Foam Blocks for Bath time—Good Clean Fun

April 24, 2007

A while back, there was an article here “Stacking Cups for the Imagination—A Great Toy Not Found in (Many) Stores”. Simplicity, better play value than many marketed toys, and low cost conspire to limit its shelf space. These are a great first toy.

Babies grow and pretty soon they are in the bathtub, looking for activities. Here, there is another simple toy, foam blocks which float, but also stick to the side of the tube or wall when wet. The blocks themselves are pretty simple. They are just EVA foam cut into different shapes about 2 or 3 inches. As with any blocks, you need a bunch of them to really have a good time.

The possibilities are endless. At the beginning, the kids take delight in just sticking them on the wall. Then the adults can build stick figures, houses, or anything with imagination. Pretty soon, the child is doing it also, and by the end of the toy cycle they are making elaborate structures of their own. (These blocks are sometimes advertised for use on dry land. They do not work out so well there, since there light weight causes the “buildings” to be very unstable, easily knocked over and frustrating to children just learning finer motor skills.)

These foam blocks are not available, at all stores, but are a more often found than the stacking blocks. What is remarkable is wide range in price. Most often, they seem to be sold at a price that averages $1.00/ block (say $20 for a box of only 20). A buck a block seems a little steep, especially in view of what they are. But looking around, some places have them for a price that averages 12 cents a block. A factor of almost 10 times cheaper! Perhaps there is a difference, but both float and stick to the wall!

If it makes bath time more enjoyable, it’s worth a try.

Presenting Quantitative Information Well—Lessons from Playwrights

April 17, 2007

Quantitative information must be communicated accurately and clearly in order to allow the audience to understand its significance and then act appropriately. Clear information leads to better decisions, actions, and results. Conversely, misunderstood information often results in an unsuccessful project. However, in many presentations, more effort is required to communicate the content effectively.

Quantitative information–sales and marketing results, financial reports, survey data, and experimental results–are factual, but it is also open to interpretation and analysis. This article focuses on methods to sharpen the presentation and interpretation of the information. An earlier article dealt with improving the performance of the individual (Another Lousy Presentation at Work).

The principles of dramatic playwriting are a different place to look for guidance. Playwrights have similar concerns to a business speaker. In a dramatic play, there is a fixed amount to time to captivate the audience and make the points of the drama. Every dialog and action must move the play forward. If the play is successful, energy is generated. However, if the characters of play are poorly conceived, not even the most talented actors can rescue it.

The principles that dramatic writers use to shape a play can also be adapted to help guide the presentation of the quantitative information. Examples include:

Character Definition




Here are some comparisons for the theater and information presentations:

Character Definition

The playwright introduces the main characters early and then works with the characters to add dimensions and interest.

Information is the main character for the presentation. It must be put on a solid foundation, so that the audience can use the information during the presentation.

Just as with the characters in the play, it is important that the information be made readily available at the outset. The presenter must clearly show the quantitative information and then assist the audience in coming to understand what the information means. Too often, the presenter reveals the information itself slowly. The talk then deteriorates into a guessing game.

—Give the information and analysis tools early.


Pacing—In a play, the plot has to proceed at a pace that is reasonable for the audience. A slow development leads to boredom, mental lethargy, and the loss of energy.

Pacing is also important for information transfer. For the presentation, the information should be transmitted at the customary rate that brain is used to receiving it. Matching rates allows the content to be internalized more effectively.

As an example, consider the difference between a printed page (100 characters per sq. inch) and a power point slide (5 characters/square inch). Relying on Power Point slides to transmit quantitative information is just too slow to hold the audience’s attention. One sheet of paper can replace 10-50 slides of information.

Quantitative information is best presented as individual handouts.

Formatting—Viewing a theater set, the eye takes both in the entire stage and then moves back and forth to the individual details. This movement helps to establish a context for the details to become significant.

In the case of understanding information, the eye-mind combination works effectively when all of the information data can be viewed the same time. The eye can freely travel among the details. There is benefit to formatting the content in an information rich display that can be viewed on only a page or two.

The information format must be made efficient and stripped of decoration that does not advance the understanding.

For example, when designing the handout, require that each of drop of ink contribute to the information. In this approach, many of the superfluous decorations that distract the audience disappear.

—Work from a handout designed with an information rich format.

Engage the Audience

A great play engages the audience by inviting them to compare their impressions with the author’s perspective and draw their own conclusions. This process generates the energy of the performance.

For quantitative information, reveal your view of the relationships to the audience. The relationships are revealed by methods such as comparing, contrasting, testing cause and effect, and challenging your own conclusions. The audience can mentally work and play with the relationships as they are discussed. This process leads to tested, sound conclusions. Energy will be generated, just as in a fine play.

—Reveal and test the relationships with the audience

In summary, the focus is on the content—presenting it early, pacing, formatting, and engaging the audience. When the information is in good shape for presentation, you are free to let your own style shine through, just as the actor with fine material.


(A useful reference for quantitative information displays is Edward Tufte)

The Monk Hakuin and the Baby—Just the way it is.

April 12, 2007

Zen stories are entertaining in their content, but they really are about the reader. This story is an invitation to see our own situations from a fresh perspective. Although they can be read for a moral or a point, a key aspect is to experience how the story resonates with our own situations.

“Hakuin and the Baby” or “Is That So?” can be found in many versions, both on the web and in print (Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Paul Reps)

There was a monk named Hakuin who was well respected for his work among the people.

In the village, there lived a young woman, the daughter of the food sellers. The young woman became pregnant by her boy friend who worked nearby in the fish market. When the parents found out about this, they were very angry and pressured her to reveal the name of the father. She wanted to protect the young man and blurted out the name of Hakuin as the father.

After the baby was born, the parents took the baby to Hakuin. They told Hakuin that he was responsible for the baby and left the infant with him. He responded: “Is that so?” And he simply accepted the responsibility for the child without further reaction.

The monk had no experience with babies. But he began to care for its needs, finding food, clothing, and warm shelter. The other villagers became very angry with Hakuin for his offense and his reputation was trashed. These comments did not affect Hakuin, who continued to put his effort and attention into the care of the baby.

After several years, the young woman was filled with remorse. She confessed to her parents the name of the true father. They immediately went to see Hakuin, apologized, and took the baby back with them. Hakuin watched as they returned to there home with the child he had cared for since birth and replied “Is that so?”


“Is that so?” reflects the acceptance of what the moment brings. Acceptance in the sense that one responds appropriately to the situation with a calm mind and spirit. There are no calls of fairness or unfairness, of being experienced in the task or not, of complaining about a lost reputation, of wishing that it were different. The needs of present are simply addressed.

More than the physical situation, it is the spirit of the monk’s mind at the initial instant that the situation arises that makes his actions so compelling.It is not passive acceptance; there is direct action here.The calm mind allows effort to be fully directed to the situation without dispersal of energy.

The same tasks of caring for the baby could also be done with resentment or a turbulent mind. Then, there is room for fairness and unfairness, complaining and wishing it were different. Same tasks, but the energy is completely different.

All of these stories are about the reader, not a fiction story about the monk. The situation may be one at work, home, or with a friend that brings the same apparent unfairness and inconvenience to an individual at the moment. Responding with a calm or turbulent mind makes all the difference.

The calm spirit is within the potential of all humans.

Additional Stories

This is a link to a Collection of Zen Stories     (

Setting Priorities to Improve Productivity—Busy may be necessary, Complications are optional

April 4, 2007

While multitasking is the proclaimed mark of importance, multitasking is really effective only for relatively mundane tasks. More difficult projects, requiring thought and insight, benefit from focused attention. People recognize this difference, and research is beginning to confirm their observations. A recent article about productivity and multitasking (“Slow Down Brave Multitasker” NYTimes 3/25/07 Pg 1) contained two relevant examples:

In a recent study, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages “I was surprised by how easily people were distracted and how long it took them to get back to the task,” said Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft research scientist.

“Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes. Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.” (David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan.)

The loss of productivity begins when simple tasks are allowed to interrupt the more mentally demanding projects. This intermizing of tasks adds complication and leads to inefficiency.

The outline below can help to increase productivity by clearly separating priorities and complexity:

1. Make a list of ALL the activities that you may have to work on. Be sure to include even low priority projects that you may never get to. A complete list ensures that no projects have been inadvertently forgotten. 2. Divide the activities into two categories–Complex and Straightforward. This distinction is important, especially in view of the above research. The two categories serve to separate out the items that can be “multitasked” from the more complex project tasks requiring focused attention.

Examples of straightforward tasks are: checking e-mail, completing routine paperwork, returning phone calls, instant messaging, reading standard reports. More complex projects have a longer time frame and are not clearly defined—developing a strategy, designing a product, writing a milestone report.

3. Separately rank the priority for projects in both the complex and straightforward categories.

4. Set out time for the highest priority complex project and put full attention into that project. Defer all straightforward tasks, including e-mail, until that work period is complete.

People can do one thing at a time; concentrate first on the highest priority complex project. Since it is the most important, there is no need to be concerned with the other activities during this period.


In summary, being busy is not enough. Avoiding the complications of mixing priorities with the difficult tasks can lead to higher productivity without more effort.


Recognizing Incompetence Early—Pretending to be a Manager

April 1, 2007

Acting Presidential—a term not heard much these days—gives the impression of a confident leader, using power in a bold manner with great results. Leadership is about being in charge, respected, competent.

Unfortunately for many people in responsibility, “Acting” is as far as it gets. These people crave the trappings of power– the compensation, the status, the perks–but not the difficult decisions, responsibilities or pressure. When it comes time to actually do the job, they are somewhere else.

If these people remain in their position long enough, the consequences of incompetence catch up. There is no place to hide either for them, or for the people working with them.

There is much information about with the causes of managerial incompetence (i.e. deficient skills, lack of effort, personal insecurities etc.) That information often does not help. Sometimes, it is really not about trying to address the problems of these people, but about trying to do the job as best as possible.

The first step is to recognize incompetence early. Incompetent managers have developed other skills that have allowed them to survive and prosper. This early recognition can enable people to take the next steps to minimize the effects on project as well as the effect on reputations when the consequences of incompetence hit.

Here are some behaviors to help identify these managers early:

Decisions about even minor issues are difficult to get.

Managers are paid to make decisions.  The first warning sign is if it is difficult to get a decision from the manager.   When an unpopular decision is made, passing the responsibility away from himself, is another early indication that this person is not competent.

Success is declared early and by proclamation.

Credit is taken at the first successful milestone and extrapolated to the end of the project. They then move on to a new area before the full consequences of the work unfold. Others inherit the mess later. Check with the people in these earlier projects and see what was left behind.

Alternate perspectives are not fairly considered.

Responses are dogmatic and serve to end the discussion. Criticism is often harsh. The criticism often degenerates into a personal attack, particularly when the other person is not in the room.

There is advance planning for distributing blame for set-backs.

A particularly telling clue is that other people are positioned to take the blame, even before the project fails. (This is forward looking management as viewed by the incompetent.)

Perks are disproportionately sought.

In some cases, acquiring perks take up more effort than the core business.

Speaks differently to subordinates, peers and supervisors.

The difference is in both tone and content.

Encourages secrecy, particularly with like-minded cronies.

This withholding of information allows the manager to distort the situation.

Backstabbing is not quite the same as incompetence, although some of the behaviors are similar. Related points can be found in Backstabbing 101.