Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Have you had corn today?

You did, whether you know it or not.

Check out this quote from the book Free (47):

Historians often look at the great civilizations of the ancient world through the lens of three grains: rice, wheat, and corn. Rice is protein-rich but extremely hard to grow. Wheat is easy to grow but protein-poor. Only corn is both easy to grow and plump with protein.

What historians have observed is that the protein/labor ratio of these grains influenced the course of civilizations based on them. The higher the ratio, the more "social surplus" the people eating that grain had, since they could feed themselves with less work. The effect of this was not always positive. Rice and wheat societies tended to be agrarian, inwardly focused cultures, presumably because the process of raising the crops took so much of their energy. But corn cultures - the Mayans, the Aztecs - had spare time and energy, which they often used to attack their neighbors. By this analysis, corn's abundance made the Aztecs warlike.
It is an interesting theory. Of course, there are way too many variables to say that growing corn is the reason why those people groups were war-like, but it does lead you to think about what people do with their left-over energy. In fact, there are a lot of things you can do with your spare energy such as being altruistic, using your imagination, research and innovate, and artwork. But of course, that free time also means that you don't have to be as team oriented because you aren't as reliant on others. I certainly hope we are not destined, because we eat more corn than you ever realized.

Today, we use corn for more than just food. Between synthetic fertilizer and breeding techniques that make corn the most efficient converter of sunlight and water to starch the world has ever seen, we are now swimming in a golden harvest of plenty - far more than we can eat. So corn has become an industrial feedstock for products of all sorts, from paint to packaging. Cheap corn has driven out many other foods from our diet and converted natural grass-eating animals, such as cows, into corn-processing machines.

As Michael Pollan points out in The Ominivore's Dilemna, a chicken nugget "piles corn upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn [its feed], but so do the nugget's other constituents, including the modified corn starch that blues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter and the corn oil in which it is fried. Much less obviously, the leavenings and the lecithin, the mono-, di- and triglycerides, the attractive golden color and even the citric acid that keeps the nugget fresh can all be derived from corn."

A quarter of all the products found in an average supermarket today contain corn, Pollan writes. And that goes for the nonfood items, too! From toothpaste and cosmetics to disposable diapers and cleansers, everything contains corn, even the cardboard they're boxed in. Even the supermarket itself, with its wallboard and joint compound, linoleum and adhesives, is built on corn.
It's worth it to know what you are eating - not only for the dietary reasons, but maybe so you don't find yourself thinking war-like thoughts with your neighbors!


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A Knife, Red Dripping

A knife, red dripping.
It reaches.
Grabbing you, then shaking.
Look here, it says,
Guess what I have done.
Touch my edge, my smiling edge.
Feel what I am made for.
The rug clings to your shoes.
It cries, Someone
Has stained my coat!
A piece of shirt lies choking and
The wall turns 'round,
Silently shaking its head.
Where's the body,
You ask knowingly.


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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Monty Python's letter to you masses

How many people have heard the music industry whine and complain about how their industry is changing? OK, you can put your hand down. I'm sure the horse and buggy industry talked about the downfall of everything if cars kept being produced.

But the music industry isn't the only one being "hurt" by people taking intellectual property that isn't theirs and distributing it. Software and video have the same problem. What do you do if you can't beat them? C'mon, you know the answer - join them, but do it better!

In Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Chris Anderson talks about why we should embrace the coming price revolution and how to use it to our advantage. In the first chapter he describes Monty Python's response:

In November 2008, the surviving members of the original Monty Python team, stunned by the extent of digital piracy of their videos, issued a very stern announcement on YouTube:
For 3 years you YouTubers have been ripping us off, taking tens of thousands of our videos and putting them on YouTube.

Now the tables are turned. It's time for us to take matters into our own hands.

We know who you are, we know where you live and we could come after you in ways too horrible to tell. But being the extraordinarily nice chaps we are, we've figured a better way to get our own back: We've launched our own Monty Python channel on YouTube.

No more of those crap quality videos you've been posting. We're giving you the real thing - high quality videos delivered straight from our vault. What's more, we're taking our most viewed clips and uploading brand new high quality versions. And what's even more, we're letting you see absolutely everything for free. So there!

But we want something in return. None of your driveling, mindless comments. Instead, we want you to click on the links, buy our movies & TV shows and soften our pain and disgust at being ripped off all these years.
Many people think about releasing their "stuff" for free, or even worse someone else doing it, and panic.

But I like Google's approach: let's do something great, and we'll figure out how to make money off it later.

What were the results of Monty Python's response? Three months later, the results of this rash experiment with Free were in. Monty Python's DVDs had climbed to No. 2 on Amazon's Movies and TV best-sellers list, with increased sales of 23,000 percent. Did everyone buy a DVD? Of course not, probably very few of those who watched. But if you are doing it only for money, you are in the wrong business anyway. Their appeal and influence spread far beyond DVD reach and was available to new generations, some of whom wanted more.

Don't panic. Use your imagination, and do something great.


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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fate, Are We Clouds Shaped

Fate, are we clouds shaped,
bent and rolling by the mere blowing of the wind?
Of hardly any substance, just enough
might we catch a sight,
a lieu till another form assumed anew?
Say, can we not, "No,
I will not go with thee, O Wind, I defy
direction, for a different path I intend to run!"
Can we not hold back when
a temperature high or low must incur
the substance of our lives to spew in a dance?

Let me hold my energy from thee,
O Land, do not call forth your lightning hand
snatching my inner strength till I am nothing.
I search tragically over this terra's girth
for answers that are hidden lore:
to expose the birth and death of this aging cosmos.

Why must I
be an endless pattern in the sea,
hints of myriad movements,
dry wetness in the sky.


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Monday, September 21, 2009

The last career guide post I'll ever write

I just finished The Adventure of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need by Daniel H. Pink. It is not your normal nonfiction/business book, even for the business books that tell a didactic story. It is written/drawn in manga style, which made it actually a fun read and something very different. While I am not much of a fan of manga - those Asian cartoons that are basically single drawings of kids with spiky hair that are always going "pow" or something - it didn't feel like a book you had to wade through. Kudos to Pink for trying something new!

I'll give you the gist of it by providing the 6 rules that the magic business fairy tells Bunko when he breaks open some chopsticks:

1. There is no plan.
2. Think strengths, not weaknesses.
3. It's not about you.
4. Persistence trumps talent.
5. Make excellent mistakes.
6. Leave an imprint.

If you've read much from authors such as Martin Seligman, Marcus Buckingham, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, then it is mostly a rehash. But it is leftovers from a great meal. All of the "rules" are based on living your life from principles rather than trying to manipulate the future - which is basically the point of number one (my favorite). You never know what might happen, and if you aren't open to opportunities, then you'll miss out because you had a "plan."

Not that plans are bad, but they should be drafts based on values and principles rather than set in stone. The problem is that sometimes this comes at odds with the particular context. For example, rule number 5 says that you should shoot for the moon knowing that sometimes you will fail. But what happens if you are in a context that doesn't particularly like taking risks. Been there. Pink says that we shouldn't just be walking around on clouds hoping life works out, but we should be "enlightened pragmatists."

I liked what the book had to say, but it is certainly no short term fix for those struggling in this economy. Where you can take his advice is to volunteer your skills and passions or take a different look at how you fit into your current company. If you are interested in more, check out the website.

Ja, Mata.


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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Why not try?

This all started when Autumn told me a few nights ago as she was sitting in her bed before lights out: "I'm writing a letter to Vietnam."

You just can't walk out on a conversation starter like that. Now, my daughter has perfected the art of stalling before bed-time. She comes at it from many different angles - the slow drag towards the room, finding reasons to come back out, needing a drink, having something important to tell us - you name, she's tried it. And generally it works on me, but her mom seems to be immune to most of them.

But she really had just drafted a chain of two letters that she was sending out. She noticed that the journal she was writing in was made in Vietnam so she wanted to write them a letter thanking them for making the journal that she was writing in. To do that, she was also writing a letter to the company that sold the journal asking them to forward the other letter to the people who made it in Vietnam.

This is what I love about my daughter - she has a why-not, go-get'em attitude. You have to explain, many times and many different ways, why you think she shouldn't do something because she has a lot of out-there ideas. But really, why not let her try? Most of the time she's very effective at getting it done.

And really, why haven't you tried some of those ideas that you've been sitting on but seem kind of out there? What do you have to lose? Life can be an adventure - make it something worth writing home about.


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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Giant Waterslide

This one is just fun to watch.


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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Where Are The Fields

Where are the fields
that would shift
with color, pieces coming
and going
in an exchange with the sky
and would, of one moment,
call out in echoing cries
as it lifted into the heavens
with a thousand flowing wings.

Who will look upon
that giant wonder
of white animation,
seeming metamorphosis
on that overhead canvas:
in majestic silence they come,
a mighty avalanche
of unfolding creatures and sights
rolling past lingering eyes.

Old memories are the scenes
of innocent beauty.


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Monday, September 14, 2009


The word "pandemic" conjures images of something very bad waiting to spread. In today's world, which is becoming urbanized and travel is easy and world-wide, this is a very real threat. Interestingly, games have popped up around this idea.

There is the flash video game in which you are a virus trying to kill off the world. You are trying to mutate and spread before you can become contained. It's you against the world.

Then there is the board game my wife and I played recently with the Willisses (Shayna - this is for you). In this version, you try and contain the virus. It was interesting because instead of people or teams competing against each other, everybody had to work together to try and stop the virus from spreading. Everybody wins or everybody loses.

Everybody wins or everybody loses. It is a very strange concept when we talk games, and really about our way of life. In other games, you race to get the most points or to get to the finish line. You do what you have to in sports to score more points than the other team. There are winners and there are losers.

And it spills out into other areas of life. We do what we have to to get a better grade than the other people in class. We work harder than co-workers to get the promotion. Bonuses are dealt out by ranking. We compete for attention. Relationships have battlegrounds. If I don't take, someone else will and I will lose out. If I stay with the crowd, I remain average - and who wants average?

What would it be like if you played the game of real life as if everybody wins or everybody loses? You pull hard for that family member; because if they lose, you can't replace family. You go overboard to help the struggling co-worker; because if they get left behind or are fired, the company loses money and you lose learning how to be a great team member.

Standing over others may be the loneliest spot, and ultimately the loser - by making everything a competition we are spreading a pandemic of individuality. Using diverse talents and gifts to help raise the group makes everyone a winner.


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Friday, September 11, 2009

You don't think the way you think you think

I love this Bertrand Russell quote: "It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this."

All you have to do is take a good look at the G-20 convention and protests going on this week in Pittsburgh to see that often we have no rational idea of why we do the things we do. For example, how do destructive actions promote change to help people? "The atmosphere turned destructive along Forbes Avenue, where storefronts, including Pamela's Diner, were smashed in. Windows at the campus police station also were damaged. Businesses on South Craig Street also were vandalized, including Irish Design Center and Quiznos."

You don't have to go to vandalism to find irrational behavior. You can pretty much look anywhere you want. In the book All Customers Are Irrational (5), the author talks about how, if you really want to predict future behavior, you absolutely do not try to answer with rational explanations. As it turns out, the answer to predicting future behavior is quite rational - you look at past behavior.

Trying to find a rational answer for why you do things is much more difficult than you think. Rather than the subconscious being that part of the brain that kicks in here and there but usually handles the most basic stuff and our conscious part of the brain being, well, the brain of the operations, it is the other way around - only about 5% of the conscious portion of our brains being used to make decisions, and it is usually being notified after the decision has been made.
What that means is that you don't really know why you often do things, instead you are generally justifying why you did that after the fact.

Newsflash: we humans are pretty complex creatures. We are far more emotional and communal, sometimes in strange ways, than we are rational. Understand this, and we may have something that can help our businesses, our jobs, and our relationships.


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Master your art

There is probably no more famous teacher of writing screenplays than Robert McKee. If you are not sure who he is, maybe you saw him portrayed in the brilliant movie Adaptation.

In his book Story, McKee says this near the front: Story is about thoroughness, not shortcuts. It is about mastering the art. You can see when people have short-circuited the process, have gone for the easy fix.

Is it possible to do that in real life? Aren't there times when we just need to take the shortcut at work because of deadlines and the every-day minutia that beats you down? Aren't there times when we should just go for the easy fix because the alternative means pain and a long haul?

The hard answer is is no, there is no good time to go for the shortcut. Even in deadlines, there should be a struggle, there should be sweat, blood, and tears to give it the best; and then work hard to understand how it can be better next time. It is what separates great companies from the pack, your favorite products from the has-beens, the best friends from the acquaintances, the growing parents from the oh-well ones. And the great movies from that fourth installment just trying to make money.


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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Listening to unlikely sources

Who do you go to for advice when you really need it?

Interesting quote from Serena Williams about the 2009 U.S. Open in this article from USA Today:

With the way things are going, some of the top women might be open to advice. Even the younger Williams listened to some unsolicited tips at Arthur Ashe Stadium. "I heard a guy in the crowd saying, 'Stop hitting lobs!' So I didn't hit any more lobs after that," she said with a chuckle. "My lob was not working today."
I love that she was actually listening to the crowd! I really thought professionals try to tune out anything but cheers.

I suppose tuning things out is difficult to do.

I wonder how many of us really have anyone to go to when something is pressing and you need to know: do I continue going this way, or take another path? I have asked different people in my life over the last 15 years to do this for me - to listen to my issues and help me think through them, to help me set life goals, etc., with mixed results. But it generally helped having someone to talk to that comes from a different vantage point.

I also think we need to be careful about handing out advice. Is your advice really what is best for them, or is it self-serving in some kind of way? Is it really the type of advice they need, or when they need to hear it?

I usually give the soccer parents for teams that I am coaching an opening lecture on not giving sideline advice during a game. Their direction may be contrary to what the coaches have asked the boys to do, and at best it is distracting them from what is going on. And frankly, the parents don't have the same vantage point that the boys or girls do (an eight-year-old in the middle of a game with a ball flying around and trying to remember everything from practice). But the best reason is that the boys or girls need to learn to make soccer decisions themselves come gametime rather than learning to follow constant directions. There is time for advice and time to just cheer.

Listen to unlikely sources - you may need to hear something that puts it in a different perspective. And provide advice carefully, when it is asked for - you may be more influential than you realize.


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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Shall I Speak

Shall I speak now of a colored rose
or flowers melded in full bloom
in a valley whence the cool breeze flows
in a soft embrace for the languorous releasing
of the untamed essence of Nature's perfume?

Rather, I would of my sweet sorrow sing.

Shall I then reminisce of days now past;
echoes of then, when to be was enough,
as time stood still but the moment would never last;
of a soul warmed in the radiance of bliss,
a grasping of that which dreams are made of?

All memory is in that parting kiss.

Shall I hope for Hyperion to rise again,
will he break the darkness with his chariot alight;
should I attempt to steal, to the God's chagrin,
that spark that sets my world on fire
breaking the fear of my ever-midnight?

What hope is there in mortal desire.


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Friday, September 04, 2009

You did what?

So my seven-year old came home with a paper on what he did the first week of school. It said: "We did adding. We did writing. We did subtracting. We did morning meeting. We did groping." After a little more careful examination we find out that it was "graphing." I know kids are learning lots these days, but I'm thankful he wasn't holding more than his paper and pencil.


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Thursday, September 03, 2009

There's Another Mall I'll Never Visit

There's another mall I'll never visit,
There's another credit card I'll never use.
Technology is outproducing the consumer:
More toys, forthwith artifacts, that bamboozle the eye.

Just another way to arrest my mind and waste my time.
What choice do I have but to refuse to choose.


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Wednesday, September 02, 2009


What do you deserve?

The book The Narcissism Epidemic (232) showed a study in which the results were startling - not because you didn't expect them, but for how prevalent they were:

A survey of college students published in 2008 confirmed these perceptions [students now believe they deserve good grades rather than having to earn them]. Two-thirds of students believed their professor should give them special consideration if they explained they were trying hard. One-third believed they deserved at least a B just for attending class. And one-third thought they should be able to reschedule their final exam if it interfered with their vacation plans.
So what do you deserve? And based on what?

It makes you wonder about the correlation between a sense of entitlement and a sense of responsibility. As a parent, I also wonder how you teach your kids that life doesn't come on a silver platter, yet also provide loving gifts. I'm sure there is a balance, yet I think most people believe they are in that middle ground. Maybe if I just explain to my kids that I tried really hard...


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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Look At The Boy

Look at the boy
choking the air with dust as he runs
in and out
among the briars and branches,
brown and musty green mixing
in a humdrum pattern,
suiting this inverted taco with a tail
perfectly. As the armadillo rests
amazingly hid,
the boy looks
he knows his goal is near.
The mask is removed,
the mad chase continues
as the animal goes
here and there
weaving the untraceable.
Almost, oh so close, comes the boy
to grabbing the tail. But the armadillo,
antagonizing, moves quicker.

Everyone cheers the boy on,
knowing he can't win.


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