Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Venturesome Consumers

We have an Apple store in our town square that I have always enjoyed dropping in on.  Not to purchase anything or play with the latest technology - - more to see other people and how they interface with the latest.  In our town, it is cross section of the old and young, all looking, playing, and purchasing the latest.  When the iPad was unveiled, the place was a mob scene; you actually had to wait to get into the store.

What is interesting, and this was pointed out in The Financial Page: Innovative Consumption of the May 16, 2011 New Yorker, buying new products and services is actually pretty risky.  In the case of the iPad, it's hard to know in advance whether a new product will be useful: behavioral research shows that we're bad at forecasting our needs and desires, which is why our homes are cluttered with unused gadgets and exercise machines.

You have all those people in the Apple store buying first generation iPods, iPhones, and iPads - - knowing full well that all the kinks have not been worked out and that most consumer-electronic products are more expensive and much less powerful in their early versions compared with later models.

All of this is good for the economy and technological development - - a culture of consumers willing to take risks and gamble on new products.  Our collective history is one of gambling on new things - - from cars to jets to computers to iPads.  Consider the following observation from the article:

From a business perspective, the willingness of consumers to take risks means that new technologies can see profit faster here than they can elsewhere.  That encourages inventors to invent, and investors to pour money into start-ups.  (It's no coincidence that the modern venture-capital industry got its start here.)  And the speed with which successful products are taken up also allows companies to benefit from economies of scale sooner, bringing prices down and making it easier to reach each even more customers.  But it isn't just a matter of speed.  Venturesome consumers also provide companies with feedback that helps improve products, and often even repurpose them, in ways their inventors hadn't imagined.  In the process, the value of the innovations themselves increases.  In that sense, our culture of innovation depends on consumers as much as entrepreneurs.

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Failure of Imagination?

One cause of the Fukushima disaster was a failure of imagination - - something any designer, engineer, or regulator is vulnerable to.  The actual earthquake was within the safety margin of the plant - - designed for a 8.2 magnitude earthquake with a 9.0 magnitude occurring.  But whereas the plant was built to survive tsunami waves of 18.7 feet, the waves that hit were 46 feet tall.  Waves of that height are not without precedent; an earthquake and tsunami of comparable size struck the area in A.D. 869.  When engineers make such "design-basis" errors, all bets are off.

In the coming century, "black swans" will seem to occur with surprising frequency.  There are several reasons for this.  We have chosen to engineer the planet.  We have built vast networks of technology.  We have created systems that, in general, work very well, but are still vulnerable to catastrophic failures.  It is harder for any one person, institution, or agency to perceive all the interconnected elements of the technological society.  Failures can cascade  There are unseen weak points in the network.  Small failures can have broad consequences.

Still, engineers can prepare only for events they can foresee.  Our design basis has been based on improbable possibilities.  But engineers are not so good at designing for a once-in-a-blue-moon event that hasn't happened.  Such uncertainties make it impossible to know if a margin of error or twice the design basis is sufficient.  The central question for engineering then becomes - - Is what you are willing to design for and does society understand that and accept that factor of safety?

A new paradigm at the organizational level is needed.  One type of organization is referred to as High Reliability Organizations (HRO) (see Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty by Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe).  They practice a form of organizing that reduces the brutality of natural and man made disaster audits (engineering is an audit profession - - Mother Nature gives you periodic audits) and speeds up the process of recovering.  Five principles are the hallmark of HROs - -

HRO Principle 1 - - Preoccupation with failure.  They are preoccupied with failure - - they treat any lapse as a symptom that something may be wrong with the systems, something that could have severe consequences if several small errors happened to coincide.  HROs encourage reporting of errors, they elaborate experiences of a near miss for what can be learned, and they are wary of the potential liabilities of success, including complacency, the temptation to reduce margins of safety, and the drift into automatic processing.

HRO Principle 2 - - Reluctance to simplify.  HROs are reluctant to accept simplifications.  They understand that less simplification allows you to see more - - a more complete and nuanced picture  of what they face and who they are as they face it.  They want to see as much as possible.  They welcome diverse experience, skepticism toward recieved wisdom, and negotiating tactics that reconcile differences of opinion without destroying the nuances that diverse people detect.

HRO Principle 3 - - Sensitivity to operations.  They are attentive to the front line, where the real work gets done.  The "big picture" in HROs is less strategic and more situational than is true of most other organizations.  When people have well-developed situational awareness, they can make the continuous adjustments that prevent errors from accumulating and enlarging.  People on HROs know that you can't develop a big picture of operations if the symptoms of those operations are withheld.

HRO Principle 4 - - Commitment to resilience.  No system is perfect.  HROs know this as well as anyone.  This is why they complement their anticipatory activities of learning from failure, complicating their perceptions, and remaining sensitive to operations with a commitment to resilience.  HROs develop capabilities to detect, contain, and bounce back from those inevitable errors that are part of an indeterminate world.  The hallmark of an HROs is not that it is error-free, but that errors don't disable it.  Resilience is a combination of keeping errors small and of improving workarounds that allow the system to keep functioning.

HRO Principle 5 - - Deference to expertise.  Rigid hierarchies have their own special vulnerability to error.  Errors at higher levels tend to pick up and combine with errors at lower levels, thereby making the resulting problem bigger, harder to comprehend, and more prone to escalation.  To prevent this deadly scenario, HROs push decision making down and around.  Experience by itself is no guarantee of expertise, since all too often people  have the same experience over and over and do little to elaborate those repetitions.

Unexpected events can get you into trouble unless you create a mindful infrastructure that continually tracks small failures, resists oversimplification, is sensitive to operations, maintains capabilities for resilience, and monitors shifting locations of expertise.  In some form or fashion, the BP Deepwater disaster is a great example on an organization that managed to violate all five principles in a very short amount of time.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

What The General Is Reading

General Martin E. Dempsey is expected to be nominated by the president as the next head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  So what is General Dempsey reading?  The New York Times (Army's Leader Is Expected to Be Chosen to Head the Joint Chiefs of Staff) listed three books today - -
  1. Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty by Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe.
  2. The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom.
  3. Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power by Robert D. Kaplan.

The Management Secrets of the Barcelona Football Club

Barcelona is the best soccer club in the world.  They provided evidence of this fact yesterday by defeating Manchester United 3-1 in the UEFA Champions League final.  Many people view the club as the best soccer club that the world has ever seen.  The United manager, Alex Ferguson, who took control of the club in 1989 was quoted after the game - - "I'd say it's the best team we've faced."  Best is broadly defined as the best managed.

The management of Barcelona provides an interesting topic for the discussion of management in the age of globalization.  Consider the following four questions that Barcelona has excelled at addressing - -
  1. What is the right balance between stars and the rest of mankind?  Soccer is the ultimate team sport.  Eleven players all on the same page.  One great player will not define a championship.  One great pitcher can dominate a baseball game.  One defence can win the occasional football championship.  With only five players on the court at a time - - one or two great basketball players can take you to the Sweet Sixteen.  Barcelona seems to have struck the correct balance between the team and the stars.  Research has consistently shown that organization are too obsessed with hiring stars rather than developing teams.  For all their swagger, it seems that the success of stars depends as much on their co-workers as their innate talents.  When a sports page reads - - "No team works better in cramped spaces.  If the game were played in a closet or on a pool table, Barcelona would still find a way to keep the ball away from its opponent." - - you have the correct balance of stars to team.
  2. Should you buy talent or grow your own?  Barcelona is dominated by local players - - Catalan is often spoken in the dressing room.  Eight of the team's leading players are products of its football school, La Masia (Messi is from Argentine, but he moved to Barcelona as a small boy).  Training is not just restricted to the technical elements of the game.  The goal is to create an organization with shared values, team spirit, self-sacrifice, perseverance, and character development.  Success in the long-term lies in cultivating a distinctive set of values.
  3. How can you harness the enthusiasm of customers to promote your brand?  Barcelona has the strategic vision of "More Than a Club" - - with the goal to cultivate a two-way relationship with its fans.  Nothing produces enthusiasm like ownership.  It is owned by its members (socis in Catalan), who now number 150,000, rather than by shareholders or foreign tycoons.  The management is answerable to an assembly that consists of 2,500 randomly chosen socis and 600 most senior members.  It is not uncommon for a million fans to come out to celebrate after a regular season victory.
  4. How do you combine the advantages of local roots and global reach?  The key question for the metanational organization.  The ability to leverage local resources and apply to a global economy - - the ability to be so local that signs like "Catalonia is not Spain" are seen at matches yet still having the ability to make the front page of the New York Times.  For all the talk of diversity and globalization, a long-term winning culture usually means promoting from within and putting down deep local roots.  

Saturday, May 28, 2011

What is Chinese for Rare?

Rare in this case refers to the rare earths - - that part of the periodic table discovered in the 18th century as oxidized minerals.  Actually they're metals and actually not even rare.  The rarest rare earth is nearly 200 times more abundant than gold.  The rare part comes from the lack of concentration - - finding concentrations that are worth mining is rare.

Here is a current rundown on the rare earths (seventeen metals) - - price range per pound and uses of the metal:
  1. Scandium - - $1,000 and above / consumer products and transportation
  2. Yttrium - - $60 to $199 / military, medical, energy, and consumer products
  3. Lanthanum - - $60 to $199 / military, energy, consumer products, and transportation
  4. Cerium - - $60 to $199 / energy, consumer products, and transportation
  5. Praseodymium - - $60 to $199 / medical, energy, consumer products, and transportation
  6. Neodymium - - $60 to $199 / military, medical, energy, consumer products, and transportation
  7. Promethium - - Produced by nuclear fission, not mined
  8. Samarium - - $60 to $199 / military, energy, consumer products, and transportation
  9. Europium - - $200 to $999 / medical, energy, and consumer products
  10. Gadolinium - - $60 to $199 / military, medical, and consumer products
  11. Terbium - - $200 to $999 / military, medical, energy, consumer products, and transportation
  12. Dysprosium - - $200 to $999 / medical, energy, consumer products, and transportation
  13. Holmium - - $200 to $99 / military and energy
  14. Erbium - - $60 to $199 / consumer products
  15. Thulium - - $1,000 and above / military an medical
  16. Ytterbium - - $200 to $999 / military and consumer products
  17. Lutetium - - $1,000 and above / medical and energy
The world market depends on China for the rare earths.  China supplies 97% of the world's rare earth needs.  Over the next decade China is expected to steadily reduce rare earth exports in order to protect the supplies of its own rapidly growing industries, which already consume 60% of the rare earths produced in the country.

Look at dysprosium, which is used in computer hard drives.  In 2003, dysprosium sold for $6.77 per pound.  It now sells for $212 a pound.  This is just one example of a potential rare earth's demand and supply crunch - - in 2015 the world's industries are forecast to consume an estimated 185,000 tons of rare earths, 50% more than the total for 2010 (sometime do a list - - all the resources that need to go up by 50% in the next 20 or 30 years).  With China holding tightly to its reserves, where will the rest of the world get the elements that have become vital to modern technology?

The U.S.G.S. provides annual assessments on most of the rare earths - - for example, this is a link to the Indium report.  Life-cycle assessment for the rare earths with the goal of evaluating sustainability will be increasingly important.  With rare earths in just about everything and China holding 48% of the world's reserves (United States has 13%) - - a lot of people are worried.  Demand and supply heading down the path marked "unsustainable."

Friday, May 27, 2011

Change + Uncertainty = Chaos

We know there will be change.  Not just change, but waves of change.  This is an absolute given.  It is the one variable in the equation that cannot be controlled.  Therefore, the less uncertainty you as a manager and leader create, the less chaos that will result.  As an engineering leader, your priority should be to reduce the amount of uncertainty that surrounds change.  If you allow too much uncertainty, the only result you can expect is chaos.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Technology And The Middle Finger of International Goodwill

Drivers currently have a limited ability for two-way communication with fellow drivers.  We are basically reduced to the horn, facial expressions, turn signals, brake signals, hand gestures (many obscene), or rolling down the window and yelling.  Communication that is mostly reactive in nature versus communication that is proactive with an element of anticipation.  None of this makes for "intelligent" communication with an overall goal of reducing accidents and keeping  traffic moving.  This could be changing - - by late 2012, the U.S. Department of Transportation wants to start road-testing systems that enable vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I).

The government's top priority is to find out whether equipping vehicles with the ability to signal to each other automatically will help reduce collisions (35,000 deaths annually).  For example, when one car brakes and the car behind doesn't slow.  A V2V system could also warn a motorist stopped at an intersection when another car was heading through the intersection on a collision course at a 90-degree angle.  A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that connected-vehicle technology could help prevent up to 81% of crashes that don't involve an impaired driver.

In theory, this is how V2V would be development and implemented:
  • One issue relates to standards for communication.  A consortium of automakers has agreed to a set of standards, including a decision to use a souped-up form of WiFi (5.9 gigahertz) called DSRC (Dedicated Short Range Communication) for safety functions.
  • The DSRC system creates a 360-degree, 300-meter circle of connection around a car.
  • V2V is seen as taking a decade to implement via factory installed equipment.  Other options might involve embedded V2V in existing portable GPS receivers.
  • Toyota thinks they have another 1.5 years of V2V development.
  • Ford is currently testing V2V.  One key test is 100% reliability.
  • BMU is taking V2V to another level.  The BMU system ties V2V to automatic braking.
The highway information grid is another potential connection - - V2I in which fixed sensors will collect information on traffic flow, allowing the grid to warn drivers away from jams (we waste an estimated 3.9 billion gallons of gasoline annually idling in traffic jams) through message signs or radio advisories.  Traffic signals can synchronize reds and greens to maximize flow - - and warn approaching cars of reds.  Look for the world of marketing and advertising to show an interest in V2I.

Both V2V and V2I have plenty of social, legal, and technological hurdles.  The world is moving forward with this type of technology - - Japan, South Korea, and several other countries are moving ahead with plans to invest billions in intelligent transportation systems.

Communication has changed the world - - except between vehicles.  We basically still communicate as if we drive Model Ts - - signals, facial expressions, and middle fingers.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Predictability of the Human Spirit

According to security expert Mark Burnet, the following are the top ten most common passwords for ATMs and online banking:
  1. 123456
  2. password (OK, some imagination in this one)
  3. 12345678
  4. 1234
  5. ******** (Not appropriate to publish - - a large % of passwords are vulgar)
  6. 12345
  7. dragon (as an avid supporter of the Southlake Carroll High School Dragons - - pleased to see this one)
  8. qwerty (look at the keyboard)
  9. 696969
  10. mustang
When picking your password, please remember two things.  A bunch of Nigerians can count to ten.  An even bigger bunch know a dictionary's worth of vulgarities (Hangover II opens this weekend - - this should be a passwoard rich environment).

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Professional _______________ (You fill in the blank)

As a Professional Engineer in Texas, I am part of the U.S. workforce that needs a license to practice their occupation.  In the 1950s, fewer than 5% of American workers needed licences.  After 50-years of decreasing regulation in major segments of the economy, the figure has climbed to almost 30% of the workforce.  In a global market of ideas and services, our domestic market is one of the most licenced in the world.

Provided below is a quick summary of the "professions" and occupations requiring a licence - -
  • A barber in California - - requires studying the art of cutting and blow-drying for almost a year.
  • The wig trade in Texas - - 300 hours of classes and must pass both written and practical exams.
  • Alabama manicurists - - 750 hours of instruction before taking a practical exam.
  • Interior designer in Florida - - a four-year university degree and a two-year apprenticeship and pass a two-day examination.  One really has to admire the interior design cartels when they have to justify this.  Interior designers (the licenced ones) have predicted that unlicensed designers would use fabrics that might spread disease and cause 88,000 deaths a year.  Another suggested, even more alarmingly, that clashing color schemes might adversely affect "salvation".  We can all relate to the terrible threat of rogue interior designers and their potential to do harm.
  • Utah nail technician - - will require 2,000 hours of study and $18,000.
The list of "professions" is large and getting larger -- florists, handyman, wrestlers, tour guides, frozen-desert sellers, firework operatives, second-hand booksellers, cat-groomers, dog-walkers, tattoo artists etc.  This is big business for the cartels and incumbents - - Morris Kleiner of the University of Minnesota calculates that licencing boosts the income of licensees by about 15% (union membership is just a bit higher - - 24%).

"Rules for Fools" - - increases the cost of the service and reduces competition.  The folks at Monty Python saw the silliness of restricting the sale of unlicensed coffins (difficult to understand the harm a corpse might suffer in a simple pine box) - - in Britain only 13% of workers need licences (this has doubled in the last 12 years).

See the Schumpeter column in the May 14, 2011 Economist.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Your Personal Brand

Barry Salzberg is CEO of the accounting and consulting firm Deloitte LLP.  He has the following advice on the most important lesson he conveys to up-and-comers at Deloitte:

No. 1 is pay it forward.  Make sure you are taking care of people.  You have to take the leadership experiences and education you're getting here and cascade those lessons into the organization.

No. 2 is, brand yourself.  Make sure people know who you are.  Be unique about something.  Be a specialist in something.  Be known for something.  Drive something - - that's very, very important for success in leadership because there are so many highly talented people.  What's different about you - - that's your personal brand.

And three, get out of your comfort zone.  Leaders can take multiple paths in your firm, the more experience you are, the more diverse set of experiences you've had, the better off you will be in terms of leadership roles.  It's O.K. to be uncomfortable.  Don't resist change.  Don't resist a different role or a different way of looking at things.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Energy And The Marines

Guns or butter?  The new version of the debate is - - "Bullets or Batteries?"  The Marine Corps is addressing this question and paradox.  In fact, the "Bullets or Batteries?" question is confronting all military planners.  Modern U.S. forces are more lethal and effective than any military organization in history.  But the Marines are just like the rest of us in terms of energy consumption; they gobble up huge amounts of energy (The N.S.A.'s Fort Meade 5,000 acre campus has an annual electric bill of $70 million - - computers that can download the equivalent of the Library of Congress every six hours aren't cheap).  From radios, to laptops, to GPS, to many other devices - - energy consumption is an enemy that lengthens vulnerable supply lines and overloads soldiers and Marines in the field.

A typical Marine carries about 100 pounds of gear into battle.  Batteries make up as much as 20% of the weight.  This same Marine infantryman uses four times as much fuel as his counterpart did in the early 1990s.  This is due to, among other things, laptops and other electronic gear that use electricity pumped out by portable generators.  Some 30% of all fuel trucked into Afghanistan goes to power those generators, at a time when roadside bombs remain the most dangerous weapon faced by our forces.  Given the "Bullets or Batteries?" question and strategic concerns, the Corps wants to cut per-Marine fuel use by 50% by 2025 (Note - - sometime write down all the things we as a country and global community need to get done by 2025.  From energy conservation, to climate change, to health care reform, to Social Security reform - - the Year 2025 is going to be a very busy year).

The Marines will be looking to sunlight and renewables to lighten their backpacks and shorten their convoys.  At the moment, there are two reliable ways to make electricity from sunlight.  You can use a panel of solar cells to create the current directly, by liberating electrons from semiconducting material such as silicon.  Or you can concentrate the sun's rays using mirrors, boil water with them, and employ the steam to drive a generator.  They work - - but both are expensive. 

A potential alternative is a process based on the thermoelectric effect.  Thermoelectric devices are not new.  They are used, for example, to capture waste heat from car engines.  They work because certain materials, such as bismuth telluride, generate an electrical potential difference within themselves if one part is hotter than another.  They can be used to drive a current through external circuit.  The reason thermoelectric materials have not, in the past, been applied successfully to the question of solar power is that to get worthwhile current you have to have significant temperature difference (something on the order of 200 degrees C).  This is easy in your car, but difficult on a hill in Afghanistan.

Researchers are working on three improvements to the efficiency of solar-thermoelectric materials - - (1) Making sure that most of the sunlight which falls on a device is absorbed rather than being reflected, (2) Choose a thermoelectric material which conducts heat badly (so that different parts remain at different temperatures) but electricity well, and (3) Be certain that the temperature gradient which that badly conducting material creates is not frittered away by poor design.

Consider the rooftop at a forward operating base (FOB) in the mountains of Afghanistan.  Modular solar panels adorn the roof.  If such heaters were covered with thermoelectric generators the sun's rays could be put to sequential use.  First, electric power would be extracted from them.  Then, the exhaust heat from the bottom plate of the thermoelectric device would be used in the traditional way to warm water up.  The Marines would get a two-for-one deal - - really a three-for-one deal.  Heat, power, and lighter backpacks.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Scott Adams - - Fear

The creator of Dilbert on overcoming fear - -

Conquer Fear.  I took classes in public speaking in college and few more during my corporate days.  That training was marginally useful for learning how to mask nervousness in public.  Then I took the Dale Carnegie course.  It was life-changing.  The Dale Carnegie method ignores speaking technique entirely and trains you instead to enjoy the experience of speaking to a crowd.  Once you become relaxed in front of people, technique comes automatically.  Over the years, I've given speeches to hundreds of audiences and enjoyed every minute on stage.  But this isn't  a plug for Dale Carnegie.  The point is that people can be trained to replace fear and shyness with enthusiasm.  Every entrepreneur can use that skill.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Words for 2050

Over the next forty years, four primary forces will have a significant impact on engineering and the organizations that engineers work for.  Thinking about the future is not predicting the future (the Niels Bohr line is appropriate - - "Prediction is very difficult.  Especially about the future.").  But ignoring the forces that will shape the future is rooted in ignorance. 

The first force is related to demographic trends.  Slow population growth in the developed world, hyper-growth in the developing world.  Mega-cities shaped by mass movement from rural communities to urban environments.  A world of multi-speed economic growth and challenges - - from slowing in the U.S. to speeding in Asia.  The second is natural resource demand.  Oil is always in the news, but indium, lithium, and even helium - - new shortages for a new world.  Energy, water, and food - - development, production, and distribution all intersect at the same time at the same place.  The third is climate change.  Too much rain.  Not enough rain.  California browning, Shanghai drowning.  The fourth is globalization - - World 3.0.  The movement from "semi-globalization" to the real deal.  Meta-corporations in search of global creativity and innovation.  Goods, services, money, people, and ideas all circling the planet.

Given the four forces and their potential impacts between now and 2050, engineers, managers, leaders, stakeholders, shareholders, etc. need to be looking at the concepts and words that will shape their actions.  The new strategic response to the four forces might be a simple, but powerful and important word - - flexibility, with the star performers moving to super-flexibility.  Keep an eye on these words and concepts embedded in the era of flexibility and super-flexibility:
  • Agility - - Moving nimbly, with a sense of urgency.
  • Dexterity - - Deftly switching gears, skill of balancing creativity and control.
  • Elasticity - - Stretching and shrinking to accommodate different pressures.
  • Hedging - - Mitigating against the losses associated with "downside" potential.
  • Liquidity - - Transforming assets without substantial switching costs.
  • Malleability - - Able to bend to meet contours, willingness to make concessions.
  • Mobility - - Re-deployable assets and capabilities.
  • Modularity - - Re-configurable building blocks (or organizational units).
  • Plasticity - - Configurable to the reality being confronted.
  • Robustness - - Taking hits with minimal damage to functional capability.
  • Resilience - - Bouncing back from the brink of disaster.
  • Versatility - - Functioning with dexterity in different settings.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

An Art versus Results

We badly need to believe in the potency of leaders.  Our instinctive response, when faced with a complicated challenge, is to look for a leader who will solve it.  Engineering faces a future in which our leaders will be facing complex, fast-moving problems in a complex, fast-moving world.

Given the need for effective leadership, we still wrestle with its meaning and measurement.  In the Corner Office (2011), author Adam Bryant outlines his thoughts on what is the difference between management and leadership:

What's the difference between management and leadership?  Management is about results.  You're given certain assets - - people, money, equipment - - and you're expected to make the most of them to deliver an expected outcome.  Management is quantifiable, measurable, almost a science.  Companies can gain a significant edge by being adept practitioners of the discipline.  Leadership is an art.  It's the secret ingredient that makes workers commit more of themselves to their work, to make the extra effort, to make the work personal and not just a job, so that they identity themselves with it rather than just shrugging and saying, :"Hey, I've got to put food on the table, right?"
There is the old story about the reporter that goes to the construction site and asks three bricklayers what they are doing.  The reporter gets three different answers - -
  1. The first bricklayer says he is making a living laying these bricks.  You see intersecting circles of management and results without the sense of mission and commitment.  The primary focus of a leader should be to development a team of bricklayers that goes beyond the attitudes reflected in this individual.
  2. The second bricklayer says he is practicing the profession of bricklaying.  You see the intersecting circles of #1, but also the hint of the potential of this individual.  You see technical excellence and professionalism - - but no sense of purpose or commitment to a team.  The art of leadership in the context of moving professionals all onto the same page is one of the important challenges for leaders.
  3. The third bricklayer says he is building a cathedral.  You see the art of leadership; a sense of mission, a sense of purpose, a sense of scale, a sense of time, a sense of effort - - you see the vision of a cathedral that someone is willing to make a contribution to build.  Hopefully a skilled leader was able take Bricklayer #1 and overtime develop a team of Bricklayer #3s.
People report to managers, but they follow leaders.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Quality is a probabilistic function of quantity

The New Yorker has a tremendous collection of writers - - Dexter Filkins, Anthony Lane, Steve Coll, Lawrence Wright, Jon Lee Anderson, Jane Mayer, Roger Angell, Ken Auletta, Ian Frazier, Adam Gopnik, Seymour Hersh - - and many more.  Probably the best collection of writers on any magazine staff (The Economist is a close second!).

Malcolm Gladwell also writes for The New Yorker and he is one of the writers and thinkers engineers need to follow.  Author of The Tipping Point (2000), Blink (2005), Outliers (2008), and What the Dog Saw (2009) - - his work deals with the very interesting intersection among the social sciences, business, technology, and everyday life.  This intersection is important for engineers to understand (Gladwell's father is a civil engineering professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada) - - our real-world Big Policy problems are more complex than we think.  They have a human dimension, a local dimension, and are likely to change as circumstances change.

Reading Gladwell starts you thinking - - he gets the right hemisphere talking to the left hemisphere.  The country also needs more engineers that are foxes (versus the hedgehogs), with a wide-ranging curiosity and willingness to embrace change.  Gladwell writes for the foxes.

The New Yorker has two columns that Gladwell writes for - - "Annals of Business" and "Annals of Innovation."  Both are excellent.  In the April 16, 2011issue, Gladwell has a story, "Creation Myth" that covers innovation - - mostly in the context of Xerox PARC and Apple (the next time you are at the grocery store, try and figure out the connection between the deodorant aisle and Apple).

Gladwell writes the following:

The psychologist Dean Simonton argues that this fecundity is often at the heart of what distinguishes the truly gifted.  The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn't necessarily that he had a better ratio of hits to misses.  The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions.  A genius is a genius.  Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, random observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great.  "Quality," Simonton writes, is "a probabilistic function of quantity."

Simonton's point is that there is nothing neat and efficient about creativity.  "The more successes there are," he says, "the more failures there are as well" - - meaning that the person who had far more ideas than the rest of us will have far more bad ideas than the rest of us, too.  This is why managing the creative process is so difficult.  The making of the classic Rolling Stones album "Exile on Main Street" was an ordeal, Keith Richards writes in his new memoir, because the band had too many ideas.  It had to fight form under an avalanche of mediocrity:  "Head in the Toilet Blues," "Leather Jackets," "Windmill," "I Was Just a Country Boy," "Bent Green Needles," "Labour Pains," and "Pommes de Terre" - - the last of which Richards explains with the apologetic, "Well. we were in France at the time."

At one point, Richards quotes a friend, Jim Dickinson, remembering the origins of the song "Brown Sugar."

I watched Mick write the lyrics . . . He wrote it down as fast as he could move his hand.  I'd never seen anything like it.  He had one of those yellow legal pads, and he'd write a verse and then turn the page, and when he had three pages filled, they started to cut it.  It was amazing.

Richards goes on to marvel, "It's unbelievable how how prolific he was."  Then he writes, "Sometimes you'd wonder how to turn the f--- tap off.  The odd times he would come with so many lyrics, you're crowding the airwaves, boy."  Richards clearly saw himself as the creative steward of the Rolling Stones (only in a rock-and-roll band, by the way, can someone like Keith Richards perceive himself as the responsible one), and he came to understand that one of the hardest and most crucial parts of his job was to "turn the f --- tap off," to rein in Mick Jagger's incredible creative energy.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Too Many Men?

Every two years the United Nation's population division updates its projections.  Provided below is the 2100 "Top Ten" in millions - -
  • India - 1,551
  • China - 941
  • Nigeria - 730
  • United States - 478
  • Tanzania - 316
  • Pakistan - 261
  • Indonesia - 254
  • Congo - 212
  • Philippines - 178
  • Brazil - 177
For comparison, the 2010 "Top Ten" in millions - -
  • China - 1,341
  • India - 1,225
  • United States - 310
  • Indonesia - 240
  • Brazil - 195
  • Pakistan - 174
  • Nigeria - 158
  • Bangladesh - 149
  • Russia - 143
  • Japan - 127
According to the UN, the world's population will surpass 7 billion at the end of October, a few months earlier than had been expected.  The global total will continue to rise slowly until 2100, when it will flatten out at 10.1 billion.  During the period of faster growth, in the late 1980s, the world's population was rising by over 88 million a year.  Now annual growth is down to 75 million and by 2050 it will be only 40 million (The reason - - declining fertility rates everywhere).

The 2010 versus 2100 comparison has several interesting points - -
  • The #1 and #2 flip-flop between China and India - - with the Chinese population declining by 400 million, basically the size of the United States.
  • Both lists answer the "Why should we care about Pakistan?" question - - the sixth largest country, with a huge military (that has the record of never winning a war), hundreds of nuclear weapons, an unstable economic/social/political structure, in dangerous part of the world.
  • The 2100 estimate projects three African countries in the "Top Ten."  Africa's population will rise from 1 billion in 2010 to 3.6 billion in 2100.  Sub-Saharan Africa is by far the fastest-growing part of the world.  Africa is just one example of the tremendous growth that will occur in the developing world. 
  • China's dependency ratio (the number of children and old people as a share of working-age adults) is rising faster than Europe's.
One final note.  In 2025, China will have 96 million men in their 20s but only 80 million women - - a 1.20 ratio.  India will have a 1.10 ratio - - 126 million men to 115 million women.  By comparison, the United States in the 15-64 year old category in 2010 has approximately a 1:1 ratio.  At birth, the global ratio is around 105-107 males per 100 females.  It will be interesting to see the social, economic, and environmental (there is a body of research that has documented the higher carbon footprints of males versus females) impacts of more men than women in certain parts of the world.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Difference Between the Janitor and the Vice President

Fortune has an article in their May 23, 2011 Fortune 500 issue on the inner workings of Apple (Inside Apple: From Steve Jobs to the Janitor) by Adam Lashinsky.  Lashinsky covers a lot of interesting ground - - one is "the sermon" Jobs gives to new vice presidents at Apple - -

" . . . and it's a sermon Jobs delivers every time an executive reaches the VP level.  Jobs imagines his garbage regularly not being emptied in his office, and when he asks the janitor why, he jets an excuse: The locks have been changed, and the janitor doesn't have a key.  This is an acceptable excuse coming from someone who empties trash bins for a living.  The janitor gets to explain why something went wrong.  Senior people do not.  "When you're the janitor," Jobs has repeatedly told incoming VPs, "reasons matter."  He continues, "Somewhere between the janitor and the CEO, reasons stop mattering."  That "Rubicon," he has said, "is crossed when you become a VP."  (Apple has about 70 vice presidents out of more than 25,000 non-retail-store employees.)

Jobs indoctrinates a culture of responsibility by hosting a series of weekly meetings that are the metronome that sets the best for the entire company.  On Mondays he meets with his executive management team to discuss results and strategy as well  as to review nearly every important project in the company.  On Wednesday he holds a marketing and communications meeting.  Simplicity breeds clarity, as Jobs himself explained in a 2008 interview with Fortune.  "Every Monday we review the whole business," he said.  "We look at every single product under development.  I put out an agenda.  Eighty percent is the same as it was the last week, and we just walk down it every single week.  We don't have a lot of processes at Apple, but that's one of the few things we do just to stay on the same page."  It's one thing when the leader describes the process.  It's another thing altogether when the troops candidly parrot back the impact it has on them.  "From a design perspective, having every junior-level designer getting direct executive-level feedback is killer," says Andrew Borovsky, a former Apple designer who runs 80/20, a New York design shop.  "On  a regular basis you either get positive feedback or are told to stop doing stupid shit."

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Water And The Army

The United States Army is currently caught in a water paradox.  Too much water in the Mississippi River Basin, where they are making extremely difficult decisions on what and whom to protect in light of historic flooding.  The other issue is not enough water and critical concerns regarding water sustainability at Army installations.  The Army is a  mirror of the U.S.at large - - the potential for extreme weather and growth producing versions of both too much and not enough.

The "not enough" part is the subject of a report completed in September 2009 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Construction Engineering Research Laboratory.  The report, Army Installation Water Sustainability Assessment: An Evaluation of Vulnerability to Water Supply, provides the first comprehensive review of long-term water sustainability at installations.  A key concern for the U.S. Army is the vulnerability of military installations to critical resource issues.  Water issues of concern - - including adequate supply, increased cost of production per unit volume, quality, habitat degradation and salinity issues - - already impact installations and military operations in many locations with the nation and across the globe.  The Army determined there was a need to assess the vulnerability of regions and installations to water supply and to develop strategies to ameliorate any adverse effects on the triple bottom line.

The report outlines several water trends and problems of concern to the Army that were outlined in the May-June 2011 issue of The Military Engineer (Army Technology Supports Water Sustainability Studies).  This is water sustainability in the context of national security - - nearly 100 of the 411 installations included in the study lie within watersheds that are highly vulnerable to water crisis situations.  These are:
  • Rising demand for water - - Water tables are falling on every continent.  Aquifer depletion is a global problem that has emerged in the last half century.
  • Water quality - - Water quality is inextricably connected to water supply.  Even small changes in quality can render water supplies useless for their intended use or hazardous to life.
  • Climate change - - The latest evaluations of global climate models anticipate the following changes in the water cycle: changes in precipitation patterns and intensity, changes in the incidence of drought, widespread melting of snow and ice, increasing atmospheric water vapor, increasing evaporation, increasing water temperatures, reductions in lake and river ice, and changes in soil moisture and runoff.
  • Land use trends - - Sprawling growth paves over increasing areas of wetlands and forests, which contributes to the depletion of water supplies.
  • Groundwater depletion - - High depletion rates are vulnerable to long-run changes in hydrology and future lack of supply.  Much of the U.S. West, Southwest, central plains, and Florida are highly vulnerable.
  • The energy/water nexus - - Energy can account for 60 to 80 percent of water transportation and treatment costs and 14 percent of total water utility costs.  Much of water resources development took place during the 20th century in an era of both low energy and water prices.
Recurring water issues in the report included the following:
  • It is important to consider the connection between water and energy when planning infrastructure projects.  Technologies that save energy also can have a greater "water footprint," and should be selected with consideration for their impact on water demand.
  • Water is priced not according to its value as a precious resource, but to recover costs incurred to extract and pump.  The cost of water is a lagging indicator and does not reflect scarcity.  Only when water becomes difficult to obtain will the limited supply be reflected in increased price.  Higher costs can be expected can be expected when water must be transported long distances or obtained from non-potable  sources.
  • The historic water rights systems were developed during times of water abundance.  Current water allocation law is leaving insufficient supplies for users experiencing water scarcity due to drought, population growth, or declining aquifers.
  • Metering of individual buildings on Army installation is rare, through this is changing due to requirements of federal water conservation laws.  One installation that installed water meters for reimbursable customers found consumption double the amount of the previous billing.  Another installation conducted mock billing of housing residents and saw a 5% drop in consumption as a result.
  • Mandated water reduction targets apply to the entire installation, although overall demand is impacted by both reimbursable utility customers and by system losses that could be the responsibility of utility contractor operators.
  • The projected impacts of global climate change are expected to affect water availability.  Anticipated changes in the water cycle include differences in precipitation patterns and intensity, increased drought and flood cycles, widespread melting of ice and snow affecting surface runoff, and the requirement for greater amounts of water due to temperature rise.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Silicon Valley of Water Technology

The future belongs to those individuals and organizations that have the desire and capacity to innovate by learning from the world.  Water is a key area where global problems and constraints have produced global pockets of solutions, ideas, and innovations.

The base layer for innovation is knowledge - - any competitive advantage is primarily based on knowledge.  Not just knowledge, but global knowledge.  Not all the knowledge a global company needs to prosper is to be found in one place; instead, it is increasingly scattered around the world.  Typically three levels of competition in the global knowledge economy exist - - (1) Sensing at the Top Level - - Identifying and accessing new competences, innovative technologies, and lead market knowledge, (2) Mobilizing at the Middle Level - - Integrating scattered capabilities and emerging market opportunities to pioneer new products and services, and (3) Operators at the Lower Level - - Optimizing the size and configuration of operations for efficiency, flexibility, and financial discipline.

Israel is a world leader in the "Blue-Tech" area - - the Silicon Valley of water technology.  Many reasons have produced this - - from a world class STEM workforce, to an entrepreneurial culture, to a desperate shortage of fresh water.  Israel provides a clear path for "Blue-Tech" - - it's not the water that is scarce, but innovation.

Keep an eye on the following Israeli firms in the area of water technology:
  • The Chinese people drink a lot of tea, and their taps emit a lot of undrinkable water.  Strauss, Israel's second-largest food and drinks firm has come up with a high-tech purifier that not only filters water but also heats it to exactly the right temperature for making tea.
  • Aqwise is a firm that provides equipment and expertise to build wastewater treatment plants.  Facilities based on the firm's technologies feature what it calls "biomass carriers", thimble-sized plastic structures with a large surface area.  This allows microorganisms more space to grow allowing for greater consumption of organic material and nutrients. 
  • Emefcy, a start-up, is also in the wastewater business.  It aims to reduce the energy required to clean water, which currently consumes approximately 2% of the world's power-generating capacity.  One of its products uses special "electrogenic" bacteria to turn wastewater treatment into batteries of sorts.  If they work as planned, they could generate more electricity than is needed to treat the wastewater (look for a future goal of "net-zero" wastewater treatment facilities).
  • The goal of TaKaDu is to discover leaks in a water supply distribution system - - sometimes before they happen.  It does this by sifting through the data generated by the network's sensors to look for anomalies.  Even a 1% change in the flow rate, if persistent, can point to a leak.  TaKaDu's detection engine is now monitoring water supply systems in a dozen places, including London and Jerusalem.  I have a previous post on TaKaDu - - Our Networked World - - The Pipes.
  • Another area of concentration is associated with irrigation.  Netafim got its start on a kibbutz in the Negev desert with a focus on drip irrigation.  Today it boasts annual sales of over $600 million and a global workforce of 2,800 employees.
  • White Water has products that monitor water quality.
In 2006 the Israeli government launched a program to support water companies, for instance by helping them to market their projects around the globe.  It also created (and later privatised) Kinrot Ventures, the world's only start-up incubator specializing in water technologies (look at their list of U.S. partners).

Tracking the world of "Blue-Tech" will be increasingly important as water sustainability interests and realities gain global traction.  The knowledge that a global company needs to win is becoming dispersed around the world.  As with any product or technology, as things get more complex, the relevant sources of knowledge needed to design, market, and deliver them to customers becomes more dispersed.  The canons of global knowledge sensing and mobilizing in "Blue-Tech" will focus on knowledge discovery, integration of knowledge, external connectivity, geographic configuration for dynamic efficiency, influence flows to knowledge entrepreneurs, and joint innovation.

Water technology is a great business sector and example of engineering and organizations learning to "Learn from the World" - - with the goal of creating a global water map of innovation and creativity.

Friday, May 13, 2011


Between April 25 and 29, 2011, the U.S. recorded 305 tornadoes.  Three hundred and four people died in tornadoes between April 27-28, 2011.  Allstate's castrophe losses are estimated at $1.4 billion last month for over 100,000 claims.  In 2010, tornadoes resulted in 45 fatalities, 699 injuries, and $1,134.56 million in damages.  Looking at the data in the May 9, 2011 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek (Disaster Zones), rip currents produced the most deaths in 2010 in the natural disaster category (64), tornadoes produced the most injuries (699), and river flooding had the greatest damage dollar value ($4,195.72).  This year we have seen the convergence of both historical serve weather activity and flooding along the Mississippi River.

One firm specializes in the damage estimating business.  Based in Oakland, CA - - EQECAT builds software to help insurance companies "quantify exposure" to natural and man-made disasters.  Based on how powerful a tornado was, how long it stayed on the ground, how wide it was, EQECAT estimates what it did to buildings or crops in its path.  This looks like a growth business to me - - consider the following historical data on tornado damage:

2008 - - $1,863.8 million
2007 - - $1,407.5
2006 - - $759.0
2005 - - $503.9
2004 - - $549.2
2003 - - $1,281.5
2002 - - $802.1
2001 - - $637.5
2000 - - $430.5

Catastrophe Risk Models will intersect with many areas of engineering in the near future.  The bulk of this new intersection will be driven by extreme weather changes and events produced by global climate change.  Every engineering design has its limitations and its breaking points.  Catastrophe Risk Models are just another layer and tool for engineers who are probably already very comfortable with the ideas of technical risk, cost risk, and schedule risk.

Catastrophe risk modeling typically has four elements - - (1) Hazard - - Probability, location, magnitude, and duration; (2) Exposure - - Location, construction, age, and building code; (3) Damage - - Physical damage and repair costs; and (4) Insured Loss - - Items of coverage.  The core of the software is the hazard or damage algorithms, where standardization, flexibility, transparency, and verification are key quality attributes.  Weather hazards in Catastrophe Risk Models have included hurricanes, tornadoes, hail, European wind storms, wildfire, floods, and winter storms (snow, ice freezing).  Climate change in risk models is just beginning to be incorporated.  The future will include - - better risk linkages between hurricanes and climatology; the risk of rising sea levels; storm waves and surges in coastal areas.  Look for models to support the improved policy relevance of climate change scenarios and changes to the frequency of weather related extreme events.

A Douglas Adams's Axiom

Douglas Adams (1952-2001) is the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  Adams was a serious fan of technology - - he was the first person to buy a Mac in the UK.

Engineers need to remember one of his observations - -

"The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong and does go wrong - - it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair."

Sound advice indeed.

Definition of the Week

HiPPO - - An acronym for "Highest Paid Person's Opinion."  Usually dominates how people make decisions inside most organizations.  People look to the HiPPO to make decisions.  People typically equate status and money with intelligence and insight, when there's little correlation.

Courtesy of Little Bets (2011) by Peter Sims.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Curse of Complex Communication

Tom Vanderbilt (author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us (2008) - - a must read for traffic and transportation engineers) has an excellent article in the Spring 2011 issue of The Wilson Quarterly.  His article, Long Live the Industrial City, makes the argument that today's successful cities are often regarded strictly as idea labs where creative types gather.  But as New York city's garment district illustrates, manufacturing is vital to the innovation that cities foster.

Vanderbilt writes the following:

The closer these hands are, the shorter the transit time, and the greater the control the designer can exercise over the final product.  Fashion is an intensely iterative process in which time becomes an obstacle.  "When you move into higher-end design, there is so much spontaneous creativity happening that you don't want to wait a month to see your garments," says Tina Schenk owner of the pattern-making company Werkstett.  "One design is based on another.  You want to keep the process going, you want to continuously look at the things that you've been designing."  Andrew Rosen, a third-generation garmento who founded Theory, a fashion company that now grosses half a billion dollars a year, remarks, "Just from an efficiency point of view, I can make clothes faster here.  Which is not to say we haven't shortened the lead times in China - - we have.  But there's a lot more logistics that need to happen from 12,000 miles away than from 12 blocks away."  As Edward Glaeser notes in his new book The Triumph of the City, one thing cities do well is eliminate the "curse of complex communication."

Innovation is often unpredictable without delineated boundaries.  Cities drive this unpredictability and creativity because of what Vanderbilt refers to as the three vital ingredients of the urban innovation laboratory - - mutation, error, and serendipity.  It is not surprising that cities, be it an Austin, Vancouver, San Fransisco, or a New York City, tend to be hubs of creativity - - there are more things and people to be inspired by, more knowledge transfer, and, importantly, more ways to bring creativity into actuality.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Right Water for the Right Purpose

Water development and supply in the United States have historically been based on four overriding considerations and assumptions.  Urban water and resource management have been defined by the following four operating philosophies - -
  1. Water Supply Considerations - - Remote sources of supply.  A lack of pollution-control systems and technologies, local water supplies inevitably became polluted.  It impossible to produce safe drinking water in sufficient quantities.  Remote resources of water were required to be imported.
  2. Optimizing Around Cost and Efficiency - - Development of water resources were optimized around the cost of the infrastructure.  With abundant water resources and cheap energy, the least expensive systems were those that optimized infrastructure costs.
  3. Functions - - Single purpose systems for drinking water, storm water, and used water.  The water in my toilet bowl came from East Texas and is treated to a drinking water standard.  When water has low economic value and energy is cheap - - one can pee into their drinking water.
  4. Configuration Management - - Centralized systems that either import water or export wastewater, driven by economies of scale that assume abundant supplies and cheap energy.
Look for water infrastructure systems in the near future to "evolve" as the new constraints of water availability, higher energy costs, and changing social norms drive the new economic realities of water resources.  Consider a future where:
  1. Water Supply Considerations - - Local actions and forces become increasingly critical.  Locally collected rainwater ("rainwater harvesting") and used water for reclamation and reuse becomes a critical part of the equation.
  2. Optimizing Around Cost and Efficiency - - We start to price water in the context of its economic value in an era of increasing energy costs.  Optimization evolves toward utilization optimization and energy conservation.
  3. Functions - - Multipurpose systems to integrate functions.  Technology allows for a greater utilization of the waste streams.  The focus becomes a policy execution driven by "The Right Water for the Right Purpose."
  4. Configuration Management- - Hybrid systems that include both centralized and decentralized components.  Decentralization strategies include "green" storm water systems (three rules of storm water - - infiltrate, infiltrate, and infiltrate), used-water reclamation/reuse systems, and in-home treatment.
The future for water resource engineers may be marked by designing and managing water from the standpoint of utilizing "The Right Water for the Right Purpose."  Separate but not equal water systems may become the norm.  A relatively small volume of water (approximately 40 liters per person per day), is needed for direct consumption - - a much larger volume of water, ranging form 100 to 400 liters per person per day is used for laundry, toilet flushing, bathing, and outdoor water use.

From a wastewater standpoint, we will have to start thinking in terms of "grey", "black", and "yellow" wastewater.  Segregation allows for thinking more deeply about "The Right Water for the Right Purpose."  What non-portable uses are most appropriate for grey water?  How much energy is available in "black" water from the organic material?  Yellow water contains unused pharmaceuticals and hormones - - what are the beneficial impacts to society of segregating "yellow" water?  Between my hot bath and dish washer - - how much thermal energy is available in the wastewater as it departs my house?

Dual-flush toilet systems are another example of finding "The Right Water for the Right Purpose."  Two buttons that have two different volumes of water for two different waste streams - - one button for "black" water and another button (with a lower volume of water) for "yellow" water (some concern has been raised regarding maintenance problems in the case of pushing the incorrect button - - maybe some type of national infomercial during American Idol would help the button challenged). 

Remember, "The Right Water for the Right Purpose" produces huge challenges, but it also produces huge opportunities in a world of increasing concerns associated with water sustainability.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Why global warming is such a hard problem to solve

It basically boils down to three reasons - -
  • Time is not our friend - - Because the natural processes that clean the atmosphere only work at a trickle, stopping global warming will require very deep cuts in emissions.  If we could hold emissions constant starting on Monday (carbon dioxide emissions have risen 3% annually on average), carbon dioxide emissions would continue to build.  Keep in mind that actually stopping and eventually reversing the build-up of carbon dioxide and other long-lived gases would require reductions of about 50% below current levels by 2050 and even deeper cuts in the decades beyond.  Cuts like this are just not in the cards - - 85% of carbon dioxide emissions come from burring coal, oil, and natural gas.  Very deep cuts in emissions imply the need for totally new methods of burning that sequester the carbon dioxide safely away from the atmosphere or for an economy that makes only sparing use of fossil fuels.  This would require new technology and energy infrastructure that will be very slow to evolve.
  • The disconnect between costs and benefits  - The cost of efforts to control the pollutants is immediate, but the benefits are uncertain and mainly accrue in the distant future (looping back to "Time is not our friend").  If the processes that removed carbon dioxide ran at a swifter pace then it would be easier to line up the incentives for action because expensive efforts would yield more visible returns.  Engineers need to be thinking about a new type of problem - - the "Time Inconsistency" problem.  This is a huge problem in many segments of society - - from public pensions to social security to climate change.  All part of the "boiling frog problem" - - where the benefits (like getting out of a pan of water as the temperature is gradually increased) are in the distant future, yet drastic changes are needed immediately.
  • A global problem that mixes everywhere - - Any air pollutant that lingers more than one to two years mixes throughout the atmosphere.  Emissions anywhere cause global warming everywhere, a fact that creates tremendous political opportunities and difficulties.  The opportunity is that regulation can take place anywhere, which offers the prospect of searching the planet for the cheapest place to control emissions.  The difficulty is that regulatory efforts in one country are also easily erased by laxity anywhere.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Coping with Complexity

The old microwave in our kitchen died a painless death several weeks ago.  Out with the old and in with the new.  The "new" is different from the "old" - - in terms of features, functionality, controls, etc.  Even setting the clock is a little different than our old model - - a simple clock lacks standardization within a product category (Even a "simple" dead bolt lock lacks standardization and is complex - - do you turn the key left or right and is it a partial rotation or a full 360 degrees?).

Complexity is here to stay, while tomorrow looks as if complexity will be increasing at exponential rates.  Living and coping with complexity has become an important trait and attribute for everyone.  The vast majority of us face complexity on a daily basis - - smart phones, computers, the infamous remote control, appliances, etc.  We are not gizmologists.  We get by with are a variety of coping strategies.

No matter how well designed some things are, no matter how good the conceptual model, the feedback, the structure, and modularization - - you still have to master that remote control.  This requires rules and strategies that are detailed below:
  1. Acceptance - - Take a deep breath.  Realize that life is complex.  Everyone is in the same boat - - we are all learning to understand and use complex systems.  You can learn it too.  Complex things become simpler once they are dealt with properly, once they are divided into smaller parts (i.e., "smallifying"), each of which is relatively easy to master, once it is understood, and once the cues built into the system are discovered and used.
  2. Divide and Conquer - - Smallifying is important.  Learn one part or module at a time.  Then, as each part is learned, it provides a feeling of accomplishment that helps motivate the learning of the next.
  3. Just-in-Time Learning - - I own a Suunto Vector Watch.  Cool looking and complicated to the point I am not sure what all the "Vectors" do.  Setting the time is tricky.  But I really don't have to do this except three or four times a year.  Don't try to learn everything at once: learn only what is needed to do the task that interests you.  Learn when it is needed.
  4. Understand, Don't Memorize - - Try to develop a conceptual model of the technology: what is it really doing?  How does it work"  If you can learn this, then quite often the operations will seem sensible and when that happens, they become learnable.  Unfortunately, many technologies seem to go out of their way to make this understanding difficult to acquire.  Do your best to avoid these.
  5. Watch Other People - - Watch other people using the technology (like your children): see what they do and how they do it.  Don't hesitate to ask for help or, more importantly, why they did what they did.  Most people will be happy to help.  This is how experts learn little secrets.  Tell people what you are doing - - "I just want to watch and learn."

Friday, May 6, 2011

More People, More Burgers

With population levels booming and three billion people worldwide trying to enter the middle class, the demand for meat is skyrocketing.  As more families in China, India, and elsewhere enter the middle class, they expect to eat better.  But as global consumption of grain-intensive livestock products climbs, so does the demand for the extra corn and soybeans needed to feed all that livestock.  Grain consumption per person in the United States, for example, is four times that in India, where little grain is converted into animal protein.  For now.

Number of animals killed for food worldwide in 2009 is presented as follows:
  • 1.7 million camels
  • 24 million water buffalo
  • 293 million cows
  • 398 million goats
  • 518 million sheep
  • 633 million turkeys
  • 1.7 billion rabbits
  • 1.3 billion pigs (China has 446 million pigs)
  • 2.6 billion ducks
  • 52 billion chickens
Keep in mind the linkage among the demand for animal protein, the supply of grain, and the demand for ethanol.  In 2010, the U.S. harvested nearly 400 million tons of grain, of which 126 million tons went to ethanol fuel distilleries (up from 16 million tons in 2000).  This massive capacity to convert grain is now tied to the price of oil.  So if oil goes to $150 per barrel or more, the price of grain will follow upward as it becomes ever more profitable to convert grain into oil substitutes.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A (The) Big Problem

Nathan Myhrvold is the former chief technology officer at Microsoft Corp. - - having degrees in subjects including economics, geophysics, and theoretical and mathematical physics.  He devotes much of his time lately to his company, Intellectual Ventures, whose business plan is to invest in new ideas.

In a March 7, 2011 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Myhrvold makes it crystal clear regarding what all engineers would consider "A Big Problem" is in fact probably "The Big Problem."  Myhrvold stated the following in the interview - -

"The single biggest problem we have to focus on in this century is how to get every citizen of Earth roughly the same per-capita energy we enjoy in the developed world.  China is developing .  India is developing.  They all want the lifestyle we have.  The world's energy problem is about how we expand our energy budget by a factor of 10 or more, and short of incredible disaster or war.  I don't know how we stop that.

We don't have any viable way to do it.  I don't believe that problem can be solved with any combination of existing technologies."

You can see how "A Big Problem" will become "The Big Problem" when you compare the U.S. and India.  According to the World Resources Institute, U.S. per capita energy consumption is in the 10,000 watts per person range, while India is around 600 to 700 watts per person.  A factor of 15.  Assuming the goal is to get India up to the U.S. level by 2050, energy supply and availability would have to grow annually in India by 7%.  That type of growth would produce "The Big Problem." 

The top billion drive automobiles at the rate of 435.1 per 1,000 people.  The next billion drives at the rate of 125.2 per 1,000 people.  Roughly a factor of 3.5.  The bottom billion drives at the rate of 5.8 per 1,000 people.  A factor of 75 compared to the top billion.  Assuming the goal is to get automobile ownership up to half the top billion level (435.1/2=217.55 per 1,000 people) by the year 2050, this translates into an annual growth rate of 9.5%.

Expanding our energy profile and pipeline to accommodate the billions wanting to move up the economic ladder will be "The Big Problem" for a generation of engineers, planners, managers, and policy makers.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Tesler's Law of the Conservation of Complexity

Larry Tesler, one time vice president of Apple argued that the total complexity of a system is a constant - - as you make the person's interaction simpler, the hidden complexity behind the scenes increases.  Make one part of the system simpler, said Tesler, and the rest of the system gets more complex.  Trade-off - - making things easier for the user means making it more difficult for the designer or engineer.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Preparation and Patience

After our successful killing of OBL on Sunday - - two words need to be highlighted.  One is preparation.  Training, coordination, logistics, and having a really good Plan C - - the killing of OBL showcased the definition of preparation.  The other word in patience.  Observe, analyze, synthesize - - having the patient gene makes it so much easier to put those three words together.  Waiting almost ten years demonstrates a remarkable national level of perseverance and our ability to endure.

Think about preparation and patience in everything you do - - especially in the context of a career.  Prepare for a career, don't plan it.  Think in terms of a pyramid instead of ladder.  Building foundations and layers.  Focus on broad experiences - - technical, relationships, managerial, geographic - - this foundation will help you to synthesize new things.  Get out of your comfort zone - - the Navy SEALs that killed OBL make a career of executing outside their comfort zones.

Also think about patience in the context of your career.  Set realistic goals.  From day one - - keep asking questions and growing.  Always think in terms of moving forward - - some days it will be three steps forward and two steps back.  Remember the old Spanish proverb that has its roots in the virtue of patience - - "What grows well, grows slowly."  Work on the people-skill part of the business.  Yes, solving a complex hydraulics problem requires patience.  But dealing with the complexities of the human race will test your patience daily at levels well beyond any hydraulics problem.  Finally, learn to deal with failure.  In some respects, learning to be a good success starts with learning how to be a good failure.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Works of Donald A. Norman

Norman, Professor of Computer Science at the University of California, San Diego, enjoys an almost cult following amongst some very important people in the world of technology.  His disciples include Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Page and Brin of Groogle, and a host of others at Apple.  Norman, with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering, M.S. in Computer Science, and Ph.D. in Psychology, covers a very important area - - the interface between technology and humans.  His books include - -
  • Psychology of Everyday Things
  • The Design of Everyday Things (Have read - - great book)
  • Living with Complexity (I am currently reading this)
  • Emotional Design: Why We Love (Hate) Everyday Things
  • Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of The Machine
  • User Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-computer Interaction
The bible of the religion is Psychology of Everyday Things.  The first and arguably only commandment is, "The User is always right."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

"Value in Use" versus "Value in Exchange"

Why are diamonds more valuable than water?  Adam Smith explained this in his Wealth of Nations (1776) - -

The word value, it is to be observed, has two different meanings, and sometimes expresses the utility of some particular object, and sometimes the power of purchasing other goods which the possession of that object conveys.  The one may be called "value in use", the other, "value in exchange."  The things which have the greatest value in use frequently little or no value in exchange; and on the contrary, these which have the greatest value in exchange have frequently little or no value in use.  Nothing is more useful than water: but it will purchase scarce any thing; scarce any thing can be had in exchange for it.  A diamond  on the contrary, has scarce any value in use; but a very great quantity of other goods may frequently be had in exchange for it.