September Scientiae: What's in your toolbox?

This month's Scientiae Carnival topic is especially appropriate for a pseudo-engineer such as myself. One of the managers here at MegaCorp would regularly ask interviewees: What's in your toolbox? He meant it literally. Not what skills do you have to pull from, but what do you actually have at home in your garage (or apartment) and what do you work on.
There's two schools of thought to what makes a good engineer. There's the "you need to be hands on" theory, and the other group that wants you to have top notch analytical and software skills. I'm more on the theoretical side, maybe I'm still in school or maybe leftover from my humanities training. But that means I try to work on my "hands on" side too. So here's my toolbox:
  • A good drafting pencil. True we don't use blueprints anymore or do our lettering by hand, but it's still nice to know you have the tools. And can tell the youngsters how it used to be. Oh wait I'm a youngster!
  • My TI-83. We all love the calculator we learned on/used the most, and this is mine. No fancy integrations, but a few programs I like and the ability to stack commands.
  • A solid modelling program. Essential for any design engineer. If you're an EE of a CivE I guess you can get away with AutoCAD or something, but the rest of us need 3D.
  • Matlab. An engineer's friend, or bitterest enemy at times, but unfortunately required.
  • Excel. Don't hate on MS, and don't hate my spreadsheets!
  • A good toolbox:
    • Nice set of screwdrivers, or a screwdriver with a removable tip
    • Nice set of wrenches and sockets, metric and US-silly-units
    • Hammer, sledgehammer, wire stripper, wire cutters, bolt cutter
  • A few good hoses and some fittings. Never know when you'll need to go through your box and rig up a quick hose for something.
  • Calipers. Digital might be nice, never leave home without them.
  • Miscellaneous parts. Some old servo motors, unused piping, you never know, right?
  • Coffee; the day doesn't start without it.

So if you didn't post for the Scientiae, what's in your toolbox?

Greener than thou

There's a new Swiss report talking about battery powered hybrid vehicles. Apparently the actual supply of the metal and the power to process that metal is what costs the most. Extracting the lithium, and transporting materials, is not as significant a contributor. The Register reports that the study indicated an efficient diesel car would do less environmental damage than a battery powered hybrid, but you have to dig for that tidbit.
Most of the report is spent describing the environmental impact of manufacturing and transporting batteries, and how (naturally) batteries made from recycled materials or using hydropower to process rather than coal have a lower environmental impact (duh!). But here's the clincher:
A break even analysis shows that an ICEV would need to consume less than 3.9 L/100km to cause lower CED than a BEV or less than 2.6 L/100km to cause a lower EI99 H/A score. Consumptions in this range are achieved by some small and very efficient diesel ICEVs, for example, from Ford and Volkswagen (13, 39).
That's 78 and 90 mpg respectively for those of us in the states. As for the models the study mentions I'm not sure. Looks like Volkswagen has a 1.6L diesel TDI Golf that comes in around 80ish mpg highway available in Europe. But that's at the top end, using only a particular technology of theirs. Yeah it's there, and it's around the corner, but that's the efficiency necessary to beat a battery right now. Because even with not fantastic mileage, you're still getting less CO2 emissions. And we're not seeing those kinds of mpg numbers in the states anytime soon. Not to mention when it looked like diesels were coming over here in droves just not seeing that either. I guess Prius owners like to feel high and mighty about their choice just as much as non-Prius owners like to use battery manufacturing and disposal as excuses they are still doing the right thing. When in fact, best I can determine from the city, disposal between a hybrid with a lithium battery vs a "normal" car had near the same environmental impact. That could also be Europe's recycling requirements coming into play.
Still, both the report and the article (and the recent Cash for Clunkers bit of pork legislation) fail to get the obvious. It's generally environmentally friendlier to keep driving your old clunker around, even if it gets terrible gas mileage. The cost to manufacture a new car is no small thing. Buying new cars creates demand for more new cars. Even if these new cars use less petrol, you're often better off keeping your car a few more years, if being environmentally friendly is what's important to you.


Signs you are irritated...

When the mere sound of the printer invokes an irrational response.
Rational mind: My colleagues need to print documents.
Irrational mind: Omg, someone's printing again? I'm so tired of that noise! And why is it always these 80 pages reports that just won't stop? Should I just record that sound and loop it on my iPod? Is that the sound I'm destined to hear for the rest of my f@#$ing life?! Can't you people stop f@#$ing printing sh#% for two minutes?!?


Engineers At Odds

More on the quibbles over engineering that led up to the BP oil spill. As I spoke about last time, a Halliburton engineer spoke out about recommendations he had made that he felt were ignored by BP. Now a BP engineer testified to the same committee despite two other BP engineers taking the fifth and not testifying. To quote the Coast Guard Captain Nguyen, the Co-Chair of the committee, "You're a very brave man for showing up today."
As engineers, especially ones who argued additional safety measures weren't necessary, it'd be easy to just not say anything. Pass the blame up to executives who likely made the ultimate decisions here. But the fact that the Halliburton engineer is still out there saying in his best judgment they needed more centralizers and now the BP engineer is saying he felt the cement was poured straight and that additional centralizers weren't needed, makes me believe they both believe strongly in what they're saying. It's very possible this whole incident was not responsible for the eventual blow.  And engineers often have their own styles. Many want more and more safety mechanisms that actually accomplish nothing. It's not a clear judgment call. Like I said before, if we listened to every concern we probably would have never gone into space or to the moon. I don't think that clears BP or Halliburton of ignoring safety concerns of their own engineers. But it does make this a more interesting investigation. The emails they keep quoting I could see coming out of any major company involving any big project or test. I'm sure those that sent the emails never anticipated they would be read, re-read and scruitnized word by word by an angry public or focused investigators.


Brave New Galaxy

Lyric Semiconductor announced it's new design for a microchip: the probability processor. Yes it sounds a little like Douglas Adams' infinite improbability drive from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Lyric's new technology is part physical changes and partly different construction in how circuits process information. They claim it will yet again shrink processor size and give a speed boost. But for now the applications would have to be tested one by one and Lyric is looking at error and fraud detection and other things where it would seem most logical to be looking from a probability perspective. So is this something new and revolutionary? An impossible design? Or just normal advancements beefed up with marketing?


Mystery Science Car Manual

I was looking for some information and stumbled upon the surprising fact that Chevrolet has all its car manuals for its latest cars online in easy PDF format. Of course, being able to find scanned car manuals is nothing new. But having the official ones all on an easy to access page is pretty nifty. So I was leafing through and just had to laugh. Here's why.

What's up with this "safety" mechanism? How am I supposed to keep my kidnap victims in my car? Or more importantly, how effective is my trunk as a zombie catching device when the zombie can just open the trunk and get the heck outta there?
I assume this means we should anchor babies in car seats so they don't float away. That or training our kids early to be sailors when we run out of oil and can't drive around in cars anymore.
In the US we have air bags. In Canada and Mexico, you just hold a beach ball on your lap. It's probably just as effective. That or they were too lazy to figure out how to spell "air bag" in Spanish or French. Or possibly the translation of air bag is something disgusting in one of those languages. Anyways, why complain when hanging out in your car is like a day at the beach!
This is pretty good. Not only does this car have some powerful ultrasound or see-through device that can clearly see your fetus but apparently it's really darned uncomfortable to drive when your pregnant. Look how unhappy that woman looks. Motion vibes are coming off her back she's so uncomfortable. The auto manual also reminds us, like the airplanes, that the best way to protect your kids is to save your own life first.
Maybe this is a clever graph for the BP oil spill. Or a new mode of transportation.
"You can lose control of the vehicle if you try"... to sleep while driving. Also not recommended. Or maybe she passed out from the jolting experience of adjusting her seat too fast.
I hope helpless adults doesn't include Project Engineers. Because they're pretty helpless. But I still reserve the right to leave them in my car if necessary. Since clearly locking them in the trunk won't work.

An Engineer's Guide to Cats

I've created this handy guide to help people out. Click for full size!


Engineer Under Fire

One of Halliburton's engineers testified in front of a government panel on Tuesday. The issue involves centralizers; best I can tell (and I'm not a drilling engineer) centralizers are used when cement or casing is poured down a deep well. If the cement isn't centered, you can have an imperfect seal, presumably pressure could build up along the sides. Possibly this imperfectly centered casing and built up pressure was possible for the final blow, though of course it's still possible that wouldn't have affected the explosion either way.
Halliburton and BP knew they had a problem prior to the explosion and supposedly Halliburton's Gagliano (the engineer) recommended 21 centralizers. However, a report from the same day written by Gagliano recommends only 7 centralizers. Gagliano says that was procedure from the rig and not his engineering recommendation.
Well it all sounds very probable to me. Lately I've written reports that by the time they go out look almost nothing like what I started with. So many people above my head have their hands in the pie it might as well not be my name on it at all. I may do the original research and analysis but the higher up you are the more you have a say in how to frame it, what to include, what to leave out.
But it sounds like they had more centralizers and a BP engineer was offering to bring them out. Only the team leader on site didn't want to slow drilling enough to install them all.
It's almost never an easy someone should have spoken up kind of deal. I remember the Challenger disaster and engineers with a subcontractor who supposedly voiced concerns and wanted more time. But NASA and the contractor were under pressure. A flailing space program and delayed launches meant people felt their reputations were on the line. They were of course, but in a more crucial way. It's tough because these cases are certainly not the only ones in the world where an engineer voices a concern and nothing is done to directly deal with it. Only most times it doesn't result in catastrophic failure. Most times the rig holds, the seals are fine. Most times management has to take a calculated risk in everything it does. When 99.99% of the time the risk is worth it it's difficult to believe we should always stop and listen to every nagging concern. If we had, we probably wouldn't have gone to space to begin with. There's no way you can tie up every loose end.
At the same time, BP is a publically traded company. The team leader probably had a quota to meet, maybe it affected his bonus, but point was he wasn't going to delay without good reason. Maybe the engineers didn't sell their case very well, or maybe there was a history of quieting these kinds of concerns in favor of keeping up with production. Perhaps we'll know more as the story unfolds but I find myself sympathetic to the engineers who were in fact part of the machine and while concerned were probably used to having their protests ignored. I don't think it's clear cut this was the reason for the explosion yet, but I do think we'll find company culture contributed.


Dangerous Attack Cat

It's not Caturday yet? Life's important questions have finally been answered: do big cats dig the 'nip. I had one cat that was drug free, and one cat that's an absolute catnip addict. Click the linky to see video of adorable tigers and other big, wild cats so cute you'd run up and hug them if they couldn't gnaw your face off. Then stick around to get their opinions on catnip.
Or, watch this delightful video that as a cat owner I'm willing to testify under oath to its accuracy.


Design Fridays: Meet Me in St. Louis

The picture above is from the St. Louis Arch International Design Competition. The city of St. Louis and the National Parks are sponsoring a competition to reimagine the surrounding Gateway Park.
I've never been to St. Louis, but when I see the arch I think of Lewis and Clark, westward exploration, and ingenuity. The fact that Jefferson would sponsor a trip across the US territories is astounding, along the same lines as the space race. Of course it goes right along with Manifest Destiny, and all the negative and positive associations with that. But Lewis and Clark seemed like good guys. Like well meaning people who did the best they could with what they had. They were no heartless conquistadors, they were in some ways intellectuals. I think of their good fortune in meeting Sacagawea, and all sorts of other luck that spared their lives. So to me the arch sums up all the hopefullness of an early nation and people who felt it important to explore and study and learn.
There are five finalists for the Gateway Park competition and the pictures above are from the Weiss/Manfredi team, my favorite I think. I like how the architecture along the foot bridge and along Washington Avenue seems to echo the original design of the arch. But a lot of the other designs are beautifully imagined as well.


DARPA Thursdays: The Recycled Edition

DARPA continuing to look for methods of cleaning up space debris. A machine with a giant net capable of flinging things down into the South Pacific or further down into a degenerating orbit where the objects will break up are just some of the options being discussed. Of course space debris is a problem for a lot of our satellites currently in orbit, but it came up again at the 2010 Space Elevator Conference.
Along those same lines, NASA is looking for a tether 50% stronger than commercially available technologies. Three teams demonstrated at the 2010 elevator conference all employing different configurations of carbon nanotubes. Nobody passed the bar this year but I look forward to seeing the continued outcome of developing along these lines.


2012 Apocalypse

More crazy people are going on and on about impending doom in 2012. No I don't mean the doom that spells the end of the human race, I mean the mass retirement of the baby boomers.
Per this story on ABC News, an Aviation Week study showed 20% of STEM employees are now at retirement age with that expected to increase to approximately 30% in 2012. Aerospace companies like Raytheon and Boeing continue to worry about the mere 70,000 bachelors degrees awarded in engineering each year and the expected shortfall in US Citizens able to take on defense work.

"I have a lot of positions, but a lot of times I may not be able to fill them because I don't have U.S. citizens," said Lisa Kollar, executive director of career services at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, one of the top U.S. schools for aerospace recruitment.

Anyone out of work right now has heard that piece of crap already. Even with 10% unemployment companies are still complaining they can't find qualified talent to hire. It generally means they don't want to hire and would prefer working people to the bone. But for engineers I'll make an exception and say the other competing factor is employers want US Citizens working for H1B visa prices. You can't have your cake and eat it too, employers.

More importantly the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) put out this report about actual readiness for retirees. Even out of the richest quartile of Americans, and talking only about early baby boomers who are currently the most prepared to retire, 20% are still "at risk" for not having "adequate" retirement income. More average income people are in the 35%-50% at risk range. After 20 years of retirement it's estimated 30%-45% of middle income earners will run out of money. Boomers would need to save an additional 25% of their retirement portfolio to have a mere 50% chance of having adequate funds to retire on.

Unfortunately, given their proximity to retirement age, the median Early Boomer percentage for the lowest-income quartile exceeds 25 percent of compensation. This suggests that at least one-half of the households in this age/income cohort will need to find alternative solutions to the problem of securing retirement income adequacy.

What kind of solutions? Probably working longer. And averting the 2012 apocalypse.


Body Movin'

As construction on California's high speed rail continues you can feel the excitement building. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently blogged about the bay area's new transit center that will be an important hub for the high speed rail and likely connect to San Francisco's BART along with other public transportation methods. The high speed rail line is expected to travel at speeds of up to 220 mph.

140 years ago Americans were marvelling at another milestone in mass transportation: the Transcontinental Railroad. I love these accounts from Mark Twain where he is an awe of its speed of 30 mph, and supposedly later a top speed of 60 mph if we are to do his math for him. It certainly changed the face of America on a cultural level. All of the effects we see today of mass communication and globalization were then serving to homogenize America. It can't be forgotten the numerous Chinese and Irish immigrants who built it with their tireless labor and what that means to a modern society looking back.

If you want some meaty documentary, there's a PBS special if you can get ahold of it, or what looks to be a decent BBC documentary available on youtube. Then for the Cliff's Notes fans we have the brief Modern Marvels look at it also available on youtube.

The technology itself perhaps not so astounding. Like the high speed rail, similar systems are in place in many other countries right now. I doubt the high speed rail will be at all as ground breaking as the railroad that connected a nation and allowed Mark Twain to travel at speeds above 30 mph while drinking champagne (without spilling) in a dining car. Railroads then were absolutely common. But having one that could traverse the country from east to west was a big deal. So technology doesn't have to be new or earth shattering in and of itself to change and shape a nation.


Case of the Mondays

I hate feeling a little ill due to something I ate last night, lack of sleep or something I ate or didn't eat this morning. I hate sitting at my desk trying to keep it together and not vomit all over everyone. I hate having to plug my ears while hearing the same story about hemodialysis that I've heard before twenty times and has never bothered me but now I can't stand to listen to a second of it. And most of all I hate pretending that I'm in an ok mood and not being able to say "i'm not feeling well right now" or "sorry I'm feeling a little sick". Because I'm in possession of uterus.
Because if I have to hear uh-oh, you sure you're not pregnant? I might flip out. When I say "hey, I can be sick without it being pregnancy. This happens to me a lot. Yes I'm sure I'm not pregnant." There's still that empty space, that you're really sure? And a rolling of the eyes.
I feel ill often. Most often after not getting a good night's sleep which when you're in school and working full time happens pretty frequently. I'm sure the three cookies I ate before bed didn't help. It's also possible not having protein with dinner last night was a contributor. This all happens often enough I know how it works. But it doesn't matter why I'm ill, I can just never be ill at work in the mornings or some a-hole will assume it's connected to my uterus. Nothing like being sick and having to pretend you're not, and you're actually feeling fabulous, so I don't get someone commenting on my possible reproduction.


First Backhanded Accounts

"A large majority of the white laboring class on the Pacific Coast find more profitable and congenial employment in {other fields}. The greater portion of the laborers employed by us are {X minority}, who constitute a large element in the population of California. Without them it would be impossible to complete {this work}.

As a class they are quiet, peaceable, patient, industrious and economical—ready and apt to learn all the different kinds of work required {}, they soon become as efficient as white laborers. More prudent and economical, they are contented with less wages."
"It became apparent early in the season, that the amount of labor likely to be required during the summer could only be supplied by the employment of the {minority} element, of our population. Some distrust was at first felt regarding the capacity af this class for the service required, but the experiment has proved eminently successful. They are faithful and industrious, and under proper supervision, soon become skillful in the performance of their duties. Many of them are becoming very expert in {this kind of} work."
"Systematic workers these {minority members} – competent and wonderfully effective because tireless and unremitting in their industry. Order and industry then, as now, made for accomplishment. Divided into gangs of about 30 men each, they work under the direction of an American foreman. The[y] board themselves. ...They are credited with having saved about {$$$} a month. Their workday is from sunrise to sunset, six days in the week. They spend Sunday washing and mending, gambling and smoking, and frequently, old timers will testify, in shrill-toned quarreling. ... "
Well, am I making more political statements about the new laws in Arizona? Am I quoting early testimonials about migrant workers in agriculture? Close. These are quotes from, respectively, Leeland Stanford, President, Chief Engineer Montague, and a newspaper account from Alta, California.

They are discussing the building of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s. The "positive" attributions to how hard working the Chinese laborers are, discussions of how they form their own communities, live cheaply to save money, and also have no problem working for lower wages than the "white laborer" could be distant echoes of how immigration is discussed today. Clearly though from the perspective of those who employ immigrants. That sort of stereotype insult sandwich where they say a few things meant to be nice but with some mean, patronizing or merely ridiculous statements surrounding it. Talking about how "industrious" our immigrants are or how it's okay that we pay them less for work citizens will not take will not change how history views the situation.


Cost of doing business

So for now the most egregious parts of Arizona's new discrimination law is being held in limbo awaiting appeals. Along the lines of that this article looked at what metro areas actually had the highest numbers of immigrants. Here's the list so you don't have to scroll through their gallery:
  1. Miami-Ft Lauderdale
  2. San Jose-Sunnyvale
  3. LA-Long Beach
  4. San Francisco-Oakland
  5. NY-Long Island
  6. Chicago
  7. Dallas-Fort Worth
  8. Washington DC-Arlington-Alexandria
  9. Houston
  10. Las Vegas
  11. Riverside-San Bernadino
  12. San Diego
  13. Sacramento
  14. Phoenix
  15. Boston
  16. Orlando
  17. Seattle
  18. Austin
  19. Atlanta
  20. Denver
So Phoenix does make the list of the top 20, but Florida has two, Texas has three and California a whopping six. In fact, every major metropolitan area in Florida, Texas and California is represented here. There's no Tuscon on the list so you'd think Arizona would have less of a problem with it. But of course it always comes down to politics. The article mentioned an older article which talked about immigrants leaving the US.
You might think the recession or visa issues would be the reason they'd leave, but surprisingly most returned home to be closer to family or for better job opportunities in their country of origin. Both articles worry about the brain drain of these immigrants, citing these statistics: 
Despite the fact that they constitute only 12% of the U.S. population, immigrants have started 52% of Silicon Valley's technology companies and contributed to more than 25% of our global patents. They make up 24% of the U.S. science and engineering workforce holding bachelor's degrees and 47% of science and engineering workers who have PhDs. Immigrants have co-founded firms such as Google (GOOG), Intel (INTC), eBay (EBAY), and Yahoo! (YHOO).
Once again I'm not as worried as everyone else is. I do think as a country we're stronger because of our immigrant population but if the economy is going to encourage these people to leave that's how capitalism works. If something like 70,000 people a year are brought in H1B Visas it's because companies have found that to be the most economical choice. It's cheaper to bring someone in who's already trained and usually willing to work for less than a highly skilled US employee would be. So if there's a shortage, the obvious solution is to make sure we're growing our domestic population of scientists and engineers. But I know plenty of people out of work right now in both fields and the pay is just not what you'd think it would be after that many years in school nor is the career security there.
So I'm not going to cry over the loss of highly skilled immigrants. A stronger middle class in China and India should theoretically be a good thing for the US economy. We need to start exporting more goods or providing more services to other countries and when they can continually underbid us that's not going to happen. But when they have a middle class that wants our goods and services it's a more balanced economy for everyone. And if their immigrants would rather go home right now that's fine. Once supply of these highly skilled workers actually drops a bit pay will have to come up and then Americans will go for those careers. But right now, I don't blame them for choosing something else more reliable or at least consistent in better pay. But maybe I'm missing an angle here?

Lost My Appetite

From my textbook; creepy hand shows you how to do the right hand rule.


Bombs for Jobs

US manufacturing has been a historical powerhouse. But as time goes on more and more of our products (ships, cars, computers, appliances) are getting sent offshore. Congress is too cowardly to impose any tax disincentives to slow this down. Then you have all these idealists who think we spend way too much on defense on not enough on what...corporate bailouts? Tax cuts? Outsourcing more jobs? Let's get real. Congress might be working on some $26 billion dollar aid program that will supposedly "save" 300,000 teacher jobs, but until Republicans listen to anybody but themselves and cautiously approach the idea of raising tax rates we won't get anywhere. Instead, middle and lower class conservatives have been conned into the idea that less taxes will somehow mean more money in their pockets. That if only greedy liberals could stop funding things like education, police and firefighters maybe they'd have an extra $2 in their pockets from those poor, poor corporations who are just taxed so hard.
One thing not difficult to get through this republican-controlled congress is defense spending. So when I tell you missile and arms manufacturer Raytheon won a $450 million dollar contract for a new bomb you'll know that's defense budget situation normal. The F-35 will be using this small/smart bomb as well as the F-15 at some point. Maybe you're a hippie and think the only places for bombs are in some dystopian future and that peace is the key to success. Well in theory you're probably right. But the truth is, defense spending creates domestic jobs. This new bomb plant will be in Alabama. I'm sure Alabama state representatives doctored a nice tax-advantaged plan to entice Raytheon there much as the same way the South is selling out its union employees for half the wages just to get a few auto plants. Raytheon's engineering is located primarily in Arizona, one of the major economic engines in that state. A few years back Raytheon bought Hughes Aerospace and is now 12,000 people strong in Tucson. They make a lot of our missiles and bombs. And for now, it all has to be done over here for security reasons. So Apple, Ford and GE can send plenty of their manufacturing (and engineering) overseas, but there's still at least one thing partisan greed can be counted on to keep domestic. For national security, of course.


Big Media and Engineering

So apparently Boeing is trying to partner with TV and make engineering cool. Besides their manufactured panic over how all the Boomers are going to retire and leave us with a supposed labor shortage (haven't we been hearing that for years? and with 10% unemployment are we really that worried?). It's no joke the comments to the article are engineers complaining of outsourcing, pay and HB1 Visas. Personally I don't think pay is the issue, but engineering companies (and I don't specifically mean Boeing) have been outsourcing for years, and bringing in HB1 Visa holders to do the work for less. It's much easier than changing business practices to continue to support domestic workers or start programs to encourage Americans to go into engineering and science. I'm not real concerned we need to start selling engineering or science as a career just yet. I'm sure when the jobs and the money are there, people will go in droves.
But I find their attempt to make it "cool" a little more interesting.
There's no shortage of scientists and engineers on TV and the movies, says Richard Stephens, senior vice-president of human resources and administration at Boeing. Many, however, are portrayed in an unsympathetic light. "In movies and on TV, 10 percent of characters are scientists and engineers," Stephens said in Congressional testimony on Feb. 4. "Unfortunately, of those more than 70 percent kill others, are killed, or are overcome by lay people."
Kind of like my continued hesitance to watch Big Bang Theory. Maybe I'd enjoy it, but I'm largely afraid it gets its laughs by playing on how "weird" or "abnormal" the scientists it features are. I think of the character in Boston Legal who had Asperger's Syndrome. Rather than the more typical symptoms an average person on the light end of the autism spectrum might have, his character was embued with all sorts of other mental disorders that now TV viewers would unknowingly associate with the word Asperger's.
The article brings up Walt Disney's efforts in joining the good fight. Back in the Sputnik era, when beating the commies was a national security concern. Walt Disney wasn't afraid to propagandize in WWII and certainly helped glamorize the space age. I had never seen this before, it's Disney's Man in Space. After some horribly racially stereotyped animated Chinese people in the segment on the history of rockets the show gets rather interesting. At first I was a little put off that every room they show people talking about or designing rockets and spacecraft was white dudes only. But then I realized besides the awesome glasses and lack of computers that could be a scene right out of my workplace today. So not much has changed in diversity in engineering in 60 years. However, America's interest and support of the space program sure has. In a way I hope efforts like this from Boeing or other media outlets succeed because while I think the personnel are flexible and will be there the public desire for a kickass space program hasn't recovered since the fall of the Berlin wall. Given China and India's plans for manned flights and even bases on the moon maybe when it becomes a national security issue again people will care again. For now, enjoy this video series. Walt Disney is holding a rocket, your argument is invalid!

Sprig Cleaning

So I updated my blogroll type links. If you're not on there, and you'd like to be, please leave a comment or email me or something. Yes I actually read all those blogs. I'm open to trying new things so if you read me and think I should read you let me know. If I've fat fingered your URL let me know that too.
Yes, that is a dinosaur playset. It's made out of sprigwood, some natural composite wood meant to be safe for kids. I'm not sure it's factually accurate that the little adventure dude has a 4x4, a fedora, and has made friends with some very happy looking dinosaurs (happy because their meals on wheels arrived?) But you have to admit the dinosaurs are adorable. You know you want the set, don't lie to me. Also, it's good inspiration for my personal mission of getting Jurassic Park released to blu-ray.


Students in Space

August means the start of my new class; how crap moves in space. Or maybe Orbital Dynamics would be the formal version. It's worth mentioning my professor looks (and sounds) like an older Pavel Chekov (aka Walter Koenig). He hasn't asked about any enemy wessels yet but it's only a matter of time.
I paid fantastically wonderful $15 for a new copy of the textbook. Some loud mouth student in front keeps complaining why we don't use this book, which looks to be somewhat basic on a lot of things but also not go into as much detail on orbit-specific topics. Not to mention it's $75 through Amazon and probably would be $100 through the bookstore. Same loud mouth student keeps interrupting the professor to "correct" him on the way he is explaining things, and has questioned equations from the book. Only after an extremely polite explanation from the professor does he finally admit, very loudly and to the rest of the class, that he was wrong. Like I listened to his post-class student-led "i like the sound of my own voice" discussions anyways. Apparently he learned from the other book, and I understand the difficulty of learning the same topics but from a different book and/or professor and having to learn things in a different way than you did the first time. It can be very frustrating. You want to go back and consult your old book and nestle in the safety of its familiarity.
But the tone of arrogance in correcting a professor with likely decades of experience in not only learning these topics but teaching them multiple times is about ready to knock me over. It's not that I think professors are infallible, and if there's an error on the board I think someone should point it out. But to question the method teaching something that you have likely never learned in full before, and you are an undergrad, and you have never taught before, simply blows my mind. I'm waffling between saying something polite about how his questions interrupt my ability to learn and asking him to save "discussion section" questions for the professor's office hours, or the more satisfying alternative of throwing paper rockets at him and asking him if he's majoring in douchebaggery or suggest that if he knows the material so well he doesn't need to take the class and ruin the experience for the rest of us. Every time I'm in class with an irritating student I tell myself that the one time I decide to say something will probably be the one student I have to work with on a senior project, so I'm trying to behave and say nothing at all. But it's really difficult.


Career Satisfaction

Jessica Stillman on Entry-Level Rebel at BNet wrote this brief but poignant article I really like: Top Myths About Passion and Career Busted. Here's my favorite part:
Myth 2: 'Following your passion' is doing work that has meaning instead of being a mindless worker ant. Reality: All work has meaning – even the boring stuff. Stop approaching passion as if it were something that you can "find," like the perfect lifestyle accessory, or something you "do," like saving the world. Start thinking of passion as a way of being a quality you can and must cultivate. When it comes to our work, we choose to be passionate. Or not. We choose to be actively engaged. Or not. We choose to be conscientious. Or not. We choose to treat customers and colleagues with courtesy and consideration. Or not. We choose to give more than is expected. Or not. We choose to see ourselves as part of the big picture. Or not.
I wish I could print it out and hand it to everyone who thinks only if they didn't have to work for a living they could be doing their passion. Or all the young kids striving for that perfect career that articulates their passion, afraid to get a degree, or take a job, in anything less. I've always been of the opinion that we as humans, especially in a middle class "knowledge economy", can be happy doing a lot of things. Yes there are a lot of "boring" office jobs out there, but very often you can find your own satisfaction in that job. And your job does not define you. It's never going to be perfect. If it's too draining, and you no longer derive passion from it, but don't have the means to quit your job and walk across the US for a year then go ahead and seek that passion after work. Put your time and your energy towards the things that make you happy, whether that is your family, your friends, your car project, your cats, your painting, your reality tv watching, whatever. I don't mean to suggest we should all be hedonists, just that we're all in control (somewhat) over our own lives. We have the ability to change how we react to things and change our expectations. Maybe our expectations for our careers are just too high these days.
I look to Dr. McCoy for my inspiration. He never even bothered to fully understand the details of the Vulcan anatomy, wasn't afraid to tell people, and had no qualms about drinking Saurian brandy on the slow days. Maybe we could all learn how to relax a little and learn what's really important to us. I'm not, however, condoning drinking on the job. I swear. Even if it is really good Saurian brandy.


Great Risk, Great Responsibility

Almost twelve years ago NASA launched the Deep Space 1 Probe. The first interplanetary device to demonstrate successful ion propulsion in space. Ion engines were by no means new. In fact, they are the given explanation for how the Star Trek shuttlecraft are powered in the original series. The idea is to use electric power to accelerate ions, something only possible in an engine in the vacuum of space. What results is a much higher specific impulse, a measure used to define the efficiency of chemical propelled rockets. The more impulse per mass of propellant used, the more efficient the propulsion.
The ion propulsion system is what specifically gave DS1 its efficiency, allowing it to travel at the same speed for about half the mass of conventional space propulsion. However, its launch was not without problems. On board it carried a multitude of different payload devices, most of which had never been tested in space. The engine also failed soon after it first started though they were able to restart it successfully and the engine continued thrust for almost two years.
As someone who has dealt with aircraft payload devices as well as engine hiccups its hard to imagine what this is like. Of course you do as much software simulation and ground testing as possible, but if the conditions at high altitude are different enough from those at ground, I'm sure there's magnitudes of difference between ground and lab testing versus space. Then how do you troubleshoot? There are some serious advantages to being able to take pieces of your hardware and inspect them or replace them. The advantages of being able to look everything over visually, then pull things apart. Your satellite likely doesn't even have an arm or anything you could use on itself. At least a deep sea robot device you could potentially get it to surface in order to work on it, but your satellite or space probe is never coming back.
Seems like the pure basics of exploration. Before humans went out in ships or on trade missions early tribes moved and explored mostly when they needed to migrate. When food or resources were scarce they journied on, not knowing what lay ahead only to find new places to survive, how they theorize Easter Island was originally settled. Technology gives us the advantage of not risking human life in many of these endeavors, but the payoff is still enormous.
Since DS1 numerous other devices have employed ion propulsion in space. It will be interesting to see how far this technology will take us; physically, and to what limits of our dreams.


Divisive Recession

If you could read Kirk's mind, he'd be saying Yes Charlie, that's a girl. Right after Charlie (ST:TOS Episode 2 Charlie X), a raging-hormonal adolescent, sees a girl for the first time, and Kirk just smiles. But if you had to pick from his quotes maybe it would be this one; Worlds may change, galaxies disintegrate, but a woman always remains a woman (ST:TOS The Conscience of the King).
CNNMoney has this article on the effects of the recession: women more optimistic than men about finances. Maybe it really should say men more pessimistic than women. But you know, clearly men are the norm. As for explanation they throw aside a quote from a professional and cite this paper with their title of the unemployment rate for men has risen faster than for women.

Charts in that paper show that overall recessions have affected men more clearly than women. Men's unemployment peaks at much higher levels.

But then this previous graph shows you how men have consistently been more than the majority in the workplace for thirty years now.

It seems logical to me that if men are the "norm" and more than the majority in the workplace, their jobs would be the most effected by economic downturns. Women, who are less likely to be employed period, are still a subset of the employment population. It also seems likely to me that since the unemployment rate affects only those who are "actively looking for work" during the first x months of their unemployment, it might not include women who couldn't get a job and decided to stay at home, watch the kids, and wait out the downturn. Since men don't stay at home and watch the kids, even when they lose their jobs, they're probably overrepresented in the government's unemployment numbers. But framing the story this way lets angry men blame women for still being employed. Even though, I don't see too many men lining up to be secretaries or social workers or teachers. Sort of like blaming immigrants for taking all our fruit picking jobs when there's an obvious lack of citizens who would like employment in the migrant farm industry. That's why I love this site, Take Our Jobs: it raises the issue of how much of our nation's food supply is picked/grown/cultivated by undocumented workers who can not get citizenship. This site connects unemployed citizens who would like to work in this industry to jobs. I wonder how much interest it's getting. I'm going to bet not a lot.

Go to college, or don't, what do I care

Some hippie from Daily Finance who clearly needs a haircut gives us seven reasons not to send your kids to college. He's clearly one of those guys who buys a shitty netbook because it's a "better value" and fails to grasp how life is about more than making pound for pound assessments of what things are worth. Actually, his analysis reminds me of this hilarious post on Hyperbole and a Half wherein the author recalls trying to get herself as many dinky, plastic toys as possible every christmas thinking quantity would surely overcome quality. Go read and laugh.
He first states that a college degree generally pays $800,000 more over a career than just a high school degree. He then postulates how if he had put the "$200,000" he would have spent per child on college costs into some muni bonds for 50 years he'd have $850k at the end. First of all, don't send your kid to a $200k a year college. It's really not necessary. There are a number of fine public institutions, some of which are shockingly free for in state residents, as well as other options like starting at a community college. Or the obvious, "a college degree" doesn't necessarily mean a four year degree. Send you kid to the nursing program at a local community college, or to the airframe and powerplant mechanic program. I live in an especially college-dense town, so it's true options open to my neighbors might not be open to everyone, but the point is there are a lot of options out there. And if parents were actually capable of saving $200k for their kids' college to begin with, a secure retirement is probably the least of their worries. Most kids will be saddled with student loan debt their parents decided was a good idea because people like this guy only know of one "college experience" even if he's telling you not to bother.
He also suggests giving your kids money to "start five businesses" once they graduate high school. I wonder what kind of experience they'll have undergone in our fabulous public high school system to be ready to start a successful business. I wonder why some people might think colleges are good at teaching these skills.
But let's pretend he invested his kids' tuition money, and then just handed it to them when they graduated so they'd be financially better off. Has the kid learned something from that? True they can go get a job and learn from real life experience, but the addition of x dollars to their lives does not make them wiser, better, more compassionate, or more innovative people. CNNMoney also has this gallery, college degrees that don't pay. I do think money is necessary for some level of happiness. And I do think we poorly pay the pillars of our community: our police, teachers, firefighters, social workers, low level municipal employees. But given how satisfied these people are in their low paying careers I think we can understand it's not all about hte money. That it's possible to be a public school teacher and be satisfied in what you do. That you don't need to be patronized by some Wall St douchebag that you didn't choose the six digit career because you were stupid or just don't realize money is the secret answer to everything. It's a problem in our society that we don't value soft skills so much as we value turning an x dollar investment into an x*1.03 dollar investment. Anyone careful can make money from money. Not everyone is capable of raising, nurturing and supporting the next generation of our community and making our cities and homes better places and incrementally our society a better place.


Visualizing Touch

The Utah Science Center, The Leonardo, has quite a few interesting exhibitions for kids. One of them uses surface pressure mapping sensors and technology developed by SensorPod (that's where the photo comes from). SensorPod's site shows you all the applications they use these sensors for but I like the idea that they've taken something tactile such as pressure and exported it into a graphically appealing visual medium. Check out the video of the exhibit at the museum.


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."
Then when you pay the bill it tells you "please print this receipt for your records."