JimPinto.com - Connections for Growth & Success™
No. 231: 8 June 2007

Keeping an eye on technology futures.
Business commentary - no hidden agendas.
New attitudes, no platitudes.

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13 mins.

Alchemists sell ICS/Triplex to Rockwell Automation

In Sept. 2000, I chronicled the decline and fall of ICS a UK-based publicly-held industrial automation company that spun out of control. ICS had acquired several ailing companies - Max Controls (part of venerable Leeds & Northrup, which itself was sold off piecemeal to competitor Honeywell), Triplex, Transmitton and others.

With total revenue of about 70M at the time, ICS had a lot of bank-debt and significant losses. As ICS waited and waited for a "white-knight" to save them here's what I wrote in JimPinto.com eNews, July 24, 2000:

    "The problem with this type of company is that, although it has some good pieces and management, nobody wants to buy it, because nobody wants the headaches. The only ones willing to buy a pig-in-a-poke are vulture-capitalists who will carve up the carcass and sell it off piecemeal."
As if on cue, ICS was acquired in Sept. 2000 by a UK venture-capital firm called Alchemy, which made a tender offer for the publicly held stock. I chronicled the story in JimPinto.com eNews (complete story, weblink below):
    "Tritax, the Alchemy subsidiary that made a low-ball offer for ICS (UK) currently have garnered about 63% of the equity. ICS is a publicly held company, and is expected to be 'de-listed' from the London Stock Exchange on September 13th. Some of the stockholders, who are still withholding their support for what they think is a ridiculous price, suggest that 63% is not enough to enforce a compulsory acquisition and the shareholders can only be forced to sell if Tritax owns 90%. A couple of ICS people considered staging a management buyout, but they were not gutsy enough to make the move and, after some initial noise, were never heard from again. So Tritax and Alchemy bought the whole pig-farm."
The final act in the ICS saga was recently played out with the sale of ICS/Triplex (revenues about 70M) to Rockwell Automation for 110M in cash. Wow! Alchemy certainly converted the ICS pig-in-a-poke into gold in under 7 year. They paid just 1.7m for the whole lot. Then they sold Max Controls to Metso a month after ICS was acquired, and then sold Transmitton to Siemens in 2006. And now this 110M payout. Hats off to the Alchemists!

Now, what does this say about Rockwell Automation? Did they just buy a fattened-up pig? Just a few months ago they bought an Ireland-based Systems Integrator for an exorbitant price. Now another questionable acquisition in England for a price that is admittedly "dilutive to earnings in the first fiscal year". Would you like to bet that the "dilutive earnings" continues? Unless Rockwell changes the game and chops it up - which it undoubtedly will. Hmmmm...

Click Rockwell Automation to acquire ICS Triplex

Click Read the 2000 story - ICS Group (UK) Downhill Debacle

Click ICS/Triplex website

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Disappearing Bees

Around the world, honeybees are vanishing, leaving humans desperately trying to figure out the meaning of the exodus. Entire colonies of bees are flying off and not returning. Many commercial beekeepers are finding empty beehives, with just a queen and a few immature bees. The rest of the bees are simply gone, leaving behind not even dead bodies.

This sudden and mysterious disappearance of bees seems like a sci-fi horror story. But this is happening NOW, across the US. It is a new and deadly malady named colony collapse disorder, or CCD. This mystery is rapidly joining the list of major threats such as mad cow disease, West Nile virus, SARS and avian flu.

The CCD scenario is this: worker bees fly off in search of pollen and nectar, but their homing instruments, usually good for miles, seem to fail and they vanish. Other bees assigned duties within a hive take over the foraging role, until they, too, disappear. In a few days, the tens of thousands of bees in a healthy colony dwindle to a few hundred and then finally just to the queen and her attendants.

Beekeepers and entomologists are alarmed by the speed and scale of the losses. It's estimated that 25% of the estimated 2.4 million beehives nationwide have been lost to CCD just since last fall.

Absolutely no one yet knows why the bees are disappearing. Some people think it may be pesticides which are causing disorientation for bees. Perhaps genetically modified foods. Even cellphones - perhaps cellphone microwaves are wrecking the bees' radar homing mechanisms. Others think it's a fungus. These are just theories and everyone is still guessing.

This disappearing-bee crisis threatens to wipe out production of crops which are dependent on bees for pollination. Bee pollination is involved in the production of a wide range of fruits, vegetables and forage crops - apples, avocados, cherries, cranberries, cucumbers, melons and sunflowers. The estimated loss is about $ 15B a year.

Click The Flight of the Honeybee - A Mystery That Matters

Click Declining honeybees a threat to food supply

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Declaring e-mail bankruptcy

In 2006 6 trillion business e-mails were sent. E-mail traffic has nearly doubled in the past 2 years. And now e-mail is giving many people the feeling that it's too much; their work is never done; they get the feeling of being overloaded.

Like so many other technology innovations, the convenience of e-mail has become too much of a burden for many people. Swamped by an unmanageable number of messages and plagued by a huge amount of annoying spam and viruses, some users are declaring "email bankruptcy". They are turning off e-mail entirely and are moving back to the telephone as their preferred means of communication.

Perhaps more common, many are simply abandoning an old email address and starting fresh. Of course, this means sending emails to those you WANT to e-hear from. And the cycle starts again.

After spending 80 hours trying to clear out his backlogged inbox, Stanford Law School professor and Wired columnist Larry Lessig decided to surrender. "Bankruptcy is now my only option" he wrote in a mass message to his correspondence "creditors".

Here's how Lessig erased his debts and started again:

  1. Collect the email addresses of everyone you haven't replied to. Paste them into the BCC field of a new message which you send to yourself.
  2. Write a polite note explaining your predicament. Apologize profusely and promise to keep up with your email in the future.
  3. Ask for a resend of anything particularly pressing, and offer to give such messages special attention.
Some people don't want to go through the drastic-seeming measure of declaring total e-mail bankruptcy. Instead, they are trying to discourage the use of e-mail in favor of more personal calls or instant messages.

Click Declaring email bankruptcy

Click Wired: How To: Be More Productive

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Google Streetside Views

Google has just recently given Google-maps an incredible real-world addition. In some cities this let's you get a street side view of the area you are currently in. This is not just a static image; it also lets you move along the street in a smooth manner and even more amazing it will let you change your angle and continue moving in that direction.

Google is working with Immersive Media, a company that has an eleven lens camera capable of taking full, high-resolution video while driving along city streets. Each captured pixel is geo-tagged and primed for consumer use. Their main clients up till now have been city planners and the defense industry. But, the application ideas are coming fast.

Google Streetside views are currently available only in specific cities in the US - San Francisco, Las Vegas, Denver, New York and Miami. Other cities and areas will evidently follow.

People have started to complain about privacy - in some cases, the insides of home and buildings can be seen. One lady typed in her address and the screen showed a street-level view of her building. As she zoomed in, she could see her cat sitting on a perch in the living room window of her second-floor apartment.

Wow! What next?

Click Google Satellite Maps

Click Google Launches Streetside View with Tech from ImmersiveMedia

Click Google's mapping feature includes unwitting subjects

Click Try it yourself (currently for some US cities only):

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Al Gore's Book - "The Assault on Reason"

I am not advocating that Al Gore should be a candidate for President. But, I have seen him speak recently - articulate and impassioned. If he had spoken like this, he would have won the disputed 2000 presidential election.

I've been reading his new book "The Assault on Reason" which demonstrates his clear thinking, historical insights and insightful views of current events. If he had written this book before the 2004 election, Bush would have been out. Now again, I'm not saying Al Gore should be President - but I've gotta tell you, his book is a strong indictment of current administration failures.

Gore says American democracy is in danger - not from any one set of ideas, but from unprecedented changes in the environment. 30-second media messages sell flash over substance. In 2008, the American presidential election will spend over $1B, with 80% of budgets going to TV advertising. Is THAT how the American people will make a reasoned choice?

Says Al Gore (extract from Amazon.com book summary):

    "We are at a pivotal moment in American democracy. The persistent and sustained reliance on falsehoods as the basis of policy, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, has reached levels that were previously unimaginable.

    "Reasoned, focused discourse is vital to our democracy to ensure a well-informed citizenry. But this is difficult in an environment in which we are experiencing a new pattern of trivial serial obsessions that take over the airwaves for weeks at a time.

    "Never has it been more vital for us to face the reality of our long-term challenges, from the climate crisis to the war in Iraq, to the deficits and health and social welfare. Today, reason is under assault by forces using sophisticated techniques such as propaganda, psychology, and electronic mass media."

Al Gore's key point: Reason - cold, calculating and unimpassioned - must always determine how we act. But today, three things are operating together to suppress Reason (my own edited comments):
  • The politics of Fear: Six years after 9/11, the rhetoric of Fear continues to dominate. Continuous repetition of groundless Fears makes people believe that war in Iraq stops terrorists from attacking America. Fear is used as the rationale for wire-tapping, the excuse for torture, repeated violations of the US Constitution.
  • The politics of Faith: Stressing the "struggle between good and evil" to stifle criticism and dissent. This past week I saw an interviewer asking presidential candidates if they believed in God, and whether they prayed. That kind of question would be unthinkable in Europe. Yet not one contender refused to answer for fear of losing votes. The US Constitution provides for separation of Church and State - but today, Religion seems to be a primary requirement for getting elected.
  • The politics of Wealth: Democracy is suppressed by Wealth interests. Congressional lobbying, corruption and the purchase of government policy is commonplace. Big business owns and manipulates the Media. Large companies like Halliburton are criticized, but nobody acts. Congress is powerless to achieve anything meaningful.
Read the book excerpts (link below). That may tempt you to buy this significant book and spend some time reading it.

Click TIME Book Excerpt - The Assault on Reason

Click Review and buy on Amazon.com

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Shreesha Chandra [Shreesha.Chandra@in.yokogawa.com] sent this regarding my discussion of "female futures" (eNews 9 May 2007):
    "India, the largest democracy is actually ruled (by proxy) by a woman (Sonia Gandhi). In one of the recent elections, one of India's largest states elected a woman (Mayawati) as the Chief Minister. There are already several more women in the political forefront.

    "The neighboring Asian countries are following these footsteps. Bangaladesh (Rehman/Zia) and Sri Lanka have women leaders with enough substance/following to rule the country. Pakistan is slowly moving away from Musharraf and leaning towards Bhutto.

    "Already one key European country (Germany) is headed by a woman (Merkel) and more may follow suit. The US is following by showing open disapproval of Bush and inclination to Hillary Clinton.

    "If only few more follow - UK, Russia and China - we may have powerful women leaders ruling the world (forcing even the Middle East to re-think). This may be the right way out of the current mess the world is in. More accommodative and peaceful decisions may emerge in all spheres."

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In response to my article on "Compensation Styles" (24 May 07) Jake Brodsky [jBrodsk@wsscwater.com] discusses how this can be applied for engineers:

    "There are two pieces to any engineer's pay: The first is performance, as you said. We're talking about hitting milestones in project designs. However, there is also a back end, where the efficacy of the design becomes an issue.

    "Some of the goals aren't easily met or measured. This is why engineering performance is so damned difficult to measure in real time. Many features of the engineers work won't be known until long after the life cycle of the product is over. This is not some elementary school math problem with neat clean data and only one correct answer. Elements of marketing, finance, and user ergonomics/psychology/education come into play as well.

    "The second is a retainer fee of sorts. Engineers learn things from each job they work on. With any intelligence, most of them ought to get better with each project. You want to keep that learning in-house, so that you don't need to have some new guy re-learn all these ancillary bits of background. Thus, to keep the engineer from walking off the job and on to another one with the hard earned experience, one ought to consider a retainer element to the pay structure.

    "The engineer's managers probably have better intuition than actual milestones to show how well the engineer is doing. And if executive managers were real-world people, they'd realize that this is how things need to be. The very best coaches know that you can't always put a player in a particular position based just upon statistics. There are individual motivations, psychology, preferences etc. which come into play.

    "My feeling is that compensating an engineer for performance is not as straightforward as you make it out to be. I think the sort of methods you advocate are missing some key aspects of what a good engineer is supposed to design for. This is most definitely a case of "be careful of what you ask for, because you might get it."

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Neil Brown [neil.brown@rtel.com] has a hot-button - accelerating technology:

    "Your piece about 1 GB memory sticks for $5 brings back a memory (human!) of a paper I presented a few times around 1999/2000. It was related to 2nd generation DCS products (example, Honeywell's TDC3000) versus non-proprietary, modular, 3rd generation systems (like DeltaV).

    "My opening question was: 'If computer memory cost as much now (1999) as when I started in this business in 1974, how much would the memory in my laptop cost now?'

    "The answers ranged from $10,000 to $10,000,000. The correct answer was $640,000,000. Here's the argument:

    "The (magnetic core) memory on the first system I worked on was 1 per 24-bit word; say $0.5 per byte. Inflation from 1974 to 1999 was pretty close to 10 times; therefore in 1999 terms, the memory was $5/byte. My laptop had 128Mbytes memory - do the math! On this basis, your 1GB stick should cost well over $1 billion....

    "The point was that the consequences of all this are all around - personal computers, PDAs, the internet, mobile communications, satellite TV etc. etc. and have ALREADY caused irreversible changes to society. The controls industry is conservative, so changes more slowly, but change is never in doubt.

    "Despite all this, I know for a fact that several of the people I presented to went on to buy already obsolescent 2nd generation systems and are now pretty much left high and dry in an evolutionary dead-end - nothing changes...."

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