Category Archives: work

Faint Winds

Faint winds blow warm, cool; warm, cool,
No sign for the reason why,
Captured by welcome fascination,
With moments of sparked elation.

Circulating, embracing, raw, and fleeting,
Drawing on colored boundaries,
Subject to induced reception,
Growing in an instinctive direction.

Digital Sludge

Anyone who might have hibernated for the last 100 years and just woken up would no doubt be dumbfounded by how life works in 2017.  In no other hundred-year period in history would that be true to the same degree as the last 100.

Seeing how we jet around the world, live in 50-story high-rises, and carry closely guarded hand-held communication devices would be jaw dropping.  This modern Rip Van Winkle may also be perplexed by how data is transmitted through the air to the multitude of devices we use to communicate.

We would need to explain to Rip that our computers, tablets, and in particular our handheld devices can do almost anything, from ordering groceries, to taxis, taking photos, making movies, bank transactions, listening to music of any kind, to instantly accessing the information of virtually all the libraries in the world.  And much more.  He would readily see that all this information, data and media, moves invisibly through the air.  That would sound farfetched, but Van Winkle would eventually believe by experiencing, just as we do.router-1

We are all dependent on WiFi today.  In fact, we are demanding it everywhere. Whether on a mountain top or a subway, when it’s not available, we’re lost.  If not lost, perhaps feeling a little empty.  It’s perplexing enough to think of data moving through wires.  For that same data to be converted and coded, and transmit itself through the unseen airwaves, then recoded back to intelligible media is downright flabbergasting, at least for the less-than-genius of us.  How could sophisticated data be so quickly and magically transformed, ride on non-ionized radio waves in the form of “1’s” and “0’s” and arrive recognizable almost instantly?

In our current reality, most of us don’t give much thought to the process. It just happens.  Many times not fast enough.  However, any pipe or pathway carrying stuff accumulates contamination over time.  Drano to the rescue for many of our home pipes.  We are becoming careful about what we eat so as not to clog up our internal ducts.  But what about the digital pathways?  Yep, they also become clogged.  These electromagnetic signals get jostled and misplaced. Sometimes an errant 1 or 0 get digitally hung up.  When the hangups build up, things get sludgy.

We are fairly certain that the frequency of radio waves don't harm us

We are fairly certain that the frequency of radio waves don’t harm us

The solution? The simple act of unplugging our WiFi router (the coder/decoder) once in a while has the affect of a good cleaning. As we know, purging is an activity better done on a routine basis.  You can let it go, but like the bathroom, the environment gets nastier over time.

Some even suggest a daily router cleaning.  But a weekly WiFi router recycling habit is a smart practice for keeping digital sludge to a minimum.

banking on accounts

After just over two years (mostly) in China, I finally opened a local bank account yesterday.  Why did it take so long?  Who knows.  I was told that I needed a resident visa (which I don’t have), then someone recently verified in the Bank of China that an account could be opened with a (non-resident) business visa if it showed stays of 90 day entries.  Mine is only 60 day stays.  (Since last November, China reciprocated with the USA issuing 10-year multiple entry visas to each other’s nationals.  But unlike the previous one-year multiple entry China visas with 90 day stays, the 10-year comes only with 60-day, which is not an issue as Hong Kong is not far away and counts as leaving the country, even though it’s the same country).  All that aside, I entered a local, yet national, bank yesterday with my passport, walked up to the teller window and opened a bank account.  They didn’t even check for a visa.  Five minutes later I was in the banking business with a debit card and a live account.

I now have two China bank accounts, although both have zero balances.  I opened a Hong Kong bank account several years ago from New York.  I had started a business with a partner so we needed a bank account.  Since he was a premier member with this bank, we were issued a business bank account in the USA (since closed) and as part of the service, they opened a personal account for me in Hong Kong — with zero balance.  For the last several years, they still send me zero balance statements every quarter.  But that bank is in Hong Kong and I’m north of Shanghai, so another bank account was in order.

The impetus to open an account was ease of paying for prepaid cel phone service.  Until now, when the balance on my local sim card gets low, either with phone or data, it requires a visit to the phone company office to buy additional service — somewhat inconvenient.  Now however, once I fund the account, I can pay either automatically or with my new debit card through one of several smart phone apps.  Yea sure, it helps also not to have cash hanging around at home — better in a bank where it’s (somewhat) safer.

They say, (they = weathermen) that it’s prudent to have an offshore bank account anyhow — not for hiding money (that’s illegal), but for diversifying risk and ease of access for traveling.

Regardless, I’m poised and ready, with two active zero-balance China bank accounts, to start using them one day — even if it’s to keep cel phone service alive.  So I’d better stop writing blog posts, get off my ass and make things happen so I can start banking on those accounts.

Wuxi to Hong Kong

And on to India.

What is it with Wuxi?  I was there once in the past year and a half, then again twice last week.  This trip to India was instigated while on the last Wuxi trip.  During the past six months, my colleague D and I had been discussing options for expanding our business.  He had been seriously considering doubling the size of his current operations in China.  Then due to a couple of recent “road signs” he was attracted to India as a possible better option.  As we started our Wuxi to Ningbo trip, he seemed perched on the fence.  It didn’t take much of a nudge to push him over.  He landed firmly on his feet and before we knew it we were planing a research trip to India for the following week.

India makes sense for many reasons, not the least of which is that D is Indian, and, he is familiar with the landscape, the culture, the complexity of its people, availability of raw material and labor, and other natural factors.  Even though it was purely exploratory in nature, our 13 day trip was full, with no time wasted, which is why this post is late.

a sampling of various chutneys a local restaurant Annapoorna (goddess of food) in Coimbatore

a sampling of various chutneys a local restaurant Annapoorna (goddess of food) in Coimbatore

We took a flight from Wuxi to Hong Kong two Saturdays ago where we hung out for the day before our scheduled evening flight to India and arrived to his Delhi home just before midnight.  After running errands the next day we took an early Monday flight to Coimbatore over Mumbai, where we were taken directly to a denim mill.  We didn’t stop for the rest of the trip.

mountain countryside heading up elevation

mountain countryside heading up elevation

Our one planned break was a late afternoon trip out of Coimbatore to a “hill station” as they call them, traveling from 1,000 to nearly 8,000 feet elevation to the hill station Ooti.  The trip wasn’t far, but it took a couple of hours on a two-lane, switch-back road, with lots of hairpin curves full of trucks, busses, motorcycles, monkeys, and other assorted cattle.  The scenery up and down was outstanding, if only it weren’t for our driver heading into the oncoming lane in every other blind curve to overtake the vehicle in front of us, the drive would have been a tad more relaxing.  At our Ooti destination, because neither of us brought anything heavier than a light-weight, long-sleeve shirt, we had to stop and buy sweaters.  It was a treat going from 90 degree weather that afternoon to being warmed by a wood burning fireplace that evening.

we bought some indigo dyed ropes from this lady at a roadside village shop

we bought some indigo dyed ropes from this lady at a roadside village shop

Our stay in Ooti was a partial excuse to see a special friend of D’s, B, whom he had not seen for more than 12 years.  B lives in a nearby hill station called Ketti, where she invited us for lunch to her gorgeously decorated home atop a hill with an expansive view of the Ketti area.  The panorama with only the wind to listen to was relaxing enough to want to sit cross-legged and chant.  It was a perspective of Indian life I had not experienced before — a beautiful mountain property, superb view, in a village populated by (somewhat) like-minded intellectuals who had decided to settle, at least for a while, in pure mountain air that only a life away from city and industry can provide.

D with a 91 year old local as we were surveying a property

D with a 91 year old local as we were surveying a property

After a full week in and around villages near Coimbatore, it was off to Chennai Saturday night for a full day of meetings before heading back to Delhi the next evening.  Two more errand-packed days in Delhi, then it was back to Wuxi on a red-eye flight through Hong Kong.

morning roadside refreshments in Ooti

morning roadside refreshments in Ooti

Although I’d been several times before, I came away from this India trip remembering two colorful aspects: One, although I rarely eat Indian food, on this trip I had only Indian food.  The local cuisine wherever we went, in the north or the south, was outrageously delicious.  The curries and chutneys are to die for.   The food was so good that, for better or worse, we ate every meal like there wouldn’t be a next.

And two, with so much time on the road, you learn that Indians don’t much consider traffic lanes as such.  When there are visible lane markers, no one pays much attention to them.  A two-lane road may easily fit four to five vehicles, depending on the width of the those cramming themselves into whatever space happens to be there.

tea at a mountain tea shop near Ooti

tea at a mountain tea shop

village viewThe differences between the two most populated countries on earth are stark.  Having a foot in both China and India may make a lot of sense.

 

on the way to Ooti

on the way to Ooti

left to right, F, B, and D

left to right, F, B, and D at B’s home in Ketti

breakfast in Chennai, complete with dosa, chutney, south indian coffee, and a tranquil view out the restaurant window, insulated from real life on the street

breakfast in Chennai, complete with dosa, chutney, south indian coffee, and a tranquil view out the restaurant window, insulated from real life on the street

south indian coffee, sans the sugar

south indian coffee, sans the sugar

 

 

Peter Principle x’s 2

The (in)famous Peter Principle, developed by some dude named, who else, Peter, has been around for decades, and still valid.  The principle refers to the idea that employees in an organization are eventually promoted to their level of incompetence.  In other words, we all have certain skill sets, we excel at those skills, then eventually promoted to positions exceeding our talents and abilities.

Employees are promoted for many reasons; tenure, outstanding performance, loyalty and trustworthiness, or an immediate need.  Organizations also tend to outgrow the skill sets of many employees.  Of course we learn, stretch, grow, do more.  But we all are not CEOs (except of our own lives).  We level out somewhere and excel at something. Many entrepreneurs start, then grow, businesses beyond their skills as managers of the organizations they’ve founded — a kind of Peter Principle in reverse.

This past week I learned of another Peter Principle, a Chinese version, somewhat different. One of our neighboring garment factories was founded and is run by a Chinese guy who’s English name is Peter.  He happened to be at dinner the other evening with a couple of us, during which, he expounded on his philosophy of running and controlling an effective (Chinese) workforce.  Chinese Peter’s principle goes like this: A workforce can be effectively maintained by treating all employees fairly.  And, if for any reason an employee disagrees with that definition of fairness, you f**k them good (hence keeping everyone in line by showing others what happens when [your idea of] fairness is challenged).

I’m fairly certain that Chinese Peter does not know about the original Peter Principle.  It didn’t sound like there was too much promoting going on, except for his idea of fairness.

I’m also fairly certain that both Peter Principles could not coexist in an organization, unless you ran it, your name was Peter, and you came up with a 3rd principle.  If so, it might go something like this: I’m giving you a fair promotion and expect that you will perform the job well.  If not, I’ll f**k you good.

P.S.
The trick, for brands of any product in countries where production is attractive, is understanding the principles being practiced in the factories where their goods are being made.  It’s not so easy, thanks to Peter.

to be or not to be — 4G or E

In the days when a phone was just a phone, data speed wasn’t an issue.  But we’ve evolved.  And hopefully, we’ll continue to do so.  Expanded data speed on mobile devices increases efficiency of many tasks, from gps, to translating languages, to a plethora of communication formats.  Speed wise, we’ve gone from 1G to 2G to E, then 3G, now 4G and LTE, soon to be 5G.

But with data speeds, as with other aspects of life, some of us don’t want to evolve so quickly.  Some have pegged a bar and decided not to evolve beyond a certain point.  The Amish sect in the USA are one example.  They shun (outwardly) things that are modern, even though modern is an evolving target.  As well, other orthodox religions have capped progress, one going so far as making an entire gender inferior to the other.  Some states cap evolution by restricting information in an effort to keep their people uninformed.  And certain industries restrict progress for the protection of profit.

Maybe it’s because I worked in Silicon Vally when Steve Jobs ran Apple (his first time), that I became a dedicated Apple user long before Mac products were mainstream.  I jumped at the first iPhone model and upgraded to almost every new model since.  I was, therefore, antsy to acquire the iPhone 6, allowing me to unlock my two-year old 5 model to use in China with my local sim card.  Little did I realize that there are almost two dozen iPhone 5 models, which, depending on where there are sold, differ (widely) in their technical specs for cellular connectivity.  Nevertheless, the iPhone 5 I have and the local sim card are both LTE/4G enabled.  However, they don’t work together.  The local phone company has a restriction on certain phone models preventing the use of 4G service, my current model iPhone 5 happens to be one of them.  Evolution stunted.

So until I change phones, again, to a model the local company approves, 4G is not to be, nor is 3G.  It’s back to E.

fabric shopping

If you think fabric shopping might excite you, then maybe a visit to Keqiao, China, should be on your agenda.

I happened to be in Keqiao for a few days earlier in the week, which is why this post could not be hung to dry in time. I was fabric shopping, a few days on end. You could probably spend a couple of weeks there and not see all there is to see. Just about any type, color and finish of fabric that might tickle the fibers of your funny bone is hiding in plain sight. That’s no yarn spin. It was enough of an adventure to say that I’ve had my fill of fabric shopping for, say, another three months (maybe).

this hall is a lot longer than it looks.  and there are hundreds of them in Keqiao

this hall is a lot longer than it looks. and there are hundreds of them in Keqiao

It was only a 3.5 hour drive to get there, long enough for at least one pit stop each way. Hope someone likes the fabric we bought. If nothing else, the cloth will make lovely pet cushions.

heading to the village, again

There is nothing like living in New York City.  After 12 years, the only disagreeable part is the sub-freezing winters.  Otherwise, I’m fat and happy on the concrete island of Manhattan.

But now, as in eight years ago, it’s a necessary transition to a (much) more provincial setting.  In 2006, it was a move to Medellin, Colombia.  This year, at the top of 2014, it’s Zhangjiagang, China.

In 2006, the move involved developing export business from Colombia, which was working until the currency of the dollar fell hard in 2007 against the peso.  From one month to the next, export prices rose by more than 20% from exchange value only.  Several factors came together putting heavy pressure on Colombian exporters trading for US dollars, the only exempted item was a little green leaf turned into white powder.

In China, a similar confluence is doubtful, although after years of super-strong growth, the cost of living has risen significantly.  Not that everyone is well off, but certainly millions have been lifted out of a poverty level and into a well-to-do level.  Time will tell if that dramatic change will effect overall population health.

some boo choy spread out to dry

bok choy spread out to dry

Still, the costs to manufacture in China are attractive.  In fact, the Colombians have been coming here for clothes since their peso strengthened so well.

But the point of the post is moving back to a province.  Cosmopolitan Zhainjiagang is not.  If fact, wherever I go most people stare at me as if I’m an enigma.  Just like the barrios around Medellin, I’m a strange white guy glaringly out of place, except this time I can’t yet speak to them, only smile and point, wave and shrug.  There are other round eyes but in a village of 1.3 million, we rarely pass on the street.

A week into this project, and I was fortunate to get back on a borrowed bicycle today and get lost in the nearby tiny villages for a few hours before I really got lost.  The smart phone gps wasn’t too smart today, or maybe the user forgot to pin his home base.  Lots of blank stares when I asked for directions, which had me peddling in circles as the sun started its daily drop.

about 30 km outside Z'gang, pulled over for a needed pitstop (nature break).

about 30 km outside Z’gang, pulled over for a needed pitstop (nature break).

But after one short week, I can tell the village and I will get along just fine.

too polite

The building where I work, like most office buildings in NYC, has a bank of elevators.  They are always busy.  It’s an unwritten rule that women enter and exit elevator cars before men.  A gallant rule.  The lobby elevators at street level are a short distance to the heavy building doors.  When exiting the building, if a woman steps out of the elevator first, she is automatically the first one to the building doors, which she must heave open. Good elevator etiquette trumps door-opening etiquette, the first act of politeness preventing the second act.  I’ve not asked any females which they’d prefer, following a man out of the elevator and having the building door opened for her, or the reverse.

To get into the hallway where my office is located on the 11th floor, you’ve got to enter a four digit code into a keypad beside an entrance door.  There are dozens of individual offices inside and it’s a security precaution.  As it’s a busy office space, it’s not unusual that someone coming off the elevator is behind you, or in front of you.  If you’ve arrived to the door first and someone is behind you, it’s only polite to hold the door, even though the door swings back slowly with an automatic closure.

If someone is five or seven feet back when you gain entrance to the locked door, you might hold the door open for that person so they can forgo code punching.  But if the person is fifteen feet back or more, do you still hold the door?  Some do, thereby creating the feeling that the person approaching the door needs to pick up the pace, or start a slight jog to show a reciprocated politeness at the door being held from a distance.  Yet others don’t hold, keeping it less complicated by not looking back and maintaining a limited peripheral vision.

I’ve got the door closure timing down.  At 12-15 feet away when the door starts swinging closed, most people could easily get to the door before it closes, waddlers excepted.  When someone holds the door for me at that distance, I try to tell them to let go, “I’ve got it” wishing they would not be so polite.  When they hold, I’ve got to politely show a faster pace when I could have easily made it at my own pace.  Truth is, I like timing the door closure and adjusting my pace accordingly.  The act of being too polite thwarts that small thrill.

Such trivial mundane nuances, better never thought about.  But it does bring another unwritten rule to mind, when in doubt error on the side of politeness.  How can the door holder know that the person 10 feet back would rather time the door closure than having it held, most likely by a woman, who arrived first as a result of good elevator etiquette.

where are your clothes made?

Ever since the building collapse in Bangladesh a couple of months ago that killed over 1,100 garment workers, the New York Times has run almost weekly front-page articles covering the story.  Each piece names retailers and brands, US and European, who make substantial garment purchases in Bangladesh.  The WSJ has also had their share of B’desh articles recently.  These periodicals are bringing garment sourcing front and center.

The articles point to Bangladesh as one of the cheapest places on earth to make apparel.  The writers of these articles seem to point a finger at the brands and retailers for exploiting a cheap source.  But what they don’t point to is why.  The answer is simple.  We, the mass market in the US and Europe, demand cheap clothes.

How many times have we complemented someone on what they were wearing only to have that person proudly quote how cheap they bought the item?  We love bargains, the cheaper the better.  When we find deals, we share our find with whoever will listen.  We can’t get enough of them.  We are mass market in constant search of bargains.  And an endless number of retailers are fighting for our attention by scouring the earth to bring us the cheapest garments possible.

We are affected by huge volumes of media showing us what it means to be fashionable.  The cheaper the garments are, the more we can buy.  Many mass market retailers have done creative work making garments available to the masses for incredibly inexpensive prices.  Principally, because we are a good audience.  We consume, throw away, recycle, and consume some more.

It used to be that people had a few key clothing items in their closets.  We didn’t used to collect clothes just to have more clothes.  That was then.  Today is a different story.

Part of the time I lived in San Francisco it was with a girlfriend who had relatively few clothes (in comparison to most).  She could afford more, but chose not to.  She always looked elegantly fashionable yet her closet was small.  She was in the fashion business.  She invested in quality pieces that were fashionably classic, mostly black or white, and combined them in ways that made it appear she had more outfits they she did.  Her philosophy was to have fewer higher quality pieces rather than many cheaper ones.  She was not mass market.  Most of us are.

Years ago, I worked for a large speciality retailer.  When I started with them, 60-70% of their clothes were made in the USA.  Today that number is somewhere under 2%.  That transition took place for main two reasons: 1) people got better jobs and 2) competition demanded we find cheaper labor.

Sewing garments is a low skill job.  One doesn’t think “one day I’m going to grow up to be a sewing machine operator.”  Unless you order a custom, fully-constructed blazer or a couture piece, you likely don’t need a craftsperson stitching your garments.  In all likelihood, your clothes were stitched by a production line of sewing operators each performing a single operation over-and-over, hour-after-hour, day-after-day, making minimum wage in a foreign country.  The larger the buyer’s order, the more efficient the sewers become at that one operation, and the cheaper the clothes become.  It’s simple economies-of-scale.

About two months ago, there was an article in the WSJ: The Economics of a $6.75 shirt.

made with the lowest wages on the globe

made with the lowest wages on the globe

The article talked specifically to Bangladesh.  The author broke down the costs of a $6.75 button-down woven shirt (several x’s that price by the time we buy it).  Using a fine 50s thread count cotton yarn, the fabric cost for the shirt is $4.75.  Accessories like labels, buttons and other items the retailer requires cost another $1.  The remaining $1 gets allocated to cut fabric, sew the garment, light washing, factory & office overhead, marketing, and bank interest.  The Bangladeshi wage of about $80/month comes out of a small portion of that last dollar.  There is not much room to give that worker a raise.  It’s not that the factory would not want to pay the workers more.  If they do, the buyers will go to another low cost country.

Savvy retailers know down to the fraction of a yard or gram of fabric used in each garment.  They measure the efficiency of each sewing operation, called SAM’s (standard allowed minutes), and pay the factory accordingly. Others less detailed will simply not pay more than that last dollar to cut & sew a woven shirt.  The result? Corners get cut.  They are not always evident, but they get cut.

Garments made in cheap labor countries is not a bad thing.  Transiting to low wage countries has helped provide jobs, pulling millions out of lower levels of poverty.  It’s provided fuel for part of that country’s economic engine.  As the engine gains speed, more people are lifted out of poverty.  Those people eventually, after years of production line sewing, want better jobs.  It’s why large garment production factories left the U.S.  It’s now why buyers are leaving China and flooding into countries like Bangladesh.

For designers and buyers in the mass market, price is their guide.  They think fashion, but are hamstrung and limited by price.  The further you get off the bottom of the barrel, the garment quality starts usurping price as the ultimate guide.  But the audience starts to thin the further off the bottom you swim.

Looking at the “made in” label of the garment we purchase is more likely an afterthought, if a thought at all.  Who cares where it was made, it was a deal.  We are a consumption society.

I’d expound in more detail, but right now I’ve got to run to the corner as there is a sale on tee shirts, five for $20.  One can never have enough tee shirts in the closet.  I’m not sure where they are made.  It won’t matter because it’s a bargain to hard to pass up.