Designing for sustainability – what we learned from three weeks in a small Guatemalan village

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By Valeria Gaitan and Titiaan Palazzi

We spent the last three weeks in a small village on Lake Atitlán, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. In addition to its natural beauty, the lake is a resource for surrounding villages. Unfortunately, population growth, modern innovations (such as motorized ships), and climate change are threatening the lake’s health.

Families around the lake face many challenges: lack of clean drinking water, high costs of wood and electricity, respiratory disease, and a local economy based almost entirely on tourism. These challenges are interconnected, so addressing them requires a systems perspective. How can we improve quality of life for people in such vulnerable conditions? How do we design for sustainability in such a complex system?

IDDS: summits to design for local development

We were in Guatemala exactly to answer these questions, by participating in an International Design for Development Summit (IDDS). IDDS summits are organized by MIT, IDIN and local professionals. For three weeks, we went through a design process to design and prototype solutions around the theme of sustainable homes. Our group included about 20 facilitators and 50 participants. Importantly, we were not working for the community but with the community; 16 of the 50 participants lived in Santa Catarina Palopó, a picturesque town of about 1,000 families where the summit took place.

The group was split into smaller teams, each addressing one specific subtopic of sustainable homes: energy, cooking methods, organic waste, plastic waste, food, water, sanitation, and construction methods.

Learning about people’s needs: Observe, Ask, and Experiment

Our team focused on energy. Our initial goal was to build relationships with the local community. To identify a specific problem, we had to learn about our users. To do so, we used a framework of Observe, Ask, and Experiment. We went from home to home, guided by our local team members, to interview people. We observed how people prepared their meals and washed their clothes. We spent hours in small kitchens learning to make tortillas and bathing in temazcals (a local form of sauna or sweat lodge used 2-3 times per week for bathing).

Energy influences every aspect of daily life

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As we lived with local families, we realized that energy informs almost every element of daily life. The wood burnt in open fires or cook stoves causes respiratory diseases and eye problems. As villagers collect wood from surrounding hillsides, forests are decimated. This in turn can lead to destructive mudslides (a 2010 mudslide destroyed many of Santa Catarina Palopó’s homes). Families spend as much as half their income on energy; as a consequence, many families can’t keep their kids in school or visit a doctor.

This stands in stark contrast to the United States and Europe. Here, a shift to clean energy is critically important to prevent global climate change. But after switching a home in Copenhagen or Texas to solar PV, the people in it don’t perceive a difference in their daily lives.

Prototyping solutions to reduce the use of firewood and electricity

After our first week, we narrowed our focus to two problem areas: high consumption of firewood for heating the temazcals (used 2-3 times per week), and high electricity costs, largely as a consequence of incandescent lighting.

We then developed design requirements for each problem. Based on these design requirements, we brainstormed different types of solutions. During the final week, we focused on two efforts:

1. An effort to redesign burners in temazcals, with the key purpose to reduce wood consumption while improving the user experience (e.g., by reducing smoke inside the temazcal).

2. An effort to reduce electricity bills by changing incandescent bulbs to LEDs.

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Most villagers heated their temazcal by building an open fire inside, on which they rested tiles and a pot of water. We built two wood burner prototypes applying the rocket stove design. We tested these prototypes with the families in Santa Catarina Palopó. Their feedback was positive: the prototypes reduced wood consumption from 10-15 logs to just 3-4 logs of firewood, while reducing smoke in the temazcal via a chimney. The prototypes are still in pilot phase at the homes, to analyze burner performance and user adoption.

To show the quality of LEDs, we developed a wooden box that fit an incandescent bulb, a fluorescent bulb, and two LEDs: one white, one yellow. We also developed marketing materials to explain the economic benefit of LEDs.

Reflecting on our experience, here are three key lessons about design for sustainability:

1. Design with the community, not for the community

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At times, we were tempted to move ahead with a design without extensively consulting the local community. The organizers constantly reminded us to listen to the community and to engage them in the design process.

Although sometimes frustrating, we listened. The effort paid off.

First, by engaging local women in problem selection, we worked on problems that mattered to them. During a local workshop, we asked women what they found most frustrating in the experience of using the temazcal. We learned that the large volume of smoke was particularly challenging, especially for the women who were asked to start the fire inside the temazcal.

Second, by engaging our two team members from the community in every step of the process, we created advocates for our solutions. Days after we installed the first LEDs, Jessica and Lidia told many others about the opportunity to save electricity by switching lightbulbs. A message from them has an impact far greater than any message coming from people outside the community.

2. Local entrepreneurship can keep small communities alive

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We asked several community members—most of whom were in their late twenties or early thirties—about their dreams. Many did not have full-time work. Most expressed a strong desire to find a well-paying job so they could support their families and create a better life.

Typically, jobs can only be found in larger towns and cities. If much of the younger generation leaves to find work elsewhere, this could mean the loss of many small towns and communities.

We learned that one path to create professional opportunities is through local entrepreneurship. What if young people can stay in their communities by creating new businesses?

This is exactly what both our initiatives are set up to do. Tech-savvy community members could manufacture the temazcal burners out of local materials and sell them to families in and around Santa Catarina Palopó. Well-connected local women can go door to door to inform people about the potential savings from LEDs, and then sell LEDs to families.

One of the most exciting moments was when Jessica, one of the two community members on our team, took us to several homes to inform people about LEDs. Typically shy, Jessica blew us away by giving a passionate, clear pitch at every home. Jessica showed herself to be a true advocate. She expressed a strong interest to build a local business to sell LEDs.

3. Business is a double-edged sword

New businesses can greatly improve quality of life. Cell phones allow people to be in touch with their families, avoiding many unnecessary trips. Better cookstoves reduce smoke, related health problems, wood burn, related energy costs and deforestation.

At the same time, big businesses have negative consequences. A national fried chicken chain, Pollo Campero, drives out many original, local restaurants. A national chicken vendor reduces the business opportunities for local villagers to grow and sell chickens. Toritos bags and Coca-Cola is sold in every small store and clearly leads to unhealthy diets.

The types of businesses that seem to add most value are those that provide high-quality products sold by local people.

Sustainability = Continuity

Of course, the work to date is just the beginning. Impact in the community requires sustained efforts. Fortunately, three of our team members live in Guatemala. They are already planning a next visit to the community, to ask about the two prototypes, and to organize a workshop for local people to build temazcal burners using locally available, reused, and low-cost materials.

We also seek to partner with a top-tier LED manufacturer to bring high-quality bulbs to the community, and to continue to train the local community members to become a door-to-door information and sales force.

Thank you to the Energy team who made all this possible: Maya Pérez, Lidia Cúmes, Jessica Pérez, Andrés Viau, Daniel Connell, and Amit Gandhi.

Thank you to the IDDS organizers María José Saenz, Sher Vogel, Omar Crespo, Oscar Quan, and Paul Crespo.

From Aspen to NYC: reflections from 3 years in Colorado

Two weeks ago I moved from Colorado to New York City. I lived in the Aspen area for almost three years. Originally, I moved to Old Snowmass to work with Amory Lovins. I stayed for the beautiful mountains and the inspiring work and colleagues.

As I spend my first weeks walking the streets of New York, I wanted to capture some of my observations about the shift in my surroundings. (A post of lessons from working with Amory Lovins will follow soon!)

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View of Manhattan from Queens

Connection to nature

Three years in Colorado have made me feel very connected to nature. Whether I’m out hiking alone or “skinning” up a mountain with friends on our way to a hut—being in nature makes me happy. I have always appreciated being outside, but Colorado has strongly increased that appreciation. As I meet new people in NYC, I even find myself describing my identity through all my past and future outdoor trips.

Luckily, I moved in with friends who share this deep appreciation for nature. Brendan Coffey, who generously offered me a room, mentioned during our first evening together that he wants to spend at least one day each weekend outside the city. What else could I wish for? I’m excited about upcoming expeditions to the Catskills, the Berkshires, and the Hamptons. That said, I will miss waking up with the sunrise, looking out over Mount Daly, Capitol Peak, and Mount Sopris as I make my breakfast.

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View from my Old Snowmass house, which friends jokingly called “the house in the sky”

Interestingly, I notice that New York’s cityscapes convey a certain beauty too, particularly during early morning or late afternoon light.

Local community

I struggled to connect with a diverse network of people in Aspen, the way I had in Cambridge or Amsterdam. In NYC, this is changing noticeably—I am invited to countless interesting gatherings, and find myself lying in bed at night thinking about the wide array of people I met that day.

There is, however, a beauty to living in a small mountain town: you start to know everyone around you, at least by face or name. I knew most people I went to a yoga class with, I knew the local grocer, and I knew the barber. Living in a small community makes you feel that you’re there for one another other.

That said, I think building connection to your local community is possible in NYC too. It just requires a concerted effort. On a Sunday trip to Beacon, a small town about an hour outside of New York, I was inspired by a friend who introduced himself to employees at the local bakery, bike shop, and art studio. I notice that I can get to know strangers in NYC too, if I smile, ask for and listen to their personal story, and share some of mine.

Two key reasons I wanted to move to New York were to build community and to be part of a diverse, multicultural city. Both desires are already being fulfilled. Together with Brendan, I started a “Curious Conversations Club”—a monthly gathering with a group of friends to dive deep into a book or documentary discussing an important topic. To grow my contribution to a diverse, multicultural city, I plan to start actively volunteering for local causes.

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Recent “three magi” dinner in Amsterdam, organized with Tim Manschot. This is exactly what I hope to create more of in NYC.

Life’s rhythm

One blessing of living in the Colorado Rockies is the very limited distraction around you. You can focus your days on just a few core activities. In NYC, you end up spending more time thinking planning your transport or choosing from an endless menu of food options.

However, I notice that it’s actually easier than expected to live a focused life in NYC. I am fortunate that my home is a 15-minute walk from the office. By having breakfast at home and lunch at the office, I don’t need to consider food options much. Regular exercise and daily walks also improve my ability to focus.

Also, being “alone in the mountains” may make it easier to focus, but I find that to be most productive, and to have more creative ideas, the brain also needs a lot of input. Exactly this is what I find in NYC. Following Stephen Johnson’s notion that good ideas come from lively interactions and bringing together diverse experiences, life in a big city may end up being more productive than life in a small mountain town.

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This is what I’ll miss most…

A time for everything

I am stoked to be in NYC. I can’t wait to nurture deep friendships with the people around me, and I love exploring this amazing city. At the same time, I feel grateful for having spent three years in some of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen.

Very few people live in a place like Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley in their mid twenties. Colorado has given me a deep (I’d like to think lifelong) appreciation for the outdoors, and the mountains have helped me become more patient and feel at peace internally.

As Amory likes to joke: “Everything will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end yet!”

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Where have you lived? What city or town do you remember most fondly? Do you want to spend the rest of your life in cities or in small towns? How do you choose where you want to live? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

The Best Books I read in 2016

Good books are a joy to read; great books make you a better person. Of the books I read in 2016, I would nominate the six below as good or even great.

Per book, I explain how it influenced my life, so that you can decide which are worth your time. If you’re interested in more book recommendations, have a look at “Books that Influenced my Life” and “The Best Books I read in 2015”.

What’s the best book you read this year? What’s the best book you ever read? Please share a book recommendation in the comments below.

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  1. Dune, by Frank Herbert

Frequently ranked as “best science fiction book of all times”, this story about a battle between extra-planetary noble houses trying to take control of a desert planet Arrakis is a page-turner. I finished this book in a week, spending many nights reading till deep in the night. The book is well-written and rich in narrative, touching on topics diverse as how to start new religions; how to manage international (or interstellar) relations; and how to preserve water in deserts. It’s a tale as rich as Star Wars, so good that I’d be happy to re-read it soon.

2. Road to Character, by David Brooks 

People who have cultivated a deep and applied compassion inspire me. One of the best books I read in 2015 was My Life with the Saints, by Fr. James Martin, which profiles a dozen or so saints in a chapter each. NYT-columnist David Brook’s Road to Character is similar in structure.

David Brooks observes that in today’s Western societies, our media admire people who show grit, persistence, boldness, and courage. Think of famous entrepreneurs, professional athletes, and pop stars. However, when we look at the people who are most admired upon their deathbed, these are people who show a different set of virtues. Brooks contrasts today’s résumé virtues against eternal eulogy virtues, dedicating the book to profiling eight people who lived in the last two millennia—from St. Augustine to President Eisenhower—in the hope that it may inspire us all to be better. As Brooks writes in his introduction:

“Occasionally, even today, you come across certain people who seem to possess an impressive inner coherence. They are not leading fragmented, scattershot lives. They are calm, settled, and rooted. They are not blown off course by storms. They don’t crumble in adversity. Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable. Their virtues are not the blooming virtues you see in smart college students; they are the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little and have learned from joy and pain. They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline.”

Reading through the book, I found myself underlining constantly, making notes in the margins on almost every page. Re-reading my notes made it clear how much space we have to grow. This is a book I want to continue to return to, to remind myself how much work it takes to be a good person.

  1. The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander

This book will make you shine like a lightbulb! In The Art of Possibility, Rosamund and Benjamin Zander, a social worker and the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, share their philosophy of a life full of possibility. In each chapter, they illustrate a helpful maxim with lively stories. One example stands out: Ben Zander explains how he publicly announces at the start of a new class that each student will get an A, under one condition: they must write a letter to themselves, imagining they have finished the class, explaining what it is that made them deserve an A. By doing so, you can unleash the power of possibility and responsibility.

I first read this book in print, and later downloaded it as an audiobook. I’d listen to (part of) a chapter each morning on my way to work, which would often have a profound impact on how I’d go through my day. Highly recommended!

  1. Acts of Faith, by Eboo Patel

Eboo Patel is the founder of Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that brings young people of different religions for cooperative service and dialogue around shared values. I picked up his autobiography in Chicago this fall, after noticing the title years ago on my friend Ted Gonder’s booklist.

Patel’s short, highly readable biography filled me with inspiration about starting organizations that matter. Patel opened my mind to the reasons why youth are easily attracted to religious extremism, because it offers a clear path to a life mission and social status, things that every teenager craves for. He then suggests that the way to address religious extremism at its root is to offer young people alternative paths to meaning and social status, which he tries to do with his organization.

  1. Structures (or Why Things Don’t Fall Down), by J.E. Gordon

Giles Holt recommended this lovely book. Reading Structures was a déjà vu back to my undergraduate civil engineering classes. Gordon, a very witty British professor, will make you learn something new on each page, such as how our quads compare to car springs, why birds have feathers on their wings, or why a piece of paper rips apart more easily once it has an initial cut. He strips structural engineering of its confusing terms, communicating it in vivid and witty prose through clear examples.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is curious to learn more about their physical environment (if you like this book, also consider Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces on physics or Goodsell’s The Machinery of Life on cell biology). Although neither Structures nor Dune directly led to a lot of changes in my everyday life, they both brought many new perspectives and were absolutely a joy to read.

  1. Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight

I picked up Phil Knight’s autobiography three days ago and finished it this morning. This story, about the origins of Nike, reads like a high-speed train. Phil Knight, Nike’s cofounder, explains in detail and without much ego how he started to import Onitsuka Tigers from Japan, building a scrappy business from scratch in a time when venture capital, minimum viable product, and A/B testing did not exist. Knight’s story left me with a sense of the importance of having courage in your endeavors, and pursuing your crazy idea.

I already have a few must-read books on my list for next year: Value Investing by Guy Pierce, Gene by Siddharth Mukerjee, and Tolstoy by Henri Troyat. I will remind myself to read the classics. Which books should I add?

A Path to Enlightenment: Reflections on a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat

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I just returned from a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat at the California Vipassana Center (CVC), in the style of S.N. Goenka. For 10 days, I took a vow of silence, meditating for 10 hours each day, starting my first daily meditation at 4.30am and ending the last at 9pm. It was without doubt the most formative experience for me this year. Why? Please read on.

The concept: an Art of Living

Vipassana is a meditation technique rediscovered by the Buddha 2500 years ago. The technique was developed as “a universal remedy for universal ills”. Does that sound a little lofty? Let me explain.

Your mind has a habit to respond to external objects with craving or aversion. These cravings and aversions create suffering. For example, when you see a delicious pastry while standing in line at the coffee shop, but a customer ahead of you orders the last one, you suffer. When you miss the bus and are condemned to wait for the next one, while feeling miserable about the cold weather, you suffer.

Vipassana is a technique to unlearn these cravings and aversions, by accepting reality as it is. In Vipassana, you use the mind to observe sensations on the body without reacting to them. If, after sitting cross-legged for half an hour, you feel pain in your right thigh, you do not respond by moving your leg. Rather, you objectively observe, “Ah, I sense pain in my upper right leg”, and investigate the sensation further (e.g., do you feel heat, pulsation, or perspiration?) in equanimity, without moving your leg.

By training the mind to not automatically respond to sensations, but to observe them in equanimity, you can unlearn the habit that causes human suffering.These 10-day courses are meant to establish and deepen one’s daily practice. It certainly takes many years, if not lives, to fully liberate the mind. However, a steady daily practice can get you very far.

The technique: Mastery of the Mind and Equanimous Awareness

The first three days of the retreat are used to increase one’s awareness by focusing on the sensation of breath, using a technique called anapana breathing. On the first day, you focus on sensations in the entire area of the nose. You gradually reduce the area of focus to only the entrance to the nostrils, with the purpose of sharpening the mind’s ability to detect sensations.

Then, after you have trained the mind to notice sensations on an area the size of a few fingertips, you are introduced to the technique of Vipassana. Essentially, Vipassana consists of different ways of “scanning” your body for different sensations, and observing these sensations in equanimity.

The first days of practicing Vipassana you will notice only gross sensations, such as a pain in the upper leg, or the movement of your lungs due to incoming or outgoing breath. Within a few days, your awareness sharpens to experience sensations on every tiny part of the body.

My experience

Ten days without speaking is a fantastic experience. Taking a vow of silence enables you not to focus any attention on others, which is where we normally spend most of our awareness. This creates a whole new reality. You can fully focus on the taste of your food, the touch of your feet on the ground, or the sensations on your skin. Silence becomes sacred.

The mind is incredibly active. Ten days without speaking does not feel like ten days of silence. Your mind is filled with internal monologue. Especially in the first days, hundreds of ideas pop up. And it’s not just the volume of ideas—the type of thoughts is fascinating, too. I had elaborate memories of my time as a teenager and student that I had not thought about for more than five or ten years.

Because you agree not to read or write during the course, you can’t write down any of your ideas. This is an interesting exercise in itself. In everyday life, I have developed a strong habit to capture every idea or to-do in a physical or virtual notebook. To respond in equanimity to these ideas, I had to let go of attachment, believing that the truly important ideas would come back to me at a later point. I had to remind myself that I came here to practice Vipassana, not to think about other things, and let the idea float away (by focusing my awareness on my breath of sensations).

Cultivating awareness and equanimity is possibly the most important path one can embark on. When “Noble Silence” was lifted on the 10th day of the course, my first long conversation was with Jerry, a businessman from Vancouver, Canada. Jerry told me that he participated in his first Vipassana retreat 42 years ago in India, and had done more than 60 retreats since. Jerry—a successful businessman, with a happy family, in good health—said that his daily Vipassana practice was the most important gift in his life.

I don’t think that Jerry’s statement was an exaggeration. Vipassana is part of the path of Dhamma. According to the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path, Vipassana should be combined with a virtuous life (right speech, action, and livelihood) and increased awareness (right effort, mindfulness, and concentration). To me, it is only logical that committing to live a virtuous life, to further develop one’s awareness, and to continue to develop wisdom by equinamously observing the senses will have a profound impact on a human life.

The people who most inspire me—whether historic characters who I have learned about through books, or individuals who I have had the good fortune to become friends with—live a life of high morality. They practice selfless service. They realize they are flawed, and work on those flows. They actively work to reduce their sense of ego, self-importance. I think that Vipassana can help me cultivate these characteristics. That does not mean I think it’s the only way (I know people who find practical inspirations in many other techniques, religious and non-religious) or that it’s fully complete (for example, I think daily readings about virtuous exemplars may further benefit our compassion actions), but it is a technique that resonates with me now, that has clear merits, and that I can practice.

Taking a Vipassana course was not easy, but it was so worth the effort. In the last week and a half, I have been offered a concise view of the good life, and more uniquely, a specific path to develop that good life, step by step.

I look forward to grow on this path. I have committed to sitting twice a day for the next year, and I will sign up for a follow-up course in 2017 this week. Please let me know if you’re interested to join, or if you have any questions.

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There is much more to share that I do not cover in the post above. For example, the retreat is made possible entirely by donations: teachers and all kitchen staff volunteer their time and expenses for lodging and meals are paid for by previous donations. This means that anyone, no matter what economic status, can join, which I found to be very refreshing. This is not a wealthy person’s escape.

Three things I learned from being a volunteer solar installer

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Last Friday, I helped to install a solar photovoltaic array of more than 500 solar panels. The array will provide 35-40 low-income households with clean, affordable electricity—enabling savings of up to $500 per household per year. The installation was organized by GRID Alternatives, a non-profit that brings together community partners, volunteers, and job trainees to implement solar power and energy efficiency for low-income families.

On a crisp Friday morning, under a cloudless Colorado sky, approximately 40 of us gathered for a short safety instruction. The solar array was to be installed in the back yard of Yampa Valley Electric Association (YVEA), a small electricity company that serves about 25,000 customers in Northwest Colorado, employing more than 60 people to do so. Many of the volunteers were Yampa Valley employees: my team of six included two linemen, a woman from Yampa Valley’s HR department and a woman from the finance department.

Volunteering reminds you that to give is to receive. Since Friday, I have had multiple moments in which I realized how much I got out of a day of volunteering. Upon reflection, here are three reasons why volunteering can be so fulfilling.

First, volunteering can give you a peek into other peoples’ lives. Someone in my installation crew had been fixing distribution wires for 16 years. Sixteen years! Others had lived in Steamboat Springs their entire lives. Many of us—whether you work as a software engineer, a consultant, or lawyer—live in a tiny bubble. By volunteering, you are exposed to different views of reality. This is further amplified when you volunteer in a developing country, yet even when you volunteer in your municipality, you will likely encounter foreign views.

Second, you can learn new things by volunteering. Related to the previous point, the exposure to people you wouldn’t otherwise meet can teach you something. It can expand your “unknown unknown”: the things you didn’t even know you didn’t know. Steve, a lineman at YVEA, told me how his crew inserts a liquid into underground distribution-grid lines that will solidify, protecting underground wires from corrosion and improving their insulation. This can extend lifetime by as much as 10 years. Similarly, I learned that solar PV modules need a “WEEB” that penetrates the structure, to ground the panel in case of a short-circuit or lightning strike.

A colleague put it beautifully: “I always learn more from volunteering in other parts of the world than I can ever teach.”

Third, it’s truly fulfilling to build things by hand. At the end of the day, my crew and I had installed about 100 solar PV modules. To see a structure materialize over the course of a day, to spend a day working in the sun, to feel your muscles when you lay down at night—these are blessings for someone who spends most working days in an office.

If you want to try installing solar yourself, GRID Alternatives has opportunities around the United States. Visit GRID’s website to find specific opportunities. GRID will have a big “solarthon” in Fort Collins, Colorado October 20-22nd. Contact Allison Moe amoe [at] gridalternatives [dot] org for more info or to sign up!

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When was the last time you volunteered? In what capacity? Do you have, or did you ever have, a regular volunteering practice? How does it feed you? What is difficult? 

Thanks to Tom Figel and Allison Moe for creating this opportunity, and for all GRID Alternative staff for committing to do good work. Thanks to Laurie Guevara-Stone for reading an earlier version of this post and providing a quote. 

6 reflections from taking a furniture-making class

Yesterday I finished a weeklong class at Anderson Ranch on designing and manufacturing a piece of wooden furniture using modern tools. The class‘s purpose was to learn to design 2D shapes in a software program called Rhino, and to build a piece of furniture out of plywood by cutting the designs using a CNC router.

The whole week was a terrific experience. Below are some of my reflections on the week.

1. It’s highly rewarding to make things

Since teaching hands-on engineering classes with Spokes America three summers ago, I have barely used digital fabrication tools. This week I focused on designing and building a stool with integrated serving trays.

First, we had to develop multiple ideas for pieces of furniture, sketching with pen on paper. After several well-structured critiques, digital designs, prototypes, and a full-scale model, I produced a final full-scale version. Once my full-scale model was assembled I was amazed that the object in front of me had been no more than an idea a few days before.

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The uncompleted version of my final stool

2. An expert coach can greatly accelerate your learning

For most of the course we worked independently. We only had two short plenary sessions on how to use the digital design software. Despite that absence of lectures, I felt greatly supported in my learning. Whenever I was not sure on how to do something—copy an object in my design software or set a path for the drilling bit to follow—my teacher was there to help. There was little waiting time between wanting to do something and learning how to do it.

This is not generally the case in learning! One of the frustrating things in learning to program online is that you can get stuck for hours trying to understand how to issue a certain command. The internet is a resource for learning, but there’s nothing like asking a human being, skilled at the craft at hand, sitting next to you.

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Reuben Foat, our main teacher, showing how to load a bit into the CNC router

The condensed nature of the program also accelerated my learning. I worked in the woodshop for 5 consecutive days from 8am-10pm, taking only short breaks to eat and answer important calls. This made the learning much more sticky than if I would have taken the equivalent amount of classes spread out over two months.

3. Getting to a beautiful product requires tests

On Thursday morning I milled and put together my first full-scale model. At this point, I had already designed and milled several test joints—I had put a lot of thought into my design, making many calculations to ensure everything would fit. However, once I put the full-scale model together, I saw many design elements that could be improved: the trays could slide in more smoothly, the trays could be supported by tracks so they wouldn’t fall down, and the seat of the stool could be less wide. The observation that my stool was not perfect did not disappoint me, in stead, I felt empowered to know how to improve.

Similarly, when you use a computer to control a mill (CNC stands for computer numerically controlled), the mill cuts exactly where you tell it to. For pieces of wood to fit together, though, you need a little bit of space between each piece. The exact amount of space depends on the wood quality, the bit of the drill, and other factors. To know exactly how many millimeters of “extra space” you need in wooden joints (known as tolerance), it’s good practice to design and mill test joints, where you increase the width of mortices (a hole) by a few tenths of millimeters per test.

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Example of a test joint. Note the pencil on the upper piece, indicating by how much of an inch the dimensions of the mortice were offset outward.

I think it’s valuable to take the concept of building prototypes and testing early and often into our professional lives. It happens too often that we think we have a perfect idea, then invest weeks or months to build it, only to realize later that our idea doesn’t work as we had planned.

4. Learning a new tool influences how you think

Having just finished the course, my attention is now caught a dozen times a day by the details of wood joinery (e.g., how my kitchen drawer slides into its cupboard). Before the course I would have never noticed such details. What you spend your time doing greatly influences what you think about.

5. A new tool has great benefits, but you must overcome the learning hurdle

When I first looked at the CNC-mill, I felt daunted. Would I be able to control this complex machine? I had to learn three new types of software: one to design my furniture, one to set the path the drill would follow (known as toolpaths), and a third to control the CNC-mill. The first time I used the machine, I was very hesitant, and had to look at the checklist many times. I also made several errors. The second time was easier, but it still required my full brainpower. On my third go, things went more smoothly, and if you’d ask me to mill something now, I could do it while answering a phone call. As with any learning, there is a hurdle to overcome (and arguably, the hurdle to use the CNC-mill was minor compared to learning a new language). But, there are great benefits to overcoming the hurdle: I can now mill pieces of wood and make my own furniture.

CNC router

The CNC router at work cutting out my first full-scale model

6. The art of making can be quite egocentric.

The activity of making captivated my full attention. I was not distracted. In fact, I was not even really aware of my “self”. (I believe this is what Erich Fromm refers to in the Art of Loving.) In a way, this is beautiful.

But there is a flipside to this, too—making art can be an egocentric activity. One night, I observed that I wished a fellow student would take longer for her project, so I could use the CNC-mill the next morning. That shows how attached I was to completing my piece. I don’t think I will shun making art because of this, but I do think I will try to balance that activity with others.

In conclusion

All my components are ready but I still need to finish my stool: it requires sanding, treating, and some minor tweaks. I expect to be done end of July, since I’m traveling the next five weekends. After I finish the stool, I plan actively make time to hone my woodworking skills. (I loved it!)

Beyond woodworking, I will look for more of these learning immersions. Learning a new skill, collaborating in a small team under the guidance of a Jedi master, working at full intensity—I found this to be a very rewarding way of spending my days.

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Thank you to Reuben Foat and Fabiano Sarra for the wonderful class. Thank you to Anderson Ranch for the generous scholarship that enabled me to take this class. Finally, thanks to my fellow students Jess, Stephen, and Zac for their passion, positive energy, and help.

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Our crew, from left to right: Titiaan, Jess, Fabiano, Zac, Stephen, with Rueben lying down

3 lessons from a week in Lourdes

I just returned from a week in Lourdes, France. With 70 volunteers we guided a group of 50 elderly people, many seriously ill, on a religious pilgrimage. Millions of people travel to Lourdes each year to bathe in its springs that are supposed to have healing properties, after a young girl had 18 visions of the Virgin Mary there in 1858.

Equipe 5, Lourdes 2016.JPG

I am not a devout Catholic and I don’t believe in the miraculous healing properties of Lourdes’ water. So why did I go? I went because I wanted to help. My motivations are quite selfish, really: I know that serving others fills me with positive energy.

Here are three lessons I learned from a week with 50 elderly people.

1. Compassion can be cultivated.

We know that we can show kindness to our friends, and that on a good day we may even help a stranger in the street. But can we be kind to everyone? Surely there are some people we just don’t get along with! In Lourdes I realized that it is possible to develop sincere kindness for anyone.

On my first day, I felt repelled by an elderly man in his wheelchair. Subjecting my immediate reaction to walk away, I started a conversation with him. After chatting for fifteen minutes I had seen so many commonalities between us that my initial feeling of repulsion had shifted to sincere compassion. Through this incident I realized that we can cultivate compassion, even for people who we initially despise, if we just have an opportunity to see their humanity.

That’s exactly the insight that drove an Israeli restaurant owner to offer 50% discount on meals in his restaurant shared by Palestinians and Israelis. This Zen Habits guide of 7 practices will help mean—and maybe you too—to be more compassionate.

2. Helping someone matters.

Following the logic of Effective Altruism, it is easy to conclude that helping a few elderly people does not matter. “Why would I spend a week pushing old people in a wheelchair if I can work on a scalable solution for healthcare?” I think the lens of “impact” fails here for two reasons. First, I believe that if everyone would take care of their neighbors, the world would be a better place. Second, I believe that when we help someone directly, we are reminded what really matters in life. This causes ripple effects in how we choose our careers and lives.

 3. Religion can be a powerful framework for personal growth.

In an interview with New Scientist, E.O. Wilson said that we should eliminate religion because it causes great danger to our humanity. After Lourdes my view of religion is much more positive. Going to mass every day, I saw that religion can be a framework to become a better person. By reading stories of saintly behavior; reflecting on your own actions (and sins); and wishing each other peace during mass, religion can help people to be kinder. That is why I recommend everyone to read Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists.

 

In summary, the week reminded me how helping others truly is “food for the soul”. It also reminded me that I should treasure the moments I still have with my grandparents.

What role does service play in your life? Are there experiences that have transformed you? Which experiences would you still like to live?

The Best Books I read in 2015

Below are some of the best books I read in 2015, each with a short paragraph explaining how reading the book influenced my thinking.

If you’re looking for great books to read, also look at my July 2014 blog on “Books that Influenced my Life”, Ted Gonder’s “Books that Have Changed My Life“, Edge.org’s list of 2015 Summer Reading, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s list of 8 books that every intelligent person should read, and Mark Bao’s “Great Books I read in 2015“.

I keep a visual overview of all the books I read in 2015 at http://books.titiaanpalazzi.com (a great, easy-to-use Tumblr template).

 

Best books I read in 2015:

My Life with the Saints, by James Martin

James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor of America magazine, shares a brief synopsis of the lives of about fifteen Christian saints, detailing how each saint inspires him in everyday life. Reading this book kindled my desire to become a better person through service, and led me to explore more deeply the lives of St. Francis and Dorothy Day. If this paragraph tickles your curiosity, listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with James Martin on On Being.

The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff

Benjamin Hoff explains the essence of Taoism through stories from Winnie the Pooh. This is a hilarious read that will inspire you to be kinder and funnier under the hardships that life will throw at you. Reading a chapter of The Tao of Pooh every morning is one of the surest ways to be a happier person (I can attest!)

Writings on an Ethical Life, by Peter Singer

I first read Peter Singer’s writing many years ago about eating meat, when he influenced my thinking that it’s OK to eat oysters and mussels as part of a vegetarian or vegan diet. In this book, a collection of essays and excerpts from different books, Singer will challenge many of your beliefs on how to live well.

Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain de Botton

De Botton’s mission is beautiful: to make the wisdom of philosophy accessible to a wide audience. In this book, he looks at six great philosophers, and frames the message of each in a way that can help you in every day life. I was particularly intrigued by Socrates’ method to get to truth, and Nietzsche’s belief that pain and distress are good, because they spur us to work harder to realize our dreams.

Snowcrash, by Neal Stephenson

In this crazy science-fiction story, Neal Stephenson sketches a world where people choose to live more in virtual reality than in physical reality.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein

Heinlein describes a beautiful symbiosis between men and machine who collectively try to overthrow an upsetting political regime.

The Glass Bead Game, by Herman Hesse

Hesse is possibly my favorite novelist, and I had put this book (a Nobel Prize winner) off for too long. The book made me think about the contemplative life versus the life of action, a theme that replays itself in many of Hesse’s books.

 

Books I want to read in 2016:

  • NLP: the essential guide to neuro-linguistic programming, by Tom Dotz—to understand how we can craft our actions and behavior for better effects.
  • The Utopia Experiment, by Dylan Evans—to understand the challenges of communal livings.
  • On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin—to understand the foundation behind how Darwin came to his conclusion on natural selection.
  • Mastery, by Robert Greene—to understand the path of the artist, so compellingly portrayed by Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
  • The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine—to understand his critiques on The Bible and religion.

Books I want to re-read in 2016:

  • Bhagavadgita, in translation by Eknath Eswaran—to be inspired to be a better person. (Gandhi read the Bhagavadgita every day.)
  • Six Thinking Hats, by Edward de Bono—to be more aware of the different modes of think I do, and can, use.
  • From Darwin to Munger, by Peter Bevelin—to remind myself of the flaws in my thinking.
  • The Little Prince, by Saint Exupéry—because the wonder expressed by our small friend from another planet is something I always want to keep in mind.

 

One of my intentions for the new year is to keep a digital summary of the best books I read in 2016, with the intention to re-read the summaries frequently, to truly internalize some of the lessons.

Reflections from Burning Man 2015

Burning Man 2015

Victor, Irene, Titiaan, Lisanne, Thomas, and Pim. Photo credit: Brendan Curran.

Last Sunday, I returned from my second year at Burning Man. It was a wonderful experience, very different from the year before. Three elements stood out to me:

  1. Creating time for deep conversations with friends old and new
  2. Experiencing the joy of serving others
  3. Witnessing the connectedness of all human beings

Creating time for conversations with friends old and new

Some of my best Dutch friends decided to come to Burning Man this year. Thanks to Jan Overgoor, about half of them could stay at my camp, Mooncheese, making it easy to find each other. Throughout the week, we actively looked for each other to go on walks and adventures, creating time to reflect on past experiences and discuss new adventures. Having several hours of uninterrupted time to talk with such dear friends was rare and heartwarming.

In parallel, I had some enlightening conversations with people who I had never or barely met before. IDEATE, a camp run by changemakers in sustainability and social justice, was a particular example of an oasis again which led to many interesting conversations—with topics ranging from spiritual enlightenment to how to reduce Burning Man’s carbon footprint.

Experiencing the joy of serving others

Everyone who comes to Burning Man tries to give something to the larger Burning Man community. Mooncheese served grilled cheese sandwiches at night; Shamandome offered healings and other guided spiritual workshops; and IDEATE organized speaker series. On one of our nightly adventures, we even discovered a one-person Caribbean bar at a 15-minute biking distance from the city!

In our everyday lives, we think about what we want to get, with the implicit assumption that getting things will make us happy. It’s powerful to realize how much joy comes from giving. For many in Mooncheese, the best moment of Burning Man were the 2 hours of their grilled cheese shift, during which they prepared and handed out grilled cheese sandwiches to hungry people. For me, spending a few hours to help a friend prepare a meal and to help someone fix a flat tire stand out as highlights in the week. It’s worth remembering daily how much joy comes from providing small acts of kindness—I try to continue to live this message as I return to normal life.

Witnessing the connectedness of all human beings

One special experience this year was to take part in a 5 Rhythms dance session. At 10am on a Friday morning, 200 people (all sober, or at least most of them) gathered on a wooden dance floor to move to the tunes of a Swedish DJ. His music started very slow, but progressed to more upbeat to a strong climax and back, hence the name 5 Rhythms. During the second hour of the dance session, you could see in everyone’s eyes true compassion for the other people on the floor. It was a totally different experience than seeing the judging way people look at each other on their morning commute by bus or metro.

The tough environmental conditions—this year was particularly bad, with several white-out dust storms and temperatures occasionally dropping below freezing point—further increase the connectedness. You had to hug people, just to get some of their body heat.

Serving grilled cheese with Mooncheese camp.

Serving grilled cheese with Mooncheese camp. Photo credit: Brendan Curran.

I definitely plan to go again next year. My intention is to go with a small camp that has a strong commitment to service—I’ve realized that spending a few hours each day serving others is a gift. As a friend, Ed Silhol, said “Burning Man is my school”, a place to learn new things through service.

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For those of you who’ve never been to Burning Man: to me, the experience is best compared to visiting a city as a tourist. You spend time reading the map, trying to understand the city’s design, deciding which buildings and events you want to visit, making new friends and visiting acquaintances. Already after a few days in the new city, you feel increasingly at home. That’s what it feels like at Burning Man.

How to communicate information—lessons from Edward Tufte’s 1-day workshop

Last Friday, I attended a workshop by Edward Tufte, a master of data visualization, in Denver. Here’s what I learned.

On showing only information; no junk: 

In a completely dark room inside the Hyatt hotel, Tufte started the workshop by showing a beautiful animation by the “Music Animation Machine“, a website created by Stephen Malinowski. Below is an animated example of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. In Tufte’s words: “there is no chart junk here”, i.e. everything you see is pure information that contributes to your understanding.

On effective writing:

If you want to have examples of effective information communication, look at sites that receive many viewers, such as New York Times or ESPN. What you’ll learn from them:

  • Always mention your sources
  • Include quotes from external experts
  • If you want to communicate just a few numbers, integrate them into your text; do not create “data junk”, i.e. small tables or bar charts to communicate just a few numbers
  • Create beautiful templates to communicate complex data, such as NYT’s visualization of Obama’s 2013 budget proposal

On better meetings:

Start each meeting by giving all participants a written briefing. Do not brief people by giving a presentation. We can process information more quickly through reading than speaking. (Also: don’t send the written document out in advance expecting meeting participants to read it. Create time in the meeting for people to read your information.) Jeff Bezos uses 6-page memos and 30 minutes of silent reading for all important meetings at Amazon.

So, when you next visit your doctor, do not tell them what’s the matter—write down your complaints in stead. When you finally get to meet with the doctor, give him your printed out complaints, and ask him to silently read it.

On combining words, drawings, and images:

We can process all kinds of information together. Our mind does not filter “words” from “images”. The reason we have text editors for words and Photoshop for images and Illustrator for drawings is that it’s easier for the software makers and possibly the creator, but definitely not for the reader.