Instructions

When I was in high school, I truly loved H. Jackson Brown’s Life’s Little Instruction Book, a collection of short bits of wisdom Brown originally typed up and gifted to his son on his first day of college.

A surprising number of the instructions have stuck with me over the years, word for word. Things like:

“If in a fight, hit first and hit hard.”

“Choose your life’s mate carefully. From this one decision will come ninety percent of all your happiness or misery.”

“When complimented, a sincere ‘thank you’ is the only response required.”

So, earlier this week, when I came across it again by chance, I gave it a quick re-read. And I still think it’s absolutely great.

Though I had, in the years since I last picked it up, forgotten what was always perhaps my favorite part: a short poem Brown wrote at the beginning of the collection, which I think so beautifully summarizes what it means to be a father and a son:

Son, how can I help you see?
May I give you my shoulders
to stand on?
Now you see farther than me.
Now you see for both of us.
Won’t you tell me what you see?

300

In my entire life, I’ve probably bowled less than twenty games; when I do, I’m pretty happy just to score above 100. So I was exceedingly impressed when I recently discovered this video, in which a dude breaks a world record by bowling a perfect game in under 90 seconds, using all the lanes in the alley in rapid succession:

It made me think of, nearly twenty years ago, planning a bowling holiday party for my first company. Though I showed up believing the open bar would be the main draw, my colleagues began to arrive toting their own monogrammed balls and shoes, and I quickly realized things were about to get ugly. I went home that night wondering: should I spend at least some time learning to bowl, at least to the point that I’m no longer a horrific embarrassment?

The same thing happens whenever I (rather infrequently) play pool, a game that I can geometrically crush in my mind, yet that somehow goes badly awry when actual cue makes contact with real-life ball. And, similarly, whenever I end up having to draw something in public, the picture of a dog in my mind’s eye devolving into a squiggly, misshapen cow-creature when committed to whiteboard or page.

At various times, I’ve given thought to getting, if not good, then at least decent at any of those pursuits, too. Much like I’ve considered studying chess (something I feel like I’d be good at, even if the half-dozen games over the course of my life don’t precisely back that up), learning to ride a motorcycle, or just figuring out how to do that ‘loud whistle with your fingers in your mouth’ thing.

But, in the end, I’ve inevitably concluded that, at this point in my life, I already have a full weekly schedule. So it’s not a question of whether I’d like to be good at golf; it’s a question of whether I’d like that more than some other equally time-intensive commitment that’s already on my roster.

It reminds me a bit of the well-trafficked story about the advice Warren Buffett gave to his personal pilot, Mike Flint. Flint asked for career advice, so Buffett suggested they draw up together a list of Flint’s top 25 goals. Then he had Flint circle the top five goals on that list.

Flint told Buffett he’d get to work on those five right away.

“But what about the ones you didn’t circle?” Buffett asked.

“Well, the top 5 are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second,” Flint replied. “They’re still important, so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”

To which Buffett replied, “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”

So, in short, no learning Chinese, getting a flying license, or anything else. I feel good enough about my own ‘top five’ that I can reliably stick with my plan. But I do still, now and again, come across a crazy video of a crack bowler on the Internet, and pine for the chance to somehow do it all. As I recently quoted Tolkien: “I wish life was not so short. Languages take such a time, and so do all the things one wants to know about.”

Poly-anna

I don’t have a great history of endorsing email apps, as the last two I jumped behind (first Sparrow, then Mailbox) were both acquired and then discontinued pretty much immediately after I plugged them.

Nonetheless, chancing fate, I’d like to once again make an email client recommendation: Polymail.

First, it’s clean and fast.

Second, it integrates a bunch of useful features otherwise only available as separate services: snoozing messages to reappear in the future, per-recipient read notifications on sent messages, the ability to send emails at a scheduled later time, contact profiles with integrated social media / past interactions, etc.

Third, it’s the only client I’ve found that also integrates two of Gmail’s best browser interface features: undo send, and inbox categories.

And fourth and perhaps best of all, it has a surprisingly effective one-click unsubscribe button at the top of any automated email. While most of those emails end up in the aforementioned inbox categories, rather than my primary inbox, I also find my email wrangling is far less stressful if I cut back on the volume of received messages overall. Between news alerts, messages from merchants I’ve bought from in the past, social networking notifications, etc., the amount of ‘bacn’ (i.e., one step up from spam) that I’d been getting daily was fairly mind-boggling. With just a few weeks of liberal unsubscribe button use, I’ve whittled those down by nearly 90%, to the point that I actually read (and want to read) nearly everything that shows up.

So, Polymail. It’s on Mac and iPhone / iPad now, and coming to Android and (for those living on the dark side – I’m looking at you, Ole) Windows shortly. Check it out!

Variable

One of the most fundamental principles in fitness is progressive overload: gradually increasing workout stress over time, so that your body adapts positively to that increase. Perhaps that’s adding five pounds to your squat each time you lift to build strength, or lengthening successive runs to go from a mile to a marathon.

But while overload is easy on paper, it’s far more complicated in real life. Human bodies don’t adapt linearly in even the best of conditions, and progress is even more unpredictable once you factor in life stress, travel, lack of sleep, or a night of heavy drinking and too much dessert. Continuing to overload beyond what your body can keep up with leads to overtraining, which in turn causes illness and injuries, setting progress back.

So as you move forward in training, it’s useful to be able to monitor how well your body is adapting. While there are a number of approaches that work, one of the simplest and most empirically validated is tracking heart-rate variability (or HRV).

We tend to think of our heart as beating in a steady tick-tock. In reality, each beat varies a bit from the last. In fact, a healthy heart has a great deal of variability, whereas increasing regularity (as data from the Framingham study and others have consistently shown) drives increasing risk of heart disease.

Heart-rate variability results from the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is like the gas in a car, revving our bodies up for increased output, whereas the parasympathetic is like the brakes, bringing us down into rest and relaxation.

When the sympathetic nervous system overwhelms the parasympathetic, your heart-rate variability decreases. And, similarly, when your sympathetic nervous system overwhelms the parasympathetic, you’re on the road to overtraining.

As a result, monitoring heart-rate variability is a great way to simultaneously monitor overtraining.

While, previously, measuring HRV required specialized equipment (whether an EKG or a chest-strapped heart-rate monitor), the brilliant folks behind the app HRV4Training recently developed and clinically validated an approach to measurement using just your smartphone.

The way it works is simple: each morning, right after you wake up, you hold your finger over the phone’s camera lens for one minute. From that, the app determines your HRV for the day, compares the number to your moving averages over the past seven days and two months, and kicks out a simple recommendation: something like “go ahead and train, but limit intensity,” or “if you planned intense training, go for it.”

As I admitted on Friday, I’ve sometimes been lax with daily HRV tracking. But I always regret it when I am. HRV provides a great window into how I’m adapting to the progressive overload of my workouts, and it’s been a powerful tool in helping to keep me healthy and injury-free, moving forward over the longer haul.

So download HRV4Training, and overload yourself, just the right amount.

All the News that Fits We Print

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics [Murray Gell-Mann is an American physicist who received the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics]. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

– Michael Crichton

Z’s

I admit it: I’m both lazy and forgetful.

So while I sometimes manage to track useful health markers (like, for example, heart-rate variability each morning with the excellent HRV4Training app, to monitor over-training), I also often end up going for days and weeks ignoring them completely.

That’s why I’m particularly enthused about any app that works regardless of whether my brain is engaged, like AutoSleep for Apple Watch and iPhone.

Unlike other Apple Watch sleep trackers, this one doesn’t require me to actively tell it when I go to sleep and wake up, yet it’s surprisingly accurate nonetheless. Even better, as I only wear my watch to bed some nights, it still works even when the watch is on the charger. Sure, those nights don’t include sleep quality (which the app derives from heart rate and restlessness data from the watch), but it still accurately clocks start and stop times from when I plug in and unlock my phone (something that, shamefully enough, tends to be my last and first actions of the day). And it even correctly subtracts time for early morning pee breaks, as I (like, I think, most people) briefly turn on the screen of my phone when I get up in the middle of the night to see what time it is.

If my trailing average sleep duration closes in on eight hours nightly, I’m well-poised to hit PRs; whereas, if I’m averaging under seven hours (or, worse, six), I’m lucky to get through my workouts at all (and, frankly, equally lucky to just get through the day). When I keep track of that number in my head, I find I overly weight the prior night (or two), and can barely remember how much I slept on any nights even a day or two further back. AutoSleep’s home page serves as a far more reliable reference.

Knowing when to push myself – and when not to – has been key to keeping me training productively and injury-free for long stretches. If you think it might be for you, too, download AutoSleep; it’s well worth the $2.99 cost.

Rockin’ Out

Went with Jess this past weekend to hike the Great Stairs / Peanut Leap Cascade loop in Palisades Park, arguably the most challenging hike in New Jersey. It’s relatively short – only about three miles – but with very steep descents and ascents, and a whole lot of scrambling. Highly recommended.

Slice ‘em and Weep

Five or six years back, I was discussing cooking with Naval Ravikant, who observed that a surprising majority of the entrepreneurs he knew seemed to love to cook. I’d noticed the same thing, though it made a lot of sense to me: both are about creating something from scratch, then sharing it with others. But while a startup requires years of slow slogging, a meal is something you can put together, enjoy with others, and receive course-correcting feedback on within the span of a single evening. Cooking fills your evening with a sense of success, of completion, that’s far more elusive in a company-building day job.

In the years since, I’ve watched the habits of chef-ing entrepreneurs, and it’s clear most of them bring the same science-loving nerdiness, and the same analytical approach, to both pursuits. Which is why so many of them also seem to be fans of Serious Eats, where Cook’s Illustrated alum J. Kenji López-Alt perfects recipes with a modern foodie spin on America’s Test Kitchen rigor.

Jess bought me a copy of López-Alt’s excellent The Food Lab earlier this year, and (though it’s a bit of a doorstop at 900+ pages) I’ve since read it cover to cover. Among the many takeaways was a small and surprising point I thought about this morning, as I was making salads to pack for lunch: how you slice an onion has a significant impact on how those slices taste.

You can read a full discussion of the difference here, but in summary:

Most people slice onions by cutting them in half, turning the stem to the right or left side, then slicing into half moons, like so:

The problem is, that ruptures a lot of cells in the onion, releasing lachrymators, the chemical compounds that make your eyes water and that sometimes give raw onions an off-puttingly overpowering taste.

To minimize that, simply rotate the onion ninety degrees, and instead slice it pole-to-pole, like this:

You can test this side-by-side, cutting the two halves of an onion different ways. Even better, store the two batches in separate containers for ten minutes, then open and sniff them. As López-Alt puts it, “there's no doubt that the orbitally sliced onion is stronger, giving off a powerful stench of White Castle dumpsters and bad dates.” I’ve tried it myself, and he’s most certainly right.

So, if nothing else, start slicing your onion the better way. But also consider buying and reading The Food Lab, so you can put similar insights to work across the board. If you’re a results-minded home (or even pro) chef, it’s definitely worth the time.

Histamined

Eight years ago, I blogged about having terrible spring allergies in NYC, and about how, because I never had them in my California youth (I suspect due to arboreal differences between the coasts), I got caught off guard each year when allergy season hit.

Now a full twenty years into East Coast life, I still completely forget about my spring allergies, and it still takes me a few days of sniffling, sneezing, and eye-itching to remember, oh wait, I’m not dying, I’m just allergic to the world.

This time, however, at least I was ready, having socked away meds last spring in preparation. And while Zyrtec is somewhat effective for me, Nasonex is basically a miracle. So good, in fact, that I can completely forget I even have allergies, as long as I’m using the two together.

Which, I suppose, is just going to perpetuate my longer-term forgetfulness. Perhaps I need to put a note in my calendar for March 20th, 2018: SPRING IS HERE, YOU MORON, AND YOU’RE ALLERGIC TO IT.

PSA: Stop Flip-Flopping

With summer weather upon us, a lot of people are breaking their flip-flops out from the closet.

My advice is: don’t.

First, if you’re not currently a member of a fraternity, it’s probably not helping your look.

But second, and more importantly, flip-flops are a biomechanical disaster.

Your feet are a beautiful system, designed over thousands of generations of evolution to withstand pounding by forces several times your bodyweight, thousands of times each day. Fundamentally, your foot is a mechanical arch (cf., the arch of your foot), leveraging physics to accept and then dissipate force with ease.

Or, at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

To illustrate, try this: lift your big toe. You’ll notice that, when you do, the arch of your foot pulls taught. The same thing happens when you keep your toe planted, but lift your heel – the way your back foot moves on each step as you walk. That pulling taught is called the Windlass Effect, and it allows you to support your weight using the strength of your fascia, tough connective tissue that surrounds your muscles. The Windlass action tightens up the fascia in your arch (the plantar fascia), as well as fascia in your calves and upper legs, like the IT band. And that fascia is super strong. In fact, you could literally hang a car from your IT band.

But if you’re wearing flip-flops, your big toe does something different: it scrunches in on every step, holding your shoe in place. That prevents the Windlass effect, so instead of pounding your strong fascia, you instead mash the tendons and soft-tissue of your feet, the cartilage and meniscus in your knees, etc., none of which were designed for that job.

So, in short, if you want to avoid plantar fasciitis, knee replacements, etc., stop wearing flip-flops. Sure, you can wear them on the beach / at the pool. But if you’re just walking around in warm weather, try something like a Vans slip-on (timelessly surfer chic), a strappy sandal, or anything else that holds on to your foot without your active effort.

You’ll look better. And you’ll make it to fall with a healthy leg up.