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Engineering Safer and More Efficient Stoplights

July 11th, 2012 by Mike Ficco

I read in the paper that, due to the persistently slow economy, QE3 is now a definite possibility.  In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, QE is Quantitative Easing – and we’ve already had two of them.  This is where the government gives money to banks (well, technically they buy financial things like bad loans from the banks… look it up).  Anyway, they give money to banks in the hope that the banks use that money to make loans to build new things thereby creating jobs.

How’s that been working?  Well, the bank executives are getting swell bonuses…

Looks Clear


I have an alternative idea.  Lets give money directly to engineers so they can build cool stuff.  One desperately needed project is improved traffic control.

The problem with the picture shown on this page is that I’m stopped and burning imported oil/gasoline although I have a perfect view of oncoming traffic and the only thing dangerous about making a left turn would be the risk of getting a ticket.  I’m certain engineers with a little funding can improve traffic flow and reduce gasoline consumption and the accompanying pollution.

Do any of you have any “shovel ready” engineering projects that a couple of dump trucks full of cash would help?  Imagine the good that would come to the world if the government became a gigantic venture capital money trough into which regular engineers could dip to fund their development projects?


A Bad Idea From NHTSA

April 13th, 2012 by Mike Ficco

Earlier this year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wrote the latest chapter in our government’s continuing preoccupation with universal safety.  NHTSA has released for public comment “Visual-Manual NHTSA Driver Distraction Guidelines for In-Vehicle Electronic Devices”, Docket No. NHTSA-2010-0053… and this comment period expires soon (04/24/2012).

The social phenomenon of government mandated universal safety has been with us for several decades but it took a turn for the worse after the attacks of 9/11.  It now seems no cost is too high to protect us from everything and everyone.  The government continues to propose ever more rules, regulations, “guidelines”, and prohibitions – unaware or uncaring about the cost in wasted money, in lost jobs, and even in crippled innovation and trampled dignity.

To be clear, with this document the government is initiating the process of protecting you from distracted drivers.  To put this in perspective, this is the same government that, for your safety and wellbeing, is mandating your participation in universal healthcare – the constitutionality of which is now being considered by the Supreme Court.  This is also the same government that, with good intentions, accidently created through unforeseen consequences a multi-billion dollar, violent, market in illegal drugs – and a supporting cast of enforcement, incarceration, and interdiction expenses.

I believe the guidelines proposed in this NHTSA document are a well-intentioned desire to improve safety and not some back-door partnership to help car manufacturers continue to charge $2000 for in-dash GPS units.  Indeed, the document itself states:

“NHTSA has opted to pursue nonbinding, voluntary guidelines rather than a mandatory Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) for three principal reasons.”

Unfortunately, however, as an engineer for more than three decades I can assure the NHTSA that they’re good intentions are misguided on this issue.  Although these are “guidelines” and not requirements, my experience, based on hundreds of projects at dozens of companies, says that most of the staff working on automotive designs will abandon innovation and common sense to simply follow the “guidelines”.  Why?  First, it is easier and FASTER to not think and simply copy something already in existence.  Engineering parlance would refer to the guidelines as a “reference implementation”, or in other words, a SAMPLE that is known to work.  Additionally, in the interests of expediency and a more predictable result, corporate management will demand the guidelines be followed.

There is also a darker reason restrictive guidelines will become the de facto standard design and that reason is to remove generic and crossover competitors from the automotive marketplace.  Sales, for example, of GPS and other in car technology have plummeted in the face of smartphone competition.  Car manufacturers and assorted hangers-on, desperate for relief from these unwanted intruders into their profit margin, have already jumped in to support the guidelines with proprietary technology.  I’m not going to mention any of these companies because that will only give them unjustified publicity but one of the web sites says:

“STOP TEXTING WHILE DRIVING”, ‘x’ is the world’s leading technology to stop distracted driving.”

Don’t get me wrong – distracted driving is bad.  Here are the statistics provided in the NHTSA document concerning police-reported crashes involving a distracted driver:

2006 17%
2007 17%
2008 17%
2009 17%
2010 17%

I’m not sure I see the urgent problem here, specifically, Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007 and Android followed in 2008.  So, in 2006 any distracted driving problem from smartphones must have been BlackBerry, Palm, and such.  While smartphones sales in the United States soared by tens of millions the police reported distracted driving number stayed around 17%.  It would be great if we could lower this number but perhaps the best way to do so is through continuing education and the punishment of those who refuse to learn.  Perhaps the worst approach is to stomp in with government defined technology – which may well be the next step in our “protection”.

For over 60 years people have been playing with their car radio while driving and a few years ago a friend of mine ran off the road while trying to shoo a bee out of the car.  Distracted driving is not a new problem – although activities enabled by new technology may require a learning period.

I envision a world where the government is an ENABLER, not a disabler or “prohibiter”.  That is, the government, within reason, should never REQUIRE you to do something, nor FORBID you from doing something.  They should educate, advise, and mentor – then get out of the way.

The government process and government regulations, recommendation, and guidelines can never keep up with the rapid advancement of technology.  They must stay out of the way and not condemn us to an automotive world lacking innovation, vision, and above all not lacking in competition from alternative technologies and companies.

If you want to read the actual NHTSA proposal you can find a double spaced PDF here.

An (as far as I can tell) identical version with better PDF formatting here.

It is also available as HTML here.

The comment period ends 04/24/2012, so hurry and make your comments here.

Search for ” NHTSA-2010-0053″.


The Personal Computer vs. The Chemistry Set

December 1st, 2011 by Mike Ficco

Recent (and much needed) basement cleaning uncovered a treasure trove of childhood chemistry set experimenter books.

Back in the day, there was no Internet.  The only hope for young chemists looking for new experiments was to troll bookstores and newsstands.  Fortunately, chemistry sets were relatively popular when I was a kid and a number of authors produced books for this audience.

"The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments", Copyright 1960








Some of the cools stuff we used when I was young.  These items were available at most hobby shops and some toy stores.











Let me emphasize that I’m talking about REAL chemistry sets, not pretend ones offering only colored water experiments.  I extracted chlorine gas and ignited steel wool in it.  I filled balloons with hydrogen and exploded them.  Stuffing thin glass tubing into tight stoppers was part of many experiments.  Fortunately, all of my injuries from breaking the tubing were minor.  I attempted several times to freeze mercury solid with an alcohol – dry ice slush.  Back then, relatively large quantities of mercury could be had from mercury switches – available at any hardware store.

"700 Science Experiments for Everyone", Copyright 1962






Some books described surprisingly dangerous experiments – like this one.








Of course there were safety concerns even back then.  I had several “recipes”, but was never able to successfully make phosphorescent paint.  I just could not get high enough temperatures with my alcohol lamp.  I lived in a house with gas heat and wanted to cut into the gas line to power a Bunsen burner.  My dad was very much against this and as a consequence it never happened.

Let me put chemistry set “danger” in perspective.  A number of my friends had chemistry sets and I knew of a couple of burns and cuts but no serious injuries.  Certainly nothing as bad as a broken clavicle suffered by a friend that fell out of a tree or the compound fracture of an arm and elbow from a bicycle spill.  Personally, my worst childhood injuries came from skateboarding accidents, not my “exotic” chemistry experiments.

Here we are more than 40 years later – trees have not been banned, bicycles still cause severe injuries, and chemistry sets – well, government “protective” laws and personal injury lawyers have killed them.

In my EXPERT opinion – chemistry sets, the geeky-kid right of passage for generations, have been replaced, poorly, by the personal computer.  Let’s examine the differences.  I assume all readers of this blog are very familiar with personal computers.  As we know, they are capricious.  Worse, youngsters often “learn” to program by surfing the web for some appropriate code, copying, pasting, and moving on to the next programming impulse.  The entire experience could be considered VIRTUAL.  It may even be conducted with very little thinking and even less learning.

Chemistry sets, however, were not virtual.  They provided real knowledge of the physical world.  Even as a 10 year old I understood chlorine gas was bad stuff.  Burns were real – and painful.  You couldn’t cut and paste, you had to prepare the area (i.e. clean test tubes), find the chemicals, plan, and execute.  Youngsters able to successfully perform chemistry experiments demonstrated far more organization and persistence than their modern personal computer counterparts.  Indeed, the scientists and engineers that created nuclear power, that created jet engines and broke the sound barrier, that created transistors and integrated circuits – started with chemistry sets.

"The Question And Answer Book of Chemistry", Copyright 1962









Thanks to chemistry sets, I was a scientist long before I was an engineer.  As a pre-teen I understood methodical preparation and execution.  I believe this had an extremely positive effect on my career as an engineer.










Unfortunately, this early learning has been halted.  Over the last several decades there seems to have been a powerful agenda to remove self-reliance from the hands of the public.  A strict regulatory climate has combined fear mongering with a promise that Big Brother will take care of us.  One must hope that this is misguided good intentions and not a purposeful insidious plot to turn citizens into passive chattel.  Regardless of the reason, the result is the same.  It has turned us into a schizophrenic society that discourages all forms of risk taking by the man on the street but visibly and vociferously honors “professionals” who risk their safety and even lay down their lives for a broad array of causes.

The fireman that rushes into a burning building to save someone is correctly honored.  The soldier who risks his life to stop a terrorist is also correctly honored, as is the policeman who brings a dangerous criminal to justice.  Pity the poor youngster, however, who attempts to buy volatile substances to make rocket fuel or firecrackers.  He is likely expelled from school and may even get jail time.  His interest in science may well have ruined his life instead of launching a promising career.

While the student may have hurt himself or someone else playing with volatile materials, the same is true when, for example, young people play football.  Some may say this is an issue of relative risk and, unlike football, playing with chemicals is just too dangerous.  My personal experience, drawn from a time when “dangerous” chemistry sets were commonly enjoyed, says this is wrong.  In fact, I felt I hit the million-dollar jackpot when I discovered the book pictured below.  This book launched a thousand experiments with fireworks and homemade rockets.

I was never materially injured by any chemistry experiment, by any homemade rocket flight, by any of my fireworks exploits.  More importantly, my enjoyment of life, appreciation of science, and intellectual engagement were greatly enriched by these activities.

I’m not going to dispute the existence of risk.  My point is that we can never remove all risk from life – and it starts getting really expensive the harder we try.  The problem truly becomes deciding when we are safe “enough”.  This is a real problem since people are notoriously bad at judging relative risk.  Worse, there is a staggering array of agendas being pushed by powerful interests.  Some of these interests sell fear for profit.  Some sell distrust for political gain.  Some cover themselves in the flag and hide behind morality.  Facts are manipulated and misrepresented.

As a result, every year the “developed” countries become more cautious, fearful, and restrictive.  At the same time the “developing” countries, operating in a wild-west fashion, embrace risk, create jobs, and accelerate their economies.

We very much need to get away from the idea of “safety at any cost”.  We just can’t afford it – for at least three reasons:

  1. Financially, we’re headed for disaster if we keep spending money creating and policing anti-danger laws.  Spending money to arrest and prosecute a citizen who buys fireworks seems like an incredible waste of money; and we’ve experienced decades of failed, expensive, zero-tolerance drug interdiction.  Don’t get me started on airport security.
  2. Morally, who is the government to decide something is too dangerous but something else, say driving in the Indianapolis 500, is ok?  How can this be anything other than an individual decision?  Would you have found it offensive if a government official told a young Danica Patrick, “Racin’ go-carts is too dangerous for little girls.  You should be takin’ a cooking class over at the community center”?
  3. The existence and actions of aggressive “Safety Police” can create an intellectually cautious environment.

Of these, by far the most damaging is the “Safety Police”.  When too many people become intellectually cautious you have the Dark Ages.  When the Safety Police become too aggressive you have the Spanish Inquisition.

The history of the world shows both of these have happened before.  They can happen again.

What if watchful and “protective” governments determined that the work of young experimenters Robert Goddard and Wernher Von Braun was dangerous and jailed them for their activities?  This would likely cause a domino effect of icy fear.  One after another youthful rocket scientists would abandon that field of endeavor.

Today there would be no communications satellites, no GPS, no orbital views of weather patterns.  Of course launching high-powered rockets was, and still is, dangerous.  You can’t have great achievements without risk and it has been proven over and over that the “authorities” are really bad at judging which risks are worth taking.

What if a religious cult strongly believed man should not fly and successfully sued to stop the “dangerous” and “heretical” experiments of Wilbur and Orville Wright?

Did you just think of Stem Cells?

What if the purveyors of the social revolution called Personal Computers were prohibited from distributing their wares?  What if the authorities, fearing disruption of the status quo, fearing access to knowledge and computation power by the masses, “excommunicated” Marc Andreessen, Tim Berners-Lee, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Gary Kildall, Steve Wozniak, and the legion of dope-smoking hippies that created the Personal Computer and Internet revolutions?

What if our masters applied the “dangerous” label to anything that threatened their position as masters?

Do you feel the chill in the air?

What vital element of our nature is suffering from our modern preoccupation with safety?  What of our society will remain when the authorities have subdued the risk-seeking members?  What is our future without folk heroes like Evel Knievel, Steve (Crocodile Hunter) Irwin, Daniel Boone, and yes, even without socially disruptive risk takers like Henry Ford and Howard Hughes?

Many are uncomfortable; unhappy with the current direction of society and our culture.  Sensing a platform that may resonate with voters, growing contingents of politicians condemn government regulations.  They say the regulations cost money and jobs.  They say we would be better off without them.

Well, you know, I happen to like some regulations.  I don’t want my food to poison me and I’d like to be able to trust any medicine I buy.  I don’t want to breathe junk from industrial smokestacks or roast from global warming – manmade or not.  Yep, this may cost more, but that’s what engineers are for – to implement solutions while minimizing the cost of doing so.  For centuries (millennia?) we’ve all benefited from paying engineers to create a better living standard.

The politicians have it wrong.  Regulations don’t cost jobs – they create jobs.  Every company that spends money to satisfy emission standards is paying engineers and technicians to invent and implement ways of doing so.  Diversity and union requirements mean someone must write standards, meet with representatives of all sides, and negotiate with all groups.  These are just two examples, but the fact is money spent on regulations ends up being someone’s paycheck.

Do rules and regulations raise the cost of goods?  Of course.  This impact, however, is small compared to that of manipulated currency exchange rates, benefits like pensions and healthcare, and mega-CEO salaries.  Some car companies, for example, need the profit from the sale of 30,000 cars just to pay their five most expensive executives.  Some drug companies need to sell a half million prescriptions to pay their president.

The problem is not the cost in dollars of corporate and personal rules, regulations, and prohibitions.  The problem is the emotional cost – the chill in the air.  While many regulations create jobs, some destroy our very souls.  We’ve been taught for too long to defer to a professional and wait for the authorities to solve problems.  How many times have you heard from SO many sources: “Don’t try this at home”.  Well, it’s time we go back a few decades and at least ALLOW people to try things at home.  It’s time to reclaim our souls.

Am I seriously suggesting that children be allowed to have chemistry sets and fireworks?  Absolutely yes, but I’m not requiring it.  I want government barriers and negative messages removed but parents must be comfortable with risky activities in which their children participate.  I grant that some kids – and their parents – have no common sense.  However, things usually go bad quickly when the government steps in and starts making rules.  I’ve seen enough to convince me that excessive protection leads to non-thinking.  You are most at risk when you expect everything to be safe.  Unfortunately, it is very rare that everything is safe.

We live in a society created by giants and we embarrass them as they gaze down at us.  Powerful concepts like, “Better 10 Guilty Men Go Free than to Convict a Single Innocent Man“, have served us well for a long time.  Have we become so timid and fearful that we must always vote for the safest approach?  Isn’t it better that one is injured rather than 100; 1,000; or 100,000 be prohibited from the joy of experimentation and discovery?

Some parents will be protective and not allow their children to have chemistry sets.  Many of the same parents will not allow their children to play football.  That’s ok and their choice – but this issue is bigger than parents and children.  This issue is bigger than speed bumps in so many neighborhoods; bigger than seatbelt laws and smoke-free restaurants.  This is about an increasingly cowardly society that wants to be protected and coddled at every turn.  This is about decades of strict regulatory climate and government “caretaking” having eroded our “can-do” attitude.

You don’t ban chainsaws just because someone gets hurt.  You don’t stop launching rockets because a couple of space shuttles crash.  You don’t stop doing open-heart surgery because some patients die.  You don’t stop playing football because of lost teeth, concussions, and even the rare cases of spinal cord damage and death.

Accidents, even grisly ones, should be addressed with better education and better preparation – not personal injury lawyers and additional government prohibitions.  In any activity there will always be the unlucky.  We must respect, not fear, risky situations and materials.  Banning all things risky costs society far too much in too many ways.  We must jump-start our society and reject expensive over-protection by Big Brother.

We can’t fix our mess of a society with political sound bytes and catchy phrases.  We need a multifaceted approach that engages politicians, parental good judgment, and spiritual advisors.  Perhaps we need to honor those injured in the pursuit of knowledge just like we honor firemen who rush into burning buildings.  Perhaps we need to indemnify companies who make dangerous products against ambulance chasing lawyers who see money behind genuine accidents.  Think this is a bad idea?  We already bailed out “too big to fail” banks and wealthy individuals who did crazy and perhaps maliciously stupid things.  Is this any worse?

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a sane political party?  One that embraced the need to cut spending but, at least until we get things cleaned up, recognized the need to raise some taxes?  You know, I just don’t think raising billionaire taxes by 3% will cause them to fire a maid or chauffer.  Likewise, cutting their taxes seems unlikely to cause them to hire another gardener.

This sane political party is currently imaginary, but together we can create it.  Together we can write the specification for a new political party that:

  • Cuts spending on the convoluted mess of expensive subsidies, interdictions, and prohibitions.
  • Maintains regulations and inspections on food, drugs, and environmental issues.  Why?  Well, what good is having a job if we turn the place into a wasteland and the food sickens your children?
  • Explores the possibility of significantly reducing the cost of healthcare by allowing regular people direct access to curative drugs without needing a doctor as an expensive middleman.
  • Looks at additional revenue sources such as adjusting corporate and personal tax rates or a national gas tax – but NOT toll roads.

Aside on toll roads.

Some politicians have seized on toll roads as a way to generate more revenue.  They use the self-serving interpretation that these are User Fees, not taxes.  Wrong.  Toll roads are socialism.  It is not only the drivers on the road that benefit from the road.  General commerce benefits since those who drive to work on the road spend some of their paycheck in many ways that benefit society as a whole.  Likewise delivery trucks to food stores and shopping centers, even the mail service will be paying tolls for the benefit of those who need not drive on that toll road to shop and receive mail.  This is clearly socialism at work as the active few pay an unfair share and support passive consumers.

The sane political party I envision will distinguish two categories of regulations.

  1. Good Regulations.  These require purity of ingredients, freedom from contaminants, honesty about usefulness and side effects, truth in advertising, and forbid the wholesale destruction of nature.  In essence, the good regulations prohibit exaggerated claims and malicious behavior by the seller.
  2. Bad Regulations.  These attempt to enforce what the government has determined to be desirable behavior by the citizen.


In my ideal world, manufactures cannot lie, mislead, or misdirect – but consumers, with access to truthful and factual information, are free to make risky and even bad choices.

This has been a long and rambling blog but some of the most intelligent and capable people in the world visit this site.  While my writing undoubtedly has an American slant, I believe the ideas are applicable to the world.  I’m hopeful that a number of you will pick up this challenge.  Perhaps we really can start a movement.

Remember –

Some things, my friends, are far more important than being safe.


Continuing Education

November 17th, 2011 by Mike Ficco

I’ve had a couple of teachers in my family for several years.  Recently I became aware (well, I started paying attention to) the rather stringent requirements for teachers’ continuing education.  The specifics of the requirements vary depending on the system in which the teacher works, but the intent of the rules is universal.  That is, you can’t teach youngsters – disabled, gifted, or normal, unless:

  1. You periodically demonstrate you haven’t forgotten all you were taught.
  2. You are regularly exposed to new thinking, techniques, and technology relevant to your field.

You can see why this is so important for teachers – after all, there’s no telling the damage a teacher may do to a student by, for example, teaching them multiplication using a 50 year old technique.

In contrast, no engineering job of which I’m aware requires periodic certification of knowledge or exposure to new thinking or advancements.  True, I’m aware of many jobs that require annual sexual harassment training or perhaps a refresher in the corporate security rules, or maybe even a reminder about the rules for trading stocks based on insider information.  However, I’m aware of nothing that has to do with an engineer actually knowing how to do their job.  Nothing.

It’s a good thing engineers aren’t involved in anything as critical as – say – maintaining the self-esteem of a student struggling to learn how to spell.  Engineers merely design pacemakers, aircraft, and weapons of mass-destruction; nothing nearly as important.

Can anybody explain this?


Apple After Steve Jobs

October 7th, 2011 by Mike Ficco

Sadly, Mr. Jobs is with us no more.  Not too long ago I did a commentary on the state of Microsoft after the departure of Bill Gates so it seems only fair that I do one on Apple after Steve Jobs… Except we don’t know yet.  We don’t know what the future holds for Apple.  So instead I’ll present some challenges Apple will face as they move forward without the guidance of Steve Jobs.

But first a brief history –

I was fortunate to see Bill Gates in person twice.  Once he bought me a beer (well, actually, he bought about 30 of us beer).  I never met Steve Jobs but I ALMOST worked for him.  I was leaving my job at Disney just as Walt Disney was acquiring Pixar – making Steve Jobs the largest shareholder of The Walt Disney Company.

While I always thought Bill Gates was a genius, I was not always a fan of Steve Jobs.  In the early days the Apple ][ was a wonderful toy.  You could plug in cards to add functionality and it seemed you could do ANYTHING with it.  Then came the IBM PC that copied the open architecture idea… and then… came the Macintosh.  Huh?  They ruined it!  You couldn’t plug in cards!  What good was a closed computer?  I wasn’t the only one who thought this and Apple lost market share.

Jobs left Apple and started NeXT – but the personal computer market was too crowded and NeXT struggled.  At this point I thought Steve Jobs was “just the marketing guy” and the technical wizard, Steve Wozniak, made him rich.

Years go by and Jobs made Pixar a success.  He came back to Apple and created the iPod and iTunes.  I changed my mind.  Steve Jobs apparently knew what he was doing and was on the verge of proving himself a bona fide genius and a true visionary.  His dream had finally become a reality.  Microelectronics and volume sales enabled the practicality of the closed computer.  If your computer already does EVERYTHING why would you ever have to plug in a card?

While Steve Jobs was changing the world, I was working at a large number of companies on a really large number of projects.  I flatter myself that my diverse background gives me a rare perspective on engineering innovation and what it takes to be successful.  More specifically, I firmly believe I understand the critical components of failure.  You see, most of the companies for which I worked no longer exist.  There are several traits common to this pile of failures – and these are exactly the challenges Apple will face without the leadership of Steve Jobs.

  1. Lack of honesty – especially internally.  Lying to yourself about schedules (to “motivate” the engineers), about potential sales volumes (being “optimistic”), and about needed functionality (“that feature will be in the next release”) are all poisonous to corporate morale and product success.
  2. Chasing the market instead of anticipating where the market will be by the time the product is ready.  This usually occurs when the person in charge is afraid of being wrong about where the market is headed.  Risk aversion leads to a defensive posture in the market (i.e. the loser).
  3. Playing market catch-up.  Usually because of number 2, a competitor has a “must have” feature your product doesn’t have.  To many managers this means – “rush something with this feature quickly to market”.
  4. Cost.  Yes, money can be saved by leaving off a couple of buttons – but perhaps, though not required, they are desirable.  Yes, wrapping the product in black velvet costs more than brown shipping paper – but it looks really good.  Far too many executives are just not very good at knowing when a few extra pennies buys a lot – so they go as cheap as possible.
  5. Quality.  I’ve seen so, so many companies ship junk.  Important people say it is time to ship, so the junk gets shipped.  So very few executives have the patience to get it right

Rest in peace Steve.

The secrets of your success are hidden in plain sight; but few will ever find them.