12.30.2010

Time to Reassess

The end of the year is a good time to look at the person you have been and try to figure out where you want to go. Of course it's only an arbitrary time marker some pope put into place five hundred years ago. It was also time for a doctor to take a look at me, or more specifically in my ear. And it's never a good thing when your doctor is surprised and rushes away to give you a prescription in vicodin.
So I'm on the stuff for the first time in my life and watching more television than should be natural while I wait for my health to return and the inevitable demands of work and school to come back. I've had a very nice holiday season and got to spend some great time with my family. My sister gave me this book: Bitter with Baggage Seeks Same.

 
I think she got it for me because she knows I like the adorable little chickens that grace its pages. But really, the title could be me. And then there's all this reality television with people who have gone through genuinely tough times and keeping their positive attitudes throughout it all and making the best. I've been watching Undercover Boss, which is largely about spoiled bosses coming down and seeing how hard the entry level work at their companies really is. But you know what? I'd struggle to do that work too. I don't work on the front lines, and I don't have a sob story like many of the people they highlight. And yet these people do their best to help others and around them and touch lives where they can.
So maybe it's the drugs talking, but maybe 2011 is a year where I can leave some of my baggage behind and look to the future. I don't have a physically difficult job and I don't have personal circumstances to cry about. I have it pretty easy. And it's time I looked around me and started to use my advantages and my experience to give back and help others along the way. I need to stop waiting for someone to pick me up out of my whining and dissatisfaction and pick myself up and get it done. I have so much to offer if I can get my past my own selfishness and pettiness. So here's to hoping 2011 is the year for that for me.

12.23.2010

Bite the Hand that Feeds

Congress just passed a stopgap bill to keep federal funding at current levels through March. Republicans tried to squash any attempts at funding healthcare or financial reform agencies as being too costly, but one measure that managed to stay in was funding for the F-35 alternate engine.
 
By the skin of its teeth, the GE/Rolls Royce partnership building the alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter maintained its funding from last year, $430 million. Congress has been funding this effort for the last fourteen years and even with a "new" no-earmark "fiscally responsible" party about to take over, it's not about to hit the chopping block yet. Secretary Gates considers the program wasteful and unnecessary and Obama had said he would veto any bill that included new funding for it, though I suspect he won't veto this bill.
 
When's an alternate engine a good thing? When you have doubts about the contractor making the primary engine. When there's a remarkable improvement with the alternate engine. When the company making the primary engine may not be able to deliver. But most importantly, only when you are looking to phase in the alternate at some point in your production. Engine development is expensive. First there's obtaining the base hardware than making all the improvements you plan to as a gradual process. There's a lot of R&D that goes into most defense engines, they do not come standard one size fits all and there's a lot of time on both the engine side and the aircraft side in making a good fit, doing the appropriate amount of testing, and getting the needed certifications and oversight from the federal government. Oversight from federal employees who are looking at a two year pay freeze while GE and its Ohio management employees will get to suck up millions more in federal funding for an engine that after 14 years is apparently still not ready for final phase and does not look to be a necessary alternative to the current engine.
 
In a move that will make you blink, the conservative Brookings Institue actually recommends cutting or cancelling entirely the whole of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter budget. Their report is like a report written in complete denial. They admit current defense budgets, not including the war(s) effort, is 5% of GDP compared to 8 or 9% in the 1960s, 5% in Reagen's time, and 3 and 4% up until 2007. Thus it considers this level "moderate". It applauds Secretary Gates' efforts at reducing overspending programs and then offers this assessment:

In 2010, he proposed closing Joint Forces Command, reducing the number of flag officers in the military, and curbing contractor workforces by 10 percent a year for three years running. This last recommendation is dubious. Calls for reduction of some arbitrary percentage in a workforce over some period of time are appealing but usually unsuccessful, if the past is a guide. For example, similar goals were established in the 1990s for privatizing defense support functions, with an eerily similar goal of finding 30 percent savings in total support spending. But this effort was largely unsuccessful—privatization did occur in many areas, but 30 percent savings did not, and in fact overall trend lines in operating accounts did not curve downward at all.

A conservative think tank admitting that privatizing everything doesn't actually save money? But let's continue to not give our federal employees raises while we let this engine project drag on and on. I don't know what definition of earmarks the new congress will be using when the new majority is pledging to forgo them, but I hope someone stands up against this ridiculous kind of pet project. Four hundred million might not seem like a lot. This estimate stated extending a public healthcare option to tens of millions of uninsured Americans would cost less than $1 trillion over 10 years. Or, you guessed it, less than we spend on this engine. It's reasonable to fund successful defense programs that are important to our national security and protect soldiers on the ground. It's unreasonable to keep funding these wasteful, local pet projects.

12.22.2010

Season's Greetings

Here's to hoping you get to spend your holiday season not working and spending time with family and friends in warmth and having a good time. May we all have the bottle of our favorite beverage close at hand. I hope your beverage of choice is not mine this year and wish you health and happiness.

12.20.2010

They're more like guidelines anyways

Government scientists need to know their studies and results will not be sidelined or put them in danger of losing their jobs. Many are complaining now they they are being treated much the same as they were more than two years ago by managers and in a way that fit right in with an administration that was largely anti-science. Scientists and even Republicans are disappointed that the scientific integrity regulations that were supposed to be released last year are still a work in progress. At this point, it would likely be better to have some framework in place even if it's incomplete. I'll admit seeing Georgia Representative Paul Brown (R) ranking Republican on the science oversight committee speak in favor of releasing these guidelines as well as positively about independent scientific peer-reviewed research is heartening. Though I'm suspicious at any Republican's motives when they speak in favor of something I feel like would get them kicked out of the Tea Party, he sounded genuine and of course the need is genuine.
 
I was almost surprised to hear a snipped from this interview with Obama last week where he spoke about the "must haves" vs the "nice to haves" in the government's budget. It's hard to remember he's pro-science these days. I know most of that is the fault of the economy but it still seems like a leap of faith.

Obama: You know, when — when families sit around the kitchen table, they say to themselves, what are the things we have to have? College education for our kids. Paying our mortgage. Getting the roof repaired. A new boiler. What are the things that would be nice to have? A vacation. Eating out. Some new clothes. And if they can afford it, they'd buy things that they'd like to have. But the first thing they do is take care of the things that we have to have.

And under that category, I'd put things like research and development, education, making sure that we're sending our kids to college, rebuilding our infrastructure to compete on the 21st century, making sure that this country is safe.

And I'd like to think the administration knows the difference between federal regulations that protect independent research and oversight that hinders creativity and originality. Earlier in the summer of 2010 an institute created the first self-replicating bacteria cell with a synthetic genome. Though the scientific merits of that development were argued, a Presidential Commission of bioethics looked into the matter to decide what kind of oversight might be necessary in creating biological organisms of this kind in the future. On the 16th of December they made eighteen recommendations around five major points. But in its conclusion the commission recommended self regulation noting that the risks were few and vigilant scientists could be sure to monitor one another as this field develops.

I think that's a good middle road but hope the long expected government regulations on scientific integrity are soon released because while we don't want to micromanage scientific results we do want to make sure researchers are protected.

12.17.2010

By the Numbers

This graph is from Wikipedia (h/t to BikeMonkey). I think it illustrates nicely where the highest marginal tax income rates need to be to get us "back to good times" like the neocons so desperately want. The period of American growth when we were the world's leading manufacturers, scientists and engineers. We were putting men on the moon and making stealth fighters without personal computers. If we wonder at the decline of the middle class, prosperity and the American dream I think we need only look at this graph.

12.16.2010

Twelve Months of Blogging

This meme is going around now, posting the title and first sentence of the first blog post of every month. 2010 was the first full year of my blogging. So here it goes.
 
January
Happy New Year
Another year and we're still around. [Link]
 
February
Zombie Defense Programs
I remember when Democrats became the majorities of Congress in 2006. [Link]
 
March
First Day on the Job
So if you hadn't heard, the new Tinkerbelle resembles her name; she's a tinkerer. [Link]
 
April
The rumors have been greatly exaggerated...
Another soldier has joined the war to answer the eternal question, why do women leave science? [Link]
 
May
It all makes sense now
Definitely go read this beer-laden explanation of market derivatives over at Pascale's. [Link]
 
June
Wednesday
[Engineering design process diagram] [Link]
 
July
Textbook Mafia Wars
My Control Theory I Professor just saved me $160.00. [Link]
 
August
Save the failwhales
I love how banks and utility companies ask you to get your statements via email instead of paper so that you can "go green" or "save paper." [Link]
 
September
Oh is that all
A University of Michigan researcher, John DeCicco, says we can triple our fuel economy in 25 years. [Link]
 
October
Caffeinated News
A new study says that healthcare professionals are some of the people who rely the most on coffee. [Link]
 
November
Job Hunting
You know the economy is bad when people are ok with working in "hole in the wall." [Link]
 
December
December 1st: World AIDs Day
For personal reasons the plight of AIDs victims, both locally and worldwide, means a lot to me. [Link]
 
Anyways, it's been a great year and if you've been reading here I really appreciate it. Looking forward to another year, new topics, and hopefully some new perspectives. Thanks for stopping by.

What About the Boys

This probably makes me a bitch, but I don't like mansplaining with my coffee. Even if it's from a woman. I'm not sure why I started watching the video over at Machines Like Us. It's offered with no commentary, so it's hard to say what the poster's intent was. But the video coming from the American Enterprise Institute should have clued me into its being a load of crap since the rest of their videos are all libertarian mumbo jumbo about how taxes are what's wrong with this country. I really wish our elected representatives had to take an up or down vote on a public option and those that voted no wouldn't receive healthcare from the government. If they're so sure it's a bad idea, I'm sure they won't mind buying their healthcare on the "private market" like they suggest for the rest of us.
 
But this doesn't have anything to do with healthcare. This is all about why aren't there more female scientists? The video is snippets from some panel mostly with Christina Hoff Summers who thinks women choose to go into other fields even if they are equally apt because other fields are more fulfilling. She's also the author of a bunch of bullshit books about how there's a "war on men" (like the war on Christmas right?). I agree with some of her concerns, but achieving parity between the genders in college attendance is not something I'm going to freak out about. Does this really mean fewer men are going to college now or just more women? We didn't worry about it in the 1950s when there were way fewer men, so why start a national movement to freak out about a few percentage lower men attending some colleges now? And anyways, her goals are all wrong. It's not because we've "forgotten" about the menfolk or that we're rigging the system in favor of women. It's because while women are making gains, inner-city and poor men are losing ground. So this is hardly a gender thing so much as a class thing. And I agree we should make more of an effort to support inner-city and disadvantaged youths, male or female. But reaching out the olive branch to the middle class, educated white men who read her books or follow her bullshit is going to gain us nothing in further educating anybody.
 
Where does she get off talking about women in science anyways? She has an unspecified BA and a doctorate in philosophy. So she's been in the folds of academia and liberal arts her entire life. Maybe when she gets a job in a math or science career or talks to more than one woman in the scientific field without holding her preconceived notions I'll give a damn about her.
 
Her ignorance is further amplified when she suggests there's a severe shortage of scientists and engineers in this country and that it's the NSF's responsibility to recruit people, both men and women (though I assume she means men since women choose to do other things). I guess she doesn't know about all the hoardes of scientists and engineers that are out of work right now. How there are all these PhDs in science who can't find jobs or have to live separately from their families or take extremely low pay just to keep working supposed to contend with even more people competing for the same low number of jobs. I mean if she's even part libertarian she should know that if there's a market demand for these jobs, people will go into these careers. If we start creating companies that produce things and need scientists and engineers, people will start training in that instead of becoming lawyers or working on wall street.
 
Luckily for my blood pressure, someone sent me this article from 2006, Male Scientist Writes of Life as Female Scientist. Dr. Ben Barres is a neurobiologist who was once a woman and is now a man.

After he underwent a sex change nine years ago at the age of 42, Barres recalled, another scientist who was unaware of it was heard to say, "Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister's."

And as a female undergraduate at MIT, Barres once solved a difficult math problem that stumped many male classmates, only to be told by a professor: "Your boyfriend must have solved it for you."

"By far," Barres wrote, "the main difference I have noticed is that people who don't know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect" than when he was a woman. "I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man."

Barres underwent a lot of criticism for writing on gender differences, or lack thereof, and even though most of his writings focus on studies and data people assume he is taking things "too personally."

Some of those who argue against him tried to bring up a handful of studies again, the typical ones that argue that a man performs better at the highest echelons in math than women even though on the average, men and women perform about the same. Or other studies that suggest women are better at "verbal" things and men at computation. One of Barre's colleagues, Dr. Spelke, responded to the interview and has argued against making conclusions from such data that would imply genetic differences between male and female brains. Coming back to Ms. Sommers and her hackneyed theory that women "choose" to go into other fields and that is why they are absent, I love the quote from Dr. Spelke:

"You won't see a Chinese face or an Indian face in 19th-century science," she said. "It would have been tempting to apply this same pattern of statistical reasoning and say, there must be something about European genes that give rise to greater mathematical talent than Asian genes."

"I think we want to step back and ask, why is it that almost all Nobel Prize winners are men today?" she concluded. "The answer to that question may be the same reason why all the great scientists in Florence were Christian."

So non-Christian scientists or Chinese scientists in the 19th century European theatre probably just chose to do something else, something more fulfilling, right Sommers?

12.15.2010

What dreams are made of

Here's a photo of the White House gingerbread house for no particular reason. This is a yearly tradition, but love the White House dog sitting in front (though not exactly to scale is it?)
 
I have dreamed about having to go back to high school ever since I left high school. Sometimes I have to go back to take a class I need for college, or sometimes I am back in band again and hoping I can still compete even though I've already graduated. Last night I believe I had my first ever college dream. Or college dream that I can remember. Just in time for me to graduate, even my dreams know I will be done soon and it's time to start dreaming about it.

12.14.2010

Not an agricultural engineer

I'm so tired I asked for a footlong roast beef on ham.
 
Ham is not bread.

12.12.2010

Engineering Groups and the Biggest Loser

I don't have cable programming anymore and past the first season of Survivor however many years ago and an occasional guilty pleasure with Project Runway I don't watch a whole lot of reality television. So I guess it's surprising I watched a little of this latest season's Biggest Loser.
I don't want to talk about what I think about the whole competition itself (though like most reality programming I feel drawn to it like people are drawn to watch a car wreck). But what I did find was interesting was they started the program with teammates. Two people competed together as a team unit. About nine episodes in they drop the partner scheme and they are back to competing as inviduals.

What I thought was interesting was the individuals' perspective on the change. Most were disappointed. Even though the individual work counted, that second person was someone you could fall back on for support and coping.

And I started to think about my engineering groups. Usually I rail against school-based group projects. Somehow you have four people and you would think that means you each only have to do one quarter of the total work but somehow it ends up being more like four times the work for each person.

I'm a shy person. And I don't mind working with others in the workplace, but it always came off as too forced and too social at school. But you know what? I realized I would never have met these people or formed these pseudo-friendships with them otherwise. I'm a self-sufficient person. I'd like to think I don't need to "make friends" (don't I have to pay some reality tv show guru for using that phrase?) That I'm there to get my degree and I honestly don't have time to be hanging out with these people so what's the point in being super friendly.

But it's nice to meet up with members from groups past. And have that common ground where you struggled on the same team for a goal. Where for some reason you care a little bit about their success and you know they care a little bit about yours. Someone you can casually wave hi to or who it's nice to see when you show up alone at the lab and recognize a friendly face.

So even though up until this point I'm usually pretty negative on how school groups function on projects, and I still think it's nothing like the "real world", there's something really beneficial about it. I don't know how you'd incorporate that better into an engineering curiculum because when I think back on the early and smaller engineering group projects I did not form bonds with those people or remember them past project completion. But there is something to having someone there who cares a little bit more about you than just anyone and knows exactly what you're going through.

12.10.2010

Cheeeeeeese

The first private company to both launch a spacecraft into orbit and then successfully recover it just completed that. And if we wondered whether the company was secretly run by Wallace and Gromit now we might have a clue. The payload for this flight was a wheel of cheese, homage to the Monty Python Cheese Shop sketch.
 
SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket, which is the launch vehicle for a NASA contract they won Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS, not to be confused with COTS commercial off the shelf) to provide a medium or heavy lift craft to bring stuff to the International Space Station. The Falcon 9 is a two stage vehicle using liquid oxygen and kerosene along with nine rocket engines for the first stage and a single, vacuum capable rocket engine for the second stage. The first stage provides a whopping 5 meganewtons of thrust and it's capable of carrying from 4,600 kg up to 8,500 kg depending on the type of orbit desired with plans for a larger 15-29 kN rocket. That is a lot of cheese.

12.09.2010

Information Hoarding

As a globalized society we generally accept that more information shared is better. And even in Corporate America where there's a proprietary angle involved, and so the invidual would never get credit for the work/research anyways, I've noticed people tend to keep things to themselves. Information that helps along a project or contacts that would get something done quicker. I've seen people hold on to crucial information until the meeting where they can give it up to a high level person. Or demand that they be the point of contact for an outside source at all times, no matter how inefficient that is.
Lower level engineers are generally expected to cross train and share all their progress and results up the ladder. But I keep seeing mid-level people hang on to these updates until they think it will give them the most benefit. A manager will hear it directly from them rather than through the supervisor who might have actually been responsible for the whole project parameters. Then I've seen senior people refuse to delegate. They can have a whole army of engineers under them but keep insisting on being the beginning and the end of every task. And that slows things down, and is bad for the project, but obviously people think it's good for their self interest.
I think young/mid-level engineers are afraid of not getting credit for their work. As well as maybe not realizing how much of the credit is really allowed to their predecessors on the task or their leads and supervisors. And I think more experienced engineers are afraid of becoming irrelevant. But I'm not sure what kind of cajoling, comforting or mind games you'd have to play to convince people to act otherwise. Some people do so naturally of course, but I'm not sure how you'd convince themselves to act counter to what they see as their own self interest for the sake of a project. I suppose it's the fault of the higher level person who allows it to continue and allows the lower level to bypass hir manager or doesn't force the senior person to delegate. But then, I think they too benefit from being the choice contact in these situations, so how would you change their incentive?

12.07.2010

Ravens:Writing Desks, Plumbers:Scientists

Or why did you bring a one shot harpoon to a triton fight? Can't you let the sea people just live in peace? Okay so the picture is non-related (but cute, right? The joys of squid legos).
 
I can't stop thinking about this post, Why Plumbing Ain't Science, over at Machines Like Us by Massimo Pigliucci. The author starts the argument from this point:
And of course the title of this entry is a reference to Jerry Coyne's occasional remark that there is no substantial difference between plumbing and science because plumbers test hypotheses based on empirical evidence.
Pigliucci tries to argue that in fact plumbers are not scientists. That there is a difference. And of course I agree. But I think there's something lacking in the argument. The author first states that just because a profession uses empirical evidence and reasoning does not make it science because this would apply to almost anything we as humans do or the daily choices we make in our lives. Then there's this:
What separates science from other human activities is, I suggest, its extremely more refined methods, its sociological structure, and its historical context. Let's start with the point about the method. If plumbing really was a "science" in any interesting sense then it would be baffling that we force wannabe scientists to go through years of college, years of graduate school, and years of postdoc, to do something essentially analogous to fixing your bathroom. Ah, you might object, but the amount of technical knowledge necessary to become a biologist is much higher than that necessary to become a plumber. True, but if you think that all that young scientists learn, especially in graduate school and during their postdoc is more facts, you have never been in a real science lab.
I think that it's a red herring to look at number of years in education as some sort of marker for how scientific or how advanced something is. More important is that biology training tends to be extremely theoretical while plumbing is very hands on and practical. Past undergrad and graduate classes however graduate and doctorate training as well as postdocs tend to be more like an apprenticeship and therefore, I think, very similar to the way a plumber might be trained. You learn the experimental techniquies of your lab much the same way a plumber learns from hir company or mentor. Much of it you learn on the job and much of it you teach yourself from papers/tech manuals. I grant you biology is still much more complicated and involves a much heavier theoretically basis but I think looking at the initial training in each career is a bit misleading.
 
Second, science is a particular type of social activity, certainly as conceived and practiced today. It has a complex — and necessary — structure of peer review, edited journals, funding agencies, academic positions, laboratories, and so on. Of course science has not always been practiced this way (see my next point about history), but a good argument can be made that it has evolved into a mature discipline precisely when these sort of social structures came to be implemented. Indeed, philosopher Helen Longino has made a very good case that modern science is a quintessential example of social knowledge. If you were stranded on a deserted island, you could discover things by means of conjectures and refutations — to use Popper's famous phrase — but you wouldn't be doing "science" because, among other things, there would be no peer group to check on your potentially crazy ideas about the nature of the universe (remember that neurobiological research shows the human brain being incredibly good at rationalizing, more than at rational thinking).
I'm not sure having a laboratory and a peer reviewed journal should automatically qualify anything for science. This seems a very tenure-track-centric point of view where published papers are the way science is advanced. I think we all have our own ideas what "science" is. It's not incredibly clear what makes it an all inclusive category though. Or opinions vary. I think lumping it all in and trying to separate it as a field from other fields is dangerous.
Science is a multi-billion dollar industry, which means that it matters very much who can claim to be doing "science."
I think it's pretty misleading to lump all of science in as a "multi-billion dollar industry." People don't go into math or physics to become millionaires. I gather the author means more along the lines of medical science or pharmaceuticals. And that's fine, but it's sort of like saying "[building stuff] is a multi-billion dollar industry, which means that it matters very much who [we let build stuff]." It's not the individuals doing science or not doing science so much as how we make sure these things are safe or proven when we release them to the public. We have an FDA that verifies drugs work as proposed and in theory does not allow drug manufacturers to make claims beyond proof. But the same could be said for car manufacturers. We have safety ratings for our cars and design goes into them to be safe as well as the government verifies things like the horsepower or miles per gallon that the manufacturer claims. Does that make car manufacturing/engineering design scientific? I think so.
 
And we dismiss plumbers because they don't design plumbing components, they are the technicians who install them in your house or troubleshoot. But we don't reserve the title of science from them because there's no "Plumbing Science" journal out there. Their day to day work is using their expertise to install equipment and try to fix your problem. Looked at in that sense, it's not so drastically different from a medical doctor, right? Not all medical doctors do research, and many might approach a problem with a patient the same way as a plumber. Investigate what they can, find the problem, try the proven methods to fix the problem, be more creative and test other methods if that doesn't fix the problem. But you wouldn't say a doctor is not scientific, would you? Is it his knowledge of physiology vs a plumber's lack of knowledge of physics and water flow?
 
I guess I'm trying to say, the act of plumbing is not science. But then doctors, or myself as an engineer, don't always "do science" on a daily basis. We are practitioners. But I doubt people would say our fields are not science. The reason we don't expect more training from our plumbers could be both because it is not necessary or because it is not as crucial. But in my mind they aren't radically different from "scientific" technicans working in science labs across the country. I think the difference is a doctor or engineer occasionally does science. There is occasion where a new component must be designed or evidence must be tested or a controlled study must be conducted. And I bet there are plumbers out there who do science. Just not most plumbers. Blue collar careers don't always lend themselves to the time and creativity necessary to be more than just a practitioner. And holding ourselves up as "scientific" is useful when we're making sure quack medicine men don't trick people into accepting subpar treatments or when we require people to prove the claims they make. But I think it's harmful if we overlook certain professions as not being scientific. Because as a whole, we want our society to be more scientific. We want more hobbyists and creative people who look beyond their day job and develop. So whatever definition we make for science should be sure to uphold its ethically high standards without excluding creative and investigative people.

Sneakier Submarines with Actuators

Submarines are already pretty silent and deadly. Most are either nuclear powered or have one or more diesel engines. Some use fuel cell technology to reduce the number of moving parts. Once the engines power the onboard batteries, that power spins the propeller allowing the craft to go under water for long periods at a time. German U-Boats may no longer be the enemy under water but it's still crucial that submarines are able to go silent at depth and be capable of quick and quiet escapes whenever possible. Everything that goes into the shape and power of the submarine is meant to reduce its noise.

Researchers modelled a submarine hull as a cylindrical shell with two cone shells on either end. They converted the displacement components of the cylinder to wave propagation equations and used a point force representation for the propeller as a Fourier series. The goal was to reduce the sound generated in the radial direction from propeller movement both from the propeller itself and vibration and displacement of the hull as a result of the propeller movement.

The researchers proposed an array of 60 commercial off the shelf linear actuators in a ring around the aft cone forward of the propeller.

The actuators act as a mass-spring dampening system. Their effectiveness would depend on what kind of controls were used in the feedback system to power the actuators. They examined both Active Vibration Control (AVC) and Active Structural Acoustic Control (ASAC).


The researchers found actuators could be effective at reducing radial sound generated from hull vibration. Both systems of controls they used can be seen in the above figures from their study. The actuators were especially effective at lower frequencies. That's probably a good thing as propellers typically have lower RPMs than the engines that power them. Though it's hard to see the Navy attaching a ring of off the shelf actuators to the hull of a submarine it is interesting to think what the implications might be or how actuators might reduce noise in similar applications. Or if actuators can be proven to reduce the noise what more practical mechanisms might mimic actuators successfully enough to reduce the sound profile of a submarine even further.


Caresta, M. (2011) Active control of sound radiated by a submarine in bending vibration. Journal of Sound and Vibration 330 (2011) 615–624.

12.06.2010

Ways to f@# a conference call

What is life but periods of restlessness and waiting in between thrilling conference calls? If you'd like to frost my cookies with your incompetence, here are some great methods:
  • Call in with your crappiest, off-brand cell phone, preferably with poor reception wherever you are
  • Call while driving so you are distracted
    • Bonus points for revving your engine, leaving the windows down, listening to the radio, and yelling at other drivers
  • Don't bother to use the mute button, we know it's difficult, and we all love to hear your background noise
  • Call in from home where we can hear your kids and dogs in the background
    • Bonus points for any reference to a comfy chair and good dinner being made that rubs it in for the rest of us still in the office
  • If you're going to call in from a conference room, sit as far away from the phone as possible
  • Talk quietly if the phone is far away from you
  • Scream into the phone if you're holding it to your ear
  • Get distracted doodling and make everyone repeat the issue for you when your status comes up
  • Eat while on the call
    • Preferably something loud and crunchy or at least loud packaging
  • Talk to passersby without muting your phone, hey Joe! Have a nice weekend?
  • Let us all know what important meeting you really need to get to, we certainly have nothing better to do
  • If sick sniffle constantly and sneeze loudly into the receiver
  • Assign work to people who couldn't make it to the meeting and forget to tell them
That's all for now. I expect to see a comprehensive powerpoint on this on my desk in the morning. I don't care if you have to work all night, but I can't pay you overtime.

12.05.2010

Now they get their own button?

Anyone stopped by Technorati lately?
What's this all about? A whole button for women bloggers and women's issues? A whole month is just never enough for these people is it.

Actually, I can't decide whether this is a cool thing, or gimicky, or patronizing...I mean it's better than Science Cheerleaders, but where is it in the spectrum? All good? Do I like them featuring women bloggers in the same way I expect to see women speakers at tech conferences? Or does it seem like an effort to save face without actually changing the way women are treated, like a corporate diversity program. If you have an opinion, tell me.

12.04.2010

Weekend Confessions: Envy

I am a bad person because I often feel superior from other people's failures. When I think I have taken a better path there is a spark of glee from me when others stumble and fall on their own paths. I think it is because I am envious. I don't want to feel like someone made a better choice than me, so I look for ways to justify what I've done and am secretly ecstatic when things don't work out for them. There is a part of me that justifies this by running through all the things they might have the better hand than me on, looks, money, better car, better job. And when they screw up, and I am happy about it, I tell myself that it's okay to feel smug because afterall they already have numerous advantages over me. I feel remorse and guilt over plenty of things in my life, but this attitude is not one of them. I know somewhere it is wrong to feel this way, that even if I am not acting that the attitude is getting through and could be hurting people or alienating colleagues. But despite all that, I continue to revel in other seeemingly successful people's shortcomings.

12.03.2010

Design Fridays: Mimicking Nature

Two researchers, from South Africa and California, have designed what they think will be a more aerodynamically efficient plane. Saving fuel might not be on the priority list for the military's fastest fighter jets, but it is important to long range, endurance vehicles and especially to commercial aviation. The designers, Huyssen and Spedding, believe the crooked wings and shortened tail will decrease the amount of drag the aircraft experiences thereby reducing its fuel consumption.
 
 These design changes make it look more like a bird than your typical fixed-wing aircraft. Just in time for a non-flying bird-centric holiday. Even the designers don't know yet how much of an effect this will have or how practical it will be. But we might see some elements incorporated into other designs rolling out in the next decade or so. I can't wait for the Turkey plane in a year from now. Gobble gobble.

12.02.2010

DARPA Thursdays: Phantom ship chases subs

There seems to be a trend in autonomous, constantly patrolling vehicles lately what with Solar Impulse's 24 hour flight and Boeing's plan for a five year flight. So it should come as no surprise the DARPA is trying to develop a pilotless robot ship that could automatically chase enemy subs around without needing control or direction. It would need to be light and carry a lot of fuel for this kind of stamina which it does and will be made from aluminum. But at 62 ft long with a high point of 45 ft it doesn't sound like it will be too sneaky. It'll use an obstacle avoidance system which is pretty common for autonomous vehicles in other mediums. I suspect in a few years we'll see requests for proposal of versions of this craft that are mostly imperceptible to sonar or otherwise difficult to track by the subs they are chasing. The general idea is shooting it down will only create a red flag for someone to chase down thereby giving away the location of the escaping sub. But from what I know of the military they don't like their expensive unmanned crafts to suffer enemy fire if they can help it.

12.01.2010

December 1st: World AIDs Day

For personal reasons the plight of AIDs victims, both locally and worldwide, means a lot to me. It's not as easy to discuss at the office as is many other good causes or at least not at my current office. But in the past I worked alongside HIV positive survivors. And they were as normal as you and me. Outwardly they were healthy but I know many struggled with health problems. I attended the 50th birthday of somebody who had been diagnosed 10 years before and thought it was a death sentence. I held back tears when he quietly said he was happy to reach age 50 because when he was diagnosed he didn't think he would live that long.
 
Antiretrovirals in treating AIDs have come a long way. Early drugs had horrible side effects so those with the disease suffered both from immune deficiency related problems as well as terrible side effects just to keep themselves alive. The drugs have improved a lot since then. And maybe that's why people start to forget. It's no longer an immediate death sentence. But neither is it something that doesn't cut back the invaluable lifespans of people just like you and me. So we can not forget. We have to hope for a cure. And more importantly, a wider availability of treatment for the people who need it. The drugs are very expensive and as we all know there is a healthcare crisis in this country. Many people do not have health insurance to afford the drugs and neither can they afford the regular care and treatment they need to keep living with the disease. We need to keep pressing so that we don't leave behind the people in this country who could be so easily treated. And of course it is imperative that becomes a worldwide mandate where lifesaving drugs and medical care continue to be made available to the people who need it everywhere.
 
I don't ask you to donate to an AIDs charity today, but if you can I hope you do. You can stop by AIDS.gov to read more about efforts and events going on today (and year round). Read the statement from the Whitehouse and from our secretary of state as well as many of the international sites promoting this event. You can stop by GiveWell.org and Keep a Child Alive. I hope you will at least take today to become aware of the events in your community and be not afraid to discuss this with your friends and colleagues.

11.30.2010

Life Tracking: Gas & Electric

Who knew my penchant for online bill pay would be a treasure trove for understanding my own behavior. Four years of using the internet to pay gas and electric bills provided the data and a few lines and colored blobs provide the context. The blue blobs are winter and the red summer.
 
Despite living in a warmer climate, and having access to air conditioning at the last two places I lived at, it's the winters that get to me. Also despite living in a temperate climate for a year where heat and AC weren't really a requirement, I fared no better than I fare if I purchase junk food and tell myself not to eat it. I'm not good at denying myself further comfort if the opportunity is there. Clearly I've been the most "green" by not having the option of heat or air. Fans and space heater use aside (and likely rising costs of utilities) I'm setting a new low trend at my current place. Will I see a resurgence this summer? Will that shiny new space heater I have my eye on increase my bills? Also, now that I can track it, will I be more aware of it and more likely to reduce my usage?

11.29.2010

Powerful Women, Powerful Words

Over at Dr. Isis's there's a discussion on Time's Time's 25 Most Powerful Women of the Century. No Sarah Palin is not on the list. My mind immediately went to Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi, which goes to show I read too much about business blogs since she's regularly features on lists such as these, 25 Most Powerful Women in Business.
 
Some of the entries on women in the 20th century I question as truly being "powerful" but I guess it depends on how you define your list. For instance, Mother Theresa is on there. I'm not sure I equate "powerful" with Mother Theresa. I'm also not sure what influence she's had on the world at large. Was she a great person? Sure. Did she do good things that changed that world? I don't know about that. She's no Rosa Parks there. But Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Oprah or some of the makeup/clothing pioneers I can definitely see as being "powerful."
 
But skip over to Time's Q&A with their business women and you find something else. Most have their heads so far up in the biz-ness their answers are predictable. "What's your best decision ever?" "Duh, coming to work for this company and getting promoted." Doesn't matter whether you've been there two months or twenty years, if you don't say something nice about your current place of employment...better not bother saying anything nice at all.
 
One of the other questions they ask is "What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?" Most answer with some sort of "women aren't confident enough" blame the victim bullshit, or women just don't blah blah blah for themselves, or but it's so hard raising a family and being taken seriously, but that's probably my fault not society's. However, Joanna Maguire, an Executive Vice President at Lockheed Martin has the balls (see? it's always gotta be a pro-male analogy, even on a wanna-be feminist blog) to really nail down where the problem is:
"Cultural stereotypes continue to present significant challenges for women leaders. Stereotypes routinely cause men and women to underestimate and underutilize women's leadership talent. For example, when women leaders act in gender-consistent ways — cooperative and relationship-focused — they "fit in" as women, but are often perceived as soft leaders by both genders. When women act "like men" — authoritative or ambitious — they are often viewed as too tough and overly aggressive. As a result, successful women leaders must learn to effectively thread the needle and call on the leadership attributes of men and women when the time demands."
Now that I've outed her here as a radical feminist who thinks women are damned if they do and damned if they don't she'll probably get moved to Lockheed's Siberia location. But hopefully she'll slip by. I mean, Lockheed probably has thousands of executive VP's but it's nice to know there's one using their brain today.

Welcome back to reality

I spent most of my long weekend reading science fiction novels of space travel and long dead alien civilizations or playing Fallout 3: a post-apocalyptic video game. (Appropriately, Wired released this all instant Thanksgiving Dinner, or all-canned as I like to think of it, in preparation for when turkeys don't exist in non-radiated form). Yes there was family too but all in all it was a weekend of escapism at its finest.
 
Coming back to the cold, hard (or perhaps soft) cubicle walls is like a shadow over my soul. As we have no television I only heard news second hand or when hearing NPR on the drive somewhere. So this morning was a bit of a downer to hear what was described as a cynical ploy by the GOP just a few weeks ago is now the modus operandi; Obama is freezing Federal employee pay for two years. Selfishly I had hoped Federal employment might be an escape from my corporate purgatory. Now it seems even less likely with pay freezes and cutbacks that I will be able to find a place there. On coming into work I was also informed of a major project that will be taking a hiatus due to funding until next year. It's not a big part of my workload but doesn't bode well in general.
 
The interesting thing with playing a post-apocalyptic game for four days in a row is how it changes your views on your world. In the game you can make unique items with random crap lying around, or trade those things in for the game's currency. It inspires one to become a packrat, and has me looking around wanting to pick things up and take them with me just in case I need them. Sort of the opposite effect I had after watching a whole season of Hoarders. And it makes the world seem so much more populated and crowded after the emptiness of the wasteland. And it makes being asked why I didn't call into some meeting that was two weeks ago while I'm still filling up my first cup of coffee seem like such a paltry concern.
 
But I must wake up from the dream. Much as every Friday I struggle to leave the concerns of work left undone or "hot" projects waiting on my desk behind me I must now put my work face back on, if only to last a little longer to the winter holidays. I must pretend to care about meetings and powerpoint and signature approval and release schedules once again. Maybe not everyone else is leaving behind a post-nuclear world, but I suspect we all have to struggle a little today to fit back in again.

11.24.2010

Overheard...

"And then I had to find some shackles to tie it down, and those are hard to find."
 
I'm picturing my coworker in the above photo situation. And you know what? Shackles are hard to find! I mean you'd think Home Depot would at least have something. What am I supposed to do during the upcoming zombie apocalypse?

11.23.2010

Life tracking: PTO

That blue line is my balance of PTO (paid time off). That purple is a hypothetical line from May if I hadn't used any of my time off how much I would have now. I haven't even taken a vacation! All this is school and other obligations bleeding away my time off. It would be interesting to drop lines in finals weeks and see how much of a hit I'm taking from those alone.

11.22.2010

Institutionalized

So it's time for me to start job hunting. And there's a lot of really good reasons to do so. I went to a competitor's job fair a few weeks ago and it felt much like going into enemy territory. I expected at any moment someone would point me out and tell me I'm not allowed to even think or talk about the competitor let alone be taken on a tour through their facility. I'm not enormously sentimental especially not about where I'm at or the trials and tribulations I've gone through to get here. But there is one thing that's going to be difficult for me.
 
Much as I need to move on and do something new it is difficult to start all over. I have spent such a big chunk of my youngish life here. I know so many people, know how things used to be, know the history, and am well connected on the information grapevine. None of this has resulted in real positions of authority or responsibility but it does give me some satisfaction. And wherever I go I will be the newbie. People here know me from way back and even if I got a new area of responsibility enough people knew me from back then that it was not too difficult to earn some level of likeability and get started right away. But somewhere else I'll have to start from scratch. Prove myself every inch. And that scares me. Yes I've done it before, but I've only done it once or twice. And not from some level of experience to a greater level of experience, which is even harder if you're trying to pretend like you're already know something and then deal with your flareups of imposter syndrome.
 
I feel a little like the characters in Shawshank Redemption. When they get out it is hard for them to adjust to their new life. In prison, even though it was prison, they had achieved a level of respect and authority. Out in the real world they are just ex-cons. And I worry how much of myself I can take with me to a new job. I'm eager for new technical challenges but fear learning everyone's name or how to understand their internal database systems or how to figure out the best contacts along the way. I'm afraid of making new friends all over again. Afraid that what I have here is a sham based only on my personality and not on my skill. That starting somewhere else will be impossible once they all figure out how incompetent I really am. Because it's easy to keep sliding further into the quicksand of home. And it's difficult to grab the rope and step out into the jungle.

11.17.2010

Body Scanning=Body Shame

There's a whole lot of hullaballoo about the new airport body scanners. And now it's the holidays, plenty of people will be travelling and for those who say no to the new scanners there's an even more invasive pat down. Makes me glad I don't have to fly anywhere this season.
 
 
But I have to admit, maybe people should just suck it up and walk through the scanner. You see, recently I purchased an XBox 360 Kinect. It's a device that allows games much like the Wii, but with no controller. A series of cameras and infrared sensors pick up your body and use that image so you can use your body as the remote in many new games. It's pretty fun. And now instead of the Wii elbow, I'll have Kinect-omg-I-can't-move-my-body. One of the games I got was the Kinect Your Shape fitness game. It seems pretty effective, I like the Tai Chi routines, and the cardio is seriously kicking my ass so presumably that means it has the capacity to increase my fitness. The one weird thing is unlike many of the other Kinect games that show an avatar as "you" this shows just a single-color blob for you. And let me tell you, it's pretty accurate and leaves nothing to chance. It's like you wrapped me in blue saran wrap and then filmed me moving around in that. It looks exactly like me. And unfortunately so.
 
Every single roll of fat is there to see. What in "real life" might be not so obvious thanks to clothes and layers is there right in your face. And to top it off there's some slender trainer avatar right next to you on the screen to compare yourself with. Okay, it's a decent motivator for trying to get fit. Do I really look like that? And it's sort of embarrassing. So I can see why people walking through body scans would have some qualms about it. But you know what? We don't want people bringing dangerous items on our planes intending to do us harm. And there's plenty of stuff we tolerate that is embarrassing.
 
Going to IHop and wolfing down one of their huge sampler platters is pretty embarrassing. And people do it every day. Wearing tight jeans and showing off your muffin top is pretty embarrassing. Using a public restroom is pretty embarrassing. Watching the grocery store employee scan in your soda, ritz crackers, vodka and reeses cups while you're alone on a Friday night is pretty embarrassing.
 
When the waiter at a restaurant asks us what we want we don't chew them out for invading our privacy. We don't yell at the grocery store clerk for scanning all our items. We've come to expect there will be ways in which our privacy is violated all the time. I am constantly asked to pull out my driver's license as identification which quickly tells you my age, height and weight (although it's a little inaccurate). So if this technology works, and works well, and we can all get on plane knowing we're safe I think it's worth dealing with something that's a little uncomfortable. I don't feel like this is inhibiting my liberty. They aren't telling me what video games I can buy or taking away my firearms. I'm going through an ordeal for the convenience of flight. I mean, I could grow all my own food so the grocery store clerk doesn't see everything I buy, but most of us deal with that invasion of privacy for the convenience of shopping at a place where we can get the things we want.

11.15.2010

What's your city smell like?

DARPA is looking for a way to detect chemical attacks by gathering data on what various cities smell like. First they plan to make smell profiles for major urban areas. Then they'll need to take this data and figure out how to put it into some sort of map that a constant monitoring system could use. Theoretically these systems could detect any changes in the chemicals in a city's atmosphere rather quickly. I'm just curious to see the results once they have the data.

11.12.2010

Design Fridays: The Claw

I have been keeping busy with numerous senior design projects. This was a not-adapted design for a claw in my mechatronics project. We ended up going with something else, two legs of the claw with a cam in the middle. From the original design (a worm gear and two center pieces to move the legs in and out) we tried to improve the speed, which was one of the major goals of the project. The direct drive screw moving the legs of the claw in and out was effective but extremely slow, even with a bigger screw.
 
My design represents an intermediate design where we considered having two sides and only one that would rotate to clinch the pieces. However, we were able to incorporate the cam into the existing built parts and went from an open/close time of 9 seconds to less than 1 second.

11.11.2010

Please grow a spine, for the economy's sake

Dear America and Obama; you are not some invertibrate or mollusk that does not possess bones. You have spines (the American spine is obviously the [insert geographical landmark here].)
 
It is going to have to get ugly before it gets better.
 
See, the Federal Reserve Bank would like to try this thing called quantitative easing: they print a lot of money, buy treasury bonds, and hope to drive down interest rates. You don't hear conservatives complaining about what this is going to do because hey, they want lower interest rates too. Rich companies want to borrow stuff at lower interest rates, and the Feds hope this means the banks will finally start showing consumers some love again and let them borrow money for slightly better rates. Yeah, right.
 
But you could also consider this some backasswards trickle-down stimulus plan. Which might be better than no stimulus at this point. And given how Glen Beck and the neo-cons are pretty sure Stalin's stimulus package forced the Soviets to adopt crappy clothing, bad hair styles, and taxed Hitler so hard he killed all the Jews, they don't want to try another one in America. So they're okay with quantitative easing (who wouldn't be with Ben Bernanke's beard? That man could sell me a Government Motors car).
 
Unfortunately, a lot of people at the G20 this week are not okay with it. They're worried this will drive down the price of the dollar, give us a competitive edge in selling our goods to other countries, and hurt their economic exports. They think we are "threatening" our trade partners. Even China is concerned, just as we're trying to convince them to stop keeping their currency artificially low. Marketplace's commentator David Frum summed up what I wanted to say (and with fewer expletives):
China keeps its currency cheap so as to promote exports -- especially to the United States -- thus creating jobs for China's needy millions. How extreme is China's manipulation? Well, think of it this way: Since September 2008, the U.S. dollar has declined 30 percent against the currency of number one trade partner, Canada. Against number two, China? Flat until this summer, then down only five percent.
I feel like America and all its free market fanatacism is the only one playing by the rules in this game. We import H1B visa workers who take our educated jobs, allow our companies to go overseas and "outsource" and give them, if anything, lower taxes but nothing to disincentivize them otherwise. We import all of China's and numerous other emerging nations' goods without imposing any sort of tariffs. We struggle to enter China and India's economy as both those companies prevent outside companies from coming in and freely competing with their own companies.
 
If these companies want a trade war I say bring it on. How about America stops competing as the only country who's agreed to tie both its hands behind its back. How about if China doesn't stop manipulating their currency, we start imposing tariffs on their imported goods. How about if India doesn't want us to compete freely there we stop letting corporations outsource. How about we drastically cut back on the number of H1B visas. In Canada or most of Europe in order to hire a foreigner you have to justify that there is no native resident capable of doing that job. Here, we can just cut the pay and say no American software engineer will work for that kind of pay and apparently that's enough for all of silicon valley to important half the Indian population into California. We need to start taxing American companies equally for foreign and domestic employees. Outsourcing should not be a tax break. And if we need to do this one time pseudo-stimulus package and other countires want to whine about it, well let them. It'll probably be short lived that American goods will actually be more appealing to other nations and we can't always be the company carrying the trade deficit. So suck it up, world.

11.09.2010

Some white guys pontificate

Tony Velocci, one of the editors over at Aviation Week, writes this week about an executive roundtable in which he and some aerospace and defense executives discussed diversity in the industry. Or maybe more appropriately, the lack thereof.
It is a question worth pondering as one surveys the makeup of the industry as a whole: mostly Caucasian men, with nearly a third of the total workforce 50 to 59 years old. Among larger contractors, about 40% of all employees, many of them involved in major defense programs, will be eligible for retirement within several years.
Of course that's the same spin on soon to retire engineers we keep hearing every month or so. And it appears to be total bunk. I'm pretty sure the 60 year olds I'm working with will keep working long past when they are eligible for medicare, which tends to be the defining measure for when people retire around here. But clearly they aren't getting real good data when they throw out predictions like that. The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about Gen X in the workplace: stuck in the middle. Frustrated Gen Xers waiting for Boomers to retire and dealing with "entitled" young millenials in the workforce.
 
But is it really like that? Yes it seems like there's a lot of old guys hanging on, but at the same time most of my management chain are either Xers or at most on the young side of Boomers. And I don't see too many people here counting down the days until retirement. We all know the recession destroyed a lot of people's portfolios so I'm sympathetic that people need to work longer and save more. While most commenters on Velocci's story predictably said things like "this isn't even an issue" or "this is a silly story" a few had insightful comments on the aerospace industry. Bill Sweetman, another Aviation Week writer, had this to say:
Part of the problem with attracting "the best and brightest" to a mature industry is that you are competing with the new and trendy. Aeronautics and space were in that position once - think of the 1950s and 1960s in southern California - but the bloom went off the rose with the 1970s layoffs, and since then the hot tickets have been IT, biomedical engineering, and robotics.
 
You do have to wade back in and compete. And indeed to some extent, the problems we see in aerospace might be of its own making, along with its customers. See my post today: what is exciting about 25-year procurement cycles? You become an engineer to make things, not support the tenth analysis of alternatives that may (this time) lead to an RFI, before the customer takes his ball and goes home.
 
It's fast-cycle companies that are attracting the talent (Scaled, SpaceX, Insitu, iRobot, Aurora, to name a few). But it is still industry giants that have most of the money.
And he's right. It's hard to tell people what I do because when you think engineering you think something really hands on and awesome. Many of my classmates have leapt at the opportunity to use me as a contact to get in at my company. But then they talk about the lab where they are currently working, happily often, and sometimes I think they should stay. Or another commenter, who points out the industry is still as appealing as anything else:
But since graduation, I've applied to countless jobs across the industry with no response. After nine months of searching I eventually went back to graduate school to try and improve my chances and keep my skills sharp, but so far it's only resulted in a single phone interview. I'm not alone, either - some of my friends have sent out over a hundred applications with no success, and my graduate classes are filled with people who gave up for the time being on getting into the aerospace industry and went back to school. I hear stories at job fairs and company presentations of hiring managers that are swamped with hundreds of applications for each entry position, and the booths of companies like Lockheed and Boeing often have lines just as long as those at Apple and Google.
So young people are still trying to get in at these companies, and in high numbers. And does the defense industry want to rebrand anyways? I am reminded of an old Admiral who didn't want too many days off because "the military doesn't get those days off." And the military in this case was also the customer. Or as Mr. Velocci asked,
Companies like Apple and Google are magnets for young people, but can you imagine any of the 20 largest companies trying to duplicate the work environment that exists in those iconic enterprises? Probably not. You do not want your culture to look too different from that of your customer, one senior executive observed.
But even the dismissive posts, the ones that think this topic is silly, that you just hire a consultant and the consultant will tell you how to fix your problem. They have actually managed to nail it on its head. It's an employer's market right now. And if a company can't get young people/minorities/women/ewoks it's probably because they're not really trying. And maybe that's what disappoints me the most. Not that engineers continue to tend to be mostly white males, but that nobody cares. That the people with the money and the authority to make a difference choose not to, again and again.

11.07.2010

The problems with data extrapolation

I've been doing a lot of curve fitting lately. Mostly to create a pattern to improve software or just some stuff for school. But I've noticed that it's pretty easy to find the curve you want, rather than the curve you need.

Take the housing market. Plenty of people out there have a vested interest in it picking up again. But plenty of other people have an interest in it staying down. I get it. Some people are underwater and want/need it to go up again. And plenty of other people would like to buy and want it to go down even further to make that easier. Or just want to be right in their feeling that the market is still overinflated.

Take Michael David White, over at HousingStory.net. Here's his graph for where he thinks prices are going:
I'm curious how he came up with this fit so I exported the data myself (you can too from the Case-Schiller home index website) and played with it a little. For fun I also pulled some data from the government's various census collecting sites that you'll see later.

Case-Schiller has only been collecting data since 1986. I grabbed the data from my hometown county, which looks pretty similar to his curve fit but might be more representative of living in a higher cost of living than looking at the whole nation averaged together. If you assume from about 1997 and on is an abberation, and do a linear fit from 1986 to 1997 and extrapolate it on into the future you get a line that looks very similar to what White came up with.
Clearly that would mean a huge drop in home prices if you were looking only at the first 10 years of data. That yellow line is inflation, this fit would seem to say inflation should rise faster than home prices. Well what if you fit the whole thing?


 Fitting the whole collection of data would seem to say homes are now underpriced and we should expect a pickup soon. I don't think anyone's anticipating that much of an increase in home prices either. Once again, the danger of looking at even the whole data set, the first 10 years, the last, or whatever portion you pick. No matter what trying to predict can seem pretty silly.


Here I just grabbed inflation with both the average and the median. Looks like White could have grabbed the average for his data as well, but as it's rising slower than inflation you have to wonder at that. And what's inflation mean anyways? Should se assume home prices will rise any faster or slower than inflation? What about food prices. There's been a lot of talk that food has stayed relatively cheap for Americans, what if we compare total food inflation to home prices.

If we looked at the rise in food prices, home prices don't look that far off or too far inflated. Does White think there's a food-price bubble? Does he think food prices are going to come crashing down anytime soon? What about healthcare?

I don't hear anyone speculating that healthcare costs are going to go down anytime soon. There's been plenty of talk about the "housing bubble" or even the "higher education" bubble. But you don't hear anyone saying you should pull out of healthcare stocks or just wait for that big crash in healthcare prices that's going to happen anytime soon.

And that's the danger of data extrapolation. It's plenty fun to graph some data and draw some lines. If you have a specific agenda, it's not hard to find something to back it up. But truth is it's just not a good way to make a conclusion. I expect Mr. White gets a lot of press and blog hits from people who want to buy right now and are really hoping prices will drop even more. They might or they might not. But these lines could tell any story you wanted them to.

11.06.2010

Quality vs Speed

Some Qantas engineers are charging they're being asked to sign off on maintenance and inspections on aircraft they have not actually seen. I think this is the whole dichotomy of do you want it fast or do you want it right. Sometimes your maintenance staff is so competent you want to trust them to do the procedure without an engineer breathing down their necks. Other times you don't want to wait for the engineer. Still others it's not a flight critical component or is for a test. So I understand the need to push along production and maintenance procedures.
 
Still, it's disturbing a production-level passenger aircraft would be shooing asides the concerns of its engineers. I'm sure Qantas being publically listed on a half dozen European stock exchanges has something to do with the CEO, Alan Joyce, accusing the engineers' union of making false claims. He said/she said and maybe their stock prices won't take a dip. He then tried to back it up saying 92% of "heavy maintenance" operations are done domestically, which is not where the complaints are coming from (they are complaining about foreign sites). But heavy maintenance doesn't sound like some all encompassing description. I'm sure a great number of flight critical maintenance is occurring at these foreign locations.
 
I'm not saying don't fly Qantas or don't buy their stock right now, but it's extremely disheartening when one of these cases pop up. As an engineering staff member, it's not easy to make these kinds of allegations or claim due diligence was not done. Those kinds of complaints get you fired or transfered to the Siberian office. Or margianlized to where you can't make those complaints anymore. It's easy to dismiss unions as being useless or costly, but I hope people appreciate that in this case it was the engineer's union who had the clout to make sure these complaints were heard and no illegal backlash happened. I understand wanting faster turnaround times and lower costs but the CEO should know when management goes against engineering recommendations in favor of a quicker and cheaper product they are risking lives. I'd like to think an enlightened, scientific society will someday have criminal courts to deal with those kinds of managers.
 
For more along the lines of quality inspector in the photo above, see the History Channel's Women Factory Workers of WWII gallery.

11.05.2010

Care and feeding of a liver

Bioengineered livers might soon be within our grasp. Researchers at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center (could that name be any longer?) have grown human liver cells into small, working livers. It's early yet, but the next step is animal studies to make sure these miniature livers continue to function like real livers. I already talked about a researcher who was engineering an artifical kidney he had hoped to par down to implantable size from the now room sized working artifical kidney. It's interesting to see the paths of research take both strictly biological and also technologically assembled forms. I think with diversity in development we are more likely to see huge leaps in science on this front and not be far from a Star Trek-esque world where many internal organs can be replaced with the proper machines.
 
And for those wondering, you can get your own plush organs (as seen in adorable photo) here at I Heart Guts.