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


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


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.