Bootleg

Back in the olden days, when Napster was still a thing, record industry execs spent a whole lot of time and money trying to prosecute people for digitally downloading music. They contended that people were stealing music because they didn’t want to pay for it. But, in retrospect, it’s clear that people were stealing music because that was the only way to get it online. As digital album sales data demonstrate, once they were able to buy music digitally, people flocked to that option in droves.1

During the pre-iTunes Store period, I remember talking with Sean Parker, who compared the online theft of music at the time to bathtub gin. During Prohibition, people couldn’t buy liquor, so they started making it at home. Once Prohibition ended, they could have continued to home-brew inexpensively. Instead, nearly everyone was more than willing to pay for the quality, convenience, and consistency of store-bought brand liquor.

I thought of that again recently, when I came across a table calculating overall internet usage data for last year. Back in 2011, BitTorrent – the primary method for illegally downloading movies – accounted for 23 percent of daily internet traffic in North America, and the movie industry was tearing its hair out with distress about piracy. By last year, BitTorrent traffic was under 5 percent, while (legal, paid) Netflix and Amazon Video have now grown to account for more than 40% of daily traffic.2

In other words: the bathtub gin effect strikes again.

  1. While digital sales never rose to match album levels, that’s primarily a result of unbundling albums into individual songs – people often only want one or two songs from a given album – and moving heavily to a streaming model – which tends to increase consumption without increasing revenue as incremental consumption is free. While both are great for consumers, and less great for record company profits, they’re business model choices made by the industry itself.) ↩︎
  2. I expect things will push even further in that direction once studios give up the practice of ‘windowing’ – delaying the digital release of films until after their full theatrical run. I’ve long contended that a lot of people would be willing to pay fairly high prices (as two movie tickets now closes in on $40, even before marked-up popcorn) to watch new movies at home on the same day that they’re theatrically released. ↩︎

Fascinatin’ ‘Rithm

One of the goals for Composite over time is to build automated mass-personalization for our clients, whether in prescribing workout programs, or pacing the acquisition of healthy eating habits.

I’ve started to sketch a few of those algorithms out, and the flow-charts I’ve amassed definitely look more than a bit like a prop from A Beautiful Mind.

So I was happy to see this xkcd comic today, which pretty much nails my present mood:

Lump this, I suppose, under “nobody knew fitness could be so complicated.”

Earn It

As I blogged about last week, progressive overload is one of the most fundamental principles in fitness: for your body to adapt positively, you need to gradually increase the stress induced by successive workouts. To get stronger, in other words, you need to lift more weight over time.

That’s where barbells come in: they allow you to add load, with more safety and efficiency, than nearly anything else. But just because barbell-based movements are where you probably want to end up doesn’t mean they’re the best place to start. Indeed, starting barbell movements before you have a requisite base of strength is a quick road to disaster. If you can’t generate the stability needed to do a barbell exercise perfectly, your body will compensate with less ideal movement patterns to accommodate the load, putting your joints and muscles at serious risk.

If you look around a commercial gym, you can see all kinds of terrible movements in action: unsafe joint mechanics, limited range of motion, and general wobbly disaster. In almost all of those cases, the root of the problem is the same: people ran before they could walk, adding load to a dysfunctional movement.

If you can’t squat perfectly without weight, adding weight is only going to make things worse.

That’s why, at Composite, we build all of our clients’ movements from the ground up. You need to show us 25 perfect, unbroken squats before we add any load at all. Then you need to build up to 25 perfect, unbroken goblet squats while holding half your bodyweight (60 pounds, say, for a 120 pound woman) before we graduate to the bar.

Similarly, if you can’t do 10 perfect, unbroken pushups – with core stability, and a range of motion from full plank lockout at the top to chest literally touching the floor at the bottom – you have no business bench pressing. We see big guys all the time who frequently bench press 225 pounds, yet who can’t pass the pushup test. And, funny enough, they’re also the same guys who show up with a history of persistent shoulder injury.

And while a lot of people spend time on accessory movements to hit their beach muscles – bicep curls, crunches until the cows come home – they’re equally ineffective for beginners. If you can’t do eight strict pull-ups, put down the E-Z Curl bar. And if you can’t farmer’s walk for 30 seconds while holding at least 1-2x your body weight, then start practicing that instead, as it’s all the core work you need.

Sure, the basics aren’t sexy. But they’re also the fastest, safest, and most effective route to results – and long-term health.

100

I remember a few years ago hearing Barack Obama explain the challenge of being President: because anything that had an easy solution would get solved by his departments and staff, by definition, every one of the problems and decisions that made it to his desk were all very difficult.

I thought of that again, a few days ago, when Trump observed, “this is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier." Nobody knew President-ing could be so complicated!

It’s been particularly interesting to see the swirling of healthcare policy over the past week, as I think it highlights the two major kinds of problems Trump has faced in his first hundred days, and I think is likely to face over the balance of this four years.

First, he’s enormously focused on solving the problem in front of him, with little regard for how that sets up the next steps. He’s all tactics and no strategy.

When the AHCA / Obamacare repeal faltered a month back, it was because the far-right Freedom Caucus took the bill down. Now, state waiver provisions appear to have pulled the Freedom Caucus back in, though with changes that likely alienated even more Republican moderates. But even if it does get through the House, it’s immediately dead in the water in the Senate. And if, by some miracle, it makes it all the way to Trump’s desk, the bill’s hugely unpopular with voters (garnering just 17% approval by recent polls), and likely to become even more so as tens of millions of Trump voters lose healthcare he promised to protect.

So, at a big picture level, the AHCA looks pretty bad. But the first step – getting the Freedom Caucus on board – still looks enough like a win in the short term to Trump that he was willing to put his weight behind it, longer-term consequences be damned.

Second, Trump also appears to falter when understanding the systems nature of government (and the world). When he’s pulled back on campaign promises (like labeling China a currency manipulator), it’s largely been because carrying them out would have second-order consequences (like losing China’s support in dealing with North Korea) that he previously didn’t grasp.

We’ve seen that this week in healthcare, too, with the White House’s unwillingness to commit to a policy on Obamacare cost-sharing reduction (“CSR”) subsidies.

Admittedly, the topic is slightly wonky, but bear with me: while Obamacare requires the government to subsidize health insurance premiums, those in the lowest income brackets still wouldn’t be able to afford the other costs of those plans: co-pays and deductibles when you actually use the insurance. So Obamacare also authorized CSR subsidies, which help cover those co-pays and deductibles. While the government is required to keep paying the health insurance premiums by law, a judge ruled a few years back that they could drop those CSR payments.

If you’re trying to cut government cost, and reduce the amount spent on Obamacare in particular, the $7B yearly cost of CSRs seem like a good place to start.

But, in fact, the downstream effects work completely to the contrary.

Because of the way Obamacare is drafted, if the government doesn’t pay the CSR subsidies, it’s not the low-income insured who get stuck with the bill. Instead, insurance companies are required to pick up the slack. Doing that is expensive. So to stay profitable, insurers would need to jack up premiums substantially overall – nearly 20% on average by estimate of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

With higher premiums, a bunch of middle class buyers (who don’t get subsidies) would conclude they couldn’t afford insurance, and would just drop out of the market.

But because the government is required to keep low-income premiums at a fixed cost, even if it doesn’t pay CSR subsidies, low-income buyers could stay in the market, still pay what they do now as mandated by Obamacare, and the bill for the increase in their premiums would go right back to the government. By Kaiser’s estimates, those increased premiums would cost the government $10B annually – $3B more than they saved by killing the CSRs.

In other words, while killing CSRs looks like a win in isolation (a $7B savings and a blow to Obamacare), it actually increases what the government will have to spend on Obamacare in the end, while also leaving a slew of middle-class people newly uninsured for no reason.

It’s a really dumb idea. But one that’s only clearly a dumb idea if you can understand that, in a complex system, the results of simple actions can be similarly complex.

With three and three-quarters years to go in this term, there’s still plenty of time for Trump to get better, or worse. We don’t know what Democrats will do (actually, we probably do: devolve into infighting and Bernie vs. moderates / economics-first vs. identity-politics-first civil war), what’s going to happen in the rest of the world, whether we’ll face terrorism or economic disaster at home, etc. But, politics aside, these two big troubles with Trump – his inability to think strategically and to understand complex systems – are enough to make me worry it’s not going to be pretty.

Wined Up

A lot of tech-world prognosticators have tagged virtual reality as ‘the next big thing.’ But just as many have pointed out that VR (the ability to interact with a virtual world) will pale in comparison to the sister technology of AR – augmented reality, or the ability to overlay virtual information over the real world.

With a pair of AR-enhanced glasses (or, eventually, contacts) on, you might be able to repair an engine with specs and labels for it digitally overlaid on the metal, or walk through a party with people’s LinkedIn profiles and recent social media updates floating above their heads, like a scene straight out of Super Sad True Love Story.

While that level of interaction is (perhaps fortunately) still a ways off, we’re now seeing some impressive early examples of AR on mobile phones. Consider the Google Translate app, which can translate real-world signs and documents on the fly through your phone’s camera:

Or the venerable SkyView app, which overlays constellations and star and planet names on the night sky:

Both are fun and (at least intermittently) useful, though neither hits as close to home as the Vivino app. The app has long allowed you to scan a wine bottle, to see ratings for it, solving the complete information vacuum represented by most wine stores. But the latest update expands that to an even more socially fraught situation: navigating a restaurant wine list.

Sure, you can fall back to wines you know, or make semi-educated guesses based on varietal and region. Or, with Vivino, you can just point your phone at the list, and find out about the specifics of every wine on it, based on the collective wisdom of the apps 20+ million users:

We may still be a ways off from living in an episode of Black Mirror, but I suspect we’ll be seeing a steady increase of these single-purpose, phone-based AR tools along the way. Cheers to that.

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