Monthly Archives: October 2012

Save Your Energy

We don’t appreciate electricity until we don’t have it.

When the power’s gone, there’s often still cellphone service. So if there’s a chance you’ll lose power, here’re some easy things you can do to stretch out the life of your cellphone’s battery:

1) Before the power goes:

Keep your cellphone plugged in and charging.

Charge your laptop. Later, don’t turn on your laptop, only use it for charging your cellphone via the USB cable.

Get a cellphone charger that plugs into a car’s cigarette lighter.

Turn off all the bells and whistles on your cellphone like bluetooth, feeds, and GPS.

2) After the power goes:

Keep your cellphone turned off when it’s not in use.

Try to only use text messaging instead of voice.

Turn down the screen backlighting as low as possible.

Use a flashlight or a candle for lighting not your cell phone’s light.

Your cellphone can last much longer if you’re careful with it and prepare a little bit ahead of a potential power outages, say a powerful storm heading your way.


Two NYT Articles

“Simpler is better” could be the category for two recent NYT articles.

One article concerns a Greek island and its long-lived inhabitants. The article,”The Island Where People Forget to Die,” looks at the interconnecting factors promoting long, happy lives where island men hit 90 years old 4 times the rate American men do.

On the island, Ikaria, everything’s hitched together forming a human ecosystem of culture, belonging, and purpose. This seems to create default good choices for the islanders. You grow a garden and eat from it because that’s what your neighbors do too. You’re rarely alone because of the frequent socializing around either coffee, local herb tea, or wine from your neighbors’ vines. You don’t use a clock nor do the other islanders so everyone wakes naturally; and often stay up late. The community and its members are self-sufficient.

The community and individual behaviors are intertwined and all the islanders are on the same program. There’s very little fear, consumption, or hurry.  Life on Ikaria is the opposite of what we often find elsewhere, where more and more people are failing to interact with the value system they’re living within which probably leads to lots of longevity and health problems.

The other article, “A Simple Fix For Farming,” is about a scientific experiment that shows shifting to longer crop rotations and re-introducing animals into those rotations gave better yields while greatly reducing fertilizer and pesticide needs. And the experiment, by the USDA and Iowa State University, showed the recommended shifts doesn’t reduce the farmers’ profit.

This isn’t a polarizing finding about organic farming practices versus orthodox, large-scale farming. The recommendations are an alternative to industrial style farming because longer crop rotations and re-introducing animals into the mix allows farmers to fine tune their chemical use rather than just using expensive chemicals on a strict schedule.

There’re no costs assigned to environmental effects, so less fertilizers and pesticides will be a just a plus there. But farmers can save costs assigned to purchases from chemical companies and put those saving toward the bottom line.

Both of these articles are worth the read.


The Erdos Effect

The other night, I watched a documentary about the Hungarian mathematician, Paul Erdos. He was one of the most prominent mathematicians in the twentieth century and  is the most published mathematician in history.

How’d he do it? First he was born into a family of mathematicians and grew up in a supportive math community.

He got his PhD at 21. He was brilliant, but so were other mathematicians. For most mathematicians, their significant contributions to their field usually drop off before they’re forty, but Erdos was productive until he died at 83 – still working with collaborators around the world.

Erdos lived for math, he had no fixed address and few possessions. He’d stay with friends while they were tackling a math problem together. Then Erdos would move in with another friend who he thought was a good fit for the next math problem he wanted to explore. He traveled all over the world like this, doing math as others managed his affairs for him.

I think he was putting into practice some of the processes that Steven Johnson uncovered while researching clues for his book “Where Good Ideas Come From.”

Forming  loose, informal networks enable discoveries. Erdos made and maintained productive network of friendships in math spanning decades, and coauthoring papers with them.

Sometimes good ideas take years before gelling into a workable idea, the slow hunch. Because of his longevity and his wide-ranging network of colleges, some problems Erdos worked on had far horizons and took a long time.

I’m not a mathematician, but I’d imagine many blind alleys and wrong turns sometimes pivoted to another, productive, idea. Johnson found that coming up with good ideas is a messy process in which serendipity is a factor, wrong ideas pivot to become the force behind good ideas and good ideas often build on repurposed and reworked already good ideas.

Johnson also noted that the rise of salons and coffeehouses stimulated the exchange of ideas vs bad drinking water encouraging the widespread consumption of alcohol acting to suppress good ideas. So it’s interesting that after Erdos was treated with amphetamines for depression after his mother’s death, he took a shine to them and used them until he died. He didn’t discuss this much; my I guess is it was like college kids abusing Adderall these days to study better.

Less waiting at the least

Computers are only getting smarter, right? My feeling is that in the next five years we’ll see a big jump in computer based medical services. Robotic surgery and diagnostic software will change the way health care is delivered. Cheaper and faster, with fewer mistakes, plus less time in doctors’ waiting rooms. Doctors won’t be put out of business and maybe they’ll be free to do more interesting parts of their practice. It could be good for everyone.

I’m at least directionally accurate. Some scientists, who’re a lot more informed than I am, say that at some point in the 2020’s (when our exponentially growing computational power becomes strong enough), maybe our body’s utility can be prolonged indefinitely through advances in material science, personalized medicine, and genetic tinkering.

It’s going be interesting to see how fast changes happen.


Keeping It Simple

Warren Buffett and Charles Munger are masters of keeping it simple while becoming two of the most successful business investors decade after decade.

By using their clear, simple business acquisition standards, they’re not only successful but  they’ve also minimized their stress levels in what’s normally a high stress environment.

They keep it simple, but it must not be easy, because other people in their business don’t do it the way Buffett and Munger do.

Here’re are some of their ideas and insights I gathered from, “Seeking Wisdom” by Peter Bevelin:

Munger says, “We have a passion for keeping things simple. ” and “If something is too hard, we move on to something else.” And  from Buffet, “We haven’t succeeded because we have some great complicated system or magic formulas we apply or anything of that sort. What we have is simplicity itself.”

Buffet thinks they have a few advantages, “Perhaps the greatest being that we don’t have a strategic plan. So we feel no need to proceed in an ordained direction but can instead simply decide what makes sense for our owners.” Munger adds, “You look ahead as far as you can, but that’s not very far.”


Encourage people to tell you bad news immediately.

Reward individual performance, not effort or duration. Reward after not before their performance.

Buffett and Munger never look at projections; but they care very much about, and look deeply at, track records.

People overestimate the control they have over events and underestimate chance.

They don’t invest in anything they don’t understand themselves.

They avoid situations where they need to get people to change.

Integrity, intelligence, experience, and dedication are what human enterprises need to run well.

People pay too little attention to failures.

Try to be roughly right rather than precisely wrong.

Don’t try to make back a loss the same way you lost it.

Never risk something you have and need for something you don’t need.

Unlikely things happen if enough time passes.

The big thing to do is avoid being wrong.

People think that if they just hire somebody with the appropriate labels, they can do something very difficult and complex. That is one of the most dangerous ideas a human being can have.

You don’t have to hire out your thinking if you keep it simple.

If I go on, it may not sound simple anymore. I hope I’m not oversimplifying what Buffet and Munger do, but the more I find out about what they do, the simpler it seems, but it’s not easy.


We’re all mixed up

While traveling around Mexico I’ve noticed Mexicans either spoil dogs or put them on the street. The street dogs appear to be pretty sound specimens, probably because mixing breed lines provides them with superior traits.

Human genetic investigations are reveling our genetic past and it’s more mixed up than you might imagine. It’s possible now for regular folks to economically have their gene line sequenced and they’re finding they have surprising contributors to their genes.

The first big revelation is that we’re all Africans, descended from common ancestors who spread out of Africa around the world.

As modern man settled outside of Africa, we lived near Neanderthals. Most people think of Neanderthals in a negative way, that they were the dim-witted dwellers of a long ago abandoned evolutionary cul-de-sac. But it turns out that the Neanderthals’ time overlapped with ours and they weren’t dim, they were strong and robust. And they had children with us, modern man.

Here’s an example of how some of the investigation works. The more generations that pass, after new genes were introduced to your genome, the shorter that additional piece becomes. So by looking at the length of any Neanderthal genes present, we can make a good guess about when Neanderthals and our ancestors had kids, some as recently as 37,000 years ago.

Another archaic and distinct human group called Denisovans were recently discovered in Russia (in the Denisova cave). There was enough material to produce a genome. And guess what? The Denisovan gene snippet shows up in the mix of  some modern humans too. Our ancestors were interminglers.

The fine tuning of our background is still happening and so far it looks like we’re all mixed up.

Food, warmth, and shelter

Kabloona” is one of the most interesting books I’ve read.

Kabloona is the Canadian Inuit name for a white person. A young Frenchman traveled to Northern Canada to spend time among the Inuit, who at that time in 1938, were still living as their ancestors had for thousands of years.

The  Frenchman, Gotran de Poncins, wrote about his year among the Inuit and it’s as absorbing now as it was when it was written.

This book is superb storytelling. You’re transported to a snow bench in an igloo, sitting in the light of a  seal oil lamp, listening to a story of conversion from European outsider to an accepted Inuit insider.

His first encounters with the Inuit are at the white man’s trading post. There, Inuit trade things they don’t value, like white fox pelts, for items of little value to the white man. Both sides feel they prevail in the trades.

Initially, Poncins perceives the Inuit who visited the trading post as dull, brooding, and beaten down. But, on venturing with them into their untamed Arctic, he marvels as they come to life.

Poncins is a diarist, not an anthropologist or scientist, and throws himself into the daily life of the Inuit. As his European cultural barriers fall away, he gains insights and an appreciation for their hard life, which on the surface seems consumed only with food, warmth, and shelter.

Of course Poncins is stunned by the cold that freezes a large freshly caught fish into a rock hard solid. And while living with them in their igloos, at first he’s put off by their hygiene, eating, and customs. The smells inside the igloo repel him. Eating raw or rotten fish and meat is shocking. And the degree of freely sharing possessions is the opposite of his world.

Comparing South Pacific islanders with the Inuit, Poncins found, “… happiness has nothing to do with climate: these Eskimos afforded me decisive proof that happiness is a disposition of the spirit… they were a cheerful people always laughing, never weary of laughter.” He came to enjoy their company and they seemed to like him too.

By embracing the Inuit and their ways, Poncins gives us an insider’s view of a world that’s now likely gone.



What’s used most often?

If you’re a regular guy, not making your living using tools, which tools are essential or used most often?

I have 40 or so tools, including sets (like a ratchet set). Since most things follow the 80/20 principle, which ones are the 20%, or 8 tools, that I use 80% of the time?

I haven’t kept notes on this, but here’s what I think I use most often, from top to bottom in the photo.

1) My Stanley narrow, snap blade, utility knife gets used the most, cutting heavy fabric, rope, green branches, sharpening a pencil, scraping stuff, and cutting anything I don’t want to cut with a nicer knife. I’ve heard these have replaced pocket knives for some tool heads because they’re always sharp, light, easy-to-use, and cheap to replace.

2) Next, I’m always measuring stuff, so my Stanley 16 foot tape gets a workout.

3) My favorite tool of all is a pair of Channellock 8″ linesmen pliers. They hold on tight, cut through thick wires, and will hammer something if called upon to do so. These are tough, I found them on the street about ten years ago so I don’t know how old they are but they show no sign of giving up.

4) A #3 Phillips head screwdriver. The majority of screw heads I run across are handled by this screwdriver.

5) An old paint scraper that gets used for scraping, lifting, and light prying along with scraping paint, which is common in the tropics.

6) An 8″ adjustable wrench that works occasionally on bikes or plumbing.

7) An old ice pick. This thing marks, probes, makes holes, and can chip ice too.

8) A standard flat blade screwdriver that’s in semi retirement, see item 4 above.

Pretty basic. Actually the first four tools on my list see the most action.

None of these tools are fancy or expensive, the priciest one is linesmen pliers. If you think about which tools you use most often, I wonder if they’d be as basic as the ones I use the most?

Learning Faster

I see a lot written about the value of failing. The idea is to keep trying new things and let failures happen, learn from them, and then move on.

In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) you fail by “tapping out,” signaling that you’re caught in a submission hold. Tapping your hand on  your opponent indicates you’re  giving up, throwing in the towel, crying uncle, whatever you want to call it. You’ve failed to submit him and you’re in a position you’ve failed to escape from.

There’s no shame in tapping out. Top instructors tell you to tap out, and keep going.

Some guys don’t want to fail and will fight against a solid submission hold until they  wind up hurt and ultimately unable to practice for a while. It’s better to keep a playful attitude toward practicing BJJ; accept the failures and learn faster. If they have the newer idea of “learning faster,” they can replace the “never tap out” idea that they’re clinging to.

Some people practicing a new technique will feel like they’ve skipped or messed up a step in their first attempts at it . They’ll usually stop and start over. Instead, it’s better to note the mistake and finish doing the new technique; and then try the whole thing again. Just because you’ve failed part of a new technique doesn’t mean you should toss out the attempt.

Don’t fight the failures, they happen and we learn from them.