Monthly Archives: February 2011

Showing Up

Show up. Don’t quit. Try lots of repetitions of a process.

Take making a good pot as an example. I heard a story about a pottery teacher who divided his class in two at the start of a semester. One group was to work on one pot for the whole semester while the other group’s assignment was to make a new pot each day until the semester was over. Guess which group had the best pots at the semester’s end? The group making a new pot every day.

I’m a big fan of Seth Godin. His blog is the top ranked marketing blog (though it’s not only about marketing). Everyday he posts on his blog. And  almost everyday it’s a good blog. And he’s been at it for years. Everyday. Here’s an example:

Art Is What We Call… the thing an artist does. It’s not the medium or the oil or the price or whether it hangs on a wall or you eat it. What matters, what makes it art, is that the person who made it overcame the resistance, ignored the voice of doubt and made something worth making. Something risky. Something human. Art is not in the eye of the beholder. It’s in the soul of the artist.

Or look at all of the pasta sauces you can choose from at the supermarket: chunky or not, with meat or without meat, with three cheeses, you get the idea. There’re 21 different pasta sauces on offer just from Prego. How many iterations of each recipe did they go through before arriving at the ones they ship to stores, for you to choose from?

There are all sorts of gym workout routines floating around out there in the fitness universe. Some are better and more efficient than others. But if you show up and don’t quit you’ll get more fit on any one of them that you pick.

It seems that by repeating a process you can get successively closer approximations to whatever it is you’re seeking.

Dan and Amy

When my girlfriend and I first started hanging out together we used to have a little competition for fun between ourselves. It was really between us and two advice columnists we liked who published columns each week about relationships, sex, and generally navigating through people issues.

Every Friday we’d each read the questions that the readers submitted, but not the advice printed below the question. Then we’d each come up with our own advice for each question. Later in the day, we’d compare the advice we’d come up with separately and try to figure out if it might agree with the “professional” advice. And then we’d put our advice up against what was published by Dan Savage in his “Savage Love” column and Amy Alkon in her  “Advice Goddess” column.

We got pretty good at giving our fictional advice. Generally, we agreed with the advice from Dan and Amy meaning we thought along the same lines they did when trying to solve a problem. So sometimes we could still predict what their advice would be even if we took a different path.

We still follow them especially Dan (Amy is sometimes a little too shrill). Some of Dan’s advice is now available on a weekly podcast on Tuesdays which is fun to listen to. When it’s needed, he’s also able to call the advice seekers to clarify the prerecorded callers’ questions.

Nowadays we don’t formally jot down our opinions for each question, but we’ll  still sometimes discuss what we think the right approach is, before listening to the professional advice. It’s been interesting to follow the addition of internet access to what was before only in the newspaper and on our papers at home.

Recognizing Patterns

I’m trying to learn two things, Spanish and Capoiera (a Brazilian martial art). I’m not too good at either one yet. Spanish is something I’ve been working on for years and I’ve only been doing Capoiera for a couple of months. Also, I teach English as a second language to Spanish speakers. So you could say I’m also trying to learn to teach English, and I’m not too sure how good I’m at teaching English either.

I’ve noticed something that someone said once rings that true for me is “to understand is to perceive patterns.”

Taking Spanish and teaching English helps me see the similar sentence patterns common to both languages. And the more I study Spanish verbs the more particular patterns of how to construct the tenses (and there are lots in Spanish) seem to become clear.

With Capoiera, the patterns are more visual. Because of the echos in the cavernous room mixed with the blend of  Spanish, Portuguese, and African, the verbal instructions are vague at best for me. So I’m left trying to watch and mimic the instructor and the longer term students. After a while I’ve begun to pick up on the triangles formed by the footwork, circles traced out with the hands, and the four imaginary corners of a square that your shoulders hit. And that’s only for the fundamental form capoieristas start other moves from and then always return to.

Little by little the patterns are becoming more clear but there always seem to be more patterns waiting for me to discover. It’s a good thing I’m more process than goal oriented.

The History of the Future

I’ve run across a couple of videos that I really like and I thought you might too. Everyone I’ve shown the videos to also liked them, at least that’s what they told me. Each one is less than two minutes long. When you watch the videos, use the whole screen view to really appreciate them.

Here’ the first one, Air Penguins. It’s from a German company, Festo. The company has developed a robotic arm technology that they’ve used in different applications to demo the technology. The video that I like is with the air penguins, but there’s also an air jelly video and an air ray video. Festo’s robotic arm technology is used in the graceful noses of the penguins to steer them.

Here’s the next one, Metropolis. It’s from an artist, Chris Burden. He’s created a huge kinetic sculpture using about 1200 toy cars zooming around a toy highway system. The installation is meant to represent a distilled version of a real highway system.  The noise generated by the whole thing in action, all rolling at the same time is impressive too. The piece is slated to be installed in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art soon.

If these videos really are the history of the future I hope the first one wins.

Visiting Mexico City

Here’s a beautiful Mexico City Video that’s worth a view, even just for its the style alone. We just returned from a five-day trip to Mexico City and had a great time there.  I know about all the bad things that are happening in parts of Mexico and those things seem to be all that’s reported on in the media. But there’re lots of areas in Mexico, most areas, that continue on in their regular fashion.

I’d like to report that we felt completely safe the whole time we were in Mexico City. It’s  one of the largest cities in the world. Around 20 million people. And in the course of five days we ate, rubbernecked, and shopped our way through as much of the city as we could. We visited museums, walked through parks, traveled by subway and taxi as well as rode bikes a lot. Parts of Mexico City have an ecobici system that, every few blocks, allows you to borrow a bike and return it to the station nearest your destination. We also walked through huge open markets and public squares. No problems. The vibe was much less intense than New York City, much more like a large European city.

There are all sorts of contrasts in Mexico City. The old, quiet cobblestone and brick neighborhood where Cortez lived until 1524 contrasts with a modern skyscraper heavy, downtown area packed with sculptures. You’ll also find “the great square”, or Zocalo, which has been the center of the city since Aztec times, surrounded by micro businesses so plentiful I felt as if I was looking at a coral reef for humans, no space unused or need unmet. There’re street sweepers answering their cell phones while still using brooms that look like they’re made by whomever it is that makes brooms for witches. You know, a long handle with a bundle of long switches tied to one end. And Mexico City as you’d guess, is teeming with food options, escamoles (ant eggs) and chapulinas (fried grasshoppers) at small busy stalls in markets to haute cuisine in historic buildings.

We traveled around the city at different times of the day any the night and never felt worried or threatened. There’re cops around, but just what I feel is probably the normal amount for a big city, not an overwhelming presence, just enough to feel safe without feeling overly protected.

On a side note, you won’t see men in Mexico City wearing short pants. So I think out of cultural respect and to not stand out, don’t even take short pants with you if you visit. The more you blend in, the less likely you’ll be noticed. Probably ditto for backpacks, fanny packs and cameras.

Anyway, don’t be worried about visiting  most parts of Mexico any more than you’d be worried about  visiting anywhere else. It’s safe.

Stronger Societies

The recent upheaval in Egypt and the rumblings in other Arab countries reminded me of an interesting interview I heard with two professors of epidemiology. These two British scientists have studied how income inequality hurts societies and affects the health of nations. They also have a book out.

Normally, epidemiologists work at understanding and reducing public health risks. They look for patterns of disease and work at identifying the factors causing disease or injury. Epidemiologists usually are thought of focusing on viruses like the bird flu or the H1N1. But for this study they looked at the health and well-being of the citizens of the top 25 wealthiest countries.

Some of the categories investigated were feelings of trust towards their fellow countrymen, violence, unplanned pregnancies, life expectancy, and well-being. Raising incomes and material standards of living is known to increase the quality of life for people, but after a certain point (in the US it’s an income of around $50,000 a year) the major gains hit a point of diminishing returns.

The findings claim that health is strongly protected by friendship and is damaged by low social status. As the difference between the richest and the poorest people in a country grows so do the health and well-being of the citizenry. More income equity, they claim, makes societies stronger. And it all seems to stem from the feeling of low status that results from large income inequalities.

They also claim the way a lower income inequality is achieved doesn’t seem to matter. In the US for instance, Vermont and New Hampshire both have low income inequality rates. In New Hampshire this results from a smaller difference in earnings between the highest and lowest paid; while in Vermont, higher tax rates on higher earners is the cause of the lower income inequality rate. But both states rate high on the areas investigated. On the level of countries, the results are the same! Japan is similar to New Hampshire and Sweden is like a large Vermont when it comes to how income inequality is addressed.

The findings of the epidemiologists is not accepted in all quarters, but enough people are convinced that it was in the mix at the recent Davos meeting of world political and business leaders. Decision makers and planners can’t try to effectively get to where they want to be unless they’re able to see the world as it is and why it is the way it is. This might help provide part of the map that leaders need to help find the way for people to have better lives.

Beer and Sprinting

How much is enough? And what are the priorities? Sometimes contrarian ideas produce great results.

Here’s a contrarian idea: Do as little as needed rather than as much as possible. Here’re two examples.

One of the best beers in the world is brewed by Belgian monks at the Westvleteren Brewery.

The list of what they don’t do is long: no advertising, no marketing, no labels, no brewery tours, you can’t buy more than two cases, there’s no delivery, and you have to pick up your cases there after placing your order by phone.

The list of what they do is short: they try to brew the best beer.

Their beer sells out and they could sell lots more; but as the abbot says “We brew beer to afford being monks.”

The second example is one of the best track coaches around, Barry Ross. In 2003, one of his athletes, Allyson Felix, became the first track star to go directly from high school into pro track. She also had the fastest 200 meter sprint that year.

The list of what this coach doesn’t do is long: no long hours in the weight room, no long hours on the track, no gizmos like sleds and parachutes, no squats, no training to failure, and no attempt to gain weight.

The list of what he does is short: a few heavy deadlifts, sprinting, and resting between sets.

In a nutshell, Barry Ross aims to make faster sprinters by building  stronger sprinters without adding extra body weight . He found the key exercises are running fast sprints and doing heavy deadlifts. To avoid gaining body weight the reps are kept low (2-5) with a timed 5 minute rest between just a few sets and his athletes never train to muscular failure. The number of sprints in his workouts never exceed 10. Ross thinks the biggest mistake coaches make is overtraining their athletes.

Barry Ross has pared down training to the essential and trainable. He’s arrived at a minimal workout with maximum results. Research shows athletes are better off lifting heavy weights for strength and then refining their sport’s skills by performing the actions of their sport.

Barry Ross’ athletes are runners who lift weights  rather than  weightlifters who run.

Establishing priorities and doing only enough instead of as much as you can, works.

Cold Drip Coffee

Have you heard of “cold drip coffee” before? If you like drinking coffee, here’s a way to make great tasting coffee that has a few advantages over the regular way of making coffee.

I use a Toddy cold drip coffee maker. It consists of only three parts. There’s the soaking container, a filter that fits in the bottom of that container, and a glass carafe to drain the coffee into. The plastic soaking container is about the size of a large popcorn bucket from the multiplex. The bottom of the soaker has a bottleneck for the felt filter that’s about the size of a large cookie. This bottleneck on the soaker’s bottom also fits the mouth of the glass carafe for draining the coffee when it’s time.

I’ve been making cold drip coffee for years, it’s really simple. First, after inserting a filter in the bottom of the soaking container, add about two liters (quarts) of room temperature water. Next, put in a pound of coarse (not fine) ground coffee on top of the water; but don’t stir in the coffee grounds, let the ground coffee soak into the water. That’s it, now allow the mix to soak for between 12 and 24 hours. Then pull the small plug on the bottom of the soaking container and let gravity drain it into the carafe. You’ll get about a liter and a half of delicious coffee concentrate that can last three weeks in the fridge.

Put the concentrate into the fridge and spread the grounds on your garden (or in the trash). Take out the filer and give it a though rinsing under the tap before putting it into the fridge for the next time. If you rinse the filter well and refrigerate it in water, you’ll be able to use it for months.

The cold drip coffee is also about 60% less acidic than brewed coffee because no heat is used to make the coffee. The flavor profile will be richer and less bitter-tasting than brewed coffee. There even a bit less caffeine too. The system was developed in 1964 by a chemical engineer at Cornell University.

There are all kinds of uses for the coffee concentrate. You can dilute it or not (I don’t) to the strength you like,  then ice it or heat it (stove top or microwave), or use it in recipes calling for coffee.

There are hundreds of coffee houses and cafes using cold drip coffee for their iced coffee. I even sell Thai style iced cold drip coffee here in Mexico at the fledgling farmers’ market on Saturday mornings in our little town.

Iced coffee is what we make most often at home. I usually premix the coffee with milk and Half and Half in a two liter bottle. Drinking coffee doesn’t get any more tasty and convenient than that.