to punch through the atmosphere—and exhaust for what, by then, seemed like an endless amount of fuel in my disease state booster rockets—the separation, weightlessness and euphoria snuck up on me.

The relative calmness of the separation from the rockets only lasts a breath or two before the secondary engine igniters fire and there is sort of a quantum-level experience smacking you in the face of all of your possible futures stemming from that point.

Before the rocket ride you were on some trajectory — there was already some plan for your life, and even though you just woke up strapped to millions of gallons of flammable liquid hurling you into space, there was a persistent fantasy created by your brain that the rocket was headed to the same place you had in mind all along. But that is not how transformation works — it does not take you out for a cup of coffee and gently let you in on the plan — you get a universe-sized Rufi and before you can even let yourself process the hijacking, you are already screaming toward an unknown future.

Igniters engaged

In the capsule, now under its own power, you are still likely to make assumptions and rationalizations about where you are going, but you weren’t given a flight plan, there are no instructions or really any controls beyond blinking lights and switches that offer the illusion of agency. Just outside what amounts to a tin can is the boundless vaccum of space — anything, is possible. In fact, everything is possible and if you open the hatch, that limitlessness will rush in and suffocate you instantly. You may even feel a bit of that suffocation just looking out the few centimeters of clear acrylic glass between you and the abyss of all possibilities and get a little queasy.

Everything you thought you were, everything you identified with has, to varying degrees, been severed and left behind on a planet far below you. The only reasonable choice available is to assess what tools, technology and knowledge you have at your disposal and begin to try to assimilate them while you are on your way. There is no opportunity to stop and catch your breath. No time out. No figuring things out before acting, you are already in motion and a long way from what was once “home”.

Now is a perfectly good time to panic!

It is totally acceptable to freak out at this point, but you have had an opportunity forced on you that every other human has available to them freely, but only a tiny few engage in — leave everything behind (philosophically everything is already behind, so really it is just your attachment to “everything”), embrace the tools you have with you right now and apply them toward accelerating toward a future you may not know or understand, but is already happening due to your propulsion in that direction.

Life has been simplified down to its essence and your task is to embrace it so that when you arrive (hint: the embracing of is the arriving) you can be of service to the environment and people you will encounter in this, your new life!

You are a pioneer, an adventurer, traveler, voyager, even a hero. This was not a vocation you consciously chose, but a duty that the universe has singled you out for because of your previous abilities and qualifications, to which it now added a unique set of skills and perspective gained through your journey. If you are thinking, “That’s not me, I’m just a regular person”, that is all you’ll ever be, if you want more: Greetings, Starfighter! Grab the controls, the universe needs you.

Joshua, Life Voyager

Also published on my blog Droids You're Looking For

What Carl taught me


I just found out my dear friend Carl passed away only a month after discovering he had stomach cancer that had metasticized to his liver and lymphs. Carl radiated kindness, compassion and a deep caring whenever you were with him. Despite having been given several months to live, I went to visit him right before I went into my own surgery because I felt like he may not be here when I got out of the hospital.

He once told me that I was his hero for how I faced all that I’ve gone through. Sitting with him, I expressed how special he was to me and all of those around him. He looked at me, his body and mind totally failing, and managed to say my name with a tenderness I’ve never experienced. He smiled and held my hand and in that moment became my hero. 

Later, I reflected on how he spent 70 years of his life searching for spiritual community, and for the last two years of his life (which is when I met him) finally felt like he was able to blossom. This extensive, life-long search, is a magnificent testament to the soul’s desire to be connected to more. His warmth, in that moment, confirmed so much of what I believe and feel like I don’t express enough to those I love and the world I live in.

Don’t spend your time on people or in environments that do not recognize and celebrate your mutual, innate nobility.

Cultivate a life filled with experiences and relationships that embrace and enhance your deeper self.

Do not settle or take lightly your own development as a human being. Engage it, when necessary confront it and above all else, challenge yourself to reach for more.

Do not hide from the challenges you face or get lost in your suffering, for inside them lie the opportunity to learn, grow and transform.

Lying in a bed knowing that this life is coming to an end, every worry you ever had amounts to exactly nothing — only the love you shared and the people with which you shared it, no matter how small the encounter, matters.

Be sweet to those you come across because you never know how you will touch their lives.

Six years ago I was in that same bed, not knowing if I would wake up the next morning, and have been blessed to greet each morning since. As I fell asleep that night, I decided that if I were to wake up the next day I wanted all of the gifts that could come from going through my illness. I have been on a pursuit to discover those gifts (and share them to the extent possible) every day since.

If it were not for that moment of complete uncertainty for my own life, I would have never met Carl and experienced his radiant soul. Today, lying in a hospital bed after my 18th procedure in 6 years, I remain filled with hope, gratitude and an overwhelming sense of love for everything about this life.

“Anybody can be happy in the state of comfort, ease, health, success, pleasure and joy; but if one will be happy and contented in the time of trouble, hardship and prevailing disease, it is the proof of nobility.” — ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Update February 2nd

I am so thankful that I was out of the hospital and mustered the strength to make it to Carl's funeral where we were treated to a glorious view of the Monterey Bay, fellowship and a beautiful Baha'i service followed by a Hopi lullaby.

I learned so much more from the ripples of Carl in my life today. We are all such a huge gift to the universe–you'll never know just how much, but many will feel the emptiness you leave. As we drove around, I noticed a Carl sized hole where he may have ridden past me on his bicycle or greeted me with a warm smile at the market. I also thought of how many more people he touched daily that would not even know what happened.

I wonder if all of this technology is really just a tool for what Bhuddists describe as the Boddhistattva path, a way of scaling our individual reach toward the liberation off all beings. It is easy to see technology from an opposing view–there are so many counter examples–but there are Baha'i writings discussing how all technology and human advancements are made to ultimately further the goal of unity.

It is hard not to have faith in this long view of advancement–were it not for the Internet, Carl would have never found his community and I, him. And now you to me, and by proxy, a glimpse of Carl. My ultimate aim in writing about him in the first place was to magnify just how many people were thinking of him as he transitioned, which is now in the hundreds, maybe thousands.

"Who can measure the heights to which human intelligence, liberated from its shackles, will soar?" - Shoghi Effendi

This quote will inspire all that I aspire to–the legacy from knowing Carl and the depths I allowed him to open in me, I may previously have avoided.

My Favorite Books of 2017

I read more books in 2017 (46) than any other year that I can remember, nearly 17,000 pages and the average book length was over 400 pages. 2017 was also the first year where the amount of ebooks outnumbered the physical books I read. While I still prefer something that you can hold in your hand, feel the paper and turn the pages, it is practically impossible to get over the deals, storage and convenience offered by Amazon and others. Overall, I read at least twice as much as previous years and spent almost half as much to do it.

My strategy in purchasing books is to pretty much buy anything that jumps out — books are the world's cheapest form of education — denying yourself ten or twenty dollar purchases for something that can take you to a whole other world or level of intelligence is silly. Thanks to the never ending supply of Kindle deals, most of my books in 2017 cost less than five dollars and included things I would have likely never bought at a bookstore like the biographies of Elon Musk and Richard Branson and Jade Dragon Mountain, a mystery set in 18th century China.

Many of my physical books were purchased at our fantastic local bookshop, Bookshop Santa Cruz, where I also attended events from authors like Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, Andy Weir and Robin Sloan. Additionally, I am always on the lookout for used copies of books I've always wanted or books I love to gift, like The Diamond Age by Neil Stephenson, which I bought two copies of in 2017. Finding a great book to share is one of my favorite things and my experience this year also sparked a potential idea for a passion project.

My increased reading habit was molded having spent too much time in a hospital and months of intense recovery in 2017—by the time I was finally in the clear, I was spending an hour a day minimum in good book. As I go back over my list, I am reminded of the year's journey and it makes me even more excited for the year to come to think of all that I will learn thanks to other people's hard work, research and imagination.

Non-fiction Favorites

Natural Born Heroes: Mastering the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by Christopher McDougall
I am not sure I would have ever read this unique book by the author of Born to Run had it not been for a couple of other "rules" I have for buying books – if the physical copy is close to the same price or less than the Kindle book, go for the real thing and when I am buying things on Amazon, I will often dip into my wish list and add a book to my order.

Natural Born Heroes is really two books, one following the footsteps of a band of World War II resistance fighters in an attempt to do what no one in that great war could accomplish, rattle Hitler and kidnap one of his generals. The other story, interwoven into the journey, is a search to understand the extraordinary human potential that allows some folks the ability to accomplish heroic feats.

Annapurna: The First Conquest of an 8,000-Meter Peak by Maurice Herzog
I spent an abnormal amount of time (for me) reading biographies and stories of people who have accomplished incredible things in the time they were given. Annapurna is a first-hand account of a French climbing team attempting to be the first to climb a peak over 26,000 feet. The story is perhaps the most jaw-dropping and gripping human tale I've ever heard of. Not only were Herzog's team the first to climb this eleveation, they did it in 1950, without the modern gear, sensors and data now available. What struck me the most from their story (and many of the others I gravitated toward in 2017) was no matter how destructive the end result was – and for the two that summited, it would be the last climb of their lives – the accomplishment was not just the highlight of their life, but they would go back in a heartbeat to repeat it, even facing the same consequences.

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee and Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Both books were on most people's top reads for 2016 and they did not disappoint. Each takes an incredibly complex subject and creates a vastly informative and entertaining read. I read The Gene while in Stanford Hospital having procedures related to an autoimmune condition and had just finished Sapiens before going in. Talk about an intimate genetic and human story!

I don't have highlights from The Gene as I have the physical book and read mostly in a hospital bed (I suspect I will re-read these books often in the years to come), but here are some "stop dead in your tracks" statements from Sapiens,

"Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous."

"Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions."

"We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us."

"The idea of progress is built on the notion that if we admit our ignorance and invest resources in research, things can improve."

"Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals."

"Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin"

Science Fiction Favorites

Death's End (Remembrance of Earth's Past) by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
While I did read and enjoy fiction books from other genres, I will almost always choose something that leans toward "hard" sci-fi. I read fiction almost exclusively in the evening or on the weekend as the fantastical nature decouples most of our "thinking" processes and engages our default mode network, imagination and dreaming, which is perfect before bed, or when you want to relax and not think about work or projects. Death's End is the conclusion to the Three Body Problem, which is one of the most ambitious works of fiction ever written — Imagine Neil Stephenson and Frank Herbert were one person from China and that should get you in the mood. The Three Body series was also my first time reading science fiction from a different cultural perspective, which, having spent time working with and traveling in China, was a real treat. These books also introduced me to Ken Liu, who's translation work alone should win awards, and has his own body of work which I devoured in 2017.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
Okorafor was born in the US to two Nigerian immigrants and while classified as a "young adult" novella, Binti captures a world of spectacular imagination with crystal, technicolor clarity in under 100 pages. The third book in the Binti series will be released in 2018 and I look forward to reading much more of Nnedi's work in the coming year.

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow
Doctorow is one of my favorite humans (which I was able to tell him at a book signing this year), with his thinking on the future and pop culture, his activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and his pragmatism with the Creative Commons work. Walkaway is not your run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic novel, but instead offers hope and humanity despite the collapse of society. This book has echoed through my thoughts regularly since finishing it, calling me to read it again and I have even gifted it to my teenage daughters.

Nexus (the Nexus Trilogy) by Ramez Naam
Nexus is one of those "how did I miss this?" books that was completely off my radar until a Kindle deal offered all three books for just a few bucks before I went in for surgery. One thing that does not happen in a hospital is rest – you are woken every four hours to check of your vitals – and during a two week stay, where I underwent eight procedures under anesthesia, I read Naam's razor sharp trilogy. Despite being in my own altered state, I could not put these books down and was totally absorbed by Naam's deft storytelling and the incredible depth of knowledge he brings to his writing as a technologist.

Health Favorites

The Telomere Effect by Dr. Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel
Telomere length is one of the most important indicators of health and resilience and has been found to correlate strongly with life expectancy. The Telomere Effect is a totally approachable text by the women who have done most of the research on the subject and Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn received the Nobel Prize for discovering telomerase and the role of telomeres in the aging process.

The biggest takeaways from the book is that your reaction to stress, the environment you choose to live in and the relationships you cultivate are the key to "enduring wellness" and thus longer life. The length of our telomeres — the primary protection for your cells — is directly affected by these factors and can actually be built back up by making changes to your life and well-being.

"[damage to your teleomeres] is not just from experiencing a stressful event, it’s also from feeling threatened by it, even if the stressful event hasn’t happened yet."

Someone once told me "worrying is praying for what you don't want", and that is proven in the length of your telomeres. Things like having a life purpose and volunteering also relate to longer telomeres, lower insulin sensitivity and less belly fat. As you can imagine, exercise plays prominently and aerobic endurance and High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) had the most effect on telomeres, but perhaps most importantly,

"the more categories of exercise—from walking to biking to strength training—that people engaged in, the longer their telomeres."

The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living by Steve Phinney and Jeff Volek
I have been in and out of ketosis for over two years after finding it had a massive impact on my Crohn's disease, inflammation and even my athletic performance on a bike. This book took everything to a whole different level, offering some serious science on how to craft a diet with little reliance on carbs while being very active.

Here are some mind blowing things to think about in the context of all of the other "conventional wisdom" on diet and exercise,

"Peak aerobic power, also called VO2max, is negatively associated with biomarkers of inflammation like interleukin-6 and c-reactive protein. This implies that reducing inflammation facilitates cellular energy metabolism and increases work performance."

"Consuming even small amounts of carbohydrate after exercise rapidly decreases the release of fatty acids from fat stores and oxidation of fat in the muscle, thereby interfering with keto-adaption, plus also diminishing the beneficial effects of exercise on insulin sensitivity and other cardio-metabolic risk markers."

"A provocative way to think about ketones is that they are a clean-burning fuel, in that their production and oxidation appears to result in less generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) compared to other metabolic substrates like glucose and glycogen."

More recently in the news, research is coming out showing exercise and low fat diets will not increase weight loss, this statement from the book was published in 2012.

"What would happen if the public was told that, for many of us, exercise doesn’t speed your metabolism and that it doesn’t do that much to speed weight loss?"

Head Strong by Dave Asprey
I went into 2017 predicting the year would be focused on mitochondrial health which proved to come true, with Google showing nearly twice the search traffic compared to only a few years ago and dozens of new books on the subject of neurology and mitochondria. If you are familiar with Bulletproof Coffee or The Bulletproof Diet book, you won't be surprised by Asprey's style as he tackles how to increase your mitochondria and thus your energy, focus and health. As Dave himself would say, "if you want to kick more ass in all areas of your life", this is a great resource.

What Else?

It is difficult to stop listing books that I enjoyed as there were only a few that felt like weren't worth reading. As with all of the content I consume, I try to find the best sources from people that I believe are smarter than me and are really putting in the work of their craft. If you want to see what else I got into in 2017, from mysticism to startups and personal development, you can see the whole list here.

Favorite Podcasts of 2017

I listened to over 70 hours of podcasts in 2017 from about a dozen different podcasts (many of which I only listened to once). I spent far more time reading books than any other medium for entertainment or enlightenment, but I also found that not having a great (read: simple and effective) app after switching to Android made me far less likely to listen to a podcast. My favorite listens from the year tread some familiar territory with a few new people and concepts coming on my radar. Many of these I could (and did) listen to more than once.

People I'd most like to sit down for a pot of pu erh with:

I first heard Jimmy Chin on Tim Ferriss's podcast when Meru was coming out and he has since become one of my favorite people to follow out in the world. This interview on the MindBodyGreen podcast pushes Jimmy toward "yoda-like" status with incredibly thoughtful and thought provoking material.

I have also heard Naval Ravikant speak on several occasions, but this podcast on the Knowledge Project is one for all time—I have listened to it several times already, as I went through surgery and then months of complications and trips to Stanford.

My favorite stories

Naveen Jain is making the rounds talking about his latest company Viome, but this talk on the Bulletproof Podcast really allows his philosophy in business and solving big problems to come out, which reminded me of Elon Musk and Richard Branson, two people who's biographies I enjoyed this year.

File Phil Keoghan under one of the most interesting people you may never had noticed if you just saw him on The Amazing Race. I am still obsessed with the idea of his project, Le Ride, wherein he rode (and filmed) a Tour de France route from 1928 on a single speed bike (right up my alley). I somehow missed a screening of the film here in Santa Cruz and wish it were just available to buy already.

It should surprise no one that Tim Ferriss continues to put out some of the best content in the world on discovering how people tick. With Stewart Copeland we were treated to a fantastic dive into one of the world's most interesting musicians and one of the most powerful rock bands of all time, The Police. Incidentally, listening to this led me to discover that the original Police albums are some of the best music to ride your bike up Highway 1 to.

Podcasts that upgraded my brain:

Neurohacker Collective is doing some of the most interesting work in biohacking and human perfomance right now with their product, Qualia, and their recently developed podcast is pound for pound the most satisfying intellectually of any podcast I listen to. If they could figure out how to do better audio (no breathing and mouth noises), this would be my favorite podcast. This talk about creativity with Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman is so mind blowing I had to pull over, listen, re-listen and then re-listen and then take notes to take it all in.

The Quiet Master of Cryptocurrency with Nick Szabo, Naval Ravikant and Tim Ferriss could be the most informative podcast of all time. Cryptocurrencies and blockchain are some of the most misunderstood and complex topics out there and despite being nearly three hours long, this trio manage to make an utterly fascinating discussion for all levels of listeners.

Podcasts that could change your life
Ketogenic talk took over the world of health and biohacking in 2017. Despite having been largely ketogenic for a couple of years, my own application and understanding got a big upgrade this year, in no small part due to a book called The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance. On this podcast with the IHMC in Florida, Jeff Volek goes into all things ketogenic and touches on a bold goal to really impact type 2 diabetes.

One of my other favorite books for health this year was The Telomere Effect by Dr. Elissa Epel and Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn. On this podcast with Dave Asprey of Bulletproof, Epel gets into telomeres and what she and her partner (a Nobel Prize winner for her work in discovering telemerase) have learned about resiliency at a cellular level.

Wherein Ben Greenfield tries to hang on to his core audience by trying not to be too "woo woo" with QiGong master Robert Peng. The most incredible part of this story, however, is my own:

A couple of days after listening to this podcast I was sitting at my most frequented haunt, Hidden Peak Tea House in Santa Cruz, with some friends and there was a table across from us where I heard a Chinese man speaking with his table companions, facing away from me. I instantly recognized Robert's voice from Ben's podcast and tried to convince my friends that I knew who he was. When his group got up to leave, I approached him and asked if he was, in fact, Master Peng, which he confirmed! He was amazed that I had recognized him solely from hearing him speak a single time and he was in the area from his home in New York teaching at a facility near by. I have since read his book, Master Key, and have integrated some qigong into my daily practice.

Haiku from 2017

2017 started off heading toward a major, three part, surgery that led to spending nearly half of the year under the direct care of my Stanford surgeon for complications. With a miraculous turnaround, the second half built up to peak levels of joy, struggle and health.

Many of my haiku are written in a tea house, so there are several that refer to the pu erh I was drinking that day.

The final section are the haikus I have written after reading, listening or watching something. These get posted on Twitter and Instagram @airjoshb, should you want to follow along.

New Year's Meng Fe Shan
Sky giving way to the sun
Some starts aren't easy

Four zero one tea
Trinity playing along
Deep warmth in the rain

The power of faith
is not in God's miracles
but in enduring

What is it you do?
Whatever is calling me,
there's so many songs

Just Unblended Brick,
only all that is and was
Merely everything.

Always deciding,
what to do or doing it.
A binary state.

Inauguration Day
I feel all of you
but my own landscape tending
Peace be to both of us

But now is different!
Though it is also the same,
if you look to see

Am I creating
or having expectations?
Feeling or being?

No need to be right
when you feel togetherness
the embrace is right

When you can hold you
the way a hurt child held
you'll know compassion

Four Oh One today
roots rise up, wrap my feet
pulling me to the earth

The door is out there,
getting closer every day
walk or be pulled through

The ferryman comes,
A car crash in slow motion
Witnessing rebirth

Trough a one way door
Immaculate conception
of my own design

My belly transformed
A material tether
tied up to this plane

Scalpel to belly
Started to listen too late
Now engraved

Such a silly boy,
thinking that this all matters.
Only one breath left

Awake with clear mind
blurring edges grow each hour
sight gives way to faith

Jade pulled through the tide
crossing meridian lines
passed from hand to hand

How often do you
inject your singular thoughts
into another's?

Right hand of faith,
holds the channel open, clear.
The left holds your cheek

If you have the chance
to speak to your younger self
listen more than talk

The tea plays again,
notes dancing anew each time.
Dance between earth, sun.

Am I fighting time
or making a quantum jump
to a different thread?

Most days I feel pain,
Sometimes I know the day's hurt
Some days I find out.

Last day of limbo
take one last look around
it's given you much

Internal fire
outstrips physical body.
Breathe. give it away.

Time it matters not,
Frequency and recency
Bind us to moments

Not restoration
of the normalcy gone by.
Joy, vitality.

This crystal we shared
Rings out across dimensions
calling you to me

Your warming spirit
Spins up in my consciousness
We are not apart

Warrior back from war
Just wants left alone to sit,
End our own battle

Lay down the weapons
you will wield against yourself
embrace your goodness

Like a cocoon opening
Dragon revealing

When life rushes in
will you still gulp at its flow
or sip what you need?

The world in language
flows past me garbled, foreign
The eyes speak to me

The world is busy
Everyone's doing something
But few are content

Everyone, The One
Employ our imagined self
Only in defense

The sky blue and clear
some days there may be dark clouds
but blue underneath

Thought, a time machine
no way to think the present
a moment unfolds

Its only Monday
I had a bike this morning
And a friend last night

People are drowning
taking their life, stealing bikes
Don't get too worked up

You are you right now
Improvement needs to compare.
Better, just a dream

A feather of hope
A messenger on the road
Native blood coursing

Memory is bust
Right now is relational
Future is our gift

Opinions held loose,
Active imagination
toward the future

Our emotion wave
Does not reside in the heart
Cocktail of the mind

Resilient like bull
Strength, short-term expenditure
Embodied being

Lights, camera, action.
Lifetimes in every moment
Pay attention. Choose.

If poems were people
or a town in New Jersey,
no reason to rhyme.

Sans any class or wit,
Heist in southern slow motion
Awkward all around

Arresting sweetness
Head of a pin in the sea
The soul knows its home.

You can probably guess
Lichen, vampires, nothing new
Selene's cool is gone

The film has run through
waiting for the words to come
until then, just feel

Belief, suffering.
When faith uncovers pride,
Which will you lay down?

Actors breathe devout
Visuals become scripture
Master at peak craft

Injected enlightenment
The power end game

The world has moved on
Dying mutants, breed anew
Constraints layered in

Franchise origins,
muddle a fun monster flick.
Zombie sidekick fail

Suffered the ailment
Resisting faith as Judah
Built on chariots

Kinda raise your fist,
Relevant not urgent.
From bankrolled prophets

The story between skits
Characters doing their schtick
Is good for dollars

Her sacrifice, great,
Dancing on justice's stage
Knows no other way

Bit rough off the line
Animation without peer
Shines out on the road

The fight no one saw
Maintains China's secret Fu
Whitewashed plot instead

For funnyman helm,
irreverent won't cut it
So how long's the leash?

Wanting it to end
Worst Austin Powers movie
Poor Sir Elton John

No sign of his code
For Alba you'd do the same
Clever, not smart

dev-opsecpunk tale
where hopeful dystopia
goes post-scarcity

King as young adult
hoping for director's cut
with more fire and teeth

The story between skits
Characters doing their schtick
Is good for dollars

Capn jack sparrow
Better than he otta be
Black Pearl rides again

creator creates
benevolent or selfish?
mom can not abide

Driven by sharp wit
Written more stage style than screen
Like Mamet grindhouse

Inspiring. Timely.
Let the triumphs of the past
fuel future struggles.

China, New Zealand,
US, Canada et al
Who's Great Wall is it?

Grand scale, kitchen sink
Furious without the fun
New blue eyes can't fix

Vision with no bounds
French sensibility lens
Could watch for hours

Humanely super
Gal gardot is a wonder
Rescuing the past

The Wall's coming down
Not before she has her way
Almost too clever

Editing aside,
We could use some more magic
Less deviciveness

More teenage fodder
Or a cultural statement
Like totally both

Not Snakes on a Plane
But is drinking game worthy
And shit will go wrong

Simmering thriller
Sheridan is three for three
Go home hug your kids

Monsters are out there
Kong gets a turn at hero
Monarch's not done yet

Gods and mortals play,
in intricate fantasy.
Politics, heart, war.

The Boogeyman's back
More wit, more kills, more pencils
Get that man a gun

slow, satisfying
flirts with Malick's or Weir's eye
but doesn't transcend

Not bad Chinese film,
Anemic Hollywood film,
Needed Chinese script

'Oh Two on repeat
Who was asking for these films?
Perhaps just their stars.

Style without soul
Animation more human
Humans try too hard

Growing with each film,
a fifty year old franchise
is hollywood's best.

Hard not to fanboy
post-modern vision, seeding
lush modernity

If morning phase was
A newborn experience
Colors, a toddler

David and Walter
The only reason to watch
Two worlds crammed to one

A pressure cooker–
Perseverance in verse,
fills the IMAX screen

Smart lead with Klingons
Liked it more than The Orville
But worth paying for?

Seeing a new church
laser focused, maniacal
bought America

Vegas sans Ocean
Taken sans Liam Neeson
Just angry Jamie

A grand adventure
Branaugh inhabits Poirot,
Transcends absolutes

your run of the mill,
annual disaster movie
auf wiedersehen Jack.

Sadly sophomoric
Sans repetitive babble
Would be a leaflet

Really missed the mark
Requiem for a bat
Anti Ragnarok

Sadly sophomoric
Sans repetitive babble
Would be a leaflet

Coco reminds us
That what occupies your heart
Connects you as well

Moonscape barnburner,
Diverse cast, flattened by pace,
Fun not memorable

What I liked: Peter,
Keaton's second best birdman.
But, too marvel-y

Hard not to fanboy
Post-modern vision seeding
Lush modernity

Spellbound mystery
scratching the Qing dynasty
served best with pu erh

Pulling at itself
penultimate tug of war
Let the past die out

Lyrics are the heart
No biopic confusion
Full of sheen and sham

Sensual and sweet
Fairy tale and fable
Science of magic

Efficiency is not the realm of the spirit

The paradox of productivity and creativity is such that the former requires a near ruthless approach to distraction and optimization and the latter flourishes in moments of daydreaming, exploration and even kismet.

As things become more efficient they begin to lose a quality of humanity that people identify strongly with. Efficiency is the Toyota Way and while Tesla's engineering is also efficient, the design and attention to detail pushes on our sense of vanity and desire. The Alfa Romeo Guilia, recently awarded MotorTrend Car of the Year, has technical aspects that are flawed in practical use, but the car evokes a distinct feeling of craftsmanship and excitement. This sense of "humanness" is also the difference in how people react to the errily capable and efficient Atlas robot versus Sophia, the world's first robot citizen.

In a world of ever-increasing competition for our attention, distraction has become one of the top enemies and the topic of personal productivity is soaring, calling for more efficiency in our lives. People like David Allen, who wrote Getting Things Done, and Derek Sivers suggest an approach of carving out areas of your attention and energy that don't directly feed what your current goals are. The simple message from Sivers is if it isn't a "Hell yeah", its a "no". This approach is wildly effective if employed properly and will ramp your productivity up, but there is a hidden cost in not allowing things through that don't have an immediate connection to what you are focused on—the new, exciting, speculative, maybe even romantic.

Humans have a near infinite capacity for horizontal growth—whatever your industry, job, role, occupation or area of expertise, it can benefit greatly from the knowledge, experience and playfulness that can be gained from seemingly unrelated industries, hobbies or topics. I suggest regularly (not necessarily frequently) examining your daydreaming or things you come back to in your mind, find one thread unrelated to your areas of focus that excites or interests you and allow yourself to follow it. Dive in a bit, swim around and see what is there. Whether you stick to it or not isn't really what matters, what you experience and how that exploration can energize the things that you most value is the opportunity.

Thank you to Cory Doctorow for his piece, How to Do Everything (Lifehacking Considered Harmful), which allowed for several weeks of deep thinking on this topic before writing down my thoughts.

Balance the outputs

Work-life balance is an increasingly popular topic as we struggle to feel happy and content with growing levels of stress in our lives and an external world of boundless possibility with no end to what we can consume and create. We talk about this balance as a binary state, but both sides encompass many other areas including our health, extended family, friendships, professional development, finances and more. We measure the balance by the inputs—our time and energy—and we expect that by splitting them up we will achieve the life we want. However, if the outputs—happiness, enthusiasm, fulfillment—are out of balance, it won't matter how much time and energy are given to either side, life will never feel balanced.

The work of a missionary, bus driver, surgeon and CEO are all equally capable of creating a rich life if we engage the practice of that work properly, with the fullness of our experience and talents. Similarly, the attention and activities we engage in with family, friends, and our own health are either contributing to an extraordinary life or not.

Both our work and home lives should feel fulfilling, energizing, joyful, of value to others and feeding our growth and potential. If we optimize for these outputs in all areas of our life, how much time we spend in any single one will be irrelevant and the distinction between them will start to fade.

Courage not confidence

Confidence is often attributed with success and being successful and yet it does not always coincide with virtuous behavior or people we also believe to be trustworthy.

Confidence is a sense of self-assurance, bolstered by certainty and that is where things can go off the rails. It is relatively easy to generate feelings as needed to project to ourselves and others that we know what we are doing. The certainty bred from confidence is practically guaranteed to keep someone defending things beyond the time that they have been proven wrong or destructive.

Courage, while closely related in definition to confidence, is actually a step higher up — you can manufacture confidence to get you through, but courage requires digging into something deeper and tapping into a quality of spirit that allows you to face things that may feel dangerous or scary. Courage allows you to step into the unknown, to overcome fear, but it also allows you to admit mistakes.

Confidence is displayed before and during something happens but you can't feel courage until you've actually expressed it. We have all experienced being overconfident and it is easy to spot on others, but I have not ever come across someone who was over-courageous. In order to cultivate courage we need to occasionally go beyond what feels safe, test our mettle and be prepared to own the consequences whether they lined up with our desired outcome or not.


"while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed." - ‘Abdu’l-Bahá