Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Time To Be Thankful

I really enjoy this Thanksgiving / Christmas / New Year's time of year, as it provides some time off from work to appreciate some of the smaller stuff and take your bearings.

So, I'd like to take a moment and thank the folks who work diligently, without much credit or fanfare, helping make this thing we call "society" work.

1.  Car safety engineers.  A while ago, I got in a car accident.  This was my car:

This picture was taken from the junkyard, well after the accident.  Multiple airbags deployed, two cars totalled (including mine), a third was seriously dented, and everyone walked away from it.  I think that's pretty amazing, and would like to extend a heartfelt "thank you" to all the engineers out there who carefully consider accident scenarios in the design of their cars.  Wow.

2.  All the folks at Amazon's Fulfillment Centers who dutifully take our orders.
Amazon fulfillment center.  Click for YouTube video of how it all works.

Amazon does crazy, crazy amounts of business: on the Monday after Thanksgiving, Amazon sold more than 158 items per second.  Actually selling that much stuff is one impressive feat; I think an even more impressive feat (logistically) is shipping and tracking all that stuff.  So, my hat is off to the folks who set that up, and my hat is off doubly so for the people who worked hard to fulfill all our orders.  They don't get enough credit.

3.  The software engineers and hardware techs who were able to successfully absorb the impact of 6.8 million devices being activated on Christmas Day.  Happily, I can count myself among those 6.8 million, but you don't survive that kind of hit on your network without a lot of forethought and intelligence.   

About a quarter of a billion apps were downloaded on Christmas, which is twice the normal load in December and three times what was downloaded last year.  So, a profound thank you to the network administrators and people who kept the servers humming, even under a crushing load like that on Christmas.

The list could go on and on: police officers, radio and TV engineers, security guards at important places, mail delivery folks (UPS, FedEx, USPS, DHL, etc.) ... The fact is, there are a tremendous number of unsung heroes who quietly but determinedly go about their business, ensuring that the rest of us can have safe and happy holidays.  Society doesn't just run automatically; it works through the hard work and dedication of millions of folks.

Thanks to all of you for making our society work.  Here's to best wishes for a safe and prosperous 2012.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Differential

When I was about six years old, I remember playing with my Matchbox toys and noticing that, on a curve, the outside wheels had to spin faster than the inside wheels.  Matchbox toys at the time were connected by a simple axle, and the little bit of skidding had no impact on those smooth, plastic wheels.

I asked my Dad how it worked on real cars.  My Dad, a lawyer, had no idea, and just responded, "It's very complicated machinery in there."  (Well, to be honest, he could very well have been tired with my questioning and did not want to get into the inner workings of a the gears.)

The complicated machinery is now known as a differential, and I've always thought it was a little piece of magic.  (The other impressive piece of magic is the now old-style planetary gear system used on automatic transmissions, but that's for another day.)  So, I present to you, for your enjoyment, a 1937 movie about differentials and how they work.  It's very impressive and very instructive. (Skip ahead to the 3:30 mark to jump over the repetitive, long introduction material.)

I only wish I had YouTube when I was six.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The nuclear industry is taking some hits...

I started this post a while ago (back in March, to be exact), and recent events have made it still more relevant.  In the immediate wake of the Fukushima accident, there were a couple of bad news announcements:

If you read the letter that Jaczko sent back to the White House Chief of Staff, it really reads like a megalomaniac trying to plead his case.  Throw the bum out.  Or at least, put Ostendorff in as the new Chairman.

Anyhow.  The above incidents are pretty detrimental to the nuclear industry, that was trying to make a go of it again in the US.  And it certainly makes the road a little rougher for the Small Modular Reactor crowd.

Which is unfortunate.  SMR's are a promising way to create domestic jobs and power our future.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


"Propose to an Englishman any principle, or any instrument, however admirable, and you will observe that the whole effort of the English mind is directed to find a difficulty, a defect, or an impossibility in it. If you speak to him of a machine for peeling a potato, he will pronounce it impossible: if you peel a potato with it before his eyes, he will declare it useless, because it will not slice a pineapple. Impart the same principle or show the same machine to an American or to one of our Colonists, and you will observe that the whole effort of his mind is to find some new application of the principle, some new use for the instrument."
Charles Babbage, 1832.

Charles Babbage is most famous for his difference engine, which could arguably be considered the first computer ... but he was a very smart individual in other fields as well, including astronomy, cryptography, and is even credited with inventing the cow catcher.

This post is just a wish that more Americans would act like the Americans depicted by Babbage nearly two hundred years ago, and less like the Englishmen.  Ask yourself daily which camp you're acting in.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Societal Abdication of Responsibility

There's an alarming trend here in political society, and I don't like it.

Look, all of the above are examples of people trying to worm their way out of previous responsibilities, agreements, and commitments -- and have the government bail them out.  I think that's unconscionable.  There are very real costs associated with every one of those bailouts, and it's not fair to put that burden on Uncle Sam.  John Sununu put it extremely well in last week's issue of Time magazine:
Lost amid this economic activism is the principle that laws should clarify and facilitate the process for dealing with insolvencies but never pretend they can be avoided.  To think otherwise constitutes a form of legislative arrogance ... Too many lawmakers believe government can oversee, manage or invest with more insight and efficiency than the marketplace. [emphasis added]
An inherent facet of our economy, one that must be acknowledged and embraced, is that something like 10% of all American companies fail every year.  As painful as it is in the short term, failure -- and learning from those failures -- is a fundamental part of what makes our society stronger.  Failures happen.  Society needs to address those failures (and I think that, for the most part, it has), but in no way is the government responsible for preventing those failures.  And while I have sympathy towards those who put themselves $100,000 in debt in pursuing their degree in art history, as a taxpayer, I feel no obligation towards bailing them out.  Those students knew darned well what the obligations were for student loans, and what their chances were for employment on the other side.

People agree to commitments all the time.  I wish people would think a little more carefully about the implications before they make big commitments.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Every Accident Can Be Prevented ... but At What Cost?

It has become popular and trendy in most business circles to tow the party line of, "Every Accident Can Be Prevented."  Safety, safety, safety.  Slips, trips, and falls.  Electrical hazard safety.  Ladder safety.  Ergonomics.  It's everywhere, and we often have to sit through endless sfaety videos about why we need to do this, pay attention to that, be on the lookout for gremlins ... and now I see this philosophy creeping into the hallways:

Yes, my place of employment has now taken to putting up mirrors on the corners of the hallways, in order to prevent burns from hot coffee that might be incurred by two people bumping into each other.  I also recently saw a street crossing, with a pile of orange flags at each end of the crosswalk.  The thinking is you're supposed to grab a flag and wave it as you cross the street, so cars don't hit you.

Here's what I get: liability is expensive.  In the construction industry, it's bad news if your company has a reputation of being unsafe.  Lawsuits are absurdly expensive, to the tune of $1M+ for injury, lawyer fees, and additional insurance costs, and they can skyrocket from there.  And it's additive: have 1 accident, and your comapny's accident insurance goes up.  So, sure, it makes financial sense for a company to invest $100,000 in making an environment safer, if they think it'll help prevent a $1M accident that only has a 10% chance of occurring.  In industries where people work in close proximity to large, rotating equipment -- it makes a lot of sense to ensure people don't get caught in the gears.

Here's what I don't get: the unbridled, pervasive, never ending burden of safety requirements, and the safety officer's unchecked ability to Stop Work for an arbitrarily small potential safety issue in non-hazardous environments.  Nobody seems to calculate the cost, the reduced ability to do work, the impact to productivity, or the imapct to morale of requiring everyone to take three levels of electrical safety training until they can work on their 100V, milli-amp equipment again. (Note to non-technical readers: a high voltage is not necessarily dangerous.  The spark you get from static electricity in the wintertime can be 6,000 volts or higher.  No big deal, becuase the current is really low.)  Or the lost time due to requiring everyone in the company to sit through this year's collection of 12 safety videos, complete with quizzes at the end.

Note to safety officers: As an office worker, I assure you, I have forgotten everything about that ladder safety quiz within 2 weeks.

Here's what I also don't get: A draconian, inflexible rule system.  In many instances, you're given limits within which you're allowed to do your work.  If you're a Level 1 worker, for instance, you get to do A, B, and C.  But if you want to do 1.000000001C -- something just barely outside the norm of C -- then suddenly the door slams down and you need to get Level 55 worker training, which takes six months and costs thousands of dollars.  Safety officers gleefully point to the rule book and say, "I'm not authorized to grant an exception.  This is for your own good."

Sometimes I pine for the (perceived) halcyon days of the 1950's and 1960's, where I get the impression that you could saunter down to your technical area, and start doing work.  Look, you pay us professionals well and we're smart people; when we get into unfamiliar territory or we do something we're not comfortable with, we ask for help.

I fear that the "scope creep" of allowing people to do less and less because of some infinitesimally small chance that something might go wrong is creating a "never try" attitude in society.  Preventing me from doing anything because something might go wrong seems a perverse motivation, after they ostensibly hired me because of my intelligence and dilligence.  A different society, one that allows and accepts a certain low-level of accidents could be a very productive society indeed.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

November 11th, 2011

There's a big day coming up -- and this is something you can share with friends, family, and co-workers.

This Friday is Veterans Day.  It's held on November 11th (or observed on the nearest weekday, since it is a Federal holiday and all), in honor of the signing of the Armistice that officially ended World War I.  It was signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month ... of 1918.

But this year's Veterans Day will be particularly notable, because this is the first time it will be held in a year ending in 11.  Here's a preview of what you can expect to see -- TWICE -- this coming Friday:

My Casio LW-200H, which I'm very happy with for running and workouts.

Oooooh, it's all 1's:

  • The hour is 11.
  • The minute is 11.
  • The seconds are 11.
  • The month is 11.
  • The day is 11.
  • The year is '11.

The delay on my camera stinks; it took multiple shots and resets of the watch to time it correctly.  You may now return to your usual level of Geekery.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

An Engineer's Guide to Raising a Kid, Part II

Due to the overwhelming success of the previous post (a whopping 18 page views...), we're doing a Part II.  That, and the fact that I forgot some very important elements in Part 1.

(Aside: I thought my posts on how to build an igloo were a gift to the internet that would be a lot more popular than they have been -- it was real-world advice using equipment and tools that most everybody could probably find in their closets and kitchen.  Alas, my site doesn't show up anywhere in the top 5 pages of Google hits of "How To Build An Igloo."  How to Build an Igloo in Minecraft even comes up before my page.  Sigh.  It seems my attempts at giving instruction to the world are falling on deaf ears.)

Anyhow, the following have also been instrumental in helping take care of Beth over these past 7 months:

8.  A Binky Clip.  The picture says it all.  One end velcros to the pacifier, the other end clips to a seat belt, corner of shirt, edge of car seat ... anything.  It really has been handy.  Think about it: every child is going to drop things; it's one of the things they're best at.  (It's also especially cute when they drop things over the side of their high chair, lean over the side to look at it on the ground, and then look up at you expectantly, like, "Aren't you going to get that?  Little help here?"  Repeat 50 times.)  This makes recovery easier, and even self-recovery possible.

At 7 months, Beth is rapidly losing interest in pacifiers as they were originally intended, but she still enjoys playing with them in general.  For those who are opposed to pacifiers: more power to you, but ouch -- that's a tough learning curve those first few months.

9.  A Glider and Ottoman.  I seriously can't believe I forgot this in Part I.  While everyone is different, you will probably spend more time with your baby in this chair than engaged in any other activity.  We got ours (lightly used) off of Craiglist, and have put thousands of miles on it since then.

Also, a note: I purposely picked a somewhat ugly color to use for the picture, to illustrate a point.  At 3 in the morning, do you really think you're going to care what color the chair is?  There's only one thing that matters: comfort.  Give them all a test drive.  If there is a squeak, or a bump, or a creak -- forget it.  It must rock absolutely silently, or else it will drive you bonkers.

And, yes, chances are, the ottoman is worth it.

10.  A swing.  There are lots of varieties of these, and WOW they can get expensive.  We got ours from a consignment store for $15, and it has been money well spent.  In our case, it's a great place to safely put Beth down for a while, keep her happy, and maybe even let us take a nap.  Other friends of ours have a particularly fancy one, complete with iPod attachment, that also can accept a car seat.  That's actually tempting (the car seat, not the iPod part): being able to plunk her into the swing while still in her car seat would be valuable.  But that's in the "nice to have" category.

The only complaint?  Ours runs on 4 D-cell batteries, and ONLY on batteries.  Since these can be used for 2+ hours at a stretch, it would be very convenient to be able to just plug it in.  Oh, well.  We just go thru 4 D batteries about every three weeks.  (Our parents tell us about the OLD models that were wind up, and supposedly had the loudest, crankiest wind-up mechanism in the world, that was guaranteed to wake the baby if you wanted to wind it back up.  So, it could be worse.)

11. Advice.  Everyone is probably going to try to give you advice, even this blog.  Every kid is different, every parent is different, every situation is different.  Take everything with a grain of salt.

But some of the best, most reassuring "advice" I heard actually came from a neighbor of ours.
"You think you have things down to a routine, and then, WHAM!  It's right back to square one again."
I found that particularly comforting a variety of times.  Beth did change routines on us, many times, and is still changing things up on us.  It was reassuring for me to know that other people had gone through similar events and had been similarly stymied by inconsistent or different behavior.  You can try to be consistent, and you can try to establish routine, but for those first few months, a newborn baby is going to do whatever a newborn baby feels like it should be doing at the time.

And that's about it!  Happy Parenting.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

An Engineer's Guide To Raising a Kid

Beth will turn 7 months just a few short days from now, and I thought it would be neat to look back and share some of the things we have found particularly useful and handy over that time.  Note that television isn't anywheres near this list.  :)

Caveat Emptor: Every kid is different.  In discussions with friends and family, it has become very apparent that what works well for one kid and one family does not work at all for another.  My publishing of this list is in no way trying to influence the values, mores, habits, or style of your child's upbringing.  People start bristling with rage pretty quickly if you try to do that.

1.  The Happiest Baby On The Block.  More than any other book we read, this one gave us the most confidence that, yes, we might actually have a chance at soothing a crying newborn.  It's not perfect -- nothing is and we still had our share of late nights and early mornings -- but it sure helped.  Also consider searching for videos of how to do some of the steps mentioned here on YouTube.

Chillin' in her Boppy.
2.  A Boppy.  This horseshoe-shaped pillow has been instrumental in countless feedings, naps, and general soothing sessions.  Other pillows could probably serve the purpose, but we have consistently reached for this one.  Also useful for safely "stashing" the kid when you want to securely place her in one area.

3.  Moby Wrap.  This clever contraption is really just a 25 foot long, extra-wide scarf.  But some fairly clever people (resourceful mothers, perhaps?) have found interesting ways to fold and wrap the thing around you so that it can securely hold your newborn, infant, and toddler in a variety of ways.  This was very helpful for us for the first few months; it was great once you got her loaded up and you had both hands free to do other things.  Babies usually sleep peacefully in this thing because they're all swaddled up and secure.  Fair warning, though: they get hot, and I wouldn't want to wear this thing in the dead heat of summer.  We have used ours a lot less since Beth turned about 4 months.

En route to the Farmer's Market.
4.  Baby Backpack.  You can pay a lot of money for these, so I recommend asking for these as a gift.  We inherited an old Kelty brand backpack from my sister, and have used it on many day hikes, walks to the Farmer's Market, and even while vacuuming.  It's great to put the kid back there so your hands are free, and she often falls asleep.  Two small warnings: it's slightly unnerving knowing you have your baby back there and you can't see her (is she falling over? can she still breathe?), but after a few minutes you learn to trust the things.  Also, she now has HER hands free, and can grab and pull your neck hair at will.

5.  Baby Einstein Take-Along Tunes.  We call this her "radio," and it's like crack.  When nothing else will soothe her, the flashing light and upbeat classical music will usually lull her for 10 minutes of blissful peace and quiet.

Before our first 5K with Beth.
6.  A BOB Stroller.  Okay, we splurged on this one.  And even then, we bought last year's model on clearance sale from REI. (And looking at the prices of this year's model ... holy moly ... it's not worth $450.  Look on Craigslist or eBay.)  Initially, I thought I would never spend more than $100 on a stroller -- and to be honest, you probably don't need to.  But a high quality, easily-foldable, great-to-run-with stroller has allowed my wife and I to maintain an active lifestyle by jogging with Beth (and the dog!) frequently.  And the stroller is super maneuverable, and will easily navigate just about anywhere.  We've even taken it with us on trail hikes, although that was probably a less-than-brilliant idea.

6.  Interlocking Floor Mats.  This was last weekend's project, where we converted a room into Beth's playroom, so the verdict isn't quite in yet, but it sure looks like fun.  I wish I had a room like this when I was 6 months old.  Sam's Club had a great deal on 0.56" thick, interlocking foam mats, and it was really easy to cut them to size to fit perfectly in the room.  Now we can place her in the playroom and she can romp around all she wants.

All in all, it can result in one cute kid.
Beth, happily surrounded by toys.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The engineer's fascination with adjectives

In multiple former jobs, many of our latest products were adorned with the modifiers "Advanced" or "Next Generation" in order to make them sound sexy, cool, and modern.  The folly of this was recently brought to my attention while reading about RSA's woes from a cyber attack.

The latest form of cyber attack now goes by the moniker "Advanced Persistent Threat."  Described in detail in Wikipedia, the APT is distinguished from the previous forms of cyber attack, such as "Distributed Denial of Service."  The big thing about APT is that it usually involves multiple people (although DDOS's usually do, too), it's "advanced," and it seems to last for a while.

My problem is that everything is advanced these days.  So, what adjective do we reserve for the next form of cyber attack?  The Very Advanced Persistent Threat?  Oh, I know -- we'll call it the Next Generation Persistent Threat.  Look, the things that make an "Advanced Persistent Threat" today are going to be commoditized and brought to the masses within a year or two, and are going to become commonplace.

I think you see where I'm going with this.  Calling something Advanced is short sighted about the future, as today's "advanced" is tomorrow's "obsolete."  Or, worse yet, today's Advanced is tomorrow's "No Way Do I Have To Be Backwards Compatible With That Piece Of Crap."

If I'm ever a project manager, developing a cool new technology, I will be sure to stay far away from calling anything "advanced" or "next generation" or "new concept."  Instead, I think titles and project names should simply be descriptive:  Widget 2.0, Multi-Peer Sharing Algorithm, or Shiny Plastic Toy (to distinguish it from the previous Dull Plastic Toy).  The next generation of engineers can thank me fore it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Coolest Job In America this week

Not that this is a regular feature of the blog, but these guys have the coolest job in America right now:

If you have the guts for it, I have got to think it would be pretty cool to rappel down the Washington Monument.  The view from up there is pretty cool, and you'd also be the first person in quite some time to inspect the world's first large casting of aluminum (100 ounces!), which adorns the very tippy-top of the monument.  When it was finished in 1884, aluminum was a very new and novel metal that was crazy expensive.  New processes made aluminum much cheaper to manufacture, so the novelty of the cap became less cool just a few years after it was dedicated.

And if you haven't seen the video taken from atop the Washington Monument, it is well worth the 30 seconds of viewing.  It's pretty impressive how much things rattle and shake.  Here, I've even embedded it for you; just click.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Loan Guarantee Program Gets a Bad Rap

I've been planning this post for months, but the recent Solyndra press (and the negativity that it's bringing on the whole program) has spurred me into getting off my duff and actually writing about it.

Initially, the government gave a $535 million loan guarantee to a company called Solyndra, which needed additional funding to help start up its innovative new way of making solar panels.  The term "guarantee" is important here, because the government is just providing a guarantee -- it's not actually loaning out any money.

So, on the face of things, the Loan Guarantee Program is a great program:

  • It doesn't cost the taxpayers any money up front,
  • It has the potential for making money through the credit subsidy cost that the government charges in return for the loan guarantee,
  • It supports innovative, new technologies for making electricity, and
  • It creates jobs.

The federal government isn't on the hook for any money unless the company defaults and goes bankrupt.  And -- even if the company does go belly up -- the government usually secures the right to be "first in line" for grabbing any leftover assets that the company may have had.  So, if the unthinkable does happen, at least the government can go in, collect all the inventory, and hopefully auction it off and salvage some of the money.

Initially, the reports on the Solyndra case were very negative.  "OMG!!" they reported.  "A government funded program went bankrupt!!"

This really upset me.  The whole purpose of the loan guarantee program is to promote risky, high tech industries that can't get funding elsewhere.  From the 2005 Energy Act language that started the whole program:
Section 1703 of Title XVII of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 authorizes the U.S. Department of Energy to support innovative clean energy technologies that are typically unable to obtain conventional private financing due to high technology risks. [Emphasis added]
No matter how you slice it, higher risk == higher potential of failure.  At first, I thought people were unwilling to accept this.

But then things got juicy, when it appeared there may have been a connection between Solyndra, one of its financiers, and the Obama Administration.  And then the Solyndra executives are going to plead the 5th amendment when they have to testify? Yeesh.

It also appeared that, back in May or so, the government re-structured the loan guarantee so that it no longer had first-rights to the assets in case Solyndra went belly up.  Giving up these first rights was apparently a last-ditch effort to raise more funding for Solyndra.

So, who is to blame for all of this?  Did the Obama administration really reach in with its Noodly Appendage and skew the loan towards benefitting one of the administration's donors?  Perhaps.  But there's an easy way to figure this out, and satisfy everyone:

For every loan that is granted (and for those that are not), the Loan Program Office brings in an independent engineering firm to review the project from top to bottom, soup to nuts.  The Independent Engineer writes a (sometimes exhaustive) review to characterize the risks and the likelihood of success.  It should be readily apparent from this review (along with any follow up reviews that may have been done) whether the Solyndra business venture was really viable or not.

The fact that it hasn't been released is somewhat concerning to me ... I have a suspicion that if that independent review was a glowing one, then it would have already been released.

Taking a Step Back

I decided to take a step back, and thought, "What else has the Loan Program Office been up to, and what investments tend to have the biggest payoff for the taxpayer?"

Conveniently, the Loan Program Office lists all of its projects funded to date, the amount of the loan guarantee, and some other stats about the project.  Most notably for me, the total expected number of megawatt-hours (MW-hr) each project is supposed to produce, annually.

In layman's terms, the annual MW-hr figure is the amount of JUICE the plant can crank out per year.  So, which projects crank out the most juice for the lowest investment cost?  I copied the data as published on the DOE site, and compiled it into a table.

Wow.  Geothermal is cheap.  I was surprised at that.  Right after that is nuclear, which I was pleasantly surprised to see.  And solar, no matter how you slice it, is still pricey.  Wind is somewhere in the middle.

I was, however, encouraged to see that the rooftop solar project (putting solar panels on rooftops, and in this case at military installations) was the most affordable of the solar bunch.  Personally, I have always liked that idea -- we're not using our rooftops for anything else, so we might as well stick some solar panels up there and use the energy productively.

If I had more time, I would color-code the bars based on what technology each one is, but it's getting late and this post is getting long.  Please support your local engineer.  :)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Chess, as Life

I sheepishly admit that I continue to get creamed by the chess program on my phone, even at the easiest level.

But, even though I suck at chess, there are important parallels with life and lessons to be learned.  Some of these have been brought home to me in recent days.  The biggest one, and the one I think others should learn, too, is:

Your Opponent Has a Strategy, Too.

I've sat through more than a few "business planning meetings" or "strategy sessions" and even a few reviews of other people's proposals.  In many of them, people's winning strategy, or method for getting the desired result, can basically be boiled down to, "We're gonna win!  Yeah!"


To continue the chess analogy, it's like saying, "We're going to advance some pawns up the board!  And then we're going to push up a knight or two, and maybe place our bishop near the center where they have lots of scope!  And then we're going to bring out THE QUEEN!  We'll be unstoppable when we pin the opponents' king in the corner, and it'll be checkmate then."

To the uninitiated, this might all sound very convincing.  The strategy is to use a variety of pieces, who have different abilities, then use a fancy word (like "scope") to imply that we really know what we're doing, and lastly to bring in something REALLY powerful (like THE QUEEN) -- and victory is "assured" in this hazy grayness of uncertainty.

This all sounds convincing until you actually play chess, and you realize that the opponent has the exact same pieces you do -- and, in fact, is trying to capture your king just as much as you're trying to get the opponent's king. Your Opponent Has a Strategy, Too.

It's not good enough to have a winning strategy in the absence of an opponent.  You have to be better than the other guy.  And that other guy is going to try to thwart your moves and your initial strategy.

Thus, since the other guy is likely to fight back, or at least put up some resistance, it leads me to my second lesson:

You Need To Think More Than One Move Ahead.

This is the one that consistently trips me up in chess, but I like to think I'm getting slightly better at it in life -- and one that many people (but certainly not all) just don't seem to grasp in real life.

I always craft these great traps in chess to snag a rook, or put the opponent (my phone, in this case) in check -- only to be put in check myself because I didn't see how it would make my king vulnerable.  Gah ... too many moving parts in the game of chess.

But in life, it can actually be a little simpler: so you want to chew some person out at work.  Or you want to send a nasty email.  Or you want to trash some other person's work as baseless and without merit.  That's great.

But wait a minute: how do you think the other person is going to respond??!?  Are they just going to roll over and take it?  Are they going to say, "Gee, you know what, you're absolutely right!  I hadn't thought of that.  All hail the genius person that you are!!"

To go back to the chess analogy, if you throw your queen at the opponent's king recklessly, chances are the other guy is going to capture your queen.  And then your life just got a lot harder.  I wish people would think about how they want the other person to respond before they launch off on some denigrating tirade.  In real life, people get pissed.  They don't just quietly take someone else's tirade; they push back.  They argue.  And the whole thing just spirals rapidly out of control, and everyone ends up worse off for it.

Dale Carnegie said it really well in his book, "How to Win Friends and Influence People": The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it. Despite our initial desire to really unload on someone when we get steamed about something, it's just not productive.

The Other Guy Has A Strategy, Too, and You Need to Think More Than Once Move Ahead.

It would make the world a hell of a lot more productive.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Is it the end of the world?

The last few weeks have seen some usual events befall the Washington DC area; notably, the earthquake (where in the heck did THAT come from??!?) and Hurricane Irene.

Irene was potentially a biggie, but in terms of damage, it didn't bring nearly the water that Hurricane Isabel did in 2003.  I remember that vividly because I was living on a boat at the time in Southwest DC at the Gangplank Marina.  To this day, I'm still upset that I didn't document that event better -- there's nothing quite as surreal as waking up one morning to see someone riding their dinghy across Hains Point.  It was completely submerged.

But anyways, we've had a rash of seemingly nasty weather come DC's way recently.  Is this a sign of something taking a turn for the worse?  Are we all doomed?

I decided to run some numbers.  Let's take seven natural disasters:

Of course, some areas are more prone to these than others.  What are the chances that, in some small period of time, you get at least one of these at the hundred-year level?  As in, "Hurricane Isabel was the worst flooding in DC in 100 years."  Or, "the earthquake in August in DC was the worst in 150 years."

For each of these seven events, there is a 0.99 chance that it won't happen this year (for the once-in-a-hundred-years event).  So if you multiply the 0.99 for all seven events, there is a 93% chance that none of them will happen at the 100-year level.  Then, if you hang around DC for ten years, that's

0.93 x 0.93 x 0.93 x 0.93 x 0.93 x 0.93 x 0.93 x 0.93 x 0.93 x 0.93

= 0.495

That means, chances are that if you live in DC (or anywhere, for that matter) for 10 years, there is a better than 50% chance you will experience a once-in-a-hundred-year event of one of those seven catastrophes.

For the statistically minded and rigorous folks out there, I admit this is somewhat contrived.  I arbitrarily picked 7 events.  If you pick 12 events (maybe throw ice storms, hail storms, heat waves, continuous days of rain, and locust swarms in there), you'll get to the 50% level in 6 years.  And since the news media is always looking for the headline, "WORST [SOMETHING] IN 100 YEARS," you could say that they're casting their net pretty wide and looking for anything.  If your event database is 70 items large, you're likely to get a 1-in-100 year event every year.

So, no, I don't think the world is coming to an end.  We're just better at looking for it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


From an engineering perspective, sunflowers are an awesome plant.  About 2 months ago, I dug a few holes, dropped in a few seeds, and then more or less forgot about them.  I forgot about them so much that I even killed a few with RoundUp the following week.

So they're hardy, they grow impressively fast, and they're freaking huge.  The label on the little packet of seeds said "12 feet tall" which I initially dismissed as marketing mumbo-jumbo.  But, no, some of them really do grow to 12 feet tall in less than 2 months.  And the leaves track the sun in their thirst for more juice from the sun.

And the flowers (actually, technically, they're flower heads, as the big yellow thing is actually a bunch of small flowers crammed together) are a marvel of engineering.  According to the wikipedia article:

  • Each floret is oriented next to its neighbor by the golden angle, 137.5 degrees;
  • The orientation gives rise to a series of right-handed and left-handed spirals within the flower head;
  • The number of left spirals and the number of right spirals are successive Fibonacci numbers;
  • The pattern yields the most efficient packing density of seeds in the flower head.

All of which combines to form one really cute picture:


One last note: May 1st is the International Guerrilla Gardening Day, where people surreptitiously plant sunflowers hither and yon.  Hilarious.  I might just be an active participant next year.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Internet Just Had Its Doors Blown Off

A few weeks ago, the "Powers That Be" that control various aspects of the internet decided to do away with perhaps the most defining piece of the internet: .com .

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is the organization that is ultimately in charge of distributing internet names and IP addresses.  They are the ones that enforce the use of .com, .net, .org, and everything else.

And so, on June 20th, ICANN announced that it was opening up the internet to almost anything.  For the first time, an internet address doesn't have to end in ".com" or ".net" or ".au".  Instead, it could end in ".john" or ".smith", if an enterprising John Smith wanted to pony up the $185,000 to register his own top level domain.

At first, I was "meh" about this story.  Who's going to sign up for this, and what will it do for them?  Take a prior example: the small western Pacific country of Tuvalu was given the country code of ".tv" in 1998.  (Each country gets its own country code for country-specific things on the internet: .au for Australia, .uk for the United Kingdom, .ad for Andorra ... there's a whole list here)  Businesses lined up behind Tuvalu to "rent" some of their .tv space, with the thinking that it would be really cool to have sites like or -- that all your favorite tv shows would have a .tv address.

But it hasn't really turned out to be all that popular, and Tuvalu appears to have gotten short-changed in the process.

So, at first, I was pretty "meh" about the whole thing.  A nice idea, a $185,000 price tag to keep out spammers and the lowly bloggers like myself, and a limit of 1,000 new top-level domains per year.  Who would sign up for this?

The answer: almost every tech savvy company out there.  Think about it:

  • mickey.disney
  • www.HugeOilSpill.bp

You get the point.  Big businesses will have the opportunity to closely align the company name with their product on the internet.  And, depending on how ICANN sets it up, you may even be able to dispense with the www stuff -- simply type in "twitter" in your browser, and you'll be taken straight to Twitter's home page.

The era of ".com" will seem quaint in 5 years.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Driving in DC #8

This one goes back all the way to my very first post on Driving in DC.  I mentioned that DC is laid out on a grid with numbered streets running north-south, and lettered streets running east-west, and stated that this was nearly a wonderful idea.  This post will explain my use of the "nearly."

So, letters go east-west, and numbers go north-south.  Something like this:

Seems simple, right?  Kind of like Manhattan's grid system, where the avenues go north-south and the streets go east west, Washington, DC should be a similarly easy place to navigate?


The problem is, in Pierre L'Enfant's twisted mind, it was perfectly logical to place the origin of the coordinate system smack dab in the middle of the city: the US Capitol.  Thus, four quadrants are established.  Suddenly, instead of just an intersection, you now need a third piece of information to find the destination you're looking for.  (And, of course, the city designers were not so mathematically inclined so as to include negative numbers and negative letters in their street naming convention.)

To illustrate, let's say you're new in town, you've heard great things about the new Arena Stage, and a friend told you it's at the intersection of 6th and M.  If that's all you know, you have a 25% chance of finding the right spot on your first guess.

  • 6th and M NW is basically one block over from the Convention Center.  
  • 6th and  NE is almost the main entrance to Gallaudet University.  
  • 6th and M SE, technically, doesn't exist (6th street is blocked by the new Marine Barracks) but it's the entrance to the Chief of Naval Operation's house at the Navy Yard.
  • 6th and M SW is the Arena Stage.

This may seem trivial or minor, but when I used to live in Southwest DC, three or four times per year I would have to redirect some poor lost soul who had mistakenly wandered into the wrong quadrant.  People who live in DC or have to navigate there often learn to instinctively pick up on the "NW" or "NE" label (or just assume NW if there is no other distinguisher), but for any newcomer, beware.  It makes a BIG difference.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Acting Like a PhD

Just a random thought after a long day on the streets of DC -- one in which I have burned through almost 100% battery life of a Blackberry in 1 day, doing only email, text, and 2 hours of phone calls.

So, what is "acting like a PhD"?

Acting Like a PhDwhen one is relentlessly focused on the singular pursuit of a miniscule detail, yet claiming that the success or failure of the entire project / company / world hinges on that detail. 
When, in fact, it doesn't.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Earthlings Got Nuclear Power Development Backwards

This post is a bit more right-brained than usual.

I do the morning feedings for Bethany, so it gives me some time to daydream in the wee early hours of the morning.  For better or for worse, one of those daydreams goes along the lines of, "How did civilization get to where it is today, and how else could it have gone?"  Please bear with me as I go through a tortured logic path.

1.  I have a hard time believing that Earth is really all that unique.

If you believe the Drake Equation, it's pretty easy to convince yourself that there is at least one other civilization out there, somewhere, that is going through a similar experience right about now.  That previous link provides a cool calculator with which you can enter values you think are appropriate for our galaxy, and determine how many other civilizations might be in our own galaxy.  When you start with a population of 100 billion stars in our galaxy, you have to make some very pessimistic assumptions about some things to make Earth the only intelligent life out there.  So, how are they doing?  How does their development compare to ours?

2.  It's reasonable to assume that another civilization would stumble upon nuclear power, eventually.

Earth like planets out there could have uranium deposits that would have formed from a supernova explosion, just as how Earth's were formed.  Uranium 235 will fission in exactly the same way here as it would on Tatooine.  Smart scientists could presumably mine up the yellowcake stuff (it's very unique) and start playing with it.

3.  But we Earthlings stumbled upon nuclear power in a very unique way.

World War II was the single biggest driver for the development of All Things Nuclear.  According to Richard Rhodes' outstanding book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, in 1944, the nuclear industry was as big as the US automotive industry at the time.  And yet nobody knew about the nuclear industry; it was entirely secret, and entirely focused on making a nuclear weapon.  Entirely focused with a lot of resources behind it.

The US was hell-bent on developing a nuclear weapon, because the US was panicked that Germany would get there first.  Albert Einstein wrote a famous letter to President Roosevelt, begging him to take action to develop a nuclear weapon.  When it turned out that Germany had stopped its program to develop a nuclear weapon (thanks to a miscalculation [?] by Werner Heisenberg), the prospect of a nuclear weapon then became a convenient way to end the war in Japan without an invasion of the island.

The first nuclear weapon was exploded at the Trinity Site on July 16, 1945.  Here's a picture of me at the site:

It wasn't until August of 1956 -- over eleven years later -- when the first full-scale power reactor was connected to the power grid, in England.  (Sorry, technophiles, EBR-I doesn't count in my book.)  This, despite the fact that the first critical pile -- in effect, the world's first nuclear reactor* -- went critical in December 1942.

Thus, for almost a decade and a half, the benefits of nuclear power were dedicated solely to the production of materials for nuclear weapons.  So how was nuclear power unveiled to the world?  Through the terrible destruction witnessed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, mushroom clouds, and the threat of total annihilation.

I propose that this is exceptional; that the development of nuclear power under these circumstances was a statistical oddity, and that almost any other civilization would have stumbled upon nuclear power under less desperate circumstances.  That, perhaps, another society would have stumbled upon nuclear power (probably similar to how Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch came upon it), and said, "Wow!  This is pretty neat stuff!  It's a million times more energetic than any chemical release of energy!"

And thus, the benefits of nuclear power could be brought into the world, without the iconic and terrifying images of mushroom clouds being seared into the civilization's psyche.

Obviously, the recent events in Fukushima have influenced my thinking.  That story has gripped the world's news headlines for a month now, but some other stories with severe economic impacts have gotten much less attention.  Just for one example, a sewage treatment plant failed, killing two workers and releasing up to 4 million gallons of sewage into the nearby river.   Fishing and swimming were prohibited; the TVA had to release extra water from an upstream dam to dilute it more.

Or the natural gas explosions that happen occasionally: a natural gas plant exploding in Connecticut and killing 5; a natural gas pipeline exploding in California and killing 4; there are many examples.

Or, as an even bigger environmental incident, there was the coal ash spill from the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, which released 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash (laden with heavy metals and carcinogens) in 2008.  Hundreds had to be evacuated because their homes were destroyed, and the deposits it left behind make many areas uninhabitable.

Oh, by the way: BP expects to start drilling again the Gulf of Mexico later this year.

Accidents like the above happen all the time.  Society continues on with the mindset that these are terrible accidents that should be corrected, but are not calling for the end of those industries.  I am not trying to say that the above examples are equivalent to the Fukushima accident. (I have my opinions on that, but in this case, I'll keep my opinions to myself and avoid the Internet Flame War that would result.)  The purpose of this post is to provide a plausible explanation for why there is such a visceral response to commercial nuclear power: it was born under a mushroom cloud, and has been trying to get away from that image ever since.

That visceral fear is stunting our growth.  I think other alien races would find us silly in that regard.

*Okay, technically, the second.  There is a fascinating account of a naturally occurring nuclear reactor at a site called Oklo in Gabon, Africa.  This happened about 2 billion years ago, but nobody was around to see it.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Budget Cuts: Are They Real?

There were two articles recently in the WaPo that caught my interest:

This one, where the CBO finds that the $38 billion isn't all from direct program cuts, and an insightful opinion piece by Ezra Klein on how the $38 billion can be reduced as far as $350 million if you slice it right.

The headline is indeed attention grabbing -- did the politicians really swindle us into thinking they had made a fairly significant cut, when all they had been doing was a shell game?  But then I read the articles, and found many examples of where spending had been effectively taken away from budget swindlers.  Unfortunately, I have been party to those budget swindles many, many times.

Bottom line: at the end of the day, this will result in some real funding not being spent that would have been spent by government.

The first WaPo article makes mention of a few projects for which funding was no longer necessary: $560 million for an Education Department program that no longer exists (holy moly!  that's huge for DoEd!!), $15 million for a US Capitol building that already exists.

I assure you, department budget weenies had one word on their mind:

This happens all the time: money is appropriated for one project, and it either comes in under budget (which actually happens from time to time, you just never hear about it), or the priorities change.  At which point, the money is reprogrammed: it is removed from this project and transferred to that project.  This usually requires a few levels of approval, but unless Congress specifically appropriated the money in Congressional language, departments have a fair amount of authority to shift money around.

Which, ultimately, is a good thing, because you don't want Congress to have to micromanage every department.  They do a crummy enough job managing their own finances, as it is.

So, this budget compromise, among other things, effectively prevents budget weenies from reprogramming the money and spending it elsewhere. Which is a good start.

But, for the record, $38 billion is a drop in the bucket (1%) compared to a $3.6 trillion annual spending budget.  Time to start hitting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and even national defense.

Monday, April 4, 2011


Bethany Grace!!

7 pounds, 5 ounces at 5:37pm on Monday, March 28th.

The birth of a bouncing baby girl (our first) definitely gives you a sense of wonder at the miracle of life.  More musings on this when I can collect my thoughts and get more sleep.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Driving in DC #7

Time to go back to some regular posting for a bit: this one features the intersection of M Street and Connecticut Avenue, Northwest:

If you're new here, on this blog I sometimes try to document just how head-shakingly bad some of the areas are driving around in Washington, DC.  The topics have covered signage, absurd merge lanes, the ridiculous streets, and everything in between.  If you click on the "driving in dc" tag at the bottom of this post, you'll get all of them.

In the case of M & Connecticut, it's one of the prime examples of where the diagonal street intersections have gone laughably wrong.  It's an impenetrable morass of roads and cross traffic:

This is where M Street, Connecticut Avenue, 18th Street, and Rhode Island Avenue all converge.  I had to laugh out loud the first time I saw the traffic light in the middle of the lane.

Even with Google Maps and Street View, I can't get a good angle that accurately encompasses the acres and acres that this intersection takes up.  But you can click and scroll around to see it all.

View Larger Map

For one more grin, here's the view of the intersection as you're approaching it from Rhode Island.  I don't get it.

Lastly, here's a shot from 18th street, looking back.  The traffic flow describes this pretty well.

View Larger Map

Pictures just don't quite do this one justice.  You have to see it for yourself.

Last Post on Fukushima for a while...

I've had a few, genuine comments from people in the area of the reactors, looking for advice and thanking me for providing some clear insight.   I was writing a response back to one of them when I just decided to make this my (possibly nearly final) post on the Fukushima reactors.

"one cup of coffee" asked,

If you don't mind me asking, I'd like to know what you think? If, as they are saying, they are able to get power to the plants and restore the cooling system will they have saved the plant from dumping more radiation into the environment? At that point will the situation be "under control?" What exactly would it take to get the situation under control? It seems like the foreign press is obsessed with worst case scenarios, what about a reasonable set of most likely scenarios? And lastly, what about the plutonium? Is this significantly more dangerous than the uranium?
and it spawned a whole host of emotions.  Here's my response.

I'd give it another WEEK before we can safely say that we're "out of the woods" and that there will be no more flare-ups.  A recent report I read said that some of the concrete wall surrounding the spent fuel pool of reactor #4 has fallen away, but that the steel liner remains.  If the pool crumbles, my guess is that it would make cleanup considerably messier, but *shouldn't* provide any additional risk to the general public.

Getting reliable power to the site will help tremendously: they may be able to turn on some of the pumps and ensure good water circulation, and they should be able to get a more reliable flow of water to the core.  But even then, the road ahead is a lot of (boring) circulation of water as the core cools down to a point where they can safely inspect it with cameras and robots.

And the plutonium: I've enjoyed looking at what other sites link to mine (thanks Google Analytics!), but some of the sites out there are just absurd.  My jaw dropped at the rampant mis-representation of the facts, and heralding the fact that "Mox fuel is two million times worse than uranium."  Baloney.  Yes, plutonium has a higher toxicity and a lower melting point than uranium, so it's not quite as robust.  It might result in a slightly higher dose to those at the plant (who have tools and equipment to deal with it appropriately), but in no way will it lead to any additional dose to the general public.

Earlier in the comment, "one cup of tea" noted that people have a very visceral response to radiation.  And sadly, that's very true.  Radiation is all around us, and I think people are ignorant of that.  The background radiation you get from the Colorado Plateau is five times higher as on the eastern seaboard, and yet you don't see people fleeing Colorado for the coasts.  And as I noted in a previous post, people are exposed to small amounts of toxic chemicals all the time due to spills and accidents, and yet humanity moves on.  Remember the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal?  A hideous, gruesome release of methyl isocyanate killed thousands and injured tens of thousands, and yet the industry goes on.  I wish the public could put radiation in the same context that almost everything else is, and I guess that starts with education.

Lastly, a comment on frustration: I have read reports from scores of "experts" proclaiming that the Fukushima "crisis" will be worse than Chernobyl and that lives are at risk all around the world.  Where is the accountability?  Where are the apologies when these people are shown to be wrong?  Where is the public excoriation when the "expert opinions" turn out to be nothing more than fear-mongering, playing on the deep-rooted fears of the general public?  When does the loss of credibility set in?

Sadly, it won't.  The nuclear "debate" will continue, fueled more by emotion than by fact when no one in the general public is affected by this event.  And the nuclear "experts" will continue pressing the panic button and gleefully watching the response.  And most of the mainstream media will follow them doggedly because it sells newspapers and it generates interest.

The solution, I think, starts with education.  Patient, careful, instructive education.  I hope I've been able to provide some of that here.

I'll leave with the most recent update from JAIF on the status of the reactors (click for bigger):