Category Archives: Ideas

I once met a Zen-trained painter in Japan, in his 90s, who told me that suffering is a privilege, it moves us toward thinking about essential things and shakes us out of shortsighted complacency; when he was a boy, he said, it was believed you should pay for suffering, it proves such a hidden blessing.

Yet none of that begins to apply to a child gassed to death (or born with AIDS or hit by a “limited strike”). Philosophy cannot cure a toothache, and the person who starts going on about its long-term benefits may induce a headache, too.

Pico Iyer in the New York Times on The Value of Suffering. Hat tip: Evelyn Rusli.

Companies Die, Cities Thrive

“It’s hard to kill a city,” West began, “but easy to kill a company.” The mean life of companies is 10 years. Cities routinely survive even nuclear bombs. And “cities are the crucible of civilization.” They are the major source of innovation and wealth creation. Currently they are growing exponentially. “Every week from now until 2050, one million new people are being added to our cities.”

That’s from the intro to Geoffrey West’s Long Now seminar “Why Cities Keep on Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster”.

Kevin Kelly summarized it in this way:

All organisms (and companies) have share many universal laws of growth. Creatures age in the same way, whether they are small animals, large mammals, starfish, bacteria, and even cells. They share similar metabolic rates. Similar distributions. All ecosystems (and cities) also share universal laws. They evolve and scale in a similar fashion among themselves — whether they are forests, meadows, coral reefs, or grasslands, or villages.

Geoff West from the Santa Fe Institute has piles of data to prove these universal and predictive laws of life. For instance, organisms scale in a 3/4 law. For every doubling in size, they increase in other factors by less than one, or .75. The bigger the organism, the slower it goes. Both elephants and mice have the same number of heartbeats per lifespan, but he elephant beats slower.

Ecosystems and cities, on the other hand, scale by greater than one, or 1.15. Every year cities increase in wealth, crime, traffic, patents, pollution, disease, infrastructure, and per capita by 15%. The bigger the city, the faster it goes.

Geoff’s talk is worth a listen, especially as you consider how companies grow and evolve over timespans measured in decades, not years or rounds of funding.

On Microbiomes

Your body has about ten times the number of microbial cells as it does human cells. Collectively this bacteria weighs about three pounds, about the same as your brain. The evolution of our understanding of these bacteria has been evolving rapidly over the past twenty years, and I expect its findings to be the most impactful on our health and wellness in the coming decades.

The New Yorker has a fantastic article by Michael Specter that starts and ends with our changing perception of heliobacter pylori, linked to gastritis and peptic ulcers, but whose absence in children (it used to be universal, now fewer than 5% of children in the US carry it in their guts) is linked to asthma. It also has consequences for weight:

There is equally convincing evidence that destroying H. pylori could alter metabolism in ways that increase the risk of obesity. Several research groups, including Blaser’s, have found a strong relationship in humans between the bacterium and two stomach hormones, ghrelin and leptin, both of which play central roles in regulating our appetites [...] The more ghrelin you have in your bloodstream, the more likely you are to overeat. Leptin functions in the opposite way, suppressing appetite and increasing energy levels. For people whose stomachs are infected by H. pylori, ghrelin became far less detectable after a meal. For the others, levels of the hormone remained high, and the effects are evident. [...]

That finding was not a complete surprise. Roughly three-quarters of the antibiotics consumed in the United States are fed to poultry, cows, and pigs, not to treat illness but as dietary supplements to promote faster growth. [...] Until recently, the biochemical reasons for that weight gain, and its unsettling implications or humans, were murky. [...] “A lot of things are happening at once,” he said. “The rise in obesity, celiac disease, asthma, allergy syndromes, and Type 1 diabetes. Bad eating habits are not sufficient to explain the world-wide explosion in obesity.

The environment inside our body is as complex and varied as the one outside our body and responds just as unpredictably to wholesale changes to its ecosystem. I’d recommend reading the entire article, unfortunately it’s not available in its entirety on the New Yorker’s site, however here’s a PDF of the entire thing.

Password Coalition

Users use the same passwords for multiple services. It’s a fact of life, it’s just so easy to that most people end up having 2-3 passwords they use everywhere, including one “hard” one for financial sites, etc. The downside is your password is only strong as the weakest link of where you’ve used it — when something like the Gawker hack happens there is a huge wave of compromised accounts that follow.

You can ask users not to use the same password, you can even encourage things like 1password (too expensive for many people I recommend it to), but what if there was a way to enforce that people registering for your site hadn’t used the same password elsewhere?

It actually wouldn’t be too hard, if you’re registering with and the password “abc” when you register and the site hasn’t encrypted and stored the password yet it could try to log into your Gmail account with those details, and if it works force you to choose a different password. There’s no reason this has to be limited to email logins, you could put it against the APIs of, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, any number of other services that expose simple authentication APIs and see where it works. Any successful logins, tell the user they need to pick something else.

Of course all that work and they’ll probably just put a 1 at the end of it.

Kindle Statistics

Dear Kindle Team, one of my favorite features of Google Reader has always been its “Trends” or more simply its statistics that give you insight into your reading patterns and volume.

As the Kindle has become a bigger and bigger part of my life, much of my reading time has shifted from RSS-based sources to content on my Kindle, but I’m really curious how much time, how many words, at what times of day, etc I’m consuming all this new content. I think providing stats would also encourage people to read more, and highlight to them how the Kindle has changed their habits.

Asynchronous Voice IM

I wonder what a true voice IM clent would look like. The beauty of I’m that is lost in clients like Skype is it’s impossible to maintain several asyncronous near real-time conversations at once. You can hear this problem is you ever listen to a taxi radio. Perhaps when you focus different windows it could catch up on the discrete voice clips since the last time you were on that window. The whole chat UI could be a button you hold down while speaking, like a HAM radio.