Monthly Archives: August 2014

Flat water and flat rocks

Rock onIf aliens showed up not knowing anything about us and saw someone skipping rocks what would they think? Was the skipper trying to empty the beach of rocks, or trying to fill the water with rocks? Kinda like the joke about the first visiting aliens seeing a dog owner picking up his dog’s poop and assuming that the dog must be the boss.

Wherever people find flat water and flat rocks nearby, they probably skip rocks.

Skipping rocks always seemed like a warm weather spontaneous, idle activity. That was until I saw there’s a kickstarted campaign to fund finishing a documentary about competitive rock skipping. Who knew. It’s a big world with room for lots of subcultures.

The trailer for the documentary shows some impressive rock skipping.

I remember a friend of mine who was a competitive race walker said race walking is a questionable sport for questionable athletes. I’ll have to ask him if he skips rocks too.

Good Marketing

Manhattan_Project_16x20Can good marketing sometimes be the distinguishing factor for some of the things we buy? Sure. And one of those things is vodka.

After googling it I found that paying more for a vodka doesn’t mean you’ll get a better vodka.

Here’s one example of not getting more by paying more, someone said: “Our second experiment demonstrated approximately equal preferences for Pavlova and Ketel One. Although Pavlova contains 3-5% less alcohol by volume than Ketel One, it is also 70% cheaper, so it would seem a clear winner.”

I looked at a few opinions and articles, and the one I thought  was the best was from 2005 in the NYT, the gist of it was this, “…Smirnoff (is) at the top of our list, ahead of many other names that are no doubt of higher status in stylish bars and lounges…After the 21 vodkas were sipped and the results compiled, the Smirnoff was our hands-down favorite.” Pretty strong recommendation.

The tasters from the NYT couldn’t try all 300 vodkas available at the time so, “our tasting included 5 of the 10 best-selling unflavored vodkas in the United States and the 5 best-selling imported vodkas…”

They unexpectantly found that,”Some of those names did not even make our Top 10. Grey Goose from France, one of the most popular vodkas, was felt to lack balance and seemed to have more than a touch of sweetness. Ketel One from the Netherlands, another top name, was felt to be routine and sharp.”

Different sources for vodka were tasted, “Most spirits can be made only from certain prescribed ingredients, but vodka can be distilled from just about anything that can be fermented into alcohol: grains, vegetables, even fruits. Our tasting included vodkas made from wheat, rye and potatoes, even a couple that used grapes.”

The 2005 vodka prices in NYT article, “ranged from a low of $13 for the Smirnoff to a high of $34 for  Belvedere…” And that’s for a spirit with “the government definition of tasteless and odorless.”

The NYT vodka tasters describe Smirnoff’s taste as classic and declared it the winner of the taste test. So it turns out that because of effective marketing you might feel a vodka is better if you pay more for it.

Price is what you pay and  the value is what you get from it. Unless you’re not concerned with impressing someone, just order Smirnoff.

The unconventional house

blue butterfly in the weedsEvery now and then, we have eye-opening encounters, recalibrating and shifting our view of what the world is like and can be like.

When I was a little kid in the early sixties, my dad was serving his required time in the military, and before our family moved to a base in California he went out first to set up our life there.

After we arrived, I went with him to pick up his stuff at the off-base house where he’d been staying. It was an unconventional house rented by some single officers he knew.

The house itself was ordinary enough. But to an eight year old whose sphere of influence was conventional, that house changed most of the conventional ideas I had about how you could live. The world I was used to wasn’t unlike the lives shown in “Mad Men” forty years later on TV.

None of the guys were home when we showed up so I got to have a good look around. A few things struck me, and stuck in my little eight year old imagination. It was as if I’d only ever seen American football and then got exposed to rugby culture. They’re similar, related somewhere in the past, but really not the same thing at all.

I can’t remember everything from the visit to the house, but there’re a few things.

Walking in from the street, I noticed the yard was overgrown. It was fascinating, seeing what would grow without constantly mowing.

And the pool! No one used it or cared for it, so it was almost unrecognizable as a pool anymore. The diving board and blighted chrome rails at the deep end were the only give aways. It was being used – by frogs, bugs, and other pond dwellers.

The house seemed more like a ranger station in a nature preserve than a house.

Inside the house, a pull-down widow shade was tacked up on a living room wall as a makeshift projector screen.It was there for the latest research project, about the civil war maybe, for one of the guys living there. The project wasn’t for work, just something he was interested in!

Crawling out onto the roof, I saw where one of the guys sat at night sometimes, leaning back on the roof to star gaze.

If there was a white picket fence there once, it was gone.

It was my first encounter with a break in conventional living, an unexpected formative experience, one of a more organic, enriching, and less structured culture where the momentum of normal institutions had been dodged or kept at the sidewalk somehow.

I only experienced the unconventional house that one time. It was far away for the locating  abilities of an eight year old but it’s always stuck with me.

What are the lessons of old men?

chillin'In a nutshell, the lesson from old men is this, if you’ve got a partner you love, a bedroom, and a kitchen with room for a sofa then you don’t really need most of the extra stuff in life.

A Harvard study has been following 268 men, who were students there in 1938, until now (they’re in their nineties). The most import finding according to the study’s director, “…points to a straightforward five-word conclusion: Happiness is love. Full stop.”

It’s the longest-running human development study ever looking for what contributes most strongly to us flourishing. The study tracked psychological, anthropological and physical traits, as well as family relationships.

George Vallant, the study’s director for the last 30 years released a book in 2012 called “Triumphs of Experience.”

It sounds like our lives evolve as we age and are often more satisfying in our later years.

Here’re some of the study’s findings:

– Men doing well in old age didn’t necessarily do as well in midlife, and vice versa.

– The memories of a happy childhood are a source of strength in our later years. But recovery from a bad childhood is also possible.

– Marriages bring much more contentment after age 70.

– The men’s physical aging after 80 is determined less by heredity than by habits formed prior to age 50. Growing old with grace and vitality, can be attributed more to yourself than your genetic makeup.

– Cigarette smoking and alcoholism was the greatest cause of morbidity and death.

– Alcoholism was  strongly coupled with neurosis and depression, which most often followed alcohol abuse, rather than preceding  it. Alcoholism had great destructive power, being by far the greatest disruptor of health and happiness and the single strongest cause of divorce.

– There’s a strong correlation between the warmth of relationships and the men’s health and happiness in later years.

– Political ideology had no bearing on overall life satisfaction. But the most conservative men on average shut down their sex lives around age 68, while the most liberal men had healthy sex lives well into their 80s.

– There was no noticeable difference in maximum income earned by men with lower or higher IQs (at Harvard).

– The men scoring the highest on the measurements of “warm relationships” earned more during their peak salaries years than the men who scored the lowest. Men who had ‘warm’ childhood relationships with their mothers made more per year than the men with uncaring mothers.

– Warm childhood relationships with fathers correlated with lower rates of adult anxiety and increased ‘life satisfaction’ at age 75, while warm childhood relationships with mothers had no significant bearing on life satisfaction at 75.

Those are some of the study’s findings I thought were interesting. Check it out.

High tide

Seiko Military CustomI don’t  have a dog in the fight over legalizing pot, but it’s an important, tragic story. As usual, government policy is lagging behind public opinion on this issue, way behind.

Overall,  Americans now favor changing pot laws with about 60% for and  40% against.

In more progressive areas, the number of pro pot people is staggering. In the 15,000(!) comments resulting from a recent NYT series on pot, there were 12,658 comment for, 982 against, and 254 unsure.

Most commenters seem convinced marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco and that arrest and incarceration, for possession of a relatively harmless substance, ruins more lives than the cannabis itself.

The consensus opinion was summarized in this comment: “Like many wars, the war on drugs has caused too much carnage. Let’s responsibly legalize marijuana.”

Another comment went into more detail: “No matter how bad you think marijuana is for kids, teens or adults, the fact is that arrest, incarceration, and the ruin they bring is worse. The question is not whether marijuana is ‘O.K.’ It is how [to] effectively deal with it. Illegality and moral censure are and should remain separate tools. … I think many people are worried about losing control of their kids, but I don’t think a single one of them wants to see their kid locked up.”

Someone who worked in an Emergency Room said: “I have yet to see one patient come through our doors suffering the long-term consequence of pot use. Not one. Alcohol? I can’t even begin to count. And when they do, it is very ugly.”

And there was the libertarian (and I think pretty clever) angle: “I reject the federal government’s right to decide what I put in my body. Even if it was ‘bad’ for you, so what? We don’t ban skydiving, driving in cars, hunting, professional backyard wrestling, traveling to 3rd world countries, sugary foods and beverages, standing outside during thunderstorms with a metal pole, swimming after eating, caffeine, ibuprofen, alcohol, cigarettes or prescription drugs, all of which are statistically more likely to harm you.”

I own a small condo in Colorado that’s getting more valuable, driven by legal pot in Colorado. Maybe I should sell it soon, before other states realize what time it is.


The short sit

Buddha camI have a lot of experience with running and some with meditation. So I found two recent articles about shorter forms of both activities pretty interesting. It’s not about gaming a system but what is most effective. My post on running is just below this one.

Here’re some interesting points from a NYT article called “More Mindfulness, Less Meditation.”

The first point is that, “In the modern world, meditation is far more effective as a technique of self-management than as a means of personal transformation, much less enlightenment.”

The second point is that, “Mindfulness is a specific type of meditative practice of watching one’s thoughts, feelings and sensations as they arise and pass, without becoming caught up in them. By building the capacity to witness one’s own experience without attachment or reactivity one slowly begins to see through the illusion of permanence and separateness.”

“The problem with mindfulness as a starting place is that it’s an advanced practice. In traditional teaching, students first learned to stabilize their attention concentration meditation. Concentration involves focusing on a single object of attention, such as the breath. Only when students learned to reliably quiet their minds – a process that often took years of practice – was the more subtle and advanced practice mindfulness introduced.”

…” concentration meditation is a simpler and more reliable way than mindfulness to build control of one’s attention, quiet down and relax – especially so for those in the early stages of meditating.

… “don’t assume more is better.

“Mindfulness practice has its benefits,” says author Catherine Ingram” “but in my case, after 17 years of practice, there came a point when mentally noting my breath, thoughts and sensations became wearisome, a sense of always having homework and of constantly chopping reality into little bits.”

“Even a few minutes of sitting quietly and following the breath goes a long way. I’ve found it especially effective to breathe in to a count of three and out to a count of six – effectively extending the outbreath and deepening the experience of relaxation. Counting is also an effective object of attention, and therefore enhances concentration.”

I’ve also found that it’s more practical to truly focus and relax for a minute or two several times a day than to meditate for a long period and constantly battle with distraction along the way.


The short run

22amazon_show-slide-7AJL-largeHorizontal375-v2I have a lot of experience with running and some with meditation. So I found two recent articles about shorter forms of both activities pretty interesting. It’s not about gaming a system but what is most effective. My post on meditation is the next post above this one.

Here’re some of the interesting points from a NYT article about the benefits  short runs.

Running for as little as five minutes a day could significantly lower a person’s risk of dying prematurely, according to a large-scale new study of exercise and mortality,” suggesting “that the benefits of even small amounts of vigorous exercise may be much greater than experts had assumed.”

“The runners’ risk of dying from any cause was 30 percent lower than that for the non- runners, and their risk of dying from heart disease was 45 percent lower than for non runners.”

“As a group, runners gained about three extra years of life compared with those adults who never ran.”

Remarkably, these benefits were about the same no matter how much or little people ran.

People running for longer times “didn’t live significantly longer those who ran the least, including people running as little as five or 10 minutes a day at a leisurely pace of 10 minutes a mile or slower.”

“The study did not directly examine… whether running was the only exercise that provided such benefits. The researchers did find that in general, runners had less risk of dying than people who engaged in more moderate activities such as walking.”

“Instead, it’s likely that exercise intensity is the key to improving longevity,”… “Running just happens to be the most convenient way for most people to exercise intensely.”

If “… after trying for a solid five minutes, you’re just not enjoying running, switch activities. Jump rope. Vigorously pedal a stationary bike. Or choose any other strenuous activity. Five minutes of taxing effort might add years to your life.”

A mind for money


Maybe we’d all have better lives over all if we still lived as hunter-gatherers. That’s the life we’re actually still wired for and was our lifestyle for most of our history.

But here we are now, trying to flourish in a complex, technical civilization where money is probably the most important  tool we have.

You don’t need lots of money. But you do need enough, and be able to deal with it.

Warren Buffett’s advice is always clear and easy to follow. And his track record is pretty good.

But most people don’t follow his advice. Instead, they try to beat the market, keep up with the Jones, take on debt for stuff that decreases in value, concern themselves only with price, and on and on. Meanwhile Buffett just chugs along, getting richer following just a few guidelines.

Here’re some of his advice I extracted from an article on Lifehacker. I think his advice is straightforward enough that it doesn’t require much explanation or elaboration, if you want some it’s in the article.

I used some contractions and changed his advice to the second person, you. Here’s some advice from Buffett:

Don’t save what’s left after spending; spend what is left after saving.

The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they’re too heavy to be broken.

Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, the energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.

Price is what you pay; value is what you get. Whether it’s socks or stocks, buy quality merchandise when it’s marked down. You’ll be better off buying a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price.

Buffett’s investing strategy is “set it and forget it.” If you aren’t willing to own a stock for ten years, don’t even think about. Put together a portfolio of companies whose aggregate earnings march upward over the years, and so will the portfolio’s market value.

If you’d invested in a very low cost index fund and didn’t put the money in all at one time, but gradually over 10 years—you’d do better than 90% of people who started investing at the same time. His money, is where his mouth is: Here’s what’s in his will for his wife: Put 10% of the cash in short-term government bonds and 90% in a very low-cost S&P 500 index fund. (he suggests Vanguard’s VFINX).

He’s seen more people fail because of liquor and leverage—leverage being borrowed money. You really don’t need leverage in this world much. If you’re smart, you’re going to make a lot of money without borrowing

Some material things make life more enjoyable, many, however, don’t. Buffett likes having an expensive private plane, but owning a half-dozen homes would be a burden. Too often, a vast collection of possessions ends up possessing its owner. The asset he most values, aside from health, is interesting, diverse, and long-standing friends.