Wednesday, October 28, 2009

When is a laser not a laser?

I just happened to catch the weather person on the 11 o'clock news refer to an approaching cold front as "straight as a laser." Normally I'd let something like this slide, but for some reason it penetrated my tired brain.

I just happened to catch the weather person on the 11 o'clock news refer to an approaching cold front as "straight as a laser." Normally I'd let something like this slide, but for some reason it penetrated my tired brain.

"Why," I asked my wife, "Do people use the term laser when they mean laser beam?" During the baseball season I heard "like a laser" used countless times to describe a thrown high fast ball or a line drive to left field. Again meaning a laser beam not a laser.

For the record, officially and correctly, a laser is a device that generates coherent bundles of photons that are focused into a high energy density spot that can produce a physical change in a material. Simple definition. The laser is a device that that produces a beam of light, and it's this beam of light that is straight and bright.

So, no more straight as a laser folks, it's straight as a laser beam.

Having said this I'll move onto criticism raised by Martien van Dijk (ILS Editorial Advisor). It's not turbine blade drilling, it's laser drilling of turbine blades, he reminded me in a recent e-mail response to a query about the process, of which he is an expert. His exact comment was, "English is not my native tongue but in Dutch we can't say 'turbine blade drilling.' We would say, 'drilling of turbine blades.' Turbine blade drilling would be correct if the process was named turbine blade, but we can say laser drilling, although I would say drilling of airfoils."

I sheepishly accepted Martien's grammar lesson acknowledging my error, but completely forgetting to correct him on the process, which is actually laser beam drilling of turbine blade holes.

ILS is read in more than 130 countries around the world, mostly in English, but also in Simplified Chinese and Japanese (Kanji, Katakana, and Hiragana). By not paying strict attention to the incorrect usage of terms we, ourselves, are promulgating the problem worldwide. Imagine an engineer in China scratching his head as he tries to puzzle out turbine blade drilling, or whatever it translates into simplified Chinese.

To begin with, the word laser is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. When I first started working with this device we were referring to it as an optical maser (shows you how old I am--actually I was a child prodigy). In fact, when I wrote a thesis on this technology as a postgraduate it was the first time I used laser as a term. Recently while researching for a patent litigation I found terms used in the 1960s like--to laser or lasering a material--so already it was being used as a verb instead of its proper use (according to Webster) as a noun. Even today when I see this usage I cringe as it is not one that I accept as correct.

If we accept the correct definition of the word then the laser is always the device that is producing light radiation (the laser beam). And carrying this one step further technically this radiation, since it is produced in a manmade device will spread forever (diverge) as it, now the laser beam by definition, radiates unless we intercept it with an optical element that will cause it to focus (usually converging) to a usable spot size for laser beam processing.

It's these last three words that pose my conundrum. Many times when I am writing or lecturing I will use the laser beam term correctly, but more often I, like others, revert to shorthand and substitute laser. Thus, laser drilling of turbine blades. I know it's incorrect and when I edit articles submitted to ILS I try to use the correct terminology, but find that I accede to the author's usage and use laser instead of laser beam.

I can think of two acquaintances who would not hesitate to take me to task on this, one a former co-worker who as a scientist was super critical of my marketing use of terms like beam delivery (instead of beam generation), the other a former editorial colleague who would not hesitate to quote the New York Times style manual of the terms as gospel. As I write and edit I've got these guys perched on my shoulders reading every word I produce. Both don't hesitate to box my ears when I get it wrong. So with proverbial cauliflower ears I slog my way through texts, mixing terms, all in the spirit of writing to readers' levels. My premise--it is common usage today, although technically wrong to call a laser beam a laser.

Is it legitimate for an editor to seek protection for error under the guise of "common usage?" And this is what I have been wrestling with for the past few days. I'll be honest with you, after 24 years of editing and more than that writing I have yet to hear from anyone about improper use of the term laser when laser beam is intended. So I suppose this blog will open the floodgates of comments from those more grammatically correct than me.

Monday, October 19, 2009

When stress is a good thing

Here in my part of New England it's time to take in the house plants that have been enjoying fresh air since last May. The last of these are my wife's beloved Christmas Cacti. Here in my part of New England it's time to take in the house plants that have been enjoying fresh air since last May. The last of these are my wife's beloved Christmas Cacti (known botanically as Schlumbergera or Zygocactu), a misleadingly named cultivar that in my house has a mind of its own--sending out gorgeous blossoms at random holidays throughout the year. When asked about this strange phenomena, a relative's husband, a renowned botanist (hint--he edited the famous Taylors Guide To series), just shrugs his shoulders saying "Enjoy."

The patriarch of these plants is directly descended from those of my wife's maternal ancestors and quite likely go back 150 years or more; so it holds a special place in her heart. She has moved this plant several times over the years and has happily shared cuttings with countless friends, relatives, and untold numbers of charity fair exhibitors where the cuttings are rooted to raise money.

But back to the strange blooming pattern, which has caused us to rename the plant "Holiday Cactus" as we have enjoyed the blooms on Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and Valentine's Day in addition to many Christmases. Right now we are being blessed by fabulous pink flowers on Halloween from one of the offspring and the patriarch is looking like it will grace us with color for Thanksgiving.

The botanist, grudgingly sharing inside information with a neophyte gardener, opines that the unscheduled blooming is a result of plant stress. And he should know because he has a unique talent for neglecting plants that can take it. Ours are pot bound, due to the size of the root ball and the spread of the branches, which dictates the size of container. I rarely repot them, preferring to cut away roots around the edges and feed in some fresh potting soil. However, once in a while major root surgery is called for, and this year was time for several of the plants, especially the patriarch.

Finding a pot with a proper diameter and depth capable of being hung in a window is an adventure when all the retail resources are converting to holiday decorations. But with the kindness of a nurseryman I obtained some used pots that were suitable for the job.

The patriarch took some severe pruning to get it to a size that accommodates its north-facing bow window location; as a result many new cuttings are being rooted or disbursed to share the wealth with friends.

This stress angle on the plants was running through my mind after reading a Newsweek article, an interview with management guru Richard Baird entitled "Don't Panic" that deals with holding onto talent in a downturn. The thrust in this recession has changed from typical hire/fire practices in the past to identifying where their real talent is while ensuring that the reductions sustain the company's image in the market. He defines these employees as "pivotal talent," those whose performance can have a significant impact on the company.

Addressing corporate loyalty, which he says is not dead but "redefined," Baird cites the networking ability of today's employees that allows them to form a full picture of where they stand in the company and in their employment universe. He claims these hip employees are more interested in self-development and work fulfillment than compensation, positing that unless their developmental needs are being met it's "so long, its been good working for you," as they move to better situations after the recovery.

I found missing in this abbreviated interview of a longer session, the question of stress on those remaining after downsizing has occurred. Stress, in my view, does not cause the remaining workforce to bloom bright as it does with the Holiday Cactus. Having witnessed several of these downsize actions during my career as a consultant, at companies claiming that "employees are our greatest asset," I can say that the remaining talent is usually shaken to its roots and considerable time and effort needs to be made after the return to recovery to get the team back functioning at pre-cut back levels.

In his "don’t panic" approach Baird counsels remaining employees to be productive and outspoken in their sharing of ideas. Since this is an employee prerequisite regardless of the economy, I found this a trite comment. If this leads to stress relief I have yet to see it pay-off. Yes things will get better and this latest economic reversal will become an historical footnote. But I offer a thought; the last recession of this depth created a culture change known as "children of the depression" spawning a generation of workers cautious in their spending and wary of excess. Will future economists coin a term for the actions of those young workers who recover from this current situation?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Singing the praises of opportunism

As we celebrate the voyage of Christopher Columbus, the Genovan navigator who sailed to the "New World" 515 years ago, I thought of my paternal grandfather who, 400 years later, set out from Genoa to his "New World" to establish his family.

As we celebrate the voyage of Christopher Columbus, the Genovan navigator who sailed to the "New World" 515 years ago, I thought of my paternal grandfather who, 400 years later, set out from Genoa to his "New World" to establish his family.

I'm sorry that I never had the opportunity to ask him about any underlying reason that led him to come to America other than the obvious one, an opportunity for a better economic life. In the family, children respected the patriarch, but rarely had any in-depth communication with him as he chose to seek counsel from his sons and daughters and not the other generations.

Even though my grandfather knew, from friends who preceded him, what to expect in America, it still must have been daunting standing on the ship as it departed Genoa. I wish I had the forethought to ask him if he ever had second thoughts about the momentous decision. It would have been interesting to probe his thinking, to see what drove him to leave his homeland, which we have been told he loved. But, we youngsters were too caught up with our own lives and it wasn't until recent years that the newest generation of family youngsters began to investigate family history and by then he had passed away leaving no oral history.

Today people jump on planes, fly across ocean, and drop their roots in new locales, seemingly on a whim. Many are following opportunities for financial gain, taking advantage of the global nature of business today. Many of those I know who have done so now carry dual citizenship, not really completely cutting their ties.

This past weekend my wife and I attended a family reunion of a branch of her family, direct descendants of immigrants who made the journey to America from England some 250 years ago. Amongst these were the progeny of writers and historians so to a degree we can ascertain, from their writings, what drove these immigrants to make the lifestyle change. You might think religious freedom but in reality, like my forbearer, it was economic, a chance to improve one's way of life.

Among the guests enjoying a beautiful fall day at the family farm there was a prevailing subject, the state of the economy. One spoke of her family's heavy construction equipment distributorship which dropped from 15 unit sales per month to 15 for the last four months. Another spoke of her occupation as private chef to a well-known consulting firm, telling me that the corporate breakfasts and some of the dinners had been cut back dramatically. While another, a sub-editor for the London Times told me of downsizing changes in the newsroom there. A veterinarian with a busy practice commented on the fall-off she was experiencing in breeding work as her clients cut back on spending for their pets. A highly regarded illustrator of children's books mentioned the drop-off in publisher contracts as that industry consolidates. The guest of honor, still a Brit, who had converted a bustling sheep farm into a caravan (RV) camping park, said occupancies were off this past summer and he was considering shutting down.

An interesting vignette on the impact of the deep recession on the lifestyles of a diverse group of workers. Normally I am reacting to the woes of the manufacturing industries; here it was, save one, services oriented. But one overarching message was subtly being conveyed, all were coping, and most were optimistic about a return to normalcy. I must say that I found their optimism about when this will happen to be somewhat naive, but strangely refreshing. Here were descendants many generations removed from the original immigrants who saw America as a land of opportunity, still showing a streak of optimism. Maybe there is something in their genes that fosters optimism. Or maybe it was the effect of bountiful supplies of wine consumed on a bright and sunny day.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The reason is the season

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my distaste for Autumn, implying that for me it is not a season that engenders pleasure. As evidence, my wife dragged me to several stores on a rainy Saturday as she shopped for Halloween decorations. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my distaste for Autumn, implying that for me it is not a season that engenders pleasure. As evidence, my wife dragged me to several stores on a rainy Saturday as she shopped for Halloween decorations. My birthday falls close to Halloween and she uses this as an excuse to celebrate what has become, in the USA, the second largest consumer spending "holiday." She is always adding to the Halloween decorations and although she talks about excesses I think she secretly likes this "holiday" for its lighthearted, unsentimental atmosphere.

Anyhow, I'm following her around the stores as she considers several table decoration ideas when it occurs to me that this is just another reason I don't like Autumn, it is a "holiday" celebrating death, ghouls, and goblins called All-Souls Day. What a downer.

To compound my regressive attitude the news on the Web has been particularly unnerving these last few days as the U.S. unemployment numbers, while expected, are not good and much is being made of their increasing in the next few months, especially as espoused by several respected authorities.

An economist at Rutgers University, according to the WSJ, says that to replace the 7.2 million jobs lost since December 2007 (the now official start of the recession) and to add the 100,000 needed to keep up with population growth and to attain a 5% unemployment level at the rapid growth pace of the 1990s will take us until late 2017. Thanks a lot, that's another damper on this season.

I keep reminding people that the President says unemployment is a lagging indicator, however, more discouraging is the manufacturing sector number for production output is down and the purchasing agent's index dropped instead of an expected increase last month; more negative news since the autumnal equinox. And these are supposed to be leading indicators.

Companies that I communicate with are certainly not generating any late-year good news, just the opposite in fact. It is rather depressing that the manufacturing sector almost seems to be in a wait-and-see attitude, preferring to write off the last quarter of this year, hoping for a turnaround early in the next year. This is especially disheartening as there are several industrial shows left this year which should have provided an expected boost in attitude. I would have thought that lean U.S. manufacturers were ready to flex their collective muscles.

Questioned about my usual upbeat view of the manufacturing economy I was asked, "Could you have been wrong?" As a reality check I reactivated the DABoMeter for the past five working days and, low and behold, it went slightly negative. I chalk most of it up to the spate of bad news about the unemployment numbers.

My wife picks up a small wooden zombie-like figure from a store shelf, saying it would make a great party favor. I look at the expression on the figure's face and think, "OMG it looks like me hating Autumn." Right there I decide to recalibrate. I won't complain any more about Autumn, besides it's only ten weeks until the start of Winter, and I really hate that.