FYMP Podcast #16 – Movies as Guidance: What Stories Can Tell Us

In this episode of the podcast we shift gears a bit to talk about how movies and stories can be used as more than just entertainment. We discuss a few movies we love because we think they have something to say about how we lead our lives. There’s much more to stories than we usually notice and we talk about how they can also be used as tools for gaining clarity about ourselves. Let us know what you think!

Continue reading “FYMP Podcast #16 – Movies as Guidance: What Stories Can Tell Us”

The End of the Age of Heroes

With the passing of the years we see also the passing of our heroes: the giants among us who stand out against the backdrop of history and who stood for and symbolized ideals which most of us only think or talk about in the abstract. People like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi. People like Nelson Mandela.

It is an interesting trait of the human experience that we idolize and deify by nature, and heroes are the manifestation of that propensity. Those women and men who have dedicated their lives to a higher cause, and who’ve often died in the service of that cause, are the most revered among us. Continue reading “The End of the Age of Heroes”

3 Ridiculous Political Debates with Obvious Answers

Here are some obvious points to make about utterly ridiculous political arguments that I still occasionally hear. No thinking person should make these arguments if they at all value logic in decision making (So this doesn’t apply to most actual politicians). If you are making any of the arguments addressed here, stop immediately and either rethink your position, or come up with better talking points if you can think of any. Continue reading “3 Ridiculous Political Debates with Obvious Answers”

Veteran’s Day in China

Veteran’s Day, 2013

Veteran’s Day has always been an holiday that I have respected. When I was young, it was because of my family’s military background as well as the fact that I was simply a patriotic kid. I joined the military shortly before September 11, 2001, so every Veteran’s Day after that took on a newfound significance. The last three Veteran’s Days have been a bit different though. Continue reading “Veteran’s Day in China”

You Don’t Know How to Fix Yourself

Recently, a coach friend of mine for whom I have a lot of respect promoted an article about IT Band syndrome. This is an injury that I know is quite common amongst runners and I am pretty sure I have flirted with it myself in the past. At first I was excited to have another resource in my kit in order to provide quality training to anybody who I teach. However, instead of providing me with useful information I could pass along to clients or friends, this article nearly caused my head to explode with white-hot anger and frustration. The author is highly qualified and has a long list of capital letters behind his name, but he is providing information that is straight up harmful It is articles like this that ensure we remain forever injured and forever mediocre in our athletic pursuits.

First, I want to address what the article does well. Pages 1 & 2 give a great breakdown of the anatomy and function of the IT band. Even the most lay of laymen can understand and learn from these well-written sections. On Page 3 however, the article falls apart and falls apart fast. It is here that the author gives away the fact that they are part of the old wives club by committing an extremely pervasive and detrimental error: “the quadriceps muscles (those in front of the thigh that extend the knee) and the hamstring muscles located in the back of the thigh that flex the knee.”

 

If you think the quads are responsible for extension and the hamstrings are for flexion, you are an idiot.

 

NO. NO NO NO NO. This is the most common and most damaging misconception of the lower limbs. Everybody from the “bro-fessor” gym rat to the “highly-qualified” medical community seems to believe that the legs are simply a bigger version of your arms. Biceps flex the elbow and triceps extend it, therefore the leg muscles must do the same to the knee, right? NO. Seriously, NO. Why in all of mother natures green goodness would the muscles in the back of a human’s leg be so damn big if its only purpose was to flex the knee? Bringing my heel to my ass does not require all that junk in the trunk. For some reason, nobody seems to understand that the musculature on both sides – front and back – of the legs is active in extending the knee. Sure, the hamstrings and all those other posterior muscles do indeed flex the knee, but they MUST be active in extending the knee as well. You are actually contracting both the quadriceps and the hamstrings when going from the squat position to standing. Relegating the hamstrings and the rest of the backside system to only flexion leads to a long, sad, painful road to mediocrity and misunderstanding. I could turn this article solely into a discussion on the knee, but we’ll save that for a future post. For now, if you don’t believe me, go pick up Mark Rippetoe’s book Starting Strength (Vol. III).

NOTE: I do not know Mr Rippetoe personally nor do I have any stake in his book or other fitness activities. I talk about his book a lot simply because it is the best damn book on strength and musculature that has ever been written.

So yeah, Page 3 of 10 and my head is already about to unscrew from my body because I am so damn angry about the damage this article is doing to us all. Moving on, the author can’t even get the unhelpful RICE adage correct on page 4. We are all familiar with Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation approach to injury treatment, but the only really useful part of that is Compression and the author completely leaves it out. WTF. Better yet, he replaces it with pills. RIPE? Well, the author doesn’t bring up Elevation either, so RIP? Exceedingly appropriate since the author seems bound and determined to kill your muscles.

Pain pills are bad. Generally speaking, “anti-inflammatory” sounds like a good thing to most people as inflammation is a result of injury and reducing inflammation should then mean a reduction in injury intensity. I simply don’t get this logic. Inflammation is blood rushing to the site of an injury. Blood flow is critical to recovery. Why on earth would you want to cut down this blood flow? Anti-inflammatories work by constricting blood vessels thereby reducing blood flow thereby reducing inflammation WHICH ALSO reduces the flow of necessary fuel and nutrients to heal and reduces the out flow of waste products from the healing process. That second part doesn’t sound so great to me. Worse yet, pain pills can do some serious damage to other parts of your body, especially your digestive system – a critical piece of the nutrient delivery puzzle. How can you heal when you reduce your ability to take in nutrients AND deliver them to the site that needs them most? I’m wiling to bet this author (and probably you as well, dear reader) has never thought this through. I want to address the rest of the problems inherent to RICE another day, but for now I feel it is my duty as a human being to spread this wisdom as far and as quickly as possible: Pain pills are bad.

 

Over-medicated

 

On page 5, the author recommends cross training in a sport that doesn’t aggravate an injury as a way to stay active despite IT Band syndrome. This I support. Unfortunately, this advice is tainted by more crap about RICE and by blaming running as an “aggressive activity.” What the hell does “aggressive” mean? I picture a runner with a scowl that is trying to stamp to death a long line of ants really quickly. Running is a great way to maintain muscle and joint health when done correctly…maybe this author had better reevaluate their running form before accusing the sport of a misdemeanor offense.

 

KILL ‘EM ALL

 

Next up, the author recommends physical therapy as a way to overcome IT Band syndrome (after plugging pain pills again, of course). Again, on face I agree with this advice. However, if a physical therapist recommends the voodoo that this author advises, such as orthotics, stretches, and phonophoresis and iontophoresis (look these up, they sounds scary as hell) before finally recommending corticosteroid injections, punch that PT in the face and walk out of their office with your middle finger held high. Don’t even get me on surgically sticking an arthroscope into the leg or surgically altering the size of the IT Band. The surgical option in nearly any therapy is not indicative of the wonders of medical science, it is indicative of the laziness in pursuing effective physical therapy. Proper PT requires life style changes and long-term, or better yet permanent, dedication to authentic movement patterns. This is not easy and doesn’t fit with modern instant gratification techniques, but it is the only path that leads to actual improvements in quality of life and health.

 

Needles don’t belong there.

 

How is this clown show not over yet? Next, under the heading “Next Steps” and “Prevention,” the author states an admirable goal: “to return to the level of activity enjoyed prior to the injury.” Again, I would agree if it were not tainted with talk of “footwear options…orthotics…stretching.” More voodoo. I agree that an athlete needs to analyze the root cause of their injury, but slapping one of these modern bandages on the problem will only prevent the system from becoming even weaker and being ever more prone to future injury. Creating this special universe in which we need to exist in order to conduct physical activity is bullshit. Nature gave us what we need, we just need to stop living and exercising in a bubble. My goal is not to return to the level of activity before the injury. My goal is to reach a higher level of quality in activity that will lead to a higher level of health in the athlete’s future.

Everything in this article on IT Band syndrome amounts to what I would consider mainstream “knowledge.” I put knowledge in quotes because it is simply stuff that everybody knows, but it shouldn’t qualify as actual knowledge in the way that we have knowledge on factual information. We learn much of these old wives’ tales and voodoo techniques in grade school and carry them into adulthood. Our modern education system also teaches this same stuff, thereby ensuring the next generation is there to keep the inertia going. To make matters worse, there is a massive fitness industry that “publishes” these “facts” in magazines and the government also advocates this same information. Given this onslaught, it is easy to see how extreme inertia builds up behind these ideas and we somehow all “know” that the knee is a bigger elbow, pills and surgery fix problems, and orthotics and stretching prevent problems.

This was a demonstration of just a little bit of critical thinking against one article. Basically nothing written by this author passes the smell test despite his impressive list of qualifications (MD, FACEP, FAAEM). The whole purpose of movematt is to call out articles like this that actually damage us, but to also provide the tools necessary to think through ALL awful advice. I will keep it coming, but for now, think twice about what you “know” of the function of the knee. Think twice before you pop a pain pill or consider medical options for injuries. Think twice about what a PT recommends to you. And finally, think twice about your post-injury goals.

Shut Up and Talk

 

“So are you guys celebrities or something?”

At the moment I ask this question we’ve been sitting at cruising altitude for about 15 minutes in the crowded American Airlines flight. The 2 seats beside my exit row window seat are occupied by two pretty young women. They have been approached twice by the stewardess who is “a big fan of their show.” They look to be about Miley Cyrus age, so I quickly run through the list of celebrities in that category that I know. The list goes: Miley Cyrus. Begrudgingly.

Well, my curiosity was piqued. I cast sidelong glances at them for a few minutes wondering if they were anyone who I might recognize, but my peripheral glances give me no hint. Now, at this point, my usual MO is to take the urinal approach: eyes forward, attention anywhere but on anyone else. Been doing it on flight for years; hasn’t gotten me killed yet. But by the same token, it’s also never yielded an interesting experience… unless you count awkwardness as interesting, which I do not.

This time, though, I was stuck in a difficult position. See, I had recently made the pledge to myself that anytime I get that awkward antisocial feeling, I have to do the opposite of what my instincts tell me to do. Having been, for many years, the type of person who purposely and systematically avoided connection with other people, this is difficult for me. It requires a reexamination of situations and a reorganization of my priorities about life and what I want out of it.

At the end of the day, to quote the film Ghost Town (one of the better romantic comedies of recent years, btw. Watch it), “This business of… being such a fucking prick, what is it really getting me?”

The answer turns out to be: nothing, as you might expect. Hence the pledge, hence the situation which we now return to.

“So are you guys celebrities or something?” I ask the girl 1 seat away. The girl between us, her sister I would soon find out, had left to go to the bathroom. She turned towards me, a little embarrassed, and self-effacingly explained the situation:

She (Jill) and her sister (Jessa) were traveling back from Washington DC where they had been visiting their brother, Josh. They were 2 of the cast members on the reality TV show 19 Kids and Counting.

The Duggar family, which my single serving friends are a part of, is a fundamentalist Christian family who… well, you can read about them here (and may God have mercy on my soul for linking to TLC). Basically, they’re famous for their mom popping out an exorbitant number of kids, all with “J” names over the years. 19 to be exact, hence the name of the show (it started out in 2008 as 17 Kids and Counting).

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After graciously answering my possibly indelicately asked query, the two sisters (Jill more so than Jessa who seemed a little shy, but who came out of her shell as time went by) and I talked for the remainder of the flight. They were both VERY nice, but not fake-nice, like the way you expect “celebrities” to act when confronted by people who recognize them, but genuinely so. They spent more time asking me questions about myself than they did talking about themselves, which is rare in anyone. I gave them ample opportunities to go back to not talking to the weird window seat guy, but they seemed perfectly content to chat, and I really enjoyed it.

They of course asked me if I went to church or was a Christian (no and no), but they weren’t pushy or invasive about it, just curious as anyone whose life revolved in a large part around Christianity might be. I didn’t even know they were fundamentalist until Jill gave me a postcard with their family photo, and it had more bible quotes on it than the actual bible. After that, I took notice of their long hair and skirts and realized that they were dressed about 90% Amish. I am not an observant person.

Anyway, for any fans out there, they didn’t give me any cool behind the scenes gossip or anything (I doubt there is any). The point of this story (Yeah, there is a point, shut up) is more about the interesting experiences I’ve found myself having more and more as I open myself up to actually talking to people. In some ways it’s a lot harder than just judging them, and going about my day, but in many more ways, it’s extremely rewarding and interesting. And, as someone who does like to challenge myself, it is also a challenge to step outside of myself and do things that are hard for me. You type A-ers and extroverts out there might not quite understand, but that’s cool. You’ve got your own issues, I’m sure.

In any case, this challenge has turned out to be one well worth undertaking, which I’m starting to notice is a trend. I’ve still never seen an episode of 19 Kids and Counting, and I probably never will, but now I’ve got a story to tell. And for the first time in a while, my airplane ride wasn’t just a nuisance.

Jeez, looking at the last three FYMPlanet entries this blog sure has gotten preachy, huh?? Don’t worry, I’ll bash some of your favorite movies soon.

The Tao of Ashton

 

Guest post by Matt Huttner

The stage is set. We are at the Teen Choice Awards, which, if I remember my classics, Dante referred to as the 6th Layer of Hell, and Ashton Kutcher steps up to the plate to deliver what will undoubtedly be absolute drivel. This is the star of such cinematic gems as Dude, Where’s My Car? and My Boss’s Daughter, a man whose scene-chewing acting cannot stand up to the likes of Cameron Diaz and Katherine Heigl. He has just been handed a strangely appropriate giant surf board, and turns to address his adoring fans. The content of this speech should fall safely between ‘Woooo! ” and” Yeaaahhh!” What does he do?

He fucking KILLS it. His speech is insightful, structured, and important. He speaks with a passion and clarity rarely seen anywhere, let alone in D list celebs. He is self-deprecating and honest, and delivers a message that should and will inspire a generation of future leaders.

Now, I had heard that Ashton was branching out as a tech investor, but I assumed that was the typical vanity project of an overly-capitalized star. We no longer just have to contend with celebrities going after the acting-singing-modeling trifecta (see Murphy, Eddie and the seminal “My Girl Wants to Party All the Time”) but nowadays when Snoop Dogg runs a Pop Warner football team or Britney launches a new fragrance, no one bats an eye. These ventures are usually successful, but only in the way that things powered by unlimited money and global fame often are.

Ladies and gentlemen, this changes everything. If Ashton possesses this kind of talent, we need to move quickly. Let’s bring in Seann William Scott to hear his thoughts on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Do you think Gucci Mane is available for the next carbon offset summit? Hell, Dennis Rodman is already helping out with the North Korea situation.

What are the takeaways from Chris Ashton Kutcher’s breakout performance? First of all, although he summed it up far more eloquently than I will, the principles of his speech are worth repeating here: opportunity looks like hard work, smart is sexy, and build a life, don’t just live one. Really powerful stuff.

From a higher level, if you’ll indulge me in a conceit, I think this teaches all of us to ask the following question: what if Ashton Kutcher’s career up to this point, or any other inexplicable annoyance in our lives, is nothing more than akin to drinking a warm can of PBR beer? Hear me out.

Many of us, in our vulnerable early teenage years, are introduced to drinking via bargain-basement, terrible beer. And indeed, smuggled cans of Natty Ice furtively chugged in the back of Teddy Lee’s Subaru are just gross. Unless you can appreciate them as the first steps of a life-long journey; as a rite of passage that might lead to a rich, nuanced world of adult pleasure.

Going forward, when I encounter something obviously offensive (much like almost all of Kutcher’s movies), I’m going to pause for just a minute. What if this is heading somewhere? What if this actor, musician, artist, teacher, coworker, or parent has a deeper level, and all it will take is a few face-twisting swigs before I can get to it?

All of us are guilty of pigeonholing people, most of all ourselves. I’m not saying everything has a silver lining, and this is certainly not another tired plea for you to be nicer to that geek in high-school, because one day he will be a wealthy entrepreneur. Or to go ahead and rewatch the Fast and the Furious heptalogy to mine undiscovered genius. Spoiler alert; Paul Walker is a moron.

But it is a call to seek talent in unexpected places and keep an open mind. I for one am now examining my own life, and seeing where and how I can completely step out of the ways I have previously defined my personality, lifestyle, and career and surprise everyone in a positive way.

Your Next 10-K

 

 

outlier

I recently graduated from business school.  Like any good education, it teaches you more about what you DON’T know than what you do. Ultimately it’s merely enabled me to ask more interesting questions.

Now, more “interesting” is in the eye of the beholder, but just like learning a new language, education, especially one specializing in a certain field like business, gives you access to a new vocabulary.  This new vocabulary in turn enables new ways to describe and interpolate the environment.

So in this vein I wanted to talk about my life’s “10K”.

A 10K in the business world is actually the filing that every public company must provide to the SEC (Securities Exchange Commission).  It is, in a nutshell, everything an investor would supposedly need to know before buying or selling stock in the company.

If you’ve never read a 10-K, you should do it at least once. Aside from the detailed financials, they can be pretty fascinating reads.  They will cover the company’s core businesses.  How it performed this past year.  What challenges/successes they had and what the leadership is planning to do about those challenges.

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Pick a public company that you patronize (with money and/or sarcasm) and check it out.   For instance, did you know that iPad and iPhone sales DWARF all Mac sales for Apple?  About 5 times worth – at least in 2012.  It will probably even be more drastic in 2013.  Or that Coca-Cola shipped 27.7 Billion units of what amounts to mostly sugar-water around the world?  Or that they have a coffee brand in Japan named Georgia, which I actually drank religiously, without knowing it was a Coke product, while I lived there.  Also Kyle McLachlan gives it the David Lynch thumbs up, so it must be awesome.

TP-Georgia-A

A lot of the news articles you see posted about different companies’ health and outlook come directly from reading these annual (10-K) and quarterly (10-Q) reports.  Often, so called “analysts” do nothing more than repeat what is said in the report with little to no insight.   By no means am I suggesting that everyone divert time from their Game of Thrones episodes to read a dry, if interesting, 10-K.  But, especially if you have any interest in investing, reading these reports will put you on par with many of the “experts” who try to sway you about a company’s relative health or seemingly imminent demise.   It will also increase your BS-O-Meter when someone tries to impress you with their business or investment acumen.  Don’t let them get away with it!

But I digress.  I bring up the 10-K for 2 reasons.

The first is that after looking at these for awhile, I started to see how useful this process could be for my own life.  Evaluating every year anew, acting like I’m going to have to JUSTIFY the time I spent to my shareholders (i.e. my co-workers, family, and friends) puts a lot more importance to the decisions I make throughout the year.  A 10-K holds COMPANIES accountable for what they do throughout the year.  A personal 10-K holds ME accountable for how I’ve lived my life.  How am I going to feel if that report mostly involves Angry Birds, eating fast food,  and watching worthless TV shows and movies?  I’m not saying that doing any of those things is wrong or bad, but when I look at the things that I’ve actually accomplished that have had a real impact on the people in my life, those things may not be the best ways to spend my time.

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This brings me to my second reason for bringing up the 10-K.  It just so happens that I recently listened to the much lauded/criticized Malcom Gladwell book, Outliers.  He brings up a somewhat controversial topic that after a certain “threshold”, the only difference between the “good” and “great” people in any field is practice.  Specifically, at about 10,000 hours (or 10K) of practice is when he and a few other researchers start to see fantastic accomplishments emerge.  He uses Bill Joy, one of the founders of the internet, Bill Gates, whom you probably know already, and even the Beatles to illustrate this point.   Now, some of his evidence in the book is anecdotal and susceptible to interpretation and legitimate criticism, but I think Gladwell does a great job at taking common “truths” about the world and people and giving us a different perspective on how genius and greatness might actually work.  He acknowledges that all these people are special, but he also wants us to ponder that timing, culture, and practice played an equally important role in their successes.  Because they had developed a certain expertise before others, when opportunities presented themselves they were able to take advantage of them.

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What I took from his book is not that 10,000 hours of focused practice is the Holy Grail number to become wildly successful, but that reaching for that expertise is a clear indication of you separating yourself from your peers.  If his number is to believed, this breaks down to about 20 hours a week for about 10 years.   Looking at life in this way is an interesting exercise and one I encourage you to try on, if just for the novelty of it. 

For me it looked like this.  10K hours is a lot of time.  There are only so many hours in a day and so many years in a lifetime.  There is literally no TIME to learn them all.  So I really have to CHOOSE.  What do I want to be an expert at?  What kind of opportunities do I want to be prepared for when they present themselves?  My answers to these questions are not iron clad and still a little rough, but here they are anyway.

  1. I would like to be considered a “pro” by the USTA (US Tennis Association) – not because I want to compete in the US Open (but wouldn’t that be awesome?!) but because it’s a sport I love and I have some talent that I’ve never fully realized.
  2. I want to eventually become a writer (which outlets like this blog help give me the practice and feedback necessary to realize that goal)
  3. I want to position myself to capitalize on the next great paradigm shifts that will come to society through the dramatic changes wrought by technologies like AI, bio-engineering etc..

These are goals outside of being the best son, brother, husband, father and friend that I can be – all seemingly full-time jobs.  However, it does start to focus the mind on what ultimately I find important and how little time there is to accomplish these things – especially without a plan.  A life spent in pursuit of excellence is one well spent in my opinion.  Now that I have another novel way to look at how to get there, I can schedule and figure out a way to make that happen.  I may even schedule an annual report, of sorts, with all my stakeholders, so that they are as involved in my success as I am in theirs.  I don’t see me succeeding any other way.

Here are some interesting reactions to Malcom Gladwell’s theory, including a bit from Tim Ferris,  another fascinating person who has broken down how to learn just about anything – and may have something to say about that ridiculously high 10K number.  Check him out too.

What are some great insights YOU have in navigating what you want out of life?  What are your secrets?  How are you going to spend your next 10,000 hours?

 

You want to fix leaks? Change the Plumbing.

It seems we have had a deluge of intelligence scandals over the past few years, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden currently being the most dramatic and visible.  For those of you who actively don’t pay attention to these things, Private Manning dumped hundreds of thousands of pieces of classified and sensitive material to the website Wikileaks in 2011.  Wikileaks then disseminated most of this material, much of it showing the inner-workings of international diplomacy between the US and other nations.  The most disturbing images were from a video of a US attack helicopter that mistook some journalists for enemy combatants, with deadly results.

 

I worked in Air Force intelligence and it attracts an extremely smart if sometimes very eccentric bunch of individuals.  From people who rarely showered and probably had Aspergers to the Wiccans and serial LARPers. I even went to training with 2 people who eventually had gender reassignment surgery.  This is not laying judgement.  I will probably never work in such a diverse environment of people again – and it’s one of the things I miss the most about my service in the military.  All of this is to say that the nature of intelligence work needs people who naturally think outside of the norm.  Good analysts require this trait if they are to put together a cohesive picture of what his happening in the world from many disparate pieces of evidence.  This same trait however often does not conform with the military mantra of conformity and “shut up and color” that is used throughout the regime.

 

My initial, non-professional, assessment of Bradley Manning is that he is a troubled individual.  Gender identity issues aside, Manning was a young man whose father wanted him to have some direction and suggested he join the Army.  It was not a good fit.  Manning’s blanket military clearance gave him far more than his “need-to-know” would warrant.  Combine this with Manning’s depression and dissatisfaction with the way the Army was running the war and this opens up the proverbial can-o-worms.

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Recently Edward Snowden, a Booze-Allen-Hamilton contractor, leaked the existence of disturbing NSA and British programs (PRISM and Tempora) that targeted US and internation citizens’ private data.  Many of us in the public are at least semi-aware of how the era “Big Data” is changing the face of business and consumers.  Increasingly, companies value our personal data over actual transactions.  Lov’em or hat’em but that’s why we have so many “free” online services and games.  We tacitly or explicitly (when we don’t read the terms of agreement) agree to share more private information about ourselves than any populace in history.  And largely, we are ok with this. 

 

I think this is because the imperfect understanding is that most of this information is being driven by capitalism and so, we believe, it is being used to better market products to us.  Many of us, myself included, have decided this is an annoying, but ultimately bearable sacrifice for the power and convenience of having access to software and data at little to no outright expense.  The integration of gmail/google calendar and other services, especially with mobile, has literally changed how I manage my busy schedule.

 

However all of this data collection and sharing has an extra, more insidious, cost when the government gets involved.  Since 9/11, the government has understandably been at war trying to prevent another attack on US soil.  No one would argue that we should not do everything possible to try to stave off such attacks, especially if these attacks involve weapons of mass destruction.

 

However, in a country like the US, which supposedly values freedom and right to privacy, programs that violate both of these values should always be vigorously debated and be transparent.  Having secret courts approve blanket warrants to gather US citizens cell-phone/email data (just some of what the NSA programs do) is NOT consistent with our values as a country.

 

I don’t know how much material damage Bradley Manning’s leak had on National Security, a term so general that it could mean basically anything.  It no doubt had an effect politically, domestically and internationally.  This will affect policy in the future, but it is unclear how that future might have been different if the leaks had not taken place.  I hope it did not lead to any deaths or captures of people in sensitive positions around the world, but we may never know if that is the case anyway.  In the Snowden case, still unfolding, I am glad that his leak is causing a national dialogue about this issue of privacy/security.  It is one thing if the people approve of certain measures to safeguard their privacy and quite another when we have to rely on the assurance from politicians that they are not abusing their authority.

 

But all this is leading to a larger point and one I am more qualified to answer.  I don’t think Manning and Snowden are traitors.  Some do.  But I don’t think either of these individuals consciously betrayed their country.  They were misguided, especially in Manning’s case and they both should probably go to jail since they knowingly and dramatically broke their agreements of secrecy.  Snowden, who is a more educated individual seemed initially to be more methodical in his leaking, but his subsequent country hopping, from Hong Kong to Russia has called both his intelligence and judgement into question in my mind.  But demonizing them as traitorous spies is a distraction from the real issue.

 

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The rash of leaks has shown that there is a problem in the intelligence infrastructure itself that such low level analysts and technical contractors can do such broad and widespread damage to the system.  The government bears equal responsibility and culpability in the types of leaks that have occurred.  How could the government allow a low level analyst, with no higher education/training/experience to put any of these pieces of information in a context that would matter, to have access to such a broad swath of very sensitive knowledge.  Bradley Manning, while probably entitled to at least a SECRET level clearance, should NEVER had access to 90% ( a made up percentage admittedly ) or more of what he leaked.  Most (diplomatic cables? Really? ) had little to no bearing on his job.  His clearance merely gave him blanket access to whole networks of data that have no way to handle “need-to-know” permission.  This is a problem with EVERY person granted a clearance, nearly everyone in the military and many contractors. 

 

Need-to-know has become a joke in practice that only the most secretive of programs can stand muster.  Combine this with the already prevelant bias to OVER classify every document that passes through intelligence hands and classification itself has lost all meaning.  The government, by trying to protect every possible secret has given birth to a system that is chaotic and too unwieldy to manage.  Snowden and Manning are inevitable products of a broken system that needs to change.

 

What fundamentally needs to change is this:  The government should embrace leaks.  Yes. I said it.  In the government’s hasty knee-jerk response to demonize and prosecute Manning and Snowden they have only exacerbated and distracted from the real problem – the system itself.  The government has created an atmosphere of distrust and fear.  This is what led Snowden to flee the states and into the hands of our enemies – whether intentionally or not.   What has followed is a diplomatic/intelligence nightmare of epic proportions.  Snowden will forever be a criminal and a pawn of foreign governments to use as shield against the US.

 

But what if the system encouraged leaking?  Controlled leaking, I mean.  Why shouldn’t the military and intelligence infrastructure actually encourage its members to question and have their concerns addressed?  How else, in a democracy, should this system work?  While not easy to implement and understandably a culture shift from the current paradigm, it would allow concerned parties, who normally would not go to such extreme measures, an avenue to address their concerns in a private and controlled way.  Is it really better that Ed Snowden thought it was better to secretly obtain information about these programs and flee the country into hands unknown?  Unless he really was a spy, this is a case that the government needs to make sure never happens again.  It is hard enough to guard against ACTUAL spies.

Confidential-Folder1

 

The second part of this solution is to fix the classification system.  This will be a MASSIVE undertaking, likely involving billions of documents and trillions of pieces of data.  But even if it is just a NEW policy and only affects NEW information, it will be well worth the investment.

 

Ultimately, Snowden and Manning are most likely well-intentioned individuals with various levels of bad judgement.  Don’t let that distract from the issue of the very real problem of the government and how it treats its people and its secrets.  In the conversations we have in the future about foreign/domestic policy, let’s not forget about the system that allow these leaks to happen in the most injurious manner possible.  Let’s create a system that is transparent except for the secrets that must be kept.  It will be much more manageable and we will have to rely much less on the goodwill and questionable smarts of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.

 

Thoughts?

Engineering The Animal Kingdom

For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, the future is here. In so many ways, our lives are changing and being enabled by technology. Google Voice (Google’s version of Siri) is so accurate at answering simple questions that it leaves me shaking my head and smiling, even after months of using it. Just this morning, I was with a friend and couldn’t remember an author’s name through my brain fog. I double tapped my screen and asked “Who wrote The Cassini Division?”. Within seconds a voice told me that Ken McLeod ( of the clan McLeod) wrote the Cassini division and proceeded to pop up a “card” with his picture, name, links to a wiki and other articles. This is ridiculous and just one of many examples that we are indeed approaching the singularity (more on that in other posts).

One development that is almost equally exciting/frightening is the fast development of robotics.  It is a field that is exploding. According to ABI Research:

The market for consumer robots was $1.6 billion in 2012, dominated by the task and entertainment segments. This will grow to $6.5 billion in 2017 and will still be dominated by the same segments, with security/telepresence becoming more of a significant third segment. iRobot is still the main player, but more Asian-based companies are coming out with competing products and newer products like window-cleaning robots. “We are seeing more personal robot R&D from Western companies and more task robot development from Asian companies,” noted research director Philip Solis, “which is a reversal of past development trends.”

Application processors and the array of sensors used in smartphones and media tablets have achieved great economies of scale for components that consumer robotics will leverage. The market for processors, microcontrollers, sensors, and physical components including actuators, servos, and manipulators was a little over $700 million in 2012 and will grow by five times that amount by 2017. The semiconductor portion of that is well over a third and will grow as products become more complex and capable.

Robotics is starting fulfill needs everywhere from mass production, prosthetics to even mimicking animals.  It is this latter one that we’ll focus on here.

Biomimetic is a term that describes how designers and engineers take their cues from nature and animals to solve problems from solar collecting to efficient motion.  Over the last 10-20 years, the number of credible copies of animals by scientists and engineers has become more and more realistic.  While there are many companies/universities working in this field, Boston Dynamics is always the first one that comes to my mind.  They are partially funded by DARPA (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).  Their description on their website is very apt. Boston Dynamics builds advanced robots with remarkable behavior: mobility, agility, dexterity and speed. The breadth of robots BD is developing is truly awe inspiring and the steady progress they’ve made over the years is sobering.  I will embed a few examples here:

Big Dog was one of the first videos I saw that truly blew me away back in 2008.  It is built as a pack mule for military personnel. Its mission is to follow and haul heavy loads so the soldiers/marines don’t have to.  While it’s definitely a prototype, this was the first time I saw a robot that behaved and adjusted like an animal would.  Make sure you at least watch to the point where the engineer kicks it and it adjusts itself to keep on walking.

I hadn’t heard about any progress from the Big Dog team in awhile… and then THIS video came out this past year.  They added an arm and an ability to throw cement blocks!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tqk7fSAjsxM

Now I don’t know about you, but this is starting to get a little frightening.  Imagine a Big Dog chasing you down the street as it offloads cement block ammo from its back and fires it off to explosive effect around you.  Now you’re only saving grace is that you can probably outrun this thing, but then (if you’ve been curious) you see one of BD’s OTHER “pet” projects – the cheetah.  Like the beautifully shot national geographic video below, this cheetah has been designed to replicate how nature has evolved this big cat to sprint so effectively.

Cheetahs on the Edge–Director’s Cut from Gregory Wilson on Vimeo.

Cheetah_Concept

 

Running away from this beast is no longer an option.  Soon we may find ourselves with robots as useful as they are dangerous.  Half-Life 2 fans may be thinking about “Dog” from that game – a robotic “pet” that could understand speech and lift and throw cars if necessary.

0172.dog.jpg-610x0

 

These are just the very FEW of the developments from just one company funded by DARPA.  If you want to be truly creeped out then watch this PETMAN demo, which shows just how eerily close we are to mimicking the human animal.

It could be only 10 years from now that we see robotic animals/creatures as an obvious/inevitable fact of life.  It hasn’t even been 10 years since the “smartphone” appeared and now a sizeable portion of the planet has one.  Revel in the wonderment of innovation in the field today.

If this has sparked/re-ignited your interest in this field, please comment below with some of your favorite recent developments in the industry.

I have included a few more links to popular science and others if you wanted a quick way to see other amazing robotic creatures.

dog

Cat Robot

Fish and Others

RoboZoo

Why Build Robot Animals

Popular Science

 

Ask the right questions… get better answers

How society asks the wrong questions of our correctional system

You break the law.  You go to jail.  Then what?

Well,“Welcome Home!”, because more than likely you’ll be back again and again to enjoy the best creature comforts and social bum etiquette lessons public money can buy.

It’s more akin to a social experiment than a system of rehabilitation.  It would almost make me feel better to think it was an experiment – almost.  At least there would be an intention rather than the aimlessness of our national correctional policy.

Since the 70’s get tough on crime campaigns the number of inmates has increase five-fold.  The US has the highest incarceration rate in the civilized world – including Russia.  Though I would be very careful not to rush to judgment on the superiority of the Russian correctional system.  It’s just an interesting statistic.

Inmate recidivism approaches 60%.

“So”, I ask, “is this working?“

Well to answer that you’d have to get past all the other personal political fodder people throw in the way.

“It’s because of the rise of the for-profit prison industry!”

“We need to protect our children!”

“We need to set an example!”

“We can’t let people get away with breaking the law!”

All these statements have a point, but they all actually miss the point.

The for-profit industry arose, as most for-profit industries, because of the “need” for more correctional facilities.  Yes, there is evidence of corruption, and the rise of profit centers that make money off of imprisoning our citizens may on the surface be unseemly. But let’s not blame the private corrections industry.  They are answering the question – how do we house all of our criminals?

The cries of protecting society or protecting our children are hard to argue with. This is not because the logic is inviolate but that it is too vague and emotional to be useful.  What does protecting our society and protecting our children actually mean in a practical sense?  And is incarceration endpoint for achieving that?

Protests for not letting people get away with breaking the law or being “soft on crime” is another deceiving argument since no one would agree either of those are acceptable.  People break the law all the time.  We’re all law-breakers.  Ever jay-walk?  Ever speed? Not wear your seatbelt?  However, the supporters of “eye for an eye” judgements answer the question, “what will people think of me if I’m not out for the swiftest, harshest, most “effective” punishment?” These people are more concerned about themselves than the prisoner, the victim, or even the societal problems in question.

There are many others. This is not a comprehensive list.

Rarely do you find sympathy or empathy for the prisoner.  Rehabilitation comes up on occasion, but it’s usually vague and conferred only to the recovering drunkards or drug addicts.  These people, society has taught us, have a disease and should be somewhat pitied but still treated harshly, lest someone think we’ve gone “soft” again.

Why is this discussion important?  While this post will not pretend to answer all the questions about incarcerations, it will deal with the MOST important question – “What is the purpose our correctional system?”

On the Federal Bureau of Prisons website the stated purpose is as follows:

The Federal Bureau of Prisons protects society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and community-based facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure, and that provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens

This is a very bureaucratic and stale way to say that our system is about Punishment and Rehabilitation.

So I come back to the original question.  What is the purpose of our prison system?

It is a very simple question, but it comes with hard choices.   Just because it is simple does not make it easy.

If our correctional system is purely about punishment, then the system is actually set up pretty well.  We have plenty of things to punish people for, from drugs to theft to rape and murder.  We have lawyers and judges to make sure people have fair trials, and by-and-large, we’ll say the justice system works well to fairly punish people.

Sisyphus_by_von_Stuck

But here is where the system fails.  When you make the purpose of a system to punish people, whether you like it or not, that system will find ways to punish them.  It may seem ridiculous and obvious but you only see it in light of what else might be possible.  By over emphasizing punishment, you are in fact saying, if not out loud, that people are irredeemable and that they must be continuously punished, Sisyphus style.  To what purpose, one can only guess, though I suspect our Judeo-Christian values are somewhat to blame, but that is another post.

What if, instead of punishment you focused on rehabilitation?  If a system is structured to rehabilitate rather than punish, you are answering a fundamentally different question.  Yes, a person is being punished at the moment for the crime that made them a threat to society, but that fundamentally, they ARE redeemable.  This system would look for ways to empower this individual rather than disempower them.

The structure of these two paradigms might appear on the surface to be very similar – i.e. you’d still need laws, police, jails, and correctional facilities.  What would be different would be how society would treat these individuals.   In turn, how these individuals thought of themselves would be different.  They would at least see a POSSIBILITY of a different outcome.

Now our prison system is a little bit of both.  States rights make different state systems have slightly different bents.  But it seems pretty clear that nationwide we have a problem with our correctional system.  We make more and more laws to punish people, which is extremely effective at finding and imprisoning “criminals”.  However, imprisoning people is not a means to an end and the country is spending billions of dollars funding a system that, by its very nature, will never be satisfied.  Can we really say the War on Drugs has done anything but make smoking pot even cooler for teenagers?

The answer is to take a step back and answer the basic question about corrections.  I would prefer to live in a society that truly sets up a system where an inmate has an opportunity at success and not a virtual life-sentence of repeat offending.

I didn’t even get into the reasons why the recidivism rate is so high, but that may be for another post.

The light at the end of the tunnel is that some people “get it”.  In NY they have instituted a partnership with Cornell to provide education to inmates so that they have marketable skills when they leave prison.  This is just one way to combat one of the many reasons why people turn to crime.  This is a system that is wrestling with the real question of rehabilitation and not just punishment.

When money is spent this way, the inevitable protest will always be “that’s not fair” or “why should they benefit from being a criminal?”  These protests say more about the person than the policy they are questioning.  It implies that the criminal should be punished in perpetuity, until such time as you, protestor, decide they’ve suffered enough to justify getting some benefit.  To hell with the damage to society from how we treat our criminals, as long as you get some satisfaction they are being forever punished.

My point is this.  The current prison system, while certainly not a monolith and much more like a hideous Chimera, is flawed and I believe too skewed towards a system that is orchestrated to punish and incarcerate people.  This is why we see the incarceration rates we do and, yes, the number of private penitentiaries exploding.

But “NO” this is not a flaw in capitalism or in our vigilance to justice.

It’s a system that was always destined to fail.

In a few words, the prison system is not very FYMP.  We better correct ourselves before we wreck ourselves.  That is all.

You Don’t Have to be a Tool to Use One

We’ve all heard it before. Sanctimonious friends telling us how much their formerly pathetic lives have improved since they got rid of Facebook and its evil lure of artificially sustained acquaintanceship. The perceived disservice done to True Friendship™ is an oft cited reason for dumping the service, e.g. “maintaining friendships takes more than ‘liking’ a status or typing an extra exclamation point on someone’s front page Happy Birthday message.” Rather than sharing pictures on Facebook of their latest weekend mountain biking (or whatever) to constantly project an image of a fun and active lifestyle, these friends achieve the same result by working their disuse of the service and associated happiness into every conversation.

Those who haven’t quite made the plunge often wax dramatic about their addiction to Facebook or the time they waste on the social networking site, often set against the backdrop of a fantasy world where their productivity levels far outstrip their real world potential. Still others cite their annoyance at the constant stream of drivel that emanates from their feed; to hear them tell it, Facebook itself spews these inanities, not the friends they’ve chosen.

Here’s the thing: any tool is only as effective as its user. If you use a splitting maul to slice bread you’ll get frustrated very quickly. You are also a moron. Throwing the maul away in disgust is certainly an option, but only as long as you don’t ever need to split any wood. Heavy-handed metaphor aside, the point is: if you’re using Facebook in a way that is causing you distress, stop using it in that way.

Here are a few ideas about Facebook use that may help in this process:

Choose your friends wisely: If your Facebook feed is constantly filled with lengthy bible verses, blow by blow reactions to the latest episode of Real Housewives of Schenectady, or passive aggressive attention-whore status updates like “real friends wouldn’t treat each other that way, just sayin’,” the fault lies in one place and one place only: Your crappy choice of friends. Not only do you have complete control over the people you add on Facebook, you also have complete control on the updates you get from them. Here’s a thought: don’t add people you know you don’t want to hear opinions from, and if for some reason you decide you have to anyway, add them as an acquaintance or unsubscribe from their updates. Also feel free to delete people you don’t think you want as friends. Trust me, the anguish they suffer at being unfreinded by you will pass, and in time they may even go on to live normal productive lives.

Own your procrastination: Now, I consider myself something of an expert on wasting time. At the same time I score pretty low in self-deception which makes for a pretty frustrating experience at times. Another side effect, however, is that at no point do I pretend that my time wasting is a function of anything other than my internal laziness, no matter what external outlet I may find. The idea that in the absence of Facebook I might somehow be hopelessly cornered into doing actual work is pretty preposterous. My procrastination isn’t so fragile a thing. There’s a whole Internet out there to distract me from important things I should be doing. And barring that, there’s an actual world outside full of even more distractions, or so I’ve heard. Facebook isn’t making you waste your time, you are. And who knows, if you own up to that then maybe you can even start to do something about it. Or not, whatever.

Convenience is not the enemy of friendship: If your interaction with your close friends really comes down to a few “likes” a year, it can mean one of several things: 1) you didn’t have anything to say lately – this happens; 2) you don’t value that friendship as much as you thought you did – this is probably good to know, 3) The friendship isn’t the type that needs constant maintenance – when the urge hits you, you’ll reach out and vice versa. The one thing that all of these things have in common, is that they have nothing to do with Facebook. If you feel awkward about the perceived superficiality of your Facebook outreach, that’s a personal problem. If you care enough, you can always call or write your friend (you could even do both of these things ON Facebook). And if you don’t care enough to ever call or write, why do you care about feeling like you don’t care enough to ever call or write? In any case, that you do or do not do those things has nothing at all to do with Facebook. Additionally, if having casual acquaintances offends you on some fundamental level, see the first point above.

Now, I personally could care less if you never plan to use Facebook, delete your current account, or decide the internet is altogether not for you. If you’ve got neo-luddite tendencies than by all means embrace it, you’ll be much more prepared when the apocalypse hits. But even if you don’t want to use it or dislike it for other reasons, it’s important to remember that Facebook is still simply a tool. The amount you use it and how you use it is totally up to you. So if you don’t blame a hammer for building a crappy house, then don’t blame Facebook for being a crappy experience.