Friday, May 15, 2015

Old Time Jam.. the LEAF Festival, Black Mountain NC, May 10th 2015. Yours truly is wearing the yellow tee-shirt.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Killing the Future

A recent article in the Harvard Business review by William Lazonick points out that from 2003 to 2013,  88% of the earnings of those 449 companies in the S&P index that were publicly listed were used for stock buybacks (51%; $2.4 trillion) or dividends (37%).  It's annoying for those of us trying to perform R&D. Pfizer, for example, spent 146% of its profits in those 10 years on buybacks and dividends. In other words, it dipped into its capital reserves to help fund them.

Buybacks drive up share prices artificially, thus lining the pockets of short-term investors and executives. Hence, the enormous recent stock market boom.

But this boom is artificially pumped up, based on thin air; an illusion. Crazy.

Corporations need to stop tying executive compensation to stock prices and stop open-market buybacks. Only when profits are turned into R&D investment will there be a future for the US economy.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Double the NIH Budget?

An article in the New York Times suggests doubling the NIH budget again. Using Alzheimer's and other dementia as an example, Newt Gingrich notes that we are projected to spend $20 trillion in care for these diseases, but only about 1% of that on research.  A cure for Alzheimer's is within reach, so surely that would save us trillions of dollars? Anyone see anything wrong with that argument? I can't. The same goes for other research agencies, as well, such as DOE and NSF, although one can argue about the relative importance to society of the each of the various programs they run.

Investment for the future. Get the best and brightest here and get them doing what they are good at.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Barking Mad

Today, Easter Sunday,  I was at Frozen Head State Park; one of my favorite hiking haunts. I reflected on James Earl Ray, the guy who murdered MLK, and was a prisoner nearby, at Brushy Mountain. He  escaped in 1977 and ran 8 miles in 55 hours. Gary Cantrell heard that, and said to himself "I could do at least 100 miles in that time",  and thus were the insane "Barkley Marathons" born. Runners must complete 100 miles in Frozen Head in 60 hours, including 54,200 feet of climb.  Only 15 runners out of 800 have completed it. Totally tonto. Barking Mad. This ultramarathon "eats its young". "You don't come here to be victorious; you come here to be humiliated." This year, a week ago, all 40 failed.

I struggled up 1500 feet, rested in the sun with my dog, and returned with a gammy knee.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Excellent Sheep

William Deresiewicz’s book, "Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite", has generated much discussion over the last few months. Deresiewicz chiefly targets the Ivy League and their equivalents. An elite education should spark creative drive, above all feeding and motivating student curiosity. Instead, Ivy League students are ‘excellent sheep’, cultivating identical resumes from prep school onwards, conveyed  via uniform college A grades into the sterility of finance and consulting.

My own biases tap nicely into parts of his description. Deresiewicz encourages high-schoolers to look beyond the elite institutions and to populate public universities and those liberal arts colleges that have stayed true to their mission. But lesser-raking colleges have similar ills. Almost without exception, universities have become almost pure money making machines. The professors, who used to be recruited on their academic brilliance and reputations, are now valued more on their, admittedly related, ability to bring in money. In science, a rapid drive towards group-think has led to individuals being evaluated less on their ability to perform or directly supervise research, and more for their ability to lubricate efforts federating dozens or even hundreds of scientists in competitions for multi-million dollar contracts. In a recent discussion I had with a Vice President of a midwestern college the only subject that seemed to interest him was the setting up of a lucrative company based on the university's research assets.

Tension between the acquisition of creative knowledge and the acquisition of wealth is not new, but a truly intelligently designed system recognizes their equivalence. Wither the Ivy.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Rage Against The Machine

"Zone Three please board." We present our boarding passes at CLT.
"You have fallen out of the computer system. You cannot board." says Rayna, unapologetically.
"Magically fallen out of the system, huh?" I say, in a soft voice.
"If you intimidate me I will have you arrested", and she exits, slamming the door.

 Jessica puts us first in line on standby for the next flight, at which we are treated to:
"Your standby boarding cards are invalid. You are not in the system" as seven other standby passengers board before the door slams again.

Ah, well, at least they will pay the hotel overnight.
"Which hotel would you like, sir?"
"We don't care as long as it has a restaurant where we can eat"
 and, of course, Jessica puts us in a hotel with no restaurant.

US Airways and American: "working hard to become the greatest airline in the world".

Monday, February 16, 2015

West Country Wassail

Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson - from Norfolk.
Through Southern England on the train from London  to Plymouth on a cold, sunny Winter’s day. The train passes Aldermaston, the atomic weapons establishment, the British Y-12, where  Bertrand Russell and others vented their spleens, founding the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958. In an equine interlude we nip past Newbury racecourse, which was a German POW camp in World War II, and onto the Bronze Age Uffington White Horse on the Berkshire Downs.  Past Stonehenge then through some curiously-named places: Littleton Panell, Marston Magna, Nunney, Potterne, Urchfont. Next is Glastonbury (the world’s largest rock festival), Taunton and Exeter. My train, arrives at Plymouth, where my daughter, Serena meets me.

We’re in the West Country now, and the people are somewhat annoying.  First and foremost, there’s no decent football team here for hundreds of miles. Then, some of the locals claim their accent to be at the origin of Americanese.  But I know that the dialect of Norfolk, where I come from, has the closest ties to that of Eastern New England; I don’t care whether Plymouth, MA came before Norwich, CT. What’s even more galling, though, is that they claim to have had Britain’s greatest sea-dog, Francis Drake. Now, we from Norwich had the brilliant Nelson (above), who single-handedly thrashed Napoleon. This guy Drake, supposedly a Vice Admiral (but really a pirate) was (or wasn’t) playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe in 1588 when informed of the approaching Spanish Armada. He (maybe) said there was plenty of time to finish the game before sailing out to singe the beard of the King of Spain, or whatever….Peasant!