My 2018 Reading Challenge

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been almost a full year since my last post.

I used to be a big reader. I would make time to read, and I would read something whenever I could find a moment.

That stopped a few years ago. I started playing a lot of online games. Mostly poker and World of Warcraft.

And then I had children.

My schedule was upended. I watched a lot of TV, I bounced a lot of kids on my knee while watching it, and I spent a lot of time at work. My limited reading time was spent reading blog posts and non-fiction books about my various interests and entrepreneurship.

Lately I’ve mostly stopped playing online games. I’ve played some poker on and off, but I don’t see the appeal in learning a negative-sum game where AI will have the game locked up against us mere mortals in no time. Maybe five years, at best.

I fell into reading fan fiction. My kids started watching a show. I watched along too. Someone I follow online mentioned some favourite stories, and I was hooked.

Several million years later… The rush of stories has slowed to a trickle as authors moved on to other fandoms. I’ve read through the backlog of recommended stories. I was struggling to find something to read.

I read a collection of stories from one of the better authors. Something unrelated to the fandom, that she had published traditionally. I read her other collection last year.

Then a friend wound up in hospital. I brought him some reading material. I thought about the books I had brought, and how much I had enjoyed reading them. I had read another book recently, too. First a short non-fiction book, then a great sci-fi story by the same author.

Maybe it was time for a reading challenge. Get back into my old habit.

I had just signed up with Goodreads. They suggested a reading challenge for 2018. It was early July, so I only had 6 months left. I’d enter the books I had already read this year, then read enough in the rest of the year to hit my target.

Imagine my astonishment when I realized I had only read 4 books in 2018.

When I was younger, 4 books was a decent weekend. Now it was my 6 month total. That included the three books I had read in the past weeks.

At first, I set my yearly total to 10 books. Then I was embarrassed with myself. I changed it to 26. That would be just under one a week for the rest of the year.

Three weeks later, having already read 8 books, I decided to boost the total to 52 books, representing one a week for the year.

On the last day of July, that also seemed conservative.

In July, I read 11 books. A mix of fiction, non-fiction, audio books, paper, and Kindle books.

If you think audio books are cheating, maybe they are. But at two audio books over the last month, it’s not like I’m somehow padding my total with them.

I listen to audio books in the car or while I’m cleaning up around the house. I managed to finish two in the month because I was doing an unusual amount of solo driving. Two audio books in a month seems like a relentless pace to me. Maybe it’s my choice of material. “The SIngularity is Near” clocks in at 24 hours. Even listening at 2x speed, it’s slow going. In July, I finished “Immunity to Change” and “The 10x Rule”

Paper books get read when I’m at home and have time. After lights out, I switch to the Kindle app on my phone. I managed only two paper books last month, and neither was very long.

“Where Are the Customers’ Yachts” and “Overqualifieder”.

The Kindle app is where I do the bulk of my reading.

  • I can read after dark.
  • I can read for a few minutes on the couch.
  • I can read while I’m walking down the street (a habit I picked up as a kid).
  • I can read during my lunch break, standing in line, while the kids play sports, or wherever else I can sneak in a moment.

In July I read:

“Six Wakes” by Mur Lafferty
“Autonomous” by Annalee Newitz
“Be More Chill” by Ned Vizzini
“Shift (The Faceless Book 1)” by Rikkaine Thompson
“The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr
“Twist (The Faceless Book 2)” by Rikkaine Thompson
“The Serpent (The Gameshouse, #1) by Claire North

Improving my rate:

I can increase the amount of reading I do by:

  • Increasing the amount of time I have to read
  • Reading smaller books (my youngest tells me the “Llama Llama” books are delightful)
  • Increasing my reading speed

Increasing my reading time will be tough. I did a good job of finding those little moments to read in July.

Reading smaller books is a bit pointless. According to Goodreads, I have a backlong of 350 “want to read” books. I don’t want to start picking what goes into my brain based on the number of pages.

Reading faster it is.

I read at 300-500 words/minute normally, depending on the complexity of the material, tiredness, etc.. It also depends on my state of mind. Sometimes I slow down deliberately to savour some especially enjoyable writing. Other times, I push myself because I can’t wait to see what happens next.

If I’m going for speed, I can read at 800 WPM, with pretty good retention. I have to keep reminding myself to push, though, or I slow back down to my normal “cruising” speed.

But …

I was a fast reader as a kid. I’d push myself to read fast. I took pride in being a fast reader. So I’d constantly push myself to my limit. That improved both my top speed and my casual reading speed.

Knowing what I know now (I did read “Peak” by Anders Ericsson and have been aware of his work for a while) it seems likely that the principles of deliberate practice should help me do better.

If I can increase my reading speed, I can read more. There are reports of reading at 1000-2000 WPM with decent retention.

But why?

Reading either fiction or non-fiction is instructive and mind-expansive. When you read, somebody has spent hours, weeks, sometimes evewn years developing the material. You get to absorb it in just a few hours.

Then it spends years in your head. Changing your perspective. Mingling with the other works of other authors. Thoughts are being cross-pollinated with ideas in your subconscious.

The benefits of non-fiction are pretty obvious. Someone has mastered some technique, or concept, or discovered something that they think is beneficial to a wide audience. They write down everything they know, in a form that is readily consumed.

Fiction allows us to experience different viewpoints. It exposes us to new ideas. It’s often a way to expose truths that might be unpalatable, difficult or unwelcome in any other form.

If Dickens had only written angry editorials about the plight of the underprivileged in Victorian London, he would not be remembered. But the novels he wrote that told of those conditions not only personalized the plight of the downtrodden. People lined up to pay money for the next chapter.

I’ve enjoyed rediscovering the way my brain feels after reading a few books. I don’t want to stop. I have also found an improvement in my ability to focus. Going from reading bite-sized material to full-length books, and pushing myself to keep going, is making a difference.

Thanks for reading.

The on-ramp to the slow carb diet

Here’s an email I sent to a friend who is considering the slow carb diet:

 

Hey

 

When you start the slow carb diet, you may want to keep in mind something that happened to me:
 

low carb flu
 

It’s not “real” flu, but I felt run down, headachey and terrible after a couple of days. It turns out that the body gets used to having so much sugar and carbs, and reacts poorly after a drastic change. To combat that, I did two things:
 

1) When the symptoms first hit, I declared it an impromptu treat day (Claire calls it that, and it makes more sense than cheat day because you’re supposed to be doing it).

2) I added back in a bit of potato or rice into my diet when I was feeling run down.
 

After a couple of weeks, things were going well, and I didn’t have to do 1) or 2) anymore.
 

You may notice there’s also a list of slow carb foods that aren’t recommended if you’re trying to lose weight. I ate some of those for the first few weeks as well, just to get used to that style of eating. Once everything was going well, I phased those things out (mostly nuts, but also chick peas).
 

One other thing. A lot of people get tempted to improve the results by skipping treat day.
 

Don’t.
 

Not only is it a good psychological release valve, but it keeps the body from lowering your metabolism to adjust for the reduced calories you’re taking in. You might lose more weight the week you skip, but it will slow down your weight loss after that.
 

Enjoy the treats. And when you’re tempted by something, just tell yourself you’ll eat it on treat day. Maybe even write it down. That’s what I do.

Let me know if you have any questions.

 

___

 

Ok, that’s it for the email.
 

I should note that there are probably other ways to approach getting started. Slowly adding “Slow Carb” meals into your diet would be another way.

The approach I took stemmed from wanting to get started right away, then hitting some resistance pretty quickly.

What I did do worked for me.

January 1, 2017, I weighed 283.8 lbs.

January 9, 2017, I weighed 277.6 lbs.

Obviously there was a lot of water weight, etc., but it was an exciting and motivating development for me.

I think that for most people, it’ll be more important to just get started, no matter how you do it.

How I Lost 20 Pounds In 10 Weeks Without Losing My Mind

Note:

Here’s a post that’s been sitting on my hard drive for a few months. I’m going to post it now. There will be followups coming shortly.

There’s something they don’t tell you about low carb diets. It nearly made me give up three days into the new year.

What turned it around for me was treating my diet like an experiment. Something that might not work.

I’ll explain. But first, let me tell you what a fat loser I’ve been.

What a fat loser I’ve been

In 2008, I hit my peak weight of 302 pounds. Even at 6’1”, that’s too much. I had read about the Shangri-La diet, and decided to give that a go. About a year later, I was around 250 pounds. We had a newborn, my exercise habit slipped, and I had a hard time drinking vegetable oil.

Drinking extra light tasting olive oil is one of the methods suggested in the Shangri-La diet. It worked for awhile, but I got so I couldn’t stomach it anymore.

My weight started creeping up again.

In 2013, I did the Couch to 5k plan, and got running. My wife and I ran a few 5ks together. I was ridiculously slow, but kept my weight around 275 or so. By spring of the next year, my feet were hurting and asthma was really bothering me. My short running career was over.

Late 2015, I thought I had found the correct motivation. “This doesn’t taste as good as an extra ten years with my family.” The possibility of living an extra 10 years through weight loss was very motivating.

Then the holidays hit. I very quickly regained my lost weight.

Getting rid of (fast) carbs

I’m a big Tim Ferriss fan. If you don’t know who he is, don’t worry about it. He has talked a lot about the ketogenic diet and the “Slow Carb Diet.” I own “The Four Hour Body”, so had a full description of the “Slow Carb diet” at my fingertips. There are a few chaThere are several chapters based on the slow carb diet. That seemed a little overwhelming. I’m terrible at this stuff, so I need something simple. Slow carb was just too complicated.

A ketogenic diet sounded interesting. I had done a couple of fasts, including a 48 hour fast. The mental effects after the first 32 hours were amazing. So I could try a ketogenic diet, but that looked even more complicated. As Ferris himself points out, if you get the ketogenic diet only 90% right, you’re going to do yourself a lot of harm.

Then I came across an old blog post that Ferriss had written about how to start with slow carb. I realized it wasn’t as complicated as I remembered. At least not the basics.

What I took away from that was:

No white carbs (no bread, potatoes, rice, etc)
Don’t drink calories
No fruit or sugar
One day a week, ignore the rules and eat whatever you want, as much as you want, whenever you want.

 

I missed the list of specific foods that he suggested mixing and matching from, but I was ready to go. These rules were a pretty big change. I’ve always been a big snacker. Usually sweet or salty foods. Ice cream, cookies, chips, popcorn, candy bars, at all hours of the day.

(S)low carb flu

Sunday, January 1, I started. By Tuesday night, I was feeling terrible. Tim’s post had mentioned low energy and tiredness. That would have been nice. Instead, I had a headache. I felt like I was having a panic attack (without feeling panicked). And heart palpitations. These were all symptoms I had been experiencing in the previous few months, but the intensity bothered me.

I knew something was wrong. Since the problem was probably related to my new diet, I decided cheat day started now. I got some ice cream into me, then tested my blood sugar and went to bed. Wednesday was going to be cheat day (or what I had previously called every single day), and I would try again Thursday.

Wednesday, I googled my symptoms and “low carb” and found out about “low carb flu.”

My primary goal wasn’t short term weight loss. It was getting on a diet that I can follow the rest of my life and be healthy. So this was just a temporary setback getting started. For the first week or two, I allowed myself to have something if I was feeling poorly. Usually just a bit of mashed potato or a piece of bread, as needed.

After two weeks, I wasn’t having any problems at all.

I did it wrong, but it still went alright

The pounds started dropping. Some of it was probably water weight once I cut sugar and sodium from my diet. But in 10 weeks, I lost 20 pounds. Without exercise.

Mr. Ferriss suggests that you avoid trying to add exercise in the first couple of months or so. “You can’t out-exercise your mouth” is what he said in a recent podcast. I didn’t. This year the asthma hit again, and my feet were finally feeling good. I didn’t want to mess with that.

Then there was the fact I wasn’t even doing the diet right.

On Wednesdays, after my kid’s hockey practice, we would go to the food court. He’d get a hot dog and fries, I’d get a burger and sweet potato fries. I’d remove the bun, but leave the cheese on and eat the sweet potato fries with the sauce (how bad could it be?).

I also ate some cheese with other things, ate chick peas and nuts, etc.. Not recommended, and cheese is actually not allowed. Neither are sweet potatoes.

I had taken a “Ready, Fire, Aim” approach to the diet. Try it first, then check the details later.

Yet I was still averaging 2 pounds a week.

My wife thinks it’s weird, but my doctor is interested in how I did it

My wife is pretty conservative. Trying something new with such drastic results had her concerned. She called it my weird bean diet. She insisted I talk about it with my doctor (which is really good advice).

At my next doctor’s appointment, he asked me about it. He had noticed the weight loss, and wondered what I was doing. He asked me before I could raise the issue.

When I told him the rough outline, he was very interested. He plans on looking into it more.

The biggest takeaway, for me

The best part of this diet, for me, is that I don’t think about food as much as I used to. I don’t eat as much, but I feel like I eat as much as I want. On cheat days, I go a little crazy. 16” pizzas with anchovies and hot peppers are on the menu. McDonalds. Ice cream. Cake and pie. Whatever I want, as much as I want. My daughter calls them “Treat days”. Makes sense to me.

The other 6 days of the week, if I think I might want something I shouldn’t have, I just write it down so I don’t forget to have some on the next treat day. Then it’s out of my mind. The rest of the family eats how they used to. There are snacks and treats in the house. They don’t tempt me at all. On the slow carb diet, I just don’t have those cravings anymore.

___

Second note:

I’m just putting this up as-is. I’ll come back and edit and categorize it better later. I really wanted it up now.

What Am I Even Doing? Becoming A Better Me.

Why am I here?

There was a personal emergency. A few friends and family were trying to help someone get through the crisis. As the conversation went on, talk went from the immediate emergency to what to do next.

There was a lot of good advice. Avoid owning a car (in this specific case). Start putting money away now so if the same thing happens 6 months from now, you will have options. Plan to move to a bigger city with more opportunities. All drawn from several perspectives.

After we had been tossing ideas around for a few hours, somebody said “Why didn’t you tell me that when I was 20?” Somebody else agreed that these ideas could have saved them plenty of money and stress.

We can learn a lot talking to others, or reading, or just trying stuff. I talk to others about stuff all the time. I read a lot. I try stuff. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t. Sometimes it works out even better than I imagined. I’ve also learned that I only have so much time to make mistakes. It’s very helpful to learn from other people and their mistakes.

There are things I wish more people knew. And there are things that people seem hardwired to believe, until you prove it. And there are a lot of things I believe, but want to try for myself. Like the idea that talent doesn’t exist.

If that’s true, if there’s no such thing as talent, that blows things wide open. How would that affect your life if you could be good at whatever you wanted. Maybe not Malcolm Gladwell style 10,000 hours good. But good enough to have fun, improve your life, make a little money, whatever.

What can you expect to see?

This website is a resource to help people do better than I did. Posts will be a combination of things I’ve learned and things I’ve tried. So really things I’ve learned.

I have a few challenges/experiments lined up over the coming months to prove or disprove things I’ve read about. When I finish one, I’ll post the details, my results, and how you can replicate or avoid my example.

Other posts will be things that I really wish I had known when I was in my 20s. And while I have a strong interest in personal finance, that will probably go on its own site.

My goal for this site is to provide actionable information. Things that I am doing, and that you can choose to apply to your own life. Not everything will be interesting to everybody. I hope that some people get something useful.