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The Game-Changer

It’s been quiet here on the site lately as the game has changed. I’m four weeks into fatherhood, and those four weeks feel more like ten.

I’ve been trying to come up with an easy way to explain to others what being a new parent is like. It’s an emotional roller coaster. Living with a nooborn is like setting a kitchen timer on a two to three hour schedule that never stops resetting. Change a diaper, feed, comfort, put baby to sleep, knock a few things out around the house, rinse, repeat. It does not stop.

And there are the fussy times when you lose confidence in your ability to parent — can I soothe this baby? Maybe mother can try. Maybe this will work. Maybe not. These times make me realize just how little I’ve appreciated my own parents (Thank you mom and dad!).

And then there are the moments where she grins from ear to ear or unequivocally meets your eyes with hers. The pride and joy that springs from these moments is profound.

Everyone tells you “your life [as you know it] is over.” They’re right. Becoming a parent is a game changer. There are new requirements, new rules, new milestones, new joys, new sorrows, and on and on. And you learn about it all as you go along via trial and error. Googling helps, too.

Being a parent is an incredible experience.

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Aviana a.k.a. “Project Aminowings” a Success

My daughter Aviana entered the world Monday night. She was a smidge under eight pounds, and (no bias I promise) she is beautiful. She is also amazingly intelligent, wanting to stay up all night in an effort to elucidate the experience of dreaming in the womb. Unfortunately, this means that between the hours of midnight and five of six in the morning, she is doing anything but dreaming!

Needless to say, “Project Aminowings” was a huge success and I am one proud papa.

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Michael Jackson’s Life a Disturbing Portrayal of American Culture

http://bit.ly/14TCLS

Note: I don’t normally get into celebrity deaths, but to say Michael Jackson was an icon would be an understatement. Despite any number of freak-things related to the King of Pop, he was still an amazingly talented individual who created some fantastic music. I can’t say he’ll be missed — he’s only missed insomuch as I could displace the good things about him from the bad. And that had become increasingly difficult if not impossible over the past ten years.

From Yahoo! Finance comes an article titled “Jackson lived like king but died awash in debt.” You probably already know the gist. Jackson created any number of fantasies, from his freak narcissim to Neverland Ranch. He lived a life of extravagance and died almost a half billion dollars in debt.

A few short descriptors that come to mind when I think about Michael Jackson:

  • He was an amazing talent and produced a veritable catalog of pop masterpieces.
  • His family was dysfunctional — often disturbingly so.
  • He went from lavish wealth to huge debt. He got foreclosed on with Neverland Ranch.
  • After things had started going downhill, MJ’s investment in the Beatles’ songs (owning the copyrights) kept him afloat. It has always struck me as odd that you could own someone else’s musical creation. Rent seeking off of intellectual property rights? Check.
  • Jackson was freakishly narcissistic and/or had an extreme case of body dysmorphic disorder, engaging in all sorts of plastic surgery endeavors that ultimately made him look alien/gross/non-human.
  • He had some serious demons with regard to his sexual identity. Whether he actually acted on these things or not, I don’t know — it doesn’t matter, really. He had problems and they related to his sexuality.
  • MJ was one of most obsessed-over celebrities ever. And look how that turned out — he made his kids wear masks in public.
  • He died young of a heart attack.

I submit that Michael Jackson’s life is one of the more disturbing examples of modern American culture. He was an extreme case, for sure, but his problems are not unique: too much debt, too much spending, rent-seeking off of other’s work, twisted narcissism, broken family, repressed sexuality, and dying young of a heart attack*, the end result of a life of stress and poor nutrition.

It makes me sad to make this connection, but it’s just too striking to ignore.

America, what have we become?

* I guess cause of death is yet to be officially ascertained, but we’ll roll with this for now.

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Vacation, Baby stuff, Moving, Birthday Shoes, Busy

Life has gotten downright busy lately.

If you recall, we were trying to buy a house in Atlanta. Unfortunately, after a good five months of searching and one deal (that was under contract) falling through, we realized that with a baby only three months away, we were going to have to abandon buying and rent another year. So began a frantic search for a place to rent, which was surprisingly frustrating in that every good listing was already leased by the time we found it. Regardless, one tool that helped the hunt was hotpads.com, which has officially wowed me with being much easier and more powerful than Zillow.

After ten possibles, nine of which were already leased, we found a house in Lake Claire, Atlanta. Lake Claire is slightly east of Little Five Points and Candler Park. Our new pad is within a five minute walk to the Flying Biscuit there! It’s a sweet, walkable location, and will make a great house to tide us over through the birth of our first baby girl.

Speaking of babies, we have finally had the chance to dedicate time to finishing our registry and deciding important things like: nursery furniture and color schemes. This is hard. Way harder than it sounds. Sonal is now seven months pregnant. Our first is due in 80 days.

And regarding birthdays, my side project Vibram five fingers website, birthdayshoes.com, continues to grow. Here are the last six posts:

Note the Jamaica post. Sonal and I took a week vacation to an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica (Couples San Souci). We had a blast. If you’re a Duke basketball fan, you might be interested to know that Brian Zoubek was vacationing there, as well. At an inch over seven feet tall, the guy is a giant. The world was not built for individuals that tall. From what I observed from afar, every table is a kiddie table.

And my day-job, the Implode-O-Meter, just rolled out a subdomain on MLI dedicated to FHA education (replete with an FHA blog).

All of this has been happening over the last three weeks.

Life has been busy.

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Nassim Taleb on Experts and Negative Advice

Nassim Taleb’s latest from Opacity #113 titled Negative Advice; Why We Need Religion makes the brief case that human beings are “suckers for charlatans who provide positive advice (what to do), instead of negative advice (what not to do).” Below is the entirety of his post, take a read (Emphasis mine):

At the core of the expert problem is that people are suckers for charlatans who provide positive advice (what to do), instead of negative advice (what not to do), (tell them how to get rich, become thin in 42 days, be transformed into a better lover in ten steps, reach happiness, make new influential friends), particularly when the charlatan is invested with some institutional authority & the typical garb of the expert (say, tenured professorship). This is why my advice against measuring small probabilities fell on deaf ears: I was telling them to avoid Value-at-Risk and the incomputable rare event and they wanted ANOTHER measure, the idiots, as if there was one. Yet I keep seeing from the history of religions that survival and stability of belief systems correlates with the amount of negative advice and interdicts — the ten commandments are almost all negative; the same with Islam. Do we need religions for the stickiness of the interdicts?

Telling people NOT to smoke seems to be the greatest medical contribution of the last 60 years. Druin Burch, in the recently published Taking the Medicine

The harmful effect of smoking are roughly equivalent to the combined good ones of EVERY medical intervention developed since the war. (…) Getting rid of smoking provides more benefit than being able to cure people of every possible type of cancer”

It is easy to read Taleb’s argument as meaning that negative advice is both more routinely followed and better than positive advice. However, this is clearly not the case as there are countless examples of bad negative advice. For example, look at the “Don’t eat fat” mantra that developed over the past few decades. This is negative advice that I believe Taleb has personally acknowledged as poor (Taleb is a friend of Art De Vany’s and an adherent on some level to the low-carb evolutionary nutrition/fitness theory). The low-fat or lipid hypothesis that has been the driving force behind public health policy over the past few decades may ultimately be proven to have caused the premature deaths of millions of human beings (via cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, etc.). Clearly, not all negative advice is good to follow.

However, negative advice or bright-line rules seem to take hold more strongly than positive advice. Christianity and Islam are the two most dominant religions of the world. Both contain prescriptive, bright-line rules. In the case of Christianity the prominence of rules is particularly ironic: Jesus openly argued for the destruction or irrelevance of the law (The bright-line rules of Judaism at the time). Regardless, the dominating sects of both Islam and Christianity appear to have more negative advice (What not to eat, drink, do) than positive advice (Love your neighbor), and the negative advice tends to be much more concrete: “Do not commit adultery” is much more cut-and-dry than “Love everyone.” It’s the time-tested success of hard-line, negative-advice-based religions that lends the most support for Nassim Taleb’s argument.

Agreeing somewhat with Taleb’s theory, I think it is too limited in scope, and should be expanded and clarified. Simply put: human beings are sucker’s for bright-line rules be they positive or negative; adherence to and success of these bright-line rules is dependent upon their prescriptive strength. Based on conclusions drawn from observing health and religion idealogies, it seems that negative advice promotes the greatest adherence and zealotry, both of which lead to idealogical success**.

That it is human nature to want others to tell us what to do seems hard to deny. Why are we this way?

I just finished reading Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (SoH), which discusses how we perceive things and how that affects our happiness. One argument Gilbert makes is that it is human nature to prefer action over inaction. This is because it is easier to justify our action-based decisions after the fact because they have clearcut consequences whereas inaction does not, making inaction difficult to imagine and thereby difficult to justify. I would add to this that I believe it is human nature to put greater faith in our ability to control outcomes; therefore, we act out of the misguided belief that our action can elicit the responses we want.

Regardless of the source of our preference for action, I believe it’s from this bias that springs the need for bright-line positive advice. For proof of concept, look no further than the pervasive mentality that, “We must do something to mitigate the economic crisis!” Charlatans and politicians fully exploit the bias of action over inaction to propagate their own prerogatives.

On the other hand, there is a second contention in SoH that seems an extension of the preference for action over inaction, which is that the elimination of choice can trigger our psychological immune systems. Once triggered, these systems work to make us happy or content with a more restricted existence. Imagine this: having bought the farm, you’re quick to articulate the benefits of the purchase and figure out a way to love the cows. In keeping with this understanding, we can readily explain the human preference for ideologies that drastically reduce choice via negative, bright-line rules.

Thus, here we have two psychological explanations for why humans crave bright-line rules, both positive and negative.

I’d imagine Taleb would agree: life is incredibly more complex and uncertain than our bright-line rules, either positive or negative, allow. We should be aware of our tendency towards dogmatic over-simplifications and be wary of overly prescriptive, bright-line advice.

* It’s always interesting how Jesus is written to have claimed he came to free man from the law. Yet Christianity, via any number of particular denominations like Catholicism or Protestantism all adhere to stringent rules and edicts.

** I can’t help but wonder if its just easier to prescribe negative advice than positive advice even though both are likely to instill dogmatic behaviors.

Further reading

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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.

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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

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(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!

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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.

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But for

Brad* created a personal webpage sometime back in 1996. That spurred my brother and me to create our own website on AOL — The Owings Brothers Page (archived). This site had grown stagnant some two years later so I created the first embodiment of The Justin Owings Page (archived), which chronicled 4th period lunch, published bad pictures of friends, made fun of teachers, and archived ostensibly humorous IM conversations. A few short years later, a senior in college, I was tasked to create a website for an IT class. I went a little over the top for the assignment and created a new and improved (?) Justin Owings Page (archived). Highlights of this endeavor mostly revolve around Mr. Mister, the yam — not the band.

One of the last and likely most enjoyable, educational classes I took in college was Law and Economics by Professor David Mustard. The only “textbook” for this class was David D. Friedman’s Law’s Order, a fascinating read about how law has been evolved through economics.

In fall 2004, springing from discussions on the subject with Shannon mixed with the prodding of my older brother, I created Contraddiction. Contraddiction was doomed from the start as I had no steady internet access, relying on the sporadically available, unencrypted wifi clouds emanating from neighboring apartments. Regardless, I enjoyed blogging and it left me wanting more.

In mid-2005 we secured steady internet access. In January 2006 I began reexamining (at a high level) going back to school, specifically to secure a Ph.D. in either Accountancy or Economics. I emailed Professor Mustard who graciously responded — but I quickly determined that a Ph.D. was not for me. Yet I was reminded of how much I enjoyed that college class on economics and law. Some googling resulted in the discovery that David Friedman had started a blog, Ideas. I became a regular reader.

DDF wrote a post on Gangs and I was spurred to to comment. Another commenter on the same post was a fellow named Aaron who, as I realized upon randomly following the link associated with his name, also lived in Atlanta, working at Emory. From Aaron’s homepage, I also found Aaron’s Furl, which I subscribed to via RSS in Gmail.

The insights and discussion at Friedman’s blog inspired me to take another stab at a website, one replete with a full-fledged blog. Around my 25th birthday (February), I created autoDogmatic.

I invited three friends to co-blog on aD, but mostly, I was the only one blogging regularly. Six months in and all the while reading Aaron’s Furl, I stumbled upon an article written by Aaron about the Federal Reserve’s reserve requirements. An interesting read (if you’re into that kinda thing), there was one link in the article that was broken. I searched around for the correct link and emailed it to Aaron, mentioning to him that I had been subscribing to his Furl for the past few months. We got to pinging emails back and forth and realized we had a good bit in common.

We decided to meet up for a beer and a discussion. We were both probably shocked at having met another anarcho-capitalist within Atlanta. And as Aaron wasn’t blogging anywhere at the time, I invited him to join forces on autoDogmatic. He accepted.

Aaron blogged mostly on economics and I stuck mostly to politics, but our overarching theme intersected significantly — we were both staunchly anti-government, anti-Federal Reserve and, most importantly, pro-freedom.

A few months passed and around the end of December 2006, Aaron emailed me a link to a pretty basic webpage he had created titled, “The Mortgage Lender Implode-O-Meter“, which he was going to use to track as mortgage lenders went bust (Old news these days, I know!). I created a logo for it and helped him out a bit on design. Within weeks, MLI had out-trafficked autoDogmatic. By March it was being featured on CNBC.

The Implode-O-Meter’s success meant that it required a lot of Aaron’s attention, and he was still working full-time at his “day job”. I was helping out when I could. Aaron knew I was tired of my day-job and asked me to join forces and take MLI to the next level. With a bit of prodding from Aaron and a nervous, but supportive spouse, I took up the offer in May 2007. This ultimately led to the formation of our own company, Implode-Explode Heavy Industries, in July, which owns all the Implode-O-Meters as well as a few other sites.

I rediscovered all sorts of new freedoms having left corporate America. Most notably, I suddenly felt free to blog using my real name. Within a few months, I picked up justinowings.com and established this site.

That just about brings things to the present.

Just a couple days back, my friend David, who just himself left the traditional j-o-b, started his own blog. And it was his first post that got me thinking on how I got here to the blogosphere owning my own web-media business utterly clueless as to what will come next.

But for the aforementioned events — many of which were small things, entirely unworthy of note — I would not be here writing this post.

De Vany’s stochasticity of life is in this pseudo-randomness. Life is fluid, complex, and frequently molded in big ways by things unnoticed at first, and poorly understood later, if ever.

The only lesson I can glean from it all is to follow my whims, no matter how fanciful or silly they are because those whims apparently add up.

Life is fantastic that way.

*To bring it full circle, it seems that some twelve years later, Brad is blogging these days, too.