Saturday, March 31, 2012

A $640 million dollar mistake

I didn't buy a Mega-Million lottery ticket.  In fact, I have never purchased a lottery ticket (I was ask once during a previous Mega-mania event by a 7-11 clerk why I didn't want to buy one - - "Because I had 8th grade math.").  The Financial Times today has an excellent article by Edward Luce, America's Dream Unravels, that examines how the U.S. is coping and struggling with its economic transition and relative decline to others.

Luce writes the following on gambling and out economic transition:

"From Florida to California, and numerous Native American reservations in between, the impact of gambling varies.  Some show that the effect on the people around the casinos is not negative.  It can also be bad for tax revenues.  One study estimated that for every dollar a gaming house invests in an area, three are subtracted by the costs of dealing with the social effects.  Casinos may be a way of replacing some of the manufacturing jobs to China, Brazil and elsewhere.  But they are also a magnet for racketeers, pimps, drugs and those that are on the margins."

An extra $640 million could have been a magnet for innovation, creativity, sustainability.  It could have been a magnet for designing 640 new water treatment plants.  It could have funded and build 2,560 early child development centers.  It could have build 32 new bridges.  It could have paid the health care premium for 128,000 people or employed 13,000 construction workers.  It could have done so much more for our collective benefit.

Instead, the $640 million should remind us all that only the top tier remains wealthy beyond imagination.  You are not getting the new car or the big house.  You will have to go to work on Monday.  The $640 million should remind us all that the combined assets of the family that owns Walmart equal those of America's bottom 150 million people - - in an economy that is adding 200,000 jobs per month, but where average family income is stilling declining.  The $640 million should remind us that the U.S. accounted for just under a third of the world economy a decade ago, but the number is less than a quarter today.  The $640 million should remind us our plutocracy sees gambling and regressive taxation as solutions not problems.  The $640 million demonstrates our collective dishonesty in the era of austerity - - where we underfund "tomorrow" social, educational, and infrastructure programs while only thinking about and funding the "yesterday" portion of the country.  The $640 million represents a new age of bankrupt thinking and policy execution.

No, I didn't buy a lottery ticket and I never will.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Mulally's Ten Rules

The "Ten Rules" of Ford CEO Alan Mulally:
  • People first
  • Everyone is included
  • Compelling vision
  • Clear performance goals
  • One plan
  • Facts and data
  • Propose a plan, "find-a-way" attitude
  • Respect, listen, help, and appreciate each other
  • Emotional resilience - trust the process
  • Have fun - enjoy the journey and each other

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Climate Corp.

We are facing a future in which having the word "climate" in your business model is going to be a a good thing.  From prediction, to preparation, to prevention - - the risk and uncertainty associated with climate change has and will produce business opportunities.  The scope and scale of these opportunities will be economically huge.

Climate Corp. understands this future.  The firm was founded by two Google executives and funded by $60 million in venture capital.  Staffed by an army of data scientists, the company is bringing data analytics to rural America and helping farmers reap more consistent profits from their fields.

In my opinion, climate change and extreme weather is a predictable problem.  This is just another example of a future where cloud computing, modeling, and other technologies are now revolutionizing more traditional industries.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"You need those weird f****"

I just finished Imagine, How Creativity Works by John Lehrer and loved the material relating to Dan Wielden, cofounder of the adverting agency Wieden+Kennedy.  Based in Portland, Oregon, the firm is famous for the viral Old Spice ads and the "This is Sports Center" campaign.

Wielden makes the following observations:

"You need people who won't make the same boring, predictable mistakes as the rest of us.  And then, when those weirdos learn how things work and become a little less weird, then you need a new class of weird f****.  Of course, you also need some people who know what they're doing.  But if your in the creative business, then you have to be willing to tolerate a certain level of, you know, weirdness."

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Four Future Scenarios

This is an interesting and important report from the Global Business Network (GBN) for the Rockefeller Foundation on four possible scenarios.

The four can be summarized as:
  1. Clever Together - - a world in which highly coordinated and successful strategies emerge for addressing both urgent and entrenched worldwide issues.
  2. Lock Step - - a world of tighter top-down government control and more authoritarian leadership, with limited innovation and growing citizen push back.
  3. Smart Scramble - - an economically depressed world in which individuals and communities develop localized, makeshift solutions to a growing set of problems.
  4. Hack Attack - - an economically unstable and shock-prone world in which governments weaken, criminals thrive, and dangerous innovations emerge.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Coca-Cola Recycling LLC

Coca-Cola has a whole subsidiary, Coca-Cola Recycling LLC, devoted to the stated goal of recycling 100% of its cans and bottles in North America by 2015 and 50% in the rest of the world.

Gary Mark Gilmore and Innovation

Gary Gilmore was a criminal and murder who was executed by firing squad in 1977.  His last words were - -

"Let's Do It"

The ad agency for Nike heard or read the story and fell in love with the bravery and power of Gilmore's final words (Gilmore was anything but brave).  A new marketing campaign by Nike started in a firing squad - -

"Just Do It"

Two important points - - the first is innovation is multidisciplinary, where great ideas can come from weird places.  The second point is innovation and creativity can be nothing more than "stealing" or copying an idea - - where the big difference is the incremental improvements you make to the original idea.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

"Monetize, not privatize"

A great line from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel that impacts all cities everywhere, especially in the United States.  Three words in the context of public infrastructure that are central to our urban renewal - - invest, sell, or lease.  Chicago has sold off the Chicago Skyway bridge and leased the city's parking meters for 75-years.  But Emanuel wants to see the "invest" word more - - how do you maintain city management of city assets by finding new revenue streams?  As quoted in The Atlantic this month, Meet The New Boss by Jonathan Alter - -

The idea is to "monetize, not privatize," he {Emanuel} says.  "I don't have to sell something as the only way to monetize its value."

He has started with the Water Department.  Rahm will nearly double water rates, to $3.82 per 1,000 gallons.  Engineers will play a key role in this process - - the monetization of public assets.

Control the Tense

This is very good from Thank You for Arguing (see previous post) - - discussions and arguments all have a time element.  The three core issues in many arguments are - - Blame, Values, and Choice.  All three have a temporal pattern, like this:

Blame = Past
Values = Present
Choice = Future

The next time you are in an argument for something like increasing public funding for infrastructure improves, try switching the tense.  If your funding for the new highway is spinning out of control, remember future-tense (deliberative) arguments promise a payoff - - it skips right and wrong, good and bad, in favor of expedience.  Control the issue - - the tense is one element you can control.

Engineering and The Hunger Games

I had the opportunity to see The Hunger Games Friday night.  The movie is good and the book by Suzanne Collins is better.  In my opinion, this is one of the few young adult books and series that gets at several social, environmental, technological, political, and economic issues that should be important to everyone.  The book, granted it is fiction, has themes and issues that engineering should consider.  The Hunger Games is set in a future North America that is called Panem (from Panem et Circenses - - 500-years from today we will still be in love with Romans and in need of your Latin), a shining Capital surrounded by twelve outlying districts.  It is a world of tighter top-down government control and more authoritarian leadership - - a world in which the districts are required to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV (one of my initial reactions to the movie was the idea Steven Tyler would be right at home in the Capital).

The book addresses the starting point for this new world:

"Just as the town clock strikes two, the mayor steps up to the podium and begins to read.  It's the same story every year.  He tells of the history of Panem, the country that rose up out of the ashes of a place once called North America.  He lists the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained.  The result is Panem, a shining Capital ringed by thirteen districts, which brought peace and prosperity to its citizens.  Then came the Dark Days, the uprising of the districts against the Capitol.  Twelve were defeated, the thirteenth obliterated.  The The Treaty of Treason gave us the new laws to guarantee peace and, as our yearly remainder that the Dark Days must never be repeated, it gave us the Hunger Games."

Trends are important.  Are we moving forward or are we moving backward?  Are we worse off than we were in 1900?  How about 1975?  The trend line should be plotted periodically.  After watching the movie, Simon Kuper  just happened to have a great article in his column (Opening shot - Financial Times this past Saturday) - - Reasons to be cheerful.  Seriously.  Kuper listed five key reasons for a very un-Panem future
  1. Life expectancy is surging, especially in the developing world.
  2. Extreme poverty is falling worldwide.
  3. Freedom is on the march - - we are seeing a global demand for democracy.
  4. A drop in war and warfare deaths.
  5. Fertility rates are plunging almost everywhere (granted Adam Smith probably hates this one).
In many, many areas the planet is trending in a very positive direction.  But many potential environmental problems outlined in The Hunger Games are real.  The risks are real.  Engineering fundamentally needs a manifesto for action and cross-disciplinary thinking in light of these risks and uncertainty.  Call it the Three P's - - an engineering world in which prevention, prediction, and preparation drive our thinking as we march toward a future of global climate change and uncertainty.  A world where we move from risk to resilience.  A world where new innovation and uses of technology will be a big part of the story going forward.  A world in which engineers stop underestimating the risk of systems breakdowns and over-estimating the robustness of such systems.  A world where the things we design are both smart (i.e., they help us to avoid Panem-like problems) and adaptive.

A world dominated by the Three P's will also have plenty of the 4th P - - Profits.  None of this will be cheap and engineers will be in high demand.  I don't think engineering has a Panem future.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners

As I have previously posted, I really enjoy the Creating column in The Wall Street Journal.  The column covers the world of creating from shoe designers, artists, writers, engineers, etc.  Each one is different and covers the art and science of creation from a different perspective.  This week, the article (Scouting the World of Killer Ski Slopes by Steve Knopper) covered Paul Mathews, escort designer and founders of Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners.  The company has designed more than 350 resorts in 33 countries.

Mathews brought system thinking to resort design.  The article points out:

In Ecosign's early days, ski-resort design was fragmented - lift architects handled lifts, parking engineers handled parking lots and so on.  Mr. Mathews's innovation was to look at a resort as "one holistic picture" and make the entire resort comfortable for skiers.  Even four extraneous steps drive Mr. Mathews crazy because "stairs and ski boots are ridiculous."

Having walked many a mile in uncomfortable ski boots, Mathews obviously understands ski resorts from my perspective!!  Well done!

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Equation of the Week

Probability that a Hollywood marriage will last for n specified years.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Change Modeling

I like the term "Change Modeling" that I recently ran across in Water Security: The Water-Food-Energy-Climate Nexus by The World Economic Forum Water Initiative.

The book points out society's ability to manage our water-food-energy-climate challenges is impaired by seemingly intractable informational, political, economic, and institutional challenges.  Decision-makers need substantially more data and analytic support to reconcile water demands at local regional levels and to build consensus among water demands at local and regional levels and to build consensus among users for adaptive water resource and risk management.  The requirement for additional data falls among tasks such as systems modeling, infrastructure optimization, policy optimization, and ecosystem management.

The need for "Change Modeling" is also highlighted in this same context - - How are the mean and variance characteristics of supply and demand likely to change under various economic and climatic scenarios?  What are the implications from the increasing frequency of weather extremes in the short term?  What are the implications for risk prevention, mitigation, and transfer?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Doctor Fill

Our advancing utilization of artificial intelligence has a common testing ground.  From chess to crossword puzzles, games appear to be a great motivator for artificial intelligence.  The recent development of I.B.M.'s Watson was designed to tackle Jeopardy.  Before that, I.B.M. developed Deep Blue to conquer the world of chess.  The latest, Doctor Fill, developed by Dr. Matthew Ginsberg has its sights set on the world of competitive crossword puzzles.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Skoll Urgent Threats Fund

This is an interesting organization - - Skoll Urgent Threats Fund.  A nongovernmental group that monitors risk in such areas as climate change, water scarcity, pandemic diseases, and nuclear proliferation. Skoll tackles the big four of the world of wicked problems (See previous blog post - - The Wicked on the nature of wicked problems).  We live in a world in which globalization has accelerated the growing nature of wicked problems.  The wicked have worldwide impacts and no single country can tackle them alone.

Good paper on the subject that Skoll supported through RAND - -

Monday, March 19, 2012

Famous engineers in cinema

From The Great Escape (1963) - - Captain Virgil Hilts, USAAF ("The Cooler King").  Played by Steve McQueen, a fictional character who majored in chemical engineering.

Deep Trouble

The opening paragraph in The New York TimesStuck in Recession, Italy Takes on Labor Laws That Divide Generations,  highlights a huge problem for the developed world - -

ROME — Assunta Linza, a bright-eyed 33-year-old with a college degree in psychology, has been unemployed since June, after losing a temporary job as a call-center operator. Her father, who is 60 and has a fifth-grade education, took early retirement with full benefits at age 42 from a job as a workman at the Italian state railway company.

Many times the future has some rather predictable events and issues.  In the context of the developed world, inter-generational conflict over pie slices seems one of the most obvious scenarios that our collective future holds.  The simple paragraph from Rome takes us down a path that has an obvious stopping point - - at the "Deep Trouble" sign.  It will boil down to who has the most power and leverage - - the raw numbers from the past or the voices of our future.  Never bet against youth and vigor.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


Home wastewater treatment can come to you from - - BioPod.  It will be interesting to see the limits of decentralized systems applied to residential markets.  With operations, maintenance, permitting, and local restrictions - - the home wastewater treatment could be the outer limits of the practicable.  Home wastewater treatment raises the important system questions; Where will decentralization end?  What are the limits to the economies of scale in water markets in an era of scarce availability?

Three words are important as legacy systems and companies potentially face enormous pressures and change.  The three are disruptive (How are new and disruptive technologies positioned to challenge the old legacies of centralized energy and wastewater systems?), decentralization (How do much higher energy prices impact the centralized economies of scale associated with everything from agriculture, to retail supply chains, to energy networks, to the water that I utilize on my lawn?), and distribution (What are the new local distribution channels in a world changed by disruptive technologies and decentralization?).

Looking back from 2050, we could see a world in which homeowners pay far less for energy because their solar shingles on the roof produces a surplus of electricity that they can sell back to their power company.  The lawn watering bill is cut by 80% because of genetic engineering of landscaping and retention of rainwater on the property.  Finally, in the water constrained southwestern U.S., you have a choice with your "gray water" from the shower - - either utilize it on site or sell it back to the water utility (or the highest bidder).

Our future could be much more disrupted, decentralized, and locally distributed than we have yet to imagine.

Engineering Rhetoric

I recently came across a great book - - Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion (2007) by Jay Heinrichs.  Very few engineers know the tools of persuasion from the very beginning - - ethos, logos, and pathos.  This is rather unfortunate.  A key skill set for engineers in the future will be persuading.  From Congress and the need for funding public infrastructure, to marketing global customers, to discussing the risks of increased extreme weather events, to getting your design points across to the project team - - the art of engineering rhetoric is going to be an increasingly important endeavor.

Heinrich writes the following:

"The ancients considered rhetoric the essential skill of leadership - knowledge so important that they placed it at the center of higher education.  It taught them how to speak and write persuasively, produce something to say on every occasion, and make people like them when they spoke.  After the ancient Greeks invented it, rhetoric helped create the world's first democracies.  It trained Roman orators like Julius Caesar and Marcus Tillius Cicero and gave the Bible its finest language.  It even inspired William Shakespeare.  Every one of America's founders studied rhetoric, and they used its principles in writing the Constitution."

The next time you hear "Not only do we have this, but we also . . ." at a presentation, remember that the Romans were the first with "But wait, there's more" - - it was called dirimens copulatio.

Get the book - - a very practical guide for the bookcase!!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Update on parking

Good article on the economics of parking in The New York Times - -


InnoCentive is the pioneering online platform that runs prize competitions matching firms struggling with technical problems with a wide array of clever "solvers" from around the world.

Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek

Texas and Oklahoma are slowly marching toward the United States Supreme Court (and probably a series on HBO) over water rights.  Both the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indian nations have entered the legal proceedings.  Who owns what and why always has a context.  In this case, the context is something called the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek which might have given the Choctaw Nation "prior and paramount" rights to and "domain" over water within a 22-county area of southeastern Oklahoma.

Sometimes the present, to make the future better, has to circle along ways into the past. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Engineering and AMC's The Walking Dead

Sunday is the best night for television watching.  From PBS's Downton Abbey (the 99% learning to love the 1%), to AMC's Mad Men (alcohol and creativity - - correlation or cause and effect?), The Killing (OMG, just tell us who killed Rosie), and Breaking Bad (the profitability of basic chemistry).

The best of the best and the most relevant to engineering in my opinion is AMC's The Walking Dead.  A post-apocalyptic world filled with zombies and basic survival.  The story of the world in ruin (or at least the south near Atlanta) caused by apparently nothing engineers did or failed to do.  No global warming, no nuclear meltdown, no leaking landfill, no incorrect environmental impact statement - - just your basic "bug-in-the-laboratory-gets-out-and-turns-people-into-zombies" story line (unlike Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which seems to have the potential for engineering mischief).

Sunday night marks the season finale, and I put together a list of thoughts regarding engineering and how it interfaces with the show:
  • System design is important; but just as important is system recovery.  System recovery is critical in a complex, high-risk, and uncertain world - - especially one with zombies.
  • Every human interaction, even the most unremarkable, is an economic exchange - - each side wants something.  This is just as true (or more so) in a world in ruin.
  • The ability to adapt to new circumstances and incremental thinking goes a long way in a zombie-filled world. 
  • The challenges of education, especially educating engineers, is not to prepare a person for success, but to prepare him or her for failure.  Nothing says failure more than being eaten by zombies.
  • It takes a network to defeat a network - - even when the other network is slow and stupid.  Only the connected will survive (think LinkedIn for the zombie filled world).
  • Once the worst has happened, what else do you have to fear?  A lot, as it turns out.
  • Our culture is very person-centered.  We like herds, especially when the world is coming to an end.
  • The future is assumed to be essentially like the present.  Maybe - - we live in a world of Black Swan events that can turn you into a dead duck very quickly.  The main lesson is that just because something is too terrible to contemplate doesn't mean it's not going to happen. 
  • Decentralized, flexible, and mobile organization structures and decision making are critical to a zombie-filled world.  The goal should be to stay connected, responsive, and informed in zombie land.  A post-zombie world requires systems designed to bend the rules in the direction of increased flexibility.  A world of zombies is basically the "Era of Adapting Quickly."
  • Strategies will always emerge for coping in a zombie dominated world - - the search and filter functions are critical.
  • Chance is only the measure of our ignorance.  Be careful where you go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.  Miscalculations and mischance are the handmaidens of someone eating you in the dark.
  • Complex systems always fail in complex ways.  Remember the world is full of nonlinearities - - and nothing is more nonlinear than garage DIY microbiology labs and a world full of zombies.
  • Engineering and life evolves toward increasing specialization.  This is very bad in a human constrained world.  Multidisciplinary outreach is critical to survival.
  • I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when looked at in the right way, did not become more complicated.
  • Any system can be buffered, constrained, triggered, or driven by outside forces - - and the outside forces can be the un-dead.
  • Guns don't kill zombies, bullets do.  So do axes and arrows - - and nothing's more impressive than a disproportionate reaction.
  • Content and information are important for our civilization.  Googlization and Application drive our modern global economy.  In a world of zombies - - not so much.
  • Disaster and ruin need improvisational zeal - - but also responsibility, honor, and noble actions.
  • The future depends on what you do in the present.  Regardless of who is attempting to eat you.
  • Complexity need not breed mystery and not all ambiguities are created equal - - and I cannot wait for the new season.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

2030 Water Resources Group

The 2030 Water Resources Group is an independent nongovernmental outfit that has a good report - -


The intersection of the "hardware" of parking with the "software" of parking looks something like this - - SFpark.

Matt Damon does real math

Very good new book by William Cook, Professor at Georgia Tech - - In Pursuit of the Traveling Saleman (2012).  Cook covers the evolution and search for an efficient solution to the infamous Traveling Salesman Problem (TSP).  Interesting book, even for the operations research geeky community, which I am a member of.

A portion of the book covers the work of Arthur Cayley.  Cayley's field of interest was mathematical trees.  He saw the world of TSP as more botanical than most - - "In a tree of N knots, selecting any knot at pleasure as a root, the tree may be regarded as springing from this root, and it is then a root-tree."  I mention this because the book points out the Matt Damon character in the film Good Will Hunting in the scene displayed (I think it is the scene at the beginning of the movie when he is mopping the hallway and comes across the problem) utilizes Cayley's formula for the number of trees with n vertices, together with several examples.  Note the tree-like structure in the problem.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Water-Food-Energy-Climate Nexus

Great paper from the World Economic Forum on water security.

At Amazon - -

The three stages of a great idea

From best-selling science-fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke - -
  1. In the beginning people tell you that's a crazy idea, and it'll never work.
  2. Next, people say your idea might work, but it's not worth doing.
  3. Finally, eventually, people say, I told you that it was a great idea all along.



Designing, developing, and manufacturing your car is no longer just about the automobile.  Companys like BMW are also heading down a path in search of outside inspiration in unique areas.  Last year BMW announced that it was establishing a $100 million New York-based venture capital fund unit to invest in complementary start-ups.  For BMW, the goal is not short-term financial - - the goal is long-term innovation.  New ideas from new companies - - outside the traditional automobile umbrella

On interesting point is what BMW means by the word "complementary" - - in some cases the word means BMW ventures into complementary services.  ParkatmyHouse is one such company that BMW has invested in.  The firm links people seeking to rent a parking space with those who have one to spare.  Empty parking spaces have potential value.  Have an empty spot in your driveway?  You could be making money by renting it out.  ParkatmyHouse is the website for bringing together the buyers and sellers of parking spots.  A church parking lot next to an airport - - underutilized parking during the week at the Church and limited supply at the airport seems a perfect match (I can see complex zoning and legal issues with this example - - even if all the cars are BMWs).  Stadiums and malls would be other examples - - off-peak capacity that potentially has economic value.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Demographic Depression and Waffle Irons

In this particular case, the term refers to the recent drop (2008, 2010, 2011) in the number of households created, even as the U.S. population continued to grow.  The cause is the slow economy and soaring unemployment among the young.  New households drive economic growth - - for cars, houses, furniture, washing machines, and waffle irons.  From pillows to desks - - houses and apartments need stuff.  Lots of stuff.

Our current economic cycle has not and will not produce a national cultural shift - - young adults hate living with their parents, especially in the third bedroom in the basement.  When the rebound picks up strength, just think about the huge amount of pent up demand currently watching TV with mom and dad.

Keep an eye on the waffle iron index.

Simple solutions scale better

One of the most significant environmental challenges of the 21st century will be how to address the threat of global climate change.  Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from human activities will require the development of new technologies and energy sources, at potentially high cost.  Most solutions are seen through the eyes of newer technologies and integrative designs.  The context of these solutions is usually the developed world.  A more important issue is the developing world; with their rural villages, burgeoning cities and slums, and dilapidated infrastructures, developing countries especially need renewable electricity, and they now buy the majority of the world's new renewable capacity.

The video below also demonstrates another alternative - - a simple plastic soda bottle that can become a light source.  Two things are important - - the first is the idea that sustainability works best with local procurement.  What is more local than a used Coke bottle?  The second is simple solutions scale better than hugely complex solutions - - and nothing is simpler than the same Coke bottle.

Coke and Pepsi ought to join forces and offer $50,000 for the most innovative and worthwhile use of a used one liter bottle.

Monday, March 12, 2012

I still don't know what the unemployment rate is!!

Between the graph and the conversation below, I still don't know what the unemployment rate is - -

COSTELLO: I want to talk about the unemployment rate in America.
ABBOTT: Good “subject”. Terrible “times”. It’s about 9%.
COSTELLO: That many people are out of work?
ABBOTT: No, that’s 16%.
COSTELLO: You just said 9%.
ABBOTT: 9% Unemployed.
COSTELLO: Right. 9% out of work.
ABBOTT: No, that’s 16%.
COSTELLO: Okay, so it’s 16% unemployed.
ABBOTT: No, that’s 9%…
COSTELLO: WAIT A MINUTE. Is it 9% or 16%?
ABBOTT: 9% are unemployed. 16% are out of work.
COSTELLO: If you are out of work you are unemployed.
ABBOTT: No, you can’t count the “Out of Work” as the unemployed. You have to look for work to be unemployed.
COSTELLO: But … they are out of work!
ABBOTT: No, you miss my point.
COSTELLO: What point?
ABBOTT: Someone who doesn’t look for work, can’t be counted with those who look for work. It wouldn’t be fair.
ABBOTT: The unemployed.
COSTELLO: But they are ALL out of work.
ABBOTT: No, the unemployed are actively looking for work…Those who are out of work stopped looking. They gave up. And, if you give up, you are no longer in the ranks of the unemployed.
COSTELLO: So if you’re off the unemployment roles, that would count as less unemployment?
ABBOTT: Unemployment would go down. Absolutely!
COSTELLO: The unemployment just goes down because you don’t look for work?
ABBOTT: Absolutely it goes down. That’s how you get to 9%. Otherwise it would be 16%. You don’t want to read about 16% unemployment do ya?
COSTELLO: That would be frightening.
ABBOTT: Absolutely.
COSTELLO: Wait, I got a question for you. That means they’re two ways to bring down the unemployment number?
ABBOTT: Two ways is correct.
COSTELLO: Unemployment can go down if someone gets a job?
ABBOTT: Correct.
COSTELLO: And unemployment can also go down if you stop looking for a job?
ABBOTT: Bingo.
COSTELLO: So there are two ways to bring unemployment down, and the easier of the two is to just stop looking for work.
ABBOTT: Now you’re thinking like an economist.
COSTELLO: I don’t even know what the hell I just said!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Tolling From Space

Driving from Fort Worth to McKinney, Texas used to be free from a toll.  This is rapidly changing.  By the end of this decade, you could be subject to five different toll segments.  The reality of our future should be clear - - Tolling = Mobility.  This relationship will drive our transportation future because the Highway Trust Fund is nearly bankrupt (from the Post Office to Social Security to transportation - - the "B" word is in high demand).  The fund is backed by a federal excise tax on gasoline of $18.4 per gallon that has not been adjusted for inflation since 1993.  We will consume less gasoline (our electric car future will only hurt) in a future where the probability of a a gasoline tax increase is near zero.

Bloomberg Businessweek covered this in How to Get American Transportation Moving (March 5, 2013).  The article provides a glimpse of the future:

"Finding a sustainable funding source will take a combination of creative approaches.  The first is technological.  One promising replacement for the gas tax is a "vehicle-miles-traveled fee," which would use satellite tracking or a variety of other methods to charge drivers by mileage, regardless of the fuel they use.  The technology required for widespread use of such a system is years away, and protecting privacy while monitoring driving habits will be a challenge.  But the concept - placing the funding burden directly on those who use the roads - is a smart one."

Our funding future may be closer than you think.  Skymeter is a firm that seems to understand this.  I-35 between Dallas-Fort Worth to Austin needs major upgrades and improvements.  So when I make the trip in 2020 to Austin, I have a toll tag that is embedded in my registration sticker on my windshield.  A section between Waco and Georgetown has already been completed.  The Skymeter systems bills me for both legs of the trip.

One highway funding solution starts in outer space - - the next time you are stuck in traffic, just look up and and think about the future.



Question of the week

From Amory B. Lowins and the wonderful Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era - - the context of the question being the best way to attack the energy inefficiencies of our vertical build world:

"How can the operational efficiency of Toyota, the sales prowess of Avon, the scientific focus of Google, the product design of IDEO, the level of social engagement with Facebook, the hassle-free transactions of Amazon be applied to energy efficiency to drive up demand and drive out cost?"

Engineering in a world of efficiency and sustainability improvements will need transdisciplinary insight and entrepreneurship.  We need the best engineers, problem-solvers, marketers, and operations minds that are up to the challenges of data management, financing, leveraging integrative design, training, and education.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Windows comes to your iPad

You can get access to a virtual Microsoft Windows desktop, complete with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint applications using OnLive's video-streaming technology.

More Energy Production = Greater Water Consumption

From a special energy report in the current issue of MIT Technology Review (two magazines that all engineers should read for their focus on the future - - Technology Review and Wired) - - Water Power.  The key point of the article - - decisions about future energy sources will need to factor in water consumption as well as greenhouse-gas emissions. 

The articles states:

"In the United States, energy production will account for almost 90 percent of the projected increase in consumption of freshwater between 2005 and 2030, according to Argonne National Laboratory.  Power plants that use nuclear fission or fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, consume billions of gallons of water per day for cooling.  Fossil-fuel plants that use carbon-capture technologies to cut carbon dioxide emissions consume even more water than conventional ones.  As for renewable energy sources, they present a mixed water-use picture.  While wind power and photovoltaic solar power use little water, solar thermal power - one of the fastest-growing renewable sectors - uses a great deal.  Biofuels from non-irrigated sources, such as switchgrass, use relatively little water, but ethanol made from irrigated corn is hugely water-intensive.  The water consumption associated with E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, ranges from 20 to nearly 1,000 gallons per 100,000 gallons per 100,000 BTU, depending on agricultural practices."

Look for a future in which the "hydro" in hydrofracking increasingly becomes a key supply issue in our national energy game plan.  The U.S. map detailed above illustrates the 36 states that face water shortages by 2013.

Skybox Imaging

Skybox Imaging makes small satellites that cost less to build and launch than the traditional ones.  It also has created analytic software that makes it easier for customers to extract useful information.  The end result is managing natural resources, planning humanitarian missions, and assessing construction projects could become much easier.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Investing more to gain less

From Exxon Rips U.S. Push on Fracking Oversight by Tom Fowler in the Wall Street Journal today:

"The bulk of Exxon's investment is going to be spent on massive capital projects worldwide, the company said, with a total of 21 major oil and gas projects beginning production between 2012 and 2014.  In the meantime, however, the company said its 2012 production would dip by about 3%.

The size of the decline came as a surprise to a number of analysts, including Simmons & Co.'s Guy Baber, who said he was forecasting a 2% drop.

"This is just another example of the industry needing to spend far more just to generate the same, or lower, production output," Mr. Baber said in an e-mail."

Thursday, March 8, 2012


Layar is implementing augmented reality for the masses.  Point your phone camera at something using this small piece of software, and it will start to put digital layers of information on top of your camera image.  Look at a house for sale and you can view its past sales history, current rates and real-estate agent details.  Imagine a world in which you point your camera or iPad at a pump in a water treatment plant and you see layers of information relating to maintenance and service history. 

Huge implications and opportunities for engineering.

Europe Solves Another Major Problem

Recent rule changes per the European Chess Federation - -

13.2 Dress rules for the players during the games
In general, players are required to follow the code of casual dressing which means:
  • for men dress trousers or jeans, a long-sleeve or shirt-sleeve dress shirt, alternatively T-shirt or polo, loafers or dressy slip-ons, socks, shoes or sneakers (no beach-wear slips, etc.) and, if appropriate, a sport coat or blazer. The trousers, the jeans as well as the shirts and polo’s worn should be crisp and show no excessive wear, no holes and shall be free of body odor.
  • for women blouses, turtleneck, T-shirts or polo’s, trousers, jeans or slacks, skirts, dresses, and appropriate footwear (boots, flats, mid-heel or high-heel shoes, sneakers with sock) or any other appropriate clothing modification.
  • a jacket, vest or sweater, a scarf, as well as jewelry (earrings, necklace, etc.) coordinated to the outfit may be worn.
  • the pieces of the clothing should be crisp, show no excessive wear, no holes and shall be free of body odor.
  • in respect to shirts, the second from the top button may also be opened in addition to the very top button.
  • sunglasses, glasses, neck ties can be worn during the games, no caps or hats, except for religious reasons.
  • in general, this category of appearance demands a pulled-together, harmonious, complete look with colors, fabrics, shoes, and accessories, for both men and women.
  • national costumes which fit into the generally accepted dress code and are not offensive or indecent to others can be worn

Green Power Island

 Three industries you ought to consider careers in.  The first are industries with high transaction costs (i.e., the medical services industry) - - apply IT and process improvements to reduce the cost of a transaction.  Amazon is basically changing an industry by reducing transaction costs - - just ask Borders.  The second area are industries with high resource waste and resource inefficiencies (i.e., your basic light bulb is only about 1% efficient in the context of the entire system - - from power plant to living room) - - apply innovation and basic economics.  Technology service companies and contractors are upgrading buildings at zero upfront cost to owners - - you collect your money over the typical three year payback period.  The third area relates to those industries (i.e., wind farms) that are in need of off-peak energy storage - - one alternative would utilize a simple combination of water and gravity to capture off-peak power and release it at times of high demand (another good example of energy needs water and water needs energy - - one system, not two).

Green Power Island is an example of a company that is integrating the ideas of alternative energy (i.e., wind) with hydropower bulk-energy storage.  The concept comes from Gottlieb Paludan, a Danish architecture firm, together with researchers at the Technical University of Denmark.  The idea involves building artificial islands with wind turbines and a deep central reservoir.  When the wind blows, the energy is used to pump water out of the sea.  When power is needed, seawater is allowed to flow back into the reservoir, driving turbines to produce electricity.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Energy Distribution Systems

Hauling your natural gas back home with you - - Binzhou City, China.

Rethinking Disasters

The Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, was quoted in an interesting article in the Financial Times today - - From shaken to awakened.  The article provides an overview on seismic risk in the context of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan a year ago this week and the rethinking currently underway on how to mitigate the effects of future disasters.  Prime Minister Noda stated:

"We can no longer make the excuse that something unexpected occurred.  Crisis management is about addressing the unexpected and unanticipated."

These two sentences would fundamentally push engineering and planning into the "Black Swan" portions on any normal distribution curve of disaster risk.  Recognizing this, the article pointed out a potential shift that would distinguish between preparing for relatively frequent but manageable disasters and those that are rare and either impossible or too costly to guard against fully.  This would be a shift from disaster prevention (i.e., building higher walls to defend against future tsunamis) to a system rooted in disaster reduction (i.e., restricting development in low-lying coastal communities, with the goal of limiting the number of deaths and property damage).

I also liked this language in the article - - the "hardware" of disaster defences and strong infrastructure combined with the "software" of awareness, training, practice, and habits of of mind.  I would expand the term "software" to also include data collection, information management, and decision making before, during, and after disasters.

Nick Taylor, Civil Engineer

Londoners (2012) is a new book by Craig Taylor.  It is an oral history that allows ordinary Londoners the opportunity to provide a view of their city.  One participate was Nick Taylor, a civil engineer.  A portion of Nick's comments were as follows:

"If we could make London easier to walk in, it would be great.  I think we could make that a lot easier and I think it would be really beneficial to think about how one does that.  Because walking is the most natural way to move.  If you think of transport on a personal scale, you have the opportunity to understand what the environment looks like, what it feels like.  Walking makes a city human, so cities ought to be for walking, and yet we don't really see walking as a means of getting around.  The thing about pedestrians is that we tend to think of them as traffic.  So we model them as rather like cars, but actually we want people to stop.  That's a good thing.  People stop and they talk and they turn to go into the streets: they're not like cars.  We don't want cars to stop, but we do want people to stop.  Finding some way to represent how we enjoy stopping is a really important issue."

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Intelligent Mobility

Interesting report from the UK Automotive Council that was recently released -

The report examines the growing problem of megacity gridlock across the globe.  The number of cars is expect to rise from one billion to a projected four billion by 2050.  We face a world with a growing congestion problem which is prompting radical ideas and innovation.  The future of door-to-door mobility will need broader approaches - - where we start to think and design in terms of mobility systems, systems in which the car is just part of the whole issue.

Political, Economic, and Capital Markets Game Changer

Interesting observations in the March 5, 2012 edition of The Wall Street Journal (Bad News for Boomers by Karen Damato) - - interview with Robert Arnott, who is an outside manager of two Pimco mutual funds:

"This very year, for the first time in U.S. history, the population of senior citizens rises faster than the working-age population.  Less than 10 years ago, when the baby boomers' kids were coming into the labor force and the very skimpy roster of Depression babies was retiring, we had 10 new additions to the working-age cadre for each one new senior citizen.

It goes to 10-to-1 in the opposite direction in 10 years.  There will be 10 new senior citizens for each new working citizen.  It that's not a political, economic and capital markets game changer, I don't know what is."

Monday, March 5, 2012

Top Ten Facts About Drones

A drone primer in the current issue of Foreign Policy, 10 Things You Don't Know About Drones by Micah Zeniko - -
  1. The first armed drones were created to get Osama bin Laden.
  2. So far, drones lend to crash.  The ledger shows 79 drones accidents costing at least $1 million each. 
  3. Drones are coming to America.  As of October 2011, the FAA has issued 285 active certificates for 85 users, covering 82 drone types.
  4. The scope of U.S. military drone missions is expanding.  The five-pound pack back drone is standard issue equipment .
  5. The civilian uses have not been as fast.  But this is changing, Boeing engineers have joined forces with MIT students to build an iPhone app that can control a drone from up to 3,000 miles away.  The words MIT and iPhone have a tendency to speed up commercial applications.
  6. Most military drones don't bomb.  They collect information - - intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
  7. Attack drones require more boots on the ground.  Some 168 people are required to keep your basic Predator in the sky.
  8. Drones are becoming a lethal weapon of choice, but nobody's in charge.
  9. Other countries are catching up to the United States.
  10. The drone future is already here.  We have 7,500 drones.  The bottom line in the era of defence budget cuts - - drones will become cheaper, smaller, faster, stealthier, more lethal, and more autonomous.  We also have a well trained generation of 13-year olds ready to take the joy stick.
Excellent TED video on what the drone future is going to look like:

Google's core principles that guide their actions

Google's top ten - -
  1. Focus on the user and all else will follow.
  2. It's best to do one thing really, really well (this got them lifetime membership in the Jim Collins Hedgehog Society).
  3. Fast is better than slow.
  4. Democracy on the Web works.
  5. You don't need to be at your desk to need an answer.
  6. You can make money without doing evil.
  7. There's always more information out there.
  8. The need for information crosses all borders.
  9. You can be serious without a suit.
  10. Great just isn't good enough (see Finding Your Extra).
From World Changers: 25 Entrepreneurs Who Changed Business as We Knew It (2011) by John B. Byrne.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Smart Pipe

From Northwestern University - - Smart Pipe.  The biggest opportunity in water isn't water: it's in information.  Show me a water problem and I'll show you an information problem.

Famous Engineering Drop-Outs

Model Cindy Crawford - - chemical engineering at Northwestern University --  after one semester. 

I.B.M. Designed Rio Ops Center

I.B.M. Intelligent Operations Center

 The New York Times provides a focus in an article today on the mission control center of our future (Mission Control, Built for Cities - In the Chaos That Is Rio, An I.B.M. System Seeks Order).  By 2050, 75% of the world's population is expected to live in cities - - I.B.M. has built the NASA version of the command center for the city of the future.

Key points in the article on the project in Rio de Janerio:
  • This is the first project in the world in which data integration has been completed on a city this large.  Data flowing in under one roof from 30 different departments.
  • One goal is take all the incoming data and produce usable information with the help of algorithms - - a process I.B.M. calls "sense-making software." (great way to describe it!).
  • The market for "smart systems" is expected to be $57 billion by 2014.
  • The Rio project was completed in 2010.
  • "Smart is all about information."
  • "Once you have the information and understand it, you are halfway to smart."  As the article pointed out, Rio is hugely complex on many different levels.  If you are not careful, you are also probably halfway to stupid.
  • "We used to have all of this information.  But we could not put it together to use in a smart, intelligent way."
  • From Cisco provided network infrastructure and telecommunications and video conferencing to Samsung digital screens in the mayor's house - - I.B.M. played the role of "master integrator."
  • Problems were divided into four categories for city employees - - events, incidents, emergencies, and crises.  From floods to landslides - - step-by-step procedures and manuals were developed.
  • The system has a virtual operations platform that acts as a Web-based clearinghouse - - phone, radio, e-mail, text, etc.
  • Information is collected for historical analysis - - for example, which intersections have the most accidents.
  • "The system the mayor created will resolve a problem when it happens, but it does not resolve infrastructure problems."  The balance between the forces of reactionary and preventive is fundamentally a balance between the needs of bits and bytes and concrete and steel.  The discussions on urban management and infrastructure improvement must include the word "and" and not just the word "or".
  • "Can you think of a system that is more complex than a city?"

      Saturday, March 3, 2012

      Engineering for cash and glory

      This might be a good methodology to come up with solutions to some of our more pressing problems.  The clever use of contests and prizes.  Qualcomm, a wireless firm, is offering $10 million for a mobile app that can diagnose patients better than a group of doctors.

      TI's Wolverine

      Texas Instrument recently announced a new generation of ultra-low-power microcontrollers (MSP430 microcontroller platform).  The new technology uses less than half of the power of similar products on the market - - and provides the lowest active power, standby power, memory power and peripheral power consumption available.  Innovation in battery life technology has stalled - - the burden of lowering power really falls on the semiconductors.  Something like this can give you 10 to 20 years of battery life.  TI is currently working with the makers of a medical patch to wirelessly monitor vital statistics.  As battery life becomes less of an issue, look for a world of senors and microprosseors in more and more of our public infrastructure.  Huge market for connecting our public assets into the "Internet of Things" - - and one step closer to a battery-less world.

      Decentralizing Water Resources

      The continuing drought in Texas and water supply concerns throughout the Southwestern U.S. has created a viable decentralized water market.  The history of global water supply and wastewater treatment is one of moving down the economies of scale curve - - from highly decentralized water systems as pioneers and farmers to highly centralized water systems associated with our current urban environments.  Society to most Americans provides us with all our water and we provide society back with all our wastewater.  As water restrictions continue to dominate the news in Texas, people are beginning to ask, "Why should my shower water become someones drinking water?" and "Why is my rainwater running down the driveway to the street?"

      A recent article in the February 23, 2012 issue of the Dallas Morning News, Baby the plants with bath water, by Thomas Korosec addressed the issues of "gray water" and landscaping.  Korosec writes the following:

      "Letting the washing machine pump out on the ground is an old-time country approach that both watered the pasture and lengthened the life of a septic system.  Over the past decade or so, use of this so-called gray water to irrigate lawns and landscape has been taken up by green living advocates and approved by legislatures in approximately 13 states.

      Texas authorized residential use of gray water in 2003.  Homeowners can use 400 gallons a day for landscape irrigation without a permit.  Systems also must meet city codes.

      Texas rules define gray water as effluent from showers and bathtubs, clothes-washing machines and sinks not used for food preparation or disposal.  It is distinct from so called black water from toilets, dishwashers, and kitchen sinks.  Black water must be disposed in sanitary sewers or septic systems."

      Another decentralized approach would be rainwater catchment.  Clean water from the sky.  Our recent drought has forced homeowners to seek watering alternatives that disrupt classic economies of scale.  If you have $10,000 worth of landscaping, water from the sky may look very economically attractive if the alternative is no water at all.  The article profiles one innovative company from Denton, Texas - - H2Options that designs and builds green irrigation systems.

      I previously covered the segregation of water (gray, black, and yellow) in The Right Water for the Right Purpose.


      Friday, March 2, 2012