Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas! - A financial tracker for 2014

Shortcut: you can find the expenses tracker template here on Google Docs.  (The link will be updated when Google publishes the template.)

The US Navy commissioned me into service as an officer in May of 2000.  They then moved me to Washington, DC, and finances were tight. My annual salary was under $25,000 per year. (Side note: military pay raises were pretty good after September 11th.  A newly commissioned officer in the Navy today, in DC, will make about $4800 per month, or $57,600 per year, including the housing allowance.)

I was living in an apartment on Columbia Pike with 2 other Navy officers who worked with me.  This was the first time I was really out on my own, and I wanted to make sure that ends would meet.  So a drew up a spreadsheet and dutifully recorded every penny that came in and every penny that came out.  Every night I would open up the spreadsheet program and enter in what I had spent.  Once per month I would enter in the money that Uncle Sam direct deposited in my account.

When moving to a new apartment ... when buying a boat to live aboard (and negotiating interest rates and monthly payments) ... when buying Christmas gifts ... it was great, because I always knew exactly where I stood.  Sometimes I didn't like it, and in those cases, it motivated me to be patient or to change some habits to make it work.

I have been doing that faithfully for the past 13 years, and the spreadsheets (1 for each year) have evolved, to be a little simpler, a little more flexible, a little more concise.  When Google Docs came around, it became very easy to access the file from anywhere and to share with my wife.  (Second side note: she has been remarkably cooperative about also keeping track of expenses in my slightly-OCD-way.)  I decided to give a (small) Christmas gift to the internet and publish my template for 2014 as a freely available Google Docs template.  Here's the template for 2014.

The template has 12 tabs, one for each month.  Each day is a row, and the days are numbered for 2014.  The columns are various categories: Groceries, Meals, Gas, Tithe/Donations, Play, Medical, and Other.  I've found those categories to be pretty good for the things I spend money on. (Hint: I didn't get it right for the first few years.  Your mileage may vary.)

On the bottom are fixed expenses: mortgage, electricity, internet, insurance, etc.  I also left rows for various activities that have regular, monthly expenses like gym memberships or day care.  Then there's a column for "Random Income," because, well, sometimes money comes in randomly.  Then there's a column for fixed income.  Paychecks go in there.  The nice thing is that this bottom section (except for Random Income) is nearly identical from month to month; fill in those values for January, then paste into the next 11 months.

The spreadsheet adds things up in a variety of ways: by day, by category, and sums everything up in the Red "Monthly Savings" cell.  I have a target savings number for each month.

I hope this may be of use to some of you.  It certainly won't work for everyone.  In my case, the need to follow this rigor stemmed from fear: living in an expensive town on a relatively small income forced me to be diligent.  And then it became habit.  And it's stuck ever since.

And that's one thing I'm thankful for this season.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Skywriting - My first book is published!

It's been about 4 years in the making, but it is now finally done.  You can download it in Kindle format for $0.99 from Amazon.

Some thoughts:

  1. It's about 28,000 words.  Novels are traditionally considered at least 40,000 words.  I intended to make it a full length novel, but I just couldn't meaningfully stretch things out, and I didn't want to "pad" the story with extra fluff and slow it down.  So, a novella it is.
  2. It's meant to be inspirational to scientists, engineers, and other technical folks around the world, but the audience isn't limited to technical people.  In no way am I comparing myself to him, but John Grisham has written a lot of very good stories about the judicial system, and they're engaging.  Similarly, Tom Clancy was fantastic at writing about the military, but all kinds of people read his books.  Why can't a similar genre exist around good engineering?
  3. I did the publishing and cover art myself.  Adobe has a fantastic deal where you can download a free version of their software (Photoshop and Illustrator, in my case) for 30 days.
  4. Since it's my first book and it's not THAT fancy, I can only justify charging $0.99 for it.  The downside is that, at this time, I'm stuck with 35% royalties.  If you charge $2.99 or more for your book, Amazon will give you 70% royalties.  That would be great, but I'm too sheepish to try and charge that much for my story.
Happy reading this holiday season!  The best compliment you can give to an author is to promote it further in social media: Twitter, Facebook, Google+, wherever.  And, unfortunately for my semi-cloistered self, I'm not that connected in social media, so I have a hard time reaching out to 10,000+ people at once.  And, if someone could give a review of my book on Amazon, I'd really appreciate it.......

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Permanent Fix for the Budget Crisis

Unlike most politicians, engineers are normally paid to provide solutions to problems.  After witnessing the antics of our government over the past few weeks -- and even the more concerning way in which they offhandedly dismiss the threat of a default on the US debt* -- I'm really not sure what US politicians are paid for.

I have a solution.  It's not new, it's not novel, it's not particularly ingenious.  But, based on its implementation elsewhere, it's probably effective.

If Congress can't pass a budget, the senior leadership of both the House and the Senate are removed from their positions.
And Congress can't go home until a decision is reached.
This means the Speaker of the House, the Majority and Minority Leaders of the House, and the Majority and Minority Leaders of the Senate.  We'll leave the President pro Tempore alone for this one, for some semblance of continuity.

The basis for this is in Australia's constitution; Section 57 to be exact.  The actual language is a bit wordy, but here's the summary: if their House passes a bill, and the Senate refuses to pass it ... and that process happens again after three months ... then the Governor-General is allowed to dissolve BOTH houses of Parliament.

Yes, dissolve.  Both. Houses.  Every bum is thrown out (except, notably, for the Governor-General and the Prime Minister.)  And it's happened six times since 1910.  Leave it to the Australians to be thorough about things.

While it would be tempting to throw out everyone in the U.S. Congress (all 535 of them) if a budget isn't passed ... I ... I ... I just can't bring myself to recommend a measure that sweeping.  (I also don't believe it would be adopted.)  Although it's tempting.  And then, we'd be like the United Kingdom, who conducts all of their campaigning for a new government in a 3-week sprint.

Warren Buffett has offered something similar in the past: he said that any sitting Congress that passes a budget that is more than 3% of the Gross Domestic Product should not be eligible for re-election.

There's another basis for this: other than public perception, there's not enough impetus to force a decision in the U.S. Congress, either for passing budgets or for raising the debt ceiling.  Congresspeople are too comfortable -- flying home to their constituents for long weekends even when weighty matters are at hand; never scheduling a single 5-day work week in 2013; still getting their paychecks even when the government is shut down -- that they're not truly motivated to make a decision.  When Congress has a job to do that's mandated by the Constitution (pretty clearly in Article I, Section 7) , their living and working conditions need to start degrading pretty rapidly, frankly, when that job isn't getting done.

Enter the Catholic Church, and the notion of Conclave.  The idea here is to make it suck so badly that the Cardinals are forced to make a decision.  The need for this was crystallized in 1268, when the Cardinals took two years and eight months to make a decision.  See, the Cardinals were enjoying their time in the lovely village of Viterbo in Central Italy.  A lot.  And the locals got upset.  So, they locked the Cardinals in the local church.  Still no decision.  The locals tried starving them out, but food was still snuck in.  The locals then tore the roof off the church, and a decision was finally reached: Gregory X would become the next pope.  In 1996, Pope John Paul II relaxed the Conclave rules a little bit, but they're still stuck in the Sistine Chapel for most of their days.

You may note that, in the solution I propose above, the President is notably absent.  This is unfortunate -- the President is supposed to be a leader, to participate in the negotiations, not an armchair quarterback -- but I can't think of an appropriate punitive action for the Executive Branch in these scenarios.

So, I think there needs to be some drastic, swift consequences when Congress doesn't perform its Constitutionally-mandated responsibilities.  The above action is probably most easily implemented as a House Rule and a Senate Rule.  It would be ideal if it were implemented as a Constitutional Amendment -- but such a movement would have to come from two-thirds of the states, and a national convention like that has never been successful.

*This kind of reckless, off-the-cuff prognosticating about: 1.) an issue that is so immensely important to the everyday lives of the working people and, 2.) something that the Congressmen clearly has no idea what he's talking about, is incredibly offensive to me.  If this were any professional society with a shred of accountability and responsibility, people who make such ridiculous claims would be disbarred, excommunicated, tarred and feathered, or worse.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Bug in the Gas Pump

I think I found a bug in the gas delivery system ... or maybe it's in their pricing scheme ... I'm not sure.

Yes, I checked, and that bug really is INSIDE the display.  I have no idea how it got in there.

(For you math nerds out there, that's $3.17 per gallon.)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Government Shutdown and ... Jon Stewart

I've been thinking a lot over the past few days about what to intelligently write about with the government shutdown, and how to succinctly express my views.

No need.  Jon Stewart has done it excellently.  Please watch the following 7 minutes:

Don't forget -- Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert led the "March to Restore Sanity"-- and thousands of people showed up on the national mall to support their middle ground approach.  Where has that ethos gone?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Yucca Mountain Spotted Fever #4

I've been writing off and on about some of the developments at Yucca Mountain over the past few years.  While the average citizen probably doesn't know much or care much about it, it is still a $15 billion+ program that gets fewer headlines in the mainstream press than it probably should.

I had a good summary of the state of things in late 2010 in my Yucca Mountain Spotted Fever #2 post.  To summarize:
  • Way back in the 1980's, Congress said, "Thou shalt bury nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain."  The US Department of Energy was tasked with making it happen, including getting approval from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
  • The US Department of Energy said, "Eh, this Yucca Mountain thing is too thorny; we can't continue with it."
  • The NRC said, "Uh-oh, DOE is giving up.  Hey, group of smart folks here at the NRC, what should we do?"
  • The Smart Folks said, "You have no statutory ability to give up.  Congress has directed; you must follow."
  • The NRC said, "Ummmm ..... we'll get back to you."

And that's about where it has stayed for the past two years.  Then-Chairman of the NRC, Gregory Jaczko, was in no hurry to continue the analysis, presumably due to his ties to Senator Harry Reid, who has stated his vociferous objections to completing Yucca Mountain in his home state of Nevada.  (Quoth the Senator: "I am proud that after two decades of fighting the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump, the project has finally been terminated.")

So, the "smart guys" told the NRC to GET ON WITH IT, but the NRC kept dragging its feet.  Some members of Congress wrote sharply crafted letters to goad the NRC into action.  An important point to make here, though, is that no additional funding has been provided by Congress to complete the review.  The NRC has about $11 million to finish the review, which -- while a lot of money to you and me -- is a pittance to the NRC.  Every hour of every person working at the NRC is charged out at something like $276 per hour.  Novice, experienced, subject matter expert ... they're all $276 per hour.  For the record, my charge out rate is $178 dollars per hour, and I'm paid comfortably in an organization with more overhead than I care to admit.

Well, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals issued its ruling last week: The NRC does not have the power to stop reviewing the Yucca Mountain project.  "As things stand, therefore, the Commission is simply flouting the law."  Another judge on the court noted that "former NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who has since resigned, orchestrated a systematic campaign of noncompliance."

The Wall Street Journal then added, "If Mr. Jaczko worked on Wall Street he'd be indicted."

And so the NRC must continue down its path of evaluating the DOE's application to certify Yucca Mountain as the single geologic repository for nuclear waste, although everyone knows that the remaining $11 million is not enough to complete the review and Congress has little incentive to continue to fund it.

I feel sorry for two groups of people: the electric customers in this country who have been dutifully paying the 0.1 cent per megawatt-hour fee (which Congress continues to collect) and received nothing but waste in return, and the handful of NRC engineers and reviewers who must review the application with the knowledge that it's basically dead on arrival and their work will be forever shelved.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Driving a Tesla

I got to drive a friend's Tesla this evening.  Actually, it wasn't even his Tesla; his Tesla was in the shop for some buffing / detailing work, so he had a loaner Tesla.  And, of course, they loan the Model S Performance, which will do 0-60 mph in 4.2 seconds.

I have never driven a car with that much power, and frankly, probably never will again.  My current car is a 175 hp 2009 Nissan Altima, and the car before that was a ~110 hp 1998 Subaru Legacy.  The Model S is equivalent to a 416 hp car.  And without gears to shift, the ability to put all that power directly to the wheels -- even from a standstill at 0 RPM -- is mind-bending.  The slight pause that we have all come to expect from traditional engines and transmissions just isn't there, and it keeps dumping torque to the wheels.  The best analogy is that it's like getting launched from an electromagnetic roller coaster.  Except you're driving this one.

I was admittedly a little nervous about driving around the streets in DC for fear of getting cut off or not seeing someone in the slightly-larger-than-I'm-comfortable-with blind spots. (The C-pillar is jagnormous.)  But all worked out okay in the end, and I had a fun drive. 

Three more observations:
   1.  I'm told BMW's are set up the same way, but I kept hitting the cruise control lever instead of the turn signal.  It's very annoying to set the cruise control on HOLYSHITGO!!!! when you're accelerating and trying to merge into the next lane.
   2.  The car is fighting pretty hard to engage regenerative braking.  I know why it's doing it, and I applaud the efforts to eke out every mile possible (as well as to recharge the battery at a voltage that actually does something), but it takes some getting used to.  My Subaru was a stick (yes, I drove a stick for many years in and around DC), and the Tesla slows down as if the car was in 2nd gear the whole time.  This is adjustable, but of course, everyone wants the best mileage and range they can eke out.
   3.  My friend showed a picture of when he was charging at at Supercharger station when the battery was almost empty and "drinking" from the Supercharger as fast as it could: 226 amps at 371 volts.  226 amps at 371 volts is about 84 kilowatts.  That's about 14x more than your average house draws at full power.  Or, to put it another way, if you charge at 84 kilowatts for about 3 hours, that's roughly the same as your average house will drink in a week. 

I bring this up to compare to my previous calculation that about 20 megawatts of power (equivalent) is flowing through your gasoline hose when us ordinary folk fill up at the gas station.  So, there's a tremendous amount of electricity flowing through the wires, and some very talented engineers found a way to safely transfer all that power, but it's still two hundred times less power (equivalent) than is flowing through your gas hose at the gas pump.

[Nerd note on that last item: for any technically minded folks out there, I acknowledge that electric vehicles are about 3x more efficient that gasoline powered vehicles, thus making the "equivalent power" flowing only about a factor of 70 less than the gasoline pump.  But still.  70x.  Wow.  Gasoline is pretty energy dense.]

At this point, I would like to close with a picture of me in front of said Tesla but, alas, no pictures were taken.  You'll just have to take my word for it.

And thanks for the ride, Greg.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Pandora's Promise - A Critical Review

Like a lot of other nuclear engineers, I went to see Pandora's Promise last night.  It's a documentary about the benefits of nuclear power, and is touted as an "Official Selection" at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. (I'm not sure what that means.  It doesn't appear on the list of award winners, for instance.  Perhaps it's a fancy name for "participant"?)  There were lots of other fellow geeks and nerds in the audience, and people were glowing about it afterwards.

Unlike a lot of other nuclear engineers, I was disappointed.

Saying such a thing is a bit of heresy in many circles.  I admit, it's a nice, entertaining, and enlightening 86 minute documentary.  But as for its intended purpose?  It misses the mark, guys.

The director, Robert Stone (a previously anti-nuclear environmentalist who changed his mind about nuclear and decided to do something about it), is quoted as saying:
For the past three years I have devoted almost every waking moment to taking these ideas and shaping them into a documentary about what is perhaps the biggest and most unwieldy subjects imaginable: how do we continue to power human civilization without destroying the environmental conditions that has made modern civilization possible?
Look, there was an impressive amount of momentum behind this thing.  Just two years after the Fukushima nuclear accident, here was a movie that potentially could appeal to the masses and change the public opinion on the importance of nuclear power.

This was intended to shape the dialogue.  I don't think it's going to move the needle a bit.
  • Where are the pithy one liners?
  • Where are the memorable moments?
  • Where are the quotes that people will re-use in everyday conversation?
The documentary may sway a few open-minded people who happen to see the show and perhaps question some previously held beliefs.  But its message will not get across to other folks at the water cooler, at the lunch table, at the sidelines of a soccer game as parents are watching their kids play; the documentary provides no entree into those areas.  Those are the elements that will really shape the dialogue today.  And it missed.

The projections of energy use in 2030, 2050, and 2100 were interesting, and the CGI graphics of the earth spinning and lighting up more and more were neat.  The pie charts of fossil fuel use vs. everything else were instructive.  And the pictures of Hyman G. Rickover explaining to the world the basics of how nuclear power propelled a submarine were memorable.

But we've had all those before, and they just don't seem to gain much traction.  The movie was entertaining, but it didn't tell a story that was any more compelling than Lawrence Livermore's Sandkey charts.  
LLNL's Energy Flowchart.  Seriously, take a minute with this one.  The amount of energy we lose is staggering.
(It's also easy for me to be a critic here; I'm not the one who has funded and produced a pro-nuclear documentary.  I should take a lesson from Teddy Roosevelt.)

At the end of the day, each new nuclear power plant will take approximately 10 years to build and $7 billion to construct.  There is no way your "average" utility can sink those kinds of resources into power generation -- and that's $7 billion that has to be sunk before you can pull rods and start generating power.  It's a tough sell to put $7 billion worth of eggs all into one basket, and only then can you begin making money.  It's just an insurmountable up-front cost.

Which is why I'm a little more hopeful about small modular reactors.  As a nuclear engineer, I hope that SMR's can provide a lower up front cost as well as get political support because the entire thing can be made domestically. (Admittedly, it remains very much unclear if the resulting product can generate power at a reasonable cost.)  Pandora's Promise talked about energy executives deciding to build a new nuclear power plant over a golf game; they could do that because the things were so cheap and easy to build in the 1950's and 1960's that many utilities could afford them.  Fossil fuels will continue to be favorable until either the cost of generating CO2 goes way, way up, or the cost of building nuclear goes way, way down.

But, despite all this, go see the movie.  It's at least worth the price of admission.