Friday, April 11, 2014

Scarcity: Avoid the squeeze by building slack

We all remember our mom telling us to “Eat your vegetables!  Don’t you know there are starving kids in Africa?”  I always thought that scarcity was a far away problem.  I was wrong.  While hunger and poverty are scarcity of food and money, being too busy is a scarcity of time.  Having too much stuff is a scarcity of order.  Loneliness is a scarcity of sociability.  Obesity, drug addiction, violence are manifestations of the scarcity we live in. 

'Eat Me' Cake or 'Drink me' Potion

In Alice in Wonderland, Alice finds a bottle of potion with a tag that reads "Drink Me".  She drinks the potion and becomes too small to reach the key she left on the table. She then finds a small cake with a tag that reads "Eat Me".  She takes a bite and becomes so large her head hits the ceiling and she starts to cry.

We all are afraid of being too small, and so we've been convinced to eat the cake.  Now we are so large, it is making us miserable.   In "The Power of Vulnerability", Brene Brown writes "We're not rich enough, good enough, safe enough, certain enough, perfect enough, extraordinary enough".  The result is that we have got ourselves into a scarcity trap.

Scarcity Trap

We require mental bandwidth: time and energy to think, plan and decide.  When we make decisions that result in scarcity such as using our time or money unwisely, we can end in this trap.  We then focus on immediate, urgent demands and ignore more important decisions ("Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much", by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir).   

Slack and avoiding the Squeeze

In the book Scarcity there's an example of packing a suitcase.  If your suitcase is too small, you need to spend a lot of time (bandwidth) packing it just right and thinking about what to pack or leave home.  If your suitcase is large, you can throw in whatever you want.  You have "slack".   Slack is what frees up people to not have to spend time worrying about the little things.  Wealthy people have financial slack.  

The problem is that we tend to try and "squeeze" as much out of life as possible.  In "Antifragile: things that gain from disorder", Nassim Taleb writes about the high cost of "squeeze".  Being 15 minutes early to the airport (slack) costs 15 minutes.  Being 15 minutes late to the airport (squeeze) costs time, money, stress.  Squeeze occurs when people have no choice but to do something, do it right away, regardless of the cost.  We need the "potion" with the tag "drink me" to shrink our life and create slack.

Here are some things I've been trying to do to increase slack in my life:
  • Don't stay up late trying to get that one, last thing done (squeeze).  Instead go to bed early (slack).
  • Instead of worrying whether the payment due today is going to bounce (squeeze), keep a large balance in your checking account (slack) .
  • Instead of waiting to the last minute to get ready, hurrying, worrying that you'll hit traffic, and arriving stressed out (squeeze), leave early with enough time to account for traffic (slack) 
  • When you push yourself, you'll feel tension in your shoulders, back, face, or wherever (squeeze).  This is the time to take a break and think about if you really have to push yourself so hard and strategize about how to avoid this pressure in the future (slack).
  • If you're doing something that you can do alone (checking your Facebook, email, text messages, etc.) (squeeze), drop it when you have a chance to interact with real people (slack).  
Do you have any more suggestions?

Sunday, March 23, 2014


Attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.

Do you believe in the supernatural?  Let's see.

Science has a high degree of confidence in evolution as explaining the richness of life on Earth.  This is attributed to the engine of life: the mechanism used for replication genetic material in creating new cells and organisms, as well as the creation of specialized cells for nerves, skin, muscle, blood, etc. and for growing these specialized cells into complicated organisms.  Science is achieving a greater understanding of how this engine of life works, but where it came from is one of the great mysteries of science.

Conclusion: How genes/DNA originated is beyond scientific understanding.

One of the laws of nature is related to entropy; then tendency for things to become more disordered.  Left unattended, paint fades and peels; buildings crumble; rocks and mountains erode into sand and dust.  Life, on the other hand, creates order from chaos.  Plants organize dirt into beautiful, elaborate structures; trees, flowers, etc.  Animals create populations of sophisticated hunter gatherers.  People create living habitats in inhospitable locations.  

A volcano erupts, destroying all life for miles.  This is entropy at work.  In a short period of time, slowly life reclaims this land, first with plants, then trees, then animal life.  Life defies entropy

Conclusion: Life is a force that defies the laws of nature.

Go outside.  Everywhere you look you see life or signs of it.  It's hard to find anywhere on Earth where life doesn't exist.  Life is supernatural.  The creations of the genetic engine, the source of which is beyond scientific understanding and the demonstration that the laws of nature can be defied.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Why I Changed My Mind About the Vietnam War

It seemed that all that I've heard has lead me to believe that the Vietnam War was a big mistake and a waste of lives.  This was reinforced by a memory of a Vietnam Vet I would see often near where I worked.  He would walk up and down the sidewalk and spontaneously burst out yelling incoherent words.  It only made sense that such a mistake as the Vietnam War would result in mental distress for its participants.

Then someone joined our carpool.  A young Vietnamese engineer.  I was very impressed with him.  Masters Degree in Engineering, respected professional, savvy investor, well read, etc.  As I got to know him better, and respect him, I decided to ask his opinion of the Vietnam War.  His reply shocked me.  "I think it is great that the United States got involved".  Why?  His father was one of the Boat People that were refugees after the U.S. left Vietnam and the communists took over.  I remember hearing about the Boat People on the news at the time, but I never connected with their plight on an emotional level.  My friend's grandfather was a political prisoner and died in prison.  I didn't ask any more questions.  I assumed he was glad that the U.S. involvement opened the opportunity for him to come to America.

Recently I asked again about his father.  He told me to search "Boat People Archives" on the internet, where many people had recorded their stories.  I did and couldn't make it past the first YouTube video.  I found out that 1.5 million people fled Vietnam after the U.S. left, and that 500,000 perished.  There are makeshift graves all over south eastern Asia.  It had a similar impact that I experienced when I went through the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C.  The feeling was an overwhelming sense of tragedy.  Why haven't we heard more about this?

Today, I asked my friend another question "Were the Boat People fleeing a known fear or unknown fear".  Here in the United States, it seems like most of our fears are unknown.  We feared the Affordable Care Act before we experienced the consequences.  We fear the wrong candidate being elected.  We fear Global Warming.  My question was really "Did the people flee because of what the communists might do, or was it because of something they already did?"  He said most all of them fled because of what happened: their property was seized and everything was taken from them.  He then told me a little more of his families story.  His grandparents and parents were wealthy.  His father was drafted in the war and fought for the south.  He is very proud of his service fighting against the communists.  After the war, he returned home and the communists gradually infiltrated the South, confiscating property and arresting enemies.  My friend's grandfather was sent to prison where he died.  The grandparent's home and parent's home were next to each other, so whenever the troops would do midnight searches for "traitors", his father would sneak over the wall back to his parents house.  Only his mother and aunts lived there.  Finally, his father fled the country on a boat and eventually was able to bring his family over.  After hearing this, I said "You have an amazing family heritage".  And I decided to write this post.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Technology and the Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant

In the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant, each man feels a different part of the elephant and when ask what an elephant is, responds

  • "An elephant is like a rope" (the tail)
  • "An elephant is like the trunk of a tree" (the leg)
  • "An elephant is a wall" (the body)
  • "An elephant is like a spear" (the tusks)
  • "An elephant is like a hose" (the trunk)
Nature provides us many amazing things and our finite human minds are sometimes like the blind men.  We can't always see how all of the pieces fit together.  A classic example is early attempts at using baby formulas.  The percentage method was used to achieve what was thought to be the correct ratios of nutrition for baby formula.  The result was scurvy, rickets, and other dietary related diseases. [1] .  It would be like using just the right ratio of rope, tree trunks, walls, spears and hoses to try and duplicate an elephant.
Eventually baby formula was improved, but mother's milk is generally accepted as the best for infants.

Still, we continue to look to technology to solve our problems.  I'm not saying all technology is bad.  I'm saying that technology has advantages and disadvantages and we might not be fully aware of the unintended side effects.  Rather that write an exhaustive thesis about this, I decided to share drawings that show a modern twist to the parable of the "Elephant and the Blind Men".  Please "like" on Facebook and "tweet" or "text" to a friend.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Abortions and Smoking Pot

A few days ago I saw an interview of a pot activist in Colorado.  He made a very compelling case for the decriminalization of marijuana in the U.S.  The interviewer made the case that pot is harmful and dangerous.  The activist agreed with this point, but said criminalizing pot is more harmful and dangerous and by decriminalizing it allows the government to regulate stupid behavior.

I also heard that Americans are shifting their support away from abortion.  The debate on abortion similarly pits two opposing sides to the issue and involve laws attempting to limit harmful behavior.

I would like to propose a thought experiment inspired by Jean Valjean who stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister's child and then served 19 years in prison.  Imagine that millions of people started stealing bread. Debating the morality of stealing bread seems irrelevant and passing stricter laws would be nonsense.  What needs to be addressed is "what has happened in our society where so many turn to stealing bread?"  Is it a lack of food?   Is it a lack of regard for other people's property?

Applying these questions to smoking pot and abortion.  "What is happening in our society that so many turn to the harmful behavior of smoking pot?"  and "What is happening in our society where mothers and fathers are deciding to destroy the seeds of human life that they created?"  I think that the answers to these questions are an indictment.

Thought experiment over, you can resume your usual activities.

P.S. Not sure if using the word "pot" makes me sound outdated like my parents sounded when they used the word "dope".  Feel free to substitute "weed" or whatever name makes you feel more comfortable.

Monday, January 13, 2014

A caveman and a vegan walk into a bar...

Whenever I have what I think is a clever idea, I search it in Google and find that someone has usually done it better.  You can see what I mean here "a-caveman-and-a-vegan-walk-into-a-bar".  This is part 2 from a previous post on the subject of healthy eating (Orthorexia)


A good friend tried to convert me to living on a plant based diet.  I don't use the word vegan, since it carries a political/religious-like connotation.  My friend is an engineer and presented an abundance of scientific evidence for his diet.  The main conclusion: we are not carnivores nor omnivores; we are instead herbivores.  Something about the length of my intestines and something about the physiology of pigs; I don't remember all of the details.  The enemy for him was cholesterol and he managed to get his cholesterol levels to negative 100 (I know there is no negative, but it seemed unhealthy to me, especially since he looked unhealthy).

Paleo Diet

I recently watched the documentary "The Perfect Human Diet".  They had a paleo-archeo-anthropological-dietary-geneticist person who did spectroscopic analysis of the stuff in caveman bones and said we resembled prehistoric carnivores (wolves, etc) more than prehistoric herbivores (deer, etc).  They did a distracting comparison with a football field where they said the last 1/2 inch represents modern history, and the previous 100 yards represents 2 million years.  The conclusion: we should eat like cavemen, or at least what the producers say that cavemen eat.

"Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food"

In the book Omnivore's Dilema, the author (Michael Pollan) makes an interesting point (before he totally freaked me out about the food industry).  Herbivores and carnivores don't think "Should I have Pizza, Mexican, Chinese food?"  Instead they eat what they are meant to eat.  Panda's eat bamboo and lions eat other animals.  The problem is that if they run out their usual diet, they starve.  Being an omnivore is much better since we are flexible and can eat almost anything [1].  The challenge isn't so much finding food, it's deciding if eating it will kill us.  Apparently we evolved our big brains to help us make this decision.  

It seems our "food rejection circuitry" is still active in-spite of an abundance of edible stuff.  The result is that just about all food gets a bad grade from someone: 
  • Vegans say all animal protein is bad (meat, eggs, dairy)
  • Paleo diet people say grains, beans are bad
  • Dietitians say to avoid processed foods
  • Scientists say that fresh produce grown with pesticides is bad.
There's not much left over to eat.  Fruit and nuts, I think.

Michael Pollan also wrote "In Defense of Food".   It's a much more balanced, reasonable approach to healthy eating for us omnivores.  Personally, I like the title.

Until science figures it all out, I guess I'll just stick with "The Word Of Wisdom" written 180 years ago.

Friday, January 3, 2014

True Californian

Years ago, I drove an airport shuttle at the Los Angeles airport while putting myself through college.  I met interesting people from all over the country.  One of my passengers was from Ohio.  He had long, wavy, bleach blond hair.  He had a Hawaiian shirt on, baggy shorts and flip flops.  I seem to remember a guitar swung over his shoulder, but I think he was just carrying a guitar case.  He was so excited to be in Southern California.

He took a look at me and asked where I was from.  I was wearing long pants and a dark blue polo shirt with the "Super Shuttle" logo.  My hair was cut short in a conservative style and I wore glasses.  I said I was from California.  He had a look of shock on his face.  I was an enigma in his California fantasy.  His reply "No way!".

I was born in Redondo Beach, the same place the Beach Boys sang about in the song "Surfin' U.S.A."  I grew up 1.5 miles from the beach.  My mother was born in Southern California.  "Yes way! I'm Californian".

So let's address a couple of myths:

1. Surfing.  Not all Californians surf.  I like the beach, swimming in the waves, body surfing.  I didn't even try to surf until I was 40 years old.  I'm no good at it and don't have a desire to spend the time learning.

2. Partying.  I'm talking about drinking-until-you're-stupid partying.  I enjoy hanging out, having fun, socializing.  I've never had a drink in my life.  I know a lot of people (other Californians) in the same boat.

3. Hollywood.  I always rolled my eyes when the naive tourist would get in my van and say "Take me to Hollywood!".  You don't want to stay in Hollywood.  It's not very nice.  All the images of Southern California are usually, Santa Monica, Venice, or Malibu.

4. Liberals. Yes there are liberals in California.  My history teacher when I was a freshman in high school wouldn't say the pledge of allegiance.  But, there are also many conservatives.  There are a lot of great, conservative families with good fathers (absent in most of all TV shows and movies), loving mothers, and normal kids.

5. California is about to suffer a financial collapse.  A couple years ago I met a guy on vacation from Louisiana.  He was shocked to see so many expensive cars and homes.  All he heard on the news was how messed up California was.  The truth is that there is A LOT OF WEALTH in California.  There is also a lot of successful companies.

6. Everyone is rich.  On the other end of the spectrum, is the assumption that everyone is wealthy.  That's not true either.  I've known many people who have been out of work for over a year at one time or another.  There are a lot of people struggling to get by in California.

Conclusion: There's more to California than meets the eye.