Hammurabi’s Delight

I forget which of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s books refers to a government agency of octogenarian technocrats who make it their duty to stall new ideas – especially ones with real promise – for as long as possible; a hundred years being the ideal time. The benefit being that the “market” thoroughly tests the idea before the government throws taxpayer dollars into it, thus avoiding a potentially devastating waste of resources. On occasion, the philosopher-engineers would get bit in the ass – lost opportunities – but then again, it’s good to get bit in the ass every fifty years – keeps the blood flowing. But then again, a lost opportunity, when it’s looked at from the owner’s viewpoint, isn’t really that at all: for the last 100 years, you’ve been getting just enough bang for your buck as you “programmed.” Meanwhile, the “private sector” has been testing all sorts of whacked inventions, and maybe a couple of them are worth looking into, again, after 100 years. And after 100 years of solid testing on a more-than-willing public, the thing probably works and everyone knows how to use it.



I’m pretty sure Doc Smith had it that the government in question had already conquered the majority of the nearby planets as well as obliterating corruption, littering, and narcotics. Eh, the graphics are always better in the book version, too…

A recent headline article in the Engineering News Record ( ENR ) went something like this: “Technology Not Lacking, Knowledge Is.” I was intrigued, naturally, because I’ve been thinking along those lines for a few years.

It’s an old joke that the “lowest bidder” gets the job. Something like “…we’re riding on the spaceship that took twenty years to design at a cost of untold billions – built by the lowest bidder.”

You know, I am constantly amazed that anything gets built at all, to tell you the truth. In my career, I’ve seen plenty of “lowest bidders” lose their shirts. Not only that, but they fail to complete the job they said they would. That means someone else has to pick up where they left off, figure out what was going on – at a premium – and hope they make a profit. Now how come, after all these years of technological advances, a construction company (for example) can’t build something in the time and for the price they’ve promised?

Let’s consider that amazing construction material called “reinforced concrete.” A liquid mixture of sand, cement, water, and a few rocks is poured over a “cage” made of steel rods. The liquid mixture cures – that is, dries – rock hard, and the result is a floor slab, or a column or beam that supports more columns and beams that make up a building. Reinforced concrete is amazing; imagine, a material that can literally be poured into any shape at all – and that shape supports more and more shapes and then you have a bridge spanning a river. Yep, concrete is awesome shit. The way it works is pretty elementary: the steel takes the tensile loads, while the concrete takes the compressive loads.

Well, it’s not quite that simple, but the general idea is that concrete itself can’t take being pulled apart. But when it’s pushed, concrete is super-strong. Steel, on the other hand, is tremendously strong when being pulled, so we add the two together and the steel takes the pulls while the concrete takes the pushes.

It generally takes at least four years of abusive college courses to learn just how to design a building out of reinforced concrete. Then try and get a good job where you’d get to apply that knowledge. That’s the hard part.

But if you want to actually be involved in part of the building, just show up, shut up and do what you’re told to do.

Now I realize I am not being fair at all to the thousands of concrete workers who put in a hard day’s work and such. But life is unfair and so am I, at least in this essay.

See, the “owner” wants a product. And the owner is willing to spend a lot of money to get the product he wants. So he hires the best designers he can find – who, of course, will do the minimum possible in the shortest amount of time possible, thus maximizing their profit and making time for other projects. (Word to the wise: in the world of work, sleep is looked upon as wasting time, same goes for eating. Time is money and money is more important than anything else.)

Now, those designers who’ve worked feverishly for two weeks straight in order to complete the job a week early (which is behind a month anyway because the contract negotiations took too long – advantage to the designers) deliver their product. The owner might not get what he wants, but there’s not enough time to correct things, and besides, it’s good enough. Start ordering materials, if you haven’t already.

The construction management company, usually a bunch of old men who’ve “been doing this all their lives,” is hired (they’re the lowest bidder) and they’ve assembled a million and one sub-contractors – the dudes who actually do the work. They’re behind schedule even before they start, so the emphasis is on “time.” Expedite or die!

Let’s suppose the owner wants something built out of reinforced concrete. The designers’ task was pretty simple – they used a high-speed computer program that spit out the results instantaneously instead of the typical week that they would have otherwise used. Not that they had time to check anything…

Now the construction people – the lowest bidders – have to move. And I mean move fast. And unless you have seriously unlimited funds, placing that reinforcing steel is done by hand. That’s a repetitive, mindless, and somewhat dangerous, backbreaking task. It’s done by hand by someone who perhaps you would never send out to, oh, make a few copies, or perhaps pick up a couple of chili dogs – that’s one with cheese, one without cheese – during lunch.

Well, “Hank the Rodbuster” got it all wrong, and you know what? They started pouring concrete while the inspector was arguing with the construction manager who refused to call the engineers who didn’t want to come out anyway because they were working on something else. Let’s hope they used the appropriate safety factors in the design (and pray ol’ Hank didn’t cut a few corners). After all, it’s “good enough.”

Now my point is this: it’s nearly the twenty-first century (the millennium starts on 1 January 2001, remember?), and we have way too many electronic toys that mostly do absolutely nothing other than kill time. We have the most advanced computers, the most advanced stereo sets, the most advanced watches, calculators, games, movies, television shows, special effects, etc. Yet the most advanced civilization in all the galaxy (Americans – bar none) accepts “good enough” when it comes to building that civilization. We should already have construction robots of all shapes and sizes; rebar-laying robots who space #4’s @ 4’ o.c. perfectly – twenty-four hours a day. Concrete mixing and pouring robots who add just the right amount of water and cement to the mix. Form carpenter robots who don’t bend a single nail. I’m sure someone could invent a computer game with construction robots just like I’ve described (oh, at the present time there are several, no make that hundreds…), but why not the real thing?

Must we wait a hundred years?!

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