Engineering the Future

I’ve Had a Lovely and Slow conversation with Craig in Georgia, a retired Engineering Professor who, last year, “finally decided to do the ‘right’ thing and not be such a cheapskate & finally subscribe to Premium.”

I’ve found “finally” means different things to different people, but he went on to explain: “I do remember vividly how I first found out about you and your publication,” while still teaching in 1994 or 1995. “We had a brand new colleague who, at lunch, was just gushing about this hilarious new newsletter that was written by some guy who had worked at JPL, and had given it all up to publish. Earlier in his career he had done some work at JPL too, [probably as a] visiting engineering professor, or consultant.”

“I must admit though,” he said in a note this week, that “I get very nervous writing to you, because I have often used the excuse, ‘I’m an engineer & professor, not a journalist’ to explain my poor writing skills, but I know you are both an engineer and an exceptional writer. Especially this week, after pointing out in #1555, ‘the poor quality of journalism’.”

While it’s probably always a bad idea to compare yourself to someone else since we all have our own strengths and weaknesses (I replied), you can rest easy knowing that despite being on JPL’s engineering staff, I’m not a degreed engineer (let alone a PE). I simply have a natural aptitude for it.

What *I* say is, “I’m a words guy, not a numbers guy” when it comes to math, which is but one reason I didn’t get an engineering degree — I’m not very good at math. Can’t do algebra or geometry to save my life, barely passing both in high school. I’m saved by the ability to estimate pretty well, and use tricks as needed. (Example: Need to pay a 20% tip? 10% is easy, and then I double it.)

Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers working on the Perseverance rover in a JPL cleanroom. (NASA)

As for the poor quality of journalism, I’m just opinionated and decry the terrible decline in education. THAT is one of the bigger reasons why we’re losing “American Exceptionalism” IMO.

Your opinions may vary. 🙂

“I am very surprised that you don’t have an engineering degree,” Craig replied, “given your great knowledge & understanding of the discipline, and knowing your worked at JPL I always assumed that you did. As always, thanks for everything you do to make my life a little better.”

Even though I actively did not want to be a reporter, I did like the idea of being a newspaper columnist (thanks to my fave), so I went to journalism school, assuming a specialty of explaining complex (e.g., scientific) topics.

But one thing I learned in journalism school is one can’t just come out of school and be a columnist, so that’s when I veered over to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, initially assigned to explain a hugely complex topic — the entirety of the International Space Station and what scientists could do there with its various resources — and then turned it into a career. But left because I wasn’t really being a writer, let alone the kind I wanted to be, which was one who could write about anything that catches my interest.

And that worked, as Craig grasped in one of his notes: “I must confess, that if someone asked me to recall my favorite article in This is True, I probably could not recall many details. But if someone asked me to share with them what I know about you and Kit, it would take me an hour or so before I ran out of memories. I guess what I’m saying is that your personal anecdotes of your lives and your perception of the world we live in has resonated with me so much more than the actual articles. I love your blogs.”

Me at JPL’s Mars Yard checking out a rover wheel on a visit back there in 2017. (Photo: Kit Cassingham)

I learned something over the weekend by searching for info on Craig, which I found even though he has a reasonably “common” name (unlike “Cassingham”): he had a side career explaining science and engineering to kids — more than a million by his informal count by speaking at schools. He had an infectious way of interacting with just about any age level, according to one newspaper report I read, preferring fifth-graders since they were old enough to be mature, but not yet blockheads (er, I mean, set in their ways) and still could be inspired to want to learn.

He changed lives.

It’s one of the reasons I think parents (or grandparents) should read True to their kids: the stories can help them understand what it really means to not bother to think. Can you imagine how much better the world would be if kids learned that?! I have letters from parents who went to the trouble, and explained to me the difference that made in the kids’ lives. Craig did that too: he gets it, and put his time where his mouth was, making the world a little bit better.

And by admitting I “fooled” him, an expert in engineering, gave me the opportunity to do what I do: write about it to spark some ideas in your heads, and maybe even inspire a few folks to join Craig in upgrading to Premium, which is what funds this entire operation (have you noticed there are no ads here?!)

Oh, and Craig? When you have a good editor backing you up, you’re a fine writer. Just don’t make me do any math, OK?

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3 Comments on “Engineering the Future

  1. Nice “columnist” piece! I agree with you about the dearth of good (or even reasonable) education these days.

    I’d love to see Craig’s retirement’s work, BTW. (Not a hint, by the way.)

    Yeah, I want to see one of his presentations too! Hope there’s video. -rc

  2. This reads like it could become a nice honorary unsubscribe without the unpleasant necessity of dying first.

    I’m sure Craig in Georgia would want it that way. 🙂 -rc

  3. Craig shouldn’t feel bad about delaying his upgrade for so long; we are inundated with pleas for our meager (and depreciating) funds every day, on so many avenues of daily life, from GoFundMe medical bill help requests from FaceBook friends, to political campaign contributions, to corporations who are seeing record profits asking *us* to round-up our purchase to donate to fight children’s hunger or help the homeless; to a much more aggressive tipping culture than there used to be (a tire store? c’mon!), so one should not have to feel the need to apologize for where we decide our discretionary funds go.

    I do agree, and have said many times “It’s whatever works for you.” That said, how many of your beloved independent online resources are you willing to lose? The original Joke-a-Day is gone. The Centre for the Easily Amused is gone. Humournet is gone. It’s not just humor: The Internet Tourbus is gone, as is Contentious, Online Today and Online Tonight, WebAdvantage, BookZone, Mac Journals, SciFan — I could go on and on just with the sites run by friends. Most disappeared because they were not supported by their users. Ads? People hate ads, which is why so many use ad blockers, meaning that doesn’t pay either. (Have you noticed there aren’t ads on this site?)

    The only reason True isn’t on the list of dead web sites is because readers support it. But even so, it would be dead today if I didn’t implement a “Pay What You Want” model for upgrades ($40 minimum) a year ago. In that time the range that people “want” to pay is from $40 (of course!) to $750(!) per year, with not quite a hundred of them paying $100 or more. The average as of today is $56.40, and that doesn’t even count free subscribers who send occasional one-time contributions, of which there have been several hundred dollars’ worth so far this year, thanks largely to me asking several times. (Yep: asking several times brought in $296, which paid the bills for less than a week.)

    So yes, this site “competes” with GoFundMe medical bill help requests and tire stores asking for tips, among scores of other discretionary wants and needs we all face every week. But still I will continue to say, “It’s whatever works for you.” I hope at some point it will work out for you to jump in too. -rc


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