Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mrs. Hitler

Interesting article on the wife behind the dictator - -

Engineering Artistry

Two recent articles on the intersection of engineering and art.  The first is from the student newspaper (Technique) at Georgia Tech University by Madison Lee (February 24, 2012 - - Engineering perceived as art form by many).  Engineering and art may not necessarily be separate things.  Engineers must consider end users and build to appease them.  The Tech article has the following observations:

"I find that the distinction between engineering and architecture, which we might today think of as the distinction between engineering and art, robs from both fields," said Benjamin Flowers, Associate Professor in the School of Architecture.

"Art can and has been found in engineering.  Works of art seek to impose on the viewer the same intense, complex experience as do high bridges, vast factories, intricate industrial machinery . . . or other things we might call engineering," Flowers said.

Though the design aspect inherent in engineering can enlighten and impress as much as any piece of fine art, it remains true that engineers generally see the whole as a sum of its parts while artists focus more on the big picture.

The second article is by Stuart Walesh in the January 2012 ASCE Journal of Leadership and Management in Engineering (Art for Engineers: Encouraging More Right-Mode Thinking).  Walesh provides his reflections on engineering, art, drawing, and his amateur artist career - - all in the context of engineering and the need for additional right brain training and thinking.  Walesh writes the following:

In my view, enhanced observation - that is, more seeing and, relatively speaking, less looking - is an inevitable byproduct of practicing the visual arts.  Really seeing, not just casually looking, gradually becomes habitual for artists.  When looking at anything, artists, relative to others, tend to see values plus shapes and sub-shapes.  As Oliver Wendell Holmes noted, once our mind is stretched in a new way, it never returns to its original dimensions, and so it is once we practice the visual arts.

So what has this got to do with engineering?  Improved seeing, whether literally or possibly, by extension, figuratively, further enables an engineering student or practitioner to more completely and accurately define an issue to be resolved, a problem to be solved, or an opportunity to be pursued.  If it is true that a problem well defined is half solved, an issue, problem, or opportunity more completely and accurately seen, both physically and figuratively, is half resolved, solved, and pursued.  Engineering students and practitioners are likely to gain valuable enhanced vision as a result of participating in freehand drawings or other visual arts.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Engineering Demographics

Statistics from a New York Times article over the weekend by Richard Perez-Pena (Milestone Is Passed as 30 Percent of U.S. Adults Report Having a College Degree) - -
  • More than 30% of Americans have a college degree.  This is the first time in our history we have achieved this.
  • As of last March, 30.4% of people over age 25 in the U.S. held at least a bachelor's degree, and 10.9% held a graduate degree, up from 26.2% and 8.7% 10 years ago.
  • In 2001, men held a 3.9% lead in bachelor's degrees and 2.6% points in graduate degrees; by last year, both gaps were down to 0.7%.
  • Asian-Americans remain the nation's best-educated racial group - - 50.3% having a bachelor's degree.
  • Among college graduates 65 or older, only 23% of those with degrees in STEM majors are women; among 40 to 64, the proportion of women rises to 36%; among those 25 to 39, 45.9% are women.
  • STEM graduates are most heavily concentrated on the East and West coasts - - with the the highest percentages in the DC area, California, Washington, and Maryland.  The Southern and Plains states had the lowest.
Although not report in the Times article, we also appear to have divergent education avenues.  Yes, we can claim the 1/3 college statistic - - but 15% of all parking attendants have a B.A. degree.  What you have a degree in (and in many cases where) is more important than it was 30 or so years ago.  The other issue is that 1/3 of all children 8-years old and younger can utilize a smartphone and iPad.  Demand for and individual capabilities with our high technology gadgets define opportunities in the STEM world.  Demographics is destiny - - who and what we are as a nation and planet is currently on display at the nursery in the local hospital.  Destiny is also on display at the local mall when the 4-year old walks by with an iPhone.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Engineering Dematerialization

Engineers have made remarkable progress in reducing the quantity of stuff needed to produce a product.  An iPhone, for example weighs 1/100th and cost 1/10th as much as an Osborne Executive computer did in 1982, but it has 150 times the processing speed and 100,000 times the memory.  Dematerialization is not limited to the "stuff" - - the service sector, like banking, has become less about "stuff" and more about electrons moving on a laptop.

Authors Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler cover this in a new book - - Abundance.  I have not read it yet, but it has received good reviews.  As we add another three billion people to the planet, dematerialization will be a huge and powerful force for our global well-being.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Weather Underground

Weather Underground is a new site that looks at microclimatic variances with a new forecasting algorithm.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Picking Your Generals

A new book on World War 11 that is also a good management book.  Marshall and His Generals (2011) by Stephen R. Taaffe tells the story of WW II in the context of how General George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, faced the daunting task not only overseeing two theaters of a global conflict but also of selecting the best generals to carry out American grand strategy.  The book covers 45 generals - - and how Marshall either selected them or influenced their selection.  The why question of selection was answered by Marshall in three areas - - selection of men with high character ("unselfish and devoted purpose"), the quality of their education (whether West Point, Fort Leavenworth, or the Army War College), and the balance between experience and relative youth in a war that required both wisdom and great physical stamina.

Taaffee writes the following about Eisenhower:

"Marshall may or may not have yet sensed it, but Eisenhower's greatest attribute, and the one that would most benefit the Allied cause, was his ability to get along with people and persuade them to work together for the common good.  He was a charming, popular, and immensely likable man without a trace of phoniness, and possessed a magnetic personality that attracted people to him.  One officer noted that within twenty minutes of Eisenhower's waking into a room full of strangers, a good many of them would be calling him by his nickname.  Fortunately, there was much more to him than mere affability.  He was ambitious without being cloying and underhanded, intelligent rather than scholarly, and eminently practical.  His directness, integrity, and modesty enabled him to give credit to others without resentment or jealousy, which went a long way toward winning their loyalty.  At the same time, though, Eisenhower was beneath the surface a tough and taut man who, like Marshall, possessed a towering temper he tried hard to control.  He chain-smoked constantly, worked hard, and put enormous pressure on himself.  Finally, Eisenhower saw and understood the big picture.  Some of his contemporaries later claimed that he was not much of a tactician or even a strategist, but this must be placed in context.  Because Marshall moved him up so quickly, he never had the opportunity to lead an army group, a field army, a corps, or even a division.  Consequently, he was unable to accrue the kind of nuts-and bolts military knowledge that his colleagues gained through rigorous combat experience.  In fact, Eisenhower became primarily a military manager and diplomat, not a battlefield commander.  He recognized more clearly than his more parochial subordinates the Anglo-American alliance was vital to Allied success.  To do so, he made compromises that were not always militarily sound, but they were necessary to preserve the interallied harmony upon which victory depended." 

I imagine Marshall observed all of this, or shades of it.  The intangibles must have been visible - - the personality, the work ethic, the energy level, the manager, and the ability to see the big picture.  Too often strategic planning is an extrapolation from the past.  Marshall saw WW II as not just an extension of WW I.  History is about remembering the past, but it is also about choosing to forget.  With Eisenhower, Marshall made a choice to forget past ideas and attitudes - - with a new type of general for a new type of global war.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Quest for Energy Independence and The Golden Age of Gas

The United States is preparing for the Golden Age of Gas.  Gas in this case is natural gas.  The revolution in natural gas is a function of advancing technology - - namely hydraulic fracking.  New activity has increased dry shale production in the U.S. from 0.39tn cubic feet in 2000 to 4.8tn cubic feet in 2010, or 23% of U.S. dry gas production.  The United States has a 40 year supply of natural gas at current consumption levels.

Companies are beginning to see the Golden Age of Gas.  The New York Times reported yesterday that URS (a construction and engineering firm) was purchasing the Canadian energy firm, Flint Energy (URS To Acquire Flint Energy of Canada by Evelyn M. Rusli).  Flint is engaged in the various stages of exploration and development of natural gas and oil resources.  The North American oil and natural gas market has had a flurry of deals in the last 12 months.  More and more people and organizations are seeing a future with natural gas.

The article highlighted our Golden Age of Gas with the following:

"We were interested in a North American play," Martin M. Koffel, the chief executive of URS, said in an interview on Monday.  "We wanted to add oil and gas to our mix and wanted a company large enough that it could be its own division."

Mr. Koffel said that the rising support for energy independence in North America would lead to a boom in the oil field services industry.  He estimates that capital investment in Canada's oil sands industry will total $180 billion over the next 10 years.

Our Golden Age of Gas is important in two regards.  The first is that our half-century supply of natural gas needs to serve as a transition source of energy.  From the Golden Age of Coal/Oil to the Golden Age of Renewables - - we need another 50 years of science and engineering to get this correct.  The second is that the Golden Age of Gas needs to help wean the U.S. off the geopolitically risky Middle East.  I filled up yesterday at around $3.67 a gallon.  Projections are for gasoline to hit $5.00 per gallon this summer.  If Israeli F-16s actually start to knock on the front door of Tehran this spring (The "if" and "why" questions have become the "when", "who", and "where" questions), we are going to wish we had entered the Golden Age of Gas much sooner.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Wireless Index

Cisco's Visual Networking Index benchmarks wireless data traffic - - video, audio, and e-mails that are sent through laptops, smartphones, and tablets.

The index rose by 133% in 2011 - - fueled by people watching mobile video and using tablets.  The Era of "Big Data" fueled by the Internet of Things will be an important part of all disciplines in engineering this half century.  Look for a continued explosion in mobile data traffic.

Engineering Within Limits

Engineering will run into the Ages of Austerity and Scarcity this decade.  We face a collective climate of austerity and scarcity in the developed world.  Austerity is an interesting word that does a good job describing the dilemma - - stern, strict, grim, self-denying, self-disciplined, frugal, and spartan.  It is an old word with Latin and Greek roots (i.e., Spartan).  Austerity is close to the word scarcity - - scant, sparse, deficient, inadequate, and lacking.  But the words are not synonyms.  Austerity is about choice and scarcity rarely involves choice.  Engineering faces a future with both words and varying degrees of choice.

Austerity, particularly fiscal austerity on the part of government, is a choice.  Investment in our public infrastructure faces an ugly period of zero-sum conflicts bounded by choice.  Our ability to fix potholes and upgrade wastewater treatment plants is a battle of the percentages - - and not the 1 versus 99 percenters.  The ability to invest in bridges and dams is a battle of the "haves" and have nots."  In this case, the "haves" are older, mainly white conservatives who have income from savings, which they do not want more heavily taxed, and their Medicare coverage and Social Security benefits diverted to other causes.  In a climate of austerity and limits, the fault lines will increasingly be drawn between the past and the future.

The Age of Austerity also interfaces with the Age of Scarcity.  In our case, two real scarcities are in our future.  The first is the limited supply of energy we can use without imperiling the planet.  The second is the availability and quality of water.  Both energy and water are essential to life, as well as economic productivity.  How we manage both energy and water in the Age of Scarcity impacts the quantity and quality of the world population in many ways.

One final point.  Too much austerity, such as reduced funding for green energy research (keep in mind that what currently is in short supply are high quality middle class jobs), will impact the level and length of scarcity.  For example, the inability to properly fund water resource development because of austerity measures can produce an environment of scarce water resources.  If austerity does lead to scarcity, the Greeks have a word for it - - Hubris.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Engineering and Presidents' Day - - Three In A Row

The current issue of the Harvard Business Review has a special issue entitled Reinventing America: Why the World Needs the U.S. to Bounce Back.  The titles of the articles say a lot - -
  • "Why U.S. Competitiveness Matters to All of Us"
  • "The Looming Challenges to U.S. Competitiveness"
  • "A Jobs Compact for America's Future"
  • "A Warning Sign from Global Companies"
  • "Rethinking School"
  • "Does America Really Need Manufacturing?"
  • "How to Make Finance Work"
The February 18, 2012 issue of the Economist picked up on the HBR issue in the Schumpeter column - - This time it's serious: America is becoming a less attractive place to do business.  The closing paragraph tells the bulk of the story:

"Yet it is difficult to read this collection of essays without a sense of foreboding.  The one thing that worries the HBS alumni more than anything else - the state of American politics - is the most difficult to fix.  The political pendulum swings unpredictably, making it hard to plan for the future.  Should companies assume that they will have to abide by Mr. Obama's health care law when it comes into effect in 2014, or will the Republicans have repealed it by then?  No one knows.  And Washington's aversion to compromise makes the budget almost unmendable.  Without both parties' fingerprints on a deal, no one can curb the huge entitlement programmes that grow automatically, such as Medicare and Social Security.  So deficits yawn and the welfare state keeps growing, even as America's roads crumble.  That is not a recipe for dynamism."

So on Presidents' Day, engineering should reflect on what was in between the single terms (and unpopular terms) of John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams.  What was between the two were 24-years of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.  We have many difficult and complex problems that need to be addressed.  They are long term problems that will require long term solutions.  What we need is 24 straight years of world class political leadership that has the ability to balance our obligations to pay for the past with our desires to invest in the future.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Most Interesting Engineer In The World

NSPE and all of the local chapters should add to their "Young Engineer of the Year" and "Engineer of the Year" annual awards - - my vote would be for "The Most Interesting Engineer of the Year."

Stay curious, my friends . . .

Worrying about what's underground

It is interesting what it costs to operator and maintain assets that corporations, shareholders, customers, and the public never see.  They never see them - - until either a lack of maintenance or violations of safety rules produces a disaster.

One such disaster was the San Bruno, CA natural gas pipeline explosion that killed eight and injured another 58 in September 2010.  The pipeline explosion (the pipeline is owned by San Fransisco based PG&E) basically destroyed a neighborhood.

The Wall Street Journal provided a summary of the costs of the explosion - - PG&E Blast Costs May Top $1.7 Billion by Cassamdra Sweet on February 17, 2012.  The key points:
  • Total costs for the disaster are projected to be $1.7 billion through 2013.
  • This includes $200 million in safety fines and penalties.  Roughly 12% of the total bill.
  • In 2011 the company spent nearly $840 million on pipeline testing and other activities.  Insurance covered about $100 million.
  • 2012 inspection estimates are in the $450 to $550 million range.
  • Pipeline inspection ran $1.6 million per mile in 2011 - - over $300 per foot (I wonder what the initial installation costs were and what the current value is?).
  • The pipelines are hydrostratically tested as required by state regulators.  The nexus between water and energy shows up all the time - - energy needs water and water needs energy.  It shows up in places even like the inspection of energy pipelines.
  • Earnings over the previous decade or more have been in the $100 million per year range (for the pipeline system).  The disaster wipes out this profitability.  It would be interesting to take the current pipeline inspection costs and annualize those over the previous 20-years.
  • The company plans to issue $600 million in stock this year  on top of the $686 million from last year to cover the inspection costs.
  • The company wants customers to pay for most of the $2.2 billion pipeline-safety overhaul.
  • Finally, the company faces dozens of lawsuits filed by victims of the explosion.    

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Water is the story

Four different water stories, from four different regions and perspectives, all on the same day - - water is beginning to be the story regardless of where you are:

New York Times (February 17, 2012) - - The New "It" Thing In Texas: A Well by Kate Galbraith

"Bee Cave Drilling, a Dripping Springs-based company, has a four-month waiting list, compared with a normal winter wait of two weeks, according to Jim Blair, its president."

Financial Times (February 17, 2012) - - China issues alert on water shortages by Lesile Hook

"Beijing has tried to address the issue with policies that limit consumption, control pollution, and increase monitoring of far-flung waterways.  The government has also invested huge amounts of money in water conservation, irrigation and management systems, and plans to spend $638 billion on the sector in the next to years."

The Economist (February 17, 2012) - - Special Report on Pakistan / Going with the flow

"The study forecasts that by 2035 Pakistan's annual water supply will fall short of demand by around 100 billion cubic metres, about half of the entire present flow of the Indus.  In parts of the country the shortage of water is already acute.  Around Quetta in Balochistan, for example, the water table is now 330-400 metres (1,000 - 1,200 feet) below the surface and estimated to be falling by 3.5 metres a year.  Over 2,000 tube wells have dried up.  Electricity subsidies encourage expensive pumping of scare water."

The Dallas Morning News (February 17, 2012) - - River runs into danger by Jonathan Waterman

"Demand for water water isn't the only problem.  Climate change also threatens to reduce runoff by 10 percent to 30 percent by 2050, depending on how much the planet warms, according to a 2009 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Although the river delta {Colorado River delta} can't yet be pronounced dead, its pulse is feeble and its once-vital estuaries and riverside forests are shrinking."

Friday, February 17, 2012

Seven Ways to Improve U.S. Transportation

From Bloomberg News - - Spending Won't Fix What Ails U.S. Infrastructure by Harvard University economics professor Edward Glaeser - - seven ways to improve transportation in the United States:
  1. Let Users Pay - - A quote from Adam Smith, ". . .when high-roads, bridges, canals, etc., are in this manner made and supported by the commerce which is carried on by means of them, they can be made only where commerce requires them, and, consequently where it is proper to make them."  The future belongs to user fees to support the maintenance of aging infrastructure.  Like all prices, they allocate scarce resources to the people who value them most.  Note to future engineers - - the future of civil engineering might just look like our distant past.  Infrastructure in the U.S. started in the private sector, and it may be going back to the private sector.  Those engineers who think and see the world like owners and developers will do very well.
  2. Implement Congestion Pricing - - We should expect drivers to pay for more than just the physical costs of their travel.  We  should also expect them to pay for the congestion that they impose on other road users.  The world of markets and pricing comes to the boring world of concrete and steel.  Note to future engineers - - the future will involve variable pricing of just about everything.  From parking, to water, to highways - - engineering needs to embrace a world of pricing algorithms.  Those engineers that can develop and implement such algorithms will do very well.
  3. De-Federalize Transport Spending - - Most forms of transport infrastructure overwhelming serve the residents of a single state.  Yet the federal government has played an outsized role in funding transportation for 50-years.  Would Detroit's People Mover have ever been built if the people of Detroit had to pay for it.  Note to future engineers - - the fiscally constrainted world of our future will require use to come up with better ways to get $'s from A to C and not have to go thru B.  From infrastructure funding to health care - - engineering the middle out of overly complex processes and structures will be critical.
  4. Institutionalize Maintenance Funding - - Political leaders love to cut ribbons on new projects.  No one really cares about the hard work of maintaining older infrastructure.  The Highway Trust Fund should become solely a road and bridge fund - - a national "fix-it-first-policy" dedicated to the potholes of the nation.  Note to future engineers - - the new stuff is cool, but figuring out ways to fix the old stuff is going to have high demand.  Research and training $'s should be directed to the world of maintenance.
  5. Promote Private-Public Partnerships - - The basic idea is that the government establishes the need for some new investment, and clears the political hurdles, but then takes bids from the private sector for construction and operation.  This is closely linked to #1.  Note to future engineers - - this is the new frontier.  A certain kind of engineer will be needed with new skill sets - - the vision of developers, a firm understanding of the world of finance, a comfort level for the political jungle, a view of the big picture - - this is a huge jump up the value added chain.
  6. Cherish the Bus - - Cars can't be the only answer for urban commuters, especially for poorer Americans during an era of high gas prices (have you checked the pumps lately?).  Note to future engineers - - sharing resources is going to be in.  The bus is one example (Zip Cars is another) .  Buses can be a pleasant alternative, with televisions and Wi-Fi connectivity.  Buses can also be laboratories for alternative energy sources - - like natural gas.
  7. Split up the Port Authority - - I didn't understand this one.  Note to future engineers - - NYC and many other global mega-cities are really complex.  Those engineers that can fully understand the inner workings of these great giant cities will be at a premium. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Top Engineer

Our chance for the big time - -

An additional $344 billion per year for infrastructure improvements

ASCE's Infrastructure Report Card (2009) has 11 Ds in 15 infrastructure categories.  The total bill for improving our national grade point average is roughly $2.2 trillion - - over $7,000 per person.

What if we could increase our national grade point average with a payback in a remarkable six or so years?  What if we had an additional $300 billion per year to improve our bridges and expand our water resources?  What about doing this with no new taxes or higher user fees?  Sounds almost too good to be true.

The bridge in the picture is clearly in need of repair.  The root cause of the problem however, is not politics, or inaction, or deficits, or poor construction.  Most parts of our infrastructure woes start with us - - waiting in the drive thru at Taco Bell.  According to economist Kenneth Trope, by 2018 the U.S. will spend an astonishing $344 billion per year treating obesity - - more than one health dollar out of every five.  If our bridges are a D - - we are collectively an F on the health scale.  Like our bridges and dams, we are not getting better with time.  Y. Wang and his colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Medical School point out that based on current data, the unfeasible but likely outcome is that all American adults will be overweight or obese in 2048.  Who pays?  The same people that already have a bill for the $7,000.

The next bridge that goes down in a river, think to yourself - - was it a funding problem or too many trips to Taco Bell?  In a world of shrinking and competing fiscal resources - - civilizations will be graded by their collective choices and decisions.  Health care and infrastructure improvements are not two separate systems.  Everything in a world of budget constraints is linked and tightly coupled - - if you consume excess fiscal resources in X, you will come up short in Y.  Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions, but not to his or her own facts.  You can read the facts or go to the local mall and actually see the facts.  Too many trips to the Taco Bell produces an unsupportable national burden on our economic well being - - this includes our national infrastructure. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Two observations - - (1.) Raising the retirement age could be a very bad idea, or (2.) The older you get the more you calculate problems on an "after-tax" basis.

Either way - - NSPE and their MATHCOUNTS competition have a perfect marketing opportunity in assisted-living centers.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Engineering and the other-directed personality type

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote last week (February 10, 2012) about the historical context of personality types - - The Crowd Pleaser.  Brooks summarized the work of author David Riesman in his 1950 classic The Lonely Crowd.  The central theme in the article and book is different eras nurture different personality types.

The industrial era favored the inner-directed personality type.  The inner-directed person was guided by a set of strong internal convictions, like Victorian morality.  The inner-directed person was a hardy pioneer, the stolid engineer or the resilient steelworker - - working on physical things.  This person was often rigid, but also steadfast.  This person was my grandfather farming 100 acres in central Missouri at the turn of the 20th century.  Engineering in this era was always an inner-looking profession - - no environmental assessments, no public meetings, no complex network of stakeholders - - introverted people for an introverted process.

The other-directed personality type emerges in a service or information age economy.  In this sort of economy, most workers are not working with physical things; they are manipulating people.  The other-directed person becomes adept at pleasing others, at selling him or herself.  The other-directed person is attuned to what other people want him or her to be.  The other-directed person is a pliable member of a team and yearns for acceptance.  He or she is less notable for having a rigid character than for having a smooth personality.  Some of the other-directed world sounds shallow - - and it probably is to some degree.  But the reality is we live in a madly complicated world where adapting to a changing world is a critical career skill.  For better or for worse, the United States has been in a period of deindustrialization for the past 25-years - - we don't make things; we provide the global economy with services.  Engineering, especially consulting engineers, is less about things and more about service.  As you swim up the engineering value added chain, the journey becomes less about engineering and more about how well you manage and serve individuals and groups. 

Engineering faces a transition - - from our inner-directed world of only things to a more other-directed world of intertwined complex problems that will require a combination of social skills/policies and innovative engineering.  The word "combination" is important in this case where inner and other perspectives from individual engineers or teams of  engineers will be critical.  We need to blend our past collective personalities - - proudly pragmatic, problems-solving, unideological - - with a future of selling our ideas (e.g., more funding for public infrastructure and more freedom for public-private partnerships) and ourselves.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Engineering and the three laws of future employment

I'll start off pre-Engineers Week (I did MathCounts yesterday at UTD so I got in the mood) with an article in by Daniel Jelski - - The Three Laws of Future Employment.  Jelski is a college educator - - Daniel Jelski became Dean of the School of Science and Engineering at the State University of New York at New Paltz in August 2007.  He doesn't have specific recommendations, but what he calls "some boundaries on the path forward." 

Jelski starts with his Three Laws of Future Employment - -
  • Law #1 - - People will get jobs doing things that computers can't do.
  • Law #2 - - A global market place will result in lower pay and fewer opportunities for many careers.
  • Law #3 - - Professional people will more likely be freelancers and less likely to have a steady job.
None of the three laws are terribly new or earth-shattering.  What Jelski has done is spin the three laws in the context of STEM careers.  Conventional wisdom has us entering a period of innovation renaissance.  For example, we graduated 11,619 electrical engineers in 2009, about 50% the number of 25 years ago.  This is seen as an example of the US falling behind in innovation and related technologies.  Jelski has a very different point of view and the following commentary:
  •  Some disciplines of engineering and activities are tradable in the world.  In other words, the job is not location specific (e.g., cleaning toilets is location specific - - they cannot be cleaned in China).  Engineering that falls under the tradable category is subject to Law #2.
  • Tradability is a function of Law #1 - - computers now do much of the work engineers used to do - - computers design circuits, do all the drafting, plan the manufacturing, etc.  This would indicate the need for fewer STEM jobs, not more.  Given Laws #1 and #2, do we really need national policies dictating the need to train an additional 10,000 engineers?
  • One outcome of Laws #1 and #2 is a path that takes us toward Law #3.  People will always be employed in STEM disciplines, many of them highly paid, but they'll be paid for smarts rather than education.  The issue is numbers - - who and how many engineers will fall into this highly paid category?  The Internet has greatly reduced the transaction costs associated with a freelance economy - - the non-highly paid are subject to lower and lower transaction costs.. 
  • A key goal should be to add non-tradable skills to engineering and our core skill set.  The attributes and elements that cannot be computerized.  Empathy is one example - - the human-human interaction deeply embedded in engineering (adding more socio to the idea of sociotechnical engineers).  Empathize if you can (or be subject to Laws #1, #2, and #3).  Computers can't do that.  Engineering jobs that involve empathy (and other things - - like being a keen observer of people or having a general curiosity about how the world works) will always be in high demand.  And if you can do the non-tradable skill thing - - be sure and flaunt it.  My laptop doesn't do "flaunt" at all!!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Tech tips from the etiquette experts

From The netiquette of working life by Maija Palmer (February 7, 2012 Financial Times) - - tech tips from the etiquette experts:
  • Don't communicate electronically at the expense of personal interaction.  There is a reason people often need to discuss things face-to-face - - human contact still matters.
  • Avoid typing your message in capital letters because CAPS ARE THE EQUIVALENT OF SHOUTING.  Also beware of anger and frustration in the choice of words.
  • People in the flesh deserve more attention than a gadget, so whenever possible turn off your phone in social situations.
  • Don't put your phone on the dining table, or glance at it longingly mid-conversation.
  • Think of your texting as a conversation: If you would respond in the conversation, then respond in the text.
  • Don't post minute-by-minute updates to your relationship status.  Out in the real world, relationships are subtle, complex and dynamic.
  • Unlike in email messages, it can be permissible to write real-time messages entirely or mainly in lower cased.
  • It is acceptable to use standard IM abbreviations, but be prepared to explain any that the other person doesn't understand.

The Search Engine for Engineering?

This might be the answer - - WolframAlpha.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Better Marketing Campaign

Wastewater reuse will be a critical element in our global toolbox when it comes to the challenges of expanding our available water resources.  Public acceptance will always be an issue.  The solution rests with the two things the United States is really good at: World class engineering and world class marketing campaigns. The utilization and acceptance of wastewater as a drinking water source needs both innovation and a change in our social norms.  Engineering alone is not the answer - - those engineers that can move from just "engineer" to "sociotechnical engineer" are going to do much better in a world searching for sustainable solutions. 

What about t-shirts and mugs (and don't forget the bumper stickers) - - with the following:

Ten million dogs can't be wrong

The Car as Consumption Amplifier

Interesting paragraph in David Owen's new book on the many paradoxes of sustainability - - The Conundrum (2012) - -

"The major carbon-spewing energy drain in a sprawling American suburb isn't the car in the driveway: it's the driveway.  That is, it's everything the car makes both possible and necessary: the oversized house, the three-bay garage, the manicured yard, the unused swimming pool, the miles of connected asphalt, the redundant utilities, the schools, the hospitals, the shopping malls, and all the other accoutrements of inefficient suburban living - none of which would exist on anything like the same scale if residents were less able to move around at will.  Cars are consumption amplifiers; driving is the pump that enlarges the sprawl balloon.  and countries with rapidly modernizing economies, like China and India, are now following the American mobility example at extraordinary speed, by acquiring new cars and building new roads at a pace seldom matches even in the United States.  It will be a while before those countries overtake Americans in impact per capita, but in absolute numbers they have already begun to make us look demure.  And, as with us, the main driving-related environmental impacts will always to the indirect ones."

Thursday, February 9, 2012

HAL Comes To Energy-Savings Software

Companies like Viridity Energy will play a key role increasing the energy efficiency of the vertical parts of our economy (for buildings, energy represents the second or third largest expense).  Viridity Energy develops sophisticated software - - located in Philadelphia and backed by $24 million in VC dollars.  Maybe not HAL in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but this is software that turns the skyscraper into a "thinking structure" in the context of energy management.

The software works with the building or factory's energy systems - - monitor and control functions for heating, cooling, appliances, and generators.  The operating algorithm constantly checks with the variables that affect how much a building or facility pays for energy.  These variables include the price of electricity and weather forecasts (which cause price spikes).  The software is smart - - it knows which rooms of a building are better insulated than others and makes adjustments.  If electricity prices rise, the software automatically reduces heat in the law library for example (books trap a lot of warmth).  If a facility has a source of energy (e.g., solar panels) - - the software also lets facilities sell their excess energy back to the grid.

So if you are in a building and hear, "Affirmative, Dave, it's a good time to sell electricity," it might be the building talking to you.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Engineering Relationship Building

I loved this in Reid Hoffman's (founder of LinkedIn) book except (The Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career) in the February 6, 2012 issue of Fortune:

"Building a genuine relationship with another person depends on at least two abilities.  The first is seeing the world from another person's perspective.  No one knows that better than the skilled entrepreneur.  Entrepreneurs succeed when they make stuff people will pay money for - and that means understanding what's going on in the heads of customers.  Likewise, in relationships it's only when you put yourself in the other person's shoes that you begin to develop an honest connection.

The second ability is being able to think about how you can collaborate with and help the other person rather than thinking about what you can get.  We're not suggesting that you be so saintly that a self-interested thought never crosses your mind.  What we're saying is that your first move should always be to help.  A study on negotiation found that a key difference between skilled and average negotiators was the time spend searching for shared interests and asking questions of the other person."

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Extreme weather potential this century is creating a niche market for weather related derivatives.  Energy companies are still the biggest users of weather trades and contracts based on temperatures.  Look for other contract variables - - rainfall, snow, and sunshine (renewables, such as solar power or wind related contracts for wind farms are examples) tailored to meet customers' specific needs.  Farmers are an obvious potential customer of weather-risk reduction financial service products.  So are engineers - - big construction companies with tight deadlines and costly penalty causes could consider turning to weather derivatives as our weather gets more extreme and unpredictable.  

eWeatherRisk is an example of an online firm that can offer small businesses simple and relatively cheap weather-risk coverage.

Monday, February 6, 2012

System Dynamics

System dynamics modeling is an important technique for analyzing the temporaility of complex systems.  It is a method that engineers can apply to many situations that require complex temporality and causality analyses.

Many of the systems engineers design are subject to dynamic complexity (engineers are also faced with combinatorial complexity - - finding the best solution out of an astronomical number of combinations).  Dynamic complexity arises from the interactions among the agents over time.  A simple model of the automobile market contains dynamic complexity.  New car inventory, late model cars on the road, inventory coverage, average trade-in time, the attractiveness of new cars, and the late model car inventory provide a complex "stock and flow perspective" over time.

One of the best books on the business side of the system dynamics subject is Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World (2000) by John D. Sterman.  Sterman explains that dynamic complexity arises because systems are:
  • Dynamic - - Heracilitus said, "All is change."  What appears to be unchanging is, over a longer time time horizon, seen to vary.  Change is systems occurs at many time scales, and these different scales sometimes interact.  A star evolves over billions of years as it burns it hydrogen fuel, then explode as a supernova in seconds.  Bull markets can go on for years, then crash in a matter of hours.
  • Tightly Coupled - - The actors in the system interact strongly with one another and with the natural world.  Everything is connected to everything else.  As a famous bumper sticker from the 1960s proclaimed, "You can't do just one thing."
  • Governed By Feedback - - Because of the tight couplings among actors, our actions feed back on themselves.  Our decisions alter the state of the world, causing changes in nature and triggering others to act, thus giving rise to a new situation which then influences our next decisions.  Dynamics arise from these feedbacks.
  • Nonlinear - - Effect is rarely proportional to cause, and what happens locally in a system (near the current operating point) often does not apply in distant regions (other states of the system).  Nonlinearity often arises from the basic physics of systems: Insufficient inventory may cause you to boost production, but production can never fall below zero no matter how much excess inventory you have.  Nonlinearity also arises as multiple factors interact in decision making: Pressure from the boss for greater achievement increases your motivation and effort - up to the point where you perceive the goal to be impossible.  Frustration then dominates motivation and you give up or get a new boss.
  • History-Dependent - - Taking one road often precludes taking others and determines where you end up (path dependence).  Many actions are irreversible: You can't unscramble an egg (the second law of thermodynamics).  Stocks and flows (accumulations) and long time delays often mean doing and undoing fundamentally different time constraints: During the 50 years of the Cold War arms race the nuclear nations generated more than 250 tons of weapons-grade plutonium.  The half life is about 24,000 years.
  • Self-Organizing - - The dynamics of systems arise spontaneously from their internal structure.  Often, small, random perturbations are amplified and molded by the feedback structure, generating patterns in space and time and creating path dependence.  The pattern of stripes on a zebra, the rhythmic contraction of your heart, the persistent cycles in the real estate market, and structures such as sea shells and markets all emerge spontaneously from the feedbacks among the agents and elements of the system.
  • Adaptive - - The capabilities and decision rules of the agents in complex systems change over time.  Evolution leads to selection and proliferation of some agents while others become extinct.  Adaptation also occurs as people learn from experience, especially as they learn new ways to achieve their goals in the face of obstacles.  Learning is not always beneficial, however.
  • Counterintuitive - - In complex systems cause and effect are distant in time and space while we tend to look for causes near the events we seek to explain.  Our attention is drawn to the symptoms of difficulty rather than the underlying cause.  High leverage policies are often not obvious.
  • Policy Resistant - - The complexity of the systems in which we are embedded overwhelms our ability to understand them.  The result: Many seemingly obvious solutions to problems fail or actually worsen the situation.
  • Characterized By Trade-offs - - Time delays in feedback channels mean the long-run responses of a system to an intervention is often different from its short-run response.  High leverage policies often cause worse-before-better behavior, while low leverage policies often generate transitory improvement before the problem grows worse.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Two sides of the same coin

Two important articles yesterday from two very different newspapers.  The first article was written by Keslie Kaufman and Kate Zernike of the New York Times.  The article, Activists Fight Green Projects, Seeing U.N. Plot, explores the Tea Party's opposition to sustainability and green projects.  From the Maine Tea-Party backed governor canceling a project to ease congestion along Route 1 corridor (the Tea Party claimed it was part of a U.N. plot) to opposition to a high-speed train line in Florida - - opposition to sustainability (or progress for that matter) reduces to a rather simple equation.  Sustainability = socialism and if you are part of a transit planning organization and you have your national conference in San Francisco on May 1, that = Communism.

The article highlighted the plight of the Roanoke County Va. Board of Supervisors as they voted down $1,200 in dues to a nonprofit that consults on sustainability issues.  As one of the supervisors observed in the article - -

"The Tea Party people say they want nonpolluted air and clean water and everything we promote and support, but they also say it's a communist movement," said Charlotte Moore, a supervisor who voted yes, "I really don't understand what they want."

The second article is by David Owen in the Wall Street Journal - - It's Too Easy Being Green.  Owen is also the author of The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse.  The issue boils down to this - - if next week we can all drive cars that get a 100 MPG, what will we do with those apparent savings?  A portion of the population will consume their efficiency savings - - either drive more, buy an additional car, and/or buy a bigger house farther from work (I covered this issue previously in The Jevons Principle). 

Owen writes the following - -

"Even if you think that climate change is a left-wing crock, this ought to be a matter of gnawing concern.  Global energy use is growing faster than population.  It's expected to double by midcentury, and most of the growth will be fossil fuel.  Disasters like the BP oil spill attract world-wide attention, but the main environmental, economic, and geopolitical challenge with petroleum isn't the oil that goes into the ocean; it is the oil we continue to use as we intend.

Many people assume that we'll conquer our addiction through technological innovation.  But engineering breakthroughs  not only enable machines to do more work with less fuel; they also make it possible to manufacture new and desirable products, swelling our contentment as consumers and further increasing our dependence."

In the middle of this two sided coin, one side representing the politics of sustainability and the other side the economic realities of sustainability, rests engineering.  The two sides represent the social and technical dimensions of a huge and complex global issue.  The key thing is that neither technical or social measures alone will suffice in effectively tackling the problem.  Just the word "engineering" alone seems very inadequate in this century.  Our collective success depends on the concept of "sociotechnical engineering" being recognized widely in the profession and the people we serve.  The sociotechnical issues emerging in cities and countries will need novel combinations of sophisticated technology coupled with intelligently novel social policy and incentive approaches. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The profitability of 20%

Google allows engineers to work on projects of their choosing one day a week.  Known as the 20% Project - - most companies and managers would probably not allow 3% Projects let alone 20%.  Risk, uncertainty, a lack of control, concerns about accountability - - innovation is about taking risks (calculated risks in most cases) that most organizations are unwilling or unable to accept.

Not much of a risk for Google - - it's been reported that over half of Google's revenue now comes from the ideas that began as 20% time projects.

The Ownership Thing

Katherine Hays is the CEO of GenArts, a visual effects technology company headquartered in Cambridge, Mass.  She offers the following comments on creating a culture of ownership:

It comes back to the ownership thing.  If you're really the owner of a piece of work, you're actually excited about the feedback because it's going to help you improve what you're doing.  I think you have to have a culture where being wrong is O.K. - - at least during the process - - so that people can say, O.K., I got this piece wrong, but now I've corrected it and we're moving forward to a better answer.

And then it also goes back to hiring.  You want to hire people who are really strong at what they do, and very confident - - but not overly confident, but I've found that the more talented people are, the more comfortable they are it they find out they are wrong.  They have a lot more humility.  So they're much more receptive to correcting things when someone else points out a way to improve.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Your business model as counterinsurgency warfare

The U.S. Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (with a forward by General David H. Petraeus, Lt. General James F. Amos and Lt. Colonel John A. Nagel) has had a profound impact on combat operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  The manual is the guiding light as to how the United States military plans to address what is likely to be the dominant form of warfare over the next decade.

The main themes in the manual also provide an interesting and insightful way to view business in the era of mega-corporations and intense global competition.  Consider the following examples - -
  • Secure and Serve the Population - - Counterinsurgency is more about the human terrain and less about the geographical terrain.  People are the center of gravity.  Trust is the most important element.  Business needs to embrace this model - - your success depends on how you lead and manage your human capital.  Communication, training, institutional knowledge development, trust - - all of these elements provide the foundation of your human terrain map.
  • Live With the People - - You don't commute to the fight in Afghanistan.  Bases are in strategic locations and boots are on the ground.  Too often businesses, especially those that compete on a global basis, seem to exist in a layer of the atmosphere above the fray of everyday life.  Your employees and customers live in communities and neighborhoods that you have responsibility for.  Get  people out to embrace the micro-parts of your business - - become an important part of the local community.  Volunteer and help - - put boots on the ground in your local communities.
  • Pursue the Enemy Relentlessly - - Counterinsurgency is getting your teeth in to the enemy and not letting go.  Target the whole network, not just individuals.  The word "Enemy" doesn't apply - - but "getting your teeth in" does.  The term gets at the heart of individual and organization persistence - - the ability to persist long enough to penetrate a complicated world.  The new world of hyper-competition is clearly a world of ruthless relentlessness.   
  • Walk - - Stop by, don't drive by.  Patrol on foot whenever possible and engage the population.  Take off your sunglasses.  Walk with you customers.  See the world through their eyes.  See their problems.  Hear their goals.  Listen and learn.  The walk provides the link between sensing and knowing.  Interact face-to-face - - e-mail doesn't work in a counterinsurgency environment.
  • Be First With the Truth - - Get accurate information to the chain of command.  Preempt rumors.  Acknowledge setbacks and failures.  Social media has changed and will continue to change businesses.  Our networked world has created a new, and to many a frightening world, that is much more transparent and open than 10-years ago.  Social media provides a platform for the flow of both good and bad information at the speed of light.  Managing "truth" will be increasingly important.
  • Live Our Values - - Stay true to the values we hold dear.  This is what distinguishes us from our enemies.  Organizational values are important, but more importantly in the context of counterinsurgency warfare are individual character strengths and virtues.  Individuals and organizations must increasingly define character as something beyond what someone does not do - - to a much more active and thorough definition.  Character defines the individual and thus the organization.

Autonomic Materials

Interesting company and idea - - Autonomic Materials.  Self-healing materials, like paint.  Buy the new Honda and park it in the shopping mail and you receive the ding in your door before you get the new car smell out.  In the future the ding or scratch "heals" itself.  Even more in the future, maybe the area around your car scratch actually grows new "skin."  Developed by aerospace engineering professor Scott White of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

It's Both Who and What That Matters

The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself and Transform your Career (2012) by Reid Hoffman (Who is the founder of LinkedIn.  He also has a degree from Stanford in "Symbolic Systems" - - sort of a mash-up of computer science, computing, and human intelligence.  Scott Forstall, the youngest executive at Apple and head of their mobile software division has the same degree) and Ben Casnocha.  I have read three or four reviews of the book just this week alone.  Richard Waters, in his February 2, 2012 Financial Times review boiled the networked-who-you-know-really-matters-world down to an easy to understand paragraph:

"The premise is simple: is a world which job security has become a thing of the past, who you know is more important than it ever has been.  And with a host of new online tools to help establish your identity and connect with people who might further your interests, to remain un-networked is to risk being excluded from the modern working world."

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Super Bowl Quote of the Week

From Robert Kraft, owner of the Patriots, in this week's Sports Illustrated (Kraftwork):

"The key to life is you try to see things other people can't see.  This league is set up for everyone to go 8-8.  How do you differentiate?  You have to be bold in any business and do things you take a lot of criticism for but you believe are right."

The pictures in the lobby

Interesting observation from Harry West, CEO of Continuum, an innovation design consulting firm, on the pictures in your company's lobby:

"I think in most companies you're surrounded by the past, because you can look back and see what you have done.  You may have a Web site or archives or a lobby that sort of shows off your work.  The future is not as tangible, so there's always a tendency for people to go:  "Well, I know the business we're in because I see it every day.  That's the business we're in, right?"  Well, that was the business you were in.  Right now we are in the process of inventing the business we will be in.  When people see that, it takes off.  But until people can see it, until it's in some way real and relevant to them, they don't know what they can do to be part of it."

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What the Web has given us - -

From the The Economist's Intelligent Life (January/February 2012) by Samantha Weinberg, What's the Greatest Invention of all Time - -

"The web has transformed at least a dozen fields: education, news, book publishing, music, finance, networking, dating, charity donations, shopping, language-learning, cartography, medicine, hypochondria and the way we talk to friends.  But above all it has framed the movement for democratic change in countries whose inhabitants used to be hobbled by the fear that they were alone.  The web enabled them to reach out, find support at home and abroad, and muster the courage to overthrow their tyrants.  It helped them bring in the promise, at least, of a brighter dawn.  Ask a young Egyptian, Tunisian or Libyan to name the greatest invention, and they might well choose the world wide web."