Reading

Thoughts on Leadership from Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great

Posted on 08 June 2012

There’s a shorter way to a higher goal—the goal of voluntary obedience. People are quick to obey the person who’s wiser than themselves. A sick man will beg a doctor to guide him back to health, and a whole ship’s company will listen to an experienced captain. Likewise, travelers cherish the guide who knows the safest way. But if people think that obedience will lead them to disaster, then nothing—not punishments, not persuasion, not even bribes—will get them to come along. For no sane man can be lured to his own destruction.”

I remarked that the best way to secure obedience is to be both wiser and better informed than those we rule. “To be sure,” said the king. “If you wish to be thought a good estate manager, or a good horseman, or a good physician, or a good flute player without really being one, just imagine all the tricks you have to invent just to keep up appearances. You might succeed at first, but in the end you’re going to be exposed as an impostor.”

Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great: The Arts of Leadership and War (pp. 20-21). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

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Diet in Taiwan

Health

Change Your Environment to Change Your Behavior – Diet in Taiwan II

Posted on 05 June 2012

Diet in Taiwan

- Fresh produce is cheap in Taiwan

Sometimes all you need to do to effect a change in your behavior is make one small tiny change – to alter the environment you’re in very slightly, or to rephrase the way you write your to-do list.

I’ve started up my photo food diary again recently. I had been struggling to figure out a healthy breakfast alternative to Baozi – a delicious rice bun filled with pork.  I had been slow to make an change to my breakfast routine because Baozi are super convenient to pick up on the way out the door in the morning, relatively healthy (high in protein, and rice flour in Baozi is better than wheat or white toast), and are fairly delicious. I’ve been wanting to switch over to a grain-less breakfast for about two weeks, and one of my friends called me on it.

I had this statement written on my to-do list for about two weeks:

“Come up with healthier breakfast alternative.”

Eating Baozi is not unhealthy. I wanted to come up with an alternative because I am in the process of drastically reducing / eliminating grains from my diet, except on cheat days.

See anything that could be improved about the way I wrote the to-do?

I had been talking about changing my breakfast for around two weeks. A friend of mine called me out on the fact that I had been talking about making a change to my behavior for half a month, but still hadn’t actually done anything about it.

Having (real) friends that will call you out when you talk about making a change to your behavior for an extended period of time without actually changing your behavior is a true blessing.

I rewrote my to-do as:

“Buy fresh produce to keep in fridge.”

There was no real barrier to me changing my behavior at play here – just the simple fact that I hadn’t been grocery shopping in a while.

I went grocery shopping and picked up all of the following fresh and locally sourced produce for NTD 300. USD $10 on the nose. The same food in a Whole Foods in the US would probably have cost me $50 – $60.

  • Two different kinds of fresh greens
  • Two giant fresh mangoes
  • Two bags of golden needle mushrooms
  • Three fresh tomatoes
  • Large bag of fresh garlic cloves
  • Bag of chili peppers
  • 8 brown farm fresh chicken eggs

This is enough fresh produce to last me 3 – 4 meals.

This morning I had hard boiled eggs, mango, and a handful of almonds for breakfast. No grains. Very healthy, very tasty. As soon as I had the right ingredients for a healthier breakfast sitting in my fridge, there was no longer any barrier.

The to-do of “Come up with healthier breakfast alternative” is ambiguous, and direction-less. With this phrasing there’s a mental barrier at play that I have to overcome. Maybe I have to do research, maybe I have to do some reading, at the very least I have to sit down and think about something, then decide what the next action is. Mental resistance.

The to-do of “Buy fresh produce to keep in fridge” is unambiguous and direct, and as soon as it’s accomplished I’ve removed any barriers in place preventing me from making a simple healthy breakfast. No mental resistance about sitting down for 5 – 10 minutes to plan out a better alternative – just the simple act of walking into the kitchen and turning on the stove to make breakfast.

Sometimes all it takes to move forward is a small change in the way you phrase things, a small alteration to your environment.

Icing on the cake: being surrounded by people who will help you focus and work on what you need to do to move forward.

——

Tool of the Day:

I’ve been using a new productivity tool lately that’s pretty cool. A simple and lightweight to-do list that you might want to check out if you use to-dos in your personal life or for work – Workflowy.

Question of the Day:

Ever made a small change to your environment to that’s helped you to alter your behavior?

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Wulai Waterfall

Lifestyle

Talking to Strangers, or, Beer and John Denver with the Aboriginal Taiwanese

Posted on 03 June 2012

Working Remotely from Wulai

- Wulai, Taiwan

Sometimes it’s good to talk to strangers. Sometimes, talking to strangers brings you new friends and Aboriginal Taiwanese men singing covers of John Denver’s Country Roads.

——

Skim Time: 3 mins
Read Time: 5 mins

—–

Here’s how you do it.

Transportation

From Taipei, you hop on the MRT and go to Xindian, a beautiful grassy hiking spot where people sell fruit out of the backs of trucks and paddle around a lake in duck boats.

From Xindian you take a bus approximately 40 minutes, trying to balance while the driver throttles around serpentine mountain passes at full speed, passing little tea shops, hydro electric dams, and foggy mountain vistas the entire way.

You get off at the last stop – where water pipes criss cross over the top of a blue-gray river to feed the biggest industry in the town: hot spring hotels. 500 NTD (about USD $16) for two hours in a swanky hotel room with a double hot spring and river view.

Two hours? You have to wonder if people really come for the double hot spring, or if they make use of the swanky hot spring hotel rooms to indulge other corporeal appetites.

The outdated aboriginal museum on the other side of the bridge, just as you enter into the town, is free for students, and sleepy for everyone. The main street is dotted with people selling moonshine millet booze, peanut mochi, and pungent stinky tofu.

This is Wulai.

Last week I went to Wulai to work remotely. I sat in an awesome little cafe overlooking the river. I sipped on my dry cappuccino and shuddered at the massive creepy cross that stands atop the mountain there, modeling itself after Rio Jesus.

I ate wild mountain boar and fresh vegetable stir fry for lunch, and took the log cart with my friend Drew up to see the famous waterfall (瀑布) at Wulai.

Wulai Waterfall

- The Waterfall at Wulai after the rains

There were at least two hundred spindly white harry millipede monsters dotting all of the handrails, trying to escape the torrential downpour that had completely soaked through my clothes and shoes.

I usually work from cafes and bookstores, and don’t take advantage of the remote nature of online work often enough. I did a little emailing, did a little brainstorming, then just sat back and talked about life and everything with Drew. We walked around and ate street food, and got wet in the rain.

Just When You’re Ready to Head Home

When we were ready to head back we stopped in a store to pick up some Wulai mochi. A guy was there chatting up the store owner, and offered us a glass of Taiwan Beer if we had the time.

I generally don’t take strangers up on their offers to drink beer. I think they’re probably trying to sell me something, or that something fishy is going on.

Drew on the other hand, agreed immediately, and into the back of the store front we went. Adventurous friends are good friends.

The man’s family had just finished up a massive lunch. Chicken bones, greasy soup stains, and a bunch of empty Taiwan Beer bottles littered the top of the dining table. There were yellow and red and blue striped aboriginal tapestries hung on the wall. Right next to family pictures with twenty people in the frame doing the awkward family portrait smile thing.

That’s a big family.

Everyone sitting around the table was Aboriginal, the man said. That meant that they were all extremely friendly and weren’t trying to trick us or anything. They would cover the cost of all the beer and snacks, and we should just sit there, relax, and talk with them and have a good time. They weren’t like the big city folks.

They sat Drew and I down and brought us out two white cardboard boxes of fried fish and fried shrimp. They set us up with little glasses and filled them up with watery Taiwan Beer. Which always seems to taste better after it rains.

Falsetto John Denver

They asked us about our homes and our families. They sat around and drank beers with us for four hours. Our new native friends told us about their backgrounds, their families, and then mentioned that they had daughters around our age that they wanted to introduce us to.

They even showed us pictures.

And then, the Seediq Aboriginal dude busted into a falsetto cover of Country Roads by John Denver. He nailed it.

Then he sang aboriginal folk music for us, and we had a dish of raw pork, iced and salted. An aboriginal delicacy that has a surprisingly sweet twang to it even though it’s salted. Not at all like Country Ham from southern USA.

And then, the Xinzhu aboriginal lady who insisted that I call her “mom,” and who insisted that I was her child after our fourth beer, she busted out into You Are My Sunshine.

And she really jazzed it up.

She did a great job.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to talk to strangers, and to take them up on their offer for a beer even if you’re already almost on the way home.

And it’s always a good idea to drink with the Aboriginal Taiwanese.

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Bug Shit Tea in Taipei

Health, Lifestyle, Tea

Insect Feces Tea & Sandalwood Oil: The Unexpected Consequences of Being Nice to People

Posted on 26 May 2012

Master Gao Que, Insect Feces Tea

- Master Gao-Que preparing Insect Feces Tea, or 蟲屎茶

When I drank Fermented Yak Butter Tea in Manali, I thought I could safely say I had consumed the weirdest tea in the world. Today, my brothers and sisters, I am pleased as punch to tell you that I was mistaken. Sorely mistaken.

I officially proclaim the weirdest tea in the world, until further notice, to be Insect Feces Tea, or 蟲屎茶.

Today I bring you the story of how I tried to make a Tea Master smile, and consequently wound up drinking Insect Feces Tea.

—–

Skim Time: 5 mins
Read Time:
10 mins

—–

The first time I was in Taipei, around three years ago, I fell crazily madly in love with tea. I wrote about this incident at length here in Strawberry Hookah Tea. This was a massively positive development in my life, and I owe it to two people. My friend Sejin, and the owner of a hole-in-the-wall tea house in Muzha, Taiwan: Master Gao-Que, a tea master with an extremely rare compound surname.

Over the course of a summer in Taiwan, Master Gao-Que was exceptionally kind to me. He was patient with my mediocre Chinese, and went out of his way to educate me about tea. Every single time I went to his teahouse I would leave feeling high on life. I came to see him as something along the lines of a Mentor-Uncle-Older Brother. Since I left Taiwan three years ago, I’ve tried to send the Master business anytime I hear someone is going to Taiwan.

Making Master Gao-Que Smile – the Elephant Tail Hair Bracelet That Really Smells Like Elephant Manure

When I found out I was coming to Taiwan again, I was immediately excited to go and see Master Gao-Que again.

So, I picked up a gift for him. A bracelet made out of elephant tail hair. I thought it would be nice to surprise him and try to make him smile. Aside from being good manners, I’ve found time and time again that you get unexpected surprises and returns on your efforts when you go out of your way to make someone’s day. I don’t believe in Karma, but people will treat you as family when you treat them as family, no matter what country you’re in, no matter what cultural background they come from.

When I walked into the Master’s teahouse he greeted me like a long lost son. After about two years, he still remembered my name, and remembered all of the hours and conversations he had passed with me talking about tea. He sat me down, asked me about my life and my plans in Taiwan, and we drank a whole bunch of delicious tea.

I brought out the elephant tail hair bracelet for Master Gao-Que, and asked him to guess what it’s made out of. He did not know, he told me.

If you’ve never felt an elephant tail hair bracelet before, it feels like a mix between bamboo and wicker. It doesn’t feel like hair from any animal you know, and doesn’t even feel like an organic substance. Most people cannot guess what an elephant tail hair bracelet is made out of when they see it and feel it for the first time.

“It’s from South Africa.” I said.

He still couldn’t guess. His eyebrows were shifting up and down like millipedes inching across his forehead.

“It’s made from the hair of an animal,” I said.

“An animal? Hair?” He said. He told me he had no idea, and by this point his wife was trying to guess, too.

When I told him it was made out of elephant tail hair he didn’t believe me. He put the thing up to his nose like he was trying to smell the elephant that the hair had come from. He turned it around and over in his hands, and put it up against a light like someone examining a $100 bill to see if it’s counterfeit.

I told him I wasn’t lying. Elephant tail hair bracelets bring good luck, I said.

Master Gao-Que smiled at me, but he didn’t seem to really believe me.

I left the teahouse feeling like my mission was only half accomplished. The Master had definitely smiled and been surprised, but I didn’t feel like he really believed that the bracelet was made out of elephant tail hair…

Royal Treatment

About a month passed before I went back to see the Master. A friend called ahead, and when we arrived just after dinner around 8pm Master Gao-Que had roasted some Taiwanese sweet potatoes over a big ceramic plant pot just for us to eat. He grew them himself in his back yard, he said. They were probably the best sweet potatoes in Taiwan, he said.

I agreed.

As soon my friend and I sat down he started the water boiling. He whipped out some amazing Alishan Oolong tea for us all, and threw his wrist up on the table with a happy flourish. Like he was laying down a royal flush at a poker table. On his wrist was the elephant tail hair bracelet I had given him a month ago.

“It really smells like an elephant.” Master Gao-Que said. “It really does. You can’t find anything like this in Taiwan. At first I didn’t believe you when you said it was made from elephant tail hair, but I tested it. Now I know it’s real.”

I asked the Master how he had tested the bracelet.

“You can only really smell it if the bracelet gets a little wet. If it’s really elephant tail hair, it’s an organic substance” he went on. “It would have to be affected by water somehow. So I got it a little bit wet when I was washing my hands to test it.”

“And what happened?” I asked.

“It smelled like elephant manure on my wrist for a little bit, so I knew it was the real deal.”

I’ve never looked up to someone’s sense of smell the way that I look up to this Master’s. He’s like the Harry Houdini, or Evil Kenevil of olfactory sense.

If he says he smells elephant manure when the bracelet gets wet, he does.

“I’m happy you like it,” I said back to the Master. This was exactly how I was hoping he’d feel after I gave him the bracelet. It just seemed like something he would really appreciate it, and I could tell that he was truly happy with it.

“You can’t find anything like this in Taiwan,” he said again, “unless you go to the zoo and chop it off the ass-end of one of the elephants!”

Sandalwood Oil

Then the Master turns around and whips out a small vial of beautiful amber liquid. About the size of my thumb. He tells me to open it up and give it a whiff.

Do you know what that is, he asks me?

It smells better than anything I’ve smelled in Taipei.

Sandalwood oil,” he tells me.

“Just like you can’t find an elephant tail hair bracelet in Taiwan, you can’t find Sandalwood oil like this. Not anywhere. It’s not cheap,” he tells me, and he says that “you can’t find anything like it in the shops around Taiwan no matter how hard you try.”

A close friend of Master Gao-Que’s used to be a wood worker, and he gave him this vial of Sandalwood oil as a gift one time. “It’s pure,” the Master tells me, “and not diluted at all. Not like the aromatherapy oils you find elsewhere that have been watered down into diluted concentrations.”

“I’m giving it to you as a gift,” Master Gao-Que tells me. “Put it on your own elephant tail hair bracelet a drop at a time, and slowly it will absorb the smell of Sandalwood and grow in value.”

I was completely floored. I thanked him for his generosity and took a swig of Alishan. Pure sandalwood oil smells better than any perfume or cologne you can buy in department stores.

Next, the Master tells me he’s going to share something special with me. Something else you can’t find just anywhere.

I tell him that’s totally unnecessary, and that he’s already shared enough with me for the day.

No, no, no. Master Gao-Que says. You want to try this.

Insect Feces Tea | 蟲屎茶

Insect Feces Tea

What is it? I ask, knowing that basically anything the Master shares with me and my friends will be a unique experience.

“蟲屎茶” He says.

Literal translation: “Insect Feces Tea.”

It’s tea made out of bug shit.

Excuse me?

That’s right. He says. Tea made out of the little shits of lots of little bugs. A special kind of bug that only lives in tea. He says that a container of this stuff about the size of his thumb costs around US$350, because the people that prepare it have to go through a bunch of tea leaves with something like a magnifying glass and tweezers to pick out the little bug shit pellets and collect them into vials.

One of the most labor intensive teas in the world to produce, the Master goes on.

Is it healthy to drink? I ask him.

Master Gao-Que assures me that since the bugs live in tea, tea is the only thing they ever eat. Since tea is the only thing they ever eat, consequently tea is the only thing that has ever passed through their digestive tracts. No meats, no pesticides, no unhealthy substances at all.

Nothing dirty about Insect Feces Tea at all, he says.

Sort of like Kopi Luwak, I think to myself. Coffee made from beans passed through the digestive tract of the frugivorous Asian Palm Civet. But with insects instead of Civets.

As it happens, the Master keeps a small bottle of Insect Feces Tea in the back. And would my friends and I like to try some, he asks us?

Bug Shit Tea in Taiwan

Absolutely, I say. My friend Ting Ting hesitates a little bit, and I tell them that when the hell else are they ever going to get to try bug shit tea?

Ok. They’ll try some, too.

Master Gao-Que dropped a scoopful of little pellets into a white ceramic tea bowl. They made a faint tinkling noise as they hit the bottom of the bowl, and my friend Ting Ting cringed a bit.

The Master whipped out his hot water, and rinsed the feces with boiling water. “Mmmmm!” He said. His smile stretched from ear to ear. “Can’t you just smell the insects that produced this delicious stuff, already?” He was joking with my friend Ting Ting, but there was a decidedly unique aroma emanating from the tea bowl.

Bug Shit Tea in Taipei

As the Master rinsed the black raisin pellets in boiling water, they heaved up and swirled around under the rim of the tea bowl. A graceful dust devil of insect feces hung against an elegant white ceramic backdrop. The Master tossed out the first two steepings to assure Ting Ting that she what she was drinking had been properly cleansed of any dust or unhealthy organic matter.

He poured us each a little cupful of the shit tea. The high temperatures of the tea burned the skin on my fingers pleasantly as I picked up the cup, lifting it up to my nose for a nice deep smell.

Inhale. Whiff. Mmmm.

It was “gamey.” Light. Earthy-smelling.

I lifted the cup up to my lips. Ting Ting insisted that I be the first to take a sip, so that she could see if I fell over dead, or something.

The french have a term, Haut Goût, meaning gamey, or “having a slight taste of it’s origin.” Usually used to describe the flavor of game meats, this is the first term that came to mind when the shit tea hit my palate. It’s not that it tasted like feces (actually, I’ve never tasted feces so I wouldn’t really know), but it had a decidedly organic twang to it.

Master Gao-Que looked over at me. “How is it?” He asked.

“I’ve never had anything like it before. I would never have known that something like existed in a million years, and you’ve given me and Ting Ting a truly unique experience here. Thank you.”

What Goes Around Comes Around, Even if it’s Feces.

Master Gao-Que told me that the bracelet I had given him for good luck was something he’d never have known about, and something he’d never be able to find in Taiwan.

Also, the bracelet smells like shit when it’s wet.

The Master wanted to repay me in kind. By letting me taste and experience the Bug Shit Tea, he was giving me something that I would never have known about, something that I would never be able to find on my own.

In a more literal sense, the tea smelled like shit when it was wet, just like the bracelet smells like manure when it’s wet.

Ha.

—–

I wanted to do something nice for the Master because he treats me like an apprentice or a son, or something. I know that he likes weird things with a story behind them, so I found something like that to give him as gift. I hoped it would make him smile, but I didn’t expect anything in return.

In his characteristic way, Master Gao-Que went out of his way to be generous to me and to my friends. He cooked us up some home-style Taiwanese sweet potatoes, gave me a little vial of Sandalwood oil, and cooler than anything else: let me try something I’d never tried before, or known existed. He thoughtfully educated me about something new and interesting that directly relates to one of our mutual interests, which is way cooler than any material gift.

Surround yourself with good people who are experts in their area of interest. Do good things for them, and try to give them a story they can tell their friends. Then have good manners and be a good person to them. Don’t expect anything. You’ll be surprised to find how they are good people right back to you.

You just might even get something cooler than insect feces tea.

—–

Question of the Day:

What’s the nicest thing someone has ever done for you?

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Health

Diet in Taiwan

Posted on 19 May 2012

Note: if you’re interested in diet, photo food logs, or the challenges of eating healthy in an Asian country, this post may be for you. If you’re not interested in reading about those topics, or in hearing me think through some of the challenges I’ve faced regarding healthy eating in Taiwan, you may want to skip over this one.

—–

Read time: 6 mins
Skim time: 3 mins

—–

In the first quarter of 2011 I went from 210 lbs and approximately 21% body fat down to 200 lbs and 15% body fat by following Tim Ferriss’ slow carb diet and doing a photo food log to publicly track what I ate. Publicly tracking what I ate gave me some extra incentive to truly stick to my diet.

I stopped paying attention to my diet and regularly doing the photo food log in quarter 2 of 2011, and my weight and body fat fluctuated throughout the rest of the year. I was at the heaviest point in my life, approximately 220 lbs, around November of 2011 after I got laid off and launched into some seriously careless eating, having abandoned the photo food log system months prior.

Since arriving in Taipei in mid November of 2011, I’ve gone from my heaviest point at 220 lbs to between 190 – 195 lbs and 17% body fat, the lightest I’ve been since my freshman year of high school.

My goal in January was to be at 190 lbs and 12% body fat by May 1, which definitely has not happened, but I also haven’t been taking a systematic approach to diet since landing in Taiwan.

I’m reading Ray Dalio’s Principles document at the moment. He talks about the importance of recognizing a shortcoming you have, designing a plan to help you overcome that shortcoming or weakness, and implementing the tasks and actions necessary to executing on that plan.

Diet in Taiwan is a challenge I’ve been talking about and not truly doing anything about for a few months now. About time to change that up, so I’m going to revamp my photo food log to take small steps towards a healthier diet. By revamping my food log I will naturally be thinking about diet on a more regular basis, be less prone to eating unhealthy things, and will likely begin to reap benefits in terms of increased energy. Which is always a plus.

If you go and look at the food log right now you’ll see I’ve been getting back to it for about two weeks, and that I haven’t been doing terribly well at maintaining a healthy diet. That is ok. My diet has already improved since I re-started the food log, and it will continue to improve as I get back into the groove of thinking critically about how to eat healthy in Taiwan, and document my efforts to do so.

I’m using this post to think through some of the challenges I’ve faced regarding diet in Taipei. Some of the biggest challenges to maintaining a regular and consistently healthy diet in Taiwan, read as consuming more protein and veg than grains, starch, and carbs are as follows:

  • White rice is abundant in most dishes. I’ve read that white rice is significantly more healthy for you than white bread, but should still be avoiding it.
  • Noodles are extremely abundant.
  • Chinese culinary habit dictates that most meals either have rice or noodles, and almost never are purely veg and meat. Literally when you ask someone for a recommendation, or ask your friends where to go out for dinner, they come back with the question of whether you’d rather eat rice or noodles, and build the rest of the meal around those staples.
  • Breakfast in Taiwan almost always involves bread, rice flour, a bing of some sort (essentially a carb rich tortilla), or other forms of grains.
  • If you get stuck in a random spot while out running errands around lunch time, it’s extremely easy to find a sandwich or noodles, but not easy to find a quick bite without getting unhealthy. I was stuck in a hospital going through a routine check up the other day and had a turkey sandwich because that was all that was available.
  • Eating out is extremely cheap – as cheap as cooking for yourself
  • The low cost of eating out makes it extremely easy for me to pick something up on the way home after a long day, and picking something up usually involves rice or noodles of some sort.

With all of that said, there are ways to work with food in Taiwan.

Possible solutions include:

There are lots of roast duck and chicken places where you can ask for roast chicken or duck + vegetables without rice or grains. You’ve probably seen places like this with roast duck hanging in the windows if you’ve ever been in Taiwan or China. I could be eating a lot more roast chicken and duck, and be pretty happy about it.

I could be waking up earlier and making breakfast for myself, or preparing a bean and tomato salad of some sort in bulk to take with me on the road. This is a bit of a bummer to think about because I might only get 4 hours of sleep some nights (have to think about how to be more efficient in other areas of life, too), but you have to make cuts somewhere.

I could be seeking out vegetarian restaurants close the spots I frequent and go there instead of a little roadside noodle shop.

I could probably even find an older Taiwanese lady nearby where I am to cook for me. Labor and food are pretty cheap here, and I bet that if I found an older lady nearby willing to cook a little extra of whatever vegetable or meat dishes she was already preparing for herself, it would take a lot of the stress, hassle, and guess work out of finding healthy options on the go for myself. This may be an option seriously worth looking into, especially if I can work it out where the food is convenient to take with me on the road.

Putting all of these thoughts down in words is a good first step for me in assessing the challenge of eating healthy (according to my ideal diet) in a country where rice and noodles form the basis of most dishes. Keep your eyes on my food log to see 1) how I implement changes around my diet after articulating these challenges and 2) how many times I slip into a snickers bar haha.

Question(s) of the Day:

Anyone else dealing with diet challenges in Asia? How are you problem solving? How do you get around the rice and noodle thing?

Comments (1)

Reading

Gratitude

Posted on 02 February 2012

Great quotes: Musashi

I’m reading Musashi right now at Sebastian’s recommendation.  Awesome awesome book so far and I’m barely 1/4th of the way through. I’ve been thinking about gratitude a lot lately, and this little passage really resonated with me.

I’m thinking about incorporating gratitude into my self tracking regimen. Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of that sort of thing, and I always feel good about life when I’m mindful of the things for which I’m grateful.

Musashi would have liked to have a try at working with the clay. Since boyhood he had enjoyed doing things with his hands, and he thought he might at least be able to make a simple tea bowl. Just then, however, one of the potters, an old man of nearly sixty, started fashioning a tea bowl. Musashi, observing how deftly he moved his fingers and handled his spatula, realized he’d overestimated his own abilities. “It takes so much technique just to make a simple piece like that,” he marveled.

These days he often felt deep admiration for other people’s work. He found he respected technique, art, even the ability to do a simple task well, particularly if it was a skill he himself had not mastered.

- Musashi

I was speaking with my favorite tea guy in all of Taiwan a few weeks back, and he talked about how much skill is involved in firing a little tea bowl. If you use a wood burning kiln and fire it by hand, apparently it takes more than three days for the firing. Not even including making the bowl from the clay and fashioning it into the shape you want.

You still need to gather all the wood, ensure it is dry and cut to length, spend time placing lengths of wood properly so that the fire doesn’t burn too hot and melt the clay, or not hot enough. You have to maintain a reasonably consistent temperature in the kiln by opening and closing vents at the right time, by adding wood at the right points while keeping in mind that the temperature dips after you throw a log on the fire, and then increases rapidly, keeping the weather in mind the entire time.

That’s probably more than enough to get the picture.

I had no clue that hand firing a tea bowl was so complicated before. My favorite tea guy said he spent three full years studying to acquire the necessary skills, and explained the process to me for about 40 minutes. He was barely scratching the surface.

What a crazy skill to have. One of these days I’m going to head out and see what the process is like in person.

Quick site update:

Trying to get the site into shape so that it’s easier to navigate, and more usable. As such I’ve thrown up a Start Here page for anyone new to the site that groups old posts into broad categories. I’ve also put up a Self Tracking page which will auto-update with every entry just to see if I like it.

Question of the Day:

What are you grateful for?

Today I’m grateful for the expat community in Taipei. Everyone I’ve bumped into here is very cool and willing to talk to people they haven’t met before. You could probably find something similar in any country, but I feel like the expat community here is particularly open minded and down to earth.

Comments (1)

Put Down the Coffee and Pick Up a Chili: Capsaicin as Healthier Caffeine Alternative

Health, Lifestyle

Put Down the Coffee and Pick Up a Chili: Capsaicin as Healthier Caffeine Alternative

Posted on 01 February 2012

Mouthful of pain

- Naga Jolokia pepper, the hottest pepper in the world.

Today I’d like to propose a healthier and sexier alternative to caffeine: Capsaicin.

Capsaicin is the magical stuff that makes chili peppers spicy. It’s the stuff that makes your eyes water up, your mouth, tongue, and throat “burn,” and which so many people love despite the fact that it causes them physical pain.

The idea behind this post is that caffeine and capsaicin induce a similar “jolt-awake” sensation by stimulating different nervous systems; caffeine jolts you awake by acting as a stimulant on the central nervous system. Capsaicin jolts you awake by stimulating the “fight or flight” response in the sympathetic nervous system by inducing sensations of burning and pain in your body tissues.

If you’ve ever wanted to wean yourself off of coffee, try manipulating your senses with capsaicin to make the process a little easier. Learn to love the burn.

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Read Time: 5 mins
Skim Time: 3 mins

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For the record – I love coffee. I have loved coffee for a long time. I worked in a coffee bar when I was in high school and developed enough of a caffeine tolerance that I could drink a quadruple espresso before a late night movie and fall asleep an hour or two after the movie was finished.

Nothing in this post is intended to bash coffee. Rather, it’s a spicy idea for anyone who’s trying to kick a coffee habit.

Caffeine

One of the reasons that so many people drink coffee is because of the kick it gives them. Ever hear someone say that they don’t really wake up until they’ve had their morning cup of coffee? Ever hear someone say that they get irritable after lunch unless they have an afternoon coffee fix?

In humans, caffeine acts as a central nervous system stimulant, temporarily warding off drowsiness and restoring alertness. It is the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug, but, unlike many other psychoactive substances, it is both legal and unregulated in nearly all parts of the world. Beverages containing caffeine, such as coffee, tea, soft drinks, and energy drinks, enjoy great popularity; in North America, 90% of adults consume caffeine daily.

- Wikipedia

Caffeine is a stimulant that acts to ward off drowsiness and restore alertness.

This means that coffee is good for a quick alertness fix. As most people who drink coffee can tell you, that quick fix comes with a quick crash. Coffee may rouse you to alertness for a brief period of time, but the boost is temporary. After a “coffee crash” you are usually left feeling more tired than you were in the first place.

Capsaicin

Capsaicin is the stuff that makes chili peppers spicy, and the stuff that makes pepper spray burn. It causes a sensation of pain or burning in any human tissue with which it comes into contact. Interestingly, tarantula venom causes pain by activating the same receptors on nerves that capsaicin does.

I’ve loved eating spicy food since I was very young, and I never really knew why. I always thought I liked it because the sensation of eating spicy food was more intense than eating normal foods. Something I read back in 2009 has always stuck with me, and makes me think my love of spicy food relates to something else entirely: adrenaline.

When people call chilies “hot,” they’re not just speaking metaphorically. Capsaicin stimulates the neural sensors in the tongue and skin that also detect rising temperatures. As far as these neurons and the brain are concerned, your mouth is on fire. (Similarly, mint stimulates a type of neural receptor sensitive to cool temperatures.) With enough heat, adrenaline flows and the heart pumps faster. This reaction, according to some physiologists, is part of what makes peppers so enticing.

- What’s So Hot About Chili Peppers, Smithsonian Magazine (a really cool read)

Capsaicin in chili peppers tricks your body into thinking it is in danger. The sensations of burning and heat it activates in human tissues trigger a fight-or-flight response, accelerating your heart and lungs to prepare to respond to whatever is causing your body pain, and releasing adrenaline into your system.

Capsaicin-Jolt Flow:

Eat a chili pepper / capsaicin > Body tissues sense pain and burning > Body thinks you are in danger > Fight or flight response > Your body releases catecholamine hormones (adrenaline) into your system > You are roused to alertness.

On some level, eating very spicy foods might be likened to the rush adrenaline junkies seek when they do crazy shit like this. Or to that scene from Pulp Fiction.

Boom.

Similar stimulating effect as caffeine, but through different neurological pathways. Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, capsaicin stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (part of the peripheral nervous system). There is no crash associated with the capsaicin jolt like there is with the caffeine jolt.

Coffee alternatives that take advantage of capsaicin

So based on this idea you could either 1) eat a handful of raw chili peppers every day to wake up (can’t you see it now? the best part of waking up is capsaicin in your cup) or 2) experiment with different ways to infuse capsaicin into beverages or breakfast.

I’m not against eating raw chili peppers – I actually quite enjoy it sometimes – but there’s something inherently comforting to me about having a hot beverage in my hands when I wake up. The steam rising off the cup just works for me in the mornings. As it happens, I have a few good morning capsaicin beverages in mind to share with you for next time..

So, either eat a handful of raw chili peppers in tomorrow morning, or come back and check out my next post on morning capsaicin wake up drinks!

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Disclaimer: I am not a scientist.

I’ve tried my best to do the research to make this post coherent.

I’ve checked the ideas and facts of this post with some friends who are nutrition and fitness junkies, and a Ph.D candidate in Biochemical Nutrition at UNC. They have informed me that there isn’t anything wrong with the basic ideas behind this post.

Having friends who are smarter than you are is a wonderful thing.

These folks did have a few points to amend. Namely that  1) those with an addiction to caffeine would not be able to substitute capsaicin for caffeine in their diets over night. Persons trying to go cold turkey on caffeine might induce unpleasant withdrawal symptoms and feelings of lethargy; and 2) if you eat too much capsaicin you might get an unpleasant surprise after your body is done processing it. Something my Ph.D candidate friend stated very succinctly:

“Capsaicin can also upset the stomach lining, and persists after digestion, which is why when people defecate after consuming spicy foods capsaicin will also set their asses on fire.”

- Scott. A very smart guy whose blog you can find here.

Even if I’ve misunderstood something in the science here, the drinks I’m going to show you in my next post are delicious and you might want to try them anyway just to see what they’re like. Additionally, I’m happy to be corrected and update this post down the line.

img: wstryder

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Question Of the Day

What’s the spiciest thing you’ve ever eaten?

Comments (1)

Surprising Results From My Experiments with the American Express Platinum Concierge Service

Lifestyle

Surprising Results From My Experiments with the American Express Platinum Concierge Service

Posted on 26 January 2012

Jammu Night Market Temple

- Night Market in Jammu, Jammu and Kashmir (nothing to do with the post at hand, but I still like the picture)

This post is a story of 1) Three Cuttlefish Eggs for Under $20, 2) Helping a Friend Research Master’s Programs in International Development, and 3) A Database of Entrepreneurial Alumni on Christmas Eve.

Intrigued?

Good. Read on.

Credit is one of anyone’s most important assets. Credit can do amazing incredible things for you, if you’re credit is good. This post details three of the quirkier things I’ve used the AMEX Platinum Concierge Service for, none of which would happen without good – excellent credit.

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Read Time: 10 Mins
Skim Time: 5 Mins
(skim the emails and focus on the “verdicts” if you’re in a hurry)

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#1 – Three Cuttlefish Eggs for Under $20

I’ve developed a strange obsession with Cuttlefish since reading Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget. Which is an excellent excellent read even not counting the Cuttlefish.

At any rate, I was curious to see what it might cost me to acquire a Cuttlefish or two.

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My Email Requesting Research Help

Hi there!

I’ve been thinking about buying a Cuttlefish, an absolutely adorable little Cephalopod.

I was hoping you could help me find somewhere I can buy one, and get an idea of how much it might cost, and how much the relevant aquarium equipment might cost also?

Thanks much, and absolutely no rush.

Happy New Year!

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Concierge Response

Dear Mr. Yoder,

Thank you for contacting American Express Concierge.  I hope this email finds you well and you are having a wonderful day!  I have received your email request regarding Cuttlefish and I am happy to assist you!  I can understand why you are looking to purchase a cuttlefish and I am happy to help you locate the information you need.  I have located a vendor that has cuttlefish eggs available and will be able to ship them to you.  While speaking with Michael at NY Aquatics he has let me know that it is very expensive to feed these fish as they only eat Mysis Shrimp.  It will cost approximately 30.00 per week for food.  Please see the details below.

Vendor: NY Aquatics
Address: New York
Phone Number: 914-661-3128
Website: http://www.nyaquatic.com
Contact Name: Michael
Details: Cuttlefish eggs are available here. $19.95 for 3 eggs.  Cuttlefish need to be kept in a small tank on their own with no other fish.  This is not recommended for a novice.  Feel free to contact him at the number above if you have any questions or concerns about cuttlefish.

Please let me know if you would like further assistance with your purchase, information on popular attractions for an upcoming trip or anything else, please let me know and I will be happy to assist you further.  Have a great day!

Sincerely,

M.

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Verdict

I asked for help locating Cuttlefish, and for pricing information on relevant home aquarium equipment. While they didn’t find me information on home aquarium equipment, they did find me not one, not two, but three cuttlefish eggs for under $20. Much much less than I was expecting. Amex Plat. also went out of their way to contact reputable vendors – they didn’t just call up the first search result and send me a quick note. They had an in depth conversation with the folks at NY Aquatics to find out what to feed my future Cuttlefish, and get an estimate for how much it would cost to feed one weekly.

I’m not ready to buy my Cuttlefish just yet – but how cool is it that you can get 3 Cuttlefish eggs for under $20?

I say they knocked this one out of the park.

#2 – Help a Friend w/ Master’s Program Research

Some people I’ve talked to say that they would feel goofy or selfish using a virtual assistant or a concierge service. Fine. I don’t. If you feel that way but have access to an assistant or concierge, you can always use it to help the people you care about in your life. One of my closest friends in the world is looking around at Grad programs in International Development. I really believe he will change the world some day. Aside from the fact that it’s cool to try and support people who are young now that you think have the potential to do big things to improve the future of the world, it’s just good manners to be actively helpful and useful to the people you care about in life.

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My Email #1

Hi Amex Plat!

Can you please help me research the best schools with master’s programs in International Development in Europe, the USA, and Asia?

I don’t need a totally exhaustive list or anything – maybe like 10 names or so to get my search started off. Links to their programs would be incredibly helpful too, but please play it by ear however makes the most sense!

You all are awesome and I don’t know how I’d get by without you.

Best,

Austin

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As someone who has done online freelance work in the past, I can tell you that researchers always always appreciate a cheerful attitude, and acknowledgement of the value of the services they provide. A lot of email is boring as hell, and if you take an extra 30 seconds, you can give someone a smile and make their day in a small way.

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Concierge Response #1

Dear Mr. Yoder,

I hope you are having a great day! We received your email but need a little more information please. Are you looking for options in the USA, Europe and Asia? Do you have any specific cities or countries you want us to research in Europe and Asia as each are quite large and encompas many countries? Also please be advised we can send you options for each location you choose but we cannot guarantee they are the best, because each country has its own standards and what may be considered the best school in Paris for example may not be considered to be the best by people who live in Rome. We can certainly research them and make sure each seem like good schools and have the course you are looking for but we cannot say whether one is better than another in reputation or accademics.

Sincerely,
M.

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My Email #2

Thanks for following up so quickly!

I guess I’m not even entirely clear what I’m looking for haha. Can you help me look up a list of the “Top Ten InternationalDevelopment Master’s Programs” for the US / Europe / Asia? The specific countries in Europe and Asia don’t matter – just looking for a place to start refining my search.

Of course I realize that “best” here is a subjective term. No worries about that – please use your best judgement and I appreciate your help!

Austin

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Concierge Response #2

Dear Mr. Yoder,

I hope that this email finds you well.  Attached you will find a list of schools that I have researched for you that have wonderful Master’s Programmes for International Development.  A couple of these are international, but some of the best I found were state-side.

I have included some basic descriptions for you and also the links for each of the programmes for each school.  At the end of the document are a couple of links to a listing of schools in Europe and Asia that are categorized by country that you might want to take a look at for yourself.  I have included a couple of the choices I thought might work for you, but please feel free to browse.  It was a pleasure assisting you with your request.

If you have any questions, or need any further assistance with research or arranging visits with any schools, please do not hesitate to contact me.

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Attached to this email was a three page PDF document with 6 Master’s in International Development programs listed, and a list of additional resources for further research. There was a nice spread of programs between the US, and a few countries in Europe – which is primarily where my friend is interested in doing his Master’s.

Verdict

My friend was insanely thankful. He hadn’t heard of one of the programs on there before, and it linked up almost exactly with his research interests in International Development. I’ll be applying for it now, he said. Honestly, I was overwhelmed by his positive response. I barely did anything, but it seemed to mean a lot to him.

Cost to me: an extremely brief email exchange, and a tiny little bit of thought.

Result: my friend found a new Master’s program in a country he’s interested in that aligns almost perfectly with his interests. He is happy, I am happy, and my friend knows that I’m trying to actively find leads and interesting options for his personal advancement.

I say they knocked this out of the park, too.

#3 – Making a Database of Entrepreneurial Alumni on Christmas Eve

This may be the best customer service I have ever experienced. Ever.

In a nutshell: there was this list of alumni from my school that went on to become entrepreneurs. Contact info, graduating class, description of business etc. As the information was displayed, it was pretty unusable. It could be incredible information, but my school went about presenting it in a really idiotic fashion.

I wanted to take this messy jumble of information and turn it into a shiny spreadsheet. My idea was to pass this previously unusable information, in usable form, around to some young entrepreneurial folks from Georgetown. Just because. After all, it’s good manners and good karma to actively try and help the people who are important in your life.

I usually try to do something like this a few times a week, and it has done wonders to make some of the already good relationships in my life even stronger. After all, if someone out there was thoughtfully and actively doing something to help you reach a personal goal of yours, would you feel closer to, or less close to that person?

That’s what I thought.

Now this list of entrepreneurial alumni – this list was not a small list.

I didn’t think this was the sort of task Amex Plat Concierge helped with, so I sent an email to check. It’s absolutely a task that I could have done myself, but I wanted to test what Amex Plat Concierge would / wouldn’t do for me. I figured at worst they would say no, and at best they would save me a lot of time.

Here’s the correspondence that followed:

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My Email #1

Are you guys able to help me compile a spreadsheet of information from a webpage? I’m not sure what the limits of AMEX Plat. Concierge are :)

Just curious and wanted to double check.

Thanks so much!

Austin

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Concierge Reply #1

Good Morning,

We have received your email and would like to thank you for using American Express Concierge.  We would be happy to assist you with your request to prepare a spreadsheet for you.  Please do not hesitate to provide us with all of the details and we will begin working on your request as soon as possible.  In the meantime, we hope you have a lovely Holiday Season!

Sincerely,

American Express Concierge

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My Email #2

Excellent and thanks so much!

Please put the information from this website into this Google Doc Spreadsheet - I’ve gone ahead and done the first one as an example of what I’m looking for.

Really appreciate the help.

Austin

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All I had done was make categories like graduating class, graduating year, description of business, phone number, email etc. etc. I got an email or two a few days apart stating that they were working on compiling the spreadsheet for me. I said no rush at all – I wasn’t in a hurry.

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Concierge Response #2

Dear Mr. Yoder,

I hope that this message finds you well.  I have received the request that you placed with us concerning the spreadsheet that you were looking to have created.  Typically American Express Concierge can assist with providing information for you in a spreadsheet format, however we do not typically assist you with transferring your personal information.  I have started to work on this as you requested, however in the future we may not be able to assist you with this kind of service.

As the list is quite long, I am afraid I have not completed the transfer for you.  I will continue to work on your request and once it is complete I will follow up with you no later than 10:30pm EST tonight.  In the meantime if you would like more information on the services we provide for you, please feel free to contact us at xxx-xxx-xxxx and we would be more than happy to speak with you.  Thank you for using American Express Concierge and I will speak with you again soon.

Sincerely,

N.

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My Email #2

Thanks Neil and sorry for the confusion! I tried to check in advance if this was something that you guys could help with and got a positive response back. Anyway, I appreciate the help and have a merry christmas!

Austin

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That’s right. This exchange happened Dec. 24 – Christmas Eve day. If that isn’t excellent fucking customer service, I don’t know what is.

Seriously awesome job Amex Concierge dude. You deserve a raise.

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Concierge Response #3

Dear Mr. Yoder,

I hope you are having a great evening.  As I mentioned when I contacted you previously, I have been working on organizing the information that you provided for us into a spreadsheet.  I have completed the spreadsheet for you and you can find it as an attachment to this email.

If you have any questions or concerns, or if you would like information on any tickets to see the traveling version of The Book of Mormon when it is near you, please contact us.  Thank you for using American Express Concierge and I hope you have an excellent weekend.

Sincerely,

N.

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Verdict

The spreadsheet was pristine. Perfect. Not a single error in there, and time signature on the email reads about 10:30pm on December 24, or Christmas Eve.

I was pretty speechless. Amex Plat. told me that this wasn’t even the type of task that they are supposed to help with. It was fairly tedious copy and paste sort of work, and that’s not even really what they do. They find information.

But guess what? They did it for me anyway.

Perfectly.

On Christmas Eve.

I was speechless.

Closing Thoughts on the American Express Platinum Card

This card is not for everyone. It comes with a ton of benefits which you can put to use in many different and creative ways. For example, you can read about the time I used Amex to bail me out when my RV battery died after I almost got arrested with my exat a national park in Virginia, right before driving into oncoming traffic at Washington Reagan National Airport.

All of those benefits come with a fairly hefty annual fee of $450/year, or $200/year if you are able to “add on” to a family member or friend’s Amex Platinum card.

Would it be worth it for you? That’s entirely up to you to decide, and if you’re thinking about it – monitor the Flyertalk forums here to see when the best sign up bonuses pop up.

Has it been worth it for me?

The concierge service alone would make the annual fee worth it.

The best part is that is only one of the perks you get with the Amex Plat card. Other perks include free airline lounge access, discounted rates at Regus, and an annual $200 credit toward airline incidental fees. Go check a complete list of benefits here if you’re interested.

Remember not to sign up at the first offer you see – it probably won’t have the best bonus. If you monitor the Flyertalk forums long enough, you’ll see a 50,000 point sign up bonus (at least) pop up sooner or later.

Is Amex Platinum Worth the Fee, for me?

A resounding “hell yes!” from the bottom of my gut.

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Question of the Day

What is the single best, or most memorable example of outstanding customer service that you’ve ever experienced?

Comments (1)

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