Thursday, February 7, 2013

You've Been a BAD Boy!

By Keith McDowell

Ronald Lee Ermey! You’ve likely never heard that name before but you know who he is. He’s the Gunnery Sergeant from the movie Full Metal Jacket and the familiar “in-your-face” drill instructor in many television commercials, especially the more recent one for Geiko where he portrays an insensitive psychiatrist outraged by the silly obsessions of his patients. But would you have guessed that Ronald, better known as “The Gunny,” was indeed a real-world marine drill instructor and now an honorary Gunnery Sergeant?

For me, the visual image of “The Gunny” always brings to mind another person unknown outside the halls of the scientific community. His name: Norman C. Blais – or “Norm” to his friends.

Although rather short in stature and now about 90 years old, Norm has always looked the part of a marine drill instructor with his closely cropped crewcut, his wiry and muscular body build, his angular jaw, his piercing eyes and commanding voice, and his khaki pants held up by a standard issue military belt with shiny brass buckle. A contrarian to his core, Norm has always been ready and willing to debate any scientific issue, but only from a position based on the facts. To his many followers and admirers, his experimental prowess peppered by his skills as a theoretician have long been his stock in trade.

So who could ever have imagined that one day Norm would retire from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). It happened on my watch. And therein lies a story and perhaps a harbinger about how America got into its current economic mess accompanied by the loss of manufacturing jobs.

All of us who have known Norm Blais over the years were absolutely certain that he would be the last person at LANL actually doing any productive work and the person who would close down the lab on its final day. How could it be otherwise with our own version of “The Gunny?” But retire he did in the early 1990s and I was faced with the task of providing the customary “testimonial” at his retirement reception.

Accepting the “testimonial” task with some degree of impish glee, I presented to the audience a previously undiscovered and unpublished theory proposed by Blais based on the prevailing facts known at that time. Characterized as the “Blais Anomalous Dispersion Theory” or “BAD theory,” the theory proposed a new evolutionary pattern in the behavior and structure of large business or research entities.

In the beginning, such corporate structures are mostly populated with worker bees and a rapidly diminishing number of managers as one goes up the executive chain. Shown graphically with the width of the graphical object indicating the number of employees at each level, an early stage corporate structure looks like a triangle resting on its base with lots of workers at the bottom and a single person in charge at the top. Such an image connotes stability and comports with our ancestral notion of a structure that will not topple over from the force of gravity. 

But then time takes its toll and the corporate structure becomes bloated with mid-level managers and service providers until one day, only one person is left at the bottom doing any real work or engaged in manufacturing anything of value. The triangle has become a top, standing on its point.

And like the proverbial top, such corporate structures are inherently unstable unless we introduce the one thing that can provide them with temporary stability. We need “spin-doctors” to create the illusion that all is well and that frictional forces will never slow us down and bring on the inevitable gravitational toppling.

BAD theory was a huge success at that testimonial ceremony as a fictional tribute to the role of Norm Blais as the final cog in the structure that kept LANL from the inevitable. He laughed right along with the spin-doctors sprinkled throughout the audience. But who is to say that the BAD theory is not correct, especially given our current economic circumstances and our loss of manufacturing prowess.

And so it all began some twenty years ago with the retirement of “the science gunny.”

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