Monday, October 31, 2011

Productivity tip of the week

As consolation for the fact that it's Monday again, we'll see if we can't help you get more done this week with less effort. Today's tip is based on a bakadesuyo post highlighting a book called Brain Rules by John Medina; the book's subtitle is "12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School." The whole thing sounds very intriguing. The tips, via bakadesuyo and Brain Rules:
Exercise boosts brain power.
  • Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material in order to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work.
  • They consistently found that when couch potatoes are enrolled in an aerobic exercise program, all kinds of mental abilities begin to come back online. Positive results were observed after as little as four months of activity... In the laboratory, the gold standard appears to be aerobic exercise, 30 minutes at a clip, two or three times a week. Add a strengthening regimen and you get even more cognitive benefit.
  • Your lifetime risk for general dementia is literally cut in half if you participate in leisure-time physical activity.

    You can't multitask
    • To put it bluntly, research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.

    Get your sleep
    • The bottom line is that sleep loss means mind loss. Sleep loss cripples thinking, in just about every way you can measure thinking. Sleep loss hurts attention, executive function, immediate memory, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning ability, general math knowledge. Eventually, sleep loss affects manual dexterity, including fine motor control... and even gross motor movements, such as the ability to walk on a treadmill. When you look at all of the data combined, a consistency emerges: Sleep is rather intimately involved in learning. It is observable with large amounts of sleep; it is observable with small amounts of sleep; it is observable all the time.
    • Take an A student used to scoring in the top 10 percent of virtually anything she does. One study showed that if she gets just under seven hours of sleep on weekdays, and about 40 minutes more on weekends, she will begin to score in the bottom 9 percent of non-sleep-deprived individuals.
    • ...if healthy 30-year-olds are sleep-deprived for six days (averaging, in this study, about four hours of sleep per night), parts of their body chemistry soon revert to that of a 60-year-old. And if they are allowed to recover, it will take them almost a week to get back to their 30-year-old systems.
    • “What other management strategy will improve people’s performance 34 percent in just 26 minutes?” says Mark Rosekind, the NASA scientist who conducted that eye-opening research on napsand pilot performance.

    How to improve your memory

    • Deliberately re-expose yourself to the information if you want to retrieve it later. Deliberately re-expose yourself to the information more elaborately if you want the retrieval to be of higher quality. Deliberately re-expose yourself to the information more elaborately, and in fixed, spaced intervals, if you want the retrieval to be the most vivid it can be. Learning occurs best when new information is incorporated gradually into the memory store rather than when it is jammed in all at once.
    • Memory is enhanced by creating associations between concepts. This experiment has been done hundreds of times, always achieving the same result:Words presented in a logically organized, hierarchical structure are much better remembered than words placed randomly—typically 40 percent better.
    • “[Experts’] knowledge is not simply a list of facts and formulas that are relevant to their domain; instead, their knowledge is organized around core concepts or ‘big ideas’ that guide their thinking about their domains.” Whether you are a waiter or a brain scientist, if you want to get the particulars correct, don’t start with details. Start with the key ideas and, in a hierarchical fashion, form the details around these larger notions.
    Since it's Halloween, we'll also send you to a Dave Matthews Band song of the same name in both live and album versions. Certainly one of the scarier DMB songs...

    Friday, October 28, 2011

    The limits of Dave Ramsey's wisdom

    There has been a decent amount of talk lately about a Dave Ramsey column, found here (the image is from here). While the first couple of paragraphs are fine, in the end he basically tells the Wall Street protestors that they’re thieves and that they should grow up and get a job. There are a couple doozies before that, however. The “Wall Street is Evil!” paragraph is complete incoherence, especially, so check it out if either 1) you need a good laugh to get you going this morning or 2) you need an example of what not to write if you’re looking to obtain some semblance of respectability. Perhaps that's too harsh, but those who know Wall Street the best usually despise it the most (see here, for example). I’m not going to go through the column’s mistakes piece by piece, cause I don’t have the patience and you probably don’t care. BUT, it is worth pointing out what we can and can’t accept as truth (or something even resembling it) from one of the most famous guys in radio.

    For the uninitiated, Dave Ramsey is a personal finance guru on radio stations across the country. He’s kind of like your amiable uncle, in contrast to the Suze Orman “busybody mother-in-law” counterpart, as this post put it. His show is based around his 7 point “Baby Steps” plan, which tells you to do things like pay off your credit cards, and save money for an emergency, before investing (which is steps 4 and 7). The show focuses around motivating people to pay down debt and live beneath their means (both worthwhile things, of course). And if this were all the show did, then I would have no issue.

    After getting out of credit card debt, Ramsey advocates that people “Invest 15% of household income into Roth IRAs and pre-tax retirement.” On that face of it, that’s not bad, besides the fact that younger people don’t have to save as much as someone starting late. But, he can’t just repeat these bullet points ad infinitum, so his advice derails when he goes into detail. For example, he recommends people use his “Endorsed Local Providers” program, which refers people to (among insurance and real estate sevices) commission-based brokers to help you with your investment needs. While it sounds innocuous, this is actually awful advice. Not only is it unwise to invest with a broker who earns money from commissions (because they’ll usually sell you what makes them the most money), but Dave also gets a kick back for the referral. If you need someone to invest your money for you, please go to a fee-only advisor, as they don’t have the same conflict of interest.

    From his Invstment FAQ page, there are a couple of other obvious problems (and I’m guessing this is the same spiel he gives on the radio). First, he says that loaded mutual funds are just as good as no load funds, which is flatly false. This advice aligns well with his recommendation of commission-based brokers, as the mutual fund load is often how they make their money. Do not pay a load. Ever. Also from the FAQ, he says that investors have seen stock market returns on average of ~12% per year, when adjusted for inflation. This is false—the real number (after inflation, in the US) is closer to 6-7%. He seems to extrapolate this into the future promising people 10-12% returns, which is also a fairy tale. See here and here for a more sobering account of stock market returns. He also discourages people from buying bonds, citing the fact that Enron once issued a bond. Apparently he forgets that you can also buy them from the government. Treasury bonds (TIPS especially), whether in a mutual fund or individually, are typically a great investment for people nearing (or in) retirement. Telling people in retirement to have a 100% stock portfolio is egregious coming from someone claiming to look out for your best interest. Perhaps the second worst investing error Dave makes is underplaying the impact of mutual fund expenses. He says it doesn’t matter much, but it is actually key to keeping your money out of the hands of the mutual fund company you invest with. This, this, or this book will explain the why and the how.

    I don’t really feel like piling on and telling you why his column was lame, but that was the reason for the post. To begin, he doesn’t appear to have any idea what problems the country is currently facing. Sure, some people occupying Wall Street are deadbeats. Every movement has some. But, if you read this tumblr blog, you’ll see their gripes are mostly the same ones that we’ve all dealt with the past few years. 1) Health care is unaffordable and people with the greatest need (e.g., pre-existing conditions) are often excluded from coverage. Relatedly, when one loses their job, health care coverage for a family is inordinately expensive, and obviously a lot of people have recently been unemployed. 2) Tuition is rising much faster than inflation and is becoming unaffordable without hefty loans. A corollary is that wages for people with degrees have actually been decreasing the past few years. 3) Wall Street crashed the economy and was quickly back to it’s usual money-making self (partly based on rent-extraction and made possible by government bailouts) while there are ~25m people un- or underemployed in this country. Near the end Dave simply tells the protestors to get a job. Has he seen the change in unemployment rate over time? Does he just think that it simply moves with peoples’ desire to work?

    Check Dave out if you're in credit card debt, but if you're looking to invest or learn about the economy, then look elsewhere. We'll try (to be more positive!) and make clear where exactly one should turn in future posts.

    Thursday, October 27, 2011

    Carbon tax--why would we?

    This idea has been shelved in congress for a while, but because of a couple of recent conversations I wanted to flesh it out and explain a couple of little understood principles. One’s immediate reaction to something such as carbon taxes is usually quite predictable from which side of the political aisle you subscribe to, but when a couple points are clarified, the benefits should seem rather obvious to everyone.

    To start, it’d be useful to explain what a negative externality is. The field of economics has described it as when a cost (or negative effect) is passed on to a party not involved in a transaction, which results in market failure. This is what happens when we burn CO2-based fuels. We pay the price to the oil companies for pulling the stuff out of the ground, and to the refineries for doing their bit, but the pollution put into the air affects society at large through higher health care costs from air pollution, a contaminated environment, the possibly dramatic effects of climate change, etc. Other costs include enriching despotic (and often war-mongering) leaders in places such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Venezuela. So, the goal of the carbon tax is to fix this market failure by making the price of the energy fully reflect all of its costs. The carbon tax is basically a price instrument, and is called a Pigovian tax after the economist Arthur Pigou.

    While those are the basics as to why it’s needed, the practicalities of implementation are more complicated. First, it’s a another tax, which obviously raises costs for everyone. This particular kind of tax is regressive, since it would disproportionately effect low-income groups (who have a greater share of income going to energy-related costs). One often-proposed way to mitigate this is would be to lower, for example, the payroll tax on low-income workers. Those in the middle class would mitigate the cost by changing parts of their lifestyle to use less energy. While changes in lifestyle would probably allow us to mitigate the impact of a small carbon tax (as we pick the low-hanging fruit), a higher tax would surely inflict pain. But, at the right price, we’d simply be dealing with the costs of the CO2 transparently and up front, rather than paying for them ambiguously and later through higher costs related to health care, the defense department budget, and climate change. One of the biggest benefits is that, with fossil fuels costing more, renewable energy sources will be economically viable and people will be able to move in that direction without the government trying to pick winners in the clean energy sector.

    To sum up, a carbon tax causes the price of fossil fuels to reflect their full cost and fixes a market failure. The tax would allow the government to step out of the clean energy business, where its success has obviously been limited. One would think both parties would welcome such a step. And finally, it helps us all to use less energy and dump less pollution into the air (which amounts to some 27 billion tons of CO2 worldwide each year).

    Wednesday, October 26, 2011

    Inflation monster or inflation fairy??

    I wanted to touch on another point made a few weeks ago at the financial fireside described here. While reiterating the fact that we consumers can only spend post-tax dollars (while having to earn pretax dollars), the speaker took a moment to explain the pernicious effects of inflation. It was the typical diatribe, which described the way it eats away at our purchasing power. This is true of course, but the narrow description lacks a acknowledgement of the state of consumers’ balance sheets and the corresponding effect on the economy overall.

    One of the first things to think about when discussing the flagging economy or the current state of the average American’s finances is the fact that most people are saddled with a pile of debt. The servicing of this debt is one of the main obstacles to increased consumer spending (along with flagging incomes, and depressed stock and house prices). As our debts are set in nominal dollars (i.e., without regard to inflation), while our incomes generally rise with inflation, a moderate rise in the price of goods across the board would, overall, leave the consumer with less debt. This is a good thing.

    Since, with inflation, this debt relief would be occurring across the economy, people would suddenly have more money to spend on other things and some of the binge-y overhang from the last crisis would be eliminated. People with piles of cash would also be more likely to spend, instead of simply watching the value of their money erode. This would all help stimulate the economy at a time when there are greater than 25m people currently un- or underemployed. Don’t get me wrong, inflation is a net transfer of wealth from creditors to debtors. But, considering the resultant effect on the economy, and the broad-based benefits that would subsequently accrue, a burst of inflation would currently do more harm than good. Whenever you hear a speaker or politician railing against inflation (with our economy in its currently depressed state), it’s because they’re a creditor (or a rentier even). It’s not because they’re looking after your interests.

    Tuesday, October 25, 2011

    Lentils--clearing the air on an unsung legume

    Continuing our series on meals based around healthy, easy-to-make recipes (that can easily be taken to work for lunch), I wanted to detail a lentil stew I helped make last night. First of all, I was excited to find the awesome recipe (from here), because I had been looking to base some meals around lentils for a while. Following our quinoa successes a few weeks back, I wanted to expand this to other over-looked foods.

    First off, lentils (photo and info from here) are pulses and members of the legume family, just like beans. They are most popular in South and West Asia and the Mediterranean region, although Canada and the US grow significant amounts (apparently from concentrated regions in Saskatchewan and Eastern Washington & the Panhandle of Idaho). They come in many colors, but generally, “like other legumes, have the third-highest level of protein by weight, of any plant-based food, after soybeans and hemp.” Interestingly, lentils are deficient in two essential amino acids (methionine and cysteine), but sprouted lentils (which you can produce by leaving some in water for several days) contain sufficient levels of all essential amino acids. Their high fiber content (apparently green has more than pink) makes them a very low glycemic index (which we’ll detail in a few days) food, good for those who are looking to maintain low blood sugar. Another benefit is that, unlike beans, you don't have to soak them overnight before cooking them.

    In short, like quinoa, lentils form an awesome base for many dishes, as they readily absorb the other ingredients’ flavor, cook quickly, and are relatively inexpensive (even at Whole Foods). On to the recipe for lentil chili:


    • 1 pound lean ground turkey (we used white meat at $4.99/lb from Whole Foods).
    • 1 can reduced-sodium chicken broth
    • 2 cups lentils, rinsed
    • 1 can tomato sauce
    • 1 can diced tomatoes, undrained
    • 1 medium onion, chopped
    • 1 tablespoon chili powder
    • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
    • 1/4 teaspoon pepper


    In a pot, cook turkey over medium heat until not longer pink, and then drain it. Add the remaining ingredients; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer for 25-30 minutes or until the lentils are tender.

    For more background on lentils see here and here. If you have any favorite recipes based on similar ideas, leave 'em in the comments.

    Monday, October 24, 2011

    Does Occupy Wall Street make sense?

    Driving around downtown Salt Lake City yesterday, my mother and I inspected the scene at Pioneer Park, which is full of the tents of protestors in solidarity with those marching on Wall Street. As SLC is a relative backwater, and rarely sees protests of any kind lasting more than an afternoon, it seems that the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon has not only grown to a substantial size, but also appears to express a undercurrent among the middle class that something is fundamentally wrong with the country's political and economic system. Over a series of articles, I intend to find out and articulate if there is something to this, and what it is, exactly, that the protestors should be demanding.

    While commentators often wrongly describe the protests as being about wealth redistribution or against corporations and people such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, the true complaint seems to be that money (and especially that from the financial sector) is now unduly influencing the workings of our political system. While this has always been true to some extent, it has now reached heights such that the financial sector can crash the economy and (through its political influence) come through unscathed. Not one significant Wall Street figure has faced jail time since the crash (despite the significant amount of fraud that went on), and the sector’s profits are back to what they were before the crisis, despite the fact that 16% percent of the country (~25m people, using U-6 measure) is un- or underemployed. What’s worse is that around 45% (~6m people, using the more restrictive U-3 measure) of the unemployed have currently been that way for more than 6 months, which is a desperate situation for any middle class family. This is another reason why it’s so idiotic to simply tell the protestors to get simply get a job.

    So, to highlight some of what’s gone wrong in terms of Wall Street and its workings with the country’s economy and political system, I wanted to highlight an article, The Quiet Coup, from the Atlantic magazine in 2009. A former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund here runs down what went wrong and why the problems haven't been fixed:

    [E]lite business interests—financiers, in the case of the U.S.—played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

    Top investment bankers and government officials like to lay the blame for the current crisis on the lowering of U.S. interest rates after the dotcom bust or, even better—in a “buck stops somewhere else” sort of way—on the flow of savings out of China. Some on the right like to complain about Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or even about longer-standing efforts to promote broader homeownership. And, of course, it is axiomatic to everyone that the regulators responsible for “safety and soundness” were fast asleep at the wheel.

    But these various policies—lightweight regulation, cheap money, the unwritten Chinese-American economic alliance, the promotion of homeownership—had something in common. Even though some are traditionally associated with Democrats and some with Republicans, they all benefited the financial sector. Policy changes that might have forestalled the crisis but would have limited the financial sector’s profits—such as Brooksley Born’s now-famous attempts to regulate credit-default swaps at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, in 1998—were ignored or swept aside.

    The financial industry has not always enjoyed such favored treatment. But for the past 25 years or so, finance has boomed, becoming ever more powerful. The boom began with the Reagan years, and it only gained strength with the deregulatory policies of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

    One of the other main complaints of the protestors has been the vast income disparities in America today (especially between those in finance and the rest of the country). The Atlantic article sees this as a natural result of the financial sector’s influence on Washington (see their figure above) and says:

    Not surprisingly, Wall Street ran with these opportunities. From 1973 to 1985, the financial sector never earned more than 16 percent of domestic corporate profits. In 1986, that figure reached 19 percent. In the 1990s, it oscillated between 21 percent and 30 percent, higher than it had ever been in the postwar period. This decade, it reached 41 percent. Pay rose just as dramatically. From 1948 to 1982, average compensation in the financial sector ranged between 99 percent and 108 percent of the average for all domestic private industries. From 1983, it shot upward, reaching 181 percent in 2007.

    The great wealth that the financial sector created and concentrated gave bankers enormous political weight—a weight not seen in the U.S. since the era of J.P. Morgan (the man).

    While the people on Wall Street are mostly hard working, honest individuals (as are the people protesting), the deck appears to be stacked in favor of the big banks and the people that work for them. This is worth complaining about. Do read the whole article.

    Friday, October 21, 2011

    Herman Cain, empathy, and randomness

    There was a choice moment the other night during the presidential debate when, I think, we were able to get a good sense of Herman Cain’s worldview. (For background on Cain see here; photo from here). Anderson Cooper (who I thought looked a little clumsy at times) at one point asked Cain if he’d like to comment on remarks he had previously made about the people currently occupying Wall Street. He went on to say not only was it their fault they didn’t have jobs, but that anyone in America who isn’t rich is to blame for their not being rich (you can watch it here). While, granted, I’m something of a conservative at heart (and believe we alone are responsible for our decisions), I can easily empathize with those currently suffering from unemployment or unrichedness. First, and obviously, if it’s the individual’s fault that they don’t currently don't have a job, then why were most of these people employed just ~3 years ago? Is it the individual’s fault that the unemployment rate has gone from ~5-9%?

    In terms of people being at fault for not being rich, I think that it shows a great lack of appreciation and humility for what Cain’s been able to achieve. Talent will get you far in life and ambition will take you even further, but the thoughtful among us will quickly realize just how much luck has played into our success. Hear me out. First, imagine being born to a single mother, who’s not able to read to you or help you do well in school. Imagine being raised in a neighborhood where it’s not common for people to go to college. Imagine being around colleagues and siblings who don’t love to learn or provide any sort of example as to just what’s possible when one makes a concerted effort at something. As I grow older I become more and more amazed at how much our idea of what’s possible is influenced by those we interact with and observe.

    Many of us will also recognize the breaks that have fallen our way since we were adults. Yes, most of it comes from hard work (and luck favors those who are prepared), but in any life there are turning points which result from being in the right place, or running into the right person, or saying the right thing at the right time. In short, yes, the successful have worked hard, but it’d do us well to think how tenuous some of the turning points in our route to success have been.

    Which brings me to another point. The universe is a chaotic place. I don’t really believe in destiny because I think one can be happy with any of the various paths one’s life could take. If we were supposed to marry a certain person, then, I think, the randomness of life would make it unworkable. Think about how much your life (or if your spouse) could have been different if you had taken a different class, job, bus, or chosen not to go to that certain social event. It’s kind of mind-boggling to think of all the alternative life paths one could have lived out.

    I was going to address Cain’s weaknesses in the policy arena, but this type of remark makes that unnecessary. They say that one of the overall benefits of education is that it teaches us empathy, and I don’t think that's too much to ask for in a leader.

    Thursday, October 20, 2011

    Are you sated?

    Back to the topic of carbohydrates, insulin, and obesity for a moment. This time we’ll discuss satiety as it relates to variations in these three things. We’ll primarily be using material from Gary Taubes’ Good Calories Bad Calories, as it has some of the most substantive discussion on satiety and insulin that I’ve seen. Besides insulin’s effect on one’s ability to burn fat, its next most important (and related) trait is its strong effect on satiety.

    After page 427 of the book, Taubes’ first discusses two popular hypothesis related to diet and satiety. The first is called the glucostat hypothesis and was developed by Jean Mayer. “Receptors in the hypothalamus, said Meyer, metabolize glucose, initiating the sensation of hunger when the available supply of glucose falls, and provoking satiety when it rises.” So, he thought that if the body sensed a lack of supply (of calories), it would burn the remaining glucose in the blood to make one hungry, and thus cause one to up the supply through eating. Taubes (and even Mayer) explain, however, that this hypothesis is lacking an explanation of the body’s fine adjustment knob when it comes to weight (i.e., when one recovers from illness, they quickly achieve their former weight as people often do after ending a diet). Taubes doesn’t offer the hypothesis much treatment, perhaps because of its lack of breadth.

    The second hypothesis explaining weight and satiety is what’s called the lipostatic regulation of the lipostat (thus named by Gordon Kennedy). It would “evolve in the 1970’s into the remarkably durable notion that we are all endowed with a certain set point of body weight or adiposity that we defend against both caloric deprivation and […] caloric surplus.” The main thinking here is that the body has a set point (or weight), above which the hypothalamus will suppress hunger, and below which it will induce hunger. Taubes’ dismisses this theory because it simply failed to explain how the brain manages to monitor our fat stores. He also thought that simply explaining that our brain monitored our fat stores and regulated hunger appropriately was just another way of saying that our weight is usually stable because of “a mysterious mechanism in the brain whose function is to achieve this stability.” Thus this one was killed cause of its black boxyness.

    Taubes later gets to his insulin-based hypothesis, which appears grounded in a mountain of research. He cites several studies and then explains “that anything that induces fatty acids to escape from the fat tissue and then be burned as fuel will promote satiety by providing fuel to the tissues. Anything that induces lipogenesis, or fat synthesis and storage, will promote hunger by removing the available fuel from the circulation.” So, essentially, those foods that promote the burning of fats instead of glucose will promote satiety. Cue wikipedia: “Since insulin is the primary hormonal signal for energy storage into fat cells, which tend to retain their sensitivity in the face of hepatic and skeletal muscle resistance, [insulin resistance] stimulates the formation of new fatty tissue and accelerates weight gain.” Connecting the dots then, not only do carbohydrates raise our insulin levels which leads to the uptake of fat, but they also trigger hunger because they promote the burning of glucose almost exclusively (i.e., our ready energy stores are depleted).

    Taubes concludes (pp. 435):

    “The implication of this hypothesis is that both weight gain and hunger will be promoted by factors that work to deposit fatty acids in the fat tissue and inhibit their mobilization—i.e., anything that elevates insulin. Satiety and weight loss will be promoted by factors that increase the release of fatty acids from the fat tissue and direct them to the cells of the tissues and organs to be oxidized—anything that lowers insulin levels.”

    Inasmuch as Taubes has done his research, and it appears that he has, it looks as if it all boils down to insulin. Next in this series we’ll talk about the glycemic index.

    Wednesday, October 19, 2011

    See America first: Horseshoe Canyon Unit edition

    When in Glacier National Park over the summer, I noticed an advertisement from the early part of last century, encouraging people to “see America first” before vacationing in Europe. Trying to save money and not miss work, this has become something of a theme in my travels the last few months. It’s amazing, however, just how much interesting stuff there is to do just in and around Utah itself. National and state parks, national monuments, recreation areas, national forests, and hikes just minutes away from SLC provide almost endless opportunities to get out and explore.

    Over the long weekend last week, the lady and I went down to Horseshoe Canyon Unit, which is a detached portion of Canyonlands National Park. Horseshoe Canyon is about two hours south of Green River (on SR 24, just .5mi south of the Goblin Valley turnoff, take the dirt road going east for 30 mi) and contains some of the most significant rock art in all of North America. The canyon itself is beautiful, deep, and remote. It’s a ~7mi round trip hike to see the 4 major panels of pictographs (which are painted, whereas petroglyphs are etched) which takes around 5-6 hours to complete at a pace suitable for rock art contemplations. The canyon panels contain anothropomorphic figures (often in a tapering rectangle shape with tiny arms and legs) with haunting eyes and boxy heads, scenes of animals (including big horn sheep, deer, and sheep being herded by a dog), and various flourishes (such as a figure with angels wings, intricate decorative features, and one figure that appears to be dancing) that denote some sort of associated religious activity (or significance) in the panels.

    Interestingly, the panels do not appear to be from familiar Native American tribes of the southwest (such as the Fremont or Anasazi), but were made earlier by groups called the Archaic people. Since the majority of the panels lack bow and arrow, which apparently were brought to the Canyonlands region around 2-400AD (see these papers here), researchers are quite certain the figures are at least 1500 years old, with some estimates putting them at up to 8000 years old. There is one scene depicting a figure hunting with bow and arrow, which demonstrates that various distinct native groups added to the panels.

    The towering shapes of the canyon and the expanse of time evident from the remarkable pictographs left one feeling very very small. For some reason I thought of one of Brad Pitt’s line in Fight Club: “you are not special.” I also thought of this quote made popular by President David O. McKay: “Whate'er Thou Art, Act Well Thy Part.” My takeaway message from the canyon? Perhaps.

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011

    Low Carb?

    As part of a new series, I wanted to mention an article, book, and dietary phenomenon which seems to explain the sharp rise in obesity over the last 30 years. First, the article, titled “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie” is by Gary Taubes and was first published in the NY Times Magazine in 2002. What Taubes does is question the oft-repeated dogma that a low-fat diet is generally the cure for obesity. In general, he states that not only has this government-sponsored diet not only failed to reduce obesity, but the (related) carbohydrate-based food pyramid has placed the country’s dietary focus around precisely the food that will make them the fattest.

    While I had long been suspicious of the low-carb craze lead Dr Robert Atkins, Taubes convincingly uses well thought-out scientific reasoning to make the case that carbohydrate-based diets may be the cause of the nation’s obesity epidemic. After extensive research he turned the article into a book, Good Calories Bad Calories, which was published in 2007 (which I was impressed with) and more recently has published another called Why We Get Fat.

    While the science gets complicated very quickly, there are a couple of key points as to how elevated carbohydrate intake contributes to obesity. A key role is played by insulin, which is a hormone central to regulating carbohydrate and fat metabolism in the body; without it cells can’t absorb glucose. This hormone is produced in the islets of Langerhans (sounds like a spooky vacation spot) in the pancreas. Tuabes explains why it’s so key to these type of diets and to obesity in general.

    The primary role of insulin is to regulate blood-sugar levels. After you eat carbohydrates, they will be broken down into their component sugar molecules and transported into the bloodstream. Your pancreas then secretes insulin, which shunts the blood sugar into muscles and the liver as fuel for the next few hours. This is why carbohydrates have a significant impact on insulin and fat does not.

    But insulin also regulates fat metabolism. We cannot store body fat without it. Think of insulin as a switch. When it's on, in the few hours after eating, you burn carbohydrates for energy and store excess calories as fat. When it's off, after the insulin has been depleted, you burn fat as fuel. So when insulin levels are low, you will burn your own fat, but not when they're high.

    So, basically, carbohydrates lead to elevated blood sugar which leads to an insulin response, which leads to your body burning any sugar molecules in your blood and not depending on your fat stores. After sustained exposure to insulin, cells eventually become less sensitive to it (i.e., resistant), and thus an increased amount is needed to move the sugar molecules “into the muscles and liver as fuel.” A positive feedback loop ensues as higher levels of insulin make it even more difficult to burn fat, cells are desensitized further, and obesity soon results (cause the fat stores are rarely relied on). Compounding the problem is the fact that the muscle and fat tissue of obese people is naturally less sensitive to insulin, for largely unknown reasons.

    Admittedly, there is something of a chicken or the egg thing going on, in that researchers aren’t totally positive whether obesity causes insulin resistance or if insulin resistance causes obesity. It makes sense, however, and research (and Taubes’ book) appears to show, that cells that are constantly bombarded by insulin (because of a high intake of certain types of food) would, over time, become less sensitive to it. Wikipedia explains:

    As elevated blood glucose levels are the primary stimulus for insulin secretion and production, habitually excessive carbohydrate intake is another likely contributor [to insulin resistance]. This serves as a major motivation behind the low-carb family of diets.

    And whether the resistance comes from a sedentary lifestyle, diet, or genetics, the result appears quite simple (again, from wikipedia):

    Once established, insulin resistance would result in increased circulating levels of insulin. Since insulin is the primary hormonal signal for energy storage into fat cells, which tend to retain their sensitivity in the face of hepatic and skeletal muscle resistance, [insulin resistance] stimulates the formation of new fatty tissue and accelerates weight gain.

    So maybe those people avoiding bread (whom we called weirdos) were on to something? Soon we’ll look at the effects of carbs and insulin on satiety and we'll explain something called ketosis. Watch this space.

    Monday, October 17, 2011

    Productivity tip of the week

    It's Monday morning and time for another productivity tip. The gist of this week's tip is to make one's behavior automatic. Apparently, even if we're still the ones performing the same tasks, if we make them more regimented, we'll free up energy for other problems we need to solve. From the always-interesting

    Most everyone I meet feels pulled in more directions than ever, expected to work longer hours, and asked to get more done, often with fewer resources. But in these same audiences, there are also, invariably, a handful of people who are getting things done, including the important stuff, and somehow still managing to have a life.

    What have they figured out that the rest of their colleagues have not?

    The answer, surprisingly, is not that they have more will or discipline than you do. The counterintuitive secret to getting things done is to make them more automatic, so they require less energy.

    It turns out we each have one reservoir of will and discipline, and it gets progressively depleted by any act of conscious self-regulation. In other words, if you spend energy trying to resist a fragrant chocolate chip cookie, you'll have less energy left over to solve a difficult problem. Will and discipline decline inexorably as the day wears on.

    "Acts of choice," the brilliant researcher Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have concluded, "draw on the same limited resource used for self-control." That's especially so in a world filled more than ever with potential temptations, distractions and sources of immediate gratification.

    At the Energy Project, we help our clients develop something we call rituals — highly specific behaviors, done at precise times, so they eventually become automatic and no longer require conscious will or discipline.

    The proper role for your pre-frontal cortex is to decide what behavior you want to change, design the ritual you'll undertake, and then get out of the way. "It is a profoundly erroneous truism that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing," the philosopher A.N. Whitehead explained back in 1911. "The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them." [the bolding is his]

    Friday, October 14, 2011

    NBA Lockout: Who is it good for?

    Who is the NBA lockout helping?  I’m not sure, but I would bet that about 90% of the players would love it if the season started immediately, regardless if they have to make some compromises to make that happen.

    The owners have the least to lose if there’s not an NBA season.  Most teams in the NBA don’t make much money anyway, so the owners only stand to gain a huge financial benefit if they sell the team.  Also, they have other businesses to make them money, and most of them are so ridiculously rich that it’s not going to hurt them anyway.

    The NBA superstars have a lot to lose if there’s no season, but they, like the owners, are so rich that they will be fine.  Plus, they can still make a lot of money on endorsements.  Some of the NBA elite are even playing oversees during the lockout, so they can still get their millions.

    That leaves the other 90% of the league, who need to play for as long as they can because they’re NBA shelf-life is only 5-6 years, and they’re annual salary is, at most, a few million dollars.  I know, it sounds like a lot, and it is, except that if they are only able to play for 5-6 years, that money has to last them a long, long time.  Not only that, but they don’t have the endorsement money that Lebron James has, and they can’t make much money oversees (especially if bigger NBA stars are playing over there).
    So right now, every day that passes without an NBA game, these guys are making no money, and are getting closer to retirement.  Meanwhile, Lebron, D-Wade, and Kobe are holding out because they have huge egos and can afford to take an extended vacation.  They see themselves as heroes, doing what’s best for the players, while in reality, they aren’t helping anyone.  All they’re doing is making it very difficult for a lot of ball players to make a living. 

    Who, exactly, does the NBA players association represent?  It doesn’t seem to represent the vast majority of NBA players, but rather the small elite at the top who are more interested in feeding their own egos and looking cool then doing what’s best for all the players as a collective group.  What’s the point of a players association that only represents the top 10% of the league? 

    Finally, let’s not forget the fans, who actually like watching these “super-stars” play.  As an NBA fan, I’d love it if they could put their egos aside and figure something out.  For the good of the game, and most of the players, let’s hope it’s sooner rather then later.

    Thursday, October 13, 2011

    So the government wants me to borrow money, eh?

    When at the financial fireside the other night (described here), the speaker, as he was a real estate man, repeated the oft-touted fact that one can write off the interest they pay on their mortgage. I chimed in (which I probably do too often), saying “only if you itemize!”, which point he quickly conceded. I probably wouldn’t have said anything if I hadn’t previously been bothered by the public’s infatuation with, and misunderstanding of, this particular government subsidy (technically a tax break, but it amounts to the same thing).

    To try and be objective about it, what I’m referring to is the federal government’s home mortgage interest deduction policy. What it does is allow a person (or couple) to add mortgage interest to one’s list of itemized deductions at tax time. After calculating your adjusted gross income (AGI) each year, to arrive at the amount of your income that’s actually taxed you have a choice between subtracting either the standard deduction or a list of itemized deductions. Besides mortgage interest, things you can itemize include charitable contributions, medical expenses, some state taxes, and (interestingly) gambling losses. The rub is that the standard deduction currently is $11,600 if you’re filing your taxes jointly and $8,500 if you’re the head of household. So, in order for itemizing to be worthwhile, you likely either have to have donated a bunch of money to charity and/or be paying a significant amount of interest on your mortgage. Which brings me to my first point: not everyone with a mortgage (especially in the loan's later years) is paying $11,600 a year in interest and these people subsequently won’t get a special tax break.

    The second important thing to remember is the fact that, since everyone can claim the standard deduction, the mortgage interest tax benefit only kicks in on the amount of interest you're paying above and beyond $11,600 (if filing jointly). Soo, if you’re paying, say $15,000 in interest per year, you’d get the special tax break on only $3,400 of that amount. If you’re in the 25% tax bracket, that’d save you $850 per year. It seems low, right? But, remember it’s a tax deduction and not a credit. And that’s a lot of interest to be paying. Plugging some numbers into this calculator (be sure to hit ‘show amortization table’), it seems that a ~typical home in America wouldn’t cost one enough interest to get much above the standard deduction (unless one had other items to write off). For example, a loan value of $200k with a term of 30 years and a 5% interest rate leads to a payment of $9933 in interest in the first year (which is lower than the standard deduction, if filing jointly). And the yearly interest paid only decreases from there. It seems that one would have to have a large mortgage (or lots of other things to itemize) to benefit much from the interest deduction, which is why most economists oppose the subsidy. Considering what’s happened to the country the last few years in terms of over-leveraged consumers, perhaps the government shouldn’t be encouraging people to buy so much home, or any at all. What am I missing?

    With that, I'll be in southern Utah for a few days for fall break and Bags will have to keep you entertained. Stay safe.

    Wednesday, October 12, 2011

    Transformers 3: What has happened to movies? What is wrong with America?

    I finally got around to seeing Transformers 3 last night. After hearing how it was such an improvement over Transformers 2 (which sucked), I was expecting something that was at least ‘watchable.’ What I got was complete and utter trash. A much worse movie, in my opinion, then the second installment.

    For starters, all these movies are way too long. There is so much unnecessary stuff in there, stuff that adds nothing at all to the movie. They could have cut this to under an hour and not lost anything. The first hour of the movie is Shia Labuff (or whatever his name is) complaining about how he isn’t appreciated and trying to find a job. Every once in a while, for good measure, they’d cut to a transformer doing something. Once the movie finally picks up, it doesn’t matter anymore because all I care about is whether Shia will finally get the respect and job he deserves.

    The hardest thing to watch about this movie is the comic relief, which is spewed out constantly and never works. Shia's (I'm just going to call him Shia because I don't care what his character's name is) parents are the worst. They show up in their RV about 30 minutes into the movie and are supposed to make me laugh by making blunt statements about Shia’s character. Everything they say just reminds me how ridiculous and sad this movie is. They're right about everything, and not in a funny way.

    The fact that Shia has managed to land another over-the-top, skanky girlfriend who is supposed to be super-hot is to be expected. But the fact that they’ve populated this world with supermodels all over the place is a bit much. There isn’t one unattractive, or even average-looking female in this entire movie outside of Shia’s mom and Francis McDormand (by the way, how they managed to get such a great cast to be in the crap is beyond me, but more on that later).

    Another problem is that this movie is constantly jumping back-and-forth between making fun of itself, and then expecting us to take it seriously by playing an emotional U2 song while the transformers destroy the world or Shia can’t get anyone to respect him. One minute it’s Austin Powers, the next it’s Baywatch. Neither one is anything I really want to spend time watching. There’s so much annoying comic relief here that I’m hoping the evil transformers (I don’t care to remember what they’re actually called) win and the movie ends sooner. A nice bonus would be Shia getting cut in half to guarantee that he’s not back for the next sequel.

    The cast includes some brilliant actors, including John Turturro, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, and the always hilarious Ken Jeong (has he worn out his welcome yet? I don’t think so). Why they all decided to do this movie is beyond me (with the exception of Jeong, who will do anything, and be awesome in it). Turturro was the best part of the first two movies, and is again here, but that’s not saying much. Did none of them read this 500-page script? Or do they just not care anymore? I guess the fact that the cast also includes Shia, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Patrick Dempsey, some super-model that plays Shia’s girlfriend, and Bill O’Reilly kind of balances things out.

    The fact that this movie did not get a zero on every movie rating website disturbs me. I’d like to close with a review from "dBoy" that I found on, which reads:

    “You better start looking for the red carpet leading to the Oscars because Transformers is sure going to be at it's TECHNICAL end. Michael Bay, with all his grace, delivers one of his finest peaces of contemporary cinema up to date. You wouldn't believe it without seeing it. Close to the end of the film, my friend sitting next to me turned at me and whispered: "This is beyond Blockbuster madness". And it made sens. What Bay and his team have achieved is beyond conventional summer movie making. The crafting here is so perfect and detailed that it pushes and redefines the boundaries of film making. From the chilling sound design, to the godlike visual effects, and perfect attention to detail from Bay's part when choosing his shots. It's an honest work that re establishes what fun is all about when the lights dim down and the screen springs to life. Just... Have fun and don't pay attention to all those lifeless critics who's conceptual fun is merely based on egocentric shallow intellectual show off and pragmatic dismissing of Bay's work. Criticising his editing and shot compositions which are, to a large extent, unique, but welcome.…”

    Thanks “dBoy,” for making my point for me.

    The verdict: Abstain (don’t waste your time or money on this movie).

    Editor’s note: I feel asleep at about the 1 hour, 25 minute mark, so I probably only saw about 1/3 of this movie. I assume it ends with the good transformers killing the evil transformers and involves Shia running in slow-motion somehow.

    Tuesday, October 11, 2011


    To save money and make lunch a little more palatable, lately I’ve been looking for recipes that are basic and easy to make in bulk (this, surprisingly, is an upgrade from what I've been doing) so that I can take a portion to work each day. Nutrition is also a concern, so my I figured the recipes would be based around staples such as whole grain pasta, whole grain rice, salmon, boneless chicken, lentils, and quinoa, Yes, quinoa. What is it? Well, recipe-wise it kind of works like a grain, but it’s not technically a grain or cereal because it’s not a grass. It’s pronounced keen-wah and it’s actually a chenopod, which means it’s closely related to species such as beets, spinach, and tumbleweeds. With that kind of family, you know it’s gotta be good. And it is, as it’s one of the very few plant foods to offer a full complement of proteins (that is, 9 essential amino acids). Other fun facts: ~99% of it is grown in Peru and Bolivia, the conquistadores forbid its production for a time, it was held sacred by the Incas, and, because of its high magnesium content, it's especially beneficial to those who suffer from migraines.

    I came across it when I was on a (finding-the-essence-of-everything) health kick a year or two back. I’d basically buy rye, barley, and other such things, boil them, and see what a bowl of it tasted like. It was fine and everything, but the idea lay dormant until recently when my girlfriend got on board this new health recipe kick of mine, and insisted we actually add stuff (like, say, spices, beans, and veggies) to complement these basic materials. Women are very good for we men. So, we found this quinoa recipe and loved it, so I thought I’d throw it up here. It’s simple, nutritious, and tasty. Here are the ingredients:

    • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
    • 1 onion, chopped
    • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
    • 3/4 cup uncooked quinoa
    • 1 1/2 cups vegetable broth
    • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
    • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
    • salt and pepper to taste
    • 1 cup frozen corn kernels
    • 2 (15 ounce) cans black beans, rinsed and drained
    • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

    And here are the directions:

    · Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the onion and garlic, and saute until lightly browned.

    · Mix quinoa into the saucepan and cover with vegetable broth. Season with cumin, cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper. Bring the mixture to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes,

    · Stir frozen corn into the saucepan, and continue to simmer about 5 minutes until heated through. Mix in the black beans and cilantro.

    Check out the whole thing (and 1724 quinoa comments) here. If you have any favorite healthy, easy, and tasty recipes, please share 'em.

    When people come advising

    I went to a financial fireside the other night at a local LDS meetinghouse. There was a speaker who had lectured around the country on financial topics and is well-respected in the community. As with most of these types of things there was a certain amount of psychological pump-priming, as it were, at the beginning. You know, facts on the amount of people financially independent (said ~5%), the average credit card balance in America (a few grand), and the national savings rate (he said it was still zero even though it has bumped up a bit). He eventually got to the nuts and bolts of the presentation (although the projector was having issues so it was a bit constrained), which was based around the fact that one should spend less than their earn. It’s great advice, of course, and we could all probably work on it. He used some math to show us how much extra pre-tax (and pre-tithing) income one has to earn to spend a dollar after taxes. While basic for some folks, it’s a worthwhile exercise if you’ve never done it. Take a minute and divide 1 by (1 – all your tax rates combined). So, if after federal, state, and payroll taxes 50% of your money is taken by the government, then for every dollar you spend you need to actually earn two dollars. This is a good reason to trim expenses rather than enslessly worrying about increasing income, as the post-tax dollars (which you’re spending) have a bigger effect.

    Later on he mentioned a few authors and stated the fact that he made his money in real estate, but acknowledged that that’s not the best way for everyone. Indeed. As a real estate junkie, you probably imagined that he mentioned his love of the book Rich Dad Poor Dad, by Robert Kyosaki (he did). For the uninitiated, this is a shame, because the book is filled with vague advice. Kiyosaki repeatedly states that people should learn to own assets (like real estate) and have their money work for them, but doesn’t exactly say how. Investing in real estate is much like opening a small business, which isn’t the best thing for most of America to be doing, as it’s much too risky. Fortunately, after touting Dave Ramsey (who has good advice only if one is in debt) the speaker later mentioned more worthwhile books, such as the Richest Man in Babylon, which has great parables about simple financial topics.

    I think that besides citing the best books, one of the main keys to these types of presentations is specific advice. If one is at the talk then they probably already know they should spend less than they earn. What I think people aren’t so clear on is how to invest their money. What follows, then, is how I would have structured the talk.

    First, touch on the simple fact that you must spend less than you earn. Endorse The Richest Man in Babylon

    Second, address what investment options people have after they’ve saved a decent sum. Talk about the relationship between risk and reward. Give a brief overview of stocks, bonds, gold, and real estate. Show how a combination of stocks and bonds have the best risk/return profile and you don’t have to run a side business (as you often are when investing in real estate). Recommend a book: The Investor’s Manifesto or The Boglehead’s Guide to Investing.

    Third, show that stock picking and market timing are fool’s errands and that picking mutual funds that index the market is the only wise course. Briefly address asset allocation and typical returns of bonds and stocks. Talk about the simplicity and advantages of target retirement funds. Recommend Vanguard and recommend that they set up automatic contributions (wherever they end up).

    Fourth, show the impact of expenses on mutual fund performance over time. Talk about expense ratios. Discuss why, in investing, you get what you don’t pay for, as Jack Bogle said.

    Fifth, discuss the impact of taxes on one’s investments and why investing should largely be done in tax-advantaged accounts such as an IRA and 401(k). Discuss the tax advantages of these accounts (and the difference between pre- and post-tax contributions). Talk about filling the accounts in the proper sequence of a) contributing to the 401(k) to the match, b) filling the IRA to the max, and c) then filling the 401(k) to the $16500 max as best one can.

    I think that this would allow one to hit the ground running the Monday following the seminar. They’d know what to do with their 401(k) (first fill to the match with low-expense-ratio target retirement funds); they’d know about IRAs (that the should use them, with funds having low expense ratios, at Vanguard, and preferably using a target retirement fund); and they’d have some simple, yet important books that will take them well on their way to financial well being.

    But that probably would take two hours. What did I leave out?