Venezuela is in trouble

This article on The Atlantic and this New York Times one give a grim look of Venezuela today:

  • Children are being robbed.
  • Courts are closed on most days.
  • Lufthansa just announced that it’s cancelling all flights to the country.
  • Lack of medicines is causing people with curable illnesses like epilepsy to die.
  • Entrepreneurs are being threatened with jail because of toilet paper.
  • The government says it can no longer fund school lunch programs.
  • Burglars have assaulted 11 times in the last year the university where all the country’s response to tropical epidemics comes from leaving them with no equipment to do anything.
  • Low oil prices (the country’s main export).
  • Oh, and there is a drought on a country with crumbling water infrastructure and one of the worst Zika epidemics.

The article’s reasons for how things got this bad? Corruption and Chavism mixed with major bad decisions and bad luck. Example of bad decision making: the government fixed prices on basic goods with the goal of ensuring that everyone would have access to them. Sounds reasonable but the problem is that once you fix prices if costs go up for the producers they will stop those basic goods and you won’t be able to buy them anywhere.

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Einsiedeln to Schwyz (Via Jacobi)

Today’s adventure started in Einsiedeln, in the canton of Schwyz. This time we decided to one stage of the Via Jacobi which is part of “El Camino de Santiago”.

The first part of the hike ran through a wide valley outside of Einsiedeln. The weather looked challenging but the forecast promised no rain over the following hours and we are trusting people.

View right outside of Eisiedeln.
View right outside of Eisiedeln.

We saw various small Christian chapels and altars along the way as well as a fancy-looking convent for Benedictine nuns. Like in previous hikes we came across few people, mostly runners, mountain bikers and old people strolling around.

The other photo we took of us was at the top of the mountain and we look... let's fresh, let's put it that way :D
Posing while we still had energy to smile 😀

A couple of hours later we found a bench right next to the river, literally a meter away from the water, to refuel. And then we started the ascend. The sky was still covered with clouds but luckily, a bit later, when we reached the top it cleared up and allowed us to enjoy these views:

Mount Kleiner Mythen (Smaller Mythen)
Mount Kleiner Mythen (Smaller Mythen)
Approaching mounts Kleiner Mythen and Grosser (bigger) Mythen.
Approaching mounts Kleiner Mythen and Grosser (bigger) Mythen.
Kleiner Mythen on the left and the Alps at the back.
Kleiner Mythen on the left and the Alps at the back.
The alps in the back with Lake Lucerne in the front.
The alps in the back with Lake Lucerne in the front.

These surroundings make me forget about work, about projects and basically about everything. It’s one of the most powerful tools to develop mindfulness and to relax. When I’m in these kind of places my mind shuts up and looks, it’s breath-taking.

Anyways, after enjoying the views we started the descend which took us through a dense forest down to the town of Schwyz.

Cookie Monster inside a tree.
Cookie Monster inside a tree.

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And after a few more fantastic views we got on the train, saw a lot of people with hiking gear that we had no idea where they were hiking, and eventually we got home happily tired.

Lake Lauerz
Lake Lauerz

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Today’s trip made me think how amazing and humbling it is that all of this beautiful complexity developed from something as simple as atoms of hydrogen colliding which each other, slowly building up to more atoms with different properties, and slowly getting together to form planets, mountains, lakes, life and us. I find it fascinating.

One Small Step Can Change Your Life

#kaizen #self-improvement

This is one of the two most valuable books that I’ve read in the last year about self improvement. In recent weeks I’ve put it into practice multiple times and it’s helping me get over bad habits that I haven’t been able to make a dent before. Recommended to anyone frustrated with repeated failed attempts at getting rid of bad habits.

There are two basic approaches to changing things: big steps (innovation) and small steps (kaizen). The main idea behind One Small Step Can Change Your Life by Robert Maurer is that the kaizen way is, in most cases, more effective than innovation. Why? When we try radical changes like completely revamping our diet or trying to keep a life-long habit like smoking, we are pushing ourselves way outside of our comfort zone. At the beginning the passion to change may be strong enough to start but when the passion effect wears of what’s left is basically fear. When we feel fear our amygdala, one of the most primitive parts of our brain which pushes us to fight or flight, wakes up and blocks access access to the only tool we have to override our habits, the cerebral cortex. In other words, when you try a change that is too big our reptilian programming kicks in and prevents us from overriding the old habit that we want to change.

The rest of the book explores how to apply kaizen at various levels. Here are some of the ideas that resonated with me:

Adults say they feel stressed instead of scared because there is this belief that once you’re an adult you’re not supposed to feel fear.

Questions focus our brain exceedingly and that makes small, non-threatening questions perfect for creating change, eg: “What is one small step that I can make today towards reaching my goal?”. When you ask big questions like “How could I revolutionize my industry?” you are putting the mind in a scary position which, again, will wake up the amygdala.

The brain cannot tell apart what’s real from what’s imagined. That makes visualizing a great technique for creating change because we can do it any time and for free. This is specially useful when practicing is impossible or too dangerous (eg: talking in public, reacting to your boss’s tantrums, etc).

We are culturally conditioned to expect change to happen instantaneously, to require steely discipline and to not be pleasurable but that’s just wrong: research shows that that’s wrong and that Kaizen works (and not just for the Japanese), we know we are biologically programmed against change and we have limited time and energy that we need to spend in other areas.

Small changes are, in many cases, all you need (Pareto Principle).

Small rewards work better than large rewards because large rewards tend to shift people’s motivations from intrinsic (doing something good because you think it’s the right thing) to extrinsic (doing something because someone else will give you a lot of money if you do it).

Saving Private Ryan

What if an experienced squad is sent behind enemy lines to find and bring back a soldier in the middle of World War II?

This movie is graphically brutal: every body part that can be shot, vaporized, burned or mutilated gets such treatment. But behind the surface there is a series of moral dilemmas and statements that will make you think.

"Well, it seems to me, sir, that God gave me a special gift."
“Well, it seems to me, sir, that God gave me a special gift.”

**Warning: spoiler alert**

What does Saving Private Ryan say about life?

The story starts and ends in a cemetery and, near the end of the movie when Capt Miller is dying, he asks Ryan to live a worthy life. So obviously the movie is trying to show us what that a worthy life means.

During the movie Miller faces multiple moral dilemmas, some examples: he has to follow non-sensical rules, he risks his squad’s life going out of their way to kill a dangerous enemy sentry so that they won’t kill fellow American soldiers, he lets a prisoner of war escape when nearly everyone else in the squad wants to kill him and he needs to find a solution to rescuing Ryan when he doesn’t want to be taken away from the battlefield. Living a worthy life seems to mean upholding certain values even when your life is on the line.

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I took all the movie’s chaos, randomness and violence of war to represent life: things happen that make no sense or are unjust or painful. We try to rationalize them (Miller justifies deaths of soldiers under his command by assuming that he saves 10 lives for every soldier he loses) but in the end this is just a way of coping with reality.

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Besides Miller’s dilemmas what does the movie say about specific virtues? Caparzo dies trying to save a little girl that reminded him of his cousin, so mindless compassion isn’t good because it gets you killed. Horvath, Miller’s friend, dies in the final battle. Reiben, self-interested and arrogant, survives. Jackson, the deadly sniper who recites Bible verses before taking every shot, is pulverized by a tank while he’s camping at the top of a church tower. Wade, the medic who throughout the movie desperately tries to save lives, dies after bleeding out from the nastiest wound that the team suffers. Upham survives but the movie shows him as a sensitive person who wants to do the right thing but lacks the courage and moral strength of Miller: he is unable to shoot Germans soldiers that end up killing his teammates and eventually he kills a German soldier that, earlier in the movie, he defended and prevented the rest of the team from killing.

Of the original squad of eight the only two survivors are the coward and the selfish. The movie appears to be saying: those values may prolong your life but that kind of life isn’t worthy.

Ryan, who doesn’t want to abandon the battlefield because he thinks it’s unfair to his team, also survives. At the end of the movie, when he’s in front of Miller’s grave he states, tearfully, “I’ve tried to live a good life”. When he asks his wife if he has been a good man his wife replies affirmatively. Which reinforces the movie’s idea that happiness consists on living a good life.

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Have you watched the movie? Did you get a different message?

The power of incentives

It’s imperative that we think very literally about the incentive systems we create.

Farnamstreet illustrates this point with three examples where incentives went horribly wrong:

The British wanted to get rid of cobras in Delhi so they started paying people for every dead cobra brought in. Result: people started breeding cobras.

Belgian soldiers in Congo were told to bring severed hands as proof that they were using bullets to kill those who didn’t meet certain rubber production quotas. The king’s concern was soldiers wasting bullets by shooting game or missing their human targets. Result: soldiers started cutting off the hands of living people to make up for the cartridges they used or for the quotas that were impossible to meet.

A socially conscious company tried to help people in Ghana by paying a premium on shea nuts in order to help them. Result: people increased shea nut production four times resulting in an excess supply that had no use and which ultimately drove the prices down.

If you are in a position where you can design a system that other people will use make sure you think through the incentives it will create.

Reading on digital devices good for details, bad for abstract thinking

#humancomputerinteraction #reading

According to a recent series of studies (telegraph.co.uk’s article) on 21 year old university students reading on iPads helps you see the trees but not the forest whereas reading on paper does the opposite, it helps you see the forest instead of the trees.

The researchers’ hypothesis is that digital devices come with a lot of distractions like games, social network apps and notifications and their continuous use primes the brain for distractions instead of deep thinking. With a piece of paper there are no distractions.

The researchers describe situations where this triggered low-level thinking is beneficial like solving problems that require attention to detail and risk analysis, but the paper is on the area of Computer Human Interaction so they have an incentive to find a positive side to the story. The conclusion I take is: minimize number of apps and disable notifications on any devices where you want to read intelligently.

Hiking from Richterswil to Pfäffikon SZ

Yesterday we decided to go hiking. We are thinking about eventually walking long trails like the Via Alpina, the Appalachian Trial and the Pacific Crest Trail but we need to start somewhere closer to what we can do today so we decided to start with Route 84 stage 4 which is a comfortable 16km hike near Lake Zürich.

We started the hike in Richterswil, a short train ride away from home.

Zurich lake.
Lake Zürich at 9am.

The first leg of our hike took us through a narrow ravine covered in a dense forest. Due to a heightened sense of confidence and adventure (I forgot to check the map) we didn’t enter the actual route 84 until about 45 minutes later but I tried to convince Loes that our detour was nicer than the official route.

Alien messages carved into wood.
Alien messages carved into wood.

Other than a couple of men walking their dogs we didn’t see other human lifeforms until we got out of the forest and into a lake.

The little lake was called Sternenweiher (“Pond of Stars”), but the proud restaurant next to it decided that Sternensee (“Lake of stars”) had a better ring to it. In that area we also saw people doing morning runs and, here and there, women riding what looked like huge war horses.

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Taking a break through the hilly prairies after the lake.

Slowly, as the sun rose, we were rewarded with views like this:

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A bit later we arrived to Samstagern, a little village west of where the actual route 84 actual passes through.

Samstagern's emblem.
Emblem of Samstagern.

Villages around here are not like the villages I remember back from Spain. At one point we a garage that looked more like a little house with a Porsche Carrera in it and, two spots away, a tractor. Most of the people we saw were old people gardening. But besides these displays of being skilled with money we also saw the coolest mailbox I’ve ever seen:

Mailbox reproduction of the house next to it.
Mailbox reproduction of the house next to it.

Also in the same village:

Fire hydrant with a personality.
Fire hydrant with a personality.

After a few more villages population density quickly dropped and, for the bulk of the next two hours, we walked alone surrounded by trees doing what Loes and most of 126 million Japanese call “Shinrin-yoku“.

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Up and up we went with nothing but grass, cows and trees.

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Something that I’ve noticed since we moved to Switzerland is a specific blend of nature and old along with order and cleanliness. For example the wall of the next photo is almost falling apart but still has some dignity about itself. However everything around it clean an in order: the pails are aligned, the interior of the room to its left is also in order and the trolley with the rolled tube is cleanly parked. The floor, both outside and inside, is as clean as a random Japanese city. And this is only one instance. Inside the various forests we passed by we saw plenty of cut wood logs neatly piled, aligned with the road and impecable.

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As we continued climbing we kept receiving larger and larger doses of beautiful scenery. Standing there listening to chirping birds and taking in the views was energizing.

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Which doesn’t mean we stopped paying attention to the small things.

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Soon after midday we reached Etzel Kulm (“Hill of Etzel”), the highest point in our day trip.

Etzel Kulm, 1098m.
View from Etzel Kulm, 1098m.

The area had some props like the following last century cart as well as a restaurant and a parking for cheaters.

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After a break where we finished our delicious home-made hummus we started our way down.

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Fresh pine leaves. First time I see them like this.

The descent felt more steep than our ascent and it was also much more crowded. We still managed to get good views of the valley surrounding the area. The snowy mountains at the back? That’s the Alps.

Descending Etzel Kulm.
View of the valley descending Etzel Kulm.
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Click on the image to see the nice details on the shiny leaves.

And from there on to Pfäffikon we were drained so nothing to report.

It was a beautiful hike, totally recommended.