Saturday, January 31, 2009

Freedom, the Government, and YOU

They say there is a "crisis". They say that the economy needs "stimulation". Well, just as a crackhead's crash after the party is trying to tell him that something is wrong and to stop doing what he has been doing, so too is the crash (a.k.a. reality check) we are seeing in the stock market and in certain business lines (finance, autos, homes, retail) nothing but the economy trying to tell us that it has been overstimulated by the government drugs of intervention and easy credit, and that Congress should stop thinking that it is its job (or its right) to "run the economy".

As to the "crisis", the only crisis is that the economic body, after years of government meddling via easy credit and central planning, is showing the normal signs of trying to cure itself by revolting and creatively destroying all the ponzi schemes that have been foisted on it by the "bright sparks upstairs" in Washington under the guise of government "help". My friends, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that continued application of the stimulant (be it crack, or easy credit, or government meddling in economic management) will lead to death, and, to deliberately beat a dead horse, unlike a crackhead who rarely goes off the pipe, this economy is screaming to be left alone so it can correct itself by excising those that bet against the house (reality) and now must lose. Did you make bad choices as a businessman and take on too much debt? Do the cards lay against you as a homeowner who took on too much house? Too bad. Life is rough - get a helmet. Your brother is NOT your keeper.

Continuing the drug imagery, an addict was once asked if he had a drug problem. His reply was '"Only when I can't get any". This seems to also be the attitude of our government which, in concert with the national media, is water-boarding the citizens with an incessant drumbeat of Crisis, Doom, and Pestilence so as to get them to buy into the feel-good, crack-pipe dream of the "good" of: full employment, easy credit, healthcare for all, free education where nobody gets ahead, a chicken in every pot, hugging the whales, saving the trees, being kind to fire engines, feeding the lazy, helping people drill water wells in countries that, in 5000 years, have not figured out how to create a societal structure that would result in them drilling it for themselves, and all that other, good-on-the-surface for the non-thinking man, communist/socialist/collectivist drivel that, lubricated by easy credit and free spending monetary policy, has been swallowed by the masses for centuries, and in every case, has led to their subjugation and eventual extinction, either as a people or as a society.

Make no mistake, any "crisis" that we now are being trained to believe in, and that is being held up as but today's excuse for more government intervention, is nothing more than the proper and normal manifestation of our capitalist economy trying to correct itself after years of government expansion and spending - all surrounding the creation and expansion of the Nanny State. For all you Republicans out there, yes, I am talking about the Corporatist Nanny State you helped create. For all you Democrats out there, yes, I am talking about the Lazy Man's Nanny State that you helped create. Make no mistake, though, regardless of what brand of Nannyisim is keeping house, nannies have CONTROL of children, and make no further mistake apprehending that if you follow the money, you will find that there are those that are making money and consolidating their control and power as a result of the presently styled "crisis". For those who care to look further, you will also find that shackles are being placed that are going to lead directly to a more collectivist and fascist government that is intent on control over every aspect of your lives. As fascism always comes to the party as a prince "looking out for the collective societal and economic good", beware BOTH Republicans and by Democrats as they try and sell you on their version of "the good" . Again, the end game for both the Repubs and the Dems is control of you and your pocketbook, and, not to put too fine a point on things, the truth of the matter, and the motivation for all the strident calls by those in government, and those in talking head positions (even those such as Bill O'RileMeUp) to "save the economy", "save the jobs", & "save the financial institutions" boils down to this .......
  • Political Power derives from government's ability to spend money
  • Money comes from taxes
  • Taxes come from people that are exchanging money
  • Exchanging money comes from the "economy"
  • Better economy (better for whom?) equals more taxes
  • More taxes means more tax money
  • More tax money means more ability for government to spend
  • More spending means more Political Power

And you thought that the government wanted to stimulate things because everybody should be happy and because no lazy person should be left behind! Well, at least now you know why the politicians want to "stimulate" the economy. The dirty little secret is that the government knows that responsible monetary behavior would lead to less tax revenue, and that lower tax revenue would lead to their inability to control thru the string attached to the purse of the government handout. That is why even though we always tell our children not to spend beyond their means, the government is wanting us to spend beyond our children's means.

Summing up, the present "crisis" is government-made, and the True Good is to leave things alone so that a free market can correct things by providing a needed spanking and wake up call to unsustainable social, feel-good, policies. Yes, there will be hard times, but the damage will be far worse if the government continues its meddling. But then I guess that I, too, along with Albert J. Nock, am nothing but a Superfluous Man.

Makes Me Want to Vomit

A while back I opened up my March 2008 issue of the ASCE Civil Engineering Magazine and found, side-by-side, 2 letters to the editor that but give me one more reason to hang my head in shame at what my profession has become, and is on the road to further becoming.

The first letter "Gusset Plates Should Have Been Caught", concerns the failure of the IH 35 Bridge in Minnesota. The 2d, "Changes to Education Not Necessary" deals with but another of those self serving and ever present calls for "change" from those entrenched in the politico-economic-engineering education bureaucracy. These 2 letters, taken together are but bright torches that illuminate the state of affairs.

Turning to the education letter first, but keeping in mind that I have just read the gusset plates letter, and, without my joining on the issue of whether the gusset plates should have been "caught", or whether or not this now means that we will redesign and inspect each and every bridge in the US, or that we will now daily inspect all gussets, each nut and bolt, each washer, each coat of paint, etc. ad nauseam; and not admonishing the reader that structures do not fail because they were not designed to code (that being a legal fiction),  I note that  Berti , in reaction to the Galloway Article "Proposal for Engineering Education Reform" that was printed in the November 2008 ASCE Civil Engineering Magazine, points out that the Galloway "proposal"

"...says that they [engineers] must be trained in public policy, ethics, leadership, communication, and management in order to flourish in our global economy; be able to work on multi-cultural teams; and understand social sciences, business, economics, and cross cultural dynamics, including foreign language and cultural studies."
To his immense credit, Berti takes issue with such proposals.

While I, too, take issue with such politically correct reformulation of our engineering education, I pause to point out that perhaps here then (in the Galloway proposal we find the very reason(s) why people died on Interstate 35, and the reason why more will die elsewhere as the pernicious introduction and cancerous propagation of green and social "save the world, change we can believe in, hope for the future, etc" infects and takes over the profession via its initiates being churned out with "green" and other politically correct stamps of approval from our nation's engineering schools, for nowhere in the cited Galloway paragraph of proposed "reforms" is there any mention of how to design gusset plates!!!!

But, that should not really matter, for if those gusset plates were mis-designed, but mis-designed using a Galloway "green" pencil, constructed of materials that were certified as not having any lead (gotta save the environment), or certified as being material from the rain forest (jungle) so as to help indigenous natives realize their potential (which they have had 2,000 years to realize already), all of course, without any harm to any of the animals in the wetlands (swamp), using only energy from a solar panel (pipe dream), without offending anyone (diversity), by an engineer that spoke 12 languages so he could be certified as "sensitive" (multi cultural), and that thought that no one culture was superior to any other (diversity again), that was given a special waiver to get into engineering school (discrimination and unequal opportunity), that thought that heating homes with electric power is in no way superior to heating them with buffalo chips, and constructed from plans that were printed in Spanish, English, Scottish Brogue, and all the other languages of the world so as to not offend anybody and so we can truly call ourselves oh-so-sensitive globalists, then such mis-design should not matter because it was all so politically correct, and those that stand and shed tears over the graves of their loved ones as they lament their deaths on, or under, that bridge, will drop tears, not only for them, but also unknowingly drop tears for what used to be a noble profession turned now into a dead carcass filled with political correctness and finger-painting, brought about by a corruption of thought as to what engineers are supposed to be and what they are supposed to do (design stuff so that in a population of structure types the probability of people getting killed is theoretically less than if that same population of structures was designed by a non-engineer) ... and what they are supposed to NOT do (engage in PC re-education initiatives that detracts from what they are supposed to do). [Yes, to educated engineers, that sentence does make sense. Parse it, you will have fun.]

I suppose that this article may bring some heat and ire from self-anointed, especially from the engineers and the overweening engineering organizations that are making money out of the corruption of the profession (follow the money if you want to understand the "green" movement), but the continuing state of decline has brought me to the breaking point, and perhaps this article will let those of like mind know that they are not alone and give them common cause to stand up to the craziness that has infected the field.

By the way, perhaps if a contractor had not loaded up the lanes of the bridge with supplies and equipment, then perhaps that bridge would not be in the water today, but then again, if there was overloading, perhaps it was not caught, or proscribed in the remediation plans and specs, because the engineers doing the remediation design came out of an engineering program that displaced some of its courses in gusset plate design, construction failures, structural analysis and redundancy design, with courses on cultural sensitivity and sustainability, global warming, diversity, etc., and because its students, instead of taking additional courses in corrosion chemistry, alkali aggregate reaction, engineering inspection of steel structures, or laboratory testing of rock and soils, spent their time traveling to a far away land so that they could get a "feel good credit" for building water wells in countries that in 5000 years have not learned themselves how to create a social and political structure that will result in them being able to build it for themselves.

So, the next time you or one of your family are being killed by a bridge falling down, or a space shuttle exploding, or a tunnel in Boston dropping some panels on you, ask yourself if it would not have been better to have your projects designed by a real engineer who's mind has been conditioned by rigorous technical training, as opposed to being designed by one of today's culturally and diversity sensitive girly-men.

And they wonder why enrollment at engineering schools is falling. It ain't rocket science.

Friday, January 30, 2009

A Profession or a Commodity?

"God grant me the serenityto accept the things I cannot change;courage to change the things I can;and wisdom to know the difference. "

From time to time I attend the annual meeting of a well respected engineering business leaders association. The purpose of these meetings is to allow the attendees, mostly owners and senior management of geotechnical engineering firms, to let their hair down and talk about things that otherwise they would have no outlet for. As part of these get togethers, speakers are invited to give presentations on all sorts of topics ranging from engineering liability control, to employment practices, to proper contract formation, to lessons learned the hard way, etc.

At a recent meeting, one of the sessions was titled something along the lines of "How to be treated as Professionals". The speaker, Dr Susan Harris, an A/E services business consultant primed the audience with some preliminary remarks about the word professionalism and after these preliminaries, she asked the audience by show of hands to indicate how many of them considered themselves trusted advisors to their clients. About 90% of the 400-strong audience raised their hands.

As I recall things, she then asked some of the group to explain why they felt that way. Their answers ranged from, "I work on big projects for big clients.", to "Well, we have lunch every so often and they give us a lot of their work".

After this group had their say, the speaker then mentioned that at the icebreaker the previous evening, she had heard comments from many of the attendees expressing frustration with the fact that the image of their profession was tarnished; frustration with the fact that engineering fees were so low, and frustration and angst over how they always felt that they were not providing professional services for a professional fee ( a contradiction to the earlier stated opinion that they were trusted advisors to their clients), but rather providing services for a fee that always seemed to be pressured/set by what "the other guy" was charging.

The response that rippled through the group was a sea-wave of head nodding accompanied by murmurs of muted agreement - all, of course, coming from many of the same company owners and managers that themselves had all played the "Let's try and think about what the other guy will probably charge, or how the other guy will scope the work, and then, to get the work, let's charge a little less, or not too much more" game.

By this time I was anticipating that this was going to be another one of those "Death to the Bottom Feeders", "Don't be a Bottom Feeder", or "What it means to be a professional, and now that you know it, go out communicate that to your client" kind of talks.

I was also anticipating that I was about to hear another a pep-talk meant to convince us that the answer to our image and fee problems was to convince the clients that "we were professionals, by god", and that thereby convinced, they would allow us to charge more, and would forevermore treat us with the respect that was our due.

As I sat back, I was thus resigned to hearing, for the umpteenth time, talking points along the lines of:
  • how much study it takes to be an engineer
  • how we protect the health safety and welfare of the public
  • how we have all kinds of overhead expense
  • how we provide our folks with good pay, vacation and sick leave
  • how we do charity work, and how our bottom feeder competition does not do any of this stuff, and therefore of course they can charge less, but that in charging less by paying less, they attract less qualified people to work for them, yadda-yadda.
It all boiling down to a forecast of being yet another one of those imterminable management consultant feel-good talks, telling us that with all our proclaimed virtue, we really should be getting paid more, and be getting more respect, and here is the formula for convincing your clients of that.

Wanting to put my 2 cents of inoculation in before all the politically correct "look at how important we are and let's get the clients to see us that way" blah- blah started, I raised my hand to give my take on things. My recollection is that my comment started out along the lines as follows:

"I am sorry to break it to the group, but regardless of whether we think of ourselves as trusted advisors, our clients do not think of us that way or even as valued members of their team. To most of the clients, engineers are nothing more than commodities and products to be purchased just like bulldozers or jackhammers. The majority of clients do not consider the professionalism, or the time, or the training, or the judgment of the engineer. In the client's mind, an engineer is an engineer, is an engineer. All engineers are licensed by the state, all engineers go to engineering schools, all engineers can be engaged in proposal bid wars, and, deep down, clients have the attitude that "I can always find another engineer - just like I can find another plumber."

The thrust of my little firebomb was that, contrary to popular belief, engineers and engineering services ARE commodities, just like bread, or pork bellies, or oil futures, or plumbing or termite services. (Gasp)

After mulling over all the audience participation for a few seconds, the speaker then continued the presentation with something along the lines of "Well, folks lets talk about business markets in general and, in particular, let's talk about the engineering businesses." What transpired over the next 45 minutes was an outline of the life cycle of products and businesses, including discussion of things as Christensen's S-Curve, Moore's Early Adopters, Pragmatists, Late Adopters, and Laggards, Maslow's need hierarchy, and ideas such as fulfillment of need via a physical object vs. fulfillment of need via an experience object. In sum, and without any payoff from me beforehand, the main thrust of her talk was this:

The engineering field that most of us work in is a mature business and has reached the flat line or plateau portion of its business life. As such, most of the work that most of us in the room do is commoditized and, for the most part, engineering itself is a commodity. So, if you do not want to be a commodity you best find something else to do.

(Double Gasp from the 400!) She went on to explain that the commoditized phase of a business or industry life cycle is normal, and occurs when the capabilities of the business generally exceed the expectations of most of the existing customer base. She further explained that this is in contrast to the early stages of a business segment where the needs and expectations of the majority of clients exceed the ability of the industry to provide them. Thus, in the past (think 1840 -1960), because of the expansion and industrialization of America, there were bridges needing to be built, when nobody knew how to build bridges and when every river needed to be crossed; there were structures needing to be built in unstable soils when there was no knowledge of soils engineering other than "keep digging till it quits caving in" (think Panama Canal), there was widespread disease and pestilence caused by pathogens in the drinking water when there were very few sanitary engineers that understood the problem or the solution (think cholera New York 1832). In short, during these times the expectations/needs of the market generally exceeded the ability of the engineering and contracting community, i.e., the pain was great, the societal and economic payoff enormous, and the scarcity of solutions astounding. This then lead to a focus on meeting these societal demands and resulted in engineering breakthroughs that were known and understood (think Terzaghi, Peck, etc.) by only a select few and were initially highly prized.

Thus it was that in those days, metaphorically speaking, engineers were indeed as gods ... only they were called professionals. And as professionals, their playground was society's pain, and an important concept is that their stature (a.k.a. respect) came from taking away that pain in a dramatic way. Need a bridge over the Mississippi so we can transport our $15,000,000/day of corn to market , call that guy Eads, or Roebling - they are about the only ones that know how to do it; need some atomic material, call that gal Curie because she is the only one that knows how to get it; need some canals or railways in England so as to get the coal to the industries down in London, call that guy Spencer because he is about the only one that knows what it really takes, and. fellow investors,  if we can get a canal or railroad built we investors can make $12,000,000 pounds a month.

In short, engineers were NOT a dime a dozen, because there were not a dozen of them around. (As to whether they have ever gotten more than a dime for their contribution, that is for another article.) Simply put then, in the early days we had a scarcity of competent engineers, and an excess of economic benefit that was being held in "lock-up". This then was a great combination leading to engineers being held in high(er) esteem, so much so that by 1860, it was the engineers that were as gods, while at the same time doctors were considered quacks and charlatans.

This scarcity of engineering talent however was short lived however, because the overwhelming economic benefit to be gained by the application of these breakthroughs created extreme pressure for engineering to be propagated. Under this pressure, the propagation did indeed happen and was done by the various technical societies (ASCE was formed in 1852), and by creation of university engineering and technical programs (USMA 1802, RPI 1824, Harvard 1846, Yale 1847, Washington University in St Louis School of Engineering 1857). It was also done by industry sponsorship as they realized more engineers meant first-mover profits for them. (Gee, imagine that.)

So, if engineers used to be held in high esteem and used to be considered as gods, where have the gods gone? The answer is that they are still here, but they are now just mere mortals commuting to work with the masses, doing their work just as the masses do, and, sorry to break the bad news to all my brethren out there, are themselves indistinguishable from the masses.

Thus it is that much of the engineering that is done today by millions of engineers - engineering that only a few in the world knew how to do when it was first needed - is now but mundane drone work, done by graduate engineers who do not yet have, nor need, an engineering seal to be able to do what they do. LaPlace Transforms, 2d year Calculus; Moment Distribution Method - 2d year Structures; Atomic Reactor Physics - 3d year Physics; Settlement Analysis -1st year Soils; Phase Equilibrium of Soils Water - 3d year Soils; Finite Element Analysis or slope stability - presently done by an entry level engineer who pushes "Run" on the computer keyboard.

What happened that took the engineer from his exalted position to that of a mere mortal having lowly status? Was it because engineers failed to continually communicate to society how important they were? No - that was not it. The reason for the fall is because the reality of things is that after any discovery of any economic importance, economics demands propagation and application; propagation and application requires standardization and codification; and standardization and codification lead to the final resting place of all products, services, and technologies - commoditization. Thus it is that the same engineering that used to be dispensed from a godlike pedestal, is now a commodity - a commonplace.

So, where does this leave today's engineer and how should he be thinking about things so that his thinking is aligned with reality - and so he does not quit his job and become a software developer for, or a shoe salesman? Well, that is the subject of a future missive.

To be continued ........ if I am not run out of town on a rail beforehand.