Thursday, March 31, 2011

"No, that one to the left with sprinkles..."

Who hasn't had the frustrating experience of buying something at a bakery and trying to tell the person behind the counter what you want?  The person behind the counter can't see what you are pointing at, right and left is confused, and the process is usually harder than it needs to be.

La Guli, an Italian bakery in my neighborhood in Astoria, NY, has an elegant solution.  The customer and counter person both have the cookies numbered, so the transaction proceeds without the usual back-and-forth, e.g.,:

"Give me three of number 2, five of number 7, and one of number 12."

From Innovation Bootcamp

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The dye in M&Ms is making my kid hyperactive!

In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, the article "Food Dyes Scrutinized by the FDA" reports:

A Food and Drug Administration panel plans to meet this week to consider the potential link between hyperactivity in children and artificial dyes found in common foods such as candy, waffles and salad dressing. 
The FDA is reconsidering its long-held position that the dyes pose no risk to children or anyone else. Artificial food dyes with names like Yellow 5 have long been targeted by some scientists and consumer advocates concerned that they could cause hyperactivity in children.

An example of our society's tendency to look for the obscure cause instead of the obvious.

So a kid eats a bag of M&Ms and is acting hyperactive?  And we are investigating the artificial dyes?  How about recognizing that the kid just ate a bagful of sugar?  Maybe that has something to do with it.

Worrying about the dyes seems to totally miss the point.  It is like a Titanic passenger complaining about the temperature of the bathwater as the ship is sinking.  The issue is a lot bigger than dyes.

The answer is not in coming up with an organic, natural dye.  The answer is to start eating real food instead of processed, food-like objects.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Even Jesus takes breaks

Graffiti at the 45th Rd stop on the 7 train.  Thought about the message on my ride into the city.

Was the graffiti writer being sacrilegious?  Or just encouraging us to not be so hard on ourselves, realize we aren't perfect, and take it easy occasionally?

But I guess the anti-graffiti squad doesn't take breaks.  A week after I took the photo when I passed by again, the message had been erased.

Monday, March 28, 2011

False precision

499 people can fit comfortably in the space, but 500 is dangerous and unlawful?

How exactly would it work in practice to prosecute the building owner for a violation?

Would you have an inspector running around counting people?  Does that inspector count?  If so, then you really can have only 498 people.

How would the inspector keep track of the people coming and going while the count is in progress?

Does it matter how fit the people are?  You could probably clear out 600 Olympic athletes from the space in less time than 499 people of average fitness.

From Innovation Bootcamp

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Detroit Auto Show - hunting for the aux jack

I happened to be in Detroit in January during the annual Detroit Auto Show, so I spent a couple hours one evening exploring.

There is so much on display that it would be overwhelming to try to take it all in, so I focused on hunting for aux jacks.

My survey wasn't thorough enough to give a percentage, but I was surprised by how many car sound systems still do not come with an auxiliary jack as a default feature.

Back in the early 90s, when my car had a radio and a tape drive, I used to have a portable CD player in the car that I would play on the speakers using a device that inserts into the tape drive.  The sound was always pretty lousy.

The situation isn't much better today.  If you want to play your iPod or other MP3 player on your car's speakers, you might resort to a device that transmits the sound via radio waves that get picked up by your car's antenna.  I've gone through half a dozen of these devices over the years.  At this point it would have been better to invest in just upgrading my car stereo with one that takes an aux jack so I could plug the iPod directly into the stereo with a cable.  With so many people carrying some kind of device, I'm mystified why the car companies don't include the aux jack as a default.  I'd rather have the aux jack than a CD player.  Does anyone still carry CDs in their car?

Why does it take so long for car stereos to keep up with consumer electronics?

My dad sent me this comment:

An additional question is why car radios cost so damn much.  It always seemed to me that the auto companies charged about ten times as much as home systems cost.  There must be a huge profit in automobile sound systems.

From Detroit Auto show

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Book recommendation: The Lost Books of the Odyssey

I highly recommend Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A Novel.

Mason uses the conceit that the book is a translation of texts that didn't make it into the accepted final version of the canon.  The supposed translations are fantastic riffs that re-think the familiar tales.

In one chapter, Polyphemus, the blinded Cyclops, invents tales about the band of men who blinded him and reveals himself as, effectively, Homer.

In another, Agamemnon sends the order out to assassinate Odysseus.  But in bureaucratic bumbling, the order gets passed on to Odysseus himself, who returns a crafty message back to the king.

The novel is in prose, but captures the feeling of the original language.  The twists and turns make a delightful use of the epic.  I was sorry to reach the end.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Making it hard to cancel - a great way to really annoy departing customers

Some online services make it easy to cancel the service online.  Others put roadblocks in the way, hoping to be able to convince you to stay.   What they can end up doing instead is encourage customers who just don't need the service any more to warn others to stay away.

An example is

Back in the fall, I needed urgently to receive a fax, so I signed up with  I figured I'd see whether it turned out to be useful to have a number to receive faxes.

After the one fax I needed, I didn't use it again.  The only other faxes I received were junk faxes.  And eFax makes it very difficult to report these.  Instead of just being able to forward them to an email, you need to go online to fill out a form.  So I sent them an email and asked to cancel my account

Sent: 3/2/2011 9:58 PM
Please cancel my account.  Refund to my credit card please unused portion of
this month.


In return, I got this email telling me that I would have to call in and speak to a live operator (surely, after waiting on hold for ten minutes and having to authenticate myself.):

Dear Will,

We have received your email request to cancel your account.

Please note that cancellation requests may be processed 24/7 by calling (323) 817-3205.  You may also visit visit us online at (Monday - Friday, 6am-6pm Pacific Time) and an online representative will assist with your cancellation request.

Please note that your account will remain active until your cancellation request is confirmed by Customer Support.

In the meantime, you may wish to download and save any faxes stored in your eFax Message Center by following these simple steps:

1. Log into your eFax account at
2. Click on the 'eFax Message Center' link.
3. Open the fax by clicking on the file name in the lower part of the screen and click on the 'Download' button to save the fax to your computer.

Cedric W.

eFax Customer Support
I didn't really want to make the call, so I thought I'd see if I really could do it by email:

Sun, Mar 6, 2011 at 8:47 PM  
I'd prefer if I didn't have to call to cancel.  

Could you please just consider this email my official request to cancel my account, and go ahead and proceed with the cancellation?
After another follow-up and a wait of one week, I was surprised that the email worked.  Got this response 10 days later, on March 16, fully two weeks after my initial request.  eFax could have saved themselves the cost of tracking this request and several emails by the customer service rep by just allowing me to do the transaction online.

Dear William,

Thank you for contacting eFax Customer Support.

Per your request, your account has been cancelled. Billing for your eFax number will cease immediately.
Except for the junk faxes, the service was reliable enough.  But if I need to get a fax number in the future, I'll look for a different option.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

This light switch is off limits

A guest post by Zachary Schrag:

I get a nice suite at a fancy hotel--larger than the apartment Rebecca and I shared our first year of marriage.

But the light switch at the entrance to the bedroom, clearly placed there so an entering guest can illuminate his path to bed, has been mysteriously forbidden. The guest uses his phone to light his way to the bedside lamp.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hint when printing Powerpoint slides

Want to print out Powerpoint slides two or more to a page?

One way of course is to go to Print and then in the dialog box where it says "Print what" select "Handouts" and then in the "Slides per page" dropdown you can pick 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, or 9 slides to a page.

From Innovation Bootcamp

But there is a much better way.  The Powerpoint default leaves far too much space around the slide than you normally need to take notes.  If the slides print with a white background (as all slides should) then you can take notes directly on the slide and you don't need that giant border.

The better way is to go to Print and then select the Properties tab.  This tab is organized differently for every printer, but look for a dropdown titled something like "Pages per sheet" (HP's language).  You may need to hunt through several tabs of the dialog box.  Choose 2 or 4 pages per sheet and then select Orientation = Landscape.

From Innovation Bootcamp

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Nice picture!

Monday may have set some sort of record for newspaper photos.  The same photo by Goran Tomasevic of Reuters appeared above the fold on The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.  Of all the millions of photos taken by news photographers on Sunday, impressive that the editors at three separate papers would all pick the same one.

From Innovation Bootcamp

From Innovation Bootcamp

From Innovation Bootcamp

Monday, March 21, 2011

United Airlines: The hard cross-sell during the Easy Check-In

Cross-selling strategies end up somewhere on the spectrum between:

A) Delighting customers by providing them a good or service that they want that they didn't know was available


B) Annoying your experienced customers by making it cumbersome to execute a transaction

United Airlines provides an example that, at least for me, ends up at the B) end of the spectrum.
Some airlines have a streamline online check-in process.  From the main check-in screen, with one click you are printing your boarding pass.   You might even call this "easy check-in."

With the "EasyCheck-in" process with United Airlines, however, you've got to navigate past two screens.  The first offers an upgrade to Economy Plus ($14 on my flight from LGA ot IAD) or First Class ($65).  Then there is a second screen with a confusing option for Premier Travel ($47) or Premier Travel Plus ($80).  The default option selected is to add one of these options, which is annoying.

And then on the fourth screen you still don't see your boarding pass - you've got to click for yet a fifth screen.

I expect it is easy for United to measure the increase in revenue, but harder to measure to what degree customers are annoyed or confused.  Perhaps the message is, "Yes, we know this is annoying you, and we actually don't care.  What are you going to do, fly another airline?"  

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Could the Japanese earthquake have doomed the Libyan rebellion?

For a week, the rebellion in Libya was the top news every day.  Then, the earthquake in Japan captured the world's attention.  It took until March 17 to get a UN resolution allowing military action to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya.

Meanwhile, Quaddafi has made significant advances on retaking rebel-held territories.  On March 18, allies promise they will take action "soon."

Would the action on the no-fly-zone have moved more quickly if the story had been above the fold every day on the NYT?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

40 years of safe operation

Prior to my consulting days, I was a nuclear-trained submarine officer in the U.S. Navy, so I've been following the terrible news about the nuclear plants in Japan closely.

GE faces a lot of awkward questions about the containment structure.  The defense they have offered in a recent press release seems absurdly inadequate:

The Mark I containment has a proven track record of safety and reliability for over 40 years and there are 32 BWR Mark I reactors operating as designed worldwide. 
General Electric press release dated March 16, 2011
In those 40 years, how many of those 32 Mark 1 reactors have had a partial meltdown in which the containment was actually tested?

GE's comment is a bit like referring to the air bag system in a five-year-old car in which you've never had an accident: "In five years, the air bag has never failed to deploy when required."

Friday, March 18, 2011

NYT Pricing: I'd like to subscribe, just don't deliver the paper, please

The New York Times released its new pricing structure yesterday for the, with an interesting twist:

For the pricing, you can get: + Smartphone app:  $15/four weeks + iPad app: $20/four weeks
"All Digital Acesss" (web + smartphone + iPad): $35/four weeks

Free digital access on all platforms is available to all print subscribers, regardless of what plan they are on.  A print subscription with Monday-Friday delivery is $6.20 per week, or $24.80/four weeks.

I'm wondering who in the world would sign up for the $35 all digital version.  For $10.20 less, you can get the same all digital version PLUS the weekday paper delivered.  You are effectively paying $10 every four weeks NOT to deliver the paper.

I suspect that they don't expect to sell any subscriptions of the $35 option, and that this option is primarily intended as a marketing tool to make a print subscription or the $20 option seem like a good deal by comparison.

Assuming that some digital subscribers don't want a home delivery, there is an opportunity for a matchmaker here.  Anyone signing up for the $20 version could get the daily paper delivered for just $4.80 more.  Print subscribers out there are paying $24.80 for that.  Someone who only wants a print subscription could team up with someone who only wants a digital subscription to share the cost of the $24.80.  An online matchmaking service could pair people up and remove the transaction costs of finding someone.  I'm betting that soon you'll be able to go online and find such a service.

For that $24.80 you would get all digital access

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hint when presenting Powerpoint slides

When doing an overhead presentation of Powerpoint slides to an audience, here are two useful tricks:

1) If you want to make the slides disappear and the screen go dark, just press the period on your keyboard.  Then, to make the slides reappear, press any other key.  This is useful when you want the audience to pay attention to you and not whatever slide happens to be showing.

2) It is very annoying to you and the audience when someone asks a question about some earlier slide and you spend a minute backing through all the material you've shown so far.  Instead, when in Slideshow view, if you type the number of the desired slide and then hit Enter, you jump to that slide.  If you don't memorize the slide numbers of all your slides, print then out 9 or 16 to a page and write the numbers legibly by hand.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Best site for cheap used books

The best site that I know of for cheap used books online is

The site aggregates thousands of independent used bookstores.  I always check there first before buying the book new on Amazon.  In some bizarre rare cases, the price on will actually be higher than the price of a new book.  Sometimes the price will be as low as $0.01 with $3 shipping.  I've always received the books that I've ordered, although it can take up to a poky 14 days.

In the process of writing this post, I checked the history and learned that the site was bought by Amazon in 2008.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Free: One-Day Consulting Bootcamp in NYC on May 6

I am offering a free, one-day Consulting Bootcamp on Friday, May 6, 2011 in New York City.  Space is limited to eight attendees, and applications are due by March 31.  

What is Consulting Bootcamp?
Consulting Bootcamp provides business professionals a rapid introduction to management consulting skills.  The one-day course is highly interactive, with 25% lecture and 75% participation in a series of exercises.  The integrated set of exercises take participants through key stages of a consulting engagement and are based on an actual consulting project. The highly interactive nature of the material is designed to encourage the development of connections among attendees that last beyond the completion of the course.

Who should consider attending?
Consulting Bootcamp assumes a working knowledge of accounting, finance, and economics.  It is designed for mid-career, business professionals who have not worked in a consulting firm.  The program is modeled on the introductory course given to incoming Associates at a top strategy consulting firm.  The course benefits managers working within an organization as well as experienced professionals planning to establish their own independent consulting practice. 

  • Problem solving process
    • Defining the problem
    • Structuring the problem using hypothesis trees and issue trees
    • Prioritizing issues
  • Interviewing skills
    • Developing an interview guide
    • Asking open-ended questions
    • Handling challenging interviewees
  • Performing compelling analysis
    • Preparing a data request
    • Identifying the analysis with a "so-what"
    • Designing an effective slide to communicate the result
  • Creating effective presentations
    • Preparing the "ghost" of a document
    • Crafting an effective storyline
  • Influencing skills
    • Using a portfolio of influence techniques
  • Partnering with clients to create impact
    • Designing an implementation plan
  • Building a successful independent consulting practice
    • Generating leads
    • Practical matters (non-disclosure agreements, contracts, getting a LLC, branded email, etc.)
    • Negotiating fees 

How to apply
1) Send an email explaining why you would like to attend by March 31 to:
Those admitted will be informed by April 8.
2) (optional) Join the Consulting Bootcamp group on LinkedIn:

Where will the course take place?
I'm searching for an organization that will donate space for a day. I'm looking for a conference room in Manhattan that can comfortably hold 9 people, with space for flip charts and a white board.  If you have such a space in your office and would be willing to allow us to use your facility for a day, I'd be much obliged.  

Why is the program free?
Two reasons:
1) I love to teach.  Making the course free makes it easier to assemble a great group of attendees.
2) Preparing for and delivering this training program drives me to revisit the basics of my craft, which helps me sharpen my own consulting skills. 

My background
I am a management consultant with five years of experience at McKinsey & Co. In 2008 I founded The Bachman Group, LLC, which has provided strategy and operations consulting services to businesses that range in size from $5 million to $50 billion in revenue. I have deep experience partnering with clients to achieve significant and sustained improvements in their performance.  I've served clients in a wide range of industries, including private equity, pharma, specialty chemicals, nuclear power generation, for-profit education, call centers, retail, and high tech, among others.
See also my profile on LinkedIn:

Please forward to individuals who might be interested.

Get free audiobooks at is simply fantastic, especially for kids.  The site has audio versions of books whose copyright has expired, read by volunteers.

If you are picky about having a skilled actor doing your audiobook reading for you, then the site isn't for you.  But if you don't mind a reading by a public-spirited amateur, then this is an amazing resource.

The best way I've found to access the recordings is to:

1. Download the "Zip file of the entire book"
2. Open this folder once downloaded, then copy all the files into a folder in your iTunes folder
3. In iTunes, go to "File / Add folder to library" and add that folder to your library

Then you can put the album on your iPod/iPhone or just play it on the computer.

A great recording to start with for kids is Robinson Crusoe Written Anew for Children by James Baldwin.

Monday, March 14, 2011

85 Octane?

Was surprised to see 85 octane gasoline for sale at a gas station in Utah.  The Wikipedia entry on octane ratings explained the mystery.  Due to the lower atmospheric pressure at higher elevations, an engine designed to use 87 at sea level can get by on 85, or in Wikipedia's words:

United States: in the Rocky Mountain (high elevation) states, 85 AKI is the minimum octane, and 91 AKI is the maximum octane available in fuel[citation needed]. The reason for this is that in higher-elevation areas, a typical naturally-aspirated engine draws in less air mass per cycle because of the reduced density of the atmosphere. This directly translates to less fuel and reduced absolute compression in the cylinder, therefore deterring knock. It is safe to fill a carbureted car that normally takes 87 AKI fuel at sea level with 85 AKI fuel in the mountains, but at sea level the fuel may cause damage to the engine. A disadvantage to this strategy is that most turbocharged vehicles are unable to produce full power, even when using the "premium" 91 AKI fuel. In some east coast states, up to 94 AKI is available [2]. In Colorado as well as parts of the Midwest (primarily Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri) ethanol-based E-85 fuel with 105 AKI is available [3]. Often, filling stations near US racing tracks will offer higher octane levels such as 100 AKI[citation needed] . California fuel stations will offer 87, 89, and 91 AKI octane fuels, and at some stations, 100 AKI or higher octane, sold as racing fuel. Until summer 2001 before the phase-out of methyl tert-butyl ether aka MTBE as an octane enhancer additive, 92 AKI was offered in lieu of 91.

From Innovation Bootcamp

Sunday, March 13, 2011

"The time entered does not exist"

I normally schedule these blog posts in advance, and as I was scheduling one for today at 2:30 a.m., I got this helpful message from Blogger:
Because of a daylight savings time shift on the date entered, the time entered does not exist.
Of course it seems obvious now that I consider the matter: as we "spring forward" today we skip over an hour.  But it always happened while I was asleep, so I never thought that a date/time combination might just not ever happen. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sometimes people need to sleep at airports

Messages to airport designers: sometimes people do actually need to sleep at airports.

You can recognize that, and design chairs to allow people to lie down (thanks PHX!)

From Innovation Bootcamp

Or you could add immovable armrests so that people need to sleep on the floor (nice work DTW!)

From Innovation Bootcamp

Friday, March 11, 2011

Pretty impressive, unless it isn't

If a worker at this Au Bon Pain had written 6:30 in grease pencil on this airpot, I would have been impressed when I bought the coffee at 6 in the morning.

The message would have been: "Oh - this coffee must be fresh!  And they will throw it out and brew a new pot to match their high standards of freshness.  Great!"

Instead, with the sign left blank, the message was, "Oh, some corporate executive decided that  employees would brew a new pot every certain number of minutes, but at this location they blow off that rule.  I wonder what other rules they blow off?"

If you are going to take a public stand, great.  Just make sure your organization can deliver.  Otherwise, better if you kept quiet.

From Innovation Bootcamp

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Nanny Caddy

Saw the Nanny Caddy at the Philadelphia Airport - a vending machine for all your infant-care needs.  I suspect that the Nanny Caddy will have trouble succeeding even though the products are just the sort of things a parent at the airport might need.  Unless you know the machine is there, you aren't going to say, "The kids need a diaper, let me go look for a Nanny Caddy."  If you somehow forgot to pack the diapers, you will probably approach another family with kids.

There would need to be enough Nanny Caddies around for you to rely upon them being there: "Don't bother packing a diaper: if we need one, we'll just get one at the Nanny Caddy."

From Innovation Bootcamp

From Innovation Bootcamp

From Innovation Bootcamp

From Innovation Bootcamp

From Innovation Bootcamp

From Innovation Bootcamp

From Innovation Bootcamp

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Enjoy the view?

While on the restroom theme from yesterday....

The top of these stall doors at a rest stop off of I-95 in Maryland are set at chest height.  Presumably to discourage any sort of illicit activity that might be taking place behind closed doors.

How does a change like this happen, I wonder?  Curious what level of the Department of Transportation approved this room with a view.

From Innovation Bootcamp

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Misleading chart in Freakanomics

Freakanomics today published a very misleading chart.

This chart has fascinating data, but the presentation is deeply misleading.
It appears that the radius of the circle is proportional to the dollars / victims.
But since the area goes as the square of the radius, the differences are vastly exaggerated.
The American Heart Association has 10 million victims, about 8 times the 1.2 million victims of the National Tuberculosis Foundation, but the grey circle of the AHA looks abous 100 times bigger than the grey circle of the NTA.
It would be more responsible to do a simple bar chart of dollars / victim: not as sexy of a chart, but a much more relevant comparison.

This door ought to open outwards

Scene: Airport restroom stall.

The airport tells you to keep your luggage with you at all times, after all.  It gets a little crowded in the bathroom stall.  Especially when the door opens inwards.  Wonder if the designer of this space ever thought about how people would be using it.

From Innovation Bootcamp

Monday, March 7, 2011

The greatest thing since bread sliced to order

Stopped at a grocery store in Utah and asked the supermarket bakery to slice a loaf of bread for me.  I was a bit taken aback when asked, "What size?"

Never been offered that option before.  Didn't even know that bread-slicing machines are adjustable.  But apparently everything has a standard.   Ideal size for a PB&J is the #12.

From Innovation Bootcamp

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Why is the text on movie advertisements hard to read?

Why do movie studios make the text listing all the key personnel so hard to read in movie advertisements?

Why do they all use the same font?

The text is so hard to read, we clearly aren't meant to read it all.
It isn't just a matter of space, since it would be easier to read if the font were shorter and took up less space.
Some advertisements dispense with the list of all the names altogether, which seems to make more sense if we aren't meant to read the text.

My guess is that there is an industry standard contract in which certain top people on a movie get a guarantee to be listed, and the font type and font size is specified.

By now, the whole block of text with the tall font seems to be a symbol that says, "This is an advertisement for a movie."

The text and font are uniform across the various studios:

From Innovation Bootcamp

From Innovation Bootcamp

From Innovation Bootcamp

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Tour of the Steinway Factory

Recently had the opportunity to tour the Steinway factory in Astoria.  They offer tours every Tuesday morning.  You can reserve a place by calling 718-721-2600.  The tour was led by Bob Singleton, the Exective Director of the Greater Astoria Historical Society.  He was a fantastic guide, and I learned a great deal about pianos and the history of Steinway.   Here are my notes from that morning - not in much of any order, I'm afraid:

  • Some excellent violins were made in Astoria by George Gemunder
  • Steinway made the first cars in the United States - right in Astoria!  The family was friends with the Daimler family, and they started making hand-made automobiles in 1896.  But they only made a few and decided to focus on their core business and not get distracted by that side venture.  We might have ended up driving Steinways today.
  • The origin of the piano is the harp.  First harps were seen around 1000 BC.  Harp could be played in two ways: plucking it with a pick, or hammering the strings.  Another ancestor of the piano is the pipe organ, which started to be seen in late Roman times
    • Closer ancestor to the piano is the clavichord
  • The piano has the widest tonal range of any instrument
  • A piano has 15,000 parts, and is thought to be the most complex hand-crafted device available for widespread purchase today
  • The piano paralleled the development of society: with the industrial revolution there came a social revolution: lots of middle class folks with time on their hands to learn how to play an instrument.  Piano became the ultimate status symbol.  Everyone wanted to have one in their music room.
  • The earlier pianos were designed for chamber music.  As they grew in popularity, they were thrust in concert halls.  The pianos were not meant for the kind of beating they took, and would get demolished in the course of the concert.  
  • Steinway was a German immigrant; half of the artisans were German
  • In the 19th century there were dozens of firms competing in the piano building industry.  Steinway had a brilliant marketing idea: they made the concert hall their virtual showroom.  In the age before recordings, when the only music was live music, Steinway invited a bunch of top classical musicians over from Europe and paid for them to tour around the U.S.  To small cities all across the country.  At every concert they of course played on Steinway pianos.  Anyone in the audience naturally wanted to buy a Steinway piano - an early use of celebrity endorsement.
    • Steinway also build Steinway Hall on 14th Street, which lasted from 1868 to 1892.  It was half the size of Carnegie Hall.
    • So from an early point Steinway had the insight to build relationships with the top artists.  Today, 98% of classical recordings are made on a Steinway
    • Some artists require that the program state "Piano by Steinway"
  • Steinways were originally manufactured in Manhattan.  But the labor unrest in the 19th century caused problems.  At one point they stockpiled weapons and were threatened by unions that threatened to burn down the factory.  They decided to move to the swamps of Astoria across the river.
    • Steinways bought hundreds of acres in Astoria
    • They created a community; moved all their workers out there
    • One of the first kindergartens in the city
    • They built a trolley to a ferry that crossed the East River
    • They built all the services a community needs: police, fire department, etc
    • In some ways, they helped create the modern borough of Queens
    • William Steinway was the subway commissioner of New York
      • The tunnel that carries the 7 train from Manhattan to Queens is called the Steinway tubes
      • William Steinway also pushed for the tunnels carrying the railroad to New Jersey
    • Even though the founder of the Steinway dynasty was himself illiterate, he started a lending library for any employee to use.  This lending library was eventually absorbed into the Long Island City library system, which was eventually absorbed into the Queens Public Library system - the most-used public library system in the country
  • La Guardia Airport was built on land once used as an amusement park by the Steinway company for its employees
  • Bob's term for pianos made by a company other than Steinway: "piano-shaped objects"
  • We get ready to tour the factory.  Bob gives us the warning to take no photographs (protecting their processes from rivals) and to touch no wood (the oil in our fingerprints can stain it)
  • All employees originally had to learn German
  • Child labor was used until 1915.  A small crawl space where children were sent to fetch items is called the chicken coop.  One of the tasks performed by children was "rushing the growler."  At lunchtime they had to run to one of the local breweries and come back with the worker's pots of ale filled up.
  • We meet Walter Boot.  He has been named employee of the year so many times that a permanent sign is now above his workspace.  He does the final tuning and adjustments.  A sign on his door say, "Pianos enter this room looking like a piano, and leave sounding like one."
  • We tour the "Selection Room" - a set of about 10 concert-quality pianos, specially tuned.  We are forbidden to play them since the tuning is so particular.  The room has special speakers so that it can be made to imitate concert halls with a wide range of acoustics.  Microphones pick up the piano and play it back with a micro-delay to imitate the echo you would get in a big hall.
  • We observed the rim-bending machine - one of the most impressive operations on the whole tour.  We learn how the piece that curves around the outside of the piano is made:
    • Many very thin layers of wood are soaked in water to make them pliable
    • Then the pieces are covered in glue and stacked together to make a stack about three inches high, 14 inches wide, and 20-30 feet long.  They call this a "book"
    • This long stack is carried by 6 men (they hoist it and carry it like a crew team carrying a shell) and place it in the cold press
    • They manually clamp it down in one place to get started
    • Then they bend it around and clamp it at each end
    • The wood has no knots or imperfections: only 2% of wood passes inspection for this purpose
    • It is all clamped by hand.  Steinway experimented with automated clamping by machine, but found that they didn't get the same quality results.
  • In World War II, Steinway made wooden gliders for the troops that landed in Normandy
  • In the conditioning room, they store over a million dollars worth of veneer: exotic woods from all over, including:
    • macassar
    • santos
    • figure sapeli
    • pommele sapele
    • E.I. Rosewood
    • walnut
    • bubinda
    • mahogany
    • They take great care to do "flitch matching" for the top of the piano: all the pieces on the top of a piano are from the same tree so the grain has the same characteristics
    • poplar is used for the core of the top of the piano because it doesn't warp
  • Modern technology is used where it makes sense.  In the furniture side of the house, where all the legs of the piano and other structural elements are made, computer controlled routers drill every hole
    • The Steinway has been willing to use technology when it makes sense, and they stick with hand-craftsmanship when it is necessary to produce the quality they want
    • Interesting mix of artisanal craftsmanship and highly automated mass production under the same roof
  • We visit the Rubbing Department
    • (How would you like to be the Rubbing Manager - put that on your resume.)
    • The pianos get 6 layers of laquer to produce the Steinway satin finish
  • Pianos are designed for their particular environment
    • This was news to me: they add different structural elements depending on whether you plan to use the piano in Miami or New York
    • Pianos made for concert halls in Europe (smaller, darker) are different than the ones made for US halls
  • The White House has Steinway piano number 250,000.  Story about the White House piano:
    • Henry Steinway was invited to the White House during the second Bush's presidency to receive an award - Medal of Freedom I believe
    • President Bush approached Henry, who was over 80 years old, and asked him, "Is there anything we can do for you Mr. Steinway?  Would you like to see the White House Steinway?"
    • Steinway replied: "I hope you are taking better care of it than you are of the economy!"
    • When you are over 80, and wealthy, I guess you can say whatever you want, even to the President
  • The most expensive Steinway ever sold (new) was $3.4 million, sold to the Martin Beck Theatre
  • They produce a variety of limited editions, like the John Lennon piano (70 made)
    • Or the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue piano (it is blue)
    • fancy pianos with intricate carvings are called "art case instruments"
  • We tour the Action Department - what a great name
    • I wouldn't mind working in that group.  "Yes, I'm the Director of Action."
    • 90% of the parts in a piano are in the action
    • Takes 60 parts to make one note
    • Keys are no longer made out of ivory: they are made out of "ivoplast" which is made by a Steinway subsidiary
    • I'm impressed by the charts in the visual management error.  One indicates that the cost of scrap has been reduced from $438K in 2000 to $20K in 2008.  Nice work by some continuing improvement professional
    • Meanwhile, rework has gone from $50K to $5K
    • Also I like the visual management board by each worker in this department: they have goals for each 2 hour period and keep track of their progress against these goals 4 times per day.
  • Favorite statistic from the day: Fully one-third of Steinway grand pianos are sold in the New York metro area

Friday, March 4, 2011

Gary's Two Hyundai Theory of Wealth

My friend Gary Negbaur shared with me his Two Hyundai Theory of
Wealth, and he was gracious enough to allow me to share it here.

Gary's story:
"Right after college I was driving a Hyundai. Not a great car, I know, but hey - it got me around, and it was cheap. It was scratched up with dents and nicks, but so what? It got me from A to B.

One time I went out for coffee with one of my former professors, and he picked me up in his car, a new two-seater BWM. As he was driving and parking that car,

he was so incredibly stressed out about getting it scratched. I was thinking - does he own this BWM, or does the BWM own him?

This led me to develop my Two Hyundai Theory of Wealth:
If I were rich, a multi-millionaire, let’s say, I wouldn't go out and buy the most expensive car I could afford. What's the point of that? Then, I’m going to have to worry about it getting scratched or stolen. It would be a source of stress. Instead, I'd go out and buy a second Hyundai.

Because if I own two Hyundais, then I’ve really got nothing to worry about. If I wreck one of them or if it’s stolen or breaks down…no problem, I've got another one at home.

What's the advantage of having more money if it just leads to more things that stress you out? For me, the whole point of wealth is to make your life less stressful. So, buy yourself two Hyundais."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Could we be at the peak of foreign language studies?

While staying at a Marriott near Dulles Airport on business, I wandered into the exhibit room of a conference on Human Social Cultural Behavioral Modeling. Apparently the DOD has funds dedicated to understanding the society and culture of the places where soldiers are fighting, and the room was full of government contractors (current or hopeful) with a wide range of exhibits, mostly tied to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of the more impressive was a souped-up Android phone, built into a case designed to withstand some rough handling and with a microphone attached.

You can speak English into the phone, it does language recognition and then translates into the language of your choice (five options including Pashto, colloquial Iraqi, etc.) Before the phone speaks your message, you can see the written version in English of what the phone thinks you said, and you can adjust the delay time to give you time to approve or change your message.

Then the person you are having a conversation with can speak Pashto into the phone and the phone translates it into English.

At the rate technology moves, I suspect it is only a matter of time before consumer versions will be available. If not 2-3 years, then 5 or 10 years from now I expect we'll be able to get an app that will do simultaneous translation from any language to any language.

What will be the impact on world travel if there are no language barriers? Where in the world might you decide to travel if you didn't need to worry about not knowing the language?

I expect this will have an impact on travel patterns, and I'm afraid it will also have an impact on the study of foreign languages.

If I can speak fluently to someone in any language through my phone, the incentive to actually learn their language will be reduced. I don't think the study of foreign languages will stop, but I expect it will be greatly reduced. It takes hundreds if not thousands of hours to learn a foreign language, and if some of the incentives are removed, many people will invest that time elsewhere.

That would be a shame. It is a beautiful thing to learn a foreign language. Studying a foreign tongue teaches powerful lessons about the grammar of your native idiom. It is marvelous to practice and finally master making new sounds. It is a thrill when you can finally start to understand speech in that foreign language directly, without first translating into your own language. Studying languages related to your own, such as German or French or Spanish for English speakers, helps you understand your own vocabulary.

If technology reduces the practical value of foreign language study, as it seems that it will within the next decade or so, I expect that the practice will decline, the way mastery of a musical instrument has become much less common.

From Innovation Bootcamp

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A moment of silence for the passing of Rev. Peter Gomes

Reverend Peter Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at the Harvard School of Divinity and the Pusey Minister of Harvard's Memorial Church, has passed away at the too-young age of 68.

The reader comments to the article announcing his passing in The Harvard Crimson give a sense of the impact he had on generations of Harvard students.

He was a true gentleman, a scholar, a friend to many, and recognized as one of the best preachers in America.  His sermons were filled with wisdom that non-Christians could appreciate, delivered in a rich, sonorous voice that seemed to have influences of the Boston Brahmin, the Caribbean, and Oxford.

Many of his sermons can be listened to on iTunes, here and here.

Sophisticated junk mail - I suppose this must work

The other day, I received a sophisticated bit of junk mail.

The envelope had my name and address printed in that font which seems at first glance to be handwriting. The envelope had an actual 44-cent stamp. (Using a commemorative stamp would have made the illusion even more compelling.) It appeared to come in the kind of envelope a regular person would buy at a store. There was no return address, but I was curious enough to open it:

From Innovation Bootcamp

Inside was a fake news article, with a yellow Post-It that had the computer printed fake handwriting customized with my name - nice touch. It was signed "A", as if I knew the sender well enough that an abbreviation was all that is necessary. Interesting - but who in the world goes to the trouble of mailing an actual press clipping anymore?

To add to the verisimilitude, they have a cut off "Advertisement" on top of the article. If they are going to all this trouble, why not write it as a straight news article?

From Innovation Bootcamp

The fake clipping was printed on real newsprint, complete with the jagged edge of a real newspaper. From a fake newspaper with the plausible name of "Financial News Today." It seemed real enough that at first I thought it was an advertisement printed in a real newspaper that had been cut out. But I can't find any real newspaper with the name Financial News Today.

Is it a coincidence that article is about the fees that management consultants earn and that I'm a management consultant? I'm very curious what database was used to match me to this mailing.

From Innovation Bootcamp

They even have stock quotes on the back. I didn't check, but I'm willing to give the sender credit and assume that they were accurate quotes.

From Innovation Bootcamp

The whole effort struck me as much more sophisticated than an average piece of junk mail, but what puzzles me is: who responds to this offer? While clever enough to get me to open the envelope, the fact that the entire product is a fake doesn't exactly build trust that a free report will help me become a "Certified Cost Reduction Specialist" capable of earning a "6-figure salary."

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