Episode 53 — Storytelling


storytellingWe talk with mechanical engineer, product designer, educator, and executive consultant Craig Sampson about the importance of storytelling in this episode of The Engineering Commons podcast.

  • Carmen likes the universality of engineering stories, in that all engineers eventually encounter similar difficulties in dealing with customers, managers, and organizations.
  • In a prior episode of this podcast, guest Bob Schmidt talked about the importance of stories in conveying information about problem-solving methods and approaches.
  • Our guest for this episode is Craig Sampson, who is founder and principle consultant for TBD Innovation.
  • Jeff and Craig were classmates at Stanford University in the early 80s, while both were taking the Smart Product Design (ME 218 A/B/C) sequence of classes.
  • Craig was good at math and science in high school, so he gave engineering a try at the University of Colorado.
  • Jeff and Craig joke about programming in FORTH during their Stanford days.
  • Larry Leifer led the Smart Product Design program during the time that Craig and Jeff were students.
  • Craig has fond memories of watching a robot arm that performed ballet-like movements to the music of Trois GymnopĂ©dies, composed by Erik Satie.
  • Also on the Stanford campus at the same time as Craig and Jeff was David Kelley, the founder of Hovey-Kelley Design, which later became David Kelley Design (DKD) and eventually merged with two other firms to form IDEO in 1991.
  • Craig started the IDEO office in Chicago, which now employs more than 60 designers.
  • Paul Rand designed the original IDEO logo, which saw various alterations over the years.
  • Craig finds the term human-centered design (video) preferable to design thinking.
  • Our guest references a book by Tom Kelley (brother of David Kelley), The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm.
  • Joseph Campbell outlined the classic “hero’s tale” in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
  • Storytelling is the process of making your engineering work relevant in the lives of others, according to our guest, by presenting a believable vision of a better future.
  • A good book for understanding service design and innovation is Scott McCloud’s book, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art.
  • Craig is a Senior Fellow at Farmhouse, the Innovation Center for advertising leader Leo Burnett.
  • Our guest mentions the book, Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future.
  • According to the drawing by Hugh MacLeod, “The market for something to believe in is infinite.”
  • Craig recommends the Dan Pink book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, to engineers who think there must be more to life than the daily grind.
  • Personas are fictional characters that are imagined using a product or service.
  • Our guest has started a class at Northwestern University, within the Segal Design Institute, called “Designing Product Interactions.”
  • An influential book on addressing human expectations is Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things.
  • Our ability to integrate visual and auditory information is pushed beyond its limit by the McGurk Effect (YouTube video).
  • Pareidolia describes human perception of a random stimulus as being significant; this is a form of apophenia.
  • Synesthesia is the phenomenon that occurs when stimuli normally associated with a single sense activate a secondary sense, such as sensing that numbers have colors, or words have tastes.
  • Craig notes that our confidence in a product is completely intertwined with our confidence in ourselves.
  • It is increasingly the case that designers are creating tools, rather than products, for their customers.
  • SketchChair allows people to sketch out the profile of a chair, which is then delivered as a set of cross-sectional cutouts that can be assembled.
  • Skeumorphism is the use of a stimulus that is referential to other products or experiences.
  • Jeff mentions the Dan Saffer book, Microinteractions: Designing with Details.
  • Our guest encourages all engineers to think about how their work might positively impact the experiences of others.
  • Craig can be reached at TBD Innovation.

Thanks to RenĂ© Wouters for the photograph titled “Storytelling Academy #IEDP-42.” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

Episode 52 — Engineering Pranks


caltech_cannonIn this episode we talk about engineering pranks through the years.

  • We seem to have a new focus for this podcast; as we will apparently be talking about “Tar Roads!”
  • Tar is a black, thermoplastic material produced by the destructive distillation of coal, and was widely used in the early and mid 20th century for binding together aggregates, such as gravel, in road construction.
  • While tar comes from coal, asphalt is derived from crude oil, and has a higher softening point than tar. A highly viscous liquid that is similar in appearance to tar, asphalt is widely used to bind aggregate particles together into asphalt concrete.
  • This episode marks the two-year anniversary of The Tar Road The Engineering Commons podcast!
  • Many pranks have been carried out through the years at MIT and Caltech.
  • One of the earliest pranks at MIT (in the 1870′s) involved sprinkling iodide of nitrogen, a mild contact explosive, across a military drill field, thus causing small fireworks to erupt as students carried out their marching exercises.
  • The Great Dome, situated atop Building 10 at MIT and approximately 100 feet in diameter, has been the sight of many pranks.mit_great_dome
  • In 1999, the Great Dome at MIT was transformed into a giant version of the Star Wars character, R2-D2.
  • A police cruiser mysteriously appeared atop the Great Dome in 1994.
  • In 2012, the Green Building at MIT was turned into a giant Tetris game.
  • MIT students stole the Fleming Cannon from Caltech in 2006, shipping the 3 ton device all the way across the United States to be displayed on their Boston campus. Cost of the hack: around $7,000.
  • A hollowed out pumpkin was placed atop a tall spire on the Cornell campus in 1997. The pranksters who pulled off this feat have never been identified.
  • During the University of Chicago’s scavenger hunt in 1999 students earned points for building a nuclear reactor in a shed.
  • Albert Einstein apparently invented a wood-powered refrigerator.
  • Caltech students pulled off the Great Rose Bowl Hoax during the 1961 Rose Bowl football game, causing the University of Washington’s card section to display messages that were altered from their intended configuration. In the final display, captured by network television, the card section spelled out “Caltech,” leaving little doubt as to who had pulled off the prank.
  • In a similar prank, carried out at the 1984 Rose Bowl game, the Rose Bowl scoreboard was hacked to display the message, “Caltech 38, MIT 9.” This stunt gained one of the perpetrators credit in the course, “Experimental Projects in Electrical Circuits.”
  • There is some debate as to whether or not the Super Bowl was pranked in 2007 by Zug.com, which closed down in 2013.
  • Brian references the movie Real Genius, in which a car was disassembled in the parking lot and reassembled inside a dorm room.
  • MIT students inflated a balloon in the middle of the football field during a game between Harvard and Yale in 1982.
  • Engineering students from the University of British Columbia have been hanging Volkswagen Beetles from every imaginable structure over the past thirty years. This includes a library (1996), a bridge (1999), a train bridge (2000), the Golden Gate Bridge (2001), the Lions Gate Bridge (2008), and a clock tower (2014).
  • Apparently the rate of pranking slowed down at UBC after five students were arrested in 2009.
  • An extended article in Popular Science describes the process of planning and executing the stunt of hanging a car off the Lions Gate Bridge in 2008.
  • Fictitious student George P. Burdell has been earning degrees at Georgia Tech since 1927, without ever attending a single class.
  • In 1972, Signetics released a datasheet for a “write-only memory,” which is a rather useless device!
  • Brian mentions the infamous Retro-Encabulator video, which is always worth a link in the show notes.
  • On April 1, 2013, Power Knot, LLC released a video describing a “disertator” that was self-powered, and could turn waste metal into gold.
  • Brian mentions Homer Simpson’s reaction to daughter Lisa building a perpetual motion machine: “In this house we obey the laws of thermodyamics!”
  • Carmen notes that integrated circuit (IC) designers like to add personal notations to their IC chips.
  • With the approval of his boss, Carmen pranked one of the designers in his office.
  • Anybody have coordinates for the goldfish-shaped retention pond that Adam mentions?
  • Carmen notes that a Dutch artist has created a dead pixel in his yard, so as to confuse Google Earth users.
  • Adam has seen the xkcd cartoon about Highway Engineer Pranks.
  • Jeff gripes about a Michigan Left intersection recently built in his area, which differs somewhat from the Jughandle intersection that Carmen has encountered.
  • A LEGO manager had his real car replaced by a replica built completely of LEGO blocks.
  • Carmen describes a prank involving the addition and removal of gasoline to mess with an engineer’s fuel mileage calculations.
  • Brian notes the hacking activities of phone phreaks, referencing a radio broadcast from the late 1980′s. (The operator connecting segment mentioned by Brian starts at about the 34:25 mark of Part 1.)
  • A mysterious appearance on Chicago television of someone wearing a Max Headroom mask in 1987 is still a matter of conversation, as the instigator has never been identified.
  • In 2007, Boston officials thought they were dealing with improvised explosive devices when they discovered battery powered circuit boards with LEDs displaying a pattern that resembled characters from the Adult Swim animated television series.
  • Some Australian pranksters decided to reconnect a friend’s plumbing so that every faucet became a beer tap.

Thanks to Keri Garel for the photo of Caltech’s Fleming cannon, titled “04-06-06MIT2.” Thanks also to Wit Suphamungmee for the photograph of MIT’s Great Dome. Podcast theme music (for both The Engineering Commons and The Amp Hour) generously provided by Paul Stevenson. Our thanks to Chris Gammell and Dave Jones of The Amp Hour for permission to use their theme music in this April Fool’s Day edition of The Engineering Commons..

Episode 51 — Product Development


Saturn V ConstructionIn this episode we talk about product development with electrical engineer Dave Young, who is an author, educator, and small business owner.

  • Brian has been fortunate enough to be involved in new product development for much of his career.
  • Many firms try to avoid a technology push, in which a novel technology is introduced to the market. However, some authors claim that technology push can be a winning market strategy.
  • An alternate marketing approach, known as “market pull” or “product pull,” is to wait for consumers to request a particular product and allow that demand to “pull” the product into the marketplace.
  • Our guest is Dave Young, who previously joined us on The Engineering Commons for an episode about STEM Education.
  • Dave’s interest in engineering deepened as he tinkered with “X10″ home automation modules as a teenager.
  • We learn from Dave why it is always important to turn off one’s soldering iron when suspending work for the evening.
  • Carmen and Dave share a common view on writing code; they would prefer if someone else was doing it!
  • Dave is a co-founder of Blue Stamp Engineering, a summer program which encourages high school students to build projects about which they are truly passionate. Programs are currently active in New York, Houston, San Fransisco and Denver.
  • Our guest is also a frequent contributor of articles to the electronics community known as Element 14.
  • In addition to articles about entrepreneurship, Dave likes to write about Cadsoft Eagle, an electronic design automation program.
  • According to Dave, element 14 is the place to go to ask questions about the credit card-sized computer board known as Raspberry Pi.
  • First-time engineering entrepreneurs often fall into the trap of believing that building a “better mousetrap” will automatically lead to economic success.
  • The term complex sales refers to the process of dealing with the many requirements of selling to a large enterprise.
  • Dave has been running his consulting business, Young Circuit Designs, since 2010.
  • To get product development started, Dave enjoys sitting down with a client and having a “fun conversation,” in which all manner of product ideas are considered, without regard to practicality.
  • Dave will return to the client with a “menu” of between 2 and 10 product concepts that he thinks merit further consideration.
  • It’s hard to guess which ideas will take off in the marketplace; Dave says he would have never guessed that the Snuggie would become a great success.
  • Clients of our guest’s consultancy are located across the United States, and have come from as far away as Nairobi.
  • In Dave’s work, the intellectual property (IP) typically belongs to the client.
  • One of Dave’s clients is BrewJacket, the company bringing the Kickstarter-funded Lager Jacket product to market for home-brewers who can’t keep their lagers cool enough during the fermentation process.
  • The Peltier effect can be used to move heat across an electrified junction of two dissimilar conductors.
  • Carmen expresses his concern over worts being put to waste while testing the Lager Jacket product.
  • Dave has developed a double-kettle brewing system where he and a friend can boil worts at the same time.
  • Carmen is thinking about one day entering a beer recipe in an annual contest held by the Raleigh Brewing Company.
  • Dave recently posted an article about making custom Arduino boards.
  • Our guest’s advice: “Always do awesome stuff!”
  • Dave can be reached on the web at Blue Stamp Engineering and Young Circuit Designs. He posts on Twitter as @DaveYoungEE and @BlueStampEng. Additionally, there is a Facebook page for Blue Stamp Engineering.

Thanks to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center for the photo titled “Manufacturing the Saturn V Instrument Unit (Archive: NASA, Marshall).” Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson.

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