Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Petraeus Way

Another good book out on General David Petraeus - - All In: The Education of General David Petraeus (2012) by Paula Broadwell and Vernon Loeb.  The book details "The Petraeus Way" in the context of strategy development.  He feels that strategic leaders and thinkers need to engage in four strategic tasks.  These are:
  1. Getting the big ideas right - - Counterinsurgency in Iraq was the big idea, and the big idea was right.
  2. Effectively communicating the big ideas - - Petraeus is a master of communicating via all the media mediums and with Congress.  To quote the General - - "The enemy has to know we have the will to prevail."
  3. Overseeing the implementation of the big ideas - - Execution, Execution, and more Execution.  "Those on the ground must have all the support they need when they are in a tough situation."
  4. Capturing best practices and lessons and cycling them back through the system to help refine the big ideas - - Sort of the three "Ls" - - Listen, Learn, Lead.  Then you recycle.

    Sunday, January 29, 2012

    Infrastructure improvements and the need for speed

    One thing should be clear to the voting public and political aristocracy (and is probably not).  In the Age of Globalization and complex distribution chains - - the adequacy of public infrastructure is going to matter more.  Where the word "more" is not linear - - "more" is exponential. 

    The current issue of the Economist highlights this in California Ports: The fickle Asian container.  Improvements to the Panama Canal will change the speed and efficiency equation in such a way that it provides opportunity to the East and Gulf coasts and produces risk at West coast port operations.  The article states the following:

    "The risk comes from the Panama Canal, which the Panamanians are digging wider and deeper.  In an inexorable shipbuilding trend, each generation of freighters is larger than the previous one.  So the canal today accommodates only ships that carry up to about 5,000 containers, whereas large freighters already carry 12,000, and the largest carry even more.  This is why it is currently best to move a box form Guangdong Providence to New York by floating it to Los Angeles or Long Beach, then putting it on a train.  But the digging in Panama is about to change the calculations."

    Improvements to the canal (and dredging projects in the port cities of Miami, Savannah, and Charleston) have created a new matrix that makes the "unload in LA and ship to NY" slower.  This is the important part - - innovation in products such as the iPhone and innovation in the Apple production/supply chain need to be matched by innovations in the supporting infrastructure.  From automated loading/unloading port facilities, to faster rail networks, to deep and modern ports - - the future should be rather obvious.  You cannot invest and innovate only on the product side of the equation.  To remain competitive on a global scale, a country also requires investment and innovation in infrastructure.  Where some of the infrastructure is public infrastructure.

    The future belongs to the swift and creative - - where the swift and creative are good at working around bottlenecks and cutting regions and countries out of the logistics picture.

    Saturday, January 28, 2012

    A Future That Needs A National Plan

    The Winter 2011 issue of The Bridge has a special issue on sustainable water resources.  One particular article, A Plea for a Coordinated National Water Policy by Gerald E. Galloway Jr., should be read by all water resource planners and engineers.

    Provided below is a list of our national water challenges outlined in The Bridge:
    • In 2002, 49% of the US was experiencing moderate to severe drought.  Since then, drought has become commonplace in many more places across the country - - Texas and the Southwest are prime examples.  Like many parts of the Southwest, Texas faces a future of population growth and limited water supplies.
    • The 1970s goal of providing fishable, swimmable, and drinkable water throughout the nation have never been realized.  We have yet been able to deal with the problem of nonpoint-source pollution.
    • Over the last five decades, average annual flood damage has increased in spite of significant federal investment in structural and non-structural programs to reduce flood risk and lessen the impact of flooding when it occurs.
    • Much of the U.S. inland waterway infrastructure is outdated and appreciably slows barge traffic.  In addition, many ports, harbors, and channels are not competitive in today's deep-draft shipping environment.
    • Riverine and coastal ecosystems remain at risk as floodplains and wetlands are subject to increasing pressure by developers or are disappearing as a result of anthropogenic activities that have undermined their stability.
    • Human activities over the last century have severely damaged ecosystems in many places in the United States, including the Everglades, coastal Louisiana, the Chesapeake Bay, the upper Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and the California Bay Delta.
    • Lack of understanding of the water-energy nexus (this is a huge problem in my opinion).  Water needs energy and energy needs water.  We unfortunately continue to treat these as two separate systems.
    • Groundwater provides 18% of the nation's urban water supply, yet we are a long way from understanding and protecting this valuable water resource.
    • We don't do watershed planning.  Projects and resources are not identified and deployed on a watershed or basin level.
    • Texas and Oklahoma are slowly marching toward prolonged litigation around interstate water rights.  Management of interstate waters is problematic - - decisions are frequently made by judges and courts without any knowledge or background in water resources planning.
    • The ASCE grade tells us a lot - - a D or D- in the water infrastructure sections.  Funding is short to the tune of nine zeros.
    • The United States has not undertaken a comprehensive water assessment since 1976.  We have a complete lack of knowledge regarding the current conditions.

    Friday, January 27, 2012

    Management Strategy Development and Gamification

    Look to a future in both engineering and management where software written for the games industry is put to more serious uses - - the "gamification" of key organizational processes.

    Andrew Hill in his Financial Times On Management column (Great gifts for all the managers in your life - - December 20, 2011) came up with his own management tool for the Era of Gamification:

    "Call of Duty: Modern Strategy 3.  Available in Wii, Xbox, PS3, S&P 500, and FTSE 100 formats, the new edition of the most popular console game in corporate history, does not disappoint!  In single-player mode, you can still lead your company to world domination, while taking over weaker rivals and destroying new entrants - - all against an apocalyptic backdrop of burning platforms and bleeding-edge technology.  The real excitement is in the online multiplayer version, however, where you'll be forced to collaborate with people you've never heard of, from places you've never visited, or face bankruptcy or worse (NB: 18 certificate - - strategy is not for the squeamish.)"

    Thursday, January 26, 2012

    The Mozart of Modernism

    A new documentary is out on famed British architect Norman Foster - - How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?

    Finding Your Extra

    Friedman is correct, Average Is Over (Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times January 25, 2012 - - Average Is Over).  His column is not targeted at engineers - - but engineers would be wise to read and understand the implications - - whether your collar is blue or white, the Age of Average has/is ending.

    "In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over."

    Engineering, Solitude, and the Power of Introverts

    Interesting article in the January 15, 2012 issue of the New York Times - - The Rise of the New Groupthink.  The piece is by Susan Cain, and her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking.  Collaboration is in - - but the power and importance of introverts and solitude should not be forgotten.  Remember Picasso's observation - - "Without great solitude, no serious work is possible." 

    Cain writes the following:

    "But even if the problems are different, human nature remains the same.  And most humans have two contradictory impulses: we love and need one another, yet we crave privacy and autonomy.

    To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning.  Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone.  Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time.  And we must recognize that introverts like Steve Wozniak need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work."

    Engineering is one of the professions that needs extra quiet time - - and an appreciation of introverts.

    Wednesday, January 25, 2012

    The Seven Deadly Sins of Innovation

    The "Seven Deadly Sins of Innovation" from The Little Black Book of Innovation by Scott D. Anthony -
    1. Pride - - Forcing your view on the marketplace won't work.  You need a customer-centric starting point to ensure and understanding of what customers want and a broad understanding of what may affect the market's future.
    2. Sloth - - Paying lip service to innovation by not giving people the resources and room they need to create something different.
    3. Gluttony - - Being the market leader often leads to resting on your laurels.
    4. Lust - - Pursuing too many bright, shiny ideas generally means that resources will be spread too thin to turn any of them into reality.  You must prioritize, but don't just think short term.
    5. Envy - - Creating an "us versus them" relationship between core business and growth opportunities makes it difficult for either to focus on their business.  Encourage both by celebrating their wins together.
    6. Wrath - - Innovation involves risk.  Without failure there can be no success.  Punishing the risk takers keeps people in their comfort zones.
    7. Greed - - Putting profits first in the innovative process usually "leads to prioritizing low-potential markets."  Growth requires patience.

    Weeding Out

    Interesting post - - Do STEM Faculties Want Undergraduates To Study STEM Fields?.

    Tuesday, January 24, 2012

    Your Life-Cycle and Carbon Dioxide

    Important numbers of the week (the best number of the week could be that Newt Gingrich has more ex-wives than all the previous U.S. presidents combined) in this week's Economist (How to cut carbon emissions: Demography and climate change) - -
    • Carbon footprints are a function of age - - average spending patterns vary over a lifetime.
    • Consumption as a fraction of household spending typically peaks when people are in their 20s.
    • Not surprising - - old people drive less.  Clothes spending peaks in (most) people's 40s and declines thereafter.
    • Americans' emissions per head rise sharply until they reach their early 20s - - the increase continues more slowly until people are in their mid 60s.
    • In their early 20s, Americans produce less than 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide a years, at the peak in their early 60s, they produce 15 tonnes.
    • As developing countries age - - this should be good news.  But, this is not until people hit their mid 60s - - and the next decade will have a huge increase in the 60 to 64 age group.
    • In 2020 America, there will be 2,400,000 more people aged 75 to 79 than at present; but there will be 4,400,000 more 60 to 64 year olds.
    • The benefits of an aging global population kick in around 2050.

    Monday, January 23, 2012

    Engineering and our expanding -ilities

    Engineering requires a clear understanding of the -ilities - - the desired properties of a system or product.  Historically our list of ilities have been the wide impacts that stakeholders have demanded - - things like quality, reliability, usability, and maintainability. 

    The list of desired properties will continue to expand (and many properties may not end in ility!!).  Here is a list of the properties that may become increasingly important in the future - -
    • Usability or operability - - These are old ilities, but increasingly complex systems will require a greater focus and appreciation of human factors and ergonomics-type issues.
    • Flexibility - - The ability to change into different configurations that allow a particular system to perform multiple functions.
    • Extensibility - - The ability to take small networks and expand them into larger ones.
    • Resilience - - Not a pure ilities, but critical in a high-risk world.  Resilience is the degree to which a system can recover quickly from a major disruption while regaining - - or even exceeding - - its original level.
    • Interoperability - - A system property that allows a particular system or product to function independently in their own right but can also work together as a larger whole, even if they are owned and operated by different entities and were not designed originally to work together.
    • Compatibility - - How well components of the system can be connected and work together.
    • Modularity - - The ability to pull systems apart and then put them back together again.
    • Sustainability - - The capacity for a system to endure.  In the case of our earth system - - it is the long-term maintenance of responsibility (our very first ility!!).
    Olivier L. de Weck, Daniel Roos, and Christopher L. Magee have a great book that covers this subject in much greater detail - - Engineering Systems: Meeting Human Needs in a Complex Technological World (2011).  The graphic in Chapter 4 (Figure 4.4) illustrates the correlation network of ilities - - very interesting!

    Sunday, January 22, 2012

    Noah and Innovation

    Sometimes tragedy breeds innovation and triumph.  The tsunami in Japan last year is a good example - - where engineers have been hard at work at coming up with an individual survival/escape pod.

    Dubbing its survival shelter Noah, Cosmo Power describes it as a modern, miniature version of Noah’s Ark. The pod is large enough to hold four adults, floats in water and is made of enhanced fiberglass, which the company says is strong enough to withstand tsunamis, earthquakes, even hurricanes. Breathing holes on top and a small lookout window add to the comfort.

    Innovative design should break away existing forms, and demonstrate three characteristics:
    1. Novelty - - The result of innovative design is different from all previously existing products.
    2. Value - - The value of innovative design is related to a human purpose, and should be judged by the customer and society.
    3. Commercialization - - Innovative design is distinguished from the term creative design because it involves commercial transactions.

    Saturday, January 21, 2012

    Napoleon on Chaos

    Interesting piece in Luke Johnson's January 18, 2012 Financial Times column - - Spotting winners is not always rational:

    The difference between victory and failure in commercial affairs is not random but is nevertheless heavily subject to chance and human factors such as management ability and general sentiment.  Judging risk is as much an art as a science, and external influences - from interest rates to commodity prices to competitive activity - will often decide whether a venture succeeds or fails.

    In hindsight winning investment decisions appear rational and prophetic, while poor ones seem stupid.  This impression is often false.  But as Napoleon said: "The battlefield is a scene of constant chaos.  The winner will be the one who controls that chaos."

    Discipline, astute timing, product financing and a sensible level of diversification may well prevent you from becoming a big winner, but will also probably ensure you do not join the ranks of the epic losers - such as entrepreneur Sean Quinn, a few years ago Ireland's richest man and now the biggest bankrupt.

    Friday, January 20, 2012

    The key is always the starting definition

    Interesting observation in Tyler Cowen's blog (Marginal Revolution) this week:

    Krueger’s claim of a shrinking middle class relies on the same peculiar definition. Specifically, “middle class” is defined as having a household income at least half of median income but no more than 1.5 times the median. I re-ran the numbers using the same definition and data source as Krueger and found that the entire reason the middle class has “shrunk” is that more households today have incomes that put them above middle class. That’s right, the share of households with income that puts them in the middle class or higher was 76 percent in 1970 and 75 percent in 2010—two figures that are statistically indistinguishable. For that matter, I am not discovering fire here; Third Way made the same point in early 2007 (page 7). A shrinking middle class is only a problem if it reflects fewer people reaching the middle class.

    Thursday, January 19, 2012

    Your high school Latin lesson and complexity

    Understanding engineering system complexity starts with a definition.  The English word "complex"has two Latin roots - - com (meaning "together") and plectere (meaning "to weave" or "to braid").  The Latin roots begin to illustrate the story of the modern engineered system - - a story of intertwined elements affecting and depending on one another.  A story that begins with the braiding of scale, function, structure, and temporality in engineering systems - - and sometimes ends in a God awful mess.

    The changing language of engineering

    A great column by Charles M.West, President of the National Academy of Engineering, in the Winter 2011 issue of The Bridge (Engineers: The Next Generation.  Do We Need More?  Who Will They Be?  What Will They Do?).  West highlights the language of engineering - - past and present.  Words that will always be embedded in the vocaluary of engineering include the following:
    • Force
    • Size
    • Modulus
    • Temperature
    • Speed
    • Tolerance
    • Voltage
    • Precision
    West also points out the new words he is hearing in the context of engineering.  Words that make up the language of engineering systems.  Words that help to define our interconnected and interactive world.  Words that help to integrate what engineers know and can do with what social scientists, management experts, policy makers, citizen groups, lawyers, and politicians know and can do.  The words that will define our future - -
    • Scale
    • State
    • Integration
    • Resilience
    • Affordability
    • Scope
    • Complexity
    • Architecture
    • Evolution
    • Social Context

    Wednesday, January 18, 2012

    The XM25 Rifle

    The U.S. Army is testing a new rifle in Afghanistan.  Known as the XM25, the new gun weighs about 13 pounds and fires a 25 mm round.  The truly innovative idea embedded in the rifle is the bullet.  Instead of having to aim directly at Mr. Taliban, the round need only be aimed at a place in proximity to Mr. Taliban.  Once there, it explodes and the fragments kill Mr. Taliban.  It knows when to explode because of a timed fuse - - a small computer inside the bullet monitor details of the projectile's flight.  Each rifle bullet is programmed before it is fired by a second computer in the rifle itself.  To determine the distance to the target, the gunman shines a laser rangefinder attached to the rifle at whatever is shielding the enemy.

    So the world of bits and bytes, lines of code, and computers has come to the simple bullet.  When IT makes it to the bullet - - you have to wonder how and when it comes to everything else.  The next time you drive across the bridge near your home - - think about where, how, why, and when you could start to see lines of codes in the "simple bridge."  Sure, your car is full of software, but what about the pavement you drive on?  You might have a smart water meter powered by software - - but the water lines are void of any lines of code and are pretty dumb.

    If we can embed bullets with software and make them smarter - - it seems to me that we have a very long list of everyday products and public infrastructure in need of smarts supported by lines of code and algorithms.

    Tuesday, January 17, 2012

    The Engineer as 1 Percenter

    The New York Times on Sunday (January 15, 2012) has an interesting graphic - - The Jobs With the Most 1 Percenters.  The diagram shows occupations where workers are most likely to rank in the nation's economic top one percent (defined as workers in households with a pretax income of $380,000, excluding capital gains).  The diagram also illustrates the estimated absolute numbers of one percenters in the selected categories.  A sampling is provided below - -
    •  Physicians 192,269 (the largest group and good luck with ideas of lowering the cost of health care and improving system performance)
    • CEO and public administrators 161,069 (includes many engineers)
    • Lawyers 145,564
    • Recreation workers 10,594 (my first job was as a "recreation worker" at $1.45 per hour)
    • Airplane pilots and navigators 3,054 (some one percenters love unions)
    • Athletes, sports instructors and officials 10,354
    • Financial services and sales 36,530 (selling the product is better than the results of the product)
    • Petroleum, mining and geological engineers 1,830
    • Architects 6,973 (like actors, talent based occupation with the top of the profession doing very well)
    • Veterinarians 3,960 (spay and neuter has more value than pumping oil?)
    • Sales engineers 705
    • Announcers 1,285
    • Accountants and auditors 61,033 (a million pages of tax code and a difficult CPA exam helps)
    • Dentists 26,875 (don't point this out when in the chair)
    • Podiatrists 1,040

    Monday, January 16, 2012

    Top Graphs of 2011

    BBC poll from economists - - their view of the top financial and economics graphs of 2011.

    Sunday, January 15, 2012

    Design for Flexibility

    Engineering has never been a linear profession.  We are subject to constant change - - where recently change has been exponential in nature.  The elements of change that most impacts engineering comes from many different avenues.  These include economic crises, political shifts, new technologies, new discoveries, and new market shifts.  In 2011, we say huge changes and "trend-busters" in all five areas.  The challenge for engineering, given rapid change and uncertainty, is knowing what to build, at what time (engineers from Apple to Fluor face this same challenge - - it is universal to engineering).

    We cannot know what will happen in the the future (remember the old Russian saying - - "Those who try and predict the future never get rich") - - yet we seem fixed on a mindset of "design to specification" or "design to present requirement."  Many of our current methods do not deal effectively with the notion of rapid and complex change.  Engineers could greatly improve results by recognizing that the future is inevitably uncertain and that by creating flexible designs that can adapt to eventualities.  Considerable value can be derived from engineering focused on "designing for variation."

    Designing based on "Master Plans" will seem rigid and deterministic in a era of flexible designs.  The reality of rapid change needs an environment of "intelligent management" - - flexible design anticipates and plans for a range of possible futures.  Flexible designing will enable system owners and managers the opportunity to respond easily and cost-effectively to changing circumstances.

    Richard de Neufville and Stefan Scholtes have an excellent book on the subject - - Flexibility in Engineering Design (2011).

    Saturday, January 14, 2012

    Understanding and preparing for the worst

    This weeks Economist has a couple of outstanding articles on the current state of natural disasters - - The rising cost of catastrophes: How to limit the damage that natural disasters do and Counting the cost of calamities.  The summary paints the picture - - "Death rates from natural disasters are falling; and fears that they have become more common are misplaced.  But their economic cost is rising relentlessly."

    Key points in the two articles include the following:
    • The October 2011 Bangkok ("Venice of Asia") floods cost $40 billion, the most expensive disaster in the country's history.  J.P. Morgan estimates that it set back global industrial  production by 2.5%.
    • Munich Re has estimated that disaster economic costs were $378 billion last year - - up from the previous 2005 high of $262 billion (in constant 2011 dollars).
    • The world has succeeded in making natural disasters less deadly, through better early-warning systems for tsunamis, better public information about evacuation plans, tougher building codes in quake-prone areas and encouragement for homeowners to adopt simple precautions such as installing tornado proof rooms in their homes.
    • Even if natural disasters may be no more common and no more likely to kill people than before, there is no doubt that their economic cost is rising.  One key fact - - a growing share of the world's population and economic activity is being concentrated in disaster-prone places: on tropical coasts and river deltas, near forests and along earthquakes fault lines.
    • Throughout the west and southwest, encroaching suburbia has put pressure on forest managers to suppress fires as quickly as possible.  Yet repeated fire suppression allows forests to accumulate more fuel which can lead to more intense and devastating fires later on.
    • The U.S. coastal regions may be a microcosm of where the world is headed - - $10 trillion in insured assets alone the coast from Maine to the Florida panhandle.  In terms of population growth - - Florida had a population of 2.8 million in 1950 - - 2011 was 19 million.  Two facts regarding where we like to work and live - - around water and trees.
    • By 2070, seven of the ten greatest urban concentrations of economic assets that are exposed to coastal flooding will be in the developing world - - none was in 2005.
    • Between 2000 and 2050 - - the city populations exposed to tropical cyclones or earthquakes will more than double, rising from 11% to 16% of the world's population.
    • Roughly 20% of the humanitarian aid is now spent responding to disasters, whereas only 0.7% is spent on preventative measures taken to mitigate their possible consequences, according to the World Bank.
    This is a great observation the article makes - -

    "Making cities more resilient involves starker trade-offs in the developing world.  On the other hand, urbanization strips cities of their natural defenses against disaster and exposes more people to loss of life and property when an earthquake or cyclone hits.  On the other hand, urbanization makes poor people richer.  The density and infrastructure of cities makes people more productive and more able to afford the measures needed to keep them safe.  So mitigation measures should not discourage people from crowding into vulnerable cities but rather establish incentives for cities and their inhabitants to protect themselves better."

    The authors of the two articles offer three points of advice regarding limiting the damage that natural disasters do - -
    1. Get your priorities right.  At present, too large a slice of disaster budgets goes to rescue and repair after a tragedy, and not enough on beefing up defences beforehand.  Any shelter is useless if it has fallen into disrepair.
    2. Government should be fiercer when private individuals and firms, left to pursue their own self-interest, put all of society at risk.  If you want to destroy coastal marshlands and live by the sea - - the government should not be subsidizing you.
    3. Governments must eliminate the perverse incentives their policies produce.  We cannot, for the sake of lower premiums, underprice the risk of living in and around dangerous places.
    Several good books on the quantitative side of disasters - -

    Friday, January 13, 2012

    Failure as a function of geography

    Interesting observations in the Wall Street Journal today by Rich Karlguard - - "Kodak Didn't Kill Rochester.  It Was the Other Way Around" - -

    "Kodak's other structural problem is geography.  When you study the history of great American companies that stumbled and failed, or only partially recovered, you see how difficult it is to overcome the mindset of your immediate surroundings.  Business located in places where success is the norm, and innovation is built into the ecology, have a better chance of fixing themselves."

    Karlguard concludes with - -

    "The world might be flat.  But innovation and adaption remain local."

    Engineering Behavior Modification

    Interesting story from The Seattle Times - - With Toll, 520 Traffic Light - - and Faster Than Limit.

    Thursday, January 12, 2012

    We compete for memory

    We are living in a time where we compete for memory.  From the 15 restaurants offering Mexican food in a mile radius, to 1,500 television channels, to 500 models and colors of laptops, to a bank on every corner - - it's an overcrowded marketplace in almost all industries (except Girl Scouts cookies).

    We ultimately are completing for memory - - the customers or clients ability to remember things and events.  If you cannot compete for memory, be prepared to go out of business.  Business success starts with a journey - - a journey that must be, from the viewpoint of the customer, something that is unforgettable, significant, notable, important, consequential, remarkable, outstanding, striking, and impressive.

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012

    Career Advice

    Saturday must have been opening day of Girl Scouts cookie sale season.  It typically starts with the soft and polite knock on the front door.  You purchase five boxes - - mom is in the SUV fully stocked and highly mobile.  This is a true logistical machine that should be the envy of the Department of Defense.  The next view of the selling machine is at the grocery story.  Set-up inside the store and doing a brisk business (in competition with the grocery store).  You purchase three more boxes and forget the New Years resolution - - a covey of moms thanks you.  Two miles into your five mile run later that afternoon - - the little red wagon boxed three feet high and two little girls pulls up beside you (the run is more quantitative than qualitative).  You carry cash with you on runs during cookie season - - one more box for the road.

    If you are thinking about a career and industry, one interesting question for a future employer might just be - - "What is your connection to the production, distribution, and sale of Girl Scouts cookies?"  Chemical engineers involved in food production, industrial engineers interested in distribution, packaging engineers, even graphic artists - - the closer you can get to the center of the Girl Scouts cookie empire as a career, the better off you might be.  We all envy stable employment opportunities that have two characteristics - - a closed and monopolistic market structure combined with an energetic, polite, aggressive, and low-cost (free) sales force.

    PS - - My favorite this year is the "Crunchy Fudge-Coated Treats"  with the "same cookies, same size, less packaging."

    Tuesday, January 10, 2012

    Building resilience against the megadrought

    A good eye-opening book by William deBuys - - A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (2011).  The book paints a picture that is not pretty - - ". . . what the Southwest might look like when the heat turns up and the water runs out."  The U.S. Southwest is an important economic, cultural, and technological center.  It will be under an intense microscope as climate change takes hold.  The Southwest, vulnerable to water shortages, rising temperatures, wildfires, a host of other environmental change in the United States, will draw an international audience.

    Consider the following point the book makes and the role engineers will play:

    Unfortunately, there's a possibility that the next megadrought has already begun - - we just don't know it yet.  The character of a drought becomes clear only retrospectively, and every long drought includes wet years that break the pattern of sustained dryness.  A megadrought, by definition manifests only over a span of decades.  In a way, our decisions for the future should be the same, no matter whether we are a few years inside a megadrought or lucky enough to have decades of relative abundance ahead of us.  Deep, crushing cycles of drought are part of the natural history of the Southwest and, for all practical purposes, they always have been.  Building resilience against drought into the region's water systems and cultural practices would be a wise course, irrespective of the cause or timing of the next emergency.  Perhaps the dangers now arising from anthropogenic climate change will goad us into doing the things we should have been doing all along.  This is especially urgent because the next megadrought will pose unique challenges.  "You can probably bet your house," says Overpeck {Jonathan Overpeck, professor of geosciences at the University of Arizona, where he also codirects the Institute of the Environment}, "that unless we do something substantial about these greenhouse gas emissions, the megadroughts of the future are going to be a lot hotter than the ones of the past.  So their impacts are going to be a lot more dramatic."  

    Monday, January 9, 2012

    The Eye Ball

    Interesting camera - - a globe studded ball with cameras captures a panorama view when you throw it into the air.

    Sunday, January 8, 2012

    The Best Management Book of 2011

    The best management book I read in 2011 was Masters of Management: How the Business Gurus and Their Ideas Have Changed The World - For Better and For Worse (2011).  The author is Adrian Wooldridge, who writes the Schumpeter column for the Economist.

    Interesting points and ideas in the book included the following:
    • Management still boils down to two conflicting ideas.  Scientific management - - is based on the idea that the average worker is a lazy slob who is redeemed only by greed.  Humanistic management - - is based on the idea that the average worker is a Promethean figure - intelligent, creative, and self-motivating.  The debate has and is between the ideas of "hard" management and "soft" management.
    •  An organization is a human, social, and a moral phenomenon.
    • Respect needs to be instilled in everybody who claims to be a professional.
    • Collaborative production and collaborative consumption are terms we need to keep an eye on.
    • The modern boss is seriously overextended.
    • As companies grow more complex, the job of manager becomes more ill defined.
    • Frugal innovation - - reengineered medical devices could slash health care costs without reducing the quality of care while compact and fuel-efficient cars will allow people to keep driving but cause less damage to the environment.
    • Brainworkers, such as engineers, are far more difficult to manage than manual workers.  They are all ego and self-righteousness.  Apply the bridle too harshly and they are likely to head off in the wrong direction.  Apply the whip too vigorously and they will sit down and refuse to move.
    • Brainworkers, aka clevers - - point them in the right direction and allow them to decide on the route; or, better still, give them the illusion that they are choosing both the direction and the route themselves.  Second - - massage their egos at every possible opportunity.  Always hold out the opportunity for another gold star.
    • Perhaps the key to managing brainworkers and clevers is that, in many ways they are still stuck in kindergarten.  They crave adulation.  They are quick to take a slight and slow to learn how to play with others.  They spend meetings giggling like naughty schoolchildren or ostentatiously reading newspapers.  The secret may just be to treat them like precocious children.
    • The hardest thing for companies to do is also the most important: they need to be able to tolerate failure.
    • The problem of relying on your customers for ideas is that customers are usually conservatives: they want more of the same for less money.
    • The more you listen to your best customers, the more you are deaf to your non-customers.
    • Innovation is coming from ever more places - - the foxes beat the hedgehogs.
    • Corporate planning - - a great deal of corporate planning is the "ritual rain dance."
    • Most successful strategies are usually based on "platforms" rather than products - - Google is about platforms.  Platform leaders are more difficult to dislodge than product leaders.  Managers need to think more about ecosystems than about products.
    • Long-term results cannot be gained by piling short-term results on short-term results.

    Saturday, January 7, 2012

    Lord Root of the Matter

    The Engineer as "Trusted Adviser" and pragmatic breaker of logjams is something we should be thinking about more.  Organizations and individuals, given the technical complexity of modern society, need an engineering consigliere.  The engineer that can manage to shed light on a technical or engineering issue or problem with a well-timed insight, or steer a debate toward a practical solution.

    History has provided us with rich examples of individuals that mastered the role of Trusted Adviser.  For example, Harry Hopkins, who came to be known as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Deputy President", is probably the best recent example (Churchill coined the title "Lord Root of the Matter" when referring to Hopkins).  Hopkins had the unique ability to quickly see to the heart of most problems during the Roosevelt years - - especially during World War II.  Close friend and adviser to the President - - he was the ". . . lighthouse the beams that led great fleets to harbour."

    Friday, January 6, 2012

    Sixteen Points of Success

    Kansas State plays in the Cotton Bowl tonight and I thought it would a good time to list K-State Coach Bill Synder's 16-points of success - -
    1. Commitment
    2. Unselfishness
    3. Unity
    4. Improve
    5. Be Tough
    6. Self-Discipline
    7. Great Effort
    8. Enthusiasm
    9. Eliminate Mistakes
    10. Never Give Up
    11. Expect to Win
    12. No Self-Limitations
    13. Don't Accept Losing
    14. Consistency
    15. Leadership
    16. Responsibility

    Thursday, January 5, 2012

    The Unsinkable Molly Brown

    Imagine watching the movie Titanic (the 3D version comes out this summer, so you can) with one big change - - everyone weighs on average an extra 30 pounds.  Poor Rose on the small wooden raft - - but 35 pounds heavier.  Or the survivors in the crowded life boats - - but with hundreds of extra pounds.  Picture crew and passengers totaling 2,200 times 30-pounds per person - - when life boats supported only 700 survivors.

    The Coast Guard must be thinking about this.  In December the Coast Guard formally put into effect rules requiring certain passenger vessels to comply with its new Assumed Average Weight per Person.  That new weight, 185 pounds, is a full 25 pounds more than the previous average, 160, a figure put in place about half a century ago (the 185 comes by averaging the average male (194.7) with the average female (164.7) per the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - - clothing and personal items are also embedded in the averages).

    It all boils down to a simple calculation - - Greater Average Weight Per Person divided by the Same Vessel Capacity = Fewer Passengers per Ship (and lower revenue per ship and the need for more ships if the traffic and schedule allows).

    Wednesday, January 4, 2012

    The World According To Tyson

    Mike Tyson on the art of planning - - "Everybody has a plan till they get punched in the mouth."  Engineering had better get use to the notion that the time between punches has been getting progressively shorter since the 1960s, and the strength of the punches progressively greater.  The world is getting much more complex and turbulent - - the philosopher Tyson might just be correct.

    Tuesday, January 3, 2012

    The Four Questions of I.B.M.

    The former chief of I.B.M., Samuel J. Palmisano, boiled down his guiding framework into four questions - -
    1. Why would someone spend their money with you - - so what is unique about you?
    2. Why would somebody work for you?
    3. Why would society allow you to operate in their defined geography - - their country?
    4. And why would somebody invest their money with you?
    The point of the questions - - focus thinking and prod the company beyond its comfort zone and to make I.B.M. pre-eminent again.  The pursuit of excellence in those four dimensions shaped the strategy.  To focus on doing unique work, with higher profits, meant getting out of low-margin businesses that were fading.  I.B.M.'s Smart Planet effort is an example of shifting the hub of innovative thinking to services and software - - with the goal of solving huge and global societal challenges. 

    For a 100-year old plus company, I.B.M. has never lost its appetite for innovation.  Established businesses are built for efficiency rather than innovation.  Efficiency depends on predictability and repeatability - - on breaking tasks down into their component parts and holding employees accountable for hitting their targets.  Companies that venture down the innovation path are crossing the markers of unpredictable and uncertain.

    I.B.M. also demonstrates that "big is beautiful."  Big companies, like an I.B.M. have huge advantages over small ones.  They can invest more money in research and bring a wider range of skills together.  This may be essential to solving huge problems - - such as our overdependence on fossil fuels or shortages of clean drinking water.  They can also bring new ideas to market much more quickly than small companies.

      Monday, January 2, 2012

      The War Horse and Innovation

      I had the opportunity to see the movie War Horse over the weekend.  Great movie and story.  An interesting sub-chapter to the War Horse story shows up in Wade Davis's Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest (2011).  Davis writes the following about World War I, horses, and innovation - -

      Britain had not fought a major continental war in a century, and the high command exhibited a stubborn disconnection from reality so complete as to merge at times with the criminal.  A survey conducted in the three years before the war found that 95 percent of officers had never read a military book of any kind.  This cult of the amateur, militantly anti-intellectual, resulted in a leadership that, with noted exceptions, was obtuse, willfully intolerant of change, and incapable for the most part of innovative thought or action.  Thus men who had fought in 1898 at Omdurman - a colonial battle in which the British, at a cost of just 48 dead, had mowed down with Maxim guns 11,000 Sudanese, wounding another 15,000 - nevertheless in 1914 rejected the machine gun as a useful weapon of war.  As late as March 1916, after twenty months of fighting, Douglas Haig, the British commander in chief, who had been at Omdurman as a staff officer to Kitchener, sought to limit the number of machine guns per battalion, concerned that their presence might dampen the men's offensive spirit.  For a similar reason, he resisted the introduction of the steel helmet, which had been shown to reduce head injuries by 75 percent.  In the summer of 1914 he dismissed the airplane as an overrated contraption, and he had little use for light mortars, which in time would become the most effective of all trench weapons.  Even the rifle was suspect.  What counted was the horse and saber.

      "It must be accepted as a principle," read the Cavalry Training manual in 1907, "that the rifle, effective as it is, cannot replace the effect produced by the speed of the horse, the imagination of the charge and the terror of cold steel."

      Throughout the war, Haig would insist on holding in reserve three full divisions of mounted troops, 50,000 men, ready at all hours to exploit the breakthrough at the front that would never come.  As late as 1926, as the nation mourned the death of nearly 1 million men, Haig would write on the future of war, "I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity of the horse in the future are likely to be great as ever.  Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse - and well bred horse - as you have ever done  in the past."  The frontline soldiers knew better.  Of the cavalry reserve one remarked, "They might as well be mounted on bloody rocking-horses for all the good they are going to do."

      Sunday, January 1, 2012

      A 2012 To Do List For Engineers

      Consider the following list of skills, ideas, and issues that all engineers might want to consider for 2012:
      • Get Macroeconomics - - Basic macroeconomics will dominate a large portion of this century.  From income inequality, to job creation, to public austerity, to sovereign debt concerns - - the livelihood of engineering interfaces directly with issues relating to economics.  In addition, we face a future in which 1/3 of the globe will be receiving some form of public or private pension.  Don't dust off the old college economics book.  Find a good economics blog.  My favorite read is the Marginal Revolution by Tyler Cowen.
      • Improve Your Listening Skills - - Communication involves receiving as well as sending signals.  It has been asserted that we spend 70% of our time awake in some mode of communication, which is comprised of the following - - 10% writing, 15% reading, 30% talking, and 45% listening.  Listening is crucial in the workplace and engineering.  It entails the reception and correct understanding of verbal communication and without effective listening skills, the verbal message can be distorted or ignored, thereby causing the communication process to fail.  Listening - - the other part of communication - - get better at it.
      • Master Visual Literacy - - Improve the quality of your visual communication skills.  It is clear that every engineering profession relies heavily on the use of visual forms as a means of non-verbal communication.  The Internet and new software tools have changed the world of graphic and image-based information.  Master the new world of enhanced and cool graphics and photographs.
      • Reach Across the Aisle - - Communication between disciplines (engineering and other professions) is an important  aspect that needs to be considered.  Our problems and projects are interdisciplinary.  Identify opportunities  between engineering and other disciplines.  Expand your network - - civil engineers meeting with mechanical engineers.  All engineers networking with investment bankers and lawyers.
      • Study a Sustainability Issue in Detail - - Phoenix is an interesting laboratory for studying sustainability issues and concerns.  Two new books address this issue in the context of Phoenix and the Southwest - - Bird on Fire: Lesson's From the World's Least Sustainable City by Andrew Ross and Disappearing Desert: The Growth of Phoenix and the Culture of Sprawl by Janine Schipper.
      • Think About Levines' Comments - - Mark Levine of the New York Times had the following observation - - "Owning is dull, selfish, timid, and backward, while sharing is clean, crisp, urbane, and post-modern."  How does engineering interface with a potential new world of collaborative consumption (e.g., Zipcar).
      • Think Like the Colonel - - Rethink your notion of career and retirement.  Harlan Sanders founded Kentucky Fried Chicken when he was sixty-five.  The key issue - - the more Colonel's, the less potential Social Security and Medicare "underfundment" problems.
      • Reflect on Thomas Jefferson - - "Every generation needs a new revolution," Thomas Jefferson wrote toward the end of his life.  If you are graduating in 2012, what will be your generation's revolution?
      • Engineering Empathy - - Managers and engineers who display empathy skills are able to communicate honestly and proactively.  They also have great listening skills.  Listening to another person's point of view helps the listener become more aware of the person's needs and wants.  The lesson for engineers - - empathy skills are required in managing interpersonal relationships in the workplace with colleagues, clients, customers, and other stakeholders.
      • Manage Change Better - - Everyone wants progress, but no one wants change.  Out-of-the-box thinking is seen as too expensive, too disruptive, too weird or too risky.  If you hear such a response, it's probably masking the real settlement: fear of failure.  Firms that succumb to fear don't have the mind-set needed to innovate.  Engineers have a unique task - - come up with ideas customers and clients would never be able to think of through their own efforts.  Fear of failure should not be part of this process.
      • Embrace a Culture and Attitude of Resilience - - Read about Earnest Shackleton and his expedition to Antarctica.  Nothing speaks to the ideas of reinvention and survival than this story.  Resilience is vital in our own time, when leaders and engineers must often change course midstream - - jettisoning earlier standards of success and refining their  purposes and plans.  Read the Shackleton case study by Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn.