Need Some Perspective? Ask a Taxi Driver.

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Taxi drivers are among some of the most interesting people I come into contact with on a regular basis. Most of the drivers I encounter in the cities where I travel are immigrants, and many have unique and very interesting perspectives on the United States. While traveling last week, I had conversations with two such drivers which, together, I believe really capture the ethos of this country.

The first was a Russian Uber driver who was granted political asylum just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. He had nothing but positive things to say about the United States, unhesitatingly declaring it the best country in the world (the Canadian I was with took some exception which was duly noted). In over twenty-one years of living in the United States, he had not returned to Russia a single time, and had absolutely no intention of ever doing so.

The second good back-seat conversation I had was here in the Washington, D.C. area. It was with an Ethiopian who had been in the United States for eight years and was every bit as dismayed by this country as he was enamored. The school shooting in Connecticut was a big topic of conversation during my trip, but I don’t think I encountered anyone so upset by it as my driver. There was certainly plenty of killing in Ethiopia, he told me, but it could always be traced back to specific issues. The idea of killing simply for the sake of killing — shooting people with whom you had no quarrel whatsoever — was something he could not even begin to wrap his head around. I assured him that he wasn’t missing anything — that natively born Americans were no closer to understanding it than he was. The only difference was that we were growing accustomed to it.

I usually wouldn’t ask someone I just met what they hoped to do with the rest of their lives, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have several drivers volunteer their aspirations. I’ve heard some selfless and inspiring plans over the years from improving access to healthcare all over the world to trying to solve the problem of food distribution, but I found the simplicity and elegance of my Ethiopian driver’s dream to be particularly interesting. If he ever had enough money, he told me, every year, he would pick two people from every state in the country and send them on a two-week trip to Africa. That’s it. He would not require them to volunteer, and he would not ask anything of them in return. All he wanted them to do was spend two weeks on a sublime, culturally rich, and war-torn continent, then return to their normal lives. The rest, he told me, would take care of itself.

Free Advice: Amazon Should Partner with Printer Manufacturers for One-touch Ordering of Ink Cartridges

First of all, I should make it clear that I hate just about all printers on the planet. Most are poorly manufactured, the drivers are buggy, and they end up being money pits (as they were intentionally designed, no doubt). But here’s a way that owning one of these pieces of clunky and largely obsolete technology could be slightly less horrible:

When you set up your printer, you should be prompted to optionally enter your Amazon credentials. If I choose to provide them, when I start to get low on ink, I should be able to order the correct cartridges with the press of a button, and have them arrive at my door within two days. The advantages of such a partnership are probably pretty obvious, but I’ll spell them out anyway:

  1. Printer manufacturers: you will sell more ink at a faster rate. When I currently start to run out of ink, I put off the purchase of new cartridges for as long as possible. Not only is it inconvenient to have to go out to the store, but looking through a book or searching online for the right package of ink is just not how humanity should be spending its time in the year 2011.
  2. Amazon: you can probably put the final nail in the coffin of Office Depot and Staples. Could these companies still exist if they lost 80% of their printer cartridge sales? What else do people buy there?
  3. Customers: Owning and operating a printer would suck just a little less. Although ink is still way overpriced, and printers are almost as big of a racket as cable TV and mobile phone plans, at least getting ripped off would be considerably more convenient.

Of course, Amazon isn’t the only option here. Staples and Office Depot could try to negotiate such agreements, as well, or the printer manufacturers could try to sell directly to consumers and cut retailers out entirely. However, because of Amazon’s brand recognition, generally good reputation with consumers, and extremely robust retail infrastructure, I think they are best positioned to pull something like this off.

PS: If you love printers as much as I do, you might enjoy The Oatmeal’s Why I Believe Printers Were Sent From Hell.

Free Advice: Apple Should Start Manufacturing in the US

Here’s some free advice for Apple and other technology companies: start moving some of your manufacturing to the US. Buy up some plants and factories in places like Detroit, and start using them to manufacture things like iPhones, iPads, touch screens, memory chips, CPUs, and laptops.

I know it would be expensive, and I know they would lose money — at least initially. But here are the advantages:

  • First and foremost, Americans need jobs. Although we are technically largely out of the latest recession, the economic reality is that there are still way too many unemployed Americans (and things are likely to get worse with so much uncertainty in the Middle East and Japan). On the one hand, devices like the Kinect are setting world records for sales and there are huge lines for the iPad 2, but on the other hand, the unemployment rate is still far higher than it should be. Why not put Americans to work building the same devices we stand in line for?
  • Manufacturing needs to return to the US at some point — why not now? I’m convinced that the day will come when the US will be forced to start doing more manufacturing on its own soil. Yes, the economy has become truly global, but that doesn’t mean competition between countries goes away. I believe there are advantages to a nation being able to manufacture the products its citizens rely on.
  • Imagine the goodwill. We all know that Apple makes great devices, but imagine the goodwill and press that Apple could get from selling great devices that are not only responsibly manufactured and responsibly recycled, but were also partially or entirely manufactured in the US. In addition to just "Designed by Apple in California," Apple could also boast "Made in America."
  • Apple could exert even more control over their products. Apple already controls a great deal of the life cycle of their products from the design all the way through the retail experience, but they don’t control the manufacturing process very well. Products are frequently leaked, and I know for a fact that components are sold on the black market (I’ve bought them in order to do at-home iPhone repairs). I suspect there is also a fair amount of IP that gets leaked when products and product designs are so far out of Apple’s control. By moving manufacturing to their own factories in the US, Apple could do a much better job of containing and controlling information, intellectual property, and even the hardware itself.

I’m not naive enough to think that this is a serious possibility since the return is probably too uncertain and too far off for a public company to take seriously. However, if Apple and other technology companies really want to change the world, there are more profound ways of doing it than just slick devices and marketing hype.