From the editor's desk: Beware the somewhat knowledgeable engineer

August 2022 News

Brett van den Bosch, Editor

Back in the days when plasma televisions were a thing, my brother-in-law was the first person I knew who splashed out on a 37-inch flat-screen boasting what was, at the time, eye-sizzlingly high resolution. To connect it to his Blu-ray player he bought a 10 metre long, gold-plated HDMI cable that cost about 10 times as much as a run-of-the-mill cable of the same length.

No doubt expecting me to be impressed, he was surprised by my response: “But why?” Yes, gold-plated cables have quantitative benefits over regular cables, but a digital signal either gets transmitted and received with sufficient fidelity, or it does not. Over such a short distance and in this application, gold plating was overkill as it offered no qualitative improvement.

Of course, he swore blind that he had tested it against a regular HDMI cable and the gold-plated one absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, produced better picture quality. Besides, his buddy who made a living in the A/V market had told him so, and he was undeniably more of an expert on the subject than I. (Coincidentally, the same buddy was the one who sold him the gold-plated cable.) When his eyes glazed over in that way that engineers know all too well when they ‘talk technical’ to a layperson, I gave up and conceded the point that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.

In the context of consumer electronics, I think of this as the Apple effect (no offence to any of the Apple fanatics out there) – when you pay more for something, you expect it to be better and so you find ways of validating your expectations. In the field of psychology, studies have shown this phenomenon to hold true, and it has been dubbed the ‘marketing placebo effect.’

So, when someone tells me they’re somewhat knowledgeable about something, my brain interprets that as knowing just enough to be dangerous. Further to the point of interpretation and dangerous consequences, I recently attended an SAIMC technology evening where Extech Safety Systems’ Gary Friend presented on the topic of Ex markings on industrial equipment. His presentation was excellent and I learned a lot from it, but I was left pondering whether the rating system was intentionally contrived to be as hard to fathom as humanly possible. And I don’t mean that facetiously. To illustrate my point, here’s an actual illustration of my point:

Thanks to Gary’s presentation, I now have more knowledge than I arrived with of what the various components of this marking represent. But, if one were to methodically cook up an alphanumerical soup that only those possessing the same arcane knowledge could decipher, some of the things one might do would be: mix letters and numbers; use Roman numerals as well as digits; mix uppercase and lowercase letters; and give the separate elements varying lengths. The Ex rating system checks all of these boxes. I do not claim to be an expert on the subject, those are merely my observations as someone who knows precisely enough to be dangerous.

At the end of the day, ‘somewhat knowledgeable’ is functionally equivalent to ‘partially ignorant’, and in the engineering world that is simply not good enough – particularly when it comes to explosive environments. There is one correct interpretation, and only one, and a single mistake could prove fatal. An age-old adage tells us not to ‘sweat the small stuff’, but on this playing field a more apt principle to follow is ‘sweat or you’ll regret’.


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