Friday, September 25, 2015

A Few Who Have None...

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change

        ~ Michael Jackson - Man In the Mirror

After reading several news accounts this past week, I began wondering if executives at Volkswagen had VW ever heard the names: Geng Jinping and Zhang Yujun.

According to those news reports, Volkswagen has been fabricating more than just automobiles and trucks.  It appears that over the past 8 years, VW has been duping consumers and regulators as to the actual engine emissions of their diesel engines by inserting a sophisticated software code into the onboard computer that controls the operation of the vehicle while under test.

This special code detects when the car is in "test mode" (based on several standard tests used at most smog testing centers).  Once the car recognizes that it is under test, it purposely modifies the engine controls in order to pass the emission tests being administered by reducing engine performance and optimizing the exhaust characteristics allowing the car to pass the tests.

However, once the car is back on the road, the engine controls are reset and the cars now spew out 10-40 times the legal amount of emissions out into the atmosphere.

Pretty slick idea... well... that is until you are caught.

The EPA isn’t laughing and neither are the regulatory agencies of the EU.  In fact, as it turns out, VW is now liable for up to $37,500 in fines per vehicle... just in the United States alone.

So how many vehicles are we talking about here?

Let’s see... during the 8-year time period that VW was purposely falsifying test results, they managed to sell just under 500,000 vehicles in the U.S. which puts them at risk for $18B (with a B) in fines to the EPA... plus what it’ll cost them in a recall action to actually fix the vehicles.

This seems like a pretty large number.

However, when compared to the 7 million cars the company sold in Europe and the propensity of the EU to levy even larger fines than the U.S., it is quite possible that VW liabilities could outweigh their assets (meaning that they would essentially be insolvent).

More than likely, the fines will be mitigated to a much smaller number based on VW creating a plan to remedy the problems in their existing vehicles.

So is VW an evil corporation; one that will do anything to create profits for their shareholders and large bonuses for their executives?

Before answering, consider that VW employs almost 600,000 people worldwide, almost all of whom had no idea that this environmental scam was taking place at the company.  By closing down VW, you most likely would be penalizing hard-working honest people just trying to earn a decent living.

This is not to say that all VW employees are innocent.  There were indeed executives and engineers who were privy to this scandalous behavior.  They are the ones who acted out of greed and contempt yet there is a good chance that these people will be given a slap on the wrist with the opportunity to resign with their pension and golden parachutes intact.

This brings me back to Mr. Jinping and Mr. Yujun.

Zhang Yujun was a large farmer and Geng Jinping was a salesman both of whom produced and sold "protein powder" to the Sanlu Group based in Shijiazhuang, China, and used to "fortify" watered down milk and baby formula manufactured by the company.

As it so happens, the protein powder being sold to Sanlu was not really rich in protein but was also laced with melamine, an industrial compound used in the manufacturing of plastics. One of the particular chemical properties of melamine enables it to emulate a protein molecule and mask its hazardous properties during standardized chemical testing.

This melamine tainted substance was added to milk and baby formula manufactured and marketed by Sanlu.

Over the course of two years, 300,000 cases of melamine poisoning were reported throughout China, with 54,000 of the cases being infants.  There were 154 cases of acute kidney failure and six people ultimately died due to complications due to the melamine infested products.

Although there were reports of questionable milk products, Sanlu ignored these reports and continued to manufacture and sell their tainted products to the public and went as far as bribing government officials to keep the reports quiet.

Shortly after the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing were completed, an investigative report was published, publically indicting Sanlu.  Only after the release of this report and a full government inquiry did Sanlu issue a complete recall of all products.

Due to the nature of the scandal (and to save face in the eyes of the public), criminal charges were files against farmers producing the contaminated protein powder and against executives of the Sanlu company.

Yujun and Jinping were summarily executed after being found guilty of causing six deaths due to their tainted products.  In all, 34 people were jailed for their various roles in the cover-up.

More recently here in America, Parnell Stewart, CEO of the Peanut Corporation of America was recently sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in shipping peanut butter knowingly contaminated from salmonella bacteria.  Two other executives have also been sentenced to prison in their connection with this case.

Now I’m not advocating that the death penalty be applied to VW executives who knowingly and willfully deceived pollution control regulators, but there should be individuals held accountable for their irresponsible illegal actions.

Unfortunately the people most likely who will end up paying for these sins will be the shareholders, front-line employees, and the current owners of VW vehicles who just saw their car’s resale value plummet this past week.

Corporations are not simply inanimate things... they are made up of individual people who are ultimately personally responsible for what the company makes, sells, does, represents, warrants, and stands for.

It still boggles my mind that after the great financial melt-down of 2008, not a single individual person has been prosecuted in connection with the unlawful practices that ultimately created the financial crisis that caused so much pain and suffering for the working people.

Perhaps the justice department believes that if they started prosecuting everyone with a tie to the crash of 2008, there would be no one left on Wall Street since the entire population of South Manhattan would have been incarcerated for their particular role.

Integrity is defined (by me) as doing the right thing... even when no one is looking.

There are billions of individuals inhabiting the earth who have an incredible amount of personal integrity... and then there are a few who have none.

Those are the people we should be holding accountable for the actions that harm us all and give the human race a bad reputation for being morally corrupt when in fact they are mostly good people...

Thank you very much for your support of OptiFuse where we stand behind everything that we do and take full responsibility for our actions... from the top to the bottom.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Thinking is Critical...

"The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking."

                                     ~John Kenneth Galbraith

This past Wednesday while on a business trip to the Midwest, I found myself in a hotel room with a little extra time GOP Debate 2015on my hands at the end of the day.  With nothing better to do, I decided to become one of the 25 million viewers that tuned to CNN to watch the Republican presidential debates.

So you might think that the topic of this week’s blog would be to discuss politics... but in fact, after wasting approximately 5 hours of my life reminding myself why I rarely watch television (especially the news), the last thing I really want to discuss is an election some 6 months from the first 2016 primary.

What I did find fascinating however was all of the editorial comments being made by the television pundits shortly after the debates.

I had just spent 5 entire hours witnessing the event first-hand.  Why did I need someone to describe to me what I just witnessed for myself?

To top it all off, the on-air media personalities then felt compelled to interview other people who had also watched the debate to gather their opinions of who won, who lost, and/or who helped or hurt their overall standing...

So let me get this straight...

The media somehow felt the need to express their opinions... regarding other people’s opinions... describing what I had witnessed for myself... wow!

(...and now here I am giving you my opinions of the media’s opinions of other people’s opinions about some "news" event...)

At what point does an individual just learn to formulate an opinion... an idea... a thought for themselves without the aid of someone else?  Are we actually capable of this task?

In today’s "information" society there is so much data available to us that it is absolutely impossible to read, distill, and process all of it and even if we could process all of it, would we or could we, formulate the same conclusions?

If scientists throughout the world can continue to debate causation, correlation, and effects where hard, repeatable, and irrefutable data is readily available... can you only imagine how difficult the task becomes when the data becomes subjective based on bias and past experiences of the researcher?

If I read a restaurant review, and the writer presents a positive or negative opinion of the experience they had, will I also have their same experience should I decide to patronize that same restaurant? 

I would argue that my own restaurant experience could differ greatly than that of our restaurant reviewer based on my own biases, prejudices, and/or individual preferences. 

It’s quite possible that they may find the preparation of the escargot irresistible... whereas the very idea of eating snails may make me nauseous.

The data is still there... the restaurant serves cooked snails... but the interpretation varies widely. 

We all have our own individual belief system of what makes us happy... successful... safe... what we like... what we don’t like...

So where did our individual belief systems derive from?

A lot of what we believe was formulated from our parents and our immediate environment during our early development. 

During the first years of our lives, we didn’t question anything our parents told us. 

If they told us the sky was blue because of the reflection of the blue ocean, or that the moon was made of cheese, or that if we were really good Santa would come down the chimney and leave presents by our Christmas tree... we would believe them without question... we had no other plausible answers to refute them... plus we found presents under the tree on Christmas morning so who were we to argue.

And if our parents didn’t have the time or energy to offer up an easily digested reason, they could always go with the "catch-all" explanations:  "because it’s magic" (my personal favorite with my kids) or "because God created it that way."

We liked this world.  As toddlers, we felt comforted that everything had a plausible explanation.

As we grew older, we attended school where we read books, were taught about science and scientific methods, and discussed new ideas among our classmates.

Many of us (depending on the school’s curriculum) were taught to think critically. 

Critical thinking allows us to examine available facts and data to Critical Thinkercreate conclusions.  Typically, the more data we have, the better our conclusions.

Somewhere along our educational process, we start to realize that many of the things that we first were told as young children... are not really true. 

Sometimes we got angry, sometimes we were excited about the new possibilities of exploration, and sometimes we were just disillusioned that our parents had lied to us all along (spoiler alert:  Santa Claus does not deliver presents on Christmas eve to good boys and girls and the reason a light bulb works is not magic... I’m sorry kids that I lied to you).

As we continue down our path of enlightenment, our entire belief system is at risk and is now threatened. 

When our beliefs are in conflict with the data we can do one of two things: 
  1. Ignore the data and continue to believe what we think regardless... or worse... knowingly modify the facts and data so it fits within our current belief system.
  2. Modify our beliefs to incorporate the new conclusions based on additional data and facts.
Herein lays the problem. 

Our belief system is deep rooted and can’t easily be changed to fit each and every situation.  Just like our system of laws in society... the data, cause and effect need to be debated and defended before being accepted. Conclusions need to be drawn.

Changing our core set of beliefs isn’t like changing our socks... they are a part of our very existence... our rules for living.   

In addition, as stated earlier, many of the so called "facts" that are delivered to us are in truth... nothing more than opinions... which ultimately are based upon someone else’s belief system.

On top of that, many times, the facts and data are purposely manipulated by vested special interests to sway conclusions and/or public opinion.

Michael Moore (on the left) and Center for Medical Progress (on the right) have produced "mockumentary" films that are highly edited and which purposely misstate "facts" with the goal of persuading their audience to change their beliefs to suit their causes.  These aren’t facts... they are special interest propaganda under the guise of facts.

Today, thanks to the internet, there is more information (and misinformation) available to us than ever before in the history of humankind.

We have all been endowed by our maker with a brain and have been trained throughout our lives to use our brain to make our own observations, weigh data, and create our own conclusions.  We all have the tools necessary to formulate a belief system and to make our own decisions.

We do not need others to tell us what we’ve just witnessed for ourselves, what to think and believe, and/or how to act accordingly.

Go away... we already know how to think for ourselves thank you...

...and thank you very much for your support of OptiFuse where we encourage continuing the debate on critical thinking...

Friday, September 11, 2015

Simply Irresistible...

"Simplicity and repose are the qualities that measure the true value of any work of art..."

                    ~ Frank Lloyd Wright


Recently, two of our friends sold their homes and moved away from our neighborhood. 

Both sets of friends have recently become empty-nesters with their children moving away to college and/or to other areas of the country. 

One of our friends decided to downsize and purchase a smaller home than their original home while the other friends decided to purchase a larger home than they currently have.

The friends who moved into a smaller home, no longer had the physical space to keep all of their possessions, so they made three piles to triage their worldly belongings: 

1)     Move to the new home
2)     Give away or donate
3)     Trash

Empty boxes, broken Christmas tree ornaments and old wrapping paper were found in a box in a corner of their garage in near proximity to another box filled with maternity clothes, a drawer full of VHS tapes were discovered although they hadn’t had a VCR in the house for at least 5 years, and books that have been already read lined the selves of the den.

At the end of this cleansing exercise, each of the piles was almost equal in size.  There was also a great sense of liberation as they realized that over the 20 or so years that they lived in this home, they had acquired and kept so many things that were absolutely extraneous to their lives.

After several trips to the Salvation Army collection center and to the local dump, our friends then packed up their remaining goods in a rented van and moved themselves out of one home and into another over the course of one weekend. 
Now contrast those friends to our other friends... the ones who purchased the larger home.

One of the primary reasons that these friends wanted/needed to move was simply that they had run out of space at their current home and needed more room to store additional items.

Now in their defense, they have purchased some really nice things over the years, including antique furniture, musical instruments, power wood-working tools, and other assorted collectibles. Because of this fact, they often found that it made no sense to rid themselves of these assets because those items had some real associated value.

Still...the fact remains... they have a lot of stuff!

Unlike our other friends, moving all of these things was no easy task. 

First, everything was being moved. Nothing was being trashed or donated to a new home. There was one pile and it was all going. Even the pieces of furniture that no longer matched the interior of the new home were being moved as there was some remote possibility that these items might have some utility in the future.

Secondly, there needed to be added care as not to actually cause any breakage when moving the items. Each piece needed to be individually wrapped and carefully packed. This also meant that each piece needed to be loaded, moved and unwrapped at the new home.

Needless to say, this move (as compare with the other friends’ move) was drawn out, labor intensive, overly complicated, and expensive in terms of man-power to complete.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the homes of both sets of friends.

The first friends were already unpacked and living a much simpler lifestyle in a smaller but very comfortable new home whereas the second set of friends were still living out of boxes not really sure where most of their items were located but believing (and hoping) that they were safely buried in their brimming garage and overflowing back patio (enclosed).
From what I saw this past weekend, I truly believe that it will be at least several weeks (if not months or possibly years) before a dent will be made in securing permanent locations for all of the items and I wondered if my friends might simply just give up looking for items that they know exist in some box and go out and purchase duplicate items to use in the meantime.

There is one word that really describes the divergent lives of our two friends:  Simplicity...

There are two basic fundamentals to simplifying our lives: 
  1. Determine what are truly important, must-have needs to make us happy and/or become a better person.
  2. Eliminate everything else.
Now in theory... this is great advice... in practice it gets a little more convoluted.

Understand this... simplicity is just not a matter of reduction.  There 2can be a lot of things that make us happy or become better people so eliminating all of those things are not necessarily a good thing.

In addition, simplification doesn’t mean that you give up powerful technology tools in order to join an Amish community so you can build your own furniture and raise crops.

The idea of simplifying and having less things has now permeated to the great "sharing economy" of today where AirBnB, Uber, and cloud computing have turned their respective industries upside down by finding ways to share underutilized resources.  No need to buy it when you can rent it only when you need it.

As I learn more about the millennial generation, I am observing that many of them are investing their resources into experiences rather than trying to acquire more "stuff"... spending money on travel, learning, and social interactions. These young people understand that more isn’t necessarily better... better is better.

The real idea of simplifying means that you find a way to do fewer things but doing those things better... not settling for adequate... but demanding the best from yourself.

The great basketball coach of UCLA, John Wooden used to tell his players, "Don’t try to be better than someone else, but do try to be the best you can be.  You don’t need to be perfect, but you do need to give everything you have to live up to your own potential."

Coach Wooden understood that great repeatable success comes not from doing a lot of hard or seemingly impossible things... but rather doing the simple things extremely well... practicing simplicity with constant repetition until we can master the task. 

Simplicity is learning to do more with less.

Pablo Picasso, the great Spanish painter, epitomized the concept of less is more in many of his most famous and enduring art works...
It’s about doing what we love and learning to master it... quality over quantity... being present in whatever we are doing.

Life is really simple... but for whatever reason we insist on making it more complicated than it is. 

Thank you very much for your support of OptiFuse where we try to find simple solutions to your complicated problems...

Friday, September 4, 2015

It's Not You, It's Me...

"Do something everyday that scares you"

                             ~  Eleanor Roosevelt

"Go ahead and ask her", I prodded my friend Mark, "there are only two possible outcomes... she can say yes... or she can say no..."

My friend Mark and I were at a restaurant not too long ago when he spied an attractive woman across the room, sitting alone sipping on her red wine, and seemingly waiting for her meal to arrive.

Mark is a recent casualty of divorce and after several months of mourning has decided to once again enter the dating scene.

Seinfeld-It is Not You, It is Me...

Like a teenage school boy asking a girl to his first homecoming dance, Mark sat there at our table petrified of the possible rejection he might encounter should he walk over to her table and strike up a conversation.

"What happens if she already has a significant other?... do you think she’ll think I’m a creep for being so forward?... what should I even say to her?", he asked though he didn’t really want a direct response from me.

On the outside, I was trying my best to be an empathetic friend and offered him words of encouragement... on the inside I was laughing hysterically at his outward indecision.

Understand this... Mark, as a professional sales person is not unaccustomed to rejection.  He is constantly dealing with people saying "no" to him and his sales pitches.  To him, it’s just a part of the job.

He fully understands that most of the prospects who decline to do business with him aren’t rejecting him personally... they may not see a need for his products... or they may have a need, but the timing could be all wrong... or they might have a need, and a willingness to buy, but the pricing, delivery time, or product options may cause the potential client to purchase the product elsewhere.

Mark gets "nos" from his clients all the time... it’s all a part of the sales game...

In a great scene in The Godfather, Sal Tessio (as played by Abe Vigoda) is uncovered as a traitor to the Corleone family.  As he is being escorted away to his final fate, Sal responds, "Tell Mike that it was only business... I always liked him..."  

Rejection in sales isn’t personal... it’s just business... and it comes with the territory.

Mark, in his business career, had experienced his share of professional rejection, however in his own personal life; rejection was not something he was accustomed with.

This woman in the restaurant would not potentially be rejecting his products, his company, or the price... she would be rejecting him... personally.

It is this fear of rejection that suddenly transformed Mark from a confident and self-assured business person to an unassured  and shy wanna-be suitor.

Playing sales coach, I asked Mark to give me his "pitch"... what would his opening line be to the lady across the room?

He looked at me like a "deer in the headlights".

"My pitch?", he asked.

"Yeah... what are you planning to say to her when you finally walk over to her table and what would be a great outcome if you succeeded?"

"I dunno... I haven’t given it much thought..."

"Well... you’re going to have to say something... you wouldn’t show up at a client’s door with no idea why you were there would you?"

"No of course not... that’s silly and a waste of both of our time."

"Okay then, what is your objective in meeting this person across the room... is it to sit down and have a conversation with her right now?... is it to possibly get her contact information so you can set up a date in the future?... or is it to propose marriage on the spot?"

With that last comment, Mark finally cracked a broad smile and the tension between his ears suddenly subsided.

At that moment his confidence had returned as he got up and walked to her table.

I watched as he engaged her in some brief conversation, then she reached into her purse and gave him what appeared to be a business card.

They exchanged a few more pleasantries and he then returned to our table, his face wearing a smile from ear to ear.

"So what happened?" I immediately asked.

"Well... I went up to her, smiled and introduced myself, telling her that I noticed that she was eating alone today and asked her if she ate alone often.  She told me that she worked nearby but would enjoy some company in the future.  She then introduced herself as Jennifer and gave me her business card asking me to call her if I was interested in meeting her for lunch."

"That’s it"? I inquired.

"Yep... that was our entire conversation".

"Don’t you feel a bit embarrassed for sitting here for 30 minutes agonizing as to whether or not to go over there and introduce yourself and start a conversation?"

"Yeah... I guess that was stupid of me."

"So you’re going to call her and ask her to lunch... right?"

"Sure... the ice is broken now... now it’ll be easy... plus she seems really nice... I’m glad you talked me into it."

As I drove home that afternoon, I couldn’t help but play the events of that encounter over and over in my head.

How often do we fail to find the courage to do something, even something that has no real consequences or associated risk?  A positive outcome is only available to us if we take action.  In Mark’s case, the only potential downside was if she said "no" and wasn’t interested.

Sometimes the lack of action is due to laziness but more often than not, our inaction is an internal resistance to the possibility of failure.

I suppose this is the very reason that trophies are given to all participants of youth sporting events... as not to potentially bruise the ego and self-esteems of young boys and girls.  But this very act of supposed kindness deprives the kids of learning that failure isn’t the end of the world and life will continue on. 

Many venture capital backed companies often are looking for leaders that have failed previously but who are willing to learn from their failures and move forward despite the inherent risks ahead of them.

Now I can fully understand a real fear of doing something risky or dangerous.  Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane with only a parachute on your back is a really scary proposal... if you fail... then there are some dire consequences...

The idea here today is that if there is no real penalty to our actions (other than perhaps a bruised ego), what is really holding us back other than ourselves and our irrational fears?

Take the plunge... do something that is a bit scary... something that takes us out of our comfort zone and helps us to grow as a person...

Thank you very much for your support of OptiFuse where we are always willing to try something new...