Getting back what you put in

June 10, 2007

Several weeks ago, I packed up all of my worldly possessions and moved them nearly 750 miles from Southeast Michigan to central North Carolina. Part of this process involved driving a seventeen-foot U-Haul truck, fully loaded and towing my car on a trailer, through the mountains. I found this process to be highly unsatisfying, but also thought-provoking.

For perspective, U-Haul lists this vehicle as being more than eight thousand pounds empty. Fully loaded, it weighs in at just about fourteen thousand pounds. In addition, the trailer is more than two thousand pounds empty, with a more than three thousand pound car riding on top of it. The effect is a fourteen thousand pound vehicle with a five thousand pound sea anchor hanging off the back. Driving a vehicle this size through the mountains is enough to make anyone develop a multiple-personality disorder. Going uphill, I would simply lay the accelerator flat against the floor, then listen to the engine roar even while the speedometer steadily dropped beneath the sheer mass of the vehicle behind it. Going downhill, I’d stand on the brakes and try not to think about the feeling of the massive, dead weight of the trailer cramming itself up into the small of my back.

Each time I rode the brakes down a hill and then listened to a huge, gas-guzzling engine wheezing as it struggled to heave itself back up the hill, I found myself thinking about regenerative braking. Even though it would not be the kind of thing that is even included on a vehicle of that type, such a thing felt like it would be exactly what I needed. I spent several hours thinking about the efficiency of regenerative braking systems.

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HP Sucks!

May 26, 2007

I am seriously upset with the Hewlett-Packard Company for their declining product quality and recent changes in their policy for dealing with warranty issues. Historically, I have been a big HP fan. I bought their first (and several more recent) calculator and their first ink-jet printer and have bought many of their laser printers for my home and business. HP had carefully built up a reputation for quality and service from their beginning in electronic instrumentation and kept it as they moved into calculators and printers. However, my recent experience indicates that they have abandoned their focus on quality and have compounded that mistake by also abandoning their reputation for service. 

In March I bought a new HP Deskjet 9800 printer (11 X 17 inkjet printer) to replace a similar one I had been using for about 4 years in my office and had finally just worn out. Ten days ago that new printer just quit working and sent my computer a message that it had a “carriage fault”. There was nothing I could see wrong with the printer so I took it to my local independent computer repair shop. They reported that it did, in fact, have a carriage fault caused by a broken carriage belt and attachment point and that they could not fix it because HP would not sell them repair parts. When I called HP they said warranty repairs were handled by sending the broken printer to HP and they would fix it and send it back in 3 to 6 weeks.  When I protested that this offer was completely unacceptable since I could not shut my business down for a month waiting for them to repair the printer, they offered that I could pay them $50 to send a refurbished (I think this means “previously broken”) printer and then I could send my printer back in the same box. It seems to me that HP has tried to increase their short-term profits by making cheap printers and living off their reputation for quality. That resulted in a lot of warranty claims so they are attempting to reduce that expense by making it difficult to get warranty service (no local shop service, just mail in your printer at your expense) and hoping most people will not pursue a claim.

Obviously, I won’t continue to be an HP customer and will take every opportunity to discuss how unhappy I am with their quality and service. What is the leadership team at HP thinking? I am thinking I will have to figure out which other printer company to buy from.

An Inhumane Interface

April 26, 2007

Snake? Snake? SNAAAAAAAAKE!Our computers are inhumane. When they don’t work right, they can set us back days or weeks, cause frustration and anger, and even lose or destroy irreplaceable information. Even when they work properly, though, they don’t work well.

People just don’t naturally think in terms of programs (or even, for the Apple folks, documents). One task can easily span multiple documents and programs. Unfortunately, computers don’t work that way. Instead, they try to force you to think the way they work, which just causes the kind of grief we’re all familiar with.

If I’m writing an article and need to do some simple math (maybe I need to figure out how many pages my 1500 word article will be), I have to open up another program, wait for it to load and get the answer before I return to my original document. That kind of thing is a concentration-killer and is probably one reason why so many people are now multi-taskers. We have to be because that’s how computers allow us to perform tasks.

So what’s the alternative? Well, wouldn’t it be better if you could just type out a mathematical equation, select it, and tell the computer to find the answer? That way, you don’t have to switch contexts (concentration killer!), switch keyboard commands (why doesn’t ctrl-A work now?), or worry about which application has focus (oops, copied my document instead of the answer).

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Can’t stand the heat? Get out of the engine.

April 11, 2007

I ran across an article not long ago in the Technology Review about improving the efficiency of the internal combustion engine. The technology it describes turns out to be nothing more than a particularly clever combination of several technologies that have been around for longer than I have been alive, but which when properly used in conjunction generate much larger increases in performance and efficiency than anyone has previously been able to extract.

I find such stories of people combining old dog tricks to obtain racing greyhound results very interesting reading. In addition, the very fact that people are still squeezing such remarkable gains in efficiency out of something as venerable as the internal combustion engine suggests to me that predictions of its imminent demise in the face of rising energy prices are likely to prove premature. It may well be with us for quite some time yet.

There is a strong tendency for established players to want to stick with those things that have already made them successful, and automotive manufacturers, especially in the United States, are nothing if not established. They got to be as big and established as they are on the strength of the internal combustion engine. It is a technology with which they are very comfortable. This means that if they have the option, they’re likely to stick with it for as long as possible, rather than risk venturing out into new and untested waters with some new system for powering cars.

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On the differing perceptions of engineers

March 26, 2007

Reading inel’s response to Sarah’s post about the future of engineering, I was interested when I read this bit:

Young people in Silicon Valley think it is pretty cool when I tell them I am an engineer. By contrast, many adults in Britain still conjure up an initial picture of me as a “grease monkey”—working under the bonnet of a vehicle, or repairing household electrical equipment. Young people generally have very little awareness of engineers’ roles.

Who (or what) is an engineer? Merriam-Webster’s relevant definition seems to be:

3 a : a designer or builder of engines b : a person who is trained in or follows as a profession a branch of engineering c : a person who carries through an enterprise by skillful or artful contrivance

And “engineering” is:

2 a : to contrive or plan out usually with more or less subtle skill and craft <engineer a business deal> b : to guide the course of <engineer a rally>

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A Makeover for Engineering?

March 20, 2007

It seems that engineering needs a makeover. Well, perhaps makeover is the wrong word. The field of engineering, as represented by the National Academy of Engineering, would like to change the way the public perceives it. The report on the NAE website, written by Mitch Baranowski and James Delorey, addresses marketing techniques that can be used to improve public perception of engineering.

The casual reader might wonder why the NAE is pushing for a change at all. Are engineers sick of being seen as geeky introverts? It turns out that geekiness is not the problem. According to Baranowski and Delorey, the public generally perceives that successful engineering is based on good math and science skills and hard work. Additionally, engineering is seen as a creative field that makes a positive impact on people’s day-to-day lives by allowing for the designing, building, and constructing of things. This seems to be both an accurate and fairly positive view of engineering. Thus, it gives little insight into why the field would require a different image.

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