Tiny Homes: An Introduction to a Big Movement

If you haven’t noticed, tiny homes have become really popular.

My theory is that the consumerist lifestyle advertised in capitalist societies have led to physical, psychological, and financial burdens, such as high-debt, overpacked garages, unaffordable McMansions. In addition, the financial crisis of 10 years ago and the resulting Great Recession left many people with a visceral fear of becoming burdened again. Given the dual rise in popularity of decluttering and minimalism — ex: Marie Kondo; “Goodbye, Things” — these events have clearly had an impact and many people are looking to avoid or escape this lifestyle. One outcome of this search for freedom is the rise of the tiny home movement.

One YouTube a series I’ve been watching features an extraordinarily good-natured New Zealand-based host, Bryce, and his talented videographer (girlfriend/partner who always remains offscreen). Together, they travel around the world to visit different individuals, couples, and families who are living in tiny homes. The pair don’t just visit people from New Zealand, although there are many people with tiny homes in New Zealand. The show also visits people from all over the world: Canada, Australia, Japan, the United States. It has some great theme music.

As a resident of NYC, I have been interested in small space living for a while.  There are a lot of different tips and tricks for small space living:

For small space living, I found another YouTube series a few years ago. Here’s a video where the tenant transformed her very small studio into a little gem.

 

In this next one, the tenant (or owner) has used a center storage unit to create zones in his studio. It’s pretty clever.

[Note: I do not vouch for their website!]

There are a number of different styles of tiny homes. Watching the show as an apartment dweller, I have fantasized about living in one. Could it be so different? Fewer neighbors? A garden? What would my tiny home be like?

I decided to share features from some of my favorite homes to look for patterns that would make a tiny home more pleasurable to live in.

Having looked at the YouTube channel on my computer and not just on my Roku, I can see there are other videos that aren’t just home tours. There are a series of videos about building a tiny home and building a tent (like a yurt). To be honest, I haven’t looked at those. Maybe I will; maybe not.

In an upcoming post, I’ll go through some of my favorite Living Big in a Tiny House videos!

Japanese Court Music and Dance: Gagaku and Bugaku

I’m taking a break from all this portfolio stuff to talk about something fun I got to do recently.

Over the past 2 years or so, I have been learning about Japan and Japanese culture. Going farther back, I’ve been interested in Asian cultures for many years, having joined Asia Society Texas many years ago.

The Japan Society, decided to dedicate some of it’s programming this year to have an imperial focus, in part due to the abdication of Japanese Emperor Akihito.

Japanese society being what it is, there are many ceremonies and rituals when a new emperor ascends the throne. They involve, among other things, music. And the fun thing I go to do recently was attend a performance of Japanese court music.


Gagaku

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) provides the following description for Gagaku:

Gagaku, characterized by long, slow songs and dance-like movements, is the oldest of the Japanese traditional performing arts. It is performed at banquets and ceremonies in the Imperial Palace and in theatres throughout the country, and encompasses three distinct arts. The first, Kuniburi no Utamai, features ancient Japanese songs, partial accompaniment by harp and flute and simple choreography. The second consists of instrumental music (especially wind instruments) and a ceremonial dance developed on the Asian continent and subsequently adapted by Japanese artists. The third, Utamono, is danced to vocal music whose texts include Japanese folk songs and Chinese poems. Influenced by the politics and culture of different periods over its long evolution, Gagaku continues to be transmitted to apprentices by masters in the Music Department of the Imperial Household Agency, many of whom are the descendants of families with deep roots in the art. It is not only an important cultural tool in confirming Japanese identity and a crystallization of the history of Japanese society, but also a demonstration of how multiple cultural traditions can be fused into a unique heritage through constant recreation over time.

Here’s UNESCO video on Gagaku:

Essentially Gagaku is the entire performance and Bagaku is the dance.

Gagaku Instruments

There are 3 types of musical instruments: Wind, String, and Percussion. I’m not sure if all of these instruments are included in every Gagaku performance, but these were listed in my program.

Program insert showing different types of instruments
Program insert showing different types of instruments

Wind Instruments

These are the wind instruments.

  • Ryûteki
  • Komabue
  • Kagurabue
  • Hichiriki
  • Shô

Gagaku translates to “elegant music” and that’s probably the best way to describe the sound of the Shô. You’d probably recognize the sound if you heard it. It’s a “mouth-organ”.

When I was watching the performance, the shô players rotated their instruments over some kind of urn. I thought it was something to catch extra moisture, like spit-valves in trombones. I learned from the video below that the shô has wax inside where the mouthpiece is located and these urns have small pieces of coal in them, which the musicians rotate the shô over to heat up the wax.

String Instruments

  • Sô (Gakusô)
  • Biwa
  • Wagon (yamato-goto)
Biwa, string instrument
Biwa, string instrument

The Gakusô is a type of Koto, which is a 13-string instrument and is the national instrument of Japan. Modern kotos are derived from the gakusô used in Gagaku performances. I couldn’t find a great photo, but the wikipedia article where I found this info is interesting.

The yamatogoto, or wagon, is another type of Koto. But it usually has only 6 strings or so. It’s also considered fully native to Japan, unlike the other types of Koto which were imported from China.

The wagon is on the left side.
The biwa is on the right side.

 

Percussion Instruments

  • Shôko
  • Taiko (tsuridaiko)
  • Kakko
  • San-no-tsuzumi
  • Shakubyôshi

Shôko is a kind of small, metal gong that sounds like someone tapping a iron/stainless steel skillet with a drumstick. The taiko is a kind of large, hanging drum. It’s struck with big, padded mallets. The kakko is a double-headed drum that’s beated with skinny drumsticks. (Shakubyoshi look like 2 wooden sticks. To be honest, I don’t remember these but maybe I was watching something else.)

These are photos I took after the performance. The theater lights helped them turn out really well! 🙂

 


Bugaku

Our program didn’t include much information about the dancing portion, but UNESCO comes through again. Here’s a video that goes much more into the dance portion of Bugaku.


When I was there listening, I felt like I had been transported into a Kurasawa film. In particular, “Dreams” from 1990. And specifically, the scene in the peach orchard when all the dolls come alive.

I love this movie a lot but I have found throughout the years that this particular scene is very difficult to find online (for free).

However, the trailer for the movie is available. The only problem is that it’s set to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Invierno and La Primavera. (Violin Concerto in E Major, Op. 8, No. 1, RV 269, “Spring”: I. Allegro; and Concerto No. 4 in F minor, Op. 8, RV 297, “Winter”: III. Allegro.) It’s not bad music, but it’s not Japanese.

Anyway, if you are looking for more information on Gagaku and Bugaku, here’s some information:

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bugaku
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gagaku
  • https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/gagaku-00265

Hiring for “Cultural Fit” is Kind of BS

An examination of “culture fit” for hiring…plus some videos from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice!

This post is inspired by a topic that was trending on LinkedIn. The post asked about the practice of hiring for “culture fit”. Unfortunately LinkedIn doesn’t allow for sharing articles outside of LinkedIn, so I took screenshots of their main points.

The post was inspired by articles published by the Wall Street Journal and the Harvard Business Review. (Probably paywalled.)

I have a lot of thoughts about the idea of “culture fit”, because rarely is culture so clearly defined in a company. I think most companies use it to discriminate and/or to try and get away with bad behavior.

 

Two Stories About “Cultural Fit”

There are 2 stories I think about when I hear about companies hiring for “culture fit”.

Story One: The Power of Diversity

A few years ago, I attended a one-day women-in-tech conference here in NYC. One of the speakers talked about her experience with diversity and joining a team with less than ideal experience.

I will never forget this talk because something she said was so relevant about why diversity is important. She said: if everyone is the same, it means they can all fail the same way.

As a new member of her company’s engineering team, she came in with a bit of a non-traditional background, which gave her a different perspective when approaching problem solving. In her example, she explained how she solved a critical error that all the other experienced team members failed to recognize because they all thought about the problem in the same way. Her value to the team was not her skill as a developer. Her value was her knowledge about their customers. It was that unique perspective that allowed her to view this critical problem differently and find a solution that everyone else missed.

Story Two: What is your culture?

The second story is my own experience from job hunting. A few years ago, I was on a call with a creative director and the CEO/President of a small e-commerce company selling men’s clothes. As I talked to them about the role and what they were looking for, they revealed that they’d spent a long time looking for the “right person” who could fit into their culture. When I asked them how long they’d been looking, they told me 8 months. (8 months!?)

When they told me that, I realized they didn’t know what they were looking for and all this time they’d come up with some type of excuse to eliminate candidates from their list. And I basically told them that it sounded like I was unlikely to get the job. I even asked them, what was special about their culture. They couldn’t articulate any details about their company culture that made them any more unique compared to any other company.

So what is culture anyway?

I love going to cultural events. It’s such a great way to learn about people and different parts of the world, without actually traveling and spending money on a trip. 🙂

Culture is the combination of art, language, food, dress, religion, music and social rules of a society. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

Culture is an umbrella term which encompasses the social behavior, and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities and habits of the individuals in these groups.

Humans acquire culture through the learning processes of enculturation and socialization, which is shown by the diversity of cultures across societies.

A cultural norm codifies acceptable conduct in society; it serves as guideline for behavior, dress, language, and demeanor in a situation, which serves as a template for expectations in a social group. Accepting only a monoculture in a social group can bear risks, just as a single species can wither in the face of environmental change, for lack of functional responses to the change.

I think companies neglect the second paragraph: enculturation and socialization. Enculturation is the process by which people learn the dynamics of their surrounding culture. Socialization is the process of internalizing the norms and ideologies of society.

The first question to ask is whether a company is truly aware of their culture, and the second is if they have a plan to help new employees learn it. All companies have a culture, but do they recognize the elements of their culture enough to help new people learn them.

With so many companies cutting back on HR departments, I wonder how many of them have truly invested in the process of enculturation and socialization to help people learn and internalize the culture of their workplace. And have they considered how much time they’re willing to allow for assimilation to happen. My guess is too many employers are looking for exact matches, which makes no sense because the only way someone would have a company’s exact culture is if they already work there.

Is “cultural fit” just an excuse for bad behavior?

To be totally honest, when I hear people talk about “cultural fit”, what I think they really mean is:

  • Will this person complain or push back at working nights and weekends?
  • Is this person going to get offended at our sexist jokes?
  • Can we drink in the office or have bottles of liquor on the desk?
  • Can we swear like pirates at work?
  • Can we get away without a true HR department?

Maybe in some cases, it’s Will this person turn us in for doing something illegal?

But I think what they’re really asking is: Is this someone we can control? To some extent, that’s a fair question. On the other hand, is anybody asking, controlling for what?

Same Words, Two Deliveries

I sometimes think companies try to squeeze the individuality out of their employees, so that they can all become the same type of person over time. For that, let me share an example from Shakespeare (aka culture).

In this video, two well-known actors discuss and act out their different portrayals of Shylock, the main character from Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice. The actors are Patrick Stewart, of Star Trek fame, and David Suchet, of Poirot fame — and also one episode of Doctor Who!

The scene is from, ACT I, SCENE III. Venice. A public place. The character Antonio has just asked for 3,000 ducats and Shylock contemplates.

Patrick Stewart VS David Suchet – Shylock – Merchant of Venice

Patrick Stewart VS David Suchet. Two brilliant interpretations of 'Shylock' from the 'Merchant of Venice'. Their analysis, followed by their performances. Which do you prefer??(acting begins at 8:00)

Posted by In The Moment on Sunday, August 6, 2017

What I love about this is that despite the words being exactly the same, the director gave them the freedom to express their own versions of the character. The video is under 12 minutes, so it doesn’t take long to view.

This example is kind of the embodiment of what I wish companies would really get about “cultural fit” and diversity. I really don’t think the question to ask is ‘Do you fit in?’ To me, that list is pretty short:

  • be pleasant to be around
  • be safe
  • don’t do illegal stuff at work or on behalf of the company

You know, Girl Scout stuff.

What does this example show?

It shows a theater company that has hired two accomplished actors who can do the same role and speak the same exact words, yet their individual and diverse perspectives are what brings value to their performances. It also shows that the theater company, either at the same time or at different times, not only values the diversity of a heterogeneous theater troupe but they also recognize that their audience does too.

I hope that for-profit companies can also get to a place where they value that some of their employees will express the company culture differently than others, or express different aspects of the company culture at different times — and they’re OK with that. They’re still getting the job done, but the uniqueness each person brings to the job is still valued and ultimately will be a benefit to their company and their customers.


And just for fun, here’s Al Pacino doing the same scene:

Solving Design Problems like a Mathematician

While reading a forum discussion on FreeCodeCamp, I came across a reference to George Pólya’s book, “How to Solve a Problem”. In this post, I review Pólya’s problem solving strategy.

In a recent FreeCodeCamp forum, someone asked a question about journaling:

Hi coders,
While looking for the source for my project, I saw that some programmers or developers wrote a kind of diary to keep track of the code. I think it’s nice, but I was wondering exactly how you can structure a diary and if any of you use this to write code. Question here.

Good question. I’ve seen other people use diaries or online journals, or those things people use…writing logs or whatever. 🙂

Anyway, the only reply includes a link about using a “logbook”. On the link page, the author references George Pólya and his book How to Solve It. I had never heard of this person or his book, so I did a little research.

George Pólya, (1887 – 1985)

George Pólya was a Hungarian-born mathematician who was known for his mathematics work, as well as his work in heuristics. Heuristics is “any approach to problem solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method”.

“Examples that employ heuristics include using a rule of thumb, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment, a guesstimate, profiling, or common sense.”

He wrote a book about solving problems using common sense principles.

1st edition cover of “How to Solve It”, published in 1945, by George Pólya, a Hungarian mathematician.

The George Pólya Method of Solving Problems

The Wikipedia page shows that Pólya lays out some pretty good heuristics for solving problems. Although he intended for these strategies to be used for solving math problems, I think they could be used to provide a structured method for solving almost any difficult problem.

The Pólya problem solving method involves 4 principles:

  1. First, you have to understand the problem.
  2. After understanding, make a plan.
  3. Carry out the plan.
  4. Look back on your work. How could it be better?

So how does it work?

Principle 1: Understand the Problem

Pólya based the first principle, Understand the Problem, on the idea that math students struggled to solve problems due to a lack of understanding the problem in full or in part. His technique involved coaching teachers to prompt students with the following questions:

  • What are you asked to find or show?
  • Can you restate the problem in your own words?
  • Can you think of a picture or a diagram that might help you understand the problem?
  • Is there enough information to enable you to find a solution?
  • Do you understand all the words used in stating the problem?
  • Do you need to ask a question to get the answer?

Essentially one should not move past principle one until a constructive answer can be given. It’s not clear from the Wikipedia entry if a constructive answer is required for each question or the entire problem.

 Principle 2: Make a Plan

Basically he felt that a person gets better at selecting a good plan/strategy the more times they solve problems. Here’s a big list of strategies:

  • Guess and check
  • Make an orderly list
  • Eliminate possibilities
  • Use symmetry
  • Consider special cases
  • Use direct reasoning
  • Solve an equation
  • Look for a pattern
  • Draw a picture
  • Solve a simpler problem
  • Use a model
  • Work backward
  • Use a formula
  • Be creative – (“[Have] patience to wait until the bright idea appears”)
  • Applying these rules to devise a plan takes your own skill and judgement – (“Always use your own brain first”)

Principle 3: Carry out the plan

Simple enough, but the main problem people have with this step is giving up too soon. For that, the Wikipedia entry says:

“In general, all you need is care and patience, given that you have the necessary skills. Persist with the plan that you have chosen. If it continues not to work, discard it and choose another.”

Principle 4: Review, Reflect and Extrapolate

Take a look at what you’ve done, and evaluate how well it worked (or didn’t), and see how you can use what you’ve discovered for future problems.


Finding the book:

If you want to find this book, I recommend trying your library. I found it by searching for "how to solve it book pdf" (Google suggested the "pdf") and I found a copy.

Update:

An earlier version of this post included an account of how I applied Polya’s technique to my portfolio changes. A follow-up post will focus on that account.