Jan 17 2012

Ducks – Meet your new problem solving team

Each morning, you wake up, not with the Sun or in time to hit your 9am punchcard, but at the exact moment that your body becomes perfectly rested, whether that means 7am or 11am (or 2pm on Mondays).  You roll out of bed, do a few yoga stretches, maybe a pushup or two for good measure, then stroll down the hall to put on a pot of your favorite coffee (or tea if you’re so inclined).  You head to your office, the corner of the bedroom that hasn’t yet been usurped by the dirty laundry, and clear back the jungle of chinese takeout boxes, utility bills, and post-it notes to reveal a desk.  On that desk sits a purring little machine – you give it a little pat, open it up, and instantly become plugged into the rest of the world.

Congratulations, you are one of the chosen ones – the tele-worker.  You have somehow managed to turn plaid pajamas into professional attire.  You can blare your Michael Buble Christmas album as loud as you want without fear of persecution by your coworkers.  At this very moment, there are millions of commuters all over the world cursing your good fortune.  Yet, you have a problem.  It may not be apparent in the early days of freedom, but once past the honeymoon phase of tele-working, it will slowly start creeping in, not unlike the accompanying arc of disinterest in your personal hygiene.

The problem is that beyond the general process of slipping into cabin fever (solved in part by mid-day runs, lunches with friends, time spent at coffee shops, etc.), you slowly realize that problem solving tasks have become more time-consuming and arduous than in your pre-tele-worker days.

It’s not that the retreat into our homes has somehow diminished our inherent problem solving abilities, but rather that we tend to forget or undervalue the ability to quickly bounce an idea off of someone else in a shared working space.  For the tele-worker, a typical problem solving process goes like this:

  1. Search the internet for the kindred soul who’s stumbled across your same problem
  2. Spend an hour banging head against table
  3. Take advil for resulting headache
  4. IM a co-worker – spend 20 minutes explaining the context, before agreeing to:
  5. Get on the phone and talk it through
Simply jumping to step 5 is much more expedient, but depends on having a coworker, and being comfortable with disrupting said coworker, especially if due diligence hasn’t been fully completed yet.  As a replacement for, or a precursor to, talking on the phone with your coworker, I suggest:

Talking to a rubber duck

Yes, talking out loud to a plastic toy.  Put the rubber duck next to your monitor, walk it through the problem you’re solving, and be amazed when the solution comes to you almost immediately.  I’m sure we’ve all had this phenomenon occur when explaining a problem to a fellow human – well, a duck does the job just as well, without any of the judgement that can often accompany human responses.

This technique is used sometimes in the programming world and called “rubber duck debugging“, however, I’ve found it to be useful in all sorts of problem solving and brainstorming tasks.  It also seems to be more useful than simply talking out loud about the problem because the duck forces you to actually explain the situation step by step.

Without further ado, meet my problem solving team (put together my HR Director/lovely wife Liz):

Name: Bob
Occupation: Builder
Role: My go-to man – helps architect and build new solutions, as well as dig me out of ditches
Name: Sam
Occupation: Survivalist
Role: Helps me find a way out of a situation when I’m absolutely lost
Name: Nancy
Occupation: Nurse
Role: Calms me down when my blood starts to boil – also keeps my cursing in check

Name: Dan
Occupation: Lieutenant
Role: Berates me and my work when I’m not on top of my game and need to step it up

Name: Frank
Occupation: Fireman
Role: Puts out fires

Name: Jack
Occupation: Captain
Role: Indulges my desires to talk like a pirate

Name: Liz
Occupation: Princess
Role: Reminds me of who I get to see after work

**WARNING** – While working late at night and/or after a few bottles of beer, your good natured ducks may turn on you.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Jan 9 2012

Say it with me: 2012 is the year

Happy New Year! I’ve been traveling since the start of the year. It’s been exciting that, everywhere I have been, there has been a palpable feeling that this is going to be a great year. I admit there is some selection bias going on, but it’s really energizing nevertheless.

Whatever industry you are in, if you’re working on changing “business as usual,” you probably feel it too. In everything from farming, to transportation, housing, finance, or education- from the East Coast to the West Coast and in between- in cities and in small towns- very many “alternative” ways of doing things seem poised to go mainstream in 2012. We’re at the convergence of many exciting tipping points all at once.

Why 2012? I think the Millenials just woke up to our shared values, collective buying power, and creativity. Strap yourself in.

The “Co” Generation

There is a common thread to these tipping points: the disarmingly-innocent, power-packed prefix “co.” Co-working, co-ops, co-ownership, co-learning, and co-living, oh my!

Those two tellingly circular little letters carry a wealth of meaning for our generation. They mean we understand we’re all in this together. They mean we like strong communities more than amassing personal wealth. They mean we like sharing good times and successes and failures. From my vantage point, those two little letters are the reason behind the sea changes all of these industries are experiencing.

Maybe up until this point we were helping out on an urban farm on the side, or choosing to ditch our cars, or getting into dangerous ideas like sustainability or social entrepreneurship. But whatever we did, if you were like me, you probably felt that these experiments were on the fringe of the mainstream, not the norm. And they were.

Then, overnight- as we reached the point in our lives where we are buying property, creating new companies, and investing in each other’s- we somehow became aware of each other’s little experiments. We took stock of our values and priorities and realized there are many things we share.

We had all been thinking these thoughts on our own- whispering our crazy ideas quietly to each other on the playground, passing notes discretely to our friends under our desks- but now that we have discovered we are not alone, we are putting our capital where our hearts are. Realizing our unity, we picked up a megaphone and shouted to whoever would listen:

The age of the Rugged Individualist is dead. He is not Us. That’s not our style. We like each other too much. We’re in this together!

If you are working in any of these industries, have you felt it? If you have been slogging away at bringing about these changes for the last 40 years and paving the way to make these changes possible now, thanks! We owe you and appreciate your foresight.


Out with the single family home in the ‘burbs. In with the community house, the shared backyard, the grange, and… the yurt?

The Doghouse in Brooklyn

There’s a reason college was one of the best times of our lives; we had community all around us, all the time. We remember that. We also remember suburbia; we experienced it at its height. We have weighed them both and made our decision: we have found the one acre and two-car garage in the ‘burbs wanting. We like to live together.

The McMansions baby boomers built with their accumulated wealth, and then didn’t need or couldn’t afford, are going for a steal. If you haven’t noticed yet, we’re buying them and turning them into networks of intentional communities we can live in through all stages of our lives so that, even though we are more mobile than past generations, wherever we go we will be living in stronger communities, sharing the burden of chores, sharing the responsibility for parenting, and getting more living space for our money.

Several married couples I know are living together in group houses. Three separate groups of friends are buying land and starting farming cooperatives together. New Leaf at Penn State is buying an old frat house and turning it into a community for students and professionals working on sustainability projects together. The Embassy Network is buying properties in major cities that will be converted into houses with co-working on the first floor, a short-term stay floor (the “hostel”) above that, and a floor for long-term residents at the top, with reciprocal membership between each “node” of the Network.


It’s amazing to watch the speed of change in this industry. Do you remember the world before Omnivore’s Dilemma? Do you remember when you hadn’t heard of a food co-op, before all of your neighbors were in one? Do you remember easy mac, frozen dinners, and our fast food diets?

If you work in industrial farming, start looking for another job. We don’t want your turkeys that are bred to never stand up. We don’t want the syrup of your mono-culture corn fields. We want to be get fresh veggies from the local co-ops our friends are starting. We want to get our meat from one of the hundreds of small, crop-rotating farms Joel Salatin has inspired, or from the restaurants like Chipotle that do. Farmers markets are exploding. Buying artisan food from your neighbor is back. Trading the extra tomatoes from my little garden for your extra squash is in.

In the short space of time since we left school, these things have gone from alternative to mainstream. In some places I visit, the old mainstream has become outright taboo. Try serving up McDonalds at the next birthday party in Charlottesville and see if the other moms ever accept an invitation for another play date.


Cubicle? Career for life? Maximize shareholder value? No thanks. We tried that. We like to work on lots of interesting projects that stretch us and challenge us and allow us to make a contribution to the world. We don’t care if we’re going to get the opportunity to do that from a corporation, a startup, or ourselves.

Many of us are showing up “at work” now at the many buzzing co-working spaces that are proliferating wherever we are, like Hub DC, the General Assembly, and Bull City Forward.

Spud Marshall @ New Leaf Initiative, hard at work

We shop at REI. We or our friends studied abroad and have seen the way other countries value family, vacation and balance. We realize that there are other options for how companies can work, and we don’t want to work for those that don’t get it. When we start our own companies, we’re not just forming corporations. We’re forming co-ops and B Corps. If you don’t know what those are, you’re late to the party. And the party’s not waiting for you.

We want to share leadership. We want workers to be co-owners of their own companies, fates, and daily decisions. I don’t know a company starting this year that isn’t working that deeply into their organizational structure.


You’re dreaming if you think we’re going to pay $160k to send our kids to listen to fours years of lectures by droning professors in giant auditoriums. We can’t get all of the knowledge we need to solve the world’s problems from the past and from experts. Realizing that, we’re getting better at practicing the art of co-creating our own educational experiences together, just like we’ll be expected to do in our work. This year, Khan Academy, Skillshare and Free Schools, MITx and a free Stanford Artificial Intelligence course with 130,000 students captured our imagination.

There’s no turning back now. Thanks to the growing acceptance of these types of peer education practices, both on and off campuses, our kids are going to have a lot more options than we ever did for getting an awesome education for less money. Lecture halls are already being converted. If you visit the new UVA Med School building, you will find, instead of lecture halls, a big circular room filled with teams of students working together on problem sets, with a coach instead of a lecturer in the middle, quizzing, and asking groups to share and explain their answers.


Collaborative consumption, co-ownership, and services are inOwning is out.

We’re getting our books on Kindle, our music from Pandora, and our mobility from Metros, Megabus, Bikeshare and Zipcars. We’re the first generation to think that texting is cooler than owning a car. (Is there any greater evidence that we love our communities?). Friends are selling shares of their cars to their friends and putting several names on their driver’s insurance.

“The recovery” is not going to be coming from Detroit or from the RIAA.


Private Banks are outNonprofit, community banking is in.

I’ll let Kyle Theirmann explain:

What Next?

The list above is only scratching the surface. There is so much more happening.

Mom, dad. You gave us good values. You gave us good skills. You taught us that winning isn’t everything. You taught us to share and to put things back like we found them. You taught us that we were capable of changing the world and, more importantly, endowed us with a sometimes arrogant belief that we could.

We also learned from you how to build our dreams into businesses, how to get things done. We’re going to start putting all of those things to work.


Dec 29 2011

Living Aboard Sinking Whales

It takes fifty to seventy-five years for a dead whale to sink to the bottom of the ocean. As it sinks, an entire ecosystem of tiny creatures descend with it and thrive on its decomposing carcass.

From where I sit I see an auxiliary sink, two coffee makers, and three holsters of knives. There are four sets of china.  The mess ware and the quarry ware and the copperstone ware and the fine china each have their home. There are four rooms for sunning and ten more for blocking out the sun. There are seats for 175 people within this single structure, including a leather couch that can comfortably seat ten people without the inconvenience of coming into contact with another human being (As a secondary defense, it comes equipped with six pillows the size of large children). I can walk for 5 minutes in this house and never cross my own path and never leave sight of a television.

For twenty-five people- our crew for the week- it is extravagant. For the fifteen maximum occupants it is designed, it is opulent. For the single nuclear family for which it was built, it is aristocratic; they are the modern day Sun King’s of the South, laden by possessions for which there could be no justification beyond stroking the ego of a self-made family. They can be reminded that they have made it every time they have to use their iPhones to call each other from the game room to the media room. If a nucleus is the right metaphor to describe them, then they are at the center of a middle-weight atom; not the heaviest perhaps- this is not, after all, the Sun King’s palace in Versailles; that has been quite unfashionable since the heads of that particular aristocracy were separated from their carriers- but they would be perhaps among the rubidium.

What will become of these whales of homes as they sink to the ocean floor? Will ecosystems of idealist hipster youth crowd like algae on the lumbering masses which the previous generation erected and could not keep up, like the group houses that have become of mansions in DC? Will three generations live together in these colossi, as in past generations? Will we keep them up or will we make whole new structures of their bones?

I don’t know. But we are twenty-five and for a week we will fill a space that is quite the right size for our mob.


Dec 6 2011

Washington, DC – Housing Innovation Capital

In my travels this Fall I noticed that some clever cities have been putting themselves on the map by picking one area of great social need that they desperately need to solve for themselves, going big, and then becoming a model for rest of the world to learn from.

The examples I highlighted in a separate post on Copenhagen and cycling, Lyon and lighting, Chicago and green roofs, etc. made me wonder; on what particular area of social innovation might my own city focus?

There are so many areas of pressing need here in DC, and also so many talented and passionate people who live here, that it can be hard to choose. But there is one area that could have large multiplier effects and which takes advantage of one of the coolest things the DC community already has going:

Washington DC should become a laboratory for housing innovation


While the primary stock of housing in most cities in the US still consists mostly of high-rise apartments, condos, and single-family homes- all designed for 1-3 residents or a nuclear family- there are many more options than that already available in DC.

For example, one of DC’s greatest assets is our strong culture of group house living for young professionals who move to the city to work for one of the many social sector organizations here, but who generally aren’t making much money in the process.

You will find many of these young, passionate people living in beautiful, century-old row houses that were originally built as small mansions in particular neighborhoods throughout the city, some of which have since been converted to group houses where 5-10 people in their twenties or thirties are now living together.

Building community in new ways in our 20-30′s

The city’s rich stock of row houses, which virtually none of us could have afforded to live in on our own, probably helped get the movement of group housing started in DC. But many of us are living in group houses as much out of a desire for community and for living with people who share our values, as for any other reason, like money. It’s not uncommon for these houses to have names (Rosemont, the Bike House, the Monday House…) and along with that, a sense of identity and history. For many of us, our housemates are like families.

Some of these houses are co-operatively owned, some are rented, but virtually all of these have cultures of sharing. Most make use of their beautiful homes as community spaces as often as possible. More than half of the art galleries and concerts I have been to in DC have been hosted at group houses. I have been to film screenings, study groups, organizational planning meetings, and fundraisers… all hosted at group houses. In fact, I typically work 2-3 days a week in a group house that becomes a co-working space during the day, the early predecessor to Hub DC.

Demographic trends and dealing with gentrification

It’s great that we have this option in DC, and a culture built around it, because of an important demographic trend in our generation; it is no longer the norm that all people now get married right after completing their education and move in with their spouses to start a family. Group houses give those of us who didn’t take that route yet in our twenties and thirties (a growing trend) a way to still have a sense of community and family that is comparable, if not better, to what we would have found in nuclear family homes, college dorms, or in the multigenerational homes that have been the norm in almost every culture of the world at some point.

I personally love group houses in DC and would love to see that option grow. There is so much more demand for group houses than the city has in supply. It is typical to have 50 people show up for an opening in a group house. Expanding the stock of group houses in DC could be an important strategy in helping keep the city affordable both for the droves of young people who move here early in their careers and for our invaluable long-term residents, who are in risk of being priced out of the market by the former, otherwise.

Building a local industry around housing innovation

But, like Copenhagen, Lyon, and Charlotte, we have so much more we could do. There are many other existing and new local models we can continue to expand alongside the group house option, from cooperative apartments to multi-socioeconomic row-houses with shared backyards.

With a concerted effort, DC could become a leader for demonstrating to the rest of the world what can be done when we make it a priority to implement intentional development strategies (remember Lyon’s lighting plan and Copenhagen’s cycling plan?) to help us better house our city’s amazingly diverse range of residents and to strengthen community across our huge range of socioeconomic groups and lifestyles.

Internationally-known partners with offices here, like Calvert Investments, Ashoka, the World Bank, Aspen Institute, and the World Resources Institute- not to mention the federal government- will all directly benefit from improving the diversity of housing options available for the passionate young transplants they hire, and they will all see network effects of cooperating in such an effort.

Like Charlotte and its energy efficiency initiative, new companies will emerge to meet the needs of the effort. And like Copenhagen and Lyon, other cities will want to learn from DC’s example.

In short, housing innovation could put DC on the map.


Dec 6 2011

We built this city on social innovation

In my travels this Fall I noticed that some clever cities have been putting themselves on the map by picking one area of great social need that they desperately need to solve for themselves, going big, and then becoming a model for rest of the world to learn from.

In the process, they are creating whole new local industries, attracting and keeping talented residents, and solving their most pressing problems at the same time.  It’s a new model for building prosperity through social innovation.  Brilliant.

I wanted to highlight some of the coolest examples of this phenomenon I have observed first hand, and I hope my own city, DC, will follow suit.

What puts a city on the map?

One example isn’t a trend, but you can certainly draw a line through 5-6 data points.  Here’s why this particular line is important.

Cities compete globally for their reputations, residents and markets for their businesses. Cities, just like people, can thrive or stagnate based on that reputation: the thing that puts them on the map.

A unique, energizing vision or mission for a city can help create such a reputation by mobilizing and unifying great effort from the community around concrete goals. A few common ways cities or regions have put themselves on the map, historically, have included:

  • Becoming an epicenter for an industry (Los Angeles, Silicon Valley…)
  • Becoming a transportation hub (Charleston, Chicago…)
  • Becoming an artistic haven (while the scene lasted: Venice, Paris… Lately: Berlin, Asheville, Dubrovnik…)
  • Becoming an intellectual capital (Alexandria, Oxford, Boston…)
  • Becoming a center of commerce (New York, Hong Kong…)
  • Becoming a center of political power

While traveling this Fall, I observed that another option has emerged late in the last century, with a great deal of room to grow in the next:

Become a center for social innovation – pick a single target issue (eradicating homelessness, radical energy efficiency, urban organic farming, etc.), invest heavily in solving that problem, and become a model from which others want to learn.

There are a handful of cities already putting themselves on the map by doing this. Whether those efforts have emerged from inspired leadership or from fortuitous emergence, these cities have found that there are many happy side effects to focusing their efforts like this- aside from increasing the likelihood of actually solving their most pressing problems- including:

  • Attracting talented people to move to their cities to join the industries that have emerged around these areas of focus
  • Attracting tourists or formal study tours to learn from these innovative cities firsthand
  • Attracting partnerships and contracts with other cities to help them develop similar solutions

For example:

Copenhagen, Denmark – Cycling Innovation Capital

While cycling has been a popular mode of transportation in Copenhagen for more than a century, it was not destined, necessarily, to be one of the world’s most friendly cities for cycling, which it is.

With increased prosperity and the rise of the automobile around the middle of the last century, Copenhagen was gradually becoming a less bike-friendly city. Cars and cyclists were having trouble figuring out how to get along.

But around the 1980′s a partly-organized and partly-organic effort pushed the needle back the other direction dramatically. One way or another, the city collectively recognized and stood up for something that was important to it: keeping the roads friendly for cycling.

Copenhagen is now one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world. Just a sample of some of the things I observed in person about their cycling infrastructure:

  • There is a robust culture of respect and etiquette between cyclists, pedestrians, and cars. When I rented a bike in Copenhagen, I was immediately and politely given a quick summary (by a rental company operator who reminded me a bit of The Tallest Man on Earth) of the city’s cycling culture and norms, such as which hand signals to use when turning and breaking, and the appropriate way to make a left turn across oncoming traffic. I observed these rules to be the total norm everywhere we rode. These norms didn’t emerge by accident; there has been a great deal of effort and advertising put into building them.
  • Bike lanes are physically separated from sidewalks and car lanes. Virtually every road has one. Some roads are dedicated cycling routes.
  • There is a national highway system of bike trails! Let me say that again… you can ride from any city in Denmark to another… by bike… without setting one tire on a road shared with cars. I rode one such trail all the way up a beautiful 40km stretch of coastline.
  • The traffic lights are being re-timed to reflect the average speed of a bicycle instead of a car. They call this the “green wave.”
  • And yet, they talk about how much work they have yet to do…

Copenhagen, as you might expect, has had to build up an entire industry around this effort, which now exports that expertise to many other cities who want to learn from its example. For example, when Mexico City, Melbourne, and New York wanted to make their cities more bike-friendly, they went to the Copenhagen-based Gehl Architects. Not to mention all of the designers, filmakers, etc. that have been attracted to the city to join the fun.

In the world of cycling innovation, Copenhagen is on the map.

Lyon, France – Lighting Innovation Capital

If you love beautiful lighting, someday you must visit Lyon. Since 1989, when the city became the first city in the world to have a lighting plan, the city has been developing an entire industry around a lighting cluster.

Like Copenhagen and cycling, Lyon has a beautiful story to tell about why it invested such a concerted effort into lighting: an annual winter festival in which the entire city is lit by lanterns at 8pm, which has been a tradition since 1852.

Like Copenhagen, Lyon exports its lighting expertise internationally. My host in Lyon in August told me that the city of Shanghai and many others have hired its Cluster Lumière.

Chicago – Green Roofs Initiative (+SF, +Charlotte, NC)

There was a time a few years ago that no one could mention green roofs without Chicago coming up. That was because Mayor Daley showed some leadership and introduced incentives to help along green roofs, before they were popular elsewhere, like fast-tracking permits for developments that included them. This might have even played a role in the decision by the US Green Building Council to host their enormous annual conference in 2008 in Chicago.

The same can be said for other cities around certain areas of green technology innovation. I wonder how much innovation San Fran’s goal of sending zero waste to landfill by 2020 will spur, for example.

My home town of Charlotte, perhaps better known for its banks and NASCAR, has begun a program called Envision Charlotte which is rallying a common effort between banks, developers, and energy service companies (with Bill Clinton helping out) to reduce the energy consumption of the downtown building stock 20% by 2016.

If Envision Charlotte is as successful as I hope it will be, in ten years your city might be hiring designers and engineers who first got their start in Charlotte (or Chicago, of SF, depending).

What about your city?

In my really rough assessment, urban farming, affordable healthcare, housing the homeless, cracking inner city education, city-wide brownfield reclamation, and many other areas of need are up for grabs!

I hope that my own city of Washington, DC will be the next to join this trend by taking a leadership role in housing innovation.


Apr 18 2011

Adams Morgan Pedestrian Mall

Night Train attended a December hearing on whether to grant a $46m tax abatement to Beztak Properties, Brian Friedman of Friedman Capital, Ian Schrager and Marriott for the development of a proposed 10-story hotel in the distinctive 4-story neighborhood of Adams Morgan. At that hearing, the two main reasons given in defense of this gift were that the hotel would bring more day-time foot traffic to Adams Morgan while increasing the area’s economic vitality and tax base.

(A special note: the proponents of the hotel were not talking about just any foot traffic; they wanted us to know that the quality of the clientele they would bring to the area would be higher than those of us who currently patronize businesses along 18th St.)

There was also some discussion of creating local jobs, though neighborhood commissioners raised concerns about how those promises would be enforced. Either way, the discussion of the project’s impact on the wellbeing of the Adams Morgan community was limited to economic arguments.

We have an alternative proposal to increase daytime foot traffic and economic vitality in Adams Morgan:


Make 18th St. from Florida to Columbia a Pedestrian Mall

We have seen how dramatically such efforts have reinvigorated communities and businesses in places as diverse as downtown Charlottesville, VA; Boulder, CO; every major city in Europe; and one of the liveliest neighborhoods in Shanghai, Xin Tian Di.  Times Square in NYC is even creating a car-free zone.

The benefits of these projects have not been just economic, of course; in addition to increasing foot traffic and economic vitality, they have also strengthened the social fabric and very character of their surrounding neighborhoods in many intangible ways.

This particular proposal has been seen before, on the Adams Morgan community listserv in 2009, albeit with some concerns about how to divert bus traffic and emergency vehicles (though, we’re sure that parking, buses, and a range of other concerns could be worked out easily with the eager willingness City Council Member Jim Graham and his colleagues have shown in working with developers to bend zoning laws and height restrictions to make this hotel development possible).

Mr. Graham, in order that we may grant you the premise that you are fighting hard to win tens of millions of dollars in tax abatements for the developers of this hotel because you are deeply interested in hearing the best ideas our collective creativity can garner to benefit the wellbeing of the Adams Morgan community, would it be possible to see a comparison made of the impact on day-time foot traffic and economic vitality of Adams Morgan of the proposed hotel versus an 18th Street pedestrian mall?

If you have the means to do so, we dare you to extend your comparison to include either project’s impact on the wellbeing of Adams Morgan.

Photo Cr.ed.it.s


Apr 11 2011

I dare you to pick up the phone

Humans are not very good at reading emotion between the lines of emails. Even worse, when tones are ambiguous in email, we tend to default to negative interpretations.

My dad has a rule: if you haven’t solved the problem with the first two emails exchanged, pick up the phone and call.

Is IM any different? How many exchanges have you had that look like this:

HappyDwarf32: ok, cool! So meet you for coffee at 2?
SleepyDwarf65: sure, that’s fine
HappyDwarf32: oh, well, is there something else that would be better?
SleepyDwarf65: I just said that’s fine
HappyDwarf32: well we don’t have to if you’re busy…

IM is a convenient tool for quickly resolving all kinds of small questions without fully interrupting the task at hand. It also comes with that brief but oh-so-important delayed response which our generation covets, freeing us from the emotional strain of conversations that require real-time back-and-forth.  It gives us the emotional safety to screen and ruminate over our responses.

But we have to admit that the medium does break down occasionally.  It isn’t ideal for all conversations.

If the limit for resolving something by email is 2 emails, how long do you give an IM conversation before you pick up the phone?


Apr 4 2011

Choose your own tax adventure

Wouldn’t it be great if the process of filling out your taxes felt more like a game, and less like a reason to bang your head against your desk?

While some people do play the “Choose your own tax adventure” game by picking out which deductibles they can embellish upon without getting noticed by the abominable snowman (I’ll give you one guess as to who plays that part), most of us just begrudgingly slog through the exercise in frustration.

I’d like you to consider a less ethically ambiguous version of the “Choose your own tax adventure” game.  Imagine a tax return that allowed you to choose how the federal government was to use your tax money.  For example, my wife*, a teacher constantly frustrated by the amount of money that gets allocated towards education, could choose to allocate a majority of her tax money to education programs.  Another person with sick family or friends could choose to allocate more of his or her taxes to medical research, or to programs like Medicare.  In this way, each of us could articulate our vision for the government’s role in supporting its people.  And really, what better way for a government to identify the democratic sentiment of the people than by letting them speak with their money.

An additional benefit is that, unlike voting, where even the presidential elections only draw in 50% of the adult population, almost 90% of us are forced to at least file taxes each year, whether we have to pay anything or not.  Even if the government did not want to implement this plan in full for fear of important, but unsexy, programs being left unfunded, surely, having each individual household’s tax priority pie chart would serve as an amazing resource for prioritizing state and nationwide program and department funding.

Think about the implications of this, taking into consideration the current breakdown of how your tax dollars are being used by the government, and let us know: could this sort of idea work, and perhaps more importantly, what type of tax adventure would you choose?

* many thanks to her for coming up with this idea


Feb 7 2011

Online World, Offline World

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A friend referred to me a lecture recorded and posted on vimeo.

It doesn’t matter what the lecture was about (it was interesting and informative and probably being watched by many others now).

All I could notice was that, behind the presenter’s voice, I could just hear the wind start to pick up and howl outside of wherever it was he stood.  I could just barely hear the rain too, when it started to come down.  The presenter did not react, I could not see the faces of the audience, and I had no window to see the elements just outside the room that held them.  But I felt like anyone does when it starts to rain outside.  I realized that I must have been sharing a feeling with those observers behind the camera, who I don’t know; my attention drawn to the elements outside their window, which I couldn’t see.

Draw up a memory of any time you were sitting inside and you were supposed to be listening to someone talking to you, and then it started to thunderstorm outside.  Even if you were dry and warm where you sat, your attention could not help but be drawn to the wind and rain outside.  It was calling to a deeper, older part of your brain, beneath consciousness even.  The elements still effect us, even though we spend most of our lives indoors, online.

But what an experience, to be thrown into that thought process while staring at this screen on my table by a thunderstorm that happened 5,000 miles away from me, at some unknown time in the past.

I looked up and it was sunny and calm outside.  I actually felt a change inside me- my body adjusting to the “change of weather”- as my attention shifted from internet back to the world around me.


Dec 8 2010

Wool – Not just for grandma’s sweater

What happens to all those sheep who do not get the honor of producing itchy sweaters for the following market segments:

  • the elderly (love you grandma!)
  • 20 something’s who have run out of party theme ideas, and,
  • teachers who have given up on fashion?

I’ve recently discovered that some of them get employed by a couple of pretty cool companies that are looking to disrupt their respective industries by putting a big focus on sustainability.  We just wanted to take a minute to share this story – yet another example of “old fashioned technology” coming back to challenge our great technological innovations of the 20th century.

Merino Wool Source

Champion Merino Ram - 1905 Sydney Sheep Show


Hikers have known the magic of a special kind of wool called Merino wool for years now, but this material is only recently starting to get noticed by the broader public.

Bad-ass New Zealand sheep (pictured above) make this fabric which is:

  • Uber-soft (read: not itchy)
  • Breathable
  • Keeps you warm when wet
  • Regulates your body temperature (cool in hot weather, warm in cold, just like a thermos!  how do they do that?)
  • And, best of all, doesn’t stink…even after days of intense use (trust me, I push the limits…).
  • Actually, better yet, it’s 100% natural, and renewable, and companies like Icebreaker and Smartwool seem to be working with local herders to ensure that the sheep and local communities are treated fairly.

Everyone I’ve talked to who has tried these garments (shirts, socks, hats, etc.), agree it knocks the socks off [pun attended] most synthetic materials in many ways.  Here’s hoping for wider adoption of the material, not just because of the quality of the product, but because the more popular it gets, the more accountable synthetic material producing companies will need to be.

Bonus: Check out this new suit that can be worn in the shower, then dries within a few hours w/ no ironing required – can’t argue against that awesomeness.


So, what about the wimpy American sheep that do produce the itchy material we’ve all come to love to hate?  Well, 90% of the wool they produce currently gets wasted.

Enter Bellwether Materials (and a few other small European companies) that are taking that throwaway wool and using it as high quality housing insulation.  Turns out that wool has great qualities for insulation:

  • Its crimped nature (60-80% of volume is air) gives it a R-value (resistance to heat flow) higher than fiberglass, cellulose, and mineral wool [source]
  • It’s allergen-free
  • It’s naturally resistant to pest, fire, and mold
  • It pays back its energy costs more than 5 times sooner (only 15 kW of energy are used to produce 1 m³) than traditional insulation materials
  • It’s natural and renewable

On top of all that, Bellwether Materials is being produced in American mining towns as a way to bring back jobs to those areas.

Compare that to the common insulation material, fiberglass, that can be dangerous to your health.

Why do I (and should you) care?

Certainly, there are obstacles (particularly, scalability) for these new ventures to overcome, and some negatives to consider, but we think this is another example (check out my talk on barefoot running) of natural things outperforming, or at least equaling in many ways, the synthetic things that have engulfed many parts of our lives.  I’m excited to see what comes of all this, and in the meantime, will keep enjoying my wonderful merino wool clothes.