Thursday, December 20, 2012

Naughty, but Nice!

By Keith McDowell

Some of us are easily amused. Take, for example, the identification of the Grand Old Party with the color red, as in “Red State.” Hasn’t anyone bothered to inform conservatives – the right wing in particular –  that the color “red” was historically associated in the Twentieth Century  with communism – as in “Red China,” the longstanding demagogic name for Maoist China? How quickly we forget.  But I’ll let you in on a secret, if you promise not to tell. This branding of the GOP is actually a left-wing plot foisted on us by the liberal media brandishing a secret sense of humor. Aw shucks! If only that were really true.

But be that as it may with respect to one’s “redness,” the year 2012 witnessed the trumping of a dialogue on innovation per se by the presidential campaign and the continuing effect of a dysfunctional Congress on the U.S. economy. It was a year full of political theatre peppered by amusing and sometimes tragic sidebars. And not to be outdone by others, I close out this year of personal opining with my own “naughty, but nice” list of quotes and comments about those events that changed how we think about ourselves as individuals and as a nation. My list of awards runs the gamut from A to Z.

Awkward Advice Award: “Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.” Mitt Romney, 27 April

Busy Bee Award: “I have a job to do. … If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me.” Gov. Christie, 30 October.

Cheap Deal Award: “Buy one, get any two free.” Joseph A. Bank commercial.

Déjà vu Award: “You hit a reset button for the fall campaign; everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.” Eric Fehrnstrom, 21 March.

Entitlement Envy Award: “You can look at history of these things, and Social Security wasn’t devised to be a system that supported you for a 30-year retirement after a 25-year career. … So there will be things that, you know, the retirement age has to be changed, maybe some of the benefits have to be affected, maybe some of the inflation adjustments have to be revised. But in general, entitlements have to be slowed down and contained.” Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, 19 November.

Freshman Football Award: And the winner of the Heisman Trophy is: “Johnny Football” Manziel, quarterback of the Texas A&M Aggies. My sons, both Aggies, forced me to include this one. Gig ‘em Aggies.

Golden Fleece Award:  John Boehner and the House GOP on their budget plan that takes from the 99% and gives to the 1%.

Hapless House Award: “I’m just tired of talking about it. I’d rather talk about golf.” Rep. Mack Mulvaney, South Carolina Republican, 19 December.

Instant Inspiration Award: “It’s halftime in America.” Chrysler Super Bowl commercial.

Jumping Jehoshaphat Award: “I hope he fails.” Rush Limbaugh on President Obama, January 2009.

King Karl Award: “I think this is premature.” Karl Rove’s comment on Fox News calling Ohio for Obama on Election Night.

Lots of Love Award: Mitt Romney’s claims of reviewing “binders full of women” as a governor seeking to diversify his Massachusetts administration.

Mixed Message Award: “Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of – against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment: Was it – was before – he was before the social programs from the standpoint of – he was for standing up for Roe v. Wade before he was against first …” Rick Perry, the gift that keeps on giving.

Not Again Award: “Simply scaling back the cliff and extending the political brinksmanship over the debt ceiling would doom the economy to at best slow growth and possibly another recession if policymakers take it down to the wire as they did in summer 2011.” Mark Zandi, Moody Analytics.

Oblivious Oops Award: “I would do it again.” Rick Perry commenting on failed presidential campaign, 18 December.

Piddling Prediction Award: “If the world doesn’t end on December 21st, 2012, I have a feeling there will be a lot of babies born on September 20th, 2013.” Anonymous

Quotable Quote Award: “Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of other people and walk off with the money, or is that somehow a little bit of a flawed system? … I do draw a distinction between looting a company, leaving behind broken families and broken neighborhoods, and leaving behind a factory that should be there.” Newt Gingrich, 9 January.

Richie Rich Award: “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims.  … These are people who pay no income tax. … and so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Mitt Romney.

Serial Sequel Award: “I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair.” David Petraeus.

Trust Me Award: “I’m an honorary consul general, so I have inviolability.” Jill Kelley, 11 November.

Under Review Award: Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell filibustering a vote that he had called for himself. Instant replay officials confirm the call on the field.

Vox Vehicular Award: Lindsay Lohan proves again that driving while sexting is dangerous to one’s image.

Window Washing Award: Tablets shouldn’t bear the Windows name according to Jeffrey Clarke of Dell Computers who suggested that extending the Windows name to tablets was a bridge too far. Did Microsoft purposely confuse consumers into believing that Surface was a PC? Text “A” for yes and” B” for no to Microsoft.

X-Factor Award: “The president’s campaign, if you will, focused on giving targeted groups a big gift. He made a big effort on small things.” Mitt Romney, 14 November.

Y Chromosome Award: “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” Senator Lindsay Graham, August.

Zany Zinger Award: “Under no circumstances am I going to willingly talk to the police in this country. You can say I’m paranoid about it, but they will kill me, there is no question.” John McAfee on security.

[The image of Santa was copied from the Laytonsville District Volunteer Fire Department.]

Thursday, December 13, 2012


By Keith McDowell

I confess! I’m guilty! Of what, I’m not exactly sure, but plenty of other people are in the same boat with me. And it’s the same old and now tiring story of a Congress that doesn’t know how to get anything done.  But it comes with a new twist: it’s a story from the 1980s and it presages the completely dysfunctional Congress we now have.

The story begins with the Congressional budgeting process. Doesn’t that language have a familiar “once upon a time” ring to it? In the 1980s, Congress actually managed to pass a yearly budget, but there was a problem. It was rarely done in a timely manner and typically involved so-called “continuing resolutions” that invoked the previous year’s budget in order to get past the beginning of the Federal fiscal year on the first of October.  Important program elements were often not “technically” funded until the early spring of the next calendar year. But therein arose the problem. Program officers at Federal agencies expected work to begin on the first of October for the program elements that they assumed would be funded for that fiscal year, even though the funding wasn’t “technically” appropriated by Congress as of the first of October.

What would you have done if you were a manager like me in the 1980s at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), especially if you knew that “technically” it was “illegal” for you to expend funds from one program account on another program? Of course, program schedules had to be maintained since research cannot be done on the quick time, agency program managers had to be satisfied with progress, and salaries had to be paid. It would have made no sense whatsoever to put employees to work only on the funded programs “technically” rolled over from the previous fiscal year.

I can tell you what all the managers did at LANL and across the spectrum of national laboratories. We ignored the “technicalities” and simply moved forward with our programmatic efforts while hoping to balance the books in the end and avoid a bed and jail cell at the Leavenworth prison. Whatever one’s scruples might be about the ethically and morally right choice when faced with such a situation, it was really the only choice available to management. Fortunately, national laboratories did not keep time cards like most of the defense industry contractors, so I suppose that we were “technically” legal in what we did. But it was a helluva way to run things.

Fast forward to the present day and guess what? Nothing has changed.  In fact, it’s even worst. Now we are faced with “sequestration” as part of the fiscal cliff debate. What the heck is that, you ask? Here’s how the dictionary defines the verb “sequester.” It is an action to “remove, set apart, segregate, take possession of, confiscate, or cause to withdraw into seclusion.” Hmm, does seclusion mean that defense dollars will be taken “off budget” and hidden by smoke and mirrors from the public? Inquiring minds want to know.

Seriously folks, what “sequestration” actually means to the man on the street including those poor managers at the national laboratories is that members of Congress want to take back that which they’ve already “technically” granted or built into the current and future fiscal budgets. Yikes, I’m glad I’m now retired and no longer eligible for a bed at Leavenworth.

But “sequestration” doesn’t just affect national laboratories or defense contractors. It affects the entire innovation ecosystem of America including a severe hit on basic research at our universities, the wellspring from which innovations emerge. Think of it in terms of the following metaphor. Basic discoveries are like sperm. They float around in search of an egg to fertilize. Only a few achieve successful conception of the embryo of an idea that grows into an innovation that is born as a commercial product in the marketplace. If one neuters the process, you get nothing in return. With sequestration, we turn America into a eunuch state unable to display leadership in the global Innovation Race. It’s a form of “self castration” or better said, “secastration” – to invent a new and more appropriate word to describe what’s going on.

Secastration, like all forms of self-indulgence, is almost certain to make one blind to its outcomes. And how about all those mythical warts that one gets from such activities?

But let’s turn to the hard numbers behind the rhetoric. The 2011 Budget Control Act is the vehicle through which sequestration will occur without a resolution of the fiscal cliff. According to an email that I received from the American Physical Society, “the Department of Energy Office of Science would lose $400 million; NSF $586 million; NASA Science $417 million; and NIH, $2.52 billion. It would mean staff furloughs, a significant reduction in operating time for user facilities, and a reduction in new NSF grants by as much as one-third.” I can tell you that researchers will spend an inordinate amount of time writing grants in the hope of keeping their operations alive. Some argue that progress in innovation will be set back by over a decade.

And what’s even more troubling is that “sequestration” will occur on top of the positive impact of stimulus funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 – funding that was temporary and is scheduled to disappear. Although data related to ARRA funding is hard to extract at this early stage – there is always a several year delay in processing such data, we know that universities spent $54.9 billion on R&D in 2009 and $65.1 billion in 2011, up 6.3% from 2010. These significant increases reflect the slug of one-time ARRA stimulus funding that is currently being spent. What will happen when that goes away over the next year or two when added to sequestration?

Steve Fuller in an important report entitled The Economic Impact of the Budget Control Act of 2011 on DOD & non-DOD Agencies projects that sequestration will result in the direct loss of 31,000 jobs out of the 1,082,370 STEM workforce in America. Based on the ARRA impact and my own understanding of the situation, I suspect the real number will be larger.

It’s “secastration,” plain and simple. It’s cutting off and emasculating America’s ability to innovate by reducing funding in our R&D sector. It’s “balancing the budget” of a much poorer America in the future. And it’s self-inflicted. I choose procreation over castration. How about you?

Note: The image of the castration tool was copied from and is a product of Syrvet Inc.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Shake, Rattle, and Roll

By Keith McDowell

“What it was, was an earthquake,” to paraphrase a famous 1950s comedy routine about football by the incomparable Andy Griffith. But there was nothing comedic about “the big one” that occurred on 6 April 2009 in L’Aquila, Italy that killed over 300 people. Sadly, the aftershocks of such a major earthquake are never pretty, whether it’s the massive destruction wrought on the infrastructure – the Fukushima nuclear power plant debacle from the 2011 Tohoku quake in Japan being the most notable, the death of innocent people, or the privations of the survivors. But who would have thought that scientists would be in danger from the aftershocks of an earthquake? Yet, such was the case in Italy.

On 22 October 2012 in an Italian courtroom, seven scientists and experts were convicted of manslaughter for providing “inexact, incomplete, and contradictory information” prior to the L’Aquila earthquake. The stunning decision was described by Dan Murphy in The Christian Science Monitor as “a triumph of scientific illiteracy.” Indeed! If not for the truly tragic dimensions of the L’Aquila earthquake, the soap opera in that Italian courtroom would be comparable to the 1633 Catholic inquisition in Rome against Galileo Galilei.

Have we as a world society learned nothing from the advance of knowledge through rational and scientific reasoning? Is civilization doomed to make decisions based on religious dogma, mythology, personal whims, demagoguery, and counterfactual ideas? I suppose one should take solace in the fact that such nonsensical behavior is not limited to America as proven in that Italian courtroom.

So, what are the facts when it comes to earthquake prediction? It’s simple. No one can predict the precise time and location of an earthquake! Yes, we’ve learned a great deal about what causes earthquakes and their behavior. We know how to build structures that can withstand an earthquake, but prediction? Emphatically, no!

In fact, there are many scientists who believe that we will never be able to “predict” the occurrence of an earthquake. And it all begins with the difference between “predicting” and “forecasting.” Do you remember those old jokes about your weatherman? “If there is a 50-50 chance that a forecast will go wrong, 9 times out of 10 it will.”

The story of modeling the weather goes back to the 1960s when Dr. Edward Lorentz introduced “chaos theory” to the world in 1963 and later “the butterfly effect” in 1969. Sensitivity to initial conditions, as “the butterfly effect” is known to scientists, states that a butterfly deciding to flap its wings in China could subsequently lead to a tornado in Kansas. In other words, incredibly small changes at the beginning of a process can lead to radically different end results. Thus, as a practical matter, one cannot precisely predict the time and location of a weather event. The same is true for earthquakes.

But whether it’s the severity of weather events or the magnitude of earthquakes, scientists have developed and are continuing to improve mathematical models that describe the distribution of such events and thereby our ability to “forecast.” What does forecast mean? It means that if we take a long enough span of time that includes a significant sample size of “events,” then we know that those events will fall on the established probability distribution. Thus, we can “forecast” that there is a 10% probability (or whatever the actual percentage is) that an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 will occur in Los Angeles in this century, but cannot “predict” exactly when and where it will occur.

Folks, that’s the truth of the matter. And convicting scientists for their inability to “predict” an earthquake or meteorological event is dumb and dumber – or better said: scientific illiteracy.

But the story doesn’t end with natural events driven by Mother Nature. How about the economy and financial systems? Yep, scientists, mathematicians, and economists have been at work in that sphere as well. Believe it or not, there is a field of study known as “econophysics” or the “physics of finance.” The University of Houston Department of Physics even has a subdivision devoted to such work. Quoting from their webpage, econophysics is “the study of dynamical behavior of financial and economic markets” using the “vast amount of market data” that “has become available allowing empirical studies of market behavior to be performed.”

And exactly what have econophysicists learned? Probably the most important fact is that we now have a very clear picture of the probability distribution for excursions or fluctuations in markets. Technically, it’s known as a “fat tail” distribution where the probability for a large fluctuation decays as the fourth power of the size of the fluctuation. In simple terms, large fluctuations are much more probable than one might have thought. Does anyone remember 2009?

Evidence suggests that one can improve incrementally the market performance of a portfolio by making use of our enhanced understanding of markets as a nonlinear dynamical system. Talk about the possibility for innovation and entrepreneurship! Perhaps you should call your broker or financial planner and see if they are up-to-speed on “fat tail” distributions and econophysics. It’s for certain that Congress is not.

And that brings us to the “fiscal cliff” debate and the truly ridiculous behavior of many in Congress to ignore some basic elements of truth from economic data analysis – especially those who hold to the tea party platform. Like many people, I obtained a copy of Taxes and the Economy: An Economic Analysis of the Top Tax Rates Since 1945, the report from the Congressional Research Service by Thomas L. Hungerford dated 14 September 2012. Here is what Hungerford said in his concluding remarks:

The results of the analysis suggest that changes over the past 65 years in the top marginal tax rate and the top capital gains tax rate do not appear correlated with economic growth. The reduction in the top tax rates appears to be uncorrelated with saving, investment, and productivity growth. The top tax rates appear to have little or no relation to the size of the economic pie. However, the top tax rate reductions appear to be associated with the increasing concentration of income at the top of the income distribution.

Obama is right; the GOP is wrong! Taxing the top 2% will help reduce the deficit but not hurt the recovery. Do we as a nation really want to follow in the footsteps of those jurists in Italy who practiced scientific illiteracy – or in our case, economic illiteracy? As Paul Krugman pointed out in an opinion piece in support of Obama’s position, it’s simple economic math. The cuts in spending laid out by the GOP such as raising the Medicare age don’t add up. And as to closing tax loopholes, do we really want to eliminate mortgage and charitable deductions, two of the largest components of our tax deduction system? For those who sincerely want to understand fully the dimensions of the economic mess we are in and what to do about it, read the book Beyond Outrage by Robert Reich.

And don’t forget, the “fiscal cliff” is not just about raising again the tax rate for those making more than $250,000. It’s about budget sequestration and the evisceration of scientific research in America. It’s about killing the goose that lays the golden egg of innovation, our passport to global competition and economic prosperity.

As a nation, we must govern ourselves in a balanced manner consistent with our Constitution using sensible rules of engagement and a decision process based on verifiable and known information. We cannot tolerate any other approach.

It’s time to shake, rattle, and roll the members of Congress and tell them to get on with the business of governing America. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


By Keith McDowell

Tell me it isn’t so! How can Washington let this happen? I demand a new Congressional select committee to investigate TwinkieGate – the conspiracy to deprive all right thinking Americans of their soul food. Imagine, if you can, a world in which the “Archie Bunker’s” among us no longer pop the “golden sponge cake with cream filling” into their mouths. It’s a stunning prospect that’s driving a Pavlovian run on sugary junk food and emptying the shelves at the 7-eleven.

And not surprisingly, true conspiracy theorists are whispering that TwinkieGate is actually a communist plot hatched by liberals and unions to sober up the GOP right wing by removing their principal sustenance from the marketplace. How else can one explain the “Twinkie Defense” of the Georgia legislators who believe that the Obama Administration is exerting mind control over them?

Sadly, “I’m a recovering junk food addict!” is a statement for our times as many of us continue the battle of the bulge on our waistlines. But here’s the good news! Innovation runs rampant as new diets, therapies, and scientifically engineered exercise equipment command our attention through clever and enhanced commercials and infomercials. I particularly like the regimes where you continue to eat, lose weight, and develop the body of Adonis, all for only a few dollars for menus and food. Sign me up! The exercise equipment sounds more like “no pain, no gain.” I probably wouldn’t stick with that, but, wow, the innovation and creativity involved with each new generation of equipment. Who says America can’t compete! But can we really lose weight by walking on the Bowflex TreadClimber three times a week for only thirty minutes a session?

I grew up in the post World War II era of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Junk food was mostly used to satisfy my sweet tooth – my favorite being Krispy Kreme donuts – and liquid refreshments mostly quenched my thirst.  But how can I ever forget those “Brownie” bottled drinks that I used as a small child to wash down the licorice that blackened my teeth? Or how about the traditional RC Cola and Moon pie? And for the true male redneck experience, how about Planters salted peanuts dumped into the top of a Coca-Cola bottle? Oh, and don’t forget the Cheerwine experience for those special moments. If only my dentist knew why I have a mouth full of crowns!

Today, junk food loads the calorie count for those who pay attention and carbonated drinks are the bane of the waistline and healthy teeth. Extreme sports are the order of the day, mountain hiking being my own particular brand. Candy has morphed into energy bars that are tough and chewy when cold and are an acquired taste (politically correct for they taste really bad). Liquid refreshments are now energy drinks that restore electrolytes and give one the power to continue past the bounds of common sense, ergo extreme sports. One of the latest crazes is power drinks that are “lite” or low on calories – Guru Lite being an example. While an oxymoron, it certainly rates as an innovation and it sells.

Whether diet drinks, microwave meals, or poptarts, innovations in the food industry truly play a major role in the American economy. But do we pay a price for that success? Is the 5-hour ENERGY drink a killer as some allege, especially for young children? And how about the tragic acceleration of obesity in America? Did you know that obesity in the populace has grown from 13% in 1962 to 35.7% in 2010? Let’s all give a loud Ho Hos shout out for those Ding Dongs who believe that the consumption of 500 million Twinkies per year is the principal cause of obesity and the alarming projection of an impending diabetes epidemic. Junk food doesn’t make people obese. Poor eating habits and life style are the real culprits.

And that brings us back to Hostess Brands, the manufacturer of Twinkies. Exactly why is it that 15,000 workers received pink slips at Thanksgiving and 3,500 more will be laid off in the coming months? George Will in an opinion piece claims that it’s all about market forces having their way and the Twinkiestalgia of baby boomers. You might be surprised but I agree with Will … but not for the details that he posits.

Market forces include the necessity to pay the going rate for salaries of the workers. And guess what, unions must have the right to negotiate for those rates, even if there were 372 distinct collective bargaining agreements at Hostess Brands. No one ever said it had to be easy.

I agree with George that the Teamsters position of using different trucks to haul different products seems silly on the surface. But how about the $1.3 billion in debts that corporate management ran up or the raises of 35% to 80% they paid themselves last year while driving the company into financial ruin? Should they receive a huge benefits package upon bankruptcy of the company or is this all just extractionist capitalism as discussed on the Ed Schultz Show of 20 November 2012?

And how about innovation as a factor in the Hostess Brands’ story? Did the corporate management sit on their thumbs, ignore the changing marketplace, and fail to innovate with new products and business models? If SodaStream can come up with a way for people to make their favorite carbonated drink right on their kitchen counter, Hostess Brands could have innovated.

Ultimately, the debacle at Hostess Brands will become grist for a business school case study and fodder for theorists debunking supply-side economics or right-wing pundits who don’t like the working middle class. For certain, junk food and obesity are not going away any time soon. For me, I got the broken sprocket on my Schwinn AirDyne exercise bike replaced today. I love that bike. There’s no better way to watch the noise on the television than riding on that bike.

Oh, and would you please pass the donuts!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

I'm An Angry, White, Old, Southern Male!

By Keith McDowell

That’s right! I’m beyond PO-ed! I’m fuming. I’ve had enough. And I’ve once again taken out my marching shoes.

The reason? Fifty years after James Meredith became the first African-American to enroll at the University of Mississippi on the first of October 1962, and fifty years after I enrolled as a freshman at Wake Forest University in September of 1962, nearly 400 students at Ole Miss erupted in a race riot following the election of President Obama on Tuesday night. Yes, it was a race riot despite some protestations to the contrary.

Twitters have tweeted the most disgusting of racial and gay-bashing invective. And not to be outdone, right-wing pundits have evoked the image of a “traditional America,” typically using the 1950s as a benchmark. Are they nuts? Well yes, they are.

Let’s talk about the good ole times of the 1950s and early 1960s. Let’s talk about my time as a sixteen-year-old usher at the Paramount Theatre in High Point, North Carolina, 313 South Wrenn Street. It was a good part-time job for a teenager and my first job. Of course, we snookered the public into believing that the popcorn was freshly popped, but actually it came in large metal cans that we surreptitiously poured into the popcorn machine when no one was looking. I lived on that free popcorn.

And then there came the day that the local civil rights movement decided to assert their rights at the Paramount. The theatre had two well-lit entrances on both sides of the ticket booth.  Inside the glass doors were the lobby and a concession stand with the infamous faux popcorn machine backed by the theatre itself and a balcony. But that wasn’t all. There was a second balcony reached by a dimly-lit outside door down the street from the ticket booth. [See image at the end.] It was the “separate, but equal” facility for blacks.

I got the job of standing outside the glass door and telling each black person with a ticket in their hand as they cycled past that they could not enter, but must take the back stairs to the second balcony. It was a helluva thing for a teenager to experience. I resigned soon thereafter and have never forgotten the pain I felt at treating my fellow human beings like that. It defied everything that I had come to believe in from my Christian upbringing.

I wish I could tell you that the Paramount experience was a singular event. Not even close! There was the effigy of a person hanging from a tree at the entrance to my high school as I got off the bus on the day that we were integrated. There was the day that my father took me to some office in Archdale, North Carolina, for me to register to vote for the first time. I was required to answer several of those “questions” designed to suppress the black vote. It didn’t matter that I was white.

Then there was the evening that I went to hear Martin Luther King speak in the Wake Forest University Chapel under the threat of violence to any white who dared to show up. And how about the regular and unrelenting use of the N-word by many people in my youth, much like the modern use of the F-word? Even one of my own grandmothers thought and told me that blacks should not be allowed to swim at the municipal pool because they would turn the water brown. Or how about some of my relatives who were offended in 1975 because blacks attended my wedding?

One of the most transformative events in my life occurred in 1963. The pastor of the Green Street Baptist Church, a good friend of mine, invited me to present the Sunday night “sermon” in his absence. I worked for a week on that speech and on Friday evening, caught the bus from Winston-Salem to High Point with the intention of walking home from the bus terminal. To my surprise, there was a civil rights group marching down Main Street past an angry mob of whites. Some tomatoes and eggs were being thrown from those in the crowd with no effort being made by the police to stop them. And yes, front and center were members of my church.

I was furious. I went home, wrote a new speech, and gave it that Sunday night to a stunned congregation. As I reread my old copy of that speech today, it’s a pretty straightforward speech and not inflammatory by modern standards. Some church members praised what I said, but I also got some hate mail. Hate mail was serious business in 1963. Three civil rights workers were gunned down and killed in High Point only a mile or so from my parents’ home during that time period. Furthermore, the Ku Klux Klan rode around with guns hidden in their cars just in case they happened to meet a N-lover.

But let’s change the topic and talk about bus terminals. I spent a lot of time in them as a college student waiting to catch a bus. I never had the money to buy a car. And guess what? Yep. I was approached several times by gay men – pejoratively known as “queers” in those days – trying to hustle me. Why else would a young man like me be sitting in a bus terminal? It was disgusting to me and, in retrospect, probably the same for them. I must confess that several decades passed before I learned to accept that being gay could be an alternative lifestyle for anyone. It took friendships with several gay couples to make that transition. Now it seems perfectly natural to me. Being gay, or being a transvestite, or being a “whatever” is not the same as engaging in harassment or being a predator, a pedophile, or a rapist.

So, in case you haven’t gotten my message, let me spell it out for you. Hate speech and rape are crimes, not some accidental act or the will of God.  Racism in all its many forms is an odious abomination, not to be tolerated by a progressive modern society. And “traditional America” really wasn’t all that nice a time and place unless, of course, you were a member of the privileged few.

My story is no different from that of anyone else who grew up in the 1950s and reflects the real “traditional America” that the right wing and their pundits want us to return to. Don’t believe a word of their dissembling rationalization or their mouthing of the word “values” as something that they own.  It’s underpinnings represent the worst of America, not the best. And I’m damned angry about that.

I refuse to remain silent. I refuse to allow those who spew hate speech to get away with it unchallenged. I refuse to put another 16-year in front of an American citizen telling them that they can’t enjoy the full rights and privileges of being a citizen, whether it’s civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, or simply the right to be Happy as guaranteed by our founding fathers. I refuse to allow bigots and political con artists to co-opt true conservatism with the trash talk polluting our airwaves. Their appeal to and their version of what the Constitution is about is total crap.

Folks, this is not about being a conservative or a liberal. It’s not about being a Christian or a member of any other religion. And it’s not about traditional values, however one interprets them. It’s about stupidity and the use of code words by hucksters and political hacks to stir up the extreme right wing and to drag or bully those of a more normal conservative persuasion into their cauldron of hate while fleecing their wallets.

Don’t believe the poisonous rhetoric! Join with me! Speak out against this nuttiness. Boycott companies who support Rush Limbaugh and his venom. Tune out Fox News. Get out the vote in our next election. Do your part. Redefine what it means to be a conservative if that’s your persuasion. If you don’t, you’re going to deserve what you get when we return to the “traditional America” of the 1950s. I know what that really means. I’ve already been there.

Theatre Images

The photograph of the Paramount Theatre presented at the beginning can be found at the website Historic High Point. Also available at the same website is a photograph for the old Broadhurst Theatre located at 309 North Main Street in High Point showing the same architecture as the Paramount Theatre. Note to the right the sign above a door with the message “Entrance, Colored Balcony. “ The same arrangement was present at the Paramount, but is not clearly visible in the old photograph.

Note to my blog readers

Innovation, technology commercialization, entrepreneurship, and university research are extremely important to America’s future in the world of global competition and they are topics that I intend to continue to discuss in my weekly articles. But these issues are currently trumped by the important ongoing debate as to what America is, or was, or will be. If we don’t get that part right, the rest won’t matter. I don’t apologize for taking a stand.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Seizing the Future - Together!

By Keith McDowell

I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.
President Barack Obama, Victory Speech, 7 November 2012

Is Obama right? I’m convinced that he is and have supported his position many times and in many ways with respect to my focus on global competitiveness and how best to accelerate and to improve the American innovation ecosystem. But such activities to enhance our competitive advantage do not take place in a vacuum and are inextricably a part of the warp and woof of the overall American experience and the polarized political climate that we are now experiencing. Neglecting that condition is not a prescription for success.

So how divided are we? Is there no room to clarify and to redefine in more suitable language a contextual framework for compromise based on principles that most of us agree upon across the political spectrum? And just what are those principles?

It’s not rocket science to find the principles by our founding fathers! I begin with the Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

The Declaration further proclaims the need to create government and a system to secure these rights, or stated in more modern terms, government has a responsible role to play in our lives. That need led eventually to the adoption of the Constitution of the United States whose famous preamble clearly states why we have a United States of America.

We, the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

That sounds like six straightforward principles to me. But then, how is it that our Supreme Court determined that a company is a person? And exactly when does “personhood” begin for a human being? Should society condone equality in marriage as well as equal pay? And when and for whom does taxation become a burden?

These are just a few of the troubling questions facing modern society and therein lies the rub with the principles of our founding fathers. Each of us views the world through a different set of filters and each of us approaches and interprets these principles in a different manner. It’s the individualism that characterizes the best of America.

But I’m an optimist! Americans have always had the ability to come together as a community in common cause for the greater good.  And even in the face of a presumably divided electorate, I believe that it is possible to set forth a collection of practical principles that most Americans can accept – principles that we can use to govern ourselves. Here is my attempt to establish some working principles.

Fiscal policy, budgets, and the tax code must be responsible, fair, and balanced with respect to revenue and spending. Obstructionism in Congress must be replaced by flexibility and compromise in order to avoid a fiscal cliff and to reduce the deficit. We must all understand that “cutting spending and waste” are just code words for the right wing social agenda and the Tea Party trap of no government through austerity, even though cutting unnecessary spending and eliminating waste are good things to do on the whole.

Social policy should focus on providing a caring safety net whether for the poor, the elderly, the unemployed, or any other disadvantaged American. Religious beliefs, no matter how strongly held, are not a basis for public policy nor a reason to restrict access to needed services. The culture war must end. Old-fashioned libertarianism, which focuses on individual freedom, should be the rule until the public weal, as clearly laid out by the principles in the preamble to the Constitution, kicks in. Modern civilization requires that we have a functioning and protected middle class free to live as they please within the broadly set limits of the Constitution. Without a middle class, there will not be a vibrant economy or consumers ready to snatch up the latest innovative gadget.

Effective, efficient, and responsible regulation of business, commerce, insurance, banking and finance, the environment, and healthcare is essential to protecting our individual rights as well as the common good.  Public policy and actions must be based on testable facts and known truths. Disinformation to distort those truths or denial of proven facts must be exposed for the fraud that they are. Evolution and human-driven global climate change are real. And yes, there really are verifiable economic facts. Reducing taxes for the top one percent doesn’t produce jobs.

The new reality – which actually is an old reality – is that America is a multi-cultural, plural society rapidly becoming a so-called majority-minority community and we must govern accordingly. Or as Bill O’Reilly put it, we no longer have the traditional America. Or as others have said, “it’s not Reagan’s America anymore.” What they really mean is that the good ole white boys don’t rule the roost anymore. Folks, it’s time to stop the extreme right wing war on [fill in the blank with women, gays, blacks, latinos, intellectuals, teachers, the 47%, unions, the middle class,  …].  Hate and toxic language must be marginalized and ignored. We are not a nation of communists and sluts as some would have us believe. Instead, we are a nation of value-added immigrants to the New World and their descendants who have built the United States of America! And yes, we need for the Republican Party to revitalize itself as the voice of true conservatism, not the voice of a discredited “too old, too white, too male, and too wrong.”

Nation building here in America must be the gold standard, not overseas military adventurism. America faces many internal challenges in the Twenty-first century including energy independence through alternative and clean energy sources, a revitalization of our decaying civil infrastructure, and insourcing of jobs. Solving these challenges requires investment, not austerity. It requires innovation, technology commercialization, entreprenuership, and all the many activities that I’ve long supported and advocated for. But most especially, it requires a new commitment to invest in our nation’s educational system.

Is America ready to seize the future? The re-election of Barack Obama as President is a step in that direction and a rejection and repudiation of the truly nutty stuff we’ve been subjected to over the past few years. But as I listen to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner following the election, it’s clear to me that they still just don’t get it. The age of the “good ole white boys” that I grew up with in North Carolina really isn’t over yet.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

What To Do Next?

By Keith McDowell

Superstorm Sandy! Was it a harbinger of the foretold Biblical Apocalypse brought on by the sinful ways of humankind or simply a real-life version of a Cecil B. Demille classic movie epic complete with a parting of the waves? Or could it be a taste of the future as the effects of global climate change begin to exact their inexorable toll? Certainly fire, earth, air, and water played their usual roles as the defining elements of the human experience.

Whatever one might think about the causative reasons for Superstorm Sandy, if indeed there are any, it is undoubtedly a tragedy of historic proportions that cannot be minimized – excepting, of course, those claims by radical jihadists that they are responsible for the storm. But was it predictable? Are superstorms about to become a part of our yearly menu of natural disasters?

If you believe the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the predictions from their various reports, the answer is yes. Superstorm Sandy is only the beginning. Average temperatures will increase by several degrees and the oceans will rise by several feet before the end of the Twenty-first Century. And you thought it couldn’t get any hotter in Texas or that flooding of the New York City subways couldn’t happen!

We’ve all become inured to the surrealistic debate about climate change and the impact of humankind on the global ecosystem. But is anyone in government paying attention? Are we as a society making any effort to plan for the effects of global climate change? And specifically, have innovators and entrepreneurs bothered to take on the grand challenge of mitigating the consequences of natural disasters?

Mercifully, the answer is yes, but likely not at the level needed to meet the impending crisis. Furthermore, the “solution vectors” lie not just along the “hard engineering” axis, but entail other dimensions including “natural infrastructure” such as swamps and wetlands to mitigate storm surge as well “social infrastructure” – must humans always inhabit the vulnerable shorelines? Setting aside the predilection of humans to maximally expose themselves to a disastrous outcome, it will take a holistic approach to prepare for the coming superstorms.

Take, for example, the predicted rise in the oceans over the coming decades.  Prior to Superstorm Sandy, the State of New York took such warnings to heart and formed the Sea Level Rise Task Force whose final report is available. It’s an interesting report, but like most of the studies that I read and review, little action has been taken. We’ve now seen what that can mean when coupled to storm surge and high tide in the tunnels and subways of New York City. Interestingly, the artistic populace and intelligentsia of New York City also engaged in the flooding debate prior to the storm through a production called “Rising Currents”. People do care about their future!

Innovators have likewise been at work designing new devices and barriers  such as “trapbags” to hold back flood waters. Entrepreneurs have been busy putting new products on the market such as FLOODSTOP by the company Fluvial Innovations. And as always, the Netherlands continues to lead the world as an innovator of flood and surge control systems at the size and scale needed to achieve success. Even our weather prediction systems have undergone significant improvements as described by John L. Guiney, Chief of a Meteorological Services Division at NOAA, in a paper entitled “Innovations and New Technology For Improved Public Weather Systems.”

And not to be forgotten, our nation’s coastal shoreline and the erosion by hurricanes and superstorms have been the subject of much controversy and angst due to the high dollar value of the real estate and our strongly held desire to spend vacation time at the seashore. A Powerpoint presentation from the State of Florida provides an interesting review of innovation and entrepreneurial activity in this important area.

Similar stories can be found in the construction business with respect to the design and the materials used to build homes in vulnerable areas.  And how about the future of the transportation sector in terms of rail lines, tunnels, bridges, buses, trains, subways, and cars. Of course, society still hasn’t figured out how to pay appropriately for the destruction from such natural disasters. What’s going to happen to our economy as we see more and more such superstorms?

On a personal note, I have to relate a story from my days as the Vice President for Research at The University of Alabama in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. At issue was what to do with all the debris from that hurricane. In particular, the biomass power industry in Alabama was prepared to remove woody materials both from downed forests and from the shoreline and use the material as feedstock for their power plants. But bureaucracy and red tape got in the way allowing the wood to rot and become a home for all kinds of nefarious critters and bugs. What’s going to happen to all that debris from Superstorm Sandy?

Even more important for our ability to deal with future superstorms, it is essential that government invest in earth science research as the precursor to new innovations and entrepreneurship. Is it really a higher priority for America that the rover Curiosity prowl around the surface of Mars while earth-based weather and monitoring satellites need replacement and upgrades – especially those in polar orbits?

Americans are resilient and have an amazing ability to persevere in the face of unimaginable hardships. The will to rebuild from the destruction wrought by Superstorm Sandy is admirable and commendable. But isn’t it time for our political leaders to also rise to that same standard? Isn’t it time for Congress as well as our state legislatures to face the undeniable facts and prepare our country for the future? It’s not a question of what to do next! It’s a question of getting together in common cause for the greater good. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Are We There Yet?

By Keith McDowell

Travel with children is so much fun. You never know when or where the next bathroom break will occur or the condition of the facilities – and I’ve seen some real doozies in my time! I personally like the suspense of waiting for the Cadillac graveyard on I-40 west of Amarillo, Texas, or the billboard build up for Clines Corners in New Mexico as one travels west on the same highway. Hold on, kids! Only 300 more miles to Indian tomahawks, tom-toms, and kachina dolls. What would we ever do without such life experiences?

In many ways, the history of humankind is not unlike a journey taken with children. You have to take the good with the bad and expect the unexpected.

For example, the Twentieth Century represented the rapid and accelerated culmination of centuries of progress to form the modern nation state. Driven by nationalism, religion, economic necessity and many other factors, warfare was the standard medium to achieve domination by one nation over another. While such global war in the traditional form has in large measure been contained and hopefully eliminated due to weapons of mass destruction, regional warfare continues. Civil society has broken down in Syria and the emergence of the Arab Spring has awakened new clashes in Africa and the Middle East. Global terrorism has brought forth the possibility of dirty bombs, disruption of vital infrastructure networks, and biological agents as real threats to humanity.

In the past, government programs to ameliorate the pressure for war or social disruption spun off significant innovations that fueled global competitiveness. The Internet and the modern information age are prime examples. Some would even argue as did Vannevar Bush in his famous report after World War II that the accelerated growth of science and technology over time has arisen principally from advancing the art and practice of warfare. Hopefully, we take a broader view to global competition these days!

But whatever one’s views as to the reasons and the forces driving innovation on the grand scale, it seems clear that such innovations arise from attacking the major issues facing humanity. So, what are those issues as we pass through the second decade of the Twenty-first Century? Has anyone identified the grand challenges facing us?

Interestingly, such an accounting was generated by Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley at Rice University before his untimely death. I reproduce his list as follows:

·      Energy
·      Water
·      Food
·      Environment
·      Poverty
·      Terrorism & War
·      Disease
·      Education
·      Democracy
·      Population

Smalley was passionate about the need for society to take on these grand challenges in a big way and I agree with him. Whether you accept this particular parsing or not, we can all agree that attacking these issues is essential for the betterment of civilization.

Are we there yet?

Sadly, no! And if anything, we appear to be regressing as major components of society, including many in leadership roles, are in denial of the basic facts associated with each of these issues. Even worse, disinformation to achieve self-advancement has become an accepted practice, especially by politicians.

Take “energy” for example. As I’ve previously written, the “energy problem” – or better said, the “fuel problem” – is technologically a solved problem. It’s called solar energy. Yes, we need innovations to improve the price curve and, yes, we need a smart distribution grid system, but solar energy is capable of satisfying all of our demand for electricity and potentially all of our demand for transportation fuel. Not unlike the electrification of America or the build-out of the interstate highway system, it’s only a matter of engaging the American will power to get it done that holds us back from achieving a solar economy. Of course, our mulish insistence on subsidizing and sustaining past all bounds the oil and gas sector doesn’t help.

And what about the environment as represented by human-driven global climate change, or the insistence of some to frack our way to polluting our ground-water supply, or the chant of “drill baby drill?” Ignoring the environment on such a global scale is guaranteed to provide future generations with a reduced standard of living and to saddle our children with a doozy of a rest stop on their journey through life.

Are we there yet?

Just as children hector their parents with this repetitive question, we as citizens need to hector our political leaders and remind them that there are major issues to be addressed. Dysfunctional behavior in Washington and in our state capitals is simply not acceptable.

This morning, I voted early for President Obama. Such a vote in Texas will have no impact and is merely a statement of my own strongly held personal preference. I urge each of you to vote. And I urge you to continue asking the rhetorical question:

Are we there yet?

Friday, October 12, 2012

See You Later, Alligator" - Or Maybe Not

By Keith McDowell

The 1950s heralded the outbreak of over a half-century of spectacular innovations by America’s best and brightest including the creation of an innovation ecosystem second to none – not to mention the invention of rock and roll music. By any measure, the United States became the dominant world power as a nation driven by innovation. So say the pundits and so say our nation’s leaders.

And at the core of that success was a social contract whereby the federal government funded basic research and discovery as the source of new ideas leading to those innovations, principally at state-supported and private research universities. So why is it that many in America are in denial of this basic truth? Why is it that American universities must once again defend a strategy that has been the envy of the world?

For those of you not paying attention, we as citizens have yet another tome to digest entitled Research Universities and The Future of America. Commissioned by Senators Lamar Alexander and Barbara Mikulski and U.S. Representatives Bart Gordon and Ralph Hall, the National Academies was asked to assess the competitive position of American research universities and to propose the top ten actions that our nation should undertake. This report is the result of that study. And yes, I read the whole thing including the Appendices … well, maybe not EVERY word.

Like its many predecessors, the report documents the case for American research universities as being at risk. Here are just a few of the issues.

·      Significant decline in state support of public universities leading to troubling tuition increases, calls for cost containment and efficiency, attempts to squeeze more out of intellectual property and technology commercialization, privatization of public universities, and a host of other cure-all revenue concepts, but with the underlying premise that federal dollars cannot replace state dollars.
·      Unstable and flattened federal funding for research.
·      Deterioration of endowments.
·      Global competition with competitors a mouse click away leading to “the Death of Distance.”
·      Failure to produce graduates matched to both national and business interests and with the proper mix of skill sets and capabilities.
·      Changing national demographics and relationships with industry as well as rapidly evolving technologies.
·      Dismantling of industrial R&D laboratories.
·      The required size and shortened time scale of modern research.

No one doubts that America needs a national strategy for education and research. And no one doubts that we need targeted national goals and grand challenges. The report addresses these points by first establishing five guiding principles that I paraphrase as follows:

·      Balanced set of commitments by all partners and stakeholders
·      Matching requirements
·      Flexibility
·      Long-term effort commitment
·      Support for comprehensive nature of research universities

Based on these principles, the report recommends ten action items to be undertaken by all of the stakeholders. I simplify and paraphrase these recommendations as follows:

1.     Stable and effective policies, practices, and funding for university performed R&D and graduate education.
2.     Autonomy to respond with agility coupled with a restoration of state appropriations.
3.     Partnering for innovation through stakeholder connections, tax incentives, technology commercialization, and targeted strategic workforce degree programs.
4.     Cost effective and lean university management through increased productivity – a variant of the “more for less” approach – using agreed upon outcome measures.
5.     “Strategic Investment Program” focused on endowed chairs – particularly for young faculty – as well as research infrastructure and capacity building cognizant of national and business interests.
6.     Full cost recovery for research.
7.     Optimal regulatory environment including harmonization across agencies and the use of best practices versus a compliance-driven approach.
8.     America’s best and brightest attracted to viable career and national interest focused graduate programs.
9.     Inclusion of women and underrepresented minorities.
10.  Participation of international students and scholars.

As always, the devil is in the details, but I applaud the effort put forth by the National Academies in producing this report, even though I question some of its points. It is a worthy defense of American research universities and their role in the social contract that has produced our great nation. The recommendations should be immediately acted upon by all of the stakeholders and, most especially, by Congress.  And in the past, they would have been, but no more. Instead, this report is already gathering dust on the shelves of history, quickly forgotten and unlikely to have any impact whatsoever.

Sadly, the American Dream that bloomed in the Twentieth Century has become a bubble ready to be burst by the pointed barbs of those who simply don’t get it and by those who would vote against their own best interests. And as Bill Haley aptly crooned, “After while, crocodile!”