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Common Purposes

What are the Common Purposes? I've dwelt on that question since first reading my alma mater's founding principle "for the purposes of instructing persons, who may choose to apply themselves, in the application of science to the common purposes of life". The question, more than any answer I may ever offer, has guided me through many personal and professional endeavors. And, if I have learned anything it is that I have derived my greatest joy when I, as part of a team, have made a lasting difference to improve the lives of others. Should the thoughts I share here and the ensuing discussion lead others to ask the same question, to seek their own answers and to experience the same joy as I, then I shall consider this effort of value.

Image: "The New Shoes" by Jane Bucci. This work is based on the touching photo snapped by Gerald Waller in 1946, in Austria. The little boy, who lived in an orphanage, had just been given new shoes by the American Red Cross.

Modern Living Through Chemistry? Electronics? Agriculture?

Posted August 10, 2013 12:12 PM by MillMatt

Can man live by bread alone? This rhetorical question has its roots in the Bible where related phraseology is found three times and the intent is spiritual not physiological. But, the rhetorical question has gained a life of its own and does speak to the issue of our need for food and the rise of agriculture, a massive global industry.

Better living through chemistry. That phrase has its roots in the trademarked advertising slogan "Better Things for Better Living...Through Chemistry" that DuPont (actually, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company) introduced in 1935. Dupont dropped "Through Chemistry" in 1982 but the phrase, "Better living through chemistry" lives on and, indeed, speaks to the global chemicals industry which has roots in petroleum and other natural resources.

Reach out and touch someone. AT&T introduced this identifiable slogan in 1979 as competition arose when the telecommunications industry (there was no internet, no cell phones then) was being untethered from government regulations (and a monopolistic industry structure). There are many variations on this theme which are juxtaposed (in my mind) to Google's admonishing "Don't Be Evil". (I know the story but what are they thinking now?) Alas, I digress. My point here is that the Electronics industry has grown rapidly (no kidding!), still is growing and seems central to our lives. But, is it?

The answer is yes. But, it's never that simple. And, that's what we'll begin to explore for these industries.

3 comments; last comment on 08/11/2013
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Industries Serving Global Needs

Posted August 09, 2013 3:27 PM by MillMatt

A chicken is interested in the person who wants bacon and eggs for breakfast but the pig is committed. It's a light quip (for all but the pig!) but it makes a relevant statement about what underpins our actions and how often we can overlook the significance of the events we can trigger.

My intent is to start looking at the industries that exist because of the needs we have and the wants (or desires) that we are able to fulfill. In other words, we don't drive cars because they exist but cars exist because we need transportation and we, collectively, have found a way to harness the power in petroleum for a mechanical system that affords a more economical means to satisfy our needs. I'm being very brief here and know that I could comment on horses, wagons, watercraft and more but I'll let it suffice that you, dear readers, will allow me to build upon this premise, from the perspective I have chosen, without getting into the weeds (for now…).

What is that we need? What desires do we have the luxury of affording? We need food, shelter and clothing? And, Maslow tells us that we have a hierarchy of needs that veer into social psychological and spiritual realms. Way down the road, I may venture into some of Maslow's more subjective ideas but for now let's focus on objective matters where this blogs audience generally focuses its attention.

And, on we go to begin our discussion.....

6 comments; last comment on 12/18/2013
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Shale Gas, Tight Oil, Carbon Emissions and You

Posted June 29, 2013 12:00 AM by MillMatt

Methinks, yet again, there is change blowing in the wind. US President Barack Obama presented his plan for reducing

carbon emissions to thwart climate change at Georgetown University on June 25, 2013. I confess I have only heard the summary from several news sources and understand (from these sources) that he is focusing on increased renewable energy sources (possibly a doubling of such capacity) and reducing the amount of coal burned to generate electricity.

Even if I have misunderstood the pundits, there has already been a fair amount of discussion on what is right and wrong with these approaches. And, of course, it is evident that their level of agreement or disagreement is based upon the economic impact his plan will have on the pundit. I don't know that anyone in the coal industry wishes to see their business face more regulatory hurdles, taxes, fines, etc.

Frankly, I don't know how far any government can go to restrict economic activity especially as it relates to electricity. Almost all of us are tethered to electricity and for many (the ill, the infirmed) it is literally as necessary as water and air. As such, it is not easy for the populace to grapple with immediate needs (for electricity) versus long term needs (for a sustainable environment). Yes, we can do our part to reduce, reuse, and recycle, to be more efficient but we want our mobility, our information, our communication, our lights, our heat, and our air conditioning. As I said above, government regulation can only go so far.

As I see it, the newfound shale gas and tight oil that is now being tapped in parts of the United States is the beginning of a revolution that changes the equation in a way that can be good for both the climate change issue that President Obama addressed and consumer demand (I'll call it a 'want' and not a 'need' but wars have been fought over similar 'wants').

At this point, I can only ask questions but I think it is important to ask questions and sustain a dialog because I believe that the world economy could be (and probably will be) transformed by the energy and raw materials derived from shale gas and tight oil not only in the United States but globally. The drilling and production now underway may transform the petrochemical industry and may provide energy for use by utilities, industry, and consumers that is cleaner and more efficient. If so, we may want to apply more technical, financial, and industrial resources to these efforts. And we may find that the application of these resources trump any legislated resources (or, as they are often seen, constraints).

I believe I am doing what I can and hope to do more; so the singular question I ask is: Are you?

20 comments; last comment on 04/29/2014
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What Am I Doing? And, Why Am I Doing It?

Posted June 25, 2013 2:19 PM by MillMatt

Earlier this week, I posted a reply to a CR4 question about whether it was better to major in chemical engineering or mechanical engineering. The asker had an interest in the oil & gas industry and, at present, there is a demand for chemical engineers in that industry so that leads to one answer. But, there are plenty of opportunities for mechanical engineers and engineers of every shape and flavor in the oil and gas industry! So, I suggested that the person assess their own personal interests and, in so many words, find a good balance between their own interests, abilities and energy and the needs of the marketplace. For someone who is probably about 20 years old, it would be a horrible situation to spend the next 40 years doing work they did not enjoy.

I also raised the issue of taking courses beyond the core curriculum, meaning for a mechanical engineer to take some higher level chemical engineering classes. And, from my perspective, it's really important to remember that four years of college education are merely a foundation and represent only the beginning of lifelong education. As the college president commented at my daughter's graduation, the awarding of degrees is done at a "commencement", a beginning, a going-forward and not an ending by any stretch of the imagination.

Last night I was on the golf course in the company of two college students. We had a great time (thank you). One of these fellows is a Mechanical Engineering student who has just finished his junior year. He's been working with a major manufacturer during school breaks and has now joined them for a six month assignment. This so-called "co-op" (co-operative education) assignment is similar to something I did in school and I think it's a very valuable and relevant part of the educational process. And, even though he's just starting, he shared an interesting insight.

He said, "Well, I'm not doing very much engineering work." Oh? I wasn't surprised by his comment and I've heard it from other new engineers, too. Ah, but you are doing important work! And, while you may not be developing a lot of mathematically-derived process improvements or new products, that kind of work may come in time. At the moment, he is developing other skills relevant to progress that are certainly applicable to industry (his current role), to research, academia and any other endeavor he chooses. Communication is essential to success!

I had also commented on the CR4 reply that it was important to place a fair emphasis on non-technical pursuits as part of lifelong learning. As I've come to learn, communication is more than just sharing facts with other people. It's also requires understanding, different perspectives and experiences and it's very much about building trust. By studying history, literature, theater, the arts, music, religion, politics and more, we gain perspective and insights that can build our self-awareness, our understanding of others (something like walking in their shoes) and our ability to truly engage others in communication that is effective.

It never ends! And, it never should…..

3 comments; last comment on 06/26/2013
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Much To Do! Twelve Potentially Economically Disruptive Technologies

Posted June 12, 2013 12:12 PM by MillMatt

Please read this free and insightful report from McKinsey & Co.: Disruptive Technologies: Advances that will Transform Life, Business, and the Global Economy. You will be glad you did. (Note: there is a link to an Executive Summary and a Full Report; the full report is long but well worth your time.)

I'm going to be very brief here in my remarks. The report is long and speaks for itself; I would rather you read it than my thoughts on the matter. Suffice it to say, once in a GREAT while, a knowledgeable group of individuals will undertake a thoughtful review and present information of value in a logical and inspiring manner. And, in this case, the information is of incredible professional value to the CR4 audience.

In a nutshell, McKinsey's team has assessed various technologies currently being developed and presented information on the twelve that they believe meet the following criteria:

  • High rate of technology change
  • Broad potential scope of impact
  • Large economic value that could be affected (by 2025)
  • Substantial potential for disruptive economic impact (by 2025)

The twelve technologies are:

Mobile InternetIncreasingly inexpensive and capable mobile computing devices and internet connectivity
Automation of Knowledge WorkIntelligent software systems that can perform knowledge work tasks involving unstructured commands and subtle judgments
Internet of ThingsNetworks of low-cost sensors and actuators for data collection, monitoring, decision making and process optimization
Cloud TechnologyUse of computer hardware and software resources delivered over a network or the internet, often as a service
Advanced RoboticsIncreasingly capable robots with enhanced senses, dexterity and intelligence used to automate tasks or augment humans
Autonomous/Near Autonomous VehiclesVehicles that can navigate and operate with reduced or no human intervention
Next Generation GenomicsFast, low-cost gene sequencing, advanced big data analytics and synthetic biology ("writing" DNA)
Energy StorageDevices or systems that store energy for later user, including batteries
3D PrintingAdditive manufacturing techniques to create objects by printing layers of material based on digital models
Advanced MaterialsMaterials designed to have superior characteristics (strength, weight, conductivity) or functionality
Advanced Oil & Gas Exploration/RecoveryExploration and recovery techniques that make extraction of unconventional oil/gas economical
Renewable EnergyGeneration of electricity from renewable sources with reduced harmful climate impact

Let it never be said that people in need cannot be served, that there are insufficient tools or that we lack enough opportunity. Go forth and make it a better world.

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Be True to your School (Ranking)

Posted May 09, 2013 11:44 AM by MillMatt

Forbes Magazine joined the fray a few years ago in ranking America's Colleges and recently issued their 2012 results. US News & World Report (USN&WR) has offered such rankings for many years as they proved of interest to college-bound students (and their parents, most likely). Over time, colleges started to take note of their ranking and, as has been observed, many colleges started to focus on the metrics (possibly to the detriment of their primary focus) to improve their standing. Could millions of dollars in funding and alumni donations be at stake? Could the quality of applications change based upon a school's ranking? Perhaps.

Forbes relies on the work of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) to prepare their ranking. CCAP shares reports publicly that cover a range of interesting topics centered on American Colleges and I gather they take their work very seriously and earnestly. With regard to the ranking they prepare for Forbes, they provide a fairly detailed summary of their criteria, their sources and their methodology. And, they provide a summary ranking for each of the criteria by school.

CCAP uses five general categories:

1. Student Satisfaction - Student evaluations, retention rates (27.5%)

2. Post-Graduate Success - Who's Who, American Leaders and Salaries (32.5%)

3. Student Debt - Debt loads, default rates, debt percentage (17.5%)

4. Four-year Graduation Rate - four year graduation rate (11.25%)

5. Academic Success - student awards and alumni with PhD's (11.25%)

Remember that Forbes' tagline is "The Capitalist Tool" so they have a focus on capitalism and, in general, have a penchant for monetary returns and professional acumen as a measure for success. So, it is not surprising that they weight salaries, graduation rates, and academic achievement highly. Curiously, however, the measure with the highest weight (at 17.5%) is Student Evaluations from RateMyProfessor.com (RMP). Now, the good folks at CCAP have done their homework on assessing the validity of the RMP data and they have done their own analyses (as well as corroborating work by others) to qualify the value of these data. I have read a reasonable number of blog posts that question the CCAP data but I'll not quibble with the detractors for now. But, why is it that a subjective measure from students (the most confounding of all consumers as the less you give them the happier they are!) on a populist website would have the highest individual value in the overall ranking? Do Barron's or Fiske include such a measure?

CCAP generates a score for each element of the five categories and in some fashion (which is a mystery to me) generates a total score. As stated above, they do weight the value of the scores but it's not clear to me if (or how) they normalize or scale the scores such that they can be meaningfully combined. I do know that in the tabular summary for each category, CCAP provides information for each school by its rank order. Is the total score based upon a school's rank within each sub-category? I hope not! But, I can't say it's obvious to me how the final score is determined.

I wrote to CCAP (they provide an address on their website) seeking more information on the actual scores for each school. I received a timely reply that stated, "Unfortunately, we are contractually obligated not to make the raw RMP scores publicly available." Fair enough; if Forbes paid for this work to be done, they can do with it as they wish. But, I do not believe it's a good idea to keep the data private for the schools, their professors, students and alumni, for Forbes or for CCAP.

Here's a simple anecdote of explanation: I ran into a similar situation reviewing wages for teachers in several districts where I live. One local union was upset that their wages were ranked among some of the lowest in the county while all measures of success (test scores, enrollment and much more) were ranked at or near the top. It is not difficult to see why such a situation could turn into a major issue with placards and protests! Alas, pay rates are not a complete measure of compensation (medical benefits, retirement, days worked, etc.) and even if they were, the variations in pay rates were not egregiously different. Sure, if I'm making $500 less than someone else doing the same job, I do care and I would want the situation rectified; I do get that point. But, for union leaders to fan the flames with incomplete statements about pay scale rankings does more harm than good.

So, I ask CCAP, again: What are the actual scores, particularly the RMP scores, for these colleges? How significantly do these scores vary by category? Are the top ranked colleges really that much better than those at the bottom by your quantitative measures? It simply is not sufficient for a magazine of Forbes' stature and readership or for CCAP to present information in a manner that cannot be substantiated.

Bottom Line: Their results are of interest. For now, however, they are doing more harm than good.

4 comments; last comment on 05/15/2013
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