Making Hay While the Sun Shines

Everything I need to know about how America is supposed to work, I learned in a hot, humid, late summer Mississippi hay field.

My entire career has revolved around technical businesses, and technology belongs to scientists and engineers.  Over several decades, I have evolved from engineer to management of engineers, to management of companies that rely on engineering.

I love engineers, I count myself as one – even though my years in management has dulled my skills and largely gotten me excommunicated from the guild. While scientists are largely idea people, engineers fix things, make ideas work and generally have powered the advancement of mankind through innovation, creativity and bullheaded stubbornness when faced with seemingly intractable and unsolvable problems.

And if you think engineers need college degrees, you have never been stuck, sweating over a hay baler that has stopped knotting the sisal rope that holds the compressed bales together – in the 100-degree heat/90% humidity August afternoon in a Mississippi hay field with 20 acres of hay on the ground and thunderstorms building in the west. You don’t have time to call a service tech or some asinine help line, you start taking sheet metal covers off, figuring out how every part is supposed to function, and you set about fixing it.

The problem with engineers is that they like to engineer. That’s what they do, and most are perfectionists who just want to deliver the best solution possible. In that mindset the motivation, is to shave off every sharp edge to get the optimal solution.

But there is a curve that represents the process of process and product development, one I have always called the DCC or the “Double Crap Curve” (also known as the “Oh, Shit!” Curve). This curve has a peak, a breakover point between cost and functionality. Stop short of that point and you have a suboptimal process or product (otherwise known as “crap”), go past that point and you have a brittle product or process that is too expensive to use or for a customer to purchase (coincidentally, also called “crap”).

Finding that sweet spot is the nirvana of any technology effort.

The most difficult task I have ever had is to get good engineers to recognize when they reach the breakover point and stop engineering.

People commonly use the term “social engineering” to describe how people in power tend to tinker with society and culture. A most inexact “science”, this process is based on “soft sciences”, and is something more akin to witch doctoring or alchemy.

Best conducted in Petri dishes, it is more art than science, more experimental than experiential, but it follows the same curve as the more reality-based, natural law bound, engineering processes. Stop short and you have a suboptimal society (i.e., anarchy), go too far and you have a brittle society held together with force (authoritarianism).

But America isn’t a Petri dish. It isn’t a controlled environment where variables can be managed. It has more in common with a Mississippi hay field on a hot and humid August day than an air conditioned, sterile, Class 4 bio lab in Wuhan.

Given the degree of multivariate influences and entropy a free society must withstand, one could legitimately wonder how such a process could ever exist, much less prosper without the gears grinding to a halt. How in hell could America ever be expected to find and maintain the breakover point?

America has a constitution that provides the answer to reaching that breakover point, no matter how much the curve shifts right or left, up or down.

Like the example of the broken Mississippi hay baler, it is a process of individual citizen engineers, each with their own skills and experiences, grabbing a pair of Vice Grips, a hammer or two, maybe a pipe wrench and once everything is beaten and bent back into the right shape, dragging a Lincoln generator powered welder to the field, and stitching it all back together so everybody can get back to work and get the necessary jobs done before the hay on the ground gets wet.

While both engineers and scientists have their value, America works best when the problems are solved by the people in the field, not the people in the labs. America has always been a “dirt under the fingernails” country, one not enslaved to the technocrats in lab coats.

The sooner we recognize that, the sooner we get back to the sweet spot on the Double Crap Curve.

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