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Archive for August 30th, 2009

Joe Meno put together a great novel in “The Great Perhaps.”   I’m certainly a biased reader when it comes to stories about the complexity of life and human relations. My bias balloons when the writer is a Chicagoan writing about Chicagoans.  I was excited to read this book and it delivered for the most part.

The main thrust involves an intellectual/academic family’s struggle to deal with the difficulty in finding a simple meaning to it all.   It’s a middle-agers coming to grips with reality type story.  The characters are perfectly interesting, if not a little underdeveloped and relying on caricature to fill them out.  The main character is a bit of a nutty professor in marine science, his wife also a forlornanimal behavior researcher, and their kids are full of tean angst, one a budding communist the other an exploratory Christian.  There’s also an aging grandfather winding down life in a nursing home.   All of them struggle with meaning in different ways and criss crossing each other constantly.

These characters don’t find an absolute truth to cling to, as the title suggests.   Science, religion, politics, psuedo affairs, leave it all behind…. none of it provides an answer for this family.   At the end of this book, by no means the end of the story, this family has only slightly advanced in their search. The parents more than the kids move forward in their thinking and yet it seems to be a very slippery, fragile place.  Meaning and truth seem like that – don’t they?

One irritant for me was the jumpiness of the storylines.  I found the flashbacks of the extended family history to be some of the least interesting vignittes.  These flashbacks chopped up the story a bit too much and really weren’t that interesting to read.

If you were to finish your summer reading with a quick, witty, and thought provoking ready, this is a great choice. perhaps.

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Business Week has a really great article about the value of basic research in R&D Labs to future economies.

Many of the classic scientific research labs, such as Bell Labs and RCA Labs (now Sarnoff Corp.), were started and funded by companies with virtual monopolies and very strong, predictable cash flows. They were able to embrace the uncertainty and serendipity of pure research in the context of their business. But such companies don’t exist today. With the increasing focus on shareholder value that began in the 1990s as global competition heated up, Fortune 500 companies could no longer justify open-ended research that might not directly impact their bottom line. Today, corporate research is almost exclusively engineering R&D, tending more toward applied research with a 3- to 5-year time horizon (or shorter). IBM, Microsoft MSFT, and Hewlett-Packard HPQ, for example, collectively spend $17 billion a year on R&D but only 3% to 5% of that is for basic science.

The End of Labs

The End of Labs

It’s not just a shame, it’s actually a very bad strategy in play right now and for the future.  I once remarked at company retreat I was at that often a company or industry matures so much that it’s only strategy is to invent just for the sake of inventing, with the idea that completely new revenue streams might evolve.  I was quickly slapped down by a major executive, “We need to work on things that can be commercialized now.”  I knew then the fate of that company would be mostly an arbitrage of wall street expectations.  And that’s exactly what it, and 1000s of other companies have become.  This is also why this particular recession is so painful – most companies have no institutional ability to innovate.  Two decades of chaising the near term exit, the 30% stock market rocket shot leave industry stagnant.

Know one knows what the next big idea is.  And no one will figure that out without basic research.  And by big ideas, I mean things like the printing press, the Internet, germ theory, genetics, the Wheel.  You know – THE BIG STUFF that powers generations of commerce.

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What do you make of Michael Vick, Ted Kennedy, Dick Cheney and Michael Jackson?  Villians? Heros? Role-Models? Titans? Flawed? Deserving? Entitled? Charismatic? Faithful? Loyal? Disturbed? All of these things? None of these things?

These people, as all people, are infinitely complex.  However, in the mass media (TV, radio, news, magazines)  they are portrayed in very simple ways.  Snippets of complexity stitched together into caricatures.   As proof of the over simplicity flip on the TV or browse your favorite news, sports, politics, or music site.  There is the rare exception (abcnews Ted Kennedy section) and usually it is buried on a website special section (you decide if that’s mass media).

Mass Media needs to generate and dramatize conflict.  When media fails to do that it usually doesn’t gain mass appeal.   There is a reinforcing loop for mass media producers to generate caricatures that get consumers to disagree and or promote that caricatures and the more consumers do this the more mass media produces.  If a person is presented in all their complexity it grows ever more difficult for a consumer to outwardly respond (e.g. blog, talk around the water cooler, call into radio shows…).  There is also limited time and space (and consumer attention) for mass media.  Broadcasting or publishing detailed profiles of people is physically impossible.

Yes, it is possible for a dedicated consumer to find the rich profiles and details they desire.   I do have a personal fear though – mass media drives so much of the political and social discussion and the world moves so fast that fewer and fewer consumers take the time to uncover the details.  Political marketers know this.  The Health Care discussion is a very good case study in how mass media fails to provide a robust intellectual platform.   There’s no one to blame.  Mass media has to make money for their shareholders and consumers do what they do.  Perhaps just a talking point and something to consider as we go about our lives.

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