Sunday, August 8, 2010

Pushing the Mental Play Button - How We Get Off Hold

Bob Herbert has written an thought and comment provoking column for the New York Times titled Putting Our Brains On Hold. The column was published on August 6, 2010 and two days later has attracted more than 820 comments filling 33 web pages. I have just read the first 100 of them, but they indicate that Bob has touched a real nerve.

His column is a lament about the sad state of education in America; his focus is the country's gradual slide from the top to number 12 on the list of 36 developed countries when measured by the percentage of people aged 25-34 with college degrees. Herbert believes that this single statistic is illustrative of a trend that has been going on for many years where educational achievement has been devalued and replaced by a thirst for entertainment, desire to cut spending, and a media focus on simple story lines that do not encourage critical thinking skills.

The commenters have introduced some additional areas of concern including the rising cost of college educations, the rising importance of government guaranteed student loans as a profit center for banks, the actions by big business to devalue employees, the increasing trend of offshore production, and the changing value that parents put on education compared to sports. There have also been quite a few who have pointed to the size of military and prison operations budgets compared to the budgets going to support primary, secondary and college education.

Now that the diagnosis is reasonably clear and some of the contributing factors have been identified, the question that always interests me is - how do we fix the problem? What can older Americans who generally have achieved higher levels of education do to help change the momentum from falling to rising again? Let's see if we can build a list of actions. I'll start with an unordered list.
  • Emphasize educational achievement in our own families.
  • Attend public meetings supporting school budgets.
  • Question salaries for coaches compared to professors.
  • Change buying habits to emphasize quality and value over price.
  • Encourage technological advances.
  • Work to lower the cost of higher education for all students.
  • Turn off television sets more often.
  • Encourage higher levels of literacy.
  • Volunteer in local schools as a speaker.
  • Read to young people.
  • Help parents understand their value in the educational process.
  • Emphasize the value of an accessible public education system. (Remember, not everyone has the good fortune to be born in a family with capable parents.)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Machines Do Not Buy Anything

I have just read the latest issue of Bloomberg's BusinessWeek. Sometimes I wonder if anyone else made the same connections between the articles that I did as I was reading.

Here are key points from various articles. American consumers are nervous about the future. Big business enterprises are sitting on a mountain of cash. Low interest rates in the United States are encouraging investors to put their cash in countries with higher rates of return. Businesses are investing in machinery because they do not have to pay it overtime or pay for its medical coverage. Businessmen are beginning to worry more about a lack of sales than about higher costs. Businesses that focus on consumer sales are more worried than those that sell to other businesses. Consumer sales make up 70% of the American economy. Unemployment and underemployment are high and not falling. Businesses are using uncertainty about employment to drive down labor costs.

Here is the way I see it. Economies do not function well when money gets put into figurative mattresses. That is essentially what is happening now because businesses are piling up cash. Companies led by people who have been trained to believe that employees are all cost and no value are doing all they can to reduce head count while increasing their sales. They cannot figure out why fewer people are buying; apparently they do not realize that many other businesses are led by people who have received exactly the same lessons. When enough companies get into the employment suppression mode, employees lose their confidence in the future.

What business leaders have apparently missed in their education is that a synonym for "employee" is "consumer". They have misunderstood lessons from history that show that confident Americans who believe that they will be able to find work, get raises, and earn promotions like to spend money along the way. They will willingly borrow when they are pretty sure that they will be able to pay back the loans at a time when money is increasingly available to them.

That optimism has made the American market one of the world's most lucrative places to sell goods and services, a status that lasted for many decades. However, businessmen thought that they could earn more money by moving jobs and production overseas or by replacing people with machines. The fault in their logic was that people who do not have jobs or who become afraid that they may not have jobs in the future eventually lose their optimism and their willingness to spend.

Since more and more large businesses are not run by entrepreneurial types who have motives like building communities, employing themselves rather than working for someone else, creating excellent products or even providing employment opportunities for friends and family members there is a groupthink mentality settling in at the top of major corporations that is quite hazardous. Each company believes that their road to increased prosperity is driving out the cost of operation, but they cannot figure out why their sales volume keeps dropping.

I am not sure how America gets off of this downward spiral. Maybe employees can start the process by taking more control of their own assets and selling their investments in companies that keep firing people. Somehow, the market needs to recognize that cost cutting with ever falling sales volume is a bad business strategy that should not be rewarded, even if the net profit numbers tick up every now and then.

(Note: The title of this post is a play on a headline of an article titled "Machines Do Not Earn Overtime" in the print edition of BusinessWeek.)

Friday, June 18, 2010

It is probable that atmospheric scientists were wrong about CFC's

I have been troubled for many years over the world's decision to stop large scale production of a class of useful chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). As an operational engineer who was assigned the overall responsibility for a half a dozen or so large air conditioning and refrigeration units on board a nuclear powered submarine, I learned that those chemicals were had some very useful properties. They were used as the working fluids in compact, efficient machines that helped to maintain an environment that was healthy for human habitation, even though we were inside a steel tube, surrounded by high pressure sea water with no regular access to outside air or food resupply.

The air conditioning units kept the temperatures comfortable for both humans and sensitive electrical equipment, despite the fact that also sealed up inside that metal tube with 150 humans was a rather large steam power plant. The refrigeration units kept our food at a carefully measured temperature - some refrigerated, some frozen. Those machines were "mission critical" for us since we had to ensure that our food was fit for consumption even after being stored for months at a time.

There were other choices available for air conditioning and refrigeration working fluids, but they were all inferior for various reasons when compared to the R-12 and R-114 that we used. Some of them were wildly inappropriate for use on board a sealed submarine; ammonia, for example, was a potential option for air conditioning units in well-ventilated warehouses, but it would be deadly if it leaked inside a submarine. Vapor absorption air conditioners were an option, but there were no such thing as vapor absorption refrigerators or freezers. Those units could make chilled water as cold as 42 degrees F, but could not bring the temperature any lower due to the physical limits of the technology.

Anyone who has ever operated and maintained large, complex piping systems in the real world will know that there is always a potential for leaks; all systems on board submarines are carefully evaluated for potential health effects under worst case conditions. CFCs had been found to be non-toxic and not harmful to people as long as they did not displace so much oxygen as to cause suffocation.

That hazard was made less of a worry with CFCs because they are about 5-7 times as heavy as air and tend to pool in the very lowest spaces in any environment where they leak. On submarines, as is the case for most ships, there are deckplates installed for people to walk on that are raised above the very lowest parts of the ship - what sailors call the bilges. Those bilges are places where small amounts of water, oil and other liquids tend to fall and accumulate before they can be pumped into holding tanks for later removal from the ship.

During my assignments as an engineering officer, we experienced some significant leaks from our air conditioning units that released a substantial quantity of R-114 into the ship while underwater. Even though submarines are equipped with numerous fans for air recirculation and to ensure that no areas stagnate, we always located the Freon in the bilge, with the concentration being very high within just a few inches of the bottom and falling off rapidly as we raised the detector above that level. When we experienced the leaks, we were able to accept having Freon in our living spaces until it was convenient for us to go up and ventilate. When we did, we had to run blowers with suctions from the bilges to get the R-114 off of the ship.

The behavior of CFCs made sense to us and followed exactly what we had been taught about heavier than air vapors - they tend to sink due to gravity, though there is a certain amount of dispersion and diffusion caused by a material property called vapor pressure. The heavier the vapor, the faster it would sink. Generally speaking, heavier vapors will have less dispersion and diffusion. Since we were operators, not scientists or mathematicians, we did not need to be too concerned with the exact equations, but we did need to understand the physical behavior of these kinds of vapors.

Knowing that heavy vapors tend to sink and that lighter ones tend to rise can be a life saving bit of knowledge. If you are trying to get out of a space where there is smoke and fire, you know you should stay low, where there is better chance of finding breathable air. If you are in a space where there has been a known spill or leak of a heavy vapor that is toxic, explosive or flammable, you have a better chance of surviving if you understand that the vapor will accumulate in the lowest parts of the space and might be at a high enough concentration to burn, explode or kill you from inhalation.

It is with that experience of Freon leaks and safety training that I have never understood how the world's leading atmospheric scientists could have convinced themselves that CFCs tend to rise up through the atmosphere into the stratosphere where they are finally broken down. Even if a few stray molecules of the gas do make it up that high, it would defy gravity to believe that they did so at high enough concentrations to have caused any harm.

At the time that the scientists were convincing themselves that CFC's were destroying the ozone layer, a large portion of the CFC's that had ever been manufactured were still in the systems where they were being used as the working fluid. Though Freon and other CFC's were not terribly expensive (before their production rates were severely limited) and they were not considered to be toxic, the people who designed and manufactured refrigeration and air conditioning systems took care to build tight systems with little leakage.

Most of us take for granted the fact that we rarely, if ever, have to replace the Freon in our refrigerators or central air conditioning systems. Those leak tight systems add to the reliability and protect the rest of the mechanical components of the system; the CFCs are not only the fluid used to compress and expand, but they also serve as lubricants for the compressor and anti-corrosion fluid for the piping system.

Even if the CFCs did leak or were vented in order to perform maintenance or to dispose of the machinery after the end of its useful life, those gases tended to sink into basements, soil, crevasses, ravines, sewers, and any of countless other low spots in the cities and suburbs where most of the chemicals were being used. A small portion of the total will always disperse and diffuse because of the natural property of vapor pressure, but most of the material will sink and spread out.

For some reason, these facts about how heavier than air vapors behave did not seem to be taken into account by the scientists who study the atmosphere. In 1972, James Lovelock found minute quantities of CFCs in samples taken around the world using sensitive instruments capable of detecting levels in units of parts per trillion volume. He wrote about how these relatively inert gases could be used as tracers to show that the atmosphere mixed pretty well around the world - in the horizontal dimension.

One team of two scientists, Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina wrote a paper that was published in the journal Nature proposing that since CFCs were stable chemicals that did not easily break down, and since they could be measured in the atmosphere around the world, they must be on an inevitable path upward into the stratosphere. According to the paper, there were no other obvious sinks for the chemicals.

As proposed by Rowland and Molina and as accepted by the atmospheric science community, the primary atmospheric sink for the chemicals was stratospheric photolytic dissociation where CFCl3 breaks down into CFCl2 + Cl and where CF2Cl2 breaks down into CF2Cl + Cl. The paper states that the Cl- ions serve as catalysts that extensively destroy O3 (ozone) and O (monatomic oxygen) in the stratosphere through the following two reactions:

Cl + O3 -> ClO + O2

ClO + O -> Cl + O2


The paper goes on to describe the atmospheric modeling used to support the theory that the catalytic reaction was having a significant and dangerous effect on the ozone layer. This 1974 paper and the validation of the proposed reactions by the National Academy of Sciences in 1976 was used as the basis for a world wide effort to ban the use of CFCs as a propellant in aerosol containers and then to severely limit its production and use in refrigeration and air conditioning systems.

According to the theory, the dissociated CFCs were the primary source of Cl- in the stratosphere, despite the fact that solid rocket motors as used for both space exploration and ballistic missiles use a substance called perchlorate (ClO4-, which releases free Cl- ions when burned. (Rockets tend to do at least some of their burning in the stratosphere while passing through.) The effort to ban CFCs moved in fits and starts, but once a 1987 NASA experiment reported that they actually measured CFC in the stratosphere (at concentrations in the pptv range with a rapid reduction as altitude increased) the effort succeeded in the widespread adoption of the Montreal Protocol.
Data from NASA's Airborne Antarctic Ozone Experiment in 1987 "provided the smoking gun measurements that nailed down the cause of the ozone hole being the increase of CFCs combined with the unique meteorology of the Antarctic," Stolarski said. Since then, NASA has sponsored several airborne field campaigns that have furthered understanding of the chemical processes controlling ozone.
What confused me then and still confuses me to this day is the fact that the multi-billion dollar effort to halt production of useful materials was based on a faulty assumption that was stated in a couple of different ways in the original article:
"There are no obvious rapid sinks for their removal and they may be useful as inert tracers of atmospheric motions."

"The most important sink for atmospheric CFCl3 and CF2Cl2 seems to be stratospheric photolytic dissociation to CFCl2 + Cl and CF2Cl + Cl respectively, at altitudes of 20-40 km."

"If the stratospheric photolytic sink is the only major sink for CFCl3 and CF2Cl2 then the 1972 production rates correspond at state to globally averaged destruction rates of about 0.8 x 107 and 1.5 x 107 molecules cm-2s-1 and formation rates of Cl atoms of about 2 x 107 and 3 x 107 atoms cm-2s-1, respectively."

I still do not get it. Heavy gases do not rise, they sink. Winds blow gases around in the horizontal dimension, but they do not often blow things straight up. The earth's surface is full of places where a heavy gas like CFCs can accumulate.

I did a quick computation once of how thick a layer of CFC's would have been if all of the world's cumulative production was simply spread out on the surface of the globe. The thickness of the resulting layer would be on the order of 4 x 10-8 meters, so it would be difficult to measure as that number would put it in the grass, in soils and under the leaf layers on forest floors. (Don't forget, a significant portion of the produced CFCs are still in the machinery where they do their work.) There would be no reason to assert - as some atmospheric scientists have done - that the vapors must dissipate upward, otherwise we would be swimming in a lake of the substance.

Another real world sink that Rowland and Molina overlooked is that CFCs break down under combustion heat - in fact, the EPA lists incineration as one of the ways that CFC's can be destroyed. There are billions of combustion devices at ground level around the world, any CFCs that are pulled in with combustion air into a furnace, an automobile engine, a fire, a boiler, or a jet engine will be destroyed by the process.

So please, help me to understand - why did the world's atmospheric scientists and government leaders agree that heavier than air vapors were rising up 20-40 km into the atmosphere at substantial quantities and destroying the ozone layer? Why did they accept that assumption and use it as the basis for taking useful and easily produced materials that help humans to better control their living conditions and store foods and medicines for longer periods of time off of the market? Why didn't the people who work with heavier than air gases on a daily basis object to this decision with a strong effort questioning the logic and the models used in by the scientists?

Why did the scientists who proposed this theory end up sharing a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this particular theory about ozone layer destruction? Am I being hopelessly arrogant in questioning this particular episode in scientific history? After all, I have never published a peer reviewed paper in the atmospheric science literature, been employed as a scientist, earned a PhD or been awarded any prizes for my papers on other topics.

Additional Reading

Dynamics of Vapor-Air Mixtures published in American Industrial Hygiene Association Journal, Volume 26, Issue 5 September 1965 , pages 445 - 448 (Note: This link leads to the abstract. I have a copy of the full article that I can send on request to other interested researchers.)

Vapor Density and it’s influence on the Ventilation Decision Making Process

Deflagrations involving heavier-than-air vapor/air mixtures published in Fire Safety Journal 36 (2001) 693-710

Density of Gases Virtual Chembook, Elmhurst College

Sungas Information description of propane safety considerations

Monday, January 12, 2009

Where Does The Right of Self Defense End?

By my moral compass, self-defense is not an unlimited right since a higher directive tells me to love my neighbor as myself and a guiding inspiration tells me that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I would be completely unjustified in claiming that I was merely defending myself if I began shooting at a mugger in a crowd, knowing full well that the bullets could end up hitting people who had nothing at all to do with the mugging. It would be particularly reprehensible for me to drop a bomb on a neighborhood simply because someone in that neighborhood was defiantly shooting fireworks at my home because of some kind of long term feud.

Just in case you do not understand my allusions; I am officially declaring that I do not support my government's declared policy with regard to Israel. It is morally unsustainable, stupid in both the short and long terms, and something that must be changed as soon as possible. This is, of course, not an easy thing to do. It is not easy for me as a serving military officer to state a position that is opposition to the elected government's position. Here I take my oath of office seriously and remind people that commissioned officers in the Navy agree to adhere to the Universal Code of Military Justice which requires us to obey orders, but we also swear an oath to the Constitution of the United States of America that requires us to defend that Constitution against all enemies "foreign and domestic". That oath is silent on obeying orders.

In my interpretation of that responsibility, it means that commissioned officers swear an individual loyalty to the founding principles of the country, to the established checks and balances and to the limited powers of the executive office holder. I would never organize or participate in any kind of coup, but I feel it is my moral obligation to speak up and to attempt to bring my country's official policies back in line with our historical justification for our own existence.

Our policy of preventive attack is illegal under the way that I understand international law - aggression against another nation was the first real crime that gained the status of international law. Bombing civilians, even with "precision" weapons cannot be justified, even if we used that technique during WWII. Israel, by following the Bush doctrine's lead, has attempted to elevate its right of self-defense to a level higher than is justified by morality of law.

Armies and navies are required to take all possible actions to avoid harming non-combatants; claiming, as some do, that entire civilian populations represent supporters for the combatants is tantamount to using the same justifications used by the 911 attackers on the World Trade Center. I do not buy it for either side.

Please think deeply about why the US government continues to tacitly support and enable Israel to use carefully engineered explosive devices to destroy lives and property for innocent residents of Gaza who have no possible way to escape their destructive force. Here is another thing to ponder - why do some think that Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) are somehow less moral as weapons than those developed at enormous expense? Why are roadside bombs considered to be an asymmetric threat when F-16 dropped bombs are not? Both kill without discrimination.

Here are a couple of quotes from a recent report by the Congressional Research Service regarding military aid to Israel:
Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II. From 1976-2004, Israel was the largest annual recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, having recently been supplanted by Iraq. Since 1985, the United States has provided nearly $3 billion in grants annually to Israel.
...

Strong congressional support for Israel has resulted in Israel’s receiving benefits that may not be available to other countries. For example, Israel can use U.S. military assistance both for research and development in the United States and for military purchases from Israeli manufacturers. In addition, all U.S. foreign assistance earmarked for Israel is delivered in the first 30 days of the fiscal year. Most other recipients normally receive their aid in installments. Congress also appropriates funds for joint U.S.-Israeli missile defense programs.

In August 2007, the Bush Administration announced that it would increase U.S. military assistance to Israel by $6 billion over the next decade. The agreement calls for incremental annual increases in FMF to Israel, reaching $3.1 billion a year in the near future. The Administration has requested $2.4 billion in military assistance and no economic aid for Israel in FY2008. H.R. 2764, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008 provides the full Administration request.
Did you know just how much of your tax money was going into building up Israel's military might? Do you like the way it is being used? Does it frustrate you to know that Israel already has all of its US military assistance money for fiscal year 2009 (which started on 1 October 2008) and to realize that even now, there is little we can do to cut it off until next year?

Monday, November 17, 2008

If There is an Oversupply of Houses, Why is the Government Building Walls and Driving Down the Supply of Potential Homeowners?

The American Dream of home ownership has been a driver in our economy for at least six decades. Our large, beautiful country with its abundant lakes, open spaces, hills, mountains, rivers, and freedom has always been a major magnet for foreign capital in the form of individuals and families with active minds, creative hands, strong work ethics, and personal savings. Like most people in the US, I can point to several ancestors who were born elsewhere but came to America to build a life that was not achievable in their original home.

As I look around at the growing number of "For Sale" signs, and read about entire neighborhoods where there are beautiful new homes that are empty for lack of buyers, I wonder why the US government has shifted its policies to so actively discourage the flow of immigrants that could be helping to alleviate the situation? We even seem to have some people in government who believe that it is smart to interrupt functioning businesses to capture and send potential homeowners away.

That seems dumb to me. We really should be pressing our government to stop hurting its own efforts to turn around the economy. After all, there are two ways to solve a supply-demand imbalance. You can choke off the production lines that have been providing the supply or you can work to find new demand that can buy the excess supply.

The later is often far more profitable for all concerned, though it seems that B school graduates educated in the past couple of decades have learned more about the former method. For the people at the very top, and over a short time horizon, it is easier and potentially more profitable (again, with a short time horizon) to stop producing than to increase sales efforts.

In America, we are really good at building homes and we have always depended on a mobile and growing population - some from other countries - to fill those homes to build productive communities. We have benefitted by the natural selection process - people who have the gumption and drive to leave everything that they know generally have what it takes to succeed in a new location.

It seems to me that part of the problem is a jaundiced view of humanity, a view that people who currently do not have very much are a cost, not a resource. That is the wrong way to view human beings who were all endowed by their creator with rather incredible productive capabilities.

Another part of the problem might be a sense of entitlement by people who believe that they should be handed something simply as a result of where they were born or who their parents are. People who feel that way often look down at people whose initial luck of the draw at birth put them in a place with fewer opportunities or gave them parents with less money and education.

I would rather bring in capital to sustain our way of life in many small chunks from people that become Americans themselves than to beg for indulgence from sovereign wealth funds for large chunks of capital that can then be used as a club to influence our international policies.

Bottom line - rational immigration rules with welcoming actions are good for business. They allow America to market one of its major "exports" without sending jobs and capital somewhere else. When we market the American dream and allow people to come here - with their cash, talent or simple drive and determination to work hard, we all profit.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Introduction to Questioning Attitude

For those who are stumbling on Questioning Attitude without coming from one of my other publications, allow me to introduce myself. I have been a commissioned officer in the United States Navy or US Naval Reserves since May 1981. Like most people who have served in a large organization for many years, I have held a variety of positions, but within the Navy my career has been rather unusual. There are not many officers who served through their post department head shore tour, left active duty for six years for entrepreneurial endeavors and returned to active duty to eventually return to being a "regular Navy" vice a US Naval Reserve.

There are also not many who have spent 7 years (and counting) in a row in three very different Washington DC based Navy headquarters assignments at essentially the same level. I have been in an IT job, an analysis job associated with manpower and training, and now in a financial analysis job associated with maintenance. I have been a Commander (O-5) for more than 12 years. This has given me a rather unusual perspective.

As part of my navy nuclear power training, I learned a lesson that has been an important part of my outlook on life ever since - the importance of a questioning attitude. As I move though life and get blessed with the opportunity to observe important events, participate in wide ranging discussions, meet interesting people, and hold different jobs, I often think about why certain things are the way they are, whether or not those things match expectations or potential, and whether or not they can be changed.

It is often prudent to keep some questions out of the immediate conversation, but it can be useful to use the situation for deeper reflection or for starting a conversation with a new group of people who might be interested in learning or helping implement a change. In large organizations, sharing such thoughts and observations may be a way to initiate a change in policy, attitudes or priorities.

My intention with this blog may be a bit grandiose and even a bit hazardous to my current career, but I think that the effort will be worth while. I am using my given name and will maintain a professional level of conversation that respects the need for discretion and security. Comments will be allowed and encouraged, but they will be moderated. I reserve the right to delete any that are objectionable, threatening or obscene.