Saul Kaplan: Vacation By Design

photo-saulI tried.  I really did try to take a break from all the design and innovation buzz while on vacation last week in Spain.  It didn’t work. Throughout an incredible ten-day sojourn across northern Spain design and innovation reminders were everywhere.  It wasn’t premeditated.  I am sure the lens through which I view the world has a lot to do with it but I also credit Spain, which has a clear case of the design and innovation bug.  Then again maybe my perspective was colored by all of the great Rioja wine.  Here are the design highlights from this innovation junkie’s summer vacation.

We started our Iberian adventure in the great city of Barcelona.  On our first day we set out to see Casa Battlo and La Sagrada Familia designed by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. Both were on our must do list and unanimous recommendations from many Twitter friends who had been to Barcelona. Goodbye jet lag.  Wow.  I wasn’t familiar with Gaudi before our trip but will never forget his work after seeing it.  Gaudi was ahead of his time.  He was more modern than the Modernist Art Nouveau period in the late 19th early 20th century he lived and designed in. Throughout Gaudi’s life, he studied nature’s angles and curves and incorporated them into his designs.  His works are iconic and seem to flow directly from nature. Gaudi said, “The great book, always open and which we should make an effort to read, is that of nature”.  Amen.

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Casa Battlo, or as the locals refer to it Casa dels Ossos (House of Bones), has a skeletal, visceral, natural feel throughout.  I don’t think there is a straight line in the entire house.  The way Gaudi used color and light to draw you in is amazing.  He devoted the end of his life, unfortunately cut short in 1926 by a tram accident, to the monumental church La Sagrada Familia.  He completed the amazing design but barely saw the work started.  The work continues on today and the iconic church spires define the Barcelona skyline.  There aren’t enough times in your life when design takes your breath away.  Visiting Barcelona and seeing Gaudi’s work took my breath away.

 

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From Barcelona we drove into Rioja wine country for some rural relaxation and leisurely wine tasting.  Surely my obsession with design and innovation could take a rest there.  No such luck!  The concierge at our beautiful Relais & Chateau advised us to visit a couple of wineries in the small village of La Guardia.  As GPS guided us toward the Marques de Riscal winery there was no mistaking the iconic design of Frank Gehry as we pulled in.  I had no idea that Gehry did Rioja.  But there they were, those signature metallic ribbons that remind me of the ribbon candy that we ate and got stuck in our teeth when we were kids.  I knew we were going to see his famous work in Bilbao later in our trip but wasn’t expecting to see it in Rioja country.

 

As we visited the winery it began to make sense.  Marques de Riscal is attempting to create a new positioning for the winery and its wines to blend tradition with innovation.  What better way to execute a transformational positioning strategy targeted at employees, visitors, and customers than to hire the iconic architect Frank Gehry.  I would like to think that wine is about grapes and fermentation but the business is all about brand, customer experience, marketing, and price point. It makes great sense to differentiate brand and customer experience through the power of design.  As a bonus the Rioja was pretty darn good.

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After several days in wine country the last leg of our journey took us north into the Basque region.  We headed for San Sebastian and took a side trip to Bilbao.  This time it was by design that we visited the Guggenheim Museum to see Gehry’s iconic work and its great collection of modern art.  It was wonderful to visit and I couldn’t help but think about the power that iconic design can have on a community.  Bilbao is an old industrial port city that has been transformed in part by the iconic Guggenheim into a design and innovation center in northern Spain.

 

I will spare you the details of every tapas bar, pintxos crawl, great restaurant, and winery we visited.  Trust me when I say that a good time was had.  Batteries are recharged and inspiration to advance the mantle of purposeful design and innovation is renewed.  Gracias Espana. El gusto es mio.

Erica and Matt Chua: Agra’s #1 Attraction

Every year millions of tourists flock to Agra to see the white marble, architectural marvel that is the Taj Mahal.  Few leave disappointed.  To enjoy the magic of the Taj give yourself a few days to truly take in this legacy of the Mughal empire.  Seeing the domed mausoleum from several different vantage points will leave you awe-inspired and offer you the best opportunity for a prized photo.

The Taj was completed in 1653 after 22 years of construction and some 20,000 workers contributing their efforts including specialists from as far away as Europe.  It is widely thought to be the most beautiful building in the world.  Shah Jahan built it as a memorial for his second wife, Mumtaz whom died giving birth to their 14th child. Not long after it’s completion Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son and imprisoned in Agra Fort.  He spent the rest of his days only able to admire the Taj from a distance until he was entombed in his own creation next to Mumtaz in 1666.

Unlike Shah Jahan, you are not restricted to viewing the Taj from just one vantage point.  Being that likely your number one reason for paying a visit to Agra is to see the Taj, take time to find your favorite vista.  The four identical faces of the Taj are an exercise in architectural symmetry, yet the eye seems to notice different things from various angles.  Below are my three favorite views, each offering a unique perspective and gave me a new appreciation for this awe-inspiring memorial.

North Bank of the Yamuna River

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Erica and Matt Chua: Agra’s #1 Attraction

Erica and Matt Chua: India’s Big City Life

There are few situations more overwhelming than finding yourself in one of India’s largest cities. The sensory assault soon crescendos into an all out war on your senses with the cacophony of noises and smells fighting for your attention. The problem is these aren’t pleasant sounds and smells, constant honking, yelling along with the stench of garbage urine and body odor. So, what can I say to convince you that visiting any of these cities would be an enjoyable experience. Well, along with staggering statistics these cities also boast some of the best dining, sights and experiences India has to offer.

Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai

MUMBAI 20.5 million

Mumbai has something for everyone with the world’s most prolific movie industry, one of Asia’s largest slums, the most expensive residence ever built and more artists and servants than L.A. India’s most modern metropolis is a 24 hour party or the best place to find a good book and a proper cup of coffee- you decide. We’ve talked to travelers that couldn’t get out of there fast enough, but we could have stayed and eaten the cupcakes at Theobroma forever. It’s a city where dreams are born and dreamers dwell, so come and get inspired!

When to Go: October to February

Don’t Miss: Chowpatty Beach (FREE), Malabar Hill (FREE, a round trip cab ride from Colaba is about $4) , Bollywood (If you’re an extra they pay you!), Restaurants of Colaba (a nice dinner for two $20-$100 without wine), Dharavi slum (tour through Reality Tours is $10 per person), Dhobi Ghat laundry area (FREE, a round trip cab ride from Colaba is about $4)

Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi

DELHI 17 million

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Erica and Matt Chua: India’s Big City Life

The RP at the WSOP — Day One of the “Little One for One Drop”

Johnny pokerYesterday’s $1500 no limit hold ‘em tournament was a wild ride.  For hours, I was grinding and grinding effectively, doubling, then tripling my stack.

Then, I was dealt the worst hand of all:  Two Kings.  Of course, two kings is the second best opening hand in all of hold ‘em.  But when one of your table mates is dealt the best hand — two Aces — you are in a whole mess of trouble.

When you are dealt two kings, you feel like the world is in your hands — and a whole mess of your opponents’ chips.  You are in clearly a dominant position against any other hand, and when no ace appears on the flop, you are almost guaranteed to be in a heavily dominant position.  You know, after all, your opponents only have a .45% chance of drawing aces.  A mathematical game, you can’t operate so cautiously as to fear that slim a probability.

So when it happens, two kings are a killer.  You have less than an 18% chance of prevailing.

And in my case, the odds held.  And I was knocked out of the tournament.

Good news is that there’s another tournament that begins today, and it is one of my favorites: The Little One for One Drop.  I wrote about last year’s event and the incredible “One Drop” global water charity it supports here.  And I’m back for another try today.

I’ve also tried to change my luck with a new fashion strategy.  Take a look at my outfit, and the first person who guesses my shirt fabric wins a prize.

Wish me luck.  And hope that I don’t get two kings again.

Erica and Matt Chua: Ms. Ha’s School of Marketing

Before we had even unpacked our bags in our sixth floor room in Can Tho there was a knock at the door.  Upon opening the door in came a short, fiery Vietnamese woman that we could tell wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer before we could even figure out what she was selling.  She squatted down and started pulling out photos, maps, a notebook and testimonials from previous customers.  She jumped right into her sales pitch for her boat tours on the Mekong Delta for “good price.”  Her English was some of the best we had heard in Vietnam and she was talking a mile a minute while writing down pricing in her notebook to show us.  $20 for a half day private tour and $40 for a full day private tour down the Mekong Delta.  Before we even had time to respond to anything she had presented she was shoving testimonials written in every language at us, clearly proud of all her happy customers.

Her aggressive sales pitch and excellent English landed us on a small boat at 5:30 am the next morning in the Mekong Delta.  Breakfast was included, coffee too, as well as a driver and English speaking guide.  Our guide was an affable older gentleman who had fought in the South Vietnamese Military alongside the Americans in the Vietnam War, which is where he picked up his English.  They were a great pair for giving us a glimpse into life on the Delta and for getting plastic bags out of the motor so that the tour could continue.

The first stop was Cai Rung floating market, the largest in the Mekong Delta.  Most of the trading, selling and buying happens between 6-8 am, so we were right on time.  Next we headed to a small rice paper making operation, which also seemed to be raising pigs and pythons.  With all the rice noodles we had been eating we didn’t know how they were made, so this stop was of particular interest as they made rice paper that was then made into noodles.

We continued down the Delta observing how people lived along the rivers and watching as new bridges were being built and barge traffic made it’s way towards Saigon.  Much of the Mekong Delta looks the same, but we were kept entertained as our driver made  us bouquets of flowers, grasshoppers and jewelry out of coconut palm leaves.  Our guide also made us some pineapple lollipops and attempted to teach us Vietnamese.

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Erica and Matt Chua: Ms. Ha’s School of Marketing

Help End the War About Coal: Support Rebuilding West Liberty, Kentucky

jmandclinton14I just returned from the Clinton Global Initiative America summit in Denver, where I saw an old friend (see pictures spanning 20 years), and spoke about an initiative that is already uniting both “Friends of Coal” and passionate environmentalists:

Rebuilding West Liberty, Kentucky

As I discussed in this op-ed in today’s Louisville Courier-Journal, Rebuilding West Liberty, a project announced this week as a Clinton Global Initiative America Commitment to Action,  is a multi-faceted approach to redevelop a small town in coal country — nearly destroyed by a tornado two years ago —  as a national model for sustainability.

Phase One of this private/public partnership involves the construction of state-of-the-art, energy efficient homes that utilize renewable technologies, and the educational promotion of its innovations to school children and similarly-situated rural communities across the country.

The project holds great promise, not simply for West Liberty itself, but perhaps more importantly, as an example for all of coal country.  It’s a chance to stop merely complaining about what’s wrong in the “War About Coal,” and start supporting what’s great about Eastern Kentucky.

Of course there’s a catch:  We need to raise $500,000 to see this exciting local vision realized.  The good news is that you can help:  With your tax-deductible contribution (the project’s fiscal agent is the nationally-estemeed Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises, FAHE), you can make a real difference in helping this risilient community, and working towards an end to the War About Coal.

Click here to contribute $5, $10, $50, $100, $1000 — whatever you can afford.

What’s clear is that we can’t afford to give up on coal country.  It’s time to put aside the heated rhetoric and take a step for real progress in the region.

Please join us.

Lauren Mayer: Boys, Sophomoric Humor and Politics

here are a variety of theories attempting to explain the relative minority status of women in comedy, ranging from socialization (women are raised to laugh at others, not to tell the jokes) to courtship (men want to be the ones to make others laugh) to good old-fashioned sexism (club owners tend to be men and think men are funnier).  At any rate, women tend to be less comfortable with, or at least less proficient at, off-color humor – which is why it’s so startling when they do get down & dirty (part of Sarah Silverman’s huge appeal is that she looks like a fresh-faced girl-next-door and talks like Lenny Bruce).

I don’t know if it’s my gender (female, duh), my age (not telling, duh, which tells you I’m old enough not to want to tell), my upbringing (raised by a feminist mother who forbade Barbie dolls because they fostered an unrealistic body image, and an intellectual father whose idea of a joke was offering to do his Millard Fillmore impression . . . . but I digress), or my Ivy League education, but I’d always believed cerebral wordplay was infinitely superior to potty humor.  My one near-break as a comedy performer was an invitation to audition night at The Comic Strip in LA, after I’d won some cabaret awards in San Francisco.  I did a couple of my witty, Noel Coward-esque songs about current events, to polite applause, but then the man after me impersonated the male sex organ having its first orgasm, complete with sound effects.   Needless to say, he totally killed and got invited back.  (To be fair, this was almost 30 years ago.  Don’t bother doing the math, let’s just say I was old enough to rent a car – but barely!)

I never had to wrestle with whether or not to adjust my highbrow ideals, because shortly after that I started a family.  Turns out, the biggest influence on my sense of humor has been having two sons, particularly once they hit puberty (and especially once Husband 2.0 came on the scene, whose brilliant plan to cure the boys of using foul language was to have ‘swearing night’ at dinner so they’d ‘get it out of their system.’  Instead, they both just enlarged their vocabularies!)  Between language, rating each other’s burps, and Family Guy, I’ve pretty much surrendered to a frat house environment.

I still try to keep my weekly songs witty and informative – which means usually my sons ignore my videos (apart from my 17-year-old reassuring me that ‘over 100 views is viral for old people’ – cue rimshot).  But this week, I’ve succumbed to a sophomoric tone, at least in part – which means my sons think this week’s song is actually cool.

Erica and Matt Chua: In Search of a White Tail

It’s hard to avoid expectations, they are just a given in life.  For example When you go to dinner you expect to have a menu with multiple items to choose from, when you book a taxi you expect them to take you to your destination and when you pay a high fee for something your expectations go up.  While traveling has taught me to temper my expectations, I couldn’t help but have high expectations when I paid $145 NZ dollars ($120 USD) for a whale watching tour.  In fact if you don’t see a whale you get your money back. How could I go wrong?
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I saw my whale and the tour was a success, with a perfect whale tail photo to show for it.  However, the tour is one that I would have a hard time recommending.  I was giddy about the prospects of seeing one of the world’s largest mammals in it’s natural habitat, but a little hesitant about the large price tag. So, I headed to the whale watch headquarters in hopes of encountering an over-zeoulous salesperson to give me the pitch about how nothing can compare to seeing a sperm whale in Kaikoura.
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Instead when I walked in no one greeted me and upon enquiring about their whale watch tours I was simply given the times they had available the next day.  Thinking maybe I had to show a little enthusiasm to get them pumped up I asked which tour was the best to spot a whale on.  The woman behind the counter answered flatly, it’s really about luck.  Okay, I said, clearly hoping for more from her to which she responded you can book now without putting any money down.
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I booked a spot on their first available tour in the morning and left with lowered expectations.  Lucky for me we were couchsurfing with an expert on sperm whales.  Our host, Manuel was getting his PhD in sperm whale behavior and offered all the encouragement I needed to get pumped up about my whale watch tour in the morning.  Not only was this one of the best places to spot the huge mammals he told me, but from my pictures he would be able to tell me which whale I saw since he had been studying them for years.

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Erica and Matt Chua: In Search of a White Tail

Erica and Matt Chua: World’s Top 5 Dance Performances

I never thought I would write about the top five dances to see around the world, but these performances moved me.  They were not merely entertaining they were mind blowing.  From the unbelievable Arirang Games in North Korea, which is the largest choreographed dance in the world to the spiritual ritual dance in northern India to help instruct Buddhists through the stages of death these five dances will give you a whole new perspective on each of the countries you watch them in.  They may even change your life and your transition into the afterlife.

1. The Arirang Games

Pyongyang, North Korea

Any attempt to explain the annual Arirang Games in North Korea are lost on anyone who has not witnessed the incredible show for themselves.  The “Mass Games” as they are also called enlist over 100,000 people to honor their “Eternal Leader” Kim Il-Sung on his birthday with the largest choreographed show on earth.  With performers practicing their parts from the early age of five and dancing as a part of the collective, every part of the show represents the communist way of life.  It is an incredible spectacle and one you have to see to believe.

2. Tango

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tango may quite possibly be one of the sexiest dances in the world, making it a must-see dance, and there is no place it is more ubiquitous than Buenos Aires.  The famous tango enclave of La Boca in Argentina’s capital has a cafe on every corner featuring a sequen-clad couple performing for tourists.  No trip to Buenos Aires would be complete without seeing live tango, it’s just a matter of deciding where to watch it.

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Erica and Matt Chua: World’s Top 5 Dance Performances

Erica and Matt Chua: Buenos Aires Walking Tour

Walking past gorillas and robots, followed by a church dating back 200 years, then skyscrapers with men in business suits pouring out and finally sitting down to a steak lunch while watching tango dancers…just another day in Buenos Aires.  Navigating from neighborhood to neighborhood the scenes change quickly from graffitied buildings in San Telmo featuring gorillas and robots to the financial district with smartly dressed business men on Florida Avenue.

Buenos Aires has something for everyone and being such a walk-able place there is no better way to explore than on foot.  Below is a short summary of my favorite neighborhoods in Argentina’s beautiful capital:

Monserrat

Home to the Casa Rosada where Eva Peron famously addressed the nation, Monserrat forms part of Buenos Aires’ business district.  The concentration of significant public buildings and local history make this a requisite stop for any visitor. This small neighborhood can trace it’s roots back to colonial times, it was here in 1580 that Spanish conquistador Juan de Garay first arrived with settlers from Asuncion and Santa Fe.

Must see: Casa Rosada, the elegant pink government building (feature in the above photo)- guided tours are interesting and worth checking out, take a stroll around Plaza de Mayo, which is always busy and offers great people watching.  You can see Buenos Aires oldest church in this barrio, Iglesia de San Ignacio de Loyola sanctified in 1734. And don’t miss Manzana de las Luces (Block of Enlightenment), a block of 18th century buildings including Buenos Aires National College

Puerto Madero

Puerto Madero is one of the newest barrios in Buenos Aires, located in the old port area, the brick warehouses have been transformed into trendy restaurants and offer excellent dining. Porteños (residents of Buenos Aires) spend weekend afternoons strolling along the docks, riding bikes on the wide pathways, and lingering over coffee and pastries at riverfront cafes offering great people watching.

Must see: Enjoy lunch at on of the many luxurious riverfront cafes, the all-you-can-eat lunch buffets are a great deal!

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Erica and Matt Chua: Buenos Aires Walking Tour

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