Economics Engineering Learning Life Work

On Job Losses and Stem Cell Engineers

Like any good mortgage-fearing first-time home buyer, I worry about my income sources and my job. I don’t have any fears based on performance, but just general fears. It seems that the possibility of recession I wrote about back in September is here and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere for a while. So what can I tell you to try and put your mind at ease (“you” of course being an engineer or someone interested in the fate of engineers…I have no authority on other job types). I can tell you what I was told when I was nervous today:

You’re going to be fine. (Helpful, right?)

The great thing about being an engineer, and specifically a relatively inexperienced engineer, is that you’re desirable because you’re flexible (mentally, of course, unless you’re one of those weird gymnast/engineers). You can easily come into a new role that you may know very little about and quickly learn the task. This is not to say that others are not capable of doing the same; many individuals are very good at this concept and are known as “polymaths” (people who excel at many different disciplines, a great example being Leonardo DaVinci). No, I speak of engineers as being mentally malleable because that is the main skill they are taught in school. If an engineer learns nothing more in school, they should learn to teach themselves.  This is why I think of new engineers like stem cells; they naturally adapt to those around them to perform a similar task. However, the longer they stay in a position or field, the harder it gets to leave that field.

So in an effort to calm me down (he did), my friend pointed me to a piece of advice he received from a former colleague, who I also knew. This person was and is a great all around engineer (mechanical by title, but knew his way around electronics) and had the following to say (paraphrased):

As long as you’re willing to work hard, you’ll be OK in the end. At times, you might not like every aspect of your work you’re doing and at other times, you won’t get paid what you deserve. But come good and bad, if you work hard and are open to learn whatever is required to get the job done, you’ll be OK.

My friend told me that this talk he had with the experienced engineer has stuck with him and it’s easy to see why. A veteran engineer who had re-invented himself many times over was living proof that when times get tough, the tough get learning. I guess in the end this is kind of stating the obvious; if you are willing to do anything to get by, you will get by. But I think it is interesting in the context of this blog because when engineers lose a job or are stuck working only contract work, they think there are no other options. Instead, they could be looking at non-traditional roles for engineers, explaining how they can apply their past experiences and hope that the hiring manager recognizes the flexibility most engineers have and puts them to work. I think of a situation where a power engineer cannot find work and ends up in a power line technician position. Not only would the engineer be temporarily employed, they would be able t experience many of the problems that their customers or end-users experience every day. In the best case scenario, the engineer would be able to take that knowledge back and design a better product.

So what do you do if you are an engineer and out of a job currently? Perhaps try a related field that can be used as leverage at your next job. I think of my time working in a semiconductor fabrication facility this way; I was not working on the design of the product, but I got some hard skills (mostly statistics), some soft skills (working in a high pressure environment independently) and some undefinable skills (a sense of where the semiconductor business is heading and how it could affect the market). If you happen to work in a field that is so niche that you cannot find anything remotely similar to what you prefer to work on, maybe try taking a traditionally lower level job in your field and try working on more hands-on type activities (similar to the power line example above). You can work to hone your existing skills and hopefully rise quickly as you show how proficient you can be. However, if there are not any engineering positions available, it is likely there will not be these lower level jobs available either. So in the most dire of straights, try for something completely different. Since starting my blog I have become increasingly interested in marketing and how to create a brand. If there came a time that I could not find engineering work, I would try and target marketing as a near choice–not because I have any relevant experience (I don’t)–but because I think that the skills I would pick up would be helpful at unknown points later in life.

As for non-engineers out there, I can only speak good things about engineering and the job prospects throughout a recession. As I always do with younger people asking about engineering, I can quickly lay out some reasons to become an engineer (and would be willing to do so more if you have more questions by email). You have the flexibility to do a wide variety of tasks and have the opportunity to positively impact the world. You can choose among a wide variety of professional fields or stay in school and teach others engineering skills or do research in a university setting. There are many naysayers who claim that you will not be in charge on projects, but you could always choose management if you want to run the show. Others will say that you will not get paid what you deserve; but I think that remembering engineering is about helping people is important. Not only does it discourage those who are only in engineering for the money, it also helps remind you that your goal should be to help others.

So I know this post spanned many aspects of engineering but I think the main idea is that as an engineer, you can survive a lot of what the economy throws at you. Hard work and mental flexibility will let engineers re-invent themselves if necessary and prosper in the most volatile of economies. If you have experienced job safety or, conversely, have been pushed off an employment cliff thanks to your engineering degree and you’d like to share, please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Analog Electronics Economics Renewable Energy

Renewable Energy Investing

I’ve been writing a lot more lately about renewable energy than I have analog electronics, but I think with good reason. There has been added interest on the part of many because of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency and his promise to invest $15 billion per year for 10 years in order to create 5 million new “green collar” jobs. But where and how do we separate the promises and the politician from the reality? How do we know that renewable energy will help pull America out of our economic recession? And most importantly, once we are confident that this idea of a green economy could work, how do we know where to put our money and invest?

I think the most important thing to point out is that there are going to be a LOT of bad investments out there. My last entry about EEStor is a good example; a company that could potentially be doing great things, but more likely will look for lots of investments and then not deliver on their promises. Like any other engineering activity, renewable energy is an iterative process. On average, the solar technologies in 2 years will be better than the technologies we see today (especially because of the higher interest in renewables and the notion that eventually oil prices will return to extremely high prices). Further, there will be other companies “green washing” (basically talking the talk of being an energy friendly company, but not walking the walk). If you decide to invest in solar, wind, geothermal, etc, you should realize that beyond the usual risk of investing, there are risks associated with unknown, unproven technologies. Prices on renewable companies haven’t gone through the roof yet, but human nature tells us that there will be an overzealous buying of stocks at some point. Let’s look at what we should do when investing so we avoid any unnecessary losses:

  1. Are they forthcoming with details? — Companies like EEStor might try to be secretive because they have a breakthrough technology, but there are limits on how much a company should really withhold information. Mostly it comes down to whether or not you want to roll the dice on a company that keeps you in the dark. I would much rather see a proven technology (heck, a prototype would be nice) and then make my decision based on that. You might not get the 1000% returns that people expect (perhaps they’re nostalgic for the dot com days?), but you will go into an investment with facts you can hold companies to when things get tough.
  2. Do you understand everything about what they are doing? — This is important for two reasons. First, it is important because you should not invest in what you don’t understand. If you don’t get how a solar cell works, don’t get how it could benefit society and are only sure that it will somehow produce power, then it is not a good idea to dive headfirst into investing in that company.  Second, some of the best investing ideas are the simplest ideas; if you cannot explain to someone in 1 sentence what the company does, it is probably too complex to form a productive, sustainable company (a generalization, of course). Examples of this might be Apple (“They sell computers and music players”). Of course the internals of their products are more complex, but the products are simple to describe and sell. If you have a company that is producing a chemical that is required in the fabrication of GeAs solar cells for the 3rd implantation process…yeah, might not be such a great buy at first glance.
  3. Have they brought in good management? — The best ideas in the world are worthless if you can’t sell them. It’s not greedy; it’s business. Sure, the truly great ideas will always rise to the top (eventually), but since we’re talking about investing here, we need to concentrate on ideas that are likely to get to market quickly and ones that will be successful for the long term. Good management will include a proven track record at start ups (there are very specific skill sets) and some experience in the industry. Note that these people can sometimes be the founders, but unless the creators of the new idea or technology have significant soft skills, don’t expect it.
  4. Are they digging for the gold, selling the gold or selling the shovels? — This was always an analogy and investing idea that I liked: the ones who made the most in the California gold rush were not the ones digging the gold, but instead those selling shovels.  To give an example for each, the diggers here would be the solar companies (cell manufacturers), the sellers of the gold would be the energy companies and the sellers of shovels would be fabrication equipment manufacturers. The best case scenario is when you find a great company supplying the shovel with little competition. If the “shovel-maker” can continually sell their product to each new technology that pops up, then they will be well positioned to outperform the rest of the market.
  5. Do they have a simple product that can be produced quickly and efficiently? — Really, I’m thinking about GreenField Solar Corp, which I recently read about in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. They have a simple solar concentrator that can mostly be built from off the shelf components. However, the best part of their implementation is that they would license and franchise the production facilities (making the start-up cost lower for the actual company) and they would only retain sales ownership of their proprietary software, control systems and solar cells (a very specific type). It is reminiscent of the lean manufacturing idea that Solar Automation eschews and Henry Ford pioneered. If you have TONS of money you want to invest, you could always try to start a solar factory.

For my part, I am staying put on renewable energy stocks for now. In reality, it’s always a very difficult climate when you try to guess what technology will come out on top. It happened with the biotech stocks in the early- to mid-2000s, it happened in the dot-com era (post-bust), it happened in the 90s with the PC and chip makers, it happened in the 80s with banks and so on back through time. If you are reading this post, you likely either found my site through searching or you were linked here; in either case, if you are not sure about renewable energy stocks, stick with what you know and continue to monitor the industry. Then when you see a disruptive technology that you think WILL revolutionize the industry, maybe buy a few shares to help support the company. However, do not expect to make money for a few years and continually research your target company. If you are REALLY looking to invest in your favorite solar or wind company, go buy a solar array or turbine and try powering your home. You will help the company and yourself.

If you have any questions about investing in renewables or if you have any favorites you would like to let others know about, please leave them in the comments.

Economics Engineering Life Politics Renewable Energy

Welcome President Obama! Now let’s get crackin’ on renewable energy.

I wrote last week about Barack Obama further laying out his plans for renewable energy. He states in that video that he plans to invest $15 Billion or more in renewable energy each year. My question is, what can we start doing now? In order for him and the renewable energy community to hit the ground running on Jan 20th, we need to start planning some actions for the new administrations (with or without funding).

  1. Education — Without a new crop of able young engineers, we won’t get far. So how do you get involved in helping to make this a reality? Follow my volunteer idea and go to middle- and high-schools and share what it’s like to be an engineer with young people. Even better, I recently found out that I was right in thinking I was not original…there are many programs in place to allow engineers to easily reach out to their communities. The one I am currently considering is the New Faces of Engineering Road Show, hosted by the Cleveland Engineering Society. They travel to schools and promote engineering and science to young students, basically the exact thing I wanted to do.
  2. Conserve — The best way that individuals can help on a daily basis is to conserve, in general. Use less utilities (turn off your lights, turn down your heat), recycle your recyclables, carpool to work
  3. Stay involved — This year has shown young people actually can make a difference in elections and in general. This is due to the extreme influence of social media and how it connects people online and throughout the world. Now use that power to go out and influence individuals and corporations that a green economy will benefit all Americans (and the world).
  4. Consider alternative and renewable energiesBlack silicon or not, photovoltaic (PV) cells are still expensive. However, there are simpler methods, such as corn stoves, which have lower environmental impact and are definitely renewable year after year.
  5. Keep them honest — No matter how good their stump speeches are nor how honest they may seem, absolute power corrupts absolutely. While the checks and balances were put in place by our forefathers to keep our branches of government watching one another, the true power in oversight will come from civilian oversight. This has been further enabled by the internet in recent years and we must insist that our newly elected government officials do not take advantage of their positions for personal or nepotistic gain.
  6. Join the fight — Sure, there will be more political battles, notably with oil barons not wanting to relinquish their grasp on easy profits; but the real battle is with innovation and design challenges. Use online resources to go out and educate yourself on analog electronics. The biggest challenges will be won by the groups with the most resources. If we want a future filled with solar and wind generated power, go out and learn how to make that a reality by studying the basics.
  7. Start something — Been studying this stuff for so long that you think you have a great idea on improving an existing system (the power grid, anyone?) or developing a disruptive renewable energy technology? Go for it. In order for the green revolution to begin, America (and the rest of the world) needs entrepreneurs to step up to the plate and take risks in order to develop these emerging technologies. Do you prefer the less technical side of engineering? Pair up with the entrepreneurs. Technically minded people are just as important to take the time to introduce the new technology to the rest of the world.

Good luck President Obama. You have a huge challenge ahead of you, a huge wreckage behind you and a huge nation standing and waiting for you to wave the green flag. Let’s all try and toe the line as soon as we can.

Analog Electronics Economics Politics Renewable Energy

Barack Obama Further Lays Out Renewable Energy Plan

I take a personal interest in Barack Obama‘s new plan to increase investment in renewable energy technologies, as I think and hope my long-term plan of working on renewable energies will come to fruition.

Skip to 9:38 to hear about his plans for renewable energy

I don’t seek to point out any political messages other than to focus on his determination to make renewables a viable part of the American economy, much like Thomas Friedman points out in Hot, Flat & Crowded. A green revolution or economy will help to return America as an arbiter of international issues by once again showing our leadership and innovation abilities (not to mention our economic strength). While I will point out that John McCain has also shown some initiatives for renewable energy (not to mention he does not believe that drilling for oil is the only solution), I feel that his focus on nuclear as the only true long term solution in his administration would not put enough money into the hands of people that will drive the “green revolution”. Given the possibility of recession in this country (or is it already here?), I believe that direct government investment in renewables will help to jump start the economy by driving job growth. And it won’t just come from the presidential administration either; people in the house and senate all need to push these new green energy agendas to really allow for new legislation. Great examples of this are Alice Kryzan, running for the 26th congressional district in New York and Dan Maffei who is running for the  25th district, also in New York.

Probably the point that I would like to point out most in this video is his call upon the American people to reduce their consumption AND take personal responsibility in their lives (i.e. childhood education). Sure, we could use our innovative techniques to create energy at the cost of the environment ad nauseum. But why not instead work on power saving techniques? Why not inflate your car tires to increase gas mileage, instead of pushing for faster ramp ups of offshore drilling? Why not tell people to turn off their lights, recycle their garbage, stop watering their lawns and driving gas-guzzling cars? Because it’s tough telling people that stuff. It’s not going to work at first, but it will over time, and that’s why I thought this was a good video.

I always welcome comments on renewable energy, but given the touchiness of politics, please be extra gentle when commenting. What do you think of the renewable energy plan? Is it a pipe dream? Do you think there are pieces that both candidates are missing?

Economics Life Politics Renewable Energy

The Simple Ways to Help

I remember reading a book called “50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save The Earth” when I was about 10. It was a really great book and had some interesting conservation ideas. Then for my teenage years and beyond, conservation definitely took a backseat because no one was talking about it and teenagers think about other stuff, apparently. But now, writing about energy conservation and renewable energy more regularly, I’ve looked around and seen some really dumb things that I do in my everyday life that consume a lot of resources and energy.

The thing is, it’s not just about turning off lights when you leave a room or figuring out how much power your TV is wasting when it’s “off” (although these things are important). It’s also about reviewing products we use everyday and looking beyond what the final product is; what kind of resources were required to get that product to us and how much energy and resources did it take to make it?

Some of the simplest things I’ve noticed have been the disposable products I use. It was brought into sharp relief when I read Duncan Drennan’s post on traveling to the US and he pointed out how much stuff Americans throw away. Here’s some of the steps I’ve taken to reduce my daily waste; while most of them revolve around eating and work, it helps me sleep at night knowing I’m not piling up quite as much trash.

  1. Bring in a spoon to work — Stupid, right? But every time I went to grab a plastic fork and spoon at work to eat my lunch, I ended up throwing them away. I mean, that’s what they’re made for, right? But why not bring in a reusable piece of “equipment” (aka. spoon)? This is also a big problem in China, as throwaway chopsticks are becoming a larger and larger contributor to de-forestation.
  2. Get a reusable lunch bag and use Tupperware — Again with the food, but I’m amazed at how many times I would end up throwing stuff away…simply because it’s disposable. I switched out the plastic bag holding my lunch and the tiny bags holding my sandwiches and other items because there are other good options. I also think about how much plastic ends up in the ocean and how DISGUSTING that is, and it really makes me want to cut back on the plastic I dispose.
  3. Stopped drinking milk — This one was accidental, as we never have milk in our house anymore. However, it takes over 250 gallons of water to make just one quart of milk, as told by Dean Kamen. I think that there are better things that can be done with those kinds of resources and my body doesn’t particularly like milk anyway.
  4. Recycling — Trash day is amazing for me. When we get up early to walk the dog, I have a really great opportunity to scope out other peoples’ junk. Wow. I know that I don’t have kids who eat non-stop or anything, but when I see other peoples’ 4 overflowing trash cans and no recycling versus our half filled trash cans and some cans, it makes me wonder. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt that they don’t know about recycling in our area, but that’s a weak argument. I’m not saying we’re better than other people, just that public knowledge can help with conservation.
  5. Coffee — It makes the work world run, right? Well anytime I bought a cuppa at our company cafe, I’d buy the paper cup, use the stirrer, dump it all in my travel mug and then throw everything away. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I negotiated with the lunch ladies to use my cup in the first place, only to find out this was OK all along. Sometimes you just gotta ask.
  6. Turn off the computer — Even in power save mode, leaving a computer on overnight can be costly. Now think about a high rise in NYC or somewhere else and all the needless energy burning there. This comes down to electricity being cheap and therefore employers not pushing their employees to conserve. If we see prices spike, expect managers to ask you to shutdown the ol’ PC at night. Even if we can’t access our files all night long (wee!), Mother Nature will appreciate whatever extra coal plant output (electricity and pollution) we save due to turning the computer off.
  7. Eating less meat — Now that I think of it, cows can be pretty detrimental as consumers — from the water they consume, the amount of feed they require and the gas they emit. Eating less meat is not only a good thing economically and ecologically, it may become a necessity as the possibility of recession looms and more and more of China and India enter the middle class.

Of course, these are stupidly simple things people can do to help out. And it’s not always about saving the world. Using one more or less napkin at lunch? Nah, it won’t hurt the planet that much. But take 6 billion people using one extra napkin a day for even a year and you start seeing forests disappear for no good reason. I’m not one to harp on conservation because I understand that some consumption is going to happen, whether we like it or not. This blog is also about analog electronics and renewable energy, not conservation, so I don’t want to stray too far from that by giving regular tips on how to save the world. However, it is a pressing issue, both in energy consumption the world over and good conscience about making waste unnecessarily. Try your best to reduce your overall consumption today and leave any additional ideas you have in the comments.

Economics Renewable Energy

The Renewable Energy Singularity

It’s gonna happen. Some day.

Some day, we (as the human race) will reach a point–or a singularity–where it will be more economically viable to create renewable energy than to harvest oil or coal out of the ground; there won’t be any going back. We started toeing that line a few months ago. Oil just about crossed the $150 mark before dropping way back, thanks to the possibility of recession. Now that we’re back into cheap oil land, we will probably suffer a setback on developing newer more efficient energy solutions (not even necessarily renewable ones). But once we cross that threshold where renewable energy is cheaper than hydrocarbon based energy, the world can only change for the better.

Let’s look at things that will accelerate the pace at which we (are forced to) develop new energy technologies:

  1. We run out of oil — Whoops! Can that really happen? You’re darn skippy it can happen. And will happen, if growth continues as it had for the past few years. China and India are waking up as new middle class citizens and they are thirsty for oil. There were only so many dinosaurs and other critters that are now our oil supplies.
  2. The oil that is left is REALLY hard to get to — Recently Cuba found out they have one of the largest oil reserves in the world just off their coast. Too bad it’s a mile or more under the ocean. That’s a lot of water to get through just to get at the oil. It’s even tougher if you have primitive oil companies trying to get at that oil. If the price of oil is high enough there’s likely to be someone crazy enough to go get it, but that might raise the price even more.
  3. The oil and coal the US imports is no longer available — The main reason would be “conflict” a.k.a. War. We make Iran or other friends of OPEC angry enough and they might decide to stop sending us 55 gallon drums of crude (that’s just how they measure it…not ship it, right?).
  4. We can’t afford it anymore — Since we’ve been sending China our money for a long time, they are sitting on some significantly larger piles of cash (in US dollars, thank you very much). If it comes down to an eBay style bidding war, the bigger pile is going to win. Even bidding at the last moment won’t help!

OK, so we’ve decided what might get us into this mess. But what else can get us out of this mess? It’s pretty clear that the next US presidential administration will have some serious sway over how renewable energies are governed and encouraged. If they read, or better yet employ the author of “Hot, Flat and Crowded” — Thomas Friedman, then they will have a level headed economist with some great ideas on their side. More important than one man or even one administration is a multi-point plan of attack for reducing the cost of renewable energy.

Remember, the thing we’re concentrating on is that point where it’s more cost efficient to harvest renewable sources than to dig up carbon based sources. In theory, this makes a lot of sense. Sunshine is definitely free, even if it is harder to come by in the great north. Wind is prevalent just about everywhere, just look at Kansas. But until the infrastructure and the methods are in place, all of these elements won’t contribute to our renewable energy solution, they will just sit useless until everybody jumps on board. Let’s look at a list of hurdles we will have to pass in order to make renewable energy, and more importantly energy independence, a reality:

  1. Efficiently storing energy– From what I’ve seen so far, this will probably be done by splitting H20 into hydrogen and oxygen. While I don’t like the idea of liquid or gaseous hydrogen sitting in my car, basement, etc, I would hope material technologies catch up so catastrophic events aren’t as often as we might think. Unless some game changing technology such as batteries or super capacitors comes and proves it can store energy better than electrolysis, then splitting molecules will be the way to go.
  2. A newer and better power grid — This is one whopper of a problem. You know how you hate going to Best Buy to purchase a 10 ft length of cable because the one coming out of your wall won’t reach your TV? You know how they totally overcharge you because those are their high margin products? Well even if there was NO margin, imagine how expensive it would be to run one wire all the way across the United States. Now imagine criss-crossing those wires across every town and city across the United States. Oh and those really huge amounts of cable? Well, let’s make them out of copper, which is currently at some all time price highs right now. A better routed and controlled power grid is a good first step to increasing the efficiency of power transport. But until we as a country begin to revamp the aging infrastructure of this country, renewable energy will not be a reality for locally generated power sold to the masses or at a central power station system where excess power can be put on the grid at any time it is available.
  3. Bringing in the big boys — Like it or not, the big energy companies need to be a part of it. Until BP or Chevron can continue to make the profits they are making with oil, then there will be problems.  I’m not saying that the king cannot be dethroned (ahem, GM), but I think that if the big boys are in on the action, they will be less likely to lobby the government for oil and maybe even turn their interest towards lobbying for renewables. Who wouldn’t want to get free energy (solar)? All you do is plop down the infrastructure and collect those deliciously free solar rays.  On another note about the big boys, I am happy to say that they have started recognizing some of the potential in renewable energy, although it is unlikely that they will be turning in their oil rigs for solar panels anytime in the next few years. Oil rigs are expensive!
  4. Progressive tax credit reforms — Again, this is likely to hinge on the upcoming election and ensuing presidency but in the event that point 3 does not go through and oil companies continue to lobby for hydrocarbon use, tax credits will be needed so individuals are encouraged to buy their own wind, solar and geothermal systems.  Sure, the lowered costs help, but until there is governmental push, it’ll be slower adoption on the part of big business.
  5. Finding replacements for current solutions — I once visited the GE Aviation facility in Cincinnati and I can tell you, that facility is HUGE. It must be miles of offices and test bays completely dedicated to producing engines that run on jet fuel. Until THEY decide to switch over and try new methods of propulsion, having an abundance of hydrogen might not do them (or us) any good. The end products (in this case engines) require jet fuel and until they require something other than jet fuel (and therefore drive the demand down and the impetus to go find and sell more of it down), then the cost of renewables will remain high by association (because there will be less demand for it).

As much as we wish it was, making cheaper solar panels isn’t the only solution to reducing costs of renewable energy. There are many different aspects that feed into making renewable energy a final solution for the human race. If you can think of more milestones we’ll have to reach before this vision becomes a reality, please post them in the comments.

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“Hot, Flat and Crowded” By Thomas Friedman — A short review

I love public libraries because it’s like having minus the pesky notion of paying for a book. However, the downside is you don’t get to keep what you’re reading–especially if it is a popular book that other people want before you can renew it. As such, I’m going to review what I’ve read of this book so far, because it’s just that good.

For background, Thomas Friedman also wrote “The World is Flat”, a book detailing how the economy and the world has changed since the September 11th attacks, both good and bad. In that book (written in 2005) he details the benefits of outsourcing and globalization and actually downplays the notion of globalization as an enemy, instead framing it as an opportunity that requires a competitive nature in workers and corporations. While that book was written before there was the possibility of recession, the book explains the rapid growth that is occurring overseas which will likely collapse along with the credit markets. I highly suggest reading that book if you have not, it is a great introduction into Friedman’s writings and is a good preface for the book reviewed here.

Onto the main event. Let’s decode the title of this book:

  • Hot — Not too hard to figure this one out. Global warming is not just a potential threat anymore, it’s real, it’s dangerous and it’s here to stay (or is it?)
  • Flat — See the previous paragraph. The world is quickly trying to elevate more people into the middle class than ever before. This is putting a serious strain on all resources of the planet, including the atmosphere.
  • Crowded — Barring a major war, outbreak or famine, the world population keeps on growing. Add to the mix better drugs, a higher focus on health and longer life expectancies, the people that are here will probably stick around too. Overpopulation is yet another drain and strain on the planet’s resources, multiplicatively so if those people are in the middle class.

Of these, I would put forth that only the “hot” portion has any solution, and at that, reduced consumption and switching to renewable energy will likely only go as far as retaining the current temperature of the earth. For the “flat” and “crowded” parts, the best case scenario is that we find ways to accommodate more and more people entering the middle class and the world in general by changing our perceptions of allowable consumption in the middle class (and any class for that matter). Most notably, Americans who have become accustomed to a particularly wasteful way of life (as chronicled by Duncan)may have to re-assess how they consume products; while it would be nice to think we will do this with conservation in mind, more realistically we will be forced to do this because of the laws of supply and demand are going to make previously cheap products much more expensive.

How do we do it, you ask? With a “green revolution”. This means an economy that is based around locally produced energy that is both renewable and environmentally friendly. Even though it sounds a bit new-agey to conjecture that renewable energy can save the world, it really starts to make sense when you look at current world issues. Here are some problems that a green economy can fix:

  1. Energy supply and demand — The best ways to bring down energy costs is to either flood the market with it (energy) or tell the energy producers you don’t need it. Since the world as a whole will not likely give up our digital and analog electronic gadgets anytime soon and our energy usage will likely increase, it would behoove us to begin making cheap and renewable energy. Since oil doesn’t seem to be an option as cheap energy anymore, we should probably start looking at new exciting options, like solar cells made out of black silicon.
  2. Petropolitics — If we don’t end up going out and figuring out how to make renewable energy, we’ll continue shipping boatloads of money to countries that hate us. Like I had written about these oil barons before, why not hit them where it hurts? In the wallet.
  3. Climate Change — Al Gore knows it and told a lot of the world. There is undeniable climate change happening every day we continue to dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Reduce coal and oil usage and the amount we dump into the air will go down.
  4. Energy Poverty — Without energy, it’s hard to do a lot of things. Most of us would go check into a hotel if the power went out for more than a week. However, one third of the world lives in energy poverty, meaning they cannot even come close to pulling themselves out of monetary poverty; health standards are proven to drop dramatically when people live this way.
  5. Biodiversity Loss — Human consumption of natural resources is threatening damn near every species on the planet, up to and including humans. If we don’t want to have only cockroaches and squirrels running around a polluted planet with us, we need to set up more sanctuaries and reduce

I unfortunately didn’t get to read about all of Friedman’s ideas, but plan to read more as I get my own copy of this book. (More of the basis of his ideas can be read from his entries in the NY Times and Foreign Policy magazine)

I will leave you with one of my favorite statistics and quotes that Friedman puts in the (beginning of the) book; Moisés Naím also writes in Foreign Policy about the Chinese and Indian middle class that is emerging and how “the total population of the planet will increase by about 1 billion people in the next 12 years, [but] the ranks of the middle class will swell by as many as 1.8 billion”. Just think about that for a second. 1.8 BILLION more people leaving the lights on, eating cheeseburgers, driving SUVs and doing everything else they’ve been sold as “the American Dream” (or at least way of life). They can’t be stopped and they are constantly told through advertising that they deserve whatever they want. Something has to change, and fast (besides the economy). I want to find solutions for new renewable energy and I hope you do too; but a quick thing that will help everyone is if you switch those lights off at home when you’re not using them, so be sure to do that too.

Scared by all of this? That wasn’t the point of this post, but it scares the heck out of me too. Go out and read this book and leave some comments about what you think about the future of the world.

Analog Electronics Economics Supply Chain

DC powered home

Either my readership has extended to people at multinational corporations or the idea is intrinsically viable enough to actually work! Either way, I’m happy.

Junko Yoshida of EE Times reports that Sharp Corp and TDK corp have both displayed home mock-ups that include DC modules running of of solar cells and do not require any AC/DC or DC/AC conversion (thereby saving power wasted on the conversion process). This is reminiscent of when I asked if DC can power an entire home. They cite instances of using DC power to directly use in LED home lighting, flatscreens and various other commercial products.

Looks like the idea is catching on, I can’t wait until it becomes possible for everyone!

Analog Electronics Economics Engineering Politics

Possibility of Recession

I’m sure it’s one of the first times I’ve ever thought this, but right now I’m really glad I didn’t go into finance for a career. OK, that’s untrue, even though the money is good for them, I’ve always recognized that the lifestyle stinks. But holy moly, those guys (and gals) are probably not having a great time right now, even if they’ve socked away money before this month.

As any part-time pessimist would do in rough economic times, I’ve been thinking about work and how I could be affected by an extended recession. I’m not too worried that a possible economic downturn will have me out on the street tomorrow, but of course I wonder what might happen in the near- to mid-future. Furthermore, being the perpetual optimist, I am trying to see how a recession could be good not only for engineers, but also for engineers (and others) in Generation Y. So for now, forget about golden parachutes, let’s think about silver linings:

  1. Hard times — You know what people who were around in the depression era love talking about? Hard times. You know why? Because they made it, that’s why. So listen up! They weren’t handed jobs and houses and pre-packaged suburban Lego™-kit lives. They put up with some sucky times and earned a lot of what they got. Fast forward 80 years and you have Generation Y, the helicopter parent driven careers with high salaries and lower skill levels than many engineers leaving school 20 years ago. I’m not saying I’m not grateful for the opportunities I’ve had and the work I’ve been allowed to do, I’m just saying that a wake up call could help our generation in some subtle ways. Who knows, maybe in 80 years we’ll be the ones telling the young whippersnappers how good they have it.
  2. Weak dollar — I hear a good deal on NPR about how the credit crunch is the most worrisome aspect of a flailing economy and I agree it can really hurt companies if they do not have access to capital. Poor cash flow through one business can affect the next and the next and so on because companies are not capable of buying the products they need to get their job done. However, something a lot of economists are failing to mention is how the bailout and the economy in general is pushing the dollar to new all time lows. For engineers, with jobs being outsourced daily, this can be somewhat good. It has been cost effective to send manufacturing jobs overseas and even some design jobs, but that has been because of discrepancies in currency (no thanks to the Chinese government). If the value of the dollar drops off, it’s unlikely that textile mills will be popping up in Cleveland like they do in Malaysia or India. But maybe a few more manufacturing jobs will stick around. And maybe a manager or two will think twice about the equivalent cost of sending a design job overseas where they might have to spend some extra time fighting the language barrier.
  3. More start-ups — Somewhere along the way, bright young entrepreneurs who can’t get jobs at their local global conglomerate because of a hiring freeze end up saying “Hey, I can start a company! I’m already not making money, it wouldn’t be any different!” Don’t believe me? Google started in 1998. It flourished through the entire tech bubble mess. Yeah, there’s an example for you. Hard times, especially when it’s hard to get loans or credit, make the environment particularly well suited to software start-ups, where fixed costs (factory equipment, raw material, Swingline staplers) are much lower than they would be for a widget making facility.
  4. Repair — Some of the best lessons I’ve ever learned in electronics was trying to fix something that was already broken. I’m trying to fix a broken piano right now and it’s already been an enlightening experience. In the spirit of all things renewable, why not fix the gadgets we have instead of creating new ones we don’t need (“Oh look, this refrigerator has GPS!”). As the world goes more digital and parts get smaller, there’s less troubleshooting and more “throw out that board, put in a new one”. But even having younger engineers analyze failures on a system level can have a positive effect on their understanding of said systems.

I would love to tell you that everything is hunky dory and that the economy will have a continually positive growth rate forever. But seriously, that’s politicians’ jobs to lie about that. I’m just saying that in the event of a recession, people deal. I’m not planning on going all grapes of wrath and trying my hand at farming in the dust bowl, but I feel (perhaps overly) confident that I’m flexible enough to weather any economic storm brewing on the horizon. Do you think you are? Let me know in the comments.