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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Osama bin Laden Has a Laptop - How Ironic

As the story goes, Osama bin Laden is hiding out in a cave somewhere with his laptop computer.  I doubt it.  The cave is a public relations gimmick.  More likely, he has all the amenities of home: indoor plumbing, temperature control, electricity.  I mean, look who he's fighting.  You can't beat the United States with AK-47s.  You need intelligence.  You need the Internet.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that a Russian software developer unwittingly helped Shiite fighters to gain access to video feeds from U.S. unmanned flights (  When your enemy is using technology, you must learn how to fight against it.  That means you will need to understand it and find ways to defeat the advantages it provides.

Here's the irony: the fundamentalists are fighting against modernity.  In other words, they fighting for a world that doesn't contain the very tools that they must use to defeat their enemy.  Well, welcome to the vortex.  There's no escape.  They're fighting a losing battle.

At the core of the fundamentalist battle is to hold onto a strictly patriarchal society in the face of increasing gender equality.  Put more succinctly, fundamentalists want to keep their women barefoot and in the kitchen.  Good luck with that. The cats are out of bag.  Ever tried to herd cats?  Fundamentalists want to go back to a simpler time when men were men and women were women.  Men made all the decisions for society and women raised families and cared for their husbands.  For most societies on the planet, that is but one choice of many.  Choice is freedom and everybody wants it.  Even fundamentalist women.  They may choose the traditional ways, but they'd like the opportunity to choose nonetheless.

So, our enemies fight on.  And, in the process, they become more like us every day.  One of these days, both sides will wake up and neither will remember what they were fighting about.  Maybe then we could talk of peace.  Unfortunately, memories last a long time and the urge to kill is still in our blood.

Customer Service?

Today, I tried to get a refund from Pottery Barn (owned by Williams Sonoma) for a gift gone bad.  I had a gift receipt, which I figured would entitle me to full return privileges.  Wrong!  It entitled me to "store credit."  So, I asked, "what would have I gotten if I had returned the gift with no documentation at all?"  Answer: "store credit."

Hmmm.  Let me get this straight, there's no difference between having a gift receipt and not having one?  Answer: not so.  The gift receipt makes it easier for store personnel to record the return.  Well, I'm glad I could be of service.  As a customer, I live to make the work of store personnel easier.  After 10 minutes of trying to escape voice menu jail, I finally got to a person who transferred me to...hold...hold...hold.  After 10 more minutes of that, I hung up and used my smartphone to track down the president of the company.  I also found the number for HQ in San Francisco and got hold of Jennifer, the president's assistant.  She was very patient and polite and told me that it is, indeed, their policy not to give refunds without the original payment receipt.  I told her that I realized that, which is why I was calling an executive.  I wanted to discuss the error in the decision to have such a policy.  Let me explain.

The receiver of a gift from Pottery Barn (PB) is likely to fall into one of two categories: 1) someone who has never shopped at PB before or, 2) a repeat customer who likes their products.  Let's look at the effect of this policy on both types.

For #1, this is their first experience with PB.  It will probably be their last (after the spend through the forced spending spree).  Had they been greeted by a friendly clerk who cheerfully refunded their money with no hassle, their opinion of PB would likely be elevated as a company that is easy to do business with.

For #2, this annoying experience is likely to destroy any goodwill that may have been created in the past.  I happen to be a #2.  Pending the return from vacation that the executive in charge of this policy has taken, I am hoping to receive a phone call to discuss this policy.  It is my belief that my current sentiments about Pottery Barn and Williams Sonoma can be reversed with the appropriate attention.  I am a firm believer that companies can make mistakes and customers will forgive them if their recoveries are strong.  Pottery Barn has some serious recovering to do to win back my business.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

James Cameron's Giant Step

I just got back from watching Avatar.  I'm not going to do a review of the movie because I'm not a movie critic.  However, as a futurist/philosopher, I believe that it is within my purview to call out the significance of this movie.  I should preface my comments by disclosing that I watched it in IMAX 3D.  I cannot imagine it being seen any other way.

This movie is a game changer for entertainment.  I know there are other 3D movies that use the technology, but this one opens up new possibilities for the technology.  This is the "movie" version of the Internet's eBay.  Before eBay, the Internet was a gimmick: a new way to push out static content.  eBay was the first site to tap the collective nature of what the Internet would become.  It was the precursor to the very tool I am using now.

Avatar uses 3D technology to see a new path for mankind.  After reading some reviews, I realize that there is no saving some people from our savage past.  I actually read a review that said that all but the last 40 minutes of violence was a waste of time.  God help us all.  Clearly, Cameron intended us to associate with "The People."  They understood their connection to the Earth and found peace and harmony in it.  We need that message now more than ever.

My belief is that this technology will be enough to provide some people with a connection with this understanding for the first time.  Moreover, he opens up a new realm of possibility that movies (if that's even the right term for this) can be a powerful vehicle for lifting us out of our own skin.  Many will not understand what I'm talking about right away.  Like any game changer, it will take time to sink in, but as sure as I'm writing this, other movie folk are "getting it."  They will not wait to up the ante.

On the heels of these new 3D adventures will be an explosion of new home theater technology.  Let's face it, some people will be willing to pay a premium to climb inside the mind of the producers and directors who make these features.  Eventually, none of us will need to.  Remember  when a 42" LCD with HD cost $15,000.  Well, not it's 10 times less.  I can't wait until all movies are like this.  People will look back on Avatar like they look at the Wizard of Oz - the first movie that made color mean something.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Tom For A Better New Year

It has been a year since my last post. I guess I didn't take blogging very seriously. It's not January yet, but I'm going to make a resolution to be more consistent this year. Starting now.

This year, I'm going to talk about my day job as an attempted savior. I work for the University of Michigan in an institute known as IRLEE (Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy). It's a big title or an organization with big goals. We try to save people from the abyss of unemployment. In this country, it's not good to be out of work.

I work for a program called MB:S2T (Michigan Business: Surviving To Thriving). The idea is that we will help companies that are already hanging in there to do better. Some might think we should be helping all the businesses that are failing, but we don't have the resources. Our business community is like the animal community in general. The strong push out the weak. Somewhere between the strongest and the weakest, there are companies that have a chance at being stronger. Those are the companies we help.

In my job as an adviser, I believe it is important to have a broad understanding the playing field and the rules of the game. So, I read as much as I can. I read books like "The Squandering of America," "The Coming China Wars," and "Surfing on the Edge of Chaos." And, I read magazines like "Harvard Business Review," The Economist," and "Crains."

All this reading provides me with a different perspective on the world than many people. I am particularly interested in trying to make sense of the global economic playing field. It seems that whereas we once were concerned only about how autocratic governments treated their own people, we now need to consider their political aspirations in the context of global business.

That meas that what the central government in China decides as policy can affect your paycheck and the price of the things you buy. It also means that a President in Nigeria could cause a gas prices to double in Memphis.

So, this is my plan: to try to make regular sense of what is going on out there. More importantly, as a reader, maybe you'll start to question what you hear from Fox News or NPR or They all get it right sometimes, but good luck trying to sift through their political agendas.