Thursday, June 4, 2009

Not just for profit businesses

Most people are familiar with the traditional, profit focused business model. A business is created, providing some service or product, with the explicit and primary goal of making money for the owners of the business. Most organizations we are familiar with on a day to day basis... Starbucks, McDonalds, Dell, Walmart, etc all are built around this model. These companies tend to only be interested in social good as a side project, if at all. Often time such social good projects start due to a campaign against them as soulless, causing them to create a group in charge of social outreach, community improvement, and (not coincidentally) image improvement.

On the other end of the spectrum are non-profit organizations, or NGOs. These groups tend to be focused around providing a service to a particular group in need, with the primary goal of improving that group's way of life. Non-profits tend to either charge nothing or very little for their services, and pay for those services by way of donations. In the United States, these donations are tax deductible, though along with that tax deductible status comes a number of restrictions on the organization, including the requirement that they *must* receive at least 50% of their income from donations or grants, and not from the sale of services.

Both of these models solve particular problems extremely well, but others not as well. If our goal is the betterment of the world (which I think most people at least think would be nice), it is valuable to think about the problems in both of these models.

The for-profit model

It is sometimes argued that a set of purely profit based motives is the best way to improve the world. Everyone trying to improve their own lot will work as hard as they possibly can, making the most forward progress. Underserved groups will not persist, as new businesses will form to provide them services and make a profit.

The problem with this, in my mind, is that the claimed mutual benefits depend upon a more or less equal distribution of power and information. Sure, if you and I are competing, each trying to profit, and neither of us has a huge advantage, we will both do our best work and achieve as much as possible, and due to our equality in power, we will both reap the gains. However, if instead you have great power over me, it behooves you to exploit me to the greatest extent possible, and do the least work possible yourself. An asymmetry of information works the same way, except instead of exploiting via power you can exploit via trickery and control of information.

We need some sort of counterbalance to the asymmetries of power and information between large for-profit corporations and the rest of the world. Government is one way of achieving this, participating as a rule-maker, playing field neutralizer, and providing aid and a hand up for those who are in need and have no direct way to help them selves. Unfortunately, as is moderately obvious in the United States, and extremely obvious in Guatemala, governments can easily become co-opted by powerful corporations and fail in their counterbalancing role.

The Nonprofit Model

Enter nonprofits. Non profits can provide a great counterbalance to both for-profit companies and government. They can provide key services to those who are in need, and not being served by either companies or government. They can provide advocacy for those being abused by the current power structure. And they provide a necessary power center that is not motivated by money in the same way that both for-profit companies and governments often are.

There are, unfortunately, serious problems with nonprofits as well. Most of these, I believe, stem from the fact that their needs for survival (funds) are completely disconnected from the services they provide. This results in a couple of big issues.

The first is that of a nonprofit that begins to be extremely successful in the service it is providing. More and more demand for the service creates a requirement for more and more funds to provide that service. If it were a for-profit business, the income from the services would help pay for the expansion. Unfortunately, however, for a nonprofit their ability to secure funds is largely disconnected from their success selling a service, and they now need to ramp up a fundraising operation that may or may not be able to cope with the increase in demand.

The second major problem is that there are few pressures upon NGOs to provide the highest quality of service, or improve their service. If they were a business, poor service would result in no income, thus forcing them to improve or perish. However, so long as an NGO is succeeding in fundraising, they can be slow, bureaucratic, and ineffective in providing their service with no real reason to change. As some of my friends at work have noticed, while some newer and younger nonprofits are extremely agile, the larger and older ones have incredible amounts of bureaucracy.

The third way: Not just for profit

A third approach that has been becoming more and more popular recently is that of a not just for profit business. These businesses are structured as for-profit businesses, but have as a part of their core tenants a social or environmental mission.

The startup I work for is a good example. While we are structured as a for-profit company, and in fact are venture funded, our explicit goal is to empower individuals to improve the world. Our product is focused around encouraging millions of people to get involved in activism for social and political causes around the world. And throughout our decision making process about things to pursue, the question of how it will help our users change the world for the better is continually asked.

As core as our social mission is, we would not likely have succeeded as a nonprofit. Being structured as a for-profit company allowed us to tap the venture capital markets, to be able to grow our offering within a couple of years to one that more than 50 million people use. The possibilities of profits have allowed us to attract the highest quality technical team, with engineers who range in dedication to the social mission, but all of whom are thrilled to be a part of a top caliber team changing the world.

Another great example of a not just for profit company is Better World Books, an online bookstore that partners with literacy programs worldwide. Better World Books collects used books to sell, as well as selling some new books as well, and works with a carbon offset program to make certain that their shipping is as environmentally friendly as possible. They not only donate a percentage of the revenue from every book sale to literacy programs worldwide, but also works with its nonprofit partner programs to find homes for unwanted books, keeping them out of landfills and doing some good.

The last time I looked at Better World Books was a year ago, and it was much smaller and only selling used titles. They now appear to be selling a far greater selection, and the next time I'm book shopping I'll look there before Amazon. They also were recently voted the 'most promising social entrepreneur' by Business Week, and look to be growing rapidly.

Opportunities abound

This form of business structure is only just now starting to become better known , but opportunities abound. Having a social mission is not only good for how you feel about yourself, and the world, but it can be good for your business as well. Being able to talk about the good you are doing can help you compete for top employees, as well as distinguishing your business from others to your customers.

Whether you're a budding entrepreneur, looking for a job, or just looking to buy some books, you too can get involved in this budding movement. Instead of starting a company purely to make money, spend some time thinking about how you can align your business with making the world a better place. Or while you're shopping, be on the lookout for companies that are doing a little more than padding their own pockets. You'll feel better, you'll often times getter better service, and you'll help keep people working at making the world around them a better place.

Have another not-just-for-profit business you're excited about? Let me know!. This is an area I'm extremely interested in, and plan to be doing more research on. Please let me know in the comments of any ideas you have or examples you especially like!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Thinking about cooperative living spaces

The traditional setup of an American home has a lot of wasted space and materials, especially for someone single or a couple with no kids. You only use the kitchen a few times a day, the living room spends most of its time as a glorified storage shed, and you end up with a large number of tools that only get used a few times per year. On top of this, its lonely! While having a home of your own sounds nice and romantic, coming home to an empty or almost empty house day after day is not. To socialize, you end up having to call someone else and get back in the car and travel.

Contrast this with a cooperative living arrangement. Instead of a single person or couple living in a house, you have anywhere from four on up people living in a shared space. Bedrooms are generally private, and bathrooms vary by setup. In this situation, you still have your own private space where you can go and shut the door when needed, but the formerly underutilized areas such as kitchen and living room are shared.

Lifestyle benefits

Not only is this cooperative living arrangement a more efficient use of space and resources, but it has a number of lifestyle benefits as well. One of the most obvious is the ability to pool resources cooking. It's far more fun to prepare a special meal for a group of people than for only one or two, meaning that in most cooperative living situations you end up with more and more varied home cooked food. It is also much easier to clean up afterwards; many hands make light work, and the growth in dirty dishes happens at a slower rate than the growth in people participating.

Another advantageous element is the social one. While of course, you will still want to get together with friends outside of your coop, it becomes far easier to socialize without going out. Instead of having to call around, plan ahead, and get people to agree on a destination, impromptu social gatherings happen in the kitchen during dinner, in the living room after dinner, and at various other locations all throughout the day. This does, of course, mean that you should only live with people you get along with, but that is a good idea regardless of your living situation.

Actuality: Outside looking in

In truth, I have only limited experience with cooperative living arrangements. In undergrad, I lived with a number of other guys, but we had little space and did very little cooking. While T was in large coops through her last two years of undergrad, I only lived in them part time through her. Next, we got an apartment together, and while we were in several talks with friends to live together, nothing ever ended up coming of it. We had a close friend living in a coop nearby, and spent many days visiting with her and staying over there, but again this was somewhat outside looking in.

Nonetheless, T looks back fondly on her experiences with cooperative living, and every time I am exposed I want to try it at a more in-depth level. In Guatemala, we have experienced some interesting variations on this theme, first living with another family, and now living in a house where we have our own bedroom and bathroom, but share the kitchen and courtyard (complete with couch, hammock, etc). While the family was a bit much, the shared space we're in now is close to ideal, with casual hanging out happening at various times, and no problems so far with conflicts over any space.

The next few years

Back in the bay area, our friend is starting a new coop, and if we were not moving I think we would be joining it. Instead, we're off to find a new community and a new place to live in San Diego. I think we are likely to start off renting an apartment somewhere, but I hope that as we begin to grow our community there we can find some like minded people who are interested in sharing a house.

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Kicking the caffeine habit

I love coffee. Love it. I enjoy drinking it for the flavor, the sensation of a warm liquid, the social aspect, and the caffeine. But what I don't love is being addicted to coffee. When I'm used to a cup or two every day, going without can lead to headaches in the afternoon and evening, early sleepiness, and general malaise. In addition, being addicted means that in the morning I'm often groggy until I've had my cup of joe.

I've thought several times about quitting, especially after reading that going caffeine-free can reduce the overall amount of sleep you need by improving sleep quality. But I've never quite been willing to give it up; the process always seemed like a pain, and I like coffee too much.

The setting

Guatemala produces some of the best coffee in the world, accessible anywhere in the US or Europe. Despite this fact, it is almost impossible to get good coffee within the country. The top four quality grades are all exported! There are a few cafe's in the cities that still serve high quality stuff, but if you're looking to stock a kitchen, forget it! Poor quality beans or instant coffee are your only choices.

This means that during our stay with a family, and at the school, we drank pretty much only NesCafe and mediocre brewed coffee. One afternoon in a cafe I had a tasty espresso drink, but other than that we only drank the bad stuff. Don't get me wrong... it wasn't terrible. I could drink it, it was a warm drink, and it provided some caffeine, but it wasn't exactly the kind of thing that made me want to brew a second cup at breakfast.

Combine this with my recent thinking about sleep and dreams, and I was debating kicking the habit, but the memory of caffeine headaches on the first few days was holding me back.

The crisis that got me started

I spent almost the entire day Tuesday in bed with a fever and stomach problems. In fact, from Monday night until Wednesday morning, out of 36 hours I probably spent 34.5 in bed, and the other 1.5 in the restroom. Even when I started feeling much better Wednesday, my stomach still felt extremely delicate and I did not want to put any coffee into it.

Thus I woke up Thursday morning realizing that I had not had any coffee to drink since Monday at breakfast. This was my golden opportunity if I wanted to try it! I could continue going forward with breaking my coffee addiction without having to suffer through the worst of the headaches and drowsiness; those days had passed when I was feeling so lousy for other reasons that I hadn't even noticed.

So far so good

I've now been coffee free for almost a week, which I think means that its almost entirely out of my system. A couple more days and I'll be able to declare myself caffeine free. What have I noticed so far?

Well, its hard to draw too many conclusions, because my body has also been messed up with antibiotics and recovering from illness, but a few things are already evident. First is that I wake up more immediately and without grogginess in the mornings. This is nice, and has led to me getting a fair amount of writing done. Secondly, the urges to drink coffee have also pretty much died down. I'm enjoying drinking both hibiscus and chamomile teas, and the other day when T had espresso with pancakes I had no trouble resisting drinking some. I think I may also be having less of an afternoon lull than I used to, but I'm not sure. I'll need to gather more data.

Sadly, I've so far seen no evidence of any reduction in sleep needs. I'm keeping close track, and still hope to see some, but don't have much confidence in it. Regardless, I'm so far enjoying the feeling of freedom of not needing caffeine for my regular routine, and while I miss the flavor of coffee, I feel I can replace the social and warm beverage aspects with teas. We'll see how it goes!

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Experiments with Lucid Dreaming

The other day, a blogger that I read posted an interview with the creator of a site called World of Lucid Dreaming. While the primary focus of the interview was on turning a hobby into an online business, yesterday I got curious and clicked through to read a little bit about what she had to say on lucid dreams.

What is a lucid dream?

A lucid dream is any dream in which you are conscious that you are dreaming, and able to control to some extent the dream world. Sometimes this control is minimal; simply being able to behave as you normally would in the waking world, while your subconscious throws things at you in the dream. Other times, this control can be much greater, allowing you to do things you never would be able to in life such as fly, or explore underwater without apparatus, or whatever interests you.

Lucid dreaming sometimes happens by accident; I certainly have had a time or two in the past where I was dreaming and realized it was a dream. But according to World of Lucid Dreaming, you can also learn to deliberately begin dreaming lucidly, and train yourself to be more and more proficient in both bringing on the lucid dreaming state and controlling the state when you've arrived.

Why would you want to dream lucidly?

There are a number of claimed benefits for dreaming lucidly. The ability to do anything opens a wide range of possibilities, including facing your fears in a completely safe environment, pre-planning and experimenting with conversations before they happen, and practicing new abilities under a wide range of circumstances. Advocates claim benefits to creativity, problem solving, confidence, skills, and sense of self.

I'm not sure I buy any of that, but the number one reason given to try lucid dreaming, and one that is hard to argue with, is that it's FUN! Being able to even partially control your dreams means playing in an environment unlike any one you're likely to experience in real life. You can literally 'experience your dreams' right from your own bedroom.

How to start lucid dreaming

The website has tons of different information, tools, and techniques you can try to begin lucid dreaming. There are a few key ideas. The first is that since this is all mental, thinking about dreams and lucid dreaming, trying to remember your dreams, and talking about lucid dreaming will all help to cue your mind in to the fact that you want to do this. By thinking about it, you can help get it through to your subconscious that you want to experience your dreams, and make it more likely.

Secondly, the entry point to a lucid dream is the realization that you are dreaming. Once your conscious mind realizes that it is within a dream, it wakes up and allows you to begin taking control of that dream. Don't worry, the subconscious is still there too, providing all of the scenery, but you can begin to act under the direction of your conscious mind. Since one way of doing this is to do something that is impossible, and use that impossibility to realize you are dreaming, World of Lucid Dreaming recommends beginning to sprinkle 'reality checks' throughout your day. If you do these reality checks regularly enough, you will begin to do them in your dreams as well, and they can become the basis points for triggering a lucid dream.

You can find a full list of suggested reality checks here, but the pair I chose are attempting to push the index finger of my right hand through my left hand, and attempting to see without my glasses. If either of these succeeds, I'll know I'm dreaming, and hopefully that will trigger the lucid dream.

First Attempts

I decided to try this out yesterday, and see if I could trigger some lucid dreaming. I was hopeful because apparently regular meditation is helpful; the practice it gives you in shifting between different mental states while awake can be quite useful in making such shifts while sleeping as well. So I began reading about the different techniques, selected my reality checks, and began performing them every few hours during the day. The website claims that most people can learn to lucid dream in sometime between 3 days and 3 weeks, and I was hoping that with my meditation practice I would fall on the shorter end of this.

Surprise! I actually had two, short, lucid dreaming experiences last night, on my first night of trying! This is certainly not all of the way to success, and who knows if I'll be able to continue having lucid dreams, but it is certainly encouraging! I also remember both of the dreams, at least the lucid parts, and normally I barely remember any of my dreams.

In the first, I was roughhousing in the pool as I used to do when I was working with kids in a daycare. Upon loosing a particular battle, I was underwater and realized that I could still breath. That realization was what cued me in that it was a dream, and just as World of Lucid Dreaming promised I was suddenly able to begin taking control of the dream. I tried to fly, but failed, so settled for walking a bit. I was able to explore a very interesting complex of pools, and had just left to go outside when I woke up suddenly. I doubt the whole dream (or at least the lucid part) lasted more than 5 minutes, but it was still exhilarating to have controlled part of it!

The second lucid dream was more interesting. I was looking out over a river delta feeding into the ocean, when for whatever reason I decided to try my reality checks. The first one, sticking my finger through my hand, behaved as I would expect but when I lowered my glasses I was still able to see! This woke me up to the dream state, and I was able to take control. This time, I had much better control over the state; I was able to fly out over the delta, and see in great detail the red-rock crags of the gorge the water was coming out of, and the swirling water. The other cool thing was that I was able to slow down the passage of time, and look at the swirls of the water in slow motion. I've always been fascinated with fluid movements, so this was REALLY cool! I also explored a bit more, looking at some docks near by, and people on the docks. At that point I woke, after what subjectively felt like maybe 10 minutes.

In conclusion

I don't have a huge number of conclusions yet, as I'm still very early in this experiment, but I do have one big one: Lucid dreaming is real! And you can trigger it deliberately. I'll write more posts on this as I learn more or have more successes, but my first experience with deliberate lucid dreaming was a lot of fun, and I'm extremely excited to keep learning and experimenting with it.

Have any of you had experiences with lucid dreaming? Or thought about it before? Let me know in the comments!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Guatemalan Families and Community

One thing that is very obvious is you stay with a Guatemalan family is that their idea of a family unit is very different from ours. In the upper middle class family we stayed with, the grandmother, her daughter, and her daughter's three kids all lived in the same household. The grandmother's son lives elsewhere with his wife, but eats at the house for almost all meals, and his 5 year old lives about half the time with him and half with the grandmother. In poorer and more rural households, it is apparently not uncommon to have up to 4 generations under one roof, sometimes with only a single room.

Some of this is definitely due to different levels of wealth. When you are very poor, combining living expenses with as many people as possible is a good idea. However, another contributing factor is a very different view on family and community than exists in the United States. In the United States, it is encouraged to strike out as independently as possible. Living with your parents past the age of 18 is generally looked down upon, and certainly once you have a steady income you are expected to be living on your own, likely in a different city.

Similarly, it is entirely common to travel from city to city as school and different jobs require, without strong regard for living near family or friends. This independence certainly has some value; there is a sense of freedom in being able to pack up your things and leap into the unknown, following a great opportunity. However, I think there is something we have lost as well. Here, there is a sense of roots, of belonging, and of continuity that I have never sensed anywhere I have lived.

The Value of Community

We are social beings, even those who like me are introverts at heart, and seek to connect with others who are like us. Witness the rapid growth of online social networks like Facebook; These tools offer nothing new; social networks have always existed. Instead, they bring the power of the internet to bear in allowing people to connect with less regard to distance, and have grown like wildfire. There is a strong desire to forge a sense of community, despite our tendency to spread ourselves so far apart.

It was our community that made our wedding such a memorable one; with friends and family providing the food, the cake, the wine, the Huppah (wedding canopy), the artwork on our Ketubah (wedding vows), and of course the ambiance, turning our special day into one we will remember forever.

And it was our community that made living where we did, in a single bedroom apartment in an expensive and not very interesting city near Stanford an amazing and wonderful experience. Our memories are filled with meals together and trips for milkshakes, crazy parties and mellow games of cards while sipping warm drinks, mornings spent sitting on the grass playing guitar, and making pancakes. All with members of our wonderful community.

Yet we too, leave it behind

Fully aware of how amazing our community is, we still left to travel to Guatemala, and we still are leaving it behind when we get back to move for T's graduate school. Not as far as we might have gone, and to the place where I went to school, so we have some remnants of community, but still leaving our bedrock behind.

It makes sense to do it. Graduate school is a necessary step upon the path T wants to walk, and we are by no means alone. This is the time in life when many people in the States scatter to pursue dreams, and we had already felt the fragmenting of our community as many friends left to pursue theirs. But it makes me wonder...

Will there ever be a time when we're all ready to settle together?

Will we ever be willing to say no to the opportunities that require traveling from each other, no to the things that 'make sense', and agree with each other to settle in one place, where we can live and grow and build a community together? It seems almost antithetical to the American way, to deliberately give up some possibilities, and be less independent, in order to continue living with the same people in the same place.

But it is a way that also calls to me. Another dream, this time one of interdependence instead of independence. Of deepening and lengthening relationships over years of time. Of teaching each other, and learning together. Of knowing that I can count on my friends to be there, and that they can count on me to be there, not just day after day but year after year. Of setting down roots, the kind of which seem natural in places like Guatemala, that you read about in stories where families have lived in the same homes for years, generation after generation of children playing with each other and growing up together.

We have gained some measure of independence in the United States, and I value that. But it seems in many ways we have given up community as it used to be known. And I wonder... was it worth it? And if not, can we get it back?

Leave me your thoughts in the comments!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Lots of time to think

The benefit of living for a while without a job or full time occupation is that you have lots of time to think. The downside is that you have lots of time to think.

When you aren't constantly strapped for time, its hard to hide from yourself, and all of the difficult life questions start coming up again. What do I want to do? Who do I want to be? What are my values?

I'm in the right profession

When I left for Guatemala, I was feeling pretty burned out. I was pretty sure I wanted to keep working at the same job when I got back, but some parts of me also wanted out. After a year and change, while I still loved the people and the goals of the company, sometimes the day to day was wearing. I think though, that this was just a result of working too hard for too long; while for the first few weeks away I was happy to not think at all about work, a few nights ago while playing the solitary card game free cell I was struck with a powerful urge to program.

Something about the constructing of possibilities within the game triggered some of the same mental processes that programming does, but it was a pale shadow of the real thing. I was surprised by how visceral it felt, this desire to once again create structures in my head and write them down in code. As much as I enjoy learning about history, investigating a new culture, and trying to write, there is some mental itch that programming scratches that these do not.

Unfortunately, as part of our attempt to take nothing we would mind breaking or losing along on our trip, I didn't bring a laptop, so I don't have a programming environment here. Internet cafe's, while fine for writing blog posts, don't work so well for programming. However, in our new living situation, I do have access to a shared laptop (a mac, so I can code a little on it), and if the urge gets strong enough I'll play.

I need to make a conscious effort for balance

Whenever I have time away from work, I realize once again how many amazing and wonderful things there are in the world that I neglect when I work. I have a tendency to dive into work, to spend nearly 100% of my energy and time upon it, and to resist interrupting it with other activities. And yet, every time I step back a little, I regret this super-focus, and I think that it is not only preventing me from experiencing other good things, but also harms the quality of my work as well. The burnout that I was experiencing towards the end of my time before Guatemala is a good example of this.

My wife T has been a tremendously good influence for me on this. Since we have been living together (for the last couple of years; longer than we've been married), I've had a second focal point to my life. Instead of just living for work, I have been living for work and for her, and thus to some extent my work-life balance instincts may have been stronger than many of my friends at the startup where I work. Certainly my schedule was more regular, both because I had the discipline of the train schedules forced upon me and because she was waiting for me at home.

However, as I started to take up meditation and paid more and more attention to my life and day to day experience, I began noticing more and more the unbalance in my work and living arrangements. For example, if I had a chore that needed to be done during work hours, I was far more likely to put it off, as I felt guilty taking time from work to do it. This resulted in such chores getting procrastinated far more than others, and caused all sorts of problems. Additionally, the sheer amount of time eaten up by commuting 3 hours a day and being in the office 9 1/2 hours a day meant that I rarely took time to exercise, or go dancing as I used to.

When we return, things will be in flux no matter what, as we will be moving for T's graduate school, and I will be attempting to work remotely. This will throw all sorts of things out of whack, and I will need to figure out how to be optimally productive working from a distance. Regardless, I need to make a conscious effort to balance this work with other parts of my life. I would like to take up Yoga, get back to dancing regularly, and perhaps get involved with a local political group or NGO.

Politics are important

As I got more and more involved in the Obama campaign during late 2007 and early 2008, I realized more and more how much of an impact politics has on every aspect of life within the United States. How important good governance is as a counterbalance to increasingly powerful global corporations, and how much of an impact an election can have on concerns as wide ranging and important as access to education, reproductive rights, marriage rights, health care, care of the environment, and many others. What I hadn't realized as viscerally, though I'd thought about it due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the life or death impact a U.S. election can have on other countries worldwide.

Coming to Guatemala, I have learned a great deal about a sad history that might have been avoided with a difference in U.S. politics. In 1944, the 'October Revolution' overthrew the ruling military dictatorship and in 1945, the first democratic election of modern Guatemala began what are known historically as the 'Ten Years of Spring'. This was a period of free speech, political activity, and a variety of reforms inspired by the great society of FDR.

Unfortunately, one of the reforms put forward, agrarian land reform, challenged the properties of the largest company in Guatemala, U.S. based United Fruit Company (UFC). The law allowed unused land to be bought by the government at its listed value, and then redistributed to the many landless poor. However, UFC had long listed its many idle lands far undervalued to avoid taxes, and objected to letting them go for the value they had claimed. After failing to convince the Guatemalan government, they took their case via lobbyists to the now right wing dominated U.S. government.

Using a series of increasing propaganda, and playing off of the communist scares (this was the McCarthy era), UFC and its supporters convinced the CIA, backed by the Republican Eisenhower administration, to administer a coup and overthrow the Guatemalan government. As described based on later declassified files in the book Bitter Fruit, the CIA recruited a ragtag band of dissidents, an exiled military Colonel named Castillo Armas, and with a mixture of propaganda, bombing from borrowed U.S. planes, convinced the government and the populace that an armed uprising was underway. With heavy intervention by the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, 'Operation Success' was completed, President Arbenz was removed from power, and Colonel Castillo Armas was installed as dictator.

This operation kicked off a series of 13 consecutive military governments, often succeeding one another by coup, and a 30 year civil war in which over 200,000 people died, many of them community leaders or social activists who simply 'disappeared', to be found later (if ever) tortured and killed.

I don't want to detail Guatemalan history in this post; I'll have time to do that in other places, but this is a firm reminder that what happens at home in the United States has enormous and frequently grim impacts on the rest of the world. If we allow our government to be controlled by scaremongers and foreign interventionalists, we are responsible for the results upon the rest of the world. We must maintain vigilance over our government, and constantly strive to improve it, for as disgusting as politics can be, it's far worse to allow the only people involved in it to be those who are in it for power.

Living my values at work

A final point, and one that I think is not just important for me, but for anyone. I believe that it is an incredible source of problems when people leave their values behind when they go to work. The idea that there is one set of things that is okay for individuals and a different (usually broader) set that is okay for corporations is not only bizarre, its extremely dangerous. Why should it be bad for a person to rip someone off, but okay for a company? Or bad for a person to throw garbage in their neighbor's yard, but okay for a company to export toxic waste? Most people consider themselves to be good people, but somehow the bureaucracy of working for a company allows/causes them to do things or approve of things that they never would do at home.

When I first got out of college, I worked at a high performance computing startup. We helped make clusters of computers talk to each other faster, allowing people to create supercomputers out of groups of regular computers. This was used by a number of researchers to do good things, but the largest customer by far was the defense industry. I somehow did not let this penetrate my mind for quite a while, that what we were doing was helping design nuclear weapons, or to spy upon people, or model the next great airforce bomber. However, as I began to become more aware, this bothered me more and more. Certainly it is not cut and dried, there are important things that come from the defense industry, and we helped other researchers doing things like trying to cure cancer as well, but being pretty firmly anti-war it still bothered me.

I quit that job, though I cannot claim it was for those reasons. But since then, the jobs I have chosen have involved far less conflict with my value system. I have worked as a volunteer in the Obama campaign and at a startup attempting to engage people in political and social activism. Neither of these is completely pure of heart either; there are certainly problems with the Obama administration, and our company's product is used by people organizing for things I definitely disagree with. However, I believe that along with the problems, much good has come of both the Obama campaign and the actual administration. And I believe far more strongly in the importance of individuals becoming engaged in the things they believe in than that what they believe in should align with me, thus I have few problems with our product being used for both sides of issues I am opinionated about.

Being able to say, unequivocally, that I am working on things that I believe are making the world better has dramatically improved my happiness both at work and outside of it. I do not believe that I would be able to go back to working in a job where I could not say that. Now, I don't need to be on the extreme end here, trying to start companies that save the world. A company that does its best to do no harm, make its customers happy, and help its employees to grow, learn and live well is improving its corner of the world in perhaps a more profound way than one trying to make changes at a massive scale.

I also think, that no matter where you work, there is the opportunity to help create positive change within that workplace. No matter how bad, or how good, your working environment is you can improve it by bringing your values to work and trying to live them. Help implement a recycling program, or reduce power usage, or start a day-care for working parents. It's easy to get complacent, either because your workplace is so bad, or so good, and not work to create positive change. I think I have perhaps gotten complacent at work, because relative to previous jobs it is so wonderful, but I need to remember when I return to constantly work to make it a better place for me and everyone else.

Being a change agent can be as simple as starting a coffee break when everyone is overworked and overstressed. Or being willing to voice disagreement when a prejudiced opinion is voiced. When I remember that everything is interrelated, it helps me believe that these little changes not only help me to live in harmony with my values, but can also, bit by bit, add up to real change in the world.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Illegal immigration and the economy of Guatemala

The immigration debate in the United States always seems to dwell around prevention, walls, and how to keep people out. It is rare to hear any discussion about why all of these people might be willing to risk life and limb to make their way through deserts and passed armed guards to work illegally in the U.S. Why is it that there with a population of around 13 million people in Guatemala, there are an estimated 2 million more or 13% working illegally in the U.S?

The official minimum wage in Guatemala varies a bit by type of work, but sits around roughly 55 Quetzales ($6.87) per day. Of course, with an unemployment rate of over 30% many people are desparate enough for a job that they'll accept less than the official minimum. Spanish teachers at the various language schools, many of them holding graduate degrees, can make a bit more. They end up getting paid around 350-400Q per week when teaching one student, or closer to 700-800Q per week with two. Students receive 5 hours a day of individual instruction. Doing the calculation, this means a fully employed professional teacher, with graduate degrees, is earning around 160Q a day, or $20 for 10 hours of work.

By contrast, working illegally in the States in manual labor such as construction or in a restaurant might pay between $5 and $10 an hour, or $40 to $80 for an 8 hour day. Working the 10 or 12 hours that is more common, this can mean up to $100 to $120 a day. Thus by going to the States and working in manual labor, a professional from Guatemala can double to sextuple their daily income. Someone with less of a leg up at home sees an even larger improvement. Is it any wonder that they come?

Visiting various towns, while some are filled with poverty and crumbling buildings, a few have many larger houses and new construction. Upon asking about them, the answer is always the same: There are many people from this village working in the U.S. Illegal immigration represents the dream of a better life. Despite all of the hardships and the risks, the benefits are real and visible everywhere.

The demands of importing

Adding to the poor incomes is the problem that Guatemala has to import almost everything. Foods that are grown here (corn, beans, tropical fruits) and labor are very inexpensive, but everything else has the cost of travel, fuel and the poor exchange rate added upon it. Even things that are made locally like much clothing and housing require imported materials, and thus while cheaper in absolute terms than in the U.S, chew up a far greater portion of monthly income than they do for most U.S. families. Some things such as gasoline and cars are even more expensive here than in the States.

All of this importing also demands a constant stream of foreign currency. The largest source of this is money sent back from the U.S. to the families of those working illegally there. The second largest is tourism, and then followed by the exportation of various forms of fruits, vegetables, and of course coffee. When we visited a coffee plantation this weekend, we were shown how they filter out the different grades of coffee, and how the first 4 grades out of 7 are all for exportation only. Despite growing some of the best coffee in the world, the coffee most Guatemalan's drink is of the lowest quality.

Implications for U.S. Policy

To me, seeing this reality has humongous implications for U.S. immigration policy. The entire reason why the United States exists is because people in our history were willing to risk everything for the dream of a better life. So long as such poverty exists in our neighbors, it does not matter how many fences we build, how many struggling people die in the desert, or how many people we throw into prison for the crime of being poor. They will continue to come, so long as there is vaguest chance that they will get through and that they and their families will be able to live a better life.

If we really want to reduce the problem of illegal immigration, we need to help create opportunities for Guatemalans and other Latin Americans to improve their lives at home. We need to provide sane and understandable channels for those who still wish to immigrate to do so. And we need to cease our self-interested manipulations and intimidations of the governments of other countries when they implement policies that help their citizens at the expense of foreign companies.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

A sense of Guatemala

What does it feel like to live in Xela, Guatemala? What is the sense of the city, the region, and the country? When trying to communicate about our life and experiences abroad, these are extremely important questions, but the answers are difficult to describe in words, even to myself.

And yet I want to try. To try to give a little bit of insight into the experience, and what it is like to live here in this place, so different from where we came and yet still so human and recognizable. And so I will try; please let me know if it manages to communicate.

The People

We are giants.
During a lecture explaining the ancient Mayan view of the world, describing opposites, my teacher said 'If there is good, there is also evil. If there are tall people, there are also Guatemalans'. My wife T, a diminutive 5'2", is taller than almost all of the women and half of the men. I, a foot taller, am a lumbering giant. In the school, I have to duck my head when walking through a door by the stairs. In the markets, I am constantly brushing my head against the roofs of the tents. Through some combination of genetics and widespread malnutrition, Guatemalans are among the smallest people in the world.

Welcoming, patient, and honest.
Some places in the world, travelers who are struggling with the language are dealt with impatiently, quickly precipitating a search for an interpreter. Here, I have yet to meet someone who is impatient. Everyone we have interacted with has been happy to talk to us, patient with our struggles with the language, and willing to speak slowly with us, help us, and try their best to answer whatever questions we have. In addition, while we have heard warnings about some parts of Latin America, everyone we have met here has been scrupulously honest. I've carefully counted all change I've received, but not a single person has attempted to short change me. When we awkwardly tried to tip at the same time as paying in a restaurant the first night, the cashier was confused at our attempt to overpay and returned the extra money (it turns out, as far as we can tell, tipping is done only at the table). And as far as we can tell, in Guatemala the 'Gringo Tax' only exists in our poorer ability to bargain; starting prices for us are roughly the same as for the natives.

Curious, friendly, and polite.
When traveling on the bus, it is extremely common for a native to strike up a conversation with one or more of us or the other students, especially asking 'where are you from?', and 'where are you headed?'. While walking in the country, where we stand out even more than in the city, we receive stares, followed quickly by smiles, friendly waves, and a cheerful 'buenos dias' or 'buenos tardes'. In restaurants, it is the custom when leaving to walk around wishing everyone still eating 'buen provecho', or good appetite. In the house where we are staying, the inverse occurs: upon completing eating one rises with a polite 'gracias', answered by chorus of 'buen provecho'.

The City

Breathing is difficult.
The first thing you notice when arriving in the city is the air. It is dirty, thick with exhaust and smoke. There are few pollution laws here, and those that exist are generally not enforced. Many of the cars, and especially the buses and vans, belch great clouds of filthy exhaust as they struggle upon their way. It is extremely profitable for a young man willing to brave the journey to travel to the United States (generally illegally), purchase a car that cannot pass smog testing or safety validation for peanuts, and drive it down through Mexico to Guatemala to resell.

The streets.
Narrow, winding streets and even narrower sidewalks. With the exception of the main thoroughfares, the streets are one way, barely wide enough for that, and paved with cobblestones. The sidewalks, where they exist, are barely wide enough for two people to pass one another. They are often in poor repair, and also of random heights varying from barely off of the street to more than two feet in the air. However, street names and addresses are extremely well organized. Every city is arranged on a two dimensional grid of streets and avenues, each numbered. An address tells you not only which street it is on, but what the cross street is and which side of the street it is on. Once we've started to get to know the system, we barely need a map even for unfamiliar areas.

The buildings.
The city is dominated by low, brightly painted buildings made of concrete blocks. Many are topped with tin roofs, and those that are not often appear unfinished, with rods of metal sticking out from them, as if they were intended to be two stories but were never finished for lack of money. As you walk the streets, signs painted directly upon the walls of buildings scream out at you in often jarring color combinations, "Exclusive!", "Lowest Prices!", "Spanish Language School", "Internet Cafe", "House of God". Often the stores are smaller than a closet, filled with so many random types of things my wife T has dubbed them "random-ish-eterias". Contrasting with these low, generally dirty, and simple buildings are enormous, beautiful churches and cathedrals, several examples of old greek-style architecture (such as the Municipal Theatre, and the Temple Minerva), and a pair of modern malls.

The people.
In the city, there is an amazing mix of people, wearing everything from jeans and t-shirts, to well dressed gentlement with sombreros, to women wearing beautifully embroidered and colorful traditional Mayan garb. There are 21 different indigenous groups in Guatemala, each with their own versions of traditional garments, and while most of the 'better' (more official) jobs require modern clothing, it is extremely common to see women who are working as street vendors or just walking along wearing the traditional clothing.

The markets.
Complementing the malls and the store sprinkled everywhere are tremendous outdoor markets. The largest one in Xela, la Democracia, spans some 6ish blocks. One we visited in San Francisco el Alto, a nearby town, on Fridays takes over the entire city. Vendors sell food, clothing, electronics, shoes (for some reason, shoe shops and outdoor shoe vendors are EVERYWHERE in Xela), accessories, backpacks, rugs, and even (at least in S.F. el Alto) a variety of animals. You have to be a little careful what you buy; a lot of the stuff is really poor quality, but there are definitely some gems, and while the prepared street food is a little sketchy, the markets are a good place to buy ingredients for home prepared meals.


Omnipresent Public Transit.
We read before coming that Guatemala has little public transit. If you only include government run transportation in public transit, this might be correct, but if you expand it to include individual entrepeneurs driving others, it is everywhere in Guatemala. By far the most common way to get from place to place is to pay someone else to take you there, usually along with dozens of other people. In a country where a car can cost many years worth of wages, driving others for a living is extremely common, with tens of thousands providing transit within and between the cities. Those who can afford it buy an old schoolbus from the US, rework it with a new and more powerful engine, bigger tires, racks inside and on top of the bus for carrying stuff, and of course colorful decorations. These buses then run routes all around the country, picking up passengers in every town. Those who cannot afford such an investment but want to do the same buy vans or pickups, and do the same. Within the city, transport is between .5 and 1.5 Quetzales, or between 6 and 18 cents. Getting to nearby towns usually costs between 3 and 8 Quetzales, or $0.35 to $1.00.

We have not yet ridden in a pickup, but the buses and vans tend to operate in relatively the same manner. Each has a driver and an assistant. The assistant jumps out at every stop, shouting the destination of the bus and trying to recruit passengers. Once the vehicle is on its way, the assistant works his or her (though I've only seen one woman in this role so far) way through all of the passengers, collecting money. These buses can get packed! In the US, I've occasionally heard the description 'Mexican Style' for cars that are overfilled, but whoever coined that phrase must have never been further south than Mexico, because it seems to dominate this country as well. The other day I saw 26 people in a bus designed for 16, with people crammed in the seats, sitting and standing on the floor, and the assistant leaning out the side door holding it closed. Luckily, it's impossible to drive very rapidly here, given the quality of the roads.

The Countryside

All around.
One doesn't have to look far to get out of the city and into the countryside. Last weekend we hiked from the central park to a local attraction called 'Los Vahos' (The Steam). The attraction consists of natural steam vents, which someone has constructed a series of bathhouses on top of and now charges for the use of the resulting saunas. While a number of our friends went for the saunas, my wife and I just went to the walk. Within 20 minutes we were above the city looking down on it, and for the remainder of the hour and a half walk were transiting through fields, past sheep and cows, and through some beautiful mountain landscape.

Guatemala is in one of the most seismologically active areas in the world. We can see several dormant volcanos (one particularly striking) from the city itself, and there are vantage points not far from Xela that allow you to see the smoke and activity of more active volcanoes. This weekend we hiked up one nearby dormant volcano whose crater is filled with a lagoon considered sacred by the Mayan people, Laguna Chicabal. In case the existence of the crater wasn't enough to remind us of the volcanic nature of the mountain, the ground was covered with small pieces of pumice.

Green and varied.
We have seen fields of a myriad of different types of crops, though the largest have been corn and potatoes. We've also seen a variety of different types of forest, ranging from more temperate-seeming forests similar to the deciduous trees you might find in Northern California, to the mossy, cool rainforest we encountered on the slopes of Chicabal. We have yet to descend to the hotlands and jungle along the coast or to the northeast, but I anticipate them being different again and fascinating.


Planning around water.
The tap water in Guatemala is not as well sanitized as in the US, and unless you want to meet with the scourge of travelers (traveler's diarrhea), it is advised to drink only boiled or purified water as much as possible. Purified water (agua pura) is available in stores everywhere, and you can get it delivered in bulk as well, but the cost is not inconsequential for most families. Hence, living as guests, we try to drink water from the family only at mealtimes and the rest of the time buy bottles or fill our bottles at the school (which has explicitly approved of this practice). While the time and money are not great for us, needing to plan for having pure water around means that especially early on it was always in our consciousness, where and when we were next going to get water.

The toilets.
Public restrooms almost don't exist in Guatemala, and where you can find a restroom while out and about (restaurants, etc) they are unlikely to have toilet paper available. Carrying your own paper is a quickly learned survival skill. At large affairs like the market in San Francisco el Alto, there were toilets, but they cost 1 quetzal to use and they would hand you a strip of toilet paper going in. In addition, the sewer system in Guatemala cannot handle paper products or other such things going down the toilet. What this means is that every restroom has a trash can, where you throw the toilet paper after using it. I'll leave you to conclude what this does for the smell of the restrooms... luckily it's not quite as bad as you'd expect. Not quite, but almost.

My first shower in Guatemala was in the hotel we stayed at our first night in Xela. The hostess had proudly pointed out that the shower had 'agua caliente', hot water. However, when I tried to shower the next morning, it was freezing cold. I barely managed to stay in it long enough to rinse off and do a bad job of shaving, before toweling off as quickly as possible. It was only later that I learned the magic of hot water in Guatemala. Guatemalan showers, when heated, use electric heaters that flash-heat the water as it passes through them. If you can look up in the shower, you can see them, usually haphazardly installed with wires coming into them from above. This has two consequences: One, if you try fiddling around with the showerhead while taking shower you can get shocked. And two, if you want hot water you need to limit the amount of water flowing through the heater to an amount it can heat. Being trained in the US, I had assumed that if the water wasn't hot I needed to run more water (it's how hot water works in the US!), but by doing so I was sacrificing any chance that the water would be even luke warm. Now I have learned, and by limiting the flow to a moderate dribble, can achieve even steaming hot showers.


I've only just brushed the surface of what it has been like living in Guatemala for the past two weeks. I'm sure I've left out many details, some of which are important, but I hope that this post helps communicate a little bit about what life has been like for us here. Please let me know in the comments if you enjoyed this post, or if you have any questions.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Safe Arrival in Guatemala

Our grand adventure began simply. On Saturday we took an afternoon flight to the Houston airport. We traveled light, with only our backpacks, and skipped the long line for checking luggage to pass through security in no more than 15 minutes. The flight was fairly short (around 3 hours), and more or less uneventful.

We arrived in the Houston airport, bought dinner, and changed a little bit of money from dollars into Guatemalan Quetzales at exhorbitant rates (the official exchange rate is roughly 8 to 1, but in the airport they not only charged a large fee, but also only gave an exchange of around 6.5 to 1). Regardless, we thought it was important to have some native currency upon arrival, and changed $100.

We slept that night in a hotel just south of the Houston airport, and at 6:15 arose to catch our morning flight. I slept well for the first part of the night, but from roughly 4:00am onwards was tossing and turning from the excitement and anxiety of the prospects for the morning. We planned our trip so as to arrive in Guatemala in the morning, so that we could take a bus during the day to our final destination of Xela (Quetzaltenango), and not have to stay overnight in Guatemala City. While the city of Xela is reasonably safe, Guatemala City has seen rising violence in recent years, and it is recommended not to drive through the country at night.

Guatemala City

Our flight to Guatemala City was extremely empty; perhaps a quarter full, and only 2.5 hours long. Every announcement was made both in English and in Spanish. Upon arrival in Guatemala City, we transited quickly through customs and out to the open street. Unlike airports in the US or elsewhere I have visited, there were no shops to be seen, and while there was a small information desk it was not manned. On the street there were people awaiting the arrivals, and some men in uniforms were happy to escort us to where taxis were waiting.

I was happy that my Spanish, though very rusty, was good enough to both communicate that we wanted to get to the Galgos bus station (Galgos is a company similar to Greyhound), verify that the taxi driver knew where it was, and agree on a price ahead of time. We drove through the city, through twisting one way streets, past both broken down buildings and fancy architecture, new cars and old clunkers, and of course the many multicolored ´chicken buses´: repainted, reworked US school buses that are omnipresent in Guatemala.

While the Galgos buses are considered somewhat safer, and reserve a seat per person, the chicken buses (not what Guatemaltecos call them, but how foreigners seem to always describe them) are less expensive, take all comers no matter how packed they already are, and go pretty much anywhere. Within the cities, there are also ´microbuses´ (both smaller buses and minivans) which will provide a lift for a small fee, as well as pickups which will do the same.

Guatemala City is a microcosm of the contradiction and contrasts that are everywhere in this third world country. Intermingled with grand architecture and the occasional modern mall, there is extreme poverty and glimpses back into history. It is not uncommon to see large open markets filled with street vendors, and yet there are also shops and skyscrapers like you could find in any US city.

However, Guatemala City is also the most dangerous part of the country, and I was relieved when our bus arrived and we embarked.

The Bus Ride

Our bus was an extremely old, repainted Greyhound bus, with broken down seats. Just as we were getting on, we met another gringo, a woman from Oakland who was also traveling to Xela to study Spanish (though at a different school). Still being very uncomfortable with Spanish, it was nice to have someone else aboard who spoke English and with whom we could converse.

Before leaving town, the bus took a roundabout route throughout Guatemala City, stopping at what seemed like every bus stop in the city. At each stop, the driver´s assistant would jump off the bus, shouting out our destination and trying to herd as many people as possible who might be going even vaguely in that direction. After some time that seemed like forever but was probably closer to an hour or an hour and a half, we actually left the city.

Travel in Guatemala takes a while. While Xela is no more than 50 or 60 miles from Guatemala City, the route is winding, mountainous, and in many places under construction. There were portions of highway where both directions of traffic were routed throught the same side, and others that weren´t even paved. In addition, in each town along the way we stopped to drop off passengers and pick up new ones. It was extremely entertaining to watch the driver´s assistant courting new passengers, often trying to convince them to take our bus instead of a competing chicken bus, and helping them with their stuff.

At some stops, vendors came aboard to sell various types of food and drink. Their method of selling was simple: walk down the bus, calling out what they had to sell as loudly and rapidly as possible. Sometimes, they would ride along with us for a stop or two, sometimes even between towns, especially if there were many takers. At that point, they would disembark, presumably to get on another bus going the other way and sell more.

Arriving in Xela

All in all, it took roughly 5 hours on the bus to arrive at Xela. Our school, Asociación Pop Wuj is right around the corner from the Galgos bus station, though far from most of the other busses. We walked the short distance, only to discover the door closed and locked (They close at 7:00).

Kindly, they had left a note that not only apologized for no longer being there, but recommended a hotel two blocks down. We made our way there and despite our broken Spanish succeeded in renting a room for 95 Quetzales each (roughly $12 a person). We put our stuff down, and went out to find something to eat and drink. After 5 hours on the bus, we were not only hungry, we were extremely thirsty, and almost out of water! (Tap water in Guatemala is not safe for consumption, at least by us gringos whose bodies don´t yet know how to deal with the microbes).

We had noticed a ´Chinese´ food place across the street from where the school was, and after some deliberation, we decided to not try exploring a strange city at night, and instead to eat there. The place was so empty we were worried they weren´t open, but they happily accepted us, and served us purified bottled water (agua pura) and some fairly bland but edible Chinese food.

Having eaten, we returned to our hotel room and crashed before 9:00pm. Traveling is exhausting, and Xela has the thin air one would expect from a city located a stunning 7655 feet above sea level.

New Beginnings

The next morning, we gathered our stuff and walked to the school. We arrived in the middle of the beginning-of-week schedule explanation (given in Spanish, and translated by a student into English), which was then followed by a new student orientation for us and the other 6 new students. The teacher giving the orientation offered to give it in ´buen español, o mal inglés´ (good Spanish, or bad English). We opted for good Spanish, and he explained extremely slowly and clearly a number of things about the school, the country, and the families we would be staying with.

We are living with a middle-class family roughly two blocks from the school. Under the same roof are our hostess (Celeste), her daughter Rosa, and her daughter´s three children (aged 15, 13, and 10). Her son Alex lives nearby, and is at the house for almost all meals. Alex´s 5-year-old daughter seems to sleep roughly half the time at our house and half the time with her parents.

For our Spanish schooling, we spend 5 hours a day in one-on-one lessons with a teacher, as well as doing some homework, and of course speaking in Spanish both with our host family and anyone we interact with outside the school. Unlike the more touristy city of Antigua, almost no one in Xela speaks English, so we end up practicing a lot!

Future Writing

I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of things to talk about, and yet this post is already probably longer than any other I´ve written. It's proven harder than I expected to find the time to write every day, especially since getting computer or internet access requires either competing for one of the two at the school or going to one of the many internet cafes.

Adding to this difficulty have been adjusting to the altitude (The first week, we were asleep by 8:30 or 9:00 every day), the place (while Xela is a pretty chill city, things are extremely different than anywhere I´ve lived before), and the climate (it rains for several hours every day; HARD!).

I hope to write about life in Xela, but also the things I´m learning about the culture and history, not only of modern Guatemalans, but also of the Mayans from whom 65% of Xela residents are decended. Adding to this, there is the recent political scandal that everyone is talking about.

It's becoming easier to find time, but we´ll see how it goes. Hope to write again soon.

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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Leaving Today

So this is it. Today we leave for our Guatemalan adventure. We fly this afternoon to Houston, sleep there overnight, and in the morning on to Guatemala City. From there we will take a bus for the 5 or 6 hours it takes to get to Xela (shel-lah), the 2nd largest city in Guatemala and our final destination.

Xela is the more common name for the city of Quetzaltenango. The name Xela comes from Xelaju', the old Mayan name for the city, which according to wikipedia was derived from "Xe laju' noj" meaning "under ten mountains". The city is in the western highlands of Guatemala, surrounded by volcanos and near to the deepest lake in Central America, described by Lonely Planet Guatemala as one of the most beautiful in the world, Lake Atitlan.

We are looking forward to studying Spanish, living with a local family, learning about the culture, meeting people, hiking, and otherwise learning what it is like to live in a place so different from where we have lived. We will be there for three months, returning at the end of July.


One thing I've noticed as we've gotten closer and closer to the trip is how my focus and ability to write, meditate, etc has varied inversely to my stress and antsiness about the impending change. As I get antsier and antsier, my attention span shrinks and I find myself clinging to distractions more and more. In the last day or two, I have regressed on my political blogs bad habit, reading a number of articles about Specter's switch and Justice Souter's retirement. I also have had difficulty meditating, and gotten barely any writing done.

I think this is a good reminder that the idea that stress is a good thing for productivity is misleading. It's common to hear this said as an argument for having deadlines even for things that don't have any external pressure. The idea is that by adding urgency, you make yourself or the people working for you more productive. While this may be true for non-creative things (we got a heck of a lot of errands done yesterday), for creative things stress is inhibitory.

This also implies that procrastinating creative projects is a double whammy. You feel guilty for delaying, and if there is a deadline as you get closer and closer you not only get more stressed, but that actively inhibits your ability to work on the project and makes you more likely to procrastinate. Yikes! I don't think this will help me remember to timebox or use some of the other tricks I've found, but it should provide some additional motivation!

Going Forward

I'm going to try to use this blog to write updates about our time in Guatemala, as well as writing other things that are on my mind. We don't know much about what our situation will be like in Xela, but we do know there are plenty of internet cafe's, so I should be able to post reasonably regularly. The next post you see should be coming from Guatemala! Hasta luego!

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Friday, May 1, 2009

My doing-mind

My doing-mind looks at the world through a lens of action. What am I doing today? How can I use my hours to do the most work? The best work? Even when I'm trying to avoid work, it is a reaction to too much doing, still seen through the lens of a doing-focused vision.

The problem with this doing-mind is that it doesn't leave much time for just being, and even less for becoming. When I'm working hard to optimize what I'm doing, it's very difficult to stay aware of just being where I am right now. My doing-mind misses the beauty and wonder of the world at this moment, always focused on what I'm doing the next, while the time floats by like the mist.

Sometimes, I awake suddenly, relaxing my constant grasping of the world my doing-mind is creating, and notice the more glorious world around me sneaking through the curtains and shining into my awareness. It seems at those times that I can be in that moment forever, that the world of my imaginings is so much paler in comparison that it will never again compete, and that I am becoming something new and good and more real than my doing-mind could ever create.

The next day, when I find the curtains closed and my doing-mind returned in full force, I wonder...

Was it a dream?

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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Water Meditation

I am a lake.

I sit here molding myself to my bed, adapting to every nook. Around me the birds are singing, animals running, and people striving everywhere, but I am calm, just sitting and existing.

A child comes, throwing pebbles out of curiosity. An adult, larger rocks in anger. They splash, create some ripples, but soon I am again at peace, having grown a little larger for having the rocks in my bed.

The wind blows, a mighty torrent, and my surface is rocked with turmoil. Life is like that sometimes. But underneath I am calm, tranquil, sitting in my bed, and sheltering the fish and other beings within my reach.

I am a lake.

Thank you to Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn for the meditation idea.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Improving Productivity beyond 1 Dish at a Time: Timeboxing

My wife and I discovered the 1 dish at a time trick for getting ourselves to do things a couple of years ago. Since then, I've worked at applying it to a number of areas in my life, and have gotten somewhat better (though far from perfect) at getting the dishes done, keeping up with mail, and making progress on some of my personal goals.

However, one thing that has continued to stump me is how to apply 1 dish at a time to things like getting myself to meditate regularly, write blog posts, or other things without an easily definable first step or chunk of work. Getting myself going in these areas seems to be much more of an act of will, as I don't have access to my usual trick of doing just one compact unit.

This morning, I was reading a personal development blog I've recently discovered by Steve Pavlina, and I think I've found the answer in what he calls timeboxing.
Timeboxing is a great way to deal with tasks where you’d otherwise procrastinate. With timeboxing you only commit to working on a task or project for a fixed length of time, normally 30-90 minutes. 10-15 minutes is perfectly acceptable.

Once you get past the first 15 minutes, you’ll often want to stick with the task. Timeboxing is a good way of coaxing yourself through the initial task resistance. You tell yourself, “It’s only 30 minutes. How bad could it be? I can handle anything for 30 minutes.” But then when you get through that first 30 minutes, it’s easy to keep going.

Like doing things one dish at a time, this technique works by making the cost of starting seem smaller ('It's only 30 minutes...') but then more often than not once you pass the activation energy you're ready to keep going. And just like doing things one dish at a time, its important to actually give yourself permission to stop if you don't feel like you're ready to keep going. If you don't do that, it won't actually be easier to get started because you'll know in the back of your head that you're going to have to make yourself keep going.

The great thing about timeboxing over doing the dishes is that it is much more flexible; it doesn't depend on picking out a unit that you're going to get done. This means that it's applicable to everything, including the areas that have been giving me problems. The downside is that it doesn't have as catchy of a name. :P Any ideas for a better one? If so, let me know in the comments!

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Monday, April 27, 2009

The importance of starting where you are

Do you have any pieces of yourself you wish you could just hide under the bed? Habits or character traits that you'd like to get rid of and replace something better? I sure do. I'm terrified of heights, claustrophobic, not very disciplined, and often more proud than I'd like to admit. The pride in particular is something I'd like to be rid of. Humility is a very important quality to me, and I can often see the problems being insufficiently humble cause me.

In order to start working on fixing these things about myself, I need to fully accept that they are part of me. If that seems counterintuitive to you, you're not alone. While its pretty common in Buddhist literature, its a very strange viewpoint for most Americans, and I'm still coming to grips with it. I think this is an area where American culture has really hurt us. Accepting our negative pieces has been spun as a way to not work on them; similarly, if there are ugly pieces in ourselves we're supposed to paper over them and hide them away from ourselves and others. Does this make sense?

Other Disciplines

How would you react to an architect designing a building in San Francisco without putting in hours studying earthquakes and how to deal with them? Or a couch potato signing up for the Boston Marathon and giving himself a week to train? I would probably ridicule them! How can they expect to succeed without recognizing the realities of their situations and accounting for them?

And yet in our personal lives, we resist the idea that acknowledging our faults as parts of ourselves is a prerequisite for working on them. Admitting to faults is kind of like airing out dirty laundry. Nobody likes doing it, but doing so not only lets you get to work on washing it, but your house smells better too!

Start where you are

When you're building in San Francisco, you need to know a lot about earthquakes. Any work you put in before doing that research is liable to be wasted. You can't just visualize where you want to get to, you need to also know where you're starting.

Similarly, when trying to work on yourself, you need to have a firm grasp on where you're starting from. I can't really start working on humility until I fully acknowledge that I'm overly proud. Without doing that, I'll keep running in the wrong direction. When I started this post, I spent a long time agonizing over whether or not I should include pride on my list of things I dislike about myself. I was almost too proud to do it... until I realized the irony, laughed at my ego, and put it in.

That's who I am. I'm an acrophobic, claustrophobic, undisciplined, overly proud, and generally neurotic person. And all of that makes me... human. And ready to keep working on being who I am, and becoming who I want to be.

Note: I had the idea for this post after a comment discussion with Havi Brooks, who is one of the most eloquent writers in this area I've found. If you aren't already reading her blog, I highly recommend you check it out.

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Fighting my Internet Addiction

As I talked about yesterday, I recently decided to break a bad habit of spending hours reading political blogs. As this started to reveal to me the incredible amount of time I've been wasting online, I started working on trimming back other sources of unnecessary time.


I've never had good email hygiene. In fact, when I looked at my inbox yesterday morning I had 7153 unread messages. Most of those email messages I had skimmed the title, felt it was not worth my time, and let it drift back into the ether of my inbox, buried by incoming mail, while some smaller but still significant portion I missed completely and have never seen. I'd spent some time a few months ago creating filters to reduce the amount of stuff coming straight to my inbox, and have been mostly keeping up since, but in general it was still a mess.

Today my inbox looks like this:

I declared email bankruptcy. Conceding that I would never go through all of those emails, I glanced through the first page to make sure I didn't have any pending responses, and then archived everything. Luckily, since it's Gmail, they're still all searchable so if I need anything I'll be able to find it. I've also been going through and systematically unsubscribing to email lists that I don't get much value from.

What I didn't realize was how big of a difference having an empty inbox would make in the feel of checking email. It not only makes email seem less frantic and cluttered, but it makes it way easier to check quickly if there is anything new, and then go away again if there isn't. I don't know why, but it also seems to make the act of looking at and processing every incoming email immediately easier as well.

RSS Feeds

I've also been going through and removing some of the RSS feeds that I've gotten behind on. Certainly not all of them; there are feeds that I'm behind on that I love to read, and would by no means stop following. The criterion has become: Does the idea of reading all of these posts excite me or discourage me? If the answer is discourage, I'm getting past my aversion to getting rid of things and stopping following them.


Reducing the amount of time I need to keep up with my life online is really important for my trip to Guatemala, because we're not bringing laptops and will be completely dependent on Internet cafes for online access. Since I'm planning on trying to maintain this blog at roughly a post a day throughout that time, any extra time I can trim away is extremely valuable.

Longer term, I think that this sort of adjustment will be tremendously beneficial for my personal productivity and wellbeing. This morning, when I got up, I took 10 minutes to check my email and all of my RSS feeds. That process (when including the political blogs that I'm in the process of kicking entirely) used to take between 30 minutes and an hour! Since I do this roughly twice a day, and adding in all of the small time savings when checking email, no longer flipping to political blogs, etc, I'm saving somewhere between 2 and 3 hours of time a day!

This morning, this was actually a little uncomfortable! I had a moment of feeling something like "That's it? What do I do now?", but after a few minutes of unease I realized that this was now almost an entire hour extra that I could use for writing, thinking, meditating, or exercising at the beginning of my day. In other words, things that are actually productive rather than passive intakes of information. As my friend Brad recently wrote: Consume Less, Learn More, Create Most.

I'm not confident in my ability to stick to this reduced-information-consumption diet; as I mentioned, it's actually a pretty uncomfortable adjustment. Hopefully the shock therapy of having 3 months in Guatemala without an at-home internet connection will help me form the habit, and the increased productivity and free time will give me plenty of motivation to learn to adjust.

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Nine Ideas for Breaking Bad Habits

Do you have any bad habits you'd like to break? You know the ones, where you know you really shouldn't be doing it, but it feels good so you do it anyway. Or it doesn't even feel good, but you don't notice you're doing it until your fingernails are down to nubs, or you've just spent the last 5 hours watching YouTube clips.

I realized when reading a blog post about productivity-killing habits that one of my biggest unproductive time sucks is reading political blogs. With a lot of the blogs I read, I feel like I'm learning something useful, but while that may have been true once with political blogs, it no longer is. I read them now purely as a spectator sport, and it wastes a lot of time. I've decided to break the habit.

Breaking habits is hard! And like dealing with procrastination, it's less a matter of brute force than of figuring out the right tricks. Here are nine ideas I've come up with for trying to break bad habits.

  1. Notice and acknowledge that you have a bad habit.
  2. This is an important first step. Until I'd realized how much time I was spending reading things that add essentially no value to my life, I didn't even know there was something I'd want to stop.
  3. Don't blame yourself.
  4. If you blame yourself for your habit, failing to break it becomes a personal failure. This can be demoralizing, and lead to giving up after the first sign of a problem. Instead, give yourself permission to start where you are. Its okay to have bad habits; everyone does. Like everything else about being human, working with them is a gradual process replete with setbacks. That's okay.
  5. Start noticing when you're engaging in your habit.
  6. Trying to stop doing something is impossible if you don't even notice when you're doing it. Make a goal just to notice every time you're engaging in your habit. You don't have to try to stop yet, just noticing will be a big step forward. In my case, I already knew I read political blogs on my train rides, but what I've started to notice is how I flip to them all the time (similar to checking email), and how that shuts down my thinking.
  7. Quantify the short and long term consequences.
  8. Understanding both the positive and negative impacts the habit has can make it clearer both why you do it and why you want to stop. Biting nails is a great example of this. Short term, it feels satisfying and can reduce stress. However, longer term it makes you more likely to get sick, your hands look bad, and there's a lot of things you can't open.
  9. Change contexts.
  10. For many habits, there are external environmental cues that trigger them and can be removed or reduced to great effect. If you always read political blogs while sitting on the couch, go to a different room when you're working from home. Or if you always eat too much junk food when you watch football with your buddies, try inviting them to go hiking instead.
  11. Raise the barriers.
  12. Its a lot easier to exert will power to reduce your habit when you're energized and thinking about it than later when the urge strikes. If you have a bad habit of eating whole bags of potato chips, you can go a long way towards curing it by getting rid of potato chips in your household and not buying more. Then when you have the urge to munch, the barrier of having to go to the store will reduce your likelihood of giving in.
  13. Find alternatives.
  14. This is one of the classic ways of fighting a habit. Instead of eating chips, chew some gum. Instead of biting your nails, buy a toy to fiddle with. Yes, you need to be careful not to create a new bad habit in place of the old, but substituting in less problematic things for your habit is a good stepping point. For me, I'm trying to substitute for some of my blog reading with writing, and also reading a wider range of blogs that I find 'useful' instead of hopping over to the political sphere.
  15. Celebrate small victories.
  16. If you've been biting your nails for years, you shouldn't expect to be able to stop cold turkey. Instead, celebrate holding off an extra five minutes before lighting up, or reducing your daily quota each week. A great place to look for small victories is in some of the other ideas on this list. Still biting your fingers to nubs, but starting to notice more when you're doing it? Celebrate that! Don't wait for improvements in the habit itself, just paying attention and being motivated to work on it is a victory.
  17. Recruit friends and family.
  18. You don't have to go it alone. Especially in the early stages of habit-breaking when you don't even notice when you're doing it, having friends to help point it out can be extremely helpful. Later, when your energy starts to flag, they can encourage you and remind you why you're breaking the habit. The best thing is that they can help celebrate the victories; the more the merrier!

We'll see how it goes breaking my political blogs habit. I've been trying for the last three days or so, and while have been doing pretty well at avoiding them, I gave in a little yesterday morning. Do you have any other tricks I might try? Write them down in the comments!

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Start Arbitrarily, Edit Relentlessly

Looking at a blank page, trying to figure out what to write on it has to be one of the most frustrating experiences in the world. When I can do anything at all, the most likely result is doing nothing. A dozen possibilities stream through my head, and none of them makes it onto the page. Trying to pick the best, I'm paralyzed and close the notebook.

Start Arbitrarily

I take a sip of my cappuccino, reopen the notebook, and write down a topic at random. A few words, a line or two... the pen picks up speed, and I'm off.

For many creative tasks, trying to optimize too much up front is not just doing more work than needed, it's actually inhibitory. Instead of trying to come up with the perfect idea ahead of time, I remind myself to just get started and get the thoughts moving. Don't worry about the quality of the writing; that comes later. Just go!

There's an activation energy to any activity, even one I enjoy. No matter how excited I am about writing, until the pen hits the paper there's still resistance. Once I've started, keeping going takes much less energy, and usually before long the ideas start pouring out.

Edit Relentlessly

Once I've got a lot of things written, now it's time to worry about quality. I try to not be afraid to change around something I've written, rewrite it completely, or even throw it away. As I work on something, I get more and more comfortable with it as I go. This is actually one of the reasons starting is hard: when I'm deciding what to write, I usually don't feel very confident about any of my possible subjects. By the time I've thrown away my first draft, I'm halfway to feeling like an expert.

This method for creative work is actually one of the core insights behind a programming methodology known as Agile Development. By planning less and focusing instead on making it easy to continually revise and iterate code, Agile developers not only end writing software faster but the result is often higher quality.

So the next time you've got a project where you don't know where to begin, try flipping a coin, or otherwise starting arbitrarily. Let me know how it goes!

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Friday, April 24, 2009

KBall's Second Law of Simplicity

Have you ever spent hours agonizing over which airplane ticket to buy, only to find when you finally decide that your first choice costs $100 more than when you started? How about spending days planning out exactly how you were going to explain yourself over the phone only to rediscover that sales reps don't need much explanation to sell you their product?

The first one is my wife; the second one is me. We each have our neuroses and places where we over-optimize, and thinking about them has led me to propose KBall's Second Law of Simplicity:

Good enough now is almost always better than perfect eventually.

Sometimes known as satisficing, this law indicates that in most circumstances, you're better off taking the first result that is good enough, instead of exhaustively trying to find the best answer. Instead of trying to perfectly optimize your layover while minimizing your cost, figure out the bounds of your comfort, and buy the first tickets that satisfy those restraints.

The inclusion of 'almost always' in the law probably clued you in that there are caveats.

  1. Some things it really matters to get right.
  2. When we were planning our wedding, we spent forever working on our wedding vows and trying to find the right readings. Those decisions were core to what we wanted out of our wedding, and coming back to them day after day was worth it. On the other hand, for decisions like which event rental company to use, where to hold the pre-wedding party, and what the text of the invitations would be, all that mattered was that the result was 'good enough'.
  3. Watch out for interactions with the first law.
  4. If you're buying stuff for your home, following the second law can lead to a build up of extra junk, because its simpler to buy another bookcase than to figure out which books you really need. The second law is most useful for things that are transitory, like airplane tickets, rather than things that are going to be more durable and lasting. In building a product, the same holds true. Some parts will be core to your product vision for years to come, while others cease to be important by the next meeting. Often, it's hard to tell in advance which is which. My rule of thumb is that unless you know something is going to be mission critical, build it first as simply as possible (satisficing), if comes up again try to make it a bit better, and on the third time take the time to rework it into a fully optimized and general solution.
Like the first law of simplicity, this is not something to follow unthinkingly, but rather a good thing to keep in mind against our natural tendency to over optimize.

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