Sunday, April 25, 2010

Week 17: Should you take Vitamins & Supplements?

Distribution Source: iTunesU
Content Source: University of California TV (UCTV)
Format: Audio
Length: 2 hours 52 minutes

I've wondered for a long time about vitamins, minerals and supplements. Grocery stores and pharmacies have rows and rows of bottles of VM&S, all of which implicitly or explicitly suggest some health benefit. Fish oil - good for your heart, calcium - good for your bones, vitamin C - keeps away colds. You name an ailment and one of those tinted bottles has the preventative solution. Obviously, there are rows and rows of these bottles for a reason. The biggest reason of course is that people buy them. But why? Are the health benefits real? Or are these wonder pills just another example of America's failed have-everything-for-free approach to life?

I'll start with what VM&S I currently take, and will end with how this might change going forward. Prior to this week's research, each day I took one multi-vitamin, one vitamin C pill, one calcium pill and at least one Omega 3 fish oil supplement. The vitamins I never gave much thought to, the calcium I take because unfortunately I became lactose intolerant in college (making drinking milk less straightforward than I'd like it to be), and the fish oil I began taking recently because I heard a few smart people say it's probably the right thing to do.

So what did the experts I listened to say about the subject? There are two very straightforward and uniform themes. First, absolutely nothing can replace a healthy, diverse diet consisting of in my case 2.5-3.5 cups of fruits and vegetables per day (click here to determine how much you need). Why not? In spite of recent advancements in science, it is still not known how all of the components of your nutritional intake react to each other, and to your body. Thanks to many studies it is known, however, that simply isolating the compounds found in foods (e.g. vitamin C) and taking a dose or pill of these underlying compounds does not offer the same health benefit as the food itself. In fact, the isolation of these compounds has in many cases shown net negative health benefits! The second theme is that each person is very different; nutrition needs vary greatly from age to sex to health conditions to genetics. In other words, you can't just say "this is the best regiment, take x,y and z."

So we clearly have a scientifically confusing and complex assessment to make. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that unlike other drugs, vitamins, minerals and supplements do not have to be tested before being sold. There are not requirements that guarantee safety, purity or effectiveness. The FDA is only now implementing regulations concerning the quality of manufacturing. While these regulations will force companies to keep records of their manufacturing process, the actual quality of the product will remain unverified, at least by the government. If you really care about what you're putting into your body you can pay the ~$30 yearly subscription to, a site that independently tests the composition of various brands of VM&S.

So let's assume that we can vouch for the safety of these products. Why are they so important (either in pill form or through a healthy diet)? Vitamins serve as co-factors in many essential reactions that occur in our cells. Our bodies need them to function. And even though vitamins are needed only in small amounts, if there is a deficiency the required reactions literally will not happen. One only needs to read the history of pirates to learn about scurvy, one of the many ailments that could result from a vitamin deficiency.

While I listened to almost three painful hours of lectures on the specifics of each type of vitamin, mineral and supplement, I will summarize only those that stuck out as particularly meaningful or those for which scientific clarity exists. The scientific research is clear that free-radicals (molecules with an extra electron) are basically bad and can lead to many types of cancer and make you age prematurely. It is also clear that antioxidants neutralize free-radicals. If you don't like spinach or tea (which I of course love), vitamin C is an antioxidant rich option. While there is no research to support the theory that vitamin C prevents colds, it is crucial to producing collagen (the main protein of connective tissue). The other uniformly praised vitamin was vitamin D3. New studies show that vitamin D's benefits and necessity may extend to all major organs in the body. It has also been proven to be helpful in fighting many forms of cancer. Surprisingly, almost one billion people worldwide are estimated to be vitamin D deficient, in large part due to our fear of sun exposure. The sun triggers a reaction in our skin that allows the body to naturally produce vitamin D. But because we now wear sunscreen and in many cases work and live indoors, many of us are simply not creating the levels of vitamin D required for proper health. Taking a daily vitamin D3 pill can solve this problem. Finally, calcium has been shown to help with blood pressure, hormones, bone strength, and hypertension. Both of the experts took calcium and recommended others do the same, ideally calcium carbonate as opposed to citrate. As for the other vitamins, among them A and E, and minerals (iron and magnesium), the studies were either inconclusive or the benefits were useful only to a specific age or health subset of the population.

It is extremely important to note that taking too high a dose of just about any of these substances is bad for your health. This is particularly true for the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D & E) which can be stored in body fat for some time, as opposed to the water soluble vitamins (like vitamin C) which you will likely dispose of naturally. It is surprisingly easy to overdose on VM&S; one way to prevent this is to visit the NIH's website, where you can find intake guidelines, data and FAQ on most VM&S.

Going forward I will be taking the same assortment of pills described above, but will be adding one crucial vitamin: D3. It has proven health benefits and no major risk-factors. I was on the fence about continuing to take the multi-vitamin until one of the experts recommended it as a vitamin "safety net", but not your primary source of daily vitamins. My conclusion is that taking a select few vitamins, minerals and supplements makes sense. But it is important to understand and respect the potential downsides - mixing these pills with prescription drugs can be harmful. As previously mentioned, taking more than the recommended allowance is a bad idea as well. And finally, I've learned that the science is not only inconclusive in many cases, but it's also changing rapidly. So if you can stick to it (and I can't), the safest bet is to follow the advice of Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma: "Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Week 16: What We Can Learn from Kids

Distribution Source:
Content Source: Adora Svitak
Format: Video
Length: 8 minutes 13 seconds
Link: Adora Svitak

A very short post this week as I've been in the office all day and things aren't looking any rosier... Last night I saw the movie "Where the Wild Things Are", a book I loved as a kid. The movie on the whole was OK - but it had a few really touching, thought-provoking moments. For me, the most interesting scene was the one in which young, creative-but-crazy Max tells his mom the following off-the-cuff story:

There were some buildings. They were these really tall buildings, and they could walk. There were these vampires and one of the vampires bit the tallest building and his fangs broke off. Then all his other teeth fell out. Then he started crying. And then all the other vampires said, "Why are you crying? Aren't they just you're baby teeth?" And, uh, he said, "no, those were my grown up teeth." And the other vampires knew that he couldn't be a vampire anymore so they left him. The end.

When I heard this story from Max I was struck by the way Max is able to mix fantasy with reality... a clearly unrealistic scale (a vampire biting a building) is mixed with emotion (crying because other vampires left him), empathy (child-teeth falling out and becoming adult teeth) and pragmatism (a vampire can't really be a vampire without his teeth!). It made me wonder what my response would be if someone asked me to tell a story on the spot. As much as most adults would laugh off Max's story, I bet if asked many of them would stutter their way through something not half as entertaining as his vampire tale.

So after Max's story, I was drawn to a video titled "What adults can learn from kids" - it is a nine minute video of an incredible young girl named Adora Svitak. She is 12 years old, and says things like this: "The traits the word childish addresses are seen so often in adults that we should abolish this age-discriminatory word when it comes to criticizing behavior associated with irresponsibility and irrational thinking." Pretty funny stuff. She has already published books, essays, and stories, and also gave a keynote address. You should really watch for yourself - the mere typed words of an adult cannot do her enthusiasm, intelligence, and creativity justice.

Her basic point, one I agree with, is that kids aren't as hampered as much by reasons "why not." Kids still dream about perfection. They are in their own way more big-picture than adults, who in my experience too often get stuck in the weeds. While watching Adora speak, I couldn't help but wonder how many great ideas would have been sparked if adults took her rabidly curious approach to the world. It isn't that hard, but how often do you hear grown men and women ask "why?" Not enough, in my opinion.

Kids also have this amazing ability to soak up seemingly complex skills... I'm very fortunate to have been exposed to both music and language at an early age. Not that I'm anything special at either, but I've noticed the approach I take with both is more flexible than those trying to learn for the first time as adults. I internalized the notion that music is something you can break down, play with, and build back up. And that languages are much deeper than subject-verb agreements. The subtle nuances can only come from really communicating, not merely translating. This flexibility is something I'm convinced I picked up - and hopefully to some degree retained - as a child.

Of course, there are downsides. As a five year old my parents read to me about and showed pictures of the wonderful murals of Diego Rivera. I was so inspired that I took my crayons (and artistic initiative) and made my very own mural on our white wall... and yes, we were trying to sell the place at the time. But you know what? As a parent, while I'd probably be forced to put my child in time-out for drawing on the walls, the kid somewhere inside me would be happy.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Week 15: The Wonders of Tea

Distribution Source:
Content Source: The History Channel
Format: Video
Length: 44 minutes 23 seconds
Link: Tea

Since graduating from college, I have come to love tea. At my first job I had to be on the desk by 6 AM, and caffeine seemed to be a must. So I started with coffee... I quickly decided that for an already stressful job that involved staring at blinking screens all day, consuming large quantities of a strong (and in my opinion foul-tasting) jitters-inducing substance was less than ideal. Our kitchen's free green tea machine was my gift from heaven. That is, until facilities maintenance became unwilling or unable to stock adequately our floor's green tea supply. At this point, my Econ 101 professor's droning lectures kicked in - it was clear to me we were a floor full of green tea drinkers and that demand had eclipsed supply. And what does a supply shortage typically encourage? Hoarding. And hoarding, of course, induces even greater scarcity. This was serious - I was facing the very real possibility of a devastating negative feedback loop resulting in a structural green tea shortage. I had to act quickly. Purchasing green tea was not an option, as I had neither the time or the money as a first year analyst to go to Starbucks each day - the Flavia machine was my only viable option. Then I thought about the problem a bit more strategically; if a shortage of green tea were imminent it would make sense that the floor with fixed income traders would be the first to exhibit these supply and demand dynamics. After all, it's what they did - supply and demand. Bonds... green tea... the principles are the same. However the bankers on the fifth floor (if they were even in the office that early) were more likely to be pricing green tea sales into some spreadsheet for Lipton's management than thinking about an office tea shortage. So I went to the fifth floor kitchen, where sure enough there was an abundance of Flavia green tea! I took a full box back to my desk, and over the course of the ensuing green tea shortage became known by many senior and junior salesmen and traders as "the kid with the green tea." If I wasn't the smartest or the most hard-working analyst, at least I had cornered the third-floor green tea market.

But enough long-winded storytelling - why is tea an interesting topic? Aside from being a pleasant and healthy drink, tea has been symbolically significant to political revolutions (recent and historic), helped drive colonial power and profit, ignited war, and has for millennia represented a philosophic, religious, and of course cultural significance for a large portion of the human race. Oh, it's also the second most common drink on the planet; only water is consumed in larger quantities. Humans drink 1.5 trillion cups of tea per year. And yet it is still in many ways an enigma; while its antioxidants are supposedly able to reduce the risk of cancer, this has not been decidedly proven. The paradoxical qualities of tea further add to its aura; as one tea expert said on the video "if you are cold, tea will warm you; if you are warm, it will cool you; if you are excited, it will sooth you; if you are lethargic, it will stimulate you." Not too shabby.

I was particularly interested to learn that the US is well behind the rest of the world in tea consumption. Anecdotally I sensed this was the case when I recently busted out this nifty tea-drinking contraption, a birthday gift from my dad, and only my colleague from Hong Kong had any idea (or interest in) what it was. In the United States, tea is only the fifth most consumed beverage, behind water, coffee, soft drinks, and alcohol. Americans consume only 50 billion of the 1.5 trillion teas drunk each year. Also distinctive to American tea drinkers is that 80% of all tea consumed in the US is iced tea (as opposed to the globally far more popular hot tea). We also tend to drink tea primarily using tea bags; tea bags are somewhat of a taboo in China, where it is thought that the full flavor is inhibited if you drink anything other than the loose-leaf tea. But it is not hopeless for the US; specialty teas have become increasingly popular in recent years and tea consumption in the US is said to have doubled from 2001 to 2006. Meaningful tea production in the US is limited to South Carolina and Hawaii, the two states that can exhibit the semi-tropical, high levels of rainfall necessary for tea to thrive.

Globally, tea is produced mostly in East Asia, India, and parts of Africa. India is the largest producer, representing 30% of the global tea supply. In aggregate, 30 billion pounds of tea plants are harvested each year, resulting in six billion pounds of drinkable tea (apparently five pounds of plant are needed for one pound of final tea). On the consumption side, it is the Irish who lead the world. The Irish, perhaps to match their four pints of beer per day, drink on average four cups of tea daily. (This is about how many cups I drink each day, for those keeping score.)

I was surprised to learn that the three major teas - black tea, oolong tea, and green tea - all come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. The difference between the three has only to do with the oxidation process following harvesting. Green tea has no oxidation, while oolong has about half the oxidation of black tea, the most oxidized tea. The longer the tea leaves oxidize, the greater their caffeine content. Accordingly, black tea is the most caffeinated, with about 40mg of caffeine per cup (roughly half the caffeine in a cup of coffee). However from these basic three teas come over 1,500 varietals. Tea sommeliers go through years of training to learn how to distinguish the various flavors and characteristics.

The two remaining tea topics that caught my attention were its incredible history as well as its medical powers (perceived and actual). The historical side is fascinating because of tea's seeming ubiquity and relevance, whether in China almost five thousand years ago, in Egypt and Iran where tea is the national drink, or in England where it was once simultaneously the drink of the elite, a key driver of the economic growth of the British empire, and a major source of contention with the Americans, the Indians, the Chinese and even lower-class British citizens. As for the medical benefits of tea, there is a similar laundry list; among other diseases tea is thought to protect against obesity, osteoporosis, heart disease, gum disease, and cancer. I can't speak to the veracity of these claims, but it seems reasonable to conclude that the historical significance and the health benefits of tea are linked. The fact that the Bronze Age Chinese did not have powerful microscopes to examine and understand tea at a molecular level does not mean they were wrong about its contribution to a healthy, tranquil life. I will leave you with a quote from the show that summarizes succinctly my current view of tea, namely that there is "no pleasure simpler, no luxury cheaper, and no consciousness-altering substance more benign than our simple tea."

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Two Books to Read: Six Degrees of Connection & Making Ideas Happen

In the past few months two people I know and respect have become first-time authors. Liz Dow has recently published Six Degrees of Connection: How to Unlock Your Leadership Potential, a book focused on the common characteristics of "Connectors." After degrees from Cornell and Wharton and a successful run in corporate America, Liz gave up the rat race to become the CEO of LEADERSHIP Philadelphia. LEADERSHIP's mission is to mobilize and connect the talent of the private sector to serve the community. Scott Belsky is in the process of publishing Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality, focused on the importance of execution when it comes to ideas. I guess you would describe Scott as the Harvard Business School and Cornell graduate with a great finance career who decided instead to found and run his own company (Behance). The truth is, in both cases the (stellar) resumes do not do the person justice - Liz and Scott are passionate, intelligent, creative people.... perhaps most admirable to me is that they don't sit around and wait for the world, they act.

But this is more than just a plug for these books - both Liz and Scott have in their own way inspired me to create The 52 Week Project. Through a variety of thought-provoking emails, Liz helped me remember how much I enjoyed writing, and encouraged me to find my voice. And about a year ago I caught up with Scott and ran him through a series of my ideas. Prior to this conversation my mentality had been: how do I decide if and when to quit my job and pursue an idea of mine? In other words, it was binary: job or idea. He suggested a more flexible (and realistic approach): putting aside a set amount of resources - primarily time and money - to develop ideas. This helped me realize there can be a middle ground. It wasn't until I internalized both my desire to write and my willingness to devote time outside of work to a very different kind of endeavor that I was able to jump into The 52 Week Project.

Both books are available for purchase on Amazon - I encourage you to click on the book links to the right (scroll through the carousel and you can find each cover), and purchase a copy of either or both of these books. I'm confident you will not be disappointed.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Week 14: Kiva and the Bolivian Potato Farmer

Distribution Source: YouTube, iTunesU,
Content Source: Kiva, PBS, Bill Clinton,
Format: Video & Audio
Length: 50 minutes
The Story of a Loan
Bill Clinton on Kiva
Kiva on PBS

I'm going to start with this: I am extremely excited about this week's topic. Yes, it was interesting to learn that a grizzly bear can crush a bowling ball with its jaws or that organized crime makes up an estimated 15% of global GDP. But gets me more excited than even the iPhone's potential to transform the medical field. is a web-based, social networking-esque microfinance platform that allows anyone with an internet connection to make a loan of as little as $25 to an entrepreneur in a poverty-stricken country. It was founded just five years ago and it has already revolutionized microfinance.

The best way to tell the Kiva story is to explain the process by which (a few minutes ago) I made my first Kiva loan. After doing my due diligence on the site and its legitimacy (more on this later) - and with the seal of approval from Bill Clinton and Oprah - I signed up. I first created a username and password, then clicked on the "make a loan" tab. I proceeded to immediately get to work finding the entrepreneur to whom I wanted to lend. The site allowed me to target my search for the right borrower among other things by region, country, and type of business. I decided that I would make my first $25 loan to someone in Latin America, and in the "Food" business category. I was quickly drawn to the profile of a Bolivian potato farmer named Elias. On this profile I saw his name, picture, location and a description of what he would do with the $400 loan he needed (multiple people contribute to each loan). In this case he needed to buy potato seeds to plant, grow, and eventually sell potatoes, all to support his wife and four school-aged children.

After deciding that this was a loan-worthy cause, the finance nerd in me kicked in and I set about trying to figure out the likelihood that I get paid back. Kiva boasts an unbelievable 98.47% repayment rate, but this told me nothing of Elias' individual credit rating. From the profile page, I learned that the Kiva partner in Bolivia was a microfinance group called "Emprender." They were ranked 4 of 5 stars by Kiva, indicating a "Significant" likelihood of facilitating honest paybacks. They have also partnered with Kiva on over 2,300 projects over the last two years, with only a 0.37% delinquency rate. As for Elias himself, he has worked with Emprender for four years. Good enough for me. And if all this transparency isn't enough, look for yourself. Each loan has its own webpage, with all kinds of additional information, including expected repayment schedules and a list of all the lenders (scroll down on that link to see who my partners are on this loan).

As I was going through the loan confirmation process, I realized I could join a "team" and quickly decided on the Cornell team. This simply represented one of the thousands of mini-networks that live inside Kiva. While checking out, I indicated that I wanted my loan to count to the Cornell Kiva running tally and was pleased to see the total Cornell loan amount go from $6,300 to $6,325 following my loan to Elias. I was also able to send messages directly to other Cornell-Kiva lenders.

So this is clearly a cool concept - but why do I think it is revolutionary? It is revolutionary because it is an uber-transparent, bottoms-up, global, viral, reliable platform aimed squarely at the biggest problems on earth. And it works. And there's no bureaucracy. And you get paid back. And they've already made $129MM in loans since inception. Can you tell I love this idea?

Kiva is great because it leverages technology to empower individuals. These individuals, the borrower and the lender, are collectively starting to chip away at the anathema that is poverty and helplessness.

I could write another 10 paragraphs about how awesome this is, but instead I will let the facts speak for themselves. Below is Kiva's "balance sheet" - oh yeah, and they update these stats nightly for the world to see. Perhaps our government could learn from this approach?

Total value of all loans made through Kiva: $129,353,785
Number of Kiva Users: 694,924
Number of Kiva Users who have funded a loan: 442,194
Number of countries represented by Kiva Lenders: 196
Number of entrepreneurs that have received a loan through Kiva: 330,170
Number of loans that have been funded through Kiva: 180,952
Percentage of Kiva loans which have been made to women entrepreneurs: 82.28%
Number of Kiva Field Partners (microfinance institutions Kiva partners with): 111
Number of countries Kiva Field Partners are located in: 52
Current repayment rate (all partners): 98.47%
Average loan size (This is the average amount loaned to an individual Kiva Entrepreneur. Some loans - group loans - are divided between a group of borrowers.): $395.55
Average total amount loaned per Kiva Lender (includes reloaned funds): $186.50
Average number of loans per Kiva Lender: 5.43