June 19, 2008
Go for the Green

I liked the articles about Caterpillar and Volvo developing the next generation of heavy equipment (“Off-road electric drives gain traction,” April 24). Technological advances coupled with skyrocketing fuel costs are turning these new ideas into realities. Then further in the magazine, the Automotive Industry Focus looks at the new green concept cars. They also have interesting designs and use evolving technology. Hopefully, the next generation of smaller, more-powerful batteries with more storage are just around the corner. That’s what it will take to make hybrids and electrical vehicles possible and practical.

They are nice eye candy to gaze upon, but why isn’t all that engineering talent being applied to something most of us really need? For example, where’s the small, light, inexpensive-to-own and maintain electric car that more than half of us could use for daily commute and errands? Instead I see gadget-filled SUVs and sports cars from Lexus, Mazda, BMW, and Mitsubishi that probably only appeal to the autoshow crowd and to those with incomes much higher than 95% of the general population. I just cannot help but think that if all this creative energy was expended on simplistic and realistic commuter cars, we might already have something available and affordable now.

I have a full-size diesel truck that only sees the road when absolutely needed. A Nissan Xterra and Altima are our commuting cars. But if there were an inexpensive electric car that got up to 100 miles/charge and wouldn’t cost a second mortgage for replacement batteries, I’d buy one or two right off the bat.

Companies and activists have to get real. We need something now that is functional and realistic. Forget the gadgets. We can’t afford to wait another five years for these overpriced concepts to become reality.

Dave Horting

Extremist Engineers
I read your editorial on the Oxford University study that examines the link between engineers and violent Islamic extremism (“The engineering ‘extremists” mind set,” April 24). I haven’t read the study itself. But perhaps the Oxford academics were engaging in a little reverse causality, which might be simplified to “reverse-engineering.”

If you want to learn how to build things, the best way to go about it is to study engineering. Strangely enough, if you want to learn how best to unbuild or destroy things, the best way is to study engineering.

Although I don’t pretend to understand the mind of stereotypical terrorists, I am quite certain that the best way to learn how to take down buildings with access to only MacGyver-type materials is not by studying music, agriculture, or medicine. But engineers learn how to build and, in the process of designing, how to exploit possible weaknesses. This is exactly what a person intent on destroying things needs to learn. Not a happy thought, but there it is.

So the link between terrorism and engineering may be that simple; the study of engineering is the best way to learn how to break things.

Jon Roselser

While I agree with your editorial and have seen some of the articles you refer to, I believe everybody is missing a key point.

Let us imagine it is 1944 and you are a member of the Resistance in Nazi-occupied Belgium, and you want to blow up a bridge, ideally while a Nazi troop train is crossing it. Now, who do you want on your team? Obviously people who know how to do it properly. No great surprises there. So the bottom line is that effective clandestine operations require the same skills that make good engineers. The movies “Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) and “The Guns of Navarone” (1962) further illustrate my point.

So, if you want to perform these kind of activities, regardless of ethics, morality, or humanity, you need engineers (or at least serious wannabees) and must bring them into to your cause.

Ed Gellender

Thanks for writing, but Bridge on the River Kwai is largely fictional and Guns of Navarone was based on a novel. To the extent that history records it, I believe you will find that the vast majority of successful operatives in actual clandestine activities have been nonengineers. Raoul Wallenberg, for example, was trained as an architect. Robert Hanssen has a business degree. And, of course, Mata Hari was a nude dancer.

I was amused to see your conclusion that the “Engineers of Jihad” authors were simplistic by connecting engineering and terrorists and then quoting “Sid the Shiite M.E.” who had the sophisticated answer that “Blowing yourself up... is more the action of a person who has lost hope and who sees the world as an ugly place.” But if that were true, then poverty-stricken people the world over would be blowing themselves and others into little pieces. Yet despite the billions of destitute people worldwide, the only ones who aim to blow up perfect strangers do so while shouting “Allahu Achbar.” Ignoring the Islamic reality while calling the authors simplistic is like the pot calling the kettle black.

While I agree entirely that the authors showed correlation, they can only guess at causality. But it does seem significant that Middle- East suicide bombers tend to be more highly educated and wealthy than their Muslim peers, and yes, that they had studied engineering.

Isaiah Cox

Good Engineers Going Extinct?
Down here in Florida, employers have a hard time finding good skilled help, including engineers. Finding a mechanical or electrical engineer who knows what they are doing can take over two years. There is also a real lack of good engineers in the military and aeronautical fields. It seems good engineers are going the way of the dodo bird, i.e., extinct. If a person wants to live in the big city, such as Miami or Orlando, and they are good design engineers, they can just about name their price. I prefer living out in the country and avoiding the big city rush.

Glen Harm

I heard it from a friend who . . .
Reading your editorial (“One less conspiracy,” May 8) reminded of what the head of an electronics school, Tulsa Technical College, told me and my fellow students about research done while he was in the Navy during Word War II. One of the projects he saw was a diesel engine running on fuel which was 90% or more water. I wonder what ever happened to the research done back then?

Art Mason

Count all the Costs
I applaud your recent editorial regarding the infrastructure modifications needed for the power grid to “run backward” when (and if) too many people get solar panels on their roofs (“A view of the future from a housetop,” March 6). Your piece is the only example of system thinking I’ve seen in the gallons of ink being expended on alternative energy.

In all of the cost studies and examples cited of the wonderful benefits of alternative energy, I haven’t seen anyone include the cost of all the backup infrastructure required when “the wind don’t blow and the sun don’t shine.” It seems to me that we need either the entire power-generation infrastructure that we have now to stand by for such occasions, or a truly massive network — continental or even global — that can connect cloudy places to sunny or windy places. Costs for such an infrastructure should go into the calculation somewhere.

Dick Reilly

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