vendredi 27 juin 2014

Adult Life.

Non attributed, And so Dick Jone's Corporate Career Comes to an Abrupt End, s.d.

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship - be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles - is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things - if they are where you tap real meaning in life - then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already - it's been codified as myths, proverbs, cliches, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.

Worship power - you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart - you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insiduous thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They're the kind of worship you gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.

Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.

That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race" - the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bulls - pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don't dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness - awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: "This is water, this is water".

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.

David Foster Wallace, This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, A commencement speech given by D.F.W. to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College.

vendredi 20 juin 2014

Normal Design.

n.a., Paris dans 20 ans, 1967 (via NDLR).

But focus on technology as knowledge has ramifications beyond the science-technology question. Hugh Aitken, for example, makes it basic to the historical method adopted in his book The Continuous Wave. To recount the early technical and institutional history of radio, Aitken regards "history of technology as one branch of intellectual history or the history of ideas." From this approach, he explains the origins of the history of inventions crucial to radio by examining "the flows of information that converged at the point and at the time when the new combinations came into existence." As the work of Aitken and other historians makes clear, however, the ideas we deal with are not disembodied - they are, as Layton points out, the ideas of people (and communities of people). Emphasis on knowledge thus brings history of technology into symbiotic relation, not only with intellectual history and philosophy, but with social history and sociology as well. Such emphasis is critical, in particular, for understanding technological change, a fundamental concern in one way or another for all these disciplines. As remarked by Rachel Laudan, "shifts in the knowledge of the practicioners play a crucial role in technological development." People who aspire to understand such development - economists and policy makers, for instance - might do well to focus accordingly when they delve (in Rosenberg's graphic phrase) "inside the black box" of technology. If these ramifications are valid, as I believe they are, laying out the features of engineering knowledge very much needs doing.

In addressing this task, I will structure the inquiry around the goal of design. For engineers, in contrast to scientists, knowledge is not an end in itself or the central objective of their profession. Rather, it is, as illustrated by the quotation from the British engineer, a means to a utilitarian end - actually, several ends. Engineering can, in fact, be defined in terms of these ends, as in the following quotation from another British engineer, C.F.C. Rogers:

Engineering refers to the practice of organizing the design and construction (and, I would add, operation) of any artifice which transforms the physical world around us to meet some recognized need.

Here I take "organize" to be meant in the sense of "bring into being" or "get together" or "arrange". The first end, "design", has to do with the plans from which the artifice is built, as in the many drawings (or computer displays) of an airplane and its components. "Construction" (which I shall call "production") denotes the process by which these plans are translated into the concrete artifice, as in manufacture of the actual airplane. "Operation" deals with the employment of the artifice in meeting the recognized need, the related example being the maintenance and flight operations of the airplanes of an airline. Definitions of engineering sometimes mention other ends such as "development," and "applications" or "sales"; these can usually be subsumed under one of the foregoing three, which will be sufficient for present purposes.

Of the three, design is frequently taken as central. Layton, in treating technology as knowledge, takes it as such (with minor mention of other ends). He adds in a later paper, however, that recent attempts among engineers to "reestablish design as the central theme of engineering" are "not without ideological overtones." Other scholars contend that rhetorical emphasis on design by engineers is primarily an attempt to gain status, that "engineers have seized on design as a way to liken their activity to that of scientists, to assert that they too are engaged in creative activity." Whatever the truth of the situation, I will restrict my focus here almost entirely to design. To attempt more would extend impractically an already lengthy study. Great numbers of engineers do, in fact, engage in design, and it is there that requirements for much engineering knowledge originate in an immediately technical sense. Though extaengineering needs - economic, military, social, or personal - may set the original problem, for many workaday engineers things come into focus at the level of concrete design. My emphasis on design, however, should not be taken to imply anything derogatory about other areas of engineering. For a complete epistemology of engineering, production and operation will require equal attention. For the time being, however, my concern will be limited to engineering design knowledge.

"Design," of course, denotes both the content of a set of plans (as in "the design for a new airplane") and the process by which those plans are produced. In the latter meaning, it typically involves tentative layout (or layouts) of the arrangement and dimensions of the artifice, checking of the candidate device by mathematical analysis or experimental test to see if it does the required job, and modifications when (as commonly happens at first) it does not. Such procedure usually requires several iterations before finally dimensioned plans can be released for production. Events in the doing are also more complicated than such a brief outline suggests. Numerous difficult trade-offs may be required, calling for decisions on the basis of incomplete or uncertain knowledge. If available knowledge is inadequate, special research may have to be undertaken. The process is a complicated and fascinating one that needs more historical analysis than it has received.

Design is important here, however, mainly as it conditions the knowledge required for its performance. Knowledge itself forms the primary focus; while requirements from design must be kept in mind at all times as determining that knowledge, details of how the process takes place are secondary. I have never attempted to design an airplane in my entire career as a research engineer (though I participated in planning and designing large aeronautical research facilities). The atmosphere  in which I worked, however, and the knowledge I helped produce, were conditioned by the needs of airplane designers who visited our laboratory. My colleagues and I were keenly and continuously aware of the practical purposes we served. The situation in this book is somewhat similar. Though only one of the historical studies deals directly with the design process, the needs of design play a determining role throughout. 

To keep matters manageable, I shall further limit attention to what can be called normal design. In The Origins of the Turbojet Revolution, Edward Constant defined "normal technology" - "what technological communities usually do" - as comprising "the improvement of the accepted tradition or its application under 'new or more stringent conditions.'" Normal design (my extension, not Constant's) is then the design involved in such normal technology. The engineer engaged in such design knows at the outset how the device in question works, what are its customary features, and that, if properly designed along such lines, it has good likelihood of accomplishing the desired task. A designer of a normal aircraft engine prior to the turbojet, for example, took it for granted that the engine should be piston driven by a gasoline-fueled, four-stroke, internal-combustion cycle. The arrangement of cylinders for a high-powered engine would also be taken as given (radial if air-cooled and in linear banks if liquid-cooled). So also would other, less obvious features (e.g., tappet as against, say, sleeve valves). The designer was familiar with engines of this sort and knew they had a long tradition of success. The design problem - often highly demanding within its limits - was one of improvement in the direction of decreased weight and fuel consumption or increased power output or both. Normal design is thus very different from radical design, such as that confronting the initiators of the turbojet revolution described by Constant. The protagonists of that revolution had little to take for granted in the way that designers of normal engines could. In radical design, how the device should be arranged or even how it works are largely unknown. The designer has never seen such a device before and has no presumption of success. The problem is to design something that will function well enough to warrant further development.

Though less conspicuous than radical design, normal design makes up by far the bulk of day-to-day engineering enterprise. The vast design offices at firms like Boeing, General Motors, and Bechtel engage mainly in such activity. In the words of one reader of this material, "For every Kelly Johnson (a highly innovative American airplaine designer who will figure in chapter 3) there are thousands of useful and productive engineers designing from combinations of off-the-shelf technologies that are then tested, adjusted, and refined until they work satisfactorily." In addition, knowledge for normal design is more circumscribed and easier to deal with. Though it may entail novelty and invention in considerable degree, it is not crucially identified with originality in the same way as knowledge for radical design. My restriction to normal design thus related to both substance and expedience - there are sufficient matters of importance to confront at this stage without opening the Pandora's box of technical invention.

I do not mean to suggest that normal and radical design, and the knowledge they require, can be sharply separated; there are obviously middle levels of novelty where the distinction is difficult to make. The difference, nevertheless, is sufficiently real to serve as a basis for analysis. I likewise do not mean to suggest that normal design is routine and deductive and essentially static. Like technology as a whole, it is creative and constructive and changes over time as designers pursue ever more ambitious goals. The changes, however, are incremental instead of essential; normal design is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. As we shall see, even within such limits the kinds of knowledge required are enormously diverse and complex. The activities that produce the knowledge, unlike the activity it is intended to support, are also something for from normal and day-to-day. 

W.G. Vincenti, What Engineers Know and How They Know It, Edition : Reprint. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993, 5-9.

vendredi 13 juin 2014

Engineering Knowledge.

Tobias Revell, 88.7, 2012 (via

Engineering knowledge, though pursued at great effort and expense in schools of engineering, receives little attention from scholars in other disciplines. Most such people, when they heed to engineering at all, tend to think of it as applied science. Modern engineers are seen as taking over their knowledge from scientists and, by some occasionally dramatic but probably intellectually uninteresting process, using this knowledge to fashion material artifacts. From this point of view, studying the epistemology of science should automatically subsume the knowledge content of engineering. Engineers know from experience that this view is untrue, and in recent decades historians of technology have produced narrative and analytical evidence in the same direction. Since engineers tend not to be introspective, however, and philosophers and historians (with certain exceptions) have been limited in their technical expertise, the character of engineering knowledge as an epistemological species is only now being examined in detail. This book is a contribution to that effort.

My involvement in the study of engineering knowledge stems in part from a question put to me by my Stanford economics colleague Nathan Rosenberg over lunch in the early 1970s: "What is it you engineers really do?" What engineers do, however, depends on what they know, and my career as a research engineer and teacher has been spent producing and organizing knowledge that scientists for the most part do not address. My attempts to deal with Rosenberg's question led me therefore - without at first realizing just what I was doing - to examine the cognitive dimension of engineering. Given a long-standing interest in history, it was also instinctive for me to approach the problem historically. To my pleasant surprise, I found myself in step with the work being produced by historians of technology.

In the view developed by these historians, technology appears, not as derivative from science, but as an autonomous body of knowledge, identifiably different from the scientific knowledge with which it interacts. The idea of "Technology as Knowledge" - title of an influential paper by Edwin Layton, one of the view's early champions - credits technology with its own "significant component of thought". This form of thought, though different in its specifics, resembles scientific thought in being creative and constructive; it is not simply routine and deductive as assumed in the applied-science model. In this newer view, technology, though it may apply science, is not the same as or entirely applied science.

This view of technology - and hence engineering - as other than science accords with statements sometimes made by engineers, such as the following by a British engineer at the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1922: "Aeroplanes are not designed by science, but by art in spite of some pretence and humbug to the contrary. I do not mean to suggest for one moment that engineering can do without science, on the contrary, it stands on scientific foundations, but there is a big gap between scientific research and the engineering product which has to be bridged by the art of the engineer." The creative, constructive knowledge of the engineer is the knowledge needed to implement that art. Technological knowledge in this view appears enormously richer and more interesting than it does as applied science.

The newer view comes from the work of historians over several decades. The historiographic development has been examined in an extended study by John Staudenmaier and a shorter review by George Wise. Both come to the conclusion, as expressed by Wise, that "treating science and technology as separate spheres of knowledge, both man-made, appears to fit the historical record better than treating science as revealed knowledge and technology as a collection of artifacts once constructed by trial and error but now constructed by applying science." The evidence to be presented here supports this conclusion. The reality of the distinction is emphasized for me by the fact that the school of engineering at my own university, as at all such institutions, finds it necessary to maintain its own library, separate from those of the departments of physics and chemistry. This separation is more than a convenience. Engineers, though they require many of the same books, journals and documents as physicists and chemists, need others not kept in the science libraries. Despite the historical and institutional evidence for its autonomy, however, the features that distinguish technological knowledge have not been laid out in detail.

The view of technology as an autonomous form of knowledge is bound closely with the debate over the relation between technology and science, which has been a long-standing concern of historians of technology. Staudenmaier sees the view of having emerged out of that debate and become a major theme in itself, with the science-technology relation reduced to a subtheme. Wise regards the science-technology relation as still an organizing issue for research, with the view of technology as a special kind of knowledge defining the technological side of the relation. However that may be, viewing technological knowledge as autonomous leaves the relation between technology and science still open to specification. Technological knowledge then takes its place as a component on one side of what can be called an "interactive model" of the relationship. In this model, which has been summarized concisely by Barry Barnes, technology and science are autonomous forms of culture that interact mutually in some complicated and still-to-be-spelled-out fashion. The nature of technological knowledge constrains but does not define the relationship.

Things look very different if the knowledge content of technology is seen as coming entirely from science. Such a view immediately defines the science-technology relation - technology is hierarchically subordinate to science, serving only to deduce the implications of scientific discoveries and give them practical application. This relation is summarized in the discredited statemen that "technology is applied science". Such a hierarchical model leaves nothing basic to be discussed about the nature of the relationship. A model with such rigiditiy is bound to have difficulty fitting complex historical record. 

W.G. Vincenti, What Engineers Know and How They Know It, Edition : Reprint. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993, p.3-5. 

vendredi 6 juin 2014

Complex Acronym.

Jungle, The Heat, 2014.

'The common misapprehension is that a messy desk is a sign of a hard worker.'

'Get over the idea that your function here is to collect and process as much information as possible.'

'The whole mess and disorder of the desk on the left is, in fact, due to excess information.'

'A mess is information without value.'

'The whole point of cleaning off a desk is to get rid of the information you don't want and keep the information you do want.'

'Who cares which candy wrapper is on top of which paper? Who cares which half-crumpled memo is trapped between two pages of a Revenue Ruling that pertained to a file three days back?'

'Forget the idea that information is good.'

'Only certain information is good.'

'Certain as in some, not as in a hundred percent confirmed.'

'Each file you examine in Rotes will constitute a plethora of information,' the Personnel aide said, stressing the second syllable of plethora in a way that made Sylvanschine's eyelids flutter.

'Your job, in a sense, with each file is to separate the valuable pertinent information from the pointless information.'

'And that requires criteria.'

'A procedure.'

'It's a procedure for processing information.'

'You are all, if you think about it, data processors.'

The next slide on the screen was either a foreign word or a very complex acronym, each letter in bold and also underlined.

'Different groups and teams within groups are given slightly different criteria that help inform what to look for.'

The Personnel aide was thumbing through his laminated outline.

'Actually there's another example of the information thing.'

'I think they've got it.' 

The CTO had a way of turning one foot out perpendicular to its normal direction and tapping it furiously to signal impatience.

'But it's right here under the desk thing.'

'You mean the deck of cards?'

'The checkout line.'

They seemed to believe their mikes were off.


'Who'd like to hear another example illustrating the idea of collecting information versus processing data?'

Cusk was feeling solid and confident, as he often did after a series of attacks had passed and his nervous system felt depleted and difficult to arouse. He felt that if he'd raised his hand and given an answer that turned out not to be correct it wouldn't have been that big of a deal. 'Whatever,' he thought. The 'whatever' is what he often though when he was feeling jaunty and immune from attack. He had twice actually asked women out when in this cocky, extroverted, hydrotically secure mood, then later failed to show up or call at the appointed time. He actually considered turning around and saying something jaunty and ever so slightly flirtatious to the noisome Belgian swimsuit model - on the upswing, he now wanted people's attention.

At age eight, Sylvanshine had data on his father's liver enzymes and rate of cortical atrophy, but he didn't know what these data meant.

'There you are at the market while your items are being tallied. There's an individual price for each item, obviously. It's often right there on the item, on an adhesive tag, sometimes with the wholesale price also coded in the corner - we can talk about that some other time. At checkout, the cashier enters the price of each grocery, adds them up, appends relevant sales tax - not progressive, this is a current example - and arrives at a total, which you then pay. The point - which has more information, the total amount or the calculation of ten individual items, let's say you had ten items in your cart in the example. The obvious answer is that the set of all the individual prices has much more information than the single number that's the total. It's just that most of the information is irrelevant. If you paid for each item individually, that would be one thing. But you don't. The individual information of the individual price has value only in the context of the total; what the cashier is really doing is discarding information, which in the cashier runs through a procedure in order to arrive at the one piece of information that's valuabe - the total, plus tax.'

'Get rid of the layman's idea that information is good. That the more information the better. The phone book has lots of information, but if you're looking for a phone number, 99.9 percent of that information is just in the way.'

'Information per se is really just a measure of disorder.' Sylvanshine's head popped up at this.

'The point of a procedure is to process and reduce the information in your file to just the information that has value.'

'There's also the matter of using your time most efficiently. You're not going to spend equal time on each file. You want to spend the most time on the files that look promising in terms of yielding the most net revenue.'

'Net revenue is our term for the amount of additional revenue generated by an audit less the cost of the audit.'

'Under the Initiative, examiners are evaluated according to both total net revenue produced and the ratio of total additional revenue produced over total cost of additional audits ordered. Whichever is the least favorable.'

'The ratio is to keep some rube from simply filling out a Memo 20 on every file that hits his Tingle in hopes of jacking up his net.' Cusk considered: An examiner who filed no Memo 20s ever would have a ratio of 0/0 which is infinity. But the net revenue total would, he reflected, also be 0.

'The point is to develop and implement procedures that let you determine as quickly as possible whether a given file merits closer examination -'

'- that closer examination itself involving some type or types of procedures blended with your own creativity and instinct for smelling a rat in the woodwork -'

'- although at the beginning of your service, as you're gaining experience and honing your skills, it will be natural to rely on certain tested procedures -'

'- a lot of these will vary by group or team.'

'Incongruities on the Master Files, for one thing. That's pretty obvious. Disagreement of W-2s plus 1099s with stated income. Disagreement of state return with 1040 -'

'But by how much? Below what floor do you simply let an incongruity go?'

'These are the sorts of matters for your group orientation.'

Sylvanshine now know that two separate pairs of new wigglers were actually, unbeknownst to them, related, one pair through a liaison five generations ago in Utrecht.

David Cusk was now feeling so relaxed and unafraid that he was almost getting drowsy. The two trainers sometimes established a rhythm and concert that was soothing and restful. Cusk's tailbone was a tiny bit numb from settling back and slumping in his seat, resting his elbow casually on the foldout desk, the heat of the little lamp of no more direct concern than news of the weather somewhere else.

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King, Penguin Books, 2012, p.342-345.