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Petroski on Engineering: Engineering & Civilization

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Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Before we get too excited...
Ann R. Thryft   5/7/2012 4:18:54 PM
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We know for sure that today there are truly awful conditions for many workers in different parts of the globe. But it turns out that not even the Pyramids, the supposed classic slave labor example, were built entirely with slave labor. Most evidence now points to wage workers building them. As far as the megaliths go, many were apparently built by local communities over long periods of time.


ChasChas
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Before we get too excited...
ChasChas   5/7/2012 10:01:26 AM
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The underlying commonality of these great enigeering feats is slave labor. Would projects of this size been built without slave labor? I wonder if the engineers worked under forced conditions.

Even today we enjoy great products build under dubious conditions in foreign countries that are lax at preventing unfair labor conditions and human suffering.

Great article, Petoski.

Charles Murray
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Re: Lessons of failure
Charles Murray   5/4/2012 6:43:09 PM
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I don't know if risk taking should be encouraged in all areas of business, Rob, but I can't see how you could have very much success in the area of innovation without it.

Ann R. Thryft
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If engineering = civilization, civilization is really old
Ann R. Thryft   5/4/2012 2:18:55 PM
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Thanks for a thoughtful discussion of this subject. In the Neolithic, long before the pyramids of Egypt, some truly amazing stone structures, the megalith monuments, were erected throughout Western and Northern Europe out of huge stones. It wasn't until the 1970s that the tree-ring dating revolution in archaeology gave us any idea just how old these structures are. More recently, some 20,000 year old dwellings have been found in the Middle East. Those are not particularly remarkable, except for their age. "To engineer is human" may be true.


bdcst
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Re: Much of what is built today will barely last a lifetime ...
bdcst   5/4/2012 1:47:51 PM
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Hi Rob,

Actually, we are there regarding devices whose feature set can evolve over time without new hardware costs.  I have on my bench, as I type, a state of the art FM broadcast audio processor whose internal DSP farm was designed for the future.  The manufacturer considers this to be their flagship processor in a line of three current production models.  In fact, their present firmware is quite lacking in features all promised for future releases.  This is a quick way to get a superior product out in the field and begin to recoup some of its R&D costs before tying all the ribbons on it.

Granted, this is a niche product for a specific industry.  But take a look at software defined radios.  In the hobby field there are several amateur radio transceivers whose feature sets keep evolving.  The end user can upgrade for free by downloading new firmware.  Heck, the same sort of thing happens ocassionally in the broader consumer market too.  I'm on my third Android cell phone update and my Blu-ray players at home have had at least one firmware update in the past 6 months.  In both instances the updates were more than bug fixes.

Obviously, unless there is a mechanism to reward manufacturers for long term product support, there is no incentive to build upgradeability into their hardware.  So, maybe if those Android updates were awards from the cellular carrier for staying loyal rather than trying to sell you, at discount,  a new phone every two years, we could keep handsets out of the landfill longer.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Much of what is built today will barely last a lifetime ...
Rob Spiegel   5/4/2012 12:36:18 PM
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Good points, Bdcst. Sometimes I wonder whether we could reach a point where the advances in new features could be added without replacing the hardware. I know we're nowhere near that yet, but with advances in cloud computing, we may see a day when existing hardware gets refreshed with new features.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Lessons of failure
Rob Spiegel   5/4/2012 12:28:16 PM
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I agree, Mydesign. Innovation doesn't come through caution. IBM's response to its findings was to look at its culture to see if there were impediments to risk taking. 

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Lessons of failure
Rob Spiegel   5/4/2012 11:25:37 AM
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It is a disturbing trend, Chuck. Consumers are discarding products that work just fine. New features make their predecessor obsolete long before there are any problems with the product. Millions of dumb phones that work perfectly well are getting discarded years before they would experience any malfunctions.


GlennA
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Re: The 'Quality' Myth
GlennA   5/4/2012 11:24:57 AM
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Larry S.;  Re-read your post and you will see that you have contradicted yourself.  The price-point determines how much 'quality' a product can have and still be sold at a profit.  Or do you blame 'inferior, lazy design' for a Chevrolet Chevette not having the same 'quality' as a Chevrolet Corvette ?  'Quality' expectations are higher for more expensive products.  And are you familiar with Deming ?  e.g. defect does not equal defective.

Droid
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Re: Much of what is built today will barely last a lifetime ...
Droid   5/4/2012 11:16:42 AM
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Couple points here.  First - seeing something that was made with good functionality long lasting quality and aesthetic beauty is alway a treat. However, in many cases, we are often comparing apples and oranges when talking about old engineering versus new.  I am not sure that a Roman road built in a more extreme hot/cold climate such as Minnesota and pounded with heavy 18 wheelers all day would fair any better than our current construction.

The automobile is a another prime example of progress from recent decades and people's poor memories.  People talk about how good the old cars were mainly because the body structures were so heavily built, but I beg to differ that they were necessarily always better.  Our modern vehicle see more mileage, have less corrosion problems, and have more features while getting decent gas mileage in spite of overbearing government regulation and silly ethanol mandates.  

Additionally, the fact that we view many items as "temporary use" is a testament to just how fast technology and engineering is progressing.  We marvel at ancient technology, but only for the sake of how it compared to the "standard" knowledge of ancient times.

On a final thought - If I am correct, the Romans often used lead in their piping systems - so plastic does seem a bit better.

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