Archive for June, 2012


Design Revolution

Post from Jean Thilmany:

I’ve been reading a lot recently about how design—and by extension computer design tools—has the power to change the world on humanitarian and artistic levels.

You can read a lot about this at Engineering For Change. I’ve also written quite a bit about the burgeoning do-it-yourself design wave—check out and

It was in this spirit of design that I read Doug Powell’s commencement address to the Class of 2012 College of Visual Arts, in St. Paul, Minn. Powell is a designer, strategist and entrepreneur who leads projects for clients in the health and nutrition fields. He also consults with a variety of cross-disciplinary teams on design-driven entrepreneurial projects.

Powell told the CVA class of 2012: “… it occurs to me that the essential question facing those of you graduating today is this: How can I apply my skills as a creative thinker—those skills that I have learned in my years here at CVA—to make a meaningful difference in the world around me? Your opportunity to make a difference is massive. And your potential to improve the human condition is epic. I believe this generation of creative thinkers—your generation of artists and designers—will change the world.”

His speech can be found on his blog at

The problem is that the versy same computing tools that designers rely on can hold back the creative breakthroughs that today’s thinkers need, according to a professor well placed to make such a statement.

Hod Lipson, mechanical engineering professor and overall 3-D printing guru at Cornell University contends that today’s CAD, due to its nature, necessitate thinking in a linear way. Design tools can halt design because the designers themselves can’t wrap their mind around the shapes that can be printed today. In other words, they can’t “think outside the CAD box.”

Meanwhile, Lipson points out, 3-D printers aren’t bound by traditional manufacturing design. That, coupled with the do-it-yourself online design tools accessible to most anyone with a computer, will make for a design revolution in coming years.

An upcoming issue of Mechanical Engineering magazine will contain more on Lipson and his observations.


Engineering for Human Rights

WEBINAR: “Engineering for Human Rights”

Date: Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Time: 11 am – 12 pm ET

Learn what it means to adopt a human rights-based approach to engineering: The roles and responsibilities of engineers when designing and implementing projects, the opportunities to contribute to human rights through research and teaching, and the potential risks that engineering and technology pose to human rights.

Look for webinar featured speaker Jessica Wyndham’s article in the November issue of Mechanical Engineering!


whole lot of shaking

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

Harry Hutchinson

A few weeks ago I found myself in the land of moose, Moosehead, and the Thousand Islands in Upstate New York. So I had to take the one-hour boat ride. I learned that there are indeed well more than a thousand islands in the St. Lawrence River, and they are the remains of very old mountains that have worn down. These small plots of rock and soil rise a few yards above the water and hold houses that don’t slip off.

It’s amazing how things fit together, that the surface of the Earth is stable enough for that and to support as much life as it does—stable enough for civilization.

It was concern over the effect of advanced civilization on the Earth’s stability that led to a recent study by the National Research Council into induced seismicity—that is, earthquake caused by human activity.

Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, had asked the Energy Secretary, Stephen Chu, to initiate the study, which would look at the issues of seismic activity attributed to energy technologies, specifically geothermal energy, shale gas, enhanced oil recovery, and carbon capture and storage (or, because it’s a mouthful, CCS).

The NRC has found that human activity has been implicated in detectable movement of the Earth. A preliminary draft of the report is available online at the National Academies Press website.

I think it’s, for the most part, reasonably good news for most current practices. In the executive summary, the authors of the report list what they call “three major findings”:

“(1) the process of hydraulic fracturing a well as presently implemented for shale gas recovery does not pose a high risk for inducing felt seismic events;

“(2) injection for disposal of waste water derived from energy technologies into the subsurface does pose some risk for induced seismicity, but very few events have been documented over the past several decades relative to the large number of disposal wells in operation; and

 “(3) CCS, due to the large net volumes of injected fluids, may have potential for inducing larger seismic events.”

 The jury is out on CCS because no one has tried it on a grand scale.

A geothermal project at a steam field called the Geysers in northern California is reported to have had 300 to 400 “felt induced events” each year since 2005. Some of them have hit or exceeded a magnitude of 4.0. The explanation is that “the large temperature difference between the injected fluid and the geothermal reservoir results in significant cooling of the hot subsurface reservoir rocks, causing the rocks to contract, reducing confining pressures and allowing the release of local stresses that results in a significant amount of observed induced seismicity.”

Other geothermal sites are linked to ground movement, too, but to a lesser extent. There are 23 active liquid-dominated sites that are linked to 10 to 40 movements a year.

Just Room Enough

Back at the Thousand Islands, there is one particular house, known as “Just Room Enough,” that illustrates the stability of the ground. The story goes that it was built by the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria, George Boldt, as a summer retreat for his mother-in-law, who had no way to get off the island. He dropped her off in the spring and picked her up in the fall. The foundation comes to the water’s edge. The hotelier built a huge complex, a local landmark known as Boldt Castle, a few hundred yards away across the water.

Maybe his mother-in-law enjoyed extended periods of solitude. Maybe not. Maybe Boldt was hoping the island would shake.


Waiting for a technology Miracle

Post from Jean Thilmany:

Today, medical technology can be seen as a panacea for everything. But sometimes the speedy pace of medical breakthrough can give a false impression, which is painful to those waiting for the promised technology.

As someone who was continually promised better living through technology, but who waited years to see that happen, I strongly empathized with news out last week from two universities in the Netherlands that the development of body-powered prosthetic hands has stagnated for over 20 years.

The study that spurred the news account offers a possible explanation for why over half of all people with a body-powered prosthetic hand do not use it or even wear it, researchers said in a statement. Today’s prosthetic hands perform equally or less well than those from 1987.

Body-powered prostheses don’t rely on an outside power source and are operated via a system of cables, harnesses, and sometimes, manual control. Other types of prostheses are powered by electricity.

We’ll expand on that study in an upcoming issue of Mechanical Engineering magazine. One takeaway is that the researchers at the Delft University of Technology and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands found that there is hardly any investment in body-powered prostheses and that cost may be one factor.

The retail price of an electric prosthesis is around 10 to 100 time higher than a body-powered prosthesis. This makes it more attractive commercially to invest in electric prostheses, according to the study.

Cost was a factor in my own wait as well. In my case, less than 1 percent of people globally are as severely myopic as myself. Laser surgery isn’t an option for us, as it would necessitate shaving off too much of the cornea to achieve the proper vision correction.

“Just wait,” the doctors said, as early as the 1980s. “Something will be available soon.”

But it wasn’t until around 10 years ago before the proper medical technology came down the pike. And then another few years before I felt surgeons had enough experience with it under their belts that I could take the plunge.

Seems weird to bellyache about myopia, but it did impact my quality of life. I wore glasses that had to be adjusted to within a millimeter for me to see properly. Without proper adjustment I’d get a seasick feeling that frequently sent me to bed.

When my glasses were moved off center, as happened all the time, say when my child pulled on them or I bumped my head into a swinging cabinet door, I had to go to the only optician in town who knew what I was talking about and knew how to adjust them with exactness. And I had to ask for him personally and leave if he wasn’t in.

Around 10 years ago, something did come up: phakic interocular lenses. Phakic IOLs are contact lenses inserted in front of or behind the iris.

Though the problem to correct severe myopic hasn’t been much worked on (see the less than 1 percent statistic), PIOLs are close enough to cataract surgery (in that case the clouded lens is removed before an artificial version is inserted) that it wasn’t hard to make the technology available.

I finally worked up the courage to have it done and yes it’s been a miracle. I can swim, for example. (I couldn’t before because I couldn’t see the pool or lake without my glasses and the big, colored blur was too dangerous to dive into).

I’m not trying to say I had a severe or life threatening medical condition. But even my little taste of waiting for technology makes me realize how market forces drive technology innovations.


have refrigerator, will travel

Harry Hutchinson

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

I really enjoy road trips, especially with a theme. I had an open weekend at Thanksgiving, for instance, so I tucked a case of stout in the trunk and drove across Indiana to see Dillinger crime sites. (This is not a confession of recklessness: I only drank the stout at motels after the day’s driving was finished.)

That was great fun, but General Electric has come up with a trip that tops mine hands-down.

They send a mechanical engineer and a celebrity chef on a 2,000-mile trek in a pickup truck with a refrigerator, powered by a generator, in the back. They have to stock it with fresh food that they buy along the way. Then they will drive to the desert to cook dinner for a wildlife biologist, whose day job is saving mountain lions or something, and so he’s nowhere near a grocery store that sells fresh food. And that’s the point of the exercise, that the new GE French door refrigerator will protect anything from the heat.

I’m not making any of this up. Somebody else did—a crew of people at the BBDO ad agency.

The trip was filmed and has been edited into episodes, which will be posted on a website called Freshpedition. The website will launch on June 14. That happens to be Flag Day, but I don’t know if there is a connection.

Julie Wood, who works in the public relations office of GE’s major appliance division in Louisville, sent me a rough cut of the first “webisode.”

The engineer, Justin Berger, works for the major appliance division and is on the team who designed the high-end refrigerator that’s sitting on the bed of the truck, so he has every confidence that all the food’s going to keep just fine. The chef, Ben Sargent, who has a show called “Hook, Line, and Dinner” on the Cooking Channel, isn’t so sure.

The Odd Couple theme kicks in from the start. They’re already on the road and Sargent is checking his smart phone for places to buy ingredients. Berger is driving and talking about making a list and crossing things off as they buy them.

“Do you have any idea of what you want to make with what we get?” Berger asks.

And of course, Sargent claims to have no idea.

At one point, Berger tells the camera, “It’s going to be a long week.”

Their first stop, not far from Louisville when they’re just getting started, is to pick up Bibb lettuce.

They buy a few heads and put them into the crisper drawer. The farmer recommends sealing the lettuce in plastic containers to keep it from wilting, but Berger, the engineer, says it’s not necessary with this refrigerator because he can “run the fresh food evaporator a little bit warmer so it doesn’t pull all the humidity out of your food.” (After all, this is intended to sell GE refrigerators.)

I haven’t seen any of the other webisodes, yet, but I’m sure that as entertainment, it beats even a weekend of historic bank robberies. And the video quality is better than mine, too.


Internet for all

Post from Jean Thilmany:


Jean Thilmany

I was surprised by the findings of a recent study conducted in the Emergency Department at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

In a study of mostly minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged families, 99 percent of participants reported having access to the Internet. Of the 509 families in the study, 503 reported access to the Internet either at home, work, or via their mobile device.

The study is published in the June issue of the journal Pediatric Emergency Care and was undertaken to determine the participant’s interest in receiving electronic health information from the emergency department. The study showed e-mail was the preferred method of receiving the information.

“This represents a novel opportunity to engage a larger proportion of urban families in efforts to help improve their health through better education,” said Mohsen Saidinejad, the study’s author and an emergency medicine physician at Children’s National Medical Center.

The emergency department’s goal to improve health education and patient communication in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas is laudable. But I remain, even in this day and age, unsure about the Internet and email as a way of reaching these communities. Having access—either at home, work, or via a device—is different than having unlimited access, as those with high-speed wireless at home have. I also know that it is hard for those in rural areas to get a reliable signal.

Also, if you only have a short period of time to access the Internet, say if you’re at a library or at a workplace that frowns on or tracks time spent on the web, you’ll be less likely to open and read the type’s of health e-mails the medical center intends to send.

The same is true for those on slow at-home connections. When was the last time you waited for a page to load? Chances are that if you’ve ever done so, you won’t be checking impersonal e-mails from large organizations any time soon. And many hate reading and responding to e-mails handheld devices.

Overall, even today, the Internet and e-mail are still an imperfect way to reach large numbers of people. Too often, Internet access is still limited, even when available. Undoubtedly, this is changing.

Still, the large number of people with Internet access reported in the study is cheering. It proves that the Internet is truly a necessity… not that you didn’t know that already.


Give us an “A”

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

I was reading on the local paper’s website today that the Newark Museum wants to add another letter to STEM. For the record, “STEM” is the acronym used in educational discussions for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” Organizations including ASME and FIRST are making concerted efforts to promote the interest of young people in these subjects.

According to the article published by the Star-Ledger, a paper based in Newark and serving most of northern New Jersey, the museum wants to add an “A” to the mix—for “arts”—and make it “STEAM.”

The reporter, Peggy McGlone, writes, “Creativity and innovation are required in these scientific fields, according to STEAM proponents, and the arts provide the best training for them.”

The story didn’t go into great detail about the arts connection. The reference was an aside in a story about a program called MakerSpace, in which public school students work in a lab in the museum twice a week and make things. They were working on video games and controllers when the McGlone visited. She says it’s related to the Fab Lab idea out of MIT. There are computers, 3-D printers, a sewing machine, a vinyl printer, and other tools for the creative—that is to say, the inventive.

But the connection to creativity and Fab Lab immediately brought to mind several ideas about diversity and different ways of approaching the world: That there isn’t just one way to get results and that not all the smart people are in this room, or in this company, or in this whatever. That people have to be free to do what they do best.

John Borchardt wrote an article, for instance, that Mechanical Engineering published in February 2009 under the title “Outside Help.” He described programs, including one by Procter & Gamble, to solicit intellectual property for development into products. Procter & Gamble uses a website that it calls Connect + Develop, where people can submit ideas and follow up on them. Olay Regenerist anti-wrinkle skin cream and the Swiffer Duster are a couple of the products that came out of that program.

The diversity story that had the most surprises for me, though, was “Personalities Into Teams,” an article in the February 2010 Mechanical Engineering. The author, Doug Wilde, emeritus professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University, reported some very convincing evidence about the need for diversity and an interesting use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

My previous experience with Myers-Briggs had not been pleasant. I had seen it used primarily as a means to pigeon-hole and stereotype people. When we were discussing the possibility of the article, which was based on Wilde’s book with the punny name Teamology (Springer, 2009), I told him that this was the first time I had approached the Myers-Briggs without a sense of dread.

Wilde’s story, in short, goes like this: For thirteen years, about a quarter of Stanford’s student design teams were winning Lincoln Foundation awards. Then the university began to use a variant of the Type Indicator that identified people according to their personal approaches to solving problems—experimental, intuitive, analytical, and so on. The idea was to get as many different approaches as possible represented on each team.

They didn’t always get along. Sometimes, they would say later that it seemed to make the work harder. Maybe it did.

But according to Wilde, that method of creating teams resulted in about three-quarters of them winning awards every year for a decade. Except for one year during that time when they didn’t bother with the testing and only a quarter of the teams won awards.

To me, that makes a strong case for the practical benefits of personal freedom—and of mutual respect.


Entry Denied (AGAIN)!!!

Post from Jean Thilmany:

Am I the only one ensconced in password hell? How are we supposed to keep track of the millions of user IDs and passwords required in this world?

Like everyone else, I have my email accounts, my work-related sites, one of my kid’s school accounts—including one for school hot-lunches that I only refill about twice a year. In fact, the worst sites in terms of remembering passwords are those I only visit a few times a year and those that prompt me to create a password I don’t normally rely on. “Quick: Come up with a memorable password of sixteen characters, three of them upper case, three of them lower case and at least two of them numbers. Then spit it back a year from now.”

Financial sites like banks and brokerages—and others rife with personal information such as health insurance accounts—usually ask me to create these types of passwords, plus they prompt me with several qualifying questions. So this means that when I phone in to customer service, my inability to remember the town in which I was born makes me ipso facto sound like a thief. So by “color of my first car” did they mean the first one I bought myself, or the bright-orange Volkswagen Rabbit my dad bought for my sister and me when I turned 16?

I’ve always been afraid of writing down my passwords (though secretly I wanted to).

But now, Dave Chronister tells me I can do just that. As managing partner at Parameter Security, a firm of certified ethical hackers in St. Peters, Mo., he’s an expert who should know. He and another expert have given me a few other password tips I want to pass along.

Don’t write the thing down and tape it to a computer or leave it bolded in the address book on your desk next to your computer, he said. Instead, write down your passwords and seal them in an envelope in an area away from your computer.

That way, if you really need a password, even a few years down the road, you’ll know where to find it. And thieves likely won’t find the envelope and put it together with computer use.

But what are the chances of me finding where I hid the envelope, if I need it in two years’ time?

And about those question prompts, Steve Santorelli, a former Scotland Yard detective who is now director of global outreach at Team Cymru, an Internet Security research company in Lake Mary, Fla., has good advice.

“Sarah Palin’s account got hacked because the hackers could guess the answers to all of her secret questions,” he said. He advises users to register answers that don’t directly pertain to the question but that they can easily remember, such as their first phone number, a phrase, or string of numbers that means something to the user but isn’t easily guessable to the outsider.

So now I just have to remember whether I paired my first phone number to the prompt question about first car color or first-grade teacher’s name.

But here’s some good advice from Chronister that I can get behind: When it comes to choosing a password, consider a sentence, he said. After all, a “pass phrase”—rather than a password—of up to 16 characters would require intense computing power to guess and would contain a space, a nonletter or number tab little considered by hackers. A sentence can be easy to remember and can be long enough—including special characters—that hacking software and hackers themselves can’t easily discover it.

This sentence will by my password. Or will it?


Calling the Shots

Post from Jeffrey Winters:

Jeffrey Winters

We’ve written a couple times about the technology to locate gunfire based on triangulating the sound the shots make (see Tech Focus, June 2009, and Computing, February 2011). That last time, Jean Thilmany was writing about a Mountain View, Calif., company called ShotSpotter Inc., which was running trials of its system in Broward County, Fla.; the technology was able to determine the location of a gunshot to within a few feet.

The May 29 issue of The New York Times carries an update of the ShotSpotter system, which is now in use in 70 cities around the country. The system is fast enough that the time between the shots being detected and police officers arriving on the scene can be less than four minutes. The contrast to the traditional way of dealing with reported gunfire is stark:

Sgt. Chris Bolton of the Oakland, Calif., Police Department, which has installed ShotSpotter in high-crime neighborhoods in East and West Oakland, said that before the system was in place, “a patrol officer would receive a gunshot call from the community and you could spend up to 30 minutes driving within, I would say, three to four blocks of that location, just to make sure there isn’t a victim in need of assistance, a crime ongoing or any evidence.”

City streets have been under remote surveillance for some time. Closed circuit television cameras monitor public spaces in London, New York, and elsewhere, and ShotSpotter is just an extension of that into the audible realm. But it might strike people as being more intrusive, especially if it is able to detect individual conversations. There’s one instance of that reported in the Times article, and a lawyer involved in the case asks, “If the police are utilizing these conversations, then the issue is, where does it stop?”

That’s not an engineering question. It’s something to which every citizen needs to have an answer.


On the Fringes

My June column in Mechanical Engineering magazine.

One of the things that we can’t seem to come to terms with on staff is the extent to which we should cover nanotechnology. Some of the editors think that we should lay low until there is a significant new breakthrough, since much of what’s going on in the field right now remains in R&D. Others say nanotechnology is the new engineering backbone that stimulates future advancements in most industries and we should monitor its progress regularly.

One of the things that we do agree on is that there are areas in which nanotechnology has indeed lived up to its early promise. One of these is nanomedicine, where nano-engineered solutions range from medical diagnostics, therapeutics, and imaging to regenerative medicine and tissue engineering.

In an article on nanomedicine in this issue, authors Guy M. Genin and Ram V. Devireddy note that more than a decade ago Mechanical Engineering featured an article called “The Great Out of the Small,” which introduced the potential of the then relatively new and uncharted world of nano-engineering. Back then we speculated on how nanotechnology could transform industries and revolutionize the medical and biomechanical fields. 

This month, Genin and Devireddy write about the engineers—many of them ASME members—who have advanced the field in ways that seemed fantastical twelve years ago. These are innovators whose vision has driven their work.

One of the reasons we continue to have the conversation among the editors about covering nanotechnology is that many of those who work in the area of nanotechnology are outliers. They don’t match up well with conventional ideas of technology.

It is easier to celebrate the successes of outliers than their work because outliers go about their business in ways that are not readily familiar.

Earlier this year, in an article published in the Harvard Business Review, Columbia Business School professor Rita Gunther McGrath wrote that one of the traits that marks companies that are outliers is that they’re “built for innovation… they can move on a dime.” McGrath says that these companies favor adaptability over pure efficiency. While they are unusually stable, those companies that are high achievers are also, paradoxically,  highly flexible.

At a digital conference in Orlando, Fla., last month, McGrath gave a keynote address focusing on her research and highlighting the effectiveness of companies that embrace the approach of systematic innovation, especially when adopting new technologies. Her examples were case studies of companies in various areas including the beverage, information technology, and pharmaceutical industries.

Although McGrath focuses on corporate strategy, in a chat with her about the traits that set companies apart as outliers, it became apparent that ambition is a foremost common characteristic. It is this singular trait that is perhaps the most important and common among companies and individuals who succeed—even more so than basic smarts.

While we’re not likely to come to a complete agreement among the editors on whether we should cover nanotechnology in every issue of the magazine or only once in a while, we aren’t about to ignore the developments or the individuals who are on the forefront of change—the outliers, if you will.

The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

June 2012

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