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    • Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – October 20, 2019
      by Tony Wikrent North Carolina Democratic Party Progressive Caucus Strategic Political Economy Economist Mariana Mazzucato has demonstrated that the real driver of innovation isn’t lone geniuses but state investment. [Wired, via The Big Picture 10-19-19] ….Mazzucato, an Italian-American economist who had spent decades researching the economics of innovation […]
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This week in STEM: Annnnd a NEW round of job cuts!

This morning, Microsoft announced a new round of job cuts.  It recently acquired Nokia and that seems to be where the bulk of the 18,000 hits are going to come from.  Let’s try to parse why they’re doing this, shall we?  Here’s an explanation from new CEO Satya Nadella:

The larger-than-expected cuts are the deepest in the company’s 39-year history and come five months into the tenure of Chief Executive Satya Nadella, who outlined plans for a “leaner” business in a public memo to employees last week.

“We will simplify the way we work to drive greater accountability, become more agile and move faster,” Nadella wrote to employees in a memo made public early Thursday. “We plan to have fewer layers of management, both top down and sideways, to accelerate the flow of information and decision making.”

The size of the cuts were welcomed by Wall Street, which viewed Microsoft as bloated under previous CEO Steve Ballmer, topping 127,000 in headcount after absorbing Nokia earlier this year.

“This is about double what the Street was expecting,” said Daniel Ives, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets. “Nadella is clearing the decks for the new fiscal year. He is cleaning up part of the mess that Ballmer left.”

The goal is to simplify the work process.  That sounds good.  Everyone likes simplicity.  It makes work easier to deal with if the path forward is cleared of unnecessary complexity and clutter.  But that’s not really why they’re simplifying, is it?  The goal of the simplification is actually to “drive greater accountability”.  On the surface, this also seems reasonable until we stop to consider, accountable to whom?  If you’ve been paying attention in the last decade, this usually refers to shareholders.  Shareholders want greater accountability.  Does that mean they want a bunch of reports and retrospective analyses to peruse at their leisure to make sure everything is being done with an eye towards simplicity, agility and speed?  Probably not.  Accountability is generally a code word for shareholders wanting to see that they’re not spending a penny more on people than they absolutely have to so that they can increase the amount of money they can hoard get for their shares.  It will be up to these 18,000 people to account for their existence.

It sounds like they’re going to get rid of management- everywhere.  Good luck with that! </snark>

Finally, we see that Steve Ballmer left a mess.  Not sure what that’s all about since I’m not in the software side of tech and I only use Microsoft products under duress.  But just because the company now has 127,000 people doesn’t mean that some of them necessarily have to go.  Unless they need to be accountable, of course.  I’m sure this comes as no surprise to the workers at Nokia but no one forced Microsoft to buy them.

So, to recap, Microsoft buys struggling cell phone manufacturer Nokia, drinks its smooth and tasty patent milkshake and discards the worker bees because they are no longer sufficiently accountable.

If anyone is still wondering why the US doesn’t make anything worth exporting, look no further than this layoff announcement and the rest of the carnage happening at IBM, Cisco, Intel and Hewlett-Packard.  It looks like a bloody hemorrhage this month.  There will be a lot of tech workers hitting the virtual pavement.  Contrast this with the way Germany handles its STEM workers.  When times get tough, they reduce their hours to part time and keep their wages high.  That way, when the economy recovers, they can rev their engines up again and work productively with a work force that has not lost its critical skills.

German shareholders and the government work together in a smart way to ensure they have the skills to compete in the market later.  American shareholders and government?  ehhhhhh, not so much.  Finland (the home of Nokia) must be thrilled with Microsoft’s announcement, even though they must have been expecting it since the acquisition.

Someone should tell the Microsoft people to stop referring to its workforce as a “mess” that needs to be cleaned up.

In the meantime, Derek Lowe wrote another post about the prospects of new Chemistry PhDs.  It looks like the number of post docs has gone down in recent years and the number of unemployed PhDs has gone up.  So, to recap, you spend 4 years as an undergrad and about 5-7 years getting your PhD in a very difficult subject that demands sharp, innovative thinking and many thousands of hours of lab work and what do you get for your hard work?  Not much.

Paraphrasing what a former colleague told me in 2009, when it comes right down to it, the reason why employers say they can’t find good help anymore is because what they want, what they really, really want, is a new graduate with 25 years of experience.  I would add, and someone who they can make accountable whenever they please.

Hey, did you hear about the CDC losing track of influenza and smallpox vials?  Funny what persistent underfunding and a round of sequestering will do to your disease control mechanisms.  I’m not surprised after what I heard during my trip to Cambridge, MA in May.  A recent visitor to the CDC said that the place is demoralized and disorganized with co-workers not even knowing who was in their groups.  I don’t blame this on government since the CDC didn’t used to be this FUBARed.  No, I blame it on the authoritarian nut cases in the Republican party whose intractable, unyielding, “take-no-prisoners”, never compromise, never surrender attitude and actions are putting the rest of us at risk.

We need to hold them accountable.

Oh, by the way, congresspersons who vote for more H1B visas in the immigration bill before the excess glut of American STEM workers are re-employed should be vigorously primaried.

 

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Field testing the iPad

Long time, no see, guys.  My work life has gotten interesting lately and I find myself back in the lab after 20 years.  And I just have to say that all in all, this has been a very good move for me.  I recommend it to any former lab rat who has found themselves behind a monitor for too long.  Technology has changed a great deal in two decades and learning and relearning new things makes work challenging and fun.  It’s the best of both worlds, really.  I still get to park my fat ass behind the computer for part of the day to play with models but my ass is getting smaller from running around the bench.  So, two thumbs up for the lab.

Now, I have a company lab notebook that’s all legal and stuff that I write things down in but when I was in the lab recently, I found that I wanted a notebook for jotting things down of a more general nature.  It’s mostly reminders, calculations and procedural stuff that could apply to any particular experiment, nothing proprietary.  I recently bought an iPad to semi replace my macbook that’s on it’s last legs so I thought I’d give it a try.  There have been other reviews of the iPad, most recently Anglachel’s.  But I think that the mistake that many people make about the iPad is that they concentrate too much on the hardware.  (If you find the device “too heavy”, you need to hit the gym)  To really understand how the iPad fits into the device spectrum, you have to think out of the box and focus on the apps.  And even though the apps developed for the iPad are still few in number compared to the iPhone, it’s in this area where motivated developers are going to make the iPad a truly revolutionary device.

For my purposes in the lab, the iPad is off to a good start but it could be amazing.  I prop it up using the apple cover in type mode (see pic above) and leave it on the bench, coming back to it now and then to make notations using the Notes app that comes with the iPad.   I can type through my nitrile gloves and my lab is mercifully free from most solvents so I’m not worried about corrosion.  The screen cleans up nicely with a kimwipe.  Nevertheless, a waterproof cover or thin film screen protectent is probably a good idea for people who want to take their iPad into the lab.   There’s an app for making stock solution dilutions and molarity calculations called LabCal.  It’s an iPhone app that runs on the iPad.  Although the iPad doesn’t come with a calculator, there are plenty of cheap calculator apps in the apps store.  I found a nice scientific calculator called Calc XT that has a nifty little scratch pad.  For reading general procedures, I mail the published documents to my email account and access the pdfs using GoodReader.  And for planning my work, I use Todo by Appigo.  These are the main tools I need everyday. I don’t have access to wifi or the 3G network in my area so my scribbles stay on the ipad.  Essentially, what I have is the equivalent of a little steno pad, folder and calculator but the notes are stored by date and everything I need is in one slim device.

But there are a couple of additional apps that I’ve found lurking in the apps store that point the way to the future.  For example, the American Chemical Society has an app that allows the user to select a number of journals to browse.  Highlights and abstracts are delivered to the app and the full journal article can be accessed directly, provided the user has a subscription.  This would be a great way to deliver literature electronically.  Ordinarily, I print papers out from the pdfs because I don’t like reading them on a computer screen.  But on an iPad, literature has the feel of reading a printed document with all of the digital benefits.

Another app, iKinasePro, is a bit pricier but at $9.99 is still a steal.  It gives the user access to a curated database of kinases, along with published inhibitors, links to literature and patents, and a multitouch kinome tree.  But what really drew me to this app is that it features a molecular editor from Chemene that is similar to a ChemDraw widget.  The user can quickly draw a structure and do a

The Chemene Molecular Editor

substructure search of the database to find hits.  The app does require access to a wifi or 3G network, as does the ACS app.  The kinome diagram also doesn’t allow for the finer resolution multitouch, the user can only select certain groups of kinases.  But motivated developers {{hint, hint}} should be paying close attention to that editor because that’s the way we need to go with the electronic notebook app that I’m sure someone is going to make a killing on.

The mobile electronic notebook could be a godsend for labrats.  Imagine one app that does it all: records your steps, has a built in calculator, can calculate dilutions from stock solutions, can calculate the MW from the structure you draw, can fetch the synthetic pathway from the literature, can register your compound, and allow you to search for similar structures and their related activity and ADME data in the database.  Well, that’s just off the top of my head.  And if the lab pages are uploaded to a cloud server, there’s no reason to store anything on the iPad, making loss of proprietary data less likely.

Companies interested in protecting their proprietary information can get an enterprise version of the SDK.  Security of the local wifi and cloud server are out of my scope but where there’s a will, there’s a way.  Ahhhh, there’s the rub.  In many of the companies that I’m familiar with, there is a ginormous bureacracy of Microsoft borgs who will tell you that resistance is useless and that you will be assimilated to the same stupid image that the accountants use.  Mobility, without a mouse or a keyboard?  In. Your. Dreams.  In Microsoft’s holey products, there is a lifetime of employment security for hives full of corporate drones hired to test and patch the version of IE that is already several years out of date and to stamp out proliferating viruses.  Apple products are verboten.  They’re too sleek and simple.  The macbooks run on linux (One helpdesk borg asked me how to spell linux when I needed help with my HP linux workstation.  Yep, it’s that bad.)  The iPad uses an iPhone OS but still, Apple make the borgs antsy.  Which is why we may never get iPads for the labs. I don’t think this is going to change unless the borgs are given ultimatums employment incentives to experiment with other platforms.

Too bad, because I think there is a lot of potential on both the development and the efficiency side of the mobility equation.  It would be a shame to see the modern lab, stripped down and uber frugal, hobbled by a Microsoft mentality.  But whatever the fate of iPad in the lab, it’s a handy device to have around.  Still, if you can’t use it in the lab,  you can go home and use it to rent a movie from Netflix and forget all about work.

Ahhhh….