Saturday, November 19, 2011

Cell Phones Really Do Distract Us While Driving!

Do you remember that Blackberry outage in the Middle East about a month ago? Did you catch some of the secondary stories associated with it? I've been meaning to post this story for a while, so here it is.

You know how you see distracted drivers all the time, playing with their cell phones? Yes, it is true, texting and reading e-mail really does measurably affect traffic safety. From TheNational:
"BlackBerry cuts made roads safer, police say" by Awad Mustafa and Caline Malek

"A dramatic fall in traffic accidents this week has been directly linked to the three-day disruption in BlackBerry services."

"In Dubai, traffic accidents fell 20 per cent from average rates on the days BlackBerry users were unable to use its messaging service. In Abu Dhabi, the number of accidents this week fell 40 per cent and there were no fatal accidents."

"Lt Gen Dahi Khalfan Tamim, the chief of Dubai Police, and Brig Gen Hussein Al Harethi, the director of the Abu Dhabi Police traffic department, linked the drop in accidents to the disruption of BlackBerry services between Tuesday and Thursday."

"Email, Messenger and internet functions were unavailable to users in the Middle East, Africa and Europe after a crucial link in the BlackBerry network failed."

Note the groups most affected by the Blackberry outage:
"Gen Tamim said police found 'a significant drop in accidents by young drivers and men on those three days'. He said young people were the largest user group of the Messenger service."

"Brig Gen Al Harethi said: 'Accidents were reduced by 40 per cent and the fact that BlackBerry services were down definitely contributed to that.'"

"'The roads became much safer when BlackBerry stopped working.'"

We already knew this, but it's interesting to see it proven in a real world experiment!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Operation Outward

Isn't it amazing how you find fascinating stories buried in the folds of history, stuff you never realized was there? Well, I came across such a story recently and I wanted to share it with you, my seven readers.

As an electrical engineer, I really enjoyed reading this story. We always hear about how terrorists can attack us by bringing down our power grid, and this is a legitimate worry. Well, in World War II Britain used a simple plan to try to attack Germany this way--and I had never heard of it until now! From IEEE Power & Energy magazine:

"Operation Outward, Britain’s World War II offensive balloons" by Raoul E. Drapeau

Britain launched balloons, with trailing cables, towards German power lines. Lots of details to make it work, but a very simple concept. In August 1942, according to the article, they were launching 1000 balloons per day! Who knew?

"Operation Outward was a British Admiralty program that, between March 1942 and September 1944, manufactured and launched almost 46,000 inexpensive hydrogen-filled meteorological balloons trailing a length of wire intended to contact and short circuit overhead high-voltage and lower-voltage transmission and distribution lines in Germany and in occupied Europe. By all accounts, this campaign succeeded in randomly disrupting target electrical systems, was conducted with relative safety to Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) personnel involved, and was extremely cost effective. In addition to the actual damage caused and the loss of electric power, Operation Outlook had significant harassment value by imposing extra demands on German air defenses and aviation fuel supplies."

First the article gives some background:
"Surprisingly, the trials showed that even a thin steel wire (much thinner than that used to tether the static barrage balloons), when drawn in sliding contact across two or more phases, could cause an arc as long as 15 ft (4.6 m) that would be maintained until the circuit breaker opened. In some cases, the arc’s heat melted the aluminum outer layers and then the reinforcing steel center strands of the conductors. Further, even if not severed, the conductors would be so weakened by the arc that they would be susceptible to breaking due to increased load demands or even normal weather events such as wind, snow and ice. Then, even if the trailing wire was severed by the arc, the balloon with the remaining portion of the wire could be carried along with the wind to engage yet another electric line."

Brilliant! I love the engineering discussion in the article, too.

"The British knew that the German high-voltage electric transmission system was protected by Petersen coils, which could not cope with phase-to-phase shorts of the type that would likely be caused by the balloons’ trailing wire. Further, they knew that the German systems of that time used slower-acting circuit breakers, also not designed to handle phase-to-phase shorts. The British concluded that this design could lead to the destruction of the circuit breakers and transformers and cause even more catastrophic faults, such as wrecking an entire power generating station, which actually happened in 1942."

"Even though the British electrical system had a more developed grid than that of Germany, which could make it more vulnerable, it also had faster-acting circuit breakers, and had proven itself more capable of tolerating (but not be completely protected from) hits from errant barrage balloon cables. This made the British less worried about the effects of possible retaliation and more encouraged about the potential of trailing wires as a weapon."

"Further supporting the argument that trailing wires could be an effective weapon was the idea that since the balloons would be released in large numbers, they would be likely to cause numerous faults in the same area, thereby complicating the task of repair and further diverting valuable resources. Also, even a single balloon could cause multiple disruption events as its long wire dragged along the ground."

"Considering the shortages of materials for repair of electric power systems in England and especially in Germany, it was clear that the consequential damage of a balloon strike could be much greater than that caused by a single bomb dropped from an aircraft."

So, was the campaign effective?

"One of the most important instances of damage was the 12 July 1942 complete destruction of a power plant at Böhlen near Leipzig due to an Outward balloon that had been launched on 11 July 1942. A phase-to-phase short on a 110-kV overhead transmission line caused the circuit breakers to malfunction, causing one of the 16.5-MW generators to be thrown out of synchronism and begin to vibrate. Its rotor shaft bent, causing mechanical interference withthe fixed stator, followed by an explosion and a fi e that destroyed the power station. This event put 250 MW of generating capacity out of operation for an extended period. The value of that material loss was estimated by the team at £1,000,000 (US$4,250,000) in 1942 currency, not including the value of production time lost."

"The assessment team learned that the Germans realized the potential damage of the balloons and gave orders to shut down power lines in their path and make the circuit breakers more sensitive. However, the latter change made the system more sensitive to normal occurrences such as bird strikes and overloads and exacerbated the power outage problem. There were far more incidents on the more common lower-voltage lines, some of which would suffer from multiple failures. Worse, even though the breakers might have been reset and power restored, the lines often suffered damage to the wires that would become apparent later under heavy loads or adverse weather, when they would break."

"The team retrieved a report that showed that in the period from March 1942 through the end of January 1943, there were 520 major disturbances on German high-voltage lines of 110 kV and higher. In that same period, there had been about 25,000 Outward balloons launched. Belgian, Dutch, and French transmission lines also suffered. In France alone, over the entire program, there were 4,946 recorded incidents of power interruptions. The postwar assessment reports were quite specific in most cases about Operation Outward balloons being the cause of the damage cited."

"The team’s conclusion was '. . .the evidence obtained shows that these Outward attacks were a continual menace to the whole German Electric Supply system for even minor incidents caused continual interruptions to the power supplies with damage to the equipment involving diversion of manpower on repair work, to say nothing of production delays. The destruction of Böhlen alone however was an ample reward for these operations.' In another communication, the team wrote 'the result of the operation was out of all proportion to the man-power and material employed.' In fact, in some months, there was more damage done to electrical systems by the balloons than there had been by bombers—and at a much lower cost to Britain."

What a great story. Engineers kicking ass, I love it!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Google. It Knows.

Fascinating article in the London Review of Books:

"It knows" by Daniel Soar

This appears to be an article that digests several books about Google and attempts to divine Google's future plans. It's a fun read. Some highlights:

"Of Schmidt’s four technology juggernauts, Google has always been the most ambitious, and the most committed to getting everything possible onto the internet, its mission being ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’. Its ubiquitous search box has changed the way information can be got at to such an extent that ten years after most people first learned of its existence you wouldn’t think of trying to find out anything without typing it into Google first. Searching on Google is automatic, a reflex, just part of what we do. But an insufficiently thought-about fact is that in order to organise the world’s information Google first has to get hold of the stuff. And in the long run ‘the world’s information’ means much more than anyone would ever have imagined it could. It means, of course, the totality of the information contained on the World Wide Web, or the contents of more than a trillion webpages..."

"But all this is just the stuff that Google makes publicly searchable, or ‘universally accessible’. It’s only a small fraction of the information it actually possesses. I know that Google knows, because I’ve looked it up, that on 30 April 2011 at 4.33 p.m. I was at Willesden Junction station, travelling west. It knows where I was, as it knows where I am now, because like many millions of others I have an Android-powered smartphone with Google’s location service turned on. If you use the full range of its products, Google knows the identity of everyone you communicate with by email, instant messaging and phone, with a master list – accessible only by you, and by Google – of the people you contact most. If you use its products, Google knows the content of your emails and voicemail messages (a feature of Google Voice is that it transcribes messages and emails them to you, storing the text on Google servers indefinitely). If you find Google products compelling – and their promise of access-anywhere, conflagration and laptop-theft-proof document creation makes them quite compelling – Google knows the content of every document you write or spreadsheet you fiddle or presentation you construct. If as many Google-enabled robotic devices get installed as Google hopes, Google may soon know the contents of your fridge, your heart rate when you’re exercising, the weather outside your front door, the pattern of electricity use in your home."

FWIW, I do have one of those devices that reports (or used to, anyway) my electricity usage back to Google. And several Android phones, too, of course! :)

"Google knows or has sought to know, and may increasingly seek to know, your credit card numbers, your purchasing history, your date of birth, your medical history, your reading habits, your taste in music, your interest or otherwise (thanks to your searching habits) in the First Intifada or the career of Audrey Hepburn or flights to Mexico or interest-free loans, or whatever you idly speculate about at 3.45 on a Wednesday afternoon. Here’s something: if you have an Android phone, Google can guess your home address, since that’s where your phone tends to be at night. I don’t mean that in theory some rogue Google employee could hack into your phone to find out where you sleep; I mean that Google, as a system, explicitly deduces where you live and openly logs it as ‘home address’ in its location service, to put beside the ‘work address’ where you spend the majority of your daytime hours."

"Some people find all this frightening. ...the fear is that all the information about us it has hoovered up is used to create scarily exact user profiles which it then offers to advertisers, as the most complete picture of billions of individuals it’s currently possible to build. The fear seems be based on the assumption that if Google is gathering all this information then it must be doing so in order to sell it: it is a profit-making company, after all. ‘We are not Google’s customers,’ Siva Vaidhyanathan writes in The Googlisation of Everything. ‘We are its product. We – our fancies, fetishes, predilections and preferences – are what Google sells to advertisers.’"

"The reason is that Google is learning. The more data it gathers, the more it knows, the better it gets at what it does. Of course, the better it gets at what it does the more money it makes, and the more money it makes the more data it gathers and the better it gets at what it does – an example of the kind of win-win feedback loop Google specialises in – but what’s surprising is that there is no obvious end to the process. Thanks to what it has learned so far, Google is no longer the merely impressive search engine it was a decade ago."

"What every one of those signals is and how they are weighted is Google’s most precious trade secret, but the most useful signal of all is the least predictable: the behaviour of the person who types their query into the search box. A click on the third result counts as a vote that it ought to come higher. A ‘long click’ – when you select one of the results and don’t come back – is a stronger vote. To test a new version of its algorithm, Google releases it to a small subset of its users and measures its effectiveness through the pattern of their clicks: more happy surfers and it’s just got cleverer. We teach it while we think it’s teaching us. Levy tells the story of a new recruit with a long managerial background who asked Google’s senior vice-president of engineering, Alan Eustace, what systems Google had in place to improve its products. ‘He expected to hear about quality assurance teams and focus groups’ – the sort of set-up he was used to. ‘Instead Eustace explained that Google’s brain was like a baby’s, an omnivorous sponge that was always getting smarter from the information it soaked up.’ Like a baby, Google uses what it hears to learn about the workings of human language. The large number of people who search for ‘pictures of dogs’ and also ‘pictures of puppies’ tells Google that ‘puppy’ and ‘dog’ mean similar things, yet it also knows that people searching for ‘hot dogs’ get cross if they’re given instructions for ‘boiling puppies’. If Google misunderstands you, and delivers the wrong results, the fact that you’ll go back and rephrase your query, explaining what you mean, will help it get it right next time. Every search for information is itself a piece of information Google can learn from."

"By 2007, Google knew enough about the structure of queries to be able to release a US-only directory inquiry service called GOOG-411. You dialled 1-800-4664-411 and spoke your question to the robot operator, which parsed it and spoke you back the top eight results, while offering to connect your call. It was free, nifty and widely used, especially because – unprecedentedly for a company that had never spent much on marketing – Google chose to promote it on billboards across California and New York State. People thought it was weird that Google was paying to advertise a product it couldn’t possibly make money from, but by then Google had become known for doing weird and pleasing things."

"What was it getting with GOOG-411? It soon became clear that what it was getting were demands for pizza spoken in every accent in the continental United States, along with questions about plumbers in Detroit and countless variations on the pronunciations of ‘Schenectady’, ‘Okefenokee’ and ‘Boca Raton’. GOOG-411, a Google researcher later wrote, was a phoneme-gathering operation, a way of improving voice recognition technology through massive data collection."

"Three years later, the service was dropped, but by then Google had launched its Android operating system and had released into the wild an improved search-by-voice service that didn’t require a phone call. You tapped the little microphone icon on your phone’s screen – it was later extended to Blackberries and iPhones – and your speech was transmitted via the mobile internet to Google servers, where it was interpreted using the advanced techniques the GOOG-411 exercise had enabled. The baby had learned to talk. Now that Android phones are being activated at a rate of more than half a million a day,[4] Google suddenly has a vast and growing repository of spoken words, in every language on earth, and a much more powerful learning machine. If your phone mistranscribes what you say, you correct it by typing it in, and Google’s algorithms – once again – are taught how to get better still. It’s a frustratingly faultless learning loop."

"They also threaten to put whole industries out of business by being free. In 2009, Google updated its Maps application for Android to include free turn-by-turn navigation: on-screen and spoken directions to whatever destination you choose. The cost to Google was negligible, and the damage to existing businesses was enormous: companies like Garmin and TomTom had been getting large margins on hundred-pound satnav hardware, and then charging for monthly subscriptions. Not any more."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Song of the Day: Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter - You and Tequila - CMA Awards 2011

Not sure exactly what's going on here but I find that I'm actually liking country music more as I get older. Maybe I've lived in the south too long. Maybe country music is getting better. I don't know. But when my DVR recorded the CMA Awards, rather than deleting the show, as I would have in the past, I watched it. (I admit it, I had it set to tape "Revenge." Seriously.)

Some country songs are still miserable, difficult to listen to, but I guess you could say that about any genre. One song blew me away. I've heard it before and thought it was really good. Seeing it and hearing it played live was very impressive. Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter really captured the essence of the song. So here is the song that I thought was head and shoulders above all rest of the performances during the CMA Awards.

"Kenny Chesney Grace Potter - You and Tequila - CMA Awards 2011"

For what it's worth, I thought this song was second best. Kimberly Perry is really good.
"The Band Perry - If I Die Young"

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Leadership Principle #1

Here is a great article. It's nominally on sales management, but I think it applies much more broadly.

"Sales Management is the Hardest Job in Sales" by Jeb Blount

The article starts out with a classic quote from Vince Lombardi, so you know the article is good! :)
"Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal." – Vince Lombardi

The main thrust of the article is this: As a manager, you're not as important as you think.

"In sales leadership one principle stands above all: You need your people more than they need you. Another way of saying this is that you get paid for what your salespeople do, not for what you do."

"A basic understanding that you need your people more than they need you is the single most important leadership lesson you will ever learn. In our leadership seminars, we spend more time on this principle than any other concept. Why? Because until you get this—and I mean really make this principle part of your heart and soul—you cannot be a great sales manager. No exceptions."

I would add, as I said above, that this applies to other jobs besides sales. Consider the principal of a school. If he or she doesn't show up, life goes on. But if a teacher doesn't show up, that's a problem.

"One of the core traits of ineffective leaders and bad bosses is that they believe that they get paid for the things they do. These bosses range from the arrogantly self-centered to workaholics to micromanagers. They believe, at the core, that they are more important, smarter, and more competent than the people working for them."

"When you get your next paycheck, take a close look at it. The money that was deposited in your bank account was a direct result of the work your salespeople did. You were rewarded for their performance or nonperformance—not yours. To tell yourself anything different is an outright denial of the facts."

"As a sales leader, if your salesperson succeeds, you succeed. If your salesperson fails, you fail. So it follows that your job is to position your people to win. You must create an environment in which they can succeed, develop their skills, leverage their talents, and remove roadblocks so that they sell. You need them more than they need you. Anything that you do that impedes their success hurts you!"

"The single most important leadership principle is this: You get paid for what your people do, not what you do. You need your people more than they need you."

And the comments after the article are also very insightful.

From Scott Smith: "I believe as the leader of the sales team my job is not to be the boss, but to eliminate any and all problems the sales staff has so they can do their jobs more effectively, and to create a positive environment for them to work in."

Bill says: "The next time your manager calls you to 'check up on you' just ask him, 'What did you do today to help me make more money?' Most managers won’t have a clue how to answer and will be dumbfounded that you had the audacity to ask THEM that question(egomaniacs= most poor sales managers)."

From Guy Huttlin: "I was told a long time ago that a Sales Manager’s main job was to make heros not to be heros."

Greg Manjak says: "I had a former sales manager tell me years ago, that if you want to get to the top, then you must run interference for your sales team and give them a clear road to success. If you can do that, then your sales team will bring you to the top along with them!"

Monday, November 14, 2011

Life is Short ... Again. Rest in Peace, Jason

Found out today that a co-worker died in a motorcycle accident over the weekend. He worked at our site in South Carolina, but I was just down there working closely with him on a major issue. He was a great guy to work with.

Jason was a Harley guy, not a sportbike guy like I guess I am (if I had to classify myself). But we got along great and had fun talking about motorcycles. I remember him talking about riding over the weekend when we last spoke on Friday.

I checked out Jason's Google+ page after he died. Sadly, and I know this is true for a lot of people I know, I think I know him a lot better now than when he was alive. Isn't that sad???

So here are a few highlights from his G+ page:

"Sometimes it takes a whole tankful of fuel before you can think straight."
Amen to that. I absolutely have been there. See the final link at the bottom of this post.

"Nothing good comes from hitting 'Reply All.'"

"I own a Harley, not just a fucking shirt."

"Don't let my motorcycle ride interfere with the safety of your phone call."
Once again, AMEN!

"When you die doing what you love to do what happens to your eternal soul? I make this commit knowing Dan Weldon died doing what he loved. So The question is if we die doing what we love are we eternally in heaven ?"
Sad, reading that one. He had a couple posts after Dan Weldon (IndyCar racer) died.

After posting a story about Hermain Cain:
"For the Record I like Herman Cain as a person , however I'm not sure he'll make it though the whole election process. I'm not convinced he is the best choice . Today as well as the last election I believe Ron Paul is what's needed for this nation to right the ship. I'm not sure America is ready for that kind of reform."
WHAT? Jason was a Ron Paul supporter? No wonder he and I got along so well!!!

"Warning don't read this if you get offended easily"
Biker Chick: Top 25 Things Biker Chicks Say....(That make Bikers love them!!)
Maybe a bit over the top, but who can argue with that? :)

As I said above, it is a SHAME that I didn't know him better while he was alive. We had a lot more in common than I realized. There's a lesson there, I think...

I will miss him on a personal and professional level. Rest in peace, Jason.

This is the second time I've had to make a post like this. Maybe this is another sign that I'm getting old. If so, I don't like it, not one bit.

Here is what I wrote back on October 13, 2010 when my friend Aaron died:
Life is short, enjoy It. Rest in peace, Aaron.

And one of my motorcycle posts was really all about my uncle, who died of ALS a few years ago:
Blue Ridge Parkway, GA, NC, VA, WV, TN - Trip Report