Category Archives: poems

Sewage jokes, limericks, and a song.

I ran for water commissioner (sewer commissioner) of Oakland county, Michigan last year, lost, but enjoyed my run. It’s a post that has a certain amount of humor built-in. If you can’t joke about yourself, you’ve got no place in the sewer. So here are some sewage jokes, and poems, beginning with an old favorite; one I used often in my campaign:3b37b9cab2d27693de2aa7004a3d90ef

Why was Piglet staring into the toilet?
He was looking for Poo.

Last week someone broke into the police station and stole all the toilets. The cops are still searching. So far, they have nothing to go on.paperwork

On administration: In life as on the toilet, the job isn’t done until the paperwork is finished.

Speaking of toilet paper: do you know why Star Trek is like toilet paper? They both go past Uranus and capture Klingons. I wrote an essay on Toilet paper — really. 

Here’s my campaign song and video. It’s sung by Art Carney (I’ve no rights, but figure they’ve expired). The pictures are of me, my daughter, and various people we met visiting sewage treatment plants around the county. Great men and a few great women who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. 


The Turd Burglar, We’re No.1 in the No. 2 business. What a motto!

And now for sewage Limericks:

There once was a man named McBride.
Who fell in the sewer and died.
The same day his brother
Fell in another,
And they were interred side by side.

There is a double intent in that Limerick, in case you missed it

By the sewer she lived, by the sewer she died. Some said t’was disease, but I say, Suicide

sewage treatment

sewage treatment plant in Pontiac, MI — the county’s largest.

How do you describe a jocular sewage joker? pun gent.

Life is like a sewer, what you get out of it is what you put into it (Tom Lehrer). And sometimes it stinks.

Robert E. Buxbaum, June 4, 2017. There is just one more sewage joke I know, but I thought I’d leave it out. It concerns the sewage backup at the prom. Unfortunately, the punchline stinks.

Cornwallis attacks. Washington goes to Princeton.

In the previous post, I asked what you would do as a general (Cornwallis), December 27, 1776. You command 30,000 troops, some 12,000 at Princeton of at total 50,000 against Washington’s 3500. Washington is camped 12 miles to the south just outside of Trenton with a majority of his men scheduled to leave in three days when their enlistments expire.

In fact, what Cornwallis did, is what every commenter recommended. He attacked at Trenton, and lost New Jersey. Cornwallis left 2-3000 troops at Princeton and marched south. Despite fallen trees, swollen rivers, destroyed bridges — all courtesy of Washington’s men –Cornwallis reached Trenton and attacked. By the time he got there, 2000 of Washington’s men had left, partially replaced by untrained militia. After a skirmish, Washington set up 400 militia to keep the fires burning, and without telling them where he was going “Fall back if the British attack”, he took the rest of his forces east, across frozen fields and swampland, then north to Princeton along the Quaker-bridge road. He later said the reason was to avoid looking like a retreat.

He split his forces just outside of Princeton, and a detachment, led by Hugh Mercer and 350  regulars had the first battle as they ran into the 17th and 55th British regiments as they prepared to escort supplies to Trenton. The British commander, Lt.colonel Mawhood, seeing how few men he faced, sent the 55th and most of the supplies back to Princeton, and led his men to shoot at the Americans from behind a fence. Mercer’s men fired back with rifles and cannon, doing little. Then, the trained British did what their training demanded: they rose up and charged the rebels with fixed bayonets. Mercer, having no bayonets, called “Retreat!” before being stabbed repeatedly, see painting. Mawhood’s men seized the cannon, turned it on the fleeing remnants of Mercer’s men.

General Mercer defeated at Princeton, as Washington shows up.

General Mercer defeated at Princeton, as Washington shows up.

It looked like a British victory, but then General Nathaniel Greene (the fighting Quaker) showed up with several hundred Pennsylvania militiamen. The militiamen had never seen battle, and many fled, after shooting into the British lines with rifles and another cannon and grape-shot. At this point it looked like a draw, but then, Washington himself joined the battle with two brigades of regulars: Hitchcock’s 253 New Englanders and Hand’s 200 Pennsylvania riflemen.

Washington managed to rally the fleeing Pennsylvanians; “Parade with us, my brave fellows! There is but a handful of the enemy and we will have them directly!” And Mawhood, now without most of his officers, ordered a last bayonet charge and fled down the Post Road to Trenton. Washington rode after for a bit “It’s a fine fox chase, my boys!”

James Peale, 1783. John Sullivan and his forces at Frog Hollow. Battle of Princeton

James Peale, 1783. John Sullivan and his forces at Frog Hollow. Battle of Princeton

The rest of the British along with Mawhood, met the rest of Washington’s men, lead by John Sullivan, at a place called Frog Hollow, near where Princeton Inn College (Forbes College) now stands. The Americans opened with grape-shot and the British put up little resistance. Those who did not surrender were chased into town, taking refuge in Nassau Hall, the central building of the university. Alexander Hamilton’s men (he’d been rejected by Princeton) took special enjoyment in shooting cannon into the building. A hole remains in the college walls and a cannonball supposedly decapitated a portrait of George II. About then the New Jersey militia broke in a door, and the British surrendered.

Washington had captured, killed, or destroyed most of three English regiments, took a wagon train of supplies, and left going north following a bit of looting. “Loyalists” were relieved of coins, liquor, shoes, blankets. They ate the breakfast prepared for the 40th, and were gone by 11 AM, heading north — to where?. Cornwallis returned before noon “in a most infernal sweat — running, puffing, blowing, and swearing.” His men looted the town again, but now what?

Was Washington headed to New Brunswick where a handful of British soldiers guarded Cornwallis’s supplies and a war chest of £70,000? He didn’t go directly, but perhaps by a circuitous route. Cornwallis went straight to New Brunswick and jealously guarded the place, its money and supplies. Washington meanwhile ran to safety in the Watchung Mountains outside Morristown. Cornwallis’s 17th claimed victory, having defeated a larger group, but Cornwallis gave up Princeton, Trenton, and the lives of the New Jersey loyalists. Rebels flocked to Washington. Loyalists were looted and chased. Hessians were shot in “a sort of continual hunting party.” Philip Freneau expressed the change thus:

When first Britannia sent her hostile crew; To these far shores, to ravage and subdue, 

We thought them gods, and almost seemed to say; No ball could pierce them, and no dagger slay.

Heavens! what a blunder—half our fears were vain; These hostile gods at length have quit the plain.


Robert Buxbaum. December 21, 2016. So now that you know what happened, what SHOULD Cornwallis have done? Clearly, it’s possible to do everything right militarily, and still lose. This is an essence of comedy. The British had a similar Pyrrhic victory at Bunker Hill. I suspect Cornwallis should have fortified Trenton with a smaller force; built a stockade wall, and distributed weapons to the loyalists there. That’s a change in British attitude, but it’s this dynamic of trust that works. The British retreat music, “the world turned upside down“, is a Christmas song.

Ginsberg poem about Bernie Sanders

It’s 30 years to the day since Alan Ginsberg wrote “Burlington Snow” a poem inspired by Bernie Sanders, the socialist mayor of Burlington Vermont. It’s a snapshot of the wonder and contradiction of socialist government. And now Bernie is running for president.

Birlington Snows, April 24, 1996

Burlington Snow, February 21, 1996 by Alan Ginsburg.

“Socialist snow on the streets. Socialist talk in the Maverick Bookstore. Socialist kids sucking socialist lollipops. Socialist poetry in socialist mouths — aren’t the birds frozen socialists? Aren’t the snow clouds blocking the airfield social bureaucratic apprentices? Isn’t the socialist sky owned by the socialist sun? Earth itself socialist, forests rivers, lakes, furry mountains, socialist salt in oceans? Isn’t this Poem socialist? It doesn’t belong to me anymore.”

Dr. Robert Buxbaum, February 21, 2016. If anyone would write a poem about me, or water commissioner (I’m running) or pollution or drinking water, or anything like that, I’d be awfully honored. It doesn’t have to be complimentary, or even particularly good.

Comedy: what is comedy?

It’s a mistake, I think, to expect that comedy will be funny; the Devine comedy isn’t, nor are Shakespeare’s comedies. It seems, rather, that comedy is the result of mistakes, fakes, and drunks stumbling along to a (typically) unexpected outcome. That’s sometimes funny, as often not. Our expectation is that mistakes and fools will fail in whatever the try, but that’s hardly ever the outcome in literature. Or in life. As often as not, the idiot ends up as king with the intelligent man working for him. It’s as if God is a comic writer and we are his creation. Perhaps God keeps us around for our amusement value, and drops us when we get stale.

It’s not uncommon to have laughs in a comedy; a Shakespearian comedy has some, as does life. But my sense is that you find more jokes in a tragedy, e.g. Romeo and Juliet, or Julius Caesar. What makes these tragedies, as best I can tell, is the great number of honorable people behaving honorably. Unlike what Aristotle claims, tragedy doesn’t have to deal with particularly great people (Romeo and Juliet aren’t) but they must behave honorably. If Romeo were to say “Oh well, she’s dead, I’ll find another,” it would be a comedy. When the lovers choose honorable death over separation, that’s tragedy.

hell viewed as a layer cake. Here is where suicides end up.

Dante’s hell viewed as a layer cake. The “you” label is where suicides end up; it’s from an anti-suicide blog.

Fortunately for us, in real life most people behave dishonorably most of the time, and the result is usually a happy ending. In literature and plays too, dishonorable behavior usually leads to a happy ending. In literature, I think it’s important for the happy ending to come about semi-naturally with some foreshadowing. God may protect fools, but He keeps to certain patterns, and I think a good comic writer should too. In one of my favorite musicals, the Music Man, the main character, a lovable con man is selling his non-teaching of music in an Iowa town. In the end, he escapes prison because, while the kids can’t play at all, the parents think they sound great. It’s one of the great Ah hah moments, I think. Similarly at the end of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, it’s not really surprising that the king (Mikado) commutes the death sentence of his son’s friends on the thinnest of presence: he’s the king; those are his son’s friends, and one of them has married a horrible lady who’s been a thorn in the king’s side. Of course he commutes the sentence: he’s got no honor. And everyone lives happily.

Even in the Divine Comedy (Dante), the happy ending (salvation) comes about with a degree of foreshadowing. While you meet a lot of suffering fools in hell and purgatory, it’s not totally unexpected to find some fools and sinners in heaven too. Despite the statement at the entrance of hell, “give up all hope”, you expect and find there is Devine grace. It shows up in a sudden break-out from hell, where a horde of the damned are seen to fly past those in purgatory for being too pious. And you even find foolish sinning at the highest levels of heaven. The (prepared) happy ending is what makes it a good comedy, I imagine.

There is such a thing as a bad comedy, or a tragic-comedy. I suspect that “The merchant of Venice” is not a tragedy at all, but a poorly written, bad comedy. There are fools aplenty in merchant, but too many honorable folks as well. And the happy ending is too improbable: The disguised woman lawyer wins the case. The Jew loses his money and converts, everyone marries, and the missing ships reappear, as if by magic. A tragic-comedy, like Dr Horrible’s sing along blog; is something else. There are fools and mistakes, but not totally unexpected ending is unhappy. It happens in life too, but I prefer it when God writes it otherwise.

It seems to me that the battle of Bunker Hill was one of God’s comedies, or tragic-comedies depending on which side you look. Drunken Colonials build a bad fort on the wrong hill in the middle of the night. Four top British generals agree to attack the worthless fort with their best troops just to show them, and the result is the greatest British loss of life of the Revolutionary war — plus the British in charge of the worthless spit of land. It’s comic, despite the loss of life, and despite that these are not inferior people. There is a happy ending from the American perspective, but none from the British.

I can also imagine happy tragedies: tales where honorable people battle and produce a happy result. It happens rarely in life, and the only literature example I can think of is  1776 (the musical). You see the cream of the colonies, singing, dancing, and battling with each other with honorable commitment. And the result is a happy one, at least from the American perspective.

Robert E. Buxbaum, September 17-24, 2015. I borrowed some ideas here from Nietzsche: Human, All too Human, and Birth of Tragedy, and added some ideas of my own, e.g. re; God. Nietzsche is quite good on the arts, I find, but anti-good on moral issues (That’s my own, little Nietzsche joke, and my general sense). The original Nietzsche is rather hard to read, including insights like: “A joke is an epigram on the death of a feeling.”

American education how do we succeed?

As the product of a top American college, Princeton University, I see that my education lacks in languages and history compared to Europeans. I can claim to know a little Latin and a little Greek, like they do, but I’m referring to Manuel Ramos and Stanos Platsis.

Americans hate math.

Americans hate math.

It was recently reported that one fourth of college-educated Americans did not know that the earth spun on an axis, a degree of science ignorance that would be inconceivable in any other country. Strange to say, despite these lacks, the US does quite well commercially, militarily, and scientifically. US productivity is the world’s highest. Our GNP and GNP per capita too is higher than virtually any other country (we got the grossest national product). How do we do it with so little education?

One part of US success is clearly imported talent, Immigration. We import Nobel chemists, Russian dancers, and German rocket scientists but we don’t import that many. They help our per-capita GNP, but the majority of our immigrants are more in the wretched refuse category. Even these appear to do better here than the colleagues they left behind. Otto von Bismark once joked that, “God protects children, drunks, and the United States of America.” But I’d like to suggest that our success is based on advantages our outlook our education provides for our more creative citizens.

Most of our successful businesses are not started by the A students, but by the C student who is able to use the little he (or she) knows. Consider the simple question of whether the earth goes round the sun. It’s an important fact, but only relevant if you can use it, as Sherlock Holmes points out. I suspect that few Europeans could use the knowledge that the earth spins (try to think of some applications; at the end of this essay I’ll provide some).

Benjamin Jowett. His students included the heads of 6 colleges and the head of Eaton

Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College, Oxford.

A classic poem about European education describes Benjamin Jowett, shown at right. It goes: “The first come I, my name is Jowett. There is no knowledge, but that I know it. I am master of this college. What I don’t know isn’t knowledge.” Benjamin Jowett was Master of Balliol College, Oxford. By the time he died in 1893, his ex-student pallbearers included the heads of 6 colleges, and the head of Eaton. Most English heads of state and industry were his students directly or second-hand. All learned a passing knowledge of Greek, Latin, Plato, law, science, theology, classics, math, rhetoric, logic, and grammar. Only people so educated were deemed suited to run banks or manage backward nations like India or Rhodesia. It worked for a while but showed its limitations, e.g. in the Boer Wars.

In France and continental Europe the education system is similar to England’s under Jowett. There is a fixed set of knowledge and a fixed rate to learn it. Government and industry jobs go largely to those who’ve demonstrated their ability to give the fixed, correct answers to tests on this knowledge. In schools across France, the same page is turned virtually simultaneously in the every school– no student is left behind, but none jump ahead either. As new knowledge is integrated, the approved text books are updated and the correct answers are adjusted. Until then, the answers in the book are God’s truth, and those who master it can comfort themselves to have mastered the truth. The only people hurt are the very few dummies who see a new truth a year before the test acknowledges it. “College is a place where pebbles are polished but diamonds are dimmed.” The European system appears to benefit the many, providing useful skills (and useless tidbits) but it is oppressive to many others with forward-thinking, imaginative minds. The system appears to work best in areas that barely change year-to-year like French grammar, geometry, law, and the map of Europe. It does not work so well in music, computers, or the art of war. For these students, schooling is “another brick in the wall. For these students, the schools should teach more of how to get along without a teacher.

The American approach to education leans towards independence of thought, for good or bad. American graduates can live without the teacher, but leave school knowing no language but English, hardly and maths or science, hardly any grammar, and we can hardly find another country on a map. Teachers will take incorrect answers as correct as a way to build self-esteem, so students leave with the view that there is no such thing as truth. This model works well in music, engineering, and science where change is fast, creativity is king, and nature itself is a teacher. American graduate-schools are preeminent in these areas. In reading, history and math our graduates might well be described as galumphing ignorants.

Every now and again the US tries to correct this, by the way, and join the rest of the world. The “no child left behind” movement was a Republican-led effort to teach reading and math on the French model. It never caught on. Drugs are another approach to making American students less obstreperous, but they too work only temporarily. Despite these best efforts, American graduates leave school ignorant, but not stupid; respectful of those who can do things, and suspicious of those with lengthy degrees. We survive as managers of the most complex operations with our bumptious optimism and distain for hierarchy. As viewed from abroad, our method is to greet colleagues in a loud, cheerful voice, appoint a subordinate to “get things done,” and then get in the way until lunchtime.

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next bet thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing. An American attitude that sometimes blows up, but works surprisingly well at times.

Often the inability to act is worse than acting wrong.

The American-educated boss will do some damage by his ignorance but it is no more than  comes from group-think: non-truths passed as truths. America stopped burning witches far sooner than Europe, and never burned Jews. America dropped nobles quicker, and transitioned to electric lights and motor cars quicker, perhaps because we put less weight on what nobles and universities did.

European scholars accepted that nobility gave one a better handle on leadership, and this held them back. Since religion was part of education, they accepted that state should have an established religion: Anglican, in England, Catholicism in France; scientific atheism now. They learned and accepted that divorce was unnecessary and that homosexuality should be punished by prison or worse. As late as the early 60s, Turing, the brilliant mathematician and computer scientist, was chemically castrated as a way to cure his homosexuality. In America our “Yankee ingenuity,” as we call it, had a tendency to blow up, too (prohibition, McCarthyism, and disco), but the problems resolved relatively soon. “Ready, fire, aim” is a European description of the American method. It’s not great, but works after a fashion.

The best option, I think, is to work together with those from “across the pond.” It worked well for us in WWI, WWII, and the American Revolution, where we benefitted from the training of Baron Von Steuben, for example. Heading into the world cup of football (fifa soccer) this week, we’re expected to lose badly due to our lack of stars, and general inability to pass, dribble, or strategize. Still, we’ve got enthusiasm, and we’ve got a German coach. The world’s bookies give us 0.05% odds, but our chances are 10 times that, I’d say: 5%. God protects our galumphing side of corn-fed ignorants when, as in the Revolution, it’s attached to German coaching.

Some practical aspects of the earth spinning: geosynchronous satellites (they only work because the earth spins), weather prediction (the spin of hurricanes is because the earth spins), cyclone lifting. It amazes me that people ever thought everything went around the earth, by the way; Mercury and Venus never appear overhead. If authorities could have been so wrong about this for so long, what might they be wrong about today?

Dr. Robert Buxbaum, June 10, 2014 I’ve also written about ADHD on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, on Theodore Roosevelt, and how he survived a gun shot.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, not as bad as first thought.

Three score days ago, The Harrisburg Patriot & Union retracted its unflattering 1863 review of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. But this retraction deserves more attention, I think, than that the editors reconsidered. The Patriot & Union was a Republican journal; it carried an accurate account of the speech, and so it’s worthwhile to ask why its editors labeled this great speech, “silly remarks”, deserving “a veil of oblivion”; “without sense.” Clearly the editors saw a serious lack that we do not see today. It’s worth asking then, what made them think it was silly and lacking in sense?

The Union & Patriot has retracted their review of this 1863 speech.

Lincoln in 1863; The Union & Patriot has retracted their review of this Gettysburg speech — in the fullness of time, they’ve come to reconsider their original review.

Lincoln spoke a few words in honor of the dead, but Edward Everett spoke on this topic for two hours before Lincoln rose. This lack does not appear to be what bothered the editors: “To say of Mr. Everett’s oration that it rose to the height which the occasion demanded, or to say of the President’s remarks that they fell below our expectations, would be alike false. Neither the orator nor the jester surprised or deceived us. Whatever may be Mr. Everett’s failings he does not lack sense – whatever may be the President’s virtues, he does not possess sense. Mr. Everett failed as an orator, because the occasion was a mockery, and he knew it, and the President succeeded, because he acted naturally, without sense and without constraint, in a panorama which was gotten up more for his benefit and the benefit of his party than for the glory of the nation and the honor of the dead.” The editors came to Gettysburg (I think) to hear Lincoln to hear things that only LIncoln could provide — his real thoughts on slavery and an update on his efforts at peace. As best I can tell, it was in these areas that they saw “a veil of oblivion.” Even so, for them to call this address, “silly remarks” there must be more going on. Here are my thoughts.

Lincoln had freed southern slaves a few months earlier by the emancipation proclamation, but no one knew their status; there had been a riot over this a few days previous. Did Lincoln claim equality for these ex-slaves, and if not, what were his thoughts on the extent of their in-equality. They were confiscated as war booty; would Lincoln return them to their owners after the war was over? If so, they were not free at all. Along with this, what was Lincoln doing to end the war? It was far from clear that the North could win in 1863. Lee had many victories, and now England had entered in support of the Confederacy. In my opinion, it was Ericsson’s Monitors that allowed the North to stop the British and win, but it appears that, in 1863, only the British navy realized that their power had been neutralized, and the south was lost.

By 1863 Ericsson was turning out two of these Monitor-type sips per month, enough to keep the British from any major port in America

The North’s Monitor, right, fights the Confederate Merrimac, left, to a draw over control of Norfolk harbor. Ericsson turned out two Monitor ships per month. In my opinion is was these ships that stopped the British and won the war.

Lincoln was cryptically brief when it came to slavery or peace: 271 words. About half the speech is devoted to the brave men who struggled here; the other half speaks of “the Nation,” or the “government.” Not the United States, the Union, the North, the South, but an undefined entity that Lincoln claims came into existence 70 years earlier, in 1776. Most educated people would have said that 1776 created no nation or government, only a confederation of independent states as described by the articles of confederation. Under these articles, these 13 states could only act by consensus and had the right to leave at will. To the extent that anyone held the South was bound now, it was because of the Constitution, signed ten years later, but Lincoln does not mention the Constitution at all– perhaps because most Democrats, understood the Constitution to allow departure. Also, to the extent the Constitution mentions slavery, it’s not to promote equality, but to give each slave 3/5 the vote-power of a free man. If “created equal” is to come from anywhere, it’s the Declaration, but most people understood the intent of the Declaration differently from the vision Lincoln now presented.

As far as most people understood it, The Declaration claimed the God-given right to separate from England and gain us a measure of self-rule — something that the South now claimed for itself, but Lincoln opposed. Further, we claimed in The Declaration, that British mis-management made the separation necessary, and listed the abhorrent offenses including suspension of habeas corpus, and the confiscation of property without process of law — things Lincoln was doing even now. Even the introductory phrase, created equal, was not understood to imply that everyone was equal. Rather, as Stephen Douglass pointed out in their 1858 Chicago debate, we’d created a nation “by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men, in such a manner as they should determine.”

Ulysses Grant had a slave who he freed in 1859, and had control of his wife's slaves, who became free only in 1865. Lee's slaves were freed in 1862.

Ulysses Grant had a slave he freed in 1859; his wife held slaves till 1865. Lee freed his in 1862.

Where was Lincoln coming from? What was he saying that November day? It’s been speculated that Lincoln was proposing a secular religion of administered freedom. There appears to be some legitimacy here, but more I suspect Lincoln was referring to the UNANIMITY requirement behind the Declaration — by agreement all the states had to agree to independence, or we would all stay bound to Britain. If we had to unanimously bind ourselves, we must have unanimously bound ourselves to some shared vision of the union or democracy, -presumably that all were created equal. Five years earlier, William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, had given Lincoln a book of sermons by Theodore Parker, a Boston Unitarian. That volume includes the following section marked by Lincoln in reference to what the unanimous binding entailed: “‘Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, for all the people, by all the people.” Whether Lincoln was now speaking in direct reference to this line, or more-likely, as I suspect, to a more general refutation of the claims of Southern separation and of Douglas’s 1858 white man claim, Lincoln’s understanding of the import of the Declaration was one that few understood or agreed with. The North still had slaves — Grant’s wife for example, and there was no obvious desire for a new birth of freedom, just an end to the war. Lincoln’s words thus must have sounded like gobbledygook to the majority of learned ears.

Based on the events and issues of the time, and the un-obvious point of the speech, I’d say the editors were justified in their ill review. Further, the issues that bothered them then, abuse of power, citizen and states’ rights, remain as relevant today as ever. Do the current editors see any import of the 9th and 10th amendment limiting the power of federal government? If so, what. Thus, I’m a bit disappointed that the Union & Patriot retracted its review of Lincoln’s short speech with nothing more than claiming to see things differently today. We stand on LIncoln’s shoulders now, and though we see the nation, and the Declaration, through his eyes, their issues remain, and the original review gives perspective on the nation as it looked at a very different time. Thus, while I understand the editors desire to look correct in retrospect, I’d prefer if the current editors would have left the review, or at least addressed the points that bothered their earlier colleagues. It’s a needed discussion. When every person thinks alike, nobody thinks very much.

January 6, 2014 by Robert E. Buxbaum, a doctor of Philosophy (in Chemical Engineering). Here is a translation of the Address into Jive. And into yeshivish. I’ve also written an essay on a previous retraction (regarding GM food). If Lincoln had a such a long address, how did he ever get mail?

An Aesthetic of Mechanical Strength

Back when I taught materials science to chemical engineers, I used the following poem to teach my aesthetic for the strength target for product design:

The secret to design, as the parson explained, is that the weakest part must withstand the strain. And if that part is to withstand the test, then it must be made as strong as all the rest. (by R.E. Buxbaum, based on “The Wonderful, One-hoss Shay, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1858).

My thought was, if my students had no idea what good mechanical design looked like, they’d never  be able to it well. I wanted them to realize that there is always a weakest part of any device or process for every type of failure. Good design accepts this and designs everything else around it. You make sure that the device will fail at a part of your choosing, when it fails, preferably one that you can repair easily and cheaply (a fuse, or a door hinge), and which doesn’t cause too much mayhem when it fails. Once this failure part is chosen and in place, I taught that the rest should be stronger, but there is no point in making any other part of that failure chain significantly stronger than the weakest link. Thus for example, once you’ve decided to use a fuse of a certain amperage, there is no point in making the rest of the wiring take more than 2-3 times the amperage of the fuse.

This is an aesthetic argument, of course, but it’s important for a person to know what good work looks like (to me, and perhaps to the student) — beyond just by compliments from the boss or grades from me. Some day, I’ll be gone, and the boss won’t be looking. There are other design issues too: If you don’t know what the failure point is, make a prototype and test it to failure, and if you don’t like what you see, remodel accordingly. If you like the point of failure but decide you really want to make the device stronger or more robust, be aware that this may involve strengthening that part only, or strengthening the entire chain of parts so they are as failure resistant as this part (the former is cheaper).

I also wanted to teach that there are many failure chains to look out for: many ways that things can wrong beyond breaking. Check for failure by fire, melting, explosion, smell, shock, rust, and even color change. Color change should not be ignored, BTW; there are many products that people won’t use as soon as they look bad (cars, for example). Make sure that each failure chain has it’s own known, chosen weak link. In a car, the paint on a car should fade, chip, or peel some (small) time before the metal underneath starts rusting or sagging (at least that’s my aesthetic). And in the DuPont gun-powder mill below, one wall should be weaker so that the walls should blow outward the right way (away from traffic).Be aware that human error is the most common failure mode: design to make things acceptably idiot-proof.

Dupont powder mills had a thinner wall and a stronger wall so that, if there were an explosion it would blow out towards the river. This mill has a second wall to protect workers. The thinner wall should be barely strong enough to stand up to wind and rain; the stronger walls should stand up to explosions that blow out the other wall.

Dupont powder mills had a thinner wall and a stronger wall so that, if there were an explosion, it would blow out ‘safely.’ This mill has a second wall to protect workers. The thinner wall must be strong enough to stand up to wind and rain; the stronger walls should stand up to all likely explosions.

Related to my aesthetic of mechanical strength, I tried to teach an aesthetic of cost, weight, appearance, and green: Choose materials that are cheaper, rather than more expensive; use less weight rather than more if both ways worked equally well. Use materials that look better if you’ve got the choice, and use recyclable materials. These all derive from the well-known axiom, omit needless stuff. Or, as William of Occam put it, “Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate.” As an aside, I’ve found that, when engineers use Latin, we look smart: “lingua bona lingua motua est.” (a good language is a dead language) — it’s the same with quoting 19th century poets, BTW: dead 19th century poets are far better than undead ones, but I digress.

Use of recyclable materials gets you out of lots of problems relative to materials that must be disposed of. E.g. if you use aluminum insulation (recyclable) instead of ceramic fiber, you will have an easier time getting rid of the scrap. As a result, you are not as likely to expose your workers (or you) to mesothelioma, or similar disease. You should not have to pay someone to haul away excess or damaged product; a scraper will oblige, and he may even pay you for it if you have enough. Recycling helps cash flow with decommissioning too, when money is tight. It’s better to find your $1 worth of scrap is now worth $2 instead of discovering that your $1 worth of garbage now costs $2 to haul away. By the way, most heat loss is from black body radiation, so aluminum foil may actually work better than ceramics of the same thermal conductivity.

Buildings can be recycled too. Buy them and sell them as needed. Shipping containers make for great lab buildings because they are cheap, strong, and movable. You can sell them off-site when you’re done. We have a shipping container lab building, and a shipping container storage building — both worth more now than when I bought them. They are also rather attractive with our advertising on them — attractive according to my design aesthetic. Here’s an insight into why chemical engineers earn more than chemists; and insight into the difference between mechanical engineering and civil engineering. Here’s an architecture aesthetic. Here’s one about the scientific method.

Robert E. Buxbaum, October 31, 2013