Tuesday, September 17, 2013

More Famous People I Have Known (Pretty Women Edition)

Julia Roberts smiled at me. At the Upper Crust Bakery in Austin. Her megawatt smile is the reason she’s a star. That she smiled at me when she didn’t have to is the reason she’s a regular, nice person.

Karrin Allyson thinks I saved her life. Her show at Jimmy Mak’s in Portland was SRO. I was standing near the top of the steep basement stairs.  Dressing rooms at Jimmy’s are in the basement. Karrin came upstairs, stumbled, and grabbed my arm. She thanked me, and thanked me again. I guess, for not letting her fall, and for not falling down the stairs on top of her.

Nothing so personal passed between Goldie Hawn and me; the story is in how it didn’t. In 1980 I was standing in line at a taco stand on the plaza in Santa Fé, chatting with a very nice Japanese-American man who somehow looked familiar. As we bit into our tacos and said goodbye, I realized it was Pat Morita, who was then playing the cook on Happy Days. (There was, as yet, no Karate Kid.) I rejoined Hyon on the other side of the plaza, and she said, “Isn’t that Goldie Hawn?” And it was Goldie, holding toddler Kate Hudson by the hand as they strolled off down Lincoln Avenue. Hyon and I think of the baby Kate sighting whenever we see adult Kate in a movie.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Ten Commandments For Tech Companies

1. Thou shalt not screw thine early adopters. They made thou what thou art, even showing patience with thine inattention to upward compatibility. Yea, though they paid high early prices, thou hast refused them free upgrades. Now as they glance at their boxes of obsolete connectors, power sources, software and disk drives, they plan to make their next purchases from thine upstart competitor.

2. Thou shalt not pitch proprietary platforms.
Thy customers are hip to digital convergence. They are aware of platform-independent software, and yea, know moreover that any information product can be a platform for any other. Suffereth not thine user to wonder why this app won’t work on that phone, or this phone on that network.
Thy heavy users, world travelers, live “glocal”; they cry, “Roaming charges, my ass!” and “Make thy smart phone a flexible global platform for local apps!” The world is flat, and it is not flat. Surf it.
3. Thou shalt use patents as incentives to innovate – not as tradable securities nor as reserve ammunition for counter-suits.

4. Thou shalt not sue thy customers,
without darn good reason. Sony sued a little old Filipina lady of the same name, who ran a hole-in-the-wall Baltimore restaurant called “Sony’s.” Samsung now eats Sony’s lunch, ha ha. Apple is going after a Polish start-up that cleverly leveraged its country’s top-level domain to name itself a.pl. We now read news of Apple’s decline. Suing instead of innovating: Graspeth thou the lesson here?

5. Thou shalt not encase thy products in packaging
that is well-nigh bulletproof, exposing thy customers to risk of serious injury when they try to open it.

6. Thou shalt not aim for market dominance at the expense of customer service.
Amazon. Cable companies. Dell. Thy clued-in clients recognize a company run for its investors rather than for its customers. Currently powerless to stop you, they hoard and cherish their resentment against the day of their revenge. Canst thou say, “Seeds of mine own destruction”?
Even as thou striveth to control the bottleneck in the value chain, learneth thou that the bottleneck moves and changes faster than thy customers. In the long run, catching and keeping customers is cheaper and of greater value than chasing necks of bottles.
7. Thou shalt not charge more for “ordinary ground shipping” than the price of the item being shipped.

8. Thou shalt not be co-opted by totalitarian governments,
nor even authoritarian ones. Giving spy agencies back-doors into your cookies, blocking and censoring for ruling-party political advantage, turning over the records of customers who expected privacy, for shame. In a particular criminal case with a warrant from a legitimate court, maybe. Otherwise, no.

9. Be ever ready to change thy business model.
Thou recording-industry exec fighting a desperate rear-guard action, thou art as the dinosaur, ridiculed by thy customers, and incompetent to meet the new business environment on survivable terms.

10. Clean thine own messes.
Thy mother told thou this. Get green or get gone.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Taking Headhunters to the Woodshed

I started a new job this spring. After a long search in a tough market, I landed my dream job as a senior professor and administrator at a top research university – a university that did not retain a headhunter for its search.

Talks at other schools had progressed to first or second interviews before fizzling, and they fizzled due to the ineptitude of the universities’ search firms. The headhunters deserve a whipping, and this column administers ten lashes.

Capable academics want to connect with institutions where they can make a positive difference and advance the institutions’ missions. Search firms really desiring to help make these connections should:

1.     Answer every application and every inquiry. You have not answered my letters re the last cool job you posted. I give up on you – I don’t respond to your firm’s most recent posting – and you miss the chance to bring your client a qualified candidate. Too expensive to answer every message, you say? Sorry, this is the business you chose to be in. Act professionally. And join the 21st century: Most replies can be automated.
2.     Prep search committees for (phone) interviews. The phone interview is a blunt tool, and not many know what it’s for. Few interviewers, either at universities or at search firms, can articulate exactly what they hope to accomplish in a phone interview. Lack of agenda plus the inability to see body language can easily add up to bad impressions on both sides. Coach clients on conducting videoconference and campus interviews too, and assert yourself when necessary. It’s troubling when a committee commits gaffes and illegalities, and doubly so when the supposedly knowledgeable headhunter is right there in the room.
3.     Prep candidates for interviews. Tell us about the culture of the school, whether the search committee are experienced or novices at faculty/administrator searches, who tends to dominate discussions, and whose biases should be watched out for.
4.     Help your client structure the search process and stick to a timeline. You know universities are not good at this. It is what you, as business people, are supposed to bring to the table. So why is it that neither you nor I can name a search that finished on time, at any university?
5.     Keep applicants informed of the progress of the search. Common courtesy, right? But less common than we’d like. And I don’t mean simply calendar progress. If interviewing a few applicants causes the committee (understandably) to change their minds about the kind of candidate they want, tell us that too – before eliminating us from the running or canceling the search. After all, we crafted our cover letters to match the originally advertised criteria. A chance to refocus our letters benefits everybody.
6.     Be there. An on-campus interview for a peach of an administrative post. The headhunter tells me, “Sorry I can’t be there that day. Don’t worry, you’ll do fine.” Turned out there were two faculty factions looking for very different characteristics in a new administrator, and faction members didn’t sport identification badges. I gave what we might call the right answer to a vocal member of the wrong group. Later the headhunter said, “I knew who’s who. If I’d been there we could have handled it together.”
7.     Refrain from writing “this fine institution” when it’s a turnaround job. When your communications are dishonest, you lose the respect of people who know the institution well. You waste time dealing with the wrong kinds of applicants. The purpose of your ad is to attract the right candidates, not to butter up your client. Do you know what candidates call ads that aggrandize client universities? We call them “clues.” (A more general honesty issue: Don’t imply to journalists that, e.g., the three-year average tenure of a dean is due mainly to the job’s increasing pressures. Own up that you and your peers have matched the wrong people with the jobs.)
8.     Send no “do not reply” emails. So disrespectful. Same to you, buddy.
9.     Avoid steering professionals to universities’ “online application systems.” 21st-century enterprises have AIs that parse well-structured CVs. Seasoned candidates send you well-structured CVs. It’s not that professionals are too stuck-up to deal with the same system used to hire receptionists. It’s just that the irrelevancies and duplicate work the systems demand lead us to expect the same from daily life at that university. A major turn-off.
10.  Remember, candidates are your future clients. As I, and others, move up the ladder and retain search firms on behalf of our universities, we remember who you are and how you behaved when we were candidates.
Headhunters, I’ve thought through how I could have better handled these interviews, and I want you to do the same. If only you knew how often your earnest, helpful, tech-savvy young assistants apologize to candidates for their principals’ (in)actions. Straighten up and fly right during this storm in US higher education. Decide to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Flying Professor -Part II: Before you leave home

Part I listed often-overlooked things that when taken along make your trip comfortable, safe, and productive. Part II looks at tasks you’ll find helpful to do before leaving for the airport. As before, I do not get kickbacks from any products mentioned.

Twelve to 24 hours before departing for places exotic:

  • Upload your trip documents (plane, hotel) to TripIt.com. There is a security risk in letting LinkedIn colleagues know where you’re going (TripIt is tied to LinkedIn) – you never know who they’ll tell – but TripIt does automatically inform family and co-workers who need to know where you are and will be. It’s also a single-source repository for all your reservations, itineraries, and receipts, making tax and reimbursement tasks easier later on. And alibis too, I guess.
  • I have Snoozester.com send a robotic wake-up call to my bedside phone. Voluntarily getting up ‘n’ at ‘em at 3:30 a.m. is something my biorhythms just don’t let me do. Snoozester will repeat the call as many times as I’ve programmed. I generally choose Snoozester’s “pirate” voice; the sultry female voice doesn’t make me want to get out of bed. I can get additional free wakeup calls if you join as a result of my invitation. So if you want me to get this non-monetary kickback, send me your email address. Otherwise feel free to join directly at Snoozester :o(
  • Check the weather at your destination. Weather.com will tell you if it’s unseasonable, raining, etc. Easier then to avoid showing up with a less-than-useful wardrobe.
  • Check in for your flight using the airline’s web site. Objectively there’s not much point to this (unless it’s your best chance to choose the seat you want). You’ll still have to go through a rigmarole at the airport. But having the boarding pass in hand before leaving home gives a subjective sense of security, and they know you’re coming. If you’ve booked through airline A and your flight is operated by “partner” airline B, A’s web site won’t necessarily recognize your booking code. The sad truth is that airlines are not airlines any more, they’re just travel agents. The “partnerships” like Star Alliance are not truly integrated; they’ve linked tasks that are convenient for them, not for you. However, single bookings for multiple-carrier itineraries are something of an improvement over the past.
  • Charge your cell phones, your computer, and your Kindle. If you’re not first to arrive at your departure gate, early birds will be hogging all the electrical outlets.
  • Alert your credit/debit card issuers (and your credit union) that you’re traveling. Most have “travel alert” links on their sites, though they’re not obvious and you may have to go to the site map to find them. A catch is that the banks haven’t always installed the latest country lists in their drop-down menus. (USAA is a culprit, though they of all companies should know better.) You will have to phone the bank if the country you’re going to doesn’t show on the menu. You’ve got enough to do before you leave for Burundi; why go to all this trouble? If you don’t, the bank may assume a charge requested from Burundi is fraudulent; they’ll refuse the charge and start calling your home number to ask whether the card is stolen.
  • Record “away messages” (your cellular provider boringly calls these “alternative greetings”) on your office and cell phones. Assuming your US cell phone does not work overseas, as mine does not. My message says I’ll be out of cell phone range, won’t be able to answer v-mail for a week, if you’re okay with that then go ahead and leave me a message, otherwise send me an email, or for immediate help call .
  • Dehydration makes everything about traveling so much worse. Unless you enjoy buying bottled water on the concourse (or unless you travel first class, where they’ll bring you liquids at the twitch of your finger), take an empty water bottle and fill it from a drinking fountain or bathroom tap after you’ve passed security. Many airports even in undeveloped countries serve up potable water in their international airports. Caution: Secondary security check agents on US-bound flights may force you to pour out the water before boarding. Always worth a try, though.
  • Use Google maps, Mapquest, or Michelin to get and print out directions from your hotel to every person you have an appointment with during your trip. Once at your destination, you may not have time or facilities* to print them. Printed directions are also a check on the honesty of taxi drivers.

* Alternatively, carry a compact thermal printer. They are convenient but need 15v DC input for charging. This is more than they can draw from your laptop’s USB port, so make sure you also have a converter that turns 110 or 220v into 15v with the right polarity. And a roll of thermal paper.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Flying Professor - Part I: Don't leave home without these

Courses, speeches, and client meetings take me to faraway places, sometimes on short notice. Here are some hard-won tips about this kind of traveling.

Google "packing lists," and you'll find lots of advice about how to fill your entire suitcase. So I won't go there. Instead, this entry, Part I, lists essential items you might not think of. Part II will focus on trip prep – tasks to do before leaving home.

Preliminary note #1: Sometimes the destinations are places with high crime and/or extreme climate.

Preliminary note #2: This list is just from the goodness of my heart (!). I don't know whether the vendors have affiliate programs, and I won't make money if you click through from this blog.

Clothes and shoes

  • Travelsmith clothes, for men and women, are good-looking, breathable, immune from wrinkling, usually machine-washable, and have lots of secret pickpocket-resistant pockets.
  • Rockport walking shoes have steel inserts in the soles, and decent arch support. They are sufficiently rugged for light hiking but clean up well enough for business casual. (Sorry, no walking shoe suggestions for the ladies.)
  • 2-tone dress shoes are da bomb. My black-with-brown-trim slip-ons go with brown suits or black suits (or blue or gray, natch), and save me from carrying an extra pair of shoes - or from having to plan, "This trip only gray suits, 'cause I'm only taking black shoes..." Look for them on Shoebuy.com or similar sites, or your local shoe store.
  • My Wolf River midweight hiking boots have survived fifteen years of hard use all over the world. Way comfortable. I've only had to replace the laces, though the heel is getting kinda thin now. I've not been able to find these on the web lately :-(
  • My Dad told me, always pack swim trunks, they're light and you never know when or where you'll be able to get in a swim. The advice has served me well. And you never know when your hotel will have a nice hot tub next to its pool.
  • I think you already know to take layers instead of a bulky coat if you're going somewhere (variably) cold.

Software and cloud stuff

  • Don't fail to install Prey on your PC or Mac. If your laptop is stolen, its camera will send a picture of the next user to Prey HQ. Yes, computers have been recovered this way!
  • Of course, put your presentation files on Dropbox. Even if you lose your laptop and all your USB drives, you can still access your file for that important presentation.


  • Going to a country where your US cell phone doesn't work? Buy a Mobal phone. Charges slightly high when you do use the phone, but no monthly charges, nor any other charges, when you do not use the phone. You pay only for calls; this is not one of those deals where you pay for a whole month even if you make only one call. Nice service too, and the phones work in at least 99 countries.
  • A Kindle. Beats shlepping a pile of books! And keeps you from going nuts when you're hurtling through the air at 30,000 feet for 10-hours in one of those overgrown toothpaste tubes they're pleased to call an "airliner." (Yes, I know Amazon has an affiliate program, but I didn't use it in this link.)
  • Take an ethernet cord, and one of those double plugs that lets you splice two ethernet cords together. Hotel rooms without wireless may have Internet access through ethernet. However, if they supply a cord at all, it may be too short for you to work comfortably.
  • Electrical plug converters, natch.

Accounts and financials

  • Get a credit card featuring "no foreign transaction fees." The Marriott Visa card is a good one, and you accumulate generous Marriott points.
  • Carry a folder with all your frequent flyer cards, car rental discount codes, and hotel points program membership cards. Or print out all the numbers on a sheet of paper in your travel file. Reason #1, if your client books your flight, chances are they'll forget to enter your FF#. Reason #2, your travel plans may change - you're re-routed on another airline, or you miss the train and have to rent a car - so have those numbers handy. Oh, yeah, reason #3, if you're a premium member, there's usually a dedicated phone number where you'll get extra good service when you need to change those reservations.

Odds 'n' ends

  • After I got robbed in Peru, I bought a Magellan's VaultPro Max utility bag. Steel mesh in the strap and bag body mean the bad guys cannot cut through it. The secure shoulder strap is supplemented by a belt clip. Way cool.
  • Small USA and hometown gifts. I carry t-shirts, fleeces, ball caps, refrigerator magnets, etc.
  • Carry a spare bag just in case you can't resist shopping. The bag can be ultralight and collapsible, but should have a zipper closure so light-fingered locals can't reach in and snag your souvenirs.
  • Take photocopies of your passport. All kinds of possible uses. Allows you to leave the passport in a hotel room safe.
  • If you intend to participate in sports, take gauze, medical tape, band aids, ointment, and ibuprofen.

Let me know you find this list helpful. Bon voyage!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The National Debt: Digging deeper into why we’re digging deeper

The US national debt is now at 100% of Gross National Product, in other words equal to what we produce in a year. Forty cents of every dollar the US government spends is borrowed. Horrible, cry the pundits! The government should behave more like a family with a budget, should know when to stop spending!

Let’s consider, though, that the average home-owning family takes on a mortgage equal to two or three times its annual earnings. (Before the crash, this number was five, not two or three.) In the US, it’s common for this family to spend 40% of its monthly income servicing the mortgage debt. So far, then, the government is acting exactly like a family – and a fairly responsible family at that, as we’re not even talking about families that abuse credit cards.

The bank lends to the family because the banker thinks the family will increase its productivity (and thus its income) over time, or at least remain as productive as it is currently. And just in case that turns out not to be true, the banker has built a risk premium into the interest rate on the mortgage.

Someone who panics about the US national debt, then, does not believe in America, does not believe our country will continue its historical trend of ever-increasing productivity. The people who yammer loudest about the national debt are those on the political right – usually the most flag-waving of patriots. What? When push comes to shove, these people do not believe in America after all?

Mysterious. Let’s see what’s behind it.

First, we’ll tie the loose thread I left when I mentioned interest rates. Are lenders gouging the US? If yes, it might be cause for panic. But interest rates are low worldwide following the crash, and lenders know that that if pushed to the wall the US could print more dollars, which are the world reserve currency. So no, interest rates are not the worry. Growth in debt is a legitimate worry, though.

Last night James Baker was on CNN with Fareed Zakariah. Baker said the US is broke, and debtors will colonize us like some banana republic if we don’t reform fiscally. He is wrong. Debtors will colonize us like some banana republic if we don’t get more productive.

In the 1980s Australia was in an economic mess, and the Australian Prime Minister trotted out the banana republic argument. Did Australia go the way of Nicaragua? No, Australia became more productive. Australians innovated and diversified their industries. They became less protectionist about the import and export of goods and people. They created an Oz that is a prosperous magnet for immigration and investment.

Anyway, why would Baker care? He and his – I don’t really want to be inflammatory, but OK, I will use the word fatcat – fatcat cohorts wanted NAFTA, the WTO, and more and more free trade agreements, and they got them. Why did they want them? It wasn’t because economic theory says protectionism (the opposite of free trade) is inefficient. It was so rich corporations and individuals could move (and invest) capital more freely around the world.

This enables them to hedge on taxes and hedge against the risk of the US becoming a banana republic offering low investment returns. That is to say, the fatcat cohorts do not care about America’s future. They don’t have to believe in it. They’ll make money regardless. They have no cause to worry about the US national debt.

I could say, “So much for patriotism,” but that’d be ranting. The right’s rage against national debt appears to be a smoke screen, perhaps a cover for further tax reductions for their super-rich overseers. It also conveniently obfuscates that we had a balanced budget under the Democrat Bill Clinton and that it was blown away by Republican President Shrub. Successful obfuscation might help a Republican presidential candidate in 2012.

In any case, the US does have a budget problem, and it’s more constructive to speak of what can be done about it. Baker told Zakariah it may no longer be in our “national interest” to have troops in Afghanistan. That’s marvelous, a Republican suggesting, however obliquely, a reduction in military spending. It would make a greater contribution to a balanced budget than anything Congress came up with this week.

My progressive friends advocate increasing taxes on the super-rich. Again, this makes a certain amount of sense. However, it does not get to the root of the problem, which is productivity.

The route to increased productivity – which lets us pay down debt – is innovation. We must find a way to induce the super-rich, and even the simply rich, to invest heavily in innovative ventures. Not in gold, not in real estate, but in inventor-entrepreneurs who will bring productivity-enhancing products and services to market. And the best place to make such investments is still the United States.

What form can such inducements take? Not an easy question. Tax credits mean nothing to people and companies that pay zero taxes to begin with. And the super-rich are traditionally more interested in conserving their wealth than in risking it. I invite your bright ideas.

I write from Peru, where we await the outcome of a momentous presidential election. The candidate with the greatest support among the rural and poor, Ollanta Humala, is great friends with Chávez of Venezuela. My educated Peruvian friends, many of whom came from poor families, understand Chávez’ Venezuelan model would be disastrous for Peru. They also understand that when the advantaged class in a highly unequal society does not produce, popular sentiment can propel a far-left candidate to the fore. There’s a lesson here for the United States.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Curmudgeon at Restaurant

The Starbuck’s counterfolks know the only reasonable answer to their “Good morning, how are you?” is “Dunno how I am, haven’t had my coffee yet.” They nod sympathetically.

Restaurants, though, hire people who can cook and handle heavy trays; communication skills are not a job requirement. The following are real things restaurant employees say. After hearing their garbled grammar many times, I’ve fantasized about giving the following responses. Now, don’t y’all try this – it’s certain to result in staff spitting on your food before they bring it from the kitchen. You can share my fantasy, though.

Hostess: “How are you this evening?”

You: “Hungry, duh.”

Hostess: “There’s a short wait. Could I have a name?”

You: “Didn’t your mother give you one?”

Hostess [eventually]: “Your table's ready. Just let me grab you...”

You: “Don't grab me!”

Hostess: “... some menus.”

She seats you. The waiter brings glasses of water and asks for your order. He tries to upsell you: He wants you to have premium gin instead of well gin in your G&T; appetizers; wine; desserts; extra toppings on everything. This is not conducive to the relaxing evening you were hoping to enjoy. You raise an eyebrow.

Knowing his tip is at stake, the waiter is graceful enough to apologize. He reveals that the manager requires him to upsell. You sympathize. Nonetheless, it’s annoying. So,

Waiter: “If you need anything else, my name’s Dave.”

You: “And if we don’t need anything else, then what’s your name?”

Dave: "Oh. Ah, it's still Dave. How would you like your steak served?"

You: "By Salma Hayek, who's wearing a very small bikini, and we're in Hawaii, and..."

Dave: "Not a chance."

You: "Medium, then."

Dave disappears, eventually brings your dinner, disappears again. Knowing his name doesn’t help; you can’t find him.

Dave swings by, asks, "How's everything?"

You: "It's good."

Dave: "Great!!"

You: "Don't escalate it, Dave, I said it's 'good.'"

You know Dave wants to turn over your table, squeeze in one more sitting during his shift, and you wonder why he doesn’t serve you more quickly, which would advance your enjoyment and his income. Finally,

Dave [insincerely]: “No hurry with this bill, any time is OK.”

You: “How about 2015, I hear the economy will bounce back by then.”

Dave: “Ha, ha.” [Pointing at food I have not yet eaten] “Do you wanna box for that?”

You: “No, but I'll wrestle you two falls out of three.”

You lay down a credit card. Dave reaches for it.

Dave: “I’ll take care of that for you.”

You: “That’s really generous of you, Dave, thanks! I thought I was going to have to pay for it!”

At that point, if not before, another guy appears, stands next to your table. He’s probably a restaurant manager, though you don’t know him from Adam. He’s not wearing a uniform or even a name tag, and he doesn’t bother to introduce himself. It’s creepy. I mean, even Dave introduced himself.

Manager: “How is everything, folks?”

You: “It’s all right. Why? Are you considering eating here?”

Manager: “Ha, no, I eat here a lot, ‘cause I work here.”

You: “Oh, well, your vest is so threadbare I thought you were going to ask for our leftovers too.”

Manager [Concerned]: “Did someone ask for them?”

You: “Yeah, Dave wanted to fight me for them.”

Another half hour passes. Dave appears with your credit card receipt. This time he’s all smiles, wishes you a beautiful rest of your evening, makes a big deal out of placing red and white mints on the tray with the credit slip. Dave knows and you know that he knows and he knows that you know that now’s your opportunity to write a tip on the slip…

I greatly enjoy restaurants, just sometimes wish for the traditional silent waitrons who anticipate the diner's every need...