The Power of Blogging (On why I blog)

Blogging, which I define as published informal writing, makes me happy. I blog because I enjoy it. Why do I find blogging so fulfilling? Briefly, blogging provides me with a creative outlet to focus my thinking and share my ideas and interests with others. Even as these are sufficient reasons to blog, there are certain particulars of blogging that make it absurdly powerful, and this post attempts to get at these reasons.

What is so powerful about blogging?

Blogging enables me to write about whatever I want. I can write about the particulars of property rights, ideas for workout routines, the consequences of holding a certain belief, or how best to apply an understanding of human evolution to modern life. I can blog about my personal doings or the book I just finished reading. The informality of blogging provides an enormous amount of creative freedom to speak my mind. This freedom caters to my tendency towards boredom with overspecialization. It allows me to jump from subject to subject as often as I choose.

Seth Roberts described this purpose of blogging wonderfully in a recent comment: “[blogging] allows us to talk about whatever we want without fear of boring our listeners.” With blogging there is little fear of rejection and an empowering feeling of control. Label it “narcisistic” if you want, does it really matter? Blogging provides such a fantastic creative outlet that it is a worthwhile pursuit for this reason alone.

Blogging focuses my curiosity and clarifies my thinking. Putting my thoughts into writing requires a “good enough” understanding of a concept for my written explanation to successfully transfer the idea to others (including me at future date). This put-it-in-writing induced constraint helps clarify my thinking and can also aid my memory. Somewhat related to clarified thought, blogging provides an end-product for my curiosity. Whereas a random interest in parkour may mean running any number of Google queries on the subject only to be done with it, the add-on of blogging creates a deliverable: I can jot down my findings for future reference and produce something tangible and useful from what would otherwise be a passing curiosity.

Blogging results in the mass production of ideas. Creating a blog is cheap, which means that anyone can do it (See below for how). Since bloggers have the power to write whatever they want, an enormous amount of writing is generated. Of course, most of these blog posts will be quickly written and forgotten. And many (if not most) of the ideas generated by bloggers will be duds. Regardless, the raw abundance of ideas presented through blogs is one of the prevailing strengths of the medium. This is because the ideas captured in blog posts are public.

Blogs, whether written anonymously or otherwise, are a means for publishing writing. Whatever I blog about is almost instantly assimilated into the vast bounty of information that is the Internet. Once published, blog posts can be searched and linked. Thanks to search, similarly interested individuals can find my writings and I can find theirs. The public nature of blogging thereby prevents both good and bad ideas from obscurity. Bad ideas are subject to correction from reader feedback. Good ideas are made better by the same. Public discourse on blogs occurs via two pathways. The more basic of the two is that readers are allowed to comment on my blog directly. The alternative, and potentially more powerful pathway is by indirect feedback on a fellow blogger’s site that is hyperlinked to my site.

The resultant combination of blogging and linking is volatile: hyperlinks are the oxygen off which the best blogs thrive. Whether it is simply another blogger sending readers to my site via a blogroll link (a sort of blanket “seal of approval”), linking to a specific post, or through submission of blog posts to the virtual watercooler, social bookmarking sites like reddit, twitter, digg, stumbleupon, del.icio.us or facebook, hyperlinks can provide an immense amount of exposure. Of course, the more linked a blog becomes, the more likely it is to be linked: hyperlinks tend to follow a power law distribution. This means that a blog post containing a good idea (or a good blog generally) has the potential to spread virally. It is through being linked that an idea can go from obscurity to widespread consideration in a very brief time.

Perhaps one of the greatest powers of blogging is how all of the above characteristics provide me with a “home” in the Blogosphere. When I write, even as I do it for my own benefits, the writing is done within a community. Random ideas no longer need to stagnate within my mind: I can publish them on my blog and share them with others who are want to hear what I have to say. I contribute to this community in my own peculiar way, blogging on whatever strikes my fancy. I keep tabs on my neighbors by visiting their sites and subscribing to their feeds. Through this community ideas are freed to germinate, mutate, evolve, or cross-fertilize with each other, producing results that can scarcely be predicted but are almost always eye-opening and sometimes even world-changing.

Indeed, that is the benefit of living in any community, in real space or online. Communities provide the potential for fortuitous opportunities — luck, in other words. That’s why we choose to live with and near other human beings. Its why civilization exists. To share, trade, create, and profit from the resulting opportunities. The main difference between communities in real space and those online is that real space communities tend to be set up based on geographical proximity to your neighbors. In a way, proximity still reigns supreme in the blogosphere; however, it’s the proximity of minds, ideas, and intellect. Blogging eliminates physical barriers to intellectual commerce; as a result, more transactions occur and better ideas and communities are created.

It is for all of these reasons that blogging is one of the most dynamic aspects of the Internet. It is changing the way we learn and the speed at which we create and record knowledge. Despite this immense power, most don’t realize the huge upside potential to maintaining little more than a public journal. The reality is that they don’t have to — like me, most bloggers start blogging because they think they’ll enjoy it, and of course, most do. That the practice results in countless other benefits? Bonus.

Do you have a blog? If not, consider setting one up.

Blogging is nothing more than writing down your thoughts and publishing them. Yet doing so can change your life for the better in ways that you can’t currently predict. Anyone can set up a blog for free using services like blogger, livejournal, or wordpress dot com. If you’re feeling more industrious, you can secure your own webhosting, buy a domain name, and work through setting up a wordpress dot org or b2evolution installation. It’s really not all that hard and probably worth the effort if you want to make the most off your productive efforts. However, if you’re a bit intimidated to go this route, just pursue the free versions — you’ve got very little to lose by starting up a blog, and as I’ve illustrated above, a great deal to gain.

Project AminOwings: We’re expecting a girl!


Here Project AminOwings is demonstrating impressive fetal balance — managing an intra-uterine headstand!

Sonal and I found out this morning that Project AminOwings will be a girl. She’s due August 7, 2009. Needless to say, we are excited (and nervous). To date, we’ve thought of no names. Any suggestions may be considered. We don’t plan on deciding for sure until she is born. This is to ensure that the name fits the face — what’s a Beatrice look like, anyway?

And names that start with “B” are highly unlikely to be chosen as there is no reason to put a kid through having initials “B.O.” Though had it been a boy, Albert Owings would have been a serious contender.

Building and Defusing a Pork Bomb

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The “Bacon Explosion” is likely one of the most cooked (and craved) recipes to hit the Internet in recent months. Having created and eaten a variant of the “Pork Bomb” with my brothers a couple weeks back, I can attest to its tastiness.

The concept between the ‘splosion is simple: you’re taking a couple pounds of ground meat (pork, beef, or a mix) and slow-cooking it on a grill or smoker. Since plopping that much ground meat alone onto a bald grill would be prone to fall apart, you wrap the entire “loaf” with weaved bacon.

Of course, as good as ground meat wrapped in delicious bacon may be, why stop there? To make this “pork-wrapped torpedo” even more delectable, you mix into the meat additional ingredients. This can mean more crispy bacon bits, onions, bell peppers, cheese, seasonings, olives, whatever! BBQ rubs liberally applied to the outside and inside of the bomb are also key.

Our own take involved a 50/50 mix of ground beef and pork. Dry rub and bbq sauce was applied to the interior and exterior of the bomb. “Mix-ins” included green and red peppers, onions, and sharp cheddar cheese. Food and grill preparation took between thirty minutes and an hour. The cooking took around two hours (Rule of thumb is an hour per pound). Have plenty of beer handy for the duration. We served the dish sliced with romaine lettuce and sliced tomatoes. ProNovice-tip: We had to use a few toothpicks to hold our bacon wrap together as our bomb was so big, we needed extra bacon “stitches” to bridge a gap in our weave. Yes, our bomb was high-tech.

The result is a slice-able, bacon-infused, barbecue-seasoned mouth-pleasing monstrosity that you owe it to your taste buds to try.

Rather than add to the volumes of data out there on the nitty gritty details of making your own pork bomb / bacon explosion, I’m just going to provide the relevant links to get you started as well as a few pictures from our BBQ.

Thanks to my brother Nathan (BBQ Zombie) and brother-in-law Michael for their assistance in making the bacon explosion possible. We’ll be taking another crack at cooking one or two of these up this weekend in honor of both these guys turning 30!

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Thanks Nathan!

Grind Skills: Mastering the Mundane of Everyday Life

The Grind — How much time do we spend on the routine grinds of everyday life? From “Nine to Five” we’re engrossed in tasks such as navigating software, Internet research or managing email. From work, we commute home to find household chores like cooking, cleaning or laundry (or kids!). Even leisure activities like catching up on favorite websites, finding a TV show to watch or finding a book to read can have unseen, tangential time-costs. Every day we spend an immense amount of time doing mundane things that, while necessary, are not necessarily enjoyable. They all amount to our grind.

We resign to performing these little duties because they must be done. Unfortunately, the day-in and day-out repetition of our grind habitualizes our inefficiency, thereby blinding us to the way we do things. Our daily grinds waste our time and we don’t even realize it.

Learning Grind Skills — Given the above obstacles, how do we go about mastering the mundane?

One way to hack our grind is by inquiring about how others do things. Of course, this approach is problematic for the same reason we fail to see our own inefficiencies — unless they have actively worked to improve their grind, our efficient friends and coworkers usually don’t realize their own efficiencies. Everyone assumes the way they do it is the way everyone else does it even as this is often not the case.

Okay, so what can you do?

Be more aware — Simply suspecting there might be a better way to do things, you’re more likely to catch an offhand comment or pick up on someone else’s behavior. From there, you can inquire further as to what they mean and/or what they are doing.

By way of example, fresh out of school, I worked in public accounting, which required hours of work navigating spreadsheets via Microsoft Excel. I knew a few of the most common “hot keys” like those for copying/pasting, saving, printing, etc. It was only when I overheard one colleague asking another how to do a particular spreadsheet task via a keyboard progression instead of using the mouse that I realized my understanding of Excel was rudimentary. Just this incremental understanding amounted to an Excel epiphany. I soon was adding more mouse-less spreadsheet mastery to my repertoire. Within a month I was amazing co-workers, people who considered themselves Excel gurus, at how quickly I could navigate and create a spreadsheet. My improvement was akin to typing 100 words per minute instead of the age-old “hunt and peck.”

Improved awareness heightens observation, thereby increasing the likelihood of accidental learning. The trick is in being aware of how you do things currently while acknowledging their might be better ways. From there, look for clues that others are accomplishing the same thing in a different manner. Be comfortable enough to inquire further, understand their methods and experiment with them on your own.

Amplify awareness through exposure — Surround yourself with competent individuals and observe how they do things. Expose yourself to people who think and act differently than you. This process can be uncomfortable if it breaks you away from your cocooned “routine.” Rather than be uncertain or fearful, look forward to the challenge of confronting the status quo. Exposure in conjunction with awareness can dramatically increase your chance of accidentally learning a revolutionary grind skill.

Practice — Mundane mastery can result from an excessive amount of experience. There’s only so much practice I plan to have folding laundry though, so this method of learning can have limited returns. However, for the tasks that you spend an enormous amount of time on, taking the time to investigate better ways to manage that grind should be a given. Learning these tried and true skills of mastery should then become your goal.

About laziness — Sometimes we know outright (or suspect) that there are better ways to do things but are too lazy to acquire these skills. I consider myself a lazy person, but even so, I have realized that the effort I put into learning a grind skill is a front-loaded cost that has monstrous long-term benefits. Just look at typing or even more basic — reading.

So what are some grind skills, anyway? — Stay tuned as I blog about the grind skills I’ve acquired such as staying on top of the blogosphere, email management and the aforementioned mastery of keyboard shortcuts (over reliance on a mouse) as applied to general software. If you can think of any grind skills you’d like to share, please comment or contact me.

There are more efficient ways to manage routine tasks, and if we can learn these “grind skills,” we can master the mundane and and find time where none before could be found.

Grind Skills Reading

Snack Attack? Try Avocado and Sunflower Seeds.

avocado + sunflower seeds is so tasty!The picture to the right practically speaks for itself — a healthy, mouth-watering snack that is so delicious you could eat it for dessert: simply half an avocado filled with shelled sunflower seeds.

Preparation takes about 90 seconds. Take an avocado and slice it in half. Twist to separate the halves. Extract the pit (Carefully inject the knife tip into the pit and just twist). Take one half in hand and slice a grid into it. Finally, take shelled sunflower seeds (preferably salted) and pour them into the open “hole” left by the pit. Grab a spoon and enjoy!

The only variation to this snack I’ve seen (or tried) is to add a bit of hot sauce on top. I prefer it plain. It is hard to beat avocado and sunflower seeds — a tasty treat for its salty, crunchy, and creamy texture, satisfying to the last spoonful.

Below is listed some macro-nutritional information for the combo. I had to calculate this by cobbling together data from nutritiondata.com and calorieking.com (Assumes half an avocado and a tablespoon of sunflower seeds). As calculated, the macro-nutrient profile for this snack is:

  • 160 calories
  • 14.5 grams of fat
  • 8 grams of carbohydrates
  • 5.5 grams of dietary fiber
  • 3 grams of protein

The combination is fat-laden and low in carbohydrates if not a bit light on protein. The profile makes it a solid snack for insulin control. One note: most of the fat is of the polyunsaturated, omega-6 variety; however, if you’re eating a healthy diet*, there is little be concerned about in eating what essentially no more than a fruit and some seeds.

Avocado half with shelled sunflower seedsAdditionally, the avocado/sunflower seed combo is vitamin and mineral dense, packing a load of vitamins E, C, K, B6, as well as healthy doses of potassium, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, selenium, and manganese (among other nutrients). How can you go wrong?

Try it out and let me know what you think!

Extra credit goes to the first person to try this with crispy bacon crumbles instead of shelled sunflower seeds. I take no blame if bacon mixes poorly with avocado as I have yet to try this variant out, but if it works, I’ll take all the glory. My gut tells me it would be awesome, but bacon and I go way back to my toddler years. So the story goes, I first encountered a cast iron skillet sans parental supervision, replete with cooled bacon grease when I was around three years old. I promptly slathered the grease all over my face, forever burning (figuratively) the bacon-y goodness into my brain.

The rest is history. I love bacon.

*My definition of a healthy diet is staying away from frankenfoods, sugary junk, vegetable oils and breads. To balance out our modern omega-6 heavy foods, I supplement with a bit of omega-3 rich fish oil. More on that subject here.

But look at the view! John Hancock Tower Facing Foreclosure

One of Boston’s landmark buildings, the John Hancock Tower, is facing foreclosure. The current owner bought the tallest building in Boston (and all of New England) back in 2006, near the peak of the housing/commercial real estate dual bubbles, for $1.3 billion; however, current estimates put the I. M. Pei building’s value between $700 and $900 million. That’s nearly a 50% haircut on the low-end. Ouch!

I lived in Boston back from 2003 to 2004 while working in audit (AABS) for Ernst & Young. E&Y’s offices were then located in the Hancock (not sure if they are still there) at around the 40th floor. One Saturday while having to stop by the office to drop off some files, I brought along my Canon digital camera and took photos to construct a panorama. As you can see below, you get quite a view of downtown Boston forty stories up!

From Hancock Tower — Maximize your window to get the full view!

The Tower’s profile is a long and slender parallelogram. Combined with the reflective glass exterior, this made the building an enormous mirror. The 60-story Hancock Tower was the third John Hancock building, being built immediately across the street from the first two Hancock buildings. Thus, from a certain vantage point, the third building reflected the first two. You can see the top of the second Hancock building at the bottom right of the panorama above or in the picture to the left below.

Additionally, the building-as-mirror was meant to make it blend in with the sky. You get a slight feel for this in the shot to the right below.

No doubt I. M. Pei et. al were high-fiving on their sky-high mirror, which did make for a nice addition to the Boston skyline. This was even as some of the mirror-finished windows were occasionally falling out. During the brief time I had the (dis)pleasure of working in the Boston E&Y offices, I grew to dislike the functionality of this skinny building. The skinny layout looked pretty on the outside, but with conference rooms at either end of the parallelogram, one wrong turn out the elevator banks and you found yourself a long walk away from where you intended to go. The Hancock Tower is a great example of choosing form over function.

Finally, as it heads into auction on March 31, the Tower is just one more victim of the real estate bubble and crash — but look at that view!

Confirmation Bias and the Internet

The internet is vast playground where every opinion is aired, fiction can masquerade as fact, and the answers to your most bizarre questions can be just a google search away. This abundance of cheap information and ideas is overwhelmingly positive even as there are latent problems.

One problem is that the internet can encourage and reinforce bias — like confirmation bias. According to wikipedia, confirmation bias is “a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and to avoid information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs.”

Thanks to Google, we can instantly seek out support for the most bizarre idea imaginable. If our initial search fails to turn up the results we want, we don’t give it a second thought, rather we just try out a different query and search again.

Armed with this power to search, it usually doesn’t take long to find someone or something that confirms our bias. If you happen to be a blogger or have a website, you can then reinforce your own bias by by writing on the subject and linking to the support you found!

To wit, one of the first things I did in writing this article was search for “confirmation bias” internet, which led me to a cached page and then a quote from a WaPo article titled The Year of Living Gloomily. The quote snappily nails my overarching point:

I’m sure some of these stories are true, or true enough to satisfy an editor somewhere, but there’s something else going on here: It’s what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” That’s the human tendency to seek out only facts that fit what we already know to be true while downplaying or ignoring contradictory evidence. As Mark Twain is said to have quipped, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

People have always been prone to confirmation bias, but the Internet amplifies the phenomenon since we need not look far to confirm our particular bias. It’s always a click away.

By making the search for confirmation so easy — a mere “click away” — the internet rapidly exacerbates bias.

It happens just like that.

(Expecting a) Happy Birthday to Me

Today is my 28th birthday — here are a few birthday reflections:

  • Changing when and what I eat over the past year (more on this topic here) while engaging in regular, intense exercise has changed my body composition. I actually weigh approximately the same as a year ago, but am carrying around considerably less fat and a lot more lean tissue.
  • As a result of improved eating habits and nutrition, I’ve gotten much better at cooking, particularly on my trusty cast iron skillet. Last night I made carnitas for the first time (Tweeted with pics 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9).
  • Thanks to Facebook, twitter, Linkedin, Mobog and my own site I’m (theoretically) better connected to my friends, family and network than I was a year ago. My Facebook “Wall” today has been absolutely bombarded with birthday wishes (Considerably moreso than a year ago — perhaps this chart hints at an explanation). Thank you all, even if you only knew it was my birthday because Facebook told you so!
  • My business continues onward despite an increasingly turbulent economy and frivolous litigation (Related).
  • Tragically, cancer took someone dear to my wife and me this past year.
  • I now have a nephew via my older brother.
  • And my wife and I are expecting our first kid to arrive in August 2009. I’m going to be a dad.
  • Do I feel any older? Not really. What I do feel is an increased tolerance for uncertainty. This peace despite life’s unpredictability is welcome (On stochasticity).
  • No matter what may come, I am optimistic about this next year of life.

Happy Birthday to me! Thanks for all your well wishes!

Update 5:35, Feb. 4: I had no idea that today was also Facebook’s Fifth “Birthday” (as much as a website can have a date of birth, anyway), and also something called Basecamp’s birthday, too. Maybe that is why Facebook greeted me with this odd message (odd coming from a computer/website):

Happy Birthday, Justin!

From all of us on The Facebook Team, have a great day!

Er . . . thanks Facebook!

Follow me on Twitter

I have caved in to micro-blogging. I’m on Twitter, which I keep mis-typing as Twister (Brain fail). You can follow me at http://twitter.com/justinno.

I remember when I was first told about twitter a couple years ago by @MatthewKrivanek. At the time, I couldn’t understand why anyone would be willing to blog about the mini-events of their day-to-day lives. It seemed a bit vain. The name “twitter” put me off, too — after all, “twit” doesn’t have the greatest of connotations.

A long while later I stumbled upon Mobog, which is a photosharing site that users can link up to their cell phones either via MMS or email (I use the latter as I have a Blackberry Curve and unlimited data). Mobog made sense to me almost immediately as it took a tool most people have, cameraphones, and enables individuals to take snapshots of their lives. I used mobog a great deal when I was traveling in India. My family thought it was great because they could follow along with me on my travels as they were happening. That may not seem like a big deal, but traveling is an inherently spontaneous adventure, by live-blogging it with pictures, family/friends can vicariously travel with you. You can even ask them from around the world if they would like some item at a store you’re at (I.e. bangles in Baroda).

In short, live-blogging via photos has been a lot of fun. Twitter is simply live-blogging with words or photos (via twitpic.com).

You’re still not convinced? Why the fuss? And isn’t this vain?

The fuss is simple. Full-on blogging serves a purpose, but takes a more concerted effort of time and energy. The cost of traditional blogging is not insignificant. The cost of micro-blogging via services like mobog or twitter, on the other hand, is next-to-nothing. I can quickly fire off a photo with a 100 character blurb on a dish I just made. I can micro-blog a sentence on a movie I just watched. It’s simple to fire off an email (or SMS). Since the expectation (nay limitation) on twitter is 140 characters, you can blog life that would otherwise fall through the cracks. Really, much of life is the stuff of tweets, where you go, what you see, what you eat or do — the stuff that stretches between the big events and big ideas you can blog 500+ words on.

Micro-blogging fills in the space between, thereby capturing much of the stuff of life.

Is it vain? Maybe but it is useful vanity. It keeps you plugged into your friends. In a way, it encourages you to be more active and do more interesting things. After all, if you’re only tweeting “just watched tv” for the umpteenth time, it won’t be long before you realize that a) no one cares and b) your life is kinda boring (not that I don’t watch tv).

Of course, getting your friends and family plugged in and using a service like twitter isn’t easy. But twitter is free and simple to set up. So give it a try and see if you aren’t surprised to find yourself a little addicted to micro-blogging.

You can follow my latest tweets either on twitter.com or at this site’s home page.

Admin Note: Now that I have twitter set up, I might discontinue mobog as it seems a bit redundant. Just FYI if you see my mobog disappear.

Revamped Home Page

Just an administrative note, I have re-vamped the home page of this site:

https://justinowings.com

In the process, I have killed my “Furl” page and eliminated the “Out & About” page, as the latter is sort of what I was going for on the index page, anyway. Now, my main index has considerably more purpose as it is serving as a map to the content on this site, as well as off-site content that you might (or might not!) enjoy. It contains a lot of what you’ll find in the sidebar to your right, but perhaps in a more user-friendly, grid format. Feedback is welcome!