Archive for 2013

Will Caffeinated Beverages One Day Be Judged Like Cigarettes?

How was it not obvious to generations of people that taking part in an activity that fills one's lungs with something other than air (smoke) might not be healthy? Actually, it was obvious to some, but the majority chose to live in ignorant bliss and not think through the issue. The public chose to be so ignorant that the tobacco industry had the gall to create corporate sponsored health studies showing the safety of cigarettes.

Never mind that there were obvious signs of smoking's unhealthiness that didn't need a study (or cancer) to become apparent. Didn't people have friends who were smokers who's voice changed? Who's exercise capacity diminished? Who coughed nastily?

Americans are now waking up to the dangers of refined sugar. It's not a secret that sugar is responsible for most of the current public health crises in America. Eat a lot of sugar, and you may very well get a chronic disease. Stop eating sugar and that disease may go away.

What do refined sugar, caffeine and tobacco all have in common? They all became widespread in Western society after the age of exploration (in other words their widespread use in the West is fairly recent, occurring over the past five hundred years and becoming pervasive in the past two hundred). They were all once priceless trade commodities that wars were fought over. They are all addictive. And they all have had centuries of profit seeking corporations pushing them on the public.

Is caffeine as severe a drug as nicotine? Probably not. It may even have some health benefits (actually nicotine has some health benefits too). What it certainly does do to most people is raise their heart rates. That's obvious. Everyone knows that. It also, when taken in excess, makes a lot of people jittery. It probably doesn't give people cancer, but is it a good idea for people to drink several cups of caffeinated beverages a day and perpetually keep their heart rates unnaturally high and possibly affect their nervous systems?

Is a cup of coffee as bad as a cigarette? Almost certainly not. Doing either once in a while probably isn't a big deal. Will it one day be discovered that drinking a lot of caffeine, which has obvious side effects that everyone knows about, is connected with the development of a chronic disease. Maybe. It would probably be better if society didn't take the chance. The public does much too much experimentation with widespread legal drug use.

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Sidewalk Infrastructure

There is a lot of talk in America today about crumbling infrastructure.  Stories of downed bridges make national headlines.  It is blatantly apparent to most observers that America's public transportation system, especially trains, is severely lacking compared to both European and Asian contemporaries.


At the same time that America faces an infrastructure crisis, it also faces an obesity crisis.  Interestingly, America's fattest states are also some of its most rural.  One would think that urbanites with their indoor living would outweigh their hillbilly cousins, yet that does not appear to be America's pattern.

There are complex social, cultural, and economic differences that cause this disparity, but could a small part of it have to do with walking?  Not so much even the desire to walk, but rather the means to walk - sidewalks.  Most of America's large cities (excluding solely perhaps LA) are completely walkable and well served by public transportation systems. 

Yet, suburban and rural sidewalks are often forgotten about or nonexistent.  Would it be easier for Americans to lose weight if it were easier to walk?  Would the public health benefit (including decreased medical costs) warrant spending on improved sidewalk infrastructure?

Why are bike paths constantly championed, while more basic sidewalks are neglected?  How many pedestrians are killed in automobile accidents each year because of insufficient sidewalks?  How much money is spent on foreign oil and corn grower subsidies to facilitate car trips that people would have avoided had they felt more encouraged by sidewalk infrastructure to walk?

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Seven Things the Newly Chronically Ill Should Know


1.  Only a Few People Matter
When you get seriously sick, most people will feel sorry for you, but only a few people will actually try to do anything about it to help you.  You need to try to surround yourself with these people when you're healthy in life as a kind of insurance policy if something goes wrong.  Keep in touch with them when you first get sick.  You don't want to be alone.  You may no longer be healthy enough to care for yourself.  The majority of people will do the bare minimum, if even that.  It's doubly bad if your disease is esoteric and most people don't understand it or have misconceptions about it.

2.  You Must Do Your Own Research
If you know you are seriously ill, and yet your initial doctors' visits are unfruitful, you must research on your own.  You are not crazy (unless you actually are crazy).  If something hurts, it probably hurts for a reason.  If something is not functioning normally, it's probably not functioning normally for a reason.  You need to at least figure out the general area that's wrong so that you can get to the right kind of specialist.  Do not rely on your doctors if they have no answers for you.  And even the best doctor may not have read every article about your specific condition.  Make sure to read reputable sources.  Google Scholar is your friend.  Most medical journal articles are perfectly comprehensible by someone with even a high school biology education.  Don't believe everything you read.  Other than journal articles, connecting with other people who have (or had) the illness is probably your best other source of information.

3.  Go Straight to the Best
There's no point in wasting time with so-so doctors.  Sure, when you're desperate and can't wait for an appointment do so.  But also make the appointment with the best from the get-go.  You will probably have to wait to be seen anyway.  A university hospital or academic center is more likely to have innovative treatments and more likely to get the diagnosis right the first time.

4.  Great Health Insurance is Critical
It's completely worth picking one job over another just because it has better health coverage.  Do it when you're healthy, so you have it when you're sick.  This may sound like an extremely unfortunate way to base your life decisions when you're healthy since the chance that you get sick is slim.  But even young people who are in great shape, do suddenly come down with bizarre illness.  Unfortunately there is little safety net in place for them if they don't have good health insurance.  The government will NOT take care of you.  Do your best to keep your health coverage when you get sick.

5.  Accept Help from Everyone that Offers
It's fine when you have the flu to tough it out.  But, when things are more serious, don't be afraid to accept help.  Yes, you are a burden.  But, yes, you need the help now.  The more help you get, the more likely you are to be strong enough to recover and some day return the favor.

6.  Keep Believing that you Will Get Better
It's almost a cliche that those that give up hope who are ill, soon lose the battle.  Yet, it seems to happen in reality.  Those who are more optimistic seem to do better.  Maybe a certain level of denial is actually helpful.  Or, maybe there is a mind-over-matter side to healing.  Either way, it certainly won't hurt you to be optimistic.  It may however hurt you to be pessimistic.  You don't need a psychological problem like depression on top of your disease.  You have a right to be depressed.  You have a right to feel sorry for yourself to a certain degree.  It is natural to be jealous of those without your condition.  Just don't be that way all the time!  Be as optimistic as you can be.  It's the 21st century and even if your condition can't be cured now, it probably will be curable in the future.  Don't stop believing.

7.  People Who Help Themselves Get the Most Help
If you're doing everything you can for your condition, you are more likely to be respected by your doctors, your family, and your friends.  This may mean diet, exercise, physical therapy, supplements, medication, scheduling, and research.  Maybe nothing will help - but you must try.  You should give every treatment protocol a fair shot.  You can always stop if it hurts you.  If you don't try, people will have less confidence that you are someone they can help.

Several of these points could be summarized as "be persistent".  Be persistent with seeking help, be persistent with helping yourself, and be persistent with hope.

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Home Gardening for Food and Profit

Every person who is physically capable, should grow his own food.  Growing vegetables and fruits is fun, economical, and healthy.

Fun:  Gardening can be fun in many ways.  It can be competitive - will you or your neighbor grow the biggest watermelon?  It can be relationship building - how about a gardening date?  It can be interesting - there's plenty to learn, and an incredible number of fascinating cultivars

Economical:  Sure, one can spend hundreds of dollars on specialized fertilizers, irrigation systems, and pesticides that will increase output.  Yet, most plants will grow with just an appropriate climate, decent soil, water, and sunlight.  Growing food is usually cheaper than buying food.  In third world countries, this can be especially relevant.  Yet, in the United States, need we forget the victory gardens of World War 1 and World War 2 that in some small way helped the economy sustain through the wars?

Healthy:  Assuming your soil is not laced with lead, as some urban gardeners have unfortunately experienced, what can be better for you than organic food that did not need to be preserved, packaged, or laced with pesticides to make it to your dinner table?  Further, the act of gardening itself has several health benefits.  Obviously it provides exercise.  Less obviously, it has been shown to reduce stress levels.  And, somewhat obviously, it improves children's' perception of the natural world around them.

There are less tangible benefits too.  How about what gardening means for a society's connection to nature?  Or, the beauty of the plants themselves?  And perhaps, encouraging hobbies that are more positive than one-way media consumption.

The world needs more home gardeners.  As the world population continues to grow, and agriculturally suitable land continues to dwindle, using every accessible plot is a no-brainer.  It can also play a small part in reducing food expenditures for families struggling in the muddled world economy.

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A Time When Having No Business Model is a Business Model

The New York Times has a fascinating account of Google's purchase of Waze.  Waze does not make a significant profit.  The purchase by Google is clearly a strategic acquisition.  It seems increasingly common for large American technology companies to purchase small startups for incredibly high prices  for one of two reasons:

Niche
The startup provides an important technology missing from the company's portfolio.  This technology may serve a distinct, but important, set of customers (including developers); or the technology provides an important service for all customers.  An example of this would be Apple's acquisition of Siri in 2010, or Facebook's recent purchase of Parse.

Mindshare
Despite not having a business model (or at least a profit model) the startup has managed to attract a large base of followers.  This was the case with Facebook's purchase of Instagram in 2012, and Yahoo's purchase of Tumblr in 2013.  It was not as if Instagram held the keys to some incredible patented algorithm that Facebook's engineers could not figure out.  It simply had amassed a large amount of users in a space that Facebook was already interested in.  It remains to be seen in Four Square's case, if attracting a significant amount of loyal/influential users is as meaningful as the raw total number accumulated.

Anecdotally, it seems mindshare trumps niche when evaluating the size of these purchases.  The latter mentioned examples are an order of magnitude larger in dollars than the former.  Waze may check both the niche and mindshare boxes.

Of course, companies always made strategic acquisitions of unprofitable colleagues.  What is new is the incredible evaluations used when relatively tiny (but attractive) tech startups find their way onto the acquisition block.  This creates a whole new landscape for successful entrepreneurs to traverse.  One where acquiring users (or technologies) maybe ultimately as valuable as acquiring dollars.  So, perhaps it is not that these startups have no business model - it is just that they have no profit model.

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Saturday Delivery No Longer Makes Sense

The recently announced end (coming in August 2013) of Saturday letter delivery by the United States Postal Service came as no surprise to those following the USPS's fiscal crisis.  Yet, it is not without its repercussions.  Those who rely on the mail for the timely delivery of checks (Social Security for example) will need to be especially careful when a long weekend or other break coincides with an expected check.  Businesses that rely on the mail may need to alter their working hours or turn to alternative delivery mechanisms.

There is also the psychological effect of the end of Saturday delivery with regards to the public's confidence in the long term viability of the postal service.  The USPS has been suffering for years in a two front war against the internet and FedEx/UPS.  And it's been losing.  Many wonder whether the end of Saturday delivery is just another step on the road towards a "mail-less" society.  If layoffs, site closures, and this move aren't enough, then what will be?

Mail still plays an essential role in society.  As far as we have come technologically, the best of our virtual world has not completely replaced the physical.  Who has not had to send a business, government, or personal document by mail in the last year?  And who has not waited patiently for an internet purchase to arrive, or a package from Mom?

All of this service could be provided by a private corporation, but it is the postal service that has a mandate to serve every American, regardless of how uneconomical his address may be.  It is the USPS that has to keep rates affordable for the most disadvantaged individual.  So, it is the postal service that America must trim, make more efficient, and prepared for the 21st century.

In an era of USPS deficits, we must face the fact that Saturday delivery has not made sense for years.  Many businesses and most government organizations do not operate on Saturday.  They're keeping Saturday package delivery, so that keeps the USPS competitive with UPS/FedEx.  And the timeliness of mail no longer has the importance that it once did - we get our time sensitive announcements by email these days.

In fact maybe the end of Saturday delivery is a boon for us culturally.  With digital communication, work schedules have increasingly run into home schedules.  Maybe this is the physical world's way of saying to the digital: "enough is enough."  Let there be peace on weekends.

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