My primary degree is in engineering of the electric/electronics variety, which is why I can fix LED lights, for instance. I suspect an engineering degree gives you more of a theoretical understanding rather than practical knowledge. I mean, I’m no electrician. At times, I take on projects where I may have been better advised to call an electrician.
Recently, our maid’s instant water heater died, and some action on my part was indicated. Though an engineer, I have been in the corporate scene long enough to know that the right response to any action item during a meeting is, “May be by next Tuesday.” So I asked the maid to use my mother-in-law’s bathroom, thinking that I could postpone this issue to one of the future Tuesdays. But the maid, probably bound by some sacred ethical covenants of her profession, refused to do that. At that point, I should have called the electrician. But I foolishly decided to take a look at the prima facie evidence. The switch looked fine, with its indicator light coming on as expected, but the water heater remained intransigent.
Knowing, theoretically, that the most likely point of failure was in the heater, I decided to focus my formidable intellect on it. It turned out that the darned thing was so neatly installed by the electrician (with insufficient theory, I bet) that it was impossible to even open it. A closer inspection revealed a tiny screw near the bottom, which looked promising. But I didn’t have a screwdriver handy right then (when I was on the ladder, I mean). Then again, what was there to see? What else could be wrong?
Once I diagnosed the problem using the sheer power of pure intellect, I used the second lesson I learned during my corporate years — transference. I called my wife and informed her that she needed to get a water heater; her commute route ran close enough to a bunch of appliance stores, and by arguments of proximity and convenience, she was much better placed to get it. Furthermore, I would do the installation myself, and that gave me the edge in the argument of division of labor as well. But my wife, much better schooled in the corporate games, promptly skipped the country thereby nullifying my proximity and convenience advantages. I should have called the electrician then, I can see clearly now in hindsight.
An engineer is nothing if not resourceful. If we can save a trip to the local mall or the appliance shop using eBay and the Internet, why wouldn’t we? I know this statement also nullifies proximity and convenience arguments, but know this — no action is always better than even convenient action, and the proximity argument still applies, as long as it can save an action item. I ordered the heater online, and they delivered it in about five minutes. These guys need to take a chill pill. Seriously.
Anyway, I ignored the box for as long as possible. Finally, I located the elusive screwdriver and dismantled the broken heater. It turned out to be remarkably easy to install the new one. The only issue was in lining up the front panel knobs with the internals of the heater. It took me a while, but I finally managed it, The installation wasn’t as sturdy as the electrician’s, but its theory was clearly superior. Then came the cutover process and user acceptance tests. The switch clicked on, with the bright red pilot light indicating that all was well with the world. The faucet opened, and water ran nicely and in copious quantities. But it ran cold.
An engineer is seldom flummoxed by a hundred dollar (plus shipping and handling) water heater. Not for long anyways. No, he focusses his sheer and pure intellect on the next possible solution, and like hot knife through butter — nay, like high-power laser though butter –it invariably takes him to the bottom of the problem at hand. Sure enough, my laser-guided problem solving methodology led me to the culprit – the switch. It was the only other moving element in the system, the only other point of failure, the villain. It got power because its light came on. It didn’t send power because the water heater didn’t work. What could be more obvious? The only question was, really, where to get the replacement switch from. Local mall or eBay? As I was formulating a general plan of action to procure the afore-mentioned switch, it occurred to me — what if this point of failure didn’t fail either? We engineers, we learn from our experience, you see. We are logical. We are trained in abstract lateral thinking. If the most likely point of failure didn’t fail, the second most likely point is even less likely to fail — ergo, the third most likely point is in fact the most likely one. Doesn’t make sense to you? Don’t feel bad; it takes years of rigorous training to follow such intricate logic. To be fair, this lateral logic came to me after I tested the switch and found it to be working fine.
Although it meant I had to take off the carefully aligned front panel of the water heater, I did some improvised continuity tests and found the power cable, the least likely point of failure, had in fact failed. Another hour of blood, sweat and tears, and the battle — nay, the great war — against the water heater was finally won. True, an electrician may have checked the incoming power before dismantling the old heater. True, there was no need to spend $100 (plus S & H) on a new heater. But the greatness of a struggle is not often counted in dollars and cents. No, its glory transcends mere profit and loss — mundane, prosaic, vulgar even, profit and loss, how dare you? It is all about the journey, not the destination. It is about living in the present, it is about experiences, life’s lessons. (If you can think of any other vaguely applicable platitudes, please leave a comment. It will really help me out.)
As all great stories, this one also has a moral. “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” as our fellow logician, Mr. Holmes put it. In other words, eliminate the theory and call the electrician.
Photo by VeloBusDriver