Tag Archives: Decision-making

Green Energy Storage: We Can’t Get There with Batteries (Why Systems Analysis is Essential for Making Good Decisions)

wind farmThe Catch-22 of Energy Storage” by John Morgan is quite an article. It exemplifies proper systems analysis, which requires one to stand back and look at the overall Big Picture — examine all of the important variables — in order to improve the odds of arriving at a proper solution.

In brief, the point of the article is that using batteries for energy storage actually results in negative energy savings, when one properly considers the energy required to build and maintain the batteries.

It is quite amazing that — because of the lack of a proper systems analysis — enormous sums have been spent on what strongly appears to be a Quixotic attempt at achieving “green energy savings” based primarily on wishful thinking about batteries.

This is not a criticism of those who like wind or solar power, because those who do have been taught to favor those approaches by a media which is largely incompetent with regard to scientific matters, and corrupt with regard to political policy. This deadly brew has resulted in a culture which embraces emotionally-laden “feel good” pseudoscience at the expense of hard-nosed but effective solutions, solutions that may actually help the environment, as well as ease the pain of our overburdened taxpayers.

Related post: “Look the the Big Picture

-Ed Walker


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An Essential Rule For Not Being A Fool

Engineers know that measured data points require context to be meaningful. For example, the total miles that a car can travel on a tank of fuel is not economically useful knowledge, unless you also know how many gallons of fuel the tank holds, and the cost of the fuel per gallon. If you know all this, you get a meaningful metric: miles traveled per dollar spent. In addition, there can be supplementary but important considerations such as safety, pollution, styling, and reliability. Therefore, to properly evaluate economic alternatives, all important factors must be converted to a baseline of total benefits per dollar.



Here are some examples of meaningless data that are commonly used to try to fool people:

Dollars spent per pupil. (The important metric is how much a student learns per dollar spent.)

“On Sale” dollars spent for a car, lipstick, sports equipment, or any consumer purchase. (The important question to ask is, “What benefit will I get from spending the dollars?” rather than concluding, “Wow, the on-sale price is much less than the normal price therefore it must be a good deal.”)

Benefits of taxing the rich 1% on behalf of the 99%: (This example is a case where both benefits and dollars spent (extracted from the rich) are difficult to properly define and determine. For example, how do you define “rich”? Is this a person or a corporation? How much money = rich? Is that earned income, or investment income, or total assets, or a combination? And should everyone who is in the 1% group be taxed more? Why not 2% or 1/2% or some other %? Also, since rich people often become poor, and the poor often become rich, how long does one have to be rich before you would say they are truly rich? Or what about someone who invents something that benefits society? What about someone who’s been poor and wins the lottery? How about an athlete who’s paid a lot of money for their physical talent? Even assuming you can arrive at a rational and moral definition for “rich 1%,” the proper question becomes: what benefits are obtained for every dollar extracted from those folks? This is a complex question not easily answered by the simplistic 1% versus 99% “fool’s chatter” that one typically hears.)

Government dollars “invested” in green energy (or education, or bridges, or whatever). (The important metric is the benefit provided per taxpayer dollar spent, where the benefit to all of the taxpayers is honestly defined and measured.)


Don’t Make Decisions or Listen to Arguments Based Only On $ Spent

A useful corollary to the above is: don’t make decisions or listen to arguments where benefits and expenditures are not clearly defined, or are distorted by appeals to envy or other emotions.

-Ed Walker


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The Economic Literacy Of The GOP Presidential Primary Candidates

As mentioned previously (It’s Just A Systems Thing: An Engineering Thinking Review Of Government As A System), there are compelling scientific reasons to minimize the size and functions of the federal government. Which of the GOP presidential primary candidates best seem to appreciate this?

(Quotes paraphrased):

Newt Gingrich: “I’m a really fascinating and smart and brilliant guy.” Newt thinks he can dream up unique ways to make the federal government run better.

Mitt Romney: “I’m a really fantastic business manager.” Mitt thinks he can manage the federal government better.

Rick Santorum: “I know how to work with Congress to get things done.” Rick thinks he can get congressional representatives to work together to better run the federal government.

Jon Huntsman: ” — おれや分からないスよ.” (Jon likes to speak Mandarin; not sure what he thinks about the economic role of the federal government.)

Rick Perry: “My goal is to make the federal government as inconsequential in your lives as I possibly can.” Rick wants to shrink the size and power of the federal government.

Ron Paul: “The federal government is out of control and we must cut its budget by a trillion dollars.” Ron wants to shrink the size and power of the federal government.

There are many issues to consider when electing a president, but if the economy were the only one, then Rick Perry and Ron Paul are the only candidates who have clearly expressed an understanding of the inherent limitations of government. The other candidates, typical of those with over-sized egos and/or a lack of understanding of basic economics, suffer from the delusion that — if only they were in charge — the federal government would finally be able to do grand things.

-Ed Walker


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Paying Their “Fair Share”: Should The Rich Be Our Slaves?

As mentioned in a recent post (“Where Is Eliot Ness?”), making decisions based simply on public pronouncements is extremely difficult, because such pronouncements are often false and misleading.

Today, for example, we hear a lot of talk about “the rich” needing to pay “their fair share” in order to reduce the U.S. deficit.  If you accept that statement at face value, it implies:

1. The rich are not presently paying their fair share.

2. Taxing the rich will reduce the deficit.

3. Taxing the rich is acceptable because they have more money than we do, and it is morally okay to take it from them and give it to the rest of us.

Even though all of the above implications are arguable, “the rich need to pay their fair share” is spoken as though it is gospel, a classic example of evoking powerful emotions (primarily envy) that bypass the brain, in order to dishonestly advance a policy position.

What can be done? Demand serious discussion based on evidence and logic. Write your congressional representative, compose a letter and send it to the editor of your local newspaper, stand up during a town hall meeting and respectfully challenge talking-point blather, or express your views (with careful research and analysis) in your own blog.

-Ed Walker


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Where Is Eliot Ness?

Eliot Ness, the lawman best known for his major role (1927-1931) in taking down Chicago mega-gangster Al Capone, was known to be incorruptible, as were his hand-picked team members (known as “The Untouchables” because they could not be bribed). Ness also helped clean out the highly corrupt Cleveland city government, weeding out over two hundred crooked police officers and public officials.

So why is ET talking about Mr. Ness? Because integrity is essential, not only for upholding the law, but also for making good decisions.


Engineers know this. We simply cannot do our work without accurate and reliable data. If it’s discovered that an engineer has falsified data, or engaged in any other deceptive behavior, they are (in my experience) always fired. Integrity is mandatory for an engineering professional.

One of the most important decisions we make is whom to elect to represent us in our federal and local governments. If politicians seeking office were subjected to an engineering design review, it would be a straightforward process; i.e. the “spinners” (liars) would be detected and rejected. Unfortunately, the method we use to select politicians is hugely corrupted by bad data, and here’s a major reason why:

You may be aware, in watching or reading the news, that politicians (or their allies in the media) often use exactly the same phrases. e.g., “taxing the rich,” “shared sacrifice,” “pay their fair share,” “balanced approach,” “drive the economy over a cliff,” “the extreme right wing,” etc. The reason these phrases sound like they are all part of a chorus is that, well, they are. “Talking points” (emotionally-laden and focus-group tested phrases) are distributed to all like-minded politicos and their friends, who repeat them at every opportunity. The idea is that the average person, upon hearing the same viewpoint expressed by many supposedly independent sources, will conclude that the viewpoint must be true.

But talking points are not based on the search for truth, they are based on the search for votes, and are simply propaganda, sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle. To the extent that the intent is to make you believe something is true when the speaker knows it is not, they are lies. Unfortunately, they are very effective, and they are extremely destructive; not just because they are false and misleading, but because they very often appeal to our worst nature (e.g. encourage us to be envious of those who make more money than we do, a position that is neither logical or moral (see “Is The President’s Reason For Taxing The Wealthy Logical?“; “Is The President’s Reason For Taxing The Wealthy Moral?“)).

Can we clean this up? Are you today’s Eliot Ness? Are you an Untouchable, the man or woman who cannot be bribed, who will always tell the truth? When you hear a politician utter an emotionally-laden smear, will you speak up and challenge them? Will you change careers or come out of retirement and run against the liars, so we can rid them from our government?

Please step forward, we need you.

-Ed Walker



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Getting It Right: Measurements and Cooking

Engineering Thinking & Cooking: Measurements Trump Opinions & Intuition

An important Engineering Thinking principle is measurement. If you ever have to choose between someone’s opinion, or your intuition, versus reaching out and actually measuring whatever it is that interests you, you are well advised to do the measurement.

Measurements, also known as empirical validation, are a part of experimental science.  They are the bottom line, the proof of the pudding, the holy grail. Two analyses in the bush are worth much less than one good experiment in the hand.

Analysis is also important, because it can expand upon and offer insights into data that are provided experimentally, or even point the way to discovery. But analysis is theoretical and arguable, whereas measurement (done properly) is not arguable.

For an example of how engineers apply the important principle of measurements to a routine task such as cooking, please see “Cooking & Measurements: Why Engineers Get It Right” in the DACI 1st Qtr 2011 Newsletter.

-Ed Walker


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PolitiFact Earns “Pants On Fire” Rating

PolitiFact Claims To “Sort Out The Truth In Politics.” They Don’t Prove It, Earning A “Pants On Fire” Rating.

PolitiFact, operated by the St. Petersburg Times, claims to be a site to help you “sort out the truth in politics.”

As we’ve mentioned before (“Internet Hazards, Junk Journalism, and Movie Malarkey: Who Do You Trust? (Part 3)“), calling yourself a fact-check organization does not make you one. Here’s how to tell, using PolitiFact as an example:

1. Does PolitiFact disclose its sources of income, if any, that may tend to bias their evaluations? No.

2. Does PolitiFact disclose the backgrounds of its reporters and editors, so the reader may account for potential bias? No.

3. Does PolitiFact state that its staff includes an ombudsman who is tasked with presenting contrary or minority views, and ensuring balance? No.

4. Does PolitiFact provide a set of criteria to ensure (a) that a representative selection of issues will be checked (balance), (b) that both sides of the issues will be reviewed (fairness), and (c) that issues will be numerically scored with regard to degrees of truth or falsity (objectivity)? No.

PolitiFact scores a big fat zero, ranking it among sites devoted to UFOs, ghosts, psychic phenomena, and other organizations that dabble in pseudoscience.

This does not mean that PolitFact is completely biased or always wrong. It does mean that they have no sound basis for claiming that their comments are anything more than mere opinion. It also means that their evaluation criteria may shift from issue to issue, perhaps allowing them to indulge in subtle favoritism toward people or issues they like, while awarding “pants on fire” ratings to those they don’t.

For example, they recently rated “government takeover,” a slogan widely applied to the Obama health care plan, as “Lie Of The Year” (Dec 16, 2010). But since they have no scientific standards for what constitutes a lie, their pronouncement itself may be “a lie” to those who define “government takeover” as severe governmental intrusion and regulation, arguably true characteristics of the Obama plan. To brand “governmental takeover” a lie, PolitiFact had to resort to equating that term with socialism, which the plan — at least initially — is  not. However, the technical distinction between complete governmental control, versus merely huge amounts of governmental control, is likely a distinction of no consequence to average citizens, who have made clear their opposition to the Obama plan.

Without standards, the PolitiFact “fact checkers” may also shift the context of an issue, trivializing important positive aspects of events they don’t like, while emphasizing minor negative or irrelevant aspects. For example, the PolitiFact front-page coverage of the massive Tea Party march (September 14th, 2009) was headlined “Tea Party photo shows huge crowd — at different event.” Disregarding the fact that the march was indeed massive and highly newsworthy, and also disregarding the fact that the fake photo they presented was never presented as an official photo by the Tea Party, they trivialized one of the most important political events of the year.

PolitiFact may not even be aware of their selective bias, and it appears they never will be, because they have no scientific standards to guide them.

-Ed Walker





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