Archives For business

blue planet

For just a moment, let’s pretend that we solve the controversial legal issues that surround how and if we’ll mine asteroids in the near future, and have managed to expand our way into space faring cyborgs with warp drives capable of shuttling us from solar system to solar system in an acceptable amount of time. Over thousand of years, we’d have visited countless planets in our post-scarcity futuristic pseudo-utopia, and those with the means might ask themselves what if it would be a good investment to buy an entire world. You know, much the same way people buy expensive houses and private islands today. How much would something like that run a tycoon in the far future? Obviously it would have to be some insane amount of galactic credits. Several asteroids we’d like to main are worth tens of trillions of dollars in today’s cash. Typical, smallish, rocky planets like ours are ten orders of magnitude larger or so, and with fewer easy to access resources due to their molten innards, they should cost tens of septillions of dollars, right?

Seems a little simplistic, don’t you think? Remember that when you’re out shopping for an alien planet, you’re already living in a post-scarcity world with 3D printers ready to create your cities, infrastructures, and anything else you need at a moment’s notice. And settling on other worlds would mean that you have to be extremely self-sufficient, needing nothing more than access to interstellar communication networks and able to easily live off the land with your portable power supplies which allowed you to cross the vast distances between solar systems. That means not that much mining is going to get done on your new world, and the lack of demand means lower prices. What good is a million tons of gold if no one wants it or needs it? And if no one needs it, no one should be charging you for it, especially when you’re just going to extract the little bit of resources you need as you need them on your own. With resource values now out of the price, what exactly would influence how much a planet is worth? What the previous owners left?

Well, it may just come down to the same three most important things in real estate prices back on our boring little home world: location, location, and location. How close is the planet you will buy to hubs of civilization? Can you invite people on vacations, or safaris in alien jungles, or get scientists to excavate the ruins of a long gone extraterrestrial civilization? Does your new world offer some sort of gateway to other star systems, the last place to refuel and patch up a ship in the next few months or years of travel? Are there pretty views of the Milky Way in the night sky, and magnificent oceans you can explore? Those are likely to be things by which a species that can travel to other worlds will judge how much a planet is worth, rather than the value of what’s there to be mined or otherwise extracted. Still, considering how many people there will be when we’re spread across the stars and how many of them will be doing something akin to a normal job today since all the machinery they will depend on won’t maintain itself, it’s likely that planets will be a super-luxury item for the future top 0.1% who own the rights and blueprints to all of the technology making space exploration on an interstellar scale possible as an investment…

heisenberg artisans ad

Almost 200 years ago, British economist William Forster Lloyd was writing about the overuse of common goods and coined the term tragedy of the commons. When people act solely in a very self-interested way with no regard for others, certain scenarios end up making the public worse off and scrambling to figure out why a little selfishness or greed got them in such trouble. Over this past week, one such scenario was perfectly illustrated by the hedge fund manager with an exceedingly colorful history of caring about only what’s best for him at an exact moment, and at the expense of anyone in the way of him making another dollar, as he tried to profiteer from an obscure generic drug with a predatory rate hike. And while Shkreli’s attitude and a social media presence that exudes the vibe of a stereotypical entitled bro who thinks he’s beyond all criticism because he has money made him a poster boy for small pharma profiteering, he is far from the only one doing it. In fact, mini-monopolies are hiking up the price of many rare drugs.

From a cold, logical, game theory standpoint, what these executives are doing makes sense. If you own a monopoly on something necessary, you should try and find the maximum price it will garner because your job is to maximize profits and company valuations. Should the market get upset and push back, you lower the price, as Shkreli was forced to do. Eventually, you’ll find the price point at which you’re making more money while your customers are content. It’s really the same approach as in ultimatum games studied by psychologists. Your best bet is to accept any amount greater than zero when offered to split a fixed sum of cash because no matter how the money is split, you still left the experiment with more than you started. It’s the cornerstone of all game theory variants employed to explain and drive stock and commodities markets. The idea that something should be fair is irrelevant, the only things that matter are numbers, supply, and demand. Small pharma execs were using this logic when deciding on their price hikes, seeing a price increase as simply an opening salvo in a negotiations process with the market.

But humans don’t work that way. Even our closest evolutionary cousins will rebel when they find themselves unfairly treated and reject overly generous rewards not to seem too greedy. We act no differently is similar experiments adapted for our minds, and close to three in four of us don’t only reject unfair deals, but will use the rules of the experiment to make sure those who tried to slight us won’t get anything either. In other words, game theory is for machines, not us. We will much rather undermine those unfair to us than settle for whatever crumbs they leave us, even though in theory, those crumbs are more than we had. From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s all perfectly logical. Just like apes, we’re social creatures and so we evolved knowing how to keep our tribes together and in order. Even newborns and little children seem to be wired to be both cooperative and friendly, though of course, this varies from child to child. We don’t like extreme inequality or tolerate being treated unfairly, and by rebelling against those who we feel are just pilfering our resources and mistreating us we keep some sense of societal balance. Unlike that tired, old creationist talking point, for us, evolution favored an innate desire to get along.

When pundits on financial news channels grouse that people are unfairly attacking businesses just trying to make a profit in a capitalistic system, they profoundly misunderstand that it’s not a matter of whether the business is making a lot of money or not, it’s how the business does it. If the main source of income is the best and most popular smartphone ever made, we won’t care how much it makes and what its profit margin is because it’s a product that’s needed, improves our lives, and can be foregone if it’s too expensive. If someone makes millions with a pet sitting company, we also won’t care because it’s a service that helps people and their companions in times of need. But if your main source of profit is off the backs of the sick and the poor, then no argument is good enough to defend your practice. We don’t care about your market share and your need to make a return on an investment. You are gouging a common resource and as far as millions of years of evolution tell our brains, you are an awful person who must be somehow punished. It’s a healthy biological imperative for us, and in fact, those who lack it are diagnosed with a pathology called sociopathy whose only natural social order results in kleptocracies.

Really then, it’s little wonder that the world’s failed states would also have the highest inequality and the most violence. Look who gets to be in charge in those places. In Africa, that’s dictators who live in wealth and luxury, protected by armed guards paid for by aid money they steal and proceeds from illegal trade. In Central Asia, it’s warlords who may or may not wear uniforms of their nations’ armed forces along with an official rank, and who are often famous for corruption, keeping sex slaves, and systematically embezzling their subordinates’ already meager pay. It’s what happens when no one even tries to mitigate the tragedy of the commons and a wealthy or violent enough sociopath gets his way enough times. Not letting someone have a monopoly on life saving drugs, or make billions from gouging the sick and the elderly is not “socialism,” or the complaints of “moochers,” but our brains rebelling at the unfairness they see and trying to bring the inequalities down to something more fair. The markets assume we’re horrible people with a very flexible moral compass, an to an extent, we certainly can be. But we also do have a built-in sense of fairness, and thankfully, we use it against those whose greed shut down theirs.


When you’re in business for yourself, or are a part owner of a venture, nothing sounds sweeter than being told that your business is profitable. What you don’t want to hear is that your artificial manipulation of supply for short term gain is actually profiteering, because people who relied on your product get angry. And if you’re a small pharmaceutical company, you wouldn’t like it when those people get angry. This is currently the case with Turin Pharmaceuticals, which owns what was once an accessible treatment for a dangerous parasitic infection in developing nations. Not content with selling it for a mere $13.50 per pill, its new owner, a hedge fund manager who has been investigated for campaigning the FDA to stymie companies whose stocks he was shorting, and fired from another drug maker for borderline embezzlement, jacked the price up by 5,500% to an absurd $750 per pill. Bizarrely though, reports from the field say that he’s not getting that kind of money and is delivering a lot of doses at no charge and at close to original prices.

But he’s not the only one that’s trying to profiteer from relatively rarely used drugs. Other small pharma companies like Rodelis, Valeant, and CorePharma have drastically increased prices for their old, but in demand medications. It’s become an entirely new business model. Instead of a new treatment superior to older drugs, their companies are being bought, prices for medication long paid off and covered by insurance plans are being doubled, tripled, and more, and when a reporter, customer, or a government agency asks why the sudden rate hike, they’re told it’s for funding R&D without anything in the pipeline to show as benefiting form the new cash. Yes, the process of making a new drug is very complex and expensive, which is why many companies in need of a steady pipeline of them to survive will do all sorts of unethical and questionable things to get them approved and sold; testing against placebos rather than a current standard, paying for fake journal articles, and even promoting off label uses for them, even though it’s illegal. But at least for all their glaring flaws in generating sales, these companies do have new drugs.

We should encourage competition among businesses to develop new ideas in medical care, it’s better for us as both customers and patients when we have choices and companies have really strong incentives to innovate. But the key word here is innovation, and just jacking up the prices of old drugs to bring in more cash is not innovating in any other way than sarcastically when we try to inject a little gallows humor into the conversation. And this isn’t even a good strategy. The PR is awful and the companies either look like Dickensian villains, or cave and ship the drugs to where they’re needed free of charge or for the typical rate. Competitors can easily undercut the newly overpriced drugs with something generic or better. Doctors balk and either negotiate new discounts to knock the price back down to what it was, or refuse to buy and go to competitors to make sure the treatment is covered. On top of that, with no new drugs and existing ones sold at the same price or given away to the needy, investors don’t get their money’s worth anyway. It’s just another example of how trying to hold medicine hostage in an advanced economy with very string regulations is a game one can’t win. And for their own good, really shouldn’t want to…


Just like the most common advice to men and women is not to sleep with crazy, when Chipotle decided to pander to the anti-GMO crowd, the left’s version of ardent climate change denialists who don’t even want to let scientists conduct safety studies on modified crops, much less admit that they’re safe, someone should’ve told the company not to pander to anti-GMO hysterics. It was clearly a move to keep cash flowing from a younger, lefty demographic, and while the junk science in press releases and store signs proclaimed the chain GMO-free, the reality was that much of the feed used to raise the animals which would be used to make supposedly pure and natural tacos and burritos, was actually heavily genetically modified. Thanks to that technicality, there is now a high profile lawsuit accusing Chipotle of false advertising. While their food is not genetically modified, just as claimed, the ingredients that once used to move and make noises ate feed that was, therefore, the chain is still tainted and consumers who were told otherwise in the chains G-M-Over It ads were misled and falsely trusted the company with their health.

Much in the same way devout kosher Jews wouldn’t want to use a dairy spoon to eat beef stew, the people slavishly devoted to track all the world’s ills to GMOs and Monsanto, are not going to be happy that something modified in a lab may have come in contact with what’s on their plates and the chain is going to have to double down on its claims to keep their new customers. But to fight off the suit, they’re actually using real science, stating that eating something modified does not mean your genes will be modified in turn, and any claim otherwise is nonsense. And that’s a true statement. But then why exactly should GMOs be off the menu? What exact danger does a meal genetically modified pose to diners who won’t be absorbing its DNA, and which had to run through a gamut of tests to rule out any of the several million proteins identified as allergens or possible toxins? Oh, right, the danger of the scientifically ignorant told by businesses hawking a lot of overpriced “natural” and “organic” stuff running out the door in fear of GMO cooties.

Don’t feel bad for Chipotle because it’s getting its proper comeuppance for marketing to a vocal and dogmatic ideology after smelling easy money. Nothing a national chain that’s trying to feed millions of people a day does will ever be pure enough for paranoid zealots and to keep up this facade will only lose them time and money over the long term. They can expect more nuisance suits like this, high profile coverage of these suits, and many more laughing pundits like me who won’t hesitate to point out that they brought it on themselves. Gordon Gecko was right to a very certain extent when he proclaimed that greed is good in the world of business. But there’s a big and important corollary to that. Clever, calculated greed which seeks out new markets where to sell needed, wanted, and useful products is terrific. Knee-jerk, follow-the-crowd money grabs in a demographic better known for histrionics, hyperbole, and over-sized wallets is usually bond to backfire the second you fail to be as fanatical and dogmatic as them, which is not a matter of if, but when. You’ll get boycotted, and your greedy ways will yield the media a lot of mileage…

happy alarm

In a quote frequently attributed to John Lennon a boy was asked what he wanted to be wanted to be when he grew up and he replied that he wanted to be happy. He was then told that he did not understand the question, to which he retorted that the person asking him didn’t understand life. And he’s right, we all want to be happy. That’s especially true at work, where most of us will spend nearly a third of our waking hours and we’ll deal with countless stresses big and small on a daily basis, seemingly for nothing more than a paycheck. Work should be interesting, give us some sense of worth and purpose, but 70% of all workers are apathetic about, or outright hate their jobs, which clearly means whatever your bosses are doing to make you happy simply isn’t working. Though I’m sort of making a big assumption that your bosses are even trying to make you happy, much less care that you exist, or that they need to worry about whether you like the job they have you doing. And that, objectively, is perhaps the most worrisome part of it all…

You see, social scientists and doctors have long figured out what makes you happy, why it is in the interest of every company’s bottom line to keep employees happy, and how your perpetual case of the Mondays could be eliminated, or at least severely reduced. Most American workers, as we can see from the statistics, are dealing with the stress of being at a job they dislike, which increases their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that hardens arteries and increases the odds of having a heart attack. If they’re not there yet, the prolonged stress also causes a host of very unpleasant issues like irregular sleep, disordered eating, anxiety, and depression. In fact, close to a quarter of the American workforce is depressed, which is estimated to cost over $23 billion per year in lost productivity. We also know exactly why people hate their jobs, and unlike many business owners think, it has nothing to do with employees being greedy and lazy, it’s usually a terrible management policy, and feeling as if they’re utterly disposable and irrelevant.

People who are unemployed for a year or more are almost as likely to be depressed as working stiffs and their odds of being diagnosed with depression go up by nearly 2% for every time they double their time out of work. So while a bad job can make people miserable, not having one is every bit as bad if not worse. And these are just the numbers for one year of unemployment, so what lies beyond that could be far scarier since every trend shows mental health suffers without work or purpose, and physical health quickly deteriorates as well. This leaves us stuck in an odd dilemma. We know that people need to, and want to work, and we know full well that when they hate their jobs, their performance lags, as does their health, forming a vicious cycle of bad work and disengagement contributing to poor health, worse work, and more disaffection on the job. It seems obvious that something should be done to address this, for the last 15 years, there has been no change in the stats. Why? The short answer? Terrible management.

One of this blog’s earliest posts explored experiments in which scientists confirmed that often, a group chooses a leader based on little more than bravado, overlooking the results. In follow-up experiments, we even saw mathematical evidence that companies would be better off randomly assigning their managers instead of promoting them the way they do now. Managers also tend to think they’re a lot better than they actually are, while in reality, half the workforce put in a two week notice specifically because of their bosses, and despite often giving themselves very high praise, managers are almost as disengaged as their employees, with 65% of them simply going through the motions of another day. Go back to the most frequent reasons why people are not happy at work. Half of them are about being micromanaged, left in the dark, and treated like a disposable widget rather than a person. They’re primed to see themselves are less valuable, if not useless, and we know that negative priming leads to terrible performance. Tell people they should just be lucky you don’t fire them, and you’ve effectively set them up for failure.

Think about your own worst bosses. They never hesitated to tell you that you were wrong, or to look down on you, or watch over your shoulder because they had no trust in you and turned any inevitable slip-up or small error, even if you immediately caught and corrected it, into some new justification for watching you like a hawk, right? Or if not, did they simply never talk to you about anything, merely dropped off more work and expected you to be done silently? Combine those daily putdowns with a constant threat of being outsourced simply to save a dollar, being shoved to an open office where you have no personal space or privacy and have constant distractions, on top of a lack of any career progression path in sight, and tell me that’s a job even those who live to work would find engaging. As many organizations grow, managers disassociate from the people they are managing, seeing them as little more than numbers on a spreadsheet because that’s what they are in their daily list of things to do. This breeds disengagement, which breeds frustration, and which causes talented employees to run away for greener pastures.

Keeping one’s employees happy should not be one of those HBR think pieces that makes your executive team “ooh” and “ahh” in a meeting where you run through PowerPoint slides showing how much money you’re losing to turnover, depression, and bad management. It should be the top priority of middle managers and supervisors because happy employees work harder, show loyalty and dedication, and help recruit more good talent. Yes, spending on benefits like catered lunches, or gym memberships, or better healthcare, or easy access to daycare, or flexible time off policies sounds exorbitant, I know, and many businesses can’t afford all of that. But showing employees that you care, that you listen to them, and treating them with respect pays off as the engaged employees become more productive and dedicated. In a knowledge economy there’s no excuse for the employee-employer relationship be much like one between a master and the indentured servant. It should be a business partnership with benefits for both parties extending well beyond “here’s your paycheck, now get to work.” The science says so, and besides, when you’re a manager, isn’t keeping employees motivated and productive your top priority?

quantified self

With the explosion in fitness trackers and mobile apps that want to help manage everything from weight loss to pregnancy, there’s already a small panic brewing as technology critics worry that insurance companies will require you to wear devices that track your health, playing around with your premiums based on how well or how badly you take care of yourself. As the current leader of the reverse Singularitarians, Evgeny Morozov, argues, the new idea of the quantified self is a minefield being created with little thought about the consequences. Certainly there is a potential for abuse of very personal health metrics and Morozov is at his best when he explains how naive techno-utopians don’t understand how they come off, and how the reality of how their tools have been used in the wild differs drastically from their vision, so his fear is not completely unfounded or downright reflexive, like some of his latest pieces have been. But in the case of the quantified self idea being applied to our healthcare, the benefits are more likely to outweigh the risks.

One of the reasons why healthcare in the United States is so incredibly expensive is the lack of focus on preventitive medicine. Health problems are allowed to fester until they become simply too bothersome to ignore, a battery of expensive tests is ordered, and usually expensive acute treatments are administered. Had they been caught in time, the treatments would not have to be so intensive, and if there was ample, trustworthy biometric information available to the attending doctors, there wouldn’t need to be as much testing to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. As many doctors grumble about oceans of paperwork, logistics of testing, and the inability to really talk to patients in the standard 15 minute visit, why not use devices that would help with the paperwork and do a great deal of preliminary research for them before they ever see the patient? And yes, the devices would have to be able to gather data by themselves because we often tell little white lies about how active we are and how well we eat, even when both we and our doctors know that we’re lying. And this only hurts us in the end by making the doctors’ work more difficult.

That brings us full circle to health insurance premiums and requirements to wear these devices to keep our coverage. Certainly it’s kind of creepy that there would be so much data about us so readily available to insurance companies, but here’s the thing. They already have this data from your doctors and can access it whenever they want in the course of processing your claim. With biometric trackers and loggers, they could do the smart and profitable thing and instead of using a statistical model generated from a hodgepodge of claim notes, take advantage of the real time data coming in to send you to the doctor when a health problem is detected. They pay less for a less acute treatment plan, you feel healthier and have some piece of mind that you’re now less likely to be caught by surprise by some nasty disease or condition, and your premiums won’t be hiked as much since the insurers now have higher margins and stave off rebellions from big and small companies who’ll now have more coverage choices built around smart health data. And all this isn’t even mentioning the bonanza for researchers and policy experts who can now get a big picture view from what would be the most massive health study ever conducted.

How many times have you read a study purporting the health benefits of eating berries and jogs one week only to read another one that promotes eating nuts and saying that jogs are pointless with the different conclusions coming as a result of different sample sizes and subjects involved in the studies? Well, here, scientists could collect tens of millions of anonymized records and do very thorough modeling based on uniform data sets from real people, and find out what actually works and for whom when it comes to achieving their fitness and weight loss goals. Couple more data and more intelligent policy with the potential for economic gain and the gamification offered by fitness trackers, and you end up with saner healthcare costs, a new focus on preventing and maintaining rather than diagnosing and treating, fewer sick days, and longer average lifespans as the side effect of being sick less often and encouraged to stay active and fit, and you have a very compelling argument for letting insurance companies put medical trackers on you and build a new business model around them and the data they collect. It will pay off in the long run.

my little botnet

One of the big new trends on cybersecurity blogs is to point out that people selling software for botnets and offering hosting plans that allow them to stall any attempt to shut you down enough to let you reset your operation if it’s eve caught, are really, really customer friendly and offer a quality of service that we wish most big companies tried to emulate. Somehow, we are supposed to be shocked that not only is the malware ecosystem so well organized, but that it’s so easy for people to set up botnets, spam operations, and exploit kits and that all those packages come on a digital equivalent of a silver platter, delivered by an evil cyber-Jeeves committed to making the botnets of your dreams a reality. But what else should we expect? Hacking takes some skill and you need experienced programmers and network admins to find new exploits. There aren’t that many people out there capable of building really potent malware and the demand for them is off the charts, meaning easy money to be made if they sold it to legions of criminals.

But the services are inherently illegal, some of the customers are very, very dangerous, as in a wing of the Russian mob, or the Yakuza, and the only way to effectively sell is through a happy customer who hasn’t ordered a hit on you after you sold them an exploit kit. So of course you’re going to do all you can to ensure excellent customer service. Not only does it bring in money but it boosts sales, exactly like in any other line of business. And again, it’s really important to point out that your typical angry customers have little recourse besides yelling at a manager of a call center across the world for an hour, but the people who spend tens of thousands of dollars on a brand new Zeus or BlackHole platform and thousands more per month on their malicious C&C server farm would have other means to voice their dissatisfaction. To stay in business you must a) keep them happy, b) give them what they want, and c) cover their asses as much as you can because if they’re going down, you may be going down with them. It would be more shocking if the malware industry wasn’t as polished and professionalized as it is today…

[ illustration by Aurich Lawson ]

empty cubicles

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer received a massive heaping of criticism for her decision to revoke all employees’ ability to work from home over the last several weeks. From the tech press, most of the wired pundits groaned that Mayer just doesn’t get it. News and blog sites constantly harped on the fact that she had a nursery built onsite so she could stay in the office no matter what and that her expectations about her workers’ lives were completely unrealistic. Token contrarians did their half-hearted best in reminding us that working from home is not for everyone, Yahoo is not exactly a prison but a rather cushy place to work, and that a lot of people in Silicon Valley spend an inordinate amount of time in the office. And from all the sociological and technological bits of punditry created in response to Mayer’s decision, I’d like to declare the tech writers as those who did the best job explaining why her choice was ill advised. They’re the ones who got it.

A while ago, I tackled some pointed criticisms of telecommuting and why they usually showed a problem with the organization not understanding what telecommuting is and how to do it rather than a fundamental problem with the concept. The very same points are present in Mayer’s big decision and what they show is someone obsessed with putting in time at the office not realizing that the number of hours spent in a cube or how many cars there are in a parking lot are not an indicator of how well the company is or isn’t working. In fact, her decision was motivated by how employees came and went according to the usual tech reporter sources, and the fact that there weren’t as many cars outside at 5 pm as she’d like rather than some sort of study as to why the number of cars was so low. Are the employees no longer engaged? Are they more productive when they work from home? Herding them back into the office and keeping them there does not answer these questions. It just makes the parking lot full and the current CEO happy, and this is why she was loudly booed by the tech press which abhors the ass-in-the-chair metric.

So let’s say that you’re an executive of a tech company going through hard times and you work late nights in the office with few people around after the informal quitting time. Wouldn’t you want to see how well the telecommuting employees are doing? Did they get everything delivered? Did they get the projects working? Were they around when questions needed to be answered or call in during the big meeting? Next, since the company isn’t doing well, how about trying to find out if your workers feel trapped or like they’re on a sinking ship and looking for a way out? Is there an actual mission for them to fulfill? Are they being challenged? Do they feel like working for you is advancing their knowledge and careers? If not, of course they’re not going to stick around more than necessary. Likewise, you need to look at how productive the company is and how many of the projects it started are on schedule. More hours at the office does not mean more work and better products. Sometimes they just mean more hours behind your computer.

Of course I appreciate that there are projects which need you in the office and you have to be there until everything is done and ready to go. We’ve all been there, especially before a product launch. But when someone is spending 10 or 12 hours in the office on a routine basis and very proudly brags about running on five hours of sleep and adrenaline, one starts to wonder what it is precisely that requires this person to spend half a life at work. How much is he or she getting done and what exactly does it bring to the company’s bottom line? Is there a better use of all this time and if so, what? These are not rhetorical questions. Running a company costs money and every hour you spend in the office needs to have a reason behind it. If this reason is to show all your subordinates how dedicated you are to work, is that really a good use of a company’s time and resources? And does it mean that you’re wasting time with e-mails that shouldn’t have been written or sent, meetings that are a waste of everyone’s time, and fluffy meets and greets? And would all this cost a lot less if you just let people work from home and get things done?

minimalist office

Generally the informal rule around Weird Things is not to persue the same topic two days in a row, but there are always exceptions, especially in the case of hard data that brings the points discussed the day before into better focus. So while yesterday we talked about the mismatch in what science advisers recommend to the government about the job prospects of STEM grads and what really happens, today we’ll peek at the other side of the debate. As noted previously, one of the reasons why companies today claim they can’t find qualified employees is because they believe that the only qualified employee is one who has done the exact job the position for which they’re hiring entails and anything other than that is an unwarranted gamble. But they’re also very down on colleges overall, with more than half saying that they have trouble finding an applicant pool worthy of their time and dinging the grads’ communication, critical thinking, and problem solving skills in a way that makes it sound as if colleges hand diplomas to anyone.

And yet, amazingly enough, some 93% say that college graduates work out well and make fair and good employees, with the good employee designation being awarded to college graduates more than twice as much as fair to boot. Likewise, more than half believe that a college degree, especially the four year kind, is just as important as it was five years ago, if not more, and about two thirds will refuse to wave any educational requirement before reading a resume. So to sum all of this up, colleges are churning out barely literate, functionally useless candidates who can’t find their way out of a paper bag and are way over their heads when applying for a job, and yet they become good employees and college education is an extremely important qualifier during the hiring process. Wow, and the companies that took this survey criticize college students for a startling inability to communicate since these results are completely contradictory when taken at face value. But you see, there’s an underlying thought that clears up these odd results.

One of the more frequently cited complaints by companies is that college graduates can’t jump into a new job and hit the ground running. Now, this would make sense since colleges teach the theory, the basics, and the science behind something, not necessarily how to do a specific job function, and argue that it’s not their job to do so and never has been. To companies who don’t want to spend money on training, internships, and long term commitments to their employees to mold their workforce over years rather than the quarterly reports, this is unacceptable. They do want college graduates and they do want the colleges to give them the basics, but they’re also looking for colleges to become high end vocational schools. The graduate they want to hire out of school doesn’t just have good grades but can plop behind a desk and use industry standard tools when shown to his or her cube. So when a newly minted computer science grad can’t get into a chair, load up, say Visual Studio, and start weaving a UI with jQuery and Knockout, they think that colleges have come up short in their duty to produce qualified workers.

We can go back and forth about all the issues in higher education today. We can talk about all the useless degree programs, the high profile terrible advice given to young students, the fact that not everybody needs to go to college, and that the current college system can actually stall your career if you don’t balance your degrees and work history just right, and we should try to address the downright predatory and unfair system of student lending in place today. But even though these discussions need to be held to fix the problems we’re facing in colleges, perhaps the most important discussions we need first and foremost are negotiations between academics and companies that hire their students. Certainly colleges do fail some graduates and I’ve seen perfectly bright and intelligent students left years behind the industry despite going to schools with good names and reputations, given unrealistic expectations of what their degrees would do in the real world. At the same time, for companies to force students and parents to pick up a big tab for specific job training and turn professors into underpaid corporate trainers is absurd.

We need to move past nebulous qualitatives and settle some real requirements for what we’re trying to expect from a college education, honestly aware that the system cannot be all things to all people and there needs to be a balance between learning the theory and learning a job. And if we can accomplish that, students will have an easier time deciding their majors, paying on the loans they took out to go to school, and then getting jobs after they’re done. Maybe companies will have more realistic expectations of what colleges can do for them and start training people, just like they did in the good old days, when employees were a lot less disposable than they are today and new hires were expected to grow with the company and expand their skill sets instead of performing the required units of work to then move elsewhere. A good way to start this sort of debates would be to think through the system from the viewpoint of a student rather than how to hit a macro metric that could easily be changed by the powers that be…

spaceliner render

If you ever explored the pages of popular science magazines from the heady days of the Space Race, inspired by novels of the Golden Age of science fiction, you’ve no doubt seen proposed ads for space planes taking busy commuters around the world in mere hours. It sounds like the perfect solution to spending as much as a day locked inside a flying metal tube filled with stuffy recycled air. And the Noodly One forbid you have to make the trip in coach. Ugh. Unfortunately, hypersonic jets are really difficult to build and the sonic booms they would create would quickly run afoul of local noise ordinances. This is not to mention that airport runways would have to be a lot longer to help them build up speed and the air and space routes would have to be mapped in completely new and different ways. But all this we could deal with to make sure that a venture designed to shuttle people around the world in no time at all is a viable business and taking any space plane is as easy as taking a commercial jet liner today, although a lot pricier.

Yes, making suborbital flight an easy and convenient proposition is diffciult and expensive. But that doesn’t mean that a European start-up’s plan to attach a space plane to a rocket, fire it off like a space shuttle, and have it glide back down to Earth at 15,000 miles per hour is any better than having to redesign major airports to support hypersonic planes. According to the company, using proven rocket technology would mean that the plane would begin daily service in 2050. If we actually do a little research about hypersonic flight and rocket launches, it would mean that a plan resembling anything like the venture proposed is dead on arrival and should come with an obligatory DNR order. This idea effectively combines the biggest, most expensive hindrance to cost-effective suborbital, and adds a layer of regulatory issues, as well as logistical pains which would drive potential customers to simply fly on an existing aircraft because they would get there much faster. It’s in no way commercially viable or safe for the passengers since there’s a really, really high chance that the space plane will disintegrate as it glides back down to Earth.

But let’s backtrack for a moment. Consider the issue of starting a trip with a rocket launch. Last time most of us checked, rockets cost millions and get thrown away after each use. SpaceX has been working on reusable rockets, so that may bring down costs substantially, but there would only be so many flights it could make before the repeated stresses render both it and the space plane unusable. Furthermore, it means that the proposed SpaceLiner would have to launch in a small time window at a spaceport built well out of the way as not to interfere with air traffic over a major city or transport hub, precisely the places where you should be offering the flights to make it easy to get to the space plane. If you miss a window due to a mechanical issue, you could end up wasting the entire day rather than just reschedule for the next flight since the next window for the trajectory you need may not come for the next few days. By this point, if you were willing and able to spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a SpaceLiner ticket, $15,000 for a typical long haul first class flight on a conventional aircraft would sound like a decent bargain.

And, of course, there’s the whole possible disintegration thing. You see, gliding at 15,000 miles an hour through the atmosphere isn’t exactly what happens when you’re going that fast. No, it’s more like plowing through miles of gas that’s exponentially increasing in density while the heat generated by air compression is trying to engulf your craft. DARPA tried the exact maneuver the SpaceLiner is expected to do with one of the most advanced hypersonic bullets ever built. It did not end well. The entry vehicle’s skin came off its body. There’s a non-zero chance that even a shielded SpaceLiner would face stresses that would either melt its skin right off, or kill whoever was on on board should the glide back down to the ground hit a rough patch somewhere. Again, the slow jet sounds like a good deal, doesn’t it? Especially an advanced supersonic design that muffles the noise of its sonic boom by its shape and the angles of its flight surfaces which would let it catch on in a way that the Concorde never could due to its engines’ piercing shriek.

And if that supersonic jet could get you halfway across the world in five hours from your nearest airport with a much, much smaller chance of a fiery, explosive death as it blazes through the air during its descent, why would you want to pay about ten times the price of a first class ticket on such jets to schlep out to the middle of nowhere to try and catch a rocket and shave off three or four hours of the final leg of your trip if you do manage to launch in your window? By the time it’ll touch down at another spaceport in the middle of nowhere, you could have been relaxing in your hotel room or home half a world away for hours. Other than the novelty and complexity of going by SpaceLiner, you would’ve gotten nothing out of the trip that a supersonic plane couldn’t have given you safer, cheaper, and more efficiently. Now if you were going to the Moon or an orbital hotel room, that would be a different story. Maybe the company behind the SpaceLiner proposal would want to take aim at the Skylon concept rather than trying to challenge Virgin Galactic and every major airline with a caveat-laden offer to its potential customers 37 years from now. Then again, it’s likely that today’s space tourism companies would dominate that market by then…