Thursday, September 29, 2005

Poverty Thought Experiment

I was raised to believe that poverty was the fault of the poor. The purpose of the teaching wasn't to teach contempt for the poor, but to put fear into the young. After all, the underlying message in this teaching was that *I* would be the one living in poverty if I didn't get my ass into gear. After all, I am only two generations removed from extreme poverty, and have first cousins that could charitably be described as "poor white trash".

Now that I am older I still agree with this assessment for 90% of the poor. As George Will wrote recently and was discussed on some of the major sites, there are only a few simple things people have to do to avoid poverty. As quoted on Wizbang:
"...three not-at-all recondite rules for avoiding poverty: Graduate from high school, don't have a baby until you are married, don't marry while you are a teenager. Among people who obey those rules, poverty is minimal."

Other commentators have added a fourth rule: don't get hooked on alcohol or drugs.
I would add: get as much education as possible, in addition to graduate from high school. These won't give you a mansion on the beach, but they'll put a roof over your head and food on the table.

But sometimes I have wondered, could I climb out of "poverty" today if I started over with nothing? It's sort of like the question: how long could you survive if you were dropped naked into the middle of the jungle? So here is my thought experiment (gedanken) which could also be a reality TV show:

  • I am dropped in the middle of a random city with only the clothes on my back and $10 in my pocket.

  • I could not use family, friends, contacts or anyone else who knew me for help, references, money or any other means of support. I was to be starting 100% from scratch, having just fallen out of the sky.

  • I could not have access to any assets whatsoever. I would have no credit, but I would also have no bad credit. Assume I got assigned a brand new social security number with no baggage good or bad attached to it; a clean slate.

  • I could not allude to or say I had any education beyond what is free to everyone living in the U.S. today: a high-school diploma.

So starting completely from scratch and only $10 in my pocket, where would I be in one year?

My answer is this: I would not be poor. I would not be homeless. I would not be on government assistance. Sure, my standard of living might be pretty darn low, but I would not be some welfare case sitting around waiting for the government to "do something" about poverty. Within ten years I think I could be back in the middle class, and eventually climb back up to where I am today.

And if you think this scenario is far fetched, it is almost exactly the situation Mrs. Director's grandparents were in when they stepped off a boat into this country in 1950. Except they had more education they could point to, but with the trade off being they didn't speak the language.

Mrs. Director's grandfather died a rich man.

Where would you be in a year? If your answer is "not poor", then whose fault is it for people who are poor?

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Fiction, Sort Of

Lin took a drag on his cigarette as he watched the American exit the main terminal. Even from 30 meters away he could tell he was an American; he might as well have planted a flag on the top of his head. The clothing, the walk. The girth was usually a dead give-away, but this one didn’t have the usual gut hanging over his belt. Maybe he was on that low-carb diet that was the rage in America.

Lin quickly put out his cigarette. Some Americans were rabid anti-smokers, so he didn’t allow his American fares see him smoke, and he definitely never lit up in the car, no matter whom he was driving.

The American got close enough for Lin to see the jet lag hanging on him like a physical weight. From the looks of him he was in his early 30s. He didn’t have the gray hair and entourage of an executive, nor the tennis shoes and awkwardness of an engineer. This was clue number one.

“May I take your bag, sir?” Lin asked in slightly accented English. The American gave him his suitcase but kept a death grip on his computer bag. Like it wouldn’t be safe in the trunk? Typical. Lin opened the back door and allowed his charge to get inside. He started the large Mercedes engine and sped away from the airport.

“Did you have a nice flight?” The Americans were sometimes chatty. The Japanese on the other hand, would never stoop to talk to a driver. Especially a Taiwanese one.

“Yes, thank-you,” was the reply from the back seat.

“Is this your first time to Taiwan?” He also found that engaging an American in conversation usually ended up in a tip, even though tipping wasn’t practiced on this side of the world.

“Oh, no. I have been here many, many times.” A veteran. No tip from this fare. And another clue. Lin merged onto the freeway for the 45 minute drive to the hotel and turned on some quiet music. From his mirror he could see the American looking out the window. This one wasn’t sleeping, so he might as well talk some more.

“Will you be in the country long?”

“Through Saturday.” This was clue number three.

“If you have some free time, the building next door to your hotel is currently the tallest building in the world. They have an observation deck that has a great view.”

“Really? That will definitely be something to do when I have time to kill.”

When Lin asked his father-in-law to borrow money to buy the big black Mercedes, he at first got ridiculed. “What makes you think you can make money driving gweilos around? Are you such a good driver?”

“What I am is a good study of people. That is why I will be successful.” He also spoke pretty good English, a pathway to success on this island, but he wasn’t going to bring that one up. His father-in-law was a little old fashioned and still pissed off about being chased off the Mainland. In the end, though, he loaned him the money.

So he learned how to spot his fares, how to treat them, what to say, what pitfalls to avoid. The Americans were the most obvious to spot, the easiest to ply. The Europeans were fewer in number, but easy to identify in their non-matching clothing and vaguely effeminate mannerisms. The Japanese? They acted as if they still owned the island.

He spent the next half hour chatting with the American, making him feel comfortable. Once he was getting close to the hotel, he started his up-sale that would also yield the final clue: “Will you be needing a driver during your stay?”

“Actually, I will need one tomorrow and probably later in the week. You available?”

The American didn’t ask the price, allowing Lin to put together the complete picture: an American salesman on an expense account, the best fares to have. “Yes, sir. I’ll give you my card and make arrangements with the hotel concierge when we arrive. For your convenience, the charge can be added to your hotel bill.” What Lin didn’t mention is that the charge was at a much higher rate than what the American could get by finding a driver on his own. And the American wouldn’t care.


And all it took was a few innocuous questions and observations to make tomorrow’s revenue double what he usually made. His father-in-law had no clue.

Monday, September 26, 2005

iPod Nano: 10,000+ Miles and No Problems

Reader Jim sends in the following link from a website that is complaining about cracking screens on iPod Nanos and wonders if I am having any problems.

I took the Nano to Asia and back and used it extensively on the plane, had it in my pocket as I deplaned and whatever word is used for getting on the plane (inplaned?), and stored it in a pocket of my computer bag at all other times. With all this heavy travel I have not had any major problems.

That is not to say that it is perfect. Here are my complaints so far:

  • Surface Easy to Scratch - While I don't have the severe problems listed in the website above, there are a few light scratches, although these can only be seen if held at an angle to the light and aren't too severe. While I understand that electronic components will show a little wear and tear, it does seem they should have put a more scratch-resistant material on a portable product like this.

  • Sky-High Accessories - One of the solutions to protecting the body from scratches is to get an iPod Nano "sleeve" which puts a clear or colored protective case over the Nano. These probably cost a few pennies to make in China, but I have to shell out $30 for five. The same economics are used for the arm-band, which will set me back another $30. So for a few plastic coverings and a leather thingy to exercise with, I am spending nearly 25% of what I originally paid for the Nano in the fist place. I understand that Apple has to make money, but these sort of margins are a little ridiculous. While this will leave room for entrepreneurs to exploit, early adopters like me have little choice.

  • Not Enough Memory - I knew this going into the deal, but 4 Gigs holds a only fraction of my library, and I would ideally like to synch everything on my PC to the Nano. I just had to have the small size and weight for international travel, so is something I have to live with.

But even with these complaints, I have to say I am thrilled with the product. It is the perfect size and weight, and if they correct these few items, I would go from thrilled to ecstatic. I will, however, keep an eye on developments on the cracked screen problem since this looks like it could turn into a major issue for some users.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Jetlagged Thoughts

As I sit here at home trying to stay awake in order to get back on PDT, here are some of the random thoughts going through my jetlagged brain:

  • Don't Get Stuck with Free Time in Taiwan - While being stuck in Hong Kong is fun, I can't say the same of Taiwan. There just isn't as much to do there and it isn't quite as easy to get around. There are some night markets that are pretty neat, but that isn't helpful when you have an afternoon to kill.

  • Airplane Movies Are Good Only When You Haven't Seen Them - When I used to travel overseas a lot, I didn't rent recent movies so I would have something new to watch on the plane. Since it looks like I will be in heavy travel mode once again, it looks like I will have to re-start this policy. That and bring some Netflix movies along.

  • Mr. And Mrs. Smith Was Better Than I Thought - This was one of the movies-I-haven't-seen that was on the plane, and it was a lot better than I thought it would be. In fact, I liked it a lot. It helped that Angelina Jolie is, well, really hot. Maybe Brad wasn't so stupid to dump Jennifer Aniston.

  • Driving a Car is Strange After a Week of Not Driving - Every time I go overseas it means that I am not behind the wheel of a car for week or two. And coming back and driving after a week or two off is actually a little strange.

  • Jetlag Sucks - Self explanatory.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

"Find the Umbrella" and Other Expense Statement Stories

A guy I worked with was on a business trip to London. It was pouring down rain one day so he bought an umbrella to get his business done and duly put the item on his expense statement when he got back to the States.

His statement got bounced back with a friendly note from the trolls in accounting: "Personal items cannot be expensed." Roger thought about explaining the situation - the umbrella was a business expense after all - but decided it wasn't worth it. He redid his expense statement without the umbrella, but it magically came out to the exact same amount as before. He wrote a note back to accounting: "Find the umbrella." He got reimbursed the full amount without any more hassle.

This true story shows a well known fact about expense statements: they're easy to pad. Almost ridiculously so. But we're talking penny-ante amounts of money.

In my experience most people pad, but usually for reimbursing themselves for something that is not reimbursable like the umbrella above. Another reason is for the inevitable amounts of money that leak out of the pocket while traveling. For example, traveling in Tokyo requires cash for taxis, subways, trains, and other modes of transportation that usually don't issue receipts. A lot of people I know just throw $10 into a random lunch they didn't pay for instead of tracking $2 every time they step on the subway. Even doing this most people still end up behind. I know every single time I travel overseas I end up spending money out of my own pocket due to things like this.

But there is padding in order to try to keep ahead of minor expenses, and there is padding in order to pilfer money. And the fact that Intel just fired a bunch of people for expense statement issues shows that the issue in this case is pilfering rather than balance. At least I hope so. I would hate to think that Intel is so small as to fire people for expensing an umbrella.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Science Proves that CEOs Really Are Crazy

Reader Manu, now added to the blogroll, sends in the following link verifying my post that CEOs really are crazy:
A team of U.S. scientists has found the emotionally impaired are more willing to gamble for high stakes and that people with brain damage may make good financial decisions.
Makes sense to me.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Some Observations on HK

  • $25 for a Coffee!? - Yeah, Starbucks are everywhere in HK and I had to have my fix. But when the Barista told me my Grande coffee was $25, I thought I was transported to the U.S. year 2020 when a Grande coffee really will cost that much. Fortunately he was asking for Hong Kong Dollars. Still, that is a $3+ Grande coffee, which is more than the insane airport pricing.
  • Dividing by 7.7 is a bitch - What a hard conversion ratio for currency! I ended up guestimating by knocking off a decimal and rounding up ($245 HK would become 24.5 rounded up to $30 U.S., which is close to the real value of $31.8), but thankfully every single vendor in the place has a calculator handy for conversions as well as negotiations (the buyer and the vendor punch in the ask and bid numbers into the calculator during the negotiation process)
  • Negotiate, Negotiate, Negotiate - I never bought anything right away, but instead asked questions and looked interested, got a price, and then started walking out of the store. Each step towards the exit got the price knocked down a notch. Then we went to the calculator. Little Mrs. Director's gift ended up at 50% of the original asking price. Mrs. Director's gift...well, I am going to leave that as a surprise for now.
  • Sushi, Sake, Cigars - HK has to be the only city that has a sushi restaurant that has a cigar bar. Or maybe it was a cigar bar that serves sushi. Whatever the case, this is gastronomic nirvana in my book, and I am thankful I ran across it (and we are talking, of course, about real Cuban cigars). It's called Times Restaurant and is on the street directly behind the Time Square Shopping Mall.
  • Shoppers Paradise - Mrs. Director thinks I don't like buying things. This really isn't true. I don't like buying things when I have to pay more than I think the item is worth, which is pretty much 95% of all items sold in the U.S. In HK, however, bargains are everywhere, and haggling is an accepted practice, so it is pretty amazing the values one can pick up here. The only thing I didn't pick up during this trip was some custom tailored clothes, but you need something on the order of two days to get a good fitting and get the items returned to you. And I don't have that much time here.

There are Worse Places to be Stuck

I've made up Asian holidays before in order to squirm my way out of customer commitments. This time a real Asian holiday screwed up my travel plans, and I am an experienced enough traveler to be a little embarrassed about it.

In order to get into Mainland China, American travelers need a visa. These are usually applied for before leaving the states and take 2-3 days to get turned around. However, for those who are forced to make last minute travel arrangements (which I had to because the CEO kept changing the schedule), there is an expedited, same-day visa application that you can do at the Hong Kong airport.

Since I was forced to leave the U.S. without a visa in hand, my plans were to:
  • Get to the Hong Kong airport from Taipei at 8:30 in the morning.
  • Drop off my visa application by 9am in the morning
  • Get my visa back by 3pm that same day, and head into the city for some shopping while I waited.
  • Take a flight to Shanghai that evening (they have an hourly shuttle and I could have just hopped on the one that is most convenient at 6pm, 7pm, 8pm, etc.)
I thought this was a pretty good plan, and one that many business travelers have done before. But I didn't know that today is the Chinese Mid Autumn Moon Festival, so there is no one around to process my visa application (ironically, the holiday I made up in the above link was the Buddha Harvest Moon Festival, which I made up based on holidays I really knew about over here).
At any rate it means that I am stuck in HK for 24 hours. And if one has to be stuck in any city in Asia, this is definitely the one to be in.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

I Don't Blog from Dictatorships

I am actually posting this from "Good" China (i.e. Taiwan) since I am not going to post while in Red China.

Part of this is because I am staying a good 2 hours outside Shanghai where the factory I am visiting is located, which I expect is a new concrete building out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by rice patties and farms. So I expect hotel internet access - and possibly running water - to be an impossible luxury.

The other reason is that China is still run by Godless commie bastards that might throw me out of the country just for writing this very sentence. So I think it would be best that I not blog from there, or even hit my own web site should I happen to get internet access while over there.

If anything interesting happens there I'll write about it when I get to a free country.

Visiting the World's Tallest Building

Coming to Asia is a tough job. I have to dine potential clients, drink ridiculous amounts of liquor, and find ways to kill time in exotic cities with the extra time that inevitably comes up. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Today my little group found itself with a few hours to kill between appointments, and conveniently enough, the World's Tallest Building, Taiwan 101, is across the street from our hotel. So up we went, over a third of a mile up:

The experience isn't any different from being on the top of a mountain, except I have to admit that looking straight down is pretty interesting. The conversation inevitably turns to the same topics in these situations: had anyone parachuted off of it, had anyone committed suicide by jumping off of it, and, of course, whether a penny dropped from this height would kill someone.

And while I can go around and smugly claim that "I have been at the top of the World's Tallest Building", I won't be able to say it for very long. There are several buildings proposed for completion in the next few years will surpass this one, so I will inevitably have to find time to kill in another city to keep my claim.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Always Travel with the CEO

My main client is sending me to Asia this week, so posting will be sporadic for the next 9-10 days as I head across the Pacific. I'll post when I get to these exotic places, so you'll know where I end up.

My client's policy is that all employees - and consultants whom they buy plane tickets for - must travel coach. However, this policy doesn't apply to the CEO, who gets to travel business class. Since I am going with the CEO on this trip, and since I convinced his admin that it is important that we discuss weighty issues during the 10+ hours in the air, I managed to get approval to travel business class with the CEO.

It's like the old saying: You don't need to be rich, you just need to have rich friends. In this case it is just changed slightly: You don't need to be the CEO, you just need to hang out with him.

In addition to my business class seat with almost full recline, I will also have my new iPod Nano with the Pacific-busting 14 hour battery life and my Bose noise cancellation headphones (Mrs. Director is good to me - for some reason I can't fathom). So my trip will at least be comfortable.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A Silicon Oasis in the Middle East?

I work in the semiconductor industry and didn't know that Dubai was attempting to create a tech center similar to Taiwan or China:

Launched in January 2004, DSO (Dubai Silicon Oasis) aims to offer an alternative to high-cost semiconductor development through its business ready infrastructure that utilizes regional talent, financial incentives and subsidies on EDA tools and technology, so that companies can quickly set up shop for accelerated time to market of their electronic products.

This would put a tech center right in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. I think this is a good sign since this sort of development needs educated individuals, open trade, and close ties to companies that are in capitalistic, pro-West countries (Chinese companies do business at home and are not a potential market for this center).

If successful, I also think it could lead to another type of openness since the closest country with similar expertise and even potential clients is Israel, which has a very well developed technical and semiconductor fabrication center (Silicon Kibbutz?).

Maybe that is an optimistic thought, but there have been rumors that UAE and Israel are attempting to establish diplomatic ties, although they keep being scuttled, largely due to pressure from other Muslim countries. Maybe this business initiative will be one of the things that puts it over the top.

Crazy CEOs

Actually, the title is tautologous (and repetitive) since I have come to the conclusion that all CEOs are crazy. And I have the data to back it. In my 16 years of working I have had the dubious honor of running into quite a few CEOs, and this seems to be the one common trait among all of them.

Note that I am not saying that the CEOs in my sample were weren't effective or successful or smart. They were usually all three. But I found out that all of them have a different view of reality than the rest of the world, and a different thought process to go along with it. And at the end of the day, that is what the definition of crazy is.

Actually, I have concluded from my experiences that one has to be somewhat crazy to be a CEO. Because everyone else knows what the company's resources are for what can and can't be done, what is possible to promise customers and Wall Street, how to treat people like fellow human beings, and that the world doesn't revolve around their own schedule. But CEOs have none of this conventional thinking, and maybe this is what enables them to push companies and people to do more than they think they are capable of.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Anniversary Milestone Gifts

Everyone knows that the 50th anniversary is the "Golden" anniversary and that the 25th is the "Silver" anniversary. But did you know that nearly every year has some sort of designation for it?

There is actually a "Traditional" list and a "Modern" list, the latter obviously put together with the help of retailers and consumer goods manufacturers.

Some of them are pretty funny. For example, nothing says I love you after four years than a new dishwasher? And the modern 9th year is pretty appropriate for re-energizing things in the bedroom.

Mrs. Director and I try to go by this list - Traditional or Modern - but are allowed to expand the definition from what the gift is, to a theme.

For example, for our first anniversary I got her a very nice Mont Blanc pen - which writes on paper, of course. For our second anniversary she got me a new addition to my currency collection, since, as everyone knows, "paper" currency is made mostly of cotton.

And this year? Well, everyone knows that copper is used for wiring in consumer electronics, and there are definitely traces of copper in my Ipod nano, so it conforms to the list.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Thank-You Mrs. Director

My hint about the iPod nano came through. I am the first kid on my block to get one (I actually stood in line for a few minutes at the local Apple store this morning with a handful of other geeks waiting for the store to open - but the present is still from Mrs. Director for our anniversary).

Wow - this is a way cool gadget. We are talking a fraction of the size of my original 2nd generation iPod from nearly three years ago. The best part is the battery life is something like 14 hours - enough to entertain me on a flight over the Pacific, which my old iPod could not do.

I hate to say it, but Jobs made a bunch of money off our household as we keep going out and buying the latest generation iPod:

So Mrs. Director is on deck for whatever iPod comes out next, which I suppose will be the iPod Femto. Actually, what is likely going to happen is that she will end up in possession of my nano, which means that I will have to go out and buy a second nano for me - but I'll get the white one we don't mix the two up.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Another Employee Perk Being Cut

I've discussed before how stock option plans were being eliminated for rank-and-file workers by a Congress that passed shoddy legislation in a rush to "prevent another Enron."

It turns out that stock options are not the only perk being cut. Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPPs) are also being cut thanks to a new FASB rule that was enacted after the Enron debacle. From the WSJ (paid link):

Traditionally, Employee Stock Purchase Plans have given workers a chance to buy company stock at a 15% discount...This is changing, however, as regulators move to tighten accounting rules in the wake of Enron, WorldCom and other corporate scandals. That means that discounts on most stock-purchase plans, like stock-option grants, must now be treated as an expense.

(To date) About 15% of companies have eliminated the look-back feature, 7% have eliminated the discount, and 5% have eliminated the whole plan..."
Thanks, Congress. These rules will do nothing to prevent what happened at Enron or WorldCom, but they will certainly take money out of the pockets of the non-executive ranks. And the "C-Level" executives will still get tons of stock grants, options and other perks in the millions of dollars, so these rules will also do nothing in terms of lowering executive compensation.

An Idle Thought

If When they rebuild New Orleans, shouldn't they call the city New New Olreans?

Monday, September 05, 2005

A Guilty Labor Day

The U.S. has a lot of "pretend" places modeled on real historic places. Just within a few blocks of Las Vegas is a fake Egyptian Pyramid and a fake Roman Forum. They are idyllic models of the real places, with the warts removed and souvenirs added.

And there is a pretend New Orleans - right in the heart of Disney Land, and probably my favorite place in the park.

As I strolled with my family through the fake New Orleans on Friday, I couldn't help wonder if, like the places in Vegas, this would be the only way to experience the city any more; if the three-quarters scale buildings, the live Disney Jazz bands, and Pirates of the Caribbean would be the only New Orleans future generations would ever know.

So as I enjoyed the holiday weekend with my family I felt a pang of guilt that I was enjoying myself while so many fellow Americans were still suffering. And the sad irony wasn't lost on me that I was having fun in a clean, sanitized New Orleans while the real one was still under 20 feet of water.