USS Clueless - Just do it

Stardate 20040724.1347

(On Screen via long range sensors): Pej points to a news report about CIA infiltration of al Qaeda. In Pej's comment thread, Conrad responds:

Infiltration was always a logical plan. It should have been done better in the 90s, but better late than never.

As I posted one moderately long comment, I spotted Conrad's comment. It needs an answer, and rather than add another long comment on Pej's site, I decided to write here.

We engineers have an aphorism: The fact that something is desirable doesn't mean it is feasible.

Encarta Dictionary defines feasible as "possible: capable of being accomplished or put into effect", but that definition is wrong. Something is "possible" if it is not "impossible". As long as it doesn't embody a logical contradiction or violate the laws of physics, it is possible.

Feasibility is much more restrictive. Feasibility is fundamentally pragmatic; it's about practicality. For something to be feasible, it must be possible to accomplish it within an acceptable schedule, at an acceptable cost, using resources which are available to you. It means that you as a manager would be willing to accept it as an assignment because you had a plan which demonstrated that you had reasonable expectation of success without relying on miracles or magic.

In my previous life as a technology consultant, I was often handed plans in which the critical step seemed to entail the use of expensive equipment that the client didn't have, and had no intention of installing. It was not unheard of, in fact, for plans to require equipment that hadn't actually been invented. The first time it happened, I naively went to my project manager to inquire about it.

"What happens here?" I asked him, pointing to the space between the two steps that I couldn't quite figure out how to bridge.

His eyes crinkled with a sort of world-weary sympathy as he nodded towards that pregnant space. "That," he intoned solemnly, "is where the magic happens."

We engineers get told to produce all kinds of things which are viewed as being desirable. But sometimes they are not feasible, and when we try to explain the reasons why, we soon get used to being told, "Don't tell us why you can't do it, tell us how you're going to do it." We get accused of being defeatist, unimaginative, gutless, stupid, uncreative, doctrinaire, inflexible, uncooperative. We get admonished to "think outside the box". We are preached at about how we should be thinking "Yes" instead of "No". We're told to stop thinking about "problems"; we are told that we should refer to them as "opportunities". (One engineering wag responded, "We're surrounded by insurmountable opportunities.")

Which is to say that we get beaten about the head and shoulders with platitudes.

That demonstrates another rather bitter engineering aphorism: "Everything is easy for the man who doesn't have to do it himself." He sees something he really wants, and doesn't want to be told that he can't have it, even if it is a fact that he can not have it. He doesn't want to hear "No" even if "No" is the real answer. Engineers are magicians, and we're supposed to make magic happen. We've pulled off so many miracles before, so why not this one?

A lot of people know what they want. This certainly happens in politics: "Win without war." "Get cooperation and support from traditional allies." But they're quite often woefully short on plans. The more idealistic they are, the more likely it is they'll deny that they should even be required to contribute such a plan. Someone else should figure out how to make it happen; the idealist's job is to show us all the real destination.

Every once in a while someone comes up with the "obvious" solution to this war: switch to "alternate energy sources" so that we cease needing Arab oil, and perform that switch without drastically changing our lifestyle or economic activity. Do it in a small number of years (e.g. five), and implement it worldwide so that there is no longer any market for Arab oil. There are a lot of problems with this basic idea, but one in particular is that it isn't feasible.

I have tried a couple of times to explain why (most recently here/here/here). It's not that I think we should totally ignore "alternate energy sources"; it's that I am quite sure that they cannot be developed soon enough, large enough, cheaply enough, to yield the proposed political consequences.

But every time I say that, I get dismissed as being someone who "doesn't have enough faith in American engineering genius". I get flooded with mail from people who send me links to reports of some new cool thing (e.g. petroleum made from turkey guts, or "biodiesel", or something even more obscure) who think that if only I were informed about such a thing I would suddenly undergo an epiphany and wave my engineering magic wand and make it all happen. That's why "alter

Captured by MemoWeb from on 9/16/2004