Memorial Day 2013

When I looked down at stamps I purchased from the post office last year, I realized these four stamps succinctly summarized the American experience: Freedom, Liberty, Equality and Justice Forever.

USPS StampsLiving in America is one of the greatest privileges in the world on this Memorial Day like the others that have come before, we must recognize the price of a freedom comes at a high cost. Memorial Day is a federal holiday which falls on the last Monday of each May, origins of the holiday stem from the American Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who lost their lives during the war. Into the 20th century Memorial Day has been used to honor all Americans who have died while serving our country.

While diplomacy should always be the first course of action, sometime there is no alternative to warfare. In the Afghanistan War 2,226 US soldiers have been killed defending our country from a fundamentalist regime. We are lucky that we are isolated from much of the world’s problems: unrest in the middle-east, brutal dictators in Africa committing genocide, and totalitarian regimes.

It is not our politicians that provide this isolation but it’s our troops that allow us to live the way we do. This is why it is unfortunate that many of soldiers are not getting the help and support they need to re-enter civilian society. According to a study released by the Department of Veterans Affairs which examined suicides from 1999 to 2010 there were 22 deaths a day on average. Posttraumatic stress disorder also affects many veterans who persistently re-experience the traumatic events they encountered on the battle field, overwhelming their ability to cope.  Many veterans have been waiting to get government benefits in the form of compensation, medical benefits, and job assistance. It’s unacceptable our veterans have to wait so long to get help, thankfully veterans and military charities have stepped in to help where they can, but there is still more to be done.

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Rebuilding our infrastructure

I-35W Bridge
I-35W bridge collapse in Minnesota

Five years ago in 2008 the I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis suddenly collapsed and tragically 13 people were killed and injured 145. The bridge had previously been classified as structurally deficient and in need of repair. The incident led to a renewed focus to make our nation’s bridges safer. On Thursday a portion of the I-5 bridge in Mount Vernon, Washington collapsed submerging cars and people into the water, further highlighting the need for investment into our nation’s infrastructure.

A report from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) found that one in nine bridges in the U.S. is rated as structurally deficient.  The average age of bridges in the United States is 42 years old, while some bridges might last longer than others with retrofitting and repairs. Many bridges were not designed to handle the volume of traffic driven over them today and need to be replaced.

When I drive over a bridge I don’t want to wonder if the bridge I’m driving over is safe. Congress must put politics aside and approve funding to improve our nation’s infrastructure.  The good news is technology is coming to our aid, with monitoring systems being embedded into new bridges supplementing manual inspections by engineers. 

Understanding and Assessing Risk

America is a country built on risk. When settlers from England came to Jamestown in 1607 no one knew how it would turn out. In fact only 61 out of 500 colonists survived during the “great starvation” from 1609-1610. The risks were well known as several British colonies were failures and abandoned, yet people still continued to come to the New World in hopes of a better life.

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One of the primary goals of being an engineer is that you have to find ways to minimize risk, at the same you’re expected to innovative and solve challenging problems. At times these can be two conflicting goals. Can you be innovative and solve problems without taking major risks? Let’s look at IBM, a company inherently built on risks T.J. Watson, Sr., bet the entire company on building tabulating equipment when their was no market for tabulating equipment. But he saw a future need, and that need came when the Social Security Act of 1935 was passed, and IBM was the only company that had the necessary equipment. T.J. Watson, Jr also saw the future and bet the future of the company on computing and spent five billion dollars on building the revolutionary System/360 mainframe. If IBM stayed in a cautious mode and never branched in new emerging areas  IBM would not be the admired company it is today.

The way individuals approach risk can be divided into three categories risk averse, risk inclined and risk neutral. Risk averse individuals have a tendency to shy away from risk, risk inclined individuals are predisposed to taking risks, and risk neutral individuals lay somewhere between the two former categories.

We should ask ourselves larger questions about risks, how many risks should we take and why? A paper that was presented at the International Conference on System Science, titled, “Understand the Effect of Risk Aversion on Risk”, discusses the perils of being risk illiterate.  The paper makes a few key points, first if people are too risk averse then small incidents that have occurred will be overblown leading to hysteria and inflated importance. This occurs because some individuals don’t have the ability to perceive between small and large incidents. Consider the potential failure modes of a server, if one chip in an 8 core processor fails on a single node this does not take down the server, and it is unlikely to cause interruption and can be repaired. If the server were to lose power and take down the entire mainframe then it would be a major failure event. We must not be too careful by over-planning and over-training for specific events, instead we should be focused on determine what are acceptable level of risks for failure of systems at a variety of levels. Should we spend more time focusing on major events that could lead to system failure or should we spend time worrying about a cosmetic defect?

When I think about my own career I’m risk inclined as a young engineer, I think there’s no reason for me not to try to introduce innovative processes if it’s going to lead to improved quality and more efficient manufacturing. In my opinion settling for mediocrity is worse than failing and this sentiment that defines first-rate engineers, scientists, businessman, and investors.