Input Digest, July 2018

A slice of my media diet this month:

Ramin Djawadi. One of my favorite contemporary composers. In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, he has composed - among others - the soundtracks of Game of Thrones and Westworld. Dragonstone, A Lannister Always Pays His Debts and Sweetwater are some of my all-time favorites. I had the linked playlist on repeat throughout the week while writing on a scientific paper. (A)

Red Card by Ken Bensinger. A thrilling and well-researched account of the corruption that runs deep through FIFA. It’s staggering how this criminal organization can continue to operate in the shadows of the public‘s love for soccer. I wonder what else we will learn about the FIFA mafia in the wake of the world cups in Russia and Qatar. (B+)

Kiksuya - Westworld Season 2, Episode 8. This episode is one of the best TV I have ever watched. The highlight of the season. I compare its punch it had on me to San Junipero from Season 3 of Black Mirror. A perfect episode. (A+)

Converge with Casey Newton. Casey is my favorite writer of The Verge and his show Converge is great. It’s a game-showy take on tech interviews with Silicon Valley and startup persona. It’s one of the last remaining tech podcasts that goes straight into my Castro inbox. I love that it has a laugh track and its jingle has been stuck in my ears for weeks now. (B+, A+ for the jingle and the laugh track)

A nail salon's nightmare

The man with world’s longest fingernails had them cut after 66 years:

The 82-year-old’s talons have a combined measurement of 909.6cm (358.1ins). His thumbnail, the longest of the set, measures an incredible 197.8cm (77.8ins).

The record holder, from Pune, India, stopped trimming his fingernails in 1952 after he was told off by a teacher for messing around with a friend and accidentally breaking the teacher’s nail.

The teacher said Mr Chillal would never understand what it took to take care of long fingernails and the student set out to prove his teacher wrong, going on to dedicate his life to taking care of his claws.

“I don’t know whether the teacher is dead now or not but I would definitely like to say that the thing for which you scolded me, I took it as a challenge and I have completed the challenge and now, I am here,” he said.

I couldn’t unsee the disgusting nails so I had to share them with you.

Lifting like Donald

From the book Trump Revealed:

After college, after Trump mostly gave up his personal athletic interests, he came to view time spent playing sports as time wasted. Trump believed the human body was like a battery, with a finite amount of energy, which exercise only depleted. So he didn’t work out.

Trump explained his own work-out routine to Reuters:

I get exercise. I mean I walk, I this, I that,” Trump told Reuters. “I run over to a building next door. I get more exercise than people think.

If you this and that for long enough, though, you will turn yourself in into a weakling. The Guardian’s Brigid Delaney followed the Trump routine for more than a year:

I was fit in 2016, before Trump. But when you stop, it goes. And it goes quickly. A week or two and you have to start again with the 2kg dumbbells and the tremor in your forearms.

If you stick with this president, add these to your shopping cart.

Stop the Juul

If you sell something highly addictive that’s geared towards children and adolescents and you don’t show any regards to the lives you crush with your product1, you may be up for huge investments. As is Juul - the uber-addictive cigarette that looks like a USB drive - which has just been valuated at 15 billion dollars.

While Juul prepares for an overseas expansion to get their poison stick in the mouths of your children2, too, they pretend they’re only in it for the good cause:

“Juul is intended for adult smokers only who want to switch from combustible cigarettes,” says spokesperson Victoria Davis, who calls fighting underage vaping “a top priority for the company.” To that end, Juul has promised $30 million for research and education geared at keeping young people from vaping. “We cannot be more emphatic on this point: No young person or non-nicotine user should ever try Juul,” she says.

In fact, Juul sells its drugs to minors on a large scale. The company and its vendors have been the target of more than 40 warning letters by the FDA and a US-wide blitz of retail establishments to crack down on illegal sales this spring.

I do hope the FDA pushes on and stops these greedy liars and their cash-laden investor friends.

  1. Looking at you, Facebook. 

  2. Once they do put the dingus into their mouths, they find it exceedingly hard to stop, as the New York Times reported in a piece called “‘I Can’t Stop’: Schools Struggle With Vaping Explosion”. 

Last night, Mt. Agung on Bali violently spat out ballistic rocks that are so hot they glow in the dark.

★ Bad Blood by John Carreyrou 📚

This is the best book I have read all year. It has had me biting my nails from start to finish, both being immensely thrilling and well-written.

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou is the comprehensive story of the large-scale fraud that surrounds the Silicon Valley company Theranos and her founder, Elizabeth Holmes.1

Holmes rose to fame in 2013 to 2014 after Theranos went “live” and a series of cover stories about her like this one by Ken Auletta in The New Yorker came out.

Theranos’s claim was that it had developed a method of conducting blood tests on a droplet of capillary blood alone, gained from a finger prick instead of a venous draw.

It also claimed its blood tests - a broad panel of more than a hundred individual tests - could be run by a miniaturized analyzer for your home called the “miniLab”.2

Headed by a female, “Jobsian”, self-made billionaire, Theranos was among the hottest start-ups in Silicon Valley in 2014 and 2015, rivaling Uber and AirBnB at its time with a peak valuation of 9 billion dollars.

Holmes and her former boyfriend Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani lured in investors and prominent figures from American politics and the military to form a “stellar board” that was key in lending the start-up its veil of credibility.

There were a few problems, though: Theranos had neither succeeded in conducting reliable blood tests on a drop of blood nor had it managed to miniaturize conventional blood testing machines.

The beginning of the end for Theranos came after John Carreyrou published an investigative story in the Wall Street Journal in the fall of 2015.

He is an exemplary journalist. The ethics and integrity of his investigative work for Bad Blood have left a profound impression on me.

If you want to get the run-down of what the story surrounding Theranos is about, check out his video for the WSJ.

The whole saga reminds me vividly of the FlowTex scandal that rocked Germany in the late 1990s and which is considered the biggest white-collar fraud in Germany’s history. FlowTex claimed it had developed a horizontal drilling method with proprietary machines, even though it was all a hoax. They lured in politicians and stars alike and raised billions along the way.

There are a few things from Bad Blood that I have kept me thinking:

  • Holmes, throughout her many years as Theranos’s CEO, demonstrated a glaring disregard, even contempt for the scientific method. She never seemed to prioritize publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals.3 Even though the high-profile members of her board weren’t scientist themselves, how could this not raise fundamental red flags with them?
  • How could Balwani, her mobster-bully “boyfriend”4 not stand out as a total fraud at first sight to Theranos’s business partners and associates?
  • How can David Boies and his gang rank among the US’s most influential lawyers? They are one of the most important pieces in the puzzle that enabled Holmes’s rise to fame and they should go down with the ship. Is thuggery the way to succeed at law?

  • I wonder what to make of Holmes’s disordered character. What do you have to tell yourself at night to believe as fully in your fraudulent, non-existent product as she does? The anecdote that had me thinking the most was when she lost her fake baritone at a relaxed evening with employees.5

  • How do you deal with fraudulent science if you experience it first hand? If your superior engages in misconduct, what do you do? It’s good to see that this issue is being discussed in the scientific community and that whistleblowing is seen as a valuable approach that needs protection.6
  • How does it feel to unravel and live through a story like this? From the first confidential tips to the newsroom meeting with Theranos’s legal gang to the downfall of Elizabeth Holmes - I can’t imagine how many sleepless nights John Carreyrou must have spent.

A big part of the furor that surrounds the Theranos scandal today and in the coming months is stirred by those parties that have lost equity with their misplaced investments. Venture capitalists and private investors will be among the forefront of those that scream for blood. However, the true scandal about Theranos is not about the burned cash. It’s about the risk that patients were being put at for the lure of quickly maximizing profits. In the end, all those big investors share at least a part of the burden.

John Carreyrou’s reporting puts the patients and all those sincere employees that have been misled and sometimes ruthlessly abused, first. It’s what makes him the true advocate of those that have lost from Theranos.

I can’t recommend Bad Blood highly enough.

  1. The company’s website is a strange sight. Someone is still working hard on it. It’s been edited repeatedly within the last days even during which I wrote this review. 

  2. If this video ever convinced any “investor”, I ask myself how they could ever become an investor in the first place. 

  3. There is a paper I found with Holmes named as the last author but it’s from 2018. However, Theranos’s claims had been criticized in the scientific literature before October 2015, e.g. in this opinion paper by Diamandis. 

  4. It says a lot about Holmes that she dropped him like a hot potato once the fraud was uncovered. 

  5. Despite the developments, I don’t think she is in for some Kafka-esqueian end (like a suicide maybe?) but will rather linger on in her delusions, even if she has to go to jail. 

  6. Gross, C. (2016). Scientific Misconduct. Annual Review of Psychology, 67(1), 693–711. 

Mount Agung on Bali has been spewing ash again for several days. Reminds me of my time on the island last year when the first ash cloud rose to several thousand meters.

E-cigarettes track your puffs

Speaking of Big Tobacco and Europe: According to a Reuters report, the iQOS smoking device1 by Philipp Morris International seems to be tracking user’s smoking behavior.

The tobacco giant is already building a database of iQOS customers who register with the company. And it has developed a software application that could take things a step further.

The initiative, if allowed by regulators, could extract information about a user’s smoking routine from the device and use it for marketing purposes, said a former project manager at the company who tested the software in Japan. That data would include the number of puffs and average consumption per day, said Shiro Masaoka, who worked at Philip Morris in Japan from 2012 to 2016.

Maybe one day it will tell you how many puffs you have left.

  1. iQOS is sold in copy-cat “Apple stores”, probably to make it seem cool, modern and more appealing to higher-income folks and teens. Tobacco companies are rolling the bribery roll as hard as they can to position e-cigarettes as “less harmful” than regular cigarettes and as a means to “quit smoking”. It’s kinda bizarre if you think about it. 

Cigarettes are made from child labor

A headlining report from The Guardian reveals how cigarette companies systematically exploit children to harvest tobacco:

Evidence from three continents shows how children aged 14 and under are kept out of school and employed in hard and sometimes harmful physical labour to produce the tobacco leaf that fills cigarettes sold internationally, including in the UK, US and mainland Europe. […]

While they exploit children in countries like Malawi and Mexico, tobacco companies are hard at work getting children and adolescents addicted to their deadly products in Europe and elsewhere, especially with the recent push towards e-cigarettes.

In this regard, Germany1 has been Big Tobacco’s biggest supporter. No other European country grants tobacco companies as many freedoms to promote their deadly products to children as we do.

  1. The conservative wing of Germany’s Christian Democrats that is. 

Input Digest, June 2018

Somewhat inspired by Jason Kottke’s frequent installments of his “media diet”, here is what else has caught my attention this month:

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. This book has hooked me like no other in a long time. It’s about Elizabeth Holmes and the unbelievable story of Theranos. I have been thinking about this whole thing continuously for weeks now. It’s a fantastic thrilling piece that you cannot put down. (A+)

Orphée by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Fantastic album by a fantastic artist. (B+)

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons recomposed by Max Richter. Speaking of great albums, here is another one for you and this one is surprising to me because otherwise I am not the biggest fan of Baroque music. (B)

Caliphate by Rukmini Callimachi. This podcast series is both captivating as it is disturbing. One thing I take away from it is that the thread of ISIS is far from gone. Rukmini’s reporting for the New York Times on ISIS like her The ISIS Files is outstanding and this podcast is a great complement to her articles. (A)


Among the many public scandals in the last months, this particular one this week felt like the icing on the cake:

The director of the nation’s top health research agency pulled the plug on a study of alcohol’s health effects without hesitation on Friday, saying a Harvard scientist and some of his agency’s own staff had crossed “so many lines” in pursuit of alcohol industry funding that “people were frankly shocked.” […]

Beer and liquor companies offered their own suggestions for carrying out the trial. […]

The study was intended to test the hypothesis that one drink a day is better for one’s heart than none, among other benefits of moderate drinking. But its design was such that it would not pick up harms, such as an increase in cancers or heart failure associated with alcohol, the investigation found. […]

The findings would counter a 2014 World Health Organization edict that no level of alcohol consumption is safe because it raises the risk of cancer. […]

One staffer informed another on June 13, 2013, that the name of this clinical trial would be “Cheers” — short for “Cardiovascular Health Effects of Ethanol Research Study.”

“And it will be a new drinking game,” the official added. “Every time you hear it, you must assume its [sic] a toast, and so have a drink.”

The disbandment of this fraudulent study sure saved a lot of lives.

How can we let corrupt bastards like these get away with this?1

  1. As an aside, I was wondering: do people that work for alcohol producers drink at work? Do employees of cigarette companies smoke inside their offices? 

Instagram launches a new video app. - Who would want to sign up for another thing made by Facebook these days?

★ Switching apps from Drafts to Edit

I have had a mixed relationship with Drafts ever since its initial release. I did fall for its simpler side, yet I struggled to find a lasting personal use case for its more advanced features.

I could never fully commit to Drafts as a hub for everything on my iPhone and I never really bought into its way of iOS automation. Instead, I find myself defaulting to the apps that Drafts aims to obviate: I do my note taking in the Notes app, task management in Things, writing in iA Writer, calendaring with the iOS calendar, messaging in messaging apps and email in Mail.

I enjoy well-designed apps. Why would I replace them with the hackiness of X-callback-URLs?

The recently released Drafts 5 didn’t lure me back in.

However, the one thing I found dearly missing without Drafts is the simplicity of a blank screen and a blinking cursor. It’s the equivalent of an omnipresent scrap of paper and a pen that’s ready when you need to jot anything down.1

I find myself in situations like these all the time:

  • I want to write down a rough first draft of a message which is still formulating in some windings of my brain and is therefore “too risky” to compose in a messaging app where there is even the slightest chance of a premature press of the send button.

  • I have a sudden thought which might evolve into a task or something bigger down the line but the thought still needs some “intellectual brewing time” until I know what to do with it.

  • I need to give written expression to some confused synaptic activity in my brain in order to get it straightened out.

  • I need to use a snippet of text now or shortly thereafter but I don’t need to store it.

  • I need a visually clean interface to just write something without distraction.

I may have found a solution to these and other situations with a new app called Edit by K.Q. Dreger. I preordered it a short while ago and it recently became available for download. Meanwhile, it has found its spot in my iPhone’s dock.

Edit is a super fast blank sheet of “paper” with a cursor. It has no storage other than the sheet itself. There is a button for a dark mode, a copy-all button, a word/character counter and a button to invoke the share sheet. That’s it.

I enjoy the writing in Edit, even though I find the characters just a tiny bit too large.2 Sharing through the share sheet comes much more natural to me than it does through Drafts’s actions.

While Drafts design struggles with the overhead of its complexity, Edits blends in with simplicity and I tend to prefer simpler solutions.

  1. A real notebook and a real pen may sound like a solution here but paper tends to get messy with me too quickly. 

  2. They irritatingly seem to be bigger than the characters on the iOS keyboard or aren’t they? 

One of my favorite features in macOS Mojave is the tracking prevention in Safari from like and share buttons. I would love to see these ugly and nefarious things go. The web would be much better for it.

Michael Pollan on DMT

Sam Harris had Michael Pollan on his podcast to talk about psychedelic drugs and their implications for consciousness and medical treatments. The part that stuck out to me the most, however, was about Pollan’s own “menu” which starts at about 1:02:50 into the podcast.

Among the drugs Pollan purposefully experimented with was 5-MeO-DMT (5-​methoxy-​N,N-​dimethyltryptamine), the experiences of which he describes as follows:

You take one puff of this […] and before you exhale, you have been shot into outer space. […] Not only is your sense of self obliterated, but also the sense of time is obliterated and the sense of space is obliterated. […]

It was truly terrifying. It was this Category 5 mental storm in my head, but it wasn’t in my head because there was no barrier between what was going on in my brain and the entire universe. […]

It was very hard to describe. […]

I wanna give you two metaphors: […] One was being in the midst of a thermonuclear blast […] like (in) one of those houses that they would erect on Bikini Atoll before they blew them up in the early nuclear tests. The other was to go back to before the Big Bang. You remember what that was like? Well, no, actually we don’t, but we know there was no matter, there was no time. […] It was a little like that.

Fortunately, Pollan’s trip from 5-MeO-DMT lasted only shortly. He says he wouldn’t do it again but that he learned something from the experience:

I had the most profound feeling of gratitude I have ever had. […] I was feeling gratitude for the very fact of the existence of anything, that there was something rather than nothing and that suddenly became so important and worth being thankful for.

If you want to be remembered what a thermonuclear blast looks like, check out this theatrical footage from Castle Bravo, the biggest hydrogen bomb test in US history.

5-MeO-DMT is “harvested” from the skin secretions of the Sonoran desert toad (Bufo alvarius). From a 1994 paper on the toad and its venom:

The authors demonstrate that the venom of B. alvarius, although known to be toxic when consumed orally, may be safely smoked and is powerfully psychoactive by that route of administration.

Two questions:

  1. Who came up with the idea of smoking the venom of a desert toad?

  2. Weighing the pros and cons of a “profound feeling of gratitude” versus a mixture of a nuclear sunset at Castle Bravo beach and the moment before the Big Bang - who would go for the 5-MeO-DMT trip?

Anti-ball-crushing pants

I recently bought a pair of Lululemon’s ABC pants1 (in which “ABC” stands for “anti-ball-crushing” which is definitely true). They are the most comfortable pants I ever owned which is why I bought another pair and a pair of ABC shorts, as well.

They are not cheap but with two pairs you might just not need any other pants for almost any regular occasion. With their kind of stretchiness, I suppose they should fit almost anybody reasonably well if not perfectly. As I mentioned “stretchiness”, with these you sure as hell won’t look like a tourist wearing a pair of trekking pants. They hit a nice middle ground in between casualness and office attire.

Almost everything about the ABC pants on the internet is positive. I like this athlete-focused review by Coach Everett.

Highly recommended.

  1. I bought the Commission model which is a slimmer variant of the regular ABC with more of a taper towards the ankle. 

My American friends: who’s quitting Instapaper this week?

Goat Yoga: A palatable end to this week's news

That weird coin produced by the White House for the now-canceled Korean summit? The read-later-service Instapaper, too bound up in shady data practices as to timely comply with the new GDPR rules, shutting down its service in Europe? Wyoming’s maddening decision to open hunting season for Grizzly bears?

After a barrage of garbage news hit my inbox this Friday, I thought the weekend might start on a bad note. Fortunately, I found my comfort in this headline:

Tassi the Goat Gives Birth to Goat Twins During Goat Yoga

If you have been living under a rock, goat yoga is a thing:

It’s hard to be sad and depressed when there’s baby goats jumping on you.

Maybe it’s time I signed up for a class.

Chris Masterjohn on Robb Wolf's podcast

Chris Masterjohn was interviewed by Robb Wolf on The Paleo Solution Podcast, recently.

I am a fan of Chris’s work, especially his in-depth dives into micronutrients and nutritional status.1 However, I am less of a fan of his Vaynerchukian approach to media. He now has several audio and video formats and pushes himself as a brand (or “a platform”) which feels awkward and artificial. It reminds me of the untrustworthy SEO rush of “online entrepreneurs” from a couple of years ago which is still popular among otherwise respectable nutrition and fitness bloggers. I increasingly tend to stay away from that.

IMO, more writing, less vlogging, Chris.

  1. His “cheat sheet” on nutrition has over seventy pages. 

Bracing for another wave of Tesla criticism

There is no shortage of criticism of Tesla Motors coming from traditional car makers. The commentary usually goes something like this: The company isn’t viable, it’s cars are of questionable quality and not as green as you may think and you should place your trust elsewhere.

One can somewhat understand the grudge traditional car makers hold against Tesla, as they have been stirred up by Tesla’s popularity and pushed into altering their business models, including billion-dollar investments in the development of electric vehicles - a risky bet and something they probably wouldn’t have done on their own merits.1

I expect the recent discussion about Tesla’s Model 3 to go down a similar route: The company isn’t able to sell the Model 3 at the catchy entry-level price of 35,000k. Those who preordered a Model 3 under that premise will have to wait significantly longer while those that will afford an upgrade (which can amount to more than 85,000k) will be served first.

While traditional carmakers struggle with overcapacity - basically, producing cars in excess - Tesla struggles to live up to demand. The actual fulfillments of Tesla are minuscule when compared to the turnovers of traditional car makers but, apparently, the bulk of the demand goes toward Tesla’s higher-end cars.

Tesla is without doubt under immense market pressures but customer demand for higher priced options - especially if these options significantly bump up the margins - sounds like a good problem to have. It reminds me of the situation of the iPhone where the iPhone X is the most sought-after iPhone of all.

  1. I doubt German car makers would have given electric cars reasonable thought if it weren’t for a) Tesla and b) China’s push towards electric mobility. They would have been happy selling dirty Diesels and Ottos for a long time.