Category Archives: Business

An Engineering Manpower Crisis

There’s an interesting article over at the NYT about the Pentagon’s difficulty in getting good engineers, particularly systems engineers.

In short, the pay is too low, it’s not seen as exciting as a lot of the other opportunities for new grads (e.g., Google, or other fields such as finance), programs take too long and are technologically obsolescent, and there’s too much bureaucracy. Sounds kind of like the reasons I left fifteen years ago.

This was amazing to me, but I guess that after almost three decades in the business, it shouldn’t be:

Their report scolded the Air Force as haphazardly handling, or simply ignoring, several basic systems-engineering steps: considering alternative concepts before plunging ahead with a program, setting clear performance goals for a new system and analyzing interactions between technologies. The task force identified several programs that, hobbled by poor engineering management, had run up billions of dollars in overruns while falling behind schedule.

I’ve seen this happen at NASA many times over the years, but that doesn’t surprise me because space isn’t important. National defense is, or at least should be. One wonders how to change the incentives in the system to get better performance. Part of the problem is that the services themselves, particularly the Air Force (with which I have the most experience) don’t value procurement highly enough as a career path. It’s a lot easier to become a general via the cockpit than it is through logistics or development. The other problem is that you often having young lieutenants and captains given responsibility for programs of a size far beyond what they’d be managing at a similar experience level in private industry. This is good from the standpoint of encouraging recruitment, but it often means that they lack the experience to handle the job, and even (or especially) when they’re good, they may be promoted up and out of the program. That’s one of the Aerospace Corporation’s primary functions–to provide program support to the blue suits, and maintain an institutional memory to make up for the fluidity of personnel changes of the AF staff.

In theory, it’s a big opportunity for people like me (I actually have a masters degree in aerospace program management), but it’s hard to get consulting work as an individual due to arcane procurement rules. Also (though the article didn’t mention it) it’s a hassle to deal with a clearance, and I’m not in any rush to renew mine, though I’m starting to consider it, because I really do need the income. Blogging just isn’t paying the bills.

Oh, one other thing. The description of the problems above bears a strong resemblance to a certain controversial large NASA project, where maintenance of the job base and pinching pennies seems to take precedence over actually accomplishing the goal. Or “closing the gap.”

[Via Chicago Boyz]

Where Is The Money Coming From?

And where is it going, in commercial space?

I have to say, I thought this was pretty funny:

Virgin Galactic has already been watching its back with the EADS suborbital space plane (pictured above), set to make its first flight by 2012. But now there’s cash across the pond. “We have invested substantial money into this project,” Auque said without citing exact figures. “The problem is that we need to create this market.”

I doubt very much that Virgin Galactic is worried that EADS Astrium is going to raise a billion dollars to build a suborbital tourist vehicle. There’s a reason that Auque didn’t cite “exact” (or even approximate) figures. He expects to do it mostly with someone else’s money, if he can find a sucker (like ESA?).

The Rough Road To Space

I have a new piece up over at Pajamas Media on space transportation and the Interstate Highway System.

Hey, it was Mike Griffin who made the analogy, not me.

I should also note that while the title is mine, the subheadline is theirs.

[Late afternoon update]

Only Mark Whittington would have the native talent to so misread this piece as to think that I was “expressing astonishment.” Of course, it’s not the first time that he’s fantasized about my views.

[Another update]

Now Mark is fantasizing that I actually want, or expect NASA to build the Interstate to space.

Well, it’s totally in character for him.

I sure wish he’d learn to read for comprehension.

Only Cat 5?

For that kind of money, I’d expect Cat 8, at least.

An audiophile and his money are soon parted.

[Update a few minutes later]

As noted, the Amazon customer reviews are hilarious.

[Update in the evening]

Stephen Dawson (from Down Under) has a defense (albeit pretty flimsy. as he admits) of Denon.

I have to admit my disappointment as well. I’d always respected Denon up until this. As someone in comments said, one hopes that the marketing person responsible will have a few of these cables run through them from one end to the other. Or be keelhauled with them.

I’m Sure It’s Just A Coincidence

Another jump in oil prices.

Think it has anything to do with the fact that both presidential candidates favor a hidden tax on energy and oppose expanding domestic oil production?

You know, in the past, when I’ve said that prices in this range are not sustainable, I always assumed that, at least at some point, sanity would reign in Washington. What a dumb assumption.

[Thursday morning update]

Wise words from Lileks:

…there’s hope. An article in the paper last week said that the gyrations in the oil market may indicate that the laws of supply and demand no longer apply. Well, clever us, to live in an age where immutable laws are abolished with ease; no doubt faster-than-light travel is now possible as well. Whenever someone says that the old laws no longer apply, it’s a sure sign that the laws are about to reassert themselves with brutal force.

Three-buck gas by October? Likely.

As Carl notes in comments, even when you know you’re in a bubble, you don’t know when it’s going to pop.

[Update a few minutes later]

Four-dollar gasbags:

Anyone wondering why U.S. energy policy is so dysfunctional need only review Congress’s recent antics. Members have debated ideas ranging from suing OPEC to the Senate’s carbon tax-and-regulation monstrosity, to a windfall profits tax on oil companies, to new punishments for “price gouging” – everything except expanding domestic energy supplies.

Amid $135 oil, it ought to be an easy, bipartisan victory to lift the political restrictions on energy exploration and production. Record-high fuel costs are hitting consumers and business like a huge tax increase. Yet the U.S. remains one of the only countries in the world that chooses as a matter of policy to lock up its natural resources. The Chinese think we’re insane and self-destructive, while the Saudis laugh all the way to the bank.

And unfortunately, both presidential candidates are economic ignorami:

Recent weeks have seen some GOP stirrings on Capitol Hill, but John McCain has so far refused to jettison his green posturings, such as his belief in carbon caps and his animus against offshore development. A good reason for a rethink would be $4 gas. At present, it is charitable to call Mr. McCain’s energy ideas incoherent, and it may cost him the election.

Of course, Obama’s even worse, but even if McCain wins, it will be a lot closer than it need be. And prices will continue to soar. Needlessly.

I’m Sure It’s Just A Coincidence

Another jump in oil prices.

Think it has anything to do with the fact that both presidential candidates favor a hidden tax on energy and oppose expanding domestic oil production?

You know, in the past, when I’ve said that prices in this range are not sustainable, I always assumed that, at least at some point, sanity would reign in Washington. What a dumb assumption.

[Thursday morning update]

Wise words from Lileks:

…there’s hope. An article in the paper last week said that the gyrations in the oil market may indicate that the laws of supply and demand no longer apply. Well, clever us, to live in an age where immutable laws are abolished with ease; no doubt faster-than-light travel is now possible as well. Whenever someone says that the old laws no longer apply, it’s a sure sign that the laws are about to reassert themselves with brutal force.

Three-buck gas by October? Likely.

As Carl notes in comments, even when you know you’re in a bubble, you don’t know when it’s going to pop.

[Update a few minutes later]

Four-dollar gasbags:

Anyone wondering why U.S. energy policy is so dysfunctional need only review Congress’s recent antics. Members have debated ideas ranging from suing OPEC to the Senate’s carbon tax-and-regulation monstrosity, to a windfall profits tax on oil companies, to new punishments for “price gouging” – everything except expanding domestic energy supplies.

Amid $135 oil, it ought to be an easy, bipartisan victory to lift the political restrictions on energy exploration and production. Record-high fuel costs are hitting consumers and business like a huge tax increase. Yet the U.S. remains one of the only countries in the world that chooses as a matter of policy to lock up its natural resources. The Chinese think we’re insane and self-destructive, while the Saudis laugh all the way to the bank.

And unfortunately, both presidential candidates are economic ignorami:

Recent weeks have seen some GOP stirrings on Capitol Hill, but John McCain has so far refused to jettison his green posturings, such as his belief in carbon caps and his animus against offshore development. A good reason for a rethink would be $4 gas. At present, it is charitable to call Mr. McCain’s energy ideas incoherent, and it may cost him the election.

Of course, Obama’s even worse, but even if McCain wins, it will be a lot closer than it need be. And prices will continue to soar. Needlessly.

Stupid Idea Alert

No, even the premise was crazy:

While the premise of the 55mph speed limit was a perfectly valid one, the effectiveness of the rule was debatable. There is certainly no doubt that driving at a lower speed would consume less energy. The problem lies in the fact that the national 55mph speed limit was perhaps the most universally ignored law in history apart from prohibition.

Just what was it about the premise that was “valid”? That if everyone drove fifty five instead of seventy that it would save gas? Well, I guess. But so what? Why fifty five? Why not fifty? Why not forty five?

I have never seen any kind of quantitative analysis that provided a rationale for any particular speed limit (at least one designed to save gas and lives). What’s magic about the double nickel? (In this regard, it is subject to the same reductio ad absurdum as the minimum wage). Hey, I have an idea that would save a lot of gasoline. Let’s ban cars, motorcycles and trucks from the highways. Don’t allow anything on them with an internal combustion engine. That would solve the problem. And it makes just as much sense as an arbitrary federal speed limit. The only difference is that the absurdity of the proposal is much more obvious.

Despite their lack of analysis, proponents also claimed that arbitrarily capping legal speeds at fifty five promoted “safety.” The only rationale for this notion basically boiled down to “speed kills,” which is a pithy phrase, marred only by the fact that it doesn’t correspond to empirical reality. Even ignoring the very real fact that there was no significant increase in traffic fatalities after the idiotic law was repealed in the nineties (in fact, I think they went down), it doesn’t take into account the fact that time is money. If truckers followed the law, it would add a day to a cross-country trip, which means a day’s delay in the delivery of needed goods, and either more cost for the driver’s time, if he’s paid by the hour, or a cut in his profits if he’s paid by the mile. If a long-distance commuter did so, it might add fifteen or twenty minutes each way. He might have to get up earlier, so the extra time spent behind the wheel might come out of sleep time, thus increasing the possibility of an accident due to drowsiness. Also, slower speed means longer trip times, which might mean driving later into the night to get to the same destination, again increasing the chance of drifting off.

At four dollars a gallon, if gas is really saved at fifty-five, there is plenty of incentive for individual people to slow down on their own, if it makes sense to do so overall. But they’re in a position to make the trade off in a way that no legislator in Washington can ever be. We had a couple of decades in which to experiment with this foolish notion, and it was found wanting. Like Prohibition, let’s leave it in the dustbin of history.

One other point. I remember when the Republicans won the Congress back in 1994. I had some hope that there would be at least some rollback from a lot of the statist nuttiness that had been accumulating since The New Deal and The Great Society. Those hopes were mostly forlorn, with the rare exception of welfare reform, and George Bush has put the final nails in the coffin of the Gingrich revolution. But one other rare exception was the repeal of the fifty-five speed limit. If that particular bit of idiocy is reinstated, I’ll really feel that it was all for naught.