I Have Seen Tomorrow! Part Two

BLOG #32, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
I HAVE SEEN TOMORROW!
Part Two
August 8, 2012

As we know, an epiphany is a life-changing day. Looking backwards through time, we can pick out certain days that, had they not have been, our lives would have taken a different trajectory than was true with them. I strongly suspect that our tour through the great printing plant may prove to be one of them.

Our illustrious guide honed our sense of anticipation by hyping in almost every room we toured the piéce de résistance that awaited us at the end: something—we weren’t told what—that would radically change the publishing world.

But early on, we were ushered through the world we knew. What shocked us was our guide’s off-hand dismissal of them as being already passé. Examples: “This machine [huge, filling most of a very large room] was state of the art back in 2000” . . . . “This machine [yes it was built in Germany like so many of the finest and fastest printing machines] came out in 2003. Dated now” . . . . “This machine came out in 2005—revolutionary for its time” . . . . “This made real waves back in 2008″ . . . . This machine—oh it’s so 2010!” [as if it were already a dinosaur]. “This is one of our newest ones—2011—still the best of its kind.” And then: 2012.

After being plied with question about why 2012 was so significant in the history of printing, our guide pointed out that for over half a millennium—ever since Gutenberg—,speed has been the constant goal. If the fastest press known to man could run off 100 sheets in an hour, one that could do 200 represented a notable breakthrough. So there came a long line of ever-faster machines, machines that made obsolete everything slower that came before.

He showed us the current workhorse of the establishment: one they used for print-runs for 20,000 – 30,000 books at a time. They are so expensive to purchase and operate that they lose money on book-runs of fewer than 20,000 copies. I had a sudden flashback: hearing editors say, “Unless your book sells a minimum of 20,000 copies, we’re not interested in keeping it in print.” “So could this machine be the reason?” I asked our guide. “Bingo!” was the response.

But back to the break-through machine. Our guide informed us that throughout printing history lithography (dot-based printing) has had a finite limit—sort of like the old sound-barrier (many prophesied that no one would ever be able to fly faster than sound); but, as we all know, that threshold has long since been passed, so that today no one knows whether or not there is a limit to aeronautical speed.

Seeing the bemused look on our faces, our guide smiled and said, “Here’s the problem that has faced modern engineers for so long that many maintained we’d reached our printing speed ceiling. As the press spits out printed sheets at faster and faster speeds, you reach a point where the ink blurs, blobs (loses its distinctiveness), and you’re forced to back off. But companies—even nations, especially printing giants such as Germany and Japan—have for years been in an engineering race to see which one might accomplish the impossible: break the printing speed barrier.

And then we walked into another room—and there it was!. To the deep chagrin of Germany and Japan, Hewlett Packard’s engineers came up with the break-through. So America can yet triumph technologically over the rest of the world. Our guide tried to explain how, in layman’s terms, the miracle works: a different sequence of print color applications—I must confess, as being one of the world’s most technologically deprived thinkers, that I only vaguely understand why this one works and all the others don’t. All I know is that it does. And TerryBolinger and I were able to reverently touch one of fewer than a dozen such machines in the world.

Now, they say, using this breakthrough technology, press-runs may now speed up so fast, thanks to nanotechnology, that there appears to be no upper limits—opening up the probability that sooner than one might think, authors will be told that the next big machine will print so fast that only the works of best-selling authors selling in seven, eight, or nine figures will qualify.

So, does this mean all hope is gone for all of us lesser-lights? Is there no hope for the continuing existence of slower-selling but continuing-to-sell books that never go out of vogue?

We’ll get into that next Wednesday.

A Trembling World, Part Two

 A TREMBLING WORLD
 Part Two

 WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

In earlier blogs, I have referred to my own fascination with the turning of zeroes, how every fin de siecle results in a fruit basket-upset of all the values by which society lives.

Well, the last eleven years have proved that my assumption remains valid.  Almost nothing is the same as it was back in the 1990’s.

For one thing, never before has our planet been more interconnected, with national borders meaning less than today.  The world wide web has nailed the lid on that old order.  Thanks to this web, dictatorships are falling like so many dominoes in the Middle East.  But what takes their place is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps the supreme question is this: Is democracy possible in the Muslim World?  Or does the theocratic nature of Islam preclude the establishment of a true democracy.  As I write these words, thoughtful Egyptians are extremely apprehensive about what may follow Mubarak.  No one knows if Tunisia is capable of establishing a free society.  The same is true of Libya.  Turkey has been tilting backwards from a secular free society towards theocratic governance.

What we do know is that all across the Middle East there is a yearning for the freedoms we westerners take for granted.

STAGGERING TOWARDS A NEW TEMPLATE

What is coming at us, no one knows.  All we know is that there are ominously deep cracks in the old one.  According to famed economist, Kenneth Rogoff, “Europe and the U.S. are not experiencing a typical recession or even a double-dip Great Recession. That problem can ultimately be corrected with the right mix of conventional policy tools like quantitative easing and massive bailouts.  Rather, the West is going through something much more profound: a second Great Contraction of growth, the first being the period after the Great Depression.  It is a slow-or no-growth waltz that plays out not over months but over many years. [Quoted by Rana Foroohar, in “The Decline and Fall of Europe (and maybe the West),” Time, August 22, 2011].

In the U.S., as elsewhere in the world, what is desperately needed is not politicians but statesmen: men and women who put the good of their country over mere re-election.  In times like these, weakness at the top will inevitably prove fatal.  Not a temporizing Chamberlain but a Washington, a Lincoln, a TR or FDR—a Winston Churchill.  This is why so many current “leaders” are going to be “weighed in the balances and found wanting.” (See William Broyles “Oval Office Appeaser” (Newsweek, Aug. 22, 29, 2011).

Foroohar is anything but optimistic in her analysis: “The euro is the only viable alternative to the dollar as a global reserve currency.  The British pound is history, and emerging-market currencies are still too small, volatile and controlled.  And while plenty of investors are fleeing into gold, the world gold market isn’t big enough to accommodate serious dollar diversification without massive inflation in gold itself. . . .  It is unclear at this stage whether the euro will even survive the debt crisis that has engulfed Europe, one that is in many ways worse than the one we’re experiencing in the U.S.”

So, will Germany be the white horse that rides to Europe’s rescue” Foroohar is doubtful: “Even in good times, it is never easy to balance the fiscal needs of a high-cost exporter like Germany with those of cheap and cheerful service economies like Greece, Spain, and Portugal.  In bad times, it’s impossible.”

What about the U.S., are we likely to be the white horse again like we were after World Wars I and II?  Foroohar’s assessment of that likelihood is bleak: “both Europe and the U.S. will continue to struggle with the crisis of the old order.  Populations will have to come to terms with no longer being able to afford the public services they want.  Investors will have to cope with a world in which AAA assets aren’t what they used to be.  Businesses will deal with stagnating demand, and workers will face flat wages and high unemployment. . . .  It’s the end of an era in which the West and western ideas of how to create prosperity succeeded.  The crisis in Europe and the challenges yet to come on either side of the Atlantic take us into a whole new era.”

So, with Japan still reeling in the East, does that leave China as the answer?  Not likely.  China’s current growth rate of 8% will inevitably stall, and ominously its people are pouring billions into a housing bubble that may be even worse than those experienced by Japan and the U.S. (See Niall Ferguson’s “Gloating China, Hidden Problems,” Newsweek, August 22, 29, 2011).

So what are our options?

Next Wednesday, we’ll discuss some of them.