Sunday, September 9, 2018

Sorry Star Trek Fans There is No Horta

You can't read an science article in any publication these days without reading something about the search for extraterrestrial life, be that on Mars, the moons of Jupiter, or the planets orbiting distance suns discovered by the Kepler observatory.  In his new book, "The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution", by Charles S. Cockell, the author argues that should life be discovered this life will be very similar to our own.  The extraterrestrial biology will have evolved under the same pressures, and more importantly, the same physics, from which life on our planet has evolved.  Thus things will be very familiar to us.  Or not...  One need only look at an octopus to realize just how different things could be.  Life, however, will always involve carbon, oxygen, and water.  Those seem to be the building blocks on our planet, and Cockell is spot on labeling those as the necessary building blocks for life on other planets as well.  This, however, is nothing new.  Specifically, the Periodic Table of Elements, describes everything there is to work with and suggesting life could emerge from an different combination of elements, is not to understand life, or the elements.  Interestingly, he hearkens back to an episode of Star Trek, when an alien life form, known as the Horta, is discovered.  

The writers of Star Trek actually got it right, according to Cockell.  If life did emerge from another set of elements, they would have to be very close to carbon.  The Horta was a silicon based life form.  But also, to evolve it would be necessary to  have the same basic environmental properties which would require a fluid, in our case water, and a gas, in our case oxygen, for the very basic properties of cellular life to gain energy and replicate.

Whereas Cockell has a very deep knowledge of biology he has only cursory understanding of math and physics.   I think, however, the physics he applies, is mostly self evident, at least to an engineer. Maybe not for him based on his softer back ground in biology.  This insight was so extraordinary for him he thought it worthy of an entire book. So maybe his audience is biologists. It can't be physicists, They will just yawn. 

His academic upbringing forced him to be way too repetitive. I felt like he was retelling his entire argument in every chapter.... I think 4 or 5 chapters would have been sufficient. 12 chapters just dragged on and on, beating the same dead horse... Of course he's also trifling with the creator...as any good biologist tends to do.  But that's a different subject. Still I can't help but wonder that should we find extra-terrestrial life, who is going to be the first to ask said, alien, have you considered Jesus?   Certainly not the biologist, but maybe the physicist?  

Best part for me was  his discussion of single cell evolution... Mapping out evolution at the cellular level was something completely new, not being a biologist, and I learned a few things.

This is not a book for physicists, this is a book for biologists who would otherwise wonder about evolutionary magic should they not been tuned into the preexisting physical laws of nature that constrain everything we understand above the quantum level.  Strangely, this is also not a book for biologists, at least not a written with so many of the equations he has chosen.  He's not really using fundamental laws, per se, he is just using math to calculate constraining limits.  To understand what he is doing you kinda have to have had some physics or engineering in your back ground. You can't simply assume the math works, you have to do the math, and when you do the math it's not black and white.  For the most part, he should have left the equations out of this book he has written for biologists.  Of course then he destroys is thesis, maybe.  Oh well. It was particularly annoying to me when when he presented an occasional hard number as fact, he should have been more accurate, or at least done the calculations himself.  We don't contain a tennis court of absorption area in our gastrointestinal track, he's over by an order of magnitude.   10's of square meters, not 100's of square meters as he claims.

Start with three stars because overall, although well researched, there is nothing earth shattering in this book. Deduct a star for being so repetitive. Deduct another star for using equations that will be obtuse to biologists and simply wrong in other areas.   Add a star back for his treatment of single cell evolution and of course add another star for the great use of a Star Trek reference.  Three stars overall.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

MAGA, Negan's Wife, and How We Save the NFL


Image result for hilarie burton
Park View High School in Sterling Virginia will not field a varsity football team this year. We are witnessing the end, in real time, of one of the most significant cultural institutions within the United States.  If head injuries were not bad enough the dinosaurs who profit from those head injuries don't seem to understand just how significant this shift in culture will be for our country.  I'm a soccer player not a football player, but every significant moment of my life revolved around American Football one way or another.

My first friends were formed in  backyard games wearing a Cleveland Browns uniform with helmet and shoulder pads from the Sears & Roebuck catalog.  My friend David was wearing Green Bay.  One night the game winning touchdown was a pass his brother Donny threw to me, well past the time when we were called to dinner shouted by moms across fence-less yards, sun having set.  The ball, arching across a dark sky, with only the white lines encircling the pig skin, flickering in the moonlight (they painted white lines on the footballs back then).  I made the catch.  It was 1970.  We were all American Football fans back then.  Roger Staubach, Bob Griese, Roman Gabriel, they were the greats...and who could ever forget Brian's Song, Brian Piccolo who died from cancer in 1970 with the great Gale Sayers at his bedside. I love Brian Piccolo. I lived in the deep south, Alabama to be exact...to say we worshiped Gale Sayers is an understatement.  If Gale Sayers took a knee at the football game, I would take a knee.  Not only were we color blind in my neighborhood, seriously, Green Bay and the Cleveland Browns? That was back when dogs were boys and cats were girls...I didn't like cats.  I didn't have an identity, but I liked Gale Sayers.

I moved to New Jersey...if I thought we were color blind in Alabama, New Jersey didn't seem to mind a bit either.  On my street it was hard to choose a team, but you had to choose a team.  If you didn't have a team you were just weird.  But was it going to be the  the Jets, the Giants, or the Eagles.  One friend of mine had the audacity to be a Redskins fan.  I had to choose a team, and choose quickly.  I needed an identity to fit in. Quickly choosing Dallas I was in.  Why didn't I choose the Browns, I had their uniform, or the Bears, goodness knows I liked the Bears.  In that split second, I had to form an identity with my friends, and it was Roger Staubach, the role model, that flashed through my head.  Superbowl champion, Navy Officer.  I was in.  It was 1974.  My identity was Dallas Cowboys.

We moved again and I carried that identity with me unwittingly into the mixing bowl of Northern Virginia, except this mixing bowl was more of a crucible.  Who's your favorite team?  The Cowboys.   Who's your favorite team?  The Cowboys?  This was Redskin's territory and those fan's let you know it.  For me, this National Football culture would now give way to the local scene.  Those playing in the local leagues preparing to move into high school.  That scene playing out thousands upon thousands of times in every hometown from New England, the Patriots, to San Diego, the Chargers. My home town was Sterling, Park Virginia, and I was a Patriot.  A Park View Patriot. That was my High School.  We produced footballer Allen Pickett, I had Chemistry class with Allen.  And in 2000 we graduated the actress Hillary Burton.   I still remember the chills from my very first pep rally.  The marching band, lungs in shape having reported for band camp a few weeks early, now locked in the confines of a high school gymnasium bringing the roof down.  Then there were the games, Friday night lights, at Bill Allen Field.  Pick up our Friday night and it too was being recounted over and over throughout the land.  What were we learning?  We were learning how to be American's and it felt great...in particular if you scored in the closing minutes and went on to Regions or State competitions.  This year, for the 2018/2019, school year, PVHS, will not field a team.  But before returning to this discussion, let's continue with my life.  My identity was Park View Patriot.

To say, I didn't play football in high school, would be inaccurate.  We all played football. Whether it be in the street or behind a school  Someone always had a ball and we were always choosing sides.  That was touch football but it was just as fun...and no head injuries.  But it was time to choose a college.  The last thing on my mind was football, the last thing on my mind was choosing a school in the South West Conference, the last thing on my mind was the Aggie Fight Song.  But I learned it on day one.  Reporting to Texas A&M early, you memorized it before you knew what classes  you were taking.  Why, because now I was a member of the 12th Man.  It didn't matter anymore if I liked Dallas.  The enemy was no longer the Redskins.  The enemy was much closer and took the form of a Great Longhorn Steer, BEVO, who represented the worst of the worst.  The University of Texas football team, our mortal enemy. Since Texas A&M was THE University of Texas, we referred to that little school in Austin as "texas University", little t for emphasis.  If thought I knew something about football before, I was in for an awakening.  Every, and I mean every aspect of my life was geared toward the rivalry. From, midnight yell practices, to Aggie Bonfire, to marching into Kyle Field on home games, and the events where we followed the team on away games to Houston and Dallas.  Every aspect of life surround the moments when we could stand, in the stands, for every minute our team was on the field.  One might say, if you've never stood for every minute of a football game, in the Texas sun, wearing a full military uniform, your not living.  Oh, and then when it's half-time, and it's time to sit down, as soon as your butt hit's the bleacher, you're back up.  The Fighting Texas Aggie Marching Band is on the field.  And the 12th Man always stands when the band is on the field.  My junior year I was on the color guard.  As the Aggie Band played the National Anthem from the field, and every fan stood, we raised the largest American flag in Texas high above Kyle Field, I would wear the white gloves with pride in the Texas heat.  I thought we were the greatest fans in the history of football.  That, of course is not true...just go to any other University in the country on any football weekend and you will find the greatest fans in football history.  Only the colors and the words of the fight songs will change...but my identity was Fighting Texas Aggie.

Entering the United States Air Force, after college, that identity served me well.  If you went to a school with a big football team, you were somehow in the club. If you kept up with quarterbacks and coaches you could speak a universal language, a unifying language, despite the fierce rivalries.  It didn't matter what team you supported, you just needed a team. You were also, as is military tradition, assigned a team.  In the Air Force, regardless of what school you attended, by default you adopted the the Air Force team, you were a Fighting Falcon, or you had better be when inevitably the game against Army or Navy would be on the schedule.

The football culture has been with us for decades now. It has made our Country strong for reasons too numerous to count.  It is slowly being eaten away from numerous directions.  Let's count the ways...

1) Culture that promotes head trauma injuries (Real)
2) Culture that promotes winners over losers placing vulnerable students who don't fit in at risk of being isolated, jocks over geeks (Real)
3) Culture that promotes football over all other sports in a university program (Real)
4) Culture that erodes the line between professional and amateur athletes (Real)
5) Culture that erodes the line between sports and academics (Real)
6) Culture that permits sexism in the locker room (Real)
7) Culture that permits sexual abuse of young boys (Real)
8) Culture that promotes/glorifies violence (Real)
9) Culture that promotes a decline in US Patriotism if you are allowed to take a knee during the National Anthem (Imagined)

I am not denigrating American Football.  I love it.  Too many positives to count.  Too many memories.  But here's another, When I was the care taker for a pair of seasons tickets to the Redskins, despite my love of Dallas, I would dutifully take my dad to see the Skins play his beloved Giants, just to watch them lose.  American Football is part of the American dream, it is more American than baseball, hot dogs, apple pie or Chevrolet, it just didn't fit the jingle as well.  Before we decide to fix an imagined problem, we should get to work fixing the real problems contained in one through eight.  That's what will make American football great again.  I hope the NFL is listening.

So getting back to Negan, a character I love, who ironically uses a baseball bat to give his enemies a concussion.  He also happens to raise chickens on his farm in New York, or rather actor Jeffery Dean Morgan, his alter ego does. I didn't just throw Negan in this blog to draw in my other Walking Dead fans.  Recently his wife showed up at a Pep Rally at Park View High School in Sterling Virginia, promising to fund students who want to go to football camp to boost our players numbers, so that next year we might field a team.  That could help. I hope it works.  It's worth a try.  In case you are not tracking, Negan is married to actress Hillary Burton, our 2000 PVHS Homecoming Queen.  Thanks Ms Burton for doing something.  I hope, all across our Country, other's are getting involved.  The NFL dinosaurs are currently distracted by the wrong thing. 

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Forged in Faith, Fear, and Love...


Image result for the bomber boys.com
If you are a military history buff, your are no stranger to the exploits of either side of the air wars over Britain or Germany during WWII. Plenty has been written from many different perspectives. When it comes to the B-17 Flying Fortress, it's exploits are legion. The toll it took to fly and fight over the skies of Germany are the stuff of novels and movies. Even if you not a fan of history books everyone else has read Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" and laughed at the insanity of it all. Perhaps more have read Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" and know that war is no laughing matter.

Yet, what happened to our planet, the generation of humanity it affected, from the Holocaust, to the start of the Cold War, to the formation of the world we know today comes on the heels of the generation that fought that war. We know about the missions, deep into the heart of Germany to stamp out their industrial capability and change the will of the Germany people. We know the of cost thousands upon thousands of lives lost, both in the air and the victims of bombing on the ground. We know about the machines of war, the bombers, the fighters, the missiles, fadio to radar and of course we know about the secret Norden Bomb-sight that made it all possible. What we know comes from the hardware and the documents thousands of historians have picked through over the decades. What we don't have is enough documentation of the first hand accounts of the brave men who peered through the Norden. Those who were there, witnessed and participated, and then returned home to raise families and grow businesses in the aftermath.

But here we have "The Bomber Boys: Heroes Who Flew the B-17s in World War II" by Travis Ayres, to give us but a glimpse of these stories, first hand. I read most of this book flying back and forth across our Country staring at the clouds below wondering what it would be like to have the clouds of black flak from anti aircraft guns rounds busting all around me. I wondered what it would be like landing the aircraft with engines failing either ditching into the ground or into the water. I wandered what it would be like, exposed to the freezing atmosphere while fighter aircraft strafed by, trying to kill me while I fired 50 mm guns, trying to kill them, while locked in the cramped and crystal clear ball turret hanging from the belly of the plane. And I wondered what it would be like, having the Fortress around me, disintegrate in an exploding ball of flame, then plummet to earth only to have my parachute retard the fall and deliver me into the hands the enemy. In one case, to not have my parachute open at all, and survive a fall from 15,000 feet onto the snowy peak of a mountain. These are but a few of the first hand accounts you will fine in the pages of the Bomber Boys. And so much more. The stories include their fear, their faith that saw them through, and their letters home to the ones they love, always hoping to return and be returned.

These real men, heroes one and all, were boys when they left for war. When they returned they built the American dream, and lived it, having survived yet another epoch of war we humans have not yet figured out how to avoid. These stories must not be forgotten. Having lived most of my life in and around the Air Force and the generations of airmen who came after, I know first hand that not enough of these stories have been preserved. Ayers has saved five of their stories ...that's not enough...in their 90's now there are are but few eye witnesses who remain.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

On Ethical Leadership and Keeping Us Great, Again…


Who is James Comey?  When a future history book  is written, will he be the pivotal character in American History that caused the fall of our great country? Or is his new book, “Higher Loyalty” destined for the ash heap?  I guess that will depend on if we survive, as a country.  As empires go, we still have a few more years in us before someone has to write the book about our fall. Some days it feels we are closer than others.  Maybe it will all turn out to be a bad dream.  Comey’s book, however, reminds us that it’s not a dream.  What’s happening is very real and it's very bad.  This, from the once top cop in our country.  The former Director of the FBI.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it...but I dove in, trying to make sense of our current administration and the events surrounding the election of President Trump.  It’s all there.  Step by step, page by page.  Why there was no criminal indictment of Hillary Clinton.  Why Director Comey reopened the investigation on the eve of the Presidential election and then quickly closed it.  But perhaps more important, his personal conversations with Trump, for which he took notes, and then of course his spectacular firing--perhaps the most outward, brazen, and morally bankrupt acts of a US President since Watergate.  Yet here we remain.  Trump in charge and a country divided.  It should be noted that Comey is not whining, he’s providing the facts, just the facts.  He’s letting his readers decide.

Just like the book, I do not want this review to be divisive. Most who support Trump will have stopped reading at “Who is James Comey?”  But that’s Ok.  This book isn’t going to change a single mind.  His book isn’t about impeaching Trump. Rather his book is a call out to all who serve in the public eye to be ethical leaders with a higher sense of loyalty. Not to a party, not to a cause, but to our Union and a belief in our Justice system.  A system that demands truth.   

Oddly, Comey is the last person one might think to be on Hillary Clinton's side. Many in law enforcement lean to the right.   Everybody thought he leaned to the right when he opened the  the investigation into her email, and then they reversed their opinion when he failed to indict her, and then reversed their opinion again, when he reopened the investigation, only to reverse it again, when he closed it, only to sing his praises (or damn him) on the morning of Trump's election, and then, of course, only to reverse it again, when it looked like, in Trump's eyes, he was leading an investigation into Trump on Russia.  The left was neutral on that one, their necks had already been snapped off.   He wasn't opening that investigation as many thought.  Nevertheless he was fired just in case and because he wouldn't show a lick of loyalty to the Don (or Donald) in Washington (my word’s not Comey’s).  Does that sound a bit schizophrenic?  That’s what happened.  And, oh by the way, it’s not Comey with the mental illness.  Yes our Country’s  head was spinning like Linda Blair's.  And I think, that it why, the book was necessary. At least we have Comey's side of the story.  Which is helpful.  Each of us have our own story, what we thought, what we decided to do about ti.  But it’s helpful because now we know what the guy in charge was thinking, and at a minimum, why he did it.  And I can tell you from reading his book, that his side is far more rational than your side...whatever you were thinking, because he had the facts.  None of the rest of us did.  Even though the evidence was staring us in the fact.

So what does Comey think?  First, he thinks Donald Trump has leadership skills that parallel the crime bosses of NY.  The Mafia, The Cosa Nostra.  And he speaks from experience having prosecuted many cases of organized crime.  Trump demands loyalty, manages by transaction, and truth is irrelevant.  A modern CEO of a publicly traded company could never survive in such an organization.  Such a leader would never be elected to the job by a public Board of Directors to begin with.   Or if he was, he would be replaced fairly quickly. 

Something happened in Russia and he lied about it.  That should come as no surprise. He doesn’t know what exactly, he also doesn’t care if there were prostitutes in his hotel room, or what that prostitutes were doing. He cares that Trump was obsessed with telling him it’s not true and that nothing happened.  That obsession is a tell tale sign of having something to hide.  And if you have something to hide,  that means someone can blackmail you, in this case Russia.  If he would come clean, he would no longer be under the risk of blackmail.  Something happened.  If nothing happened, there is nothing to obsess over.  How do you obsess over something that didn’t happen?  If someone accuses you of robbing a 7/11 and you didn’t and they never produced camera footage, because you were never there, you have nothing to anchor your obsession.  Your brain has nothing to recount, nothing to remember, nothing to say over and over again (if you’ve ever obsessed over something)  if only I hadn’t done this or that.  A man who has spent his life time investigating crime, as Comey has, knows human nature. He knows how people react in these stressful situations.  Something is not right. Something happened.

The next part of the book details the Linda Blair period of our history running up to the election.  No indictment for Hillary.  Why?  Because no one gets prosecuted for mishandling classified the way she did.  You get fired.  You get walked out.  But you don’t get prosecuted.  If it makes Trump supporters happy, they got their day.  Hillary was fired.  Hillary was walked out.  The case should be closed with regard to prosecution.  Why can’t they lock her up?  There still is no case.  But he reopened the investigation, days before the election.  Why?  New evidence emerged.  Emails they never had access to previously.  If you don’t open the investigation it’s a cover up.  He had to reopen the investigation.  And of course, no smoking gun.  You still can’t prosecute.  In our Country, you can sue, you can scream and cry, you can protest, but you can’t prosecute without a sufficient evidence of a crime.  We all should be thankful for that fact.  That’s the heart of our Justice system.  So Hillary never lied, but she mishandled our secrets, and the American people fired her.  Even those who didn’t like her, but supported her, over Trump, believe justice was served in this case.  Now we have to deal with the aftermath of not having alternative.  It’s bad for us, but this is the annoying situation that arises from having to tell the truth.  And a boy scout, like Comey, is going to tell the truth.  It’s not unlike when your wife asks you the question, “Does this dress make me look fat?”.  A boy scout tells the truth, Comey tells the truth, and deals with the awkward aftermath.  The rest of us choose the little white lie in order to maintain peace and tranquility.

The end of the book describes the four conversations Comey had with Trump leading up to his firing.  Following the first conversation Comey knew immediately he had to write things down.  Believe what you want to believe, but I believe the red flags that were going up all around him, the bizarre nature of the circumstances and the conversations that ensued, would compel any normal person to take a few notes.  Comey has convinced me he was the normal person in these conversations.  He was the adult.  He was the guy without a bias, without an ax to grind, and with everything at stake...his job, for starters.  Trump was obsessed and irrational.  As we all know, the firing of Comey and the things that Trump said in the aftermath, lead to the logical conclusion that Comey didn’t mislead, or misrepresent those conversations.  Again, however, you will have to read the book and judge for yourself.  I can tell you I’m convinced.

Maybe one day Comey will return to public service.  His book has convinced me, not only is his version of the story reliable and accurate that he is indeed a true public servant.  We need more like him in the service of our country.  That is what will continue to keep us great.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

An Evolution Too Far

Sociopath. Harsh words. But in the closing pages of “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup”, Pulitzer Prize winning author John Carreyrou, suggests Elizabeth Holmes might actually be a sociopath. After reading his book, and watching a few videos of Elizabeth Holmes in action, speaking about Theranos, I don't think she is a sociopath. She is definitely lying, even though the power to believe her is as compelling as her blue eyes, blonde hair, and black Job’sian turtleneck. She was living the Silicon Valley dream of “Fake it till you make it” and giving her the benefit of the doubt, she brought this brand of business ethics mainstream like no other. Is she a lying, sociopathic scam artist? Or is she faking it, till she makes it, Silicon Valley Extreme Makeover Edition style?

Theranos was the quintessential Silicon Valley startup that at one point reached a $9B dollar valuation and her the cover of Forbes magazine. Given all that, it’s hard to believe Carreyrou is telling the truth. Let me say that again. It’s hard to believe a Pulitzer Prize winning author at the Wall Street Journal is telling the truth. Investors, wealthy men, and women, who we all respect, would also find it difficult to believe Carreyrou. Does that sound familiar? The false narrative we all want to believe is true, a disruptive, game changing technology, making health care affordable, taking on the titans of the medical industry is a story we all want to believe. But it all turns out to be a lie. Carreyrou, in fact, has the facts. Yet we still wish it it to be the other way around. We wish that it can be made to be true. If only Holmes had more time. Some investors wanted it to be true so badly they invested $100M of their personal fortunes. Rupert Murdoch the owner of the WSJ for example. How’s that for putting Carreyrou in a pickle? That fact alone might win Carreyrou another Pulitzer. It’s important to note that Carreyrou has reported that Murdoch was approached by Holmes, not once, but twice to put the kibosh on his story. Both times Murdoch trusted his editors to get the story straight and allowed it to go to press. That might be the single most important fact in the mountain duplicity that surrounds this case.

Even though now in hindsight, her behavior seems to defy logic. Her motives, while the facts of this case have been well sourced and recorded, remain as secretive as she the elusive nature of the technology behind the patents with her name on them. As it turns out, literally, one day after I finishing the book, Holmes and her boyfriend were indicted as criminals in a Federal court. It’s possible that over the course of the criminal trial, all of the facts in the case will finally reach the light of day and we will get our answer...maybe. But I still don’t think she is a sociopath.

So, how does, a 19 year old, Stanford dropout, with no biomedical engineering, software, or healthcare experience, raise $700M in venture capital? That is the phenomena that Carreyrou reports in this book. It is a compelling as any business book I have read. And it’s easy to see how it may also top the charts of best business books of the year...or “How Not to Run A Business” book of the year if there were such a category. Thug tactics are not the best way to run a business. But it’s easy to see how she did not run her business like a true Silicon Valley unicorn. She was no Peter Thiel or Elon Musk where the inspiration and perspiration goes into the technology. Her inspiration and perspiration went directly into raising capital and covering up for the non-existent technology until they could invent it. Which again raises the “what if?” question. What if she would have focused on the technology? Could she have invented something, while well short of the Theranos dreamstate, could still be defined as medically useful? I think the answer is no. Gates wrote MS-DOS. Job’s invented the Apple in his garage. Zuckerberg banged out the code for FaceBook in his dorm room. Similarly, Elon Musk banged out the software that would become Paypal. Holmes didn’t like needles. That’s insufficient knowledge to change the world. It’s easy to see that wanting to be like somebody else is also insufficient motivation to change the world. I don’t think she is a sociopath. I do think she believed in her vision, she just didn’t spend enough time in the lab to realize that her vision was an evolution too far. She was chasing a unicorn that didn’t exist and was unwilling to listen to her people simply because she didn’t, and still doesn’t, understand the technology. Unlike other Silicon Valley startups, a few cans of Red Bull and an all night coding session doesn’t change biomedical science.

On Amazon book reviews I have said I’m giving this book 5-stars because it’s a page turner, it’s well written, well researched, and a necessary story about the ethics of a Unicorn start-up. I will deduct 1-star because the term sociopath, as applied to Holmes, seems like a personal attack and an easy out when trying to find the motivation behind her actions. There is a far less complex answer starring Carreyrou in the face which in my mind is an even more damning indictment of Holmes given that she started Theranos. She is not an engineer and simply the worst biomedical scientist ever to run a biomedical company. No one has figured that out yet. But they will. Case closed.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Utopia means many things to many people.  Certainly none of those meanings have anything to do with the Utopia that Sir/Saint Thomas More wrote about when he penned “On the Best State of a Republic on the New Island of Utopia” late in the 15th Century.   My Utopia includes endless lush soccer fields with plenty of cold beer in the aftermath.  Others may view their Utopia quite differently.   Very quickly, however, should you randomly approach people on the street, you might find answers to Utopian question that run the gamut from such things as the end of hunger or the end of unemployment to the more controversial things such as universal health care--heaven forbid.  

Those answers would be closer to More’s Utopia than mine, but I can’t help think soccer would be one of More’s favorite pastimes, had it been around back then.  Soccer, you see, is far more akin to a balanced state of social justice then the economic dominance of the winner take all mindset always at the root of capitalism.  American football, for instance, is capitalism at its finest and more closely related to the philosophy of Conan the Barbarian, “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women!”  Which, ironically, is also more akin to another book, published at about the same time as Utopia.  “The Prince”, by Niccolò Machiavelli, which was  published in 1513, about three years ahead of Utopia, would never be referenced in any bill on universal health care.  But to continue the analogy of soccer, low scoring games, well played, are superior to the breaking of bones.

More was well ahead of his time.  And that, perhaps, cost him his head.  Yet he was on to something big.  Something bigger than the governments of the day, something bigger than the Church of England, or the Catholic Church.  He was talking about justice.  Was talking about equality.  He was talking about happiness.  Institutions, such as slavery, were impossible to reconcile with his view of justice and thus, had to play a role in his Utopia.  Slaves, were not thus, slaves, but rather the incarceration of those who committed crimes against society.  That was an easy fix for the injustice of the day.  But so too were the inequities of commerce when the rich were in a powerful position to exploit the poor.  Fast forward 500 years. It’s now 2018.  Would anyone dispute that living in a democracy, be it in the United States or any other modern democracy, is Utopian?  I think despite our political differences we all can agree modern democracies figured most of it out.  Yes we have flaws but the precepts of More’s Utopia foreshadow most of our American values for justice and the value of human life.  We also work hard, wish to create as few laws a possible, and try to only engage in just wars. We do not commit criminal acts and we are free to worship as you please.  Above all, More believes that  an overarching principle of Utopia is to be happy. Bob Marley would echo that sentiment. 

Yet Utopia, despite the fact that we live in a very Utopian USA, is riddled with criticisms stemming from what can only be described as Marxism.  It’s communist at worst and  socialist at best.  Well yes, the Utopia that Thomas More envisioned had many flaws, but if life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness equals socialism, then yes, socialism is what he wrote about...that, and an unfailing love of God and the Catholic Church.  Which isn't so bad either, and no would would argue the impact of the Christian theology on Western philosophy.  The Golden Rule is a prominent feature of Utopia, to name but one of the many ties.

We should all drop to our knees and thank Thomas More for writing this book, 500 years overdue. There can be no doubt his influence on our forefathers showed up in our constitutional framework.  We credit Hobbes and Locke...but perhaps we fell 100 years short of the real inspiration found in many of our textbooks.  Most likely because the common good of the common man flies in the face of profit the past 200 years.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

John Depp, Early Adopters, and the Best a Man Can Get

Have you ever used a disposal Bic razor? Single blade, hard plastic? I have. In the aftermath I look like Edward Scissors Hands [1] just completed a topiary. To avoid this look, my dad opted to use of an electric razor, presumably in the 60's. I've never seen him use anything else. He's used it all of his life having been, in my mind, an early adopter. Although Schick invented the electric razor in 1930 it required several modifications, with the introduction of the foil razor, and later the Norelco three-head, to really become mainstream.

Many men still prefer the electric razor. I suspect for the following reasons. One, men do not like to look like Johnny Depp. Two, they are still on the market being gifted and received under many Christmas Trees annually. And three, I saw a dude shaving with one in the car the other day. Gross. The women in the passenger seat had the vanity mirror down and was applying make-up. Maybe they fight over the bathroom mirror in the morning and this is their compromise? Still gross, but I digress.


Maybe this ability to shave in the car is the attraction. Not for me. I tried the electric razor. It never worked for me...my beard just isn't my dad's beard. He has a five o'clock shadow by noon. I guess that's why I've never been able to grow a full beard either. It takes a special kind of beard to work with the modern technology..which isn't so modern anymore. My technology, the old technology, remains the same. Cold steel. And if you can avoid the lacerations, I much prefer the wet shave. When twin blades became ubiquitous, I never tried the electric razor again. I've been wet shaving every morning since. No improvement, over the twin blade, seemed necessary. Yet, when the twin blade was introduced, it was ridiculed by Saturday Night Live. When will it end...they mocked the multiple blades. Yet here, in 2018, six blades are available. 

I've been a twin blade purist for most of my shaving life. I resisted the urges to move to the triple. But in recent times it's been another force in the market place that has pushed for change. Mail order razors. New start-ups like Harry's and Dollar Shave Club sensed that men no longer had the available time to spend picking out razors at the CVS. Rather, for a monthly subscription, their razors would arrive in the mail. And the cost would be so low, rather than scraping your face with a dull blade, because you forgot to run to the pharmacy, you would have a fresh blade whenever you needed one. 


As mentioned in previous blogs, I am an early adopter, not an innovator. So I spent some time observing the mail order razor phenomenon before I took the plunge. I studied the business model. But studying the business model doesn't allow you to actually know what you are missing. You actually have to use the product. So here is the trade. Can the new companies keep the cost and convenience of using a new blade on a weekly basis undercut the well established companies dominance in the wet shave market. The business model makes sense, but are they sending you a quality product. Does the promise of a new blade every week provide better performance than the performance of a quality blade? This is not a quality guarantee you can trust the butcher on. You really do have to stick your head up the bulls ass and have a look around [2]. Dollar Shave Club and Harry's are competing with several titans of industry...well really only two because Bic razors suck...they should stick to cigarette lighters. So Schick and Gillette are really at the top. Harry's and Dollar Shave want to topple these dynasties with their business model. I've been a Gillette man for as long as I can remember. Why? Because it's the best a man can get. I believe that in my soul, but I also believe 4 out of 5 dentists survey recommend Trident for their patients who chew gum. 


Regardless how I got here...I logged into a monthly shave club and joined the buzz. I've spent about a year evaluating their product. Bottom-line. Despite the business model, mail order shave clubs are a scam. Quality blades from Gillette are far superior to whatever bullshit manufacturing process (and their German steel) these clubs are using. And if you are following their advice though to the inevitable end, you will ultimately be paying a ton more money for your morning shave, wasting more product and resources and getting a less quality shave. 


Over the course of my test period I tried all the razors they had to offer. The twin blade, the quad, and the boss (6 blades). The twin blade is what you get for $1 a month. The quad cost's you $6 a month. And the boss will cost you $10 a month. If you stick with the $1 a month plan, and change the blade 6 times a month (they give you 6 blades) you will save money. But you will not be shaving with a quality twin blade...nicks and cuts come easy if you don't go easy with these blades. I shave quick...not like Edward, but I like to throw the blades around in the morning. By comparison, you can buy the top of the line Gillette Fusion razor, with five blades, and all the technology Gillette has been working on. That will cost you $42 for 12 blades. Gillette wants you to use each blade for 4 weeks. So that's the essence of the trade. Pay $12 a year, get 72 twin blade cartridges, or pay $42 for only 12. Seems intuitive that the shave club wins. Except you cannot compare the shave with the twin blade to the shave of the Fusion razor. To compare the experience you need to elevate to the Boss. And thus, without much thinking about it...you are now paying $10 month for 4 blades, or 48 cartridges a year, versus the paltry 12 blades of the Fusion from Gillette. Per cartridge, that's $10 x 12 / 4 = $3 for the club and $42 / 12 = $3.50 for the Fusion. You think that price point is a coincidence? The club is contending their blades are cheaper...they are, slightly. But you need to buy more...a lot more. Last time I checked, $120 / year was more than $42 / year. And you don't have to take any trips to the pharmacy. So is $10 / month worth it? What about performance? 

So...the shave club estimated their performance correctly. Their blade quality lasts about a week. After 4 or 5 shaves their blades are dull. So much for German steel. If you proceed to week two, and try to stretch the life of their blades, you run the risk of nicks and cuts. On the other hand, Gillette wants you to use their quality Fusion blades for a full month. Can you shave 4 full weeks with one cartridge? The answer, probably not. I can't stretch them that long. But you can get a quality shave for three full weeks. Which means you need more than 12 cartridges. But not too many more...just four. So doing the math...$3.50 x 4 = $14 for the extra cartridges. So for $56 a year you can use Gillette, the Best a Man Can Get, all year long. And if you buy them all at once, that's a single trip to the pharmacy. 

Now for you tree huggers out there...who tend to be early adopters of technology, thinking they are saving the environment by not going to the Pharmacy every week. Well, one, you are going to the pharmacy anyway. So buy your razors. And two, with the shave club you are disposing of 48 razors into land fills a year vs 16 from Gillette. And that's not to mention the packaging from the shave club...monthly boxes and postage. 

So I'll admit. I tried to work this all out in my head, a head of time, and it seemed like the shave club was the way to go. It's is not. Unless you like the twin there is no reason to switch methods.

As an aside, the club I joined also offered other products. I choose a tooth brush. Here again, for these items, one must stick to the companies who actually put some engineering into their products. Colgate makes the best tooth brushes. Unless you like brushing your teeth with a stick, stick to Colgate. 

1) Image: http://thefilmspectrum.com/?p=20283
2) Tommy Boy