Monthly Archives: August 2011

Back to School


In Mexico, I’m an outsider looking in. I could be off the mark, but I don’t think I’m too far off in regards to most of the public education I see where I’m living.

Generally the school system in Mexico seems to be more about order and control than about learning. The school days are short and regimented with an emphasis on uniforms. It doesn’t seem conducive to learning many things other than compliance. If you’re a top student you “get to” wear a  uniform different from the rest of the class, which for a poorer family is just another burden. The original mission of the nonprofit in our town was/is securing dough for kids who need it to afford (uniforms, lunch money, shoes…) to go to public school; just because there’s a public school here doesn’t mean everyone can afford to go.

I had dinner the other night with some friends. A Mexican couple told me about their homeschooling plans for their two young sons and kids of other families. They want to allow the kids to have a less stressful learning environment and to start later in the morning so they’ll be more alert. Their kids will also be learning at their own pace in a class with mixed ages. Their plans are very progressive and not at all like what’s on offer in the public school.

I told them what they want to do sounds like the schools in Finland, the most successful in the world. And maybe they’d like to use the Khan Academy, it’s free, simple and really turning things around in on-line education. Bill Gates and a bunch of other big hitters are now getting behind the Khan Academy. It’s been featured on TED Talks, Charlie Rose, and OnPoint to name a few if you’re interested to find out more.

I think my friends will be able to do a good job teaching their kids. I’ll check back with them in nine months for a progress report and let you know.


Sometimes, really good design leads to problems.

Recently my girlfriend’s computer died, crapped out. So she bought a new MacBook Air . It’s super cool, I even talked about them earlier in a post. The design is beautiful and the whole thing is intuitive and easy to use.

This ease of use and good design by Apple may lead to a problem. Here it is. The system they have for dealing with the few problems that might arise isn’t well designed, probably because they thought it wouldn’t be used very often.

But when a simple problem arises that can’t be simply fixed, it leads to frustration. Less than five hours after playing around with the new Air, the charger died, crapped out. A pretty simple thing to rectify, but it has been a nightmare instead.

We don’t live near an Apple store, so we’ve been dealing with it by phone. The advice ranged from sending in the broken charger and waiting for another one to be sent back to “You should have bought Apple care.” All of the options presented were very unsatisfying. This wasn’t an issue caused by a consumer it was a problem on a small part of a $1300 product.

The best, most satisfying solution for the customer, and ultimately for Apple too, would have been to say “Sorry, since you are not near an Apple store, where can we send a new charger? And please send the broken one back in the mailer we’ll include with the new charger.” Apple could even have a credit card charge on hold that would be canceled when they got back the broken charger if they didn’t want to use an honor system.

It seems like the best design for the problem solvers would be designing a system to keep the customer happy, say you’re sorry and try to help rather than burn up the innocent customer’s (and Apple reps’) time in lots of unproductive calls and emails. Apple should make the trouble shooting experience as flawless as the computer by design.


Taking pictures of regular people who have special style can be pretty cool.

Lots of things separate us from other forms of life. Extensive tool use, self-awareness, and smoking to name a few. The primary differences we have from other animals are big brains, complex thoughts, and language. No other creatures other than people are reading like you are right now.

And there’s another difference – a sense of style. I don’t think other creatures have it, I think they do the best they can with what they have and that’s it. With people though, style is important, whether people admit it or not, and some people have a much more highly developed interest in it. You may not like someone’s style, but it’s another person’s self-expression.

I’m not talking about fashion which comes and goes, plus, is a top down structure. Style is firstly personal; and it’s influence on others is bottom up, lateral and top down too.

One of the things I like about going to NYC is the people watching. It’s a great place to see many different styles on lots of different people. And being the social animals we are, there’s the monkey see monkey do effect in action when you notice common threads, like younger hipsters sporting ironic moustaches and distressed wingtip  business shoes.

I just have a passing interest in this, so I don’t follow it too closely. There’s a website called The Sartorialist that I look at once in a blue moon. It was started by Scott Schuman who comes from the fashion world and started photographing people on NYC streets if the person had a style or look he liked. He started in 2005 and it’s taken off so that’s all he does now, and also does it in whichever city he happens to travel to.

I ran across an interview with Scott on bigthink. It’s about a half hour-long, with good questions and is just him speaking into the camera. I thought it was interesting and many of his ideas apply to pursuing interests in general and blog ideas. (Does anyone else think Scott looks like Lance Armstrong? They’d be good candidates for a “separated at birth” piece.)



Information Age Ideas

I just read “Linchpin” by Seth Godin. It’s a very insightful read, blurring the lines between business, social commentary, and trends. “Linchpin” is about new business model ideas for the information age and why the old model from the industrial age isn’t working well anymore and is on the way out.

Seth is one of the most prolific bloggers and authors out there, with 12 bestselling books. And he blogs every weekday. He currently has over 4,000 short, pithy posts, and is the #1 rated blogger in the marketing field; but his posts are interesting and useful to a general reader too. It’s one of the few blogs I read daily.

Seth argues that a linchpin is someone who can invent, connect, create, and make things happen – usually in a new way; and a linchpin can’t be replaced, whether they work solo or in a company. The indispensable work of a linchpin is connected to other people, and that requires that a linchpin “ship” (release, roll out) his work or it doesn’t really count because no one will see it. Linchpins also bring their humanity to their work through their interactions and by giving gifts that build a tribe.

We all have ancient part of the brain that’s able to override the newer, higher functioning parts. This “lizard brain” is obsessed with safety, food, and reproduction and so will try to sabotage anything that feels threatening, risky, or generous. But linchpins have figured out the way around it by recognizing it and dealing with the lizard brain’s resistance.

“Consumers aren’t loyal to cheap commodities. They crave the unique, the remarkable, and the human… when customers have the choice between faceless options they pick the cheapest, fastest, more direct option.” The internet has changed things by letting the market directly distribute news from regular people talking about what the great stuff is (and also what the mediocre stuff is).

Linchpins are also artists. Art has the ability to change the way people feel and linchpins do that through their interactions, ideas, or products. “It’s not an effort contest, it’s an art contest. As consumers, we care about ourselves, about how we feel, about whether a product or service or play  or interaction changed us for the better.” Where, how, or how difficult it was to make  something isn’t relevant to most consumers; so emotional labor   becomes more valuable than physical labor because emotional labor changes the recipient and that’s what consumers really care about.

“The race to make average stuff for average people is almost over… Becoming more average, more quick, and more cheap is not as productive as it used to be.” Don’t become a cog in big system. Instead become indispensable, a linchpin, to thrive in the new economy. As Seth says “It’s easy to buy a cook book (filled with instructions to follow) but really hard to find a chef book.”

The future is here; it’s just not very evenly distributed yet.


Dan John’s Advice

I’ve been training a couple of people for a two months and we’ve had good results. We do the five exercises below along with push-ups and overhead presses.
Dan John is a successful trainer who’s been around for a long time. I excerpted much of what’s below from an article he wrote called “Things That Are Good For You.” In it, he has some good advice on how to do the five exercises he thinks are important: the squat, the deadlift, good mornings, bent over rows, and the plank.


The Squat – Squats can do more for mass and strength than probably all other lifts combined. But, doing them wrong can do more damage than probably all the other moves, too.

First, find a place where no one is watching and squat down. At the “bottom,” the deepest you can go, push your knees out with your elbows. Relax and go a bit deeper. Your feet should be flat on the floor. For most people, driving your knees out with your elbows will simplify squatting forever.

Next, try this. Stand arms length from a door knob. Grab the knob with both hands and get your chest “up.” The lats naturally spread a bit and the shoulders come back “a little.” Now, lower yourself down. What people discover at this moment is a basic physiological fact: the legs are not like stilts under the torso. Rather, the torso is slung between the legs. As you go down, leaning back with arms straight, you will discover one of the true keys of lifting: you squat “between your legs.” You do not fold and unfold like an accordion; you sink between your legs.

Now, you are ready to learn the single best lifting movement of all time: the Goblet Squat. Grab a dumbbell and hold it against your chest. Hold it vertically by the one end, like you are holding a goblet against your chest. Now with the weight cradled against your chest, squat down with the goal of having your elbows (pointed down because you are cradling the dumbbell) slide past the inside of your knees. It’s okay to have the elbows push the knees out as you descend. I’m not sure I should tell you this, but I think Goblet Squats is all the squatting that most people need.

The Deadlift – Keep that dumbbell at hand. The biggest problem I see with most people’s deadlift is that they simply have forgotten how to pick things up off the floor.

Stand tall and hold the one end of the dumbbell at arm’s length pointing it straight down at the ground. The dumbbell should be slung right between your legs. These are called “Potato Sack Squats” and are a great reminder of how to deadlift. Let the dumbbell descend to a point between your feet. Keep your head up and chest proud and simply lower the bell touch and return. Simple.

Now, why don’t you deadlift like that? It’s the world’s simplest lift!

When using a barbell, always make sure when you use plates that leave the bar at the same height as with 45 pound plates. A couple of key hints:

  1. Keep the weight on the heels. I insist on teaching my athletes to “Push your heels to China.”
  2. Use the standard “opposite hands” grip from day one in the Deadlift. I do suggest, though, that you switch your grip often until you find which way allows the most weight.
  3. Your arms are steel rods in the Deadlift. Lock ‘em out and leave ‘em.
  4. Keep your head up. Many of my athletes upped their Deadlift in one workout by having the chin lead to the ceiling.

Good Mornings – Before you begin, two things. First, stand up and place your hands in the “V” that is formed where your torso meets your legs. You know what I’m talking about.

Now push your hands into the “V” and push your butt back as your hands sink into the “V.” That’s the movement of a good morning. Yes, keep your head up, shoulder blades pinched back, and hold a big chest, but the movement is simply increasing the “V.”  If you do it right, even with no weight, you’ll feel the hamstrings stretching. This is good.

I strongly suggest learning the movement with a broomstick first. A nice little adjustment is to stand with your back against the wall and push your butt BACK into the wall. Then, scoot out a few inches and push back again. Keep moving away until you literally can’t touch the wall any more. That’s the position that I recommend you go into on the good morning. Don’t make this a Yoga exercise by trying to go as deep forward as possible.

Bent Over Rows – Before you go any further with Rows, I want you to do a few sets of “Bat Wings.” Lay face down on a standard bench with two dumbbells on the floor. Now, here is where it gets confusing, I don’t care at all about your range of movement. All I want you to do is squeeze those dumbbells as high as you can and cram your shoulder blades together. Don’t bounce, swing, hop or do any of the stuff that most guys rowing do. The next day, that really cramped feeling muscle in your upper back is called the rhomboids. The development of the rhomboids will save your shoulders.

When you row, get into that good morning “V” Position and strive to touch the chest. Focus on the last four inches “at the top.” A great Rowing exercise is the “Two Part Row.” Rep one comes up to the belly button and rep two comes up to the nipples. Really strive to feel how much more your elbows have to come up to make the lift.

Planks – Here’s the one minute plank. The first twenty seconds, the right leg is raised as high as it can be raised towards the ceiling. Without leaving the plank position, do the next twenty seconds with the left leg up. Finally, do twenty seconds of the plank.

That’s it. You could even start out with a light dumbbell and buy a heavier one when you get too strong for the one you have.

Bad Situations

On the 4th of July my nephew went to a party in DC, where he’s working for the summer. He was walking with his girlfriend after the party when someone grabbed her phone and ran off. My nephew chased him, and got into a fight with him when he caught him.

Unfortunately, there were some friends of the robber’s nearby who jumped into the fight. Fortunately, someone driving by called the cops and helped break up the fight. My nephew received a beating that required fairly extensive dental and other medical attention. But he was back at work after a couple of weeks and back to his normal good-humored self. Two ideas came to mind after I heard about what happened.

One is the irony of  how dangerous life in the US can be sometimes. The trumpeting by the US media about violence in Mexico seems to take some of the focus away from the potential for violence that’s in the States. While generally safe, the US can be like Mexico if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The other thing I’m reminded of is the importance of letting go of a cell phone or wallet if you’re robbed, things aren’t worth your health. Here’re a few more possibly useful tips. Obscurity is your best security; try not to stand out. Pay attention and listen to your intuition; if a situation feels wrong it could be, our unconscious awareness has been around for millennia protecting us from predators. If confronted, always run away, you can never know who or how many you’re up against. But if it comes down to a confrontation you can’t avoid, you need to attack the attacker as violently as you can and run off. Stun and run.


Speech Easy

Preparing and delivering speeches ranks way up there on the anxiety scale. But there are steps you can take to be prepared and so lower your stress level because you’ll feel more confident.

Here’re some good advice I’m passing along from speechwriter, Dan Pink, about putting together a speech.

– The three essential ingredients of any speech are: Brevity, Levity, and Repetition.

– Every speech needs to answer these two questions: What’s your point? And why does it matter?

– Try to follow these structural guidelines:  I) Have a beginning, a middle and an end.         II) Change up your delivery a bit. III) After mapping out your speech, cut out 20%.             IV) Remember, it’s all about the audience, not you.

– And finally for the delivery:  I) Be yourself, strive for authenticity,don’t mimic someone else’s style.  II) Remember your audience is giving up their time and attention to listen   to you.  III) Do your homework and personalize your speech, where you can, with             references the audience will relate to.  IV) Tailor your message to the audience. If your   audience is a room full of priests don’t deliver the same style of speech you did for a room of college boys.

Not too hard, right? These guidelines can really provide a good structure to hang your speech on and help you relax a bit. Good luck!

Note: I wrote this for an accent reduction site I’m working on and I thought it was useful, so I’m posting it here too.

Festo’s New Bird

Check out this incredible video I saw on TED. It’s a demonstration of a robot that flies like a bird by mimicking how real birds fly. The video is only about six minutes long, but if you’re only interested in seeing the robot fly that starts about two minutes into the video.

The bird’s creators work for a German firm, Festo. I wrote a post awhile back about another Festo creation, the Air Penguins. They’re amazing to watch too.

If you liked the bird video and want to see more here’s the video featuring Festo’s Air Penguins. Festo has developed a robotic arm technology they use in different applications to demo the technology. The company’s robotic arm technology is used in the graceful noses of the robotic birds and penguins to steer them.

To really appreciate the video, make sure you click on the full screen option.

Apple’s Juice

I’m a fan of Apple. A MacBook is what I use now and I used an iBook before that. Recently, Apple introduced upgraded versions of its MacBook Air. The Air is super thin and light and uses memory like you use in your digital camera instead of a hard drive. There’re no moving parts, now you can add “sturdy” into the description.

The new Airs are lighter, thinner, and faster. They’ve gotten great reviews and are touted as likely to replace both Apple’s Macbook and MacBook pro laptops. A couple of years ago the Air seemed like Apple was just showing off its laptop manufacturing superiority. The first Airs were almost a novelty, but now it’s moved up to be the equal and likely successors of Apple’s other laptops.

How does Apple do it? It keeps hitting home runs.

Here’re a few ideas I took away from “Inside Apple” by Adam Lashinsky who tried to get to the heart of Apple’s process. Here’s where Apple gets some of its juice:

Communication is clearly and constantly articulated from the top (Steve Jobs) during executive meetings each Monday and Wednesday. On Monday, every important project in the company is reviewed, results discussed, and strategy refined. Then on Wednesday, marketing and communications are covered. About 80% of the material in the meetings can be from the previous week. Nothing gets missed and everyone is on the same page getting positive feedback or being told to stop what they’re doing.

“You can ask anyone in the company what Steve wants and you’ll get an answer, even if 90% of them have never met Steve.”

Accountability is always assigned and known. Internally, Apple always assigns a directly responsible person or DRI so that there’s no confusion over who’s responsible for what and so others know who to contact.

Apple is now a huge company but decisions to start or kill a project are made quickly. “Saying no at Apple is as important as saying yes.” And  “If the executive team decides to change direction, it’s instantaneous.”

Interestingly, the profit and loss worries are worried about primarily by the finance chief. The managers work as a unified team with all the ideas being shared and followed up on, with the focus being on only a few things at a time. And Apple will spend whatever it takes.

Apple seems to be a tough place to work because of the high expectations and some rigid structure, but it has a very low turnover rate. Probably because the people who work there like making the coolest products in the world.

Thinking differently – Whereas at Microsoft they’re looking for areas of unrealized revenue and then they’ll try to figure out what to make; Apple comes up with great products, then sells them.

When I first saw one a couple of years ago, I thought the MacBook Air was cool, but a little impractical. Now, with the upgrades, I know what my next computer will be.