Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Metro vs MRT

        What I noticed about Madrid that probably no one else did is that the Metro is way behind the current technology elsewhere.  I came to Madrid from Taipei, where they have a state-of-the-art system of scanning RFID cards and a better layout overall.  While the Madrid Metro is nice and I wouldn’t blame anyone for saying so if they did not know better, I know that it could definitely be improved.

        The Taipei MRT got several more seats into each car with some rearrangement, and it also had many handles hanging down in between those seats for standing passengers between the long rows.  My engineering mind is always calculating the shortfalls when I ride in a train.  The Madrid Metro has a bar that makes you reach your arm up uncomfortably high, resulting in painful long trips.  It is also missing enough handles to even hold between the seats, which makes people fall if it’s too busy.  This never happened to me on the MRT in Taipei, and it’s interesting that the cultural switch I experienced allowed me to notice these things.

        Also, I have heard that the capability for RFID scanning is being developed for Madrid, but one of the cultural things I’ve noticed is that Spain is slow on the uptake for many things.  Maybe that has something to do with the two hour lunches and siestas that are common everyday, and I have a feeling that has an effect on their economic situation right now, too, though I can’t be sure.

San Anton Market

As a civil engineering (building science) major, I have learned to analyze the structural system, layout, and aesthetic qualities of buildings and other major forms of infrastructure. In Madrid, a city filled with hundreds of years of rich architectural history, there is plenty to see and study. Most of these are obvious, such as the various plazas (Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor), the Palace, the parks (Retiro, Parque del Oeste, Parque de la Montana), among others, and some are more subtle. On a recent walk around the city, I visited the Mercado San Anton, in the Chueca neighborhood. Unlike Mercado San Miguel outside Plaza Mayor, this one is divided into 3 floors, the first with market vendors, the second with tapas shops, and the third is a restaurant with a great terrace seating area overlooking the city. Although the food offered for sale within the market is enough to make it worth the visit, what I enjoyed the most was the building itself. It is an honest structure, made of steel and concrete, and brick. There are no true walls inside the market itself, featuring instead glass partitions. My favorite part is the incorporation of steel cables into the design, as a connection between the various floors and structural components. As you can see in the picture below, the lights for the first floor are suspended from a cable system installed from the third floor. Looking down through the center of the space, the cables form an interesting geometric pattern, and add dimension and visual interest to an otherwise empty space. While they are aesthetic, they are also true to the form and structure of the building and its components, and aren’t merely an embellishment. The best designs are honest, and the honesty and variety of the San Anton market make it one of my favorite places in Madrid.

Ben Harstad
WRIT 340
Engineering Blog Post

            Being an Industrial & Systems Engineer, before we were given this assignment I had noted the complexity involved with designing and coordinating the subway system.  The efficiency of the metro is a remarkable accomplishment, in the sense of how fast they move, the large area covered by the subway lines, the incredibly short intervals between trains, and planning all this to ensure that trains are on time and don’t collide.  One of the most important yet difficult engineering aspects to account for involved with the metro system is the number of passengers that will be expected at any time of the day on a certain day of the week at a certain stop along a certain line.  Once the estimate is made, the engineers must take into account the passenger capacity of each train and base the time intervals upon those calculations.  The difficulty in this relates to the fact that because the trains cannot collide, the frequency of the trains must slowly yet steadily increase or decrease to match peak passenger hours.  If the coordination of the system is done properly – which it has been in Madrid – you end up with a metro system which has frequent trains that service a majority of the city during a large portion (19.5 hours) of the day.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Little Wooden Box

I know that this blog is supposed to be about some crazy feat of engineering, or something incredibly clever that many people see, but only a few notice. I guess I kinda found something related, it might not be engineering, but it definitely made me more curious than anything else I had seen all trip.

In my apartment, in the kitchen, on the wall, there is a little wooden box with 8 squares, with each square covered by glass. It perpetually showed the number "3" in the third square. I didn't notice it until one day it also showed a '5' and a '6' in the 5th and 6th squares respectively. I looked at it for a second, saw a button on the bottom, pushed it, and the numbers reset, but then the "3" fell right back into place. I inspected it a little further and saw a cord attached to the wall behind it followed it down, and the cord went behind the little wooden box. I thought that was the source of the signals, and now I would need to follow the cord. That is at least until I noticed that the cord also came out of the bottom and into a phone hung right beneath the box. I thought to my self, "That's it, whatever that phone is used for".

The realization that the phone and box had something to do with on another was enough for me to carry on with my day. I had just assumed it was some odd answering machine, or maybe it counts the numbers of missed calls (By this point I assumed the "3" was just broken). Cut to a day later, when some friends came over, and once again the "5" was there. I noticed it, asked my roommates if they knew what it was, and when they didn't have a response, I carried on with my night. About an hour later, when somebody who said they were running late finally made it, they rang the bell downstairs for us to ring him in. I have never done this before, and fiddled with the system until I realized that the phone wasn't a land line connected to a network, but instead a means of communicating with the person who just rang the bell.

This realization, and the observation that none of the numbers change really perplexed me. Once everyone had left, I wished them "buenos noches", and went straight to the box. All I saw was a single tiny screw on the right of the box that was no bigger than an aglet (The plastic part of your shoelace). I found a screwdriver and without even caring that it wasn't even technically my apartment, I took out the screw, and opened the little wooden box.

Inside were the numbers 1-8, each with an odd device behind them. When I pushed the same button that reset the numbers, a bar was pushed up, and it set the numbers that were on hinges above a tiny ledge where they would stay unless the odd device was pushed in a little. I then realized that these odd devices were electromagnets, and when a current is sent through them, they retract, and the number falls down. Now I only had to figure out what signals the currents were attached to.

I called in Greg, and showed him what I had found. We both discussed for a minute or so, and then I saw the light bulb go off in his head. He turned around, and before he even finished his 180* I knew what it was too. Our apartment had been scaring us all week because we have these buzzers in each room, and occasionally they would go off. I stayed at the box, and sure enough, Greg went to each room, and pressed each button. These buzzers were room specific, and each room would show a number on the box. One room didn't do anything, which is when we noticed that a set of wires on top were missing, most likely meaning that those wires ran all the way through the apartment.

We were happy that we now know how it worked, but what bothered us now was that we had no idea why it existed in the first place. After a little discussion about the oddities of our place, we finally came to the conclusion that this place had maids or butlers of some sort at some time. These signals were for the other people who lived in the house to signal, and the number was for which room. This would explain why there was a separate entrance, with a separate, smaller, older elevator leading to it.

We were once again happy, and put the box back together. Proud of our accomplishments, we grabbed a beer, and we gave a toast. "To the little wooden box!"

In the entire city of Madrid, with it's vast Metro, amazing architecture, grand reclamation projects, and massive sky rises, a little wooden box is what caught my attention the most. There might be something wrong with me. Also, there might be something wrong with the person who would call the butler while in the bathroom.

Space Saving Engineering

As we've found, our apartments around Madrid are quite petite. Because of the small spaces, many locals in Madrid spend a lot of their time outside of their homes. This is perhaps why the parks and plazas around the city are so populated and comfortable to sit and spend a few hours in. Still, it is necessary for people who live in Madrid to save space within their apartments. The houses here are filled with space-efficient, functional things. For example, the desks in my apartment are attached to the wall, but you can push to the side the support and fold them so that they don't take any space at all. This is convenient because when you want to work, you open up the desk, and when you are done you can use the space for anything else you'd like. The kitchen is a closet and can be closed off to make the dining room look roomier. The tall ceilings give an added feel of larger spaces, and strategically placed mirrors do the same. All of these space savers seem to do little but when put together, they make a significant difference in making living the small spaces feel more comfortable. When it was built, the engineers and decorators put a lot of thought into making the housing feel larger. Though the locals in Madrid do spend a lot of time outside of their homes, these little things make it so that they can make the most out of the space they have and make their living space more comfortable.

Monday, May 28, 2012

El Metro Engineering

There are so many things to see in Madrid just walking around the city.  Almost all of these places involve use of some sort of engineering.  To me, the most notable engineering marvel is the subway system called The Metro.  The Metro in Madrid is extremely efficient and fast moving; qualities rarely attributed to something in Spain.  However, the Metro is somewhat of a marvel to me for other than the obvious reasons.  In fact, the thing that most impressed me about the Metro is very small yet completely ingenious.  I discovered a need for this particular piece of ingenuity when I was traveling in London prior to my trip to Spain.  When the trains get crowded in the London Underground, affectionately called the Tube, there are people left standing and crowding for space around the few available poles to hold on to.  In Spain, some engineer has come up with the most simple but effective solution to this problem.  They created a pole for people to hold on to that has three prongs.  In other words, the pole begins from the floor as one, splits into three separate poles and then comes back together at the top to form one pole again.  This design is perfect because it give the passengers three times more area to hold on to while minimizing the space it takes up.  In addition, the prongs come together at the bottom to prevent clutter on the floor and maximize space for people to stand.  Although these poles have been yet to be installed in all of the trains, I believe that these poles greatly increase the capacity and therefore efficiency of public transportation in Madrid and that other heavily populated cities like London could greatly benefit from using this technology.

I will never take the L.A. metro again

    As a foreign student studying in Madrid, I have found that the easiest and cheapest way to get around has been the metro.  Most people realize how efficient the system is, but I think few people stop to think how detailed the engineering is that makes the system so efficient.  I myself am an Industrial and Systems Engineer, and much of what I learn about is how to make systems to a certain specification while minimizing variables such as cost and time.  Looking at the metro, I see an ideal example of what kind of systems ISE’s try to create.  When you first get into the metro, you’ll see that there are signs everywhere.  The signs tell you which way to go to catch a specific line, which stops the line serves, and which transfers are serviced by those stops.  As long as you know which stop you end on and what transfers you need to take if any then you’re good to go.  In addition, once you get off the metro there are signs that let you know which direction to go to exit onto certain streets.  The whole system is very simplified, which saves people time because they don’t have to spend the extra time figuring out where they need to go like they would need to in the L.A. metro.  In L.A., you have to know the color line you need to take since one track can serve multiple lines, and you need to know the last stop of the direction you need to take on that line in addition to what stop you want to get off at and any transfers you need to take.  That’s two extra pieces of information you have to know, which can cause confusion.  The very first time I took the metro in L.A., I knew I had to take the red line, but I accidentally took the purple line, which set me back an extra hour.  In contrast, the very first time I took the metro in Madrid, it took me about 30 minutes to get to my apartment, and it has taken me 30 minutes every time since.  After awhile I have also noticed that the frequency of trains decreases during less busy times of the day, which cuts costs of operation.  They also have ticket stalls that only let you pass if you have a valid ticket.  This seems like a perfectly logical part of a metro system, but the L.A. metro doesn’t do this.  Trains come every 15 minutes throughout the day in L.A., which is really inconvenient and discourages people from taking the metro. Even though it’s illegal, it’s easy to just walk on to the train without a ticket because there is nothing enforcing people to have a valid ticket, which causes the cost of running the L.A. metro to be way higher than it should be.  Overall, the brilliant engineering that was put into the Madrid metro has created a convenient system that has encouraged both myself and others to explore the city of Madrid. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Trains! Trains Everywhere!

     Though I am a biomedical engineer and view the biomedical technology field as the most interesting to me, that title cannot stop my continuing fascination with trains.  Trains are essentially one of my now-not-so-secret childish fascinations.  Madrid has a model train museum just south of Atocha, off the Delicias metro stop, so if anyone wants to join me there this Saturday afternoon, admission is free!
     Speaking of trains, Madrid has a gigantic subway system and a substantially developed light-rail network.  Both of these commuter train systems are also complimented by the Spanish passenger train system that has a large presence in the Principe Pio metro station and even continues out past Segovia, where we visited on Saturday.  I also spotted some tracks whilst on the lookout from the Alcazar castle.  My real technological interest with these trains though, is in how they are powered.
     One of the first details that I noticed about the metro lines in Madrid was the single suspended bar that carries the electricity needed to power the trains.  Obviously the metro trains are electric powered, as it would not be very practical to have huge quantities of exhaust pumped out from a diesel engine into a confined tunnel, but what I found curious was the fact that it was only a single bar that carried the power. My first familiarization with electric powered trains was with the light rail system in San Diego, California.  These trains, also electric powered, run while connected to not one, but two powered lines suspended above the tracks.  Even with my limited engineering knowledge as a young child, it was not hard to figure out that the electricity came from one wire, went to the train, and then through to the other wire, thus making a complete circuit.  Later I would come to understand that having two wires meant that the whole train ran in series with the power supply, but such a case is completely nonexistent here in Madrid!  I saw the single power rail and instantly wondered how the train worked without having both rails.  
     After some speculation that occurred in the Nuevos Ministerios metro station with Steven, Evan, Allen, and myself, we came to the conclusion that the trains run as closed circuits in parallel with the powered rail.  At this realization, everything about the metro's power situation was made perfectly clear!  The powered rail contained an extremely high voltage at its source and thus provided a large DC current for the purpose of powering the train.  One hydraulically driven power connector arm on the first car and one hydraulically driven power connector arm on the last car provide the two connections necessary to run the trains in parallel with the source voltage.  Additionally, the fact that Madrid's metro runs on a suspended rail instead of the three rail system of New York and London means that the Madrid metro can run at even higher voltages of most other subway systems, allowing for greater efficiency in power transmission due to less loss of voltage due to the natural resistance of the power rail itself.  Furthermore, the fact that the trains are all in parallel with the rail means that they operate at the same voltage as the rail itself, with current being split between the rail and the trains.  Such a setup is advantageous for two reasons, the first being the fact that the voltage through the train is held constant at all times, preventing damage to the train, and the second being the fact that the trains will only have enough current pass through them at any time to power the train and all excess will remain flowing through the rail, allowing for greater efficiency in transmitting the power through one rail to all the other trains on the circuit.  For safety, the other two metal rails provide a ground for the trains themselves, as the steel wheels are in constant contact with the steel rails and the static charge buildup on any one particular car is instantly dissipated into the ground rails.
   Thus, my childhood curiosity has been satisfied.  I'll admit that I think of this group discovery most times that I see the suspended third rail, so feel free to call me out on it.  The offer to go to the train museum with me this Saturday is still on the table!  The website is available here.  Thanks for reading, and have a nice day.

Engineering of Food

I am a biomedical engineer so it was difficult for me to notice something related to medical devices, but I have noticed something just as important.  In Madrid, I have noticed all of the different kinds of food.  Food can explain a lot about a culture, including the ways it is prepared and when it is eaten.  Although it is not specifically engineering related, there is a lot of technology in Madrid relating to how food is prepared.  When I was grocery shopping the first day I was here, I noticed that the milk and eggs were not refrigerated in the super market.  To an American, this would seem very odd because milk and eggs are always refrigerated in America in order to ensure that they stay fresh.  However, in Madrid, the milk and eggs stay fresh without needing to be refrigerated and they taste normal.  This must be due to some way the milk and eggs are manufactured or perhaps even genetically altered in order to allow them to not be refrigerated.  Also, a lot of raw meat is consumed around Madrid.  The meat is cured and the technology to due this is found all over Madrid.  The differences in food technology may not be apparent to a native Spaniard, but they are very noticeable to an American who is used to different ways of food being prepared.
Another obvious new technology I noticed are the electrical outlets and how much wattage is used by technological devices in Spain.  Again, this is not obvious to a Spaniard because they live with this technology, but to a traveling American, it becomes apparent due to the need for converters.  I am not an electrical engineer so I am unsure how the technology is different, but it may have something to do with the way electrical outlets are wired, how much energy is put out by the electrical company, or how the technological devices are wired.  However, there is no difference between using a European hair dryer or straightener and an American one despite the major difference in voltage and wattage use.  The electrical technology here is simply different, not necessarily worse or better. 
I have really enjoyed my first week in Madrid, Spain and have enjoyed learning about the differences in food, culture, and technology.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


Welcome to Writing 340 Madrid!

Here's a blog for posting about observations while you are abroad.  But let us use this top be engineering tourists, making note of differences between cultures.  Describe observations you make about differences in:
  • Technology
  • Systems
  • Cultural use of technology