Sunday, September 25, 2011

Engineers: Problem-Solvers or Creative Artists?

One aspect of engineering that technical courses don’t address very well is the attitude that an engineer should bring to the task at hand. Because so much of an engineering student’s time is spent solving problems, it’s easy to get into the habit of thinking that solving problems is all engineers do. But as the mystery writer Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) said in her book The Mind of the Maker, life isn’t a series of problems to be solved, like the whodunits she was famous for writing. Instead, the better approach is to realize that life in all its complexity and ramifications can’t simply be “solved,” except for certain narrowly defined specific cases. Life should be viewed as the raw material for a work of art, and the more creatively we approach life’s issues and difficulties and work within the limitations we are given, the better off we will be.

The Mind of the Maker is an extended comparison between, believe it or not, the creative process and the Christian religious doctrine of the Trinity. I will leave that aspect of it for another time, and concentrate instead on the criticism she makes near the end of the book about a worrisome trend that, as she wrote in 1941, was already dominating the way people thought about social and economic ills.

The mentality she decries is to view large, complicated issues as though they were numbered items at the end of an engineering textbook chapter: namely, problems that with sufficient technical effort and scientific expertise can be solved in a way that clears them up entirely. If anything, this way of thinking has only become more common in the seven decades or so that have elapsed since she criticized it. The “problem-solution” way of thinking has become ingrained in our thought processes so thoroughly that many politicians, economists, doctors, lawyers, and even theologians largely accept it without question. If all these folks think this way, why not engineers?

She answers this question by listing four ways that the kinds of solvable problems she set up in her detective fiction are different from most problems (including engineering problems) that we face in real life. These are, briefly, (1) there is always a solution to the detective-story problem, (2) when the murder mystery is solved, there’s no doubt or loose ends left over, (3) the detective problem is solved within the same framework of ideas that the writer sets out at the beginning, and (4) every detective story has an end. Engineering students can see the strong family resemblance that mystery-story problems bear to engineering-text problems: the same four features are true of both.

Writers of both detective fiction and engineering textbooks have to pose problems in these terms. Neither students nor readers of detective fiction will put up with problems that can’t be solved, leave a lot of loose ends and unanswered questions, require an unexpected type of knowledge to solve, or which go on literally forever. But Sayers’ point is that the problems we deal with in real life can do any or all of these things.

So what good is it to learn how to solve problems? A lot of good, it turns out. As engineering involves a wider variety of disciplines, the technical knowledge that engineers of various stripes acquire in their undergraduate education proves either insufficient for many tasks, or gets outmoded pretty quickly. What doesn’t get outmoded, and what makes engineers increasingly valuable in the rapidly changing world of technological society, is the ability to solve problems that are more complex, more extended, and less well defined than the textbook (or mystery-novel) variety. That’s why a substantial number of engineering graduates go on to work in fields as diverse as medical research, economics, or law: all professional disciplines need people who can solve problems, but they also need people with a wide enough vision to realize that simple-minded “turn-the-crank” solutions can only take you so far.

Sayers’ example of how a creative artist works within the limitations of a medium has lessons for engineers as well. As a classic example, she considers Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. In writing one of his most profound dramas, Shakespeare did not solve a problem, except in the limited sense of having something to attract a season’s patrons of the Globe Theater. He worked within the grand but fixed framework of human nature to explore perpetual issues of loyalty, courage, decision-making, and other matters of the heart and mind that continue to engage audiences today. Was the world any closer to solving these types of problems after Shakespeare wrote his plays? Not in the sense that just a few more years added to Shakespeare’s life would have made any of them go away. But in accepting human nature as it was and portraying it in a timeless way, Shakespeare helped everyone who can read and appreciate his plays to understand life a little better, I think. And understanding is necessary for wisdom.

Engineers rarely think of their activities as being creative, in the same sense that a Shakespeare or a Steven Spielberg is creative. No one but God is truly creative: even the most creative of artists works with the social, historical, and intellectual material at hand. But if we engineers learn to approach real-life problems, not with the mindset of finding “the” unique, cut-and-dried solution, but with the hope of learning about the limitations within which we work, and the human meanings of what we plan to do, perhaps the world will take a more enlightened view of our profession. And we will leave the world, as we eventually must, having made it a better place.

Sources: Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker was first published in 1941. I used the Harper San Francisco edition of 1987, in which Chapter XI, “Problem Picture” discusses the issues explored in today’s blog.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Ethics of DVD Rentals: From Blockbuster to RedBox

At first glance, the ways people rent DVDs seem pretty neutral morally (that is, excluding the content of the DVDs: that’s a topic for another time). But these ways have changed a lot in the past decade or so, and anytime there is change in technology there will be winners, losers, and effects that have ethical aspects to them. This is certainly true in the DVD rental market, which has gone through at least two major transitions since about 2000.

DVDs themselves were the eventual death knell for the previous media-storage technology, the videotape cartridge. DVDs were introduced in the U. S. in 1997, the same year that a small company called Netflix was founded. Initially, DVDs were rented (or sold) through the already-established chains of video rental outlets, Blockbuster being the most prominent among many others.

From the consumer’s point of view, browsing at a video rental store was not unlike browsing at a bookstore, especially if the store was independently owned and carried a wider variety of goods than was strictly warranted by volume or profit. There is something about being physically present among a collection of physical objects that facilitates the spontaneous and serendipitous discovery, making one feel like a child exploring an unknown wood. When we moved to Austin for a year in 1999, our favorite independent video store was Vulcan Video, which was (and still is) just that kind of place where you can find the unexpected.

Then Netflix happened, Blockbuster failed to adapt, and the video-store market collapsed, aided by the Great Recession starting around 2008. As people increasingly turned to renting content either by mail or internet streaming, the overhead associated with running a brick-and-mortar store—space, utilities, and above all, salaries—overwhelmed the declining profits, and Blockbuster went bankrupt.

But an outfit named Redbox (initially funded by the fast-food chain McDonald’s, as it turns out) discovered there was still a niche for people who did not want the hassle and commitment of ordering videos in advance by mail, but who still wanted to go get a DVD on Friday night on the spur of the moment. The solution: vending machines.

The vending machine has a surprisingly long pedigree, the first one being invented around A. D. 30 by none other than Hero of Alexandria, who was one of the ancient Greek world’s leading inventors. His machine dispensed holy water in temples in response to the worshipper’s inserting a coin. The concept mostly went dormant for a couple of millennia until an enterprising English bookseller named Richard Carlisle devised a machine to sell books automatically in the late 1800s. From there the idea caught on, with food for the mouth taking precedence over food for the mind in the U. S.: gum, candy, cigarettes (remember cigarette vending machines?), and the ubiquitous soft-drink dispensers spread over the landscape.

So it only makes sense that somebody would try to rent DVDs with vending machines, aided by the ease of networked debit-card and credit-card systems. I suppose that is the way the company enforces late penalties and charges for unreturned media as well, although I have never personally rented a video through Redbox.

The other day, however, I was waiting for my wife outside a drugstore and watched several people rent videos from one of the units. One couple, a guy and his girlfriend, loudly discussed the merits of various DVDs while he was standing in front of the screen and she stood a few yards away at their car door. The screens, complete with little flexible cloth sunshades, aren’t large enough for more than one person to see at a time. Another pair, evidently a woman and her late-teenage daughter, must have flipped through the machine’s entire inventory before picking something. This particular machine has two screens, fortunately, but I can imagine that such dallying with others waiting in line could be discouraging for the impatient. Clearly the leisurely browsing in air-conditioned comfort that the vanished video store provided is a thing of the past. I forecast a big drop in Redbox sales once cold weather hits, too

The phrase “creative destruction” has been used to describe the way advances in technology render superfluous entire business segments, such as the video store. My sympathy is with the thousands of former Blockbuster employees who have now joined the ranks of the (at least temporarily) unemployed. If they were young (most of them were), they can adapt fairly quickly and find other work. They are among the losers in this process.

As for consumers, well, it’s certainly more convenient for me to just run over the couple of blocks to the drugstore and rent a video, instead of driving across town to the former Blockbuster. But I’m not sure I’d want to stand out in the sun (or the cold) and pick through stuff on a touchscreen while perhaps other patrons are standing behind me, figuratively breathing down my neck. I’ve found myself instead looking through the admittedly limited selection of DVDs and antique VHS tapes at the public library. The experience is closer to the video-store one, and somehow the taste expressed by the library’s selections is closer to mine than the kiss-kiss-bang-bang type of DVD featured by Redbox. (That was true of Blockbuster’s selection, too, and is just a function of market demographics in a college town).

Eventually, perhaps, internet downloading will be so cheap and fast that even the Redboxes will find themselves out-maneuvered. But that’s what’s so interesting about living in a free-market economy: nobody knows for sure what will happen next, even the people who are trying to make it happen.

Sources: A good mini-history of vending machines can be found at, which I consulted along with articles on Wikipedia about Hero of Alexandria, Redbox, and DVDs.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Electricity Comes of Age: The Flatlining of U. S. Residential Consumption

“Flatlining” is a term from medicine meaning that the patient’s heart and/or brain has ceased to function. U. S. electric utilities are very far from ceasing to function (except for the occasional brownout or blackout), but a recent Associated Press article revealed that the growth of electricity use by U. S. residential customers has slowed or even stopped, and is actually declining by some measures. This is good news for some and perhaps not so good news for others. But first we should put the matter in historical perspective.

The first consumers of mass-produced electricity were businesses and industries, for which electric power meant cash saved or earned when compared to previous ways of doing things. Originally, utilities sought to sell electricity to homes as a sideline, mainly as a way to increase the “load factor,” which means essentially the percentage of time their expensive generating stations were running efficiently at close to capacity. Factories and businesses ran during the day, so having someplace to sell electricity in the evenings was a profitable new business for the utilities to explore. So for most of the twentieth century, the electric utilities’ marching orders to residential customers were to sell, sell, sell. And they did. By about 1925, half of all U. S. residences were wired, and the momentum to do more and more with electricity carried over well into the 1960s. Some of my older readers may recall “Reddy Kilowatt,” a cartoon character fashioned from a light bulb, who urged customers to rely on electric power from everything from clothes drying to brushing your teeth in your new home that sported the all-electric medallion next to the doorbell.

Somewhere around 1980, the tide began to turn. The rise of the environmental movement, the energy crises triggered by oil-cartel actions, and anxiety about nuclear power inspired by the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents combined with concerns raised in the 1990s about global warming and carbon footprints. Add to these cultural factors the hard objective facts that the market for new energy-consuming appliances was pretty well saturated and electric rates were rising, and sooner or later NOT consuming more electricity started to look better than the alternative for many people.

In addition, the deregulation trend finally reached the electric-utility business and fundamentally changed how power companies made money. Until deregulation, state regulatory boards guaranteed the industry a fixed percentage of profit, and the best model was to grow sales so as to increase the absolute profit in dollars. But after deregulation with its accompanying price competition and downward pressure on expenses, encouraging consumers to use less electricity actually started to make sense sometimes, when the alternative was adding expensive generating capacity.

There are many other factors in the current (pardon the pun) flattening of demand, but the portrayal of reducing energy usage as a virtue together with a change in the mix of appliances that use juice probably account for much of the decline in growth. Newer houses and appliances simply use less electricity to do the same thing compared to older models. And one cannot deny that government-supervised incentive programs such as the Energy Star rating system for appliances has played an important role.

A longstanding theme in modern engineering is efficiency, defined broadly as achieving a given result with the minimum use of resources. From the perspective of efficiency, the prospective decline in residential electricity use can only be welcomed, at least to the extent that it represents true gains in efficiency and not simply people using less of everything because they’re out of work, for example. (There is some of that, too.) One can carry this trend to an unhealthy extreme, such as some Europeans have done in designing and living in houses that use no energy for heating or cooling, relying only on incidental heat produced by water heaters and electric appliances. One can do such a thing, but only at the expense of hugely thick insulated walls, a floor plan that approximates an igloo, and exotic measures such as giant air heat exchangers in the basement.

What of the future? If I were an investor, I would look somewhat skeptically at the electric utility business, at least its residential sector, because growth is the fundamental watchword for a capitalist economy. Investing in a no-growth business is not generally perceived as a smart move. If the old regulated system still prevailed, things would be different, and industrial electric usage is still expected to rise for some years. But as the news item pointed out, unless some radical new use for electricity in homes is devised such as the explosive growth of the overnight-charging electric-car market, a declining demand for a commodity is generally a sign that rough financial times lie ahead. State regulation was implemented widely in the 1930s to stabilize a deteriorating private market for electricity, and if something similar happens in the future, deregulation may lose its attractiveness and we may see state regulatory boards stepping in once more.

So will Reddy Kilowatt ride again? I doubt it. No one gives their water utility much thought, largely because it is a well-established industry for which not many new uses are being developed. The same thing may happen to electricity. But the one thing that’s certain about developments in technology is that something no one guessed would happen, is bound to happen sooner or later.

Sources: The Associated Press article on declining growth in residential electricity use in the U. S. appeared in numerous places, and I saw it in the Austin American-Statesman, where it was carried online at

Monday, September 05, 2011

Is the Internet a Drug?

The dangers of alcohol abuse are too well-known to be questioned, although most societies have decided that the dangers are not so widespread and inevitable as to require absolute prohibition of alcohol use. We tried that in the U. S. from 1920 to 1933 and it is now generally regarded as a failure. A psychiatrist named Elias Aboujaoude has described how one’s use of the Internet can lead to personality changes both online and offline that are just as serious as those resulting from alcohol abuse. When I heard him interviewed recently, it struck a chord with me because I have recently had a couple of experiences that made me think he is right.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, we hosted our ten-year-old nephew for a couple of months this summer. There were many ups and downs in that connection, but the specific effect I noted came after he was allowed (unwisely, on our part) to view hours of YouTube videos produced by teenagers playing certain Nintendo games.

It was interesting to watch the change that came over the boy as he sat on the couch, watching the screen images and wearing headphones because the noise was too much for us to put up with if he played it over the speakers. Hypnotism isn’t too strong a word for it. The worst came when we needed to talk with him for mundane things like getting him to come to supper. The first time I’d speak to him he would almost never respond. So I’d raise my voice slightly, thinking he didn’t hear me through the din of the video game and adolescent narration. When my voice finally registered, it was like the Tasmanian Devil had been disturbed in his lair. Whaddaya want??!!” is the general tenor of the responses I’d get, none of which were socially acceptable, at least in my book. It would take him several minutes to mentally disengage himself from the machine and get to where he could approximate a reasonable member of society again.

In the child’s defense, he was dealing with some difficulties in his own family, and zoning out on YouTube may have been a kind of coping mechanism. But nothing else he did (with the exception of playing with his Nintendo itself) made him as cranky and rude as watching those YouTube videos.

I also experienced something similar when I went to a retreat center for a couple of days in mid-August. It is in a remote area and set up as a contemplative Catholic retreat, where no talking is allowed. And I had no radio or Internet access. I liked the experience so much that when I came back, I intentionally limited my time on the Internet to strictly work-related matters such as email and looking up specific information. In particular, I dropped my viewing of news sites, which had become a kind of killing-time activity I would do several times a day.

It wasn’t a controlled experiment, because several other things changed at the same time, but I attribute at least part of my noticeable increase in calmness, lack of stress, and feeling more rested to my abstention from what had become a pernicious Internet habit. I may eventually go back to viewing some of those sites on a limited basis, but right now I like the benefits better than whatever enjoyment I got out of them.

Neither I nor my nephew suffered from the more acute maladies that Dr. Aboujaoude sees in his practice of treating sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Although I have not read his book Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality, in the interview I heard he described five types of problems that can result from spending hours online, especially if one’s participation is more active than just reading or viewing. People who participate in the kind of mob-psychology forums that encourage “flaming” and anonymous posts are particularly susceptible to these problems.

The two problems that struck me as especially insightful were grandiosity, a technical term that means having a self-image that is much better than reality, and narcissism. People with these problems tend to think they are smarter, more important, and much more worth listening to than the average person online, and neglect the needs and feelings of others they encounter. It is a kind of delusion that the Internet encourages: a false image that you are the center of your electronic universe and everything is under your control. The real trouble is that these traits acquired online tend to stay with you in the rest of your life as well. Combine those with regression and impulsivity (two more dangers Aboujaounde has identified), and you get the kind of grossly indiscreet behavior that former U. S. Representative Anthony Weiner confessed to engaging in last June. My initial reaction to the news that someone in such a responsible position sent photos of his naughty bits to not just one, but several women, was disbelief. Rep. Weiner has apparently admitted to extensive online activity of other types as well, and the Internet may have had the effects on him that Aboujaounde describes in his patients. Given enough doses of grandiosity and narcissism, a person might delude himself into thinking that certain personal closeups are exactly what Miss X is wanting to see. Add some impulsivity that would lead you to do something that a little reflection would reveal as foolish, and there you are. Or were—Rep. Weiner eventually resigned.

The Internet doesn’t come in little cardboard boxes that we can put warning labels on, as the federal government requires cigarette makers to do. The hazards are much less quantifiable than smoking, but I think the effects are just as real. In the absence of such warnings, I think it is just up to everyone who uses the Internet for any reason to be aware that it can be habit-forming, and many of the habits it forms are not good ones.

Sources: An online (!) audio publication called Mars Hill Audio ( carried the interview with Dr. Elias Aboujaounde in their March/April 2011 (Vol. 108) edition. His book Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality was published in 2011 by W. W. Norton.