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Sunday, December 27, 2015

Why the Cover-up?

Since October, methane gas has been spewing into the atmosphere at a rate of 110,000 pounds per hour. This linked article from The Hill was the most authoritative source I could find on the Internet. Where is CNN, MSNBC, Fox, Time, etc? Some have indicated that this is the worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill. Others would say it is worse.

While some of the oil from the spill could be cleaned up. None of the methane will be recovered. It is 25 times more harmful to our atmosphere than the CO2 we are always talking about. Why are they keeping it quiet? Could it be because they don’t know how to cap the damn thing? People don’t like problems with no solution. What’s the news? More crap got pumped into the atmosphere today?

I suppose that pockets of methane have been released into the atmosphere since we first had one. Without people to capture it, the gas just became part of the environment. This is a bit different. Aliso Canyon is a storage facility. There is more gas there than one might typically find in a single natural reserve.

Between cutting down the Amazon rainforest and pumping more crap into the atmosphere, there seems to a growing question about whether we will be able to continue to breathe what the Earth will have to offer us in the future. Another little-known fact is that the oceans are the primary source of storage for CO2 and greenhouse gases that are pulled from the atmosphere.  There is a growing layer of these gases compressed at the bottom of the oceans. Scientists believe that as the oceans warm, which they will do as the polar icecaps continue to melt, they will not be able to hold that CO2 down there. We could start seeing releases from the oceans on top of what we already pump into the atmosphere ourselves.

Maybe there are some knowledgeable people out there who know that we have already passed the point of no return. Could we clean up our atmosphere if we put all of our knowledge and resources into it? Maybe. It would obviously mean major sacrifices from everyone and a lifestyle makeover that would not be to the better for our ruling class. From an economic standpoint, what is probably necessary to reverse the trend we’re on is a disaster. Entire industries would be abandoned. Other industries would see their funding sources dry up to be diverted to more important things.

We are born selfish and greedy. It is not a good recipe for altruistic behavior. Will some of us on the planet today live to see a time when we will suffer and possibly die for the bad choices we’re making now? I don’t know. It’s like a grand game of musical chairs. We all hope the music doesn’t stop while we’re still in the game, but it always stops eventually and in this game there will be no chairs for anyone.

Ironically, if we are eventually forced to build environmentally contained domes, we will have a much harder time building the infrastructure to get off this rock during the very time we have learned how to live in other hostile environments. Maybe now is the time to start planning our escape? I think so. Other than Elon Musk and few other high tech visionaries, nobody seems to be doing much about it. I guess the money just isn’t there yet.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Confessions of a Serial Entrepreneur

I’m a serial entrepreneur. Every one of my prior attempts has been a high-tech endeavor. Despite having varying degrees of success, one thing has become apparent -- the high-tech world is fundamentally unstable. Things change, change causes disruption, and one cannot be expected to respond successfully to disruption every time.

When a good friend approached me and my wife about a business selling soaps, lotions and lip balm, my first reaction was “finally, a non-high-tech business!” The thought that I wouldn’t need to deal with constantly changing technology had tremendous appeal. The fact that we’re selling soap was...meh. I guess I was more excited about what the business wasn’t.

Fast forward -- we’re making soap. We’re learning about different soap formulas. I’m still roughly in the “meh” camp. The thing about good soap is that it takes up to six weeks to properly cure. So, when you make it, you need to wait awhile to see how you did. During that time, I’ve discovered that there are lots of people out there that are very enthusiastic about soap.

I’ve been using Dial and Irish Spring and various other household brands for my entire life. I’ve never thought twice about it. Recently, I learned that this stuff isn’t even really soap. It turns out that soap is made when you mix fat with lye to create a chemical process called “saponification,” which turns the fats into salts. Different types of fats produce different effects. Okay, that’s probably more than you want to know about soapmaking. Here’s the thing, look at the ingredients of Irish Spring:


I had to look up tallowate and kernelate to figure out what’s going on here. Apparently, these are fats that have somehow already been converted to salts. This undoubtedly eliminates the curing, which means faster to market. By the way, tallowate is made from beef fat, so if you use this, your soap is not vegan. Bottom line: this stuff is designed to be quick to make first and foremost.

Back to me. Finally, I got around to using actual soap. Wow! What a difference. If you’ve never used real soap. You will probably be as surprised as me. It actually makes my skin feel better. Now, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has a lot to say about when you can make claims about what a product can do for your body and as an owner I need to be careful about making “claims.” So, this is just me talking about me. Your results may vary.

If you happen to have actually gotten this far into my post today, I’m going to make it a bit easier for you to try out some real soap. Just go to the Ti LeBlanc website and pick yourself out a bar of soap. Type in “friendsshipfree” (without the quotes) into the coupon code box when you check out guessed it!...we won’t charge you for shipping (Sorry, U.S. customers only -- for now). I’d love to hear what you think. We have a Facebook page and as a new company, every customer gets the sort of attention that as a customer, you live for. As a matter of fact, if you’ve got some ideas for a product, let us know. We might just whip you up a batch!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Going Private: The New Going Public

Rarely does one get an opportunity to see the effects of “going public” so starkly. My wife worked for Whole Foods Market (WFM) for 21 years. When she started, the company was still privately held. It was a gem. Employees were given extensive training, had substantial autonomy in performing their jobs, and were held accountable to their results. Using an organizational structure modeled on Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, teamwork was highly valued and encouraged.

Most importantly, quality and stewardship were valued more than profits. That did not stop profits from coming. In fact, Wall Street could not wait to get their hands on those profits. Eventually, they won out. Many early employees who were granted substantial stock options cashed out and left the company. What happened next was a slow decline into corporate ordinary-ness.

I will not bore you with details as you can get those elsewhere. What I can tell you is that Wall Street forces all of “their” companies into a straightjacket that is not good for them, not good for employees, not good for customers, and not good for society. It is designed to be good for investors and thus they are the only ones who ultimately benefit...for awhile.

For certain, pumping more money into a company can help it grow faster. In the early stages of public life, this can be a huge boon. With the pre-public structure that brought them still in place, newfound money means more of a good thing. Unfortunately, companies can’t and shouldn’t grow forever. Eventually, they reach the optimal size. For WFM, it was when they had put stores in all the carefully vetted locations that fit their model.

Wall Street is a hungry beast that is never full. They demand either growth or increased capital efficiency. Once a company gets on this treadmill, it is a matter of time before they must tear down the very edifice which allowed them to go public in the first place. For WFM, it means putting stores in locations that don’t fit their model, thus forcing them to abandon that model which was so successful. For others, it is expanding product lines into unfamiliar areas with stronger competition.

First, the employees start to notice the difference. Empowerment becomes a catchphrase with little substance as “corporate” starts pulling back control from the field. With a return of control to the central authority, there is less need for high caliber employees, so they leave. This creates more mistakes, which encourages the central authorities to pull back even more functions. Of course, this precedes another round of layoffs. Layoffs create badwill (the opposite of goodwill).

As the organization continues to have fewer people with less time to reach out and touch consumers, it becomes an empty brand without its original substance. What large publicly held corporation hasn’t gone this way? Oh sure, they try to put a human face on it. You can put lipstick on a pig, but I wouldn’t want to go to work for it (or kiss it).

The answer, it seems to me, is for publicly traded companies who want to get their soul back to go private. This can be done and it is a win-win-win-win situation. Private equity investors get a better company, consumers get a better company, employees get a better company and Wall Street loses one more victim.

Michael Dell has tried to take Dell Computer private. Before John Mackie retires, he should take Whole Foods Market private. Really, any CEO/major stockholder who really cares about what he/she has built ought to go private. Better yet, don’t go public in the first place.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Music Makes You Smarter

When I was in fifth grade, we had a special class in which we got to go to the band room and “meet” all the different instruments. Something about the trumpet just called to me. Later, I found out that fifth graders play the coronet, a smaller version of the trumpet. We rented one and so began my musical career. I was about eleven years old.

I continued playing the coronet until I got braces a few years later. The mouthpiece cut into my lips, which created a bloody mess (literally and figuratively). I switched to baritone, which is like a mini tuba. I liked playing on the low end. When I was fifteen, I started playing harmonica and when I was sixteen, after a failed attempt at playing guitar, I took up the bass. Years later, I added hand drums to my list of instruments. Each new instrument informed my musical vocabulary.

Interestingly, there is a linguistic connection to music. It turns out that FMRI scans of human brains playing a musical instrument shows the same active areas as speaking (plus a few). Furthermore, since music involves not only intonations, but rhythm, tempo and volume, it stimulates the brain even more. Some studies are starting to suggest that musicians keep their cognitive functions longer than non-musicians as they age.

Listening to music triggers some of the same linguistic centers of the brain, but it also triggers six different emotional centers. Surprise! Music is good for the soul. We all knew this already, but scientists are starting to catch up with us. You know how they like to have an explanation for everything.

I have my own theory about music. I think you can stimulate your brain further by listening to more complex forms like jazz and classical. These forms are not easy to listen to, but if you practice it gets more enjoyable with time and as an added bonus, you get smarter! So, listen to some jazz or classical music. Progressive rock has elements of both jazz and classical for all you rockers. It’s good for your soul, your soles (okay, classical not so much as they tend to like you listening to that sitting down) and your brain.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Polarization: Accident or Plan?

Yesterday, I was reading an article in The Economist and, as is my practice, I read some of the top comments. I really like the comment section in TE because it is one of the few places where liberals and conservatives converge. What I find interesting is that there are three basic voices in the fray:
            1. People who identify as conservative
            2. People who identify as liberal
            3. People who identify with a set of ideas that they believe

I know, I know. You’re going to tell me that the first two groups will see themselves as the same as group #3. I don’t dispute that. However, being that I find myself in group #3, I can tell you that there is a difference. The difference is this: I sometimes find myself agreeing and disagreeing with views in both of the first two groups. I do not buy the doctrine of either group lock, stock and smoking barrel. What seems clear from my TE exploits is that I am in the minority. How can someone who is pro-choice and in favor of a single-payer medical insurance system also be in favor of capital punishment and the right to carry a concealed weapon?

The answer is, I don’t buy in bulk. I buy one idea at a time. I don’t buy planks in a platform. I don’t buy all the views of Bill Kristol or Bill Maher. I don’t just watch Fox and I don’t just watch PBS. Basically, I have a hard time understanding why anyone would abdicate their right to free thought in favor of an entire collection of ideas that have been packaged by someone else.

I have spoken with people on both sides of the political fence and they both think they are smarter and know more than the “other guys.” Conservatives are always complaining that liberals think they are smarter than the conservatives, but conservatives know better. Liberals think they are being objective and that conservative ideas just don’t work and if conservatives were better informed they would understand this.

Reality is much more complex. The simple ideas put forth by both camps are almost always bullshit. Liberals say we’ve got to get rid of guns. We can’t! Conservatives say law abiding citizens should be allowed to carry a weapon. Sounds good until the law abiding citizen’s crazy son shoots up a school. It’s complicated.

Our lives are so filled these days. Many work long hours, sometimes at two jobs, to provide for their families. They try to pack some fun and relaxation in around their jobs and there isn’t a whole lot of time for reading up on the latest issues. Having a nice packaged set of ideas that are ready to serve starts to look like a handy time-saving device. For the same reason that eating only McDonald’s food will eventually kill you, doing either set of packaged ideas would eventually destroy this country.

Maybe...just maybe, our leaders like it the way it is. They know that the issues we face are complicated. They understand that to solve most of them, we need to develop solutions that will be complex, hard to sell to the American people and have something for everyone to hate. It’s a whole lot easier to blame the other side for holding up the show. It’s politically safer to cobble together stupid solutions that are compromises of what both sides want and then when they don’t work well, blame the other side for forcing bad compromises on them.

If you want to be part of the solution, do your homework! Read the arguments on both sides, but also do some scholarly reading on the topic so that you have a less politicized view of the issues in question. Throw out your existing beliefs and form some new ones based on something complex that has a real chance of working. Trust me on this: if the big problems we face in the world today had simple solutions, we would have solved them by now. We’re down to the hard stuff. Polarization = gridlock.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Forget Political Correctness

Courtesy of
I would like to thank Donald Trump. I think he’s a baffoon, but I like the fact that he doesn’t seem to care about political correctness. When a Caliphaniac (my term for Middle Eastern terrorist) blows themselves up, they are typically told that their families will be cared for. Trump says we should blow up their families. However clever this may sound, it’s all kinds of wrong.

The fact that he doesn’t care who he offends makes Trump a real trailblazer in the public space -- especially for an actual politician (although I use the term loosely). Imagine, if you can, politicians saying whatever they think regardless of who it offends. It would be the end of political correctness as we know it. At the very least, we’d need to rename it. We could call it Wimp’s Correctness or maybe Overly Empathetic Candy Ass Correctness.

For example, as a white guy, I’ve always wondered why I can’t publicly say “hey nigger, what’s up?” Black guys can say it to me, but god help me if I say it back. Last year, I used the word “Oriental” to refer to Asians and my Asian coworkers almost blew a proverbial gasket. Apparently, “the ‘O’ word” is off limits now. They knew what I was talking about so from a communication standpoint, the word worked just fine. Who’s idea was to make it offensive unless you’re referring to rugs?

This all strikes me as a big waste of everyone’s time. How many hours do we spend collectively every day searching for just the right words to say something? Frankly, it’s bullshit -- and that IS the right word. If you can’t look into someone’s heart and determine whether they’re being malicious or not, go take some empathy lessons - you’re probably an asshole anyway, so you need them.

I cringe every time I see some parent teaching their little ones political correctness. It usually goes something like this:

Child: “Mommy look at that fat man! He’s huge.
Mommy: “Sweetie, it’s not nice to point and he’s not fat, he’s massively challenged.”
Child: “What’s ‘massively challenged’?”
Mommy: “Never mind. Just don’t call people fat.”
Child: “That’s dumb.”
Mommy: “You mean intellectually suboptimal.”

We take simple descriptions like fat, ugly, dumb asshole and change them to obese, cosmetically, intellectually, and attitudinally challenged individual. Just the cost in hard drive space to store all this crap is unfathomable.

As much as a president Trump might get us all killed, he might also shake off a few bad habits. Maybe if we got a few more things out in the open with some straight talk, we could start to heal some of the unspoken (or jibbered up) wounds. I dare to dream!

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Corporatocracy's Icy Grip

Why did we go to war in Iraq when we were attacked by the Taliban out of Afghanistan? Why are we stripping the Amazon rainforest when we know it is the lungs of the world and the source of immense biodiversity (some of which may hold the cure for various diseases)? Some individual or group is making these decisions and their reasons are not very transparent.

We get our information about these decisions from the mainstream media. We assume that the media is free and independent. However, mainstream media is now generally owned by some of the largest corporations in the world. So, the media are corporations. As such, they have the typical self-interests of any corporation. In order to satisfy those self-interests, they need support from the government.

Further, the government is largely made up of the most successful individuals from the corporate world. I’m not talking about politicians (although some of them are from corporations), rather the policy makers. They’re the ones that write the scripts for the politicians. They’re the ones who provide the options and recommendations from which the politicians choose. They pull the strings. They are almost exclusively from corporations. Go ahead, look it up -- I’ll wait…

Okay, so now you know that government and corporations are essentially one big entity. Author John Perkins calls this the “corporatocracy.” The term lays bare the most important fact about our global society. It is run by these people. They have self-interests. Those self-interests do not usually align with those of “we, the people” (or the 99% as some would call us).

What we know is that we have enough food to end starvation. We have enough drug making capacity to end the diseases that kill the vast majority of children and women who die daily. We have the technology to end the use of fossil fuels in the next 10 or 20 years. There is so much we could do to make this a better place to live, but we don’t. Why?

The answer almost always comes down to one factor - economics. The financial factors are not controlled by “we, the people.” They are controlled by the corporatocracy. They are the “they” which we often talk about when we discuss the things out of our control. What reason could “they” have for not solving the world’s major problems if the solutions are within reach?

We can choose to believe when “they” tell us “it’s complicated,” there must be good reasons why they don’t do these things for us. What if the truth is simply greed? How would we know? Is it fair to assume that someone who has climbed -- no -- scratched and clawed their way to the top of the corporatocracy’s food chain has self-interest deep in their heart? I think so. Surrounded by like-minded people, it is not hard to imagine what sort of decisions they make.

Take a look at the world in which we live. It’s not hard at all to imagine. The evidence of their decisions is all around us. Can we take back control? Maybe, but first we will need widespread awareness. Spread the word. The corporatacracy does not have our best interests in their hearts. We need to control the conversation with posts like this one.