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Electronic Design

Bob's Mailbox

Dear Bob:
Your column is a breath of fresh air. I am one of those non-degreed engineers who, like Rodney Dangerfield, "gets no respect" monetarily. I do, however, get a lot of respect from the young college graduates who I help to apply their book learning.

Some of us whose education comes from the school of "hard knocks" aren't just specialists. Besides my design responsibilities, I am my group's reliability and compliance engineer. I'm responsible for our EMC lab, and serve as a consultant to groups other than my own. You don't have to be a PhD to be respected by your peers. And it can be comfortable to be somewhat of an expert in more than one field in these unsteady times. Unfortunately, some people (prospective future employers?) put too much value on a piece of paper that does not say what you know, or what you can do.

Second Subject: You are right about a bicycle working with a small wheel. That experiment has already been done. According to one of the books I consulted when I first became interested in bicycles (about 20 years ago), someone did a study on wheel sizes and head-set angles. The size of the wheel is not important according to their experiments. The point of contact in relation to the axis of the head set is. If the axis of rotation for the fork is projected to the ground, the wheel's point of contact with the ground must be behind this point. Apparently they were able to reduce the size of the wheel to a chair caster, which is the same as your roller skate.
Mark Balcom, Portland, Ore.

I'm glad your group finds your experience of value. And, yes, many experiments have been done with strange bicycle geometries.—RAP

Dear Bob:
You have caught typos in some certainly prestigious documents (Oct. 15, 1992, What's All This Czar Stuff, Anyhow?), but you overlooked one in your own article. Third column, second line, the "a" is extraneous. However, you covered yourself very graciously in the next paragraph. Enjoy your articles immensely, please keep up the good work.
W.P. Dart, Senior Engineer, Veda Inc., Camarillo, Calif.

Ah, yes, the computers put those typos in to keep Roger Engelke and me on our toes. We catch most of them, and let a couple through to keep you readers on your toes. —RAP

To whom it may concern,
This letter is a respectful reply to the article by Mr. Bob Pease, What's All This Spreadsheet Stuff, Anyhow? I believe the spreadsheet is one of the most popular and obviously useful applications to which a microcomputer can be put.

Bob Pease is a computer skeptic. He obtained his BSEE from MIT 32 years ago. First of all, Mr. Pease has a BSEE, while the majority of engineers today have doctorates. Mr. Pease is used to performing activities and calculations the long, hard way. In today's world, engineers and many other professionals are very busy and prefer to conserve time on simple activities in order to spend more time on more complicated problems.

I think he should accept the world for its changing technology, and thus join it. He should move forward at a faster pace. Mr. Pease also brings forth the arguments that spreadsheets get users out of the habit of thinking, and his new colleague Michael Schrage claims spreadsheet-like devices thwart creativity and imagination. On the contrary, spreadsheets and other such devices help speed up simple activities and calculations in order to give users more time to play with more complex work.

Mr. Pease believes that spreadsheets are unreliable because of the errors he has observed with his experiences. I'd like to remind him of the fact that nothing in this world is perfect.

In conclusion, I believe that simple tasks performed by devices with timesaving abilities can only be advantageous to man. I respectfully advise Mr. Pease to catch up with the world. Spreadsheets are waiting for you.
Kevin N. Flint, Miramar, Fla.

No, most engineers today do not have doctorates. And I got my degree from MIT 31 years ago. Where are you getting your facts, from a spreadsheet? Now since spreadsheets' "time-saving abilities can only be advantageous to man," I'll have to have a sex-change operation.—RAP

Dear Mr. Pease:
I'm writing this in response to your article about spreadsheets in the Aug. 20 issue. Your article really got me thinking about how we as a society have become so heavily reliant on electrical devices. We've gotten to the point where it's scary to think of what would happen to us if, God forbid, we didn't have electricity any more.

But the truth of the matter is that electronics is going to be around for as long as man can figure out new ways to make it work for him. Maybe it's true that electronics simplify and even oversimplify our lives in many regards, but is that really such a bad thing?

The answer is yes when it's used merely as a substitute for our lack of knowledge. An example of this is teaching a child to use a calculator instead of teaching him the times tables. In this case the calculator is the substitute for the child's lack of knowledge of multiplication, and if one day he forgets the calculator, then he would be absolutely lost. But it's important to note that the reason he would be lost would not be his lack of a calculator, but rather his lack of the concept of multiplication.

So, when and if the concept of multiplication is understood by the child, then the calculator becomes a tool rather than a substitute for solving long and tedious problems that would take forever to solve by hand. In this regard, the calculator would be simplifying the child's life, but in a positive way, for now he could elevate his potential by elevating his resources.

If electronics would be used as a resource to accomplish a greater goal, then it would be simplifying our lives for the better. Inventions like the computer and the spreadsheet were meant to be used as resources for making problem solving easier. But to appreciate and utilize their worth, one must be open and receptive to advancement and change. It is by taking advantage of all our available assets that we have been able to grow technologically throughout history.

So Mr. Pease, the next time you lash out against spreadsheets, remember that much like you and I, they are not perfect and their sole purpose is to make our lives easier and save us a little time. So at least give them credit for doing that.
Manuel Docurro, Hialeah, Fla.

I'm only cautioning you to CHECK your RESULTS, which spreadsheet peddlers never warn you to do. When a spreadsheet tries to "save us a little time," but errs, it wastes a lot of time.—RAP

Response to Bob Pease:
In his article What's All This Spreadsheet Stuff, Anyhow? Mr. Pease argues that, when misused, computers and particularly spreadsheets can be the cause of serious problems. I think he has a good point. Actually, I agree completely with it. However, I am opposed to the way he conveys his ideas. His writing style is not appropriate for the intended audience.

Computers are tools, operational aids that help people complete tasks efficiently. They should be treated like tools, because problems occur when they are not. If a person uses a computer without being "mentally involved" in the process, he is going to be unaware of the important aspects of his work. This situation leaves that person with no basis for tackling an eventual inconvenience, while a person who uses a computer like a tool knows what he did and can recognize and correct any mistakes easily.

Mr. Pease tries to make the reader aware of this potential problem with computers, but ultimately fails. He fails because his sarcastic approach does not work. In the beginning, he describes computers as horrible machines that "make mistakes and lie a lot." This statement creates prejudice among the audience who are mostly computer addicts, or at least computer users. Prejudice prevents the readers from being objective and understanding the author's point. His arrogant tone also helps to annoy those readers, making it impossible for them to read his article impartially. I am sure that this will show in the responses written by some of my computer-lover classmates. Their papers will be loaded with criticism. The worst thing is that it does not come from disagreement with Pease's opinions, it comes from anger produced by some of his statements and illustrations.

The article does not work because the writer is not honest. He manipulates the information to serve his purpose. For example, he does not tell the reader that the round-off error done by the spreadsheet can be avoided by setting up the program previously. And he also excludes that the spreadsheet can calculate numbers with up to twelve decimal positions, four more than any calculator. The whole argument is based on incomplete or false facts, which are immediately recognized by computer literates, and they end up mocking the article...
Mateo Londono Angel, Miami, Fla.

Mateo, you say I'm prejudiced. But you have already decided that computers and spreadsheets are trustworthy and you refuse to concede that these problems really do occur. Companies lose serious business everyday because errors occurred and nobody ever questioned the spreadsheet's answers. If you like to pretend that's not so, that's your problem. My task is not to please everybody, but to wake you up. Looks like I almost succeeded.—RAP

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