Cool Ideas Archives

On obese houses and low square feet diets

What if we reacted to obese houses the same way we reacted to obese people? And vice versa?

Imagine people suddenly starting to feel jealous of obese people because of all the extra fabric they get to wear.

And asking “When are you going to put on some weight?” the way we ask people in small houses, “When are you going to add on or buy a bigger house?”

In this scenario you could probably even get away with saying with a straight face that you’re working on developing your “dream body” without anyone thinking you’re hopelessly vain and shallow, the same way no one thinks twice when you say you’re building your “dream house.”

We’d see news reports about the obesity epidemic in the housing market and how the First Lady is going to take it up as a cause and encourage low square feet diets. We’d view square feet the same way we view calories.

But what makes a house obese?

Just like a person can be obese even though they only look overweight, the same would apply here. A modest-sized house could be flagged as obese. Oops.

There would be a BMI for houses – the SFPP (Square Feet Per Person). What would a healthy SFPP be? The 100k House blog says the SFPP in 1950 was 292 (the average house size was 983 square feet). Today the SFPP is 900 (the average house size is 2349). Oops.

By today’s standards, my family of 6 could live in a 5400 square foot house. Yikes! That would be way too big.

How about 600 as a healthy SFPP? That’s what The Ochlophobist recommends on his blog and I like his take on it:

Generally speaking, one should not need more than 600 square feet per person in a home. When a home is purchased, there should be a tax of $20,000 on every 600 square foot increment over the number of persons moving into the home. There should be no tax on homes and estates which are willed to one’s kin, though if that kin ever sells the house, they should have to pay the inheritance tax. We need this and more of such measures in order to keep people with 2 kids from moving all the time and building and living in obscenely large, cheaply constructed modern homes simply in order to show off the fact that they have money.

The six of us could have a 3600 square foot house in that scenario but even that would be too large.

In this 600 SFPP scenario, Michael Jordan’s new 28,000 square foot house would be fine as long as 466 people live in it. Or he pays the required $9.2 million tax if only he and the paramour du jour live in it.

This Chinese man’s tiny egg-shaped house (be sure to check out the slideshow of photos) would have an anorexic SFPP (I guess this means there would also be “housing disorders” in this scenario, the equivalent of eating disorders).

At any rate, the SFPP continues to increase, and is triple what it was in the 1950s,  but one has to wonder… has happiness has tripled along with it? Are we three times more likely to live better lives now?


In which we run in bare feet

This afternoon I spontaneously suggested to three of my daughters that we go running in bare feet at a nearby soccer field.

Of course they were shocked at this suggestion, yet quickly agreed to it.

I came up with this idea because I’m almost finished with the book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.

The author discusses the Tarahumara tribe (check out this 10 minute video about them here) in a remote area in northern Mexico, where they routinely run 100 or more miles at a time in bare feet or makeshift sandals.

He also presents evidence that our bodies were designed for long distance running and that before the creation of the running shoe in 1971, running injuries weren’t common like they are now.

When you wear running shoes, your heel hits the ground first, whereas when you run in bare feet, the padded middle portion of your foot hits the ground first, which is easier on your feet.

I decided to see for myself what it’s like to run in bare feet. I have no memories of running like this as a child because I always dutifully wore my PF Flyers when going outside to play.

So off I went to the soccer field with my daughters.

We ran 125 yards or so and my 15 year old said it was “exhilarating.” She never uses that word when she talks about running laps in her Nikes at tennis practice – that is always drudgery for her. She has fond memories of running barefoot as a child and was happy to experience it again.

We turned around and ran the 125 yards back to our shoes, which we reluctantly put back on. It was definitely more effortless than running in shoes and I hope it created a fun memory for the girls.


In which we ban the word “exercise”

Are you sick of the word “exercise?” Me too, which is why I’ve borrowed the phrase “Dedicated Body Time” from the blogger Peacebang.

Dedicated Body Time is simply time set aside where you are moving around – no sitting – and it doesn’t have to be conventional exercises and you don’t wear special workout clothes.

My DBT occurs every weekday after I drop my youngest children off at school. Before I start in on the day’s writing projects I spend 30-60 minutes doing one or more of the following:

* Picking up sticks in the backyard (this is actually a good workout – my heart rate gets up to 140 – because our backyard is big and there are lots of sticks to haul around).

* Sweeping.

* A set of 5 Hindu pushups.

* 50 Tai Chi waist turners.

* Walking a labyrinth.

* Walking a nature trail.

* Hitting tennis balls against a wall at a nearby court and practicing my serve.

* Lawn mowing.

* Walking to the library carrying a bag of books to return.

* Weeding.

Activities like these don’t make me feel like a machine the way regular exercise often does.


Walking in Circles

Who knew that walking in circles could be a form of meditation/prayer?

I didn’t until I recently read about labyrinths (not to be confused with mazes).

I discovered this worldwide directory of labyrinths. Even places like John Hopkins provide labyrinths for their patients and medical staff, so I figured there must be something to it.

I’m not all that good at the sitting and standing versions of meditation/prayer so I was curious to try this.

To my surprise there are a number of  labyrinths here in Madison so this morning I went to the one closest to my house, about six miles away on the grounds of a church.

It’s in the middle of countryside and my inner country mouse was able to come out and play. That right away put me in a more meditative state of mind.

I was amused that a church with a “Way Cool” service listed on its sign would have a labyrinth. I guess you can’t always judge a church by its sign.

It’s an outdoor labyrinth made of gravel and pavers and surrounded by trees, which gives it a nice secluded feeling. There’s also a view of the distant farmland. It uses the medieval Chartres design.

When I first entered the labyrinth I was very analytical about it and tried to assess what I was supposed to do.  Eventually it became clear that I was to just stay on the path and follow it to the center. I didn’t need to be heads up about anything. The path would guide me.

There were times it felt like I was going over the same path twice and I started getting too analytical again, wondering if I messed up.

I’d be on one side of the circle and then in a flash, it seemed, I’d be on the other side, and I wondered how that happened so fast.

While walking the path closest to the center I logically assumed it would open up into the center but that didn’t happen and I was a bit frustrated.

Then while on a middle path, to my surprise, it suddenly opened up onto a path that led straight to the center.

Of course I couldn’t help but notice how all of this parallels our journey through life.


We’re all in the art business now

Did you know the MFA is the new MBA?

So says Daniel Pink in chapter three of his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.

White collar jobs are being lost  as a result of abundance, Asia and automation. To survive, individuals and organizations should examine what they do for a living and ask:

1. Can someone overseas do it cheaper?

2. Can a computer do it faster?

3. Is what I’m offering in demand in an age of abundance?

Pink says we’re leaving the Information Age and entering the Conceptual Age, where creativity and empathy will be in greater demand. High-tech is no longer enough; we also need to supplement that with high touch and high concept.

Some stats:

* In the US the number of graphic designers has increased tenfold in a decade.

* Graphic designers outnumber chemical engineers by four to one.

* Since 1970 the US has 30 percent more people earning a living as writers (yay!) and 50 percent more earning a living by composing or performing music.

* 240 US universities have creative writing MFA programs, up from 22 universities twenty years ago.

* More Americans today work in arts, entertainment and design than work as lawyers, accountants, and auditors.

* Advanced nations are exporting high-tech computer programming jobs and importing nurses from Asia.

* Nursing salaries are climbing and the number of male registered nurses has doubled since the mid-1980s.

The conceptual age has become evident even in areas that are typically a bastion of analytical thinking.

For example, some medical schools now include “narrative medicine” in their curriculum because it’s recognized that a patient’s story is important in making a diagnosis. (See my review of How Doctors Think for more about that.) The Yale School of Medicine has students take art history classes because they believe that students who study painting excel at noticing subtle details about a patient’s condition.

In Japan, where math and science schools have typically ruled the day, the country is remaking its education system to foster greater creativity, artistry and play. The Education Ministry there is now encouraging “education of the heart.”

In the automotive industry, one of the GM executives says, “I see us being in the art business. Art, entertainment and mobile sculpture, which, coincidentally, also happens to provide transportation.”

[That sounds cool, but if it’s true then why are most cars such a snooze to look at? :) It seems art was taken more seriously in car design in the 1950s and 1960s.]

The College Board, creator of the SAT test has provided funding for a new type of  test to possibly augment the SAT someday. It’s called the Rainbow Project.

In this test, students are given five blank New Yorker cartoons and must craft humorous captions for each one. They must write or narrate a story using as their guide only a title supplied by the test givers (sample title: “The Octopus’s Sneakers”). They have to perform real-life challenges, such as go to a party where they don’t know anybody or convince friends to help move furniture – and report their findings.

This test has been twice as successful in predicting how well students perform in college. Also, the gap in performance between white students and minorities narrows considerably on this test.

As one who was a liberal arts major (English), I’m predisposed to liking all of this. It would seem a liberal arts degree these days is, well, liberating.


How to party like an introvert

If you’re an introvert, or live with one, then may I direct you this fun Introvert’s Guide To Spontaneous Departures blog post?

I’m not in a stage of life where I’m invited to many parties – and the ones I do go to are not ones where my arrival and departure times would matter to anyone (I could even not show up and no one would notice).  But now I wish I did get to go to some real parties so I could try out her suggestions.

Here is my favorite bit of advice:

Look like you are HAVING THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE as you say goodbye.

Never leave a party looking tired. It’s a common introvert mistake. You want everyone to secretly suspect you’re going to another party, so they don’t feel sorry for you.

That’s a great tip. Anyone want to invite me to a cocktail party so I can try it out?


Wall of Women: Adding Charm To Even These Four Walls

The interior of your home tells a story.

Because I have four daughters, work from home and lacked design skills, the story mine has told the past several years is: “OMG. Please send help!”

Help has finally arrived in the form of Robert and Cortney Novogratz, who run Sixx Design in New York City.

My daughters and I became addicted to their TV show 9 By Design because it tells the story of their design business and how they juggle clients along with raising seven kids.

We also page through their book Downtown Chic: Designing Your Dream Home: From Wreck to Ravishing kind of obsessively because the decorating tips are told in the context of the story of how they have built and sold several gorgeous homes in New York city.

It’s kind of laughable that I, of all people, would pore over a book called Downtown Chic.  I guess my design story could be called Downtown Chic Meets Small Town Cheek.

As a writer I live in my head and in the world of ideas, not drapes, paint colors and art.

But then I heard Robert say in one of the episodes that you can add charm to any four walls.

He also says: “Good taste doesn’t come with money. You need creativity, and that can happen anywhere. It’s our goal to get that across.”

All of a sudden I looked at our four walls as a way to tell a story. Interior design doesn’t have to be about perfection and fussiness, which is how I used to view it.

While paging through Downtown Chic I noticed they had a “Wall of Women” – a wall of prints and posters of women.

I got the idea to create our own wall of women, but with a different twist.

This would be a collection of photos of women in movies, comic books, literature, TV, etc. who I and the four girls have been inspired by or just plain enjoyed together.

My oldest daughter (unlike me she has actual design sensibilities) thought this was a great idea and we spent a Saturday afternoon printing out photos and buying frames at local thrift shops for less than $1 each.


(Click here for a larger version of the photo.)

If you’re looking at this wall and going, “What in the world are Mrs. Brady, Seven of Nine and Flannery O’Connor doing on the same wall??” then… welcome to my family.

There’s a story behind each photo. I smile every time I look at this wall.

And that’s not all. We’re working on other small projects inspired by them, including a unique “installation” of our kids’ art.

Thanks to Robert and Cortney I no longer view my four walls as “too small” or as something I can improve only when I have enough money.

And as Robert says about houses in this video, “Enjoy it, it’s just a house. It’s the people in it that matter.”


Why you should procrastinate

A career might come out of it:

This quote comes from Jessica Hische, who is a young designer well known for her hand lettering.

As she explains in this short video, she noticed she would work on graphic design while procrastinating from doing art, so she ended up becoming a designer instead of a painter or sculptor.

And she ended up including hand lettering as one of her specialties because she found herself doing hand lettering while procrastinating from a graphic design project.

If you take a look at her work you’ll see that procrastination paid off for her.

I should also emphasize that the key word in that quote is “work.” :-) And the work I often do while procrastinating is blogging. Hmmm.


Maybe all those sitcoms weren’t so bad after all

I used to feel a bit sheepish about how I spent so much time watching  TV as a kid.

Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Dallas, Magnum PI, to name just a few.

On sunny summer mornings my brother and I would leap out of the bed to… go outside and enjoy nature? No, of course not. To watch reruns of the sitcom Alice and other shows, of course.

Then came MTV, which anchored us to the sofa in front of  the TV all the more.

I think I watched every episode of Cheers.

And in the 1990s I even spent a few football seasons watching Packers games on Sunday afternoons.

But all this TV watching came to an abrupt end with the internet. Suddenly I had better things to do with my time.

Clay Shirky gave an interesting talk about this (the video is here or you can read the transcript if you prefer).

He says that after World War 2, we suddenly had free time on our hands, thanks to five day work weeks.

This free time created what he calls a “cognitive surplus.”

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan’s Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives…

And it’s only now, as we’re waking up from that collective bender, that we’re starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We’re seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody’s basement.

So now I don’t feel so bad about having watched so much TV. It’s not because we were lazy kids. It’s that we were in a holding pattern, so to speak, until we had more productive outlets for our cognitive surplus.

When I was a kid there wasn’t the option of creating a blog, running a little eBay store, editing a Wikipedia entry, writing a review of a product on Amazon, learning how to create a website, etc. We just had TV, top 40 radio, Walkmen and the phone.

It’s interesting to think about this cognitive surplus concept in regards to one’s personal life too.

We all go through stages where, suddenly, we have more cognitive surplus.

When the kids go off to school, when a financial burden is lifted, when one is settled into a new job and no longer searching for one, when one retires, etc.

There are so many interesting things to do with one’s cognitive surplus now. And almost all of them more interesting than TV (although I’m not giving up Mad Men, Lost or Project Runway :-) ).