When was the last time you sat down and thought?

I’m not talking about doing your taxes or planning a vacation. I’m talking about real intellectual pondering. What is love? What differentiates fact from truth? Why—that’s it, just why?

On the other hand, when is the last time you tuned your television or clicked your mouse to see a reality celebrity?

Have you ever thought about or learned how your smartphone works? How about an LED (light emitting diode)? Fuse or circuit breaker? Microwave oven?

In the Monty Python sketch about the Australian Philosophy Department (“Hello Bruce!”), have you ever read the works of any of the philosophers named? (Kant, Heidegger, Descartes, Socrates, Hume, etc.)?

Writers and thinkers used to get together, eat, drink, and have deep philosophical discussions. Think Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, et al. Too old? How about J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and their fellow writer who called themselves the “Inklings.”

Have I got you thinking?


Why I Don’t Like Pollsters

Pollsters like to remind us as to how accurate they are. If they were half as good as they say, we could avoid the whole election craziness; the pollsters would tell us the week before the first primary or caucus who the ultimate winner was going to be and we could just get on with our lives.

I took multiple statistics and associated classes in college, so I have at least a basic understanding of sample size, margin of error, and scientific wild-ass guesses. In the first place, I challenge their statistical sample because it doesn’t include people who match my demographic. Why? Because people like me refuse to talk to pollsters; we do not answer any telephone call that doesn’t come from a known number. However, I do vote in every election.

Next, someone or some organization is paying for these pollsters. In the event of murky data, whose side so you think a polling company will lean toward?

Finally, let’s be honest—predicting the future is not just tough, it’s pretty much impossible. Look at meteorologists. They tell me that what makes it such a great job is that if they’re right 30% of the time, they’re considered a genius.

Case in point—last weekend, as Hurricane Matthew headed east, out into the Atlantic Ocean, the meteorologists predicted my area would get about two inches of rain. Remember—the National Weather Service has sensors all over the country. They launch weather balloons to check the weather at higher altitudes. They have radar, Doppler radar, and whatever is the newest whiz-bang technology. They have satellites with cameras, infrared detectors, and Ouija Boards. They have weather spotters on the ground. They have computer models. Besides the meteorologists at the National Weather Service, every television station has a platoon of their own meteorologists.

How did my two inches of rain turn out? Try 10.86 inches of rain and tropical force winds that knocked down trees and power lines accompanied by flooding.

A Thoughtful Response

Jason Hopkins posted an insightful comment to yesterday’s post (Thanks, Jason).

Jason wrote:

The problem with that argument is that we are selecting them for a business partnership or a long term stay at home, we are selecting them to be President. I’d love to have Michael Jordan as a long term guest at my home but he’d make an awful President. I don’t think either Hillary or Trump will be a good President, but we have to decide which one of them will do the best job at it.

I phrase political things carefully because we already have enough negativity. Our political system has worked, so far, even with incredibly inept politicians. There have been some skilled politicians, too, a small number of whom have actually worked for the common good.

Why are we seeing what we see today?

1. The skills to campaign and get elected are very different from the skills needed to do the job.

2. In the past, the political parties would formulate their platform, the party bosses would sequester themselves in the proverbial smoke-filled room, and select a candidate who would promote the party’s agenda. With the primary system, the agenda has lost its primacy.

3. Polls have a formidable impact on candidates and voters. The electoral college was intended to encourage candidates to focus on small states as well as large ones. Today, candidates focus on those that the pollsters have determined are “swing” states.

What is the appeal of each candidate? Clinton is perceived as more predictable, which appeals to the business world. She’s experienced. She’s an astute politician—after all she was elected senator from New York before she even lived there. Some will vote for her because they always vote Democrat; others will vote for her because she’s a woman. Possible theme song? Sorry, I’ve tried to come up with one, and the best I can do is adapt the Surfaris’s song to “Wipeout-you mean, like, with a cloth?”

Trump is the ultimate outsider with absolutely no regard for political correctness. He’s unpredictable. Some will vote for him to say, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Some will vote for him because he’s NOT a woman. He cannot count on traditional Republicans. Possible theme song? Billy Joel’s “You may be right; I might be crazy, but it just might be a lunatic you’re looking for.”

I wonder how the next four years will be documented in future history books.

Election 2016

Actually, this year’s elections tend to reflect the norm, not the outlier.

There was a movement to make George Washington king, which he refused. He even appeared personally before the Continental Congress to return his commission as general, with the intention of returning to Mount Vernon and his role as a planter. Instead, he was unanimously elected president, re-elected for a second term, after which he refused to serve, setting the precedent for a two term limit (except for Franklin Delano Roosevelt—after which the Constitution addressed the issue.

John Adams was Washington’s Vice-President, since the candidate in second place took that position. When Washington retired from politics, John Adams was elected, with Thomas Jefferson as his opponent and therefore vice president. In the fourth national election, Jefferson successfully opposed Adams. It was ugly—Adams was referred to as “His Rotundancy” due to his weight. On the other hand, pastors warned their congregations to bury their Bibles in their gardens lest Thomas Jefferson confiscate them. Then there was the whole Sally Hemmings thing.

President William Henry Harrison died less than a month before he died, to be replaced by John Tyler-the only President of the United States to be labeled a traitor and an enemy of the state when he remained with his native Virginia during the Civil War.

So today we have a family member of a former president (a la Adams, Roosevelt, and Bush) and a total outsider. Weirdly, the original concept was for regular citizens to lay down their civilian work, go to Washington, DC to represent their community, then return home (if not to Mount Vernon, then to wherever they call home).

Movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in which a regular guy gets elected to Congress, or Dave where a regular guy who looks JUST LIKE THE PRESIDENT (who happens to be in a coma) depict certain results, but then movies depict time travel, black holes, aliens, and wizards with magical powers.

I reserve (public) judgement. But I will ask this question; “Which candidate would you select as a partner in a venture (business, social, or whatever)?” Or, put another way, if these individuals were not candidates, but just regular people, who would you invite to be a long term guest at your home?

The Quality Curse

Throughout my education and career there has been a major focus on quality. In the United States, W. Edwards Deming is often regarded as the force behind this focus. After World War II General MacArthur initially requested his help in conducting the census in Japan. Ultimately, he became a major force in Japan’s industrial recovery. US industry was doing great—built up during the war years, it had almost no competition since it was the only industrial base spared significant wartime damage.

However, just as pride goeth before a fall, US industry focused on quantity rather than quality. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ford Motor Company was losing billions; a scathing report on 60 Minutes featured an employee who drove the new cars from the assembly line to a parking lot. When the steering wheel came off—on camera—he merely sat it on the seat, because his job only involved moving the cars.

Ford sought Deming’s help. They figured he’d talk quality, but instead he talked management. Deming told Ford that 85 percent of all their problems were caused by management (Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss, take note). By 1986, Deming had helped Ford turn things around. His secret (oversimplified): 1. It’s better to do it right than to do it over. 2. Improve the production process instead of relying on statistical samples—unless the product was complex and expensive, like an airliner, then do both. 3. No one knows more about how to do a job than the person doing it. It worked.

However, much to my chagrin I have recently come to question the value of producing a quality product. It’s difficult to get hard data to support this, but it seems to explain what we are experiencing these days. Companies that are recognized for quality products (e.g., those that get J. D. Powers Awards) get the attention of investors. Naturally, they desire to purchase a significant portion of the company’s stock. However, when these investors have sufficient equity to exert control, they want their results NOW! They implement the usual bean-counter tactics—reducing investments in research and development, cutting corners to reduce costs, moving jobs to another country, manipulating the tax code, and raising prices. The next thing you know, the product, the reputation, and the company all suffer

Motorola was a Malcolm Baldridge Quality and J.D. Powers Award winner. Once a major player in cellular telephones, their telephone business is now owned by a Chinese company under the name of Moto.

In 2015 Pantech, another cellphone manufacturer won the J.D. Powers commendation, went bankrupt and was sold (that same year.) Cadillac won the Baldridge Award, but its parent company GM went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009. The list goes on.

As near as I can tell, if you want to provide a quality product or service and survive as a business, you need some type of “poison pill” to scare away investors. Recent winners of the award, who may (excuse the Vulcan reference) live long and prosper, include MidwayUSA and PricewaterhouseCoopers (both privately owned), Charter School of San Diego (which operates under the approval of the San Diego School Board and the California Department of Education), Charleston (West Virginia) Area Medical Center Health System, and Mid-America Transplant (both not-for-profit organizations).

Once we took pride in our workmanship, and I believe that those who actually produce still do, but the investors are only concerned about the current quarter’s performance and a quick return on their investment. While rapine and pillage are generally not acknowledged as modern tactics in the developed world, they actually are, and today’s perpetrators may be better dressed, but are no better than their forebears.

What a Difference a Century Makes

John D. Rockefeller got rich by essentially creating the oil industry. True, he lied, cheated, and stole to do so, but he created an industry nevertheless.

Henry Ford got rich by inventing the assembly line for manufacturing cars—THEN he paid his workers the unconscionable rate of $5.00 per week so they could afford to buy Ford automobiles.

Thomas Edison got rich by inventing a practical light bulb, sound recording, motion pictures, and anything else that caught his fancy.

Michael Ovitz (Disney), Carly Sneed Fiorina (Hewlett-Packard), Stanley O’Neal (Merrill Lynch), and soon (probably) John Stumpf (Wells Fargo) all got rich—or richer—by being fired and collecting on golden parachutes, accumulated stock options, etc.

Economists are befuddled by the US economy, yet the biggest corporations hire people with a mechanism to reward them if they screw up. Wouldn’t it make more sense to say, “We’re hiring you to be our chief executive. As long as the company does well, you’ll be well paid. If you screw up, you’ll get your last paycheck up to the day you were fired, any unused vacation time, and not one thin dime more. After all, if we were idiotic enough to pay you for screwing up, would you even want to work for us unless you’re an idiot, too.

Pharma Tour

Megabux Pharmaceuticals can trace its roots to a humble beginning in the early twentieth century. In the days when filling prescriptions required a mortar, pestle and a scale, it started as a neighborhood pharmacy in Euclid, Ohio. Back then it was known as Blake’s Pharmacy and Soda Shoppe. Eventually, Blake’s was purchased by Drugall, a pharmacy chain, which was then acquired by—well, you get the picture. Today, what were once independent small businesses, are all consolidated into a single large corporate structure.

I recently toured Megabux Corporate Center in West Podunk, North Carolina. Since the collapse of the buggy whip industry, this area has offered a low cost of living, inexpensive property, and as a right-to-work state eliminated the need to worry about unions. The two story cinderblock building was obviously another cost effective measure, looking more like a warehouse than a corporate headquarters. There were few windows except those in the entry foyer.

My guide was waiting for me; she was your typical public information type—young, pretty, female, well dressed, all wrapped up in a bubbly personality. In my letter requesting the tour, I had mentioned that I was specifically interested in the Research and Development areas.

“We actually have two R & D sections,” she told me as we walked down the hall, stopping at a blue door with the requisite electronic lock. Using her identification card and entering a code, she opened the door and ushered me in to a laboratory the size of a football field, well equipped with ventilation hoods, laboratory glassware, microscopes, and everything else a major pharmaceutical company would need to develop tomorrow’s wonder drugs. There were at least 60 work stations; about a dozen people in white lab coats were clustered around the three tables closest to the entry door.

“Big conference?” I asked, wondering where all the other chemists, biologists, and other scientific types might be.

“Oh, this is everybody that works down here,” she replied. “The other R&D section is much busier and has over 600 people working in it.”

“Please, let’s check it out,” I said. She showed me to the elevator and pressed the button. When the door opened, I was amazed. There were people everywhere carrying computer printouts, conferring with one another, and obviously intent on their work.

“You see,” she began, “the incentive in the pharmaceutical industry is no longer to find new drugs that treat diseases. Actually, cures are the worst because people buy one or two bottles of our product, get better and stop buying. We get better results by using a cadre of lawyers, accountants, and marketing people.

“This section,” she explained as we walked, “focuses on how to extend the patents on drugs we already have. Over here they find other clinical uses for our drugs. Bob over there,” she said waving to him, “is an actual physician and he suggests off-label uses; the legal staff then helps set up clinical trials at various hospitals so we can sell a drug for a whole new set of reasons.

“Marketing works over here, and I’m sure you’re familiar with their work. George,” she said, pointing at an elderly gentleman, “was the genius who came up with the line ‘Ask your doctor . . . .’ Unfortunately, we were not able to trademark it. Pity, it’s worth millions.

“And finally, here we have the cream of the crop when it comes to creative accountants. They devise ways for us to increase the price of our products, AND,” she continued excitedly, “they also handle tax loopholes, offshore banks, and such. This corporation actually pays less in taxes than a middle class family of four.” She smiled.

“So all your research is focused on making money?” She smiled broadly and nodded. I continued, “And you do almost no research to develop new drugs.” She blinked, then looked at me, bewildered.

“Why in the world would we want to do that?”