Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Proofreading

A few days ago a friend asked me if I would be willing to put a friend of his in contact with the CEO of a company where his friend wanted to work. I said I would be glad to do so. My friend, who is a successul Internet entrepreneur, forwarded me an email from his friend with her resume and cover letter. I forwarded the email to the CEO of the company and cc'ed my friend. Within hours the CEO replied saying he had forwarded the information to the appropriate person. But a few hours later he sent us another email telling us that my friend's friend had already applied for a job in his company and that she had misaddressed her original cover letter to another company. This seemed like a particularly serious mistake given that she was applying for an administrative position in which attention to details was very important.

Not only had my friend's friend blown her chances of getting the job, even though she had an endorsement directly into the CEO, but she had embarrassed her friend who had gone out of his way to help her (by asking me to make the connection). Why did I tell this story to the boys? Cindy and I often give them a hard time when their school work, or anything else they do for that matter, has any typos or mistakes. The boys typical response is that an extra space, comma or letter is not a big deal. And it is probably true that in most circumstances a small error wont make a big difference (unless you are programming a spaceship for a Mars landing of course). Yet if we don't get into the habit of always proofreading and double-checking what we do, a mistake will at some point catch up to us - like it did for my friend's friend. I, for example, proofread every email I send (even if it is a silly one to a friend). And I am amazed at the number of emails that I get with typos and errors. Now, let me proofread this post before I embarras myself. I hope my spellchecker is working...

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Routine Sex

Paco spoke to us about the power of routines - and how they get you to do stuff you would otherwise struggle with. For example, one of Paco's routines is to wake up at 6:15am ever weekday to do his piano practice. Since he has been doing this he no longer worries or struggles about practicing the piano. It simply happens "automatically" every morning... I mentioned I feel the same way about my swimming: when I swim with the masters team every monday, wednesday and friday from 12:30 to 1:30 it just happens. Otherwise, I stress about finding the time to exercise (and doing so properly).

We spoke about the importance of avoiding exemptions. I've found that unless I am "religious" about not missing a single workout it becomes a very slippery slope from missing one because of an important meeting to missing  most for all sort of "important" reasons. Being strict also reduces stress: no need to decide what justifies breaking the routine and what doesn't. Nothing does.

We then spoke about whether doing something as a routine rather than spontaneously takes any merit or value away from it. Is it less meaningful if you call your grandmother every Friday afternoon (as a routine) instead of when you think of her? What about if you want to make an act of kindness every day thus enter a routine of doing "something" every day at lunchtime? How about a routine of saying something nice to your significant other every morning after you wake up? I don't think making something a routine takes anything away from it. It sure makes it more likely that you will do it - which is what matters the most.

Now, don't ask me about the title please ;-)...

Monday, December 3, 2012

Anti-Inertia

Nico made an intriguing observation this morning: after our car slows down and comes to a full stop our bodies move backwards instead of forward. Shouldn't our bodies move forward, due to inertia, as the car stops? Since we were in the car we conducted an experiment to validate Nico's observation. Sure enough: once the car stops, our bodies moves back, not forward. What is going on? After a second experiment we figured it out: As the car is slowing down our bodies do move forward (very gradually because I am a great driver who slows down gradually ;-). But, when the car stops completely, the negative acceleration that is moving our bodies forward disappears so our bodies move backwards to settle into their normal pose. What Nico perceives as backwards motion is just the "undoing" of the previous forward motion. But because the forward motion is so gradual he barely notices it.

We sometimes experience similar contradictory emotions: have you ever felt bad at the end of a great experience, such as a vacation? I have. The great experience makes us feel particularly good, but when it is over we return to our normal emotional state - which by comparison feels bad (even thought it felt just fine before the experience).

Two takeaways:

1) We are very sensitive to sudden changes, even if they are small. Try to perform activities that generate small but frequent positive feelings. These are better than infrequent ones that generate hugely positive experiences or those that are so gradual we can't appreciate.

2) When you have to go through a negative experience, do the opposite: go for one big sudden blow, rather than lots of little ones. Or, make it so gradual that you can't notice it.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Pricing - From Used Kites to Homes

I sold one of my used kites yesterday. I did it fast: posted it on the kite forums at 8am and took it to FedEx by noon. I probably sold it too cheap. Pricing can be such a challenge! But, at least for a used kite, I prefer to sell it cheap and fast than to spend weeks (or months) trying to sell it (for an extra $100). Sometimes, you can start with a high ask price then negotiate with lower offers (or proactively lower the price) but the risk is nobody will bother to make an offer - or pay attention when you lower the price. Sometimes you can start with a low price and let potential buyers bid the price up. That is the ideal outcome when selling a house: the low price attracts lots of interest but the scarcity generates bids that maximize the sale price. The risk there, of course, is that all you get are offers at the low price you asked for - but in that case that is probably the fair market value.

A completely different approach to pricing is utilized by airlines: they constantly change their ticket prices based on time, capacity, trends, etc. We've gotten used to the same product being sold to different people for radically different prices. This is something we normally don't accept. Imagine if Apple asked you $1,000 for an iPad because it knew you could afford it?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Be Kind

Today Paco spoke to us about the importance of being kind to people - at least a small gesture each day. He mentioned that one of his teachers had been sick and that when she came back he asked her how she was feeling and that she greatly appreciated his concern. Why is this important? Well, what goes around comes around. Be nice to others and others will be nice to you. I also told the boys about research that shows that being kind to others makes us happy. So it is not simply about altruism or about a quid-pro-quo, but also about doing something that on its own merits gives us fulfillment.

Ale mention that we shouldn't be kind to others hoping to get something back. I agreed and added that those who don't focus on what's in it for them normally end up getting more back. Like entrepreneurs who start companies to build something great rather than to make money often make more money than those whose focus is the money itself.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Breaks to Routines

I just came back from spending a week in Brazil. Half of the time I was running from business meeting to business meeting, but for four days I was in the small town of Buzios at the South American Kite Racing Championship. I had plenty of "down-time" on my own walking on the beach... It was a real break from most of my routines: away from Cindy, away from the boys, away from friends and colleagues, from my town, home and bed... So what? While I must confess that I was lonely, it also felt good to break from my routines. You get to appreciate the things you take for granted. You get to assess how important they are for you. Which routines your truly miss and which ones you might want to change when you get back home.

Management teams have off-sites or board meetings every so often to focus on the forest rather than the trees. Individuals should do the same. At least once per year, take a break from the inertia of your routines and the typical daily distractions and think about what is important for you, with whom and doing what you want to spend your time.

The morning after having this conversation I noticed that Paco was having breakfast before his routine morning piano practice session (he normally practices the piano first, then has breakfast). He told me he was changing his routine ;-).

Thursday, November 15, 2012

10

Ale is wondering why humas are obsessed with the number 10... Could there be 11 digits (or 9) between 1 and 10? Would it make a difference or is 10 arbitrary? Nico has been studying the Babylonians. They had a base 60 numeric system!

I mentioned that binary base only has two values and exponentials of 2, which is why our phones and tablets have 16 gigs or 32 gigs or 64 gigs...

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

the cat is out of the bag

I suggested that Facebook should have a feature allowing users to delete all the comments and posts they ever made. Yet after further thought I realized this wouldn't work. Once you make a public post on Facebook there is no turning back. The post is indexed by search engines such as Google and it can't be completely deleted. Like the expression says: once the cat is out of the bag, you are out of luck.

slow motion wrecks

We spoke about the devastation caused by hurricane Sandy. We have a saying in Venezuela "Guerra avisada no mata soldado, y si lo mata es por descuidado" (War foretold doesn't kill soldier, and if it does, is for carelessness). But is that really true? We would like to think that timely warnings allow us to avoid disasters. Yet they often don't. Take Sandy, for days it was advertised as the biggest storm to hit the East Coast in decades. And it played out like a slow motion train wreck: massive flooding,  power outages, deaths. Some catastrophes are simply unavoidable. The power generators in low lands were going to get flooded no matter what- and a few days of warning didn't make a difference. I do wonder about the thousands of people whose belongings got ruined in their basements and ground floors. Seems like they should have had time to move stuff, at least the computers!, to their attics.

I wonder how much effort will go into minimizing damage when the next monster storm comes. Whether that happens in a year or 20, it will happen, and no amount of wishful thinking will prevent that...


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

the safe side

Paco spoke to us about the "Safe Side". In situations in which you can get things just right, there is often a "safe side". For example, you probably won't be able to arrive to all meetings at their exact start time. The safe side is arriving early - by giving yourself extra time. In soccer, a topic close to Paco's heart, it is better for the goalie to be a bit too far back than a bit too far forward. In sailing, a topic close to my heart, it is better for the sail to be a bit too loose than a bit too tight, and in sailing races, it is better to overstand the laylines to the marks than to come short of them.

Yes sometimes there is no safe side - you'll fall just the same on either side of a tightrope! And sometimes you have to get things just right if you want to "win". Take the olympics, for example, most gold medalist don't win by playing it safe but by nailing things just right. I guess the circumstances often dicate what's necessary: if you have enough of an advantage you can usually play it safe and still win, but if your are behind or tied, you might need to go for it and risk ending on the "wrong side".

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

We Need Sparks

Paco is doing a creative writing workshop at school. He shared an interesting observation with us: he finds inspiration for his essays in the most random and trivial places. He described it as a spark. A spark doesn't need to be big or meaningful, yet it is essential. Just like you need one for a bonfire. All the wood in the world won't give you much fire without an initial spark.

I have found most creative processes are similar, which is why I rarely have brilliant ideas in the shower. I need the sparks that the world around me give me. I have most of my ideas while talking with people. Something someone says acts as a spark for me.

I explained to the boys this is one of the reasons we travel and take them places. To give them lots of sparks & fuel (more on fuel below). We also spoke about how ideas often evolve far from their original spark and how the most "random" sparks sometimes generate the best ideas. Think about a cigarette that sparks a giant forest fire. What resemblance does the giant fire bare to its original spark?

Of course fuel is also important - probably more so. A spark on a tiny wet branch won't generate much of a fire, yet a large pile of dry wood will lit fast and large. Our fuel is made from our lives' cumulative experiences. We have to accumulate fuel and expose it to sparks.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Unintended Consequences - Carbon Crunch

I read today how the European Union carbon quotas are increasing pollution rather than decrease it. Asked the boys if they could guess why and they figure it out: manufacturing is moving to other countries, such as China & India, where there are no carbon quotas, and where energy is more polluting than in Europe. This is typical of government regulations that fail to take into consideration the entire picture. We should be careful about partial solutions that are described as flawed but better than nothing. Often they are worst than nothing!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Cabeza de Raton o Cola de Leon?

Ale spent part of his summer at the Walden School of Music. He discovered that most of the other participants were much more advanced musically than him. It was a surprise because in his own school he felt like one of the most advanced students musically. He told us this realization was both good and bad: good because you can improve a lot by surrounding yourself with people better than yourself, but bad because it can be discouraging to realize you are not that good (at least not yet). Paco mentioned he had a similar experience when he changed soccer teams a year ago.

I suggested that a few factors can tilt these type of situations towards good or bad. If you realize your are not as good as others but you could, say by devoting more time and effort, then it can be quite motivating. But if you realize you just don't have the talent, and wont catch up no matter how hard you try, then it can be demoralizing. Another dimension to consider is the extent to which you enjoy the activity, despite your lack of mastery, and the extent to which you can improve, even if you remain at the "back of the pack".

I shared with the boys a personal example: when I was in high school I thought I was a math genius. I wanted to be a mathematician and was fortunate to get into MIT. But once at MIT I realized I was very far from a math genius. Plenty of my fellow students were an order of magnitude better than me at math. And it wasn't a matter of effort. They understood math intuitively in a way I couldn't. Fortunately, I soon found another discipline in which it was the other way around: I took a class at the business school and discovered that I had an intuitive ease and understanding of the subject that most other students lacked. On top of that, I really enjoyed it.

If you enjoy something, though, it doesn't matter how good (or bad) you are. Take kiteracing. I am pretty bad. But I enjoy it. Furthermore, when I kite near the really fast sailors, I go faster myself (until I fall so far behind I can't see them). It probably does help if you are making progress. I will probably stop kiteracing if I ever feel I am no longer making progress in it.

Mouse's head or Lion's tail.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Foundation

Paco is reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. In it Earth sends some of its smartest citizens to worlds on opposite end of the Galaxy to create new civilizations because Earth is destroying itself (or something like that. It has been many years since I read it). Paco wondered if the descendants of that first generation would all be smart as well. We all agreed that they wouldn't, but that on average they probably would.  But we didn't think "smarter" people would necessarily build a better civilization. Plenty of smart people have done terrible things... We discussed emotional intelligence and how Doc Martin doesn't have any - even though he is very smart. Seems like smart people with low EQ get alone just fine with others that also have high IQ but low EQ. But not with other people.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Now Now Now!

Nico's turn. He wondered why he can happily enjoy a few minutes in bed before he has to get up to get ready for school and really but dread waking up at the very last moment. From 6:50am until 6:59am he is happy. But at 7am, when he has to get up, it hits him all of a suden - particularly on Mondays such as today. I ventured that humans evolved to value the present a lot more than the future (even the near future). It is probably the same reason why most people struggle to save money or stick to a diet. The pleasure of the present overrules the benefit of the future.

I feel like Nico when I have to swim on a cold day. I am fine until the moment right before I have to jump in the pool. At that point I really dread it. But I shouldn't because I know that within 10 minutes I'll be warm from swimming and after an hour I'll be feeling great from the exercise. Still, an hour seems like a century away when my toes touch the cold water!

What to do? Try to avoid making decisions in that last minute when all that matters is the immediate future, e.g., impulse purchase or unscheduled snacks. And generate enough momentum in your life towards the (longer term) things that matter more. For example, after I've driven to the club, parked my car, changed into my bathing suit, and walked to the edge of the pool, there is no turning back.


Friday, October 12, 2012

Don't Answer the Door

I read yesterday, with amazement, the tale of how Lance Armstrong and his cycling team tricked the anti-doping authorities for years. We discussed it this morning and I told the boys that I thought their best avoidance technique was also the simplest: not answering the door. Apparently when the officials went to their homes to test them they would simply pretend they were not there. How simple! Surely beats spending hundreds of thousands of dollars developing hard to detect drugs.

Hackers often use an equally simple approach to infiltrate computer networks: call an unsuspecting user and trick them into divulging their password "Sally, this is John from IT, we are doing a back-up and I want to make sure all your information is safe. Can you please tell me your password". Who needs supercomputers with fancy algorithms?

Sometimes a simple, low tech, and inexpensive approach provide the best results...

Back to Lance, the most amazing aspect of the story, of course, is the number of years during which this deception took place. It is incredible that something of this magnitude can be sustained for so long. But, as has been shown in many other instances, e.g., Bernie Madoff, it sure can. We shouldn't lower our guard because someone, or something, has been "legit" for a long time. And I guess the "bright side" is that sooner or later, the truth comes out - or does it?


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Engine Failure

A SpaceX rocket docked with the International Space Station today. During its launch yesterday one of the engines failed. Fortunately the rocket's computer was programed to redistribute the fuel and power to the remaining engines to keep the rocket on course. How cool!

It is often better to account for the possibility of mistakes, and to have plans for addressing them, than to avoid them entirely. Sometimes it is simply a matter of economics and probabilities: it might be cheaper to have redundant engines (or computers or people) than to make sure an engine will not fail under any circumstance. Crowdsourcing is a bit like this: rather than finding the foremost "expert" on a topic you can often simply tap the "wisdom of the crowd".

Nico is training tennis so I used the example of learning to hit a good forehand: positioning is very important. You can't be too close or too far from the ball. But you won't always get the position right. So you must learn to compensate for your positioning mistakes - rather than focus exclusively on getting your position always 100% right.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Dilemmas

Someone is doing something that is annoying me a bit. Yet I am reluctant to bring it up because I am afraid I might offend him. I asked the boys for advice. I laid out my options with the pros and cons of each. The boys gave me good feedback and I decided to simply ignore the person's behavior. During the conversation several interesting points came up:

1) Explaining a dilemma to others can often help you answer it yourself. Pretty much by the time I had finished describing the situation and possible actions to the boys it had become clear to me what I should do.

2) How you explain your dilemmas has a big impact and how helpful others can be. I have found that it is particularly conducive to good feedback when you lay out the possible answers with an analysis of pros and cons of each - as opposed to just sharing the dilemma and asking for feedback.

3) The boys feedback was mostly in the form of "do this", "try that". I encouraged them instead to help me reach my own conclusions by asking me questions such as "if the person gets offended, how long is that likely to last?", or "how much does the behavior really bother you? Could you live with it indefinitely?". There are at least two benefits to this approach. First, the person with the dilemma is probably in the best position to answer it. Second, the person with the dilemma sometimes needs empathy more than advice.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Naked in San Francisco

It seems that a plaza or two in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco have become popular hang out places for nudists. Some people have complained about this so today a bill will be introduced by one of SF's supervisors that would ban nudity in public places. I asked the boys what they thought about this. Their first reaction was to ask if this would ruin the various fairs and events in which some San Franciscans participate naked, e.g., Bay to Breakers, Folsom Street Fair. The answer is no. The bill exempts these events. So, the boys felt, it seems reasonable then to avoid offending people.

I pushed back. Who decides what is offensive? What about someone who gets offended by revealing clothes, say tight leather pants with holes. Could they petition to ban that? In some countries, women have to cover their entire bodies. They "offend" others if they reveal their arms or faces. Where do you draw the line between covering the entire body and covering nothing? Would a tiny bikini be appropriate? The boys agreed this was a complex issue with a "slippery slope" to watch out for.

I am not sure what the right answer is, but I would rather err on the side of freedom than on the side of censorship...

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Other Half of the Story

I read a news article today about the co-founder of a high profile company leaving suddenly and surprising most industry observers. Turns out things at this company were not as rosie as most people believed they were... Appearances can be deceiving. I gave the kids several examples: the "ideal couple" who suddenly divorces - turns out we have no idea what happens behind "closed doors". Or the company that gets acquired only because it is about to go out of business.

You can't believe most of what you hear. Particularly since many individuals and organizations have a  vested interest in painting a pretty picture of themselves. Most Facebook updates are "positive". But it is probably safe to asume that for every positive posting someone makes, there is a negative one they could have made. So, remember you are often getting at best half the story...

Two practical implications of the above:

1) Remember this when deciding where to go work, where to go to school, or where to go live. Try to get the other half of the story before deciding.

2) Some people provide more balanced information than others. A person who appears happier than another isn't necessarily so. He might just be less open about his problems.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Sandbagging

Ale suggested that pessimists might be happier than optimists, as the outcomes they experience exceed their expectations more often than they do for optimists. Nico jumped in to say that optimism can lead to better outcomes, so pessimists might actually experience worst results than optimists. I agreed with this point - particularly for situations that are closely correlated to your own actions, and even more so if there are other people involved - who will be influenced by your attitude. For example, the outcome of a soccer match in which you are playing. On the other hand, the likelihood you will win the lottery won't be influenced by your optimism about it.

But back to Alejandro's original point, we are definitely happier when reality exceeds our expectations, so we need to manage expectations. Ideally have expectations that are realistic and that we can exceed, but that will push us to do our best. I mentioned to the boys how companies must set goals that they can achieve, at least most of the times, so that employees feel good about their accomplishments. But they shouldn't "sandbag", i.e., set goals that are easy to meet and won't require that the team work really hard. And, sometimes, you do want to set some crazy unrealistic goals. That is how amazing things often happen - and how we can grow and learn by stretching ourselves outside our comfort zones.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

No Breaks

Paco brought up the need for realistic planning when setting out to do a long task. For example, if you have 6 hours of work ahead, you should plan a few breaks, rather than pretend you can do all the work without stopping - as the later approach will likely result in unscheduled and disruptive breaks. Ale said that for some people, more frequent shorter breaks might work better, and even a less structured schedule. We all agreed different approaches work best for different people. The key thing is to be realistic about your needs. A related example is dieting. Some people set the unrealistic goal of not eating anything all day, only to "break down" before the end of the day to eat whatever is available. Better to know that you at least need a little bit of food and plan accordingly.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Nip in the Bud

This morning Ale started telling me about an issue he had had with Nico earlier. Before Ale could finish Nico jumped in to say he realized that he had been wrong and there was no point in involving me. But of course it was too late... Ale had already told me about it. This got me thinking of the benefit of resolving problems early before they escalate. To "nip them in the bud", as the expression says. Had Nico acknowledged his mistake right away Ale would not have brought it up with me.

We discussed similar situations in which arguments with their classmates escalate to their teachers, sometimes with serious consequences. All because they didn't resolve them early when they could have. Often, it is as simple as a brief apology. Nico asked about situations in which he was not in the wrong. I said even then it was often best to put problems behind when it is "inexpensive" to do so. I gave them the example of a bill I once got for $27. The bill was incorrect so I didn't pay it. A collections agency then called me. Again I explained the problem and refused to pay it. Next thing I know the unpaid bill appeared in my credit report (where it probably stayed for 7 years!). A few years later I got a similar bill (from another vendor). Guess what I did? You bet I just paid it and moved on!

Sometimes you want to take a stand and fight for your beliefs. But you should do so consciously and weighting the pros and cons. Pick your fights - and nip the others in the bud quickly.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Walls

Ale told us about an essay he wrote. He described three types of challenges that we face, and used different types of walls we need to get through as an analogy. Some walls you have to power through. Hit them and hit them until you break them down. For example, perfecting a musical piece on an instrument often takes practice and more practice. No short-cuts. Other walls, are too hard to demolish. You must find a path around them. An example would be a rock climbing challenge. Sometimes, the answer is a different move or path, not more "brute force". Finally, there are some walls we should walk away from - as they can't be demolished nor have a path around them. So, when you face a serious challenge, determine what kind of "wall" it is be and what the correct approach to overcome it is.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Pacing Yourself

Paco's turn to lead our conversation. He has been reading the Enders Game science fiction series and he picked a topic from it: pacing yourself. When you are faced with a challenge and you want to do your best, you must remember not to try so hard you burn out before you finish.

We spoke about swimming and running. Your strategy for a 100 meter sprint, a 5K and a marathon should be quite different. Ale mentioned how the breathing technique changes in swimming depending on the distance - the kicking technique does as well. So it is not just about the degree of effort but the approach as well.

I told the boys this was a common issues in start-ups, where we often work super hard. Start-ups are rarely, if ever, sprints. So pace is critical. As a leader, be it a manager or a coach, you must help your team members pace themselves. You can't push them too hard or even let them drive themselves too hard. And it is not just about a single race but about an entire season, or in some cases a multi year olympic campaign.

And while in sports we know the distance we are running (or swimming), in other circumstances we don't. Who knows how long it will take a start-up to succeed? We must be conservative and make sure we have plenty of "fuel in the tank", with some in "reserve". If it starts to look like the finish line is close, we can speed up and burn more gas, otherwise, the priority should be to finish the race. After all, and I know I am quoting someone, in order to win, you must first finish the race!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Getting Outside your Comfort Zone

The day before my last kite race (see previous post) I got some feedback from an expert kite racer: lean further back, strengthen my front leg, flatten the board...  I thought I would be able to pay attention to these things during the race and go faster. Problem was, the race was stressful (dozens of kites all around me), challenging (too much wind, too little wind, strong current) and tiring (three races back to back). So my body ignored my brain and got into its usual comfortable position: bent legs, bent back, heeled board. I know this is slow, but my body refused to get outside its comfort zone given the stress and fatigue.

To push yourself beyond your comfort zone and improve it helps to have the right environment. Better wind, flatter water, no competitors around. Once you extend your comfort zone in such conditions you can then move on to a more challenging environment. Hopefully your body will remember what to do and disregard the stress and fatigue. It might feel like a waste of time: why bother practicing on flat water if I will compete in chop, but gradually building skills and confidence is often the fastest approach.

Knowing Who to Beat

A few days ago was the last racing night for the 2012 kiteracing series. So we discussed sailing tactics. Specifically, knowing who your real competition is. In my case, there were only three competitors I had a chance of passing for the final season standings - and nobody who could pass me. So my focus for the final night of racing was to stay ahead of the three people who mattered. How could I do that? If I happened to find myself ahead of one of them during a race, I would "cover" them. That means staying between them and the finish line, even if that meant letting other competitors pass you (maybe because you were heading to the wrong side of the course or because you were sailing past a layline). I've seen olympic races in which the two competitors with a chance of gold finish last and second to last - because all they care about is beating each other (so everyone else passes them as they match race).

Knowing who you are really competing against, who really matters, is obviously also relevant in other contexts, such as business, academics and politics.

So, how did I do? I beat two of the three people who mattered, and moved my final standing from 18 to 16 for the series ;-).

Friday, September 7, 2012

Limited Time, Unlimited Effort

Several members of the family, me included, have been struggling with challenging projects (or activities). After certain amount of frustration we wonder whether we should drop the project and move on, or stick with it a bit longer. This morning we spoke about how to go about making that decision...

I described to the boys an approach that has served me well in the past - although I must confess it is easier said than done. It is simple: decide on an amount of time you believe is appropriate to devote to exploring the project, and, during that period of time give it all you have and don't second guess yourself at all. This approach has several benefits:

- You eliminate the anxiety of second guessing yourself and pondering whether you should be abandoning the project. That analysis is left for the end of the pre-established period.

- By giving it all you have you maximize the chances of succeeding at the activity. If you fail, you will know it was not for lack of trying.

- You avoid a situation of half-hearted effort for an extended period of time, without success and without an understanding of whether you could succeed if only you gave it your best.

- You contain the risk. Suppose you want to try a jazz band but you are not sure it is the right thing for you. Rather than an open ended commitment you could start with a 90 day trial. Worst comes to worst, after 90 days you conclude you don't want to do it anymore, and move on to the next project.

What happens if you can't get yourself to devote all your energy to a project, even for a limited period of time? One conclusion might be that the project is not right for you. The other, more scary one, is that you need to work on your self-discipline... But that will be a conversation for another day.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Ignorance is Bliss

Another conversation led by Alejandro. He wrote an essay titled Ignorance is Bliss. Is it? It is when knowing a problem doesn't help you solve it or do anything about it. But of course "someone" needs to solve important problems at some point... Ale described the evolution of people as ignorant (child), aware but passive (adolescent), problem-solver (adult), ignorant again (old age). Interesting...

I suggested there was no point in worrying about any problem. Either you could solve a problem (no need to worry) or you couldn't (no point in worrying). Paco liked this :-).

We spoke a bit about the free-rider problem - people in society who let others solve the problems. And about how ignorance of challenges has sometimes driven people to do the "impossible".

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Dogs playing chess

Ale told us about a conversation he had in his history class. Turns out dogs have a good perception of time as something that has a past and a future, not just a present. Dogs primary sense is smell. And smells persist for a long time. A dog can tell that a certain person was at a certain spot hours before. Compare that with humans, who primarily rely on sight and sound. To us, a room in which we don't see or hear anyone is simply empty. Someone might have been there a few minutes before, but unless they left a warm cup of coffee behind, we have no idea.

So it apparently is the case that while humans are primarily focused and "sensing" just the present, dogs simultaneously perceive different moments in time. OK, this is a bit "heavy" so I think I am just going to leave it at that...

PS: Nico made an insightful observation: the above would imply that dogs should be good chess players! has a dog ever learned to play chess?

Friday, August 31, 2012

Loopholes

To my pleasant surprise all three boys knew what a loophole was - and even gave me examples. We spoke about whether it is OK to take advantage of loopholes or not, and concluded that "it depends". For example, taxpayers in the US search for the (legal) approach that will minimize their taxes. Taking advantage of loopholes is customary and expected (as long as they are perfectly legal loopholes). On the other hand, a loophole that allows you to do something that you know is "wrong" or "unethical" is a bad idea.

I started to talk about loopholes because I might have found one to decrease the price of my digital subscription to the Wall Street Journal. I signed up for the print version, even though I read the paper on my iPad, because the print subscription is cheaper (at least the offer I got is). And the print subscription gives you access to the digital version. I then decided to put my print delivery on hold, as  I don't want it. But I can still access the print version so I might be getting it for free while my print subscription is on hold. Not sure... My motivation (honestly!) was to avoid having to pick up and throw away the paper every day. But I then realized I might have found a loophole for a cheaper digital subscription... So, if this is indeed a loophole, is it OK? The boys thought it was fine. I am not sure... Does it matter that News Corp is one big corporation that should know how to take care of these things? Would it make a difference if it was a small non-profit community newspaper? I think it does. I think "context" matters...

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Perfect Back to School

First day of the 2012-2013 school year for the boys! Surprisingly they were all up early & ready to go. Maybe it is because they are all getting school iPads this year... Or maybe they missed their friends during the summer.

The boys got into a discussion about perfection. Nico, quoting "the wheelchair guy", said there is no perfection. I argued that something can be perfect within specified parameters and margins of error. For example, a band-aid (I've been cutting myself a lot lately) has plenty of imperfections when examined under a microscope, but the manufacturer might know that irregularities below a certain size can't be felt by our skin nor seen by our eyes, so every band-aid without irregularities bigger than that is, at least for practical purposes, "perfect". Hmmm... Not the best example I admit. But a good one to contrast with the quantum physics that Hawkings refers to, and that is not as relevant day-to-day.

Paco said perfection depends on each person's opinion. I agreed that could be the case in some subjective matters, such as someone thinking a certain chocolate cake is "perfect", but that perfection is not always subjective, such as when imperfections can be physically measured and the margin of error pre-established. Ale said the Sun sure looked like a perfect sphere through the fog today, even though he knows there are flames hundreds of miles high on its surface. We are just too far to notice them... Do imperfections matter when we can't see them?

Time to go. "Have a perfect first day of school"...

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Save your chips

Last week of the school year! Nico told his brothers today that it was very important for him that they attended his lower school graduation tomorrow. They both said they would go if the could. This reminded me of a request a relative once made from me to attend an event that was important for him. I personally didn't see why he felt the event was important, it wasn't important for me, and it required significant effort for me to attend, but I obliged. Yet right after the event the same relative asked me to attend another "important" event. This time I said no. To put it bluntly, I felt he had "used his chip".

It is OK to ask for multiple things from someone, particularly from friends and family, but be sensitive to the burden you might be placing on others. You might want to say something like: "I would love for you to do A, B and C for me. If you are too busy to do all three, no worries, hopefully you can at least do A". This approach has at least two positive aspects: 1) You let people know what your priorities are, in case they can't do everything, and 2) You acknowledge that you are asking for multiple things and that you are sensitive to their own situation. That second point, in my experience, increases the likelihood that the person will do all three things for you. People react better when they see you are sensitive and care about them...


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Walking Before Running

Ale thought the grading criteria that his history teacher uses is interesting:

5 if you show you know "most" of the information, but not all.
6 if you show you know all the information.
7 if you show you know all the information and present it with style and wit.

What Ale found interesting was that the quality of the presentation didn't come into play until you showed you mastered the subject matter. In other words, showing with style and wit that you knew most, but not all, the information wouldn't move your grade from a 5 to a 6.

Several interesting take aways: Most obviously, you must walk before you can run. Master the basics before you take things to the next level. Don't try to get "fancy" until you are ready. But there is another interesting point: some skills help you in many aspects of your life. In this particular case, being a good writer can help you with your history, not just your English. The same applies to math, which helps you in physics, chemistry, economics, and many other subjects. It is important to be conscious of these key skills and devote to them the effort necessary to get really good at them. It will pay back with dividends!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Memorizing

Paco spoke about the importance of not memorizing blinding but always trying to understand things. I agreed, but said sometime we simply had to memorize facts. For example, when in school they have to memorize countries and capitals. Ale said that was an example where one could do more, such as learn a bit about each country, its location, some facts, etc.

Nico mentioned that in theater it is important to understand the context of each scene and character, not just to memorize one lines. He said he sometimes he memorizes other characters' lines, in addition to his own, in case the other actors need help.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Calculated Risks

Nico told Cindy something about a book that he is reading - but she hasn't. Paco told Nico to be careful about not ruining the book for her. Nico thought the details were minor so Cindy wouldn't mind. This made me think of mistakes that can be fixed vs. those that can't. If you tell someone too much about a book or movie, you might ruin it for them and there is nothing you can do about it. You can't take back what you said. Another, more serious, example would be if you physically harm someone in a car accident. The damage is done and there is no turning back (at least not until someone invents a time machine!). Contrast that with a mistake that can be fixed: you purchase shoes that are the wrong size? Exchange them. You break someone's else's toy? Buy him a new one. It might still be a hassle or a significant expense to fix these mistakes, but at least you can.

So what? If you are not sure something you are about to do is right, think about the consequences of being wrong. Be more careful in situations for which there will be no fix if you make a mistake. Another way of thinking about this is the concept of "calculated risks": I am in a hurry and can't find parking. If I am comfortable with the risk of getting a parking ticket I might just park illegally. But if I am not comfortable with the risk of hurting someone in a car accident I shouldn't speed or go through Red lights.

An example from sailing: If you are over the line early at the start of a race you can correct your mistake by going back and restarting. A costly mistake but not necessarily a "lethal" one. But if you have a collision with another sailboat, no matter how small, you will be disqualified from the race entirely if you could have avoided it.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

I Spy Lies

Great discussion led by Alejandro this morning! When playing a game such as I Spy, what is worst, to claim to see something you haven't seen or to see something and not say it. The boys felt it depended on how many people were playing. If many, then not saying that you saw something had minimal impact on the game. But if only two people are playing and you don't say that you saw something, the game becomes pretty pointless... Context matters.

We then discussed two additional aspects of this question: is a lie that benefits you worst than one that doesn't (or even hurts you)? And, is it worst to explicitly lie by saying something that is untrue or to lie by keeping quiet - thus implying a negative you know to be false? We didn't have much time to debate these (no traffic today). Alejandro felt it made no difference on either dimension: a lie is a lie, whether it helps you or hurts you, and whether you say it or imply it. Paco wasn't so sure. Not necessarily a slam-dunk, but I tend to agree with Alejandro. If nothing else, it can become a slippery slope to start justifying lies "I was helping someone else", "My silence could have been interpreted several ways". Better to keep it Black and White and avoid all lies: good, bad, explicit or implied.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Lo Barato Sale Caro

We have a saying in Venezuela: "lo barato sale caro". The translation is: cheap stuff becomes expensive. The point is that sometimes by trying to save money we end up spending more than we would have with a "more expensive" choice. For example, buy a cheap used car and spend lots of money on repairs. Alejandro had a similar situation recently. He designed a t-shirt for his swim team and suggested that they order the shirts on Zazzle. But some of his teammates felt Zazzle was too expensive and suggested making the shirts themselves instead - by buying cheap shirts and iron-on paper that someone would print at home. At first glance the cost would be about half as much so they proceeded. What happened? The ink jet printer ink ran out and they had to buy new ink. Paper was more expensive than anticipated, and they didn't factor any cost for misprints. When all was said and done more money was spent, the shirts didn't come out as well, and a lot of time was wasted. How to avoid this? Before jumping to a cheap (do it yourself) option, think it through carefully. Are you factoring all the costs, including those of mistakes that otherwise would be absorbed by someone else? Are you comfortable with the lower quality of the end result? Did you consider your time?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

80:20

Paco wanted to talk about allocating time appropriately: not spending too many hours on one project (or subject) at the expense of others, nor spending so little time it was not enough. I mentioned the 80:20 rule. Try to get to 80 percent of the project/knowledge then move on to something else. If you have extra time go back and try to get the remaining 20 percent. But better to get 80 on all subjects than 100 in some and zero in others. The challenge of course is recognizing when you are 80 percent of the way there. It takes practice... You must also we aware that getting the last 20 percent right is often the hardest, and can take longer than getting the initial 80 percent.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Can Second be First?

Nico's turn: he wanted to talk about the benefits of being 2nd. Fewer arrows aimed at you - since people go after the winner. This led to a discussion about when that was indeed a worthwhile thing versus situations when coming 2nd was no good, i.e., winner takes all situations such as running for president of the united states. We then applied the same concept to businesses: it might be OK to be the second largest manufacturer of automobiles in the world, but who wants to be 2nd to Ebay or Craigslist? 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Bright Side of Ignorance

Paco spoke about impulse purchases and the need to think before buying something whether we will really use it and enjoy it. He had bought some magnets during one of our trips which he rarely uses. I agreed, but suggested that impulse decisions sometimes have unexpected positive consequences - so we shouldn't be too rigorous on this front. We should also consider the magnitude of the purchase: we wouldn't want to buy our next house on a whim and without knowing anything about its neighborhood, but we shouldn't spend too many hours investigating our next pair of running shoes.

Another important factor is the price of delay: if we are in a trip abroad and see a souvenir we really like in a shop in a small village, we are probably facing a once in a lifetime opportunity to buy this souvenir. Think too hard about it and you will miss the opportunity forever. But if you are considering the purchase of a video game on Amazon, you can probably take your time.

The conversation reminded me of something that happens with entrepreneurs who "don't know better": sometimes entrepreneurs start businesses because they don't know all the challenges they will face. If they did, they would go do something else. But we sometimes succeed against all odds, and sometimes ignorance is a good thing! Have you ever enjoyed a "bad movie" you wouldn't have seen if you had paid attention to its IMDB rating? I have.

It is also important to pay attention to our intuition. Our intuition helps us make decisions very quickly - and these are decisions that are often better than the ones we make after more "careful analysis".

Monday, May 14, 2012

Prenups

One of the boys recently had a falling apart with his best friend. He had given his friend some of his online password and now he felt he had to change the passwords. The lesson - besides not giving your passwords to anyone - is to remember that relationships change. Employees can become ex-employees. Significant others can become exs. And while family will always be family, even family sometimes has falling aparts. So if you do something that makes you vulnerable to someone make sure you would be comfortable with that vulnerability even if situations change. I encounter this often in business: there are things that I sometimes would like to do for employees that I can't because of the liability they would create (down the road in the event things change).

This is not to say that we shouldn't trust anyone. Just that we should be conscious when we are making ourselves vulnerable that relationships sometimes change with time... Sometimes we'll take a risk with someone. That is OK. Sometimes we'll get burned. That is OK too. But hopefully not because we didn't even think about it...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Untitled

Ale recently entered a contest in his high school to design the cover for their 2013 student handbook. When they announced that his entry was one of the three finalists he was upset about the title they had given to his piece. He had not titled his entry and they needed each piece to have a title so that the students could vote for their favorite. So the organizers just made up a title.

There is an important lesson in this incident: if you care about something don't leave it to chance (or to others). You care about the titles of your pieces? Then give them one. You organizing a meeting and want it to end at a certain time? Specify it. Don't let the meeting end whenever others decide it should. You care about your nickname? Give yourself one you like - or others might give you one you don't.

A related premise has to do with negotiations: once something is established it takes effort to change it. So if you are negotiating and something is important to you, try to establish it the way you want it before others establish it some other way. You might still need to discuss it and change it, but you will be in a better position and might get something else in exchange for agreeing to change it.


PS: Ale won the contest and got the $50 prize :-). 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Some minutes are more equal than others

Imagine an airline pilot who shows up 15 minute late for his flight. There are 300 passengers in his plane each of whom wastes 15 minutes. The pilot just caused a 75 person-hour waste!

Compare the previous example with a friend who shows up to your home 15 minutes late for a dinner invitation. Did you friend waste 15 minutes of your time? Probably not as you were comfortable in your home.

What about the business person who shows up 15 minutes late for an 8am breakfast meeting at a restaurant? Pretty bad as you waiting at a restaurant is only a bit better than waiting on a plane. And a breakfast meeting might only last 45 minutes, so this person just wasted a third of the meeting's time!

What got us talking about this? Being late just a few of minutes in the morning... Not only are there three of us waiting in the car, but we are usually tight for time. Besides, there is no excuse for being late as I wake everyone up with plenty of time and give several notices...  So, just a few minutes of delay in the morning are pretty bad. Or, put differently: don't make your father wait for you!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Don't be Greedy - Unless you have to

Paco lead a discussion about not waiting too long for the optimal outcome. For example, wait so long for a videogame price to go down that they stop selling it. Or, try to get a parking spot so close to your destination that you can't get a spot at all. I described this as "getting greedy". We all spoke about the factors that determine the right time to buy (or park). How good of a deal are we already getting? What would the consequences be if we can't  get want we want? For example, if we find a parking spot two blocks from our destination and we can barely get there in time, we should probably take it and avoid the risk of not finding a spot and being late. But if we have time to spare we can probably drive around for a bit looking for a better spot.

Nico mentioned the example of a sailboat race and the need to get to the start-line just in time (he dreamed about a race last night!). In an olympic race you can't afford to be more than a fraction of a second late or your chances of doing well in the race would be seriously hurt. But in a less competitive race you are probably better off not trying to cut it so close and risk being over the line early.

Friday, May 4, 2012

In the Dark

I've worn contact lenses for years. I used to hate putting them on. Always seemed to be a struggle. Until a discovery I made last year: we went on a camping trip and I brought with me a portable mirror. It happened to be one with a lot of magnification. I used it to put my lenses on and all of a sudden I could see what I was doing! On a regular mirror I only saw enough to make sure I wasn't putting the lenses on my nose. But with the magnification I could actually see exactly where in my eye I had to put each lens. And now that I could see, putting the lenses on the right place became trivial. I had been in putting my lenses on "in the dark" for years!

We don't put enough value on having good light. It makes an incredible difference. For example, even though I need reading glasses, if I have supper good light, for example, being outdoor on a sunny day and wearing high quality sun glasses, I can read without reading glasses.

How many other things do we do in the dark? Try to improve our swimming, dribbling or tacking... How much easier does it get if we can see exactly what we are doing wrong? See it when we get it right?  I am a big fun of videos and mirrors... We are also often in the dark on non-physical issues: having problems in a relationship but don't really understand what the other person is thinking? What they see in us that might be an issue... Struggling to learn something or change a behavior but don't understand, because we can't see, what is holding us back...

We should often ask ourselves if we have enough light, enough visibility, into what we are doing. When we enter a dark house we instinctively know that we can't see where we are going and that we have to turn on the lights to avoid bumping into stuff. Yet somehow we don't easily recognize darkness in other aspects of our life - and end up bumping into "stuff" for years.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Broken Curtain

A few days ago one of Ale's curtains broke. This morning he mentioned that he was surprised the bit of extra light was waking him up half an hour early each morning. He didn't expect his body to be so sensitive to light. Paco and I chimed in saying we had both experienced this sensitivity (and the opposite one as well). Paco consciously leaves his curtain open to wake up early and we have both slept way late when a thick curtain has been completely shut (like sometimes in hotels).

I made the observation that serendipitous events can have significant impact in our life. A curtain breaks and all of a sudden you are awake for an extra 30 minutes every day. Maybe you do something new and different during that time which becomes part of your life going forward. All because of a broken curtain. Makes me think we should force serendipitous changes to experiment with new things. I bet some of those new things will pleasantly surprise us. From now on I'll break a different piece of furniture every month. See what comes of it :-).

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Stuck in the Middle

Paco lead us on a great conversation this morning about the importance of committing to a position - rather than remaining "stuck in the middle". He gave us the example of one of his teachers who was neither nice nor disciplined and as a result couldn't get the students to do what she wanted them to. He elaborated: "if she was truly disciplined, we would behave properly because we had to. If she was really nice, we would behave properly because we liked her. But as it stands, she neither forces us to behave nor is nice enough to motivate us to do it".

Paco gave us another example from soccer: as a defender, there are two ways you could cover an offensive player - I wont get into the details as I will probably get them wrong. The bottom line is that you should alternate between both approaches, but at any given time be committed to a single one. If you try combine both approaches and do a bit of one and a bit of the other at the same time, you do neither well.

Alejandro chimed in with another example: a group of friends wants to go see a movie. Half wants to see a horror film, the other half a comedy. The right approach would be to alternate: go see a horror film one day and a comedy another day. The "stuck in the middle" approach: go see a drama which nobody particularly wants to see but nobody opposes either. We encourage Ale, Paco & Nico to take the same approach: if they can't agree on what to do together simply take turns deciding.

I see this problem with some politicians: instead of being "balanced" by supporting some issues on the "Right" and some issues on the "Left" - based on their beliefs and principles - they try to be balanced by developing positions that are neither Right nor Left and are often meaningless.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Life is a Bagel

Nico was skeptical of today's topic: how I cut my bagels. Yet I insisted. There is a lot to learn from the way I cut my bagels. Cutting bagels is dangerous. Injuries from bagel cutting is the top cause of emergency room visits in the US ["at least according to some source... what is your source... ok ok... maybe not THE top, but a common cause?"]. Why do we cut ourselves? The knife cuts through the bagel with more force than we anticipated and ends up in our hand. So what is my technique to avoid this? It has three key elements:

1) Rather than doing a few strokes with plenty of force in each, I do lots of strokes with very little force in each. I move the knife back and forth rapidly but gently. When the knife finally cuts through the bagel it barely moves much further. I would generalize this as substituting brute force with finesse. Or, like we say in Venezuela "Mas vale maƱa que fuerza". Similar to when you need to losen something and wiggling back and forth works much better than a single application of all your strength in a one direction. Nico remains skeptical about the value of this lesson... Nico: this works even with people! Say you want to teach someone how to swim. Most teachers wouldn't drop their pupil at one end of a long pool and try to get them to swim all the way across. Instead, they get very close to the soon-to-be swimmer and get them to swim a few inches, then a few more inches, and little by little the distance gets longer until, almost without realizing it, the person swims across a long pool.

2) Back to bagels... I make sure to use an adequate knife. If I try to cut a bagel with a steak knife instead of a bread knife I have to use more force  - not to mention steak knifes have pointier and sharper ends. Simple life lesson: use the right tool for the job.

3) Finally, I make the final third of the cutting away from my hand. So even if the knife flies away it doe so into the air, not my hand. Ale said he does something similar by holding the bagel with a kitchen towel. Life lesson: leave yourself margin for error.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pre-Paid Taxis in Peru

Ale's day to lead our discussion. He told us how during his recent school trip to Peru some of the taxis he took were pre-paid and some weren't. The pre-paid ones were friendly and chatty. The others weren't Ale believe it was because they were worried about the money.

We spoke about money. How it can create friction and fights among people, including friends and relatives. Some people go as far as to avoid doing business with relatives. That might be extreme, but it is certainly a good idea to be super careful when money is involved. Be generous and considerate. When in doubt, err on the others favor. And try to be clear up front if any significant amount of money will be involved.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Dead People

Paco's day to lead the discussion. He is reading a book about people experimenting with death - which is why I guess he wanted to talk about not feeling bad when people die, but instead focusing on those who remain alive. We agreed we should make an effort to overcome traumatic experiences, such as when a relative dies, but pointed out we can't control our feelings. We feel what we feel. We went on to talk about the difference between an old person dying after having lived a fulfilling life and a young person dying unexpectedly.  We also spoke about being empathetic to those who are sad. Not to try to reason with them but to be supportive and understanding.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Winning the Battle but Lossing the War

We watched an excellent movie about Pearl Harbor when we visited the memorial. The movie showed how the attack energized America for war - and in particular against Japan. Only six months after Pearl Harbor America decimated the Japanese navy at Midway (sinking four of its aircraft carriers).

We spoke about more mundane situations in our life when we should be careful not to win battles at the expense of wars. Paco already deals with this frequently when he plays chess. Another example is relationships. Don't fight with the teacher over an extra point in a homework assignment loosing sight of the final grade for the year. Or argue with friends, relatives or colleague about short term stuff at the expense of a long term relationship.


Another example was the FIRST robotics competition: some teams devoted most of their time and resources to doing well in the robot battle, but as a result did poorly in the other aspects of the competition - which collectively were worth more points.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What happens when we die

Today was Paco's turn to lead the conversation and he told us about the book he is reading in which the protagonists try to get closer and closer to death to learn what happens when you die. It is actually a French book that his French teacher recommended! Turns out there are multiple levels towards complete death and the protagonists are going deeper and deeper. But Paco is only half way through the book so that is all he told us. Reminds me of the movie Flatliners.

Paco made an intriguing comment before getting off the car: I asked him if he thought that there was indeed something after death and he said no, because that would imply some sort of intelligent design (in which I guess he doesn't believe). We didn't quite follow his logic but we ran out of time, so maybe tomorrow he'll explain.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Compounding Time

I was glad to find out that the boys remembered the concept of compounded interest. But we hadn't discussed compounded time...

We went to visit the Pearl Harbor Memorial. I had read that it got very crowded so we went very early. Got up at 7am (yes during our vacation) and made it to Pearl Harbor at 8am - just in time to sneak into the very first tour of the day. By 9:30am we were ready to go kitesurfing :-).

What would have happened had we woken up as little as 15 minutes later? There would have been a bit more of a line at the coffee shop, so 15 minutes would have become 20. There would have been more traffic in Honolulu, so 20 minutes would have become 35. There would have been a longer line at the ticket counter, so 35 minutes would have become 45 minutes. And the 8am and 9am tours would have been sold out, so 45 minutes would have become 2 hours. To recap: waking up 15 minutes later would have resulted in 2 less hours on the beach.

Just las week I had a meeting in Palo Alto at 8am. I knew that to avoid rush hour traffic I had to leave my house by 6:45am - which I did. I got to Palo Alto in 45 minutes with time to spare before my meeting. Another meeting participant showed up half an hour late. He said traffic was terrible. He had left his home in San Francisco at 7am and it had taken him an hour and half to get to Palo Alto.

BTW: this morning Nico asked me whether I could pay him his allowance daily instead of weekly. He definitely understood compounding!



Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Bird Lady

We went to Hawaii for Spring Break. Walking towards dinner we stop to watch a lady with three large birds. Before we knew what was happening she put the birds on top of Nico. At this point we took a picture. The lady took the birds back. I offered the lady 2 dollars but instead of taking them she said I owed her 5 dollars. This surprised me. She had no sign saying it cost $5 to hold the birds - nor had we asked to hold the birds. I told her she could take the $2 or leave them and she took them.

The incident led us to a discussion about pricing. It is usually a good idea for both sides of a transaction to understand the economics before the transaction takes place. If the bird lady wants $5 from each person who holds her birds she should let them know ahead of time. And I was also at fault: before letting the lady put the birds on Nico I should have asked her how much she would want (I incorrectly assumed that a "tip" at my discretion would do).

We wondered how the lady would make the most money. Maybe the reason she doesn't say upfront that she expects $5 is that if she did, many people would walk away. We wondered if more people would hold the birds if she lowered her price to $2 and advertised her low price. She could try different approaches on different days and settle on the approach that generates the most money. Maybe she already did that!

We also discussed that she could do a better job at branding herself. For example, a small sign about the protection of endangered species, and an affiliation with a non-profit, might help her.

Finally, when I offered the $2, she could have take them, then politely asked me to consider giving her additional money because the birds are really expensive to care for (or some other such reason). Instead of rudely telling me that I owed her $5.


Don't show this picture to Martin!

Friday, March 30, 2012

teamwork

It is often easiest and fastest to do things yourself than to get others to do them for you. Problem is, doing everything yourself doesn't scale. There is only one of you. Furthermore, plenty of stuff is much better done by teams - and plenty of stuff is better done by others than by yourself. Yet getting others to do stuff is difficult: you need to find the people, motivate them, train them and support them... Your productivity will decrease while you do all these and have less time for "doing stuff". It is tempting to continue doing stuff ourselves and leave the "team building" for later. But this is obviously short sighted. The sooner you start building your team, the sooner you'll become more productive.

What got me thinking about this? That starting after Spring Break each boy will be responsible for one talk per week. Nico on Mondays, Paco on Tuesdays and Ale on Wednesday. I'll keep Thursdays and Fridays. I anticipate that it will take effort to motivate them and support them. But the results should eventually be much better. Paco and Ale already thought of their first topics: Paco will talk about avoiding replacing "bad" with "worst" and Ale about his upcoming trip to Cuzco.

Hey, I only posponed this for three and a half years :-).

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Response Times

This morning I was wondering whether to ping someone who I emailed last week but from whom I had not heard back. So I spoke with Paco & Ale (Nico is in Strasbourg with his school) about appropriate response times for text messages, emails, Facebook messages and voicemails. Their answers:
- Text message: minutes to hours (depending on the topic).
- Emails: days.
- Facebook Messages: if online, minutes. if offline, the next day.
- Voicemails: days.

We spoke about the importance of being sensitive to these appropriate response times when using a specific communications mechanism, e.g., don't send an email if you need an answer within minutes. And also when reminding someone of a message to which they haven't responded. Ale asked if it was such as thing as responding to quickly. Could that be inappropriate? I said I didn't think so, although you want to be careful about establishing certain expectations that you might not want to always meet.

We spoke about giving people a heads up if you might take long to respond. For example, if you wont get to an email for a week or two it would be nice to send a brief email to the sender letting them know - unless of course it would take you just as long to send a proper response to the email...

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Turning Back

The steep brick street in front of our house gets slippery when it rains. Most cars have no problems with it but some can't make it up the hill. We hear them spinning and spinning their wheels. Why do these drivers continue to try to make it up this one particular street instead of turning around and going up one of the parallel streets (which are made of asphalt and thus are not slippery)? Eventually they have no alternative, but it sure seems like they persist up our slippery street for way too long.

I told the boys that in life it is important to know when to turn around and find a better street. To know when to quit. Our society gives quitting a stigma. Being a quitter is perceived as a bad thing. But what about the time wasted on dead-end streets? More people make the mistake of quitting too late rather than too early. To go back to the street analogy, I guess the challenge is to know when there are parallel roads that are better, and when all nearby roads have the same problem as ours - such as when there is traffic and one keeps searching for a road without traffic only to find more and more traffic. When you are stuck try to determine whether you are in the one slippery road of te neighborhood, or whether there is traffic everywhere and you are better of inching forward.

Don't be afraid to quit - at least not anymore afraid than to discover you are on a dead end street.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Rotating Trees

We have a small lemon tree in the kitchen for Martin, Nico's bird, to hang out. One of its branches was sticking out and on the way. Ale bumped into it and suggested cutting it. Unfortunately, though, Martin has "mutilated" most of the branches on the tree and this is one of the few remaining healthy branches - because it is harder for Martin to reach. So Cindy and I were reluctant to cut it. What to do? It didn't take long for us to come up with two altnatives: Cindy suggested rotating the whole tree (which obviously is inside a pot). That was a partial solution as there were branches on the other side of the tree that would become a problem with too much rotation. I then bent and stuck the offending behind another branch. Problem solved, no branch cutting! Why did Cindy and I find a better solution than Alejandro? Not because we are smarter or more creative, but because we felt a need to save the branch. There are two lessons here that I discussed with the boys:

1) Necessity is often the mother of invention. In Cuba, for example, there are no spare parts for their 50 year old cars so they have come up with innovative approaches to keep their cars running. Many of these need driven innovations are inferior to the ideal solution, but nt all. Sometime one of these solutions is better than the original and ends up replacing it.

2) When you solve a problem, take a moment to consider your solution and whether it has imperfections. If it does, try to come up with an alternative solution that has no such problems. I am quite certain that had Alejandro done this he would have recognized the negatives of cutting the branch and would have come up with alternatives - probably better ones than the ones Cindy and I came up with!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Returning Cuff Links

I had a party last saturday for which I decided to wear my 20 year old tuxedo. I realized the day before that my cuff links were missing. So I walked into a store and bought a pair. On my way out of the store I noticed that the invoice said that I could return the merchandise for a full refund within 30 days. I was with the boys so I asked them if they thought it would be OK to go back to the store after my party and return the cuff links. Their initial reaction was that no, it would not be ok to return them after I used them. I pushed back a bit. I agreed one shouldn't lie, ever, so, if for example one could only return unused merchandise then I shouldn't. But what if the terms allowed for returns with "no questions asked"? If a business decides to have a very lenient return policy that is their decision and customers who take advantage of such policy are not doing anything wrong. I said one possible place to "draw the line" would be whether one intended to return the item before buying it in the first place. That would seem to cross a line. But take the cuff links, I didn't intend to return them before buying them. I only thought of it after the fact. And the return policy said nothing about using the merchandise... We spoke a bit about the reasons why stores have more or less strict return policies. How it is a business decision and a trade off between customer loyalty and cost. And how with more and more sales going online brick-and-mortar stores have to provide better service with things such as lenient return policies.

What about my cuff links? I'll keep them for five years from now when I wear my tuxedo again.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bending the rules

A good friend's daughter wanted to go to the summer program of a specific university. Problem was she had to be 16 before the program started but her birthday was a few weeks afterwards. My friend and his daughter decided to apply anyway and see if they got accepted. They did, some four months before the summer, and got it. They paid for the program, got her a visa, air tickets, and all the other preparations. But a couple of weeks before the start of the program they got a message from the university: the university had just realized she didn't meet the program's age requirements. She could not attend.

My friend called the university upset that they would first let her in then turn her down just two weeks before the program's start. The university was not at all apologetic, far from it, they were upset my friend's daughter had applied despite the fact that it was clear she didn't meet the age requirements. They felt that had been inappropriate.

I told the story to the boys and discussed the alternative approaches my friend could have taken:

1) Not apply.
2) Lie about her age.
3) Apply like they did.
4) Apply but add a cover letter mentioning the age issue and making an argument she would be fine age wise.
5) Inquiring before applying whether they would make an exemption and let her apply even though she was a few weeks short of the age requirement.

The boys quickly agreed that options 1, 2 & 3 were all bad. We debated whether 4 or 5 was better. The advantage of 4 was that it showed commitment and effort on part of the applicant before they had to decide whether to make an exemption. They could also potentially read the application and make an exemption if they liked the applicant. The downside of applying without getting the consent is that it was a bit "aggressive", sort of like showing up at someone's office (coming from far away) without having an appointment. Sometimes it works, sometimes it backfires.

We concluded #5 was probably best, particularly if the inquiry also included a bit of info about what made the applicant special.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Grandparents in a word (or three)

Grandma was visiting this weekend. I asked the boys for one word that came to mind when they think of grandma. Their answers: generous, humorous, happy. I then asked them about their other grandparents. For grandma 2: supportive and supportive. Grandpa: negotiated (negotiates everything), calculated and role model ("first thing that came to mind"). Grandpa 2: always joking.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Your Spine

Showed the boys a TED talk about storytelling by Andrew Stanton from Pixar. One of the points he makes is the need for each character to have a "spine". A "motivation" that drives everything he does. Nemo's father is all about keeping Nemo safe; Walley is all about finding beauty, and Woody is all about doing the right thing for his kid. Andrew then made the point that everyone is the same in the "real world". We all have our key motivations and should make an effort to understand them and be consistent with them. As a parent, he says that he understands that his kids' motivations are something he cannot (and should not) change. Instead, he should try to understand them and support them.

I asked the boys if they knew what their motivations were. They don't. And wouldn't expect them to this early in life... And I guess motivations change and evolve over time. Still, it is important to be sensitive to them. Why do we do what we do? Why do we want what we want?

Monday, March 12, 2012

ID Checks

I was traveling last week. Upon checking in at my hotel the receptionist asked me for my credit card and ID. I gave him my credit card and showed him my ID through the clear plastic on my wallet. He asked me to take my ID out of my wallet. Now, I am used to security guards at airports asking me to do this, but a hotel receptionist should be able to check my ID through my wallet's plastic. I was annoyed since I assumed (incorrectly) that he had no good reason for his request. I told this to the receptionist and he explained that he needed to put my ID on the a scanner. First time I have my ID scanned at a hotel, but at least that explains the request. Two takeaways:

1) Give people the benefit of the doubt.
2) The receptionist could have done a much better job when asking me to take my ID out of my wallet. He could have explained why he needed me to do that and he could have been apologetic/polite about it. Instead, he behaved like a government security guard.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What would you do if you knew you couldn't fail?

I heard a very thought provoking talk by Regina Dugan, Director of DARPA, last week. Her job is to lead and inspire the engineers and scientists of DARPA to come up with mind-blowing innovations. I loved how she challenges them by asking: What would you do if you knew you couldn't fail? We all know that fear of failure shouldn't prevent us from doing what we want. Yet most of us factor in the chances of success when we make our decisions. Inevitably that prevents us from trying some things that we consider too risky - yet those "risky" things could become amazing achievements - only if we try. The truth is that we are not aiming high enough if we are not failing some of the times.

I asked the boys what they would do. Nico would build an in-the-brain-videogame (whatever that means), or, wait, no, a Siri that understands alien languages and actually does anything you ask (I guess it would have to be renamed genie). Paco would build a spaceship that could travel at the speed of light to explore the universe. Cool, ah? Ale was in swim practice this morning so I'll have to ask him later...

Me? I am already cooking a new project. It is ambitious and it might fail. Which I guess is the whole point.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

All Star Teams

Today we continued yesterday's conversation based on Dr. Gawande's ideas of improving our health care system (can only cover so much in a mile!). Another missing aspect in healthcare is teamwork. Most physicians these days are specialists. And most serious illnesses require the involvement of several specialists. Yet they don't work as a team. Instead, each doctor does his thing mostly independently. Imagine a team of engineers designing a car: one responsible for the brakes, the other for the transmission, another for the suspension, and so on. Yet they never get together in a room (physical or virtual) to make sure all the pieces work well together. Instead, each engineer designs what he considers is the best possible component. We would end up with a Frankencar! We watched Moneyball the other day so the kids got this right away. They immediately pointed out that, not only is teamwork essential, but the members of each team must be selected so that they complement each other and can work well together. Just trying to assemble the best at player for each position wont work. Not exactly how health care works...

Monday, March 5, 2012

Checklists for Surgeons

I heard a great talk last week by Atul Gawande, health care journalist and author of The Checklist Manifesto. Atul has been exploring how to improve the US health care system. He had a simple yet powerful insight: doctors are performing all sorts of procedures without checklists. No pilot would think of flying a plane (no matter how large or small) without going through a pre-flight check-lists, yet surgeons perform heart and brain surgery without it! Atul (who is also a physician) developed a basic pre-surgery checklist and tested in a few hospitals. The result? Infections, complications and even mortality dropped dramatically. Why are physicians resisting this? Decades ago we had standard treatments for very few deseases. Physicians needed creativity and independence to try to help their patients. Doctors didn't used to be specialists with a limited set of well understood procedures to perform. I guess most surgeons don't see themselves like pilots of 747s, who follow checklists, put the plane on autopilot, and only used their extensive experience and expertise if something goes wrong. Hopefully they soon will.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Kia and Nokia

We were on our way to school yesterday when Cindy called: she found the book Alejandro was looking for. I turned around and drop by the house to pick it up. Paco got nervous because he had swimming first thing in the morning and couldn't be late. But we had time to spare: we normally arrive 5 minutes early so even with the detour we were on time. This got us talking about the importance of having margin for error (a topic we discussed last year). I asked the kids for examples of situations in which such margins were important. Ale said that if he needed to get a certain grade to get a certain reward, say 16/20, it was better to aim higher rather than trying to get just 16 and risk missing it by just a little (this actually happened to him!). Paco spoke about his Lego robotics competition and the need to have extra time for the routines in case something didn't work as planned (this also happened to him!).

I spoke to them about profit margins. Companies with small margins risk lossing money if their costs unexpectedly increase and they can't raise their prices. That is why investors love high margin businesses. I asked them what they thought it took for a company to be able to sustain high margins and Nico correctly pointed out making products that were clearly superior to their competitors' products. We spoke about Apple as an example of such a company. This got us talking about phones and their operating systems. I mentioned Nokia, which I believe remains the largest (by volume) phone maker in the world and was a bit surprised to find out that the kids had no idea who Nokia was. Nico asked if that wasn't a car manufacturer (he was thinking about Kia of course).

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Devil You Know - and other sayings

The boys were not familiar with this expression. The Spanish version, at least the one I know, is more explanatory: "mejor es malo conocido que bueno por conocer". I thought of it because I've been thoroughly researching a product that I want to buy. I really like a particular brand but if you do enough research you find problems with anything. I have made the mistake in the past of changing my mind at the last moment and purchasing products I have not researched well - and thus have no problems that I am aware off. But more often than not, every option has its problems and you are just getting problems you were not aware off.

On a more traditional use of the expression, I told the boys about the time we decided to change the skipper of a boat we used to own due to some issues we had with with. We hired a new capitan who, on the surface, looked great, only to find out he had an even more serious problem than our previous one! This also brings up the issue of the relationships that one develops with people. One develops emotional attachments that can be more important than the faults some people have. In the case of the captain, we realized after the fact we really cared for our first capitan and should have weighted more heavily our personal relationship with him.

Another example is my car's navigation system: whenever there is traffic in the highway the system recommends that I exit the highway and use the streets instead. The problem is that the system only gets traffic information for highways, not for streets. And the default with no information is to assume there is no traffic! More than once I've gotten off the highway only to find the streets have even more traffic.

I don't mean to say that one should never make changes regardless of the problems one encounters. Only that one shouldn't confuse lack of information with lack of problems. If you need to make a change, as you often do, get enough information about the alternative you are considering so that you can compare "apples to apples". You can then determine whether the alternative is truly better than the "devil you know", or whether you need to keep looking. And to throw in one final saying in today's post: remember that the grass is always greener on the other side :-).

Friday, January 20, 2012

In the Panama Canal

A few months ago I decided to get a new car. Rather than buying the car from "the lot" I ordered it custom configured. This was only supposed to take a couple of months but delays in the factory stretched the wait to 5 months. I discovered in an online forum that if I got the VIN of my car once it was produced I could track its status. So I asked me dealer for it. He gave me the VIN but was not aware of any such tracking service. Furthermore, he didn't believe it could be done. But sure enough, I was able to find out the production day, day it was loaded on the ship, and realtime location of the ship.

I mentioned to the boys that it was incredible that with a bit of online research I had become more knowledgable than the general manager of the car dealership. We used to have to rely on such "experts" in the past, when they had exclusive access to information. Yet these days not only can be get the information ourselves but we can become more knowledgeable than them. Pretty empowering. BTW: the forum where I found the info is amazing. A super active community of people just around a single car model. Pick a topic, any topic, and there is an online community around it!

So where is my car today? In the middle of the Panama Canal of all places.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Flash of Genius

We started to watch the movie Flash of Genius last weekend. It is based on the true story of the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper and how Ford allegedly stole his idea. The boys wanted to know how Ford could do such a thing so yesterday morning in the car we spoke about protecting ideas. I covered three approaches: patents, trade secrets and winning in the marketplace. Patents can be very expensive and time consuming to defend (that was the problem the inventor in the movie had). Unfortunately the intelectual property legal system benefits those with deep pockets. I told the boys of one of my companies which recently got sued by patent troll, and how we are trying to settle even thought we don't believe that their patents are valid.

Keeping the workings of the invention secret can be a good approach but is not always feasible. In the case of the intermittent windshield wiper anyone could have bought one and see how it worked. However, it might at least give you a head start in the marketplace, so it can work well in combination with simply beating your competitors in the market with better execution.

In the movie the inventor fights Ford for over a decade, at great cost to his personal life and family. He eventually prevails and gets a huge amount of money, but we concluded no amount of money could make up for the years of his life lost.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Turning Lemons into Lemonade

Saturday we went sailing to Angel Island - then biking around it. It was a glorious day which we capped with lunch at Sam's. When we sailed to the dock at Sam's we noticed that we hit bottom (common at Sam's during low tide). We should have immediately moved the boat away but we were very hungry so we decided to eat first and then deal with the boat. After a great meal and some sweats in town reality hit: the tide had gone lower and our boat was not going anywhere until the tide came back up 4+ hours later. Lemons... This could have ruined the rest of our day. Yet we made the best of it: went to visit Cindy's parents who live nearby. The kids played some wii at their place then we borrowed their car and went home. The next morning bright and early Cindy & I drove back to Tiburon and sailed the boat back to SF. It was a particularly pleasant sail as we had the Bay to ourselves! Lemonade...

PS: I also taught the kids the R rated version of this expression, which my dear friend DC taught me: turning chicken s..t into chicken salad.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A plate full of tofu

Paco is in a bit of a pickle. He joined his school's theater group last fall but now concluded he is not enjoying it at all. He already does tons of after school activities (soccer, robotics, piano, mathletics) and gets straight As in school, so there isn't much point in him spending time on an after-school activity that he doesn't enjoy. But there is a catch: they are working on a performance and it would be problematic for the group if he drops out. The first question I asked was when the performance was. If it was a few weeks away, or even a month or two, then I thought that Paco should stick with the play. But it turns out the play is in four months. Seems like a long time for him to keep doing something that he is not enjoying - as well as enough time for the theater group to find a replacements or other alternative. A few take-aways:

- It is good to try new things. But, try to start with low commitment tests. If you want to try tofu for the first time, maybe order a side dish or, better yet, try it from someone else's plate. Don't order a full meal worth of tofu which might go to waste if you don't like it!

- As soon as you realize something is not working out deal with the situation head-on. Paco realized over a month ago that he was not enjoying the theater but he dragged his feet and tried tweaks (changing his role) until he got to the point he is now when he can't take it anymore. Problem is two plus months have gone by and dropping out is more challenging now than it would have been a month ago.

- Most important of all, though, and something that Paco is doing, is to be aware of the things you like and those that you don't. And to spend your time on those that you do like (to the extent that you can, of course).