I’m John Chawner and This Is How I Mesh

Meshing has been very, very good to me.  Who’s me? And what do I do? I’m an engineer by education, a programmer by practice, and now I mostly enjoy meeting and learning from interesting people.

John Chawner, President of Pointwise, Inc.

John Chawner, President of Pointwise, Inc.

I suppose I should begin with the obligatory “my first computer” story. It was my senior year of high school, and the first computer I used was a Wang 3300 where we programmed in BASIC and storage was on punched paper tape. (I still have one of those tapes somewhere in my home office.)  My graduating class was also the last where slide rules were taught and required for use in physics class. (That very same slide rule is in my desk at work right now.) Moral of these stories: I never throw anything away.

I earned my B.S. in mechanical/aerospace engineering from and met my lovely wife of 30 years at Syracuse University. The only formal programming education I’ve had in my life was my freshman year when I was taught the language APL. If you’ve never seen APL (now called J), it looks like what you’d get if you printed a Perl script using the Dingbats font. On a related note, my lovely wife is still trying to program me because she’s a pearl and I’m just a dingbat. I’m also hoping she never throws anything away either.

Jump to the summer of 1983. In what might have been the best engineering summer job ever, I worked at NASA Lewis in the 10×10 supersonic tunnel, taught myself Fortran, and ran a Method of Characteristics code on a supersonic inlet. I still have in my desk (see above, throw nothing away) a green plastic symbol template for plotting data that my summer boss was not supposed to give me because interns needed to do real work, not plot data with pencil, paper, and templates. My boss also gave me a moon rock only to explain later he picked it up off the ground below the tunnel’s cooling towers. Moral of this story: I am gullible.

I moved to Texas right after graduation and started working at General Dynamics Fort Worth Division – the best job ever for a kid right with a fresh engineering degree. I started in propulsion analysis where I was tasked with learning how to use this new technology called CFD on inlets and nozzles. (GD had started a CFD group the previous year). We started out using CFD codes from NASA (PEPSI/S and MINT) and the USAF (PARC). I spent a year on a CFD simulation of a single 2D nozzle. One year. One 2D nozzle. I doubt my bosses thought I was doing the best job ever.

Graduate school at the University of Texas at Arlington was a turning point for me because I took a class on grid generation from Prof. Rich Hindman. My notes for the entire class were written in green ink. Rich made meshing come alive for me and set me on the path toward the rest of my professional career. Back at work, I got involved with John Steinbrenner and Chris Fouts working on Gridgen from 1987 to 1991. It was the most fun three people ever had working on grid generation (trust me, that is not hyperbole). I taught myself IRIX by reading SGI’s entire set of user manuals while Gridgen3D was compiling and running. (I’ll leave the contents of my SGI collection to your imagination – recall that I never throw anything away.)  In an odd turn of the tables, John Steinbrenner, a friend, and I later wrote the text, homework, and exams and taught the grid generation graduate level course at UTA. Yes, I still have all the course materials. No, I do not know what ink color our students used.

Figuring that we couldn’t do too much (more) damage to our careers, John Steinbrenner and I decided to create Pointwise, Inc. in 1994. Our idea was immediately validated by one mentor who said “I gotta tell you, I think you’re crazy.” (Note: Owning a small business is like agreeing to be punched in the face for a living.) Sanity aside, we got some validation when Rick Matus joined us a year later. Please note how I managed to surround myself with smart Ph.D. types, making me the Howard Wolowitz of our trio (minus the turtleneck).

And before you know it, Travis is in my office asking me to write this article and tell you about the most recent computer I’m using.

  • Location: Fort Worth, Texas
  • Current position: seated
  • Current computer: a 5-year-old Dell laptop running Windows 7 (Repeat: I never throw anything away.)
  • One word that best describes how you work: obliviously

What software or tools do you use every day?

Each morning I boot-up my old laptop and start these apps in this order:

  • Microsoft Outlook: I use every part of Outlook from the obvious Email, Calendar, and Contacts to the less obvious but powerful Tasks (for managing my projects using my homebrew version of David Allen’s Getting Things Done), Journal (for tracking my time), and Notes (for making notes, duh).
  • Google Chrome: Is which browser to use even a question anymore?
  • Pidgin: I use this to message my co-workers. Another team here is looking at Slack which is what the cool kids use now. Hence, I will not be able to use it for another decade or so.
  • iTunes: I don’t own a Mac, I don’t buy music from the iTunes store, I don’t stream music, I don’t want to use iCloud (so please stop asking me, Apple). But I’ve ripped all my CDs to electronic format and pretty much have music playing all day, every day.

After that, I use whatever the day requires of me: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, our internal wiki.

I edit Glyph scripts using Vim. Is which text editor to use even a question anymore?

And Pointwise. Is which mesher to use… Never mind.

What does your workspace look like?

John's current workspace.

John’s current workspace.

My style of interior design is “engineer chic.” Engineer because I have cables and cardboard and books everywhere, chic because I have pillows on my couch, a fishbowl, and plants. I also have prints of abstract paintings on the wall for people to point at and say “I could do that.” I really, really, really wish you would.

What are you currently working on?

Besides looking for grammar and spelling errors on the internet?

I’m working with two genuine smart people – Dr. John Dannenhoffer and Dr. Nigel Taylor – on a paper for AIAA Aviation this summer in Washington, DC on mesh generation’s role in the CFD Vision 2030 Study.

Product planning never ends with input coming from smart people on all sides: customers, partners, our Advisory Team, and every team inside the company. Whether it’s a small tweak to an existing feature, a new meshing technique, or new ways to put meshing to work, we always have several irons in the fire. Keep in mind what Dwight Eisenhower said: “A plan is worthless but planning is indispensable.”

Through my involvement with the AIAA Meshing, Visualization, and Computational Environments technical committee, I’m thrilled to be involved in planning for the 1st AIAA Geometry and Mesh Generation Workshop, to be held the summer of 2017 in conjunction with the 3rd AIAA High Lift Prediction Workshop. Other AIAA CFD workshops have set a high bar so our work is cut out for us but we hope to create the first in a series of events that will illuminate something we want to make invisible.

What would you say is your meshing specialty?

There are three parts of the meshing process I’m very interested in: use of geometry data, mesh quality and its effects on solution convergence and accuracy, and the overall user experience. I also write Glyph scripts that are virtually worthless except for making Pointwise do something that it really shouldn’t do, like the one that plays Conway’s Game of Life on a structured grid.

I am really good at breaking (aka testing) software. So folks here have a love-hate relationship with me when I get a hankerin’ to mesh something. And I usually don’t break the meshing stuff, it’s usually something quite bizarre that results in my favorite reply, one I used back in the day: “That should never happen.” Or my other favorite, “That’s been in there for about 10 years.” Or “Wouldn’t you rather be doing something on the internet?”

Any tips for our users?

  1. Ask questions.
  2. Stay connected.
  3. Never stop learning.

What project are you most proud of and why?

One project on this list has to be GRIDGEN Version 6, the first one John Steinbrenner, Chris Fouts, and I wrote for the U.S. Air Force between 1987 and 1991. It feels good to know that our software formed the basis for decades of work, not just our own work but the work of other engineers who simulated and designed some very cool things.

Overall, it’s much less about the projects and more about the people with whom I’ve worked with over the years. I’ve made many true friendships, many valuable professional relationships, and have had opportunities to meet some truly great folks. I’ve also managed to piss off some people, not because I try to be a jerk but because it comes naturally to me.

What CFD solver and postprocessor do you use most often?

Meshing is an end unto itself. Isn’t it?

The last time I used CFD was on the X-30 National Aerospace Plane (NASP). I had started my professional career in the simulation of the inlet and nozzle components of propulsion systems so on the X-30 I was simulating what went into came out of the engines. All structured hex grids. I think we were using the NPARC flow solver. The stories I could tell you about doing 3rd shift, classified computing on the Cray.

Are you reading any interesting technical papers we should know about?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, NASA’s CFD Vision 2030 Study should be read by everyone who works in the CFD business.

I’m also reading Delaunay Mesh Generation by Cheng, Dey, and Shewchuk and Finite Element Mesh Generation by Lo for another project I’m working on with yet another genuine smart person.

Online reading, whether it’s blogs or Twitter or podcasts or video or whatever, is a big part of my word diet and I’m glad to see that other engineers are starting to take fuller advantage of these media also. It’s not all about LOLCats and photos of lunch, people.

Do you plan on attending any conferences or workshops this year?

In January I was at AIAA SciTech in San Diego followed shortly thereafter by the 1st Congress on Analysis, Simulation, and Systems Engineering Software Strategies (ASSESS’ motto – “Never forget the last S”) where I got a bonus 3-day stay in Washington, DC courtesy of a blizzard.

By the time this article is published I will have attended the Congress on the Future of Engineering Software (COFES), a very cool annual event where you’re free to think big thoughts and network with some very smart people. Later this year I’ll be at AIAA Aviation in DC and the International Meshing Roundtable again in DC.

The conference you should plan to attend is the Pointwise User Group Meeting 2016 in Fort Worth in September.

What do you do when you’re not generating meshes?

My lovely wife and I enjoy visiting Walt Disney World and Disneyland and do so more frequently than is probably healthy. She has also been a distance runner for a couple of years and has succeeded in getting me into running. So we combine running and Disney by participating in runDisney events. We just finished a 5K and 10K at Walt Disney World and my first half marathon is coming up at Disneyland shortly after this article is published. (Note to editor: You may need to reformat this article as an obituary.)

I’m a bowler with delusions of adequacy. Just ask Pat Baker who’s on my league team. He probably likes my bowling less than my golfing.

Because an active lifestyle is overrated, I prefer to spend my off time reading a good book (The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner), listening to good music (check out iapetus or the Rare Noise label), or viewing good art (I’ll probably sneak out of AIAA Aviation to go to the Phillips Collection if anyone wants to tag along).

What is some of the best CFD advice you’ve ever received?

If you’ve read this far you’ve noticed a theme. If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. If you don’t know who the dumbest person in the room is, it’s probably you. And since that happens to me a lot, I’ve developed a survival skill: ask good questions.

  1. Believe none of what you read and only half of what you see.
  2. The greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has occurred.
  3. Think like a person of action, act like a person of thinking.

If you had to pick a place to have dinner, where would you go?

Why am I always having to pick where we go to dinner?

Where we’d go to eat depends on where we are.

If we were at the office and wanted something casual, we could go to Benito’s for Tex-Mex (their pico de gallo is killer) or Ellerbe Fine Foods (I’ve heard their new grilled Italian pork burger is superb).

If I wanted to show off, we’d go to downtown Fort Worth and either have the best steak in town at Del Frisco’s or fantastic French at St. Emilion (escargot, tres bon).

On the other hand, if we were at my house up by DFW airport we’d go to El Taco H for a burrito the size of a small loaf of bread or Next Wood Fired Bistro where everything’s good.

If we were visiting my home state of Ohio, we’d dine at Skyline Chili in Cincinnati (3-way and two cheese coneys) or Mr. Hero in Cleveland (the Romanburger).

If we were at my alma mater in Syracuse, we’d go to Eva’s European Sweets and Polish Restaurant for dinner the way my Grandma used to make it.

If we were at Walt Disney World we’d go to California Grill atop the Contemporary Resort.

But we should really go to Cafe Modern in The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and then stroll the galleries afterward. The Frank Stella retrospective is opening soon and attending his lecture at The Modern a couple of weeks ago has me all excited to see the exhibition. Y’all should come visit.

About Travis Carrigan

A Pointwise engineer helping other engineers solve their meshing problems.
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