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.