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Fable Teaches Lessons, But Do Nice Guys Really Finish Last?

Boeing Co. today announced that it will up its layoffs to 10 000 unfortunate employees. The bad news came hard on the heels of downsizing announcements in recent days from all over the tech sector.

And no company has been spared from the toll of the financial downturn, even among the greatest. Sprint: 8000. Microsoft: 5000. IBM: 4000. Texas Instruments: 3400. And so on, and so on.

The mass layoffs have cast a pall over the engineering community worldwide, no doubt. Still, those who do have jobs must continue to work and be productive, even with the sword of further cuts looming over them.

Into such a worrisome environment comes an instructive fable that the editors at IEEE Spectrum thought deserved attention.

In the online pages of Datamation, contributor Eric Spiegel, a veteran software developer, tells a tale of office politics run amok in an IT department facing layoffs.

The article, Do Nice Engineers Finish Last in Tough Times?, relates the story of three mid-level managers working at a server farm who have to cut staff by 50 percent due to the economy.

Stuart, a systems manager, is the "nice guy" in Spiegel's script. He believes in doing the right thing by others, for his team and his firm. Doug is his counterpart in security. He's the "not so nice guy," who thinks of himself first and others only when it suits his purposes. Then there's the director of IT, Kelly, who must decide who stays on and who goes.

'Kelly gathered her team of managers and asked them to rate their employees and then she would work with them to determine who would be laid off. What she didnâ''t tell them was that she was rating her direct reports because managers would be on the chopping block as well.'

You can guess what happens next. Doug meets secretly with Kelly and tells her: "Really, Stuart is too nice and isnâ''t capable of making the tough decisions that will be necessary for us to survive this downturn. I will be ruthless and make you look really, really good, Kelly." So Kelly fires Stuart.

Ratting out his co-worker gets the ruthless guy what he wants, and the company gets the results it wanted, regardless of morality.

Spiegel concludes by asking, "So what would you have done in Kellyâ''s shoes?"

Good question. Will the firm be better off with aggressive types such as Doug or loyal types such as Stuart?

It makes for a robust discussion thread for Datamation, and there are plenty of comments following Spiegel's article. You should read them for yourself and chime in with your own opinions (which is the whole point).

Back in the real world, though, there is no right or wrong answer to the dilemma Spiegel concocts over the long haul. It's an age-old classic of management studies and plays out everyday in the trenches of the corporate world to various resolutions (see Gordon Gekko and Bud Fox in the movie "Wall Street" for a slightly less fictional take on the paradox).

The kicker in the question, however, lies in the words "in tough times."

While Spiegel's fable may be naïve, I believe his motives for presenting it are sincere (although highly biased to appeal to the Stuart's of the technosphere). So the question he asks in his headline, whether "nice engineers finish last in tough times," deserves a hearing, in my opinion, and I might as well cough up a brief response of my own to it here.

First, under full disclosure, I'm not an engineer or a developer, just a writer who covers the tech beat. Moreover, I've worked for the publisher that put Spiegel's piece on the Web, which would be JupiterOnlineMedia. In fact, I used to work for its predecessor,, and before that worked for EarthWeb (which acquired Datamation a decade ago and positioned the publication as its IT Management vessel). And to complicate things further, EarthWeb itself started out as a software firm. So while I was writing for the company's online presence, I was surrounded by developers who were creating some of the first Internet applications of the Nineties, such as interactive chat and peer-to-peer file sharing. Whew.

So I've actually seen the office politics described in Spiegel's article. And in my experience, I've got to admit that "nice" engineers actually do finish last in tough times.

It's a matter of human nature. When conditions turn bad, managers get nervous. Their fear tends to lead them to favor aggressive, short-term solutions. And aggressive types tend to be attracted to likeminded individuals.

Yet most people who have heard the famous quote "nice guys finish last" think it means that good people are always doomed to lose. It doesn't. The quote refers to the thinking of the old Brooklyn Dodgers' manager, Leo Durocher, who uttered something like it in 1946. In an interview, Durocher commented on his cross-town rivals, the old New York Giants, by saying: "Take a look at them. They're all nice guys, but they'll finish last." They did.

Durocher had put together a Brooklyn lineup of cold-blooded ballplayers back home after the war years, men who reflected his own demeanor, which could be summed up nicely by another of his trenchant quotes, "Ruthless tactics succeed more than kindness."

That team finished first in the National League the next year. They then lost the World Series to the New York Yankees, another bitter rival. But Durocher was not there. He had been suspended by the commissioner of baseball for off-field gambling. The following year, the Dodgers fired him and he joined the Giants as their skipper.

He then led the "nice guys" to a pair of historic first-place finishes. Durocher had come to discover that his famous line had limited relevance over time.

So "tough times" may bring out the worst in us, as anxiety leads to panic. In that regard, the IT boss in Spiegel's story, Kelly, is probably no different than the rest of us, flawed to some degree. But she certainly was not acting in the best interests of her company in the long run.


A colleague here at Spectrum Online has sent me a note pointing out a certain measure of implicit sexism in Spiegel's article: Stuart is a nice guy. Doug is a bad boy. Kelly must choose between them. She picks the bad boy. Therefore, as one commenter wrote in the discussion thread, "Kelly=Clueless Bimbo." My colleague, who happens to be a woman, wrote for attribution off the record that this particular comment was a "distillation of the story to its essence." She's got a point there.

27 January 1967: Apollo 1 Blaze Kills Three Astronauts

On this date in 1967, an accidental fire on board the command module of the Apollo 1 spacecraft sitting atop its booster rockets killed three U.S. astronauts on a launch pad at Cape Kennedy, Fla.

Though the exact cause of the accident was never determined by NASA, speculation has long centered on a spark from an electrical circuit being the ignition source that set off a blaze in the oxygen-filled, sealed crew capsule.

The fire killed the mission commander, Virgil "Gus" Grissom (USAF Lt. Col.), and astronauts Roger B. Chaffee (USN Lt. Comm.) and Edward H. White II (USAF Lt. Col.).

NASA had intended Apollo 1 to be the first manned mission of Project Apollo, which eventually sent the first humans to the moon. The first Apollo launch, scheduled for early 1967, was to have tested the capabilities of the giant Saturn 1 rocket to safely carry humans into space.

Grissom was one of the first U.S. astronauts, dubbed the Original Seven. He became the second American to fly into space aboard Mercury 4 in 1961. He followed that up in 1965 aboard Gemini 3. Chaffee was chosen in the third group of astronauts in 1963. Apollo 1 was to have been his first spaceflight. White was chosen with the second group of astronauts in 1962. He served as the pilot of Gemini 4 and earned the distinction during that mission as the first American to make a spacewalk.

In their memory, NASA designated the site of the accident, Launch Complex 34, as a national memorial and marked it with the following remembrance: "They gave their lives in service to their country in the ongoing exploration of humankind's final frontier. Remember them not for how they died but for those ideals for which they lived."

Time to Start Mourning the Living in Nanotech

I was alerted to the recent news that Unidym was closing its Houston offices and consolidating their operations in California.

Some see the news of the Houston plant closing regretfully as the end of Richard Smalleyâ''s Carbon Nanotech Inc. (CNI). They really shouldnâ''t.

They should have counted the sale of CNI over a year ago to Unidym for $5.4 million worth of Arrowhead Research shares, which considering the capital that had already been pumped into CNI was like getting the company for free, as the final denouement of the company.

This sorry tale was told some time ago on this blog.

But what should really get people concerned is that Unidym seems to be getting sold off in bits and pieces at bargain basement prices to Tokyo Electron.

Meanwhile as Rome is burning, Technology Review plays the fiddle describing how Unidymâ''s conducting nanotube films are about to hit the market. I think this is what you call cruel irony.

"Objective" Information from EU Project on Nanotech Provides Much Needed Laughs

These are serious times and as a result much of what you read is quite serious assessments of our problems and serious solutions.

But European Union projects on nanotech always seem to provide some light-hearted amusement even in the most serious of times, albeit unintentionally.

The latest is a project called observatoryNANO (I have never quite figured out why these European projects insist on odd capitalization), which is supposed to provide â''European decision-makers in government, industry, and finance lack objective information for their decisions when considering a rapidly changing field of technology such as N&Nâ'' [thatâ''s â''nanoscience and nanotechnologyâ'' to us uninitiated].

TNTLog had some great fun at the expense of this project by turning up some of the gibberish that it was publishing as â''economic dataâ''. The project must have become aware of some of the silliness that they had on their website and now the page is â''under constructionâ''.

But it was a bit too late. Some of the fun stuff can still be found on the TNTLog:

Scientists have invented a plastic solar cell that can turn the sunâ''s power into electrical energy, even on a cloudy day. The plastic material uses nanotechnology and contains the first solar cells able to harness the sunâ''s invisible, infrared rays. The breakthrough has led theorists to predict that plastic solar cells could one day become five times more efficient than current solar cell technology.

And this

The primary driving force behind flexible displays is to solve the need of humans to interface with electronics that are undergoing continuous miniaturization.

The secondary push for flexible displays is the desire to place computers in objects that they previously did not belong. This could be shirts, golf clubs, or watches.

No matter how much money the EC poured into this project, it was all worth it when you can generate copy like that that really can put a smile on your otherwise dreary day.

Attack of the Wireless Worms

As reported last year on this Website, a group of academic researchers has recently shown that a new and disturbing form of computer infection is readily spread: the epidemic copying of malicious code from wireless router to wireless router, without the participation of intervening computers. Such an epidemic could easily strike cities, where the ranges of wireless routers often overlap. All thatâ''s needed is that enough people fail to configure their routers with good passwords and strong encryption. And as anyone who has ever (purposefully or inadvertently) hooked up a neighborâ''s wireless network knows, unencrypted wireless networks are all too common.

The study will soon appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. So keep an eye on the PNAS Website if you want to see the details.

Like most good guys who discover a computer-security vulnerability, the authors of this study are quick to suggest remediesâ''specifically: â''force users to change default passwordsâ'' and â''the adoption of WPAâ'' (the cryptographic system meant to replace the easily-broken WEP scheme). In other words, if you donâ''t want to get caught up in such an epidemic, stay home, close the windows, and lock the door securely.

I suspect that many people learning of these frightening results will have the same reaction. Choosing a sensible administration password for your router only makes sense. Itâ''s your router after all; you donâ''t need to make it an attractive target for drive-by hackers. But before picking out your new WPA key, take a moment to consider whether it wouldnâ''t be better to leave your wireless network open.

â''But I donâ''t want freeloaders piggybacking on my wireless connection to the Internet,â'' you say. That sentiment makes senseâ''until you examine it closely. If a neighbor uses his or her own network connection instead of yours, will your available bandwidth be any different? I suspect it would be exceedingly hard for you to notice any slow down. Consider also why the Internet has value to you: because many people are connected to it. So logic demands that you should want to do all you can to foster connectivity. Here now is a perfect opportunity to think globally and act locallyâ''so long as it doesnâ''t violate your terms of service with your ISP! For more than just my glib remarks on this very interesting subject, I recommend reading Whacking, Joyriding and War-Driving: Roaming Use of Wi-Fi and the Law.

The authors of the PNAS paper point out how difficult it will be to get people to choose good passwords: â''Unfortunately, the dangers of poorly chosen passwords have been widely publicized for two decades now, and there has been little evidence of a change in the publicâ''s behavior.â'' They seem to think that getting more folks to adopt WPA is a more workable strategy. So let me offer my thoughts on what might be a better solution.

Suppose router manufacturers modified the software that runs these devices so that users could not log in as administrators wirelessly. That way, youâ''d have to be physically plugged in to change the routerâ''s firmware. Such a change would make a wireless router that is straight out of the box immune to this kind of infection. And if manufacturers could also be coaxed to make the default password vary from unit to unit, youâ''d even be protected from malicious software on your computer that tries to take control of your router through a network cable.

Perhaps Iâ''m missing something, but such changes donâ''t seem all that hard to implement. If not, router makers of the world, please help us all rest peacefully, knowing that we arenâ''t having our routers hijacked or contributing to a city-wide plague of wireless worms.

AMD Launches New Line of "Shanghai" Processors

Advanced Micro Devices today announced the "widespread availability" of its new 45-nanometer Quad-Core Opteron processor, offering five low-power versions for servers and two 105-watt versions for high-performance computing architectures.

Formerly code-named Shanghai, the chips are aimed at IT customers "looking to do more with less," according to an informational page on the AMD website. The Sunnyvale, Calif., firm said the new Opteron processors deliver "up to 35 percent more performance with up to a 35 percent decrease in power consumption at idle."

It added that original equipment manufacturers will be able to offer more than 27 systems based on the 45-nm Opteron line this year.

The low-end Opteron HE chips will be priced from US $316 to $1514, and will work with two-, four- and eight-socket systems with speeds ranging from 2.1 GHz to 2.3 GHz, AMD said. The chipmaker has priced the high-end 8386 SE at $2649 and the Opteron 2386 SE at $1165.

Does Venture Capital Work for Emerging Technologies like Nanotech?

I think if you really pressed your typical venture capitalist on the origins of the universe, they might hedge a little but they would be forced to at least concede that whatever the origins might be, venture capitalists were surely at the center of it.

Thatâ''s why I got a chuckle from this headline on the political blog Huffington Post: â''Why Venture Capital is Key to Our Economic Recovery.â''

No sense in doubting that proposition because as the article quickly posits, â''One of the proven methods of deploying equity to finance innovation and the creation of new enterprises is venture capital.â''

It just depends on what you mean by â''provenâ''. Last November, the prickly egos of VCs were upset by a presentation given by Adeo Ressi at the Harvard Business School in which it was argued that the VC Industry is Broken.

As evidence of this, Ressi pointed to the fact that over the last five years returns on VC investment have fallen below the amount invested (see graphic below).


Whether this really constitutes the VC industry being broken has been hotly debated over the last months. But over at TNTLog the question of how venture capital has fared in nanotech has been chronicled and it has not been a pretty picture, see here and here, and even in a prescient moment six months before Ressiâ''s presentation the question was posed: Can the VC Model Handle Emerging Technologies?

In any event, before venture capital becomes the cure-all for what ails our economy, it might be time to take a second look at whether the forty-year-old VC model even works for emerging technologies.

Intel Chairman Craig Barrett to Step Down in May

Culminating a week in which Intel Corporation reported a drop in annual revenue of 2 percent, a cut in chip prices across the board, a planned workforce reduction of up to 6000 employees, and the closing of four manufacturing and testing facilities, the longtime leader of the world's largest microprocessor firm has announced his intention to step down.

A statement from the company said that Craig R. Barrett, 69, chairman of the board of directors, will retire this May from active management of Intel Corp.

Since joining Intel in 1974, Barrett has served in various management roles leading to his tenure as chief executive officer from 1998 to 2005.

"Intel became the world's largest and most successful semiconductor company in 1992 and has maintained that position ever since," Barrett said in the statement.

"I'm extremely proud to have helped achieve that accomplishment and to have the honor of working with tens of thousands of Intel employees who every day put their talents to use to make Intel one of the premier technology companies in the world. I have every confidence that Intel will continue this leadership under the direction of Paul Otellini and his management team."

Barrett recently has been active in activities, including Intel's World Ahead Program, which brings information technology to emerging economies. He is also an advocate for international education and health-care initiatives.

Barrett also serves on the board of directors of the U.S. Semiconductor Industry Association and the National Academy of Engineering, among many other organizations. He is a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and a recipient of the IEEE Robert N. Noyce Medal (â''For contributions to semiconductor manufacturing technology and leadership in business and in industry initiatives.â'').

"I want to thank Craig for his 35 years of tireless efforts on behalf of Intel," said Paul Otellini, Intel president and CEO.

"His legacy spans the creation of the best semiconductor manufacturing machine in the world, leading Intel for seven years as we emerged into a global powerhouse, and most recently as our industry's senior statesman and ambassador who has advocated the benefits of education and technology as forces for positive change. He has been my colleague, supervisor, mentor, and friend for these 35 years. I wish him the very best as he moves on to the next chapter in his life."

The announcement said Jane Shaw, a former pharmaceutical-industry executive who has served on Intel's board since 1993, will replace Barrett as chairman.

Will Obama Scrutinize the Nanotech Bill?

Despite my own reflection that the Obama administration will likely move forward with whatever nanotech bill Congress puts before it, there may be some reasons for the administration to take a second look.

While the House overwhelmingly passed the bill last fall, it never made it through the Senate. And even if it had made it through the Senate, it was unclear whether Bush would have signed it into law as his administration was forcing a number of changes that are described here by Robert Service.

Among one of the more controversial Bush administration provisions was the removal of the requirement that a specific percentage of NNI funds be spent on Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) research. And, frankly, that was the real change from all the other NNI bills.

It would seem that whatever form the bill finally takes will be satisfactory to certain factions within the nanotechnology community. But it seems the Obama administration is really taking science quite seriously, and may decide that they're not going to accept just any bill, but a good one.

Will A Delayed Analog TV Shutdown Fix the Transition? Not Likely.

digtv120-thumb.gifThe analog TV shutdown, at this writing, is still scheduled for 17 February; a proposal in Congress, supported by now-President Obama, would push that to 12 June. Would that solve any problems? For me personally, here in Palo Alto, Calif., yes; construction crews will be moving digital antennas around at the Sutro Tower broadcast site into the summer, a February shutdown is likely to leave me getting most my news and entertainment from the Internet until then.

For the nation as a whole, not likely. The reason for the proposed delay is that the coupon program has, on paper, run out of money; we need to wait until the program is better funded and more folks have an opportunity to order, receive, and cash in coupons. I'm just not getting how 12 June would be so much better than 17 February. Note that while more coupons have been requested than have been budgeted for, not all have been redeemed.

Here are the numbers. About 47,000,000 coupons have been mailed. Nearly 20,000,000 have been redeemed for boxes, 14,000,000 have expired. Another 2,500,000 people or so have requested coupons, but can't get them until more of the ones sent out expire. So giving folks more time to get their coupons before the transition day, it seems, would make everyone happy. That all makes sense when you just look at the numbers.

But look instead at what is likely going on behind those numbers. OK, 47,000,000 people saw the ads on TV urging them to get a coupon. They're not entirely sure if they need a coupon or not, but just in case, they'll order one. At least 14,000,000 and likely more whose coupons have yet to expire got the coupon in the mail and then forgot about it, realized that they hadn't understood the ads, that they have cable and don't need a coupon, or they subsequently bought a digital TV or are thinking about it. Or have simply stopped thinking about it at all. Some of these folks won't think about it again until the analog signal goes dark; then they'll want a new coupon, but won't be allowed to order it (two per household, expired or not). They won't be happy, whether shutdown is 17 February or 12 June.

Then there are the 20,000,000 who bought the boxes. Some, like me, installed them, and are either happily receiving a digital signal or have figured out that converting is going to be a lot more complex than simply installing a box. Based on anecdotal evidence, that's not a big number.

Instead, far more put that converter box package unopened in the closet, not understanding that while analog shutdown hasn't happened yet, they still can hook it up and start using it right now. They understood the message of the vast advertising campaign to mean that on 17 February they're going to have to hook up this box, and with a box in the closet, they feel prepared to do that. What they won't know until they hook it up is whether they'll need a new antenna, new wiring, or will be able to receive digital signals at all. Others are waiting to buy the box, some with a coupon, some just on their own, until analog shutdown happens.

These folks, no one knows exactly how many, are who will determine whether analog shutdown is a success or a nightmare. And we won't find out their stories until shutdown happens, be it 17 February or 12 June.

So turn it off already. And then figure out if more money needs to be put into the program, whether it's for more converter subsidies, or for installing new antennas on the roofs of senior citizens, or for subsidizing cable for low-income folks in digital dead zones.

See more of Spectrumâ''s coverage of the Day Analog TV Dies here.


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