Thursday, November 20, 2008

G. K. Chesterton - A Superlative Engineer

I am late, but at least I write after lunch - and I shall post so as to leave our Roman Traveller's great posting atop mine. I am glad she is home safely! What a great adventure. Now she can write a book: What I Saw In Roma. Hee hee.

Again, I take the dragon by the horns, or perhaps I ought to say by the violas, a far more hazardous instrument. (Musicians tell me there are far more jokes about the viola than about any other instrument.) I know how grave a risk I run in my constant harping (viola-ing?) on the greatness of our Uncle Gilbert K. Chesterton as a scientist. I shall dig myself a hole seven times deeper by claiming GKC to be a superlative engineer as well. And some former co-workers, perhaps former fellow students, shall write me nasty e-mails, wanting to see his blueprints, his bridges, his engines, his valves or his ATM NICs, his GUIs and APIs, his flowcharts or his circuit diagrams... (I remember Lucy berating Schroder about how Beethoven never had his picture on a bubble-gum card: "Chesterton doesn't have a unit of measure named after him, does he? How can you say he was a great engineer if he doesn't have a unit of measure named after him?" Hee hee. Though there is a unit called the gilbert, the unit of magentomotive force, equivalent to 10 over 4 pi ampere-turns. Oh yes.) And I shall receive irate phone calls: "Name one IC he worked on, one satellite he helped launch, a bridge he built..."

He has done more, far more. His engineering is of a kind which is far harder than those simple tasks. Remember, he wrote "The rebuilding of this bridge between science and human nature is one of the greatest needs of mankind." [GKC The Defendant 75]

Yesterday, I heard someone mention the hilarious word "agile" in the context of engineering - and of course I thought of GKC. I had no idea what the word meant in that context - but I thought of one of the three recordings of GKC, where admitted to being a journalist, but emphatically denied that he was a "pressman":
A pressman means a very different sort of person from me. One glance at me would show that I had never crashed through a skylight in order to interview a celebrity - that I had never slid through a door that was almost shut in my face by somebody who wanted to keep me out of his bedroom - that I had never performed any of those things that are the glory of journalism...
[Address to the Canadian Literary Society, 1933, recorded by the BBC. Quoted in The Chesterton Review 69 (XXII#4, Nov 1996)
Clearly GKC was not "agile". But in the engineering context, it means something or other - it almost sounded like it was about actually getting work done rather than talking about the idea of getting work done. I may have misunderstood, but it apparently means one does work instead of sitting around talking about it, or writing lots of papers about how a meeting might be held to decide to write a paper on how the work might be done if someone else did it, or something. (Whew.) I am not sure about these sorts of techniques, because when I do my work, I don't have a term like "agile" to describe it, and I do it the Chestertonian way anyhow.


As Chesterton told us, "I revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting something done." [GKC Heretics Cw1:46] Yes. In order to write the tens of thousands of lines of code that I have to write - a far more tedious and boring job than writing Thursday posts - I must sit in a chair and think for long periods, and pray, and apply various formal tools commonly in use for 700 years or so... it is lots of fun once I am done. Indeed, like John Dickson Carr's chunky Sir Henry Merrivale, known familiarly as H.M. or the Old Man, who solved mysteries by "sittin' and thinkin'," and like GKC, I am the precise inverse of an agile engineer, but I almost never sit around wishing for someone else to do the job. That's why I have a computer, after all, and I work very hard to be sure it does its fair share. But this posting is not about me, my work, or "agile" of any kind. It's about engineering, as hard as it will be for you to believe, and how one needs to know about that field in order to study our next excerpt from Orthodoxy.

(( click here when you feel agile... ))

You may recall that in recent Thursday postings I have made various hints and comments about words like "evolution" and "design". It would sicken most people to learn that there really are biologists - yes, even medical researchers pretending to work on "cures" for cancer - who believe that "software" can only occur in the way they believe "life" occurs - by random chance. Yes. Given enough time, the "internet" will "evolve" almost any imaginable piece of "software". Utterly insane. Just as we find countless examples of toasters and word processors in the Devonian strata, or jet engines, or - ah, I have it! DNA sequencing machines and microscopes - layered with other evolutionary "failures" like someone's cable TV spot distribution software. (Hee hee. Who could Dr. Thursday mean?) Yes, certainly! There is no designer, no master-mind Author of Things who sits and thinks and then enacts his plan. (Does Dr. Thursday mean "God" here? No.) It's all random, and wa always there... just as the ever-evolving supercomputers shall soon find the entire text of "Orthodoxy", "Jurassic Park", "Contact" and "King Lear" within the decimal expansion for pi divided by the square root of 2008. It will be formatted in HTML and all ready for posting. Yes, yes.

No. Not at all. (Dr. Thursday was being bitterly sarcastic, wasn't he? Oh my, yes; he tries; it's sad because it's all too real.) We may not be scientists, or engineers, or philosophers, but we know the difference between something designed and something accidental, which is what they mean by random chance, because we are not utterly insane. Most of the time when we do things, we use thirteenth century metaphysics, even those of us who are not engineers, because we have common sense, the first tool of all engineering - which means we hope to get things done. We work by a plan, by a design - that is, towards a purpose - a goal or end.

And so we must hear GKC say it, for yet another time, spelling out the concept again, in order that we may not walk away thinking the opposite:
This, however, is hardly our main point at present; I have admitted it only in order to show how constantly, and as it were accidentally, the key would fit the smallest doors. Our main point is here, that if there be a mere trend of impersonal improvement in Nature, it must presumably be a simple trend towards some simple triumph. One can imagine that some automatic tendency in biology might work for giving us longer and longer noses. But the question is, do we want to have longer and longer noses? I fancy not; I believe that we most of us want to say to our noses, "thus far, and no farther; and here shall thy proud point be stayed": we require a nose of such length as may ensure an interesting face. But we cannot imagine a mere biological trend towards producing interesting faces; because an interesting face is one particular arrangement of eyes, nose, and mouth, in a most complex relation to each other. Proportion cannot be a drift: it is either an accident or a design. So with the ideal of human morality and its relation to the humanitarians and the anti-humanitarians. It is conceivable that we are going more and more to keep our hands off things: not to drive horses; not to pick flowers. We may eventually be bound not to disturb a man's mind even by argument; not to disturb the sleep of birds even by coughing. The ultimate apotheosis would appear to be that of a man sitting quite still, nor daring to stir for fear of disturbing a fly, nor to eat for fear of incommoding a microbe. To so crude a consummation as that we might perhaps unconsciously drift. But do we want so crude a consummation? Similarly, we might unconsciously evolve along the opposite or Nietzschean line of development - superman crushing superman in one tower of tyrants until the universe is smashed up for fun. But do we want the universe smashed up for fun? Is it not quite clear that what we really hope for is one particular management and proposition of these two things; a certain amount of restraint and respect, a certain amount of energy and mastery? If our life is ever really as beautiful as a fairy-tale, we shall have to remember that all the beauty of a fairy-tale lies in this: that the prince has a wonder which just stops short of being fear. If he is afraid of the giant, there is an end of him; but also if he is not astonished at the giant, there is an end of the fairy-tale. The whole point depends upon his being at once humble enough to wonder, and haughty enough to defy. So our attitude to the giant of the world must not merely be increasing delicacy or increasing contempt: it must be one particular proportion of the two - which is exactly right. We must have in us enough reverence for all things outside us to make us tread fearfully on the grass. We must also have enough disdain for all things outside us, to make us, on due occasion, spit at the stars. Yet these two things (if we are to be good or happy) must be combined, not in any combination, but in one particular combination. The perfect happiness of men on the earth (if it ever comes) will not be a flat and solid thing, like the satisfaction of animals. It will be an exact and perilous balance; like that of a desperate romance. Man must have just enough faith in himself to have adventures, and just enough doubt of himself to enjoy them.
We have a curious quote here, and you may be wondering what GKC is quoting: "thus far, and no farther; and here shall thy proud point be stayed" This is from Job 38:11, which has "waves" where GKC writes "point".

But Doctor - again you tug on my lab coat - I thought you say he was an engineer? It sounds like he's being a lit'ry man, a fairy-tale writer, like that awesome Tolkien.

Excuse me. What - I beg you to tell me - is the difference? Both are matters of design, of attention to detail, of sheer stunning art, and slowly thought-out, careful yet powerful use of natural resources:
From Buddha and his wheel to Akhen Aten and his disc, from Pythagoras with his abstraction of number to Confucius with his religion of routine, there is not one of them that does not in some way sin against the soul of a story. There is none of them that really grasps this human notion of the tale, the test, the adventure; the ordeal of the free man. Each of them starves the story-telling instinct, so to speak, and does something to spoil human life considered as a romance; either by fatalism (pessimist or optimist) and that destiny that is the death of adventure; or by indifference and that detachment that is the death of drama; or by a fundamental scepticism that dissolves the actors into atoms; or by a materialistic limitation blocking the vista of moral consequences; or a mechanical recurrence making even moral tests monotonous; or a bottomless relativity making even practical tests insecure. There is such a thing as a human story; and there is such a thing as the divine story which is also a human story; but there is no such thing as a Hegelian story or a Monist story or a relativist story or a determinist story; for every story, yes, even a penny dreadful or a cheap novelette, has something in it that belongs to our universe and not theirs. Every short story does truly begin with creation and end with a last judgment.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:378-9, emphasis added]
Yes. And so do all engineering projects.

I know this is hard to take. It cannot be any harder for a cable TV company to swallow that their software development owes so much to a fat English journalist and the writings of some Popes. But it happens to be true, and it demonstrates that Chesterton had an excellent engineering acumen, even though he was mostly considered to be a "lit'ry man".

As usual, GKC now reviews our advance, before taking another step:
This, then, is our second requirement for the ideal of progress. First, it must be fixed; second, it must be composite. It must not (if it is to satisfy our souls) be the mere victory of some one thing swallowing up everything else, love or pride or peace or adventure; it must be a definite picture composed of these elements in their best proportion and relation. I am not concerned at this moment to deny that some such good culmination may be, by the constitution of things, reserved for the human race. I only point out that if this composite happiness is fixed for us it must be fixed by some mind; for only a mind can place the exact proportions of a composite happiness. If the beatification of the world is a mere work of nature, then it must be as simple as the freezing of the world, or the burning up of the world. But if the beatification of the world is not a work of nature but a work of art, then it involves an artist. And here again my contemplation was cloven by the ancient voice which said, "I could have told you all this a long time ago. If there is any certain progress it can only be my kind of progress, the progress towards a complete city of virtues and dominations where righteousness and peace contrive to kiss each other. An impersonal force might be leading you to a wilderness of perfect flatness or a peak of perfect height. But only a personal God can possibly be leading you (if, indeed, you are being led) to a city with just streets and architectural proportions, a city in which each of you can contribute exactly the right amount of your own colour to the many coloured coat of Joseph."

Twice again, therefore, Christianity had come in with the exact answer that I required. I had said, "The ideal must be fixed," and the Church had answered, "Mine is literally fixed, for it existed before anything else." I said secondly, "It must be artistically combined, like a picture"; and the Church answered, "Mine is quite literally a picture, for I know who painted it."
We should recall that "Joseph's many-coloured coat" is from Genesis 37:4, and the "righteousness and peace kiss" is from Psalm 84:11 (85:10).

You will note here again the words of good engineering practice which might be out of Roebling's notes on the design of the Brooklyn bridge: "it must be a definite picture composed of these elements in their best proportion and relation".

Or do you think that bridge evolved too? How quaint. I expect random chance will reply. Eventually. If you know automata theory, you've seen it before; it's all in A*, called A-star, the set of all strings of finite length over a given alphabet. Unlike the monkeys with typewriters, A* actually does contain Orthodoxy, "King Lear" and the rest - and even this posting - and any and every comment you can make. Really. It makes you wonder what really "evolves". As Dogbert once told Dilbert the engineer, commenting on his exceedingly poor poetry, "Three monkeys. Ten minutes."

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Thursday,

    In the context of software engineering, agile development means making frequent, small changes, and adopting a "release early, release often" attitude. It is opposed to models (such as waterfall) which encourage large, structured, Gantt-chart-like changes, and large, infrequent releases.

    Agile development has become a rather hot area in the past five years. It would seem to have less applicability in traditional engineering projects (say, bridge design). The distinction seems to be mostly that in non-software disciplines, making changes, making copies (prototypes/scale models), and deployment (construction) is expensive.


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