Episode 87 — Existential Engineer

existentialMechanical engineer Jack Reid joins Adam, Brian, Carmen and Jeff to discuss the philosophical aspects of engineering, and to review Samuel Florman’s book, “The Existential Pleasures of Engineering.”

  • Jeff is pretty sure his life is not a syllogism, although he’s not completely sure what the term means.
  • Our guest for this episode is Jack Reid, a mechanical engineer who recently graduated from Texas A&M with a dual degree in philosophy.
  • Jack notes that he had the opportunity to read Newton and Leibniz in his philosophy courses, as well as make use of their mathematical tools in his engineering classes.
  • Back in Episode 12, we talked about the Ethics program at Texas A&M; Jack took this class while studying abroad in Qatar, and found his international classmates provided beneficial insights on the subject.
  • One of the lessons of the Challenger explosion is that engineers need to recognize when to wear an “engineering hat” and when to wear a “management hat.”
  • Although repairs to the Citicorp Center had a positive outcome, the communications involved in implementing those repairs have made the project a classic case study for engineering ethics courses.
  • Brian suggests young engineers search for “engineering disasters” on YouTube, and watch the videos to learn about what can go wrong in engineering projects.
  • The Arabic word “wasta” has various meanings, including the use of one’s connections and/or influence to get things done.
  • Philosophy literally means “the love of wisdom,” and encompasses a number of sub-fields, including epistemology, logic, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics.
  • Logic includes the sub-categories of inductive reasoning, abductive reasoning, and deductive reasoning.
  • Metaphysics attempts to explain the fundamental nature of being, with the sub-category of ontology focusing on what entities exist or may be said to exist.
  • Epistemology is the study of knowledge, and what is knowable.
  • Aesthetics investigates the nature of beauty and taste.
  • Ethics considers how one should live life, and the meanings of right and wrong.
  • Considering reality ultimately unknowable, pragmatists consider thought a useful tool for progress and action, rather than a viable means for comprehending absolute truth.
  • Existentialism promotes the viewpoint that truth is found through being, and not through reasoning.
  • Nassim Taleb developed the black swan theory to describe the potentially huge effect of unexpected events.
  • Publishing in the late 1700’s, Immanuel Kant moved philosophy from the abstract ideals of Plato and Aristotle into considering individual perceptions and free will.
  • Jack recommends the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to those wanting to learn more about philosophical concepts.
  • One of Rene Descartes’ philosophical thought experiments led to the development of the Cartesian coordinate system.
  • Kant was followed in the 1800’s by German philosophers Hegel and Nietzsche.
  • Nihilism considers life to be without meaning or intrinsic value.
  • We turn our conversational focus to Samuel C. Florman’s book, “The Existential Pleasures of Engineering.”
  • Rationalism may be seen as the counterbalance to existentialism, in that rationalism views thought as the primary means for accessing truth.
  • Florman compares the engineer’s lot in life to that of Sisyphus, who was forever condemned to roll a large boulder to the top of a still hill, only to have the boulder roll back to the bottom each time the summit was approached.
  • In the book “Soul of a New Machine,” engineers talk about their work being like playing pinball, in that the reward for doing a good job is getting to work on another project.
  • Brian suggests the podcast team launch a Kickstarter project to create Utopia.
  • Listeners can contact our guest via email: jackbreid -=+ at +=- gmail.com.

Thanks to Kellar Wilson for use of the image titled “Anodized Golden Engineering Marvel.” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

Episode 86 — Idiot Box

idiotboxBrian, Carmen, and Jeff discuss movies and TV shows they find inspiring or entertaining (or maybe just awful) from an engineer’s perspective in this episode of The Engineering Commons podcast!

  • Carmen recently “unplugged” his cable service, and will soon be using a Tablo device to record over-the-air TV programs.
  • The Martian is a soon-to-be-released movie (October 2015) that features a mechanical engineer as its protagonist. Carmen highly recommends the original sci-fi novel, and is hoping the movie lives up to his lofty expectations.
  • Even xkcd has expectations for “The Martian.”
  • Brian is a fan of Real Genius, a 1985 movie starring Val Kilmer. The movie is set on a fictional college campus that is eerily reminiscent of Caltech, and depicts the operation of one honkin’ big (5 megawatt) laser!
  • As a kid, Jeff was fascinated by the scientific advances predicted on The 21st Century, a news show hosted by Walter Cronkite. Just look at what we thought the year 2000 would look like back in 1967!
  • Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist known for making predictions about future technology.
  • Modern Marvels is a television series that investigates technology and its use in today’s society.
  • Brian enjoyed the “cartoonish” 1995 movie Hackers, in which high school students hack computer systems by playing a video game.
  • Sneakers was a 1992 movie that also entertained Brian, as he found the dialogue about electronics, computers, and cryptography to be realistic.
  • Jeff was disappointed by the Dilbert animated television series, as he found the writing and voices incongruent with the Dilbert comic he enjoyed reading in the daily newspaper. Nonetheless, Jeff still likes the clip about Dilbert having an engineering “knack.”
  • Manufacturing processes are highlighted in the TV series How It’s Made. For example, a recent episode discussed pencil fabrication.
  • An HBO series about a startup company attempting to create a better data compression algorithm, Silicon Valley, has garnered Brian’s attention. An article about the show’s creator recently appeared in Wired Magazine.
  • Jeff remembers enjoying the old television series BattleBots, which after a 13 year hiatus is being resurrected in 2015 with new episodes.
  • Futurama is an animated sci-fi show that shares the trials and tribulations of one Philip J. Fry, who wakes up in the 31st century after being cryogenically frozen for a thousand years. The plot line of a Season 6 episode relies on a new math theorem.
  • Brian recommends a documentary about the promise of nuclear power, titled Pandora’s Promise.
  • Particle Fever is a 2013 documentary about experiments carried out at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland.
  • Carmen recommends a set of three documentaries (each produced by Gary Hustwit): Helvetica, Objectified, and Urbanized.
  • An AMC television series about the 1980’s personal computer business premiered last year, titled Halt and Catch Fire. Brian enjoys the show’s ability to interweave drama with hard-core engineering.
  • Apollo 13 is a popular film that has been called “the world’s greatest engineering movie.”
  • The Pentagon Wars is a 1998 HBO movie that depicts the making of the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The movie’s lessons about feature creep might be instructive to all engineers, says Brian.
  • Carmen enjoyed learning about the inner workings of a popular children’s toy in the documentary Inside Lego.
  • Swordfish is 2001 crime drama that Brian found “awful,” at least from a technical point of view.
  • Takedown is a 2009 movie about the U.S. government’s search for hacker Kevin Mitnick.

Thanks to Ángela Burón for use of the image titled “Incultura general.” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

Episode 85 — Unwritten Rules

unwrittenAdam, Brian, Carmen, and Jeff discuss the values and ideals that often guide engineering decision making, even if these policies are rarely written down or mentioned in academic settings.

  • Brian finds that Dilbert cartoons help him develop a “befuddlement with life and others.”
  • Scott Adam’s book, Dogbert’s Top Secret Management Handbook, provides guidance on how to appear technically proficient, even when one is not.
  • W.J. King wrote the original version of “The Unwritten Laws of Engineering” back in 1944.
  • King’s Rule #1: However menial and trivial your early assignments may appear, give them your best efforts.
  • King’s Rule #3: In carrying out a project do not wait for foremen, vendors, and others to deliver the goods; go after them and keep everlastingly after them.
  • Adam makes reference to the “rule of pi,” which was introduced in Episode 1. This maxim suggests new projects will take about pi times longer to complete than first anticipated.
  • King’s Rule #6: Avoid the very appearance of vacillation. (Is this still valid in 2015?)
  • King’s Rule #15: Whatever the boss wants done takes top priority.
  • The Unwritten Laws of Systems Engineering” was authored by David F. McClinton half a century later, in 1994.
  • McClinton’s Rule #1: Everything interacts with everything else.
  • McClinton’s Rule #2: Everything goes somewhere.
  • Brian makes a joke about “chazzwazzas” that confuses his co-hosts.
  • McClinton’s Rule #3: There is no such thing as a free lunch.
  • McClinton’s Rule #4: Never confuse change with progress.
  • Carmen has fond memories of his JNCO jeans.
  • McClinton’s Rule #10: There is no shelf.
  • Brian wondered if the prior rule had some connection to the Matrix movie line, “There is no spoon.”
  • McClinton’s Rule #14: Nothing is impossible to the man who doesn’t have to do it.
  • McClinton’s Rule #16: Any analysis will be believed by no one but the analyst who conducted it. Any test will be believed by every one but the person who conducted it.
  • McClinton’s Rule #21: Never use a word chart when a picture chart will do.
  • McClinton’s Rule #22: Never go in with the first wave.
  • McClinton’s Rule #23: Never go in with the second wave either.
  • McClinton’s Rule #24: Have the heart of a child but keep it in a jar on your
  • Jeff references the book, “Thick Face, Black Heart: The Warrior Philosophy for Conquering the Challenges of Business and Life.”

Thanks to Kate Hiscock for use of the image titled “an open book.” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

Practical insights for the engineering crowd