Thursday, May 31, 2007

How to think for yourself

Actually, I believe that we're all capable of having the same level of thought. Everyone already knows how to think - they just don't want to. I don't think that there are stupid people and smart people because I'm, supposedly, a smart person and I'm as dumb as a box of hammers (but I'm such a handsome guy :D).

I think the real key here is WHY to think for youself.

As an engineer you have a fairly unique function. You're a knowledge worker who works with labor-workers. You're royalty, but you're also just a bullshit-engineer. People turn to you for answers and explanations, but they also deride every mistake you ever made as just another engineer's screwup.

How many conversations have you had with technical people (mechanics, salespeople, toolmakers, your dad) who are convinced that every problem in the western world is due to some engineer screwup? "This widget hasn't been designed to be disassembled - look! The nut can't be reached, if the designer had put it HERE I'd be finished by now. But no-ooo, it has to be all the way over HeEeRE where I can't get to it."

People demand thinking, but they want it done their way.

Usually when people disagree with me it's because they've already made up their minds. It's because they've had a cursory glance at the facts and reached into their grab-bag of past experience and pulled out the most obvious looking answer. Then they stare at me as if cheese has started coming out of my ears when I don't immediately believe what they're telling me. I can ACCEPT what they're saying, but it doesn't become FACT for me until I've understood it.

An old example comes to my mind - I don't know if it's a particularly good example, but I'll give it a try. Shortly after I started my first big project wsa to finish the redevelopment of the stainless steel spring that holds the castor pedal in and stops the wheel from turning. There are a pair of little teeth that lock up into the race to stop it from swivelling.

In my infinite wisdom I had determined that these teeth needed to be 3.6 wide with a 3.6 gap, and be a total of 10.8 wide. The toolmaker insisted that this was impossible. It's not a question of tolerance stacking, because the cropping process is very precise - less than 0.05. I could have lived with a pair of 3.55 teeth and an overall width of 10.8. That would have been fine.


The toolmaker insisted that this was impossible because you always have to put the clearance on the die side.

There's 0.1 clearance on the die, so you have to pick one dimension to be out of tolerance. And that's as far as he was willing to think about it. Now, this particular toolmaker is a smart guy - and he'd been in his profession for a lot longer than I had been. But he was wrong, and I had trouble explaining this to him.

He ended up getting very angry with me - that his experience wasn't enough for me to believe his wisdom. There was more to it than that.

The geometry that I wanted was a pair of protruding teeth. It's fair enough that the die has to have a 3.8 gap for the 3.6 punch to make a 3.6 tooth. But then the gap between the teeth has to then be 3.4. But 3.8 + 3.8 + 3.4 = 11.0. That's too big. Ah! You're forgetting about the 0.1 clearance on each side! 11.0 - 0.1 - 0.1 = 10.8.


The reason is that the gap between the teeth is really in reverse. It's going into the punch. So for that little section the die is really the punch and the punch is really the die. The breakaway goes in the other direction just in there.

Ok, so it's a bad explanation. But _I_ know what I mean.

The reason I drag all this up from way back when is not to gloat over my glory at winning a technical argument. In actual fact I didn't win that argument, I had to get my boss to come down and over-rule him. The reason I bring it up is that this was, for me, one of the first times that I'd had to stand on my own two feet and use my brain - to put my trust in my own thinking, even in the face of direct disagreement.

There is no requirement for an engineer to examine a problem and pronounce "I dunno. What's the standard answer to this problem." Because we don't get presented with standard problems. If they were standard problems it would be dealt with my someone higher up the food chain than us. The engineer's function is to be a truth-sayer, to only ever utter things that come from an internal understanding of the facts. If facts are outstanding then do not proclaim to have the understanding. Make decisions, certainly, but call them guesses.

This is not common sense. Common sense is advisable, and can be learnt, but once you get too much of it you're no good as an engineer any more and you need to become a manager. The trick is to trust your uncommon sense - to stand in a circle of people who all agree on an explanation and be that one irritating fool who still stands there feeling doubtful.

My wife doesn't take me shopping anymore. True, with the two kids under 4 we don't get much browsing done - but that's not the reason. When she asks me if something looks good on her I say "I don't know. I can't see the tag." It's not that I'm tight (I am) it's that I can't hope to tell her my understanding of something while there's outstanding data. An expensive shirt had BETTER look good. A cheap shirt doesn't have to. Somewhere in the middle there's a reasonable looking shirt for a reasonable price.

Have I answered your question? WHY think for yourself?

Not yet.

I've addressed what it means to think for yourself, what the definition of it is.

I think that truth is what makes us human. Truth and understanding. Reality is. We exist because he perceive reality. That's what sets us apart from pure mineral nothingness. We are here to witness what happens to the mineral world.

When you admit deliberate error into your world you become less perfectly human. You forsake your very reason for being. Truth, and your understanding of what any particulary truth is, is unavoidable. How you react to that truth, and how you seek it, is entirely up to you.

If you choose to live a life of disconnect you're going to be a very poor engineer. You should think for yourself because no-one else is going to do it for you - and if they do you will be out of a job. Your ability to conjure up thinkingness from the depths of your cerebellum and apply it to facts that are available for all to see is what sets you apart.

When the factory staff hold up a bodgy product and demand that you accept that it's bodgy because of Process X, stop. Is is X or Y? It doesn't matter what it was last time. What is it THIS time?

When a colleague tells you that something is impossible, stop. Is it logically impossible to do this thing, or is it that merely that you don't know how?

I'll leave you with an Isaac Asimov quotation: "When an old scientist tells you that something is possible he is almost certianly correct. When he tells you that something is impossible he is almost certainly wrong."

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