All the World's a Classroom
If I could freeze time, slice a moment out of my day, and take stock of the objects around me, I’d find that most everything has not escaped the touch of an engineer.
Freeze 11:22 AM. Docking station, monitor stand, phone, magnetic clips, headphone, 2 desks, filing cabinet, the wall, the floor, a pen. Freeze 7:49 PM. Curtains, dish soap, stove, Tupperware, plates. The electronics are obviously complex, but even the pens –the manufacturing of pens—were also engineered. The physics and geometry of a table may be straightforward, but what about its mass production, packaging, and distribution?
What fascinates me about the pervasiveness of engineering work is that it often is invisible. Most of the time, we don’t go around thinking about who designed the parking meter, how the city purifies water, or what system puts money to our bank account when we deposit checks using our smartphones? We simply expect that things just work.
Perhaps this is why engineers are not commonly perceived as humanitarian heroes. Except for Engineers Without Borders, few cases exist where engineers are heralded as life-saving champions like the doctors, the soldiers, the missionaries, the lawyers, the pilots, or the teachers. Instead, they’re more like supporting characters in a plot where these other professions act as heroes. Heroes help people, especially in moments of crises. The engineers? They just have to make sure that everything works.
The nature of engineering work, to me at least, is not so much to respond to crises, although this certainly is part of the job. The main role, however, is to make sure the daily operations work well. Engineers may get more spotlight when things fail, with some blame involved perhaps, but they’re not necessarily heroes for the thousand other times when things are actually working.
For a lot of engineers, this suits them just fine. After all, many would rather buckle down and solve problems rather than talking about them. But at the same time, I think engineers could take some credits in this ‘helping people’ business.
I work in the gas and oil refining industry. I’m in the business of making fuels. I don’t rescue or help people–in the humanitarian sense of the word–as a day job, but it sure ‘helps’ when my car moves when I press the pedal. I’m sure glad that putting gasoline means something to the car, and that heroes everywhere have means of transporting themselves to where they need to be. No matter how rough a day is, when I get into my car to drive home and see all the other cars on the road, I feel affirmed that my work contributes something, though small, to society.
To me, engineering is an enabler; it enables everyone to do their work, to live, and function efficiently every day, every moment. Our toilets work, our bridges stand, our buildings sound. Somebody thought these through. Engineers are in the business of mundane, everyday things that many take for granted (even flying planes are taken for granted). And I actually love this about my profession.
I get a kick out of working on something that people don’t realize may help them. I get a certain satisfaction from working behind the curtain, designing a system that works so well and intuitive no one thinks twice about how it works.
Being an engineer makes me appreciate things that simply work, because I know it’s not simple to make something work. Designers have to think about the thousand ways it could fail and build measures to avoid them.
Being an engineer makes me appreciate how things came to be. Everything that was made went through a process, and someone thought through that process.
Being an engineer teaches me that I’m part of a system, and that my work can impact everything and everyone down the line. It makes me want to work safely and with integrity, because mistakes can cost someone’s life.
Being an engineer gives me the joy of celebrating success as a team, since no single hero can emerge without a team.
So, to all the engineers out there, I appreciate you. Keep up the good work!
Photo credits: Johnny Loi Photography
The recent happenings and discussions surrounding race relations in America have prompted me to return to an old blog post from 3 years ago, If I Lived Then. It was penned after digesting a series of historical books, on World War II, on the British abolitionist William Wilberforce, on the Bosnian War. I asked myself the question, If I lived then, would I be on the right side of history?
It is easy to be distant and judgmental of the great evil recorded in historical books: “I cannot believe how evil these people are.” But what guarantees us that we would not act the same way given the same situation, living in the same cage of manufactured hatred by the prevailing powers? I’d like to think that I would stand for the tortured if I lived during Nazi Germany. I’d like to think I’d champion Wilberforce’s cause to abolish slave trade in Britain if I lived in the early 1800s. But what guarantees that I would indeed be such a person given the social pressure of the time?
If I don’t have human compassion right now, there is no guarantee that I wouldn’t be part of humanity’s evil in any part of history. What I can do right now, as a 21st century global citizen, is to abolish any notion that “I am better than you” due to socio-economic status, race, education, or any social strata we have manufactured for ourselves. I need to cultivate that human compassion by seeing each person with respect and dignity. Then maybe, if I was thrown into complicated situations, I would actually have the moral backbone to stand for fellow mankind, no matter what race, religion, level of education, social status, or any group they belong to.
It has been made abundantly clear that the nature of humanity’s evil then is still the nature of humanity’s evil now. By this I mean the condition of the soul that produces the evil deeds. The attitude that undermines another human being or another group is ever present and has the potential to manifest itself in various, horrendous ways.
Racism is something each person must fight against first internally, then also outwardly. The claim of immunity, I am convinced, is of utmost danger. We all carry baggage from the past, from our upbringing, from the society we are apart of. It would do us good to examine our internal thoughts and feelings towards ‘other people’, whoever that ‘other’ may be.
The antidote of many great wars and conflicts lies in the simple, but profound, powerful statement, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” because my neighbor and me are equal. The phrase is said often, perhaps too lightly. But it carries with it such power that can counter and prevent much evil.
What a powerful display of love it was when the families of the victims in South Carolina forgave their enemy. What strength of character. This was worth pausing and thinking about.
Today, June 2015, we are faced with tests of character similar to many in history. If I lived then is no longer hypothetical, because the same question applies to now. I live now. What will I do now?
My reading journey through Thinking, Fast and Slow, Part 3
I care whether what I believe is true. I care whether or not my perceptions equal reality. I want the correlation between how I think things are and how things really are to be 100%. This is much like approaching infinity, I know, but I am going there nonetheless.
I’m a System 2 girl .
As much as possible, I try to ‘decorrelate errors’ when forming an opinion, to be aware of personal biases, and to acknowledge the limitations of my current position. I read instead of watch news; I don’t multitask while listening to talks; I make efforts to read things I don’t agree with; all to ensure what goes into my mind passes through conscious thought and deliberation. (Of course, this also means my biases serves as a filter – it’s not a perfect mechanism). Reading something like Thinking, Fast and Slow, specifically on the downfalls of intuition and snap judgment, only affirms me in my scrutiny of information.
Certainly it’s not possible to live like this all the time, and it’s not good to do so. For high-stake matters, it’s not OK to let mere feelings guide judgments. But for most everyday things, reliance on System 1 is perfectly OK. Kahneman himself says that ‘System 1 is the hero of the book’ and is very efficient in its functions (e.g., compare distances, detect sounds, associate ideas, discern nuances, etc.). It has its limitations, but so does System 2.
Yet, the engineer in me is biased to think that System 2 must win; it is the way to get that maximum perception-reality correlation. If I could summarize my previous thought on this matter, it’d be something like this:
If only we could employ System 2 all the time, we’d get reality as it is. System 1 is permitted to operate, but it really is optional, because System 2 can do everything that System 1 does, though slower. In fact, using System 1 sometimes introduces errors, so whenever possible and practical, just bypass it and employ System 2.
So when Kahneman says matter-of-factly, “The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality,” I paused.
I mean, I know the statement is true, but I still somehow thought there was a way around it if we perfected the coherence of our thinking. Moreover, the statement comes from someone who studies all these mechanisms. Isn’t it not OK to remain in an imperfect reality?
I guess, No, it’s not OK, and Yes, it’s OK.
It’s fine to live with an imprecise replica of reality and it’s also fine to strive for reality. It’s just the way things are. Different situations call for different intensities of pursuit. One must maintain both the quest for what’s true and accept the asymptotic nature of it, without descending to nihilism.
And oh yeah, System 1 is important too. It’s neither superior nor inferior to System 2; it just serves different functions. The two systems complement each other and more importantly, can correct each other.
So, this acceptance will not really change my pursuit for that unhindered perception. But it also gives me assurance that life is not inferior when I take a break from it. Embracing the tensions between ideas—isn’t that the wisdom of living in an imperfect world?
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face:
now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
1 Corinthians 13:12, King James Version
I will live, for now, in between the OK and Not OK.
 “System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.” (Kahneman, from chapter 1 of Thinking, Fast and Slow).