Archive for April, 2012


Archiving Computerized Creations

Post from Jean Thilmany:

Jean Thilmany

We have a new son and, like all new parents, we’re busy snapping photos. Unlike our first time around as parents—six years ago—when we used a digital camera, we’re taking pictures with our smart phone, which is well capable of taking high-resolution photos. We continue to download them to our computer’s photo-storage application… and we rarely print them.

Ever since Alvin was born six years ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about digital archives. Technology speeds along at a breakneck pace and I fear, much like vinyl records and rotary telephones, and even stand-alone answering machines that record messages with small cassette tapes, the photos of him as a child will be lost forever as the technology inevitably become outdated. After all, my mother never gets around to moving the slides of our youth to digital prints. She has yet to transfer the 8-milimeter movies of her own childhood to video, and then to DVD, and inevitably to digital files.

Archiving digital materials isn’t necessarily a hot topic among engineers, but it should be. Legacy information and original drawings are being lost as enterprise software is updated beyond the package used to create the original drawings. The issue, right now, is mainly of concern to archivists and librarians but should be of interest to everyone, including executives and engineers.

In an opinion piece written 13 years ago for UNESCO co-authored by Marie-Therese Varlamoff and Sara Gould summarizes the issues neatly. It seems that not much has changed—except for the explosion of information available via the Internet—in the ensuing years.

That’s why we need a comprehensive body looking at the issue of archiving digitally created documents or we risk losing the knowledge accumulated and disseminated over the past 15 years.


risk and reward

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

A couple of weeks ago, I did one of my favorite things: I took a road trip. A friend and I went to the New Jersey Pine Barrens. We covered maybe 250 or 300 miles in two days.

Joanna had been to the Barrens before, but not to the dwarf forest known as the Plains. They cover 30 or so square miles. Joanna stands four feet eleven, and she is taller than most of the trees. The subsoil is very dense and the taproots can’t penetrate it, so the trees adapt their size to their frustrated roots.

We had to be careful. It was a calculated risk going there in the warm weather. I rarely go into that part of the woods during the spring or summer without coming home with a few parasites under my clothes. But we took care and walked in the middle of the sandy lanes so we wouldn’t brush against high grass or branches. We didn’t go exploring the dwarf forest, but stayed on the sand by the side of the highway. It was an acceptable risk, and we came back without any stowaways.

Driving was an acceptable risk, too. It always is, but it is less risky now than it was only a few years ago.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration publishes records of auto accident fatalities, and they have always been an object lesson to me in what risk is.

Way back in 1970, more than 52,000 people died in traffic accidents on U.S. roads. Seatbelt laws, crackdowns on drunk driving, and safer cars have had their effect since then. But in the ’90s the numbers seemed to hit a plateau.

Driver education campaigns, appeals of all sorts, and enforcement together couldn’t seem to bring the death toll to fewer than 40,000 people a year. Then in 2008, the toll fell more than 9 percent. The same thing happened again in 2009. In 2010, 4.7 percent fewer people died in automobile crashes.

The latest numbers are tentative for the first nine months of 2011. They show an additional decline of just under 2 percent.

Society deserves a pat on the back for the achievement. But still, more than 24,000 people died on the road between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 2011.

How would the public and the government be reacting now if that many people had died of a new strain of the flu?

But that’s where the object lesson lies for me. Yes, thousands die each year in accidents. But I wonder how many others are alive because of the automobile. I don’t count only the injured and distressed who reach emergency care because of motorized ambulances.

I have to consider the wealth of my world because of the motor vehicle. It brings me nourishment from across the country. It is a key component of the country’s wealth. It takes people to jobs, to stores, to doctors.

That is acceptable risk.

Yes, human nature can make it dangerous. Human nature can make stairs dangerous, too. But we’re not all going to move into ranch houses or tents, are we?



An Oft-Delayed Future

Posting by Jeffrey Winters:

When I was my son’s age, I was sold on the promise of a great future in space. I’d been watching Star Trek reruns after school, had pored over the old copies of National Geographic that presented the last of the Apollo missions, and kept track of the latest developments in planetary exploration. Sure, the Viking lander had just reported back from the desolate surface of Mars, but there were other destinations. 

One of my most cherished books from that time was Colonies in Space by T. A. Heppenheimer, which laid out the case that the best place—other than Earth—for people to live was not on the surface of the moon or Mars, but in orbiting structures that spun to create artificial gravity. (The same year, NASA physicist Gerard K. O’Neill made a similar case in his book, The High Frontier. I read an excerpt of that in the Encyclopedia Britannica’s 1977 science annual.) To me, one of the neatest things about Heppenheimer’s book wasn’t just the mind-blowing illustrations of cities in a (very large) bottle, but that he drew up the business case for human settlement in space. In his telling, we could use the essentially unlimited mineral resources of the moon and asteroids to build solar power satellites that would beam electricity (in the form of microwaves) to Earth.

Colonies in Space has been uploaded onto the Internet in its entirety, which is good for me since I’ve lost my dog-eared copy. I was reminded of that book this week when the company Planetary Resources introduced itself to the world. Planetary Resources is backed by quite a few billionaires and is aiming to build robotic vessels that will find mineral-rich asteroids and—eventually—strip mine the good stuff for human consumption.

It’s hard to say whether that vision of robotic industrialism will be more feasible than the human colonization that animated me in the 1970s. Maybe space will be our destiny—someday—but for now we’d better hedge our bets by taking better care of the Earth we have.


electricity in rural areas

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

I often stop to think about the wonders of electricity. Take it away, and I can’t run a drink of water, wash my hands, or flush the toilet. I have to light my way to bed with a candle, but that part’s actually fun; it reminds me of Charles Dickens.

Most of the artifacts that I touch were made with electrically powered tools. It’s hard to believe that much of the United States was without electricity as recently as 80 years ago. The Rural Electrification Act passed in 1936.

It was in searching out that little factoid that I came across something very interesting, a 2008 report published by the World Bank, The Welfare Impact of Rural Electrification

According to the report, the introduction of electric power to communities doesn’t have its largest impact in supporting businesses, although stores and clinics get to stay open longer.

It seems that rural electrification in the developing world is largely residential. At one point, there’s an estimate that two-thirds of the electricity consumption in rural Java is residential. The residential consumption rate is about 78 percent in rural Thailand.

Electrification benefits clinics in supporting refrigeration for the preservation of vaccines. The availability of electricity in a community also correlates with a lower absentee rate among health clinic workers and school teachers.

The report quoted an earlier study in which an official in Ghana reported that four teachers had been assigned to the local school, but only one had shown up. As that official put it, “What teacher will come here and live in a place with no electricity?”

In my highly electrified world, the water at home is provided by the city. If a line falls and my home goes dark I can light candles, and the water usually continues to run. I’ll drink wine instead of beer so I won’t have to open the refrigerator and let warm air in.

But if the water department’s separate power supply fails, then a blackout will really start to hurt. There’s no alternative source of clean water where I live.

Communities that are not electrified have a non-electric infrastructure in place—things like kerosene lamps and a hand-drawn water supply. There is some electricity provided by batteries. The World Bank’s report found a high incidence of radio ownership, for instance, that didn’t rely on electrification.

Although centrally generated electric power is cheaper in the long run than buying kerosene for lamps and batteries for radios, the initial costs of connecting are too high for most households at the bottom of the economic pyramid. According to the report, it is usually only the “non-poor” in rural communities who can afford to connect to the grid.

When they do, their main use of electricity is to produce light, which can extend the day, permit children more time to study, improve their study environment, and enhance security.

Cooking and refrigeration seem to be among the less common uses of electricity in the rural places of the developing world. After lighting, the second most common use of electricity is for television. Nearly half of all rural homes with electricity have TV sets, which bring entertainment and new streams of information into the home.

The World Bank, after all, is a funding organization, and its concern with rural electrification is sustainability. That is, after loans are made to back electrification projects, will sufficient numbers of people be willing to pay a sustainable price for electricity, which will be used primarily for light and TV? The answer is yes.


LEGO for everyone

I’m taking the following straight from a website called www.Change.Org. It’s pertinent to our continuing coverage and overall discussion of STEM and particularly as it relates to young women.

To read the entire passage, visit

After 4 years of marketing research, LEGO has come to the conclusion that girls want LadyFigs, a pink Barbielicious product line for girls, so 5 year-olds can imagine themselves at the café, lounging at the pool with drinks, brushing their hair in front of a vanity mirror, singing in a club, or shopping with their girlfriends. As LEGO CEO Jorgan Vig Knudstorp puts it, “We want to reach the other 50% of the world’s population.”
As representatives of that 50%, we aren’t buying it!  Marketers, ad execs, Hollywood and just about everyone else in the media are busy these days insisting that girls are not interested in their products unless they’re pink, cute, or romantic. They’ve come to this conclusion even though they’ve refused to market their products to the girls they are so certain will not like them. Who populates commercials for LEGO? Boys! Where in the toy store can you find original, creative, construction-focused LEGO? The boy aisle! So it’s no wonder LEGO’s market research showed girls want pink, already-assembled toys that don’t do anything. It’s the environment and the message marketers have bombarded girls with for over a decade because, of course, stereotypes make marketing products so much easier. But we remember playing with and loving LEGO when we were little girls.
As members of SPARK Movement to end the sexualization of girls, and partners of Powered By Girl, we are spreading the word that you, LEGO, are selling out girls. And thousands are listening and responding!
As Stephanie wrote in her blog, “I can speak from personal experience and assure you, LEGO, that girls do like minifigs. They also like Star Wars and Harry Potter, and they like being creative and making up stories that involve adventures and good and evil and things blowing up. But if you keep on excluding them from your marketing vision, soon they will start to believe that they would rather have hot tubs and little plastic boobs.”

The latest on this dispute is that the two young women behind a petition on asking LEGO to rethink their marketing campaigns and achieve a more equitable gender balance in their toys will meet with company representatives tomorrow in New York City.


the man who coined the term “robotics”

Post from Alan Brown:

Alan Brown

I didn’t want to let April pass without commemorating the 20th anniversary of Isaac Asimov’s death. He is remembered for many things. His science fiction inspired both conservative Newt Gingrich and liberal Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, as well as George Devol, who built the first industrial robot, and Marvin Minsky, the pioneering founder of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Asimov wrote more than 500 books, and is more widely translated than Tolstoy, Dickens, Chekhov, or even Plato. He also believed to have coined the term “robotics” which appeared in the short story “Liar” in 1941.

As he recalled in an essay in 1980: “I did not know at the time that it was an invented term. The science of physics routinely uses the -ics suffix for various branches, as in mechanics, dynamics, electrostatics, hydraulics, and so on. I took it for granted that the study of robots was robotics.”

A year later, in 1942, in his story, “Rounaround,” Asimov introduced his Three Laws of Robotics. Perhaps you know them: [1] A robot must not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; [2] A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where those orders would conflict with the First Law; [3] A robot must protect its own existence, except where such protection would conflict with the First or Second Law.

These “laws” have taken on a life of their own. Asimov the scientist (he had a Ph.D. in biochemistry) created them because any technological society would build safeguards into its machines, the same way Cuisinart food processors cannot slice unless the cover is on. Asimov the writer then spent 20 years writing stories about the way safeguards could fail.

Today, robots are growing increasingly autonomous. Some predict that true intelligence is not so far away. In fact, this week, the University of Miami Law School is hosting a conference on the legal and policy aspects of increasingly capable robots.

And so, 20 years after his death, Asimov’s three laws have become the starting point for any discussion of how robots should behave in our society. It is a brilliant legacy for a young man who dreamed something new.


Design in Africa

Post from Jeffrey Winters:

Jeffrey Winters

Last September, we ran a large feature about designers who were creating products for the developing world (“Designing for the Rest of the Global Market”). In a recent essay in Fast Company Design, Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen warn of some of the traps for people delivering goods intended for the so-called base of the pyramid. It’s important to recognize, they write, that there are consumers in Africa (and elsewhere) not just aid recipients.

[T]he road to hell may well be paved with good intentions. There clearly is a bottom-of-the-pyramid market, but linking it to “aid culture”a non-market-driven-culturedetracts from the entrepreneurial opportunity. And correlating hunger, AIDS, malaria, poverty, and illiteracy with Africa perpetuates a stereotype that is far from the optimistic, go-get-it-attitude and ambition that we’ve encountered when traveling in Africa.

Skibsted and Hansen point out that if foreign designers constantly linked the North American market with obesity and diabetes, that stereotype would make it harder to create products that appeal to Americans.

There are challenges to designing for Africa (or South Asia or the island nations of the Pacific or anywhere else, really) but there are tremendous opportunities. According to Skibsted and Hansen, the growth of purchasing power in Sub-Saharan Africa over the next ten years will be the equivalent of adding a new market the size of France. Designers who understand that new market and can deliver products that are both needed and wanted will prosper.


Wheels Down

Post from Harry Hutchinson:


Harry Hutchinson

It was a big surprise to read that more and more young people these days are not getting driver’s licenses. According to stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times, the earning of a driver’s license as a step to adulthood and an entree to freedom no longer resonates as strongly with adolescents as it once did. There has even been a drop-off in driving populations among adults in their 20s and 30s, too.

One reason may be that the young aren’t fired up to go out and see the world because the Internet is bringing the world to them.

Maybe. But to a guy who gets uneasy sitting still too long—like more than a half hour—that news hinted at a profound cultural shift, maybe even more profound than years ago when a majority of Americans switched from scotch to vodka.

A hundred and nine years ago, the gasoline engine began the transformation of 20th century civilization. In that year, Henry Ford founded Ford Motor Co., which took a plaything of the rich and made it available to farmers and factory workers; two friends in Milwaukee started Harley-Davidson Motor Co., and gave the country an enduring symbol of macho freedom. In December 1903, the gasoline engine took off in the Wright Flyer. The stories of these events and their consequences have been chronicled for ME magazine by Frank Wicks, an ASME Fellow and mechanical engineering professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. He wrote about “The Remarkable Henry Ford” in May 2003, about William Harley and Arthur Davidson in July 2003, and was one of the lead contributors to the magazine’s December 2003 supplement, “100 Years of Flight.”

So after 11 decades, has the automobile lost some of its allure? Sure, if you live in New York or a few other big cities in the U.S., you may not need a car. But what if you’re anywhere else? How do you get to the mall or the supermarket?

Then I thought about my own experience. My home is in an old suburb in New Jersey, which has stores—four commercial centers, in fact.

The train station is a short walk from the house. One of my bicycles is for play, which usually involves hill climbing, and the other is designed so the rider can keep clean even wearing a suit. It takes me to the supermarket and other local destinations.

The short of all this is: Like the younger generation, I haven’t been using my car so much of late. It sits in the driveway for days at a stretch. Major causes to move it are to convey a passenger, or to pick up laundry or a pizza, both of which I haven’t figured how to handle without damage on a bicycle. Sometimes the weather is too dangerous or just plain nasty for bicycling.

The car does get an occasional workout. It will, for instance, take me to Indiana on a long weekend to scout out Dillinger crime sites, or follow I-95 to North Carolina where they serve Brunswick stew. But I’m the dinosaur in my family.

My daughter lives in urban New Jersey, specifically so she won’t need to rely on her car and is close the job opportunities and entertainments she likes. She takes the PATH train to New York where she can transfer to the city subway. One of her biggest uses of the car may be when she drives out to the ’burbs to visit me. Her significant other lost his car when it was stolen off the street years ago and hasn’t needed to replace it.

We’re far from saying so long to the car culture, but this is interesting. Is it really a trend? What, if anything, does it portend? Increasing demand for light and heavy rail systems? A slowly developing market for new transportation opportunities? Maybe Internet controlled or autonomous cars? A new iPad with wheels?

Or is this just an aberration, and one day we’ll all be jumping into the coupe, in jeans, white socks, and sideburns again?


flying car lands in New York

 Post from Alan Brown:

The big news at the New York Auto Show this week is the Transition flying car from Terrafugia, a company launched by three MIT students in 2006. The vehicle took its first test flight just before the show (you can see it here).

I remember running into the founders, Carl Dietrich, Anna Mracek Dietrich and Sam Schweighart, at one of MIT’s technology events. My first reaction was, “Are you serious?” They explained how the combination of lightweight carbon composites, powerful compact engines, computerized flight instrumentation, and FAA’s simplified regulations for Light Sport Aircraft had opened the door for real innovation.

On the ground, with its tail up and wings double-folded at its side, it looks like a large swan gliding backwards down the road. I know that’s not a strong selling point, but once those wings extend it takes off and flies like any other two-seater small airplane.

Top speed is 115 mph. Even more remarkable, the composite structure slashes its weight to only 1,430 lbs. at takeoff (970 lbs. empty). It gets 35 mpg on the road (on premium gasoline).

About the only downside is cost, just under $300,000. That is enough to buy a rather nice light sport airplane and have change left over for a Porsche Carrera.

Incidentally, the Transition is not the only flying car (or, more precisely, if you watch it drive, “roadable airplane”) in the skies. A Dutch company, PAL-V, has developed a three-wheel car that seems nimble on the road and converts to a helicopter. You can see it here.


Engineers Are Boring… not!

Post from Jean Thilmany:

I had a sit-down with my groovy accountant the other day. (The place doubles as an art gallery.) The tax news was okay. So then we got chatting. Alyssa asked me exactly what I did over at ASME.

I launched into my set piece: We write for a wide audience, so it’s not close-up engineering speak. Instead, it’s cool articles of interest to mechanical engineers doing varied jobs. Like I just finished one on how 3-D printing, CAD, and reverse engineering can be teamed to recreate treasures from the past—in three dimensions. And right now I’m piecing together an article on the ergonomics of website design. Then I’m going to interview an artist whose techno-kinetic sculptures demonstrate the thermal principles of ocean waves. And then… She cut me off!

“I understand. I’m a geek too. I love taxes.” That shut me up.

In real life, I’m not an engineer. But writing and talking to them about their work for the past decade or so has given me profound respect. I bristle at the stereotypes. I haven’t found them true in the least.

Still, it’s the way some people—maybe even many people—identify engineers: logical, analytical, noncreative.

And those stereotypes may even inhibit some kids from studying engineering. Take this example. Google reps went to Los Altos high school in California last March to dispel engineering myths. Granted, the reps are soliciting future computer engineers. But the engineering stereotype crosses all disciplines and can be hard to fight.

At Mechanical Engineer we celebrate the creative side of engineering. I loved writing about cell phone apps that measure air quality and the printing of artificial blood vessels. I find that engineers have found a way to meld art and science in their work. I also believe that they’re creative visionaries in a way that some more traditionally creative types need to take seriously and to understand further.

The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

April 2012

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