Mining for Fun

. . . in the Hard Crust of Technical Documentation

by Desmond Rutherford

In my work, I seek fun every day. It’s not as easy as flicking a light switch or dialing up my furnace to warm my home. It takes focus, mind games, heart games, and empathy. I must dig deep, turn over odiferous diatomaceous earth to reveal shining nuggets of fun to brighten up my gray cube walls, inspire my coworkers, and whistle through the day as a motivated Funman. But too often it’s pickaxe hard to break through the barriers of the daily chores.

I do instructional design consulting work for a utility company. A typical day can include several hours of reading technical documents and complex procedures, and while eyeball deep in this reading I don’t feel very fun and sometimes forget what fun can be. I travel in my mind through large natural gas transmission lines, under several hundred pounds of pressure, trying to develop training for workers who cut into these lines in order to tie in new paths for gas transmission and distribution. This is the work that ultimately results in my ability to turn a dial and heat my home, something I took for granted until I started to do this work. I’ve developed a deep respect for the people that make this happen. It involves isolating, at times, miles of pipeline, purging the gas from the line, and cutting out an old section to create new paths. Because it can be gravely dangerous to isolate a gas line (e.g., the control valves leak, or the landscape is too severe to work safely), work must be performed “hot.” Working hot means using a welding torch to cut into a pipeline while it is still filled with pure natural gas. The right mixture of gas and air is incredibly explosive. I try to be empathetic.

It’s empathy that changes the game for me. I imagine what it must be like to do this work. Truly, I can’t – these linemen are a tough breed and work under conditions I haven’t the courage for. However, I do appreciate their commitment in the midst of a complex, difficult, dangerous, and volatile environment that can turn catastrophic. Real fast. While I may not be the guy to perform these feats, I can create training to keep them safe and potentially save their lives. It’s more than just a motivation – it’s literally a matter of life and death. The better I understand the conditions, the more I can make that difference.

It helps that I also get to interview people who have been doing this work, in some cases for more than 30 years. They tell hair-raising, blood-curdling stories of things gone awry, of people on fire. Breaking down each moment, each movement, and isolating the second when something goes wrong is what I do to improve how people do this work and ensure that they get into their cars again at the end of a shift. I’ve discovered there’s nothing more fun than being focused on a task you have deep empathy for, a task that has real purpose.

Not every job I do is about saving a life, but keeping my mind and heart centered on who benefits from what I do is central to having fun at work. We all do (or hope to do) work that, in some measure, helps our own species. This is true whether we prepare food, sew a garment, create art, write code, tune an engine, or prepare a serum to keep a disease at bay. We work to serve the purpose of helping each other. Having empathy helps us to see how we do that and hold each other up. It fuels our drive, and our ability to appreciate the bigger picture. With a clearer aerial view, it’s easier to understand how even seemingly innocuous activities are the scaffolding for a bigger structure. I chose to inject empathy into the daily grind to soften the hard crust I must drill through to cultivate purpose – and to harvest fun.

Fun with Pain

We’re all familiar with pain, and most of us are blessed to be free of it for the vast majority of our lives.  I personally have a high pain threshold, and I’m often asked, “What happened to your hand?” and am unable to summon a response.  I don’t know.  I’m sure I bashed it against something sometime, but I don’t keep track.  It doesn’t matter much, or make an impression.

But pain.  Real pain, pain you can’t ignore.  Pain that reaches out of your soul and says, “Hi!” and no mistake about it.  My worst was an earache when I was a child, an earache that lasted for days and just pushed everything else out of my consciousness.  Pain that went on and on and nothing else mattered.  I’ve also had telescope bowel (you ladies imagine giving birth through your belly button), second and third degree burns over almost half my body, and other bowel-shaking painful episodes, so I have credentials – but I think we’ve all had at least a few moments of monumental pain.  Real pain.

Pain is the opposite of fun – at least that’s how we play it.  Break your arm, hurting and a bit spiteful, and you’ll likely underplay the pain when asked with a response like, “This is no fun.”  Pain isn’t fun.  But you can have fun with pain.

Okay, this seems over the top.  Here’s Richard with his New Age, groovy, Zen master take on pain:  we can make it fun!  Woo-hoo!  Let’s march right over to the terminal cancer ward and cheer those folks up!  Get them enjoying their Parcheesi and dancing the tango instead of suffering with pain that opiates can’t help!

That’s not fun with pain – or at least it’s not the core of what I’m trying to say.  Fun with pain is making a victory.  Not a victory from defeat, but a victory in the face of defeat.  Pain will win, pain wins and you lose, but it doesn’t have to win everything.  You can be injured or suffering a chronic disease that leaves you in constant physical pain, or depressed or despairing and suffering the tortures of the psychologically damned – and still snatch a fragment of food from the devouring maw of misery, still grab a scrap of a win from a sure loss.  Fun with pain is beyond the usual range of deciding between a state that’s nice and one that’s not so nice – it’s a metaphysical, existential battle for yourself with the inevitable forces of the universe, or, more cruelly, with your own body.  Fun with pain is suffering but not failing to notice that the sunset is particularly fine, or bantering with your nurse because you notice she’s suffering and your tiny drop of unexpected happiness from a sufferer means a lot.

Fun with pain is real fun, fundamental fun.  Fun is easy with friends at the bar, or watching a gorgeous Hawaiian sunset after snorkeling, or celebrating success after your latest hostile takeover.  Fun in the midst of misery is a flag that everyone should salute, a testament to belief in the beauty of being a human being on this planet.  It’s showing respect for the many, many moments that you weren’t in pain – or that you were, and could forget the pain for a moment to hear the waves going rhup rhup rhup on the shoreline and know that life is good, even if you aren’t really.

Fun with pain is making your box very very small.  It’s shrinking your moment down to the point that you can notice potential pleasure despite the onslaught of unrelenting pain.  I’ve seen it in my family, friends, and most clearly in my father, who suffered perhaps the most existential torture of all – Alzheimer’s disease.  The pain of loss of self, gradual but while self-aware – even as self-awareness took on a whole new meaning in the face of loss of self.  Near the very end, days before my father died, I looked into his eyes and saw little of the awareness that made him what he was – sharp, a bit unforgiving, but warm – but there was a little.  A tortuously little, enough to know that inside this husk that used to be the man I looked up to more than anyone in the world lived a homunculus of him that knew what was happening, and was so sad.  But within this hopelessness and pain could emerge moments, little teeny eeny weeny bits of victory.  In the forbidding face of clumping proteins and neurodegeneration were real moments of laughter and touch.  I touched my father before he died, and it was good.  He couldn’t remember my name, or really recognize me in the way we usually know the word, but he did feel happy to be with me.  He had a little teeny eeny weeny bit of fun in the face of disaster.  I did too, even if I cried.

Don’t forget that.  I’ve never, and I never will, forget that it’s never, ever, ever too late to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  And that victory in defeat is the best success . . . perhaps a victory that will never be celebrated, or even noticed, but a victory that is fun at it’s purest. It’s laughing at the end of it all and shaking your fist at the sky, it’s poking your great-grandchild until she cries and making her have nightmares about wrinkly faced old guys with bad breath (that’s how I remember my grandfather – but I do remember). Have a little bit of fun now, even (especially) if you aren’t in pain.  And later, maybe just a teeny bit more.  And repeat.

Have fun.



The Fun Paradox

I’m writing a book on fun at work, and I’ve never been satisfied with the draft title: Fun NOW! My brother and partner in business jestingly added “You will have” before and or die, fool!” after to highlight its silliness, but we were still at a loss to come up with something better.  Fun NOW! referred to the question raised by my Fun Manifesto:  Why wait?  Why wait for fun when you can have fun NOW? But it’s still a silly title.

I have a new draft title, The Fun Paradox, and it’s the subject of this post. It popped into my head one evening as I was examining my previous writings on fun at work and noticed that contradictions and paradoxes were the rule rather than the exception. I think that viewing fun at work as the resolution of a paradox – a paradox in appearance and practice but not in fact – has helped me organize and effectively communicate the power of fun at work.  But what is the Fun Paradox?

The Stereotype is Worst – the Reality is Best

Think back to a memorable occasion where you had fun at work. What were you doing? Was it by yourself or in a group? Was it associated with a notable success, or just another day at work? Do you think your boss approved, and should he have?

If you’re like the majority of people I’ve interviewed, your most memorable fun at work happened while you were working with other people rather than alone, and it happened while you were doing a particularly good job that your boss would have been proud of.  This contrasts markedly with the initial impression most of us have when we think of having fun at work. The stereotype I’ve encountered most frequently is a cross between Pike Place Fish Market and the movie Waiting, a hybrid of burly fishmongers tossing huge salmon across a crowded room combined with busboys hiding in the walk-in sucking the nitrous oxide out of whipping creme cans or smoking ganja by the dumpster.  A cross between desirable but inaccessible playtime and frightening misbehavior – you can’t imagine how you’d turn your workplace into a fish-throwing funhouse, and you really don’t want to encourage the screwups who have fun at everyone else’s expense.

My recent memory of fun at work was sitting at a lab bench when I should really have been parked in my office, working with my crew.  As usual in science labs, we were each working on an independent project, almost completely dissociated from our colleagues except during the weekly lab meeting.  But that day we were all working together while separate, which gradually turned into working together.  Despite the periodic caustic comments of our lab bummer dude, the doubtful “reality” remarks of the lab doubter, and my own focused, uncommunicative efforts of questionable managerial caliber, during the course of that day the total became greater than the sum of the parts.  Later I realized that it’s difficult to not be a group when you’re working as a group:  we can stay alone and seemingly unaware by sticking to our computers, minimizing real human contact, and taking adversarial roles in mandatory contacts, but once you really sit down and start working together, that sort of artificial separation is nearly impossible – and feels stupid – to maintain.

The paradox became clear when our associate, and head of the next-door lab, came out of his cubicle and made disparaging comments about our fun.  We’d become louder as we worked more closely together, there was laughter, and we’d started up the clothespin game.  The clothespin game is an awareness exercise, the point being to clip a clothespin on a player without them noticing it, ideally for long enough that someone outside the group points it out (highest score is given to ‘pins that make it all the way back home before being detected).  Our associate, Rainer, focused very intently on his work with his back to the cubicle opening, and so was a perennial target for clothespinning.  On this occasion he tore apart the ‘pin, broke it, and threw the pieces down, and left saying  some variant of, “Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?”  He saw our fun at work as a complete waste of time, and bad for us (and him) as well.  I, on the other hand, noted that by the end of the day we’d accomplished more than any other day that month, and had gone some way towards mending the damage that the lab doubter, bummer, and I had done over time to lab morale.  We ended up together at a local watering hole after work (including a member of my team who is a Mormon), celebrating the events of the day.  While we did talk quite a bit about the ‘pinning, we also had a more open and productive discussion of our work than we’d had in months of previous lab meetings.

“Laugh While You Can, Monkey Boy!”

If my interviews are any guide, when you walk by a room at work filled with laughing, happy people you assume they’re having a party, taking a break, or getting ready to go out to lunch – anything but working at peak performance.  This cultural bias recurs frequently when we examine fun at work, and is the primary obstacle to overcome if we’re to make work fun and reach our greatest potential.  This bias is far from universal, even within the corporate culture in America,  and many organizations have found through experience that workers having fun are happier and more productive.  I invite you to check out Fun.Com, a company I ran across when I was searching for an available web address.  Admittedly, they’re in a fun business (Halloween costumes), but they get it.  Fun works.

If you still don’t see the Fun Paradox as a paradox, I invite you to take the following challenge:  when you visit a business, as soon as you walk in the door make a guess about how much fun it is to work there.  Don’t wait – go for a snap judgement.  Now do your business, and note how well the place functions.  Is the service snappy, helpful, and good-humored?  Did you get what you want at a good price for great quality?  How was the followup?  Repeat a few times, and I claim that you’ll find a clear association between your snap judgement of how fun the workplace is and your detailed assessment of performance.  I’ve been doing this for a while now, and I find that a single sniff of the air as I walk in the door is enough to give an amazingly accurate measurement of whether I can expect good service, quality products, and great customer support.

We’re amazingly accurate fun detectors, and this is for very sound evolutionary reasons.  Fun is a meta-metric, encapsulating a whole pile of human factors, performance measures, and intangibles into a simple gut feeling.  To use Kahneman’s term from Thinking, Fast and Slow, fun is detected by System 1, and it’s fast.  In my experience, it’s incredibly fast – within a few seconds I can accurately assess fun at a business.  I’ve only had to reassess on a handful of occasions, and invariably to make a harsher judgement after finding that my first contact was a rare flower that could bloom in bad soil.  Try it yourself, and you’ll have taken the first step to resolving the Fun Paradox.

Computer Fun

One day I walked through my old institute, a large, modern laboratory building, meandering the passage that separated the lab spaces on the interior from the study carrels on the outside. Like many modern labs, the outer walls were glass, silhouetting the forms of lab workers at their computers as I walked by. I was shocked to realize that, at any given time, almost 90% of people were at the keyboard, not at the bench.

I shouldn’t have been shocked, since I ran one of the labs in the same building and had experienced this in my own lab, but it had never really struck me how much the computer dominates the workscape. When I went to graduate school, which was a lab apprenticeship after the first year of coursework, the personal computer was a rarity. In the last year of my 6-year stint, my boss bought a Macintosh SE, one of the first cute little beige boxy ‘classic’ Macs, but it stayed in his office, though I did end up using it to write my thesis. Lab work meant working in the lab, manipulating tiny volumes of fluid, applying electrical fields to Jello-like contraptions for separating molecules, and treating sorghum root tips with massive quantities of radioactively labeled amino acids. We wrote in our lab notebooks with a pen, not a keyboard, we plotted our data on graph paper, not in Excel, and we took a break by catching a cup of coffee at the industrial-sized coffee maker in the break room, not by surfing the web.

I suspect that your job has changed just as much as mine did, whether you are old enough to have lived through the change or not.  From retail to manufacturing, maintenance to construction, keyboarding, mousing, or poking a touchscreen has become a significant part of our workday – or all of our workday.  The computer has eaten our lives just as the robot has taken many of our jobs. And, for most of us, it’s not fun.

How do you have fun with computers? How can you make your life as a keyboarding mouser, with the attendant aching wrists, numb fingertips, chronic lower back pain, and bleary eyes, into something other than degrading torture – much less fun?

First, as I discovered during one particularly painful multi-day late-night session writing a grant, sit up straight!  Head up, suck in that gut, and tighten your gluteus maximus (tightening your belly and buttocks muscles straightens your spine). Pull your shoulders UP, and then drop them. Let your arms hang loose, then draw up only your forearms and hover your hands over your keyboard. Keep your wrists straight, both horizontally and vertically, and hover your hands over the keys and mouse – don’t rest your wrists on the table or a pad.  Now go take a walk on the grass.

Then, before you start working, ask yourself if you really must be doing what you’re doing on the computer, or whether you should be doing it at all. When I surveyed my institute – and we’re talking highly trained, Ph.D.-level scientists – the majority of the computer use I observed was dicking around.  Surfing the web. Much of what looked productive – graphing data, reading scientific papers, shopping for labware – could have been done by a secretary, or on a break, or avoided altogether. Having fun with your computer means using it when you choose to, when you need to, or must, or, preferably, want to, not simply staying in your chair because its the default state.

I often ask people whether their job is fun, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to hear that most say their job is at least sometimes fun. I always follow up by asking what’s the most fun part of their job, and the answer invariably includes the word “people.” In one lab I worked in, two guys in adjacent labs and I would play Unreal Tournament on the lab LAN. It was fun, especially when we got one of the guys to smash his desk in frustration and stalk out in a huff, and the reason it was fun was that it was about people. People were on the other end of the Ethernet cable, not a microprocessor. If you want to have fun with your computer, make it about people, not about data entry or web surfing. Bring your colleagues into your digital realm, make a game out of how fast you can punch up your order on the touchscreen or how long it takes you to look up the auto part, show your co-worker your latest data, move the desks together and the cubicle walls out of the way and make it a team party.

Computers have given us many methods to connect to people, and could be a blessing in an increasingly alienated and fragmented world. During my training and professional career, I lived in five different cities and moved more than twenty times. I lost contact with my old hometown friends, made new friends and lost contact, made new friends and repeat. Computers – email, Skype, web pages, Facebook – have helped me connect up again with people I thought I’d lost, but mostly computers have been a lonely solace. A place to interact with something that never goes away unexpectedly (at least now that operating systems are less prone to crash), never denies you, never objects, and never dies. Computers never act hurt, but they also never talk back – though I have had a couple cool, if bizarre, conversations with Siri (try asking her, “Where’s the fun place?”). Don’t ask too much of your computer – put it to sleep and ask a friend instead.

Library Fun

Libraries are not typically associated with fun.  You’re supposed to be quiet, you’re not allowed to run, and those who are too boisterous are asked to leave.  Patrons sit quietly, don’t smile much, and are generally engrossed in their own interests.

But I say that libraries are fun.  First, they’re free!  Totally!  Free books, free ebooks, free computers, free database access, free classes, free one-on-one consultations with educated, experienced reference librarians.  Free is fun!  Yes, sure, you pay property (or whatever flavor your community uses) taxes to support your library, but it feels free.  And what’s not fun about free?

It’s also quiet – and though we usually associate fun with loud and boisterous, it’s hard to find quiet in our increasingly crowded and industrialized world.  Sanctuary from noise isn’t obviously fun, but it can be.  I think it’s quietly fun to put on your library face:  serious, calm, studious.  Walk slowly, look as if you’re deeply engaged in serious thoughts – then make faces at all the little kids, and smile at everyone who makes eye contact.

You can browse – and Google and other electronic search engines have sucked a lot of browsing out of our lives.  I admit I was very sad the day that Michigan State University retired the library’s card catalogs – thumbing your way through the cards always popped up unexpected and interesting finds.  Modern electronic searches rarely yield that sort of off-topic surprise, and the demise of the card catalog took a little bit of mystery, a little bit of magic, out of the world forever.  I’ve never heard anyone talk about how they google for giggles, but walking around the library in a section you rarely enter can be quiet library-style fun.

But the best fun in a library is hobnobbing with the librarians.  Just as we don’t see libraries as particularly fun, librarians are seen as almost the antithesis of a fun person.  Which is so wrong.  Librarians are a hoot!  Underneath their mild-mannered exterior, their button-down, soft-spoken, hair-in-a-bun stereotypical appearance lives a bunch of wild men (and women).  Okay, it’s usually expressed in quiet, dry wit rather than dancing at the party with a lampshade on the head, but some really (quiet, calm) fun can be had with library staff.

Because they’re cool people, and they’re also really bored.  Not all the time, not all of them, but the electronic scourge has hit them hard.  My library (Columbus Metropolitan Library in Columbus, OH) is truly world class, having been awarded #1 Library in the US and Library of the Year awards in the 6 years I’ve been here, but, despite the incredible facilities and awesome staff (and they are), most people don’t interact much with the librarians.  They’re too busy using the computers, or searching for books on the computers – heck, they even check out books using a computer!

So librarians are just itching to have fun.  Many of them went to school and got a very difficult degree (library science is tough), and now they spend their days reshelving and diddling on a computer.  These people live to help people find out what they want to know, and most of us ask Google instead.  So, go have fun with one!  Ask a really esoteric question that you’ve always wanted to know the answer to:  “What is the meaning of life?”  “How long does it take light to travel from the center of the sun to the Earth?” (the answer will shock you) “Do dating sites actually work?”  You’ll see – librarians are fun.

In fact, why not ask them about library fun?  You may be in for a surprise.

Fun With Food II: This IS the Huy Fong Sambal Badjak

The holly daze got in the way, and then a case of the flux – the grippe – the ick – the flu, caught from one of my grandkids (grandnephew Winston or grandson Julian), knocked me off the office chair and flat on my back.  So it was with little hope that I went back to Saraga International Market to look for red jalapeños, knowing that they’re seasonal.  But it seems that recreating Huy Fong‘s Sambal Badjak was destined to be – right inside the door they had jalapeños on sale for 79¢/lb, and red jalapeños for just 10¢ more.  Yay!  BTW,  check out the Sambal Badjak link – despite the fact that Huy Fong doesn’t make Badjak any more, they still have a brief page on it with an image of the old bottle.

I’d forgotten that I used empty Huy Fong Sambal bottles to store nuts & bolts when I made my first try (see Fun with Food I), and tried to get the ingredient list off from Huy Fong.  Here is the first reply:

Dear Richard,

Thank you for your interest in our products! We strive to make the best sauces using quality ingredients in every bottle.

In regards to your email, we do not produce the Sambal Badjak. If you are interested in purchasing, you will need to purchase through a distributor.

Again, thank you for your inquiry. If you have any further questions or comments please do not hesitate to e-mail us.


Customer Service

I wrote again, a simpler, shorter email that just asked for the ingredient list.  In reply:

…In regards to your email, we no longer produce that product so we do not have any information we can help them for you. We are sorry for any unconvenience.  Thank you for the comments and support…

I must say that I felt unconvenienced, though I did love that email.  I looked on the web for an image that was good enough to read the ingredient list – no joy.  Finally I remembered the nuts & bolts storage, and found an old bottle of Sambal Badjak.  Here’s the ingredient list:

Huy Fong Sambal Badjak Ingredients:

  • Chili
  • Distilled Vinegar
  • Soy Oil
  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Shrimp Paste
  • Potassium Sorbate
  • Sodium Bisulfite
  • Preservatives

Wow!  No nuts, no coconut, and, if the ingredient list was in order from most to least by weight, less onion and garlic than sugar and salt!  Surprising, but in some ways not so surprising for a commercial product.  So I decided I’d do something similar:

The Ransom Recipe for Huy Fong Sambal Badjak, v. 2.0

Sambal Badjak ingredients
The ingredients for the second attempt at Badjak
  • 30 roasted red jalapeños (about 1 1/2 lb)
  • 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup soy oil
  • 1 tbsp palm sugar
  • 3 tbsp light Kikkoman soy
  • 2 medium yellow onions
  • 12 big cloves garlic
  • 1 tsp fermented shrimp paste
  • 1 tbsp tamarind
  • water
  • 1 tsp dried lemon grass (Penzey’s)
  • 2 tsp dried galangal (Penzey’s)

As suggested by Jeff in his response to my Fun with Food I post, I roasted the jalapeños, using my Cajun Cooker (a simple gas jet – works like a charm!).

Scorching jalapeños on the Cajun Cooker
Scorching the peppers on my Cajun Cooker – 10 seconds!
Scorched jalapeños
The jalapeños after a scorchin’

Everything got blended together except for the oil, shrimp paste, tamarind, and spices.

Blended ingredients
Blended ingredients – enough water added to permit blending
Start of cooking
Blended ingredients added to hot oil at start of cooking

I brought the oil up to medium hot, added the blended ingredients, and after the mixture started poppin’, reduced heat to a low simmer.

Sambal cooking
The Sambal after an hour of cooking.

After it cooked for about an hour with stirring, I added the rest of the ingredients (shrimp paste, tamarind, spices).  I continued to cook the sambal all afternoon, adding water regularly to prevent it from thickening too much and sticking.

The Sambal Badjak the next day
The Sambal Badjak the next day

That evening I turned off the heat and let the sambal sit overnight on the stove.  In the morning it was just about what I remembered from the old Huy Fong Sambal Badjak:  brown with beautiful ruby red oil separated out.

Spooning up the Sambal
Spooning up the finished Sambal – you can really see the consistency in this shot
Loading a Huy Fong bottle with Badjak
This is the moment I’ve been waiting for!
Spoonful of Sambal Badjak
Wouldn’t you like to just gooble it up?

Here’s a few notes on the cooking:  The red wine vinegar smelled like a mistake at first, it gave off a lot of acetic acid and a definite red wine aroma that I feared would dominate the sauce.  However, that character almost completely boiled off, though next time I’m going to switch to distilled white vinegar.

The consistency, color, amount of oil, color of oil, sweetness, and heat are all – as well as I can remember – spot on!  I might add more oil next time (say 3/4 cup) because the oil is really delightful.  The galangal is a dominant flavor of the finished sauce, so next time I may reduce or even eliminate it – and if you’re trying to faithfully recreate the sauce, I would definitely not include it – but it gives the sambal great flavor.  I really like it.

In general, despite the fact that I largely guessed the amounts, this came out amazingly close to the original.  If you loved the Huy Fong Sambal Badjak, I think this is it!  I’m going out to Saraga tomorrow to get more peppers . . .

Fun with Food I: Recreating the Huy Fong Sambal Badjak

Ingredients for sambal badjak
All the ingredients for the sambal except the soy sauce.

Hello everyone!  I thought I’d take a departure this week from my fun experiments to show a food (and yet fun) experiment – my attempt to reproduce Huy Fong Food’s famous Sambal Badjak, a delicious Indonesian condiment.  Huy Fong, makers of the famous Sriracha sauce, stopped making their Sambal Badjak and Sate sauces years ago, and I was crushed.  I loved that stuff, and there is simply no substitute. I went to their site, sent them begging emails, and prowled the web for a recipe. I’ve subsequently tried a few, but they didn’t give me the magic flavor and texture of the original.

This is my latest attempt. I emailed another wistful guy who was also looking for a recipe, but he hadn’t found one either – though he did remind me of the smokey flavor that set the Huy Fong sambal apart. So I modified my recipe by adding smoked chiles (chipotles).

Sambal Badjak Recipe

The Ransom Version of the Huy Fong Food’s Original, v. 1.0


  • 20 red jalapeños, diced
  • 9 dried chipotle chiles, stemmed and crushed
  • 10 dried chiles de arbol, stemmed and torn apart
  • 3 medium yellow onions, diced
  • 1 large shallot, diced
  • 12 large cloves garlic, diced fine
  • ~20 salted, roasted cashews
  • 2 tbsp palm sugar
  • 2 tbsp tamarind concentrate
  • 1 13.5 oz can coconut milk
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tsp Thai ground (dry) galangal
  • 2 tsp dried, shredded lemon grass
  • 2 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 3/4 cup peanut oil


Heat 1/4 cup of the peanut oil in a large Dutch oven over medium high heat until almost smoking, then add the diced veg (jalapeños, onions, garlic, and shallot).  Sweat for 10 minutes.

Vegetables sweated
After cooking the jalapeños, onions, shallots, and garlic for 10 minutes.

Cover the crushed chipotle and chile de arbol with boiling water and let rehydrate for about 10 minutes. Blend together with the cashews and additional water as needed to a thick paste.  Add to the sweated veg.

Chile and cashew paste
The paste made by blending the rehydrated chipotle and chile de arbol chiles and the cashews.
Sambal after adding chile paste
Sambal 10 minutes after adding the chile paste.

Cook for an additional ten minutes after reducing the heat to medium. Add another 1/4 cup of peanut oil, and cook for a few minutes longer.  Add the remaining ingredients except the last of the peanut oil.

Sambal after all ingredients added
The sambal after addition of the coconut milk and seasonings.

Continue cooking, making sure to stir regularly.  Scrape the solids off the bottom of the Dutch oven to prevent burning (they do carmelize, but don’t let it burn – it will ruin the sambal).

Sambal after 2 hours cooking
Slow simmered for nearly two hours.

Reduce heat to simmer, continue cooking and stirring for half an hour.  Add the remaining oil, and cook another hour.

the finished sambal badjak
Minutes after the heat was turned off – it darkened further upon cooling.

The Final Result

The finished product was more like the Huy Fong version than my previous attempts, but failed on a few points.  It was a bit too sweet, so reducing the palm sugar from 2 tbsp to 1 tbsp is recommended.  I remember the Huy Fong Sambal Badjak as being a little bit sweet, but not as sweet as most other versions of the sauce.  The smokey taste was there, but muted – it might be worth roasting the red jalapeños over a wood fire to get something stronger.  Though I suspect a frank smoke taste would ruin the sauce.

The sauce wasn’t dark enough: the Huy Fong version was dark brown.  I thought of doing a French-style browning of the onions as if for classic French Onion Soup, and the sauce could probably have used another spoonful of soy sauce – using dark soy could also help get the color.  I do like the color I got, and it did darken further upon cooling.

The final difference was the coconut milk.  I’m not sure it was even used in Huy Fong’s version, but I do like it.  But I shouldn’t have used the whole can – I think half as much would have been better.  And next time I’m going to add a bit more fish sauce, it pretty much disappeared, and try adding more water and cooking it longer.  The Huy Fong version was also smooth, so you might blend the final sauce to a fine puree – I like it a bit chunky.

Finally, I’m going to bottle this and cover it with a layer of oil.  That was one characteristic of the Huy Fong that I also didn’t replicate: it was a very oily sauce, with a good half-inch of darkly colored oil on top when opened.  Reducing or eliminating the coconut milk would certainly help with that, as the milk helps keep the oil incorporated, though it does rise to the top over time in the refrigerator.

At the end, I was pretty happy with the sauce – I’m not there yet, but that’s half the fun.  The rest of the fun is smearing this over some fresh-fried salty chicken.  Yum!

BTW, this version is hot, as in very hot.  Not carcinogenic, but hot.  If you don’t want it so spicy, I’d use fewer arbols and chipotles.

Be well, enjoy, and have fun!

[NOTE:  Be sure to read Jeff’s insightful comment on this post – he’s the guy who was looking for a recipe, and he makes some cogent, insightful, and hilarious comments.  I can tell Jeff is a fun guy.]

Fun With Bills

In my last post I described some of the ways that I’ve experimented in my own life to understand more about fun – and to have more fun.  This week I moved on to something that’s a real tough nut for me to handle:  paying bills.

I admit that I dread it, even though I’m a detail-oriented person, sometimes obsessively so.  I hate doing my bills.  I know I have to do them, but I procrastinate.  That’s cost me in the past, cost me cash and peace – and precluded fun.

Tonight I’m doing my bills and making it fun.  Okay, maybe just funner, or at least less hateful.  But I aspire to fun, so that maybe next time I’ll be eager – or at least less averse.

First step:  gather all the paperwork together, and get the browser fired up.  Rather than carefully sort through the drifts of paperwork I’ve let pile up, it seems like more fun to just bundle it all up and throw it on the floor.  Then I start throwing all sorts of other paperwork off the table, and cap it off by sweeping the rest into the messy paperwork jumble with a dramatic gesture.  Fun.  Why?  Immediate feedback.  Throwing stuff on the floor is fun (and that’s where I’m going to work on it anyway), and the table is already clear!  I haven’t paid my bills yet, but I already have one of my rewards.

I decide to finish that job – I clear off and clean the dishes, put away the books, and wipe the table.  I set up a nice place setting for dinner later.  Yay!  Now, when I finish the bills, I’ll be done.  I won’t have another niggling task to perform – another opportunity for procrastination.

Next I grab the folders I’ll end up filing the paperwork into and toss them next to the pile.  A bag to put the recyclables into, and a trash can.  A pen, paper clips, a calculator.  Turn on the music.  Cell phone out of my pocket and on the table in another room.  Hmmmm.  A mixed drink, and some beer nuts.  Fun.  Why?  I’m treating the task as if it’s a party I’m hosting.  I’m paying attention to the environment, to having everything ready so I can relax and enjoy, and acting as if it this will be desirable – as if it will be fun.  I established a positive expectation, and made a workspace that’s fun and is welcoming to flow – what I call solo fun, an intense absorption in the task at hand.

The next important part of making bills fun is to set goals and establish rewards.  I won’t go into grisly detail, but I break it up into several intermediate tasks (I had, after all, cleared all the paperwork off my table).  I decide to sort all my banking and bill statements and move them downstairs with past-year’s receipts, and collect up other stuff (work receipts, benefits into, &etc.) into groups and deal with them – act, file, or recycle.  I resolve to reward myself for completion by setting aside time to work on my business logo, and to take breaks after completing specific tasks.  And I resolve to establish online bill pays for all those bills that were still paper-envelope-and-checks so that I could receive a bill, schedule a payment, and immediately file it – leaving my table clean.  Fun!  Why?  Because I had a whole series of things to look forward to, from cleaned up files to a rewarding activity afterwards, including the bright promise of never having to do this again.

The actual execution goes smoothly, and soon I have a clean floor except for a pile of bills.  Making actually paying the bills fun is now relatively easy, even though I don’t have enough money to pay everything and still go to my parent’s home for Christmas.  However, now it’s a situation with a neat border – I can decide easily which bills I can pay now, and which will have to wait until I get my next check.  I log into accounts, set up a new bill pay, and everything is shipshape and squared away.  I still have some bills to be paid, but now they’re neatly awaiting my next dollop of funds and I won’t be paying late fees – I’ll get everything in under the wire.

I’m finished, and indeed paying bills was fun.  Not rib-cracking rollicking fun, but much better than what I expected:  less hateful.  I managed it despite the fact that I’m in a startup business that isn’t making me wealthy yet – in fact, it’s hand-to-mouth.  I make another cocktail, and fire up Adobe Illustrator.  It’s time for logo design.  Fun!


Fun(ny) Business

I’ve struggled with fun in business.  The stress, the distractions, the tedium of unpleasant tasks, and the disappointments have all taken a toll.  Fun has seemed trivial in the face of shrinking bank accounts, blank pages that need to be filled, spreadsheets, and the hope of shaping the world to my own vision.

I’d like to share a few of the ways that I’ve applied fun to my own business.  After all, I’m building a fun consultancy, and if I’m not having fun myself at work then I shouldn’t expect success helping others to get to fun.  I’ve never believed the old cliche, “If you can’t do, teach.”  The teachers I’ve had the most respect for were masters of their field, with deep passion for their subject and broad and deep expertise and experience.  Teaching is itself a distinct profession – but it’s a double profession.  Teachers must be experts at teaching and in their subject matter.

I was developing materials for my consultancy, setting up workshops (actually, funshops), coordinating all the minutiae of running a small business, and conducting research on fun in the workplace when I realized that I wasn’t having much fun myself.  I was overwhelmed with my career change, I was trying to do everything at once, and I was worried that pursuing my dream was a big mistake.  I resolved that evening that I would make my workplace my best laboratory.  Much of my work is done alone, or via long-distance collaboration, so my focus was on solo fun, and that’s what I’ll describe in this post.

My first experiment was with fun stuff.  Cute toys.  My friend Angie had always referred to me as Dexter (from Dexter’s Laboratory), and she’d given me a number of Dexter and Dee Dee toys.  I had them on a shelf in my lab office, where they collected dust.  My hypothesis was that putting fun stuff in my workplace would do essentially nothing.  I dug them out of their box and cleaned off some space to display them prominently in my home office.

I was surprised to find that they did do something.  In particular, the Dexter that declared, “Dee Dee, get out of my laboratory!” when you pushed his labcoat button made it perceptibly more fun to face my computer and a blank page.  With a few more experiments, I discovered that the best effects were with fun stuff that have deeper meaning, are more than decorative, and are prominent.  Bert and Ernie dolls in lab coats now peer over my monitors, and Dexter is always available to order Dee Dee off the premises.

But fun stuff is frosting.  Sweet frosting on a bitter cake is still a bitter cake.  How can you make your work fun when some of it (or much of it) is tedious, unpleasant, difficult, frustrating, or boring?

Key ideas for my next experiments came from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s (me-HI-cheek saz-me-HI-ye) research on flow, and Jane McGonigal’s book on how games can change the world, Reality is Broken. Csikszentmihalyi studied the state of mind that focused individuals (surgeons, dancers, chess players, etc.) experienced when they were performing at their best, and McGonigal researched what makes  video and computer games fun and how that can be applied in the outside world.  I’d incorporated their ideas into my own work on fun, but I’d failed to apply them to my own situation.  So it was back to the bench for more experiments.

The most powerful factor was the frame.  Just as framing a painting gives it a discrete border, I found that properly framing my work made it possible to achieve fun.  When I was laboring in a large scientific institution under a problematic boss, I’d often dreamed of what a blessing it would be to have complete control, total freedom to choose.  However, when I became the boss of my own business, total freedom and control was daunting, distracting, and sometimes depressing.  While I could do whatever I wished whenever I wanted to, that often translated into doing a lot of things halfway, and avoiding some tasks entirely.  Feeling guilty about overdue projects, feeling stressed when I finally got back to them.

I set up experiments based on Csikszentmihalyi’s observations that flow comes, “. . . because one’s awareness is limited to [a] restricted field of possibilities,” through a, “. . . centering of attention on a limited stimulus field,” and that the process, “. . . contains coherent, non-contradictory demands for action and provides clear, unambiguous feedback,” and also on McGonigal’s emphasis on the importance of clear goals and immediate feedback.  I broke down dauntingly open-ended tasks like designing my web page into pieces that shared several characteristics:

  • Clear Process:  I knew how to get to the goal – perhaps not all the details, but the approach was clear and didn’t require much decision making.
  • Challenging:  The process involved some difficulty that I knew would be challenging to overcome, but was not open-ended or potentially impossible.
  • Small Victories:  The task consisted of a series of steps that could be tangibly completed.

For example, I found that my one of my webpage menu bars was growing too big for its layout.  I decided to make drop-down menus, but got frustrated with implementing the menus based on available code.  They either didn’t work, or dropped down behind the rest of the page, and they didn’t look good when I slapped my stylesheet styling on them.

I decided to break down the task into pieces.  And then realized that I should start by framing the task of breaking it down.  And then I applied a touchstone from my work as a research biochemist:  I made the first frame around the question of whether I should even bother.  As a researcher, I’d gotten into the habit of asking my colleagues what experiment would most rapidly and easily disprove their hypothesis – typically, that’s the opposite of the ‘normal’ approach, which is to try to prove the hypothesis.  Maybe it’s a boy thing, but destroying something has a visceral satisfaction – for me, at least, it’s fun.  In research, it’s also effective, as pursuing a hypothesis that looks promising in initial experiments, but in the end is wrong, can be ruinously expensive.  So, rather than make a list that broke down how I could make a drop-down menu work for my website, I tried to prove it wouldn’t.

Since it would be a web search task, I set a definite time limit – ten minutes.  Time limits are exciting, and IMHO are underutilized.  Time limits are fundamentally different from the (dread) deadline – they’re self-imposed, and intended to make your life easier, not more stressful.  They’re an unnecessary obstacle, something that game researchers recognize as a powerful tool for making a game more fun.  They also provide immediate, constant feedback, another powerful tool in the funbox.

The result:  I discovered that my flexible web layout wasn’t compatible with drop downs.  I would have to change the fundamental way my layout worked in order to incorporate the new menus, and it would be a lot of work.  Not impossible, but, on balance, not worth the trouble.  I found the answer in 7 minutes flat.

Yay!  In less time than I’d spent figuring out what to do about my menu problem, I’d turned a frustrating, open-ended task with no certainty of success into a triumph.  I had a grin on my face, and felt inspired to go back to the task of changing my menus to fit the format in a creative way.

Bottom line, end of the day, on the ground, nitty gritty, nuts and bolts, meat and potatoes lessons:

  • Pull back – pull way back.  Don’t be afraid to ask why you’re even doing what you’d planned
  • Put an unnecessary obstacle in your way.  Try moving your mouse with your left hand (or right, if you’re left handed), or setting a time limit.  Unnecessary does not rhyme with useless – even if you do something seemingly pointless like mousing with your off hand, when you break your wrist you’ll thank me.
  • Little teeny pieces.  Fun happens when you’re absorbed in what you’re doing, and if you’re thinking about the forty other things you have to do before you’re done with the task you’ve set yourself, you’re not absorbed.  You’re dissipated, distracted, and self-conscious.
  • Immediate, constant feedback.  Stop and reread your text.  Hit the refresh button and see what your webpage edits look like.  Ask your friend to read it and give you a comment.  Do something to acknowledge what you’ve done so far.  The time you ‘waste’ on this is repaid in the little rewards that build momentum and refresh motivation.

Remember, most of us have started a business because we’re following our passion – and looking for fun.  Specifically, we’re striving for that funnest of all experiences, having fun while working.  Why else sacrifice so much at so much risk?  Yes, maybe a successful startup will make you rich, but it’s more likely that you’ll end up sapped and broke.  We’re chasing a job that is all we dreamed a job could be.  A job that’s fun.

Next post I’ll talk more about what I’ve discovered by experimenting on myself.  It’s rewarding for me to show other people how to have fun at work, but I admit that it’s been even more so to show myself how to have fun.  Please, go out and have fun.  Right now.  Why wait?

Let’s Get Serious

First, thank you for taking a bit of your precious time to visit my blog.  I pledge to provide value for your investment of the only currency of true value:  your time.

Let me start with an unlikely word for a blog attached to a website about fun:  serious.  We typically see fun and serious as two ends of a spectrum, but I believe that viewing fun as the opposite of serious prevents us from taking advantage of the true power of fun.  As you can see from reading my Fun Manifesto, I divide fun into three categories:  relaxing fun, solo fun, and social fun, with an additional participatory requirement for solo and social fun.  The fun that we see as being the opposite of serious is largely relaxing fun, or pleasure – the kind of fun we have kicking back on a beach or watching TV.  In my definition, both solo and social fun require active engagement by the participant(s), and it’s my claim (and the basis of my business, Funshop) that when you’re really having participatory fun, you’re performing at your best.  And it doesn’t get much more serious than that.

I wrote the Fun Manifesto because I came to believe that fun is very serious and could have profound influence on the course of human history if we just paid attention to it.  While I may appear on cursory examination to be a fluffy-headed, hippie-dippy ding-dong with stars in his eyes (I do run a tie-dye business, after all), I’ve spent almost my entire life in the hard-headed, demanding, contentious, hyper-critical, and viciously political world of academic science.  I’m a voracious reader across a broad range of subjects, I’ve rubbed shoulders with a broad range of humanity, and I don’t take anything at face value.  However, my experiences, despite the abstract and objective nature of my work, have constantly emphasized the importance of the ‘human factors’, and over time what really percolated to the surface and kept tripping me up as I tried to step over it was fun.  Time after time I saw how fun defined high performance and no-fun epitomized dysfunction, whether in my academic career or in the time since as I’ve built my own businesses from the ground up.  Indeed, fun can be used to assess everything from how kids learn at school to how we run our foreign policy, and it’s increasingly clear that it should be used more broadly.

I posed a question about the Iraq War (either one) in the Fun Manifesto:  How would we have prosecuted that conflict if we had used more fun as our metric?  Under Bush 1, would we have kicked Iraqi forces out of Kuwait and then left our putative allies, the opposition to Sadaam’s rule, to fry in the brutal aftermath?  Would we have taken no thought for the aftermath of a successful invasion under Bush 2?  Of course, in a war you don’t want your enemies to be having fun, but I contend that when anyone on your side isn’t having fun, you have a problem.  And maybe it wouldn’t have been easy to leave the bickering, factional Iraqis in a state where everyone was having more fun than they did before we arrived, but I don’t think I have to fight very hard to get you to agree that we would have done a better job if we’d maximized both the amount and even distribution of fun across Iraq as a result of our invasion.  Perhaps we wouldn’t have left our chosen faction in power (did we do so anyway?), but at least it’s more likely we would be viewed as a benefactor.

Another aspect of the serious nature of fun is that it’s hard work.  Most see fun as a side effect of leisure and don’t associate fun with work, either in the sense of what you do at a workplace or as something requiring focused and sustained effort.  However, if you enjoy waterskiing or any other vigorous sport, or crave the opportunity to play poker or a video game, you’ll notice if you pay attention that you’re working harder – physically, mentally, or both – than you usually do at work.  And if you weren’t, it either wasn’t much fun (like a game you play desultorily because you’re not that interested), or you were just relaxing.  We need to relax, certainly, and we often call it fun, but few of us are so enamored of relaxation that we can do it for long.  Generally we feel like getting up and doing something.  Fun is work – in fact, it’s work when work is going really really well.  Falling off your waterskis can be a laugh riot, but if you do it all the time it isn’t fun – skiing the best you ever have is fun.  It doesn’t feel like hard work because it’s so rewarding.

I wanted to emphasize the serious nature of fun right in front because the word “fun” itself conjures up so many negative stereotypes:  frivolity, irresponsibility, silliness, indolence.  Many scoff at Nepal’s use of Gross National Happiness – just imagine how an index based on fun is likely to be received.  But that is just what I propose, and what this site and my business are dedicated to:  that fun is the best measure, that fun is us at our best, and especially that fun is what makes success feel like success.  Happiness is nice, but fun is much better.  Because fun is serious.