Monthly Archives: May 2012


Last night, I dreamed  I had early onset senility.

And today, I can’t remember any details of the dream. Seriously.

That’s actually a true story. I hope that dream isn’t the foreshadowing of a sad future reality.

It makes me think of Josh Foer. He’s an author who immersed himself in the subculture of “memory training” and came away with some interesting insights on memory, insights about building memory skills using aptitudes we all have. He gave a TED talk about his experience, if you’re interested.

I’ll paraphrase a few of his insights for you.

Before the printing press was in wide use, people needed to cultivate their memory. It’s called the “art of memory” refers to techniques invented in ancient Greece, the same ones Cicero used to memorize his speeches and continued to be used by medieval scholars when memorizing entire books.

The “art” is in associating memorable images in your mind that are unusual, colorful, and maybe unlike anything you might ever see. So the idea you’re after will come to you when you recall those whimsical creations in your mind. The skill is as much about creativity as memory.

After the printing press, eventually computers, and now the smartphones in our pockets have chipped away at the need for good recall of memories because our memories can be held externally. The “OK plateau” keeps getting lower and lower.  You reach the “OK plateau” when you’re “good enough” at something to stop the failing/learning cycle that can make you better.

There’s also a connection between memory and the passing of time. We remember events in relation to other events. This year will just resemble the last if you’re not doing things that are unique or different. Peppering your life with interesting experiences is important. It will make your life memorable, and provide texture to the passing of time.




The Next Phase?

I don’t know what the next phase of Western medicine will be, but I think it’s going to be prevention.

The future of medicine seemed more clear to me after reading an interview with Craig Venter, who was instrumental in mapping the human genome a few years ago.

Most doctors and caregivers are good and try to do a good job. At the moment though, the medical delivery and access problems in the US are a big obstacle, plus there’s the standard American diet making 2/3 of the people fat and unhealthy.

Delivery, access, and diet are big but solvable issues and the foundational scientific concepts of Western medicine are still sound. It’s the current delivery system that needs fixing, along with the general population’s bad eating habits, before we can move ahead to the next phase of medicine.

In the early phase before the scientific method was introduced, doctors relied on imagination to diagnose and treat disease, usually imagining things like the vapors and blood that needed to be drained.

The next phase and first phase of modern medicine was identifying disease in a systematic and scientific fashion, getting all the Docs on the same page.

After the identification period, medicine transitioned into treating disease, the phase we’re in today. The treatments being medicinal and mechanical solutions to diseases which work because they’re tested and repeated.

Now that the human genome has been mapped and with computing power continuing to grow exponentially, I think we’ll soon see a move in medicine to preventing disease. An individual’s propensities and susceptibilities to particular conditions will probably be easily available around the corner. It might take ten or fifteen years, but I think it’s on the way.

Travel Essentials

I like traveling without a lot of stuff and rarely have checked luggage.

For temperate weather travel, everything fits into an easy-to-tote (not a rolling) bag, something light with a shoulder strap. With this set up I can take the stairs, move about more quickly, have easy access to my stuff.

Here’s the stuff I always travel with on any trip:

In a hangable toiletries bag: Earplugs for blocking out jet engines droning, roosters crowing, and babies crying. Toothbrush, paste, and floss for a shiny fresh smile. Deo for my fellow coach class travelers. A small headlamp allowing hands free mobility in the dark. An eyeglass cleaning cloth for all the lens smudges from kissing international travelers on the cheek. A couple of Ambien pills for jet lag or mental chatter inducing new spaces. And fingernail clippers because short fingernails will stay cleaner. My hair’s so short I just take traveling as an opportunity to let it go crazy (along with the beard) if the trip is shorter than a week or so.

A large outer zippered pocket on my bag holds: My passport, some gum, my Kindle, my car and house keys for my return home, along with a notebook and pen for jotting down interesting things I hear or see.

In my back pocket lives my wallet with credit card, debit card, license, cash, and my  Mexican visa.

Inside the bag there’s usually two changes of clothesunderwear, and socks. And a hat, my hair doesn’t grow fast enough to protect my scalp. Sometimes I’ll have an extra pair of shoes in there depending on the destination.

I know, what about a computer? If I think I’ll use it, I might take it along, but I can usually find a cyber cafe or use someone’s for a quick check.

What’s the one thing you can’t travel without?

Traveling really is easier with less stuff.


Directionally Accurate

It’s hard to make the right decision each time we have a choice.

If we try to be at least directionally accurate,  eventually things will turn out well.

How we view success in America seems to have come down to a directionally accurate fork in the road; a decision of either because or  despite.

Are some Americans rich and successful because they live in America? Or are they rich and successful despite living in America?

Most rich people aren’t hanging out at the spa all day nor are most non rich people hanging out in front of an open fire hydrant spraying water on a summer day.

The majority of successful and wealthy people in America work long and hard, often under stress.

But so do lots of other people and each is rewarded for how well their talents line up with what the marketplace values (at a certain time and place). Is a successful stock trader making 50 times more than a soldier deep in Afghanistan working 50 times harder?

Warren Buffett, the capitalist and Billionaire, has said:

“If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru or someplace, you find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil … I work in a market system that happens to reward what I do very well — disproportionately well.”

Buffett thinks keeping huge amounts of money isn’t healthy for the American system and often speaks out for a more fair system.

Stephen King, the author, is also rich, and has this to say (which I’ve shortened):

“Nobody wants you to (apologize for being rich), Mitt (Romney). What some of us want, …is for you to acknowledge that you couldn’t have made it in America without America. That you were fortunate enough to be born in a country where upward mobility is possible… but where the channels making such upward mobility possible are being increasingly clogged.”

If you think the system we function in enables us to get where we’ve gotten then you’re probably keen to perpetuate  that system and maybe try to improve its fairness.

Or, if you think our success has little to do with the system we’re living in, you’ll likely try to stifle attempts at maintaining a system that aims to help more people to do better.

It’s important to be directionally accurate even if we don’t get some of the specifics right.




Relative Safety

What’s the chance that a bull could jump out of a bullring into the stands? It can happen, but it’s very unlikely.

Most of my relatives are afraid to visit me in Mexico. The steady drumbeat in the US media about the narco violence has distorted Americans’ perceptions of the situation in Mexico. It sounds really scary!

I’ve tried explaining that, just like in the States, some areas in Mexico are very dangerous but the majority are safe. That didn’t work. But now I have some statistics.

Last week, in The Huffington Post, there was an article about the safety of Mexican travel. The article provided statistics for travel destinations using the murder rate per 100,000 people in various countries cities and states. To make things easier, just remember the numbers I’m talking about are per 100,000 people.

The countrywide numbers are the drivers of the warnings for US travelers: 18 for Mexico and 4.8 for the US. Sounds pretty bad.

But what about some alternative countries to visit Americans feel safe in: 36 for the Bahamas, 42 for Belize, or 52 for Jamaica (Hay Mon!).

For an American, the chances of encountering violence in Mexico are often less than the chances in parts of the States. The number for a US citizen in Mexico is only 2.1! And that number would be even lower if  we could somehow remove the numbers for US citizens who engaged in criminal activities in Mexico.

Going for a more granular comparison, we can look at some cities. Going to Disneyland? Orlando, FL is at 7.5. Houston is at 6.8, and New Orleans is lapping those two while Cancun is at 1.8 and Puerto Vallarta is at 5.9.

This year, the US president even let his daughter go to the Southern Mexican state of Oaxaca for her spring break where the number is 4.4 (the US state of Pennsylvania is at 5.2).

If you avoid the trouble spots in Mexico (and the US) you can have “safe travels.”




Hurry up Melinda

How many people is too many?

I’d say seven billion people is too many.

Where’d all these people come from? Other people.

Lots of women are still kept in the dark about family planning for many of reasons, from lack of education to religious taboos. To me, it’s odd that contraception’s still even an issue, but it is.

Religious folks say having a baby is a miracle. Having a baby isn’t really a miracle because a miracle is a rare event, something not occurring very often.

Melinda Gates, who’s a practicing Catholic, recently gave an interesting TED talk about contraception. She’s now throwing the weight of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation behind family planning and making it her signature issue.

She wants to get contraception back on the global agenda. While she’s not following the wrongheaded Catholic policy against contraception, she is following professed Catholic values of service and social justice. Good choice.

Global agendas have local effects too. The Catholic church still has a strong influence here in Mexico. Just a few days ago, I saw a kid I know from surfing working as a laborer. He’s possibly the best surfer in our town and has won a couple of regional surf trophies. And he’s young. I’m guessing maybe 18, at the most. I don’t know him, just passing recognition from being in the surf together.

I’m also guessing it’s a safe bet to say he doesn’t know much about contraception because now I see him with a young woman and their baby. I don’t see him surfing very often anymore, probably because he’s trying to support a baby and it’s mother.

He was a promising surfer. Now he’s a laborer who doesn’t surf much and I wonder how happy he really is. Hurry up Melinda.

An old recipe for a good life

Apparently living in the old days wasn’t that different, fundamentally, than it is for us today.

While science and technology move ahead with their changes occurring exponentially, human nature has changed very little, if at all. Our surroundings are quite a bit different now in the 21st century but we’re still the same creatures we were in ancient times. Maybe it’s good to remember some of the insights on human nature that were figured out some time ago. And plug them in today.

Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who, above all, valued friendship and freedom from fear. Anxiety, says Epicurus, was the fundamental obstacle to happiness. I think it’s safe to say anxiety is still a fundamental obstacle to happiness now in 2012.

His 2,300 year old recipe for a good life (called the Tetrapharmakos) is:

Don’t fear god,
Don’t worry about death;
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure.

Sounds like pretty good advice to me.

Close Enough

This is a combo of my last post, “Fuzzy or Clear,” and another one, three posts back, called “Fading Units.”

“Fuzzy or Clear” is about our different preferences for degrees of accuracy. “Fading Units” concerns my attempt at becoming comfortable using Celsius when talking about the temperature – just like the rest of the world does.

An Italian reader passed on an easy temperature conversion tip. Simply subtract 30 from the fahrenheit temperature you’re talking about and then divide that result by 2. Easy!

That’s the “Fading Units” part. So for example if it’s 50 F,

then: 50-30 = 20… and 20/2 =10… or 10 degrees Celsius. Spot on.

Here’s where it gets combined with the “Fuzzy or Clear” post. As the temperature gets warmer the simple formula only gives a ballpark number in Celsius. For example, 86F – 30 = 56… and 56/2 = 28C. But 86F is really 30C. Kinda fuzzy. But it’s close, and you could always just tack on a degree or two when talking about warmer temperatures.

It’s like having an analog wristwatch when you’re giving the time. If your wristwatch says 4:32, you probably knock two minutes off and say it’s 4:30, right?

The Italian reader’s formula is close enough for talking about the weather, which is what most people like to chat about sometimes.

Fuzzy or Clear?

If you still use a wristwatch, do you prefer an analog or digital display of the time?

When you’re cooking do you always follow a recipe or can you “throw together” a dish?

Does your pursuit of perfection get in the way of the “good enough?”

Would you prefer a house made of adobe or plate-glass and steel?

Could you conduct business with a handshake instead of a contract?

Is it ok for friends to drop by anytime, or would you prefer they come when invited?

Do you prefer fuzzy or clear?

It usually depends on the situation. But you’ll probably lean one way more than the other.