My Blog = 7 Sold Out Performances at the Sydney Opera House

sydneyoperahouse

Today’s blog represents my 365th of the year. It started on January 1 in response to a 30-day WriteandRun 31 Challenge started by Christine and Matt Frazier. Since I found that I enjoyed the daily writing, I decided to just keep going after the 31 days were past. Before I knew it, I hit 100 straight days and I think at that point it became a daily habit.

So I thought that I would share some stats about the blog that WordPress put together for me.

The site has been viewed over 18,500 times, or an average of little more than 50 views per day. According to WordPress, since the concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it. (I am already looking into booking the Opera House for a week.)

October 15th, with 242 views, was the busiest day of the year. That was the day I posted a tribute to my Mom, who had passed a few days before that.

Here are the 5 posts that got the most views in 2015.

  1. Commercial of the Week: ‘Parents’ by Coca-Cola Life – 867 views (I have no idea why this blog continued to get so many views long after it had been posted.)
  2. Fast Fashion and Disposable Clothing – 376 views
  3. Google Search and the Tragedy of the Commons – 362 views
  4. Does Hard Work Always Pay Off? – 327 views
  5. A Tribute to My Mom – 268 views

I would occasionally post some of my blogs to LinkedIn, and one of them, How My Twitter Following Went from 250 to 253 in Just One Week!was selected as an Editor’s pick of the day. As a result, the post received over 3,000 views in LinkedIn. Another LinkedIn post from my blog, The 7 Lessons I Learned at Graduationhas over 800 views in LinkedIn.

So that’s an overview of my blog from an external perspective. If I were to look at all 365 posts and pick my own top 5%, regardless of how many views a post got, I would probably choose the following as my favorites, in no particular order:

  1. A Tribute to My Mom
  2. To My Dad
  3. He Likes to Talk about Bowling
  4. A Different Type of Marriage Vow
  5. Our Lamaze Friends
  6. The Ovarian Lottery and Social Issues
  7. My Mom and the Ouija Board
  8. Goodbye Summer Breezes
  9. Time Marches On, So Thank Heaven for Shared Memories
  10. Why Compassion Is Better than Toughness
  11. Congratulations Patty B!
  12. The 7 Lessons I Learned at Graduation
  13. A Tale of Two Basketball Games
  14. How I Met My Wife
  15. How My Twitter Following Went from 250 to 253 in Just One Week!
  16. Why I Don’t Always Root for the Underdog
  17. Why I Didn’t Upgrade to the iPhone 6
  18. Great Customer Service vs. Personal Responsibility

I realize that’s a pretty big list, but what can I say, I like myself…

When I look at the list, it seems that most of the items on the list are personal posts, either about my family, friends, or issues that are important to me. I wish I could write blogs on those topics all the time, but I think that would be extremely difficult. Hence, I also write about what I’ve read in the Wall Street Journal or the Harvard Business Review, or my weekly rehash of United Technologies ads from the 1970s.

I also want to thank all of you who took the time to read what I’ve written and a special thank you to those of you have commented on what I’ve posted. It is greatly appreciated.

Now that I’ve hit my goal of one straight year of daily blogging, I guess my next goal is Cal Ripken Jr.’s streak of 2,632 consecutive games. That means I’ve only got about six more years to go…

Happy New Year!

I Love This Play…

joeplaybill

We just got back from seeing an amazing performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

It’s easily my, and my wife’s, favorite play.

We first saw a production of this when our two oldest kids were in grade school. We loved the play from that night forward (the fact that both our sons were in the play probably had something to do with it), and since then we have seen the show multiple times.

We have seen middle school, high school, college (go Nova!), church school, local community theater, and national touring versions of the play. Each time we see it is a little different, with the director and the actors add their own little tweaks to the performance. I can honestly say that every show we have seen has been amazing, just like Joseph’s coat. We also own the movie version of the play, starring Donny Osmond.

One of my favorite things about the play is that it includes multiple musical genres, including parodies of French ballads (“Those Canaan Days”), Elvis-inspired rock and roll (“Song of the King”), western (“One More Angel In Heaven”), 1920s Charleston (“Potiphar”), and Calypso (“Benjamin Calypso”).

It’s also just a great story (although there is virtually no dialogue, the entire play is essentially sung) about believing in your dreams, forgiveness, redemption, and the powerful bonds that unite families.

And as always, there’s just something about the magic of the theater, watching people who are passionate about what they do, and are willing to share their talents with the world.

If you’ve never seen the play, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Here is list of the tour dates, there’s a chance it may be coming to a town near you.

Tour Dates

I want to include at least one song from the play, but since they are all so great, it is hard to pick just one. So instead, here is a video of the closing song, which is referred to as the Megamix. It includes little bits from each song, giving you a sense of the musical variety. It’s the closing song, and it’s a great way to end the show, and introduce all the performers to the audience.

“Look for Battles Big Enough to Matter but …

fireintheashes

at the same time, small enough to win some realistic victories.”

That’s a quote from the latest Jonathan Kozol book that I am reading, Fire in the Ashes.

Kozol was offering advice to a young woman who had overcome significant obstacles and was on her way to graduating college with a degree in social work. She had grown up as a minority in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the U.S., and was upset about the lack of access to quality education that children in such situations had to deal with.

Kozol noted that listening to the indignation in this young woman’s voice reminded him of other students he had known, black and Latino students mostly, but some conscientious young white people too, who became so wrathful or seemed to be so overwhelmed by the sheer dimensions of the problems they perceived that they tended to give up on many good and useful things they could have done right here and now within the social system as it stands.

The quote resonated with me, and got me thinking.

I’ve sometimes felt that some problems, such as world hunger, homelessness, or gun control are so big that there’s not much I could do as an individual to combat such problems.

But when you start looking more closely, there are likely many small victories you can achieve with respect to any problem.

It reminds me a little of one of my favorite bumper stickers,

“Think Globally, but Act Locally.”

Perhaps that can be rewritten to,

“Think Big, but Act Small.”

Stop Screaming

The_Scream

This is the 40th in a collection of newspaper ads written by Harry Gray, then CEO of United Technologies, that appeared in the Wall Street Journal from the late 1970s through the early 1980s. Here is the text from that ad.


Sometimes it seems a rise in decibels is in direct disproportion to the importance of the message.
Phrases like, 
“We want you to head our Chicago office;”
“Would you accept the ambassadorship to France?”
“Chill the wine, I’ll be right over;”
are spoken in warm, quiet tones.
But,
Where is my package?”
“I told you I didn’t want any mayonnaise;”
“You locked the keys in the car?”
are shrieked at top volume, in the glass shattering range.
Screaming is an unnecessary response; 
and when the shouting is over,
the cold facts of reality are still quietly sitting there.


Although I consider myself a very calm individual, and I don’t think I’ve ever raised my voice when speaking with my wife or children, I must admit there are times I do get angry.

And I think every time it has happened, it has involved dealing with a customer service rep on the phone. For whatever reason, if the phone call was not going the way I thought it should have been, I turned into a different person.

I knew I was being obnoxious, condescending, and rude, but I couldn’t help myself. I would even try to prepare for this by telling myself before the phone call to say calm, but I couldn’t control myself.

I think I’ve gotten better over the years, and such outbreaks, fortunately, are now few and far between. In fact, I just got off the phone with an insurance company, and while there was the potential it could have gotten antagonistic, it was actually a pleasant conversation (perhaps the fact that the phone call worked out the way I thought it should had something to do with it).

I guess I’ll chalk it up to maturity and the realization that screaming, as Harry Gray points out, doesn’t solve the problem, and usually makes it worse.

So if you are looking for a New Year’s resolution, “Stop Screaming”, seems like a good one.

The Top 6 Good-News Stories of 2015

billgates2015

It’s that time of year where it seems like every web site has created a list showcasing the highlights of the past year.

I’ve seen lists of the best books of the year, the best sports moments of the year, and the best albums of the year, to name just a few.

But the one that caught my eye is a list that Bill Gates put together, “The Top 6 Good-News Stories of 2015.”

Gates has been doing this for three years, but he notes that the list feels especially important this year. With the notable exception of impressive global cooperation on climate change and energy, the news has been dominated for months by stories about terrorism and war. However, Gates points out that this barrage of negative stories is obscuring the full picture of what’s happening around the world.

Here is his list:

  1. Africa Went a Year Without Any Polio – Nigeria was the last country in Africa to go a full year without a single new case of locally acquired polio. When the global campaign to eradicate polio began in 1988, polio was endemic in 125 countries. The list is now down to just two: Afghanistan and Pakistan. An amazing accomplishment.
  2. Neil Tyson Made a Stunning Case for Science – Inspired by the short and eloquent Gettysburg Address, Dr. Tyson’s acceptance speech for the National Academy of Science’s most prestigious award makes his case for ensuring that science plays a big role in policymaking in just 272 words. You can watch a video of his speech here.
  3. Global Health Innovators Won the Nobel Prize – this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three researchers who developed indispensable tools for fighting diseases of the poor, such as river blindness and malaria.
  4. SAT Test Prep Is Now Free for Everyone – the company that created the SAT helped the Khan Academy launch a free online learning portal for any student who wants help getting ready for the SAT or PSAT.
  5. Mobile Banking Exceeds Our Optimistic Projections – Bill and Melinda Gates believe that mobile banking is one of the best tools for helping people lift themselves out of poverty. However, more than two billion people have no access to financial services, severely limiting their ability to borrow, save, invest, and participate in the mainstream economy. But that is changing fast. A new report by scholars at the Brookings Institution shows that many countries are making national commitments to financial inclusion and helping mobile banking reach critical mass. Gates even notes that he has seen digital financial innovation in some developing countries that’s even outpacing what we see in rich countries.
  6. The Americas Have Eliminated Rubella – This year health officials declared the Americas the first region in the world to be free of endemic rubella, thanks to a massive, 15-year effort to vaccinate men, women, and children everywhere in the hemisphere. Rubella, also known as German measles, leads to death or severe birth defects when women get the disease during pregnancy. This milestone also gives a shot in the arm to efforts to eliminate measles, which is more deadly and more contagious than rubella.

What Gates fails to mention is the key role that he has played in many of these developments through the efforts of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In 2012, Malcolm Gladwell was quoted as saying, “There will be statues of Bill Gates across the Third World. There’s a reasonable shot that — because of his money — we will cure malaria. I firmly believe that 50 years from now, (Gates) will be remembered for his charitable work, no one will even remember what Microsoft is.”

I’d have to agree with most of that statement. Gates will certainly be remembered for his charitable work 50 years from now, but I think the contributions he made to the world of technology will not be forgotten either. Developments such as the free online SAT prep and the rise of mobile banking around the world can all trace their roots back to the dawn of the PC era, one in which he had a major influence.

So thank you to Bill and Melinda Gates for their efforts to make the world a better, kinder, and more just place.

 

Hive Mind

hivemindI didn’t realize it until today, but my previous two posts had a common thread to them, community and cooperation.

Two days ago I wrote about what I referred to as the “herd mentality” that pervades college classroom communities when you ask students to answer a question by a show of hands. A research study showed that most students simply going along with the majority, hesitant to offer a dissenting opinion. This could be viewed as a classic example of groupthink.

Yesterday’s post looked at two streets in Philadelphia where a community of neighbors worked together to create spectacular Christmas lights displays. Each street offered great examples of the power of cooperation.

What made me see the connection between the two stories was an article in today’s Wall Street Journal, ‘Hive Mind,’ From Beekeeping to Economics.

Garett Jones, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University, has just written a book titled “Hive Mind“. Jones notes that scientists “sometimes use the metaphor of ‘collective intelligence’ or a ‘hive mind’ to explain group actions.” And just as bees in a hive collaborate as a group, so too do humans, whose “millions of small cognitive contributions…create each nation’s collective intelligence, each nation’s hive mind.”

The phrase, as you might expect, got its start with a British beekeeper who noted ” a strange and mysterious collective mentality” that “guides the destinies and decisions of the hive.”

The phrase was then picked up by science fiction writers, often in the negative context of aliens who act in a collective manner to defeat humans. From there, the phrase was used to describe the “groupthink” of collectivist societies like the Soviet Union. The historian Robert Conquest wrote that the Politburo operates “as what the science fictioneers have hypothesized for us as a ‘hive mind.’ ”

More recently, the term hive mind has been viewed more positively, particularly in the world of social media. For example, Twitter has often been termed a “hive mind” that connects users to draw on the help of a larger group, such as getting suggestions for where to eat in an unfamiliar city.

Professor Jones used the phrase Hive Mind as the title for his book when he realized that “group intelligence was more important than individual intelligence, that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, that cooperation was crucial to successful economies, and that society itself really is something like a cognitive process, one that is still little understood.”

After reading the article, I immediately thought of how the concept of hive mind applied in the case of all those neighbors working together to put together such wonderful Christmas light displays. Both streets were perfect examples of the positive side of the “hive mind”.

On the other hand, the example of the students tending to vote with the majority when raising their hands in response to a teacher’s question could be viewed as a downside to the hive mind in action. Such groupthink can lead to negative outcomes, as noted in that blog post.

So there you have it; a new buzzword to throw around at your New Year’s Eve celebration, and a couple of recent examples to show the pros and cons of “hive mind”.

Consider it my Christmas gift to my readers.

 

Christmas Lights and Community

merrychristmas

There are two blocks in South Philadelphia where the neighbors work together each holiday season to put together a spectacular display of Christmas light and other ornaments.

The first one is known as the Miracle on 13th Street, and was recently voted as having the best Christmas lights display in Pennsylvania by Travel + Leisure magazine. The street even has its own Facebook page.

miracle13thstreet

The second display is known as the Smedley Street Christmas Light Spectacular, and also has its own Facebook page.

smedleystreet

We had the opportunity to visit each street twice this past week, and it was well worth it. While the displays are spectacular, what really struck me is thinking about the amount of cooperation necessary to put together such displays.

On 13th street, it’s not just your own house that you decorate, but there are lights strung from one side of the street to the other, requiring the homeowners to coordinate their efforts in order to do so.

On Smedley Street there is a grassy median that has reindeer, a large Santa Claus, and several other ornaments which I am guessing required the efforts of several of the homeowners to construct. In addition, the lights on each house are white, showing how coordinated and cooperative the homeowners on the block are.

No doubt there’s some peer pressure at work here, plus some selection bias in that if you buy a house on one of these streets you probably are aware of what the expectations are.

None the less, it’s impressive to see such cooperation among neighbors living in such a big city. I think the two streets offer a great example of what can be accomplished when people pull together in order to accomplish a common goal.

It’s a lesson our political leaders need to learn.

So thank you to the homeowners on 13th Street and Smedley Street for all the work you do and for your willingness to share your efforts with visitors to your streets. Your lights are part of what makes the holiday so special.

Merry Christmas!

 

The Herd Mentality Is Alive and Well in College Classrooms

clickers

A recent study by researchers at Harvard Kennedy School found that when students were asked to respond to a question by raising their hands, the majority of them tended to vote with the herd. However, if students were using clickers to record their responses anonymously, there was less of a tendency to respond in a similar manner.

Dan Levy, Joshua Yardley, and Richard Zeckhauser divided more than 1,100 students in 22 different classes into two groups: one would respond to questions by raising their hands; the other used clickers. For most questions, answers differed significantly between the hand-raisers and the students with clickers. In more than half of the cases, the difference between groups was more than 10 percentage points.

When a question had only one correct answer or was sensitive, students raising their hands had a tendency to vote with the majority. 11% of questions elicited unanimous responses from hand raising, but no clicker response led to a unanimous outcome.

The results suggest that the clickers may be beneficial in allowing students to complete the learning process (thinking through their own independent responses to a question) and thus giving teachers a clearer picture of their students’ learning. Clickers also enable students to comfortably express minority or unpopular political views.

I tried having my students use clickers one semester, several years ago. Perhaps because the technology was relatively new at the time I found the clickers cumbersome to use in the classroom, and as a result by the end of the semester I had abandoned their use.

After reading this article though I am tempted to reconsider bringing them back into the classroom. I believe students are now able to use their smartphones instead of having to buy a special clicker, so I think that would be a significant improvement in terms of ease of use for the students, leading to greater student participation in class.

It reminds me of an experience I had several years ago when I volunteered to go visit my youngest son’s nursery school and read a story to the class. After I was done reading the book I started asking some questions about the book, and for every question I asked, every students’ hand was raised, and the students were almost begging me to call on them. My wife, a pre-k teacher, says that what her class is like every day.

When I ask a question in my class the response is the exact opposite. Most students simply don’t want to participate, and I’m never sure if it’s because they are not sure of the answer, the question is too easy, or they simply don’t care. If I had to guess, I think it is because they are afraid of giving an incorrect answer in public. It reminds me of Ken Robinson’s statement in his TED talk: “if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

So something happens to students between the ages of 4 and 18. They go from being eager to participate in class, to wanting to just sit there anonymously during class, afraid of being wrong.

So perhaps the use of “clickers” are a way to address this issue that will encourage students to be more willing to participate, which will be beneficial to both the student and the teacher.

Separating Learning Myths from Reality

neuroplasticity

McKinsey&Company, the global consulting firm, just came out with a list of its most popular articles for the year from the McKinsey Quarterly.

One of the articles in particular caught my attention, “How to separate learning myths from reality“, by Artin Atabaki, Stacey Dietsch, and Julia M. Sperling.

The authors examine what they refer to as “neuromyths,” misconceptions based on incorrect interpretations of neuroscientific research. More specifically, the authors identify three of these myths.

  • The critical window of childhood.  The first years of life are critical for the proper development of the brain. It is often believed that after this period, the development of the brain is fixed. However, recent neuroscientific research indicates that experience can change both the brain’s physical structure and its functional organization—a phenomenon described as neuroplasticity. Practicing simple meditation techniques, such as concentrated breathing, helps build denser gray matter in parts of the brain associated with learning and memory, controlling emotions, and compassion. A team led by Harvard scientists has shown that just eight weeks of mindful meditation can produce structural brain changes.
  • The idle-brain theory. The belief that portions of the brain are idle while other parts of the brain are working has proven to be inaccurate. More carefully interpreted functional brain scans have shown that, irrespective of what a person is doing, the entire brain is generally active and that, depending on the task, some areas are more active than others. People can always learn new ideas and new skills, not by tapping into some unused part of the brain, but by forming new or stronger connections between nerve cells. Such information plays a role in creating effective learning environments. Knowing that multitasking engages large parts of the brain’s working memory, a person needs to free up some of that memory, or that person cannot successfully memorize and learn new information. In short, multitasking and learning cannot occur effectively at the same time. Organizations who want its employees to learn need to reduce distractions during training sessions,
  • Learning styles and the left/right brain hypothesis. Many of us have heard of the theory that most people are either dominantly analytical (and left brained) or more creative (and right brained). However, this either/or dichotomy is false. The two hemispheres of the brain are linked and communicate extensively together; they do not work in isolation. This suggests that it is best to engage all the senses in a variety of ways (for instance, audiovisual and tactile) in order to help employees retain new content.

While many of these insights are targeted at leaders of corporate training programs, I think the insights are helpful for individuals as well.

For example, this is probably at least the 100th article I’ve read that discusses the value of mindfulness/meditation. Given all that, there must be something there that is beneficial, and I’d like to find out what it is.

Thus, I may set a new 31 day challenge for myself for January related to mindfulness, and then hope that it will, like this blog, become a daily habit.

An Exercise Program Worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize?

nobelpeaceprize

The Wall Street Journal had a few stories today about exercise, but two stories in particular caught my eye.

The first story was about a new type of exercise training that originated in Japan known as Kaatsu. One of its selling points is that it allegedely offers better results in less time and with less effort. Here is an explanation of Kaatsu from the article:

With Kaatsu, people do a light workout while wearing pressurized belts, first on the upper arms and then on the legs. The belts are inflated and pressure is regulated using a machine—“ka” means add and “atsu” means pressure. The workout can consist of normal exercises such as squats, push-ups or lifting light weights, and might last for five to 30 minutes. Kaatsu was developed by 67-year-old Tokyo body builder Yoshiaki Sato.

The pressurized belts cause the limbs to fill up with blood. Muscles are activated and lactic acid accumulates, say some researchers who have studied exercise when blood flow is restricted. That tricks the brain into thinking the body is doing more intense exercise, which encourages muscle growth and burning of fat and helps the body repair injuries faster, say proponents of the technique. Other researchers say the ways in which restricting blood flow helps encourage muscle growth, even with a light workout, aren’t completely understood. 

kaatsu

The story also includes a brief video you can watch to see Kaatsu in action. There are also several YouTube videos on Kaatsu, but I did not find any of them that helpful (either they were too scientific or too brief or poorly made).

I have never heard of this type of training, but my concern is with the fact that it seems to work by restricting blood flow, which seems potentially dangerous, particularly for people with heart issues. Because of this, I don’t think I’ll be trying it any time soon.

The other story looked at how popular exercise has gotten in China with women. The subtitle of the story was “Women increasingly are rejecting the traditional softer silhouette in favor of a more toned look.”

The story noted not only the tremendous growth in the number of women working out in China, but the significant amount of money they are willing to spend on fitness-related gear. As a result, companies such as Nike, Adidas, and Lululemon are experiencing strong growth for their products in China.

But what I found most interesting in the story was a link back to a previous story that looked at how committed the Chinese government is to the overall fitness movement in China. Currently, the fitness industry accounts for less than 1% of China’s GDP, but the country would like to see that number grow.

To encourage fitness among its citizens, the People’s Liberation Army released a five-minute workout video that involved stretching, vigorous marching and arm pumping. While the narration of the video is in Chinese, it seems easy enough to follow along with if you desire.

According to the PLA Daily, China’s military newspaper, “It (the workout) absorbs aspects of popular dance and Chinese tai-chi, as well as other factors. The content is novel and original; it has its own distinct style, and the movements are masculine and vigorous.”

platraining

After watching the Chinese exercise video, it seems like it would be a good warmup routine for a longer exercise session, but I do like the variety of movements that the routine involves. I think I’ll give the routine a try in the near future.

After watching the two videos, I think I’ve come up with a brilliant way to ease the tension that often exists between the two countries.

Why not create a joint exercise program that entails doing the PLA routine, but while wearing the equipment associated with the Kaatsu training?

Perhaps it can be called PLAatsu.

I think the idea seems worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize…