Monthly Archives: November 2004

Thanksgiving is a great time

Thanksgiving is a great time to travel, because travel reminds me of all my blessings: my health, which allows me to negotiate these 24-hour flights with their endless delays and inspections; my family, some with me, some waiting at the other end; my friends who read this stuff when I write it in distant places; my American citizenship, which allows me freedom to move around. This year, I�m out of the States for the first time in my life during Thanksgiving. I�m in Europe, where it�s not Thanksgiving at all; it�s merely Thursday.

Landing in Amsterdam, the first thing that hits the eye is the advertising on the jetways: multicolored watercolors and the tagline “change takes you places.” It’s HP, one of the tech companies with a big presence in Amsterdam, as they all seem to have. It’s a common place to locate an EMEA presence for tech companies.

Next are the billboards in the airport. Accenture, Cap Gemini — someone has to install all this stuff, so the big consultancies are here as well. This is a big tech town. I�ve bought a new mobile phone, a Siemens. There�s a wireless hotspot in the hostel where Amanda is staying, too.

And yet, for all its technology, Amsterdam�s ambience is that of a wonderful old city, in existence since the 13th century at least. Ringed by canals, characterized by legalized cannabis stores, apartments in which furniture is moved in and out through ropes and pulleys on the outsides of the buildings, and a vibrant cultural environment, Amsterdam�s a big destination for young people. Dutch design, Dutch painting, Dutch jazz bars — they all rock. A century after Henry James, America still can’t compete with the culture of the Continent.

The International Documentary Film Association is having its festival here (conveniently at the same time I’m visiting my daughter for Thanksgiving). Yesterday I went to a showing of “Me and Bruce,” a film about a daughter’s quest to understand her deadbeat dad. (But not a deadbeat in today’s sense of the word, more a tax- revolting, marijuana-growing counterculture escapee from what America has become since the idealism of the sixties). The legendary Al Maysles, cinematographer for “Gimme Shelter” and maker of dozens of independent documentary films, was in the audience. He and I both loved the film, and I raised my hand to tell the director, Oren Siedler, how much it reminded me of my own mad youth. And then Maysles, a little white-haired 75-year-old man hugged me. He identified with my comments. Would that have happened at Sundance?

Amsterdam’s cold, but it’s still a walker’s city or a biker�s. There are trams, bikes, cars, pedestrians, and free running dogs all sharing the streets. Women ride bikes in skirts and tights, with babies behind them or in Snuggli�s against them. The bikes are all old, because new ones would be stolen. The Amsterdam Central Station has three stories of parking for bikes. It�s a big park-n-ride of a different sort.

My daughter’s apartment is up a flight of steps that are steep as a black diamond slope in a ski resort. You wouldn�t want to be inebriated and have to climb them. Yet inside is a Euro kitchen modern enough to be right out of Ikea. And windows that open to a balcony you can stand on to experience the weather before you leave the house.

In the bathroom, the toilet has two levels of flushing for water conservation. And you pay for your shopping bags at the supermarket, so you are encouraged to recycle.

Although there�s Burger King and McDonald�s, Amsterdam really isn�t overrun by chains. It isn�t New York, and it isn�t Beijing. It is unique.

Bon appetit as you overeat on your turkey. We will be dining on chicken breasts, since the only turkeys here are cooked by the Marriott and cost about a hundred bucks.

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I am a sucker for

I am a sucker for demographics. They’re basically facts about people, and people are invariably interesting. I especially like to see them (demographics) applied to markets and businesses. For example, what does the demographic fact of 80 million baby boomers mean to health care? To the stock market? To the housing industry? To Social Security? To technology?

The boomers have always inspired a lot of research, simply because of their numbers. But last night I heard a talk by a very intelligent and well-prepared woman who controverted a lot of the stuff we hear about the near future and the onslaught of retiring baby boomers that will supposedly destroy the American economy.

First, Leann Lachman did the numbers. There are 25 million silent generation (World War II vets) left, followed by 37 million Depression and war babies. Presumably, most of them are already retired, and transferring wealth to their children, the 80 million baby boomers and their grandchildren children, Gen X and Gen Y.

I’m not sure how this works, but I think if you were born between 1946 and 1966, you are a boomer. That’s a twenty year period. The children of baby boomers, who are called the echo boomers, are now ages 10-27, and there are 73.1 million of them. Somewhere in between is Gen X, a mere 47.2 million.

And then there’s Gen Next, 20 million and growing. Just this week, a woman on the leading edge of the baby boom — a 56-year-old –gave birth to twins. At the same time, Gen X is starting to reproduce.

What the point? The point is, according to Lachman, that all these boomers won’t retire at once, overwhelming the health care system and destroying Social Security. They will retire in an orderly fashion over a twenty-year period, during which their 73 million children and Gen X and Gen Next will have time to save up enough to take care of them in their old age. They are also wildly transferring wealth to their kids in the form of downpayments on homes, college funds for grandchildren, etc.

This will make their children loath to leave them out in the cold as they age (or at least that’s the theory). How can you ignore grandma when she has funded not only your Ivy League education, but that of both your kids? And paid for the new roof on your house?

No, you’ll keep paying into Social Security.

This is quite a cheerful way of looking at things, compared to the recent Chicken Little scenarios of the two political campaigns.

I’ve exaggerated Lachman’s positions a little, but only to make you smile. She’s pretty positive about other aspects of the future as well: she says all the boomers won’t all go at once to fixed income products, knocking the socks off the equity markets. And when they do, real estate still doesn’t suffer.

The real estate market will continue strong, because real estate’s strong returns have made it part of people’s fixed income portfolios; even I have been receiving income from some buildings in San Diego for the past five years.( We bought them during the downturn, and no one’s really in a rush to sell them, as they have been refinanced and we’ve got our original investment back.)

It will continue to be especially strong in the Sun Belt states, because people are moving to warm climates. This creates opportunity in housing and retail — not only in medical facilities, assisted living, and retirement communities. People are buying second homes so they can retire and not retire simultaneously: Minneapolis with the grandkids for Thanksgiving, and then right out to Arizona for Christmas through Easter.

So who suffers in the future? Well, Europe does, because they are actually losing their labor force. Aging population, not enough children and no immigration. Whereas we have lots of children and lots of immigration.

And the office market, because the global outsourcing of skilled service jobs continues. By 2010, 1.7 million office jobs will go overseas, doubling by 2015 to 3.4 million.

Lachman believes we will replace those jobs with something, but she’s not sure what. I, of course, believe it will be small business and entrepreneurship, lean and mean, with strategic partnerships and strategic outsourcing (but no need for the kind of big office space of the past).

The most interesting thing she said: we will find it harder and harder to reach political consensus as we deal with age groups that have little in common with each other. By 2030, we will have almost as many 85-year-old women alive (the men die earlier) as 30-year-old men. We have ironed out the bulges in our population by keeping people alive longer, and having fewer children. We’re all going to have to learn to get along.

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Okay, now that the political

Okay, now that the political scene has died down I can go back to my first love, which is beta testing new software. (I do hardware as well; stay tuned for the results of my wrestling match with the Vonage modem, which arrived in the mail yesterday). My latest acquisition is Google desktop search, which has already been reviewed by lots of techies who love it.

But I’m just an ordinary girl, and after using it twice, I love it too. While the first time was just to re-discover some old emails from a friend who recently passed on, the second use is going to rock the business world more than Sarbanes-Oxley.

This time, I used desktop search to prove that I am still owed about $2400 by an insurance agency representing a property and casualty company. Between Google and Wells Fargo online, I can prove that I sent money for insurance I never got and didn’t need anyway, and that the excess money was never refunded when the transaction finally closed. This would NEVER have been possible “back in the day,” because big picture thinkers (aka people with attention deficit disorder) like me tend not to keep adequate records.

How did I get in this situation? Well, part of my big picture thought process was to extend the benefits of our entrepreneurial training program to people who couldn’t afford the $750 fee. So last year, Stealthmode Partners applied for and received a Community Development Block Grant award for our Fasttrac Program. Part of the application included having $2 million in liability insurance and naming the City of Phoenix as additional insured.

Well, I assumed this situation was pretty common, especially in the case of federal grantees, so I decided to look for insurance over the Internet. My query to one of the insurance websites (Quotesmith, or Insurance.com, I can’t recall which) was answered by an agency in Scottsdale called Pacific Reserve Insurance. Its representative, Ron Osowski, began shopping my request around, and asking me questions about my business.

The underwriters must have completely misunderstood what we did. It didn’t matter to them that the program was held at a law office, and that the law office and the building probably BOTH had insurance that would cover a participant tripping and falling in the lobby, etc. After I answered all the questions, it appeared that the insurance would cost $3600. Three times I sent a binder to the Pacific Reserve bank account (SBIR Trust), and three times I had to increase it. In the mean time, SBIR Trust cashed all the checks.

I went back to the City and told them it was going to cost more than 10% of the amount of the grant to get the insurance, and to their credit they went immediately to their lawyers to get the amount of insurance reduced to $500,000. Bur rather than recycle the old binder money, at this point, Pacific Reserve made me give a new binder, another $1100, for the new amount. They cashed all my checks immediately, even the ones that were faxed copies. Both my banker and I found out that it’s legal to do that when one of the checks exceeded my overdraft protection (I never expected them to cash a copy of a check).

I was promised by Ron Osowski that the insurance company would return the surplus cash. That was in July. No check has ever arrived. No one at Pacific Reserve answers their phones directly; it’s all voicemail.

Are you still following? It’s complex. But thanks to Google desktop search, I actually recovered, in a matter of seconds, every last email, every document, every fax associated with the transaction. Every email is organized by thread. No longer is it a “he said, she said” situation.

No longer will it take an army of lawyers to fight Microsoft, or a bevy of data recovery analysts to take part in a lawsuit. As in every other sector, technology can put the user directly in touch with the information, eliminating the middle person.

And I was so happy to find out how well the search worked and how easily it was to recover the email evidence that I momentarily forgot my anger at being cheated. But today I call the Department of Insurance. Ron, if you’re out there: be a good agent and help me out.

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It’s the morning after, and

It’s the morning after, and George Bush has a lead of more than three million votes. The popular vote, of course, counts for nothing in our system, which should make all those people who stood in the rain for hours to vote feel pretty useless. But the electoral vote is very close, and of course we are still waiting for Iowa, where the election officials claimed fatigue and announced they would not report, and Ohio –“too close to call.” So the morning headlines sound like the titles of novels: “Cliffhanger,” says USA Today, and “Deja Vote” says the Daily News.

I’m no masochist, so I voted by mail two weeks ago, and last night went to my favorite bar to watch the results come in. When I left the bar, Kerry seemed the winner.

When I turned off John Stewart and went to bed, it seemed closer. And when I made my ritual trip to the loo in the middle of the night, Bush was ahead.

At that point, I connected with my breath and detached from the outcome of this election. And that’s probably because I am a student of eastern philosophy.
The Buddhists say that if you are attached to the outcome of your desires, all life is suffering. To achieve happiness, one should practice non-attachment. I’m not a fan of unnecessary suffering, so this morning I am looking at things philosophically.

Although I voted for him, Kerry should concede. It is unseemly to use the electoral college to manipulate a popular vote lead of millions. Perhaps if the popular vote is close, he ought to hang in (as Gore did not), but if the people want George Bush, Kerry ought to honor that (as George Bush did not).

What’s the matter with us? Don’t we know, as a country, that it’s all about “getting to yes,” just as it is in a marriage, a business, or even a war? We need to heal. We need to come to consensus. Fine, George Bush is the president. Now his job is to see that he can learn from the people who did not vote for him. For Bush, the work is to understand why he doesn’t have a clear mandate this time either.

For Democrats, the work is to recognize that the country clearly has changed from the one they grew up in; it’s time to recognize this and act accordingly. People no longer believe the government can solve problems or is capable of providing a social safety net. People no longer believe in certain freedoms, such as freedom to choose. But they believe more strongly than ever in other freedoms: the freedom to own weapons. Is one freedom “better” than another? Can’t we still bed the land of the free and the home of the brave in the 21st century.

It’s time to bring out the Bhagavad Gita, that ancient story of the advice Krishna gave to Arjuna: yes, you have to go to war against your relatives because you have to do the right thing. But you have to detach from the outcome.

If we continue flaunting our divisiveness to the world, we will only lose further stature. I can imagine how annoyed Europe is that Kerry didn’t drive Bush out of office, but I can’t imagine how Osama bin Ladin feels now that his enemy has remained in power. I would not be surprised if the terror attacks that didn’t stop our elections begin again now that Bush has been re-elected. But I don’t know this will happen, any more than anyone can know.

What I do know: as long was we are so divided, we are at risk everywhere in the world.

So we need to do two things: Kerry needs to concede, and Bush needs to build some bridges to people who feel strongly about things like stem cell research, womens’ right to choose, and other key issues he has opposed in the past. He has the opportunity to operate from a position of inclusiveness and healing. Let�s hope he rises to that opportunity, for the entire country�s sake.

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