Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Perfect Engineering Problem

I think everybody who reads this know that I studied engineering in undergrad. I have said before that the only real thing that is taught in engineering is how to solve problems and make decisions; the rest is just the context or perhaps some additional tools (like calculus) that might help obtain or ascertain information to help you make the decision. It is Gary's opinion that no engineering problem has only one solution but that the best solution boils down to optimizing resource (time and money) use while developing the most effective system. Most agree with him and also state that often, if a mathematically optimized solution cannot be developed, decision analysis must be applied in order to determine the optimal solution, thereby making a selection.

The opinion that I've been cultivating, is that the perfect engineering problem (the ones real engineers can't wait to get their teeth into) is one in which meets the following criteria:

  • There must be more than one possible solution to the problem
  • Decision theory and/or a decision matrix must need to be applied in order to find an optimal solution
  • There must be many unknowns, or variables for which there is limited data involved in determining the optimal solution
  • The criteria included for optimizing must be rational enough to pass as a measurable entity, but include enough subjectivity for the measured result to encompass bias
  • Only one solution can be implemented and there is no method for measuring, after a selection has been made, if is performing better or worse than the other selections, thus preventing the use of feedback to inform future decisions.

You see, in this way, there is just enough information available to make some reasonable estimates about the optimal solution but not quite enough objectivity in criteria selection to definitively make a choice. This allows the engineers to spend much time and energy trying desperately to measure differences and nail down the criteria arguing amongst themselves about how to do it, so that they can support the decision they've already made by instinct in about 10 seconds after hearing about the problem in the first place, thus creating an environment of debate that could last decades. Even better, since after making the choice, there is no way of measuring whether it was the 'best choice' – the debate continues, mostly uninformed and mostly full of bias.

I'm pretty sure that choosing a heating method for your home is one of the perfect engineering problems. I bet it gets even more perfect when the decision is not between various heating systems but in fact, which fuel to use to power your heating system. The added bonus here, of course, is that ascertaining operating costs requires 10 year speculations about the costs of energy, a market so risky it held the rise and fall of Enron. I'm also pretty sure that the market is so competitive right now that the cost of the available fuel systems is almost irrelevant when compared to how the system is used. By that I mean, that choosing the right fuel type (natural gas or electrical) might save me or cost me something like $1 a day but choosing well how I use the system (turn the heat down when sleeping and when away at work, keep the temperature inside a few degrees closer to external temperatures, insulate well, use high efficiency windows and doors) could save me or cost me something like $10 a day. And lets not even get into the environmental impact of the various options.

So to summarize and in conclusion – I'm tired of this stupid decision. There's not enough clear, unbiased information available to make the decision (despite having consulted industry and government and NGOs) . In fact, there are just far too many variables and far too many unknowns to determine the best choice (even environmental groups aren't sure which is less offensive). And since there isn't one clearly good system, nobody really wants to make informed choices they just want to continue supporting their own bias and world view. So forget it. I don't care. Gas or electric. I give up! You guys go fight it out for a while (yeah, you at the Ontario Energy Board and you too Mr. Electricity)!

Meanwhile, I'm going to sit in my minimally heated house, feeling proud of myself for reducing greenhouse gases by reducing energy use in my home. I'm only heating about 2 or 3 rooms right now, how many tonnes has that saved this winter?

Ok .. that's it. I'm calling Rick Mercer.

Talk to you soon,


1 comment:

Karen and Dion said...

one of my favourite posts ever. Rick Mercer would be proud.