Sunday, January 16, 2011

Balancing Relationships and Design Parameters

We all would like to get it just right.  Our soup should not be too hot so as to avoid “leather tongue”, or too cold, because cold chicken soup does nothing for the soul.  Driving either too fast or too slow on the highway is illegal and dangerous.  Shoot the basketball too softly and it does not reach the rim, too hard at it clangs off the backboard.  There is a narrow range of force and angle for which you will score, and with practice, you can find that optimized scenario with regularity.

Goldilocks is not the only person interested in finding the optimal bed or porridge.  It is in fact the primary concern for an engineer to look at a design problem, and optimize its parameters.  The goal is to design a prototype whose safety, mass, volume, cost, and delivery time fall within an appropriate domain.  The optimization problem that ensues may be thought of as a search for balance.  A computer scientist may view this as an interpolation algorithm, perhaps a bisection code, being run until a satisfactory solution is found.

We are not all engineers, but we all have relationships.  These delicate things between you and your mom, neighbour, husband, wife, or friend, take on lives of themselves.  They need to be supported and nurtured, but in a way that is appropriate.  Boyfriends and girlfriends often run into trouble if one member of the relationship is coming on too strong, or is too distant.

With children, parents are always seeking an appropriate balance between letting them be and being over-protective.  Sometimes we want to keep them wrapped up safely, but they need to experience the world for themselves.  At some point, parents must let them go, but they should not stray too far before they are ready.  A common metaphor for parenthood is the parent as the archer and the child as an arrow.  The parent must pull back, and provide direction, but if they never let go, their child will never fly.

The typical engineering balancing act is a multi-variable problem.  In the big picture, the project manager wants the job done with high quality, while meeting schedule, and at a low cost.  It turns out that this is not reasonable.  In the real world, these three key parameters must be weighted: which one can the manager accept to bend on?  The way my cousin, who is also an engineer words it, “You want it good, quick and cheap... Pick two.”

If you want a product that is of high quality at a low cost, the design phase will be long, and the product could arrive late.  If you want the product to be good and arrive on time, you will probably need to make certain consolations on the cost (high quality parts off the shelf tend to be expensive).  Of course, the alternative is a low-cost piece of crap that arrives on time.

Balancing these parameters on multiple projects that are ongoing in parallel is the norm for the modern day engineer.  It is not surprising that people with Asperger’s Syndrome gravitate towards the engineering profession.  Their attention to detail enables them to ensure that multiple criteria are met.  Some complex problems that would appear tedious to some people actually entice someone with this particular affliction.  However, most engineering positions require that relationships occur between real people as well – it is here that someone with Asperger’s will have difficulty.  The downside to the syndrome is the inability to appropriately interpret and express emotions.

Clearly, there is a big difference between inanimate parameters, like mass and cost, and human parameters, like love and hate.  I wonder if it is possible for someone to have the opposite affliction of Asperger’s.  Could someone be very adept at expressing emotions, so much so that they can visualize an engineering parameter as an emotion?  Would this be a desirable skill?  I don’t think so.  Feelings must be handled with more care than design parameters.  If you equate the importance of satisfying a multi-variable engineering problem with satisfying somebody emotionally, you would be an unproductive engineer.  People’s feelings must be handled with care; this is a time-consuming endeavour.

There are people who solve multi-variable problems as the feelings of millions hang in the balance – they are called politicians.  Fortunately for them, they do not need to have direct relationships with all of the people for whom their decisions affect directly.  Still, the constraints imposed upon politicians combined with their desire to please the majority make the job very challenging.  Perhaps an engineer would be good at solving the multi-variable problems that politicians face.  

I suppose I would vote for President Dilbert, provided that Wally is not his running mate.

Engineers are a funny bunch.  They can satisfy a complex problem through complex optimization procedures and yet struggle to mingle at wine and cheese.  Not all engineers fit this stereotype, but it does bear some truth.

We all seek balance when it comes to our work life as well as our home life.  To further complicate the issue, an additional balancing act occurs between home life and work life: we must feed both adequately.  Our work life is necessary to support our home life.  Our home life is necessary for us to thrive.
Let the balancing begin. 

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