Archive for July, 2012

Secure Entrances

When I was wandering around DC I couldn’t help but notice they’ve been bitten by the same bug as Nashville. Whether they’re national or state, capitals are designed to be impressive and government buildings in the capital tend to be designed with an eye to impress. (At least until fairly recently.) I suppose I realize the necessity of the changes, but it makes me sad that we really can’t use them the right way now that we’re in the era of the terrorist. It has diminished somewhat over the years, but all these grand government buildings have entrances designed to impress the general public with the gravity of the work that goes on inside. These days though, we’ve been forced to relegate public entrances to the smallest least impressive ways to get into the building. All in the name of security.
Take this grand edifice for instance. The west entrance to the Capitol building is meant to be impressive. Marble columns as far as the eye can see and a stair case that makes you contemplate the power wielded inside. No doubt the view from the top is pretty impressive since it looks straight down the national mall. But notice those little columns and the chain connecting them. NO PUBLIC ACCESS from this side. You have to trek around to the east side, cross the driveway, and go down a big ramp so that you can enter from underground. Their’s nothing visible other than a blank wall with some generic glass doors.

The rest of my examples below are actually from Nashville because these are the ones I walk by every day.

Here we have the John Sevier building. Named for Tennessee’s first governor. The left side shows the nice entrance the builders intended for us to use. It has a sandstone facade and wide open windows, but these days you can’t get in that way. You have to go around the back and enter the small door underground, with no windows and a security camera staring you in the face. If you’re ever in need of state issued birth or death certificates, that particular office is just inside this dismal entrance.

Next up we have the Andrew Jackson building. Named after the first of three Tennesseans who became president of the US and home of the much loved TN Department of Revenue. The picture on the left doesn’t show it very well, but it has a nice entrance with exposed columns and floor to ceiling windows. Their is a nice plaza along the four sides of the building. Only employees can get in that way now. The public entrance is in the basement as shown on the right. No windows, no exposed marble columns. Nothing but a hallway built in the 70’s and greatly in need of refurbishment.

Last we have the William Snodgrass Tennessee Tower. This used to be owned by an insurance company and the windows on the east facade were used to spell out messages at night by leaving the lights on and selectively closing the blinds in various windows. There’s been no more fun stuff since the state bought it out and renamed it for Snodgrass who was comptroller of the Treasury for fourty-four years. The old public entrance is elevated and has an interior two level plaza with floor to ceiling windows. There’s a white marble plaza out front. These days though, the main entrance is the basement area shown on the right. Don’t be fooled by the flowers in the foreground of the picture. They’re in a concrete planter designed to keep truck bombs from getting too close. This entrance isn’t so bad on the inside, but it’s still the basement where sunlight is banished and everything is lit only by florescents. (Davidson County’s least used driver’s license bureau is also just inside.

I’m noticing a trend. The ‘safe’ entrances that we use so often these days are always underground. I’m fairly certain this is because they’re smaller and easier to control, but the symbolism is inescapable. Governments are supposed to be open and exposed for all to see the inner workings, but the only way to get inside is through the basement where there is no sunlight. It’s also highly ironic that the so called ‘secure’ entrances which are designed to see everything are in dark underground areas.

The security measures in this last photo taken at the entrance to Legislative Plaza aren’t so bad, but they get a smile from me every day.

Life size versions of these would look great on Deadrick Ave

Those squat concrete pillars are designed to keep vehicles from pulling in close to the entrance. When they were installed back in 2002 a coworker and I lobbied to have them decorated as prominent legislators. Preferably in the style of Fisher Price’s Little People line of squat toys meant for toddlers.


Read Full Post »

‘Ain’t technology grand?!?’ is my intermittent series on appreciating the little things that technology does for life. In these posts I dwell on how things are cooler now than they were back when I didn’t have gray hair, mouths to feed, creaky knees, and a pill a day pharmaceutical habit.

Okay, first up I’m going to apologize for going for the cheap (and dated) pop culture reference in the title. I couldn’t resist. Plus, that title pops a lot more than any combination of mobile gaming and universal wifi that I could come up with for the title. There really was in-air gaming involved in the inspiration for this post. I promise.

I finally talked a friend into trying Hero Academy and thought I’ve started getting a little burnt out on the game (it has nothing to do with the fact that he constantly beat me so get that smirk off your face), I had a lot of fun with it pre-burnout. This particular friend travels a lot, and he uses Southwest enough to get access to the free in-air wifi. So we were essentially going head to head while I was on a fast moving train and he was on an even faster moving plane. I’d love to go back 25 years and tell my younger self where it was all going to lead as he was excitedly unwrapping his first Gameboy under the Christmas tree.

I was excited to get that Gameboy, but I was never really that into it. There wasn’t much point in having it around since I had a much more powerful, and color, Nintendo system in my bedroom. My parents weren’t really the travelling sort, and my mom was one of those ‘turn off the game and talk to your family’ types before it was cool so the Gameboy didn’t get much play. But here I am today carrying around a phone with more computing power than my Commodore, NES, Gameboy, and eighth grade math teacher all rolled into one.

Mobile computing and wifi are technologys that would have been nearly magical twenty years ago but are practically taken for granted today. I was going to a movie a few days ago, but the ticket line was so long it was spilling into the street. So rather than spend twenty minutes waiting in triple digit heat I ducked inside the lobby, pulled out my phone, and bought a ticket online. (Then I wasted the twenty minutes standing in line at the concession stand. Hopefully I’ll be doing a post about being able to order concessions online soon. Are you listening Regal?)

I think my generation is just the right age for the online explosion we’ve experienced over the last twenty years. Young enough to adapt to new technology, but old enough to remember how it used to be well enough to truly appreciate the advances. It’s amazing to me how easy it is to go for wondrous and impressive to ho-hum and expected.

Barely related viewing (but still recommended): Snakes on a Plane in 30 seconds (reenacted by bunnys)

Read Full Post »

Today I want to continue my discussion of hydrology by showing you the simplest of all runoff models, the Rational Method.

In the interests of decreasing the complexity, most modeling methods use a lumped parameter system. Rather than accounting for the different types of rainfall loss separately they’re all lumped into one variable. Simplicity is is where the Rational Method shines.

peak flow = curve number *rainfall intensity* drainage area

You can measure drainage area from a map, and rainfall intensity is easy to look up from all the precipitation data the National Weather Service has been collecting for over a century. The key to the Rational Method is the curve number. The curve number takes into account the soil type, ground vegetation, land use, and various other factors so it’s the ‘lumped parameter’ in this instance.

The origins of the curve number are shrouded in mystery. The Rational Method was one of the earliest attempts at calculating runoff and it dates back to the first half of the twentieth century. The curve numbers were originally derived by a lot of physically measuring of both rainfall and runoff in order to develop a relationship between the two. These days it comes from a table showing the pertinent curve number for various types of land use, soil type, etc…

Selection of the runoff modeling method is largely a matter of risk. The larger the drainage area, and the more valuable the property that may be flooded, the more complex the methodology. The Rational Method is a popular method due to its ease of use, and it is considered viable up to a drainage area of about 200 acres. It is best applied in urban environments with lots of pavement and it’s most often used for small scale applications like parking lots or highway drainage. It’s not a method you’re likely to see used for reservoir design or 100 year flood modeling.

Read Full Post »

I’m a great fan of gossip and behind-the-scenes books and shows. I’m also history AND genres like science fiction and horror. So the idea that one of America’s greatest presidents was a secret vampire hunter was fascinating to me. I’ve been aware of the Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter book for some time, but I hadn’t picked up until I saw the movie come out. Both were a little lacking to me, in different ways, so this one has the makings of a good ‘Book vs Movie’ post. This is the third book versus movie post I’ve done (see previously: Psycho, and I Am Number Four). It’s very surprising to me that this is the first one that the book actually won.

The plot of both is essentially as expected based on the name. They start with young Abe who is inspired to become a vampire hunter due to the death of his mother at the hands of a vampire. Abe becomes (spoiler alert) President of the United States on the eve of the American Civil War and is commander in chief through the end. They both suppose a fairly large vampire population in the United States. The vampires have been manipulating the southern states so that they can live in the open and have a country of their own. One of the major reasons the southern states clung tenaciously to the institution of slavery was so that the vampires could have an easy source of food. The vampires manipulate the start of the war and participate even to the point of joining Confederate troops on the battle field.

The book was written in a documentary format liberally sprinkled with real and imaginary quotes from Lincoln himself. It weaves in real life historical figures from Lincoln’s time, including a Jefferson Davis dedicated to vampire domination. This style got the job done but I found it hard to really get into the story because of the text book style. The movie obviously doesn’t have that short coming, but it suffered due to the extended time period covered.

Lincoln lived to be 56, and both the book and movie cover at least 50 years of that. The movie impressively kept things moving without bogging down but the extended time jumps made it choppy and a bit difficult to follow. The book didn’t have to keep to a two hour running time so it provided much more detail and made the time transitions a little more smoothly. It also included enough real history to make it feel more realistic, but I’m not a Lincoln scholar so your mileage may vary on this point.

I enjoyed the action sequences in the movie and it used a slow motion style pretty common these days (pioneered by The Matrix). It certainly kept things interesting and Abe’s gadgets and axe handling skills were impressive albiet entirely unrealistic. I did have a bit of a problem with two points in the movie. In the first Lincoln is getting some training from his mentor Henry and manages to shatter a tree trunk in one blow (seen at the 1:18 mark in the trailer above). To me this implied some super human ability, but it was ignored for the rest of the movie. I also felt a horse chase scene was pretty unrealistic and ludicrous, and that’s saying a lot considering the expectations I had based on the movie name.

It was a close race, but I give the book the win this time. The action was a lot of fun and I enjoyed the filming style of the movie, but the choppy plot got to me in a way the book didn’t. I saw the movie before I read the book, so I may have been influenced by imagining the action set pieces as I read the equivalent passages in the book but I still give the book the nod.

If you’re contemplating one or the other, you may want to catch the movie first and see how you feel about the basic ludicrous nature of the plot. If you’re okay with that, then I would pick up the book to fill in the blanks. There’s surprisingly little repetition between the two and I had no trouble watching the movie and reading the book sequentially, which is not usually the case.

Read Full Post »

Every election year this unfailingly ends up back in my head. And I unfailingly get just as mad as I did the first time. So in the interests of getting it out of my head I hereby share it with all and sundry.

A few years back the legislature was debating passing a state income tax. This was a huge hot issue and it got a lot of people riled up and honkin’ mad. It got to the point where the block around the legislature’s office building was gridlocked with cars honking their horns for days because some local wanna-be Rush Limbaughs suggested it. A lot of state employees work within a block of that building and the noise was so bad it made it hard to work even 20 floors up so we were all a little tense for those two weeks. (I doubt anyone considered how much money was lost due to low productivity during this taxpayer tantrum, but it was one of the few amusing things about the whole situation.)

One day about half way through this circus I decided to go to lunch and encountered a couple of middle-aged idiots in front of our building yelling and honking an air horn. This was before I had kids and I hadn’t yet developed the ability to selectively ignore loud noises so I asked them to find somewhere else to honk their air horn so I could get some work done. One of these guys yelled ‘Free Speech!’ and honked the air horn in my face. That exact moment was the closest I’ve ever been to being in an actual physical fight with anyone other than my brother. I’ve never been in a fist fight as an adult, but I’m absolutely 100% certain that if I hadn’t been physically stunned by the air horn blast in my face I would have broken my hand on his face. He was saved by being half a block away by the time coherent thought entered my head again. Even then I might have ran after him if I had been anywhere other than right in front of my office where the boss might see.

This happened approximately ten years ago and it still makes me mad to think about it. I think those idiots where a precursor to the Tea Party, and that moment was the genesis of my hatred of pushy “in your face” political activism.

Read Full Post »

So now that we’re all well versed in hydrology (crawl my archives in the science or water category if you missed the previous posts), what exactly are the products of all that hydrology and what do we do with them?

Product number one is the peak flow.  Peak flow is exactly what it sounds like, the maximum amount of water flow that will move through our drainage way for a given recurrence interval.  We previously did all that work to get a flow frequency curve, so now we know what the peak flow is for a storm of any recurrence interval that we want to consider in our design.

We’re going to use the peak flow in the next part of our design process where we will take into account flow, channel size, channel vegetation, and various other factors and figure out how deep the water will be for that peak flow.  If we’re designing a bridge or other type of drainage structure we’ll use the peak flow to figure out how big we want to make that structure.

Flood Frequency Curve

A flow frequency curve can also be used in reverse.  Say for instance, you developed a flow frequency curve for the Wolf River in Memphis.  Then half of Shelby County floods as it did in spring of 2011.  You go out to the US-51 bridge during the flood and measure the amount of water then take that back to your flow frequency curve to see how bad the flood is.  That’s useful for telling people who live on the river how often they can expect the water to get that high again.

You can also use a flow frequency curve for big picture analysis like this color coded map from the USGS showing where flows are higher or lower than normal.

The other product of our hydrology study might be a hydrograph.  A hydrograph is a visual representation of how the flow changes over time at a particular location.  These are important for various reasons including charting how land use changes flood levels and determining how a tributary flood will affect the larger river it flows into (such as a flood on the Stones River affecting the Cumberland River at downtown Nashville).  Hydrographs can also be used to give advance warning to people on properties that will flood soon.

This particular hydrograph shows a single storm, with rainfall amounts also plotted.  The purple bars show the precipitation.  You can see how the water starts to rise as rainfall increases.  The flow on the hydrograph hits its highest point after the storm has ended because it takes some time for rainfall in the upper part of the watershed to runoff all the way down to the bottom of the watershed.  Then flow slowly tapers off as everything begins to dry out again.

Read Full Post »

I get a daily email designed to keep me up to date on current engineering issues. It’s a clearinghouse for infrastructure, legal, and research that the National Society of Professional Engineers thinks I should know. It’s mostly links to stories of the day, so it tends to cluster on certain issues for an extended period of time so I tend to get daily reminders of whatever engineering issue is in the public eye. Right now it’s ‘fracking’ mostly. Nuclear power was the big one for awhile after the Japan earthquake, but it’s finally tapering off.

A couple of years ago it was all about the safety issues on the Metro, the Washington subway line. There was a big accident just about exactly two years ago that killed 9 and injured 80. After the accident the Washington Post went digging and published a series on the history of unsafe practices of the Metro. A quarter of the safety staff positions were vacant. That’s a lot of empty spots in an extremely important area.

So, guess what was rushed into my head last month when the escalator spit me out on the platform of the DC Metro station at Ronald Reagan Airport? Yeah, being an engineer is usually good because I know how safe things are, but in this case not so much.

And when we were in the tunnel under the Potomac and had to stop for another train to pass, I totally didn’t think about this story a train stopped less than 35 ft from the train sitting on the tracks in front of it, and then heard the train behind him stop within 20 ft of his own train. Not even a little bit. (I did contemplate the wisdom of having the military’s administrative HQ so close to a heavily populated city, but that’s for a different post.)

Apparently it’s a bit of a problem figuring out who is in charge of the Metro since it spans local government jurisdictions in Virginia, Maryland, and the District. Not to mention that a lot of federal employees ride it and most of Congress keeps an eye on Metro since they spend a lot of time in the District. I didn’t read this part until I got back, but they’re still having the same problems two years after the big accident.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »