Conservative Liberal

FDR would have been a Republican today.

Engineers and technically illiterate politicians

As an engineer, I often get frustrated when politicians make pronouncements on some technical issues.  I often know for a fact that what they might be saying is idiotic, and they have no idea what they are talking about.  Technical progress does not happen because politicians just wish for it.  And physics cannot conform to political sound bytes.  Turns out, I am not the only engineer frustrated with technical illiteracy of the politicians.  Here is an article in EE Times:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has mandated that the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard reach 54.5 miles/gallon by 2025 (so many significant figures in that goal—the precision is truly admirable!). Before you say "huh?", note that this goal has many loopholes, subclauses, and qualifiers, befitting a number set by bureaucrats, see here.

Read it all.  While you are at it, check out this comic relief.  Whatever this comedian says about marketing and management, applies to politicians ten-fold.

September 5, 2011 Posted by | Engineering | Leave a comment

Engineers and politics

Here is another interesting article on engineers and politics from EETimes:

…The 112th Congress has 541 members. The average age in the Senate is 62.2 years, in the House 56.7 years.
The top four occupations are business, public service, law and education. There are five engineers (chart below). None in the Senate. This meager representation is ridiculous for a profession that is crucial to the economy. But then we know that.

I often asked myself if I would ever consider running for office.  The answer was always “Hell, NO”.  I would imagine many other engineers would feel the same way.  Why?  Well, because politics often requires saying a lot without much substance, something engineers are not very good at.  Those who would like to stick to engineering, like me, would not want to change careers.  I don’t even want to be a manager.  High level managers, on the other hand, are not much different from regular politicians.  So, a high level manager in office would represent only marginal improvement over a career politician.  Still, an engineer in a high political office is a nice dream to have.

April 24, 2011 Posted by | Engineering | Leave a comment

Nerds helping troops

Here is an interesting technological news:

Improving IED Countermeasure Technology – Using RF Capture and Playback Systems

By combining the Tektronix spectrum analyzer and X-COM Systems long duration RF signal storage system, a unique tool results for the recording, analyzing, and creating of new waveforms and complex RF environments to help tackle IED countermeasure technologies.

For those who might be interested, follow the link.  There is a PDF that explains how it works.  Tektronics is a company that makes various elecronic test equipment that I often use at work.  Now I use their mixed-signal oscilloscope which I am quite happy with.

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October 23, 2010 Posted by | Engineering | Leave a comment

Engineering perspective

Engineers are unique group of people.  They tend to try to dig into things in order to understand how they work.  They also tend to avoid jumping to conclusions and are hard to influence emotionally.  In a word, they are nerds.  So, here is a couple of articles brought to me by professional newsletters that I receive: Planet Analog and Power Management Design Line.  But first, an excerpt from the Editor’s note from Planet Analog:

…And now, the "long-story long" version–in alignment with the analog world, I’ve always preferred to be on the trailing edge of leading developments; in other words, not being an early adopter. And I am also very hesitant and skeptical whenever a hot new development is heralded as the answer to all your problems, whatever ails you. (We see this repeatedly in our overhyped industry and society.) Finally, I’m not a fan of using frequent (out)bursts of under 140 characters; I prefer a longer 500-word column (sorry, it’s now called a "blog") or even a well-reasoned, articulated, full-length essay such as Raymond Chandler’s skillful The Simple Art of Murder or George Orwell’s timeless Politics and the English Language. (These are available online, but I am not sure if these are "legal" versions due to copyright ownership, so I’d rather not give any URLs.)

Equally important, as an engineer, I subscribe to Shannon’s Information Theory, which says that less (news) conveys more (importance). I certainly don’t want to add unnecessarily to the already too-high level of clutter and commentary noise around us, which reduces the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), thus obscuring and sometimes even burying worthwhile messages.

But given all that, there is a place for Twitter, when used appropriately and judiciously. It’s another tool which we can use–where it makes sense. So that’s what I will try do, by tweeting when there is something I think will be of interest or noteworthy, and not tweeting simply for the sake of being "out there" and trendy. I promise!

Beyond Newton’s Laws and Maxwell’s Equations: one thing that engineers know (or learn) is that in addition the laws of physics we have, there are also other "laws" that should limit our hubris; among these is the "Law of Unintended (or Unforeseen) Consequences". This was nicely shown in an article I came across from The Wall Street Journal about how and why the use of low-flow showerheads may actually increase water usage, "Under Pressure: Bathers Duck Weak Shower Heads". Unlike some technically obscure or hard-to-understand examples, this is a wonderfully clear one. It’s a lesson worth keeping in mind whenever you or a co-worker explain, with absolute confidence and certainty, the implications of design decisions, especially in the area of user interface and interaction (but not limited to those areas only).

I just excerpted the part that did not contain any professional stuff.  But it does have a link to an interesting article about unintended consequences of stupid regulations.  Do read it.  Bill Schweber, the above-mentioned Editor, also supplied his own article on Global Warming:

I once heard that you should be skeptical of any discipline with the word "science" included. The reasoning is that the addition of "science" is merely a device for enhancing the credibility of a particular discipline. While that comment was made in connection with "social science," it also applies to climate science.

I’m not discussing here whether man-made global warming is real, or is part of other, larger forces, or not happening at all. What I am saying is that the discpline called climate science does not meet my standards for what can be legitimately be considered science.

Here’s why: I’m a strict constructionist when it comes to using the "s" word. Scientific theories are established by developing a hypothesis and a model, then verifying them by repeated experiments and control groups. In the case of climate science, researchers don’t have that opportunity, for obvious reasons.

Again, read the whole thing.  While majority of people are not engineers, engineering perspective can be useful for understanding things.  Finally, a bit of an explanation of the current Toyota problems, again by Bill Schweber:

We’re all aware of the two mega-recalls of Toyota vehicles. The quick and easy explanation is that "cars are too complicated" and "cars have too many processors and too much software."

Certainly, there is some truth to that (software-controlled cars creep me out), but the sticking-accelerator problem has nothing to do with electronics; it’s a mechanical problem with a mechanical solution. But the real problem which designers of mass-market, high-volume products really face is the law of large numbers. When you have tens or hundreds of thousands of a product out in the market, some of their incredibly obscure and subtle problems will eventually surface.

…………………………………………………………………………….

To those pundits in media who so quickly criticize the Toyota problem as a result of poor engineering and inadequate testing, I say "you have no idea what you are talking about." It’s only because the basic design is so good and reliable, and the number of units on the road is so large, that these problems can even have a chance to appear. The law of large numbers is tough to work around, and does not yield easily to amendments.

I still think that Toyota is a very good car, with solid and reliable design.  But the article explains to those, who are not engineers, a little bit of what is involved in designing and testing a mass-produced product.  So, again an obligatory recommendation to read the whole thing.

I really wish more people in this country got more interested in designing and making things.  Just shuffling money will not sustain this country.  Some time ago I posted an article by Jack Ganssle of Embedded.com about why he became an engineer.  Now he wrote another article on this subject.  He also referred to another article from EE Times.  Both articles are interesting.  But comments are just as interesting, if not more so.  So, enjoy.  See if you can relate to any of it.  I certainly can.

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February 25, 2010 Posted by | Engineering | Leave a comment

My new favorite manufacturer of electronic components

There is a company called Vishay Intertechnology.  They make all kinds of electronic components, which I, as an Electronics Engineer, use in my designs.  In particular, they are the first ones I think of when I need to use filed-effect transistors (FETs, or MOSFETs, to be exact).  I won’t get too deep into the technical details, but their FETs are very well suited for use in the switching power supplies.  Recently I learned about amazing history of this company and its founder, Dr. Felix Zandman:

In the 1950s, patents were issued for the PhotoStress® products developed by Dr. Felix Zandman.  These products reveal and measure stress distribution in airplanes, cars, and other structures under live load conditions.  His research in this area led him to develop Bulk Metal® foil resistors, the most precise and stable resistors available — both then and now, over four decades later.

Dr. Zandman, with the financial support of Alfred P. Slaner, founded Vishay in 1962 to develop and manufacture Bulk Metal foil resistors. The Company was named after the village in Lithuania where relatives of Dr. Zandman and Mr. Slaner had perished during the Holocaust (emphasis mine – Eric-Odessit).  The Company’s initial product portfolio consisted of foil resistors and foil resistance strain gages.

Here is more:

A survivor from the Polish town of Grodno, Dr. Felix Zandman, immigrated to the United States and became an inventor and important industrialist there, in Israel, and in other countries.  He named the electronics concern he established Vishay in memory of his beloved grandmother Tema Freydovicz, who was born in the town of Vishay, and the Jewish community there that had been annihilated in the Holocaust.  The electronics plants he established in Israel also bear the same name.

This indeed is an amazing story.  I sent these links to a friend of mine, an Applications Engineer from a Vishay distributor company, who is also Jewish.  He did not know this history.  But later, when he came to visit me in the office on business, he brought me a present from the local Vishay representative: the memoir of Dr. Felix Zandman.  I am sure I will enjoy this book.  And it is very satisfying to be able to use good products and support a good company and worthy causes at the same time.

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May 31, 2009 Posted by | Engineering, History | 1 Comment

Prestige of the engineering work

Engineers were not very highly regarded in the former Soviet Union.  In terms of salary, blue color workers were always paid more.  In fact, if 2 people did the same job, but one had a title of engineer and another was technician, the technician would get higher salary.  So, when Gorbachev came to power, he recognized that the Soviet Union was technologically lagging behind the West.  So, the Soviet Government announced that they would promote the engineering work in order to raise its prestige.  Mikhail Zhvanetsky, a famous Russian-Jewish satirist and a native of Odessa, joked that engineers got increased prestige, but not increased salary.

It turns out that in this country, while engineering pay is pretty good, the prestige of the engineering work is not very high.  There is simply no glamour in it.  Planet Analog, one of the professional publications whose newsletter I get at work, posted an article on this subject:

Commentary: Engineers need an image makeover
Bill Schweber
EE Times
May 02, 2008 (1:43 PM)
URL: http://www.planetanalog.com/showArticle?articleID=207501896

At the recent ACE Awards dinner, our industry honored leading innovators, companies and products. It was good to see an appreciative audience for this well-deserved recognition. But then I realized we were preaching to the converted. The broader world still dismisses engineers and scientists as quirky outsiders.

This became clear when I was trapped and had to watch an episode of the dreadful "Beauty and the Geek." The show’s premise is that there is something wrong with the geeks, but with some help they can be made to be cool, if not actually hot. If I suggested that perhaps the beauties could benefit from a knowledge makeover, I’d be dismissed as, well, a geek.

It wasn’t always this way. Until about the 1960s, engineers were not only honored, they were respected. They were guests on popular TV shows for their accomplishments, not as oddballs to be mocked. Earlier in the 20th century, engineers were accorded more respect and stature than any other professionals.

We’ve come a long way from that world.

The Associated Press has announced it will hire 20 more reporters solely to cover celebrities, and they don’t mean scientists or engineers. And I’ll bet if eight-year-old Carson Page—the Editor’s Choice ACE Award winner for his impressive work with FPGAs—ever appears on the Leno or Letterman show, he’ll be there as an oddity, not a role model.

How did this transformation happen?

I think we are victims of our own success. In the past few decades, we’ve made such incredible progress in so many areas, at an ever-increasing rate, that we’ve made it all look so very easy. The public is no longer impressed by feats of engineering: They think all this amazing gadgetry just happens by itself, because we’ve made it seem that way.

What can we do? It wouldn’t be practical, or advisable, to squelch scientific and technological progress. But perhaps professional societies, universities and high-tech companies could team to launch an image campaign. One message might be: "If it weren’t for the nerd next door, you wouldn’t have (fill in the blank)." Here’s another: "Celebrity fades. Knowledge lasts."

As with so many engineering problems, there is no simple solution. Perhaps it is not even viewed as a problem. Our culture has moved to a new perception of what it values, and it’s not us.

If that’s the case, we have only ourselves to blame. But we owe it to ourselves, and certainly to the next generation of innovators like Carson Page, to do something about it.

The article is pretty short, so I just posted the whole thing here.  It really is sad.  My daughter recently had a "career day" at school.  None of the kids said that they wanted to be an engineer.  And I live in the area heavily populated by engineers.  In addition to that, the whole society is technically illiterate.  A friend of mine told me that in the 1980s, when VCRs first became available, people could not set the clock on the front display of the VCR.  So the clock display kept blinking, and people were getting annoyed.  Apparently some company like RadioShack came up with a kit to stop the blinking.  It was simply a piece of black electrical tape that you would stick onto the clock display and cover it.  The fact that someone was able to sell this thing has to be embarrassing.  Part of the problem that kids nowadays don’t have to make anything themselves.  You can buy everything.  You can even buy a slingshot or a rubber band gun.  What is that?  Things like that kids should be building with their own hands, coming up with their own designs.  Of course, it would be nice if there was some sort of a TV show about engineers.  But, unlike doctors or lawyers, engineers don’t have drama associated with their work.  So, a TV show would not be very exciting.  Something like MacGyver would be pretty exciting, but most of the stuff MacGyver does is not necessarily realistic and definitely not something that you could try at home.

Oh, well.  My older daughter still says once in a while that she wants "to be an engineer, like daddy".  So, not everything is lost.  Although, if my daughter becomes a nurse like mommy, I would be pretty happy too.

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May 18, 2008 Posted by | Engineering | 6 Comments

How the Prius works

Engineers like me always want to know how things work.  So, Planet Analog provided some info on Toyota Prius:

One year ago, Automotive DesignLine and EETimes took a Toyota Prius fresh from the dealer and tore it down to see what makes it tick. The resulting series of stories became some of our best read features ever.

Today, with fuel prices continuing to soar, the hybrid cars are selling faster than ever. If you missed them then, or would like a review, here are direct links to features in that series—along with a time lapse video (at the end of the first article) of our crack engineers taking the vehicle apart, and a subsequent take on the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid, targeted to debut in 2010.

Enjoy, my fellow nerds.

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May 4, 2008 Posted by | Engineering | Leave a comment

Irresponsible journalists

I got this in e-mail from Planet Analog, but unfortunately they did not have this editor’s note on the site, so I am posting it here in full.  Many of us know how irresponsible media is.  In addition to that, these journalists are also technically illiterate.  So, what else is new?

  EDITOR’S NOTE

As some of you know, I have a pretty low opinion of most journalists, especially those who try to cover a topic which has even a tiny amount of technical content. I’ve met and worked alongside many of these journalists over the years, and I don’t know which group is worse: the ones who don’t know anything technical but figure they can skate by; or the ones who know just enough to be dangerous and wrong, and that they can handle the topic.

This week’s example is the coverage and hysteria about the MD-80 jet aircraft, mostly operated by American Airlines, and the emergency stand-down of these planes for inspection (and thousands of cancelled flights) due to a possible wiring problem. This was described by most of the media as "faulty wiring", "dangerous wiring", "miswired", and other very skewed, misleading terms. They made it sound as if the AC-supply lines were plugged into DC supplies, or that connectors and cables were mismatched or even crossed.

Only the Wall Street Journal, among the major media, actually had some specifics: "it [the FAA] determined that American Airlines’ repairs didn’t meet its painstaking standards, which dictate details such as which way retention clips holding the wires face, toward the back or front of the aircraft. This matters because the clips could chafe the coating on the wires, causing wear that would expose the wiring to leaks from fuel or hydraulic fluid. . . . some wiring was secured at intervals exceeding the one inch dictated by regulations." (I did find some pictures, after a little on-line searching, and the cable bundles were laced down pretty tightly, with lots of clips and ties closely spaced. But the caption didn’t say if the picture was of "good" or "bad" cabling!)

Now, I know that proper cable dress is very important to long-term reliability (I have been tripped up by cable sloppiness and poor strain relief too often) but does this aircraft-wiring problem constitute "dangerous wiring" or even "miswired"? I’ll let you be the judge!

On a more mundane topic, here’s a thought problem I came across: my laptop PC was doing some disk-intensive work, and fairly warm air was coming out the exhaust. So I thought I would raise it a little, off the flat surface of the desk, to allow airflow and better cooling.

But then I thought about it some more. Air, especially stagnant air, is a poor conductor of heat. Maybe it is better to have the bottom of the laptop directly on the desk, which could act as a heat sink? How good is the thermal contact between the laptop and the desk, and the heat-sinking properties of the wood top? Pretty soon, I was convinced that the intuitive ideas to lift the laptop might actually be counterproductive.

I know that you can buy thermal mats to go under a laptop, to improve surface heat-sinking, but I am not ready to do that. Before I do anything, I want to know if placing the laptop flat on the wooden desktop is better or worse, from a thermal perspective, than raising it a little. And what about a metal desktop, or a plastic laminate desktop? I’d be interested in hearing your views, especially if you can model the thermal situation (and hey, it would make a good article, too!).

OK, enough off-the-subject thoughts. Check out the solid array of diverse technical articles below. And while this week’s ebb-and-flow has fewer new products than last week (don’t read anything into this, it’s a normal weekly variation we see here), we have more news and short items than last week.

Until next week. . . .

Bill Schweber, Planet Analog Site Editor
bschweber@techinsights.com
(formerly @cmp.com; same "desk", new company name)

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May 4, 2008 Posted by | Engineering | Leave a comment

Interesting technology article

Here is an interesting technology article:

‘Missing link’ memristor created: Rewrite the text books?

By R. Colin Johnson

EE Times

(04/30/08, 01:00:00 PM EDT)<!–

–>

PORTLAND, Ore. — The long-sought after memristor–the "missing link" in electronic circuit theory–has been invented by Hewlett Packard Senior Fellow R. Stanley Williams at HP Labs (Palo Alto, Calif.) Memristors–the fourth passive component type after resistors, capacitors and inductors–were postulated in a seminal 1971 paper in the IEEE Transactions on Circuit Theory by professor Leon Chua at the University of California (Berkeley), but their first realization was just announced today by HP. According to Williams and Chua, now virtually every electronics textbook will have to be revised to include the memristor and the new paradigm it represents for electronic circuit theory.

Admittedly, this kind of stuff is interesting for the nerdy guys like me.

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May 4, 2008 Posted by | Engineering | Leave a comment

Engineers – into politics!

Back in the 1930s there was a slogan in the Stalin’s Soviet Union: "Komsomol members!  Man your airplanes!"  So now, similarly to that one, I decided to issue my own: "Engineers – into politics!"  Admittedly, this call is not the one I would myself heed.  Nor would many of my fellow engineers be likely to do it.  Because, although there many problems that need to be solved, and engineers are usually good at solving problems, there is much more to politics than just problem solving:

SAN FRANCISCO — Engineers elsewhere apply their talents to the political sphere, but those in the United States, unfortunately, don’t–and there are no signs the situation will change anytime soon. The overwhelming majority of American engineers choose industry and business, not government or policy, as their rightful place, even as their counterparts around the globe see no conflict between politics and their profession.

…………………………………………………………………………….

Engineers in China are acknowledged as key players in the country’s rapid economic rise. They’re overrepresented in the Chinese Politburo and among government ministers, said William Wulf, president emeritus of the National Academy of Engineering and a professor at the University of Virginia.

Their role on the political stage is a reason for the country’s success. "That’s a real part of why China is doing so well," Wulf said. Lawyers predominate in American government, and while their solutions often address the immediate problems, they don’t give much thought to future implications, he said.

The engineering mindset tends to focus on the long term. When you build a bridge that will be there for 100 years, you have to think about its impact, and its ability to absorb future traffic growth and adapt to new kinds of transport. "A lot of what we’re seeing in China’s astounding growth is that sort of long-term thinking," Wulf said.

There was a time when engineers played a greater role in U.S. public policy. NASA program directors–technocrats in the broadest sense–worked to get funding for the U.S. space program at its inception in the late 1950s. But even that effort doesn’t match the role engineers are playing in other countries, according to Wulf.

"Maybe they were program directors in NASA, but they weren’t in Congress, and you wouldn’t have heard them opining about the economy," he said. If not politically inclined, then what are engineers? In their own words, they’re logical, detail oriented and methodical. The profession attracts those who don’t mind working on their own and who are confident–maybe overconfident–about their own abilities, said Vivek Wadhwa, a Harvard University fellow and professor at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering.

"Common traits of engineers are that they tend to be introverts, they tend to be arrogant, they tend to be proud. That’s the stereotypical engineer," said Wadhwa, a former tech entrepreneur who started his career as a programmer.

Their primary characteristics are a love of detail and the ability to work independently, he said. "You start your career writing code or doing other types of design work. For the first few years, you’re really on your own. It’s not a social profession," Wadhwa said.

…………………………………………………………………………….

In Islamic and developing countries, engineering and medicine are the proven paths to success. Subjects such as social science, psychology or business are considered luxuries, Sahimi said. Drastically different social conditions mean the equation isn’t the same here. The United States has a large middle class, a democratic society and a developed economy.

"In the U.S., people who study engineering have the same characteristics [as engineers in the developing world], but they may not go into politics precisely because of the conditions the U.S. has," Sahimi said.

The view of the profession as a respected path toward success is shared by U.S. immigrants, according to Natalie Forood, a software manager at Ruckus Wireless in Silicon Valley. Forood, who emigrated from Ukraine at age seven, is the daughter and niece of engineers.

Having seen successful women engineers in Ukraine, and with encouragement to do well in math from her EE father, Forood felt confident she could grasp technical concepts. It wasn’t easy, though. Engineers need perseverance, she said. "An important trait in order to succeed in this field is to be persistent, and to work really hard at understanding concepts," she said.

A logical mind and the ability to think ahead are critical. It’s like a chess game, where you have to figure out what you’re going to do based on what your opponent is going to do, Forood said. The abilities to cope with pressure, to focus and to work hard are common personality traits in the profession, she added.

Forood disputed a common criticism made of engineers–that they think in black-and-white and narrowly focus on one solution. On the contrary, engineers collaborate, she said. "What I’ve observed is that people discuss several approaches and come up with the best one," she said.

The stereotype of engineers as more conservative than other professionals is based in reality, though, according to Forood. "By nature, I think most engineers are more reserved and cautious than people in other professions," she said. You don’t see many engineers doing extreme sports, for example, Forood said. They’re aware of the risks and aren’t willing to take them.

Nevertheless, being cautious or introverted shouldn’t stop engineers from playing a role on the larger stage of government, according to NEA president emeritus Wulf. The United States would be better off if they did, he said.

Only been two U.S. presidents, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, were engineers, Wulf pointed out. The typical engineering attitude to a public-policy issue is, "Oh, that’s not a technical problem, so I have nothing to contribute," he said.

But in Wulf’s view, engineers have expertise in other matters, whether they acknowledge it or not. In one nontechnical area in particular–immigration and visas–engineers have plenty to contribute, he said.

"They have been essentially mute," Wulf said. "The contribution of foreign-born engineers has been profound. Somehow, legal and illegal immigration have been conflated in some people’s minds, and I think it’s just shooting ourselves in the foot."

Other countries benefit from engineers’ brainpower at the public-policy level and the United States could, too, he said. "In reality, they often have a lot to contribute. And in places like China, France and much of Latin America, they do contribute," Wulf said.

Now, at least one of the examples of US Presidents who were engineers suggests that perhaps it would be best if engineers stayed out of politics.  And no, I am not talking about Hoover.  But then, my grandpa often quoted one of his teachers who would always tell those students who failed a test: "You will never become a good engineer.  You might become a Chief Engineer."  So, maybe Jimmy Carter falls into that category of engineers.  Or maybe he simply did not understand that there are things beyond his control, and there are people who are not rational.  Anyway, do read the article.

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April 13, 2008 Posted by | Engineering | Leave a comment

Some engineering links

As an engineer, I get a bunch of professional newsletters.  While most of the articles are of interest to high tech. professionals, some are interesting to the general public.  So, I am going to make the articles that are interesting to the general public a regular feature of this blog.  So, here are some articles from the site called "Planet Analog".

Why engineers will always be lousy politicians and pundits

The world of analog engineering is the polar opposite of the way that politicians and pundits operate, and that’s why engineers don’t fit into that public realm

Tony Santiago
Planet Analog
Feb 02, 2008 (12:00 PM)

Its political season here, and the media (both old and new) are filled 24/7 with politicians, pundits, and consultants who are analyzing, assessing, and forecasting. I’m so sick of the meaningless energy dissipation that I have pretty much shut off the TV and radio, and restricted my web sites and surfing time severely.

It’s not that I am not interested in these elections in themselves; no doubt, they are important. But when I see the typical behavior and messages of the players, I get major mental aggravation.

Why? First and least offensive is their "spin", putting as good an interpretation on the facts as possible. It’s like the old joke about a race: "our guy came in second, while your guy only came in next to last"–but you don’t mention that it was just a two-person race!

Second, and more offensive, is the smooth way these people evade questions asked. Imagine your project manager asks, "hey, did you get that dissipation under budget?" and you answer "that’s a good question, but instead I’d like to point out that we did get the speed up 20% above plan."

Finally, there’s the absolute ease with which these people make predictions and then have no shame or contrition when they are repeatedly wrong. Instead, it’s just on to the next prediction. If you modeled system performance and were off by 50%, you’d not only try to figure out why, you’d likely hesitate before making your next bold statement.

This behavior is very far removed from the non-software world of analog designers. When a vendor gives you a sample part and data sheet, you should be able to get the part to do what the data sheet says (assuming you have the proper test setup and expertise). There’s no facile, glib suggestion to "ignore our 90 dB SNR claim, but look at that dissipation, and we promise an uncommitted internal op amp, maybe by next quarter."

This article is absolutely correct, from my perspective.  Here is another one that I agree with completely:

Commentary: Maybe ‘they’ should study some science instead?
Bill Schweber
EE Times
Feb 01, 2008 (3:32 PM)

Once again, engineers are being asked to spend more time studying the liberal arts ( "Engineering schools strive to serve up Pinter with Planck). Frankly, I’m tired of hearing this proposition, and it’s not due my disinterest in non-science subjects: I’d be happy to discuss Greek philosophers, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and William Shakespeare with anyone out there.

First, I see nothing other than anecdotal evidence that such purportedly well-rounded engineers will be better at their jobs than those who focus their studies on science and engineering. Second, as the clich goes, there are only so many hours in the day, and if you take time to study one thing, you’ll have to give up something else. The concern I hear from engineers and scientists at all levels is that there is already so much to know in their field that they are remiss at keeping up with even associated topics. Even more annoying, every time I hear some interest group with an agenda say something like, "Doctors should study more about nutrition/geriatrics/eating disorders, etc.," all I can say is, "OK, sounds good, but what would you have them not study, then?"

I am tired of the presumption that it’s the engineers who need to become "well rounded." The typical engineer has broader knowledge and interests than the average non-engineer, in my experience. Then look at the abysmal understanding the public has about basic science and engineering topics; it would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. These are the same people who call upon the technical community to solve every problem quickly, painlessly, and without tradeoffs. Tell me: Who needs to learn more about the other side of life?

The split between the technical and the non-technical communities is not a new story. It was discussed widely even in the 1950s by physicist and novelist C.P. Snow, in his essays such as "The Two Cultures," among others. Since that time, the divide he deplored has become even more dramatic than he foresaw, as technology’s advance has accelerated while the understanding of it by the public which consumes it has declined.

There are many reasons for this decline, including the sheer complexity of today’s technologies, a lazy and jaded public, and the dumbing down of education (have you seen today’s high-school chemistry labs?), to name a few. But the basic principles of science and engineering are still vital and unchanged (force, power, gravity, the list could go on and on). Why should our community accept the premise that it is we who need to learn more about that non-technical side, rather than the other way around?

This "well rounded" BS always annoyed me to no end.  Meanwhile, there are people who can’t cope with a simple task of programming their VCRs and have to call a handyman to replace a light bulb.  This reliance on "experts" will doom us all.  Here is another article that illustrates exactly this point:

Are we becoming a ‘cargo cult’ society?
Bill Schweber
EE Times
Jan 25, 2008 (3:00 AM)

The 2007 holiday gift-buying season again brought a major step-up in the sophistication and complexity of consumer goods. The technology embedded in these products is nothing short of astounding. As Arthur C. Clarke wrote in "Profiles of The Future": "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

But there’s a worrisome aspect to all this magic in a box. The very complexity of the technology makes it less necessary that users understand it. For example, today’s cars are much more reliable and easier to drive than earlier cars (Choke? What choke?), but they are also much more difficult to fix, unless you are trained and have specialized equipment and documentation. The good news, in theory, is that you no longer need to understand how the car works to keep it running; the bad news is that you couldn’t do much even if you wanted to.

This reminds me of a "cargo cult," a term originating with a story of Pacific Ocean islanders in WWII who built dummy replicas of radios, antennas and microphones, then called for the planes to land with their cargo, just as they saw military forces do. Physicist Richard Feynman referred to this in his insightful 1974 Caltech commencement address (www.cs.umbc.edu/www/graduate/feynman-cargo.shtml).

When I think about the trajectory of all this technology, I wonder: Will we increasingly become a society of largely ignorant consumers who happily use what is given to us but leave the design, development, debug and manufacturing to an ever-smaller group? Looking a decade or two out, will there be only a dozen experts who know how to design a decent power supply? Will these groups become like the alchemists of old, and be called upon because they are the only ones with the understanding of how things actually work?

We’ve come to a point where rap stars get accolades for "designing" cell phones, which really means they are prettying up the case, not the innards. How many people can actually design the phone, or the parts inside of it, and produce it?

Donald A. MacKenzie, professor of sociology at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland), wrote in "Knowing Machines: Essays on Technical Change" that there is both "explicit knowledge," which is published and spread, and the very vital "implicit knowledge," which skilled practitioners know and bring to their work, but which is not recorded or even recognized by them.

With the combination of increasing internal product complexity and decreasing end-user understanding, are we reaching a point where the implicit knowledge may get lost, or be known to a smaller and smaller circle? Are we becoming something of a cargo cult ourselves?

Finally, I’d like to round this up with these 2 technology news articles:

Startup puts wireless monitor on a band-aid
Rick Merritt
EE Times
Feb 04, 2008 (11:54 PM)

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Sometime next year nurses may put active band-aids on hospital patients to wirelessly monitor as many as three vital signs. Startup Toumaz Technology (Abingdon, U.K.) described its custom chip to power such a disposable device at the International Solid State Circuits Conference here Monday (Feb. 4).

A chip in a band-aid is pretty cool, isn’t it?  Just click on the title to read the whole thing.

Navy demos railgun to fire projectiles 250 miles
R. Colin Johnson
EE Times
Feb 04, 2008 (1:48 PM)

PORTLAND, Ore. — An electromagnetic catapult, or railgun, is on track for deployment on U.S. warships around 2012, according to the Office of Naval Research (ONR).

A railgun, which uses electricity to magnetically accelerate munitions down a track, shoots metal projectiles that hit targets at supersonic speed. They can also cause more damage than a high-explosive without collateral destruction (emphasis mine – Eric-Odessit). With GPS-enabled targeting accuracy of 15 feet, when shot from warships up to 275 miles away, the non-explosive railgun projectiles could also protect Navy personnel without requiring dangerous explosives onboard.

We create new weapons in the middle of the war and still think about minimizing civilian casualties, otherwise known as "collateral damage".  How different this is from what our enemies do!

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February 17, 2008 Posted by | Engineering | Leave a comment

Something I can relate to

As long as we are on the subject of engineering, here is another article from the same professional magazine called Embedded.com. It’s a short article, so I will just post it all here:

Why I Became an Engineer

Why did you become an engineer?

Embedded.com

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–>Some years ago my son was tasked with a high school assignment to build a circuit to re-encode a bank of switches. The teacher expected a simple diode-based design, but I suggested tossing an embedded computer in, so if the problem changed the solution would be trivial.

Also, of course, the thought of tweaking the instructor was appealing. When Graham got the thing working, the flash of excitement in his eye was a tremendous reward. He built the project, he wrote a little code. And it worked.

That’s exactly why I became an engineer.

Engineering is the art of solving problems. "In order to make a machine that does X, I have to figure out how to design some hardware and firmware that does Y." Puzzling out these solutions is both an intellectual challenge and a game. Am I smart enough to do this? What will I have to invent?

Problem solving is its own reward. But it’s not enough, for me at least. I want to make something that works. Not push paper, not write proposals, not document someone else’s creation, though all of those tasks are an inescapable and wearisome part of this profession.

But I want the thrill of seeing the motor turn, the LEDs blink, or a message marqueeing across the display. No doubt that "I made that work" satisfaction is rooted somewhere in the same brain center that rewards gamblers and addicts.

A lot of developers work on large projects that take years of effort. More power to them, but I could never do that. I want to see something work, relatively soon. Invent solutions, see them implemented, and move on to the next project. You can have those big government projects that consume entire careers; the thought of being caught in that mill horrifies me. Thankfully others are more patient and will see these efforts through.

I sort of fell into the embedded space as it didn’t exist in the late 60s when I was in high school. An obsessive interest in electronics morphed into ham radio, but the important thing to me was always building something. First, learn the material, absolutely. But do start with just an infancy of knowledge and build a small project to get feedback, for fun, and to get a visceral learning that does not come from books.

Later I learned about programming (rather, became consumed with it), and when the first microprocessors came out was accidentally and fortuitously positioned with the right skills and interests.

To me, embedded is the best of all engineering fields. One person can design circuits. Write code. Often figure out the science, or at least its application. And then make something that works.

In the olden days some companies didn’t let engineers work on the hardware. Technicians soldered, scoped and instrumented under the direction of an engineer. Screw that – half the fun is working with the hardware!

The irony now is that hardware can be so hard to manipulate – I have a sub-inch-square chip on my desk with 1500 balls on it – that the required special equipment becomes a barrier to that intimate physical manipulation of a circuit that can be so satisfying. If that sounds like some sort of foreplay, well, perhaps there is a connection between those two parts of the brain, too.

What about you? Why did you become an engineer?

I am an engineer. And I love what I do. My Dad was an Electronics Engineer, and I saw first hand how much fun it was, while growing up. So, I followed in his footsteps and became an Electronics Engineer myself. You come up with an idea, you design something, implement it, and then it works! Problem solving is, indeed, its own reward. And then your stuff works! I just can’t describe this feeling. I guess, only a fellow engineer can understand why I get excited over some waveform on the screen of an oscilloscope. So, I have fun all day playing with things and get paid for it! What can be better?

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February 11, 2008 Posted by | Engineering | 5 Comments

H1B visas

This article is not from a political publication, but from an engineering one:

Like tossing a lit cigarette out the window onto a bit of dry California brush, some subjects are consistently inflammatory for engineers. If career issues always spark excited commentary, discussion about H-1B visas are like pouring gasoline on a wildfire.

The ACM and IEEE claim that enrollments in CS and EE curricula are falling precipitously. Yet readers respond that those organizations are fronts for industry; that cries of looming shortages are the tools of fat-cat employers to flood the market with cheap imported labor and drive salaries down. Is that paranoia, or does it show a firm grasp of market dynamics?

Others respond that any idiot can see there’s no shortage. "Just look at all of the unemployed engineers I know!" Unemployed friends and relatives make for powerful personal imagery, but just as a single cold or hot day says nothing meaningful about the global warming shoutfest, local and personal anecdotes are tragic but not statistically-significant. The IEEE says there’s practically full employment, but those who think they’re a shill for industry won’t believe them.

For the record, I personally think that all the H1B visas should be replaced with Green Cards, along with requirements to become American Citizens. But this is an interesting article, so do read it.

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February 11, 2008 Posted by | Engineering | 1 Comment

   

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