Ten Favorite Columns
Spectrum's favorite columnist reflects on 26 years of Reflections
Photo-Illustration: Sean McCabe
I’ve been writing these columns for IEEE Spectrum since January 1982, and looking back, I can see how my writing has evolved. For better or worse, my columns have become more conventional. Some of the older columns I’d like to disown, and of others I think, ”Wow, did I write that?” The Spectrum editors asked me to pick 10 favorites. Here are some that for one reason or another struck a chord with readers.
This column was a venture into parable. The corporation is a ship at sea and the engineers, in the engine room below deck, have little sense of how the great ship is being steered. The ship’s captain is a financial person—in other words, a bean counter.
Occasionally I see one of my columns pinned on a bulletin board somewhere. To be honest, it hasn’t happened all that often, but when it does I feel a sense of accomplishment. This is the column I have seen posted the most often. Performance ratings are close to the psyche of any employee, and in my experience no one is happy with his or her own rating. Here I poke a little fun at the whole process.
I chose this column for the simple reason that the issue of place has been on my mind of late. Given that birds of a feather flock together, what determines where they gather? I had unwittingly come to have a certain responsibility for attracting high-tech workers to my home state of New Jersey. Every other state wants to do the same thing, and I’m wondering why they should come to mine. Anyone got any ideas?
It bothers me that everyone knows who invented the electric light but that almost no one can name the inventors of the transistor, arguably the greatest invention of the last century. I’m fascinated with the difference between how we view the engineering giants of the past and how we view our innovators today. Were engineers smarter then, or is it just our warped view of history?
Woody Allen’s comment that ”Eighty percent of life is showing up” is one of those little assertions that contains a surprising truth. I often feel that the tough part is over whenever I’ve arrived at wherever I’m supposed to be. In the early days of Google, shortly after the Big Bang, my essay was high on the list of hits for the search terms ”showing up” + ”Woody Allen.” Now there are more than 50 000 hits for that, and I’ve sunk to number 25, where no one is likely to find me.
Can you tell an engineer by appearance? Long ago, we were recognized by the ”nerd packs”—the plastic pouches nestled in shirt pockets containing an assortment of pens and pencils. All that has changed, and engineers look like just about everyone else now. But there’s still something about our appearance that makes me think I can pick one out of a crowd with some statistical accuracy. Maybe I’m wrong, though.
I marvel at how PowerPoint has so taken over the world that now everything gets reduced to bullets. Where, oh where, has expressiveness gone? My tongue-in-cheek solution here is that the ”helpful” wizards in Microsoft Word and PowerPoint will coax us to use big words and suggest changes that increase the illusion of erudition. Lots of luck, right?
Back in the days of stamps and envelopes, the column that got the most mail was about the death of Heathkit. That hit home for a lot of older engineers. ”The Dream” has gotten the most mail in the post-postage era. It recalls a dream in which I have to take a final exam for a course that I never attended. I have this dream about once a year and so, apparently, do a lot of other people. I’m not sure what Freud would have thought about the final-exam dream genre, but it couldn’t have been good.
Ideas for columns come from a variety of personal experiences. (Actually, I don’t get many such ideas—about once every two months, fortunately. In this case I overheard a small remark about someone who quit a high-level job because it wasn’t all about ”thinking great thoughts.” Many engineers feel that the level of their job responsibilities doesn’t allow for the thinking of great thoughts. The irony is that later in their careers, they get the high-level jobs and discover that they are too busy and too shallow for such thoughts. A pity.
This column attracted quite a bit of feedback from people telling me the proper, inspirational way to teach mathematical constructs such as the square root of minus one. Alas, I don’t think I could relate to any of the suggestions. I’m sure that all the writers were sincere and that their suggestions would work well for students exactly like themselves. I conclude that each of us needs to fit new knowledge into the context of our individual repositories of past knowledge. If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit—or something like that.