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Common Purposes

What are the Common Purposes? I've dwelt on that question since first reading my alma mater's founding principle "for the purposes of instructing persons, who may choose to apply themselves, in the application of science to the common purposes of life". The question, more than any answer I may ever offer, has guided me through many personal and professional endeavors. And, if I have learned anything it is that I have derived my greatest joy when I, as part of a team, have made a lasting difference to improve the lives of others. Should the thoughts I share here and the ensuing discussion lead others to ask the same question, to seek their own answers and to experience the same joy as I, then I shall consider this effort of value.

Image: "The New Shoes" by Jane Bucci. This work is based on the touching photo snapped by Gerald Waller in 1946, in Austria. The little boy, who lived in an orphanage, had just been given new shoes by the American Red Cross.

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There are No Unworthy Questions......

Posted November 15, 2006 12:01 PM by MillMatt

Complete the following sentence: There are no unworthy (or useless, stupid, silly) questions only…….

As I read CR4 blogs and posts on a daily basis, I am intrigued by the diversity of topics that are raised. If I am able to contribute to 10% of the discussions, I feel honored; Almost 90% of the time my knowledge is so limited that I am in awe of those who know the topics thoroughly. This forum is quite an education for me; I often feel like a kid in a candy store and hope others enjoy the same experience!

Today, I have read two interesting posts and suprising discussions they generated that serve to make a larger point. The first post concerns the cause of sonic booms; the second post is a request for information on the manufacture of Nickel Cadmium (NiCad) batteries. Several people replied with good information. And, several people made posts that, in my opinion, harshly judged the value of the questions.

I admit that I, too, had some critical thoughts about the questions and their value. NiCad batteries do not have much of a future and while I am no expert on sonic booms, the subject has received much attention in the past (Living on the east end of New York's Long Island, I was awoken mornings to the twin booms of the Concorde as it approached New York City). There is much information that is readily available via The Engineering Web®.

Still, the fact that these questions were asked in this forum that is dedicated to engineers and technical professionals has meaning. Of note, the question on NiCad batteries asked about the manufacturing process involved but no one addressed that part of the question.

For what it is worth, I believe it much more valuable to ALL CR4 participants that questions be asked with a more thorough presentation of the background and purpose of the question. Providing some context to the question helps us all think more creatively to answer the question and to consider creative application of the subject matter.

  1. For example, why would anyone want to know about the process to manufacture NiCad batteries? Is there something of value in that process that can be applied to the manufacture of newer batteries?
  2. Also, why is someone researching sonic booms? Is the knowledge applicable for modeling some other atmospheric disturbance or pressure wave?

One of the most important lessons I learned in college came from a fraternity brother who, based upon a management study he was conducting, offered the observations that engineers are very good at asking questions but often lack the ability to understand the value and importance of issues and opportunities.

My completed sentence: There are no unworthy questions....only opportunities to be realized.

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#1

Re: There are No Unworthy Questions......

11/15/2006 4:34 PM

"There are no unworthy (or useless, stupid, silly) questions only……."

1. questions asked of the wrong person

2. questions that don't express the true nature of the interrogatory

3. questions that lack essential background or meaningful context

MillMatt hits the nail on the head when he writes: "I believe it much more valuable to ALL CR4 participants that questions be asked with a more thorough presentation of the background and purpose of the question." In other words, help us to help you.

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#2

Re: There are No Unworthy Questions......

11/15/2006 11:20 PM

"There are no such things as stupid questions...Only stupid people" Mr. Hand- SouthPark

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#3

Re: There are No Unworthy Questions......

11/16/2006 11:23 AM

"...engineers are very good at asking questions but often lack the ability to understand the value and importance of issues and opportunities."

That is why I switched my major in college from straight Mechanical Engineering to Engineering Management, which only whetted my appetite for more. I finally finished my MBA at night a few years ago. Maybe when my kids are older and require less constant attention I can enroll in the D.B.A. program offered at a local University at night. Learning is forever!

"My completed sentence: There are no unworthy questions....only opportunities to be realized."

I would change that to: There are no unworthy questions...only opportunities to be evaluated, then realized if feasible and profitable. However, "profitable" does not necessarily mean a financial profit! Some benefits that might make an opportunity "profitable" are actually non-monetary or even intangible (Engineering Econ 101).

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#4

Re: There are No Unworthy Questions......

11/16/2006 11:39 AM

In my high school physics class there was this one guy who always had his hand up, to ask a question. Often, the rest of us "smart guys", or so we thought, would laugh and giggle at his "stupid" questions, the answers to which we thought were so obvious. Our teacher, Mr. Joerling, would often take us to task, and, before proceeding to answer the young man's question, would remind us, as he had told us many times before, "The only stupid question is the one that is NOT asked!"

I remembered this lesson a few years later in college when I was surrounded by other students who were "smarter" than I was, and caught on much faster in Calculus, Differential Equations, Thermodynamics, and Kinematics (Math and complex computational analysis were never my strong suits!). I never let their grins and guffaws stop me from asking a question that would help me understand the subject we were studying.

By the way, the young man who asked all the questions in high school went on to the same school as I did and graduated with a degree in Nuclear Engineering!

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#5

Re: There are No Unworthy Questions......

11/16/2006 11:45 AM

If a question is unworthy of consideration, the simplest thing is to ignore it--the questioner will look elsewhere for answers or rephrase the question.

Why take the time to respond just to attack the questioner? Could it be true that some answers are unworthy?

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#6
In reply to #5

Re: There are No Unworthy Questions......

11/16/2006 9:47 PM

some of the responses i've read to "unworthy" questions did not seem to be attacks so much as encouraging the questioner to show some initiative before asking the question. i've seen other students ask a question in class which made it immediately apparent that the student hadn't bothered reading the material. some students hadn't cracked the book at all during the semester and their questions wasted the professor's time and everyone else's too. i don't think it's a bad thing to encourage such people to take some initiative themselves to try to get for themselves what is in their best interests anyway. i've also read some threads here in which it was plain the questioner wanted somebody else to do their work for them. they use up other people's time, but they're the ones who reap the benefits: they get paid for the work others do. this isn't right. i think these people should be confronted with what they're doing, and it's not an attack. in these cases its the questioner who's doing the harm, not the confronter.

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#7
In reply to #6

Re: There are No Unworthy Questions......

11/28/2006 12:28 AM

I have also seen a few seemingly unworthy questions, but try to remind myself that many advances in technology have been inspired by seemingly unworthy or innocent questions. Perhaps the person didn't 'crack the book' because the don't have the book. Maybe they just had an idea. Maybe the shortest route to a breakthrough is to ask a bunch of people who already have almost all the answers instead of wasting years learning a bunch of crap that you have no aptitude for. (...and quite likely forgetting the question.) I don't think we should discourage people from saying "why couldn't we do this." It might just get us thinking.

On the other hand I don't think we should be doing peoples homework assignments for them.

Just thought I'd put in my three cents worth.

Gordie.

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#8
In reply to #7

Re: There are No Unworthy Questions......

11/28/2006 11:37 AM

I agree that we shouldn't do other people's homework, but I'm assuming that most of the people on this site are like me and have limited time and resources so the most efficient way to do this is to just throw out the question and see what happens. I then pay it forward by searching areas of my expertise and putting in my two cents. Stupid questions, no homework, unworthy, whatever the case may be, the whole idea of this site is to do just that. Answer questions, engage in dialogue, expand unique and creative ideas...

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#9
In reply to #7

Re: There are No Unworthy Questions......

12/28/2006 4:14 AM

GordieGii, you are correct, but alot of people dont look past the question. When people ask questions, that gives you an opportunity to do some "mini brainstorming" in an area not related to the subject asked that YOU are working on.

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#10
In reply to #5

Re: There are No Unworthy Questions......

01/21/2007 9:43 PM

I ppersonally ask a good many stupid questions. Most often, it is because the subject of my query has obviously an opinion that has not considered the results of actions/decisions. 80% of my stupid questions are intended to make someone realize that the answer is the stupid part. Other times I am admitting that I don't know it all.

Example-

Working as a field engineer for an electric railway. Third rail power, fairly large underground portion (subway). For 100 years, contractors and maintenance had been welding electrical bonds on the side of the rail head. Good Idea! Let's run head-hardened rail. I had run the rail replacement 10 years back, as block signal zones. One welded (upset) ground rail and a sectionalized (with cut in isolated joinys) signal rail. Field thermite weld 400 ft strings into miles of continuous rail (ground side) Two diamond crossovers in 15 miles of tunnel, and ground cable/power taps are arc welded to the side of the head in the middle of a rail. Taps fall off, but are rewelded by maintenance, 3 500 mcm taps for each of 2 or 3 1500 mcm cables (ground side) per power station. 20 signal zones with isolated jonts each direction, 40 total.

Changing later to audio SCADA signal system required both rails be ground. Not my job, but talk to the design engineer (nice 35 year old lad had designrd the 10 year old rail job.

"Jake, that means that you have to weld a pair of bonds at the ends of every rail section. That's hardened steel (0.85 min C, Brinell 350 min surface). It's tricky to weld. I understand that they've been welding bonds back on since we put it in.)

Jake "I'll check with the shop guys"

Jake 2 weeks later " shop says thy have been welding rail for 50 years, no problem."

Rich "But Jake, that's typically 1% carbon."

Jake "That's not too high."

A year later, I understand that 35 out of 80 rail ends had split, At night, replacing a split rail (usually 6 to 10 feet down the middle of the web), requires taking miles of track out of service, usually during peak service hours, time for a 20 man crew to arrive at the shop, a work train, a dozen transportation people to help single-track, 500,000 passengers delayed for 1 or 2 hours, and about 10 hours to cut out a 15 foot minimum rail length, drill and blolt the pair of joint bars in, and then WELD BONDS ONTO BOTH ENDS OF THE NEW SECTION OF RAIL.

20 track men 15 hours of double time (emergency call outs) 300 hours at $80 is $24,000 track, 12 transportation people (Flagmen, signal maintainers, towermen) with 15 hours at $36/hr is $6480, and charges for the work train of $3000, total cost/incident of $33,000 dollars. 35 incidents at $33,000 exceed $1,000,000.

They still can't figure out why, but I hear that another 15 years later, the track super and a couple of other guys got fired for one of the CONTINUEING cracks, one of many involving about $50,000 worth of derailment with evecuation of occupied trains.

I sometimes ask Jake about it, and he still has no clue.

My question was really dumb. I have a whole lot more if you ever want to hear them.


RichH

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#11
In reply to #10

Re: There are No Unworthy Questions......

01/22/2007 9:02 AM

Rich,

Sometimes people too easily dismiss suggestions put into the form of a leading question as you did. Put forth as a question, it sounds like you have some doubt that it is correct, whereas the "shop guys" were probably very clear and vocal in the statement of their position, even if it turned out to be dead wrong.

Sometimes people have to be told in no uncertain terms what the correct answer is, and have it backed up by the authority of a reputation for being right and/or examples of similar solutions, with calculations if necessary ("show your work"). Then, at least, if they don't take your advice, they can't say, well, he didn't sound sure about his solution.

They say you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. However, sometimes you have to give him an enema!

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#12

Re: There are No Unworthy Questions......

01/26/2007 7:22 AM

"Concentrate on the technicalities, never the personalities" - a previous boss: the best of 22 so far...

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