Category Archives: thoughts about things

The unexamined life

The unexamined life is not worth living. – Socrates

As I resurrected this blog, I was forced to look back through much of what I’ve written over the past nine years. A few things hit me:

  • Writing well is hard work
  • I really used to work at it, and in some cases, it shows
  • The process of writing makes me more thoughtful about myself, my experiences with friends and family, and the world

It’s the last point that struck me the most, especially after I had a conversation with my friend Tony about it. He told me his blog is a way of recording his thoughts, and in many ways, of generating them. The same is true for me, I realized. It’s one thing to tell someone you thought a movie was pretty good; it’s another thing entirely to be able to sit down and write something about it that’s actually worth reading. The writing process requires concentration and focus, honing ideas to the point where they can be articulated.

Without the writing process, most “ideas” are really just partially formed impressions, misshapen lumps of clay that hint at something deeper. Writing provides shape and form and structure; it clarifies and enlightens both the writer and the reader. I think the anticipation of writing can also encourage looking at the world with more open eyes. If I’m thinking in the back of my head that I want to write about my experiences, I’m suddenly more present in them.

As I looked through those old entries, I realized just how much introspection and curiosity I had lost when I stopped writing over a year ago. I realized that, on some level, I’d really stopped thinking about my own life experiences in a meaningful way. My professional blog kick-started thinking about my working life, but my personal life remained largely unexamined. It was just a sea of impressions without any land in sight.

Now that this blog has risen from the ashes, I feel like I’ve shined light into the dusty attic of my brain, brushed away the cobwebs, and started the gears turning again. They’re a little rusty, and it will probably take another year of writing before they run smoothly, but it’s all about the journey, right?

I’m not exactly sure in what direction I’m heading right now, or where I’ll wind up, but at least I know I’m leaving the unexamined life behind.

a good day to change the world

i’ve been attending Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce conference for the past two days, and have gotten excited about some things in my industry. it’s been awhile since something happened that i thought was really new, something with the potential to drive change and innovation.

two keynote speeches today were particularly inspiring. the first, by Larry Brilliant (head of Google.org), was about 21st century philanthropy and his causes for optimism. the second by Malcolm Gladwell was about the power of human potential, and the things we do to stifle it. fortunately, you can see a webcast of these keynotes (use the pulldown menu in the player to skip to the Brilliant and Gladwell chapters).

Brilliant talked about philanthropy in general, and the human desire to do good for others, despite all the bad things we’re clearly capable of. he shared some of the things google.org is working on, and used his past work on the eradication of smallpox as an example of what people can do when united to solve a daunting problem (Obama’s refrain "Yes, we can" rings particularly true here). he then made his case for optimism, citing the Dalai Lama’s belief that "humans are getting better." he closed with a call-to-action, saying that today was a good day to start changing the world, which led to a standing ovation. very inspiring, this man, in an unassuming and touching way.

Gladwell spoke about the idea of "capitalization" as it relates to human potential (he also gave this speech at Pop!Tech 2008). his basic thesis is that people often fail to achieve their potential due to three limiting factors: economics, stupidity (of societies and organizations that suppress capitalization), and cultural attitudes. a lot of the successful people in the world, he concludes, succeed because they are given opportunity and because they persevere to achieve their goals, because they believe in the notion of meaningful work.

the common theme for me in these presentations was the potential for change, and how we can drive it if we want to badly enough. it’s amazing that on the same day i hear these presentations, we elect the first black president of the united states. it makes me believe in a lot of things: the power of individuals, the strength of communities, and the opportunity for positive change and a brighter future.

it makes me want to get off my butt and do something.

life lessons from Mr. Jobs

my friend Rita pointed me to a video of Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech. she and i had been talking about being older than 40, and potentially having the ability to reflect back on our lives and come up with a few things we had learned. we were also talking about mindfulness. she thought Mr. Jobs was worth listening to…i couldn’t agree more.

you should watch the speech…don’t allow my synopsis to stop you. it’s 15 minutes of your life, which is a small investment to watch one of the great innovators and entrepreneurs of our times. it doesn’t matter if you like Apple or even care about the whole tech industry, because the things he shares are pretty universal.

in his mind, it all came down to three things:

  • you can’t connect the dots looking forward, only backwards. as a result, follow your heart or intuition, even when it leads you off the well-worn path.
  • you’ve got to find what you love, in life and in work, and you’ll know it when you find it. do not settle for less.
  • your time is limited…don’t waste it living someone else’s life. have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.

one anecdote that i found powerful was something he did every day. he’d wake up in the morning, look himself in the mirror, and ask, "if this was the last day of your life, would you really want to be doing what you’re going to do today?" if he answered no too many times in a row, he realized it was time for change. this mindfulness, the ability to step out of the river that can often push us downstream in life, is key.

deceptively simple messages. on the surface, they may seem naively idealistic, but are they? really? follow your heart, realizing that you’ve got limited time. one chance. no do-overs. this is your one-and-only life. make it count.

thanks, Steve (and Rita).

envelope-free ATMs

last friday, i had an interesting experience with a new way of doing something old: a faster, easier way of depositing checks at the ATM.

you know the drill: you’ve got some checks to deposit, so you head to the nearest bank to take care of business. if you’re me (i.e., obsessive compulsive), you prepare in advance for your mission:

  1. endorse your checks (for deposit only!)
  2. tally up the total and write it on a Post-It
  3. put a pen in your pocket (because there’s never one at the ATM)
  4. go to the ATM
  5. pull an envelope out of the machine
  6. put the checks inside the envelope and seal it
  7. write the deposit total on the envelope
  8. insert card, enter PIN
  9. do the deal and stick the envelope in the slot

fully expecting to run through this routine, i went to the Safeway near my office. i ponied up to the ATM in search of an envelope and found none. no slot to hold them, inside or outside the ATM. i walked over to the teller area (this Wells Fargo was inside Safeway, for non-California readers), thinking i’d find envelopes there, but nothing. nada. zipperino. no envelopes.

thinking i must be stupid, i went back to the ATM and looked closely. these were new-fangled looking ATMs with a sticker across the front that said (you guessed it): "Envelope-free ATM." huh? what the *&!% is an envelope-free ATM? ATMs always have envelopes. does that mean i can’t make deposits? if that’s it, why don’t they call it a "No-deposit ATM"? (actually, don’t they have those and call them exactly that?). at this point, i have descended into complete stupidity, because it took me another 30 seconds spent staring at the machine (with a glisten of drool at my open mouth) before the wires got connected in my brain: "Oh! they must mean i can deposit my checks without an envelope.".

sure enough, you enter PIN and choose deposit, then just stick your entire stack of checks into the open, blinking slot (yes, all at once, not one at a time). it accepts them, closes, tells you that it’s reviewing your checks, pulls up little scanned images, then shows you the actual dollar total on the screen and asks you if that’s correct. it was, and that was that: envelope-free deposit. with one fell user-experience swoop, Wells Fargo has slain the deposit-hassle beast: no more totaling your checks. no more calculator and Post-It note with the total. no more pen in your pocket. no more envelope. just easy sailing. (Wells Fargo should be paying me for this…)

as amazing as this whole experience was, i walked away from the ATM a little dazed. it was really confusing. it wasn’t that it was hard. not at all. it’s just that the new experience totally defied my expectation of what i was supposed to be doing. i’ve been depositing checks using envelopes for about 30 years, and i had to cross the chasm of disbelief to realize that i didn’t need to do that this time. they probably could have made the signage better, but short of having someone stand there to tell you what to do, i don’t know what else they could do to make it easier. once i realized what was what, it was pretty easy. it was just that initial what-the-!&%$-is-going-on hurdle that was the hard part.

the whole thing just struck me as really odd, because i couldn’t remember the last time i had something like this happen, where a very established way of doing something in the real world is summarily replaced, without warning or explanation. i’m sure this happened all the time during the industrial revolution, and throughout the last 30 years of technological advancement…i just can’t think of another clear instance of this type of thing in my own life. i’m sure many of you out there have examples to share, so drag them out…let me know the last time you had a completely expectation-defying-yet-wonderful real-world experience like this!! (computers don’t count…they defy expectations as a matter of course.)

much less than six degrees

i am continually astonished by the connectedness of human beings. the notion of six degrees of separation is well-documented and popularized, and an explosion of work on the theory of networks has shed more light on the phenomenon. so, it’s not so much that’s i’m surprised we are all so connected. rather, i find it interesting the connections that exist in my little social world.

just yesterday, i was writing about the new album by Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie. i like to include links in my posts to other interesting reviews or tidbits, and i happened to find robin guthrie’s blog. oddly enough, it was hosted on the domain run by my wedding photographer. i contacted him to ask what was going on, and he confirmed that he’s good friends with guthrie, having built his first web site back in the day.

so, my wedding photographer is good friends with a famous musician whom i happen to like very much, and i never would have known it, were it not for the internet. you can argue (somewhat ineffectively) about whether or not the internet creates connections, but at the very least, it provides a way to expose the ones already there.
me and robin guthrie: one degree of separation. very odd, indeed. anybody else got any interesting "six degrees" stories related to the internet?

facial hair math

i was out to dinner with one of my work clients last night, and realized after awhile that his handlebar mustache bore some interesting relationship to mine. more precisely, if you took a circle beard (aka a van dyke) and removed the mustache, you’d get the form of beard i have (which is apparently the sum of a goatee and a soul patch). so, in other words:

   goatee + handlebar mustache + soul patch = van dyke

men play with this mathematics on their faces a lot, or at least i do. i’m constantly trimming here, reconfiguring there, trying out new formulas to see what works. call it a hobby. a weird one, probably, but still a hobby.

anyway. um. yeah. this information probably falls into the category of "interesting little tidbits you wish you didn’t know about Ryan, but that explain a lot."

trapped in the car by NPR

i get trapped in the car by NPR occasionally. i’ll be driving home, and a particularly compelling piece will come on just as i’m pulling into the driveway. the thought of missing even 30 seconds of the 4-minute piece is excruciating, so i’ll invariably pull into my garage, close the door, and sit there until it’s done, relishing every word.

a few days ago, it was an interview with seth green and matthew sennreich about robot chicken. before that, i think it was david sedaris doing a reading of something on halloween. this american life has gotten me a few times as well.

i can’t think of anything else on the radio that has spawned the same inability to leave the car. i’m not sure what statement that makes about NPR (good programs seems too obvious; it’s more than that) and/or me (obsessive?), but i’ve laughed at myself every time i did it.

drink up. eat up. light up.

Lifeblog posted image

on my way to fort lauderdale this week, i had a layover in Denver. a long layover. one that started out being an hour and ended up being three hours. during the delay, my traveling companion and i explored the eating and drinking options a bit, searching for someplace with that certain airport je ne sais quoi. we found the Mesa Verde bar and grill, whose slogan (slightly obscured in photo, ironically) is "Drink up. Eat up. Light up.". pretty simple tagline, highlighting the fact that other states still allow smoking in bars, among other things.

Toto, i don’t think we’re in san francisco any more.

how many items?

Lifeblog posted image

the photo above was taken at my local Safeway. while certainly well-intentioned, i think their desire to streamline the checkout process has gone slightly awry.

when carrying a full hand-held basket, how easy is it to count the number of items you have? can you even see all of them? what if you laid a bag of chips on top of 15 smaller items? if i have a single bag full of 10 oranges, is that 1 item or 10? if i don’t put the oranges into a bag, is it 1 item or 10? the seemingly simple Express Checkout process is full of fuzzy logic, in my mind. i doubt that anyone counts items when they go through these stands, and by the same token, i doubt that checkers count things either.

the whole point of line segmentation in markets is to separate the full carts from the people with a few items. why bother putting numbers to things? why not just segment based on the size of your cart (handheld or four-wheeling)? doesn’t that make more sense? sure, there’s the edge case of the guy who buys 50 packs of gum and puts it into a hand basket, but there aren’t many freaks like that….oh wait. sorry. i live in san francisco.