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.

Image

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.

3D Printers Rapid Prototyping and Development for all

This evening, I attended a talk on three dimensional (3D) printing, held by the Vermont Makers a group that encourage projects that fuse together technology and art, by utilizing open source hardware, micro-controllers and other available resources.  3D printers are truly a disruptive technology (A Disruptive technology is a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen to describe a new technology that unexpectedly displaces an established technology), now you can print a variety of three dimensional objects instead of buying them. No longer does creating something truly innovative lie in the hands of the few. The printers work by adding layers of material to form different shapes, this is different from traditional machining where material is removed.

Image

Growing up I always hated when one part in a toy broke and you had to throw away the entire toy and buy a new one if you couldn’t fix it. Now you might not have to, pick up the part scan it in a 3D scanner, generate a CAD (computer automated design) layout, and start printing that part out and replaced your broken part.Eventually a manufacture might send you the CAD file to download and print your own replacement part for something under-warranty eliminating the need for a warehouse of parts and making you wait until the part arrives.

IMG_2922
An object being printed

As someone mentioned tonight this is maybe as close as we’re going to get to Star Trek’s object replicator a device that can create any object in a matter of seconds. I was pretty excited and decided to take up learning how to use some auto-cad software better so I can create my own parts, being an electrical engineer learning CAD wasn’t part of the standard fare.

A 3D Scanner
A 3D Scanner

References:

http://www.makerbot.com/
http://vermontmakers.org/
http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/disruptive-technology

It’s Star Trek

On my recent flight back from Sacramento, CA as we were taxiing to the runway the pilot came on the PA system as is customary for the traditional status update on expected take off-time, “Good evening from the flight deck (the cockpit) this is Captain Kirk we are 1  for take-off” I started chuckling and the lady next to me said you’re kidding right, “Captain Kirk like, the Enterprise?” I started thinking about how long I’ve watched Star Trek, my father watched the show during its initial run in the 1960s and then he watched the show in syndication when I was young and I watched it with him. Star Trek: The Original Series was created by Gene Roddenberry, which was centered around a starship called the Enterprise and its voyages exploring the alpha quadrant which is one forth of the milky way galaxy which includes Earth. According to the show the starship Enterprise works for the United Federation of Planets (UFP) which is an interstellar federal republic comprised of at least 1000 planets including Earth.

The enterprise belongs to Starfleet headquarter in the Earth city of San Francisco and is the exploratory, peacekeeping and defense arm of the UFP routinely travels on scientific missions to observe other civilizations that may or may not be inside the UFP. Roddenberry choose a multicultural cast to compose the crew, with members from Asian, White and African American, Russian, Vulcan (a federation planet), and Scottish backgrounds.

star_trek_the_original_series

This was rather forward looking for a show in the late part of the 1960s. Occasionally, more often than not the Enterprise finds itself coming into contact with an omnipotent being or a hostile race proving that even in the 24th century there is still aggression. While this is a small part of the dystopia, compared to most other science-fiction series Star Trek gets extremely close to portraying a utopian society.  On Earth in the 24th century money no longer exists, poverty was eliminated and common diseases were eradicated.

The show explored a lot of philosophical, ethical, moral, political, and social questions.

Some that come to mind:
– Should you let a civilization unaware of your presence go extinct because a star near their planet is about to explode?
– Should a sentient computer be forced to work for humans?
– Is doing what’s logical the same thing as doing what’s right?
– What makes one civilization superior to another?
– How do you conduct interstellar diplomacy?

In one of the most talked about episodes in the history of the series, “The City on the Edge of Forever”, Kirk and Spock must use the Guardian to prevent Doctor McCoy from changing history inadvertently.

A quick internet search on Star Trek and Philosophy returns a Georgetown University course titled: PHIL-180 Philosophy and Star Trek, which explores some of the philosophical questions raised by Star Trek.

As a scientist and engineer watching Star Trek is pretty cool, technology is used to solve problems and save lives, but at the same time we see the social implications of using technology in primitive civilizations and realizing that sometime technology is the problem (something I’m thinking about this month and will discuss at a later point). Perhaps the more intriguing parts of Star Trek is that fact that the scientist and explorers come front and center, the first real TV show to do so in an appealing manner. Many engineers, astronauts and were inspired by the show in the 1960s. After Star Trek: The Original Series, several other series followed it with fair success. In the most recent movies the emphasis has been on action not philosophy so in that regards Star Trek has lost its luster, but other science-fiction shows like the recent Battlestar Galactica (BSG), 2004 TV Series fills that gap, not to be confused with Boron Silicate Glass.

The famous 5 minute journey to the enterprise came in the first Star Trek Movie: The Motion Picture was prolonged as it was the re-emergence of Star Trek after almost a decade. Notice the shuttle craft flies over the top of the enterprise to see the letters, “USS Enterprise.” They pay homage to the scene once again in the 2009 Star Trek movie with Kirk and McCoy being flow to the enterprise via shuttle-craft from a space dock. Next up Doctor Who.

The Boston Big Dig and the Problems with Complex Projects

Big infrastructure projects run into a lot of roadblocks primarily because of unforeseen technical and financial challenges and poor project management, but that does not mean we should not try and tackle them sometime. Any major project that comes to mind, the Space Shuttle, the James Webb Telescope or the Channel Tunnel, was faced with these aforementioned problems. One example that I’d like to focus on is the Boston Big Dig the most complex highway project ever undertaken in the United States has served its purpose to alleviate an eyesore from Boston and reduce traffic congestion, but the project was plagued by massive budget overruns, missed deadlines and corruption. Initially budgeted for 2.8 billion dollars, the budget for the project swelled to 14.6 billion, and some estimates place the final cost at 22 billion dollars.

Image

Before the “Big Dig” the central artery (I-93) existed as a raised expressway highway running north-south through the center of Boston, in 1959 the highway carried 75,000 vehicles a day by the 1990s that number grew to almost 190,000. As the number of vehicles would only increase something needed to be done, then Secretary of Transportation Frederick Salvucci and Bill Reynolds both MIT graduates proposed moving the entire expressway underground. Salvucci believed that putting the highway underground would reconnect downtown to the waterfront and increase the amount of green space in the city.

The project consisted of several segments:

  1. The Ted Williams Tunnel a 1.6 mile tunnel beneath Boston Harbor which was completed on time and on schedule, connects South Boston to Logan Airport
  2. The I-90 Extension entailed bringing the Massachusetts Turnpike underneath the Fort Point Channel and South Boston before connecting with the Ted Williams Tunnel
  3. The Thomas P. O’Neill (Former Democratic Speaker of the House who championed the project) a 1.5 mile tunnel that connects I-93 Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge
  4. The Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge replaced a six lane double-decker bridge (the bridge is now an ionic part of the Boston skyline)
  5. The Storrow Drive Connector Tunnel and Bridge and carries traffic to and from the famed Storrow Drive

Image

During construction many engineering challenges posed a challenge such as building the tunnel without effecting the structural of the above roadway. The tunnel also had leaking issues due to subcontractors failing to remove gravel and other debris before concrete was poured. After the project was finished in December 2007 it was discovered that substandard materials were used that led to a fatal ceiling collapse and it has been recently revealed that the wrong material had been used for light fixtures leading to galvanic corrosion.

From my personal experience as an engineer, I can tell you few products are delivered on time which is why release dates are closely guarded secrets. Computer models guide engineers and planners, but they cannot predict how things will behave once construction or assembly starts with real materials. While cost is something we work toward reducing, managing cost is not up to the engineer, that’s up to the project manager and the financial analysts in fact there have been numerous occasions where as an engineer, I’ve stated the line to a client, “I cannot discuss cost, I’m not authorized to do so.” Part of the problem with defining budget and controlling costs is that many large projects are often under-priced to make them attractable to another party, which is what happened in the case of the Big Dig. Sometime certain costs can’t be taken into account; numerous unusual problems appeared during construction, which is very similar to the electronics industry where unusual problems appear due to uncharted technical territory.  That being said the formula for a project is more complicated such that Y=Output and X= # known variables, X1…Xn, but the problem is there are several unknown variables Z1…Zn that will eventually slow down a major project.

The key problems in the Big Dig seem to be accountability, lack of planning for contingencies and oversight, the use of so many contractors made it hard to account for the types of materials used and assuring the same quality of work by each contractor.

Image

Personally, I think the Big Dig has served its purpose as innovative transportation project and establishing Boston as a world-class city with world class infrastructure. Every time, I drive toward Boston I know that I’m approaching my destination once the Zakim bridge is in view, and then I descend into the tunnel and look for my exit. I enjoy walking on parts of the Rose Kennedy Greenway where the previous raised expressway existed.

Image

Some Articles on the Big Dig:

  1. http://www.nasa.gov/offices/oce/appel/ask/issues/39/39s_big_dig.html
  2. https://courses.cit.cornell.edu/crp384/2009reports/Vernick_New%20Green%20Spae%20for%20Boston.pdf
  3. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/transportation/july-dec08/bigdig_10-24.html

Computer Security: The Ultimate Inside Trader

I went to a talk on computer security. A few interesting case studies were brought up by the lead engineer of the server access and virtualization group at Cisco. Two case studies stuck out to me.

Someone suspected that there was an issue between two electronic trading centers between Asia and the USA, he wouldn’t say exactly where in the US and Asia, or who their client was. Anyway, they did some research in fact they called in their physicists to calculate the curvature of the Earth between the two continents to figure out how fast the data transfer rate should be, then they had their EEs look at the transmission line characteristics. Initially the IT engineer for the trading company told them, that the transfer rate should be 1.5 * the speed of light.

Cisco Engineer: What do you mean that the transfer rate is 1.5 * the speed of light, that’s physically impossible, it defies the laws of physics.
IT engineer: Well, I guess we must have a very robust router.
CE: Your are an idiot.

Eventually, they found that the transactions between one of the servers was being delayed by milliseconds, the packets sent were being slowed down. So, they did some more research, turns out that data connection between the two continents were over a undersea cable (there are a lot of undersea data cables between continent to continent that’s how we transfer data usually, please see attachment). Sidenote: Investment advice buy land in Africa, where the cable interconnect is routed from Asia.

They did more research, and discovered a man-in-the-middle attack, someone actually got access to the undersea cable as it was routed through French Polyonesia in the Pacific Ocean. As a result, the person could intercept the data being transmitted, see what types of trades were being placed (all he needed was those millisecond delays) and have an algorithm to decide whether to buy or sell shares based on what types of trades were being executed. All I have to say for the criminals brilliant, but illegal.

Second thing, power supplies. We often think of computer security in terms of protecting the data inputs and outputs of the computer/system, but what about the power inputs? What happens when Vcc(the input voltage) is not equal to what it’s suppose to be weird stuff starts happening at the logic level. The system might spit out a incorrect calculation, or spill out too much info with over or under voltage. Basically, he said it was very hard to design power supplies that are intolerant to slight signal variations.

In high school physics and basic college electromagnetics, we learn that AC signals are sinusoidal, with some constant amplitude, and when you convert from AC to DC with the use of a transformer and bridge diode rectifier (I’ve attached an oversimplified circuit found on google), you get a constant DC output. As a power professor I had once pointed out, what a fairy tale. For one in real life power is outputted in three phases (not just 1 sinusoidal signal), and two as shown in the plot from wikipedia, you superposition all the waves, then rectify it, no way are you going to get a perfectly constant DC output. You get close, but not close enough. So in short he argued that any input voltage signal variation should be logged no matter how small.

Problems as Solutions

Technology moves at such a rapid pace as Gordon Moore postulated back in 1965 in his now famous paper, “Cramming more components onto integrated circuits,” the number of components in integrated circuits double roughly every 18 months. This pattern continues to drive the growth and diversification of the electronics industry. One of the primary questions on every technologists mind (including mine) is how can we continue to be innovative in such an environment that moves so rapidly. The question prompted me to read, “Where do Good Ideas come from,” by Steve Johnson.

Johnson does a good job explaining that most innovative ideas do not come from Eureka moments but rather are slow hunches that build up into substantive ideas over time. He also talks about how the Internet has also changed the pace of innovation where the traditional development of a product took 10 years and adoption took another 10 years. With the rise of APIs (Application Programming Interface) web development now only takes about 1 year and about 1 year for adoption due to the widespread available of an application almost immediately. When we examine websites that have seemingly pop-up overnight such as twitter and facebook both are using tools from a platform that already exist.

So the question is how do we technologists keep up? The short answer is to be innovative, well-read and make problems opportunities. What do I mean by making problems opportunities? At work I’m faced with new electrical and material science related problems arising from the unique integration of different polymers, metals, and films that are used to synthesize complex integrated circuits (or chips). Immediately, our first concern is of course figure how we fix the problem that is compromising the expected performance. In parallel, while trying to fix the problem at hand we might think about how this problem might actually be ideal in another scenario. This lateral thinking helps us generate new ideas and solutions that might be used in future applications.

Fall 2012-UVM Reinvention and Embracing Change

Today, I had the pleasure of attending the 2012 Convocation Ceremony signaling the start of a new academic year at the University of Vermont. I was happy to watch the class of 2016, all 2400+ students become new members of a 221 year old institution of learning. President-Elect Tom Sullivan and Board of Trustees Vice Chair Harry Chen offered some words of advice to the freshman class and the UVM community. Chen reminded the audience that whatever happened in our past is done and that we should stop trying to predict how we will do in the future, based on previous performance. He said, we have the opportunity to start-over with a clean slate and re-invent ourselves and encouraged us to remove the limits we place on ourselves.

I thought it was advice I needed to hear, sometime I have a tendency to forget that I should stop trying to place limits on myself and continue to embrace new challenges and continually keep learning new things and re-inventing myself. For these reasons I’ve certainly found over the years I enjoy being on a University campus because I like environments that allow the free exchange of ideas.

President Sullivan’s advice focused on using what we learning inside and outside the classroom to become better problem solvers and critical thinkers. He challenged us to question our assumptions, open ourselves to new ideas, and embrace people who are different from us. One of the reasons I became an engineer is because I like challenging assumptions and working on new out of the plane ideas. Unfortunately, I’ve found in my own engineering career that some engineers prefer to accept the status quo rather than question their own assumptions or the assumptions of their peers. I think this does a great disservice to the profession the moment we start accept things for what they are, is when we stop progressing. Embracing people who are different from you is very important even in an engineering context, perhaps certain solutions work for you, but those solutions may not work for other members of society. This is why we need to take culture into account when devise and implement new solutions.

Tomorrow, a new semester at UVM begins, another semester to learn something new and work on becoming a better problem solver and critical thinker. I look forward to accepting a new set of challenges.

Challenges of Engineering: Cost and Value

A course I took from Professor Bruce Vojak at the University of Illinois, emphasized the number one responsibility of an executive is to maximize value defined as: Value= $in-$out. However, I’ll add a corollary to this in order to accomplish this especially if you manage a high-tech portfolio. It is important that you employ engineers and technologists that are able to solve complex technical problems quickly, efficiently and cheaply. I find my own work at times particularly hard and engaging as I’ve realized that at times some technical solutions are unworkable in manufacturing due to cost and technology limitations. Part of being a good engineer is not just one that comes up with a solution but also making sure the solution can fit within fiscal constraints of your company or project.

As engineers sometimes we sometime like to be able to build a new castle from scratch (going along with my European analogies) rather than renovation an existing one and suiting it to a new purpose, much like most European monarchs. And sometime that’s the challenge we face as engineers to re-work things when a number of details are out of our controls.