Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Hidden Costs of Green Products

Everywhere you turn, you see it. Every day hundreds of new products flood the market claiming to be "green" and "eco-friendly". By slapping a label on any product that says "new green formula" or "now environmentally safe", you're virtually guaranteed to sell. Why? Well, the answer is simple: people are stupid. Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that I'm high and mighty above anybody else, but the math says that half of the people you meet are below average. An even greater percentage can be misled by clever marketing schemes used by product manufacturers.

There's a problem with "green" products in America. While new products flood the market claiming to be safer and more environmentally friendly than the other guy, there is no standard by which all products are compared. What these labels fail to tell is the whole story. They don't acknowledge that there's a hidden cost to all of their products. Sure, the new formula may be a little better than the old one, but it's the same as saying that killing five and a half million people is somehow better than killing six million people. Is using 10% post-consumer recycled material in the manufacturing of your product really making any difference? How are you making any appreciable difference in the status of the environment by using biodegradable packaging when the rest of your product is just as harmful as ever?

What a lot of people fail to realize is that what goes into products is much more than just material. Let's look at what goes into the production of one product that's supposed to be better for the environment than what it's replacing. From seed to tank, ethanol is both the greatest and stupidest energy source available. The big problem lies in the source of the sugar used for ethanol production. The reason that many other countries (Brazil being a prime example) can have ethanol nearly replace all petroleum based gasoline is because theirs comes from sugar cane. The sugars in the cane are much easier to access and process than those in corn (America's source of ethanol). The total cost for a gallon of ethanol in the U.S. is huge.

Farmers plant corn seeds that they have to buy from seed companies. These seed companies have genetically altered their corn so that they will not grow without using their fertilizer. These very same companies have lobbied congress successfully to pass laws making it illegal to save any seed from year to year or to use viable seed from the corn grown to plant the next year. The result is a vicious circle of money flowing to the seed companies year after year and less money to the farmers. Farmers have to use tractors, planters, and harvesters, all powered by petroleum based fuel sources (mostly diesel). After each season, farmers have to then prepare their soil to plant for the next season. Since corn is a nitrogen leech and the government subsidizes corn growers (there are much better growing and more profitable crops out there that farmers are paid not to grow), there's no real economically viable alternative. Nitrogen fixation of soil isn't cheap. So, more money goes to take care of the soil. This is all before we even leave the farm. Once the corn reaches the ethanol production facility, more petroleum based fuels are used to process the corn and refine the product to a salable state. Overall, to produce a single gallon of ethanol from corn, significantly more than one gallon of gasoline is needed.

I'm sure you can see now how the math doesn't add up in that example. If it takes more than a gallon of gas to create a gallon of ethanol, why do so many people seem to think it's the savior of the oil industry? The answer is simple. People are stupid and easily misled. The solution to the problem is likewise very simple. Instead of using corn to produce ethanol, use a material whose sugar is easier to access. Scientists in Europe have been experimenting with production of ethanol from sugar beets and the UK opened it's first sugar beet ethanol facility in 2007. The above example didn't dive into the other negative effects of using corn for ethanol. Since we're looking at the total cost of the product, we must also consider the rising cost of high fructose corn syrup. This rise is seen in the continually increasing costs of sweet carbonated beverages (I'm not getting into the pop vs. soda argument). It is arguable, however, that this increased cost is a good thing because it will encourage people to drink less of it and encourage manufactures to switch to cane sugar.

The biggest problem that I see with this whole eco-friendly movement is that there is no universal standard for what is or is not allowed to be labeled as green, environmentally friendly, or eco-friendly. I don't really foresee a standard being developed and implemented any time soon. Now I'm not suggesting that we completely forgo green products. The real moral of the story is to be aware of what goes into a product. Just because your kitchen scrub sponge says it's eco-friendly doesn't mean that the manufacturing process is. Look for products from reputable environmentally friendly companies. Look for products made from 100% recycled product and sustainable fabrics.

There are a few companies that are doing great things to help the environment that deserve mentioning. I'm a big fan of TerraCyle. They're a New Jersey company that produces a wide variety of environmentally friendly products using all natural sources, and all packaging is recycled. Cleaners come in used pop bottles, bags are made of recycled CapriSun pouches, and they even have pencils made of recycled newspaper. Dow Chemical and Algenol Biofuels are teaming up to open a facility to use algae to convert CO2 into ethanol. The great part about the idea is that it's very self supporting. Coal is used to generate power (pretty standard and fairly renewable, but dirty as hell) and the exhaust from that coal is fed into the algae, which then converts it all to ethanol. Not only does this create ethanol for fuel, but it addresses the biggest issue of coal power. The automotive industry is getting in on the deal as well. Subaru (a perennial favorite of wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts) has the most environmentally friendly production facility in the country. Their Lafayette, IN plant is not only a designated wildlife habitat, but is also the first U.S. manufacturing facility to send nothing to the landfill.

Look around you, folks. There is a lot of marketing and scheming to make products appear more environmentally friendly than they really are. There are also a number of companies that geniuinely care and make a difference in the world. Keeping your eyes open, being aware, and reading the labels makes all the difference. We can make a difference in the environment if we keep our heads on straight and do one major thing: be intelligent, folks.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Why There Aren't More Women in Science and Engineering

Why aren't there more women studying science? This question has been pondered by experts thousands of times over. There's been lots of speculation and more than a few studies done on the matter. It's quite a controversial topic. Larry Summers was forced to resign as president of Harvard University and was passed over for Secretary of the Treasury by President Obama for his comments at the Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce. During his lecture, Summers suggested that a major contributing factor to the lack of women in positions in science and engineering at the country's top research institutions and universities is due to "the different availability of aptitude at the top end." These comments led to a firestorm of both support and attacks from across the academic world.

Now, I'm not a cognitive scientist or expert in the psychology of academia, but I know more than a handful of genius women. I've been surrounded by academics my entire life. From what I've seen as a student, friend, and instructor is that there's certainly a degree of truth to Summers' statements. I wouldn't say that Summers has found a statistically significant factor, but he's got something. So do any number of other theories on the subject. The reality is that we live in a world that's not just black and white. There isn't one correct answer to a vast majority of the problems and issues in today's society. Anybody who tells you otherwise has their head up their ass.

There is, however, one completely logical contributing factor to the lack of women in science and engineering that goes overlooked by media and government alike. In early January, the New York Times published an article that investigated this factor. From the article:

“Surveying outcomes for 160,000 Ph.D. recipients across the United States, the researchers determined that 70 percent of male tenured professors were married with children, compared with only 44 percent of their tenured female colleagues. Twelve years or more after receiving their doctorates, tenured women were more than twice as likely as tenured men to be single and significantly more likely to be divorced. And lest all of this look like “personal choice,” when the researchers asked 8,700 faculty members in the University of California system about family and work issues, nearly 40 percent of the women agreed with the statement, “I had fewer children than I wanted,” compared with less than 20 percent of the men. The take-home message, Dr. Mason said in a telephone interview, is, “Men can have it all, but women can’t.”” - New York Times Published 1/19/09

Women who choose to enter the world of high academics and specialize in engineering and sciences fields are often forced to make a difficult decision: career or family. My fiancee Katie and I are dealing with this issue currently. When looking into the future, we discovered that there isn't really time for us to have children. Between being a graduate student and doing postdoctoral work, there's too much time spent in labs and dangerous chemicals for being pregnant to be an option. Katie's 22 now, putting our first child at roughly the age of 30. But there's more! After postdoctoral work, she won't have time to take off for children because her research will most likely be funded by grants and American research grants don't allow for maternity leave.

What's the best solution to the problem? One that deserves serious consideration by American women looking to get into research and still have a family is emigration to Canada. Canadian grants include the ability to take off for maternity leave. In many cases, it's as simple as telling the grant giving body that you need to take off for maternity and they'll extend the grant and add the equivalent dollar amount to the grant. This is a pretty ideal situation. There's only one problem with the whole situation: some people just don't want to leave their home country. For them, there's a potential solution on the horizon.

In the news recently has been word that President Obama is throwing his full support behind the Federal Employee Paid Parental Leave Act. In the Times article (published before this Act came on the table), UC Berkley professor Dr. Mary Ann Mason (and other legal experts) suggested that President Obama could simply sign and enact an executive order extending parental benefits to recipients of federal grants. Doing this would not only allow for women to take maternity leave if under federal grant, but for men to take paternal leave as well. How this leave is dealt with would have to be sorted out, but no matter the result, it's a certain improvement over the current system.

It's not often that I encourage people take political action, but this time, it has to be done. Please, take a few minutes to drop a line to your representative, senator, or to the President directly and urge them to support extending parental benefits to federal grant holders.

Be intelligent folks.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why a Bookworm is a Great Thing to Be.

I've always been an avid reader. For as long as I can remember, I've read more than most people I know. I was reading young adult novels in the fourth grade and by the time I hit middle school, I was on to full adult fiction and classics. Over the course of the past eighteen or so years that I've been reading, I've had a lot of favorites. I've read some books over and over and there have even been a few that I was so bored with that I was unable to finish. Most of the greatest lessons that I've learned in life have come from books.

Books are one of the most fabulous things ever invented. More than the internet, more than cell phones, more than almost anything else, my heart goes out to Johannes Gutenberg for his invention of the printing press. The Gutenberg printing press is the single most important invention in the past 1,000 years. Without it, none of the knowledge that we have today would have been possible. With the invention of the internet and more recently the Kindle, print books are quickly becoming more and more obsolete. Teenagers are getting out of high school without having to read much of anything and those that read for fun are more likely to be picking up Twilight or the book that the next big movie is based on than to picking up Pratchett, Poe, or Plato. While I'm all for technology and the benefits that it brings, it's also imperative that we not forget or abandon the source material.

I'm issuing every person who reads this a challenge. One of the most difficult parts of being an avid reader is finding new things to read. I'm quickly working my way through all of Katie's books, and I'm sure some of you don't have the luxury of living with a fellow bookworm. Here's your challenge. Go through the collection of books you've read and make some recommendations in the comments for this post. Then, find a book that somebody else has recommended that you haven't read, find a copy, and read it in the next month. If you like it, recommend it to somebody else.

Below you'll find some of my favorite books, with a very short description of each, categorized between fiction and non fiction.

Bryan's Recommendations:


House of Leaves - Mark Z. Danielewski: The best way to describe this literary piece of artwork is as a book about a book that's about a documentary that was never made about a house that doesn't exist who's interior dimensions are larger than their exterior dimensions. There are several interlacing plot lines which coexist in both space and time. If you're looking for a challenging piece with great rewards, this is the book to check out.

Wanted - Mark Millar: This isn't the Angelina Jolie version of the story. Find out what how it really went down with a fraternity of super villains (that's right, no assassins) and the most evil bastards that you'll ever meet. Mr. Rictus makes Bin Laden look like a wussy with a half baked plan and Hitler like an angsty teenager who got dissed by a Jewish ex-girlfriend.

Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut: The true genius of most authors lies not in their most popular book, but in their second most popular book. Pick this up for a faster reading, slightly more down to earth story of how the father of the atomic bomb destroyed the world with ice.

Bloodsucking Fiends - Christopher Moore: Another example of the second most popular book being the best, Bloodsucking Fiends is a vampire story done right. Stephanie Meyer could learn a thing or two from Moore's comedic masterpiece. If I awoke as a vampire, I won't know what was going on, I'd be confused as hell. The best part is that Moore doesn't completely break every rule of canon that he's previously established.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos:A series of letters documenting the use of seduction and sex by France's nobility in the late 1700's, this book is the closest thing to a trashy romance novel that I've ever read, and it's beautiful. The story is well known, a torrid tale of sex and seduction between Vicomte de Valmont, Marquise de Merteuil, Presidente de Tourvel, Chevalier Dancey, and Cecile Volanges is best known to modern society as the film Cruel Intentions.

Non Fiction:

The Game - Neil Strauss: Remember the show on VH1 called "The Pickup Artist"? Well, that show wouldn't exist if not for this book. Anybody who's ever sought out information on or been taught anything about social dynamics has either read or at least heard of this book. Many of the major players from the book are still great coaches and generally awesome people today. Aside from Neil, the most honest and stand up guy from the book is Playboy, aka Stephen Nash. It's a great read and a phenomenal conversation starter.

The Definitive Book of Body Language - Allan and Barbara Pease: Study this book for a few weeks and you'll notice yourself instantly being able to determine the relationship between every single person in any room. Ever wonder how some guys have the nerve to sidle up next to an attractive woman when she's already surrounded by a group of guys? Chances are he's read her body language. This is the handbook that can teach you how to do the same.

The Brand YU Life - Hajj Flemings: I give credit to Hajj every time I can. Sure, I'm a bit biased (he's also a Michigan Tech grad), but this book is great. He'll transform the way that you look at your public image and quickly have you on the road to personal brand management perfection.

I <3 Female Orgasm - Dorian Solog and Marshall Miller: These professional sex educators are the voice that an entire generation will listen to. This isn't your mother's sex ed book and she would probably blush if she read it. While they focus on one of the most neglected subjects in all of sex education and study, this book form of their popular lecture dismisses the myths and untruths of what we've all been taught about sex and brings forth the most healthy opinion of sex I've heard to date, that it's not about him and it's not about her, it's about them.

Blink - Malcom Gladwell: This guy has been getting a lot of attention recently. This is his second of three New York Times Bestsellers and is an excellent investigation into the value of first impressions and snap judgments. Don't trust his word for it. Gladwell brings in powerful examples and scientific data from years of research to back up his thoughts. While I don't live by awards, they're a great indicator of credibility and Gladwell was the first person to be awarded the Award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues by the American Sociological Association. This is a very quick read and as a bonus for those of you in book clubs, comes with a reading group guide of its own.

That's all from me. Find a book you like, close your laptop, get a cup of coffee, snuggle up in a comfortable chair, and read the night away.

Be intelligent, folks.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Freakiest Shoes You've Ever Seen

A few weeks go, I got fitted for and ordered a pair of Vibram Five Fingers shoes. These are the freakiest shoes you've ever seen, designed to be essentially a cross between aquasocks and toe socks, but with better materials. There are several styles available, but I chose the KSO versions. These have a body composed mainly of mesh, with a full fabric bottom portion, and the standard rubber soles. They also have the Classic, Sprint, and Flow models that are slightly different. Their most popular version, the Classic, is the easiest to get into of all, but leaves a majority of the top of the foot exposed. Those were just a little bit too weird for me, since I'm used to having my feet covered. Katie, however, likes the Sprints because they're like a ballet flat with a strap across the top, just like the shoes she usually wears.

The first challenge of these shoes is getting them on. Since they're essentially gloves for your feet, they're tight. Luckily, the box comes with this handy guide: CIMG4175

Now I'm pretty sure that everybody is curious about these things, so here's a basic shot: CIMG4185

What's really more important than first impressions is a field test. So once I ordered the shoes, I decided to diary my first week in them so that you can get a better handle for them.

Day 1 - I got a call that my shoes arrived and picked them up a few hours later. It took about eight minutes to get them on the first time. My two smallest toes seem to enjoy being in the same toe pocket. It was also quite tough to get the fabric up around the side and heel of my foot, but I fully expect that this will get easier with time. The shoes feel good on my feet, like toe socks with rubber soles. I'm slightly concerned because my second toe is curled up a little bit and feels somewhat claustrophobic. I didn't even make it out of the store before I got my first comment. Just as I was leaving, a woman said "Are those actual shoes?" and the Five Fingers adventure began. Driving in the Five Fingers is a new experience. I never realized that when I brake, there's only two toes on the pedal. The first time I tried to slow down, I felt kind of like my foot was sliding off of the side of the pedal. Once I arrived home, I immediately started testing the shoes out to see what they felt like. I did some pushups to see what it was like bending the toes far forward. I ran up the stairs and down again to get a feel for them there. The shoes performed marvelously. During a break, I decided a good picture was in order. CIMG4176 The first real test came when I made a run to the grocery store. They felt pretty good, though getting used to my feet changing temperature depending on what I'm walking on will take some getting used to. After I got home, I had to take the shoes off because my arches and fore feet were really sore. From every first hand account of a new owner of these shoes, this is to be expected, so I'm not worried.

Day 2 - The shoes only took a few minutes longer than regular shoes to get on today. Overall, nothing major to report other than one toe starting to feel slightly claustrophobic once. I discovered that I really like the strap that goes over the top of the foot to be a bit on the loose side. When just walking around the house, I don't even tighten the strap and it feels great. There were a few points where my feet started to get sore, but no more so than if I weren't wearing shoes at all. I took the shoes off as soon as I got home for the day because my feet were starting to feel funny, but otherwise, a successful day.

Day 3
- Today was my first full day with the Five Fingers on. I put them on as soon as I got out of the shower and wore them until just before bed without issue. Once again, I left the top strap undone when in the house, and only loosely when out running errands. I got a few fun comments from people when I was at the grocery store, and somebody at the post office accused me of coming in without wearing shoes at all. These are very quickly becoming my favorite shoe, though I can see that I won't be able to wear them all day every day for extended lengths of time. It's not so much that my feet can't handle it as it is that once in a while, my feet will need a break and a return to socks and standard shoes.

Day 4
- Vibram advertises the model that I have as being appropriate for a lot of different activities: light trekking, running, sailing, surfing, martial arts, pretty much anything up to and including underwater basket weaving. So far, I've tested out everything except their ability to deal with water. There's a slight problem with this. Ann Arbor isn't exactly the surfing capitol of the world. So, it was time for the old bath tub test. I'll spare you the graphic details and get right to results. On a slick surface, the shoes work great. Tilting back on the heel results in some slipping, but it's slow and nothing major. On a slick inclined surface, the shoes slid very slowly, but tilting forward (and opening up the razor sipping on the soles) minimized this. Underwater, the results were similar. No slippage with feet flat or leaning forward, and minimal slipping on the inclined surface. It's not difficult to keep things from slipping in water. The real test is what happens after leaving the water again. The soles of the shoes dried on their own very quickly, which is a good sign. The mesh that forms the majority of the shoe body dried very quickly as well and the fabric dried to the touch in about a half hour. The razor sipping on the soles were really a great addition to the shoes. CIMG4184

Day 5
- After letting the shoes dry out from yesterday's water test, it was back to business as usual. There isn't really much more to report. They still feel like a natural extension of my feet. Walking is completely natural and comfortable on any surface. My feet are actually starting to feel a little big odd when they're NOT in the Five Fingers.

Day 6
- It turned out that today was a full day test. A friend of Katie and mine came out to visit us. We decided to head downtown and and visit the Farmer's Market among other things. I wiggled my feet into the Five Fingers and away we went. I wasn't quite ready for a full day on my feet, out and about without much grass to walk on. The first thing I noticed was that when you're wearing these shoes, you have to be aware of what surfaces you have to walk on. While I don't notice much difference between asphalt and concrete in terms of texture or forgiveness of the material, temperature is huge. After walking three blocks on asphalt through a street fair, my feet felt like they were on fire. Throughout the course of the day, I got great exposure to a variety of different surfaces and went through the mental effort to priortize them. The absolute best to walk on is grass and dirt, then carpet, wood floors, concrete and asphalt, tile, and the worst is stone. People really should get over the idea of granite and marble floors. They're really horrible on the feet, don't hold temperature well. Sometimes, the expense is just not worth it.

Final Thoughts
: While I know that I won't be wearing them every day, these are a great pair of shoes. They're just what I was looking for, protection for my soles and not much more. The Five Fingers aren't for everyone, but they're for a lot more people than would ever give them a try. After just a few days, I noticed an improvement in posture, balance, and foot strength. When wearing regular shoes for full days out and about now, my feet never get tired because they've developed the muscles to support themselves. I'm going to have to agree with TIME Magazine when they named the Five Fingers one of the best new products in 2007.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

How to go From Being THAT Guy to THE Guy

They're generally a great person. They're fun to be around, make people smile, and are one of the smarter people you know. There's just one problem. They have literally no filter between their brain and their mouth. They offend people without trying to or even realizing that they do it. Sometimes they hurt your feelings and though you know it's not intentional, it doesn't make it hurt any less. They cause a scene, just because they feel the complusive need to say absolutely everything that's on their mind.

Does this situation sound like anyone you know?

For a long time, I was that guy. I still am once in a while, but I'm constantly getting better. What is it that causes people to behave this way? Tact, well...a lack thereof to be specific. If there is one skill that a huge number of people need to develop (and an even larger number need to admit they need to develop), this is it. Though I don't like citing dictionary definitions because they only tell half the story, they're a good place to start. Merriam-Webster defines tact as being "a keen sense of what to do or say in order to maintain good relations or avoid offense"

Having been that tactless guy for many years, I know all of the arguments and I want to take care of the big ones right away.

"I shouldn't have to lie just to make people feel better or not offend anybody." Anybody who uses this argument doesn't really understand what tact is all about. It's no surprise that they don't understand. Being a tactful person isn't about lying to people (well, it occasionally is, but more on that later), it's about being observant of the people around you and speaking and doing things in such a manner that you dull the impact a little bit. I would never tell somebody their writing was crap, but I would tell them that it needs improvement. What's the difference? It's all in how the other person perceives your words. How would you rather be perceived, as a jerk, or as helpful?

"I don't care what other people think of me." Really? So you don't mind being single, and on the rare occasion that you do find somebody to date, they eventually get fed up with you and leave? There's a big difference between not bending who you are to make other people like you and not caring what people think. Everybody's different. One of my good friends and I have such opposing beliefs when it comes to religion and politics that people are often amazed at how well we get along. The secret here is that we care what the other person thinks without being willing to change who we are to please them. There are some issues that we just agree to disagree on, and that's not a bad thing.

"Why should I put so much effort into being tactful when people who know me know that I don't mean it?" Whenever I hear a question like that one, I have to ask a question in return. Why should somebody put up with your insulting and insensitive behavior in order to get to know you? Having a positive reputation is one of the best things that you can have going for you. When you are crass and rude to people that you just meet, you drive them away from you. You're sabotaging your social network by doing that. When I got laid off from a job, I put the word out on my social network that I was looking for a new place to work. Instantly, I had dozens upon dozens of people keeping their eyes peeled for me. If a company that a friend of theirs works for is hiring, they put a good word in. If they see something online or in a newspaper, they give me a heads up. Plus, how much social proof is it to meet somebody and have them already know who you are because a friend of theirs told them about you?

A lot of people think that being tactful is just too hard or they say that they don't know where to start. Those excuses don't cut it anymore. I'm going to lay out what I'm calling the Noble Eightfold Path of Tacfulness. There are eight simple steps to prevent the unnecessary burning of bridges. In no particular order, they are:

Be Discreet - Nobody likes getting scolded or corrected in public. There's no legitimate reason why you have to point out the flaw to the entire group that you're with. Either wait until the moment has passed and tell them in private, or if it's imperative that they know now (usually only in business situations), get their attention without making a scene. In that case, you can either whisper in their ear, or pass a note to them.

Respect Other People's Viewpoints - Nothing in the world is black and white. There are so few "I'm absolutely right and you're absolutely wrong" situations that getting into arguments like that is silly. It's one thing to disagree with somebody's viewpoint, it's another do be disrespectful of it. I'll go back to the example of my good friend and I. When we talk politics, I don't say "You're wrong". Instead I say "I disagree." That small change is all it takes.

Downplay Negativity and Gossip - One thing that I've found is that no matter where you go, people LOVE to gossip. "Did you hear about so and so..." "I can't believe she's dating that schmuck" and "Oh my god, he's such an alcoholic" are just a few examples of the things you hear. A real life soap opera is almost unavoidable. The best thing to do is to not partake in the gossiping yourself, and to downplay it when other people start. One good counter to the last example could be, "I've never met him, but I doubt his drinking is as heavy as people make it out to be."

Always Stay Positive - Happiness breeds happiness. It's true. Having lots of people who are always miserable around you will make you miserable, and it goes the other way as well. Here's an example. In college, a friend of mine was known for being late. People would regularly poke fun at them. Instead of allowing that to make me miserable (and also avoiding gossiping behind that person's back), I would bring in something positive about that person instead. A good example is "They could be more punctual, but the great thing is that I know that the work they've done will always be exceptional and I wouldn't trade that for anything."

Stay Neutral - Politicians are great at this when it comes to comments on sports. I remember during the election, President Obama was asked who he was hoping would win a baseball game later that day. His comment was great: "I'm just hoping that it's a good game." There are other ways to not pick sides as well. One of the few complaints that I have about my last job is that there was a lot of bureaucracy to go through. I can understand why it's needed and why it's there, but I'd occasionally get frustrated by it. When asked what I thought of the situation, I didn't put down the system, nor did I lie and say that it was perfect. I simply said "There's more red tape than I'm used to". The result? I was asked to help make the system more efficient.

Understand and Respect Cultural Differences - This is especially important in the growing globalization of today's society. Standards for conduct and expectations are different across the globe. You have to understand that not everybody was raised in the same environment. A great example is when you have to deal with people who don't have English as a first language (or if you're learning a new language and visit a country where it's spoken). It's entirely uncalled for to complain about immigrants who can't speak the language. Be calm, polite, and yes, tactful.

Be Gracious - Assume the best, be cool, and speak sincerely. Everybody has a relative who is horrible at buying gifts. We know the person cares for us and that's what really matters, right? There's no need to tell Aunt Jane that you don't need more wool socks (but really, who doesn't need more wool socks?) when you can be tactful about it and say something like "Thank you! I appreciate the thought." Even if you don't think you're the most attractive, intelligent, or funniest person around, when somebody tells you that you are, take the compliment well. The key to being gracious is to say thank you, and that you appreciate it. It is really that simple.

Think Before You Speak - This is really the key, the toughest thing to do. So many of us were brought up to just say what's on our minds that we don't bother to think about what we're going to say before it comes out. Is there a better way to say what you're thinking? Will what you're planning to say hurt someone's feeling unnecessarily? These are all things to consider. A lot of people will say that when you're alone with your buddies that you can let the words flow freely, but that's not the case. You have to practice in the small situations so that you get the habit down and you don't slip up in an important situation like a job interview.

I'll be the first to tell you that nobody is perfect, including myself. But it's important to at least try to improve yourself. Humans are social creatures, and being tactful is one of the major components to how the game is played. You wouldn't ignore one of the most important rules of hockey, why do it anyplace else? Besides, you never know who you might end up working for some day. It may be that guy who you offended because you "didn't care" what he thought of you.

Be intelligent folks.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Economics of Relationships

Over the years, I've been asked for relationship advice by a lot of people. Every time that it happens, I'm kind of flattered. I figure that if I'm getting asked for advice, it means I'm doing something right. What I get consulted about even more often than how to meet and attract somebody that they're interested in is to clean up the mess after something's gone wrong. Sometimes, it's a pretty simple fix. Others, there's nothing I can do. The problem is that nobody wants to admit that a relationship with somebody they care about is on the way out.

I'm quite unique in how I look at personal relationships. To me, personal relationships are quite a bit like dealing with personal finance. Yes, it's kind of impersonal, but one mistake that I'll never make again is allowing my personal emotions and feelings influence me to make a bad decision. I like to say that the reason I look at the situation like this is because I've been involved in technical fields for so long, but the truth of the matter is that I've looked at relationships like this for some time. No, I'm not completely emotionless. The a difference between knowing what you're experiencing, why you're experiencing it, the effects that it's having on you, etc. and being completely emotionless is profound. However, that's for another article.

What I want to focus on here is the cost/benefit curve. Of everything I learned in studying economics and personal finance, this is the most versitile. With almost anything in life, there's a cost. That cost varies greatly depending on what we're dealing with. Money, time, energy, and social capital are the most common costs. The cost/benefit curve illustrates that for each additional unit of cost (dollar, hour, or what have you) the benefit to you goes up a certain amount. If you were to take the derivative of the cost/benefit curve (it involves some calculus, which I won't get into), you could easily find out where your optimal investment lies.

Let's look at a case study. I'm saving up to buy a DSLR camera. Nikon is my preferred brand, and they make a range of cameras over a range of costs. As expected, for each additional dollar spent, there's additional benefit involved. At some point, however, the return on your investment drops below an acceptable level. I'm willing to spend an additional hundred bucks for a nother four megapixels and a bunch of other benefits, but a hundred beyond that for a rather small handful of benefits isn't worth my while.

Relationships function in the same way. They cost time and energy and return benefits. At some point, the additional cost in time and energy isn't worth the return in benefits. This is the point where you're getting ripped off. Most people find it really hard to accept that something that they've invested so much time and effort and emotion in won't work out. They hang on for dear life in futile hopes that something will change, that things will get better. I'm going to save you some time and heartache here. People don't change in relationships. Even if they did, you wouldn't respect them for it because they'd be simple pushovers. Those things that the other person does that aggravate you will never change, it will never get better. You have two choices to make. Either you accept the person for who they are (faults and all) or you cut your losses and move on with your life.

The other big issue here is that the very same people who are likely to drag things out as long as possible (which causes more hurt in the long run) are also likely to try to patch things up and get back together. This time, it's time to drop the econ and look at the statistics. The the likelihood of a relationship between two people getting back together working out in the long run is statistically insignificant. It's just a bad idea to even try it. The exception to the rule here is if there have been several years and life altering events in between. Otherwise, relationships, as a rule, only get one shot. If you go back to a previous love and try to get back together and patch things up, you're asking for heartbreak. You might as well hit yourself with a folding chair. That's the kind of pain that you're inviting.

How do you deal with the situation if you find yourself in it? Here's your line. "We're not a good match for each other." It's that simple. The number one hesitation amongst men and women alike when it comes to ending relationships is that they don't want to hurt the other person involved. Here's some news. It's really not possible. They will be hurt somewhat, no matter what you say, or how you do it. What's important is minimizing the hurt, and not placing blame for the demise of the relationship on the other person. I'm not talking about saying "It's my fault." What I'm talking about is recognizing and acknowledging that relationships don't work out for a variety of reasons and that it's not anybody's fault when it happens.

I know what some of you are thinking. You're thinking that it's not that bad, that you can deal with it. You're thinking that it doesn't happen that often. You're thinking any number of other things that will help you to justify staying in a relationship that's on the outs and not feeling bad about it. You think that you can't do that to somebody you really care about. The truth here is twofold. First, you must understand that if you really care about somebody, you want them to be happy. If you're not completely happy with them, you're not only lying to them (which will hurt them when they find out), but you're also being disrespectful to them. It's far better to allow them more time to find somebody that they are a great match for. Second, it is better to be single than to be in a bad relationship.

No matter your situation, no matter how "not bad" you claim your situation is, it is better to be single than to be in a bad relationship.

Be intelligent folks.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Spending Optimization: How Lobbyists Teach Us What NOT to DO

I'm not a personal finance expert. If you want me to recommend one, go check out Ramit Sethi over at I Will Teach You to be Rich. But, there is something that I know a lot about, being efficient, effective, and doing things in the most intelligent way possible. Doing things intelligently is arguably the core value of the Modern Renaissance Man. This, of course, includes being intelligent with your money, putting it to use for you in the most effective and efficient way possible.

I want to take a few minutes to show you how to be ineffective and inefficient with your money so that you don't make the same mistakes. While I'm not going to hide the fact that I support a woman's right to choose, that's not what this is about. I could have done this example with any number of causes or organizations, but the numbers for anti-abortion groups are more readily accessible, so I'm making them the case study.

A few months ago, my fiancee was on her way to the WCHA Final Five in Minneapolis and between Duluth and Minneapolis, her and her vehiclemates counted thirty anti-abortion billboards. After a very short bit of research, we found that a billboard along I-35 between Duluth and Minneapolis costs $20 per day. A full year for these thirty billboards costs the advertisers $219,000, or $600 per day.

Now, in my experience, the most common argument brought forth by anti-abortion groups is that "all life is precious". I can get behind that idea, but let's look at the economics of the situation a little bit. Sponsoring an African child to give them food, education, shelter, and health care costs twenty cents per day. One billboard, for one day, could save 100 children. Take down all thirty billboards for one day, and you could support those same 100 children for a month. Now I have no way to be certain, but I think it's pretty safe to say that in a twenty-four hour period, those thirty billboards don't convince 100 women who are considering an abortion to change their mind. Talk about your economic inefficiencies.

The yearly operating budget for one of the top hospitals in Tanzania is $200,000. A year without those thirty billboards can not only fund that hospital, but can also support 260 children on top of that. The group who funds those billboards could even go so far as to only fund a hospital that doesn't perform abortions or refer patients to hospitals that do. I'd be perfectly fine with that.

Now, I know what many of you are thinking, "But Bryan, those groups are primarily concerned with saving the lives of unborn children." To that I would respond: "Why is the life of an unborn child worth more than the life of an already living African child?", but I digress. Let's look at another situation. Let's set a large deal of what we've said about the African children aside. How would you go about saving unborn children in America in the most intelligent way possible? Again, we'd look at the economics of the situation. The first thing that would happen, is we'd conduct a survey of women who didn't get an abortion, but were previously considering it and find out what changed their minds. We'd then construct a Pareto chart to determine what has the biggest impact. You can't tell that I'm an engineer yet, can you? What we would find from that chart (logically) is that billboards aren't that effective. What's much more effective is education. There are a number of other effective methods as well. So, let's take 20% of the budget previously allotted to billboards (following the 80/20 rule) and allocate that to the top 5 most effective methods of convincing mothers not to get an abortion. Now, we've got $175,200 left to send out.

I will give billboards one thing, they get a lot of eye traffic and though the cost per convert is relatively high, the cost per view is extremely low. They also are great for building brand recognition. So, as a way to get our name out there, we keep some billboards. There is however, that nagging issue of helping out the African children. At a mere $0.20 each per day to save, they're a great bang for your buck. As a way to show that we care about children as a whole, let's split that remaining money between the two sources. This is entirely arbitrary at this point, so let's say that we're saving a nice and round 1,000 African children for the year, and the rest will go towards billboards (which we can now include information on about all of the African children we save, as well as our funding the top five most effective ways to save children.) This leaves us with fourteen billboards. Think about it. With some intelligent decisions, we not only saved more unborn American children than via any other method, but we also saved 1,000 African children, and still kept about half of the original number billboards.

This concept can be applied to our personal contributions to charity as well. What is a more effective contribution, $100 to a large charity to help feed the homeless or a $100 contribution to your local soup kitchen? The answer of course is to help where you'll get the biggest bang for your buck, the local soup kitchen.

Now, I'm not in any way suggesting that you stop getting brand name pop and switch to store brand because you can get more for your money. If you want to do that, go for it. But, let's take a cue from Ramit Sethi and focus on the BIG WINS.

Be intelligent out there, folks. You know where you can get a better deal than you're currently getting. You know where you can cut back to save more. Take a few hours to take a hard look at your finances and ask yourself: "How can I do this more intelligently?"

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Monthly Book Review: The 4 Hour Work Week

It's that time of the month again folks. No, not that time, time for the monthly book review. By now, you should have noticed that I like to give you teasers of some of the content of the book. I'll admit, the teaser content is just a space filler. I only review books that I have such an affinity for that why anybody wouldn't want to read the book is beyond me. So, starting this month, I'm going to apply one of the major principles from this month's book The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. From here on in, we start cutting back to the 20% of the content that delivers 80% of the information.

I picked up The 4-Hour Workweek after hearing it be recommended by a half dozen or so people who's opinions I trust. The book instantly shot to being one of the my top five non-fiction books. Here's why: it's worth every penny you spend and every minute that you spend reading it. This book is not for the faint of heart. If you are serious about getting away from the daily grind and being able to spend your time and money where and when you want it, follow every word Tim says. There's so much great advice in this book, that not all of it could be put into print. The book contains a password to access bonus chapters on Tim's website ranging from how to learn any language in 6 months to how to get $700,000 worth of advertising for $10,000.

A vast majority of The 4-Hour Workweek focuses on defining and tips for implementation of what Tim calls the DEAL plan. The way to escape from the daily grind is to DEFINE what your goals are, ELIMINATE waste, AUTOMATE that which cannot be eliminated, and LIBERATE yourself from the chains that keep you attached to the office.

Tim is a prime example of a Modern Renaissance Man. At thirty, he speaks six languages, is the only American to ever hold a world record in tango, won a national championship in Chinese kickboxing, an actor on a hit TV series in Hong Kong, and a professional motorcycle racer, all while running a multinational company along the way. Here's the great part: in the past five years he hasn't been in a single in person meeting and in only three conference calls for his business. From $40,000 a year and 80 hours per week to $40,000 a month and 4 hours per week, If there's one author who practices what he preaches, it's Tim Ferriss.

I won't waste either my or your time trying to come up with clever descriptions of what some of the topics in the book are. The publishing company has already done that for us. Here are a few of the highlights from the book jacket: How to outsource your life to overseas virtual assistants for $5 per hour and do whatever you want, how to eliminate 50% of your work in 48 hours using the principles of a forgotten Italian economist, how to trade a long-haul career for short work bursts and frequent "mini-retirements", what the crucial difference is between absolute and relative income, how to cultivate selective ignorance - and create time - with a low-information diet, and my personal favorite: how to get free housing worldwide and airfare at 50-80% off.

Tim has been featured in the New York Times, National Geographic Travler, and Maxim Magazine among others and the book is a Wall Street Journal #1 best seller. Tim's also the guy who got me turned on to the Vibram Five Fingers shoes, which I'll be reviewing on this blog soon. Get off your butt, (or just click the above link to Amazon) and pick up a copy of the book. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Leveraging the Three "Selfs" for Social Success, Part Two

Last Thursday, we started talking about the three "selfs" and how we can leverage them into a great social life. We defined each of the terms, and today we're going to look a little deeper into the signs of each and how we can further develop them for ourselves. Rather than taking up too much time with an in depth intro, I want to get right back to where we left off...

Now that we've defined our terms, we can start to look at an action plan. How do we develop these three "selfs" and apply these developments to our daily lives? I've always been a fan of the Be Do Have philosophy that Dr. Alex Benzer developed. It's quite simple. If you want to BE something you have to DO the things that the people who are what you want to be do in order to HAVE the results. It's a bit of a "fake it until you make it" way of looking at things, but it's remarkably effective. Let's address these issues the same way that we defined the terms.

What are the things that people who have self respect do that show they have self respect? Well, for each person it's somewhat different, but there are a number of things that are pretty common among them. First and foremost is that you can notice it in their appearance. I'm not talking about having expensive clothes, or driving the best car. But, you can tell by looking that they give a damn about themselves. Guys are either clean shaven, or groom their facial hair. The five o'clock shadow look is fine, but they have it on purpose and you can tell. Look at their nails. They're clipped and cleaned. It doesn't require a manicure, just a pair of clippers and a little scraper to get under your nails. Their hair isn't greasy like they haven't washed it in several days. I'm pretty sure you get the picture at this point. The major thing here is just to take a few minutes every once in a while to do those little extra things that people who don't respect themselves don't bother with. You ARE worth the extra effort.

The signs of someone who has self confidence are pretty clear. Look at an EMT arriving on the scene of an accident. They move in towards the victim quickly. They go in with a knowledge that they will perform well and that they will help the person in need. It's really quite difficult to write a description of how one acts confidently without using the word confidence because when you see it in another person, you know it. Here are two exercises to help you understand what it feels like to have self confidence. I've gone over them in depth in the past, so I'll give an overview here. First, imagine a string attached to the top of your head that is constantly pulling upward. You should feel like you are standing upright in a really exaggerated manner. However, if you look in the mirror, you'll see that it's not nearly as over the top as you think it is. Next, imagine another string, tied to your belt buckle pulling you forward. This one should make you feel sort of like a cowboy, with your pelvis very far forward. Look again in the mirror to see that it doesn't look nearly as exaggerated as over the top as you think. These two things make you stand upright and with your spine properly aligned. A good posture is a big signal of self confidence.

Finding the signals of someone who has a high self esteem is slightly more difficult than those of self respect and self confidence. They relate more to the individual, since we're talking about comparisons to self set standards. What I've done is compiled a list of statements. If the more that are true to you, the more likely it is that you have a high level of self esteem. I am able to express thoughts, feelings, and beliefs to others. I approach and accept new challenges with enthusiasm. When somebody else makes an accomplishment, I praise them for it without becoming jealous. I have a good sense of humor and am able to laugh at myself (in a non self deprecating manner). I feel optimistic towards things that I start. When I finish a task, I feel proud of my work, whether the task is large or small. From this it should become pretty clear that by having a high self esteem you have a general good feeling towards yourself. You are not externally validated. If somebody hurls an insult your way, it rolls off, rather than having an effect on you. You know that no matter what you do, you are a worthwhile person who deserves the best.

Now that we know what the three "selfs" are and how to go about increasing our knowledge of them and to increase the amount of them that we have, we can start going about using them to our advantage. If you've gotten this far, you're already further than 98% of the people in the country. By now, you should be getting comments from friends and family about your recent changes and you should feel great. How we leverage this is to simply take the next step further. A social life is all about being social (I know, that one's a really big DUH). When you go about your daily life, take that extra step and start talking to people. Saying hi to everybody and smiling at everyone is the easiest pattern interrupter in the world.

You see, people have a tendency go about their lives in patterns, much like my father, who I spoke of a few weeks ago. They get up in the morning and go to the same places and do the same things. They're on auto pilot. Now that we've built up the self respect, self coincidence, and the self esteem that so few people have, we're much more consciously aware of the emotional states of other people. The best way to make an impact on the lives of other people (thus being memorable, which in turn helps to build that social network) is to interrupt their patterns. This is really simple to do. Start up a conversation with the person who's checking groceries. Ask how work is going. Take a note from a two year old. Ask questions of everybody, and be interested in their answers. This will be absolutely EXHAUSTING at first. To use someone else's analogy, social skills are like a muscle. When you don't use them they atrophy. Once you start to use them again, it's tiring because you're not used to it. Very quickly though, you will become accustomed to the new level of activity and be off and running.

I've used this method to build a social circle many times. It's quick, effective, plus who doesn't love to feel like the town mayor and know people every place that they go?

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