Thursday, April 17, 2014

Neil DeGrasse Tyson at Tulane

We arrived early for Neil DeGrasse Tyson at Tulane, but barely made the overflow room.
Nola.com Summary of the talk. Excellent summary. And then the comments... Sigh ... Louisiana needs some stupid knocked out of it.

I've been poking fun at coworkers who went to LSU saying I don't think that they could have managed hosting NDT ("Dr. Tyson, what's your opinion of chicken boxing?"), while Tulane could. Tulane's Campus programming even ate his speaking fee and opened it up for the public (yes, there was a hell of a line, but kudos to Tulane).

I also want to relay a little story. Not only is Neil DeGrasse Tyson a brilliant astrophysicist and the coolest scientist alive, but he's also a tremendous human being.

We bumped into a friend of mine at the overflow room. He had his wife and ~6 year old daughter there with him. As little ones are wont to do, the daughter had to go pee 5 minutes before the event started. The wife & girl hurry off. While they are gone, Dr. Tyson darted into the overflow room, waved at everyone, said Hi, then started running back across McAllister Drive for McAllister auditorium. As he was running through the student union, he saw my friend's daughter. Dr. Tyson stopped in his tracks, turned around, ran back to the little girl, high-five'd her, turned back around, and then hustled back to start the talk. He talked for an hour and a half then took questions.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

US Attorney Commenting Scandal

A few years ago, this was heroic Jim Letten, the big-game hunter, on a float "slaying the Kraken"... now...

Comment Scandal Likely to Blow Wide Open The Lens / M. Mosley

The $th Estate Must read over at AZ... "If Jim Letten was commenting, holy fuck, was that ever dumb."

Things are about to get interesting.

On a related note, I got to attend a little Q&A session with Letten's successor, Ken Polite.


The chat was interesting.  He explained the basics of the office.  He stated 'the office is the ultimate check and balance (especially in this area) on politicians to ensure their office is not for sale.'  He talked about Danziger and how the government shutdown affected his office.  He talked about "restoring confidence in the office."  He talked about his time at Harvard ("I hate the snow").  One of the interesting things I found was he talked about how none of the previous US Attorneys in the Eastern District had ever bothered to meet with all the Sheriffs and police chiefs in their district (preferring to stick to the city and more or less ignore the more rural areas) and none had ever had a face to face meeting with the chief federal public defender (preferring a strictly adversarial relationship).  He was very frustrated with "2 decades of stagnation at the top management within the office" (while the chief US attorney turned over regularly, none of the more senior employees did, much to the detriment of the office).  One other nice quote: (talking about crime in New Orleans), "All too often, the victim and perpetrators look like me."  I even got to ask a question of Mr. Polite.  I asked, "So, what's the transition been like?  Easier or more difficult than you expected?"  He seemed to enjoy answering my question and broke it down in 2 parts: outside the office and inside the office.  He said that outside the office, he was far better received and supported than he ever dared hope, especially considering he was taking over for such a long tenured and popular chief prosecutor.  He then said inside the office was far more difficult than he expected (and he was expecting a rough road).  He says he spends an inexcusably inordinate amount of time dealing with internal personnel issues.  "Some people are supportive of change until it happens".  He said he's also only 4 months into the transition and he hopes it gets smoother.

Mr. Polite's #1 piece of advice for young people was also, "Choose your friends wisely; it reflects on yourself."

Shapeways Factory


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Higher Ed Meltown in Louisiana

First off, this email has been going around, relating to the possible merger of the schools of sciences and engineering at UNO:

Dr. Peter J. Fos, President of The University of New Orleans, is deciding right now on whether or not to merge the College of Engineering into the College of Sciences.  This merger will have a very negative impact on the engineering community for the following reasons: 

1.       The perception by the engineering community will be that engineering is no longer a priority for the university.  Until 1972 the engineering program was housed in a department within the College of Sciences.  The perception by employers before the creation of a School of Engineering was that UNO really did not have an engineering program.
2.       Parents will question the viability of the engineering programs at UNO once the news goes out that the colleges will be merged.  It is already difficult to recruit high school students to attend UNO, and the proposed action will make this task even more difficult.  The perception will be that UNO is “cutting” engineering.  We had this same problem when the last university administration proposed combining engineering programs into one general engineering program.
3.       While within Louisiana, Louisiana Tech and Tulane have combined engineering and science divisions, this action will have a huge negative impact at UNO.  Louisiana Tech, which has a College of Engineering and Science, took this action long ago as a strategic move to align the needs of the engineering programs with the mathematics, physics, and chemistry departments (they have chemical engineering).  There is still a separate College of Applied and Natural Sciences.  At Tulane the combination of engineering and sciences has resulted in a reduced emphasis on engineering.  All other engineering programs in the state are housed in Colleges of Engineering.
4.       The New Orleans area needs an engineering school located in New Orleans.
What can you do? 

1.       Contact Dr. Peter J. Fos, UNO President, and give him your opinion on this merger.  His contact information is:
a.       Direct Telephone 504.280.5536
b.      Fax 504.280.6872
c.       Email pfos@uno.edu
2.       Contact our local politicians as follows:
a.       Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans – 504.658.4800 or mayor@nola.gov
b.      John Young, Jefferson Parish President – 504.736.6405 or JohnYoung@jeffparish.net
c.       Senator Conrad Appel – 504.838.5550 or appelc@legis.la.gov
d.      Other local parish or state legislators who you may know
3.       Contact your company Human Resources Manager or Supervisor and express your concern to them and ask them to intervene in your behalf.
As past Chairman and Member of the UNO Engineering Advisory Board (comprised of every major corporation in the area) for over thirty-five years, I cannot stress enough the importance of your voice in this proposed merger. 

Sincerely,
Michael S. Benbow, P.E.
C.E.O.
M S Benbow and Associates
Direct 504.836.8976
The merger idea has been shelved, but the layoffs have now started and I'd like to add my thoughts as a current grad student.  

Everyone knows that Jindal has axed $700 million (and counting) from the higher ed budget in Louisiana.  This has hit all state universities extremely hard.  Even LSU has not been immune; LSU has shrunk from 33k+ students down to around 28k students, with hundreds of faculty departing.  Until this year, LSU faculty had not had a raise in 8 years.  Within the UL system, faculty haven’t had a raise in 7 years.  You’re not going to retain your best staff under those conditions, period. I highly recommend this piece from The Advocate: "Rising Tide".  It notes that LSU's out-of-state enrollment has plummeted, while Alabama's has soared.    

 
UNO has a couple of additional factors working against it.  First, before Katrina, UNO was 17k+ students.  After Katrina, they took an enormous hit in enrollment (the city’s population was halved for a long period after the storm). 
 
Second, the registrar had a policy of academic probation if students didn’t keep their grades up.  If they didn’t pull up their grades the following semester, they were banned from registering the next semester and were forced to reapply. This policy was on the books for decades, but was unenforced until recently.  When the new registrar announced that they’re following that policy to the letter of the law, they kicked 800 students out in a single semester. 
 
Third, UNO has implemented admissions requirements that aren’t terribly high, but Louisiana’s high schools (public, private, and parochial) aren’t capable of preparing them adequately. When UNO started requiring a 19 on the math portion of the ACT*, only 8,000 seniors per year in Louisiana were capable of meeting that.  Once again, that number INCLUDES private and parochial schools in Louisiana (which have substantial enrollment).  That’s the entire pool in the state that can meet that (frankly, pretty low) threshold.  If you want to be an engineering student, you’ll need to do much better than that to make it to graduation.  The biggest problem with the low pool is not necessarily the public schools in the Baton Rouge/New Orleans corridor; it’s the rural schools in Louisiana.  The math scores at the rural schools frankly suck (public, private, and parochial). 
 
With all these factors combined, the enrollment at UNO has plummeted from 17k+ to ~9k currently.  Applications have remained strong, but they’ve taken a few serious hits along the way. 
  
The state also has a lot of universities all over the place.  We spend as much money supporting universities in such metropolises as Ruston, Hammond, and Monroe as we do supporting UNO in New Orleans, yet the overwhelming majority of the state’s population resides in the New Orleans/Baton Rouge corridor. 
 
Jindal has, in essence, privatized the state university system in Louisiana.  Instead of fully privatizing them, there’s still state restrictions on the schools though.  The universities aren’t allowed to set their own tuition.  There are other restrictions, for example there are 9 semester hours of English and 3 hours of biology required for all students.  The average degree is ~120 semester hours; that’s 10% of the time at the university that’s dictated by the state legislature.  If fully freed from restrictions, UNO could probably survive on its own.  Also, keep in mind, as bad as it is for UNO, there are other schools in far more dire straits.  In the UL system, only Grambling has managed to balance its budget for the coming year.  LA Tech faces an even bigger deficit than UNO (nearly $2 million in the red at LA Tech for the current year). 
 
The previous university administrations had kicked the can down the road and met the previous budget problems with shifting reserve funds around and hocus pocus, without fundamental changes to the university.  In their defense, they were assured by the Jindal administration they wouldn’t have to suffer through the cuts year after year and it would pass.  So, they put bandaids in place.  Now the bandaids have burst, blood is gushing out, and the new university administration is desperate to stem the tide.  President Fos is a big improvement over the previous administrators and strongly supports science and engineering at UNO, but he doesn’t have a lot to work with at the moment
  
As both State Treasurer Kennedy and Clancy DuBos have recently said, UNO built a good chunk of the middle class in New Orleans.  Education, at all levels, is your primary investment in the future.  What’s going to happen next? 
 
The state has money. Oil prices are up and there's enough money for Jindal to hand out a $4m no-bid efficiency study. For that same amount of money, UNO could more than double the budget for the college of engineering.  

Long term, I'm actually fairly optimistic for UNO.  UNO is still a very good value, but tuition has gone up more than 50% since 2008 (and that’s before Jindal announced he’s allowing the universities to start raising tuition 10% per year to raise funds++). UNO’s out of state tuition is still less than in-state tuition at the California schools.  It offers in-state rates to certain out of state students with good test scores.  If UNO gets through the next few years, I'm optimistic that they'll start to put these problems behind them.  

I'm less optimistic for LSU and here's why: BR Chamber of Commerce plots the death of TOPS.  I've read 80% of LSU students are there on TOPS.  Under that Chamber proposal, if you look at the ACT statistics*, TOPS would be cut off from 89% of Louisiana high school graduates.  The Legislature has been plugging state Higher Ed funds into TOPS year after year to feed the monster, only to discover the following year, the beast is still hungry, partly because the state universities now have less state funding (quite the vicious circle).  Either late in Jindal's term or very early in Jindal's successor's term, TOPS is either going to need a substantial infusion of revenue or Pat Taylor's dream will slowly wither and die.  LSU will not survive the fall of TOPS, at least, not as a flagship university.  

__________________
* ACT Statistics for Louisiana in 2012 here.  Look through those numbers.  

++ I still have yet to see a list of "favored majors" under the WISE Act.  The WISE Act is still a very empty proposal thus far.  

Sunday, February 16, 2014

I got SPANK'd on Bourbon Street


Ugh.  At least I'm nowhere near as hung over as I rightly deserve to be.  

First time marching in KdV (ref'd last year).  I need to remember next year to include a zipper in the costume next year.  

The KdV crowds were (I think) larger than last year, yet much better behaved.  

I'm going to back to my coffee now.
Scanned SPANK Map of DizneyLandrieu 

More KdV

Ballgagged Putin & Bear
Marcher's Perspective
Glitter Bukkake

Krewe du Vieux 2014

Monde Du Merde has your year in review.

Dizney Landrieu's Magical Gentrified Kingdom






Friday, February 14, 2014

Nagin gets the Taiwanese Animation treatment


Actually not that far off from how he actually governed.  (H/T @skooks )

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Courtwatch, BP Edition, Part 2

Courtwatch, BP Edition, Part 1

Part 2:

The main portion of the trial concerns civil liability and Clean Water Act fines, etc.  Ed Crooks of the Financial Times has been covering the trial extensively.  There's also been periodic tweeting/writeups from Mike Schleifenstein and others with the TP.  One TP reporter (Richard Thompson) jumped ship to The Advocate and has headed up their coverage.  

There's been plenty of coverage of the main trial.  Billions of dollars are at stake.  Much hinges on how Barbier rules. Louisiana, for example, is putting most of its hopes of funding coastal restoration on the trial.  

I've attended, off and on, since the first day of the trial.  I've by no means attended nearly as often as the reporters covering the trial.  I usually follow their tweets as much as I can, but they're getting a more complete picture than I can try and portray.  What I do have that few others in the room have is an engineering background; when an expert witness describes how he set up his OLGA model, I'm the only guy in the room whose eyes won't glaze over.  

I'll just add a few insights from the first phase of the trial for now:
* First off, I was shocked at the number of lawyers who were taking advantage of the WiFi to check up on their Facebook pages in the middle of Barbier's courtroom.  I've been told by a friend that those were likely the BP Corporate Counsel who are only attending the trial because they have to.  They're basically around to sign checks and make sure nothing goes too far off the rail.  All of the actual trial litigation is contracted out.  
* Speaking of contracted lawyers, BP decided to recruit their main lawyer on Phase 1 from Bear Bryant's Alabama football team.  Let me tell you, football players make great lawyers.  
No, not really, he made a total mess of the trial.  It was embarrassing how often he was unprepared or late or just plain wrong.  I realize that "whoever wins the most objections" doesn't win a trial and that many objections are brought up knowing they won't be sustained by a judge, but Brock batted below the Mendoza line on objections.  He always seemed to walk around with complete confidence in himself, no matter what, though.  He probably knew how much BP was pumping up his bank account.  Fortunately for BP's shareholders, he was shunted off to the side in the second phase of the trial, but he made a mess of the first phase, in my (non-lawyer) opinion.  
* Dr. Bea testified early in the first phase.  His health is going downhill, but he's still amazing to listen to.  BP attacked him pretty hard at the end of his testimony, but didn't land a single hit (IMO).  
* The most interesting portion of the first phase of the trial was the duel between two expert witnesses: Dr. Bourgoyne and Dr. Alan Huffman.  Dr. Bourgoyne wrote the book on drilling engineering and is Professor Emeritus at LSU in Petroleum Engineering.  Dr. Bourgoyne was BP's expert witness, but the Feds coaxed plenty of testimony out of him highly damaging to BP, IMHO.  Dr. Alan Huffman is a geophysicist and arguably the world's leading expert on pore pressure prediction.  Dr. Huffman was an expert witness for the Feds. What I found extremely interesting was Dr. Huffman and Dr. Bourgoyne went at each other like two bulls in a pasture only big enough for one.  They had multiple rebuttal reports to each other's findings.  Here's one of Dr. Huffman's I found online.  All of the reports are out there if you go searching for them.  It blew me away that you'd have two experts at the top of their field banging away at each other like that.  The thrust of Dr. Huffman's testimony was BP drilled in a reckless manner, even before the failed cement job began.  The thrust of Dr. Bourgoyne's testimony was BP operated with standard industry practice up until the cement job, then there some recklessness occurred (he sort of waffled around on whether he thought it was gross negligence).  He did say  it was the worst job at kick detection he'd seen in his entire life (a good drilling crew will detect a kick in under 6 barrels; on Macondo, over 600 barrels entered the wellbore before any action was taken).  Some of what each said at the time went over my head, but I was actually attending a graduate level petroleum engineering course at the time and would ask the professor in that course for background and could then later put the pieces together better.  I have no opinion in which was more right, but both made great points (neither was all that helpful to BP) and I was honored to have heard both testify.   If you want to listen in person to Dr. Huffman talk about pore pressure prediction and fracture gradient (which was also his primary expertise at the trial), you can go to the Tulane Engineering Forum on April 4th.  When Dr. Huffman and Dr. Bourgoyne were testifying, I had a lot of crappy Subway at my desk, but it was worth it to hear every minute I could.  I learned a lot.
* Judge Barbier's handling of the trial was magnificent in my opinion.  He worked very, very hard to keep all the personalities in line.  This trial could easily have blown up into a giant circus.  He hasn't hesistated to step on toes in order to bring lawyers to heel.  He's also been a marathon runner as far as pushing forward and not taking every little excuse for a recess or an early 2-hour lunch.  His handling of the trial, just from a logistical standpoint, has been masterful.  Furthermore, when he asks witnesses questions, they are short, insightful, and more than once I found him asking a question I wanted asked.  Thus far, he has done just about the best job you could reasonably ask a judge to do.  


I'll try to do an update on the second phase later.  I also hope I've separate my opinion on what occurred vs. what actually occurred well enough.  

Note:  Some minor changes after publishing for clarity.

Courtwatch, BP Edition, Part 1

So, one thing about living in a democracy is that the courts are open to the public.  Anyone can walk right in and (so long as you are well behaved) observe the proceedings.  No star chambers in this country (Welp, maybe NSA excluded).  

Anyway, what I wanted to talk about is a case that's very important going on right now.  No, not the Nagin trial.  The various BP trials have been going on for the past few months at the Federal Courthouse on Poydras.  One of the largest, most profitable corporations on earth is on trial and any member of the public can come in and watch the proceedings.  

There have been 4 main public trials thus far:

1- The USCG/MMS Board of Inquiry, held partly at a hotel in Kenner and broadcast on CSPAN.  Not really a trial and the final report isn't (directly) admissible in court, but somewhat similar.  I was at home sick for a few days and watched a substantial portion of it and was amused at expensive corporate defense lawyers trying to file objections during the proceedings only to have the Coastie running the proceedings to sit down and shut up.  One of the BP lawyers in the proceedings popped up quite a bit later.  

2- The main portion of the BP trial is going on at the federal courthouse on Poydras and Judge Barbier is supervising the proceedings.  Barbier has been extraordinarily open with the proceedings, as this Lens report details.  An overflow room with WiFi, live transcripts... Barbier is bringing a very stodgy bench into the 21st Century.  

Phase 1 focused on dividing the liability between the defendants: BP, Halliburton, Transocean, and (to a lesser degree) Cameron and Weatherford.  

Phase 2 focused on how much oil flowed (since many of the fines are on a per barrel basis) and how quickly BP acted in stemming the flow.  One interesting caveat of the second phase: it was everyone vs. BP; Halliburton, Transocean, etc. joined forces with the government to bang on BP.  

Phase 3 has yet to happen.  

No final rulings (liability, flowrate, etc.) out of the main trial have been made to date by Judge Barbier.  

3- The trial of Kurt Mix, a BP engineer who was not involved in drilling Macondo, but was involved with the capping of the well.  He was accused (and convicted) of obstruction of evidence.  There's also the somewhat related guilty plea of a Halliburton manager named Anthony Badalamenti .  

4- The (yet to begin) trial of the two BP company men on the Deepwater Horizon on manslaughter charges (amongst other charges).  February 5th is the start of that trial.  Judge Duval will handle that trial.  

I actually got to attend some of the trials in person.  I'd take off a bit early for lunch, walk over, listen to the trial, and then (depending on how much time I had left), choke down some lunch and walk back.  Some days, particularly during some of the more interesting testimony, I dawdled and was reduced to eating a crappy Subway sandwhich at my desk :-( .  

I'll start with describing the only trial to reach a conclusion first.  Kurt Mix was accused of obstruction of justice by the Feds.  Mix was one of BP's point men on the capping of the well.  He allegedly deleted emails that involved the flowrate estimation and made it harder for the Feds to make their case in Phase 2 of the main trial.  Loren Steffy, the accomplished energy journalist for Forbes and the Houston Chronicle, wrote up this background on the case as Mix's trial was about to start. Steffy wrote that the "Curious Case of Kurt Mix" didn't look like it would go well for the Feds.  

I only attended the Mix trial once, but it was very illuminating.  Judge Duval ran the proceedings.  Whereas Barbier was a bit cerebral, Duval was kind of frumpy and reminded me almost of a plumber.  Duval was fairly laid back in his management of his courtroom.  I walked into the courtroom shortly after reading the Steffy writeup and expected to see the Feds falling on their face and OH BOY WAS I WRONG!  

The prosecution team was led by a young white (Asian? his back was turned) prosecutor that I'd seen in the main trial.  He was sharp as a tack and led a devastating attack on Mix.  The prosecution was using Mix's responses on "radio buttons" relating to document retention in the aftermath of Macondo.  In a way, Mix was testifying against himself.  The prosecutors were outlining all the resources BP made available to help retain documents critical to trial.  The obvious message to the jury was Mix failed to take advantage of everything that was at his disposal.  What was also surprising is the main witness for the prosecution was BP's own in-house counsel for document retention.  A BP lawyer was throwing a BP engineer under the bus!  BP has been in the news lately for allegedly screwing over their own employees on their pensions, so I guess it isn't that surprising that one BP employee would throw another to the wolves like that, but I guess I figure I'd see them look out for their own a little better.  I guess not.  It ain't for nothing the Feds average an almost 90% conviction rate.  I learned subsequently that the lawyer leading Mix's prosecution was based out of DC and not locally.

In contrast to the prosecution lawyers, Mix's own lawyers weren't very impressive at all.  This is just my opinion and I might be wrong, but I got the sense that Mix knew things weren't going well and was leaning over to his lawyers for reassurance, and his lawyers were telling him, 'oh yeah, we've got those Feds on the ropes' (meanwhile, they're getting shellacked).  Memo to engineers: if you do screw something up don't hire your cousin Vinny to defend you.  It's better to be paying off big legal bills after an acquittal than to be spending time in the slammer.  After the conviction on 1 of the 2 counts, Mix's lawyers have filed motion after motion trying to get out from under the conviction, but I get the sense that they're trying to compensate for being so lackadaisical in the courtroom (you know, where it actually could have made a difference for Mr. Mix).  

Going on in parallel to the Mix trial was the plea of Anthony Badalamenti, a manager at Halliburton.  Mr. Badalamenti earned a civil engineering degree at Tulane in 1979 and apparently learned enough about cement to become the manager of Halliburton's Cementing Technology division by the time Macondo hit.  He plead guilty to ordering two subordinates to run simulations on whether or not the number of centralizers used on the Macondo cement job were very important to the performance of the cement job (answer: not very) and then to destroy the results of those tests and not turn them over as a part of the Macondo investigation.  There was a lot of talk about the centralizers during the USCG/MMS BoI, but they ultimately concluded that it wasn't a very big deal.  Halliburton did spend a lot of time promoting the 'BP didn't listen to our advise' theory and using the centralizer to bolster their case.  Badalamenti's actions didn't help, but ultimately didn't effect the outcome.  As a result, Judge Zainey was in a forgiving mood and handed Badalamenti a $1000 fine and probation.  "I'm truly sorry for what I did," said Badalamenti.  That was quite nice of Judge Zainey.  

If Mix had chosen to cooperate more, you have to wonder if he'd have gotten Badalamenti's generous treatment.  If Mix had better lawyers, he might have gotten off, like Steffy and myself was expecting.  Instead, he was the first individual convicted in relation to the Macondo Blowout.  

Note: some minor edits for grammar and spelling.