May 28 2010

The Sweet Sound of Gentrification

Really, who doesn’t like to wake up
To the sweet siren’s song
Of a rotary saw,

Inside your skull,
At 0730?

Or to be reminded of the ant-like industriousness of our species;
Able to rouse a few good men from their beds,
Early enough to haul away 2 tonnes of wood scraps,
At 0630?

This is the sound of growth.
This is the sound of an up-and-coming neighborhood.
Or gentrification.
This is the sound of progress.

At 0745,
I am still tired…


May 27 2010

VFFs – Not just a great wingman

Our secret is out.  Vibram Five Fingers are undoubtedly good conversation starters, and therefore undeniably great wingmen.

This made us think; by the law of large numbers alone, surely by now some boy and girl are very happy together, and would never have met if not for these curious anti-shoes.

But suppose the social value of these much feted shoes goes beyond the romantic.  What if Vibram Five Fingers are arguably making our communities stronger?

Social Capital refers to the number and strength of bonds between members of a community.  Higher overall levels of social capital in a community has been shown to be associated with everything from healthier to more productive communities (caveats aside about organized criminals or self-serving politicians also tending to have very large amounts of social capital).

Just for fun, here’s some rough mental math about the effect of Vibram Five Fingers on social capital:

  • A friendly source working in retail for a sports store in D.C. estimated that around 5 thousand Vibram Five Fingers have been sold by their establishment this year.  Let’s say that this number is half of the total VFFs that have been sold to D.C. residents this year, including other retailers and online purchases.  This means that there are now 100,000 mesh-wrapped toes on 10,000 runners darting around our nation’s capital.
  • Let’s say that on average these runners run 2 days a week (over last 3 warmer months).  Next, let’s assume (based on personal experience) that these runners average one random conversation with a stranger every other time they run (many times, it’s more).  On the whole that would mean that 120,000 conversations have happened between Vibram Five Finger wearers and perfect strangers this year, which would not have happened otherwise.
  • The next step is to determine what percentage of random conversations between strangers and Vibram Five Finger wearers on the street typically lead to an actual friendship (romantic or otherwise), the fundamental unit of social capital.  If we assumed that 1 in 100 interactions results in an invitation to join a running club, a discovery of a shared friend or coworker, a swapped phone number, etc., we could attribute 1,200+ new acquaintanceships to Vibram Five Fingers this year.  To take it a step further, if on average a person has 130 acquaintances, and 5-6 very close friends (personal experience), odds are that 5% of these 1,200 acquaintances may, in time, become close friends.  Therefore, we could attribute 60 or so new close friendships in Washington, D.C., this year, to Vibram Five Fingers.

This is all just-for-fun, psuedo-statistics, of course.  But it begs the question: If we could see this kind of an effect from random interactions prompted by shoes, what would the value be if we each said something kind to a stranger, or did something unexpected and helpful,  once a day?  Those clever boy scouts and their “do a good turn daily…”


May 23 2010

“Running” Effective Meetings

In theory, meetings are a good idea – a short period of time for a team to come together in order to review projects, set goals, and ultimately make decisions.  In practice, many meetings end up being a big waste of time, in large part due to the low expectation we’ve come to accept for how they are run and when they are called (everyone in the conference room in 5 minutes…).  The topic of how to make these meetings more efficient has been discussed before, by 37signals and others, but one thing that often gets overlooked is how unhealthy they are for you.

More often than not, meetings consist of two of the worst things for you: sitting and eating bad food (donuts, pizza, etc.).  Bad food isn’t good for you for obvious reasons, but the problems associated with sitting may be news to you – a recent NYTimes article quite bluntly tells us that the negative effects of sitting for the majority of the day outweigh the positive effects of our daily workouts.  Ways to get exercise throughout the workday can range from the simple: frequent walks to the water cooler, to the complex: a walking desk, but what about all the time we spend stuck in meetings?

Alan and I have been experimenting with the concept of a “Running Meeting” which consists of:

  1. Write agenda on hand – only as many topics as fits
  2. Run at leisurely pace for variable mileage as we discuss topics
  3. Recap & write notes when we return as we stretch

We’ve been doing this for about two months now, for a variety of meeting types.  Some lessons learned:

  1. We only meet when we really need to – By attempting to meet the requirement that all meetings must happen while on a run, each meeting must be deemed important enough to actually get ourselves out the door.  Generally, we’ve found that if it’s not important enough to do so, it’s probably not important enough to have (and can be handled via a more efficient avenue).  Note: One exception is the 5 minute “daily standup” meeting we have during development projects to keep everyone on the same page.
  2. Leads to great ideas – We seem to come up with some great ideas during the brainstorming parts of the run.  This may be subjective validation (because the idea of running meetings appeals to us), but there have been several studies that have shown that aerobic exercise leads to increased mental ability (a related benefit is that it helps combat depression).  The simple action of putting the physical part of your body into action, necessitates that the mental part of your body follows along.  I’m sure all of you can attest to being in many “sleepy” meetings.
  3. Better for high level topics – These meetings work better for strategy and brainstorming meetings than detailed project rundowns, because in the latter case, we find that we miss the ability to reference project docs or communication emails.  Though, one could make the argument that detailed project rundowns shouldn’t be a part of meetings at all, and are better handled via other communication channels.

Some people we’ve mentioned this idea to have expressed concerns about being able to think clearly enough while running to carry on a useful conversation.  I thought this would be an issue for me because I zone out when running by myself, but having someone to talk to makes a big difference in keeping me focused and engaged.  On the flip side, having a business meeting while running has actually helped me figure out and sustain a comfortable long distance pace.  If running’s not your thing, or not possible at your company, consider taking a leisurely walk outside instead, or even just holding your meetings standing up.

All in all, it has been a great experiment for Night Train so far, and we plan to continue the practice.  It really seems that adding a physical component to meetings 1) forces us to evaluate whether the meeting is necessary, 2) infuses more energy into the discussion, and 3) helps combat the effects of sitting in our chairs all day.  We realize that it’s not practical for everyone, but we hope that the idea of infusing exercise into the workplace, both generally and as tool for meetings, catches on so that we can all lead healthier and happer lives.

Check out our post-meeting picture from our strategy meeting last week that took us on quite the adventure along some trails in Maryland.  A post (or several) about the Vibram Five Fingers you see in the picture will be forthcoming…

Vibram Five Fingers after intense strategy meeting


May 6 2010

We Fill the Space We Have

A broader interpretation

We have heard that whatever space we have, we will tend to fill. It occurred to me that this bit of folk wisdom may be a pattern from the micro to macro level.

Consider how broadly that axiom applies, even on a personal level:

  • We use resources without restraint that are made plentiful for us (oil, corn)
  • Our expenses grow to match our income.
  • We eat the food that is in front of us.
  • We live up to the expectations others lay out for us (or which we interpret for ourselves from the script we follow)
  • What else can be added?

Try it out for yourself: just substitute “space” with any other thing or expectation you can think of.

This year both Jeff and I downsized our personal possessions because of a move to D.C. Jeff moved to a shoebox-sized apartment in Dupont Circle (complete with murphy bed and a kitchen in a wardrobe). I moved from Australia to the U.S. with only what could be carried on an economy plane ticket. Both situations left us with less stuff. Aside from the loss of a greater sense of community we both felt moving from Charlottesville to D.C., neither of us reported a loss of happiness as a result of having fewer things. Therefore, we are each doing more with less this year.  I haven’t done the actual calculation of each of our ecological footprints before and after the move, but by rough calculation, according to our own micro-Happy Planet Index, we are actually achieving equal or greater well-being this year than a year ago, using less stuff, meaning that we are improving our well-being vs. burden-of-stuff ratio.

Now substitute “we” with “society”

Extrapolating from that personal experience with economizing, I began to wonder why, as a society or as an individual, any of us would struggle so hard to increase the amount of oil available to us, the amount of income we bring in, the physical spaces we occupy, and the stuff we possess. I wonder if the recession has taught many people how much more we can do with less.

We have all heard variations on this theme at a personal level, but the Happy Planet Index, an alternative proposal to GDP, which I am slightly infatuated with right now, has been making me think about this philosophy from a systems perspective also.

What if we had less corn or beef to consume each year. Would we starve? Or would we get more creative with ways to satisfy our hunger using less?

What if we had less oil available each year? Would the great gears of our economy grind to a halt? Or would we discover more efficient modes of transportation, re-discover the outdoors and family meals, etc, as many families already have over the course of our recent recession.

It’s such an obvious thought to have while watching the slow march of oil toward the coast; If we could do more with less, if challenging ourselves to do so could be as fun as this move to D.C. has been for Jeff and I, why would we subsidize the pursuit of more at great expense?