Monday, December 12, 2005

Is Today's Engineer lame or clueless?

Along with my most recent copy of IEEE Spectrum, I received a print copy of Today's Engineer Digest, which is supposed to be "the US IEEE members' quarterly digest for building careers and shaping public policy". And all I can say is, "holy crap, can't they spend a minute or two reading the articles before they print the thing out?"

For those who don't know, the IEEE is the main professional organization for electrical engineers, and Spectrum is their main publication. Generally speaking, articles in Spectrum are excellent, not as original research publications, but as tutorials and technology overviews for members who may be in any one of a large number of different EE subfields.

Then there's Today's Engineer. Let me choose two example articles from the December 2005 issue of the Digest: one with a topic that I agree with and one with a thesis I disagree with.

The first article is "A New Frontier: The Privatization of Space". The online article is choppy, essentially a sequence of paragraphs that vaguely follow one to the next but without much in the way of transitions, let alone a coherent overall argument or story. Clearly, the current state and future development of the space industry is of professional interest to electrical engineers. That's about all I get from the article, despite the fact that the author is IEEE-USA's Technology Policy Editor. And the print version in the Digest is much, much worse.

Then there's the "Student Voice" article: "On Social Security". Now, I can forgive a student for not being very clear about the basics of Social Security or investments. After all, it will be decades before he has to consider Social Security benefits (though it would behoove him to learn about investing, including retirement investing, as soon as possible). But I would expect some sort of editorial fact checking to occur before the article sees print. In this case, the author parrots the disinformation he's apparently heard: that "Congress has been spending it [the Social Security surplus] and placing IOUs in the 'trust fund'". I guess I can't really blame him, as he's mostly quoting this article from the Congressional Research Service.

I always wonder if people who write things like that think that Social Security contributions would be sitting in a savings account if not for the spendthrift Congress. Of course, the Social Security system invests in securities that are more secure than a bank account: US Treasury securities, generally considered to be the safest investment in the world. These securities serve as the foundation for many mutual funds with conservative policies and are purchased by the hundreds of billions of dollars worth by foreign investors (it's what they do with all of the trade surplus dollars they get). If, as the author fears, the government defaults on these debt obligations, Social Security will be the least of our problems: it will mean a worldwide economic collapse that will make the Great Depression look like a little bump in the economic road.

Back to Today's Engineer Digest. I'd be interested to hear from other US IEEE members regarding this publication. Have you gained useful information from it? Are you aware of useful public policy work that it has been involved with?

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