Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Three Rules of Engineering

I am an Engineer, as in the studied for 4+ years at university to be awarded nothing more than a generic Bachelors Degree (Manufacturing Engineering (Production)) at the end kind of Engineer, a real one.
I love my profession and am passing good at it these days; however as I bemusedly observe society crumbling around me, I am reminded of this training so many years ago and wonder if, perhaps, it is time to publish some memories of what I was taught.
You see, in this environment, where it was explained to me that I was shit, a useless engineer and should be a farmer who made food for useful people, some core rules that govern Engineering Excellence were articulated. These rules allow us to be cleverer than we actually are, catch our mistakes more often than not and avoid the pitfalls of misunderestimating (Thanks Dubya, thats a great word!!) the complexity of the universe.
I am struck now as I watch the global financial crisis unfold amongst unfathomably complicated explainations of why It wasnt possible that are not even 6 months old, I realise that too many people are fooled by what Galbraith called "The Conventional Wisdom", or the verbal trap of "All other things being equal", "Ceteris Paribus". So fooled, they go on to build humongous houses of cards on ice foundations in a desert. Why, because they dont know the rules... if they did, they would have avoided some mistakes.
So, for the world, I would like to let you all know what the rules are, so you can know and love them as I do.
  • Rule 1: You Are Wrong!
    This is not the arrogant statement it appears to be, telling everyone else they are wrong; it refers to EVERYONE and is supposed to be humbling. We are all of us all wrong all of the time; which is a ridiculous postulation, but a useful position to start from. This rule is there because it does not matter if things go well, only if they go badly; so we must be prepared for things to go so very badly. It reminds us that we shouldn't act unless we are relatively certain we know in what way our postulation, idea, plan, strategy, ice cream or theory is wrong before we "run with it". It helps prevent silliness like faith and belief and treat our opinions with the contempt they are due, like the transient poor misinterpretations of our limited experience of reality that they are.
  • Rule 2: Nothing is A Constant.
    Nothing, nothing at all. You cant just whack in an integer co-efficient or a magic number to balance a theory, this is a fudge factor. If your formula doesnt correctly model reality, it is because you forgot Rule 1. Whacking a factor in there to make it look right is just refusing to accept reality, listening David X. Li?
    This Rule has some special interpretations for engineers which are "Everything is a Spring" and "Everything is a Fluid"; to remind us that even the most rigid seeming lump of rock is going to flex or flow given enough of the right kind of force.
    Again, it is a thought tool; it doesn't mean we dont use Fudge Factors... hell, nothing Engineers build would work without them; it means that never, ever forget that they merely vague approximations of reality and not something upon which to base the entirety of the global economy.
  • Rule 3: The Second Law of Thermodynamics always wins.
    It was said that our job as Engineers is to do daily battle with the second law of thermodynamics; before we were introduced to rule 3. Rule 3 simply reminds us that in a closed system Entropy will tend to a maximum, regardless of how hard you struggle. Conceptually this seems odd, since we aren't certain the universe is a closed system. Still, it still reminds us that no matter how efficient we are, we can't be 100% efficient, something is always wasted, nothing is reversible, something is always irretriveably consumed whenever we do anything... even stand still.
Now, having said all of this I want to remind you that these rules should not be disheartening or depressing; They should liberate and empower you, instill confidence that you are moving forward without self delusion and with a clear understanding of the boundaries of your assumptions and the scale of your risk.

This is why I'm so cheerful all the time!


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