Whoever said that engineers are humorless never read the editorials on Microwaves101.com. In an industry where web sites often seem to be a company's last priority, this site offers a regularly updated microwave encyclopedia of technical and historical information. It credits anonymous insiders for their "class participation" and rewards technical contributions with a pink pocketknife. Technical content on the site runs the gamut from basic microwave design theory, a variety of downloadable design spreadsheets, handy microwave calculators, and nearly 100 rules of thumb. Mixed into the content is colorful commentary on topics like the evolution of greed in the US, embedded YouTube videos (for example, Radar Love by Golden Earring), a mortuary containing photos of blown hardware, and countless references to strange historical and pop-culture phenomena blended together with a unique and quirky sense of humor.
In this interview, we talk to the Unknown Editor (UE) about what inspired him to start Microwaves101.com and to share some of his thoughts on what it currently means to be a microwave engineer. The UE visited Nancy Friedrich at Penton Media's Paramus, NJ office undisguised. So if anyone is looking for him, she should be able to pick him out of a police lineup. The UE wishes to disclose that opinions expressed herein and on Microwaves101.com are generally for his own amusement. If you have a bone to pick with him, address your concerns to UE@microwaves101.com.
MWRF: Why did you start the Microwaves101.com web site?
UE: It started out of frustration at a "normal" and well-paying job, where there are a lot of barriers to knowledge sharing. If you landed here from Mars recently, you'd never guess that one or two people could write a better microwave encyclopedia than the combined resources of a Fortune 500 electronics company, but it's true! There's way too much NIH (not-invented-here) mentality in a big company, and groups with similar capabilities withhold critical information from each other because of corporate turf wars.
My main reason for attempting this project is that there's a whole mess of great microwave info out there (for example, from old out-of-print data sheets), which needs a home for eternity besides those boxes in my garage. I just want to put information in one place so we can all find it, but I don't want to answer to anyone about the web site's style.
MWRF: The site is extensive. Do you have many partners?
UE: Calculator Boy and The Professor have provided some great work. Then there's a small group of people who patiently answer message-board posts. Thanks, guys! And by guys, I mean all possible genders!
MWRF: Of which part of the site are you most proud?
UE: Let's first look at this in the opposite sense. There are pages on the site with a mess of typos, with limited content, which don't do much good when your search leads you there. Then there's the issue of bad graphics. Because Microwaves101 doesn't make any products, we don't have access to cool photos. And it's really painful to post equations and graphs don't scale well to a viewable image in HTML.
Being from New Jersey, I have been trained from birth not to be proud. But some of my best work is in the form of Excel spreadsheets in the download area, in which you can manipulate S-parameters, explore the many loss mechanisms of coax, learn about skin depth, find an explanation for performing linear interpolation, and maybe even plot a heart on a Smith chart. On the worldwide web, there's an entire universe of wikis, blogs, and even twittering that might provide similar information. But the signal-to-noise ratio is at least 20 dB below Microwaves101. It may be annoying to some readers that some of our pages take some time to get to the point (unlike Wikipedia), but we are happy to pursue the middle ground.
MWRF: What year did you begin working on Microwaves101?
UE: Year 2000, the prior century. Definitely before Wikipedia. Maybe they stole our idea for a free online encyclopedia! They have done a great job and obviously had their own idea of how to do this, but neither site came up with a way to get rich. We look for corporate sponsors while they beg for reader contributions; I could never do that. My Mom was a Quaker and we weren't even allowed to trick-or-treat on Halloween!
MWRF: Why do you think fewer US students are attracted to the engineering field?
UE: Most kids have trouble relating to what we do because it doesn't make good television. Plus, there's the notion that engineering is hard work. "Hard" implies taking a shower after work, not before. And engineers are usually not into conspicuous consumption, but that's a good thing.
MWRF: Please list some reasons to be a microwave engineer.
UE: Microwave engineers make a positive difference in everyone's life. All those cell phones, wireless networks, satellite radio, GPS, air traffic and weather radar, missile defensewe made them happen. Compared to lawyers, politicians, lobbyists, investment bankers, oil companies, actors, professional athletes, or car salesmen, we're a likeable group.
MWRF: Your web site gets an amazing number of page views. How come you haven't made millions?
UE: A true engineer is not capable of making a pile of cash. He needs help from business partners that know how to give people "the business." Unfortunately, I pretty much only associate with engineers. Sure, I'd like to share the privilege of being in Obama's target audience for a tax increase, but then my lazy kids would be cheering louder for my early demise.
MWRF: You get a lot of feedback and questions from the folks who visit your site. What are your visitors looking for?
UE: People often look for supplier recommendations (that's a subtle hint to potential sponsors) or help with technical questions. We get resumes of people looking to change jobs and I've helped quite a few.
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MWRF: What's the strangest question or request you've received?
UE: I don't want to be too specific and embarrass anyone. There are a lot of people out there who never went to college but follow junk science. The radiation hazards of cell-phone towers seem to be hugely overestimated by non-engineers. The use of "orgonite" to counteract "negative energy" cracks me up (just Google cell phone tower danger orgonite for some yuks). There are quite a few people that want to experiment with microwave ovens, so we try to discourage them.
MWRF: What's the best part about being a microwave engineer?
UE: One of the most rewarding experiences is monolithic-microwave-integratedcircuit (MMIC) design. MMIC designers put in the most "free" hours because in an analog world, there are bragging rights at stake and you don't always get a second chance to correct a design. You use incredible design tools, yet still have time to surf the web while electromagnetic (EM) analysis beats your computer's CPU like a rented mule!
MWRF: Do you have any advice for microwave engineers just out of school?
UE: I don't want to come across like some touchy-feely guru. The best engineering advice I ever heard came from a materials science professor at Stevens Tech: "Corrosion never sleeps!" I can't compete with that, but here are four points:
Keep learning or find a different career. Learning involves some of your precious free time, suck it up.
Get some cash in your wallet. It's pathetic to see someone using a debit card to charge a pack of gum at Circle K or a latte at Starbucks. Did I mention I am not a patient guy?
If you really, desperately want a job in the field of microwave engineering, there is no substitute for a Smith Chart tattoo to show off at your next job interview. Send me a photo!
Go to the gym regularly. You might not live longer but you will live better.
MWRF: Any advice for engineers who have been in the industry for 30-plus years?
UE: Don't associate with people your own age unless you want to feel old! Give all of your neckties to a kindergarten class for an art project.
MWRF: What do you want to be when you grow up?
UE: I have a lifelong friend who is joint owner of a company thatamong other thingsmakes canisters for automobile oil filters by the millions and is quite successful. I want to invent something that he can make, license it to him, buy him out, and then fire himjust for fun.
MWRF: What would you like for Christmas?
UE: More contributions, of course! It's funny how Wikipedia attracts a legion of eggheads who contribute content for the good of mankind, but Microwaves101 somehow misses the phenomenon of audience generosity. Maybe it's the quirky humor or the rants on the editorial page that frighten potential contributors. But unless you're having fun, why do anything in your spare time? Other than more content, I will settle for world peace, maybe a short visit with my Pop, and my wife watching less of the "Hallmark Channel" during the month of December....
MWRF: Why are you "unknown?"
UE: Rent "O.C. and Stiggs," a 1987 movie about two high-school delinquents based on a series of articles from the defunct humor magazine, National Lampoon. If you stay awake for half of it, you will learn why Stiggs goes by his last name. As O.C. explains, "Stiggs" sounds more ridiculous than "Mark," Stiggs' first namejust like "the Unknown Editor" sounds more ridiculous than Steve. I don't understand the whole online persona thing. Why anyone would post information on networking sites is beyond me. Why let some dotcom company generate ad revenue using your name while crooks steal your identity?
I don't need any accolades, congratulations, or certificates with my name on them. The awards I like are pictures of dead presidents!
MWRF: Why don't you write a book about microwaves? U
E: Microwave technology changes, but not as fast as in other fields. Some of the best books and articles were written in the 1960s and '70s, you can't say that about "digital" electronics. I'm more worried about all the typos the readers would find. You can't change a book once it has gone to print. An online book is like a potter's wheel: Throw on a slab of clay, then work it into something.
MWRF: Thank you, Mr. Stiggs!