Physical Design Versus Software Design

So, I accidentally insulted worthy people with my comment yesterday about software engineers not actually being engineers in my opinion. First, I apologize. I wasn’t trying to say one profession was better than another but that’s obviously how it came across; I have a long-standing belief that I should only insult people who I think should be made to feel worse about themselves, which was not the case here. I’m sorry.

I do believe there’s an important distinction to be made between traditional engineering design (in chronological order of development of the modern disciplines: civil, structural, mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineering before 1900, with nuclear and other branches following later) and software design. Yesterday, I described engineering (in my second try) as manipulation of the non-biological physical world. The magic word in this discussion is “design”, which despite being at the core of several professions – engineering being the one I’m discussing – is not well understood.

To use my work as an example, I had to design an addition to a rowhouse today. As is usually true, there were a number of possible solutions to the problems that the architectural design (!) posed for me. Some of those solutions don’t meet code and are therefore not allowed even if I believe them to be safe in this case, some are much more expensive than others, some are literally unbuildable. I winnow down the list until I have a few possible solutions left (since I’ve done this kind of project several hundred times, that process takes about ten minutes) and then I look at the numbers. How big will the beams be if I use possible solution A? Solution B?

There is no question that personal biases – what in architectural design might be called a personal style – play a role in how I decide which solution I will use. However (HERE COMES THE  REAL ARGUMENT) the difference between a successful solution and an unsuccessful one is determined in large part by nature, by aspects of reality outside of my control. Gravity’s acceleration, the density of concrete, the weight of snow on a roof, the elastic modulus of steel, and so on ad infinitum, are things that no one can control and that figure very large in the analysis portion of my design. Any of the engineering disciplines I mentioned above has its own set of natural constraints that play such a large role in design that they could be said to drive it.

This is where I may accidentally insult software designers again: I don’t see that constraint in software design. When I said that there were only economic consequences to failure in software, I didn’t mean in operation. Software controls a lot of machinery that can kill a lot of people if it’s wrong, as was pointed out by several patient commenters. But those consequences are in the physical world, not in the software. A badly-written piece of software (say, Windows Me) will crash and cost someone their work since last saving, but the crash is not due to real-world constraints. The crash was caused by internal inconsistencies.

Failure of a structure is caused by insufficient strength to withstand an external force. I can, and do, make the argument that a given building that cannot be analyzed (say, because its structure is hidden by finishes that cannot be removed) is safe because I have a load history and a record of performance of that structure. In other words, I have empirical evidence of how it responds to real-world input. Unless I really am missing the point, software cannot be analyzed in this manner because it’s not part of the physical world: because the performance of software is determined by its internal workings and not by its interaction with the outside world, how it performed yesterday does not predict how it will perform tomorrow. Hence my belief that software design is not engineering: I’ve defined engineering as dealing with the physical world. Software is no less important to our lives today, but it’s a different thing. I think.

ON EDIT: Maybe an example would help. The software that connects the controls of a real flight simulator to the hydraulics that move it is nearly identical to the software that connects the controls of the same model plane to its control surfaces. The physical-world stuff is quite different, but since the software does not directly deal withe the physical world, it doesn’t matter.

Digithead Women

Engineers live up to some of the stereotypes about us. Sometimes they seem to revel in it. I’ve worked with engineers who were racist, sexist, xenophobic, and incapable of n0n-linear thought…and damned proud of all of it.*

Sexism is arguably the most pernicious of the engineer stereotypes. A lot of engineers are willing to say amazingly stupid things about the role of women in their profession and in society. This discussion has barely advanced from “girls’ hair would get caught in machinery if we let them in”. When I was an undergrad at an old and storied engineering school, women were roughly 20% of my class. 25 years later, it’s about 24%.

If I start from the basis that intelligence and a willingness to work hard are gender-neutral traits – an assumption based on a great deal of empirical evidence and a great deal of scientific research – then I quickly reach the conclusion that there’s no reason to make gender-based assumptions about engineers. If I do something much easier and look at the various people I’ve worked with for the past 25 years, I come to the conclusion that women are over-represented among the better engineers. There may well be social reasons for this: it is possible that engineering as a career is a step up for a lot of women, while it is seen as a low-class trade by a lot of men.**

We’re hiring right now, looking for a young engineer with up to four or so years of experience. I’ve read about sixty resumes, most of which were depressing: people not qualified for the position or with more experience than me. Of the four that we have set aside as possible interviews, three are women and three are non-white. Maybe our small company isn’t appealing to white male engineers. Maybe a medium-status, medium-wage, high-pressure profession isn’t appealing to white males. Or if I wanted to use the logic of the bigots, I could argue that the resumes are proof that white males are less qualified, but somehow I don’t think argument would fly.

*I am excluding “software engineers” – who usually have degrees in computer science – from this discussion because (1) I don’t know any personally, (2) I don’t consider them to be engineers because there is usually no non-economic cost to a failure of one of their designs, (3) given the actions of their lunatic fringe on various internet forums I have frequented, they are beyond parody.

**This is a US phenomenon. Engineers seem to get somewhat more respect elsewhere.

Why Not?

When The Levee Breaks:

And, at 9:29AM, we’re in the eye and the sun is shining.

Update, 9:48AM: Con Ed power outage map for the city.

Update 11:17AM: No rain, but the wind has really picked up. To repeat something I said in the comments, areas with hard-rock streams north and west of the city are getting real flooding from the rain. B^4 emailed me some pictures that don’t look fun.

Update 11:49AM: It’s windy but actually quite clear below the low clouds:

And, from a friend in England: “Startling insight from the BBC’s on-the-spot Laura Trevelyan: ‘You can see why the mayor made the New York subway system shut down, because the subway system is right below the ground level in New York.’  Guess that’s the kind of dead-eye analytical shrewdness that made the beeb what it is today.”

Update 1:50PM: Still windy, still cloudy, no rain. I’m listening to Mayor Mike’s latest press conference, and it occurs to me that he believes in, and is making the argument for, comprehensive government services. The various city agencies involved, the Office of Emergency Management, and state agencies (like the MTA) have planned for problems, were expected to be present and act professionally, and did their jobs. Evacuation was largely handled by public transit to publicly-provided shelters.

Fuck the invisible hand and privatization.

Nothing Much

As of 5:07AM, the wind and rain have not been particularly bad in NYC. High tide is in three hours, so we’ll see if the storm surge causes any real flooding. So far, 1.93″ of rain and wind speeds in the 20 to 30MPH range. There are apparently 20,000 people without power in the city and another 80,000 in the nearby burbs, but we get that from ordinary storms, such as the 12/26/10 blizzard.

Update 7:59AM: White out from rain, 69F, 2.35″ of rain, wind supposedly gusting to 40 MPH, but between is much lower. Tornado watch has been canceled for the city.

Update 8:48AM: White out:

Update 9:08AM: The eye has been reported coming ashore (at tropical storm strength) at Coney Island, heading NNE at 20 MPH. That means the eye wall, if it still exists as such, should get here in less than 20 minutes.

Update 9:25AM: The eye’s here. The sky has brightened up and the wind’s down.

Stew’s Gone

Rain, and a picture of nothing:

Update 9:07PM: 74F, wind at 18 MPH.

Update 9:54PM: 73F, 20 MPH. My god this is boring. Where’s the hurricalypse?

Update 10:03PM: First lightning of the night. Given that I’m in a  500-foot PENIS building with nothing remotely as tall nearby, I expect we’ll get hit tonight.

Update 10:52PM: Live video of rain.

Update 11:04PM: For comparison, 0.87″ of rain in the last 24 hours. We get ordinary storms that drop 1 to 1-1/2 inches. Obviously the next 24 hours will be worse, but so far, nothing to talk about.

Goodnight Irene, Goodnight

Sunset isn’t until 7:37, but it’s getting pretty fucking dark out there.

Meanwhile, there are two reasons some people in the city will lose power. First, Con Ed has transformers in underground vaults, and if they flood the power’s out. This is a rare event, but might happen today. Second, debris (usually tree branches) may hit overhead wires, as is common across the country during storms. My question is why, 123 years after the blizzard of 1888, are there overhead wires? They’re long gone in Manhattan and most of Brooklyn, so I expect to not lose power. Oh, that’s right, requiring their removal would be government regulation to help people at the expense of large corporations and we’re not supposed to discuss that.

More to come, if the storm ever gets here.

Update 6:26PM: Just Skype videoed with Mrs__B and the little guy. The sun is shining in Michigan.

Update 6:36PM: This is one opinion about shutting down the MTA at noon today. Obviously there are others. Given that the worst of the storm is not expected until late tonight, and that hurricanes’ arrival times are predictable, I tend to agree more than not. They could have let the trains and buses run through the afternoon.

Update 6:56PM: The Department of Sanitation has turned over all of their trash cans, in the hopes this will prevent them from flying away. It took me a minute to place the image: Pete Missing’s upside-down campaign glass “The Party’s Over” logo from the 80s, which became a common graffito.

Update 7:16PM: It’s raining, and the ship has sailed.

Update 7:47: Raining harder, not much wind. Stew and rice are on the stove.

Update 8:31: Raining hard, but not exceptionally so. Still not much wind. Stew and rice are half inside me.

Before the Storm


Here’s Chez__B from the roof of a brownstone nearby, taken earlier this week:

Here’s the view from our living room at 6 AM today, foggy but no wind to speak of:

Update, 7AM: I’m not a huge Mayor Mike fan, but there are times that having a technogeek in office helps. The surprisingly good official instruction page is here.

Update 11AM: It’s drizzling.

Update, 11:47AM: I’m back from the deli with more beer. I just noticed that there’s a ship (based on the schedule, either theGlory, the Norwegian Jewel, or the Caribbean Princess) ties up at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook. Given that there’s a storm surge expected, I would have thought they’d at least head out into the bay for safety:

Update 12:26PM: Good advice from the Rude Pundit.

Update 3:53 PM: No rain. BOOOORRRRIIING.

Update 4:52PM: It’s finally raining for real, although we had worse on Thursday.

The Speed of Aging

I’ve been riding R32s my whole life. [Click to engorge.]

When I was a kid, R1s – the original IND cars – were still running on the A train. That is to say that in the early 70s, cars from 1932 were still in operation, which is not so bad when the MTA is discussing keeping the R32s running until they’re over 50 years old. The R1s had rattan seats, which must have been spiffy when new, but were multiple, repeated pains in the ass when old.

We’ll see how the 2-year-old R160s look when they’re twenty. I suspect we’ll be reliving scenes from Alien and Blade Runner.


First, the renovation of the Loews Kings is attracting attention to the point where the Murdochoids felt it necessary to give the headline an idiotic pun.

Better, how about time-lapse of the construction of the WTC memorial?

Finally, my self-proclaimed half-assed analysis of the Christchurch quake is the most popular post of the 425 here so far, with 482 page views, including 22 in the last week. My post on a flight of stairs in Highbridge Park is, bizarrely, number two, with 321 views and 21 in the past month. Go figure.

A Few Thoughts On A Non-Event

I was in a client’s office two blocks from my office when the quake hit yesterday. We were on the 9th floor of an old skyscraper – slender, steel-framed, and therefore quite limber – and there was some noticeable swaying. Based on what we felt, I estimated it around 3-3.5 using the empirical Richter magnitudes. We temporarily lost phones, probably because the system was swamped, but someone got “5.9″ from the CNN website, which I knew was wrong – that was, of course, the magnitude at the Virginia epicenter, not in NYC.

– It sucks being “the expert.” I got dragged into my client’s discussion of whether or not to evacuate their building. I told them what I knew: (1) there was no sign of structural damage to their building, (2) their fire command center had no evidence of fire or other non-structural damage, and (3) evacuation itself carries risk, and therefore should only be undertaken for a reason. There was no need for me to be there while they tried to remember their bad emergency plans and untangle their chain of command.

- Context is everything. I felt a 3.8 during a trip to San Francisco once and instantly knew what it was. I don’t expect in here and was momentarily confused.

- Fuck every single 9-11-waving asshole. Walking two blocks back to my office, I passed four people who were obviously in the aftermath of a panic attack or flashback to 9-11: crying, shaking, looking around. A lot of people who work in lower Manhattan worked here ten years ago and, unlike all the morons in East Nowhere, Indiana who used 9-11 as an excuse to get their pickup detailed with a crying eagle and to support torture and endless war, the people here had the experience of emergence evacuation down forty flights of stairs, of breathing toxic dust that used to be their neighbors, or knowing some of the dead, of fearing for the safety with reason. Yes, we did and continue to do far worse to innocents elsewhere, but that’s a different conversation. I hesitate to use “PTSD” because that’s a real syndrome with definable symptoms, but if New Yorkers seemed to over-react to a very small amount of ground movement, there’s a reason.

A Really Stupid Game

Urbanology has a game up about urban planning decisions. Ten questions and they tell you your ideal city based on your answers.

I answered honestly about how I feel about the questions asked (I’m not sure if everyone gets the same questions or not) and, as it happens, my answers were in the majority all ten times. The result: my “future city will be Beijing”…but the questions were so generic that apparently that’s the majority’s future city. My “lowest priority is transportation”…there were no fucking question on transportation.

Huckine Finn

Taken from the 12th floor-scaffolding at one of our facade projects, giving a nice view of the algae-infused waters of the Central Park lake and, slightly left of center, one end of Bow Bridge. The white thing below the bridge is a plastic raft carrying one of the engineers from my office. She spent the day out there inspecting the bridge underside.

An Evening

Substance McGravitas was in the New York area this week, and Tuesday night was S,N! night in Brooklyn. Substance, B^4, Mrs__B, Mini__B and I went out for some beer; after Mini__B was asleep, we got take-out barbecue and ate Chez__B.

But let’s face, if you’ve read this far, you want the visual aids. First up, the Bastard, me, Mini__B, and Substance.


Also, Mini__B learns that the way to steer a recalcitrant mule is to slap him on the head.
Ride 'em, cowboy.

The Village, 1960

It’s true that I link to Gothamist posts – and particularly Gothamist videos and pictures – out of laziness. It’s also true that they dig up the good shit, so what the hell.

Jean Shepherd narrates a documentary on the Greenwich Village that was vanishing in 1960 and is now gone, gentrified and bridge-and-tunneled and urban-renewed out of existence. It looks like a place I’d like to visit.