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Archive for October, 2012

Do You Know Your Politician? Do They Know You?

Monday, October 29th, 2012

As I sat down with my customary glass of whiskey at the in-laws a few days ago, I noticed my father-in-laws copy of American Rifleman from the NRA sitting on the end table. It’s always an entertaining magazine, so I picked it up.  The ads are by far the best part.  Was I a husband and father by any chance, one ad asked?  Well, yes, yes I am.  Was I prepared to protect my family?  Ha, I thought I had them figured, solid gun owner here, certainly they’re preaching to the choir!  Obviously I owned a gun they said.  But, was I prepared to use it?  Was I ready to scrabble on my belly across the house and then take the kill shot as I slid down the stairs on my back to surprise the would-be home invader?  Because, that scum sucking, coked out invader would be ready. He’d trained all his life in various penal facilities  and he sir, he would be ready.  The ad ended by suggesting I purchase their DVD on tactical combat strategies.  Hehehe, as usual, the magazine had been good for at least one good laugh!

I read on through the magazine. Did I realize that in a car-jacking situation I’d need a weapon with a quick swing and a wider spread?  Introducing the “Adjudicator”!  Whoa, that thing can take out a watermelon! As I approached  the centerfold I noticed it was printed on heavier card stock.  What would it be?  Perhaps a spread of Corey Cogdell, Olympic medalist trap shooter?  Maybe a picture of Tom Selleck, (the NRA’s spokesman), in his ’80s Magnum PI short shorts?

Alas, it wasn’t either of those things.  It was a full eight page spread on who the NRA suggested their readers vote for in the upcoming elections.  It went all the way down to the office of railroad commissioner.  They had symbols that indicated how each candidate stood on each NRA initiative.  No stone was left unturned.

This got me to thinking about engineers and elections.  A few months back, I watched an online hangout where several ‘everyday’ citizens got to ask President Obama questions.  One part in particular stood out for me.  You’ll see why.

If you don’t have the three minutes to watch the exchange between Jennifer Weddel of Fort Worth, TX and the President, I’ll fill in the details for you.  Ms. Weddel asks why the H1-B program is being expanded to help with the ‘shortage of engineers’ when her husband who is an engineer has been unable to find permanent work in several years. President Obama is surprised to hear this, and inquires if her husband might be a civil engineer, (apparently we have plenty of those).  Ms. Weddel tells him no, her husband is in fact a semiconductor engineer.  At this point, President Obama seems genuinely perplexed since that is exactly the kind of engineer he was under the impression we had a shortage of and offers to help Ms. Weddel if she’ll send along more information about what sort of job her husband is looking for and his professional details.

I’ve watched the televised congressional hearings where tech company CEOs have described the harsh hiring environments they must endure in their search for the elusive engineer.  I’ve also spoken with a number of engineers who haven’t seen so much as a  cost of living increase in their paychecks over the last few years.  These two pieces of evidence are in direct conflict with each other and what I learned about supply and demand in fifth grade social studies and quoted here from Wikipedia:

If demand increases and supply remains unchanged, then it leads to higher equilibrium price and higher quantity

Watching President Obama, it occurred to me… Maybe he really doesn’t know!  Maybe he really only has one set of facts!  It is possible he’s only heard from tech company CEOs/CFOs.  I’ve certainly never sent a letter to him about what I’ve seen in the industry.

So, first a question and then a request.  I have an admittedly very limited data set on the ‘shortage of engineering talent’.  What are you seeing in the industry?  Is job hopping becoming as frequent as it was in say, 2000?  Are engineers receiving regular retention raises again, or does this quote from a recent Austin-American Statesman article by Dan Zehr on the hiring situation in Austin sum up what your seeing?

“Companies are investing in talent,” she said, “but they’re not necessarily ready to pay what it costs to land talent yet.”

Now for the request.  If you know the answers to these questions, please forward what you’re seeing in your locale to your representatives, senators, and of course the President.  Oh!  And don’t forget to vote next week!



The Week in Space 10/13/2012

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

Sam Blalock Carter arrived on the planet  at around 2:15 in the afternoon on October 13th, of 2012! He’s the newest addition to our family, and as his dad, I’m of course beaming!

When I was little, my dad made sure to hold onto all the newspaper clippings from the Apollo 11 landing that took place a few months after I was born. When I was old enough to understand that there was a moon, and that we could go there, he pulled out the perfectly preserved clippings and showed them to me.  Later when I told him I wanted to be an astronaut, he patiently explained to me that by the time I was grown up, astronauts would be the equivalent of truck drivers.  Sure, they’d fly the space ship, but just back and forth to the destination.  What I really wanted to be he explained was a scientist who could fly to a location in space and then do interesting work there.  To this day, my dad is the only person I know who has ever described an astronaut as a truck driver.

So, in the interest of family traditions and whatnot, I though it would be fun to capture here the happenings in space that took place the week before Sam was born.  It’s not the moon Sam, but in it’s own way, it’s very, very cool.  On October 10th, the SpaceX Dragon became the first commercial cargo carrier, (maybe dad, your grandpa Sam, wasn’t too far off with the truck driver analogy), used by NASA to restock the International Space Station.

In and of itself, the spacecraft is cool.  The Falcon 9 launch vehicle that placed the Dragon in orbit actually lost one of its rocket engines on the way up, but guess what?  It was designed to handle that and the launch came off without a hitch.  The Dragon capsule itself is reusable and for the moment, splashes back to Earth via parachutes.

Equally as cool is the story behind the company that launched the vehicle and it’s founder.  Sam, your dad was lucky enough to get to attend the 2008 ISPCS in Las Cruces, NM where Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, spoke about the company and his dream for it.  Elon first outlined how he and his brother had founded and then sold PayPal which provided him with the funding he needed for his two other goals.  The first of his goals was to make the planet more habitable; to that end he had started an electric car company, Tesla Motors.  The second of his goals was to provide a path off the planet and to that end SpaceX was born.  Elon went on at length about how what he called bomb-on-butt launch vehicles that are currently used must ultimately be replaced by more efficient devices, (again, it’s good to be a scientist/engineer).  The talk was captivating, it lined up with what your dad had thought for awhile, and consequently, a few years later when you were born Sam, your dad was studying physics, specifically the Casimir Effect, (who knows, NASA might be onto something).

I’ll leave you with an interesting side note about something I observed while at ISPCS that year.  NASA had started their competition for a space shuttle replacement.  Word at the convention was that SpaceX might have the competition all locked up if for no other reason than they were one of only two companies that had provided NASA with all the required materials on time.  Interestingly, several rather mature white-bearded men were scurrying around the conference that day and the next.  A few questions revealed that these folks were from the ‘other’, ‘established’ aerospace companies that hadn’t been able to meet the deadlines.  On the last day of the conference, NASA announced that they were ‘re-opening’ the competition.

A mere four years later, it’s heartening to see the SpaceX Dragon docked with the ISS.  It’s kind of awesome that in the current atmosphere of iPhone patents, corporate lawyers and giant bureaucracys, an entrepreneur with a great idea and flawless execution can still wind up on top!

Casimir over Cocktails

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

It’s been said that any good explanation you truly understand. you should be able to deliver in five minutes over cocktails. I’ll add a 2000’s caveat that you should also be able to type the first draft on a cell phone keyboard after consuming said cocktails. So, after having two Irish whiskys, pressed into my hands by my father-in-law, (I have the best father-in-law), and while quietly waiting for our one year old to drift off to sleep, I begin. Two weeks ago it was all the rage on the internet that Eagleworks had been funded. by NASA and was hot on the trail of a viable warp drive solution(pdf, search for ‘quantum vaccum’ within). Their solution utilized a number of avant-garde physics theories (at least they were avant-garde in the ‘40s), including the Casimir effect. Since this effect can be observed at nano-tech scales, let’s start there.

Fans of Stargate, (I’ve always been a fan of MacGyver and our  kid loves watching the show to unwind after a hard day at daycare), will recognize the term Zero Point Module. Well, that utilizes the same energy as the Casimir effect. If you want to wow your friends, here’s the skinny on the ZPM, (Casimir effect.). For a variety of reasons I won’t go into here, in the 1940′s a lot of smart guys figured out that electromagnetic radiation behaved like a harmonic oscillator (think about a friction-less ball oscillating back and forth. on a friction-less parabola), and that the fields energy wad quantized in units of (n+1/2) times the frequency times Planck’s constant, (where n is any integer greater than or equal to zero and Planck’s constant is a very small number). What that means for you and me is that even when n equals zero, even in a complete vacuum, there’s still energy(it’s the fault of that one the equation). Even when nothing is going on, there’s a sort of cosmic backwash of every frequency of EM radiation you can think of.

So, that’s your so called zero point energy, but what does it have to do with the Casimir effect, and for that matter, what is the Casimir effect anyway? In 1948, Casimir predicted that when two conducting plates were brought very close together, (think on the micron scale,), they would suddenly attract each other. It’s no so much though that they’re attracting each other as that they’re being pushed together. Due to certain physical boundary conditions, defined in your undergraduate EM class, only certain frequencies of the zero point energy can exist between the two conducting plates. Outside the plates, every frequency of radiation can still exist and does. The difference in the amount of radiation between the plates and outside the plates causes an energy pressure differential and the excess radiation outside the plates pushes the plates together. We began to see experimental verification of this as soon as the 1970s.

by Thomas Eakins, Philadelphia Museum of Art

There’s a macroscopic analogy to all of this. For centuries, sailors have warned that two ships shouldn’t pass too closely to each other or they would suddenly be smashed together for apparently no good reason. The same mechanism is at work here. As the ships near each other, there are fewer wavelengths of ocean waves that can exist between them than are available for the entire ocean outside the ships. The pressure differential in the waves between the ships compared to the waves outside of the ships results in the two ships being pushed together. Don’t believe it? Some students at the Naval Postgraduate School demonstrated it experimentally with two plates in a beaker of water. If you’re near a university you can read about it in a back issue of the American Journal of Physics, specifically (B. Denardo, J. Puda, A. Larraza, “A Water Wave Analog of the Casimir Effect”, American Journal of Physics, 77, (2009), 1095).

Speaking of oceans, if you want to fully explain warp drive technology, you’re going to need to know about Dirac’s “infinite sea of electrons”. This one’s a doozy.  That’s where we’ll pick up next time.

Interesting lesson learned while drafting on a cell phone:  While Casimir is not known by the auto-complete feature, MacGyver is!