Monday, May 2, 2016

GDP and the Great Economy

So how is the economy doing? As we see above the GDP is dragging at best. A growth rate of 3-4% would be necessary to stay ahead of the debt bow wave but at just above 1% we are treading on a recession again. Since 2008 we have been periodically dropping to 1% or below.
The above shows the GDP elements. Some growth but anemic.
The above shows the relative percent as well. No big change here either.

Overall we are weak and getting weaker. Costs of doing business are increasing and more and more employees are being supported by fewer workers.

Tech Anchor?

What is a Tech Anchor? Some writer in the NY Times argues that Tech anchors are companies. Sorry folks but they are Universities. The writer argues:

Silicon Valley and the surrounding region have had these companies for decades, from Hewlett-Packard and Intel to Facebook and Google. The Seattle area has its giants in Microsoft and Amazon. Even Austin has had its own tech powerhouse in Dell, though that company has seen better days. But New York? The biggest city in the country has plenty of tech companies and plenty of tech workers and it is second — though a distant second — among regional tech investment. A giant that can compete with behemoths of Silicon Valley, however, remains elusive. 

First did the writer ever hear of Boston? Route 128? Try taking a trip to Kendall Square! The Tech anchor is a place called MIT. Then Silicon Valley, ever heard of Stanford? Then Austin, how about UT.

Now for New York. There is an effort to put a high tech entity on the abandoned tip of an island in the East River. Land was available but every time I go by I wonder how one gets there. I can take a T train to MIT, and possibly even a car, although Google has apparently bought up all parking spaces, not environmentally friendly but this is not California.

New York has no real high tech institution. Columbia struggles, it is really a Liberal Arts shop, they try to do engineering but not really. NYU, well they got Brooklyn Poly, let's see how that works. Not really that much else.

So one needs a Tech Anchor, the anchor is academic not some start up and the anchor takes a while to mellow. So don't expect this for a few decades at best.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Department of Energy

Most people do not know that the largest portion of DoE's business is nuclear weapons. Somehow over the decades from Carter thru the current administration we have had Secretaries who at times were clueless as to their domain. Perhaps that has been planned, after all you can get a lot more done if your boss has no idea that you may even exist. But generally we do not appoint Secretary of Defense individuals who cannot distinguish a tank from an aircraft carrier. But well all too often have Sec DoE who would not know a MIRVed warhead from an electric car!

I just noted, perhaps with some humor, but also with possible abject terror, the Hill stating a potential DoE head. As The Hill states:

Trump said early in his campaign that he’d welcome the GOP’s 2008 vice presidential nominee into his administration — “I’d love that,” he said in July — and Palin wasted little time specifying the post she’d want. The former Alaska governor said she’d like to head the Energy Department — for the opportunity to dismantle it. “I think a lot about the Department of Energy, because energy is my baby — oil and gas and minerals, those things that God has dumped on this part of the Earth for mankind’s use instead of us relying on unfriendly foreign nations,” Palin told CNN last fall. “I’d get rid of [the DOE], and I’d let the states start having more control.”

This is concerning. You could get rid of the electric car project at DoE but what of those nukes! It is not as if the understanding of DoE is unknown by all, the Russians and the Chinese are very familiar with DoE weapons programs. Perhaps for once we could get a DoE head who knows something about its core business, the potential destruction of all life on the planet!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Ginkgo Nuts, Biodiversity and Climate Change

Some twenty five or so years ago I got some ginkgo nuts from the New York Botanical Garden. I planted them and last year one of the trees, a female, was filled with nuts. Fantastic. The squirrels did not seem to have any interest, smelly seed coats, but well that was not the end. Come Spring, the coat had gone and the squirrels managed to consume every one! The ginkgo has managed to survive some 100 million plus years but it had not faced the squirrel.

Now as we go further north we see the grey squirrel also going there as the warming occurs and thus many flora that were dependent on small consumption by red squirrels will be under siege by grey ones. The issue of changing and complex biodiversity means that there will be challenges to flora and fauna.

I make this comment because I have read a paper by Dr. Victoria Karchenko at The Botanical Garden Institute in Vladivostok where she states:


Now the climate changes become more pronounced. This affects to biodiversity and distribution of plants. Therefore, we need to study of the biodiversity and trends distribution of plants in specific environments. In this connection is necessary to clarify real composition of species in the of regional floras potential of their variability of and disseminating. A pressing problem remains the creation of a unified database of the flora of Russia, which takes into account the data of regional studies.  Research program allows executing posed problems if it would coordinate with other botanical gardens. This program will allow revealing structural and functional adaptation of species to various environmental conditions. This will help create a basis for design ways to regulation the development of plants and biotops.

As I had indicated, the paper by Dr. Kharchenko presents a very compelling argument for the development of a detailed flora for Russia especially the Eastern parts. We have been using certain sentinel plants such as Hemerocallis which are native to this part of Russia to measure long term climate changes. It is essential to have a detailed data base not only of the flora per se but more importantly an understanding of their propagation status based upon the balance with pollinators as well as fauna which may consume the plants before they can complete their re population cycle. We have seen not only a shift in bloom time and divergence with pollinators but more importantly animal predators on plants growing in numbers. This is a critical study especially in this highly bio-diverse area.

Eastern Russia is an relatively unexplored treasure trove of biological species. Many of my Hemerocallis are from there and there are still new species of that genus being discovered. However there may have been a balance in biodiversity for millennium but as we see warming we would expect drastic changes. To understand the changes we need a baseline and the proposal to establish such a well defined baseline is essential. There clearly should be substantial support for this effort, since one would expect the time scale for change to be quite short.

Trusting the Kindness of Strangers

Silicon Valley gets stranger by the day. I recall my first start-up in the Fall of 1969. It was funded by EG&G whose main business at the time was photographing nuclear explosions. The company had a great idea, as many start ups do. In 1969 stores had credit cards but no computers and the printed every week a phone book size document containing all the bad cards in numerical order. When you wanted to charge something the cashier would first take your card and read through the book to see if it was a bad card. If not then you could charge.

Well these folks came up with the following idea. The could take the bad card numbers and put them on a 45 RPM record, and then when you came to the cashier they would type in the credit card number and if it was not bad the green light came on and if it were bad the red light lit. Now the 45 RPM was coded so that N grooves in were numbers n(N) which were in some range. This the unit knew if you entered a number it would be N grooves in so it dragged the record needle some N-M grooves and started reading the data until it went past your number. It was one of the first disk drives, but with a 45RPM record and dragging across grooves. Now the grooves would wear out but the solution was to coat the disk with some coating which allowed it to work for a couple of weeks. Great idea before any internet.

Well it worked for about a week. Then someone forgot to coat the records and Voila they all scratched out and so did the company. Details count. Lesson one.

Now in Scientific American there is a great piece on Theranos. The author notes:

Just a few weeks before regulators proposed banning Holmes and Theranos President Sunny Balwani from the blood-testing industry, the company tried to remedy this by bulking up its medical advisor board with well-qualified experts in chemistry, pathology and clinical chemistry. It’s hard to imagine these experts would have signed on amid all the bad publicity and allegations without demanding proof that the technology works, but who knows? It still remains possible that Theranos has discovered a breakthrough technology that can do hundreds of lab tests on a drop of fluid from a patient’s finger. But even if this increasingly unlikely prospect is a reality, Holmes' erstwhile acolytes need to remember the lessons learned from the pantheon of past pied pipers and summed up by statistician W. Edwards Deming:  In God we trust; all others must bring data.
 Now the lesson is that due diligence is essential, it means that you did enough work to determine if there are any fatal flaws. I have been through the process dozens of times. Often we find things. People have done it on my companies and I have done it on others. The first thing you must do is understand the validity of the offering. You must understand it. Second you must examine the team. In Silicon Valley having no experience is valued. I would not climb Mt Everest with a Guide who had never been outside of Florida! I want experience and I would due due diligence. Somehow major investors and major corporations just blew it. That may not be good for some careers but it is also not good for the industry.  However it may be great for the lawyers!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

CRISPR Mushrooms!

As I watch my Hemerocallis slowly emerge from the ground and wonder what I could do if I let CRISPR techniques go wild I read today in Nature about the CRISPR mushroom.

They note:

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) will not regulate a mushroom genetically modified with the gene-editing tool CRISPR–Cas9. The long-awaited decision means that the mushroom can be cultivated and sold without passing through the agency's regulatory process — making it the first CRISPR-edited organism to receive a green light from the US government. “The research community will be very happy with the news,” says Caixia Gao, a plant biologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology in Beijing, who was not involved in developing the mushroom. “I am confident we'll see more gene-edited crops falling outside of regulatory authority.” Yinong Yang, a plant pathologist at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) in University Park, engineered the common white button (Agaricus bisporus) mushroom to resist browning. The effect is achieved by targeting the family of genes that encodes polyphenol oxidase (PPO) — an enzyme that causes browning. By deleting just a handful of base pairs in the mushroom’s genome, Yang knocked out one of six PPO genes — reducing the enzyme’s activity by 30%.

 I wonder what I could do with flower colors!