Monthly Archives: December 2010


Someone recently recalled for me an interesting speech given by a successful screenwriter. He said earlier in life he’d attended top schools and eventually became a lawyer at a prestigious firm, but didn’t become a partner. This failure to make partner pushed him into a depression which lead him to seeking help from a shrink.

There was one piece of advice helped him more than anything else. Here’s the idea from the shrink that really helped him: “Life isn’t about going after one pearl. In a lifetime there’re many pearls to be had, all adding to a necklace rather than seeking just one prized pearl.”  The failed lawyer said this piece of advice steered him in the direction to eventually become a very successful screenwriter. He had sought after and paid for help from an advice professional.

The advice he got helped to turn his life around. The chances of getting good advice from a shrink are high, after all they train for years and (we expect) they’re both smart and insightful.

But could the screenwriter have gotten similar, useful advice from a friend or colleague? Maybe. Did he ask for it? Probably not. People with good advice usually wait for someone to ask for help first – they know that unsolicited advice won’t be valued or used. I’m not at all against going to a shrink for help. Since you’re both asking and paying for it, the shrink will have your attention.

There’re situations in life that lend themselves to talk – a long train ride, an afternoon in a coffee shop, or maybe a morning walk in a park. These are examples of times in busy lives when people can talk long enough to present a problem and receive an answer. But help has to be asked for. By asking for help you’re placing yourself in a receptive position for advice.

If the advice rings true it could even be effective. Whether it’s bought or freely given, if the advice is good you’ll be glad that you asked for it.

Clothes = Fonts

I read somewhere that fonts are the clothes your words wear.

Writers, bloggers, editors, and publishers agonize over which font is appropriate for the work in question. Wordsmiths want to send the right message and give the impression they’re after.

The reverse is true too. Clothes are the fonts for people. Clothes can make a statement and men especially don’t usually get the subtle points of dressing. Many men  tend to be frozen in the sartorial period that they thought was happening the year that they graduated from college. And here in Mexico, there are guys living on the coast who get dressed up like rodeo participants even though they usually don’t know how to ride a horse; since I never see them on horseback.

Clothes and fashion can send conscious and unconscious signals and messages to viewers. Men traditionally haven’t been overly concerned with their clothes, but the situation seems to be changing, at least in the north-eastern US.

In her article “All Dudes Learned How to Dress and It Sucks” Mary HK Choi jokingly bemoans the sudden and seemingly widespread good taste displayed by men in New York City. Choi says she’s no longer able to clearly pigeon-hole guys as rich or poor, graphic designer or laborer, straight or gay even.

The rise, at least in NYC, of tasteful and trendy dressing for men has erased her ability to read men the way she used to. She’s now unable to gauge how old a guy is. And even drawn out on a limb to chat up a guy on a train because he was so well put together. He turned out to be engaged as well as someone she wouldn’t have approached before all this widespread fashion sense set in.

It will be interesting to see if this fashion sense trend that’s now in parts of  the tri state area will spread to men in other locals causing confusion for people who thought men were easy to read.

Christmas Focus

Here’s an idea for a last-minute stocking stuffer. A headlamp. I use a headlamp probably once a day. Sometimes more often.

A headlamp saved my life in Yosemite once when I had to rappel through the night from a climb that went past sundown. Other climbers in camp the next day said they could see the faint lights from the headlamps as my partner and I were slowly descending through the night.

Now since I’m in rural Mexico, if I get up at night I’ll use it to make sure I don’t step on a scorpion. Last night there were a couple of short power outages that were rendered to almost fun because I had a headlamp.

I know it sounds odd to talk about a headlamp. It’s a thing that would be hard for me to do without. For example, reading in bed is really easy using a headlamp since the focused light doesn’t disturb my sleeping girlfriend. Plus, I don’t have to get up to turn out the lights.

One of these days I’ll break down and buy a Kindle (I’ve borrowed one and really liked it). It works well because the screen isn’t backlit but that means at night you need a light to read by, I’m ready with my headlamp.

Talking about the Kindle struck me as funny since I don’t own one. Then I read a post Jason Kottke wrote about how popular a gift the Kindle will probably be this Christmas. He too likes Kindles, and like me has tried one, but doesn’t yet own one either. So I guess it’s not that unusual to give a recommendation for something you don’t own.

There’re some fancy headlamps out there, but I prefer the simple ones. The one I use has two LEDs and two brightness settings. I use rechargeable batteries (3 AAA). And that’s about it. Not much can go wrong. Plenty of light, super simple, and the batteries last for weeks. The one I use is a Petzl Tikkina 2. They’re expensive, I think, about $28, but they last a long time. Over the two decades that I’ve been using them, I’ve only had three headlamps.

When I first used one is lost to me, but it was a long time ago. I was hooked after the first time. Hands free and plenty of light – change a tire, help during a storm, ready for power outages, on and on.

There is of course, the dork factor, it’s very high, probably 11 on a scale from 1 to 10. But luckily you can’t see yourself, only the bemused looks on the faces of others (while you’re helping them).

Don’t Ask For Permission You Don’t Need

It looks like the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for the US military is going to be repealed. Sorry it took so long. I’m sure there’ll be an adjustment period while everyone gets to know each other.

Anyway, this made me wonder about gay people coming out to friends and family. It has to be tough. But what makes it harder is how the situation is framed in the mind of the person coming out. Human nature and the general nonacceptance of gay life probably leads the person coming out to feel as if he’s asking for permission to be gay rather than that he’s telling everyone that he’s gay. He doesn’t need permission to be gay. I’m not gay but I don’t feel like I need to ask the permission of a gay friend to write about it.

People often hesitate to start something thinking they need permission. They usually don’t need permission. William Bake said  “… create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.” There are small businesses failing and succeeding every day and not drawing any  public attention. It could be happening more – new businesses starting up. But people hesitate, waiting for permission, harboring a vague feeling someone needs to tell them it’s ok. Why not just do it.

And asking for permission can be asking for scrutiny. If you don’t need to ask for permission, don’t. “Big idea are little ideas no one killed off too soon” says entrepreneur Seth Godin. If  you create something no one hates you’re probably creating something no one loves either. Your idea might need time without an outside look, so whatever it is isn’t killed off  while it’s still developing.

I like architecture. So I walked into the Lloyd’s building in London years ago to have a look. By the time I reached the executive suites still looking around and minding my own business I was approached by some guys from security. They wanted to know what was going on and how I’d gotten so far into the building, apparently sort of embarrassing for them. After going back and forth with them, I eventually convinced them I wasn’t a threat, only a guy looking around at a building. I said I was sorry and left while they probably repositioned their cameras.

Don’t ask for permission you don’t need. You can always apologize.

Falling Coconuts

There’s a concept you’ll hear about in the tropics. It’s that more people are killed each year by falling coconuts than are killed by sharks. The concept is probably unverifiable since reporting and record keeping is not always practiced in places with lots of coconut palms. I’ve also heard that it’s just an urban myth that has made its way to the beach.

The number of deaths attributed to falling coconuts that I’ve heard most often is 150. If it is a common cause of death, I think that number is low. The latitude range where coconuts grow is large and more people live in warmer climates. So if people are being hit by coconuts, it seems to me that there’d be more than 150.

A few days ago I was on the street in front of our house giving the car its semi-annual washing. While in the middle of the washing, I was startled by a loud but dull thud. I looked around and on the sidewalk across the street a large coconut was slowly rocking back and forth as its milk oozed onto the pavement. No harm no foul.

I didn’t see it fall but I didn’t need to in order say that it probably could kill you; certainly a kid or dog would’ve been killed by a direct hit. The coconut fell from the palm in the photo above. Later in the day when I tracked down our camera and went across the street to shoot the fallen coconut; it was gone. But you can imagine from the palm photo what a potentially deadly projectile a coconut from a tall palm could be.

Mexico has been getting some bad press over the last couple of years. We don’t have any problems here with any of the stuff you hear about in the news. But I’m keeping my eye out for coconut palms.

Specialization Is For Insects

“I say the last 10 percent of the way to perfection takes so much of your life that it isn’t worth the effort. This overzealous attitude is what creates religious fanatics, body Nazis, and athletes who’re exceedingly dull to converse with.” So said Yvon Chouinard, and I agree. Perfection is sort of another way of saying specialization.

Some real problems can arise with specialization; it can become more difficult to adapt to change, especially big, sudden changes. Predicting these kind of changes is a not very reliable endeavor because we don’t know what we don’t know. It’s impossible to factor in unforseen events. Just think of the recent BP oil spill or hurricane Katrina, no one had thought they’d happen.

In the “The Black Swan,” author, Nassim Taleb, asks his readers to: “Consider the following sobering statistic. Of the 500 largest U.S. companies in 1957, only 74 were still part of  that select group, the Standard and Poor’s 500, 40 years later. Only a few had disappeared in mergers: the rest either sank or went bust.” Who would have or could have predicted 426 out of 500 companies would not be around after only 40 years!

If you or your company becomes so specialized that you’re no longer robust and not somewhat nimble, you are actually vulnerable when facing big changes in your surroundings. For example suppose you had a company only able to manufacture cassette tapes – probably a pretty good business not too long ago. But you’d be out of business these days if that was all you could produce.

Sometimes an insect becomes too specialized and adapted to its surroundings and if suddenly there’s a change in its habitat… well too bad for that particular bug; but another insect with different abilities will likely take over the newly vacated spot.

Why are Homo sapiens around but not Neanderthals? Both groups were around at the same time and by all accounts the Neanderthals were worthy specimens. But,were Neanderthals so specialized to living in an ice age that they were unable to adjust to a warming planet and so perished?

It’s probably a good idea to build up your tolerance to uncertainty. Strive to be an adaptable creature instead of an over specialized one.

The Howling of Dinosaurs

Are there ideas that your grandkids will find hard to believe were once widely accepted? And which ideas that seem disruptive today will be accepted as normal in the next generation or two?

Currently, there’s howling about things I bet will be accepted relatively soon. For example, gay marriage will come to be legal and eventually accepted. Sure they’re people digging in their heels, but they’re generally older and when they pass away that belief will generally go by the wayside; and their grandchildren will wonder how that  idea lasted so long.

There’re also small, subtle changes that happen more quickly. Beloit College in Wisconsin puts out a list of  accepted ideas that can create disconnects between the incoming 18-year-old freshmen and their 50 something professors. The list is intended to help both groups better understand one another’s mindset.

Here are some things from this years list: few students will know how to write in cursive; Korean cars haven’t always been a staple on American highways; most students will never have aimlessly twisted the coiled handset wire while chatting on the phone, they’ve never recognized that pointing to your wrist is a request for the time (freshmen use their phones); and Russians and Americans haven’t always been living in space together.

But what big ideas will become extinct? Widespread gun ownership? Having as many children as you’d like? Not living past a few hundred years? Eating meat or not eating it? No one knows.

Change for the better seems to eventually happen. The trend for human culture over time seems to be one of a sharing fountain rather than a hoarding cistern. The tent gets bigger. That people aren’t supposed to own other people is now widely accepted along with women voting. Could it be any other way? Yes, and it was. But the tent became bigger and those old accepted ideas died off (mostly).

The howling of dinosaurs trying to keep the tent (that they’re in) small will probably always be heard but hopefully heeded less and less.

Simple and Great

When you’re in Mexico you’ll see lots of people using the same model of cell phone. It turns out to be the Nokia 1100. It’s about the size of a Snickers bar and by skipping about 30 Snickers you could buy a Nokia 1100 cell phone with the money you saved.

Cheap, simple , and out of control. At last count, since the introduction in 2003, there are 250,000,000 Nokia 1100 phones floating around out there in the world. That’s 250 million! It’s the most successful consumer electronic device (not just phones) ever sold. I find that incredible.

I don’t remember why I first googled the Nokia 1100. But I remember visiting a Mexican friend just after I’d read about it and when I arrived at his house his ten-year old nephew was there too and guess what was in his hand? A Nokia 1100. Later, at the market another friend had one. They’re everywhere in Mexico. I shouldn’t be surprised considering how many have been sold.

This phone was designed to make a lot of people happy. It’s cheap, robust, and easy to use. It’s a cell phone for all markets, from third world to first world. It’s a simple phone for first worlders who don’t want or need a smart phone and an adequate, affordable cell phone for technologically rising countries.

I read an interesting post by Seth Godin the other day. The post was reflecting on the layers of features that are added by manufacturers trying to fill any unused space or open options. This cluttering ultimately desensitizes consumers to most of the added features.

The Nokia 1100 has avoided this trap and does a few things well, mostly just the things you only really need a cell phone to do like calls and texting. Plus it’s dust and slip resistant with a built-in flashlight (especially useful in countries without street lights). This phone can go as long as 16 days between charges!

In Mexico, I need a landline to get internet service in my house so I use the landline and Skype to take care of my phone needs. I don’t have a cell phone, but if and when I get one, the Nokia 1100 (or its descendant ) is probably the one I’ll buy.

Four Guys And A Book

This is a hurricane Katrina story with a happy ending.

The story involves four guys and an old book. They’re all in the photo above taken this Thanksgiving while celebrating my father’s 80th birthday in New Orleans. From left to right are my brother-in-law, our family friend, the book, my brother, and my Dad.

When hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans my parents were luckily out of town. Luckily, because their house was flooded with five feet of muddy water. They didn’t return to size up the situation until more than a month later after authorities began allowing residents to come back.

But just a few days after Katrina, my brother-in-law who lives fairly close to New Orleans (in Baton Rouge), snuck (because civilians weren’t permitted into to the city) into my parents’ flooded neighborhood by canoe to sort out the situation in their house. He rescued what he could from the receding muck and got out not paying any attention to a pile of wet books ruined by the flooding.

My Dad had a small collection of antique books which were unfortunately stored within five feet of the floor in their house. His favorite was printed in 1597, an over-sized, heavily illustrated medical text written in Latin.

Our family friend is Dutch and has lived in New Orleans for 50 years and has known my parents for more than 30 years. Shortly after the Hurricane and my brother-in-law’s visit, he checked in on my parents’ wrecked home while they were we still away. There, he discovered the antique book from 1597, waterlogged and spread out in the mud like a  crow that had flown into the ground and exploded.

Our friend mentioned finding the book to my Dad who was overwhelmed with more pressing Katrina recovery issues and didn’t express much concern for a wrecked book. But having witnessed people’s reactions to traumatic life events as a young man in 1940’s war torn Europe, our friend retrieved the ruined book, put it in a plastic bag, and froze it in his freezer. My Dad might want to do something with it later, our friend thought. And so the book stayed in our friend’s freezer for four years!

Katrina hit in the Summer of 2005 and four years later our friend still had a rock hard, mud soaked book in his freezer when he talked to my brother about getting the book repaired. My brother who lives in New Orleans then transferred the book into his freezer.

Next my brother began researching restorers of antique books, eventually settling on an expert in Indiana. Once the book got to the restorer a year-long process of soaking, cleaning, page rebuilding, and rebinding started.

The resurrected book finally returned to my brother looking as fresher, I’d guess, than any other 400 year old book.

This year my Dad turned 80 and three generations of our family converged on New Orleans to celebrate. All of the people from Louisiana involved with the book rescue were there representing different links in a chain to the past.

At his Birthday party on Thanksgiving, my brother gave our surprised Dad the book he never expected to see again.

Happy Birthday Dad.