What’s in a name:  The downfall of Westinghouse

 There was a time when Westinghouse was a synonym with American industrial might, rivaling the likes of General Electric. How are the mighty fallen! The company, now a unit at Toshiba, sought bankruptcy protection, citing $10 billion in debt.

As the technological market became more challenging, Westinghouse tried different strategies to stay relevant. It first bought CBS in 1995, entering broadcasting and lending the Westinghouse brand to everything from home appliances to solar panels. In 1999, it ditched all its other businesses to focus on nuclear reactors.

By the time CBS sold itself to Viacom, there was little left of Westinghouse but the name and the reactors. The nuclear bet was catastrophic. The simple, modular reactors it built never caught on, not to mention resistance by the public.

Identity is the most valuable asset for both an individual and a company. It is in permanent flux yet it has a constancy that makes it identifiable to others. Once a person or a firm becomes unrecognizable, bad things usually follow.

‘Bad luck’ or not, cancer must be stopped

 

Researchers that stirred controversy in 2015 by claiming that cancer was mostly due to mutation are back. This time, however, they did their homework. They backed up their point with a much broader sample and rephrased their findings to avoid misunderstandings.

The newest study was based on health records from 69 countries. Drawing from it, “they conclude that 66 percent of cancer-causing genetic mutations arise from the ‘bad luck’ of a healthy, dividing cell making a random mistake when it copies its DNA,” reports Scientific American.

An easy, first impression would be misleading: that preventive measures are pointless. But the findings don’t mean that you should smoke at leisure, for example. To be more precise, the study says that “the difference in cancer rates in different tissues can still be the result of different underlying rates of cell division”.

In other words, the more often a cell in any given organ divides, the higher the risk of a cancerous mutation. “Cells of the large intestine divide frequently, and 5 percent of people develop cancer in that tissue,” the Scientific American article says. “Cells of the small intestine divide rarely, and only 0.2 percent of people develop cancer there.”

Here are two reasons for caution. The first one is that we may assume the study not to be conclusive. Cancer is a widespread disease. Different researchers draw different conclusions from the same body of facts. Indeed, Dr. Yusuf Hannun, a critic of the study said he was “not very impressed with the overall conclusion.” Dr. Hannun, director of the Stony Brook Cancer Center led a 2015 study showing that the vast majority of cancers are due to extrinsic factors, not random mistakes in DNA copying.

The second reason to approach the study with care are implications for healthcare. In the United States, lawmakers introduced a bill Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act.  As Louise Aronson wrote in an OpEd for The New York Times, the legislation “would enable companies to coerce employees into participating in wellness programs that could require them to undergo genetic testing and provide genetic information about themselves and their families.”

From there to turning people down for hiring or promotion is just one step. A company would never tell you that the decision was based on your genetic makeup —i.e., that you are more likely to develop cancer. That would be illegal. They would simply tell you any other reason.

Why America is making Swiss watchmakers nervous

Swiss watchmakers are wondering about slowing sales in the United States. As the economy is recovering, with low unemployment and strong consumer spending, the reasons are a bit mystifying.

The immediate causes are mostly known. Purchases of Swiss timepieces by foreign visitors in New York and other destinations in the U.S. make up a substantial share of global sales –in the case of Hublot, a luxury watchmaker, tourists account for half of its sales in places like New York, Miami and Los Angeles.

Restrictions on travel to the U.S. from a number of countries may have deterred other tourists as well.

Some sales are certainly being lost to the Apple Watch and other devices of that type, especially in the lower band of models, those priced $300-$3,000.

On a broader point, how wealth creation works in a modern economy is virtually impossible to untangle. If less tourism leads to smaller spending, retailers in turn may need to cut costs, including closing stores. So begins the ripple effect, hitting shopping centers and other commercial venues. That causes job cuts, shrinking consumer spending: the jobless will cut out discretionary purchases, the hospitality industry serving those salespeople–from restaurants to hotels–will lose customers and so on.

The possibility of a longer term trend among the famous millennials, however, has Swiss watchmakers observing nervously. Younger consumers may be reluctant to fork out $15,000 for a mechanical piece of luxurious jewelry. But it’s not only the likes of Omega, Rolex, and Audemars Piguet who follow this development with unease. It may well impact other big-ticket items, from refrigerators to cars.