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Showing posts from 2009

2009 Summary

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2009 has been a busy, fun year!

In January, after selling all my furniture and giving up my apartment in Waterloo, I drove down to Texas.  I spent the winter in the beautiful beach town of South Padre Island, returning in the spring.

I had the pleasure of spending the summer around friends and family in Guelph and Kitchener-Waterloo.  Melissa and I planned our upcoming "overseas experience" to New Zealand.  In August, I sold my car and we flew to Fiji, then New Zealand.

We've since traveled around a lot of the NorthIsland, and I have been taking flyinglessons.

While in Texas, I wrote about the  US health careexperience.  It will be interesting to see how that turns out.

I also wrote some management and software development articles, about getting people to respond to email,   why change is sometimes bad, and why one good programmer is better than 100 average ones.

I complained about the poor state of competition in Canadian mobile and broadband.  Good to see there's …

Lying to your children is ok?

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Now, I know I'm going to get some hate mail for this one, because I've had many a heated argument about it with friends before.

Plus, I'm not actually a parent myself, so clearly I might "just not understand." But I'm going to try anyway.

So what's the deal with parents lying to their kids about Santa Claus?

I mean seriously, children are supposed to trust their parents. The world might be harsh and mean, but at least Mommy and Daddy are there to protect and nourish them, right?

As a parent, you tell your children to look both ways before crossing the street. And you expect your children to believe you. You tell them not to take candy from strangers. You teach them right from wrong.

And then you tell them that a fat jolly man in a red suit breaks into your house at night every year and leaves behind toys and candy.

And they believe you.

Why? Because they're your children and they trust you.

Then, a few years down the line, they find out (usually from so…

Incorrect Logical Reasoning

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Logic can be a tricky thing.  Consider the following example from the ChangingMinds website:
Statement 1: All men are animals
Statement 2: Some animals are aggressive
Conclusion: Some men are aggressive
Seems perfectly reasonable at first glance, doesn't it?

Except it's not.  Here's the same reasoning, with one word changed:
Statement 1: All men are animals
Statement 2: Some animals are female
Conclusion: Some men are female
Which is clearly not true.  As the site explains,
The conclusion of the example falls into the traps of making the assumption that the 'aggressive animals' and 'men' subsets necessarily overlap, whereas there is no necessity for this in statements one and two. Although the conclusioncould be true it does not have to be true.
As they suggest, drawing a Venn diagram can make things more clear:



In this case, the inner circles may or may not overlap, and we don't have enough information to make a definitive conclusion.

Statements like the first…

Religious Conversion

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Since arriving in New Zealand, I have now twice been the target of attempted religious conversion.

I found this surprising, as I had understood the country to be one of the more progressive in the world.

In fact, New Zealand has far more non-religious (38%*) than Canada (16%*) or the US (16%*).

Perhaps that's why the churches are more active at recruiting here.

I was raised in a Christian family, and I know a good deal about the Bible.  I've researched the basics of other major world religions, and have learned some ancient mythology.

I also have a very strong education in, and inclination towards mathematics and logic.

Some aspects of religion are great.  Values like sharing, caring for others, and not killing people are of great benefit to society.

On the other hand, the related crusades, intolerance, and holy wars are... not so great.

Even more dangerous, in my opinion, is the concept of absolute faith.  This is the phenomenon where people choose to believe certain things ab…

Why get a private pilot's license?

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I just started my private pilot's licence (PPL) training here in New Zealand.

Flying a plane is something I've wanted to do for a long time, but never seemed to manage to have both the necessary time and money simultaneously.

So besides the obvious fun factor, why would anyone want to get a PPL?

Well, just like a driver's license gives you the basic freedom to rent or own a car and drive it on public roads, a pilot's license gives you the freedom to rent or own a plane, and fly it in controlled airspace.

Instead of driving to a vacation destination, you can head to an airport or flight club, and rent a plane for the weekend.  In addition to being faster, it can also be a more scenic, and possibly even less stressful mode of transportation.

As a bonus, my New Zealand PPL will be easily transferable to a Canadian license when I return.

Manulife CoverMe insurance isn't worth it

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As a small business owner, I have no dental or extended health coverage. So a while ago, I decided to sign up for a Manulife CoverMe policy.

Their policies appear to be priced well. The website is nicely done, and the sign up process is entirely online.

It gives you the feeling that they really have their stuff together.

The problem is that as soon as they get your money, the experience goes sharply downhill.

It looks like they invest all of their funds and effort into marketing and getting people to sign up, but as soon as you need service, you're SOL.

Their claims process is straight out of the 1980's, requiring you to snail mail or fax a sheet you need to fill out by hand.  You would think they could have managed some sort of electronic method.

I was able to easily set up automatic payments from my credit card online, but when I needed to cancel these payments, I had to phone twice, send two different faxes, and they still deducted two extra payments after cancellation.

M…

Is skipping dinner healthy?

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It's Thanksgiving time in Canada, so what better time to write about how eating affects your health.

Depending on what and how much you eat, big holiday dinners can add up to 3000, 5000, or even 7000 calories -- several days of your caloric needs in one sitting.

In fact, in North America, dinners are usually the largest meal, and it's quite easy to consume your an entire day's worth of calories just at dinner -- nevermind the other meals and snacks you had during the day.

So if you're looking to cut back, lose a bit of weight, and cut down your belly size a bit, the logical place to start might be the last meal of the day.

But is it healthy?

This topic is a highly controversial one, and like most topics, there are good scientific studies backing up both sides of the argument.

The traditional school of thought is that it's best to eat many small meals constantly during the day. This is thought to prevent cravings and avoid binging. The problem is that this tends to…

Mobile Phone Watch Review

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Yesterday (well, today in North America) around noon, my birthday present to myself arrived. Direct from China, a mobile phone watch!

I had reserved expectations, considering it was fairly cheap, but I must say I've been very impressed by the capabilities so far.

It comes with a wireless Bluetooth headphone clip, capable of playing stereo music and two-way conversations. It's even smart enough to pause your music when there's an incoming call, then resume it when you hang up.

Now, I did come across a bit of a glitch with the Bluetooth (USB and Bluetooth are so ubiquitous, and so flakey). It seems that when the AVCTP protocol (which lets you control the music player via the control stick on the clip) is active, the sound gets choppy and distorted. However, if you disable that (which isn't really needed), everything seems to work smoothly.

The interface is a touchscreen that can be controlled:
Using your fingernail -- surprisingly, you can do about 90% of what you need th…

How many mediocre programmers does it take to...

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How many mediocre programmers does it take to replace a good programmer?

The answer is: Trick question.No amount of mediocre programmers will ever replace a good one.

Let's say your good programmer has a "productivity factor" of 1.0. We'll take this to mean that he or she gets 1 "unit" of productive, production-ready software shipped per day.

The reality is that even an average programmer might not have a positive productivity factor. If you look at their productivity over the long term, it might actually be something like -0.1 or lower, meaning that overall they cause more work for others than they actually complete themselves. They basically just slow the good ones down.

Furthermore, every programmer you add to a project adds overhead -- both in communication and complexity of the code. So adding two mediocre programmers is even worse than adding just one.

Software development is an extremely complex discipline that requires above-average performance acros…

Ripping people off makes them angry

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When will companies learn that ripping customers off is not a viable long-term business strategy?

For instance, a bunch of cell phone companies have a little-known "must give 30-days notice" policy written into their terms. So if you call and cancel your service today, you have to pay them another 30 days for absolutely nothing. Seriously. Check the fine print.

Meanwhile, banks keep adding random service fees that you never hear about until after they show up on your statement.

Instead of retaining customers with reliable service, they lock people in with long-term contracts and insane cancellation fees.

These companies dream up 15-page "terms of service" agreements specifically designed to trap folks into craftily-worded contracts, pay hidden fees, and provide no recourse when they fail to provide the product or service they're supposed to.

Executives plot ripoff schemes and scams, then let their accountants loose to cook the books, spreading the money across a …

Finding a home half-way around the world

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What did we do before the Internet?

For all the spam, scams, and general junk out there, it still amazes me what you can do via the net.

Moving half-way around the world is all of the sudden less daunting when you browse for house rentals as if you were there.

Google Maps Street View (not yet available in Canada) also lets you zoom in and basically take a walk around the neighborhood to see what it's like.

You have to admit -- the Internet is pretty cool sometimes.

The cat and the string

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No matter what mood they're in, or what has happened in the previous 5 minutes, if you dangle string in front of a cat for long enough, it will chase it.

Even the laziest, most stubborn cat in the world will eventually give in.

They can't help it. It's hard-wired.

We humans still have a bunch of behaviours that are hard-wired in a similar way.

The difference is that we can consciously think about and modify them -- if we choose to.

That's what separates people from animals -- the ability to override obsolete, deep-rooted instincts based on logic and learning.

So next time you say to yourself, "I just can't help it," remember that you're not a cat -- you can make whatever choice you want.

No technological progress in 40 years

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I was recently watching a series called "Ancient Inventions". It is hosted by one of the guys from Monty Python and is reasonably entertaining and informative. It was amazing to see how many things were invented thousands of years ago, completely lost and forgotten, then re-invented recently.

It got me thinking about all of the technological progress we've made in the past couple hundred years. There have been a number of amazing inventions that have changed the world, like trains, planes, cars, radio, telegraph, telephone, and many others.

But what world-changing inventions and technologies have surfaced since the 60's?

Computers? Ha. That's 1930's technology. The microwave oven? Mobile phones? 1940's.

Solar cells? Fibre optics? That was way back in the 50's.

But what about the Internet? Nope. We were online in 1969 -- 40 years ago.

What life changing technology has been invented since then? It starts getting really thin. Liposuction. Viagra…

Canadian Mobile Phones: Getting the Least for the Most

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So today I received my Fido bill and noticed a new charge called "Other minutes." I was confused since I have a 150 minute plan and only used about 60 last month.

I phoned in to customer support on my cell phone to inquire about the charge.

The rep wasn't really sure, and had to put me on hold a few times to look things up, but guessed this was due to calls made "out of my zone."

Now, I have a grandfathered plan from years and years ago (Sprint Canada before it was acquired) and I never used to have a "zone."

Ever since Rogers acquired Fido, they've slowly (and without notice) modified my old plan to bring it in line with the current plans, which cost more and give you less.

The hugely ironic thing: Just as she was starting to explain to me exactly my "zone" was -- the call was dropped.

So I went to my online banking and paid the bill. Even if I wasn't leaving the country in a month, what could I really do? Switch to a new provider? Ha…

New site: buymystuff.com

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Last night I gave the first public demo of my new site -- http://buymystuff.com

What does it do? It's basically like having an online garage sale that people can browse 24x7.

"But Jason...", you ask, "How is this any different than than Craigslist, Kijiji, or newpaper classifieds?"

I'm glad you asked! Those services are generally set up to let you post one item in one category for a short duration. For instance, if you're selling a car or a house -- buymystuff.com is not the best place.

Instead, this site is designed to let you go through all that miscellaneous stuff in your closet, garage or basement that you want to sell but haven't bothered because it's too much hassle.

Or, if you happen to be moving, and have a whole ton of stuff you want to get rid of at once, this is the perfect way.

List everything once on buymystuff.com, then let it do all the work for you. Perhaps a few months from now, someone on the other side of town will be looking fo…

New Zealand and running a virtual company

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It's official! All of the paperwork for a one-year working holiday trip to New Zealand is now complete. Melissa and I will be leaving September 1st, and returning August 2010.

I'll be continuing to operate my web development company -- Syllogistic Software Inc. -- while I'm there. We have invested a huge amount of time and effort into "virtualizing" the company.

With clients in Toronto, London (Ontario), Vancouver, and Waterloo, plus employees in Kitchener, Montreal, and elsewhere, communication is paramount.

Our infrastructure spans the Internet, including a full virtual PBX phone system with multiple extensions and IVR via Trixbox. All company email, shared calendars, and documents are hosted on Google Apps. Source code is managed by Subversion.

The heart and soul of the operation is handled by an internal application we wrote, called simply the "Project Management System" (Update 2011-07-13: This is now called PMRobot). This allows precise, sim…

Banned Companies List

I've often referred to my "banned companies" list. This is a list I keep of companies that have caused me sufficient harm that I refuse to do business with them.

A few companies have been put on the list and then taken off again, usually because they improve or enough time passes.

However, two have done me sufficient wrong to earn lifetime bans:
Rogers: These anti-competitive frackers have screwed everyone for so long that they have their own popular hate site: http://www.ihaterogers.ca -- That alone says something. My personal vendetta is for them cutting off my Internet years ago for "using too much bandwidth" back when they I had their "unlimited" plan.

Apparently they thought they could advertise "unlimited", then make a limit -- but not tell you what the limit was, or how much you had used -- just that you used too much and that you should cut back some amount, or your service will remain suspended -- with no refund.

Yes, this was really t…

What stresses you out?

They say some of the most stressful things in life are:
Starting a new job
MovingMajor relationship changes
Maybe I'm weird, but these aren't even on my top ten list. Sure, there's some stress involved, but they're all well within my control, and that makes them seem manageable.

The things that tend to cause me the most stress are the ones that are beyond my control, like:
Traffic/construction/accidentsLong checkout lines at storesThings not being ready/complete when promised
Am I really strange, or do others feel the same?

What stresses you out?

Conservation or Economics?

There seem to be more and more calls to conserve and "save the environment" these days.

Now, I'm all for efficiency. I hate to see unnecessary waste, and I love nature. I pick up my trash. I own the most fuel efficient car in its class. I do what I can to keep things nice.

The environmentalists have one thing right. We can't continue to consume resources at our current rate. Something needs to be done, but I don't understand the current approach of advertising and trying to "shame" people into conservation.

Appealing to morality works in some cases, but it has absolutely no effect on the worst abusers -- corporations.

The only reasonable way to affect this behavior is to adjust costs or make laws. So instead of subsidizing cheap, dirty energy, money needs to be forcibly redirected and invested in new research and technology.

"But we can't do that! The economy will crumble, and people will lose jobs!"

Fine, keep relying on cheap, dirty coa…

Rogers' infrastructure still sucks after all these years

I've had the displeasure of using Rogers cable Internet at two different places I've been staying recently -- one in Guelph, and one in Breslau.

I remember back in the day (2003-ish, the last time I had Rogers myself) I had occasional, but persistent problems with one major thing -- any time I had a large outgoing transfer happening, all of my incoming transfers went slow and flaky.

For instance, my telnet connections will stay connected for hours -- until I send a big (10-15MB) upload through via FTP. Then it drops the connection.

Or if I do a big Subversion commit, all of the sudden all my DNS lookups start failing. This is something I remember from years and years ago, that they still apparently haven't fixed.

For the longest time, I thought this was just a problem with cable modem technology, so I bought Bell DSL and was reasonably satisfied (until they started capping and throttling, that is).

However, when I was in Texas, I had Time Warner cable Internet and I have to s…

Different ways to spend $2,000

For $2,000, I could buy:
One LG 47" LCD TV: http://www.futureshop.ca/catalog/proddetail.asp?sku_id=0770HDS0010121815
Or, all of the following:
Flight from Toronto to Los AngelesFlight from Los Angeles to Fiji4 days/3 nights in a resort in FijiFlight from Fiji to Auckland, New Zealand13 months of world-wide health insurance (excluding USA)That's right, everything above totaled only $1998.19, including all taxes, fees, etc. That seems like a really good deal somehow.

Driving in stop and go traffic

Driving to Toronto one evening, I was very annoyed with how traffic was moving, and decided it might be therapeutic to rant about it. Here is the raw, unedited (but slightly censored) result:
People need to be taught how to drive in stop and go traffic. For some reason, people think that the most efficient way to drive through stop and go traffic is to accelerate as fast as possible, and then slam on the brakes.

And then, accelerate as fast as possible again, and then slam on the brakes all over again.

Now, countless studies have shown that the most efficient way to move traffic is actually everyone going at the same speed in a nice smooth, fluid manner. And, slowing down when you see the car in front of you slow down, and leaving enough space in-between the cars to act as a bit of a buffer.

And in fact, if people drove like this, you wouldn't actually have stop and go traffic. You would have always going traffic, just going a little bit slower.

But people insist on this, and they …

Great to see that people are doing!

I have been in touch with lots of people regarding my previous blog posting, and I'm very impressed to see that a lot of people are indeed aware of the problem, and actively working toward solutions.  In fact, Michael Geist, who has been speaking and writing about this for much longer than I have, recently spoke in front of a Senate committee and explained things in very simple, precise manner.  Here is a great excerpt (emphasis added by me):
"The truth is that there are ways, if we had unlocked devices and had a more open space, we would encourage this innovation without the gatekeepers that we see. Fundamentally, that is what we see taking place here. Certain gatekeepers exist in the chain; sometimes it is the device manufacturers; often — particularly in Canada — it is the carrier themselves who set limitations on what can come into the marketplace, precisely because it is to their competitive advantage to do so. We do not have enough competition to counteract that at the m…

Stop talking and start doing!

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People love to talk.  It's in our nature.  We're social creatures.

At some point, however, if you want to get anything done, you have to stop talking and start doing.

There is a big conference in Stratford this week called "Canada 3.0."  One of the major sponsors apparently has something to do with the recent government spend of $10 million plus to "stimulate" things through creation of some sort of "Centre of Excellence for Commercialization and Research (CECR)."

The stated purpose is to "create jobs, improve the quality of life of all Canadians and strengthen the economy for future generations."

This is all fine and good.  Every project needs a high-level/brainstorming phase.  The problem is that there doesn't seem to be many (any?) specific goals about how this is all going to work.

You see, there are some severe, systematic problems in Canada that tend to destroy innovation in the early stages.  Let's have a look at some pretty gr…

Progressive versus Conservative

Progressive versus Conservative.  Us versus them.  A battle waged in the media every day.

But how many people actually know what these words mean?  People certainly have strong stereotypes that come to mind.

Here's some dictionary definitions to help out.

Progressive: "Promoting or favoring progress toward better conditions or new policies, ideas, or methods."
Liberal: "Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded."

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have:

Conservative: "Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change."
Conservative: "Strongly favoring retention of the existing order."

So basically, Progressive = Change, and Conservative = Don't Change.

This is why the "Progressive Conservative" party name never made any sense.  Somebody just stuck two words with completely opposite meanings together.

Meanwhile, there are some (mostly ta…

Car Accidents... Aren't!

Did you know that nearly 100% of drivers involved in accidents don't think it was their fault?

This is perhaps not shocking, but what might surprise you more is that nearly 100% of them are wrong!

Most accidents are completely preventable, if you just follow advice from a good driver training program.

The "T-bone"

Primary Fault: "T-bone-ee" mis-judges distance of (or doesn't even notice) oncoming car and turns left in front of them

Common Excuses:
"They came out of nowhere!" Cars do not randomly appear from spatial vortexes.  It was barreling towards you the entire time.
"They were speeding!" If you could tell they were speeding, you sure as hell should not have turned in front of them.

Primary Prevention: Don't turn in front of cars unless you damn well know you're going to make it! (duh)

Secondary Fault: "T-bone-er" ran head on into a car that turned right in front of them!  Never a good idea.

Secondary Prevention: Keep your fo…

Software Development: When Change is Bad

As software moves into maturity, it becomes a delicate art to add features and fix bugs without screwing up stuff that already works.

I've worked on three 10+ year-old, massively-sized projects (CorelDRAW, Microsoft Access, and ERDAS Imagine) and let me tell you -- the older the code base, the tougher it gets.

In very mature projects, maintainability starts to become more important than optimization, and the prevention of introducing new bugs can trump fixing old ones.  You’ll even see libraries where they decide to keep old bugs in place, since consumers up the chain rely on the buggy behavior.

If you’re a programmer, it's important that before you change any function that is used elsewhere in the system (a "core" function), you check each and every place it is called and understand the implications of your change.  If there's any doubt, you need to either step through, or ask someone else who is more familiar with that code.

A safer alternative is to write a new fu…

The real USA healthcare experience

I'm tired of hearing Canadians complain about our healthcare system.  You know what?  We do have to wait longer for some types of treatment -- but not usually anything life-threatening.  And you know what else?  That's life.  Resources are expensive, limited, and in Canada, they're allocated based on urgency of need.

I had to go to a clinic here in the States for a minor issue that I've visited several Canadian clinics for in the past.  The experience was nearly identical!  They had the same advice, and the same treatment.  The setup was similar.  I swear even the posters on the wall were the same.

However, there are a few major differences.  See if you can spot them.

The Canadian Experience:

Realize you have a problem
Go to walk-in clinic
Present your health card
Wait (1-2 hours)
Get treated
Go home

 The American Experience:

Realize you have a problem
Call insurance company
Explain problem
Get pre-approved and record claim number
Go to walk-in clinic
Attempt to have them bill the ins…

How to get people to respond to email

People are getting busier and busier, and it is becoming somewhat of an art to actually get people to read and respond to emails.

Here are some quick tips to make the experience better for both the sender and receiver:

Make emails as short and concise as possible.
Important: Write a concise, relevant subject line!
Separate your short sentences into paragraphs with a space between them.
If you are making multiple points, or asking multiple questions, put them in a numbered list.  Better yet -- write separate emails with different subject lines.
Make sure it will fit on one screen of a typical email program. (a lot of people don’t like scrolling)
Use bold and highlighting to draw attention to the really important parts.
Edit your emails multiple times, and cut out unnecessary words and sentences.
If your email requires a response, try summing up by asking one simple question at the very end of the email.

People are great at writing long, rambling emails, but seldom seem willing to read, understan…

Healthcare: Canada vs. USA

What are the facts?
Total health care spending per person / year:
USA: $6,717 USD (46% government = $3,089)
Canada: $3,678 USD (70% government = $2,574)

Fact: Americans pay almost twice as much per capita for health care even though 1/6 of their population lacks coverage.

Fact: The US government already subsidizes health care, and already spends more per person than Canada.

Fact: Of the 27 richest nations on the planet, the US is the only country without universal health coverage.

Fact: 16% of the US population (45 million people and growing) have no health insurance at all and are basically screwed if they incur a critical injury or sickness they can't sue for.
What's up for debate?
The overall quality of health care in the two countries has been widely debated, but the overall consensus -- of all scientific studies based on measurable data and facts -- is that the quality is roughly comparable.

I've written an article over at Google Knol exploring some of the debatable points.  Ha…

Change or Die: Newspapers and Media

I've recently been looking for an apartment to rent this summer, and have been amazed to find how useless the local newspapers have become!

In the days of old, classified ads were the only place you'd ever look if you were renting an apartment. This also used to be a major revenue source for papers.

I remember back when the Internet was all shiny and new. Smart people said that newspapers would either have to embrace it or be made obsolete.

Well, it took over a decade, but it looks like the matter has been decided.

Some papers have been able to transition to the online world, but a lot haven't. Their classifieds business has been taken over by sites like Craigslist and Kijiji. There are probably blogs out there getting better advertising revenue than the average local newspaper. (I have no stats to back that up, but I'd still bet on it)

Newspapers will probably be around for as long as the Baby Boomers are, but I can't see Gen-X and younger having much need for them…

Television is Toxic

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I’ve recently gone from a 5-year period without any cable television to a condo that has a tv in every room.

When I’m eating, I’ll often turn it on for a half hour or so, possibly getting sucked in for an hour show.  I usually watch TBS, Discovery, Comedy Central, or Sci-Fi.

I had forgotten what constant bombardment from commercials feels like.  The television is relentlessly telling me:

Eat more cheap, yummy fast food!  $1 for burgers! $2.99 for a full, greasy meal complete with a 1 gallon soda!
But you’re fat, so take diet pills, and join Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig to buy “magical” food that will effortlessly make you lose weight.
You have to buy an American car or truck to make jobs and support the economy!
3 different companies have the absolute lowest car insurance rates.  And people saved an average of $400 by switching from any of them to another.
Did you not pay your taxes?  Were you deemed ineligible for government benefits?  That’s not your fault!  Sue them!
You need at least 5 …

Uncertain times breed opportunities

Something to think about from Tim Ferris' blog:
"While many are wringing their hands, I recall the 1970s when we were suffering from an oil shock causing long lines at gas stations, rationing, and 55 MPH speed limits on Federal highways, a recession, very little venture capital ($50 million per year into VC firms), and, what President Jimmy Carter (wearing a sweater while addressing the Nation on TV because he had turned down the heat in the White House) called a “malaise”.

It was during those times that two kids without any real college education, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, started companies that did pretty well."
Also of note: Google grew substantially during the 2001-2003 recession.