The Hard Question: How?

I’ve mentioned before that my mother was trained as an engineer–architectural, mechanical, and–later–aeronautical.   As a result, my childhood was shaped by, among other things, her engineer-brain, which operated across domains usually thought of as engineering (machinery, buildings) and usually thought of as “women’s stuff” (needlework including designing garments, slipcovers, curtains, etc., storage of household things, and cooking.)   I don’t have an engineer brain but I saw one in action every day.  Engineers don’t just know individual elements (beams, trusses, pipes, pumps) but also *processes*….HOW things work, HOW to accomplish tasks, HOW this cause leads to that effect.   They consider it important for people to understand how things work, and how things go wrong, and how to prevent things going wrong.   Which is how I learned about things from my mother.  Every childish accident was a learning opportunity, and I was guided through an analysis of the failure…announcing in clear childish tones “It was an ACCIDENT!  I didn’t MEAN to!” didn’t work because it would be patiently explained to me in detail and I was supposed to be able to spout it back.

My little china pony broke a leg?   “How did it break its leg?”  “It fell over.”   “How did it fall over?  Where was it–show me.”   (It was on the floor, part of a parade of all my toy horses down the hall, and it fell over because I got up to go to the bathroom and hit it with my toe…)  “So…it fell over because you put it where you could hit it with your foot…that’s how it fell over…”   Cause & effect were discussed on *everything* that spilled, splashed, fell, dropped, or disappeared.  One particular little china pony broke repeatedly until she refused to fix it another time.  “You know it’s fragile; you know the glue isn’t that strong.   What did you think would happen if you put it in another of your parades?”

One day she came home for lunch to find water on the floor of my room.  “How did water get on the floor of your room?”   “I made a water mill with my Tinker Toys and the engine out of that toy boat–”  “You took the motor out of the BOAT?”   “Ye-ess…”  “How?”   “With your needlenose pliers, because the others were too big–and the thing that holds the batteries.”   Sigh.  “OK, so you took the engine out, but what about the drive shaft?”  “That came out really easily…” Another sigh from my mother.   “Let’s see how you built the water mill…oh.  Did you look up the shape of the buckets in a water mill?”  “Um…no.  But I remember what that paddle-wheel steamboat looked like in SHOWBOAT.  I thought it would lift the water up and it would fall into the cake pan.”  (It overshot the cake pan, which–along with the needlenose pliers–wasn’t among my playthings but her useful things.  Also, my willingness and ability to dismantle the toy electric boat was proclaimed risky and potentially dangerous.)

At any rate, I was taught processes, and the analysis of processes, and the reasons for failures of processes (like “not thinking things through” and “not following directions” and “being in too much of a hurry”) and in addition to analyses of my own “accidents” (“There are no accidents; they are all caused!”) I was encouraged to think through the how car, train, and airplane wrecks “happen” and how they can be prevented by more alert and competent operators and mechanics, and how engineers try to design things to be safe but it’s easy to forget a component of use that can result in failure.   The processes of cookery, sewing, carpentry, brick-laying, painting a room, painting a picture, maintaining a vehicle or a house…all were demonstrated and discussed (yes, she could build things herself, measuring, sawing, using the right tools with the right fasteners to create tables, cabinets, chairs, the shelter we took to the beach and spent a day or a night in…and she could lay brick and stone, put up drywall, tape and float, lay tile…and make her clothes and mine so they all fit and looked as good or better than ready-made…each task with its own processes that made it come out looking professional.  (Meanwhile I was a dud at sewing, annoyed her by making a table for my dolls out of a small piece of wood with four other pieces of wood nailed down through the top, one nail to a leg.  “That’s not how tables are built.”  But I wanted the table for the dolls, and then used the dolls to enact a story…writer-brain is not engineer-brain much deeper than the surface.  I didn’t care that the table wasn’t built right; I cared only that it was a prop for a story I could tell and it would have taken too long, and been distracting, to build the table “right.”

The “How?” question was always there.   How does that work?  How did that happen?   How could it work better?   How could that problem be prevented?   As I grew up, I found the How? question missing from a lot of discussions where it could shed light and perhaps understanding, or at least a way to find out what was really going on.   I also learned that asking “How?” was not popular in many circles.   Upon being told that if a little boy pushed a little girl, or pulled her hair, or made a face at her, that meant he liked her…grownups just said that, and if you ask “How is pushing or hitting showing liking?  If I push you does that mean I like you?”  they might say “Grownups are different” or “That’s just boys”  and never dealt with the *way*, the *how” of going from pushing, hitting, pulling hair, insulting….to liking.   Why were only boys allowed to hit and punch and trip people up and so on?

And I found that many people said things that made no sense, if you thought about “how?”  and never mentioned how these impossible, nonsensical things could work.   Teachers spanked kids (mostly boys)  back then, assuming that it took violent force and pain to “make them be good.”  But it was the same boys that were spanked repeatedly, daily, and got meaner and meaner on the playground.  How did that work?   To me, it looked like “the more harsh punishment, the less good” that kid was.  Every bully I knew had been spanked, whipped, beaten at home, as well as at school, without making them any better, any less likely to start fights, pick on younger kids, etc.   They bragged to each other about how much pain they could ‘take.’  Some adults argued that leaving kids hungry would teach them to study harder, or teach their parents to make more money…though the usual result of a child being seriously hungry was a kid who couldn’t concentrate in class, was depressed, had no energy for play, could only be miserable.   How was daily, constant, stomach-knotting hunger supposed to lead to working harder?   The people who believed in the “hungry kids will learn to work” theory never asked “How would that work, what are the steps in the process of turning hunger into energy?”    The lack of ‘How?” left a big blank hole in the middle of what others thought were logical arguments and explanations.   And most people seemed not to notice.   Not to notice and not to understand when someone (I learned fairly quickly not to be that person) asked it.

About the only “how” questions you hear in politics are “How will that be paid for?” which is a reasonable question…but only if the followup to the answer really connects.   Far more often political proposals and argument stop short of inquiring about the “How?” all the way from the idea to the reality.  Entire political philosophies are based on “How-less” incomplete logical chains of cause and effect.  Does having a firearm or three  in reach make someone more polite, less likely to shoot someone…by the evidence, no.   And how could that work, if there were evidence in favor?   Yet some people are convinced that if everyone walked around carrying guns, all would be peaceful.  Neighbors being scared of each others’ guns would do it…only it doesn’t.  Workers who can’t make enough for food, housing, utilities, will magically be able to save enough to cover any medical needs…so keeping wages low keeps workers working steadily for their employer…only it doesn’t.   How can someone paid too little to afford decent housing, food, heat and lights also afford medical insurance that covers their family’s needs?  They can’t.  So they live in bad housing, consume only the cheapest (inadequate) food, take on additional work…and get predictably sick, which they have to ignore because they don’t have any sick leave or any medical care.   Assumptions about those being harmed–that for instance someone who breaks any law or local rule *deserves*  police brutality, that police murder is justified by having a record of past misdeeds, when the harshest defined punishment is a fine, or even a short jail sentence…leaves out the “How?” question of how killing for nonviolent “crimes” teaches the “criminal” anything or teaches the public “respect” for the police.  The person’s dead.   And fear is not respect.  The assumption that workers are “lazy” or that they “don’t care” about their children when the children don’t do well in school never delves into the “How?” of how poverty makes people lazy, how someone working two or three jobs to be able to feed their family can be considered “lazy,” and “not caring” about their children.

Looking at problems (however defined) with an engineer-brain–at least as far as considering all the “how” questions that arise, and making a fair attempt to consider the evidence and answer them–might well lead to better proposals, ideas more practical than “find the pure, flawless unicorn and elect that one” or “any flaw is a total flaw and deserves total piling on in social media.”  Because we know where ignoring the “how,” exalting the “pure,” and total pile-ons  based on the supposed purity that a flaw ruins forever gets us.  Here.  Now.  Still arguing about proposals that are obviously (if you look at the How?) doomed to fail, and ignoring the possible tweaks that might make them work better, if not perfectly.

As just one instance of that last, take the assumption of trickle-down-economics that lowering taxes will create jobs.  Corporations will spend the savings on expanding and hiring more people, sometimes even raising salaries.  They don’t, actually.  Time and again they’ve taken the tax break, fired a bunch of people, and moved production out of the US (citing greedy workers.)  But is there a way to combine a tax break with a control element that doesn’t allow that escape?   Sure: write it into the tax law.   The tax break could be contingent on demonstrated creation of new jobs in this country.  Full time jobs with the appropriate salaries and benefits.  No new jobs, teensy tiny tax break.   Increasing executive salaries w/o creating more entry level and early-career jobs?  No tax break.  Closing facilities and firing bunches of people, no tax break at all and in fact a tax *increase*.   Tax break received matched to the additional jobs created.    Why hasn’t Congress thought of that?  Some have, but it’s always been ditched.  Of course the corporations don’t want it that way, and they tell “their” Congresscritters that the amount of support in the next election will depend on the individual voting the right way…but it could be done.

Engineer brain is a practical brain.   I’m a writer-brain who spend years writing in totally imagined settings with people I made up…but I grew up under the control of an engineer and even writer-brain can learn about the “how” of things.

8 thoughts on “The Hard Question: How?

  1. This resonates so much with me, especially now in the UK. With Boris Johnson who was defended, by one of his MPs, for having a birthday party during the first lockdown with the phrase “he was ambushed by a cake”. How? How exactly did a cake stage an ambush? I didn’t know cakes had that ability …

    Sorry, but the whole “partygate” thing is rather consuming at the moment.

    1. Partygate is a really damning indictment of the man, for sure. Ambushed by a cake! My reaction was the same as yours. What, a live, moving cake hopped out and wrapped him in icing and sliced raspberries? Then rolled him up in itself and bore him away? Nonsense.

  2. Hi – this piece is written very well. And it makes a lot of sense. And all it takes is political will. I do see this “how” thinking in Ms. Moon’s writings – there are detailed how’s all through the books – Pass explaining the details of darning sacks, the details of building spaceships, the building of a road. We tend to become our parents – and if we are lucky and have good parents it is not a bad thing.

    Stay safe and sane -from up here in frozen New Hampshire

  3. How does one have train wrecks? Let me count the ways. There are loads of lumber that have their straps loosen, switching issues (both head to tail and head to head) and sinkholes under the tracks (less than 20 minutes after the previous train–we were on one of the busy cross country lines). Those were the four train derailments we had in our little sleepy farming town while I was growing up. Our volunteer first responder team got asked to come give talks on this to big gatherings somewhere in the middle of this 15ish year run. They kept getting asked back since they continued to hone their craft in dealing with these situations.

    1. Improperly secured loads cause trucks and cars to shed a load (or if it’s big and unbalanced enough, it can flip the vehicle, esp. with added side wind.) So whether train, truck, or boat, human error in securing a load in place can cause a major problem. (Watching a pile of cattle panels slide off the pickup in front of me as it went around a curve was…instructive. A rope or band just across the top, no matter how tight, will not hold them. They’re like layers of snow (that “fail” in an avalanche), layers of shale that fail when they slide off a mountain… Human error. “Switching issues” are clearly human error problems. Flying a plane into a mountain, or missing the runway, are human error causation. Sinkholes under the tracks are human error as the original survey before laying the tracks, esp. in karst regions, should have included both deliberate search before, and regular checks after (since caves can “grow”), for subterranean voids. Great to have a first responder team good at dealing with the aftermath, but better to prevent the human errors that lead to deaths, injuries, fires, explosions in all the ways they do.

  4. Accident investigation reports are fascinating

    Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) is the independent railway accident investigation organisation for the UK.

    “RAIB’s investigations are entirely independent and are focused solely on safety improvement. The RAIB does not apportion blame or liability nor enforce law or carry out prosecutions.”

    Warning, trains can’t stop dead. They are fitted with forward-facing video which may record an inevitable collision

      1. Mike, I’ve now read through a dozen or so of the accident reports/conclusions by following links from one to another. Wow, what a resource! Textbook investigations. The one I was reading last night was, a classic of How Things Go Wrong. It’s clearly frustrating the RAIB that the same sorts of near misses & accidents happen over and over, in spite of previous warnings, investigations, more warnings, more directives.

        I have been a passenger twice when an accident occurred on a US train (Amtrak long distance train from San Antonio to Chicago, trains I joined partway up.) In the US, private companies own the tracks and do the maintenance (such as it is) and most train traffic is freight. Both accidents occurred near Dallas. One was a train/pedestrian collision (according to witnesses, an old man who walked down the street and across the tracks daily, to a pedestrian crossing of a highway, to shop in a store across the highway, had fallen or lain down on the tracks while on his usual route. That was between west of Dallas east of Fort Worth. The other was a train/truck, east of Dallas, in which the company that owned the tracks (back then I think it was Union Pacific) was working on the on the line in conjunction with TXDOT, where a smaller road crossed the tracks and then went under a big divided highway with its associated interchange at the smaller road. The track company had parked one of its service trucks *on the tracks* at a time when the passenger train was due (we were on time out of Dallas.) Daylight, good visibility, a train expected and on time…I still don’t understand that one, unless it was somehow stuck on the tracks. The train braked hard but could not stop, and the truck was catapulted off the tracks and landed on my side of the train, about a car behind the one I was in. Train did not derail; a few people–passengers and crew–were injured but not badly; the dining car was serving lunch. I was in my roomette, and when the braking started was able to brace my legs against the opposite seat. Watching the truck fly past my window was…interesting. The impact wrenched and tore the (cowling? fairing? streamlining cover on the front of the locomotive), and after quite a wait at the accident location, we moved very slowly to the level crossing of another road, where a crew could get to our train with welding equipment and cut off that piece (it was dragging on the track.) We were hours behind when we could finally move again, and more hours late getting into Chicago because now we weren’t in our assigned “hole” in traffic and kept having to pull over to let freight trains by.


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