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Quixotic engineering
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April 13, 2009 — When looking at some of my activities, you'll understand why I prefer to use a label that says more about my approach than about my activity. That label is: quixotic engineer. I do not distinguish between work and life, there is only the one life, and I am a pathfinder in it. I am driven by ideas. A performance is driven by ideas. The highest state of performance is not redeemable in praise and applause, but in change. Quixotic engineering is a pair of words that unites the idealistic nature of ideas with the real-world challenge of implementation.

Quixotic engineering is as much about dreaming up realities as it is a practice of making realities. Does this sound haughty? I'll take the risk.

A Google search returns only a handful of instances in which this word combination is used. I have been using it since February 2005 (according to a search on my computer). When it's not used by me, it usually describes an effort that went into making a product that is characterized by extravagance, exaggeration, imagination, beauty, idealism. As an example, a sophisticated watch can be an example of quixotic engineering. Depending on your stance, you could say that a quixotic engineering effort is one that produces waste.

Quixotic engineering may sound strange. I am not trying to sound familiar. If I tried, I would be using common words: inventing, creating, designing, dreaming, producing, or engineering without adjective. Common words however are not accurate enough to represent the practice of making impractical things.

Doing that which is practical is not what made Pablo Picasso paint; it is not what made Thomas Edison invent; it is not why you are able to sit in front of a computer display and read my words; it is not why Ferdinand Magellan sailed into the Pacific Ocean; it is not why authors rethink that which has been written about before; it is not why Formula 1 exists; it is not why Princess Lea exists. She does.

Quixotic engineering simply describes the evidence in a slightly more poetic, and timeless language. Quixotic engineering does not try to be artful. It abstracts completely from the form of trade and from the form of expression. It places the weight instead on being quixotic.

A quixotic engineer asks: "How should it be?" He asks "How does this work?" only if it helps him to make that which should be. Quixotic engineering is as much a word play as science fiction. It is concerned with the relationship between time and reality. Doing the impractical might sound like a contradiction. Once you ease the borders between the present and the future, the apparent contradiction fades away: A picture in your mind is real today, and when acted upon, is real tomorrow. Where is the contradiction?

Placing weight on being quixotic places weight on the search for a moral code to guide behavior. When paired with engineering, that search includes the obligation to produce. It is in the pursuit of this theme by which a quixotic engineer can be recognized. His shape can be anybody's shape: A poor man trying to resell oranges in the high streets of a major city is no less of a quixotic engineer than an architect designing the highest building in the world. I admire the first man for trying a stunt in a highly standardized environment. I admire the second man for trading what doesn't yet exist. I admire both for being knights of romantic realism.

Quixotic engineering is not about luxury or being wasteful. Can you be too ambitious to be of value? Can you be overly idealistic? No, you can only be overly attached to the present.

The fame of Don Quixote is the source of the quixotic, or quixotism. The creative application of the laws and resources of nature is the domain of engineering. Am I a quixotic engineer? If what I think is real, yes. Would I rather re-invent the wheel than take it for granted? Yes.