Friday, December 31, 2010

Closing Out the Year - - Becoming a Better Writer

The Internet has produced an era with a focus on writing - - from e-mail to blogs to reports to discussions - - the ability to write well is increasingly important.  The computer keyboard of the 80s with a "permission" key has been replaced in 2010 with a "publish" key.  This is important for engineers to understand - - to be a force on these very public written forums takes effective writing skills.  If you want the public to understand the issues associated with declining infrastructure or our energy insecurities requires the ability to communicate - - and communicate in a meaningful and thoughtful manner.  The beauty of engineering and technology is the content.  We have numerous great and interesting subjects we can write about.  They are interesting, important, and topical.  In this new era of the written word, it is important for some class of engineers to become masters of language with the ability to turn unassuming words into phrases that are convincing, effective, and memorable. 

Have a goal in 2011 to become a better writer.  Study the art of writing (reading is important - - superior abilities in both are highly correlated).  Start with the basics of rhetoric.  Rhetoric is a vast, old, and honorable discipline.  It may be defined most broadly and simply as the use of language to persuade or otherwise affect an audience.  Consider the following examples of rhetorical writing:
  • Epizeuxis is the repetition of words consecutively.  O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo - - Romeo and Juliet.  Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!  I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail - - Walden.
  • Epimone is the repetition of entire phrases.  There is no retreat but in submission and slavery!  Our chains are forged!  Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston!  The war is inevitable - - and let it come!  I repeat it, sir, let it come! - - Henry, speech at the Second Revolutionary Congress of Virginia.
  • Anaphora occurs when the writer repeats the same words at the start of successive sentences or clauses.  King's "I have a dream" speech utilized the phase at the start of eight sentences in a row.
  • Epistrophe is the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of a series of sentences or clauses.  Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy; I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine.  Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy - - Bentsen to Quayle.  Churchill was the master of this.
  • Symploce is the repetition at the start of successive sentences or clauses, and other words are repeated at the end of them, often with just a change in the middle.  I am not afraid of you; - but I am afraid for you - - Trollope.
  • Anadiplosis is the use of the same language at the end of one sentence or clause and at the start of the next - - an ABBC pattern.  Society, dead or alive, can have no charm without intimacy, and no intimacy without interest in trifles which I fear Mr. Harrison would describe as "merely curious." - - Balfour.
  • Polyptoton means repeating the root of a word with a different ending.  Judge not, that ye be not judged - - Matthew 7:1.
  • Isocolon is the use of successive sentences, clauses, or phrases similar in length and parallel in structure.  Let every nation know; whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price; bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty - - Kennedy.
  • Chiasmus occurs when words or other elements are repeated with their order reversed.  You were given the choice between war and dishonor.  You chose dishonor, and you will have war - - Churchill.
  • Anastrophe is when words appear in unexpected order.  Yoda in Star Wars is the classic example.
  • Polysyndeton is the repeated use of a conjunction.  Thus, then, though Time be the mightiest of Alarics, yet is he the mightiest mason of all.  And a tutor, and a counselor, and a physician, and a scribe, and a poet, and a sage, and a king - - Melville.
  • Asyndeton means leaving out a conjunction where it might have been expected.  Drudgery, calamity, exasperation, want, are instructors in eloquence and wisdom - - Emerson.
  • Ellipsis is an omission of expected words.  In short, had you cast about for a plan on purpose to enrich your enemies; you could not have hit upon a better - - Paine.
  • Praeteritio occurs when the writer describes what he or she will say, and so says it, or at least a bit of it, after all.  I wished to show, but I will pass it upon this occasion, that in the sentiment I have occasionally advanced upon the Declaration of Independence I am entirely borne out by the sentiments advanced by our old Whig leader, Henry Clay, and I have the book here to show it from but because I have already occupied more time than I intended to do on that topic; I pass over it - - Lincoln.
  • Aposiopesis is breaking off a sentence and leaving it unfinished.  Please take your electric light and go to - - but never mind, it is not for me to suggest; you will probably find the way; and any way you can reasonably count on divine assistance if you lose your bearings - - Twain.
  • Metania is correcting oneself.  I am old and infirm.  I have one foot - - more than one foot - - in the grave - - Pitt.
  • Litotes occurs when a writer avoids making an affirmative claim directly and instead denies its opposite.  But the Royal Navy has immediately attacked the U-boats, and is hunting them night and day - - I will not say without mercy, because God forbid we should ever part company with that - - but at any rate with zeal and not altogether without relish - - Churchill.
  • Erotema is a question that does not call for a reply.  Is this, sir, a government for freemen?  Are we thus to be duped out of our liberties? - - Tredwell.
  • Hypophora occurs when the writer asks a question and then answers it.  You ask, what is our policy?  I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might . . . - - Churchill.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Jevons Principle

I remember my grandmother's refrigerator.  As a small boy I can still remember this massive white object in her small kitchen.  She lived by herself - - so by my current standards it always appeared empty (She weighted less than 100-pounds, threw away less spoiled food than me, and lived to be in her 90s - - modern refrigeration, spoilage, and consumption are highly correlated).  The freezer part had nothing to freeze - - her small country grocery store had less frozen items than the 7-11 near my house.  I remember the frost and my grandmother having to defrost the refrigerator by hand.

The world has changed since my grandmother's refrigerator.  The average refrigerator sold in the U.S. today uses 3/4 less energy than the 1975 average, even though it is 20% larger and costs 60% less (see Energy Vision Update 2010: Towards a More Efficient World).  All of this sounds really great, right?  I am not so sure.  Look at my 2010 refrigeration experience and see what I have done with my energy savings since I was a little boy in my grandmother's house.  It appears that I have actually "consumed" my energy savings - - either partially or fully.  I have one refrigerator in the kitchen, a second one in the laundry room (old refrigerators don't die, they just move to different parts of the house), and a third small refrigerator associated with a bar in the family room.  Yes, I spend less per BTU on refrigeration and my cost per refrigeration space is lower - - but am I actually consuming less energy on refrigeration than my grandmother?  A very interesting and important question for engineers.

My grandfather's first car was a Ford Model T.  According to the Ford Motor Company, its fuel economy ranged between 13 and 21 miles per gallon (so after roughly 100-years, my Dodge Ram is somewhere in the middle of my grandfather's Model T).  My grandfather had one vehicle for a family of four - - I have three vehicles for a family of three.  My family vehicle efficiency is probably double my grandfather's - - yet I consumed my efficiency improvements with additional cars, living farther from work than my grandfather, and vehicular air conditioning (like many southern and western states - - automobiles are really nothing more than a very expensive and complex device for transporting air conditioning between buildings!!).  Increased technological advancement on a miles per gallon basis has actually produced more total consumption for my family.

In both examples, I appear to be consuming efficiencies.  Technological gains and greater efficiency on a per unit basis have actually led to greater consumption of a resource, not less.  A world marked by greater and greater unit efficiencies, yet higher and higher per capita energy and resource consumption - - not a pretty picture for the future of sustainability (By 2014, the U.S, computer network alone will each year require an amount of energy equivalent to the total electricity consumption of Australia).

Enter William Stanley Jevons.  Jevons was a British economist and author of "The Coal Question" in 1865.  The Jevons Principle, that greater per unit efficiency actually produces greater total resource consumption is stated as follows"

"It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption.  The very contrary is the truth."

Engineers will all agree that decreasing reliance on fossil fuels is a pressing global need.  The key question the engineering community faces is whether improving efficiency, rather than reducing total consumption, can possibly bring about the desired result.  The answer might just be with my grandmother's refrigerator.  The primary problem with per unit efficiency gains is that we appear inevitably to "reinvest" savings in additional "things" that ultimately increases total consumption.  In addition, understanding systems is very important for all engineers - - you have some very potent positive feedback loops all over your house.  The ability to chill and freeze more things at lower and lower unit costs has led to me buying more items that need chilling and freezing - - leading to a need for more refrigeration space.

Welcome to the world of Mr. Jevons.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Conflict Rivers

Water may be the next great source of regional or global conflict (In some areas, water can be added to  religion and oil as the third leg of the great conflict trifecta).  Water historically has produced arguments, litigation, disagreement, and the occasional shotgun blast.  A historical reading of war produces a rich soap opera of tensions, conflicting interests, and contentions relations, but not outright war between sovereign nations over water rights and access.  Water has been a tool, target, or victim of warfare - - but not its cause.

The future might be different - - and it may be different in the context of four specific river basins.  These four probably are good picks for a potential era of wars over water: (1) Jordon River - - water divided among Israel, Jordon, Lebanon, Syria, and the occupied Palestinian territories; (2) Tigris-Euphrates River - - water is used by Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians, Turks, and Kurds; (3) Indus River - - shared by Afghanistan, China, India, Pakistan, and Kashmir, and (4) Nile River - - Egypt and eight other countries control access.

Looking toward 2050, populations are projected to leap between 70% to 150% along these four river basins.  The list of countries along the basins are a who's who of international volatility.  Additional water supply and demand constraints will be just one more match for four regions marked already by dangerous powder kegs.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Leadership, Thinking, and Introspection

The American Scholar magazine published in their Spring 2010 issue a lecture given by William Deresiewicz to the plebe class at the United Stated Military Academy at West Point in October of last year.  The article, Solitude and Leadership, is excellent - - a must read.  Several highlights include the following:

Look at the most successful, most acclaimed, and perhaps the finest soldier of his generation, General David Petraeus.  He's one of those rare people who rises through a bureaucracy for the right reasons.  He is a thinker.  He is an intellectual.  In fact, Prospect magazine named him Public Intellectual of the Year in 2008 - that's in the world.  He has a Ph.D. from Princeton, but what makes him a thinker is not that he has a Ph.D. or that he went to Princeton or even that he taught at West Point.  I can assure you from personal experience that there are a lot of highly educated people who don't know how to think at all.

No, what makes him a thinker - and a leader - is precisely that he is able to think things through for himself.  And because he can, he has the confidence, the courage, to argue for his ideas even when they aren't popular.  Even when they don't please his superiors.  Courage: there is physical courage, which you all possess in abundance, and then there is another kind of courage, moral courage to stand up for what you believe.

The first portion of the Deresiewicz lecture concentrates on the themes of thinking for yourself and acting on your convictions.  All organization want a leadership corps that thinks - - where flexibility, creativity, and independence are cornerstones of leadership in our rapidly changing worlds.  The second part of the lecture deals with learning how to think.  Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality - - which means concentration.  Deresiewicz writes the following:

So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading.  All of these help you to know yourself better.  But there's one more thing I'm going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship.  Of course friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with one other people.  But I'm talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation.  Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person.  Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others at the same time while you hang out in a friend's room listening to music and studying.  That's what Emerson meant went he said that "the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude."

Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person.  One other person you can trust, one other person to whom you can unfold your soul.  One other person you feel safe enough with to allow you to acknowledge things - to acknowledge things to yourself - that you otherwise can't.  Doubts you aren't supposed to have, questions you aren't suppose to ask.  Feelings or opinions that would get you laughed at by the group or reprimanded by the authorities.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Seven Billion Blue Whales

A coming debate will be the suburb versus mega-city - - which is better?  The context of better will be sustainability, economic activity, and innovation.  The mega-city is going to win this debate.  The evidence is mounting against the suburbs - - from the  Manhattanite who emits 14,127 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide annually versus someone living in a New York suburbs to the economic reality that whenever a city doubles in size, every measure of economic activity, from construction spending to the amount of bank deposits, increases about 15% per capita.

This debate over size is critical - - because bigness allows society to work toward three goals - - "Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less."  A great place to understand this is in an article in The New York Times Magazine this past Sunday - - A Physicist [Solves} The City by Jonah Lehrer.  The article profiles the work and ideas of Geoffrey West - - the physicist who came up with the biological relationship that while an elephant is 10,000 times the size of a guinea pig, it needs only 1,000 times as much energy.  West recently turned his attention to the city and bigness.  Keep an eye on West and some of the urban metrics that he comes up with.

West has a great observation in the article that gets at the heart of sustainability - -

West illustrates the problem by translating human life into watts.  "A human being at rest runs on 90 watts," he says.  "That's how much power you need just to lie down.  And if you're a hunter-gatherer and you live in the Amazon, you'll need 250 watts.  That's how much energy it takes to run about and live food.  So how much energy does our lifestyle [in America] require?  Well, when you add up all our calories and then you add up the energy need to run the computer and the air-conditioner, you get an incredibly large number, somewhere around 11,000 watts.  Now you can ask yourself: What kind of animal requires 11,000 watts to live?  And what you find is that we have created a lifestyle where we need more watts than a blue whale.  We require more energy than the biggest animal that has ever existed.  That is why our lifestyle is unsustainable.  We can't have seven billion blue whales on this planet.  It's not even clear that we can afford to have 300 million blue whales."

A link to the New York Times article can be found at - -

A Physicist Solves The City

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Tree Sustainability

The sale of fake Christmas trees set a new record this year - - 13 million.  The total U.S. number of artificial trees is well over 50 million.  All are manufactured in Asia - - namely China.  So which is "greener" - - the real tree that is chopped down or the fake one?

A consulting firm, Ellipsos based in Montreal, recently looked at the fake versus real issue.  The results are provided below:
  • An artificial tree would have to be utilized on average for more than 20-years to be greener than a fresh-cut tree.
  • Using a real tree every year produces on average one-third the carbon emissions of a fake tree.
  • Your typical fake tree is used for seven years and then is disposed of in a landfill.  Curbside recycling of real trees turn them into mulch and compost - - in 2009 150,000 trees were mulched in New York City.
  • Driving is a key variable -  too much driving to find the perfect real tree reduces the benefits and tips the scales back to fakeness (Driving is a key variable in many such sustainability claims and comparisons - - I strongly suspect that many of our LEED certified buildings have far less LEEDness if the true impact of driving to and from the building is accurately calculated).
  • Close to 400 million trees now grow on Christmas tree farms in the U.S..  About 30 million trees are harvested annually.
  • If you drive to work 40 miles round trip - - the fake versus real debate once a year should not cause anyone to lose any sleep.  It is a drop in the bucket in the context of your total carbon footprint.
Or you could be like my family and buy a living tree for Christmas.  I plant then in my yard after Christmas.  But it requires my large truck to haul them back to my house - - the driving variable probably kills my greeness.

Ellipsos Christmas Tree Report

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Engineer, Doctor, Attorney

Google has digitized 500 billion words from 5.2 million books in six different languages.  You can actually search the database with Google's latest visualization tool, Ngram Viewer.  Type in a word or series of words, you can then see how the utilization of the words has changed with time.

The attached graphic is for Engineer, Doctor, Attorney.

Google Ngram Viewer

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Engineering Reporter

Engineers, especially those in management roles, are expected to report in various ways, to summarize and convey information, to make recommendations, to give early alerts to emerging problems, and to cut costs.  The bulk of the information will contain numbers with dollar signs in front of them.  Engineers will need the ability to summarize financial information, explain what it means, and combine it with an informative narrative.

Michael Thornsett has written a great book that helps engineers with this process - - The Manager's Pocket Calculator: A Quick Guide to Essential Business Formulas and Ratio (2010).  The first portion is finance and numbers with dollar signs 101 - - probably the the most informative summary and presentation of this type material that I have seen.  A must read for the future engineering manager.

The second portion of the book provides a focus on report preparation.  I liked several of the general rules - - with the understanding that no one format is going to work best for every kind of report ("As a general rule, remember that, the longer the report is, the less chance it has of even being read.  A three-page summary is much more effective that a highly detailed 80-page analysis.").  Thornsett had the following recommendations regarding the "Art of Shortness" - -

  • Provide a summary only, but have supporting documents ready.  Assume that anyone receiving your report is going to give it only a glance.  A report is rarely going to be read cover to cover.  So a two-or-three-page report that gives your conclusions and highlights is far more effective that a longer versions - - you should give your conclusions and highlights with supporting documentation available as a backup report or an online link.
  • Organize the report assuming that your audience will read only the first paragraph.  Put your most important point on the first page - - clear, concise, and brief.  Another good tip - - put your conclusion in the title of the report.
  • Never include pages full of numbers in the body of the report.  Charts and graphs say much more (see my Gapminder blog and the link to the TED presentation - - it is truly amazing).  Remember that numbers are not your friend - - they are wonderful, but really boring.  People generally don't like boring.  Remember, your report's purpose is to reveal information and to express ideas, not to fill pages with columns and rows of numbers.  Charts and graphs tell stories - - people like to read stories.  

Friday, December 17, 2010

The 30-30 Rule

Dartmouth professor Vijay Govindarajan has what he calls the "30-30 Rule" for strategic planning - - 30% of the people who make strategic decisions should be 30-years old or younger.  He makes a strong argument that organizations need voices in the room that aren't vested in the past.  Govindarajan likes thinking of strategic planning as a series of boxes.  Box One is everything a company does to manage and improve performance.  This is not strategic planning.  Box Two is selectively forgetting the past - - avoiding fighting competitors and following trends that are no longer relevant.  This constitutes some portion of strategic planning.  Box Three is creating the future that will exist in 2010 - - the one the 30-30 crowd will have the greatest insight, interest, and stake in.  This is the bulk of strategic planning.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

B.S./M.S. in Humanitarian Engineering

The next twenty-five years could see a widening gap between the countries marked by marginalization and the rest of the world.  A world where the differences between a Chad (Chad is the world's fifth poorest country - - some 80% of the population lives below the global poverty line, while the nation's per capita income is less than $1,500 a year) and a Singapore becomes more deeply and widely pronounced.  Prospects for the people constrained by marginalization could get worse over the next 25 years - - climate change, globalization, energy constraints, and increasing food prices could made a troubling situation even worse.  The world of new problems may actually run head on into the world of old problems - - in Sub-Saharan Africa, malaria still kills nearly one million people each year, and many deaths go unrecorded in rural areas.

A potential bright spot in all of this could be those engineers that elect to purse their B.S. or M.S. degree in Humanitarian Engineering.  You can't actually get a degree (yet, although I am not 100% sure) - - but the idea of humanitarian engineering or socially responsible engineering is going to catch on - - especially in the developing world.  Humanitarian Engineering should place a strong emphasis on the engineering activities that impact those who lack the means to address pressing problems, such as clean water or earthquake resistant building.  In other instances, humanitarian engineering should address issues that affect populations around the world regardless of socio-economic standing.

Historically, engineers have been ask "How do I generate electricity more effectively?" or "What is the best way to get water from point A to point B?"  But engineers should and must be willing to address "How can I help to reduce poverty?"  Obviously, some component of the answer will be strictly technical, but the answer is fundamentally a balance of technical knowledge/excellence, economic feasibility, ethical maturity, and cultural sensitivity.  The humanitarian engineer needs a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving, language skills, a deep appreciation of foreign cultures, sustainability training, and insightful management/leadership.  All of this helps the humanitarian engineer to directly improve the well-being of under-served populations.  The possibilities are endless -  from working with the U.N. World Food Programme on supply chain and inventory management systems to stabilizing and improving infrastructure and buildings in places like Haiti to the development of micro-needle patches for vaccines in the developing world.

Humanitarian Engineering on YouTube

Colorado School of Mines Humanitarian Engineering Program

Dartmouth HELP Program

The Big Idea - - Augmented Reality

I love the power of the attached National Geographic magazine photograph.  Look for 2011 as the year that augmented reality goes mainstream with additional applications and platforms.

Additional information at the following:

National Geographic article

National Geographic video



Hans Rosling is a doctor and professor of international health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.  He is somewhat of a rock star on the international lecture circuit - - TED conferences, World Economic Forum at Davos, etc.  What has produced his rock star status is data visualization software - - developed by his Gapminder Foundation.  He produces roadmaps for the modern world - - tools that transform reams of economic and public health data into gripping stories.

Rosling is profiled in the December 11th issue of The Economist (Making Data Dance).  Key points from the article include the following:
  • When people have a proper roadmap and know what the global realities are, they'll make better decisions.
  • Rosling is focused on removing the "we" and "they" from statistical data - - wants data and stories to move more toward "us".
  • Innovation in infographics has always been driven by the need to better explain different things.
  • He wants data to look alive.
  • This Gapmider software was purchased by Google and is available under the name "Google Motion Chart."
  • Trade data makes up 80% of public statistics.
  • Look for a future of "freeer" and more "open sourced" data - - The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation demands that every research project it funds has to make its full data set freely available.
  • The people who create statistics are very often not the same kind of people needed to communicate them.
Additional information is available at the following links:


Google Motion Chart

Rosling TED YouTube Presentation

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Climate Extremes

The Sahel is the transition zone between the Sahara Desert and the savannas of Africa.  The Sahel covers an area of 1,178,000 square miles.  The Sahel contains parts of the countries of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.

The Sahel promises a glimpse of what climate change might have in store for certain regions of the World - - where climate extremes from drought to flood become increasingly the norm.  The Sahel typically has a nine-month dry season, roughly from October to June - - temperatures can get as hot as 122 degrees F.  Subsistence farmers await the rains in the best of times and the best of times still produced malnutrition that kills 225,000 children per year in just five Sahel countries.

In the last five years, rains have also produced problems.  Flooding has been a problem - - the rain coming all at once.  Ruined crops and displaced farmers have caused crippling food problems.

This particular part of Africa may increasingly be facing a future of extreme dry and extreme wet cycles.  Climate scientists are predicting 25% less rain a year by 2100 - - others have predicted a 25% increase that if the rain comes in isolated bursts will cause more destructive floods.  The two extremes making living and survival in this unique ecosystem very difficult.

The Sahel is a good example of the issues engineering will be facing regarding climate change.  The future may become more about climate change adaption and mitigation strategies - - where emergency action is highly important, but equally important are prevention strategies that recognize emergency actions are not the way to effectively tackle a recurring problem.

Petra Tschakert is a professor at Penn State - - she is a n expert in this field and has a great website at:

Petra Tschakert

The Pacific Institute also has a great collection of global water resource databases:

The Pacific Institute

Monday, December 13, 2010

Infrastructure Profit

CNBC has a series entitled "Executive Vision: Leadership in Action."  One of the segments is on public infrastructure.  The format is a round table discussion among business leaders, financial experts, and policy developers.  The link to the text, video, and programming schedule is below.

Executive Vision - - CNBC Infrastructure

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Yearning For The Endless Sea

Marc Cenedella is the founder and CEO of - - a job search website.  He has the following comments regarding his approach to team building - -

It became a matter of figuring out how to build a team and share with them what inspired me to start the company.  There's a quote from the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery that really spoke to me: "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders.  Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."

So first, share your passion.  Explain to people why it's an exciting idea and how they can be involved in it.  I've learned to do the big-picture stuff, and I can be really great at the analytics - - sitting down and running the numbers.  What I've had to learn over time is the middle part about, O.K., how do you build a team?  How do you assign a team to do something?  How do you give them enough rope to be successful, and when do you take it back?  The middle part has been trial and error.

Being a manager also isn't about trying to become perfect.  You're not going to stop making errors.  But it's about having a mature appreciation for the fact that you're a flawed human being.  Probably everyone around you is a flawed human being.  What are your flaws and how are you going to manage around them?  What are your strengths?  How are you going to optimize those?

"I never want to be an expert at anything"

One of the more interesting weekly columns is called "Creating" - - published each Saturday in The Wall Street Journal.  The column profiles an individual regarding their particular creative process.  The range of people, professions, businesses, and insights is fascinating to read - - from cooks to painters to musicians to architects all discussing what creativity means to them.

This week, Eric Avar of Nike was profiled.  Avar is the creative designer for the Kobe Bryant brand of basketball shoes.  The following are several key points regarding creativity that Avar discussed in the column:
  • Avar worked closely with Kobe and compiled a 20-page guidebook of Kobe-isms to forge the "spirit" of the shoe.
  • "Good design is marriage of science and art."
  • "Telling a story is also really important."
  • Designers at Nike work in what is known as the "The Kitchen" - - which is off-limits to the public.
  • He doesn't work alone - - his preference is for cross-pollination with multi-discipline co-workers.
  • Creative space is important.
  • Genes must also be important - - Avar's father was a mechanical engineer and his mother was an artist.
  • "Imagination is more important than knowledge."  His favorite quote is from Einstein - - "I never want to be an expert at anything." 
  • Inspiration doesn't come only from the superstars - - Avar gets good ideas from watching his children play.
  • Studying cheetahs helped from a performance standpoint.
  • Leonard da Vinci is a source of inspiration - - Avar is constantly searching for new sources of stimuli.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Dependability as Talent

The December 6, 2010 issue of Sport Illustrated has a profile of Sott Pioli (A Dream In The Making).  Pioli is the General Manager of the Kansas City Chiefs and he is hoping to build the the Chiefs into something similar to what he helped build with the New England Patriots (he was their Vice President - Player Personnel). 

When talking about players and winning, Pioli uses words like reliability, dependability, accountability, and discipline.  He thinks in terms of sustainability and likes players with leadership qualities - - six of the seven draft picks from 2010 were everyday captains on their college teams.  Pioli explains to fans that "we don't want the best 53 players, we want the right 53 players."  He wants players that make other players better.  Core values are important - - "Are you going to stand for anything?"

The article has the following insight --

"You know what we are looking for?  I got this for [longtime major league G.M.} Pat Gillick.  We want players who are dependable.  I don't necessarily mean they give dependable performances.  Performance varies, and some of that is beyond the a player's control.  We want players who are dependable in the way they go about their lives.  Players who treat the parking-lot attendant right, players who talk to their teammates, players who will go about their business in practices, in their video work, in their strength and conditioning work.  Dependable.  Players you can depend on."

Friday, December 10, 2010

Lamb Chops

We had a historical first in 2010.  Your basic ram sold for more than $100 in Australia for the very first time in the history of sheep.  Look for more records - - the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is forecasting a 300,000-ton shortage in the global lamb market over the next five years.  The growth is coming from consumers in the Middle East and Aria.  Supply constraints are a function of -- (1) The U.S. getting out of the ovine game, (2) British hoof-and-mouth scare in 2001, and (3 Falling wool prices in the 1990s drastically shrunk herds in Australia.

Australian sheep prices are up 77% this year and wool prices are at 14-year highs.  Sheep shortages have led to increases in camel meat in Saudi Arabia this year.  We have global money flowing increasingly in two directions - - money flowing toward oil in the Middle East and manufactured products in Asia. 

Watch the global sheep market and see if it is able to respond to increasing demand.  It is also a good measure of the changing global marketplace and geopolitical power shifts.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

Legos and GE

When you think Legos - - children and Christmas come to mind.  Also think of GE.  Batesville, Mississippi is the home to a new 300,000 square foot plant that makes strong, lightweight composite parts for a new generation of more fuel-efficient jet engines.  It represents the confluence of materials science, high-tech machinery, and hand craftsmanship.

For each job at Batesville,GE has 30 applicants.  The plant is organized in "high performance teams," with a bottoms up orientation and approach.  Line workers are called "production associates" with starting salaries around $35,000 a year.  To get hired at the Batesville plant, applicants must first take a reading, math, and problem-solving test administered by the state employment agency.  Candidates who do well are then invited for interviews at the plant and are evaluated in team settings.  For example, they are placed in groups of four and told to assemble a Lego helicopter in 15 minutes - - the goal being to see how well individuals interact and work together.

GE Batesville Plant Information

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Designer as Indiana Jones

The December 6, 2010 issue of Fortune (Technology's Roving R&D Man) has a profile of Jan Chipchase - - who is with Frog Design, a San Francisco design consultancy.  Chipchae is a good example of the type of individual the engineering professions need more of - - part cultural anthropologist and explorer, and part designer and entrepreneur (I also think this is a good career field for the right high school or college student to consider).  He travels the world trying to understand the interaction between people and technology, such as "Why the planet's poorest people would use cellphones and other gadgets?"

While at Nokia, Chipchase was the first to write about the use of airtime as a form of currency.  Chipchase documented Uganda's sente system, in which villagers transfer money across distances by buying and passing along cellphone minutes.  Vodafone, the U.K. - based mobile-phone operator, later launched a similar money service in Kenya.

This is good business - - not an academic exercise.  When four billion people need something, and a billion has nine zeros, the motivation is profit.  Look at the potential growth - - you can focus on Troy, New York or Accra, Ghana.  Arithmetic doesn't lie.

Chipchase travels light, keeping his mixed-gender, multi-language (at your next project meeting, calculate your team's gender ratio and the number of different languages the group speaks) teams to just two or three people.  His attention to cultural details wins him trust more quickly in communities.  He passed, for example, when workers offered him tea at Jalalabad during Ramadan, when Muslims don't eat or drink during the day.  And most important, he questions every assumption.  "Anyone who tells you he really understands what's going on is lying to himself," says Chipchase.

Frog Design has a great website - - especially check out their blogs.

Frog Design

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

No Jerks, No Divas

Kathy Savitt is CEO of Lockerz, a social network and e-commerce site.  She discusses the following:

I put a very high premium on intelligence and a very high premium on wit in general, which is different from intelligence alone.  It's not enough just to have I.Q.  You have to have active listening skills and really want to communicate with someone.

And Rule No. 1 is no jerks, no divas.  Somebody could be the most brilliant, most experienced person in the world.  But life is too short, and that kind of person can also plant the first seed of cynicism.

Savitt addressed cynicism with the following:

A good example is when a team member has a great idea or has a big issue with a customer experience and no one responds, no one even acknowledges it, no one gets back to them.  The idea festers, problems mount, no one listens.  That's a recipe for cynicism.

Another cell of cynicism is when you feel a company is not actually living out its core values.  And just a lack of overall communications can cause problems.  Leaders can have the greatest of intentions, and their senior team may feel completely bought into the vision.  But if people on the front lines don't know what's going on in the company, you might have a seed of cynicism that can grow.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Don Meredith 1938-2010

When ask why be attended SMU - - Meredith replied - - "It was close to home and easy to spell."

Infrastructure Interdependencies - - Types of Interdependencies

We typically come across interdependencies in one of four principal classes (Keep in mind interdependencies are not mutually exclusive):
  1. Physical Interdependency - - The first type of interdependency arises from a physical linkage between input and outputs.  The rail networking and the coal-fired power plant are physically interdependent - - given that each supplies commodities that the other requires to function properly.  The state of one directly influences the state of the other.  Perturbations in one can ripple over to the other.
  2. Cyber Interdependency - - This is relatively new - - yet growing exponentially.  To a large degree, the reliable operation of modern infrastructures depends on computerized control systems - - from SCADA systems that control electric power grids to computerized systems that manage the flow of rail cars and the rail industry.  This has produced the modern axiom - - "The states  of infrastructures depend on outputs of the information infrastructure."
  3. Geographic Interdependency - - Infrastructure are geographically interdependent if a local environment event can create state changes in all of them.  An electrical line and a fiber-optic communications cable slung under a bridge connect (geographically) elements of the electric power, telecommunications, and transportation infrastructures.  The interdependency in this case is simply due to proximity - - the state of one infrastructure does not influence the state of another.  Traffic across the bridge does not influence the state of another.  Traffic across the bridge does not influence the transmission of messages through the optical fiber or the flow of electricity.
  4. Logical Interdependency - - Two infrastructures are logically interdependent if the state of each depends on the state of the other via a mechanism that is not a physical, cyber, geographic connection.  Logic interdependencies may be more closely likened to a control schema that links in one infrastructure without any direct physical , cyber, or geographic connection.  The linkage between a municipal water treatment and distribution system and the financial infrastructure is a good example.
Munich Re is the world's biggest re-insurer.  In the December 6, 2010 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, their chief risk officer, Joachim Oechslin sums all the concerns regarding interdependencies with the following:

"The most significant changes in risk management have taken place in the past 7 to 10 years.  Today it's not only about data gathering  - - but trying to figure out the relationship of things." 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Infrastructure Interdependencies - - State of Operations

We have all been on a highway where the operational state of the roadway falls into one of three categories - - (1) Normal, (2) Stressed/Disrupted, and (3) Repair/Restoration.  The following are important considerations of infrastructure interdependencies in the context of their state of operations:
  • The state of operations of a unit, subsystem, or system at the time of a failure will affect the extent and duration of any disruption or degradation in the service of an infrastructure.  A power failure at an intersection at peak travel times is far different than a power failure at off-peak traffic volumes - - the system will react differently.
  • The state of operation of an infrastructure can range from optimal design operation to complete failure with a total loss of service to all users.  You can have some part or parts of a system out of service for repair or maintenance - - as long as the condition does not occur during peak usage period when reserve margins are critically low.
  • The timing and sequence of events that cause component failures and infrastructure disruptions are important in terms of the effect as perceived by the user.
  • It is necessary to determine, for each infrastructure, which other infrastructure it depends on continuously or nearly continuously for normal operations, which other infrastructure it depends on during times of high stress or disruption, and which it depends on to restore service following the failure of a component or components that disrupt the infrastructure.
  • The normal operation of an infrastructure, such as a water distribution system, and the repair of a disrupted infrastructure, such as a damaged natural gas system, generally involve multiple functions - - activities, processes, or operations.  Some of the functions occur sequentially in time, whereas others occur in parallel.  In some cases, such as for repair and restoration operations, there may be large uncertainties about the amount of time needed to successfully complete each step in the repair process.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Infrastructure Interdependencies - - Infrastructure Characteristics

Infrastructures have four key characteristics that figure in interdependency analyses.
  1. Spatial Scales - - Infrastructure can be defined as a hierarchy of elements - - (1) Part, (2) Unit, (3) Subsystems, (4), Infrastructure, and (6) Interdependent Infrastructures.  Spatial relationships are closely related to the notion of geographic scales, given that infrastructures span physical spaces ranging in scale from cities, regions, and nations to international levels.  At the part and unit levels, interdependencies may play only a minor role, if any at all.  On the other hand, deliberations on national energy policies may require analyses at the infrastructure, interdependent infrastructure, national, and international levels, whereas an analysis of he failure of a single natural gas might require studies at the system level and below.
  2. Temporal Range - - Time scales have substantial implications for models and simulations, given that certain time-related infrastructure characteristics and interdependencies might not be relevant for a specific analysis.  The tightness or looseness of a specific interdependency is somewhat related to its temporal dynamics and may determine whether that interdependency is pertinent to an analysis.
  3. Operational Factors - - How infrastructures react when stressed or perturbed can be a function of operational factors.  These factors are closely related to security and risk and include operating procedures; operator education and training; backup and redundant systems; emergency workarounds; contingency plans including periodic reviews and updates; and security policies, including implementation and enforcement.
  4. Organizational Considerations - - Infrastructure systems are subject to a whole host of effects - - from globalization, international ownership, regulation, government versus private ownership, corporate policies and motivations, and the regulatory environment.  These organizational aspects can be key factors in determining the operational characters of infrastructure, with important security and risk implications.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Infrastructure Interdependencies - - Type of Failure

Interdependencies increase the risk of failure or disruptions in multiple infrastructure.  Interdependencies can create such things as reinforcing feedback loops that are self-enhancing, leading to runaway collapses over time.  Remember that if A causes B, it is possible that B also causes A - - and the relationship does not just have to be linear.  It can be exponential.

We classify interdependencies-related disruptions or outages in one of three ways:
  1. Cascading Failure - - This occurs when a disruption in one infrastructure causes the failure of a component in a second infrastructure, which subsequently causes a disruption in the second infrastructure.  An example would be a natural gas line failure that results in shutting down an electric utility's generating unit.
  2. Escalating Failure - - This occurs when an existing disruption in one infrastructure exacerbates an independent disruption of a second infrastructure, generally in the form of increasing the severity or the time for recovery or restoration of the second failure.  An example might be a storm that damages the telecommunication network - - and repair crews are delayed due to flooded highway system.
  3. Common Cause Failure - - This occurs when two or more infrastructure networks are disrupted at the same time: components within each network fail because of some common cause.  An example might be rail derailment that damages tracks that also cause communication and power line failures within the same corridor.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Infrastructure Interdependencies - - Coupling and Response Behavior

Coupling refers to how two or more systems are connected or linked together.  Key points relating to coupling are as follows:
  • Coupling characteristics include the degree of coupling, the coupling order, and whether the interaction is linear or complex.
  • Linkages are either tight or loose depending on the relative degree of coupling.  Tight coupling is characterized by time-dependent relationships - - the natural gas fired power plant and the gas supply pipeline have tight coupling.  Loose coupling implies that the infrastructures or agents are relatively independent of each other and the state of one is weakly correlated to or independent of the state of the other.  A water treatment plant with a three month supply of chemicals has a loose coupling.
  • The coupling order indicates whether two infrastructures are directly connected to one another or indirectly through one or more intervening infrastructures.
  • Interaction can be either linear or complex.  Linear interactions are those in an expected and familiar production or maintenance sequence and those that are quite visible even if unplanned.  Complex interactions are those of unfamiliar sequences or unplanned and unexpected sequences, and either not visible or not immediately comprehensible.  A gas pipeline can look both linear and complex, depending on the context.  A gas transmission line and facilities transporting gas to your home will look linear.  That same type of gas line going to a power plant, with electricity transmitted to gas conditioning plants and compressor stations, will look very complex.
  • A clear understanding of context is vital in analyzing the couplings among infrastructures.
  • Coupling is also influenced by adaptive relationships (availability and number of substitutes) and the ability to become flexible when stressed or perturbed.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Infrastructure Interdependencies - - The Environment

In the context of infrastructure interdependencies the word "environment" refers to the setting or surrounding versus the natural world.  Infrastructures operate in an environment described not only by their individual inputs, outputs, and states, but also by the characteristics of other infrastructures and certain general concerns.  The infrastructure environment is the framework in which the owners and operators establish goals and objectives; construct value systems for defining and viewing their business; model and analyze their operations; and make decisions that affect infrastructure architectures and operations.

Seven areas need to be reviewed and discussed in the context of infrastructure interdependencies.  These are:
  1. Economic and Business Opportunities - - Deregulation and technology innovation have had major influences on system interdependencies.  Deregulation, especially in the energy sector, has resulted in the shedding of excess capacity that had previously been mandated and had served as a shock absorber against system failure.  Information technology provided business with a powerful business tool to increase efficiency - - but it subsequently led to the proliferation of cyber interdependencies (and new vulnerabilities) in most infrastructure.
  2. Public Policy - - Various policies shape how industry and various levels of government operate but bounds the set of permissible operational states and characteristics and influence the growth and structure of entire infrastructures.
  3. Government Investment Decisions - - Research, development, and acquisition decisions have had a wide-ranging influence on many aspects of our lives and culture, ranging from the creation of entirely new infrastructures to small nudges of existing infrastructures.  A more pressing issue we currently face is a lack of investment and the impact on potential system failures.
  4. Legal and Regulatory - - Some legal and regulatory concerns directly affect infrastructure operations.  The Telecommunications Act of 1996 had a significant impact and influence on infrastructure architectures and topologies.
  5. Public Health and Safety - - The desire to protect lives, property, and public health/safety has directly affected the configuration and operation of the infrastructures and thus their interdependencies.  Examples include a reliance on SCADA and other electronic systems.
  6. Technical and Security - - Technology is both an enabler of infrastructures and a primary source of interdependencies.  Technology is largely responsible for the tightly coupled, interdependent infrastructure we enjoy today - - extensive automation has dramatically increased cyber interdependencies across all infrastructures and concurrently increased their complexity.  However, tighter, more complex, and more extensive interdependencies lead to increased risks and greater requirements for security.
  7. Social and Political - - These concerns drive markets (economic, business, technical, and security) and elections (public policy, legal/regulatory, and technical).  They create the perception that laws or regulations are needed (or not), a service is needed (or not), certain types of behavior are accepted (or not), and certain protections are needed (or not).

"Lousy" Infrastructure

Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell discusses the state of our public infrastructure with The New Yorker's George Packer at the following link:

Monday, November 29, 2010

Infrastructure Interdependencies - - Introduction

This week I will be addressing the need for engineers to identify and understand the critical infrastructure interdependencies that exist in a broad spectrum of our systems.  By infrastructure I am referring to the physical assets that are capable of an intended service delivery, comprising of rigid assets such as buildings, roads, bridges, and facilities, as well as flexible assets such as utilities and facilities related to water, sewage, power, etc., including their systems and machinery. 

The current and pressing issue is the notion that our infrastructure are highly interconnected and mutually dependent in complex ways, both physically and through a host of information and communications technologies.  Identifying, understanding, and analyzing such interdependencies are significant challenges.  These challenges are greatly magnified by the breadth and complexity of our critical infrastructure.

Infrastructure interdependencies means a bi-directional relationship between multiple different infrastructures in a general system of systems through which the state of each infrastructure influences or is influenced by or correlated to the state of another.  A good example is energy and water - - the two systems are interdependent.  Energy and power production require water - - thermoelectric cooling, energy minerals extraction/mining, and emissions control.  Water production, processing, distribution, and end-use require energy - - pumping, transport, treatment, and use of conditioning.  For example, 20% of the total energy use in California is for water transportation, treatment, and use.  We can expect growth in energy and water interdependencies - - future energy development will put new demands on water development.  Many new technologies will be more water intensive - - the hydrogen economy would require even more water and water constraints will grow for energy development and power plant siting.  Future water supplies and treatment will be more energy intensive - - readily accessible fresh water supplies are limited and have been fully allocated in some areas and new technologies to access and/or treat non-traditional water resources will require more energy per gallon of water.

Steven M. Rinaldi probably explains this best with his "Six Dimensions" graphic for describing infrastructure interdependencies.  The six dimensions are:
  1. The Environment - - Comprising concerns that influence normal system operations, emergency operations during disruptions, periods of high stress/repair, and recovery operations.
  2. Coupling and Response Behavior - - The degree to which the infrastructures are coupled, or linked, strongly influences their operational characteristics.  Some linkages are loose and flexible, whereas others are light, leaving little or no flexibility for the system to respond to changing conditions.
  3. Type of Failure - - Interdependencies increase the risk of failures or disruptions in multiple infrastructures.  The subtle feedback loops and complex topologies created by interdependencies can initiate and propagate disturbances in a variety of ways that are unusual and difficult to foresee.
  4. Infrastructure Characteristics - - Infrastructures have key characteristics that figure in interdependency analyses.  These characteristics include spatial, temporal, operational, and organizational dimensions.
  5. State of Operation - - The state of operation of an infrastructure can be thought of as a continuum that exhibits different behaviors during normal operating conditions, during times of severe stress or disruption, or during times when repair and restoration activities are underway.
  6. Types of Interdependencies - - Interdependencies vary widely and each has its own characteristics and effects on infrastructure agents.  This includes the following four principal classes - - physical, cyber, geographic, and logical.
It is important for engineers to understand that key technological, economic, and regulatory changes have dramatically altered the relationships among infrastructures and the information technology revolution has led to substantially more interconnected, and complex infrastructures with generally greater centralization of control.  To quote Mr. Rinaldi - - ". . . the trend toward greater infrastructure interdependency has accelerated and shows little sign of abating."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Your Inner Rooster

Bob Brennan is the president and CEO of Iron Mountain, a firm which provides information storage, protection, and management services. He writes the following about what qualities he is trying to get at in an interview:

I'm trying to understand how self-centered they are. It's really hard on organizations when people in power throw their weight around. That creates an unsafe environment for collaboration. It breeds defensiveness. I'm trying to understand, if I'm interviewing you, whether you're a rooster. And if you are a rooster, can there be other roosters on the porch with you? If not. I don't care how talented you are, I really don't want you on the property.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Coach K's Tips

After their national championship season last year - - Duke is back again as the #1 ranked college basketball team. Mike Krzyzenwski, the legendary Coach K of the Duke program, writes about leadership in Leading With The Heart (2000) - - his guide to successful strategies for basketball, business, and life. Coach K has the following tips:
  • It's important for a leader to focus on the technical details of his industry or business. But it's vital to focus on details related specifically to people in the organization.
  • People talk to you in different ways - - through facial expressions. moods, mannerisms, body language, the tone in their voice, the look in their eyes.
  • As a leader, you must be able to read your players.
  • A leader has to be positive about all things that happen to his team. Look at nothing in the past as failure.
  • You cannot win every game. But you can learn from every game.
  • It takes courage not only to make decisions, but to live with those decisions afterward.
  • A leader has to have the courage to make a key decision in a split second.
  • Courage and confidence are what decision-making is all about.
  • Don't let a single game break your heart.

Check out ESPN's Greatest Coach On The Planet debate - -

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Ability To Model

Everything engineers do involves some form of modeling - - from graphic models to mathematical models to mental models. We model the interaction of what we think we know about complex systems and our experience of the real world - - and this can be a profoundly humbling experience. Our ability to model the world is poised on a fundamental duality. Engineers know a tremendous amount about how the world works, but not nearly enough. Our knowledge is amazing; our ignorance even more so. The acquisition of knowledge always involves the revelation of ignorance - - almost is the revelation of ignorance.

The late Donella H. Meadows, is her outstanding book Thinking in Systems (2008), writes the three truths of models and reality:
  1. Everything we think we know about the world is a model. Every word and every language is a model. All maps and statistics, books and databases, equations and computer programs are models. So are the ways I picture the world in my head - - my mental models. None of these is or ever will be the real world.
  2. Our models usually have a strong congruence with the world. That is why we are such a successful species in the biosphere. Especially complex and sophisticated are the mental models we develop from direct, intimate experience of nature, people, and organizations immediately around us.
  3. However, and conversely, our models fall far short of representing the world fully. That is why we make mistakes and why we are regularly surprised. In our heads, we can keep track of only a few variables at one time. We often draw illogical conclusions from accurate assumptions, or logical conclusions from inaccurate assumptions. Most of us, for instance, are surprised by the amount of growth an exponential process can generate. Few of us can intuit how to damp oscillations in a complex system.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving by the Numbers

We are expected to cook 46 million turkeys Thanksgiving Day. Each turkey requires approximately 1,600 gallons of water over the bird's life-cycle - - our collective "turkiness" consumes 74 billion gallons of water. One-third of our birds will be cooked in a gas oven. We will burn up 2.35 billion cubic feet of natural gas today, or 4% of all the gas that the U.S. uses on an average day.

Thanking Our Designers

A special thanks to the global designers and innovators that helped to bring the following to market:
  • Infant Warmer - - Around 19 million low-birth-weight babies are born every year in developing countries. Unable to regulate their body temperatures, many die. The Embrace helps to warm vulnerable infants (a special pouch slips into the back of the bag to provide hours of safe hear) while allowing for nursing and cudding. More information available at

  • Purifying Straw - - Some 900 million people lack access to safe drinking water. Sipping through the LifeStraw filters surface water on-site, reducing the transmission of bacteria and viruses. Thousands of ten-inch Life Straws were donated to Haiti after this year's earthquake. Each filters about 160 gallons; a new, shorter model, nearly 265. More information at

  • Sugarcane Charcoal - - Burning wood and dung, the main fuel sources for many in the developing world, has contributed to deforestation and respiratory ailments. Not only do briquettes made from crushed stalks make use of an abundant local resource, they burn more cleanly and allow residents to start a charcoal business for less than $50. More information at

  • Portable Clay Cooler - - Building upon an ancient food-storage technique, the pot-in-pot system uses evaporation from a layer of wet sand between two nesting pots to help extend the life of farmers' goods. Tomatoes can last weeks instead of just days, meaning more fresh produce at the market and more income for farmers.

  • Chill Grinder - - Ethiopian women have for centuries crushed chili peppers by hand - - a time consuming, painful way to add value to a staple spice. The Pepper Eater mills chilies four times faster, creating uniform flakes and sparing hands from chili-oil burns. More information at

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Your Mental Models

Adm. Thad Allen is the retired commander of the Coast Guard and hero of our efforts after Katrina. He has been the public face of our cleanup efforts for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Adm. Allen has the following comments regarding mental models and how leaders can go about creating a unity of effort:

I'm a big fan of Peter Senge (at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), who talks about learning organizations and the use of mental models. You have to understand at a very large, macro level what the problem is that you're dealing with and what needs to be done to achieve the effects you want - - and you have to be able to communicate that. You also have to create a set of shared values that everybody involved can subscribe to.

For example, with Hurricane Katrina, it was clear to me after about 24 hours in New Orleans that we weren't dealing only with a natural disaster. When the levees were breached and New Orleans flooded, it became a different event. Under the hurricane response model, resources are provided to a local government, which runs the response. But we had lost continuity of government: There was no functional local government that could take the resources and apply them to the mission.

So the mental model became more like the response to a weapon of mass effect. When I realized that, things started happening. I sat down with Russel Honore, who was leading the military forces down there, and we divided the city into sectors and assigned each sector to one of his units. We focused on providing security and creating the capacity of local government to do its job - - dewater the city, do the house-to-house searches and so forth.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Complexity, Diversity, and Scale

Next time you are at your local grocery store to purchase a "simple" toothbrush - - try to estimate the number of different brands, models, colors, styles, etc. that are for sale. Your average grocery store might have literally hundreds of selections. We come to expect this - - a hallmark of capitalism is diversity. Freedom to have unlimited choices based on a system of resources with sufficient scale and scope.

Other examples, beyond the toothbrush, of the intersection among complexity, scale and diversity include the following:
  • Online retailer Zappos carries 90,000 different varieties of shoes.
  • McMaster-Carr, a hardware wholesaler, carries 480,000 products in their catalog. They carry 2,432 varieties of wood screws.
  • Amazon carries 85,000 different cell phones and cellphone products.
  • So far, we have created 500,000 different movies and one million television episodes.
  • The Ford F-150 comes in 78 different variations.
  • We have created 1.1 billion unique songs.
  • Your average grocery store has 285 varieties of cookies, 175 kinds of salad dressing, and 85 brands of crackers.
  • The standard 26 letters in English have produced 16 million different books in English.

The success of any organization depends on a tradeoff between complexity and scale. In some respects, this is also the message of sustainability. The tradeoff between complexity and scale has to do with the understanding that if we want to do many different things then we cannot also do the same thing many times. In a manufacturing context, this is a very natural idea - - if you want to mass produce the same item many times, you cannot at the same time produce many different items. In meeting the demands of the environment, an organization has to match the scale that is needed with the complexity that is needed. If what is needed is to make 100,000 copies of a product, the organization should be capable of producing that number of products; if what is needed is to make 1,000 different, customized products, then it should be capable of producing such diversity. Basically the organizational structure has to match the demands of the environment.

Think about this as you decide on your next toothbrush. The line between complexity and chaos is a fine one, especially in a world where energy concerns could come to dominant global logistical systems. The line between product diversity and sustainability might even be finer, where resource constraints may ultimately have a profound impact on diversity and choice.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Shrinking City

We live in cities. About half the global population is now living in urban areas. But urban growth is a "Zero-Sum Game" - - where winning means there must be a loser. In just the United States, for every two urban areas that are growing, three are shrinking. Since the 1950s, 59 cities with a population of 100,000 or more have lost at least 10% of their inhabitants. Remember when clinging to a flawed image of the world, no amount of dexterous policy execution can save you from disaster.

Engineering plays a key role in designing the controlled contraction of certain cities. Smart growth is about finding a better way, smart contraction is also about finding a better way. Engineers need to think about concentrating infrastructure and services in those neighborhoods with better prospects and encouraging disinvested areas to revert to agricultural or otherwise productive open space. Engineering needs to think about what tools and strategies are available to proactively implement with the goal of successfully managing the shrinkage of cities.

The concept and language of shrinkage needs to be thought of as smaller and better - - with more opportunities and alternatives. Shrinkage to some will always be related to diminish, lessen, decline, and retreat. Strategic shrinkage, with a stronger base and foundation, must start with engineers thinking in terms of matching resources with opportunities, infrastructure with population densities, sustainability, and coming to the table with scrappy pragmatism. Engineers need to understand that growth is not an end in itself, and it is not a synonym for prosperity. We should remember that the beginning, and the end of growth is nothing other than opportunity. The smart city of the future will need to be flexible enough to meet the demands of the future - - however it may be broadly interpreted.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Never Give People A Void

Goeff Vuleta is the CEO of Fahrenheit 212, an innovation consulting firm in Manhattan. He provided the following thoughts regarding leadership and planning below:

One of the traits of a good leader is being able to build loyalty beyond reason, and getting people totally believing that something's possible. And I've always believed that everybody wants to be led. They want to know two things - - what they should be doing, and that what they're doing is important. You must therefore set up an environment in which they totally trust that.

So your consistency of behavior is the most important thing. I have been let down in my life by people in leadership roles who were just inconsistent - - telling you to do something and doing something totally different themselves.

His ideas on planning:

We get together every 100 days as a group, and draw up a list of all the things that we want to get done in the next 100 days. And you go away as an individual and come back with commitments to how you're going to contribute to that list. Then you sit down with me and our president and we discuss your plan. It's just our job to make sure that the sum of everybody's plan nails down the firm's list.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Innovation and Process Improvements

Innovation is generally associated with technical products. The iPad and iPod - - engineering and innovation in terms of things. We see the marketplace of ideas in terms of products, devices, and infrastructure - - where in a world of challenges from climate change, peak oil, food safety, water shortages, and resource constraints, our focus is the thing. But what if the long term solution to a problem such as alternative energy sources and conservation is equal parts innovative engineering, changes in life styles, and process improvements?

Our training and dialogue, especially in the context of smart cities and infrastructure, tends to focus on new technology that supplies energy, transport, communication, or water. Unfortunately technology solves only some of our challenges. Innovation can be more effective when focused on doing things differently, rather than relying on different things. Engineering increasingly will rely on individuals that have abilities that go beyond things - - individuals that are good at seeing the world differently in terms of the non-physical, are good by developing policies that get at the root cause of a problem, and are good at formulating strategies that can easily adapt to opportunities and change.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Must-Read Books

The November/December 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs has a list of books that sheds light on the future from 16 foreign policy contributors. I have provided my recommendations on 10 of them. Engineers should read widely - - from history to current events to P.P.E. (politics, philosophy, and economics). Have fun.
  1. The Frugal Superpower: America's Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era by Michael Mandelbaum.
  2. A Peace to End all Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin.
  3. Why the West Rules - - for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future by Ian Morris.
  4. The Clash of Civilization and the Remarking of World Order by Samuel Huntington.
  5. On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done by Cass Sunstein.
  6. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It by Paul Collier.
  7. Thinking in Systems; A Primer by Donella Meadows (Note - - this is a great book that every engineer should read and have in their bookcase.)
  8. The Long View From Delhi: To Define the Indian Grand Strategy for Foreign Policy by Raja Menon and Rajiv Kumar.
  9. How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace by Charles Kupchan.
  10. The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations? by Ian Bremmer.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Our Right Angle Problem

George Lucus of Star Wars fame has an interesting take on the important question - - "Do you think technology is making the world better or worse?" Lucus addresses the question with the following observation:

If you watch the curve of science and everything we know, it shoots up like a rocket. We're on this rocket and we're going perfectly vertical into the stars. But the emotional intelligence of humankind is equally if not more important than our intellectual intelligence. We're just as emotionally illiterate as we were 5,000 years ago; so emotionally our line is completely horizontal. The problem is the horizontal and vertical are getting farther and farther apart. And as these things grow apart, there's going to be some kind of consequence of that.

As science and engineering attempt to address increasingly more complex and interconnected problems - - many of our solutions are clearly represented by the rocket headed straight up. The area of geo-engineering the planet as an outcome of climate change - - or advanced genetic medical research and treatment - - our vertical line seems to be at a 90-degree angle from our horizontal line and what society seems willing to grasp. Are we advancing at such a technological pace, that the challenges and consequences we face as we stabilize at a right angle with our collective emotions will be overwhelming difficult to address? As the Internet and IT line goes vertical - - where a world of 24/7 access and information frames a permanent right angle with the world of self-awareness, self management, social awareness, and relationship management - - what is the impact of this apparent conflict in our technological direction versus are humanistic understanding and history?

We as engineers need to be thinking about the consequences that Mr. Lucas is concerned with.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Walking Dead

AMC has a new show that I would recommend. "The Walking Dead" is part maybe Lost with a little Lord of the Flies, but with zombies (You can probably come up with a multitude of movie combinations, as long as you end with "but with zombies"). The first episode aired on Halloween. It instantly ranked as the most watched scripted series in the history of cable television among 18 to 49 year-olds, a demographic courted by advertisers and by AMC.

The show takes place in and around Atlanta. The episodes were filmed almost entirely on location in Atlanta, where a roughly 30 percent tax credit cut down costs (see previous blog regarding tax tips from Keith Richards - - Gimme Shelter Indeed). Provided below is my rating of the show:

  • Quality of Television Zombies - - Five Stars, could be the best zombies in the history of television.

  • Probability that Engineers Were Responsible for the Zombies - - Low, no indication in the first three episodes.

  • Probability that Engineers Will be Part of the Solution for Surviving Humans - - Unclear, but Atlanta is the home of Georgia Tech.

  • Type Casting of Southerners - - Humans are very high. Zombies appear cast correctly.

  • Sexual Situations - - Humans suffering from P.A.A. (Post Apocalyptic Adultery). Zombies appear non-interested.

  • Nudity - - Humans, none. Zombies, really difficult to tell at times.

  • Set Design - - Five Stars, Atlanta looks the same pre and post zombie attack, especially in the context of traffic.

  • NRA Endorsement - - Extremely likely and would be well received.

  • PETA Endorsement - - Extremely unlikely, especially regarding zombie conduct and relationship toward rats, deer, and horses.
  • NOW Endorsement - - Extremely unlikely for humans. Unclear regarding zombies.
  • Atlanta and Georgia Tourism Endorsement - - Likely, mild climate and wonderful Atlanta scenery are showcased in every exterior scene.

  • Overall Plausibility - - High, Atlanta is the home of the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Opening on Halloween at the start of flu season was a big plus.