How To Start An Essay

A master class from Rich Karlgaard’s, “It’s Never Too Late to Start a Brilliant Career”.

“In 1980, I was 25 and hadn’t yet bloomed. This hit home one night while I was working as a security guard in San Jose, Calif. Just after dark, as I started my perimeter patrol of a fenced rent-a-truck yard, I heard barking from the lumber yard next door. I swung my flashlight around and came face-to-face with my counterpart on the other side of the fence: a guard dog. The implication was sobering. I was a Stanford graduate, and my professional peer was a Rottweiler.”

Paragraph two. . . also worth emulating.

“In a few months, Steve Jobs, also 25 at the time, would take Apple public, change the computer industry and become fabulously rich. I, on the other hand, was poor and stuck. My story is embarrassing, but is it that unusual?”

Here’s guessing Karlgaard’s book is excellent.

Dear Apple

As you race to catch up to (and hopefully pass) Amazon’s and Google’s smart speakers, I have a suggestion. Find out if I’m an anomaly. Specifically, my craving for silence. If others feel similarly, you may want to tweak HomePod’s design as you continue to refine it before December’s release.

As a card carrying introvert, I have limits on how much I can interact with people, or people-like personal tech, each and every day. At a certain point, I need silence to recharge. That’s why I silenced Waze, my fav app, after a few days of use. Why would anyone choose to fill their car with an automated voice when they can easily read the turn directions in blessed silence? Similarly, my phone only “rings” when three people call me. Voicemail is one of humankind’s greatest inventions.

I was conscious of my quirky commitment to silence a few years ago, when outside of Portland, a friend of mine spoke an address into his phone before we headed out. That struck me as really odd, why not just type in the address I remember thinking. I want to save my finite number of words for people, not my iPhone or my future HomePod. And I don’t want my pocket computer or HomePod to ask anything of me or to speak to me. Just show me where to turn and stream Marvin Gaye.

So since HomePod isn’t shipping until December, use the intervening time to figure out whether “quirky” is the apt adjective for my condition or whether there is in fact an underreported “silence is golden” contingent that embraces technology, but seeks work-arounds to the growing expectation that we have to talk to our tech.

Yet Another Case Study of Mindless Personal Technology Hype

Brought you by Geoffrey A. Fowler of the rapidly deteriorating  Wall Street Journal.

Is this dude on the AAPL payroll? He writes:

Bluetooth earphones are a thing now, so you might as well buy the best.

That short, vapid sentence speaks volumes about “journalism” in the era of consumerism. For the sake of fitting in, I certainly hope you join the Wireless Headphone Club this Christmas season. Nothing worse than being on the outside looking in. Cue the advert with baby Jesus in the crib with AirPods dangling from his tiny ears.

GAF continues:

Totally untethered headphones are a delight to use, especially when you’re on the move. No more untangling the spaghetti at the bottom of your bag. No more slap slap slap on your neck when you jog. No more being tethered to your phone like a marionette.

Maybe I just haven’t realized it. How long have my tangled wired headphones been keeping me from being my best version of myself? I won’t be joining the Wireless Headphone Club yet because I’m perfectly content running with an iPod Nano.* Hey GAF, News Alert: When running, I completely forget about my Nano and headphones. Someone at the Journal slap GAF for his “slap, slap, slap” hyperbole.


* I’m waiting until your AirPods purchases drive my AAPL stock up $159. :)

A Work in Progress

I need a personal motto.

A recent headline from Yahoo Personal Finance (YPF) read, “Apple Rebounds to $600, Time to Buy?” For the love of investing fundamentals, someone please alert the knuckleheads at YPF that the objective is to buy low and sell high. “Apple Plummets to $400, Time to Buy?” would make a hell of a lot more sense.

Unless of course Apple is headed to $1,001. Which leads to another recent YPF headline, “Top Analyst Thinks Apple Could Hit $1,001”. “Top Analyst” is code for really smart dude who knows way more than you and me. So I guess we should believe him. Wait. He’s also referred to as a “market pro” which means we HAVE to believe him. Thank you top analyst market pro. Since each of my APPL shares is about to go up $400, I think I”ll buy that Cervelo R5 bicycle I’ve had my eye on. More evidence of his intelligence—he covers his ass with “Could”. Here are some other “Could” headlines:

• Relative Unknown Ron Byrnes Could Win the British Open

• The Seattle Mariners Could Win the American League West

• Presidential Candidates Could Take the High Road

• Despite Barely Passing High School Chemistry, Ron Byrnes Could Cure Cancer

Then there’s “Dr. Drew” who received $250k to promote Glaxo’s antidepressant drug. Of course Double D never revealed anything about the payments. Most egregious, he repeatedly used his television pulpit to say it helped cure problems that exceeded what the FDA approved it for. Another doc (among many) was paid a cool $2m to promote the drug.

Daily reminders to read between the lines and remember things aren’t always as they may appear. Reminders too to get some splashy adjectives or a personal motto for yourself.

Cable news networks do it. CNN is “The Most Trusted Name in News”. The Supreme Court rejects health care mandate. Opps! Fox News is “Fair and Balanced.” Opps! And regular people who make wild-ass stock predictions do it. Top analyst, market pro. Another recent YPF headline read, “Goldman’s ‘Rock Star’ Gives His Market Outlook”.

Maybe I should follow suit. The examples illustrate an essential element of moniker or motto making. They don’t have to be true. Repeat them enough and create a hypnotic effect. So aim really, really high.

I’m thinking something like “Ron Byrnes, rock star blogger, friend of small animals, a tribute to humanity.” On second thought, it’s probably unwise to alienate large animals. A work in progress.

No doubt, that right there, “a work in progress,” is what my wonderful wife of 25 years (this week) would recommend for my personal motto.

Apple Cares About Profit Margins Not Its Chinese Workers

My conclusion after carefully reading Charles Duhigg’s and David Babroz’s NYT article, “In China, Human Costs are Built Into an iPad“. Major props to Duhigg and Barboz for the thoroughly researched, fair, convincing, damning description of Apple’s negligent, laissez faire approach to working conditions in its suppliers’ factories in places like Chengdu, China where I once lived for a few months and toured the largest television factory in the world.

In fairness to Apple, I should read Tim Cook’s “we care about every worker in our supply chain” email to Apple employees, but Duhigg’s and Babroz’s analysis convinced me that Cook’s email is most likely hollow, public relations spin.

Apple recently reported their 2011 fourth quarter results—$13.06b in profit on $46.3b in sales. The sales number is remarkable, but given industry norms, the profit margin even more so. I’ll return to it later. As a result of the record quarter, my AAPL holdings increased in value way more than the cost of the MacBook Air I bought the GalPal for Christmas and the iPad 3 I’ll be buying myself in March. I divulge that to point out I am complicit in Apple’s pernicious business practices.

I have a responsibility to carefully consider Apple’s relationship with its suppliers in China because I help create demand for Apple products. I also think of myself as a global citizen with a social conscience, I have praised the company in previous posts, and I own individual shares of AAPL both directly and through stock index ETFs.

Some key excerpts from Duhigg’s and Barboz’s article:

“We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” said one former Apple executive who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

Foxconn is one of the few manufacturers in the world with the scale to build sufficient numbers of iPhones and iPads. So Apple is “not going to leave Foxconn and they’re not going to leave China,” said Heather White, a research fellow at Harvard and a former member of the Monitoring International Labor Standards committee at the National Academy of Sciences. “There’s a lot of rationalization.”

Granted, China is still a developing country with a serious urban/rural imbalance. Young people are choosing, of their own free will, to migrate to its cities to work in factory jobs that require, by our standards, long hours in tough conditions. Even when adjusting for where China is in its development, Apple is failing its Chinese workers who had no idea they’d have to suffer grievous injury and in some cases death as a result of toxic chemicals, aluminum dust, and large-scale explosions.

Three quarters through the article I sadly concluded Apple is to technology as Walmart is to retail—so large and influential that it can dictate conditions to suppliers. Apple says to suppliers, “Get us this product, tomorrow, at this price.” In order to make money, the supplier has to figure out how to do things more efficiently or cheaper, which often means cutting corners on implementing Apple’s ineffectual code of conduct. Then, Apple pays suppliers less each year and looks the other way when they fail to implement the code of conduct.

What makes this unconscionable is Apple’s unprecedented profit margins. If Apple users and shareholders like me take the baton from Duhigg and Babroz and put serious pressure on Apple to truly enforce their code of conduct, they could not only match the global labor practices of Intel, H.P., and the ubiquitous swoosh, they could raise the bar for every other multinational operating in China.

More key excerpts:

“If you see the same pattern of problems, year after year, that means the company’s ignoring the issue rather than solving it,” said one former Apple executive with firsthand knowledge of the supplier responsibility group. “Noncompliance is tolerated, as long as the suppliers promise to try harder next time. If we meant business, core violations would disappear.”

“You can set all the rules you want, but they’re meaningless if you don’t give suppliers enough profit to treat workers well,” said one former Apple executive with firsthand knowledge of the supplier responsibility group. “If you squeeze margins, you’re forcing them to cut safety.”

“It is gross negligence, after an explosion occurs, not to realize that every factory should be inspected,” said Nicholas Ashford, the occupational safety expert, who is now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “If it were terribly difficult to deal with aluminum dust, I would understand. But do you know how easy dust is to control? It’s called ventilation. We solved this problem over a century ago.”

But ultimately, say former Apple executives, there are few real outside pressures for change. Apple is one of the most admired brands.

People like Ms. White of Harvard say that until consumers demand better conditions in overseas factories — as they did for companies like Nike and Gap, which today have overhauled conditions among suppliers — or regulators act, there is little impetus for radical change. Some Apple insiders agree.

Will Dughizz’s and Babroz’s reporting create a groundswell of pressure that forces Apple to care—even in a Chinese context—about the quality of life of their Chinese workers? “Right now,” Harvard’s White says, “customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.

Near the end of the article a “current Apple executive” is quoted as saying, “You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards.” That’s flat out wrong. Given Apple’s unprecedented profit margins, here’s what the exec should have said, “You can manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper in factories that supersede existing Chinese standards if stockholders—especially my Apple execs and me—are willing to accept smaller profit margins that are more typical for the industry.”

I’m not ready to sell all my shares and boycott the products until work conditions in China truly improve, but I am willing to accept slower growth in AAPL’s share price as a result of smaller profit margins.

Coping With Narcissists

Is it just me or is it seemingly impossible to get along with narcissists? Of course if you caught my betrothed after one of our spats, she’d say I’m a self-centered sad sack.

I’m three-quarters the way through Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and I can’t help but make connections between it and Whybrow’s American Mania.

Don’t know if I’ve ever been so conflicted about one person. There are at least three Steve Jobs—1) the counter-cultural Zen Buddhist, exquisite designer, artist-philosopher, modern Stoic, vegan; 2) the focused, driven, scarily perfectionist, extremely mercurial, control-freak, business genius; and 3) the sometimes cruel, heartless, empathy impaired human being.

Readers of the bio are probably most interested in Jobs 2, but I find the human nature/human being story far more interesting.

I need to finish the book and think some more about it before reconciling my schizophrenic thoughts. For now I can say Jobs 3, the uncaring, mean, empathy impaired knucklehead often repulses me. Which brings to mind Whybrow’s insights on empathy. He writes, “. . . the experience of intimacy and the stability of the attachments one has in early years ultimately shape our capacity to understand the feelings of others. Human empathy is largely a learned behavior, much as is language. . .”

So we’re not hardwired to care about others? Whybrow says empathic understanding results from “social anchors” or a “. . . wellspring of healthy families and the nurturance of supportive, economically viable communities. . .” In other words, immerse young children in caring families, schools, religious and civic organizations and they will follow the caring adults’ lead and end up empathetic young adults.

Could the fact that Jobs was adopted have compromised the stability of his attachments so much that he never “learned empathy” in the way he learned English? I wouldn’t think so because he was months old when adopted and his adopted parents were stable, supportive, and loving.

After deciding not to marry Jobs, one of the two women he was closest to in his life found a psychiatric manual, read about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and concluded that Jobs embodied all of the symptoms. (Here’s hoping Betrothed never stumbles upon that.) She said, “It fits so well and explained so much of what we had strugled with, that I realized expecting him to be nicer or less self-centered was like expecting a blind man to see.” “I think the issue is empathy,” she added, “the capacity for empathy is lacking.

I’m clueless as to the root causes of Jobs’s lack of empathy, but the larger, more important takeaway is that empathy is learned. Whybrow convincingly argues that empathy results from a “wellspring of healthy families and nurturance of supportive, economically viable communities.” Sadly, some families aren’t sufficiently healthy, nurturing, supportive, or economically stable enough to pass on empathetic understanding to the young in their charge.

If expecting narcissists to someday be nicer or less self-centered is like expecting blind people to someday see, the best way to cope with them is to stop expecting them to return personal interest and care with similar curiosity and kindness. Far easier said then done.

Narcissus admiring himself shortly before his first triathlon