Friday, February 26, 2010

Driving in DC #3

Two-way streets that turn one-way during certain times.

Take, for example, the following "average" street in Washington, DC:

Since I took this picture as a pedestrian on the corner, it's not quite the perspective you'd have as a car ... in that case, you would be about 15 feet to the right from where I took it.  But this still illustrates the point.

It's a normal intersection.  Suppose you need to make a right turn onto 15th street.  Watch out!!!  You may have missed the small writing on the following sign, which I've magnified from the above image:

From 4 to 6 pm, you CANNOT make a right turn.  It's one-way going the other way during rush hour.  This is a pretty low-visibility sign to prevent a driver from trying to swim "upstream" against the usual nasty horde of other DC drivers.  If you look at the first picture, there's a lot going on there, and the one-way indicator really doesn't stand out.

To be fair, there is also a "No Right Turn" arrow on the other side of the street with some tiny writing underneath it, but it's equally as hard to discern:

But the point of this post is not to highlight one particular poorly-marked intersection.  This street is not an oddity; there are LOTS of time-dependent one-way streets in DC, subtly marked by those black and yellow signs.

Do these exist anywhere else?  A few minutes of googling turned up nothing; they appear to be unique to the DC area.  Were I a visitor in the DC area during rush hour, the existence of these signs sure would make life difficult.

Monday, February 15, 2010

President's Day 2010

Today is the observation of President's Day.  Technically, President's Day falls on Washington's birthday (Feb 22nd), but the federal government chooses to observe it on the Monday between Washington's birthday and Lincoln's birthday (Feb 12th).  The thinking is that it allows all states to celebrate all Presidents, not just Washington.

So, I thought I'd take a look at who our President chooses to surround himself with.  That would be the Cabinet, and associated Cabinet-level staff members.

The Cabinet, in the order of succession to the President, is:

  • Vice President (Joe Biden)
  • Secretary of State (Hillary Clinton)
  • Secretary of Treasury (Tim Geithner)
  • Secretary of Defense (Bob Gates)
  • Secretary of Justice (Atty Gen. Eric Holder)
  • Secretary of Interior (Ken Salazar)
  • Secretary of Agriculture (Tom Vilsack)
  • Secretary of Commerce (Gary Locke)
  • Secretary of Labor (Hilda Solis)
  • Secretary of Health and Human Services (Kathleen Sebelius)
  • Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (Shaun Donovan)
  • Secretary of Transportation (Ray LaHood)
  • Secretary of Energy (Steven Chu)
  • Secretary of Education (Arne Duncan)
  • Secretary of Veterans Affairs (Eric Shinseki)
  • Secretary of Homeland Security (Janet Napolitano)

Other positions have cabinet-level rankings:

  • White House Chief of Staff (Rahm Emanuel)
  • Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (Lisa Jackson)
  • Director of the Office of Management and Budget (Peter Orszag)
  • US Trade Representative (Ronald Kirk)
  • US Ambassador to the UN (Susan Rice)
  • Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers (Christina Romer)

I thought it was interesting to note that the constitution (Article 2, Section 2) doesn't explicitly call out the existence of a Cabinet, although it makes a general reference to "principal Officers of the executive Departments" and "Heads of the Departments."

What will be the subject of a later post (kinda busy, gotta run) will be the question, "Are these the right set of advisers to help run and manage the country in the 21st century?  And how does that compare to how other large corporations and other entities are organized?"  I'd also like to jot down in what year each of those departments was established.  It's a subject for a later post because I've got to run.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Igloo finished!

After about 4 hours (total) of work, the last block was placed on the igloo!  The top went together fairly easily, largely aided by MUCH better snow conditions today.  The string of large blocks we left out during the day solidified nicely, and even the small bricks (visible on the top in the above picture) came up nicely.  There is a lot of snow in that igloo.

So, some more details on construction.  Below are the two types of blocks we used: a storage tote, and a smaller plastic bin.

The tote is 23.5" x 17.5" x 15.5".  The plastic bin is ... well ... smaller.  In an ideal world, the large plastic tote would be 10% to 15% smaller so it would be easier to handle.  On the other hand, it sure was nice getting those big blocks into place and seeing some serious progress with each block.

Having two people sure was nice.  When you get towards the top, they start angling in pretty severely, and it's very nice to have someone stand on the inside and hold the bricks in place while you pile more snow in and stack other blocks.  

We think it'll last for a while.  Other tenants of the apartment complex have been very interested in it, and a few have even been curious enough to climb inside.  We hope they have fun, too.

To Build an Igloo

In Jack London's "To Build A Fire," the main character ultimately perishes for want of being able to start a flame in some seriously sub-zero temperatures.  I'm gaining new-found respect for the Eskimos, because Jack London's character wouldn't have fared any better if he had tried to build an igloo.  This is hard.

Inspired by this guy, my wife and I decided to try our hand(s) at constructing an igloo.  He really makes it look easy ... nice, neat, regular snow blocks that stack neatly and uniformly to make a dome.  Our courtyard area has tons and tons of snow after the SnowFecta, so we picked a place that looked like it wanted an igloo.

We don't own a snow shovel, which is a bit of a handicap when trying to fill large buckets.  Of course, everyone and their grandmother rushed out to buy snow shovels last week, so it's unlikely that we'd be able to buy one now.  Nevertheless, we got a good two hours of clearing, block-making, and stacking in last night before the light went away.  I was a little disappointed in how things turned out.  In the videos and instructions you see, they make it seem like the snow is made out of modeling clay: easy to shape, grip, and slice around however you like.  Maybe conditions aren't perfect for us, but it isn't packing very well.  The large blocks tend to lose corners or crack through awfully easily, the small blocks crumble in your hands.  

So this post is going to be a guide for the "backyard igloo-builder."  I'm assuming your snow isn't perfect; that you don't have a 3 foot machete to cut snow with; that you don't have a 6 foot deep "snow field" from which you can easily cut snow blocks (hah!); and that you're just doing this for the fun of it and not for survival. We've learned a few things in the process:
  • When packing a large block, pack it dense when it's halfway full.  Then pack it again when it's full.  If you don't do this, the bottom of the block stays fluffy and doesn't make a good brick.
  • Let the bricks set out for an hour or two before stacking them.  This lets them settle and they get much more rigid.  This may not be possible with small, impatient children.  In that case, set up a line of bricks, and take the oldest brick as you start stacking, replacing it with a new brick.  (This is a great example of a FIFO buffer.)
  • Clear the area of as much snow as you can before letting the bricks settle for an hour or two.  This makes it much easier to cut the brick out when you're ready for it.
  • After they've settled, RE-FLIP the blocks when stacking them on the igloo.  I guess this doesn't apply if you're shaping them into perfect squares, but our snow just isn't good enough for that.  Since the storage box is tapered slightly towards the bottom (wide end on top), it's much better to stack the snow blocks with the narrow end on the bottom.  It gives you a much better surface for the next layer.  Then stuff snow in the remaining cracks and holes.
  • A large kitchen knife is very handy for cutting the blocks free and beveling the edges so things slant in properly.
  • Plastic dustbins get brittle in the snow and break.  They don't make very good makeshift shovels.
  • Pet dogs tend to be more disruptive and destructive than you'd like. They also take pride in making yellow snow.
So far we've got about three layers of large blocks, which is good for 4.5 to 5 feet in height.  It's quite an impressive amount of snow when you look at it, but closing up the top hole is going to be tough.

In the picture, you can see our line of large blocks "cooking" on the left.  There are also two small blocks "cooking" on the bottom right ... those are the ones that haven't settled very well.  They seem like they'll be great pieces for the top, but we hope they won't crumble.

You can also see our construction method: two layers of big blocks (before I figured out that it's a good idea to re-flip them when stacking), followed by a layer of small blocks (mostly crumbs, really), and a 3rd layer of big blocks.  We did the two layers + crumbs last night, and then the 3rd layer this morning.  We're letting the blocks "cook" during the day while we do other things like work.

You can also see the entry hole on the right of the igloo.  An entry hole takes up a frightening amount of real estate!  Make sure you have a good 3 feet of snow (at least!) on the igloo before you start cutting it out.  Also stay as low as possible ... think of trying to dig underneath the igloo to keep as much snow as possible in the walls.

We'll try the next few layers later this evening, and will update the results.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Yucca Mountain Spotted Fever

This one just boils my blood.

As quoted from the first line of the WSJ article:
"The Obama administration wants a bigger legal team to do battle with utility companies over the federal government's failure to collect spent nuclear waste as required by legislation from the 1980s."

Let me spell this out in a little more detail.  In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. (careful, that one's a big pdf.  Here's the wiki.)  In it, Congress started charging the nuclear electric utility companies one-tenth of one cent for every kilowatt-hour of electricity they sold.  That money was to be put aside for a long term geologic repository, and Congress guaranteed that it would be open for business (i.e., the utilities could ship their spent fuel to it) by 1998.  Of course, that 0.1 cent charge was passed on to consumers.

In 1987, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and picked Yucca Mountain as the one geologic repository.  One repository to rule them all.  This is not a bad idea, really. The waste has to be put somewhere (or reprocessed, which wasn't really on America's radar screen in the early to mid 1980's after President Carter banned it), and Congress should be commended for its forward thinking -- charge the customers a small fee now, and build towards a final solution.  This is much more palatable than paying for a large project all in one fell swoop.

1998 came and went.  No repository.  Whoops.  Congress moved the date back to 2004.

2004 came and went.  No repository.  And DOE announced there wasn't gonna be one for a while.

And it's been dying a slow death ever since, with perhaps the final nail in the coffin in the current budget request now in 2010.

Guess who's pissed?  The nuclear utility companies who have had billions taxed from them and received nothing in return.  And the taxpayers should be livid now, too.  The nuclear power companies are gunning for the money that has been taken from them -- to the tune of $50 billion -- and they've got one heck of a case going for them.  And now the Justice Department wants another $11 million to help defend its case?

That's just throwing good money after bad.  This post is not intended to spawn a discussion over whether Yucca Mountain should be pursued or not; it's intended to point out the gall of lawmakers to endlessly spend money on an indefensible position.  At the very least, Congress should stop taxing the ratepayers for something the government admits isn't going to happen.  That alone might get the utilities off their back.

Change Management

As an engineer in the DC area, I inevitably have to do some engineering-related work with and for the government.  I have been on both sides of the fence (both as a Federal employee "calling the shots," as it were, and as a contractor, trying to meet the requirements and expectations of a Fed), and I've seen some troubling trends in the way so much business is done.  Or isn't done, in some cases.

I think it fundamentally comes down to the fact that the government doesn't have to show a profit at the end of the quarter. Or year. Or ever. So the government is the one organization uniquely suited to be completely oblivious to the effects of change on a process.

The commercial world, however, needs to show a profit every so often. And therein lies the difference.

What a pain.

So I get a little concerned when reading reports about program that overrun their budgets.  Or things not progressing according to schedule.  It's easy for the government to tell its side of the story loud and clear ... the contractor is not going to bite the hand that's feeding it and point out the endless lists of scope creep, changing requirements (or sometimes flat-out wrong requirements), and unrealistic expectations on the part of the government.

Many government organizations endlessly add scope and tasks to a given project.  Seriously, the movie "Pentagon Wars" is not an exaggeration for many government institutions.  Many contractors, trying desperately to appease the monster that is the US government, acquiesce, and try very hard to incorporate those changes.  Hey, we're trying to give the best value to the government, right?

"Contractor does good job for Dept of Defense" doesn't get news headlines.  "Contractor charges $600 for a toilet seat" does.

But I applaud Defense Secretary Gates's efforts to enforce some discipline, and sometimes making difficult decisions, if for no other reason than making an example of what not to do.  It's a little heavy-handed -- the people I believe who are really at fault for causing these messes aren't getting the appropriate "attention" -- but hopefully there will be a trickle-down effect.

Here's my point: Secretary Gates just recently removed Marine Major General David Heinz from leading the F-35 development program.  At $300 billion dollars, this is the military's Largest. Weapons Procurement. Ever.  I have the utmost respect for Marines, and usually generals to boot, but a brief review of his biography shows that he has program management and acquisition experience off and on since 2002.  While he has a stellar flight record (a test pilot and astronaut candidate, for crying out loud!), I'm not sure he's the most qualified person to try and lead the Pentagon's largest defense acquisition program.

President Obama made big waves by signing and Executive Order saying that lobbyists could not serve in his Administration, in an attempt to shut the revolving door.  On one hand, that sounds encouraging -- no more graft and a lot less pork.  On the other hand, you're shutting out a lot of the people who are best qualified to run the large programs that the government likes to run.

In a big storm, who better to have at the helm than an experienced skipper?