The push-button age

The push button age. Yeah, I know that I’m going to sound like a grumpy old man here — back in the good old days when we only had slide rules made of stone… — but bear with me for a minute.

There is nothing wrong with the advanced tools we use nowadays — I’m mainly talking about computers here — but more how they’re used. The other day I asked one of the young engineers to estimate some weights and center of gravities from some sketches. Note I said sketches, not drawings. Well, what he came back with were some hand calcs (on engineering paper, no less) with the results. Weights and centers to eight, count them, eight decimal places. When asked about this, the engineer said that he had done the margin Excel and just copied the results to the paper. After giving him some grief he agreed that it was a little ridiculous.

Was it that important in this case? Not really, but it shows that he wasn’t thinking like an engineer. We shouldn’t make it look like our calculations are precise when the information we get isn’t. The precision we show should reflect the fidelity of the underlying information as well as the calculation process.

I can’t blame Excel here, but the user who blindly took the numbers given by the computer without thinking about what the numbers mean. We’ve run into numerous occasions where reports have numbers that don’t meet the sanity test but were never caught because they were in nice neat computer printouts. I think the more we use these tools, the more likely we will lose the ability to perform these vital sanity checks or even understand why we need these checks.

What do you think?