Wednesday, January 26, 2011

When Norm Speaks, I Listen

Norm Augustine is my hero.

No, seriously -- if there is anyone who has significantly contributed towards making the world a better place through prolonged hard work and dedication (rather than a singular invention or product), it's Norm Augustine.

Aside: OK, you could probably argue that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and the Google Guys have had an equally impactful role in society.  But Norm is in a different class of engineering: metal, carbon fiber, and freaking large institutions.  End Aside.

So, wow, did my ears perk up when I saw this article in Forbes by Mr. Augustine: America is Losing Its Edge In Innovation.  When Norm speaks, I listen.
And, oh by the way, he used to be CEO of Lockheed Martin during some of its most innovative years.  Anyhow, that's all just for background in case you didn't know who the guy was.  Or you can check out his wikipedia page.

Back to the Forbes article that is the point of this post.  There are many good quotes in there, but this one really, really rang true for me:

In fact, scientists and engineers are celebrities in most countries. They’re not seen as geeks or misfits, as they too often are in the U.S., but rather as society’s leaders and innovators. In China, eight of the top nine political posts are held by engineers. In the U.S., almost no engineers or scientists are engaged in high-level politics, and there is a virtual absence of engineers in our public policy debates.

I have seen the pitfalls of this in many, many government circles.  People making dumb decisions for the wrong reasons.  Alas.

He goes on to extol the virtues of proper spending on education, engineering, and science in this country, and how "greatness must be worked for and won by each generation."  All a few days ahead of the President's State of the Union address.

But enough from me.  Just go and read the article -- it's not long.  And enjoy.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Continuing Resolution

The Continuing Resolution (CR) that our government is currently under is really, really hurting the country, and it's not getting enough coverage in the news.

While an under-reported piece of news like the CR is not new or noteworthy, I think it's worth some rational discussion when Congress is actively wasting time making symbolic statements and political posturing about Obamacare.  The act was provocatively named "Repealing The Job-Killing Health Care Act" and reviewed by the Congressional Budget Office.  It has a very, very small chance of being passed by the Senate and zero chance of being signed by the President (he said as much in a press release).

I freely admit that there may be room for improvement in Obamacare.  For example, I never quite grasped how forcing health care companies to accept nearly all applicants won't cause rates to rise dramatically.  I do, however, applaud the idea of making almost all preventive medicine covered.  And I'm actually supportive of requiring people to get health care -- an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

But, whatever.  The point of this post is not to debate the merits of Obamacare.  It's to lament the dog-and-pony show that the House is putting on with this Act (they spent three days debating the bill) when there are far, far more pressing and important issues to be dealt with.  Namely, THE BUDGET.

Do your job, Congress.

Passing a budget is perhaps the single most important thing that Congress can do each year.  And they missed it badly for FY2011.  See, in the normal budget cycle, there are 12 bills that are individually passed (one bill from each of the twelve subcommittees of the House Committee on Appropriations) and then signed by the President.  Often, things don't go swimmingly, and they have to roll some or all of them together in an "omnibus spending bill".  In fact, that usually happens.  From 1997 through 2007, there were only 3 years  (Table 1) where at least one bill wasn't combined with another to form some kind of omnibus bill.  And in 1987 and 1988, ALL subcommittee bills were combined into one, whopping document.

And then, there are other years where Congress really doesn't get its act together and doesn't pass a spending bill by October 1st.  In fact, the Congressional Research Service states the following (page 13):

In 26 of the past 31 years (FY1977-FY2007), Congress and the President did not complete action on a majority of the regular bills by the start of the fiscal year.  In eight years, they did not finish any of the bills by the deadline.  They completed action on all the bills on schedule only four times: FY1977, FY1989, FY1995, and FY1997.

So what happens when they don't pass a budget?  Then you're in the dreaded realm of the Continuing Resolution:
  • Each month, you're only allowed to spend 1/12th of last year's budget;
  • No new contracts can be awarded or new projects started;
  • When the Continuing Resolution ends, you must spend whatever new money you receive in a shorter period of time to not have excessive carry-over in the next year.

This wreaks havoc on anyone trying to plan their program.  We are now ~ 4 months into FY2011, and no one has a budget.  As a government program manager, chances are, you can't build.  You can't expand.  You can't grow.  And for a country that's trying to reduce its 9.8% unemployment rate, that's a big deal.

And yet Congress (well, at least the House) prances about, passing an irrelevant bill that will never be signed.  "Re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" doesn't cut it -- at least people USE deck chairs occasionally.  This is like handing out maps of Cincinnati on the Titanic.

There is a perfect storm brewing:
  1. Congress was unable to come to an agreed-upon spending bill (twice) in December, and they have now pushed the Continuing Resolution until March 4th.  And, by the way, the House is in session for 9 days in February and only 3 days in March before that deadline hits. That leaves very little time to negotiate and debate a fix to this problem.
  2. The Treasury Department estimates that we'll hit the current debt limit ceiling of $14.3 trillion sometime between March 31 and May 16. 
  3. The GOP has told the White House that they're not likely to raise the debt ceiling.
I'm sad that the above situation isn't being reported in the headlines.  Sure, it's buried in bits and pieces, but I don't think it's getting the attention that the whole package deserves.  Congress needs to figure out a budget, and figure out a way to raise the debt ceiling acceptably.

But what I'm afraid will happen is that Congress will keep kicking the can down the road: do a stop-gap increase in the debt ceiling, and make ALL of FY2011 a Continuing Resolution ... resulting in a null year that could have accomplished so much, and at a time when so much was needed.  Alas.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Obligatory Airline Rant

Everyone has a rant against the airline industry at some point or another.  This one is mine.  But I'm going to try to make an insightful observation or two along the way, so the purpose of this post is to improve the system, not just to denigrate it.

So, yes, in this case, I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him.  (Shakespeare had it the other way around.)

I will briefly relate the two anger-inducing experiences I've had on airline flights recently, then we'll dive into identifying what this feels so frustrating, and then maybe what can be done about it.  You might find the connection interesting (some more than others.)

The first leg of my two leg flight had a delayed departure due to maintenance.  (Ironically, one of the 3 navigational computers was down, but the pilot was able to cajole the maintenance crew into letting him fly with only 2. Huh; that didn't make me feel any better.)  My connection to Leg #2 was very, very tight ... but the airline KNEW that I was on Leg #1.  I was in the back of the plane, but there was one other passenger on the plane making my same connection.  I ran to the next gate, only to be told that they had shut the door 5 minutes ago.

I tried to reason.  I tried to argue, politely.  All they had to do was open the door (the plane was still there!!) and let me on.  Otherwise, since this was the last flight of the night, they would have to buy me a hotel room and a few meals ... so, clearly, the better option for them was to open the plane back up and let me on.

"It's our policy; we can't open the door once it's closed.  You can call the service desk at one of our courtesy phones at the other end of the terminal."

I ended up spending the night in Cincinnati.  The best advice I got, all night, was from the hotel concierge: "Oh, sir, don't feel bad about it.  There wasn't a seat for you on that plane -- they had already sold it to someone else."  That made a hell of a lot more sense than anything the airline had told me.

I was boarding a smallish plane out of DCA on a recent snowy evening.  The boarding started 30 minutes late, and just at the start of boarding, they told us they were overbooked by 13 seats.  13 SEATS??!?  On a small plane?  That's hard to do.

Again, this was the last flight of the night.  Only one or two people jumped at the offer of a $400 voucher.  So they called a list of 10 names, although I have no clue how they determined who was on that list. (They said it was by check-in order, but I had checked in 3 hours early and was still one of the 10.  I find that unlikely.)

The airline began boarding a bunch of people, while the 10 of us cooled our heels by the side.  We were confused and slightly frustrated, and said as much to a passing supervisor.  He then said, "Folks, let me see your tickets."  At which point he selected a few of us, randomly, and told us to board ... at which point we leapfrogged all the other people who were in line to board.

Once on the plane, they told us that they had to bump some people because of weight restrictions, and the need to carry extra fuel in case our primary destination was snowed in.  They only revealed that fact once we were on the plane, and there only ended up being 4-5 empty seats on the plane, not 13 like they originally claimed.

So, what's going on here? The two examples might seem unrelated (albeit annoying), but there's a fundamental tenet in human factors and interface design that I think is very, very relevant here.  The field of human factors and the man / machine interface is a surprisingly interesting field ... I've worked on a couple of projects where you have to pare a lot of technical information down to the minimum necessary for an operator to perform a job.  At first blush, it seems ridiculous.  But when you actually try to do it, and you realize the guy on the operating end of the screen doesn't have a PhD in the technology you're dealing with, it can get very interesting to try to reduce something down to its bare essentials.  It has always been one of Apple's strong suits: the Human Interface Guidelines.

Anyhow, one of the basic laws of human factors, and GUI design in general, is the following:

Never let the user feel like he has lost control.

Think about it the last time you got frustrated at a computer: the mouse icon had switched to an hourglass, your window was completely unresponsive, and you couldn't fix it.  All you had done was hit "Control-S" to save your document.  The computer was chasing down some infinite loop, you were forced to sit by idly and listen to the cooling fan spin up and go crazy.  You had no idea why you had gotten into this predicament.  If you were lucky, control-alt-delete would bring up the Task Manager, and you could kill the process.  If you were unlucky, you gave the computer a one-finger salute and hit the power button.

Or how about when you're sitting on the other end of customer service, and they've put you on infinite hold Muzak?  You are forced to sit there listening to the crap they pipe over the phone line, with no way of getting immediate assistance.

Life is the same way.  It's totally understandable, but we get frustrated when we lose control.  Even more so when we don't know why.  So when airlines, computers, customer service, or any other activity takes control away from us and turns us into pawns, we get frustrated.  Some folks lash out.

The answer?

Give customers a choice.  Make them feel like they have some control.

For instance: some customer service lines tell you how many minutes you have remaining until the next agent is available.  This is FANTASTIC.  The customer now has a choice: I can wait 20 minutes until the next agent is available, or I can bail and call back another time.

In the case of a stuck computer, a simple window could pop up, with a "Cancel" button in the corner: "Word is trying to save your file."  Of course, Microsoft would never do anything like that -- Microsoft is far too intelligent to be bothered to give you a status update or to give you any input into what it does.  Microsoft knows what's best for you.  ()

Or, in the case of the airlines, being honest with me and giving me a choice would have gone much farther: "Sir, we've given your seat to a standby passenger.  You can go standby on the next flight, or you can get a hotel room for the night."

In Situation #2 above, they started out very well by offering passengers a chance to get the voucher, but they dropped the ball, badly, by calling people out at random -- and then letting them board at random.

So, other industries and service communities could take a good lesson learned from the human factors group.  And although Admiral Hyman Rickover famously hated the human factors group with vitriol, I think they provide some useful guidance in today's society.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010 In Review

Shockingly, 2010 has come and gone.  This marks the technical end of the first decade of the 21st century (remember, since there was no Year 0, the millenium officially started on January 1, 2001).  And it also marks the end of the first year of this blog.  Time for a site refresh, as you can see.

I've only been running Google Analytics for a few months now, so I can't do any advanced navel-gazing over site statistics, or anything nearly as cool as the Google Zeitgeist.  But I can offer some thoughts on the year, as well as some insights (which will also serve as motivational points for myself) for the upcoming year.

Note: I linked to the Barley Blog above because they were the first to do a review of what is probably our favorite beer, the Blue Dawg Wild Blue Lager.  The Barley Blog hated it, and for beer purists, I can see why -- it doesn't taste like a beer. (The Barley Blog also hates that their review is still coming up as a top hit for their site, to which I say, "Neener, neener.")  For anyone else, it's a fantastic way to consume something with 8% alcohol in it.  If they sell it in your area, I highly recommend it.

  • Being consistently creative is hard.  After one year and 36 posts, it's harder than I expected to come up with something that (I think) is creative, thought-provoking, and mildly inspirational.  It gives me a new-found respect for the people who can do it regularly, and on a much more frequent basis, like XKCD (Randall Munroe), George Will (Washington Post commentator and general pundit), John Siracusa (ars technica contributor who's not very prolific but makes up for it in brilliant posts ... he likes to keep his signal-to-noise ratio high), Daring Fireball (John Gruber), and this political junkie who produces fascinating (to me) insights of geo-politics.  My hat is off to those folks who do this well and do it consistently.  It's not easy.
  • Documenting how bad the driving is in DC is hard.  I've only done 6 "Driving In DC" posts in the past year, and I'm ashamed of myself.  On a day-to-day basis, you come across countless examples of how bad it is.  But to actually stop, remember it, take a picture, or otherwise document the scenario is hard.  The idea for "Driving in DC" was partially motivated by this site, and it's impressive how long they've been able to keep it up.    (Slightly irreverent, but very funny.)  I promise I have more examples in store, I just haven't gone through the documentation process yet.  Stay tuned ... and if you have any suggestions or examples of your own, feel free to post them in the comments.
  • Generating comments is tough.  I have received one comment on this site.  Ever.  One.  I get it, that the stuff I post about isn't really comment-inducing.  Posts about Jane's crazy OMGWTFBBQ party last week may be more likely to get feedback, but that's what facebook is for.  The readership-to-comment ratio has spawned an idea for another post (like a Dunbar's Number) that I'll put up sometime in 2011.
  • Generating ad revenue is tough.  Google provides a really cool way to generate revenue for each site: see those ads on the left hand side of this screen?  The way they have it set up, if you opt in to AdSense, Google places content-specific ads to the right of the screen.  Each time someone clicks on an ad, the owner of that website gets a kickback.  In this case, that's me.  (I'll be ecstatic when the AdSense revenue can cover the $13 annual domain name costs.  I'm hoping for 2015.)  On one hand, I'm surprised at how few clicks I get on those ads ... given a few hundred site visits, you might expect a few clicks here and there, right?  Nope.  Personally, I never click on those things, so it only stands to reason that nobody else clicks on them, either.
So have a happy 2011.  And although we've missed it once today, later tonight will be 11:11:11pm on 1/1/2011.  That won't happen again for another 10 months ... and it'll be even cooler 10 days after that.