Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cracking the Whip

Last fall I went on a mission trip to the other end of the state with a group of twenty or thirty people. We traveled in a convoy of about six or seven cars. On the way back I was driving at the rear of the convoy, and I noticed that I was frequently falling behind and having to drive ten or fifteen mph over the speed limit to catch up. At one point, the car in front of me was pulled over for speeding while trying to catch up with the preceding car, and later in the trip a tire on my car blew out in the same situation. I wasn't happy.

Being a good engineer, I put my mind to the problem to figure out why it was happening. The lead car driver swore he wasn't speeding, but the cars in the back definitely were.

The phenomenon involved is similar to cracking a whip. If the second car falls behind at all, it will have to speed up slightly to catch up with the leading car. It will start pulling ahead of the third car, which will then have to speed up even more to catch the second car. As this pattern is repeated down line, the cars in the back suddenly find themselves falling behind and having to go much faster than the average speed of the convoy in order to close the distance. It's an emergent behavior of the convoy system as individual drivers try to make decisions about driving while following the rules of the convoy :"keep the car in front of you in sight."

If the whip-cracking phenomenon is a result of the convoy rules, it can be ameliorated by changing the rules. I propose two techniques for solving the problem: an elegant solution and a practical solution.

The Elegant Solution:
Subtract half the number of cars in the convoy from the speed limit. The resulting number is the maximum speed of the leading car. Each subsequent car is allowed to drive 1 unit (mph or kph) faster than the car preceding it. If all cars follow their speed limits under all but the most extreme circumstances, each car will be able to catch up with the car in front of it (albeit slowly) while keeping the maximum speed of the last car within a reasonable range of the legal speed limit.
A convoy of 10 cars is driving on an interstate with a legal speed limit of 70 mph. The lead car drives no faster than 65, car 2 66, car 3 67, and so on so that the 10th car drives no faster than 75. The average speed of the convoy is 65 mph, and as any car falls behind they can catch up with the car ahead of them by driving 1 mph faster.

The Practical Solution:
Use cruise control! If any cars do not have cruise control, put them at the back of the convoy. Emphasize strongly to all drivers that they should set cruise control at the legal speed limit and LEAVE IT ALONE!

I haven't tested either of these methods yet, but I intend to in a few weeks as I travel with another convoy.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mix-and-Match Careers, or How to Find Work in the New Economy

Richard Florida has been writing for The Atlantic for at least several months now (I started reading in April or May, so I can't reference anything earlier) about his ideas: the Creative Class and its influence on cities and regions in the new economy, and how the new economy will replace the old. He's got a lot of interesting ideas; you should read a sampling of his articles. His latest is about projected job growth in metro regions across the nation, correlating projections to a few characteristics of the regions. The highest R^2 value (strongest correlation) he finds is for the inverse relationship between projected job growth and percentage of residents in the "working class."

"This suggests that the structural forces that are reshaping the U.S. economy from an industrial to a more idea, knowledge, and human capital driven post-industrial economic system will continue to deepen. "

If you've read anything by Florida, this is no news. Consider it required background for the rest of this post. The recession didn't usher in the knowledge economy, but it is striking a death blow to the product economy.

Another recent article from The Atlantic, this one by Derek Thompson, enumerates four interrelated crises that are keeping unemployment at a 50+ year high. Point II is that businesses, uncertain about their economics future, are unwilling to commit to hiring new full-time employees, so they make up their labor shortage with contract work, consultants and part-timers. The result is that contract work is in less of a shortage than full-time, salaried positions. Anecdotally, I've heard my brother has been turning away web design contracts lately because he has enough work.

I don't expect this trend to reverse when the economy picks back up. Companies needing creative workers could probably actually benefit from a high employee turnover, because it would bring in a steady stream of fresh ideas. Contracting out work instead of hiring full time employees would give companies an advantage of being able to change the composition of their workforce quickly and easily by hiring different contractors. If an online service needs designers and developers at the beginning, content creators and support staff after launch, and more developers to expand, they don't have to hire and lay off in cycles. Instead they can just contract out everything. Thompson had actually written about this trend several months ago, so go read his article on the rise of part-timers for more explanation.

As Thompson points out in that older article, the idea of accepting various contracts instead of a full-time career can be appealing to twenty-somethings. I see it as imperative that college students and recent grads, or anyone else starting a career anytime soon, give up on the idea of finding fulfillment in a 9-5 job with a salary and benefits. You may be able to find one of those if you search enough antique stores, but they are unlikely to give the creative class the experience that we seek. In the words of Aesop Rock, "we the American working population hate the nine to five day in, day out when we'd rather be supporting ourselves by being paid to perfect the pastimes that we have harbored based solely on the fact that it makes us smile if it sounds dope." We don't want a career, we want a life.

I expect that to find success in the new economy, creative workers will need to adopt an entrepreneurial spirit and treat themselves as a one-person company selling a service: their own skills. This approach will give creatives the opportunity to apply their creativity to a variety of problems, limited only by their own ability to market themselves. If you can convince a client that you are qualified to do the work, you can do whatever work you want. This mix-and-match approach is very appealing to me, and I expect it is appealing to many of my creative friends who have no idea which sort of "career" they should look for because they are skilled at and interested in so many different things. Another free anecdote: My wife exemplifies this crippling diversity of skills; her blog is about the five careers she wished she could follow.

Creatives, develop your skills. Discover how they can be used to benefit others, because the whole point of this thing we call a "job" is to allow others to support you in exchange for a service with which you can provide them. Learn how to market yourself. And don't let anyone try to tie you down to doing one thing for eight hours a day, five days a week.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Or, as Eric Drexler calls it, "bloggy blogging."

First, new layout:
I changed the layout using Blogger's new(ish) template designer. I'm still not really doing any design, per se, because I have enough web designer friends to know that I'm not a web designer. But at least it looks different, and perhaps a little more interesting now.

Second, update on Idea a Day:
I kept the idea journal for two or three weeks, which was long enough to get me back into the habit of having ideas, capturing them, and trying to develop them at least enough to put them into words. It was also long enough to realize that an idea a day is way to often to expect good ideas that could actually be realized. It was a good exercise, though.

Third, some thoughts on someone else's big idea:
There's an article in The Atlantic this issue about economist Paul Romer's plan for neo-colonial charter cities, administered by developed nations using land in the poorest countries on earth, as a way to pull people out of poverty by giving them economic opportunities. In Romer's view of the world (which seems to be pretty enlightened, considering how influential he was as an economist and how successful as an entrepreneur) what separates rich countries from poor countries is not geography but rules. If the rules of rich countries were instituted in poor ones, the result would be the creation of wealth. I had seen Romer give this talk at TED a while ago, and was fascinated by the idea. I'm currently reading "Confusion," the second volume of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, which focuses mostly on the role of commerce in ushering in the modern age during the end of the 17th century. While the importance of commerce in wealth creation is now almost a trope, it's worth remembering that it wasn't (and isn't) always considered so important. The rules Romer talks about are mostly rules to encourage free trade. It's worth pointing out that most of the criticism aimed at his charter cities questions the likelihood of their social and political success, but Romer's goal was never to develop "ideal" or utopian cities. The only goal of his charter city plan is to provide economic opportunities in otherwise dead economies, thereby giving populations a chance to pull themselves out of poverty by moving to the cities. He makes it very clear that the way for the population of the city to address shortcomings of the political (or by extension, social) shortcomings of their charter city is to simply leave and go somewhere else. He's emphatically not saying that these cities will become desirable places to live comparable to London or Zurich. He's merely saying it will be a whole lot better there than living in a slum in a city whose economy is crushed by ineffective policies.

Fourth, upcoming posts (if I get around to them):
I've been thinking a lot about urban development lately, often inspired by a feature in the last issue of The Atlantic (hey, it's a good magazine) on the future of the American City. I've been applying a lot of those ideas to Ruston, Louisiana, which has been going through a big planning and development push over the past couple of years. I'll try to blog about it in the coming days or weeks.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Idea a Day

I decided today that I'm going to start keeping an idea journal. My goal is to write down one idea every day as a creative exercise. They don't have to be especially well-formulated, though they should be practical in some manner. We'll see how it goes; if it goes well, I may start a separate blog for the ideas.

Today's idea: crowdsourced financing for independent musicians to record their music.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Apple Strategy: Pay attention to what matters

It is common knowledge that Macbooks are significantly more expensive than comparable PC laptops. A quick glance at the Apple store demonstrates just how much more expensive. A 17" Macbook Pro starts at $2499. For comparison to PCs, a 17" Alienware Gaming PC with the same processor, same amount of memory and better video card will cost you $2124, more than $300 less. And everyone knows Alienwares are overpriced. The upgrades to a Macbook Pro are particularly overpriced: Bumping up your processor speed by .2 GHz will cost you $300 extra. Seem a little pricey, especially since a Core 2 Duo from Newegg.com at 3.0 GHz only costs $167.99 in the first place. And that Memory upgrade? 8GB of memory for a Macbook Pro only costs $470.99, and they'll charge you $600 to put that in instead of 4GB, which is probably worth $100-$200 itself. (Similar upgrades to the Alienware cost substantially less, though they still seem quite overpriced to me).

What lets Apple charge so much for their products? Duh, it's supply and demand. Supply is limited by their monopoly, demand is driven up by. . . what, exactly?

What makes Macs so popular? That question has been plaguing PC manufacturers for several years now. Sure it has a lot to do with their flashy advertising campaigns, but it's mostly because all of design focus went into the input and output systems: the components with which users actually interact.

Think about it: all of the input devices on a Macbook Pro are extra-high quality and well designed. The microphone, the webcam, the keyboard, the touchpad; they're all far superior to anything I've ever used on any PC laptop. The speakers as well have much better sound reproduction than any other laptop speakers I've heard. The case design is, of course, legendary. So even though their computing hardware is nothing special (their high end laptops are still using the Core 2 Duo, for crying out loud!), consumers perceive them as being top-of-the-line hardware. (I could write another entire post on their software). It's all about the interface, my friends.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Compact Flourescent Lamps: A Study in Complexity

In 2005, my father and I became obsessed with CFLs. I do not remember where we first heard about them, but after reading a few of the bold claims made we were infatuated with the idea of reducing power consumption while greatly increasing the lifespan of our lights. Though they were several times as expensive as incandescent bulbs, they promised to last about ten times as long, while saving 75% of power consumption. This, we told each other, was innovation at its finest: a technology that benefits consumers in multiple ways without requiring so much as a lifestyle change. He set out on a quest to replace every incandescent bulb in our house with a CFL.

Shortly after installing the first CFL, we noticed that the quality of light was significantly different. A room lit by a single CFL took on a sickly greenish or yellowish tint, depending on the specific lamp. A little disappointed, but not daunted, we continued replacing lights until, about 6 months after we installed the first CFLs in the house, one of them failed. It burned out. It died. Weren't these lamps supposed to last for several years? Maybe it was a fluke, we told ourselves. But it wasn't. Several more lamps failed within a year of installation.

If their lifespan wasn't significantly better than that of an incandescent lamp, suddenly the high installation cost looks a little more off-putting. With one of the lamps costing about $3, replacing them every year (or more frequently) could get quite expensive. My dad was upset, and basically gave up on the technology, switching back to incandescent lamps. I couldn't stop asking the question, "why?"

I knew that our experience must be somewhat atypical. If these lamps really had such a short lifespan, it would be common knowledge and the Australian government would think twice before passing legislation banning incandescent bulbs. No one seemed to be talking about this lifespan problem, however. I did a little bit of digging, and found out a few simple facts about the lifespan of flourescent lamps. First, their lifespan is greatly reduced if they are cycled on and off frequently. In our domestic setting, I expect that our lights went through a lot more power cycles than those of most businesses or even most houses. We had several young children living at home at the time who were constantly moving from room to room and had been taught to turn off the lights when they left a room - good advice regarding incandescent lamps. Flourescent lamps are also sensitive to temperature and humidity. Living in south Louisiana, our temperature and humidity were certainly above average. In addition, nearly all of our lights were in a base-up configuration common to overhead fixtures. This configuration has been demonstrated to decrease the lifespan of the lamps by increasing the operating temperature of the ballast. The conclusion I came to was that the combination of frequent power cycles, high temperature, and high humidity combined to reduce the average lifespan of our lamps just enough to cause a few outlying failures after a year. As far as I know, some of the CFLs we installed over 4 years ago are still fully functional, but the handful of early failures were enough to turn my dad off of the technology. He has since moved on to an infatuation with LEDs, which is probably a story for another post.

The experience of the CFLs taught me a number of valuable lessons:

First, it taught me the fundamentals of technology marketing. People want a better product, which usually means a cheaper product. More importantly, they don't want to put a lot of effort into getting their new product; they've been getting along just fine without it and can keeping going that way if adopting it is too difficult. We wouldn't have dreamed of replacing all of our light fixtures with tubular flourescent lamps, but since we could install CFLs as easily as incandescent lamps, we were willing to try them.

Second, it taught me about statistics, and human interpretation of statistics. The handful of early-failing lamps, while representing a significant deviation from our expectations, did not prove that the lamps were not economically feasible. They did destroy my dad's faith in them. If you're going to make promises, you'd better be able to live up to them.

Third, it taught me about innate complexity. George Whitesides (who I got to see at last year's ACS National Meeting) defined simplicity as "it's impossible to f**k it up" (at the end of this talk) which sounds to me like a good working definition. Applying that criterion to CFLs and incandescent lamps, what do we find? In an incandescent lamp, a current is passed through a filament, where ohmic resistance causes it to heat up and emit radiation. Bring in a materials scientist (or Thomas Edison with a lot of time on his hands) to choose a material that emits the right frequencies of radiation at an appropriate voltage. Seal the whole thing in a vacuum, and it's ready for use. Flourescent lamps are a bit more complicated. Not only does the radiation have to be converted from ultraviolet to visible by flourescent phosphor, the flow of electricity through the mercury vapor requires a ballast to regulate the current; not the most complex circuit ever designed, but a lot more complicated than the ohmic contacts needed for an incandescent lamp. In the final analysis, it is this complexity that stops flourescent lamps from pushing their incandescent competitors from the market. Their complexity increases their price, and though their lifespan is officially longer they have more failure modes, which makes them easier to f**k up.