A Delightful Comparison to Theodore Roosevelt

Filed under: experiments,thoughts Topics: , ,

Theodore Roosevelt wrote more than 150,000 missives throughout his life.

TR_Buckskin_Tiffany_KnifeAt first blush, it’s humbling; quite the accomplishment. But, in thinking about the differences between Roosevelt and me (because in idle moments I compare myself to great historical figures) what really struck me wasn’t the magnitude of his writing. Rather, it was the magnitude of communication channels that I use daily and the complexities between them.

When he wasn’t giving a speech, serving on a committee, or generally entertaining guests, Roosevelt’s communications were mostly on physical paper: mailed, delivered, published, and purchased. It seemed pretty straightforward, so I made a list:

  • Synchronous Direct Communication (talking)
  • Overheard Conversations, Rumor, Messenger, and Hearsay (eavesdropping)
  • Written One-to-one correspondence
    • Letters
    • Telegrams (direct messages delivered on paper, for you whippersnappers)
  • One-to-many written works
    • Newspapers
    • Magazines
    • Books
    • Posters/Advertisements
  • One-to-many live media (broadcast)
    • Radio (later in his life)

Then I started writing a list of the communication avenues I had available to me. It turned out considerably longer:

  • Synchronous Direct Communication (“talking” – please note the air quotes)
    • Voice
      • In-person
      • Phone
    • Voice + Video
      • Skype
      • Apple Facetime
      • Google Hangout
      • etc.
    • Textual* (intended to be synchronous, but in reality, it’s not)
      • SMS/MMS “texting”
      • IMs (IMer, GTalk, etc)
      • Social Network Conduits (Facebook, Twitter, IRC etc. DMs)
  • Overheard
    • In person
    • Butt-dialing
    • Retweets/re-blogs/re-shares
    • Copied/forwarded personal content
    • Over-the-shoulder eavesdropping
  • Written One-to-one correspondence
    • Textual (SMSs that aren’t responded to, IMs sent while offline, etc.)
    • Postal Letters
    • E-mail
    • Social Messages (Facebook, Twitter, LiveJournal, PHP forums, etc.)
  • One-to-many written works (with or without rich media like photos, videos, etc.)
    • Group Texting (SMS, Groupme, etc.)
    • Status Updates – Twitter (micro, instant)
    • Social Posts (Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram: mixed length, mixed timing)
    • Newspapers
    • Magazines
    • Books
    • Posters/Advertisements
    • Weblogs
    • Newsblogs
    • Wall Posts (written to one person, but intended for semi-public consumption)
  • Many-to-many written works
    • Community News/Link Sharing (Reddit, Fark, off-topic forums)
    • Newspaper (NYTimes, etc.) online discussions
    • Blog comments (like this here site)
  • One-to-many live media (Broadcast)
    • Radio
    • Satellite
    • Television
    • Internet
  • One-to-many recorded media
    • Spotify, Rdio, MP3
    • Podcasts
    • YouTube, Vimeo, etc.
  • One-to-few recorded media
    • Vine
  • Ephemeral works
    • Snapchat
    • Facebook Poke

I’ve omitted some channels due to time and general laziness, but you get the idea.

This long (albeit abbreviated) summary suggests a lurking problem: we have increasingly divergent channels each competing for our attention. The more distracted we are, the less we produce. It’s basic entropy.

Each channel aims to optimize some combination of synchronous/asynchronous, short/long-form, ephemeral/persistent, and private/public for our benefit. But ironically, while the channels themselves might be precise, attempting to manage them all becomes clumsy and cluttered.

During a recent 2-hour flight delay, I attempted to graph this lunacy (fighting off the urge to read incoming e-mails as I command-tabbed between my word processor and drawing software). Here are two plots that summarize the differences between the timeliness of communicative information with respect to audience size.




Note: these plots represent the intended purpose of each mode of communication, not necessarily its reality. For instance, communications that were meant to be asynchronous (like e-mails, tweets, and blog posts) frequently alert readers to their existence in real time.

I then sorted each channel into a separate “inbox”. Roosevelt had it easy:

  1. Someone told him directly / he overheard something
  2. Someone handed him something to read
  3. It arrived on his desk
  4. It arrived in the mail
  5. It was put on his bookshelf, nightstand, or coffee table.

Moreover, each unit of information had only one physical copy, therefore only one way to read it.

With digital information, information becomes infinitely more complex. For example, my smartphone came with four discrete instant messaging applications: SMS, Google Voice, Google+, and Google Talk. I download two more, Skype and Twitter, because I use them regularly while on the go.*  Then, including the passive social applications (Instagram, Foursquare, Fitocracy, Goodreads, and Github), I count eleven separate inboxes where you can pester me, instantly.

Admittedly, almost all of these inboxes integrate with the operating system’s notification panel. However, I need to go through each individual application (which has different messaging mechanics) in order to read, respond, and flag for followup up. For all intents and purposes, these are discrete inboxes you cannot consolidate.

Now, if we include the six e-mail accounts (spread across Android’s wonderful GMail application, its castrated IMAP client, and webmail through Chrome) as well as the ancillary functions of some of those aforementioned social networks (Twitter’s tweets, Skype’s Phone calls, etc.) there are no less than 20 different channels on my phone alone.

I’ll find no solace in shunting these channels into e-mail, either: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Flickr, Tumblr, etc. all include their own messaging services that thrust themselves into my inbox at the slightest bit of activity from users I’ve connected with. Foursquare and Twitter send me “places my friends have been and things my friends have said”. Facebook reminds me that I have 92 unanswered friend requests (sorry) and that I’ve been tagged in a 12 photos. LinkedIn sends me “updates from connected Thought Leaders”. (Really, guys?) Even YouTube has started sending me “video digests” from what my friends have been watching, and on Google+.

Let’s just say, “it’s complicated”.



All of this aside, I began this quest to benchmark my written output with Roosevelt’s. Instead, I’m now considering whether our modern information explosion prohibits fair comparison. I’ll leave that exercise to a postdoc.

But, just for kicks, we’ll do a simple comparison between Roosevelt and me using letters and e-mail, respectively. Yes, this is reductionist, but I have more important things to worry about.

Not including social posts, corporate e-mail, direct messages, IMs, SMSs, and notes I’ve passed during class, I have sent over 30,000 messages in 8 years. Roosevelt lived to be a little over 60, putting him at 3,750 letters a year (if you ignore his first twenty years). On e-mail alone I, too, clock in at 3,750 letters a year.

Given our scores amidst excessive channel noise, I declare victory, pyrrhic though it might be.

*Facebook is conspicuously missing here because the application demands full read/write access to every bit of data of my phone. No thanks, Zuck.

The Best Alternative to “The Juice Cleanse” Ever

Juice Cleanse? Try the Ice Cream and Peanut Butter Cleanse! It’s probably healthier—certainly cheaper.

During this morning’s gym routine, I caught up on a Skeptoid podcast which debunked the nutritional claims by the various juice cleanse proponents. So, naturally, I thought I’d do the math and see if I couldn’t come up with something healthier, cheaper, and more delicious.

(Side note: Brian’s Skeptoid show is fantastic, as are the piles of research he does for every show. Thanks to Sarah Downey for the recommendation.)

Blueprint FoundationAs a benchmark, I started with BluePrint’s Foundation Cleanse which, according to the marketing, seemed most appropriate for most cleanse-seeking persons (hereafter referred to as “cleansers”). It was also the first result for “juice cleanse” on your favorite search engine.

The Foundation Cleanse is six bottles of juice, taken sequentially, with the following daily nutritional footprint. In sum:

KCal: 1,010
Fat: 19 grams (Saturated: 3 g)
Carb: 197 grams (Fiber: 14 g, Sugar: 171 g)
Protein: 14 grams

Complete Data Available Here

What I find particularly amusing is that, according to BluePrint, The Foundation Cleanse “fills you up […]”, but with 171g of sugar comprising most of the caloric intake, I find that difficult to stomach. (Har har.) You see, sugar is quickly digested and quickly burned, rendering the cleanser with energy spikes after every bottle and isn’t, I’m afraid, terribly filling.

Moreover, the total caloric load is 1,010 KCal, below the average number of calories most people spend in a day just to exist. (Also called the Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR, the averages for men and women are about 1,500 and 1,650 kilocalories a day, respectively.)

If you’re trying to lose weight (which, I’d venture, is why most cleansers subscribe to a juice cleanse), consuming below your caloric usage is generally a sound idea. However, operating on a high-sugar, caloric-restrictive diet will cause most people, experienced cleansers included, to lose lean mass (muscle) and not fat mass (pudginess). For those who value popular fashion aesthetics, this cleanse is the stark opposite to what cleansers ought to be doing. They will lose weight, but it’s not the weight they want to be losing.

However, the point of this exercise isn’t to admonish BluePrint or its product’s nutritional values and composition—it’s to come up with something equally absurd, wonderful, and by all means tastier. And it’s with this in mind that I bring you my latest creation:

The Ice Cream, Peanut Butter, and Split Pea Cleanse

The goal here was to create a “cleanse” with a similar caloric load to our benchmark, but with macronutrients portioned to reduce insulin spikes, include sufficient fiber, stave off hunger, and—most importantly—maximize gluttony.

While The Foundation Cleanse features six consumption opportunities throughout the day, The ICPBSP Cleanse can be consumed all in one sitting; or, if the cleanser chooses, throughout the day thusly:

Meal 1: 1/2 Cup Cooked Split Peas
Meal 2: 1/2 Cup Vanilla Ice Cream
Meal 3: 2 Tbsp Creamy Peanut Butter
Meal 4: 1/4 Cup Cooked Split Peas
Meal 5: 1/2 Cup Vanilla Ice Cream
Meal 6: 2 Tbsp Creamy Peanut Butter

Meals 1 and 2, 3 and 4, 5 and 6 may also be combined if so desired. I’m not picky.

Most acutely, the daily nutritional footprint of The ICPBSP Cleanse is as follows:

KCal: 1,093
Fat: 71 grams (Saturated: 29 g)
Carb: 87 grams (Fiber: 16 g, Sugar 53 g)
Protein: 36 grams

In comparison with the Foundation Cleanse, this nutritional footprint features 50% more protein, 50% fewer carbs, and 65% fewer sugars, all with equivalent fiber portions, calorie for calorie.

Did I mention this cleanse features one cup of Haagen Dazs Vanilla Ice Cream, four tablespoons of Skippy Peanut Butter, and less than a cup of cooked split peas? I could’ve spent time selecting more nutritionally-advantageous products, but given the sugar contents of the benchmark, I felt I didn’t need to bother with any of that. I leave it as an exercise to the reader.

Also important to note, this diet features three times the amount of fat as The Foundation Cleanse. This is intentional: fats (and proteins) will keep cleansers much more sated than the equivalent caloric load in carbohydrates. Contrary to popular belief, eating fats doesn’t (necessarily) make you fat. Granted, there’s a lot of fat in this cleanse, but it’s more likely you’ll be able to stick to this one over the low-fat, low-protein Foundation Cleanse. And with the little bit of extra fiber in the ICPBSP Cleanse, it’ll digest just as easily (assuming the cleanser isn’t lactose intolerant or anything).

In my mind, there are two purported purposes to a cleanse: rid your body of toxins and restore nutritional balance in your body. Regardless of whether or not that’s what actually happens during a cleanse (spoiler: it’s not), the overall byproduct of this dietary exercise leaves cleansers to operate with a lower caloric intake. So, for my money, go with which one you’re more likely to stick with.

Speaking of which, The Foundation Cleanse will cost you more than $65 per day (not including shipping) whereas the ICPBSP Cleanse costs $4* per day and is available at every grocery store in America and can be purchased with food stamps.

Ultimately, for cleansers who opt to cleanse, the choice is simple: either go with expensive mail-order green and white juice goop, or enjoy a simple diet of Ice Cream, Peanut Butter, and cooked Split Peas.

Truthfully, though, I wouldn’t recommend either.

Update: A few people have written me to say that there are some benefits to the properties of organically-produced, vitamin-enriched drinks. In response, swap out Skippy for an organic peanut butter supplier and Haagen Dazs for a locally-farmed vanilla bean ice cream concoction and add a multivitamin for an additional $1-2 per day and equivalent organic and vitamin-enrichment. Oh, and drink water.

*Prices as of November 14th, 2012 according to FreshDirect.com. (Daily portion wise: $3 for the Ice Cream, $.50 for the Peanut Butter, and $.50 for the Split Peas.)

In Defense of Bowling: Thoughts on Angry Birds

With over 200 million downloads as of May 2011, Angry Birds became a modern cultural touchpoint.

That’s incredible considering Angry Birds is by no means a technical feat nor is it an original game; in fact, it’s merely a remix of some old popular games. It’s popular because it wins on familiarity and on story. To wit, here’s a game that has similar play dynamics:

This is Breakout. Steves Jobs and Wozniak wrote this ‘original’ game for Atari. While your instincts may tell you Angry Birds and Breakout are night and day, you’d be wrong. They’re based on the same premise: send a projectile to destroy all of the static objects on a game board before you run out of lives. The game was rather successful and spawned sequels and hundreds of clones. (It’s been on every BlackBerry I’ve ever seen as “Brick Breaker”.)

Here’s another game of the same flavor: bowling.

Suspicious (yet probably still accurate) Internet data suggest that Angry Birds has about the same number of downloads (~200M) as the number of people who have bowled at least once in their lifetimes (~220M). And, given the proclivities of today’s youth, that number is increasingly in favor for the birds.

It leads one to ponder: if it’s basically the same game, why are the Angry Birds so ubiquitous? And yet, the answer is simple: emotion.

At the onset, you’re presented a problem: evil green pigs have stolen eggs from a cacophony of primary-colored kamikaze dodos. The outrage is enough to start a war, severe enough to forgo primal instincts of self preservation and use yourself as munitions; but, more importantly, it’s enough to stir, as the player, your latent need for righteous vengeance. Naturally, you are uniquely suited to aide the birds in their avionic havoc—and for which you are eager to comply.

Just watch the intro:

Damn those pigs. So smug. Ugh!

After this, sending a ball into a bunch of blocks isn’t nearly as exciting. This is because (for the non-autistic among my readership) you relate to anthropomorphic critters better than you can relate to a circle. You may have sympathy for the devil, but certainly not for a ball.


Angry Birds is tried and true gameplay laced with emotion and familiarity: the story is familiar, the physics are familiar, and the only logical leap the game asks of the player is to forget that most birds can fly perfectly well on their own. But, in this case, they require a slingshot and your help, and don’t require a trip down to the bowling alley.

Like bowling and breakout and those before it, Angry Birds has been wildly successful, spawning sequels and dozens of clones. And toys.

But, for my time and money, I’d rather go bowling with friends—they tell better stories.