29 December, 2005

Trust a Theologian?!

I trust 'em about as far as I can follow them.

Why?

Because over-engineering is still the #1 mistake of smart people.

I was 25, and still a wet-behind the ears mechanic when the new rig rolled in. We were a Caterpillar truck engine shop, and this Freighty had the new 3176 model in it. None of us had ever seen one. (I mean none of the real mechanics had ever seen one. I had barely seen a 3208, and they had been around for decades.) It was in for its initial service, and still in pristine condition. The yellow paint still smelled like acetone.

Pete got the honors. He removed the air ducting, and popped the valve covers. I know this happened because the silence that fell over the shop distracted even me. Not an air wrench was humming.

Papa, Snuffy, Dave, and Bill were all standing on leaf springs and looking down into the new wonder of the world.

I wandered on over.

Their assorted cheap cigars were bouncing up and down as they made meaningful grunting noises that I was still too ignorant to understand. Papa got down first muttering something about pushrods. Snuffy and Bill quickly agreed. Pete added a comment about the cast iron head and an aluminum block spacer. Snuffy wondered whether they would be able to keep oil the in the block from coming out under the spacer.

In 30 seconds 5 old men who wouldn't know a heat expansion coefficient from a differential equation had just condemned the work of some of the best engineers in the world. This was not some third world operation here. Caterpillar was the best, and they had put millions into designing and building this engine.

I did not have any clue what to think.

I was just learning to respect these men, but I knew what an engineer was. "Anyone can build a bridge that will carry anything. An engineer will do it with the minimum of materials and tell you when it will wear out." The best minds Caterpillar could hire had built an engine that produced the right amount of horsepower for fleet trucking, with a minimum of materials and weight.

I was inclined to trust the engineers, but the men leaning over that engine were no slouches.

I just kept my mouth shut. There would be time enough for gloating or learning after I knew who was right.

Those old men had the engineers' lunch.

For the next 5 years, we ran overtime shifts:
  1. Replacing aluminum spacers after a valve pushrod had fallen down between the cam and spacer and been shoved out the side of the engine.
  2. Replacing head gaskets with new, upgraded versions after the aluminum and cast iron walked the old one out with their differing heat expansion coefficients.
  3. Replacing the spacer to block gasket with upgraded versions, because the block was cast iron, too.

There's nothing divine about a theologian, no more so than those Caterpillar engineers. I don't care whether you're John Calvin or Jacobus Arminius, Augustine or Pelagius. If you roll out some over-engineered, too intelligent solution to a problem I didn't know I had, you're going to have a hard time keeping me for an audience.

1 comment:

P&S said...

Great Post.

The phrase "too smart for their own good" comes to my mind. Give me a little common sense and hands-on experience any day.

BTW, I'm also with you on buttermilk bread in your other post.

Good luck with your blog. I'll check back with you. And thanks for the link.