Thinking out loud

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Of Duct Tape and the Real-World

There was a time when I was a believer. Let me clarify what I mean. I believed that I knew precious little and there are thousands upon thousands of people 'out there' who really knew their stuff. I believed that its these people who keep the world together - i.e. they build things that are perfect. They were doctors who knew the human body inside-out. They were the lawyers who knew entire law books by heart. They were the politicians who understood the socio-economic and international impacts of their decisions. They were the aerospace engineers who knew their dynamics like the back of their hands. In effect, they were people who really excelled at what they did...

As time went by and I stepped into college, the myth aobut the IITian began dissolving. These were not creatures who pored over books deep into the night (ok, they do it, for about 2 weeks a semester). These were not the creatures who discussed Lorentz equations over the dinner table.

So I thought that perhaps that's not the case with research. Perhaps people know their stuff there. If the students working on their projects (whether bachelors, masters or doctors) are anything to go by, that area's kind of out too... It is not my privilege to comment on our professors but they seem to be stuck up with old ideas and rarely want to see a new view- point. I feel inadequate to be judge.

I tried to look to industry. Again the same dismal picture. Behind the bright colourful advertisements, there seem to be huge teams of mediocre people; people working on projects they don't really understand - somehow making things stay together long enough to sell it. Larsen and Toubro builds a 34 crore rupee hostel that leaks in the first rains. Slopes on the corridors are in the incorrect direction so that rainwater drains into the rooms. Kone puts in elevators that refuse to run properly for two days at a stretch. Dominos Pizza runs out of mushrooms when they have an unexpectedly large order. It turns out that the telecom network of the world is just held together - and no one person really knows how it works. Scary! Media-persons report that a 3 year old can install Windows98 in 15 minutes (you bet!). You'd think that the reporters would care to find out the 'truth'. Hard luck.

Humanity seems to be in its childhood as far as building things is concerned - whether it is sky-scrapers or software. The simplest of innovations are hailed like 'finds-of-the-millennium'. The simplest of software seem to be boons straight from God. I always thought it would be hard for me to build something like them - but I never thought that even huge companies think so too. The realization dawned slowly, and its painful. The only respite is to watch programmes on Extreme Machines and Modern Marvels. Atleast those programmes convince you that some really incredible engineering challenges are presented and people do meet them successfully. Yet when you're back into the real-world, you can't help but wonder if the world is actually a bunch of contraptions held together with duct-tape...


  • Quote: The simplest of innovations are hailed like 'finds-of-the-millennium'.

    By simplest of innovations do you mean a simple solution to a problem? Sometimes finding elegant and simple solutions is often the toughest thing :)

    As far as the rest of the piece, yeah the standard of research papers in non-theory fields is often appalling.


    By Blogger Kartik, at 6:34 AM  

  • No, I don't mean simple solutions to problems. I guess I should have written "observations" instead of "innovations". Simple observations like - "if you hold a burning match-stick for too long, you're likely to burn your fingers". These are the kind of observations people cheer.....

    By Blogger Parijat, at 8:25 AM  

  • this coming from an engineer...

    when u chose this profession you should have realized that engineerin is more of trial n error n not abt perfection...

    By Blogger vineet, at 9:58 PM  

  • Vineet, aren't you confusing engineering with science perhaps? I like to think that engineering is largely an area where well-formed ideas are put into practise. They don't always work, but people are supposed to think things through reasonably well before they set about building bridges or microchips or software... What say?

    By Blogger Parijat, at 6:56 AM  

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