In the world of ethics and moral philosophy, one of the most venerable thought experiments is the so-called ‘trolley problem,’ the most basic version of which is:

A runaway trolley is careening down a railway track. Up ahead, five people are tied onto the tracks, unable to move. Next to you is a lever; if you pull it, the trolley will switch to a different track. You notice that one person is standing on the second track. Is it more ethical for you to do nothing, and let the trolley kill the five people on the main track, or to pull the lever, and send the trolley over to kill one person instead?

Over the last fifty years, philosophers have debated the implications of the problem, complicated the question with a huge number of incrementally muddier variants, explored the neurobiology of how our brains consider such a choice, and polled vast swaths of respondents about what they might decide if faced by the (original or muddier variant) situation in real life.

But, up until recently, the thought experiment remained largely academic. In the past few years, however, with the rise of self-driving cars, it’s very much moved into the realm of practical concern.

While human drivers react too slowly to reason through hard choices in case of an accident, an artificially intelligent computer driver would have plenty of processor cycles to more fully consider its actions. Should it swerve your car away from a kid in the street to instead hit an older adult? How about away from that kid and into two older adults? Or away from that kid and into a concrete wall, even if it killed you, the driver, in the process?

Of course, technology tends to far outpace legislation, and in the rare occasions when we do legislate quickly around emerging technologies, the ‘solutions’ we bake into law often create problems far worse than the ones we intended to solve. So, for the near-term, I suspect we’ll be living in a world where private companies get to determine the ‘right’ answers to various trolley problem scenarios.

Which means, by basic game theory, that car companies will all default to solutions that save the driver, no matter what. (Consider choosing between two cars you might purchase: one has an ‘ethical’ decision algorithm that might kill you, while another has a more selfish algorithm that will always save your own ass; even though it may entail some rationalization about why you’re not a jerk for doing so, you’re buying that second, selfishly-programed car.)

That’s why we shouldn’t be surprised by a story in this month’s Car and Driver about Mercedes’ self-driving car plans, in which Mercedes became the first major manufacturer to explicitly stake a driver-first position. As their Manager of Driverless Car Safety explains:

If you know you can save at least one person, at least save that one. Save the one in the car. If all you know for sure is that one death can be prevented, then that’s your first priority.

So there you have it. As more than a handful of wags have pointed out in the days since, it’s kind of nice to know that an AI Mercedes driver will be just as much of a douchebag as a human Mercedes driver.

Going forward, however, I suspect we’ll be hearing increasingly about the trolley problem, and about the countless other related and equally hard situations in which we task AI’s with comparatively valuing human lives and well-being in their decisions.

Perhaps, a few years down the road, we’ll be legislating about it, too. Though I’m not too bullish on that kind of legislation having a broad impact. Given how hard people work to crack the DRM on DVDs just to avoid paying $3 rental fees, I can barely imagine the black-market of car upgrades that would emerge if a hack is all it took to convert your government-mandated ‘ethical’ smart-car into an ‘always put me first, no matter what’ machine.

But perhaps the inevitable popularity of that kind of hack should be comforting; whatever our differences, at the end of the day, it seems we’re all just Mercedes drivers at heart.

Tough Gig

“Sometimes I talk to CEOs, they come in and they start telling me about leadership, and here’s how we do things. And I say, well, if all I was doing was making a widget or producing an app, and I didn’t have to worry about whether poor people could afford the widget, or I didn’t have to worry about whether the app had some unintended consequences … then I think those suggestions are terrific.”
– Barack Obama

Keep it Short

About a decade back, I was in a downtown Starbucks, waiting to pick up my drink, when a pair of middle-aged Italian women retrieved their cappuccinos (or, rather, cappuccini) from the counter. One took a sip, and then promptly spat it back out.

“They burned the beans,” she told her friend in Italian.

“Mine too,” the friend agreed.

So they informed the baristas, and asked them to pull their drinks again. A second time through, the first woman took a sip and made a face.

“Still burnt!” she exclaimed.

At which point, I jumped in with the remnants of my college Italian, to try and explain that all Starbucks coffee was going to taste burnt, because, for whatever reasons, they’ve built their entire brand around roasting their beans to a tasteless crisp.

This was before the wide spread of ‘third wave’ coffee, so I couldn’t offer those women much in the way of alternate suggestion. But, even today, with many better coffee options all around NYC, I still sometimes end up in a Starbucks, whether because I’m on the road or just lazily settling for the closest option that has ample seating and reliable wi-fi.

And, when I do, I always order the same thing: a short cappuccino.

The short cappuccino isn’t on the menu, but they serve it at pretty much every location (barring some airport and mini-store setups). It’s a remnant of the early days of Starbucks, when they served drinks in two sizes: an 8oz Short and a 12oz Tall.

In the years since, keeping up with the general increase in American portion sizes, Starbucks added the Grande (16oz), then the Venti (20oz), and eventually the utterly ridiculous Trenta (31oz).

Somewhere along the way, they dropped the original 8oz Short from the menu, picking up flack for their smallest size therefore being called ‘tall’, but pushing up the price of the average ticket; a good trade-off. But, secretly, they kept the Short cups around. And, it turns out, a short cappuccino remains the best drink Starbucks makes.

According to the World Barista Championship rules, a cappuccino is a “five- to six-ounce beverage,” the same size served in Italian cafes. That’s because a cappuccino ideally has roughly equal parts espresso, milk, and foam. Given the physical chemistry of milk, there’s a limit to the volume of micro-foam that will hold before it collapses back on itself. So as you move to larger sizes, you end up with roughly the same amount of foam as in the Short size, and a drink that’s basically burnt-coffee-flavored milk.

Hence the short cappuccino. It’s the closest thing Starbucks sells to what you might find at a real Italian coffee bar, and it’s also one of the cheapest options on (or, rather, not on) the menu. Bevi!

An Easy Hack for Healthier Eating

There's a saying in the business world: what gets measured gets managed. That works in fitness, too.

Fortunately, when it comes to eating, it’s even easier. Science shows you don't need to measure – you just need to notice. A slew of recent studies have demonstrated that, simply by journaling what they eat, people lose literally twice as much weight as a non-journaling cohort.

The reason: most people already know how to eat better. (Eat more fruits and vegetables. Eat some protein and healthy fats. Stop eating processed crap.) Sure, we give Composite’s clients a lot of additional guidance to help them perfect their diets. But just following common sense usually gets people 80-90% of the way towards their goals.

The biggest problem, then, isn't knowledge. It’s action. With food, we too often act without thinking. We follow the dictates of our brain stem, the animal part of our brain, without stopping to consciously consider our choices.

That's where food journaling comes in. Just a brief moment of pause to document what you're about to eat is enough to trigger cortical involvement, bringing in your more evolved conscious brain. In turn, that leads people to make better, more goal-oriented choices.

There are a nearly endless number of ways to food journal. In practice, however, we find the perfect is the enemy of the good. While apps like MyFitnessPal are comprehensive, they're also a pain in the butt to reliably use, so people tend to use them for just a few days before falling off.

Instead, we’ve found a much simpler solution works just as well, yet is far easier to sustain over the long haul: use your smartphone to take take a picture of your food before you eat it.

For Composite clients, we set things up so that those pictures are submitted automatically to their coach, who can provide additional accountability. But you can also act as your own nutrition coach: every few days, look back over the food photos you’ve taken, and ask yourself what the health impact would be of keeping up that same way of eating for the rest of your life. Or consider how you would feel if you had to show the last few weeks of pictures to your physician, coach, or trainer.

If your nutrition isn’t yet dialed in, I’d highly recommend trying this out. For the next two weeks, every single time you eat something, take a photo first. It doesn’t seem like much, but science and clinical experience backs us up: it really works.

Salmagundi, Redux

I remember, back in the late '90s, seeing my friend Miles' "weblog." It was a collection of lightly-annotated links to odds and ends around the web that he had found interesting – in other words, it was literally his log of the web.

At that time, before Google and Facebook and Twitter, before endless online publications curating and aggregating, it seemed an invaluable resource, a way to find the fun and interesting and new that I'd otherwise have completely missed. After Miles', I sought out a handful of other interesting weblogs, and returned to them regularly over the weeks and months that followed.

In the two decades since, 'weblog' was elided to 'blog,' and mashed up with the sort of online journaling that appeared in Livejournal, to produce platforms like Blogger and MovableType, the progenitors of what we now think of as blogging. This site, indeed, is closer to the now-used meaning: as Wikipedia puts it, "a discussion or informational website published on the World Wide Web consisting of discrete, often informal diary-style text entries ("posts"), typically displayed in reverse chronological order, so that the most recent post appears first, at the top of the web page."

But, for the first decade of this site, I also kept a second, mini-blog in the right sidebar, one which hewed closer to the original meaning of the term. It was simply a collection of what I was watching, reading, enjoying, or pondering elsewhere on the web, linked directly with a bit of description or commentary.

I called that side-blog Salmagundi, an English word that stems from the French 'salmigondis', and means "a disparate assembly of things, ideas or people, forming an incoherent whole."

Five years ago, with Twitter growing fast (and still, at that time, only about a tenth the size that it is today), I decided to shift platforms, to ditch Salmagundi in favor of simply tweeting that kind of content instead.

And, indeed, though I've been intermittent at best in my tweets, I quickly picked up a (perhaps undeservedly) sizable audience there.

But, in the more recent past, as I've continued to follow a handful of old-style weblogs (like the great sidebar at, I've also started to think about the differences between Tweeting and side-blogging.

Tweets are hugely ephemeral; I almost never read back through individual users' profiles, so if I don't happen to see something when it floats down my Twitter stream, it's gone for good. Whereas, with a link-blog, even if I haven't been to the site for several weeks, I still find myself scrolling through everything that's been posted in the intervening time. Those weblogs feel to me more like, well, logs, archival indices that point to the enduringly interesting and good. They still feel, at least to me, like they’re worthwhile, even in our Twitter-ified world.

So, as of today, I’m relaunching Salmagundi over on the right-hand side of this site. The look and feel may continue to evolve a bit, and I apologize in advance if the update has broken anything for you – it turns out my PHP and CSS coding skills didn’t somehow improve on their own after a decade-and-a-half of disuse. Hopefully, you’ll find at least some of what I post as intriguing as I do. (And, if not, the site’s free; you get what you pay for.)

To Autumn

by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


Back in 2002, I wrote this about my grandmother Anita:

My 80-year-old grandmother makes me look like a slacker and a lazy bum. This is a woman who, living down near Gramercy Park, will regularly walk the hundred block round trip to the Guggenheim Museum. This is a woman who, late in life, returned to NYU not only for a college degree, but for a masters as well. This is a woman who, throughout her 60’s and 70’s, worked at a day facility caring for drug addicts and the mentally disturbed. This is a woman who, now, volunteers at the senior center assisting people ten, fifteen years younger than herself, with absolutely no sense that by all rights she should be the one in the chair being spooned jello rather than the other way around.

And, most recently, this is a woman who, having decided she missed out on her Jewish heritage by not having a bat mitzvah at the customary age of twelve, took it upon herself to learn Hebrew, and, some 68 years later, is holding the traditional ceremony this evening. I’ll be in the audience, wishing her well, and hoping that I inherited some of those genes.

In 2009, I had this update:

On Saturday afternoon, I got a call from my aunt, who was in midtown. By chance, she’d run into my grandmother.

At the time, my grandmother was midway through her afternoon walk. Nearly forty blocks from her apartment where she’d started. Less than five months after she’d been hospitalized and wheelchair-bound for a fractured pelvis.

And, on this, her 94th birthday, I’m thrilled to say she’s still at it. Still sharp, still living on her own in her apartment here in NYC.

I called her mid-morning to ask what she might want for a birthday lunch.

“French fries,” she told me.

Any specific restaurant she had in mind?

“Oh,” she said, pausing. “I hadn’t thought that far ahead. I was just imagining the french fries.”

We eventually decided on Petite Abeille, an easy jaunt from her apartment. And, indeed, she was pretty psyched about fries. As soon as we’d been seated, a waiter came over to ask if he could get us anything besides water while we looked at the menu.

“I’d love a coffee,” I replied.

“And I’ll take a side of french fries,” she added.

Normally, this is a woman who eats half an apple for lunch. But, today, she was in birthday mode, and socked away all of her order of fries, as well as half of the fries that came with my burger, as well as pretty a gigantic chicken club.

That was apparently more than enough, however; by the time the waiter offered a comped birthday dessert, she couldn’t even look at the menu.

Still, I was thrilled to celebrate with her, and lucky, as ever, to get her wisdom and perspective – after 94 years of living and learning and adventuring, she has amazing insight on so many aspects of life.

So, happiest birthday wishes, Grammy. I (and all of your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren) love you lots.

Bullets, Pages

Though you don’t hear about it much from new-fangled growth hackers, the old-school ad-men I know often discuss the concept of ‘effective frequency’: the number of times a person needs to be exposed to a marketing message before they respond.

The idea is a long-standing one, dating back at least to 1885, in Thomas Smith’s Successful Advertising. As he puts it:

The first time people look at any given ad, they don’t even see it.
The second time, they don’t notice it.
The third time, they are aware that it is there.
The fourth time, they have a fleeting sense that they’ve seen it somewhere before.
The fifth time, they actually read the ad.

Etc., etc. Smith goes up to the twentieth time, which is when he suggests that someone actually buys. Though, for a century and a half, business-focused academics have researched and debated the number of exposures needed, generally settling somewhere between three and seven.

I say this because, over the past decade, I’ve come across both Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages and Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal more than a handful of times each. But it was only this past week, rediscovering them both, that I decided to make the leap.

Last Monday, I broke out a Moleskine (A5, dotted) and a fountain pen, resolutely ignored my long-governing Todoist task list, and hopped head-first into analog life.

A week in, I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it. The Morning Pages take a full half-hour of scribbling; more than long enough to cramp up my writing arm and shoulder, and to make me wonder if I’m pissing that time away with nothing but three ramblingly scrawled pages of daily nonsense to show for it. Similarly, I’m not sure whether I’m getting more or less done with the Bullet Journal than I was before.

But I do think that, with the Bullet Journal approach, I feel a bit less weighed-down, less put-upon by my to-do backlog than I do when using Todoist. And I’ve found that, if I hop into a meditation session immediately following the Morning Pages, the cloudy surface of my brain settles a bit faster, let’s me more easily reach a point where I feel like I’m looking down through the clear, calm waters of my mind, into the depth below.

So, for the next week, at least, I’m sticking with it. If nothing else else, it leaves me covered with all kinds of interesting fountain-pen ink smudges. And I have a vague sense, perhaps without enough marketing exposures to yet bring it to top of mind, that indigo blue is the new black.


It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years since 9/11. This morning, I went to a memorial service with Jessie, and looked hard at the pictures there of first responders who died when the towers collapsed. I tried to imagine their families, the lives and dreams that were taken away from each of them. I thought about what the city was like that day, and what it was like in the weeks and months and years that followed.

Five years ago, I wrote a piece here reflecting on the tenth anniversary of 9/11; I’m posting it again today. Never forget.


On September 11, 2001, I came into my office early, to follow the market, to watch the tech bubble slowly implode on the monitors in our bullpen that perpetually played CNBC and CNNfn.

I can picture our small company that morning, gathered in twos and threes around those monitors, as video played and replayed the first plane crashing into the North Tower.

We were still gathered around those monitors when the second plane hit, as we slowly realized that neither strike had been a mistake.

We were still gathered around those monitors, an hour later, when the South Tower collapsed.


Shortly after the second plane hit, I called my parents’ house in California. My father picked up. “I’m okay,” I told him. “I just called to let you know I’m okay.”

“That’s great,” my father said, still asleep, not understanding why I was calling. “I’m okay, too,” he said, before hanging up.


We were evacuated from the office before the second tower came down. We were a half block from Grand Central Station, and police feared an attack on that similarly iconic target.

Still, after I made it downstairs, I stood on the street corner by our office for at least fifteen minutes, looking downtown, watching smoke billow. Gusts of wind brought an acrid smell, a fine coating of ash.

I worked the game theory in my head: my apartment, nearby, was across the street from the United Nations, clearly unsafe. Some of my office-mates were headed to an evacuation center the city had set up at a West Side high school. But any terrorist group sophisticated enough to mastermind this complex an attack would have also known where large groups of evacuees would be directed by city plan, where they would gather as sitting ducks.

I stayed away from my home and from the evacuation centers. I stayed away from crowds, from city landmarks. I headed west, then north. I stayed away from the tall buildings of Midtown, from the crowds of Times Square, from picturesque Columbus Circle and Central Park.

By quiet side streets, I headed up to Harlem. There, I wandered, dazed, from one block to the next, listening to the news with groups gathered around radios on old buildings’ front stoops.


Late in the evening, I headed back towards my apartment, showing my ID to dozens of policemen as I inched closer to the UN.

Along the way, I reached my parents again briefly. Now, understanding, they were effusive in their relief.

Once home, I fell asleep nearly before my head hit my pillow. I slept badly, fitfully. And briefly: we were evacuated from the building early the next morning.

I headed to work, but after an hour, we were evacuated from there, too.

For days in a row, I was evacuated from one, and then the other. Unsure of what to do, I wandered the streets, still dazed. I considered heading out to relatives in New Jersey or on Long Island, but transportation was a mess. Besides, though I had only been here for three months, I already knew that New York was my city. I couldn’t simply leave it behind.


Months later, I was asked to contribute photos for a gallery showing of young New York photographers reflecting on the city in the wake of 9/11.

I thought about that week wandering, about how little I remembered of it. Where had I gone all day? What had I thought about?

I made two images for the show.


I visited my brother, a freshman at the University of Denver.

A woman who checked my ID there saw I was from New York and asked if I had been in the city during the attacks. I had, I told her.

“Even if we weren’t there, all of us were New Yorkers that day,” she said.


On the first anniversary of 9/11, I headed to the roof with my trumpet and played Taps facing downtown. I read the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer of remembrance.

I did that each year, until the fifth anniversary.

On the sixth, I didn’t.


In the wake of 9/11, we came together in a way that still awes me: with heroism, generosity, and community. We love our country. And, even if we don’t always show it, we love each other.

Yet much of what has come after 9/11, of what has been done in its name, has troubled me deeply: from the security theater of the TSA and the Orwellian Department of Homeland Security, to the serious violation of citizens’ civil rights by programs like the CIA’s warrantless wiretapping and the even more serious violation of others’ human rights at Guantanamo and through programs like extraordinary rendition.

We’ve slid slowly towards a security state, yet we remain ultimately insecure. We’ve run afoul of framer Benjamin Franklin’s cutting remark: that “they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

We’re now permanently at war. We piss away lives and hundreds of billions of dollars yearly, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, and elsewhere. We have no clear objectives there. We have no clear exit criteria.

Like Britain during the Boer War a century before, we’ve spread ourselves too thin, have begun to underfund crucial long-term investments at home, like education, infrastructure, and scientific research, in favor of fleeting yet ever-expanding pursuits abroad.

Historians often argue it was the Boer War that ultimately ended the British Empire; I wonder if, a hundred years from now, historians will reflect similarly on our War on Terror.


A few weeks ago, Air Force pilot Chris Pace contacted me about a 9/11 fundraiser bike/run he was doing to benefit the Disposable Heroes Project, a nonprofit that supports wounded veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, where he had done four tours of duty.

His plan was simple, albeit vaguely insane: leave Arlington Cemetery by bike on the evening of Friday, September 9th, bike 150 miles, then dismount in New Jersey and run 100 miles, all without stopping to eat or sleep, to arrive in New York City on the morning of September 11th.

He had been training for this simply by doing CrossFit workouts. So, he wanted to know, would it be okay if he used my gym, CrossFit NYC, as the endpoint of his run?

Obviously, I said yes. But I also thought about the patriotism and generosity and welcoming sense of community, that feeling of being in it together, that had made me proudest in the wake of September 11th.

So, this morning, I woke up at 4:30am, and met Chris (and his support crew) as he crossed the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn, to welcome him to New York, and to show him our support, by running with him for the final 12 miles.


After we made it to the gym, after we hooked Chris into an IV to rehydrate him, then packed him into a car to his hotel so that he and his crew could get some much-needed sleep, I hailed a cab home.

The driver asked what I had done that morning, so I told him. I told him about Chris’ 250 mile trip, about my joining him for the last New York stretch.

“Your friend,” said the driver admiringly. “He is very strong.”

Yes, I agreed.

“Not just body strong,” said the driver. “Strong in heart.”

The driver told me he was from Mauritania. And that, back there, ten years ago, his brother had similarly biked a 150 mile round trip, to and back from the capital. But there, he said, nobody had been proud; instead, they had been angry.

“We thought it was embarrassment!” he laughed. “We say, who bike 150 miles? Only poor people who have no car!”

But now, this driver told me, he thought about that differently. He thought about a lot differently. For ten years in the US, he had been able to consider his country from a distance. And he’d been able to consider this one with an outsider’s eye. He told me that each had good and bad. And that, for those ten years, he had thought carefully about where there was more bad, where there was more good. And, earlier this year, he had become a citizen of the United States.

Sounds Right

A decade or so back, I spent the better part of a year bouncing between New York and Israel, helping to produce a soccer documentary as a side project to my regular, fiction-focused movie work at Cyan.

The experience taught me more than I can possibly express, whether about the realities of Israeli life, the socio-political complexities of Arab-Israeli relations, or even just the beauty of a well-played soccer match.

Also, it taught me the correct way to pronounce “Adidas.”

Before the trip, like most Americans (or, at least, most Americans who grew up on Run DMC’s “My Adidas”), I thought the name was pronounce uh-DEE-da.

At a slew of Adidas-sponsored soccer matches, however, I quickly discovered that the brand is actually short for the name of its German founder, Adi Dassler, and is therefore pronounced AH-dee-dass.

Back here in the US, that information is actually a step below worthless, down somewhere near psychologically damaging. Because, now, stripped of my ignorantly mispronouncing bliss, I’m subjected to a moment of internal battle every time I say the word. Do I pronounce “Adidas” right, but sound wrong (and possibly stupid) to American ears, or do I pronounce it wrong, but sound right (yet know that I’m actually both wrong and pandering)?

Indeed, it turns out international travel and language-learning is a nearly endless font for this kind of danger. Sure, your Italian bread-top appetizer is ‘broo-ske-ta,’ but you sound like a pedantic asshole if you call it as much. And what about ‘forte’? Though almost all Americans pat themselves on the back for pronouncing it with the Italian ‘e’ at the end, when used to mean ‘strength or talent,’ it’s actually a French import-word, and therefore rightfully (though wrong-soundingly) pronounced ‘fort.’

Fortunately, Google seems to be intent on destroying the Zagat brand, which takes at least one painful pronounciation choice off the table. But for countless others, I just have to muddle through, choosing whatever seems like the lesser of two evils at any given moment.

And now – at least for Adidas (and bruschetta and forte) – you do, too.