Saturday, February 28, 2009

Customer Service Special Report from BusinessWeek

The March 2 issue of BusinessWeek featured it's annual ranking of the top performing companies in the all-important area of customer service.

The list itself was interesting (with online retailer Amazon at #1), but there was lot of associated pieces of note. These ranged from the special report introductory article to the feature piece on Amazon and a host of other vignettes that can be found at this special report jumping off page from the BusinessWeek site.

I previously posted about customer service here in reference to the 2008 special report from BusinessWeek and find this to be such a hugely important thing for companies needing to compete harder than ever for every customer... and every customer dollar.

Barack Obama's Budget & Speech to Congress

Really enjoyed Joe Klein's "Obama's Speech: A Tonal Masterpiece" from the latest Time Magazine. Solid stuff and the speech it references (particularly the final minute of the speech) is below...

Also, this 3 minute video of Obama several days later introducing his first budget is worth listening to...

Really good stuff.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

"Triangle" by David Von Drehle

Just finished reading "Triangle" by David Von Drehle and found it to be an excellent work of historical writing.

I've previously enjoyed quite a bit Von Drehle's writing for Time Magazine... which sent me off in search of books written by him. What I found in "Triangle" was a detailed look at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911 that left 146 Garment Industry workers dead.

What Von Drehle does with the book (subtitled "The Fire That Changed America") is paint both a portrait of the lives lost in this disaster, but also one of how that loss was not in vain. I find it terribly interesting when a writer can take an event and provide the context for that and then show it's ramifications in a larger picture. This is exactly what's accomplished here as Von Drehle starts by profiling the working lives of those who would have perished in the fire and then goes from there.

The Garment Industry grew rapidly around this time with it's ranks being filled by under paid and over worked immigrants from Europe. At the time of the fire, there had been efforts to improve the lot of these workers (most of whom lived crammed into tenement buildings in New York City), but things didn't really start to get better until after the tragedy. One would like to think that the loss of life wasn't required, but Von Drehle shows how in this situation, it combined together with efforts already undertaken (and with extraordinary individuals) to improve employee working conditions.

In fact, "Triangle" shows how the fire was in many ways the catalyst pushing forward progressive ideas as an alternative to the previous approach of the Tammany Hall regime that controlled New York politics. These progressive ideas would be later championed by FDR and become the bedrock of the Democratic party in America.

The other thing that "Triangle" does on a much more micro level is provide a face to those who perished in this tragedy. Very interesting stuff and for those who are interested in history, it's certainly worth the time to read.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Kate Winslet Cover Story from Time Magazine

Very compelling piece in the latest Time Magazine on Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet.

Written by Mark Harris, it's titled "Best Actress: Kate Winslet's Moment" and paints a very nuanced picture of the "Titanic" leading lady... who has now won a Best Actress Academy Award for her "through the ages" portrayal of a former Concentration Camp guard in "The Reader". I've never given a huge amount of thought to Winslet or her skills as an actress, but found interesting the views of herself in the movie industry as detailed by Harris.

Also from this issue of Time was mention of the Jim Carrey narrated film "Under The Sea 3D"... sounds really cool.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Company-Employee Relationship

Interesting commentary piece by Nancy Gibbs from the Feb 16 issue of Time Magazine. Titled "Married to the Job" it features Gibb's views on the delicate balance between companies and employees in difficult economic times. It's a short read, but pretty compelling... especially for those who work in large corporations.

Related to the topic of corporations and how they interact with employees... in it's Feb 16 issue, BusinessWeek did a book review of "Everything I Know About Business I Learned at McDonald's: The 7 Leadership Principles that Drive Break Out Success" by Paul Facella. I didn't necessarily find myself compelled to seek out and read the book, but was interested in the employee appreciation practices attributed to McDonald's. The phrase that stood out to me from the review was "at McDonald's, praise is always given in public and always heartfelt."

It's a simple concept, but... there can't always be raises, promotions or bonuses given, but there can be appreciation and respect shown to employees. In the long-run this is going to help achieve success more than a different approach.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

HP Mention in Shaun White Fast Company Article

I wrote previously on Hewlett-Packard with a post on various and sundry media mentions back in July of last year and then a December post about positive things in the HP PC business and recently came across a few interesting and related HP references.

The Fast Company Magazine Feb 2009 issue cover story on snowboarder/skateboarder Shaun White details White's activities with various companies looking to sell in the markets he connects most with. One of the more visible partnerships White has is with Hewlett-Packard and in the Fast Company piece, HP Marketing VP David Roman comments on how White was the subject of the first HP "hands" commercial.

The idea behind the campaign is that celebrities describe how they use their personal computers as an extension of themselves... while using their hands (and very cool ad production) to tell the story. This focus on computer functionality as an expression of personality can also be found in HP's new mini-note netbook (detailed in this BusinessWeek article) with the exterior graphics from fashion designer Vivienne Tam.

Interesting stuff.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Fast Company Investigative Piece on BPA in Plastics

Terribly interesting (and frightening) article in the Feb 2009 issue of Fast Company Magazine about the chemical BPA and it's impact. The piece titled "The Real Story Behind Bisphenol A" looks at both the effects of BPA with constant exposure and how those effects are denied by the industry producing it.

In short, BPA is produced in the U.S. by five different companies and is an enormous business with the chemical serving as a core ingredient in hundreds of different products that need to be shatterproof. This plastic or plastic-like output serves as the core ingredient in everything from cell phone parts to... baby bottles. This last item in particular is where things get a bit dicey. BPA has been shown to be harmful to the reproductive system and potentially cancer causing if exposed to repeatedly... especially for those with weakened or not fully developed immune systems.

Where things cross over from bad to worse is with the narrative around BPA from the companies making it. While one purely arbitrary research study after another shows BPA to be a harmful ingredient in products, industry-funded studies proclaim that all is well. Oh yeah, the U.S. regulatory arms charged with oversight of something like this have to date decided that the industry-funded studies are the ones to go with. Despite much more stringent regulation of BPA (particularly in products used by infants) in Europe as well as Canada, it's pretty much up to consumers to try to seek out non-BPA-containing products for their kids. Those products are definitely out there, but you have to work to find them. Good times.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Pierre Omidyar and Social Entrepreneurship

I wrote in August of last year a blog post about Jeff Skoll... the former eBay founder who has since founded Particpate Media and the Skoll Foundation. So, it seemed only right to do a post about the other eBay founder (really the guy who was there before Skoll, Pierre Omidyar.

Both Skoll and Omidyar have been pioneers in and advocates of the field of Social Entrepreneurship, the sometime for-profit, sometimes non-profit category of business that benefits disadvantaged people. Skoll's efforts are written about in the linked blog post and Omidyar's can be found through the organization he started... the Omidyar Network.

Additonally, lots of interesting mentions of Omidyar can be found through the below search results...

- Omidyar search results on the BusinessWeek site.

- Omidyar search results on the Fast Company site.

Friday, February 13, 2009

"New Moon" by Stephenie Meyer

Just finished reading "New Moon"... the second book from Stephenie Meyer's four-part "Twilight" series.

The book picks up where "Twilight" left off with Bella (human) dating Edward (vampire). From Stephenie Meyer's official website, here's a key passage from the first chapter...

"Shoot," I muttered when the paper sliced my finger; I pulled it out to examine the damage. A single drop of blood oozed from the tiny cut.

It all happened very quickly then.

Edward threw himself at me, flinging me back across the table...

I tumbled down to the floor by the piano, with my arms thrown out instinctively to catch my fall, into the jagged shards of glass. I felt the searing, stinging pain that ran from my wrist to the crease inside my elbow.

Dazed and disoriented, I looked up from the bright red blood pulsing out of my arm—into the fevered eyes of the six suddenly ravenous vampires.

So... an intriguing beginning to the book for all who enjoyed part one of the series (myself included), but as a whole it seemed like the story fell short.

There was definitely some interesting development of characters (notably Jacob Black, Bella's friend) and storylines, but sometimes things seemed to get a bit muddled. The consequence of this for me was either hard to follow action or abrupt drops in story threads.

The other criticism I would have is that the writing got weepy (lots of "can't live if living is without you") and felt like it should be set to a Taylor Swift high-school ballad. That said, the books aren't really written for my demographic so I shouldn't quibble here.

All of this said, I did really enjoy book one of the series (particularly the first half) and am terribly impressed by a writer who came out of nowhere with a great first book (story of that here) as well as someone who gets a lot of people reading (i.e. J.K. Rowling). "New Moon" as a book probably isn't the greatest piece of writing ever done (or even the greatest Stephenie Meyer writing), but does have some interesting development to Bella's story as part of the series.

If someone liked "Twilight" and wants to continue the saga, it's certainly not a bad use of time to read "New Moon" as a prelude to "Eclipse" and then the conclusion book... "Breaking Dawn".

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Written Content Pricing & Delivery - from Time Magazine

Couple of interesting articles in the Feb 16 issue of Time around online news content... focusing both on the financial viability of the companies that publish it (online and in print) and on the delivery mechanism of that content.

The first piece is by Walter Isaacson, formerly a managing editor of Time Magazine, and details his views on how to make this whole financially viable thing work. The cover story titled "How to Save Your Newspaper" espouses an idea that Apple has made ubiquitous through it's iTunes Music Store... micro-payments.

It's an interesting idea in that it drills down further from the idea of online subscriptions (which are usually on a monthly basis) and questions why content couldn't be received on a micro-basis (with costs that could be anywhere upwards from a penny). This would enable the organizations that create that content to remain open for business and in essence, keep the industry alive. Isaacson's assertion is that even though it would be different than the current mostly-free model around web news content, the idea of paying Apple $.99 per song on iTunes likely seemed revolutionary to those getting content free on Napster.

The second piece around written content from this issue of Time focuses not on the type of content itself, but rather on the delivery mechanism. Whether it be a newspaper, magazine, book or other printed material, there's efforts from multiple companies to figure out the best type of mobile electronic reader for that content, and to deliver that. This is the topic covered in the story "The Race for a Better Read" which looks at both current handheld offerings and what the future may hold.

The best known option out there is the "Kindle" handheld reader from Amazon, but competition will be likely coming in the future. Some companies to keep an eye on would be the Silicon Valley startup Plastic Logic (which is being led by a former HP manager I've met) or Apple if they (as rumored) get into the market with a larger version of the iTouch. Also mentioned in the article is the Adobe AIR software program that serves as a platform for material to to be written onto.


Not necessarily related to this topic, but two other things of interest I recently found from Time...

The book "How We Decide" by Jonah Lehrer is about the psychology of how consumers make purchase decisions and reviewed in the same Feb 16 Time issue.

From is a listing with detailed descriptions on Time's 50 Best Websites of 2008. Interesting stuff.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

"What Would Google Do?" Book Excerpt from Feb 9 BusinessWeek

Very thought provoking excerpt from Jeff Jarvis' "What Would Google Do?" in the February 9th issue of BusinessWeek.

Jarvis is the author of the Internet and media website and his book looks at some of the lessons of Google success that could be adapted to other companies and industries. A general theme that's examined is the idea of open-source innovation and product development and the book excerpt (that can be found here) is about how open-source could be utilized by the beleaguered Big Three automakers.

The excerpt is interesting in it's examples of what Ford, Chrysler and GM could (but, likely won't) do to utilize consumer feedback in the design and features of new autos. In addition, Jarvis writes about the concepts of both community and personalization... and how much could be done to more closely connect consumers with their cars. There are steps in these areas already being taken by both BMW and Toyota's Scion brand and Jarvis describes how this could be taken further following this "Google model" of development.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Kenny Moore Profile in the Oregon Quarterly

Very interesting profile on writer and former Olympic distance runner Kenny Moore in the Summer 2008 issue of "Oregon Quarterly" magazine. Moore was featured in the alumni publication due to his receiving first an undergraduate and then a Masters of Fine Arts degree from the U of O in 1966 and 1972 respectively.

The "Oregon Quarterly" website can be found here, but the path to the article itself is a bit more circuitous... the Oregon Library has the entire issue archived here and then piece itself, titled "Intertwining Ovals" by Todd Schwartz, is on page 40 of the pdf file.

With that long and winding route now laid out... the story is a fascinating look at Moore and his life first as an athlete and then a writer. Of particular interest are the anecdotes about how his career writing for Sports Illustrated came about... showing how opportunities can often present themselves in odd and unexpected ways.

Moore wrote for SI until 1995 and a compilation of his work there can be found through a search of the CNNSI Vault. Additionally, information on both Moore and his writing can be found on the author's website.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

John Gardner "Personal Renewal" Speech

I first came across John Gardner from a March 1994 article titled "Meaning: Something You Build Into Your Life" that he wrote for "Stanford Magazine". Given to me by my parents, the piece is about the themes of human potential, character and commitment (other themes as well, but I reckon these three are weighty enough to suffice as a description).

I've not seen this exact article in electronic form ("Stanford Magazine" is archived online back to 1996), but did find a section of the PBS website devoted to Gardner, his life and his work. Part of the site is a speech that he gave in 1990 titled "Personal Renewal" containing many of both the same concepts and exact language later reprinted in the aforementioned magazine article.

Gardner's speech is reprinted here and some of the more profound highlights are below...

"If we are conscious of the danger of going to seed, we can resort to countervailing measures. At almost any age. You don't need to run down like an unwound clock. And if your clock is unwound, you can wind it up again. You can stay alive in every sense of the word until you fail physically. I know some pretty successful people who feel that that just isn't possible for them, that life has trapped them. But they don't really know that. Life takes unexpected turns."

"The things you learn in maturity aren't simple things such as acquiring information and skills. You learn not to engage in self-destructive behavior. You learn not to burn up energy in anxiety. You discover how to manage your tensions, if you have any, which you do. You learn that self-pity and resentment are among the most toxic of drugs. You find that the world loves talent, but pays off on character."

"I'm not talking about anything as narrow as ambition. After all, ambition eventually wears out and probably should. But you can keep your zest until the day you die. If I may offer you a simple maxim, "Be interested," Everyone wants to be interesting -- but the vitalizing thing is to be interested. Keep a sense of curiosity. Discover new things. Care. Risk failure. Reach out."

"Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account."

Very cool stuff...