Doctor Eclectic

Doctor Eclectic
Doctor Eclectic

Sunday, December 28, 2014


When I passed this year’s Christmas letter to Mary for editing, she called attention to my including Uber in the letter.  “Who or what is Uber?” she asked.  As someone who reads two newspapers a day, I was surprised she had missed the news about the San Francisco company, which is now in 53 countries and literally hundreds of cities.

It’s placement in the annual letter came because my granddaughter and her boyfriend are both driving for Uber.  It made and still makes business news in the WSJ, my paper of choice.  In fact there were three articles within the last week”: one about a French challenge to their operations, another about background checks in San Francisco and New York City, and a third, very interesting one on how Uber has become the soccer mom” transport for middle-school kids.

Together they provide an interesting story about this emerging company that has attracted more than $46 Billion in venture capital, and in a very short period of time: five years, in fact.

In 2010 Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp installed their friend Ryan Graves as CEO of what they called UberBlack, choosing the name because at the time they envisioned using the black limousines in the city as their sole means of transport.  There were several reasons why this seemed a good business model.  For one, the black cars were under-utilized.  My first-hand experience is that San Francisco is a tough city in which to catch a cab.  Unless you are at a major hotel, even a call from the concierge is likely to result in an extended wait.  The limos, which often depend on hotel personnel to suggest them as an alternative to taxis, tend to wait in queue or roam, looking for someone looking at their watch. 

I have used one to travel about six blocks and, since they have no meter, paid an agreed-upon price to reach my destination.  The non-meter agreed upon-fee model is one of the things that distinguishes Uber from taxis.  Another is a concept borrowed from the toll-roads and online shopping: PayPal or credit card on record; both making transactions cashless for the consumer.

The limos also had something that worked in their favor: they were considered non-competitive by the taxi companies, since they were already handling an overflow population, often with trips to the airport.  They also satisfied whatever regulatory requirements the city had, such as background checks, bonding, and liability.

When their success exceeded their demand, Uber looked to expand by increasing its fleet.  This resulted in several policy changes: standards had to be set for drivers and cars, there needed to be a payment system for drivers and, probably the most important, recruitment of cars and drivers, many of whom had never driven commercially before.

What has developed, at least in the United States and Canada are these: drivers must speak English and have an unblemished, current driver’s license, cars must seat five or more passengers (including the driver) and be less than ten years old.  Insurance while “on the move” is provided by Uber and drivers agree to certain company policies, such as avoiding direct airport access for pickup or delivery, and no transporting unaccompanied children under the age of sixteen.  Other than through complaints or accidents, enforcement of these policies is difficult to assess.

The major change in moving from UberBlack to UberX was increased interest and concern from both the taxi industry and City and State regulators.  In fact, if you get to other countries: such as France and India, entire countries are showing concern.  Uber’s reaction has been high-powered legal action, defending the company on the grounds that it is not a transportation business, but an internet application industry.  It will be interesting as to how that plays out.

If Uber loses, it won’t be because of satisfaction.  Customers love it, and are willing to make concessions, such as walking a block to or from our local airport to use the service or, as the WSJ article mentions, turning a blind-eye to the under sixteen policy.  The drivers seem to love it also.  The flexible hours, including choosing what hours the driver wants to work seems popular.  One of the early San Francisco drivers, who drives as a full time job averages about $25 an hour and has immediate access to those funds.  He has limited liability, although some automobile insurances question whether the Uber policy lessens their liability.  There are probably some tax advantages for those who itemize, but I am sure that is a gray area.  And, in a policy borrowed from Tupperware and Mary Kay, there is a $500 bonus for referring a driver who commits to three month’s availability.

Drivers have very few restrictions.  Fares are set by Uber and vary depending on vehicle and demand, so customer controversies are with the company rather than the driver.  Drivers also avoid the major concerns of taxi drivers: company charges for required credit card use, mandatory hours and location, long waits in airport queues, mandatory GPS systems and the unevenness of the field now that Uber and Lyft have entered the market.

With the end of the year hovering about, I think I have received more solicitation letters than Christmas cards.  In my next post I’ll question why and how that happened.  I hope you will join me.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Annual Reviews

Like most service personnel who joined when I did, I found my life achievements, rightly or wrongly, described in the Annual Review, titled the Fitness Report.  For twenty-five of the Twenty-six years I served, I lived in fear of what effect a negative comment might have on my life.  I also carefully tried to chart a career path that would lead to Command and favorable assignments, and I was told those assignments came from favorable Reports.


Although I never had an assignment I didn’t like, the only one I asked for and received was Post-graduate school at Bethesda.  At the end, when I was offered a staggered assignment that would eventually (maybe) gain me a major command, I began to feel about Fitness Reports like a longtime friend expressed when we were on our first ship.  He was playing poker and was interrupted twice by his Senior Chief who opined that he was needed by his men, an invitation he declined.  Finally, the Senior Chief said, “this may affect your Fitness Report.” To which he answered, “The only way a Fitness Report could hurt me now is if it were rolled into a tight point and stuck in my eye.”

This actually turned out not to be quite correct.  He was discharged some 1500 miles from his home and had to pay to get home out of his own pocket, including paying for shipment of his personal possessions.

Through my career I saw a change in the method used to evaluate and be evaluated.  Gradually there crept in some goal-setting, with accountability. Metrics replaced vagaries, and job definition became clearer.

About that time I found myself closing Hunters Point NSY and having only a First Class Petty Officer to assist and be evaluated.  Shortly into the interview I realized that what was important to me for him to do was not what he thought important.  If I wanted him to clear my hurdles I would have to make his expected goals clearer.  That knowledge served me well in the rest of my Navy career and through my 20 years in the corporate world.

Several recent occurrences precipitated my writing on this subject.  For one, I asked my oldest son who is in sales, whether he would receive an annual review.  The answer was essentially, no.  Instead they are assigned target sales goals at the first of the year, with little interactivity in how they are set, tied to a bonus.  There may be adjustments, and even changes in territory throughout the year, but little of what I would recognize as goal setting and accountability exists in the traditional sense.

My younger son had an evaluation recently, but again it was less traditional and more in line of a demonstration of application of principles, and understanding school goals.

So, if traditional reviews are a thing of the past, what has replaced them?

An article in a recent WSJ titled “Are You Happy in Your Job? Bosses Push Weekly Surveys” may offer a clue. Some companies are finding that anonymous motivation may result in more productivity, greater commitment, and general higher morale.  Several times during the work day or work week, a brief three or four question survey will appear on the worker’s screen.  Questions such as, “What was your major accomplishment this week?”, or “Do your managers appreciate you?” or even, “What embarrassed you as you were growing up?” offer clues as to how management may improve work assignments across the board.  If nothing else, this may move HR persons into a more empathetic and less risk-avoidance position.

We’ll have to wait and see.  In the meantime, as a pretty-much retired person, I hold a Staff Meeting with my support personnel as I shave in the morning and I can modify my goals so I am always on target.
I realized as I composed my annual Christmas letter, that I had more knowledge of Uber than Mary, and possibly more than the people to whom I send cards.  So, in my next Post I will catch you up on what I know of Uber and why it presents an enigma in our developing society.  I hope you will join me.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Handicap Placard

Hip Replacement
Almost forty years before I had my hip replaced last year, my mother underwent a similar operation.  This is not all that unusual as I was told we do 400,000 a year in the U.S., a fact that some believe is more likely to bankrupt Medicare than Congress's raiding the funding.Not discounting the tremendous changes in experience, surgical techniques, and materials, we did share some similar experiences.

We both had pre-surgical episodes with wheelchair assistance needs.  We both had genetic and familial tendencies towards joint problems, and at least one more.

We both received a post-surgical handicap placard.

I can’t remember if my mother’s was red or blue, because she continued to have problems and eventually had a knee replaced as well, so the placard I remember was a blue one.  My post-surgical placard was red, with an expiration date of four months.  I presume the rationale was that if I were still undergoing formal therapy after four months they would allow me an extension and if I weren’t, then I should be walking as part of my long-term recovery.

Neither Mary nor I are great walkers.  Me, because I was a thirty year runner and still proudly wear the gold runner around my neck that I gave myself for running 10,000 miles.  When I could no longer rum, and realized that the activity was probably aggravating my hip problem, I found it painful both physically and emotionally to walk.  Mary, because she says the house we live in, with its thirty-four steps from the bottom of our entrance to the top floor where her study is, constitutes her exercise program.  Since she weighs essentially the same as when I married her more than fifty years ago, who am I to argue?

My defense of that position is a little weaker, not only because my study is eight steps short of hers, but also because she visits the washing machine, dryer, and garage refrigerator more often than I do.  However, I do go more regularly to my car, parked in that same garage than she does, so I’m not totally fooling myself.

red (portable) placard
My surgical recovery was fantastic and my mobility a year post-op received compliments from the PA, but I had two of the worst bouts of gout that I ever had while recovering .  I now take medication and even subscribe to a daily cherry juice regime as my daughter-in-law suggests for me and her father, but I still have times when taking the first step is a major accomplishment and pain is a common visitor.

So, when my four months ran out I sought out my Primary Care Physician and got a six-month extension

As the ninth month of recovery came closer. I caught hints that Mary found our ease in finding a parking place comfortable and asked my PCP for another extension.  . I joked that I was afraid if I did not, Mary would find a way to cripple me in my sleep. He said, “Why don’t you get a blue one like everyone else?”

And I realized he was right!  Everyone seemed to have a blue placard, even at church, where they have eight spots on the main door level.  I now park in one of the two at the lower level, where the Rectory is, and climb the 8 steps to enter the church.

It has always seemed strange to me that the handicap parking spots at church fill up every week so quickly.  Wouldn’t you think some of those handicapped would be cured after a time?

When my mother passed away, one of my sons inherited her car and, as I passed it on, I thought about whether I inherited her placard.  Of course the answer was no, but I wondered why, since I had her hip replacement in the box with her ashes and transported that to Arlington where she joined my father, why couldn’t I have parked in handicap at the cemetery?

I hope you will join me for my next Post.  I’ll share with you some changes I have observed in the Annual Evaluation process since I retired.