Wednesday, February 18, 2009

SKANSKA USA Civil's EMR rating

I just interviewed for a field engineer position yesterday at SKANSKA USA Civil. Amazing company doing great work. Known for high-quality building, and financially strong even in the down market.

Even more impressive are their safety ratings. I'm not sure how public they are with their numbers, but suffice to say that their Experience Modification Rating is almost off the theoretical charts. I had never heard of such a low rating, so I started googling, and found this 1995 publication:
Experience Modification Rating As Measure of Safety Performance. Jimmie Hinze, Dave C. Bren, Nancy Piepho. J. Constr. Engrg. and Mgmt. Volume 121, Issue 4, pp. 455-458 (November/December 1995).
EMR tells you how much a company pays on worker's compensation premiums. The lower the number, the lower the premiums that the insurance company demands, the better the construction company's safety.

The article showed that the insurance industry's equations will allow for EMRs as low as 0.30, for large firms with $0 in injury claims. But that doesn't make Skanska USA Civil's numbers any less impressive.

I requested ASCE permission to post the charts from the article, but they asked for $35 per chart or graphic that I post. So maybe I'll generate my own charts sometime. Qué lástima.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Perspectives on a Booming China

The following quote reminds me of an overzealous player in the Settlers of Catan board game. Just because a perspective is logically defensible doesn't mean it's the right advice, especially in political science.
"The best situation for the United States from the perspective of maximizing its security is to be the most powerful state in the international system."
-John J. Mearsheimer, NPR Intelligence Squared Debate, May 2007
Mearsheimer's analyses are great, except that the US's military predominance in the world is unsustainable regardless of China. Definitely unsustainable in 50 years, probably within thirty, per my gut check estimate. Check this chart made straight from data downloaded off the USDA website.

This isn't a crunchy GDP (PPP) chart either, this is real GDP. Shows how absurd it is to portray China as a threat to the US's supremacy. An average eighth-grader (5'5") may be able to boss around twenty little fifth-graders (4'8"). But four years later, the HS senior (5'9") won't be able to handle twenty HS freshmen (5'4"). (Source: CDC)

I respect Mearshimer's Offensive Realism ideas for its well-reasoned descriptive models. But, We the People of the United States of America need to take a hard look at political strategies built around the current unipolar power balance. Most of the world is industrializing its way through puberty, and we're their role model.

Americans are up for it. Mearsheimer's quote is drawn from an NPR debate over the following statement: "Beware the Dragon: a booming China spells trouble for America."

For Neutral Against
Before the debate 41% 21% 37%
After the debate 35% 6% 59%
Despite the debaters' extensive knowledge and an earnest good effort, Mearsheimer's "for" side lost ground over the debate. I was most impressed by J. Stapleton Roy's well-reasoned and impressive arguments from the "against" side.

Americans have a good sense of cooperative problem-solving and reasonable negotiating. It doesn't make us insecure to have strong friends.

Jumpbooks Not Preferred... (only in retrospect, unfortunately)

A brief story about preferences. Hope you enjoy reading it more than I enjoyed participating in it...
For my Development Economics class, I was faced with a choice of two textbook formats:
  • $70 Online format
  • $160 Standard print format
I was excited about the online format, thinking it would be a continued online resource like Ebrary, so that I could read the book on the computer or online whenever I want. And, I could even print parts of the book out. No more carrying around textbooks, just a password. So I chose the online format.
Logging into the ebook for the first time, I found that it allowed 180-day access only. If I had known this, I wouldn't have bought it in the first place. But, since I already had it, I decided not to go to the trouble to return it. I even thought that it might be interesting to learn about how e-books work.
  • Trend 1: Path dependency. I was unwilling to reverse a bad decision once it was made, and rationalized my acceptance of the second-best situation as "a good idea too."
I found the interface very cumbersome, but at least it worked. It only allowed me to print a total number of pages equal the the total number in the book, so I planned to print the book out at the library duplex printer. Thus, as I completed the first homework problem, I painstakingly copy/pasted the first case study, page by page, into a Word document and reformatted it.

A month into the semester, I decided to go print out the rest of the book. I explained the situation to the student employee working at the library print desk, who suggested I try a lightly used printer that I hadn't used before. Although the printer only printed duplex manually, he said that very few people use it, so it should run smoothly. Being a friendly sort, he printed a few test pages and walked me through the process. He asked me how many pages my document had, and I said "between 200 and 300," judging from my memory of the hardcover copy in the bookstore. That seemed fine.

After logging in and accessing the book, I started to print. Another surprise! I could only print 10 pages at a time! This ruined the manual duplex idea, because I would have to:
  • Press Print and wait for 5 pages to print
  • Walk 5 steps to the printer and take 5 pages from the output tray and place them in an manual input tray
  • Walk 5 steps to the computer and press "OK"
  • Select the next 10 pages of the document and hit Print again.
  • Quickly remove the completed 5 two-sided sheets to keep from re-inserting the wrong pages in the next step
No way to do that. Now, I'm starting to lose my patience. So, instead of walking to the regular duplex printer and printing there, I decided to just "get it done" single-sided. I tried to rationalize that single sided is annoying mainly because of the thicker space it takes up in binders, backpacks, and moving boxes, but maybe I'll only carry around the packets that I actually need to read from the printed file... This didn't sound very plausible, but I still went with it.
  • Trend 1: Path dependency. I should have changed course and gone back to the public auto-duplex printer. I would have to print in 10-page chunks anyways, which would allow other people to use the more public printer in between my many small print jobs.
  • Trend 2: Hurrying. When I began to feel that I was losing too much time, my demand for a good quality product dropped across the board in an attempt to trade-off with time. Instead of cutting my losses and getting the duplex I wanted, I pushed ahead.
  • Trends 1 & 2: Even though I actually realized after two minutes that I should switch to the auto-duplex printer, I somehow ignored my own reasoning through frustration and decided to keep printing single-sided.
After printing 200 pages over 15 minutes, I realized the book was actually more than 700 pages long. Yuck. No way I was going to spend a whole hour printing and punching the book. It was already an inch and a half thick with 200 pages, compared to the svelte inch-thick textbook in the bookstore. Yuck.
This time I was so frustrated that I quit the whole deal and walked out. I didn't even use the library 3-hole punch, which is twice as fast as the one at home. Even though I was thinking, "I should use the hole-punch," the reasoning was overcome with an overriding "That sucked, I'm not spending any more time on this."
  • Trend 1 vs. 2: As my haste overcame my path dependence, it continued to run roughshod over my well-reasoned preferences
In summation, now I have an unpunched and unbound 1.5" stack of paper sitting on my desk that I spent two hours printing and paid $70 to buy. Even just looking at it is painful. Will I even want to read it now?

At least it inspired this magnificent journal entry.

(Note: I'm not sure whether I should be especially concerned about the "killing trees" aspect because I have found that printer toner costs a lot more than the paper. If high cost usually correlates with worse environmental impact, I might reason that the environmental loss from switching from duplex to single-sided is small. But I'm not sure.)