Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Emperor of All Maladies

Cancer is the modern killer that seems to fit our society perfectly. It is not a single disease, but a related group of many different conditions, all of which involve cells growing out of control. Reports of cancer have occurred back in ancient times. However, it has become much more prevalent today. Most cancers require multiple mutations to occur before cells start growing "out of control". People born with a mutation will often have a head start, however, getting cancer is not a given. It occurs more often in older people because they have had a greater chance to have a mutation occur. Carcinogens help aid the mutation process, but are no guarantee of contracting cancer. Some cancers (such as prostate cancer) occur frequently in old age, yet are often not the cause of death. Others may be extremely genetically related and occur at younger ages.
The medical profession has gone through many phases in the attempt to cure cancer. The many different types of cancer have differing biologies and treatments. The understanding of cancer has changed over time. Researchers had thought they had found strong indicators and causes, but the "easy" ones were often isolated to a few small types of cancers. Initial treatment used the "all out war" approach. A cancer and any nearby tissue were removed. Toxins and radiation were used to eradicate any cells. (Alas, this would often cause harm to the person and other parts of their body.) Modern research has helped uncover gene pathways and enable more targeted approaches that only impact unique aspects of the cancer cells. Cancer, however, grows and mutates rapidly, requiring targeted approaches to adapt to the changes. Some cancers have high rates of cure success, while others are still a death sentence.
Politics often becomes involved in treatments. If a potential cure is available, why limit it to a few people in chemical trials? Why not let everyone benefit? The quest to find a great cure has lead to some not-so-great experiences. For breast cancer, a South African doctor was showing extremely high remission rates for his procedure. People demanded it and forced insurance companies to cover it. Alas, it turns out the results were fraudulent, and not independently confirmed. It did not lead to long-term success and the insurance companies were actually right to be hesitant. Even good cures more only prolong life a few months or years. Is it worth it? For some people individually, the extra time may be a great benefit. For society, however, we are still looking for the long term cure.

Mind Gut Connection

Our gut plays a significant role in our daily life. On the surface, we often disregard the influence of our stomach. However, we refer to certain decisions as being "gut reactions". We know that something outside of our conscious brain is guiding us to act. The microbiotic diversity in our digestive system is huge. Much of the diversity comes about in our first few years of life. Our individual microbiota can impact us in many ways, even down to the way we act and our moods. Alas, we often disregard the importance of our gut. We'll take antibiotics that indiscriminately kill off portions of our "colony" of organisms. We eat all sorts of "junk" that is not helpful to our gut. We attempt to treat symptoms that arise directly, rather than address the underlying causes. Modern medicine typically disregard the strong mind-gut connection and suffers the consequences.


Plenitude was written in 2010 in the aftermath of the great financial crisis. The change in the economy and needs for individual workers seemed like the perfect setting for the author's "plenitude" theory of eco-friendly, sustainable economy. Alas, the economy was since rebounded and people have now gone back to the "business as usual" economy. This makes the book hard to read, even if it does have some good points.
Plenitude economics involves having enough material wealth to make you happy, while spending time outside the market economy to build up skills and personal relationships. It does not necessarily mean forgoing material aspects of life, but instead providing some in areas outside the market. People will work fewer hours at their jobs, and spend more time in hobbies, unpaid work, and "domestic production" (gardening, fixing things, etc.) They will purchase higher quality goods and take care of them so that they last longer. They will exchange with their friends and neighbors. Everyone will be conscious of the environment, and treat nature as a depleatable resource rather than something that is free for the taking. The "green economy" will create many small companies with environmentally friendly jobs. Additional job growth will occur not so much by economic growth, but instead by working fewer hours. (We have already scaled down a typical work year by over a thousand hours since the industrial revolution.)
I love a lot of the theory of Plenitude. However, it came across as very Utopian. What about the free riders? Would people actually devote time to personal production if they worked less, or would the market just come in with more entertainment options? Furthermore, the projections of future after the economic downturn proved to be unfounded. The business as usual economy came back with a vengeance. Can the economy really complete a transformation on its own?

Sunday, April 09, 2017

The Soul of a New Machine

Computers at one time were complex machines that only large businesses could afford to buy. Mini-computers brought down the cost of computing and started to allow even greater numbers of companies to adopt technology. Initially these computers were doing simple "rote" tasks (such as mathematical calculations.) However, they gradually grew to take on newer and more powerful tasks. (Alas, it does seem that some of these early programs from the 1980s can still be found in the wild today!)
The Soul of a New Machine goes back to the early days of computing when Data General was one of the powerhouse companies in the mini-computer field. The company was started by engineers that left Digital to form their bigger and better company. They recruited the hot-shot engineers that lived for computing, and pretty much drove them to burn out while they were in their twenties. The corporate misadventures and drive could easily be mistaken for a late 1990s dot-com, or a modern day social media company. However, this was an early 1980s computer company. They were making hardware and low-level operating systems instead of high-level webapps and software. They were also hidden out in a suburban Boston office park, rather than a central San Francisco office building. However, the internal drive was still the same.
The interleaves the stories of the personalities with the technical details of what they were doing. (Much of the technical discussion is still at the underpinnings of modern computing. However, today, there are but a few dominant players, such as intel, with most computers being assembled by what would be considered "OEMs" in this story.) There is also a turf war over "outsourcing". However, in this case it was a separate office set up in North Carolina, rather than one overseas. Eventually, the Boston team succeeds in creating their glamorous machine. The Eagle helped to save Data General and spur the company to a billion dollars in sales. The book ends with the high note. However, data general was to hit hard times afterwards as they failed to make inroads in the micro-computer industry. They introduced a legitimate laptop in 1984 - but were ahead of the times with a 3.5 inch disk drive. The company was eventually sold to EMC, who shuttered everything other than the storage lines. The domain name was eventually sold to dollar general, pretty much ending any traces of the company. (Digital did not fare much better. They did manage to launch Altavista, one of the best early search engines. However, it fell behind google and was sold. Digital eventually ended up being owned by HP, who also sold off the domain name.)

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Pronto Bike Share

I had a free day pass to use to try Pronto bike share. I had a couple errands to do that would take me around First Hill, Westlake, downtown and the Seattle Center. It was the core service area of the bike share, so it seemed like a good opportunity.

It seemed fairly straightforward. You used a credit card to validate yourself, though the day pass code meant nothing was charged. The terminal told me what I needed to do. Though did it really need to give me 90 pages of terms and conditions? Would anybody try to read that? And if they did, good look to anybody else trying to rent a bike.

At first, it took me a little while to figure out how to find a number of a bike to unlock. My session ended up expiring before I found my first bike. I had to go back and go through things again once I figured out where the bike number was.

Getting to Westlake was painless. There was a station across the street from the building I was going to. I was able to lock up and get on my way in a hurry.

First Hill was another story. There was a station at Seattle University, but a huge gap around the medical complex. (This in spite of a large amount of bike parking in the area.) I ended up riding a bike from Westlake to what looked like a close station downtown and then walking up to First Hill. It probably saved a little time. (Though it did give me the super long disclaimer again. Any time savings would have been eaten up trying to read that.)

After walking back down the hill to King Street Station, I found plenty of bikes nearby. At least the train station was covered. I also noticed a bunch of stations along the waterfront. I pedaled quickly to get up to the Seattle Center before the 30 minutes was up. The bikes are big and heavy, but they move pretty well. They had a basket-like thing on front, but there really wasn't room to store anything.

I made it to the Seattle Center with time to spare. Alas, while there were many bike share stations along the water front, Lower Queen Anne was pretty empty. The office buildings would be great candidates for bike share stations. A bike could easily get there faster than the slow prodding buses. But, alas, it appears the stations were situated primarily in tourist areas.

I can understand why the bike share stations did not do well. The station density was just not there to make it useful for running errands. Add in the overhead of checking out and returning a bike, and simply walking was a better option in many cases. The stations seemed to be placed primarily where it was "easy" to place them, primarily in tourist areas. However, the process to take a one-off trip was clunky, and you were supposed to have your own helmet.

I'm glad the city didn't go for the electric bike system. Hills may appear to be an issue. However, the bikes did seem to be able to handle the downtown hills without much of a problem. Without an adequate density of stations, even a hill climbing bike would not be much use.

I don't feel bad that Pronto has ceased to exist. However, it would be nice if the city returned the street-side stations into bike parking instead of car parking.

The Organized Mind

Today we have easy access to orders of magnitude more information than we could process. How to best utilize the wonderful computer that is our mind? We may get hoodwinked into thinking we can multitask, but that usually just means we are doing a whole bunch of things poorly. True work happens when we can get into a flow state that is unimpeded by other thoughts. However, creative solutions often happen when we let our mind wonder off on its own. Sleep is an important part of the equation and serves as the "sorting" time where our brain processes and organizes everything. Without enough sleep, our brain will not remember or work as well as it should.

The Organized mind is primarily a science book that explains how our mind works. It also provides some useful information on how we can maximize the efficiency and use of our mind. There are also some stories shared with Levitin's other books. As a book talking about organization, it at times felt a little disorganized, but still kept interesting.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

World on Fire

The introduction discusses the author's aunt's murder in the Philippines. She was a rich Chinese woman who employed many poor Chinese. She didn't think much of the people she employed, and even had them live in relatively poor conditions. (Yet those were probably better conditions than they would otherwise live in.) The chauffeur one day just decided to slit her throat. (Would things have been different if she treated them better? Or were the relations just such a mess that it was inevitable?)

Many examples are provided of "dominant minorities" in parts of the world. The Chinese tend to dominate the economy in most of Southeast Asia. This creates tensions with the ethnic majorities (who often dominate politics.) There is often an uneasy truce with the political elite - they know they need the Chinese help to keep the economy going. However, when tensions boil over it is often the "poorer" Chinese that feel the brunt of the conflict. (They are the one that the common people most often see. They don't have the big advantages that the uber-wealthy have.)

The implementation of democracy and capitalism tends to increase the conflict. Democracy brings about political control by the ethnic majority. Capitalism and market liberalization tends to increase economic power of the economically dominant minority. The reforms typically raise the standard of living for everyone. However, the minority tends to show a greater improvement, leading to a greater differentiation. This creates more conflict that empowers "nationalist" type governments and increases the internal conflict. Countries like Singapore luck out because the majority is the economically dominant Chinese.

Dominant minorities have achieved their positions through a variety of means. In parts of Africa (such as Zimbabwe and South Africa) and Latin America, the descendants of colonists have a dominant position in society. The "whites" tend to have land and the historical advantages to dominate the economy. The "mixed-race" individuals tend to be mid-tier, while the "natives" are more likely to live in poverty. In same countries "race" can be fairly arbitrary, with the wealthy being considered "white", regardless of original race. Countries can sometimes view themselves as large "melting pots" where everybody is of a common race. And then, a charismatic politician can turn things around and convince the poor that they are the true natives that should wrest control of the land from the colonial powers. (Hugo Chavez and Robert Mugabe both come to mind here.)

In other countries, the dominant minority arose independently and often due to oppression. Lebanese dominate many African countries. They did not have the advantages of the colonial powers, but worked hard and rose in strength. Many of the Russian Oligarchs are Jewish. They were prevented from attending the best universities or rising up in the Communist hierarchy, and thus had to work hard and develop skills and ruthlessness that helped them succeed during the the fall of communism. Certain tribal groups control other countries, often using close knit connections to dominate.

The dominant minorities theory can even be extended to the world. The United States dominates the world economy. This leads to resentment in many parts of the world. (These same people that resent the US are also likely to emulate the US and purchase many American products.) People may benefit from the many American products. Education and access to media and markets have helped them to increase their living standards. However, this access has also helped them to see how far they have to go to be like Americans.

Is there a solution? Equality may appear to resolve these issues. However, people always seem to find some way to differentiate. As long as somebody seems to be doing better, there will be conflict. However, if people see a way that they can get there, the conflict may be resolved. Perhaps we just need to let everybody be king for a day.

Conscious Capitalism

Conscious Capitalism is part business book, part history of Whole Foods and part political philosophy. The book is written in the voice of the founder and former CEO of whole foods, John Mackey. He has experienced both the the Austin-style socialism as well as free market capitalism. He has grown to be not too fond of socialism, and instead views capitalism as the force that can provide the greatest benefit for mankind. However, modern capitalism has often strayed from its positive roots and evolved to be more crony-capitalism. Many of the complaints from the left can be better addressed by a conscious form of capitalism than by socialism.

Conscious Capitalism can not be a whitewashing of a "mainstream" capitalism. It requires different values and commitments to value all the stakeholders. Suppliers, customers, employees and the community all have a say. When everyone feels valued they work better together and can achieve better results than can be achieved with command and control. Because conscious companies work together with their employees there is no need for unions. (Mackey gave an example of store in Madison that unionized. The union made many promises. Due to rules, the company was unable to make promises or implement changes on its own. However, at the non-unionized stores, the company was able to increase benefits, leaving the Madison store behind. They eventually voted to remove the union.) Advertising is also minimized. Customers can relate to the company and share their positive experiences. This word-of-mouth advertising is stronger and less costly.

Conscious companies still value profits. However, they are a means to delighting stakeholders rather than an end goal. When times are tough conscious companies have a chance to show their true commitment to stakeholders can be shown. All parties need to work together to make the appropriate stakeholders. They all have a say in things, rather than having something dictated from above. If done well, it can pa significant dividends over the long run.

The book describes many companies (such as Southwest Airlines, REI, Costco, Trader Joe's and Tata Group) that act as conscious companies. An empirical study also showed they significantly outperformed the stock market. (However, is this really causation? Or is it that high-performing companies chose to be more conscious?) It takes work to be a conscious company. Everyone can benefit, however, people may not want to make the change. The sacrifice can be greatest for those on top who will no longer be able to enjoy some of the "perks" of the position. It also may appear to be doing poorly in the short run. The past reputation and inertia may take a while to overcome. It also does not produce the instant results that Wall Street likes to see. In the long run, however, it encapsulates many of the important principles of good leadership and society. It is one of the ways that business can save itself from the anti-business climate permeating society.


An inner-city boy learned to run when he fled with his mom from his weapon-brandishing father. He is poor, but he aspires to be a great basketball player. He stops by a track-team practice and decides to show them what fast is. While the fast boys are racing, he runs along side to show that he is fast. The coach immediately warms to him and invites him to join the team. Over the next few weeks he goes through his ups and downs, getting into trouble (and often getting bailed out by the track coach.) Eventually he starts to enjoy track and gets close to the team and the coach. In the end, his family comes together to support him in his meet and he sees that the school "bully" runs track for another team.

The book is well paced. The main character has many flaws. I felt sympathy for him as he did things that would turn out badly. Alas, the "bad" usually ended up being not nearly as bad as it could have. It would have helped to have a few more consequences in order to have a more fulfilling reward. The book also broke with sport-book cliches and ended right before the big race took place. It felt slightly unfulfilling, but still seemed to work.