Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

Book cover for "Why We Sleep" by Matthew Walker

Every now and then a book comes along that makes me want to grab everyone by the lapels and shout “YOU MUST READ THIS” while shaking them vigorously. This book is like that, but I think it’s so important that I want to be cautious about how I pitch the message, so that I don’t put people off.

I first heard about it from Paul last year, but I didn’t get around to reading it until last month. Matthew Walker is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley, where he founded and directs the Center for Human Sleep Science. Over the last 10-20 years our knowledge of what sleep is and what effects it has on our brains and bodies has come on in leaps and bounds. Walker’s book summarizes the state of the art of current research, and the message is clear: there is almost no part of your overall health and well-being that is unaffected by lack of sleep. The recommendation for “enough sleep” is 7-9 hours per night for adults. Less than 7 hours a night is enough to produce objectively measurable impairments, both cognitive and physical. Unfortunately, humans are terrible at recognizing that impairment in ourselves. “I’m fine,” we tell ourselves, when we’re really not.

We all know that we should get a good night’s sleep, but most of us feel like it’s advice that doesn’t really apply to us. Western society conditions us to stay up late, and treat sleep like a luxury. We envy people who claim to get by on 5 or 6 hours a night, because they seem more productive than the rest of us. Except the science says that they’re putting themselves at increased risk of cancer, dementia, and mental health issues. Not only that, but they’re putting the rest of us at risk if they get behind the wheel when tired, or if they perform surgery on us at the end of back-to-back 12-hour shifts.

You can’t “catch up” on sleep at the weekend, nor can you bank it for the future. Weekend lie-ins may alleviate your exhaustion, but if you’re talking about the impact of sleep on memory, the benefits conferred by sleep happen on the day, not at some future time of your choosing. Humans are the only animals that voluntarily deprive themselves of sleep, and evolution has never needed to come up with a sleep storage mechanism.

Okay, so I feel like I’m failing at “not shouting at people to get across the message” bit. Let me wrap up by saying that if you’ve got ten minutes, read Matthew Walker’s recent article in the Guardian: “The best thing you can do for your health: sleep well”. If you’ve got an hour, watch the video of a talk he gave at Google. If you’ve got more time than that, read the whole book. It has changed my behaviour; it may change yours.

Mixed Media, Sunday 5 October 2014

(Disclaimer: I received a promotional copy of Exo from Tor Books.)

I love Steven Gould’s Jumper series. Jumper itself is a classic “what if?” story about Davy Rice, who discovers that he can teleport himself to places he can see, or has been to before. Reflex takes Davy and his wife Millie into much darker territory when a shadowy organization kidnaps Davy and tortures him into working for them. In Impulse the story follows Davy and Millie’s daughter Cent as she comes to terms with her own abilities while trying to fit into a new school.

All of the books take a classic science-fictional exploratory approach to teleportation: they take the fact of it as given and explore the consequences, reactions, and workarounds using smart, likeable protagonists who are propelled into unexpected adventures. They’re brilliant. To say I was excited about Exo is an understatement.

It doesn’t disappoint. In Impulse Cent figured out that teleportation implies control over her velocity, and she learned how to fly using ballistic speed boosts. In Exo she takes the next logical step: can she reach space if she boosts upwards fast enough? How can she survive in a vacuum? And what will she do when she gets there?

The four classical types of narrative conflict are “man against man”, “man against society”, “man against nature”, and “man against self.” Exo introduces a fifth: woman against expectations. (I suppose it’s a variant of man against society, but it sounds better.)

Cent, as a young woman, spends the first half of the book butting up against, and systematically battering down, all the misapprehensions, underestimations, and objections the world throws at her in her quest to build her own space programme. It’s glorious. The second half gets a bit engineer-y with a lot of technical details, and the action sub-plot involving the mysterious Daarkon Group feels rushed. It still left me with goosebumps, and a burning desire to find out where the series will go next.


In the last few weeks I’ve been mostly listening to the new Aphex Twin album Syro, and A New House by Deacon Blue.

Deacon Blue - A New House

Deacon Blue’s last two albums didn’t move me very much, but A New House is a fantastic return to form – their best since Fellow Hoodlums. It’s fresh and upbeat, full of catchy hooks and big choruses: a great pop album. Unfortunately all of their UK gigs I could conceivably get to for the rest of the year seem to be sold out. I’d love to see them live.

Finally, in last week’s New Music Monday at work, one of m’colleagues dropped Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” into the playlist, and I’ve been kinda obsessed by that as well. I downloaded her album Red yesterday, which has been gaining me approving nods from Fiona. We listened to it this afternoon as we were making some stuffed felt Minecraft plush heads together.

Taylor Swift - Red

2009 in review: books

2009 was the year of the re-read for me, and in particular the series re-read. I love diving into a series and living in the same world as the characters for weeks on end. At the start of the year I couldn’t find any new series I wanted to start on, so I went back to some old favourites:

  • Roger Zelazny’s Amber series
  • Neil Gaiman’s Sandman books
  • Lois MacMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series
  • Julian May’s Pliocene and Galactic Milieu series

I have read the first three series several times before already, and they are always fresh, and always fun. For a change, I read the Vorkosigan books in chronological order (although I started with Shards of Honor, rather than Falling Free), and in rapid succession. The early Miles books (The Warrior’s Apprentice and The Vor Game are still my favourites, and it turns out that Diplomatic Immunity isn’t as bad as I remembered it.

The Julian May books were less of a pleasure. If it weren’t for the “I’ve got this far so might as well keep going” sunk-costs argument, I would (should) have stopped about fifty pages into The Golden Torc. I remember waiting eagerly for the publication of Diamond Mask and Magnificat in the mid-90s, but now I just find the characters overly self-absorbed and melodramatic; I don’t think I’ll be re-reading them again.

Lois McMaster Bujold - The Sharing Knife, volume one: Beguilement
Lois McMaster Bujold - The Sharing Knife, volume two: Legacy

Staying with Lois McMaster Bujold, 2009 saw the publication of the fourth and final book in her Sharing Knife series. I bought the first book, Beguilement when it was released in 2006, but didn’t read it at the time. I knew it was only the first part of a single big story, and having been burned by Peter F. Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star the previous year, I didn’t want to start on the tale, only to have to wait three years to get to its end. But when the fourth part, Horizon was published in February, I grabbed it and started from the beginning.

Lois McMaster Bujold - The Sharing Knife, volume three: Passage

The Sharing Knife is a fantasy romance — not a combination that normally leaps off the shelves at me. But I trust Bujold to write characters I care about and a story that interests me regardless of my genre prejudices, and that is exactly what she has done here. The world she has created has more of an American frontier feel to it rather than a pseudo-medieval European vibe: prairies and riverside trading towns rather than dark forests and castles. Lakewalkers patrol the land on the lookout for malices, creatures that rise from the earth and feed on the life energy of everything nearby, and are capable of devastating entire towns. The malices are an ancient menace, but thanks to Lakewalker efforts over the centuries, a rare one now. So rare that many farmers don’t even believe in them any more, which causes tension when Lakewalkers come to town and require their aid. Because of the apparent safety, and the particular magical means by which Lakewalkers fight the malices, farmers have grown likely to fear and mistrust them, and call them witches, rather than heed their warnings.

Lois McMaster Bujold - The Sharing Knife, volume four: Horizon

The main characters are Fawn, a young farmer woman who has run away from home, and Dag, a grizzled Lakewalker veteran. They fall in love despite the large cultural gap that separates them. The books follow them as, outcast from their families and communities, they try find a place for themselves in the world, and to somehow reconcile these two parallel but highly interdependent societies.

Oh, and fight evil! The book covers may look all sweet and pastoral, but the plot is driven forward by the ongoing and very real threat of the malices. While I wouldn’t characterize the books as adventure stories, there is no lack of action. Bujold strikes a masterful balance between the clash-of-cultures love story and edge-of-your-seat thrills, and I can highly recommend the whole series.

(Just make sure you read the first two books, Beguilement and Legacy together, because it is really one book split in two — even the covers are two halves of a single piece. Three and four make up “part two”, but they are a looser pairing.)

Steven Brust - Jhereg

Throughout November and December I also caught up on Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series (including an advance copy of Iorich thanks to Patrick at Tor). I know that I had read Jhereg before, and I’m pretty sure that parts of Yendi were familiar; what I can’t figure out is why the hell I would have read the first two books, but not gone on to devour the rest of the series, because it’s awesome. They are (for the most part) hard-boiled fantasy detective novels, not dissimilar in tone to some of my favourite contemporary detective series (Spenser, Elvis Cole, Myron Bolitar, et al.) The “detective” may be a witchcraft-using assassin, and his sidekick a miniature dragon (jhereg) on his shoulder, but the mean streets of the city are still mean, and when tough talk fails, knocking a few heads together often shakes loose the information required.

That only really describes the surface appearance of this series, though; the underlying world is rich and complex, full of Gods, Great Weapons, ancient sorcery, discrimination, social unrest, and peasant revolutions. Another thing that appeals to me about the books is that they are short, in the 200–300 page range. Steven Brust says what he wants to say, and then moves on. I like that. (Unfortunately his writing style in the other Dragaeran books has the opposite effect on me. I haven’t been able to get past the first few pages of The Phoenix Guards.)

Joe Navarro - What Every Body Is Saying

Finally, some non-fiction. I have been interested in non-verbal communication since I picked up a copy of Allan Pease’s Body Language in the mid-eighties. In fact, this is one of the reasons I dislike working remotely. Phone calls strip out all the visual cues I use to pick up on the mood of the office, and to gauge unvoiced concerns in a meeting.

Joe Navarro is a former FBI agent with a background in interrogation and deception detection, and What Every Body Is Saying pays a lot of attention to reading the signals people emit during conversation. Navarro emphasizes that this is not about being able to tell whether someone is lying or telling the truth (although that does make for good TV), but rather about learning whether someone is confident or holding back, relaxed or stressed. When you understand that, you can try to guide the conversation to figure out why they are feeling that way.

Interestingly, this has significant use in usability testing. One of the tenets of usability testing is that you pay attention to what people do, rather than what they say. People are often reluctant to criticize, preferring instead to tell white lies about things they dislike. By studying their posture, gestures, and expressions during a test, and in post-test conversations, you can gain a much better understanding of their emotional state, and where problems lie.

This is definitely one of my top picks of the year. It’s very clearly written, and sprinkled with good illustrations, and not only does it make an excellent introduction to the subject of non-verbal testing, but it also rewards repeated reading and bite-sized dippings-into. Very excellent.

2007 in review: Books

33 books in 2007 – the same as in 2006. And although I haven’t managed to crack more than 50 books in any year since 2002 (when I started keeping notes), I keep being disappointed by this fact. Surely a book a week isn’t too hard a target? Clearly, for me, it is.

My book of the year was World War Z by Max Brooks. If you have never come across it before, it’s a…zombie novel. But don’t dismiss it out of hand because of the subject matter. The book is not framed as a traditional zombie horror story, with a band of survivors pitted against hordes of the living dead. Instead, it takes the perspective of a collection of interviews with people who survived a zombie pandemic. Their tales are often harsh and emotional, but never recounted for simple thrills. At a deeper level, it is all about some of our worst fears in the real world: political and economical collapse, global disease pandemics, terrorism, and war.

There is also an audio book version narrated by an interesting cast including Mark Hamill, John Turturro, Rob Reiner, Jürgen Prochnow, and Alan Alda. I don’t generally listen to audio books, but this one has me seriously tempted.

Other top picks from 2007:

  • Simon Singh – The Big Bang. Simon Singh is a great science writer, who excels at explaining science by telling the story of the people who made the discoveries. Here he tackles not just the Big Bang theory, but the whole history of cosmology, all in his characteristically accessible style. Simply brilliant.
  • William Gibson – Spook Country. It’s not science fiction, and not a spy novel, but it has elements of both.
  • Scott McCloud – Understanding Comics. McCloud explains the hidden language and structure of comics — all the stuff that you probably understand at some fundamental level but have never thought about consciously. It also offers fascinating insights into craftsmanship and mastery in general.
  • Peter Watts – Blindsight. SF first contact story with a disquieting horror backbone.
  • Richard Morgan – Black Man. (Published in the US as Thirteen.) Big chunky SF thriller; noirish, bleak, and brutal.

I haven’t read much in 2008 so far (4 books to date), but there’s a lot of good stuff stacked on the shelves. I doubt if I’ll hit 50 this year, either, but you never know…

2006 in review: Books

One of these years I’ll manage to average a book a week. By the half-way mark of 2006 it looked like I might make it in 2006, but then I started a contract where driving to work was more practical than taking the bus, and boom, there went my reading time. And with a final tally of 33, yes, that means I only read a book a month since July. Gah.

Cassandra French's Finishing School For BoysSo what have I been loving? Well, the stand-out title of the year for me was Eric Garcia’s Cassandra French’s Finishing School For Boys. From the cover, it looks like a sterotypical chick-lit novel. The first few pages read like the stereotype of a chick-lit novel. But once you get past that, it turns into a delightfully strange kidnapping caper set against a Hollywood movie studio background. The added knowledge that Eric Garcia is the author of the outlandish Rex dinosaur detective series and the inventive con novel Matchstick Men should be enough to tell you that this Cassandra French is anything but stereotypical.

Revelation SpaceI also tucked away Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series: Revelation Space, Chasm City, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap. It’s big, thick, meaty space opera that you can really sink your teeth into. I made a false start on Revelation Space a few years ago, but picked it up again at AlanR’s urging. It is a bit slow to start, but once you get in to the heart of the story, it’s a great feeling to realize that there are another three 600-page doorstops to carry on the story arc.

Make Love! The Bruce Campbell WayRobert Charles Wilson’s Spin is excellent, and a deserved winner of this year’s Hugo award for best novel. Christopher Brookmyre’s All Fun And Games Until Someone Loses An Eye is a fast-moving wise-cracking wish-fulfilment adventure yarn in which an ordinary woman is plucked out of her comfy Scottish life and plunged into a world of espionage and hi-tech mercenaries. And of course, Bruce Campbell’s Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way is a wickedly entertaining tale of his (fictional) attempts to prepare for a role in Mike Nichols’ (fictional) star-studded film Let’s Make Love!. Maybe it’s something best enjoyed by Bruce Campbell fans, but let’s face it, people, who isn’t?

Virtual worlds

Play MoneyI started reading Julian Dibbell’s “Play Money” blog back in 2003, probably as a result of a pointer from Edge magazine. It was a chronicle of his attempt to make real money from his trading activities in a virtual world–primarily the on-line role-playing game Ultima Online. He had originally set himself the challenge of making more money from trading than from his work as a writer, but he adjusted his goals downwards as the year progressed. He concluded his experiment in April 2004, and in his final month of trading managed to clear just under $4,000 in profit. That’s 4,000 real-world dollars.

In fact, this kind of money isn’t even unusual these days: Second Life now boasts its first millionaire (with a few caveats). The more interesting matter is how it is possible to make money in a virtual world at all. If you’re not plugged into the buzz surrounding them, it’s easy to see Second Life as an overgrown chat room, and World of Warcraft and its ilk as mere hack-and-slash fantasy games. Sure, the people who run the worlds can make money by charging monthly subscriptions, but how do the participants do it?

In simple terms, people are willing to pay to acquire goods they don’t have enough time (or skills) to build themselves. It’s just that in the case of virtual worlds, the goods have no physical substance. But that doesn’t make them any less real to the people who use them day in, day out in these electronic communities.

With his Play Money book, Julian Dibbell provides the background behind the blog. It’s uncomfortable reading in places. His game time and trading become an obsession, and although he says that they weren’t the cause of it, they certainly weren’t helping out when his marriage started to break up. But as well as the personal aspects, he also digs deeper into the economics of virtual worlds, and the sometimes cut-throat businesses that are growing up to service the demands of their inhabitants.

I have to admit to being endlessly fascinated by this, and the issues that flow from it. For example, there are figures that suggest that the average inhabitant of Second Life consumes roughly much power as a Brazilian. These numbers are heavily debated, but the fact is that a virtual person has a carbon footprint–a measurable effect–in the real world. And of course, as soon as real money starts to flow, the tax man is not far behind.

Beyond these immediate implications, there are also some enormous long-term issues to consider. Some of these worlds have millions of inhabitants. The people there are building houses, forming communities, participating in great deeds, and creating distinct cultures. What happens when the next big thing comes along, and people start to jump ship? What happens to the remnants of these civilizations? Is it important from a cultural and anthropological perspective to preserve what we can of these worlds?

World of WarcraftThe biggest online worlds may seem well-developed compared to their predecessors, but they are in still in their infancy with regard to user interaction and freedom of action. Despite being larger than any MMORPG before it, it is likely that World of Warcraft will have its number one spot taken from it by something bigger and better. But it’s possible that it, or one of the many others out there will stay ahead of the fickle curve of consumer demand, and will grow and evolve over the course of years and even decades.

And this is really interesting. Virtual worlds aren’t going away, and they are only going to get bigger and more populous. Business are opening offices in Second Life. If you catch the right world, and make the right investments (my guess would be virtual real estate), you may find yourself owning a tremendously valuable piece of some future metropolis.

I have created an avatar in Second Life, but I haven’t done much with him. I have a copy of WoW sitting on my desk, but I haven’t signed up for an account yet. Self-knowledge tells me that I could quite easily spend an unhealthy amount of time in these worlds, and right now I’m finding little enough time in my life for sleep as it is. But I also know that I immensely enjoy the total immersion of a good RPG, and despite the poor experience I had with Everquest a few years ago, I can see myself dipping my toes in the water again fairly soon. The possibilities are just too intriguing to ignore.