Monday, February 28, 2011

Peanut Butter and Jelly

Richard D. Fain is chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises.  He spoke about the following regarding his frustration with the art of listening - -

I'm often shocked at people who will get a question and don't answer the question that was asked.  And usually there's a very specific question.  It's very much "this is what I would like to know."  And people very often respond with something quite different - - "What I think you really must have been asking," as opposed to answering the actual question.

In grammar school, I did that assignment where you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at home, then write an essay on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  And when we come to class the next day, the teacher had laid out peanut butter and jelly and bread and knives.  "Now, exchange papers and follow the instructions."  And of course only about half the class was able to make a sandwich.

It was an interesting learning experience about how much you take for granted.  So I listen carefully for exactly what people was saying, what they're asking about, what their concern is, and I try to be direct when I answer them.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

So Organized, So Systematic, So Seamless

New Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett is on the move during the off-season.  Less with a stopwatch and more with a notebook.  More with listening and learning and less with the evaluation of future talent and players.  Less with X's and O's and more with organizational structure, dynamics, and systems.

David Moore of The Dallas Morning News reported the following on February 25, 2011 in his article entitled For now, system comes first:

Garrett has already picked the brain of former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson on the subject {organizational systems}.  When given the opportunity to do the same with Krzyzewski {aka Coach K - - Duke's basketball coach}, he jumped at the chance.

Garrett gushed that the coach could talk for five days about what he learned in this three-day visit.  He left with a 150-page binder and returned with 147 of those pages filled with notes.

"He has an amazing way of creating an environment that is so organized, so systematic, so seamless," Garrett said.  "The execution and everything they do is off the charts."

"He also has this amazing personal touch with everyone involved in the organization.  He has a personal relationship with everybody.  He cares deeply about everybody.  They care about each other."

"It's a combination of IBM at its finest moments and the greatest mom-and-pop shop you're ever seen, and he puts it together.  It inspired me a great deal."

Regardless of what level you are in your organization, from time to time drop the stopwatch and pickup the pen and notebook.  You probably cannot visit Coach K - - but I am sure there are plenty of Coach Ks in your network.  Listen, learn, and reflect - - especially with those individuals outside your industry and sphere.  All it takes is a willingness to meet others and ask questions - - most people love talking about their ideas, systems, and processes.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Coming next to you - - the Aerotropolis

Four out of five Americans call home either downtown or suburbia.  This is fairly typical for the developed world.  Home for the developing world is still the farm or a more rural setting.  For example, India has only 29% of its citizens in urban environments.  This is changing - - and changing rapidly.  As I have previously discussed - - India must build a new Chicago (some numbers are hard for the human brain to imagine) every year to absorb the migration of rural dwellers into cites (they come for many reasons - - but an opportunity to have a better life is chief among them).  The number of people that call a city home will nearly double by 2050 to more than six billion people,  At the same time, the size of a cities geographic look is expected to more than double.

The bulk of these cities will have the classic urban elements that will remind us all of New York, London, and Los Angeles.  Some portion of these new cities will have elements that can truly be called new.  Newness will be found in those cities that we call the Aerotropolis - - urban developments based on airport hubs.  Those key locations that mark the point of criticality, where people and goods seem to come together.  This coming together is important - - just look at the volume that hooks up at certain points on the planet:
  • 2.4 billion air travelers in 2010
  • 3.3 billion projected air travelers in 2014
  • 9.4% projected average annual growth in international passenger demand in North American, 2010-2014
  • 31 million metric tons of international cargo traffic in 2010
  • 38 million projected metric tons of international cargo traffic in 2014
The opportunities for the Aerotropolis are dynamic and far-reaching - - fast, efficient, world-class architecture - - all built from scratch.  New ideas, from a commitment to sustainability to free trade zones will embrace the Aerotropolis.  Imagine a "Medical Aerotropolis" in India - - part resort, part world-class medial facilities, part airport - - fly in from Phoenix for your hip replacement at rock-bottom prices.  You end up disrupting the local medical incumbents and monopolies in the Phoenix area using the long arm of air travel.  The world starts to become truly flat.

Look to China to lead the way - - money, opportunity, and vision in the context of the Aerotroplis.  Like the city of Chongqing - - a strategic Aerotropolis with a focus on laptops.  A hub for the HPs and Apples of the world meeting at the one point on the planet where maybe 50% of all the laptops are manufactured.  The one point where the flow of ideas and the flow of goods meet - - meet at a place of strategic vision and dreams mixed by combinations of  the public, the private, the new, the green, the competitive.

Check out "Aerotropolis:The Way We'll Live Next" by Greg Linday and John Lasarda.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Technology and Broad Based Prosperity

The possibilities of democracy depend on the ability of the public to understand what is happening to our society and why.  One of our most pressing problems and puzzles is the decline in median family incomes.  This puzzle lies at the heart of much political tension and conflict along with continuing economic anxiety.  Median family income, which more than doubled between 1947 and 1973, increased by less than one-quarter between 1973 and 2004.  If you look at this decade, median family income has actually declined.

My father's career is a perfect example of this history.  My father went from farm boy in Hermitage, Missouri to senior vice president of a large bank in the Midwest; from a house without plumbing to Norman Rockwell middle class housing.  The transformation happened between the 1920s and 1980s - - all without my father having one credit hour of college.

This time period was marked by huge technological improvements - - from my grandfather's family Model T to a man on the moon.  No other period in human history has seen this trajectory of technological improvements producing such broad based prosperity.  My father's ability to advance and raise a middle class family was a function of many variables - - one very important variable was the advancement of technology.

I have gone from the slide ruler (yes, one semester my junior year in high school) to the IBM 360 to Facebook.  Huge improvements in technology and productivity - - mainly in the context of information technology.  But the nature of technology and forces of globalization have dampened the impact and breadth of economic prosperity.  Innovation is occurring, however at this particular point in time it is not the kind that benefits society as a whole.  The current dynamics of technology make Wall Street financiers rich.  Or they make Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg rich without creating much employment.  The iPad has created fewer than 14,000 jobs in the U.S.; Facebook employs fewer than 2,000; Twitter fewer than 300.  It is extremely difficult to create Norman Rockwell paintings with these types of numbers.

Jonathan Huebner, a Pentagon physicist, has looked at this issue - - the stagnation of technology.  The attached graphic illustrates Huebner's point - - the per-person rate of innovation from the 15th century to the present where a peak occurred around 1873.  In the U.S., the number of patents issued per capita fell for most of the 20th century.  We still innovate - - but not compared to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Clearly we may break this apparent technology ceiling.  The Internet to nanotechnology to renewable energy to biomedical advances - - all of these technologies may eventually produce broad economic gains.  The pipeline may indeed be full - - where "when" is more important than "what" - - and Mr. Rockwell can start painting again.

The engineering community has an obligation to the public and democracy to fill in the blank space regarding the importance of technology, innovation, and creativity.  Clearly we are all anxious by the large scale changes that have overtaken American society.  It should also be noted that the sheer complexity of our economic and political system makes democratic choice and deliberation difficult, if not impossible.  The times might be uncomfortable, uncertain, and even troubling - - but engineers need to understand that we are at the foot of the mountain now.  We must change, invent, and imagine.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Oscars and Engineering

The Oscars are Sunday and my money is on The King's Speech.  I bring this up because my favorite column - - Schumpeter/The Art of Management (The Economist) has a great article in the February 19th issue - - Business has much to learn from the arts.  I would expand this and add engineering.  I don't expect many of you to think about Madonna as a prophet of organizational renewal and some of you are more comfortable with Rob Adam's A Good Hard Kick in the Ass: the Real Rules for Business - - but consider several of the points from the article outlined below:

Studying the arts can help business people communicate more eloquently.  Most bosses spend a huge amount of time "messaging" and "reaching out", yet few are much good at it.  Their prose is larded with clinches and garbled with gobbledygook.  Half an hour with George Orwell's "Why I Write" would work wonders.  Many of the world's most successful businesses are triumphs of story-telling more than anything else.  Marlboro and Jack Danels have tapped into the myth of the frontier.  Ben & Jerry's, an ice-cream maker, wraps itself in the tie-dyed robes of the counter-culture.  But business schools devote far more energy to teaching people how to produce and position their products rather than how to infuse them with meaning.

Studying the arts can also help companies learn how to manage bright people.  Bob Goffee and Gareth Jones of the London Business School point out that today's most productive companies are dominated by what they call "clevers", who are the devil to manage.  They hate being told what to do by managers, whom they regard as dullards.  They refuse to submit to performance reviews.  In short, they are prima donnas.  The arts world has centuries of experience in managing such difficult people.  Publishers coax books out of tardy authors.  Directors persuade actresses to lock lips with actors they hate.  Their tips might be worth hearing.

The bottom line for the engineering communities - - the prize of innovation.  If studying the arts helps with creativity and innovation in addition to managing the ones with the creativity and innovate ideas - - one probably needs to look at the creative industries for pointers.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Pot-Hole-Infested Nation

The opening paragraph in David Brooks New York Times column today paints a picture of this decade and maybe beyond:

Over the past few weeks we've begun to see the new contours of American politics.  The budget cutters have taken control of the agenda, while government's defenders are waging tactical retreats.  Given the scope of the fiscal problems, it could be like this for the next 10 or 20 years.

Pot holes may become our most visible symbol of our conflict and tension between public infrastructure and public revenue.  Gasoline tax receipts are down, stimulus money is nearing the end, states are facing deficits of $125 billion in the next fiscal year - - James Earp, a state transportation commissioner who heads a construction trade group states it best.  "There's just no identifiable source for the money, and I don't see that there will be anytime soon."

The website for the Tacoma Weekly, a community newspaper in Washington, reports a boost in readership for its "Pot-hole-Pig" feature - - photos of a ceramic pig positioned in some of the city's more specular potholes, as chosen by readers.

Look for a "Pot-Hole-Pig" revolution, where social media and public shame is a motivating factor or we all load up on asphalt and patch and fill the holes ourselves.  My guess is we will all be heading to Home Depot in the very near future.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Conversation is Democratic

The next time you are planning a meeting, try the following tips:
  • Invite new people to join in.  It's important to tap the creativity and diversity of people in your company.
  • Replace the agenda with questions.  Leave behind those notes and PowerPoint slides.  Come ready to discuss questions that don't have easy, right/wrong, yes/no answers, and that ask for positive rather than negative or critical responses.
  • Play around with the room.  Instead of seating everyone around a conference table, ask people to work in clusters.  Or try setting up a bazaar.  Put representative objects, maps or graphics on various tables or on the wall and ask people to walk around and react to each of them.
  • Capture the conversation on a white board.  As people come up with ideas, link them using spider diagramming or clustering. (Note - - see Gabriele Rico's Writing the Natural Way.)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

"It is said that the present is pregnant with the future"

Engineering needs to think about Voltaire's comment in the context of the "Big Four" questions that we face as we march toward nine billion people - -
  1. Can we produce enough food to feed them, and clean water for them to drink?
  2. Can we create enough energy to power their needs?
  3. Can we provide them with a reasonable level of health care?
  4. Can we, without ruining the environment or facing drastic shortages, manufacture the consumer goods and provide the services they will desire?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Production is not keeping up with demand

Bloomberg Businessweek covers the emerging food crisis with the story -- "Weather, Speculation, and Politics Have Created a Global Food Crisis That Threaten . . Everything."  A drought in Russia last year, another drought in Argentina, rains in Australia and Canada - - all have pushed food prices up to record levels.  Not just one or two crops.  There is not one crop you can point to that is without supply problems.

The article puts the food crisis into its proper perspective:

The final test posed by the current crisis is the toughest of all.  Scientists have been warning for years that carbon emissions from cars, planes, factories, and power plants would make the global climate warmer and more chaotic - - altering weather patterns to make some places more prone to drought and others more prone to floods.  And climate campaigners have been wondering for years what it would take to galvanize the U.S. and other nations into action.  The newly ascendant Republicans in Washington won't acknowledge the existence of the problem, let alone debate its solution.  But other leaders are speaking up.  In South Korea, when President Lee Myung Blak launched a task force to study food shortages, he was blunt: "There is an increasing likelihood of a food crisis globally," he said, "due to climate change."  Business leaders are equally frank.  "The fact is that climate around the world is changing," says Sunny Verghese, chief executive officer at Olam International, among the world's three biggest suppliers of rice and cotton.  "That will cause massive disruptions."

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Corps, Budgets, and Food

On February 8th the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned that a drought in China's wheat belt could devastate harvests in June.  The FAO reported that rain and snowfalls were well below average in eight wheat-growing regions.  On February 12th, 2011 - - in The Wall Street Journal article (Muddy Waters for River Shippers) - - we were alerted to our own potential food issues.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is telling shippers it can no longer guarantee it will dredge parts of the lower Mississippi River to certain widths and depths.  This has potential implications for the cost of transporting goods on the river along with delays on the nation's busiest waterways.  In response, local river pilots have issued warnings to shippers to lighten their cargo loads so they can safely pass.  More than 60% of all agricultural products exported from the U.S. are shipped through the mouth of the Mississippi.

Late last year, the Corps warned shippers it might run short of funds for dredging by late spring.  The shift in dredging, which began in the past few weeks, came earlier than expected.  As quoted in the article:

"There is just a lot of uncertainty," said Ken Wells, coordinator for the Big River Coalition, a group of businesses that use the Mississippi.  "What do we do now?  And there is a lot of anger."

Weather extremes, inadequate funding for infrastructure improvements, and rising food consumption - - a Swiss cheese type problem where we are getting all the holes lined up.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

You want people to know one another

F. Mark Gumz is the president and CEO of the Olympus Corporation of the Americas.  He offers the following comments on organizational culture --

We had a lot of new people, and because they were new, they didn't have a real deep relationship with the company.  I sensed that because of our different businesses, a lot of silos had been created.  I wanted to knock the silos down.

So I made an effort to do that, initially tying people together at the wallet - - with part of their compensation based on the company's overall performance - - and  I focused on getting people to share processes from different parts of the organization.

You want people to know one another.  If you pull people together and share how they do things, they work better.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Specific Weather Conditions

This past Sunday, The New York Times covered the engineering impact of climate change.  The article was by Elisabeth Rosenthal - - Huff and Puff and Blow Your House Down

The main questions raised in the article - - what happens when 100-year storms are seen every 10 years, and 10-year storms become regular events?  How many structures will reach their limits?

Rosenthal writes the following:

Engineers and insurers are already facing these questions.  Munich Re, one of the world's largest insurance companies, says climate-related events serious enough to cause property damage have risen significantly since 1980: extreme floods tripled and extreme windstorms nearly so. (The number of damaging earthquakes - - which are not thought to be influenced by climate change - - have remained stable.)  Statistics show that the frequency of days with heavy precipitation is up in South America, North America and parts of Europe.

"Your own perception that there are more storms and more flooding causing damage - - that is extremely well documented," said Peter Hoeppe, a meteorologist who is the head of Munich Re's Corporate Climate Center.  "There is definitely a plausible link to climate change."

For insurers, the challenge has been how to insure structures against the vicissitudes of increasingly extreme and severe weather.  For engineers, new weather raises difficult questions about what kinds of safety factors should be built into designs and whether old structures need retrofitting and reinforcing.

The issue boils down to a very fundamental concern for engineers and policy makers to consider - - what specific weather conditions are we designing for and building to?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Reality Arithmetic

ExxonMobil recently completed a study that projects the number of light-duty vehicles worldwide will grow 50% to 1.2 billion by 2030, with two-fifths of the increase in China.  Most will need gasoline.  This means competition for global oil supplies will intensify.

Current global oil demand is roughly 90 million barrels per day.  So what is the plan and where is the strategic thinking headed?  How are we thinking in the U.S. about global gasoline consumption in 2030?  Maybe a stiffer gasoline tax to cut consumptions?  Dream on, although a higher gasoline tax helps to fix the "Big Half Dozen" - - from cutting our debit to climate change to infrastructure investing to energy security.  What about expanding supplies - - dream on again.  Production is down 200,000 barrels per day in the Gulf of Mexico alone.

But we have a strategic vision and a secret weapon.  It's called the Chevy Volt.  By 2015 we want one million plug-in electric hybrids on the road.  First year sales of the Volt are projected to maybe hit 25,000 units.

Assume that one million of us drop $40,000 for a new Volt - - how many oil tankers are we turning away from our ports?  The answer is not many - - the one million Volts would cut oil consumption by roughly 40,000 barrels a day (on the other hand, coal miners and electric companies are going to love the Volt).  This is out of a 19 million barrels per day U.S. consumption base.  The one million Volts - - we have 240 million cars and light trucks on the road today.  Almost all of them are filling up at a gas stations.

Sometimes public policy, strategic thinking, and reality need to meet over a good round of arithmetic.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Efficiency and Sufficiency

Economists like to say there is no such thing as a free lunch - - engineers like to prove them wrong.  Improved efficiency is a good example of engineering and economists running into each other.  History is full of examples where the unit cost of something, such as energy, will fall - - yet total consumption will actually increase.  The story is not just energy, it is also water - - water experts tell similar stories about irrigation.  When better efficiency lowers the cost of irrigation, farmers expand the amount of land irrigated and end up using more water than previously.

Efficiency improvements cannot be an excuse for increasing production and consumption.  If efficiency were to increase by 50% the next 20  to 30 years, but GDP rose by 2.5% a year, within 25 years we'd be back where we started at.

Engineering needs to be the heart and soul of an engineering revolution.  But we also need to be the leading voice for a sufficiency revolution.  The sufficiency revolution brings us to the two great unmentionables - - the need to curb both human appetites and human numbers.  On a finite planet - - both cannot expect to increase indefinitely.  Of the two, reducing consumption levels is by far the more important.  The average child born in the U.S. today will emit 20 gigatons of carbon a year - - roughly 20 times the child born in Burkna Faso.

Efficiency is clearly a key to our collective future - - but efficiency without sufficiency is a non-winning ticket.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Struggle Between the Ambivalent and the Impassioned

The Koch Brothers (David and Charles) and their $35 billion net worth want drastically lower personal and corporate taxes (and drastically is much closer to zero percent than 35%).  They want less for the poor, sick, disabled, and young.  Gone would be the U.S. EPA - - Clean Air Act, Clean, Water Act, and other environmental regulations to the dust bin of history.  Having a net worth of $35 billion allows you the opportunity to rewrite the rules - - it allows you to rewrite the American economy in ways that have benefited the few at the expense of the many. (Note - - Bill Gates on the other hand has not been an advocate for a zero tax bracket - - he is working on helping people in some of the poorest spots on the planet.)

But one of the many lessons on the streets of Cairo over the last three weeks is that in a struggle between the ambivalent and the impassioned - - the impassioned can do very well against the rich and powerful.  Especially if the rich and powerful are overwhelmingly ambivalent.  As the streets of Cairo demonstrated, impassioned young people with technology can sweep away the rich, powerful, and old guard.  In the marketplace of ideas, the impassioned do very well - - passion and technology are a historically unique and powerful combination.

The marketplace of ideas is about the future and articulating your vision of that future.  Investing in our youth and quality education is an idea.  Investing in our public infrastructure is an idea.  Protecting the quality of our global environment is an idea.  Developing a sustainable civilization is an idea.  Social justice is an idea.  Income equality is an idea.  Creating a renewable energy future is an idea (don't expect the brothers David and Charles to have any ambivalence on this point).  These are the topics all engineers should be impassioned about.  With new avenues and technology to have a voice, engineers have the capacity and potential to be a force in the marketplace of ideas.  We need to willing and happy to make the case for not gutting the Clean Air Act or eliminating the Department of Transportation.  We need to be willing to fight for our vision of the future - - one based on superior principles.

As the streets of Cairo demonstrated - - in a modern revolution and foot race, passion trumps ambivalence.

Friday, February 11, 2011

New York, New York

Between 2009 and 2010, as the U.S. and global economy spun out of control and largely stagnated, wages in Manhattan increased by 11.9%.  More than any other large country.  In 2010, the average weekly wage in Manhattan was $2,404, which is 170% more than the U.S. average, and 45% more than Santa Clara County, home of Silicon Valley, which pays the highest wages outside of greater New York.

Location, Location, Location - - proximity has become ever more valuable as the cost of connecting across long distances has fallen.  In this case, proximity makes New York, New York the center of financial innovation.  Intersecting people and ideas generates creativity and innovation - - which in turn drives the creation of wealth.  Smart and creative people want to be around other smart and creative people.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Green Apollo

Engineering can play a critical role as public messenger as we all climb atop our green Apollo rocket.  The message engineers should be giving is that energy efficiency must to be our stage one rocket.  It has been demonstrated that businesses, governments, and society as a whole can shrink environmental footprints while maintaining and even increasing our economic well-being.  The assumption that burning less oil and coal will mean higher prices, fewer jobs, and lower living standards has long been the heart of the argument against cutting greenhouse gas emissions.  This is a myth.

Energy efficiency is one of the highest-return and lowest-risk investments in the whole economy.  Let me state this again - - Energy efficiency is one of the highest-return and lowest-risk investments in the whole economy.  Dow Chemical has saved $9 billion by investing $1 billion in energy efficiency.  DuPont made billions by cutting its greenhouse-gas emissions 72 percent during 1990-2004, and is now expanding that cut by another 15 percent.

Because energy efficiency is so lucrative, it should be the cornerstone of Green Apollo programs the world over - - even in developing countries.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Our Sputnik Moment

President Obama laid down the marker for the U.S. to "win the future" - - his words were a new "Sputnik Moment."  He called for sharp increases in investment in infrastructure, education, and new technology, which cost many billions of dollars.  How we plan on paying for this is never stated.  Our "Sputnik Moment" meets a new reality in which our desires to invest in the future run into our obligations to pay for the past.  The past is represented by three huge cost buckets - - our accumulated national debt, our unfunded obligations under Social Security, and our unfunded obligations under Medicare.

What typically is lost in the national discussion is the idea that strategic investments in infrastructure, education, and new technology have the potential to create more value than its costs.  The Interstate Highway System in the 1950s and 1960s has been estimated to have a 35% return - - annually.  The economists Kevin Murphy and Robert Topel have suggested that the social benefits of medical research reach into the trillions of dollars.  From the Internet to GPS - - strategic federal investment expenditures have been a driver of our modern economy.

Innovation is good for the economy.  Strategic investments in innovation is good for the economy.  Cutting investment back to 0% is not good for the economy.  Engineers need to remember this simple fact -  it's hard to make a case for investing more when everyone believes we should be spending less, but there's never been a better time.  Interest rates are historically low, so borrowing is cheap and the weak economy means that there's less competition for labor and resources.

How we manage the tension and conflict between the need to invest in the future while having tunnel vision regarding the past will be our most important national performance metric.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Challenge of the Unstable

Systems are ever-changing.  No system, human or machine, can avoid changes.  Look at the highway on the way home from work one night - - the incompleteness of a system is partly attributable to this ever changing nature.  Changes take place because of external drivers (e.g., economic pressures).  But changes also takes place because of internal drivers (e.g., different leadership with a different management philosophy).

Adaptability is typically used in the context of change.  A more important word for the era of instability is resilience.  From climate change, to natural disasters, to acts of terrorism, to economic disruptions - - what people care about is the resilience of a system and organization.  How fast can you spring back when faced with a set back?  Can you recover?  Resilience is measured by the ability to absorb or adapt to disturbances, disruption, and change.  When you are rocked by rolling blackouts during heavy snow storms, how resilient are the systems at the local hospital?  What about the transportation systems - - when are you back to a normal schedule?

North Texas recently had a rough week with our Super Bowl.  System instability was the theme for last week.  When looking at resilience, consider the following attributes of any given system:
  1. Buffering Capacity - - The size or kinds of disruptions the system can absorb or adapt to without a fundamental breakdown in performance or in the system's structure.  Our ability to move snow plows in from West Texas during two ice and snowstorms greatly increased the buffering capacity of the snow removal system.
  2. Flexibility Versus Stiffness - - The system's ability to restructure itself in response to external changes or pressures.  Some 400 fans who purchased tickets were denied seating due to code violations - - in this case the system was extremely stiff with limited flexibility for the unlucky 400.
  3. Margin - - How closely or how precarious the system is currently operating relative to one or another kind of performance boundary.  Rolling blackouts in the electrical system caused by disruptions in the water system demonstrated the relative low margin the combined system has during periods of high demand and utilization.
  4. Tolerance - - How a system behaves near a boundary - - whether the system gracefully degrades as stress/pressure increase or collapses quickly when pressure exceeds adaptive capacity.  Public transportation across the performance boundary collapsed as weather related pressures consumed the adaptive capacity of the system.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Food Questions

We're going to have to rethink our entire agronomic system to determine how to deal with climate change.  We have just started to think about the questions - - we don't know the answers yet. 

Economist Paul Krugman addresses this in his New York Times column today - - Droughts, Floods and Food:

But the evidence tells a different. much more ominous story.  While several factors have contributed to soaring food prices, what really stands out is the extent to which severe weather events have disrupted agricultural production.  And these severe weather events are exactly the kind of thing we'd expect to see as rising concentrations of greenhouse gases change our climate - - which means that the current food price surge may be just the beginning.

Consider the case of wheat, whose price has almost doubled since the summer.  The immediate cause of the wheat price spike is obvious: world production is down sharply.  The bulk of that production decline, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, reflects a sharp plunge in the former Soviet Union.  And we know what that's about: a record heat wave and drought, which pushed 100 degrees for the first time ever.

The Russian heat wave was only one of many recent extreme weather events, from dry weather in Brazil to biblical-proportion flooding in Australia, that have damaged world food production.

The future is going to be really complex for engineers - - both questions and answers.  What are we to plan for?  A world of less water (except when there is more)?  At a certain point the global community will ask us to help them avoid the unmanageable and manage for the unavoidable.  We need to be thinking about what we are doing to do when that scenario arrives at our door step.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Hillistes and Health Care

In Tunisia they go by the French-Arabic slang - - hillistes.  In Egypt they are shabab atileen.  England calls them NEETs (not in education, employment, or training).  In Japan they are freeters. Germany they are arbeiter and Spain the word is mileuristas.  In America - - "boomerang" kids who move back home after college because they can't find work.  Even in China.  They are known as the "ant tribe" - - recent college graduates who crowd together in cheap flats on the fringes of big cities because they can't find well-paying work.

They go by different names, yet they are the same people.  The jobless young of the world.  The numbers are staggering - - widespread global unemployment.  In the U.S. - - 44% of black teenagers and 23% of white teens.  Greece is looking at 35% unemployment of the 15-24 year old age group.  All of Sahara Africa is over 20% - - grandparents are not in the streets of Cairo.  The streets of Cairo are full of unemployed and disenfranchised teens.

You can slice the world in many ways - - young and old; rich and poor.  When one group is young and poor and the other old and rich - - policy execution becomes a tricky thing.  The desire to invest in the future runs directly into the economic and political reality of our obligations to pay for the past.  Health care in the U.S. is a perfect example - - consider the words of Bill Gates as he spoke with Charlie Rose:

We spend 17.8 percent of our GDP on health care.  And the next highest is at 12 percent.  You have some, like Britain, who are down at 9 percent.  That is just mind-blowing.  And our outcomes aren't better.  The incentive system exists to have all sorts of ways of spending money on 70-years old and 80-years old - - spend $100,000 on this, spend a half-million on that.  You're taking resources you can invent, we have no metric that would hold us back.  So, innovation is inventing ways of taking resources away from the young, whether that's education or anything else.

And the 17.8 percent is a little misleading - - nothing in the recent health care reform bill curtails an increase to 25 percent.  At some point it all becomes rather clear to our global youth - - we are going to say no to education, training, and investing in the future and we are going to say yes to "I've-fallen-and-I-can't-get-up" gizmos.  When that becomes clear, that the past appears to be more important than the future, the kids of the world are going to discover it is a very short walk from milkshakes to Molotov cocktails.

"We look like a clown car"

Julie Greenwald is chairwoman and chief operating officer of the Atlantic Records Group.  She offers the following comments on leadership and running meetings:

I spend a lot of time in small meetings.  I make sure that we constantly talk about culture and what we need and why something is not just one person's responsibility, and that we all have to have ownership.

I constantly talk about how we have to be vulnerable, and that it's not fair for some people in meetings to just sit or stand along the wall and not participate.  It you're not going to participate, then that means you're just sponging off the rest of us.

It's important for everyone to understand we're a company where risk-taking is necessary.  I know it's not easy sometimes.  I hate public speaking.  The only way I conquered it was being put on the spot all the time.  In order to lead, you have to be a public speaker, and you need to be able to really drive the meeting.

I'm not afraid to call a meeting and shove 17 people into a tiny office.  We look like a clown car.  But you know what?  It's O.K. because that's when you feel like, "All right, we;re this tight knit unit."  So I started to assemble a whole other set of meetings, like SWAT teams, in my office.  Sometimes I look around and I think, "Am I an idiot that I've got 50 people cramming into my office?"  But we're so on top of each other you feel like "It's us against the world."

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Genius of Contemporary Capitalism

Timothy Garton Ashh is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.  He wrote the following in 2007:

Above all, though, there is the inescapable dilemma that this planet cannot sustain six and a half billion people living like today's middle-class consumers in its rich North.  In just a few decades, we would use up the fossil fuels that took some 400 million years to accrete - - and change the earth's climate as a result.  Sustainability may be a grey and boring world, but its is the biggest single challenge to global capitalism today.  However ingenious modern capitalists are at finding alternative technologies - - and they will be very ingenious - - somewhere down the line this is going to mean richer consumers settling for less rather than more.

Marx thought capitalism would have a problem finding consumers for the goods that improving techniques of production enabled it to churn out.  Instead, it has become expert in a new branch of manufacturing: the manufacturing of desires.  The genius of contemporary capitalism is not simply that it gives consumers what they want but that it makes them want what it has to give.  It's that core logic of ever-expanding desires that is unsustainable on a global scale.  But are we to abandon it?  We may be happy to insulate our lofts, recycle our newspapers and cycle to work, but are ready to settle for less so others can have more?  Am I?  Are you?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Private Profits and Public Liabilities

The average corporate tax rate is 35%.  Target for example pays approximately 35%.  Some corporations pay more and some pay less.  And some pay a lot less.  All complain they are paying too much.

Carnival Cruises pays approximately 1%.  To support Carnival's profitability comes a wide range of public liabilities.  The Coast Guard and their responsibilities for maritime safety and emergency response.  The Homeland Security Agency and their commitment to passenger security.  Federal, state, and local governments that provide access and public infrastructure to support ship and vehicular traffic.  The National Weather Service providing forecasting and weather updates.

Assuming that a significant portion of the cruise traffic are retirees - - the ship is full of walking and talking public liabilities.  Social Security and Medicare have an unfunded present day value of approximately $55 trillion.  From outside the ship to inside the ship - - what keeps all afloat, so to speak, is a system of public services and responsibilities that are supported by tax revenue and fees.  When the private works endlessly and trelessly to figure out ways not to support the public - - the very public that directly supports their business model and is the monetary backstop for their customer base - - we have huge problems with the fairness of our democracy and our form and execution of capitalism.  The gap between private profits and public liabilites has limits.  Private limits, public limits, and limits to what the Chinese are willing to finance.

The reason behind the 1% - - rigging and tax loopholes associated with the ability for Carnival to register in Panama.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The James Bond Villain Data Center

Where does WikiLeaks keep its secrets?  In a former military bunker and nuclear shelter under Stockholm's city streets.  Nicknamed the James Bond Villain Data Center (actually the Pionen Data Center) - - the 8,000-server facility, which could theoretically withstand a nuclear impact, is protected by 24-hour video surveillance and a two-foot-thick armored door.  Two German V12 diesel submarine engines are on standby for backup power.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Code of Conduct

Professional engineers are all familiar with the responsibilities to protect the safety, health, and welfare of the public.  I find it interesting that the majority of professional engineers have never had a class nor taken an exam on the subjects of public safety or public health.  The term welfare, as in the well being of the public, is so broad and abstract that it is difficult to establish just what our responsibilities are in this context.

What about a new list of ideas that better defines our professionalism and our code of conduct.  Four elements come to mind.  First is an expectation of selflessness - - as professional engineers we place the needs and concerns of those who depend on us above our own.  Second is an expectation of skill - - that we will aim for excellence in our knowledge and expertise.  Third is an expectation of trust-worthiness - - that we will be responsible in our personal behavior toward our charges.  The fourth is discipline - - where professional discipline is following prudent procedure and in functioning with others.  The fourth is the most important and the hardest - - humans are build for novelty and excitement, not for careful attention to detail.  Discipline is something we have to work at - - yet it is the most import professional attribute that loops back to the goal of public safety, health, and welfare.