Plllttghharhgg -


Electronic flatulence — is this why we spent years in college to become engineers?


What was that?!? Why, it's the latest embedded widget doing it's thing. is a microprocessor-based, ah, “noise generator” that comes with a remote control. Put the device in an unsuspecting person's briefcase, hit the remote, and watch the poor soul squirm in embarrassment. Clearly a must-have item.

As a child of the Vietnam generation I long ago promised I'd never design weapon systems. That's just my personal ethics — yours may differ. When I became an engineer the military was the prime computer customer so this was a decision most of us faced.

Now the middle class is the biggest computer consumer, chewing up billions of processors per year. Sure, most go into “real” applications — cars, radios, CD players, cell phones. But with silicon virtually free we're seeing an explosion of the most inane and even annoying products.

Bigmouth Billy Bass croons “Don't Worry, Be Happy”. Larry the Lobster dances and sings. My kids get the most ridiculous computerized toys, always — without exception — without a volume control. Most seem adjusted for deaf people.

In the mall I found an electronic coffee scoop. That's a computer-controlled spoon. Come on, how much intelligence does a spoon really need?

A while back I wrote an article about an Internet-connected toaster. As a joke. Readers quickly let me know that at least three such products actually exist. Internet toasting? Where's the benefit? Why would consumers shell out extra money so some teenager can hack into their breakfast?

Then there are the strange products clearly dreamed up by caffeine-crazed marketing weenies. Like the Toto Toilet Company's computerized no-longer-porcelain convenience. Equipped with a bidet, paperless operation, heated seats, and of course the ubiquitous remote control. They unveiled this marvel at a diplomatic convention where the product's complexity confused everyone, resulting in soaked suits and frayed tempers.

Who designs this stuff?

Few of us became engineers to make the world a better place. We're enamored with cool technology and building neat products. Sure, that router won't cure hunger, but just look at the way it slings IP packets around! Awesome!

Most of the developers I know do take pride in their creations. I always have. But when I think back over my career, it's clear that too many of my systems — even those that seemed to serve important purposes – are now piled in the scrap heaps of obsolete technology. It sort of makes me sad to think how all of that effort, the code, the hardware, are now just validating the Second Law of Thermodynamics. A finely crafted piece of furniture may last for generations. An embedded system may go from cutting-edge perfection to junk almost overnight. Is everything we build doomed to be as fleeting as a summer breeze?

Hey, maybe that flatulence machine is the perfect product! Sure, it will become trash soon enough, but at least the designers can recollect a career filled with amusing products. They made people laugh. That's not such a bad legacy after all.

What do you think? Does it matter to you if your rsum is filled with products that changed the world, or trifles that make an all-too-fast hop from the store's shelves to the trash can?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. He founded two companies specializing in embedded systems. Contact him at His website is .

Reader Feedback:

I had little doubt in my mind when I moved from primary school teaching to becoming an embedded systems engineer. I was leaving a worthy profession that was draining me with its increased bureaucracy to become a mercenary.

I still feel the same way and long to work on a product that makes a real difference. Regrettably the most altruistic products are for the wealthy and fall far short of clean water or a caring ear that the vast majority need. My verdict on the Simputer is still pending…

How long can I remain an engineer before the need of doing something of value drives me back into the classroom. Don't miss understand me I love creating elegant solutions and my days are recreation in them selves!

Can any one offer me a really worth while engineering job?

Robert Lytton
Embedded Systems Engineer
Cross Products

“What do you think? Does itmatter to you if your resumeis filled with products thatchanged the world, or triflesthat make an all-too-fast hopfrom the store's shelves tothe trash can?”

What about all of the projectsthat got canned before theyhit the market?

What percentage of engineeringprojects are actually completedat all?

Alan Porter
Ericsson Cyberlab Singapore

“In the mall I found an electronic coffee scoop. That's a computer-controlledspoon. Come on, how much intelligence does a spoon really need?”

It ain't the spoon, it's the USERs of such — how much intelligence does theUSER have??

Rich Ries
Software Engineer

I recently completed a project that provided an improved technique for breastbiopsy. It reduces the need for full surgical biopsy that leaves a significantamount of scarring. When we received feedback from the first clinicaltrials, itwas thrilling to hear how excited the patients were when they walked outafter ashort out-patient procedure with just a small band-aide, rather than facing afull surgical procedure.

This type of feedback goes beyond any kind of monetary compensation. Engineersanswering “NO” to this poll should really try to adjust their goals andcareers.Developing a worthwhile product makes the schooling and hours of testing ALLWORTH IT!

Brian Schmidt
Sr. Design Engineer
Company: Plexus

Jack Responds: Right on! We'll spend 40 years doing our careers;that's most of our lives. Why waste so much precious time on simply makingmoney?

IMHO, if we work in cuttingedge technology, the hypecreated by marketing deptoverruns the project -delaying it furthur – duringwhich time that technologybecomes obsolete. Theengineer moves on to workin another hyped newtechnology creating furthurwaste…


I feel very very happy andfeel great mental peace……whenever there's a poweroutage and not a single electronic/electrical item works, not even on cells(NiCd) as i forget to recharge them!

Prajwal S
Title: Systems design

Jack Responds: And if you work in California, these power outages aregetting more common!

Gee Jack, you seem to be reminding me that “all we are is just another brick in the wall”.

Keith S

Jack Responds:
Nah. Pink Floyd got a lot right, but I figure it's up to us to fight to rise above it all; to stand out and do things that are important… and right.

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