Required Reading, 5th Week of October 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the three I found most interesting:

Thinking Outside Pandora’s Boxvia Startups and ShitStartup L. Jackson is an anonymous Twitter user who has a biting and insightful take on Silicon Valley. Check out his most popular tweets for some hilarious tech wisdom.

He also has a blog for the thoughts that don’t fit snugly into Twitter’s 140 character limit. His analysis of the music industry was particularly interesting to me, and just as interesting are the hyperlinks used to support his point, that streaming music is not a profitable business, and why should it be? The only reason music was profitable in the past was because it was wildly inefficient.

Mobile: It Changes Everything, via ben-evans.comIn keeping with the theme of insights from a technologist, below is a 25 minute presentation from Benedict Evans about the mammoth potential of mobile devices compared to the PC, and people’s online consumption preferences. The presentation presents numerical data in a pleasing visual manner, and makes sense of trends in technology and commerce. The implications he presents are staggering:

Why the Dodo Deserves a New Reputation, via Audubon: Moving on from tech and into the world of paleontology and the dodo bird. For starters, I hadn’t realized the dodo had been extinct for almost 400 years (last seen in 1662)! Here is an attempt to correct the misunderstandings in the dodo legend, namely that it wasn’t such a dumb, maladapted bird. Our impression of it has been misinformed by bad science and inaccurate drawings of its body (only two drawings that exist were done by people who had actually seen a dodo bird!). Rather, this creature was the product of the locale it evolved in, and its evolutionary eccentricities are explained by this quote from The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease:

“Strange evolutionary events often happen on islands. Large animals on small, remote islands often confront energy crisis because there are typically fewer plants and less food than on larger landmasses. In these settings, very large animals struggle because they need more food than the island can provide. In contrast, small animals frequently do better than their mainland relatives because they have enough food, they face less competition from other small species, and because islands often lack predators, releasing them from the need to hide. On many islands small species become larger (gigantism) and large species become smaller (dwarfism). Islands such as Madagascar, Mauritius, or Sardinia were thus hosts to giant rats and lizards (Komodo dragons) along with miniature hippos, elephants, and goats (SEE: Homo floresiensisthe Hobbit of Flores).

Required Reading, 4th Week of October 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the three I found most interesting:

The Lonely Death of George Bellvia The New York Times—Some people die alone. This article is both a riveting investigation into who George Bell was, as well as a meditation on what it means to grow old and how to do so with dignity:

The solitude of so many deaths wears on Mr. Plaza, the fear that someday it will be him splayed on the floor in one of these silent apartments. “This job teaches you a lot,” he said. “You learn whatever material stuff you have you should use it and share it. Share yourself. People die with nobody to talk to. They die and relatives come out of the woodwork. ‘He was my uncle. He was my cousin. Give me what he had.’ Gimme, gimme. Yet when he was alive they never visited, never knew the person. From working in this office, my life changed.”

How Your Junk Mail Shows If You’re Rich Or Poorvia The Washington Post—Those junk mail credit card offers aren’t random. If it’s in your mailbox, it’s for you.

Why Self-Driving Cars Must Be Programmed to Kill, via MIT Technology Review—As discussed in The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us, the more we ask from automation, the more necessary an electronic ethical code becomes:

Here is the nature of the dilemma. Imagine that in the not-too-distant future, you own a self-driving car. One day, while you are driving along, an unfortunate set of events causes the car to head toward a crowd of 10 people crossing the road. It cannot stop in time but it can avoid killing 10 people by steering into a wall. However, this collision would kill you, the owner and occupant. What should it do?

Required Reading, 3rd Week of October 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. The most interesting one I read this week was a long one, and deserves your full attention:

Why the Best War Reporter in a Generation Had to Suddenly Stopvia Esquire: A profile on C.J. Chivers, a war correspondent who’s seen it all in the past fifteen years, from Ground Zero on 9/11 to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya:

By that April 2011, when Libya was collapsing into civil war, Chivers himself had been at war for ten years. He’d been in Afghanistan in November 2001, just after the bombing began, as he’d been in Iraq in March 2003, when the bombing began there—as he’d also been in lower Manhattan on the morning of September 11, and as he had been in every theater since, too many deployments for him to even remember, amounting to years away from his home, his wife, and his five small children, four boys and a girl.

The Times hired Chivers at age thirty-four in 1999 to cover war. That was the handshake, he says. A former Marine officer, he might know how to handle himself in a war zone, the paper figured. What theTimes could not have known was that Chivers would develop a brand of journalism unique in the world for, among other things, its study of the weapons we use to kill one another. After reporting on a firefight—whether he was in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Ossetia, Libya, or Syria—he’d look for shell casings and ordnance fragments. If he was embedded with American soldiers or Marines, he’d ask them if he could look through what they had found for an hour or so—”finger fucking,” he’d call it—and ask his photographer to take pictures of ammunition stamps and serial numbers. Over time and in this way he would reveal a vast world of small-arms trade and secret trafficking that no other journalist had known existed before.

Required Reading, 2nd Week of October 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the three I found most interesting:

Why Singapore has the smartest kids in the world, via cnn.com—I’ve heard many vague statements bemoaning how bad the American education system is, but this quote clearly distills what’s lacking:

“One thing that’s been clear to them is that the world economy no longer rewards people just for what they know. Google knows everything. The world economy rewards people for what they can do with what they know.”

How Did Picasso Create 50,000 Works of Art? via Altucher Confidential—There’s a lot of wisdom in James Altucher’s writing. He’s prolific and repeats himself a lot but I found some enlightening new ideas in these reflections on quotes from Picasso:

“Action is the foundational key to all success.”

I know too many people who have an idea for a book, or a show, or a business. But “when I have time” or “it’s too late for me”, ignoring that Barbara Cortland wrote 23 books in her 82nd year.

The one thing in common from anyone above is that they wrote every single day. It’s hard to sit down every day and…sit. Blank paper. Blank canvas. Blankness.

And then…if you do something…it might suck. It might be the worst thing you ever do.

Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, has an incredible world record: he’s missed more shots in professional basketball than any other player. He’s missed over 13,000 shots.

So taking action is more important than anything else.

Nothing => Thinking => Doing => Finishing => Repeat is a daily practice for…I don’t know.

But I hope I can do it every day.

Is The World Looking Progressively Weirder? via Marginal Revolution—As the glut of information being generated expands on top of what is already available, our attention spans can’t hope to keep up:

As the world is more connected, with the global dominating over the local, the number of sources of news is multiplying. But your consciousness remains limited. So we are experiencing a winner-take-all effect in information: like a large movie theatre with a small door. 

Required Reading, 1st Week of October 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the two I found most interesting:

How Pope Francis Became the People’s Pontiffvia Vanity Fair—a glimpse into the background of the mysterious and inspiring Pope Francis. His shrugging off of the trappings of prestige is unheard of these days:

Francis is the first Pope in 110 years who hasn’t lived in the palace, and he has shaken off many monarchical trappings. Up in that window, he isn’t a ruler condescending to look down on his subjects. The window isn’t a portal to the divine; it’s just an ornate window in a city full of them.

And what is he? He is a free man, that’s what he is. Somehow he has stayed true to himself and to the core Catholic message and has kept free of the pomp of the papacy, the crush of celebrity, and the expectations of the global Church. “He doesn’t ‘play’ the Pope,” says Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. “He is who he is.” He’ll ride in the Popemobile with the protective glass down, no matter the security risk. He’ll establish a shelter for homeless people near St. Peter’s Square. He won’t stop speaking off the cuff and he won’t insist that all the cardinals agree about everything. With 1.2 billion members, the Church is a tumultuous household, and he isn’t going to worry about a few flying dishes.

Perspectives on Insomniavia The Book of Life—leave it to Alain de Botton to make you reconsider what’s important in life. His writing makes me feel less alone. It conveys an understanding of what it means to be human and the compassion that says, “it’s okay. You aren’t crazy.”

Lately, I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night with an abundance of ideas and pent up energy. While I worry about my sanity, de Botton reminds me to enjoy it:

Insomnia may also provide the perfect occasion on which to think. It’s easy to forget how little strategic thinking ever gets done in the day. Judging by the ideas generated there, our beds have more of a right to be called our offices than our offices. Insomnia is the revenge of the many big thoughts one hasn’t had time to nurture in the daylight hours.

Required Reading, 4th Week of September 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the two I found most interesting:

Miracle Healers, via The Economist—A disturbing look at the profitable and unregulated market for nutritional supplements:

Strangely, it was regulations which gave the industry its biggest lift. In the 1990s the FDA considered new rules for supplements’ health claims. “It set off a firestorm,” remembers David Kessler, the FDA’s commissioner at the time. “The industry understood there were billions of dollars at stake.” Lobbyists framed the issue as one of personal liberty. Bureaucrats would rob Americans of both vitamins and the freedom to care for themselves.

The result was a law that covered not just vitamins and minerals, but botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, metabolites and pills made from animal organs. The 1994 law let firms sell supplements without requiring the FDA’s approval for safety or efficacy. It also, for the first time, authorised firms to tout health benefits. They cannot claim that their pills can diagnose, prevent, treat or cure a disease, but they may make vague claims that it “supports a healthy heart” or is “essential for strong bones”, and so on. As a result, rather than restrain the firms, the law unleashed them. There are more than 20 times as many supplements on the market as there were in 1994.

Big Tech Has Become Way Too Powerfulvia The New York Times, Google’s ‘Don’t be evil’ mantra gets murky when they’re so politically powerful that they get to write the laws. This op-ed is so spot on I might as well get you started with the first three paragraphs:

CONSERVATIVES and liberals interminably debate the merits of “the free market” versus “the government.” Which one you trust more delineates the main ideological divide in America.

In reality, they aren’t two separate things. There can’t be a market without government. Legislators, agency heads and judges decide the rules of the game. And, over time, they change the rules. The important question, too rarely discussed, is who has the most influence over these decisions and in that way wins the game.

Two centuries ago slaves were among the nation’s most valuable assets, and after the Civil War, perhaps land was. Then factories, machines, railroads and oil transformed America. By the 1920s most working Americans were employees, and the most contested property issue was their freedom to organize into unions.

Now information and ideas are the most valuable forms of property. Most of the cost of producing it goes into discovering it or making the first copy. After that, the additional production cost is often zero. Such “intellectual property” is the key building block of the new economy. Without government decisions over what it is, and who can own it and on what terms, the new economy could not exist.

Required Reading, 3rd Week of September 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the three most interesting I found this week:

Underwater treasures: 10 stunning vintage photos of the American Dreamvia CNN, I enjoy Americana, especially from 1930-1980. Old photographs are a glimpse back into a world both the same as today, and utterly different. These advertisements are examples of the marketing campaign to sell 1940s and 1950s America as an ideal and innocent time, an impression that lingers on today.

Why Do We Admire Mobsters?via The New Yorker, A psychological explanation for my ‘good old days’ nostalgia: “Ultimately, the mob myth depends on psychological distance, a term coined by the New York University psychologist Yaacov Trope to describe the phenomenon of mental distancing that takes place when we separate ourselves from events, people, emotions, or concepts. In some cases, that distance comes naturally. As painful events recede into the past, our perceptions soften; when we physically remove ourselves from emotionally disturbing situations, our emotions cool. In other cases, we need to deliberately cultivate distance—to “gain perspective.” Trope likens it to the old cliché of missing the forest for the trees: you can wander around in the trees forever or, through training or external intervention, realize that you need to step back to see the full vista.

Once attained, psychological distance allows us to romanticize and feel nostalgia for almost anything. It provides a filter, eliminating some details and emphasizing others. We speak of the good old days, hardly ever of the bad. Psychological distance is, among other things, a coping mechanism: it protects against depression and its close cousin, rumination, which pushes us to dwell too long on unpleasant details from the past instead of moving forward. When, instead, we smooth the edges of the past, remembering it as better than it was, we end up hoping for an equally happy future.”

Why the U.S. Government Is Embracing Behavioral Sciencevia Harvard Business Review, Behavioral science shows promise in making everyday tasks more efficient (assuming they’re engineered responsibly). “Public policy has often relied on assumptions of rationality when accounting for human behavior, which has led to suboptimal policies in the past. For example, citizens are sometimes bombarded by mass-media campaigns (designed to decrease smoking, increase seat-belt use, etc.) that assume they will be able to process an onslaught of messages to their best advantage. But such campaigns often have not worked, and may even have backfired at times.”

Common Cognitive Distortions

From Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s fantastic article ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ in this month’s Atlantic. The piece is presented as an alarmist think-piece about censorship in higher ed, but is actually a manual on cognitive behavioral therapy:

For millennia, philosophers have understood that we don’t see life as it is; we see a version distorted by our hopes, fears, and other attachments. The Buddha said, “Our life is the creation of our mind.” Marcus Aurelius said, “Life itself is but what you deem it.” The quest for wisdom in many traditions begins with this insight. Early Buddhists and the Stoics, for example, developed practices for reducing attachments, thinking more clearly, and finding release from the emotional torments of normal mental life.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a modern embodiment of this ancient wisdom. It is the most extensively studied nonpharmaceutical treatment of mental illness, and is used widely to treat depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and addiction. It can even be of help to schizophrenics. No other form of psychotherapy has been shown to work for a broader range of problems. Studies have generally found that it is as effective as antidepressant drugs (such as Prozac) in the treatment of anxiety and depression. The therapy is relatively quick and easy to learn; after a few months of training, many patients can do it on their own. Unlike drugs, cognitive behavioral therapy keeps working long after treatment is stopped, because it teaches thinking skills that people can continue to use.

The goal is to minimize distorted thinking and see the world more accurately. You start by learning the names of the dozen or so most common cognitive distortions (such as overgeneralizing, discounting positives, and emotional reasoning; see the list at the bottom of this article). Each time you notice yourself falling prey to one of them, you name it, describe the facts of the situation, consider alternative interpretations, and then choose an interpretation of events more in line with those facts. Your emotions follow your new interpretation. In time, this process becomes automatic. When people improve their mental hygiene in this way—when they free themselves from the repetitive irrational thoughts that had previously filled so much of their consciousness—they become less depressed, anxious, and angry.

Common Cognitive Distortions

A partial list from Robert L. Leahy, Stephen J. F. Holland, and Lata K. McGinn’sTreatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety Disorders (2012).

1. Mind reading. You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.”

2. Fortune-telling. You predict the future negatively: things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. “I’ll fail that exam,” or “I won’t get the job.”

3. Catastrophizing.You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it. “It would be terrible if I failed.”

4. Labeling. You assign global negative traits to yourself and others. “I’m undesirable,” or “He’s a rotten person.”

5. Discounting positives. You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial. “That’s what wives are supposed to do—so it doesn’t count when she’s nice to me,” or “Those successes were easy, so they don’t matter.”

6. Negative filtering. You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who don’t like me.”

7. Overgeneralizing. You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things.”

8. Dichotomous thinking. You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone,” or “It was a complete waste of time.”

9. Blaming. You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings, and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. “She’s to blame for the way I feel now,” or “My parents caused all my problems.”

10. What if? You keep asking a series of questions about “what if” something happens, and you fail to be satisfied with any of the answers. “Yeah, but what if I get anxious?,” or “What if I can’t catch my breath?”

11. Emotional reasoning. You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, my marriage is not working out.”

12. Inability to disconfirm. You reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts. For example, when you have the thought I’m unlovable, you reject as irrelevant any evidence that people like you. Consequently, your thought cannot be refuted. “That’s not the real issue. There are deeper problems. There are other factors.”

Scientists Have Mapped All of Ötzi the Iceman’s 61 Tattoos

But still don’t know what they mean. Ötzi and his tattoos are 5,300 years old.

My fascination with him began as a small child, with the episode of NOVA that my parents had recorded. I watched and re-watched that VHS with a morbid curiosity. Very little is known about him, only what can be inferred by forensic anthropologists. All that is known is that he was murdered in the Alps and preserved in the blistering snow for thousands of years before being discovered in 1991 by a couple of hikers.

Read about his tattoos in Discover Magazine.

Is The World Ready for the Waterless Urinal?

“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” — William Gibson

Uber gets all the publicity, but this is a less publicized case of the old guard trying to shutter innovation. Six years after this article from Wired was published, I’m starting to see them frequently in public restrooms. The Sprout’s near my house even has a self-congratulatory plaque in their men’s room that says how much water they’re saving, roughly 20,000 gallons annually per urinal. If that’s even ballpark accurate, that’s insane!

The push back from the plumbers union reminds me of a quotation I lifted from an issue of The Economist some time ago:

“Too many people do well out of today’s system to make change easy.”