Monthly Archives: May 2011


A picture’s worth a thousand words.

Often, when couples get together, the woman hopes that the man she’s with now will change while the man is hoping that the woman he’s with will never change. Both of them are likely to be disappointed, if that’s what they’re thinking at some level.

Once men and women embrace their differences, trying to enjoy and appreciate their different outlooks then the couple will be a lot happier.

I just really liked this photo.  Maybe it should be more widely distributed; for example, on the backside of business cards for couples therapists, though it’s probably a bit late by that point.



Are you a sitter or a stander? The time you’re spending in a chair could be having real negative effects on your health. This applies to both exercisers and sofa slugs. We’re turning into a society of chairmen at our own peril.

Investigating sitting has gained traction with researchers. The more you sit the more you weigh and the higher the chance you’ll suffer a heart attack. Basically excessive sitting should be avoided.

Sitting is becoming recognized as a new area of concern in terms of health. Research is showing a progressively higher rate of mortality as time spent sitting increases. People sitting for 3/4 of their day were up to 47% more likely to die than people sitting for only a 1/4 of their day. If you’d like another way of looking at some of the findings on excessive sitting visit this infographic. It’s well done but too big to include here.

Here’s a real surprise, death rates are about the same for both exercisers and non-exercisers! Excessive sitting increases the chance of dying regardless of  time spent exercising. There’s a difference between activity and exercise. Nowadays, exercise happens in a short window during leisure time with the balance of the leisure time spent… sitting. The time at work traditionally occupied with activity is now taken up with… sitting. Sitting is an independent risk factor in your health.

Just after WWII a British researcher studied bus drivers and conductors working on London’s double-decker buses. The drivers were sitters whereas the conductors moved up and down 500 to 75o stair steps a day. It turned out that conductors had half as many deaths from heart attacks as did the drivers. Similarly, in 1953 British researchers also found that (sitting) bus drivers were twice as likely to die from a heart attack than were (standing) trolley car operators.

Try not to be a chairman.





The Green Machine

Warren Buffet is the green machine. He has consistently outperformed the stock market as well as his rival investors. For a self-effacing, square guy living in Omaha he’s got a pretty cool style. Here’s some background information on his style. I ran across this in the NYT. You can click here to read the full NYT article “Warren Buffet, Delegator in Chief.” I whittled the article down a bit to the parts I found most interesting.

Unlike the chief executive of General Electric, who spends much of his time on airplanes traveling the world to visit the company’s 287,000 employees and oversees a giant campus and management team in Fairfield, Conn., Mr. Buffett “manages” Berkshire’s 257,000 employees with just 21 people at his headquarters in a small office in Omaha.

Mr. Buffett’s business partner, Charles Munger, once described Mr. Buffett’s day. He spends half of his time just sitting around and reading, Mr. Munger said. “And a big chunk of the rest of the time is spent talking one on one, either on the telephone or personally, with highly gifted people whom he trusts and who trust him.”

And that trust has advantages. “Part of his genius is that he’s created a hands-off culture that encourages entrepreneurs to sell their private companies to Berkshire,” said Larry Pitkowsky, a longtime Berkshire shareholder, “and, critically, that they keeping showing up for work every day without worrying that they are going to get a call from headquarters telling them how to run things.” How hands-off is Mr. Buffett? When questioned once about why Berkshire didn’t take a more active role in fixing Moody’s, the troubled credit rating agency, in which he was the largest shareholder, he declared: “I’ve never been to Moody’s. I don’t even know where they’re located.”

“If I thought they needed me I wouldn’t have bought the stock,” he added.

He sees himself less of an activist than as a passive investor, a stock picker with a nose for a good deal. “We don’t tell Burlington Northern what safety procedures to put in or AmEx who they should lend to,” he said at his annual meeting two years ago. “When we own stock, we are not there to try and change people.”

His management approach may be as much a function of his own philosophy as it is a practical preference. He likes to make his investments dispassionately, based on the numbers, rather than let emotions get involved.

What’s Buffett going to do with his billions? Also pretty cool. He crunched the numbers and decided he and his family would be okay if he pledged half or more of it to philanthropy. He was instrumental in starting The Giving Pledge encouraging the wealthiest families to pledge half or more of their wealth to their philanthropic interests. As of December, 2010, 57(!) US billionaires have made the pledge. And in keeping with his easy manner, it’s a moral pledge not a contract. Buffett and Bill Gates are now trying to spread the idea to other countries. Nice style.


Getting The Flavor Right

“Getting the flavor” of something isn’t the same thing as “getting it,” in the same way that dressing like a rodeo cowboy didn’t make John Voight’s character in “The Midnight Cowboy” a rodeo cowboy.

There’s a 1990 documentary film titled “Paris Is Burning” about drag competitions and it also introduced “vogueing,” the dance style that Madonna later brought out to the public. The film is focuses on disadvantaged Black and Hispanic New Yorkers who compete with each other by their style of dance and costumes. Some guys would even compete by dressing up as briefcase carrying Brooks Brothers clad business types and compete as to who was the most businessman-like acting and looking, something about as far removed from their lives as was naming their “houses” (clubs really) after equally distant fashion houses like Chanel.

Most surfers I know like to drool over the surfboards at surf shops. The old idea that humans are attracted to shiny things is at work here when surfers inspect new board shapes, designs, and colors. But as “lifestyles” become more of a focus, there are now lots of surf shops that don’t even sell surfboards. If you don’t surf you may not notice the lack of surfboards or that there’s only one – and it’s a prop mounted to a wall. I guess your sport has arrived as a lifestyle when the center piece of the sport isn’t necessary to have at the shop it’s named after; like having a golf shop that didn’t sell golf clubs.

There’re lots of examples out there like: suburban kids dressing like inner-city gangsters, a blue blood president wearing cowboy boots, middle-aged men adopting skate clothing, urban hipsters riding the single-speed bikes favored by bicycle messengers, Donald Trump wearing his hair in the style of… never mind him I don’t know what that’s about, professional types wearing black leather and riding chopped Harleys that they trailer instead of riding to the destination, I’m sure you can come up with lots of other examples too. Playing isn’t the same as being.

Playing is fun; but sometimes the people playing begin to think they are who they’re playing.

Good Graphics

Edward Tufte owns the world of graphics. In the mid-eighties, I read his first book “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” a few times because it was so engaging and interesting. He was a professor at Yale from 1977 until 1999 before leaving academia to successfully spread the word of good graphics to the public.

The other day I saw something about Tufte’s “sparklines”( word-sized graphics) now showing up in tweets and thought I’d post something about him. Then I ran across a profile on Tufte I liked by Joshua Yaffa in “The Washington Monthly” (via Kottke).

If you’re a Tufte fan, click on the link and read the whole profile. If you just want a taste or are short on time, here’s my excerpted version of “The Information Sage:”

Over the last three decades, he has become a kind of oracle in the growing field of data visualization—the practice of taking the sprawling, messy universe of information that makes up the quantitative backbone of everyday life and turning it into an understandable story.

For years, graphic designers were regarded as decorators, whose primary job was to dress up facts with pretty pictures. Tufte introduced a reverence for math and science to the discipline and, in turn, codified the rules that would create a new one, which has come to be called, alternatively, information design or analytical design. His is often the authoritative word on what makes a good chart or graph, and over the years his influence has changed the way places like the Wall Street Journal and NASA display data.

In the public realm, data has never been more ubiquitous—or more valuable to those who know how to use it. “If you display information the right way, anybody can be an analyst,” Tufte once told me. “Anybody can be an investigator.”

Tufte’s rise mirrors that of information itself, which has infiltrated every aspect of modern life.  Information is all around us, but so is “non-information,” the flotsam and noise that are the by-products of a hyperactively quantitative culture.

“Tufte killed the idea that we are afraid of numbers,” said Tobias Frere-Jones, a typographer in New York. “And once you get over that idea, you can’t really justify the birthday-party-clown school of data visualization, where you need bright colors and shiny things to convey that the stock market went down this week.”

Tufte has coined several terms that have come to define his style, such as “data-ink ratio,” the proportion of graphical detail that does not represent statistical information, and “chartjunk,” ornamental and often saccharine design flourishes that impede understanding.

Good design, then, is not about making dull numbers somehow become magically exhilarating, it is about picking the right numbers in the first place. “It’s about data that matters to you,” said Dona Wong, a student of Tufte’s at Yale and later the graphics director at the Wall Street Journal.

Tufte introduced what he called “sparklines,” numerically dense, word-size graphics that show variation over time. As an example, the fluctuations of the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the course of February and March look like this: . The dramatic dip in the figure represents the March 16th panic over the nuclear disaster in Japan.

The underlying philosophy behind sparklines—and, really, all of Tufte’s work—is that data, when presented elegantly and with respect, is not confounding but clarifying. “There is no such thing as information overload.” Tufte says “Only bad design.”

As Richard Grefe, the executive director of the American Institute of Graphic Artists, which awarded Tufte its highest medal in 2004, explained, Tufte has shifted how designers approach the job of turning information into understanding. “It’s not about making the complex simple,” Grefe told me. “It’s about making the complex clear.”

Tufte decided “to be indifferent to culture or history or time.” He became increasingly consumed with what he calls “forever knowledge,” or the idea that design is meant to guide fundamental cognitive tasks and therefore is rooted in principles that apply regardless of the material being displayed and the technology used to produce it. As Tufte explains it, basic human cognitive questions are universal, which means that design questions should be universal too.




Simple But Not Easy

I was surfing with some friends from Colorado who are visiting Mexico. They don’t get to surf very often, but had a good time surfing out in the sun and warm water here. As I watched them adjusting to the other surfers in the water, I was struck by something I read once, “power is never given, power is taken.”

The group of surfers waiting for a wave to show up is called the line-up. Your position in the line-up is the equivalent of your power and you can interchange “line-up position” for “power” in what I just quoted above – “a line-up position is never given, a line-up position is taken.”

It’s been many years since the Aloha spirit prevailed in surfing. At most spots there are now more surfers than waves available, so there’s a sort of athletic Darwinism at play. The weaker or less skilled surfers are always noted, and then disregarded as having any real shot at catching (m)any waves and they’re usually avoided if they’re too far out because they often make mistakes that can hurt other surfers. This isn’t done out of meanness, it’s just how things have developed and an order establishes itself as surfers come in and out of the line-up.

Even though a few surfers might paddle to catch an approaching wave, the main rule is that it belongs to the first person up and riding and the others are expected to pull off of it. On bigger waves there’s sometimes the feeling you pick up on in basketball photos of one player slamming a dunk over the player guarding him, or maybe it’s like the famous “look” Lance Armstrong gave to Jan Ullrich, taunting him to follow up a steep climb in the Tour de France. Power is taken.

Somehow weakness is sensed within the line-up, like a dog somehow sensing fear. You can feel it when you first paddle out, particularly if you’re by yourself at a new spot because “the line-up position is never given.” But soon enough the pecking order is set.

I guess this situation is a metaphor for life. Friends surfing with each other cooperate with one another, and friendships are formed in the water too. And it’s all fun. But the operating principle these days is competition more than cooperation. And everyone is subject to the same code that “power never steps back except in the face of more power” and that’s part of the fun because the only real loss is a wave; and another one will show up soon.

The Lost Shepherd

I’ll say at the outset that I’m not religious. So maybe this isn’t news to you, but it was to me when I heard about it a few days ago. Apparently, some Christians think the world is going to end on May 21st, 2011. That’s right, in eleven days!

I first heard a story about it on NPR; so it’s a big enough story to even get some traction in the mainstream media.

It seems that a broadcaster with a religious radio program is the main figure behind the story. His name is Harold Camping and his station with 150 outlets reaches lots of listeners. By making some arcane calculations based on timetables provided in the bible he and his supporters are convinced the end is at hand. Camping isn’t an ignorant hillbilly, he has a civil engineering degree from UC Berkeley, but he mustn’t have paid very close attention in school.

There are billboards, bus caravans, and of course the radio station out there spreading the news that the judgement day will happen on May 21st and then on October 21st the world will be destroyed.

Religion is darkness. And this sort of thing is particularly dark since the believers are quitting jobs, leaving families, or spending their savings, and why not I suppose, if you think it’s true that the world is ending. But the sheep that just want an answer, even if it’s wrong, are hard to feel sorry for. I’m sure some overlooked chunk of time from the pages of the bible will reveal itself after the morning of May 22nd dawns. Get in line Harold Camping. The line isn’t going to heaven; it’s the line of other end-of-the-world dates have previously been predicted and  gone unfulfilled.

At first I thought it would be interesting to post this blog on Friday the 20th just for effect. But the whole thing is silly enough that if you haven’t already heard of it, you might want to so you can throw an end of the world party on the 20th . I’m sure I’ll be talking to you on Tuesday the 24th.


In general, I’m curious about how people prefer to organize and do things.  How people use their computers is a small black hole. While there’s a certain framework imposed by your computer’s software, how you arrange your computer experience is up to you.

Everyone who uses a computer a lot must have their own system of getting around on their computer and retrieving information. Since surfing with your computer is a solitary pursuit, people usually aren’t aware of how others organize their experience. Some people probably don’t care so there’re items all over the place, like a messy room but they know where everything is. And other people streamline their layouts.  I’m not sure how you do it, but this is how I do it and it seems to work well for me.

I’m prefer a simple and easy system. On my desktop, for example, I only have two icons, one for my hard drive and one for photos.  I don’t use rss feeds or other notifications when there’s fresh content; instead I prefer checking in on sites I like, confident (based on experience with each site) that there’ll be new content available.

Every few weeks I’ll delete any sites I don’t want to follow, sort of like scraping the barnacles from the hull. I try to keep the number of sites in the first four categories at a manageable 15 or so. If I don’t cull underused sites from my categories, my computer experience  gets to the point of feeling that you need to keep up with all of the sites you have bookmarked. Under “Bookmarks,” I use groupings of sites based on how often I check in on those sites.

There are lots of different titled folders, From BANKING to WEATHER, under the bookmarks heading but they’re not often needed or visited. I find myself mostly visiting the first four bookmark titles on my computer. Here’re the titles and description along with a few examples of sites:

FREQUENT – these are sites I visit at least once a day: my email,, NYT, a surf report, Seth Godin, ….

OCCASIONAL – for sites that I check once a week usually: Dan Savage’s podcast, Leo                            Babauta’s, Colossal, Doug McGuff, …

IN THE WINGS – Basically a waiting room for sites I run across and think I might like. This category is added to and subtracted from constantly.

REFERENCE – A general category containing sites I might look at once or twice a month: the Selby, TED talks, Capoeira sites, …

That’s it in a nutshell. Streamlining and editing what’s on my computer is what I’ve found makes my computer more enjoyable to use.

Helen and Scott

I was just talking to a visiting friend who’d lived in Vermont for a awhile. We got on to the subject of Helen and Scott Nearing who started homesteading in Vermont in the thirties. We were both surprised the other knew about them and we enjoyed reminiscing about what the Nearings had done in Vermont. In one of those “small world” occurrences, it turns out that the book he’d read years ago might’ve been mine. The Nearings wrote a book called “Living the Good Life” which went on to influence and inform lots of people, mostly hippies, who were interested years later, in returning to the land. Now with farmer’s markets abounding, the slow food movement, and a desire to know where your food comes from, there’s relevance again for the Nearings’ lives. I was, and still am fascinated by what they did.

The Nearings were college educated, left leaning, city folk who abandoned their big city progressive New York life in 1932 for a go at a simpler way of living and self-reliance in a very rural (depression era) Vermont. Ahead of their time, they practiced organic farming, having a small footprint, and healthy living. They  both lived to be very old, Scott died at 100 and Helen at 91. They also built their own structures out of stone from their and.

And then, they did it all over again. In 1952 they started from scratch on the coast of Maine when Scott was in his seventies(!) when they felt too much development was encroaching on their world in Vermont. In Maine they were working from experience to recreate a similar homestead there too.

More than most people, their life was an experiment, lots of trial and error. Remember, information wasn’t easily available then. But they worked hard, were nice, and it paid off. They went slowly and figured things out as they went along. They generally took a long view of the processes like building up their weak soil and constructing new buildings, taking years to complete new stone structures while they lived in the older wooden ones. They learned how to collect maple syrup to use as a cash crop, but they didn’t need too much money since they lived simply and were able grow most of the food they ate.

The book’s style is informative and interesting but the writing style is old-fashioned. Most aspects of their simple lives are detailed in their book with the exception  of sex and children, they didn’t have kids, from what I can remember. “Living the Good Life” can be read in several lights: as a primer on homesteading, as just a fascinating tale of a couple creating a new life, as a historical look at early 20th century rural life in America, or as a  record of a prototype for green living. If any or all of that sounds interesting, you’ll get a lot from the Nearings.