Sunday, February 7

Happy [Belated] Clean Out Your Computer Day

I'm rather a fond of unofficial and off-beat holidays, and the ISTJ in me doubly appreciates when unofficial holidays serve highly functional purposes. Last Tuesday was a perfect example: National Clean Out Your Computer Day.

In this age of digital everything, it's all too easy for our computers, phones, and other devices to become cluttered with old and duplicate photos, ambiguously named files, defunct links and bookmarks, and other outdated remnants. Data storage being what it is, these things are easy to ignore on a day-to-day basis, but the sad truth is that they tend to cost us time and energy when we can least afford it. As anyone who's ever ransacked their hard drive for a critical file needed on short notice knows, clutter gets frustrating fast when you're in a hurry.

Interestingly, I was reminded several times in December by unrelated sources that the difference between businesses/households that thrive, succeed and function smoothly and those that don't can often be summed up in one word: systems.

Even exceptionally simple systems, when well designed and followed consistently, can radically reshape our lives for the better. It can take a couple tries to establish and refine systems that work for our unique needs, and the creation or reformation of habits is usually involved, but the relative payoff is huge.

I didn't get my computer (or my Pinterest account) completely cleaned out last week, and I admit I'm still actively working on establishing and revising systems for a variety of aspects of my life. I also have yet to address at all the whole necessity of properly backing up important files. But I did appreciate the reminder that this is an area worth focusing on, and the challenge to pick up my pace in this respect. After all, what better time to roll up one's sleeves and do a little digital purging an organizing than when it's cold and inhospitable outside?

What about you? Could your digital life and personal/professional systems use some refining this year?

Saturday, December 26

Book Review: Nonsense, The Power of Not Knowing

Ambiguity, uncertainty, lack of closure: whatever you want to call it, the world is rife with situations and challenges that simply can't be neatly categorized, wrapped up, or controlled. How we perceive, understand and respond to these types of situations plays a critical role in determining whether we succeed or fail in everything – art, business, politics, relationships. More often than we think, it can mean the difference between life and death. It's no secret that some people handle ambiguity better than others and, in Nonsense, author Jamie Holmes explores why that is, and what all of us can do to improve our relationship with life's uncertainties.

This book has a lot going for it. The author found some very interesting stories and examples to illustrate his points all along the spectrum, from puzzles and Mad Libs on the frivolous side of things to hostage negotiations at the extremely serious end of the spectrum. Often the writing was clear, sharp and fluid – very much a pleasure to read. It was meticulously edited.

Unfortunately, the book was not uniformly strong. In several places the narrative seemed to inexplicably get lost, meandering or segway-ing jerkily from one point to another. For some reason I never quite figured out, it also seemed to be a difficult book to keep one's head in. Every time I set it down, it would take a minute to remember where I was and what was being discussed when I picked it up again. It really didn't stick or linger the way I would have expected from a book about such a relevant subject. I couldn't help but feel that the “application” part would have decidedly benefited from a different approach as well; an alternate format might have made it easier to walk away feeling like I'd learned practical things I could effectively apply to improving my own ability to handle ambiguity other than just being more aware of it.

All things considered, it's a solid book and worth reading for the impact and thought-provoking qualities of it's strong portions. 

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review. As always, my opinions are my own.

Monday, December 7

Common Core: Medical Edition

They say that measurement is the first step towards controlling and improving things, and that “you are what you measure”. Management dogma has long promoted intensive measurement, tracking and reporting as the main driver of desired change.

Unfortunately, as the Common Core debacle has demonstrated, any attempt to apply this theory to practice will see it quickly erode in the face of two inconvenient realities. First, critical and relevant aspects of a situation are often intangible; they simply don't lend themselves to effective and accurate measurement. Second, no matter what you're looking at, there are almost always scores of contributing and/or influential factors, making it almost impossible to measure, aggregate, and report on them in a meaningful way. Considering that some of those factors will be several steps removed from the “main action” and/or intangible, and you've got a clear recipe for frustration!

Why am I rambling at you about this business nonsense? Because it's exactly what came to mind when I read that “non-profit news outlet ProPublica [has created a] never-before-available tool” they're calling an "Adjusted Complication Rate." Long story short, they've developed and launched a scale ranking “Nearly 17,000 doctors performing low-risk, common elective procedures such as gallbladder removal and hip replacements... in the new calculation...derived from government records collected about Medicare patients...” The score looks at post-operative complications “like infections, clots or sepsis” and a handful of risk factors such as “patients' ages, the quality of the hospital where the surgery took place, and other factors.”

The goal is straightforward: provide consumers a tool through which to compare the quality of potential surgeons before scheduling a procedure, and create a highly public venue through which to shame, scare, or (more euphemistically) motivate both doctors and the hospitals for which they work to step up their games, sharpen their skills, and identify and remove roadblocks to top-notch patient care. As a bonus, proponents suggest that these changes will significantly reduce the cost of readmissions related to surgical complications. Considering that such readmissions for Medicare patients cost “taxpayers $645 million” between 2009 and 2013, this is no small benefit.

ProPublica's intentions are clearly noble, and they should be applauded for doing something. After all, you never get anywhere if you don't at least try! That said, I can't help but cringe at what looks alarmingly like the early stages of a repeat of the Common Core disaster in the making. They're right to note that not all doctors or hospitals are created or perform equally. Certainly those doing well should be rewarded, and those at the bottom of the barrel strongly motivated to improve.

But the inconvenient truth is that people are bio-individual, both physically and in terms of their physical, social and familial support systems. For example, as an NTP I can tell you that most people are walking around with all kinds of undiagnosed and unrecognized health issues that are directly relevant to their ability to heal and their likelihood of readmission. My sister the nurse can testify to the kinds of disastrous individuals and relationships patients often rely on for their post-procedure care. These things are not, and cannot consistently or realistically be, accounted for on this index. As a result, just like teachers, doctors will be penalized for things outside their control without recourse to explain or defend themselves. Doctors battling to revamp struggling hospitals, or serving the lowest-income, most at-risk patients will suffer the most in this respect, punished for their faith, elbow grease, and big hearts.

Many doctors will respond by taking the only protective course available to them: refusing to see or work with any patients who don't present as excellent candidates for a quick, clean recovery. Dealing with a messy family situation? Obese? Smoker? Low-income? Cantankerous or absent-minded? Watch how fast you get turned down and punted over to the waiting list for one of the handful of (low ranked) doctors still willing to take you! As it stands, this well-intentioned ranking will most likely have the unintended (if predictable) effect of making losers out of neediest, least-ideal, and highest-risk among the us and those who stubbornly continue to serve them.

I can't help but be deeply saddened to see this kind of thing happening. We need real answers; real initiatives that get at the heart of the problem (like the increasing loss of non-profit hospitals), rather than relying on false metrics and sideways pressure.

What do you think? Am I over-reacting, or does this strike you as terribly counter-productive, too?

Tuesday, December 1

Three Fun Things to Start Your December

Can you believe it's December already? Thanksgiving has come and gone, seemingly every radio station is saturated with Christmas music (God help us), and the days are starting to show their long,
dark sides. Before we start the rapid slide into holiday madness, I thought I'd share three fun things I saw around the web recently to make you smile:

It's all good until someone bombs the pub....
An Irish comedian wrote an open letter to ISIS, and it's hysterical.

An Iraeli dad wrote a "why my daughter is tardy" note that's short, honest and endearing. (And that made me think of my Dad patiently trying to braid my terribly uncooperative hair when I was little.)

The case for making your own (highly descriptive and personalized) job title. (Similar point made here.) When I was at Panera, my unofficial title (bestowed on my by my favorite baker) was "Evil Overlord" - how awesome would it have been to have that on my nametag?! These days of course, I can put whatever I want on my business cards...I might have to get creative!

What is making you smile this week?

Tuesday, November 24

The Made Up Words Project

I am always fascinated when foreign words pop up (usually on Pinterest these days, but also in books) for which there is no English equivalent. They run gamut from deeply elegant to jocularly practical.

For example, Hiraeth is a Welsh noun for “a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.” Kummerspeck is German for “excess weight gained from emotional overeating.” (It's literal translation is “grief-bacon”!) The foodie in me especially enjoys sobremesa, which is a Spanish term for time spent around a table after a meal, talking to the friends/family you shared the meal with. (See more such fascinating terms here, here, and here.)

Although English is known for liberally stealing – I mean borrowing- words from other languages,
there's no denying that Americans have a tendency to make up our words when we feel that the options our disposal are inadequate to meet our linguistic needs. To catalog these forays into linguistic invention, The Made Up Words Project was created. The project invites the public to submit the “made up words that we share with family and friends.”

While the project is just for fun, it did give me amusing memories to laugh at. (When I was in junior high, three friends and I used the term “I-triple-L” to describe really stupid people. It stood for Immature Lower Life Forms of Larva. What can I say? We were in junior high, and we got plenty of use out of it at the time!)

Juxtaposed with the foreign words for which there are no English translations, however, it also proved rather thought provoking. Why is it that other cultures have specific words for things that English speakers are content to express imperfectly, only through full sentences? Why has it never occurred to me that we might need a word like irusu (Japanese for “pretending to be out when someone knocks on your door”)? What other practical, amusing or elegant feelings and situations am I lacking words for without even noticing?

For years when I was younger, we used the term “chippy” to express a cross between chilly and nippy when it was cold outside. It started as a slip of the tongue, but we quite liked it so it stayed in use. Sadly, I can't think of any more recent examples, which makes me suspect I should be exercising more creativity in my words. These days, I mostly just borrow words from other places. (Too often, this equates to lift curse words and exclamatory phrases from science fiction universes, but not always.) I discovered and love the Greek word “meraki” which is “the soul, creativity, or love put into something; the essence of yourself that is put into your work.”

So perhaps I shall put some meraki into being more aware of – and coming up with – creative words myself. What made-up words do you use? What can you think of that you wish there was a word for?

Sunday, November 22

Smoking, Drinking, and Voting

Years ago, when I was working my tail off at my first “real” job out of college as a Catering Manager, I was incredibly irritated to discover that I could not rent a car for a business trip. I wasn't old enough.

Not long after, desperate to get to where I was headed despite all the planes being grounded due to nasty weather, an airport car rental place again refused to rent to me because I wasn't 25.

I cannot begin to tell you how frustrating it was both times to stand there at the counter faced with the ludicrous facts. I had been a safe and licensed driver for more than half a dozen years already, and routinely drove catering vans and other expensive commercial vehicles in addition to my own car. I was trusted to manage expensive events, make hiring and firing decisions, and represent my account at regional events. I had all kinds of insurance, and nothing but a speeding ticket or two on my record. But I couldn't rent a freaking basic model sedan.

Then, as now, I was appalled and baffled by the notion that we as a society so strangely differentiate between what we think individuals should and should not be able to do at 18. Vote? Sure! Get married? Absolutely. Join the military to fight (and sometimes die) for one's country? You bet. Buy your own beer? Oh no you don't! Rent a car? No way! What are you, nuts?

By what bizarre logic does that make sense?

Apparently, it must make sense to someone, because the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is urging the FDA to enact restrictions that would prevent anyone under the age of 21 from purchasing cigarettes, tobacco, or vaping products. Certainly, I understand their concerns about the health hazards that nicotine and tobacco pose, particularly to young people. But frankly, the second-class citizenship status of young adults is already untenable. To try to press it even further is simply unreasonable.

I'd encourage the AAP (and others who support their proposal) to read Do Hard Things, and challenge them to reconsider their approach. Numerous books (like this one) lay out the research proving time and again that we do not create the kinds of adults we as a society need (and that we as individuals want to be, or be related to!) by protecting children from the consequences of their decisions. That only becomes exponentially more true for teenagers and adults. So instead of floating ideas that give us warm, fuzzy “saving the world” feelings, what if we sucked up the sometimes discouraging realities of life and took the wiser tack?

What if we dropped the age for everything – drinking, smoking, renting a car – to 18, and made young adults actually full adults? What if we adopted scary PSAs that actually show the true cost of our choices, and let people make their own choices? I think we might just be surprised by how far ahead we'd come out…

Friday, November 20

A Sewing Experiment: Pillow Covers

Spiderweb and "Jolly Rodger" pillow covers.
I received a Halloween table runner in October, and was surprisingly happy with how festive it looked on the table with a pumpkin seated squarely atop it. When I rolled it up and it stored away in almost no space at all, I decided that this was definitely my style of decorating – easy to set up, easy to put away, with very little storage space required.

That got me thinking about theseadorable Halloween pillow covers I saw and pinned ages ago. didn't get around to attempting them prior to Halloween, but thought maybe I'd run out the weekend after and try to pick up appropriate fabric when it would theoretically be on sale. My Prince went with me to check out a quilt store which it had been on my list to explore anyway. The store turned out to be excellent and, as so often happens, instead of coming away with the basic colors I'd planned to get, I came out with something much better! Eric bought me not only some awesome spiderweb fabric, but ½ yard each of four beautiful Fall fabrics!

Thus, I returned home to make not only Halloween pillow covers, but Fall ones as well. Unfortunately, the tutorial I'd planned to follow was not as well laid out as I'd expected, and it took me several tries to figure out where I was misreading it and correct myself. Once that was done, the two spiderweb pillow covers came together pretty quickly. Then I (mystifyingly) got it into my head that to go with the them, I should make Jolly Rodger pillow covers! This involved finding, resizing, and printing a skull template; acquiring some white fabric; tracing said skulls onto said fabric; touching them up with marker to outline a few things (like the eye sockets); then cutting them out and appliqueing them on to the front of the covers. I know that would be a quick and simple process for someone with more experience, but it took me quite a while!

Colorful squash & Fall veggies
I'm extremely pleased with how they turned out, though! I intentionally used a rough zig-zag stitch around the edges of the skulls to go with the battered pirate-flag-style look and I am quite happy with the results. Once I tested them on the pillows (and got a picture or two), it was time to strip them off and pack them away until next year. I'll pull them out next Fall and be very happy with myself all over again. : )

In the meantime, we have four beautiful pillow covers in Fall patterns featuring squash and other autumnal veggies, and fun harvest-y things. They don't necessarily go with anything, but they don't clash either, and they make us happy, so I'm calling them a success! 

After cleaning up the huge mess that I made in the process (so much thread, everywhere!), I took a couple minutes to write down the process, measurements, etc. in my new sewing journal. Apparently, sewing journals are supposed to be a great way to track what you did as that you either (a) can do it again if you love it, or (b) know what NOT to ever do again if you botch things! Either way, this has been a good experiment, and left me ready to plot my next.

Do you decorate for Fall/Thanksgiving?
Totally love this fabric!


In this color too!