books notes wellness

The Obesity Code (2016), Jason Fung

I read this at the end of 2018, and it propelled me on a path of personal change and continual learning about health and wellness. That space has exploded in recent years, especially in the age of podcasts and social media we’re in, and there’s been more research since – but this book was my trailblazer, and what follows are summary notes I made for myself back then.

Just educating myself a little more about how our bodies – the most important thing we have – function, felt empowering, and it was also surprising, given what I thought I knew already. I still find it somewhat shocking that fasting, something that barely crosses our minds, so simple as to be banal, can be so transformative. The Diabetes Code, by the same author, is similarly excellent.

Obesity as an epidemic is recent, only materializing in the last generation. It began in the 1950’s, as a function of increased life expectancy: the average age of the first heart attack is 66 years, and more people were reaching this age. Cholesterol was thought to cause heart disease, and dietary fat was thought to increase cholesterol, so physicians advocated lower-fat diets, which in turn increased carbohydrate intake. In 1977, a government committee (not a committee of physicians) introduced the Food Pyramid, advocating less fat and more carbohydrates, and the rates of obesity started increasing from that very year. Because refined carbohydrates couldn’t be both good (low in fat) and bad (fattening), it was decided that they weren’t fattening, and instead, excess calories were to blame.

books notes social

The Meritocracy Trap (2019), Daniel Markovits

I read Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All over the holidays, which I enjoyed immensely. This led me to Daniel Markovits’ The Meritocracy Trap in the new year, which delves in the same broad pasture, but adopts a more academic bent and broader brush, surveying history, social science and economics. I’ve tried to summarize what I think the main ideas are, mingling a paraphrasing of the book with a few of my own thoughts, along with some ideas from the first book. Both are well worth your time, imho.

I was recently thinking about why I do what I do, and inevitably, the idea of money crossed my mind. Money incentivizes activity, all kinds of activity – it motivates us collectively and as individuals, to move and then stay in motion. Perhaps much of this activity is not broadly meaningful, but a small percentage probably is, and that is enough to move civilization forward, step by step or large leaps at a time – inventions, ideas, scientific discoveries, processes, systems. As a catalyst for progress at scale, it’s hard to beat. Money is the reason that capitalism, an economic system where production exists to generate profit for the owners of capital, and the basis for the most powerful economy on earth, can exist – it establishes a direct conduit between incentives, action, and reward.

Capitalism in turn, drives the culture of meritocracy that is the foundation for so much of our economy today. My reading of meritocracy: a culture where individuals are explicitly compensated according to actual “value”, or impact on a firm’s bottom line. In a capitalist system based on production, it is contribution to profit and productivity that ultimately accrues the highest rewards, and this explains the extravagant pay of CEOs compared to other employees, made possible by how much technology has amplified the leverage of management within a company. Technology enables scale in many facets of production, and when used with capitalist intent, becomes a key component of today’s meritocracy and an enabler for wealth concentration. In my view, capitalism (money as incentive), technology (and education), and the meritocratic culture amplify and feed each other, a “virtuous” cycle of sorts.

blog mobile travel video


Taken with the Nokia N8 – Sydney:

and Bondi Beach:

photos travel

Sydney, December 2010

books notes

Slack (2002), Tom DeMarco


    • Task switching has a penalty – get people to do only one thing.
    • Today’s knowledge worker is after personal growth – give them control slack – the opportunity to make their own mistakes, and so learn from them.
    • Full-time interactions consume brain power. The fewer the interaction lines radiating from a person, the less energy and overhead consumed on communication.
    • Having a gofer can save a LOT of energy and time.
    • Management is hard not because of the amount of work (a manager should not be doing work his reports are doing) but because the skills are inherently hard to master.
    • Empowerment means putting process ownership (and creation) into the hands of the people doing the work. The manager gives some control to the worker, who understands and appreciates the trust placed in him.
    • In the knowledge world, quality is inversely related to quantity.
    • Management metrics don’t tell the whole story, or quantify the entire benefit to the company.
    • People fear change because they are giving up the known/mastery for the unknown/novice-dom – remember, people identify themselves in part, through their work. Never belittle people who are going through this change.
    • Leaders acquire trust by giving trust.
    • Growth is the most opportune time to introduce change.
    • Trust and communication between middle management is essential for organizational reinvention.

Key lesson – today’s knowledge worker is after personal growth.

books notes

Everything Bad is Good for You (2006), Steven Johnson


Unlike media-created perception, Computer Games are complicated, and exhibit delayed gratification. So why would anyone want to play them?

  • Because they have a reward system (either clear, or intrinsic), and we are wired to seek reward.
  • They force you to make decisions, as you have to do in real life.
  • They force you to learn how to probe the game, so you understand how it works, in order to win. Isn’t this just another way of describing the scientific method? Create a hypothesis, test, feedback.
  • They force you to telescope – plan your tasks, and sequence them logically so you can correctly progress through the game.

The value of games is not their content (often childish, banal, or morally suspect), but their cognitive skill development.

books notes

Iconoclast (2008), Gregory Berns


An iconoclast breaks away from the status quo, and achieves his status by being, seeing and doing differently, and bringing into being some disruptive innovation. To be an iconoclast:

  • Look at new things to perceive old ones differently – you can do this by being in new environments, or being with new people. Our brain rigidly categorizes for efficiency in processing inputs, and so we need to shake the perceptual system out of its categories. Categories are death to imagination.
  • Stress – transform fear into more productive emotions, such as anger. Fear distorts perception. The pressure to conform (especially when among strangers) is because of fear of social isolation, and fear of looking stupid.

There are three steps to achieving successful iconoclast status:

  1. See differently – see things as they are, not as others do. Create a new idea / vision.
  2. Face down fear, so it doesn’t influence your decisions. Be brave enough to stand out.
  3. Social network so others (enough people and the right people) see the way you do. Social intelligence, networking and connectedness are crucial to succeeding – they help you build reputation, experience and eventually, productivity. Familiarity quiets fear (in others).

Finally, in order to see differently, you could consider drugs. The SSRIs and betablockers inhibit fear and anxiety, and have few side effects. Also the hormone oxytocin has been shown to increase social bonding and social intelligence.

Key lessons – see differently, face down fear, and social network.

books notes

Brain Rules (2008), John Medina


  1. Exercise during the day improves cognitive ability. It halves the chance of mild dementia, and reduces by 60% risk of Alzheimer’s. This underscores the importance of Physical Education in school.
  2. The brain improvises on a database (knowledge store).
  3. Individual brains develop differently on different time tables, based on different life experiences. Your brain rewires itself based on different experiences in life.
  4. The more attention your brain pays to a given stimulus, the more elaborately the information will be encoded and retained. Emotionally charged stimuli are the most memorable. Association between different data points aids memory, ie. hierarchy, which means put concepts / meaning before details. Have a 10 minute check out rule in lectures / learning. The brain can’t multitask – pay actual attention to many things at once.
  5. Spaced (over time – meaning not too often) and varied repetition enhances remembering. Forgetting allows prioritization.
  6. The brain is active during sleep; only 20% of sleep is non-REM. It is an opportunity for offline processing and furious memory creation.
    1. Sleep patterns differ from person to person – I am active in the mid-morning, and in the middle of the night. Each person has a sleep archetype, or chrono-type – ie. early, late or middle. For many people, a 30 minute nap during the day (especially the mid-afternoon siesta) improves performance.
    2. Sleep aids creativity, while sleep loss ages the body, and also causes mind loss.
  7. Stress (overload – some stress is good) causes a sense of helplessness, and lack of control. Chronic, prolonged stress / cortisol kills brain cells.
    1. Depression deregulates the thought process. Stress prevents learning and brain function – hence, your home and personal life will affect your work and school performance.
    2. Control is key – if I have control in my personal life, I can better insulate myself from stress caused by lack of control at work. Marriage success is often about limiting the severity and frequency of hostile interactions.
  8. Stimulation, especially multi-sense stimulation, including the rarer touch and smell stimulation, can increase creativity.

Key lessons – exercise regularly, have a satisfying and full personal life to manage stress, and make sure you get enough sleep at the right times. To remember important things in your life, encode them emotionally and deliberately.

film notes

Inside Job (2011), Charles Ferguson

The two defining world events of the last decade have been 9-11 and the ensuing Iraqi occupation, and the global financial crisis of 2008 – for which the last word has still to be written. Filmmaker Charles Ferguson may have created the definitive documentary film accounts for both – in 2008, No End in Sight provided a damning analysis of the US-Iraqi occupation and subsequent insurgency, and his latest film, Inside Job, takes on the failure of the US financial industry.

As he did with No End in Sight, Ferguson provides a well paced and strikingly clear account of the causes and events leading up to 2008, and parades before us a gallery of villains and players (some of whom he interviews, rendering quite uncomfortable under his grilling in the process), most of whom still remain in key decision making positions. You’ll come away with an understanding of how all this happened; anger that while catastrophe has been averted for now, things really haven’t changed; and an insight into the scale of the problem.

The key messages:

  • the financial industry is too powerful, and wields disproportionate influence on government (lobbyists in general, wield too much power);
  • this allows them to heavily influence legislation of their industry, including the financial deregulation which laid the groundwork for the events of 2008;
  • deregulation leads to an industry where conflict of interest is legalised, and where the capitalist ethos, self-interest and short term gains thrive and are encouraged.

One solution appears to be greater regulation to prevent conflicts of interest, but given the power the financial industry currently wields, the chances of this happening any time soon are low.

productivity technology

The iPad and Favorite Apps

I’ve had an iPad now for three months. In that time, I’ve barely touched my laptop.

Some observations:

1. For content consumption, the form factor is compelling. The book analogy is apt – I hold it like a book, it’s closer to my face and eyes, and it encourages and facilitates sharing with others. I use it in a much larger range of situations than I would a laptop, and more often – in bed, on the street, at a cafe. It’s tactile – using my fingers to touch and interact and engage with media / content can seem more direct when compared to keyboard and mouse.

However, while it facilitates increased consumption, it isn’t always the best tool for efficient consumption – if I have a backlog of Google Reader articles I want to go through, I’ll use the keyboard and mouse on my desktop, which are vastly more efficient still for most tasks. Ironically, it’s given me a greater appreciation of how important the development of the mouse, keyboard and windows-based UIs have been to the overall advance of the computer age. The iPad encourages shallow consumption – if I need to analyze and synthesize information, this usually means flicking between several web pages and applications at the same time, which means my desktop.

Pages in Mobile Safari also load more slowly than on my desktop and laptop. The difference is that I can be lying in bed or at a cafe with my iPad, in a relaxed state, and on my terms – that alone is compelling.

Native mouse and keyboard support in the OS is really needed if the iPad is to become an efficient content creation tool. I’m creating this post in the WordPress app, but using the Bluetooth keyboard without a mouse is cumbersome and much slower compared to a laptop.

2. Portability – 1.5 pounds, which is just light enough to not have to think about slipping in a bag when going out. It’s still much better than most netbooks or laptops, will only get lighter (and include more features – front and back cameras), and is reasonably robust (a one-piece slab, with flash memory).

3. Instant on, casting the computer as personal information appliance. I took it on a holiday to NYC, and got into the habit of taking it out of my bag, using GPS to quickly figure out which street I was on, and getting directions to my next destination. It removes the time tax on using a computer to get information.

4. Battery life, something less to worry about because the iPad seems to go for days on a single charge. Not true for laptops and cell phones, where I have to remember to plug in every night.

5. Fit-for-use OS. The UI is finger-centric, and you won’t see many carryovers from the mouse and keyboard world, one of my frustrations with Windows Tablet PCs.

6. Unlocked with no contract, for me, the tipping point. I’m able to reactivate my monthly data plan with ATT whenever I want and as I need (if I’m holiday elsewhere in the US, for example), and when I was in Australia, simply slipped in a Micro SIM from Optus to get 3G coverage there.

7. GPS, and location-based apps, which are going to be huge as smartphones continue to become a bigger part of our lives (although I’m still a holdout). Take for example, Zillow, which allows me to see every house for sale overlaid on a map of my current location, along with photos, description, agent contact details, price history, and a price estimate.

8. Many native apps appear to exist to address the fact that a browser web app is not the most effective way to access information on the iPad. However, more websites are being created specifically for iPad use – Yahoo mail and Gmail have particularly good implementations – and this should be a growing trend, as it allows companies to bypass the App Store’s restrictions.

Which apps have gotten the most use? Here are my top fifteen, in rough order of use, with category classification and listings of other apps of note:


1. Instapaper ($4.99) – One could argue that reading is the iPad’s raison d’être, and Instapaper is the reading app I use the most. It allows for deep reading by presenting downloaded web pages and with all advertising and other site context removed. Every article, no matter where it comes from, is presented the same way – simple text on a page. With many other apps providing Instapaper support, and article recommendation websites (eg. built around Instapaper, an ecosystem is developing, which augurs well for folks who appreciate the written word.

2. Feeddler RSS Reader Pro ($4.99) – My second-most used app. I’ve purchased and tried Reeder as well, but in the end, Feeddler best suits the way I browse my feeds – by folder, then by feed.

3. Amazon Kindle (free) – Seems to have a larger range of eBooks than iBooks, and more free books to boot. I’m currently reading The Rational Optimist, which was available free for a limited time – the hardback list price is $26.99.


4. Atomic Web Browser ($0.99) – Addresses a number of Mobile Safari deficiencies: full-screen browsing (which Mobile Safari does not have), multi-tab support with tabs shown onscreen for quick switching, and concurrent loading of multiple pages.


5. Twitter (free) – The UI is different, clean and effective. Along with InstaPaper’s Editor’s Picks,, and Google Reader, I use it to discover new articles of interest.

6. Friendly ($0.99) – A more iPad-friendly UI on top of Facebook.

7. Skype – For overseas calls – unfortunately, an iPad-native version doesn’t exist yet, and I use the iPhone app.


8. Netflix (free) – If you live in the US, a NetFlix subscription is a no brainer, especially with a an imminent streaming-only option. When I was at home sick earlier this week, I watched The Thin Red Line in HD streaming, propped up in bed, coughing my lungs out. The NetFlix app also supports HDMI-out to your HDTV.

Others – ABC Player (current season episodes, in HD), VLC.


9. App Shopper (free) – How I discover the majority of my apps, and my free apps.

Others – Wikipanion, Open Table, Zillow, Cool Hunting, Houzz, Kayak, TED, Flixster.


10. GoodReader ($0.99) – A PDF reader which is in the music section because I use it to access my musical scores. The iPad screen is only 10 inches diagonally, and GoodReader distinguishes itself from other PDF readers by allowing you to create custom crops / viewport dimensions for each PDF. This lets you optimize the use of screen real estate and aspect ratio so that all notes on a page are displayed, but zoomed in to their largest possible size. I can see the iPad being a boon to musicians – instead of lugging around a number of books, all your scores are available to you and other collaborators in a drastically lighter package.

Others – AccuPlayer, Pandora. The streaming music apps will really come to the fore when Apple releases iOS 4 for the iPad, allowing this apps to play music in the background.


11. NYTimes (free) – A native UI on top of my favorite newspaper, with all current articles available (some opinion pieces are not).

12. ScoreCenter XL (free) – A native UI on top of ESPN; video highlights are available on the same page as the game recap.

13. WunderMap (free) – A map of your current location overlaid with temperature readings from weather stations in the area, and forecast information. Lightweight and ad-free, compared to some of the other weather apps, which are ad-heavy.

14. World Clock (free) – Includes a world map with areas of daylight and night.

Others – Flipboard, NPR.

Content Creation

15. Office2 HD ($7.99) – A number of document editing apps exist, but this one appears to have the most seamless integration with Google Docs. When you edit a doc and save it, it uploads it directly back to Google Docs – some other apps I’ve seen force you to download the file locally, and then manually re-upload it (where it then gets saved as a new Google Doc).

GamesTap Tap Revolution, Stick Golf, Angry Birds Halloween ($1.99).