Joel Orr commentary: The Computer-Aided Engineer

Let the Computer Do It!

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.
- Alfred North Whitehead

In the case of the personal computer, the observation seems to hold nicely. The PC was first a digital typewriter, a calculator, a drawing pad. Only later did the electronic spreadsheet arrive, followed by numerous tools "having each its own grammar and esthetic modes," offering heretofore unattainable functionality.

Here are a few such "second-generation" tool categories, with a couple of exemplars of each--not necessarily "the best," because the product categories are far too new--and too rapidly changing--to admit such a judgment. Grab some key words and use your favorits search engine to explore.

Outlines. The formal outline, which breaks a concept into hierarchical structure, is not universally loved by engineering professionals. Maybe, like math, it depends on your early school experiences with it; or maybe it's a genetically determined aptitude. But anyone who uses computers has to at least become familiar with the outline, because that is the way files are stored and accessed--via a hierarchical tree of folders or directories. And that is like an outline.

Microsoft Word has a powerful outlining function, but there are "lighter" outliners you can easily find. I use them extensively in my writing, to give logical structure to a concept, before I begin to lay out the detail. They make it easy to move things around, by dragging and dropping, and thus to reorganize an article, a book, or a presentation.

Mindmappers. Brain researcher Tony Buzan noted, back in the seventies, that web-like clusters of words and images, full of evocative colors and shapes, helped many people absorb and understand information. This discovery, made within the context of the right/left-brain revelations, led to many people adopting these "mindmaps" as a way to take notes, to think things through on paper, and to present concepts and systems.

Many attempts to support mindmapping with software have been less successful than expected. I think it's because mindmapping is an essentially right-brained activity, while using a computer, even with a non-keyboard input device, is very left-brained. It's hard to stay in your creative right brain while being drawn into the left-brain actions required to operate a computer.

Nonetheless, as computer operation has become more automatic for many of us, usable mindmapping tools have emerged. Two comprehensive ones are Inspiration (www.inspiration.com) and MindManager (www.mindjet.com). The former works on Macs as well as PCs; both have free trials available. There are also several Open Source products, including FreeMind (freemind.sourceforge.net).

Notebooks. As hard drives increase in size, it becomes more difficult than ever to remember where you put things. Among the new tools are two that really help: Notebooks and fast finders. Notebooks, such as Aquamind Notetaker (www.aquamind.com) on the Mac and Microsoft OneNote (www.microsoft.com) on the PC, are designed to model a notebook, much in the way that the computer desktop models the real desktop. Notebooks have "sections," "pages," and "items," but--unlike the paper variety--can contain Web pages, clickable links, and much more. You grab a Web page and put it in your notebook, in a section relevant to its project. Then it's easy to find when you need it--especially since notebooks have good search facilities.

Fast finders index everything on your hard drive, and perhaps your corporate servers, so that a "find" on a word or phrase of content takes a couple of seconds. So if you forgot where you put something, just think of a unique word or phrase in it, and use your fast finder. On the Mac, it's built into OS X. On the PC, examples are Scopeware Vision (www.scopeware.com), Enfish (www.enfish.com), dtSearch (www.dtsearch.com), and X1 (www.x1.com). And watch for Desktop Google, rumored to be coming soon.

Blogs (short for "Web logs") allow you to publish your writing, usually as a diary with comments on links to other sites, for free or almost nothing. Some allow pasting in graphics. (See, for example, www.blogger.com.) What really supercharges this tool is the RSS, or webfeed, arrangement offered by many. Under RSS, a summary or the whole of your contents are published to anyone who subscribes, using an RSS aggregator (such as Amphetadesk, RocketInfo, BlogExpress, or others). It updates as often as the user desires, getting information with no spam or viruses. Good way to share progress reports and other data.

Web-page collectors. While notebooks do much of this, Web-page collectors are purpose-designed to enable you to grab, annotate, categorize, and share Web pages. You do it on the fly, while you are browsing, so that everything is fresh in your mind. OnFolio (www.onfolio.com) is inexpensive, has a free trial, is PC/IE-only, and is very nicely designed. Furl.net is a free service with many of the same features, accessible from any system over the Web. If you do any Web research at all, you need one of these or a notebook.

New tools can be time-consuming, and may turn out not to have been worth the effort. The ones I've selected here can be explored in a leisurely morning or afternoon; if even one of them works for you, it will have been well worth it. Enjoy!


is an author, consultant, and public speaker. He consults to Fortune 500 companies, high-tech startups, and government agencies on CAE issues. He is the founder of the League for Engineering Automation Productivity (LEAP) and has been an Autodesk Distinguished Fellow and the Bentley Engineering Laureate. A long-time Computer-Aided Engineering columnist, in the CAD/CAM monthly e-mail newsletter, Dr. Orr will continue with his reflections on all aspects of engineering. Contact him at joel@joelorr.com or visit his Web site: www.joelorr.com