Learn by Doing, Then by Thinking

Note: There’s a bit of thinking here. But it’s thinking after doing.

The late Seth Roberts once wrote about his graduate school days, and how he got into self-experimentation. It was by way of the idea that, “The best way to learn is to do:”

And then I was in the library and I came across an article about teaching mathematics and the article began, “The best way to learn is to do.” And I thought “Huh well that makes a lot of sense.” And I realized you know that it was a funny thing that that’s what I wasn’t doing: I was thinking. And I also thought to myself well I want to learn how to do experiments. And if the best way to learn is to do then I should just do as many experiments as possible as opposed to trying to think of which ones to do. And that was really a vast breakthrough in my graduate training and everything changed after that.

Quoted from a 10 minute presentation by Seth Roberts (link long since lost to github, apparently)

Roberts practiced “learning by doing” throughout his life, always carrying out various experiments to see what he could discover.

It’s a simple, intriguing idea: you can learn more by doing first than you can by thinking first.

Why might this be the case?

Cross-Pollinating Ideas via the Internet

I was just leaving a comment on Richard Nikoley’s latest blog post, Vitamin K1 vs. Vitamin K2 concerning Natto, a fermented soy food from Japan that contains a huge amount Vitamin K2. I was specifically pointing out that fish gonads, which are considered to have a high K2 concentration, something I had learned over at Stephan Guyenet’s Whole Health Source: Seafood and K2, are absolutely dwarfed by the K2 concentration in natto^. I had first learned about natto and the importance of fermented foods via Seth Roberts’ blog (See his Fermented Food Category). Put differently, my comment took data from three different sources and presented it in a coordinated, collaborative manner.

Though this might not be the best term for it, I call these occurrences examples of the “cross-pollination” of ideas. It’s a collaborative, unpredictable, uncoordinated, complex effort whereby ideas and information gleaned from disparate sources are examined in relation to one another. It is knowing the trees and seeing the forest. The goal is to create more useful ideas and better information, and then spread this new knowledge far and wide. And do it over and over again. If this reminds you at all of evolutionary processes, not only are you catching my drift, you’re cross-pollinating.

Idea cross-pollination is amplified by the Internet. Historically, a powerful idea or discovery could languish in obscurity, the pet project of an experimenter who works in the silo of his own research. This was the case with Isaac Newton who had discovered/created calculus decades before it was made public.

Compare how calculus languished to the ideas contained within Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, a book written by a non-specialist (Taubes is a writer, not a scientist) that looks at an enormous amount of nutrition-related research, sees common threads across the data, and presents it all in once place, calling into question the mainstream nutrition mantra that low-fat is healthy, fat will kill you, and people are obese because they eat too much. GCBC was created by having the power to examine the research of a number of disparate specialists and see the big picture.

A book like GCBC is made possible by the Internet because it becomes much less likely that ideas remain within the dusty silos of specialists. The Internet takes curiosity, search, and a great deal of disparate computing power*, and uses them to spread ideas much, much faster. Non-specialists(like Taubes or me) then have the pleasure of making fortuitous discoveries of connections across specialties.

Of course, the means by which cross-pollination is accomplished are unpredictable: we can’t plan a course to find them. All we can do is cast a wide net, examine a lot of ideas, follow our curiosity, and let our organic pattern recognition software do it’s thing. This is very much a “learn by doing, then by thinking” concept. If we dabble in this gamble enough, every once in awhile, we will hit the idea jackpot.

Mind, the idea of idea cross-pollination isn’t really an external process across disparate people, at all. To the extent that we learn ideas, we store copies** of them in our brains, forever taking the ideas with us (A reason legal boundaries around mental concepts is fundamentally absurd). Indeed, it seems that the majority of my intellectual growth has been predicated on being able to cross-pollinate within these internalized knowledge stores. I am always trying to reconcile previously learned ideas with new ones. In this way my organic human network, a human brain, is mimicked by the inorganic mesh of networks we call the Internet.

In sum, cross-pollination of ideas has always been occurring — it is a human specialty, warts and all. Thanks to the Internet, it’s happening more, and we’re getting an explosion of ideas/concepts/knowledge as a result.

^ It seems that Natto is an obscure bastion of nutrition, which may be due to the fact that it (apparently) doesn’t taste the greatest. I’ve yet to get my hands on any as it is exceedingly hard to find. Rest assured, I will be eating some just as soon as I get a chance to check out the only Japanese grocery store in Atlanta.

* As in, human minds that work to understand and pull together the data they discover.

** Albeit imperfect, frequently mutated copies, but this, again, can make for fortuitous idea creation, and as far as I can tell, acts as a positive, dynamic force.

The Importance of Brain Tech and the Limits to Acquiring It

Near my desk there is a stack of unread books (And ebooks). They taunt me. What ideas are they holding, eager to be assimilated and used, but stagnant until I can find the time to read them, tease out the knowledge, and add it to my mental toolbox? There are limits on acquiring brain technology, and it seems they are presently difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.

being
This is not my stack! — Creative Commons License photo credit: Annie Ominous

There’s an idea articulated in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon that goes something like this: imagine there is a project that will take five years to complete. Imagine further that a technology that could be developed in a year would, once acquired, enable the project to be completed in only two years. Thus, rather than use existing technology to complete the project in five years, it makes more sense to acquire the time-saving technology first.

Reality is considerably less predictable than this simple example allows, but it still illustrates a useful idea: acquiring the right technology first can save time and effort later.

This idea seems most relevant to acquiring brain technology, which I’ll define as the sum of useful ideas, useful paradigms, and knowledge. Modern-day prosthetics, also known as our mobile phones and laptops, are rapidly eliminating the need for this last bit of brain tech. The rote knowledge we need is almost always a google or two away (See the recent grind skill discussion on maximizing Google search). However, these prosthetic devices can’t yet do the work of a useful idea or paradigm.

Functional ideas and paradigms are the programs by which our brains process data. The better the programs, the faster we can process problems and the better our answers will be. The better our brain technology, the better our lives. It is for this reason that I take measures to acquire as much brain tech as possible. This is why I read books, blog (On the power of blogging), and follow my curiosity. It’s all in an effort to boost my brain tech, which I hope will improve my life as it improves my ability to solve problems and understand the world.

It seems simple enough but there are problems: (1) it takes a long time to acquire brain technology, it’s difficult or impossible to know what it is we should be seeking to know (2), and it’s hard to know when our existing brain technology is obsolete (3). I have no good ideas on how to attack the second problem, which is Black Swan-esque and thereby unforeseeable. Awareness that it exists may mitigate our base ignorance but then again, it probably won’t. Regarding problem three, seeking out new brain tech as well as simply sharing our own brain tech with others may help — as far as mundane tasks go, that is driver behind writing about Grind Skills.

I’m left to dwell on the first problem. My solution here is to filter through as much information as I can manage and mine out the useful ideas and paradigms. By filtering information, I usually mean reading books and blogs. On the blogging front, a feed aggregator is a must-have. And as far as reading books, get thee to a library (or amazon.com)!

Reading provides a starting point, but even here there is a problem. The volume of information that must be mined to find a single useful idea is immense. There is a brain bandwidth problem: I can only read so fast. Furthermore, even supposing I’m maxing out my reading speed*, I will inevitably read books and blogs that have broken ideas and paradigms (or none at all). How do I reduce the risk of wasting time and energy spent reading empty datasets (books/blogs)? I don’t know.

One workaround to my own bandwidth limitations is to leverage the bandwidth of others. I do this by surrounding myself with others who similarly seek out useful ideas and paradigms and are eager to share what they know. As far as the Internet goes, there again we see the power of blogging and the importance of a good, share-friendly feed reader. In real space, I think Nassim Taleb’s suggestion to “go to parties” is astute. Socialize (Don’t isolate yourself!)! Otherwise, observe others and ask questions.

These are ground-breaking insights, I know. I’m mostly just articulating a problem that has been on my mind. It’s great that modern technology has improved our understanding of the world and enabled us to outsource at least some of our brain functions to our gadgets (Thereby freeing up some bandwidth). However, it seems to me that the age-old ways to acquire wisdom, which is all brain technology really is, are the only ways we’ve got. Read as much as you can and share your tech with others**. And that’s what I’ll be doing until some other tech comes along and renders this brain tech obsolete.

* Speaking of brain tech, I’ve previously attempted learning to speed read. I’ve had no success with it though.
** I’m optimistic that this latter method (sharing) is being accelerated via the Internet.

Follow-up

Use a Feed Aggregator [Grind Skills]

RSS Logo Drawn In The Sand
Creative Commons License photo credit: kiewic

New to Grind Skills? See this post first.

Grind Skill Brief — If you regularly visit blogs, news portals, or other dynamic websites (This means you), you need to be using some form of feed aggregator to consolidate the content of all your favorite sites into one, manageable place. If you aren’t already doing this, you are wasting time and energy and simultaneously failing to keep up with the topics and ideas that interest you most. Even worse, you’re missing out on powerful means of learning knew ideas and knowledge. If you need a feed aggregator, Google Reader is free and incredibly easy to set up for existing Google (Gmail) account holders.

The Details — What is RSS / Atom? Simply put, they are two forms of XML coding websites use to syndicate content. Content syndication empowers Internet users to subscribe to a site through XML aggregating software — the aforementioned “feed aggregator” — without using clunky, cluttered email. Feed aggregators virtually eliminate the need to physically visit (As in, load in your Internet browser) your “must-read” websites. They check for the latest site updates on your behest, pull the entirety of content from whatever websites you want, and then dump all the newest, unread posts into an inbox-like format for your easy reading digestion.

By way of an example, there are nearly 70 websites to which I currently subscribe using Google Reader, my feed aggregator of choice. If I didn’t use a feed reader, I would have to try and remember all 70 sites I’m tracking and then visit every one of those sites numerous times per day to accomplish the same task that my feed aggregator has already accomplished every time I login. The Grind Skill angle should be obvious: a feed aggregator is technology makes you more efficient and effective at doing the things you want to do.

Google Reader — I am not an expert on all of the various feed aggregators out there and would be interested in hearing about any feed aggregators that readers have found particularly useful. I like Google Reader because it has an intuitive interface that allows you to search for feeds, categorize them into common groups, fluidly scan through the latest posts by site or category, tag content, search your feeds, email posts (this functionality taps your Gmail address book to auto fill email addresses), “star” content, and use hot keys to navigate around. You can even share posts with other Google Reader users with which you have had regular contact (More on this feature below). Because Google Reader is web-based, it requires no software and can even be accessed on your mobile device. If your browser supports Google Gears, you can even get setup to take your feeds offline for reading when you don’t have Internet access.

If you need to get setup on Google Reader go to http://reader.google.com and login with your Google/Gmail account. From there, click on the button at the top left that says “Add a subscription.” From there, you can search for sites by domain name, keyword, etc. and a list of possible matches will be returned. Alternatively for instantly adding subscriptions, if you see an RSS icon on a website, which typically looks like this symbol sans wings:


You can try it by right-clicking the linked icon above, copying the linked address, which is the Feedburner feed for all Justin Owings blogs, and paste that address into the “Add a subscription” dropbox and hit “Add.” Done!

Feed Aggregators Accelerate Learning — Beyond the immense time-savings you’ll realize from the feed aggregator grind skill, there is a less-obvious benefit, which is making you smarter: feed aggregators accelerate learning through focusing your curiosity while enabling you to take advantage of the work others’ put into reading their own feeds.

Curiosity is a precursor to learning. I am a curious cat, and my curiosity often leads to seemingly random pursuits of ideas and knowledge. These pursuits are exciting and of high interest to me, which is why I’m so likely to internalize and gain knowledge from them. However, just as my curiosity is unplanned and spontaneous, it is practically impossible to keep track of. A feed aggregator manages the human element, my forgetfulness and lack of focus, and “remembers” my interests for me. Even more impressive in the case of Google Reader, is that my aggregator suggests other feeds I might find worth reading by intuiting my interests from my existing subscriptions.

The other way a feed aggregator can accelerate learning may be particular to Google Reader and that is via shared items. Google allows you to broadcast items in your feed aggregator that you found particularly interesting, insightful, funny or otherwise worth noting. Your friends (as determined by your Gmail contacts) who use Google Reader will see your shared items and vice versa.

The power of shared items is twofold. First, there’s a reasonable probability that the individuals you regularly contact share some common interests with you. But with every Venn Diagram, there are certain interests your friends share that are either of no interest to you or have yet to be discovered by you. In this latter category lies an additional avenue for finding ideas or insightful posts that you may otherwise have never found! Furthermore, like you, your friends are scouring countless blogs but only “sharing” a small fraction of the content they read. This tiny fraction, the cream of the feed crop, has a high probability of containing novel or interesting ideas.

In short, not only do feed aggregators save you time but they can expose you to ideas and knowledge that make you smarter.

Update 3/12/09 10:02 AM: I just learned that you can now comment on shared items within Google Reader. This feature was just released yesterday. Comments are only visible to friends using Google Reader (for now). This is cool in that previously you could only write brief notes on shared items. Google Reader just keeps getting better!

Note — Presently, if you’re looking for a particular Google Reader user’s shared items, you have to find a link to where that user makes his or her shared items public. I make my shared items public at Justin Owings Google Reader Shared Items. You can also find links to the ten most recent posts on the front page of this site.

Grind Skills Reading

If you have questions or comments about this grind skill, please comment below or contact me!

Letters from a Stoic by Lucius Seneca

Letters from a Stoic by Lucius Seneca

Seneca, like other Stoics, has a doctrine of nature that is remarkably close to that of Emerson or modern American environmentalists. The wise man (sapiens) will never be bored when contemplating the simple things of nature. The natural beauty of the countryside and the healthful action of the waves can have a calming effect . . . He also believed in the simple and strenuous life and the avoidance of luxury and decadence, and there are numerous passages . . . which decry the ostentatious, self indulgent practices of his contemporaries . . . Seneca has no patience for philosophy as a word game or a practice of engaging in hair-splitting arguments for their own sake. He rather sees it as a practice or way of life that all those who seek the good should investigate and adopt.

(From a helpful Amazon review)

Finished Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic. I’ve only casually understood the Stoic philosophy prior to reading this book. As the above review notes, Seneca is concerned with making peace with death and living in accordance with nature. Seneca frequently cites the benefits of philosophy, which should be practical and useful. Fortune is something that should be looked on with ambivalence — neither should we get enamored when our luck is good nor depressed when bad. Happiness is a state of mind. I’m not positive, but it seems to me that Seneca originated the idiom to “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst” (See the quoted bit below).

The Letters are a quick read at only around 230 pages. If you are interested in some ancient wisdom from a Roman philosopher, you would likely enjoy this book. Below are some passages I particularly enjoyed from the book.

  • “Look at the amount of punishment that boxers and wrestlers take to the face and the body generally! They will put up none the less with any suffering in their desire for fame, and will undergo it all not merely in the course of fighting but in preparing for their fights as well: their training in itself constitutes suffering. Let us too overcome all things, with our reward consisting not in any wreath or garland, not in trumpet-calls for silence for the ceremonial proclamation of our name, but in moral worth, in strength of spirit, in a peace that is won for ever once in any contest fortune has been utterly defeated.”
  • “Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen; but I do know what’s capable of happening . . . I’m ready for everything. If I’m let off in any way, I’m pleased. . . . for just as I know that anything is capable of happening so also do I know that it’s not bound to happen. So I look for the best and am prepared for the opposite.”
  • “Resent a thing by all means if it represents an injustice decreed against yourself personally; but if this same constraint is binding on the lowest and the highest alike, then make your peace again with destiny, the destiny that unravels all ties. There’s no justification for using our graves and all the variety of monuments we see bordering the highways as a measure of our stature. In the ashes all men are leveled. We’re born unequal, we die equal.”
  • “Death you’ll think of as the worst of all bad things, though in fact there’s nothing bad about it at all except the thing which comes before it – the fear of it.”
  • “For those who follow nature everything is easy and straightforward, whereas for those who fight against her life is just like rowing against the stream.”
  • “One used to think that the type of person who spreads tales was as bad as any: but there are persons who spread vices. And association with them does a lot of damage.”
  • “No man’s good by accident. Virtue has to be learnt. Pleasure is a poor and petty thing. No value should be set on it: it’s something we share with dumb animals – the minutest, most insignificant creatures scutter after it. Glory’s an empty, changeable thing, as fickle as the weather. Poverty’s no evil to anyone unless he kicks against it. Death is not an evil. What is it then? The one law mankind has that is free of all discrimination.”

The Scientific Method Simplified

http://bradpilon.com/2009…simplified.html

Brad Pilon of EatSTOPEat.com brings a simple reminder that I should challenge my beliefs.

I understand the tendency towards confirmation bias (See Confirmation Bias and the Internet). Yet awareness isn’t quite enough, I don’t think. I should actively seek out the destruction of my own beliefs if I really care about knowing anything.

Here’s Brad:

. . . one of the best ways to grow intellectually is to take things you believe to be right, and methodically and logically try to prove them wrong. . . .

. . . you will see amazing growth in your understanding and knowledge if every once in a while you systematically and logically try and disprove the things that you believe to be right, instead of always trying to reaffirm their correctness.

Good Investments for Bad Economic Times: Investing Amidst Uncertainty

A common question I get nowadays is “What should I invest in?” My best answer to that question is probably not what you’d expect.

My default financial response to this query over the past two years has been to go long on commodities, particularly gold, silver and energy, short the stock market, particularly financials and builders, and stay out of bonds and real estate.

Despite my default advice being proven correct as the months have gone by, getting the timing right on entering and exiting these positions has been incredibly difficult, if not downright impossible. Buy and hold has brought both pleasure and pain for commodity-bulls. Equity shorts have had to endure both the unpredictability of government intervention and market reactions to said intervention. That “timing has been paramount” is just another way of saying that luck has been the determining factor in investing success. And success has meant not so much whether you’ve made a lot of money, but more in how little money you’ve lost. I take solace in treading water in an environment where a 10% or greater annual loss in this market is a job well done.

As far as financial investment advice going forward, I maintain that gold, silver and energy, and commodities generally are going to be big winners in the next few years as investors swap paper assets for real assets. This thesis is built upon the reality that debt financing by governments is exploding, which will ultimately mean higher yields on bonds and running the printing presses on the shortest-term debt around, the Federal Reserve Note — a.k.a. the dollar.

The above advice is my best guess. Use it at your own peril.

Setting that question aside, there are irrefutably good investments that you can make in bad economic times. They require setting aside more of your time than your money. Since time is the most scarce resource you can spend (And your happiness one of the most precious assets you can buy), these investments are arguably exponentially more important than your physical wealth, anyway.

Good Investments

Family

Your family is a wealth of advice, laughter, entertainment, and support (Sure they can be a PITA, but focus on the big picture!). Parents love you even when you screw up. Siblings understand you in ways others can’t. And who doesn’t have warm memories of holidays spent playing with cousins or aunts and uncles? There’s no good reason family moments should be isolated to major Judeo-Christian holidays or the occasional birthday.

Keep in regular touch with your parents. They brought you into this world: you owe them the occasional phone call. Encourage them in their endeavors and reap the benefit of mutual support.

Call up extended family and make potluck dinner plans. Play games with nephews and nieces. Chastise balding uncles. Play card games. Eat food.

Simple pleasures spent with family are hard to beat. It doesn’t take much money to share a laugh and make a memory with your family, even if at first it seems like setting something up takes some element of work. The time-investment pays off.

If you are young and married, investing in family presents a huge opportunity for wealth: you can have children. Having a kid (or two or three) is perhaps the most fundamental, biologically-innate way to build wealth around. A kid is an investment in your future. Though I don’t have any kids to speak of, I’ve got a nephew and enough intuition to see a good investment when I see one. Of course, having a child is one massive investment of time (And money), but it is one that enriches parents for a lifetime. My powers of observation also note that people all around the world, at all different levels of financial wealth, are able to support children, so even in bad economic times, you can still make this pivotal investment.

Friends

Similar to family, friends are bastions of wealth that merely take investments of time. These days, with social applications like Facebook, it’s even easier to stay in touch and make plans with friends — even those you haven’t seen in awhile.

As for making new friends, check out meetup.com. I’m just getting into this site myself (I’m a bit behind the curve on this one!), but Meetup is a way to use cyberspace to meet people in real space. What more, you can find folks with similar interests to yours, attend a gathering of said individuals and potentially find a kindred spirit who shares other interests.

Pet(s)

Get a cat or dog. Pets are fantastic because they typically require only a marginal investment of time and money while providing an immense amount of love, entertainment, perspective (ever watch a cat or dog lounge in the sun?) and stress-reduction. Pets can provide exercise (dog-walking) and even boost self-esteem by reminding you that this cute furry being depends on your caring for them for their survival.

Cats (my preference though I like dogs, too) are likely the more cost-efficient pet from a time and money perspective. Having a cat requires:

  • Maintaining a litter box. This is the worst part of cat-ownership. At the same time, cats instinctively know how to use a litter box and can even be trained to use the toilet. Alternatively, if you can let your cat outside, they’ll prefer pooping in nature, which will drastically reduce your litterbox duties (pun very much intended).
  • Feeding regularly. Usually you can do this once a day and be done with it as cats regulate their own eating
  • Cleaning up fur/shedding.
  • Cat-proofing your world. This mainly means stopping your cat from destroying your furniture.

As far as breed, I happen to be big siamese/tonkinese fan as they tend to be personable, people-friendly, smarter and sociable. In other words, they seem to exhibit some of the more desirable qualities typically associated with dogs. I found Zeke (pictured above, in the youtube video) via petfinder.com. He cost me a hundred bucks to “rescue.” That was about seven years ago. I’m guessing he costs about a dollar a day to take care of, and that price is well worth it for the enjoyment he brings. Just as an example, when I haven’t seen Zeke in awhile, he usually jumps up from the ground for me to catch him in my arms at which time he licks my nose with his raspy tongue (Exfoliates the skin?).

I know less about having a dog, but caring for a dog takes a good bit more work as they must be walked and taken out to “do their business.” They demand a bit more attention/companionship, too, which is why getting a dog should never be taken lightly. Dogs also provide some unique benefits that accompany the additional cost of ownership. I don’t go into dogs here because I can’t speak from experience.

Suffice to say that having a pet can be an incredibly rewarding investment.

Health

You can invest in your health right now by taking a walk outside. This will not only get your body moving but it will expose your skin to the sun, which will boost your Vitamin D production. Mind, taking a walk and getting some sunlight is only marginally going to improve your health, but health is maximized by simple things.

If you are ready to step it up, getting a solid workout in is as simple as setting aside 30 minutes and doing some bodyweight exercises. For example, maybe you should try Craig Ballantyne’s Bodyweight 300 Cardio Circuit, which requires no more equipment than a wall, floor and watch.

Even simpler, run some sprints up a hill outside. Or just do some push-ups or lunges during commercials while you watch television. Add in some social interaction for some investment-synergies by playing Ultimate Frisbee, kickball or basketball with friends and family. Alternatively, go toss a ball with your kid or walk your dog. Unlearn the notion that exercise is accomplished in a gym, for a set period of time, at certain times of the day. De-complicate your health (See my workout blog for other ideas).

As for the other key way to invest in your health, eat real food that you cook in your kitchen. It’s cheaper than going to a restaurant, better for you (you know what you put in it), reaps creative benefits and if you’re up for entertaining, you can synergize again by inviting over friends and family.

If you’re not hungry, try fasting for 24 – 30 hours. There are health benefits to fasting (More on this here). If you’ve never fasted before, I recommend it for nothing more than the experience of purposefully breaking your eating habits.

Books and Knowledge

Reading a book is a cheap way to live vicariously, acquire knowledge on the cheap and amass immense quantities of accretive, intangible wealth. Gleaning just one good idea, paradigm or perspective from a book makes the hours it takes to find it worthwhile. Why is this? Because useful ideas are transferable and can be combined with other ideas to create even more useful ideas, theories, paradigms, etc. Ideas (and knowledge) compound your wealth in ways you can’t predict.

For just two books that may bring you some comfort during turbulent times, I highly recommend:

If nothing else reading allows you to reap the rewards of someone else’s hard work and research — even if you’re just reading a blog.

Summary

The above suggestions are just a few ways to make valuable, high-return investments in uncertain economic times. At the risk of presenting advice that may be obvious, I focus on the elements of life I can control, which happen to be the elements of life that I’d deem most fulfilling. I have little control over the economic or political environment. I can scarcely predict what will happen today, much less can I predict tomorrow or the coming months and years. I encounter immense uncertainty, a stochasticity of life, that I can either lament or embrace. By investing in wealth that is more intangible than financial, I am better able to manage the uncertainty of these troubling economic times, and no matter what happens to the stock market or our economy, I’m assured to live a rich, fulfilling life.

On Shaving, Shaving Cream and Razors

Note: The following is written out of personal experience; I cannot attest to the application of any of this knowledge to shaving anything other than your face. Furthermore, this post is written mainly for men and/or manly women.

Henry David Thoreau, from Walden:

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it . . .

On Shaving

To shave or not to shave? For the modern man, shaving is a necessary precursor to social interaction. Though going a day or two without shaving won’t make you a pariah, prolonged failure to trim, crop or clean-up your beard will result in any number of strange looks or even questions regarding your hygiene, employability and/or philosophical disposition.

Therefore, the question of shaving is rarely a question of whether or not to shave at all, but rather a question of how much or what to shave. Even those of us who can’t grow much facial hair (young adolescents and arguably more evolved men) must still shave or face a purgatory of scraggly-unkempted-ness.

For the rest of us, facial hair options abound: from going for the clean-shaven look to growing a full beard, goatee, mustache, or sideburns (Or any number of other options!). Experimenting with different styles is fun, even if it may annoy significant others and uptight bosses. My go-to facial hair style is a neatly trimmed beard (See ablove).

The formed presence of facial hair on a man is distinctive, can add color and character to a man’s face, is fun and a bit daring, reservedly masculine and can even help offset thinning hair and/or receding hairlines (For folks like me anyway).

Though facial hairstyles still require maintenance, trimming a beard once every week or two with clippers is still faster than shaving that same surface area every day. That’s even accounting for still having to shave daily the clean-shaven parts the face. Overall, bearded men spend less time shaving. It’s a perk.

Lest we forget, you can always go back to the babyface if you get tired of the scruff!

On Shaving Cream

Jeffrey Tucker over at Lew Rockwell wrote a life-changing article back in April 2006 titled The Shaving Cream Racket. If you’ve got the time, I suggest you read it for the humor. Here’s the gist:

[S]omeone has to say it: shaving cream is a racket. . . .

Wean yourself from it for a week, and you will find that your shaves will be closer, unbloody, and quick. Imagine a full shave in less than a minute, with no cuts, gashes, or discomfort. It is within your grasp. . . .

The problem is this. Shaving cream . . . somehow weakens the pores and makes the top layer [of skin] mushy and unresponsive. The kid comes to believe that somehow the foam is essential to the experience. Without it, surely the razor would leave a trail of blood.

But [when using shaving cream] strange things start to happen. Red lumps appear. The shaved skin comes to feel sort of strange, oddly sensitive to temperature changes and ever more vulnerable to being sliced and diced.

People think: oh I need a new razor! So they go out and buy ever more fancy brands, with multiple blades, pivoting heads, strange lubricants, and push-out tools to deposit the hair remains in the sink.

They don’t consider that it might be the shaving cream that is the source of the trouble.

Why don’t people imagine this possibility? Because shaving cream seems so frothy and innocent, the glorious barrier that stands as a guard or shield between your skin and the sharp blade. The cream is our valiant protector, so surely that is not the source of the problem!

In fact, it is not our protector. Shaving cream is destroying your skin, turning it into a whining, pathetic, dependent, beaten, insipid layer of pasty pulp.

What is the alternative to shaving cream? Water. Yep, that cheap stuff that comes out of your faucet. After you shower, towel off, hop out, grab your razor, wet it at your sink and start shaving. It is that simple. Your shaving time and experience will both improve drastically.

I’ve not used shaving cream or gel now for over two years. I rarely ever cut myself shaving. As for razor burn, rashy bumps, etc.? They never happen anymore. After you read the next section on razors, my testimony may seem even more amazing.

The majority of time wasted shaving is in the application and management of shaving cream or gel. You’re better off without this pointless junk. Reclaim the time, save money, and save your skin. Afterwards, spread the news: shaving cream is a racket!

On Razors

Everyone has a razor preference. One of the pivotal questions is disposable or electric. Within each of those categories, there are all types of sub-categories still; for example, there are the cheap one-blade razors and the more expensive multi-blade varieties. For this discussion, the razor in question is the Gillette Fusion (Though I used the Mach 3 prior to the Fusion with similar results).

The Fusion has five blades that do the bulk of the shaving. There is a sixth blade reverse to the main five that is intended for trim work which I’ve found somewhat useful. I like the Fusion even as it is absurdly expensive and the Mach 3, which it replaced, was doing a plenty fine job.

Since you’ve now determined to give up shaving cream, I’m going to let you in on another secret that Gillette and other disposable-razor makers don’t want you to know: minerals in your water will degrade the razor blade (make it dull) over time! How does this work? After you rinse your razor blade, the water that is left on the blade will evaporate and leave trace minerals behind on the blade. Over time, these mineral deposits build up and effectively dull the blade.

An easy fix? Simply dry your razor blade on a towel after you rinse it. For me, I make a single with-the-grain swipe of the razor against my bath towel, which is usually around my waist at the time. It takes a full second to do this and it will absolutely prolong the use of your razor blades.

Skeptical? I’ve been using the same Gillette Fusion razor head for a year now. Yes, a year on a single “disposable” razor blade. True, most of that year I’ve had some level of bearded-ness, which has cut the shaving-surface area on my face down a good bit; however, as noted above, I don’t use any creams or gels and the areas I do shave daily tend to be the more sensitive parts of the face — as in, my neck. Even having used the same blade for more than a year, lubricating my face with only water, I still don’t get razor burn, cuts or bumps. Lo and behold, there have been studies that show drying your razor increases its life. It would seem that my results with blade drying have been replicated by others:

If water causes rusting, and rusting is the main culprit of blade dullness, then, presumably, drying your razor blades could increase the life of blades. A high-profile test of this happened when consumer-advocate radio host Clark Howard of Atlanta used a 17-cent disposable razor for an entire year. He said he extended blade life by blotting his razor dry with a towel after use.

Howard’s report intrigued Atlanta resident Brian Cohn, who then tried it himself. Cohn said his results weren’t quite as good but still amazing. Instead of blades lasting the usual 10 days to two weeks, his blades lasted five to six months.

Save money. Dry your disposable razor blades after use.

Put it all together and what do you get?

  • Maintaining some amount of facial hair will result in less shaving/facial hair to maintain,
  • Shaving creams and gels are a waste of both time and money and seem to do more harm than good for your skin, and
  • Drying your disposable razors after rinsing them will make them last much longer.

All of the above will save you money, too. Let me know how these tips work for you.

Further reading:

Grind Skills Reading