Posts Tagged 'first principles'

Hard or Soft Learning

When I had been operating GPS survey receivers for some years, starting when the system was in its early form and continuing into the time when the GPS system was declared fully operational, it finally occurred to me that what I had been striving to master was no more than a human-created device of limited duration and limited application. I contrasted my efforts to game the system to glean maximum accuracy and utility from a foreign creation against the learning of the engineering principles, pure science, and mathematics in the syllabus when I was a student in the 50s and 60s. What I learned then, and even earlier in school, were universally applicable principles, while those I had just acquired were applicable only to the technical configurations of the system built by the US Department of Defence and subject to their future changes and denials of service. I had acquired only soft knowledge, not something that would be true forever.

Many people are filled with admiration for the way their grandchildren can unerringly set up a smart phone for them when the manuals appear to be so much gobbledegook. They fail to realize that the kids possess no more than soft knowledge that will become obsolete when the next must-have toy comes along. Why would I waste my time and effort to memorize the specific functions of this particular device when it will be in the landfill in a few years? I need know no more than allows me to carry out the basic functions for which I acquired it.

But hold on, you might say. The kids are required to know all these things today—schools would hardly be able to teach if they relied upon the old fashioned methods we were taught with. But what are they teaching today…hard knowledge or soft?

When we came out of engineering school fifty years ago we could have recreated every technical advance of our age from the first principles we had learned. It might take us a time, but we could do it. How many engineers, teachers, nerds and whiz-kids today know enough of the internal workings of their world to be able to reproduce the items they use in their day to day working lives? Have we not created an experimental world where, for the first time in human history, the people running the show are not capable of understanding or recreating the essential principles of the technology civilisation depends upon?

Why would they need to, you might ask? We are now living in a perfect digital world where we know everything there is to know about everything, and where nothing can possibly go wrong…go wrong…go wrong….as the old joke has it. Remember the Y2K panic at the turn of the century, when software had to be rewritten to allow power stations to continue functioning when the calendar turned to 2000/01/01? I remember my old math teacher in engineering school who would proudly relate his wartime story from the Burma front where he was faced with calculating the height supplies could be dropped from an aircraft safely without the parachutes they didn’t have. He had no trig tables or logarithm tables needed for the calculations, but he wrote his own in the jungle from the first principles every mathematician knew. How many of us in a similar situation today could even read these tables?

The final report of the accident to Air France 447 that fell into the Atlantic three years ago was released today. One of the findings was telling—if the two co-pilots in charge of the plane when the air speed indicators failed had relied on the basic flight skills they had learned during their training instead of following the commands of the compromised computerized flight system the aircraft would have never crashed. In fact, the aircraft was flying safely without the air speed indicators—until the pilots started obeying the faulty orders of the computer. As the report in Der Spiegel says, “In this stressful situation, Bonin and the second co-pilot forgot an old aviation rule: controlling the pitch and the engine thrust. If both are normal, the plane is not in danger.”

I’d suggest that when the next crisis hits our ever-more efficient but tightly balanced technological society it will be imperative that those in charge can use their ingrained hard knowledge to pull us out of the downward spiral instead of relying on the soft computer instructions written in less critical times.