Monthly Archives: January 2017

The 411 on the 411

Suffice it to say I crave human interaction.

I take the subway generally because I enjoy watching people. I don’t have EZ pass because I actually like saying hello to toll takers. I go to the same Dunkin Donuts religiously because I like that they know I take a large with two cream and two sugar. Aside from making me look less bald (which is a miracle in itself), I’m seriously attached to Valerie who cuts my hair because I look forward to seeing her new tattoos or what new color her hair she is trying out. And if I see the older Indian gentlemen Saleem working the register at my Price Chopper, he’s so friendly and sincere I’ll stand in line for an extra few minutes just to say hello.

I used to feel much the same way about the 411. You are on the road, you get in a jam and 411 was there to help you out. Just hit those three friendly digits and all your questions could be answered.

Now in most instances the answers are of the automated variety – but over the years, when the computer was stymied by my thick Northeastern drawl, I would end up having quite lovely conversations with Beverley in Oklahoma, Sue in Illinois and Stu in Dallas all directory assistance operators who hooked me up in a time of need.

Operator: How can I help you
Me: How are you today?
Me: Thompson, Lake New York please
Operator: Thompson, Lake New York – Ok
Operator: What listing please?
Me: Some german beer place on the lake?
Operator: Checking german restaurant on Thompson Lake
Me: Maybe it’s Warners Lake
Operator: Checking german restaurant on Warner Lake
Operator: Do you have any more information?
Me: I promise you its the ONLY German sounding place in the whole area.
Operator: I have a Scholz-Zwicklbauer Hofbrau in East Berne
Me: Yes, Yes, Yes
Me: What’s your name?
Operator: Sue. Will that be all? I’ll connect you!
Me: Yes, Thank you Sue, you made my day.

The 411 operator was a life line. They were a human connection in an increasingly automated and de-personalized world. I’m sad to pass along the news there is no more 411 operator.

If you tried to find Zwicklbauer today you would be out of luck – and not just because it closed. (A tragedy for another day)

It seems 411 no longer has the default to a live operator. Which means if the program doesn’t understand your request, you are just screwed, abandoned to that smart ass Siri.

How do I know this – True Story.

Ding, dong, do
Computer: ATT Directory Assistance, name a city and state please
Me: Albany, New York
Me: The New York State Department of Transportation
Computer: The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles.
Me: NO
Me: The NEW YOOORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF TRANSSSPOORTAAATION
Computer: Sorry not finding New York State Department of Transportation
Me: Ok, THHHHHE NEW YORK DEEE OH TEEE
Computer: New York State Department of Licensing and Real Estate
Me: NO NO NO
Me: Operator please
Computer: Sorry, goodbye.

I repeated this transaction several times, over and over with the same outcome.

Frustrated, befuddled I wondered what’s wrong? In the past when we ran into these roadblocks Sue, Stu and Beverly were there to ride to my rescue. Now I’m just being unceremoniously dropped with no recourse!!! And by the way, its not like I’m looking for a foreign sounding Zwicklbaur, I’m looking for the damn DOT – any DOT in the state would have actually sufficed.

So I was on the road and thought I would use my driving time to get to the bottom of this mystery. At first, I was flummoxed because normally my journey of inquiry would start with 411, but clearly that’s off the table. Leading me to wonder, “how do you find out what happened to 411 without 411”? I was now feeling like I was in an episode of Mr. Robot. Do I call 911? I’m tempted to do this because this truly feels like an emergency to me. The fact that I can’t talk to a person is disorienting. So finally, desperate, I land on my last resort 611. Anyone who has ever called 611, which is everyone who owns a mobile phone, knows you are in for the treatment. Call at your own risk and be prepared to be kept on hold, dropped, transferred and misunderstood — it’s pure torture — but I was on a mission.

I call 611, connect with a customer service representative and proceed to explain my dire circumstance and deep desire to speak with management. For the life of them, the 611 operators couldn’t grasp my issue. They were completely zwicklbauerd by this existential dilemma. Their primary training is to give you your money back for the lack of a proper connection on 411. I thank them and explain nicely, that this isn’t about the money, which didn’t quite compute for most of them. Fueled by my fear of a world without 411 operators I pushed on.

Finally, after three drops, two wrong connections and probably close to an hour on the phone I end up with a young man named Carlo. Nirvana! Carlo actually understands my issue and says “that’s news to me, I’m going to need to look it up.” A few minutes later he’s back on the line and say’s – “you are right!” (Thank God I think, at least I’m not crazy.) Apparently, in April, ATT (or whoever actually provides the info service) did away with Bev, Stu, Sue and the rest of my friends at 411. I ask Carlo to make a note to his boss that this is “bogus” and that I intend to “file a complaint” with everyone I can from the PSC to my elected officials. I then of course throw in the obligatory “and by the way it’s not like the cost of my cell service has gone down.”

Most importantly, I thank Carlo profusely for having finally provided me with the 411 on directory assistance.  It wasn’t the answer I wanted, but it was an answer apparently only a human could provide.

And that’s where we’re are today. I’ll write my obligatory letters, file my impotent complaints secure in the knowledge that they will be ignored — chalked up to the price of progress. While I feel better that thanks to Carlo I got the 411 on the 411, I’m still wistful for the good old days of directory assistance and for Stu, Bev and Sue – the humans on the other end of the line.

Update: Since this post was shared, I’ve learned that Verizon still has live customer service operators. “Can you hear me now?” just took on a new meaning! 

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Dropping Like Flies

Have you ever heard of “rapid plasma deposition?” I haven’t, but it sounds geeky cool right? It sounds like the future.

Rapid plasma deposition is a technology that a company called Norsk Titanium deploys to make cutting edge aerospace components. Sounds even cooler, right?  But the coolest thing yet, in August of 2016, the administration and SUNY Poly promised that a state investment of $125 million in Norsk Titanium would create 400 jobs and leverage over $1 billion dollars over ten years for the world’s first industrial-scale additive 3-D printing facility for aerospace production in Plattsburgh, New York.

In the wake of  SUNY Poly projects seemingly dropping like flies around the state, I wonder today if this project is next?

After all, the company is only 12 years old (only 4 of those in production). According to their Linkedin page, the company employs somewhere between 51-200 people (primarily in Norway). Disturbingly, I can only find $25 million in private funding raised and that followed the inclusion in the 2016 New York State budget of the $125 million to support the development of Norsk.  Most importantly though, I wonder if the economic / technology analysis made by SUNY Poly in securing the deal in 2016, matches with the Zemsky-ESD metrics of the New Year.  Late Friday, ESD pulled the plug on a $40 million “transformational” Rochester photonics project concluding that the “deal does not meet the standards required for a significant state investment of taxpayer dollars…and as a result, the state is no longer pursuing the project with Photonica.” It was just the latest project in the SUNY Poly portfolio to be scuttled.

So today we wonder, does the $125 million dollar deal with Norsk “meet the standards for a significant state investment?”

Here’s the problem, despite being an occasionally smart guy, who has spent some time in economic development, who actually nurtures an abiding interest in science and even after researching this company, I have no idea of the viability of Norsk’s technology in the marketplace. As in zero. And no offense to Commissioner Zemsky or my former colleagues at ESD, for whom I have great respect, I doubt they really know either.

But, I know someone who does, Alain Kaloyeros.

I first met Alain in 1997, when I took over day-to-day management of the New York State Science and Tech Foundation (NYSTAR’s predecessor). Alain at the time was running one of the State’s 14 Centers for Advanced Technology (CAT).  Every year, each CAT received $1 million dollars, regardless of their performance. We decided to change that and work to reward CATs more funding from that $14 million dollar appropriation based on performance, with an emphasis on economic impact.  That idea thrilled Alain, he loved the competition and he of course out performed all of the other Centers. But this was just small potatoes, Alain had much bigger plans.

Kaloyeros went on to head the Center for Excellence in Nanotechnology, the most advanced research facility of its kind in the world. The Center would become the home of Sematech and literally thousands of researchers, engineers, students, from companies around the world including: IBM, Tokoyo Electron, Samsung, ASML, Samsung and many, many more. Under his leadership the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering was established and in 2004 graduated the world’s first PH.D degrees in nanoscience. Let’s just say, in the parlance of the day, his accomplishments are not “overrated.”

But or the record, while any mention has been expunged from its website, the institution that we call SUNY Poly and the state of the art edifice that stands at corner of Fuller and Washington, would have never come into existence without Governor Pataki’s unyielding support, intellectual curiosity, vision and yes the checks and balances that defined Alain’s early years of ascendancy. Alain may have been hired under the late Mario Cuomo, but it was George Pataki who set him on the path to be a modern-day Robert Moses of New York technology infrastructure. (A few months ago, I’m sure that description would have rankled some, today they are probably giddy that anyone else is claiming responsibility.) It’s been a source of great disappointment to many Pataki alumni that in recent years Kaloyeros went all native and acceded to a desire to try to rewrite this history with Putin like accuracy. But as I like to say, “it’s just business.” As the ultimate salesman, Alain always understood how to trade in the currency necessary to curry favor, win continued support and grow his influence.

Alain is charismatic, personable, funny,  dictatorial, irreverent, brilliant, stubborn, at times flattering and others infuriating.  But most importantly, when he wanted to, he had an uncanny ability to make you feel like you could understand the promise of science and technology to the future of New York.  He didn’t dumb it down as much as he talked it up and made you feel like you were inside on the ground floor of technologies that are driving the world economy. He used that ability to convince a series of Governors, elected officials and CEO’s of tech companies, large and small, to invest and invest big in his plans, his projects, his dreams.

To his credit, Kaloyeros outlasted and outmaneuvered University Presidents, Majority Leaders, Speakers, State Senators, Chancellors, Commissioners and Trustees. He managed to free himself legally, not just from the oversight of the University at Albany, he actually got himself his own college. With the Fuller Road and Ft. Schuyler Foundations, he made IDAs and LDCs look like quaint, stodgy development instruments. That’s one hell of a bureaucratic and political feat.

During our time working together it was clear that he regarded Empire State’s Development approach to job development as prehistoric, incremental at best. We disagreed on this point – even as I came to appreciate the value of investing in high-tech infrastructure. Now, let’s address that a little and get some history straight.  Alain was not alone in his pursuit of the semiconductor industry. Under Governor Pataki landing a fab was a priority for every department of government; from ESD, to the Office of Regulatory Affairs, from SUNY to the Departments of Labor and Tax. It’s why in 2003 Pataki was the Semiconductor Industry Association’s Noyce Man of the Year.  It was also the goal pursued by multiple talented partners in local government from Saratoga County to Oneida County, from Orange County to Genesee County.

Nor was Alain responsible for the Global Foundries deal.

But to be 1000% clear — there would be no Global Foundries in Malta without SUNY Poly and there would be no SUNY Poly without Alain Kaloyeros.

Science and technology is a dangerous area for many elected officials because it’s an area typically outside their depth and as a result they too often cede authority hoping to get results. As a result, over the years, unconstrained and empowered, Alain Kaloyeros has become a one man public sector version of Kleiner Perkins, making high stakes and increasingly higher risk bets on the future of technology with the State of New York’s checkbook.  But here’s the thing and there is no escaping it, these investments were all made in the light of day, with great fanfare. This is not news, what’s news is that people are finally taking note of the risk.

Today, Alain faces some trouble. Like Norsk, I have no idea what’s real and what’s not. People always surprise, but I’m quite certain Alain’s motivations had zero to do with self-enrichment. He’s a builder, a salesman, an entrepreneur with an ego so huge, that it’s surpassed only by his capacity for work. But for whatever his flaws, he articulated a positive future for our state and helped transform the Capital Region. He had the amazing ability to make those who desperately want to revive upstate New York, believe that he had the magic formula to make it happen. We all wanted to believe and some wanted to believe so badly that they looked past the obvious red flags.

So what of Norsk?  Alain has supreme confidence in his ability to see the future of technology and despite his current difficulties, I’m sure he remains unshaken in the belief that it’s a good bet for the State.  He might be right, I hope he’s right, but my guess is we never know and another fly drops.

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Road Trip!

Governor Cuomo’s decision to take the State of the State on a road trip out of the Capital should not be a surprise to anyone. A persistent and reasonable desire to control the story line accompanied by a nagging need “to do something different,” is something most administrations eventually contend. A need made ever more urgent as the years pass. More importantly though, traditionally the State of the State was a fundamentally uncomfortable experience for an Executive…after all it’s one of the few places they have zero control over.  You are a guest in the Speaker’s house.

During the Pataki years we had to negotiate with Speaker Silver over everything — from what time the Governor could use the chamber to practice, to how many seats we were given for our guests, to what the signage at the lectern looked like. You don’t control the cameras or the security and run the high risk that between nosy reporters and gabby operatives you will read about your initiatives before the Governor ever gets to the podium. (We would typically omit key announcements from rehearsal drafts.) And this was before everyone from the 3rd grade up had a cell phone that took HD video.

Most of all the setting ensures that the Legislature, the Comptroller, the Attorney General and the Judiciary are presented as co-equals in government. The cramped venue, the brightly lit chamber allows the Legislature and other constitutional office holders to be real actors in the play. They can clap wildly, sit stoically and yes, they might even stand awkwardly behind you. They can boo, walk out or shout interruptions — their reaction is on display to be recorded and dissected in real-time, all in Technicolor.  Finally, there is little that can be done with trickery or sleight of hand through the magic of technology. There are only two ways in and out of the place, no Powerpoint, no JibJab visual aids (thank God) – so you are stuck delivering a speech, hemmed in on all sides by people who don’t necessarily share your agenda. I’m sure for Cuomo the thought of it must feel like the Alamo today.  (Save he wouldn’t need to worry what Kathy Hochul is doing behind him on the rostrum.)

So while, it’s the Governor’s play, it’s the Assembly’s stage. For the Executive it’s like throwing a party in someone else’s house and that someone just might be itching for a fight.

That was a big reason why in 1996 we took the budget presentation to the Egg.  That was our house.  We controlled the audience, the seating, all the stagecraft.  Go to the tape –it’s easier to control the outburst of a Charles Barron in the Egg then it is of the late Tony Seminerio in the Assembly chamber.  And if legislators didn’t want to clap for our initiatives — we packed more than enough of our own people in the place to make noise. It was in many ways our State of the State…after the State of the State.

I can confess over the years several of us staffers (me included) would propose to Governor Pataki that he take the State of the State on the road…for many of the same kind of reasons it’s happening today. Let me tell you over 12 years it’s hard to keep it fresh. And while the political instincts of George Pataki told him it was probably a good idea to take the message to the people, the former state Senator and Assemblyman ultimately held the tradition in higher regard. While Governor Pataki often warred with the Legislative leaders and ultimately struck the most important check on their authority in Silver v. Pataki — as a former member there was always a level of respect and camaraderie held with much of the rank and file.

At the heart of the issue today isn’t really where on the map the State of the State will be given, it’s what’s the future of Governor Cuomo’s relationship with the Legislature. He has the constitutional tools to run rough shod over a divided Legislature – but by alienating them he is pushing them together and together, they can disrupt his agenda. Taking the State of the State show on the road might be the right short-term political move, but long-term it might be one of those road trips you wish you hadn’t taken.

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