Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Not That I'm Jealous or Anything...

My friends Amanda and Sean left for a two-week vacation to Paris this morning. They have rented a flat and will spend the full two weeks exploring the city, visiting museums, sitting in small cafes drinking fine European wines....Not that I'm jealous or anything.

As usual, Billy Collins says it best, if a bit sarcastically:


How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,
wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hilltowns.
How much better to cruise these local, familiar streets,
fully grasping the meaning of every roadsign and billboard
and all the sudden hand gestures of my compatriots.

There are no abbeys here, no crumbling frescoes or famous
domes and there is no need to memorize a succession
of kings or tour the dripping corners of a dungeon.
No need to stand around a sarcophagus, see Napoleon's
little bed on Elba, or view the bones of a saint under glass.

How much better to command the simple precinct of home
than be dwarfed by pillar, arch, and basilica.
Why hide my head in phrase books and wrinkled maps?
Why feed scenery into a hungry, one-eyed camera
eager to eat the world one monument at a time?

Instead of slouching in a café ignorant of the word for ice,
I will head down to the coffee shop and the waitress
known as Dot. I will slide into the flow of the morning
paper, all language barriers down,
rivers of idiom running freely, eggs over easy on the way.

And after breakfast, I will not have to find someone
willing to photograph me with my arm around the owner.
I will not puzzle over the bill or record in a journal
what I had to eat and how the sun came in the window.
It is enough to climb back into the car

as if it were the great car of English itself
and sounding my loud vernacular horn, speed off
down a road that will never lead to Rome, not even Bologna.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Ups and Downs of Elevators

I came across a fabulous article in the New Yorker yesterday about elevators. I had no idea the topic could be so interesting, but it really was. I highly recommend reading it. The article is long, but is very readable and fascinating.

Don't believe me that elevators are interesting? Here are some article highlights:

*Elevator designers study human behavior for use in their designs. For example, studies have shown exactly how close together people are willing to stand in an elevator (this differs by culture and gender) and how long people are willing to wait for an elevator before getting upset (less than 30 seconds). Also, the widespread fear of elevators is taken into account. The emergency and door-close buttons in most elevators do not even work (technically, the emergency button does work, but you have to have a fire department key to use it), but they are left in the modern designs because it makes people feel less powerless.

*Some modern elevators don't have any buttons at all. Instead, you key your desired destination into a computer console in the lobby, then the car arrives and takes you where you want to go. Elevator designers thought this would be a great way to streamline elevators, particularly because it solves the problem of people pushing all the buttons and slowing down the whole processes. Unfortunately, most people absolutely hate the buttonless elevators. We prefer to feel like we have some control over where we are going and what is going on.

*Elevators actually have a very good track record as far as safety goes. An average of 26 people die in elevator-related deaths each year in the US, but nearly all of those are due to human stupidity, not elevator malfunction. In traction elevators, each individual elevator car is held up by six or eight cables. Each cable must be able to carry the weight of the entire car on its own, plus 25% more weight as well. In addition, elevators have a brake system that kicks in if the elevator's speed goes over a certain point (as it would in the event of a free-fall). The brake system slows the car quickly but not immediately, so that the elevator riders aren't too jolted by the stop.

*Contrary to what you see in the movies, you cannot climb out the hatch on the ceiling of the elevator. All elevators have these hatches, however, by law they are padlocked from the outside. It has been determined that, regardless of the situation, the safest place for people in an elevator shaft is inside the elevator, not out in the shaft. Security personnel can unlock the hatch and let people out in a rescue effort, but the hatch cannot be opened from the inside.

*Nicholas White of New York City holds the record for the longest amount of time stuck in an elevator. In October 1999, He was returning to his office after a quick smoke break when his elevator stopped inexplicably between floors. He rang the emergency bell, but no one heard it. He was stuck there for 41 hours before he was noticed on the security cameras, even though they had been recording him the entire time. I recommend watching the (very interesting!) security footage here.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Think Like a Jillian Book Review #3

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the Markets
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

In this book, Taleb puts forth several of his personal theories on randomness and its impact in our lives. Because much of his personal experience is in the world of financial markets, many of his examples and stories come from that world and his advice applies mainly, but not entirely, to investing. He discusses our penchant for finding patterns where there are none (our brains just naturally try to make sense of things) and our inability to accept that any "good luck" that comes our way is just that--we are more likely to attribute our success to our own intelligence or skills.

I must confess, this book is incredibly readable. On the flight from Osaka to San Francisco last week I could hardly put it down. It was interesting and easily comprehensible. Unfortunately, that is where my praise must end. Taleb is undeniably pompous and self-righteous. This tone comes out from the very start. He begins with a prologue explaining to the reader that when he sat down to write the book he promised himself that the ideas involved would come from his own head, not from any book, so he didn't consult any sources. He seems to think this is a benefit to the reader, providing pure originality and freshness, but it seems more likely that he just didn't want to take the time to actually do any research. As a result, the book comes out sounding more like a personal rant than an intelligent treatise. Which is particularly disappointing because the subject matter is so interesting. In addition to the whole no-research thing, he also tells us (brags to us?) that he refused to take his editors' advice to clean up his writing style and organization for improved readability. Again, he claims to be doing a service to the reader by leaving the information in layman's terms and writing in a more relaxed style than most informative non-fiction. In fact, the book's confusing organization (or lack thereof) is a major distraction. Many of his chapters seem to lack a unifying theme.

Taleb uses stories from real life to make his points. Most of the stories are about people he's known in the stock market who were cruising along making money left and right, thinking they had a system, when suddenly they were hit by a "black swan" (Taleb's term for an unlikely but possible event) and they "blew up" (which, apparently, in the financial world means to lose everything all at once). His stories all have a sour and slightly vindictive tone. He is not afraid to admit his distain for rich people, particularly the newly rich. He shows no sympathy for those who were "fooled by randomness" and ended up losing everything, even though some were once his friends. His advice to his readers, then, is take all the probabilities and possibilities into account when making a bet (or investment), including the really, really unlikely. In fact, he makes most of his own money by betting small amounts of money on very unlikely outcomes. Most of the time he loses money, but his occasional wins are very large. On the contrary, most people bet large amounts of money on more likely outcomes. The downside of that, however, is that when a black swan does come along, you lose really big. Taleb's advice is good, but is not necessarily earth-shattering or new and, even though the words are going straight from his head to the page (and not through any reputable sources), the ideas are not necessarily original. If you are a personal friend of Taleb's and are interested in his personal rantings, by all means read this book. If you are interested in randomness and randomness theories for the markets and for life in general, read this book for entertainment purposes only, as it probably won't educate you much.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Monday, April 14, 2008

Mountains and Monkeys

Good morning!! At least it`s morning where I am~not sure what time it is where you are. Last night we stayed at a hostel way up in the mountains on the island of Shikoku. We spent most of yesterday driving around on narrow drop-away roads, climbing higher and higher into the Japanese mountains. We saw two sets of wild monkeys--some with babies on their backs! It is so beautiful here. The hostel is run by Buddhist monks who live at the temple here, one of the 88 Sacred Temples in this region. Today we will see some more temples here, then head back out of the mountains to Kyoto.

We have completely fallen in love with Japan. I will post some photos as soon as I can.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Greetings from Japan!

We are having a blast here in Japan. We`ve spent the past few days in Osaka and we totally love it here. The city is beautiful and there is lots to do. We`ve seen Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, castles, beautiful Japanese gardens, a GIANT Buddha statue, and much more. Today we go outside the cities and into the country!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

*Travel Alert*

Well, I can't let this day go by without at least mentioning that I'M GOING TO JAPAN TOMORROW!!

For anyone who wants to follow along at home, here's the basic itinerary:

April 10: Fly to Osaka. Due to time difference, we don't actually get there until evening of April 11.
April 12: Day trip out of Osaka to Nara (temple, shrine, Buddhist art, gardens)
April 13: Day trip out of Osaka to Himeji (temple, castle, old samurai quarters)
April 14: Travel to Kobe and Shikoku (temples, gorgeous mountains valleys & waterfalls)
April 15: More Shikoku, then travel to Kyoto
April 16: Sites of Kyoto (temples, gardens, shrines, museums)
April 17: More Kyoto sites (cherry blossoms!)
April 18: More Kyoto sites (castle, market)
April 19: Travel back to Osaka, fly home. We leave Japan at 5:15pm and arrive in Spokane at 4:30pm, a good 45 minutes before we left!

***I may be able to post Think Like A Jillian updates while I'm away***

Bad News for High Altitude Mountaineering

There is an interesting article in this month's Scientific American Mind about a recent study linking high-altitude mountaineering with brain damage. Since several of my favorite people are currently in a mountaineering class at Eastern, I thought I'd share.

The researchers (Neurologist Nicolás Fayed and his colleagues in Zaragoza, Spain) used non-invasive brain scanning techniques to take a look at the brains of climbers, both professional and amateur, after completing Everest summit attempts or other high-altitude climbs around the world. The results don't look good: nearly every Everest climber had damaged tissue, and a large portion of those who climbed shorter peaks also showed damage. As the article explains, the damage is caused by hypoxia: "Lack of oxygen can directly damage brain cells. In addition, the walls of blood capillaries begin to leak at high altitudes, and the leaked fluid can cause dangerous swelling, pressing the brain outward against the rigid skull. Sometimes the optic nerves swell so badly they bulge into the back of the eye, degrading vision and causing retinal hemorrhages. Meanwhile blood, concentrated from dehydration and thickened by increased numbers of red blood cells, clots more easily. This clotting, along with the hemorrhage from the thinned capillaries, can cause a stroke. A climber with HACE [high-altitude cerebral edema] may experience amnesia, confusion, ­delusions, emotional disturbance, personality changes and loss of consciousness." What Fayed's study shows, however, is that even climbers who experienced none of these symptoms and seemed to have a high tolerance for hypoxia often show extensive damage. There is also a possible correlation between the speed of the climb and amount of damage. Some of the climbers of less extreme peaks, such as Aconcagua in the Argentine Andes, completed their summit much quicker than a typical Everest climber would. "All eight Aconcagua climbers in the study showed cortical atrophy on MRI scans. Seven showed enlarged VR spaces, and four showed numerous subcortical lesions. Some needed no scan to tell them their brains had been injured. One climber suffered aphasia (problems with speech), from which he recovered six months later. Two complained of transient memory loss after returning, and three others struggled with bradypsychia (slowed mental function)."

More bad news: The climbers involved in the study were reexamined three years after the initial scans were done, and the damage remained. Guess I'll hold off on that Everest summit I was planning.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Think Like A Jillian Book Review #2

The Omnivore's Dilemma
by Michael Pollan

I didn't expect to like this book. Not that I don't find food interesting, I just don't like being preached at when it comes to food. I don't like people telling me what is ethical and what isn't. And I am frustrated with the way the issue of what's good to eat is usually more about going to the extremes than it is about finding reasonable middle ground. Given that, this book was a surprising delight. Pollan is a great writer and he approaches the topic genuinely and without bias. He doesn't set out to prove that eating a McDonald's hamburger is gross (in fact, he doesn't ever even come to that conclusion), or to convince you to go "all organic." He digs deep into the topic and relays information clearly and without polemic. It is very refreshing. That's not to say some of what he discovers isn't disturbing--I suspect my conscience will be pretty noisy next time I go to buy a dozen eggs at the grocery store--but he doesn't use shock tactics or preach any particular food doctrine.

The book basically breaks down into three sections. First, Pollan investigates the industrial food chain in America. He starts by visiting a corn farmer in Iowa, then follows that farmer's corn, as best he can, throughout the country as it becomes feed for feedlot cattle & chickens, corn syrup, corn starch, dextrose, sorbitol and about a hundred other things. It turns out that about half the list of ingredients in any processed food (particularly the hard-to-pronounce ingredients at the end) come from corn. Whether or not this is problematic is still up for debate, but it does stand to reason that eating a diet that consists mainly of corn and corn products would be nutritionally lacking. Here Pollan also talks about Industrial Organic. Basically an industrial organic operation is just like a regular industrial food operation, except extra precautions have to be made since pesticides and antibiotics are no-nos. While it might feel good to know that the chicken you are eating wasn't shot full of hormones and medicines, the downside is that the chicken was left open to disease, so it had to be kept inside a small coop and carefully watched. Chickens that aren't given drugs or hormones generally never see the light of day--there are just too many diseases they could be exposed to if they were let outside. Next Pollan travels to a farm in Virginia where all the plants are organic and the animals are allowed to live "according to their animal natures." He explores the benefits of buying local and of growing or raising your own food. In addition to being a nutritionally superior system, it's also much more sustainable. Unfortunately, farms like the one he visits aren't an economically viable option if we are talking about feeding an entire country.

The best portion of the book, however, is the final section. Pollan sets out to create a complete meal all on his own. He hunts the meat (he has to learn to shoot a gun first), collects the fungi, grows the vegetables, even makes an attempt to harvest salt from some local salt flats (though the salt turns out to be fairly toxic and inedible). This is the chapter where he really gets into the ethics behind eating meat, or at least the ethical dilemma posed by eating meat from an industrial feedlot. The question is even more complicated than I thought, but Pollan doesn't shy away from really delving into the topic and wrestling with the difficult questions. This issue really get to the heart of the nature of humanity. Who are we and what will we stand for as a species? What extra rights does our sentience give us? What is it, exactly, that sets us apart from other animals? His discussion of the subject was very well-written and utterly fascinating. The conclusions? If you care at all about the treatment of animals (including the cows and chickens we get our eggs and milk from), then buy local, no question. If you want produce that is really pesticide free and grown in a sustainable way, buy local, no question. That said, Pollan doesn't expect he's eaten his last Big Mac. It doesn't do any good to deny that we live in an industrial world, after all. And one or two a year certainly won't harm you. I highly recommend this book; it's a great read.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Bowling Alone

I've been trying to put my finger on some of the good feelings that I get from our Wednesday night kayaking sessions, and today I think I figured it out. Kayaking itself is fun--it has a bit of danger and some fun splashing, but since I'm not particularly skilled at it just yet, I don't think all the good feelings come from that. I know that being active is one of the best ways to get elevate your mood; your body rewards you for hard physical work by flooding you with endorphins. But beyond that, I think there is a real value in getting together for a social activity, engaging with people and interacting, meeting new people. I think there is a social and personal value in that.

In 2000, Robert Putnam came out with a book called Bowling Alone which was an immediate and surprise success. In it, he described the recent American anti-social phenomenon. Americans used to be great joiners. We had civic clubs, sporting leagues, political and social clubs, book clubs, bridge clubs, a whole assembly of mini-communities that people joined and enjoyed. But over the past few decades, Americans have stopped joining and participating in these groups. Although more Americans go bowling now than ever before, bowling league participation has plummeted (hence the book's title: if we aren't bowling together, we must be bowling alone). Putman writes, "Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values--these and other changes in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live. Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighborhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness."

By all accounts, the kayaking club has been a huge success. Everyone who tries it out wants to come back for more and the pool is often filled to (or beyond?) capacity with colorful kayaks. I'm not sure it relates in any direct way to "equitable tax collection" or "democratic responsiveness" but I'm going to keep doing it anyway. Let's just say I'm dong my part for a better society : ).

UPDATE---This just in: Joining and participating in one group cuts in half your odds of dying next year!