Category Archives: Engineering

‘Learning Curve’ as Rick Perry Pursues a Job He Initially Misunderstood

Coral Davenport and David E. Sanger, reporting for the New York Times:

Mr. Perry, who once called for the elimination of the Energy Department, will begin the confirmation process Thursday with a hearing before the Senate Energy Committee. If approved by the Senate, he will take over from a secretary, Ernest J. Moniz, who was chairman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics department and directed the linear accelerator at M.I.T.’s Laboratory for Nuclear Science. Before Mr. Moniz, the job belonged to Steven Chu, a physicist who won a Nobel Prize.

For Mr. Moniz, the future of nuclear science has been a lifelong obsession; he spent his early years working at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. Mr. Perry studied animal husbandry and led cheers at Texas A&M University.

To say that Mr. Perry’s background and education are insufficient for the duties and responsibilities required would be a gross understatement.

The Verge: ‘Facebook takes flight’

Casey Newton, reporting for The Verge:

The path forward for Aquila isn’t totally clear, and it’s bound to encounter more bumps along the way. But Zuckerberg is resolute: billions of people who can’t access the internet deserve it. And for Facebook to achieve his long-term vision, everyone is going to need access to more bandwidth than they have today.

Sounds very humanitarian. Until you remember that Facebook makes it’s money through advertising, and can only show year-over-year growth if more users are connected to Facebook than the year before. Once you’ve hit the saturation rate for your population, the only way you can increase revenue is if you can access more population. Facebook has become so enormous, if it wants to continue to grow it’s user base, it has to literally invent the technologies needed to push internet connectivity to the rest of the planet.

Cool plane, though.

NC Senate Proposes Removal of Drinking Water Protections

Jane Porter, writing for IndyWeek:

Scientists regard vegetative buffers as the most cost-effective and fair means of controlling polluted runoff from farms and developments; the Senate budget would have them repealed and would schedule the repeal of state requirements for buffers along the Neuse River, the Tar-Pamlico River, the Catawba River on December 31, 2019— even if no alternative is in place.

“This provision isn’t a tweak, it’s a sledgehammer,” said Molly Diggins, state director of the North Carolina Sierra Club in a statement. “It is as if the Senate has forgotten how important our waterways are for tourism, recreation, and drinking water.”

It’s not that the Republican Senate has forgotten about our waterways, it’s that they just don’t care.

Autonomous Vehicles Are Coming

Cars, trucks, busses, trains, and construction equipment. What does the future hold for these machines? Autonomous navigation and control. Most people would think this technology is far into the future, but the exciting (and perhaps daunting) prospect is that the technology is here and the advantages and disadvantages of it will be a reality sooner than you might think. Continue reading

Bullet Journal

In April of last year, I decided it was time to come up with a better system of to-do’s than the sticky notes and self-emails I had been relying on. With new responsibilities at home and at work, and to-do lists piling up for all sorts of different tasks and side projects, I needed a system that would work for me to keep everything together.

Rather than invent something myself, I spent quite a bit of time researching different methods people use, and even interviewed friends and colleagues for their opinions. While interested in the idea of using something electronic (read: my iPhone), the Type-A personality in me was looking for something with check boxes that could be satisfyingly checked with a pen.

Enter the Bullet Journal. While crediting the many people that have used something similar before, Ryder Carroll presents a take on the Bullet Journal by presenting the concept through website and video tutorials. I made a concerted effort to give it a shot. I started at the beginning of April, 2014 and gave myself a few weeks to see if it would work for me. Weeks grew into months, which continued for the remainder of the year, and by December it was time to order a fresh journal for 2015.

For anyone looking for something similar, I highly recommend it. I think it’s enabled me to be much more effective at getting things done by providing an avenue to track goals for the day, week, and month. I started with the blank Moleskine Classic Large Squared and I like the flexibility this provides.

Below is a comparison picture of my 2014 journal and a new journal, showing how nine months of ink and emotion add significant thickness and weight. The outside shows it’s wear as well, but the binding is very much intact and continues to serve in an archival role on the bookshelf.

Get Started

  • Bullet Journal Tutorial
  • Moleskine Classic Large (black, hardcover, squared)
  • Pilot G2, .7mm Black (my current favorite pen)

The Road on Two Wheels

Though I haven’t written much in the past year, I’ve been logging away thoughts (engineering, and otherwise). One in particular kept resonating with me last summer when looking over some road designs: how can you design a road for all vehicles without having driven them?

Designers rarely refer to books alone, but utilize experiences that back up the numbers. You’d be hard pressed to find a transportation engineer in the United States that has never driven a car; it’s the most prominent personal transportation method here. But you might more easily find transportation engineers that have never driven a motorcycle. Or an FHWA Class 8, four-axled truck and trailer. Yet we design roads daily, sometimes with the use of simulations, sometimes with nothing more than a reference guide and our engineering judgement. But there’s a disconnect there. Last October, I aimed to remedy one part of this problem and have some fun doing it: learn how to ride a motorcycle.

The MSF Course

I highly recommend the MSF Beginner Rider Course. In three days they have you prepped to pass the DMV rider test, without having ever ridden a motorcycle. Kim and I took the course together for fun and we had a blast. Click here to find a course near you.

Road Design

Lets look at a standard road curve. While many characteristics of road design have remained for years, roadway curves changed drastically with the invention of the automobile. Super-elevated roads, for example, were inspired by cant railways, where the two rails are designed at different elevations to accommodate a “banked turn”. As a road designer, it’s easy to check the Green Book to find super-elevation guidelines, but they mean so much more with a bit of experience behind the wheel; anyone who has driven a vehicle faster than 30 miles an hour can recognize the importance of a banked turn. Superelevation can be even more important to motorcycle riders. Leaning on a motorcycle is a fantastic way to appreciate how banked turns work to your advantage and the turns reinforce the importance of getting your spirals, runoff, and runout lengths correct.

Road designers also immediately appreciate other successes and deficiencies of road design while riding a motorcycle. Adequate drainage for sheet flow during a storm, stopping and decision sight distances, pavement cross slopes, the condition of the pavement, and locations of road debris accumulation all become much more apparent. The affect of ANY road condition that could develop into a traffic safety hazard magnifies a hundred-fold, as do the consequences of a collision. Experiencing these road conditions on two wheels can be both humbling and horrifying.

For those more interested in the physics side there is a whole subject on the mechanics of bicycle and motorcycles which explains leaning and counter-steering at high speeds. These, along with the center of gravity of the bike, can be used to calculate the maximum degree of lean possible.

New Bike

You can probably see where this is going. Three months after I took the MSF course, I bought a bike and took a trip with my roommate from college. Here we are on the Blue Ridge Parkway:

Closing

Credit is rarely placed on the experiences many take for granted, so designers and engineers should always be looking for new experiences that share insight into their designs. I highly recommend the experience I’ve had, and I’ll be looking into a class on semis in the future. Perhaps a bit of time behind the wheel of a semi will lead to a better understanding of maneuverability on roads designed without trucks in mind. I encourage other road designers to do the same.

Safe Riding!

Design Challenge

Challenge: Put together a preliminary design layout of a roundabout for the intersection of one-way streets being converted to two-way streets. Keep all lanes at 12′ widths, avoid right-of-way conflicts by keeping the design within the current curb-and-gutter boundaries.

Done before lunch. Who at your firm takes these challenges with this kind of excitement? Click through for full resolution graphics.

Existing Conditions

Existing Conditions

1st Sketch

1st Sketch

Proposed Conditions

Proposed Conditions

Collision Statistics

I was passed along this article today, reporting on a sharp increase in pedestrian fatalities in Minnesota. In the StarTribune letter of the day yesterday, written by Michael D. Hoy, he questioned the conclusions of the reporter, showing that the fatalities fall in line with what is expected of normal fluctuations.

About two-thirds of the time, the statistic will lie within one standard deviation of the mean. This is what happened in the last 11 years. Two-thirds of the years had a death count between 33 and 45.

Also, about 95 percent of the time the statistic will lie within two standard deviations of the mean. Again, this is just about what happened. – Michael D. Hoy

It’s easy to look at collision fluctuations and be immediately concerned, but it’s important to remember that fluctuations can be random without any significant cause. That’s why it’s especially important to have good collision data collection methods in place when looking at collision rates and the safety of intersections. Sadly, most municipal resources are too scarce to spend a lot of time and effort on very involved collision reports.

If you’re a municipality or state agency focused on safety, you face a serious challenge everyday: with limited data, dollars, and man-hours available, how do you pick the most dangerous sites in your jurisdiction?

A background in statistics is always helpful, especially for researchers in this field. But for engineers who want to apply models everyday, there are plenty of methods already figured out for you to use. I highly recommend pursuing a graduate level course on highway safety like I did at NC State. Without delving into a statistics degree, you can pick up many effective methodologies to rank sites. Use them to your advantage and get the most efficient use out of precious tax-dollars while saving as many lives as you can!

It’s important to keep these things in mind:

Look at available data carefully. How long has the intersection been open? How much data do you have? Without enough historical data, it will be impossible to see any kind of trends.

Don’t revisit the same sites every year. Did you check the site last year? What were the findings? Unless the site has changed significantly, there’s no reason to check it again. There are tons of dangerous intersections that you haven’t investigated, get to those next.

Volume bias. Sites with the most collisions aren’t necessarily the most dangerous sites. Ranking sites by the number of collisions gives bias to the busiest intersections with the highest volumes. Similarly, sites at the bottom of the list may be dangerous, but have so few vehicles traveled on that they are skipped altogether.

An increase in collisions doesn’t imply a decrease in safety at the site. Especially in areas of high growth, increased collisions may just be because an increase in traffic. Check historical AADTs when you check historical traffic reports, and pick good comparison sites when comparing increases in collisions at one intersection with other intersections in your systems.

And try not to be overwhelmed by media.

News is always more interesting when there is a fright element, but there is no reason to believe that walking is any worse now than before.

NCSITE Technical Retreat 2012

I’ve recently become more involved in the North Carolina Section of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (NCSITE), a fantastic group of people from the industry. I attended a NCSITE lecture and meetup last month and played a lot of catch-up with professionals I know but don’t widely see on a day-to-day basis.

“So, you’re going to the technical retreat in August?”

This is the question of the hour. The thought crossed my mind, but I had such a busy month ahead, I was hesitant to make plans. NCSITE needed commitment early to reserve the facilities they planned to use, and holding off on registration for too long was going to make things difficult for the event.

With some shuffling, it was feasible to adjust my work schedule to get the time off I needed. Peer pressure is the strongest around those who’s careers you admire, so what do you say? You say “Yes.”

* * *

Monday, August 27th

11:35 PM

I carpooled with Dr. Reza Jafari of RSTS, Inc., and driving to the retreat was an experience by itself. Never having visited the Caraway Conference Center before, we almost passed it. Reza and I share a curious look turning into the driveway. “Camp Caraway” couldn’t possibly be where we were going, but the name matched the driving directions. From the road, it looks more like a boyscout summer camp.

“I didn’t pack a sleeping bag,” says Evan in the back seat, half-smiling, half-serious. Neither did I.

Following the drive through dense woods, we eventually pull up to a building that could’ve been a stand-in for the Overlook Hotel, so I make a mental note to stay clear of Room 237. After a brief check-in, we meet with other attendees in the conference room, have lunch, and sit down for the afternoon sessions.

Scott Lane, Don Kostelec, and Ram Jagannathan all had wonderful presentations covering decision-making, the design of the human environment, land use, and alternative intersections and interchanges.

6:30 PM

After dinner, we had the opportunity to listen to terrific NCSITE stories and experiences of some more prominent and senior members of NCSITE. But what made the retreat truly special were the team building and learning exercises Camp Caraway staff engaged us with afterwards. Climbing aboard some tractor-transit, we took a ride to another side of camp with fields lit for the evening’s activities. The irony of the game titles was not lost on me: transit-trains, red-light / green-light, and a game involving subway cars making roundabouts.

There was more fun, learning, and leadership coming from these activities than I knew what to do with. So I pocketed as much as I could for future reflection, and before I knew it, it was time for s’mores at the campfire.1

Tuesday, August 28th

6:00 AM

There was an optional morning jog scheduled. I briefly saw the clock out of one sleep-encrusted eyeball. I then proceeded to close said eyeball and dream about jogging instead.

7:30 AM

A light breakfast in the cafeteria and on to more sessions. I especially liked Pete Nicholas’s planned signal design activity. This session was my favorite. Complete with a design scenario, blank plans, and an answer sheet to check once completed, our groups were able to look at a proposed signal location and locate signal poles and heads around utilities and property lines. We then had an introduction to isolated timing and an overview of signal cabinet hardware.

This was followed by an introduction to ITS by Kevin Smith and coordinated signal timing by Denys Vielkanowitz. After a group discussion on the retreat as a whole, it was time for lunch and the ride back home.

Lasting Impressions and Memories

One thing that was especially neat about this retreat: it really held my attention. I rarely found myself compulsively checking my iPhone.2 Yes, Camp Caraway is in the middle of nowhere. But that’s kind of what made it special. We couldn’t just drive home for the night, or separate and go to different restaurants. We were stuck with each other for better or worse, and it allowed us to get to know one another much more than I expected.

I shouldn’t have waited so long to register. If registration was open today for a 2013 retreat, NCSITE would have my money already. Special thanks to the NCSITE members who did all the hard work planning everything, you all did a fantastic job. To students, professionals, and others who couldn’t make it this week: there’s no way around it. You truly missed out.

Notes

  1. Yes, it was a little warm to have a campfire. But after forming trains of sweaty engineers and running around in a soccer field, a seat on a log in front of a fire with marshmallows is as good as any.
  2. Of course, this could also have been affected by the complete lack of cell signal anywhere near Camp Caraway.

Roundabout Changes

I was a huge fan of the roundabout installation on Hillsborough St. near the NC State Bell Tower. It was well thought out, it reduced delay, and it was a pleasure to drive in. For a traffic engineer.

Unfortunately, everyone else had a collision in it. A little over a year ago, I personally wrote my recommendations here on my blog when numerous collisions were reported. I still stand by many of my points, especially the point on safety. No amount of fender-benders equal a fatality in my eyes, so I still say the intersection is safer than a four-way signalized intersection.

City and State engineers have done all they could to improve the design. Signage, pavement markings, flyers, flags, you name it. But downtown Raleigh drivers simply can’t afford the time to drive carefully in an unfamiliar design. With roundabouts being such an uncommon occurrence in North Carolina, I cede and will say that a two-lane roundabout of this size is too unfamiliar for uneducated drivers.

What changed my mind? I recently had lunch with Reza Jafari, President at Road Safety and Transportation Solutions, Inc. We talked at great length about driver education and the roundabout. He convinced me that the diameter is just too small for unfamiliar drivers, drivers that have never driven multi-lane roundabouts and are prone to change lanes (or disregard lane markings entirely) while navigating one. The point is fair.

We shall see how well a one-lane roundabout manages the traffic. Anything is better than a signal.

Reza Jafari is the President of Road Safety and Transportation Solutions, Inc. located in Cary, NC. He is a terrific resource on traffic safety and I would go to great lengths to recommend him and his company for a safety study.