Into thin air – the Everest disaster

There are actually two things that brought me onto this book. First, or what chronically actually is second as I will explain shortly, it showed as related content on Amazon when I was looking for Into the wild, which I have written about here as Jon Krakauer is the author of both.

But actually I heard about the book about a year earlier, but then forgot about it. A week in to my month long trip to Myanmar I was doing a 3 day trek with 7-8 others. One of the guys who I ended up getting to know rather well, was in the midst of reading it and gave it quite a lot of praise. His descriptions made it seem like a rather interesting but also grueling story. As he had just spend some weeks in Nepal trekking, he was really able to relate to the descriptions in the book. Sadly I totally forgot about it, but was luckily reminded later.

I won’t give the entire story away, but it describes the run-up to the expedition and all that happens on the mountain, from the authors point of view and at some points also accounts from others who were on the mountain either as part of the same expedition or one of the other that made a summit attempt at the same time.

Having basically no prior knowledge about what it takes to climb Everest, it was really interesting how much work goes into it. How many weeks you spend on the mountain in preparation for the final stint to the summit. I was very surprised at how hard climbing Everest actually must be. My ignorant impression was that just about anyone with relatively good health could just pay a good amount of money and then within a couple of weeks find themselves at the top of Everest.

There is a lot of discussion about guided tours, use of supplemental oxygen etc. but I am left with quite a bit of respect for people who reach the summit, and just as much for those who choose to turn around just before the summit. Having spend so much time on preparation, dealt with grueling weather for weeks, having told everyone you are going to climb Everest and spend quite a fortune on it – only to turn around close to the top for health or safety concerns – what a brave decision!

The very last part of the book is used to somewhat defend some of the content. There is a guide from another expedition, who’s not described as having made the best decisions based on his function as a guide. Apparently he later wrote a book called The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest that strikes back at Jon Krakauer and challenges his projection of him (the guide). As totally unaware of this beef between the two, it seems rather unnecessary, and you could easily skip it.

Finally, what will perhaps answer a question a reader of my blog post on Into the wild asked. You do hear quite a lot about the author himself. I agree that in Into the wild, it’s perhaps not that relevant to add the content describing his own accomplishments, but given the fact that this book describes an expedition that he himself was a part of from his point of view, though as well as others – it’s quite fair that we hear quite a lot about him. You can’t say he misses the opportunity to mention him being in front of the other climbers on numerous occasions, but in my opinion you can easily ignore it and just be inspired by an incredible story of what it takes to climb this amazing mountain and especially the risks involved. I learned so much about the sacrifices people make in order to stand on top of the world and how climbing it has not changed all that much since the first climbers reached the summit. Very much worth a read.

You can grab your copy here: Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster

Into the wild – Christopher McCandless aka. Alexander Supertramp

I stumbled upon this story in a quite unusual way. Usually I find interesting documentaries, movies and content in general from blogs, people I follow etc. I almost never watch TV or consume, what could be called random content – it’s almost always a deliberate choice, which has both up- and downsides, but that’s a topic/discussion for another day. But this story I surprisingly bumped into some random night watching TV.

The story about Christopher McCandless or Alexander Supertramp as he called himself, is described both in a motion picture and a book by the same name: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. As described above, I first encountered the motion picture version. And I was almost blown away by it. It may have something to do with the fact, that I at the time, had just returned from my month of Solo-travel in Myanmar and here I was back in Denmark watching a movie that described a lot of the same feeling I had both before and during my trip. It made quite an impact on me.

I started a little research about the guy Christopher McCandless, which the movie was based on and soon found out that there was a book written about his endeavor as well. I had to read it.

Without spoiling too much, the story in short is about a young guy who sells all his belongings to pursue a dream of living in the wild, without any help from modern day conveniences. It could be just another naive, semi-stupid guy getting lost in his own identity, but he is a very inspiring young guy with so much energy and passion for living.

You can surely get away with reading the book or watching the movie in any order, but the book includes a lot more details than the movie and has a lot of references to people who has or could have inspired Christopher McCandless. If you like the thought of leaving everything behind, maybe just for a short while the story sure will make an impact on you.

I would like to just bring a quote from the book, which is actually not by Christopher McCandless but by a guy called Everett Ruess. He lived way before McCandless even was born, but as McCandless he was a young guy who went out into the wild to explore both nature and himself. This is a letter he wrote to his brother that is just so incredibly philosophical:

As to when I shall visit civilization, it will not be soon, I think. I have not tired of the wilderness; rather I enjoy its beauty and the vagrant life I lead, more keenly all the time. I prefer the saddle to the streetcar and star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown, to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities. Do you blame me then for staying here, where I feel that I belong and am one with the world around me? It is true that I miss intelligent companionship, but there are so few with whom I can share the things that mean so much to me that I have learned to contain myself. It is enough that I am surrounded with beauty…

Even from your scant description, I know that I could not bear the routine and humdrum of the life that you are forced to lead. I don’t think I could ever settle down. I have known too much of the depths of life already, and I would prefer anything to an anticlimax.

The book is filled with interesting people who pursued the dream of a more ”natural” and simple life. And the story about Christopher McCandless is just so inspiring. Some people write him of as being a naive young kid with a death-wish. But read or watch and judge for yourself – it’s definitely not the impression I ended up with. Whether you pick up the bookor watch the movie I can’t ever imagine you being disappointed about the story.

After having finished it I picked up another book by the same author called Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, about an Everest expedition that went terribly wrong, as with Into The Wild, this is a very interesting read – but I will save the final verdict and details to another blog post.

On the shortness of life – Seneca

I can’t really remember whether this actually was the first philosophical text I read out of own will. It’s at the very least among the first and the one that lead me down the path of stoicism. You may already know this essay by Seneca. But if you don’t, you should seriously consider spending the 30-45min reading it in its entirety.

Just to give you a little taste of what Seneca says in this essay, I will give you a few quotes that really struck me when I read it.

It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.

And along the same lines:

Consider how much of your time was taken up with a moneylender, how much with a mistress, how much with a patron, how much with a client, how much in wrangling with your wife, how much in punishing your slaves, how much in rushing about the city on social duties. Add the diseases which we have caused by our own acts, add, too, the time that has lain idle and unused; you will see that you have fewer years to your credit than you count.

My suggestion would be that if you do not want to read the entire essay, then read part 1 and part 3. That’s where the above quotes are from and that’s in my opinion the most easily digested and actionable of the entire essay. I read it here for the second time in the morning and it was a sure kick in the butt for me to get shit done.

You can find the entire essay here: On the shortness of life but as the formatting is really horrible, I would suggest that you save it to Instapaper or some other readability app.

If you enjoy what you read, I would strongly suggest to purchase Letters from a Stoic. That was exactly what I did after the first time I encountered “On the shortness of life”. The essay really resonated with me and I had to read some more from this Seneca – and I wasn’t disappointed!

I actually think I am in the midst of reading Letters from a stoic for the third time. I remember having it with me on my month of solo travel in Myanmar, where I really loved it and especially its style with short easy to read chapters. But I may very well have read it once before that.

All is to say; I can honestly can’t recommend that book enough. If you like what you read in “On the shortness of life” you’ll love the book.

Experience vs. Memory – duration neglect and peak-end rule

Just finished Thinking, Fast and Slow – and what an awesome book! I have already written a bit about the book in old posts and my previous post compares it to a couple of other popular behavioral science books. But if you find behavioral science and psychology the least bit exciting, you’ll probably love this book. As written before, it is not a book you just sprint through as one quote on the back of it states: “Buy it fast. Read it slowly. It will change the way you think!”

But just wanted to share a last anecdote from the book before moving on. Towards the end of the book there are chapters outlining the two selves; the experiencing and the remembering. Rather self explanatory, meaning the difference between what you actually experienced in the moment versus what you remember the experience as.

There have been some rather interesting studies in this area. For example people who have undergone different types of surgery has been equipped with devices that lets them rate the pain of the experience in small intervals during the surgery on a scale from 1-10. This is the experiencing self. Then afterwards they are asked to rate the pain of the experience as a whole again on a scale from 1-10. That is the remembering self.

What seemed to emerge from those studies was that it was not the total amount of pain – meaning the surgery with most pain during the experience that was rated as the most painful by the remembering self. Neither was it the total time under pain that emerged as the most painful, but instead it seemed to be the surgery where the pain towards the end was highest. If the pain tapered off towards the end of the surgery – people generally remembered it as less painful than they actually experienced it to be. This is to be known as the peak-end rule. The duration of the pain did not matter for the remembering self – known as duration neglect – the only real determining factor seemed to be how the surgery felt towards the end.

To test this Daniel Kahneman made a study where they subjected the participants hands to a very cold ice bath. As the surgery-studies, the subjects were equipped with devices to rate their experience during the trial and then afterwards asked to rate their experience. The first trial was 4 minutes in ice-cold water, then the next trial was the same 4 minutes in ice-cold water but then another 3-4 minutes where a little warmer water was released into the bowl without the subject knowing, so the temperature rose just slightly making the end less uncomfortable. Then finally they were asked for the third trial to choose whether to repeat trial 1 or 2 – and as you have probably figured, the vast majority chose to go with trial number 2 even though any rational observer would have chosen number 1.

This is peak-end rule and duration neglect at work. I find it so fascinating and amusing how these completely irrational factors plays into our lives. It also raises some interesting questions, for instance; should you prolong some surgeries artificially to taper off the pain towards the end thereby giving the patient a more pleasant memory of the surgery? Or in the less serious department; was your entire experience of a concert really ruined because it started raining at the end?

Trying to be aware of peak-end rule and duration neglect can make you less likely to get fooled by them. But as Daniel Kahneman writes somewhere; even though he has studied all these factors for decades, he still gets fooled by them from time to time – we just have to acknowledge and live with our irrational selves to the best of our abilities.

Ryan Holiday’s book on stoicism

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Ryan Holiday – The Obstacle is the Way

To start with – it’s actually not really about stoicism – but about overcoming obstacles. But along with other preconceptions that I held it was one of those that originally kept my away from the book.

Yes to start with I thought the book was about stoicism. Since I had read quite a lot of the original stoics, I was not that compelled to read someones thoughts about them or their works. I was quite capable of forming my own opinion.

It was not that I did not like Ryan Holiday, I actually read quite a large amount of his posts and articles and really liked what I read. They resonated with me and actually also lead me to look at the book on amazon around the time when it was released. But boy was I disappointed! Only about 200 pages long – I knew the guy was a master of marketing, this to me made it seem like quite an easy attempt to make money. Write a bit about stoicism(which I thought it was about), – a topic that is gaining in popularity and then sell a lot of books based on a huge following. In other words I thought it was quite a cheap shot.

I was certainly not going to buy that book.

Fast forward to Ryan appearance on Tim Ferriss’ podcast. What an amazing episode! If you haven’t listened to it and have the slightest interest in philosophy, productivity or life in general – please treat yourself to that episode. You can find it here: The Tim Ferriss Podcast Ep. 4

But for me, apart from being an extremely interesting podcast, it sparked my interest in actually reading Ryan’s book. It seemed to be so much more than what I had originally thought. So I went against my original thoughts and ordered it from Amazon.

When I got it I was actually already in the midst of two books. I usually read two different types of books depending on what time of day I am reading, but more on that another time. But as soon as I got the book out of the box it came in, I was so positively surprised. I had expected some small slim booklet, given my knowledge of the page-count. This was an absolutely beautiful example of a hardcover book! I know this is partially unimportant, but I cannot overemphasize how positively surprised I was. This almost pulled a Apple/iPhone trick on me – even the packaging was ace.

I started reading right away and was amazed from chapter one. This book is filled with good sound advice – clearly taking a lot from stoic thinkers, especially their way of presenting actionable advice. The amount of research that has gone into writing this book is crazy, it is just filled with examples of world leaders, game changers in all aspects and fun anecdotes. It is so concentrated, clear and thought-provoking that you find yourself stopping after each short chapter to make sure you really understand what you just read.

I can only think of one sentence to capture the essence, which is actually from the back of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow:

Buy it fast. Read it slowly. It will change the way you think.

It really proved my original preconceptions false. And how irrational it is to look at a books page-count and say “it can’t be that good if it is only 200 pages”. Quantity is such a bad measure if not combined with quality.

I am really glad that I finally gave in and bought the book. It is a certainly one of the best books I read this year and I cannot recommend it enough.

Taking notes while reading

This is just going to be a rather short post on reading or to be precise; note-keeping whilst reading. I have covered this a little bit before, but it seems to be an area where I keep refining my technique. Some techniques stay with me, others drift away – but these following points have stayed with me for some time, and seems to be a good mix of effort and reward.

To be clear; I only use these techniques for non-fiction books, or perhaps even more precisely; books I read in order to gain some knowledge or insight. This is not applied to leisure-reading. Of course you may use it as you please.

Photo 31-05-14 20.16.24First of; I mark paragraphs in the book as I am reading along. This is nothing new and I even think I have written about it before, but just to show an example(here from Ryan Holidays, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph)

This does a fine job of highlighting passages that I find valuable or things I would like to remember afterwards. The downside of this, is that in order to find all the marked passages afterwards, you have to go through the entire book.

What I started doing then, was every time I made a mark in the book, I would write the page-number in one of the last blank pages in the book. To simplify it a bit further I would only write the number of the left page, if I made marks on both sides and if I hadn’t made any notes on the left, I of course would write the page number of the right one, given that it had any content I marked.

This made me a personal index at the back of the book with everything that I found valuable from the content. But in some cases there might be content I found extra valuable. So I needed a way to distinguish “regular” notes from “extra important”.

Photo 31-05-14 20.21.55The simple solution to this was just to underline the page number in my personal index. Then what I end up with, is an index I can use if I have relatively good time to read through the valuable notes, or if I am in a hurry, I can just browse through the underlined page numbers, containing the extra valuable content. In practice this looks like the following(here from Marcus Aurelius’, Meditations: A New Translation)

In retrospect, I would have loved to have this technique a bit earlier. There are quite a few books I need to go back through – some only needing the index others does not even have marks in them. But to help others that might gain from these techniques, they are now shared.

Happy reading folks!

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, the best version

SImon & Brown left, Hays on the right
Simon & Brown left, Hays on the right

I can’t remember who initially led me towards Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, but ever since that first reference, I have stumble upon many, who recommended it. As with most books, I find being recommended, by several different people, I ended up buying it. I’m not new to stoicism in any way, and if my memory treats me well, this was probably the third book, that in some way or form revolved around stoicism. Therefore the kind of heavy-to-read old english was semi-expected.

I started reading it with fairly high expectations, but very motivated and certain that this little book – and it really is; physically small – should be over with, in no time. But man was I in for a shock!

The expected heavy-to-read old english, was more like immoveable-heavy. Reading it really took a strain on me everytime. There were some really, really good parts – absolutely no doubt about it! But overall, even with my enthusiasm and motivation, I finally had to give up. I had read about half of the book, which (laughable as it is) only equates to about 40 pages. I’m by no means a speed-reader, but I read a lot, and that would in “normal” books, probably be one or maximum two sittings, with the book. With this one is was more like 10-15 sittings.

Finally I put it back on the shelf and went on to read some other book, not really knowing when or if I would return to it.

Maybe half a year later, I read something about Meditations again, and someone commented, what was close to my experience about the book; that it was almost unreadable – to which some other guy replied; that the only version worth reading was the Hays translation. Hmm – grabbed my book and looked – not the Hays version. Maybe there was hope. I went straight to amazon, found the Hays translation and ordered it.

Even though I was in the midst of two other books when it arrived, I started reading it right away. I had to find out, if this translation really was that superior – and low an behold – it really was. This was readable english. The short chapters(books as he calls them) was perfect for reading through on a sitting. And as expected, I started making lots of marks in the book – the content was really good.

What recently struck me, being two thirds through the book was; that maybe this is even too readable english. Are some of the original messages, getting somewhat washed away, by a perhaps too readable translation? I went back through the “old” translation and compared notes with the new Hays translation – were there parts that rang more true in the old translation than in the new?

As it turns out there actually were. Here is an example, first from the Hays translation – where I had not marked it:

If an action or utterance is appropriate, then it’s appropriate for you. Don’t be put off by other people’s comments and criticism. If it’s right to say or do it, then it’s the right thing for you to do or say. The others obey their own lead, follow their own impulses. Don’t be distracted. Keep walking. Follow your own nature, and follow Nature – along the road they share.

Then the same passage from the “old” Simon & Brown edition – where I actually marked it:

Think thyself fit and worthy to speak, or to do anything that is according to nature, and let not the reproach, or report of some that may ensue upon it, ever deter thee. If it be right and honest to be spoken or done, undervalue not thyself so much, as to be discouraged from it. As for them, they have their own rational over-ruling part, and their own proper inclination: which thou must not stand and look about to take notice of, but go on straight, whither both thine own particular, and the common nature do lead thee; and the way of both these is but one.

This actually makes me question whether I at some point should pick up the “old” and heavy translation and fight my way through it.

First I complain about the text being too difficult to read, then I find the more readable translation and finally I find something to complain about, in that one as well. You just can’t seem to satisfy some people…

But where does this lead you, looking for the right translation to read? Strangely this is very easy for me to answer. Read the Hays translation: Meditations: A New Translation – at least at first. Read it because it’s actually readable. You may loose a little of the original content, but if it leaves you longing for more – buy the original(which there probably are a few of, mine is Simon and Brown edition) – after you read the hays version.