Dave's point about ASTM specs reminds me of the language in MIL SPECS. They were written in a kind of technical version of legalese. Indeed, the whole defense contracting process consists of a whole lot of parsing of the language of contracts and specs, so that vague or broad or otherwise unclear technical requirements are funneled into a narrow range that both sides (supplier and buyer) agree upon. Then whatever the engineers design has to meet that spec. The word "shall" plays an inordinately large role. Ex defense engineers will know what I'm talking about.
@Charles: Good point. Engineers still have to write memos today, they're just called "e-mails." I have seen people (especially engineering managers) who, if they want something to be particularly paid attention to, will write a separate document, title it a "memo," and attach it to an e-mail. My experience is that this does not necessarily result in any more attention being paid to the content.
Spelling and grammar can be important in unexpected ways. A couple of years ago, I had the task of cleaning up the material callouts for a number of molded foam parts. All of these parts served the same function and logically should have been made from the same material, but there was a plethora of different, mutually contradictory, callouts.
One of the callouts was "OPEN-CELL FOAM WITH BARRIUM." I assumed "barrium" was probably a misspelling for "barium." However, I wasn't sure what was being referred to. Some type of flame retardant compound containing barium, perhaps? I spent a lot of time on the phone with foam suppliers trying to find out about additives with barium in them.
Eventually, after talking to the original designer, I found out that "barrium" was actually a misspelling for "barrier" - meaning an integral skin foam! Who would have guessed?
Grammar is also important. I once had a supplier claim that, due to the lack of a comma, "STAINLESS STEEL, UNS S30400, CONDITION A PER ASTM A276" onlymeant that they needed to provide material which met the mechanical requirements of Condition A per ASTM A276 - but that they weren't responsible for meeting any of the other requirements of the ASTM standard!
I had to admit that, while they were logically wrong, they kind of had a point, at least gramatically. I am much more careful about the use of commas in material callouts now! In fact, I would like to propose a corrollary to Murphy's Law: anything on a drawing that can be misinterpreted by a supplier, will.
Twenty years ago, engineers wrote memos. Their spelling and grammar was no better back then. As I recall, many of the older engineers complained that the younger engineers didn't know how to write a simple memo.
Perhaps we only need to look at our own past to see what excellence in education looks like. Cultural changes in the United States have affected our education quality. As just a tiny point, when I had a conflict with the teacher as a kid, my parents took the teacher's side without even thinking. Now, it seems parents automatically take their child's side.
@Tool_maker: I agree with you about student behavior being an issue. My daughters (15 and 17) grew up in El Salvador, and moved to the U.S. last year. We have talked a lot about their perceptions of the difference in high school education between the two countries.
One of the first things they noticed was how much disruptive behavior goes on in U.S. classrooms. As you mention, it is common at most schools in the U.S. for students to talk back to teachers. This is much less common in El Salvador - and if it happened, would be cause for disciplinary action.
I'm not sure to what extent this behavior can be attributed to social media, since, for the most part, kids in El Salvador have access to the same social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube, and use them just as much. I think it has more to do with cultural norms and parental attitudes. It seems to me that, in the U.S., there is generally less discipline in the home. There also seems to less respect for teachers in the U.S.
Of course, in El Salvador, there are fewer career opportunities available for college graduates, so many talented people go into teaching who might, in the U.S., go into other professions. There are also fewer college graduates overall, so being an educated person commands more respect.
Here in the U.S., we seem to be locked into a downward spiral with regard to education. The quality of our undergraduates is declining because the quality of our teachers is declining, and the quality of our teachers is declining because the quality of our college graduates is declining. There are many social and cultural factors which feed into this.
I certainly don't want to hold El Salvador up as a model. For one thing, the rates of poverty and crime are much higher than in the U.S. - the murder rate per capita is 14 times higher - and the overall levels of education and literacy are lower, so how much good is their education system really doing? On the other hand, we should be asking ourselves what we can learn from other countries.
@ Dave.In addition to my daytime job in industry, I teach high school English at a small private school. I agree with your generalization about perpetual hand wringing, but I have to add a caveate. When I was a kid we all did stupid things to impress somebody who we thought was cool and that still exists today. But what has really changed is the willingness to be the butt of a joke just so you can get on Facebook or any of the myriad of web sites that show us videos 24/7 of people, usually young, doing idiotic dangerous things in front of a video camera so it can be sent viral and the whole world can be witness to somr truly brainless exercises.
I am sure we all grew up with people who were always "On Camera" and performing for some unseen audience. Maybe it was just talking overly loud or some other obnoxious, but essentially harmless behavior. Today I find this behavior to be much more prevalent. So many kids are so focused on their personal stardom that they never really realize what jerks they are being. I often run into this in the classroom where some students think it is okay to blurt stuff out whenever they take a notion because after all, aren't we all there to serve them?
As far as your point about education, everyone reading this should go back to school and take a class with today's undergraduates. I am not talking about a peer group seminar, but PSYCH 101 or something similar. When I returned to college to get teacher certification, I had been out 27 years and it was culture shock in the first degree. If someone wrote or read aloud a paper that was organized and coherent, I lay 10-1 they were nonstandard students who had recieved their HS education no later than the Reagan administration. I felt particul;arly brilliant because I actually knew how to punctuate.
I think Alex's point is well taken regarding the loss of so many blue-collar level technical trade jobs. My nephew could have been a brilliant mechanical engineer under the right conditions, but those conditions didn't exist in his family, including the lack of opportunity to go to college. He may turn out to be a really good auto mechanic instead, but these days that profession is pretty well flooded with applicants and wages aren't what they used to be.
Interesting though comparing baseball and engineering. If a baseball player is right one third of the time he is in the hall of fame. If an engineer makes a mistake it can be dangerous.
However, I did the math one time with football and the average football player works an entire year to be judged by only 48 hours of work. Think about it. 16 games times 3 hours a game. Their entire yearly performance is just 48 short hours. Half of which they might not be playing for. However, they are epected to work the entire rest of the year to produce what will be judged.
I do think lazy habits are the root cause. And these lazy habits start a way before media is even involved. But i think the question may be does media help the situation at all. Does media let people get away with being lazy as opposed to encouraging the development of positive skill improvements.
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