Monday, December 31, 2012

The Best and Worst Science and Engineering Videos of 2012

The best - -



The worst - -

The Intersection of Ballet and Engineering

Creative thinking is a function of how well you are able to engage in interdisciplinary thinking.  Steve Jobs was the master of interdisciplinary thinking.  In a world of wickedly complex issues and problems, the future belongs to those that capture some of how Jobs interfaced with other disciplines.

This is a great TED lecture from a Duke engineer on the intersection of ballet and engineering - -

Engineering and the Words of 2012


This is a good list that interfaces the most with engineering - -
  1. 47 Percent.  The percentage of people who do no pay taxes, are dependent on government assistance and would vote to re-elect President Obama.  What we want out of our government, who should pay, and how much impacts every engineer - - from the bridge engineer to the aerospace engineer. 
  2. Binders Full of Women.  In explaining during a debate that he often sought to hire women while he was governor of Massachusetts, Mr. Romney said he was given "whole binders full of women" to consider as candidates for government jobs.  Historically engineering has been a "binders full of women" profession - - a total and complete lack of gender diversity.  This has rapidly changed in recent years, but the STEM professions still need to make this a much greater focus.
  3. Fiscal Cliff.  The tax increases and spending cuts that will take effect January 1 if Congress does not pass legislation to block them.  We will probably yet get a deal, but if you are an engineer working on a federal contract, I would be prepared for some cliff diving.
  4. Fracking.  Hydraulic fracking, a method of extracting natural gas or oil from shale formations.  Maybe the word of 2012 and brought to you by engineering.
  5. Frankenstorm.  The storm that hit the East Coast in October a few days before Halloween.  The era of extreme weather events has arrived.  Engineering will have a key role in this new era of climate change.
  6. Man Camp.  A temporary housing facility for oil workers.  It is estimated that $45 billion may be spent on new or expanded transportation infrastructure, including pipelines, rail cars, rail terminals and other projects in 2013.
  7. MODC.  An acronym for a massive open online course, an online class that allows students from anywhere to view lectures and receive instruction, usually for free.  If you are not online learning, you had better start today.
  8. Superstorm.  Yet another name for the massive storm that pummeled the East Coast in October.  As things deteriorate, the increasing cost of defensive measure such as seawalls and then the costs of remediation and repair as things get destroyed will place a premium on the interface between creative engineering and fiscal management.

Engineering and a World of Predictions

From English anthropologist Gregory Bateson - -

"Information is a difference that makes a difference."

Many engineers will be doing work in the growing fields of developing decision support systems and predictive algorithms.  Engineering has become a model producing profession in an era of Big Data.  Engineers are currently generating clever algorithms that predict behavior of all kinds - - shopping, dating, and voting, for example.  Predicting the performance (probably at some point in real time) of the bridge you drive across or the pump at the water treatment plant is just around the corner.

This is a key point for the engineering community - - models do not just predict, they can make things happen.  Engineering will move deeper into what is called the behavioral loop.  An engineer or manager feeds in data, which is collected by an algorithm that then presents the user with choices, thus steering behavior.

We need to be thinking deeper about the differences and the behavorial loops that our models and decision support systems produce.


Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Mavelous Future

In 2025, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Apple will battle for hardware and software supremacy inside your house.  Your garage will be different.  With a drone in every driveway, a company called Mavelous could dominate the drone control market.  Mavelous is an open-source tablet and smartphone-centric control panel usable with a variety of do-it-yourself drones. 

Georgia Tech ME 2110 Design Contest

This is the video from the Georgia Tech ME 2110 Creative Decisions and Design Competition - - my son was in the class.  His team finished in third place (the team was dressed in yellow and is in the video) and he received an A in the class!!

Leap 3D


Saturday, December 29, 2012

Shorting the Cow


What is an EcoDistrict?


An EcoDistrict is a highly integrated (this is another good example of a trend that will require engineers to engage in interdisciplinary thinking and outreach) neighborhood that is vibrant, resource efficient and engages residents in promoting human connections and well-being.  It is home to smart buildings; strives to capture and reuse energy, water and wastewater on site; offers a range of transportation options; provides open space for people and natural areas for wildlife; and tracks tangible progress toward neighborhood sustainability over time.


Rob Bennett is presenting a lecture, EcoDistricts: Building Blocks of Sustainable Cities, via the City of Austin Office of Sustainability and the University of Texas Center for Sustainable Development on January 8, 2013.  The lecture is free and can can be viewed at this link.

The Best and Worst Highway Projects of 2012


From The Atlantic - - link.

Mapping Dangerous Dogs and Rats


Cities have become huge data laboratories - - the era of big data meets geography.  From the location of dangerous dogs in Austin, Texas to rat sightings in New York City - - look for a future of every single crack in every inch of highway/road pavement being documented by the public and placed in a open data source. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

TI's Engineer-to-Engineer

Texas Instruments in Dallas operates two social communities for employees and contractors (InfoLink) and Engineer-to-Engineer (E2E) for customers.  E2E is Facebook for engineers - - engineers discussing technical issues and solving problems in a virtual community setting.  In the past, many of the questions were support related and addressed through one-on-one conversations via email or the phone.  Customer behavior and expectations are rapidly changing - - customers prefer to first turn to professionals and social networks for feedback or help with products and services.



This year, TI has seen high double-digit growth in participation in its social communities which attract millions of page views (launched in 2008, E2E has more than 100,000 users - - participation is up 46% from last year).  TI sees this investment as a valuable way to communicate with employees, provide customer support, develop products and services and promote their brand.

Engineering and Lateral Thinking

I hope 2013 becomes the year in which engineers finally gets serious about redefining the engineering experience.  Knowledge today is profoundly interdisciplinary.  Engineers need to be preparing for work in a global marketplace.  Part of this preparation will require much greater lateral thinking on the part of many engineers.  A key foundation of lateral thinking must be a greater focus on writing, critical quantitative reasoning, information literacy, oral communication, community engagement, human diversity, global engagement, and proficiency in a second language.

Greater lateral thinking produces greater value.  Engineering in the not to distance future will place a premium on the ability to learn new skills in a changing workforce, as well as adapt to and manage multiple careers.

Strategic Thinking in Government

We live in the age of complexity where the need for long-range thinking about the world's unpredictability is paramount.  From fiscal imbalances to climate change - - we face a vast set of challenges.  This may just be the most complex time for the United States in the past half century and perhaps in our history.

It is important to remember that to govern is to choose - - yet we have little confidence that government polices, from the federal to the local levels, are informed by a clear, coherent, and strategic approach.  Too often, the most serious decisions are usually taken in the worst conditions - - after the mega-hurricane or the collapse of a bridge.

The UK has developed an important document that looks at the need for more strategic planning in government.  The UK public administration select committee, which scrutinizes how the government is run produced a report in April 2012 called Strategic Thinking in Government.  I would put this on your 2013 reading list.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Flooding on Main Street

From High Tide On Main Street:Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis by John Englander - - five questions and issues engineers will be involved in:
  1. How much sea level could rise by the middle of this century and beyond.
  2. The factors that could increase or slow future sea level rise.
  3. How far inland shorelines will move as sea level rises, and what the impacts will be.
  4. How soon coastal property values could begin to drop in anticipation of the property eventually going underwater, and what the implications will be for individuals, businesses, the banking system and government at all levels. (Note - - this is very important.  Look for the markets to react far sooner than policy changes and execution.)
  5. How we can begin "intelligent adaptation." (This would be a huge growth industry for engineering and construction compaines - - needs to be part of future strategic planning sessions.)

Engineering and Intelligent Dinner Conversation

Something for 2013 to think about - -

"Always be ready to explain in ordinary language to the guest across the table what it is you do and why it matters."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Innovation and Our Changing Political World

This is a great lecture from Alec Ross.  We live in a world of shifting power.  The Arab Spring is one recent example.  Innovation is and will continue to be an active enabler of rapid change.  In a world of collaborative and fluid political networks, it is a really bad time to be a control freak. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Concordia Wreck Removal Project Informative Website

This is a great project website that Titan Salvage developed for the Costa Concordia wreck.  60-Minutes had a story on this project last night.

Going Back to 49 States


Solving our national debt by selling Alaska (thinking either Russia or Canada - - sealed bids) - - idea is here.  You have to like the thinking outside the box approach - - plus the potential of flipping a $7.2 million real estate investment to earn maybe $900 billion.  Bad real estate investments have been one source of our recent indebtedness - - one good real estate deal could pull us out.

At the same time as the sale of Alaska, we would have the option of adding Puerto Rico as #50 so as not to change the flags and civic textbooks.  Donald Trump is probably already thinking in terms of a Hawaii sale, then mounting a legal/public relations campaign against President Obama and the birth issue.

One other option would be selling Texas to Mexico - - half the population wants out of the United States.  Rather basic - - you sell assets that don't fit with your strategic plans.  In the long run, Texas fits strategically better with Mexico than the United States.

The Best Books I Read in 2012


This is my list of favorites - -
  • The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro (My #1)
  • The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts by Robert D. Kaplan
  • The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King by Walter R. Borneman
  • Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis (My #2)
  • The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns by Sasha Issenberg
  • The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden by Mark Bowden
  • The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin
  • The Signal and Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don't Nate Silver
  • Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines by Richard A. Muller
  • American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company by Bryce G. Hoffman
  • The End of Abundance: Economic Solutuons to Water Scarcity by David Zetland
  • Louis D. Brandeis: A Life by Melvin Urofsky
  • Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power by Steve Coll
  • The Kings of Cool by Don Winslow
  • Bring Up the Bodies by HilaryMantel
  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy by Peter H. Gleick et al

The Fortune 100 and Renewable Energy

Good report from the WWF, Ceres and Calvert Investment - - Power Forward: Why the World's Largest Companies are Investing in Renewable Energy (Link to the report.)  This is from the Executive Summary:

  
More than half of the Fortune 100 and more than two-thirds of the Global 100
have set GHG emissions reduction commitments, renewable energy commitments
or both. As corporations turn to renewable energy to reduce GHG emissions and
meet specific sourcing goals, companies are driving significant new investments
in renewable energy. Though these pockets of activity are encouraging, with
the proper policies, companies could set even stronger renewable energy
commitments.
 
Among the combined Fortune 100 and Global 100 companies, nearly two dozen
have set public, voluntary renewable energy commitments. These include globally
recognized brands like AT&T, Dow Chemical, General Motors, Google, HSBC,
Procter & Gamble, Volkswagen and Walmart.  

Global corporate renewable energy commitments are driving global purchasing.
For many of the Fortune 100 and Global 100 firms, action on renewable

energy is not limited to regional or national levels; it is planned across a global
scale. In order to meet their renewable energy targets, companies are developing
comprehensive purchasing strategies in every market where they have a
significant presence—often in countries core to their supply chains.
 
Looking at corporate targets by sector, in the Fortune 100, the Materials and
Telecommunications sectors have the highest share of companies who have set
both GHG and renewable energy commitments. The Industrials and Financial
sectors have the highest share of companies that have set GHG targets only.
The Energy sector, followed by Health Care, lags in setting either a GHG or
renewable energy target (see chart, opposite top).

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Autodesk's FormIt


Water Loss in Hong Kong


Hong Kong has a water loss rate of 20 to 30 percent.  Look for these types of loss rates to generate more and more interest.  The intersection of improving water economics, higher energy costs, sustainability concerns, greater urbanization, and extreme weather events driven by climate change will produce an environment in which water loss assesment and rehabiltiation only grows in importance.

Black & Veatch is doing this in Hong Kong to correct their water loss problems - - link.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Renaissance Sensor - Node


The renaissance sensor - - the one that has the flexibility to do many things while interfacing with your iPhone could have a huge future.  One example is the Node, marketed by Variable Technologies, which is a three-inch tube that can fit into your pocket.  Modular in design, users can screw in different sensors.  From temperature to moisture to color - - look for a marriage between app developers and sensing needs.  A gadget that can measure anything in a world that wants to know everything has potential

The RoboRoach Kit


I have not really thought about the long term implications of a firm that sells electronics allowing you to take control of the roach that you just saw in the kitchen sink.  Surgery is required - -



Friday, December 14, 2012

A Global Water Crisis


From The Christian Science Monitor this month - - Global water crisis: too little, too much, or lack of a plan?  A paragraph to ponder in the article:

"But most important, says Lall, "the economics of it has to be sorted out." Water allocations for personal consumption and ecological preservation should be protected, he said, but about 75 percent of water consumed globally should be subject to more competitive pricing. In a sense, he argues, water should be treated like oil, allowing developers a guaranteed allocation as an incentive to develop it. About a quarter of water supplies should be protected to ensure people have water for drinking and to preserve ecology, he says. But everyone – from the home-owner watering the lawn to big industry and agriculture – should pay more for water."

Droga5

From my M.B.A. days I was taught in Marketing 101 that marketing is providing the right product or service to the right people at the right time at the right price using the right promotional techniques.  The guys (it is the 1960's) from Mad Men would recognize this definition and basic process.  As titans on Madison Avenue in the golden age of advertising, the Mad Men crowd excelled at the right promotional techniques - - the ad in Life magazine on the 30-second commercial on I Love Lucy.

The Internet has transformed marketing and advertising.  The Ad industry in 2012 aims to target personalized messages to the right person at the right time - - in real time.  Firms like
Droga5, fueled by data scientists, mine information with the goal of uncovering insights about human behavior and unlocking new creative ideas for ads, products and services.  What the data scientist are attempting to do in the ad business is harvest consumer signals (this also applies to the democratic process - figuring out voters) to deliver something more relevant and more meaningful.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Professional versus Business Model in Engineering Consulting


The Becker-Posner Blog this week took an interesting look at the traditional professional (which includes everything from the clergy to engineering consulting services) versus the business model (which includes everything from I.B.M. to the Sinaloa Cartel).

Judge Posner writes the following:

"The traditional concept of the profession (the concept that is undergoing change) provides an interesting contrast to the concept of the profit-maximizing business firm. In the business model, the goal is profit maximization in a competitive environment that operates in a basically Darwinian fashion (survival of the fittest); risk is pervasive and both extraordinary profits and devastating losses are real possibilities. Employment and leadership in such an environment attract many and repel many. The people it attracts tend to be aggressive and daring. The ones it repel tend to be cautious and thoughtful.
 
In the traditional professional model, risk both upside and downside is trimmed by a combination of regulation and ethics both aimed at muting competition. With muted competition the lawyer or doctor can realistically aspire to a safe upper-middle-class income, but he is unlikely to become wealthy. The result, in combination with requiring postgraduate education and qualifying exams for entry into the profession and subjecting members of it to professional discipline, is to attract a type of person quite different from the entrepreneurial type—the latter a type exemplified by such extraordinarily successful college drop-outs as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg. The professional model attracts a more studious, intellectual, risk-averse type of person.
 
Why does society value such persons and create a comfortable niche for them? The answer is that some goods and services involve a degree of complexity that makes it very difficult for consumers to evaluate the quality of the goods and services. Legal services and medical treatment are important examples. Both involve considerable uncertainty (even the best lawyer loses some cases, even the best doctor fails to cure some patients). When a consumer is unable to determine the quality of a product or service, the provider has to be regulated, either directly as in the case of the regulation of the drug industry by the Food and Drug Administration or indirectly as in the professional model, in which the conditions for becoming a member of a profession encourage self-selection by persons likely to be trustworthy, responsible, and ethical because less inclined to cut corners in order to make a killing.
 
The professional model in law began to wane in the 1970s, with the beginning of the deregulation movement, which loosened restrictions on competition in legal services. The trend continued in subsequent decades, and was marked by an increased spread in earnings within law firms, an increased dispersion in the size of law firms, and increased turnover—in particular, the tendency of successful lawyers to move from firm to firm (taking their clients with them) in quest of higher incomes. Today, law firms closely resemble business firms. I am speaking mainly of law firms that handle corporate business, not of criminal or tort lawyers, who tend to practice by themselves or in small firms."

I fully agree with the idea that engineering consulting has and will continue to evolve from the professional to the business model.  The interesting point that Posner raises is, "The professional model attracts a more studious, intellectual, risk-adverse type of person."  It will be interesting to see how this type of person changes in the new business model - - with a central focus on profit-maximizing activities in unregulated (or under-regulated) competitive markets.  Greater movement toward the business model produces an environment of increased risk.  Consulting engineers may not want just a comfortable upper-middle-class income in the future; they may want to be rich; and one reason is the increased risk they face. 

Vail Real Estate and Climate Change Risk


Good paper on ski resort real estate and climate change risk - - link.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Don't Forget to Dry

The results are in - - washing your hands is critical to hygiene and germ control.  But so is drying your hands and the method of drying - - see Paper Towels v. Air Dryers.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Monday, December 10, 2012

Dr. Parking

An interesting interview with UCLA professor Donald Shoup - - known as the "Prophet of Parking" - - cities need money combined with enhanced GPS/phone apps = fluid parking rates.  Parking lots have huge externalises (increased stormwater runoff and pollution - - private investments have a funny way of turning into public liabilities that typical taxing mechanisms were never designed to cover) that end up as public responsibilities.  Look for cites to rethink the basic equation of parking.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Who are you?


One of the biggest challenges for any professional service business is figuring out how to be different.  Engineering consulting faces this challenge in particular.  How do you stand out as a unique offering in the marketplace.  Pete Townshend of the rock group The Who asks the key strategic question that firms need to address -  "Who are you?  Who, Who, Who, Who?"


Josh Miles has an excellent book, Bold Brand, that should introduce most engineers to the art and science of professional service branding as a key subset of marketing.  Chapter Four - Positioning and Differentiation has a collection of thought provoking and insightful questions and exercises.  These are:
  • How do you look different and sound different from you competition?
  • What do you stand for?
  • What do you believe?
  • Who are you, really?
  • Has a client ever ask - - "I didn't know you guys did that?"
  • If your dream client walked into your office while you were on vacation, would your team know what to do with that person?
  • In the era of constant change, positioning is constantly in need of attention.
  • Do you target specific demographic or psychographic profiles?
  • Do you see anything unique about the "mission" of the company?
  • How does your organization make the world a better place?
  • Who does your company benefit?
  • Who would miss you if your organization disappeared?  Why should anyone care?
  • What is the one thing that you do better than anyone else?
  • What are you the best at in your market or region?
  • What words does your company use to describe its services?
  • Complete the following - - "We are the only (blank) in (blank) that does (blank)."
  • If your organization was a car brand, which make/model would it be?
  • Make your competition invisible by getting out of their business - - niche positioning doesn't limit your market - - it expands it.
  • If you're doing something different, be sure you look and sound different.
  • Is your firm communicating you position with a megaphone of a wedge?  If you lead with the blunt side of the wedge, there's impact for sure, but it's too broad of an angle to ever pierce your audience's armor. 

Just a Management Crisis


From the current issue of Bloomberg Businessweek - - Tom Keene's EconoChat.  An interview with Clifford Winston, economist at the Brookings Institution.

Where are we on infrastructure investment in this country?

"The problem in the U.S. is not money per se.  There is just an awful lot of waste, money going where it shouldn't and money not going where it should.  We appear to have an infrastructure crisis, but I think it's really a management crisis in the public sector."

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Vertex Tactical Aviation

When your new freeway with an 85-mph speed limit in Texas interfaces with a 400-pound feral hog - - you are going to probably have to call on a company like Vertex Tactical Aviation out of Houston.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Engineering and Politics


I had the opportunity to see the movie Lincoln when it first opened in Southlake.  It is a very good movie with a key message for engineering.  See the movie.  And the message?  Engineering needs to do a much better job understanding and interfacing with the political classes.  We also need a much firmer understanding of the political process.

Politics plays a clear role in supporting, funding, and executing key engineering endeavors.  Philosophers think.  Economists model.  Managers plan.  Doctors heal.  Engineers build.  In the United States, all of this thinking, modeling, planning, healing, and building is typically done in a political environment.  An environment of "Government by the people."  Where elected representatives must learn to excel at maneuvering.  Which gets us to a key observation - - politicians maneuver.
 
David Brooks points this out in his excellent November 23, 2012 column in the New York Times - - Why We Love Politics:

"We live in an anti-political moment, when many people - young people especially - think politics is a low, nasty, corrupt and usually fruitless business.  It's much nobler to do community service or just avoid all that putrid noise."

I hope everybody who share this anti-political mood will go out to see "Lincoln," directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner.  The movie portrays the nobility of politics in exactly the right way.

It shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere.  You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty.  But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others - if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypo-critical.
 
The challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning.  Spielberg's "Lincoln" gets this point.  The hero has high moral vision, but he also has the courage to take morally hazardous action in order to make that vision a reality." 
 
Engineers need to get more comfortable with the paradox of "high vision and low cunning" and the politics of fluid maneuvering.  Engineering must place their faith in the process - - a process which can be marked as slow, deliberate, and incremental transformation.  For a successful political maneuver, timing is everything.

In my opinion, the best place to start a study of politics is the insightful political biography.  I would recommend three:
  • The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro
  • The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Acumen 360 and Fuse

Better project management analytics from Acumen - - based in Austin, Texas.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Graph of the week

The disruptive influence of technology - - scope, scale, and speed is very important to keep an eye on.  The economic dynamics and fundamentals of a market can change in a matter of years.  The end has to be approaching rather quickly for the basic newspaper. 

Fixing the National Flood Insurance Program

This is a good article on a topic engineers need to keep an eye on.

Wegowise

Wegowise is a great example of where energy conservation/sustainability is moving - - better data producing more information which leads to greater knowledge which can produce higher quality decision making and sustainable behavior modification.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Public Works and Emergency Management


Hurricane Sandy has placed the intersection of public works and emergency management back on the map.  Engineering will play a key role in the development of climate change adaptation strategies.  One area of engineering responsibility will be in support of the expanding role of public works in emergency management.  Public works and transportation agencies will be increasingly taxed to provide the resources necessary in the new era of mega-climate induced disasters.

Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8 of 2003 included public works as "emergency responders."  However, overall acceptance and recognition by primary responder disciplines as equals in emergency management are still lacking.  Dave Bergner and Kimberly Vasconez provided an excellent overview of the current public work + emergency management dilemma in Expanding Role of Public Works in Emergency Management (ASCE July 2012 Leadership and Management in Engineering).  They write the following:

"Public works is seriously deficient in other aspects of preparedness, including needs assessment, planning, and exercising.  As stated earlier. most attention is focused on the design, construction and the provision of certain essential services.  As budgets have gotten tighter in recent years, funding for staff and contractors has severely declined, but public expectations of service levels have not.  Reduced staffs have little time or money for planning and training for disasters and emergencies.  Managers who do conduct assessments to identify shortcomings find that their recommendations and requests cannot be implemented because of insufficient funding.  They have to advocate for these funds by emphasizing to elected officials and the public the vital functions they will be responsible for during emergencies.  It is also important to gain the support of police and fire departments as their endorsements will carry much weight."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a full training library - - many of the training modules are geared toward public works.  These include the following:
  • IS 552 - Public Works Role in Emergency Management
  • IS 554 - Emergency Planning for Public Works
  • IS 556 - Damage Assessment for Public Works
  • IS 558 - Public Works and Disaster Recovery
  • IS 559 - Local Damage Assessment
  • IS 632 - Introduction to Debris Operations

I just want to say two words to you. Two words.


The one word (plastics) from the movie The Graduate might be two words in our engineering future.  The two words?  Property loss.

As Ken Maschke, P.E. of structural engineering icon, Thornton Tomasetti, writes in New Soldiers in the War on Disaster (July 2012 Leadership and Management in Engineering (ASCE)):

"My company projects our property loss division to grow faster than any other component of the business in the coming years.  The practice serves insurance companies and their representative attorneys and adjusters in evaluating the scope and nature of a loss.  Besides being profitable, the work also provides a unique opportunity for engineers, particularly younger engineers, to experience building failures firsthand."

No More Babies, No More Bridges

Our declining national birth rate should be a big deal to engineering.  Last year marked the lowest birth rate in U.S. history.  Americans are having fewer babies than the French and British.

The New York Times has an excellent article on the subject - More Babies, Please by Ross Douthat.  As Douthat points out, the symptoms of our declining birth rate is the true issue.  These symptons impact many different areas of our society. For example it is in our long-term national interest to rehabilitate and renew our public infrastructure.  This becomes almost imposssible when our culture embraces, as Douthat writes, " . . . a spirit that privileges the present over the future."  

"Beneath these policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place."

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Matternet

The pharmacy is just down the road and you need to pick up a prescription.  Why drive when a firm called Matternet and their drones can make the delivery.

Welcome to a future of roadless delivery options.  See the TED lecture with the Matternet founder, Andreas Raptopoulos.

Invest in Dutch Engineering Firms

 
To protect the New York region from superstorms, the U.S. will need to commit to billions in long-term infrastructure investment.  Climate and flood risks are a major concern in our other "delta cities" across the globe - - Rotterdam, Jakarta, London, New Orleans, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Ho Chi Minh city.  Many coastal communities with climate change induced flood risk vulnerability need to be asking the New York question - - "Rather than sustain another $30 billion of damage, why don't we spend some money now to save money in the future."
 
Civil engineering will face a complex and predictable future of rising seas and vanishing coastlines.  More that six million Americans live on land less than five feet above the local tide.  Rising seas raise the launching pad for storm surge.  Surging Seas  maintains an excellent website to review the risk of coastal cities in the United States.  Given the current global warming trends, a five foot rise over present sea level in about 100 to 300 years would submerge most of Miami.
 
The New York Times had an excellent article on November 25, 2012 - - Rising Seas, Vanishing Coastlines.  From the article:
 
"Floods reaching five feet above the current high tide line will become increasingly common along the nation's coastlines well before the seas climb by five feet.  Over the last century, the nearly eight-inch rise of the world's seas has already doubled the chance of "once in a century" floods for many seaside communities."
 
Enter Dutch engineering.  They have a long history of engineering a very successful battle against the forces of mother nature.  The Dutch have the unique combination of  experience and biography in the context of rising seas.  This is from The Financial Page of the current issue of The New Yorker - - Disaster Economics:
 
"On February 1, 1953, a fierce, sustained storm created a huge surge in the North Sea off the coast of Holland.  Floodwaters overtopped the dikes, swallowing half a million acres of land and killing nearly two thousand people.  Within weeks of the storm, a government commission issued what came to be known as the Delta Plan, a set of recommendations for flood-control measures.  Over the next four decades, the Dutch invested billions of guilders in a vast set of dams and barriers, culminating in the construction of the Maeslant Barrier, an enormous movable seawall to protect the port of Rotterdam.  Since the Delta Plan went into effect, the Netherlands has not been flooded by the sea again."
 
I can almost guarantee that Dutch engineering firms have developed the engineering language that describes value for threatened coastal communities.  This is a great example of geography and history allowing a group of firms to carve out a niche and gain a reputation.  History and geography are still strong forces - - it has given Dutch firms an identity and a platform to distinguish themselves in a new world challenged by climate change and extreme weather events.
 
Invest in a Dutch engineering firm!!!!!


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Graph of the week

 
Going off the "population cliff" produces huge problems relating to long-term fixes for Social Security, Medicare, and public sector pension obligations.

Engineering for Climate Adaption in 12 Projects

From the November 26, 2012 issue of Newsweek - - Everyday Armageddon by David Cay Johnston.  The article discusses the idea that disasters far greater than Sandy loom unless we move fast to fix a badly broken public and private infrastructure system.  We in this case is primarily the engineering communities.

This is a list of 12 projects that Johnston outlined in the article:
  1. Accelerate replacement of natural gas pipelines.  During Sandy, leaking gas fueled hundreds of fires, including blazes that despite the torrential rains, reduced to ashes about 200 homes in the Breezy Point section of Queens and the New Jersey coastal town of Mantoloking.  Earlier this year, New Jersey Natural Gas chairman Lawrence M. Downes boasted to shareholders about this company's "rock-solid infrastructure."  But deep in his annual report's fine print was this scary fact: the company planned to slash pipeline spending, including maintenance, from $121 million this year to just $70 million in 2013.  Pipelines laid in open fields when Truman and Eisenhower were in the White House remain in use, their corroding shells running beneath or past schools, hospitals, and tot-lot parks.  When the steel walls fail, the tearing metal will spark, creating a zone of certain death hundreds of feet wide.
  2. Stop AT&T and Verizon from shutting down the old copper-wire telephone system, the only telecommunications that work when the electric grid goes down and cellphone-tower batteries run out of juice.  Maintaining even a partial system-akin to the old police communication boxes that let officers call in before they carried radios - could save lives during emergencies, including any future terrorist attacks.
  3. Demand that electric utilities replace power poles as they wear out and maintain equipment, especially changing oils in large transformers before they congeal and stick, to reduce long-term costs.  And hire more utility workers.  When utilities keep enough staff on hand to maintain systems, taxpayers will not need to fly linemen and cherry pickers in military cargo planes from California to New York.
  4. Increase tree trimming to prevent downed electrical lines during storms, and move more lines underground to make the electric grid more reliable.
  5. Promote smaller grids instead of the vast multistate grids now being developed that can throw tens of millions of people into darkness because of one mistake or even one fallen tree limb.
  6. Develop a 10-year plan to tear down, rebuild, or strengthen every dam rated risky by the civil-engineering society before a combination of heavy rains and hubris give us a deadly, unnecessary remake of the 1889 Johnstown flood.
  7. Replace within a decade every large water, and sewer main past its predicted life, with an emphasis on the largest pipes - some of which are nine feet across and operate at pressures of 80 pounds per square inch.  Water mains break at the rate of nearly 800 per day. 
  8. Place big warning signs on every highway bridge, advising motorists of when the structure should have have been rebuilt or replaced, and when, if ever, work is scheduled to begin.
  9. Invest in riprap seawalls that extend perpendicular from the shoreline into the sea.  These structures capture drifting sand and build up and maintain sand dunes, and the vegetation that holds them in place.  With seawalls, the natural flow of sand in the water turns narrow coastal beaches into wide stretches that reduce damage to barrier islands and the waterfront communities during hurricanes.
  10. Replace rail lines running through marshlands, like the NJ Transit lines feeding into Manhattan, with elevated structures.  This would limit commuter service disruption after future storms, and allow for more natural flows of water and life nature's nurseries.
  11. Rebuild marshes and other natural barriers, like oyster reefs, that absorb the shock of storms; these barriers have been ravaged by development in the last two centuries.
  12. Require detailed emergency plans by natural-gas, electric, water, and telecommunications utilities as a condition of keeping their licences.  And make sure these plans are publicly available and the subject of biannual public hearings in each town to create public awareness of the dangers and what is being done to minimize them.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Municipal Wastewater Reuse by Electric Utilities

A report by ASME and the Water Environmental Federation - - Municipal Wastewater Reuse by Electric Utilities: Best Practices and Future Directions. 

From the report: 

"Energy and water have a well-known relationship that is interconnected and interdependent. While water production, processing, distribution, and end-use all require energy, electric utilities rely on a steady flow of water for essential functions, particularly cooling. In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that in 2005, thermoelectric power accounted for 49% of total water withdrawals, approximately 201 billion gallons per day. This portion is the highest of all U.S. water withdrawals, including irrigation, industrial use, and public supply. 

As the demand for power and water increases due to significant U.S. population increases in the coming decades due to organic growth and population shift, an increasing level of strain will be placed on the country’s already dwindling freshwater supply. A new American Chemical Society report indicates that as a result of this increasing demand and the impacts of climate change, 7 in 10 U.S. counties could risk freshwater shortages by 2050, with 1 in 3 counties classified as having a high or extreme risk of water shortages in the same time period.

The impending regional freshwater shortages and increasing electricity demand in the United States have encouraged the reuse of municipal wastewater in electric utilities. Treated by municipal wastewater plants, this reclaimed water can safely meet the water needs of the power producing process while conserving freshwater for other uses."

GPS For The Indoors

Comes from the technology of Locata.


Transportation Economics


Thursday, November 29, 2012

The GE Industrial Internet


Climate Street

From the idea of "Complete Streets" to "Climate Street" - -

Le Drone and MS Engineering Glasses

French company Parrot is selling its high-end toy, the $300 AR Drone 2.0, to consumers.  The engineer in 2020 may go through this mental checklist on the way to the project site.  iPhone - check.  iPad - check.  iGlasses - check.  iDrone - check.

 
 
If the iGlasses don't pan out, Microsoft appears to be working on your MS Engineering Glasses.
 
 


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Minecraft Reality

Augmented Reality takes another step toward the masses - -

How Important Is Your House?

Having most of your assets tied up in homeowner equity has been a disaster for large segments of the U.S. population:

GAO Reviews the Energy-Water Nexus

From the September 2012 GAO report - - Energy-Water Nexus: Coordinated Federal Approach Needed to Better Manage Energy and Water Tradeoffs (link to the report):
Improved energy and water planning will require better coordination among federal agencies and other stakeholders. GAO’s work has demonstrated that energy and water planning are generally "stove-piped," with decisions about one resource made without considering impacts to the other resource. Improved planning will require federal agencies to work with one another and other stakeholders, such as state and local agencies, academia, industry, and environmental groups. Congress and some agencies have taken steps to improve coordination, but these actions are incomplete or in their early stages. For example, in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress directed the Department of Energy (DOE) to establish a federal program to address the energy-water nexus, but DOE has not done so.

 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Look at the Weather Trends and Make Plans


From the Financial Times yesterday - Weather needs to become top priority for companies by Charles Batchelor:

Failure by business to manage its risks frequently ends up at door of insurers.  "We follow all these climate change reports very closely and do considerable research," says Neil Smith, manager of emerging risks and research at Lloyd's of London, the specialist insurance market.  "We say  to our syndicates, 'Look at the trends and plan them into your future business'."

Protecting the Health, Safety and Welfare of the Public

Haste is the mother of failure . . . but as the video demonstrates, to many members of the civilized world their very existence is wallpapered over in layers and layers of luck.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin

The most recent bulletin release is here.

The 4 Degree C Scenarios

This report ought to scare the hell out of engineering - - Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4 Degrees C Warmer World Must be Avoided.  The report is published by the World Bank (November 2012) and written by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Graph to Ponder


Engineering Antifragile Systems

Antifragility in the context of engineered systems subject to extreme weather and climate change risks could be an important opportunity for engineers.  The word "antifragile" comes from Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Taleb is of "Black Swan" fame).  As we have seen recently along the New York and New Jersey coastline, a key engineering question is "What is the opposite of fragile?"  Most engineers would answer either "resilience" or "robustness."  Taleb feels "antifragile" is better - - if fragility means something that breaks (and numerous systems broke during Hurricane Sandy) under stress, its exact opposite means something that grows stronger under pressure.  Engineering doesn't have a word that captures this condition.

Taleb argues that in a world of increasing uncertainty, antifragility is a secret to our success.  It has always been a secret to our own collective well being.  Evolution is a process in which random events are turned into lasting advantage.  We respond well to pressure - - IQs increase with learning and testing; leg muscles get stronger with running and weight lifting.  Airplanes get safer after each crash and investigation.

In many engineering endeavors, long periods of stability allows risks to accumulate until their is a major disaster.  Volatility can mean that things and systems do not get too far out of kilter.  Disaster-resistant construction and retrofitting  existing building stock should have elements of antifragility thinking.  A significant  opportunity to reduce loss in future events and thus increase resilience is to strengthen and/or retofit the nation's existing building stock.  In the case of hurricanes, the new construction and retrofitting is relatively inexpensive and can include installation of exterior hurricane shutters or replacing windows with impact resistant glass, garage door bracing, strengthening soffits, and securing loose roof shingles.

Jo da Silva in Shifting Agendas: Response to Resilience has outlined characteristics of a resilient system.  It is important for engineering to incorporate antifragility thinking into these characteristics:
  1. Flexibility - the ability to change, evolve and adapt alternative strategies in either the short or longer term.  The favors "soft" rather than "hard" solutions.  Sounds very antifragile.
  2. Redundancy - superfluous/spare capacity to accommodate increasing or extreme/surge pressures/demands.  Redundancy includes diversity, multiple pathways and a variety of options.  I can see elements of antifragility - - diversity and multiple pathways.
  3. Safe Failure - this is related to the ability to absorb shocks and the cumulative effects of slow-onset challenges in ways that avoid catastrophic failure if thresholds are exceeded.  When a part of the system fails it does so progressively rather than suddenly, with minimal impact to other systems.  Failure itself is accepted.  Goes to the heart of antifragility and volatility.
  4. Resourcefulness - the capacity to visualize and act, to identify problems, establish priorities, mobilize resources when conditions exist that threaten to disrupt an element of the system.
  5. Responsiveness - the ability to re-organized, to re-establish function and sense of order following failure.  Re-organizing could be antifragile.
  6. Capacity to Learn - direct experience and failure plays a key role in triggering learning processes.  The systems should have the ability to learn from past experiences and failures, to avoid past mistakes and exercise in future decisions.  The is the heart of antifragile thinking.
  7. Dependency on Local Ecosystems - valuing the services provided by local and surrounding ecosystems (green and blue infrastructure), and taking steps to increase their health and stability.  These services (often undervalued) perform processes such as flood control, temperature regulation pollutant filtration, and local food production.