Harvard Engineering and the Quest to Build an Ultimate Barbecue Grill

This is a great story in The Boston Globe about a Harvard engineering course in which students were tasked to design an ultimate barbecue grill:

For months, this 16-person team had been designing and modeling and building the prototype for the ultimate barbecuecooker. The handcrafted Harvard smoker is their solution. Tested by countless computer simulations of virtual brisket smoking, nearly two dozen weekend smoking sessions — often in snow or sub-zero temperatures — and 220 pounds of meat, the smoker is a rigorous, data-driven tool for making a feast.

How did the idea for the unusual class come about?

The idea for this unconventional engineering class, offered to Harvard juniors, came three years ago when engineering professor Kevin Kit Parker attended a barbecue-cooking competition in Memphis. Parker grew up in the South and has a deep appreciation for barbecue, and when he looked up from his plate that day, he saw a problem that lacked an optimal solution.

Many products have been refined by cycles of science and engineering. Barbecue, however, has been a veritable Wild West in which pit masters build mishmash setups that incorporate garbage cans, cinder blocks, a giant rotisserie. There seemed to be little in the way of deep understanding of how — or why — one smoker was better than another, Parker said.

And lest you think the class sounded like a joke, the students spent 40 to 50 hours a week on the project! In the end, there is a patent pending and perhaps an actual product in store shelves in the very near future.

Theresa Christy, Elevator Guru

The Wall Street Journal profiles Theresa Christy, who’s spent the majority of her life working with elevators and their design.

The major problem to solve:

Another problem: How many people fit in an elevator? In Asia, more people will board a car than in Europe or New York, Ms. Christy says; Westerners prefer more personal space. When she programs an elevator system she uses different weights for the average person by region. The average American is 22 pounds heavier than the average Chinese.

And an interesting bit for elevators in the Middle East:

The challenges she deals with depend on the place. At a hotel in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, she has to make sure that the elevators can clear a building quickly enough to get most people out five times a day for prayer.

Very interesting.

The world’s fastest elevator is currently located inside Taipei 101. Here’s a list of the ten fastest elevators in the world.

The Compounding Returns of Intelligence

Stephen Cohen, co-founder of Palantir, in a conversation with Peter Thiel and Max Levchin:

We tend to massively underestimate the compounding returns of intelligence. As humans, we need to solve big problems. If you graduate Stanford at 22 and Google recruits you, you’ll work a 9-to-5. It’s probably more like an 11-to-3 in terms of hard work. They’ll pay well. It’s relaxing. But what they are actually doing is paying you to accept a much lower intellectual growth rate. When you recognize that intelligence is compounding, the cost of that missing long-term compounding is enormous. They’re not giving you the best opportunity of your life. Then a scary thing can happen: You might realize one day that you’ve lost your competitive edge. You won’t be the best anymore. You won’t be able to fall in love with new stuff. Things are cushy where you are. You get complacent and stall. So, run your prospective engineering hires through that narrative. Then show them the alternative: working at your startup.

(via Dustin Curtis)

A Replacement Bridge in San Francisco

There is a strong likelihood of a large earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area — about a 2-in-3 chance of magnitude 6.7 or larger before 2036, according to the United States Geological Survey. This New York Times piece discusses the building of the new Bay Bridge:

Unlike more conventional suspension bridges, in which parallel cables are slung over towers and anchored at both ends in rock or concrete, the 2,047-foot suspension bridge has only a single tower and a single cable that is anchored to the road deck itself, looping from the eastern end to the western end and back again. (With a conventional design it would have been extremely difficult to create an anchorage on the eastern end, in the middle of the bay.)

The new bridge is the longest self-anchored suspension bridge in the world, and it is asymmetrical, with one side of the span longer than the other. The choice of such a design raised the cost of the project significantly. In a conventional suspension bridge, the road deck is added last, hung from suspender cables attached to the main cables. In a self-anchored design, the deck has to be built first.

The eastern span replacement of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge has been under construction since 2002. Originally scheduled to open in 2007, it is now scheduled to open to traffic in 2013 at an estimated cost of $6.3 billion. A good interactive from the NYT is here. An incredibly detailed Wikipedia article is here.

Peter Thiel on Technology, Science, Politics

Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, in his piece, “The End of the Future,” offers excellent food-for-thought regarding technology, science, innovation, politics, and the economy.

The state of true science is the key to knowing whether something is truly rotten in the United States. But any such assessment encounters an immediate and almost insuperable challenge. Who can speak about the true health of the ever-expanding universe of human knowledge, given how complex, esoteric, and specialized the many scientific and technological fields have become? When any given field takes half a lifetime of study to master, who can compare and contrast and properly weight the rate of progress in nanotechnology and cryptography and superstring theory and 610 other disciplines? Indeed, how do we even know whether the so-called scientists are not just lawmakers and politicians in disguise, as some conservatives suspect in fields as disparate as climate change, evolutionary biology, and embryonic-stem-cell research, and as I have come to suspect in almost all fields?

Not so sure about this statement. Nuclear engineering remains a strong major at Georgia Tech, for example:

 One cannot in good conscience encourage an undergraduate in 2011 to study nuclear engineering as a career. 

On the big pharmaceutical companies today:

In the next three years, the large pharmaceutical companies will lose approximately one-third of their current revenue stream as patents expire, so, in a perverse yet understandable response, they have begun the wholesale liquidation of the research departments that have borne so little fruit in the last decade and a half.

I think this is Thiel’s most important point in the piece.  Read it carefully:

If meaningful scientific and technological progress occurs, then we reasonably would expect greater economic prosperity (though this may be offset by other factors). And also in reverse: If economic gains, as measured by certain key indicators, have been limited or nonexistent, then perhaps so has scientific and technological progress. Therefore, to the extent that economic growth is easier to quantify than scientific or technological progress, economic numbers will contain indirect but important clues to our larger investigation.

The single most important economic development in recent times has been the broad stagnation of real wages and incomes since 1973, the year when oil prices quadrupled. To a first approximation, the progress in computers and the failure in energy appear to have roughly canceled each other out. Like Alice in the Red Queen’s race, we (and our computers) have been forced to run faster and faster to stay in the same place.

One interesting anecdote, in which Thiel quotes from the 1967 bestseller The American Challenge by Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber:

In 30 years America will be a post-industrial society. . . . There will be only four work days a week of seven hours per day. The year will be comprised of 39 work weeks and 13 weeks of vacation. With weekends and holidays this makes 147 work days a year and 218 free days a year. All this within a single generation.

And what does Thiel really think of John Maynard Keynes?

The most common name for a misplaced emphasis on macroeconomic policy is “Keynesianism.” Despite his brilliance, John Maynard Keynes was always a bit of a fraud, and there is always a bit of clever trickery in massive fiscal stimulus and the related printing of paper money. 

And I strongly agree with Thiel here. It’s a shame how science and engineering get passed over by our politicians:

Most of our political leaders are not engineers or scientists and do not listen to engineers or scientists. Today a letter from Einstein would get lost in the White House mail room, and the Manhattan Project would not even get started; it certainly could never be completed in three years. I am not aware of a single political leader in the U.S., either Democrat or Republican, who would cut health-care spending in order to free up money for biotechnology research — or, more generally, who would make serious cuts to the welfare state in order to free up serious money for major engineering projects.

Where will the United States be in a year? In five years? In ten?

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(via Tyler Cowen)