xkcd on Kindle


Latest xkcd titled “Kindle:”

I'm happy with my Kindle 2 so far, but if they cut off the free Wikipedia browsing, I plan to show up drunk on Jeff Bezos's lawn and refuse to leave.

I recently read the Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide while in India. Anyway, it’s fun to imagine hitchhiking with only a Kindle. Actually, I wonder if, now armed with the idea of vagabonding with nothing but a kindle, someone will actually try this out and write a book about it.

Blogging Thesis Progress (On power law distribution)


I’m pretty sure I already knew that hyperlinks and web traffic followed a power law distribution, but Brian’s explanation is clear and worth saving down for future reference.

Another possibility is that the Internet might not be so egalitarian after all. To understand why this would be, it’s necessary to reflect on the structure of the web. The element tying one web page to another is the hyperlink. Clicking a hyperlink is what allows an Internet user to “browse” from one web page to another. Across the web, hyperlinks follow a power law distribution . A power law distribution is highly inegalitarian; this means that a small number of web sites are the destination of the vast majority of hyperlinks.

The distribution of traffic to web sites also follows a power law. To understand why this should related to the hyperlink structure, it’s necessary to think about the ways Internet users discover web sites. If a user already knows about a web site, they can visit it directly. If they don’t, they can discover it via a hyperlink from a site they already know about or by using a search engine like Google. Both of these methods favor the discovery of highly linked-to sites. When browsing the web, the more hyperlinks there are to a site the more likely a user is to come across one of them. When using a search engine, most users only visit web sites on the first page of results. The release of search data for over 600,000 AOL users showed that 90% of clicks went to the results from the first page, 74% of clicks went to the first 5 results, and 42% of clicks went to the first result. This is significant because search engines’ rating algorithms give heavy weight to the number ofhyperlinks a site receives. Although the exact algorithms vary from search engine to search engine and are often secret, search engine result ordering is barely distinguishable from simply ordering web sites based on the number of hyperlinks to them.

Why You Got Fat (Fat Head Review)


Richard Nikoley recently received, watched and reviewed Tom Naughton’s documentary (mockumentary?) Fat Head. I had a very similar general take on the movie to Richard’s, so I’m going to echo his comments by way of blockquote:

It’s really two movies in one. In the first part, he thoroughly discredits that lying, opportunist bastard, Morgan Spurlock. Tom Naughton also goes on a fast food diet for a month, but a sensible one, keeping total calories to about 2,000, and total carbs to 100 grams (400 calories, so 20% of total kcals). He loses about 8-10 pounds, as I recall, and most of his blood work is improved.

The second half (the best) is about the awful state of nutrition science and dietary advice in America. Naughton even employs an evolutionary basis, as seen here.

Just to expound on this review, I found the second half of Fat Head to be much more interesting and compelling than the first half (even though Naughton does a plenty thorough job debunking Spurlock, I just didn’t really care — I never saw Super Size Me!).

The particular clip from Fat Head Richard posted in his review was one of the best parts of the movie as it humorously explains the relationship between blood sugar, fat cells and insulin. Check it out:

One other clip from the movie that isn’t available for preview online talked about the glycemic index and visually displayed how certain foods digest into whatever equivalent amount of sugar.

Richard gives an example of this conversion with regard to a soda:

Consider this: for the average person with normal blood glucose levels, you have about the equivalent of one single teaspoon of sugar circulating in your entire body. One. Single. Teaspoon. So, what that means is that when you drink a regular Coca Cola at 27 grams of carbohydrate . . . you are ingesting . . . over 5 times the amount of sugar as is contained in your entire body. How about an 8 oz. glass or orange juice? Same thing (26 grams). Now, consider that as you go throughout your day. Look at food labels, and divide the amount of carbohydrate by 5 to see how many times your total blood sugar you’re ingesting all at once.

Richard’s rule of thumb for conversion is great because I can visualize a teaspoonful of sugar. Take a bowl of Raisin Bran. A serving has 45 grams of carbohydrates, 7 of which are fiber, so net 38 grams plus the 12 grams from a cup of milk. 50 grams of carbohydrates converts to 10 teaspoons of sugar in your bloodstream. That’d be a nice pile of sugar.

This mental picture conversion of carb-heavy foods to teaspoons of sugar is a powerful way to help people connect the dots between “ingesting lots of sugar is bad for you” to “ingesting lots of carbohydrates is bad for you.” Even as this is an oversimplification of a more complex macro-nutrient problem, it’s still a better way to guide your eating behavior as compared with our current, asinine low-fat-equals-health insanity.

Ron Paul on Real Time w/ Bill Maher 02/20/2009


I’m not a huge fan of Bill Maher. I find his style of commentary irritating.

Regardless, I enjoyed this clip of Ron Paul being interviewed by Maher. It illustrates how Ron Paul, more than any other politician I’ve seen, has an ability to find common ground even with people with whom he has some extremely different perspectives. Herein he finds common ground with Maher on reducing the global occupation (the American Empire) and repealing the drug war. He does this after whiffing (in my opinion) on explaining why our current system of “capitalism” is anything but “free markets.” But hey, its hard to be 100% on all the time.

Food: African Beef Stew


Just a beef stew recipe that reads tasty (and worth trying in the dutch oven). Via Peter of HyperLipid.

1 lb diced beef
Tin tomatoes.
Medium carrot, sliced.
Medium onion, chopped.
50-75g butter, depends on how fatty the meat is.
50g peanut butter.
About 200ml water, to just cover meat.
Salt and pepper to taste.
Fresh root ginger, however much you like.
3 cloves garlic, crushed
Pinch Cayenne pepper
Pinch ground cloves
Tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice.

Place all ingredients in a casserole, bring to boil, stir well, cover, place in oven at gas mark four for 2-3 hours until meat melts in the mouth. Stir every half hour.

An Importqant Message from the Global Entertainment Industry


Great cartoon from The Pirate Bay that illustrates how emerging technologies tend to be feared (and villainized) by existing power structures even as those technologies drastically improve the quality of life for human beings.

Cartoon after the jump. Continue Reading…

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: “Bankers Designed Banks to Blow Up”


Just watched a fifteen minute interview by Bloomberg of Nassim Nicholas Taleb (The Black Swan). In the interview Taleb discusses the current crisis, robust systems, nationalizing the banks and the fallacy of using narratives of history to guide present-day policy/response.

Below are some quotes from NNT, which I’ve organized into like-nuggets of wisdom:

  • Looking at biology, things that survive have redundancy . . . we have spare parts, which is the exact opposite of leverage. . . . We have diversity and nothing is too big. Things fail early. . . . Banking is organized in a completely opposite way. . . . Complex systems have properties that banks don’t have. And biological systems have survived.
  • [We have an] Illusion of stability and then blow-ups are larger. Imagine if half-country was fed by one restaurant it’d be okay except one day people would starve.
  • Bad news travels immediately . . . This environment won’t tolerate the smallest mistake . . . I don’t know the system can allow for too much leverage.
  • People can invest in real things – they don’t have to invest in paper. . . .
  • What we have is a system of deposit where people buy a company, they borrow against it, and buy another company. . . . If that disappears we have less growth but it would be a more robust economic system.
  • The government is neither nationalizing the banks nor letting them break.
  • [With regard to banking,] separate the payment system from the risk taking system.
  • It looks like we have no control. The government has no control over what the banks are doing. The banks aren’t in control of what they are doing.
  • The press reports everything except the important stuff. September 18th . . . we had the run on money market funds and the government had to step in.
  • The situation is not comparable to the Great Depression. The situation is very different.
  • This crisis is not so much a Black Swan to me. It’s like saying you’ve got a pilot who doesn’t know about storms. . . . The Black Swan for me would be to emerge out unscathed and go back to normalcy.
  • We should be very careful when we make a historical analogy like the Great Depression because the world is not like it was in the Great Depression.
  • Capitalism is you let what’s breakable break fast.

Bloomberg also ran an article on the interview with Taleb, but it is spartan as far as quotes or insights from the actual interview.

From what I can tell, it seems Taleb views bank nationalization as similar to taking out plane hijackers. It’s an interesting, more palatable way to look at nationalization in that it frames the situation as one where the public will be harmed unless someone (in this case the government) steps in and takes drastic action.

Having said that, I don’t get the impression that Taleb is a proponent of long-term nationalization. NNT would prefer banking be structured similarly to a biological system where there are redundancies and fragile things “break early.” This system wouldn’t foster as much leverage and therefore would slow growth, but it would be considerably more robust.

This is more or less what I believe, as well. A free market is an organic, naturally forming system that is decentralized and redundant. It’s robust because market actions failing apart at any micro level will not break the entire system.

How do we get there from here? Good question.

(H/T to Jesse)

How to Eat Grains


Continuing the recent interest in fermentation (See discussion of Seth Roberts’ posts on Probiotics and Your Immune System and The Staggering Greatness of Homemade Yogurt) comes this post from Stephan at Whole Health Source discussing how to eat grains.

There are two ideas that seem to be repeatedly coming to the surface here:

  • Carbohydrates seem to be better for human consumption when fermented as fermentation reduces anti-nutrients and even introduces some new nutrition in the process.
  • Foods that don’t seem “paleo” at first blush maybe just need some fermentation, which is really just another way of saying they need to be pre-digested prior to eating.

Regarding that second point, our hunter/gatherer ancestors had little food storage tech. This has two implications in my mind:

  • Food is consumed fresh if at all possible, to the point of gorging. Our bodies have an amazing ability to store excess carbohydrate consumption efficiently as fat.
  • Food found but not readily consumed rots or ferments. Our bodies do well with this (Evolutionary luck or design?) by receiving immune system boosts from the introduction of bacteria, reducing toxins via fermentation and maximizing nutrient absorption.

Anyway, here is Stephan:

The second factor that’s often overlooked is food preparation techniques. These tribes did not eat their grains and legumes haphazardly! This is a factor that was overlooked by Dr. Price himself, but has been emphasized by Sally Fallon. Healthy grain-based African cultures typically soaked, ground and fermented their grains before cooking, creating a sour porridge that’s nutritionally superior to unfermented grains. The bran was removed from corn and millet during processing, if possible. Legumes were always soaked prior to cooking.

These traditional food processing techniques have a very important effect on grains and legumes that brings them closer in line with the “paleolithic” foods our bodies are designed to digest. They reduce or eliminate toxins such as lectins and tannins, greatly reduce anti-nutrients such as phytic acid and protease inhibitors, and improve vitamin content and amino acid profile. Fermentation is particularly effective in this regard. One has to wonder how long it took the first agriculturalists to discover fermentation, and whether poor food preparation techniques or the exclusion of animal foods could account for their poor health.

Managers as servants


Another Google Reader shared item from Patri that relates to group behavior (and the work environment), a discussion of “non-hierarchical management in the workplace:”

Instead of the standard “org chart” with a CEO at the top and employees growing down like roots, turn the whole thing upside down. Employees are at the top — they’re the ones who actually get stuff done — and managers are underneath them, helping them to be more effective. (The CEO, who really does nothing, is of course at the bottom.)

Swartz also quotes a friend who believes that people who act like jerks in the workplace are not worth the trouble.

I have a “no asshole rule” which is really simple: I really don’t want to work with assholes. So if you’re an asshole and you work on my team, I’m going to fire you.

I have worked with (and near) several assholes in my time and I’m convinced that firing one unpleasant person, even if they perform a vital function, is equivalent to hiring two great employees.

This hits on two points. One reminds me of how leaders, as central decision-making nodes in a system, tend to have considerably less “freedom” than many think. They work within a delicate eco-system of employees/followers, resource/time constraints, personal and system goals, etc. Thus even as it appears the manager may do very little “work,” he/she is spending a great deal of time balancing a slew of complex demands.

Enter in this great advice I read last night from William Glasser in Control Theory regarding child-rearing (Chapter 18, Control Theory and Raising Children):

Try as hard as possible to teach, show, and help your children to gain effective control of their lives.

Apply that concept to managing employees (or team members). You want to empower your employees to have more control. You do this by teaching them how to substitute their own good judgment for yours. This makes the hierarchical system less centralized and more robust. The worst managers I have seen strip control from employees. It’s not that any manager should just tell their employees to go buck wild and do what they want, rather they should mentor and teach them which will give them greater control, and more freedom to you, the manager to spend time considering more important decisions.

Which brings me back to all the talk about regulation and centralization (and how I think decentralization makes more sense).

Less related is the comment on “assholes;” moving fast and eliminating bad apples from your group is a good way to improve the odds of success. I know that has been the case in my own experience.

The Bad Apple: Group Poison


Fascinating write-up of a study on “bad apples” affecting group behavior. Supposedly conventional wisdom is that groups are dynamic enough to overcome the bad apples; however, I would have suspected the opposite: it’s easy for one person to spread the “virus” of a bad, disruptive or counterproductive attitude.

The big takeaway here (for me) is to be aware of two things:

  1. Be aware when you might be exhibiting bad apple behaviors
  2. Be aware of when others are exhibiting bad apple behaviors

H/T to Patri Friedman via Google Reader for sharing this. Cross-linking this article to another he shared that is on a similar subject.

Groups of four college students were organized into teams and given a task to complete some basic management decisions in 45 minutes. To motivate the teams, they’re told that whichever team performs best will be awarded $100 per person. What they don’t know, however, is that in some of the groups, the fourth member of their team isn’t a student. He’s an actor hired to play a bad apple, one of these personality types:

  1. The Depressive Pessimist will complain that the task that they’re doing isn’t enjoyable, and make statements doubting the group’s ability to succeed.
  2. The Jerk will say that other people’s ideas are not adequate, but will offer no alternatives himself. He’ll say “you guys need to listen to the expert: me.”
  3. The Slacker will say “whatever”, and “I really don’t care.”

Groups that had the bad apple would perform worse. And this despite the fact that were people in some groups that were very talented, very smart, very likeable. Felps found that the bad apple’s behavior had a profound effect — groups with bad apples performed 30 to 40 percent worse than other groups. On teams with the bad apple, people would argue and fight, they didn’t share relevant information, they communicated less.

Even worse, other team members began to take on the bad apple’s characteristics. When the bad apple was a jerk, other team members would begin acting like a jerk. When he was a slacker, they began to slack, too. And they wouldn’t act this way just in response to the bad apple. They’d act this way to each other, in sort of a spillover effect.

What they found, in short, is that the worst team member is the best predictor of how any team performs. It doesn’t seem to matter how great the best member is, or what the average member of the group is like. It all comes down to what your worst team member is like. The teams with the worst person performed the poorest.

The actual text of the study (pdf) is available if you’re interested. However, I highly recommend listening to the first 11 minutes of the This American Life show. It’s a fascinating, highly compelling recap of the study results. I’ve summarized, but I can’t really do it justice without transcribing it all here.

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