What You Leave Behind

It’s taken about seven months to get here, but 7,920 minutes later, I’ve finished watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It’s kind of bitter sweet, really. DS9 was a great series. But I must press on.

Latest Details of The Star Trek Project:
Minutes Seen: 21370
Minutes Left: 11976
Episodes Seen: 466
Episodes Left: 271
% Complete: 64.09%
% Left: 35.91%

I’ll be starting Star Trek: Voyager, which I hope to finish sometime early next semester. Then it’s on to Star Trek: Enterprise which I hope to complete before I’m done with school. Finally, Star Trek comes out on May 8th, which is the day I graduate. Coincidence? I think not. I’m planning on going to the midnight showing of that to complete my Tour de Force.

Why Telling Stories is Important for Engineers

Over the last few years, I’ve made a concerted effort, both on my blog and in meatspace, to become a better story teller. I’m still not a great story teller, but I do think I’m improving.

Robert Krulwich is the co-host of Radiolab on WNYC, which is “what you’d get if you put Freakonomics, Malcolm Gladwell, and This American Life in a blender.”1 This past spring, Krulwich gave the commencement speech at CalTech. He called it “Tell Me a Story” and he makes a case for the importance of telling stories.

From www.radiolab.org:

[In] the next hour or two, there you’ll be in your cap and gown surrounded by your family and by friends, and by friends of friends, and somebody, you know, maybe an uncle or a buddy, somebody, is gonna turn to you and say, “So, like, what were you doing at Caltech? I mean what were you working on?” Not that they really wanna know, you know. But after all you’ve been here for four years, so you know, or a different number if you’re a grad student, you must have been doing something here. So it’s only polite to ask.

And I know that a lot of you have scientifically illiterate dads and moms, some brothers and some sisters, not all of them, of course, but some. And let’s assume that one of these people…he’s not a scientist, he’s not an engineer, and the last time he had…a complex thought about biology or math was back in eleventh grade, when he got a C- in both subjects and vowed ever never to think about biology or math ever again. But because this is your day, and because this person loves you, or because he can’t really think of anything to say after ‘Hey!’, he asks you about your work.

And to make it still more interesting, let’s assume that if you explain to this person, what you’ve been working on, you might have to use certain words like protein or quark, or differential or maybe hypotenuse, and if you do, they’re gonna listen to you very, very politely, but upstairs those words are gonna mean not a whole lot to them, you know. Cause science is not their thing. They can lip-sync every words to ‘N Sync’s “Bye, Bye, Bye,” but you know hypotenuse is hard.

So here’s my question. When you are asked, ‘What are you working on?’, should you think, ‘There’s no way I can talk about my science with this guy, cause I don’t have the talent, I don’t have the words, I don’t have the patience to do it. It’s too hard. And anyway what’s the point?’, which is, by the way, not an unusual position. No less than Isaac Newton, and I mean Sir Isaac Newton, that one, when asked, ‘Why did you make your Principia Mathematica, your earthshaking book about gravity and laws of motion so impossibly hard to read?’, he said, ‘Well, I considered writing a popular version that people might understand, but’, and I am quoting Newton here, ‘To avoid being baited by little smatterers in mathematics,’ that was his phrase “little smatterers,” he intentionally wrote a book in dense scholarly Latin with lots of maths so that only scholars could follow. In other words, Isaac Newton didn’t care to be understood by average folks. But here is the argument I wanna make to you guys this morning. And you’re not gonna hear this advice often, I suggest you may never hear it again. When asked about your work, do not do what Isaac Newton did. No, no, no.

When a cousin or an uncle or a buddy comes up and asks you, “So what are you working on?”, even if it’s hard to explain, even if you know they don’t really wanna hear it, not really, I urge you to give it a try. Because talking about science, telling stories to regular folks is not a trivial thing. Scientists need to tell stories to non-scientists, because science stories, you know this, have to compete with other stories about how the universe works and how the universe came to be. And some of those other stories, bible stories, movie stories, myths can be very beautiful and very compelling. But to protect science and scientists, this is not a gentle competition. So you’ve got to get in there and tell yours, your version of how things are and why things came to be.

You know, you know that when you receive your degree today, you are part of and you’re celebrating something very rare, and very precious, and very fragile in our world. This place celebrates freedom and because you are now free men and women, you have to protect what you’ve been given by helping others who haven’t been here, who are never coming here to understand the value of what you do and what your teachers do, and what their predecessors have done, which is why an hour or so from now when your brother, or your aunt or your mom asks you ‘So what have you been up to while you’ve been here?’, take a chance, find the words, find the metaphor, share the beauty, and tell them what’s on your mind. Tell them a story.

Every engineer, scientists, mathematician, or anyone else with a Bachelors (or Masters, or Doctorate) of Science degree should listen to his speech, which I’ve included below. However, I’d also encourage you listen to it even if you’re not in the above category.


  1. http://www.37signals.com/svn/posts/553-if-the-freakonomics-guys-and-malcolm-gladwell-hosted-this-american-life 

Opening the New Office Document Formats

Several months ago, I received a question about opening up an excel file:

why can’t i open this attachment?

is it an excel file? my mac doesn’t recognize it?

The attached file had a .xlsx extension and that was the giveaway.

When Microsoft introduced Office 2007 (and 2008 for the Mac), they revamped the formats for all of the Microsoft Office file types. To differentiate the new file types, they added an ‘x’ to the format. So anything that ends in ‘x’ (.docx, pptx, xlsx, etc) were created by the new version of Office.

Microsoft has released a knowledge base article about it: How to use earlier versions of Excel, PowerPoint, and Word to open and save files from 2007 Office programs.

They have also released a compatibility fix, at least for Windows-based machines: Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 2007 File Formats

Update: You can also use this free online conversion utility: Zamzar

You’re Gonna Want to Read All of This

Today is the beginning of fall semester; my last fall semester. I’m aware that this is monumental moment, however I can’t quite bring myself to really believe that this is it: the beginning of the end of 17+ years worth of education1.

And yet it is.

This past summer has been amazing in many ways. I had some amazing conversations with some amazing people, both in my personal life and at work. I still don’t have the future planned out, but that’s okay.

At the end of my high school graduation speech, I quoted a famous Churchill line, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” I think I was about four and a half years too soon on that remark.

This, my friends, really is it. I’m getting ready to write the last chapter in a book I like to call Andrew Ferguson: The First 23 Years.

Thus I think it’s fitting that while I work on closing this chapter and book in my life, I am able to announce the title of my next book – Andrew Ferguson: The Boeing Years.

As my third internship with them was coming to an end, Boeing elected to offer me a job for after graduation.

I accepted.

After some time off to catch a breather, I’ll be returning to my group sometime in the late summer of 2009.

So, stick around. This year is going to be crazy-awesome and as Frank Sinatra sang,
The best is yet to come, and, babe, won’t that be fine,
You think you’ve seen the sun, but you ain’t seen it shine

1 I would actually argue that learning is a lifelong adventure. I hope to never stop being educated. So really, this is the end of my formal education – at least for the time being.

Almost Screwed the Pooch

I had brunch today with Ben, Mike, and company. I happened to be talking with Mike about my classes for this semester (Mike is a fellow EE, although he graduated in May). I mentioned that I was taking Introduction to Law and Legal Systems, which is a 200-level class. Mike then pointed out that I need to be taking 300-level LAIS classes to fulfill my graduation requirements.

Well crap. I was kind of looking forward to that class.

With less then two days before the start of Fall semester, I got back on Trailhead and found a 300-level LAIS class to take: Modern European Literature
From lais.mines.edu:

This course will introduce students to some of the major figures and generative themes of post-Enlightenment European and British literature. Reading, discussion, and writing will focus on fiction, poetry, drama, and critical essays representing British, French, Germanic, Italian, Czech, and Russian cultural traditions. Engaging these texts will foster understanding of some of the pivotal philosophical, political, and aesthetic movements and debates that have shaped modern European society and culture. Thematic concerns will include the French Enlightenment and its legacies, imperialism within and beyond Europe, comparative totalitarianisms, the rise of psychoanalytic theory and existentialism, and modernist and postmodern perspectives on the arts.

Never a dull moment in my life.

Update: Looks like the rules have channged.

The First 2000 Posts

Some 409,075 words later, this is the 2,000th post. It took about six years to get here. I wonder what the next six years will look like?

Enjoy some of the goodness and get a random AFdN post.

Incidentally, I’ve also recently posted by 10,000th picture to Flickr:
DSC_4654