Half-price ebooks

Until March 9, during the Smashwords EBook promotion Puppeteer and Troubles both futuristic thrillers, will be half-price, if you quote the coupon. Links:

Puppeteer: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/69696  Coupon: RU85M

Troubles:  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/174203  Coupon: EU84T

The power play!

When some people get their share of what a group wanted, the first thing they do is seek a bigger share. Following on from the previous post, we won the right to purchase a durene-rich gasoline stream. Now what? Superficially, the answer should be obvious: design the plant, build it, float a company, etc. What actually happened was that I got a much deeper view of how the management of large companies operates. Basically, the egos of many of the managers get in the way. The first thing that actually happened was that ICINZ wished to take over completely the development, thus leaving the small company with nothing to do. They argued we had no experience and could contribute nothing; my concern was that they had equally no experience in a venture this size. I wanted the parent company ICI to do it, and had that happened, I would have been happy to walk away. The UK parent was clearly competent to do this, but it was far from clear that ICINZ could do it. I tried to get them to hire a project manager from the UK, but without luck. However, it was not all bad. We managed a concession: the right to purchase the eventual product at factory price, i.e. nobody could get it cheaper. While ICINZ was busy getting the project underway, we had to work out ways of using the product in further downstream ventures. One of the stranger outcomes of these maneuverings was that the joint venture company had to have its own Board, and it decided to call itself ICI Synchem. The small company put forward the founder with a legal background as its director.

What happened over the next two years could even make a small book. Basically the tension grew, and at one stage I was called into a Board meeting to act as a witness. Our lawyer then accused ICINZ of intending to supply durene to an American company to make pyromellitic acid there, which could compete with the proposed venture. ICINZ denied this vigorously, things got heated, but there was no evidence provided. To maintain the joint venture, that director had to resign, and I found myself a director of an ICI company. (Actually, I was already – that is another story – so that made two.)

Two years later, during which the venture spent $5 million developing the project, the New Zealand government killed the project by selling the synfuels plant and refusing to include the supply contract. Worse, they sold it to one company, without competitive tender or negotiation. They did not inform us, and recall, ICI at the time was one of the largest chemical companies in the world, and one of the largest methanol producers. Even apart from the durene, ICI at least could have been a bidder. ICI then walked away from the venture when it became apparent the new owners would not negotiate supply, with ICI Australia taking over and absorbing ICINZ. There was no legal action for breach of contract.

Why did they do that? Who knows? The Synfuels plant was not a success, but recall in a previous post I showed that it would have been reasonably straightforward to make it earn up to $500 million per year more, and simply selling most of the methanol it made would have made it much more profitable. This illustrates a major problem with a government owning a major productive facility: politicians tend to have fixed ideas, and they apply them wherever they can. This Synfuels plant was so outside their experience they simply had no understanding of what they had, and since it started with the opposition party, why not make it look as bad as possible? That illustrates one of the problems with democracy that will become more prominent in my future history novels: too many voters do not put in sufficient effort to understand what they are voting for.

Why no legal challenge? For ICI it was not necessarily a bad outcome. Their PEEK and PES factories were now no longer under pressure, and since essentially all the work that had been carried out could be called research and development, with the takeover it probably qualified for the Australian 150% tax write-offs. ICINZ had also collected the minor party’s share of the cash, and finally, after shifting staff into ICI Synchem, it could unload certain staff without some of the financial liabilities. Our financiers also did not sue because they had their eyes on the state-owned Bank of New Zealand, which was about to be privatized. The small company was effectively wiped out financially. (At that time, contingency law suits were banned in New Zealand, and when you take a financial hit like that, there is no possibility of paying hideously expensive lawyers, whose only incentive is to keep the suit going as long as possible.) Then, to make things worse, shortly after this, Wall Street decided to collapse. I was down to the financial survival mode! One thing I did have was plenty of spare time so I decided to try my hand at writing again. Rightly or wrongly I felt this unusual history might give me inspiration for novels that were a little different.

 

My first career “backward step”

Sometimes, one of the problems of being successful in an organization is that you end up getting more work, usually the sort of work you do not need. In my previous post, I mentioned that, early in my career at the national chemistry lab, I managed to get a report on bioethanol in a very short period of time. Accordingly, certain administrators seemed to decide that I must have been good at this so I got the job of correlating and reviewing the overall Department’s efforts in response to energy. This involved sending out requests for information and correlating the responses. Everybody sending a response was senior to me, but of course the request for the response, although it came from me, had somewhat more senior backing. The request was for outlines of what projects were to be worked on in the coming year, how many people were working on them, budgets, and hoped-for outcomes. I duly submitted the report to Head Office and tried to return to doing something useful.

If I thought that would be the end of that, I was in for a disappointment. Next year I got the same job, presumably because they thought I was good at this sort of thing. So, out went the requests, and in came the responses, and I did the same thing again, except I made one addition: I correlated what had happened with what was supposed to happen based on the previous year’s responses. The results were quite hilarious: the first ever responses had claimed huge effort, a clear response to an urgent crisis, but when the time came to own up to progress, there were dramatic reductions in effort. I dug deeper, and came up with further surprises. One particular example was that several years previously, to show that it was taking forestry seriously, the Department had set out to tackle wood waste, and various Divisions set up a Wood Waste Working Party, which had been touted by Head Office as an example of what was being done to address this problem. What I found was that over the several years of its existence, it had never met, and most certainly had never worked. So there was a lot of smoke, but not much fire.

The report, when it went in, probably created more heat than the energy program. I was called in to meet an Assistant Director-General, and told that this report was unsatisfactory. My response was that anyone could edit it, I would accept any changes to grammar or style, but if anyone wanted to change the content, my name had to come off it. There was something of a stand-off. I have no idea what happened to that report but I was never asked to do anther, nor was anyone else.

This failed situation is, I suspect, only far too common. It is a problem anywhere where leaders make announcements regarding what is going to happen, or what is happening, when they do not know for sure that it is happening. Particularly susceptible are voted politicians, because ultimately, their priority is getting re-elected, senior public servants, because they always want to look good, and business leaders who care mainly about their short-term share prices. As long as it is not too critical, it is easier to ignore failure than try to ensure it does not happen. This problem of how to get things done is a theme of much of my fiction writing, and part of the reason I am writing this series of “future history” novels. Also, of course, examples like the one above help give ideas for fiction. Fictional scenes are just that: fiction. However, they can be inspired by reality. In an ebook I intend to self-publish soon, called “A Face on Cydonia”, there is a scene inspired by the above.

A valuable role for speculative fiction?

I heard a definition of “speculative fiction” as fiction, usually set in the near future, as being based on background that “might happen”. Why do that? Most certainly it is not to predict the future, because anyone who tries to do that is going to get egg on face. The first book I wrote in the future history series I am writing had a lot of back story, and one part had a protagonist walk into a museum in Kazakhstan and look at historical photos regarding the upheaval following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 2018. I had just made my first submission when that date became ridiculous. No, what I think is an important function of such speculative fiction is to alert people of the consequences of things going wrong, in the hope the problems can be averted.

Puppeteer is technically about corruption and terrorism, but it also has some important points to make about the economies in general. One such point is the price of petrol. In Puppeteer, at one point one of the protagonists fills his car with petrol, and admittedly it will be a large tank, but pays a thousand dollars. One of the other protagonists at one point cannot pay the electricity bill, despite being self-employed and having plenty of work. The reason: she works in Los Angeles installing security systems, and needs to get to jobs in a van. Until she sorted her routes out more efficiently, the cost of fuel took virtually all her cash. These are very minor parts of the story, in total less than ¼% of it, but hopefully it might get people thinking about the effects of excessively priced oil. And it will become excessively priced because there is a limit to how much is there.

Think about what the changes would involve if we do nothing. First, food prices would rise in a very spectacular way, partly because food distribution has become highly centralized. Thus a few major centers handle most of a given product, thus involving heavy transport costs.  Also, food production currently involves a lot of oil consumption, if only for driving vehicles and providing fertilizer. One way to reduce oil consumption would require people to eat locally produced food, but the quality and variation would drop significantly.

So, this is a major problem and the future is dreadful? No, that is not the way to look at it at all. I believe most of these things can be averted, but only if we get on to them now. What most citizens do not realize is how long it takes to change manufacturing to a new process. It can take up to ten years to properly develop a new chemical process, and to acquire sufficient engineering knowledge to build a reasonably large-scale plant. It then takes decades to build enough to replace the current oil infrastructure, which was built over a century. These things do not get done by themselves; we have to decide what we want our future to look like, and then make it happen, but why are we going to do that if we do not even recognize it as a problem? This is where I think literature has a role to play. Not by preaching, but by showing, it can wake up people. What do you think?