Monthly Archives: October 2013

There’s a problem on aisle three

There’s an article in the Atlantic magazine called “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs  Since the Wheel.” Number one is the printing press from the 1430’s and number fifty is the combine grain harvester from the 1930’s. Probably anything you might think of as important is covered in between one and fifty, from the internet to gunpowder.

It reminded me of Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” about why western powers came to dominate other continents and cultures and why it wasn’t the other way around.

Our western civilization continues to chug along  lulling us into trusting that we’re well protected from things we don’t even think about, but maybe should.

No one likes taxes but it’s the price of civilization which allows us to become accustomed to things like stop lights, cops, and the FDA protecting us even though hardly anyone gives it a thought.

So it’s understandable that most people assume anything for sale at a grocery store is good for you, or at the least, ok to eat. “If it’s for sale in a grocery store it must be ok.”

Walking into a grocery store is entering a post-scarcity Eden for consumers. There’s regular food of course, like apples and steaks, but much of it is food-like stuff engineered for maximum appeal to our taste buds.

People seem to be slowly realizing that industrially processed food products aren’t good for us. In moderation they probably wouldn’t be a problem, but they taste so good and there’re now so many and so well marketed that most consumers can’t resist ’em.

I don’t think we need to wait for the hard science to tell us what’s in front of our eyes – an obese and unhealthy population that wasn’t nearly so bad off a couple of generations before.

That’s what’s missing from the list, modern marketing. And it’s really successful. “There’s a problem on aisle three. Actually on most of them.”

More Soylent, Please?

Soylent is a food substitute, in theory you could live on it for a long time. It’s one of the current hot things among the techie set, so it’s no surprise that Soylent just brought in a million dollars in venture capital.

The venture capitalists have put their money where they think their mouths will be – on the rim of a glass filled with a cheaper, easier, nutritious, and faster way to fuel a human. One big selling point is the time savings for Soylent drinkers, no shopping or cooking with very little clean up.

Cellphones let humans communicate more efficiently and easily. But instead of freeing people, cellphones have become shorter leashes because most of the free time they generate doesn’t get used in free time type pursuits. There’s not much judicious use of cellphones.

Soylent has its place, but it opens some doors that will be hard to close. So will Soylent be the next cellphone? Will bosses and others who want to use your time for their purposes begin to creep into the time that used to be allocated for normal, regular eating? “Oh you haven’t heard? We’ve changed the lunch hour to the 4.6 minute Soylent refuel, get back to work.”

Whenever we hear about someone who cooks meals for their dog we’re usually struck by the craziness of not using dog chow, they’re wasting their time when a more sensible alternate is easily had.

Will people be willing to shoehorn more work/school/training into their lives by switching from eating to fueling? Probably. Our culture tends to measure our worth by how efficient we are. Is it worth it? Someone said once that “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Faster and more efficient at what cost?

Remember the picture of Michael Jordan on a golf course back in the day using one of those early brick sized cellphones? Its cartoon-like now that we’ve become used to the current cellphone technology. I’m sure Soylent is just the beginning, it’s the brick sized cellphone.

Purina human chow isn’t too far off.


The dog walk

Where we live in Mexico there’s a wet season and a dry season.

It feels like the dry season is starting, meaning very little rain and milder temperatures. The beginning of the dry season is when every plant in this area seems to be at its greenest and most lush. They were getting watered every few days for much of the summer and fall.

Our dog is an active breed so we walk her everyday. Usually the walks are on a dirt road  leading out of our town. There’re tall tropical trees on each side Of the road. It’s really beautiful. The dirt road is better than a trail because the road is wide enough to give a sense of scale and long view ahead so you can really appreciate the surroundings.

The trees are so tall and dense that you don’t really need to wear a hat. And the amount of birds and insects, and still a few frogs, provide a constantly changing background mix of sounds for each walk.

This morning I bumped into a friend who said he’d walked home last night, in the dark, along part of the road and was captivated by a huge firefly display. I’ve seen ’em too when I’ve  taken the dog for a walk at night to give her, and me too, a different experience.

It doesn’t take much to remind me how beautiful it is around here and how lucky we are to live here. Basically all I need to do is take the dog for a walk.

Insights from writers

Sometimes during an interview writers give interesting insights into the whys and hows of their writing methods. Usually those insights are interesting peeks into a writer’s kimono since readers usually only know the finished product, it’s a feeling of “So, that’s what goes into the sausage!”

Comedian and writer Ricky Gervais  says when he was in school he’d write about things he thought were cool to write about. And he got low marks. Eventually, at his teacher’s insistence he tried writing about the stuff that made up his life and his grades got really good.

He realized that the ordinary is extraordinary. The minutiae of your own life is what you know and can write insightfully about. People sense it and as writer Pico Iyer says, “The reader wants to travel beside you, looking over your shoulder.”

Although best known for writing “Eat, Love, Pray,” Elizabeth Gilbert has written several books and goes old school by cataloging her ideas for a book using index cards and shoeboxes.

She says “My newest book has five shoeboxes full of organized index cards lined up. Without them I don’t think I’d have any idea how to write a book.”

While Gilbert is writing she chews lots of gum, a pack a day, a nonsmoker’s form of chain-smoking. For her, it works to activate her brain.

At the end of a writing session she stops in the middle of the sentence she’s working on so the next day she can avoid a slow start by immediately being able to write something and keep going.

She attributes that technique to Hemingway.


Dino feathers

No one can drink from the firehose of infinite information blasting into our world every day, so it’s easy to miss something interesting when it gets presented.

Here’s one of those things. Most dinosaurs probably had feathers.

Maybe their feathers weren’t just like the feathers we know today , though some probably were.

All of the birds around us today are really descendants of dinosaurs that have survived this far – their larger brethren didn’t make it.

Many of the large dinosaurs probably had feathers, at the least as juveniles when they were small and vulnerable. It could have been that the  feathers helped them flap up a tree trunk to escape danger. Then as they  matured they lost most of their youthful plumage.

Before this, I always imagined dinosaurs  as having  a smooth tough hide, something like thick toad skin.

Like a heart or a lung, a feather  rarely gets preserved, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. Occasionally, feathers did get preserved along with supporting structures for feathers  or something like them. There are fossils records of  what we’d call “Chicken skin” where the bumps in the skin probably supported feathers.

Much of this is informed speculation by scientists who’re trying to put together the real picture of dinosaurs. But who knows, if there’s ever a follow up to Jurassic Park, will the big scary T Rex  and the velociraptors look a bit fluffy?

Do you prefer driving or biking?

copenhagen bikesI definitely prefer biking.

Recently I spent a few days getting around by bike in Copenhagen. There’re lots and lots of people cycling there. By some accounts, there’re more bike commuters in Copenhagen than there are in all of the US.

Most of the cyclists there are on regular bikes and wearing everyday clothes. In other words, most of the cycling is not a specialized activity. People are biking  at all times of day, for diverse purposes, without wearing special cycling clothing, or having to ride a racing type bike. The majority of the bikes you see there are low maintenance, all-weather, and easy to ride.

It all got me thinking about cars and how stale the driving experience can get.

Just a hundred years ago rich folk would have paid big bucks to drive as fast as any regular citizen now drives every day. Think about the people who’ve signed up to pay big bucks to fly into space just to come right back to earth, that’s what a modern car ride would be a hundred years ago.

But most of us see driving more as a chore than a pleasure, because despite the marketing, after a few months driving, even driving a new car can seem like drudgery.

Biking on the other hand has always been fun to me. I’ve always looked forward to riding a bike no matter what the purpose of the ride was.

Looking around at all the other cyclists in Copenhagen, most of them seemed to feel the same way.

The Apple Tree

I always thought it’d be cool to use an iPad as  my computer. Light and small, it’d be like driving a Prius instead of a Jeep Cherokee. That was my hope at least. But here’s what I found.

Apple makes great stuff.

Lately, my 2009 MacBook has finally gone to join Steve. At least I think so because by living in a small town in Mexico, I can’t visit an Apple store to have it checked out by a pro. I’ve tried all the fixes I could come up with or were suggested to me, but still no life in my trusty computer.

Luckily I have an iPad.  Previously I never did any heavy lifting with the iPad, it was for reading , traveling with, and to have as a backup.

And now that day is here, for the iPad to come off the bench.

While all the products on Apple’s tree share many aspects. I’m finding that they can’t all stand in for one another.

For example, I thought that since I’m  a hunt and peck typist that I wouldn’t miss a “real” keyboard. Well, the pop up touchscreen keyboard is frustrating so far. There are fewer keys so moving the cursor for editing  takes much longer and doesn’t work like Apple says it should.

If you’re just texting and dealing with the lower standards people expect of texting  it’d be fine, but to write professional emails and other documents, you’ll be slowed down and frustrated. It’s like having to open the hood and jiggle a couple things before you’re able to drive your car. I don’t want to have to be a mechanic to drive my car. The shade of the Apple tree isn’t enough to keep me cool.

So, I’m saying that the iPad is not a suitable replacement for a full featured computer. It was probably planned that way. But I would have liked it to be otherwise.

I haven’t sorted out how to get my next MacBook, but I can’t wait to get my  greasy hands clean and turn on the ignition and cruise along while tossing my mechanic’s cap out the window.

Our Stone Age Bodies

I didn't changeWe still have Stone Age bodies that haven’t evolved much beyond those of cave men. You could even have kids with someone from the Stone Age. Maybe you feel like you have kids with someone who’s from the Stone Age.

The problem is that now we live with foods and conveniences that our Stone Age bodies don’t cope well with. It’s not new or big news but it is important news.

The other day I heard an NPR interview on “Fresh Air” with a Harvard professor explaining why it’s important to be aware of the disconnect between the way many people live now and what our minds and bodies are calibrated for.  There’re lots of people putting out the idea that we have Paleolithic bodies, but maybe the ideas will be given more weight coming from a Harvard professor who can lay out the idea in a clear way.

Okay, maybe you don’t relate to the professorial approach. What about the advice of a trainer to some of Hollywood’s A-list actors? These actors depend on their looks for their livelihood so they work with trainers who get results.

One of those trainers is Vinnie Tortorich. He’s college educated and has been training people for 25 years. What’s his underlying message? If you want to lose weight, don’t exercise, fix your diet by cutting out most sugars and grains and  also embracing fats.

That’s what our Stone Age bodies work best on. He doesn’t  really put it like that to his clients, but that’s what’s going on.

Whether you prefer the professor’s theory or the trainer’s results, you’ll see there’s something to using an evolutionary approach when considering how to live in the modern world.


storksOn a recent trip I noticed a lot of statues. My favorite is one with four life-sized storks over a fountain.

Most statues are of soldiers, politicians, or artists, with a few of scientists snuck in. Over the years while traveling to diverse spots, from Copenhagen to Tonga, I’ve never seen a statue of a critic. Statues are a recognition of  greatness in people from the mighty to the humble. You might run across Napoleon and then find a statue for unknown soldiers.

But none of critics. So go be great.