God Help Us; We’re In The Hands Of Engineers

Dr Ian Malcolm, in Jurassic Park, of course.  Yet I think the good Doctor (and possibly, by extension, Dr Crichton himself) is confusing the nature of the engineer with that of the control freak.  Two different subsets of people, though, of course, there may be overlap.  What I understand the quote to mean (and this is pretty much informed by watching the film and reading the book[1]) is that it is Engineers who believe they can control the Park, and who fail to appreciate that such control is impossible; hubris, baby, to the max.  I come from a line of engineers (in that my father is also proud to bear that title) and, as you might expect, I know a few others, here and there.  I don’t think any of them believe in absolute control; rather the opposite.

Let’s take a subset of the species Engineer; the Software Engineer, or to use the common name, Programmer.  Let’s take a look at the code that such a person produces.  I’ll lay a small amount of money[2] that you’ll see defensive coding; exceptions caught and errors handled.  Throughout the source there will be an implicit understanding made evident; things can go wrong.  This tends to show up especially where the program interacts with its environment.  Opening a file?  It might not be there.  Writing data to it?  Beware of disk failures or lack of space.  Sending data over the Internet?  Prepare to retry.

But the recognition that errors are a necessary and inevitable part of code doesn’t imply that they can always be handled.  Every program has some level of error at which it will give up and yield to fate, throwing its hands in the air and commending itself to the mercy of the operating system.  What the engineer does is to minimize the risk of that happening, no more than that, by balancing what can occur against the cost of handling it.

If you’ve ever put up wallpaper, you’ll remember this; after the paper meets the wall, there comes the smoothing, where the bubbles trapped underneath are pushed out to the edges.  There are always some left, forever trapped as the paste dries around them.  All you can do is minimize them to a point where they don’t get in the way of the main purpose of wallpaper; to look nice from a reasonable distance.  Engineers are like interior decorators; we massage the bubbles of risk out to the margins of what is likely.  Luckily we have less need to climb precariously perched ladders.

Personally, despite him being torn apart by the T-Rex, I’d blame the lawyer.

[1]I’m unreasonably proud that my old paperback copy of Jurassic Park was bought in the US from an airport news-stand and has no mention or tie-in with the movie at all; no red/black/yellow logo, no T-Rex, nada.  I have no idea why this should matter to me.
[2]Not my money, necessarily.

4 thoughts on “God Help Us; We’re In The Hands Of Engineers

  1. I didn’t really get that from Crichton/Malcolm at all. Malcolm constantly harped on how engineers were meddling in things they didn’t really understand – from the geneticist to the site manager, all of them were just focusing on narrow bits of specialization without really considering the ‘big picture’ as a “true” scientist should, or even understanding the fundamentals that thier theories were being built upon.

    Little things, such as the bell curve nature of the compys’ size distribution, or the way that the software engineers just “assumed” that there would always be exactly 259 dinosaurs in the park, and therefore “too many” was NOT an alert situation, only “too few”.

    In Crichton’s (apparent, to me) view, everyone in the book but maybe Malcolm was more of a ‘technician’ than a ‘scientist’, even Dr. Wu (I think it was Wu) – he was more or less just assembly-lining the production of DNA fragments into embryos.

    This theme is pretty blatant in his later book, Prey. “We have the technology, so let’s go play with it. Never mind understanding it. That’s what the actual scientists are for. And I’m sure they’re on top of it.”

    This sorta brings to mind the writings of E. W. Dijkstra (http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/EWD/) regarding the differences between actual computer science versus what we today refer to as software engineering. I like to look back on his material and bounce it off our present day programming environments and try to imagine his reaction to Python or Java (nose wrinkling, I imagine). This is a man that though C was a high-level language πŸ™‚

    Afterword: I always thought it odd how trivial the character of Malcolm was in the movie versus his more central placement in the book. It made his appearance in the second movie totally unbelievable.

    • The technician/scientist bit, I agree, is certainly one of Malcolm’s themes, yet I think that too is a sign of how little he (or, again, possibly Crichton) understands the nature of the engineer. Is there some training that we get which removes our moral capacity or ability to have an opinion about the ethics of that which we do? I don’t think so, no more than those who go into pure science gain some special powers that allow them a better understanding of how their research fits into and affects the world.

      New Scientist, of late, has had several articles about scientists being paid by various industries to produce biased studies, or not report unfavourable ones. There’s nothing so different about those who *do* as opposed to those who *discover*; we’re all equally capable of glory or the Devil’s work πŸ™‚


      • One thing I didn’t mention earlier: Crichton isn’t an engineer. He isn’t actually, in the strictist sense, a scientist. His degree is in the medical field, which he pretty much walked away from after selling his first book or three.

        So in a way, no, he’s not in any especially enlightened position when it comes to observations of science and engineering. In fact, his lack of understanding of the details is often annoying to me as a programmer when he has the cheek to “show” the “code” that the “scientist” is working on, and it’s complete gibble-gabble. The code segments in Prey actually had greek letters in them, fercryinoutloud.

        And by estension, his other science understanding is probably also of the same substance; pretty at a distance, but full of holes close in. Apparently he got some serious flak over JP since JP2 had a lot of ass-coverage involved (“Of COURSE they couldn’t have done all that on the island. Of COURSE there had to be a Site B”) Somewhat reminiscent of Ringworld Engineers in that respect.

        Having said all that, Crichton was in no way painting all of science and engineering with the same broad brush. Oh, he IS critical at how little science and technology actually value fundamentals (I will revisit this in a sec), but he pretty much lays most of the blame at the feet of the dot-com mentality of the bio- and nano- research industries. Industries. Never before in the past have science and industry been so closely tied as in the past 50 years, and his point – I think – is that the result-oriented approaches of business and government are not so desireable in the pursuit of knowledge. That gained with little price is not treated with respect, and when that happens you get eaten by nasty critters.

        Coming back to an earlier point, I’ve seen the erosion of the computer sciences – excuse me, software engineering field – take place in my own space. Colleges are less likely to, for example, teach programmers how to use makefiles and compilers and linkers, and more likely to give them or force them to buy an IDE like MSVS that does all the thinking for them. I’ve met software engineers here that don’t know what a K&R is.

        As a test technician, I’ve been in the position of not needing to know why a quad NAND gate array needs replace, only that the diagnostics point to it as the possible failure point. I fix it, I move on. I don’t care if the diagnostics were right nor not – if it passes diagnostics this time, the odds are in my favor that the assembly will function properly. Only if it fails again do I get nervous.

        That is how I viewed the “scientist” and “engineer” characters in JP – more of a production line mentality than anything. We already KNOW the theory behind the process, the rest is simply designing the process and getting it all to work smoothly. This is, pretty much, what programmers do. Since ENIAC, it’s all been pretty much the same thing. We just get better tools.

        As for your first paragraph – I think you have it backwards. Engineers aren’t taught how to be arrogant, and scientists are not taught how to be ethical (yes, the class exists. I’m saying it makes no difference). One becomes an engineer because one has a particular mindset. One becomes a pure scientist because one has that mindset. Sometimes the scientists get drafted (i.e. Big Boy) but none of the Los Alomos team started out in physics simply because they wanted to design the most fearsome weapon known to man.

        Oh, and there are exceptions to everything. Except this. πŸ™‚

      • Good points. I’d agree that Crichton’s really taking pot-shots at what you call “results-oriented approaches”, and I might also term “an obsession with next quarter’s bottom line”.

        On the first paragraph; I agree with you about mindsets choosing careers, but my target was the casual association of the title phrase with the baggage of assumptions about the nature of engineering. The nature of writing is to condense argument and viewpoint into short phrases that evoke the right reaction; I just disliked the implied condescension behind Malcom’s quote.

        Having been reading comments on Microsoft’s current approach to patents, and being someone who has at least two reviews of patent searches on his to-do list right now, I’m tempted to stretch things further and say that general philosophy (profit now, strategic advantage and to hell with anything that doesn’t make money) has much to answer for that doesn’t require stories about dinosaurs to make plain. For example; the wholesale patenting of obvious ideas in the field of software development doesn’t help the industry as a whole, yet can be justified in any one organisation. Similarly, wiping out all competing operating systems doesn’t help the world (we can see what monocultures mean in terms of viruses and worms) but is entirely justified in the mind of a short-term-profit-centered corporation.

        Lest anyone think I’m going all anti-MS here; they’re just a convenient example. I could have used the oil companies; some of the things they did with patents during the twentieth century were damn scary. I could cite the stupid idea of allowing patents on parts of the genome. I could raise the subject of governments fighting over access to water from shared rivers that cross borders. But hey, life’s too short πŸ™‚ Let’s let Michael Crichton do it. Only, hopefully, with more subtlety than he did in, say, Rising Sun.


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