===Ban the Business Major?===
My friend, venture capitalist Bart Stuck, wrote an article called “The Death of Innovation?” questioning the continuing ability of the US electronics high tech industry to innovate. The article was prompted by the October 1996 spin-off of Lucent from AT&T, and with it, Bell Labs – an organization that was funded by cash flow from the telephone monopoly.
”Bell Labs used that money to invent the traveling wave tube, the transistor, lasers, UNIX, as well as 800/700/900 services. It also was a major innovator in loading coils, the coaxial cable, millimeter waveguide, fiber optics and cellular telephony. In the absence of monopolist cashflow, we wondered where new innovation was going to come from – particularly since our review of the top 20 telecom innovations of the previous 25 years suggested that many of them originated from these labs.”
Bart recently reviewed and updated that article and found even more reasons to be depressed over the rate of innovation in America. See: The Death of Innovation (Revisited)
Fundamentally, he believes (and I agree) is the fact that so many bright US students go directly into “business majors” in college, believing that they will thereupon have the skill and the experience and right to manage the engineers and professionals and skilled workers who actually create the products and deliver the services that their companies must try to sell in a competitive marketplace. We have seen the calamity that this kind of thinking has caused.
More than a decade ago, Citi Bank was led by Walter Wriston - a banker - who surrounded himself with bankers, and Citi soared by delivering... well... high quality banking. But with a new century, this changed rapidly, not only at Citi but throughout Wall Street, the London financial centers and corporate boardrooms around the world. I suspect that a careful analysis would show that a 21st Century putsch by business majors -- yes, I mean those guys you knew in college who too a major in “business” or “management” -- spreading like a swarm of locusts, displacing people who actually cared about the company’s core business -- was probably the greatest single factor directly correlatable with corporate mismanagement and demise.
According the Bart Stuck: “Another issue: manufacturing matters! Recall the Brits and the Industrial Revolution: they safeguarded the machinery and plans and techniques For making machinery, eventually some eidetic memory types came to the US and spilled all this, Brits never recovered. Today the conventional thinking is that manufacturing should be outsourced; that is fine, but outsourcing, especially to Asia and to India, coupled with US grad schools in science and engineering filled with Asians/Indians, will lead to these countries matching and then surpassing the US. Our holographic drive play, InPhase, see this In spades: all the partners are in Japan, Korea, China and India. InPhase has unique manufacturing knowhow, won the hard way, by pounding heads on the wall over and over to crack problems. Myriad contract manufacturers Now, with the largest being in China (no small numbers in China), but still the US has lots of manufacturers, but with the drive to look at quarterly results, finance types will cut all the manufacturing out, and this is where the REAL intellectual property lives in products.”
Also there’s a matter of Just In Time...I recently wrote an article for the CIA describing "just in time" manufacturing as another example of the same kind of thinking that brought us hyper-leveraged debt instruments. Squeezing every last drop of efficiency without ever considering that squeezing out the last tenth of a percent is not the only consideration. Indeed, that kind of thinking assumes that the conditions of the present will continue, perfectly predictably, for the indefinite future... exactly the kind of thinking that created today’s catastrophe.
Completely lacking in anything remotely resembling a sense of history or imagination, these business types blithely ignored the possibility that a day might come when change and instability would strike, as they did our ancestors... the kind of time when robustness is needed.
Today we tax the hell out of warehoused goods and supplies. Idiocy! Warehoused reserves should get tax BENEFITS since they make companies and society more resilient.
There is a simple reform: ban the undergraduate “business major.” Continue to teach all of the same subjects, but push them all into either:
(1) MBA programs -- which refuse entry to anyone who has not spent at least two years delivering either a product or a service -- or
(2) into professional development courses that do not offer fancy-sounding credentials.
Either way, hammer home the point that the purpose of “management” is not to lord over the mere engineers and lowly service providers. Nor is it to create “innovative credit instruments” that squeeze leverage out of every last drop of fictitious, imaginary debt-wagers. Rather, management is supposed to empower and smooth the way for innovators! So that companies striving to compete with one another can thrive - ultimately - by offering better goods, better services.
This is not a recent quandary. If you want to see how far back it goes, try watching “Executive Suite,” a 1954 Robert Wise film starring William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck. A bit slow as cinema, the movie hammers home the vital importance of product vs. red tape, in a tribute to the better side of capitalism.
There is another metaphor from fiction that would seem to apply, from the Douglas Adams series The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In book #3 (I think), our heroes find themselves on the “C Ark” from Golgafrincham, carrying the entire planet’s supply of “middle-men, managers, account executives and factotums” who had been tricked aboard and sent away by the two-thirds of the home population, who, thereupon, ended their long dark era and entered a golden age.
It’s not that bad here on Earth. Not yet. But stay tuned.
===== ===== =====
The New Scientist Magazine asked six leading writers for their thoughts on the future of science fiction. It special feature also covers the latest science-fiction novels, writers to watch, and results a poll of all-time favorite sci-fi films and novels. Catch Margaret Atwood (implicitly) admitting she is an SF author. And genuine wisdom from that wise-guy, Kim Stanley Robinson.
See an absolutely stunning “Edge” course and discussion of human psychology, behavioral economics and the sudden renewal of interest in what use to be called “subliminal perception.”
See a new book: Generation We: How Millennial Youth are Taking Over America And Changing Our World Forever By Eric Greenberg and Karl Weber. It makes the point -- that we may be emerging, at last, from the shadow of the Boomers, who may be best known for one accomplishment – raising a super next generation.
The Singularity Summit - held recently near the Googleplex - had some interesting riffs. Here’s a summary.
“J. Storrs Hall suggested that instead of fixed moral rules (which a super smart AI with access to its own source code could change later anyway) progenitors should try to inculcate something like a conscience into the AIs they foster. A conscience allows humans to extend and apply moral rules flexibly in new and different contexts. One rule of thumb that Hall would like to see implemented in AIs is: "Ideas should compete; bodies should cooperate." He also suggested that AIs (robots) should be open source. Hall said that his friend economist Robin Hanson pointed out to him that we already live with superhuman psychopaths—modern corporations—and we're not all dead. Part of what reins in corporations is transparency, e.g., the requirement that outsiders audit their books. Indeed, governments are also superhuman psychopaths, and generally the less transparent a government the more likely it is to commit atrocities. So the idea here is that more AI source code is inspected, the more likely we are to trust them. Finally, Hall also suggested that AIs also be instilled with the Boy Scout Law.”
So many thoughts, so little time....
The Planetary Society will be rolling out "Beyond the Moon: A Roadmap to Space" on Thursday (Nov 13) at the National Press Club in Washington. Have a look.
My partner in crime on the Exorarium Project -- Professor and world renowned tech artist Sheldon Brown, if showing installations of his vivid and way-cool/fun SCALABLE CITY project at a number of locales. Drop in if you can! In Los Angeles at the (Hollywood) LA Municipal Art Gallery. Sheldon is giving a talk there in the CONVERSATIONS WITH ARTISTS SERIES. The Scalable City will also open at the Beall Center for Art and Technology in January, and in Rio de Janeiro in February, and at EPCOT center in March.
Is this one for the predictions registry? Somewhat reminiscent of my short story “The Giving Plague” or Greg Bear’s VITALS -- SEED Magazine is citing evidence “... that a significant factor in why some countries exhibit higher levels of neuroticism than others may be the prevalence of the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. The study also indicates that it may influence a society's preference for strict laws, an expression of uncertainty avoidance, and its valuation of 'masculine' priorities such as competitiveness and financial success over 'feminine' values like relationship-building.” Infected men tended to have lower levels of intelligence, superego strength and novelty-seeking, while infected women exhibited higher levels of intelligence, superego strength and warmth. Infected people of both sexes tend to be susceptible to feelings of guilt.
In 2000, Webster reported that rats infected with Toxoplasma are less fearful of and, in some cases, can even be attracted to their feline predators. She surmised that the parasite subtly manipulates a rat's behavior to increase the rodent's chances of being eaten by a cat—the only animal in which it can reproduce—thereby upping the odds of the parasite reproducing. But the human “mutualist or commensal” relationship seems to be far more complex.
A search for Dyson Spheres has been carried out using the 250,000 source database of the IRAS infrared satellite which covered 96% of the sky. The search has used the Calgary data collection of the IRAS Low Resolution Spectrometer (LRS) to look for fits to blackbody spectra. Searches have been conducted for both pure (fully cloaked) and partial Dyson Spheres in the blackbody temperature region 100 < T < 600 deg K. Other stellar signatures that resemble a Dyson Sphere are reviewed. When these signatures are used to eliminate sources that mimic Dyson Spheres very few candidates remain and even these are ambiguous.
Previously unknown work by Stanislaw Lem discovered. An anti-Stalin opera that he hid between the pages of a ‘botched crime novel’ and never showed anyone....
If the topic interests you, a moving documentary by a lovely husband and wife film company near me -- "The Invisible Ones: Homeless Combat Veterans," by a pair of local San Diego film makers.
Well worth a closer look, David Price and his partners have developed their “debate graph” concept a bit farther. Very vivid. Drop by, explore and offer feedback?
Now that the famed Clarion science fiction writers’ workshop has moved to UCSD (San Diego), there are fascinating upshots. One is the publication of some thoughts by Jim Shea including an interview with National Endowment for the Arts director Dana Gioia. It may be the first time that anyone from NEA has made statements like this about science fiction and fantasy.
“Twentieth century critics misunderstood and marginalized both science fiction and fantasy. The celebration of the novel’s “great tradition” of social and psychological realism treated romance as a mode of children’s literature. If it was considered at all, it was mocked or dismissed. Probably only George Orwell and Aldous Huxley escaped censure because their dystopian novels had enormous political and social impact. (And they demonstrated their bona fides by writing realist novels earlier.)
... Modernism celebrated realism above all other modes of fiction. I understand the bias of Modernist critics, but their critical monomania marginalized some of the best fiction. There have always been great fiction writers like Poe, Kipling, Stevenson, Borges, Calvino, Kafka, and Tolkien for whom realism was not the chosen mode. To exclude them from any survey of modern literature is to mischaracterize the last two centuries.... I’ve seen a bit of change lately. Very slowly the literary establishment has grudgingly accepted fantasy and science fiction—mostly because of the continuing popularity of those genres in an era in which traditional literary reading has declined.”
See a cool blog by my collaborator Jeff Carlson, author of PLAGUE YEAR!
Remember when I mused that Sauron might the real good guy, or at least have a point, as opposed to hose haughty, oppressive elf-lords? Well, Stan Nicholls has run with the idea...
There are still attempts to unify science with metaphysics. Most have been dumb. A few have been charming. On rare occasions, they have even offered insights that rise above the level of cliches. Here is one that might deserve a glimpse. In any event, the summary contains some interesting (and somewhat informed) imagery. (Note, I say this as one who has repeatedly indulged himself in speculative metaphysics! As all of you well know.)
===== ===== =====
Trying desperately to finish that story in time for part II to run in Baen's Universe Magazine... I have to make this a quick post of misc wonders the have piled up.
Tune in to the History Channel on December 1st (9-11pm) for “The Next Nostrodamus?”... featuring some skeptical riffs by yours truly, trying to hold up a candle in the wind.