Monday, March 30, 2009

April Fools' Day

Who says engineering can only be used for [fun and] profit?  With loads of pent-up creativity, the only the thing standing between engineers and havoc is over-zealous daycare/management.

During the peak of the dotcom bubble (and the low of productivity), this wasn't a problem.  For pranks, one-time tech giant Sun Microsystems was the place to be.   Every year, under-worked engineers architected antics of ever-escalating complexity where the only rewards were a t-shirt and a record of the event eternally documented on the internet for future employers to see.

But as the tech sector's day in the sun came to a close, pranks became far more subdued.  While nothing less than assembling a Volkswagen in a VP's office would work in the 80s and 90s, the 2000s saw pranks that took little more than a Smart car and a screw driver.  But all is not lost.  As glorious as April Fools' Days past were, they could only be enjoyed by people who were there.  Thanks to the magic of the internet, milder shenanigans can be broadcast to the vast swaths of cube farms from San Jose to Bangalore.

Places to watch:
  • YouTube spent the day in 2008 luring unsuspecting visitors to a now-infamous 80s music video people would have otherwise forgotten and, in the process, killed Rickrolling for good.  Over the course of the next year, everyone from Carson Daly to Rick Astley, himself, participated in the meme.
  • ThinkGeek comes up with an amazing assortment of products barely too good to be true--pics and all!  But don't worry, at least one idea was too good to be fake, and a few months later, the 8-bit tie was for sale.
  • The social news fanboys over at Digg, Reddit, Slashdot, et al. will probably work up something between The Onion and WTF.  The fun is in guessing which stories are real.
  • Google's growing up before our eyes, so its days as the only toilet ISP are numbered.  That said, CEO Eric Schmidt was an exec at Sun, so there might still be a few good laughs from the Googleplex.
  • Any youth-oriented website might join in.  Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, Meebo, and any other website that provides a non-essential service targeted at people too young to remember a world with dialup are all worth visiting.  The key is a company with management that doesn't care and customers who don't care.

Monday, March 23, 2009


I might like to make fun of the 80s, but that doesn't mean they didn't advance engineering or give us a few hours of entertainment every week.

Enter MacGyver, the TV show that bought ad hoc engineering to prime time. The titular engineer/secret agent/all-around nice guy traded his pocket protector and slide rule for a pocket knife, ballpoint pen, a paper clip, and more luck than rigged die. Every week, Mac outwitted would-be assassins, hypercapitalists, and even mother nature with nothing more than what the writers put in the room and an encyclopedic knowledge of everything from particle physics to hockey.

As much as engineers liked seeing what TV magic could do for their lowly profession, what they loved was identifying with the main character. Despite all his skills in hands-on hacking, Mac was never particularly talented at romance, could count his good friends on a finger, and after a long day of defeating bad guys, just wanted to come home and sleep on the couch.

Entertainment value aside, MacGyver gave back; more than just a TV show, it made an active effort to interest people in science. During the 80s, before Mythbusters, widespread cable TV, and YouTube, edutainment was relatively new. MacGyver brought real scientific principals to the public in a catchy package, but went even further and had Richard Dean Anderson appear on PBS to explain the physics of hockey. Remember that the next time you see CSI.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Proof of concept

To an engineer, there's nothing better than doing something that's never been done. That's why The Wright Brothers and Lockheed's Skunk Works are the Beethoven and Beatles of engineering, and Cessna isn't even a cover band.

The proof of concept is the fun part of the tedious project, and the part that engineering and management both agree should be done first—failure isn't just considered, it's planned for. These greenfield projects where occasional failures, lack of usability, and the chance to do something [relatively] cool are what drive engineers. That said, the hastily-weighed shortcuts taken along the way lead to more headaches than fun the original concept brought, but that's tomorrow; the proof-of-concept is due today.

Poor engineers. As glorious as a successful proof-of-concept can be, they can't see a few short days into their future where they're destined to fix problems in a design that was never meant to be used. C'est la vie.