[Lessons Learned] Being a MOUSE Mentor

Random Observation/Comment #416: Mentorship is a two-way street. I often learn as much from the students as they learn from me.

see lemons be a mouse mentor

Recently, I was given the opportunity to participate in a semester-long mentorship with the MOUSE program at Baruch College Campus High School (BCCHS).  Each school has a slightly different program, but our set-up is driven by a history teacher who just wanted to help her students get exposure to more hands-on technology classes.

The DIY project provides HS students with an early glimpse at college engineering/design product classes. Here’s what makes this program unique for High School students:

  • “Work experience”. As mentors, we have completed many projects that range from software to our own side projects. What classes don’t usually teach is the actual “work experience” of directly facing issues with planning, preparing, and executing these projects.
  • Company-style responsibility. Instead of telling the students what to do, we let them choose their own projects and set their own expectations. The mentors are consultants more than a manager for each 5-person group. We’re invested in their deliverables, but not controlling the way they run their projects.  We offer guidance and ask the right questions so that students can have that “ah-ha” moment of seeing how complex projects can become when one unravels all the different aspects.
  • Defined roles. Each student is assigned a role: Designer, Engineer, and Marketer.  These roles in real life pull at each other with their own interests. We try to teach the students to consider all perspectives and have each of them take stake in their own deliverables. This means that if you think like an Engineer, you should think about what you can actually build for a prototype that balances the goals from Designer and Marketer.
    • For example, Marketers tend to aim big and try to enter the market with a unique project; Designers draw based on user needs, but probably only meet half of the marketer’s scope; Engineers need to pull that back even further because the designs may not be buildable; and Project managers need to pull everything together to make sure we set expectations for what’s finally delivered.  I think this dynamic is hard to explain without experiencing it firsthand.

Hopefully, this type of classroom dynamic with corporations will be implemented with other school programs. I really find hands-on projects more fun and realistic. If we challenge students to take ownership of their idea and grow with it, I think we’ll all be surprised at how incredible these projects can become.  Even if they don’t design the next kickstarter million dollar idea, I think they get more exposure to real-world thought processes and teamwork.

~See Lemons Volunteer

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[Lessons Learned] Presenting to HS Students

Random Observation/Comment #415: The reward of educational influence can be obtained without a formal “job” in academics. While I’m growing in my career, I will always find time to be a mentor.

see lemons present

In March 2014, I was given the opportunity to speak to 60+ high school students at Baruch HS for an hour session. What did I talk about? Pragmatic Presenting.

I’ll write a separate blog entry about the specific material I spoke about, but I want to focus this post on my lessons learned and general presentation tips for HS students.

  • Know your purpose. I was there to help them with an upcoming conference within the school, so I wanted to give practical and pragmatic advice that they could clearly use for their upcoming presentations and future endeavors. I focused on communication more than public speaking. Remember that this can’t just be a passing idea, but rather an obvious theme throughout your presentation.
  • Know your audience. High school students are a very fickle crowd with a short attention span and probably stray random thoughts (I barely remember anyone who spoke to me when I was in High School). I used visual aids, videos, direct tips, and interactive sessions to keep their attention. I made sure the analogies were something they could relate to and I tried commanding their attention like a teacher would.
  • Use visual aids. Presentation Zen worked very well here. I spoke with as little text on the slides as possible and tried to make each slide clear with a single photo or one word on the screen. I literally used photos of Jerry Seinfeld and Morgan Freeman in order to relate it to my speech. (for Seinfeld I told the joke about how public speaking is the #1 fear and death is #2…so you’d rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy. And for Morgan Freeman, I said that you should use voice inflections unless you have a voice like this guy.)
  • Make it interactive. Do not make it a one-way presentation. Make it a story, interactive workshop, and conversation. I called students up (specifically seniors who have submitted essays or prepared for interviews) and tried to change the dynamic of just having someone stand up there. Pragmatic examples were key.
  • Speak to them like adults. Knowing your audience does not always mean treating them with bias. I’ve found that treating students with respect and providing them with responsibility actually encourages them to step-up to the challenge.
  • Relate to them. Remind them that we’ve all been in those chairs and we’ve all wondered where things go. When someone asks me “What did you want to do when you were growing up?”, I’d say “I still don’t know what I want to do.”  Career paths are not straight lines – even the ones that seem that way were filled with hundreds of milestone decisions that could have gone in many different directions. Let them know that grown-ups are really not that different.
  • Have fun. The best presentations I’ve seen are where the presenter is passionate about what they’re talking about and clearly want the room to learn for the sake of learning.

It’s not like we’re up there so they can pass a test – we’re up there sharing knowledge and inspiring the next generation. I never realized it when I was on the other side, but that’s truly something special. Thank you to all the teachers (parents, volunteers, and mentors) out there. You’re all fucking awesome. Keep that shit up.

~See Lemons Present to HSs

Ideas to Improve your Toastmasters club

Random Observation/Comment #414: Toastmasters is an opportunity to take ownership and use your creativity to grow a community focused on self-improvement in communication.

see lemons lead

We can all be leaders. The opportunity is always there to foster a community and organize events.  Toastmasters clubs are self-sustaining groups run by their own members who want to help others improve in communications skills. As a previous President and VP of Education, I can tell you that it’s not always easy keeping a healthy club and maintaining the same enthusiasm from all members. We have to be creative and we need to keep everyone engaged.

Here are some ideas I’ve learned from officer trainings and brainstorming with our members:

  • Themed/Special meetings. It’s always good to have meetings that revolve around current events, seasons, or the specific speakers’ topics.
  • Body language meeting. Extra points for acting out speeches and using the stage space
  • Clearing Filler words. For those who want it, they can opt for a cruel and unusual filler word punishment (e.g. people will throw papers at you if you say a filler word)
  • Session on 2-minute pitching / elevator pitches and their structures
  • Special on Networking and how to be a better speaker daily
  • Interviewing better by communication
  • Practice technical presentations
  • Acting advice (one of our members is a former actor)
  • Guest speakers from managers of toastmaster members
  • Partnership with internal groups. If you’re a corporate club, it’s very likely there are other networks and groups internally that can work together. If a group is holding an event and someone needs to speak, a toastmaster can certainly help.
  • Marketing Campaign. Sometimes people just need to know these meetings exist and regularly meet. If you have consistency, then guests will come and practice.
  • Internal newsletter. Add your toastmasters group to an internal newsletter. Write your own newsletter and share it.
  • Add to new hire process.
  • Website updates (tweets of meeting times with reminders)
  • Transparency of recognition and awards. Send messages to toastmaster members’ managers of their milestones to improve communication skills.
  • Physical poster in the lobby reminding people of the meeting for the day.
  • Mentorship program. Officers who are more advanced speakers can take on mentees and meet with them to complete their goals.
  • Assign mentors and mentees and place some structure around the objectives
  • Mentor packet: A 1-2 page packet for beginning mentors. This will help mentors give some common tips and tricks to mentees.
    • What are some techniques to remove/reduce filler words?
    • How do I gain more confidence in my speech?
    • How do I memorize my speech?
    • How can I tell better stories?
    • How can I think faster on my feet for small talk?
    • How do I make meetings more interesting?
  • Video/Recording – It’s always a great motivation to improve your public speaking when you see/hear a recording of yourself. You are your own worst judge.
  • Guest packet: A 1-2 page visitors material with an FAQ. Some questions may include:
  • What is toastmasters?
  • What is the meeting format?
  • How do members benefit?
  • What is the CC?
  • What is the CL?
  • When does toastmasters meet?
  • How do I join?
  • Polling the Guests. It’s been a tradition in our meetings to have everyone stand up, introduce themselves, and answer a random poll question.. Some of these questions have included:
  • What is your personal tip/trick for public speaking?
  • How do you stay productive and stop procrastinating?
  • How do you relax?
  • What are your new year’s resolutions?
  • How do you feel about snow?
  • Which books have you read recently?
  • What is your favorite costume idea for Halloween?
  • Name an activity you’ve done outside your comfort zone
  • What is a website/app you think everyone should know about?
  • What is the best/worst gift you’ve ever received?
  • What is your most valuable possession?

Whichever combination of techniques you choose, just be creative and have fun with it! Practice will help you get over your fears of insecurity and make you a more confident speaker. Worst case: Fake it ’til you make it.

~See Lemons Share Toastmasters Ideas

[Travel Advice] My Favorite Layover – Narita

Random Observation/Comment #413: The Bad Idea Bears are not foreign to layovers and have enough experience to make the most out of the transfer in a new country.

see lemons love narita

Layover trip planning is a completely separate beast to regular trip planning because TIME is the largest constraint. In most cases, you want to err on the side of caution and stay within the international terminal as to:

  1. Not miss your connecting flight and get screwed staying in your random layover city
  2. Not pay for the visa if it is required for certain countries
  3. Not to pay extra money on transportation into the city to only spend a few ours there before rushing and returning to the gate
  4. Not exchange foreign money

All of these reasons are quite valid and usually sway us to stay in the airport, but there are exceptions:

  1. Layover is longer than 6 hours and there’s something close-by to see or eat
  2. You’ve never been to the country and you want to get a passport stamp

Due to this compulsive desire to make our passports look badass, we at least go through security to get the passport stamp and just walk right back into the airport. We’ve done this on multiple occasions for Turkey, Japan, and Nigeria (or at least tried).

By far, my favorite layover destination is Narita Airport in Japan. After exiting the terminal, the Tourist Information center was extremely friendly and helpful to provide us with a 2-3 hour typical itinerary for layovers that worked extremely well.  Here’s what we did:

  • Take the Keisei Main Line one stop (7 minutes – cost 250 yen). This train comes every 20 minutes on the 10/30/50 of the hour when going West.
  • Eat amazing sushi at Edokkozushi Sandohonten.  Prices are very reasonable and the servings are filling. Even just for this, I’d do this layover every time.
  • Take a walk through the Naritasaan Shinshoji temple. If you’ve never been to Japan, this temple will be a nice treat for you. You can hear the wind blow in peace and I think it’s the perfect introduction and lure for Japanese culture.
  • Head back and eat ramen. Because it’s so hard to find reasonably priced Japanese food in NYC that matches the quality, we actually sat down and had a second/third lunch ramen. It was so fresh and delicious that I didn’t care I had a 13-hour flight back to Chicago.

Alternatively, it looks like the eel is very famous in this location. A nice bowl of eel and rice would have been a lovely treat as well. Alas, I only have room for so many lunches.

The whole layover experience took 2.5 hours max and we were so glad we did it. Even if you just miss the train both ways, you have: 20 min train wait + 7 min commute + 30 min eat sushi + 13 min walk to temple + 30 min relax at temple + 13 min walk back + 20 min train wait + 7 min commute = 140 min.

If you’re ever in Narita airport, spend the 500 yen for the train round-trip commute and go have some 2000 yen sushi with a relaxing walk. It’s certainly worth the extra time and effort. Also note, you can leave your bags at the airport storage for 500 yen. Ask the tourist information area for more details.

~See Lemons Love Narita Layovers

[Travel Advice] Beijing

Random Observation/Comment #412: Smog is smoggy. Looking at the Earth as an organism, humans are definitely the worst disease the Earth has ever caught. You need to stop with those one night stands, Mother Nature.

see lemons in the forbidden city

Things China Does Great:

  • Great Wall. It’s pretty great and epic. Certainly worth every penny to go and see it with your own eyes if you can stand the touristy stuff around it. Once you’re up there though – Wow.
  • Inexpensive and delicious food. Definitely try the lamb hot pot, street baos, hand-pulled noodles, Peiking duck, and dumplings (nom nom nom all the momos). There’s food in Flushing that is on par, but there’s something about having it come from a local kitchen with local (probably polluted) water that makes me happy.
  • Clean, efficient, and incredible infrastructure. It’s not as clean as Japan, but the streets are swept nightly and the metro can get you almost anywhere.  I think they used the same metro designer as in Hong Kong, so I naturally love it. The roads are also very smoothly paved even into the smaller cities.
  • Quick day trips to peacefulness. I’m not really a big fan of over-populated cities with tourist traps. I like the local places, so it’s nice for me to see some small day trips to little towns like Chuandixia and the Great Wall to mix it up a bit.

Things that are Slightly Annoying:

  • Spitting and hocking louggies. It’s not the spitting, but more of the deep hocking sound that you occasionally hear in public. It universally makes people shiver, but old people still do it and I think it needs to stop.
  • Lack of Patience. I’ve found people to be a little rude when getting on subways and waiting for their time to do things. It’s these super aggressive selfish personalities that overall make me feel like people are very distrustful of the public.
  • Scamming. Although this never happened to me, I would beware of people in public who are too friendly. There have been a number of crazy scams for tourists, including:
  • Aggressive Haggling. The Chinese shop owners are actually really bad hagglers. They will give you a hard time in the beginning, but if you walk away and come back, you will most likely make the sale. Just know the value of what you’re buying and I think you should be fine.  I don’t like their haggling because sometimes they grab and set prices close to 20x the regular value. You can literally start at $1 and slowly work your way. Remember to just walk away because they are highly competitive with the 30 other stalls selling exactly the same thing down the line. I think it’s huge sport.
  • Smog. Smog is real and actually quite scary. Check this site for the day’s Air Quality Limit (AQI). Anything below 180 is considered reasonable. I don’t know why a safety limit even exists for the amount of arsenic in the air, but when the Chinese government says “You should probably stay at home today” because the 320 out of 500 pollution scale indicates there’s twenty (20) times the safety limit of arsenic in the air… I think there’s a problem.
  • Bureaucracy. You know how airport security is mostly just added process and security because people wind up sneaking through bottles of water and random things anyway? Well – these security checks happen often around tourist locations. Uniformed guards will randomly stop you and pat you down with a wand to prevent terrorist activity in crowded errors. This could have specifically been heightened for us due to recent events, but I honestly don’t see it doing anything.

Lessons learned:

  • Have a local bring you around. Besides the obvious language barrier for taxi rides and restaurants, it’s always good to have a local to bring you around China. I think they can spot deals a little bit easier and avoid scamming in general.
  • If you don’t have a guide, have someone write down the main places you want to go on separate pieces of paper in Chinese. At the very least, you will be able to hand them a piece of paper of the location.  The subways are very English friendly, so that’s always a route.
  • Learn the necessary vocabulary. I would focus on the main things you need to know on ordering food, giving taxi directions, some general yes/nos, and numbers.
  • Bring your passport. Due to the frequent checks, it’s important to have a form of identification on you at all times.
  • Rely less on credit cards. Most of Beijing (besides larger restaurants) do not accept credit cards. It’s important to have enough cash on hand to pay for train tickets, quick meals, tickets into tourist locations, and taxis.
  • Hire a driver. We hired Mark to bring us around for our day-trip to Mutianyu Great Wall and Chuandixi. A regular bus or even tour bus would have been cheaper, but with 4 people, the split cost was well worth the flexibility and nicer ride. Most importantly, there weren’t any stops to touristy shops and you get a lot of private advice from the driver.
  • Use face masks. As mentioned earlier, smog is real and I certainly felt the weight on my chest and lungs when I went out for a day of walking and wandering the streets while it was higher than 250 on the pollution scale. It’s certainly a good idea to bring your own face mask and wear it. I saw that most locals do not wear them unless they are sick themselves, but I would ebb on the side of caution. Check the AQI site for advice.

Itinerary (Beijing in 5 days):

  • Day 0 – Most flights land at night so just settle in and get some sleep to get over the jet lag
  • Day 1 – Tourism village, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, National museum, and dumplings. We woke up early to get to the tourist locations to avoid the touristy crowd, but alas they were all there soon enough. Go early and try not to go on weekends.
  • Day 2 – Rented a driver to Mutianyu Great Wall (first half of day), hand-pulled noodles, Nanlouguxiang, Hou Hai, lamb hotpot dinner. Mutianyu is clearly the less touristy spot to go. Definitely try the hot pot!
  • Day 3 – Lama temple, Summer Palace, Wangfujin for scorpion street food and buying goods, Peiking Duck, Slowboat for a beer. I love the Lama temple for its authentic Chinese feel. It has much more culture than the typically touristy things around the city. Peiking duck is definitely delicious, but it was hard to tell the difference between this one and the ones in Chinatown. I think I also like the steamed buns as an outside instead of the flatter wraps.
  • Day 4 – Rented a driver for ChuandixiaPanjiayuan market. It was very refreshing to get out of the city. Chuandixia is about 2 hours away and basically looks like a very old authentic town with some English signs nailed on. It’s clearly a new tourist location for buses, but if you can go on off season and walk around, it’s a really nice break from the fast city pace. The Dirt Market of Panjianyuan is crazy… I think it’s certainly a place to check out where locals barter.
  • Day 5 – morning return flight

There isn’t a shortage of places to go and things to do in Beijing, but the large number of tourists and overall unhealthy atmosphere left a bad taste in my mouth about the city. I certainly appreciate the nightlife and street food though. It seems to be a very lively city and an interesting place to visit.  That being said, I’m not so sure I’d put this high on my list of cities to revisit. I’ve personally found more temples in Kyoto/Tokyo and better food in Hong Kong.

~See Lemons Like Beijing

[Lessons Learned] Time-lapse Photography

Random Observation/Comment #411: Life is about trying new things and retrying old things. I guess life is just about trying? No, that’s too complicated. Life is about not thinking about trying.

see lemons time lapse

Time-lapses are a series of photos that are strung together and then sped up to condense something like 700 photos into 12-seconds of video. What you’re left with is those awesome Planet Earth shots that show sunrise and sunset across the lands while flowers bloom right before your eyes.  Beautiful stuff and not entirely out of your skill set (if you have some money and free time).

My colleague introduced me to time-lapse photography through one of his photography discussions at work.  After seeing how he makes his stunning videos going through NYC night life and some other random clock series, I started seeing time-lapses everywhere (mainly because I was watching a lot of House of Cards).  Being crazy and having a free hour after work, I decided to try my own.  Here is my setup and some lessons learned.

Things I Used:

  • DSLR (Nikon D5100) – this is the camera I’m most familiar with
  • Lens (Nikkor 35mm f/1.8) – I would recommend using something more wide angle (see below)
  • Fast SDCard (SanDisk 32GB 45MB/s – $30.53 on Prime) – I think a faster and larger card will help with all these continuous shots
  • Tripod (Dolica 60” Proline- $40) – inexpensive, well-made, and reliable for all my purposes. This is obviously necessary because you need it to be steady for the 300+ shots you’ll be taking
  • Intervalometer (RainbowImaging LCD Timer Remote Control – $28.99 on Prime) – unless you’re pressing the button manually, which is not recommended.

Learning by Doing: To be honest, I just went out and did it. I stood there looking at the manual for the intervalometer for 15 minutes like an idiot, but I did it.  And more importantly, I learned something the good old fashion way. Note that I did not do any calculations in the beginning and just decided to wing it.

  • Scene picking:
    • Remember that time-lapses are a series of photos strung together, so you need to choose somewhere that doesn’t have too much movement. If it does have a lot of movement, you’ll need to take smaller interval frames or have a location where the object stays within the frame for a long distance so you can follow it throughout the scene (e.g. people walking a city street during rush hour with the camera pointing down from above to see full trails).
    • Taking a self-portrait photo every day can also turn into a time-lapse.
    • I chose the Shake Shack line in Madison Square Park because it was close-by to work and convenient.
  • Tripod setup:
    • Frame your shot so that you can keep as many people in frame as possible. If it’s a line, get the entire line so you see people moving along it.
    • Make sure you’re in a spot that isn’t too heavy in traffic or else people will walk in front of your camera and totally block your shot.
  • DSLR Settings:
    • Shooting mode: Manual
    • Focus: Manual, focused on the line area
    • Quality: JPG (Choose Medium if you have a smaller SDcard)
    • ISO: manually set (outside I just did 100 on a sunny day)
    • White balance: manually set (sunny)
    • F-stop: I did F9 because I generally wanted more people to be in focus
    • Exposure: I set 1/40 only because I wanted to see people blur a bit. Also, dragging your exposure like this will make the movie seem smoother.
  • Intervalometer Settings (with the RainbowImaging LCD Timer Remote Control)
    • DE: 00:00’:00” – this is the timer. It will take a photo when the time is up
    • BU: 00:00’:00” – this is the exposure time. You can increase the time set for exposures if you set the Exposure to “BULB” (slowest exposure possible)
    • INT: 00:00’:04” – this is the interval timer so you can take the photo every INT seconds until the N photo counts are taken
    • N: – - (infinite) – this is the number of photos that the intervalometer will take. I set it as infinite because I just timing manually.
  • Shooting and Waiting:
    • I stood there waiting and looking at my phone as it continuously took a photo every 4 seconds for 45 minutes. Obviously people came by, but they didn’t really ask questions.
  • Post Production:
    • I used Photo Lapse 3 found here. It very simply did everything for me.
    • To make sure this didn’t take forever, I also shrunk the photos down to a smaller resolution (640)
  • Result:

Lessons Learned:

  • Don’t forget that it may get darker while you’re taking your photo. In my case, the sun was setting while I was watching the Shake Shack line move, so it started from bright to dark in a very uneven way.  Extreme changes in lighting like this are very hard to capture in time-lapses and I should have chosen something more consistent.
  • Night time-lapses can be very cool especially if you catch taxis stopping and going and creating streaks with the stoplights.
  • Planning the scene is extremely important. Consider subjects with cloudy days, semi-still water, parties, and anything with clocks.

I can’t wait to do my next time-lapse shoot! It’s certainly a nice sub-section of photography that blends snapshots with video.

~See Lemons Time Lapse

Parahawking in Nepal

Random Observation/Comment #410: Go Parahawking. Seriously. Plan a whole trip around it. It was the best 25 minutes of my life and I think everyone should do it. You’re welcome.

see lemons parahawk

I took a deep breath of fresh mountain air as I counted the white peaks of the Himalayas. The view from the top distracted me from the fact that I was 1) terribly afraid of heights and 2) about to walk off the cliff and go paragliding with a vulture. I wasn’t exactly afraid since I had 8 years and over 4000 flights of experience strapped to my back, but I couldn’t help but ask myself “Oh, the places you’ll go!”

In Pokhara, Nepal, I think the top attraction on tripadvisor should read “Parahawking.” It’s basically tandem paragliding with a glove, a bag of buffalo meat, and a trained vulture that eats from your hand. Here’s the last 7 minutes:

So you’re convinced – now how do you do it?

  1. Book your flight to Pokhara, Nepal. Flights will need to go through Kathmandu. I would personally recommend going to Kathmandu and then asking your hotel for a personal driver to take you to Pokhara. It’s a 5-6 hour drive and should cost around $100 USD. There’s been recent unsettling news with the little 18-person propeller airline flights that take 25 minutes.
  2. Book your parahawking flight. Be sure to book it ahead of time if you’re going during peak season. You can check availability on their website. I went in February and the weather was beautiful. I thought it’d be freezing, but the latitude of Pokhara is about the same as Orlando, FL, so day-times hover around 60 F. You’ll obviously need to get lucky with the weather for clear skies, but it’s good to know that the company doesn’t fly on crappy conditions.
  3. Show up and Experience the magic. I would highly recommend the earlier parahawking flight if possible. We showed up at 9:30AM and got up in the air as the first ones off the mountain by 10:15AM. The overall flight time will vary depending on the conditions, but I had a good 20-25 minute flight and got to feed Bob the vulture around 20 times. He’s called with a whistle and just swoops by to gently land and pick off the meat from your hand. There’s a go-pro taking photos every second and they do a video at the very end, so the whole experience is documented. Completely worth the $200 + $25 for the DVD.

For those who have anxiety starting the flight, it’s nothing like my skydiving experience. Paragliding is simply just walking into the horizon and having the wind take you across. Your instructor will have done this thousands of times and there’s no gut wrenching feeling of falling to death.  You simply just run forward and float. Your harness has a little seat so you’re literally just sitting there enjoying the view.

The view is definitely the most amazing part. The Himalayas are breath taking from up there and I can’t help but smile seeing something so majestic. Besides the wind and variable beeping from the equipment, it’s quietly peaceful. I could hear my own heart beat rhythmically as everything looked like it burst into colors around me. The flight is stable enough to hold your own camera, but this is something beyond words and photos could capture. I’m glad I just sat there and smiled as those peaks etched into my memory.

~See Lemons Love Parahawking