Innovation Session: The Most Normal State – Part 1


The idea started as I was driving back from a caving trip in southern Utah. My friend Mark & I drove through Colorad City, Arizona, known for its community of polygamists.

“Wow” we thought “this is not a normal town.”

Like I mentioned, we had just spend a few days in Utah, a state known for its disproportionate percentage of followers of the Mormon faith. And as we drove back we crossed through Nevada, a state that you are always aware when you enter on account of the immediate presence of large casinos on the border. Not exactly normal.

As we pondered what it was that we meant by ‘normal’ we realized that our beloved home of California certainly wouldn’t fit the mold.

“So,” we asked ourselves “which state is the normal one?”

If the states were family members in a bizarre sitcom – which one would be the main character? The relatable one. The one who’s character wasn’t saturated with stereotypes and caricature.

We debated for the better part of a few hours – which is nice on a 12 hour drive. Illinois and South Carolina seemed to come out on top – but none of this was based on anything solid.

So, operating under a belief that there is a state more normal than the others – I am going to attempt to pull together some data that will make clear which one it is.

Wish me luck.

Step 1: What makes a state normal?

As we drove we began to brainstorm a list of ideas of attributes of a state that could help to determine its normalness or lack thereof.

We settled on a few major categories:

  • Politics
  • Economics
  • Social Norms
  • Geography & Climate
  • Cultural
  • Sports

Each category could then be broken down into a number of attributes that are more quantifiable. For example – in politics, we would look at the state’s popular vote breakdown as compared to the nation’s in the most recent presidential election.

The methodology we will take with this project is to assign, for each attribute, an absolute value z-score for each state. This will show which states are closest to the national mean – the ones with low z-scores – and which ones are not – those with higher z-scores.

We realized that it didn’t matter if they were above or below the national average because we will be comparing across attributes that are in no way related. If we tried to keep track of positive and negative values we would be presented with the challenge of determining whether high amounts of rain was more of a Democrat or Republican thing. We don’t care – if you’re not close to the mean – you’re not normal.

Step 2: Getting the data

Now that we know what we know what we are measuring and comparing against, we need some data. I’m really hoping there is a massive state info API out there – but in the likely case that there is not – it might be time to start web scraping & mechanical turking. This is going to be the fun part.

I will be keeping all code publicly viewable on github – so feel free to contribute: Most Normal State Github Repository


You can ready part 2 here, where I attempt to get data from the US Census.


2013: Goal, Theme & Challenge

Every year since 2008 I’ve done an exercise on December 31st where I jot down a few notes about the previous year and make predictions about the next year. I make guesses on 20 items regarding my life, the world, etc. The answers usually resemble a probability density function that I then evaluate the following year.

This year I wanted to add something new to my repertoire of yearly focus that I think fits well in a public setting like this blog. Stating these items publicly and providing regular updates should provide a bit of extra accountability and pressure to achieving them.

Goal – Something I want to accomplish that is measurable and relatively continual. eg. exercise more or watch less TV.

Theme – A central topic for the year – something I can look back on and pinpoint that N was the year of X. eg. develop independence or work like crazy

Challenge – Something big that I want to conquer. eg. climb Mr. Everest or run a 10 hour Ironman

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2013 Goal: Create With My Hands

I am more and more realizing the consumer state I am immersed in and the many unintended consequences of it. Where once there were imperfect hand made goods we now have conformity.

A lot of my furniture is from IKEA – you probably have some of the exact same furniture. When I was younger I had furniture and toys that my grandfather made with his hands in the wood shop. These are some of my favorite things. They are unique and they were made with love. They took time to make and that time leaves room for thought.

I’ve made a few things with my hands; a surfboard, a bed frame and some art. I always enjoy it, even if it doesn’t work as well or look as nice as the store bought kind. It has a story to it and I get to tell that story to friends when they come to my house. I enjoy having company over and being able to share with them those stories and the use of the items I made.

So for 2013 my goal is to create more with my hands. To not buy when I can build.

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2013 Theme: Grow As A Leader

In 2012 I was introduced to a lot of new leadership opportunities. At home, I got married – at work, I started managing a team that grew to 5 people. Leading is tough. No longer can you optimize your patterns and goals to your own interests and styles. You have to be flexible, you have to communicate more than you would think necessary and you have to be prepared for a lot of the unexpected.

Leading is something I intend to do a lot more of in my life. I would like to start another company and grow it. I would like to have kids. I have a lot to learn, but fortunately for me I have a lot of people to learn from.

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2013 Challenge: Surf Mavericks

I set this goal for myself last year on Facebook.


I took a few steps towards it, (including getting a board) but unfortunately, I never achieved it.

In June I injured my shoulder taking me out of commission from surfing for a few months. I thought things would heal up, but it is taking longer than I would like. I can surf some, but not enough to paddle into a 25ft+ wave.

Mavericks breaks in the winter, which means my next real window is next November-December. I’m hoping to be able to heal up, start training and get it done next December.

I plan on making regular updates for each of these to show what steps I am taking and how I have been progressing at each of them.

Innovation Session: Gathering Data on Myself

If you can measure it, you can improve it.

With that in mind I plan on measuring more things about myself in 2013 as I continue optimizing areas of my life. I currently do a quarterly review of how I spend my time and an annual 50K ft look – but I think there can be benefit to a daily granularity.

In general, I am a strong advocate of data based decision making.  Often this does not require complicated computation or advanced statistical techniques – it simply requires having the right question in mind and some relevant data to look at over time. Trends will show themselves. This is especially true when the area in question is not already highly optimized.

As anyone that works with data will tell you, though, getting clean relevant data is often what most of the effort goes into on a project.

There are a lot of really cool things going on with self measurement right now – it is sometimes called quantified self . The focus on it is making it easier to find tools that seamlessly track aspects of your life. Some that come to mind are:

Tonight, I’m going to put some energy into creating a system that lets me easily gather data about myself. Hopefully I’ll be able to iterate through a few versions before the new year starts.


  1. Daily – I have done some sampling before but want something more consistant and granular
  2. Easy – it is hardly optimizing if the process costs more time & energy than the results
  3. Diverse – it should include structured & unstructured data, qualitative & quantitative about a wide range of topics
  4. Actionable – I want to stick to those things which I can impact
  5. Future-proof – there are questions I will want to ask later that I don’t know yet

First off I need to select a system to use. I was thinking about but am hesitant because of the fact that the founders now work at Facebook. I don’t want to rely to heavily on a system that might become unsupported or shut down shortly.

After a bit of looking, it seems like most of the forward thinkers are using custom tools. I’m going to opt for Google Docs & use the form tool which gives me both ease of entry and organized storage. I’m then going to set up a reoccurring calendar event that will pop up a link to the form every day at 8:00 pm on my phone. That should take care of requirements #1 & #2.


Now to come up with questions – I am immediately thinking of three categories I want to measure.

  1. Things I want to quantify so I can later try to correlate them
  2. Things I want to codify so I can later look back on them
  3. Things I want to ask so they will stay on my mind

1. Quantifiable info

The first few items will likely include items I just want to get raw number for and which are fairly factual by nature. I’m guessing that most of these will be interesting but more so when used to shed light on other items.

  • How many hours did you sleep?
  • How many hours did you work?
  • How many hours of deep concentration did you have?
  • How many hours did you read for?
  • How many meaningful conversations did you have?
  • Did you exercise?

Then there are items I’m going to put numbers to that are a little more abstract. These ones are starting to drift away from requirement #4 as they are less actionable – but I suspect they will indicate problems with the items above.

Health in each of the following:

  • Physical
  • Mental
  • Social
  • Emotional
  • Spiritual
  • Vocational

2. Situational items

These questions, I’m hoping will provide deeper context for the items listed above. Mini-snapshots of my life.

  • What is the thing you are most excited about today?
  • What is the thing you are most worried about today?
  • What was one thing you accomplished today?
  • What was one way you failed today?

3. Items to keep on my mind

There are some things, that by keeping them on the top of your mind will affect your actions. I’m hoping these questions have that result.

  • What new thing did you do today?
  • How did you serve others today?
  • What did your actions today say about your character?
  • How were you a loving husband today?
  • What time did you spend today that you now wish you hadn’t?


 Here is the final product on my phone – just in time to wrap the session. It is a bit long at 24 questions, but I like a lot of it. I’m going to consider the next 10 days a test run and make some tweaks before settling on something to consistently use for 2013.

Edit: After a few days of working with the longer list I realized that I needed to drop a few questions. I was able to get it down to 13 without losing too much by dropping the first set of quantifiable questions. I’m not too concerned with time tracking here and that I can get fairly accurate data on that with a sampling method I use elsewhere.

I also realized that for the health questions, 1-4 was not a granular enough scale so I’ve changed that to 1-10.