Saturday, June 10, 2006

GM has claws?

Found this originally by instapundit, but read on GM's own blog, which is fascinating. Seems the NYT printed a particularly nasty article regarding GM and such and really watered down GM's reply, to the point of GM basically saying, it's so far from what we want, just forget it. I'd love to link the NYT article, but subscription required, so that's the best you'll get (sans subscription, of course). You can find GM's rebuttal here, their frustration at the lack of commitment to printing GM's rebuttal here, GM's original rebuttal here, their edited version, here, and the emails back and forth from the NYT and GM, here.

What I find interesting is his point that the sooner GM gets acquired by Toyota, the better. Now I'm fully aware that GM has been working very hard at going out of business, and they can't even do that properly, but I do believe that the demise of GM and/or Ford would be very bad at best and disastrous at worst for our economy. The fact that GM has so many employees, and has such a vast and massive structure is a good reason to be wary of a giant such as GM failing totally.

GM has had some very rough times, and rightly so, they have made some disastrous decisions, but to hope for the acquisition of a domestic company by a foreign one is not really something I'd hope for. GM has had quality issues for years, but one thing they have always been very cutting edge on is technology. I look at my 1974 Firebird for examples of that, including inertia lock seatbelts (man I love those things), ice cold air conditioning (not working at the moment, due to previous owner's compressor removal), tough, robust transmissions, strong engines, tilt steering, and many other things taken for granted today.

They were one of the first to come out with 5 and 6 speed transmissions, though they never installed them in their own vehicles, but sold them to the likes of Mercedes and BMW for their vehicles. They were also messing with 4 speed overdrives before WWII. GM does have immense ability, but like the Goliath of the Old Testament, has arrogance and moves slowly. I see this changing, and hopefully it will pull them out of the brink of takeover. Let's hope, not necessarily for GM's sake, but for the US economy's.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Security India style and an interesting train ride.

The next morning I had a fantastic breakfast at the hotel. I wish I could tell you what I ate, but I have no idea what any of it was called. Mostly small, pancake-like flatbread thingies with bits of spices and vegetables cooked into them. Lots of fruits and a thick, warm drink that was some kind of yoghurt – not lassi, I know what a lassi is, this was different.

Two of the workers in the hotel restaurant were distinctly Chinese. I was surprised, not that there aren’t a lot of Chinese in India, but this was Jodhpur, not Delhi or Bombay, and I had not seen anyone so far who wasn’t Indian except for the small handful of Caucasian tourists and businessmen in my hotel. I motioned one of them over and asked her in Mandarin if she was from China. The minute she heard me speaking Chinese she quickly motioned her co-worker over and began excitedly to speak to me in bullet-fast Mandarin which, unfortunately, was a bit too fast for me. She said she had never met a foreigner (meaning a white westerner) who spoke Chinese before. She had been in Jodhpur since she was a young girl, apparently her father knew someone who referred him to work in Jodhpur, doing what I don’t know, so her family moved to Jodhpur many years ago. Somehow they convinced her friend’s family to move there as well and then she and her friend began working in the hotel industry in Jodhpur. She said she liked India, but it was too hot and she often missed China. I took it from the conversation that they didn’t get to go back too often. She said there more Chinese in Jodhpur than I thought, although they were small in number compared to the larger cities in India.

Sam came and picked me up and off we went to visit more furniture factories. The first factory we visited was very similar to the ones from the day before, but the second one seemed newer and was definitely more modern in its construction and style. Still no AC, but they had a very pleasant reception area with soft couches, satellite TV, and a fridge full of cold drinks. I was also surprised to find that they had a very high tech biometric fingerprint ID system for all their employees. Each employee’s fingerprint had been scanned into the system along with a unique ID number. When they entered, they had to scan their fingerprint where the computer would almost immediately verify their print and corresponding ID number. If it didn’t match, access was denied. Most companies I have visited, and even worked for, usually settled for the old ID badge on a lanyard or clip approach.

The person who was guiding us around the factory was the CEO. And he was very young, perhaps mid to late 20’s. My mom once came to visit me in Hong Kong many years ago and was amazed to find that “…all the young people are in charge….”, in her words. It has been a common observation of mine throughout my travels to Asia that it is not uncommon to find rather young people in relatively high positions within companies. The same was true of India. Most of the factories I visited I was meeting partners, CEOs, COOs, Directors, etc. In most cases, they were very young, usually mid 20’s – early 30’s. This factory was yet another case.

All the factories had hired private 24 hr security and had guard posts at the main entrance to each factory. These guards were always in uniform, usually long sleeved with high boots and hats. They worked in shifts, but it must have been horribly uncomfortable in the hot desert sun to stand there all day. At this factory, most of the security were ex-police. I asked the gentleman showing us around if he had procedures for reporting and investigating security incidents, a common question I ask. He said he would show me their documented procedures back in the office. I said that was fine, but wanted to know what would happen if an unauthorized person was found on the premises doing something illegal.

“Simple.”, He said. “First we would notify security on duty. Next we would apprehend him. Of course, we will call the cops and they will come. But first, we will beat him.”, he said with a wicked smile. “Nobody is foolish enough to try and steal anything from us. The police are poorly paid and stationed far away, so you might have to wait a long time for them to arrive.” He smiled again. I understood his meaning. Anyone caught stealing could be in for a long wait before the cops arrived and a lot could happen between the time they were called and the time they showed up.

We had lunch at the factory office and again I can’t say enough about Rajasthan Indian food. It is outstanding.

We hit one final factory in the afternoon which was also a furniture factory. I was amazed at all these furniture factories, which were making 100% wood furniture and was curious to know how much wood they were going through per day. I asked the manager who was guiding us around what the wood supply was like. He said it was getting tough to find good wood as the forests were getting decimated. But he said it in a way that sounded unconcerned. I asked him what he would do when there was no more wood. He shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly and simply stated “then we will just use something else to make furniture, maybe metal or plastic or fabric”. He did not seem too concerned.

We decided we had enough time to catch one of the local tourist attractions, which is a giant old fort built onto a high plateau more than 500 years ago. So here I was, walking up steep hills and tall staircases to get to the top of this fort in long slacks and black shoes with a button down short sleeved shirt. We were in the sun most of the time and it was about 110 degrees. Sam bought two 1 liter bottles of water. It wasn’t enough and we had to get more. Basically, in the short 2 hrs that we toured the fort, I downed 2 liters of water – and never went to the bathroom even once. Our clothes were drenched in sweat and my digital camera was so hot in the burning sun that I had to keep switching hands because the metal was so hot. Every time I brought the camera to my eye it felt like the eyepiece was burning my skin. The fort was fantastic and I took a lot of pictures. In 500 years its walls had never been breached, the fort never taken. It was a fascinating place and hard to believe that they managed to build such a place on a high plateau with no modern equipment.

Finally it was time for us to leave. We got in our car and cranked the AC to full blast, which basically meant that the temperature inside the car dropped to about 90, but when you have been walking around in 110 degree weather, 90 feels pretty good. You are still sweating, but feel much more comfortable.

We had to take the train from Jodhpur to our next destination which was Jaipur, another city in Rajasthan, but much larger (about 2-3 million people) and a little closer to Delhi. We were originally supposed to fly, but the airline cancelled the flight at the last minute. So we were stuck with the train.

I had some expectation as to what traveling by train might be like having spent some time in China. The Guangzhou rail station is an experience in itself. So it wasn’t complete culture shock when I got to the station, but still somewhat unsettling. If I thought the domestic terminal at Delhi airport was bad, this was 10 times worse. The words “utter chaos” describe the scene outside the train station, although it also could have been due to the fact that the train was scheduled to leave in a matter of minutes and the next one wasn’t until the morning, so maybe it was last minute rush (which we were).

As we got out of the car Sam grabbed my cell phone. He told me quickly and quietly to bury it in my luggage. I wasn’t wearing a watch but Sam took his off and jammed it in his front pocket. He said the crime at the train station was pandemic and that thieves were very skillful and clever in relieving even the wary of their personal belongings. I decided to listen to him.

The train station was packed with homeless. People in some of our cities here in America are concerned about our own homeless problems. Compared to this, we don’t have a homeless problem. It was heartbreaking. These weren’t just homeless begging for some change before they moved on to something else. Most of the people actually lived there. There were dirty hunks of cardboard and newspaper that served as sleeping mats and what really hurt was seeing the women and children. There was nothing you could do. You wanted to help them all, but I could have emptied every dollar in my pocket and still not had enough to give something to everyone, even if I was only handing out dimes or nickels, not to mention the total riots it would cause if I did do something like that. It was a sad, overwhelming, helpless feeling.

Sam could see what was going through my mind and must have explained this before to virgin western eyes.

“You can only do so much. And don’t feel too sorry for these people. Some of them are here because they can make more money begging at the train stations than they can working the fields or farms in the villages they come from. So they leave their families and farms and prefer to live at the train station. Some of them are truly bad, they will dirty themselves and their children, hoping that the more pitiful they look the more money they will get. But yes, many of them are truly destitute and poor and this is their final option. We have too many people, not enough jobs, and the government does nothing.”

I didn’t have anything to add after that, I just felt helpless and remained quiet.

Once we entered the train station, hordes of young men literally attacked our bags.

“Carry your bag for you sir?”

“Where you going sir?”

“Let me help you sir.”

“You need someone to help you to the train?”

Sam physically pushed them off while I firmly shook my head and pulled on my luggage. Sam told me they will grab your bags before you know it and just walk off. He said most of them just want to earn an honest buck and will take your luggage to your car and load it in, expecting of course a big fat tip. But some of them are outright thieves and will disappear with your luggage faster than you can blink.

We finally made our way to the first class cabin, which is the only cabin with AC. Mercifully, the AC was halfway decent, keeping things right around 80 degrees inside the car. Unfortunately, the train looked like something out of a Soviet nightmare 40-50 years ago. Surely it wasn’t that old, but it sure looked it. Everything looked beat up, the colors were faded, and everything looked old and worn out, even if it wasn’t. And remember, this was the first class cabin.

We very carefully stowed our luggage as deep as possible underneath the seats far away from any wayward hands. Sam said sometimes thieves and even railway workers would sneak into first class cabins to steal things from people’s luggage. Hey thanks, that makes me feel much better.

As usual, nothing was on time. We sat and sat and sat. Finally Sam went and bought us a couple of magazines to read while we waited – it was a 5 hr train ride to Jaipur which meant we would be pulling in somewhere around 12am midnight.

We were the only 2 guests in the car until a third gentleman came in. So far all the Indians I met were big on greetings and chit chat and this gentleman was no exception. Business cards were exchanged, hands were shook, and soon we were all engrossed in conversation. This gentleman worked for the government, the forestry service to be exact and was working on arid research projects in Rajasthan. I asked him how he liked his job.

“It is a very interesting and challenging service. Everyday we are trying to manage the forests and environment in India, trying to find new ways of conservation and also learning how to grow in the deserts of Rajasthan. It is tough work, but I enjoy it.”

I mentioned to him about my conversation with one of the factories we visited, where the factory did not seem concerned about running out of wood.

He let out a long sigh. “Our job is very difficult. There are not enough of us and our budget is too small. It is difficult to preach conservation when the entire country is trying to develop itself.”

But what about renewable forestry practices? Tree farms? Planting projects?

“Yes, yes, we have all these things, but you must understand that it is all too little. Also, many of the people in the country are very rural, they still live the old fashioned way. They are not even aware of the laws, nor would they follow them if they knew. How can we tell them ‘you can not cut down these trees for your home or farm or fire because we need to conserve our forests’ when it is the only thing that allows them to survive? And there are many corrupt lumber companies who will illegally harvest lumber, rarely with any punishment. Of course, the biggest problem we have is apathy, some people just don’t care. Still, I am optimistic, as more people become aware of the damage we are doing to our forests they will take action and steps are progressively being taken to preserve our environment. I enjoy the work I do.”

Soon we were all feeling tired and conversation slowly ended as one by one we began to fall asleep. I needed to use the restroom, so I got up and weaved my way back and forth down the hall to the restroom.

Do you remember the scene in The Mummy Returns when the hero’s son is on the train in Egypt and needs to use the restroom? Do you remember the restroom? Picture it in your mind.

THAT, was my restroom. I entered a filthy room with a broken, dim light. No toilet paper, not even the obligatory can of water by the toilet. I lifted the lid up and the seat was a motley mess of dark colors, scratches, and deep grooves, with dark stains of who knows what that had been stained permanently into the toilet for who knows how long. I had to go, well, you know, the big one, but I was damned if I was going to even attempt it, especially with no toilet paper. So I sucked up and puckered up and held it all in, praying for a quick arrival into Jaipur. Sure enough, when you “flushed” the toilet a hole simply appeared where your business disappeared onto the tracks below which were flying by. Luckily the sink had its own water supply and anti-bacterial soap, but that was the only comfort.

I settled back into my seat rather uncomfortably as I was now holding in a day’s worth of spicy Indian food and just sweated it out waiting to arrive in Jaipur.

To be continued…….