Ignorance, Incompetence, and Arrogance

Three Good Men

Two good men died last month. From opposite sides of the office, they left us with the same message: it is important to actually know what you are doing. There is another good man who died in 1988.

Robert Ebeling was an engineer at Morton Thiokol, the company that made the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle. On his way to watch the shuttle launch, he told his daughter, “The Challenger is going to blow up. Everyone’s going to die.”

It was January 28, 1986. I was flying a B-767 (ship number 612, registration C-GAVF) between Toronto and Vancouver. The Captain was S.R. (Rod) MacDonald. I was the First Officer. It was my leg. We heard about the Challenger disaster when we were over Winnipeg, listening to the news on one of the ADF radios. I can still remember how stunned we felt, how sad for our fellow aviators.

Andy Grove was the tough and brilliant manager who founded Intel in 1968 with Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce. In a 2010 article he wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek, he said, “But what kind of a society are we going to have if it consists of highly paid people doing high-value-added work—and masses of unemployed?”

He wrote when we were still reeling from the Great Recession. Even now, six years later, the people in the trenches have not recovered. The “recovery” part of the economy has gone mostly to the top 1%.

But income distribution is only part of the story. In the same article, Andy Grove also said this about exporting jobs to fatten the bottom line: “Not only did we lose an untold number of jobs, we broke the chain of experience that is so important in technological evolution.”

Richard Feynman died at 69, in 1988. He was a Nobel physicist, but he was also one of the great teachers of the last century. A member of the Rogers Commission which investigated the Challenger disaster, he famously squeezed a rubber O-ring in a C-clamp and put it into a glass of ice water. When he removed it and undid the clamp, the O-ring did not spring back – it kept its distorted, squeezed shape.

The shuttle solid rocket boosters were built in sections. The joints were sealed with large O-rings. The shuttle had never been launched at such a low temperature. That’s what Bob Ebeling was thinking about when he talked to his daughter that day. He had spent the previous (week) trying to convince managers at both Morton Thiokol and NASA to postpone the flight.

The other shuttle disaster was Columbia, on February 1, 2003. It disintegrated on re-entry because a few thermal tiles were missing. They had been knocked off during launch. Pilots do a walkaround before every flight. These pilots were not allowed to do a space-walk to inspect the vehicle before re-entry. From safe seats in Houston, managers took control. Seven astronauts paid with their lives. For the curious: William Langewiesche published his Columbia’s Last Flight in the November, 2003 Atlantic Magazine. (William is the son of Wolfgang Langewiesche, who wrote the wonderful how-to-fly book Stick and Rudder in 1944). It is a good read and worth the time.

Andy Grove said, “we broke the chain of experience.” But it is worse than that. We are losing knowledge. In this day of the internet, where we can theoretically teach ourselves anything we want to learn, knowledge is actually disappearing.

As a pilot I study accidents, trying to learn and survive. Recently there has been another tragedy. The Board has not completed its study, but from what I (and many other pilots) know already, the cause(s) were well known to the trade. For me, that is the tragedy of the tragedy. It happened because trade knowledge was not being passed on.

It gets worse yet. In aviation, we are well into to age of robots. Fly-by-wire was introduced into commercial aviation in the Airbus A320 in 1988. Knowledge and skill have been coded with varying degrees of success. The hard-earned legacy of many crashes and many pilots’ lives lies hidden on a chip. Today’s pilots (still critical to survival) may or may not understand the code or (increasingly) their job.

Why?

Andy Grove, in the article mentioned above, put it succinctly and with more than his usual tact: Our fundamental economic beliefs, which we have elevated from a conviction based on observation to an unquestioned truism, is that the free market is the best of all economic systems—the freer the better. Our generation has seen the decisive victory of free-market principles over planned economies. So we stick with this belief, largely oblivious to emerging evidence that while free markets beat planned economies, there may be room for a modification that is even better.

Ideology blinds us, making learning – true learning – more vital than ever.

A very old friend – we have known each other since kindergarten – recently took up the subject of learning. He is retiring gradually from the practice of medicine, and he is re-examining the mathematics and science he learned forty-five years ago. Recently he showed me his derivation of the number e. It would be an exaggeration to say that I now understand e, but he has taken me parsecs closer. He himself, through his efforts, now owns the number e in his heart and soul.

This kind of learning is possible in our age, but even with the ubiquitous internet we have not yet figured out how (Although Sugata Mitra is getting warm).

So there is hope. But so far I see more loss than gain. Knowledge is leaking away.

The Cycle We Have to Break

There is a tragedy. We don’t want to assign blame or upset the apple-cart, so we don’t learn from our mistakes. Managers, once again, become arrogant and complacent. Engineers have to feed their families. They keep their mouths shut. When teachers are leaned on, they are already paid so little they are more likely to leave the profession entirely. But not all of them. Some stand up and say what needs to be said. Thank you, Andy Grove. Thank you, Bob Ebeling, And thank you, Richard Feynman.