Monday, September 13, 2010

Rotating your crops

Moving to North Carolina as a teenager provided me with an opportunity to experience the wonders of rural life I would have otherwise missed if we had stayed in the city life of St. Petersburg, Florida. Even though in Florida my father had always insisted on our having a family garden, it was nothing compared to the farms I saw in Bahama, North Carolina. Soy beans, corn, tobacco and feed grains covered the landscape in a quilt of colors and textures. The most remarkable part of it all was the soil. It was a rich, red clay, that when managed well, yielded an abundance of produce.

With our Florida garden, a little soil conditioner and a good mix of fertilizer is all it usually took to ensure good growth for the season. Farmland is a bit different. As each year’s crops bleed the soil of nutrients, these critical elements and compounds become more and more difficult (and expensive) to replace. Fortunately, after the hundreds and thousands of years humans have invested in the field of agriculture, one of the easiest methods of replenishing the earth is to institute a process called crop rotation.

What is crop rotation? Back in ancient times, the Romans developed a cropping system called "food, feed, and fallow." This system involved dividing their farms into three areas. One area was used for food grain, another for livestock feed and the third was allowed to rest for a season usually with the previous season’s remains turned under the soil as mulch. Over the centuries this system was improved culminating in a four-season process which included a fourth planting area and adding root vegetables and nitrogen-fixing crops to the mix. By allowing their animals to graze directly in the fields, manure was also introduced to the system and the combination created richly fertilized soil.

The practice of crop rotation remained in practice until the 1950s when chemical fertilizers gained popularity. These man-made solutions combined with pesticides gave farmers the ability to maintain a single crop on a single field. While this increased yield and gave farmers the opportunity to specialize, it also generated adverse affects on the environment. In many cases it also affected the food texture and taste. As a result, many farmers are returning to crop rotation as a natural alternative; benefiting both the environment and the quality of their product.

I was painting my house recently, and while my hands were focused on the repetitious spreading of white paint on siding, my mind drifted and I thought how wonderful it was to be distracted from my regular work for just a few short hours. Unfocused, I thought about bits of everything, my kids, the other parts of the house needing work, answers to projects at work, what I was going to barbecue that night, etc.  Most importantly, I realized that in doing something totally unrelated to my regular work, I was able to address solutions I would have otherwise missed. It was then I recalled one of the methods the farmers in Bahama and elsewhere use to improve crop yield and protect their most valuable resource: the soil. More importantly, I recognized how this simple process can be applied to everyday life and improve productivity both at home and on the job.

Think of it like this. In many ways, a person’s life is similar to a farm. Our minds are like the soil. When properly fed, watered and fertilized, our minds create amazing products of tremendous quality. When pushed to far or nourished by stimulants or numbed by repetition, our minds can also produce poor yields and bitter products with no flavor at all. This is where “crop rotation” comes to play.

There are many names for what I am referring to as “crop rotation.” As the virtual agrarians of Farmville know, it doesn't even have to be a real farm. Their "farming" is a form of mental "crop rotation." In academia it is often called a sabbatical. In industry it is sometimes know as "job rotation." It can be as simple as a walk around the lake or painting your house over a long weekend.  What it all boils down to is giving your mind, body and spirit the time to recharge, not by resting, but by doing something different.Think of it as a mental (and sometimes physical) detour; preferably one that takes long enough to completely disengage yourself from one role or mindset and engage in another.

This concept of job rotation is by no means new.  What is new, however, is that we have reached a point where many businesses are like the farms of the 1950s. They have single crop fields which are artificially fertilized with stimulants where variety only comes through distractions which reduce productivity. The mental soil is depleted and Innovation is almost non-existent. Even in careers like mine, where being creative and inventive is a part of my job, allowing myself to develop tunnel vision can leave me depleted.

Today innovation is a major component of success, and the ability to “think outside of the box” is more vital than ever. Fortunately by implementing programs like job rotation, businesses can reap the benefits of their soil being conditioned by taking steps to ensure their employees stay fresh.  Providing opportunities to apply their skills and talents in a variety of areas of their business allows employees to nourish each other, sharing knowledge and information which might otherwise remain in the same “field” growing weaker and weaker each cycle. This enriched soil provides a wonderful bed from which to bloom innovative ideas and a fresh boost of productivity.

There are also some unexpected benefits of this rotation process like employee appreciation and understanding of other aspects of a business. For example, marketing can gain new insights for advertising campaigns if they have the opportunity to directly experience sales or customer service. Operations and finance can exchange firsthand knowledge of the relationship between quality, efficiency and cost. And sectors can identify synergies between products and services. Even the enterprise may periodically realize that a market needs to be turned, and rotate an old line out and a new one in.

This type of continuous change, this rotation, is not always an easy task. Many of us are creatures of habit. We like to do things the same. We have a comfort zone. The challenge for the enterprise is to encourage a habit of self fertilization. Business units need to work together to provide the tools and processes that feed our soil and keep our minds fertile. It is much easier to tend a prepared field than to start with wilderness. And, good soil, when nurtured, will produce abundantly for many years.

- Ken

Thursday, August 19, 2010

"...I would have missed the fire trucks and everything."

Sometimes in our haste to do the things we want most, we run the risk of missing things we didn't even know were on the horizon. Point in case. On the day prior to the first day of the new school year, my youngest daughter announced that the bag she originally intended for ferrying books was now inadequate and would have to be replaced. It was early afternoon after attending the annual "Meet the Teacher" event and she wanted me to taxi her to the local sporting goods store for a backpack. I told her we would have to wait until after dinner. Unhappy with my decision, she stormed upstairs to brood.

In the kitchen I began preparing the food, talking to my wife about the open house and our excitement over the new year. Somewhere between the chopping and the seasoning, I heard the kids yelling, "Dad, there's two police cars outside in the front yard." Of course at this point I dropped the knife on the counter and bolted to the front door nearly colliding with the dog and both of my children who were careening down the stairs in an attempt to go outside and see the action unfold in person. Of course neither of them had considered that whatever was happening out front might include weapons or other forms of death and mayhem. Fortunately for us, it was neither.

After sequestering them behind the blinds in the family room to peer through the slats, I ventured through the front door. Three police officers were gathered beside the first car which had managed to park its right front tire on my yard just sidestepping the fire hydrant. The doors were ajar to reduce the heat in the vehicle from the sweltering 95 degrees and 85% humidity of the our North Carolina summer. The second car was paralleled to the curb behind my car, blue lights flashing brightly in spite of the setting sun. I attempted to flag one of the officers, but was politely ignored - they had other things on their minds. Mine, of course, was ensuring there was no danger to my family or home.

I ducked back inside the house peppered with questions by Darby and Isaac. Trudie told them to go back upstairs, not to get them out of the way, but rather to have a better view from Darb's window to see who or what was in the back of the first squad car. I heard her shout down that it was "some guy." Unfortunately, that was as good as it got. Their full attention was now on the fire truck coming up the road.

You have to understand that our neighborhood is usually fairly quiet. The kids play outside all the time, but rarely are there any issues. When there are, however, they usually involve a fire truck. There was the time one of the kids decided to try and save the air conditioner unit, and didn't realize its weight would pull him out of the second story window rupturing his spleen along the way.  And then there was the great "pizza box in the oven" scare. And, of course, there was Izy's birthday when he was little and the "woo, woo truck" came for him and his friends in the cul de sac. So, in honor of the fire truck, the kids decided they would see even better from our 40 foot magnolia tree, and raced out the back door to start climbing.

 It was about this time that one of the officers knocked at the front to let me know what was going on. The young man in their custody, apparently not of our neighborhood at all,  was having some difficulties which required an intervention. He was not dangerous, just confused. I noticed the fire truck turning around to which the officer commented he "did not think this case warranted their time," and so he had sent them away. I am sure my children and their friends were crestfallen, at least as until the EMS truck showed up with lights a blazing.Just because the hook and ladder was superfluous did not mean there wasn't going to be an intervention.

All-in-all the "event" took about 2 hours. When everything settled down, we enjoyed a nice dinner and lively conversation. And then Darby and I went to the store, bought her backpack and closed out the night.

Everything happens. Sometimes with reasons we can see, other times for reasons we cannot. It was her comment the following morning that classified the "event" as a part of one of life's detours. She said she was sorry for getting upset about not going to get the backpack earlier in the afternoon. She also observed,  "If we had gone when I wanted to, I would have missed the fire trucks and everything."

- Ken

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Summer Film Festival

When I was thirteen years old the school I attended in Florida had what I would now call the precursor to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in the form of the Enhanced learning Program (ELP). It was also known as the nerd class. I had been in ELP since about the third grade. Although the primary focus was identifying gifted and talented students and providing them with additional structured learning like brainstorming, creative design, computers (TRS-80 Model I and later we moved up to an Apple II color), we also got to do film making - in particular, animation!

My junior high school ELP teacher truly believed in learning and the power of imagination. Whether we were creating Rosetta Stones and archeology digs about our own made up civilizations, or acting out our own variations of Shakespeare, he not only made it interesting, he made it fun. The day he walked into class holding an 8mm Bolex animation camera, I just couldn't believe it. My first animation was of a chess set where the pieces actually did battle, cocktail swords and all. Little did I know that 30 years later I would experience a sense of déjà vu.

My son Izy may not have all of the interests I had as a youth, but he does share my passion for film (although his fortunately comes in a digital format and is a lot cheaper than 8 millimeter to produce). As he does not have the benefit of my favorite teacher of all time (Mr. McCoy, I hope you are still with us), I have tried to support his interest and for a couple of summers we have attempted to produce movies. This summer was no exception, and with an empty living room in the apartment in our new town, we had the perfect location for a stop motion animated picture.

For those of you not familiar with the tools and the process, it is actually quite simple. Take a digital camera with manual focus and white balance (this is to keep it from auto adjusting while recording), a tripod (to keep it from shaking between frames), a controlled light source (or sources), and a computer with some kind of video editing software capable of sequencing a series of images (Google the phrase "Monkey Jam Animation" for a free application). The rest is just imagination, something to animate and a lot of time and patience.

Izy's two week visit this summer came with no distractions or responsibilities during the day. This left him with all the time necessary to produce some movies; and he did. The first were a little rough. Getting the feel for timing in stop motion is a little tricky at first. We worked in some good old fashioned math, including geometry, and learned how to calculate distance and time and then convert to number of frames between point A and B so that an object seemed to move at the correct pacing. And then, one evening, I came home from work to find he had spent the entire afternoon shooting a car race across the room.

It was awesome! Izy had taken the whole process several leaps beyond the basics we had discussed and figured out how to do camera panning, multiple camera angles, and a car jump. Although I was impressed (especially with the creativity of the different camera angles and the jump) he and I knew it was a little rough in spots. For example, the wheels spun in different directions at times and the distance between frames was erratic. So we sat back and determined that we needed some cues for the wheel spinning which would solve both problems. The spokes of the model cars did the trick. Not only were we able to smooth out the speed of the cars, but we were also able to do some acceleration and deceleration to boot. The final output can be seen on his YouTube site: The Jump.

The best part of the whole thing was that we did it together. His creativity and imagination were brought to life. The short deviation from his usual summer break resulted in a little bit of movie magic. Since then he has produced several different types of videos, working on his editing and sound effects, and is still experimenting. I hope to have the opportunity to continue working with my son and helping him make whatever dreams he has come true.

- Ken

Thursday, July 22, 2010

What comes around...

My son came to spend a couple of weeks with me in what will be our new hometown this summer. The goal was to give him a chance to get a lay of the land and spend a little quality time with his dad. The drive is about two and a half hours giving us plenty of time to talk along the way.

And so it was that he and I were discussing the impending (his feelings not mine) doom surrounding his perceived future once we make the move to western North Carolina. Granted it's still almost a year off, but to a young man facing a major life change, impending is how it seems. And so the conversation bounced back and forth between "Why do we have to move?" and "Can't you find a different job?" to the extreme of "I'm a good kid, how come God is making me move and not the bad kids?" How the heck do you answer that one? It was quite a while before I realized I had an opportunity to share with him a bit of what I have learned about making the most of change; recognizing it for what it offers and not what it appears to take away.

I explained to him that in preparing us for the life we want, God sends us on little (and sometimes big) detours so that we can have the experiences we require. His puzzled look spoke volumes; so I went back a few years down memory lane and recounted one of the detours I had experienced. This detour is what I referred to earlier as "going around my elbow." Detours happen to a lot of folks, and I told him this short move west was only his first. I also said to embrace it rather than run from it. Unfortunately it looks like being able to embrace it may take more convincing.

He listened intently as I shared that one of the first times I remember "going around my elbow" was when I went away to college. I had skipped a grade in High School and though I was very bright, I was socially lost and lacked any kind of disciplined study habits. Not to mention the fact that I was quite a smart alec; not a good combination. So, the Good Lord had the foresight to send me to a place that could fix all these issues in a very short amount of time. I found myself the summer of my graduation at the United States Military Academy some 550 miles away from home experiencing a "detour" the likes of which I could have never imagined.

Interestingly enough, at the time I thought I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. Everyone who knew me said that was what I should be. I had been accepted at NC State, Northwestern and Carnegie Mellon. But when West Point came calling, it was hard to pass up a free education. This was especially true when, except for NC State, we would have been hard pressed to afford the others.

The military academy served many purposes. It taught me character and leadership. It gave me strength and discipline. It cultivated study skills. And, most importantly, it provided me with a chance to learn of my true calling as a designer.

I had been designing things my whole life. From Legos to models to animated movies to electronics I had always created things. It was from these examples that my "advisers" helped me make my career choice from the only thing they could relate - engineering.

It was only once I was at the Academy that I realized mechanical engineering was not what I expected. Ironically, once I came to the conclusion that a designer was what I was destined to become, a mentor of mine at the cadet theater informed me that one of the best design schools on the East Coast was at North Carolina State University. To this day I believe had I gone there first, two things would have happened. First, I would have probably flunked out due to poor study skills. And second, had I managed to not flunk out, I would have missed my calling as a designer. The latter would have happened because my focus on design at the Academy was only a result of my need to escape from the day to day regimental demands of the corps.

So after plebe year I found myself returning to North Carolina to attend the university "next door" in the field upon which I have built my life. A straight line would not have accomplished the same thing. And the sequence of events resulting from that journey would have never happened.

Getting through to a boy of thirteen is going to take more than one story. Fortunately my life and the lives of many others are chock full of them. I think I will let them come as they may. Teenage eyes start to gloss over if you fill their heads to full in one sitting. For now I will let my son ponder what opportunities might come from taking a slight detour at this stage of his life.

- Ken

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The shortest distance between two points...

I once designed the sets for a musical titled "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." It is a farcical tale of love and mayhem and all that comes from things not going according to "the plan." I am realizing more and more how much truth there is in fiction. I am also recognizing that allowing for these detours can sometimes create the best path (even if not the shortest) to get there.

Many of you who followed my story in "A Tale of Two Cities" may have come to realize I have recently retitled it "Going Around My Elbow" (hmm, looks like the title of this blog, too!). There are several reasons for the change. First, the journey has brought me back to North Carolina, albeit a little farther west. And second, there are hundreds of books titled "A Tale of Two Cities" whereas there is only one titled "Going Around My Elbow."

For those of you not familiar with this charming southern phrase, "going around my elbow to get to my thumb" is what you say when you took the long way to get to what you wanted (even if you didn't really know what you wanted in the first place). This new blog will pay tribute to this phrase by reflecting on past and current events that live up to it. Some of these will be my own, while others will be based on observations of the rest of the world.

So, if you want to get caught up, click on the book cover on the right of this page and pick up a copy of the story that started it all. A four year detour to find my way home. And, my family's secret to surviving just about anything: love.

After several months hiatus from blogging, it is great to be back.

- Ken