Posts Tagged ‘Engineering

14
Nov
10

Settle It Therefore In Your Hearts

5 And as some spake of the temple, how it was adorned with goodly stones and gifts, he said,

6 As for these things which ye behold, the days will come,
in the which there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.

7 And they asked him, saying, Master, but when shall these things be?
and what sign will there be when these things shall come to pass?

8 And he said, Take heed that ye be not deceived: for many shall come in my name,
saying, I am Christ; and the time draweth near: go ye not therefore after them.

9 But when ye shall hear of wars and commotions, be not terrified:
for these things must first come to pass; but the end is not by and by.

10 Then said he unto them, Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom:

11 And great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences;
and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven.

12 But before all these, they shall lay their hands on you,
and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues, and into prisons,
being brought before kings and rulers for my name’s sake.

13 And it shall turn to you for a testimony.

14 Settle it therefore in your hearts, not to meditate before what ye shall answer:

15 For I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist.

16 And ye shall be betrayed both by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolks, and friends;
and some of you shall they cause to be put to death.

17 And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake.

18 But there shall not an hair of your head perish.

19 In your patience possess ye your souls.

Pastor Eisenhauer spoke to us today about this passage, which quotes the Christian God Incarnate. I have heard many sermons and comments about it in my decades of attention to the Christian Scripture.

There are certain themes that are frequently used. It has certainly been popular throughout my lifetime to emphasize Verse 12, regarding persecution. During my re-awakening as a Christian, during college, I was introduced to Russia for Christ. The persecution of all religions was (and is) a fixture of communist regimes, among others. There have been, and are, many organizations, such as Russia for Christ, which are concerned with religious persecution.

Persecutions and wars and natural disasters have been cited nearly continuously as evidence that the ‘End Times‘ are very close. The cautionary words of Verse 9 have been frequently ignored, even to the point of self-styled Prophets naming Anti-Christs and predicting sequences of events to come, even with dates certain. There are some who believe that their actions can speed events of Biblical Prophesy. Others cling to Verse 17, “ye shall be hated” to justify either simple obnoxiousness or religious sociopathy. Such selective adherence to the scriptures is the most foolish of devotions.

Prediction is most often the realm of science and Engineering. The predictions inherent in a scientific hypothesis are the means by which it may be tested, possibly falsified (the most glorious event in science!), and sometimes found to be worthy of trust as a practicable theory.

Engineering is the most explicit use of prediction. Engineering is a discipline which applies scientific theory at its most predictable level. Engineering work must be correct to a high probability, for lives, property, and time are often at risk.

This passage from the Book of Luke exemplifies Christianity’s valid avoidance of specific prediction. It instead emphasizes continuity of faith – integrity, patience, and trust.

Despite a plethora of commentary on this passage, I have never heard or read (not that I have read scholarly commentaries, which tend to be thorough) an exposition of Verses 13-15. I doubt that I ever will. The testimonies that I have heard and read are not consistent with Verses 14-15. Those testimonies have been dissapointing for being consistently practiced, repetitious, and uninspired. They have generally exhibited a reliance upon tradition and a self-pitying, complaining style. This has been a major factor in my disaffection with Christianity as it is practiced. Complaining is MY job, a blogger’s work. It is not the work directed by Jesus of Nazareth.

In your patience possess ye your souls.

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25
May
10

When Management Can’t Manage

It is guaranteed that Management will manage – anything they do can be regarded as ‘managing’. How they manage, and what results from that, are highly variable and uncertain.

There is no way that an outside observer can say, given a particular situation, how a company’s Management will handle it. Without specific foreknowledge of the personnel & practices of Management at that company, no standard of conduct can be applied. This contrasts greatly with the practices of other professions. Medical personnel have, for many situations (including ’emergencies’, which are routine for them), protocols for handling the situations. Engineers, especially for disciplines that depend upon public funding, have practices and formal methods which may be expected to be applied to an arbitrary scenario.

The history of man-made disasters is littered with a detritus that illustrates these points. I do not have the data for a statistical analysis to verify what I believe to be true. I do have numerous anecdotes, from personal experience and from highly-publicized incidents, which have a consistent pattern.

An excellent example is available from the Shuttle Challenger ‘accident’ in 1986. The shuttle, with a crew that included the first participant (a civilian) from the “Teacher in Space Project“, exploded during the ascent after launch.

Shuttle booster engines were solid-rocket boosters (SRBs) which were made in segments. The segments had, at their joints, elastomer O-rings to provide a seal against the hot, high-pressure gases of the SRB. Launches in cold weather had a temperature limit – the O-rings stiffened with cold, and could not provide a seal.

Earlier shuttle launches in cold weather (and within temperature limits) led to Management questioning of Engineering. They asked, in essence, ‘Hey, the O-rings were fine at 6 degrees Centigrade. They’ll do just fine a tad lower, won’t they?’ Since that ‘tad lower’ was not really beyond limits, Engineers conceded the point. Subsequent launches, which managed to broach the limits, brought more insistent appeals from Management: ‘Hey, we flew with no problems 1.5 degrees under limit, so maybe you guys are being too cautious’.

It went on like this until Challenger’s last launch. Engineer Roger Boisjoly did his damnedest to intercede with Management when he learned that launch conditions were the coldest ever. He was over-ruled, and disaster followed.

The fallacy which led Management to cause the disaster is ‘confirmation bias‘. It may have also involved the psychology revealed in the fascinating diversion known as ‘Auctioning a Dollar Bill’. When someone gets around to bidding 99 cents, someone must bid $1 – break even. And at that point, some damn fool will tell himself, ‘It’ll only cost me a penny, and I’ll win!‘. That opens the floodgates, and the dollar bill may find a new, proud, incredibly foolish owner for $5, $10, $50, or more.

A subsequent disaster investigation included Prof. Feynman‘s minority view: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

At this writing, we watch the daily horror of oil erupting from a broken well pipe, 1 mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. This economic and environmental disaster will result in reams of analysis and commentary. I offer an anticipatory viewpoint.

There is a lot of excellent Engineering in oil & gas drilling. The BP Deepwater Horizon originally set a ‘blowout preventer’ which is designed to handle ‘worst-case’ scenarios. It has a shear mechanism that is supposed to, either by operator action or by its own backup ‘dead man’s switch‘, cut the well pipe and close it. It failed to do so. It should not have been one device. Blowout preventers are sometimes stacked, providing different mechanisms to shut off a well. They may be stacked with other safety devices. It would have certainly been as prudent to do so for an extremely inaccessible wellhead, as for wellheads in less extreme locations.

An Engineer looking at the situation prior to drilling would do a risk-benefit analysis. What are the risks to equip the well various ways? What are the benefits? Equipping a well with a single blow-out preventer (albeit a version with differing and redundant activation mechanisms) carries a different risk than having redundant blow-out preventers. The benefit of redundancy? A greatly reduced chance of environmental catastrophe.

A Manager would also do a risk-benefit analysis. The risks of having redundant blow-out preventers are clear: higher initial cost, delayed initial oil production, and higher maintenance costs. The benefit is less clear, because to a Manager, a 1-in-1000 chance of disaster is, for that single well, equivalent to zero. I am confident that BP Managers have been saying ‘We couldn’t have anticipated having a huge floating rig explode and sink, severing all control of the blow-out preventer. We chose the most prudent and fiscally sound configuration possible.’

I do wonder if any BP Managers have been considering ‘How much is this costing BP in loss of production, clean-up costs, and lawsuits compared to a more reliable wellhead configuration?

My first assignment for ‘Big E‘, a company which is mostly known for making batteries, was as the first of two support Engineers on one of the two most important joint ventures in all of Big E. By ‘all’, I mean the entire corporation, which then included about 5 other divisions.

The joint venture was for the development and production of a battery charger. This was not, according to the cautious information proffered during my interview, a routine battery charger. It was a Marvel. It could charge tiny batteries extremely rapidly without heating or degrading them. The technology was being provided by the joint venture Partner, a European person of significant eccentricity. He even had a patent.

At 8:00 sharp on the first day with my assignment, I was given the confidential portfolio. It was about 3/4 inch thick. I scanned its somewhat disorganized contents for relevant material, and settled upon The Patent. I did not find a ‘marvel’.

What I did find was comparable to the following. Gardeners sometimes use fertilizer dispensers in-line with a water hose. The dispenser is typically positioned between the hose end and the nozzle. If positioned between the faucet and the hose, the fertilizer would be delivered identically.

The Patent was for a electronic equivalent of that example. A conventional and well-known electronic circuit was patented for having a component in an atypical, but equivalent, position. (The Patent Examiner, we learned months later, had awarded the patent on precisely that narrow basis and not upon any other novelty.) It was a fertilizer delivery device.

An hour with this patent and some supporting documents convinced me that the marvel was bogus. I spent another two hours searching the portfolio to insure that I hadn’t missed some ‘secret sauce’. I had not.

I met with the Boss for a review after lunch. After reviewing his understanding of the situation, and determining that he had nothing surprising to add, I explained the situation. It was something of a revelation to him, although he did have some bewilderment. After all, he had traveled to Europe and had held a tiny battery in his hand while it was charged extremely rapidly without heating – or so it seemed at the time.

The next year & a half was dictated by Corporate Management according to a Stage-Gate Process. A Stage of development was followed periodically by a review and a determination whether to proceed – the Gate. The Stages were pre-planned as if the Project was known to be valid and worthwhile. The Stage-Gate Process served to implement confirmation.

The blatant reality that the project had no technical basis in fact was not a consideration. I was repeatedly assured that later Stages would test the real capabilities of the project. Corporate Management, deeply committed to a pig-in-a-poke that they had loudly and publicly bragged about at its inception, acted as if the puny Engineer’s objections would disappear as each Stage successfully passed its Gate.

No intervening incident could affect their resolute commitment to the Project. A massive fire in a prototype was explained away by the joint venture Partner, who had direct access to Corporate Management both in the offices of Big E and in numerous cocktail lounges.

A Stage, just short of final financial commitment and contractual consummation of the joint venture, arrived to actually test whether the project had a functional, practical, marketable, manufacturable, and profitable product. It did not. The joint venture Partner was a bit delusional about Engineering, for which he was not trained or knowledgeable, so the project was deficient in even routine Engineering aspects.

The second major joint venture was also problematic, and the Corporate Management, which was so easily convinced that they could pick winners, was convinced to find other employment.

I was rewarded, at the next salary review, with the information that one of those departed Corporate Managers had, before he left, ordered my annual salary adjustment cut by 1/3. I guess that settles the question of ‘Who’s to blame?’, huh?

The failings of Engineering are usually exceptions which confirm my assertions. The famous Verrazano Narrows bridge collapse was due to faulty Engineering. A previously unfamiliar phenomenon – vortex generation in winds – combined with natural vibration modes of the bridge to allow a high wind to shake the bridge to bits.

How many bridges since have failed due to ‘resonance phenomena’? Zero.

How many Managers use the same delusional thinking and make the same mistakes as their predecessors? That, unfortunately, is as common as tar balls on a Louisiana beach.

This post is dedicated to Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Teacher in Space,
and Shuttle Challenger crew Francis “Dick” Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison Onizuka,
Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, and Gregory Jarvis.

27
Mar
10

Why I Have Always Wanted To Be A Teacher

One of my earliest friends at Caltech, Dr. K, gave me some excellent advice. After I described some of my twisted history from Caltech, he told me that I needed to write an essay on Why I Have Always Wanted To Be A Teacher. Being the open-minded procrastinator that I am, his advice languished on my frontal lobes for months. You may now witness my active response to his friendly and expert advice.

I am the son of a man who loved Science. Dad had an inquisitive and creative mind. Recreation and work were intertwined in his mind, for no recreation could go unstudied, and no job could escape at least a small exploitation for pleasure. It was unavoidable that I would be introduced to Great Wonders, by reading the perpetual supply of National Geographic magazines, by watching the great and beloved ‘Mr. Wizard‘, Don Herbert, or by faithfully reading The Amateur Scientist in ‘Scientific American‘ every month.

I have always loved Science and found joy in discovering nature.

School did not provide the stimulating experiences that I had at home. My classroom experiences were generally frustrating, especially for being a child who tried hard to behave well and as expected while other kids disrupted class.

I can make a difference in students’ experiences as a Teacher.

Several Teachers, in a few special moments that demonstrated their love for others and their ability to teach more than an academic subject, touched my life. My 4th-grade Teacher gave me a simple reassurance, something no other Teacher had devoted one minute to, that saved me from a debilitating personal shame. My 8th-grade Journalism Teacher, in a triumph of practicality over dogmatic control, used my sotto voce whisperings to admonish noisy classmates on the proper way to talk in class. My Senior English Teacher came to my defense when classmates protested my use of a word that they did not know. They complained about the ‘egghead’ vocabulary that ‘no one’ could know the meaning of. She told them that they were the ones who needed correction, and that they should take the opportunity to learn. She told them that I would not have used a word without knowing its meaning. Then, she trusted me enough to put me on the spot and asked me to define the word I had used.

My classroom experiences occasionally included valuable contributions to my life from Teachers.
I want to be like them.

My excellent public-school performance, dandy SAT scores, and guidance by Dad in writing college applications led me to attend the California Institute of Technology – Caltech. This was big-league stuff, a very selective admission to a great incubator of Scientists. I wanted to be a great Physicist. I discovered, through difficulties in college, that I did not yet have the discipline needed to achieve significant things in Science. I also was experiencing a period of spiritual growth, which gave me a heightened concern for the education of the general population, as compared to the education which advanced students experienced. I became determined to contribute to the advancement of Science understanding for the great majority of students who would not become Scientists.

Science research does not need me. Science education needs me.

Caltech did not appreciate my newly-asserted attitude. Caltech liked (oh – I checked: they still do) to quote Theodore Roosevelt, who, in an address at the Throop Institute (later Caltech) on March 21, 1911, called for “the one-hundredth man … with … cultural scientific training …”. They actually take that to mean Science first, culture second. That is fine, but it did not match my goals. When my academic struggles re-occurred, I had the privilege of meeting with the Academic Review Board. They were dis-impressed by my goal to teach, and I was offered an explicit and involuntary opportunity to study elsewhere.

Elsewhere was home. I returned to Springfield, attended MSU (then SMSU), and did what I could to end the agony of college. That meant taking the path of least resistance – a Physics degree. It also meant that, with a newly-acquired fiance, I did not have vast credentials to acquire the necessary employment to provide for The Kids’ Mom. I finagled a job as Test Equipment Technician at the Zenith TV factory. This evolved, in successive steps on the path of least resistance, into an Engineering career.

It was an accident of my life’s history that I did not start my career as a teacher.

The years as an Engineer were not devoid of contact with teaching. The Kids’ Mom was a Teacher (and a mighty good one). I provided occasional help for her preparation for Math and Science classes. Also, as occasionally happened in college, someone (often a co-worker) would need tutoring.

Tutoring, and helping a little with class prep, were too-infrequent
and eagerly-sought opportunities to teach.

Tutoring was strangely unsatisfying. No student ever needed to be tutored twice. Typically, they would seek tutoring while struggling with C‘s and D‘s. After a tutoring session, their test scores would raise by two or three grades – to A‘s and B‘s. They felt comfortable with the material and could handle it without further help.

I can accomplish the ultimate goal of teaching: teaching students to teach themselves.

One of the terminal conversations that I had with my last Engineering boss included a very brief discussion of mentoring. I suggested that my skills and experience were being misused, and that I could, as a minor element of my work, convey my skills and experience to other Engineers. That suggestion was not received favorably. The expedient of assigning me to plug some leak in the dike was judged to be necessary and a 100% full-time commitment.

The biggest disappointment from my Engineering career is that my employers placed no value on mentoring, and refused to devote resources to perpetuating experience and knowledge.

The Little Red-haired Girl has been amazingly supportive, despite the equally amazing frustration of the situation, during my hiatus from employment. She has listened patiently while I re-examined the prospect of becoming a Teacher. She told me “Go for it“. I love her for that. I also love her for being a Teacher – a person who was truly born to teach music. It makes me feel good to be close to such a fine Teacher.

It may not be a coincidence that both The Kids’ Mom and the Little Red-haired Girl are Teachers.

I have recently begun helping in several Middle School Science & Math classes for a few hours a week. It’s a good thing.

Today, Ms. C let me play Teacher. Her 6th-grade Science class got a short presentation on applications of quartz and other piezoelectric materials. It’s a big and noisy class (usually), but they were all quiet and pasted their eyes on me for 10 minutes! They eagerly asked interesting questions and they were interested in each other’s questions.

Today, I tutored a student, ‘Bob’. Bob has certain personal distractions that interfere with learning. I can see that there is progress despite the difficulty, and that my little academic assistance may make it a bit easier, some day, for Bob to overcome the distractions in life.

I have always wanted to be a Teacher because I can do it well, I can make a real difference, and I care about the people I teach.




♥ Help for Haiti ♥

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Basic Understanding

A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.
- Edward R. Murrow

Intellectual Property Notice

All original material Copyright James R. Stone 2010, except where specifically noted. Some images licensed under Creative Commons, or GNU Free Documentation License, or unlicensed and public domain.

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