Screaming Into The Abyss

The Telephone Game
By Ben Zvan
On November 24, 2010 at 06:47
General News

Last week, I went to the premier of a local film called The Telephone Game. It was better than you'd expect a local film to be. Read more at Almost Diamonds.

The Telephone Game

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An Old Spice Never Dies
By Ben Zvan
On October 15, 2010 at 08:31
General News

You've seen the Old Spice guy commercials:

You've probably seen the Old Spice guy answer questions on the Internet:

You might have seen "Smell Like A Monster:"

And now you can see why geeks are hotter than that Old Spice guy:

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On Leadership
By Ben Zvan
On February 05, 2010 at 11:18
General News

I spent the better part of my day yesterday listening to well-paid people talk about effective leadership. There was some good information:

Management and leadership are different things. Management is concerned with keeping the trains running on time; Leadership is concerned with where the trains are going. I would add, though it was not mentioned, that people in management positions can be leaders and that people in leadership positions need to be able to manage. Their trains might have new destinations, but they have to be able to get to them in order to get to them on time.

To effectively lead people somewhere, they have to want to go there. The trick is identifying and explaining the problems with the current system so that people will see that it needs to change. How many leaders ignore this step? From what I've seen, most of them make changes without mentioning why they're doing it. The followers end up seeing the problem with the current system as 'it changes too often and never improves.'

There was also a lack of one critical piece of information:

Effective leadership is not always good leadership. I heard a lot of talk about how to get your way and about constantly evaluating if your way is the right way. I heard nothing about figuring out what your way is or why it's better (not just different) from the current way. It's one thing to keep checking the GPS to make sure you're heading toward your destination, it's another thing entirely to make sure you're heading in the right direction to begin with.

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Keep The Change
By Ben Zvan
On January 17, 2010 at 13:05
General News

Spare ChangeI'm not one to keep a large number of coins in my pocket so that I can have exact change when I buy something. In fact, I like to have empty pockets whenever I can. This is, oddly, not in conflict with my desire to see the $1 bill be completely replaced by the $1 coin. I'll have to consider why that is at some other time.

For more years than I can count, I've been emptying my pockets of change every day and putting the coins into a quart jar that sits in my bedroom. I remember my father used to do the same thing; I don't know if that's related. At some point, I decided to save this change to spend on things that I wanted to buy but didn't have the money for. It started with camera gear and, when I started to buy that gear out of the business fund, it moved on to whatever about $100 can buy me.

It's worked out well and I get a nice bonus every once in a while, but recently I realized that it has a fatal flaw. This method of "saving" money actually encourrages me to make cash purchases. Cash purchases are impossible to track from a budgeting standpoint and even if you track cash as a budget item, saving the change like this still means that spending more now means getting more later.

In November, I pretty much stopped spending cash and at the same time, my change jar pretty much stopped growing. Actually saving money meant not "saving" any money.

I still have the jar. I'll still put my change into it every day. I still won't really think about it until I need quarters for parking meters or I take it to the bank to cash it out. But I'm going to think more about actually saving money and knowing where my money is going.

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Star Wars: Mashed Up
By Ben Zvan
On December 30, 2009 at 09:38
General News

This weekend, we're treating two teenaged girls who have never seen the original Star Wars to a screening of the original Star Wars. Coincidentally, Gizmodo reminded me of these Star Wars / Television mashups.

The A Team:


Han Solo, P.I:

Bonus Magnum P.I. Side-by-side:

Have fun with that.

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Looking For Your Strengths?
By Ben Zvan
On October 28, 2009 at 08:47
General News

Strengths Finder 2.0I recently had the opportunity to take the StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment and I thought I'd share my experience with people through the immense audience of my blog. My day job offered a free book to anyone who wanted one along with a group followup to discuss and learn from the assessment. The basic premise of StrengthsFinder 2.0 is that they have...let me just quote them:

Based on Gallup's 40-year study of human strengths, we created a language of the 34 most common talents and developed the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment to help people discover and describe these talents.

Which basically means that they did a lot of interviews and compiled their results into a simplified list of categories (they call them 'themes') that describe people. The StrengtshFinder 2.0 assessment asks you a long series of questions and uses your responses to find the top 5 of the 34 themes that fit you. For reference, my themes and their descriptions were:

Relator: People who are especially talented in the Relator theme enjoy close relationships with others. They find deep satisfaction in working hard with friends to achieve a goal.

People who are especially talented in the Ideation theme are fascinated by ideas. They are able to find connections between seemingly disparate phenomena.

People who are especially talented in the Futuristic theme are inspired by the future and what could be. They inspire others with their visions of the future.

People who are especially talented in the Empathy theme can sense the feelings of other people by imagining themselves in others’ lives or others’ situations.

People who are especially talented in the Adaptability theme prefer to “go with the flow.” They tend to be “now” people who take things as they come and discover the future one day at a time.

My first thought was that these were pretty much no-brainers as far as describing me. I have a small group of close friends. When I get an idea in my head that really appeals to me, I can keep coming back to it over and over for weeks. I love to think about what the future could hold for us and I'm concerned about how the actions we take now could affect the future. I don't like to see my friends, or anyone really, sad because I want to help, though often don't know how. My whole life outlook is based on going with the flow and not worrying about the things I have no control over.

In addition to these short descriptions, there is a long list of maybes and perhapses that are supposed to more specifically describe how each theme fits me. This section, unlike the descriptions above, will be different for everyone who takes the assessment. I thought these were pretty hit-and-miss as far as accuracy.

One of the things that we were asked to do before attending our followup meeting was to send our assessment to a few friends and ask them when they'd seen us exhibit the behavior described by our themes. I talked to my wife about it and she said that the first thing she thought of was cold readings, so lets talk about that. According to Wikipedia:

Cold reading is a series of techniques used by mentalists, illusionists, fortune tellers, psychics, and mediums to determine or express details about another person, often in order to convince them that the reader knows much more about a subject than they actually do. Without prior knowledge of a person, a practiced cold reader can still quickly obtain a great deal of information about the subject by analyzing the person's body language, age, clothing or fashion, hairstyle, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or ethnicity, level of education, manner of speech, place of origin, etc. Cold readers commonly employ high probability guesses about the subject, quickly picking up on signals from their subjects as to whether their guesses are in the right direction or not, and then emphasizing and reinforcing any chance connections the subjects acknowledge while quickly moving on from missed guesses.

So basically they ask a bunch of questions and, based on the mark's responses and the reader's past experience, make statements that they think are likely to be correct. They also don't make those statements specific or conclusive, they leave them vague and tentative, allowing the subject to fill in the missing details that they couldn't possibly know because they're not really psychic; if they were, they'd already have won the lottery and collected James Randi's prize.

I took a longer look at the other 34 themes that the StrengthsFinder 2.0 offers and tried to decide, on my own and from the short description of each theme, how well each of the other themes fit me. Of the 34 themes, 5 were picked by the assessment that I mostly agreed with. I also picked out 9 that I'd have agreed with just as much. I could make an additional 13 fit me if I stretched a bit. Only seven of them would have been completely off the mark for me. For example, my world is not "best described by the order I create." This tells me that out of the 34 possible themes, there was a 79% chance that I would agree with any one theme. Maybe my Adaptability is just way way off the charts, but that seems like a stacked deck to me.

The StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment and a cold reading both ask a lot of questions and they both give a lot of vague responses. On the other hand, what does a psychologist do? All three of these things seem to have the same potential of making the subject think more about their situation than they have in the past and gain a better understanding of themselves and their personality.

The problem I see with this approach (and talk therapy for that matter) is that it depends on self-assessment. Any time you're asked to come up with information about yourself, regardless of the method, it will be information that you already have. This information is also of questionable merit given that the information you have is generally information you believe to be true, rather than information that is verifiably true. For example, one person I know to be a poor communicator had the 'communication' theme in their top five. This person might communicate frequently, but never seems to communicate accurately.

My conclusions about the StrengthsFinder 2.0 can be summed up thusly: It could be useful, but take it with a grain of salt. If you're going to try to apply it to your life, talk to others about the results and see if they agree with your assessment. Other people probably know more about your behavior than you do and can provide more insight than a book written by people you've never met.

--Photo courtesy Ben Zvan Photography

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Black Sky The Old Fashioned Way
By Ben Zvan
On August 07, 2009 at 09:56
General News

James May of TopGear got an amazing opportunity to see black sky without a rocket engine. It's 10 minutes long, but worth every second.

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Money Saving Insults (updated)
By Ben Zvan
On May 11, 2009 at 09:23
General News

This isn't as bad as what Northwest Airlines did when they were cutting jobs and salaries, but I just got an email this morning suggesting ways to save money.

Set up automatic withdrawal to your savings account. This is the simplest and most effective technique of all. If you set up $100/month to your savings account, you will save $100/month.

All I can say is that I hope Captain Obvious there isn't getting a raise this year either.

Update: I just read farther in and they have another great suggestion:

Check your local library for other learning opportunities that will help you and others in our New Economy.

I love how it's 'our New Economy' and not 'the crappy situation created by greedy capitalists abusing the system.'


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Swine Flu on Google Maps
By Ben Zvan
On April 27, 2009 at 13:09
General News

Gizmodo pointed out that there's a Google map of the swine flu pandemic. It's a little spooky.

View H1N1 Swine Flu in a larger map

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How to Drive on Snow: Lesson 1
By Ben Zvan
On February 27, 2009 at 09:39
General News

Why I Walk to WorkMarch is historically the snowiest month in Minnesota and it seems like Minnesotans have forgotten, or never learned, how to drive in snow. As a public service, and to keep myself from being frustrated by other drivers and scared as I'm walking to work, I thought I'd provide some really basic information for the masses. This is what I see all the time and it's the reason for all the backups getting out of parking lots and off of side streets.It's also just as valid anywhere else where there's snow, including Florida and the entire southern hemisphere.

Spinning your tires only makes your tires spin.

The basics: If you're sitting at a stop and the road is slippery. Don't give the car enough gas to spin the tires in the snow. If the tires are spinning, let up on the gas and let them grab some snow. If your tires dig out enough snow, they'll only reach ice. Ice is slipperier than snow.

The details: The coefficient of static friction is greater than the coefficient of dynamic friction. Here's a demonstration you can try at home.

You will need:

  • A hard-cover book
  • A ruler
  • A second hard-cover book
  • A small object that won't roll, let's say a deck of cards.
  • Tape
  • A notepad
  • A pencil
  1. Tape the ruler to the spine of the first hard-cover book. Do it gently, so you can remove it later.
  2. Stand the book on end so that the ruler is sticking straight up with zero at the bottom.
  3. Set the other hard-cover book on its back, against the spine of the first so the longest shortest edge touches the ruler
  4. Place the deck of cards on the second book, touching the ruler.
  5. Lift the edge of the book touching the ruler up to make a ramp. When the deck of cards slides down the ramp, make a note of how high the book was touching the ruler.
  6. Put everything back where it was at the end of step 4.
  7. Repeat step 5, only this time keep giving the deck of cards a tiny push while you're raising the book. You may need a friend to do this part for you. Again, when the deck of cards slides down the book, make a note of how high you had raised the top of the ramp.

Congratulations! You just found the difference between the coefficient of static friction (step 5) and the coefficient of dynamic friction (step 7.) The number you wrote down in step 5, when the deck of cards was sitting still (static) should have been bigger than the number you wrote down in step 7, when the deck of cards was already sliding (dynamic.) To put it another way, if the deck of cards was already slipping the ramp didn't have to be as steep for it to keep slipping. That means that if your tires are slipping on snow, the snow doesn't have to be as slippery for them to keep slipping. Therefore, if your tires are slipping, the best way to get more traction from them is to stop them from slipping. You can do this by changing the surface you're driving on (hard) or by slowing down the tires until they stop slipping (easy.)

Get out there and practice this. Once you get good at keeping your tires from starting to slip on snow and ice, you'll be asking why this isn't a requirement for a Minnesota drivers license. I know I do. And when you get good enough, even steep, icy hills will not be a challenge for you.

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New Pictures 8: Sarah Jones
Minneapolis Institue of Arts
04/18/2013—02/02/2014 - Free

31 Years: Gifts from Martin Weinstein
Minneapolis Institue of Arts
11/02/2013—08/31/2014 - Free

New Pictures 9: Rinko Kawauchi
Minneapolis Institue of Arts
02/20/2014—08/10/2014 - Free

Finland: Designed Environments
Minneapolis Institue of Arts
05/10/2014—08/17/2014 - Free


Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
at State Theatre
06/21/2014 \ Doors 8:00pm


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