Global Health, Random

Eight books that changed the way I see the world

I don’t remember exactly what prompted the change, but in the beginning of 2012 I began reading books again for fun. I’ve probably read about 150 since then and though a few were fiction, the majority pertained to behavioral science, public health, and philosophy. I know, I’m a blast at parties.

Bill Gates is a fun guy

Bill Gates

These 8 books, while not necessarily my favorites, are the ones that have been the most influential in life and how I view the world.

Mountains Beyond Mountains (Tracy Kidder)
This book did more than anything else in guiding me towards a career in public health and infectious disease epidemiology. In it, I learned about the extent of health disparities in the world and the burden of infectious diseases like TB that still kills over a million people each year. Mountains Beyond Mountains is an account of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Harvard MD and Medical Anthropology PhD who co-founded the global health nonprofit Partners in Health. Refusing to accept the status quo, Farmer has been a key figure in changing what is thought of as possible in the world of global health. Check out the book and Partners in Health if you’re at all interested in global health and health disparities. They do incredible work and are the one nonprofit that gets a regular portion of my paycheck each month.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan)
Though possibly a bit dense as an introduction (consider In Defense of Food first), this book was the first that really got me thinking about the relationships between the food system, the environment, and our health. Pollan takes you on a journey through America’s food system—visiting feedlots, monoculture farms, and food factories—pointing out problems and directing us towards a healthier future. These two books, along with his most recent Cooked, have been instrumental in shaping my view that a resurgence of cooking at home would do great things for our collective health. Rather than worry too much about HDL/LDL ratios, Omega-3s, and antioxidants (or whatever the nutrients of the day might be), he encourages us to simply “Eat [real] food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” If you’re interested in the food system as a whole, check out The Omnivore’s Dilemma. More about cooking and the history of food from an anthropological perspective? Read Cooked. If you want a more pragmatic introduction to healthy food practices in general, without diving too deeply into long (though very interesting) background research, then definitely look into In Defense of Food first. Each are good by themselves, but the three (and his other books as well) play together very well in guiding us through the entire global food chain, from farm—industrial or otherwise—to plate.

Meditations (Marcus Aurelius)
This is probably the best book I’ve ever read. It’s comprised of brief notes that Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself, never intending, as far as we know, for anyone else to read it. As the emperor of the Roman Empire, arguably the most powerful person on earth at the time, it is all the more surprising to see the restraint and humility he portrayed in his reminders. This is a fantastic introduction to the ancient philosophy of Stoicism (not to be confused with our related, but distinct adjective stoic) and an essential guide to humility, strength, and self-discipline. Read the Gregory Hays translation and make sure you don’t skip the introduction.

The Black Swan (Nassim Nicholas Taleb)
This book isn’t about ballet, but instead about economics and philosophy. Riveting, I know. Essentially, Taleb spends most of the book (and it is probably a bit long) arguing that we rely too heavily on the gaussian distribution or “bell curve” in our predictions and that points at the extremes, black swan events, occur far more frequently than we predict. I understand that this sounds like a statistics textbook, but he uses this claim to talk about numerous situations where this overconfidence has terrible outcomes (market crashes, risk management). Some of the writing was a bit over my head, but I walked away from the book with a newfound appreciation for the unpredictability of the world and a healthy fear of most predictions and forecasting models. If you want a lighter overview, Malcolm Gladwell apparently summarizes the philosophy in a chapter of What the Dog Saw. 

Predictably Irrational (Dan Ariely)
The ability to make rational decisions is a fundamental assumption in standard economic theory, but Dan, a professor of behavioral economics, uses recent behavioral studies to show how frequently this assumption is false or at best incomplete. This is a fascinating and really fun book that shows that not only are we often irrational, but that these irrational decisions are frequently systematic and predictable.

Thinking Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman)
This is similar to Predictably Irrational, but serves as a much more comprehensive overview of our inherent biases and heuristics that play a big role in decision making. Daniel Kahneman is one of the founders of behavioral economics—and in fact won a nobel prize for his research. He describes the brain as two competing systems that fight for primal survival and rational reason, respectively, but that don’t always get along. Check out Predictably Irrational first, as this is considerably longer, but if you have a Kindle, this one’s only $3 anyway.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Cal Newport)
Cal argues that striving to follow a preconceived “passion” in your career is not only not very helpful in most cases, but can actually be detrimental to one’s job and life satisfaction. If that sounds weird, it’s probably because we’re surrounded by claims to follow our passion for a happy life, but this is a book worth reading, if only to introduce to you a counter argument. More than that, he continues by figuring out what it is, if not a preconceived passion, that does make our careers and lives fulfilling. The title gives away part of his suggested solution, but the conclusion is quite nuanced and really does take the entire book to explore.

The Healing of America (T. R. Reid)
T. R. Reid made me realize just how messed up our healthcare system is and how much better some other countries are doing at keeping their populations healthy (and for considerably less money as well). Regardless of your thoughts on how we should organize our healthcare system, hopefully you at least agree that it’s far from perfect. This is a good introduction to how a few other countries have gone about organizing their healthcare systems, why a pure market-based system doesn’t work, and what we can do to have better health outcomes for less investment at the national level.


To Bulgaria and Beyond

In a couple hours I’ll be flying to Eastern Europe again for 10 days or so with 3 high school friends. With luck, we’ll visit Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Turkey, though the plan could definitely change while we’re there. I think we’re all pretty clueless about the region as a whole, but the resulting spontaneity should add to the experience. Some of the best travel experiences I’ve had were completely spontaneous. I flew into Medellin, Colombia to find every hostel and hotel room full. Fortunately, this led to an amazing experience with the Couch Surfing community, exploring the mountainous region during the biggest festival of the year. I ended up in Serbia because I found a cheap train ride from Slovenia and it ended up being a really fun city. Leaving some of the trip up to chance means we might miss out on some tourist sights, but hopefully our flexibility will allow us to be open to any opportunities that arise.

Here’s a rough plan of what we’re hoping to do while abroad:

Sofia, Bulgaria → Skopje, Macedonia → Prizren, Kosovo → Istanbul, Turkey


Wednesday, March 5th – Brian flies out of Austin

Thursday, March 6th – Brian arrives in Sofia, Bulgaria after a long layover in Munich, Germany.

Friday, March 7th – Austin, Bunker, and Kykta fly out of their respective cities. Brian takes early bus to Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

Saturday, March 8th – Brian returns to Sofia by bus. Austin, Bunker, and Kykta arrive in Sofia, Bulgaria in the afternoon.

Sunday, March 9th – Sofia, Bulgaria.

Monday, March 10th –Early bus to Skopje, Macedonia.

Tuesday, March 11th – Early bus to Prizren, Kosovo.

Wednesday, March 12th – Early bus back to Skopje, Macedonia. 

Thursday, March 13th – Fly to Istanbul, Turkey in the afternoon.

Friday, March 14th – Istanbul, Turkey.

Saturday, March 15th – Istanbul, Turkey. Austin and Kykta fly out early morning from Istanbul.

Sunday, March 16th – Brian and Bunker fly out early morning from Istanbul.

Bulgaria and Beyond

Bulgaria and Beyond

4 countries. 4 languages. 4 currencies. 2 alphabets. 2 continents.

Should be a fun trip. I’ll post updates here and pictures on Instagram (@brianwlackey) and Flickr.

Ще поговорим по-късно! (Bulgarian: See you later!)


Some Awesome Things

In a post-exams cleaning frenzy yesterday, I came across a notebook I had written in earlier this year. On my sister’s recommendation, I had attempted to keep a gratitude journal of sorts for a few months. As one of several experiments I was doing at the time, I didn’t give it much thought afterwards and lost the journal and habit after arriving in Peru. Reading back through the list out of context revealed some of that which brought me joy and, probably more importantly, the distinct lack of material goods among those things for which I was grateful.

The gratitude towards nonmaterial things, friends and family, and simple pleasures reminded me, especially during the holiday season, of that which is really important. I thought it’d be fun to share a random, unordered sample from the notebook:

My family

Live music

Free-range eggs

Good conversations



Food processors


Math skills


The feeling when you finish a really good book

Marcus Aurelius


Unexpectedly cold days when you’ve already come to terms with summer’s eminent arrival

Spending time with friends

Not living in West Campus

Philosophical conversations with my dad


Seeing other people accomplish their goals


Smoked paprika

Dropping everything school related (because you’ve accomplished enough for the day) to grab a beer with friends

Meat thermometers

GlobeMed meetings


Cold fronts

When things cost an exact multiple of one dollar

Active hope

Healthcare systems

Farmers markets

Meeting randomly weird people

Introverted Friday nights

Test curves


Focaccia bread




People who always manage to find the perfect gift



Unusually good customer service

People who help you move


The Toothbrush Fallacy

Screen Shot 2013-05-20 at 8.06.56 PMYears ago I was backpacking with my Boy Scout troop somewhere in the Rockies and vividly remember most of the kids carrying packs more than half their body weight. Climbing up a mountain with 60 pounds of gear on your back flat out sucks. It’s impossible to enjoy hiking when you’re schlepping the weight of a large dog with you, especially as a thirteen-year-old. Two solutions became apparent:

1. Don’t go backpacking

2. Try to carry a lighter load

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What I’ve Learned in 100 Days of Flossing

This morning I flossed my teeth for the 100th day in a row.

Surely this shouldn’t impress you at all as we’ve been lectured since the first visit to the dentist about the importance of flossing. However, I never really did it until recently, and I’m kind of curious as to why.

Clearly flossing isn’t a hard task. It’s not particularly painful. Really it’s not time consuming at all. A flossing habit is probably the cheapest way to protect your health too. So why didn’t I do it? Any rational human, a group to which I apparently don’t belong, would have started flossing immediately upon doing a quick cost-benefit analysis:

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Frio River, Texas


Goodbye Facebook

So I’m deleting my Facebook. I’ve known other people who’ve done it recently and it’s a surprisingly controversial topic. Such a huge part of our lives are documented on Facebook and a huge part of our (at least my) days are spent consuming the posts of our hundreds of friends and “friends.” The site has become such a normal part of life that it has become exceedingly weird to not have an account, kind of like being vegan or wearing Vibram FiveFingers to class.

I’ve been toying with the idea of deleting, or at least deactivating, my account for a while now, but haven’t been able to go through with it for whatever reason. Some psychologists have actually given this a name: FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. I have this gut reliance on the network to entertain me, inform me of upcoming events I might not hear of otherwise, and keep up with close friends and not-so-close acquaintances. It definitely has benefits. However, I’ve reached an internal agreement that the negative consequences far outweigh those reasons for staying, at least for me.

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