Monday, October 15, 2012

Power At The Pump

After a solid 6 hour brain-drain effort this morning worrying about non-technical details associated with configuration management, I decided to figure out something fun.

How much power is coursing through the hose as you fill up your car at the gas pump?

Well, to be honest, I've been wondering about this for a while.  The seed was first planted by colleague a few months ago who made an offhand comment, and it stuck in my head.  So, I timed the flow rate when I was filling up a few days ago:

  1. It took 30.4 seconds to put 5 gallons of gas in the car.
  2. According to the EPA, gasoline has 114,000 BTU's per gallon, or 33.41 kWh per gallon.

Item #2 up there is a measure of energy: to put it in layman's terms, 1 gallon of gas can be converted into a LOT of heat.  114,000 British Thermal Units.  By combining #1 and #2, and making sure the units come out right, this is how much power is coursing through that hose:

20 megawatts.

I couldn't believe it was that much.  20 megawatts is a lot of power. A typical wind turbine will produce about 2 megawatts of power.

That's right ... the combined power from every turbine you see in the picture, running at full capacity, is about the same as what's flowing through your gasoline hose.  I think that just underscores how power dense gasoline is.

Now be careful where you point that thing.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Petulant Politicians and their Piss-Poor Performance

I've been pretty sick the past few days with a 103 degree fever, but the silver lining is that the time at home has given me the chance to catch up on some reading.  An excerpt from Michael Grunwald's new book, "The New New Deal," boiled my blood far more than the fever ever could.  Enough to get me back on the wagon again and start posting.

The part I read focused on the time shortly after the 2008 elections, when Barack Obama won the presidential election on a platform of hope and change.  The Democrats had also won strong majorities in the Senate (58 of 100 seats) and in the House of Representatives (257 of 435 seats).  Understandably, the Republicans were humbled, and were nursing their wounds at a strategy session.  The quotes -- not just the narrative, but the quotes -- that Michael Grunwald uses to describe the Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, make me furious:

The owlish, studiously bland Senate minority leader from Kentucky was the unlikeliest of motivational speakers.  He was a strategy guy, cynical and clinical; he reminded his members to stay calm, stay on message and stay united.  Obama had promised postpartisanship, and Republicans could turn him into a promise breaker by withholding their support.  "We got shellacked, but don't forget we still represent half the population," McConnell said.  "Republicans need to stick together as a team."  Or as Ohio Senator George Voinovich summarized the strategy, "If Obama was for it, we had to be against it."
But McConnell believed Republicans had nothing to gain from me-too-ism.  He reminded his caucus that Republicans wouldn't pay a price for opposing Obama's plan if it succeeded, because politicians get re-elected in good times.  But if the economy didn't revive, they could return from the political wilderness in 2010.  "He wanted everyone to hold the fort," Voinovich later explained.  "All he cared about was making sure Obama could never have a clean victory."
Excerpted from The New New Deal, copyright 2012 by Michael Grunwald, published by Simon & Schuster, August 2012.

I cannot explain my outrage at this kind of philosophy using even marginally polite language.  Is this how we teach our kids to play on the playground?  That if you don't get your way, the next best thing to do is be obstinate and destructive until you get your way?  I fail to understand why our Senators consider themselves above the most basic behavioral traits we try to instill in our youth.

This.  Is.  Disgusting.

This has nothing -- nothing -- to do with political ideology, or about Republicans vs. Democrats.  There are many tenets of the Republican party that I find appealing.  For instance, some elements of Representative Paul Ryan's budget plans are uncomfortable and different from what we are used to, but they are required to address the uncomfortable and different budget problems we face today.  The Republican ideal of a smaller, less intrusive government is broadly appealing to many people.  But Senator McConnell's uncompromising, obstructionist, screw-the-other-guys-at-all-costs is antithetical to everything that this country was founded on and stands for.

When James Madison was asked, "Are there any principles by which the American government works?" he responded, "Yes, there are three: compromise, compromise, compromise."

Look, dammit, you don't win your way back to popularity by being petulant and throwing a tantrum.  You win your way back to popularity by proposing a compellingly better path forward; by being more in tune with what people want; by making a positive case that you can address the current administration's shortcomings.

In business, in the military, and in engineering (and I've been involved in all three), you make your case for your position or your proposed path forward.  Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.  The team's success requires you to execute the chosen task to the best of your ability, whether it was what you wanted or not.

That is how I expect elected officials to behave, whether I voted for them or not.  Anything less is disgusting.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Inspirational Quote #4

Nike had a stroke of brilliance with their "Just Do It" slogan and campaign.  I mean, what a simple, motivational, and utterly inspiring set of words?  In that vein, I offer this sentiment ... in the spirit of "Just Keep Doing It."

(Mr. Brooks is most famously known for writing the lyrics to "O Little Town of Bethlehem," but sadly, history has kind of neglected his inspirational preaching and writing.)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Inspirational Quote #3

Traditional project management training (and almost all systems engineering) drills the concept of "stakeholder requirements" into your head.  "Ask the customer what they want."  

I really enjoy it when people are so smart, and have such a clear vision, that they can say things like this -- and be right.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Inspirational Quote #2

When I first heard this quote back in 1997, I thought "Oh, how awful."  The past 15 years have taught me that, at times, this philosophy is useful and motivational.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Inspirational Quote #1

Back on the horse again, after a long hiatus.  Sorry about that.

It has become trendy on the internet these days to post pictures of famous people along with famous quotes those famous people said, all in the hopes that the original poster becomes famous.

Okay, I'm in.  And I plan to update a new quote each day this week, so check back here often.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Peter Principle - An Addendum

The Peter Principle is commonly stated as follows:

In an organization based on achievement and rewarding of merit through promotions, an employee will rise to his or her own level of incompetence, and stay there.

The principle was actually first formalized in a book, known as The Peter Principle.  I was going to add a corollary to it, but I see there are already a few corollaries out there.  So, I'll add an addendum:

Diligent, responsible employees will collect more and more responsibilities until they are paralyzed and ineffective.

I feel like that addendum helps describe why I haven't posted anything in nearly two months.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Iranian Uranium

The title of this post sounds like something that could be written by They Might Be Giants, but alas, it's not.  This is a post by an engineer who knows a thing or two about uranium enrichment and I thought I'd flesh out a few scenarios.

About a week ago, the IAEA released a new report saying that Iran had greatly stepped up its ability to enrich uranium.  The report stated that since November, Iran has tripled its capability to produce uranium enriched to 20%.  (Natural uranium has 0.72% U-235, most commercial reactors need 3% to 5% U-235, weapons-grade uranium is around 80% or higher.  The arbitrary limit on "low enriched uranium" is set at 20%.) Iran is said to be sitting on a stash of about 105 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium, and is capable of adding about 14 kilograms per month to that stockpile.

Additionally, as of 1 year ago, Iran had over 3,000 kilograms of uranium at 3.5% enriched.  That's a fair amount of uranium -- especially considering that Iran only has 1 working nuclear reactor (the 5 MW Tehran research reactor), 1 nearing completion (Bushehr), and one a few years off (Arak).

What does all this mean?  Here's a chart I made to help you understand:

This complicated graph shows three things: enrichment level (on the x-axis), the mass of uranium needed (as shown by the size of the bubbles), and the work necessary to move from one step to the next (as shown on the y-axis).  The shaded region (above 20%) is considered Highly Enriched Uranium, and the IAEA and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) prevent a country from going above that.

The "unit of work" on the y-axis is the Separative Work Unit (SWU).  Climbing up the y-axis is really, really hard.  There are lots of SWU calculators on the internet that you can use to figure this kind of thing out, but I wrote my own a few years ago to calculate some off-nominal conditions for a project I was working on.  For you techno-nerds out there, I assumed a tails of 0.2%.

The Blue Line
First, look at the blue line.  This "path" shows the work and steps necessary to go from natural uranium to 3.5% enriched uranium to 20% enriched uranium to 90% enriched uranium.  The red circle at 3.5% enriched uranium is where Iran sits today.  Here's the bottom line: as far as separative work is considered, Iran is already two-thirds of the way towards having uranium suitable for a nuclear weapon.

The Green Line
Iran also has a stash of 20% enriched uranium lying around.  This is shown by the green line.  Again, very little work is necessary to turn the 20% enriched into 90% enriched uranium.

How much is enough?

The IAEA defines a "Significant Quantity" as:
The approximate quantity of nuclear material in respect of which, taking into account any conversion process involved, the possibility of manufacturing a nuclear explosive device cannot be excluded. 
For HEU, this is 25 kg.  Look again at the above chart at the 90% enrichment level.  Yikes.

A picture of Iran's installed centrifuges.
Looking ahead
To be fair, there are a few plausible explanations for Iran's actions.

  1. Iran needs 20% enriched fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor, which is also uses to make the medical radionuclide Tc-99m.  In fact, with much fanfare, it loaded an Iranian-made fuel element into the reactor a few weeks ago.  Having the domestic capability frees them from buying the Tc-99m isotope abroad.
  2. Iran will eventually need fuel for its Bushehr reactor, and that thing will eat about 1,000 kg's of uranium per year (CAVEAT EMPTOR: That's my wild guess.)
  3. Everything Iran has done is in compliance with the NPT, and its enrichment facilities are under the camera surveillance of the IAEA.
  4. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah, has issued a fatwah against nuclear weapons.
However, to each of the above points, there are strong counterpoints to make:
  1. The expense (and additional work) needed to get to 20% enriched Just Isn't Worth It.  There was a great solution on the table offered to Iran about a year or two ago: "We'll take your 3.5% enriched uranium and trade you the equivalent of 20% enriched."  Economically, that would have been fantastic.  But Iran turned it down.
  2. It is economic folly to go down the path of creating your own front-end domestic fuel cycle when Russia, France, and the US have all independently offered to provide Iran the fuel it needs for the Tehran research reactor, and for Bushehr.  Iran, the country, is not sitting on any known large uranium deposits.  There is no way that 1 commercial reactor can hope to pay back the expense and effort that went into developing uranium centrifuges and conversion facilities.
  3. Although they are under IAEA surveillance, cooperation with the IAEA has been difficult.  And if Iran's plans are truly peaceful, why on earth would they bury their newest centrifuge enrichment plant under 260 feet of rock?  (The existence of this plant was only really brought to light when it was outed by Western intelligence ... although there is a slight controversy about it, any rational organization in Iran's situation would be as transparent as possible.)
  4. Leaders (and potential leaders) of countries have been known to flip-flop on key issues before.  Call me skeptical.
It wouldn't be hard for Iran to kick the IAEA out, shut off the cameras, and devote resources towards making weapons-grade material.  Some estimates say that's as little as 2 months out.  North Korea did something similar in its push to make plutonium for its weapons.  

So, the bottom line is that while Iran has been obeying the letter of the law per the IAEA, they're also doing a textbook-perfect case of building nuclear-weapons capability "in plain sight."  I made the above chart because I hadn't seen anyone depict this situation graphically before.  Hope it helps.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Apple Products and Getting Old

I've been an Apple-product user for a long time.  For a really long time, actually, ever since the Mac Plus in 1986.

Memories of Dark Castle, anyone?

To put it simply, even in the dark, "beleaguered" days of Apple in the late 1990's, I liked Apple's business model because they controlled the hardware, they controlled the operating system, and they set the tone for a lot of the software.  In my opinion, that kind of vertical integration was worth the additional cost and, admittedly, the relative dearth of software.

As such, you tend to accumulate hardware, cables, connectors, and other computer detritus over the years. I was excited when I thought I would be able to finally put to use an old firewire-to-Apple connector that has been lying around for many years, now that I am the proud new owner of an iPhone.

Rats.  They don't even support charging with an old firewire cable.  That hurt.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Roadmap for America

In his State of the Union Address, President Obama made reference to getting manufacturing back in America.  In fact, he explicitly said that "this blueprint begins with American manufacturing."

That made me squirm.  This post is to describe why I think all of America should squirm, and what we should do instead.

The Problem

I squirmed because it strikes me as a wistful desire to return to a bygone era, one that has passed us on and we need to embrace the new change.  We've been through this before, with housing prices:

In the 2009-2010 era, I distinctly remember politicians saying "we have got to restore housing prices! Get them back up to where they used to be!"  (Sadly, a Google News search couldn't bring up any direct quotes.)  But the ugly truth was that housing prices were a bubble, and prices were not going to go back up.  For the housing market, it was a great ride up from 2003 to 2007, and we've been "taking our medicine" ever since.

I feel similarly, although not identically, towards manufacturing.  There has been a fervor recently over how iPhones and solar cells are manufactured in China and not in the US.  Why is that?

First of all, the Chinese are willing to work in conditions that would not be tolerated in the US today.  This is described eloquently in the famous piece done a few weeks ago by This American Life.

Secondly, they're willing to do it for far less than minimum wage.  Shenzhen has the highest minimum wage of any city, at about $207 per month.

Third, the Chinese government is backing production in a big, big way:

Admittedly, the electronics industry has the worst labor practices of any industry, but it's telling of how far the "other guys" are willing to go.  When President Obama asked Steve Jobs about why Apple can't make iPhones in the US, Steve replied, "Those jobs aren't coming back."

He's absolutely right.  Manufacturing in China is a step or three below what manufacturing was like in Pittsburgh in the early 20th century:

I openly admit -- and heartily welcome -- the fact that Chinese wages are rising (21% last year alone).  I hope that someday in the near future the Chinese worker will have parity with a laborer in the western world.  But that does not mean that the manufacture of iPhones, or most other commodities, will move back to the US.  Instead, they will move to southeast Asia ... or possibly Africa ... wherever the cheapest labor in the world can be found.

The Solution
So, what do we do instead?  America should strive to be an innovator, and stick to the high technology, high capital investment stuff, where the employee has to be smart, skilled, and resourceful.

Here's one example: a government sponsored, nationwide wireless network.  I have no idea how legal this would be, and here's where I need help.

In the 1950's, then-President Eisenhower embarked upon the Eisenhower Interstate System: a network of high-speed roads that would connect the US and allow commerce to flow freely and quickly.  It immodestly touts itself as "The Greatest Public Works Project in History."  The cost in 1991 was estimated to be $128.9 billion (starting in 1956), but wow has it enabled growth in this country.

Why not do something similar for the wireless / networked world?  Roll out a "wireless highway" that anyone can get on to, with bandwidth limits (the 21st century equivalent of speed limits) so that all may partake?

I see two hard parts:

  1. Making it forward compatible.  Unlike today's LTE / WiMax / 4G battles, the US network would ideally be upgradeable as technology advances.  The US government has tons of frequencies available for its, so more headroom exists for it to grow than exists in private industry.  I'm not an actual network engineer, but I'm willing to bet this isn't easy.
  2. Making Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile happy.  There are laws prohibiting the government from competing with private industry.  And those 4 mobile carriers (and many other, non-national carriers) have spent billions of their own nickels in developing and deploying their own super-fast wireless networks.  But maybe if the government makes the frequencies available to all, then it wouldn't really be competing?  After all, the US Postal Service, FedEx, and UPS all seem to get along okay, right?

This would be innovative.  It would require a large cadre of network engineers to design, deploy, and maintain.  It would train the next generation of electrical engineers, electricians, construction crews, phone developers, and computer makers to take advantage of our "wireless highway system."  And it might unleash a whole new division of commerce (well, actually, just continue to boost the industry we already have) to take advantage of this new highway system.

That, and examples like it, are my idea of a blueprint for America.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Symbols - Am I Getting Old? Fast?

I fear that the infusion of new symbols in today's society may be leaving me in the dust.

But let me develop this concern in a logical manner for you.

A few months ago, I was troubleshooting some computer problem that my parents were having.  Forgive me, I forget the exact nature, but it probably had something to do with iTunes or playing music on my mom's cellphone or something.  So, take a look at the below picture: do you immediately know what the symbols represent?

I remember saying to my mom, "Now, press the 'pause' button."
"Where's 'pause'?" she responded.

It struck me that the Reverse / Play / Pause / Fast Forward symbols that have become second nature to most people in my generation may not be universally recognized.  I only vaguely knew what the symbols meant from my 1975-era Panasonic Take-N-Tape, and that knowledge may not have transferred to those born before 1960.

But those symbols aren't bad.  Perhaps I'm biased, but you can pretty quickly figure out what the symbols mean: they are simple shapes that represent relatively simple actions.  But in today's complex, multifunctional world, symbols are losing their utility.

How about this one?
If you haven't been indoctrinated through the use of iMacs, XBoxes, and countless other electronica, you would have no idea that thing thing means "Power."  Some smug engineer is probably very happy with himself somewhere, comfortable in his clever mixing of the old "0" and "1" that used to be painted on rocker switches from Olden Times.

I specifically say "him" because there is no way that the fairer sex would dream up something as convoluted as today's "power" button.  Seriously; look at that thing that represents Power today.  How on earth do you describe it to someone who may be looking at a bank of buttons and is trying to turn the thing on? "Hit the button that has the circle on it that kind of has a vertical line going through it, and is surrounded by a bigger circle..."  No way.

But that's just one button.  We now come back to the original purpose of this post, which is that I'm getting lost in today's proliferation of symbols -- and the computer engineer's penchant for favoring these obscure symbols over WORDS.

This is a screen shot from my web Gmail account.
My eye is immediately drawn to the top row of buttons.

  • Where is the Reply? Or the Reply All?  Or the Forward, for heaven's sake?
  • What does that arrow to the left mean?
  • What does that picture of a box with a down arrow do, and how is it different from the other folder with a down arrow?
  • Where are the words to tell me what each button does?

For the last bullet, I admit they do have tooltips that pop up when you hover your mouse over them.  But, come on, they have *tons* of real estate up there, and I hate having to scrub the mouse over each button just to find out what its function is.  Adding a few words would not mar the appearance at all, and would markedly improve the usability of their product.

It's not elegant; it's too clever by half.  I pick on Gmail because it most recently irked me, but I see this "proliferation of symbols" everywhere.  I worry that, since many of us are not the OMGLikeTotallyTweenWTFBBQ24/7 persona that peruses this stuff all day, we're getting left behind.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Moon Bases and Other Baloney

The political grandstanding -- and pandering to potential voters -- is in full swing, and it absolutely drives me up the wall.

The most recent blood-boiling incident is Newt Gingrich's promise to Florida voters that he would have a moon base established by the end of his second term, or 2021.  Mr. Gingrich is either lying through his teeth in a shameless pitch to grab the votes of the hopelessly uneducated, or is mind-numbingly ignorant about the difficulties of what he is proposing.  In either case, such a gross mis-representation of what a President can (and cannot do) in today's society puts him in the same league as Michelle Bachmann, who promised back in August that if she were President, she would make gasoline $2 per gallon.

Wrong, wrong, and wrong.  When politicians put forth abject lies like that, in my opinion it should disqualify them for being President.

Colleagues of mine look at me funny when I rant about this.  They say, "They're politicians; that's what they do.  They lie."  I'm reminded of an old adage from a former job: What do valves do? They leak.  (You normally think of a valve stopping flow in a pipe, but in real-world applications, they leak.  And sometimes on purpose.)

I guess it's the naive schoolboy in me still poking through, wistfully hoping that our vaunted politicians would have the highest ethics and the highest moral standards as they pursue these powerful and important positions governing the United States.  Alas, human nature comes through and shows that people will be as slimy as they can to garner votes, and are willing to say whatever they need to say.  Perhaps the ends justify the means, in their minds.

The truth is, to build a base on the moon requires a heavy-lift human-rated rocket, which the United States does not begin to have.  As I have posted previously, a GAO Report stated that the now-defunct Constellation program would have cost $97 billion to complete, through 2020 (and this was back in 2009).  And the $97 billion doesn't begin to cover the costs of the actual lunar base.  If I had to estimate, a lunar base would be at least half as hard as building the International Space Station -- which had an all-in cost of about $100 billion.  NASA's budget in 2012 is almost $18 billion -- which includes a lot of staffing and a whole host of ongoing missions. The Augustine Report from 2009 recognized early on that the grandiose plans people had from NASA were not going to happen without a major retooling.

Look, as an engineer, I would like nothing more than to have a high profile, shoot-for-the-moon project like this country had with Apollo.  It would be so inspiring, it would have so many offshoot benefits, it would motivate a whole new generation of scientists and engineers ... but it is flat-out not going to happen in today's economic times.  I believe it is irresponsible to be considering those types of projects when our financial debt has now exceeded 100% of our annual GDP.  We have got to get our own house in order first before doing these grand science projects.

I sincerely hope the people of Florida are smart enough to see through these ridiculous promises.