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September 2006
October 2006

2006-09-25 »

Delirium 2: Imbalance

Imagine you're in a speedboat testing an experimental new engine with 5x the propulsive power of any engine that came before. Moreover, the lead engineer for the new engine, who is also an expert technician, is there in the boat right next to you, excited, tuning the engine as it runs. "Egads!" he exclaims. "I just found a way to double the power one more time! This thing is really going to go now!"

Impressed, and listening to the scream of his supercharged nuclear turbine as it spins at full speed, you yell out the only obvious question: "So why aren't we moving?"

The engineer, an expert at engines but not much at boating, looks around in dismay. "I guess... it's still not good enough." He turns back to his engine with a determined look on his face. "We just need more power!"

Hours pass. The engine roars louder and louder. The churn beind your still-stationary boat is getting out of control. The engineer, apparently rather motivated, has doubled, tripled, quintupled the power. By now a crowd has gathered around the dock to watch. They all agree that this engine is the most powerful one they've ever seen at this size and weight - by a long shot. Your friend the engineer has discovered at least two new laws of thermodynamics right there on the spot, and people are sneaking up behind him with honourary PhD's. But still - the boat's not moving.

Suddenly a thought occurs to you. "Hey, are we still tied to the dock?" you yell. It's hard to hear you over the wailing engine, but he stops, looks at you, and then turns in the direction you're looking, to see the lines still holding the boat in place. Then he slowly sits back, stunned and silent. He throttles back the engine, and the world gets a bit quieter. You look at your audience, still there watching from the dock. "Why didn't someone say something?" you ask.

"We thought you knew," someone shrugs, not meeting your eyes.


By now the sun is already setting in the evening sky, but it's not too late. You unlash the boat from the dock. "Let's do it," you say quietly, and take the steering wheel. The two of you begin to edge away from land at last.

But before the engine his even 10% throttle, it's already threatening to flip the boat. "It's too fast!" you exclaim. "I can't steer! Slow down!"

Your friend looks back at you, then looks away and begins to throttle back to a normal speed. "What's the point then?" he asks.

"I think we'll need a better boat, and we'll have to find a better driver. An engine this good must be useful... this boat just can't handle it. But the engine is way too good to waste!"

"You don't understand," he replies. "This engine was tuned for this boat. The concepts can all be generalized, but it's going to be a huge amount of work... I guess this particular engine is never going anywhere."

The two of you make your way back to shore. The engineer, looking exhausted and frustrated, gets out and starts to walk away. "That's it. I'm too tired. I'm done here."

"That's it?" you ask. "What about the engine?"

"You can keep it," he says. "I left my notes. If you can make it run half as well as it did today, it'll probably make you rich."

Just don't tie it down.


It's such an odd problem - if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If all you have is duct tape, everything looks like a duct. If all you have is an engineering team, every problem looks like an engineering problem. After all, it... has to be. How can we deal with it otherwise?

You know, if we had kept that engineer working long and hard enough, eventually he might have fixed his problem using pure power. Maybe he would have snapped the lines, or torn the dock right off the shore. But the results would still have been out of control, out of proportion, and even more disastrous and disappointing in the end.

Even though this is a sad story though, the point I'm trying to bring up is actually a happy one.

A great "engine" got built, based on new "technology" and "laws of thermodynamics" that we discovered out of necessity. The bad news is that the engine was unnecessary - a merely passable one would have worked just as well, if what you want is a really fast boat. But the innovations themselves were still useful and can be reapplied elsewhere, on a new boat equipped to withstand that kind of propulsion. Someone just has to build the boat.

Those innovations would never have been made at all if it weren't for the original grotesque error in judgement. The engineer will keep those innovations - along with a determination never to make that same mistake - with him, ready to be applied when needed, for the rest of his life.

And if you were in the boat along with him, or even just in the crowd watching, maybe you learned something too.

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