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What every engineer knows

Let’s work through a few hypothetical “what if” scenarios to illustrate some common engineering themes related to quality control and the inherent stresses between those who build, those who test, and those who sell. Every engineer is deeply familiar with these patterns, but I believe even the general reader will understand the dynamics better by reading these scenarios.

Let us start by imagining that a new bridge is being built in your area. The company that is building the bridge is very eager to have it open by a particular date. In fact, their contract calls for monetary penalties for every day the opening is delayed beyond that date. However, before it can be opened to traffic, it must be inspected to ensure that the welds conform to the applicable standard. For sake of argument let’s say the standard is the AASHTO/AWS D1.5M/D1.5:2002 Bridge Welding Code.

The inspectors may inspect all of the welds and find that they are all acceptable. What do you you think of this, as someone who will soon ride over that bridge? Is this good news? Yes, if you trust the expertise and independence of the inspectors, and their testing process and equipment. If the inspectors do their job properly, and they find no defects, then this indeed is cause for celebration.

But what if the inspectors found a handful of defects, perhaps some welds that failed fatigue testing? If indeed the defects are few, and are localized, then they can be fixed and retested and we can still open the bridge on time. But it is critical that the changes are localized, that there are no far reaching changes. A bridge is not just a collection of independent pieces of metal. They all work together, and as a whole have static and dynamic mechanical properties and relate to load capacity, stresses, thermal characteristics, resonance, etc. Although some fixes may be only localized in their impact, meaning only the area changed needs to be retested, other fixes may have a larger impact and require that everything be retested.

In any complex system, some defects are expected. A sign of good of engineering process is that larger, structural defects are detected or prevented at the earliest possible moment, when they are easiest and least expensive to fix. Where this is not accomplished, large design defects may be first detected at final inspection time, and costly and pervasive rework and retesting may be required, or in the extreme, the bridge may need to be torn down.

The engineering maxim is “fail early”. Now this may seem like an odd thing to say. Shouldn’t we always try to prevent failure or at least delay it as long as possible? Certainly, if you can prevent failure, then do so. But it is rarely the case where all defects can be prevented. But as engineers, we can design systems, and testing procedures so that flaws become evident as early in the process as possible, when they can be fixed in architecture and design documents rather than in built structures, or at least be found as early in the construction process as possible. This is a frequent source of stress between those who build and those who sell. The important thing for all to understand is that failing early is actually a form of risk reduction. The sooner you fail, the sooner you can fix the defect and start again.

Back to the analogy.

Let’s build another bridge. Along comes MegaCorp, who wants to build a bigger bridge, a much bigger bridge than any attempted previously, a MegaBridge. There is nothing wrong with that per se. The history of engineering is the history of making bigger pyramids, wider vaulted ceilings, taller skyscrapers and longer bridges.

Of course, the fact that MegaBridge is right down the street from the new bridge that just opened last week is a bit odd. But MegaCorp tells us that is OK. We’re not required to use their bridge if we don’t want to.

Further suppose MegaCorp also wants to construct this MegaBridge in record time, faster than others have constructed bridges even a fraction of their size. This is certainly ambitious, but there is no law against ambition. Progress is made by those who are ambitious. We learn from their successes as well as their failures. The important thing is that an ambitious MegaBridge, like any other bridge, is held to the same standards as any other bridge, that proper inspections are carried out and that quality criteria are satisfied.

Months later and the construction of MegaBridge is complete. Time for inspection. But one problem — the MegaBridge is so large that it is impossible to carry out an inspection in the scheduled time. There are simply not enough inspectors available to carry out the task and complete it by the targeted opening time.

What should we do?

It is useful at this time to consider another engineering maxim, “fail safe“. If a system is overloaded, or detects an error condition, it should fail to a safe state, a state least likely to cause damage. We see this applied in many of the systems we use every day. Traffic lights fail safe to flashing red, GFCI circuits fail safe by switching off current if a ground fault is detected, and train air brakes fail safe by applying the breaks if air pressure is lost.

The concept of a “fail safe” applies to processes as well as mechanical systems. A committee, by having a quorum requirement, ensures that it fails to a harmless, inactive state if a snowstorm prevents a representative portion of the committee from attending a meeting. A criminal trial, by presuming innocence and requiring a unanimous verdict to convict, ensures that in case of deadlock, the defendant is let free. Similarly, a bridge quality inspection protocol should include a fail safe provision, that if the inspection cannot be completed, the bridge should not be certified as fit for use. The inspection process should fail safe to non-certification.
Ordinarily, engineering practice would be to take whatever time is necessary to inspect the bridge fully, or fail the inspection.

(Here our tale diverges from standard engineering practice and starts to relay, by analogy, the increasingly bizarre tale of OOXML’s exploits in and of ISO.)

But MegaCorp wants the MegaBridge to open on time. They force the inspection to continue, even though the inspectors claim there is not enough time. In order to “help” the inspection and despite the obvious conflict of interest, MegaCorp instructs a large number of its own employees, qualified or unqualified, to volunteer as bridge inspectors. They further recruit employees from subsidiaries and suppliers to become inspectors as well. In at least one case, MegaCorp tells a supplier, newly-minted as an inspector, “Don’t worry if you know nothing about bridges. We’ll tell you what to say. All you need to do is say that the bridge is safe. You’ll be rewarded later for helping us here.”

So the bridge inspectors go out, old and new, qualified and unqualified and come back with their individual preliminary reports. The older, more experienced inspectors are critical in their evaluation:

The bridge is full of defects. Although, as we mentioned earlier, the mandated schedule did not permit us to test all of the critical welds, of the ones we did test, we found numerous defects. In fact, the number of defects we report is artificially low, since it was limited by our available inspection time. If we had been able to complete a full inspection, we would have detected and reported many more problems.

We further found pervasive structural problems. This bridge is unsound. We can not certify it. We further question why it is necessary to open up a new toll bridge at all, when we just opened up a new free bridge down the street.

The newly-minted inspectors, who for the most part are economically dependent on MegaCorp, were more supportive:

Although some minor problems were indicated, we believe these can all be fixed during routine maintenance. We are not concerned about the time permitted for inspection. We did what the process required. And when you count all the new inspectors that MegaCorp has brought to the process, no bridge has been more inspected. Considering the number of defects reported, this is the most-inspected bridge in history. We recommend that MegaBridge be certified and opened as scheduled.

Of course, from an quality control perspective, this is seriously flawed. The checks and balances between those who build, those who test and those who sell have been eliminated. Although it would not be unusual for some MegaCorp inspectors to be involved in the inspection process, the late arrival of so many unqualified, newly-minted inspectors, and the shift of balance to MegaCorp’s hand-picked inspectors, calls into question the independence and technical sufficiency of the entire inspection process.

The inspectors are polled to see whether the bridge can be certified. The vote is close, but the answer is no, the MegaBridge cannot be certified in its current condition. The inspectors, mainly the older, more experienced ones, record a report of 3,522 specific defects in the MegaBridge, far more defects than have ever been found in any other bridge.

MegaCorp is irate. They blast the experienced inspectors in the press, while simultaneously reassuring their stockholders that this setback is just the next step forward to success. They give their engineers the inspection report and demand a quick response. “We must open the bridge on time!” they yell. The MegaCorp engineers work day and night, over weekends, over the holidays even, in order to develop written proposals to address each of the reported flaws in the bridge.

The inspectors are given the proposals and asked whether they believe the proposals are sufficient to allow the MegaBridge to be certified. Although the newly-minted inspectors are quick to affirm the adequacy of the proposal, the old-timers just shake their heads in disbelief, with one stating to the press:

You could fix every last defect in that report and the MegaBridge would still not be sound. Since we never inspected all of the critical welds in the first place, fixing only the defects we reported is insufficient. It is not enough for us to merely retest the ones we reported as defective. We need to test all of them.

Also, the fact that you are making pervasive changes to the road surface, the suspension materials and the pillar diameters, far-reaching design changes which were clearly rushed and have not gone through normal review procedures, I’m afraid that all of our previous tests are now invalidated as well.

Additionally, many of your proposals either avoid addressing the flaws, paper around the flaws, or even introduce new flaws. We need to re-certify the new design before we can even think about retesting the bridge.

However considering the huge number of defects reported, the even larger number of defects undetected because of lack of inspection time, the questionable competency of the newly-minted inspectors, and overt corruption of the process by MegaCorp, my recommendation would be to tear this thing down before it falls over and hurts someone.

Thus ends the tale of what every engineer knows.

{ 24 comments… add one }
  • Wang-Lo 2008/01/26, 1:20 pm

    Thus ends the tale of what every engineer knows.

    Every engineer knows it doesn’t end here.

    In spite of the old-timers insisting the bridge is not safe, it is opened to traffic. Every day that the toll bridge does not fall over, MegaCorp crows about how wrong the old-timers are, and how innovative MegaCorp is.

    When the toll bridge finally does fall over, MegaCorp settles all claims for a small fraction of the tolls collected. MegaCorp no longer needs this bridge because construction has already begun on the new MegaCorp fourteen-story trash compactor in Lagos.


  • Harlan Grove 2008/01/27, 2:30 am

    Not a good analogy. OOXML may not be truly implemented yet, but the current version of Office already stores files in formats that are close cousins to OOXML ones, and it’s not unlikely there are already several times as many files in those formats as all existing ODF files.

    MegaBridge has already been built, and it’s already more intensively used.

  • Chris Rusbridge 2008/01/27, 10:30 am

    Of course, it’s even more complicated, and perhaps scary. MegaCorp had already built the MegaBridge somewhere else; they took it apart and moved it into place, in the process undoing and redoing many of the welds. Nobody seems quite sure of the impact of this on safety.

    Worse, although the central MegaBridge support is on an island owned exclusively by MegaCorp, other supports are built on land not under MegaCorp control…

    There is a rumour that MegaCorp can make money from the MegaBridge even if it doesn’t open (see CentrePoint in London for a real-life example of this); perhaps the main point is to stop the city fathers investing in better infrastructure serving the first bridge, only opened recently.

    Hey this is fun!

  • Rob 2008/01/27, 11:29 am


    Every analogy has its limits. You can’t use OOXML to drive across a river, and you can’t use a bridge as a way to encode information for a report.

    However, a standard and a bridge are both engineering artifacts, they are both evaluated in terms of quality and fitness to purpose and they are both built by one group of engineers and are evaluated by another group of engineers, and have eager owners who push to curtail evaluation.

    This pattern — build, evaluate, sell — leads to the same pressures and abuses of the evaluators. Every engineer knows this, and has experienced this, whether dealing with bridges, standards, computer programs, building construction, whatever.

    The pattern is inherent in the conflicting roles and duties. Ordinarily, this leads to checks and balances. But in the present case, I believe MegaCorp has co-opted the inspectors and corrupted the process so much that no serious inspection is taking place.

  • Anonymous 2008/01/27, 11:53 am

    see CentrePoint in London for a real-life “example of this”, Cris Rusbridge

    What exactly happened, I can find no reference?

  • dave 2008/01/27, 5:08 pm

    R.P. Feynman put it well in his Appendix to the Challenger Report, http://www.ralentz.com/old/space/feynman-report.html

    “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

    dave shields,

  • Rob 2008/01/27, 6:02 pm

    @Dave, thanks reminding us all of that quote. Edward Tufte has an interesting pamphlet called “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” where he looks at the same disaster from the perspective of the PowerPoint presentations that the Boeing engineers created to brief on the risks of the tile damage. Reporting bad news is always swimming against the tide.

  • MNDOT insider 2008/01/27, 6:08 pm

    Gravity is a real bugger, isn’t it? I hate to say it but you just described the state of MNDOT and the events leading up to the 35W bridge collapse. Unfortunately, MNDOT records are so old and non-existent they can hide behind the laws shielding the government from wrongdoing.

  • Fredrik E. Nilsen 2008/01/27, 6:45 pm

    Ok, let’s try one last time:

    In what way does this differ from the desicion to submit ODF without a formula specification?

  • swivel 2008/01/27, 8:03 pm


    Centre Point is a high-rise office block at the junction of Oxford Street & Tottenham Court Road in central London. When first built it could not be rented at a profit because of the high level of Rates (property tax) on commercial properties. So the developers left it empty, and could thereby claim a Rates rebate. That, combined with the capital appreciation of such a prestigious site, was more profitable than actually using the building; so it sat empty for many years, and became an icon of waste and the destructive effects of the Rates system of the time.

  • Rob 2008/01/27, 8:20 pm

    Hi Fredrik,

    At the time ODF 1.0 was published, no document format had ever documented spreadsheet formulas.

    The binary formats published by Microsoft did not document them.

    And the Office 2003 Reference Schemas, which Microsoft pushed for official government adoption in Massachusetts, these also lacked spreadsheet formulas.

    Even the version of OOXML Microsoft submitted to Ecma lacked this information.

    So I’d say ODF 1.0 was in line with other published document formats at the time. However, thanks to work by David Wheeler and others, we were able to start an initiative in OASIS to define a spreadsheet formula language for use in ODF. Ecma soon followed with their own initiative.

    We are creating our formula language with a high level of expert review, with participation from a professor of statistics to review the statistics functions, for example. Compare this to the Ecma version, where the text they submitted to ISO had mathematically incorrect definitions for almost every statistical function.

  • Harlan Grove 2008/01/28, 1:21 am

    Another round. I’ll limit mu comments to Excel and spreadsheets generally.

    Microsoft has already produced several binary file formats. BIFF8 had been around for over a decade. Those formats are in very widespread use. Is anyone positing the argument that those older formats weren’t engineered adequately?

    The problem with OOXML is not that it’s inadequately designed or that Microsoft will do an inadequate job supporting it in Office. The problem is that it contains many proprietary elements that only Microsoft could fully understand. However, given the frequency of use Office’s XML file formats it’s a near certainty that critical flaws would already have surfaced.

    Lack of engineering quality in re OOXML is a canard. Lack of openness and abuse of process are legitimate, as well as failure to adopt other standards.

    Finally, with respect to spreadsheet formulas, it would be a REALLY STUPID IDEA to make formula syntax part of any document format standard. Even function semantics would be a bad idea. (I’d really love to see a spreadsheet that didn’t return error values for operations that could be expected to fail, e.g., instead of FIND(“x”,”yz”) returning an error value, as it does in Excel, return maybe -1 to indicate that “x” didn’t appear in “yz”.)

    Excel doesn’t follow the BODMAS rule. The formula =-3^2 returns +9. The Lotus 1-2-3 and Quattro Pro equivalent formula -3^2 returns -9. While most programming languages that include exponentiation OPERATORS would return -9 rather than +9, not all do. As for spreadsheets, 1-2-3 and Quattro Pro may have been the exceptions. VisiCalc returned +9.

    Spreadsheet formula syntax and function semantics should be specified by individual applications, NOT document formats. Yes, I know OOXML tries to specify formulas. I don’t like that. But it strikes me as very foolish for ODF to try to do so too. If StarOffice/OpenOffice want to do things one way and IBM wants Symphony to do something else while they’d all use the same ODF file format, LET ‘EM! Would that mean each would need to translate formulas produced by the other? Sure. And it’d be a GOOD THING.

  • Anonymous 2008/01/28, 1:49 am

    I live near Minneapolis. A city which recently had trouble with a bridge over the Mississippi. Having worked in Mn/DOT 10 years ago and knowing a few things let me add a few “twists” that happen.

    A highly placed political office holder is desperate to open MegaBridge before a convention of political pals comes to town.

    The contractor a politically friendly entity to the politician clams the bridge will be a 100 year bridge though the design is not that much different from the bridge that was previously there. The capacity added is one extra lane in each direction and the percentage of bridges lasting over 70 years in the state is very small as the growth of traffic forces them to be replaced sooner.

    Though the community where the bridge is being built asks for things like mass transit, and pedestrian routes, the high political official says “NO”, or makes less than half hearted attempts to put them in because his political base in the less populated areas considers those to be “Luxury” items for poor people who should get real jobs so they can drive a car like they do.

    Now the contractor is in a rush to finish the job on time. This places the construction/bridge inspectors and testing lab under lots of pressure to “approve” things fast. Even an ‘old timer’ will miss things if he has less than adequate time to review each
    phase of a build.

    NB: It is not uncommon for construction inspectors to be re-assigned if they are too critical of a contractors work (at least that is what one construction inspector told me in private).

    In the mean time, the high political person gloats about how he can build new bridges with out raising taxes though the practical upshot is that this takes money away from other projects.

    The eventual upshot is that in the least populated areas of the state will have their money used for those areas where the voters are so that the political official can win more votes in the next election. Though the places where the least people are are the areas most politically similar to the politician and they are areas he considers his “base”.

    So even if the experienced AND less experienced inspectors do find issues, they may be too late to mitigate any problems and they may miss a number of issues as they will be under such pressure to move fast. This raises the cost of maintaining the bridge a hidden cost.

    Who wins in this situation? Only the contractor who builds the bridge, and perhaps the high political official. This is because by the time the bridge has problems in 20-30 years, the politician will be long gone, and perhaps the contractor will have been bought and sold a few times by investors who also have politically similar backgrounds so that records will be lost and no one can assign blame for the bridge is less than what was advertised.

    This does not mention the 200% cost overruns the contractor charges in order to “meet the dead line” and then refuses to complete the job as he “can not make any money” only to win a bid to finish the job as the lowest bidder but which is substantially more costly than the first bid.

  • Stephen 2008/01/28, 5:36 am

    Rob I think you’re missing the central point when you say “So I’d say ODF 1.0 was in line with other published document formats at the time.”

    The point is that ODF was going through a standardisation process and the only reason that formulae were omitted was haste. As I’ve pointed out before [1] Sun made a political decision and the OASIS TC knew the interoperability implications of standardising without a formula specification.

    To use your bridge analogy, isn’t that a bit like not bothering to specify the rivets?

    [1] http://notes2self.net/archive/2006/07/12/Cutting-corners-_2D00_-the-realpolitik-of-ODF-standardisation_3F00_.aspx

  • Stefan Gustavson 2008/01/28, 7:53 am

    This is a great example of an anti-pattern for engineering: “Failure is not an option”. If failure is not an option at any point along the way, it is in fact mandatory.

    For quite a while now, all warning systems have been indicating “failure” for OOXML, but MS refuses to acknowledge that, exactly because failure is not an option.

  • Rob 2008/01/28, 8:57 am


    I think you are mixing standards and applications. Although I agree that Office 2007 does not (to my knowledge) crash when writing out their file formats, that does not mean that the standard, the text of Ecma-376, is a sufficient technical exposition of their contents.

    The standard is the product,and it has been found to be deeply flawed, both in design and in details. I assume you’ve read the comments from its failed JTC1 ballot last September?

    As for spreadsheet formulas, remember ODF and OOXML are both specifying a storage format, not a user interface. So it would be possible to adopt a single formula representation, but show it to the user in an application-dependent fashion, so the examples you give on order of operations would be intuitive to 1-2-3 or Excel users as the case may be.


    A standard can have scope and include some things and not include other things. The status of formulas in ODF 1.0 was well-known, by the ODF TC, by OASIS and by ISO. If you look at the ISO comments from our review there,you’ll see that it was discussed. But we received zero disapproval votes. And we did not stuff committees for this to happen.

    The issues with OOXML have not been primarily that of scope. The issues have been that where they attempt to do something, they do it poorly,ambiguously,incorrectly,or in a way that will only work on Windows.

  • Anonymous 2008/01/28, 11:58 am

    The analogy breaks down at the issues of accountability and liability. The law does not allow structural engineers or inspectors to hide behind some corporate shield if a bridge fails; they stake everything on their competence. Look at any software licence you have agreed to: you have waived the right to make claims regarding fitness or suitability to purpose. When we as a society recognize the value of storing the information we collectively own in accessible, clearly understood formats we will pass laws with real teeth to require that accessibility. All I’ve learned about human nature tells me that we won’t see that need before we’ve suffered some great loss. We don’t miss our water ’til the well has run dry. Until the issue comes to the forefront of public awareness, special interest money will prevail over the public good. My guess is that awareness of the shortcomings of the proprietary software model will come from a national security related failure. Until then, the folks in Redmond have a choice; they can be fat and happy dinosaurs until the big comet hits and go extinct all at once or they can be more adaptable to the new realities and survive like the mammals.

  • Anonymous 2008/01/28, 8:42 pm

    Wouldn’t a better analogy be one where thousands of inspectors from all over the world contribute their time for free to come and inspect the bridge, with nobody checking on the qualifications of the inspectors, or if they had even been to look at the bridge.

    Every one of those inspectors are of course able to publish their findings for an open debate on the internet?

  • Anonymous 2008/01/28, 11:16 pm

    @harlan grove

    I believe the mathematically correct answer to your equation is actually +9.

    B: (Brackets) don’t apply.
    O: (Order) -3 * -3 = +9.
    D: (Division) Not needed.
    M: (Multiplication) Not needed.
    A: (Addition) Not needed.
    S: (Subtraction) Not needed.

    Your equation started with a -3 where the ‘-‘ is a unary operator that ALWAYS takes precedence over all other operators.

    Perhaps you really meant to test -(3^2) ? where -9 would have been the correct answer ?

  • Anonymous 2008/01/29, 2:22 pm

    Spin-Off Tale of what every engineer knows:

    I “have to” use MegaCorp bridge because MegaCorp’s marketing materials convinced my company’s upper management that by taking their bridge, employees will arrive at work faster, safer, and will look better on arrival. In addition, MegaCorp enticed my company with special discounts on MegaCorp’s other products if enough company people used it.
    It all sounded like a good plan to me; after all, my car (a 2003 MegaCorp Zoom) and the bridge were both MegaCorp products.
    On the first morning that I crossed the brand new MegaCorp Bridge, I was so stunned, that I hit the brakes! The traffic signs were completely different, I couldn’t figure out how the lanes were laid out, and I couldn’t find a familiar small green exit sign to Park Street. I eventually had to pull over, get out of my car and locate the emergency help box. It took me a very long time, because I kept looking for the old familiar grey box with the word “Help” on it, but MegaCorp used a small blue box labeled only with a white question mark instead.
    After struggling with the help box’s search function, I finally found out that MegaCorp’s billions of dollars of research determined that there were not enough people working on Park Street to justify an exit sign, so it was left out to make room for the nicer, bigger blue signs to the other more frequently used streets (according to their data). The exit does exist; I just had to manually program it into my GPS so that I’d know when to exit.
    Continuing on, I noticed my car was sluggish, it stalled a couple of times, my Air Conditioner stopped working, and my radio was picking up a lot of static.
    Then I came upon something I’d not seen on any other bridge: a drive-through carwash! Now THAT’S a nice new feature! I thought, “This is going to be great!” However, the start button on the carwash control pad was dimmed, and nothing happened when I pushed it. Then I read the small print on a sign beneath the button and learned that my 2003 model MegaCorp tires were incompatible with the carwash, so I couldn’t use it.
    So, I continued to sputter across the bridge, and I was almost to the point of cursing the MegaCorp name, when I saw something else new! All I had to do was roll my windows down, and robotic arms would style my hair for me. There was even an array of new colors to choose from! I chose a gorgeous modern up-do in a very lovely subtle auburn.
    I began to think, “Once I get used to it, I might just like taking MegaCorp bridge to work!”
    I finally arrived at work, albeit 2 hours late, but I was sure that once everyone noticed how good I looked, they wouldn’t mind.
    Instead, I heard, “You’re LATE, and why does your hair look like a big orange beehive???” I checked my mirror, and all I saw was my gorgeous auburn up-do. Then someone said, “No, look at yourself in MY mirror”. I looked and then realized that people who had not yet crossed the MegaCorp Bridge were not capable of seeing my “new fidelity” hairstyle.
    Someone spoke up, “MegaCorp offers a free pair of compatibility glasses for people who cannot yet use the MegaCorp Bridge, but would still like to be able to see the new MegaCorp hairstyles. I suggest that until our company makes sure that all non-bridge crossers have compatibility glasses, that you avoid using the new bridge hairstyling facility and/or avoid interacting with the non-bridge crossers.”
    I learned very quickly why, because suddenly without warning, one of them touched my hair, and to my horror, it got permanently converted into a big orange beehive. I had to take 2 hours away from work to go to the salon to get it fixed. I struggled to pick a color and a style that I thought would be compatible with all company employees, but it was such a guessing game, that I finally just got a plain jet black bob.
    I returned to work, and after weathering through all of the “Oh my GOTH! What did you do to your hair???” jokes, I visited my company’s commuter assistance center to discuss my problems on the MegaCorp Bridge. They referred me to MegaCorp’s website, and in the small print I learned that I needed a few upgrades for my 2003 MegaCorp Zoom car. I needed to add more cylinders to get acceptable performance. My air conditioner was incompatible, so I needed to buy the next model. My radio was “unsupported”, but a free replacement part to make it compatible was expected to be available “sometime next quarter”.
    Then I learned that my 2003 Zoom car had “legacy” tires, and that I should be using the new 2007 MegaCorp “Oh they’re so Open Tread” tires, because they’re 50% lighter, they’re safer and more flat-resistant, and best of all, they’re “open”, meaning I can use them on any vehicle… even non-MegaCorp cars! They’ve already been declared a “standard” in Europe! They’ve even been given 2 thumbs up by Fiji and Uzbekistan!
    I thought that sounded all good and well, but at that point, I just needed to make sure that I could get across that bridge every day and get to work on time (without my head looking like a big pumpkin.)
    So I went to the nearest tire store, and learned that there was another “open tire” model available that was developed by a large international community of tire experts not affiliated with any single company. I asked the tire salesman “How do I choose? Is there some literature I can read to get more familiar with the differences?”
    The salesman heaved a 6000+ page manual for MegaCorp’s “Oh they’re so Open Tread” tires onto the counter in front of me. I didn’t have the time, and I certainly didn’t have the expertise to review the manual, so I decided that I had better stick with the MegaCorp tires, since that’s what my company is aligned with, and I wanted to make absolutely sure that I could use the MegaCorp bridge AND get to work on time. I also wanted to be able to take advantage of all the cool new features of the bridge.
    That evening, I happened across a news article regarding the “open tire” standard. MegaCorp was asserting that their “Oh it’s so Open Tread” tires MUST be superior to the other “open tire” designs, just based on the sheer numbers already in existence.
    It was then I began to suspect that when it comes to MegaCorp’s marketing materials, they have a special talent for putting a spin on the descriptions of their products. You have to read between the lines, because “your mileage may vary”.
    It has been a few months since I’ve started taking the MegaCorp bridge to work, and for the most part, I’ve gotten used to it, and I can even confess that I like some aspects of it better. I’m still annoyed that there is no sign for my street exit. I think they opened the bridge prematurely, because there are already too many potholes drive around. I completely avoid using the new hairdo feature, because I never know how it will be seen by others.
    My company management eventually realized that MegaCorp’s “special discounts” were peanuts compared to the costs of vehicle upgrades and training employees on how to navigate the new bridge. As a result of a budget crunch, the number of employees using the MegaCorp bridge has stalled, and there is a flurry of activity to justify the whole exercise to upper management.
    Are company employees using the bridge getting to work on time or even earlier? Yes, some are. Do they come in looking really good? Yes, some do. Has the company benefitted from the “openness” of the new tires? No. The only reason the tires are used is because the new features of the bridge that facilitate getting to work faster and looking better require them!

  • Luc Bollen 2008/01/29, 7:15 pm

    Two interesting articles about long term consequences of proprietary standards:

    They relates to the recent attempts by Microsoft to replace broken HTML handling used by IE7 with standard HTML handling, to be used by IE8 : this is causing a lot of trouble for MS, as IE8 is no longer compatible with “the billions of web pages” relying on Microsoft broken HTML markup.

    Here are 2 meaningful extracts :

    “Microsoft have got themselves into this mess by their own misguided strategy. By promising backwards compatibility, they’ve compromised the future direction of the browser. They’ve compromised Internet Explorer’s capability of challenging Firefox in any meaningful way.”

    “Failure of de facto standards

    It’s the beautiful, and inevitably fatal, logic of pushing the browser rendering engine down into the guts of an operating system. Fatal, because it relies not on open standards, but an ad-hoc and essentially sloppy approach to markup. Markup Microsoft has committed itself to supporting – and one it now, begrudgingly, has no choice but to support.

    It’s ironic, that of all the major browser vendors out there today, only Microsoft is the one that’s still building on the same codebase that they delivered during the browser wars. Every other browser has either started from scratch from the ground up (Firefox and Opera), or created a browser after the browser-wars (Safari). As such, all three have benefited from not having to support Microsoft’s excess baggage. And Microsoft being dragged to a complete stop because of it.

    This is Microsoft’s browser-war victory biting them in the ass.”

    I’m sure their buggy “MegaBridge” approach to office documents standards will come to haunt MS sooner or later, when efficient ODF suites, free of the MS legacy, will become mainstream…

  • Wesley Parish 2008/01/30, 7:15 am

    Three comments on the art and craft of Bridge-Building by that Poet-Laureate of Poet-Laureates, William McGonagall:

    by William McGonagall

    BEAUTIFUL Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay !
    With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array
    And your central girders, which seem to the eye
    To be almost towering to the sky.
    The greatest wonder of the day,
    And a great beautification to the River Tay,
    Most beautiful to be seen,
    Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

    Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay !
    That has caused the Emperor of Brazil to leave
    His home far away, incognito in his dress,
    And view thee ere he passed along en route to Inverness.

    Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay !
    The longest of the present day
    That has ever crossed o’er a tidal river stream,
    Most gigantic to be seen,
    Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

    Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay !
    Which will cause great rejoicing on the opening day
    And hundreds of people will come from far away,
    Also the Queen, most gorgeous to be seen,
    Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

    Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay !
    And prosperity to Provost Cox, who has given
    Thirty thousand pounds and upwards away
    In helping to erect the Bridge of the Tay,
    Most handsome to be seen,
    Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

    Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay !
    I hope that God will protect all passengers
    By night and by day,
    And that no accident will befall them while crossing
    The Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
    For that would be most awful to be seen
    Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

    Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay !
    And prosperity to Messrs Bouche and Grothe,
    The famous engineers of the present day,
    Who have succeeded in erecting the Railway
    Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
    Which stands unequalled to be seen
    Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

    Some of us are not Royalists, and would wish that Queen Victoria had indeed visited the Tay River Bridge:

    by William McGonagall

    Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
    Alas! I am very sorry to say
    That ninety lives have been taken away
    On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
    Which will be remember’d for a very long time.
    ‘Twas about seven o’clock at night,
    And the wind it blew with all its might,
    And the rain came pouring down,
    And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
    And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-
    “I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”
    When the train left Edinburgh
    The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
    But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
    Which made their hearts for to quail,
    And many of the passengers with fear did say-
    “I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.”
    But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
    Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
    And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
    On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
    Which will be remember’d for a very long time.
    So the train sped on with all its might,
    And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
    And the passengers’ hearts felt light,
    Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
    With their friends at home they lov’d most dear,
    And wish them all a happy New Year.
    So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
    Until it was about midway,
    Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
    And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
    The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
    Because ninety lives had been taken away,
    On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
    Which will be remember’d for a very long time.
    As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
    The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
    And the cry rang out all o’er the town,
    Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
    And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
    Which fill’d all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
    And made them for to turn pale,
    Because none of the passengers were sav’d to tell the tale
    How the disaster happen’d on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
    Which will be remember’d for a very long time.
    It must have been an awful sight,
    To witness in the dusky moonlight,
    While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
    Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
    Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
    I must now conclude my lay
    By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
    That your central girders would not have given way,
    At least many sensible men do say,
    Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
    At least many sensible men confesses,
    For the stronger we our houses do build,
    The less chance we have of being killed.

    The real problem with the River Tay Bridge was metallurgical – the builders had fudged the casting quite terribly, and had covered up some quite horrendous hollows in the metal with black filler. All in the name of speed and efficiency, and nothing to do with sanity or safety.

    Evidently people had second thoughts about the safety of relying on an iron bridge when the foundries took such liberties, so the new Tay Bridge was built on much more traditional lines:

    by William McGonagall

    BEAUTIFUL new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay,
    With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array,
    And your thirteen central girders, which seem to my eye
    Strong enough all windy storms to defy.
    And as I gaze upon thee my heart feels gay,
    Because thou are the greatest railway bridge of the present day,
    And can be seen for miles away
    From North, South, East or West of the Tay
    On a beautiful and clear sunshiny day,
    And ought to make the hearts of the “Mars” boys feel gay,
    Because thine equal nowhere can be seen,
    Only near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green.

    Beautiful new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay,
    With thy beautiful side-screens along your railway,
    Which will be a great protection on a windy day,
    So as the railway carriages won`t be blown away,
    And ought to cheer the hearts of the passengers night and day
    As they are conveyed along thy beautiful railway,
    And towering above the Silvery Tay,
    Spanning the beautiful river shore to shore
    Upwards of two miles and more,
    Which is most beautiful to be seen
    Near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green,

    Thy structure to my eye seems strong and grand,
    And the workmanship most skilfully planned;
    And I hope the designers, Messrs Barlow and Arrol, will prosper for many a day
    For erecting thee across the beautiful Tay.
    And I think nobody need have the least dismay
    To cross o`er thee by night or by day,
    Because thy strength is visible to be seen
    Near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green.

    Beautiful new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay,
    I wish you success for many a year and a day,
    And I hope thousands of people will come from faraway,
    Both high and low without delay,
    From the North, South, East and West,
    Because as a railway bridge thou art the best;
    Thou standest unequalled to be seen
    Near by Dundee and bonnie Magdalen Green.

    And for beauty thou art most lovely to be seen
    As the train crosses o’er thee with her cloud of steam;
    And you look well, painted the colour of marone,
    And to find thy equal there is none,
    Which, without fear of contradiction, I venture to say,
    Because you are the longest railway bridge of the present day
    That now crosses o’er a tidal river stream,
    And the most handsome to be seen
    Near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green.

    The New Yorkers boast about their Brooklyn Bridge,
    But in comparison to thee it seems like a midge,
    Because thou spannest the Silvery Tay
    A mile and more longer I venture to say;
    Besides the railway carriages are pulled across by a rope,
    Therefore Brooklyn Bridge cannot with thee cope;
    And as you have been opened on the 20th day of June,
    I hope Her Majesty Queen Victoria will visit thee very soon,
    Because thou art worthy of a visit from Duke, Lord or Queen,
    And strong and securely built, which is most worthy to be seen
    Near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green.

    N.B. to the survivors of bad verse – you can stop chewing your legs off now. I’ve finished. ;)

  • Anonymous 2008/01/30, 4:07 pm

    Microsoft is now crediting you (IBM) with their failure. Congrats! :-)

    ZDNet story link

  • Chris Ward 2008/01/30, 6:33 pm

    Well, it isn’t over until after the ISO vote; and the outcome of that is not a sure thing.

    There have been pivotal occasions before in the progress of the ‘information technology’ industry; flipping from EBCDIC to ASCII; flipping from SNA to TCP; flipping from System/360 Floating Point to IEEE754 Floating Point; flipping from VHS Videotape to ISO DVD.

    You would have to take each case by case to see what happened. New technology and new competitors, mainly. The old single-vendor-standard stuff did not disappear overnight; it still works. But new things tend to be build on the vendor-neutral standard.

    It’s not just IBM that promoted ISO26300. Huge numbers of organisations … governments, universities, businesses … got together and said ‘this is a standard we can live with’.

    Can any of them implement DIS29500 OOXML ? Probably not.

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