Good and Bad Bureaucracy

When working for the very large corporation, or the government, you are going to run up against that perenial resistor of progress, bureaucracy.

The ungainly and seemingly arbitrary rules and roadblocks that are thrown at us are almost uniformly despised by engineers who, for the most part, just want to do engineering and not be bothered with inanities. But I think there is a place for bureaucracy. I think the trick is following the good B and while ignoring (as much as your organization will let you) the bad B.

The good B are in the forms and processes that set and maintain criteria, standards, databases, and strict engineering processes and methods. These aren’t out there just because somebody was bored one day and decided to develop a form to unleash on the workers. These things that make up the good B are there to preserve good engineering processes and to enforce safety.

I suppose using the perjoritive like bureaucracy isn’t quite right here, but I have to suppose that some of our good B could be another person’s bad B. In any case, I think there is some good in some bureacracy.

What do you think? How do you deal with bad B and how do you make your own good B as efficient as possible?


Product Review: HP-35S


After a number of years of disappointing the almost rabid fans of the HP-15C and the HP-41 calculators, it seems as though HP may either be listening to the fans or at least coming to their senses. Exhibit A is the new HP-35S which seems to have come out for the 35th anniversary of the original HP-35 (shown on right) which was their first pocket calculator and the world’s first scientific pocket calculator. Whatever the reason, I think HP has produced a fine product.

As good as the 15C? Nope, ‘fraid not.  The only hope of that would be a remanufacture of that classic. Considering the amount even a beat up one can fetch on e-bay, HP could probably make a fortune if they did resume production (sign this petition if you agree). By the way, there are two great iPhone/iPod touch applications that emulate the 41 and the 11c.

Not perfect, no, but the 35s is still a great calculator with many of the features we love about HP calculators.  First, of course is that it is RPN. Yes, there is an algebraic mode too, but I’ve never bothered to try that out. The RPN works as well as ever – I really don’t understand why anybody would want any other method.

The keyboard is almost as good as the old calculators but you can feel the difference with these new, Chinese pads. decent clicks and feedback, but just not as solid as the old ones. The calculator has all the functions you’d need, though there are some changes in placement that have created some complaints. Notable of these is the STO button which requires a shift button first. No big deal, to me, but the layout could be improved a little. Welcome new functions include conversions and a ready library of physical constants. Very handy.

The form and look of the calculator is somewhat retro but I think it is a handsome look and though it is a little big for a shirt pocket (it still fits); it fits the hand nicely. Sitting on the desk, however, creates a bit of glare in the display. Nothing too drastic, but it can be annoying under some soul-sucking office fluorescent lighting. The display is two-line which makes it a bit easier to remember what’s in the stack.

Actually, one of the common complaints about the case is that the sides aren’t quite straight. I guess people used to use the old cases as impromptu straight edges out in the field. I, for one, don’t mind the slight curve.

I can’t really comment on the programmability of the thing, but from other reviews it seems adequate, with both label and line number addressing (a problem with the 33s which only had the 26 labels to work with).

All in all, I think this is a really good attempt by HP to get back to the proper roots of their legendary calculator line. I just wonder how much longer RPN calculators will be around at all. For that reason I’m going to pick up another 35s as a spare, and keep looking for a cheap 15c.

See more reviews and pick one up (around $50 US) at (link).

The Skeptical Engineer

I was attending a live podcast of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe ( and one of the questions from the audience asked about the seemingly preponderance of non-critical thinking in the engineering community. Specifically, the questioner was concerned about an engineer who was being used as an expert by some anti-evolutionists.

So how does skepticism and the scientific method fit into the engineering world? I’ll probably revisit this topic in the future since I think it is important to promote critical thinking, but for today let’s just look at the broad picture.

First, we have to recognize that the human brain is fully capable of containing two or more contradictory thoughts at one time. Yes, it causes some cognitive dissonance, but most people can deal with that pretty easily. Especially if the thoughts don’t overlap greatly. For instance, it is easier for an otherwise intelligent, say, businessman, to believe that the 9/11 towers collapse was a government conspiracy than it would be for a structural engineer. Likewise, I’d bet that it is easier for engineers to maintain a faith in a religion than it is for a scientist who spends more time contemplating the workings of the universe than many of us.

So do we need to be skeptical to be good engineers? Maybe not, in the traditional, wide viewpoint of the word. I am sure there are any number of good engineers who also believe the earth was created in six days, about 6000 years ago (I’m not one of them, BTW). With little overlap in the brain, the engineering probably doesn’t suffer too much.

But what concerns me is the underlying fuzzy thinking and the willingness to disregard facts. I understand that one can’t be logical about all things, but I think we should try to apply critical thinking in all aspects of our life, not just in our chosen profession. Otherwise it may start to be difficult to keep a solid wall in the mind between facts and belief.

Why go in that direction, some of you may ask? Because science and engineering work. Despite the Monty Python sketch, you can’t keep a building up on belief alone. Belief may be comforting, but it has nothing to do with the physical world in which we work. The more we practice critical thinking in all parts of our lives, there will be less chance of belief encroaching in our engineering decisions, and the better engineers we’ll be.

What do you think?