Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Time I Almost Got Killed in a Car Accident

When I was 22 years old and working at my first real job, I of course bought my first new car. I was a single guy making engineer money and looking for something to spend it on. I bought the car that had the lowest ratio of 0-60 time to purchase price. Yes, this is really how I made the decision. I still think this way.

The car was a Plymouth Laser, the two-wheel-drive turbo version. Ha, you say, a Plymouth? This thing was a rocket ship. It was a really light, small car with 190 hp, and handled like an American sports car, which is to say not very well. When the turbo kicked in, the torque steer would yank the wheel out of your hands.

I bought the car from a dealer in Columbus, Ohio - I picked out the options and they had it shipped over from another dealer somewhere else in Ohio. When the car came in, I went down to pick it up and the salesman started writing up the deal using the sticker price of the car. Whoa, I says, I'm not paying sticker price. He said, oh, OK, how much are you going to offer? I don't remember exactly what I paid but it wasn't sticker. What I do remember is the salesman, who was extremely fat, like 450 lbs, telling me about how he walked a paper route on his off day to "keep in shape and earn extra money." He was good, this salesman.

Anyway, I had fun driving the car all summer. I used to have to drive over to the Transportation Research Center for work, and it had a long driveway on its private property, maybe a mile long with only a couple of gentle curves in it, so you could really get up some speed. I had it up to 115 once and was still accelerating but chickened out because the wipers started lifting off the windshield.

The TRC driveway where I went 115

That winter, one Friday night some of us at work decided to get together at a roadhouse in a tiny town called Broadway, which was a few miles north of the office. We never made it to Broadway. We pulled out of the office around dusk. (At that time, the entire American Honda design department fit into one room in a low building now occupied by the Honda Federal Credit Union, on State Route 739. I had badge 125; they must be close to 10,000 by now. But I digress. )

So three of us, myself and Jim and Tim (not their real names), went busting up 739 toward Broadway. I was way ahead of both of them and didn't notice the curve until it was way too late. I was probably going 80 on the straightaway and maybe braked down to 60 by the time I hit the curve, so there was no way I was going to stay on the road. It would have been OK except there was a drainage ditch along the road, and when I went off the road, the ditch flipped me. I think I went over three times, but don't really know. It was definitely more than once. Time really does slow down to give you a chance to think about your lifelong regrets in a situation like that.

Route to near-oblivion, also known as State Route 739

Luckily, I came to rest wheels-down and still strapped into my seat. If I hadn't been wearing a seat belt, you would not be reading this blog. I was kind of dazed, but actually not hurt at all, except for some small cuts on my head from flying glass that I didn't notice until the next day. Gradually I regained my senses as the mangled windshield wipers came spontaneously to life, working back and forth over the empty frame where the windshield used to be. There was not a square foot of that car that didn't have damage on it. I remember calling in the claim to my insurance company and them asking me if it was a total, and I said, "Uh, yeah...I'm pretty sure."

I could see Tim running to the car in the darkness, and he stopped about 50 feet away, I know because he was afraid of what he was going to see in the car. So I had to yell to him that I was OK. Somebody called an ambulance, and I took a ride to the Marysville Hospital (they gave me oxygen over my objections and then charged me $10 for it) where they let me go after checking me out. I called my girlfriend and she came out and picked me up. When we went out into the parking lot, I discovered both my jacket pockets were filled with tiny bits of shattered glass.

After the accident, Jim gave me the single best piece of advice I've ever gotten. I was already paying a risk premium on my insurance because of previous automotive-related indiscretions, so this accident would probably have made me uninsurable. Jim told me to immediately lease a car through the employee lease program. The lease came with its own insurance, and if I did it before my court date, the insurance company wouldn't know about the accident. The idea worked like a charm. Jim also let me drive "loaner" cars for the 30 days or so until my lease was ready. (At work they would buy competitors' cars and have employees put miles on them, then take them apart to see how well they held up. Jim was in charge of these cars.) Later I was able to pay Jim back by helping him with a couple of roofing jobs, but I came out far ahead on the deal. Jim, if you're out there, you know who you are --- thanks! When the two-year lease was up, I had two years of clean driving and was able to get regular insurance again.

I did get convicted of reckless operation and had my license suspended for a month, with driving privileges only to work. In the 22 years since, I've had a total of one speeding ticket (55 in a 35) and no accident claims. But I had to learn the hard way.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Truth About STEM Careers

Back when I had more free time, I used to do a lot of "STEM outreach" --- judging science fairs, busing kids to NASA, that sort of thing. In my mind, the idea was to show science and technology to kids in a positive and realistic way, so they had good information to base a career decision on. I never tried to talk a kid into being a scientist. The only persuasion I did was to convince kids they could be scientists if that was what they really wanted. I also hoped to create an appreciation for science in kids who weren't going to be scientists (i.e. most kids), but who would likely come to have some influence over whether science will continue to be supported in our society.

The truth is that the vast majority of people would be unhappy with a career in science or technology. Not only unhappy, but disappointed, because of what they hear about how great STEM careers are supposed to be from various interested parties like big companies and universities.

First, it is totally untrue that there is a shortage of scientists and engineers. On the whole, it is no easier to get and keep a job in STEM than in any other field that requires a college degree. Certainly, companies would like as many STEM workers as possible to choose from, because then they can get more productive workers without having to pay high salaries. But true shortages are really rare - the ones I can think of were for aerospace engineers in the late 1950s and for anyone who knew anything about the Internet in the late 1990s. At those times, you could get multiple offers and signing bonuses. But even in times of high STEM unemployment, you still hear about this supposed worker shortage. People have heard it for so long that they don't question it anymore.

I do believe that having more STEM workers productively engaged in advancing the state of the art must be good for the country. But it is not as if there are projects going stale for lack of engineers. The investment just isn't there. That is a totally different problem than not having enough workers.

Another issue is the way STEM careers are portrayed by well-meaning adults who want kids to go into STEM. Here's a site that presents storm chasers, robotics researchers and and astronauts as sort of typical STEM careers. The reality is that most STEM jobs are nowhere near as fun as that, and the competition for the really fun jobs is very stiff.

When I was thinking about a career, I had the idea that going into STEM was sort of a short-cut to a high-prestige, professional career like law or medicine, but without having to go to graduate school. I didn't really know any scientists or engineers when I was a kid, so all my knowledge came from the media. My "STEM outreach" work was partly to help other kids not be in that position of ignorance.

With a bachelor's degree from a "not top ten" university, you are not going to be designing or inventing much of anything. I know, because I was there once. You're going to be doing things like keeping track of which parts go on which washing machine or lawnmower, figuring out how to save 3 cents a part by reducing the thickness of some material, and writing user manuals.

Now, doing that for a living maybe is not so bad compared to, say, road maintenance or moving boxes in a warehouse. But when you look at what it takes to even get a bachelor's degree in engineering, it doesn't seem worth it. For example, to get a BS in engineering, you'll have to pass a course in differential equations. I reckon that you need to be in the top 5% of mathematical ability to even stand a chance of doing that. And once you do, wouldn't you want to use that knowledge? In the job I had with only a bachelor's, I barely did algebra, let alone calculus. I had a calculator, but only ever used it to add up costs! Probably the average accountant does as much math as BS engineers. A lot of engineers got suckered into getting BS degrees, thinking they'd be designing Corvette engines or something. Twenty years later, they've designed a lot of pipes and brackets and they're wondering where the time went.

So getting a BS in engineering is no short cut to professional prestige. To get the really fun jobs, you need a Ph.D., which is certainly harder than law school and might be about as hard as med school. I think you have to be smarter than the average med student to get a STEM Ph.D., but you probably don't have to work as hard unless you have a real asshole as a research advisor. You do get paid (very little) to go to grad school instead of having to take out loans as in law or med school. If you find yourself paying your own way through a STEM Ph.D., you should really just forget it. Go to culinary school or become a llama rancher.  

It might be possible to short-cut that process by getting involved in startups. But that option is not available to most people; it certainly wasn't to me. You have to have savings or rich and generous parents to tide you through those lean times when your startup is unable to give you a paycheck.

Having thrown all this cold water on STEM careers, you might be expecting me to say I don't like my job. On the contrary, I love it. And to any kid who really likes science and technology, I say: you'll love it, too. But you need to be ready for a long slog. Like the song goes...