Tuesday, February 10, 2004

I didn't Plan it that way...

I’m a planner and scheduler. I’ve worked on everything from petrochemical plants to software implementations. I think most people understand the planning process even if they don’t follow it formally. For instance, in planning jargon there is what’s known as a Finish to Start relationship between two work activities. This essentially means that the first activity (the predecessor) must finish before the second activity (the successor) can start. In a cogeneration power plant the boiler is housed in a frame made up of structural steel columns and beams. The installation of the structural steel, also known as hanging steel, is performed by ironworkers (you've seen those crazy guys that like to walk across 10 inch wide beams hundreds of feet in the air). Yet before they can begin hanging steel they obviously need a foundation on which to put the steel. So the installation of the concrete foundation must be finished before the hanging of the steel can start. The foundation has a finish to start relationship with the hanging of the steel. You can see this relationship in many everyday activities: I heat the pan and then fry the egg; I spray the starch and then iron the shirt; and so on. Now you’ve probably driven by many a construction project, and even though it seems like they take a very long time to complete, there is usually an incentive to finish them as quick as possible. After all, the sooner a power plant is on-line the sooner the owner is making money. So when the project is being planned out, and a schedule created, it is in the best interest of those involved to plan activities to take place as soon as possible. If the concrete foundation has been poured and is ready for structural steel, but the steel is still weeks away from being fabricated and even more weeks away from being delivered… well, don’t expect the Construction Manager to be on the job much longer. An interesting feature of these two activities is that even if the foundation was not ready for the steel to rest on, the steel could still be delivered to the site and placed in a laydown yard until needed. The point is that a well planned schedule must take into account the timing of activities that, although they have a finish to start relationship, may have no necessary relation to each other. Although the steel must rest on the foundation, the pouring of the foundation has no direct relation to the fabrication of structural steel. But do we need to have everything on site as soon as possible? Not necessarily. There are some items that we don’t want to have on site as early as possible. The fact that they show up precisely when needed (as opposed to precisely when available) is another feature inherent in the design aspect of the plan. Take, for instance, the computer driven control system for a power plant, typically known as a Distributed Control System (DCS). Now like the foundation / steel scenario, the installation of the DCS is a successor to the construction of the control room; but the fabrication of the DCS is not dependent on the construction of the control room. However unlike the foundation / steel scenario, if the DCS were completed weeks prior to the construction of the control room it would not be delivered to the site. The reason for this is that the DCS, being delicate computer equipment, is much more susceptible to the environment than structural steel. It would be detrimental to have it arrive early at a jobsite where there was no safe environment to store it. Its proper arrival time is an indicator of an additional constraint based on its physical characteristics. So what I’ve laid out here is this: 1) A well made plan takes into account the objective, the culmination of the project, and is designed to achieve that culmination in the least amount of time, 2) Within a well made plan we should see instances where successor activities start as soon as possible after their predecessor activities, and 2.1) Although certain activities may well start earlier than planned, there survivability mandates that they start only when the prescribed environment with which they were designed to operate is ready. How do these aspects square with what we know about the history of planet Earth? If our Plan scenario is correct, then we should expect to see events within the history of life on Earth to be carefully timed. We should expect to see events within the history of the formation of our solar system and that of the universe to also be carefully timed. This careful timing should have a goal or a culmination – mankind. It is the argument of those at Reasons to Believe that the 13.7 billion year age that our universe is understood to be is, in fact, the shortest amount of time required for advanced life to show up – given the constraints of the laws of physics. If our Plan scenario is correct, then we should expect to see events occurring in the record of nature as soon as they are physically possible regardless of the probability of their occurring. The appearance of life on planet Earth is testament to this. The Earth was in a molten state up to about 3.85 billion years ago yet life first appeared at 3.86 billion years ago. This is definitely a finish to start relationship and bears the characteristics of a well made plan. If our Plan scenario is correct, then we should expect to see critical events occurring in careful synchronization with independently occurring events. The Cambrian Explosion, approximately 543 million years ago, is evidence of an event that was carefully timed. In it we see entire new phyla of advanced life forms appear in a geologic instant. This after approximately 2 billion years of surface preparation by bacteria and plate tectonics. Critics complain that an omnipotent Designer should not be constrained by physics and that he could zap everything into existence at his bidding. Therefore, they say, virtually any data we discover would constitute evidence for a Divine Creator. I’ll address that in a future post.

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