Sunday, June 26, 2011

On summer vacation

Innovation Bootcamp is on vacation for the summer.

I'm busy building a throne chair in a tree, taking care of the pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys, guinea hens and pea hen at our farm, weeding the garden, and thinking about blog posts for the fall.  Will return to active posting then.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Save 20% on your hospital bills

Had to go to the emergency room a month ago for an issue that was urgent, but no means life-threatening.  (A cut finger that was a little too deep for a Band-aid, but not so severe as to need stitches.  They ended up using this special wound glue.)

Insurance covered a portion, but my share still seemed excessive.

The first person I spoke to in the billing department told me that based on my type of insurance policy, the hospital policy is to not offer any kind of negotiated discount.

I asked what were some of the line items on the bill, and was told "splint, pulse..."
"Oh, pulse - how much was that?" I asked.
"$100 to take a pulse?  Doesn't that take about 20 seconds?"
"Well, I'm not sure, but this was using a stethoscope."
"But it still takes about 20 seconds, right?  Doesn't $100 to take a pulse sound a little bit excessive?"
"These charges are approved by New York State."
"Well, that might be true, but I'd like to speak to a supervisor."

So I spoke to the supervisor.

At first was told the same thing.  So I told the supervisor I would need to see a detailed line item break-down of the bill, but not just with the insurance codes; I wanted to see an actual plain-language explanation for each line item.  "That's reasonable, isn't it? To provide me with a description of what I'm actually being billed for?"

Then I asked, "OK, just one question.  Have you ever, in your history of  working in the billing department, ever provided a customer with a negotiated discount? Maybe said, 'Look, OK, if you pay now in cash we'll take 50% off.'"

"Our maximum discount that we offer is 20%," the supervisor told me.

"Great - I'll take the 20%, and I'll pay now on the phone."

Who knows, perhaps I could have gotten an even bigger discount, but I thought that the time invested to the payoff received was the best I was going to get. Perhaps if I had been willing to demand that plain language explanation, write some letters to the CEO of the hospital, challenge each line item, the final discount would have been even greater.  In this case, it took 10 minutes to get 20% off a $600 bill: $120 per 10 minutes, or $720 per hour.  That is a call I'm happy to make.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happy Father's Day

Today I'd like to celebrate my dad.  He's got a PhD in nuclear engineering, but now that he is retired, he does what he loves, which is puttering around as a handyman.  His slogan is "no job too small." He doesn't bother to advertise, since he isn't really interested in growing the business.  I think he's happy to have an excuse to spend other people's money at The Home Depot a few times per week.

A year ago my dad was about to replace the kitchen spray nozzle at our farmhouse and agreed to make a video.  We posted it on Youtube and it has received 2,542 hits so far, and several appreciative comments.

  • Thanks, now we don't have to hire someone to fix the tenants sprayer!
  • Thank you soooo much...i couldnt figure out how to get the sprayer off not knowing about the little C ring.....u made my life easy well be watching more videos of you
  • Thank you! A number of other DIY videos didn't show the details, skipping the bit about the metal c ring that was preventing my sprayer hose bits from coming off, driving me mad trying to figure it out.
  • Thanks, Bill! That little metal C-clip was totally hidden on mine. Your video showed me where it was, and how to take it off.
  • Thank You! I successfully for the first time ever fixed my sink sprayer watching your video, YAY!!!!
Nice work, Dad.

Friday, June 17, 2011

How about plant recognition technology?

Facebook's new face recognition technology has gotten a lot of press recently given privacy concerns.

I'm excited about what this technology could be adopted to.

How about a tree or wildflower identification app for my iPhone?

I've spent some effort over the years learning to identify wild plants - at one point I could identify about 100 different wildflowers in central Pennsylvania, although that was ten years ago and I've forgotten the names of many of them.  Books are certainly handy, but a capable app would be far superior.

In my ideal world, with the app, I could take a picture of a flower or a leaf, and the app would tell me the name of the plant.  It would have a stop-action video that shows the plant's lifecycle over the course of a year.

Next, I'd like an app to identify the sounds from birds and other noisy creatures.  If Shazaam can identify songs, I expect my iPhone could also be trained to identify songbirds, crickets, and the other insects of the evening symphony in the countryside.

I'd love to be able to hold up the phone, sample, and see the playlist of all the creatures that are singing or humming.

The deep-pocketed environmental non-profits would be smart to invest in tools that allow more people to more readily identify the plants and animals in their environment.  Because once you can identify something and name it, you begin to notice it.  And you can then notice when it is missing.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Winnow? Thresh?

What do these words really mean?

Eager to get a better understanding of early agricultural societies, two years ago I decided to grow my own wheat.  By hand, I planted winter wheat and rye in the fall of 2009.  This was just an experiment, I wasn't trying to live off of it, so I planted only a total of ~40 to 50 square feet of each.

By late June 2010, the wheat and rye were ready to harvest.  We grabbed big handfuls of the stalks and cut them off.  Then, we lay all the wheat out on a tarp, and I beat it with a stick.  This gave me a physical understanding of what it means to thresh wheat.  You've got to beat it pretty hard to get all the wheat kernels to fall off the stalk.  (This would not be a very adaptive trait for wild wheat, since the kernels wouldn't get dispersed easily.  In fact, the kernels of wild wheat would fall out easily, on their own.  But when humans began to gather the wheat, they inadvertently started a breeding program, since there were more likely to collect kernels of those genetic strains that happened to hold on to the kernels more tightly.)

I used a broomstick, and it took about 20 minutes of whacking the wheat to finish my threshing job.  On close inspection, I still found a few kernels attached to the stalks, but enough had fallen off to satisfy me.

From Innovation Bootcamp

Now I had a pile of wheat stalks on top of the kernels of grain, and I needed to separate out the grain.

The first step was easy - I just lifted all the stalks of grain.  But the grain that was left was mixed in with tiny, hard, nonedible pieces.  These inedible pieces are much lighter than the kernels, so the idea is you can slowly pour the whole mixture from one pot to another and the wind will blow the light "chaff" away.  This is called winnowing.

Unfortunately, it wasn't a very windy day.  So we improvised, using a tool early farmers didn't have access to.  The fan did a fantastic job, and with just a few pours, all the chaff was removed.

From Innovation Bootcamp

I was left with about three quarts total of grain for all the work.  Since I don't yet have a grain grinder, I cooked it as simple wheat berries, which make a great addition to salads.

From Innovation Bootcamp

This year, some volunteer wheat and rye has grown up where we threw the stalks.  I'm wondering if I dedicated some permanent space to growing grain, if I could get a harvest each year without any planting, just by allowing some of the grain to reseed itself.  I have a better understanding now of how early hunter/gatherers got the same idea.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What you look for is what you see

This week I've had the common experience of reading about something and then noticing it everywhere.  After reading the NYT article "Battery Power Gives Deliveryman a Boost, at a Cost," I've noticed five of these battery-powered bikes parked outside of restaurants.  I don't think I had even seen them before, despite the fact that I'm always try to pay attention to my environment as I walk around the streets of New York.  These experiences always make me wonder: how much else am I missing?

The battery-powered bikes — which can travel faster than a pedal-powered bike and, let’s not forget, don’t need to be pedaled — are revolutionizing the trade of delivering Chinese food in Manhattan by extending the range for restaurants and speeding up the service.
The bikes have brought a small measure of ease to a profession that is virtually cornered by poor Chinese immigrants.
But the electric bikes have also caused problems: they are illegal to use on city streets, and their proliferation has led to controversy about how to regulate them.
A couple that I've seen since I read the article:

From Innovation Bootcamp

From Innovation Bootcamp

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Modern marketing at church

Walking by the New York Public Library, I was offered a free granola bar:

From Innovation Bootcamp

The granola bar came with a flyer inviting me to attend a session this coming Sunday at the Journey Church, "a casual, contemporary, Christian church with four campuses in metro New York City." 

From Innovation Bootcamp

The "contemporary" label includes a contemporary approach to marketing.  Based on prices at Wal-Mart, the granola bars cost about a quarter a piece, and definitely increased the percentage of passers-by that accepted the handout.  If the outreach committee at Journey Church hasn't read Influence by Cialdini, they are at least following the principle of reciprocity. We want to reciprocate when we receive a free gift, and the granola bar recipients are probably much more likely to read the flyer and consider attending that if they had received the flyer alone, even though granola bars don't have much to do with theology.

From Innovation Bootcamp

Monday, June 13, 2011

Making sushi fun

East Japanese Restaurant at 366 3rd Ave in Manhattan makes eating sushi fun.  A conveyor belt brings plates of sushi past you, and you can grab whatever you like.  The color of the plates indicate the prices, which range from $1.50 to $6.50 per plate.  Observations:

+ The business model makes the chefs more productive, because they can crank out a whole series of the same product
+ Increases the potential turnover in the restaurant (the number of people served per day per seat) since the model eliminates the wait time to get your order taken and then for your order to be prepared and delivered
+ Makes the wait staff more productive (they still need some wait staff to deliver drink orders or specialty orders off the menu, but those folks can handle more patrons since much of the work is removed)
+ The movement makes it more dynamic than a buffet, and more fun
+ Inspires impulse decisions.  Grab the plate now, or you'll have to wait for a couple minutes until it winds its way all around the restaurant again
+ Inspires patrons to try dishes they might not order off the menu
+ Encourages patrons to eat more than they might otherwise.  Who isn't still a little hungry after eating sushi?  Here, the barriers to eating one more dish are reduced

How could elements of the sushi conveyor built be applied to your business?

Making sushi fun from Will Bachman on Vimeo.

From Innovation Bootcamp

From Innovation Bootcamp

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Government-supported industry

Should government subsidize nascent industries?

Some might categorically oppose any government intervention, believing that the government shouldn't try to pick winners.

Others would say that the government should intervene, but be smart about where it chooses to play.

An interesting historical example that I was only dimly aware of is the early government support for the aviation industry in the U.S.  The U.S. Postal Service helped subsidize the early aviation industry.  Predictably, government intervention results in some scandals, but it seems to have also helped advance the growth of the industry in the U.S.

From Innovation Bootcamp

Saturday, June 11, 2011

What would you take to space?

While in the DC area I was able to stop for an hour at the National Air and Space MuseuSteven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport. 

It was certainly impressive to see examples of aircraft and spacecraft ranging from the first decade of the twentieth century to the Space Shuttle.

What most captured my interest was a display case on the items that astronauts take into space with them.  This included samples from the evolution of space food:

From Innovation Bootcamp

a compact disk player (I would think that after all the years of preparing to be an astronaut, I'd want to spend every minute in space looking at the Earth through the window or doing space experiments, but I guess astronauts need to relax in space) 

From Innovation Bootcamp

a personal hygiene kit (I'd definitely be leaving the razor at home)

From Innovation Bootcamp

and a makeup kit (I guess the female astronauts want to look good in the photos)

From Innovation Bootcamp

What would you want to take into space?

Friday, June 10, 2011

The ultimate welcome mat

What is a lawn for?

Is it a space for children, i.e., a playground?

Is it a private space to enjoy the sublime?

Is it a space of production - the border of a garden or an orchard?

Is it a social space, for outdoor parties?

Is it in fact a welcome mat: a place to wipe your feet but not linger as you make your way into the house?

From Innovation Bootcamp

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The last 120 cards are free

Interesting pricing at an Office Depot.  No, the product isn't in the wrong spot.

You can choose from 180 index cards for $1.99 or 300 index cards for $1.99.  Exactly the same design.

Could this be a Predictably Irrational-style pricing device to make the 300 cards seem like a good deal?

From Innovation Bootcamp

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The three-legged sawhorse

Just about any serious project requires a pair of sawhorses.

If you are working outdoors on ground that isn't quite level, one problem is that a standard sawhorse has four legs, and since three points define a plane, the sawhorse wobbles.

My dad solved this problem with a three-legged sawhorse he designed.  You can find other three-legged sawhorses with a quick Google search, but few with such elegant lines.  To me, my dad's design suggests a gazelle, perhaps with its head down in the grass.  And the way the legs are angled out, as you press down on the top of the sawhorse, it becomes less wobbly and more secure.

Nice design Dad!

From Innovation Bootcamp

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Subway drummer business model

If you've taken the subway in New York City, you've almost certainly seen a drummer.  Occasionally with an actual drum, as seen here.  More often with a 5 gallon plastic can.

One thing I've never seen is a drummer with an extra seat and an extra drum, offering to give lessons.  I'm not sure if this would generate more revenue, but if I were a subway drummer I'd try it.  For a tourist visiting New York City, it might be fun to have your friend take a video of you drumming alongside a real New Yorker.  Five dollars for a five-minute lesson might seem like a reasonable fee for the experience.  Get the spectators to participate in the experience.

From Innovation Bootcamp

Monday, June 6, 2011

"No excuse, Sir!"

I paid my way through college with a Navy R.O.T.C scholarship.  Right before freshman year, the Navy sent me to a mini bootcamp.  Nothing like the real bootcamp that enlisted folks go through, just ten days of marching around, learning to salute, and getting yelled at a lot.

In those ten days I learned one of the most valuable phrases of my life: "Sir, no excuse, Sir!"

"Midshipman Bachman, why can't you manage to shine your shoes?"

"Sir, no excuse, Sir!"

"Midshipman Bachman, were you eyeballin' me?"

"Sir, no excuse, Sir!"

"Midshipman Bachman, why do you have toothpaste on your shirt?"

"Sir, no excuse, Sir!" [While I was thinking, perhaps it had something to do with the fact that you gave all 60 of us exactly one minute to brush our teeth at the same time in a bathroom with three sinks.]

I got the message pretty quickly that in the military excuses don't really matter.  If your submarine has a rattle and gets detected and destroyed by an enemy torpedo, it really doesn't matter that you have perfectly good reasons why the sound silencing maintenance wasn't completed properly.  Your job is to anticipate issues, deal with them, and avoid the need for excuses.

Same rule holds in life, and business.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

They still make these?

Came home the other day to find a Yellow Pages sitting on our doorstep.  This was a convenient place for it, since it could go directly into the bag of recycling without having to navigate into and out of the house.

A week after tossing it, I did regret that I hadn't saved it as an artifact to show my son that this is how we looked up the phone numbers of restaurants in the days before the Internet.

From Innovation Bootcamp

Saturday, June 4, 2011

What if we extended the voting age down to zero?

How might the policies of the U.S. change if we extended the voting age down to zero?

If persons aged 14-17 could vote, and if parents got to cast the votes of kids thirteen and under?

Kids would probably attend better schools, be less likely to go hungry, and get better health care.  A relatively larger share of government spending would be on kids, and relatively less on seniors.  Healthier, better educated children would make the country stronger in the future.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Meet your (internal) customers

The sales team knows it needs to get out and meet the customers - that is obvious.

What about the supporting functions in your company?  Do they get out and meet their internal customers face to face?

Not talking here about just going to a staff meeting: Do the middle managers in HR, Finance, Facilities, Security, etc. have lunch with line managers?

A lot can be accomplished if that personal connection is established.  Line managers grumbling about the inefficiency and bureaucracy of staff functions might be a little more understanding if they know that the managers in charge of those functions are good, smart people facing tough constraints.

And instead of grumbling, the line managers might be a lot happier if they know that they can pick up the phone and get issues resolved quickly when necessary.

And the managers of those staff functions might benefit from hearing direct feedback from the line managers.  They might get a different perspective than what they hear from their direct reports and what they can see from the metrics.

Get out and meet your customers, whoever they may be.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

When will "Out of the Office" automated emails become obsolete?

What does it mean anymore to be "out of the office"?

Has it already become unacceptable to set up your email to send that automated "out of the office" response?  Will it become unacceptable sometime soon?

Already I'm a little surprised when I see these automated responses.  You mean, you are so far away you aren't even checking email?  My response is a mixture of 1) surprise; 2) respect for the other person setting some boundaries in their life; and 3) annoyance that they are setting boundaries and not checking their email.

If you are just taking the day off at the beach, will your work colleagues, vendors, customers expect you to respond anyway? At least to urgent requests?  At least forward urgent requests to the right person?

How far away do you have to go to be considered "out of the office"?

Perhaps in the future it will only be acceptable if you add some justification: "I'm currently out of the office, hiking in the wilderness, out of cellphone range and unable to charge my smartphone in any case."

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"Country ravaged; 1,213 die in tobacco strikes across country"

We're unlikely to see that as a headline anytime soon.

443,000 Americans die from tobacco-related deaths every year.

That is 1,213 every day.

To put that in context, according to the first site I found on Google, the US has lost a total of 1,582 troops in Afghanistan over the entire ten years of war there.

We lose that many Americans to tobacco-related deaths every 31 hours.

We lose 8,495 Americans to tobacco-related deaths every week - which is more deaths than were caused by terrorists on 9/11.  But I don't suspect that President Obama is planning to send in a SEAL team to take out the CEO of Reynolds American, Inc.

When 100 people die in a tornado strike, USA Today runs a headline that suggests it was "Like a Nuclear Bomb."  But when 1,213 Americans die from lung cancer, emphysema, and other smoking related illnesses every single day, we don't see front-page stories.  There is nothing newsworthy about 1,213 Americans dying, because it happened yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.

It isn't newsworthy, meaning that it isn't worthy to put in a newspaper.  That raises the question if newspapers are mindworthy - are the contents of the daily news worth putting into your mind?

Does reading the newspaper make your more aware of what is happening in the world, or less?

In many cases, the answer is less.

Because seeing articles every day about terrorists makes you a bit more willing to tolerate spending billions on transportation security, and encourages you to ignore far bigger threats to our health.

If you don't like the tobacco example, since you could say that smokers have a choice about whether to smoke or not, then you could use traffic fatalities as your benchmark to judge the news each day.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, we had 33,808 fatalities in the U.S. from traffic accidents in 2009.  That is 92 per day.  Yet I haven't seen a front page newspaper headline saying "92 Die in a Wave of Car Crashes."  Nothing newsworthy about it.

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