Thursday, January 13, 2011

Virgin Has Announced They Still Hate Pencils

Today Virgin announced a partnership with the technology firm CSC to provide increased horsepower for their computer systems.  Virgin, as you may know, has gone in a 180° direction of Adrian Newey and Red Bull and resorted to designing every aspect of their car using CFD, or Computational Fluid Dynamics.

Adrian is famous for sitting at his drawing table with his drafting supplies and sketching out his ideas for F1 cars by hand.  Adrian is also famous for having taken Red Bull to win the Constructors Championship. So maybe he knows a thing or two.  Of course once he's got a fresh set of drawings, a team of skilled engineers put them all into computers and they eventually end up in wind tunnels and potentially on the car.  Sure all Red Bull's drawings end up in computers, but they didn't start out that way, and that's the point.

For Virgin, everything is designed using CFD on a computer and tested in a virtual wind tunnel.  The theory is that this will allow them faster turn around time from design to prototype to production.  There's no question that increasing the number of MIPS* you throw at a problem will speed things up, but it has to make you wonder: is throwing faster computing power at a bad idea going to make it better.  I still adhere to the old adage "garbage in, garbage out".

Last year Virgin finished last in the constructor's cup challenge.  I realize that they were a new team and it takes time to get things up and going.  Truth be told, none of the three new teams managed to score even one point.  But are faster computers what they need?  At this point, I'd say faster computers are simply going to get them bad answers more efficiently than their older systems.  Maybe there's something to the old drafting table and pencil approach.  Maybe there's an intangible benefit that can't be found staring at a monitor, rather one that lives solely on paper.  Perhaps it's the coupling of the free-flowing hand of an artist, an inspired mind, and a simple pencil that produces beautiful and effective machines.  I think I know which side of the fence Adrian would come down on. 

Some might think that the irony here is that I'm a computer geek speaking out against technology.  But that's not really accurate.  I love technology.  I love tools!  Ask my friends, I love tools.  There are few things so beautiful as using the right tool to get a job done, be it a screw driver, chop saw, or the latest IBM zEnterprise system.  It can be elegant, sublime even.  I'm just not convinced they are employing this tool in it's most appropriate manner, that's all.

I hope Virgin is more competitive this year than last.  However, I can't help but think this grasp for better computer systems is more akin to a bad golfer blaming his clubs.  "If I could just get that new driver from Callaway, then I could cure my slice."

*MIPS, Millions of Instructions Per Second (for all you non-geekly challenged people)

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