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Note: this is based on my personal experience and does not constitute a law of nature. If you have other or better ideas, speak up.

During an economic downturn it is not unusual for employees to be let go to save on costs. It’s as true for the chemical business as anyplace else. I’ve noticed over time what categories of job description seem to weather these storms better than others.

In my view, the best place to be is a position directly related to managing cash flow. By managing I mean that work needed for the minimal upkeep of the companies books and financial obligations. This is the beating heart of any company and must be protected. Every company has a stream of money and those who are closest to managing it seem to fare well.

Another position of safety is to be an officer of the company, one who can sign for things and make decisions of consequence. They never lay themselves off. Sales is another high level department that that needs manpower to keep the boat afloat.

An important group of positions relates to the manufacture of product. Try to be as close to the processing of product as you can. Despite layoffs, a company struggling to stay afloat will need to manufacture product at some level. True, shifts of manufacturing groups or production lines may go, but production leads to cash flow. So unless the whole thing is shut down, there may be some extra safety in production related jobs. This includes operational jobs like QA/QC or EH&S.

As for less safe jobs, R&D chemists are expensive, especially the senior ones, and stick up head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd. I’ve been an R&D chemist cut from a company in distress so I have experienced this. Some engineers may face the chopping block as well. And as I’ve said before, never find yourself a chemist in a company whose main business isn’t chemistry.

Other jobs that I deem as less safe include administrative positions whose job could conceivable be doubled up with another job description. A particularly bad place to be is one in which your contribution is poorly understood by management. My position is like this in process safety- if I do my job no one notices that nothing bad happened.

Layoffs are viewed as therapeutic in some circles. It’s been said never to miss the opportunity to revamp your personnel picture during a “good” layoff- or something similar. This would only make an MBA smile.

If you have better thoughts, please send them along.

Like most sciency individuals who graduated from the university/research complex in the US, I planned on a life of doing science. And I did for a few years as a post-doc and assistant prof. But eventually I left academia for the industrial side of the scientific enterprise. There was a period of getting oriented to the commercial arena of chemical technology. But, after seeing the boost in pay, the abundance of lab equipment and the prospects for travel, I quickly adapted.

In industry, scientists are hired to solve problems. And there are usually problems galore. But unlike academia where the entire spectrum of chemical methodologies are available for use, in industry we are often constrained to use in-house technology and standard operating procedures. This in-house technology can consist of proprietary materials and methods, specific substances that are compatible with environmental, health, & safety requirements (OSHA & EPA), or that reaction chemistry which is suitable for scale-up. Suitability can be based on compatibility with materials of construction or the practical operational constraints of existing equipment. Oh, I forgot to mention process safety. Manufacturing at large scale brings safety problems that academics may have little familiarity with.

In-house technology can be broad or narrow in scope. It can be practiced openly in the public domain, reside under just trade secrecy, or under patent protection and a spritz of trade secrecy. Progress in academia is about sharing knowledge and publishing as a measure of productivity, all the while educating students. In industry, the productivity of a scientist is measured as best profit margins on new or old products and technical service to customers. Whereas, an academic is expected to propagate knowledge, we in industry are obligated to keep everything under wraps. Disclosure can be a career ending mistake. This seems like an oil and water compatibility problem.

The differing imperatives, commercial secrecy vs public domain, make the cooperation between industry and academia fraught with difficulties. What is in it for an academic or grad student if they are not able to get a publication out of their labors? A big grant possibly but few publications to show the rank and tenure committee. Will patents get you tenure or a full professorship? I don’t know. Would students be able to use proprietary information in their dissertation? It’s questionable. The matter of proprietary information, inventorship, and assignment of ownership makes cooperation between industry and academia a complex problem for the lawyers.

I live under a rock but perhaps the readers might know of fruitful alliances in the lab between the two chemistry domains- college chemistry faculty and industry. I suppose in circumstances where a company has been started by a professor, productive alliance could happen more easily. 

 

I’ve decided to go by my real name, Larry, and dispose of the cartoonish moniker “Th’ Gaussling”. This pseudonym was conceived as an homage to one of my favorite historical characters, Carl Friedrich Gauss, and to NMR spectroscopy. Gauss is one of the top mathematicians of all time as you’ll see if you go to the link. The suffix “ling” denotes a diminutive form but in my case I rate as submicroscopic to Gauss. In any case, it was time for a change.

I’ve been thinking a lot about flying cars lately. The promoters of these cars have said nothing about what would happen if these things became popular. How would one qualify to operate one? Presumably the FAA would get responsibility for regulatory oversight of this new air traffic. What airspace would these flying cars be allow to fly in? Would they have to be automated? Would you dare fly without a backup pilot on board?

While driving on a busy road, look at how people drive. I’m sure you’ll agree that there might be a large fraction of folks who should not be allowed to control a flying vehicle. Just how much air traffic congestion could/should we tolerate overhead? The issues get stickier the more you think about it.

Currently there is extensive training and 3 tests to pass to get a basic airman’s certificate. Of course these vehicles could hit the market with full automation and without a licensed pilot. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be the need for a backup pilot for some period of time. After all, modern airliners are heavily automated but pilots are still required. And, do we really want them to land just anywhere even though that is a selling point? Perhaps there will be selected places where they can land, you know, like an airport.

I doubt that we’ll see flying cars replacing significant ground commuter traffic even into the distant future. I think they’ll get a recreational vehicle status and will be limited -economically- to wealthy status seekers, show-off executives, or the state.

Eventually, the police and FBI will want them them as well. And criminals.

The July 8, 2019, online issue of the NY Times featured an article by Dr. Daniel Horowitz, an organic chemist and former member of the US Chemical Safety Board, on the matter of hydrogen fluoride (HF) use in petroleum refining. HF is an acid catalyst used in taking small hydrocarbon molecules and making somewhat heavier hydrocarbon molecules for use as octane boosters for gasoline. This is a critical technology for efficient use of petroleum in the manufacture of motor fuels.

My take on the article is that Horowitz believes that refineries are using an alkylation technology that is too hazardous for workers and the public. He writes that there have been several recent near-misses that could have lead to the release of HF that might have left the plant site and spread into the surrounding communities.

Risk = consequence of hazardous activity x probability of event (Wikipedia).

While actuaries understand how to calculate risk, one wonders how executives go about deciding what is an acceptable risk for other stakeholders like the public. Hmmm. Just a thought.

Thanks to RW for the link.

Learning how to use an Agilent 1260 LCMS (with just the diode array detector, not the MS). Oh. My. God. I last used an Agilent 1200 LC 10 years ago. This bloody 1260 is wildly complex, specifically in regard to the MassHunter data collection and workup software. It’s like a Swiss Army knife with 500 tools on it. The thing is designed for a busy analytical lab with high throughput and heavy documentation, like the boys and girls in pharma would use. I’m just using it for research. It’s like giving a taser to a monkey. It’s just a matter of time before something goes dreadfully wrong. Crimony.

I encountered this interesting article while reading about Octave Levenspiel, a prolific chemical engineer, now deceased. It is entitled Dinosaurs, but it is really about the natural history of our atmospheric composition and pressure. Have a look.

While doing some IP due diligence I ran into a patent that claimed some art of interest to me. The art was very useful, but it was claimed by a Prominent Professor of chemistry at Well Known University (WKU). Digging a bit deeper I found that the patent had expired well into it’s lifetime due to non-payment of maintenance fees. So, let’s look at this a bit deeper.

Prominent Professor files a patent application in 1998 on said art and then shoots off a paper to Well Known Publication. Then in 2003, the USPTO grants a patent to Prominent Professor and is assigned to WKU. Fine.

If the patent had been generating royalties, it seems unlikely that WKU would have allowed the patent to expire. There is no record of transfer of ownership to another assignee either. My guess is that by the time of the final maintenance fee, interest in the patent was slim to none. Seeing no royalty income likely, WKU elects to allow the patent to expire. Not uncommon.

The work produced by Prominent Professor was funded by DoE. In short, Prominent Professor received public funding and then by virtue of filing for a patent, the technology produced by said public funding is denied use by the public unless they pay again for it in a royalty agreement, unless it was under exclusive agreement with another entity. Evidently the art sat fallow for a good dozen years until it expired. Prominent Professor and WKU got a feather in their caps, and industry and the public had to sit on their thumbs during the period of unproductive time.

This is but one example of a sham allowed under public law.

I received a package from the across the Atlantic last week. It contained a small pressure transducer which, in it itself, isn’t very interesting. But what was odd was the number of layers of packaging it had. It had 6 separate bags and envelopes as well as a piece of foam.

At what point does precaution give way to fetish? They could learn something from Amazon. When in doubt, use those green air pillows and a box.

I have been an enthusiastic user of RPN calculators since high school, when Gerry Ford was president. Of course I refer to those made by Hewlett-Packard. My first was the HP-25C. The beauty of the RPN system with its 4 register stack was that it could do fairly elaborate chain calculations without the need for parentheses or an equal key. It is quite intuitive to many of us and was a pleasure to use.

But, alas! The HP RPN calculator has largely gone out of fashion it seems. Only a few models remain on the market and several are financial calculators. The HP-12C financial calculator is a wholly inadequate substitute for a scientific calculator. My 12C now sits in the desk drawer with unused pens and paper clips. All seems lost for the RPN tribe.

Or so I thought. It turns out that there is a manufacturer of Hewlett-Packard RPN clones called SwissMicros. These folks have taken the RPN baton and are running with it. Hero’s, I call them. They knew a good product when they saw it and have saved the day by manufacturing a clone that seems nearly indistinguishable from the corresponding HP unit.

I recently purchased the HP-15C clone called the DM15L. It has the look and heft of the 15C. My use thus far has been cursory, but I look forward to exploring the features. So, here is a shout out to SwissMicros!

 

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