Learning A Musical Instrument As An Adult

Ginkaku-ji, Kyoto

About a year ago I began to play the piano.  Like many people I started to play in first grade but stopped after 3rd grade because I didn’t have a good teacher.  But it was a gateway instrument that led first to the saxophone, then the clarinet and finally the oboe, which I’ve been playing now for 50 years.  Problems with fingers #4 and #5 on my right hand due to too much computer keyboarding led me to take up the piano once again as a way to head off any possible issues with focal dystonia.  Right hand fingerings on the oboe for the low C, C# and D# notes were getting problematic and I was having pain in my hand and right arm.  The piano seems to have fixed this, along with changing some bad keyboarding habits.  But learning the piano hasn’t been without challenges.

As they say, youth is wasted on the young.  The principal challenge to adult learning of an instrument I believe lies in the fact that our brains are so cluttered.  As a child, the brain is a blank canvas.  Yes the brain is more malleable, but at least as important is that children, at least ones in households without the “busy” disease, have hours of unstructured time available to them with no responsibilities to worry about, and minds uncluttered by the cares of daily adult life.  Even adult brains are surprisingly adaptable. Music performance requires that the brain has to be 100% focused on the task at hand.  The only other thing requiring this level of focus and attention in my experience is the creation of computer software.  Both are great mental stimulants and by employing both I’m hoping to stave off at least some of the mental degeneration that comes with ageing.  But learning new music, such as memorizing oboe pieces, and learning a new instrument does take longer as I get older.  I’m finding that the increasing length of time is not due to age however, it’s because I don’t have hours of unstructured time available to practice.  Meditation briefly before beginning practice helps clear the mind, but during practice some days it’s a constant struggle to maintain complete focus.  Being forced to focus though is good mental discipline.  There’s a reason a lot of code gets written between 11pm and 4am- the house is quiet, wife and kids are asleep, and the phone doesn’t ring.  Learning a foreign language is another great mental stimulant, but I’ll save discussion of that for another time.

The Future of Self-driving Cars


Kenroku Park, Kanazawa, in winter

After sitting in stop and go traffic for about half an hour last night on the way home from the office due to a 6 car pile up on the freeway, I started thinking that maybe self driving cars might not be all that bad of an idea.  Although a lawyer acquaintance said that cars will fly before self driving cars are allowed on the roads (and I’m sure tort lawyers are even now salivating at the prospects) I don’t see how self driving cars can be any worse than some of the goofs we have on the roads today.  After spending time living in Japan and England, where driver training is infinitely more rigorous than it is in America, I’ve concluded that all the self driving cars, safety systems and government mandates aren’t going to reduce accident rates in this country until we do something about the miserable way people are trained (or not trained as it were) to drive here.  I’ll bet that at any given moment about 1/3 of the drivers have no business at all being behind the wheel.  This was made abundantly apparent after I returned to Cleveland after living in England.  After one trip on I-271 in the morning traffic I was ready to pack it in, that was much too scary.  Bumper to bumper rush hour traffic on the M62 between Leeds and Manchester moves at up to 85mph and I felt perfectly safe there because it’s apparent that virtually everyone knew exactly what they were doing.  Driving in Cleveland is more akin to driving in China, another place with apparently little training and horrible roads.

Unfortunately with self driving cars, unless the switch is made overnight so that ALL cars on the road are self driving I fear that they will never be deployed.  Some highways may have to be made off limits to non self driving vehicles.  Plus I see self driving trucks becoming a reality much sooner than self driving cars, due to the higher accident rate for trucks and the constant turnover (about 130% per annum) of truck drivers.  None of this will happen overnight.  It took 40 years for the electric light bulb to completely displace gas lighting.  The technology is in its infancy currently, and as widespread deployment is years or decades away, in the interim we should focus on improved driver training.  One of the downsides of self driving cars (besides their cost) is that people have yet another excuse to lose a valuable skill due to laziness.  We’re becoming a nation of idiots as robots and automation take over everything.  Once robots get smart enough to build and program themselves they’ll realize they don’t need humans any more.

Musings on Product Development, a 30 Year Perspective

Garden at the Imperial Palace, Kyoto Japan

I’ve worked on a lot of product development projects over the last 30 years, most of which involve printed circuit boards, microprocessors and firmware of some kind.  Whilst massive changes in the electronics industry have come to pass over a generation there are some things that have not changed.  First of all is time to market.  We can build one of anything in six weeks, even amazingly complex things that would have taken a year or more if done the old fashioned ways, but it still takes a year to 18 months to get something into production.  Admittedly things have gotten a lot more complex, particularly parts sourcing and blank PCB fabrication, but even with the better tools we have today it still takes the same amount of time to get things into production.  Second, the 3X rule hasn’t changed significantly.  The 3X rule is this: carefully account for all development costs and costs of components and prototyping.  Come up with your best estimate for the total cost of developing the product, then multiply that number by 3X and that will put you fairly close to the total development cost by the time the product is ready for production.  Regardless of how much you think or estimate that developing your product will cost, if you simply can’t tolerate investing 3 times that amount to develop the product to production, then just quit right now and not waste your money.  Because product development WILL always cost more than you think.

The Consumer marketplace is perhaps the worst, or shall I say, most challenging market to design products for.  Fewer than one out of ten products that actually make it to the mass production stage eventually succeed in recouping their development costs through product sales.  Because the consumer market is the most price sensitive a great deal of competition boils down to simply who has the cheaper selling price.  This in turn creates a relentless downward pressure all up and down the supply chain.  Toshiba announced recently that it is completely exiting the television business, shuttering or repurposing its existing facilities.  These kinds of shakeouts are constantly taking place among the largest players in the industry.  Yet there seems to be no shortage of individual entrepreneurs willing to jump in with both feet.  Web sites like Kickstarter have only emboldened more folks to get into the product development arena. So if you too fancy developing the next hot gadget keep a few things in mind:

  • The 3X rule.
  • The time involved.  Even after your up front design work and prototyping have finished, there’s the year to 18 month slog ahead to get your product into production.
  • Know your competition and seek to differentiate your product in such a way that you can bring greater value to potential purchasers so you won’t be forced to compete only on price.
  • Know exactly what it is you want to build and make an honest appraisal of the effort.
  • Avoid setting unrealistic cost targets too soon in the design cycle.
  • Have cost targets in mind however to help avoid scope creep.
  • Seek a manufacturing partner at the same time you are seeking a design partner.  Final cost of finished goods greatly depends on how your product eventually will be built.
  • Don’t assume the lowest cost producer will be found overseas, particularly in China.  As of today labour costs in China are equal to those in Mexico.

Developing products with an overseas partner can be particularly painful.  On several occasions we’ve had clients come to us to help with product development after they’ve tried relying on an overseas (ie, China) partner.  The problem is that by this time they’ve wasted a year or more and all their development money has been spent and they have nothing to show for it.  Product development, particularly in the consumer marketplace, is not for the faint of heart.  Proceed cautiously.