Month: September 2015

Ideal employee

graduationSome years ago during a visit to South Korea, I listened to a speech by an Executive Vice-President of KEPCO, the Korea Electric Power Corporation.  He talked about the need to blend the desire of consumers who want to buy cheaper goods in a clean environment with the will of a company to make more money and to do this in the context of the world running in a ‘green race’ for survival.  He identified their employees as his company’s most valuable asset and went on to describe the ideal employee as having three key attributes:

A team player – cooperative and capable of growing together with their colleagues

A creativity-driven professional – flexible and globally competitive

A passionate executor – innovative and able to make things happen

He did not list these attributes in any order of importance but gave them equal weighting as nodes on a circle around which the ideal employee could move effortlessly.  Of course I am biased but this description sounds like an engineer!

If you are just starting a new course of education then perhaps these are the qualities that you should aim to acquire or cultivate.

If you are an employer and are lucky enough to hire one or even a group of these ‘ideal employees’ then your problems as a manager may only just be beginning.  They are likely to be what is known as ‘knowledge workers’ who will share certain characteristics, including being highly educated or experienced, hate being told what to do and reluctant to share knowledge with their managers.  So many employers resort to HSPALTA: Hire Smart People And Leave Them Alone.

Hype cycle

gartner_hype_cycle_2005It is easy to become cynical about the latest innovation and the claims for its future success.  The tendency becomes worse with age and the feeling that you’ve seen it all before.  The IT consultancy firm, Gartner Inc. have invented a graph to describe the cycle of enthusiam, despondency and maybe ultimate productivity of new inventions.  They call it the hype curve.  For most new ideas the plateau of productivity is 5 to 10 years after the peak of inflated expectations and separated from it by a deep trough of disillusionment.

Gartner Inc publish an annual analysis of the status of new technology in the form of a single hype curve.  It’s interesting to see what’s in the trough [cloud computing, mobile health monitoring] and what’s on or near the peak of inflated expectations [consumable 3D printing and autonomous vehicles] today.  You might have noticed from your smart phone that speech recognition has just reached the plateau of productivity.  The thumb-nail shows a historic hype curve for ten years ago.

Emergent properties

storm over canyonPerhaps my strongest memory of being taught at school is that of the head of chemistry combining hydrogen and oxygen using an old glass drinks bottle and a burning taper.  The result was explosive, exciting and memorable.  It certainly engaged the attention of everyone in the class.  As far as I am aware, the demonstration was performed at least once per year for decades; but modern health and safety regulations would probably prevent such a demonstration today.

One of the interesting things about combining these two gases at room temperature is that the result is a liquid: water.  This could be construed as an emergent property because an examination of the properties of water would not lead you to predict that it was formed from two gases.  The philosopher C.D. Broad (1887-1971) coined the term ’emergent properties’ for those properties that emerge at a certain level of complexity but do not exist at lower levels.

Perhaps a better example of emergent properties is the pressure and temperature of steam.  We know that water molecules in a cloud of steam are whizzing around randomly,bouncing into one another and the walls of the container – this is the kinetic theory of gases.  If we add energy to the steam, for instance by heating it, then the molecules will gain kinetic energy and move around more quickly.  The properties of pressure and temperature emerge when we zoom out from the molecules and consider the system of the steam in a container.  The temperature of the steam is a measure of the average kinetic energy of the molecules and the pressure is the average force with which the molecules hit the walls of the container.

Manuel Delanda takes these ideas further in a brilliant description of modelling a thunderstorm in his book Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason.  There are no equations and it is written for the layman so don’t be put off by the title.  He explains that emergent properties can be established by elucidating the mechanisms that produce them at one scale and then these emergent properties become the components of a phenomenon at a much larger scale. This allows engineers to construct models that take for granted the existence of emergent properties at one scale to explain behaviour at another, so for example we don’t need to model molecular movement to predict heat transfer. This is termed ‘mechanism-independence’.

Ok, that’s deep enough for one post!  Except to mention that Capri & Luisi have proposed that life is an emergent property that is not present in the constituent parts of living things and which only appears when the parts are assembled.  Of course, it also disappears when you disassemble a living system, i.e. dissect it.


Chapter 1 ‘The Storm in the Computer’ in Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason by Manuel Delanda, published by Continuum, London, 2011 (pages 7-21).

Fritjof Capra and Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Pope and Austen

marksofgeniusA few weeks ago we visited the Marks of Genius exhibition in the recently refurbished Weston Library which is part of the Bodleian Library in Oxford.  It is a remarkable exhibition with an overwhelming collection of riches in terms of manuscripts and rare books.  You might expect to see a copy of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Sir Isaac Newton.  But one of the items that bowled me over was the original manuscript of ‘An Essay on Criticism’ written in Alexander Pope’s own hand and used by the printer to prepare the first edition in 1711.  It was open at the first page and you could see Pope’s annotations and corrections.  Pope instructed the printer to put the following lines at the top of the second page:

Tis with our judgments as our watches, none

Go just alike, yet each believes his own

I think he would be astonished at our ability today, not only to believe but, to publish our judgments in blogs.  We might have the technology to synchronise our time-keeping devices, whether they are watches or smart phones, but there is still a huge diversity of opinions.

The other item in the exhibition that fascinated me was an unpublished manuscript by Jane Austen of a novel called ‘The Watsons‘.  It is tempting to think that the prose written by great authors flows effortlessly onto the page. However, this was clearly not the case for Jane Austen as can be seen from the many crossings out and insertions in this handwritten manuscript.  It should perhaps encourage my students who frequently have reports and manuscripts returned to them containing a similar level of my deletions and additions [see my post entitled ‘Reader, Reader, Reader‘ on April 15th, 2015].

The Bodleian Library has digitised the entire exhibition so you can see exactly what I have written about above by following the links to their website:

Alexander Pope’s manuscript

Jane Austen’s The Watsons manuscript

Where science meets society

Harley_Davidson first electric motorcycle []

Harley-Davidson’s first electric motorcycle

‘Where scientific advances impact on the health, wealth and well-being of individuals’ is a longer version but I like the pithy version in my title: ‘Where science meets society’.  They are both descriptions of engineering.  Not the dictionary-style definition of my earlier post [‘Skilled in ingenuity‘ on August 19th, 2015] but a much better tag line to go with those discussed in ‘Engineers sustain society‘ on May 27th, 2015.

Engineers design, build and maintain systems that deliver capabilities.  Society and individuals are usually not interested in the system just the capability, unless the system is particular aesthetic or advertising creates the need to own something, i.e. the system becomes a fashion accessory.   Consumers are usually more interested in the reliability and life expectancy of the system, or in other words, they would like the absolute certainty that the capability will be available whenever and for as long as it is required.  This expectation is problematic for engineers because nothing is certain and entropic degradation ensures nothing remains the same forever.  Creative thinking is needed to generate elegant solutions that are cheaper than those of your competitors and this should ensure that engineers are never replaced by artificial intelligence [see my post entitled ‘Engineers are slow, error-prone…‘ on April 29th, 2015].  Engineering might not be a job for life, because nothing is certain, but a bright future, at least until consumers become post-modernists with a tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity.