Saturday, August 23, 2008

Values and Tools

So Erica said something the other day that I thought was very interesting and it got me thinking. I'll paraphrase, because that was about three nights ago and we'd had (no shocker here) some wine:

Picture 1.jpgThe highest praise you can offer a woman is to say that she is striking, and the greatest criticism you can offer a person is to say that they have no imagination.

I promptly added to that, saying that the highest praise I can offer a piece of engineering is to say that it is elegant.

And, for the purposes of this discussion, I will add another criticism: lack of curiosity, going hand in hand with the lack of imagination. To allow me to consider these values in light of things and people, I'll agglomerate curiosity and flexibility -- it'll make sense, trust me.

These are interesting statements, and I probably say something about me. I don't actually know that they are atypical, but there is at least a little more sophistication that "has nice titties!" at work.


Embracing and accepting the constraints offered and finding the best solution possible.

Never throwing resources at a problem and instead carefully selecting areas of innovation or expenditure and never substituting garishness or complexity when a little thought will provide a better solution.

Avoiding excess or imbalance in characteristics or actions.


Noticeably distinct in approach and/or results from comparable things or people.

Willing to embrace areas of character and to play to their strengths (as opposed to seeking a "common" solution at the expense of natural areas of excellence).

Curious & Flexible

Desiring (and able to) go beyond the obviously and readily apparent.

Wanting to go to the 2nd or 3rd derivatives: to understand how and why things happen and happen the way they do.

Able to adapt to situations outside of the norm, the preferred, or the intended. Soft in failure when limits are exceeded.


Perceiving, processing, and appreciative of things outside of one's direct experience.

Solving problems by using solutions that are not necessarily obvious or from within the same discipline as the one in which the problem occurred.

Ability to examine one's own actions from an outside perspective.

miss-plu-pkb.gifIt is interesting, but with a minimum of inelegant stretching, these can all apply to people and to things. An engineered product can be elegant and striking, by these definitions, embody imaginative design and possess the flexibility I align with curiosity. A person can even more easily possess these traits.

Incidentally, the appearance of golfer Kim Welch in this post is because I find her a very nice example of someone who is both striking and elegant (I can't speak to her curiosity or imagination, though golf requires a certain problem solving that implies at least a little of the latter). She has, understands, and owns her look, and it is a look that is relatively spare one. Her look and her golf game both play to her strengths.

NASA's New Horizons space probe appears for the same reason -- it is an effective examples of these values when applied to engineering. Focused on its mission and defined by those requirements, New Horizons is pared down to the minimum complexity possible by virtue of some very creative thinking and problem solving.

I considered adding a fifth value -- balance -- but decided that (in the quest for elegance) that I wanted to avoid producing a laundry list. Balance fits under elegance -- it is impossible to be imbalanced and elegant.

On a marginally related note, some recent conversations have brought an old insult back into play around the Strauss residence: TOOL. It was one of those cases where we knew what a tool was, knew what a tool wasn't, but couldn't quite decide on the definition. Erica suggested starting from the literal definition: someone who lets them self be used (willingly or not, knowingly or not) by others. I decided to extend this definition to include someone who is, ironically a slave to themselves.

A tool, therefore, is someone who submerges their own identity and is a slave to some agency such that they have little room for free or creative thought. The agency in question could be external (e.g. "a tool for the man" or someone who absolutely subsumes their identity to fit a spouse's vision of them) or it could be internal (e.g. someone who strives to fit a certain image they wish to project at the expense of being their true self).

If you look up at the values, it is amazing how broadly "tool" manages to hit across them. A tool is, by definition, not elegant, striking, curious, or possessed of imagination. At least they aren't when all tooled up.

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