Sailing Ships, Slide Rules, and the Quality of Engineering

We recently ran a post about engineers being worse, better, or the same than they “used to be” and it got me thinking. Of course “used to be” is in the eyes of the beholders. To me, that’s the 1950s and 1960s. To some of you, my generation is the “used to be” generation. To some of you, I’m past even that.

I’ve often said, there are two things that are simple: something really simple, and something really complex. For example, when a caveman grabbed a log floating down the river and hitched a ride a few miles downstream that was pretty simple. Today, you can go on a well-equipped boat, stab your finger at a map, click go, and the boat will do almost all the work. However, get onboard a sailing vessel from 1850 and you better know what you are doing. What’s more is, some sailors were better than others.

What’s Better or Best?

Were yesterday’s engineers better than today? That’s like asking who is the “best” driver. It depends a lot on what “best” means? Safer? Faster? Most efficient? I would suggest that yesterday’s engineers were better at doing yesterday’s jobs. I own several slide rules and I can use them, but I bet my mentor who finished college in the 1940s was faster. I don’t need to be faster. On the other hand, he might have some trouble doing a good Internet search.

But here’s the problem. Doing basic math is like the caveman on the log (and yes, that begs for a slide rule joke). Asking Wolfram Alpha to solve your set of simultaneous equations is like the modern computer-controlled ship with GPS. You can bet that the sailing master of a barque in 1850 knew a lot more about sailing and winds and ship construction than the average guy on a modern ship. He had to. That gave him extra reasoning tools when faced with a problem.

Slide Rules Do (Most) of the Math

By the same token, using a slide rule is very helpful but–paradoxically–you have to know a little math to be able to use it. In particular, you had to have a rough idea of the magnitude of the answer to get the right answer. If you couldn’t get that concept or do the simple estimate in your head, the slide rule was useless and you probably dropped out of engineering school. Today, you may or may not have that kind of math smarts, and it doesn’t matter.

I’ve know graybeards that keep up with the modern technology. I’ve also known plenty who are stuck in the past, talking about how horrible transistors, or ICs, or software is and how it has ruined everything. Of course, they haven’t.

Lesson Learned

As Gerrit pointed out, we tend to remember the brilliant engineers and projects and forget the bad ones (unless they are really bad). Even in “the golden age” there were good engineers and bad.

So how can you maximize your chances of being one of the good ones when this turns into some kid’s golden age? Two things, I think. Never stop learning the new technology. The hot-shot engineer with the slide rule wouldn’t function as well in today’s world unless he was willing to learn about the new things. But also, learn the fundamentals. You don’t have to know how an engine works to drive a car. But all the race car drivers do know. Having tools to do circuit analysis or solve thorny math equations is a great time saver. But you ought to know how to do it without those tools. The insights you’ll gain will give you more tools at your disposal when faced with a problem.

Engineering is a series of abstractions. Always try to drive down the abstraction layers. Know how to program? How does a CPU work at the logic gate level? Know how that works? Then how do the transistors form those gates? When you understand that, dig into why the transistors work at all. Sure, you probably aren’t going to build a transistor from raw materials. But you’ll gain new insights and those insights will help you solve future problems. Besides, if there’s ever a zombie apocalypse, it might be good to know how to use a slide rule or build a transistor.

Death To The 3.5mm Audio Jack, Long Live Wireless

There’s been a lot of fuss over Apple’s move to ditch the traditional audio jack. As for me, I hope I never have to plug in another headphone cable. This may come off as gleeful dancing on the gravesite of my enemy before the hole has even been dug; it kind of is. The jack has always been a pain point in my devices. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky. Money was tight growing up. I would save up for a nice set of headphones or an mp3 player only to have the jack go out. It was a clear betrayal and ever since I’ve regarded them with suspicion. Is this the best we could do?

I can’t think of a single good reason not to immediately start dumping the headphone jack. Sure it’s one of the few global standards. Sure it’s simple, but I’m willing to take bets that very few people will miss the era of the 3.5mm audio jack once it’s over. It’s a global episode of the sunk cost fallacy.

In the usual way hindsight is 20/20, the 3.5mm audio jack can be looked at as a workaround, a stop over until we didn’t need it.  It appears to be an historic kludge of hack upon hack until something better comes along. When was the last time it was common to hook an Ethernet cable into a laptop? Who would do this when we can get all the bandwidth we want reliably over a wireless connection. Plus, it’s not like most Ethernet cables even meet a spec well enough to meet the speeds they promise. How could anyone reasonably expect the infinitely more subjective and variable headphone and amplifier set to do better?

But rather than just idly trash it, I’d like to make a case against it and paint a possible painless and aurally better future.

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Engage Tinfoil Hat: Samsung Note 7 Battery Theory

For the most part I believe things are as they seem. But every once in a while I begin to look at notable technology happenings from a different angle. What if things are not like they seem? This is conspiracy theory territory, and I want to be very clear about this: what follows is completely fictitious and not based on fact. At least, I haven’t tried to base it on facts surrounding the current events. But perhaps you can. What if there’s more to the battery fires in Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 phones?

I have a plausible theory, won’t you don your tinfoil hat and follow me down this rabbit hole?

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UK IT Specialist Unable to Boil Water, Make Tea

In our latest episode of “IoT-Schadenfreude Theater” we bring you the story of [Mark], a British man who can’t boil water. Or more specifically, a man who can’t integrate MQTT with Amazon Echo, or IFTTT with HomeKit.

Yes, yes. We all love to laugh at a technology in its infancy. It’s like when robots fall down: it’s a cheap shot and things will surely get better, right? Indeed, the Guardian has had its fun with this particular WiFi kettle before — they’re British and nothing is more important than a remote-controlled cuppa.

Every time we hear about one walled-garden protocol not speaking to another, and the resulting configuration mayhem that ensues, we can’t help think that [Mike] was right: home automation has a software problem. But that’s putting the blame on the technology. (We’re sure that [Mark] could have made the kettle work if he’d just applied a little Wireshark.)

Strongbad's VCR
Strongbad’s VCR

There’s another mismatch here — one of expectations about the users. A water kettle is an object that should be usable by grandmothers, and a complex networked device is clearly aimed at techies and early adopters. Combining the two is asking for trouble. Non-functioning IoT devices are the blinking 12:00 of our generation.

What do you think? Where’s the blame here? Poor design, bad software stack, stupid users, or failure of mega-corps to integrate their systems together? More importantly, how could we make it better?

Headline image:Fredy Velásquez Orozco, via Wikimedia Commons Thumbnail image: Markus Schweiss, also Wikimedia Commons.

Beware Common Sense Engineering

I am always torn about the title of “engineer.” When I talk to school kids about engineering, I tell that an engineer is a person who uses science and math to solve or analyze practical problems. However, these days you hear a lot of engineering titles thrown around to anyone who does any sort of technical (and sometimes non-technical) work. “Software engineers” don’t have to be licensed to practice, while civil engineers do. What’s in a name and does any of this matter?

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BuildTak, PEI, and Early Adopter Syndrome

I’m guessing most of the members of the Hackaday community are what most people would consider early adopters. Sure, there’s variation among us, but compared to the general population we probably all qualify. I’ve spent many years being an early adopter. I owned a computer, a TiVO, a digital camera, a 3D printer, a drone, and many other gadgets before they became well known. I’ve avoided the self-balancing conveyance craze (I’ll stick with my motorcycle).

Of course, you know if you are an early adopter, you will overpay. New has a premium, after all. But there is another price: you often have the first, but not the optimum. My first digital camera took 3.5 inch floppies. My TiVO has an analog tuner.

I was reminded of this last week. A number of years ago, I built a 3D printer. A lot of printers back then didn’t have heated build plates, so printing ABS required rafts and ABS juice and frustration. I made sure to get a heated bed and, like most people in those days, I had a glass print surface covered in Kapton.

That works pretty well with ABS, but it isn’t perfect. Aqua Net hair spray makes it stick better, but large flat prints still take a little work. With a little practice, it isn’t bad. I eventually switched to an aluminum bed and didn’t have to level the head quite as often, but it didn’t really make things any better, just more repeatable.

The years pass and other gadgets beckon. I use the printer about like I use a drill press. I don’t use it every day, but when you need it it is handy. I have to admit, I’ve been getting partial to PLA since it doesn’t warp. But PLA in the hot Houston sun isn’t always a good mix, so I still print a fair amount of ABS.

The other day I noticed a product called BuildTak. I also heard some people are printing on PEI sheets. I decided to try the BuildTak. Wow! What a difference.

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Web Bluetooth: The New Hotness and Its Dangers

Google’s most recent Chrome browser, version 53, includes trial support for Web Bluetooth, and it’s like the Wild West! JavaScript code, served to your browser, can now connect directly to your Bluetooth LE (BTLE) devices, with a whole bunch of caveats that we’ll make clear below.

On the one hand, this is awesome functionality. The browser is the most ubiquitous cross-platform operating system that the world has ever seen. You can serve a website to users running Windows, Linux, Android, iOS, or MacOS and run code on their machines without having to know if it’s a cellphone, a desktop, or a virtual machine in the Matrix. Combining this ubiquity with the ability to control Bluetooth devices is going to be fun. It’s a missing piece of the IoT puzzle.

On the other hand, it’s a security nightmare. It’s bad enough when malicious websites can extract information from files that reside on your computer, but when they connect directly to your lightbulbs, your FitBits, or your BTLE-enhanced pacemaker, it opens up new possibilities for mischief. The good news is that the developers of Web Bluetooth seem to be aware of the risks and are intent on minimizing them, but there are still real concerns. How does security come out in the balance? Read on.

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