Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Day of Queueing

On Thursday, May 31, I went to Atlanta, Georgia, and back with Kay Aaby from Montgomery County to tape interviews for an upcoming CDC satellite broadcast on Mass Antibiotic Dispensing:
Taking the Guesswork out of POD Design
. It was an honor to be invited to participate, and I appreciate the opportunity to talk about our research on clinic planning models, which include queueing models.

The first photo is me under the lights in the studio. (They have first-class studio facilities.) I worked at CDC 20 years ago as a co-op student, so it was a bit of a homecoming, but the place has changed dramatically - almost all of the old buildings are gone, and I never went near the one remaining building where I worked.

The day was, appropriately, full of queueing. Following are items from the log I kept for the day:

6:30 am: Leave home
7:03 am: Waiting in line to check in at the AirTran ticket counter (there are only five people in front of me; over at United, the queue is overflowing the waiting area lines).
7:15 am: Waiting all through security, first for the ID check, then to get a plastic bin for my shoes and coat, then to put the stuff through the X-ray, then to get the stuff when it exits.
7:25 am: Arrive at the gate and begin waiting to board.
7:30 am: Waiting at the coffee and doughnut shop. I don't get coffee, so I have to wait only once (those getting coffee have to wait again for their coffee to be prepared).
7:36 am: Waiting in a queue to have gate agent check boarding pass, then waiting in jetway to get my seat.
8:00 am: Plane departs and lands in Atlanta at 9:30.
9:38 am: Plane stops on taxiway; pilot explains that we're waiting for an open path to our gate. (Atlanta is extremely hazy - see photo, and we can smell smoke once we're outside - must be from the wildfires.)
9:50 am: Waiting for the next train to the terminal.
10:05 am: Get cab (no line) to CDC and arrive around 10:35 to wait for our contact to appear.
11:00 am: Meet our contacts, go downstairs to do interviews (I, Kay, and Leah Matteson from New York) until 2:45.
2:50 pm: Waiting upstairs at the front desk for a cab.
3:15 pm: Depart in cab. Trip to airport takes over 35 minutes due to traffic congestion, especially at a stoplight that was blinking red.
3:58 pm: Waiting at the AirTran ticket counter (because we switched to an earlier flight and needed new boarding passes).
4:07 pm: Waiting in security (again). Exit at 4:19 and take train to Concourse C, arriving at gate at 4:30 to wait for 5:46 flight.
5:12 pm: Waiting in line to order sandwich, then waiting while sandwich is prepared.
6:00 pm: Plane is waiting on taxiway in a queue of planes that want to take off.
6:15 pm: Plane takes off and arrives at BWI at 7:40.
8:02 pm: Waiting at parking garage exit (3 cars in front of me).
8:30 pm: Home!

All together, it was a 14-hour trip comprising (roughly) 3.5 hours of interviews, 5 hours of transportation, and 5.5 hours of waiting!

Monday, May 28, 2007

Engineering History

In the Summer 2007 issue of Prism, the magazine of the American Society for Engineering Education, Henry Petroski writes about the fact that engineers don't get much recognition. People see the things that engineers designed but don't think about the men and women who did the designing. Very true: who designed the car you drive? the appliances you use to cook? I have no idea.

Of course, Petroski has attempted to overcome this with some of his writing about famous bridges and other engineering marvels. In this column he reiterates the need to include the history and heritage of engineering in the engineering body of knowledge (he specifically refers to a debate within the civil engineering profession). Petroski laments that young engineers don't know the names of the engineers responsible for outstanding engineering achievements and encourages engineering faculty to teach history as part of their courses.

I fully agree. I do cover history in my Production Management course because Hopp and Spearman's Factory Physics text includes a chapter on history. I also wrote some history for a chapter of the Handbook of Production Scheduling. See also my earlier post on the history of manufacturing.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers has a History Center; among the listed landmarks is the FMC Citrus Juice Extractor, invented in 1947 by the FMC Corporation of Lakeland, Florida, and now used worldwide for squeezing oranges.
You can find the story of extractor in this PDF document.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Tender is the Night

I just finished listening to the audiobook version of Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It tells the story of a psychoanalyst (Richard) in the period after World War I. He is married, and his wife Nicole was the victim of child abuse at the hands of her wealthy father and is now schizophrenic. They are rich Americans, they have two children, and they live in the south of France.

Here is a brief plot summary: The couple's life consists of travel and entertaining. He is trying to write another book; she gardens. They care about their children but leave the childcare to a governess. They care about each other, but he eventually feels trapped and has an affair. Then he starts drinking. Her illness disappears, she has an affair, and they divorce. Richard leaves the family and goes back to America.

It is a great but sad picture of how empty life can be, even for people who have money and leisure, when it has no purpose. Once Nicole is well, Richard no longer has to help her and protect her. And Nicole finds that being a wife and mother is not enough. Neither has any thought of asking God for help or has a faith on which to rely.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Gun Manufacturing

Mechanical Engineering, the ASME magazine, has an article this month on early firearm manufacturing. It focuses on the difficulties of boring (or drilling) a long straight hole for the gun barrel, a technique still called gundrilling today. Along the way, it mentions that blacksmiths at Colonial Williamsburg can perform the process extremely accurately. We visited there in Spring, 2006, but didn't visit the gunsmiths. We'll have to do that next time!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

IE vs. ME

The April, 2007, issue of Industrial Engineer, the monthly magazine of the Institute of Industrial Engineers, has a brief article by Kazuo Takeda in its Ask the Expert feature. The article answers a question about the major differences between industrial engineering (IE) and mechanical engineering (ME). Takeda's answer hits all of the stereotypes of both fields: "the main difference has to do with math versus presentation and communication skills." ME is presented as a math-oriented field ("MEs take math very seriously"), and IE is the more holistic field that requires soft skills ("IEs must be able to understand a problem, identify a process, quantify the options, and present a recommendation.") Moreover, ME is a poor career choice (their focus on a specific area "can limit their careers") while "IEs' are often called into project leadership, supervisory positions, management, and executive roles."

This is really discouraging, and it insults both fields. First by implying that MEs are not well-rounded, which doesn't describe our graduates; second, by implying the IEs aren't as mathematically sophisticated as MEs, which is simply untrue. As one who has a degree in industrial engineering and has taught mechanical engineering for 12 years, I'd like to offer my own answer.

All engineers design things. MEs design mechanical components and systems, based on their knowledge of physical phenomena and using mathematics related to continuous variable dynamic systems. IEs design manufacturing systems, for which I use Hopp and Spearman's broad definition: "an objective-oriented network of processes through which entities flow." This includes everything from factories to banks to hospitals. IEs use mathematics related to discrete event systems. Both have to listen to the customer, define requirements, generate and evaluate solutions, select the best one, verify that it will work, and present their results. The major differences are the types of problems and the type of mathematics and analysis tools used. There are few industries that don't employ both MEs and IEs. Either one can be the start of a successful career in management, if that is what one wants to do.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Richard Warner

Richard Warner (Mike's father) died last week. He taught college in New York and in Memphis, Tennessee, before he and his wife Barbara moved to Paducah, Kentucky. He will be buried tomorrow in Janesville, Wisconsin, where they grew up. Mike has posted a tribute to his dad.

Janesville is a small city in southern Wisconsin. According to its Wikipedia entry and the Janesville Convention and Visitors Bureau, twenty percent of Wisconsin's buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places can be found in Janesville, which was founded in 1836.

Janesville boasts a huge General Motors assembly plant on the south side of town, overlooking the Rock River. According to a GM press release, on August 23, 2005, the facility produced its 16 millionth vehicle (since 1923). At the time, it made the Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe, GMC Yukon, Yukon XL, Yukon Denali, Yukon Denali XL and Isuzu/GM Low Cab Forward medium-duty truck.

Mr. and Mrs. Warner have four children (three of them married) and one grandchild. We pray that God will bring the Warner family peace and comfort at this difficult time.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Not Getting into Harvard

My brother Keith sent me a link to a New York Times article titled Young, Gifted, and Not Getting Into Harvard by Michael Winerip. Winerip is a Harvard alumnus who interviews students applying to his alma mater. He realizes that the highly qualified applicants will probably not be accepted. Moreover, he accepts that his own kids will not be going to Harvard. Perhaps he can accept this because he knows (based on his interview experience) that so many excellent students are also not going there.

It good to read an article about how not getting into Harvard (or any other elite school) is not the end of the world. I doubt it will stop the flood of students trying to do so. Elite schools are elite because everyone wants to go there and have that awe-inspiring credential.

My brother and I both have had numerous experiences of mentioning our alma maters (his is California-San Diego and mine is Florida; both of us went to Georgia Tech as undergrads) and not getting the kind of reaction that folks from Cal-Berkeley and Michigan and MIT get. But I suppose that is simply envy. Thanks to our parents and other gifts that God gave us, he and I and my siblings have had opportunities that many others have not. Not getting into Harvard is not the end of the world.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Mystery Writers

Despite my best intentions, it has been too long since my last post.

First is a post by Joseph Bottum over at First Things. The post is about mystery writers but is mostly a tribute to Melville Davisson Post, who wrote the Uncle Abner mystery stories in the early 20th century. (Don't try Wikipedia: there's no entry on him yet.) Along the way, the post mentions numerous fine mystery writers, including Ellery Queen and G.K. Chesterton.

As a kid I read numerous Ellery Queen stories. I had little books of them (about the size of an issue of Readers Digest), and there were more at my grandfather's old cabin (Brookside Cabin) on Shooting Creek in North Carolina. I can still remember the little bookshelf in the cabin living room. Did those make the trip to the "new" cabin?

More recently I've read and listened to G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, which are very good, and I don't read mysteries at all these days.