Building a Solid Foundation for Sleep

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More and more people these days seem to be complaining about trouble sleeping. Because one of the pillars of physical health is ensuring you get enough high quality sleep, there has been a lot written on the subject. I’ve had my fair share of difficulty sleeping, but recently have generally been able to keep my sleep debt to a minimum. In this blog post, I wanted to share a few unique techniques and insights I’ve had about sleeping well.

Aside from all the usual advice (avoid caffeine completely, especially if you are a slow caffeine metabolizer; avoid alcohol; get exercise every day; learn how to deal with or eliminate stressors, etc.), there are three targeted techniques I use.

Establish a Sleep Baseline

How much sleep do you need? The answer is easy – you need as much sleep as your body tells you it needs. In other words, you need to learn to listen to your body and prioritize sleep above other activities. Think about it: what are the things your body needs in order to live? In order of “time to death”, they are: air and water, and then food, sleep and exercise. You wouldn’t think of foregoing breathing so you could watch a TV show, or skipping meals so you can check your social feeds, or allowing yourself to get parched so you can play a videogame, so why would you skip sleep to do these less important things?

To establish a baseline, pick a time when you have no incumbrances to getting all the sleep you could want. The holidays are here, and this is a good time to try this, as are vacations. Take a week and give yourself permission to sleep as much as you want for the whole week (while avoiding caffeine!). There are two important things to keep in mind:

  • You should track exactly how many hours of sleep you get in this baseline period.

  • You should keep in mind that for the first day or days, you may be catching up from accumulated sleep deprivation. Disregard the data from these days.

Once you have established a somewhat regular pattern and have zeroed in on a regular number of hours, this becomes your baseline. It is your target. For many people, this target will be somewhere around 8 hours, as that is typical.  If it is a lot less than 8 hours, there is a very very slight chance that you are one of the few who truly need less sleep, but chances are better that you didn’t really let yourself sleep, and you should consider trying it again.

As you age, your baseline may change, so it’s a good idea to repeat the baseline measurement every few years.

 

Track Your Sleep, But Don’t Lose Sleep Over It

This is really easy.  Every morning, simply write down if you hit your target for that night. It literally only takes a couple of seconds to write this number down, so no excuses to not do it. This is the easiest form of tracking, you simply get a pass or fail. Even if you are just 15 minutes shy of your target, this is a fail.

Be honest with yourself and grade yourself accurately. At the same time, be gentle with yourself! It will be hard to hit your target at first, and there will be all sorts of times when it will be basically impossible. But you need to keep striving, and the best way to do that is to have a little logbook to look at and think, “Oh, gee, I’m missed my target 3 days running. I really need to make sure I head to bed a little earlier tonight or take a nap this afternoon.” Don’t beat yourself up if you fail, but do take the steps necessary to get back on track.

Personally, I track my sleep in more detail. I write down the exact number of hours as well as the quality of the sleep, and use these to compute a “sleep grade” for each day. I also look at my 7-day running average. I find these useful, and can share the exact formulas I use if you’re interested. But you don’t need to get this fancy. The simple pass/fail technique should give you the bulk of the benefits you need by simply making you aware of your actual sleep patterns.

Another bonus you may want to add on: also track your mood. You may find that when you lack sleep, you are more irritable and don’t handle stress as well. You shouldn’t be surprised by this – how many times have you seen a grouchy child miraculously cured by a nap? The same principle holds for adults, we just learn to cover up and ignore the effects of lack of sleep.

 

Iterative Visualization – Building Colorful Cubes in your Mind

Invariably, even if you exercise and eat right and do all of the right things, there will be days when you find it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep. Again, all of the usual advice applies here: establish a bedtime ritual, ensure you have a distraction free sleep environment, get fresh air, etc.  But here’s a particular technique I’ve developed and honed over the years that always works for me.

The technique is based roughly on the classic “counting sheep” and also on some forms of meditation, but differs from them significantly, in a number of important ways. The problems I’ve found with counting methods are:

  • Simple counting is too easy and fast – I can count and let my brain race around worrying about things at the same time.

  • Simple counting is boring and not challenging.

  • Simple counting ignores your physiology.

This technique attempts to address these shortcomings by replacing the counts with other memorized sequences (colors), engaging the visual centers of the brain, providing a task to be accomplished with waypoints, and linking it all to your breath. Sounds complicated, but it’s really quite simple.  Here are the steps:

  1. Establish your breath. After the lights are off and you have found a comfortable sleeping position, establish your breathing rate by simply counting in your head to 100. It also helps to visualize the numbers themselves as you say them in your head, so you begin to engage both the auditory and visual portions of your brain. You can do this step as fast as you like. The whole point of this step is to distract yourself from your breath long enough that it falls into its natural rhythm.

  2. Build the cube. The task you are to complete, in your mind, is building a 6 by 6 by 6 cube, made of smaller cubes. Imagine something shaped like a Rubik’s cube, only bigger (see the image at the beginning of this post). Each of the 6 horizontal layers of the cube are built from smaller cubical blocks, all of the same color. These follow the colors of the rainbow. So the first layer consists of 36 red blocks, the second layer of 36 orange blocks, then yellow, green, blue, and purple. All in all, you will only “place” 216 blocks in total, but you will do it in such a way that you are almost guaranteed to fall asleep before you finish. Here’s how:

    1. Place one block per breath. Do not change the pace of your breath, keep it slow and rhythmical, as established in step 1. As you exhale, imagine the next block being placed into its position. Imagine it as the appropriate color and mentally say to yourself the name of the color as the block is placed.

    2. Build “concentric cubes.” In other words, first build the 1x1x1 cube (this is trivial, you just place the first red block, and say “red”). Then build the 2x2x2 cube on top of the 1x1x1 cube, then the 3x3x3 cube on top of the 2x2x2, and so on.

    3. Always build the top layer first, then the right side, and then the front side. See the diagrams below.

    4. If you ever lose your place, don’t get frustrated, rejoice! This means you’re starting to fall asleep. Then simply step back to the last step you can remember and continue building from that point.

    5. If you manage to build the whole cube, don’t fret! Just build another one – maybe vary the color scheme a little.

At an average of 10 breaths per minute, this technique will likely get you to sleep in less than 20 minutes. Personally, I rarely make it to the purple layer, which accounts for almost half of the blocks, so I’m usually out in 10 minutes.

How does it work? First, it engages the visual, spatial, auditory and language portions of the brain at the same time. It also engages the somatosensory regions by having you focus on your breath. By doing this, it makes it difficult for you to be distracted by stray thoughts. Second, it provides waypoints, milestones of progress to keep you focused, and each successive waypoint takes slightly longer to reach, making the task progressively more difficult, thus keeping you engaged. Third, it replaces the “boring” elements of counting with something a bit more playful and fun, making the task a bit less arduous.

I sometimes add a little variety to the task. For example, I sometimes build an “all blue” cube (e.g., midnight, navy, royal, cornflower, sky, powder), an “all green” cube (forest, jungle, kelly, lime, olive, mint), etc.  Sometimes even just trying to remember the names of 6 shades of a given color is enough to put me to sleep!

 

So there you have it: establish a baseline, track your sleep nightly, and when you have trouble sleeping, build the cube. I’d be interested in knowing how these techniques work for you.

 

 

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The Waiting is the Mindful Part

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What do you do when you arrive at a meeting place early, or suddenly discover you have 15 minutes to “kill” while waiting for a train or riding the subway? Chances are like many people today, you’ll do one of two things: you’ll either fret about the waste of your valuable time, or you’ll whip out your phone or tablet and “fill” the time checking messages or otherwise “catching up”.

I’m increasingly doing neither, and instead taking a third option. I view the extra time as a gift, a special opportunity to meditate – literally! In other words, I do … nothing.

Like many people, I’ve always thought that meditation was a good idea, but felt like I never really had the time, and really, how could it possibly be that beneficial? A couple of months ago, though, I started taking a class on mindfulness and emotional intelligence. This is the “Search Inside Yourself” course that has been getting some attention in the press lately, and which, amongst other skills, teaches meditation as a way to practice mindfulness. Chade-Meng Tan, the founder of the class, offered three simple practices to the class on our first day:

  • Commit to one mindful breath per day.

  • Strive to do all things with mindfulness and self-awareness.

  • Randomly wish happiness upon at least two people per day.

Of course, he knew very well that one breath would lead to another, and that 2 wishes would lead to 10. I’m now consistently meditating at least 15 minutes every day, and reaping the benefits of increased focus, reduced stress, and greater feelings of physical, mental, and emotional awareness.

You’re probably thinking like I used to, that you don’t have the time to meditate. I would argue, you don’t have the time to not meditate. Gandhi once quipped that his life had become so busy that he needed to meditate for two hours instead of one. Like sleeping, eating well, and exercising, meditation is something which bestows the most benefits if you do it every day, and which you need even more when things get busy. And it can help you even if you only take “one mindful breath.”

You will always have little bites of time to work with – maybe when you’re walking between meetings, or to and from your parked car, or waiting in line or for a friend to show up. How can you make use of these little slices? Try this: Write yourself a note that simply says, “One mindful breath” and stick it to your phone (or better yet, change your phone’s wallpaper). That’s it. If, when you take out your phone, you can’t take one mindful breath, that’s okay, don’t beat yourself up about it. But maybe you can, and maybe it will lead to a number of mindful breaths, and maybe you’ll sit down and find yourself focusing on those breaths – and you guessed it, suddenly you are meditating. After a while, you’ll find that you naturally use these times to do mini recharges, and you won’t need to check your email, and you won’t need to get frustrated. Those extra breaths will fill the space just as well, and  simultaneously fill you with calm, clarity, and peace of mind.

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Dear Me – Words of Wisdom to My Younger Self

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Sept, 2013

Dear Me,

I’m sending you this letter from 30 years in the future.  Even at your age, I’m sure you’ll recognize that although you think you know everything, every year you seem to learn a lot more, so by extrapolation (remember that word from algebra?), by the time you’re me, you’ll know a boatload.  Below, I try to distill all of that into a few key pieces of advice.  Some of this will sound familiar from my blog (that’s what people call publicly published personal journals these days), but there is a lot more here that I haven’t found time to write a blog post about – maybe I will someday. I know you will only half listen, and that’s okay.  If just a few of these get through to you, we’ll both be happier and healthier…

  • First and foremost, in everything you do, strive to do the “right” thing.  This is called conscientiousness, and is the single most important thing you can learn.  To help you do this, find an exemplary person, and when making any decision, ask yourself “What would s/he do?” This could be Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr. or any other of a host of exceptional leaders.  Or, more likely and more practically, this may be your parents, aunt or uncle, grandparents, minister or priest or rabbi, or teacher.  Using your parents or other close caregivers has the great advantage that you know how they behave very well, whereas you usually only know about famous people from second-hand sources.  This goes for the smallest decision (“Should I wash my hands?”, “Should I use my turn signal?”) to the largest (“Should I marry this person?”, “Should I attend college?”).  Better yet, find several such people, and if what you’re planning to do goes against what they all would do, please take the time to carefully consider that.
  • Notwithstanding the above, be aware that your parents and all such mentors are human, and not perfect.  Always question why they do what they do, and don’t be afraid to do something different.  Most of the time, you’ll discover they were right, but occasionally you will discover they were wrong.  This is especially true for things which are clearly a matter of opinion, like: “Who is the best sports team?”,  “Who should I vote for?”, or even “What religion should I follow?”
  • Here’s a nifty litmus test I use when making hard decisions that involve changing my current course:  I ask myself, “Later on, would I regret not taking this new path?”  If the answer is that I would regret it, I know I have to take that path, no matter how hard it may be.
  • Habits define you.  Identify your bad ones and do what it takes to eliminate them.  At the same time, replace them with good ones.  Do this continuously.  Do this for both behavioral and mental habits.
  • Realize that thoughts lead to words, and both thoughts and words lead to action.  If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts, stop yourself (literally say “Stop” in your head) before they grow into something worse.  Catastrophizing often becomes a self-fulling prophecy.  Likewise, if there is something you want to do or accomplish, start by writing it down, and telling others.  (See Thoughts, Words, Labels, and Actions for more details).
  • Every human deserves your respect.  You should try hard to assess everyone you interact with, but not to judge them.  Strive to always give everyone, even people you feel you know, the benefit of the doubt.  Do not assume the worst.
  • Read the book How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.  Read it multiple times over the years and try hard to internalize its lessons.  It’s title makes it sound like some sleazy how-to book for salespeople, which couldn’t be further from the truth.  It is genuine, and immensely useful.  Yes it was written in another time, but because it gets at the roots of what it means to be human, it is timeless.  Close behind it is Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.  Read them both!
  • When you are a young adult, and even more so when you are older, don’t feel bound by your decisions, large or small.  It’s easy to have thought patterns like, “Oh, I just spent a gazillion dollars and 4 years to learn to be a nanoimmunobiologist, so I’d better find a job and be one for the rest of my life, even though I think it’s boring and immoral.”  Don’t fall into that trap, it will ruin your life.  Constantly examine yourself and your life, and if you don’t like what you see, reinvent yourself.
  • “Acting the part” can take you farther than you might think (just watch the film Catch Me If You Can – when it comes out in about 20 years).  Of course, don’t try to deceive others like the main character in that film does, but mentally telling yourself things like, “Ah, I’m now a platoon leader – I should act like a platoon leader,” can go a long way towards turning you into what you aspire to be.
  • Appearances do matter.  Not just to others but to yourself.  Like it or not, we are hard-wired to make an initial assessment of whether we like someone within 7 seconds of meeting them.  This doesn’t mean you have to wear a business suit all the time (unless you want to or have to), but it does mean that you should be thoughtful of how you look when in the presence of others, and even when you’re alone.  Don’t make your physical appearance an obsession.  If you’re spending over an hour putting yourself together in the morning, you may want to think about whether you’re overdoing it.  Also, make sure you “dress the part” – this signals both others and perhaps more importantly you, yourself, about how you intend to act.  Going to work in the garden? Dress like a gardener.  Going out on the town?  Dress like a reveler (but not a revealer).  Going for an interview, dress like an interviewee.  Going to work as a <blank>, dress like a <blanker>.
  • Find a uniform.  This basically means, find a practical, sharp, acceptable way of dressing that is compatible with your lifestyle and personal style, and buy those clothes in bulk.  This guarantees you look good and relieves you of any decision making when it comes to getting dressed in the morning.  (Of course, have some variety!)
  • You will hear the saying: “It’s not what you know but who you know.”  There is some truth to that, but I’d revise it: It is both who you know, and what you know.  By “it”, I mean the ability to follow the path you have laid out for yourself, and achieve the goals you set for yourself.  Getting a job as a supervising manager at an architectural firm through your college buddy won’t do you any good if you know nothing about architecture and managing.  On the other hand, you may be the best architectural manager in the world, but without connections in that world, your options for employment will be extremely limited.  Make real connections, though, not just exchanging contact information with everyone you run into, especially after you start using the internet.
  • Money can buy happiness, but you quickly reach the point of diminishing returns.  Be prudent with your money, and learn to track your finances, but don’t be a spendthrift.  You can always make more money.
  • Learn the essential difference between an asset (something which makes you money) and a liability (something which costs you money).  Maximize the money you put into assets and minimize the money you put into liabilities.  The book Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki can help you understand this key truth.
  • Don’t assume that what works for the “average” person will necessarily work for you, but do try it as a starting point.  Chances are you will have to modify it a bit to suit you, and maybe even throw it out and try something else that your gut tells you is right when you realize it doesn’t work.  If you only do what the average person does, you will only have an average life (at best).  Since you only get one life, chances are you’d like for it to be a bit more than average.  (See You Are Not an Average, Joe for more details.)
  • Take the time to learn how to give talks and presentations well, and how to convince others – it is an invaluable skill regardless of your career path.  Continue to sharpen this skill throughout life.
  • Try hard to eat well every day, sleep well every night, and move your body to the point of sweating doing something you enjoy regularly (most days).  Always monitor what you eat and how it makes you feel.  Figure out how much sleep you need and make it a very high priority.  Don’t exercise for exercise’s sake, but do something you love doing, even if it isn’t considered “working out”.  Track these three things – you may be surprised how much they affect not only your mood but your overall happiness. (See: Living the SWEET Life, Daily)
  • Explore what you can do with your body.  Don’t be satisfied with just one physical activity – try as many as you can.  Dancing, skydiving, yoga, rock climbing, tai chi, hiking, fencing, parkour – there are so many amazing things you can do with your body!  Your body is your vehicle through life – learn everything you can about it, through direct experience.  And learn how to maintain it properly – you’ll be happy you did.
  • To quote a good friend of mine, “TV is for people who have forgotten they are going to die.”  Same goes for video games.  Like sugar in your diet, these have their place in limited quantities, but by no means should they be your default activity.  Even worse is “adult” content or other bizarre, extreme, or disturbing videos/books/games. It’s not just harmful to you but to others as well, and should have no place at all in your life.
  • Choose your friends carefully, and your spouse even more carefully.  Don’t date and don’t hang out with people because they are an easy choice and you are lonely.  Hold out for the special people.  Love is a choice, not something that happens to you.
  • Ultimately, you must find your own path through life.  It may take you your entire life to discover who you are – always strive to find out.  Once you think you “know” who you are, you know it’s time to take action to learn more and try something new.
  • Love means doing something for someone, even (or especially) when you don’t want to.  This is the meaning of sacrifice and giving.
  • Last but not least, here’s the secret to happiness: “The trick is to find some way in which you work with other people that you respect in pursuit of a noble end in a way that uses your strengths.” – Jonathan Haidt.  In other words, after ensuring your physical health, you can pursue happiness by ensuring that how you spend your days is something that you a) are passionate about, b) can do better than most people, and c) supports you monetarily.

Thanks for listening.  If you have any questions, feel free to send them my way.

And don’t forget to save this letter and refer back to it often.  : )  (That’s a sideways smiley face – you’ll understand that a lot more in about 10 years).

All the best,

Love,

Me

P.S.  Remember that book See You At The Top you recently read by Zig Ziglar, that you took some notes on?  After writing this letter, I went back and found those notes (yes, you’ve kept them all these years), and it all sounded so familiar, except I’ve relearned these things the “hard” way.  Here’s what Zig said (I think I may have modified a few of these or even inserted some from Stephen Covey, but the core is still there):

  • Common sense demands that you like yourself – you’re the only you you’ve got.
  • To improve your self-image, improve the image of yourself – dress up.
  • Read inspirational biographies.
  • Listen to speakers who build mankind.
  • Take “baby-steps” towards positive self-image.
  • Smile, greet, and compliment others.
  • Do something for someone who can’t repay the favor.
  • Be careful of your associates.
  • Make a list of your positive points, keep it with you.
  • Make a list of past accomplishments, review and revise it often.
  • Avoid pornography, violence, soap operas, and astrology.
  • Realize that behind every success is a series of failures.
  • Learn to speak in public.
  • Look yourself and others in the eye.
  • Maintain your health and physical appearance.

P.P.S. A woman named Mary Schmich will also write some great advice in 1997 – you should read that, too.

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A Simple Recipe for Flow

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A few days ago, my wife wrote down a simple stir-fry recipe for me to cook.  I’m on nurse duty, and this particular recipe is the kind of comfort food she needs to help her recuperate.  I’m a decent cook (and, the recipe is simple), so after one go, I managed to memorize it.  I just finished cooking my third (and this time, double!) batch of it, and am feeling mighty good.  How can it be that this simple act of getting my mis-en-place, chopping, and then sequencing the frying could be so satisfying?  The answer is twofold: flow and acts of kindness.

You may have heard of flow (a.k.a. “the zone”) elsewhere.  If not, it’s simply the concept of “a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of [an] activity.”  It also happens to be one of the fundamental ways to help improve happiness, and according to “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky, for me personally it is one the the most effective ways to build happiness.   No wonder I feel so good!  But, I am not a chef, nor do I aspire to be one.  How can it be that cooking this meal got me into a flow state?

One common mistake for those seeking flow is to look in the wrong places.  I’m a data scientist by profession, so naturally I’d expect to achieve flow when I’m writing code or analyzing data, and indeed I do (lucky for me, or I’d have to seriously consider another profession!)  But that doesn’t mean that I can’t find flow in doing such “mundane” things as preparing a meal or going for a bicycle ride.  According to Lyubomirsky, “we can experience flow in almost anything we do, however monotonous or tedious it might appear.”  It helps that this this particular activity was also a way for me to “invest in social connections” via an “act of kindness” (in this case, the most important social connection I have – the one with my spouse!) – both activities that Lyubomirsky also proposes to help increase happiness. So naturally I’m feeling quite good right now.

If you’re interested in ways to improve flow (and happiness!) in your daily life, I highly recommend reading Lyubomirsky’s book (esp. Chapter 7), or the book by the originator of the concept – Flow by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.  You may find ways to turn the mundane into the sublime.

 

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The Power…It’s Electrifying

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A couple months ago, we decided that the timing and circumstances were finally right for us to take the plunge and start using an electric vehicle.  A number of friends and family have asked about it, so I thought I’d put my thoughts down here for all to read.  Long story short: We decided to lease a Nissan Leaf.  We love the car and have even considered getting a second one.  But to be clear, EVs are not currently for everyone – yet!  We had been watching the Leaf since before it had even been released for sale in the U.S. in 2010, but a lot went into the decision to get an all-electric car, and specifically get the Leaf in particular.

Fundamentally, and incontrovertibly, gasoline is a limited resource that pollutes the air.  At some point, it will need to be replaced.  There are lots of opinions about how and when that will happen, but regardless, we need to find an alternative, so why not get ahead of the curve and do it now?  I won’t go into all of the advantages (or disadvantages) of using electricity as an energy storage and delivery mechanism, but some of the obvious ones include an existing delivery infrastructure and the ability to be cleanly generated at scale.

We could have gone with a hybrid car, or even a plug-in hybrid, but deep down we felt the right thing to do was to commit to the cleanest vehicle we could manage.  We wanted to show our support for what we felt was an important emerging technology.

Driving an all-electric is a surprisingly awesome experience.  First, it is noticeably incredibly quiet.  We had relatives visiting, and my 6 year-old nephew commented on this (without prompting) as soon as we started moving.  It’s so quiet that they have to add sounds (via external speakers) so pedestrians don’t get startled.  When we test-drove a Prius plug-in hybrid, this was a big difference – what a noisy car.  Second, it accelerates better than most gasmobiles.  Yes, it really kicks it out of the gate.  Third, it has no gears, so there are no funny shifting hesitations and all  the power is instantly available.  Fourth, it is much cheaper to refuel than gas cars, roughly a third the cost, and this drops even more if you have access to charging stations that are free to use.  Finally, it gives you an incredible sense of satisfaction to know that you, personally, are not spewing harmful gases into the air (especially if your electric company offers clean energy).

Clearly, an all-electric vehicle is not currently for everyone because the state of the art technology has some reduced functionality compared to gasmobiles: less range, longer refuel times, and a still-nascent refueling infrastructure.  Even with government incentives, the current EVs on the market do not quite make a compelling case when you look at total cost of ownership, although they are close.  All of these factors will change with time.  My guess is that either for your next vehicle purchase or the one after that, an all-electric vehicle will be a contender.  Right now, EVs are best as commuter cars (if your commute is less than about 35 miles each way, or, if you have access to a charging station near work, then about 70 miles), and for running errands around town.  Taking a long trip in an EV would be a real hassle.  But given that most households have over two cars, chances are good that at least one can be replaced by an EV, and the gasmobile can be used for any long trips (this is the route we’ve currently taken).  EVs are also mostly for homeowners, because of proximity to electrical outlets when the vehicle is parked at home.  We, of course, met all of these criteria, as do a lot of households.  I am also very fortunate to get free, fast charging from my employer, which makes it even easier to stay “topped-off” at all times.  Once we decided that it was time to replace one of our aging gasmobiles, an EV became the obvious choice.

As a car, the Leaf in particular is an excellent vehicle, even if you ignore the fact that it is all-electric.  It has all of the safety, reliability, and convenience features you’d expect from a new vehicle.  It also has a greatly designed  interior space (we like it much better than the Prius or the Focus), and some other cool features (like being able to control some functions like climate-control via an app).  It is solid, reliable, and drives just like a regular car.  Plus, it looks nice, is eminently practical, and priced right. Nissan has been a leader in the development of EVs, and has taken a big risk and put in a huge investment to be a pioneer. It’s clear they believe in the technology, and we wanted to show them our support.  Taken together, all of these factors made the Leaf the best choice for us.  We decided to lease the vehicle in anticipation of improvements in range and charging speed in the next few years.

The great thing is, a lot of manufacturers are following Nissan’s (and to be fair, Tesla’s) lead.  The Honda Fit EV, the Ford Focus EV, and the Mitsubishi MiEV are all currently available in some U.S. markets, with offerings from Chevy (Spark), Smart, and others just around the corner and new EVs getting announced all the time.  Not only will this mean more choices for the consumer, but it will also put downward pressure on the pricetags, upward pressure on proliferation of charging stations, and drive innovation around range and charging times (e.g., battery-swapping facilities).

In short, EVs are a technology whose time has come.  To be sure, it will be a very long time before they are more prevalent than gasmobiles, and will likely never entirely replace them, but I see their widespread adoption as inevitable.  We’re still on the low-end of the technology adoption curve, with less than 100,000 on the road in the U.S. today, but I liken them to cell-phones circa 1997.  They are a proven, superior technology with support from the government and business.  In a decade or two, all of the technical downsides to EVs will have been addressed, and public opinion will have turned against gasmobiles to the point where people who still hang on to them will be considered quaint, anachronistic, or just plain irresponsible.  If you’re currently in the market for a car, I’d encourage you to consider if an EV is right for you.  Take a few test drives – I think you’ll be impressed.

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You Are Not an Average, Joe

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When I was applying for scholarships for college, my father said something that I thought was nonsensical at the time.  I was bemoaning the acceptance rate statistics, and Dad said something like, “It doesn’t matter how many scholarships are awarded or how many people apply, you only need one scholarship.”  Being a  mathematically talented teenager, I “knew” this kind of advice was utter nonsense.  Of course it mattered!  If the acceptance rate was only 5%, then naturally I only had a 5% chance of getting the scholarship, and if the supply was limited, then the more people that applied, the worse my chances.  Right?

With time, I’ve come to realize the wisdom in what Dad said, and even from a mathematical standpoint, that he was actually correct.  It is a subtle but critically important distinction that we all would do well to internalize.  In statistical language, it means not confusing summary statistics with point observations or samples.  In layman’s terms it means: you are not an average anything (at least, not necessarily).

It is all too common to hear advice like “you should work out 3 times per week for 30 minutes,” or “the average person needs 8 hours of sleep,” or “you should eat like a caveman.”  The problem with these broad prescriptions is that they are not based on your particular needs, and they may or may not actually apply to you. You always need to examine where these recommendations come from, what assumptions they make, and whether they will likely be beneficial for you personally.  Statistically speaking, there is a very good chance that as long as they are based on solid science across a large sample, they actually will apply to you.  But you should be prepared to “reject the null hypothesis,” or to say it more concretely: “your mileage may vary.”

In other words, don’t assume that what works for the average person will necessarily work for you, but do try it as a starting point.  There is a very good chance it will work for you – after all, there is definitely something to be said for the “wisdom of the crowds.”  On the other hand, you may have to modify it a bit to suit you, and maybe even throw it out and try something else that your gut tells you is right.  More importantly, actively look out for situations where you are being treated or acting like everyone else when you shouldn’t be.  Yes, “most” people can tolerate gluten, but that doesn’t mean you can.  “Most” people happily guzzle soda made with GMO-based corn syrup, but that doesn’t mean you should.  “Most” people aspire to get a decent job working for a company, buy a house, get married, and have kids, but you should carefully consider whether that’s the best path for you.  “Most” people blindly follow in the footsteps of their parents when it comes to religion, but why would you make such an important decision by accepting the default?

If you only do what the average person does, you will probably only have an average life (or worse).  To be happy and healthy, you need to be productive and strive towards fulfilling your best true self.  That involves finding your strengths (i.e., those aspects of your self where you don’t fall into the middle of the bell curve, i.e., you are not average), and doubling-down on them – not just settling for what is “normal” or “expected.”  Since you only get one life, chances are you’d like for it to be a bit more than average – it’s up to you to discover how to make it great and to march resolutely down your own path.

In the end, I worked hard on my applications, and I did get that one acceptance to a very selective college and that one scholarship I needed, and the experiences I had because of those “lucky breaks” have had a positive lasting impression on who I am and how I approach life.  But to think of them as lucky breaks isn’t right.  It’s clear now that I was not an average applicant. Rather, I was an outstanding one – I just didn’t realize it.  But on some level, Dad did.

P.S. Many of the concepts here are based on a basic understanding of statistics, a subject I and others have suggested should replace Calculus in high school curricula.   If you want to learn more about statistics in a fun way, I heartily recommend The Cartoon Guide to Statistics.

 

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A Simple Semi-Automatic Text Summarizer

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This one goes out to all the data geeks in the crowd….

In other posts, I’ve mentioned a text summarizer I’ve used to help me glean the salient points from a large amount of text.  The problem this tool addresses is simple: let’s say you’ve got several articles, or a book, or some other large chunk of text, and you want to discern the larger themes and semantic trends, of the text.  Trying to solve this problem algorithmically in a robust way for arbitrary text with enough quality for a public-facing product is a very hard problem.  But using a simple, time-honored approach borrowed from classical Information Retrieval can be good enough for occasional, personal use.  I’ve been using a simple script to do this, and I recently posted it on the web – give it a whirl:  http://luvogt.com/summ.html

At this point, you may be asking, “What the heck is he talking about?”  Okay, how about some concrete examples. As I mentioned in a previous post, I wanted to quickly discern the most important themes from a series of 41 posts on CNN Money that highlighted the best advice some successful business leaders had ever received.  So I plugged them into my summarizer, and this is what popped out (these are only the top terms):

Let me outline the lay of the land here: these are the words and phrases that appeared in the text of the 41 articles, sorted by a measure of “importance”.  You’ll note that the words have been mangled a bit – this is a process called stemming, which maps different forms of the same word to a semantically similar root (and also does something a little strange – converts the letter “y” to an “i” when at the end of a word).  The point here is that “drinking coffees” is semantically similar to “drinks coffee”, etc.  You’ll also note that some non-meaningful words like “the” and “of” are missing.  The summarizer is just trying to bypass these unimportant words and get to terms that express the core meaning.  The second column of the table is how many times each term has occurred across all of the documents, and the third column is how many unique documents this term has occurred in.  The last column is a magic number that takes the first two columns as well as other things like how long the word is, how many syllables it has, etc., into account to try to guess the importance of that term.  If you are at all familiar with “word clouds”, you could basically render these terms in decreasing font size to get a word cloud.

Interpreting the output takes a little practice, but can help lead to a better understanding of the underlying text, especially for larger chunks of text.  In this case, for example, I scan down the list and ignore terms that appear in most of the articles (like “advice”), or which don’t have a lot meaning (like “because” or “really”).  If I do that, I identify a handful of possibly interesting terms, including: “people”, “company”, “interest”, “start”, “person”, “listen” and “think”.  If I go back and search through the original source documents for the context these words were used in, I quickly discover that one common theme is around establishing and building relationships with others through careful listening.  It’s interesting to note that when I summarized these articles manually, without the help of my tool, I identified “Listening and Respect” as the most important theme.

Here’s another example: when I pointed the tool at this blog, here’s what it said were the most important concepts that I’ve been writing about – I’d say it’s right on:

To be clear, the tool has limitations (not the least is its ability to parse HTML properly and ignore scripts and boilerplate/sidebar text on pages – I may work on that).  Also, I call the tool semi-automatic because it does require some interpretation.  Regardless, I’ve had a lot of fun trying different source texts (like, the Bible, or the Constitution , or the lyrics of various “concept albums”), and would love to hear from you what you discover playing around with it.

It’s also important to understand that the source text should be “of a piece”.  For example, I’ve tried using the tool to summarize the headlines on major news sites, and what comes out is a mish-mash of terms from across the (unrelated) news articles.  In order for it to reveal an underlying theme, there has to be an underlying theme.  Perhaps it may also be valuable in doing just that – revealing a lack of cohesiveness.

I post this under the “leadership” heading because leaders often need to be able to quickly summarize large amounts of  text – as a leader, I can imagine using this kind of tool in a wide variety of ways – from summarizing a stream of tweets or blog, to summarizing a person’s resume (as an example, see mine below).  The possibilities are tantalizing… Here’s that link again:  http://luvogt.com/summ.html

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WhatIf…You and Your Friends Held a Conference?

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Last Saturday, a dozen or so friends gathered at my home for the first edition of what I hope to be a recurring tradition – a sort of mini-conference for the members of a bookless book club I co-founded with Jesse Bridgewater and Chad Carson.  We called the gathering IfCon*, after the sentence prefix we use to inspire conversations at our regular meetings, “What if…”

The format of the conference was simple: every member was invited to give a 20-45 minute talk on a topic of their choice, with the only rule being “don’t be boring.” Ten talks and three meals later, I had learned a lot, laughed a lot, gotten to know them all a bit better, and was not for a single moment bored.

The full agenda is on our website, along with links to videos and slides for those speakers who agreed to have them made public.  To give a taste of what we talked about, here are the titles of the talks:

  • Tomorrow is a new day…what if you really believed it?
  • Video games as a storytelling medium
  • Divine Experience – On the Neural Basis of Revelation
  • The Piraha: A People Without Numbers
  • Life lessons from backgammon
  • An iPhone fit for a Queen: Thoughts on American consumerism from Andy Warhol
  • Longevity, Health, and Happiness : How to Live the SWEET Life
  • A Perspective on Understanding the Arts and Humanities as Demonstrated by Differential Image Analysis Bingo!
  • Reflections on man vs machine and digital vs. analog
  • Environmental, Educational, Health, & Economic Sustainability – Lessons from Cambodia

My talk was about how to live a longer, happier life by tracking the physical, mental, and social aspects of your health on a daily basis.  My friends brought up some interesting questions and challenges to my technique that still have me re-thinking my approach.  Giving the talk was invaluable for me – it’s so hard to challenge your own assumptions, but presenting your ideas to someone you know and trust can teach you a lot about your blind spots!

Aside from the actual content of the talks, one of the most gratifying aspects of the day was that nearly every speaker shared something personal.  Whether it was their love of video games or backgammon, their family trip to Cambodia to visit the schools they helped build, their fascination with language, or their personal trick for starting each day anew, I learned a little more about everyone and connected with them at a deeper level than I had before.  And if you watch my talk (Longevity, Health, and Happiness), you’ll learn how making those kinds of connections is critical to a long, happy life.

What if you and your friends held a conference?

* We subsequently discovered that there is another conference with the name, so we’ll likely change it next time around to avoid confusion.

 

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Thoughts, Words, Labels, and Actions

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While reading Gandhi’s autobiography recently, an interesting non-sequitur caused me to rediscover an important motivational technique.  Gandhi said something* about the need for his followers to internalize the British government’s rules before engaging in civil disobedience, and that they should do this via their thoughts, speech, and actions.  This 3-step progression is a natural way to build momentum and ensure that your intentions get translated into actions.

Some people find it difficult to go straight from intention to action.  The gulf seems so large, that often intentions die before they become reality.  How can you address this?  I’m reminded of a common idea from the study and practice of influence, in which it’s suggested that you get people to agree to your proposal by starting them off saying yes to a small part or small detail, and then build a series of yeses on that small seed.  You’re much more likely to win over the undecided if you build support this way.

So if you find yourself failing to go straight from thought to action, try one or two intermediary steps.  First, write your intention down.  Then tell someone, especially someone you know will ask you about it later.  Or, broadcast it to the world, or your world (social networks make this really easy these days). I find it also helps to name the thing you are trying to do by giving it a label or code name.  By attaching a label, you not only make it a real “thing” in your mind, but also make it easier to bring it up in conversation.  It also gives you the opportunity to give it a whimsical name that you associate with the positive side of the effort, which also acts as a code phrase between you and your confidants.  Which sounds better coming from your friend or loved one, “How’s the weight loss program coming along?” or “How is Project Slim Jim?”

As a personal example, a few years ago, I needed to drop about 10 extra pounds.  It wasn’t enough for me to just think that I wanted to drop the pounds.  I tried that for a while, and although I was able to eat a little less and exercise a little more, it just didn’t translate into losing weight.  So I started “writing down” my intention on a daily basis, by recording my weight.  That was it – just weighing myself every day, and writing that number down.  I also told my wife that I was doing it.  That one little change made all the difference, and within 6 months I had safely reached my target weight and maintained it for some time afterwards.  In the last year or so, though, it inched back up.  What happened?  A combination of life changes and the fact that I had stopped weighing myself.  Needless to say, I’m back on the scale every day now, and re-dropping those excess pounds, as part of “Slim Jim – the sequel”.

Another example: I wanted to read more books.  So I wrote down that goal, but initially I didn’t share it with anyone.  Needless to say, I didn’t really get off my butt and start doing something about it.  As it turned out, around the beginning of the year, the website Goodreads was making it easy to make my intention even more concrete by allowing me to “challenge” myself to read a certain number of books this year, and then broadcast that to all my Facebook friends, along with a notice every time I finished a book.  After I’d taken that simple, little step (of writing it down, labeling it as a “reading challenge”, and telling the world), suddenly I started to collect and organize my to-read list, and really start reading.

The inverse of this works for things you don’t want to do – bad habits, catastrophizing, and dwelling on the negative.  In these cases, the best course of action is to simply stop thinking and talking this way by catching yourself and literally mentally telling yourself “Stop,” followed by replacing the negative thought or speech with a positive one.  This technique (from what is called cognitive therapy), along with rationally examining your negative thought patterns, can go a long way towards keeping you on track and focused on the right things.

Do you have a goal you want to achieve, but just can’t seem to get started or have a hard time maintaining the effort needed to accomplish it?  Try the age-old technique that Gandhi hinted at: write it down, give it a name, tell others, and update them on your progress.  You’d be surprised at how much easier it makes turning your thoughts into actions.

I’ve tagged this post with the “happiness” tag for a simple reason: studies show that successful people are happier, healthier, and live longer.  And what is success, but accomplishing the goals you have set out to achieve?  I hope this simple technique helps you along the path to success and happiness.

* I’ve lost the exact quotation, but Gandhi makes use of the “thought, words, actions” triplet often in his writings, and even extends it, for example, in this oft-cited quote, “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.”

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Netizen, Choose Your Ecosystem!

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Let’s face it, the time has finally come.  The “cloud” is here and for the most part it works wonderfully, but there are strings attached, and unfortunately you have to pick sides.  Okay, you don’t have to pick sides.  You could just take whatever comes your way and make decisions as you go, but that would unnecessarily complicate your life. Technology is designed to do exactly the opposite.  However, all technology, from the earliest stone tools to the latest gadget, requires some thought and training to be used properly.*  With the ubiquity of cloud services and mobile devices (currently in the U.S., roughly half the population has smartphones, and tablets are selling like hotcakes), a plethora of options have surfaced that were not there before, run by both big guys and up-starts alike.

The cloud means a lot of things to a lot of people, so let’s clarify what I’m talking about here.  By “the cloud” I mean that set of services that a “large” portion of device users engage with on a “regular” basis.  In other words, the minimum set of services that a provider must offer that work well across devices, and which are well-integrated both with each other and the devices.  Sound vague?  Well, let’s make it concrete.  Here are some “must-have” services that I think most users would agree they would like or need:

  • email and messaging [Ap, F, G, M, Y]
  • calendar and address book [Ap, F, G, M, Y]
  • web search [G, M, Y]
  • product search [Am, G, M, Y]
  • news [G, M, Y]
  • voice and video calling [Ap, G, M, Y]
  • social networking [F, G]
  • maps, directions, and local search [Ap, G, M, Y]
  • photo/video/file sharing [F, G, Y]
  • buy/rent and consume media (movies, books, music) [Am, Ap, G]
  • document, spreadsheet & preso editing and sharing [G, M]
  • backing up your files [Ap, G, M]

Those funny colored letters in brackets are shorthand for the “big six” technology companies – the heavy hitters in the world of offering internet based services to the public: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo.**  I’ve noted which of these companies currently has a strong offering for each of these services.  While we could debate my definition of “strong offering,” it is still instructive to scan down the list to see which companies have the most comprehensive portfolio. The order looks something like: Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, Facebook, Amazon.  This could change with time, but that’s how things stand now.***

There are other important factors aside from feature sets that revolve more around the company itself.  Some I can think of include:

  • someone you can trust. [Am, Ap, G, M, Y]
  • someone who lets you own your data. [G, M?, Y?]
  • someone who takes security and privacy seriously. [Am, Ap, F?, G, M, Y]
  • someone who’ll be around for a long time. [Am, Ap, F, G, M, Y?]
  • someone who has their own OS and devices. [Am, Ap, G, M]
  • someone who has a good track record of things “just working.” [Am, Ap, F, G]

Personally, taking all of the above factors into consideration, I’ve decided to “go Google,” to use the marketing phrase that basically means moving all of your usage of online service applications (like word processing, email, social networking, etc.) to Google’s cloud based systems.  In full disclosure, last summer I took a job at Google (and so far it’s been great), so I’ve already gone to Google, but now I’m “going Google.” Although the former did accelerate the latter, I was already leaning that way to begin with, so it likely would have happened anyway.   In fact, it’s more likely that I chose to work at Google because it is the best choice in public cloud services. For me, it’s pretty much a no-brainer – Google  has all of the services and all of the right company characteristics.   I’m not the only one coming to these two conclusions – technology writer John Battelle has sided with Google in what he calls the “cloud commit conundrum,” and renowned inventor Ray Kurzweil has recently joined Google.

Like this angry guy, you may resist the necessity to choose an ecosystem, but the reality is that as a netizen, living in the cloud and trusting someone with your data will only become more and more inevitable over time.  Just ask Bruce Sterling.  As John Battelle points out, by just buying a device, you are already implicitly partially committing to one of the players. You could spread your data across providers to hedge your bets, i.e., not put all your data in one “basket.”  But I would argue that you will probably end up paying for it in the long run with painful migrations or complete loss of data.  Perhaps that is a price you are willing to pay to prevent one company from knowing “too much” about you.

Keep in mind you’ll also be paying another cost – lost opportunity for truly integrated and personalized services.  Amazing things like swapping out devices, and having everything just work – all of your stuff, your preferences, your user model, your personal assistant, will just be there and work. As an example, I’ve drafted this article over the course of several months, seamlessly using six different devices (2 Macs, a PC, iPad, iPhone, and Nexus tablet) and Google Drive apps.  If I had just been limited to using one of those devices, I’d never have finished.  As a second example, after recently getting a Nexus 7 tablet, I’ve been able to experience a great new product called Google Now – a service that automatically makes relevant suggestions for you personally.  When I first brought it up, it already had a suggestion on how to navigate to a restaurant I had searched for earlier that day from my iPhone – how cool is that?  If I had been using a different search engine, that never would have happened.

Does this mean I’ll stop using the other 5 “big guys?”  No, of course not.  Not only do they provide some services I can’t get at Google (yet!), but as I’ve explained in the past, considering the business I’m in, I can’t afford to ignore the competition.  But it does mean that I’ll limit my use of their services where they overlap with Google’s, which is in a lot of places.

It’s time to choose your ecosystem – what factors will you consider?

* I visualize a prehistoric parent carefully demonstrating how you never cut towards yourself with a stone implement.

** You could throw in a few others into the mix here, like AOL, eBay, LinkedIn, and Twitter, but their service portfolios are not at the same level as the others (yet!).  As an aside, I am amazed that when other people make similar lists, they exclude Yahoo.  Its offerings are far too broad and user base far too large to ignore, regardless of its mediocre track record.  And with a new CEO at the helm, things could easily turn around for them.

*** In fact, you could look at the places where companies have gaps in this list and the next to see where they might be headed.

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