Monthly Archives: August 2015

The good life

iced coffeeI’m going to quilt together a few ideas about the good life.

The good life, whatever that may mean to you, becomes more widespread as time goes on. Look at something simple, even humble. How cool is a glass if you think about it? They’re cheap, fairly durable, and they don’t add a taste to what’s in it. All that while allowing us to also see what’s in it. It’s “what’s best for the most for the least” design in action.

We’re living in a world that, to our ancestors, would have been a dream world. If they could even dream it. We take for granted things that our ancestors had to live without easy long distant travel and communication, a pretty thorough understanding of how the world works, and being generally unthreatened physically.

Some people pine for the “good old days.” Maybe they seem good viewing them from 30,000 feet. But the good old days weren’t so good when you look at them at a granular level. There were untreatable illnesses, high infant mortality rates, deaths from childbirth, rotting teeth, shorter lives, etc.  I’m sure we could fill this page. What about ignorance? There was plenty to go around.

“Just a few centuries ago, the smartest humans alive were dead wrong about damn near everything. They were wrong about gods. Wrong about astronomy. Wrong about disease. Wrong about heredity. Wrong about physics. Wrong about racism, sexism, nationalism, governance, and many other moral issues. Wrong about geology. Wrong about cosmology. Wrong about chemistry. Wrong about evolution. Wrong about nearly every subject imaginable.” – Luke Muehlhauser

“So-called Western Civilization, as practiced in half of Europe, some of Asia and a few parts of North America, is better than anything else available. Western civilization not only provides a bit of life, a pinch of liberty and the occasional pursuance of happiness, it’s also the only thing that’s ever tried to. Our civilization is the first in history to show even the slightest concern for average, undistinguished, none-too-commendable people like us.” – P. J. O’Rourke

“It is capitalist America that produced the modern independent woman. Never in history have women had more freedom of choice in regard to dress, behavior, career, and sexual orientation.” – Camille Paglia

Progress is inevitable. In the West at least, change is a constant, usually for the leading to rising standards of life. There are winners and losers, failing enthusiastically toward the good life.

“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.” – Stewart Brand


save it
I write about stuff I want to read.

Writing frees up thinking because keeping ideas in your head pulls away your attention. In current terms, writing is like downloading info from a computer to an external drive.

I ran across a couple of thoughts about writing  that I want to be able to find again.

One is from blogger and “Dilbert” creator, Scott Adams. He gives some simple, effective writing advice gleaned from a one-day “business writing” course. His post is called “The Day You Became A Better Writer.”

Business writing is about clarity and persuasion. The main technique is keeping things simple. Simple writing is persuasive. A good argument in five sentences will sway more people than a brilliant argument in a hundred sentences. Don’t fight it. 

Simple means getting rid of extra words. Don’t write, “He was very happy” when you can write “He was happy.” You think the word “very” adds something. It doesn’t. Prune your sentences.

Humor writing is a lot like business writing. It needs to be simple. The main difference is in the choice of words. For humor, don’t say “drink” when you can say “swill.”

Your first sentence needs to grab the reader. Go back and read my first sentence to this post. I rewrote it a dozen times. It makes you curious. That’s the key.

Write short sentences. Avoid putting multiple thoughts in one sentence. Readers aren’t as smart as you’d think.

Learn how brains organize ideas. Readers comprehend “the boy hit the ball” quicker than “the ball was hit by the boy.” Both sentences mean the same, but it’s easier to imagine the object (the boy) before the action (the hitting). All brains work that way. (Notice I didn’t say, “That is the way all brains work”?)

That’s it. You just learned 80% of the rules of good writing. You’re welcome.


just got backMy sister doesn’t travel far or often. She’s a middle-aged mom who feels like she needs to bring things like band-aids and extra hair ties, “just in case.”

When she recently traveled to visit us in Mexico for a week, I got her to travel with just one carry-on bag. It worked out fine. She didn’t need a band-aid or an extra hair tie, although we have ’em if needed.

She could move faster and easier with her big over-the -shoulder bag. She almost missed a connecting flight. She was the last person to board the plane. Running the concourse to get there, she wouldn’t have made it with a bigger wheelie bag.

Once she arrived she had everything she needed with her and didn’t miss the “just in case” stuff. And she had a great time.

Travel light to travel better.

Pissed off lions

lions in the rainy“Eat what you kill,” is proclaimed by some as an approach to  life.

That attitude probably wasn’t  followed for much of man’s time on earth.

As a small, weak species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, we  survived by hook and by crook, working in cooperation with each other. For a long time we probably weren’t even hunter-gatherers. Instead, we were scavenger-gatherers.

Our ancestors traded the safety of trees for living on African grasslands where they had to deal with bigger threats from predators.  Compared to lions, hyenas and the like, we were weaker, slower, and lacked scary body parts, even our skin was soft. We could forget about competing by smelling, hearing, or seeing better.

But we were smarter than potential predators.

So we came up with “work arounds” for our weaknesses. Charles Darwin pointed out that, “In the long history of humankind, those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” Pursuing our individual goals while being supportive of other people’s goals is fundamental to human life. We still have those tendencies today.

Behind almost every threat, a new strategy was waiting to be born. Working together, we could be threatening enough to fool predators.  We could throw rocks, stick together to appear bigger, make threatening noises, and other clever strategies.

While being attacked, or during confrontational scavenging raids, we had group members by our sides with stones to throw. If a lion gets injured by a rock attacking humans, it flees, preferring to lose a meal rather than risk its life by continuing to fight.

When a predator recognizes you and your kind, and remembers getting scared or thwarted in past encounters, it learns to worry about attacking you. Ideally, predators would recognize humans as unprofitable to pursue.

Sometimes we could scare a predator away from it’s kill. We could also eat bone marrow. Predators often couldn’t get to it. We could by smashing bones apart with rocks. But this needed other people as lookouts and helpers.

Cooperation was our big advantage and it seems to be a baked-in feature of humans as much as “eat what you kill.”

Hey coach!

Football coachesWhat’s happening with these American football coaches? I don’t think it’s fat shaming to wonder what’s going on with these guys. If health is wealth then these guys must have long ago declared bankruptcy.

Maybe they think the way they look is what successful high-level coaches  look like, so they neither recognize nor accept that their actions have consequences for which they’re ultimately accountable for.

These guys are metabolically broken. It probably took a long incremental path to get to where they are. Action, or in this case inaction, expresses priorities.

What are the Euro coaches doing differently? Is it the culture? Maybe some of these American coaches should reach out to their European counterparts for advice.

It’s difficult to get people to understand something, when other people around him act like everything is normal.

Do they ask their doctor what they should do about their weight? The poor doctor will probably spin out advice that allows the obese coaches to feel better about themselves.  Instead, the coaches should ask their doctor what he’d do if he were in their place.

I don’t follow pro football, or soccer, so maybe the way these guys look is the new normal and no one mentions it. But It seems grotesque to me. The coaches shouldn’t need to look like athletes but they shouldn’t give up any attempt at health either.

Picking and choosing

beetsHard work can get you a professorship or a Tesla. But you need hard work and luck to get a Nobel prize or a Gulfstream.

When picking people for school admission, casting, and most other forced selection processes – there’re few selectors with successful track records of finely sorting from the pool of people who’re “good enough.” After pulling the trigger, it’s likely that whoever the selectors ultimately choose won’t be better than people picked randomly from the final small pool of candidates

We’re eager to believe the final selection process is the best way, both as the pickers and the picked. But false metrics combined with plenty of posturing leads to lots of drama. There’re  tradeoffs because choosing one person means you’re not choosing someone else. Optimizing a choice on one factor will mean sub-optimizing other factors.

What would happen if we spent more time on carefully assembling the pool of “good enough” and then randomly picking the final 5%? And of course, putting in the time to make sure that the assortment of people mesh well together.

This leads to the question of what would happen if casting directors and football scouts didn’t agonize about their final choice but instead spent that time and effort widening the pool to get the right group to randomly choose from instead?

It’s difficult for the picked, for the pickers and for institutions to admit, but if you don’t have proof that picking actually works, then let’s accept it and agree that luck is a factor.

Behind the scenes

ugly peopleWe’re Increasingly concerned that money behind the scenes is disproportionately influencing politics and other aspects of our lives. And rightly so.

But the flipside is that some activities supported by money behind the scenes are making lives better.

Sentences to ponder:

Quietly, steadily, the Buffett family is funding the biggest shift in birth control in a generation.

It’s economic. (Warren Buffett) thinks that unless women can control their fertility-and that it’s basically their right to control their fertility-that you are sort of wasting more than half of the brainpower in the United States. Well, not just the United States. Worldwide.

Money from the Buffett foundation funded a birth control program for young women in Colorado with the result that the teen birthrate dropped 40% from 2009 to 2013, and the teen abortion rate was down by more than a third. Backing family planning saves money.

The foundation also funded developing a low-cost, effective IUD that can last up to three years. This April, Liletta, the low-cost IUD, became available… costing public clinics just $50 and wouldn’t require foundation funding in perpetuity.

The sentences in italics were excerpted from a Bloomberg article, you can read the whole piece here.