Recent Movie Reviews

Thanksgiving has come and gone. I set a new 8k PR Thanksgiving morning in the Gallop & Gorge road race, ate my heart out for the rest of the day and somehow caught a cold in between. As I have been somewhat under the weather these past few days, I've had ample opportunity to catch up on some movies I've been meaning to see.


I liked but didn't love this one. It was definitely trying to be the kind of epic, artistic, transcendent movie that I would love but it just didn't quite get there. The cinematography was spectacular, the science-informed sci-fi was well done, and parts of it were very compelling. However, some of its subplots were a bit goofy and didn't add much - or even detracted from - the bigger picture. There were times when it seemed to be plodding along a little too indulgently but there were also times when it glossed over important points with forced exposition. It was a good film and I recommend seeing it, but it unfortunately isn't the "2001 for this generation" that it attempted to be.


This film was really interesting and had me thinking/guessing right up until the very end - and actually a bit after as well. It was very Memento-like in its non-chronological story telling and it was very well acted. It's hard to be too specific about this movie without giving anything away so it will have to suffice that I recommend it.


This movie really surprised and delighted me. It's from the same studio that produced Coraline and is made in a somewhat similar style - although the content is not as dark. It features excellent voice acting, well scripted dialog, a captivating premise, and an engaging plot that keeps you interested until the very end. This will work well for kids and adults alike - heartily recommended.

What do the rest of you think? Disagree with my reviews? Has anyone seen any other noteworthy movies recently?


Chestnut Ridge Trail Race 2014

Yesterday I ran the Chestnut Ridge 4-mile Trail Race for the second time and did pretty well, placing sixth overall and second in my age group.

Chestnut Ridge was the first trail race I ran in North Carolina last year and was it ever a shock to my system. Having been used to flat road races in Houston, my mind was blown by how much different trail running - and especially hilly trail running - was. I finished 10th overall and third in my age group - but at a pace much slower than I was accustomed to running a race of that distance (actually 4.3 miles). On flat roads I might have expected to complete the race in ~28 minutes but I finished in 33:50 instead - big difference! It was evident then that all my pacing and PRs were out the window and I would have to set new expectations.

Having been in NC for more than a year now, I am finally starting to run some races for a second time. This gives me a chance to set course PRs, attempting to improve on last year's performances. It also means that I'm not walking into races blind and I can take a more intelligent approach to race strategy.

This race is mostly single track trails through the woods and around the lake of Chestnut Ridge Camp and Retreat Center in Efland, NC. The trails aren't very technical and they really aren't very hilly either - at least not by NC standards! This year's race was sunny and cold (+3 C or upper-30s F)- great racing weather!

I went out pretty fast to ensure that I didn't have to do too much passing once we hit the single track trails. As I saw my heart rate creeping up, though, I was able to reign it in a bit so as not to burn out. For most of the race there was someone 50-100 meters ahead of me and and I could hear someone(s) 25-50 meters behind me as well. I tried not to be concerned with them and just ran my own race. 

With less than 1 km to go, we emerged from the forest and two cross country boys passed me. They tried to pull away but I hung with them and eventually all three of us overtook the man who had been ahead of me for most of the race. As we neared the finish, I kicked it up a gear or two and surged pass the boys to beat them by a couple of seconds and finish in 32:21.

Setting a new course PR by 89 seconds is pretty good on such a short race. I attribute the better performance to better pacing, more experience running trails, and a higher running fitness level than I had a year ago. Also additional motivation was provided by some of my friends from the Godiva Track Club. They were running the longer distance race but one of them even ran with me for some time.

This was a fun, small race with pretty scenery and a nice route. It served as a good warmup for Thursday's Gallop & Gorge 8k, the final event of the Tour de Carrboro series, where I'm hoping to set another course PR before hitting the offseason!


Dell XPS 15

Last month I started working on a new laptop, the Dell XPS 15. This is Dell's premium notebook, combining performance with design and competing with the MacBook Pro.

I've always liked the hardware of the MacBook Pro (lightweight, compact, good screen, fast hard drive) but, after multiple attempts, I never really warmed up to Mac OS. Fortunately new offerings like this Dell hit pretty close to the mark and still give me the Windows tools I seek (without having to deal with Apple at all).

The biggest win by far of this notebook is its screen, a stunning 15.6" 3200 x 1800 touchscreen GorillaGlass display. For movies it is absolutely stunning but even text in basic productivity apps seems much clearer and sharper. This notebook model is already more than a year old and still has a better display than the current MacBook Pro (2880 x 1800) so I'll be excited to see what the next generation offers.

The next win is the 512 GB SSD hard drive. It is so screamingly fast that this is the first Windows notebook I have ever owned that actually provides "instant on" functionality. I don't use too many data-intensive applications so I can't speak to its speed at I/O but, for rapid startup, it is transformative.

The battery life is also very good. Despite the big display, I am easily getting 6-9 hours (depending of  course on how hard I'm pushing it) use between charges, which is more than adequate to sustain me during travel or meetings. I'm not sure I've even used my charger outside of the home or office yet.

My one reservation for this computer was that it only came with Windows 8.1. I liked Windows 7 just fine and I hadn't heard great things about 8.1. So far, though, I have been pleased - not blown away - by 8.1. It isn't radically different than 7 but it offers a more app-like launch experience, which is prevalent on all of my other devices. I'm still not using the touch screen as much as I could, but I'll get there.

All in all I have been very pleased with the Dell XPS 15. It's fast, light, not too power hungry, and has an amazing display. If there are others out there who want MacBook Pro-ish hardware with a Windows experience, this is it.

Rice Homecoming 2015

Katie and I were in Houston last weekend for Rice's annual Homecoming & Reunion. It was a lot of fun to be together back in our old stomping ground and we packed an awful lot into just a few days.

The weather really, really cooperated as it was sunny and 70s F (20s C) almost the entire time we were there. Weather like that makes it easy to romanticize our life in Houston, selectively forgetting the miserable summer weather! We took advantage with lots of outdoor runs and beach volleyball. One of our runs was along Buffalo Bayou, which has changed significantly even since just a few months ago. Through landscaping, the addition of many pedestrian and bike paths, and the construction of new venues (not to mention an epic dog park), the City of Houston is investing heavily in Buffalo Bayou. It is still a work in progress but it is easy to see that it will soon be a tremendous asset to life inside the loop.

Buffalo Bayou is far from the only part of Houston under construction. As booming as Houston's economy is, there is construction everywhere! The downside to this is that there is traffic everywhere. It used to be that you would deal with traffic if you lived out in the suburbs but you were relatively insulated from it inside the loop. No longer! There is no escape! As quickly as Houston is growing, I don't expect the road construction to keep pace with the traffic and, unfortunately, public transportation efforts like light rail are being developed at a snail's pace.

Fortunately we didn't have to drive around too much as we spent most of our time on campus for Homecoming. The events were fantastic as always, including Katie's reunion at the new continuing studies building. As this was the first Homecoming in three years that Katie and I weren't chairing, we were really able to relax and enjoy it. We were able to see many friends in a short amount of time and Rice won the football game to boot, becoming bowl-eligible for the third year in a row - go Owls!

We also checked many Houston food destinations off of our bucket list while we were there: Goode Co. BBQ, Roost, Beaver's, Torchy's Tacos, some more authentic tex mex, and even the Lovett College servery. Say what you like about Houston; it is definitely a great food town!

It was just a quick trip, but it is always nice to be back together in the place we called home for more than 10 years - even if that place is changing at an incredible pace. It was a blast, Houston, and we'll be back soon!


A Few Days En Suisse

After the grand weekend in Paris I took a detour of just a few days in Lausanne, Switzerland before returning to the States. The trip on the TGV was wonderful as always. There is just something so civilized about traveling by train: plenty of space, Wifi, more than decent meals, and the gorgeous French countryside streaming by at more than 300 kph (200 mph)! Oh how I miss this option when I am in the US.

Upon my arrival I was met at the station by my IMD classmate and host, Mathieu. We wasted very little time before heading up the mountain for something canonically Swiss: fondue! As I have blogged before, Le Chalet Suisse offers not only an authentic "chalet" experience and delicious fondue but incomparable views of Lac Leman as well.

We arrived around sunset and were treated to gorgeous views, a crescent moon over the lake, and a magical twilight in the land of fairy tales before dinner. The magic only intensified as several other IMD classmates joined us for fondue. It has been nearly seven years since I met them all and nearly six since we finished the program but meeting them again makes it seem like it was only yesterday!

As I have blogged before, I have eliminated grains and starches from my diet, which has had a positive effect on my body composition. One doesn't exactly go into a fondue dinner for his health but I at least intended to stick to my nutritional guns. My willpower wore down quickly, though, and it rapidly devolved into a cheat meal. This began with the bread I dipped into the fondue pot, continued with the potato I took along with Mathieu's raclette, and then really hit a new high when I helped Allessandra finish her rösti. It's too bad no one had any spätzle as I would have devoured it since I was already breaking my rules! It was a very Swiss and very perfect way to start my brief trip.

Monday morning I had breakfast with another classmate - one who is trying to launch a startup, incidentally. We had a nice breakfast in Ouchy right along the lake. Unfortunately most of the menu items had grains in them and I was trying to return to my strict diet so guess what I had for breakfast: more cheese - because a huge fondue dinner the night before wasn't enough! Well, there are worse places in the world in which to find yourself eating a metric ton of cheese!

I spent the day at IMD, which was a refreshing homecoming. In the morning I met with many of the MBA staff. I must have looked famished (Not!) because they took pity on me and invited me to lunch at the famous IMD restaurant. It was just as good as I remembered and offered plenty of excellent vegetables and fish so that I could dilute my cheese consumption a little.

After working from the IMD cafe all afternoon, I went back up the mountain and did some trail running. The previous several days of perfect weather were finally at an end and the mountain slopes were shrouded in a misty fog. This made for another fairy tale experience picking my way first through the Parc de l'Hermitage and then the Bois de Sauvabelin - truly magical!

My hosts and I joined another IMD classmate for dinner at a local Italian restaurant. It turns out that on Monday nights they only have pizza available so it became another [delicious] cheat meal for me! Much as my breakfast classmate was launching a new venture, so was this other classmate at dinner. I'm beginning to notice a trend! I suppose alumni of the IMD MBA class of 2008 are nearing their seven year itch at their corporate jobs and starting to explore more entrepreneurial opportunities. It was quite rewarding to learn that my classmate had actually followed my online entrepreneurship lectures and found them very beneficial - glad to help!

Tuesday I began the day with a run along the lake. The fog over the lake and the Chateau d'Ouchy recalled visions of the mists of Avalon. In order to make it back to my apartment, shower, and then return to Ouchy for meetings at IMD in time I took the metro up and back. On the way up I received lots of stares as someone who was clearly out of place. Dressed in Under Armour and wearing Vibrams Fivefingers shoes, I was looking very un-Swiss!

However, on my way back down to IMD I received even more stares - this time because of my Google Glass, which is even less common in Europe than it is the US. Being so blatantly stared at was a really interesting sociological experience. Even as extroverted as I am, even as much as I enjoy the spotlight, I felt uncomfortable by the unapologetic gawking on the metro. I can only imagine how uncomfortable women feel when they are gawked at in public or, worse, catcalled and harassed.

Clearly this wasn't as much of an epiphanous experience as, for example, Dustin Hoffman's character experienced in Tootsie, but it still opened my eyes somewhat to how people in the minority feel when they are clearly out of place within the majority. As a white American male I am more often in the majority in the US so I will try to be more sensitive to those who are not.

Tuesday I got a little work done at IMD but spent most of my time catching up with former professors. I even went to dinner with one (Fondue again - the diet was on full pause by this point!), who was on the verge of taking on a new challenge as dean of another business school. He has been a professor, a mentor, and a friend to me so it is thrilling to see him leave a very comfortable situation at IMD for a new adventure.

Wednesday I followed the path I still know all too well from my time in Lausanne: down to the train station, the train to Geneva Airport, and then the flight back to the US. Wednesday happened to be seven years to the day that I received my call from IMD's fabulous alumni director notifying me of my admission - how poetic!

It was a very short trip but it was wonderful to see so many friends and familiar places. It was a productive trip as well - in more ways than one! Shortly after my departure, my hosts gave birth to their first child (Congratulations!!!!). No need to thank me; I just seem to have that effect when I am a houseguest.

Now I'm back in the US and working hard to complete Smart OES's funding round - big news to report about on that front soon!


Paris and Buffett 6.0 - Day 2

We woke up [very late] Saturday morning and seized the day. Katie met her friend for some touring about and I decided to go for a run. Once again the weather was absolutely perfect and I figured I could see more of Paris running than walking.

Instead of following a predetermined route, I decided just to take my phone with me and run everywhere nearby that Google Maps showed green space. This took me up to Les Invalides, over through the Jardin des Tuileries, along the Champs-Élysées, and back via a pedestrian area along the Seine.

I could have kept going for hours! Parks, parks, everywhere is something I really love about old European cities. They really appreciate green space, not only for its beauty but also for the social purpose it serves. I think citizens feel more invested in their community when they spend time out enjoying it with myriad neighbors, which is exactly what was happening on this gorgeous day! So many people were out walking, picnicking, napping, or just sitting and chatting as I ran by - it was inspiring!

Of course, there is a downside as well. Although I love parks, parks everywhere in European cities, I loathe smoke, smoke everywhere. It's hard to walk anywhere without stumbling unwittingly into a cloud of smoke, and that happens even more frequently when running. That's OK, though; it's usually easy enough to hold my breath until the air is clear again.

With my run behind me I showered up and made my way over to the theater to tailgate for Buffett's second concert. The floor section for the Saturday night show would be standing instead of seated, so there was actually an advantage to arriving early and staking out a good place in line.

The tailgate was a lot of fun and I met many other international Parrotheads - from Canada, Italy, Holland, and - of course - the US. We chatted, played Jimmy Buffett music, and - of course - imbibed. My beverage of choice this time around was a very nice Sauternes. Considering that I had eaten exclusively chocolate all day, I was living a very literal "dolce vita" until I also opened up some cheese as well.

Eventually Katie and her friend came to join me in line. They hopped right into the tailgating and, before we knew it (Time usually flies at a Buffett tailgate!), we were being let into the venue. We were pretty close to the stage, maybe 20 feet away, which made for a great concert. Jimmy mixed up the set list a little bit from the previous night so that it kept even those of us who attended both concerts guessing.

After the concert the girls struck out to get some Champagne and watch the Eiffel Tower lights while I stuck around to to see Jimmy leave the venue. He was very personable and gracious, signing many autographs on his way out. Afterward I walked back to our apartment, which took nearly an hour, but it was a great walk. In a pedestrian-friendly city, just walking along the streets is a fun experience regardless of the time of day.

Sunday morning we woke up in time to have a parting breakfast with Mom before I hopped on the train to Switzerland. Eggs, snails, salmon, sardines . . . the waiter actually brought over an additional table just for my order! What can I say, I didn't know when I would next have true French cuisine so I was trying to stock up!

It was just a brief trip to Paris but, as always, it was a grand time. Paris is not an inexpensive place by any stretch of the imagination, but you certainly get what you pay for. Au revoir, Paris, until next time!


Paris and Buffett v6.0 - Day 1

Last weekend Katie and I took a quick trip to Paris to keep up the annual tradition of seeing Jimmy Buffett there. This time our experience was enhanced by some family and friends! My mom was there already as part of a longer trip and two of our good friends managed to time their business trips such that we overlapped - the more, the merrier!

We arrived Friday late morning and immediately met up with a Parisian colleague of mine for lunch. Francois and I met a couple of years ago through the Cleantech Open and CleanWeb circles, both of which he was leading in France. It just goes to show you how global the network is of entrepreneurs trying to use innovative capitalism to create a better life for all! In addition to catching up with Francois on a personal level (Somehow that is just easier over a fine French meal than it is over Skype!), I was also pleased to learn that he recently launched his latest venture, techUforward.

Our late lunch didn't leave much time before Buffett's first concert so we hustled over to Sacré-Cœur, where we met my mom and my favorite wingman. It was a glorious autumn day in Paris - clear skies and warm weather - so where better to "tailgate" than perched along the Sacré-Cœur hill? There were many other people out there as well, just soaking in what could be the last great weather of the year.

We opened some cheese and wine and played some Buffett on our phones to get ready for the show. Incidentally, we actually brought the wine (two left bank Bordeaux) from our cellar in the US. Bringing French wine to France is kind of like bringing sand to the beach, but we figured this way we could spend less time procuring fantastic wine and more time enjoying it! We weren't 100% sure that we were allowed to pop open wine in public in Paris and we even had a bit of a scare as a stern-looking woman made her way toward us. It turns out, however, that she wasn't looking to tell us off about our wine - rather, she was hoping to borrow our wine opener (which we had also brought from the US just to leave nothing to chance)!

As we continued to enjoy our Buffett pre-party, another Parrothead who was walking by recognized us and joined in the fun. I had met him last year and it was fun to see a familiar face. I believe this was the sixth year I came to Paris for the show and many other attendees were repeat comers as well - it's a fun little community of Parrotheads Parisiens!

Buffett's show was very nice. This first night it was all seated, including down on the floor where we were. Of course we were standing most of the night but it was nice to have a seat on which to leave our stuff while we were dancing about. As always, it was basically one big sing-along. Afterward we met up with some others for a few drinks but called it a [relatively] early night. After all, we would need our strength for his second concert on Saturday!


Running for a Reason

This weekend I had a phenomenal experience that has changed running for me forever. I ran my first race as a volunteer for Ainsley's Angels. It is an organization that promotes inclusion for and awareness of the special needs community by pairing up runners ("angels") with those who can't run the races by themselves ("captains"). Using race chariots, the captains ride along with the angels and so are able to participate in endurance events

The first time I saw anything like this it was a viral video about Team Hoyt, a father-son duo. The son, wheelchair-bound and suffering from Cerebral Palsy, told his dad that he didn't feel disabled when he was being pushed in a wheelchair in a race. In an inspiring show of love, the father found ways to pull his son along during the swimming, biking, and running portions of triathlons and together they have now completed more than 1,000 races. I recall being moved to tears during the video but I didn't know at the time that there was a way that I could be involved as well.

At a road race in May, however, I discovered the local chapter of Ainsley's Angels, a similar organization founded by a family that discovered the therapeutic benefits of race inclusion for their daughter, Ainsley, who suffers from INAD. As I encountered the captain-angel teams during the race, I saw lots of smiles and knew that I had had to volunteer.

This Saturday was my first race with the Angels, the Raleigh 8,000. I confess that I was somewhat nervous when I showed up. Were we actually providing a helpful service? Or were we forcing people to participate in races to soothe our own egos? I had never pushed a wheelchair, stroller, or anything similar before. What if I screwed up? What if I accidentally dumped my captain or ran down another runner? What if I said something that was inadvertently insensitive? What if I suddenly had an uncontrollable need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the race??

Fortunately the other angels were relaxed and reassuring. This was a very small race (just 300 total runners and only 3 angel teams) so there wasn't much pressure. I met my captain, Theo, a five-year-old with a big mop of curly hair, and I knew it would be fine. His mom, whose hands were very full with two other children, told me that they drove in for these events whenever they could because Theo really enjoyed the stimulation of the race experience. She told me that he liked the breeze in his face so I promised him I would run fast.

When the starting gun sounded, the angel teams began together. As I picked up steam and became comfortable with the race chariot, though, Theo and I pulled ahead and started passing people. This wasn't as easy as it might normally be because A. the chariot was pretty large and not too agile and B. most of the race took place on a relatively narrow greenway. Theo helped, though; as he cooed and squealed, people ahead took notice and made way.

Theo was great; his happy noises and frequent waving of hands and feet attracted a lot of attention from nearby runners. His race chariot was decorated with his name on it so we elicited many "Go, Theodore"s as we passed people. I wish I had been doing this a long time ago when I was single because I met many attractive young ladies on the course as they told me how cute my "son" was! The net effect was that running with Theo made running a much more social experience than it usually is for me. As a hardcore extrovert, I loved it!

Although people in Raleigh would call the course flat, I'm sure, there were definitely some non-trivial hills. Pushing Theo up those hills (and I should point out that Theo was the smallest captain of the bunch - so I have to give serious props to the other two angels!) was tough - which was great, since the entire reason I run is for a workout! Whenever my body felt like slowing down I thought about the physical challenges the fragile little boy in front of me was facing and it kind of put the hills in perspective. I talked to Theo as we approached each hill. I don't know if he understood me but I liked to think that the sounds he was making were cheering/encouraging me on, and together he and I conquered hill after hill after hill - it really was more like him pulling me along than me pushing him.

My usual 8k time is ~34-35 minutes. Theo and I finished this one in 42:54. Given the help I was able to lend Theo in participating in the race, given the glee in his voice and movements as we sped along the downhills, given the way he inspired me and those around us, given the social experience that running with him was, and given the extra workout I got out of it, I would say this was my best 8k ever! It made running the race so much more meaningful than it would have been otherwise and I absolutely can't wait to do it again.


Final Summer Track PRs

As I detailed in my previous post, I have been running track meets this summer and steadily improving in all these new (to me) events. Here are my final PRs in all events for the summer track season:

100m: 12.7s
200m: 27.69s
400m: 1:04
800m: 2:37
1,000m: 3:19
1,500m: 5:21
1 Mile: 5:52
3,000m: 11:57
5,000m: 20:14

The track meets were a lot of fun and I can't wait to do them again next summer. In the meantime now it's time to prepare for cross country season!

Loving Uber and Lyft

This week I used Uber for the first time and really loved it. It was very convenient (I could see how far away the nearest driver was and it only took him a few minutes to pick me up.), cost less than a comparable taxi ride ($40 vs $60-$70), and was a high-quality experience (nice car, professional driver).

I haven't tried Lyft yet, but what I like most about both services is how they increase asset utilization. Instead of manufacturing more cars for dedicated taxi fleets, these services use existing cars that are already on the road and would otherwise be sitting idle. They also increase human asset utilization. Many (most?) of the drivers don't drive full-time. Rather they pick up rides during their downtime to supplement their income, meet new people, and do something interesting - sure beats sitting on their butts watching TV!

Katie and I only have one car in NC and we used to think that we would buy another once I started traveling around the area more. However, with services like Uber and Lyft available, that probably won't be necessary. If one of us is already using the primary car, the other can take one of these services and even get work done while being chauffeured around. I'm a fan!


Rollin' and Tumblin'

This morning I tripped on a root and took quite a spill while trail running. Usually I am quite attentive while running and very deliberate about picking my feet up for exactly that reason. This morning, however, I was listening to an audiobook while running and I suspect that that was the culprit - I was running on autopilot and not paying enough attention to roots and rocks on a particularly technical downhill segment.

I'm fine, though, just scraped up a bit. Lesson learned: audiobooks and trails don't mix. Music and trails do mix. Nothing in my ears but the sound of nature mixes best of all!


Summer Track PRs

This summer I have been participating in a summer track series at UNC's Belk Track. Every Wednesday the Godiva Track Club gets together and holds a track meet alternating between "long" nights and "short" nights, featuring events of slightly longer and shorter distances respectively.

Having never run track before, I have been using these events as opportunities to work on speed and also to meet other runners in the area. Running 5,000m around a track for time would be mind numbing, but doing so in the spirit of friendly competition with other runners is not only fun but also motivating.

The Belk Track is a very nice international-style track (slightly wider with gentler turns) with a very soft running surface. I have been taking advantage of this great facility to transition from running in Vibrams to running completely barefoot. At the start of the summer I tried running one or two events barefoot but now I am running the entire night barefoot, only wearing my Vibrams to/from the car. It feels great (The only consequence is that, by the end of the night, the bottoms of my feet are very Carolina blue - does that make me a true tarheel?) and perhaps now I can try some other, less forgiving surfaces barefoot as well.

Because I've never run these short and middle distance events before, I am setting new PRs each week, which is always encouraging. I'm sure that won't last but I'm enjoying it while I can! Tonight was the last "long" night of the summer track series and here are my PRs:

200m: 27.69s
800m: 2:37
1 Mile: 5:52
5,000m: 20:14

We still have a few shorter distance meets left so I'll hope to set some more PRs on the flat track surface before returning to the very hilly road and trail races here in the Research Triangle.


Authentic Mediterranean Food in Arkansas

Katie and I just returned from a long weekend in Hot Springs, Arkansas for my cousin's wedding. Hot Springs is a small town about an hour outside of Little Rock, the state's capital. You wouldn't expect it to be a hotbed of international cuisine but, if our weekend was any indication, it most definitely is!

My mom's sister married into a large family of Greek-Americans who still have strong ties to their ancestral culture. When children in this family are married, it is an excuse for a veritable feast of Greek food - and my cousin's wedding was no exception! We had spanakopita, tiropita, lamb, and, of course, baklava. The wedding and reception were great fun - Katie even tried her hand at Greek folk dancing - but the best part was definitely the food!

The very next night my dad's side of the family got together for another feast - this one Italian. Pepperoni arrostiti, fried zucchini, and my grandmother's incomparable rigatoni with meat sauce (and a vegetarian version for Katie). Nonna may be gone, but she will always live on through her cooking - and through the [loud!] gatherings of all of her children and grandchildren.

Something I love about the US is how you find pockets of international ancestry and culture tucked away in all kinds of random places. Most of us are proud to be Americans but we're also proud of our roots - our delicious, delicious roots!

Congratulations to my cousin on her marriage and many thanks to her for providing a reason for us to dine so well all weekend!


World Cup in the USA

Four years have come and gone since the last World Cup, which I enjoyed in Switzerland. This is my first time really following the action in the US, which is - of course - a different experience. One side effect of having attended such a global school as IMD is that I have friends and classmates from almost every country represented in the Cup. This results in friendly rivalries popping up all over my facebook feed during these few weeks of competition.

The upshot is that, even when the US loses, I hold no animosity toward the victors. For example, it is hard to stay mad at Germany after they beat the US 1-0 when some of my best IMD friends are German. And taking an anti-Belgium stance before tomorrow's knockout match would be impossible in light of my Belgian classmate and professor / program director.

I suppose this is the intent of the World Cup: to foster friendly rivalries rather than riots and beatings. Much as the Olympics draws attention to more obscure (at least from the American perspective!) sports every four years, it is fun to see so many Americans getting swept up in World Cup fever. Here's hoping for a strong US showing and for a good World Cup regardless of the outcome!

A Visit to OwlSpark

Last week I was in Houston and took advantage of the opportunity to spend some time at OwlSpark. OwlSpark is Rice University's tech startup accelerator, providing funding, space, connections, and mentorship to budding Rice entrepreneurs. It actually began as a project in the lean startup course I taught during my tenure as EIR and I'm thrilled to see it taking off so well. This is its second year of operation and it was inspiring to meet this cohort's eight teams.

I gave two talks (one on lessons learned from my own entrepreneurial journey, one on oral presentation skills) which I will post soon and also sat in on their first pitch practice. The OwlSpark team also posted a brief interview with me, the text of which follows below:

OwlSpark: You were an Entrepreneur in Residence at Rice and taught a project-based startup course. How would you describe Rice’s entrepreneurial environment today compared to before, and where do you see it in the coming years?

Bryan: When I was a student at Rice, there simply was no entrepreneurial environment. Even though it was the peak of the dot com boom, the number of students and faculty starting up companies was exceedingly small.
Today there is much more energy and visibility around entrepreneurship, which is a great trend. Organizations like OwlSpark, Rice Launch, and on-campus business competitions are creating several “entry points” into an entire stream of Rice entrepreneurship offerings. The next step is for Rice to become less insular, engaging not only the local Houston ecosystem but also entrepreneurial alumni around the world. Most people don’t realize that Silicon Valley was built on the backs of several Rice alumni (known in the Bay area as the “Rice Mafia”) and there are many other incredibly successful entrepreneurs, VCs, and corporate leaders elsewhere. We need to establish Rice as THE epicenter of entrepreneurship to draw those people back to campus and entice them to be resources for our next generation of entrepreneurs.

OwlSpark: In your blog “The Green Knight,” you wrote about preparing engineers “to be job makers, not job takers.” Similar perspectives have been gaining popularity lately. Why do you think this is such an important paradigm shift for engineers, and why do you think this is just starting to take hold now?

Bryan: A large percentage of job titles today simply didn’t exist 15 years ago and an even larger percentage won’t exist 15 years from now. We have a responsibility to prepare students not just for historically stable roles but also for a highly uncertain future in which those same roles might be performed by robots or even obsolete. Entrepreneurship is the art of capitalizing on – and even driving – the uncertain future so entrepreneurial skillsets are highly relevant for addressing this challenge. Entrepreneurship is empowerment. Rice students should not be at the fatalistic mercy of the job market; they should be creating the job market.

OwlSpark: In what ways do you think an engineering education really prepares you for major entrepreneurial and leadership roles?

Bryan: In many ways the traditional engineering education does NOT prepare students for major entrepreneurial and leadership roles. Traditional engineering coursework features endless problem sets all leading individual students toward a single, provably correct, known answer. Entrepreneurship is exactly the opposite: entrepreneurs operate in an environment so complex that the “answer” is not only unknown, but also unknowable. Entrepreneurs *create* answers, test them quickly and cheaply for fit, and rapidly iterate to create better answers – and almost always in teams.

Rice’s George R. Brown’s School of Engineering has introduced a strong focus on collaborative design projects instead of individual problem sets in recent years. This type of multidisciplinary design is much more applicable to both entrepreneurship and leadership. Starting a company is essentially a design problem, but one with commercial and organizational design constraints instead of just functional and technical. The GRBSOE also recognizes that engineers rarely work in environments comprising exclusively engineers so it is attempting to create more opportunities that transcend academic boundaries. For example, in the entrepreneurship course I taught only 1/3 of students were engineers. This made for startup teams that much more closely modeled real entrepreneurial ventures.

OwlSpark: You focus on the clean tech and energy space. What does being an entrepreneur in that area entail that may be unique as compared to other industries?

Bryan: Both “cleantech” and “energy” are such broad terms encompassing so many different industries and market segments that it is hard to generalize about them. Still, one of the aspects I enjoy about this space is how incredibly impactful working in the energy industry is. Energy affects literally everything we see and touch and do. As Rice Nobel Laureate Dick Smalley was fond of saying, if we solve the energy challenge, we solve the next nine greatest challenges facing the world for free. As an entrepreneur working hard to have a positive impact on energy use, I find that that sense of making a meaningful impact helps me get through tough times.

OwlSpark: From a business perspective, if present-you could give one piece of advice to past-Bryan, what would it be?

Bryan: “Dear past-Bryan, work smarter, not harder.” When the going gets tough, my natural instinct is to put my head down and power through by working longer hours. However, I’ve now found that I’m most effective when I pull my head up and ask why the going is tough and – and whether there might be smarter ways to address the current challenge. Looking back at my career, there are probably several instances in which I would have been more successful (and better rested!) if I had taken this approach.


When to Listen to Investors

One of the best - and worst - aspects of being a startup founder is being inundated with a nearly constant stream of advice. Advice comes from everyone - friends, business partners, professors, customers, competitors, journalists, employees - but especially from investors. This makes sense as investors have a lot riding on the outcome of your venture.

Part of the art of entrepreneurship is knowing when to take the advice and when not to. I saw an article on this subject today and it resonated with me. Many startup investors have not started up companies themselves. It is important to be cautious with their advice as startups are not simply small versions of large companies. The techniques and decisions used to launch and rapidly scale a disruptive startup are different than those that would make sense in larger companies or businesses in more mature markets.

Even investors with startup experience may be biased by a different time, a different industry, or false attribution of success in previous ventures. But all these investors are [hopefully] smart, experienced, high-integrity people who are earnestly trying to help the founder be successful and they should all be heard. It falls on he entrepreneur to process all of their advice and make the ultimate decision.

At Smart Office Energy Solutions we have managed to bring on some very savvy investors with a lot of valuable advice to offer. Although we don't always take 100% of the advice offered to us, these investors are a key asset and strategic advantage - and we'll take every advantage we can get!


Entrepreneurship at Rice

As I wrapped up my role as the inaugural Entrepreneur In Residence at Rice, I was asked to summarize what we accomplished during my time there in this article, published in the trade journal of the Society of Petroleum Engineers. The article is on pages 29-31 of the journal but, for those who don't wish to click through, following is just the text:

Preparing Engineers to Be Job Makers, Not Job Takers

The entrepreneurial spirit is an
increasingly valuable asset in today’s
economy. The same toolkit used to
launch a business from scratch turns
out to be quite applicable to larger,
more established organizations as well.
Mature energy companies and even
nonprofit or government bodies have
just as much need as startup companies
for ambitious employees who have
the ability to identify problems, listen
to customers/stakeholders, marshal
resources, and inspire teams to create
efficient solutions.

The George R. Brown School of
Engineering, part of Rice University
in Houston, Texas, is tasked with
preparing the next generation of
engineers for careers in academia or
industry. In fact many of the students
could spend the majority of their
professional lives working in the energy
industry. However, it is difficult in a
traditional classroom setting to imbue
engineering students with the spirit of
entrepreneurialism. In addition, there is
a dearth of rigorous scientific research
about entrepreneurship and its effective
development. So, if entrepreneurialism
is an increasingly important skill for
engineering careers, how does a
university prepare its students today for
their careers of tomorrow?

As part of Rice’s vision for its second
century of existence, the Rice Center
for Engineering Leadership (RCEL)
was given the specific task of helping
Rice engineers develop into inspiring
leaders, exceptional team members, and
bold entrepreneurs. RCEL’s approach to
entrepreneurship development is based
on three key elements:

1. A curriculum built on
rigorous academic research
on entrepreneurship.
Myriad authors, speakers, and
bloggers profess they have
unlocked the formula for
entrepreneurial success. However,
the evidence presented is largely
anecdotal, and more often than
not using their formulas only
demonstrates their ineffectiveness.
RCEL’s entrepreneurship
curriculum uses concepts from
“effectuation,” which the Society
for Effectual Action (SEA) touts
on its website as being “a logic
of thinking, discovered through
scientific research, used by
expert entrepreneurs to build
successful ventures.” The
members of SEA have created
a body of research spanning
multiple academic institutions
and industry partners around
the world.
2. Programming that is
experiential in nature.
Students are required to practice
entrepreneurship rather than just
study it. This requires interaction
with real-world entrepreneurs, not
just with academic faculty.
3. Focus on the intersection
between economic value
and social value—called
Students succeed in RCEL’s
entrepreneurship curriculum
by attempting to develop
entrepreneurial opportunities that
don’t just make money but also
provide positive societal value.

To implement these elements,
RCEL has taken a three-pronged
approach: curricular, co-curricular,
and extracurricular.

The curricular approach is based on
the classic academic model in which
students take courses offered by
faculty. Students complete assignments,
and receive course credit and a
grade. Rice offers several curricular
entrepreneurship courses, ranging
from those that are industry-specific to
those broadly scoped in nature and from
those that provide a light exploration of
entrepreneurship to those that are deep
experiential dives.

RCEL’s most significant “deep-dive”
entrepreneurship course, ENGI 540, is
a lean startup course in which students
must deliver a business—not a business
plan—by the end of the semester.
This course attracts students from

all disciplines, from engineering to
business to architecture to the liberal
arts, at both the undergraduate and
graduate levels. The number of male
and female students is about equal, and
students come from a broad spectrum of
backgrounds, cultures, and continents.
Students must perform a lot of work
before being accepted into ENGI 540,
including an initial application during
the semester before enrollment and
a significant amount of preparatory
homework the summer before the
semester begins.

The requirement to perform
preparatory work serves two purposes:
It weeds out the least committed
students, and it ensures that students are
ready to hit the ground running on the
first day of class. In essence, students
spend the summer developing and
refining multiple startup ideas. They
arrive on the first day of class ready to
pitch their ideas to their classmates.

During the first day of class, students
self-organize into startup teams that will
focus on the venture ideas they found
most promising. No single-student teams
are allowed; if a student fails to compel
students to join his or her venture, the
venture is dead. This closely models
the real startup world in which very
few lone founders make it very far. The
self-organizing policy also creates a
free market in the class for talent as
teams with skill gaps try to entice key
students to join their cause. The breadth
of student disciplines and backgrounds
ensures that engineering students
gain experience working in highly
diverse teams—again modeling the real
startup world.

The ENGI 540 semester
comprises 13 weekly cycles of startup
development, during which the students
adopt the lean startup mantra of “getting
out of the building” to gather feedback
from real customers. Each week students
must present at the beginning of class
what they accomplished and what they
learned (rather than just what they did)
during the previous week.

The aspect of ENGI 540 with which
Rice students struggle the most is the
absence of a clear grading rubric.
Since they first set foot on campus,
Rice students have been optimizing
their efforts around a causal grading
rubric (“If you do x, y, and z, then you
will get an A”). However, predictable
causality has no place in the world of
entrepreneurship. We deliberately keep
our grading methodology concealed
from the students in order to increase
their comfort level under conditions of
heightened uncertainty—a critical skill
for entrepreneurs.

At the end of the semester,
student teams pitch their ventures to
evaluators—an audience of venture
capitalists, angel investors, corporate
development officers, academic leaders,
and entrepreneurs.

Each evaluator is given a finite
amount of virtual currency to invest in
as many or as few ventures as he or
she sees fit. RCEL uses this investment
distribution as the primary determiner
of student grades. The final pitch isn’t the
first time evaluators have heard about
the student ventures. Each evaluator
has been introduced to the class over
the course of the semester as a potential
mentor and network connector. Most
evaluators work closely with student
teams for months so they can make a
much more informed final investment
decision than if they had just heard a
pitch for the first time.

This approach supplements
nonentrepreneurial academic curricula
with entrepreneurial practicum. There
is a lot of intellectual property being
developed in every lab and every
classroom across the Rice campus
every day. However, the faculty leading
those labs and classes often lack the
entrepreneurial expertise to help
students commercialize their work.

Faculty now have the option of
adding an entrepreneurship module
to each of their courses. In this
entrepreneurship module, RCEL
entrepreneurship faculty present several
guest lectures on entrepreneurship
and work closely with the students
outside class time to ensure that they
take commercial opportunities into
consideration when pursuing their work
in the lab.

For example, in a course titled BIOE
428 (Bio-MEMS [microeletromechanical
systems] and medical microdevices),
several student teams designed and
developed nanoscale biosensors.
Through the course’s entrepreneurship
module, they identified, sized,
and validated target markets, and
honed in on some applications for
their inventions—one of which
ultimately became the basis for a
startup company.

RCEL also provides entrepreneurial
support that is completely unrelated
to academic coursework. Last
summer, RCEL, in partnership with
the Rice Alliance for Technology
and Entrepreneurship, launched
OwlSpark, an on-campus
technology startup accelerator for
Rice entrepreneurs. OwlSpark—
itself a startup that started in ENGI
540—provides funding, space, and
mentorship for Rice’s most innovative
startup ideas.

There are several student
entrepreneurship organizations RCEL
supports and sponsors. Additionally,
RCEL regularly brings entrepreneurs
and investors on campus where they
hold “open office hours” for students,
faculty, staff, and alumni seeking
entrepreneurship advice.

How will we know if our efforts are
successful? How can we measure
the efficacy of our actions? Most
organizations like RCEL choose
relatively simplistic entrepreneurship
measures—such as number of startups
launched or total dollar amount raised.
However, these metrics gauge activity
levels, not results.

Academic institutions, in particular,
are prone to use metrics such as
the number of students enrolled in
entrepreneurship courses.

Even if we included all the students
impacted by the co-curricular and
extracurricular entrepreneurship
offerings at Rice, we would still be
measuring means to ends and learning
nothing about our efficacy in achieving
those ends. In startup jargon, these
are referred to as “vanity metrics”
because they look pretty but, at best,
offer no real insight and, at worst, give
a false sense of confidence that leads
to complacency.

It will probably be years before
we can really tell if RCEL’s efforts have
been effective.

In the meantime, however, we have
turned to a tool gaining significant use
in the marketing industry: Net Promoter
Score (NPS). Using an extremely simple
question—“How likely would you be
to recommend Product X to your peer
group?”—and a rating system based
on a scale from 1 to 10, the team behind
NPS has had success segmenting
customers into Promoters (9s and 10s),
Passives (7s and 8s), and Detractors
(1 through 6).

NPS is the percentage of a product’s
customers who are Promoters less the
percentage who are Detractors and is
scored on a scale from -100 to 100. An
organization’s goal is to improve the NPS
of its product or service relative to its
competitors’ scores and/or relative to its
historical scores.

In 2012, RCEL began using the
NPS system to gauge the perceptions
of its entrepreneurship constituents:
Rice students, faculty/staff, alumni,
entrepreneurs, investors, and
even people with no Rice affiliation
whatsoever. Our hypothesis was that,
if we were effective in our efforts to
improve entrepreneurship at Rice, that
would be reflected in an increase in our
entrepreneurship NPS.

Over 12 months we conducted five
NPS assessments asking, “How likely
would you be to recommend Rice for
entrepreneurship to your fellow [peer
group members]?”

In 1 year the three-period moving
average of Rice’s entrepreneurship
NPS improved overall by 9 points. It
improved most significantly with oncampus
constituents (students, faculty,
and staff) but also improved consistently
among alumni, entrepreneurs, and the
community at large.

There is no NPS industry benchmark
for entrepreneurship at academic
institutions; however, we interpret these
relative score increases as an indicator
that RCEL is having a positive impact on
entrepreneurship at Rice.

While we have launched dozens
of startups since RCEL began its
entrepreneurship efforts, we should be
clear that our goal is not for students
to drop out of college to launch what
they hope might be the next Microsoft
or Facebook.

We do believe, however, that many of
the hardest and most worthy problems
entrepreneurship can address require
entrepreneurs to have spent significant
time in the “real” world. Industries
as complex as energy, aerospace,
and healthcare need entrepreneurs
who have been to the front lines and
experienced their industry’s actual,
functioning state of the art.

Our hope is that, by preparing
students today to take the problem
solving and design skills they hone in
their engineering coursework and focus
them on engineering startup companies,
they will be better equipped to
make significant contributions
tomorrow as entrepreneurial
founders, commercialization-oriented
academics, and
“intrapraneurs” effectively solving
meaningful problems within
established corporations.


Startups Should Never Pay to Pitch

Several times a week my startup is solicited to participate in pay-to-pitch events at which we are promised access to a smorgasbord of wealthy, capable investors who are just chomping at the bit to invest in companies like mine. Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, it is.

This has been covered by many other posts, such as from this startup lawyer and from this angel investor but here is my $0.02 to add as well.

These pay-to-pitch scams start off innocently enough. There is often no mention of a fee up front. Then, if you "apply" (a classic sales/manipulation trick: making YOU apply to THEM so that you want them to take your money in order for you not to feel rejected), you make it to the "next round," and then they casually drop the bomb that, oh by the way, there will be a fee of several thousand dollars to present.

If you object, it is often glossed over as, "We have to charge the fee to filter out the startups that aren't serious." I see, because the "application process" I've been going through doesn't help you filter any startups out? What exactly is the application process for then? Oh, right, see the above note about the sales technique!

Imagine that: the hoards of rich investors want the cash-poor startups to pay substantial fees just for the right to talk to them - makes sense, right?? Seriously, no investor worth his/her salt needs a forum of curated startup presentations to get access to dealflow. Likewise, no entrepreneur worth his salt needs to pay to have access to a group of such C-list [non-]investors. Or put another way: if investors don't even see enough value in the event to fund it completely, how likely do you think they will be to invest in the presenting companies? The result is an event consisting of lackluster startups, lackluster investors, and very, very little actual investment activity.

Think about it: how many successful startups do you know whose story starts with, "Well we had this game changing idea and a great team but we were so unresourceful that we had to pay just to get access to some potential investors?" Google? Facebook? Paypal? Nest? Exactly.

The practice of charging entrepreneurs to present is, at best, naive on the parts of the angel groups and, at worst, straight up predatory. I have to admit that, when I first started Smart OES and was raising capital for the first time in my life, I fell prey to one of these events. Fortunately it was a relatively small fee and the damage was minimal.

Of the nearly $1M of angel capital my startup has raised, not a dime of it has come from events like that. It has come from hustling and networking, which are key entrepreneurial skillsets. My advice to entrepreneurs: forget the pay-to-pitch scams. If you're having a hard time raising money, get out and start networking or, though it may be challenging, take a look in the mirror and evaluate why the people you are pitching aren't buying in.

The Vibram Five Fingers Lawsuit

Last month it was reported that Vibram, the company that makes the Five Fingers minimalist footwear in which I run, decided to settle a class action lawsuit against it rather than take it to trial. Many of my Facebook friends posted incendiary sensational articles about it on my wall as if to say, "I told you so," about my goofy shoes.

The lawsuit alleges that Vibram used deceptive marketing messages to imply health benefits that would come from wearing their product and that those health benefits were not proven to exist. In settling the lawsuit, Vibram has not admitted guilt; rather it has admitted that going to trial would probably cost substantially more than the $3.75M settlement.

Imagine that: a marketing message may have its validity disputed. You might as well sue Axe body spray for not delivering on its promise of attracting hoards of attractive girls every time you use it - or every beer company ever for not magically transporting the consumer to Rocky Mountain streams with his best buds.

For a pretty fair and balanced assessment of the lawsuit, the research that is and isn't behind it, and its implications, see this post from The Science of Sport.

As for me, I'm planning to collect my settlement refund, viewing it as a discount on future Vibram purchases!


Moving Pains

For 10 months I have been meaning to write about our move from Houston to Chapel Hill, which was filled with both [surprising] highs and [expected] lows.

As always seems to be the case, we A. were moving during the hottest, most miserable part of the year, and B. found ourselves with way too much stuff. We couldn't do much about A but we spent months addressing B by pruning our inventory of clothes, furniture, and various things we hadn't used in years. We took car load after car load of donations to Good Will but, when it came time to start packing, we were astounded by how much stuff we still had.

When I lived in Switzerland I became very enamored of my asset-light lifestyle. Having few things with me made it very easy to move from one place to another (especially including back to the US!) and I rarely devoted any brain cycles to my stuff or anything related to it. It was freeing!

Back in the US I have clearly done a worse job of acquiring things but at least this move was a good impetus to reduce the collection substantially.

We decided to hire professionals for the move. It would cost more than doing it ourselves but we thought it would be worth it.

Our move started off on the wrong foot, however, when the company we had hired showed up with a truck that was too small. As a consequence, they had to wait some hours for a bigger truck to show up and then completely unload the smaller one, reloading the items onto the new truck.

They also told us it would cost more since we had more stuff than they had estimated. There is a lesson learned here: only hire movers who actually come out to your house to inventory your items, not ones who give you a low ball estimate over the phone with every intention of upping the price on you, knowing that you have to move out on a deadline.

For weeks leading up to the move we had been watching Season 4 of Arrested Development with some good friends. We would get together in the evening, power our way through a few episodes, and feast on frozen, chocolate-dipped bananas that were absolutely divine. We were just a couple of episodes away from finishing the season so we had intended to head over to their house for one last hurrah once the movers were done.

Unfortunately the movers took longer and longer and finally we had to notify our friends that there was no realistic way that we would be done overseeing the movers until way past everyone's bedtime. Between the wrenches in the gears with the movers and not getting to say our goodbyes as planned, we were bummed. Imagine our surprise, then, when those friends showed up at our door unannounced, delivering frozen bananas, champagne, and good cheer! Talk about turning our frowns upside down!

Eventually the movers finished (Not quite; they actually had to come back in the morning for a few more things that they hadn't loaded.) and we spent the night at a friend's house before hitting the road ourselves. We broke up the trip by stopping to spend a couple of days in my childhood home of Huntsville, Alabama. Huntsville has changed a great deal but there was still plenty of nostalgia to be had.

The drama with the movers wasn't over, though, as they called to increase the price on us again. Now that they had many of our worldly possession on their truck, they were holding them hostage and were clearly in a powerful negotiating position. It was straight up extortion. We felt betrayed by the movers and angry at ourselves for naively getting ourselves into such a situation.

Fortunately, it turns out that we are not the first victims of such a scam. Mover scams are apparently so common that there is an entire office (The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration) within the Department of Transportation devoted to protecting consumers from such fraudulent behavior on interstate moves.

We did a little research, talked with a representative of the FMCSA just to confirm that we were in the right, and then talked tough on our next call with the movers. The person on the other end of the line changed his tune pretty quickly when Katie started dropping terms like "federal fraud charges" and, wouldn't you know it, they agreed to deliver our goods on time for the price agreed to in their binding quote.

At the end of the day our goods arrived, largely unscathed, and we paid the agreed upon price. However, for every one of us who fights back, I wonder how many families give in to the demands - very many, I would guess. Ugh, I feel dirty just having dealt with them.

The irony of the situation is that we actually have a good friend who runs an interstate moving company. We completely forgot about that when we went out shopping for quotes and, in hindsight, would obviously have preferred to deal with a trusted (and trustworthy) business owner.

With 10 months of distance from the move, it no longer seems as painful. At the time, however, it was pretty stressful - and moves are already stressful enough without piling more on top! Let our experience be valuable for you, though: if you are considering a major move, feel free to reach out to me to learn more from our move and I would be glad to put you in touch with my friend who owns the good moving company!


Bragging About My Wife

Although I usually devote this blog to bragging about myself, I must take this opportunity to brag about my wife. Yesterday Katie was awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, the first fellowship for which she ever applied. Katie was one of 2,000 awardees selected from more than 14,000 applications - huzzah!

I have been very excited to support Katie in her major career move to go "back to school" for her PhD. This is the most enthusiastic I have seen her be about her work since I have known her. Applying for programs and grants and fellowships comes with a risk of rejection and failure. No stranger to failure myself, I would love Katie just as much even if she didn't get into the top schools, receive the top awards, or have her articles published in the top journals. Over the course of an entire career, those types of failures are bound to happen. However, she is certainly off to a great start - accepted at top anthropology programs, top marks in her courses, and now winning research fellowships - and it is very rewarding to see that others value the work she is doing too.

It is no secret that I married "up" with Katie. Hopefully I can keep up with her contributions to Team KJBGH!


Fittest Entrepreneur

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fittest [entrepreneur] of them all . . . ? I am! At least according to the Houston Fittest Entrepreneur Challenge, which was organized by Fit Company, a nonprofit seeking to promote health among business professionals. There were several competitor categories: entrepreneurs, execs, doctors, lawyers, and company teams. All competitors descended on the Houston Dynamo practice facility Sunday, February 23, to compete for our respective category titles.

The competition consisted of three courses, with about 10 minutes of recovery time between each. The first course comprised individual strength exercises, the second course offered several obstacles to overcome, and the third course was a 5k run on the premises. The objective was to finish each event in each course as quickly as possible. Each competitor would then be given a ranking for each event and the best average ranking across all three courses would win the category.

I arrived in Houston Saturday after a business trip to Guatemala (more on that in a subsequent post), but I took things easy Saturday evening and was well rested for the contest Sunday morning. In a touching show of support, I was joined by an entourage of two of my former Rice entrepreneurship students and one of my best friends (who was a real trooper battling a significant hangover!). As I am much more of a team sport guy than an individual sport guy, I found these "teammates" to add a great deal to my motivation.

My students brought a sign to cheer me on. They didn't know whether to put #23 (my high school football number) or #42 (my Rice football number) on it, so they brought stick-on numbers for 4, 2, and 3 to cover both possibilities. When I picked up my race bib, I was astounded to see that I was competitor #423! As if I needed any more motivation, this was surely a harbinger of good things to come.

I ran in the last heat of the day, which started at 11:00 AM. This gave me the advantage of a little extra warmup time and more of a chance to plan for the courses now that I knew what they contained. When we finally got started, though, most of my planning went right out the window!

The first event was 30 bodyweight inverted rows on a suspension trainer. I finished in 28 seconds, #4 among men in that event. Some people finished closer to 20 seconds, which I don't understand unless they weren't fully extending their arms. The second event was 40 plyo box step-ups while carrying a 25-lb sandbell. I wasn't familiar with sandbells before this event, but they're pretty cool: vary malleable, much harder to deal with than a dumbbell of the same weight, but softer and less bouncy than a medicine ball. I tried to keep an even pace with the step-ups and finished in 1:14, #9 in that event.

The third event was 40 chest-to-the-ground push-ups, which I finished in 29 seconds, a tie for #4. The fourth event was 40 35-lb kettlebell swings, which I finished in 52 seconds, #6. The fifth event was 40 arms-behind-your-head to fingers-past-your-toes sit-ups. I slowed down a bit on this event, finishing in 1:18, #12. Individually none of the events were too taxing but stringing them all together with only 30 seconds of rest between each was taking its toll.

The sixth event was 20 burpees, which I finished in 45 seconds, #4. The seventh and final event of this course was a two-minute plank hold. I didn't even make it a full minute, tapping out at 52 seconds. I normally hold a plank easily but my hip flexors were so smoked from the sit-ups and burpees that I just couldn't keep it together. I thought at the time that I might have lost the contest right there but it turns out that other people struggled too and I finished #8 in that event.

Despite bombing the final event, I still finished the first course #8 overall and #1 among entrepreneurs. I wish I had known that then because I was seriously contemplating not finishing the competition. Although the temperature was only in the mid-70s F, the humidity was 90+% and it was becoming abundantly clear that I was no longer in Houston shape! Suddenly competing in the last heat of the day didn't seem like such a good idea . . . Fortunately my team got me water and helped me recover in time to begin the second course.

The first event of the second course was a sequence of agility drills: cones, ropes, ladders, hurdles, etc. Light-headed as I was, I took these pretty conservatively but still finished in 1:23, #4. The second event required me to toss a 15-lb sandbell back and forth over a high barrier 10 times before running suicide sprints. I finished in 60 seconds, #9.

The third event began with slamming a 15-lb sandbell into the ground 20 times before a long out-and-back bear crawl. Bear crawl always slows me down so I finished this event in 1:16, #12. The fourth event required me to start in a push-up position and then pull a 10-ft sandrope all the way under my body with one arm. And then pull it back again with the other arm. 10 times. Then drag the 30-lb rope a distance, pick up a 25-lb sandbell, and reverse toss it out the rest of the distance and back before finally dragging the sandrope back to the start. This was murder! Apparently it only took me 1:12 but it felt like much longer. #7.

The fifth and final event of the second course was a simple out-and-back sprint with a 50-lb sandbell over the shoulder. I finished in 17 seconds, #4. In the end I finished the second course #8 overall and #2 among entrepreneurs. Interestingly, I was starting to regain my energy, though, so I was feeling good heading into the final 5k.

Knowing that I was glycogen-depleted already, I decided to start off easy in the 5k and then speed up if it felt OK. One of my students actually hopped in and ran with me, which helped. My first km was 4:39 and, despite the high-in-the-sky sun, my heart rate was only 166, which is very safely manageable for me. My pacer and I were passing people and not being passed so it didn't seem like it would be necessary to press too much. That pace felt good and so I finished the second and third km at 4:42 and 4:39 respectively at the same steady heart rate.

As I was feeling good, I picked it up just a little bit in the fourth km, finishing in 4:36 at 171 heart rate - just on the other side of anaerobic. I still had plenty of gas in the tank for the final km, which I completed at a 4:28 pace before the final sprint. My final time was 21:54 - which would be very slow for me on a normal 5k but isn't so bad considering how exhausted I was - the #3 time of the day and first among entrepreneurs.

Combining my three course rankings (8, 8, and 3), I finished second overall and first among entrepreneurs. Huzzah! I was pleased with my balanced performance too. Looking at the results, it seems that most competitors were "specialists." Those who did really well on the first course did really poorly on the last course and vice versa. So, all in all, not bad for an old fart who's about to turn a year older in just a couple of days!

I'm really glad to have participated in this event. FitCompany's mission is a worthy one, as too many people sacrifice health for their professional lives. The two are not mutually exclusive and do not require tradeoffs. In fact, I find that the healthier I am, the higher performance I have in my professional life.

I'm also glad I participated in this event because this, combined with the Pump n' Run event earlier in February (I took second place at a 5k in which they subtracted 30 seconds for each rep of bench press bodyweight - it's probably the only chance I'll ever have at running a negative time!), has me hooked on multidisciplinary competitive events. I'm never going to run the world's fastest 5k, nor am I going to set a world record in weight lifting, but putting those types of competitions together tests a much more balanced type of fitness. I'm a fan.


On the Importance of Critical Thinking

This morning I saw a post claiming that, "Over half of all mobile searches lead to a purchase." I found this claim to be bold beyond the point of believability. Taking myself as a single data point, I do many searches on my mobile phone each day and rarely - almost never - do they lead to a purchase of anything. Perhaps I am a crazy outlier, but I called BS on the poster and asked him for a source to back up such an audacious claim.

The poster sent me a link to this page, which turned out to be just a blogger's summary of some research published by Google in 2010. Leaving aside the use of four-year-old data being used as "facts" today - which would be quite a big leap in and of its own right - I quickly found the reference being promoted by the original poster. According to this blogger, "Google says that 9 out of 10 mobile search users have 'taken action as a result of a mobile search, with over half leading to a purchase.'”

By this point my spider senses were really tingling. Did Google actually say that? And, if so, did they actually mean it the way the blogger - and ultimately the re-poster - communicated it? Unsurprisingly, a Google search for this particular research report returned the correct document as the top search result. A brief scan of that document revealed that the blogger was referencing quotes from pages 17 and 18.

On page 17 of the report, Google claims that, "9 out of 10 searchers have taken action as a result of a smartphone search." This result was obtained from 5,000 survey takers in response to the question: "Which, if any, of the following actions have you taken as a result of conducting a search on your smartphone?" Apparently 9 out of 10 respondents said they had ever taken some action as the result of a smartphone search.

On page 18, the slide title is, "More than half of Smartphone Searchers Purchase." This conclusion was drawn from responses to the same question. Apparently 5.3 out of 10 respondents said they had ever purchased something as the result of a smartphone search.

The author combined these two quotes - and misquoted them - to write, "Google says that 9 out of 10 mobile search users have 'taken action as a result of a mobile search, with over half leading to a purchase.'” In so doing, he implied that more than half of all mobile searches lead to a purchase, instead of the true meaning, that more than half of people who use mobile search have ever purchased something as a result of mobile search.

At best this is sloppy journalism and, at worst, it is willful twisting of meanings to further the blogger's own agenda. Either way, it was blindly picked up by the re-poster and posted without any source checking or diligence.

This is a long anecdote about something pretty trivial but it reminds me of the changing nature of "information" today. It used to be that we had to search high and low for most information and there were only a few, trusted sources of well vetted information, like encyclopedias. Now, an instantaneous search will yield millions of pages of information about any topic we seek, many ostensibly from "authoritative" sources. So finding information is no longer a critical skill; finding good information is much more important.

Critical thinking is the key to filtering such information overload to find the good nuggets. Critical thinking is further complicated by our very human tendencies toward confirmation bias. We tend to be much less critical and much more trusting of claims that reinforce our existing beliefs. Likewise we tend to be much more critical of those sources of information that cause cognitive dissonance for us, often resorting to ad hominem attempts to discredit the source or other fallacies.

I wonder how much of the art of critical thinking is being intentionally developed in our young students these days. I know of one teacher who specifically teaches a high school course on critical thinking, but I wonder how exceptional she is. If we spend all of our efforts teaching students legacy skills like information regurgitation for standardized tests, then I fear for our next generation. If that's the case, then I'm buying Google stock, because there will be a lot of people blindly spending way too much on mobile search advertising soon . . .


Weekend in Minnesota

Last weekend Katie and I took off for a quick jaunt to the Twin Cities for our godson's birthday. You know we love that part of our family because we left NC just as spring was springing, trading the gorgeous weather for the cold and snowy northern midwest. It was very worth it, though, because not only did we get to celebrate our nephew's birthday, we were able to spend relaxed time with much of the rest of Katie's family as well.

The trip was fun and afforded us the opportunity to watch two children-oriented movies that we might not otherwise have seen: Frozen and The LEGO Movie. Given all the buzz around Frozen, I expected to love it more than I actually did. It was visually beautiful and I admired that it didn't send a lesson to young girls that their fulfillment solely depends on the attraction of some prince. There were some funny parts too and I particularly enjoyed all the Scandinavian-ish-ness in the setting and characters. However, it was hard for me to connect with the story - the characters' motivations and actions seemed pretty unbelievable - and I found the music to be unoriginal - if I would have closed my eyes, I would have sworn I were listening to Wicked!

The LEGO Movie, on the other hand, I found surprisingly enjoyable. Possibly I was biased by my love of LEGOs, or possibly by all the business cases we did at IMD on how LEGO was leveraging its brand to innovate in other media. Possibly I identified more with a male protagonist, or possibly I just had lower expectations for a silly movie - which it definitely was. At the end of the day, though, the song from The LEGO Movie is the one stuck in my head.

Now that we are back in North Carolina, we're hoping to thaw out a bit - and I'm hoping to enjoy my last week as a 34-year-old!


Hill Running in North Carolina

They don't call it Chapel Hill for nothing. While the hills here in North Carolina's Research Triangle are nothing compared to the steep slopes of Lausanne, which is built up the side of a small mountain, they certainly are a topographical change from flat Houston.

At no point has this fact been more readily apparent than when running. Even though I have strong legs relative to most runners, it is amazing how much I have to slow down on uphill slopes in order to maintain a constant effort level. This has been especially evident during the few races I have run here, all of which have been at least a minute slower than my PRs at 5k, 7k, and 8k distances. Clearly I have some work to do to improve my hill running economy and improve my hill running endurance.

During some downtime in December I went through a battery of physical assessments, including a maximal effort running test. It turns out that I have a pretty high VO2Max (63) and a pretty high lactate threshold as a percentage of VO2Max heart rate (92%). I can probably increase my VO2Max a little, and I may be able to push my lactate threshold up to 95% or so of VO2Max, but the best opportunity for me to be faster in anything longer than sprint distances is to improve my running economy/efficiency - especially on varied terrain and trails, which I find much more interesting than flat roads and tracks.

Fortunately, Chapel Hill is replete with hill running opportunities, both paved and unpaved. Today, I ran my first longer-than-a-sprint hill running workout along E Franklin St, one of the major drags in Chapel Hill. My three-minute intervals were intended to stimulate both physiological and psychological adaptation to moderate hills - about 5% grade in this case.

About halfway through my workout I found an unexpected spectator - Katie at the bus stop on her way to campus! While it may be more difficult to focus on running form with the love of your life across the street, it also provides extra motivation. It reminded me of the times when she would visit me in Switzerland. At the end of each trip she would take the train to the airport and I would run alongside it until the platform ran out. Those were sad occasions, but this time I only have to wait until this evening to see her again - much better!

I was also honked at by several cars driving by. I'm not sure if that was because I was looking awesome or if I was looking so exhausted that they feared I might fall into their lane on the road. One of the drivers slowed down to ask if I would train him, though, so I think they were friendly honks. Still, I may need to find somewhere more private for future hill workouts.

In other news, the SuperBowl was quite a dud. I was really pulling for Peyton Manning, my second favorite QB of all time (after Joe Montana, of course), but neither he nor anyone else on the Broncos gave me much to cheer about. Now it's Day 1 of the next season, which means that all teams, including my Redskins and Texans, are undefeated. More immediately, the start of the college baseball season is upon us so it will soon be time to cheer on the Rice Owls. In the meantime, I'll see if I can figure out how to run hills well - hopefully by this weekend for my next 5k race!


Rough Start to the New Year

2014 is here! But it started off inauspiciously. Actually, 2014 started off just fine; it was 2013 that didn't end so well. After an excellent Christmas with family up in Virginia and an impromptu visit from Czech IMD friends in North Carolina, Katie and I flew to Memphis to cheer on the Rice Owls in the Liberty Bowl.

Rice earned its second consecutive bowl appearance by winning the Conference USA football championship and this New Year's Eve game had all the ingredients to be an historic win for Rice. If the Owls were to have won, they would have achieved the first 11-win season in the history of the school - and the first back-to-back bowl wins. We wanted to be there not only to support the team but also to witness the momentous occasion!

However, it wouldn't be easy. Our opponent was Mississippi State. The Bulldogs definitely weren't the best team in the SEC, but the SEC is the best conference in college football, so they could still be very good. Indeed, when I looked into them, it turns out that all of their losses were to top 25 ranked opponents. Yikes! Still, we were hopeful, especially given how well Rice had played earlier in the season against the SEC's Texas A&M.

We flew into Memphis late the evening of Dec. 30. We were too late to attend any of the official Rice events so we headed immediately to Beale Street, grabbed a table at Rum Boogie, and met up with others for a night of Bourbon, blues, and BBQ!

New Year's Eve started off nicely. It was cold but sunny - great football weather! After picking up some Rice souvenirs on Beale Street, we headed over to the Liberty Bowl for a pre-game meal. There wasn't much there for my vegetarian wife, but there was plenty of Memphis BBQ for me. It was great to spend time with other Rice alumni, many of whom we hadn't seen for years, especially many of my former teammates.

As the afternoon wore on, we made our way into the stadium in preparation for the opening kickoff. As expected, this would basically be a home game for Mississippi State. Not only are they a much larger school than Rice, they're also located just over the state line from Memphis. As such, the stadium was almost all red, with just a few splotches of Rice blue.

Mississippi State also has a tradition of ringing cowbells to cheer on their team, so they were not only a big crowd, but a loud one too. I knew the only way to shut them up would be to score touchdowns. And that's exactly what Rice did! Early in the first quarter, Rice drove on Mississippi State and took the lead 7-0. The sun was shining and this game was starting off right!

Let me cut right to the chase, though: that was the last time we scored all day. It quickly became dark and cold and Mississippi State dominated the Owls for a final score of 44-7. It was brutal. To add to the misery of the experience, I was feeling increasingly nauseous for the duration of the second half. When we finally left the stadium, I threw up in the parking lot. While I would like to blame it on an overdose of prescription-strength cow bell, it seems pretty clear that it was food poisoning, although I'm not sure from what.

We were among the last to leave as we stuck around in the cold and dark to help a new Rice friend find her car. My condition precluded me from attending a New Year's Eve dinner I had helped organize at the Hard Rock Cafe on Beale Street. I showed up just to make sure everything was set - and it looked like a great time - but then I headed home to recuperate.

Both the outcome of the game and my brief sickness were big disappointments in this trip. Still, I had a good time with some great people so I really can't complain. I'm really proud of what Rice football has accomplished over the last few seasons and I hope they are able to build on it. 2014 is already off to a great start for me (feeling much better!) so here's hoping for a fantastic new year for you all too!