Conservative Liberal

FDR would have been a Republican today.

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

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