Big ideas for you?

Source: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license. The image has not been altered.

What’s new?

The 2 Feb issue of the newsletter The Hustle contained a link to the 26 January report “Big Ideas 2021” from ARK Investment Management LLC. You can register with ARK to get a copy here or download from The Hustle here. The Hustle newsletter describes the top idea of the 15 ideas in that report: deep learning.

What does it mean?

Besides deep learning, the other 14 ideas are: the re-invention of the data center, virtual worlds, digital wallets, Bitcoin’s fundamentals, Bitcoin, electric vehicles, automation, autonomous ride-hailing, delivery drones, orbital aerospace, 3D printing, long read sequencing, multi-cancer screening, and cell and gene therapy.

For each Big Idea, the report explains what it is, assesses the potential for investors, and discusses related trends and effects. For example, deep learning, a type of artificial intelligence (AI), “uses data to write software,” and is aiding in the creation of conversational computers, self-driving cars, and consumer apps. It requires “boundless computational power,” “is creating a boom in AI chips,” and is “expanding from vision to language.”

The report goes into depth on the development of new computer chips to challenge Intel’s dominance, the effects of virtual reality and augmented reality on gaming, trends in financial services (digital wallets such as Venmo, and digital currencies such as Bitcoin), two technologies I have written about frequently (electric vehicles and 3D printing), the movement from automation from its success in manufacturing to other parts of the US economy, trends related to moving people and consumer goods (autonomous ride-sharing and delivery drones), and the growth in satellites to provide ubiquitous Internet connectivity.

The last three trends focus on biology and medicine. I learned that I need to read more about those areas. I need to learn more about what improvements will be enabled by long-read sequencing of genomes and about the technology of gene editing.

Their summary of EV trends (battery prices, range, performance, and sales) is succinct and persuasive that a roughly 20-fold growth can happen in the next five years. They connect 3D printing with improved drone technology and with the use of AI to optimize design.

I am surprised by some of their conclusions. The report has two trends related to Bitcoin, but a friend who invested early in Bitcoin tells me investors have moved onto other digital currencies. I find the potential applications of virtual reality in training to be more interesting than the report’s emphasis on gaming. I remain skeptical about autonomous vehicles without changes in the transportation system. Multi-cancer screening of asymptomatic populations faces, I think, the reality of signaling many false negatives (as driven by Bayes’s theorem). However, ARK is focused on where the money is and certainly has more knowledge than I do concerning that focus.

The report has no mention of climate change.

What does it mean for you?

What is ARK? Page 2 of the report states that ARK is an investment firm that “specializes in thematic investing in disruptive innovation and strives to invest at the pace of innovation.” What is a Big Idea for ARK? Page 4 states: “ARK requires a big idea to be investable and long-term.” My goal is not to give investment advice, but rather to help you be aware of and benefit from technological developments that may affect your organization in the future. The report focuses on how an investor can make money from these trends, but the report is still very helpful in pointing out trends for you to watch.

I have an engineer’s instinctual attraction to things that actually make better the lives of people and thus I find the report’s emphasis on making rich people richer (such as applauding the decline of labor’s share in the rewards of productivity) and its emphasis on the benefits of monetization of human activities not to my taste, but I recommend you read this report for some well written and researched information on trends. Perhaps you should view my engineering sensibility as merely resentment that the financial folks get much richer than engineers do from their own work.

Where can you learn more?

You can subscribe to The Hustle daily newsletter here. I find its over-the-top, well, hustle, wearying, but it is an interesting read for trends.

Regarding the 15 trends, I plan to spend some time doing Internet searches to learn more.

My money is invested through a fee-only financial advisor.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

I’ll print that for you

Shipping containers. Source: Wikimedia. This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

What’s new?

On 27 January I attended an online webinar presented by Daniel Lazier, a mechanical engineer with the additive manufacturing company MarkForged, titled “Environmental Impact – Supply Chains.” Mr. Lazier discussed climate change, the impact of personal decisions as compared to the much larger impact of what he called “group choices,” the need to reduce the carbon footprint of supply chains, and the way in which additive manufacturing can have positive environmental effects.

What does it mean?

Mr. Lazier used an example of a MarkForged client who needed to manufacture and send a redesigned emergency part to various locations around the world. Because of the time pressure, the items were sent by air, which creates a large amount of carbon emissions. The alternate solution of sending a digital file to be printed closer to the places where the part was needed dramatically decreased the environmental impact and also made more economic sense.

Additive manufacturing can reduce carbon emissions by using material more efficiently (adding rather than subtracting material and the internal design of additive manufactured parts both reduce the waste of material), by requiring less electricity as compared to conventional machining, and by allowing slower and more efficient transportation (that is, by ship) of spools of feedstock. That feedstock can be used to create many products.

The ability to print at locations near the demand will be enabled by local companies but also by networks of printers. For example, MarkForged equipment is behind Project DIAMOnD, a State of Michigan initiative to create a distributed network of 3D printers able to print critical parts (for example, Personal Protective Equipment) quickly. The Jabil Additive Manufacturing Network is just one company offering to print your products in different locations around the world.

Even the supply chain of feedstock can be reduced by using local recycling to gather waste material, shred it, and extrude into filament for additive manufacturing, as described in this article “How to turn plastic waste in your recycle bin into profit.” See yeggi, thingiverse, pinshape, NASA, and many other sites for free or paid STL files for items to print.  

What does it mean for you?

In response to a question during the webinar, Mr. Lazier was quick to acknowledge that additive manufacturing makes economic (and environmental sense) for only some applications. If, for example, you are making millions of smartphone connectors a month, conventional manufacturing is better.

Additive manufacturing near to the place of use means that many products may be able to be printed on demand, with customization, creating a pull manufacturing process, rather than push. A 28 January 2021 article in Total Retail describes this on-demand economy, which reduces the need to forecast demand, reduces the need to store products until needed, and reduces the waste of products that were never sold. Even if your products are not ones that can be produced using additive manufacturing, you may find that some of your suppliers are using these processes.

With the announcement this week that GM will be carbon neutral by 2040 (driven by trends such as the amazing drop in batteries for vehicles) with the continued trend making renewable energy the cheapest source of electricity for utilities, and with the accelerating trend toward electrification in residential, commercial, and industrial sectors, our world seems poised to look very different – and much greener – in the future. Add supply chains to the list of business functions that are going to be redesigned in the not-that-distant future.

Where can you learn more?

These changes to supply chains are so new that no standard term has yet emerged, but “distributed manufacturing” or “distributed production” is the best I have found. See, for example, this article from the 3D printing company EOS, or this article from

It’s the system

“Autonomous delivery vehicles stuck in one place by attempting to avoid one another.”
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

What’s new?

In a 15 Jan 2021 article in EE Times (Electronic Engineering Times), automotive technology expert Egil Juliussen analyzed the 9 November 2020 advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concerning autonomous vehicles.

What does it mean?

As stated on the NHTSA website, “Our mission is to save lives, prevent injuries, and reduce economic costs due to road traffic crashes, through education, research, safety standards, and enforcement.” Also,  “NHTSA issues Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) to implement laws from Congress. These regulations allow us to fulfill our mission to prevent and reduce vehicle crashes.” Thus, the purpose of this advance notice is to seek input on the development of FMVSS to regulate autonomous vehicles in a way that promotes safety.

The legal website Lexology provides a helpful summary of the ANPRM, noting that the NHTSA proposes to focus on the capabilities of the automated systems in four functions: sensing (receiving information), perception (analyzing that information to reach conclusions about what it sees), planning (making decisions), and control (actually driving).

What does it mean for you?

The most important statement in the EE Times article is this seemingly innocuous explanation of terms: “To describe autonomous vehicle hardware and software, NHTSA is using the terminology, `Automated Driving System (ADS).’ I will also use `ADS’ instead of autonomous vehicle (AV) in the rest of this column.”

If an engineer is designing an autonomous vehicle (AV), the assumption is that the vehicle will function within the existing driving infrastructure. The phrase Advanced Driving System (ADS) contains that wonderful word “system” suggesting a new approach in which the entire transportation system is changed to support autonomous driving.

As early as 2005, Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) were introduced into factories by laying down magnetic tape they can follow. While current versions do not require such support, they still function within a limited environment and their use is accompanied by five key rules: keep travel routes clear, never walk directly in front of an AGV, always allow them the right of way, stay out of the danger zone, and raised objects may not be recognized. Despite ambitious claims, the environment must still adapt to the AGV and it does not operate in the same environment as a human driven vehicle.

Thus, driving long distances could be more easily automated though designing lanes to be used by automated vehicles, as is being explored in Michigan (certainly an automobile friendly location) and other places.

One of the difficult parts of autonomous driving is to predict what other vehicles will do, especially ones being driven by humans. Limiting the environment to only automated vehicles provides an easier problem to solve. The word “system” also suggests coordination among automated vehicles, in which they share navigation information, but also share information about their intentions.

The NHTSA’s announcement of the ANPRM does not give any indication that NHTSA is thinking about the larger transportation system in their use of the phrase “Advanced Driving System,” since the announcement uses phrases like “ADS-equipped vehicle” implying that the system lies totally within the vehicle. Also, its definition of ADS (“the hardware and software that are, collectively, capable of performing the entire dynamic driving task on a sustained basis, regardless of whether it is limited to a specific operational design domain”) does not support the interpretation of “system” that I am using.

However, I confidently predict that automated driving will be successful – and safe – only to the degree that changes to the transportation system are made to support this new technology and to the degree that such vehicles are operated in autonomous mode only in environments that have been adapted to them.

Interestingly, the National Society for Professional Engineers (NSPE) issued a statement and several policy guides on autonomous vehicles which emphasizes the systems aspects embodied in the transportation infrastructure: professional engineers must have “a leading voice in ensuring that the same attention to safety and reliability that went into the built transportation infrastructure is incorporated into autonomous vehicles and smart transportation systems.”

The lesson is that every new technology requires changes to a larger system to be successful. Any decision maker contemplating the introduction of a new technology into an organization should always be asking questions about how that system – especially the humans in the system – will have to adapt to the technology.

Where can you learn more?

The NHTSA has a web page dedicated to Automated Driving Systems. The US Department of Transportation also has such a page.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems (ah, there is that word again) is a professional organization supporting professionals in the field and publishes a magazine called Unmanned Systems.

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators has an Autonomous Vehicle Information Library.

January 2021 meeting of Pueblo Makes

Drew reminded people of the PSAS virtual STEM Fair this Thursday 21 Jan. If you signed up to be a judge, you will receive an email on Wednesday giving a link to the videos with a Google form to assess each video from Thursday through Sunday. Three judges will judge each video, by grade level. This year, due to COVID, all students did individual projects, not teams.  

Nathan Stern ( from Broad Street Realty in Denver spoke to us about planned development in the old Holmes Hardware Building (44 S Union Avenue), down Union Avenue from the Rawlings Library. He described his Pueblo connection (his great aunt worked for the steel mill) and the way he fell in love with Pueblo. He and his business partner Zach did various brokerage arrangements here, and he has sold property here, but after noticing the success of food halls in nurturing new restaurant in Denver, he decided to work on a food hall as a way for restaurateurs to get a concept off the ground, then open in their own place. On 3 March 2020 he put the Holmes Hardware Building under contract and shortly after that every restaurant in Pueblo shut down. This delay turned out to be a blessing since it gave him time to work on this project.

He showed us a presentation on the project ( including the history of the building.  Its location is ideal for drawing people down Union Avenue from the Riverwalk. He described the phases, starting with residential units (18 1-bedroom apartments, 18 2-bedroom, and 2 studios, unfurnished) on the top floors of the building, then the food hall, event space, urban farm, performing arts space (under the Union Ave bridge) and more residential units (working with IndieDwell). He hopes that the project will be catalytic. As people see this success, it will encourage more housing in the urban core. The downtown can’t be successful if no one lives there. The project will include many spaces for public art, including public art in the plaza, ornamental metal gates, an art wall, and more. The urban farm will include a playground.

The food hall will be all local companies. The project will operate the bar in the center of the food hall, leasing out five restaurant spaces and a coffee shop. It is intended that restaurants would be in the food hall for 2 to 3 years, and then open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Pueblo. Since the food hall will include kitchen facilities and equipment, a start-up food vendor will need only signage, a menu (usually about six items), and specialty equipment, requiring roughly $20,000 to start instead of millions. Food halls tend to be profitable, allowing the start ups to establish a concept, gain a customer base, and save up money to open a restaurant. With housing on site, employees could live nearby.

Contractor bids are due back 5 February. Depending on those bids, he thinks they have sufficient investment to proceed and plans to close on the building on 7 April. The construction will be done in two phases to comply with requirements for state tax credits for historic buildings. The residential units should be done in January 2022 and the food hall in July 2022.

Nathan asked for feedback and ideas.

LaDoris asked about the connection with Watertower Place. Nathan said the two projects are complementary, since Watertower Place plans to have full scale restaurants, food retail, and a commissary kitchen, none of which will be in the Holmes Hardware building.  Keating School also plans to focus on retail. He said they want to be good partner and are also working with the Food Project. LaDoris and Nathan will talk about the potential for LaDoris to supply aprons and chef caps.

He said they have most of the money needed, but not all and they are providing an opportunity for people to invest as little as $100 through In response to Zach’s questions, Nathan explained the funding of the total cost of $14.5 million. $9 million through three different loans. Of the remaining $5.5 million in equity. $3 million is raised through tax credit equity programs, federal and state. Since state credits are capped at $1 million per phase and one phase must be finished before the next starts, the residential floors will open in January 2022, and then the Food Hall in July.  

Karen described to Nathan that the building is located within a portion of the Pueblo Creative Corridor ( and that the Pueblo Arts Alliance ( does group marketing for the area. She will help Nathan connect with creatives. The project will also have a gallery of historic photos.

Drew offered that his students at PSAS ( have expertise in designing playgrounds and can give him feedback. Nathan encouraged that connection since the playground will be in the urban farm which is viewed as an educational piece. Nathan is already connected with Deric.

Ryan Madic will be the first intern from CSU-Pueblo and there are plans to involve PCC and CSU-Pueblo. Pueblo students will be able to see a career path in food businesses. Paula suggested he connect with Brian Estrada, the new director of the SBDC, who did catering at PCC. Four of the six food hall locations are signed already. Amanda described the customized workforce training PCC can provide.

Nathan said he has already bought 48 mugs from Tuxedo Ranch. Jean discussed the potential to do events to coordinate volunteers to work on the playground and garden, involving adults and youth. Nathan liked the idea. The group suggested that Taylor Blanchard ( might be able to provide furniture. Nathan said there will be need for over 200 chairs and 50 to 100 tables. Formulary 55 might be able to provide products for the bathroom. Karen volunteered to provide another bath products business also.

Nathan is in Pueblo once a week so email him ( if you want to discuss collaboration on the project.

Karen updated the group on progress on the store to be opened in the lobby of the Arts Alliance Building, to accept donations of creative and making supplies: Creative Reuse Pueblo. Progress is being made in cleaning out the warehouse, creating a list of what we can take and not take, policies for volunteers, etc. The store will start with volunteer managers, eventually paid. A local artist is creating a logo. The official announcement will be at the end of February, but donations already coming in. Also, she reminded us that the Arts Alliance online store is up and running ( To be listed there, send info to Karen ( For Pueblo Makes members, there is a 10% commission only on sales, not on shipping. The vendor must handle shipping.  

Jane described an opportunity to advertise online classes through Activingo ( She, Bill, and Elliott have their EJB Partners offerings on that website, and perhaps Pueblo Makes and the Arts Alliance could collaborate on a storefront there. Karen talked about the video studio being set up at the Arts Alliance which will help people make videos. Karen said she recently took a course on giving webinars and she encouraged all of us to consider offering short courses; while others may already be teaching such a course, your voice might reach someone. Russ pointed to Lucid Woodturners ( as a resource to help learn about teaching online. Jane mentioned Gia Goodrich’s video on how to look good online: The group was very interested in teaching online and we will focus the February meeting on resources for offering online classes.

Jane said she had checked with Alan of the City of Pueblo about the possible zoning change to allow small batch manufacturing in certain areas (for example, on Main Street); the proposal is on hold until an inventory of historic buildings is complete. She described the idea of making Main Street a maker/creative friendly location and there was interest in pursuing that idea. LaDoris described a vision including childcare for workers.  Paula volunteered to run a session to expand that vision, which we will plan to do at the March meeting.

LaDoris announced that Project Inspire ( will have an event on 6 Feb with a Valentine’s Day theme where vendors can sell products.

Pueblo Makes meets the third Tuesday of each month, 3:30-5 pm, via zoom (

The next meeting dates and tentative topics are:

  • 16 February – online teaching of art and making classes
  • 16 March – vision for creative/maker Main Street: Making on Main Street


Data source: NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). Credit: NASA/GISS
Source of figure:

What’s new?

A recent article in the magazine IEEE Spectrum reports on a new facility to be built in Texas to capture and sequester carbon dioxide (CO2), “doing the air-scrubbing work of some 40 million trees.”

What does it mean?

NASA has a clear explanation of the causes of global climate change. Greenhouse gases (including water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons) in the atmosphere trap the sun’s warmth in the greenhouse effect, leading to global warming and global climate change. NASA cites “the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], a group of 1,300 independent scientific experts from countries all over the world under the auspices of the United Nations” for the conclusion that there is a greater than “95 percent probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet.” The reports of the IPCC can be found here.

NASA also describes the probable effects of global climate change, including a continued rise in temperature, lengthening of the growing season, changes in precipitation patterns, more droughts and heat waves, stronger and more intense hurricanes, a rise in sea level of 1 to 8 feet by 2100, and an ice-free Arctic Ocean before 2050.

NASA states: “Humans have caused major climate changes to happen already, and we have set in motion more changes still. Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, global warming would continue to happen for at least several more decades, if not centuries.” Efforts to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases will eventually have effect, but some people are working to act take greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) out of the atmosphere using methods called Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage (CCS).

What does it mean for you?

I am a fan of the word “and” – rather than “or.” Sometimes a situation demands picking one alternative, but often a solution to a problem may be made up of various components, all contributing to the solution. “And” reduces the risk of relying on one approach.

However, I am also a fan of actually solving a problem and not literally burying it in the ground. But, on the third hand, the global climate crisis is real and critical, so burying carbon dioxide buys us time. Read here journalist Ira Flatow’s discussion of how science works and why a one-handed scientist is not the answer.

My most hopeful view of carbon capture technology is the idea that these technologies can create a circular use of carbon dioxide. The IEEE Spectrum article mentions the development of technologies to use the captured carbon dioxide to produce synthetic fuels. Carbon dioxide can also be used in carbonated beverages or desalination plants.

Reducing the trash we produce (greenhouse emissions, plastics, etc.), capturing the trash we have already produced (see, for example, this technology to clean up plastic in the ocean), AND designing human activities to be sustainable, even regenerative, are all parts of the solution. We must do them all.

Where can you learn more?

I recommend highly the NASA website on climate change and the IPCC reports. The former is accessible, clear, and easy to read. The latter is more challenging to read, but I urge you not to let others tell you what the IPCC says without actually checking to see what they actually said.

Hold paramount

I always start with a relevant image, but I was unable to find an openly licensed photo of one of the Boeing 737 Max crash sites and I refuse to show a photo of an intact Max 737.

What’s new?

The Guardian reports that the US Federal Aviation Administration has fined Boeing $2.5 billion for its behavior, including fraud and conspiracy, concerning safety issues of the 737 Max airliner.

What does it mean?

Crashes of Max 737 planes in October 2018 in Ethiopia and in March 2019 in Indonesia killed a total of 346 people. As explained in this 2019 article from Vox, Boeing made the business decision to try to avoid a lengthy recertification process by redesigning an existing plane rather than design a new plane. “But because the new engines wouldn’t fit under the old wings, the new plane wound up having different aerodynamic properties than the old plane. And because the aerodynamics were different, the flight control systems were also different. But treating the whole thing as a fundamentally different plane would have undermined the whole point. So the FAA and Boeing agreed to sort of fudge it.” An attempt to fix the problem through software was never incorporated sufficiently into pilot training. “That let Boeing get the planes into customers’ hands quickly and cheaply, but evidently at the cost of increasing the possibility of pilots not really knowing how to handle the planes, with dire consequences for everyone involved.” People died.

What does it mean for you?

In 2015, when news broke about VW’s use of software to defeat the ability of EPA tests to accurately measure emissions from VW diesels, I met my engineering class of about 20 juniors, seniors, and graduate students. I intended to briefly comment about the VW actions, lament the ethical lapses, reinforce the importance of ethics and safety, and then turn to our scheduled topic for the class. The engineering faculty had long agreed on the importance of highlighting news events related to engineering. However, much to my shock, some of the students pushed back: everyone lies, it’s part of the game, and that’s just business.

I argued back and a lively discussion ensued. In fact, I yelled at them. At the next meeting of our departmental advisory board (made up of representatives from local companies that hire our graduates), I recounted this story; the members of the board told me I was correct in yelling at the students. They said that ethical lapses were fireable offences.

A failure in learning by a wide group of students generally indicates a failure in teaching, so a few class sessions later, I spent some time reviewing the stance of the engineering profession regarding ethics and safety, material we cover in the first year introduction to engineering course. I started with the first Fundamental Canon in the NSPE (National Society of Professional Engineers) Code of Ethics for Engineers, which forms the basis for the codes of ethics of all engineering societies in the US: “Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.”

Next I described that ABET, which accredits all engineering programs in the US, requires programs to include as a desired outcome that graduates have “an ability to recognize ethical and professional responsibilities in engineering situations and make informed judgments, which must consider the impact of engineering solutions in global, economic, environmental, and societal contexts.” The achievement of that outcome must be assessed and evaluated, and that evaluation must be used for continuous improvement of the program. In addition, any safety lapse during ABET’s review of a program that is not immediately fixed, will lead to a negative review, involving a “show cause” decision in which the institution must argue why the program should not lose its accreditation.

I reminded the students that, as seniors, they would be invited to be inducted into the Order of the Engineer, by reciting the obligation (including the statement that “my skill and knowledge shall be given without reservation for the public good”), and wearing a ring that reminds them of their obligation.

When I present this material to first year students in engineering, I tell them, that, if they are not ready to take on these ethical obligations, they should not become engineers. I invite them to leave.

I recently had a very bad experience with a national company (which left us for 5 days without propane) and a very good experience with a local company (Flow Right Plumbing, Heating and Cooling) that got our furnace and water heater running again after we got propane. When I complimented the local company, the repair person went on at length about the training they get – the first training he mentioned was ethics. I repeat: the first training he mentioned was ethics.

The fact that Boeing (and VW) did not receive the death penalty for their actions is an example of privileging the “lives” of corporations over the actual lives of living beings. If you are not prioritizing ethics, if you cannot make ethics and safety part of your business plan, if you do not make sure that every employee behaves ethically, then your business should not exist.

Where can you learn more?

Excellent material abounds for teaching engineering ethics, especially using case studies: for example, here, here, and here.

I am less familiar with such material for teaching business ethics, but an Internet search turned up similar business case studies here, here, and here. I cannot find that the standards of the leading business school accreditation body, AACSB, include a requirement that student outcomes include any knowledge or skill about ethical behavior, but I might have missed such a statement.  

An Internet search for “teaching ethics to employees” turned up many web pages with helpful material and many companies that offer such training or advice on how to train employees. I like this article from Training Magazine and this one from Strategic Finance Magazine.

Engineering culture constantly reinforces attention to safety and ethics, and every organization can do the same. Some companies start every meeting with a safety review. The pinky ring from the Order of the Engineer is designed to be a constant reminder of the obligation of the engineer to the public. I serve on the Board of Directors of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Pueblo County; every meeting has a report from our safety committee about how we are keeping kids safe. You can think of ways to make ethics constantly at the forefront of the minds of those in your organization.


What’s new

Three articles came together for me this week.

  1. New Scientist magazine reported on an ambitious project to use artificial intelligence (AI) to speak with animals.
  2. New Scientist also reported on the astounding amount of code in old programming languages still present in financial processing software.
  3. A friend who writes and teaches about Celtic paganism and horse goddesses posted a link to a 2017 article arguing that Joseph Campbell got a lot wrong in his work on mythology.

What does it mean?

The first article states “AI is good at language,” and describes a current project to decode the sounds made by sperm whales using AI to look for categories in massive databases. The technique “is great at detecting patterns and can neatly sort whale calls, say, into piles based on their acoustic properties, but often can’t tell you what those piles relate to.” The researchers realize they need to correlate the whale’s clicking vocalizations, called codas, with whale behavior and conclude “This is still a long way from deciphering meaning.” The article falls, I fear, into a long, long pattern of hype about AI, with the headline “Dr Dolittle machines: How AI is helping us talk to the animals” belied by the actual content of the article.

Among the many social problems made even more visible by the corona virus pandemic, attempts to provide financial aid to people found that some computer systems were overwhelmed “with the flood of people applying for welfare benefits – and hardly anyone around knew how to fix things,” as stated in the second article. These welfare processing systems, it turns out, still have massive amounts of code written in COBOL and other old programming languages. Ageing programmers, like the COBOL Cowboys, were called into service to try to fix the situation. But it often turns out that you don’t just need an experienced COBOL programmer, you need the COBOL programmer who wrote the original code. “Opaque turns of phrase, plus coding conventions that can vary significantly between domains or even organisations, make deciphering a specific bit of software difficult for an outsider.”

While Campbell’s views shifted across his many works, he is best known for arguing for the similarity of myths across many cultures. His thesis is summarized in the title of one his books, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which, according to the Joseph Campbell Foundation, “Campbell formulated the dual schemas of the Hero’s Journey, a universal motif of adventure and transformation that runs through all of humanity’s mythic traditions, and of the Cosmogonic Cycle, the stories of world-creation and -dissolution that have marked cultures around the world and across the centuries.” To the contrary, the 2017 article by Jeana Jorgensen quotes Sara Cleto as writing: “By saying `all these stories are the same,’ we lose what stories mean in different contexts and, especially, what they can mean to people that come from cultures that are not our own.”

What does it mean for you?

Humans look for and see patterns, perhaps due to evolution, since pattern recognition can help us survive. The theme I see in these three articles is that problems can arise through overuse of categories or patterns. It is more than just the difference between lumpers and splitters in taxonomy, it is more than whether patterns or categories help or hinder our thinking, the issue is our overuse of the general at the expense of the particular and our failure to respect the meaning an individual puts on an experience.

I can give more examples.

  • What some cite as Freud’s belief in universal symbols in dreams is better described as the need to interpret symbols in the individual’s context.
  • New Scientist also recently reported on efforts to use AI to identify emotions from facial expressions, but Lisa Feldman Barrett is quoted as questioning the fundamentals of the approach because “the use of various expressions varies noticeably between cultures.”
  • Again, from New Scientist, the Y2K bug lingers because the specific local ways in which the fix was implemented have caused other problems.

Local customs and cultures matter. Individuals matter.

In my interactions with people, I am constantly on the watch for indications that my interpretation of a situation is not the same as the other people I am working with. I can’t assume that the pattern, the categories, or the meaning I see is the same as what others see. I am listening for the implicit statement “That’s not how I see it.”

In my specific area of creating probability models, one person may say to another “wait, what is the sample space you are using?” which means that we are not thinking about the situation in the same way. We need to back up and reexamine our different interpretations of the situation.

In our quest for shared meaning, in our quest to establish an organizational culture, and in our quest to communicate clearly, we can use the amazing human skill of creating categories and of looking for patterns, but we must always be carefully alert for and we must always respect the particular, the local, and the individual.  

Where can you learn more?

In support of the recognition of the particular over the general, I urge you to watch your life over the next days and recognize those situations where another person interprets an event differently than you do. I think of them as Rashomon moments. For me, Facebook is a rich source of amazing and sometimes shocking cases where consensus is disrupted by someone who just views the whole situation in a different light. Wow, I say to myself.

I am adamant about using images that are in the public domain and about giving credit to the creator of the image, but I was stymied in this case by my inability to find an open use image of the sled Rosebud from the movie Citizen Kane, a powerful image, I think, of the particular nature of symbols. I substituted a rosebud photo. Did you get the reference? Or was it too particular to me?


Source:, Dinosaur Garage sign, Dinosaur, Colorado, from the John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive (1972-2008), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, which states that there are no known restrictions on publication.

What’s new

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released a document titled Energy Storage Grand Challenge Roadmap, which describes “a comprehensive program to accelerate the development, commercialization, and utilization of next-generation energy storage technologies and sustain American global leadership in energy storage. “

What does it mean?

The DOE program states goals for a 90% reduction from 2020 baseline costs in the cost of energy storage for long-duration stationary applications by 2030 and a 44% reduction from the current cost to manufacture a battery pack for a 300-mile range electric vehicle, again by 2030. Various tracks in the program focus on reducing the cost of operation as well as the cost to manufacture energy storage devices.

The report outlines six Use Cases describing ways in which improved energy storage will improve lives:

  1. facilitating an evolving grid (with improved resilience and reduced emissions),
  2. serving remote communities (with “clean, resilient, and cost-effective storage and flexibility solutions”),
  3. electrified mobility (to “facilitate a large-scale adoption of electric vehicles while maximizing beneficial coordination with the power grid”),
  4. interdependent network infrastructure (including reducing the need for peaking plants that run on fossil fuels),
  5. critical services (providing for continuity of power during disaster-related and other outages), and
  6. flexibility (for commercial and residential buildings and for energy-intensive facilities).

The technical and social changes needed to meet these goals are large, including safety (for example, to reduce the tendency of Lithium-ion batteries to overheat), cybersecurity, and the ethical sourcing of critical materials in these storage devices. Arguably, the resulting program, when successful, will be as significant as the initial electrification of this country.

What does it mean for you?

Denver-based journal Allen Best publishes a newsletter called Big Pivots, about the changes in Colorado use of water, energy, land, and other natural resources – and especially about climate change. Those who refer to the vast middle of the US as flyover country have seen the huge crop circles irrigated by a center well, through a large irrigation tube that pivots around that center.

Energy storage is driven by and is driving electrification, which, in turn, enables increased use of renewably generated energy to replace fossil fuels. Best wrote two days ago about the interplay among transportation, tourism, and the Colorado economy in the installation of a new high-speed charging station in Dinosaur, Colorado. He quotes Jim Heneghan, chief power supply officer for Delta-Montrose Electric Association, about the new imperative to have such a station: “If we don’t have the infrastructure in place now, it will be like the place that didn’t have WiFi. We don’t want to be that place.”

To state my now obvious punch line: don’t be a dinosaur. You should be looking at the sources and uses of energy in your organization now and moving, through beneficial electrification, to reducing your dependence on fossil fuels.

I just had personal experience with Use Case #2 about remote communities when my propane company failed to deliver, leaving me with an empty propane tank for five days and pushing me to accelerate my plans to install a heat pump. My local electric coop, San Isabel Electric Association, is giving me advice on how to electrify our water heating.

The present and the future in commercial energy includes using electricity to heat and cool spaces for humans, adopting electric transportation such as electric forklifts, and powering industrial operations from renewably generated electricity. In my home town, Pueblo’s historic 1881 steel mill will become the first in North America to rely on solar power; it already sources its input from recycled material.

Where can you learn more?

This August 2020 article from Deloitte provides an overview of the imperatives driving electrification in industrial companies. ACEEE, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, has a page focusing on industrial changes.

The website of the Energy Storage Association is a good place to start to learn about energy storage, including this overview of energy storage and  this description of the five basic types of energy storage: batteries, thermal, mechanical, storage, and pumped water. This page focuses on how energy storage can benefit a company. “Behind the meter” is a phrase used by the electrical industry to refer to devices and actions that are taken by the customer (who is behind the meter from the viewpoint of the electricity provider).

Selection of energy reduction strategies, including on site energy storage, requires understanding how you are charged for electricity, that is, your electricity tariff. This page from The Energy Detective explains the basics of fixed rates, tiers, time of use rates, demand charges, and other rates.

The Office of Electricity in the US Department of Energy is also a good source of information on technology being developed to create a secure, resilient, and reliable national grid. An overview of their work is here and various reports are here.

The US Energy Information Administration’s web page on electricity also has valuable information, so much that it can be overwhelming. This page has information on the consumption of energy in manufacturing.

What’s on your dashboard?

Source: Wikimedia Commons
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

What’s new?

Michael Taylor, a mechanical engineer and project manager with the Manufacturing Extension program at the US National Institute for Standards and Technology, wrote in a blog posting that digital applications are becoming frequent in manufacturing. While implementation of such techniques may be daunting for small enterprises, due to initial purchase price and training costs, he recommends five applications: digital performance management; predictive maintenance; yield, energy, and throughput analysis; automation and robotics; and digital quality management.

What does it mean?

The article briefly describes each application:

  1. Define important performance metrics, devise ways to collect the metrics in real time, and display them in a digital dashboard. Start with machine operating data or production output, as examples.
  2. Predictive maintenance uses equipment condition, often monitored by sensors, to detect the need to perform maintenance before machine failure.
  3. What is your yield for each step and for the entire process? How much energy are you using? How can each step in your process be improved? Digital applications can help you answer these questions.
  4. Automation and robotics are becoming more common, with turn-key solutions more available. The NIST article advises starting with applications such as low-speed material handling.
  5. Take the performance metrics identified in the first application and tie them directly and automatically to decision making.

What does it mean for you?

Three key ideas underlie the NIST suggestions: industrial engineering, vendors, and data.  

The author of the NIST article is a mechanical engineer. My field, industrial engineering, has historical roots in mechanical engineering, but adds considerations of efficiency, quality, and safety to the design of mechanical – and electrical – devices and systems, especially in manufacturing enterprises. Many of the manufacturing trends of the last decades are central to industrial engineering, including performance and productivity measures, preventive and now predictive maintenance, process improvement and optimization, automation and robotics to improve the operations of a manufacturing system, and automatic, data-based decision making. Your organization will have an easier time implementing the applications suggested in the NIST article if you have industrial engineers to help you.

You can get industrial engineering help by hiring an industrial engineer, of course, but often vendors can be your friends. Yes, a vendor is trying to sell you some technology, hardware, or software, but a good vendor wants to make sure your organization is successful in implementation. Many companies use engineers, often industrial engineers, in technical sales positions. Even if the sales person is not an engineer, a good vendor will provide training opportunities for your staff, access to web resources, and someone on their staff to help you install and operate the new application. If the vendor isn’t offering such support, try another vendor. Always remember that you aren’t just purchasing a physical device; you are also purchasing the support and service that comes with it.

Quality guru Deming is well known for saying; “In God we trust; all others bring data,” and I am much less well known for saying: “I love data.” Deming also said “Measure, measure, measure.”  Data are your messages from the real world. Using data requires that you choose what to measure, design a system to collect and report those data (collect from where? with what devices? measured and reported at what intervals?), and, most importantly, use that data to make better decisions.

I cannot shout this final point loudly enough: data are useful because they help you make better decisions. While this point is explicit in the fifth suggestion from NIST, it is implicit in all of the suggestions. And this point has many implications. You probably shouldn’t bother to collect some data if they won’t be used to make decisions. Using data to make better decisions involves a lot of work to understand the relationships among the data, the real world system they were collected from, and the decisions your organization makes that affect that system. You need a good model of those relationships.

The NIST articles rightly focuses on getting started. For all organizations, collecting data and learning to use them to make better decisions is the path to quality improvement and to better decision making.

Where can you learn more?

Yes, “data” is a plural noun.

I used the word “dashboard” in the title of this post because many use that phrase to describe the types of applications recommended in the NIST article. An Internet search on the phrase “manufacturing dashboard” yields much good advice. See, for example, 6 Manufacturing Dashboards for Visualizing Production.

Here comes the sun

Source: author

What’s new?

A recent article at Our World in Data, by Max Roser, presents evidence that “In most places in the world power from new renewables is now cheaper than power from new fossil fuels.”

What does it mean?

Almost always, first iteration of a new technology is expensive to make and barely functional, but, over time, it improves. All of us have experienced the amazing progress in consumer electronics, including computers and cell phones. Engineering efforts improve both the product itself and the manufacturing process for the product, resulting often in dramatic drops in cost and dramatic increases in performance.

In the case of renewable energy, Roser writes of the array of improvements that have reduced costs: “larger, more efficient factories are producing the modules; R&D efforts increase; technological advances increase the efficiency of the panels; engineering advances improve the production processes of the silicon ingots and wafers; the mining and processing of the raw materials increases in scale and becomes cheaper; operational experience accumulates; the modules are more durable and live longer; market competition ensures that profits are low; and capital costs for the production decline. It is a myriad of small improvements across a large collective process that drives this continuous price decline.”

Simply put, we learn.

Two concepts, the learning curve and the positive feedback loop, describe the effects of learning in reducing the prices of new technologies. The learning curve is an empirical finding that increased production volume of a manufactured item reliably leads to reduction in the cost of the item, in a way that can be described and then predicted mathematically. A positive feedback loop is the more general model of a situation where more of something creates even more of that thing; population growth is the classic example.

I have written before about negative feedback loops, in which more of something creates less of it; a thermostat keeps temperature in a desired range by using a high temperature as a signal to trigger cooling (to reduce the temperature) and low temperature as a signal to trigger heating (to increase the temperature).

In a positive feedback loop, more is a signal that triggers even more. Roser uses the diagram shown below to explain how a positive feedback loop underlies the learning curve for renewable energy technologies.  More reduction in price causes increased use, thus increased demand, thus increased deployment, and finally even more reduction in price.

Source. All graphics at Our World in Data are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

What does it mean for you?

The article makes the strong case against the continued use of fossil fuels, based on the harm they cause today in air pollution and the long term effects on the planet. “A world run on fossil fuels is not sustainable.” The argument that we must use fossil fuels because they are cheaper is no longer valid.

Positive feedback loops are sometimes called, as Roser does, a virtuous cycle, since more of a good thing causes even more of that good thing. How can you use positive feedback loops in your organization to create a virtuous cycle? Affirmative inquiry is a process of identifying what is going right in an organization in order to promote it, as explained here. As an engineering teacher, I learned that a student’s success in solving simple problems involving a difficult new concept can lead to positive feelings that support the desire to learn more and to try harder problems involving that concept; note that I am not motivating the learning by praise, but rather by success. A positive feedback loop can work in other areas, but must be carefully nurtured. A manager who says criticism is welcomed must, in fact, act in a way that welcomes criticism in order to support a virtuous cycle in which criticism is openly made and used. How can you create the environment in which more of what is desired causes even more?

Where can you learn more?

This article was sent to me by a friend. Now that I know about the web page Our World in Data (“The goal of our work is to make the knowledge on the big problems accessible and understandable”), I will be checking their web page regularly.

Learning curves, or experiences curves, involve plotting the cost of an item (on a log scale) as a function of the cumulative numbers of items produced (also on a log scale). The Our World in Data article contains several such plots, including this one:

Source. All graphics at Our World in Data are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

 This 1964 article in Harvard Business Review explains the history behind the learning curve in industrial production. This article describes that people improve at their task, that the productive process itself is improved, and the product is also improved; all contribute to the decline in cost with increasing production volume. The mathematics of the learning curve can also be applied to an individual worker’s improvement in performing a repetitive task.

Be careful to note that the word “positive” in “positive feedback” means that an increase causes an increase and that the word “negative” in “negative feedback” means that an increase causes a decrease. The words do not mean that the effect is desirable or undesirable; positive and negative feedback can cause good and bad effects. You should be aware, of course, that more is not always better. For example, when a microphone picks up sound from a loudspeaker transmitting the microphone’s own signal, the microphone amplifies the sound in a positive feedback loop resulting in the extremely annoying – and very negative – sound.  Positive feedback loops can lead to runaway situations in bad effects, such as can occur in global warming, in which warming causes some effects that cause even more warming. NASA discusses the positive and negative feedback loops operating in climate change here. This article argues that wealth inequality is a dangerous runaway situation.

Also, the meaning of “positive feedback” in systems thinking is not the same as the meaning of “positive feedback” in leaving a positive review about a product or giving praise to someone who has done a good job. The positive review or the praise expresses a positive opinion, but we don’t know what the systemic effect will be of that opinion.