Monday, May 31, 2010

Infidels and Flip-Flops

Author Sebastian Junger has a new book, War (2010). The book was the result of five trips Junger made to the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan between June 2007 and June 2008. The bibliography includes references to such articles as "The Coevolution of Parochial Alturusim and War, " and "Age Difference in Reaction Time: An Artifact." Junger divides the book into three chapters - - Fear, Killing, and Love. He writes the following regarding the very young men serving in this very remote and mountainous area - -

The Army has a lot of regulations about how solders are required to dress, but the farther you get from the generals the less those rules are followed, and Second Platoon was about as far from the generals as you could get. As the deployment wore on and they pushed farther into enemy territory it was sometimes hard to tell you were even looking at American soldiers. They wore their trousers unbloused from their boots and tied amulets around their necks and shuffled around the outpost in flip-flops jury rigged from the packing foam used in missile crates. Toward the end of their tour they'd go through entire firefights in nothing but gym shorts and unlaced boots, cigarettes hanging out of their lips. When the weather got too hot they chopped their shirts off below the armpit and then put on body armor so they sweat less but still look like they were in uniform. They carried long knives and for a while one guy went on operations with a small samurai sword in his belt. The rocks ripped their pants to shreds and they occasionally found themselves more or less exposed on patrol. A few had "INFIDEL," tattooed in huge letters across their chests. ("That's what the enemy calls us on their radios," one man explained, "so why not?") Others had tattoos of angel wings sprouting from bullets or bombs. The men were mostly in their early twenties, and many of them have known nothing but life at home with their parents and war.

The start of the chapter on Killing has the following quote:

We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men
stand ready in the night to visit violence on those
who would do us harm.

- - - Winston Churchill (or George Orwell)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Age of Tough Oil

On January 28, 1969, Union Oil Company of California suffered a blowout. It took ten days to plug the well - - an estimated 100,000 barrels of oil was released in the Santa Barbara Channel. The well was drilled in less than 200 feet of water, to a total depth of 3,500 feet. This was the Age of Easy Oil.

The Deepwater Horizon illustrates the Age of Tough Oil - - the extraction of oil in ever more remote places where risk and uncertainty are key parameters. The Deepwater Horizon well was being drilled 50 miles off the coast in 5,000 of seawater to a total depth 18,000 feet. Drilling to 25,000 feet and extracting oil from Canadian tar sands -- the Age of Tough Oil will be expensive, technically challenging, and environmentally risky.

The Age of Tough Oil in the context of the technical and economic also meets the Age of Tough Characters. Approximately 75% of our global crude oil reserves are now owned by the following national oil companies:
  • Saudi Aramco
  • Gazprom (Russia)
  • CNPC (China)
  • NOIC (Iran)
  • PDVSA (Venezuela)
  • Petrobras (Brazil)
  • Abu Dhabi National Oil Company
  • Kuwait Petroleum Corporation
  • Petronas (Malaysia)

We tend to focus on just the ExxonMobil's and British Petroleum's - - but our future runs right toward Los Otros (The Others). The Age of Tough Oil collides with The Age of Tough Characters. All of this is in an environment where only four percent of Chinese consumers own automobiles. In 2009, we had 700 million cars on the road worldwide - - by 2025, that number will probably top 1.25 billion.

The Age of Tough Oil plus The Age of Tough Characters in the age of increasing demand - - look for much greater risk and uncertainty associated with the development and distribution of our hydrocarbon based energy sources.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Managing System Risk

Both the Deepwater Horizon and Katrina problems and failures point out an area that engineers need to focus on - - the intersection of complex technical systems and human psychology. In some respects - - the engineering profession has moved down the pathways of decision making (where time frames are compressed, pressured, and real-time) without any clear sense of the risks in an atmosphere of overconfidence.

David Brooks, in his Friday column in The New York Times ("Drilling For Certainty") highlights six important ideas that engineers should think about - -
  1. People have trouble imagining how small failings can combine to lead to catastrophic disasters. Typically it is the interplay between minor events that lead to unanticipated systemic crashes.
  2. People have a tendency to get acclimated to risk. When things seemingly are going well, people unconsciously adjust their definition of acceptable risk (Two weeks prior to the Deepwater Horizon accident and after 40-years without a major offshore drilling release, we were all set as a nation for a major expansion in offshore drilling).
  3. People have a tendency to place elaborate faith in backup systems and safety devices. More pedestrians die in crosswalks than when jay-walking. We end up with a false sense of security.
  4. We have a tendency to match complicated technical systems with complicated governing structures. Does anyone understand the management structure on the Deepwater Horizon during actual drilling operations or the management structure and responsibilities associated with the response efforts?
  5. People tend to spread good news and hide bad news. A culture of silence can settle upon front-line workers who don't want to lose their jobs to executives who don't want to hurt profits.
  6. People in the same field begin to think alike, whether they are in oversight roles or not. Group think begins to creep into the decision making process at alarming levels.

A future mandate for the engineering community needs to focus on a better understanding of the linkages and interfaces among the mechanical world, complexity in the context of catastrophic events, and human psychology.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Alive With Information

The historical view of infrastructure inspections - - the world of observation from a mostly passive viewpoint - - have the engineer take a measurement and report back. But technology, namely low-cost sensors, energy-efficient processors, and advanced wireless networking - - is leading to the creation of a data rich and active world.

A sample of our active and networked world - -

  • Italy - - Italy's largest power company, Enel, operates smart meters that monitor electricity use in real time and detect when and where power outages occur. Customers can participate in flexible pricing plans that charge lower rates for energy use during off-peak hours.

  • Indian Ocean - - The Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System is a network of seismometers, sea bottom pressure sensors, and tide gauges that detects abnormal pressure variations indicative of a potential tsunami. Public officials linked to better coastal alert systems can more quickly notify communities of a treat, and avoid death tolls like that of the 2004 tsunami.

  • Australia - - Scientists in Springbrook National Park have deployed a solar-powered wireless sensor network in endangered rain forests to learn more about restoring biodiversity and how microclimates change over time. The sensors monitor environmental conditions like leaf and soil moisture, to track climate change, and provide acoustic and video data that show how plants and animals recover from damage to their habits.

  • South Korea - - The Korean Bridge Management System uses a network of wireless sensors to analyze hundreds of variables per bridges - - including vibration, temperature, corrosion, and sounds such as cracks and popping cables - - that could reveal structural problems. The data flows to a central computer, allowing officials to prioritize repairs and maintenance.

  • Japan - - Japan's Smartway is starting to use sensors to generate data on traffic flow and road conditions and communicate wirelessly with vehicles. On Tokyo's winding Metropolitan Expressway, where 21 percent of accidents occur on just six percent of the road, the system alerts drivers: "You are approaching a blind curve with congestion ahead; brake immediately." Future technology will let the system bypass the driver -- and automatically apply the brakes.

  • Napa Valley, California - - Grape growers have always had a challenge ensuring healthy crops. For centuries they relied on random soil samples to assess their fields. Now wireless sensor networks monitor environmental and soil conditions, helping growers reduce their pesticide use and determine the best time to harvest. And moisture sensors help them practice better irrigation, which saves water, yields higher-quality crops and produces better wine.

  • San Francisco, California - - The days of continually circling the streets in search of an empty spot are ending. A system that will launch later this summer in San Francisco will use wireless sensors to provide real-time data on the availability of almost 20,000 parking spaces. Drivers will receive the data online, via text message, or through electronic signs on the streets.

Check out Tomorrowland in the June 2010 issue of The Atlantic.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Virtual Water

Virtual water (aka embedded water, embodied water, or hidden water) refers, in the context of trade, to water used in the production of a good or service. Trillions of gallons of virtual water are transferred in the global trade of agricultural products - - comparable to the volume of water that yearly flows down the Congo River. Regions leading in beef and grain exports are the top exporters of virtual water. To feed a growing population, experts say that water-use efficiency will need to double in the next 20 years. Weighting the export value of a crop against its impact on the local water supply, and charging more to reflect the water's value, could become part of the equation.

Specifically - -
  • Japan imports 15 times more virtual water than it exports, the highest disparity for any country.

  • Italy has Europe's largest virtual water trade deficit. Imports exceed exports by 13 trillion gallons.

  • Africa's top virtual-water exports to Europe are olive oil, cotton, peanuts, sesame-seed products, leather, and hides.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Age of Political Risk

The public sector is playing a more prominent role as we move from crisis to crisis. From the Lehman Brothers failure to the Greek debt rescue crisis - - political risk is about policymakers formulating decisions that markets may or may not foresee or understand. It is the uncertainty that businesses face as a result of government action. From financial crises to terrorist prevention to environmental cleanups - - many of our problems are massive dilemmas requiring massive government intervention. But intervention produces a whole host of new worries and risks.

The New Yorker, in the May 24, 2010 issue, covers this on The Financial Page. The article adds the following:

Political risk adds new complexity to markets, and, as Nassim Taleb, the author of "The Black Swan," recently said, "As the system gets more complex, it becomes harder to forecast." Clarie Hill, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, argues that investors trying to manage political risk have historically moved between extremes of "optimism and skittishness," which sounds a lot like the current situation. That doesn't mean you should put your money in gold; over time, even volatile markets can rise. But it won't be a smooth ride.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

All Politics, No Economics

The May 22, 2010 issue of The Economist has a special report on water. The titles of the article tell the story - - "Enough is not enough", "Business begins to stir", "Making farmers matter", "Trade and conserve", and "To the last drop" (Or how to avoid water wars -- with 60% of the world's population living in a river basin shared by two or more countries -- the conflict potential is rather clear).

The series of articles highlight four areas that need attention - -
  1. Improvement in Storage and Delivery. Mother nature has fixed limits on water supply - - we have to better utilize what we have. Storage and delivery looks at underground reservoirs, replacing leaking pipes, lining earth-bottom canals, and irrigating plants at their roots with just the right amount of water.

  2. A focus on farming. We need to make farming less thirsty - - genetic engineering could aid in producing crops that need less water and are much more drought resistant.

  3. Get the salt out. Invest in technologies that take the salt out of sea water. A side focus - - yet increasingly important, is to make these technologies much more energy efficient.

  4. Make the market work. Pricing and economic incentives need to be utilized to bring supply and demand into balance. Well-water countries should make water-intensive goods, and arid ones should make those that are water-light.

Historically speaking, the trouble with water and the four good ideas outlined in the articles, is that water is all about politics, not economics. That needs to change - - technology, economics, physics, and hydrogeology need to replace the old water ways of politics and the culture of waste and poor resource management. Our water problems are on a collision course with energy problems at the same time we have huge fiscal problems. We have limited flexibility to deal with our pressing water issues. The Economist states this very clearly - -

Meanwhile, investment is badly needed almost everywhere. In the developed markets of the United States, where water rights are traded, prices have been rising fast. But since water in most places is usually priced so low, if at all, the revenue generated is seldom enough to maintain or replace existing infrastructure. Even in America the bills will be dauntingly large. Analysts at Booz Allen Hamilton tried in 2007 to estimate how much investment would be needed in water infrastructure to moderise obsolescent systems and meet expanding demand between 2005 and 2030. Their figure for the United States and Canada was $6.5 trillion. For the world as a whole. they reckoned $22.6 trillion.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Balanced Transportation Analyzer

I recently had the opportunity to hear a luncheon speaker define sustainability as "trying to do more with less." This is a good definition - - probably represents one boundary of the sustainability debate and process (the other end of the spectrum, which we all want to avoid, is "having to do less with less").

Three idea and forces are embedded in the "more with less" sustainability definition. The first is innovation - - new ideas and creativity regarding our ability to solve problems with limited fiscal capabilities and fewer material resources. The second is the notion of information - - how can we utilize our existing data and information resources to make better societal decisions in the new era of "more with less?" The last idea - - given the powers and insight regarding our capacity for new ideas, creativity, and information - - how do we influence and change public behavior to support and accept "trying to do more with less?"

In the area of transportation management, economist Charles Komanoff has developed several tools. His Balanced Transportation Analyzer (BTA) is an enormous Excel spreadsheet he has build over the last three years to model every aspect of New York City transportation. Highlights of BTA include:
  • Calculates how new fees and changes to existing tools affect traffic at different times of the day.
  • It calculates which costs are borne by city dwellers and which by suburbanites.
  • It calculates how long it takes passengers to dig for change and board buses.
  • It allows any user to adjust dozens of different variables - - from taxi surcharges to truck tolls - - and measures their impact.
  • The model is a statistical SimCity.
  • He measures the time and money lost in traffic.
  • The model translates all traffic impacts - - delays, collisions, injuries, injuries, air pollution - - into dollars
  • The model potentially serves as the basis for transportation pricing (e.g., congestion pricing combined with fee public transportation).
  • The model and ideas offered by Komanoff focus on incentives and revenues versus punishment.

The June 2010 issue of Wired cover BTA is detail in an article entitle - - "The Traffic Cop: Only one man can end gridlock in Manhattan: Charles Komanoff, Excel virtuoso."

Youtube also has a demonstration of BTA - -


Yoichi Kaya, an engineer at Tokyo University, has come up with a formula for thinking about the key variables that impact level of carbon dioxide we produce. The parameters are defined below:
  • F = Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions. Includes combustion, flaring of natural gas, cement production, oxidation of nonfuel hydrocarbons, and transport.
  • P = Global Population. Total number of human beings - - approximately six billion.
  • g = Consumption Per Person. Gross world product divided by population.
  • e = Energy Intensity of Gross World Product. Global energy consumption divided by Gross world product.
  • f = Carbon Used to Make All That Energy. Global carbon dioxide emissions divided by Global energy consumption.

To reduce (F), with (P) increasing, the burden becomes addressing (g), (e), and (f). Look to (g) as a key global performance metric.

See June 2010 Wired under Education - Warming Trends.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Crisis In Employee Engagement

Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project has an article in the June 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review. The article, The Productivity Paradox: How Sony Pictures Gets More Out of People by Demanding Less, looks at how leaders can easily under-estimate how their attitudes and behaviors affect the energy levels of their teams. The article focuses on shifting from "managing by treating people like computers" to trying to invest systematically meeting their four core needs. The four core needs are:
  1. Physical Health - Achieved through nutrition, sleep, daytime renewal, and exercise.
  2. Emotional Well-Being - Which grows out of feeling appreciated and valued.
  3. Mental Clarity - The ability to focus intensely, prioritize, and think creatively.
  4. Spiritual Significance - Which comes from the feeling of serving a mission beyond generating a profit.

People perform at their peak when they alternate between periods of intense focus and intermittent renewal. Leaders have a role in setting the right context for their employees to replenish their energy. Schwartz outlines several dos and don'ts:


  • Take back your lunch. Get away from your desk, and preferably out of the office altogether, so that you come back to work more focused and fueled to face the rest of the day. It will encourage your employees to do the same.
  • Communicate your values. Feeling valued is our core emotional need. Write a note of appreciation to someone who works for you once a week. Be very specific about what it is that you value.
  • Cultivate creativity. Set aside an informal, relaxing space at work that is devoted to creative thinking and brainstorming. Schedule a regular time - - at least once every two weeks - - when colleagues gather to brainstorm new ideas, discuss longer-term projects, or set strategy.
  • Share your passion. Communicate what you stand for and what your larger mission is, beyond profit. If that isn't clear to you, set aside time to reflect on it. What is it that gets you up in the morning? What's the value you're trying to add in the world? Why should others feel passionate about doing it, too?


  • Avoid conflict. Ignoring a difficult situation typically does more harm than communicating directly and honestly about it. The key to a successful conversation is not to assume you're right but to enter into it in a spirit of openness and curiosity.
  • Try to do multiple things at the same time. Make an effort to give people your full focus and try to listen without interrupting. You know you're succeeded if you're capable of repeating back what you just heard.
  • Be self-absorbed. It's easy to make it all about you. Try to step beyond your own immediate needs to better serve the needs of those you lead.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

End Of Your Tether

Steve Hannah is the CEO of The Onion. He had the following observation regarding leadership:

About 10 years ago, I met a remarkable man, Lt. Gen. Harold Moore. Hal Moore co-wrote a book called, "We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young." It was a book about the first real battle between United States Rangers and North Vietnamese regulars.

He had a favorite phrase: "I'll always be the first person on the battlefield, and I'll be the last person off. I'll never leave a body." And he never did. It was incredibly humbling just to be in this presence.

I met him through a friend, and Hal said, "I want to write a book about leadership." So we began this book project. Over the next year, I interviewed Hal with a tape recorder for hours and hours. And he taught me his view of how you manage people and what you owe the people you manage. He taught me you never, ever do anything to deprive a human being of dignity in work, in life. Always praise in public, criticize in private.

And he taught me that when you're faced with something that's really difficult and you think you're at the end of you tether, there's always one more thing you can do to influence the outcome of the situation. And then after that there's one more thing. The number of possible options is only limited by your imagination.

When I was young and managing, I didn't listen nearly enough. Hal would always say to me: "Listen to the people below you because they are on the front lines. Do you realize that any given moment any one of those people, from the highest to the lowest, can be the most important person that day in your operation?" I've seen that happen many times in our business.

Management by utilizing all the letters - - if Plan B fails, go through the alphabet. Managerial complexity breeds an appreciation for the complete toolbox - - pulling out whatever tool you might need, at whatever moment, with the intent to influence whatever situation. With the current managerial class, having just laid off approximately eight million people between 2006 - - 2010, it would seem that both the dignity and alphabet parts were short in consideration and discussion. When the easiest route becomes the automatic Plan B and human dignity, hope, and equality become words of history - - you start down a very slippery slope of economic despair and potential social unrest that is difficult to recover from.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Complexity, Coupling, and Catastrophe

Every engineer ought to have a copy of Charles Perrow's Normal Accidents: Living With High-Risk Technologies ( 1984). A bit out of date, but a great book to pull out and reread during a Katrina or a BP drilling adventure. Perrow introduces us to the basic definitions - -
  1. Systems - - Are divided into four levels of increasing aggregation: units, parts, subsystems, and system.
  2. Incidents - - Involved damage to, or failures of, parts or a unit only, even though the failure may stop the output of the system or affect it to the extent that it must be stopped.
  3. Accidents - - Involve damage to subsystems or the systems as a whole, stopping the intended output or affecting it to the extent that it must be halted promptly.
  4. Component Failure Accidents - - Involve one or more component failures (part, unit, or subsystem) that are linked in an anticipated sequence.
  5. System Accidents - - Involve the unanticipated interaction of multiple failures.

What is interesting with a careful reading of the definitions, is how they show up in failures such as Challenger or Katrina or the BP spill. The language is universal - - regardless of the type of system failure we are dealing with. The other common thread - - the vast majority of component failure accidents involve a series of failures. Anyone who saw the 60 Minutes interviews last Sunday understands system accidents - - a series of incidents that lead to a "final accident" - - where no possible intervention by the operators was possible (as if the wing comes off an airplane in flight or an earthquake shatters a dam).

Perrow discusses the differences between complex and linear system interactions. Linear interactions are those in expected and familiar production or maintenance sequences, and those that are quite visible even if unplanned. While complex interactions are those of unfamiliar sequences, or unplanned and unexpected sequences, and either not visible or not immediately comprehensible. Perrow utilizes his "breakfast, getting to the appointment, and the job interview" example to illustrate the idea of subsystem linkage and interaction. In the world we plan out and think though, our mornings seem very linear. Get up, shower, breakfast, off to work, etc. One would expect the car keys to be linked to using the car, but one would not expect the failure of the hot water tank to be linked to using the car. One would also not expect that even if the car failed, the alternative of a taxi would be linked to a contract dispute, and the neighbor's car would be unavailable just that day. These represent interactions that were not in our original design or our world, and interactions that we as "operators" could not anticipate or reasonably guard against. What distinguishes these interactions (and the interactions associated with the BP drilling accident) is that they are not designed into the system by anybody; no on intended them to be linked. They baffle us because we acted in terms of our own designs of a world that we expected to exist - - but the world was different.

Coupling in the context of systems is another important concept. Loosely coupled systems, whether for good or ill, can incorporate shocks and failures and pressures for change without destabilization. Tightly coupled systems will respond more quickly to these perturbations, but the response may be disastrous. Drilling in 5,000 feet of water is an example of a tightly coupled system. Tightly coupled systems have more time-dependent processes: they cannot wait or stand by until attended to. Drilling is a tightly coupled system in which the sequences are invariant - - B must follow A. The specific sequences are not only invariant - - but the overall design of drilling allows for only one way to reach the production goal. And finally, tightly coupled systems have little slack - - drilling involves precise quantities; resources cannot be substituted for one another; wasted supplies overload the process; failed equipment entails a shutdown because the temporary substitution of other equipment is not possible.

System accidents and failures, such as Katrina and BP, illustrate the importance of fundamentally understanding two concepts - - the types of interactions (complex and linear) and the types of coupling (loose and tight).

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Vision Thing

What is the connection between vision and strategic thinking? In some respects, strategic thinking is about seeing - - be it Napoleon, Churchill, Ford, or Buffett - - how you see and what you see shapes your strategic thinking.

Henry Mintzberg offers his valuable insight into the different ways you can see the strategic landscape - -
  • Seeing Ahead - - Almost everyone would agree that strategic thinking means seeing ahead. In the 1930s, Churchill saw ahead better than any other world leader. But seeing ahead is not predicting the future - - strategic flexibility is also needed, especially in the world we live. Remember the axiom of strategic fate - - "How the unanticipated leads to the inevitable by way of the unavoidable."
  • Seeing Behind - - You cannot see ahead unless you can see behind, because any good vision of the future has to be rooted in an understanding of the past. There are times you will set at your desk when time collapses and the past seems very near. Experience plays a role, but experience alone is not sufficient for developing winning strategies. Indeed, misapplying experience is perhaps the surest route to failure in combination with the sharply diminishing returns of experience. In a rapidly changing world - - "I know how to do this, I've been there," - - needs to be replaced with a focus on critical analysis skills and insight at the institutional level.
  • Seeing Above - - Seeing the "big picture" - - the helicopter view of the world. The goal is to distinguish the forest from the trees. But can anyone really get the big picture just by seeing above? The forest looks like a rug from a helicopter, or even worse from a satellite. Anyone who has taken a walk in a forest knows that it doesn't look much like that on the ground. Forestry executives who stay in their helicopters don't understand much more than strategists who stay in offices.
  • Seeing Down -- The diamond hunters. Looking for and finding the diamond in the rough. Strategic thinkers have to find the gem of an idea that changes their organization. But that comes with a lot of digging, dirt, mud, and hard work. There is no big picture ready for seeing: each strategist has to construct his or her own. Thus, strategic thinking is also inductive thinking - - seeing above must be supported by digging for diamonds.
  • Seeing Beside - - The creative and lateral thinkers. They challenge the traditional norms of your industry - - they don't like conventional wisdom, standard recipes, or the traditional approach. Many of our best minds, blinded by optimism and confusion, are using out-of-date and unrealistic models of the world. A key point to remember - - the diversity of strategic input helps with the quality of the strategic output.
  • Seeing Beyond - - Creative ideas and unconventional thought must be placed into a context, to be seen in a world that is to unfold. Seeing beyond is different from seeing ahead. Seeing ahead foresees an expected future by constructing a framework out of the events of the past - - it intuitively forecasts discontinuities. Seeing beyond constructs the future - - it invents a world that would not otherwise be. Apple Computer takes the "seeing beyond" component of the vision thing and places it on steroids.
  • Seeing It Though - - What is the use of all this seeing - - ahead and behind, beside and beyond - - if nothing gets done?
This is not the time or age to be a visionary minimalist. The world is in a state of constant flux and dangerous change - - marked by visions of many sidedness. A smorgasbord of offerings and views - - with the role and duty of leaders establishing a strategic view with a shared content.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Serendipity and Sex

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2010) is a new book by Matt Ridley. Ridley is a British science fiction writer that has taken on the subject of innovation. He argues that our past achievements and advancements have come about because of innovation - - he thinks all our present and projected problems will be solved with innovation.

Innovation to Ridley is not a lonely or singular activity. Innovation is a collective phenomenon. We grow, improve and advance by what he calls cheekily, "ideas having sex." The key to innovation birthing is the sex part - - the mating of different concepts, thoughts, and ideas. Think the ideas of Apple's Steve Jobs mated with The Daily Beast's Tina Brown. New ideas of innovative thought regarding technology and journalism. Or the ideas of civil engineering mated with the ideas and applications of a computer scientist working with the iPhone. The combination of traffic patterns and information technology.

The sex part really starts with the meeting and dating phases. Serendipity plays a key role in the lead in to "ideas having sex." Serendipity occurs when you discover an invention or a person who has an idea or a thought that you might be interested in. You meet an idea that you want to have sex with. The Internet and social networking plays a role in the dating process. But brain workers like to live near each other. Silicon Valley is the classic example. It is easier to keep up with the latest ideas if you keep bumping into other people who work in your areas of interest. Idea dating and hooking up, because of the close proximity, becomes so much easier for your ideas to have sex with other peoples' ideas.

The next time you are in a conference room for a two-hour brainstorming session - - ask yourself if your ideas are compatible sexually with the other peoples' ideas. Are the ideas too related - - too many family members and relatives - - too many "cousins-marrying-cousins" - - too much inbreeding? It might be wise to always have a wide "dating and sex" experience in the idea marketplace.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

How Is Your Business Model?

The June 2010 issue of The Atlantic has a great article by James Fallows entitled How To Save The News. The article examines the newspaper business, journalism, and the role technology is playing in changing the way we get news.

Hal Varian is Google’s chief economist. He offers the following insight regarding the newspaper business model:

“If you were starting from scratch, you could never possibly justify this business model,” Hal Varian said, in a variation on a familiar tech-world riff about the print-journalism business. “Growing trees - - then grind them up, and truck big rolls of paper down from Canada? Then run them through enormously expensive machinery, hand-deliver them overnight to thousands of doorsteps, and leave more on newsstands, where the surplus is out of date immediately and must be thrown away? Who would say that made sense? The old-tech wastefulness of the process is obvious, but Varian added a less familiar point. Burdened as they are with these “legacy” print costs, newspapers typically spend about 15 percent of their revenue on what, to the Internet world, are their only valuable assets: the people who report, analyze, and edit the news. Varian cited a study by the industry analyst Harold Vogel showing that the figure might reach 35 percent if you included all administrative, promotional, and other “brand” – related expenses. But most of the money a typical newspaper spends is for the old-tech physical work of hauling paper around. Buying raw newsprint and using it costs more than the typical newspaper’s entire editorial staff. (The pattern is different at the two elite national papers, the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. They each spend more on edit staff than on newsprint, which is part of the reason their brands are among the most likely to survive the current hard times.)

The next time you are close to an Apple store, stop in. Spend some time with an iPad (you will have to wait in line just to see and touch one). Think about your current business model - - think about how customers and clients “engage” with the printed material your company produces. Think about the type of behavior you are seeking from those same customers and clients during this engagement process. Think about the technology and customer/client interface that currently exists - - and how it will change and look in the future. Think about the new world of non-linear reading and learning versus the worlds of linear engagements. Think about your current business model in terms of distribution, engagement, and monetization. Think about how to blend information, knowledge, and data together with an interesting and entertaining experience.

Finally, as you explore the iPad - - think about the number of logging trucks on the road heading south and what happens when old and dated busness models run head on into innovation and changing technology.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Future Leaders

The history of political leaders at all levels in the developed world is the history of giving people things. The congressman that earmarked the new bridge. The senator that provided funding for 100 new F-16s. The mayor that negotiated the new contract with the police union. The federal education department and school board that supported a new grant for $100,000 worth of new computers. The president and prime minster that cut taxes and expanded medical programs. The political leader as the national and local giver - - parts Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, and Easter Bunny.

As the Greek crisis and recent British election points out - - the future of political leadership will be about taking things away. Cuts in services and benefits. Reductions in bridges and fighter planes. Reduced retirement benefits and only $9,500 worth of new computers. Tax increases and longer waits for retirement. This was honestly discussed in the British elections - - warnings were cast regarding cuts and reductions in services; just not the scale and scope. The U.S. has started this national conversation - - we are at the very beginning of our long path regarding the projected scale and scope. A national conversation announcing the death of the Tooth Fairy.

Look for a huge political and social shock wave in the developed world - - especially the United States. The future political aristocracy as taker and not giver.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"Apollo project, not Project Runway"

The online journal The Politico recently reported Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey as stating the following:

Markey, who is against new offshore drilling, said BP’s response should mirror the “Apollo project, not Project Runway.”

Is Congressman Markey correct in his advice? Do we live in the world of huge Apollo-like project capabilities, such as the 10-plus year program that took us to the moon, or are we much more limited and theatrical in our national engineering endeavors? The Apollo program lasted from 1961 to 1973 and cost $25.4 billion in 1973 dollars (roughly $170 billion in 2005 dollars). The program was marked by several key attributes - - a decade long time period to achieve the goal; national political consensus; adequate and unlimited funding; national pride; and a highly collaborative effort between the public and private sectors. This seems far removed from what is needed and what is occurring in the gulf emergency operations.

Much has changed since the 1960s along with the constraints that the engineering community must operate under. We all operate under the influence of a Project Runway mentality - - with Project Runway design consultant Tim Gunn directing us all to “Make it work,” - - where we have an hour long news cycle to “Make it work.” We must “Make it work” in the gulf - - in a very short time frame, without the luxury of $170 billion, under the theatrics of 24/7 news cycles, and without the integrated and collaborative efforts of the public and private sectors. Ed Markey just replaces Project Runway host Heidi Klum (Ok, not exactly) - - where Congressman Markey may want an Apollo type project, but what he wants most is to play the role of Ms. Klum in front of a national audience.

For better or worse - - we had all better get very comfortable with the Project Runway mentality regarding national engineering endeavors and emergencies. The engineering problem and crisis as national reality show. Modeled as a contest with judges and winners and losers - - where results at any one moment can be highly subjective. Where creativity, imagination, and originality are the primary engineering skill sets necessary to balance the limited time, resources, and funding that might be available.

In some respects - - the “Houston, we have a problem” statement of 40-years ago is answered in 2010 with “Make it work.”

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sitting Bull

Traffic was terrible tonight - - but it did give me the opportunity to survey the landscape of our local restaurant row. You can hardly miss the signs for the big three - - Hooters, Twin Peaks, and Big Racks. Twin Peaks is the newest addition - - it previously was the Red Lobster (and I am sure there are interior design firms that can take you from sandy beaches to alpine meadows).

There is a large segment of the population (male) that thinks "This-has-nothing-to-do-with-breasts" and "The-chicken-wings-are-really-good." But the business model for this particular restaurant franchise points out three specific national problems. One - - we are too fat and we eat out too much. When you have a Hooters next to a Twin Peaks next to a Big Racks - - it illustrates that the restaurant market is just way too saturated. Two - - we recently nominated a female Supreme Court Justice. We previously confirmed another female Supreme Court Justice. The Secretary of State is female. The Speaker of the House is female. The incoming 2014 college class is more female than male. We may have better gender equality - - but we still have the same old poor taste and low class problems. Three - - we have an innovation, creativity, and education problem. At some point you flat just run out of restaurant names - - and our education system is so poor no one will ever get Grote Borsten or Tetas.

Sitting Bull? In the age of Hooters, Twin Peaks, and Big Racks - - one has to admire the names that he and other Indians gave their wives and daughters. Sitting Bull had a lot more class in 1876 than we do in 2010 with - - Many Horses, Four Blankets Woman, Seen by the Nation, and Standing Holy.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Introduction to Plan B Preparation

After the events along the Gulf Coast last week, engineering schools across the country need to think about adding a new class. We can call it "Introduction to Plan B Preparation" - - have it as a multidisciplinary class available for seniors. The editorial page in the May 11, 2010 edition of The Dallas Morning News, under the banner A Better Plan B From BP, bluntly states:

Accidents happen. But with so much at stake, from the credibility of the oil industry to the environmental disaster amassing along gulf shorelines, it's imperative that companies and regulators have an ironclad Plan B ready to go on a seconds notice.

Risk and uncertainty are unavoidable in the planning, design, construction, and management of engineering systems. The complexity and volatility of our systems - - natural and engineered - - requires engineers to have a comprehensive understanding of the issues relating to uncertainty, risk, and reliability. We are constantly moving to a new world order of much greater uncertainty - - be it from climate change or challenging the limits of technological advancement. A world of low risk probabilities but much higher consequences. From Katrina to drilling in 5,000 feet of sea water - - engineering risk analysis and management is becoming an inherent part of projects, programs, and a fact of life for engineering. The starting point, be it natural disasters or terror attacks, is understanding that the characterization of risk helps establish its specific content and context. To characterize risk, two basic elements are necessary - - (1) Probability of occurrence of a hazard, and (2) Extent of damage, which is governed by the vulnerability of a given system to the exposed hazard.

But upfront risk analysis and assessments have limitations and will newer capture each and every possible scenario. System complexity and randomness are powerful enemies battling the rational mind. Because of this, the quality of your Plan B (and C & D) becomes increasingly important (and if golf balls are part of your Plan C -- remember the words "credibility" and "ironclad"). The ability to execute Plan B - - in a timely manner with the appropriate skills, resources, technology, and leadership - - becomes as important or more so as the initial risk assessment exercise. Training plays an important part in a Plan B -- where critical decision making is conducted through the interpretations of a mix of various sources - - a complex balancing act - - the glue holding it all together is engineering judgement. A component of the Part B course should focus on the idea of flexible decision making in a crisis along with a firm understanding that the only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once - - except during a crisis or emergency.

The key element that one should take away from a Plan B preparation class are the "Three I's" - - Improvidence (the risk of not thinking about the future), Improvisation (the power of flexibility and creativity), and Impossibilities (an understanding of the "Black Swan" events). Thinking in terms of the I's will help you think about your Plan Bs.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Three Ways To Be Influential

Engineering and engineers need to get comfortable with the three ways to be influential in American politics - -
  1. Make Donations to Political Parties - - This must be a concentrated effort. All the disciplines, all the societies, all the professional organizations - - one voice, one bank account, and one goal. Like the AMA and ABA - - power and influence is a function of concentration.
  2. Establish Think Tanks - - Modeled after the Hoover or Brookings institutes. Think tanks that focus on public policy issues directly related to engineering and the role engineering plays in modern and democratic societies. Powerful messengers that deliver powerful messages - - to key and influential segments of society.
  3. Control Media Outlets - - This is increasingly controlling the flow and access to information and messages on the web and social networks. We need to make this environment our own - - leveraging the technology so as to maximize out "return on attention."

We also need different and unique individuals to organize and implement this - - the engineer and technologist that can function in the role of cultivator, charmer, and manipulator. Being charming and analytical is quite a combination - - but it is a combination that is noteworthy for our times.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Pelicans and Politicians

The lead story in the May 8th issue of The Economist is entitled Deep Trouble: Big Oil and America's Energy Policy. The issue has several articles that cover many issues and viewpoints associated with U.S. energy markets and cleanup efforts in the Gulf Coast. Highlights of the articles are listed below:
  • Investors have wiped approximately $30 billion off BP's value.
  • Moves are afoot to lift the cap on an oil firm's liability for economic damage done by oil spills form $75 million to $10 billion - - they are already on the hook for unlimited cleanup costs.
  • There has not been a big leak from an offshore oil well for 40 years.
  • Average annual spills from underwater pipelines declined from 2.5 million gallons in 1980-84 to just 12,000 gallons in 2000-04.
  • Floating oil on surface waters comes from - - 1% offshore drilling, 4% tankers and pipelines, 33% from shipping, and 62% from natural seepage.
  • For spills are hardly the most baleful consequence of America's oil addiction: global warming and the funding of foreign despots surely come higher up the list.
  • Charlie Crist of Florida and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California both withdrew their support for drilling last week.
  • Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, started his career with BP as a geologist working on a North Sea platform.
  • The seafood industry in Louisiana is worth $2.4 billion.
  • The light fractions of an oil spill, as much as 40% of the total, will evaporate quite quickly.
  • Drilling off the coasts of the lower 48 states is estimated to account for just 7% of domestic production by 2030 and will have an insignificant impact on prices.
  • Warmer and choppier waters and environments are less easily damaged than the Alaskan shores.
  • Robert Bea, a professor of engineering with the University of California at Berkeley, appears to be the go-to-guy for the press regarding engineering risk and uncertainty.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Dual-Consciousness People

In this Friday column, David Brooks of The New York Times, wrote an article entitled Leading With Two Minds. The article address how officers like, Gen. David Petraeus , have transformed the Army over a very short five years. Brooks opens the article with an observation that applies to many organizations and professions - - especially engineering and engineers:

They say that intellectual history travels slowly, and by hearse. The old generation has to die off before a new set of convictions can rise and replace entrenched ways of thinking. People also say that a large organization is like an aircraft carrier. You can move the rudder, but it still takes a long time to turn it around.

Yet we have a counterexample right in front of us. Five years ago, the United States Army was one sort of organization, with a certain mentality. Today, it is a different organization, with a different mentality. It has been transformed in the virtual flash of an eye, and the story of the transformation is fascinating for anybody interested in the flow of ideas.

The story is how scholar-soldiers transformed the Army. The story is about people like Petraeus, steeped in Army culture but also in some other - - in his case academia. Many parts of the story have the same type of individual - - polymaths that are interested in learning, exploring, and embracing ideas outside their direct fields and professions. Brooks refers to this type as dual-consciousness people - - Brooks explains this as:

The process was led by these dual-consciousness people - - those who could be practitioners one month and academic observers of themselves the next. They were neither blinkered by Army mind-set, like some of the back-slapping old guard, nor so removed from it that their ideas were never tested by reality, like pure academic theoreticians.

It's a wonder that more institutions aren't set up to encourage this sort of alternating life. Business schools do it, but most institutions are hindered by guild customs, by tenure rules and by the tyranny of people who can only think in on way.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Deep, Broad, Dynamic

At its core, engineering is about one thing: decisions. High-value decision making is a critical skill in engineering. This is especially so given the need for faster decision making, the complexities of global interactions, and the many different value systems that various stakeholders exhibit. The vast majority of the value that engineers create today is based on decisions not from applying analytical techniques to choose from existing options, but from creating options that do not yet exist.

Engineering decision making and makers need to recognize the need for change given the requirement for enhanced decision makers. Engineering cannot effectively exist in the old and tired vacuum of the past - - where it should be deep, it is shallow; where it should be broad, it is narrow; and where it should be dynamic, it is static. Many of the ideas and themes embedded in the "deep, broad, and dynamic" engineering attribute model operating in the global world of "flatter and faster" start with a rather simple idea - - multidisciplinary outreach. The future is about accessing people different from you - - the engineering community interfacing with the worlds of finance, art, law, community organizers, etc. It is the civil engineer knowing how and where to access experts in the fields of electrical engineering and computer science - - with the understanding that the great unsettled problems of civil engineering have solutions that run through many different disciplines. It is also the corollary to the same story - - the civil engineer having enough exposure, visibility, and identity that the computer scientist knows where to find an expert or someone with a shared interest.

The future is deep, broad and dynamic.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

It Takes How Much?

All of these values have been widely report - - illustrates the complexity of the problem and issues if water becomes the new oil.
  • Average number of gallons used each day for golf course irrigation in the U.S. - - two billion.
  • Harvesting water off your roof in Denver, CO would meet 65% of your annual landscaping requirements.
  • Desalination plants (a worldwide total of 14,450) produce 16 billion gallons per day.
  • The world's fresh water estimate is approximately 9.25 million trillion gallons. Of this total, 69.6% is frozen. Approximately 30.1% is underground.
  • Baylor scientists tested fish pulled from Chicago's North Shore Channel - - four pharmaceutical drugs were found. The largest quantity (46%) was Norflouxetine - - is a byproduct of an antidepressant. It was unclear if the Baylor group looked at the correlation between Norflouxetine and the performance of the Cubs.
  • Ten percent of all urban consumers say their source of water is bottled.
  • I am wearing blue jeans - - one pair of blue jeans takes 2,900 gallons of water. The hamburger I ate last night took 634 gallons.
  • The longhorn cow down the street from me will consume 816,600 gallons during its lifetime. Approximately 808,400 gallons will be required for 18,700 pounds of pasture, feed, and hay.
  • The baked potato next to your steak - - it takes 31 gallons. The beer next to the potato - - 20 gallons.
  • Which takes the most per glass or cup - - milk, coffee, wine, beer, or tea? Tea is low at nine gallons and milk is high at 53 gallons.

If water becomes the new oil - - tea production might just be a good investment.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Needs and Solutions

Economics 101 typically introduces engineers to the basic governing principle of economics - - supply and demand. Another principle or law that is probably just as important for engineers to understand is the law of innovation - - needs and solutions. These two laws - - the law of supply and demand and the law of needs and solutions are on a collision course relating to several of our large unsettled global problems. The world of supply and demand slams into energy efficiency, sustainable energy alternatives, and transportation systems - - at the spot where the needs and their solutions have not yet meet.

Engineers in the future need to be good at mapping and synthesizing both needs and solutions. The future world of needs and solutions meets the world of supply and demand - - in the field of tight constraints. Engineering should and must embrace the world of needs, solutions, and tight constraints. These constraints will run from the economic to the technical to the political. Engineer designers are inspired by constraints: what they aren't afforded actually gives then something to work with. Part of this starts with a holistic approach to problem solving. In an environment riddled with complexity, uncertainty, and unparalleled constraints - - organizations with engineers that engage in developing rigorous problem-solving skills that capture the ideas of needs and solutions will become the foundation upon which long-term performance is built.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Tour Of Waterworld

I attended a board meeting of a regional water district several weeks ago. Every board member had a copy of the April 2010 issue of National Geographic - - Water: Our Thirsty World. The section entitled Back to the Source highlights water issues in other parts of the world:
  1. Tokyo - - The Japanese city's focus on the same-day repair of leaky pipes is a big water saver. Its leakage rate is an impressively low 3.6 percent.

  2. Mumbai - - India's financial capital faced citywide water cutbacks in 2009 when levels in six nearby lakes and reservoirs used for storage fell low.

  3. Beijing - - China's capital depends on groundwater pumped from the northern province of Hebei. But Hebei's reserves are running low.

  4. Manila - - The Philippine capital uses water from the reservoir at Angat Dam - - which sits on a major geologic fault and is vulnerable to earthquakes.

  5. Lagos - - Inadequate supplies of piped-in water in the Nigerian city lead many people in Lagos to dig their own wells or rely on local water sellers.

  6. London - - The Thames and other rivers supply more than 85 percent of London's water. Some 1,300 miles of Victorian water mains have recently been replaced.

  7. Montreal - - Montreal draws water from Canada's St. Lawrence River. Aging infrastructure causes about 40 percent to be lost to leakage before reaching consumers.

  8. Johannesburg - - The South African city is one of the few big cities in the world not located near a major water source. Some of its supply is pumped from 30 miles away.

  9. Nicosia - - The divided city's water supply is also divided. It's administered by the Republic of Cyprus government and the Turkish Cypriot community.

  10. Buenos Aires - - Argentina's capital gets drinking water from the Rio de la Plata. Rising groundwater levels have led to poor drainage, fouling local wells.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Complicated and The Complex

The news from the Gulf Coast is not good. Strong wind and rough waters are hampering cleanup efforts along Louisiana's fragile coastal wetlands. Oil is still flowing to the surface 50 miles off the coast and 5,000 feet underwater. Like many parts of engineering - - this particular problem has the look of what happens when the complicated meets the complex.

The May 2, 2010 edition of The New York Times addresses this in an article entitled It's Complicated by David Segal. Segal writes the following:

What we need, suggests Brenda Zimmerman, a professor at Schulich School of Business in Ontario, is a distinction between the complicated and the complex. It's complicated, she says, to send a rocket to the moon - - it requires blueprints, math, and a lot of carefully calibrated hardware and expertly written software. Raising a child, on the other hand, is complex. It is an enormous challenge, but math and blueprints won't help. Performing hip replacement surgery, she says, is complicated. It takes well-trained personnel, precision and carefully calibrated equipment. Running a health care system, on the other hand, is complex. It's filled with thousands of parts and players, all of whom must act within a fluid, unpredictable environment. To run a system that is complex, it's not enough to get the right people and the ideal equipment. It takes a set of simple principles that guide and shape the system. For instance: Teach everyone the best practices of doctors who are really good at hip replacement surgery.

"We get seduced by complicated in Western society," Ms. Zimmerman says. "We're in awe of it and we pull away from the duty to ask simple questions, which we do whenever we deal with matters that are complex."

Segal concludes with a warning:

But complexity has a way of defeating good intentions. As we clean up these messes, there is no point in hoping for a new age simplicity. The best we can do is hope the solutions are just complicated enough to work.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

COE Thinks Systems

I attended the 2010 Water Resources Initiative Workshop in Arlington, Texas last week. The event was sponsored by the Dallas and Fort Worth Posts of the Society of American Military Engineers. One of the speakers was Gary Loew, Chief Programs Division Directorate of Civil Works, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The primary focus and message of Mr. Loew's presentation was the fiscal year 2011 budget, a projection of out year budgets, and Mr. Loew's alternative views on the civil works mission and budgeting process. The civil works component of the Corps has basically two fundamental missions - - navigation and flood control.

The Corps budgeting process is under pressure from two significant forces and trends. The first is external. External budget pressures from entitlement programs and servicing of the the national debt will be problematic in the context of adequately funding the civil works mission. To compound this problem, the cost of recapitalizing critical infrastructure has increased. This is due primarily to improved inspection techniques, compliance with modern design standards, and the cost of meeting new environmental regulations and legal requirements. Because of increasing global demand in the developing world, the cost of construction items (i.e., fuel, steel, and concrete) is increasing faster than the overall CPI. All of these combined forces puts the COE civil works budgeting process under tremendous pressure.

The Corps budgeting issues are compounded by what Loew refers to as the "Civil Works Mission Problem." The civil works problem, like many other elements under the national infrastructure umbrella, is essentially a strategic planning problem. There really is no national strategic plan for critical national infrastructure. Too many political views. No shared common vision. No sense of national purpose. Too political and not enough strategic. The mission breaks down into nothing more than a list of projects spread as wide geographically as possible - - the longer and wider the project lists - - the better.

The limited money era is going to require a smarter and more competitive Corps - - and Loew has identified what he considers are the key issues and ideas. Loew wants a more strategic focus - - have a view of the entire system with specific system goals and priorities. Define the systems - - develop system priorities - - be able to defend the system funding needs. Create a network of creative, proactive, and focused system stakeholders. This is an important idea - - the engineer operating in the limited money era must be able to have a system focus - - system thinking, system analysis, and system design. You also need to fully understand the other systems that interface with your system of interest - - be it economic, financial, cultural, social and political.

The future is systems thinking - - especially in the limited money era.