Scale and Smart Birds

This is a little off-topic, but take a look at this link: A visual way to understand scale and the size of small things without having to use analogies.


Since I’m already off topic, here is another thing that I came upon that is quite amazing:   I had heard about Caledonia crows before, where they use the road and cars to crack nuts, but these rooks are creepy smart.  Tool-using and a bit of Archimedes in there as well.


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 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?

Design by PowerPoint

Might as well dive right into the deep end and talk about one of my “favorite” manifestations of Bad Engineering.  

How many of you cringe when you hear the words, “make up some slides on this”, or “need to make a brief …” or “next slide please.”?  Well, you should.  

Okay, okay, I’ll concede that there is a purpose for Powerpoint-like tools in some circumstances, but what I cringe about is the use of powerpoint presentations as a substitute to technical reports.  It used to be that you might make some presentation viewgraphs (foils, transparencies, etc.) after you had written the report.  Now we just skip the report altogether and go right to the powerpoint.  What’s wrong with this?  Well, nothing, if you are purposely trying to keep your audience in the dark.  Course this is mainly due to how the briefs are constructed.

You know the drill, you’ve been in countless meeting where someone stands at the lectern, looks at the screen, and reads slide after countless slides until the audience is asleep or have blown their brains out.  Let me tell you, this is not the way to get your message out, and it is certainly not the way to do engineering.  Even if you aren’t verbose in the slides, the very format of the powerpoint presentation counters richness of detail that is so important in engineering.

This hasn’t been lost on some people who haven’t been seduced by the cheap allure of a gizmo-ridden slide.  Powerpoint was identified as a major source of the widespread technical communication problem at NASA by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB):

As information gets passed up an organizational hierarchy, from people who do analysis to mid-level managers to high-level leadership, key explanations and supporting information is filtered out.  In this context, it is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation.

At many points during the investigation, the Board was surprised to receive similar presentation slides from NASA officials in place of technical reports.  The Board views the endimic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.

[Columbia Accident Investigation Board, Report, volume 1 (August 2003), p. 191.]

The problems with PP and its ilk are masterfully discussed in the great Edward Tufte’s pamphlet, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.  He discussed not only the problems with bullet points and incomplete sentences, but the inability for PP to handle high information density.  I urge you to get a copy (or a few to spread around).



What is the alternative, I hear you ask.  Well, here’s what I do now.  I write a technical report with all the explanations, data, and information graphics.  This I provide in advance of any briefings.  If a briefing is still needed, and if it is just a few people in an office or small conference room, then I pull out the important points, data, and graphics and put together an 11X17 briefing sheet that usually provides plenty of room to contain all the detail I want.  Besides, they always have my original report to refer to later, if needed.  I use this handout as my brief and go through it as a lap brief.  If the brief is to a larger audience, I use the same handout but project the major data graphics on the screen – sans gizmos, flying text, or 3D cartoon graphs.  

Yeah, I know.  It’s tough to buck against decades of mediocre briefings and even harder to sit down and write the report when you know that a quick PP presentation would do.  But then that would be Bad Engineering.  And we don’t do that here, right?

(Oh and by the way, if you do use powerpoint, for cripe’s sake make it a pps file so you aren’t fumbling around for the “play presentation” button.)