Lifesavers

As an environmental engineer, a huge issue to tackle is getting clean water to people in other countries. So many people do not have access to something that most Americans take for granted. It seems like an issue that is impossible to solve, but Michael Pritchard is his Ted talk (link below) talks about how he has solved this problem. He has invented a Lifesaver water bottle that would enable people to clean their own water, instead of delivering the water to them through expensive and inconvenient means.

 

This Ted talk is from 2009, and over three million people have viewed it. My first thought was why doesn’t everyone have one of these yet? It would cost money to make and distribute, and it is still not understood that this is a problem that could be fixed with a little bit of help and coordination.

He stresses the use of this during times of disaster, but I think that it could really be useful for everyday and long term usage. Even water in America has been found to have lead (Flint Michigan? Woburn Massachusetts?) and been harming people here. Clean water is a world-wide issue, one that affects all of us, and one that is within our ability to solve.

 

 

The Heart of Darkness

My favorite novel throughout high school was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I was really able to understand and appreciate the ideas that Conrad wove into his novel on the story of the trip up the Congo river told by a man running the ship. The man was able to retell all that he had seen, heard, and witnessed during his time, and later in his life retold the story in order to try and make sense of it and to get the blame off of himself. I always found this struggle with morality and self- justification very fascinating, and have found that most things in life can be related to this novel.heart-of-darkness_joseph-conrad

This was evident yet again when in the IDEAS seminar we discussed Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut. I thought of it right away when we started to have a vague discussion about “the edge”, on where people like to be and where people go. Would you rather be safely in the middle, or on the edge, where there is a danger of falling off? The edge is that “darkness” Conrad talks about, and getting close allows you witness evil things. What does that do to your person, your humanity? But is it better to be blind, never knowing what is really out there?

Taking chances and getting closer to the edge may allow you to differ from right or wrong, but it gets risky when you’re close to falling off, as Kurtz did in Heart of Darkness. He reached a point of no return, whereas Marlow stayed on the edge and was able to witness all that happened. Yet the guilt of what he had seen stuck with him throughout his life, and as engineers this is actually an important thing to consider.

How do we wish to affect humanity, how will we deal with being on the edge, and how will we make sure we don’t go too far?

Technology and the Public

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Look out your back window. What if I told you that the house just down the street- yeah that one- was actually a nuclear reactor? How would you react? If you have any sense of self preservation, you’ll probably freak out a little bit. In fact, you’d probably try to move as far away as possible as quickly as you could. Hello Tahiti. Yet, for as long as that house had been there, you’d been living safely in blissful ignorance.

This brings up an interesting question, should the “public” be aware of everything that is going on around them? On the one hand, through popular culture and movies we seem to be ingrained with this fascination for government conspiracies. Basically, we are trained to hate when the government doesn’t tell us something. Yet, how do you explain to a single mother of four children both the danger and benefits of a nuclear reactor?

As a budding engineer, I hastronaut-11050_960_720.jpgave this ingrained belief that ultimately the expansion of the technological universe will benefit human kind. To achieve this, we have to keep experimenting, taking risks, and learning from our failures. Sadly though, if you tell someone that they could erupt into flames at any minute, they instantly want to shut down whatever threatens them; and they are most certainly right to do this. But are they? At the other end of the spectrum, does the end justify the means? Maybe the answer isn’t as black and white as it seems.

 

 

 

Engineering Responsibility

We recently watched a movie in the first-year seminar called Manufactured Landscapes, showing the destruction of 13 historic cities in China in order to build the Three Gorges Dam. In my opinion the worst/most bothersome line in that film was “I’m not in charge of this”, which was a worker’s annoyed response when asked if the citizens cared about their homes being destroyed. In order to complete this great technological feat, the homes of a million people got destroyed and those people had to be relocated.

Was that worth it? What is the cost of progress?

And even if the feat should be completed just for engineering’s sake, shouldn’t the workers at least acknowledge or take into account the implications their actions have for the average person? People shouldn’t all have to be survivors of technology, and maybe this cost of progress should have been a discussion.

As aspiring engineers, these are the types of questions and subjects that we need to think about, as that could be us doing this to people. And for what? What kind of progress and impact do we wish to have as engineers, and how can we make sure that we understand our responsibility?

For the Sake of Convenience

Recently, something very dear to me suffered a severe injury. Aside from prompting frequent mental debates about the frailty of human existence and other subjects of that ilk, I find myself frustrated more than anything else. This frustration bothers me. Yes that may seem a bit redundant at first, but my problem is not so much the actual frustration, more so the fact that this event cause me to get frustrated so easily. Which is frustrating. I suppose I should start at the beginning…

About a week ago my friends and I were watching a wonderfully brilliant show starring world renowned actor Zach Levi (if you don’t know what show he is in, look it up, and then thank me later). At the very end of the show, I pull out my phone to text my sister. However, for some reason my phone remains dark. I press the home but again. Nothing. I’ll admit, I got a bit panicky. This was a relatively new phone and I rely on it heavily for college life. After a few minutes of button mashing, I realize I can use the button on the top of my phone to start my phone back up. After a few searches on the internet, my friend discovered how to indirectly fix my home button problem by adding a virtual button to the screen at all times.

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Now sure, this may seem like a trivial little problem. My home button no longer works, big deal. Yet, it’s incredibly frustrating to reflexively use the home button, have nothing happen, realize it doesn’t work anymore, and press the onscreen button. This finally brings me to what has been bugging me.

People these days hate the inconvenient. We are so used to instantaneous gratification that when something forces us out of our routine, we blow a gasket. BOOM. What does this mean for us as a society? If we continue to grow and become more and more reliant on technology and it’s convenience, what will separate us from the machines that regulate our lives?

 

*the unmodified image is from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:IPhone_4_top_and_sides.JPG

Writing of Tomorrow

The other day I was having a conversation with one of my friends. Someway or another we found ourselves discussing the book she was working her way through, and she mentioned that she was reading about how computers were beginning to write journal articles.

I found myself unnerved by this idea. Sure, the concept of having computers being able to take data and assemble well written articles is a huge step for A.I. (artificial intelligence). However, once again we find ourselves in a situation where computers and automation are beginning to threaten human jobs. The replacement of humans in the workforce is always a dangerous prospect. Pretty soon we all may find ourselves “out of the job”. So what do we do? Do we stop trying to advance technology?

At the moment, these computerized journalists are only working on articles that otherwise wouldn’t be written. The vast majority of the “big league” writing still falls into the arms of flesh and blood people. Yet, how many times in the past has something started small, but eventually grew to uncontrollable proportions… *cough-cough* -smartphones- *cough-splutter-cough*. Do we have the capacity to say “no” to something that could potentially put us all out of the job in the long run? I guess we will find out.

Wouldn’t it be funny if I actually took the day off today and just let my computer back-up write for me today? Haha… yeah…

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*Unmodified picture from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gleonhard/ 12875607484

 

Volkswagon Scandal

A large part of our discussions in the IDEAS seminars is on engineering ethics, and what it means to be an engineer in our present time and to stick to a moral and ethical code at the same time. We talked about this topic in relation to Challenger and  Woburn (water contamination in A Civil Action), along with other works.

Along with this discussion goes the question, “When will we learn?”. People have written about and known about engineering ethical failures throughout history ,and yet they continue to happen today. This is shown plainly in the Volkswagen diesel engine scandal that just erupted recently. Individuals at the company knew of the faulty emission systems and how they would not have been approved by environmental regulators.

Instead of doing what is best for the customers, and taking maybe the time and extra cost to make sure that the software was functioning correctly, they took an easy way out, to try and deceive others instead of practicing ethical engineering. Now, they are dealing with an aftermath that will affect their sales and reputation, when it all could have been avoided.

Article from the New York Times on the scandal and investigation:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/09/business/international/vw-diesel-emissions-scandal-congressional-hearing.html