Friday, February 20, 2009

T. J. Pughe: Chip-Making Fool




“I first assumed, of course, embezzlement,” T. J. Pughe said. He
stared at his production manager. Pughe continued, putting
his hand on a stack of accounting print-outs. “But these records
balance perfectly. I concluded, therefore, that the facts speak
for themselves. I don’t understand them. But I accept them. Now
I want you to tell me about this. How the hell did you boost
net profits by almost two percent? And why the hell did you
bury the gains and savings in summary reports instead
of celebrating this in a flash memo and also in
your accomplishment analysis? Why did you want to see
me pissed off and suspicious when just as easily you could
see me licking my chops at the profit increase and signing
off on a kick-ass raise for you? Tell me what you did. And why.”

The production manager of Pughe’s silicon chip foundry
in Zion, Wisconsin, frowned, shrugged and made a dismissive wave
with his hand. “Come on, boss,” Jerry Kaplan, the manager, said.
“Don’t micro-manage. A two percent year hardly qualifies
as a gift from God. Why take off the gloves here? Why turn hands-on?”

“Look, I know you modified your line,” Pughe said. “Normally I
don’t give a damn how a guy runs his shop. But I run six shops.
You kick two percent. If I transfer your kick to all my shops
Pughe Chipworks realizes a twelve percent kick overall.
Anything over ten percent does drop down gift wrapped from God.
Now come on, buddy. Pughe Chipworks needs a new pair of shoes. Give.”

Kaplan rubbed his chin. He took a long breath, let it out slowly.
“Boss,” Kaplan said, “as a personal favor, can we just let
this go?” Kaplan met his chairman’s eyes level, firm and steady.

“No,” Pughe said, immediately, his voice as level, firm and
steady as his gaze. “I never do favors with my eyes closed.
If you want to talk favors, do it after I know the score.
Now don’t make me ask again. Tell me everything. In detail.”

Kaplan signed, nodded. “Okay, boss. But can we talk in a car?
I want to introduce you to Pughe Chipworks’ smallest account.”


They took a company car. Kaplan drove. They headed down through
Zion proper, toward the sprawling south side. Kaplan pointed south.

“Down there,” Kaplan explained, “they call the area ‘South Zion.’
They think of themselves as a little city on their own. They
don’t like the big industry up north or the commercial strips
downtown. They like their little neighborhoods. Little businesses.”

“Neighborhood stores,” Pughe said, laughing. “I used to go to those things
as a kid in Chicago. Forty years ago. Horrible
places. Lots of slow, unpleasant old people standing behind
dusty counters. No selections. Neighborhood types gossiping
instead of buying things. And all the mechanics of retail
duplicated in every store on all the blocks. Delivery
people spending all day in one neighborhood making trivial
drops to mom and pop shops. No economies of scale. Bad news.
Warehouse outlets, mall centralization and TV sales brought
beautiful rationality to retail. And dispersing
industry to outlying fringe areas brought real beauty
to neighborhoods, clearing out the smoke, the factories, the riff-raff.”
Pughe shook his head. “Neighborhood life. People living in the past.
Living without real plan, design. Safety nets for idiots.”

Kaplan smiled. “Plan and design. Neighborhoods represent a kind
of emergent order. You know. Natural complexity.”

“Pure crap,” Pughe said. “You want complexity, look at Pughe Chipworks.
You want order, look at the mask for any one of our chips.
Rationality means planning something and then living it.
Neighborhoods only exist because some people won’t or can’t
approach life rationally. Can’t comprehend the big picture.
Can’t comprehend the interconnectedness of everything.
Can’t comprehend that everything must consider and account
for its relationship to everything. Living means design.”

Kaplan stopped at a red light. He put on the left-turn signal.
“We need to stop,” Kaplan said, “at a library a few blocks
from here. A little neighborhood library. No computers,
no microfilm, no videotapes. Just lots and lots of books.”

Pughe frowned. “Don’t tell me this library buys chips direct from us?”

Kaplan made the left turn. “No. But sometimes in the afternoon
the librarian keeps track of Henderson Fletcher. He buys
direct. And Pugh Chipworks’ smallest account doesn’t own a phone.”

“Someone who buys chips straight from us doesn’t own a phone?” Pughe asked.

“Not only does Hendy Fletcher buy direct, but he also
engineers his own masks. And he also dreamed up the line mod
that kicked our net profits up two percent. I can’t wait for you
two to meet. Hendy loves neighborhoods. Loves neighborhood living.”


Kaplan parked in a lot next to a two-story brick building.
The building filled half the block, the parking lot the other half.

“It doesn’t look like much on the outside,” Pughe said. “I think my
own library at home probably contains more square footage.”

Kaplan started to say something, then stopped. He shouted and waved.
“Hey, Hendy!” Kaplan called. A middle-aged man at a bike rack
next to the library looked over, then waved back. He mounted
a clunker three-speed and pedaled over. He stopped by Kaplan.

“Hey, Jay,” the man said. “I can’t talk now. A guy from Chinatown
traded me a year of self-defense lessons for an accounts
receivable package. I want to lose some weight this winter.”

“We need to talk,” Kaplan said. “Hendy Fletcher, meet T. J. Pughe.
T. J., meet Henderson Fletcher. Hendy, T. J. discovered
your modifications to our line’s calibration routines.”

Fletcher smiled. “Nothing lasts forever.” He extended his hand
to Pughe. “Wow. Fantastic. The founder, chairman and CEO
of Pughe Chipworks. You get good press in Newsweek. How do you do?”

“I do very well,” Pughe said, smiling, shaking Fletcher’s hand. “You?”

“No time to talk now,” Fletcher said. “Maybe we can talk later.”
Fletcher asked Kaplan, “Who tipped your boss? Gilder the Beard again?”

Kaplan’s eyes went wide. “You know, that never occurred to me! I
just assumed T. J. saw the surplus in the year-end reports.”

“We can talk later if you want,” Fletcher said. “Can you meet me
at the rehearsal hall in about two hours? Jimmy won’t mind.”

“Sure,” Kaplan said. “The warehouse on Ruby Street. We’ll see you there.”

Fletcher pedaled away. He waved. “Nice meeting you, Mr. Pughe.”

Pughe turned to Kaplan. “So you changed the cal and cleaning routines?”

Kaplan said, “Tell me, boss, just how did you notice the surplus?”

“Come on,” Pughe said. He opened the car door. “Let’s get some coffee.
We need to kill two hours. I’ll tell you things and you’ll tell me things.”


Kaplan parked along the curb next to a block-square, three-story
brick building. Kaplan said, “We can get coffee across the street.
A company called ‘Tulip Footcare’ based their headquarters here.
Last year they moved to Utah. Now they just rent out the building
as blank space—offices, storage rooms. Neighborhood musicians
rent the receiving dock and warehouse. They like the sound and space.”

Pughe frowned. “I don’t want to listen to teenagers bang on drums
and scratch guitar strings for two hours. Let’s just wait in a restaurant.”

“Well, let’s get some coffee,” Kaplan said, “then give a quick listen
at the warehouse. Don’t worry. You never know what you might hear.”

“I can imagine the restaurants around here,” Pughe said, sighing.
“Stools, counters, big coffee makers and long, greasy griddles, right?”

“Don’t forget,” Kaplan said, “cute teenage girls in pink waitress clothes.”

Kaplan and Pughe walked to a corner restaurant across the street
from the former headquarters building of Tulip Footcare.

A cute teenage girl in a pink dress called, “Hello!” to Kaplan.

“Hi, Linda!” Kaplan said. “We need a couple of bags to go.”

Kaplan stayed standing. Pughe sat down. “A couple of bags?” Pughe asked.

“Custom around here,” Kaplan explained, “lets anyone come to
rehearsals. But anyone who can afford it should bring food.”

The waitress approached behind the counter. “What can I get you?”

Kaplan said, “I’ll spring for five burgers, everything, five hot dogs,
everything, no peppers, two coffees and a six-pack of Coke.”

The waitress pressed keys on an electronic cash register.
The order and prices appeared on a full-color display
at the register and another display over the grill.

Kaplan paid. Pughe stared at the bright screens. He stood up. Pughe said, “Hey.”
Pughe leaned over the counter to get a close look at the screens.
He said to the waitress, “Nice point-of-sale terminal. What brand?”

“Do you like it?” she asked, smiling. “Watch this.” She pressed a key, twice.
The color screen filled with a sharp image of Harrison Ford.
Every few seconds, the image switched to other handsome men.
“Pretty cool, huh?” the waitress said. “When Tony works the counter
it shows pinup girls. Sometimes I keep Harrison Ford all day.
It can do lots of neat little tricks. It can show TV, too.”

Pughe stared at the high-resolution color screen. “Who makes it?”

The waitress said, “A neighborhood guy put all this together.”

Pughe nodded. The waitress smiled and left to wipe down the counter.
Pughe looked at Kaplan. “Let me guess. Henderson Fletcher made this.”

Kaplan leaned on the counter. He smiled, then smiled wider, nodded.

Pughe sighed. “Why on Earth did you want to keep this guy under wraps?”

“Boss,” Kaplan said, “before we leave South Zion you will know all.”


Kaplan carried two bags. Pughe carried one. They walked to the back
of the Tulip Footcare building. At the asphalt and concrete
shipping area, gusting wind created whirlpools of dust.
Weathered plywood, gray and splintered, covered the ground floor windows.
Black-red-orange rust splotches and lines spread across the wide, roll-down
metal door at the dock. Next to the big door, three metal steps
led up to a regular door, also metal and rusty.

Pughe stood at the three metal steps. Litter blowing in the wind
made crackling noises against the concrete and rusty metal.
Pughe looked at Kaplan. “It doesn’t look too inviting, does it?”

Kaplan walked up the steps, looked back at Pughe. “Neither do we, eh?”

Pughe said, “Speak for yourself, Mister California Casual.
Every stitch on this body of mine comes straight from London’s best.”

Pughe followed Kaplan up the steps. Kaplan pounded on the door.


Inside, on the other side of a tall, makeshift corridor
of stacked cardboard boxes, three musicians in jeans and tee shirts
played jazz, half a dozen neighborhood teenagers sat listening
and a very thin woman with very long hair stood sketching
the scene using a stylus on the biggest touch-sensitive
computer screen Pughe ever saw. Kaplan unpacked the food bags
on a table against the far wall. The young girl who opened
the door for Pughe and Kaplan went back to her friends sitting on
blankets on the floor. Pughe and Kaplan started on their coffee.
The artist continued sketching the musicians and the kids.

Pughe whispered to Kaplan, “I never saw a touch screen that big.”

Kaplan whispered back, “Hendy made it. The big screen consists of
thirty-five monochrome LCD panels ten inches square,
arranged as seven rows five across, for a total bit count
of eighteen million, one hundred and forty-four thousand bits.”

Pughe frowned. “Two and a quarter megabytes moving in real time?”

Kaplan smiled. He patted Pughe’s shoulder. “In real time controlled by
our chips. Well, Henderson Fletcher’s chips. His custom controllers.
Off our main fab process. Fourteen millimeter dies. Less than
two hundred thousand transistors in the core. One-twenty-eight
pin package. The most bizarre architecture you ever saw—
sixty-four bit addressing, but only eight bit data ops.
And, get this, totally un-clocked. Completely asynchronous.”

Pughe held up a hand. “Tell me now why I don’t know about this.
Tell me why I didn’t read all about this new processor
in an internal briefing? Why didn’t I see prototypes?”

“Boss,” Kaplan said, “when I first saw the mask spec I told Hendy
I wouldn’t make it. I told him it wouldn’t work. And even
if it did work, hell, eight bit data ops went out with sock hops.
Then he showed me a simulation. I realized that the
hand-laid blocks optimized the simple data ops so well that
I couldn’t assess the async ceiling. I thought it might work.
So I quoted a minimum run. Hendy thought about it,
then asked if we could swap in his mask during a cleaning and
calibration run. I started to say of course not, but then
I considered it. Hell. It let me eliminate down time
every quarter on the fab. We still get cost and overhead
for a run of ten thousand. Of course, the calibration eats
about sixty-five percent of the run, but Hendy didn’t
need ten thousand anyway. And, best of all, we can write off
the defects as a production loss at gross value rather
than as a flat expense at raw costs and time. I did the math
and when I quoted Hendy, he booked a run in each quarter.
The four sales didn’t amount to much, but with the modified
charge-offs on the defects, the net profits kicked up two percent.”

“But, damn it Jerry,” Pughe said, “why did you keep this quiet? Why
didn’t you climb on the roof and do a song and dance number?”

Kaplan signed. “Boss, think about it. If I put that process time
on the market, even at the ridiculous failure rate,
cartels would snap up the time for limited runs. Could Hendy
bid against the cartels when they start in against each other?”

“I see,” Pughe said. “Yes. The potential here exceeds two percent.
Why would you stand between my company and bigger profits?”

“Come on, boss, you get it,” Kaplan said. “You see what Hendy does
with his chips. We could spend a week looking at applications.
If we grab for profits we didn’t even know existed
before Hendy came up with this mod, we shut down all this stuff.
Do you know what Hendy charged that woman to build her big screen?
Less than two thousand bucks. He charged part costs and a hundred bucks
an hour time. Boss, this guy treats people fair. And all these people
get the benefits of some of the highest technology
this planet can put together. If we sell that process time
to the highest bidder the runs will go into car dashboards
and television remote controls and, damn it, cruise missiles.”

Kaplan stopped. He took a deep breath, exhaled slowly. He started
to say something more, but stopped. He said, simply, “Well. Now you know.”

Pughe nodded. He said, also simply, “Yes.” The two men stood for
a moment, listening to jazz, not looking at anything
in particular. Then Pughe shrugged, letting out a long, soft sigh.
“What a business,” Pughe said. “I think I’ll eat one of those hot dogs.”


“Hendy almost never misses an appointment,” Kaplan said.
He looked at his watch, then looked up. A man in a three-piece suit
walked around the wall of cardboard boxes. His gaze fixed on Pughe.
Kaplan whispered, “Here comes the guy people call Gilder the Beard.”

Set against white, almost translucent-seeming skin, the man’s red,
forward-jutting beard appeared to tug him directly to Pughe.

“Mr. T. J. Pughe, I presume,” the man said. “Please allow me
to introduce myself. Gilder George DeMohrenschildt. People
call me Gilder the Beard. I really admire you, your work,
your incredible success. I met Hendy at the Chinese
restaurant. He said you might stop by tonight. What a great honor.
Hendy asked me to tell you he expects to run about ten
or twenty minutes late. He needs to start a diagnostic
or some such thing on the book club’s system at the library.”

Pughe smiled as he shook Gilder’s hand. His eyes fixed on Gilder’s eyes.
Pughe didn’t blink. He studied every alteration, every
shift of Gilder’s gaze. “I came because of you, Gilder,” Pughe said.
“Well, because of the kind letter you wrote to me,” Pughe explained.
“I wanted to congratulate Jerry here on his success
with the Zion shop and see these controllers in the real world.”

Gilder made a face. “I don’t know if the little neighborhoods
of Zion, Wisconsin, qualify as the real world. But I
put great faith in big business. In the Fortune five hundred. You
can take the little successes stumbled on in backwaters
like Zion and make them count, spread the good news, propagate it
to civilization proper. It makes me crazy, seeing
this wonderful technology monopolized, in essence,
by people who don’t dream the big dream, who don’t see the global
empowerment Hendy’s processor design makes possible,
who can’t recognize that marketplace profits not only lead
individuals through their own life to their own destiny,
but also drag mankind kicking and screaming to its future.”

As Pughe, Gilder and Kaplan stood by the table of free food,
the musicians continued playing quiet jazz, the artist
continued sketching and the neighborhood teenagers sat still,
giving all their attention to the music and musicians.

“I knew that a brilliant business genius like you,” Gilder said,
“would see the rich opportunities in this situation.”


Kaplan and Pughe made up an excuse and left the rehearsal.
Kaplan drove them, quickly, back to the neighborhood library.
A gray-haired librarian directed them to the basement.
They walked down a dark stairwell, through dark corridors and through dark
storerooms. Eventually they arrived at a conference room
with no door but nice carpeting, furnished with a long, wooden
table, a dozen soft chairs and bright fluorescent ceiling lights.

Fletcher sat at the table by himself, watching two square-tooth
waveforms trace across an oscilloscope exactly in sync.
Kaplan knocked on the open doorjamb. Fletcher looked up, glanced at
his watch, then smiled. “Come on in,” he said. “I lost track of the time.
They use total cheese modems, really push the tolerances.
I needed to make all the serial lines more forgiving
on the box I made for the library’s book club. It needs to
accept the bad timing signals from the library’s mini.
I finished about ten minutes ago. Couldn’t stop tweaking.
I picked up Chinese for the musicians. I hope they stay late.”

Kaplan and Pughe sat down. “Gilder the Beard stopped by,” Kaplan said.

Fletcher smiled. He switched off his oscilloscope, unhooked the wires.
“Well, it takes all kinds,” he said. “Listen, Mr. Pughe, I enjoyed
working with your company. We accomplished a lot. Jerry
helped me, and I got lucky with that suggestion for your line.
But all living things die. All real things die. Our relationship,
by its nature a dynamic, creative relationship,
must pass on. I know that. Now you can’t control what you will do.”

“Hendy, you listen,” Kaplan said, “we can work out some kind of
favored customer schedule, where we, say, discount one run for—”

“Gilder tied Pughe’s hands,” Fletcher said, interrupting. “If Pughe failed
to maximize profits, for any reason, you get jackass
shareholder lawsuits coming out your ears. Or other places.
Gilder knows I couldn’t afford an open bid on your fab.
By forcing Pughe to bid the time, Gilder figures I’ll license
my controller to pay for the damn time. Then, in Gilder’s mind,
the cosmos comes back in balance, industry gets the cool stuff
and people like the people around here will get what they get.”

Kaplan started to speak, but this time Pughe interrupted him.
“You could do that,” Pughe said, softly. “You could license your design.”

Fletcher said, “Lawyers call corporations ‘fictitious persons.’
Businessmen become slaves. Slaves not even owned by real people.
In this world of sixty-four bit RISC chips and idiotic
multimedia computers, to license my chip design,
selling and support would take over my life. Business would take
over my life. Instead of me using the chip as a tool,
I become the chip’s tool. As fictitious person Pughe Chipworks
uses you, Jerry, and uses Pughe as tools. Even without
custom chips, I will keep working with these people around here,
doing new stuff each day, good stuff, power-to-the-people stuff.
And you guys will keep doing business each day. With businessmen.”

For a moment, the three men sat without talking. Then Kaplan
shook his head. “Damn,” he said. ‘Damn it. What about Gilder the Beard?”

Fletcher checked his watch. He stood and grabbed the bags of Chinese food.
“Some people build things,” Fletcher said. “Some people keep things going.
Some people destroy. It takes all kinds.” Fletcher shrugged. And he smiled.

Pughe asked, “Can we give you a lift over to the musicians?”

Fletcher said, “Thank you, but I kind of enjoy pedaling around.”

Outside, they all shook hands and said goodbye. Then Kaplan and Pughe
watched Henderson Fletcher pedal off on his clunker three-speed.

Kaplan patted the top of his company car. “Businessmen
keep things going,” Kaplan said. “Don’t we, fellow businessman tool?
Don’t we, boss? Don’t we, T.J.? Don’t we, chip-making fool?”

Pughe said nothing. He looked down, walked around the car and got in.
Kaplan stared at South Zion for a bit, then he got in, too.

The Pughe Chipworks company car drove away from South Zion,
toward civilization proper, away from free food and jazz.

The End

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