Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Pontiac--We Build Excitement

We are having a family gathering and many of the children and grandchildren are seated at the table for lunch. We are having a family gathering and many of the children and grandchildren are seated at the table for lunch. The subjects range from the mundane, the latest reports from Red Sox Nation, to semi-technical, should the kids have freer usage of cell phones at school. When all of a sudden I get Twittered. My niece, seated at the other end of the long table asks, “Can you pass the mustard please?”

Laugh if you will, and we did, but actually with several preteen children jabbering away and a couple of side conversations among adults, the table was abuzz with conversations. So rather than raise her voice above the din to get my attention she Twittered. Now really! Me tweet?

Anyhow, as usually happens when my family gathers we reminisce about growing up. The younger ones like the oft told stories and in fact they usually ask for special favorites. The subject this day was my Dad and his love for automobiles. In his youth, just before the last great depression/recession he left home for Detroit to work for Henry Ford. Funny I never heard him say a bad word about Ford, which had a terrible reputation when it came to unions.

To my Father a car was a manifestation of achievement. When you owned one it was a status symbol; you had arrived at a certain social level, a measure of success. Young readers will find this humorous because now cars are a necessity not a luxury.

Even with his experience at Ford my Father was a General Motors man, and specifically a Pontiac man. He owned a succession of Pontiacs; all purchased from the local Pontiac/Cadillac dealer, mostly second hand until my folks became empty nesters and had the extra income to purchase new ones.

The last Pontiac he owned was lovingly dusted every day, as it sat out in the driveway after we tore down the old garage. An accidental fall with subsequent hospitalization, which eventually led to a nursing home, cut short his driving days. My sister was charged with keeping the Pontiac clean and running it up to the shopping center every once in awhile to get the condensation out of the muffler.

Finally it was time to sell it off and she did, and with a heavy heart informed my father of this action. He acknowledged that it had to be done, but we could tell it hurt him, even though he knew he would never drive again. She claims he never forgave her for this action. We talked about the Pontiac almost every weekly visit. Knowing my connections to Detroit automotive, he routinely asked what was new at Pontiac. He reveled when I told him that I had driven the first Pontiac Fiero coupe around the parking lot of the Michigan assembly plant. The nursing home staff told me that this anecdote was the theme of the men’s discussion group for days.

Why this reminiscence? Well rumor has it that GM will be asked to close down Pontiac, the muscle car king of Detroit. It would have been the saddest day for my father and it is a sad day for all car buffs. Another name badge gone and with it another part of U.S. manufacturing lore.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Since when did the word legacy become negative? Since when did the word legacy become negative? Merriam-Webster gives it just two brief meanings; (n) money left to someone by a will; bequest or anything handed down from, or as from, an ancestor. Hmmm, that seems quite positive to me. Wikipedia has dozens of references, all mostly positive except perhaps for some movie and book titles, which may have darker meaning in their content. The only sort of negativity I found is legacy carrier (an older airline) or legacy software (a term for out-of-date hardware and/or software still in use). Maybe this last one is getting close--out of date but still hanging around.

I only mention this because it seems in the last few years that the word legacy has gone from being a positive noun to being a negative adjective, like in John Madden, who suddenly announced his retirement, was a legacy analyst on Sunday Night Football. He’s 73, sharp as a tack, but he’s been around a bit, so legacy implies he may not be capable of describing certain football field action in modern terms. Too bad John, I thought you were still pretty sharp; but then I am a legacy fan.

Ridiculousness was reached however when I read that the so-called toxic assets of shaky banks were now being termed legacy assets by the current administration in Washington. Two-edged sword here because legacy is meant to be less inflammatory than toxic (good) but still negative (bad).

“Legacy assets” are those assets which are less productive (outdated) and in some cases least productive over time, they are just on the brink of being a liability. The term “toxic asset” is a rather new non-technical term used to describe certain financial assets when their value has fallen significantly and when there is no longer a functioning market for these assets, so that they cannot be reasonably sold.

Now I’m getting a clue; legacy means, according to the bean counters, outdated, least productive, almost a liability. It’s beginning to be clear that some wet-behind-the-ears MBAs, probably working for large business consulting companies, found the word legacy was a less-harsh word than old, out of date, or not productive. This got hijacked by corporate managers facing staff downsizing in the last few years and seized upon as a euphemism for old, which helps them avoid age-related litigation.

Poor John, he claims it was time for him to go. I chose to believe that he was called into the network president’s office and advised that he was now a legacy analyst and that the younger, hipper (read that heavy discretionary spending) viewers were turned off by his dredging up comparisons from his years of experience.

The other day, at a technical conference, I caught myself expounding on a laser application that seems to be undergoing a resurrection, laser peening (ILS August 2008). It first appeared in the 1970s to a lot of technical interest but no business potential and since then has occasionally popped up, last time when a major jet engine maker installed some systems. At the coffee break, the speaker presenting an update of the process and I were comparing notes on what had transpired over the years. I stopped and told him, jokingly, that he was a legacy technologist, with a legacy idea, talking to a non-legacy audience, except for me, the legacy attendee.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Oh, and the moon is made of green cheese

OK that does it. It seems like every so often I get another jolt to my settled brain cells. OK that does it. It seems like every so often I get another jolt to my settled brain cells. You know what I mean – the earth is really flat and there is life on Mars. As man (and woman) gets smarter with the aid of magnificent new diagnostic instruments and more powerful computers, we learn more frequently it seems that long-cherished beliefs are not true, or at least not so obviously true.

Most of these, like the aforementioned, I just read with humor since they are just fillers in my morning paper. You remember papers don’t you? These are the product of countless reporters and journalists who are out there digging for news that I can chose to leisurely read, or not, when I have my second cup of coffee. And because it is a paper, not someone’s home page, I occasionally find choice little tidbits that I never thought I had interest in.

The disruptive thinking that really set me off appeared via Goggle, however. And it was enough to ruin my weekend. The sacred “straight as a laser beam” has been challenged by researchers at the University of Central Florida, who report (Phys. Lett, 99, 2133901) they have come up with a family of non-diffracting waveforms that appear to curve.

Curve? What happened to the fictional hero who has a piercing look like a laser beam, or the arrow shot straight as a laser at the cowboy? It bends, they say. Now I know why that laser alignment tool for leveling a set of three pictures my wife wanted hung gave me the false reading that has them marching downhill. No wonder I had so much trouble aligning an eleven-mirror CO2 laser beam sharing delivery system for laser cutting, laser welding, or laser surface treatment...It wasn’t me; it was that curved beam.

Some of you will already know about this since it was first reported in November 2007. I’m a little slow on the uptake optical science-wise, and it was Goggle that turned it up among a bunch of references I was searching. So it just got my eye. Wouldn't have happened if it appeared in my local paper because I have a calibrated eyeball that focuses, like a laser beam, every time the word laser appears, setting off a pulse through my synapses to my memory bank.

So forgive me Demetri (Christodoulides) and Aristide (Dogariu) and colleagues at Central Florida for not picking up on this sooner. Did you get any interesting ideas from more wide awake Web searchers on what you can do with these curved laser beams? Shoot James Bond around a corner? I can hardly wait. I guess I’ll have to change my Goggle search parameters to include “stuff I can live without but like to read anyway.”

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

If it looks like a must be a duck

More than 35 years ago I had the nerve to try, single handedly, to introduce laser cutting of sheet metal into North America.

More than 35 years ago I had the nerve to try, single handedly, to introduce laser cutting of sheet metal into North America. Bear with me before you say, “Here he goes again with the boring history of industrial laser technology.” Believe me there is an up-to-date message coming.

Back in the early 1970s laser cutting of sheet metal had been established in Germany and the United Kingdom through the efforts of researchers who had created the oxygen assist cutting technology, and a few far-sighted equipment suppliers; among which was a company for whom I then worked. With only 450 watts of CO2 laser power and a gas jet assist nozzle, Ferranti and Messer Greisheim were generating reams of data on the cutting of metals and non-metals.

I was charged with using this data to convince skeptical fabricating equipment buyers of the technical and cost benefits of this powerful new job shop tool. To do this, I bombarded industry with press releases, wrote technical articles, conducted workshops and spoke at technical conferences. All on the subject of laser beam cutting of sheet metals.

In those early days of industrial laser technology we were fighting a media image of laser cutting, manifested in pseudo-technical articles trumpeting “Death rays benefit mankind!” I can’t tell you how many poorly informed freelance journalists used this tagline, much to my chagrin. I wasn’t much better; in my presentations I used that famous scene from the 1964 Goldfinger movie, where James Bond is threatened with a ray of light that is positioned to cut him in half. Many of you today don’t remember when the laser was a laboratory curiosity.

Fast forward to a recent Google alert I received which was a blog query about the use of a CD burner to cut materials. Several responses were, of course, negative. But one caused me to think about those early days. This response was, “The thought police should arrest you for this ridiculous notion.” A feeling I also had, until I thought about it a bit, especially from my death ray and James Bond experiences of the 1970s.

Those of us immersed in the technology tend to forget that most people still don’t understand the laser, and all they know about it is from the movies and video games where it is usually a weapon (there’s that death ray thing again). To accuse the Blog enquirer of stupidity is unfair. And perhaps this specific response can serve as a reminder to all of us technologists; never underestimate the intelligence of your audience.

Sometimes even we editors are our own worst enemies. It isn’t the laser that is doing the cutting, welding, etc. It’s the energy in the beam emanating from the laser that produces, when absorbed by a material, the heat required to cause some physical change in that material. Even we sometimes slip up and let a sentence that begins ”The laser welds at X feet per minute” slip through our editing eyes.

The ILS goal is to explain the technology in a user friendly manner. Count the equations we use in a year and you’ll see what I mean. We write for readers who, as end users, are seeking a better, more productive and profitable way to use technology to improve their company’s performance, so we do it in as clear and instructive a way as possible. Readers tell us we achieve our goals. But even with great Website metrics we know we are not reaching everyone.

So I will value the CD burner guy as part of an object lesson that there are still people out there who don’t know what in the world we are talking about.