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You may know that after an Amazon transaction you will eventually receive a notice requesting an evaluation of the quality of product and delivery. In the 5-star rating system the top three ratings are Fair, Good, and Excellent. What you don’t know is what constitutes “Excellent or Good” service. What if your order shows up on time and is undamaged? Does that deserve high praise? I’ll answer that. The delivery of a product on time and in spec, even a day or two early, is within the range of ordinary or expected. It does not qualify as excellent or even good.

Conversely, a selection of “Fair” seems unfair to a vendor. If a common parcel delivery to a customer did not also deliver giggling delight, but rather an “OK, here it is”, maybe the customer would be inclined to give a mid-range rating accurately reflecting the absence of glee. Fair is death by faint praise.

What they are missing is an answer indicating that the product and delivery was “as expected” or, “nominal”.  Excellent or Good imply some sort of action above and beyond a baseline value.

Amazon is smart to collect ranking data on their vendors. It keeps them edgy and sharp. I get that.

An Excellent rating should result from service leaving the customer standing there with their pants around their ankles and a goofy grin on their face. That would rank as Excellent in my book!

But I would offer that another purpose is to condition customers into believing that ordinary products and deliveries from Amazon constitute some kind of premium service. Early on, maybe. But now it is normal. It’s just an ordinary transaction worthy of, at most, a wink and a nod.

Note: This was written a year ago. The throat and prostate cancers are currently in remission and I have had time to enjoy the new stents in my right coronary artery. In the last few years I’ve been sonicated, dissected, radiated, biopsied, chemically castrated, spiked with positron emitters, poisoned with platinum, and stented. Yes boys and girls, what a delightful time it has been.


It doesn’t take long in one’s treatment regimen to see that a large industry consisting of diverse technologies has grown around cancer. As one is lead through the maze of corridors and treatment plans, it becomes apparent that the treatment centers are backed by some serious industrial might. As I walk into the cancer center my blood pressure is taken by an automated device, a digital scale takes my weight, and a small device with a light source in it takes my blood oxygen. The staff unlocks the terminal with a fingerprint reader and enters the data into my patient file. The doctor and a dapper young resident soon arrive and consult the terminal. Blood tests are short turnaround and performed on site. The onco-doc and the resident look at the results and divine some kind of conclusion from the numbers.

In nuclear medicine, a local 18F provider produces F18-labeled drugs for daily delivery to the rad labs in small leaden containers. Shortly before delivery a radiochemist quickly isolates the 18F (KF?) and prepares the 18F-glucose that the patient will receive as an injectable from a shielded syringe.

After a bit of resting time to allow the radio-sugar to circulate, the radioactive patient is placed on a motor-driven table that slides into an integrated CT-PET scanner for a bit of tomographic wizardry. A 3D x-ray map of the body is reconstructed from the CT beam data. As soon as the x-ray data is captured, the adjoining PET scanner is switched on and the patient is moved into the sensing zone of the device where gamma rays emissions reveal their location in three dimensions. After the data is collected, it is superimposed on the X-ray CT image to show anatomical locations that indicate an excess accumulation of the glucose. Cancer cells, being immortal and capable of mobility, can reproduce at a higher rate that normal cells. This leads to increased glucose uptake and, accordingly, a greater concentration of radiolabeled deoxyglucose in the cancer cells. A greater concentration of 18F-labeled glucose betrays the location of concentrated cells as they light up in the gamma spectrum.

The pharmaceuticals for chemotherapy are often quite toxic so the nurse who administers the drug is required to don PPE for preparation and administration of the dose. Specialized furniture is provided for the comfort of the patient and family. In the infusion suite of UC Hospital patients lie on recliners within a walled space with a view of the outdoors. Many patients watch familiar television programs as poison drips slowly into their veins. Some patients get sick relatively soon and succumb to fits of vomiting. Others are so strung out from the treatments that they lay there impassively. Worried family and friends strive to manage their own fears while trying to be attentive and positive.

Everywhere in the hospital disposable implements are used. The amount of sterile consumables used by a busy hospital is substantial. Sterile wrappers, clam shell packaging, syringes, IV bags, gauze, tubing, etc. I doubt that the shadows of medical and nursing students ever darken an autoclave anymore.

The breadth of technology and applied science in a hospital is staggering. Microprocessors monitor a wide variety of sensors that then produce digitalized output to either a dedicated screen display or to a nursing station.

The whole system at the hospital is devised to use every available minute of the physicians time. Receptionists verify the patient’s identity and assure the computer that the insurance information is in place. Patients are lined up for entry to the examination rooms.

At a university hospital, physician/professors on duty may have students and residents in tow to observe the great variety of disease states covering a wide range of illnesses. In a recent visit to my head and neck onco-doc, the three polite medical students took turns noodling the scope in my throat to get a thorough look-see. I had all I could do avoid laughing while the students took turns carefully manipulating the slender optical fiber device as it twisted about up through my nasal spaces and emerged below the uvula. The monitor displayed in sharp definition the glistening pinkish tissues in the treatment zone. As before treatment the primary tumor was not visible to the eye.

The industrial cancer business is vast, staffed by highly educated people, data driven and supported by a web of supply chain industries. The extent of the integration of data management is apparent as soon as you check in. Before the appointment is granted your identity and insurance status are verified by the accounting system and copayment is taken. An assistant guides you into a room where digital equipment takes your vital signs and the results are loaded into your patient record on the spot. You wander into another room and the nurse records the purpose of the visit and takes note of your vital signs and history. Soon the doc ambles in, logs into the data system and reviews the information. The appointment begins in earnest.

Those of us in our late 50’s have lived long enough to witness the gradual takeover of electronic and data technology in every aspect of our lives. In the early 1960’s, most of our lives were entirely analog. Television, radio, film, music, automobiles, and general business activities were largely conducted with technology that was fundamentally analog in nature. That is, energy was manipulated or work done via frequency or intensity modulation of electrical properties or by machinery powered by distant turbines. Devices driven by binary math and Boolean logic were around obviously but were only just beginning to enter the consciousness of common folk.

The point is that computer technology has, over a short interval, applied novel decision making or influences on the most intimate elements of our individual existence: The conduct of our wellbeing and how we process the never-ending stream of bewildering sensory input into our consciousness. Applied to the present discussion, health care providers and patients today face a torrent of data in the form of images and measurements that must be wrought into some kind of picture that people can comprehend and use to make plans. Inevitably there are data that, while accurate, are irrelevant to a given issue. And inevitably there are still questions that cannot be answered honestly owing to a fundamental lack of understanding.

For the patient there is a bewildering stream of science-based information and not so sciency information. There is a tendency in people to pay attention to optimistic product testimonials by other afflicted individuals. Magazines and cable television telegraph anecdotal sales pitches at people desperately seeking relief and even a cure. Many people feel the allure of anti-establishment messages promoting dietary plans. There is much talk of anti-oxidant, cleansing and herbal approaches to the treatment of disease states. The fact is, substances which might very well have cancer-preventative properties may be quite useless in the treatment of cancer.

 

Two trips in the last month. First to New Orleans to attend the specialty chemical trade show called Informex. We didn’t have a booth in the expo this year. It hadn’t served a useful purpose for many years, truth be told. I stood in for a sales guy who couldn’t attend. Nice to be back in the field.

Informex is an odd menagerie of buying, selling, drinking, feasting and spy craft. For the first time I was invited to a gathering with a balcony above Bourbon Street.  The hosts supplied ample liquor and Mardi Gras beads so we tossed them from the Royal Sonesta balcony with careless abandon to disinterested stragglers on the street below. No flashing or outrageous behavior to be seen, regrettably. The Sonesta is a 4 star hotel they say. What 4 stars mean on a zero star place like Bourbon Street is beyond me.

The Informex experience varies depending on whether you are a buyer or a seller and if you make a good buy or sale. If you are a buyer, there are lots of free dinners at Antoine’s and the like. If you are a seller, you buy lots of expensive dinners.

There was a lot less trade show junk as in years past. Vendors would give away logo festooned trinkets to ingratiate themselves to passersby (or more realistically, their children). A waste of money usually.

I will say that it is possible to consummate deals, agreements, or understanding in a solid face-to-face sit-down with another party. Far faster information exchange and superior to email or video conferencing. Often you can talk to a decision maker in the form of a CEO or sales manager and shake loose a logjam that has been holding up progress.

The other trip was to Long Island for a campus visit. We stayed in a 3.5 star hotel in a 1 star location. The Long Island Railroad (LIRR) was indispensable for getting into Manhattan. The taxi’s in Nassau county apparently don’t have meters- ask about the fare first. The high point was taking in a Broadway show, “If/Then” starring Idina Menzel at the Rodgers Theatre on West 46th Street. Great show. Menzel has some pipes, that’s for sure.

A less than great show was the Empire State Building experience. The view was nice, once you get to the 86th floor. The in between was an expensive and kitschy meandering from a B-grade SkyRide to a walk through the self congratulatory “museum” on the 80th floor. I won’t discuss my raspy encounter with security while trying to sit on the floor.

Power is as power does, or the fact of power is the act of power.

Just a reminder. In the fable of the emperor’s new clothes, what is important to understand is not that an emperor can be highly delusional. The real lesson directs your attention to the ease with which those around him facilitate his delusion.  This is an insidious condition that creeps in silently like a fog that soon envelops everyone. It takes a child-like innocence of perspective to see through it. Regrettably, child-like innocence is rarely encouraged in organizations.

Power is in the ability to allocate resources. A successful business person must excel at accumulating and centralizing the power of resource allocation.

Business power stems from centralized control by a few. Representative democratic power is granted by voters.  What is behind the fascination with setting up a businessman in a legislative or executive power position? Business is inherently non-democratic.

Lets give a big Bronx cheer for Pratt & Whitney, a subsidiary of United Technologies (UTC), for illegally providing turbine engine technology to China.  And, while we’re at it, lets give a toot for Hamilton Standard for providing the control software.

According to a recent article in The Atlantic, the Canadian division of Pratt & Whitney provided engines for the production of the Chinese Z10 attack helicopter. It is worth the read.

The Chinese helicopter that benefited from Pratt’s engines and related computer software, now in production, comes outfitted with 30 mm cannons, anti-tank guided missiles, air-to-air missiles and unguided rockets. “This case is a clear example of how the illegal export of sensitive technology reduces the advantages our military currently possesses,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said in a statement released on June 28.  The Atlantic, July 6, 2012.

According to the Federal Contractor Misconduct Database of the top 100 offending corporations, UTC ranked number seven.

OK. I’ll state the obvious. This is a very eggregious crime.  If an individual did this, the outcome for such a person might be considerably more punitive. But an amoral corporate being like UTS and it’s wayward subsidiary Pratt & Whitney, the consequences are more abstract. A $75 million hit to the bank account for aiding a nation who’s military influence in the eastern Pacific rim is increasingly in conflict with US interests.  Not a trivial consequence, but nonetheless a consequence that does not match the transfer of sensitive technology to a country with values antithetical to US policy.

The IPO of Facebook stock on friday was a bad business day on two accounts.  Most obviously, the anticipated share price “pop” didn’t happen by the end of the trading day. FB shares opened at $38.00 per share and ended the day at $38.23 per share.  According to Andrew Bary at Barron’s, early investors paid an average of $1 per share. With lockup provisions on 1.8 billion shares expiring in the August to November time-frame, large scale selling could drive down share prices later in the year.

The Barron’s article quoted a tech trader who said

“Like most IPOs in tech land, Facebook is geared toward enriching early investors and employees while sticking public investors with shares burdened with poor voting rights and high growth expectations.”

There is nothing new in this statement of condition. Cashing in one’s shares in a risky investment of time and money in a startup is a commonly executed means of capturing reward. Risk takers are entitled to a payoff when a venture achieves success.

But this trader’s sentiment reveals something deeper about business and it’s role in our culture. This was a public offering of fractional ownership whose sole means of income is advertising. It is clearly designed to transfer future risk to public investors who have precious little voice in corporate governance.

Facebook has offered public investors a kind of sh*t sandwich: A chance to buy into a public corporation that is structurally configured to retain controlling interest by one of the founders.

Has Facebook created wealth or is it just capturing the market share of other advertisers? Facebook, like Google, is a creature of advertising. And, like Google, it is a magic version of the Yellow Pages that automatially anticipates or finds the listings you may want. But it is more than that. It is a directory that supplies the listings it wants you to have. Instead of the full page ads of the advertising print period where trees were actually pulped to provide something called “paper”, today’s ads are hot links to the advertisers website.

Facebook and Google are really just newer versions of the old circus of broadcasting. Broadcasters supply eyeballs and ears to adverisers who then have tens of seconds to mesmerize viewers and listeners with their magic. It is like rattling a stick in a bucket of swill. Facebook supplies amusement as a so-called social network and Google supplies entertainment as well as utilitarian services.

It was also a bad business day for broadcasters covering the FB IPO.  All of the cable television business progamming was set on this blessed and much anticipated initial public offering. Regrettably, the event was delayed for technical reasons until mid day EDT. When the stock was finally released, “experts” were standing by to render their opinion on the last 20 seconds of market activity.  Like all stock market data, it is marked by a jittery, noisy curve, sometimes trending upwards and then downwards.  Over one minute anything looks like a trend.

Faced with the possibility of hours of air time to fill before something exciting happens, the CNBC talking heads natter on and on with a variety of experts who natter on and on. All-the-while stock footage of the NYSE floor and the post-pubescent hoodie-boy CEO of FB loop cycles endlessly. For this we allocate broadcast spectrum?

In the end, there was no excitement. FB closed the day pennies above to where it started. I like to think this is because investors aren’t as foolish as the cynical people who are behind the offering believe on the opening day, at least.

An excellent analysis of Facebook valuation has been posted by Aswath Damodaran, Professor of Finance at NYU.

Thanks to Bill in Michigan for the link on how the US lost out on manufacturing the iPhone. The article is well worth the read. A few of us have been beating this drum for a while. Economics is not a theory of physics. It is entirely about choices people make. But to some, economics has become a mathematical and philosophical validation of greed and a metric of mortal value.

Interestingly, Robert Reich has a parallel and broader editorial on the same general topic.  Reich points out that US corporations are becoming increasingly globalized with “less and less stake in America.”

Reich quotes an Apple executive –

‘An Apple executive says “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.” He might have added “and showing a big enough profits to continually increase our share price.”’

Reich goes on to say that US business investment in R&D is in general decline but…

“… According to the NSF, American firms nearly doubled their R&D investment in Asia over these years, to over $7.5 billion.

GE recently announced a $500 million expansion of its R&D facilities in China. The firm has already invested $2 billion.”

If you read history and understand something of how the industrial revolution has been the deus ex machina of social revolution since the invention of smelting, then unavoidably you must ask what happens if we change the sign of the revolution?  Does the sign of social revolution become negative as well in a nation of negative- or de-industrialization? What happens in a nation when a minority of shareholders absorb value from the stakeholders via tranplantation of the economic engine to another nation? What happens to society when the population grows but the per capita availability of jobs is in decline?  A trip to the Congo or to Gaza might give some useful hints.

Deindustrialization is not nearly the sole culprit. Automation is much to blame for the obsolescence of job descriptions. Automation actually facilitates the export of jobs because the key expertise may be in the design of automated equipment, not its operation.

What made America “great” was not simply its freedom. There was a substantial contribution from a vast continent pregnant with animal, vegetable and mineral resources for the taking. The early allotment of land and mineral resources by the government to settlers, railroads, and mine operators kick started the American economic engine in the mid 19th century.

I am uncomfortable with this strident American exceptionalism viewpoint. Maybe it is the midwesterner in me, but I would prefer to see Americans roll up their sleeves and get busy making things again. Leave the boastful and prideful stuff for the comics. A little more humility and thoughtfulness will get us further and in better condition.

By the early 16th century in Europe, metallurgy had become an established cottage industry in numerous locales. Artisans were sourcing copper, tin, zinc, antimony and iron ores for reduction, refinement and alloy production for cannon and bells among other products.  While there was no systematic science of chemistry in a form recognizable today, the necessity of constant proportions was understood and exploited to maximize the efficient use of scarce materials. Metallurgists of the 16th century would no doubt share the enthusiasm of developing technology with the same fervor as the technologists of today. 

Unfortunately for these 16th century technologists, the contribution of centuries of alchemy produced a confusing array of occult-based practices. These alchemical practices were based on Aristotelian notions of material “qualities” rather than a system of quantitative relationships of and between substances. It is thought that alchemy began with Grecian metalworker’s practical knowledge of metal preparation. Inevitably, this practical art was overprinted with a thick layer of theological mysticsm by the end of the first millenium. By the end of the alchemical age, any systematic theories of matter were blended into a Mulligan stew of early Roman Catholic mysticism,  incomprehensible nomenclature, and the false choices set forth by Aristotle in his theory of matter.

Fortunately for 16th century practitioners of the metallurgical arts, several encyclopedic works were published detailing the practical art of smelting and casting of metals and what we now know to be alloys.  A prominent early work published in 1540 was the Pirotechnia by Vannoccio Biringuccio (1480-1539). Born in Siena, Italy, over the course of his life Biringuccio traveled extensvely throughout Italy and Germany. His Pirotechnia is a series of books and chapters detailing foundry techniques that he witnessed first hand throughout his travels. He made every attempt to describe methods and techniques in enough detail to accurately capture the technique in question. Above all, he completely drops all the alchemical mysticism and bases his comments on process oriented details such as measured proportions and processing conditions.

Up to this point, what was missing from this very early form of chemistry was a systematic collection of facts and measurements and an accurate chemical model in which to give the facts meaning and predictive value.  Biringuccio, and later Agricola, would begin the disengagement of alchemical mysticism and provide a basis of metallurgical technology upon what might be called science. In a real sense, this helps to set into motion the western industrial revolution. Metallic goods would be produced by very pragmatic artisans who would continue to improve their art through the application of rudimentary measurement.  While it would be four centuries before atomic theory would be developed to make sense of the manner in which definite proportions operated, systematic methods of assay would begin to appear well before atomic theory. The ability to identify value in ores and quantitate it allowed the mass industrialzation of metals.

Here is a great catch phrase- Locust Capitalism. The article by David Waldman, describing the past business practices of one of our corporate persons, Bain Capital, uses this catchy phrase to characterize said corporate person. Of course, the irony of it all is plastered on the face of biological person Willard “Mitt” Romney who makes a show of being a job creator.

There is something that locusts do create- it is called frass.

I do not doubt Romney’s sincerity when he speaks. Like other candidates, he seems to live in the “eternal now” much like a dog. He wags his tail at the public hoping to curry favor for the treat of being president. If wagging his tail doesn’t work, he rolls over and puts up a paw hoping to win over the public. It is in the nature of these creatures to do this and while we cannot hold them blameless for their transgressions, we can at least understand them.

People who are able to think about business in an abstract way, that is, unencumbered by sloppy sentimentality for the fate of individuals, are well suited to become the captains and oligarchs of business. Romney seems to have been a captain. If the practices described by Waldman did in fact happen, then the locust analogy is very suitable and it says a lot about the character of the persons involved.

Waldman writes that Romney and cohorts bought companies holding ample commercial credit, charged them substantial management fees, and tapped out the credit lines while pocketing operating cash, driving the company into bankruptcy. They walk away from the remaining husk of what was a functioning organization with their neatly stacked pile of lucre.

If a real person did this, he/she might be described as a kind of sociopath. But somehow in the context of business there is no descriptor for such antisocial behavior.

Since we are now in the habit of referring to corporate personhood, perhaps we need to be a bit more analytical about it and characterize pathological behavior such as this.

My working life has been extremely stressful for as long as I can remember. A mirthess steampunk factory of angst and unworkable puzzles against a backdrop of uncollegial passive-aggression. But like most sciency mid-career people, I wear golden handcuffs that hold me back from making a clean break.  After years of manning the bilge pumps to keep the place working at maximum capacity, people get tired and inflexible. Minor infractions of protocol project to large images of disrespect and imagined malfeasances that burn into the internal viewing screen of our minds.

I write this blog in part as a means of passing along things I’ve gleaned over time from circumstances and people.  Today I have peers who are VP’s of research at some major corporations. Because of the sort of place I chose to align with, my progress will not keep up with these friends. This is the result of the deal I made with the devil years ago. That deal was the result of chosing a location over an organization. The folly of this is now only too apparent and must serve as an example to be passed along.

It is ever so important to be choosy about with whom you sign on and even more important, who you choose to spend your best years with. It is easily possible to commit to corporate beings who demand 110 %, but fail to reciprocate the dedication.  Power is in the ability to commit resources. In the business world all manner of things, brilliant or outrageous, are justified by the intonement of the words “business is business”. In the minds of many, this mantra justifies all.

I’m always amazed at how easy it is to don the corporate armor and strut around like a peacock.  I did a bit of it myself for a short period after I became a sales manager. But after a month reality threw a bucket of cold water on that fantasy when I realized that power is truly in the hands of people who sign the checks. It always has been. Sales people are a particular breed selected from the herd at large for their goal oriented drive and constant urge to prove themselves. 

The chemical business is conservative and socially constipated for the most part. It is nothing like the Silicon Valley paradigm where production is presented as a form of play time.  I’m sure it really isn’t, but it is a great recruitment meme. 

In business, there are wagon drivers and there are scouts. I’ve come to realize that I am a scout. I love riding into the brush looking for a path. Others are better adapted at coaxing the oxen to pull the wagons. 

Business isn’t quite the meritocracy that it is often projected to be. Business demands the adoption of certain kinds of behaviors around the alpha dogs.  People land in positions of leadership for all kinds of reasons and sometimes under the most unlikely circumstances.  Helpful attributes include singlemindedness, focus on the bare essentials of moneymaking, an engaging personality, and a knack for landing on your feet. Aggressive behavior and a bit of psychopathic ambition are helpful.

The fact of power is the act of power.  People early in their careers should strive to understand how power is accumulated and used. Even if you are disinclined to swing the stick around, it helps to understand it.

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