Habit Hacks: Sardines for Breakfast

sardines
You could say it started with eating sardines for breakfast.

I've been trying to change a lot of habits and routines, from what I eat to how I workout. Earlier this year, I learned first-hand that picking up new habits is hard, and I quantified some of the limitations. For example, training yourself to do one new habit consistently is doable. Picking up two new habits at the same time is very difficult. And three was, for me, impossible.

When it comes to breaking addictions, some experts have noted that the successful people usually make huge changes in other areas of their life. They move to a new neighborhood. They drop their old friends and get new ones. They change jobs. They craft a whole new lifestyle. If you keep everything else about your old lifestyle the same, you are much more likely to fall back into old habits.

I figured that if breaking an addiction requires radical change, certainly making or breaking other habits would also take huge shifts.

So I started eating sardines for breakfast.

And boiled, cold, sweet potatoes. And dolmas. And avocados.

With cold weather settling into the New York area, I know I'll be on my bicycle less and less (I commute by bike most days, 11 miles round trip), which means I need a new fitness routine. I've been wanting to lift weights for a while, but I never made it a priority. Plus, it was hard to work in a weight-lifting workout with my typical bicycle commuting routine. But now that I'm biking less, I joined a gym, which I've done before to get me through the winter, and committed to going specifically to lift weight at least twice a week.

Meanwhile, I also wanted to change my eating to steer clear of the sugary, fatty foods that have long been a weakness, and a source of that soft layer of fat that hides some of my muscles.

Dolmas: grape leaves stuffed with rice in oil and lemon juice.
I revamped my diet this week to push a lot ("a lot" being a highly relative word here) of protein and fat at breakfast. But more than that, I wanted to change my eating routine, change everything about it so much that it would be easier to break the habit of eating fatty sweets when I'm stressed, bored, or noshy.

It got a little wacky.

I've tried a few foods this week that I don't really like all that much, like pumpernickel bread and dolmas, just to kick my old habits in the ass. Actually, the dolmas have grown on me, and, paired with eggs and half an avocado, they don't make for a bad breakfast at all.

Diet is one of those areas of life that makes me wonder how reticent most people are to change. If someone in her 30s knows she has never liked rye bread, how many times would she actually try eating rye bread now? (P.S., I loathe caraway seeds and have therefore never ever liked rye bread.) If a 60-year old has eaten yogurt and fruit for breakfast for the last 20 years, how unlikely would it be for him to swap it for Jarlsberg cheese, sardines in mustard, and pumpernickel toast?

My belief is that there is value in radically changing simple things in life that you have a lot of control to change. So the question becomes: If you want to change other small things in life that have big consequences, whether it's the time you leave the house in the morning for work or how much exercise you get, would it be valuable to radically change other aspects of your typical routine? I'd love to see studies about this idea.

It may be counter-intuitive. My previous trials at trying to adopt three new habits proved that I could not manage to do more than two new things consistently. One would have been more realistic. But what if we change parts of the routine that are easy to change, like the amount and types of foods eaten for breakfast? How does that affect the whole system in which we develop new habits, as opposed to just tweaking existing ones? Let's just see how long sardines for breakfasts lasts.


Connected Homes Will One Day Affect Our Health

Image from Samsung Tomorrow. Creative Commons.
You arrive home after a brutal day at work. Your heart rate is elevated, and your heart rate variability is low. The watch or bracelet on your wrist senses these things. When you approach the front door, the app in your smart phone unlocks the door, sure that it's you because your heart signature, coming from your smart wrist band, is they key. You cross the threshold and the lights go on, but then dim when they learn that you're a little stressed out. The smart thermostat gets the signal too and adjusts the temperature to a soothing 69 degrees. After you put down your bag and head into the kitchen, where the lights also go on and adjust their brightness automatically to your health and mood, a recommendation flashes on the smart refrigerator's screen: "Have a glass of water first, then a glass of wine," it reads. Then it reminds you of the produce, meat, and dairy that are due to expire within the next three days, prompting you to plan a meal around the food you need to use first.

As you may have figured out from the links above, we're getting closer and closer to this reality. The pieces are nearly there. Now we just have to get them to talk to one another better. (Bill Gates' home, where guests apparently where pin-like sensors that cause each room to adjust to their temperature and lighting preferences, may be one of the most sophisticated and well-documented smart homes.)

Just to back up and summarize: The connected home movement is about embedding more technology into everyday things in our environment to make them not only smarter, but smarter in relation to one another, too.

The other day I had a conversation with a couple who were really into making their home a smart home. They already had the Nest thermostat. They were looking into a sophisticated security system. We talked a little about Amazon Echo and whether that constitutes a component of a smart home ("baby steps" is my answer). One of the smart home enthusiasts said he was looking forward to a day when he could just talk out loud and tell the Nest what temperature he wanted, or get the blinds to open or close.

"No, no, no!" I said. "You shouldn't have to talk at all! It should be passive and automatic!"

Neither should we have a dashboard screen on the wall that we use as a control center. No, no, no.

It's funny to me that people often get hung up on the concept of giving commands to a robot or virtual personal assistant, whether it's Siri in Apple, or Samantha in the movie Her. The reality is people don't want to talk out loud to non-humans (except maybe cats and dogs...). There is a time and a place for that, such as in the car, but by and large, wouldn't it be better to have a truly smart system that learned your preferences based on the physiological triggers your body emits? Suddenly then, you can't be the irrational actor in your own life, opening all the windows in your apartment in the dead of winter simply because you're frustrated or angry. The environment should learn from you what you like, or what is best for your wellbeing, and automatically create an ideal scenario.

The real future of the connected home movement will be to have passive commands, and ones that take our health and wellbeing into consideration.

10,000 Steps a Day: Where Did That Number Originate?

Image by Giovanni. Creative Commons. 
Ten thousand steps a day.

If you've used a modern activity tracker from companies like Fitbit or Jawbone, you probably noticed that the default goal is 10,000 steps per day. I've been curious about the history of this recommended number because I test and write about fitness trackers as part of my job.

Why 10K?
While I haven't pinpointed the source exactly, an abstract of a paper published in the journal Sports Medicine in 2004 points to popularity of the number in Japan since the mid-1970s.

Pedometers in the U.S. at that time probably also promoted 10,000 steps as the goal. But it wasn't until the mid 1990s when a non-profit organization called Shape Up America! suggested making 10,000 steps a benchmark in the U.S. That's the same time the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report on the nation's health and our lack of activity.

Since then, it seems as if more and more studies have tried to quantify a ballpark figure for the minimum amount of activity a person needs to get in a day to maintain general health and wellness. I wonder how much the public is now primed toward 10,000 steps.

How Many Steps Make a Mile?
Another popular estimate or benchmark that you'll find is the number of steps an average person takes in a mile: 2,000. In other words, the recommended minimum activity translates to walking five miles cumulatively in a day. I've used a click counter to see whether the estimate is correct. I walked on a treadmill for one mile at a natural pace a little more than 3 mph (I've done this experiment more than a dozen times). I register one click once for every other step so that at the end of the mile, I double the number to see how many total steps it takes me to walk one mile. I learned that I take between 1,930 and 2,100 steps, which closely lines up to the average.

Note that all the recommendations that cite 10,000 steps aren't saying you must walk five miles, but rather take a minimum of 10,000 steps in the course of the day. That means you can count all the puttering you do around the kitchen, walking from your desk at work to the bathroom, and so forth. In other words, the message isn't to try and reach some far-flung goal like going for a five-mile jog or walk each day, which would be very difficult for unfit people, but rather to be up and on your feet more frequently and for longer stretches of time. The idea is that all that little activity adds up.

What Should We Really Be Measuring?
I'd love to see other variations on this same number, such as the percent of time in a day spent sitting or standing still, versus being up and moving. Would it be 80 percent to 20 percent?

Or what would it be if we thought about the total number of minutes a day we should be moving? I imagine 10,000 steps came about in part because it is an easy number to remember, but also because it came of age in the era of pedometers when steps is the metric that was measurable.

What I like about modern "pedometers" or fitness trackers is that they collect more data and allow you to become more intimate with your personal readings. I think a better way to find a goal is to look at your own activity on your worst day of the week and set a goal to beat that number consistently, based on other information you know about yourself. For example, if your data say your least active day saw only 3,000 steps, but your average day has you at 8,000 steps, a good goal might be to first his 8,000 consistently, and then eventually exceed it by 15 percent.

Really smart activity trackers either adjust this goal for you automatically or provide some guidance to help you do it, but the important thing is for the user to start to become aware of how much she or he walks.

Apps for the Poor


Over the summer, I decided to write a long-form feature article about a topic that really mattered to me. One of the topics I bring up all the time is that poor people, and what it means to be poor, is so misunderstood if you've never been through it.

I talk about this all the time. I'll often bring up the show Everybody Hates Chris as an excellent example of a show that did explore what it's like to be poor in an honest, complex, and funny way.

I wanted to write something about being poor and the complexity of being poor. And because my full-time job is to write about technology, I needed a tech hook. I found one when I discovered a non-profit organization giving out five fellowships to people to develop mobile apps for the poor. Bingo.

Ciara Byrne was one of the developers. She made a mobile app for domestic cleaners. You know, cleaning ladies. They're poor, but they run their own businesses, and when she talked to them, she learned that they really need help communicating with their clients. So she made an app. She talked to them. She spent time beta-testing with them to figure out if the thing she made was solving the actual problems they had.

The key, it seemed, was to figure out what sub-groups of people within the poor had specific needs. Another that I found was children living in Mexico born with a cleft lip or palette. Because their mothers are poor, they don't always have a sonogram that shows the cleft before they're born, which is what happens in rich countries. The parents don't always know why it's important to get cleft palate repair surgery. But children who don't have the surgery at an early age basically can't strengthen the right muscles to speak properly (they face other social issues and speech, too). A group that funds cleft-repair surgeries in developing countries came up with an Android app that they can give to families post-surgery to help coach them through different kinds of therapies, seeing as the patients often live very far from the hospitals and support staff.

These were all fascinating stories to me.

I spent weeks interviewing the fellows and the heads of the organization. I hunted down other apps and developers, too. My goal was to find apps that were helping poor people solve actual problems they face in their daily lives, rather than apps that do little more than try to give poor people advice on how to not be poor anymore.

It was a little depressing to work on the article, though, not because the topic was a downer but because I got very little support from my team at work. Other projects with dollar signs behind them came up, and no one explicitly stopped me from working on my Apps for the Poor article, but the higher-ups all made it clear that we definitely had other priorities.

In the end, I wrote it, fact-checked it, and even largely edited it without any help from my editors (I had a fellow writer read it and give me feedback, and that was the extent of the editing). I pushed it through. One editor had a final read on it, and she changed the headline because, "Apps for the Poor sounds offensive."

Sigh.

She also said to send this story through the news editors next time. The whole point, however, of not "sending it through news" was because I worked really long and hard on this piece and cared about it and wanted it to be good. The news team's objective is to get articles published fast. Without getting into too much detail about how my organization operates, let me just say that going through the news team was absolutely not something I was willing to do in this case.

I thought about her title the whole day before the article was published. At 11:00 p.m., I wrote her an email saying I disagreed and I very much stood by the title. How about softening it to "Apps for the Poor: They're Not What You Think," I suggested. Fine, she said.

It finally ran, and the subjects of the article were all very pleased with it. None of them thought the headline was offensive, but they, after all, work closely with poor people. They know them and understand them. They know what their actual problems are.

The article was picked up to be reprinted in the monthly magazine edition of PC Magazine (it's a digital/iPad magazine, not a print magazine, at least in the U.S.), and the blurb teasing my story went like this:
"Lower-income people can benefit from apps, but too often developers don't keep their most urgent needs in mind. A recent fellowship in New York helped app developers determine what's most important for people at every income level, and the software that resulted is already changing lives."
Face-palm.

It's not about "lower-income people" or "people at every income." It's a story about poor people, and how no one (okay, very few) people are listening to what their actual problems are and what kind of tools and solutions they want to ease their problems.

I'm still exceedingly proud of the piece and am happy I wrote it, but it was quite a learning experience in ways I didn't expect.

60 Minutes a Day: Know What to Give Up (Part IV)

In trying to squeeze a little bit more out of each day, you might ask yourself whether 60 minutes is enough. Say you're trying to make headway on some long-term goals, and they all require you to spend "20 minutes a day or less" doing something. We've seen that promise in "10-minute meals" (eat healthier). It's apparent in "the 7-minute workout" (get fit). And pretty much any language-learning program you can think of will say you need to study "only 20 minutes a day."

The past few weeks, I've been trying to figure out, empirically and quantitatively, whether 60 minutes a day is really sufficient -- or whether time is the issue at all. Often we have time, but not motivation or bandwidth or some other necessary resource. For example, we all need rest. We need unstructured time in our days when we aren't doing anything at all. It's hard to give up too much of that rest time to fit in "just one more thing."

I'm tracking my three daily duties toward long-term goals with a few different apps. One of the simplest ones that I quite like is called Wonderful Day.

Wonderful Day is a free iPhone app that takes its inspirations from Jerry Seinfeld. Early in his career, Seinfeld wrote jokes every single day. His motivation for doing so was to keep a wall calendar where he would draw a big red X on every day that he wrote jokes. Once he had a couple of Xs in a row, he didn't want to break the chain. So he kept writing them.

Instead of Xs, Wonderful Day uses green and red dots. When you do the thing you said you were going to do, you give yourself a green dot. If not, mark it red. Gray means you didn't log anything for that day. Easy enough. The app makes crystal clear which tasks and chores you have and have not done consistently.

One thing I've learned from using Wonderful Day is that I have figured out well enough how to work two new tasks into my day: reading and studying Spanish. I don't have a perfect track record, but after a couple of weeks, I'm able to do those two things with some consistency.

But the third one... I've completely punted on it. I mean, I must not be even trying. My "stretch" task in Wonderful Day is a row of gray dots, which means I'm not even marking that I haven't done it yet. Why? Because in my mind, it's as if I haven't started yet. I'm on a zero streak, so I haven't even started taking this task seriously.

It's useful to know, though. Maybe if I get just one green circle, I'm try harder in earnest.

Part of me likes that I haven't even given stretching a real go yet, however. Working in two new tasks per day has been hard enough. In some sense, I think I actively chose not to start stretching yet.

When we think about prioritizing, we usually ask, "What is the highest priority?" In other words, what things do you most need to do? What can you not cut from your day?

But I think it's just as important to ask, "What is the lowest priority?" What is the first things you should cut when you have limited time or resources? Sometimes we face that thought, but not always. In setting goals, that is probably the case. Are you more likely to ask yourself "What goals are most important to me?" or "Which of the following goals is least important to me?"

It's a slightly different take on the same matter, but that shift is perspective can be rather effective.




60 Minutes a Day: Strategies and Rationale, Failures and Successes Toward Meeting Goals (Part III)

Timeful app for iPhone; smart scheduler
Let me be straight. I'm highly organized, and I spend a lot of time reading about and consider principles and practices related to productivity and efficiency. I'm good at this stuff. It's enjoyable.

Over the past three weeks or so, I've been on a quest to change my life by completing three big, long-term goals. I'm trying to increase my flexibility and improve my circulation, be more well read, and learn Spanish. How do you reach long-term goals? Generally, you achieve goals by breaking them down into short-term tasks and objectives. The tasks, in this case, must be routine and done daily: stretch, read, and study.

But how do you make time for that? Here's what I've been trying.

Strategies for Adding 3 New Daily Tasks
Strategy 1: Bundling. 
First I tried blocking out an hour at a time. My thought was, if I do three things back-to-back that takes about 20 minutes each, I carve out just one hour and that's manageable. The three separate tasks become one. My thinking should switch from completely three tasks to only one. In other words, I only have one new thing to do now, and it takes an hour.

It didn't work.

Strategy 2: Work small changes into my existing routine. 
Next, I tried spreading out these tasks over the course of the day: one in the morning, one mid-day during my lunch hour, and one in the evening. Wouldn't it be easy, I thought, to read in the morning, when I usually sit and drink coffee for 25 minutes and listen to talk radio? I'll just swap talk radio for reading. And isn't it easy to schedule my audio-based Spanish language lesson during my lunch break, when I usually walk and sometimes listen to a podcast? Finally, in the evening when I usually bum around the living room for an hour to unwind, I'll just sit on the floor and stretch instead.

Still no luck.

Progress
The problem as I see it is not so much the timing of the events but that I'm still trying to do too much at once. Whether it's an hour of time in one block or three small tasks worked into my existing routine, I'm finding it's just too hard to make changes of that size all at once.

Excuses, Excuses
The last three weeks have been extremely busy. I traveled one weekend to Washington D.C. The next weekend, I was on a flight to Buffalo. Then I spent 10 days in the Niagara and Toronto area on a business trip. This weekend, I'm out on Fire Island. So my typical routine has indeed been off kilter a bit.

However, I don't think any of those excuses are valid. Life always gets in the way. There is never a good time to make a change. I completely don't buy these excuses and didn't let myself pretend for an instance that a busy schedule was really the problem.

Plus, I did have a few more typical days in the last three weeks, and even then, I never once did all three of my new tasks.

Moderate Success
Let's focus on the positive. I have had a small amount of success, and by examining it, I think I can figure out a better way forward.

I have consistently been able to do one task a day. It wasn't always the same task, which in hindsight seemed odd. You'd think I'd prioritize the three tasks and, if I'm only going to do one, I'll do the most important one.

Not so.

Sometimes I made time for 20 minutes of reading. Sometimes I listened to my Spanish lessons. A few times, I stretched. I'm curious to collect a little more data to figure out why I pick one activity or another because in the moment, it simply feels like the thing I can tolerate.

Which brings me to my revelation: Add one new task at a time, until it truly becomes a habit.

I'm speculating that if I, for example, switch my morning talk radio time for reading, at some point it will be a true habit, and I will stop thinking of it as a new task. Only when that happens should I try to add the next one.

Apps
I'm going to keep tracking my progress and collecting data, and next time, I'll share some more detail about the apps I'm using. One of them is shown at the top of this post. It's called Timeful (free; for iOS only). More on that next time and another app I'm using called Wonderful Day next time.

60 Minutes a Day: Is an Hour for Your Goals Unrealistic? (Part II)

I've just started an experiment to see if I can find time each day work toward on goals. My list is short, with just three things I want to do more:

  • study Spanish
  • read
  • stretch.

The idea is that each of these thing should take less than 20 minutes per day, so I'm committing no more than one hour a day.

I'm technically three days in, and I've managed to do only two goals on all three days. Even getting to two feels ambitious. An hour is starting to feel unrealistic.

The Current Hindrances
My schedule is a bit of a mess, however. I'm traveling for 10 days straight, staying at my sister's house right now. She and her husband have two little kids (2 and 4 years old). Chaos is everywhere. I originally thought that I could get to three tasks per day if only I worked them into my everyday routine. But right now, and for the next 7 more days, there is no routine.

I'd love to make that disruption in routine an excuse, but the fact is, busy people always have something irregular happening in their schedule. My partner, for example, sometimes vows to eat healthier and drink less beer, and every time he doesn't do it, he has a string of excuses. Friends are in town, so we have to have beers with them. It's a co-worker's last day at work, so he has to be social and have a beer with colleagues. We plan a Thursday night date night, and, c'mon, we're not going to pass up a drink with dinner. Every week -- if not every night -- there's something.

I don't want traveling to be an excuse. I make time, after all, to answer emails and futz around on Twitter. Why is it so hard to make time for the things I think I want to do toward future goals?

Future You
Part of the problem could be the age old issue of not seeing any urgency right now. There is no present consequence to not studying Spanish today. There is no harm if I don't read. I can always do it tomorrow. But in the long term, to be the person I want to be, I must be consistent in following through on these goals.

But Future Me doesn't have any agency. Future Us doesn't know how to show Present Us in real and tangible ways the consequences of not doing the small things now.

Social economist Dan Ariely writes about this issue in Predictably Irrational (and mentions it in his other books, too). He points to the idea of a Ulysses contract: Present You needs to do something in service of Future You. Maybe you've heard of people who literally freeze their credit cards into a block of ice. When they want to buy something, they have to thaw out the ice, which gives them pause and forces them to make a more thoughtful decision about whether to complete the purchase.

Strategies
In my next post, I'll talk concretely about the strategies I've been trying out -- the apps I'm using to schedule my goals and log my progress, and whether they are working. Should I do all three tasks back-to-back in a solid 60-minute block? Should I break them up? Is morning, afternoon, or evening the best time to try to work in a new habit?

I'll also explain my rationale behind the scheduling choices, and you can judge for yourself whether I'm sufficiently tricking Present Me into doing what Future Me wants.

60 Minutes a Day: How to Find Time for All Your Goals (Part I)

Think about all the long-term accomplishments and goals you'd like to do or improve on that take only minutes a day. They might include:
  • learning or studying a language
  • exercising
  • working on creative side projects
  • flossing your teeth
  • meditating
  • helping kids with homework
  • cooking at home to eat healthier, or 
  • making lunches to bring to work to eat healthier.
Most of these can be done in just 20 minutes a day or less! Twenty minutes! What a promise! 

Okay, but even if  you want to do only those eight things I just listed, that will cost you 2 hours and 40 minutes a day. Preposterous! Who has that kind of time?

The One-Hour Pledge
I'm on a quest to make room for those 20 minutes a day.

My list of goals started long, but I've paired it down to three:
  1. study Spanish
  2. stretch
  3. read
Of course there is so much more I want to do, but even four goals -- more than an hour per day -- seems unmanageable.

To Block or Adapt?
I plan to blog about my experiences here, explaining the tools and techniques I'm using and whether they work. If they fail, I'll try to discuss why. Should I try to do all three at once in a one-hour block? Will I be more successful if I split up these tasks? Should I stick to the same time every day or change it up to adapt to my schedule?

The 21-Day Habit-Forming Myth
Many people say it takes 21 days or more to form a new habit, but that so-called fact about habit formation has been debunked just as much as it has been supported. In any event, I'll give myself until the end of September to make real progress. That's about seven weeks from now, which is plenty of time to have hiccups and for life to get in the way, which of course it will.

If Someone Changed Your Life, Tell Them... Then Again, Maybe Not

Drew Dudley tells a sweet story about how he changed a young woman's life but has no recollection of ever doing so. The point of his story is that we, all of us, have moments of leadership that go unrecognized because we sometimes think "leader" is an unattainable title.

At the end of his story, he asks his audience to think about someone in who has inexorably changed their life, and question whether that other person knows. Then he encourages everyone to make sure that leader knows.

The whole story is endearing, and the call to action quite simple. I love it and want to embrace it, until I think about moments when I did try to tell someone what they meant to me.

See, it doesn't always go well.

It reminds me a little bit of the advice to "be yourself." Not only is it easier said than done, but for some people, it's actually bad advice. We have social decorum for a reason, and some people, when just "being their true self" don't conform to these modes. For some people, it takes a lot of focus and effort to be an empathetic, generous, kind person who interacts with others appropriately.

A few years ago, I reconnected very briefly with an old friend. We weren't friends for very long, but it was during a time in my life when I had very few friends. This person's friendship meant a lot. We never had a romantic relationship, but I certainly did have feelings for this person and never said so. After we reconnected ever so briefly, in ever so few words, I asked for an email address where I could send a more thoughtful and nuanced letter. I wrote and explained how and why our friendship was meaningful, and that I had had mixed feelings at the time, but never acted on them, and sometimes question why I didn't.

The problem, you see, is that I thought I was expressing some gratitude, similar to the young woman in Dudley's story telling him how he changed her life.

The problem, you see, is that I am not tactful. My emotions are rather reserved until the moment I feel like pouring them out, and then they come gushing. They are full of unintended suggestions that I don't see at the time that I'm writing, but I do see many days later when I re-read what I wrote in a different mindset.

After I gushed to my friend, I heard nothing. Then I sent a very very short follow-up message via social media, where I knew it would be seen, and said simple, "Nuts. Too much?"

Still, no reply.

It's okay. I'm sure my old friend has already forgotten all about it. And it's not the first time I've done such a thing. So as much as I want to buy into Dudley's message, I would say to others, it may be a better than advice.

Even the Cop Did Nothing: A Story of Street Harassment

Street Harassment: Sidewalk Sleazebags and Metro Molesters

The video above was created by an organization called Vocativ.

I don't want to nit-pick the video, or the thousands of ignorant and hurtful comments viewers have posted about it. I just want to share a story.

The first time I was publicly groped, it was by some man in the Navy. I was 15. I'd guess he was no more than 25. I was hanging out with my friends by the docks in a little town called Northport on Long Island. We always hung out by the docks and the adjacent part. The streets were so crowded with people that lovely summer night that we had to squeeze along parts of the sidewalk.

I was narrowing my way through the crowd, trying to pass some people, when a young man dressed in a Navy uniform grabbed my ass. It was obvious and intentional. There was no mistaking it.

Let me just get this out of the way. Back then, I consistently dressed in baggy clothes. I don't have cleavage to show. I wasn't one to make eye contact with strangers.

Bear in mind, too, that he was in the Navy with dozens of other Navy cadets and officers around him. I was a 15-year old girl with one tiny friend by my side. Clearly, I was not going to physically assault the guy. I'm not stupid.

In the video above, one woman describes not knowing what to do when she was groped by a man on a crowded subway train who was masturbating behind her while leaning up against her. And it's true: We women are not trained in what to do in this situation, when the violence and power play are so subtle that they happen right in public. Scream out of nowhere, and people will treat you like you're crazy. There's a split second when the assault starts when you think to yourself, "Surely this is an accident. Surely this man is brushing up against me accidentally and doesn't realize it." And you know that if you react too quickly, he will say exactly that: "What are you talking about, you crazy bitch?" And you'll be left in the defensive position. It is extremely difficult to react.

So let me tell you what I did.

I spotted a cop, maybe 30 feet away. I went up to that cop.

"Excuse me," I said. "You see that group of Navy guys over there? One of them just groped me."

Pause.

"And?" he said.

I stared in disbelief.

"Do you want to press charges?" he asked.

"No, I don't want to press charges—"

"—then there's nothing I can do," he said. "What would you like me to do?"

I was livid.

"What I want you to do," I said, "Is go over there and let them know that that's not okay. What I want you to do is keep an eye on them so they don't do something worse to some other girl."

If you're a man and have never been cat-called or publicly harassed or groped, you're absolutely unlikely to understand how it happens and why it is so difficult to react in the way you probably imagine you would react. It is a power play. Think about this for just a moment. Think about the fact that I found a police officer and reported what happened to him, within moments of it happening, with the perpetrator still in sight, and he told me there was nothing he could do. Just think about that for a moment.

Alert But Not Thinking: What I Love About Bicycling In New York

1980s Strawberry Shortcake bike.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are of being on my bike, and being alone.

I rode a lot as a kid. I had a Strawberry Shortcake bike with a banana seat, then graduated to a purple dirt bike with matching purple grips around the handle bars.

I rode with my friends down the block, or sometimes just my sister. We'd meet at the dead-end court and race up the street. We'd try to build planks and jumps with the lumber left on the side of the road. We'd zip down to one of our friends' houses that had a pool, riding in bathing suits, towels trailing behind.

No one ever even owned a helmet.

We lived in a hilly neighborhood on a quiet street. Alone, I would ride around the block, pushing for speed on the downhill to see how far I could coast once the terrain leveled out. The houses were quiet with big lawns and driveways.

I remember trying not to skid out on piles of sand left along the side of the road after snow-plowing season. I remember the wind rushing by, whipping my ears. When I think back, I can hear birds, a lawn mower, the sound of a car crunching on gravel in the distance. But the gears and crank shaft and bicycle chair are all silent. I can hear the sound of my nine-year old brain in my head, talking to myself, figuring things out. Or not and just being quiet while I pedaled.

When I was 10 or 11, I decided I need a more serious bike, something with gears.

Huffy Capri.
I saved up and bought a pink and gray 10-speed Huffy Capri. It cost $100, plus tax. It was the biggest purchase I had ever made.

I still see that exact same Huffy Capri, the same color and everything, chained up in Union Square in New York. Sometimes I see it and I hate it. I have a lot of ugly memories of childhood, too, that coming flooding back at the sight of it. But I still think of it as my bicycle.

Five years ago, I started riding in New York City. Some urban cyclists say they like the thrill of danger that's inherent in riding the city streets. Inexperienced riders think taxis are the greatest threat (they're not). Cyclists get a bad reputation for being too risky and running pedestrians off the road, but I'd say, percentage wise, more cyclists obey the rules of the road than do pedestrians. I mean, who doesn't jay-walk?

Univega Gran Turismo touring bike, my current bicycle.
I ride 11 miles, round trip, most weekdays, to and from work. On the weekends, I might rack up another 30 miles. Eighty-five miles a week, give or take. I still mostly ride alone. It's what I like most about bicycling. Sure, I get to where I'm going. It's exercise. I get to be outdoors. But I'm addicted to the quiet time. Something blissful happens when the body must move mechanically, but the brain can't drift off and needs to pay attention. It's a zen-like state, alert but not thinking.

What I've learned from riding in the city streets is tolerance. Pedestrians jay-walk (which is supremely dangerous for cyclists). Cars making left turns jump red lights. Trucks change lanes without signaling. Teenagers joking around with one another push each other off the curbs. Cyclists weave erratically through traffic, blow red lights, and sometimes ride illegally on the sidewalk.

The key is figuring out how you fit into the big picture. When you're a driver, you realize how awful pedestrians are. When you're a pedestrian, it's easy to blame the terrible cyclists for making the roads dangerous. On a bike, my feeling is that you have to see the whole system at play and figure out where you fit in. Sometimes you have to break the law to be safer, for example, by getting in front of a line of cars at a red light. With time and experience, it's easy to tell which drivers haven't seen you and won't see you, unless you get directly in front of them. They need to be aware that you're on the road. So you squeeze between some cars at a red light and make sure everyone sees you doing it. Now they know you're there. Now they know to drive carefully. And hopefully while you were squeezing, you were watching the countdown clock for pedestrians walking perpendicular to where you are, to make sure you have a enough time to get to the front of the line.

I've learned to be tolerant of others, to see from their perspective as much as from my own. I have to assume that no one is trying to explicitly hurt one another. There's no sense in getting angry. A close call is still not an accident, and you have to shrug those moments off, sit your ass down, and keep pedaling.

What Would Happen If We Replaced Memory With Recordings?

Rob May of Backupify thinks technology could enable us to record every
moment of our lives, and find information from those recordings effortlessly.
Imagine being able to look up, rather effortlessly, what you were doing on January 4, 1993. Imagine in an instant seeing photos from that day and playing audio and video clips of conversations you had. Imagine being able to find quickly those words, names, and stories that are always on the tips of your tongue.

That's what could happen if we backed up our lifestream in the same way we back up our computers and smartphones.

Late last year, I interviewed Rob May of Backupify (excerpt below) in which he said he envisions a future in which all the bits and pieces and snippets of our lives will become saved, backed up, and searchable.

We (the general public, businesses, and of course those working in the technology sector specifically) believe now in the power of data, perhaps more so than the power of "knowledge," and definitely more so than the power of "information." I'm not saying data is more valuable. I'm saying we believe it has more power. You can't have information without data, after all.

The problem as I see it is that data is not memory or history. Hard data, hard evidence, is rarely what we use to piece together who we are and where we came from. We tell stories, which change and morph to better encapsulate the feeling of what happened—not "what happened" as in the evidence that was recorded. How we feel about something that happened in the past can often be more important than what happened. Our memory of an event influences that feeling. And memories are never reliable, especially the more often we remember them. Memories seem to rewrite themselves, according to research.

So what happens if we get to a technological point where it's possible to easily record and retrieve footage of every day, every meeting, every conversation, every lover's quarrel, every glance, every moment, but not through memory?
Rob May: I think we're going to see artificial intelligence advanced to the point where we're going to be able to augment our brains so that we don't have to remember so much.

Say you're talking to somebody and you think, "Oh, let me tell you about..." and it might be a restaurant or an idea or a book—whatever it is. Or, "my friend told me about... what was the name of it? Crap. I can't even remember who told me." But you'll remember some context, like, "We were sitting at that coffee shop," or "it was somebody from work." You'll have a partial recollection. The ability to go find that information—you can't search for that—but to have a service that would let you ask, "What was that book that Fred told me about over lunch a few weeks ago?"

Imagine if we have tools that can record your whole life, and you could go back and recall a conversation or recall the tweet, or the note, or the email, or whatever, and find it. Right now, if you don't know the name of something, it's hard to find.

So I think one thing you'll see is automated agents that access our data and do things to it that make it relevant to you at certain points in your life in time when you need it.

The second thing I think we'll see is a closer augmentation directly with humans. I'm a big fan of Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity. I think it's going to happen. If you look out a decade or maybe two decades, the brain-machine interfaces will bring new advancements. I think we're going to be automated with chips that are going to be able to call on our own big data libraries. Everything that's ever happened to us we won't keep in conscious memory, but we'll easily be able to access via these interfaces if we want to.

It will change a lot of social relationships. I'm a believer that many of our social relationships are built on little white lies, or that we don't remember things clearly, or stories that grow bigger over time, or legendary stories. And all of that will stop, because everybody will remember how something happened.

Jill Duffy: Or they'll have all the notes from their perspective, at least.

Rob May: It could lead to the entire breakdown of society [laughs]!

Everybody Hates Chris is One of the Most Underrated Shows of the Last 10 Years



If you've listen to my views on either television shows or being poor in America, you've heard me talk about Everybody Hates Chris.

Everybody Hates Chris was a brilliant sit-com that aired from 2005-2009, co-created and narrated by comedian Chris Rock. The show is simply about Chris Rock's experience growing up in Brooklyn in the 1980s. I genuinely think it's one of the most underrated shows of the last 10 years.

What the show does so brilliantly is tease out the complexities of being poor, being black, and being a kid who's coming of age in a way that's both funny and insightful. For me, it's the "being poor" part that really gets it right. The social effects and consequences of being poor by American or New York standards are just so complicated, and if you've never been there yourself, it's impossible to understand how interlocked all the problems of being poor are.

My favorite episode is about food stamps (season 1, episode 9 "Everybody Hates Food Stamps"). The video at the top of this post is an excerpt from the show, but watch the full episode to really see how many problems arise from having to spend food stamps. A second clip from the last nine minutes of the show is below.

As the clip above shows, the episode starts out with Julius (the father) finding $200 of food stamps. The mother, Rochelle, doesn't want to spend them because she's a "ghetto snob," a term so rich with meaning that it could take 800 words or more to unpack it alone. Anyway, if Julius spends the food stamps, the family will be stuck with $200 worth of terrible food. So Rochelle surrenders.

She goes to the grocery store. Now, I don't have access to the complete episode, but if I recall, she goes out of her way to shop at a different grocery store than her usual, local one because she's afraid to run into someone she knows and be seen using food stamps, which would be beyond humiliating. See, in some neighborhoods and cultures, how others see you isn't just a matter of pride. It can be debilitating, socially. (For example, there's a story from an Australian woman who moved to India, brought her cat along, and cleaned the cat's litter box. Her neighbors and cook saw she took out the litter herself, and word spread. Pretty soon, local merchants were refusing to do business with her. Not only was she dirty for taking out the cat's poop, but she was also seen as taking away jobs from the lower class. In India, you're supposed to hire someone to do the dirty work. And you can't just ask your cook or regular housekeeper to take out the litter, as that's beneath them. You have to hire an appropriate person for the job, or suffer the consequences of your local fruit seller refusing to sell you fruit.)

Back to Rochelle. If I'm indeed right that she travels to another grocery store, that means she unnecessarily spends extra time and resources getting there. But at least, because she's paying with the found food stamps, she can afford some luxury and fills her shopping cart with name-brand goods. As she's about to pay for about $100 worth of groceries, a friend who just happens to be in that store spots her and says hello. Rochelle panics and pays for the groceries out of pocket instead.

Back at home, Julius, is reveling at having an excess of $200 in the family budget. Maybe he'll take a day off work, he says. Maybe the whole family should enjoy a night at the movies! Rochelle could even get her hair done at the salon with the extra cash. Needless to say, Rochelle can't tell Julius what happened.

As a result, Rochelle tries to sell the food stamps for 50 cents on the dollar, which is a terrible business deal, and she knows it, but she has no other choice at this point. If her friends and neighbors see her trying to sell food stamps, the consequences would be even worse than being caught spending them.

Rochelle is about to make a deal with a woman when her friend spots her. Rochelle is able to deny it fast enough and change the subject, so she doesn't get caught. But the potential buyer happens to be the friend's hairdresser, and lo and behold, she has a clear calendar for the next hour, if Rochelle wants to get her hair done, which she genuinely does, but can't afford to do. To save face, however, Rochelle takes the appointment.

So she's lost a ton of time, is down $100, and is now about to spend even more money that she doesn't have in the salon.

At the end of the day, the family is sitting around the dinner table discussing their plan to go to the movies tonight. Rochelle finally cracks and admits what happened. Julius deftly notes that at least she still has the food stamps, but of course, she does not. She paid for her salon appointment with them for 25 cents on the dollar. As the show closes, the lights go out, as the other expense Rochelle was supposed to pay with the extra money was the electric bill.

The plot is intricate but tight. And it's genuinely reflective of how one small problem can cascade into a series of related problems, which happens all the time when you're poor. If your car breaks down, you can't get to work. If you can't get to work, not only do you lose a day's worth of pay, but--let's say you work in food service--now you also can't get the 20 employee percent discount that you were counting on to buy dinner for your family tonight. So you scrape together the few dollar bills and quarters that you can find and have just enough to buy a pizza and have it delivered, but of course that expense is much greater than what you would have paid for two days' worth of food from your employer. Also, because you spent the singles and quarters on pizza, your kids don't have any lunch money for tomorrow. On and on it goes.

Too few movies and television shows tease out the real complexities of being poor in America, but Everybody Hates Chris nails it, and I think in general the show was completely under-appreciated for doing something so important so well.

What I Do: Keep it Simple

Get Organized (2013).
My friend let out a deep sigh and looked at me with a pained face.

"My computer is so old, and I need a new one, but I first have to clean up all my old files and put them on a hard drive, which means I have to buy a hard drive. It's going to take forever." She looked down. "And, I mean, I have your book and I know it's going to tell me what to do, but I also know it's going to take so much time to do it right."

"No!" I said. "No no no. It's not hard, and it's not going to take a lot of time! What you have to do is really simple," I said. "And, the way I would recommend doing it is actually free. You don't have to buy a hard drive!"

I told her more or less everything that's in Chapter 1 of Get Organized: How to Clean Up Your Messy Life in a few sentences. Create some folders. Name them by year. Sort your files, and put them into the year folders based on their latest date. That's it. Done.

As for backing up, I said, "Why not just keep your old computer in a closet or something, and use it as the backup? When you get a new computer, you can migrate the important or recent stuff, like maybe the folders for 2013 and 2014, and just leave everything else on the old computer as if it were a hard drive. If your stuff is backed up to Dropbox already [she told me earlier that it was], then that's all you need to do."

I hate that people often assume the advice I have will be deeply technical and difficult to understand or carry out. The whole point of my column and how I write is to be the opposite of that. I take complicated stuff and say, "Don't listen to all those people telling you it's complicated. You don't need to understand every detail. You only need these basics, and I'm going to tell them to you in plain language."

That's what I do.

It all comes down to KISS principle: keep it simple, stupid.

Sometimes, when people hear how simple some of my solutions are, and how they are grounded in common sense rather than code or innovative apps and software to buy, I think they're almost disappointed. They thought there was a magic answer. There isn't. It's really just simple stuff.

But sometimes the simple stuff is hard to do. Anything that requires diligence and follow-through is hard, even when it's dead simple. Eat less (yeah, right). File your tax write-off receipts as they accumulate, rather than at the end of the quarter or year (fat chance). Close your email program when you're trying to get work done. Delete emails that you don't need.

Do you know how many people tell me, "I can't delete emails that I don't need. What if I need them?"

Solutions to technological problems are often very simple and free to implement. Don't make it harder on yourself for no reason by anticipating a hassle. Keep it simple, stupid.

'Millennials' is the Worst Name Possible for the Young Generation

Image from Jigsaw.
"Generation Y" was coined first. Then someone, possibly Williams Strauss and Neil Howe in a 1991 book called Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584-2069, came up with the synonym Millennials.

I think it's the worst possible name for the generation it tries to describe for one very important reason: Someone in that generation did not invent it.

"Generation Y" was no great feat of wordsmithery either, don't get me wrong. "Digital Natives" is better because it's at least more descriptive. Thinking back, "Baby Boomers" made sense, and to some extent "Generation X" made sense, describing a generation that was slightly lost and ill-defined to from the start. (I just barely make the cutoff for Generation X by most accounts, so I associate myself with the group and term to a fairly weak degree.)

Part of what defines Digital Natives is that they invent everything. With the Internet ever and always at your fingertips your whole life, with the World Wide Web evolving and growing into maturity at the same time and pace, Digital Natives are the creators. Nothing is not worth making. You don't have to be good with your hands to build things either if you know code, or Photoshop, or how to write, or even how to incite controversy. It doesn't matter if what you "invent" is a blog or a piece of software or a pour-over coffee contraption or a theory of anti-feminism. Digital Natives make this stuff happen.

The word "Millennials" on the other hand, ticks me off because two guys invented it in 1991, when the generation they were describing weren't old enough to name themselves yet. It just seems off.

In my heart of hearts, I want to see the generation of people born between, roughly 1980 and 2000 give themselves a new name. I want to hear what they want us and future generations to call them. I don't want two old authors from two generations ago doing it. Until they define how they want to call themselves
, I'm sticking with "Digital Natives."

Fit Kids Are Better at Reading and Have Better Language Skills Than Unfit Kids, Study Finds

Psychology Today posted a summary of a study showing the aerobically fit kids are, essentially, smarter than unfit kids.

"Smarter" (my word, not the researchers' or article author's) here means children who were more physically fit had "faster and more robust neuro-electrical brain responses while reading" and "had better language skills" The article goes on to summarize: "These language skills were linked to brain synapses that fired with more strength and faster speed."

According to the article citing the study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, there's a "direct correlation between fitness levels and cognitive performance on a variety of tasks."

None of this comes as any real surprise to me, although I'm glad we have science proving these points. However, I'd be curious to see this study done including young adults and teens who are of normal intelligence but have other physical limitations, such as being confined to a wheel chair or have severe asthma, that make it difficult to get aerobic exercise.

Should Pandora Be Shaking in its Boots Over Apple's Acquisition of Beats Music?

Apple recently announced it was acquiring Beats, which includes the Beats Music streaming service.

CNBC asked for my opinion about how this acquisition and future moves by Apple could hurt music streaming giant Pandora.

My initial thought was, "Pandora? What about Spotify?"

In the U.S., Pandora is the biggest player. It was founded in 2000, so it's been around a long time. It has history. And it has the Music Genome Project behind it, which largely made it as successful as it has been.

Spotify, meanwhile, was founded in 2006 and launched in 2008, so not quite as early, but it's no newcomer. I think Spotify isn't as much in the conversation at the moment in part because Apple loves to frame its data in terms of the U.S. or North America.

When Apple executives show charts and graphs citing it has the lion's share of operating systems and hardware, it's always for the U.S. only or North America only. It's never worldwide, where Windows and Android currently dominate.

In any event, Spotify didn't launch in the U.S. until 2011.

Anyway, I'm curious to see how Apple will design its revenue model for whatever service it spins out of Beats Music. And for that, it helps to consider what Pandora and Spotify are doing.

According to Market Realist:
"Spotify has a slightly different business model than Pandora. While Pandora generated about 72% its revenues from advertising and the rest from music subscription as of Q1 2014, Spotify, on the other hand, earns the bulk of its revenues from subscriptions and only a little bit from advertising."
Spotify recently reached 10 million paying subscribers. Free users still outnumber paying subscribers by about three-to-one, from what I've read. But that actually seems like a pretty slim margin and great conversion rate.

The real reason, according to most people in both the music and tech industries, that Apple bought Beats Music was for the people, led by Dr. Dre and music producer Jimmy Iovine. Like Pandora, Beats uses humans to curate suggested music channels. People who listen to streaming music, as opposed to downloaded music, are usually interested in discovering new music. And having real humans curate suggested songs to discover is just wildly better than having a computer do it, as we all know from Netflix's list of suggested movies based on movies you've previously watched and rated.

Apple could have one big competitive advantage in this whole thing, and that's in how it can integrate the service right into your Mac, iPhone, iPad, and iTunes player. If it's the default service, people will use it, right? Maybe, but let's not forget what happened with Apple Maps. The first pre-installed mapping app on iOS was Google Maps. Apple then invented its own mapping service, called Apple Maps and swapped Google Maps for this home-grown version. Because Google Maps came pre-installed on iOS devices previously, there was no Google Maps app in the App Store available to download as an alternative (at least at first). Apple Maps was buggy, full of errors, and just not as good to use.

The community complained. Eventually, Google released a stand-alone app for Google Maps (and Apple allowed it into the App Store), and to this day, most savvy iOS users snag the Google Maps app and use it rather than Apple Maps, even though that's the default, pre-installed mapping app to use.

In other words, if an app for iTunes Radio or Beats Music (or whatever Apple calls its music streaming service) comes pre-installed on iPhones and iPads as the default streaming music player, that doesn't necessarily mean people will use it. Users of Pandora and Spotify (and Rdio, and Slacker, and many other services) will still revert to their apps of choice, I think, especially if they are already paying for the service or if they have spent many hours setting up playlists, sharing music with friends, and otherwise investing in the service.


On Writing Negative Reviews


I'm a product reviewer. The primary output of my job as a writer is product reviews. Despite what you might believe, it's not at all fun to write a negative review.

The majority of products I review are software. It's actually pretty easy in that category to avoid having to write a negative review in the first place. Why? There's so much software on the market that if a product is truly and utterly bad, you've probably never heard of it and don’t need advice about whether to buy it. Sometimes poorly made software does receive some hype, in which case I will give it a negative review. But in that case, the developers are just as likely to read the bad review and release a new version of the product within days (sometimes hours).

Hardware is another story. Hardware takes time to design, prototype, announce, manufacture, sell, and ship. When a product gets that far along, it's not usually horrible, but sometimes it is, and when it is, the makers have a long road ahead of them before they can alter it. 

Poor Performers
In three years, I've rarely rated a product lower than a 2 out of 5. Off the top of my head, it's happened only twice. One of those times was just a few days ago. 

I first heard about the product months ago. I wrote about how it the idea of it fit into some upcoming trends for 2014. Then I received the product, and I talked about it and showed it off on a daily news show, mentioning that it had only just arrived and I hadn't yet tested it.

Then I started testing, and I ran into all kinds of problems. I asked the company for help and advice. I followed their advice.

I had more problems. They said the problems were occurring at the app level (in other words, a software problem and not a hardware problem, so hopefully easy to fix). It's a device that connects to a smartphone app via Bluetooth. I waited for a new app release and tested the product for several days. It worked, but it seemed like something was missing.

So I set up a phone call with the company.

We talked through my concerns. The team acknowledged that the problems I mentioned exist. They impressed upon me what the company had done right with the product, which I heard but ultimately had to ignore because none of those things changed the end user's experience.

"If there's a major app update coming in the next few weeks, let me know," I said.

I ended by telling the team that if there was no imminent update to the app or firmware, I'd have to review the product as is because it has received some hype and has been on the market for several weeks. Silence. We said goodbye.

I wrote my review and gave the product 1.5 out of 5 stars, which equates to "dismal." 

Not Fun
Maybe you've read hilarious negative reviews on Yelp or even sites with professional reviews and thought they must be a hoot to write, that it must feel great to rip into someone or something with such condescension.

Yelp reviewers and even restaurant critics don't have the same ongoing relationship with purveyors that we technology product reviewers have. Restaurant critics might dine in disguise, but I often have to meet face to face with a CEO, VP, product manager, or PR rep before the company will loan me a new product. Some of them insist on giving me a demo before putting the product in my hands. Often I push back and say that I need to experience the product with the same blank-slate mentality that a consumer would. 

On average, fewer than four companies a year still hold out, even after my push-back, and insist on meeting and demoing the product before giving it to me.

A bad review had better be factual, which means bad reviews (in my experience anyway) are more rigorously fact-checked than glowing reviews. Before I write a bad review, I have to talk to the developers or PR team. I have to make known the bad things I’m going to say by fact-checking them first. “Is it true that there is no Feature X?” I might ask. “Am I correct that there is only one way to do Y?” They know it’s coming.

And after the bad review, there's always follow-up. Sometimes the team feels burned. Sometimes they want to have a meeting with you right away to try and change your mind. Sometimes they don't approach you for several months until the product has been significantly changed. In any event, there's always a moment of awkwardness, but (with few exceptions), we're all pros and we've all been there before.

Without going into too much more detail about how we test and how many other people weigh in on the final decision about a product’s rating, even when several people support your decision to rate a product negatively, it’s still not fun to do. We reviewers know that we can’t take it back. We can update an online review when the product is updated, but sometimes we don’t have the capacity to do so quickly, and bad reviews linger. We know they can hurt a company. We know there are real people with families who run those companies. And still, when a product is worth your money, I have to say so. That’s my job. 

Hints for the Little Guys
When very small companies, the ones with products you may have never heard of before, approach me and ask me to review their product, sometimes I try to give them a few warning signs that the product is not going to score highly. This only happens in the case with relatively unknown software, the kind of stuff I would normally pass over. From time to time, a newer piece of software will look interesting and I will want to review it. But if my first impression is that it’s very bad, I might reply to the company and say, “Are you sure this product is ready for review?” or “Is the product still in beta? I don’t want to test it before it’s in its final release state.”

So if you are a small software start-up company and you hear words like that, go back to your team. Look more closely at comparative products on the market. Revise, revise, revise. Don’t allow both you and the reviewer to have to suffer through a bad review.

Birding and Surfing

Birding, or bird-watching as it's called by those of us who don't do it, has long been the hobby I've decided to take up once I get a little older. Why? Birders travel the world, spending loads of quiet time alone outside. All those things appeal to me: solitude, silence, and globe trotting. Sign me up... 30 years in advance of when I intend to start.

Yesterday, I went surfing for the first time. Sixty-two year-old Kahuna Bob took me and one other surf student into the waves at Encinitas Leucadia beach. Bob still surfs and hour and a half at a time a few days a week. After taking a nasty tumble a few years ago, he said, he now sticks to the gentler waves and still manages to get his kicks.

Walking along the same beach this morning, I took notice of how many surfers had gray hair. Some of them had been out there since 5:30 a.m. The water this morning was glassy until a wave broke. The surfers sat out there, saddle-sitting on their boards, waiting to spin in the water when their next wave finally arrived.

It got me thinking. Maybe surfing is just as appealing a post-60 hobby to take up as birding. Surfers can start early in the morning (I've always been a morning person). They can mitigate the risks they take.  They get to spend their free time in the ocean (I love swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and every other water activity I've ever tried.) They necessarily can't sit in the water close enough to each other to talk, so there's plenty of solitude and silence.

The way I see it, I have about 25 years to learn so that I can enjoy this theoretical older-age hobby when the time comes.

Let's Not Lose Mentorship: What the Entrepreneurial Spirit Might Be Missing

Is there enough mentorship in business?

I worry that there isn't. In the course of my career, I've had very few professional relationships that I would put in the mentorship category. Very early in my publishing career, my boss was a woman who taught me all her principles of organization, which largely ground the theories and principles I wrote about in my book Get Organized: How to Clean Up Your Messy Digital Life, but in many ways, that teaching was unexpected. I'm pretty sure she saw it as procedural training, more along the lines of "this is how we do things" than "I'm giving you skills that you will grow and which will become the focal point of your future work."

The entrepreneurial spirit I see particularly in the technology sector values sandbox play. People believe they will be praised for experimentation and iteration. There's a shared cultural sense that trying something new by creating original apps, gadgets, services, and "solutions" (I hate that word used in that context) has inherent value.

But I also see entrepreneurs making tremendous mistakes by not paying attention to what came before, and I wonder if more mentorship would help.

Here's an example: An app developer designs and builds a wonderful productivity tool, but the interface doesn't conform to standards that have already been set by other very similar apps. That's a case where originality isn't the best route. The developer would have saved himself or herself so much time and effort by mirroring the best practices in interaction design rather than trying to create them from scratch, or riffing off them rather than just following suit. A good mentor would have advised, "Just steal the best of what already exists for this part. Don't waste your time trying to reinvent it. The problem has already been solved elegantly, and deviating from that elegance looks sloppy and rash--not inspirational." Perhaps giving advice at that deep level of detail sounds more like the work of a consultant or beta test group than a mentor, but maybe not.

I know of some acquaintances who have very formal mentorships. They meet with their mentors a few times a year, usually over lunch, to discuss the course of their career in broad strokes. Some companies have formal mentorship programs, although I've only ever heard about them. I've never worked for an organization that actually does it.

How do we foster more mentorship in a society that almost irrationally lauds anyone who has succeeded without help and by trying something radical and new? Those cases are extremely exceptional, and I don't think we should look to them as anything but that.

Do you have a mentor? How does the relationship work? Is it a formal or informal mentorship, and what have you learned, or how have you been guided?

Writers Get to Be Whatever They Want

When people ask me why I love my job so much, I always say, "because I learn. I learn every day. It never stops."

I think of myself as a writer first, and a writer covering technology second. The technology part is important, though. There are other fields of writing where I think I would learn less, or at least at a much slower rate, than I do now.

There are other reasons I gush about my job, of course, but I think learning is inherent to writing. Anyone who is averse to new ideas, or who doesn't like being challenged, or who prefers to stick within their comfort zones will be a rather poor writer.

Even though I write about technology primarily, I don't feel like my life course as a writer is at all set on that subject. I love the notion that writers aren't expected to be experts in their subject matter, at least not at first anyway. It may come later, though.

Take Steven J. Dubner, best known for writing Freakonomics and hosting the Freakonomics podcast. His co-author, Steven Levitt, is an economics professor. Plenty of the people Dubner interviews are experts in economics and psychology. But he doesn't have a degree in economics at all. He holds an M.F.A. in writing (if I recall, it's in creative writing, although I couldn't find a source confirming it) from Columbia University.

Another example is Joshua Foer, a writer who, in researching and drafting the book Moonwalking With Einstein, studied the art of memorization to the point that he tried it himself and won the U.S.A. Memory Championship. Would he now be considered a memory expert? To some extent, absolutely. Is that the be-all, end-all for him? Not by a long shot.

Alain de Botton, another writer I deeply respect, has become a semi-expert in more areas than I know. He often writes about the philosophy of something, although that "something" changes all the time. To research one of his books about travel, for example, he lived inside Heathrow airport for a week. But he's absolutely not "just a travel writer," as is evident by his other books, such as Art as Therapy and Status Anxiety.

I think about this concept any time someone says, "If I could do college/university all over again, I'd study..." I never suffer from undergraduate-major regret. I could write about architecture, or engineering, or sociology at any time, as long as I pitched it right. For writers, it's never too late to learn something new. We get to learn and be whatever we want.

Recipe: Italian Country Pork Ribs

Italian country pork rib braise and recipe
By far, hands-down, my favorite recipe of all time is Italian country pork ribs braised in red wine with orange peel. I got it from Lidia Bastianich, who has multiple variations on this recipe herself. The version she narrates in one of her PBS television cooking shows differs from what's in her cook books. 

It's a braising recipe, entirely tinkerable, so I don't mind the inconsistency. The orange peel makes it. Don't leave it out. The smell when they cook is mind-blowing.

The hardest part of this recipe is finding country-style ribs. Not everyone calls them the same thing, and few butchers sell them already cut. You need to find a butcher willing to make this special cut for you, in most cases. Country-style ribs are a cut of the shoulder or "butt" (named for the butt barrels in which they used to be stored, not "butt" as in gluteus maximus) that have very small rib bones at one end. The rest of the cut should be quite meaty. Again, not all butchers will know what the hell you're talking about if you ask them to cut you country style ribs, so hold out until you find someone who knows.


Lidia Bastianich's Italian Country Pork Ribs (with red wine and orange peel)
Yield: a lot of fucking food. Like, easily dinner for 4-6, and leftovers for 4.

Note: I usually cut this recipe in half and make it in a 5.5 quart Le Cruset oven, and it barely fits. If making the full recipe, you'll need a significantly sized pot, or two 5.5 quart Dutch ovens.


1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms, steeped in water (reserve the water)
6 lbs country style pork ribs, in one or two slabs (not cut to individual ribs)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup minced bacon or pancetta
2 large onions, diced
1 1/2 cups carrot, grated

1 bottle dry red wine
3-4 cups chicken broth
1/3 cup tomato paste
2 cups crushed tomatoes *in some versions of the recipe, the crushed tomatoes are omitted

2 springs rosemary
4 bay leaves
6 whole cloves (no big deal if you leave these out; I don't always care for them)
1 orange peel, pith removed

The short directions: Braise for 3 hours.

The long directions:
Remove the ribs from the refrigerator and let them come to room temperature, 30 to 60 minutes. Salt and pepper them liberally.

Meanwhile, steep the poricini mushrooms in about a cup of scalding water. Set the chicken stock on another burner to keep it just below boiling.

Preheat the oven to 275F.

Heat a Dutch oven over a medium flame. Add some of the oil and brown the surface area of the ribs.

Remove the ribs to a platter and set aside. Lower the heat significantly.

Add the bacon or pancetta to the pot. Add more oil as needed, and then add the onions and carrots. Cook on low heat until the onions sweat out. 

Make a well in the pot by pushing the ingredients to the side so you can "toast" the tomato paste
and let it caramelize a bit in the pot. Once the tomato paste has browned a little, toss it together to coat the other ingredients. 

Raise the heat to medium-high for two minutes. If using crushed tomatoes, add them now.

Drain the mushrooms, reserving the liquid. If there is any sand or grit that has settled to the bottom of the mushroom water, or "tea," try to leave it behind. You don't want to eat it.

Deglaze the pot using the mushroom tea. Keep the heat high. Now deglaze using about half the wine. Bring the whole thing nearly to a boil.

Add about half the chicken stock. Gently place the ribs into the pot, nestling them well into the liquid. Add more wine and chicken stock to practically over the ribs, though it's fine if some of the pieces stick out a little. 
Add the herbs and other aromatics, being careful with the orange peel.

Cover the pot and move it to the oven. (You can cook the whole thing on the stove top if you prefer, but keep the flame very low.) Let it braise for one hour, then turn the ribs, and check the level of the liquid, adding more chicken stock to cover as needed. Cover tightly and return to the oven. Let them braise for a total of 3 hours.

It's best to let the ribs sit over night, and then reheat them before serving. Be sure to fish out and discard the orange peel, rosemary twigs, and cloves if you see them. Cut gently into ribs and serve on a platter with some sauce slathered on top. This dish is excellent with skillet cauliflower (olive oil, bread crumb, garlic), and make sure to tell your guests there will be some bones.

Save leftovers to shred with rigatoni. The sauce becomes thicker on the second  and third days.