9 Apr 2006 apenwarr   » (Master)

Precious Instability

In my Control Theory class in university, the prof gave an example in passing about fighter jets. A modern fighter is so completely controlled by the computer that if the computer fails, the jet would fall out of the sky pretty much instantly. Why? Because the mechanical design of the jet keeps it aerodynamically unstable. You can certainly build a plane that, if you stop steering it, will mostly continue to go in the direction it was going before. But with fighters, they intentionally do the opposite. That way, if you control it properly, you can make it go straight if you want, but you can also make it turn very fast, because turning fast is what the mechanical design does all by itself.

That story resonates with me because it agrees with how I try to run my life: very in control, very fast, and very manoeuverable. But it's hard to achieve that kind of speed: it works because I don't tie myself down into any one course. I'm constantly being pulled in a million directions, and which direction I go is constantly a new choice, every minute of every day. The fact that I happen to choose fairly consistently is my own doing, not a side-effect of the environment.

If you understand that, then you understand that it's not surprising at all - not even difficult - for me to be leading a development team one day and doing pure marketing the next. Like a fighter jet, the amazing accomplishment is that it ever goes in a straight line, not that it sometimes turns in surprising directions.

But there's a second part to the story from my Controls class. Most airplanes aren't designed that way at all: most of them are designed for stability and safety, and slow turning speed is taken as an acceptable tradeoff. In an airliner with hundreds of people on board, you can't take the chance that a simple miscalculation or malfunction will send everyone flying straight into the ground. And the more people you bring along with you on your flight, the more critical it is that your airplane be designed for stability.

It's not fair to risk the fate of everyone just because you refuse to commit to something.

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