Tuesday, February 04, 2014


I liked John Durant’s book (recommended by Steven Pinker) The Paleo Manifesto so when I heard about his new PaleoCon conference, I had to check it out. Today there was a talk by Seth Roberts, who I know from Beijing, which made it even more mandatory for me.

Everything about the “paleo lifestyle” is easy to caricature. Eating and acting like a caveman? You gotta be kidding. And it’s not just common sense that tells us this is stupid.  US News and World Report ranks Paleo dead last among 32 diets studied by their scientific advisors. University of Michigan Biological Sciences professor Marlene Zuk devotes an entire book to explaining the problems, which she calls Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live. So who’s fooled?

Well, the problem is that the term “paleo” is just too easy to ridicule. Even Zuk’s book, I found, picks on a straw man that doesn’t exist. There really are no serious Paleo people who believe what she thinks they believe. A much better term, “Ancestral Health”, captures the idea more accurately: that we humans are mismatched between the urban “modern” environment in which we find ourselves today, and our rich, native habitat that our genes were designed for. You can quibble about the details — and the US News survey, for example, gets the details wrong — but I really don’t think the core idea can be controversial.

So PaleoCon gathers a number of interesting speakers to talk about different aspects of Ancestral Health, and I found today’s speakers to be especially full of good ideas.

Chris Kresser debunks several myths:

  • Vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters [the evidence is conflicting and doesn’t distinguish between processed and “natural” meat]
  • Eating saturated fat causes heart disease [eating eggs, for example, don’t affect cholesterol levels in most people]
  • Dairy is bad [maybe for those without the lactose-persistence gene, but not for the rest of us]
  • Fructose is a toxin [whole fruit is digested differently, and be wary of studies based on mice, which have different digestion of sugars]

Seth Roberts explains how he does his self-tracking:

  • Good sleep is the single most important aspect of good health
  • Take a tablespoon of honey before bed
  • Your body uses smell to decide whether to burn food or store it as fat: avoid exposing yourself to the same smells regularly.
  • Animal fat (like 60g of butter/day) can help with brain function

There’s more, including a bunch of additional ideas from David Asprey and others. I didn’t agree with everything, and some of the information was contradictory. But that’s what it’s like when you explore new territory with interesting people. It’s worth checking out.



Monday, February 03, 2014

[podcast] The Second Machine Age

My favorite podcast, Econtalk, is always worth a listen. Here are my takeaways from this week’s interview with Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT and co-author of The Second Machine Age. His book has already been in my queue, and I’ll write more about it later.

[Sorry for the messy notes: I’m just putting the highlights here of some things I learned.  This deserves a much longer post]

  • Driverless cars may take longer to be adopted in inner cities because they aren't allowed to "bend the rules", which is pretty much required if you're going to survive in those crowded, chaotic conditions.
  • Measure the Consumer Surplus, which is about $300B/year. This metric, though difficult to measure, is arguably more relevant than GDP, because it more accurately reflects what really matters to people (how good is the "deal" I'm getting out of engaging in the economy?)
    • example: Wikipedia vs. Encyclopedia Britannica
    Better to teach statistics to high schoolers, not calculus
  • Voltaire: work addresses (1) boredom, (2) vice, and (3) need

Drivers of change

  • skill-biased technical changes
  • capital-biased technical changes
  • superstar-biased technical change

You must, must, must learn to adapt to new technologies.

That last point, about the importance of adaptation, is easy to ignore for most people because it’s so hard. Technology changes so quickly that even those who think they’re on top of it, you can miss the trends and fall behind.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Sneaking into the Macintosh launch

The Apple Macintosh was launched 30 years ago, which seems like ancient history because of course it is, but it’s fun to reflect a little on it because it brings back lots of personal memories for me – especially memories of what I think was the true Spirit of Macintosh.  In those days, most of us felt like the true meaning of computing was embodied in a company like Apple (and to a much lesser extent, Microsoft, which was barely known at the time) which were fighting the on-coming onslaught from the Big and Boring Establishment (i.e. IBM).  We wanted Apple to succeed because we thought of it as the Good Guys versus the Bad Guys in the Establishment, led by IBM with their zillions of dollars to force the world to use their software.  All we had was our ingenuity.

I was in college at the time, and I remember being pretty excited during the weeks leading up to the launch. In those days there was no world wide web where you could read up on leaks about the product, and the whole thing was shrouded in ultra secrecy. I was working part time at a small startup software company funded by a Japanese printer manufacturer that was hoping to successfully introduce a PC to the US (based on, of all things, the CP/M operating system).  But the management of the company was very interested in Apple too, and I had access to some of the early Mac stuff at the Stanford lab where I hung out.  My friends and I were also avid high tech stock gamblers investors too, so we were Apple stockholders as well, which entitled us to get into the annual shareholders meeting at the De Anza Auditorium, where we knew we could see the introduction in person.

Unfortunately, when we got there the place was packed and it was impossible to find parking,  so we agreed to split up in order to ensure we could get inside.  One of my roommates, David, was driving, so he dropped us off at the front while the other three of us, Craig, Dario, and I went inside to find seats.  But the auditorium quickly filled up and they closed the doors before David could get inside!  What to do?

Without hesitation, Craig reminded us of some advice that I still remember:  “Sometimes, if you can’t get in through the front door, you have to go in through the back door”.

So that’s what we did.  Remember, this was before cell phones, so there was no way to call each other to set up the plan.  Instead, Craig held our seats while I ran outside to find David.  Dario and I agreed that in precisely five minutes, he would be standing at the locked exit door in back and would let us back in.  I rushed outside and fortunately was able to quickly find our friend, and sure enough, Dario had the door ready for us and we snuck inside in the nick of time.  We saw the entire event – and by sneaking in we felt even more like insiders for having “beaten the establishment” just like the Macintosh Spirit encouraged us to do.

Craig’s good advice still applies today when you’re a startup forced to think creatively about how to get around obstacles.  The Established Players have the front doors all locked up.  If you want to get inside, you need to be creative – and more often than not, that means going through the back door.

[cross-posted and updated from my old blog. Photo thanks: William Wilkinson]

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Chinese cities bigger than Los Angeles

My favorite way to give a sense of the size difference between the US and China is to ask this question: the biggest city in California is the second biggest in the US, with a population of just under 4M people (2012 estimate);  How many cities in China are bigger than Los Angeles?

Rank City Province Population
1 Shanghai Shanghai 20,217,748
2 Beijing Beijing 16,446,857
3 Chongqing Chongqing 11,375,808
4 Shenzhen Guangdong 10,358,381
5 Guangzhou Guangdong 9,702,144
6 Tianjin Tianjin 9,562,255
7 Wuhan Hubei 7,541,527
8 Dongguan Guangdong 7,271,322
9 Foshan Guangdong 6,771,895
10 Chengdu Sichuan 6,316,922
11 Nanjing Jiangsu 6,238,186
12 Shenyang Liaoning 5,718,232
13 Xi'an Shaanxi 5,206,253
14 Hangzhou Zhejiang 5,162,093
15 Harbin Heilongjiang 4,933,054
16 Suzhou Jiangsu 4,083,923
17 Qingdao Shandong 3,990,942
18 Dalian Liaoning 3,902,467
Bonus question: how many of the above cities – all of which are bigger than LA -- have you ever even heard of?

Incidentally, India (the world’s second-largest country) has only 10 cities bigger than LA.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Track my speech

You can take the Wisconsin boy out of Wisconsin but you can’t take Wisconsin out of the boy. This New York Times dialect quiz guesses which part of the country you’re from based on your preferences for certain words (e.g. “sneakers” vs. “tennis shoes” or “dinner” vs. “supper”).Untitled_Clipping_122113_090740_PM

It correctly shows I’m from the Midwest, but I think it gave too much credit to my answer on what you call the night before Halloween (I said “Devil’s Night”, which is only used in the Detroit area, and I know it only from watching the news. Other parts of the country have no word for that night).

Friday, December 20, 2013

I'm a Stimulator? or a Mover?

Top Brain, Bottom Brain by Kosslyn and Miller

I didn't like this book, but having taken the trouble to read it, I'll at least try to summarize what I learned. I put it on my pile due to the praise from my favorite thinker Steven Pinker, but it didn't live up to my unrealistic expectations. The basic idea, drawn from author Kosslyn's deep neurological expertise, is that human brains, complex as they are, can be usefully summarized as carrying two main functions: planning and perceiving. Obviously the functions are highly interactive, so resist the temptation to oversimplify, but neverthless, you can identify four "Cognitive Modes" based on which function is dominant (or not) in a particular situation.
Highly-utilized Top Minimally-utilized Top
Highly-utilized Bottom Mover Mode Perceiver Mode
Minimally-utilized Bottom Stimulator Mode Adaptor Mode
People who are prone to “Mover Mode” are good at planning and execution. Perceivers, on the other hand, don’t initiate complex plans but are good at putting perceptions into context to understand the implications.
Stimulators, while often creative and original, tend to shoot off in a direction without much forethought, sometimes at the expense of social harmony. Adaptors, by contrast, are easy-going and flexible, but can be frustratingly directionless.

The book goes into plenty of detail, much backed by neurology, and with multiple anecdotal examples of how this plays out in real life. Unfortunately, the examples seem contrived and un-researched (Sarah Palin is an example of a “Stimulator”, Michael Bloomberg is a “Mover”).

So which brain type am I? Well, there is a handy test in the book (and online here) but I had a hard time with many of the questions. Some just seemed irrelevant to me (e.g. "when you buy furniture.." or "clothes" -- something I rely on my wife for), but others, I just didn’t understand ("do you observe surfaces?” huh?).
Partly because the questions didn’t make sense, I took the test twice: the first time I scored “Stimulator”. But I tried again and this time I scored “Mover.”  So which am I really?  I guess I’ll need to use both top and bottom of my brain to figure that out.

If you’re really into neurology, you have to read anything by this author, but you’ll probably be as disappointed as I was. Shrug.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

[book] Manage Your Day-to-Day

This is a short, easy-to-read, summary of tips for how to be more productive and more creative. The bottom line: focus.

Here are some of the specific tips worth remembering:

  • Do your most creative work first thing in the day, before everything else.
  • “Feel the frequency”: set up a routine, doing the same things at the same time.
  • Defend your creative time against all interruptions: schedule it on the calendar and treat it seriously.
  • It’s harder to see day-to-day progress on long, big (and hence worthwhile) projects, so invent metrics to enable self-tracking.

Two specific ways to break mental blocks:

  • [Ray Bradbury]: make a list of random word pairs, then force yourself to piece together a story about them.
  • [Edward de Bono] Repetition is the enemy of insight. Take a starting point that has nothing to do with your project and work from there.

Most of these tips are found elsewhere, so I didn’t think this was a breakthrough book, but it’s a readable and inspiring.