Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Japanese COPS

After the huge success of the U.S. "COPS" reality TV show – where a camera follows police around on their busts – the Japanese decided it would be an interesting show to produce here. I watched it tonight and found it a bit different from the American version. Here is what I saw, translated from Japanese of course:

COP: Hey, you! Did you drop that piece of paper?

Man: I am so sorry honorable sir (bowing). I bring shame to myself.

COP: Pick it up and do not do it again!

Man: (bowing lower) I shall not err again.

COP: (talking to camera). Yeah, this used to be a pretty nice neighborhood, but it is starting to go down hill. That litter there is a perfect example. Last week I saw a piece of gum. We’re talking about beefing up patrols, but there is only so much we can do.


COP: (whispering to camera) We’re on a stake-out here. This place is notorious for law breakers. Okay, this is it!

SWAT Team: (shouting) Go! Go! Go! (jerky camera motion follows armed men onto a street corner)

COP: You there! Stop where you are! (half a dozen Japanese men in suits stop in their tracks). That pedestrian walk signal is RED! You were jay walking!

Men: (all bowing rapidly up and down) We did not realize! We are so sorry!

COP: You are only sorry for being caught! You bring shame to your family! Boys, you know what to do! (SWAT team starts issuing citations)

COP: (talking to camera) It is a fine line that separates civilization from chaos. We do what we can every day trying to hold that line. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

I don’t think the Japanese version would be successful on American TV. But what does it say when our astronomical crime rate and crazy crime scenes make for better entertainment?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Coffin Hotel vs. a Suite

Gongol has a link to a review of a Japanese "coffin" hotel, which are essentially urban versions of sleeping bags - the room is just big enough for a mattress, and the cubicles are actually stacked one on top of each other.

And I thought I was rouging it this trip.

While the living room of my suite - just a couple miles away from the above reviewed coffin hotel - is acceptable, I am just a little put out that I didn't get a personal geisha to pour my "cha" for me. I actually had to do it myself!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A Great Product?

The 20th century American lit reference is probably lost on the Japanese. After all, this is the country that translated the title "The Grapes of Wrath" into "The Angry Raisins".


Monday, June 19, 2006

A CEO Doesn't Decide Everything

My CEO pulled out his corporate Amex to pay for dinner. The waiter politely told him the restaurant did not accept Amex, so he pulled out his personal Visa, shaking his head. "You know, I always thought we should have a corporate Visa instead of American Express."

My jaw dropped a little. "You're the CEO. Can't you just send out a memo and get it changed?"

The CEO considered the question a moment before answering. "You know once you're a CEO you find that corporations have a life of their own. There is only so much you can change at any one time, and there are only so many hours in the day, so you have to pick your battles and let the rest of the corporation run on its own."

This was a great statement. There is no way for a CEO to micro-manage all the details of a corporation. Plus, he has buildings full of people making decisions and running things, and dictating policy will just create dissension and a poor culture.

But it also made me consider this: if you need to elevate something to the upper ranks, make sure it becomes an important enough battle for the CEO to fight. Otherwise you'll be out there on your own.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Helpful Rental Car Tip

If you are in a rental car and don't know which side the gas tank is on (or like me, can never remember which side it's on when your wife "asks" you to fill up the car), there is a little arrow on the gas gauge that tells you.

This isn't on cars more than several years old, but is on most rentals these days.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

I Should be at Camp

No matter how old I get, I can't shake the feeling every June that I should be at summer camp. I only spent seven years there as camper and counselor, but those years made a permanent impression.

Of course it helps that camp is a hell of a lot of more fun than the real world. Where else can you spend your entire day doing archery, horseback riding, swimming, canoeing, hiking, riflery, and dozens of other activities for weeks on end?

Monday, June 12, 2006

Like Lost Luggage Isn't Enough to Worry About

Guess which country is on my travel plans soon?

"The United States government has received unconfirmed information of a possible terrorist threat against US interests in China, especially in the cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou," the embassy said in a statement on its website.

"American citizens in China are advised to be aware of their surroundings and remain alert to possible threats."

I could try to blend in with the local population so I can't be spotted as an American, but my height, build, complexion, physical features, clothing, language skills, and facial expressions are pretty much a dead give away. Maybe the guy I am traveling with, Muhammad, (I am NOT making this up) will give me some cover.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Organizations are Bigger than Any One Individual

There are graveyards filled with "indispensable" men.

I have seen the above quote attributed to both Churchill and de Gaulle. Whoever said it got to the crux of it: organizations are bigger than any single individual. And more broadly: everyone is replaceable.

That's not to say there aren't key players that help an organization function, make it better, or give it vision. Apple probably wouldn't be the MP3 leader today without Jobs. But it would be around in some form (it lasted for years without Jobs). That's because after an organization reaches a certain point it can still function even after the loss of a key individual. The real question isn't whether the person in question is irreplaceable, the question is "who does the organization plan to replace this person with if he leaves?"

So while I was certainly doing high-fives this morning when I heard about the death of Zarqawi, I didn't hold any illusions about the end of Al Qaeda in Iraq. This will be a Hydra that will sprout seven heads for every one we cut off. The real question is this: who is going to replace him?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Why Do Some Parents Let Their Kids Run Around Like Peasants?

Not that long ago in the U.S. a sure sign of poverty was if a family's children ran around without shoes. Since children outgrew shoes so quickly, it was an expense that families forgo until the children stopped growing so quickly. In fact, I remember a seeing a movie where a Dust Bowl farm family stretched to buy a pair of shoes for their kid to wear to school.

Those days are thankfully behind the U.S. Besides shrinking poverty rates and the fact that the U.S. "poor" live lives most people in the developing world dream of, shoes are pretty damn cheap. A pair of kids shoes can be found at Target for literally three dollars.

So barefoot children in the U.S. should be seen only around the pool or the beach. Except they aren't. I am continuously amazed to see children running around barefoot. No flip-flops. No sandals. I am talking eight and ten year olds in totally bare feet. And I am not talking about children running across open fields of green grass or running barefoot in the park, I am talking inside Starbucks, walking down the street, and in strip-mall parking lots.

Now these are children of parents who could not only afford cheapos from Target, but $100 shoes named after the latest NBA star. But they allow their children to run around like Huck Finn. Besides the possibility of getting cut, scraped, stepping on a nail, picking up tetanus, or any a number of things that can happen walking on public streets and sidewalks without shoes, it speaks of another problem: the parents' lack of class.

These parents spend inordinate amounts of money to buy the "right" car, but then allow their children to run around like a third world street urchins. And should their precious little brat step on a nail in a supermarket parking lot, who do you think they'll blame? They'll have a suit filed before the day is over.

It just goes to show you that money doesn't buy class. It makes me wish for the return of "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service" signs.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Pop Culture Takeoffs

If you like Star Wars and Trek even a little, you have GOT to check out these two videos:

Trek - Hat Tip Gongol

Wars - Hat Tip Jim


"Return of Premium" Life Insurance: Is it Worth It?

I've been thinking about increasing my term life insurance coverage. With my weight loss over the last two years, I should be moved into the "healthiest" category (from one notch down) and get more coverage for the same amount of money. And since my yearly premium is coming due, I thought I would look into what options are out there.

I had heard a commercial on the radio pitching "return of premium" life insurance. This was a fast-paced, boisterous commercial - indistinguishable from low end mortgage pitches - that promised to return all your yearly premiums at the end of the term. I thought this sounded too good be true - there had to be a catch they weren't telling you about - so I forgot about it.

A few months later I read an article in Forbes about ROP insurance policies - and the magazine gives them a resounding thumbs up. Assuming you live through your term.

This is how Forbes analyzes them: ROP policies are more expensive than standard term policies. If you take the equivalent term policy and assume you invest the difference, you can quickly calculate if the ROP is a good deal.

So I gave it a shot. I ran through two scenarios on lifeinsurance.com using the same term and payout:

So at the end of 20 years, the ROP would give me back all my premiums, or $60K. If I take the term insurance and invest the difference - and got an fairly good 8% return - I wouldn't match what I got on the ROP.

So it looks like ROP is the way to go. Of course this assumes you live all 20 years. If you die first, then it's a bad deal since you paid out much higher premiums for the same amount of coverage - and of course you won't get your premiums back.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Workplace Competitive Advantage: Doing Email at Odd Hours

In my experience organizations are either "voice driven" (voice mail or phone calls move the organization along) or "email driven". Generally speaking, the more international an organization is, the more email driven it becomes just so it can deal with the timezone differences.

I've found that once you are in an email driven organization, there is something of a competitive advantage to reading and writing email at odd hours, weekends and holidays. For example, just because it is Memorial Day in the U.S. doesn't mean it's a holiday in Japan. So if you respond to emails while others in your organization are out camping, you get to drive the agenda. By the time your organizational competition has put their Coleman laterns away, you've set the terms and conditions and have a lock on the deal.

So does this mean you sit by your computer while everyone else is having fun? Not really. I spent time in the surf this past Sunday, but still did a good dozen emails with Asia and the Middle East. The thing about keeping an email dialog going is that it really doesn't take a lot of time. After rinsing out my wetsuit I glanced at my computer to see what emails came in while I was getting my butt kicked by some big waves. I shot out some responses before eating lunch, took less than 15 minutes. Sent some follow-ups that Sunday evening. By the time others started reading their emails Monday morning I had already taken care of the situation.

Of course it helps that I have hobbies that don't take me away from civilization for long stretches of time. I hate camping.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

I Received a U.S. Patent and Didn't Know It

Last week one of my company's EVPs sent me a one-line email saying "What we found the other day...", with a PDF attachment. I thought he might be passing along some competitive information, maybe even a joke, but what was in the attachment took me totally by surprise: a U.S. patent with the inventors listed as "Window Manageret. al."

I sat there staring at my name on a U.S. patent. I knew nothing about this. I read through the patent, and quickly figured out what happened....

Internet Boom - Spring 2000

"Look, I know we're a start-up and the company needs patents, but I'm a marketing guy"

The CEO nodded quickly. He always did that, acting as if he agreed with you even if he disagreed with you. "Look, WM, you are one of the best marketing guys I know, and that is why I know I can rely on you to file patents. In fact, I am putting it in your MBOs."

"Great. What in the hell can I invent?"

The CEO's eyes seem to grow, taking on a hypnotic look like Kaa from The Jungle Book. As I found myself being sucked into his Jedi Mind Trick, his speech started to echo "There are business process patents being filed and approved every day. I want you to work on one of those."

I walked out of his office in a zombie-like trance, his words reverberating in my mind. I thought "Yeah, a business process patent. I can invent one of those!"

I went to the VP of Marketing's office, finding him in the same state I was, having been briefed by the CEO before me. The two of us started talking simultaneously, throwing concepts on the whiteboard. Ideas were created, discussed, modified, tossed and created again. We were in a reality distortion field created by the CEO, and anything seemed possible.

We went for hours, peering into the future at what the internet, digital imaging, wireless networking and mass storage would allow. And then we had it. We figured out what all these technologies would enable: wireless sharing of photos, allowing people to upload their pictures taken from a wireless camera or cellphone to a website, where the pictures could be shared and printed. It was a bold prediction, and nothing like it was out there.

We summarized our findings and we started working with outside counsel to file a patent. The CEO - because he was the CEO - added his name as one of the inventors.

About a year later we got a response from the patent office, asking questions. The lawyer explained that this was part of the process, and that it would take more time (and money) to move the patent filing past this point. We pushed it forward.

Internet Bust - April 2002

I saw it coming. I saw it coming for months. The companies with nothing behind them died first - pets.com, drkoop.com, all those worthless dot coms. I thought - or hoped - that would be the end of it, but it was only the beginning.

Without the high-flying dot coms driving server, router, and broadband sales, the systems companies were next. Cisco and Sun came crashing down. With demand drying up from the systems companies, the semiconductor companies came next, and Intel, TI and all the rest of the components companies nosedived.

It became impossible for a tech start-up to raise capital in this type of environment. Add the fact that 9-11 put a stop to all VC funding for a few months, and it meant that my company was running out of money and wasn't going to get more. I knew the end was near.

So when the lawyer informed me that the patent was still moving forward, but needed more funding to push it along, I knew that it wasn't going to get it. My company was cutting costs left and right, and my patent was going to die on the vine.

Internet Bust - June 2002

Herr Steiner smiled at himself as his Lufthansa flight took off from LAX. He just finished buying the assets of a little, bankrupt U.S. technology company for a song. Little start-ups were dying in the U.S. left and right, and smart people like him knew how to come in and pick up the assets for pennies on the dollar. Yes, he got a bunch of worthless desks and PCs, but he got what he was really after: the technology, several designs, plus a handful of unapproved patent applications. The company had let them linger, probably thinking they were dead, but he would have his U.S. lawyer get them revived and going again. It only took some funding. If he were lucky, a couple of them could be turned into actual U.S. patents in a few years.

Present Day

So, yes, I, along with my former VP and CEO, are listed as inventors of a business process patent, with yours truly listed as the lead inventor. The bad news is that it is owned by a European company and I have absolutely no rights to it. There are actual businesses making money doing the things outlined in the patent, but I think the chances of this company doing any sort of enforcement on it are slim to none.

Friday, June 02, 2006

A Lot of Sales is Just Waiting Around

Schmoozing. Fancy dinners. Big bar tabs. These are a few of thing things people imagine when thinking about sales, but there is one thing few people think about when it comes to sales: waiting.

And there is a lot of waiting in a typical sales job: waiting in offices, waiting on responses, waiting on your own company's development people, traveling to and from an account. And a lot of that waiting is alone. Add an international element into the mix, and the amount of waiting goes up by an order of magnitude. For example, on my trip to Germany last week, I spent a lot of time alone on a plane, alone in a hotel room, and alone in airports. I basically spent three days by myself in order to do take one three hour meeting.

I used to think that gregarious, extroverted people make the best sales people. While "people skills" are certainly required for the job, I am starting to think that introverts might make the best sales people in many cases - at least in sales positions that require extensive travel. The ability to "go inside" and enjoy time alone is a huge requirement of the job, and people who are uncomfortable being alone would not find fulfillment in such a position. Extroverts would probably prefer a retail or other sales position where there is "constant contact" with the customer, but would be uncomfortable in a traveling sales position that has long periods without human contact.