Thursday, November 17, 2005

Is Engineering Boring?

Lately I've begun to think that maybe engineering is a bit boring. I know that sounds funny to most of you. It's like a member of the bomb squad pondering whether defusing bombs is dangerous.

I associate the words "boring" and "engineering" to an undergraduate class I had with Professor Dourman. (Do I need to mention that's not his real name?) His first lecture seemed very promising. He motivated the course pretty well. But thereafter, the professor would deliver the entire lecture seated next to his desk, quietly reading his handwritten course notes that we all had a copy of.

At least half his students were completely asleep -- the kind of rock-solid, drool-on-the-chin variety of sleep that indicated either serious sleep deprivation or severe boredom. Miraculously, no one snored.

I don't think I ever lost consciousness in that class. I would dutifully fill a cup with steaming hot black coffee* beforehand. And I'd buy myself a large cookie to save for the last twenty minutes, should I still find myself awake by then. I had to time the eating of the cookie just right. If I ate it too soon, I'd most certainly crash before the end of the class from a sugar letdown. If I ate it too late... well, that wasn't ever going to happen, was it? After a month, I started bringing three cookies to the class. So I managed to stave off anything more comatose than a semi-hypnagogic state.

Now that I write about this class, I realize that it wasn't the most boring one. It turns out that the material the professor droned on about was novel and even a bit cool. The really boring classes were those in which I already knew the material.

I'd start the semester in one of these classes fully engaged, hoping to catch the professor's mistakes. But as the semester ground on, and as my workload from other courses increased, I would study other subjects or work on various term projects.

This problem, wherein lack of novelty leads to boredom, was actually a precursor to my current plight -- the ho-hum ordeal of supporting my employer's manufacturing department on the many dozens of products I designed over the last thirteen years.

I don't mind answering an occasional support question. But the product we make is highly specialized and difficult to manufacture. No two parts come out exactly the same. So each part needs to be honed (metaphorically speaking) by a skilled technician, who is supervised by a knowledgeable engineer. This is tedious.

I vacillate between INFP and INTP on the Myer-Briggs scale. I need to express myself creatively, and I need to do so in isolation from others. I do not care to make decisions or reach concrete conclusions. Deadlines don't concern me -- I sneer at them. I care much more about the process than about the outcome. And if I cannot learn while doing something, it's not worth doing.

So cut that manufacturing umbilical cord and let me loose on design work. I might just discover something great, like the meaning of Life, or better yet, how to make engineering exciting.

* The cafeteria sold a hot dark brown liquid that looked just like real coffee but tasted like you were sucking on the sharpened end of a pencil. If the caffeine failed to keep you awake, you could count on the taste to give you a jolt.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Just Say "No"

In one of the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" works, New York City is described as a place where it's best to answer "No" to three out of every four questions people ask you.* Douglas Adams wrote that back in the early eighties, well before the first "Windows" was released. Yet it applies so well to our modern day Windows operating systems.

Consider what you go through today to install software.

"You must agree to the following End User License Agreement. Blah blah blah... Do you agree?"

"Yes." [Replying no here means you can't install.]

"Would you like to install Active Desktop?"


"Would you like to make this your default browser?"


"Would you like to sign up for our mailing list so that we may pester you with annoying HTML emails that contain web tags?"



Now that End User License Agreement, or EULA, is a truely annoying thing. The difference between Spyware and "Legitmate" Spyware is that the latter comes with a license agreement that tells you that it monitors your activity and calls home about it. So it's important to at least skim through license agreements before agreeing to them.

And I do. I really do. But it's getting harder to find time to do this, especially since I use many programs that get updated once every few months.

So I was intrigued when I learned about a tool called EULAlyzer (which I first learned about from this CastleCops newsletter article) that "can analyze license agreements in seconds, and provide a detailed listing of potentially interesting words and phrases."

I plan to try it out just as soon as I finish reading its EULA. :)


* Well, I recently re-read all five books in DNA's HG2G trilogy. I came across the "answer 'no' to three out of every four questions people ask" idea in "So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish". And it takes place in San Francisco, not New York (in which, I suspect, you'd be better off answering no to every seven out of eight questions...), when Arthur and the fetching Fenchurch travel all the way to visit Wonko the Sane. -LG 2006-03-04

Friday, November 04, 2005

Technology and Real Estate

Technology has played a big role in streamlining the process of buying a house. But that's not what this article is about. It's not a subject that interests me. And I don't know too much about it.

Rather more interesting is understanding how technology has changed the desirability or suitability of a house. Actually I don't know too much about this either, but it's fun to think about.

Let's start with the well-known real estate joke. You know the one: What are the three most important things to know in buying real estate? Location, location, location.

But it's no joke. Location is important. And historically, technology has had a tremendous impact on this. Consider how a boon in shipbuilding encouraged sea-faring communities to flourish and allowed colonization of foreign shores. Advances in rail transportation enabled settlers to spread west across the USA. The invention of the gasoline engine and discovery of oil reserves led to whole communities founded near oil wells and refineries.

Our needs for water, food and a temperate climate can be met with technology. The better it is, the more adverse conditions we can overcome.

Today we see major cities such as San Francisco developing wireless Internet infrastructures. This is done as part of a revitalization effort. An Internet user might save about $1000 each year in such a place. A smart home buyer will assess the quality of his cell phone reception when shopping for a new home.

Think about the place you live in. What do you like about the dwelling or area? Perhaps it's near a major highway, railway or busline? Maybe you can listen to several cool radio stations that come in clearly. Or maybe you're like me, you just appreciate reliable electricity and telecommunications services. If so, you can thank technology.

Technology or its after effects can make a location less desirable, too. Pollution can shut down entire communities, as in the case of Love Canal. Pollution also takes the form of excess light and noise, which detract from quality of life. The fear of cancer from electromagnetic radiation discourages people from buying homes near high voltage power lines, which, along with cell phone towers, are an eyesore.

Are there things you don't like about the place you live in? Is it so hazy that you can't see the stars at night? Are your neighbors making lots of noise on Saturday mornings with their lawn mowers and leaf blowers? Are the roads too congested and do they have too many red traffic lights? You can blame all this on technology.