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Nice article.

I worked for a startup in Hampton Roads, VA a while back trying to develop a software program that could predict the location of empty containers so that truckers who delivered a full container more than just a few miles outside of the port areas could save time in locating an empty to bring back. It's been at least 5 - 6 years, and I don't remember all of the details, but I remember spending a lot of time involved with trying to understand this industry. 

One of the problems, as I recall, was the proprietary nature of some of the information. By that I mean, there was a brokerage or something that actually knew where all the containers were, but they were not going to release that information. So we had to rely on open source bill of lading information from U.S. Customs to develop our model, and even though we had a lot of data, it was still scant in the overall scheme of things. And this goes directly to your observation that all the actors are pretty much in it for themselves. 

On a separate but related note, a few years later my wife and I rode a contaier/RO-RO cargo ship for two weeks from Baltimore, MD to Hamburg, Germany. We had stops in Norfolk, VA . . . Halifax, Nova Scotia . . . and Liverpool, England along the way. It was fascinating watching port operations from that perspective. And if anyone's interested, I wrote a travelog about that journey, with links to two aspects of shipping that few people think about: the evolution of those 20-foot boxes, and the hidden role of the wooden pallet.


Glad to see that people are still reading Monnet.

I learned of Monnet through an obituary when he died in 1979. The obituary said that he kept a picture on his desk of Thor Hyderdahl's raft, the Kon Tiki.

The Kon Tiki had a sail and a rudder, but the key thing was a sea anchor that drifted well below the surface water and caught on to the east-to-west Humbolt current. Thus, no matter what was going on with the wind and the waves on the surface, the Kon Tiki was always being tugged slowly west by the Humbolt current.

And this -- according to the obituary -- was Monnet's philosophy: pay attention to the deeper currents of history, and do not get caught up in the daily chop. He kept that photo on his desk to remind himself. 

One of the things you mention remind me of something Milton Friedman said:

"Only a crisis -- actual or preceived -- produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable."

Answer by vmsmithDec 28, 201990

In the late-80s I was interested in Buddhism and Vipassana meditation. I attended several 10-day silent mediation retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA. These were all over New Year's. They were pretty profound, and after three of them (1987, 1988, 1989) I decided to do the three-month silent retreat, which ran every year from about mid-September through mid-December.

I was in the Navy at the time -- with 12 1/2 years already in -- but I got out and attended the three-month retreat in the autumn of 1990.

It was three months of mostly silent sitting on a meditation mat in a big hall with about 100 other people, or performing walking meditation. The days tended to be punctuated with an hour of sitting, followed by an hour of walking, followed by an hour of sitting, etc.

Of course there were meals -- breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon tea with rice cakes -- and there was an evening dharma talk in the meditation hall (rotated among the four retreat leaders). Also, to make sure people weren't going batshit insane, there were once or twice weekly individual meetings with a retreat leader.

During the three months there was no talking among retreat attendees, no eye contact, no music, no television, no nothing. Just you and your feeble attempts to follow your breathing for more than four or five breaths without having your mind wander off into some fantasy.

Prior to this I had been a Navy SEAL. In going through Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training, I was looking for an experience that would reduce my existence to just consciousness and the will to go on. For some reason I thought BUD/S -- with the fabled five sleepless days of Hell Week -- would produce something along those lines. It didn't. BUD/S was actually pretty disappointing from that point of view. You just had to not quit.

I did find what I was looking for on the meditation mat, though. About a month into the retreat, in the absence of any of the normal distractions and stimuli that allow us to form opinions, etc., the mind does strange things. It starts to crack a little. Or at least it did for me. You can't even begin to imagine the waking heavens and hells that start unfolding inside your skull. At times I just wanted to curl up in a ball and cry.

And eventually a space began to appear. I began to become aware of a little separation between the movies that were playing in my mind and the observing entity that was aware of them (and not attached to them). For lack of a better term I'll call that entity my consciousness.

It was very much like the beginning of the Woody Allen movie, "Play It Again, Sam" where Woody Allen is watching "Casablanca" and totally identifying with the movie. Then the movie ends and the lights inside the theater come on, and you can see Woody Allen become aware that he is not the move, he was just watching the movie.

For me that's what Vipassana mediation was about: realizing that you have no control of your mind. Your mind will produce ideas and emotions and fantasies and any number of things completely on its own, similar to how your liver will produce enzymes on its own. But there is also an observer that can detach and not identify with what the mind is doing. That observer can dispassionately watch what's playing on the screen, and not get all caught up in it. The observer can watch it...label it...and not act on it. The observer can just let it float on by. That was serenity.

I met the woman who became my wife at one of those retreats. (She has done two of those three-month affairs). Although we've both moved on to different phases of our lives, somewhere not far from our daily thoughts is the notion that someday we'll move back to central Massachusetts and spend more time of the meditation mats before we die.

Answer by vmsmithDec 28, 201900

First, when I don't floss, my gums bleed when the hygienist starts working on my mouth. Indeed, if I don't floss for 10 days or so, my gums bleed when I start flossing again. There is absolutely no question that it's noticeable when I don't floss. Given that, I have to conclude that on some level flossing is "toughening" my gums. I view that as a good thing.

Second, I floss after I have brushed my teeth. But after I've brushed my teeth, and before I floss, I rinse. So I expect my mouth to be somewhat clear of food bits. But then, when I rinse again after I've flossed, I see more leftover food bits coming out of my mouth. So I have to conclude that on some level flossing is improving my oral hygiene.

Third, I have read several times -- most recently in the 23 December NY Times article, "Tackling Inflammation to Fight Age-related Ailments -- that periodontal disease can be a source of chronic inflammation, which in turn is thought to be bad. Routine dental cleanings are recommended, and I put flossing smack square in there (see reason #2). From this perspective flossing is a simple expected value proposition. The potential benefits of flossing far outweigh anything that can possibly be gained from not flossing.

In the same way that making my bed is a great way to start the day, for me flossing is a great way to end it. After I've flossed I feel as though I've dotted the last "i" and crossed the last "t" in a day well-lived.

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Answer by vmsmithOct 19, 2019180

In October, 1991 an event of such profound importance happened in my life that I wrote the date and time down on a yellow sticky. That yellow sticky has long been lost, but I remember it; it was Thursday, October 17th at 10:22 am. The event was that I had plugged a Hayes modem into my 286 computer and, with a copy of Procomm, logged on to the Internet for the first time. I knew that my life had changed forever.

At about that same time I wanted to upgrade my command line version of Word Perfect to their new GUI version. But the software was something crazy like $495, which I could not afford.

One day I had an idea: "Wouldn't it be cool if you could log on to the Internet and use a word processing program sitting on a main frame or something located somewhere else? Maybe for a tiny fee or something."

I mentioned this to the few friends I knew who were computer geeks, and they all scoffed. They said that software prices would eventually be so inexpensive as to make that idea a complete non-starter.

Well, just look around. How many people are still buying software for their desktops and laptops?

I've had about a dozen somewhat similar ideas over the years (although none of that magnitude). What I came to realize was that if I ever wanted to make anything like that happen, I would need to develop my own technical and related skills.

So I got an MS in Information Systems Development, and a graduate certification in Applied Statistics, and I learned to be an OK R programmer. And I worked in jobs -- e.g., knowledge management -- where I thought I might have more "Ah ha!" ideas.

The idea that eventually emerged -- although not in such an "Ah ha!" fashion -- was that the single biggest challenge in my life, and perhaps most peoples' lives, is the absolute deluge of information out there. And not just out there, but in our heads and in our personal information systems. The word "deluge" doesn't really even begin to describe it.

So the big idea I am working on is what I call the "How To Get There From Here" project. And it's mainly about how to successfully manage the various information and knowledge requirements necessary to accomplish something. This ranges from how to even properly frame the objective to begin to determine the information necessary to accomplish to find that to filter to evaluate to process to properly archive it...etc., etc., etc.

Initially I thought this might end up a long essay. Now it's looking more like a small book. It's very interesting to me because it involves pulling in so many different ideas from so many disparate domains and disciplines -- e.g., library science, decision analysis, behavioral psychology -- and weaving everything together into a cohesive whole.

Anyway, that's the current big idea I'm working on.