Sunday, September 25, 2016

Technology Site Visits

I got a rare chance to have site visits to AT & T IoT* foundry, Oncor micro grid test facility and Da Vinci school on Friday, August 26. I went to the shuttle pickup place near Eisemann Center for Performing Arts in Richardson about 15 minutes ahead of time.

water fountain in from of Eisemann Center
Our first stop is AT & T IoT foundry.  The foundry director Craig hosted us. He led us first to their idea lab, which had many Lego pieces and a few printed circuit boards on a long table which led to many good questions and answers. I was particularly interested in how they generate ideas, and their process of producing market relevant innovations. We stayed in the idea lab for quite some time.

He then showed us a couple projects on how IoT is implemented in real world. One example Craig showed us was to integrate sensors onto corn seed containers. The sensors are used to monitor temperature inside the container, and detect if there is leak during transportation. The driver can monitor the tens of cases of corn seeds in his truck, and driver's monitor is wirelessly connected to a central station. A case of corn seeds is worth ~ $30K. For 10 dollar or so, the client can protect their precious asset - it is a good investment.

IoT is essentially a distributed, wire or wirelessly connected sensor network. The foundry's work is, in a nutshell, integrate existing or customized sensors into commercial products without any change to the products. The sensor carrier has to be cleverly designed to fit into product without interfering the products functions. The carriers could have very complex geometry and thus 3D printing is a very good tool for producing the prototypes in a "fast fail" process.

The foundry's main function is to solve customer IoT problems for free, especially those that clients have no idea on how to do it! Even though the development is free, AT & T got the chance to sell new products, and more importantly to make the clients use AT &T network for their IoT. It is the same as that AT & T gives out free phones to make customers use their network services - as a retired TI business manager on the trip pointed out to me.

AT & T IoT foundry idea lab
3D printing is an important tool for fast prototyping
Containers for Corn Seeds - sensors are installed on it
Our second stop was at Oncor Micro-grid test site. Oncor's chief technology officer Michael hosted us. The overview of Oncor's technology at their immersion room had a glitch - the video system did not cooperate. But the visit to the micro-grid control room was quite exciting - we were greeted by an engineer via 3D hologram! Michael explained to us how the micro-grid works - integration of different energy sources, including wind and solar power. Battery power storage plays an important role in the micro-grid. Battery technology is an area I am interested in - and thus asked several pointed questions among others.

Microgrid control board
The da Vinci School is a preschool with a focus on science education. What drew us there is that it is an exemplary place of green building.  School founding director Mary Ann led us to tour the whole school, talking about various topics at various stops, from green building materials to natural lighting, from generation of wind and solar power on site to conservation of energy, from ceiling to windows to floor.

I am a believer that we should be as "green" as possible. I asked her many questions during the tour. At the very beginning I asked her about how they dealt with original trees at the school construction site, true to the spirit of green, they kept a couple trees at the center court, moved the rest trees to perimeters - no trees were chopped during the construction of the school. At one point I asked her about how much it costed her organization to build the school, and how she raised the money, which led her to tell us her interesting life story and her perseverance to make her dream science focused green school a reality. When we stepped out of the front door of the school leaving, I asked her the question I had when we arrived at the school seeing the wind turbine in front of the school , why the wind turbine was different from most wind turbine I see in wind farms. She had the answer ready - it is the type of wind turbine designed specifically for urban area where wind direction changes constantly.

Our site visits started at 8 am and ended around 7pm. It was a very long day, but the visits were exciting, engaging, stimulating ......

the wind turbine at Da Vinci School
cut-out on the wall to show and tell

* IoT - internet of things

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Inks Lake Camping Trip

We joined five other families for Inks Lake  labor day weekend camping trip.

Inks Lake State Park is about 4 hour drive away from DFW area. It is a great place for outdoor activities - beautiful lake, many camp sites by the lake,  a particularly good place for paddling due to a large no wake zone, wandering trail through bushes and  rocky hills with a creek running in between.
inks lake
What impressed me the most about this camping trip started a couple days before the trip. On Thursday night Nick asked his mom if he could skip the camping trip with quite a few excuses. His attitude changed almost instantly when he was told that his friends Ben, Kevin, Jefferey and Andrew and their families would be joining us -he wanted to go on the camping trip now! Unfortunately he had an accident during Friday morning's marching band practice - he got a few open wounds on his legs and arms. But he still wanted to go on the trip.

Devil's Water hole trail
4 of the six tents were really close to each other
the kayak group
The boys had a great time play together  - playing cards, chat, hiking and kayaking. Even the untimely heavy rain near the end of our evening BBQ did not damp their fun. When the rain stopped, we all came out of the tents, enjoying water melon and marveling at the starry clear sky and the milky way which was clearly visible above our tents. The boys played hide and seek late into the night until forced to stop playing!!

Devil's Water Hole  - jumping off "cliff"
creek running through rock formation
The same trip, if we come by ourselves, we would have done the same type of things. The thought of coming alone made Nicholas not wanting to come. A simple change of format, took the trip with his friends, his attitude changed 180 degree, he was very engaged and had fun. This made me appreciate the obvious "format matters" so  much more after the trip. In fact I told this story as a value moment during a management meeting at work.

Another unique happening was that all of the trip participants went to kayaking or canoeing together the morning of our second day at the park. To generate some excitement, I proposed a short race among the kayaks from the devil's water hole to a rock in the middle of lake, ~ 30 yards distance. Four kayaks participated and the boys were really excited. So I asked the kayaks to line up for a "formal" race for a bit longer distance.

Of course the real fun for kayaking is to paddle along shorelines, viewing the wild life or water plants up close. Lily and I actually sneaked on a great grey heron standing by the shore, and took many pictures of grey heron from different angles, and eventually its take-off from the water when we were too close to it.

While Nick had fun with his friends, Lily and I also had some time for ourselves - kayaked on the inks lake by ourselves before the evening's BBQ the first day, watched the stars and milky way by the lake, away from our tent site after the first night's rain.

No work, no homework and no computer games ...camping gives us total mental relaxation. 

great grey heron took-off from water

standing in the valley creek
a frog on tarp
view of ink lakes from an overlook

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Visitng Dallas City Hall

Recently I got a chance to visit Dallas City Hall by way of a non-profit organization I volunteered for.
The visit included a tour of city Hall, a discussion with city staff on Resilient City Initiatives, another meeting with city Chief Technology Architect on vision of a Smart City. We also got a chance to visit city traffic control center and to talk to a senior traffic engineer. In the end we had a short meeting with Mayor Pro Tem.

It was a sunny Friday when we visited the Dallas city hall. It was my first time there even though I have been to downtown many times before. The city hall is a big 7 story complex with a beautiful pool in its front courtyard, and a view of the gorgeous downtown skylines.

walking toward the entrance of city hall
Courtyard of City and Downtown Skyline
We were greeted by city staff Kevin and Yolanda at the entrance. Kevin was our guide for the tour and Yolanda was our escort for the whole visit. Kevin gave us a brief description of the building structure and color code for each section of the complex. Then we were on the way to the flag room, where city officials conduct press conference and major civil events. There Kevin talked about its usage and the press conference about the July Shooting Police Incidents.  Another major stop was the council chamber where we saw on TV so many times. Of course the broadcast of city council open meeting on WRR 101.1. He also answered question about how a citizen can attend the open meeting. There are many picture frames in the hallways which represent different periods and aspects of city history and landscapes. There are also many wood 3D models of many city landmarks. The gift chests outside  Mayor's office is another interesting place to see.

City Hall Guides Kevin and Yolanda

Atrium of the City Hall

flag room
Council Chamber
gift exhibit
Trinity River Project Model
The more interesting part of this visit was to have meetings with city staff about major city initiatives.  We first met Katy from office of resilient city initiatives. Resilient City Initiatives are sponsored by Rockefeller Foundation, Dallas was one of the 100 cities around the world to be chosen. The foundation sponsored two positions in city hall to champion the resilient city initiatives - the chief resilient officer and an executive assistant. The resilient city office worked with existing agencies to asses city's current status, areas to work on and developed a comprehensive plan to address issues to make the city more resilient. It was a lively meeting - while she presented her materials, we had many questions for her, including quite a few from myself. Their work was really impressive and inspiring. 

A second meeting was on smart city initiatives, which was conducted by city chief technology architect Girish. His two page overview charts led to 20 minutes back and forth questions, answers and comments. I asked him about what a smart environment entails - he used the LED sensors in parking lots as an example. The sensors inform drivers if a parking lot is full or not, if not where the open parking spot is. This information will reduce the time driver drives around to find parking spot, and consequently reduce CO2 emission from vehicles. The question was that sensors and information system cost energy as well and the energy consuption can be big since those sensors are on all the time, we need a net reduction in CO2 emission to claim that the sensors equipped parking lot is really smart. He had the answer ready - in the parking lot example he gave, it was calculated that CO2 emission from cars running around would be 40K ton for a year, and CO2 emission per LED operation is less than 10% of the amount. Since I only considered the convenience of sensors and IoT before and this discussion enabled me to see the same issue and solutions from different angles and viewpoints - it is enlightening!!
Smart City Presentation
We also got a chance to talk to the senior traffic control engineer. He explained how traffic is controlled and what they to do to the traffic signals when there is an accident. How traffic signal is controlled is a question I ponder frequently during my commute - in fact through observations I know how traffic lights are controlled and typical traffic patterns on the routes I use during my typical driving time. So I had quite a few questions for him and got the answers I need. One side of the conference room wall was formed by window blinds, and at the end of the discussion, he opened the blinds and we were pleasantly surprised to see the traffic control center ...
Traffic Center
The visit to city hall ended with a meeting with Mayor Pro Tem Monica Alonzo. She introduced herself, described how she won her first election into city council 7 years ago by beating a 10 year incumbent, her passion for her constituents, how she worked through the city council politics, winning most of her legislation by building consensus with a majority ....we asked some questions and she answered and added additional comments, and the meeting was 30 minutes longer than scheduled! Doubled the time she allotted to us. We had a group photo with her at the end of our visit. Not necessarily agreeing with some of her opinions,  her ability to talk  and her passion impressed me.

This visit to city hall is much more than a tour, it included informative presentations and stimulating exchange of ideas. It gave me a glimpse of how the government works, I was pleased from what I saw and heard on this day.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Beautiful Duke Campus and Garden - by Lily

Taking up the task as chaperons for a group of kids back from Duke summer camp gave us an opportunity to visit Duke University.

Off the highway the winding road led us deep into the woods. A few more turns later the trees opened up a bit and we entered the west campus of the school. Duke is famous for its athletic programs. Of course even the tennis court is huge that we mistakenly thought as football stadium.

But what really caught my attention is its Collegiate Gothic architectural style.  From the early design in residential quadrangles to the newer buildings in academic quadrangles, all show a unique theme and consistent style. The stones used for West Campus have seven primary colors and seventeen shades of color, with some colors showing "an older, more attractive antique effect" and others a "warmer and softer coloring for an "artistic look”. The center of the west campus is Duke Chapel, which was built on the highest ridge on campus. It is an ecumenical Christian chapel built in the Collegiate Gothic style, characterized by its large stones, pointed arches, and ribbed vaults. The Chapel stands 210 feet (64 m) tall and seats about 1,800 people. Inside the chapel, the stained glass windows cast a grandiose and beautiful glow on the interior.

Walking out of the chapel, we found our way to Sarah Duke Garden. Despite having heard about its beauty, we were still taken away by its vastness, variety, and elegance. The garden consists about 55 acres of landscaped and wooded areas and is divided into 4 areas, Historic gardens, Asiatic arboretum, garden of Native plants, and Doris Duke center gardens. Following the shaded path, we saw flowers of many colors and shapes, lush bamboo, carnivorous plants, and birds and butterflies chirping and dancing. At the northwest side there’s a fish pond. Swans and ducks were paddling around. At the end of the pond a red bridge peeked out of the lush green showing off its lovely bright color. This is truly a fairy land inside the castle. It felt even better than our own Dallas Arboretum! 

I have always thought my Alma mater, Caltech, has the most beautiful campus. Duke can be the close 2nd :)

A big bird house