Wednesday, September 25, 2013

FUD, Marketing, and Vested Interests in the Car Industry

An article I read this morning observes that California car dealers complain:

"[they] also [note] that Tesla's quoted new-car prices net out a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit for purchase of a plug-in electric car. According to the California dealers, just 20 percent of all car shoppers qualify for that credit--and the group attributes that statistic to the Congressional Budget Office. "

While they happily quote financing that only 5% of people can get, on prices that often exist only on one car on the lot out of hundreds to get you in the door, while Tesla's pricing is a done deal.

And of course while all electric car manufacturers use similar tactics on their websites "We note that the California New Car Dealers Association, however, does not attack Chevrolet, Mitsubishi, or Nissan for this practice--only Tesla."

Smells like FUD as usual, rather than something real, as in both cases, everything is disclosed (even if the print is tiny, or it's the guy talking 1M mph at the end of the commercial)...

We watch this time and time again, and in particular with another Elon Musk company that is revolutionizing the mechanics and COST of space travel. How do we clear the path for future technologies and encourage them? It seems it takes a Crisis in the USA to incite change (hopefully). We could have been on the vanguard of raising fuel efficiency standards in the USA, but instead we waited til all of our car companies were bankrupt!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Rocky (a.k.a. Van) goes to Russia

Remember Rocky 4? Rocky goes to Russia, beats the Russian behemoth at his own game, and rather than smugly gloating he turns it into a passionate speech about how as the fight progressed he and the crowd realized how similar Americans and Russians actually are. The scene where the Russian premier stands up and applauds (then followed by his aides) was a poignant illustration of the slowly thawing relations between our two great nations.

Did you know this actually happened in real life once? It just wasn't the way you think. When I was young I had a great Russian piano teacher for many years, who always used the example of Van Cliburn to motivate me. "You can't just be a little better" he would say, "the reason Van Cliburn, an American could go to the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war and still win was because he was so much better there was no question!"

Van Cliburn died yesterday (2-27-13) at the age of 78. I actually saw him at one of his last public performance when I was a child. I was lucky enough to see him on the first stop of the tour, as he cancelled the rest! Through my teacher, Dimitri, and that one concert he has for ever been a poignant influence in my life. How could one man, single handedly (figuratively of course!) endear himself to Russians and Americans alike, while for the first time showing that American musicians could compete against the best in the world?

The impact of Mr. Cliburn’s victory was enhanced by a series of vivid articles written for The New York Times by Max Frankel, then a foreign correspondent based in Moscow and later an executive editor of the paper. The reports of Mr. Cliburn’s progress — prevailing during the early rounds, making it to the finals and becoming the darling of the Russian people, who embraced him in the streets and flooded him with fan mail and flowers — created intense anticipation as he entered the finals.

He was a sensation! The boxing ring was a little different. Other than perhaps a judge ignoring something not allowed, the International Tchaikovsky competition could very obviously be influenced, and even controlled by the Party in a way we only see on a large scale in China these days. In fact his performance was so amazing, then premier Nikita Khruschev in fact gave the judges the nod to his victory! Van Cliburn, or course was completely oblivious:

“Oh, I never thought about all that,” Mr. Cliburn recalled in 2008 during an interview with The Times. “I was just so involved with the sweet and friendly people who were so passionate about music.” The Russians, he added, “reminded me of Texans.”

Really? Think of Rocky when the crowd in Russia started chanting:
On the night of the final round, when Mr. Cliburn performed the Tchaikovsky First Concerto, a solo work by Dmitry Kabalevsky (written as a test piece for the competition) and the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, the audience broke into chants of “First prize! First prize!” Emil Gilels, one of the judges, went backstage to embrace him.
The jury agreed with the public, and Moscow celebrated. At a Kremlin reception, Mr. Cliburn was bearhugged by Khrushchev. “Why are you so tall?” Khrushchev asked. “Because I am from Texas,” Mr. Cliburn answered.
Much like the made up Rocky in a short while Van Cliburn endeared himself to the Russian public in a way that was unimaginable. Unlike Rocky however, that moment was his coming out to America as well:
When Mr. Cliburn returned to New York he received a ticker-tape parade in Lower Manhattan, the first musician to be so honored, cheered by 100,000 people lining Broadway. In a ceremony at City Hall, Mayor Robert F. Wagner proclaimed that “with his two hands, Van Cliburn struck a chord which has resounded around the world, raising our prestige with artists and music lovers everywhere.”
A worldwide rockstar 2 years before The Beatles started their run on the world! The rest of his life seemed downhill from there. When he returned he recorded his performance from Moscow, and it sold over a million copies in the fist year. He quickly started pulling in massive rates for performances, but it was not long to be. His forays into other works were mostly not well received. Most people just wanted to hear the Tchaikovsky and the Rachmaninov 3. He of course became fabulously wealthy, but became increasingly erratic, and left the stage for years at a time.

In any case I will not dwell on his later life. I saw him perform the Tchaikovsky and was forever changed.   I spent my last two years of Piano back when I lived in Austin working on the Tchaikovsky - 1, and my preferred Rachmaninov - 2 because of his impact. Two days ago a legend, and American hero who indirectly played a big part in my life passed away. Rest in Peace Van Cliburn. I want to thank Dimitri Kirichenko in San Diego, and Julia Krueger in Austin Texas for the amazing impact they also had on my life. I am also grateful beyond belief for the love and passion for music I derived from all those years on the Piano, and Clarinet.

New York Times article with lots of good info which I have excerpted a few times above:

Van Cliburn plays the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto. It's opening is the most grandiose and powerful around in my opinion. AMAZING close ups of his hands. Note about 5:30 in. Those are octaves in both hands! There's a similar section about 8 minutes in. By do I remember toiling over those sections. If you click through to the second half of the first movement there is an amazing virtuoso finish as well. The third movement also has an amazing finish, and I LOVE the way he looks at the conductor.

Van Cliburn plays the Rachmaninov 2nd Piano Concerto. This one has a powerful opening, but rather than being grandiose, it's power is in passion. I absolutely LOVE this piece. It does get rather grandiose when those big Rachmaninov chords come in on occasion.

My 3rd favorite Piano Concerto, Grieg's first, performed by Evgeny Kissin. Not related to Van Cliburn in any way. Just a side note.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Time management, quality -vs- quantity, and diminishing returns

Growing up I have watched many people ruin their lives with a lack of balance. Those who have known me long enough have known I was TERRIBLE at balance, and have worked terribly hard to get to where I am today. Both of my parents, upon immigrating from Hungary (where I don't think they take it easy easy as Western Europe) in my opinion were seduced by the American dream, just like most of the parents of children from my era. I watched them ruin their lives, health, and spirits by not balancing work and all the other things that life involves.

With this background and perhaps the advice of a few key friends, bosses, and mentors I learned well to balance my life (or focus on balance as a key element), but it was hard. For me it took an odyssey into triathlon, where balance between going hard and easy is a key element of a successful plan, and a long term burnout in a job where I was literally doing 5 peoples jobs! What was profound when I first came to this realization was that it decreased my ability to be highly available and observant. I wrote about this in an article called Carpe Diem, where I observed that because I was burned out and uninterested, I was only mediocre in situations where the game really was on the line (think a last minute bug or redesign needed to fix a major problem); I also saw that in addition to always being tired, and snippy with my co-workers and friends, I never had time to "stop and smell the roses" which is where a LOT of creative and problem solving influence really comes from.

Unfortunately we learn from many sources over the years a fact that is well espoused in this Inc article entitled: "Why working more than 40 hours a week is useless." I interpret this as constantly working more than 40 hours on the same thing. I believe you can have other "big rocks" (read major passions and devotions as the well known time management analogy goes) in your jar, but you can't have too many, and you certainly can't fill your jar with gravel, sand, and water (busy work, email/SMS, and the WEB/Social Media) first. If you ignore your health, nutrition, exercise, sleep, and personal life you'll just end up with one under maintained big rock, and a bunch of crap:

Research by the Business Roundtable in the 1980s found that you could get short-term gains by going to 60- or 70-hour weeks very briefly — for example, pushing extra hard for a few weeks to meet a critical production deadline," she wrote. But Robinson stressed that "increasing a team’s hours in the office by 50 percent (from 40 to 60 hours) does not result in 50 percent more output...In fact, the numbers may typically be something closer to 25-30 percent more work in 50 percent more time."
But the unfortunate temptation is to be sucked in by focusing on quantity over quality when we think of things in a superficial form:
there's actually a pretty strong correlation between how busy we are and how important we feel. "We live in a competitive society, and so by lamenting our overwork and sleep deprivation — even if that requires workweek inflation and claiming our worst nights are typical — we show that we are dedicated to our jobs and our families,"

But we know these things. Yet people and management have both seemed to ignore these facts in America like crazy.  I have been quite successful in the right situations, but I need help. I have an unfortunate propensity to be able to go hard for a much longer time then most people, but I'm simply able to push past exhausted mediocrity to sickness, and a host of other interpersonal issues that can be hard to notice for me because I am so bland. This brings down my employers, myself, and my inner circle. I have been a great performer, for extended periods of time, in the context of my "big rock" when I'm able to incorporate the following:
1) work HARD for more like 6 hours a day (3-4 chunks with at least a little break, and often a workout thrown in the middle).
2) I have and am able to use vacation, and
3) I have a boss who watches me and occasionally helps me refuse tasks or take a break.

I also need to have the bandwidth to also have my "Smell the roses" moments so I can get creative, and ingenuous inspirations which often come at random times, and often from random people.  That said it's still not a popular thing to talk about. As I have moved up the ladder, and especially work with many time zones I have accepted that I am inevitably forced to become a bit more available, especially at random times. My response to this is to resolve conflicts with life more often by not forcing all my errands and appointments to take over my lunch, evenings, and weekends. I feel like there's a fair balance between taking some incursion by work into my personal life, and responding by allowing myself things like haircuts, doctors appointments, and such to occasionally have me step away from work for a while. I also feel like 2 and preferably 3 weekends a month MUST be disconnected. This is JUST medium term maintenance though... You still need vacations.

I recently raid an article entitled "Cheryl Sandberg leaves work at 5:30. Why can't you?" And then follows with:
Facebook's COO comes out as a proud believer in leaving the office on time, and creating balance in your life.
I also wrote an article about exercise called "Exercise and the Body Mind Connection" which called out articles citing MASSIVE improvements in health AND intellectual performance. So just adding the balance of some cardio a few times a week can make you miss less days sick, focus and think better,  AND give you (admittedly subjective) feeling of improvement in BOTH your professional and personal lives! Which leads to another more recently published McKinsey articles titled: "A personal approach to organizational time management," and another article called "An organizational approach to time management."

These articles reveal how both organizations from CEO down need to focus on time management institutionally, as well as individuals themselves:
Imagine its impact on senior executives. The scope, complexity, and ambiguity of senior leaders’ roles not only create near-infinite permutations of priorities but also make it more difficult to get real-time performance or productivity feedback. Is it any wonder that only 52 percent of 1,500 executives McKinsey surveyed said that the way they spent their time largely matched their organizations’ strategic priorities? (For more on this research, see “Making time management the organization’s priority.”)
So it's already hard for an individual on their own. If a CEO is not able to instill this in themselves AND their employees, they and their employees will suffer:

Our research and experience suggest that leaders who are serious about addressing this challenge must stop thinking about time management as primarily an individual problem and start addressing it institutionally. Time management isn’t just a personal-productivity issue over which companies have no control; it has increasingly become an organizational issue whose root causes are deeply embedded in corporate structures and cultures.
 Luckily they also say that....
Fortunately, this also means that the problem can be tackled systematically. Senior teams can create time budgets and formal processes for allocating their time. Leaders can pay more attention to time when they address organizational-design matters such as spans of control, roles, and decision rights. Companies can ensure that individual leaders have the tools and incentives to manage their time effectively. And they can provide institutional support, including best-in-class administrative assistance—a frequent casualty of recent cost-cutting efforts.

There's a lot more amazing content in those articles with real suggestions on how to improve the problem. They are a great read.  It's taboo in America, but a lot of smart people are seeing the european view of quality over quantity, and diminishing returns. A literally great analogy is Soccer -vs- American Football. The NFL is literally the most stunning representation of American mentality that I mention in an earlier article I mentioned: "Bigger, Better, Faster, More." Alas that is just naive. At times like these I have to fall back to music, which is my first love. We all want to be in the hall of fame. We may have 300 pound lineman who can tackle you and run a 40yd that you can't believe, but life ain't a track meet, it's a marathon. Or maybe even an ironman these days :)