Sunday, December 19, 2010

Driving in DC #6

One of the things I have not talked about enough on this blog is the insane highway intersections common throughout DC.

Washington, DC doesn't believe in merge lanes.  They also don't believe in giving adequate warning when an existing lane is going away.  The 14th Street Bridge is a prime example of that:

I think with that picture alone, a lot of people are groaning collectively.  We've all been bitten by this, and probably more than once.

For those who may not know, the 14th street bridge is a major artery into DC:

There are only a few bridges across the Potomac into DC, and the 14th street gets you into central DC pretty quickly.  The problem is, the right-most lane of the 14th Street Bridge peels off to L'Enfant Plaza and 12th street, and hardly anybody ever takes that exit.  It may have been a nice idea during the planning stages of the city -- to have this beautiful Promenade with shops and offices and a pretty view of the Washington Channel.  But it didn't work out that way, and we're left with this enormous 2-lane exit to Nowheresville.

Neophytes to DC get nailed all the time.  In the above picture, the right-most lane forces you off the highway (with no "EXIT ONLY" warning or anything) and the second-to-right lane gives you the option of taking the exit or not.  It's way, way more capacity than that exit needs.  Or deserves.

Every morning, you can count on 1 in 3 cars making a crazy, desperate maneuver to not get unceremoniously dumped onto L'Enfant Plaza and the promenade.  And, perhaps once per week, you get a traffic-snarling accident here when someone's daring maneuver fails to account for the car in their blind spot.

Oh, the joys.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Kollej keeps gettin' expensiver

A while ago, I posted about the insane rise of tuition over the years -- it's been about twice the rate of inflation since 1995.

While it's not "new" news, this post is an update to point out college tuition is still rapidly on the rise.  Public schools went up 7.9% (to $7,605), and private nonprofit schools showed remarkable restraint in only raising tuition by 4.5% -- leaving their annual tuition at a healthy $27,000.

This, at a time when the average family income has been flat over the past ten years:

I admit the above chart only goes until 2007, but as I've blogged before, the median household income in 2009 was still only $52,029.

Here's my rant: how on earth do the colleges and universities get away with charging such exorbitant rates for college?  The unfortunate answer is that it's being (largely) funded by Uncle Sam.  The dollar amount of Pell Grants alone have gone up by about 50% over the past 3 years, in addition to other federal aid.  

A vicious (or victorious, if you're of the college employed ilk) cycle is set up: the federal government (and other generous institutions) make efforts to provide grants and aid.  This makes more money available in the system.  The universities see this, and ratchet up tuition accordingly.  And banks, which loan a lot of money for efforts like this, get a windfall from the process.

Way back in April of 2009, President Obama called out universities and colleges, asking them to curb the rising costs of tuition.  If I were him, I would have called out a few prominent bankers and university presidents and publicly excoriated them for their largess.  

"The banks and lenders who have reaped a windfall from these subsidies have mobilized an army of lobbyists to try to keep things the way they are," Mr. Obama said.  "They are gearing up for battle.  So am I."

Sadly, I never heard the outcome of this.  At least, I didn't hear of a positive outcome, and the recent news that kicked off this post makes me think it wasn't successful.

Here's what really gets my goat: 

Harvard currently charges $50,724 for a year of tuition.  By this calculation, tuition should be free at Harvard.

This is freaking ridiculous.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Illusion of Control

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Singularity -- when machines might wrest intellectual power from us humans and take us into even more uncharted waters.  (Incidentally, that post got me my first internet quote.  Thanks, Rob!)  But it seems, in some cases, those wily engineers have already taken power from us.

This post will provide a few examples of cases where you thought you had control of something, but you usually don't.  If you enjoy living in ignorant bliss, you may not want to read much further.

Case #1: Crosswalk activation buttons.  You know those signs, right?  Push for Walk Signal.

Don't bother.  According to the regional NYTimes article linked above, over 2,500 out of 3,250 of the buttons don't work.  They're placebos.  Their best purpose in life is to give you something to do while you wait for the computer-actuated signal to turn colors.  The complex, carefully calibrated system is far too important to interrupt its busy schedule to make a special exception for you to cross the street.  This is not a new development, either:

By the late 1980's, most of the buttons had been deactivated, their steel exteriors masking the lie within. But city officials say they do not remember ever publishing an obituary, and the white and black signs stayed up, many of them looking as new and official as ever.

Case #2: Office thermostats.  Those gray boxes with a dial or two on the wall?  Their main purpose is to prevent you from calling the thermostat technician.

They don't do squat.  Trust me, the energy saved by your pointy-haired boss in regulating the temperature to some optimum level is worth far more than your temporary, puny discomfort.  And think about it: your average HVAC company has to deal with not just you, not just your neighbor, but probably 10 or 20 different office buildings, all in the same situation.  What would you do?

Does he feel bad? "I did what my employer told me to do," Mr. Dawson says. The complainers in the cubicles wore him out. "You just get tired of dealing with them and you screw in a cheap thermostat. Guess what? They quit calling you."

Case #3: Elevator Door Close buttons.  This one shocked me.

That "close door" button on elevators? It won't work unless you're a fireman or an elevator operator with special access to the system. The rest of the time, in deference to various building codes, it's deactivated, according to engineers at Otis Elevator.

All those buttons are doing are giving you something to pass the time while a computer whirrs happily in the background, waiting for some specified timer to expire.

Kids, don't try this at home.

Yucca Mountain Spotted Fever #3

One last follow-up to this whole Yucca Mountain / NRC / ASLB thing ...

I never did get a response back directly from Senator Inhofe, which isn't surprising.  A senator unlikely to respond to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who emails him or her, even if s/he does have a large staff.  I (naively?) hope they have better things to do, even if my e-mail was particularly well crafted.

But all is not lost: the NRC did take a vote, and the votes have become public.  In an effort to just get on with it, I'm just going to point you to this site, which has all the gory details, and continues to track the issue a lot closer than I will:

Nuclear Townhall

This whole issue would be more amusing if there weren't tens of billions of dollars at stake.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Yucca Mountain Spotted Fever #2

Back in February, I posted about the shenanigans that are taking place around the Yucca Mountain issue.  To summarize, the Department of Energy basically threw up its hands and said, "Forget it.  Burying spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain is becoming too much of a hassle, and we're going to go back to the drawing board."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which has been dutifully processing and reviewing the DOE's Yucca Mountain request for the past 3 years, didn't want to get directly involved with this matter.  So the NRC asked the Atomic Safety Licensing Board (or ASLB, a particularly brainy division of the NRC) to look at the DOE's decision in detail and give a recommendation back to the NRC.  Makes sense, right?  "Here, go take a look at this thorny issue and tell us what you find."

In June 2010, the ASLB issued a statement (PDF), waving the "baloney" flag vigorously.  That pdf is one of the most brilliantly written pieces of governmental language I've ever read, and it truly gives me hope in the future governance of our country.  Seriously.  It's clear, direct, thorough, and actually readable -- if a bit long after page 16 or so.  It states:

For the reasons explained below, we conclude that Congress directed both that DOE file the Application (as DOE concedes) and that the NRC consider the Application and issue a final, merits-based decision approving or disapproving the construction authorization application. Unless Congress directs otherwise, DOE may not single-handedly derail the legislated decision-making process by withdrawing the Application. DOE’s motion must therefore be denied.

There are some other really juicy quotes in there.

Did Congress, which so carefully preserved ultimate control over the multi-stage process that it crafted, intend—without ever saying so—that DOE could unilaterally withdraw the Application and prevent the NRC from considering it? We think not.

So the ASLB came back to the NRC and said, "No Way."  Per the law, if Yucca Mountain is to be truly axed, it must be done by Congress.

And here's where it gets really interesting.

The NRC never officially took action on the ASLB's report.  And the NRC unilaterally decided to stop processing the Yucca Mountain application last week.

Why, oh why, would the NRC do this?  Its own brainy division told it that it couldn't stop the review, even if DOE wanted to.  One strong possibility is the lingering connection between the Chairman of the NRC, Gregory Jaczko, and Harry Reid, Senate Majority leader from Nevada who has tried to stop Yucca Mountain from being operated in Nevada at all costs.  Before becoming chairman of the NRC, Jaczko was Harry Reid's appropriations director.


So, earlier this week, Senator James Inhofe from Oklahoma again restored my respect and hope in those who govern this country.  In a letter to each of the NRC Commissioners, he politely and directly asked two questions:

  1. Have you voted on the ASLB's recommendation?  If so, when?
  2. If not, when do you plan on voting?

This is brilliant in its simplicity: hold governmental organizations accountable.  I wish there was more of this.  I sent a letter to Senator Inhofe, congratulating him, and asking if he'd received any response from the commissioners.  No word yet, but I'll be happy to pass it along if I hear anything.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Fire, Sheep, and Fox

About a week ago, a new tool was released to the internet, called Firesheep.  To me, there's just something funny about the name.  Sheep are inherently cool, and fire implies something serious.  The juxtaposition is funny.

But the implications are serious. Firesheep allows a user to EASILY sniff traffic over an open WiFi network, and steal cookies -- basically, your login authentication for Facebook, Google, Amazon, Flickr, CNET, the New York Times, Twitter, yahoo, and a ton of other websites that don't use secure protocols like https or SSL.  A well-written demonstration of using this can be found here -- just plop yourself down at the nearest Starbucks and send polite warning messages to the 20+ Facebook and Amazon accounts you can access. Watch their response.

There's a big reason I put EASILY in the above paragraph in CAPITAL LETTERS.  Other tools for doing this (known as sidejacking) have been around for years (it was first demo'd at a BlackHat presentation in August of 2007), but none have never been as user-friendly and intuitive as Firesheep.  This is a plug-in for Firefox (hence the "fire" in firesheep), and someone's account can be accessed within about 10 seconds and a double mouse click.  It's that simple.  To quote an oft-used Apple idiom, It Just Works.

Many tech folks are dismissing this as yet another tool to exploit something we've already known.  And maybe they're right.  But I believe they're underestimating the value of making things user friendly.  The gold standard of this is Apple:

  • They were not the first to invent the Personal Computer -- the window-based interface just made it easy to use.
  • They were certainly not the first to invent the mp3 player -- they just made it easy to use, in a cool form factor.  
  • They were not the first to invent the smart phone -- they just made it easy to use.

See a trend here?  I think Firesheep could develop the same way.  And although it may not appeal to everyday, innocent users of The Internets like you and me, I bet it has an incredibly strong appeal to pimply-faced technologically inclined teenagers.  And all it takes is some enterprising youth to camp out in a Beverly Hills Starbucks and wait for an unsuspecting celebrity to log in.  Instant tabloid news story, similar to the episode when Paris Hilton's smartphone got hacked over Bluetooth.

In a worst-case scenario, this would spook 95% of Facebook users, who run screaming from the site and dump their accounts before Facebook implements a solution.  Panics have happened on Wall Street many times; we're probably due for one on the Internet soon, too.

How to protect yourself against this?

  • There's already a counter program out there called FireShepherd, but it's kind of brute-force and not very user friendly.  Or network friendly.  But it's better than nothin'.
  • Make sure your gmail is set to always use https.

Just be aware of what's out there.  There's a whole lot of Not Privacy on the internet.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

When your only tool's a hammer ...

... all the world looks like a nail.

The above quote is attributed to Abraham Maslow, and it rings true time and time again.  In this particular case, I think it applies to The Federal Reserve.

News flash for those who have been living under a rock: housing prices have NOT been rising indefinitely (as many investment products were designed to take advantage of), and when this pyramid scheme began to unravel (I love mixed metaphors), a ton of things happened very rapidly.  Credit markets dried up; countless business plans that were based on aggressive growth failed; countless more projects dried up or did not get funded in the first place, and unemployment shot up above 10%.  The Fed pulled the biggest lever it could, and dropped its lending interest rates like a rock:


Look again.  The interest rate has been almost ZERO since January 2009.  Twenty months and counting.  Historically, it's usually around 5%, but was as high as 20% in March 1980.  Banks and other major financial institutions can borrow money for free.

This is a slightly indirect way of pumping money into the economy.  Allowing borrowers (big banks, in this case) to borrow money on the cheap is an attempt to loosen things up a bit in the financial markets, and hopefully stimulate new projects, new industries, and new jobs.

But it just hasn't been enough.  And here's the point of this post: the Fed is considering new ways of pumping more money into the economy.  They've got their hammer, and they're lookin' for nails.

What has been the result of the absurdly low interest rate over the past 20 months?

  1. It has probably stemmed the loss of jobs in this country.  Sorry, I don't have a definitely source to cite for that; it's just my opinion.
  2. It has not turned the economy around.  (See current unemployment rate.)
  3. Large companies, given the opportunity to borrow large amounts of money basically for free, have been investing in themselves and buying back their own stock.

Let me underscore that "buying back their own stock" point: there has been $258 billion dollars in stock buyback this year, compared to $52 billion at this time last year.  And they're getting the money to do it from Uncle Sam.

Imagine the corporate boardroom discussions, happening all around the US:

Chief Financial Officer: "Hey, we can get a loan from XYZ financial institution for $2 billion at 0.1% interest per year.  That's the lowest cost of money, ever."
Chief Executive Officer: "Sounds like a good deal.  I want each of my division leaders to examine what they could do with an extra $500 million this year."


Chief Financial Officer: "Boss, all of the divisions say they can start some projects, but can only estimate a return of 3-4% in the next year on our investment."
Chief Executive Officer: "What??!?  3-4% return on investment?  That's a miserable deal for our stockholders!  I expect our stock price alone will go up 10% this year!  Why would I invest in R&D at a 3-4% return when I can invest it in myself and make at least 10%?  The stockholders will be happier, too."

Hopefully I've made the point pretty clear by now.  The Fed has a hammer: the interest rate it sets when loaning Fed money to banks.  It's a really big hammer.  It can be very effective when the economy is chugging along.  But when it's sputtering, it's not a very effective hammer.

The road to recovery is not paved by giving money to corporations so they can buy their own stocks back.  That doesn't create new jobs, and it really only helps those people who already own vast amounts of stock.  It doesn't put bread on anyone's table that isn't already covered in filet mignon.  Instead, I think the Fed needs to find new ways to *directly* create new jobs, or provide better incentives that will push industry to create new jobs.  If the Fed can't do it, then stand back and let another government organization stimulate the economy.  This kind of "new thinking" isn't the message we've been getting from the Fed.

I'm worried about the "quantitative easing" measures that are bandied about now -- another fancy way of pumping money into the system.  They don't address the problem at hand, and they have a cost that we'll have to pay off (specifically, my generation) in the future.  And it didn't really work for Japan when they tried it before, but they're trying it again anyhow.

A hammer is a very poor choice of tool for a screw.  And the economy looks screwy to me.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Singularity

There's a concept among futurists and science fiction folks known as The Singularity.  While there is no formal definition, it goes something like this:

Mankind's progress and rate of learning so far has been limited by the ability of our brains to process, assemble, and assimilate information.  There may come a time in the future when we build a robot or a software computer program that is, effectively, smarter than we are.  At that point, the pace and progress of learning is no longer bound by our brains.

That moment is known as the singularity.  After that moment, it becomes impossible for us to predict the future, because it grows faster than we can comprehend.  Vernor Vinge wrote about this in a 1993 article, but it was really first coined in an article from way back in 1965: "Speculations Concerning the First Ultimate Machine."  Since then, many books and articles have been written about it.  Business Week even had a blurb on it back in 1999, as they were making predictions for the 21st century.

I tell you all this as background, for it appears we're one step closer to this point: Carnegie Mellon has devised a computer that can read, and learn from, the internet.  Called NELL, for Never Ending Language Learner, it can browse and parse the internet, and form "beliefs" based on what's out there.

I freely grant that the internet is not the Paragon of Truth, and based on volume, NELL is more likely to emerge as a whiny teenager with a penchant for anarchy than it is to become a wise oracle.  But still: it can learn and process, and it can browse and internalize a whole lot more of the internet than you or I can.  With a few more years and a few more terabytes of memory, we could be in for a heck of a ride.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Google Day!

In about two weeks, we'll have an important date that I want to celebrate.  And I want the internet to help celebrate it with me:


That's right ... in about two weeks, Sunday, October 10th, 2010, will be all ten's.  The perfect score on Dancing With the Stars.  A unique manifestation of our base-10 counting system.  And, with a little mathematical manipulation, we can make it come out to a unique number:

Guess what that is?  It's a googol, which is an astoundingly large number. (I know I had to fudge it a little, but 10^[10^(10)] is just absurd.)  There aren't even a googol atoms in the universe.  But our dear friend Google stems from this number, in an attempt to convey how much information Google hopes to store.

There have been a few attempts to stage a Google Day in the past, but they didn't achieve the viral, internet-phenom level of something like, say, Boobquake.  I think this one is different than past Google Days because it has such significance on the calendar.

So on Google Day, pick your favorite Google-hosted website:

And visit it 10 times.  Or a googol if you're really patient.  Google will love the traffic.  And, oh, to celebrate, I might click on a few ads along the way.  --->

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Failing Gracefully

The internet is broken.  I blame cascading style sheets.

To explain the above (somewhat inflammatory) comment, I need to explain something common to engineers.  A key attribute in almost any well-designed system is known as "graceful degradation" or that the system "fails gracefully."  In practice, this means designing the system such that, in situations where the inputs aren't 100%, the system notices this, and adjusts its output accordingly.

For instance, many laptops (in close coordination with the processors that run them) have different levels of output: when plugged into the wall, the computer will crank out as much performance as it can.  When on battery power the CPU will slow down a bit, and the screen might dim slightly to ease the power draw from the battery.  When the battery level gets below 10%, the CPU might go into a slower, power-saving mode -- slow, but still functional to allow you to get your work done and hopefully save your work.  It's at about this time that the computer starts throwing warning messages at you, along the lines of


Then, once battery power gets to around 1% or 2%, the computer will put itself to sleep (since you're apparently incapable or untrustworthy), in a last-ditch attempt to husband the tiny amount of juice left in the battery while it patiently waits for you to plug it back in again.

This is graceful degradation: decreasing output for decreasing input.

The internet, in its modern form and for the average user, does not fail gracefully.

This was brought to my attention recently when I was suffering through a bad wireless router.  Our computers would download the first part of a web page, then hang indefinitely.  *Very* frustrating.  The below picture is a screen shot where I've cut out the middle section (it was all white anyhow; you're not missing anything):

In this case, I was looking up what "aGPS" is, or "assisted GPS."  The fact that I'm using Safari on a mac is irrelevant; this malady affects all computers and all browsers.

Now look at the bottom: it says, "Loading," and that it's completed 70 of 85 items.  That seems like a lot; 70 of something should imply some level of content.  And yet, the screen is completely blank!  There is no information to display yet.

And here's where the internet doesn't fail gracefully: you have to load almost all of the content, almost all of the time, regardless of your connection speed and regardless of the quality of your connection.  I would think, in any intelligently designed system, the content would come first -- in this case, some text explaining the details of aGPS.  But, no, with the construct of Cascading Style Sheets, you have to load tons and tons of format first -- and the content comes last.

This is a shame, because the whole idea of CSS is to separate content from presentation.  But the internet doesn't prioritize the order in which it sends it to you.

This would happen all the time with our faulty router: it would load the first sections of a web page, then hang indefinitely.  Incredibly frustrating, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who's suffered from this.  Sites designed for mobile viewing (on your cell phone or iPad, for instance) don't really get around this: they just cut down on the amount of formatting, but they still rely heavily on cascading style sheets.

End of rant.  This is a small detail that probably only affects a few people.  But for an entity that seems to take such interest in picayune things, when the website is down, it's incredibly frustrating and I'm surprised someone hasn't already done something about it.

Sometimes I use a text only browser, like Lynx or Lynxlet, just for fun.  Maybe we can overthrow the CSS overlords.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Driving in DC #5

The Borg is coming, and this is what it looks like in Washington, DC:

Yes, that's right, it's the Department of Defense's Mark Center, located just off of Exit 4 of Interstate 395 in Alexandria, VA.  If anyone hasn't seen it yet, the building is big and imposing.  Even as it was going up as just a steel skeleton, I would think, "Holy moly, that thing is huge."  It's only 17 stories, which by New York City standards is actually pretty low, but it's designed to hold over 6,400 employees and the site itself is 16 acres -- enormous by NYC standards.

And it's the impending influx of those 6,400 employees that makes this the "Driving in DC" entry.  The nearest exit for this building is off of Seminary Road, and that already isn't pretty around rush hour.  The Army's Traffic Plan (pdf) says they plan for 3,840 parking spaces and that 20% of employees will use the shuttle buses.  Other reports say the shuttle buses will shuttle to the Mark Center from the King Street, Ballston, Franconia/Springfield, the Pentagon, and West Falls Church metro stops.

I sincerely applaud the traffic engineers' efforts to tackle this really, really difficult problem.  Obviously, military planners want a centrally-located auxiliary office building that's near the Pentagon, but not AT the Pentagon. That means inside the Beltway ... and there just aren't very many locations within the Beltway.  But, aaugh, I don't think and extra 3,800 cars coming in and out of the Seminary Road exit are going to make for a more pleasant experience on I-395 at 5pm.  And no matter how you slice it, there is some serious left-turnage involved for those coming in from the south:

(The Google Maps photo is old and doesn't reflect the new construction over the past two years.)  Add to this the other 15,000 or so workers who are being relocated to Fort Belvoir, and I-95 becomes nearly impassable.  Ouch.

I'm not the only one who's concerned.  In May, Virginia representative Jim Moran stuck language into the 2011 Defense Spending Bill that would reduce the number of parking spaces available for the new Mark Center to 1,000, unless the Army could "fully mitigate the impact on local traffic."  I'm not sure that's a productive way to go about doing things, but I'm sure it got people's attention.

As for me, I plan to watch traffic snarl on the webcam when the site opens in a year or so.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The State of Living Today

OK, back on the blogging horse, this time with a sobering look at how much it costs to live, on average, today.

A few weeks ago, there was a lot of news when the US Department of Agriculture released new figures on how much it costs to raise a kid in the US today, from age 0 to age 18:


The cost is before college, and is for 1 kid.  The report notes that families with 3 or more kids spend 22% less per kid.  That makes a lot of sense.  As the youngest of 3 in my family, I was the recipient of lots of hand-me-downs.  And I liked it that way, gosh darn it!

But that got me thinking: if the cost of raising a kid is that much, and the median household cost in the US is now $176,900, how much does it all add up to, annually?  I mean, how much do you have to earn to account for all those things they say you should be doing, like saving for retirement?

So, let's break this down.  I'm going to make a ton of assumptions, but I think they're within the ballpark of reasonable.  And the point of this exercise is really to get down to an order-of-magnitude estimate of what it costs, not to quibble about the third-decimal-place of accuracy.  So here we go:

  • The average family has 2 kids.  And, let's assume that the second kid gets a 15% discount.  $222,360 per kid, minus a 15% discount for the second kid, results in a cost of $1904 per month.
  • The median house in the US is $176,900.  If I assume a 20% down payment on the house, a 30 year fixed mortgage loan at 5% interest, and $1,000 property tax per year on the place, those monthly payments are $843 per month.
  • I'm not counting on Social Security to bail me out for retirement, so let's say you and your spouse want to retire with $1 million. (That's actually pretty low by many estimates.)  And let's say you have 35 years left to save, and your current retirement nest egg is $50,000.  At 5% interest per year (yes, conservative, but who likes to play aggressively with their retirement?), you need to save $8,000 per year, or $667 per month, for retirement.
  • As I blogged about before, college is expensive.  If each kid is going to squander over $200,000 on college, I'd better start saving, fast.  To get to $200,000 in 18 years, again at 5% interest, that's $500 per month, per kid -- or $1000 per month.  
(Unfortunately, I'm not going to even remotely touch the rate of college tuition increase, even though it's a freaking huge deal and makes this estimate painfully low.  In this case, the kids will have to scrape up some of their own money and make up the difference.)
  • Lastly, there's the living expenses of, well, me.  Let's say that's $1000 per month.

The above comes to $1904 + $843 + $667 + $1000 + $1000 = $5414 in spending, per month.

So assume a 28% federal tax rate, and you get about:
$90,000 per year

That's a household income of $90,000 per year, required to do the "average" American things like own the median cost house, raise 2 kids, save for college, and save for retirement.  I freely admit that I've probably double counted in there somewhere -- I did not read the entire USDA report, and they may already have included the "kid portion" of the larger house that's required; I didn't account for tax deductions on the mortgage interest; et cetera -- but it sure is eye opening to get a value that is approximately 80% higher than the median US income.

Obviously, something has to give, and I think in middle part of this decade, it was the absurdly low savings rate in the US:

We'll see what happens in the future.  For now, I've gotta get back to work.  Looks like I've got some earnin' to do.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The State of Education, Redux

Sorry for the absence lately; we've been moving and I've been tied up with the rest of life.

I just wanted to point out that it appears Bill Gates agrees with the sentiment about (higher) education becoming a more web-centric experience in the future:

Or, there's a text summary here.

In any event, stay tuned for more postings in the next few days.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The State of Education

Sooner or later, I fear that there's another bubble that's going to burst, and it's the private education system in the US.  I don't claim to know how it's going to burst, or (more importantly) when it's going to burst, but the cost of a private, higher-level education is simply becoming untenable.

Cost to attend one academic year at Harvard (including tuition, room, board, and fees) for 2010:

The median household income (for 2008, the latest data I could find):

Tuition costs have been rising at about twice the rate of inflation since 1995.

The above image is borrowed from the site, a great repository of information like this.  Wikipedia also has a discussion about the inflation of college tuition, although it's a little harder to digest.

I could rant for hours about how the system of financial aid is fundamentally flawed (it's treating the symptom, not the problem, and it's just using taxpayer dollars to extend the joyride), but maybe that's better saved for another post.  This post is actually meant to have a positive note to it.

So, in that light, this guy is my hero.  Sal Khan has endeavored to place over 1,400 "lectures" on a website, all in 10 minute chunks that can be downloaded via YouTube.  The topics over everything from biology (Adenosine Triphosphate; The Kidney and Nephron) to Chemistry (Gibbs Free Energy; Galvanic Cells) to Finance (Collateralized Debt Obligations; Treasuries).  I've watched a few on LaPlace Transforms and on Probability and the binomial distribution, and they Don't Suck.  The writing is a bit like chicken scratch, he sounds like my friend Jamie, and I'm pretty sure I would go at LaPlace transforms a bit differently, but the message is there, clear, unambiguous, and readily digestible by the unwashed masses.  For free.  And if you didn't follow something, it's easy to rewind and go back.  This is appealing, and I know I need to brush up on my statistics.

The advantage that universities provide today is that you get a certificate of completion, otherwise known as a diploma.  If an interviewee is in front of me who has just graduated from Penn State University with a degree in aerospace engineering with a 3.4 GPA, I have a pretty good clue of his abilities, his work ethic, and his ability to learn.  I have no such insight into someone who has "completed 700 courses of the Khan Academy."

But I would love to be like Sal: take a few subjects, spend an hour or two brushing up on them from various (unintelligible) textbooks, think on it for a bit, and then assemble a few 10 minute lectures.  To me, that sounds like a tremendous amount of fun, and would be rewarding .... although, there wouldn't be much personal interaction.  I'm pretty sure I could do better than most (but not all) of my college professors.  But to do 1,400 of them?  Wow; that's an impressive feat.

So, with the increase in popularity of sites like Khan's, Bureau 42's lectures on quantum physics, The Teaching Company, and MIT's Open Courseware, perhaps there's a new niche: the college graduate exam.  This could well be the internet education of the future: you do you own learning and studying, and then take an industry-accepted competency exam.  Then, as an employer, I would be able to see your entire transcript and your overall GPA.  It's not perfect, but compared to a $200,000 Harvard education, it's pretty tempting.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Driving in DC #4

Often, when one is trying to navigate the twisted pile of spaghetti that is the DC roadway system, there comes a case of information overload.  The beginning of Canal Road, where it splits off from Foxhall road, is one such instance.  Glance at the picture below, as if you were driving at the posted speed limit of 35 miles per hour, and tell me if you can comprehend and process all of it:

Quick: it's 4pm on a Wednesday; should you make the turn?  If you have to think for more than about 0.4 seconds, you're too late.  You've either missed the turn, or you're now driving the wrong way down a one-way street.

I'm also standing at about the point where cars make the turn.  The print on the signs really is that small.

I completely understand the traffic designer's need to make traffic flow as smoothly as possible during the rush hours.  In this case, both lanes of Canal Road are one-way into the city (as in, opposite the way I'm facing for this picture) during the morning rush hour from 6:00 am until 10:00 am.  But then both lanes are going OUT of the city from 5pm until 7pm Monday thru Friday, except holidays.  All other times, it's two-way traffic.  On paper, or on the static desk of a traffic engineer's workspace, that probably makes sense.

But in practice, as shown in the above, there's just no way that a driver can process all that.  There are no signs preceding this one to tell you what's coming up.  There are no electronic overhead signs to tell you which lanes are valid and which ones are not.  And I bet it doesn't get any better when that orange traffic sign is uncovered. (I didn't peek to see what it says.)  Frankly, I see the giant DO NOT ENTER sign and keep on going.

The GW Parkway, on the other side of the river, is a much better way to get out of town.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Loss Term

Everybody else is blogging about the BP oil spill, so I thought I'd join the fray.  But from an engineering perspective.

As the annals of history evaluate and scrutinize the events in gory detail of case study after case study, I believe that adding the dispersant will emerge as the worst single decision in the entire crisis.

This problem is a lot like reactor theory.  You have a diffuse gas (oil) in a dispersive medium (seawater).  There is a source term (the leaking pipe).  The approximations of reactor theory were built for this kind of stuff.

The fundamental equation here is the scalar Helmholtz equation, drilled into every nuclear engineer's early education:

D is the diffusion coefficient; it's how fast the oil "bleeds" through the water.
Sigma(a) is the absorption coefficient.  This is the "loss term" that the title of the blog talks about.
S is the source term, and it's estimated at 12,000 barrels per day.

So, the "D del-squared phi" term describes how fast and how far the oil spreads.  S is the 12,000 barrels or 500,000 gallons per day input into out system.

The "sigma-a phi" term describes how fast it's absorbed by something in the water -- the loss term. The loss term is either:
1.  Falling out of solution and ending up on the seafloor,
2.  Washing up on beaches, or
3.  Being eaten by tiny microbes.

But those microbes take a long time to eat up oil.  This webpage and video by the makers of Corexit is helpful and informative.

As of May 25th (which is a week ago at this writing), over 830,000 gallons of Corexit had been dumped into the water to break up the large globules of oil into tiny droplets that dispersed.  In the equation above, this makes D go from a small number to a huge number, and spreads the oil farther.  Without dispersant, you'd have a large, globular, sticky mess.  With Corexit, you have an even larger mess that can distribute and diffuse over a much larger area.  It does not speed up the oil-eating process fast enough to allow the microbes to eat the oil before it washes ashore!

Let me say it again, in a different way: since there is way more oil being dumped than the microbes can ever hope to eat, the only effective loss term is basically washing up on shore.  The use of a dispersant is inappropriate in a problem this large.  Spreading Corexit only makes it worse, because the diffusion coefficient (D) is now huge, and the oil slick can spread over a much wider area.

Ah, the law of unintended consequences.  I think for oil spills where it's already contained, the use of dispersants make sense.  In this case, though, the dispersant allows the oil to spread over a larger area, and makes the problem worse.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Law of Requisite Parsimony

At some leadership class, I learned "The Law of Requisite Parsimony."  Despite its having a ridiculous name, it's a fun and useful thing to remember:

The human brain can only keep track of 7 things, plus or minus 2.

Oh, how true.  (Digits of pi, 41 in my case, don't count.  That was just a bored day in high school physics.)  Which is why I must admit to the masses that I have begun to write down some hints to the passwords required on work systems.  This was a big source of frustration for me at work last Friday.

In any working environment, you're going to have a few different systems that you interact with.  For me, as a contractor, it's a lot: there's this client's system; there's that client's system; there's the "mother ship" encryption scheme ... I counted, and I interact with no fewer than 7 different systems on a daily basis.

Each requires its own password.  Some can have no greater than 8 characters.  Some can have no fewer than 9 characters.  They all must be changed quarterly, biannually, or annually.

I have no hope of keeping them straight; the Law of Requisite Parsimony is hopelessly broken.  In each system's attempt to be as secure as possible, they have put me in the untenable position of keeping each system's requirements' separate and up to date.  The best I can do is write reminders to myself -- hints and suggestions, not the actual passwords -- but I can't wait for the day of biometric scanners becoming more ubiquitous.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Time of Crisis

The Deepwater Horizon oil well continues to spew crude oil into the Caribbean at a rate of 210,000 gallons per day.  Initial attempts at using undersea robots and capping the well were all unsuccessful.  Clearly, this is a very, very difficult technical problem located 100 miles offshore and about 1 mile below ground.

In a mighty need to appear relevant and action-oriented, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing today, grilling the BP America Chairman, the CEO of Transocean, and a senior executive at Halliburton.  NPR has a good wrapup of today's testimony, for more details.

(the above image is taken from the webcast; I assume that material is public domain and nobody will complain about copyright issues.  If I'm wrong, please tell me in the comments.)

Come on, Congress.  Really?

Here's my beef: This is a waste of resources at this time.  Testimony before Congress is not taken lightly by anyone.  I've helped prepare Congressional testimony for two different jobs now (on much lower-profile issues than this), and there is a small team of people spending the better part of a week scrutinizing every word, every phrase, every nuance of testimony.  There is A LOT of time sunk into preparing for these events, and I can only imagine that it's been a similar story for the executives who gave today's testimony.  But these folks have better things to do with their time.  Even though only a few dozen people will probably ever watch the whole hearing (it can be found here; and I haven't watched all 218 minutes of it), a few Senators got to Look Tough and grill the executives for a while on what they knew and when they knew it.  A particularly juicy -- and at this point irrelevant -- exchange starts at 184:45.  Watch thru 187:00.

Now don't get me wrong -- there is plenty of blame to be placed here, either on the manufacturer of the blowout preventer, or the operating company who had shoddy work practices, or the owner of the operation who's ultimately responsible for it all.  But now is not the time to be hauling these folks in front of Congress while 210,000 gallons of oil continue to spew into the ocean every day.

Is diverting these senior executives from their day jobs really the most helpful thing Congress can do right now?  I don't think so.  It would seem to me that lending Army Corps of Engineers, available Navy and Coast Guard vessels, and oil booms and oil dispersants to the problem would be a better use of resources.  And we'll do the finger pointing and blaming AFTER the leak is stopped.

The lawyers need not worry.  Hundreds of lawsuits have already been filed; some enterprising group has even taken out the domain name and populated it.

My heart goes out to the engineers, scientists, boat operators, and trade craft who continue to diligently (and un-gloriously) work nights and weekends, desperately trying to solve this fiendish problem.  I'm pulling for you guys.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


Just because we have gigabytes (and even terabytes) of storage available on our modern computers, it's no reason that programs need to use all that space up.

Take, for example, the venerable Adobe Reader program, designed to be the One PDF Reader To Rule Them All, be it for Windows, Mac, Linux, or whatever operating system you're running.

On its website, Adobe describes the Reader program as follows:

Adobe Reader is the global standard for viewing PDF files. It is the only PDF viewer that can open and interact with all PDF documents. Use Adobe Reader to view, search, digitally sign, verify, print, and collaborate on PDF files.

But, mind you, this is just the reader, not the full blown development program.  Because of a somewhat-fancy pdf file I needed to read, I had to download the latest version of Adobe's Acrobat Reader.  This is what the install screen presented me with:

Are you kidding me?  Nearly 300 MB so I can read a pdf file?  I posit that the "Portable" in "Portable Document Format" is a misnomer if the reader program requires 300MB to install.  The installer download alone was 50MB -- suppose I don't have access to a high speed internet connection?

And so it goes; the inexorable climb towards ever bigger and more complex software, providing more and more opportunities for nasty viruses and other bad things to be inserted into the programs.  The installer for Microsoft Office 2010 is 600MB; the whole suite of programs is 3.5 GB.

Whatever happened to elegance and simplicity?  I remember the old days of the Mac classic, where the operating system and all your applications and files would fit neatly on an 800K floppy.  The first shipping version of Adobe Photoshop fit on an 800K floppy.

The risk, as I suggested above, is that it creates many unknown trap doors for people to take advantage of and cause unintended consequences.  I wish Adobe, Microsoft, and the other software giants out there would realize the utility and need for fast-and-light access to their wares.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A suitcase full of money ...

The bag men have it tough these days.

See, despite the brand spankin' new C-note unveiled by the Treasury Department a few days ago, Ye Olde Benjamin just isn't all that he used to be.  Life is just getting harder and harder for the poor thugs who have to carry around the Big Money.

The culprit?  Inflation.  See, The Office of Management of Budget publishes the official figures for how much inflation is from year to year.  Those figures can be recorded and flipped to see how much inflation has decreased the value of money over the years.  For things like, say, a suitcase full of money.  In this case, a suitcase full o' money today is only one third as valuable as that same suitcase was in 1977.  The following chart illustrates what I'm getting at, for a hypothetical "suitcase value" of $100,000 in 1977.

See, if your average suitcase could hold $100,000 in 1977, the poor thug would have to drag around three and a half suitcases today to be able to seal a deal of equivalent value.

Not that I regularly tote around suitcases full of money.  Come to think of it, I have never toted around a suitcase full of money.  But if the Department of Treasury wants to address the needs of shady businessmen and others who may need to tote around suitcases full of money, they may want to consider a $500 note or even a $1,000 note.  Poor old Benjamin Franklin just isn't worth what he used to be worth.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

More Moon Shot

Other posts are in the works, but I thought I'd take a minute to do some navel-gazing on a timely post about going back to the moon.

Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and Eugene Cernan have published a strong critique of President Obama's NASA budget that stops funding the Constellation program.  In so doing, the US's only option to get to outer space means hitching a ride on the Russian's Soyuz platform ... and Russia just doubled the per-seat cost from $25 million to $50 million. (Hey, they know when they've got the market cornered!)  The three astronauts opine that:
For the United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond earth orbit for an indeterminate amount of time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature.

Strong words from truly admirable men.  They mourn the fact that we're basically abandoning the roughly $10 billion that has been spent on Constellation so far.


In my humble opinion, I do not think the Administration is out on a limb here.  The Augustine report from October 2009 (careful, that's a few megabyte pdf, but worth every electron) starts out by saying the following:
The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory.  It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources.

I can't possibly put it better.  Yes, I truly lament the fact that we're not pursuing the Constellation program and all that it could stand for.  But the $10 billion wasn't just wasted -- it has supported thousands and thousands of hardworking and dedicated engineers for a long time, and furthered the maturity of whatever program comes next.  What I'm afraid Messrs. Armstrong, Lovell, and Cernan do not recognize is that the Constellation program will require an estimated $97 billion to complete.  The Augustine Report got that.

Again, without the fear of the Soviets driving us to the moon, there will be no justification for that kind of expenditure in today's budget-minded world.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Energy Density is a Double Edged Sword

Ever since electricity started to be used to do useful work, there has been a drive towards increasing our ability to store that energy in a battery, ready to provide electricity at a moment's notice.

It started with lead acid batteries.  These relatively simple devices have plates of lead separated by an acid.  Placed in series, they create an electric potential across the layers, and the standard has been to put enough of them in series to make 12 volts.  Bigger plates, the more current the battery can provide.

Lead acids are great: they're fairly cheap, they're reliable, and they can hold a charge for a long time.  But compared to petroleum or other chemical means of storing energy, they suck.

See, most people don't realize just how much ENERGY there is available in something like diesel fuel.  140,000 BTU's per gallon, and diesel fuel is fairly stable.  You can actually drop a lit match in diesel fuel and it will extinguish, not ignite.  (Sorry, YouTube doesn't have any cool videos of this.  You'll just have to trust me and the internet on this one.)

Do NOT try this little experiment with gasoline.  Gasoline is more volatile, has a lower flashpoint, and although it "only" has 125,000 BTU's per gallon, it WILL ignite with a match.  It's more common in American engines because it burns faster, so high-output engines that we Americans love so much can be smaller and a little lower weight.

So petroleum has a lot of energy stored in it, it's reasonably easy to pump around and store in large tanks, and the world has grown around it.  It's a very handy form of energy transfer and storage.

If only we could develop a battery that had the same energy storage capacity.  Lithium ion batteries seem to do pretty well at storing a lot of energy in a small and lightweight package -- which makes them ideal contenders for things like laptop batteries and electric car batteries like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt.  According to this site, lithium batteries can store about 128 watt-hours per kilogram.  To put that in real-world terms here are a few comparisons:
  • A 5 pound lithium ion battery could run your average hairdryer or microwave for about 12 minutes.  
  • The amount of energy in a 5 pound lithium battery would be completely consumed by the time you tried to accelerate a 3,000 pound car -- about average by today's standards -- to 60 miles per hour.   Those same 5 pounds of gasoline is about two thirds of a gallon, which could drive your average car 15 to 20 miles.  Or power a really nice Honda EU2000i generator to provide 2000 watts of electricity for almost 8 hours.
  • For a more direct comparison, diesel fuel has 140,000 BTU's per gallon, which weighs 8.1 pounds.  8.1 pounds of a lithium ion battery would provide about 1600 BTU's.

That's about two orders of magnitude difference.  Ouch.

So battery technology still has a ways to go, and there's still the other edge of the sword.  Lithium batteries can be kind of finicky; they require active electronic controls to keep everything hunky-dory.  Failure of those electronic controls can result in bad things.  Remember the spate of laptop batteries catching fire that caused a massive recall?  Active circuits are required to prevent the lithium battery from "going bad."

As energy densities go up, the amount of energy released if the battery is shorted get worse.  There's a serious problem that happens when all that energy decides it wants to get out at once, and it can be hard to stop.  The battery fire I had on my boat, due to shorting a very large (Group 8D) lead-acid battery is one such example:

It's like the famous Ford Pinto problem, setting fire to the gas tank.  Lots of energy all released at once.

The road towards higher and higher energy density batteries will be a slightly bumpy one.  As they get more and more common in cars, there will be battery fires.  There will be accidents.  But we shouldn't lose hope.  Just like the catastrophic failures experienced by the early steam engines that powered truly massive locomotives, we must keep perspective of the overall greater good that we're accomplishing by doing this.  

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Moon shot

The US is not going back to the moon in the next 50 years.

As an engineer, it pains me to admit that.  I want a "reach for the stars" project (pardon the pun) that motivates and inspires an entire country -- heck, the entire world -- to want to be the next generation of scientists and engineers.  I want a focused, challenging program that requires a a few percent of the country's resources in order to make it happen -- and to be able to reap the benefits of the side technologies that must be created to support the greater mission.  For instance, teflon was invented during the Manhattan Project, as the K-25 engineers needed something that would withstand the corrosive effects of uranium hexafluoride.  We're still reaping the benefits of all the "side technologies" that fell out of the Apollo program.  I want to be able to point to something so that in 50 years we can look back and say, "See what our generation accomplished?"

But it won't happen in today's society.  We are a fundamentally reactive society, and the impetus just isn't there to do it.

Why did we go to the moon in the first place?  Because the Soviets had just cleaned our clock by launching Sputnik and then Yuri Gagarin into space.  An argument can be made that we could have beaten Sputnik into space -- Wernher von Braun was chomping at the bit to launch his Jupiter rocket -- but that government bureaucracy didn't want to take the risk of a high-profile failure.  Why did we develop the atom bomb?  A weapon of unspeakable terror, it also launched the nuclear power industry, but we started it because we were afraid the Germans (and possibly the Japanese) were going to get there first.

We reacted to get to the moon.  We reacted to split the atom.  GNP-sized projects like these don't spawn out of ambition; they spawn from necessity.

And so President John F. Kennedy made his famous declaration in 1961 that Americans would land a man on the moon and have him return safely by the end of the decade.  It was only with the specter of the Soviet Empire nipping at our heels that the US was able to dedicate the resources, funding, and drive that was necessary to make the goal of landing on the moon.  Sure, LBJ launched his Great Society during this period, and the entanglement in Vietnam grew larger and larger over the decade, but the continuous fear of the Soviets beating us to the next major target -- the moon -- was what allowed the US leaders to be able to divert something like 10% of the federal budget towards NASA's mission to the moon.

That can't happen today.  

President Bush made occasional headlines throughout the 2000s when he and then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin established a plan to officially retire the Shuttle Transport System and develop the Constellation program that would get us back to the moon.  It was a longer term project, getting a person to the moon by around 2020, that would rely on generally well-established rocket technology.  But even that has suffered a demise in the Obama Administration, as the shifting economic winds force budgeteers to take a hard look at what can be funded and what cannot.  Today's astronauts are upset, and my heart goes out to them.

We can't honestly justify spending the hundreds of billions of dollars that will be necessary to go to the moon, when there are more pressing domestic and international needs that have to be tended to.  Many will argue that every billion dollars spent by NASA is a billion dollars that could be spent better elsewhere: education, health care, Social Security, paying down the national debt, rebuilding infrastructure … the list goes on and on.  

So, when the Cost Benefit Analysis inevitably gets developed for going to the moon, the cost will always be too high and the benefit will always be too low.  A cost benefit analysis is mutually exclusive with going to the moon; the social and political environment has to be such that performing a cost benefit analysis is unthinkable.

And the road to success with big projects like this is a bumpy one, fraught with failure.  Today's risk-averse society appears, to me at least, to be unwilling to accept the kind of risks that would be involved with a project like going to the moon again.  In January 1967, three prominent astronauts died in the tragic Apollo 1 fire during a drill on the launch pad.  The unmanned Apollo 4 (there was no Apollo 2 or 3) successfully launched in November 1967 - a scant 9 months later, and astronauts were pissed that it was unmanned.  For comparison, after the Challenger incident in January 1986, the next shuttle launch did not occur until September 1988,  full 33 months later.  Similarly, after the Columbia accident in January 2003, the next shuttle launch did not occur until July 2005, a gap of 30 months.  

So I don't look for innovation and inspiration to come from these huge, GNP-sized projects in my lifetime.  For better or for worse, I don't believe the geo-political forces are in play to support them.  Societies just won't stand for it while societies perceive better ways to spend the money.  In the meantime, we'll have to look to companies and smaller institutions to provide innovation and inspiration -- which may be no less impressive, but just on a smaller scale than going to the moon.

Incidentally, JFK is famously remembered for his prediction of getting a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  But that wasn't his only "by the end of this decade" prediction, and history has kindly overlooked his other predictions that did not come true.  At the University of Texas in 1963, JFK also predicted that the US would develop its own supersonic transport, that would compete with the UK & France's recently unveiled Concorde program, but fly at three times the speed of sound, not just twice the speed of sound like the Concorde.  Due to budget overruns and a general lack of support, this program was cancelled in 1971.  No prototype ever flew.