Solving the World’s Energy Crisis

Posted on May 4th, 2006 in Politics by EngineerBoy

Today the world derives the vast majority of its energy from non-renewable resources like oil, coal, and natural gas. There is a finite amount of these fuels, and at the current growth rate of usage they will all be used up within 100 years. That means that some of the young babies of today will live to see the end of the age of hydrocarbon fuels. What will they use to fulfill their energy needs?

There is a strong push to replace hydrocarbons with “green” energy sources, using so-called renewable resources such as sunlight, wind, or thermal energy. While I can see that these resources could be considered renewable given their current levels of usage, I fear the impact on our environment if we scale usage up to the point where they could provide most of the world’s energy needs.

Consider wind power, which today consists of a few wind farms in a few places, and which have no discernable impact on weather patterns (or the energy supply, for that matter). However, if you scale up wind power so that it is ubiquitous, and you remove all of that wind energy from the meteorological realm, what would be the resulting long-term impact? I have been unable to find any estimates of this, nor do I see a logical way to predict such an impact, even if one were to attempt to figure it out. Today we see huge, wild shifts in the world’s weather with each degree of temperature change — what would be the impact of reducing wind energy by one mile per hour around the globe?

The same with sunlight. Today people have solar cells or solar water heaters on the rooftops of their homes, and there are a few large-scale commercial solar energy farms, but again nothing noteworthy in relation to the overall world energy supply. And these few solar installations really have no impact on global weather, as they are so small as to be inconsequential. But, again, imaging scaling up the production of energy from sunlight, with vast farms of solar cells or solar water heaters absorbing energy from sunlight, energy that would previously have hit the ground and contributed to the natural forces of our biosphere. What if large-scale solar energy farms reduced the global temperature by one or two degrees?

The same can be said for geothermal energy, as well as other “renewables” such as biomass or flowing water. These may seem to be potentially endless reserves of energy, but when one uses one’s imagination to extrapolate usage up to providing any significant portion of the worlds energy needs it becomes much less clear as to the long-term effects and actual “renewability” of these resources. Keep in mind that if you take a long enough view of the world, oil is a renewable resource, we just have to wait a few geologic millenia for natural forces to replenish the oil supply naturally (just like it was created in the first place). An energy source is “renewable” only

You Might Be Right, But You Won’t Have any Friends

Posted on May 2nd, 2006 in Commentary by mynagirl

“But The User Should Memorize their Training Booklet…”

I find in my life and professional career that there are two types of people:

Those that live in the land of “should”
Those that live in the land of “is”

I had a chat with a friend in college, and I asked the question whether or not health insurance companies should pay for preventive maintenance. “Of course they should!” she exclaimed. I countered by saying that insurance companies are essentially financial organizations, if preventive maintenance didn’t lower their costs, why should they do it? Her response was, “Well, well… just because it’s right!”

And that may be… it may be “right” (in the moral sense) to provide preventive care to people, but no company is going to do it just because it’s “right” — they’ll only do it if they’re losing customers because they don’t offer it, or if companies start to pay extra for health insurance in order to attract and retain their own employees. That’s how the free-market economy works. That’s reality.

So if you want to get your health insurance company to offer preventive maintenance, I would argue that the least effective thing you could do would be to tell your health insurance company that you need it. They don’t have really any big financial incentive to do it for one person whose health insurance is determined by their employer. A better idea would be to tell your employer you need it, and/or get other employees to join their voice to the chorus. Then maybe your employer (who actually has the power to change health insurance companies) will ask your health insurance provider for it. An even better idea is that if you’re the one who really needs it, pay for it yourself or go find an employer whose health insurance offers it.

Similar things are rampant at work. Lots of people get caught up in “should” and “it isn’t fair”. Things such as:

There’s no need to put an intuitive “helper” text on an application form, because everyone should have received training on the app.
I shouldn’t have to code a “back” button on a web site page, because the browser has a back button, and the user should know to use that instead.
It isn’t fair that we have to help a customer who caused their own problem; the customer should just fix it themselves.

I find these types of arguments / whining very frustrating, because wanting people (especially customers) to act the way you think they “should” is really an exercise in futility. It’s like hitting your head against a brick wall — it might seem like a good idea, until you do it. And no sane person would think that they could actually break the wall with their skull.

The husband of a friend of mine once said (in response to something I was whining about), “Well, you might be right, but you won’t have any friends”. It was such a great truth I was immediately dumbstruck. He was right: what good was expecting people do

Workplace Processbots

Posted on May 2nd, 2006 in Commentary by mynagirl

I have worked in technology for almost all of my professional career. Much of it has been in a consulting or contracting mode, where I would work at a customer company’s site instead of at my employer’s. So I’ve been able to observe dozens of different companies and approach process and change within their oranizations, specifically their IT organizations.

Contrast the following:

I had a sales call at one international energy firm where they were interesting in really bleeding-edge integration of vendors that weren’t quite ready, and I was told the company’s approach was “if we’re not making mistakes, we’re not moving fast enough”. Wow, that’s like a blank check for a consultant!!
I worked for three years at another international energy firm where the smallest change had to be submitted a week in advance and a change affecting multiple servers had to be in the system for a MONTH prior to actual implementation.

Which was the more successful firm? Depends on what you’re measuring — is it revenue, is it profit, or is it the company’s long-range investments in future technologies and revenue sources? Besides, the test of a successful energy firm is when prices are below $50 a barrel, so the answer may not appear for a while.

Another dichotomy:

My first job after college was as a marketing analyst with leviathan insurance company. When I realized I had a knack for programming and systems development, I applied internally for a job posting for a server administrator. I mean, I’d taught myself to program pretty sophisticated stuff in less than a year, I’d be a great internal recruit, right? Cheap and willing to learn. However, HR couldn’t even let me post for the job because it was more than two analyst grades above my own in their job classification system. This is the same company that installed a cube wall in front of a floor-to-ceiling window because the employee sitting there wasn’t a Manager and only Managers got window cubes. Seriously.
My third job after college was to move to national technology consulting firm, coming from a very small-potatoes tech consulting firm. I told the hiring manager what my salary expectations were… and when it came time for the offer, he actually offered me more (to ensure I was still happy after I started and realized that my ask price was below market). Pretty amazing.

Now, that hiring was during the heydays of the tech boom, I realize that, but (from my persective), “Leviathan Mutual” passed up on a great internal promotion opportunity because of hidebound process and procedure rules, while “Nimble Consulting” broke protocol to accomplish what they needed to accomplish.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I by no means advocate “shooting from the hip” for technical work. (Here is where people who know me in person will start to snicker). On the contrary, I am the Queen of Procedure Docs. (It has been a mostly peaceful reign).