The Engineer’s Folly.

Engineers are special people when it comes to normal everyday things in life. Pretty much anything that’s brought before them is instantly seen as a system that can be worked out or a problem that can be solved. Everything from relationships to politics to anything that needs to be installed or can be modified you can guarantee that your engineering pal will dive in head first and try to work out how they can complete something even if it doesn’t need to be done. Last weekend I realised that this was more true than ever when it comes to everything in my life.

The first part of my weekend was spent fumbling around with the Aion client trying to get it working on Windows 7. I had read numerous posts that said people had got it working so I thought that if there was at least one other person out there I could get it going. After my first attempt I ran into the error 114 issue which told me to turn off my firewall. Funnily enough I had already done that but after a while of fiddling around I managed to change the error I was getting to the error 170 problem, which had me deleting the folder. It seemed every time I tried something different I would get one or more of these errors and that’s when I resided to reinstall vista so I could play the darn thing. I wasn’t going to get stuck in a sunk cost fallacy for a game I could only play for the weekend.

After gleefully playing through the first few hours of Aion I was greeted by my beautiful fiancee who looked like she’d just got in trouble for something. Cautiously I asked what the problem was and the reply was something I wasn’t really expecting:

I broke the toilet.

We’ve had problems with our loo before and I knew that the last solution I had was a hack job involving some cable ties and a little hope and I thought that it had just all come apart. The first thing I do is rush in there and rip the top of the cistern to see what could be done. Unfortunately my first inspection showed that I’d have to replace the whole mechanism, as a critical part had completely snapped.

Que a trip to our local hardware supply store where I seek out the parts I need. I was hoping that I could just replace the flushing bits inside the cistern but as it turns out it’s cheaper buy a whole new one (thank you throw away society). So what I thought was an hour or so job turned out to be 4 hours of grunting, pulling and leaking taps and fittings. This wasn’t my first foray into plumbing either, as I had similar “fun” installing our dishwasher. In the end I managed to chase away all the leaks and get our new cistern working, but it got me thinking: why did I even attempt to do this in the first place?

I guess the first part is simple male pride. Whilst I’m a big believer in that a professional is always worth the money when you can’t do something yourself if I think I’m even slightly capable of completing a task I’ll have a crack at it myself first. This has lead to a few times when I’ve tried, failed and then called a professional to come in. I don’t usually admit that I tried to do something first, but I’m sure they knew. Especially considering I’m a big fan of duct tape and cable ties. 😉

The second part I believe comes down to the analytical ideals that are drilled into engineers from the first day they step into university: if a problem is too big break it down into smaller tasks until they can be completed (usually by a single person). I remember many of my university assignments and projects were given to us right at the start of the semester, long before we had been taught the skills needed to solve them. Our lecturers did this so that we’d begin to look at the problem from day one and identify what we could and could not do and work out strategies to tackle them. Once you get into the habit of breaking problems down into their simplest forms it becomes hard not to apply it everywhere else. This is becomes especially true with things that are in essence just abstract representations of whatever engineering discipline you studied (pipes and water flows are used extensively as an analogies when introducing budding engineers to electronics).

This is what constitutes the engineers folly; the idea that everything is merely a system of inputs and outputs that can be solved if broken down far enough. We engineers are passionate about problem solving and it is that which drives us to do things that most times would be better left to the professionals. Sometimes people mistake this for us being arrogant because we say something is simple, but that’s far from the point. It just looks simple to us since we’ve broken it down into 1000 simple pieces.

I’d better stop here before I get stuck in a recursion loop looking at myself.

(For a bit of fun type recursion into Google, it seems the engineers there have a sense of humour :D)

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