Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Loom of Time

I just finished a biography of Albert Einstein.  I do not understand his theories very well, but I love to read about theoretical physicists for some reason.  Hawkins is also one I like to read.  Einstein is famous for saying that God does not play dice - in other words that laws - not chance - govern the universe if only we could suss them.  I was reminded of this passage from Melville where he gives the analogy of weaving for the interplay of law, free will and chance in the formation of history...

"It was a cloudy, sultry afternoon; the seamen were lazily lounging about the decks, or vacantly gazing over into the lead-colored waters. Queequeg and I were mildly employed weaving what is called a sword-mat, for an additional lashing to our boat. So still and subdued and yet somehow preluding was all the scene, and such an incantation of revelry lurked in the air, that each silent sailor seemed resolved into his own invisible self.

I was the attendant or page of Queequeg, while busy at the mat. As I kept passing and repassing the filling or woof of marline between the long yarns of the warp, using my own hand for the shuttle, and as Queequeg, standing sideways, ever and anon slid his heavy oaken sword between the threads, and idly looking off upon the water, carelessly and unthinkingly drove home every yarn; I say so strange a dreaminess did there then reign all over the ship and all over the sea, only broken by the intermitting dull sound of the sword, that it seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates. There lay the fixed threads of the warp subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration, and that vibration merely enough to admit of the crosswise interblending of other threads with its own. This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads. Meantime, Queequeg’s impulsive, indifferent sword, sometimes hitting the woof slantingly, or crookedly, or strongly, or weakly, as the case might be; and by this difference in the concluding blow producing a corresponding contrast in the final aspect of the completed fabric; this savage’s sword, thought I, which thus finally shapes and fashions both warp and woof; this easy, indifferent sword must be chance—aye, chance, free will, and necessity—wise incompatible—all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course—its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events."  Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Ch. 47 - The Mat-Maker

Every time I read this I think, "That is just gorgeous."

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Derivation of "Excogitos"

I wanted to call it "Ruminations" due to the association with the idea of a cow chewing its cud, but the name was already taken.  (Surprise, surprise.)

There is a nifty site called that I use for branding ideas at work.  I typed in "ruminate" and out came "excogitate".  Schmear with a little poetic license in the rehlms of conjegation and attitude and you get the title of this blog.

On Being A Minority (originally published 3/19/08)

I love Japan, but with eyes wide open, and as much for the tough lessons I have learned there as the good ones. Despite the risk of offending some readers, the recent national conversation on race sparked by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s homilies has reminded me of my own experiences with prejudice in Japan. Indeed, I have often thought that every white male in the USA should live a couple years in a Japanese community (not too near to Tokyo) to get a morsel of what it is like to be in the racial minority and the cloying presuppositions of others attendant thereto.

The least of these is that I have had entire restaurants go silent when I poked my head in the door. The worst of these was when I had a drunken man stand up before me on the last train of the night and sing WWII songs about bayoneting westerners. The region I was in is a hotbed of nationalist activity and he was old enough to have served in the big one. The rest of the car was completely nonplussed until a big fellow both in stature and character stood the guy down.

I realize this does not compare to the experiences common to minorities in the US, but I think it has given me at least a basis upon which to identify. For better or for worse, I went to Japan ignorant and completely and unquestioningly colorblind, but I now catch myself once and a while feeling a little weird when the face doesn’t match the speech – like the scene from Rush Hour, "Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?!?" This is but a small personal example of how racism poisons those that don’t yet have the wit not to let resentment get the better of them – me being the witless one in this case.  The other thing is that in less than a generation the tables will be turned.  Better get used to it.

Sub Prime Mortgage (originally published 2/10/08)

Just thinking about taxis. I can't remember where I heard it, but "just ask the taxi drivers how the economy is, they’ll tell you!" is a suggestion I once got from someone whom I thought should know.

During my visit in December ‘07, the answer was "ma ma" - meaning just OK." In January ‘08, it was "warui" – meaning bad. (I have never heard them say "bochi bochi" – meaning just OK in the Kansai dialect.) I am not sure if this downward trend is a leading or lagging indicator, nor am I certain how much of a heads up we might be getting, but the mood is more of an uncertainty than just plain crappy like it was for most of the nineties. I’ll do the survey again when I am there this month.

I’ll tell you what though, the transliterated form of the words Sub Prime Mortgage have made it into common everyday Japanese. I have been openly asked many times how bad it really is. I am always amazed that I disappoint if I do not know these things. As if I would know. When I was younger I used to carry on like I did know. Then someone else whom I thought should know told me that "it is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to speak and prove yourself one".


Class Atmosphere (originally published 2/20/08)

Thinking about taxis again.

In the typical Japanese High School - which I got to know intimately while on the JET Program – the class size is large. About 35-40 students would spend the entire year together. The kids don’t go from class to class, the teachers do. At the beginning of the class, the Japanese teacher of English and I would bow in and at the end bow out. The kids being together for the entire year day in hour out made for a kind of class personality. Maybe more of an atmosphere. Each one was different. I’d look forward to some and not others. I pitied the kids that got stuck in some of them. But the teachers told me that it was only for a year. That it would change. And that it teaches perseverance.

I’ll be heading back to Japan in a couple days. Each month the trip seems to take on an atmosphere too. The country, the people, the work. Last month seemed like one of those classes I would not have looked forward to. Up until the last day.

I just couldn’t wait to get home. I had been sick the entire week. I got in the cab that was to take me to the airport bus terminal. And, as usual, I struck up a conversation with the driver. The guy turned out to be a gem. He had just returned from a trip to Thailand with his wife. They had spent their vacation (in Japan, taxi drivers are well compensated) volunteering at place for kids orphaned by AIDS. The kids’ ages ranged from birth to over twenty. We talked about that, about the rise in gun violence in Japan, and a host of other thoughtful topics including, of course, the election.

I didn’t want to get out of the cab at the end of the ride.

Carryone Rules Vary (originally published 3/11/08)

I smoke a pipe once and a while, much to my wife and daughter’s chagrin. I am a geek about it. It helps me keep lying to myself about my innate uniqueness. I smoke an artisan blend called Black Stoker mixed by Uhle’s in downtown Milwaukee. My pipes themselves were not cheap, though I am assured that corncob is the best for actually comparing tobaccos due to its neutrality. I also have a rare Zippo pipe lighter.

I took these accouterments to Japan for the first time last month. On my shuttle from Fukuoka to Tokyo on the 28th, I was stopped by the x-ray guy who proceeded to ask me if there was a lighter in my checked bag. I allowed that there was, having packed the aforementioned Zippo there instead of my carryon so I couldn’t light my shoe. He said that I would have to carry it on.


"Is it really OK to carry it on?"

"Yes. You only have one, right? You are allowed only one."

"I only have one."

I had it in my overcoat pocket as I approached security upstairs, more than half expecting all heck to break loose. I didn’t mention it to anyone (it didn’t want to lose my uniqueness) and nothing happened. I’m still not sure whether to be relieved or concerned.

Regulations Consistent With Policies In Brazil (originally published 7/21/08)

I was in Sao Paulo last week ago. It was my first time in Brazil on business. (I have been as a tourist. Beautiful!) Before going, I had the impression that the environment was anti-capital and anti-business. This impression was formed as I researched a variety of topics on the internet related to a market entry project I am helping to coordinate. It was also based on a couple of conversations I had with US Department of Commerce staff. And finally, my interactions with the Brazilian visa authorities provided a further taint.

The reality I encountered in Brazil could not have been more different. I found a vibrant economy. A young and educated elite who were very excited by what was going on. And a remarkably consistent and cogent set of policies and regulations that are pro labor, rather than anti-business. An example is a 5.8% payroll tax that goes to a sort of technical college system that the companies can then tap. Given the controversy that surrounds the funding of the technical college system here in southeastern Wisconsin via a property tax, the Brazilian system seems eminently fair.

Tsunami in Interest in Things Islamic & Mideastern (originally published 8/1/08)

Listen to the track “Citizen of the Planet” on Alanis Morissette’s latest album Flavors of Entanglement. The daughter of a close friend is about to leave for her college junior year abroad - in Morocco. My 14 year old’s first news memory is the planes hitting the towers. There is a tsunami of interest in all things Islamic and Mideastern coming. Just like my generation was fascinated with all things Asian (Vietnam) and my parents’ generation before me were profoundly effected by things European, our kids are wanting to understand just what these folks are all about. They are the ones who will ultimately have to make it work…and they know it. Look for these influences to move from art & music to fashion.

When Planned Obsolescense Is Green (originally published 9/11/08)

"In the early 1800s, urban preservation focused on buildings that were about 200 years old. By the 1960s, that number had decreased to 40 years. 'We can theorize that the interval might soon disappear,' says Margeret Arbanas, who conducts research on preservation at Harvard GSD with Rem Koolhaas. 'By deciding what to preserve before we build, we can plan for certain buildings to last a long time while others could be imagined as having an expiration date.' Future preservation sites could be distributed systematically. This would enable what she likes to call 'short-term architecture' - buildings designed for a limited life, which could be uniquely experimental, radical, visionary and speculative." (p. 205, DWELL, October 2008)

Is this a fresh - perhaps "green" - way of looking at product development in general? Product developers often talk of "gaming the life cycle", but usually in terms of just getting ahead of it. Can we use "planned obsolescence" to actually be "green"?

How Tradeshows Manage Risk (originally published 1/13/09)

How long should a product development cycle be? 12 months? Six? The reality is that some innovations will take years to be commercialized and some can be commercialized in weeks. That we learn to commercialize quicker is a necessary but not sufficient factor. It is also necessary make sure we are working the timeline from the end to the beginning. The end is defined as when you go to market. The controlling variables are 1) that the market is ripe for the introduction of a certain innovation; and 2) that the market is introduced to the innovation in a way that the market can understand and absorb it. The former is largely informed by market research, and the latter is largely determined by the pulse of the industry.

The pulse of an industry is thus best understood from the end to beginning. The pulse of the housewares industry's biggest beat is once a year during the holiday period. In order for buyers and planners to have inventory on hand timely, they need the merchandisers to have finalized their plans at least six months earlier, in late spring. Maybe earlier. In order for merchandisers to make their decisions timely, they need to decide amongst the various producers' product ranges before that. And they count on the producers to have done their market research, and that the results of their homework correlate to what the merchandisers see coming. The final step in the producer's market research is the context-specific reality check of showing the stuff to the merchandisers. What are the merchants going to devote their open to buy to? It behooves the producers to get as early a read as possible. So they present as broad range at the earliest industry show possible. Based on the reaction, they adjust and/or cull. Then do it again. By the time the biggest industry shows occur, most of the producer's ranges have been set in stone using the freshest data and the merchant's decisions for Fall have already been made and submitted to their buyers and planners.

Why is this so important? Why are we beholden to the pulse of an industry, specifically the trade show cycle? Can't we introduce innovations anytime? We can, but we shouldn't. Because of risk. The main reason industries have a pulse is that it manages risk. The entire construct reduces risk for both the producer and the merchant. A show does not become important because of where it is, but when it is. We should avail ourselves of the inherent risk management opportunity afforded to us by the pulse of an industry by harmonizing the introduction of our innovations with it. This means planning to show our innovations at the earliest shows possible. This means that we look in our innovation pipeline and see what we can have ready by then. It doesn't matter if it has taken three years or will take only three months to commercialize something, it only matters whether it can be ready in time for the next heartbeat.

There Is More Than One Jackie Chan (originally published 5/4/09)

I was recently asked by someone how Hong Kong had changed since the "handover" in 1997. I have to say - as an on again off again observer - not much. (Shenzen - on the other hand - is an eye opener - and I only saw it in the dark.) Jackie Chan made the local news while I was there saying - basically - that freedom to the Chinese means chaos in the streets. He cited Hong Kong and Taiwan as examples. I have only been to Taiwan once, but that Hong Kong is chaotic is not new news.

Several years ago a young westerner was flogged in Singapore for vandalism. There was a great hue and cry. "How can Singapore have such draconian laws," the non-cognoscenti wailed? Being me, I just asked my best Singaporean friend the same question. "We are a polyglot people from all over the world." He continued, "have you ever seen the geography surrounding our little island nation? There's the Straights of Malaca to our west as full of pirates as anywhere (at the time). There is the worlds third most populous nation just 100 km south. And - if that weren't enough - to the north there are guerrilla elements (also known as bandits or 'land pirates') on the road from Johor to Kuala Lumpur." Here is the kicker, "we have tough laws because if we did not we would have chaos." Not my words. His.

Sun Tsu Would Be Proud? (originally published 6/6/09)

Duong Van Mai Elliott, on why many Vietnamese supported the Viet Minh causing South Vietnam to ultimately lose, in her memoir The Sacred Willow. Copyright 1999, Oxford University Press:

“Gradually it dawned on me that it was not communist cleverness or trickery that was making us lose. We were losing because of ourselves, because we had been unable to come up with a system, an ideology, and a leadership that could tap these same qualities (patriotic, self-sacrificing, determined, and courageous) in the people, inspire them, and pull them together in the same direction to win the struggle. I realized that I could not blame those that fought on the other side for our own failure to offer a more attractive alternative."

This may apply to business as well.  To win, a company must come up with a product, an opportunity, and a message that can tap people, inspire them, and pull them together in the same direction to win in the marketplace. We cannot blame those that purchase another company's product for our own failure to offer a more attractive alternative.

Good News, Bad News (originally posted 10/29/09)

Today's announcement by the US government that 3rd quarter growth was 3.5% did not surprise me. I was just in Asia for another round of trade shows last week. As my company is a relatively small player insofar as Chinese factories are right-sized for, we tend to get pushed back if another "more important" (read larger) customer has an urgent need. I heard a lot of rumble that factories were getting slammed. Our ship dates are being pushed back. I suppose this is good news in the aggregate. The bad news tends to be specific - the impact on us is that several of our launches planned for year end are now in jeopardy.