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.

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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.

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Why start a namesake site?

Tonight, I’m using every bit of my being not to post something political (watching the VP debate). The tension in this country is so thick you can cut it up and serve it. Anyway, instead I will post a question (to myself).

Why did I start

I’ve written before about why I started a blog, but never why I decided to make it a namesake site (using my real name, all over the place). The main reason is branding. Pure, simple and maybe a little bit selfish. It’s actually a lot of work to get people to know your name. It’d be much easier to start a blog titled “” or something like that. That would be great for the average Analog Electrical Engineer, but not so much for Chris Gammell. In that case, I would have to work extra hard to let people know who I am and what I do. So why else? I like trying to be an individual (even if it complete individuality may not be possible). I love the idea that people are reading my ideas. I like the attention, sure, but moreso, I like contributing to society, even a little bit. Perhaps it’s a characteristic of Generation Y, but I enjoy it and I’ll spend some late nights to help out if I can. Yet another reason is that I enjoy challenging myself to learn knew things. True, I feel a little guilty blogging about things I’m not a master of, but if I spend some time researching, I can usually point readers in the right direction, even if I’m not completely sure. The best point is where I define a problem for myself online and then figure it out and get to post it later.

It’s a risk, for sure. First off, if I publish some bogus articles, people will know it. Moderators, readers, editors, professionals, everyone is really a critic on the internet. But I’m ok with that because when someone corrects me (hopefully in a civil manner) it’s an opportunity to learn. Plus my ego isn’t so big that I think I know everything (or anything). Beyond the simple idea of being wrong, I’m also giving direct access to a lot of information about myself and my life, even if it is my professional life. I justify the lack of anonymity by thinking about having people coming back and reading my ideas because they recognize my name. If I can inspire some confidence in my ideas, then I’m doing alright. Finally, I take great care to not reflect badly upon those that know me, nor those that are associated with me. In my thus-far short career as an analog engineer, I’ve found that referring other people is a power that should be respected. Not only should you be careful who you refer to others but also how you interact with others so they will someday refer you.

Short and simple, I started a namesake site because of my ego. I keep it going because I love the direction it’s taken me in. I love that blogging is helping me define myself outside of my job, even if it is similar to my job (which I also love).

Why do you blog (or not blog)? Respond in the comments, please!

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.

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The Great North

This blog started when I moved back to Cleveland. Really, it was a little bit sooner, but it got going full time once I was settled in back in May. Since I’ve been back, I’ve actually really enjoyed it. There are some things I miss about Austin (where I used to live), but I am happy with my decision, most notably because of my job. I feel like I am part of the minority that is moving back North, that others in my generation are more likely to head south at the first opportunity.

Is there any reason to live in the north anymore?

Let’s go over the sour points first:

  1. It’s cold — No brainer on that one, it definitely snows more in Ohio than in Texas, but you do get the benefit of some winter sports (skiing, tubing, professional snowman making) and the picturesque nature of seeing snow on Christmas or at other times (this wears off after about two weeks). Unfortunately, the cold lasts longer than most people would like in Ohio. Back in Texas I was wearing shorts and tubing down the river by March.
  2. Gas/Heating —  This year might be the best example of expensive heating, but it has yet to play out. Oil prices are falling right now but could easily rise again in time for winter. There are some other (corny) ways to heat your house, so oil prices do not have the final say in how much we’ll be paying per month for oil north of the Mason-Dixon line. On the bright side, we’re paying WAY less for electricity than the south during the summer months.
  3. Young people — There’s kind of an avalanche effect to people migrating out of one city or into another. The more people that move somewhere, the “hotter” the scene becomes and more people want to move there. Cleveland still has a pretty vibrant night life, but it pales in comparison to Austin and some other larger cities.
  4. Urban Development — Suburbs happen. Sprawl happens. The longer a city has been around (such as those  in the north), the more people want to spread out and get their own space. This is slowly happening in the south (Dallas, anyone?), but Austin is still relatively compact. With newer, smaller, growing southern cities, urban planning can help to compact things and make them more accessible. If you are moving to a city in the north, it’s likely that a lot of the urban development is already done (though not completely).
  5. Jobs — We hear about the manufacturing jobs lost in Mid-West every time you turn on NPR. But there are also less large corporations in the north, due to some of the above listed reasons and less amiable tax laws than parts of the south.

But there is a lot of bright spots in Cleveland, even in the winter!

  1. Water — Necessary for life, right? Well some people didn’t really think about that when they were setting up new cities and towns in the southwest (I’d reference all of Arizona first). The Mid-West though? We’ve got tons of it! The great lakes are a great resource, whether for shipping, recreation, fishing or even lighting on fire (go Cleveland!). It definitely makes the summer months that much better and makes the winter months that much more bearable. Polar bear club, anyone?
  2. Infrastructure — Even though we may be a sprawling metropolis with many different cities, I will say that Cleveland has the benefit of a well developed system of roads. If you are so inclined, you can also take an AmTrak train to more destinations than you can from Austin (more track = more destinations…but to be fair you can get to most any city if you sit on a train long enough).
  3. Proximity — This was another nice deciding factor, both in where I went to school and why I wanted to move back. I can easily drive home to Buffalo in 3 hours, can drive to Columbus in 2.5, can drive to Detroit in 2.5 if I’m feeling feisty and can get to Chicago or DC in about 6. This compared with Austin having a 3 hour drive to the next biggest city (that I didn’t want to visit anyway) and a 12 hour drive to get out of the state.
  4. Airport — Similar to above, sometimes you just want to get out of town. If you can’t drive, you might as well fly. And if you’re going to fly, you might as well fly out of a hub. Even though continental decided to cut back their flights out of Cleveland, we have a great place to fly out of to get to some warmer destinations in those bleak winter months.
  5. Home Prices/Cost of Living — Thanks in part to our bozo friends in the finance industry and the overzealous DIYer house crowd, the housing market isn’t doing too hot right now. However, if you’re looking for a house, this is a great time! House prices and general food prices make for a much lower cost of living than many parts of the country, especially those with similar populations to Cleveland. Sometimes this is offset by lower taxes, but your consumption rate can be a little higher without incurring as much cost.
  6. Renewable energy — There is a lot of wind out on Lake Erie. This primes the region for becoming one of the premier renewable energy markets as we move forward with attempting our energy independence. The Great Lakes Institute for Energy Innovation is a start up at Case Western that could really help to move this forward.

I’m still really glad that I moved back to Cleveland. I only dealt with winter from Feb – April last year, so we’ll see how I handle an entire Cleveland winter. I’m not saying I’ll live in the Great North forever, but that for now, it fits me just right. Keep warm!

Politics Work

To break or not to break

Even though I got the capacitors and transistors in for my Wurlitzer 200A, I decided to write about something else before I started documenting the hopefully successful re-build of my vintage piano.

Generation Y has a strong reputation of feeling entitled and wanting to do things their own way. The question I have today is:

To break or not to break?

Should the spirits and ideas of young upstart Millennials be squashed in order to show them the ways of a company? When we bring in new employees into an organization, what is their greatest strength? Is it their new ideas? Or is it their ability to perform the normal tasks, but maybe better than their predecessor? Is it their ability to stand out or to fit in? Is it to buck the bureaucracy or to massage it? Let’s look at some situations.

Any time an employee comes into a new situation, you might expect them to have some modesty or humility. Apparently with Generation Y this is not happening, they instead expect to be placed into positions of authority, without knowing much at all. I know, I was a perfect angel :-).

What are some of the things that new people might shake up when they move into a new job?

  1. Offerings from employers – We see this happening in preparation for the new employees of the younger generations. Look at Google, Facebook and any other young software company. The culture is  a more all-encompassing experience and more is being offered to younger workers. What they don’t tell you though, is that even though there may be all those great perks like free meals and dry cleaning, they expect you to be working…a lot. A friend of a friend who now works at Google claims he has been there for months and still hasn’t plugged in his refrigerator at home.
  2. Methodology/Paradigm – This is the change that requires the most caution. Sure, sometimes the methods have been developed because one person or another wants to keep their job or because “that’s how it’s always been done” (no one remembers why). But sometimes, things are done a certain way because they are keeping it simple and it just happens to be the best way to do something. It is also possible, it is the lesser evil among many other options. It is in these situations, where it seems glaring that changes are required, that newer employees might be tempted to shake things up, but in fact would be disturbing things. (Completely Random Side Note: who doesn’t love the word paradigm? If you say it like it’s spelled, you sound like you’re calling out the mascot for Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks Cereal!)
  3. Workplace Culture – More and more young people entering the workplace have seen Office Space and read Dilbert before they’ve experienced it. As such, they have certain biases and are immediately looking to make workplaces more laid back areas where they feel comfortable doing work. There could be an entire discussion regarding the idiosyncrasies of Gen Y, but I’ll leave that to others.

These are not necessarily bad things for any of the generations involved. But a lot of people already in these jobs will be inclined to “break in” or “season” some of the new recruits, especially when it comes to point 2 above. Of course hazing comes to mind, but really I think a better way to say it is “institutionalize” or “teaching”. There are often certain ways to do things that are better than others. One example might be teaching a newer employee how to best measure the current of an op-amp. The new employee might have TONS of ideas of how to do this (probe the voltage across an output resistor or capacitor, crack open the case and probe the tiny silicon chip, simulate the entire thing in SPICE and try to correlate it to a real world model, etc). However, the learning could have been guided by a senior adviser who might know the fastest way to do that task.

In my first job, we were consistently told that we were brought in to shake up the organization. They wanted to hear our ideas and for us to give our input. The problem was that we had never done anything like what we were tasked to do, so much of our input was either ridiculous or ignored (I will point to my own examples first, I was crazy!). I believe the reason they brought us into the company in the first place as inexperienced new workers was to quickly acclimate us to the new environment and type of work. Sure, there won’t be too many great new ideas from the new employees, but they had shown us how things should be done from the beginning. The asking for ideas of the new employees was instead a really great way to appease our needs to contribute, even if it was never implemented.

Is it bad that younger people want to try something new at a job? Should their ideas be squashed if it is “known” that there is a better way? (quotations imply there might be a better way that had never been found)

I’d say it’s fine to try stuff out and even to try and change things at a new work place. The important thing is to remind the younger and new employees to consider all of the costs involved with changing something. It can be expensive and time consuming to do something a new way and in the end might make it a worse solution. If anything, Generation Y needs to know that their ideas are alright to have and even to act on, but that sometimes the best thing to do for a company and for ones own time is to use solutions that are readily available.

What do you think?

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Solar Automation and Micro-Factories

I have a friend who alerted me to a company out in New Mexico known as Solar Automation. They don’t make solar panels; rather, they make the equipment to make solar panel arrays. However, what I find most intriguing about the company is their concept of Micro-Factories. In the case of Solar Automation, the basic idea is that a small team of people are capable of creating solar arrays by soldering the tiny wires with non-lead solder. This same concept could be expanded to many other applications, including mechanical or auto assembly, textiles, food preparation (already done at caterers, really).

Although it exists on a slightly larger scale, China epitomizes the Micro-Factory model. They have large labor pools using simple equipment to make incrementally more complex equipment. One example might be a board house that hand assembles and solders through-hole part boards. This could instead be done in a large facility with automation on expensive equipment. However, the cost for the equipment would likely mandate a large overall throughput for the factory in order to justify the cost of the equipment. Conversely, a smaller hand soldering operation could easily scale the number of people required to make an order of boards. As for energy savings, there can be higher efficiency with a laborer using a low wattage soldering iron as compared to heating lamps or continuously heating a wave solder machine.

The pivotal point in this argument is whether or not the end product requires increasing complexity in the machines that construct it. Solar is a good example. The panels themselves are not particularly complex, mostly they are tons and tons of PN junctions that convert incident light into flowing electrons. However, the chemicals and the semiconductor processing equipment is very complex.

So what are the benefits of Micro-Factories?

  1. Local workforce – With the exception of a privileged few (non-whiners), no one will contend that the US and the world economy is hitting some tough times. Local jobs are outsourced or cut outright. Mom and pop shop workers are now greeters at WalMart. Why not instead allow lower education workers have a job creating something useful for society and the environment, rather than peddling trinkets made 6000 miles away? Added bonus: Your workers do not have to travel from far away to work, thereby cutting down on costs and emissions.
  2. Simple training – Training is not cheap. If you ask people at Samsung, I was training for roughly a year and a half to do my job (and promptly left for a new one). It takes times to get into the swing of things at companies, no matter the task. Why not make the task simpler? The Solar Automation takes a complicated end process and allows simple training to quickly begin.
  3. Built in quality control (eyes) – While this would hinge on the enthusiasm of the workers (and therefore dependent on myriad other factors), it’s a fact that most computers do not notice something innately wrong with a process. Most people will notice if a solar panel is discolored or if a wire is hanging off where it’s supposed to be connected. Until the day when computers are smarter than humans (and cheaper), people will implement a natural form of quality control.

What are the drawbacks, you ask?

  1. If you give a mouse a cookie (cutter job), he’s going to want benefits – My own views about benefits and healthcare aside, it’s a fact that people expect some form of benefits, most easily represented in business as overhead. It expands beyond healthcare and such (think tables and chairs and other things that people expect from jobs), so you might have to label the job as “an alternative workplace” where compensation is higher (in the event you don’t want to/have to provide benefits). Doesn’t mean you can’t have a productive workplace though.
  2. In the solar example, there are still high material costs (the actual solar cells), so the margins will be squeezed. In general, assembly jobs are meant to be high volume, low margin endeavors, so there are risks when material costs rise; doubly so if your revenues are stagnant (because of contracts or otherwise).
  3. Sometimes it’s still cheaper to ship repetitive jobs overseas or automate a process. That’s all there is to it.

Micro-Factories could be a great way to increase employment, mobilize a stagnant workforce and help cut down on emmissions. I would highly suggest you check out the Solar Automation page and leave comments on other places you have seen similar ideas implemented.

Analog Electronics Politics Renewable Energy

Stealing stars and leaving the Barons in the dust

I recently had a high school friend visit and while watching the Olympics and having some beers, conversation turned to China (and the rest of the world). I know, I know, I’ve recently talked about the Olympics and China and such; But this is different. The conversation moved to energy and how it relates to national security, which I also have read about recently in a trade journal. Basically he brought up the astute point that renewable energy needs to be our number one priority in the coming years. We’re not talking 20 or 30 years…we’re talking 2 or 3. Really, it’s that important.

If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Let’s say America reduces its energy dependence and busts its hump to get renewable energy contributing to say 40% of the country’s need (imagine a breakthrough that would allow this). What happens next? Well, if it was overnight (which it wouldn’t be), oil demand and prices would more than likely fall overnight too. Not to worry, I’m sure somewhere along the way that the demand would be filled by large countries that manufacture goods and want some newly cheap energy. But what about (the) US? In succession, we’d be able to say “Goodbye! No Thanks! Don’t Need it anymore!” to: Iraq…Iran….Russia….Venezuela….and China (though we probably wouldn’t with China, they make our stuff, right?). Almost all of the conflicts the US has with other countries center around oil! I would imagine it’s not going to stop with these countries either. Oil will become the driving force behind global conflicts for years to come, followed only by the fight for potable water. So why not go over the oil barons’ heads and make our own energy and let the wind and sun give us all the power for free?

40% of energy coming from renewable energy? Does the US have the brainpower to achieve that? No, not unless just about every scientist and engineer was capable of dropping what they’re doing and shift all their focus to working on energy. But there’s tons of smart scientists and engineers all over the world. What a break! In fact, there are engineers already doing a lot of this renewable energy work already. So maybe we could achieve two things here…first, the US would get scientists to help develop energy solutions that would allow us to ignore the tyrants of the world; second, the US would continue to maintain our most important resource going to the future: intellectual capital.

For the past 100 years, the US has been a leader in technology because of its innovators. These best and brightest minds created everything from electronic building blocks to the computers in which they were utilized. And now we’ve seen not only jobs going overseas, but a lot of the best minds are popping up outside this country too. Not only that, a lot of the top minds are coming to the US to study and then following jobs home to their native countries. So another solution for the benevolent (or otherwise) forces in the world: lure them to the United States and claim them as our own. While intellectual capital may have been one of our greatest resources that is arguably losing ground to the rest of the world, the US still has something that many other countries do not. What other countries have Hollywood, New York City, Chicago, LA, National parks bigger than certain countries and so on and so forth? Where do people want to move for jobs and stay and live and raise families? I think that the US needs to utilize the drawing power of our entire country, our availability of opportunities and our lifestyles (whether people agree with the decadence of western culture or not).

The future of the world in regards to energy is very uncertain; the US will remain a world power only if we are able to recruit the best minds, keep them here and have them help to create a world run on renewable energy.

Learning Life Politics

Conformity vs. Individualism

The other morning I heard a great story on NPR about people in China and their interest in basketball. I was really interested to learn how they believed basketball allowed them to express their individuality. One of them dreamed out loud of being able to dunk and how this was their ultimate dream of freedom.

Aside from the question of how many different ways there are to dunk, it got me thinking about Chinese culture and how it has contributed to their success over the past 8 years or so. It is no secret that the Chinese culture, and specifically the government, stresses conformity. One might think that this would hinder the technological progress in China, but they are quickly becoming a technology leader in the world (it is important to note that a good deal of the continued success of China is companies outside the country driving progress…but not all of it). Add to that how more and more design work is being offshored, due to the low cost and higher supply of design engineers. A slew of questions have popped up in my mind when I think about these kinds of things.

Does conformity hurt a culture?

I would argue that when it comes to academics and business, conformity helps. In school, this is obvious. If you are in a classroom with 50 other students, every student is expected to know that 2 + 2 = 4. Sure, this is a simple example, but the academic system is usually based upon reaching a solution that someone else (the textbook, your teacher, the government, etc) wants you to reach. Further, the extremely competitive nature of academia in China has parents encouraging this behavior, even outside the structures of academia (no, I am not suggesting that 2 + 2 does not equal 4, nor that you should tell your teacher so to be unique, just that conformity can travel beyond the walls of a school). Academic stress happens in America too, I just feel like it is more ubiquitous in China.

What about in business? This too has some benefits. Think about a production line in China, cranking out iPod after iPod, all made to be the exact same, with the outliers and the bad production techniques tweaked to remove these expensively bad units. The faster each unit can be made the same, the cheaper that unit will be, and the happier the company selling it will be. The concept was created in the wake of World War 2, when the Japanese began to focus heavily on quality control; today, the Chinese benefit from these methods of conformity.

So business and school both seem to be havens for conformity. But what about situations that require some ingenuity? What happens when the product that is made so fast and becomes so cheap and ubiquitous that the public is clamoring for a newer and shinier device? (an iPhone instead of an iPod, for example) Who will create the technology that will drive the next revolution? What about when there are students that rise to the top of their class and go on to get a PhD? What happens when the smartest student goes to the best school and gets the highest degree possible after conforming to all the standards placed before them? Then they stare out into the abyss and try to figure out something new, only to realize that no one is there telling them what they need to figure out. I’m not saying this happens, only that it is an interesting scenario and it begs the question: is absolute conformity a good thing?

Is the academic system set up for failure eventually?

This is an extension of the above idea about PhD students. I know many PhD students (in the US) who tell me about their research being only that which their advisor wants. Further, while they are working on their research, they are hoping and praying that there are not any other students about to publish similar results as their own. Perhaps this is why we see more PhD students who are from outside the US (studying at US schools) or are getting PhDs at international institutions–because the fastest paper published is the most important, not the most creative. Perhaps the conformity aspect of academia extends beyond the simple math equations into the upper echelons of higher education. I think the scariest part is the students who eventually become the teachers. If you think about the rigor involved in obtaining a professorship these days, it can include 1 or more PhDs, multiple post doctorate positions and continual paper publishing throughout one’s career. This basically means that the most astute students of the system (those that best navigate the conformity requirements placed upon them) are the ones that become the teachers. These same people then expect the same (or more!) out of the rising students. One has to wonder when this sort of thing will stop.

Another point about the academic system that confuses me is whether or not the students who exhibit some amount of individuality are more or less successful. I would like to think that those with bright new ideas rise to the top, but I am not so sure that this happens. Perhaps instead the ones that conform the quickest and those with the best advisors do the best. Personally, I have never heard of an academic phenom that did not have a spectacular advisor guiding them through the world of academics.

What is individuality?

Well, the idea is that an individual is capable of defining themselves as different from all other people. Does this happen very often? No, of course not. Even this article I am writing now has been conceived and written about many times over. But I view individuality as the opposite of conformity; it is bucking the norm, even if others do too (some small amount of them, of course. If the majority buck the trend, it becomes the new trend).

How does individualism affect creativity?

Creativity is a nebulous and fickle thing. Further, I don’t think that individuality breeds creativity; instead, I believe creativity breeds individuality. This is important to engineering because without creativity, engineering would essentially stop in its tracks. There would be no new methods, no new products, no intellectual progress. Most importantly (and realistically), there would be no financial gain and therefore no more funding to teach and advance engineering. Of course this also extends outside of engineering; art programs, humanities, economics, language (?)…none of these would be funded if there was no creativity and new ideas. Instead, the money would focus on getting the best value from what is already being made. If this is the case, Seth Godin points out not to follow the money.

Does too much individualism breed a sense of entitlement?

I think it’s important to view the other side of this issue. What happens when students are given the freedom to express themselves and the means to do so? In the extreme cases, I think that students are more prone to laziness, replication (copying others) and a sense of entitlement. Let’s look at an American student as it is interesting to contrast the difference from a Chinese student. Many newly graduating students are demanding higher salaries, more responsibilities and have less experience. Some people justify it (and rightly so), but does that mean we’re worth the more than our last generation? I’m not so sure.

C’mon people, of course the extremes of conformity and individualism will have their faults. Of course there will be some mixing of the two that will produce the best engineers and the best students. However, I would really love to hear from you about your opinions on individuality and conformity.

Politics Renewable Energy Supply Chain

McCain, Gas Prices & the Enron Loophole – Keith Olbermann

I am definitely a fan of Keith Olbermann. There is no denying that he is more than a little left of center, but I feel that he is a bare-knuckled reporter first and foremost and that he will take it to just about any politician, including Obama. Also, I know it’s corny, but I like that he has adopted the Edward Murrow sign off (“Good night and good luck”) and I think that some of his blunt and thorough investigative reports have earned him the right to do so. He definitely gets a little more riled up though…

Anyway, I think this report that Olbermann gives (see link below) is pertinent to this blog because of the effect of gas prices on renewable energy. Aside from the fact that there really are some crook speculators out there (Ben Graham is rolling over in his grave), I have to wonder if this blog would even exist if the gas prices weren’t so high? Would America really care about the environment if our pocket books weren’t shouting at us? Would anyone really care about solar power other than the environmentalists who were investigating it in the first place? I think the answer to that is no. Americans would have happily gone about their world if gas prices stayed the same. There would still be some fringe interest about the environment and about generating cheap, renewable energy (eventually). But otherwise, we’d still be loving our SUVs here in America.

As I’ve written about before, renewable energy will require economies of scale. There’s no other way to really bring down the prices enough for anyone other than Hollywood celebs and Internet startup gurus to afford the power methods available today. And so even though they mention the banks coming in and hurting the consumers in this clip (as I also mention here), it might be a necessary step in the overall evolution of renewable energy.

To make a big impact in renewable energy we have to accept that it will have to be big business.

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