Alex (yakshaver) wrote,

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Engineering matters

Top flight technical people argue with one another vigorously and often in ways that look just plain rude to other people. In the MIT culture, I learned that "that's stupid" is not necessarily a personal attack, and shouldn't be assumed to be: it's often the most succinct way to criticize an idea, and taking it as a personal remark is just going to get in the way of getting better ideas. The one way I've had some moderate success in explaining this to people — of convincing a few that this is actually a good thing, and not just some strange artifact of geekiness — is to explain that it emerged from the fact that in much of engineering, if you screw up, you can kill people. That's a powerful incentive for putting your ego aside in favor of making sure the work is good.

Now, most of the work I do on a day to day basis in my job doesn't carry much chance of killing people. But some of it actually does, and most of it carries a fair chance of costing people weeks or months of work and millions of dollars. So I'm proud to be part of that tradition, and proud to listen and try to understand when a colleague tells me "that's stupid."

But Larry Vance, an investigator with the Canadian Transportation Safety Board, is a lot closer to the metal, and he knows far better than I why engineering matters. Speaking on the Nova episode "Crash of Flight 111", he tells this story. One day he was at the facility where the investigators were reconstructing the aircraft from the thousands of fragments recovered from the Atlantic, conducting a family visit.

I was ... doing a visit with a family from France ... and there was a little guy, he was three years old, and he was all over the place. And we did the standard tour, with some English and some translation, and at the end of that I always make sure that I ask 'is there anything else that you want to know?' And the little guy ... I got it through interpretation, but that didn't take any of the emotion out of it. He asked 'is this daddy's airplane?' And [the translator told him] 'yes'. And he said 'why is it in so many pieces?'. And I said ... 'that's what we're here trying to figure out.' And that just about blew me away. I'll remember that a long time. Forever.
Tags: geek, meditations
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