There’s an article in the Sunday (tomorrow’s) travel section of the New York Times by Sarah Wildman entitled “Basque Without Borders.” It’s a lovely article, a narrative of a short trip eating across the Basque country of northern Spain and southwestern France.

Coincidentally, I just returned from a similar short trip to the Basque country to visit my aunt in Bakio, a little seashore town outside of Bilbao.  She spends half the year there and I’ve been going there, on and off, my whole life (so far, as they add in Maine.)

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What’s the cheapest flight west from LA?

I’m a big fan of Kayak, an online travel service.  It is for me the default go-to for researching airfares; Kayak has the best tools for searching through and evaluating airfares.  The service lets you sort by airport, departure/arrival time, layover, total duration, type of aircraft, and on and on.  You want to leave from the LA area on a weekend morning on a Star Alliance flight with a maximum of one transfer but you’re flexible on dates?  Kayak can help.  And with the complexity of airfares, you need all the help you can get.  I’ve opted-in to a weekly email update from Kayak with the latest deals on flights from LAX to Asia.  So here’s what I got today from Kayak:

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Duffel bags

I’m a real luggage slut, so I was glad to see that Black Diamond has a new rolling version of their Huey duffel, called Hercules.  It loses the vestigial backpack straps that you could attach to the bomb-proof Huey but adds lockable zippers besides the wheels.  Lockable zippers are essential when travelling to prevent or at least recognize pilfering and the Huey’s odd velcro closures are a deal-breaker in my book.  But the new Hercules doesn’t have a light-colored interior, which I think is essential in a big bag.

To me, the ideal travel duffel bag size is approximately 65 – 70 L.  My 100 L BD Huey is too large, verging on hockey bag big.  It’s useful to bring on car camping trips or for skiing equipment for the family but for international travel it’s just too big.  For comparison purposes, the latest version of my daily carry, the Patagonia MLC is 43 L or 2,610 cu. in., so my ideal duffel is about 1.5x MLC.

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Powerpoint steps in context

I often wonder at advice that people give about travelling because the act can vary so widely; the way I travel — what and how I pack my clothes, even — depends on the situation.  Travelling for work, for instance, is quite different than travelling for vacation.  Travelling with kids is completely different than travelling alone.  Vagabonding is different than a quick weekend getaway.  And so forth.

The same is true with presentations.  It’s hard, I think, to give good presentation advice without precisely specifying the context of your advice.  So, for instance, Seth Godin has a new posting on “Nine steps to Powerpoint magic,”

The first of his steps (not rules) is to not use Powerpoint at all.  But if you have to use Powerpoint, don’t use bullets.  And if you have to use bullets, make them one or two word bullets, max.  After all, Godin says, “Powerpoint is for ideas.”  He recommends using a remote and a microphone, and keeping the overall presentation time down to ten minutes if possible.

This may be good advice — I trust Godin — but for what?  I gather that he’s referring to public speaking events with dozens or hundreds of people in the audience, Steve Jobs product announcement style.  But the problem is that the rest of us, those not making big product announcements, use Powerpoint for completely different purposes.  Purposes for which these ‘steps’ are completely worthless.

Many years ago, as a young pup consultant, I was trained in a rigorous style of presentation development very different than Godin’s.  One of the cardinal rules was that the ‘deck’ should stand alone as a paper document.  Anyone should be able to pick it up and understand the story without any prior knowledge.  In fact, they should be able to read only the headlines and understand the story.  The headlines were the most important part of each slide and the content in the slide should support the headline.  The content of the slide could be data or charts or bullet points, depending on the requirements of the story.  Good decks were written headline-first; in older versions of Powerpoint it was easier to do this than it is today, but the vestigal functionality of writing in outline form still exists in the application today.  Ideally, you should start with a blank template, write out your whole deck in headlines, and then go back and fill in the detail on the page in support of the headlines.

My office had complicated rules about punctuation and capitalization but generally you were expected to write in complete sentences and if you were going to make a bulleted list it definitely had to have more than one, and preferably more than two, bullets in the list.  Single word bullet points weren’t even considered an option.  All these details were strictly enforced as drafts, paper drafts, were handed around the office.  It was common to get dozens of detailed line edits on a single version of a deck.  Why are the bullets ordered in this sequence?  What are the units on this graph?  What is the point of this table?  Why doesn’t it have a title?  Can you call out the important fact here? And so on.

The assumpion behind this style of presentation was that the deck would be read, as a document, by a small group of clients and consultants around a table and then passed around at the client site as the documentation of our recommendations.  No one ever thought to stand up with a microphone or a remote — these were black & white printed paper artifacts, to be reviewed in groups of a dozen or less.  I remember the first time I had to make a color presentation for a client, and how gaudy and tacky it felt.

Powerpoint, like any other tool, gets used for tasks for which it is distinctly ill-suited, and there are a lot of people using Powerpoint who do a terrible job with it.  But helping them do a better job with their tool requires an understanding of the context; what works for Seth Godin on stage in front of hundreds of people will not work for a small team dealing with a complex, intricate problem.

The Economist in Airportlandia

The other day, because of an ATC glitch, air traffic on the east coast shut down at 1:30pm.  For someone like myself, seated in 30B (center seat, back of the MD88) on a flight from Atlanta to Boston at 2:30pm, this presented an opportunity to:

(a) lose two pounds in sweat

(b) learn unwanted personal details of the family in the row in front of me

(c) read three Economists

(d) all of the above

If you guessed (d), you would be correct!

A good unit of measure for me of air travel (a function of distance and time) is how many issues of The Economist I can get through.  It’s the perfect reading material for Airportlandia because of its density — many thin pages of text versus thick pages of photos — and because of a certain timelessness to the writing.  I don’t read it to find out what happened yesterday, I read it to find out why it happened.  So the timeliness of the issue is not critical; the date on the newspaper is usually its most important descriptor, but not for The Economist (which, oddly, claims to be a newspaper.  Whatever.)  Even though I’ve been a more-or-less diligent reader since college, for many years now I’ve had the habit of primarily reading it on airplanes; I think I would have to buckle my seatbelt at home to read it in my lounge chair.

An indication of the quality of the ‘newspaper’ is the way it deals with issues that I’m familiar with; I usually find that I agree with their analysis on things I know about, which increases my trust in their analysis of things I don’t know about.  (Unfortunately, the ratio keeps shifting as I realize I know less and less.  Separate problem.)