Friday, September 14, 2007

The Right Number Of Choices

My buddy Paul reminded me that there are many hours of provocative free video (and audio) of talks at the TED Conferences. TED, if I remember correctly, was organized by Wired Magazine types to celebrate those who make robots, write bleeding edge books on the business best seller lists, or have gone to MIT or started companies with significant number of employees who went to MIT. I'm no expert, I'm not rich, not famous, not a Thinker or Doer, and thus not likely to appear at one of these conferences. I do think and do, but in my own way and usually not in front of an audience.

My buddy Paul told me that he watches an occasional TED Conference at home on the TV, through ITunes, his Mac, and their TV peripheral - a pleasing low-cost experience, if you don't count the cost of the hardware and internet bandwidth. You do not need this hardware or even ITunes to watch them, but it is easy. If you are using ITunes, go to the ITunes Store and search for "TEDTalks", then subscribe to this and download what you want. Otherwise some talks are on YouTube, and they are accessible of course from

I remember watching Theo Jansen talk long ago and show videos of his kinetic sculptures which are very much like large mechanical tumbleweeds crawling along a beach. Fascinating. Paul suggested I check out the brillo-haired Malcolm Gladwell author of "The Tipping Point" and the cartoon reading Barry Schwartz author of "The Paradox of Choice". Both have something compelling to say about our (product) choices.

Gladwell spoke at TED in 2004 about choices and why there are many permutations of different kinds of food products produced by a given company.

Gladwell says that as far as products go, there is no one best choice as far as human preference goes. If I make my own pesto, as I was doing while watching the video podcast, I am hopefully making what I think is the best pesto. But others may have their own best tasting or optimal version. (Note, audio-only is sufficient for this podcast, as there are no pertinent visuals, so you can make pesto for about 20 minutes while you listen.)

You see, if we simply average together all our preferences, then we'll end up with average tasting pesto. Nobody is truly happy with what they get. It might not have the right amount of basil, garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, pine nuts, or Romano or Parmesan cheeses. But if we allow perhaps 3 or 4 varieties of pesto, then perhaps people will have the best dining experience meeting their preferences, provided of course they purchase and are served the one best suited for them.

This is not obvious, but makes sense to me. It also explains why you can get a Subaru Outback, which I have, which has a very high SUV-like suspension and a Subaru Legacy which is virtually the same car with a lower sedan-like suspension. Those who are used to driving at what I consider a normal altitude, low to the ground, could never consider high suspension, would never buy it, and might never be happy with it if they do. I took a chance, and am glad I did.

Barry Schwartz who gave a TED Conference in 2005 has an alternate but not opposite point of view. (His talk requires the video, although, if one existed, a Power Point presentation would do.) Through some thought provoking provoking thoughts (the proceeding was not a typo, but more of a tongue twister, so you might consider going back to the beginning of this containing sentence and read it again. Apologies for this digression.) and well chosen New Yorker-ish cartoons, Schwartz points out that too many choices give us paralysis and also leave us disappointed with the choices we eventually make.

Schwarts' ideas are not incompatible with Gladwell's thesis. Together the problems with too few and problems with too many choices explain the variety, the size, and the overwhelming and unpleasant experience at visiting the cereal aisle at your local supermarket.

Conclusion: most of us might be happy with just a few good choices. For me, a tea drinker who rarely has a coffee, a company like Starbucks has it wrong with their coffee menu, but of course they have too successful for this to be true. Dell may be a better example. They have dozens of product lines and under each you can get many options. Even the number sale items in their paper catalogs of their stock models number at two dozen. If you shop with them online where you can configure your system yourself, and you add in all the options, you easily get millions of permutations. Many times have I put together a system and abandoned my electronic shopping cart. Some of this is the nature of the PC industry, which allows you to put almost any components in a system. But Apple Computer got it right as far as choice and satisfaction goes, since for example their computers (here I simplify things) and even IPods usually come in three varieties: small, medium, and large. By the way, it is also clear that several best sellers and doctoral theses are probably hidden in the New Yorker cartoon archives.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Stacking Firewood

A cord of wood is a volume which measures 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet. Typically one makes a stack of firewood with split logs about 16" long, so a 6 foot high cord of that would be 16 feet long.

Last night I had our first firewood delivered here for burning. A few calls found someone who would deliver the amount we need. Since it's getting late in the wood season, we want wood that is dry and not green. Dry wood you can burn. They dumped it in the driveway and the pile smells like ... wood. This is more like lifestyle firewood, since we do not have a wood burning stove - we have pellet stoves (more on that another time). We do have a fireplace in which to burn the wood, but it's supposed to be woefully inefficient way of burning wood and actually rumored to draw heat out of a house because of the draft up the chimney. This is rather like the factoid that a person actually uses more calories chewing celery than one gets out of eating the celery. In the case of wood we're talking major Calories, which if you did not know is just energy like heat. I suspect we will indeed get some heat out of it, but mainly we will get warmth - the warm feeling, smell, sound, and light of a winter fire.

I just stacked 3/4 of the wood nice and neatly this morning. I feel like the president on vacation or something... clearing brush, stacking wood. There are a great many ways in which to stack firewood and rules to govern location of a wood pile. Rule of thumb is to stack it far away from your home, off the ground, with a small amount of shelter over it. This sounds like a pain, particularly when one is going for cozy on a cold snowy February day. I chose to put it to one side of our house under our deck. The deck will give it some shelter, thus keep it dry and let it continue to dry out. That side of the house is made of cinderblocks, so there shouldn't be a termite problem. I also made sure that the pile was elevated to keep the bottom from getting damp and rotting or attracting insects. The entire pile makes no contact with the deck or the house. On the cinderblock base I laid two old fallen limbs which made for a sturdy base. The ends are each stacks of criss-crossed relatively square logs which add stability. Having done this, I feel like the sculptor Andy Goldsworthy who uses natural material like stone, ice, leaves, petals and wood to create order - or sculpture. I actually have two of his books which I received as gifts from my good friend Dave. Goldsworthy's appreciation of nature in his works, I'm sure, added some inspiration for my move from New York City to this place.

I've been told stories of people being cheated on wood deliveries. You order 3 cords, get 2. The only way to tell is to actually stack the wood and measure the volume. My stack is about 9 feet long, 6 feet high, and 16 inches wide. This is just over 71 cubic feet, plus I have about a quarter extra wood. This means that my 1/2 a cord was actually a little more than 1/2 a cord. Not bad at all.

One last note, in a crate next to the pile is a tiny pile of petrified wood which I have been dragging around for years. My family got it 30 years ago outside The Petrified Forest in Arizona. Petrified wood is actually fossilized wood. It is rock. It is millions of years old and will never burn. I gave a small log to the carpenters who last worked on our house, perhaps I should have given a log of it to the guys who own the firewood service.