July 2015

As you probably already know, the 2015 IEEE MTT-S International Microwave Week will be in Phoenix Arizona. Having lived in the Grand Canyon State for 16 years, it would be impossible for me to not hold forth on the state-of-the-state. Arizona is beautiful, but not without problems, and Phoenix is not a place I would care to live. The Chamber of Commerce can describe the best parts of Arizona, let me pretend I am one of them for a second:

"Wow!  I had no idea it would be so green in the desert!" That's what you'll say when you step off the plane.

Arizona's most important products are the five Cs: copper, cattle, cotton, citrus, climate.  Notice that cactus isn't in there! The giant saguaro only grows in here in the Sonoran desert. It grows just an inch a year and can live to 200 years and weigh two tons when fully hydrated!

Now I can wander off and muse on some of the other things I like and don't like.

Let's pretend somehow there are frequently asked questions about Arizona, and I will answer them below... 


Name someone famous from Arizona

Linda Ronstadt is one of our most-famous citizens.  Linda sold more than 100 million record albums, she is one of the biggest selling musical artists of all time, within 3 dB of the Beatles. Her last name comes from Prussia, her great-grandfather emigrated to Mexico. Many of her ancestors are of Mexican descent, how else did she get those big brown eyes? There are several engineers in her family tree, one of them is the namesake of the Tucson bus terminal. She is suffering from Parkinson's disease these days and no longer makes public appearances.  She has tried to use her influence over the years to make the border with Mexico more humane.

Below is her 1967 recording of Different Drum.  The story of this song is worth a read, the released song was the second take at a California studio, when Linda was 20 years old, trying to remember the lyrics. That harpsichord is a nice touch, and the musician made up the solo on the spot. As the story goes, the Monkees (American television show in the 1960s) were just getting acquainted as the show was going into production.  Different Drum comes on the limo radio, and Mike Nesmith says, "yeah, I wrote that".  To which the other three Monkees must have said "you're full of $%^&". Nevertheless, Nesmith wrote this song, and it went to number one when Ronstadt recorded it.

Different Drum, Linda Ronstadt and The Stone Poneys

When will Arizona run out of water?

The water conditions in California have been all over the news in 2015, suffering the biggest drought in years, prompting mandatory water restrictions.  Arizona does not have water restrictions, yet, so go ahead and enjoy a dip in the hotel pool.

Rainfall averages 12.5 inches per year in Arizona and just 8 inches in Phoenix.  Last September a record breaking storm dropped 3 inches of rain in one day, which caused massive flooding. You won't have to worry about rain in May, the monsoon season usually does not start until late June or July. I just know someone will look at the flood and say "I'm not a scientist, but that proves there is no global warming!". To which I say, "I'm not a scientist, but as an engineer I take what science offers with due respect and work with it."

The great flood of 2014

Most of Arizona's water comes from aquifers that a bank would consider in "overdraft".  However, we have what was once considered a sustainable Plan B, brought to you by Big Government of the 1960s (thanks!) The Colorado river provides 40M people with water, including 5M in Arizona. The Central Arizona Project (CAP) in the is the largest water distribution system in the United starts and was constructed from 1973 to 1993. It is 336 miles long and moves 1.5M acre-feet of Colorado river water from Lake Havasu to Phoenix and Tucson.  The water that is delivered to Tucson is full of minerals and caused many plumbing problems when it was first delivered in 1993. Today, much of it is dumped into the aquifer and then re-pumped out as a blend.

Long term prospects for water in Arizona are not good, but it will take a while before the trouble starts. Developers can still speculate on land here, land grabs have long been one of Arizona's biggest moneymakers.  Arizona is reducing water usage almost by accident: as houses are built, land is converted from agriculture to residential use.  People use far less water than farms. In a water emergency of the future, maybe we will finally get rid of some golf courses, which use the most water per acre of all. Across the nation, golf is declining in popularity.  In Arizona, why would you want to participate in an elitist sport that pretty much guarantees skin cancer for Caucasians?

What about all those illegal immigrants?

First, don't confuse people who speak Spanish with illegal border-crossers. 26% of the US population is bilingual, if you are not one of them you should be jealous.  In Arizona, we have far more bilinguals than the fly-over states. Did you know that bilinguality increases with education level? 20% of high-school graduates speak two languages, compared to 46% of post-docs in the US. One could surmise that Arizona is full of PhDs from that statement, and be just as ingenuous as Sean Hannity when he states that 93 million Americans are unemployed (but technically he is correct, even if he is including babies, prisoners, Alzheimers patients...) In our case, the Spanish language is part of the culture, in spite of state house attempts to root it out.

Yes, there are undocumented people in Arizona, just like there are in Maine during potato season. But who else is going to do hard work for low wages and not complain about it? Your teenage son? Ha ha, good luck getting him out of bed. Arizona passed a law making it easy for cops to stop anyone with brown eyes and dark skin and ask them for their papers, kind of like Germany in the 1930s. In Arizona versus The United States, the US Supreme Court struck down three out of four parts of the law. For now, it seems that is is OK to drive while brown.

Can I protect myself by carrying a loaded firearm around the conference center?

Opencarry.org gives Arizona a Gold Star because if you are 21 you can carry an openly displayed or concealed firearm just about anywhere in Arizona as long as you have an easily-obtained permit, except on public school grounds, polling places on voting day, and anywhere alcohol is served. Private facilities can limit what you carry when you enter their premises, and the Phoenix Convention Center has a published policy that prohibits firearm possession by anyone other than on-duty law enforcement personnel.  

Just don't feel that all those guns are making you safer: recent data show that 2.56 people are killed in Arizona per day by guns, so expect overall that 18 people in the state won't survive IMS week. Phoenix has a higher rate of gun homicide than Mexico. However, New Orleans, Louisiana is four times more dangerous, and NOLA is the site of 2015 CSICS conference. 

Statistically you are not likely to be killed by a gun, but if you live in Arizona long enough, eventually you will go to a funeral for someone who was killed by gunfire. We had a mass shooting back in January 2011 by a mental patient with an arsenal that left Congresswoman Gabby Giffords with a bullet wound to her brain. Six people were killed, including an 79 year old woman named Phyllis Schneck (lower left in image below) who was the mother of one of my best friends in high school. Phyllis had a hobby of knitting sweaters and making aprons for gifts, there must be 100 people that have something to remember her by.  Swift and bold action came from this preventable tragedy: the US House of Representatives passed a bill that condemned the attack. How very twisted of me to use her memory to suggest that something more should be done. Shop for a bulletproof backpack for your child, it will offer some measure of protection, there's no better way to say "I love you".


The Tucson Six

Law enforcement in Phoenix

In addition to putting some heat on the indigenous brown folk (which is not that profitable), Phoenix makes some good money with red light and speed cameras. Red light cameras must be marked with a sign by state law.  Beware, many of the intersections have relatively short yellow lights to maximize corporate and state profits so you might see some people slamming on their brakes rather than risk a ticket when the yellow light comes on.  Don't even try to fight a red light camera in court, it will cost you more. If you plan ahead, you could use the monkey mask defense.  Did you know that Redflex, one of the profiteers of red light cameras, is based in Melbourne Australia? American Traffic Solutions is the other culprit, based in the US. Cui bono?


Vans containing speed cameras are moved around the city on a daily business. The "greed camera" locations are published on-line or in the newspaper if you want to be proactive. Not that long ago, a camera operator was was killed by an irate citizen/gun owner, who received a 22 year sentence for second degree murder. Nowadays the vans are unmanned.

Drinking and driving is not recommended anywhere, but in Maricopa county you don't want to become an inmate of Sheriff Arapaio. He's all over the news again, this time squirming in front of a federal judge for how he violated the Supreme Court of the United States by racial profiling in defiance of a court order.  During testimony it has also come to light he hired private investigators to investigate the spouse of a federal judge who didn't want to to see him re-elected.  Awkward....

I know someone who had to spend some weekends in Arapaio's tent city for a DWI offense.  There is no better way to summarize that experience besides "it sucked", but the probation wasn't so good either.  Imagine having to get up each day at 6AM, blow into the breathalyzer tube, and go on-line to say good morning to your probation officer. Further imagine that you are one of those people who wears nothing to bed. Then imagine even further that the officers did not tell you that they were enjoying the view through the video camera on your computer without telling you for the first week.

Meanwhile, Pinal (south of Phoenix) county's  sheriff has his own image problem. Sheriff Babeo was an up-an-coming "tough on immigration" star, seeking a Congressional seat back in 2012. His career took a time-out when his illegal immigrant gay lover stepped forward. Also, he had been distributing weapons from the federal 1033 program to non-police. 

Tell me some interesting history about the state?

The United States took possession of the top part of Arizona in 1848 after war with Mexico, as agreed by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The bottom part was added in 1854 when James Gadsden (ambassador to Mexico) negotiated the Gadsden Purchase for $10M in a deal that was lobbied by railroad interests.  For $5M more, we could have bought most of Sonora and the entire Baja peninsula and Arizona would have had a salt-water port.

Arizona became the 47th state in the US on January 6, 1912. Some decisions had to be made quickly: where to put the state house, where to put the jail, and where to put the university? Phoenix got the state house, Yuma got the jail, and Tucson got the University of Arizona. That was a long time ago, now we have 30 jails with 15,000 inmates which have a budget of over $1B. Many of our jails are private enterprises that make considerable profits and reward CEOs with large bonuses while beds in state jails go unused. Property crime is always high in places with a lot of poor people, it is 25% higher in Arizona than the US average.  I have lost count of how many times I have been robbed, examples include a smashed car window and missing radio, multiple thefts of copper wire on construction sites, a dozen power tools, full toolboxes of hand tools, laptops, jars of coins, DVDs, in short, anything that can be pawned or sold at "swap meets" easily, or sold at recycling centers by the pound.  Recycling centers used to be a lot worse, I have seen them paying out for perfect copper pipes with UPC codes still attached and pay homeless people for bringing them in. These days they fingerprint you and ask for a license. Don't leave anything exposed in a locked car, such as a backpack or laptop case, there is a good chance it will disappear.

The first major bill passed in the state house was to segregate African Americans from all other kids in the school system. This caused a lot of new schools to be built, including one that still stands as a community center in the historically black neighborhood of Dunbar/Spring in Tucson, named after poet Paul Dunbar (read his poems here) and educator John Spring. There were not enough black kids to build a high school, so the city of Tucson bent the rules and created all-black home rooms. Segregation in Arizona schools continued until 1951.

Class of 46

Dunbar class of 1946


dunbar school 800

Tucson's Dunbar school today is a community center

Miscegenation laws persisted on the books until the 1959. I have friends born in the 1950's who are offspring of Mexican and Chinese parents; they were stigmatized because their parents were not legally allowed to marry. Today, the state has tried to outlaw same-sex marriage, but a Federal judge overturned that idea on October 17, 2014.  There is no non-secular argument to prevent any two people from marrying. 

What about wildlife, is it dangerous?

In downtown Phoenix you are not likely to see any wildlife, but if you take some time off of the conference and go hiking you will.

There are scorpions that crawl into empty shoes, tons of lizards, and you might see a tarantula, an occasional snake or a Gila monster. There are also javelina, kind of like a cross between a wild pig and a bad smell with an omnivore appetite. Below is one example from a photo taken from my driveway, one of neighbors has taken to feeding them. This female is the size of a medium dog.  You don't want to get that close to her boyfriend!


And if you do get outside of the downtown area, you may see a coyote and a roadrunner, but probably not at the same time.  Here's an example, as Chuck Jones imagined them. Read Jones' nine Coyote rules here.

Chariots of Fur

What do you mean, it's a dry heat?

The humidity in May could be less than 10%, and the temperature certainly more than 100F (38C). If you jump in a pool, when you get out you might find yourself shivering due the heat loss from transpiration of the water from your skin. Every month a swimming pool loses a foot of water due to evaporation. 

Recently the dew point was -4 degrees Fahrenheit. Record low humidity is 3%.  You will notice when you take a shower that the water at your shoulders is typically 10 to 20 degrees hotter than the water that hits your feet.  A lot of energy could be saved if shower heads included positioners for short and tall people.  

The original "air conditioner" of the southwest is the swamp cooler, consisting of a water reservoir, some sponges (cooler pads), a small water pump and a blower. On a dry day a swamp cooler can keep you comfortable in temperatures exceeding 100F. Swamp coolers are still used in many homes and businesses, it is quite a hobby to maintain one.  Once the rainy season starts, swamp coolers are a curse; they often smell bad, and don't cool as efficiently, and your home feels like a damp cave.  If you go to a dive bar in Phoenix you may experience a swamp cooler; you will recognize such a place because a door or a window will be open to allow airflow. Swamp coolers are notorious for wasting water, but use less electricity than AC so they won't be disappearing any time soon.


Scientific principles behind the swamp cooler

 You need to drink more water here! It’s a dry heat!

Solar energy

Arizona is number two in harvesting electricity from solar energy in the United States, at over 2 GW it's something to be proud of. In spite of the opportunity for year-round free hot water, most new homes do not include solar water heaters. One complication is that the temperature drops below freezing on winter mornings often enough so that trouble can occur unless you employ a loop system with a heat exchanger and antifreeze. Most people don't want an additional hobby involving climbing onto the roof. Then there is a certain stigma about the "ugliness' of solar installations on homes. I'd put PV cells on my house, if there was a way to buy the equipment while cutting out the 300 or so companies that want to do the install for you while making the transaction feel worse than buying a car.

How is education in Arizona?

Depends on whether you are rich or poor! First, let's review the Arizona state constitution, article 11, section 6:

The university and all other state educational institutions shall be open to students of both sexes, and the instruction furnished shall be as nearly free as possible. The legislature shall provide for a system of common schools by which a free school shall be established and maintained in every school district for at least six months in each year, which school shall be open to all pupils between the ages of six and twenty-one years.

That implies that the state would invest money in its universities to make in-state tuition affordable. Oops, we just elected a governor bent on tax cuts, tuition is going up and universities are laying off. Makes you want to move here and raise your kids... not.

Ethnic studies are basically a way of teaching history that is not white-euro-centric, an idea that came out of the civil rights era.  Ethnic studies were banned by the state in 2010, because studying Spanish-American history might cause "ethnic resentment", a kind of reverse logic.

Arizona provides a tax credit for education that is perhaps one of the most regressive forms of taxation. You can write a $500 check to your kids's school every year so they can buy whatever they want (trip to Disney?), and you get to take it completely off your taxes on your state return, and as a deduction on your federal return.  You actually profit from it! However, if you are near the poverty line, where are you going to come up with five Benjamins? Answer: you will not; ergo, your school system suffers while the rich kids' school gets even better. Surely all my well-off friends and neighbors with kids don't want me to point this out.

If you live in Arizona and are childless and and can loan out your money for profit, consider sending a check to any school on an Indian reservation, or any disadvantaged "drive-by high school" in the city, they will surely appreciate it.  My next check is going to Pueblo High's Mariachi Band, check out their facebook page. Mariachi is one of the best things about living in the southwest, it inspires because it preserves Mexican culture while inspiring hard work, and above all it is fun to listen to. After playing in a Mariachi festival, none of these kids are going to be satisfied with washing cars or mopping floors for a living. If you listen to one thing on Youtube today, listen to the kids below. Ethnic studies work wonders.


Mariachi Aztlan


See you at IMS!


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