Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Devil You Know - and other sayings

The boys were not familiar with this expression. The Spanish version, at least the one I know, is more explanatory: "mejor es malo conocido que bueno por conocer". I thought of it because I've been thoroughly researching a product that I want to buy. I really like a particular brand but if you do enough research you find problems with anything. I have made the mistake in the past of changing my mind at the last moment and purchasing products I have not researched well - and thus have no problems that I am aware off. But more often than not, every option has its problems and you are just getting problems you were not aware off.

On a more traditional use of the expression, I told the boys about the time we decided to change the skipper of a boat we used to own due to some issues we had with with. We hired a new capitan who, on the surface, looked great, only to find out he had an even more serious problem than our previous one! This also brings up the issue of the relationships that one develops with people. One develops emotional attachments that can be more important than the faults some people have. In the case of the captain, we realized after the fact we really cared for our first capitan and should have weighted more heavily our personal relationship with him.

Another example is my car's navigation system: whenever there is traffic in the highway the system recommends that I exit the highway and use the streets instead. The problem is that the system only gets traffic information for highways, not for streets. And the default with no information is to assume there is no traffic! More than once I've gotten off the highway only to find the streets have even more traffic.

I don't mean to say that one should never make changes regardless of the problems one encounters. Only that one shouldn't confuse lack of information with lack of problems. If you need to make a change, as you often do, get enough information about the alternative you are considering so that you can compare "apples to apples". You can then determine whether the alternative is truly better than the "devil you know", or whether you need to keep looking. And to throw in one final saying in today's post: remember that the grass is always greener on the other side :-).

Friday, January 20, 2012

In the Panama Canal

A few months ago I decided to get a new car. Rather than buying the car from "the lot" I ordered it custom configured. This was only supposed to take a couple of months but delays in the factory stretched the wait to 5 months. I discovered in an online forum that if I got the VIN of my car once it was produced I could track its status. So I asked me dealer for it. He gave me the VIN but was not aware of any such tracking service. Furthermore, he didn't believe it could be done. But sure enough, I was able to find out the production day, day it was loaded on the ship, and realtime location of the ship.

I mentioned to the boys that it was incredible that with a bit of online research I had become more knowledgable than the general manager of the car dealership. We used to have to rely on such "experts" in the past, when they had exclusive access to information. Yet these days not only can be get the information ourselves but we can become more knowledgeable than them. Pretty empowering. BTW: the forum where I found the info is amazing. A super active community of people just around a single car model. Pick a topic, any topic, and there is an online community around it!

So where is my car today? In the middle of the Panama Canal of all places.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Flash of Genius

We started to watch the movie Flash of Genius last weekend. It is based on the true story of the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper and how Ford allegedly stole his idea. The boys wanted to know how Ford could do such a thing so yesterday morning in the car we spoke about protecting ideas. I covered three approaches: patents, trade secrets and winning in the marketplace. Patents can be very expensive and time consuming to defend (that was the problem the inventor in the movie had). Unfortunately the intelectual property legal system benefits those with deep pockets. I told the boys of one of my companies which recently got sued by patent troll, and how we are trying to settle even thought we don't believe that their patents are valid.

Keeping the workings of the invention secret can be a good approach but is not always feasible. In the case of the intermittent windshield wiper anyone could have bought one and see how it worked. However, it might at least give you a head start in the marketplace, so it can work well in combination with simply beating your competitors in the market with better execution.

In the movie the inventor fights Ford for over a decade, at great cost to his personal life and family. He eventually prevails and gets a huge amount of money, but we concluded no amount of money could make up for the years of his life lost.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Turning Lemons into Lemonade

Saturday we went sailing to Angel Island - then biking around it. It was a glorious day which we capped with lunch at Sam's. When we sailed to the dock at Sam's we noticed that we hit bottom (common at Sam's during low tide). We should have immediately moved the boat away but we were very hungry so we decided to eat first and then deal with the boat. After a great meal and some sweats in town reality hit: the tide had gone lower and our boat was not going anywhere until the tide came back up 4+ hours later. Lemons... This could have ruined the rest of our day. Yet we made the best of it: went to visit Cindy's parents who live nearby. The kids played some wii at their place then we borrowed their car and went home. The next morning bright and early Cindy & I drove back to Tiburon and sailed the boat back to SF. It was a particularly pleasant sail as we had the Bay to ourselves! Lemonade...

PS: I also taught the kids the R rated version of this expression, which my dear friend DC taught me: turning chicken s..t into chicken salad.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A plate full of tofu

Paco is in a bit of a pickle. He joined his school's theater group last fall but now concluded he is not enjoying it at all. He already does tons of after school activities (soccer, robotics, piano, mathletics) and gets straight As in school, so there isn't much point in him spending time on an after-school activity that he doesn't enjoy. But there is a catch: they are working on a performance and it would be problematic for the group if he drops out. The first question I asked was when the performance was. If it was a few weeks away, or even a month or two, then I thought that Paco should stick with the play. But it turns out the play is in four months. Seems like a long time for him to keep doing something that he is not enjoying - as well as enough time for the theater group to find a replacements or other alternative. A few take-aways:

- It is good to try new things. But, try to start with low commitment tests. If you want to try tofu for the first time, maybe order a side dish or, better yet, try it from someone else's plate. Don't order a full meal worth of tofu which might go to waste if you don't like it!

- As soon as you realize something is not working out deal with the situation head-on. Paco realized over a month ago that he was not enjoying the theater but he dragged his feet and tried tweaks (changing his role) until he got to the point he is now when he can't take it anymore. Problem is two plus months have gone by and dropping out is more challenging now than it would have been a month ago.

- Most important of all, though, and something that Paco is doing, is to be aware of the things you like and those that you don't. And to spend your time on those that you do like (to the extent that you can, of course).