Thursday, August 25, 2011

Slouching Toward Mediocrity

In May, my monthly letter was dedicated to the notion that we need to do something different in the United States.  This is a continuation of that letter.  It is not something I do often, continuing a recently written letter, but this issue is vitally important to me and, I believe this country.
William Butler Yeats wrote a poem, The Second Coming, in which he ends with the following ominous lines:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

There may or may not be a rough beast slouching towards America.  But, I do believe as a country, we are slouching.  America is slouching towards mediocrity and this bothers me.   In the past month, I felt this slouching toward mediocrity very profoundly when Congress was in paralysis regarding the debt crisis.
At the end of July, Congress and the President were dealing with a need to raise the debt limit lest the US begin defaulting on our massive debt and trigger a global recession or depression.  The debate was painful to watch... it was incredibly painful to watch and that seemed to be the consensus of the entire country.  
Why was it so painful?
In my opinion, our leaders were trying to solve a new problem in a new world using old thinking and old paradigms.  The economic system has changed in a way that old thinking simply will not work.  The easiest way for me to make my case here is by analogy.  Let us suppose the US economy can be controlled to a degree by a large control room which our government sits on turns the dials to effect change.  Think of an airplane cockpit except that in this control room the dials are taxes, interest rates, and countless other things that most of us cannot comprehend.  Normally, like in every recession since the Great Depression of 1929 until the Great Recession of 2008-2009, the guys in the control pad would simply lower interest rates or taxes.  After having done that banks would respond by making money freely available.  Business would then borrow money and use it to invest in new products, plants, and equipment which increased employment and an improvement in the economy in general.
With The Great Recession, I have argued that things have changed beyond the range of these dials.  Yet, our government still thinks that it is all about interest rates and taxes.  But, my feeling is you can play with these dials in the control room all you want and not have much influence on the economy. 
Here is my theory.  Our blue collar middle class, once a strength, perhaps even the very strength, of this country, has shrunk considerably with the exportation of factory jobs.  Any incentives, in the old fashioned tax and interest rate turning of the dials, will not bring back this socio-economic class and their buying power.   Our major corporations have become so large and so multinational that while they might be based here, they will take their incentives and continue globalization rather than increase meaningful production facilities and jobs here.
August 21:  Today, I was driving to music practice and listening to NPR.  I caught a news talk show already in progress, so I did not know what the name of the program was or who the people talking were.  They were discussing the state of the economy and the feeling of malaise that has swept over everyone in the past few weeks.   The main discussion points were as follows:

  • Stocks, except for the past few weeks, seem to have rebounded since The Great Recession.
  • On a similar note, major companies and corporations have rebounded and doing well.

  • While businesses are doing better, people are not consuming to the levels necessary to support a full and robust recovery
  • A vast majority of the people believe that the recession has not ended for them.

The dichotomy of these positives and negatives confused the participants on this program.  They were very well spoken and I thus concluded that they were knowledgeable reporters, business analysts, or economists.  I felt they were naive and were trapped by the same thinking that seemed to have paralyzed our Congress during the debt ceiling debate of late last month.
There was a lady on the program that summarized it best though I am not sure that she knew that she had.  She expertly discussed how the middle class has been eroded and while businesses have recovered and the average Joe or Jane is feeling unrecovered and uncovered.  Gas and food cost more.  If Joe or Jane are not unemployed, they have a neighbor that probably is.  Their home is worth less than it was in 2007.  The prospect for retirement is dim.  Basically, they feel The Great Recession never ended for them.  Without missing a breath the lady then said, in almost an exasperated tone, "How can we get people to start consuming more?"
Really?  This is the answer?  Consume our way out of this?  Buy our way out of this?
People need jobs to consume.  We have exported the jobs that used to support the blue collar middle class, the backbone of this country.  This is exactly the middle class we have eroded and put into, well, the lower class.  Furthermore, the idea of buy buy buy is passé.  It has to be passé.  We cannot afford it.  Plus, most of homes are already glutted with more stuff than we need. 
We eroded the middle class by exporting factories and jobs (and we made fun of Ross Perot for his "giant sucking sound” comment).  We then suckered people who couldn't afford it to buy homes they couldn't afford and got them into hock up to their eyeballs.  This is what folks in my parents’ generation would call a "double whammy."  It certainly was.
The bright articulate lady on the radio show recommending that all we have to do is figure out how to get people to consume more supports my case very well.  She is trying to fix this problem using an old paradigm, not realizing that the underlying model has changed so much that, tweaking the economy in the old tried and true ways just will not work.
We are operating like the management of Ford and GM post 1970.  They never really understood that the Japanese had changed the playing field.  They had changed the operational system.  They had changed the way the business was run and managed.  They changed the relationship with and the expectations of the consumers.  The executives at Ford and GM were still under the belief that they just needed a hit car or two to get back.  They believed it was about styling and marketing.  Sure, style was still an important factor, but they were getting crushed on quality and reliability.  Ford eventually learned.  GM had to go bankrupt in The Great Recession and hopefully have learned.
We are operating like Sears Roebuck and Company refusing to believe and accept that the upstart Wal-Mart had changed the rules of the game.  They thought their department store model was still solid and that they knew what consumers wanted and needed better than Sam Walton and his cronies.  The management of Sears was wrong and has stayed wrong for decades.   Earlier this year it was predicted this storied enterprise might close its doors before year’s end.
Is our government behaving the same way?  Our ship, our Titanic, has hit an iceberg.  The actions we are taking are tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs.  We are arguing about pure economic levers.  Should we increase spending on incentives?  Should we raise taxes?  Should we lower taxes?  Hey let's keep interest rates real low for another couple of years.
None of these actions will significantly impact the hole we are in.
This past few weeks shows our leaders do not believe that we are in the “new normal.”  So, we try what always worked before and are as befuddled as the lady on the radio show as to why the lot of the average Joe and Jane has not improved.  We have been re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Most everyone can see it, yet we do not know what to do differently.  Our leaders all got where they are in the old model; the model where we were the economic power of the world and if we got a little cold we knew what to do to get better.
Things have changed and we had better change to operate more effectively in the new reality.
Sidebar:  I have specifically used the pronoun we here.  I could have used they.  I didn't because using they puts the blame on someone else.  They or them is what we used to refer to as "the man" or the establishment or that cabal of cigar smoking fat cats pulling the strings and making us mannequins dance to their music.  That would be too easy.  It would sound like a conspiracy.  Maybe we are just victims of some intricate conspiracy and I am simply incredibly naive.  No, I think not.  We are all to blame here.  We have to elect people that truly have new thinking.
August 23:  How do we get people tied to one system, one way of thinking to change their paradigms?  This has been a question that has baffled those of us working in Quality Management.  We know that focusing on having quality products and services will lead to greater market share, yet it was unbelievably hard to convince senior management to adopt the philosophy and change the way they run their business.  They got to the top by succeeding in the company culture of cost cutting, short term profit focus, and fire fighting.  Their personalities are embedded in a management style that often is counter to
Another side of this problem is self-serving power and greed.  We also see leaders of every ilk professing a true and reverent dedication to this religion or that only to learn that they have transgressed the basic tenets of that religion on a regular basis without blinking an eye.  They profess one thing and act in a different way.
This is one of the dilemmas of the situation we are in.  Deep down we know we have to change.  Deep down we know we have to do something fundamentally different.  Yet, we are paralyzed and do what we always have done hoping against hope that the results will turn out just like they did before.  
I keep going back to the lady on the NPR program.  I do not mean to pick on her.  As I have mentioned above, she struck me as intelligent, well spoken, and genuinely concerned.  I keep going back to her statement, "How can we get people to start consuming more?"  She said more out of exasperation than anything.
Let's look at consumption.  It is a cornerstone of capitalism and free markets.  People choose with their pocketbooks buying goods and service that appeal to them more. Competition thus forces producers to improve their product and service offerings to appeal to consumers, stay in business, and make some money.   This is in general a good thing.  Look at all the wonderful conveniences we have today that save us labor, provide exceptional entertainment (OK... maybe not reality TV), and access to the more information instantly than our ancestors ever dreamed of.  In this sense, we live in an amazing time.
How much can each person, each family, consume?  There has to be some limit... doesn't there?  Without limits, we would become a country where obesity is epidemic while people in other parts of the world starve.  Without limits, we would have more clothes, cars, TVs, computers, telephones, and other gizmos than we possibly need while people in other parts of world, the same starving people, look at us with a combination of envy and hate. 
There are limits.  We may have reached them.  They are now being imposed on us the hard way.  We have run into a wall and, as a nation, we are stunned.
We are most likely experiencing the global economy adjusting to a new equilibrium.  The blue collar middle class in this country is being crushed while there is an emerging middle class in China, Korea, and India.   Corporations get their labor where they can and where they have to.  If that cripples a customer base in this country, it will open markets in others.  This is why our major companies are doing well.  They have trimmed their domestic operations to operating efficiently in this new normal and looking to grow globally.  So, companies are doing well, our citizens, what used to be the blue collar middle class, not so well.
We cannot consume our way out of this.  We need to re-invent ourselves and re-dedicate ourselves as a matter of national policy.  I wrote about this May suggesting we need something akin to the Space Race to forge our policies and align our actions so that we can be a strong economic power in the world moving forward.
What do we envision ourselves, this country, being known for in ten or twenty years?  How will our people be viewed?   We need to answer these questions and develop a strategic plan and put our efforts to it like it was the Space Race or, maybe even more apropos, World War II.
I know I am sounding very preachy here.  But, we need passion around this.  We need to not like where we are and get very excited about blazing a trail to a better future.  We need to think about more collectively and not just about maximizing our own pocket books.
OK… now you are thinking that I am advocating a shrouded brand of communism.  Nothing is further from the truth.  I am advocating strategic national capitalism.  By making the country better, we make everyone’s lives better.  Cutting taxes or interests rates will not work.  The union model is passé as well.  We need everyone working together.
We need to make things. We need to be innovative.  Sure, we need good competent financial people.  We need excellent marketing people.  But, we need scientists, mathematicians, and engineers even more.
Thanks for listening to me rant, rave, and ramble on about this once more.  As, I do not think there is a quick fix coming, I am almost certain I will be compelled to write about it again.  I will not, however, unless I have something new and meaningful to present.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What is going on with Flavors and Fragrances?

We know the world changes.  We know that the pace of change is accelerating.   This means that things are changing faster and faster.  It seems to happen at dizzying speeds.  Some changes are for the good.  Some changes are for the better but we might not actually realize it while it is happened.  Other changes make us shake our and wonder why?

I am wondering why about a relatively minor and subtle change that has happened to flavors and fragrances in everyday consumer products.  

This problem is much worse with fragrances.  Consider the humble air freshener.  Some time ago, in my youth, when I was growing up in Detroit the first aerosol air fresheners came out. The fragrances of these products had names that told me what to expect.  The names were Rose, Evergreen, and Vanilla.  Basically, you knew exactly what I was going to expect when I used the product.  It made sense.  It was easy.

Today?  That has changed.  One can still find Vanilla or Apple Cinnamon.  But, there are air fresheners today that are called Desert Blossom, Mountain Breeze, Spring Meadow, Tropical Rain, and other colorful and descriptive names.  They are lovely names but they evoke images more so than smells.  Even if they evoke smells, they do not have the olfactory foundation of the older simpler names.  What the heck is a Desert Breeze, er... Mountain Blossom, Tropical Thunder Breeze thing supposed to smell like.  They all kind of smell the same to me.  What if I liked one more than another, would I be able to remember it the next time I went to the store without writing it down.  Evergreen, Vanilla, or Apple Cinnamon were much easier in this regard.

Speaking of Vanilla, It is very hard to find anything that is just plain old Vanilla.  The word French seems to have wed itself to the lowly Vanilla.  Every edible thing is called French Vanilla.  Yet, it just tastes like Vanilla.  What gives?  Am I supposed to enjoy it more because it is called French Fricking Vanilla?  Am I paying more because it is the more high brow French Vanilla than the proletariat run of the mill plain old Vanilla?  What do I care?  I do not really like Vanilla all that much.

The world is even more bizarre in the world of underarm fragrances.  Old Spice has fragrances called Denali, Cyprus, Fiji, Komodo, Matterhorn, After Hours, Pure Sport, Aqua Reef, and Swagger.  Huh?  Mennen has Momentum, Game Time, Cool Fusion, and Fresh Rush.  I have smelled these.  They all smell the same.

Fragrances have always been different than flavors but even that is changing.  Consider the new brands of gums like 5 from Wrigley.  Consider some of these flavors and tell me what they are supposed to taste like:  Cobalt, Rain, and Elixir.  Cobalt sounds like it should be crunchy or radioactive or something.  It does not sound all that appetizing.  Rain does sound relaxing but what taste does it evoke?  Elixir sounds mysterious and very promising.  The word makes me think that perhaps the gum would do something magical and powerful if I were to chew it.  No product named Elixir could ever live up to that expectation; no matter how slick and well funded the advertising is.

For 19 years I worked for two different consumer products company.   One of them made a popular hand dish washing liquid called Palmolive.  Earlier this century they came out with a line extension of products very brightly colored with names Mountain This, Desert That, and Meadow Something or Other.  The colors of the liquid were mountain pinkish, desert kind of golden, and meadow greenesque.  They all smelled “flowery” to me.  I suspected consumers and shoppers would buy more on color than anything else as the colors were the most differentiating part of the variants.

But, I am not in marketing.  What do I really know about such things?  They claim to have done research.  Have they really captured the voice of the consumer or more so the voice of the VP of Marketing who just inherently “knows” what consumers really want?  I have been in meetings where Presidents, VPs, and COOs simply override research simply because they believe they are smarter than everyone else by virtue of their position.  I have been in meetings were the marketing and science types got each other all hyped on whatever cool thing they were doing and pitching.

Another possibility as to why this all confuses and bothers me so is that I am just old. I am no longer with it or hip or hep or cool.  (There are those that could make a good case that I was never any of these things but that would be a subject for another blog.)  I just may be out of touch and Desert Dream or Mountain Mist should mean something to me and maybe means something to the teens and twenties who they are created for and marketed to.  I am sure age is also has deteriorated my sense of smell and that may simply be why Rain Forest, Sky Thunder, and Tropical Breeze all smell “flowery” and indistinguishable to me.

That about sums it all up.  I never have really understood or appreciated marketing.  I am an old fogey who has a diminished sense of smell and taste.  So, I should just stop worrying about what I don’t understand and cannot distinguish between.  After all it is just deodorant, chewing gum, and dish washing liquid.  Why worry about it?

And yet, on a whim I went to the Palmolive dish washing web site to see what the offerings of dish washing liquids were called these days 5-6 years after the fact.  The have a line called Aroma Sensations with just two variants:  Lavender and Fresh Green Apple.  Gee... even I know what these should smell like.  And guess what else?  The Lavender liquid was Lavender colored and the Fresh Green Apple liquid was the color of, well, a Fresh Green Apple.

Maybe I ain’t so stupid after all...

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Microsoft Office facing some Serious Competition

As readers here know, on June 25, 2002 I began the habit of handwriting a page each day.  I have maintained that regimen much to my own amazement.  In February 2004, I I began e-mailing a monthly letter to friends and family.  By January 2009, I decided to post everything on this blog, This Side of Fifty.  All my daily writing had been handwritten until I began sending out the monthly e-letter.  Even in the early days of the e-letter, I used the daily handwriting to draft the letter and using Microsoft Word to craft the finished version.  There was no question about using MS Word.  It was the word processor the 99.99% of the people used.  It was on my work laptop and home computer.

Gradually, I began to type more of my daily writing.  Again, whenever I did this, the only choice was the ubiquitous, popular, and essential MS Word.  I mostly type my daily writing these days.  The last handwritten journal entry was on June 30 of this year.  Beginning last year, I began to stray from MS Word even for my typing. 

For most of the first half of this year, I used the word processor in Google Docs.  I was writing to the cloud.  In July, I bought an iPad and since I did that, I have been using the Apples Pages word processor on the iPad first and foremost.  The Google Docs word processor is a distant #2.  Close behind Google Docs is MS word which I use mainly to final edit documents especially my monthly letter.  Basically, this year I have been using MS Word less and less.  A few years ago, I believed there would never be any competition to MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.  They had a virtual monopoly.  The problem with monopolies is well known and proven:  complacency and inefficiency.

Microsoft has always provided a good array of products in their Office Suite.  In the early days, there were complaints about the amount of memory the products took up.  This became a non-issue as memory both RAM and hard drive became cheap and plentiful.  The capabilities of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint were more than most users would ever need.  I would guess that 90% of the users only tap into maybe 20% of the features available in these products.  Microsoft had a good product but the Office Suite  was not cheap and they were always updating the product.  Users had to pay for the updates.

Google docs is free and offers the same basic capabilities as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.  The emphasis is clearly on the word BASIC.  Likewise for the Apple iPad suite of products Pages, Keynote, and Numbers.  The Apple products cost a modest $10 a piece.  Again, this suite offers the same basic capabilities as MS Office.  With each passing day, Google Docs and Apple are adding more capabilities and closing the gap on MS Office.  Furthermore, as Google Docs is cloud based and the Apple Suite are iPad applications, updates are free and frequent.  When Apple launches their much anticipated cloud applications this fall, the world will have Google and Apple based alternatives that probably will match each other in capabilities. 

As mentioned above, Microsoft charges for updates.  I do not know if Microsoft will be able to adapt.  Even if they do, their monopoly is broken.

Before getting the iPad, I thought the cloud was my future.  Now, I am not so sure.  I think I will be using a blend of the iPad and Google Docs.  I will still be using MS Word for preparing math exams for the courses I teach.  Neither Google Docs or Apple Pages has a mathematical formula editor.  The math editor on MS Word is very good.  The same goes for the spreadsheets.  I can and will use both Google Docs and Numbers for basic things.  But, I will use MS Excel too for really heavy spreadsheet work because it’s superiority in terms of graphics, pivot tables, and statistical functions.  The unknown factor is how long it will take Google and Apple to close these gaps.

Thus far, I have only used PowerPoint for presentations.  I have a friend who uses an even cheaper suite on his iPad.  He got word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation all for $10.  He is quite happy with his choice and does all his presentations on his iPad with his $3.33 software.   He pointed out that I overpaid and we had a great laugh. 

Google Docs requires and active internet.  Their office suite software resides in the cloud as does ones files.  Without an internet connection, one can access neither the applications nor ones files. This is a bit limiting.  When I first got my iPad, I thought I would be accessing Google Docs most of the time.  I rarely do that because there is not a good app for that.  With the iPad, I use the Apple suite which allows me to work on and save files locally like on a laptop but also easily email them or save them in a file sharing application like Dropbox.  The internet is required for sharing only. 

I have no clue if Microsoft is playing in this space or planning on moving into these kinds of product offerings at competitive prices.  A Google search (yeah I did not use Bing), revealed a product called Microsoft 365 that is a pay as you go, access it anywhere, service.  The basic trial price is $6/month per user.  That is $72/year vs. Google Docs for $0 or a onetime charge of $30 for the Apple suite.  Methinks that either they do not get it or maybe, I do not get it.   I am going to guess that they do not get it.

Microsoft may be suffering the same malaise that infected General Motors, Kodak, and Sony:  their business model weighs them down and because of arrogance caused by being the dominant market leader for so long, they just cannot see the world changing around them.  By the time they adapt, they will have already lost significant share.

By the way, I am typed this posting in Pages on my iPad.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Revolutionary New Approach to Walking?!?

Like so many people, my e-mail box is cluttered with more junk mail than my snail mail box ever was.  If I showed any interest in any company for any reason at any time, I am on their email list get weekly, daily, and even multiple daily updates on this offer or that.  The number of lowest price ever and best deal ever mail I get from the same company is kind of surprising. 

I am somehow, for some reason, on the mailing list of Prevention Magazine.  It is no doubt a sister publication of some magazine I already subscribe to.  Scrolling down to the bottom of the email revealed that Prevention is from Rodale Press the publisher of Bicycle Magazine of which I am an avid reader.

This email offered a method to lose 22.5 pounds in just 8 weeks by just walking it off.  It sounded pretty cool so I read on, I mean who wouldn't want to lose 22.5 lbs in less than two months?  I could use some of that for sure.

But the secret I discovered was NOT the ordinary kind of walking — it is a revolutionary NEW approach to walking from the editors of Prevention magazine.

A revolutionary new approach to walking... wow.  Who would of thought?  A Revolutionary and New Approach to Walking!  I started laughing and was curious at the same time.  Mostly, though, I knew I was just given a topic to write about. 

People have been walking for a long time.  They have been walking since God created Adam.   Or depending upon your lack of religiosity, men have been walking around since the first simian stood up and became a proto-sapien, if there is even such a creature.  In my short time, short that is relative to the history of man, I have seen a variety of strides, gaits, limps, saunters, and sashays.  I have seen bold cocky jock walks.  I have seen dainty ultra-feminine glides.  I have seen drunken sways, old shuffles, and the tip-toe gleeful walk-runs of infants.  I have seen the mournful walk of grieving family and friends leaving a burial.  I have walked both a daughter down an aisle and a bride back the other way.   I have seen the inimitable Bill Cosby do an entire schtick on the way the kids walk across the stage at their high school graduations.  I have seen retirees walk the malls in the mornings.  I have marveled at and never really understood race walkers.   

So, what is this Revolutionary New Approach to Walking that will result in the loss of 22.5 pounds in two months?  Walking on ones hands for two months would be kind of revolutionary and I am certain that discipline and physical exertion required to do such would result in a loss of weight for sure.  The only question I have is how many people can actually walk on their hands.  The people I know that can are already lean and in great shape. 

So, what is this revolutionary approach?  I followed the link to the website and learned a little bit more.  The Revolutionary Approach is something they are calling Interval Walking.  I am sure, it is similar to interval training in running, biking, and swimming that builds strength, endurance, muscle, and burns calories.  I suppose it will give a regimen that includes a sensible eating plan.  All of these hyperbole laden offers seem to include a phrase, or caveat, of "when accompanied by a sensible eating plan."  I can see many other "revolutionary" programs that could be offered:

  A revolutionary approach to eating:  Our scientists have proven that the less you eat and the more you move, the less you will weigh!

  A revolutionary approach to getting into the college of your dreams:  Our psychological staff has developed an unprecedented 12 year program of doing all your homework and more to get you into one of the top 100 colleges in the United States.  Yes, thats right, one of the top ONE HUNDRED colleges in the old US of A.

What would be revolutionary would be a method that would truly change ones mindset and prevent the backsliding that many of us are so good at.  I would pay for something that I could follow and permanently change my lifestyle without either drugs or pavlovian torture methods.  Anyone who came up with something like this could be an instant Nobel Prize winner and most probably wealthy.

I went to the website, following the link in the mail.  The thing is like an onion.  The first page basically regurgitated the information in the body of the email.  There was no price.  I clicked on the "more information" button and was directed to another page that wanted my name, address, email, etc. before it would proceed and still no pricing.  I did not fill out the form, I was not curious enough about the price to have to deal with getting duplicates of all the emails I currently get from Rodale. 

I did learn that, whatever the price, I would have 20 days to evaluate the program and return it if I was not satisfied.  They also offered an mp3 player gratis to sweeten the pot.   Wow, the program was not only a Revolutionary New Approach to Walking but I could try it for free and get an mp3 player to boot.  I was at the point that I did not care about the price.   I just wanted in on this deal.  I wanted to walk like the revolutionary that I think that am.  I want to walk listening to the music that I like.  I would pay for the walking but the music would be free.  It sounds kind of backwards but, what the heck, it is 2011 and I should be ridding myself of old thinking that is weighing me down.

Alas, I had not actually read the top line of the email.  The revolutionary approach to walking and losing 22.5 pounds in just 8 weeks seems to be only for women.  Dang.