It’s been a while since I posted, but I felt this occasion merits a few words.
Obama supporters: Take this win graciously. Don’t gloat. Don’t rub it in anyone’s faces. Actually understand the opposition — especially because you could have easily lost.
Romney supporters: Take it on the chin, stop complaining about the end of the world (because it isn’t), and get behind our president. You lost. Suck it up.
It’s time for all of us to man up and get some work done. Act like real Americans. As much fun as it is to bicker and fight, I seem to remember we have an economy to fix (and that “we” includes all of us, not just Obama or Romney). Obama is our president, and if he fails, we are the ones who will suffer most, so we damn well better help him as much as possible, whomever we voted for.
Burpees are a fantastic exercise: push up, squat thrust, and tuck jump all in one. But when you live on the top floor of an old house, hitting the deck and pounding out some tuck jumps — especially when you’re trying to go to fail and no longer landing softly — can easily shake the whole house and disturb housemates and neighbors.
Disappointed by this fact, I’ve been working on just doing the other bodyweight training I enjoy. But there isn’t really a substitute for burpees. The closest thing to burpees is getting on an erg machine. Not too convenient.
So, to solve this problem, I have developed the “silent burpee.” It involves the same push up and squat thrust, but instead of exploding upward into a tuck jump, I land on one leg coming forward in the squat thrust and do a one-legged piston, trying to make it as explosive as possible. Each burpee, I alternate which leg I come up on. One-legged squats are fantastic exercise because they engage so many stabilizing muscles, and they’re much harder than lifting a proportionate amount of weight with both legs.
The silent burpee, which I’m trying to incorporate into my daily life, allows me to get winded in only a few minutes, especially if the pushups are pseudo-planche pushups with the hands down by the waist.
Through steady practice, the planches are starting to become more of a reality. They’re still a long way off, but everyday brings me a bit closer.
In recent years we’ve seen a massive adoption of e-books and a new industry evolving around e-readers and e-book publication. In the span of history, the adoption has been shockingly quick, especially when compared to the adoption of other systems of writing and reading throughout history.The adoption reflects our society’s increased demand for textual consumption and our new ways of perceiving and processing text.
In Roman times, the strong trade connections between what is now Europe and the Mediterranean meant the widespread availability of papyrus through the Roman world. Inexpensive and simple to produce, papyrus allowed for widespread literacy and literary production. In other words, writing could be used for more than ceremonial or culturally significant texts. When stone is the only medium for writing, you probably are not going to write much.
In Roman times, the typical medium for writing was the scroll. The codex — what we now call the “book” — was first developed around the beginning of the Common Era, but it took about 300 years to become widely used and did not replace the scroll completely as the dominant format for five or six hundred years.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, trade broke down, and Europe entered a new era. Papyrus was no longer available, and people needed to find a different medium for writing. The solution was to use calf and sheepskin (parchment and vellum). Skins had to be extensively treated and prepared before they were ready for writing. It was a laborious and expensive process to produce a single page. Books themselves, therefore, had to be carefully planned and executed by professional scribes who had trained on wax tablets. From a modern perspective, writing was a scalability nightmare, so it is truly remarkable how much written material was produced during the middle ages in Europe.
As might be expected, literacy declined and was not widespread during much of the middle ages. But as the High Middle Ages dawned, literacy began to expand once again, and books began to be used for more than religious purposes. The scale of book production became immense, but it still relied on the laborious process of preparing animal skins to use as pages. As the demand for more written material increased, Europe saw several innovations quickly taking hold, notably printing and paper.
The issues faced in adopting these technologies were very much the same in the 15th century as they are today. Book production was an entrenched art and industry, and disruptive technologies that could supply something cheaper, faster, and better suited to the needs of customers were looked on both as exciting new developments, and as abhorrent degradations of an ancient tradition.
Just as the increased demand for textual production and consumption drove the adoption of printing and paper, an insatiable demand for textual consumption has lead to widespread adoption of new innovations we are witnessing at this very moment.
In the early days of the book, silent reading did not even exist. It was considered a miracle when some monks discovered St. Jerome reading silently in his cell. In those days, each word was to be savored, even committed to memory; now text flows through us like wind among the leaves. Our perception of text has changed, and with it, the media of consumption have evolved. Even though we now often consider “technology” to require electronics, the codex was cutting edge technology in the days of its invention and adoption.
The codex has been in use for about 2000 years. It is one of our greatest traditions and has become an important part of our culture. The speed with which e-books have been adopted is truly phenomenal considering the history of the book. It is the next phase of textual evolution, as we process more and more textual material. From this, I fear for the survival of the codex, which holds a dear place in my heart; rather than its disappearance, I prefer to see its return to its former place as a revered object housing the texts deemed most worthy of retention.
This post was also published on Rapid Innovation Group’s blog.
There are many strategies for marketing, but one that has been growing in popularity, particularly in the United States, might be affectionately called “Awesomeness Marketing.”
As a type of viral marketing, the concept is pretty simple: associate a product or service with something awesome. Often, the connection between the product and the awesomeness will be tenuous at best. The association between a car and a Greek god, for example, is irrelevant; but putting the product next to something witty, outlandish, and intelligently over-the-top associates the product with favorable qualities and a sense of enjoyment.
Recently, the startup Dollar Shave Club has attracted a lot of attention because of its YouTube viral advertisement video:
The video appeals to a range of audiences, pushes on a real pain point most men have (overpriced razor cartridges), and includes a number of more subtle riffs, including having the guy getting his head shaved reading a copy of Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup. Nice touch.
For a video of this nature to be effective, it cannot dance with any middle ground of reality: it must be clearly and decisively over-the-top. Otherwise, the company runs the risk of being taken seriously in its boasting. Or, worse, just flopping. Video advertisements of this nature shamelessly extol the awesome powers of the products they sell: “Anything is possible,” says the Old Spice man after passing seamlessly through an impressive series of fantastic set changes. Furthermore, by claiming to be so “awesome” that nothing can come near, the company builds into its marketing a solid defense against inevitable attack. They can say, “Hey, don’t you have a sense of humour? We were obviously joking…”
“…But we really are awesome.”
In order to create the desired effect, however, one must be very careful to actually produce something amazing. Trying to be awesome can be fatal and will be worse than more traditional forms of advertising. In many ways, working with the real selling points of the product can be dangerous; every message needs to pass through the twisted gates of hyperbole.
Awesomeness Marketing is high risk/high yield. Do it right, produce a legendary campaign, and your brand will stand as legendary in the minds of consumers (provided the product is actually decent). But if your advertisement falls short of awesome, or worse, if in trying to be awesome, it comes across as juvenile or offensive in some way, then you have big problems.
One can never be certain that a video will go viral, even when the requisite qualities of brevity and over-the-top humor have been included. For an example, see the Zeus Scion commercial below, which does not have the same viewership as other similar ad campaigns. The video itself does it right, but it has not enjoyed the same success as others. Not going viral is always a risk when aiming to produce a video of this kind. But equally, there is the risk that the video actually will go viral. What then? Can you scale quickly? Is everything ready to fill orders on a large and perhaps international scale? Are all mechanisms in place? Is the product actually any good?
Awesomeness Marketing is also risky because of its implications in terms of social media. When a commercial goes viral on the Internet, there is no time to have a legal team vet all social media correspondence. Tweets, Facebook posts, responses of various kinds all come in and must go back out very quickly in real time. The team in charge of handling that social media presence must be sharp and switched on, able to respond quickly and appropriately without approval from corporate boards or legal teams.
The customer’s initial reaction to “Awesomeness Marketing” typically has nothing to do with the product itself. The product is in many ways irrelevant. The goal is to get the viewer stirred up and to think, “That was awesome!” The product can almost be an afterthought, which is one of the reasons the advertising is effective: the customer does not feel pushed. Gradually, and perhaps long after seeing the advertisement, the customer’s awareness—and the association with awesomeness—will shift to the actual product itself.
The efficacy of this kind of marketing comes down to the way in which the association with the advertisement shifts to the product:
Distributive Property of Awesomeness
Customer —> Awesome Commercial
Awesome Commerical —> Brand
Awesome Brand —> Product
Customer —> Product = Awesome
Awesomeness—in terms of advertising—appears to be highly transferable.
Awesomeness Marketing will find a stronger appeal among the younger generation, but that is not to discount its effectiveness with other demographics. Who doesn’t like things that are awesome? It can be an incredibly powerful tool, especially because it requires relatively little resource to use, but it is likewise an incredibly dangerous tool and one that should be used carefully and only when one is certain the advertisement will be effective and the company is prepared to handle the responses.
This post was also published on Rapid Innovation Group’s blog.
There is a saying in Old Norse: “Seldom does shame befall the cautious, for there is no greater friend that a man can get than a store of common sense.”
Very true. And very cryptic.
What is common sense? The ironic truth about common sense is that it is not common at all. In fact, it is quite rare. But “common sense” is so obvious and makes so much sense when explained that it seems like it must be a dominant feature of every person’s character. Sadly, this is not the case.
The word in Old Norse we translate as “common sense” more literally means something like “human wisdom.” It has to do with understanding principles rather than possessing specific knowledge. In entrepreneurship, success cannot be won by following a prescribed path. If only it were so simple. Each entrepreneur must find a new path to success or fail along the way. There is no guarantee of success, but failure can be avoided by following a combination of basic principles. No single principle is going to cut it; principles must be followed in combination, otherwise failure is guaranteed. What’s more, there can be no formulaic application of principles. At the end of the day, following principles demands brutal personal honesty.
Too often startups put all their money into one course of action without any certainty that the given course of action will be successful. If instead of looking at entrepreneurs as the ones with something to sell, let’s look at entrepreneurs as consumers and their plans or courses of action as products. By doing so, the ridiculousness of common failures becomes all too apparent.
Entrepreneurs usually think of themselves as the ones with a product or service to sell. With their time, effort, and money, however, entrepreneurs actually buy their own businesses; but are they smart buyers?
Suppose you were looking to purchase a house. You find one that looks exactly like the one you have in mind, so you pull the trigger and buy it for a hefty sum of money. It fits your “ideal” and in your desire to find your dream home, you ignore any signs that contradict your initial impulses.
After you move in, you find that the house is built in a valley that floods every time it rains, causing water damage and mold in the basement; there is no insulation in the walls; and the wonderful open style of the space increases heating costs and does not allow the privacy necessary for the individuals living in the house. What’s more, the house across the street is inhabited by students who have wild parties several nights a week. You failed to do your homework and made a bad purchase. How do you get rid of this house without suffering significant losses or financial ruin?
Any normal person would call you a fool if you went and bought a house in this manner without having an inspection, without asking loads of questions about the construction, the maintenance costs, the neighbors, etc. Yet that is exactly what dozens of startups do all the time.
If entrepreneurs are consumers and their own businesses the products they buy, then these “products” need to be investigated and tested even more rigorously than a tangible and easily understandable object like a house. It seems so obvious, so apparent, that the truth of it is hidden in plain sight. Switching vantage points in this way can be difficult, as it forces one to look more realistically at one’s prospects for success and what challenges lie along that road. RIG’s founder, Shields Russell, often mentions that good entrepreneurs are risk averse. Through intelligent design, testing, and implementation, a good entrepreneur does everything possible to minimize risk. The process is not as “exciting” without the risk but the end result is likely to be much more appealing.
Despite putting on what feels like a stone in weight over the holidays, my planche training has progressed with steady practice. Most beneficial has been daily push ups with my hands moving to lower and lower positions, gradually disadvantaging myself in terms of leverage. This practice has now got me to the point where I can actually squat down, and press up into a handstand.
It’s not super pretty by any means, but it’s a big step forward, and I can hold the tuck with my back parallel to the ground. I’m working on developing my strength further to be able to actually straighten my arms fully while in the tuck planche with straight back.
It feels like the training has reached a tipping point, though, or a kind of new plateau that is substantially less painful mentally than getting started was. There is something truly demoralizing about pressing against the ground as hard as you can and going nowhere. It seems impossible and like it will always be impossible. By working through the progression, however, I’ve now got to a point where I can actually press off the ground and up into a handstand, so it’s clearly just a matter of continued training to get to more substantial planche holds and better press up handstands.
I’m particularly pleased that my abilities have not declined despite the setback of holiday eating. I’m back on a good regimen of bodyweight training and look forward to seeing how things continue to progress, particularly as I am now working to make the exercises more difficult for myself. It was kinda fun when I could just barely squeeze out a few reps. Now that sets of 20 are manageable, I need to disadvantage myself even more, so I’m elevating my feet and dropping my hands to have even less leverage.
To my pleasant surprise, my video on the solar wood dehydrator I built has actually received a good number of views on YouTube. I got a request to post some plans, so I’ve drawn some rough ones up and present them here. The idea was simplicity. I tried to use standard lengths and make as few cuts as possible.
In Maryland (where I built the shed) building codes stipulate that the maximum square-footage of a building you can erect on your property without a permit is 120 sq ft. So, I made this structure 6′x20′ and the roof is made conveniently of whole 2×4s bird mouthed (notched to sit on the crossbars) and with the ends angled with a mitre saw. The front and side walls are just made with crossbars and verticals of 2×4s.
I have now cut a tarp that is roughly 4′x22′ to stretch across the exposed front of the shed. It is secured with hooks and tarp bungees. I have also bought a heavy-duty clear tarp for the roof which hangs over the back and is secured with hooks and bungees as well. There are three tarps in the back (one for each bay) that are secured with tarp bungees. This makes for a highly versatile structure that’s easy to open up and load, but then closes off securely for winter, still leaving enough ventilation for the wood to breathe.
The dehydrator has helped us tremendously. Our stove burns hotter, we use a lot less wood, and we did not even need to clean our chimney after a long winter of heating with wood!
A couple of weeks ago I had a chance to hear some of the speakers from the event “Silicon Valley Comes to the UK” in Cambridge. Several of the speakers talked of the amazing possibilities opening up with the availability of large data sets that effectively index information, language, and the world itself. It got me thinking about the nature of information, knowledge, and wisdom, and my thoughts turned, of course, to the old giant Vafþrúðnir (Vaf-thruth-neer).
In the Old Norse poem Vafþrúðnismál (Vaf-thruth-nis-maul)—The Sayings of Vafþrúðnir—the god Óðin (O-thin) comes to the giant Vafþrúðnir in disguise. Both are powerful figures in body and mind, but Óðin challenges Vafþrúðnir not to a contest of strength, but to one of wisdom.
The giant agrees, but it is his hall and his rules. They set the terms of the competition: he who loses the battle of wisdom shall forfeit his head. The cultural implications of this wager are great. Strength without wisdom is useless; the strong fool is as good as dead.
The giant does not know, of course, that he battles against Óðin, and is therefore doomed to fail. But Óðin finds a dauntless opponent in the giant as he crafts riddle after riddle, and must win in a rather sneaky way. He asks a question to which only he knows the answer: What did Óðin whisper into the ear of Baldr when he was laid on the funeral pyre?* Upon hearing the question, the giant realises that his opponent must be Óðin, for only Óðin would know the answer to this question. Aware of his error, he concedes defeat.
In the Q&A period after the final session of the Silicon Valley Comes to the UK conference, one person asked about what skill-set will be required in the coming years of computer-based living as opposed to the skill-sets cultivated in years past.
The first answer came from Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, who said that memory and memorizing would no longer be necessary, and instead people would only need to know how to navigate data and find the information they need in the moment. Delivered to an audience largely comprised of current Cambridge students, this answer did not seem to sit well with the crowd.
After a brief, half-hearted challenge from Megan Smith at Google, Andrew McLaughlin of Civic Commons championed the opposition to Hoffman, saying that no matter how readily available information and data in the coming years may become, nothing can match the human being’s ability to integrate and synthesize information into something newer and better. Memorizing, he said, would still be important not for mechanical recollection of facts, but for the pathways it opens up in the human mind that facilitate true growth, unmatched by any program or computer.
The response received loud applause from the audience. Without the processes that real learning initialises within an individual, what purpose do the advancements in data storage and processing actually present mankind? Information has always been free. Everything we know as a species we have learned through observation, exploration, and experimentation. The information has always been there; we just needed eyes to see it, like Newton beneath the apple tree. The effort required to unearth and organise that information, however, speaks to the costliness of knowledge. Knowledge is not just about possessing information, but also about possessing methods and means of storing, processing, and using that information. It requires action. Owning an encyclopedia is useless if one never reads it, much like the uncut pages of the books in Gatsby’s library. Information is just potential, useless unless developed into knowledge, and then used with knowledge.
And then we get to wisdom. Wisdom is yet another step further, a kind of combination of knowledge and experience that transcends the articulable. Knowledge can be traded, bought, sold, and passed on; wisdom must be developed within each and every person individually. Knowledge is also limited to a specific subject area, whereas wisdom applies across the range of human experience. And that is precisely why no matter how advanced data processing and applications become in the years ahead, they ultimately have nothing to do with the internal advancement of each human being that makes life worth living.
Wisdom will always be our rarest and most expensive commodity. In our quest to explore the applications of data, we must be sure we do not neglect the importance of wisdom and lose our heads like the giant Vafþrúðnir.
“Ey manni þat veit,
hvat þú í árdaga
sagðir í eyra syni;
mælta ek mína forna stafi
ok of ragnarök;
Nú ek við Óðin
deildak mína orðspeki;
þú ert æ vísastr vera.”
“No one knows
what you said in days gone by
into the ear of your son.
With a doomed mouth
I spoke my ancient lore
and of Ragnarok.
Now I have traded
my wordcraft with Óðin:
you are the wisest of all.” (translation mine)
* The winning question in Vafþruðnismál was, of course, the basis for Bilbo’s “What have I got in my pocket?” question in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Other riddles in The Hobbit come from the genre of Old English and Old Norse wisdom dialogues, such as Golum’s “time” riddle in the Old English Solomon and Saturn II.
A version of this post can also be found on Rapid Innovation Group’s blog.
This is my first week at the Rapid Innovation Group and I come to the company from an unlikely background. Having studied English, literature, languages, and medieval studies from undergrad through a PhD, I have often been asked in sneering tones, “What are you going to do with that?” Along with everyone else, I would have myself doubted that I would go on to found an online language-training business and start working for a hi-tech consultancy, but such is life.
With no actual training in business, I have been thinking a lot about “transferable skills” in my first few days at RIG. The concept is not as popular in my home country of America as it is here in the UK, and I’ve known many to dismiss the notion of transferable skills as a wishy-washy theory that has no validity in actual practice. But after less than a week at RIG, I find myself performing tasks that I have spent years training to execute swiftly and cleanly. Thank goodness I’m a medievalist.
First and perhaps most obvious is the skill of research. Knowing what questions to ask can be as important as the desired information itself. Being familiar with both the methodologies and tools of research, as well as frameworks for organizing and structuring information, data, and even thought saves time, energy, and therefore also money. Tracing the manuscript origins of a West Saxon copy of an Old English poem with an Anglian original requires a remarkably similar process to determining the potential marketing direction of a burgeoning startup. I’ve heard reported that Joseph Strayer, a prominent medieval historian who worked for the CIA, claimed that medievalists made excellent operatives because they were accustomed to making informed decisions on the basis of limited evidence. I see his point.
Most striking to me, however, is the importance of language. This includes nuanced ability to craft the English language, the ability to analyse someone else’s language, and the ability to speak other languages. When impressions count and arguments need to be made forcefully and quickly, language must be clear, clean, and to the point in order to have the desired effect. Understanding the subtleties of language allows one to perceive metamessages—whether consciously or unconsciously created—in the language of another party; this skill can be critical for assessing the tone, interest, or desires of a client, customer, or partner.
The importance of knowing other languages also cannot be undervalued. On the research front, knowledge of multiple languages allows one to gauge more quickly and accurately cultural values and sentiments held in other countries. Will this product find a market in Germany? What are South American newspapers reporting about this technology and its impact? These are hard questions to answer without knowing languages. Even more important is the ability to cross over into another’s culture via language; by eliminating this barrier, one eliminates many hurdles on the way to successful business. In my own experience, America is such a diverse country that no matter from where someone actually comes, I think of him or her as “American” so long as he or she speaks fluent American English. The fluency of language eliminates disconnects and makes it easy for me to feel “at home.” The same is true in developing relationships in non-English-speaking countries.
I’ve always held the notion of transferable skills in high regard, but I did not expect to be using so much of my academic training right from the start. From my limited perspective, there are few backgrounds I could see as more useful for business than one involving detailed study of language and literature, and I am thankful for my training as a medievalist. “What will you do with medieval studies?” It seems quite logical to respond, “Start a business, then help develop hi-tech startups, of course!”
It’s gotten cold again, so it’s been time to fire up the wood stove recently, especially with this past weekend’s snow. The woodshed I built a year and a half ago has worked brilliantly. With it’s south-facing clear plastic roof, the wood that’s been baking in there all summer is dried to perfection, and the system of tarps and bungees I recently rigged up to protect the wood completely not only kept everything bone dry in the snow and rain this past weekend, but it also looks good.
This year, I’ve refined the system of using the stove to be cleaner and more efficient. Two trashcans on the front porch hold twigs and sticks for kindling, and a four-wheel cart is the go-between for wood between the porch and the shed. I cut a piece of tarp in a t-shape, folded the flaps down, and taped the seams to create a box-shaped tarp with an open bottom—the perfect cover for the cart. So, I can load up the cart at the shed, bring it to the porch and—instead of taking the wood out and stacking it on the porch—just cover the cart with this custom made awesomeness.
The super dry wood burns hot and cleanly. Once it catches fully, you’d never know from outside there was a fire going in the house. But even so, some soot and creosote collects on the inside of the glass door every day. This is mostly because I like to put the damper completely closed and get the most out of the wood. A lot of it comes off easily with water, but some of it sticks and makes an unsightly brown barrier between the observer and the beautiful glowing fire.
You can get glass cleaner for stove doors, but it’s a chemical and kind of a pain to use, so I try to just use a damp rag in the morning before starting the next fire (always drying the glass thoroughly before actually starting the fire). But this morning, something just clicked for me and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. I was using a damp paper towel and I thought, “some grittiness would get this off really quickly.” Indeed, the store bought cleaner feels really gritty. And then it struck me. I dipped the damp towel in some of the white, powdery ash in the stove and then went back to cleaning the glass. The creosote came off instantly.
Ash used to be household cleaning powder, used to polish silverware and used to make soap. It naturally contains lye, and can be a powerful cleaning agent. It also provides a very fine abrasiveness that can be used to polish hard materials like metal or glass. Why I hadn’t thought of using ash before, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just stupid. But I’m glad to have found this solution to a minor, but annoying, problem. A damp rag with a bit of white ash will clean a glass stove door beautifully.