31 May 2011

FIST Goes To War

Got word last week that I'm being deployed to Afghanistan for 6 months. Not tomorrow, but soon enough.

I'll be in Kabul. Don't have a lot of other info at this point but I'll be sure to share what I can.

Just wanted you all to know.

(in other news, Germany recently announced they're getting out of the nuclear power business. I guess they're reading RPL over there! Sadly I think the plan is to replace it with coal... but I'm hoping they'll have a go at some more renewables.)

26 May 2011

TRIZ 40 Principles

If you're not familiar with Genrich Altshuller's Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (aka TRIZ), today might be a good day to check it out.

TRIZ is a fascinating tool set, designed to help people solve a wide range of problems. Initially focused on technical / hardware type challenges, it has since been expanded to apply to everything from software to services.

Of particular interest is the list of 40 Principles, each of which is a known solution to a particular type of problem. The contradiction matrix (pictured) helps you identify which principle is likely to be helpful & relevant to your situation.

For example, Principle 1 is "Segmentation," which involves dividing an object into independent parts. Examples include modular furniture, personal computers (instead of a mainframe) or a Work Breakdown Structure.

The TRIZ40 website has a great little box with dropdown menus to help you navigate the matrix. For example, you may have a situation where you want to increase the strength of a component without increasing the weight. It will automatically pull up the four Principles that typically help in a situation like that.

Like any tool, mastery of TRIZ takes time and effort. But in my opinion, it's well worth examining.

24 May 2011

Acquisition Innovation Wiki

The Citizen Apps website is a very cool initiative that provides a wide range of social media tools for federal agencies to use in their outreach efforts. It provides a framework for blogs, wiki's and discussion forums, to name a few. The intention is to make it easier to engage in discussions with the general public, in true Web 2.0 style.

Accordingly, I'd like to direct your attention to the Acquisition Innovation Wiki. It's an interactive forum where you can discover and contribute content related to innovation, technology development and defense acquisitions.

I hope you'll stop on by and take a look around. Even better, create an account and add some content!

19 May 2011


Tuesday's post looked at the VA Class subs from the GAO's perspective. Today, let's see what my favorite government accountability office has to say about a different project: the Joint Strike Fighter.

Gray jet aircraft taking off on a clear blue sky, with the landing gear still protruding from its underside. Mountains make-up the background.I already mentioned that  the Joint Strike Fighter went into production even though "three critical technologies are not mature, manufacturing processes are not proven and testing is not complete." The GAO report doesn't explain why the JSF pressed ahead into production with an immature, untested set of tech. It didn't explain what sort of pressures drove that decision, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't the result of sound engineering practices.

It's a striking contrast to the VA class sub's decision to rewrite requirements that were "unrealistic and would not be worth the cost to achieve them." Apparently unrealistic, excessively expensive requirements are perfectly acceptable and unchangeable on the JSF.

It reminds me of Kevin Kline's line in French Kiss, where he purposely mistranslates the French airline pilot's intercom announcement for Meg Ryan's character: "The pilot says there is a crack in the engine, but not to worry, we take off anyway."

I gladly concede this is an improvement over previous tech maturity issues, because the GAO points out "the JSF program entered system development in 2001 with none of its eight critical technologies fully mature." And now only three are still immature. So they're making progress. I guess. That's probably why Lockheed is asking to increase the production rate.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. The report says "the JSF is tracking well against its new, less aggressive test schedule despite late deliveries of test aircraft and lower than expected availability rates..." Good to know late deliveries and low availability didn't get in the way of the lowered standards, right? Makes me wonder how much "less aggressive" this new schedule is. And despite this "progress," its combat radius still falls short of the requirement, for reasons "that are not yet fully known."

No word yet on whether the JSF is making progress towards its goal of reducing the cost of each aircraft, or towards it goal of a reduced timeline to build each one.

Oh, right, that's because they don't have goals like that.

17 May 2011

Nerd Crush

I admit it, I have a major acquisition nerd crush on the GAO. I don't read every report they put out, but their annual Assessment of Selected Weapon Programs is always a big event for me. It's like the Oscars and the Superbowl all in one, except it's not on TV... and the only uniforms involved are military... and it's not really a competition... and there aren't any commercials.

USS Virginia (SSN-774)Anyway, I've also got a cross-service fondness going on for the Virginia Class submarine program. Shhh... don't tell the AF. Now, you may wonder how a guy who advocates the fast, inexpensive, simple, tiny approach could have anything nice to say about something as big, expensive and complex as a nuclear sub? Read on...

The 2011 GAO Assessment report had some fascinating things to say about the VA subs. For example, the Navy "expects to realize its goal of reducing cost to $2.0 billion per ship... and hopes to further decrease the time required to build each ship." Of the 71 other programs assessed in that report, only one or two had bothered to set a goal of a reduced cost or time. Imagine what would happen if this was a standard practice? What if every program got a budget and then was expected to set a cost goal that's below that figure? As in, not only will we not tolerate overruns or late deliveries - we expect early delivery, UNDER budget.

The Navy is showing this can be done... and incidentally they delivered the USS New Hampshire 8 months early, $54M under budget. Nice!

It gets better. The report goes on to say "the Navy has decided not to pursue two planned technology insertions," which is an impressive sign of design restraint and gutsy leadership. Why did they abandon plans, for example, to include a "conformal acoustic velocity sensor wide aperture array"? Because "it would significantly increase, not decrease, life-cycle costs and complicate maintenance." Since this array would have increased costs and complexity, they dropped it.

This isn't just the result of good leadership. It's evidence of a pervasive culture of restraint, one that says overreaching is foolishness and complexity is not the same thing as goodness.

In another case, they "determined the original requirements were unrealistic and would not be worth the cost to achieve them." If only every program would do this sort of assessment. And the funny thing is, there's nothing stopping us from taking this approach all the time.

12 May 2011

Lessons From Nuclear Power

The nuclear situation in Japan got me thinking once again about nuclear power... and its implications for engineering design.

I really dislike nuclear power. In fact, I think we shouldn't do it. But usually, when people criticize nuclear power they point to two issues: safety and waste disposal. My objection is related to those topics, but I'd like to describe it in more fundamental terms. I object to nuclear power because it's a critically incomplete idea.

Operating a nuclear power plant generates nuclear waste. However, as I wrote in 2008, we don't have a good plan for how to dispose of nuclear waste (and 3 years later, we still don't). Seriously, we're producing highly toxic waste that's going to be around for thousands of years... and our best plan is to put it in "long term storage." This is as foolish as taking off in an airplane with the expectation that we'll figure out how to land it someday. I suppose that's alright if you're a test pilot, but not so much if you're doing it with a fleet jetliners, each full of passengers, flying over major cities.

You might wonder, "How close are we to having a disposal plan?" Well, Newsweek recently did an article about a nuclear power advocate from France, named Anne Lauvergeon. In the article, she pointed out that "the technology exists to destroy it [nuclear waste] in a laboratory setting—a technology she predicts will jump to real life within 20 years."

Um, really? If the technology we're depending on won't be ready for real world use until 2030, shouldn't that give us pause? Isn't there a chance our prediction of what life will be like in 20 years could -just maybe - be a little bit off? Sure, go ahead and produce 20 years worth of nuclear waste. I'm sure we'll figure out what to do about it someday...

The same thing applies to all sorts of other designs. For example, the latest GAO report on selected weapon systems pointed out that the Joint Strike Fighter went into production even though three critical technologies are not mature, the manufacturing process isn't proven yet and the testing is incomplete. Yeah, you guys go on ahead. Don't worry - the technology, manufacturing and testing crew will just catch up later.

I promise you, that approach is not on anyone's list of Best Practices.

OK, back to nuclear power. What are we doing with all that spent fuel while we're waiting 20 years for the big breakthrough? Mostly, we're keeping it on site, in some cases storing five times more waste than the container was designed to handle. And of course we're continuing to produce even more waste... without a good plan on what to do with it all.

On the question of safety, Ms. Lauvergeon's aforementioned interview listed a series of catastrophic scenarios and explained that thanks to our robust designs, "Whatever happens, you will have no leak in the air or the ground.” This was about a week before the earthquake hit Japan. Oopsie!

Yes, most nuclear power plants operate with perfect safety records. But when one fails, it fails hard. We can't prevent it 100% of the time, and we don't really know how to deal with it when the inevitable failures occur. Just one more example of how this is not a complete idea.

Also, Ms. Lauvergeon should find a new job.

I'm all for exploration and experimentation. I'm a lab guy at heart. But when the objective is to develop an operational system, one that'll be built in large quantities and used in the real world, where failure has serious consequences on a major scale, we must make sure we have a complete idea, to include things like safety & disposal. Until then, it's best to use other solutions that are already proven and complete.

10 May 2011

RPL, Year 1

Before Rogue Project Leader was a blog, it was a webzine. Every month, several friends and I would publish a new collection of articles and features. There was even a poetry corner and it wasn't half bad.

By the time it was all over, we'd published nine-and-a-half issues, had a lot of fun and learned a lot about DIY webzines... including how much work they are and how to stop doing one when the time is right.

The original RPL is off line now, but it's not out of reach. Whether you missed it or loved it the first time around, you're invited to get your very own copy of Rogue Project Leader, Year 1 at the Rogue Press shop (dead-tree version or eBook).

Whether you buy a copy or not, I hope you'll at least click over to the preview and read "Call Me Crazy," my first editorial for that very special experiment. And check out my riff on imperfectionism... and Quaid's original vision for Rogue University... and Gabe's piece about being "in orbit"... and, well, just read the whole thing, ok? I think you'll dig it.

08 May 2011


I like love to write. It doesn't matter whether it's fiction or non, serious or funny, books or blogs. I truly enjoy the experience of putting words together in interesting ways... with one exception.

I have a hard time writing about my writing.

Writing the back cover blurb or the description on a webpage leaves me pulling my hair out, surrounded by a pile of crumpled notebook pages. Worse yet is my attempts at writing a query letter, introducing my books to a potential agent or publishing company. Writing 30,000 words on a topic is a piece of cake compared to writing 200 words trying to convince someone that my 30,000 words are worth their time. I guess it's the difference between teaching and selling.

Nevertheless, it's got to be done... and I was wondering if I could get a hand from some of my blog readers.

Here's the deal: I'm trying to rewrite the description of The Simplicity Cycle on my Lulu site and it's kicking my butt. The current description is lame. I was wondering if someone out there might be willing to take a shot at rewriting it.

How would you describe The Simplicity Cycle, in a paragraph or two. Brevity is good. You can leave your ideas in the Comments section or send them via email to The . Dan . Ward (at) gmail (dot) com.


05 May 2011

70 > 0

Good morning and welcome to Math With Dan, the fun blog where we learn important math facts.

Today's Important Math Fact is this:

70 > 0

Everyone with me so far? Great! Let's say it together: 70 > 0. Very good!

My 2nd grade daughter just came in and read over my shoulder. She laughed and said "Everybody already knows this!" And then she saw me write about her reaction and it got all meta. So I had to go make pancakes for breakfast.

OK, I'm back. Let's talk for a moment about why is it important to understand that 70 > 0.

You see, a lot of times people talk about delivering "the 70% solution," as if it was some poor alternative to the 100% solution. But that's the wrong comparison. When we take time into account (and we should ALWAYS take time into account), what we're really talking about is delivering a 70% solution now instead of a 0% solution now.

The cool thing about a 70% solution is that it delivers far sooner than the hypothetical 100% solution. So when we compare the two approaches, the 70% solution delivers something within a timeframe where the 100% solution delivers nothing. While the 100% solution is still being designed, the 70% solution can actually be fielded and used.

Just something to keep in mind the next time you hear someone talk about the 70% solution. It may not be 100%, but it's certainly better than nothing.

03 May 2011

A Behemoth In A Blizzard Of Cash

The Center For Public Integrity recently posted a great article about the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO). Well, maybe great is the wrong word to describe a story about how we've failed so miserably. I probably meant to say it's an interesting, insightful story.

Here's a short excerpt from the first part of the article:
The launch of JIEDDO eventually turned what had been a 12-person Army anti-homemade bomb task force into a 1,900 person behemoth with nearly $21 billion to spend.

Yet after five years of work, hundreds of projects, and a blizzard of cash paid to some of America’s biggest defense contractors, JIEDDO has not found a high-tech way to detect or defeat these so-called Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) from a safe distance.
What's striking to me is the apparent incredulity over JIEDDO's failure, despite being enormous and having "a blizzard of cash" to spend and despite it's focus on "high tech." And I don't mean the author's surprise - I'm talking about the reaction of government people who can't seem to understand why throwing buckets of money at the problem and building a "behemoth" organization didn't work out.

Um, anyone ever look at any data on successful programs? There's a pretty compelling trail of examples showing that simple, low-cost, rapidly-fielded systems tend to outperform the multi-billion-dollar products that take decades to produce.

My point? Nobody should be surprised when a behemoth in a blizzard of cash fails to show results.