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!)

img_0752

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.

img_0400

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.

img_0374

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.

img_0712

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!”

###

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.

2016-books-001

  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?

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.

Stool

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.

Reuben Foat

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.

Test joint

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.

###

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.

DSCF1035

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.

###

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.

Lessons and Impressions from Beijing

I spent last week in Beijing, my second visit to the city after a short visit with my father and brother in 2009. I was in Beijing to work on “Reinventing Fire: China”, a collaboration between Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, China’s Energy Research Institute, and Rocky Mountain Institute to model a deeply efficient energy future for China up to 2050.

I enjoyed Beijing tremendously, and I was struck by how different an impression the city made just a few years after my first visit. Below are some of my impressions.

Public infrastructure

We mostly used the subway to get around the city. For 2 RMB (less than $0.30) you can ride the subway wherever you want. Trains arrive every three minutes, are spick and span, and there’s enough space not too feel like a sardine. Riding Beijing’s metro was a far better experience than taking the BART in San Francisco, and it rivaled the best European subways I’ve been in.

(The subway is also much quicker than taking a taxi: Beijing suffers from heavy congestion, despite (or because of?) the five-lane roads throughout the city.)

Cleanliness

Anyone who walked around Beijing in the last few years will know that the air is typically full of smog. People check air quality on their phone, just to see how many times the limit of the World Health Organization is hit. Fortunately for me, the air in Beijing was exceptionally clear this week: we had blue skies every day.

The streets were also very clean. Returning to my hotel after dinner one night, I walked through a series of Hutongs, traditional Chinese urban settlements, and noticed that there was no trash or dirt anywhere. Several Hutongs also had public toilets, a piece of infrastructure you don’t see even in financially rich Western cities.

IMG_3374

Diet and health

Most days I would get breakfast, typically an egg sandwich, from small carts on the street. For lunch and dinner we would frequently have big, warm meals. (To deal with the after dinner dip our Chinese collaborators would take a little nap face-down on their desks.)

IMG_3367

Despite the big meals, most Beijing inhabitants were quite fit. I did not see any of the gigantic bellies you spot in the United States. (Hopefully this will not change as American fast food and soda spreads in China.)

IMG_3387

Outdoor exercise equipment was installed in multiple public spaces. Chungliang Huang, the Tai Ji master who taught at Esalen this weekend, said it was normal for Chinese people (at least traditionally) to start the day with movement. I forgot to ask my Chinese colleagues if they typically work out before coming to the office. (One day after lunch, our Chinese colleagues were in full battle gear, playing ping pong in the hallway.)

IMG_3428

Architecture

The palaces of the Forbidden City and the buildings around the Temple of Heaven had a beautiful color scheme: dark red, gold, deep green and ocean blue. I love the simplicity of many of the temples, and the order of the floorplans when you look at the old palaces (and Hutongs!) from above.

IMG_3412

Collaboration

One goal of our work in China is to define what the maximum potential for energy savings for different industries is (e.g. for production of cement). It has now happened multiple times that agreed upon analyses are changed the night before a big presentation by “expert adjustment”. The reason for this seems to be that our research colleagues want to tell a message that their bosses will agree with. This hierarchy creates challenges for scientific rigor (and innovation).

Our team now has several Chinese nationals on board, who can communicate directly with our Chinese colleagues and clients (most of whom do speak English). That said, having an interpreter often take the flow out of the conversation. I look forward to the day when spoken word can be instantly translated, so that both parties can engage in interactive conversation.

Chuangliang Huang, Amory’s co-teacher at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, explained that a single Chinese character can hold many different meanings, depending on its context (the characters that surround it.) Amory speculated that this leads native Chinese speakers to be more comfortable to hold in their mind ideas that seem paradoxical to Western minds, a helpful quality for anyone who wants to study quantum physics.

Conclusion

Overall, I was really impressed by how quickly Beijing is developing. I realize that living in one city for a few days do not represent life in a country of 1.4 billion people. That said, working in Beijing during a period of clean skies felt more like living in London than like living in Bangalore. Culturally, Beijing feels different from Bangalore too: if life in India is chaotic, colorful, and emotional, Beijing is much more organized, clean, and productive.

###

If you’ve been to Beijing, what was your experience? For some of my Chinese friends, how do they think about this? Should a Chinese government stimulate urbanization, or incentivize people to stay in rural towns so the deep social disruption between elderly people doesn’t take place?

IMG_3379

Books that Influenced my Life

A dear friend of mine keeps a list (two, actually) of the books that shaped him. I liked that idea, so I made my own list below.

Books, of course, are not the only influence on us—I am influenced too, probably to a greater extent, by experiences, conversations with people, documentaries, and so on (those influences may be a topic for another blog post). The beautiful thing about books is, however, that for the cost of a meal and a few hours of dedication, you can gain a new perspective on the world.

The books below come to mind when I ask myself “Which books have changed the way I see the world and act?”

I’ve read (or re-read) all of these in the last 5 or so years, so I hope that the list will be much longer by the time I turn thirty.

(PS I would love to hear your recommendations for further reading. If there’s a book that has shaped your life that’s not on the list below, please share it with me.)

 

Life Philosophy:
Viktor Frankl – Man’s search for meaning
How a deep sense of purpose can keep you alive even in the toughest of circumstances.

Erich Fromm – The art of loving
A primary driver for human action is our desire to overcome separateness. Love is an activity, not a noun, that we need to keep practicing. “Work on yourself more than on the other person.”

Seneca – Letters from a Stoic (also Cicero – On the Good Life)
Practical recommendations for how to be happy and less perturbed by what happens to you.

Bhagavad Gita and Dhammapada (both in the translation by Eknath Easwaran)
Powerful words to motivate you to try every day to be a better version of yourself, I read two pages each morning last summer before jumping on my bike. 

Lao Tze – Tao Te Ching (also the lighter, but as impactful, Benjamin Hoff – The Tao of Pooh)
Wonderful short verses that inspire you to smile and take a zoomed-out view at life’s busy-ness. 

 

Life stories that inspired me:
Buckminster Fuller – Critical Path
Revealing how you can live your life as an experiment; how much freedom you have to shape your days; and how powerful it is to work only and always for the benefit of all humanity. 

Benjamin Franklin – Autobiography (and Walter Isaacson’s biography of Franklin)
Combining the roles of writer, printer, entrepreneur, public citizen, politician, diplomat, and many more in one lifetime, with incredible zest and infinite curiosity.

Tracy Kidder – Mountains beyond Mountains
A page turner—one of the most inspiring, best written biographies I’ve read; and very relatable since Paul Farmer is still very active today. Paul Farmer’s story also deeply reminded me of Albert Schweitzer’s life (below).

Albert Schweitzer – Essential Writings
Like Paul Farmer, Albert Schweitzer expressed through his actions a deep commitment to serving others. His Essential Writings are written from a very human perspective—explaining how he loves to dance, play the organ, and put his feet in an ice-bath to stay awake at night while writing. 

Joseph Jaworski – Synchronicity
Every one of us has a cubic centimeter of chance pop up in our view occasionally. It is the warrior—the person who is always aware—who recognizes this and ceases the opportunity. A story that makes you excited about life. 

Wendy Kopp – One Day, All Children
A powerful example of how experience and age are not prerequisites for making big things happen. 

 

Personal Effectiveness:
Stephen Covey – 7 Habits of Successful people
I still use (slightly changed) versions of Covey’s weekly calendar exercise every week. 

Tim Ferriss – 4 hour workweek
You can disagree with some of the principles and core values underlying the book, but this book definitely makes you rethink what you’re pursuing and how to do so more effectively. 

Ray Dalio – Principles
Clearly-written, logical, practical manifesto on evaluating your mental models. 

Seth Godin – Linchpin
Emphasizing the mindset that you should always strive to be indispensable.

Reid Hoffmann and Ben Casnocha – The Start-up of You
From this book I took a number of practical exercises on how to tap into your network and look at your own future. 

Dale Carnegie – How to Win Friends and Influence People
Despite the “superficial” title, this book is surprisingly sincere; if you practice the lesson, you will be a kinder, happier person.

 

Books that helped me to improve my thinking:
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Helped me realize how often I use the scientific method (and when I fail to), and the limitations of the method. 

Peter Bevelin – From Darwin to Munger
Introduce me to using the evolutionary perspective to explain why our mind works in the way it does. Also includes a stunning list of all the “biases” of the brain, and led me to read Charlie Munger’s great speech and Charles Darwin’s autobiography. 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb – The Black Swan
This book was the first that made me aware how foolish it is to make predictions about phenomena that do not follow the laws of nature, such as the value of GE shares two years from now.

 

Books that changed the way I look at the world: 
Paul Hawken & Amory Lovins – Natural Capitalism
This book convinced me that resource-efficiency and profitability can go hand in hand. A good, more recent, book on this topic is “Resource Revolution” by Stefan Heck and Matt Rogers. 

Janine Benyus – Biomimicry
We can take so much (scientific) inspiration in design and technology if only we look at the rest of Life on Earth. 

Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs, and Steel
Describing the “advance” of man from Africa through today in a very exciting way, explaining what phenomena caused the differences in wealth we see in the world today.

James Goodsell – Machinery of Life
Beautiful illustrated book about the biology of the human body. 

 

 

Novels that touched me:
Herman Hesse – Siddharta
A personal journey that many of us can (or want to) identify with—going into the “real world”, tempted to follow our senses, only to realize that wisdom is found in simple things. 

Antoine de St. Exupéry – the Little Prince
Always stay a child at heart. 

Tintin
Choose for adventure! 

 

###

I would love to hear your recommendations for further reading. If there’s a book that has shaped your life that’s not on the list below, please share it with me.

Reviving Buckminster Fuller’s last-designed Dome

Biodome picture

Paul, Eden, Michael, Robbie, Dan, and Titiaan inside the Windstar dome

In 1982, Buckminster Fuller led a workshop exploring geodesics and other topics. From that workshop, the idea arose to build a biodome on John Denver’s Windstar estate in Old Snowmass, Colorado. In the summer of 1983, weeks before construction was scheduled to start, Bucky died of a heart-attack. In his spirit, a group of young architects and engineers including Bill Browning and John Katzenberger built the Windstar biodome.

Biodome Windstar

The original 1983-built 5m-diameter biodome

The goal of the biodome project was to produce food locally year-round in a cold climate with solar energy. The dome was glazed with two layers of plastic film separated by an air space. Until the late eighties, the biodome was used to grow a variety of vegetables and fruit. The dome was separated into two levels, the lower level including a pond in which fish were raised, which doubled as a heat storage medium. An army of volunteers was involved to maintain the indoor (and outdoor) gardens. Today, only a structure and many stories are left.

PlantsDome.001

Inside of the biodome: showing multiple floors and hanging gardens

When I arrived at Windstar three months ago and saw the dome, I knew immediately that I wanted to restore this legendary structure. Imagine re-building the last dome Buckminster Fuller designed! I soon learnt that I was not the only person excited about this prospect. Eden Vardy, founder of Aspen Tree, an NGO that aims to connect people to nature through agricultural training, had a similar idea. In fact, Eden and Aspen Tree’s co-director Paul, had erected another biodome close to Aspen in the fall of 2013. After Amory introduced us, it was evident we had to team up.

How to make this idea work? The first step was to develop design alternatives. Eden and I convened eight people—Greg Rucks, Dan Wetzel, Robert McIntosh, Garrett Fitzgerald and myself (all from Rocky Mountain Institute), Eden Vardy and Paul Huttenhower (both from Aspen Tree), and Michael Thompson, an architect with experience in designing grow houses—to participate a design charrette, a process to develop design alternatives.

The first goal of the charrette was to brainstorm design alternatives to glaze or skin the dome. We started the process outside, gathering all participants under the 5m-diameter dome (picture at top of this post), to be inspired by the dome’s history and understand the technical details of the current structure. After sharing stories about the biodome’s original state, we moved inside to start the charrette.

In the next hour, we generated many interesting ideas—building an opaque dome to use for mushroom-growth; using old parachutes as inside insulation; and building a fly-eye dome—and consequently selected four ideas to further develop. The group split into four pairs, each pair given the task to develop a list of materials and next steps per design alternative.

Overview of generated ideas

Eden guiding the selection of four ideas from the charrette to further develop

Four design alternatives were further developed:

1. Hard polycarbonate dome. The current structure is a “basket weave”-dome. As in a woven basket, the ribs alternatively pass concentric or eccentric of one another.  This means there is no flat plane to which to adjust all three sides of a triangle or five sides of a pentagon. Paul suggested a way to fix this by adding plywood to the joints, but the group questioned whether that was in line with Buckminster Fuller’s idea of ephemerilization—doing ever more with fewer pounds of material. Michael estimated that the material costs for the polycarbonate were ~$4,200 for a ~1200 square feet surface area (at $3.50/square foot), or double that if the parts were to be ordered pre-cut.

2. Double-inflated polyfilm dome. This was the design of the original dome (second picture in this post). In 1983, the intention was to perfectly seal the space between the plastic films and fill the space with a gas with a low heat transfer coefficient. The inserted gas between the films quickly leaked out, so an airpump was installed to inflate the “pillows”.  The benefit of this idea would be that few to no more material needs to be added to the structure of the dome. Michael estimated that the material cost for the double-inflated polyfilm would be $1,000 for the dome (at $0.75/square foot).

3. Extra external or internal structure. Greg and Robbie worked on the idea of adding an additional light structure around the outside of the dome, inspired by aluminum tent-poles, over which a permanent or temporary insulating material could be draped. The idea arose of a slinky-type external cover, made of aluminum or carbon fibre ribs and an insulating fabric, that can be pulled across the dome during the night. Michael suggested that an internal additional structure could be a better idea, given high snow loads in Aspen.

4. Fly-eye dome. Dan and Paul explored the idea of creating a fly-eye dome. This type of design would need much material compared to the three designs discussed above. Garrett accordingly asked what the primary goal of the fly-eye dome would be, to which the group agreed that the function was mostly aesthetical.

Whiteboard voting

Michael, Greg, and Robbie voting for ideas.

Reflecting on the charrette, it is most likely we will implement the double-inflated polyfilm dome, possibly with an additional internal structure as developed by Robbie and Greg. The benefits of this design are low material costs, identical appearance as the original, and quick installation.

The next critical steps for the projects are to raise funding for construction materials and to apply for a building permit. If you are interested to help during construction of the dome, please comment on this post.

Dome pattern

Structure of the dome. Note the “basket weave” of the ribs—each rib alternates between passing concentrically or eccentrically by other ribs.