Some things, engineers can't do. Take, for example, creating peace in the family car. I doubt there are engineers anywhere who are foolhardy enough to take on that task. Making peace in the family car is akin to melting the polar ice caps, or sending astronauts to distant galaxies: It can't be done without access to extremely powerful alien forces.
Yet, we've recently been deluged with TV commercials and news articles promoting a new product that claims to do just that. The commercials inevitably show smiling, starry-eyed, placid families seated in minivans. And the news articles are always peppered with the word "peace." No less than TIME magazine said that it would "keep peace" on the family's summertime vacation trek.
To which I say: Excuse me? Peace in the family car? Let's get a grip.
The product they're describing is, for lack of a better term, a "video van." If you watch television, you've undoubtedly seen them-minivans with overhead consoles and flip-down, liquid crystal displays. They are, by most accounts, wonderful products with crystal-clear pictures and sound.
But, as is the case with so many great products, the engineers set out to design nothing more than an automotive video system. Then the marketing departments saw dollar signs, and suddenly we're being inundated with the idea that these video systems can promote family peace.
Which is, of course, ridiculous.
Any expert will tell you that peace in the family car isn't possible. And, at the risk of sounding presumptuous, I do consider myself an expert in these matters. I may be the only man in America to have driven six people in a tiny Olds Cutlass roundtrip from Chicago to Orlando. And I did it twice. What's more, I drove the same car, and the same family, shoulder-to-shoulder from Chicago to Estes Park and back again. Considering we survived, I've always been amazed that the media chooses to write about adventurers who sail tiny boats across the Atlantic, while ignoring me.
Nevertheless, those treks have taught me a great lesson: Peace in the family car is a non-existent concept thought up by clever advertising executives.
The fact is, kids fight. To borrow a thermodynamics term, it's their steady state. Without fighting, they lose their equilibrium.
Over the years, I've also learned another lesson: Televisions don't help. If you don't believe me, then ask any family where the vast majority of their fights occur. Undoubtedly, they'll tell you they happen in the family room. In most middle class homes, the family room serves as something akin to a WWF arena.
And what's the focal point of the family room? The television, of course.
Over the past 15 years, I've broken up thousands of family room fights. And most of them not only occurred near the television; they were actually caused by it. I recently broke up a ferocious battle that started when one of my sons yawned at the other during a critical scene in a cartoon. And a few weeks ago, I interceded in a channel-related dispute after my daughter allegedly struck my oldest son over the head with a parakeet.
The list of reasons for the fights is endless: He's hogging the television; she's sitting in my way; he's chewing too loud; she won't shut up; he's breathing my oxygen; her socks smell; and on and on and on.
The point is, television doesn't solve those problems.
That, of course, comes as no surprise to people who know kids. For decades, the American Academy of Pediatrics has warned parents about the dangers of television. Kids, they say, spend far too much time on the couch, munching Doritos, watching televised violence, and gaining weight. And-if I may speak for the pediatricians here-more TV screens aren't likely to change that, even if they are in minivans.
So, as impressive as they are, video vans don't appear to be the answer to the American family's problems. And I don't think engineers can be blamed if those screens don't promote family peace.
The fact is, car travel has always gone hand in hand with the sounds of little voices shrieking, "Hey! Cut it out!" That's what being a travelling American family is all about.
Perched on a leather couch in front of the family television, Chuck's kids wrestle over a rubber ball. It bounces to the floor. If the coefficient of restitution is e, the ratio of the successive heights to which the ball rises is:
A) e 1/2 B) e C) e 3/2 D) e 2 E)
-Answer at right
Adapted from Fundamentals of Engineering Exam., Eugene L. Boronow, Prentice Hall Press, Simon & Shuster, Inc., 1986.