You’re hired. You’re fired.

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

For his first job in Silicon Valley, Steve Blank was hired as a lab technician at ESL to support the training department:

I packed up my life in Michigan and spent five days driving to California to start work. (Driving across the U.S. is an adventure everyone ought to do. It makes you appreciate that the Silicon Valley technology-centric culture-bubble has little to do with the majority of Americans.) With my offer letter in-hand I reported to ESL’s Human Resources (HR) department. I was met by a very apologetic manager who said, “We’ve been trying to get a hold of you for the last week. The manager of the training department who hired you wasn’t authorized to do so – and he’s been fired. I am sorry there really isn’t a job for you.”

I was stunned. I had quit my job, given up my apartment, packed everything I owned in the back of my car, knew no one else in Silicon Valley and had about $200 in cash. This could be a bad day. I caught my breath and thought about it for a minute and said, “How about I go talk to the new training manager. Could I work here if he wanted to hire me?” Taking sympathy on me, the HR person made a few calls, and said, “Sure, but he doesn’t have the budget for a lab tech. He’s looking for a training instructor.”
As I talked to the head of training and his boss, I pointed out that the clock was ticking down for them, I knew the type of training military maintenance people need, and I had done some informal teaching in the Air Force. I made them a pretty good offer – hire me as a training instructor at the salary they were going to pay me as a lab technician. Out of desperation and a warm body right in front of them, they realized I was probably better than nothing. So I got hired for the second time at ESL, this time as a training instructor.

The good news is that I had just gotten my first promotion in Silicon Valley, and I hadn’t even started work.

The bad news is that I had 6 weeks to write a 10 week course on three 30-foot vans full of direction finding electronics plus a small airplane stuffed full of receivers. “And, oh by the way, can you write the manuals for the operators while you’re at it.”

Two weeks before the class was over the head of the deployment team asked him to come along to Korea: “We’ll get you temporarily assigned to us and then you can come back as a Test Engineer/Training Instructor and work on a much more interesting system.” This led to his roommate philosophizing about how he kept getting more and more interesting jobs:

His theory, he told me, was this: “You’re not so smart, you just show up a lot in a lot of places.” I wore it as a badge of honor.

Uranium Found on the Moon

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

The Japanese Kaguya spacecraft, which was launched in 2007, has detected uranium on the moon using a gamma-ray spectrometer:

Scientists are using the instrument to create maps of the moon’s surface composition, showing the presence of thorium, potassium, oxygen, magnesium, silicon, calcium, titanium and iron.

“We’ve already gotten uranium results, which have never been reported before,” said Robert Reedy, a senior scientist at the Tucson-based Planetary Science Institute, and a member of the Kaguya science team. “We’re getting more new elements and refining and confirming results found on the old maps.”

The findings could help decide where to build future lunar colonies, since manned outposts will need energy, and could potentially derive it from nuclear power plants.

(Hat tip to Nyrath.)

"Hitler’s Stealth Fighter" Re-created

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Nazi Wunderwaffenmiracle weapons — continue to sing their siren song. Now Nat Geo has brought together a team of Northrop Grumman contractors to rebuild a replica Ho 2-29 — a jet-powered plane built primarily of wood and shaped like a modern stealth fighter — from the original blueprints:

Lead designer Reimar Horten was a glider designer “obsessed with the all-wing [design] because of the possibilities it created for low drag and exceptional performance,” said Florida-based aviation historian David Myhra, who interviewed the Horten pair numerous times from the early 1980s until their deaths in the late 1990s.

Walter Horten was a military man who had lost hundreds of Luftwaffe colleagues during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

“That loss never left him to the day he died,” said Myhra, author of The Horten Brothers and Their All-Wing Aircraft.

“He was burning with revenge and felt the need for a plane that would be pretty much invisible to Britain’s Chain Home radar system. That’s what he wanted his brother to design.”

The result of their collaboration was unique among Luftwaffe designs.

“It has no vertical surfaces for stability or control. Every exterior surface of that aircraft contributes lift,” said Russell Lee, curator for the only remaining Horten 2-29 aircraft, at the National Air and Space Museum’s Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility outside Washington, D.C.

“That had been tried before and failed time and time again,” Lee said. “Reimar Horten took the idea further and made it more practical than any other designer really up until the B-2.”

In the end, Hitler’s stealth fighter wasn’t especially stealthy:

“This design gave them just about a 20 percent reduction in radar range detection over a conventional fighter of the day,” Dobrenz said.

According to tests on the replica, World War II British radar would have picked up the Horten over the English Channel at about 80 miles (129 kilometers) out, versus 100 miles (160 kilometers) for a conventional World War II fighter.

But because of the Ho 2-29′s tremendous speed, the time from detection to target—the British mainland—would have been lowered from the usual 19 minutes to just 8 minutes, making it difficult for Allied defenders to respond.

“Probably, for at least a short amount of time, it could have been a game changer, until a counter was developed for it,” Dobrenz said.

The evolutionary origin of depression

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Randolph Nesse of the University of Michigan believes that mild depression is a warning mechanism, like physical pain:

Dr Nesse’s hypothesis is that, as pain stops you doing damaging physical things, so low mood stops you doing damaging mental ones — in particular, pursuing unreachable goals. Pursuing such goals is a waste of energy and resources. Therefore, he argues, there is likely to be an evolved mechanism that identifies certain goals as unattainable and inhibits their pursuit — and he believes that low mood is at least part of that mechanism.

It is a neat hypothesis, but is it true? A study published in this month’s issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests it might be. Carsten Wrosch from Concordia University in Montreal and Gregory Miller of the University of British Columbia studied depression in teenage girls. They measured the “goal adjustment capacities” of 97 girls aged 15-19 over the course of 19 months. They asked the participants questions about their ability to disengage from unattainable goals and to re-engage with new goals. They also asked about a range of symptoms associated with depression, and tracked how these changed over the course of the study.

Their conclusion was that those who experienced mild depressive symptoms could, indeed, disengage more easily from unreachable goals. That supports Dr Nesse’s hypothesis. But the new study also found a remarkable corollary: those women who could disengage from the unattainable proved less likely to suffer more serious depression in the long run.

Mild depressive symptoms can therefore be seen as a natural part of dealing with failure in young adulthood. They set in when a goal is identified as unreachable and lead to a decline in motivation. In this period of low motivation, energy is saved and new goals can be found. If this mechanism does not function properly, though, severe depression can be the consequence.

The importance of giving up inappropriate goals has already been demonstrated by Dr Wrosch. Two years ago he and his colleagues published a study in which they showed that those teenagers who were better at doing so had a lower concentration of C-reactive protein, a substance made in response to inflammation and associated with an elevated risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Dr Wrosch thus concludes that it is healthy to give up overly ambitious goals. Persistence, though necessary for success and considered a virtue by many, can also have a negative impact on health.

Dr Nesse believes that persistence is a reason for the exceptional level of clinical depression in America — the country that has the highest depression rate in the world. “Persistence is part of the American way of life,” he says. “People here are often driven to pursue overly ambitious goals, which then can lead to depression.” He admits that this is still an unproven hypothesis, but it is one worth considering. Depression may turn out to be an inevitable price of living in a dynamic society.

NASA Wants Your Ideas for Digitizing Rocket Scientist’s Notes

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

NASA is asking the public for suggestions on the best way to analyze and electronically catalog Werner von Braun’s notes, which were literally discovered in boxes six months ago.

Teens Don’t Twitter

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Teens don’t twitter, Cringely notes — not even the ones who send and receive 14,000 SMS text messages per month, like a girl named Echo:

Yes, Echo has unlimited texting, but among her friends this behavior isn’t unusual and it says a lot about how media habits — good and bad — are changing in our culture.

If a typical month has 30 days that’s 720 hours, a third of which we’ll guess Echo spends asleep, giving her 480 hours of texting time per month. Fourteen thousand texts (the number was actually higher, but we’ll round it down for simplicity) divided into 480 hours is about 29 texts per hour or about one every two minutes. Since texting is usually a binary activity (the texter sends a text for every text they receive) we can guess that Echo writes about 7,000 text messages per month, with writing probably taking twice as much time as reading. Half an hour at the mall with a stopwatch told me the average teenage SMS message takes about 20 seconds to type (if you can call it typing) suggesting that Echo is spending about a quarter of her waking time on texting.

According to both Neilsen and the Pew Internet Life Project, Echo is an outlier, a user of texting at prodigious levels beyond her peers. A Neilsen study from the second quarter of 2008, for example, says that mobile phone users age 13-17 send or receive an average of 1742 texts per month, which would only require 7.25 hours by my reckoning. So Echo is an outlier, but on the other hand her data is fresher and texting IS rising at a rapid pace.

So who cares? Advertisers care. Kids who are texting aren’t attending to TV ads while they are doing it, nor are they reading magazines or newspapers (what are those?). So advertising is coming quickly to SMS.

TV executives care. Remember those words “standard text messaging rates apply” at the end of every American Idol episode? Well for reality television, texting means revenue. Idol averages 30 million voters per week of which a quarter are using SMS that reportedly yields a nickel per vote to the TV producers. Seven and a half million messages per week and 12 weeks of voting yields another $4.5 million per season for Simon and the gang.

Educators care because texting competes with other activities like paying attention at school and doing homework. Keeping kids from texting in school is almost impossible.

To really understand the Echo phenomenon, though, you have to appreciate that she’s a very pretty girl living in a semi-rural area where kids like to complain that there isn’t anything to do. So they gossip. If teens twittered, which studies show they don’t, Echo would be a twitterer because her peers are interested in her life. And that’s what really makes her an outlier, because Echo is an opinion leader and a trend-setter and SMS — generally a one-to-one technology — isn’t well-suited for that. So the poor girl has to work really hard to keep all her friends informed, using an antiquated interpersonal communication technology as an ad hoc social network.

What’s most interesting to me about this phenomenon is the part about teens not twittering. All the studies show that’s true but don’t seem to look for causality. They miss the simple point that twittering is public behavior (one-way at that!) and texting is private and bi-directional. An adult or a teen celebrity might twitter but most regular kids see what they are communicating as too private to share with anyone other than the person for whom it is intended, much less any old creep who chooses to subscribe. And divas like Echo, who might happily embrace a more public channel, are trapped by the tools of their audience.

Girls age 13-17 are interested in relationships (who likes who) and boys age 13-17, who would normally be interested more in things, also happen to be generally obsessed with girls age 13-17, effectively dragging boys into the sway of SMS, too, sustaining an industry.

There’s clearly a new product opportunity in here, somewhere.

Fixing the Health Care System

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Arnold Kling does not believe that fixing the health care system is a trivial task:

I love it when people who have never managed anything more than a government grant are convinced they can manage one sixth of the economy.

He’s pointing out the hubris of Melinda Beeuwkes Buntin and David Cutler in writing The Two Trillion Dollar Solution for the Center for American Progress.

Interactive Wine Bar

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Jared Schiffman and Phillip Tiongson, co-founders of Potion, have developed an interactive wine bar that transforms floors, walls, and furniture into communal screens that are controlled by gestures.

The Real Genius Of The Kindle

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Tom Weber argues that the real genius of the Kindle is what it doesn’t do:

When my Kindle arrived from Amazon earlier this year, it felt at first like a severely crippled computer. After all, it has a display screen, a keyboard — even a wireless connection and a web browser of sorts. But every time I tried to indulge my digital-media-trained attention span, pausing in the middle of a book or article to check baseball scores or skim a few blogs, the experience was too cumbersome to enjoy.

Over a few weeks, I rediscovered my ability to simply read the book or article I had punched up in the first place. (Just like — gasp! — old-fashioned printed matter.) It’s particularly enjoyable when reading a newspaper or magazine — enough so that I’ve been routinely purchasing some of these publications when I could have grabbed my laptop and read them for free on the web. In effect, I’m paying for the lack of distraction.

Signaling and Solidarity

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Will Wilkinson notes that “folks on Twitter have been turning their avatars (little profile photos) green to show solidarity with the protesters in Iran” — but why do this?

How does it help? I want the Iranian people to live in freedom, just as I want all people to live in freedom. But the point of the gesture eludes me, unless the point of the gesture is to be seen making the gesture by others who will credit you for it. Like so many political gestures, it is vanity dressed up as elevated moral consciousness. It doesn’t help.

Wilkinson understands the impulse to express solidarity with Iranians who seek freedom, but he doesn’t trust it:

Why not?

Because I realize that I have no idea what I’m talking about. I don’t understand Iranian politics very deeply. I will now proceed to make some mistakes that prove this. For example, I did not know until this episode that Mousavi was Prime Minister of Iran for many years under Khomeni, which pretty much guarantees he’s no angel. I did not understand anything about the internal divisions within the Council of Guardians and the Assembly of Experts. Indeed, I still don’t completely grasp how these various bodies are related to each other. What I gather is that that Khameni and Ahmadinejad are aligned against former Prime Minister Mousavi and former President Rafsanjani (who is now the head of the Assemby of Experts, the body that chooses the Supreme Leader. Thank you Wikipedia). I don’t really grasp whether Mousavi and Rafsanjani are in it together, or are in a “the enemy of my enemy is a friend of mine” sort of thing, or what. As far as I can tell, the ruling axis got worried A’jad might lose the election, botched the vote-rigging, but validated the result anyway. I don’t know who would have won had the vote been counted (I think this remains quite unclear), but in any case, it seems clear enough that Ahmadinejad is staying in power despite a pretty transparent flouting of the rules of an already deeply anti-democratic constitution. This provided a great opportunity for the anti-Khameni/Ahmadinejad faction to encourage a popular uprising, which I am sure is fueled by real discontent with the current regime. And much of this discontent I am sure is surely rooted in an authentic desire for a more liberal and democratic Iran.

Is that what we get if the Mousavi-Rafsanjani axis comes to power? A more liberal and democratic Iran? I honestly don’t know, and I don’t think many people do. I do know that these guys are deeply embedded in the larger status quo power structure, have had power before, and their records don’t look so good. They may well represent improvement, but I don’t honestly know that. As far as I know, the outpouring of desire for change that we see so clearly on YouTube is being exploited by one faction of the Iranian ruling class to depose another. I’d like to see the whole theocratic structure of Iran fall. I’d like to see the whole country radically liberalize, but I think that’s unlikely, largely because I doubt very much that that’s what most Iranians want. I want Iran to be free, and I want Iranians to want to be free. And I’m quite willing to cheer for freedom. Go freedom! But given my ignorance of exactly what and who I’d really be cheering on should I alter my Twitter avatar to reflect the campaign color of the former PM of the Islamic Republic of Iran, I think the intellectually and morally responsible course of action is to watch with colorless hope.

For a left-libertarian, he sounds an awful lot like a Burkean conservative.

Patri Friedman adds that there are short-term and long-term problems with naive activism:

In the short-term, their act may lead them to feel they have “done their duty”, and to not do things that are more effective. But more importantly, this sort of response just reinforces the behavior of naively channeling one’s desire to make the world better into superficial and ineffective strategies. And that is a powerful enemy of achieving real change through strategies that focus on results, not just easy ways to feel good.

Acer’s Everywhere in the PC World

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Acer’s everywhere in the PC world, with 11.6 percent of the market to Dell’s 13.6 percent:

For close to 15 years, Acer suffered from a split personality. One part of the company built computers for other PC sellers that would then put their labels on the machines. Another part of Acer sold very similar computers under the company’s own brand.

The arrangement created obvious conflicts, Acer executives say, with the group responsible for the Acer-branded products competing against the customers of the manufacturing arm.

In 2000, Acer began cleaving off its manufacturing division. A year later it formed an independent company called Wistron to handle these operations. A smaller, nimbler Acer emerged, outfitted with a new logo and lofty, global aspirations.

With a clean slate, Acer made what looked like counterintuitive decisions. It decided to focus on laptops for consumers, and to sell them through partners and retailers, avoiding any kind of direct sales.

This approach placed Acer on a distinctly opposite path from Dell, which was the PC industry’s major success story in 2000. Dell had surged past rivals like Compaq, I.B.M. and H.P. through an ultra-lean direct sales model that hinged to a large degree on shipping desktop computers to big businesses.

In the subsequent years, however, computer retailing shifted in favor of Acer. Consumers now buy more computers than businesses do, and these buyers tend to prefer laptops to desktops. The advantages that Dell once gained by mixing and matching components for customers at its factories have faded as consumers have flocked to stores to buy preconfigured computers.

“When we split, we thought that if the PC is going to become more of a commodity, consumers will end up as the largest part of the business,” says Mr. Lanci, who became chief executive last year. “Going direct didn’t look like the right model for addressing that. After eight or nine years, it looks like we made a very good decision.”
Last year, Acer relied on about 6,000 employees to hit $16.6 billion in revenue and a profit of $358 million. While the company probably produces more revenue per employee than its rivals, it does so on the back of less profitable products. Its operating margin of 2 percent is about half that of H.P. and Dell, placing it in a profit category below even some retailers, said A. M. Sacconaghi, a securities analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Company.
Over the last two years, it has acquired brands like eMachines, Gateway and Packard Bell. It pitches eMachines as its most affordable brand, while Acer-branded products cater to the mainstream. The Gateway moniker covers more expensive, flashier computers in the United States, while the Packard Bell brand serves the same purpose in Europe.

Angel Shrugged

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Amy Wallace interviewed “the world’s favorite angel” before her death — about Ayn Rand:

How did you first learn of Ayn Rand’s interest in you? I gather she got in touch in the late ’70s, when Charlie’s Angels was one of the biggest hit shows ever to appear on TV?

Ayn contacted me with a personal letter (and a copy of Atlas Shrugged) through my agents. Even though we had never met (and never did), she seemed to think we must have a lot in common since we were both born on the same day: February 2nd.

Why did Rand say she was so determined to see you in the role of Dagny Taggart, the female heroine in Atlas Shrugged?

I don’t remember if Ayn’s letter specifically mentioned Charlie’s Angels, but I do remember it saying that she was a fan of my work. A few months later, when we finally spoke on the phone (actually she did most of the speaking and I did most of the listening), she said she never missed an episode of the show. I remember being surprised and flattered by that. I mean, here was this literary genius praising Angels. After all, the show was never popular with critics who dismissed it as “Jiggle TV.” But Ayn saw something that the critics didn’t, something that I didn’t see either (at least not until many years later): She described the show as a “triumph of concept and casting.” Ayn said that while Angels was uniquely American, it was also the exception to American television in that it was the only show to capture true “romanticism” — it intentionally depicted the world not as it was, but as it should be. Aaron Spelling was probably the only other person to see Angels that way, although he referred to it as “comfort television.”

Did Ayn have any favorite episodes of the show?

I have to admit that I don’t think Ayn was a big fan of the stories themselves because she kept saying that someday somebody would offer me a script (and a role) that would give me the chance to “triumph as an actress.” Ayn wanted that script to be Atlas Shrugged and that role to be her heroine, Dagny Taggart. But because of the challenges in adapting and producing the novel for television, several years went by and the script and role that Ayn hoped I would someday be offered turned out to be The Burning Bed and the role of Francine Hughes instead. And so, in an unexpected way, Ayn’s hope or expectation for me did come true. Looking back, she seemed to see something in me that I had not yet seen in myself.

Had you read Atlas Shrugged or any of her other famous books? What was your familiarity with the Rand world view?

At the time that Ayn contacted me about Atlas Shrugged, my only real familiarity with her work was the movie version of her previous novel, The Fountainhead, with Gary Cooper. I remember liking the movie because it was unique in that the characters seemed to be the embodiments of ideas as opposed to real flesh and blood people with interests and lives. Now that I think about it, I think that’s why Ayn was drawn to Charlie’s Angels. Because the characters that Kate, Jaclyn and I played weren’t really characters (the audience never saw us outside of work) as much as personifications of the idea that three sexy women could do all the things that Kojak and Columbo did. Our characters existed only to serve the idea of the show (even “Charlie” was just a faceless voice on a speaker phone).

But I also responded to The Fountainhead because, as an artist (a painter and sculptress) myself, I related to the architect’s resistance to make his work like everyone else’s — which was, of course, what Ayn’s own art was all about. And that resistance to conformity is probably one of the reasons that she was so determined to see me play Dagny: At the time I would have been the completely unexpected choice.

It sounds as if you and Rand got along pretty well.

Later, when I read Atlas Shrugged, I was reminded of my first and only conversation with Ayn and how some of the characters in her novel(s) take an immediate liking to each other, almost as if they had always known each other — at least in spirit. And this was the feeling I got from Ayn herself, from the way she spoke to me. I’ll always think of “Dagny Taggart” as the best role I was supposed to play but never did…

The Language of Clear Thinking

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

Alfred Korzybski famously said that the map is not the territory. This is the key point of his general semantics: we should be conscious of the abstractions we use.

If we try to reason from the “essence” of something, in true Aristotelian style, we might abstract away meaningful complexity. If we apply binary logic, we may label things true or false when they are largely true or largely false, or likely true or likely false. Korzybski thus recommended what he called null-A, or non-Aristotelian logic.

The language we use also introduces many questionable abstractions, and Korzybski believed that ambiguous language lent itself to unclear thinking. Most infamously, he railed against unclear use of the verb to be, which led a former student of his to suggest a modified form of English, E-Prime, which eliminated to be entirely:

To exist or not to exist,
I ask this question.
— modified from Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Proponents of E-Prime believed that it would do more than clarify communication; they believed it would clarify thought. This is an example of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which suggests that language influences thought, and that some languages might lead to clearer thinking. That was the rationale behind Loglan, the logical language, with its grammar based on predicate logic.

These ideas soon found their way into Golden Age science fiction. A.E. von Vogt had his protagonists overcome their totalitarian foes through clever use of intuitive, inductive logic in The World of Null-A. (Peter Chung’s animated Æon Flux shares many motifs with The World of Null-A.)

Robert Heinlein also embraced many elements of general semantics, especially the notion of languages designed to improve thinking. In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, the self-aware computer receives its precise instructions in Loglan — which makes Loglan sound like a variant of Prolog. Heinlein took the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis much further in his short story, Gulf, which posits a new language used by a race of supermen. The language, Speedtalk, uses every phoneme (sound) used in any human language, not the small subset that belongs to any one language, and maps every word in Basic English to its own phoneme.

Basic English also shows up in H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come as the lingua franca of the future. Similarly, it inspired the Newspeak of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. (It doesn’t take much to turn Wells’ utopian ideas upside-down.)

Nyrath has much more to say about future languages, but I thought I’d end with this amusing bit of geekery:

Raphaël Poss (AKA “Kena”) took the obvious step and adapted the Tengwar alphabet to the Lojban set of phonemes. As Mr. Poss puts it: “…it is far more natural to write Lojban with a logical writing system…. the tengwar system inherently contains some main Lojban morphology rules, making Lojban easier to learn when it is written with tengwar.”

A Master of the Consultative Sale

Friday, June 26th, 2009

Twenty-eight years ago, Steve Blank was a bright, young, eager product marketing manager called out to the field to support sales by explaining the technical details of products to potential customers. He was not a master of the consultative sale:

Convergent’s business was selling desktop computers (with our own operating system and office applications) to other computer manufacturers — most of them long gone: Burroughs, Prime, Monroe Data Systems, ADP, Mohawk, Gould, NCR, 4-Phase, AT&T. These companies would take our computers and put their name on them and resell them to their customers.

Business customers were starting to ask for “office automation solutions” — word processing, spreadsheets, graphing software on a desktop. This was just before the IBM PC hit the desktop so there were no “standard” operating systems or applications for desktop platforms. Computer hardware companies were faced with their customers asking for low-cost (relatively) desktop computers they had no experience in building. Their engineering teams didn’t have the expertise using off-the-shelf microprocessors (back then “real” computer companies designed their own instruction sets and operating systems.) They couldn’t keep up with the fast product development times that were enabled by using standard microprocessors. So their management teams were insisting that they OEM (buy from someone else) these products. Convergent Technologies was one of those OEM suppliers.

Their engineers hated us.

I was traveling with the regional sales manager who had called on these companies, gotten them interested and now needed someone from the factory to provide technical details and answer questions about how the product could be configured and customized.

As the eager young marketer on my first sales call, as soon as we shook hands I was in front of the room pitching our product and technical features. I knew everything about our operating system, hardware and applications – and I was going to prove it. I talked all about how great the new products were and went into excruciating detail on our hardware and operating system and explained why no one other than our company could build something so brilliantly designed. (This being presented to another company’s proud engineering team who was being forced to buy product from us because they couldn’t build their own in time.) After I sat down I was convinced the only logical conclusion was for the customer to tell us how many they wanted to buy.

The result wasn’t what I expected. The customers didn’t act particularly excited about the product and how brilliantly I presented it. I do believe some actually rolled their eyes. They looked at their watches, gave our sales guy a quizzical look and left.

After the meeting our sale rep took me aside and asked if “perhaps I wouldn’t mind watching him on the next call.“

The next day, as I drove to our next meeting the sales guy was intently reading the sports section of the newspaper and as I glanced over he seemed to be writing down the scores. I wondered if he had a bookie. When we got to the meeting he reminded me to be quiet and follow his lead.

We shook hands with the customers, but instead of launching into a product pitch (or better, letting me launch into the pitch) he started asking how their families were. He even remembered the names of their wives and kids and some details about schools or events. (I couldn’t believe it, here we were wasting precious time and the dumb sales guy is talking about other stuff.)

Just as I thought we were going to talk about the product, he then mentioned the previous nights football game. (Damn, another five minutes down the tube as the whole room chimed in with an opinion as we talked about something else unimportant.)

Then instead of talking about our products he segued the conversation into their products. He complemented their elegantly designed minicomputers and made some astute comment about their architecture (now I’m rolling my eyes, their computers were dinosaurs) and asked who were the brilliant designers. I was surprised to see that they were in the room. And soon the conversation were about architectural tradeoffs and then how customers didn’t appreciate the elegant designs and how the world was going to hell in a handbasket because of these commodity microprocessors. And our sales guy was agreeing and commiserating. (And I’m thinking why is he doing all this, just tell these idiots that the world has passed them by and they need to buy our stuff and lets get an order.)

The engineers spoke about all the pressure they were getting from management to build desktop personal computers rather than their traditional minicomputers. And that their management wanted these new systems on a schedule that was impossible to meet. Then our sales guy says something that makes me stop breathing for a while. “I bet if your management team would give you guys the resources you guys could build desktop computers better than anyone, even better than us.” There’s a unanimous agreement around the table about how great they were and how bad management was.

The Consultative Sale

Our sales guy then quietly asked if there was any way we could help them. (Help them?!! We’re here to sell them our stuff, why can’t we just present what we got and they’ll buy it.) The VP of Engineering says, “well we don’t have the resources or time, and as long as you know we could build better computers then you guys, why don’t you tell us the details about your computers.”

I had just watched a master of the consultative sale.

The molecular connection between dietary restriction and increased lifespan

Friday, June 26th, 2009

A diet on the brink of starvation extends lifespan in mice and many other species, but now researchers have discovered that two enzymes play a key role in longevity:

But first author Andrea C. Carrano, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in American Cancer Society Professor Tony Hunter’s laboratory, hadn’t set out to unravel the molecular connection between dietary restriction and increased lifespan when she started to investigate the role of the mammalian enzyme WWP-1. “I only knew that WWP-1 was a ubiquitin ligase and that mammalian cells contain three copies, which would make it difficult to study its function.”

Ubiquitin ligases work in tandem with so called ubiquitin-conjugating enzymes to attach a chain of ubiquitin molecules to other proteins. This process, called ubiquitination, flags protein substrates for destruction but can also serve as a regulatory signal.

Since the laboratory roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans only contains one copy, Carrano teamed up with Salk researcher Dillin, who studies aging and longevity in C. elegans. Initial experiments revealed that worms without the WWP-1 gene seemed normal but were more susceptible to various forms of stress. “This finding was the first hint that WWP-1 might play a role in the aging process since mutations that affect stress very often correlate with longevity,” she says.

Prompted by the findings, Carrano’s next set of experiments focused on WWP-1′s potential role in the regulation of lifespan. When she genetically engineered worms to overexpress WWP-1, well-fed worms lived on average 20 percent longer. Deleting PHA-4, which was discovered in Dillin’s lab and so far is the only gene known to be essential for lifespan extension in response to diet restriction, abolished the life-extending effects of additional WWP-1 placing the ubiquitin ligase as a central rung on the same genetic ladder as PHA-4. Without WWP-1, cutting down on calories no longer staved off death.

When a study by others found that UBC-18 interacts with WWP-1, Carrano wondered whether it could play a role in diet-restriction-induced longevity as well. She first confirmed that the UBC-18 functions as an ubiquitin-conjugating enzyme and gives WWP-1 a hand. She then tested whether it played a role in lifespan regulation. “Overexpression of UBC-18 was not enough to extend the lifespan of worms but depleting it negated the effects of caloric restriction,” says Carrano, who is busy looking for potential substrates of the UBC-18-WWP-1 ubiquitination complex.

“The WWP-1 pathway is highly conserved between worms and mammals and could play a role in the human aging process,” says senior author Tony Hunter, Ph.D., a professor in the Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory. “We didn’t expect that this protein would be involved in the regulation of lifespan but it is very exciting when experiments lead you in a surprising direction.”