Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Boring subject, or just a boring speaker?

Five years ago Patricia Fripp said that: “There is no such thing as a boring subject, only a boring speaker.”

Two decades ago I stumbled over a wonderful series of columns in Lubrication Engineering magazine. They had the curious title of Love Letters to the Lubrication Engineers, and were written by Dr. Shirley E. Schwartz.

Shirley worked as a chemist at GM research and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2000. She has a knack for simply and clearly explaining her subject: how the oil behaves in the engine of your car. Her January 1999 column on The Calibrated Eyeball begins with:

“The connoisseur swirls the small glass containing a dark fluid. He looks for body, flow, any unevenness in the fluid. He waves his hand over the glass and takes a whiff. Fine wine? No. Engine oil.”

Many of her columns can be read on the web. Her June 1998 column is I am an engine’s camshaft. The November 1999 column is I am your engine’s oil defoamer. Her September 2001 column about No time to think, describes where to finally find a quiet place at work to plan a presentation.

My all-time favorite is her October 1996 column, The Sludge Queen Says. As The Sludge Queen she is the Dear Abby of dirty engine oil. She hilariously replies to three letters signed Old-time driver (who never ever opened the hood to put in any oil), Forget-me not (who forgot to change the oil, and let it turn to tar), and Perplexed (who noticed that in winter the oil on his dipstick looked just like a vanilla malt). This column does not seem to be posted on the open web, although you can find it on a magazine database at an engineering library. There also is a book with a collection of the columns.

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