Best Served Cold

First, an admission: I hate iced coffee.

I love – love! – the hot version, whether a lovingly pulled single-origin double espresso or the cheap crap bodegas sling in paper cups.

But, for whatever reason, the cold stuff doesn’t do it for me. Nonetheless, I realize I’m an outlier, and therefore spend the summer watching my friends and family suck it down. In the past few years, the iced coffee trend has been towards cold brew. Yes, it’s smoother and sweeter than hot-brewed coffee, with less than half the acidity, and more caffeine kick. But, at most joints, it’s also upwards of double the cost of a hot coffee.

In part, that’s due to additional expenses on coffee shops’ part: plastic cups, straws, ice machines to crank out ice. But in larger part, it’s also due to the hipster factor; people really want cold brew these days, so shops up the price because they can.

But here’s the dirty secret: cold brew coffee is super-duper easy to make, dirt cheap, right in your own home.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Buy some coffee beans. Go medium or dark roast, and ideally not crap.
  2. Grind them coarsely; fine and medium-fine grinds will end up cloudy and silty.
  3. Find a big pitcher, and add the grounds and water in a 1:5 ratio. I.e, 1 cup grinds, 5 cups water.
  4. Leave the pitcher somewhere out of the sun for 12-24 hours (any less and the beans won’t properly extract), stirring occasionally during the first few hours.
  5. Strain out the grinds. You can use a French press (pour in the mix, affix and press down the top, pour out the cold brew), pass it through cheesecloth (or, if you’re ghetto-fab / in a pinch, a paper towel), or (for the clearest coffee) put it through a coffee filter lining a funnel or the swung-out body of a drip coffee machine. Really, you should probably just get a Chemex, as it’s perfect for this, and makes truly excellent hot coffee, too.

Voila. You now have cold brew concentrate that will last a couple of weeks in your refrigerator (or, thanks to Jess, about 48 hours in mine).

To serve, fill a glass completely with ice (as the concentrate is strong and needs the ice to properly dilute), pour in the coffee (and milk, if you’re weak), and enjoy.

For bonus points, collect the money saved over time, and fill a swimming pool with it a la Scrooge McDuck; the cold brew makes a perfect poolside drink.

Master

A professor, a CEO, and a janitor are walking through a forest, when they come across a magic fairy.

“I will give each of you what you most desire,” says the fairy. “But first, you must do someone else’s job successfully for a day.”

“I’ll be an elementary school teacher,” says the professor immediately. “How hard can it be to teach six-year-olds to read?”

With a poof, the professor is teleported into a classroom.

A half hour later, the desks are overturned, the kids are screaming, crayon is scrawled all over the walls, and Jimmy, the class’s pet guinea pig, lays dead in a pool of his own blood.

“Get me out of here!” says the professor. And with another poof, he’s back in the forest.

Convinced he can do better, the CEO asks to become a waiter.

“I can certainly do that,” he says. “You just carry food back and forth. No problem.”

And with another poof, the CEO is in a bustling restaurant during the lunch rush.

“I said dressing on the side!” a woman is soon yelling at him. He drops four balanced plates while bussing a table. Three tables stiff him on the tip.

“This is ridiculous,” says the CEO. “I want out.”

And with a poof, he’s back in the forest, too.

The janitor strokes his chin in contemplation.

“I think,” he says, “I’d like to be an artist.”

“An artist?” she asks.

“Exactly,” he replies.

And so the janitor is teleported into an art studio. Surveying the supplies, he begins to smash brushes and palettes into pieces, then slowly glues dozens of those pieces onto a large, white canvas.

A collector walking through the studio sees the work and gasps.

“What a brilliant, evocative deconstruction of the creative process!” he exclaims.

With a snap, he summons his assistant, who offers the janitor twelve million dollars for the work.

And with a poof, the janitor is transported back to the forest, alongside the amazed fairy, professor, and CEO.

“How did you manage to fare so well as an artist?” they ask.

“Oh, it’s simple,” explains the janitor. “I have a master’s degree in art.”

Download This

On Tuesday, I was waiting for the subway with Jess and my parents, when an MTA employee announced that uptown train service had been temporarily halted due to a subway incident further uptown.

I pulled out my iPhone, and opened the Citizen app, which provides a real-time stream of incidents reported to 911, as well as a geotagged map of those locations, and live-streamed video from any Citizen user who happens to shoot a given incident.

Citizen told me that a subway had derailed near 125th St. minutes earlier, injuring more than 30 people, and strewing split open train cars across a number of tracks. I sent vibes of health and quick recovery to the injured passengers uptown, and suggested we head to the street to grab a cab; subway service wasn’t going to resume any time soon.

My father asked about the app, which reminded me that I frequently use a bunch of small, helpful, lesser-known iPhone apps. While a number of them are pretty specific, they’re each great if they match your specific use case. So, on the chance that you’d benefit from any you haven’t already discovered, here a handful of note:

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Apnea Trainer (iPhone): If you swim, SCUBA dive, or free dive, Apnea Trainer provides a great breathing exercise that, when done for 5-10 minutes three times a week, hugely increases breath-hold time. Also great for decreasing symptoms of mild to moderate asthma.

Citizen (iPhone & Android): As described, real-time info on emergencies nearby. Currently NYC only.

Coach’s Eye (iPhone & Android): Essential if you coach athletes of any stripe. Allows you to record video of a movement, then play it back in slow-mo / mark it up with highlights and lines. Huge for providing specific visual feedback.

Dark Sky (iPhone & Android): Scary-accurate hyper-local real-time weather forecasts. If you’re considering, say, whether it’s a good time to walk your two small dogs, Dark Sky can tell you it’s about to start raining heavily in 13 minutes, then stopping about 25 minutes later. Useful (though slightly creepy) to get ‘it’s about to start drizzling’ notifications, then hear rain outside the window thirty seconds later.

Editorial (iPhone): A full-featured text editor with Markdown support and powerful automation. If you live in BBEdit, TextMate, Sublime, etc. on the Mac, this is by far the closest you’ll find on mobile. Paired with Dropbox, it’s great for doing work on the fly.

Fantastical (iPhone): The best calendar app on the iPhone, and the Mac, as you can quickly and easily enter events using natural language.

Feedly (iPhone & Android): Given that I write a blog, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that I read them, too. Feedly is by far my favorite RSS reader, both through their website and their excellent app.

Foursquare (iPhone & Android): Less widely used than I’d expect, but my go-to if I want to both find a coffee shop or shoe store nearby, and find out if it’s any good. If you’re using something like Yelp, or just Apple or Google maps, default to this instead.

HRV4Training (iPhone & Android): Using the camera on your phone, this tracks trends in heart-rate variability, one of the best ways to prevent overtraining. As I’ve written about before, if you work out hard, you should definitely be using this.

The Infatuation (iPhone & Android): While I use Foursquare more generally, if I want to find a good restaurant, The Infatuation is my go-to. Based on at least dozens of field tests, I can say their recommendations and ratings have been 100% correct thus far.

Overcast (iPhone): If you listen to podcasts (and you should), this is an order of magnitude better than Apple’s built-in client in terms of discovery, playlist management, and playback.

Pocket (iPhone & Android): Not hugely obscure, but still not as broadly used as it deserves to be. If you find a longer article / video, use the browser plug-in to save it to Pocket, then read it offline from your phone when you’re in a subway, waiting at the doctor’s office, etc. Exponentially increases the amount of content I can consume.

Soulver (iPhone): Super-intuitive hybrid of a calculator and a spreadsheet. When I need to crunch numbers or brainstorm financial projections on the fly – for business or daily life – Soulver has completely replaced the built-in calculator app.

Todoist (iPhone & Android): Still my daily to-do list (though I use text files for longer-range planning, outlining, tracking, etc., I have a slew of recurring tasks, which are much easier managed when automated). Lightning-fast sync, powerful boolean search / filters, etc.

Ulysses (iPhone): Where I write all blog posts and long-form content on the Mac; I mostly use the mobile app for tweaks and edits. A powerful yet minimalist pair.

Zero (iPhone): The science behind intermittent fasting is pretty impressive, and it’s even more effective if your eating window ends as close to sundown as possible. Zero tracks the length of your daily fasts (I shoot for 16 hours), as well as the number of minutes and hours you eat post-sundown. A great way to cut fat, get healthier, etc.

And, finally, since this is already more than long enough, a bunch of other non-Apple apps I use – most well-known, a few less so. As I’m too lazy to link them all: 1Password, Amazon, Audible, Candy Crush, Caviar, Dropbox, Genius, Gmail, Google Maps, GuitarTuna, Instagram, Kindle, MiniBar, Netflix, Open Table, PayPal, Resy, Runkeeper, Seamless, Seconds Pro, Signal, SimpleNote, Tripit, Twitter, Uber, UberEATS, Washington Post, Zipcar. If you don’t know any of them, worth the Google.

Completely Foreign

One of the core ideas underlying Composite is that health is about habits – the small things you do day in and day out that add up over time to meaningful change.

To that end, we’ve been developing an algorithmic approach to acquiring new healthy habits. First, we assess clients’ current habits, in areas like movement, nutrition, and lifestyle. Then we automatically build a prioritized stack of new habits that would be maximally beneficial, introducing them a couple at a time. By monitoring compliance through an app (and egging clients on with accountability to a human coach), we can use learning techniques like spaced repetition to determine when we should be adding new habits, and when we should be doubling down on practicing ones already introduced.

As a result, I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time looking at other algorithmically-based learning systems. Which is what led me to discover language learning site Lingvist.

Lingvist is the brainchild of a physicist at CERN, who had been living in the French part of Switzerland for years, but had never learned the language. He built the prototype system for himself, studied with it for a few months, and developed enough fluency to test out of the equivalent of a high-school French class.

The approach weighs the importance of words by real-world statistical occurrence, so you spend most of your time focused on the parts of the language you’ll actually use. (I discovered the value of this the hard way, when living in Japan as a high school exchange student; though I could say ‘kindly give me the fish of your brother Yamada,’ I couldn’t say ‘hey guys, I think we just ran out of toilet paper.’)

And it uses an adaptive algorithm: based on your real-time performance, Lingvist alters the pace of learning new words, and the frequency of re-testing old words, even within a single practice session.

I’ve spent some time playing with both the French and Spanish versions, and can confidently say Lingvist is très bon / muy bueno. Try it out yourself.

Game, Set(point), Match

I’ve long been fascinated by the set-point theory of happiness, which suggests that our level of emotional well-being is mostly determined by heredity and early-life-ingrained personality traits. As a result, our level of happiness remains mostly constant throughout our life, transiently changing due to events before returning again to a baseline over time.

Fortunately for me, my own set-point seems to be quite high. As Scott Adams put it, “my optimism is like an old cat that likes to disappear for days, but I always expect it to return.”

Earlier today, I had to deal with the tail end of a long-looming disaster, and two former colleagues were there, too. They seem to be wired precisely the opposite in terms of set point, as, though they came out standing objectively better than me, I watched them mope out the door, angry and miserable nonetheless.

Which made me realize: being happy by default is an enormous blessing, and one I shouldn’t overlook.

Penance

“And the only thing to do with a sin is to confess, do penance and then, after some kind of decent interval, ask for forgiveness.”
– Joseph J. Ellis

Reboot

“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”
– George Elliot

Contacted

Though both of my parents wear glasses, I didn’t myself, at least until eleventh grade. At that point, from my customary seat in the back row, I started having trouble reading what teachers wrote on the board. Rather than force a move to the front of the class, I got glasses. And though my prescription is totally pansy, enough so that my driver’s license doesn’t even stipulate a ‘corrective lenses’ restriction, I was thrilled enough by the razor-sharp clarity the glasses provided that I took to wearing them all the time.

A few months later, I got disposable contacts, too. And for my last two years in California, and my four years at Yale, I wore contacts more than half of the time. But when I moved to NYC, I found the gritty city air made contacts wildly uncomfortable for me after just a few hours. So, for the most part, I switched to wearing glasses full-time, defaulting to contacts only when glasses were particularly inconvenient, like when I was working out, or headed to the beach. Eventually, given the expense of disposables, I started phasing them out for workouts, too, defaulting instead to wandering the gym slightly blind.

So I was excited a few months back to discover Hubble Contacts, a subscription web service that delivers daily disposable contacts to your door for less than half the price of other providers.

I’ve been a loyal Warby Parker customer for the past six or seven years; their glasses are stylish, well constructed, and perfectly priced. And though the quality isn’t quite as good, and they don’t offer a home try-on option, I’ve also purchased a number of sunglasses from Zenni Optical. I have a terrible history of losing sunglasses in ocean waves, smashing them in bike crashes, etc. And as the Zenni’s run about $25 a pop (including the prescription lenses!), they’ve been perfect for me. (Jess, who’s also a Warby fan, has similarly used Zenni to stock up on a handful of ‘fun’ frames from Zenni; while you might not want bright red glasses as your only daily wear, at $25-30, the Zennis are cheap enough to be an occasional accessory).

Hubble offers a first set of 15 pairs of disposable contacts for just $3 in shipping cost. With next to nothing to lose, I decided they were worth testing out.

Based on some Googling, I determined that Hubble’s lenses are made from methafilcon A, with 55% water content, and a Dk score (a measure of oxygen permeability; higher is better) of 18. By way of comparison, Acuvue 1-Day Moist (what I’d worn before) have a Dk of 28, Acuvue1-Day TruEye a Dk of 55, and Dailies Total 1 a whopping Dk of 156.

And, indeed, for extended wear, I found the Hubbles just slightly less comfortable than than my prior Acuvues. But, frankly, neither are particularly comfortable for me for more than four or five hours. And within the hour or three window of a trek to the gym, I couldn’t differentiate them all, even when wearing a different brand in each eye.

So, for me, Hubble is a big win. They’re cheap enough that I’ve again returned to wearing contacts while working out. Though, if you’re an all-day contacts wearer, they may be less ideal. Nonetheless, for $3 in shipping, and the prospect of a 50% savings going forward if you decide you love them, it’s probably worth the experiment. Try Hubble out.

(Physical) Therapist’s Couch

The human body is pretty miraculous. It evolved to allow a nearly infinite number of movements: running, climbing, jumping, swinging, and more.

But you mostly use it for one thing: sitting down. You sit in your car or on the subway, you sit all day at your desk, you sit to eat lunch and dinner, and you sit on your couch to binge-watch Netflix at night.

That disjoint – between how your body was evolved to be used, and how you’re actually using it – causes all kinds of problems.

Here’s just one: when you sit, your hip flexors are in a shortened position. And after enough sitting, your body starts to treat that shortened position as the new normal. So when you stand back up, there’s not enough slack in the system. Your hip flexors are permanently tight.

That’s a problem by itself, since so many athletic movements – from running and jumping, to throwing a ball or throwing a punch – depend on generating powerful hip extension. Tight hip flexors oppose that extension, reducing the power you can create. It’s like driving with the parking brake on.

But the secondary effects are even worse. Let me explain:

Perhaps, in the past, you’ve bought beef to cook for dinner, and had to cut off the silver-skin.

Your muscles have silver-skin, too. It’s called fascia. In your body, your muscles cells are held together in bundles, and the fascia is what does the holding together.

In recent years, however, we’ve begun to realize that fascia also connects one bundle to the next, in running lines of tension. As the song says, your hip bone’s connected to your thigh bone. And, similarly, your hip muscle’s connected to your thigh muscle. Which, in turn, is connected to your calves, ankles and feet in one direction, and to your lower back, thoracic spine, shoulders and arms in the other.

In fact, there’s a single run of fascia that extends from your toes, up through your entire body, to your elbows. And your tight hip flexors are right in the middle of that fascia run.

When hip flexors get tight, they take slack out of the middle of the system, creating a game of ‘crack the whip’ that causes problems all the way up and down that chain. Now, your tight hip flexors start causing foot pain, or knee pain, or a bad back, or a tweaky shoulder.

Normalizing the length of your hip flexors, getting slack back in the system, has huge and far-reaching impacts.  It will make you a better athlete, prevent future injuries, and knock out a slew of nagging pains you’ve been living with too long.

Fortunately, you can make big inroads on fixing your hip flexors with just one simple stretch, popularized by Dr. Kelly Starrett. He calls it the ‘couch stretch’, because he and his family do it at night, on the front of their couch while they watch TV.

Here’s a demo, pulled from Composite’s 14-day Jump Start for new clients. (I cover similar topics as in this post for the first half of the video; if you just want to see the stretch, hop to about the six-minute mark.)

To recap:

  1. Get on your hands and knees in front of a wall (or, if you can’t peel yourself away from the tube, the arm of a couch).
  2. Put your right shin flat vertically against the wall; your knee should be wedged into the corner where the wall and floor meet, and your foot should be pointed so that your instep is against the wall.
  3. If you’re not bendy, this may be a stretch already. If you’re more flexible, you can put your left foot flat on the ground.
  4. Squeeze your butt. In particular, squeeze your right glute, the side with the foot that’s against the wall. This will help stabilize your low back, and correctly position your hips.
  5. While still squeezing your butt, try to lift your upper body upright. Think about making your spine long, extending the straight line between the top of your head and your tailbone. You want to get upright by opening at the hip, and not just by arching your low back.
  6. For bonus points, you can eventually work towards reaching both hands overhead, so long as you can do so with tight abs and glutes and with your back long and straight. In the beginning, however, you’ll probably want to use your hands on the floor or on your forward knee, to help push yourself upright. You can also put a box in front of your body, and push up on that.

Now hold that stretch for two minutes. (That’s how long it takes for the Golgi tendon organ receptors to give up, allowing you to reach your full stretch and make lasting change.) Then switch to the other side, and do two minutes on the other leg.

I strongly, strongly suggest timing yourself, as two minutes is waaaaaay longer than most people tend to hold a stretch by default otherwise. (Side note: interestingly, dentists similarly recommend toothbrushing for two minutes. There, too, without using a timer, most people average brushing for only a third of the recommended time. If you like having teeth, consider deploying your two-minute timer next to the sink while brushing, much as you do while Couch Stretching.)

The most common problems to guard against while doing the Couch Stretch:

  1. Your rear knee isn’t against the wall. Even if it means you can’t get your opposite foot up on the ground, keep your rear knee / shin / foot all the way up against the wall. That takes all the slack out of the system, making the stretch much more effective.
  2. Your forward foot is too close in. Take a big step forward with that foot, so that your forward shin is vertical, too.
  3. You’re over-arching your lower back. Hyper-extending your lumbar spine is a very common (and not very good for you) habit in general; it’s even more common in something like the couch stretch, where it’s easier to bend at your low back than to actually stretch the hip flexors you’re gunning for. Think about making your spine tall, and about keeping your low back flat, even if that means you can’t get as far towards upright.
  4. You’re making a ‘pain face’. Effective stretching isn’t a relaxing experience. Done right, the couch stretch is hard work! At the same time, it’s important not to grimace while doing it (more technically called ‘facial fixing’), which actually undercuts the neurological effectiveness of the stretch. Breathe, go to your happy place, and try to keep your face serene. It’s zen and the art of stretching!

That’s it.

Try it daily for the next two weeks; I suspect you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the huge positive impact.

Singularity: Not Quite Yet

My favorite recent update from a friend in the AI world: machine vision algorithms are currently having a terrible time differentiating Goldendoodle puppies and fried chicken.