Summary of the Sole Writers SIG Meeting

Held January 4, 1999 Book Discussion: Remaking the World, by Henry Petroski

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Summary

This was a typical meeting for the group: a moderated discussion led ten participants through selected passages of a book by Henry Petroski, Remaking the World, ISBN 0-375-40041-9, copyright 1997 Alfred Knopf.

We focused on the following themes and topics:

The passages began with the interesting story of Theodore Cooper's 90-foot fall from a bridge that he was building over the Mississippi. During his three or four seconds in the air, he calculated his speed upon impact and also the most protective shape to save himself from damage. He lived to build more bridges.

This quotation from James Nasmyth emphasizes the value of drawings/illustrations:

"My father was an enthusiast in praise of this graphic language, and I have followed his example; in fact, it formed a principal part of my own education. It gave me the power of recording observations with a few graphic strokes of the pencil, and far surpassed in expression any number of mere words. This graphic eloquence is one of the highest gifts in conveying clear and correct ideas as to the form of objects, whether they be those of a simple and familiar kind, or of some form of mechanical construction, or of the details of a fine building, or the characteristic features of a wide-stretching landscape. This accomplishment of accurate drawing...served me many a good turn in future years with reference to the engineering work which became the business of my life.

Next we learned that the term "bug" was in use well before Grace Hopper and crew taped their moth into their operators' log file. Thomas Edison used the term long ago, and other engineers used it before him.

We compared this Petroski book (Remaking the World) to an earlier book that we reviewed last year (Invention by Design). If both books contain valuable lessons and interesting anecdotes, why was Invention clearly a better book? Some answers:

To improve the "Remaking" book, we recommended more figures, larger illustrations, and more detailed elaborations.

Style Issues -- Similarities Between Petroski and Tufte

Petroski and Tufte address their texts to intelligent and attentive readers. Both build tension by introducing topics and then delaying their full resolution with digressions. We discussed a couple examples of this including The Great Eastern, an essay about the construction of the largest ship of its time.

Petroski and Tufte create small dilemmas to pique the curiosity and participation of their readers. And the attentive readers are be rewarded with solutions.

Interesting Information from Other SIG Members

From Linda Frisch:

I couldn't find any usage of the word "bug" meaning "technical flaw or problem" in my ancient "free from the Book of the Month club" OED, but the etymology traces the origin to the Welsh word for "ghost" (bwg). Bug orginally meant any scary thing, so I suppose it's appropriate for programmers. Especially close to deadline...

From Craig Austin:

I have the web link to the Institute for Global Ethics:

http://www.globalethics.org/default.html

From [I forgot who]

For those who are interested in the misuse of numbers in the media and American life in general, John Allen Paulos' book A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper is an excellent study of the misuses of numbers in the media, and the terrible things that happen to national policy due to widespread "innumeracy."

© 1999 by STC Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA