The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

Finally finished Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy:

(Wiki)


Foundation


Foundation and Empire


Second Foundation

Overall, a pretty disappointing trilogy given all the hype about it. I just don’t get into the whole “psycho-historian” thing — predicting the future is all but impossible when the future is tomorrow — much less when the future is hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Contrarian advice on passion

Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs on passion:

The answer (aside from the fact that they’re still employed) is because they are blissfully sheltered from the worst advice in the world. I refer, of course, to those preposterous platitudes lining the hallways of corporate America, extolling virtues like “Teamwork,” “Determination” and “Efficiency.” You’ve seen them–saccharine-sweet pieces of schmaltzy sentiment, oozing down from snow capped mountains, crashing waterfalls and impossible rainbows. In particular, I’m thinking of a specific piece of nonsense that implores in earnest italics, to always, always … Follow Your Passion!

In the long history of inspirational pabulum, “follow your passion” has got to be the worst. Even if this drivel were confined to the borders of the cheap plastic frames that typically surround it, I’d condemn the whole sentiment as dangerous, not because it’s clich?, but because so many people believe it. Over and over, people love to talk about the passion that guided them to happiness. When I left high school–confused and unsure of everything–my guidance counselor assured me that it would all work out, if I could just muster the courage to follow my dreams. My Scoutmaster said to trust my gut. And my pastor advised me to listen to my heart. What a crock.

Why do we do this? Why do we tell our kids–and ourselves–that following some form of desire is the key to job satisfaction? If I’ve learned anything from this show, it’s the folly of looking for a job that completely satisfies a “true purpose.” In fact, the happiest people I’ve met over the last few years have not followed their passion at all–they have instead brought it with them.

Rowe is certainly on to something here. This passage is evocative of a meme that has been expressed by Richard on passion vs. excellence, Art on modern life, Twight on uncertainty and Art/me on the stochasticity of life.

What I take from Rowe, Richard, Art and Twight (and Nassim Taleb) is that life is random and complex. This stochastic complexity is difficult to predict and nearly impossible to control. The notion that there is some string of events that must occur in a perfect, precise order to have a fulfilling life is nonsense. There is no perfect job, friend, spouse or life, so stop the futile search — it is vanity. Rather spend your energy enjoying the job, friends, spouse and life that you have.

What is your passion? Why waste time asking an answer-less question?

Get on with enjoying life.

Free the Animal banner

I just finished up a project for Richard Nikoley, friend and founder of Free the Animal. Richard had commissioned me to create a banner for his site, and after hashing out the concepts, I worked on putting together a design.

Here’s the final product:

Some of the ideas the banner is intended to convey are:

  • Man as a self-reliant, rugged individual — a hunter — evolutionarily designed over the eons.
  • That a man’s health is dependent upon his understanding the nature of his genes and putting that knowledge to practical work in a modern age, an age that is drastically different from the gross majority of man’s biological existence on this planet.
  • Human beings are a dominant, independent species, one meant to be free.

Many of these ideas weren’t spoken when Richard asked me to do this design — that is because many of them were already understood. One thing Richard talks little about these days on FtA is his philosophical stance, which centers heavily around an understanding of human beings.

Human beings are intelligent animals. Our intelligence sets us above all other species, but it also enables us to reflect introspectively about our place with regard to the planet and to each other. Such reflection inescapably leads to an understanding that man should be free, both unbound by other men and unwilling to forcibly control his fellow man*. Moral implications aside, it’s this introspection on our nature that leads us to understand how we should approach our health.

Modern man (post-agriculture) has existed for only a handful of millenia, whereas we were evolutionarily designed over some two million years (To say nothing of the millions of years of evolution that occurred prior to homo sapiens). Evolution gave us genes that function best under certain conditions. It’s reasonable to assert that those prehistoric conditions involved a certain amount of activity (i.e. hunting, gathering, play), some amount of scarcity (inability to find food leading to periodic bouts of famine) and substantially limited agricultural technology. How these inputs and constraints molded our genes is a fundamental question worth asking. Free the Animal tackles this question for the purpose of living optimally, as modern men with ancient genes.

“Free the Animal” is a motto. And Richard is expanding on what it means to free the animal his site. Be sure to check it out!

* Except in cases where force is required to defend himself or his property.

Strange dream coincidence (Huge moon)

I’m not very good at remembering my dreams. And even when I do remember my dreams, I usually don’t tell them to others or write about them. This isn’t because I think dreams are meant to be private, rather I just doubt anyone would find the random musings of my subconscious mind interesting.

So bear with me.

You may have noticed recently two bright spots in the sky — they are Venus and Jupiter. I’ve enjoyed seeing them floating out there, reminding me how vast our own solar system is.

For some reason, last night I dreamed that Venus was looming huge in the night sky — visible like the moon, but even bigger, maybe even 5 – 10x the size of the moon. It was a bit frightening (seemed awfully apocalyptic to see a planet so close to the earth) even as I justified its nearness in my dream by thinking, “It’s just in a closer orbit — totally normal.”

The punchline is that tonight the moon will be just about as close to the Earth as it ever gets in its orbit. Here’s an article on the event:

On 12 December, the Moon will enter its full phase, when its disc appears completely illuminated by the Sun, just four hours after reaching its closest point to Earth. This will make it 14% bigger and 30% brighter than other full Moons in 2008, though the difference will be hard to distinguish by eye (see the difference in the full Moon’s size in 2004).

It will be eight years before the Moon appears so big again. “This evening’s Moon is not only the largest for 2008 but also during the period 1993-2016,” says Anthony Ayiomamitis, who lives in Greece.

Just a coincidence, it still struck me as odd.

Our minds are funny.

Sugar on the brain

Is sugar another addictive white powder?

A recent study suggests sugar may be addictive. Below are parts of the U.S. News article summarizing the experiment and interpretation of the findings. I suggest reading them all:

“Our evidence from an animal model suggests that bingeing on sugar can act in the brain in ways very similar to drugs of abuse,” [said] lead researcher Bart Hoebel . . .

“Drinking large amounts of sugar water when hungry can cause behavioral changes and even neurochemical changes in the brain which resemble changes that are produced when animals or people take substances of abuse. These animals show signs of withdrawal and even long-lasting effects that might resemble craving,” . . .

A “sugar addiction” may even act as a “gateway” to later abuse of drugs such as alcohol . . .

For the new research, rats were denied food for 12 hours a day, then were given access to food and sugar (25 percent glucose and 10 percent sucrose, similar to a soft drink) for 12 hours a day, for three to four weeks.

The bingeing released a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine each time in the part of the brain involved in reward, the nucleus accumbens. “It’s been known that drugs of abuse release or increase the levels of dopamine in that part of the brain,” Hoebel said.

But it wasn’t only the sugar that caused this effect, Hoebel explained — it was the sugar combined with the alternating schedule of deprivation and largesse. . . .

But longer periods of abstinence didn’t “cure” the rats. Instead, there were long-lasting effects with the animals: They ingested more sugar than before, as if they were craving the substance and, without sugar, they drank more alcohol.

My anecdotal experience confirms the above findings. For one, the more I have abstained from sugar and refined carbohydrates (the latter of which are one tiny step away from being sugar), the easier it has become to strictly avoid sugar/carbohydrate-dense foods. This suggests to me that the addiction can be controlled by almost completely abstaining from the “drug,” sugar in this case.

Of note, however, is that in those instances when I have fallen off the wagon* and started eating sugar/refined carbs, I tend to overeat/binge. Is this the behavior of an addict? Or is it the psychological response to the forbidden fruit? Or is it a predictable response of treating a diet like a binary system? I.e. going from strict adherence to the diet to “Well I already ate that candy, might as well have some ice cream, too!” Any of these are plausible explanations for my behavior.

The alcohol angle is fascinating: I’ve experienced a clear connection between alcohol and carbohydrate-binge-eating. As before, I am unclear how the alcohol is catalyzing my reaction — is it that alcohol impairs my judgment, handicapping my will power? Or could it be more fundamentally metabolic — the alcohol spurs a chemical reaction resulting in craving sugar/refined carbohydrates? Why do I go from having little-to-no craving for French fries and tator tots to no-holds-barred “pass the ketchup now!” after downing three or four beers.

I have previously blogged on how hard liquor has zero carbohydrates. I’ve since learned that hard liquor (i.e. whiskey) will cause an insulin response even though there are no carbohydrates in the alcohol. Could insulin have something to do with this#?

This study, rather than confirming something I’ve suspected about the addictive nature of sugar, leaves me with more questions than answers. Is modern man doomed to be addicted to sugar? Is sugar addiction similar to alcoholism in that the only successful means to control the addiction is to avoid entirely the addictive substance? Can abstaining from sugar/refined carbohydrates make the addiction worse? Is sugar a poison that should be taken in small doses to control its ill-affects (A particularly strange notion)?

It seems there are more questions than answers. However, I maintain that sugar in any close-to-raw form is unnatural, which means that our evolutionarily designed bodies are inept at handling it. And it seems reasonable to conclude that, even if I tend to overeat refined carbohydrates when I do consume them, over the long-term, I’m still drastically reducing my intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates by maintaining a lifestyle focused on a low-carbohydrate, natural diet mixed with intermittent fasting.

* How often have you heard the phrase “fallen off the wagon” to describe failure at dieting? I hear it all the time (and use it). Probably just a coincidence, this phrase originates in alcoholism. Here we have a study that paints sugar as being similar to alcohol in its addictive characteristics.

# I can’t help but wonder if insulin is the culprit behind addiction to both alcohol and sugar. Has anyone looked into this?

Google Friend Connect

Just installed Google Friend Connect, which is a social networking application from Google (Hat tip to Feed Growth). I wasn’t entirely sure what I could use it for, but it allows you to become a member of my site.

And why would you want to do that? For one, a member can comment on my little sidebar wall, which I encourage any of you to do. Any feedback on the site is appreciated or you can just say “hi!” Also, there’s no real “sign up” to become a member — particularly for all you gmail users, but also for some others too (I.e. open id).

Blogging to a silent audience is oh so lonely! Join up and show your support!

Homebuying Tools (We’re looking to buy in Atlanta)

As I recently mentioned, my wife and I are moving back to Atlanta. Our “move,” which is a mere shifting of clothes into a temporary living arrangement until we find something permanent, is actually commencing this weekend.

So what’s this about buying a house?

Despite the ongoing housing bust (we haven’t reached bottom yet in my opinion), the time is right for us to take the plunge into homeownership. Something I came to accept over the past few months is that putting your life on hold indefinitely due to exogenous events (such as an imploding economy) is no way to live. Unlike many homebuyers in the boom, I don’t believe in flipping properties. I see a house as the embodiment of a fundamental human need — that of shelter. I don’t want to grossly overpay for a house, which is why I pushed back on all the “You should buy now!” friends and family over the past few years.

It finally makes sense for us to buy, so we are actively looking for a home. I don’t want to get into too many details as to where we are looking and certainly not which houses we are looking at because the internet makes the world a much smaller place. Suffice to say that we are looking for a home preferably close[r] to the city, meaning inside-the-perimeter by a decent margin, that is north of I-20. Is that vague enough?

To date, we’ve got a handful of viable options though we are still in the early stages of our search. Since we have no home to sell and are working around temporary living arrangements in ATL, we can afford to be patient — patience may even pay off big as home prices are likely to fall further. I expect real estate to be a relatively ho-hum asset class for the next decade.

And now a word from our sponsor: I encourage anyone out there to stay abreast of ongoing economic events via any one of my company‘s Implode-O-Meterslenders, home builders, banks, or funds.

Having explained “why,” here are some useful tools for the would-be homebuyer

The following websites frequently used in concert have been particularly helpful in our quest for housing. In no particular order:

  • Zillow.com — zillow is a satellite-interfaced housing search tool that allows you to find properties by doing any sort of locational search. You can search by zip code, city, or street name. The results will turn up on a satellite map and you can zoom in and out of whatever area you are interested in, pan across the map, etc. For example, see the results of a search for 238 Peachtree Cir 30309.

    What makes zillow so useful is that it combines data on both active listings as well as listings for properties recently sold. Typically, this results in the zillow page for a certain property for sale displaying relevant pictures from the official listing if they are available. Whether a property is for sale or not, it has a listing page on zillow.com that typically provides public tax data on the property. This typically means square footage, how many beds/baths, the year the house was built, what the house sold for last and what the most recent taxes on the property were.

    Trulia.com has a similar service to zillow — sometimes if I didn’t find the data I needed I’d check trulia for it. Trulia also lists the last two sale prices per the tax records — perhaps useful for a deep dive on a particular property.

    One zillow.com tip for you mobile users, check out mobile.zillow.com. It allows mobile phone users with data plans to search for property information. Good for checking stuff like square footage while out checking out properties.

  • Google maps and streetview (and to a lesser extent, google maps real estate advanced search) — periodically you come across a listing that has no picture of the exterior of the house (never a good sign, mind you). Google streetview comes to the rescue. What is fantastic about streetview is that it enables me to get a real sense for what the surrounding houses look like. Thanks to streetview, you can pan up and down the street to look at would-be neighbors, get a sense for the width of a street, and even guess at the demographics of traffickers if any cars are parked or happened to be driving by.

    For an example, return to 238 Peachtree (Where we used to live in Atlanta):

    Some streetview tips: streetview utilizes the following hot keys (there may be more, these are just the few I’ve discovered by accident): up/down arrow keys take you up and down the street. Left/right arrow keys allow you to scan around your current view. WASD all work as well, except the W and S function as looking up or down. Finally, the + and – keys allow you to zoom in and out.

    Streetview is one of those things you don’t realize is awesome until you suddenly find that Google missed a street — or worse, an entire area!

    One seemingly obscure function in Google Maps is that you can do an “advanced search” on real estate. Google seems to be crawling the various real estate listings and then mapping them for you. To see this in action, check this link. Here are the results of that search:

    To access Google Maps real estate search, search for a location or area. Then click “show search options.” From the dropdown menu, select “Real estate” and click “Search Maps.” Voila!

    Sometimes Google Maps finds properties that Zillow misses, so it can be useful that way. It also has search parameters you can use to narrow down the search. Finally, the interface on google maps is smoother than zillow, so it has that going for it, as well.

    Final Google maps tip, be sure you have the latest mobile app for Google Maps as it now incorporates streetview (Works well on my Blackberry 8320)!

Zillow and Google Maps serve as my primary artillery. I use both in concert using multiple tabs in Google Chrome.

One site I’ve had mixed luck with is realtytrac.com. I signed up for a free seven-day trial of realtytrac.com and initially thought it was the cat’s pajamas: I could see properties that were entering into foreclosure or bank-owned (REO). However, come to find out, the data in realtytrac.com can be dated, and if you already have a resource to look up MLS listings, they are able to pull REO properties already.

Realtytrac may be useful for taking snapshots of how an area is doing with regard to foreclosures. Similar to zillow, you can employ a “map view” that lets you see REO and foreclosed properties in an area. Therefore, if you see a ton of foreclosures in a certain spot, that helps give an indication of what house prices should be doing there (in that case dropping like a rock). The only thing about realtytrac is that it costs $50/month to maintain your subscription. Thus, it aint cheap for such questionable value (or maybe I just haven’t discovered its great uses!).

So that’s all I’ve got for now. Even when our realtor sends us MLS reports, I still use zillow and Google maps to flesh out missing details on the MLS listings. Score one for technology making homebuying a much more informed process (and maybe eventually eliminating the need for realtors almost entirely).

Ketones and Alzheimer’s

Via Peter at Hyperlipid, an article about how a wife treated her husband’s Alzheimer’s by introducing coconut oil to his diet. Why coconut oil? The wife, who happens to be a physician, had been trying to get her husband involved in a clinical trial that used a drug primarily composed of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs, which make up most of the fat in coconut oil, are sent straight to the liver from the stomach to be digested. This digestion process produces ketone bodies, which are used as energy by the brain (as well as other organs, like the heart).

The results of this experiment? Look at this picture from the article:

Those drawings are three attempts to draw a clock:

After two weeks of taking coconut oil, Steve Newport’s results in an early onset Alzheimer’s test gradually improved says his wife, Dr. Mary Newport. Before treatment, Steve could barely remember how to draw a clock. Two weeks after adding coconut oil to his diet, his drawing improved. After 37 days, Steve’s drawing gained even more clarity. The oil seemed to “lift the fog,” his wife says

Note how the first drawing looks like random numbers on a page. The second clock still gets the numbers wrong. The last clock, though not pretty, nails it.

Think about this: in less than two months, this man went from being unable to draw a clock to drawing one correctly simply by adding coconut oil to his diet!

Remarkable! Any scientists looking for a good experiment? Please look into this!

Final note: I don’t take this as any reason to start downing coconut oil (Though I cook with it all the time), rather I see it as more evidence of the correlation between health and diet. And of course, score one for eating saturated fat since MCTs are nothing but shorter length saturated fats!

Michael Lewis on “The End” [of Wall Street]

Michael Lewis wrote Liar’s Poker, a book I’ve seen referred to so often that it has finally ascended to my wish list (it should have been there a long time ago).

From the best I can tell having not read Liar’s Poker, it was about the rampant corruption experienced first-hand by Lewis in the mid-1980s (American Psycho anyone?). More recently, Lewis has written an update to Liar’s for Portfolio.com. You can find it here.

A snippet:

Both Daniel and Moses enjoyed, immensely, working with Steve Eisman. He put a fine point on the absurdity they saw everywhere around them. ?Steve?s fun to take to any Wall Street meeting,? Daniel says. ?Because he?ll say ?Explain that to me? 30 different times. Or ?Could you explain that more, in English?? Because once you do that, there?s a few things you learn. For a start, you figure out if they even know what they?re talking about. And a lot of times, they don?t!?

To sum up the article in just a few words, Lewis describes Wall Street as having turned into factory for imaginary clothes. That the dupe worked for decades is amazing enough. I gather that Lewis believes this crisis to mark the ultimate end of the con, and I hope he is right (Though I’m skeptical).

What brought the article home for me was how often I could relate to it via experiences from my prior job at Ga. Gulf, specifically when I was working with the then-CEO, CFO, Veeps, rating agencies, consultants and investment bankers (We had dual-bankers working the deal for us — Merrill and Lehman!) on the ill-fated billion-and-a-half-dollar deal to buy Royal. In short, the so-called experts used their authority to gloss over details, often being so short on understanding that they could not take the ideas they bantered about and tie them back to rational, coherent, non-jargoned core principles.

Of course, you only caught these “experts” at their legerdemain if you persisted in asking questions and staying skeptical, thereby avoiding the trap of their shaming you into silence with big-words and ostensibly complex ideas.

My most tragic experience of this appeal to authority, banker dodgi-ness occurred back around early June 2006. After having lobbed in an initial offer to buy Royal that was summarily rejected, we requested a day with Royal’s top management to go over their most up-to-date financials. They were hoping we’d become more confident in the deal, and up the ante. After the day-long conference call with Royal’s people, I was sitting in the CFO’s office with all the Veeps gathered around and all our investment bankers on the phone (Amazingly, for such an important meeting the CEO was actually absent — he’d dashed off to Louisiana for some reason and couldn’t even get on the phone!). This internal meeting was to have a final discussion about whether or not to continue pursuing Royal.

A quick step back for some background info: Royal was a building materials company we, a chemical commodities company looking for downstream integration of our PVC, were looking to buy. Everything we saw out of Royal (except for the Bain-prepared powerpoint presentations) was ugly. What we learned on that last-ditch day of diligence was that the multi-month slide was only getting worse. This new information made a clear case that we shouldn’t buy them at the price we had already offered, much less up the ante. Further, maybe we should rethink pursuing this company at any price. It was obvious that their business had managed to falter during the greatest housing boom of all time, yet we were contemplating paying for them going into the post-boom bust! I felt I had pieced together the big picture (as did the late CFO and a couple others who had been effectively shut-up by the CEO), thus in this post-diligence meeting, I took three minutes and laid out my case in full.

It was a treatise that hit on the economy, housing, Royal specifically and even interest rates. I left my thoughts open-ended, pleading to all parties present for discussion, feedback or criticism.

What did I get in response? A joke about bringing everyone down by being so gloomy. Everyone got a good guffaw and the joke was followed-up by one of the i-bankers on the phone immediately changing the subject to strategy on how to counter back and continue the buying process.

And that was that. Ga. Gulf bought Royal for a 40 – 50% premium (depending on which stock price you pick). Ga. Gulf’s stock price has dropped over 95% since that decision, and I believe Royal would have gone bankrupt had we just said, “Forget it; we’re not interested” and walked.

Between Lewis’ condemnation of Wall Street, my own experiences in corporate America (Oh the stories I could tell!) and having read Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, it’s abundantly clear that the great majority of so-called economic and financial “experts” who have been running the show in Wall Street are nothing but con(fidence) artists, whether they realize it or not.

It is a shameful history and a lot of hard-working people are going to be hurt in the fall-out as the con-game, which goes all the way back to the something-for-nothing printing presses of fiat currency, is laid bare.

Let’s hope this really is “the end” of it.

The Last Viridian

Though I know little about the Viridian Movement, I stumbled on an allusion (and quote) to a writing by Bruce Sterling titled “The Last Viridian” over at Patri’s livejournal and took the time to find the full-text. It’s worth the read — mainly because it has some thought-provoking ideas.

A sample:

Anything placed next to your skin for long periods is of high priority. Shoes are notorious sources of pain and stress and subjected to great mechanical wear.

You really need to work on selecting these — yes, on “shopping for shoes.” You should spend more time on shoes than you do on cars, unless you’re in a car during pretty much every waking moment. In which case, God help you.

I have spent a good deal of thought and money the shoes I purchase (Evidenced on this blog — zappos, chacos, and vibram five fingers). I’ve not minded spending more on shoes that are comfortable and function the way I like because I find these items to be ones I spend so much time using. They are important and I use them until they fall apart.

I also carry a nice knife, a useful tool that makes me more useful (This is another idea Sterling alludes to in his manifesto here).

Take a few minutes and read it.

Page 19 of 27« First...10«1718192021»...Last »