Justin Owings, Googler [Deprecated]

It’s been a shade under seven years working here at Google in Atlanta; the longest I’ve worked anywhere.

Today is my last day.

If you know me, you know I’ve been a Google fanboy for years, pushing Gmail on friends and family; getting on the Nexus (Android) bandwagon back in early 2010; owning Google Glass and embarrassing my wife (but impressing my kids); feeling a goofy kinship with Sergey Brin back when he wore Vibrams; and on and on. I’ve had a tribal pride in working at Google, and I’ll always be a card-carrying Xoogler.

While my work in Google was most commonly behind the scenes in sales, my legacy to Google Atlanta is as visible as it gets — a half-decent logo that adorns walls, t-shirts, and more (e.g. the adapted metal sign above; the image below; some other use-cases).

There’s so much I could share about working at Google: good, bad, and ugly. Perhaps in time I’ll dabble in sharing it all. For now, here’s a bit of good.

  • I felt lucky when Google paid me to spend seven weeks with my second daughter shortly after she was born; and later, again, when I spent thirteen weeks with my youngest son after he was born.
  • I felt lucky when Christmas came and it meant I got some new-fangled gadget, whether a phone, a tablet, or the ill-fated Sony Google TV (still works!).
  • I felt lucky to have worked at a place that values doing good within the world whether or not it helped the bottom line; where “don’t be evil” was a mantra that helped safeguard Google from the temptation to make questionable decisions in the name of “business.”
  • I felt lucky to work among people of the highest-caliber who challenged me to be better and grow.
  • I felt lucky to have had visionaries as leaders who could have just sat back and played it safe; instead, they made audacious bets about self-driving cars, AI, solving aging, VR/AR, delivery, bringing Internet to the remote places of the planet with balloons, and on and on.
  • I felt lucky to be able to say I was a Googler. I got to be a part of one of the most incredible companies in history …

… And I feel lucky even as I say “Goodbye, Google,” and go a new way at a young company that was founded by brilliant, incredible people I only know because I worked at Google.

Thanks, Larry and Sergey! It was a pleasure.

Now, to the future!

The Canary in the Coal Mine and Leaving Dysfunctional Groups

The expression “canary in a coal mine” originates from coal miners using canaries as a kind of early warning system. The miners would take the birds into the mine and periodically check-in on their status. The delicate canaries were more susceptible to gases like carbon monoxide, so if they suddenly stopped moving, miners would be alerted of dangerous air conditions.

Hence, the expression “canary in a coal mine” is an idiomatic way of talking about events that portend negative things to come.

Dysfunctional Families, Groups, and Organizations

A psychiatrist friend observed that with (truly) dysfunctional families, it’s the healthy members who leave.

Here’s the implied theory. If you are a healthy and functioning human being, there’s only so much dysfunction you can tolerate before you have to get out of that relationship.

I think you can take the idea further.

Let’s assume this is you. You’re in a dysfunctional family. Maybe you fight it or try to fix it. Maybe you’re successful. Maybe not. Eventually one of three things is going to happen.

  • You’re going to succumb to the dysfunction and change to conform to the family norm.
  • You’re going to reject it and leave the family.
  • The family is going to reject you.

These dynamics are not limited to families. They extend to just about any group or organization.

But it’s not easy to leave.

Leaving a dysfunctional group means we can’t ignore the ugly bits that have been, to some degree, a part of our identity. After all, we chose to be a part of that group (exception: family). The individuals in that group are, in a way, mirrors of us. If the group is dysfunctional are we similarly broken? While I don’t think that necessarily follows, it’s not fun to ask these questions.

Leaving is hard because it’s a decision riddled with self-doubt. It means making judgments about ourselves and people we care about. It’s made even harder because very often the individuals in these groups are good; perhaps they’re just caught up in the cage. We have real empathy for these friends.

Breaking free of the cage and leaving is hard.

It’s that hardness that makes leaving such a powerful signal that something might not be right.

Perhaps leavers are the canaries in the coal mine.

Casey Neistat and Success by Doing (Plus Stochasticity)

If you aren’t familiar with Casey Neistat, allow me to remedy the situation.

Casey Neistat is likely the most burgeoning YouTube star of 2016. Here’s his channel. I’m approaching a year having subscribed to his daily vlog videos and to my eye what Neistat is doing on YouTube is a testament to the democraticization of video content.

First a little context: Neistat has racked up over a billion video views and is likely to cross the 5 million subscriber mark sometime in the next few days. He’s 35 (a month younger than me), lives in NYC, and has been in film and video production for almost 15 years though he never went to school for it and got his start on an iMac/

You might have come across Casey’s work in the past. See: real-life Alladin/magic carpet in New York (he worked to produce this) or his Jan 2016, mid-NYC-blizzard snowboarding  the streets video set to “New York, New York.” For more background, take a watch on Reddit’s Formative Moment video on Casey Neistat.

For a classic Neistat video, watch this video of him retrieving a drone he lost on top of a building in New York. It showcases his wild use of cameras and general scrappiness with both his videos and his approach to life.

Just think about what he’s doing. Every single day he records a slew of content using a mix of DSLR cameras, handheld point and shoot cameras, drones, smartphones, and god knows what other equipment, bringing to life the adage that the best camera is the one you have with you. He takes all this content at the end of the day and then spends a few hours editing it down into a video that is less than 10 minutes.

In so many ways, Casey’s channel is a one-man reality TV show that is direct to viewer and without all the absurd drama that you’ve come to associate with “reality TV.” Neistat’s body of work is reality TV “IRL,” but unlike real life which is often boring, it’s been supercut into something fun to watch.

(It also helps that Neistat’s life is, actually, pretty fascinating, particularly as he has ascended into celebrity status, gets sent on trips around the world, and is almost a mascot for NYC.)

Bear in mind what’s not seen on camera — all the work and effort Neistat puts into getting the raw content that makes his daily vlogs visual treats. Note that you don’t usually see the cameras. Or think about how when you see a shot of Neistat walking or running “on scene” (a common shot is him entering his production studio, as seen from his desk): Casey had to do that very action at least twice — once to set up the camera and once to record the action. In other words, this “real life” video is manufactured. It’s deliberate. It’s not really “real” in the “your life just sorta unfolds” way and more real from the perspective of telling a story about life. It’s a story. Duh.

That Casey Neistat does all of this every day is a serious feat. Kudos to his dedication; he’s upleveled the conversation on YouTube (in the off chance you’re reading this, thanks!).

So about that stochasticity …

Right, so now that you’re familiar with Neistat and realize that he’s putting out solid work every day (each video is getting a million plus views), let’s talk about his viral successes.

I remember when Casey’s snowboarding video hit. I recall waking up and actually wondering, “I wonder how NYC is doing amidst this blizzard — I bet Neistat will do a video,” and (no joke) about 30 seconds later I saw the notification that he’d uploaded his snowboarding NYC video.

That video has received nearly 15 million views to date and got re-shared all over the web and picked up by all sorts of news stations. It was a big moment for Casey and got him a whole lot of attention and new subscribers.

It also spawned another wave of questions about how Casey creates viral videos. Not surprisingly, he’s vlogged about this subject. And like anyone who has had success, Casey has a few thoughts about how to create viral videos — things like tapping into the zeitgeist, timing, relevance, generality — he even made a diagram in that video:

Note the bottom right …
What’s refreshing about Neistat is his self-awareness about viral success — he wraps that diagram up with a statement:

The truth is I have no idea how or why the video goes viral.

Casey echos this sentiment some 240 videos later after his $21K First Class plane ticket video published about 10 days ago achieved 20 million views in ~7 days, bumping his subscriber base by about 500K subscribers. Mind that any YouTuber would kill for 5K subscribers.

That’s repeat success. So is Neistat a viral video machine or are his viral video hits just dumb luck?

It’s neither, and Neistat outright says as much. Neistat’s viral success is due to lots and lots of attempts, lots of everyday successes (most of his videos still achieved around a million views), and the occasional colossal blow-up.

And to borrow on Nassim Taleb, you can attribute Casey Neistat’s viral success to taking a stochastic approach to content creation. Casey noted in his “viral video secrets” video (the one with the diagram) the following:

I’ve gotten lucky and had a few viral hits beyond just this snowboarding one but I’ve also uploaded 310 movies in the last 305 days so if 2 of them or 1 of them has gone viral that’s less than 1 third of 1 percent of every movie I make so I don’t know what it is.

For most people, this rate of success might be a deterrent to even trying. But to someone like Casey Neistat — a real “doer” — it’s just the way to live life.

And that’s the takeaway. Expose yourself to upside success in life by writing a lot of options or buying a lot of lottery tickets — in the figurative sense — that is, by engaging in activities that you enjoy, that are hard, and that pay off by themselves but also have huge upside potential.

And really, that’s why I blog*.

* Yes, I’m trying to blog again. Been quite a hiatus and it’s not easy to get back but I’m trying!

Questioning daily defaults: what’s the job I need done?

Channeling Clayton Christensen’s Jobs-to-be-done frame, I’ve started thinking about my daily default decisions. What is the job I need done by [fill-in the blank]?

It’s a useful exercise.

  • I drink coffee and other caffeinated beverages: if the job I need done is mental alertness and waking up, what’s the best thing to hire for that job?
  • After getting the kids down for bed at night, I often want to watcha show on some streaming service (we don’t have cable), what’s the job I need done that has me turning to consuming video? Relaxing? Escaping the routine? Something else? How effective is my default st accomplishing that job?

That sort of thing.

It’s making me take an outside perspective on unquestioned decisions. Channeling John Gall’s observation that destiny is unquestioned assumptions (See John Gall and Systemantics):

The decision to become involved with a particular System should be made carefully, on the basis of a balanced judgment of one’s interests. One need not drift (or sail, or barge) into Systems uncritically: CHOOSE YOUR SYSTEMS WITH CARE Remember: DESTINY IS LARGELY A SET OF UNQUESTIONED ASSUMPTIONS

So true, so relevant to our daily routines! Giving me much food for thought and the impetus for changing my defaults. I am where I am because of the decisions I make things I do, every day, and every moment.

So if I want to get a job done, I need to hire the right solutions, and change my destiny by default.

Clayton Christensen’s Jobs-to-be-done Theory

Clayton Christensen (along with a few other co-authors) is soon releasing a book called Competing Against Luck that will go more in-depth on Christensen’s “Jobs-to-be-done theory,” which is a way to reframe product design and product selling away from fallacious, post ergo hoc propter hoc data and towards first principles.

Jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) is something Christensen cooked up at least a decade ago and the best way to grok the theory is to listen to Christensen tell the milkshake story. Take a listen below (Look past the the over-styling of the video):

Reflecting on the reasons people do the things they do rather than trying to come up with some complicated, aggregated story about certain demos doing certain things is a much more effective way to understand behavior.

In the world of marketing and advertising, I’m daily confronted with the approach that carving up people into segments is the way to understand customers. It works okay, at best, but necessarily paints with broad strokes, misses nuances left and right, and generally just feels a little half-baked. By comparison, understanding the “why” people do the things they do gets to the heart of the matter.

Even more, it often reveals hidden, underlying truths. That milkshakes make for good driving-to-work breakfast food is a surprising revelation you’d probably not guess.

Another example: we drive a Honda Odyssey as our family car. However, many of our family friends have opted to go the SUV route. Why? Big SUVs are generally inferior as a family vehicle to a mini-van in almost every way possible. The only catch is that mini-vans have large negative connotations to parents. Mini-vans aren’t “cool,” right? Parents, and I think particularly mothers, who drive mini-vans feel old and uncool driving them. They don’t want to identify with their own parents or feel like they’re not fun, anymore. SUVs somehow skirt this psychological problem*. Using JTBD, the SUV decision makes all the more sense: parents need to feel young and vibrant. Who cares if a van is more practical if it makes you feel old or tangibly represents how much your life pivots around your children? Even if it may be irrational, we tie up our identity in our vehicles, and our identity is paramount for our sense of self, and our sustained happiness.

SUVs make sense as a vehicle that satisfies the job parents need to be done — move the family around — but don’t harm my sense of self in the process!

JTBD feels like an extension of economic theories, which themselves are ways to frame and understand human behavior. I find reframing life — things I want, things my kids want, things I need to do for work, and more — using the question, “What is the job I need done here?” Is a useful exercise that can have surprising results and/or make sense of sometimes irrational-looking behaviors. JTBD reframing can be used to drive my own decisions or understand my own behavior. It’s surprising but I find I’m often making decisions for reasons that make sense but aren’t at the top level of my conscious thought.

I’m not unusual. Lots of people are doing the same thing. Human beings are complex!

Have you heard of this theory? I’d be curious if you can think of any examples of how JTBD makes sense of your life or your work. Let me know!

Aside: I don’t know how I made it this long without being aware of Clayton Christensen, Harvard business professor and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma (A book I’ve heard of but not read). Yet here I am only first hearing him speak a couple weeks ago via this Talk @ Google.

Christensen has a gentle demeanor in the way he speaks that exudes thoughtfulness, and the guy is clearly a thinker, having originated a solid handful of business theories. They are conveniently organized on his website here (That link is to Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation but see the left column at that link for more, including the one I’m fixated on at the moment).

*I often think how absurd it is to pick an obviously inferior vehicle for the job-to-be-done of getting your young family around town like a Suburban over the swiss-army of family vehicles like an Odyssey for the purpose of appearing “cool” — you can’t be cool when your grimy rugrats fall over themselves trying to get in and out of a Suburban. SUVs don’t magically erase the real reason you feel old, which is that you have young kids!

The System is Down

(Via StrongBad / Homestar Runner)
I read a book about five months back by John Gall called Systemantics: The Systems Bible. The book goes through a derived (by the author) set of principles or axioms about systems of all types, why they get created, how/why they don’t work, and much, much more.

When it comes to creating systems, you have to start somewhere — the reason systems get built in the first place — if I recall, Gall calls this the “Primal Scenario.”

It behooves us all to etch it into our brains:


Sometimes obvious things need to be stated, and channeling Elon Musk’s derivation-from-first-principles approach to learning, I think Gall’s point here is all-encompassing. Everything struggles to do the thing it wants to do/is designed to do and only succeeds in part while also failing and spawning problems.

Acceptance that you can’t escape the fundamental truth of the primal scenario: that your best case scenario to solve any given problem in life, your own habits, work, teams, relationships, or whatever will only work imperfectly at best and is very much more likely to both fail and cause new confounding problems.

It’s the Primal Scenario.

And the default state of dynamic existence doesn’t mean you don’t try to solve the problems or fix the existing flaws through building new systems, it just means that you will struggle and toil at doing so, expecting otherwise is naive, often reckless, and sometimes even dangerous.

Often prosaic, Gall’s governing laws were just what I was looking for to make sense of various organizational problems I was experiencing in my dayjob. I’ll spare you the details (though I’m sure close friends have heard me speak to them ad nauseum). Suffice to say that the day to day happenings in any large company are highly governed by the laws of systems.

I can’t recommend at least reading all the axioms once. That said here are a few favorites (Gall often wrote in ALL CAPS — these are direct quotes form the book):

  • NEW SYSTEMS MEAN NEW PROBLEMS When a system is set up to accomplish some goal, a new entity has come into being—the system itself. No matter what the “goal” of the system, it immediately begins to exhibit systems-behavior, that is, to act according to the general laws that govern the operation of all systems. Now the system itself has to be dealt with. Whereas before there was only the Problem—such as warfare between nations, or garbage collection—there is now an additional universe of problems associated with the functioning or merely the presence of the new system.
  • Systems are like babies: once you get one, you have it. They don’t go away. On the contrary, they display the most remarkable persistence. They not only persist; they grow. And as they grow, they encroach.
  • THE SYSTEM ALWAYS KICKS BACK (Justin: the idea is that the system will fight change)
  • THE REAL WORLD IS WHAT IS REPORTED TO THE SYSTEM —or, in the world of Diplomacy: IF IT ISN’T OFFICIAL, IT HASN’T HAPPENED (Justin: anyone in a large organization with managed metrics will see this as meaning the only truth is that which is reported by the system; alternatively, “IF THE SYSTEM SAYS IT HAPPENED, IT HAPPENED”
  • SYSTEMS ATTRACT SYSTEMS-PEOPLE (Justin: you know, like middle management types! Michael Scott anyone?)
  • IF SOMETHING ISN’T WORKING, DON’T KEEP DOING IT. DO SOMETHING ELSE INSTEAD (Justin: Fun fact: John Gall was a lifelong pediatrician [seriously, how bizarre, right?] and he led seminars on hacking parenting. This is one of his core ideas — that if some parenting strategy to elicit behaviors out of your kids isn’t working, try something else!)
  • Systems are seductive. They promise to do a hard job faster, better, and more easily than you could do it by yourself. But if you set up a System, you are likely to find your time and effort now being consumed in the care and feeding of the System itself. New Problems are created by its very presence.[a.] Once set up, it won’t Go Away; it Grows and Encroaches.[b.] It begins to do Strange and Wonderful Things[c.] and Breaks Down in Ways You Never Thought Possible.[d.] It Kicks Back, Gets In The Way and Opposes Its Own Proper Function.[e.] Your own perspective becomes distorted by being In The System.[f.] You become anxious and Push On It To Make It Work.[g.] Eventually you come to believe that the misbegotten product it so grudgingly delivers is What You Really Wanted all the time[h.] . At that point, Encroachment has become complete. You have become absorbed. You are now a Systems-person.
  • The System must not be built too tight nor wound up too tightly or it will (1) seize up (2) peter out, or (3) fly apart: LOOSE SYSTEMS LAST LONGER AND FUNCTION BETTER (Justin: My current org, which is matrixed, is more of a tight/rigid system; this one hits close to home)

Gall talks a bit about complex systems — that they rarely work and that designed complex systems will never work. He observes that if you find a working complex system, it evolved from simple systems that work. Personal experience seems to validate Gall’s observation both in that I’ve lived (am living in) through pretty complex systems that were top-down designed that work very poorly; while the ones built from the ground up that evolved organically work the best (while still having problems).

I could go on, but I wanted to share this here for a long time. If you’ve read this book or read on via the link above, let me know what you think!

Live Experiences vs. Recordings — What We Pay to Engage Attention

David D. Friedman recently posed the question of whether or not YouTube recordings of his lectures were adequate substitutes for the live experience. DDF wrote:

Quite often, when I give a talk, someone records it, often as video, and webs it. That raises a question relevant to what talks I give: Is watching the video a reasonably close substitute for attending the talk? …

This links to a question that has puzzled me for a long time. One common pattern in schooling is the mass lecture—a professor speaking to an audience in the hundreds with students taking notes.  In the fourteenth century, that made a lot of sense as a low cost way of spreading knowledge, but why did it survive the invention of the printing press?

For me, this question firmly centers itself upon the subject of attention, and how much attention people are willing to give a recorded experience that is given away for free (“Free” being simply defined, ignoring non-trivial opportunity costs of consuming the content).

Many chimed in with thoughts on the matter, but I didn’t find anyone directly tackling the issue from the perspective of engaged attention. These days when our attention comes at a heavy price (something I will write more on), engagement is everything.

So I left the comment below.

… I think it’s all about attention. More specifically, it’s about how much I am willing to engage in a live experience vs. a recorded experience. There are a few things to unpack here:

  • Upfront costs. Almost all live experiences have non-trivial costs associated with them. You have to get to class. You have to pay tuition. You have to adjust to the environment (that is, listen up, direct focus). When we “pay” for a live experience, we are more likely to feel like we’re wasting our time if we don’t pay attention. In a way, note-taking is arguably yet another way to force paid attention. I don’t think I’ve ever taken notes while watching a recorded lecture or talk.
  • Perceived value of a live experience. Live experiences are necessarily more unique rare than recorded ones that can be watched at will (at low cost). Mind, this isn’t binary: a 3x/week live mass lecture to 500 students will have a lower perceived value than a one-off lecture by a guest speaker to the same 500 students; or 3x/week lecture given to 20 students. Every scenario you can imagine will signal things about value. Can a lecture that is free (b/c it’s a recording) really be worth watching? Of course! But the signals to interpret value are going to be derived from other aspects — views received, expected content, production quality, vouched value by others who’ve consumed it, and so on and so forth.
  • Optionality of the live experience. There must be some non-zero potential value of attending a live experience. This can be the opportunity to ask questions of the presenter, the chance of meeting other like-minded people in attendance, and the value of being able to discuss the lecture with other attendees when the content is fresh on their minds.
  • The value of interpersonal connection. This one is probably a little related to perceived value, but what happens when a lecturer can look you in the eye? How does that engage your attention? Related: video conferencing with one other person is incredibly less enjoyable/valuable (to me) that in person communications.
  • What else? I’m sure there are other reasons we engage our attention more with a live experience as compared to a recording.

Today with the sky-rocketing volume of “free” content, I find I’m resorting to many new signals as to the value of content and whether or not it’s worth my attention. Recorded experiences are great, but they suffer from harder to read signals as to quality. To make matters worse, when I consume this content, the medium of consumption makes it trivial to abandon the recording (either literally closing it or letting my mind wander off).

All said, I wonder to what extent better VR will mitigate some of these negative (and in my mind, undesirable) effects of recorded content by simply engaging more senses and increasing the price of shifting my attention away (due to having to take “goggles” and headphones off).

Dunbar’s Number, Broken Social Networks, and Back Scratches

Monkeys grooming each other in India.

A photo I took of monkeys grooming each other in India circa 2008.

My brother passed on an article in The New Yorker from a couple weeks back titled The Limits of Friendship. It’s an exposition on Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s discovery that humans organize into social groups that tend to range from 100-200 people, with the average—150—being an optimal rule of thumb. This is known as Dunbar’s number.

The discovery was made through observing the correlation between the size of an animal’s frontal lobe whereby the larger the frontal lobe (or smaller), the larger the social group size for that animal. Applying this understanding to human brains, “Judging from the size of an average human brain, the number of people the average person could have in her social group was a hundred and fifty.”

Here’s more on the number (emphasis added):

The Dunbar number is actually a series of them. The best known, a hundred and fifty, is the number of people we call casual friends—the people, say, you’d invite to a large party. (In reality, it’s a range: a hundred at the low end and two hundred for the more social of us.) From there, through qualitative interviews coupled with analysis of experimental and survey data, Dunbar discovered that the number grows and decreases according to a precise formula, roughly a “rule of three.”

So the 150 (an average) cuts down to 50 and then 15 and 5. I suppose you can’t have 1.66 people, but then again maybe you can?  It’s an interesting question given most of us (present company included) adhere to long-term monogamous relationships.

These optimal human social group sizes are seen ini average modern hunter-gatherer societies (148.4), military company size from the Roman Empire to modern times (with companies having sub-groups that also meet the Dunbar rules).

Applying Dunbar’s number to me.

When it comes to my day-to-day networks, I work with about 17-20 people on a week-in, week-out basis, which feels about right in that I’ve a place that supports that group in a meaningful way, but it also leaves me a little stretched and I can’t (and don’t) have the closeness and support at that group level. Cut by Dunbar’s number again, my inner “work” circle is around three people.

It’s harder to create tiers of my friends, but I’d count about four or five people in my closest circle. It’s hard to expand that circle meaningfully.

Sidebar. I’m reading Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, which at about halfway done (and a short couple hundred pages), is well worth your time. Therein, Thiel talks about your coworkers and how you should work with people you like. He made the following insight, which is powerful in it’s implications:

Since time is your most valuable asset, it’s odd to spend it working with people who don’t envision any long-term future together. If you can’t count durable relationships among the fruits of your time at work, you haven’t invested your time well—even in purely financial terms.

I’m just going to leave that there.

Dunbar’s number and the brokenness of social networks.

I’ve got about 235 Facebook friends, 633 LinkedIn connections, 800 Twitter followers (I’m only following 90 or so), and 800 people in my Google+ circles.

What a bunch of meaningless numbers. #Amiright?

I’ve talked about digital isolation at length before (the last post on this blog over a year and a half ago), but the curated social network is obviously broken. Don’t we all know this? I’d eagerly hear any arguments that “Social Networks” as we know them grow meaningful relationships. The interactions they foster (aside from the 1:1 or 1:few interactions) are ephemeral and lack depth. While it costs almost nothing to “like” someone’s post on Facebook (or comment), we expend time and effort in against those types of interactions that in aggregate is high-cost and low-return.

Is there a better solution? Probably. And thoughtful minds have been trying to find it for at least the last 5-10 years.

The New Yorker article had something to say on this front, as well, via Dunbar:

There’s no question, Dunbar agrees, that networks like Facebook are changing the nature of human interaction. “What Facebook does and why it’s been so successful in so many ways is it allows you to keep track of people who would otherwise effectively disappear,” he said. But one of the things that keeps face-to-face friendships strong is the nature of shared experience: you laugh together; you dance together; you gape at the hot-dog eaters on Coney Island together. We do have a social-media equivalent—sharing, liking, knowing that all of your friends have looked at the same cat video on YouTube as you did—but it lacks the synchronicity of shared experience. It’s like a comedy that you watch by yourself: you won’t laugh as loudly or as often, even if you’re fully aware that all your friends think it’s hysterical. We’ve seen the same movie, but we can’t bond over it in the same way.

This massive shortcoming of digital social interactions harkens back to the inability to “be there” in virtual space the way we can be for others in real-space. Even still, “being there” in the sense of being present to others (and not distracted-while-in-others-presence by engaging our devices every spare moment) is being eroded as digital grabs our attention in the hundreds of spare moments throughout our day.

At least as far as relationships are concerned, some of those spare moments were ways to be present to others—gifting friends and family your time, even if they waste it.

Perhaps we should be grooming each other.

On an even deeper level, there may be a physiological aspect of friendship that virtual connections can never replace. This wouldn’t surprise Dunbar, who discovered his number when he was studying the social bonding that occurs among primates through grooming. Over the past few years, Dunbar and his colleagues have been looking at the importance of touch in sparking the sort of neurological and physiological responses that, in turn, lead to bonding and friendship. “We underestimate how important touch is in the social world,” he said. With a light brush on the shoulder, a pat, or a squeeze of the arm or hand, we can communicate a deeper bond than through speaking alone. “Words are easy. But the way someone touches you, even casually, tells you more about what they’re thinking of you.”

Dunbar already knew that in monkeys grooming activated the endorphin system. Was the same true in humans? In a series of studies, Dunbar and his colleagues demonstrated that very light touch triggers a cascade of endorphins that, in turn, are important for creating personal relationships.

Who doesn’t like to have their back scratched? Serious question.

There’s something to being touched. Who doesn’t take note when a coworker pats you on the shoulder? We register touch in a meaningful way and while I can’t help but think of tapping the “like” button as a digital touch, I doubt highly that receiving likes sets in motion the bonding/endorphin response Dunbar sees with monkeys grooming.

Indeed, a firm handshake is still the common greeting between people when they physically engage each other, but a handshake isn’t sustained. Nor are handshakes common beyond initial formalities. Just thinking back on the last few days, I’ve hardly shaken anyone’s hand. Handshakes simply aren’t that common.

Meanwhile you’ve got hugs. I love a good hug as much as the next guy and while I can’t put my finger on a specific source, Google seems to support hugs as a source of oxytocin, which is another socially-dependent, “connecting” hormone.

On the other hand, there’s hand holding. I’m reminded of one of the more endearing things I’ve experienced through getting to know Indian culture, which is that male friends often hold hands. This has resulted in times when I’ve sat down next to my father-in-law and held his hand. It’s hard to express just how surprisingly comforting that specific sort of engagement is.

We forget our base animal nature at our own peril. I don’t know how we get back to grooming-as-a-way-to-connect with others. I do think I’ve seen brushing my daughter’s hair as a way to connect with them.

And then there’s always a good back scratch, right?

So what do we do?

In our age of solving the world’s problems through digital efforts, I’m left wondering how we can get back to something physical in the way we engage with others. Physical touch seems like a missing ingredient in the equation. A rapidly evaporating ingredient is being physically “there” for others.

Are there ways to digitally solve this problem? While the Apple watch offers a way to share a “touch” through haptic feedback, I’m skeptical of this as the solution we need.

Got any other ideas?


Digitally Isolated.


A poignant depiction of the iPhone as a prison via Felipe Luchi for Go Outside Brazil.

I keep thinking about being digitally isolated.  What is “digital isolation?” In a nutshell: today we are more connected to anyone/everyone than at any point in history yet (paradoxically) we feel ever more alone. Stranger still, it seems we have chosen this as our preferred mode of existence.  There’s even a joke about it: there are nine ways to reach me on my phone without talking to me; pick one of those.


It’s incredible that we can find people like us all over the world with whom we can connect in a meaningful way about a certain idea, topic, or shared interest. The Internet has made that kind of deep, direct communication a reality and it’s helping people find others who are like them.  With such fantastic connectivity, you’d think people would feel less alone.

On any given random, unusual, defining personality trait or unique(-ish) personal interest, this may be true. However, some data indicates that when it comes to topics of great importance (e.g. how we feel about ourselves, about others, about family, about sex, etc. versus what we think about politics, morals, religion, or our favorite TV show/sports team), it seems we’ve got fewer people to talk to than ever.

Take, for instance, a study published by the American Sociological Review that indicates that from 1985 to 2004, 43.6% of the population reports that they only discuss important matters with either no one or with only one other person. From the study, “The Modal number of discussion partners has gone from three to zero.”  And that was as of 2004!

That’s not good. You see, while the Internet functions fantastically at satisfying our highest level needs — think: our convictions about politics, morals, religion, or just our favorite music, sports team, or TV show — it’s not so great when our human needs become more basic (See: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). Here I’m talking about our sense of place in a community, our effectiveness at connecting to friends and family, and our more basic sense of satisfaction with day-to-day life.

Where is the breakdown?  From what I can tell, it stems from our ability to be too surgical in our interactions with other human beings.  Imagine needing to tell someone you care about (a friend, a boss, a spouse) something that may upset them.  You can tell them over the phone, in person, or over email.  Which method gives you the most control?  I think for most it’d be the email:  we can be very precise in crafting the message, we can shield our emotions, and we can save ourselves from seeing the reaction (one we anticipate will be negative) of the recipient.

Or think about how we interact on social networks like Facebook.  There, we are able to blast out what we’re doing through text, photos, or even video.  While the common complaint about Facebook posts is that the stuff shared is overly mundane (e.g. photos of what we’re eating), the truth of these communications is that they are all overly filtered.

One of the most popular services on Facebook of recent note is Instagram.  Instagram empowers us to apply filters to our photos to make them look better, which given how most camera phone photos look, is a much needed service.  So Instagram’ed photos are hugely popular–so much so that they are cliche.

Instagram is just a more specific version of what Facebook is generally.  On Facebook (or any digital platform), we get to be the editors of who we are to the world.  The result?  What we share about ourselves amounts to being an “Instagram’ed” version of who we are.  It’s polished.  Selective.  Distilled.  And perhaps a little cliche.

It’s not that we never “dress to impress” or filter ourselves to others in “meat space.”  Clearly we do.  It’s just that doing so is so much harder when we’re sharing physical space with someone else.  When we spend time physically with other people, we don’t even have to say anything at all.  An agenda isn’t required.

Being there.

Today, it’s easy to think of the quiet time spent with another person as time we could be spending reading email, checking favorite websites, playing games on our digital devices, or engaging in some other activity (something to fill the voice).  We do think of these micro-instances this way.  More and more we never need to waste time without engaging something or someone somewhere.

When we trade this (ostensibly unused) time with others for distraction, what do we lose?

Whenever something bad happens to a friend or loved one, I often struggle to find something meaningful to say to express my condolences and concern.  I often just say, “I’m here for you if you need anything.”  I want to “be there” for my friends or family.  But what does “being there” mean?

Rather than being some vacuous statement, I think “being there” for someone else is a hugely important part of having a meaningful relationship.  “Being there” is being available–physically and mentally–to embrace the people I care about but it usually only happens if the other party sees me as being available.

Being there  is giving them my time and attention and letting them waste it in silence if they choose.  It’s being vulnerable to them–the power  to spend my time however they choose (and it goes both ways). If they need to burn some time around me in silence that’s fine.  If they need to get something out then being present to that person gives them the chance to scrounge up the courage to have it out.

To date, I don’t know of any way to “be there” for someone else digitally.  Being reachable by 10 ways via 5 computers/tablets/mobile devices is not the same as being available.

(Come to think of it, the nearest technology that gets at availability may be instant messaging where you appear “available” to chat … but that’s still not the same as physically being available to others.

Being alone.

So there are two things at play.  We increasingly choose filtered communications over unfiltered communications thanks to ever-more ways to digitally relate to other people (or distract ourselves) and there’s less and less time spent being present to those we are physically near.

The result?  We feel more alone.  Our digital world isolates us.

And when the going gets tough, we don’t know where to turn or who to talk to because there’s no status update on Facebook for needing a shoulder to cry on right now nor are we comfortable unloading our personal fears and anxieties or even our simple joys to our digital friends–the ones we’ve never met in person who happen to share a fancy for Medieval cooking or hilarious Internet memes on reddit.

This is how it is today in a world where we are ever-more connected to others, we lack the sort of connection that matters most: simply being present to the relationships that matter, even when those interactions are nothing more than wasted time in another’s presence.

The time spent actually being present to the people we care about is never wasted: it’s the opportunity to be real.  To be there.  How do we get back to that?  That’s the kind of connectivity that lasts.

Raw Milk Safer than Salad

A little background

Some of you know that when we our second daughter Raya was around 5 or 6 months old, I started “homebrewing” her formula based on a recipe for raw cow’s milk based baby formula I found at The Weston A. Price Foundation website.  I made this formula for Raya for about six months before we just started giving her straight raw cow’s milk.  Today, and ever since (some seven months later), both our girls continue drinking raw cow’s milk.  I’ll circle back and talk more about that in a minute.

The data shows that raw milk is low risk

The WSJ recently published an article titled New Studies Confirm: Raw Milk A Low-Risk Food.  The studies alluded to were from a presentation given to Canada’s CDC back in mid-May by Nadine Ijaz.  Here’s a clip from the article (emphasis mine):

The reviewer, Nadine Ijaz, MSc, demonstrated how inappropriate evidence has long been mistakenly used to affirm the “myth” that raw milk is a high-risk food, as it was in the 1930s. Today, green leafy vegetables are the most frequent cause of food-borne illness in the United States. British Columbia CDC’s Medical Director of Environmental Health Services, Dr. Tom Kosatsky, who is also Scientific Director of Canada’s National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health,welcomed Ms. Ijaz’s invited presentation as “up-to-date” and “a very good example of knowledge synthesis and risk communication.”

Quantitative microbial risk assessment is considered the gold-standard in food safety evidence, a standard recommended by the United Nations body Codex Alimentarius, and affirmed as an important evidencing tool by both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada. The scientific papers cited at the BC Centre for Disease Control presentation demonstrated a low risk of illness from unpasteurized milk consumption for each of the pathogens Campylobacter, Shiga-toxin inducing E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes and Staphylococcus aureus. This low risk profile applied to healthy adults as well as members of immunologically-susceptible groups: pregnant women, children and the elderly.

“While it is clear that there remains some appreciable risk of food-borne illness from raw milk consumption, public health bodies should now update their policies and informational materials to reflect the most high-quality evidence, which characterizes this risk as low,” said Ijaz. “Raw milk producers should continue to use rigorous management practices to minimize any possible remaining risk.”

How about that?

Ijaz’s presentation on the myths of raw milk

I did some Googling and was able to find Nadine Ijaz’s blog The Bovine, and from there, a link to her presentation as she presented it, with all the slides, in full.  You can find it here (Run time looks to be about an hour).  Notably, while Ijaz is biased towards regulatory reform in the milk industry, her research was “independent and unfunded.”

I’ve not had the time to watch the full presentation, but one site has already summarized it here.  The presentation is organized around exposing the major myths around raw milk and isn’t limited to the prevailing myth most people believe—that raw milk could make you sick because it’s not pasteurized.  She also tackles some of the more positive (but misguided) notions around raw milk.  Here are the six myths she speaks to (here’s the screenshot from her presentation):

  • Myth #1: Raw milk is more digestible for people with lactose intolerance
  • Myth #2: Enzymes and beneficial bacteria in raw milk make it more digestible for humans
  • Myth #3: Raw milk is shown to prevent cancer, osteoporosis, arthritis, diabetes
  • Myth #4: Raw milk is a high-risk food
  • Myth #5: Raw milk has no unique health benefits
  • Myth #6: Industrial milk processing is harmless to health

I had read some of these (apparently) myths as selling points for drinking raw milk back when I first learned about it.  I certainly am guilty of repeating things about it’s digestibility to friends and family regarding feeding an infant raw milk.  Ijaz’s presentation debunks myths 1-3 as being unsubstantiated, but I’d say that 1-3 are really minor points (Disease/illness prevention certainly is intriguing, but I’d never thought of raw milk as some panacea).

Moving past these first three myths, you get to the meat of Ijaz’s presentation—that raw milk is low risk.

Raw milk is less risky than salad (Should we ban the sale of leafy greens?)

I love these two slides (around 121):


Just this year a U.S. CDC study has said that green leafy vegetables (a.k.a. salad greens like lettuce, spinach, kale, among other things) are the most frequent cause of foodborne illness in the United States causing 20% of all cases from 1998 to 2008.

Note that back in 1938, 25% of U.S. foodborne outbreaks were attributed to raw milk; however, today, 1-6% of foodborne outbreaks across industrialized nations are attributed to all dairy products (pasteurized or not) (per slide 103).

In short, isn’t the takeaway here that you’re almost at a larger risk for getting sick eating raw vegetables than you are for drinking raw milk?

The benefits outweigh the (low) risk

One of the things that raw milk apparently is good for according to some 8 cross-sectional and 2 cohort studies from 2001-2010, there is evidence that raw milk consumption may reduce asthma and allergy in young children.  Most recently, a 2011 study called the GABRIELA study that took data on some 8,000 school-aged children found (per slide 157) an independent protective effect of raw farm milk on development of asthma, allergy and hay fever.  Just how much protection?  Reduction by approximately half.

Given how pervasive allergies seem to be these days among children, this seems like a pretty huge reason to give your kids raw milk.

And more

Ijaz had even more to share in her presentation and if you don’t have time to give it a listen (I didn’t), scan Wellness Tips’ summary. Here’s a quote I’ll leave you with:

It is scientifically reasonable for people, including pregnant women and parents of young children to choose hygienically produced raw milk over industrially processed milk, whether or not they heat it themselves afterwards. It is not scientifically justifiable to prohibit people, including pregnant women or parents of young children from choosing to seek out an important food which may effectively prevent allergy and asthma.

Nadine Ijaz, MSc.

My own experience with raw milk and raw milk formula

I personally don’t drink milk be it raw milk or otherwise. I do consume dairy in the form of yogurt and cottage cheese, but that’s another story.

However, my daughters are definitely on the raw milk train and have been now for a year (for my youngest) and about a half a year for my oldest. While I don’t know if they’ve benefited from allergy or asthma avoidance, both are in daycare and both are exposed (As a result) to a lot of human born pathogens.

I wish I could say they’ve never gotten sick during that time, but it’s just not so.  I will say that Raya’s teachers, while being curious (but accepting) of her drinking my homemade raw cow’s milk formula, remarked on how infrequently she was sick relative to other kids in her class.  Raya was born about a month before her due date, spent a few days in the NICU while her lungs shed fluid after she was born, and was immediately on antibiotics.

Part of me felt like these circumstances could be setbacks developmentally to my kid.  I think it’s the main reason I made the commitment to give her a better formula once she went off breast milk.  But it wasn’t the only reason.  As someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time learning about nutrition, I just couldn’t find a good option for baby formula.  I also wanted my wife to feel good about her transitioning to formula, so I wanted Raya’s primary food source to be really healthy.

The thing is: mass produced baby formulas just don’t seem all that healthy.  Take a look at the baby formula available on the shelf at your local grocer and you’ll find there’s a lot that’s disconcerting.  There are weird ingredients that, while they may not be bad per se, I don’t understand.  Even some of the organic, milk-based formulas still soy oil.  There’s questionable sugars (And God forbid you use a soy-based formula).  Hardly any have any probiotics in them.  And anything that is shelf-stable for months, well, it may not kill your kid but it’s very likely not ideal.

Given all this, it’s hard not to step back and reflect, “Maybe my infant child deserves healthier food—particularly since this is the only  food they’re going to be eating.”  And more to the point: the convenience of buying store-bought, ready-to-mix formula isn’t a good reason to shortchange my daughter’s health if I can help it.

So despite it meaning I had to make her formula about 3X a week, with each batch taking probably about 20 minutes and requiring weekly trips to a farmer’s market to get “Dairy Pet Aid” from a Tennessee farm that made deliveries to Georgia, I opted to make Raya’s formula.   And I’ve never seen any drawbacks from that decision.

And as we go forward, we continue to get raw milk that’s apparently only suitable for pets to drink.  Isn’t it strange that it’s legal to buy healthier food for our pets than our kids?

Moving forward

Hopefully, Ijaz’s work with the CDC in Canada will trickle down south to the United States.  If nothing else, increased awareness through publications like the WSJ should help moo-ve the needle in the right direction.

And if you’re not already plugged into a farm that can provide you with raw milk (or cheese!) or grassfed beef or pastured poultry, what are you waiting for? The only way our food supply is going to get better is if you make an effort — and it only takes a small effort — to buy better food. In our house, while we’ve taken many steps towards more organic, more local, healthier food, we still shop at Publix, Kroger, and Costco.  A step in the right direction isn’t an all or nothing proposition.

Do what you can and build on it over time (if you can!)—that’s what I do.

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