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By Jack Ganssle

Electronic Flatulencelence

Published 3/06/2001


What was that?!? Why, it's the latest embedded widget doing it's thing. is a microprocessor-based, ah, "noise generator" that comes with a remote control. Put the device in an unsuspecting person's briefcase, hit the remote, and watch the poor soul squirm in embarrassment. Clearly a must-have item.

As a child of the Vietnam generation I long ago promised I'd never design weapon systems. That's just my personal ethics - yours may differ. When I became an engineer the military was the prime computer customer so this was a decision most of us faced.

Now the middle class is the biggest computer consumer, chewing up billions of processors per year. Sure, most go into "real" applications - cars, radios, CD players, cell phones. But with silicon virtually free we're seeing an explosion of the most inane and even annoying products.

Bigmouth Billy Bass croons "Don't Worry, Be Happy". Larry the Lobster dances and sings. My kids get the most ridiculous computerized toys, always - without exception - without a volume control. Most seem adjusted for deaf people.

In the mall I found an electronic coffee scoop. That's a computer controlled spoon. Come on - how much intelligence does a spoon really need?

A while back I wrote an article about an Internet-connected toaster. As a joke. Readers quickly let me know that at least three such products actually exist. Internet toasting? Where's the benefit? Why would consumers shell out extra money so some teenager can hack into their breakfast?

Then there are the strange products clearly dreamed up by caffeine-crazed marketing weenies. Like the Toto Toilet Company's computerized no-longer-porcelain convenience. Equipped with a bidet, paperless operation, heated seats, and of course the ubiquitous remote control. They unveiled this marvel at a diplomatic convention where the product's complexity confused everyone, resulting in soaked suits and frayed tempers.

Who designs this stuff?

Few of us became engineers to make the world a better place. We're enamored with cool technology and building neat products. Sure, that router won't cure hunger, but just look at the way it slings IP packets around! Awesome!

Most of the developer's I know do take pride in their creations. I always have. But when I think back over my career, it's clear that too many of my systems - even those that seemed to serve important purposes - are now piled in the scrap heaps of obsolete technology. It sort of makes me sad to think how all of that effort, the code, the hardware, is now just validating the Second Law of Thermodynamics. A finely crafted piece of furniture may last for generations. An embedded system may go from cutting-edged perfection to junk almost overnight. Is everything we build doomed to be as fleeting as a summer breeze?

Hey, maybe that flatulence machine is the perfect product! Sure, it will become trash soon enough, but at least the designers can recollect a career filled with amusing products. They made people laugh. That's not such a bad legacy after all.

What do you think? Does it matter to you if your resume is filled with products that changed the world, or trifles that make an all-too-fast hop from the store's shelves to the trash can?