Friday, October 8, 2010

What's our Game Plan?

When we lived in China, my wife and I were having dinner with a great Chinese friend.  As often happened, conversation turned to the U.S. and its role in the world.  Our Chinese friend grew increasingly upset with what he saw as U.S.-led injustices in the world.  Frustrated with the direction of the conversation (and always careful not to enter too deeply into political discussions in China), my wife finally said, “You’re right.  You know everything about America.  We air our laundry for the world to see.  The problem is, you know nothing about China!”

Pow!  Right in the sore spot. 

Fortunately, the Chinese are gracious people.  We changed the conversation, enjoyed our dinner, and have remained friends to this day.

I occurs to me that we know increasingly little about our own country.  Our Constitutional roots long forgotten, we look to those in Washington to solve every problem.  In the global soccer match with China, we fly from country to country, falling on the tarmac and screaming in an effort to draw a foul that never comes.  To be sure, the world is not fair.  Other countries have not opened their markets to our products to the same degree that we have opened ours.  Yes, the RMB is likely undervalued.  Still, perhaps it’s time that we stop thinking so much about the competition and focus on our own game.

There’s a story to be told in the numbers Wall Street obsesses over – the story of our game strategy.  Before we ship the last engineer to a low-cost country, perhaps we should ask someone to do some analysis.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


My daughter's been running in Vibram 5-Fingers for months, and loves them.  I've been waiting until after a particular race was past to give them a try, and tried for the first time today.  As often as possible, we run on trails, and I'm especially glad we did today, as I'm sure the soft, wet ground was more forgiving on my thinly-covered feet than the asphalt would have been.

As expected, my calves and ankles tired more quickly than normal, and the big toe on my right foot is feeling a bit painful right at the moment.  I'm sure these pains will pass as my feet get stronger.  My initial impression -- I love them!!  I enjoyed the feeling of intimate contact with the ground, the feel of my feet curving to meet the surface.  I also enjoyed the enhanced mental game of carefully watching the ground for things that might hurt -- though I did miss a particularly painful field of newly fallen acorns.

For those of us who find a sense of spirituality, almost moving meditation, in running, these funny looking shoes only enhance the experience.   If you haven't already, give them a try!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Trail Running

Humans were born to run.  That’s what I’ve read.  I’ve always had a bit of trouble truly believing that.  Now I’m not a bad runner.  In fact, I’m pretty quick on the short and middle distances.  Still, it’s painful for me.  I work at it, and it works at me.

I can imagine our ancestors rising over the African plain on thin, spindly legs, hands shielding eyes against the painful glare, watching carefully the movements of antelope that would feed the tribe in the coming days.  I can hear the gentle footfalls and deep, regular breathing as the hunters run, for hours, giving chase to a much quicker animal, that grows ever hotter, until at last it lays down and is caught.  I’ve always imagined that my clan showed up an hour or so later lugging all of the butchering equipment and carried the meat back to camp.

Today, my daughter and I went for a wonderful run on some trails near our house.  The scenery is magical – gentle grassy hills, dark forest, and floating bridges over dark, stale creeks.  The run began for me as always, stiff and painful, but then smoother and faster as my tight muscles relaxed into the moment.

“Look, Tumnus and Mr. Beaver,” my daughter exclaimed, and then dashed on ahead.

I smiled, feeling the joy of physical effort in this playful setting.  Soon, I was lost in my own thoughts.  Putting aside my watch and ongoing calculations of how much distance was left, I relaxed my muscles, let go of my painful knee, and let my breath come as it would – in rhythm with the effort, and in rhythm with the forest around me.    My stride changed, as I imagined my heavy shoes falling away to be replaced by thin leather pads.  My back straightened as I bore the weight of wooden bow and hunting tools.  My breath came quieter and deeper, and I forgot all but the moment, held firmly in this time by the gentle pain in my legs as my spirit communed with those that had run before me.  I think I’m becoming a believer.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Better Budget for NY?

I just came across this report, written in January of this year, by the Empire Center for New York State Policy.  It's a very nice piece covering a brief history of how the state ended up in this budgetary mess, and what we'll have to do to get out.  Those in state government will be deeply troubled -- it will require some governing, not just tax increases.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Still No Government in Iraq ran a nice piece over the weekend by veteran Middle East reporter Andrew Lee Butters.  The article describes nicely the maneuvering by Allawi and Maliki to form a majority coalition -- and most importantly, to be named Prime Minister.

It seems that a lack of government is having little effect on Iraq, and many would argue that given the ineffectiveness of the Iraqi government, that no government is actually better.  The longer-term implications of this impasse, however, are most definitely negative.  The Iraqi government is locked in a struggle for legitimacy.  Who can provide for the needs of the people?  Who can provide security?  Is it Al Qaeda?  Iran?  For the future of Iraq and the Middle East, the answer had better be the lawfully elected Government of Iraq.  The longer this stalemate goes on, the less legitimate the government is seen in the eyes of the people, and the greater the opportunity for other players to exert influence on the population.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

China the World's Largest Energy User

China Becomes the World's Largest Energy User

This shouldn't come as a surprise, but it did happen a couple of years earlier than anticipated by most experts.  Reasons include better energy efficiency in the US as well as the fact that the current economic troubles had less of an effect on China.

Now, more than ever, China is competing with the US and the world for access to energy.  Chinese oil companies have become major players in the redevelopment of Iraqi oil fields, and Chinese oil companies dominate the oil industry in areas where the US won't operate, such as Sudan.

Whatever your stand on global warming, oil drilling, and carbon trading, it seems we all have to agree that energy independence, or at least less reliance on foreign energy, is an issue of national security.  Increasing demand and flat or declining supply guarantees not just higher prices ahead, but the real possibility that sufficient supply may not be available at any price.  What do you think?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Letchworth State Park

I took the day off today and drove to Letchworth State Park.  It's a beautiful place, with some very nice trails suitable for running or walking.  The views of the river gorge are really refreshing, given the generally flat terrain in this part of the country.

But don't worry about stubbing a toe or anything, the nannies have made sure it's all safe.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Space Shuttle, it's dead, Jim.

This article in The New York Times got me thinking about the future of the US Space Program.  What will happen when Shuttle is mothballed?  For the first time in decades, the US will not have the ability to put a man in space.

I don't think I'm a Trekkie (at least I've never been to a convention!), but I am/was a huge fan of most things Star Trek.  I think like most engineers of my generation, I was influenced by Star Trek, and part of the reason I became an engineer was to contribute to advances in manned spaceflight.  I, and I think most engineers, took the best jobs we could find upon graduation, and for many, it was far away from the space program.  Still, my imagination goes into warp speed when I start thinking about exploring the stars and distant worlds!

So, what is the role of a space program?  Let's put aside for a moment national pride -- the type that fuels the current Chinese program, or the type of competition that fueled the US-Soviet programs for decades.

I see a space program as a key component of a nation's investment in basic science and technology.  In general, basic science is very risky (returns hugely uncertain), and so difficult to fund in the private sector.  Many initiatives in space require resources that only the federal government can muster.  A fan of small government, I would advocate a hybrid solution, with most of the actual government expenditures going to private companies.  What do you think?  Is the space program:

A.  Research into basic science and technology that fuels our imagination and improves our lives.


B.  A waste of taxpayer dollars.  Space programs will be developed by the private sector when there's a business motive to do so.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Use Catprint for Your Printing Needs

I'm currently finishing a project to become certified as a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt.  I'm fortunate to be doing my project with my very good friends at Catprint, a high-quality, short-run digital printer.  If you need printing done, please consider them.  To learn more, check out this great story about them that was published in Rochester Business Journal.

My project is especially challenging, as Catprint is a small company.  Catprint is growing quickly, and the fact that the owners are interested in improving efficiency and productivity at this stage of development is real testimony to their forward-leaning nature.  Catprint ships to clients all over the U.S., so it doesn't matter where you are located, you can benefit from using Catprint.  My project is focused on Catprint's shipping operations.  I'm working to keep shipping costs under control while still offering the guaranteed delivery dates that Catprint's customers demand.  It's a great project, and to be able to apply Lean Six Sigma tools to a young and innovative company is really a special challenge.

Do you own a small company?  Have you benefited from Lean and/or Six Sigma tools?  I'd love to hear about it!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The End of Cheap China Goods?

I just saw an interesting AP article on rising manufacturing costs in China.  Labor costs have been on the rise in China for years, as has the value of the Yuan.  Certainly, prices are still lower in the Chinese interior, as compared to the seaboard, where most of the development has taken place.  Still, this trend will continue.  In the current economic climate, manufacturing costs in the US are becoming more competitive.  It seems to me that a little balance is not a bad thing; that the current economic situation is forcing us to consume less and maybe save more.  What do you think?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Independence Day!!

Happy Independence Day!!

To my fellow veterans, thank you for your selfless service.  Because of you, and your many sacrifices, we enjoy another day of freedom.

As we celebrate today, and reflect upon the history of this great land, let us look back to those ideals that our Founding Fathers set forth in our founding documents.  Whatever your political persuasion, I would urge you to decide on issues only after careful consideration of the Constitution and other guiding works such as the Federalist Papers.  There's really no need to wonder what our Founding Fathers were thinking.  It's all in black and white.

Take a minute today and learn more about our Constitution:

Friday, July 2, 2010

Iraq's State-Owned Enterprise Problem and China's Solution (Again)

When China started to privatize its state-owned enterprises (SOEs), it could have auctioned them off to the highest bidder.  I'm sure large auctions happened in many cases.  In many other cases, the factories were sold (given?) to people with contacts inside the party.  While that may not seem morally correct, the end result really did serve a large number of people.  In fact, selling (giving?) the factories at low prices indicates an understanding that most SOEs are really worth nothing more than the land they are on, and maybe some equipment value.  As businesses, SOEs are, for the most part, disasters. By getting SOEs into the private sector quickly, many people were put to work in productive and viable businesses.

Iraq has a similar problem.  The government of Iraq owns hundreds of factories, which employ hundreds of thousands of workers, who don't even show up for work.  Essentially, the SOEs have become another means to distribute government rations.  Still, the Iraqi government, with advice from some US advisors, continues to overvalue these terrible companies and desperately offer them to foreign investors.  Better they use China's models -- give them away to businessmen who will rapidly make them productive.  Of course, a few connected people will get wealthy.  Other than making some feel jealous, who cares?  The end result will be thousands of Iraqis returned to work.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Iraq's Power Problem and China's Solution

The biggest complaint among small business owners in Iraq is the lack of electrical power.  Most small manufacturers have their own generators, but the operating costs are so high that it doesn't make sense to use them.  Power is available, but in unscheduled blocks of 1.5 to 2 hours, delivered every 4 to 6 hours.  Imagine that you are attempting to produce plastic parts, and your machines take 90 minutes to warm up.  You aren't going to make many parts with 1.5 hours of power.

Billions of dollars have been spent repairing the electrical grid in Iraq, and much progress has been made.  Still, it will be several more years before all the citizens of Iraq have reliable electrical power.

During the peak of China's growth, China faced a similar shortage of electrical power, and the solution the Chinese government adopted offers a basis for a solution in Iraq:

1.  When I was working in China, my company opened a new manufacturing facility.  The local government was unable to meet all of our power demands.  We simply received a schedule, telling us when we would have full power and when we wouldn't (we didn't have power for 2 days each week).  We were able to schedule our work around power availability.  Though the situation in Iraq is more extreme, the Iraqi government could provide a power schedule to industrial areas.  While in Iraq, I was able to convince the Ministry of Electricity to provide a scheduled block of power to the factories I was working with.  The benefit was enormous, and new factories opened in the area as a result.

2.  The Chinese provide power preferentially to business.  Iraqi government employees provide power preferentially to themselves.  Obviously, there's some room for improvement here.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Power of Business

As we struggle through the worst environmental disaster in the history of the US, it's easy to think about "corporate greed."  Our recent history tells us that a large group of corporate executives has behaved in ways certainly irresponsible, and likely criminal.  The result has been the massive collapse of our economic system, and now even such far-removed industries as shrimp fishing are being threatened by the result of corporate irresponsibility.

Let's not forget, however, the good that businesses can do.  Of course, they provide money and benefits.  Business can also serve to bridge cultural divides that politicians and diplomats can only dream of.  While in Iraq, I brought together Shia manufacturers and Sunni farmers to collaborate on drip irrigations systems.  So much more is possible.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Interesting Times

For the fortunate amongst us, the fourth danger is comfort; the temptation to follow the easy and familiar path of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of an education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. There is a Chinese curse which says "May he live in interesting times." Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind. And everyone here will ultimately be judged -- will ultimately judge himself -- on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.

--Excerpt from Robert F. Kennedy's speech to National Union of South African Students, 1966.

Like it or not, the current state of the planet is not exactly what we would have anticipated.  Has your career taken a sudden turn, or maybe hit a wall?  I've certainly been effected by the current economic and political climate.  Will you give up?  Keep seeking what has brought you comfort in the past?  Will you create a new career?  A new way of looking at the current situation?

Monday, June 7, 2010

ME Magazine Article

An article I wrote about my work in Iraq was just published in Mechanical Engineering Magazine.  Check it out here:

Friday, June 4, 2010

Iraq's Elections

Iraq's national elections happened with a level of violence that was below most expectations.  This, on the heel of successful governate-level elections in early 2009.  Again, I'm not recommending vacations to Baghdad, but things are improving.  You should definitely keep an eye on Iraq's market.  If a new government is successfully formed, it will be an important milestone.  The overall winner, Ayad Allawi, was very popular among Iraqis that I spoke with (though neither Allawi nor Maliki won enough seats in the Council of Representatives to form a majority).

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Iraq's Investment Law

Iraq's National Investment Commission (NIC) was established in 2006, and began operating in earnest in 2007.  If you need specifics about Iraq's investment laws and general information about doing business in Iraq, check out the NIC website at:

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Iraq's Culture of Business

Continuing on the list of reasons why you should consider doing business in Iraq is: 2) Iraq has a strong culture of business.  Let me clarify.  There are three types of businesses/business owners I ran into when I was in Iraq:

1.  State owned enterprises.  These anachronisms were bad when they were open, and they're worse now.  As a make-work, counter-insurgency project, there may be some value.  As a business, I'm not sure what to make of them.

2.  Opportunistic men calling themselves "sheiks" and offering to do anything for government money.  Hey, why not?  There's lots of money to be had.

3.  Real small business owners who were dedicated, eager to learn and grow, and willing to work hard.

I went to Iraq seeking the 3rd type of business owner, and I'm happy to report that I found many of them.  My work focused on an industrial area north of Baghdad, called Boob Al Sham (or Bab Al Sham).  I won't go into detail, as Mechanical Engineering magazine just published an article I wrote about the area (link to that tomorrow, or as soon as the story is posted).

You have to look for good businessmen, and not fall into the easy trap of working with the person with the best English and most helpful attitude, but if you look, the right type of business partner can be found.

Have you done business in the Middle East?  In Iraq?  How did you find the business culture?  Let me know!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What Does Iraq Need?

Continuing from yesterday's post, my first point was that Iraq needs everything. There are approximately 30 million people in Iraq, with approximately 20% of the population in greater Baghdad. Years of war and embargo (don't forget, starting in 1980 with the Iran-Iraq war) have prevented consumer goods, industrial goods, and building materials from reaching the country. As the political and economic situation in Iraq improves, there will be a rising demand for almost everything.

According to some reports, Iraq will need at least three million new housing units in the coming years. Most construction material is now imported from neighboring countries, and is of poor quality. While the current market is very price sensitive, this too will change as the situation improves. Demand for higher-priced, better-quality product will increase. If your company makes material used in commercial and residential construction, you may want to consider Iraq for future market expansion.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Should You Do Business in Iraq?

Yes, you should consider it, and here's why:

1. Iraq has roughly 30 million people. It's not a huge market, but they need everything.

2. The culture of business is there, and it's strong. Prior to the disastrous Iran-Iraq war (yes, Iraq's troubles actually precede the Bush 43 administration), Iraq led the world in date exports, the manufacturing sector was robust, and the medical system was the envy of the Middle East.

3. While commercial code lags most developing countries, the Council of Representatives addresses the issue every year. Don't put both feet in Iraq, but as business law develops, be ready to move.

4. Physical security is improving. I don't recommend a vacation in Baghdad yet, but it's getting better. The elections went off with a level of violence that was below most expectations. There are security options, and Iraqis can move very freely (except for the occasional security checkpoint).

5. There is money in Iraq. Some of it is waiting patiently on the sidelines -- wealthy Iraqis in Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Europe, and the US are waiting for the right time to re-enter the Iraqi market. When the time is right, there will be a massive influx of cash.

Of course, there is a list just as long for why you shouldn't do business in Iraq, and most of that list would deal with corruption and security. Still, Iraq is an interesting market, and a beautiful country that should be a treasure for the world to visit and enjoy. I believe that someday it will be.

What do you think? Are you curious about Iraq? Let me know.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Where Effort is All That's Required

As professionals, we’ve been told that effort is nice, but results are all that matter. Working hard but failing to solve the problem equals job failure. Fortunately, there is one arena where effort really does seem to be all that is required, and that’s personal relations with other cultures. Of course, more knowledge is usually better, and nothing can give you more insight into a culture than learning the language, but for most of our business dealings, trying will go a long ways towards establishing trust. Treat people with respect, don’t promise what you can’t deliver, try to understand the other point of view. Basic decency and a willingness to learn are all that are required.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Nucleus

Beneath the clothes, we find a man... and beneath the man, we find his... nucleus. Nacho Libre.

Taking some time this morning to think about my nucleus. I hope you have time this weekend to do the same.

Who do you admire in your life? What's their work style, their leadership style? What skills and techniques do they have that you can add to your toolbox? Should you add them? Would they work for your style? You've got to find your nucleus to answer the last two questions.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Toyota and Tesla!

Toyota and Tesla announced yesterday that they would be cooperating on development of electric vehicles and components. In addition, Tesla will be buying the old NUMMI plant in Fremont, CA, where they will produce the new Model S sedan.

Despite Tesla recruiting executives from automotive firms, there has been criticism that the start-up electric car manufacturer lacks automotive experience. This deal with Toyota should silence most of the naysayers, and the combination of Toyota's legendary engineering and production skill coupled with Elon Musk's entrepreneurial spirit should result in both amazing advances in vehicle technology as well as reduction in the cost of EVs.

Read more about it here:

This is exactly the sort of venture that will create real jobs and develop technology that will launch the next generation of autos.

Thomas Friedman's constant refrain that we need to innovate our way out of this crisis is right on the money. Instead of bailing out arrogant companies that will never learn, the federal government should be funding basic science research that inspires and enables the next generation of technology breakthroughs.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Throw Everyone's Bum Out!

In comments to the Democrat and Chronicle, Maggie Brooks, Monroe County Executive, suggested eliminating the NY legislature altogether.

Her spokesman later called the remark "tongue in cheek." That may be, but it seems to me there's only two ways this state gets fixed: 1. Elimination of the legislature; or 2. The wholesale collapse of the state, and massive bailout by the citizens of other, more responsible states (via some federal bailout).

My personal read is that NY government is so broken that county and local leaders have lost all confidence in the ability of the legislature to perform its duties.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

I Heart NY..sometimes...briefly

There are a couple of things a man's wife can say that make him drop everything and eagerly come running. Today, my wife said one of those things -- let's go for a motorcycle ride. Two minutes later we were on-board the trusty Harley, roaring out of the driveway. We cruised down beautiful back-country roads, admired farms, livestock, and scenic villages, and enjoyed the passing scent of lilac, honeysuckle, and freshly-turned soil. I admit, there are times when I love NY.

Unfortunately, my mind quickly returns to thoughts of stifling taxation (the highest I've ever seen), shrinking population, fleeing jobs, and a bloated state government that feasts while the taxpayers bleed.

Arriving home, I found a political flyer boldly proclaiming "Take Back State Government!" Turning it over, I see it's for my incumbent assemblyman. Are you f&&$#@ kidding me?!? A man who eagerly participated in the destruction of this state has now found religion and wants to take it back?!? Nobody who has ever been elected to the disaster we call state government has the moral right to make such a plea. Regardless of party affiliation, the government of this state has failed, and it's past time that we punished those involved by not giving them another chance!!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Another Piece on Iraq

While in Iraq, I wrote a proposal for several of the industrialists that I had been working with to visit the US. The purpose of the trip was to learn about best practices in manufacturing, quality control, and business associations. The proposal was approved, and in April, the industrialists visited the US. What a strange experience to see my friends in the US! Initially they seemed so out of place -- so overcome by the natural beauty of our great country. Like most good businessmen, they adapted quickly, and like small children, were eager to learn from everyone they met. Here's a link to a TV news piece that was done about the trip:

Some of the details are wrong, but overall, it's a nice piece.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Now this is Responsible Government!

I got back from Iraq about three weeks ago. More stories, pictures, details later, as well as some thoughts on what's next. For right now, however, I'm puzzled and angered by a letter that a friend of mine, a small business owner, just showed me. This, from the state of New York, regarding a business tax refund he is owed:

"No excess monies are available in this filing period for a refund to be given."

I could go on for hours about this, but there's really no need. I do dare you to try a similar tactic if you are ever unfortunate enough to owe taxes in New York.