Friday, April 29, 2011

The Missing Magnitude of Accomplishment

Last week I had the chance to visit the U.S.S. Pampanito in San Francisco. Frankly, it was incredible. I'll not talk much about that experience here, because I have something else I want to muse about.

Whenever I learn about stuff during the World War II era, be it flying fortresses or concrete bunkers built into the side of giant craters or aircraft carriers or atomic bombs, I'm always struck by just how awe-inspiring it was that these things came to be.

You look at today's technology, so carefully crafted with smooth and sleek curves (see Apple, Inc.), and things just seem so ... modern. But then I look at things like the Pampanito, and I remember what a heady time World War II was. It was a time when science and mechanics (and budding electronics) walked hand-in-hand with raw willpower under the demands of pure expedience to create some of the most amazing technological breakthroughs the human race has ever seen. The shape of the world today, for all it's flaws, is the result of World War II.

People of that time just built stuff. Their engineers planned, sure, and they tried to be just as deliberate as we try to be in their designs, but when it came right down to it, if there was a need to put a wire here or a pipe there, they did just that because they had to and they didn't look back. They tried things that had never been tried before, and often failed in the effort, but with each failure they learned something which they would incorporate into the next attempt. Clambering through the "spacious" decks of the Pampanito makes this every so apparent. (Okay, I'm no doubt grossly generalizing, but from the vantage point of 50 years removed and being poorly informed, that's the way it seems to me.)

I'm not saying that reckless design is a good thing, but as an engineer who occasionally gets so fed up with paperwork and process and review, I am in awe that they did what they did. I sometimes think that our modern engineering world is so frightened of making mistakes that we make the even worse error of failing to even try.

I love the world we live in today. I love that, at least for me and most around me, it is a comfortable and secure and content place. Nevertheless, I look back at the accomplishments of the early half (ok, 2/3rds if you include the Apollo program) of the 20th century and I look around at the world of today, and I just don't see the same frequency or magnitude of accomplishment, on such a grand scale.

With all the posturing in the hallowed halls of Washington and the budget uncertainties and the shaky economy and the media fear-mongering, I yearn for days when we can try and not fear. I don't think days like that will come anytime soon.

(See here for a similar rant on the absence of audacious goals in today's world.)

Full disclosure: I manage a small team of engineers developing software to help coordinate activities at Mars between various spacecraft operating there. This is pretty cool. However, the least favorite part of my job is that every year I have to spend gobs of time begging for money from the higher-ups to pay for this work, when to me it is obvious that it is important and necessary. I love my job, but hate that aspect of it, particularly since I don't need very much money to do what needs to be done. This post is very likely a reaction to that frustration and a desire to be free to do what I want and not have to account to anybody. This doesn't make me a bad person ... it just makes me like everybody else in the world with an ounce of ambition.

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