This is the first of a series of essays I will publish
here and elsewhere, in an effort to solve what I regard as some
fundamental problems that are endemic to the computer
I have felt called to my Duty several times in my career. I have
never regretted performing it, but doing so has been a heavy burden, as
it always came at great cost. This is one of those times - I will
explain in the next essay I publish just why.
November 1, 2005
Charless Russell Crawford was an engineer too, an electrical
engineer. Once a carpenter,
he was inspired to enlist in the Navy
one snowy evening while roofing a house, when he struck his thumb real
hard with a hammer. The Navy sensed my father's
potential for leadership and sent him to study at the University of Idaho,
where he met my mother Patricia Ann Speelmon. My sister was born while
they were still students. After graduation,
he went on to Officer Candidate School and was given his commission. The
telegram with news of my birth took two weeks to
reach him: he was deep in the Phillipine jungle getting trained in
survival, as the Vietnam War was just then
heating up: the year was 1964. My father's engineering specialty was
electronics: guidance and control systems.
The lesson my father taught me, a lesson I only now, as I
speak, realize for the first time I was
ever taught, is to Do My Duty. You already know
my father did his for his country. I want
you to know that he did his duty to his family as a husband, father and
provider, and he did it well.
He did his duty as a teacher too: I learned science and engineering at
my father's knee, as we worked on projects
together. Once we had a contest to see who could make a working
telephone from stuff found lying around the house.
Engineers have other Masters who demand duty of us: our profession,
our conscience, those who invest in,
purchase or use what we design, our coworkers, and the public.
Listen to me carefully, and never forget what I'm
about to say. I want all of you to spend
some time thinking it over deeply, then I want you to discuss it among
There may come a time in your career as an
engineer when you will be called to take
a stand against your employer's disastrous course of action. When that
time comes, your duty is not
to your employer, but to your profession, your conscience, your
coworkers, your company's investors, its
customers, and the public. When your coworkers, investors or customers
could be bankrupted, or the
public's safety could be placed at risk, it is your solemn duty
to take a stand.
Your stand could be an ultimatum: you might lose your job, as
I did. You could blow the whistle
as I still might. You must accept the consequences: unemployment,
poverty, getting blacklisted, sued or even imprisoned. Such may be the
cost of doing the right thing.
But when the chips are down, it is your solemn duty to do
My father knew from engineering quality: After getting his Master's
degree at the U of I after the war ended,
he went back to work for the Navy as a civilian. His last job before he
retired was overseeing the repair
and testing of nuclear submarine reactor control systems at
Island Naval Shipyard. Now I ask you:
if the Navy decided to send a sub out to sea before my father felt its
reactor control system was ready, would
he have spoken up about it? Even if he lost his job by doing so? And
was thereby unable to feed his hungry
I know my father, he would have done the right thing.
Because an engineer named Roger Boisjoly didn't trust his
conscience, seven brave and innocent
people died. No, he followed standard procedure, by reporting a safety
risk to his superiors, then trusting
them to do the right thing, despite the fact that they obviously
didn't heed his warning:
It got real cold one night when the Space Shuttle
Challenger was being readied for launch. The Shuttle's two solid
fuel rocket boosters had been manufactured by
Morton Thiokol in several sections. Rubber O-rings were used to seal the
joints between each section, and
covered with high-temperature putty to protect the rubber from the
flames. But the rubber the O-rings was made of
became brittle if it ever got cold. It wouldn't flex as the sides of the
joint vibrated in and out, so that the flames
inside the rockets might shoot out through a crack, and make the liquid
fuel tank explode.
Realizing the risk, Mr. Boisjoly filed a safety report with his
superiors, yet despite the fact that they
overruled his advice for fear of losing Morton Thiokol's fat government
contract, he did his duty to his company and
But he didn't do the right thing when he realized the
Challenger was going to launch to its doom. Why
didn't he ring someone up at NASA? We didn't he go to the press? Why
didn't he crash his way into Mission
Control, arms flailing and screaming "IT'S GOING TO FUCKING
Because he might have lost his job? He probably would have, but I
don't think that's why. Gotten arrested? No.
I don't know for sure, but I'll hazard a guess: either because
he trusted his company to do the right
thing or he didn't want to get blacklisted.
And because he didn't trust his
conscience, and go against orders - no, not even that - against
standard procedure, he has these people to
answer to, and their loved ones:
Front row, left to right:
Michael John Smith (1945-86), Pilot
Francis R. (Dick) Scobee (1939-86), Commander
Ronald Erwin McNair (1950-86), Mission Specialist Three
Ellison S. Onizuka (1946-86), Mission Specialist One
S.Christa McAuliffe (1948-86), Payload Specialist One
Gregory Bruce Jarvis (1944-86), Payload Specialist Two
Judith Arlene Resnik (1949-86), Mission Specialist Two
Someday you might be faced with such an awful decision. Most
engineers don't ever consider the possibility.
I'm asking you to consider it now, ahead of time, so if the time ever
comes, your mind will
already be made up.
Michael, have you tried resisting writing about feelings that had
meanings only _too_ clear to yourself? Because if you can't resist
producing that sort of writing every chance you've got, _you_ will be
perceived as a sort of ghost buster.
I am copying this text here. It appears to be saying that we need to
leave room for holy ghost. But my interpretation could be wrong. What's
All Soul's Night
Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell
And many a lesser bell sound through the room;
And it is All Souls' Night,
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come;
For it is a ghost's right,
His element is so fine
Being sharpened by his death,
To drink from the wine-breath
While our gross palates drink from the whole wine.
I need some mind that, if the cannon sound
From every quarter of the world, can stay
Wound in mind's pondering
As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound;
Because I have a marvellous thing to say,
A certain marvellous thing
None but the living mock,
Though not for sober ear;
It may be all that hear
Should laugh and weep an hour upon the clock.
And I call up MacGregor from the grave,
For in my first hard springtime we were friends,
Although of late estranged.
I thought him half a lunatiic, half knave,
And told him so, but friendship never ends;
And what if mind seem changed,
And it seem changed with the mind,
When thoughts rise up unbid
On generous things that he did
And I grow half contented to be blind!
He had much industry at setting out,
Much boisterous courage, before loneliness
Had driven him crazed;
For meditations upon unknown thought
Make human intercourse grow less and less;
They are neighter paid nor praised.
But he'd object to the host,
The glass because my glass;
A ghost-lover he was
And may have grown more arrogant being a ghost.
But names are nothing. What matter who it be,
So that his elements have grown so fine
The fume of muscatel
Can give his sharpened palate ecstasy
No living man can drink from the the whole wine.
I have mummy truths to tell
Whereat the living mock,
Though not for sober ear,
For maybe all that hear
Should laugh and weep an hour upon the clock.
Such thought - such thought have I that hold it tight
Till meditation master all its parts,
Nothing can stay my glance
Untill that glance run in the world's despite
To where the damned have howled away their hearts
And where the blessed dance;
Such thought, that in it bound
I need no other thing,
Wound in miind's wandering
As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound.
is what the client pays me for: professionalism
The client says they want the quickest, easiest,
path-of-least-resistance-to-market solution. They want this dumb thing
sorted out last night, and they don't want any additional problems
brought to light whilst I fix it.
Too bad, Charlie.
If, during the course of my investigations into the product and its
infrastructure, I discover a problem deserving of the client's attention
then I will bring it forward. My duty as a professional requires
that. My job is incomplete and poorly done if I ignore an issue I
recognize as a potential future problem. Regardless of the client's wish
to be left in the dark I can't ignore problems slapping me in the face.
Fortunately, I don't live here. So, even though they may end my contract
at the earliest possible moment I have completed my assignment. Those
firms that have chosen to ignore my analysis and professional critique
of their product's problems have gone on to regret that decision -- one
way or another. Usually they just trip over their own feet when the
product screws up in front of FDA or UL or some other alphabet soup
agency. Somebody will recount my warnings about the product being a pile
of kaka and my name will be cursed, no doubt.
It is my duty to report the bad along with the good. I offer
alternatives and a list of potential solutions, but it is the client's
choice about whether or not to solve the problems before they get worse.
I don't live here, so the decision to put my "job" on the line is not
that hard. A client that ignores my professional expertise is a client I
can do without, anyway. Heh.