Monday, May 6, 2013

Rocket Snobbery vs Continuous Improvement

I came across an interesting post on the Rocketry Forum. It touched on a lot of things that have been going through my head lately, so I wanted to put down my thoughts. It's an older thread, and much of what I have to say overlaps with what others have already said, so I haven't posted there (I still may).

A few of the responses dealt with the idea of a rocket's build quality being somewhat indicative of the builder's character. I agree with that to some extent, but with the very big qualification that it is only a small part of the equation. You have to consider the builder's experience level and motivations to a large extent. Several posters brought up examples such as kids doing their first build, or folks with disabilities. You can't ignore those contexts.

Plus there are contexts that you can't know. Someone who is intelligent and skilled in other areas may just dabble in rocketry, but devote a larger portion of their energy to other endeavors. Or I might do a far less than perfect build because I'm working on it with my five year old son and don't want him to lose interest over days of iterative finishing steps. And just because you see a forty year old with a rocket doesn't mean he's been building and flying for 25 years.

One poster brought up some ludicrous examples such as how he'd never go to a doctor who did a half-assed job on a rocket, stating (and I'm paraphrasing here) that there is a definite correlation between the hypothetical doctor's demonstrated rocket building effort/skill and his professional effort/skill. Extending this, would he avoid doctors that are poor golfers, or doctors that don't dress impeccably? Crazy. One could even argue for the opposite: a doctor that spends so much time on rocket perfection may do it to the exclusion of honing and updating his medical skills.

And several people wrote about how different people have different foci. The rocketry field is so vast, you may be interested in performance, or appearance, or scale models, or avionics. Or you may just like chasing down rockets. You don't have to be perfect in every aspect of rocketry, let alone life. You can't be.

Then there were digressions about the whole issue of events where "everybody wins." I agree with the tenet that there are definitely cases where "one is better than the other," and of course the design of certain events requires a winner. But there are also contexts where, I think, just showing up and participating is deserving of recognition, regardless of the relative quality of your work. That takes effort that a lot of people don't put in. I recently attended a friend's "rocket party", where the hosts generously supplied small, already built Estes E2X rockets for the kids (5-ish) to decorate and fly. Awesome - you've never seen so many excited kids. But a couple families who didn't know which way to stick in an engine bought, built, and brought their first kits. Build quality? Totally beside the point. Those folks are beyond cool.

I think the core of the issue, and I'm not sure anyone stated this explicitly, is that it's hard to divorce your experience and background when making judgement, silent or otherwise. Consider the forum audience: people who obsess over details like fin finishing techniques and baffle construction. Much to the credit of the group, a majority of people seemed to come down on the side of "hooray for anyone building rockets and enjoying themselves," though there was frequent and honest acknowledgment of silently judging and comparing craftsmanship. But that is normal and natural. Just keep your outward expressions appropriate. As one poster put it: "You don't have to be a d-bag."

There are a *lot* of people building model rockets. The odds are overwhelmingly in favor of the fact that many people will build rockets that look worse than yours, and many people will build rockets that are better.

So ultimately I think that you have to just focus on your own self, and absorb the experience of others in the pursuit of your own goals (and vice-versa). I like to try and live by the notion of continuous improvement. Each day, each rocket, is a chance to do a little better. I like to experiment with new techniques. I've gotten very interested in build and finish quality, but I didn't used to be. I've explored other areas:  using simple avionics, and building my own ground support equipment. But bottom line is that I like to build 'em and fly 'em. I'll admit that I never have, and probably never will, complete a rocket and look at it thinking "That is perfect!" But at the same time, I still have some of my older builds that are objectively and unquestionably awful looking. And I still like to take them out and fly them. They're old friends.

Would I love it if someone came up to me and complimented the craftsmanship on my rocket? Hell yes. But I'd also love it if an experienced builder approached and shared a good new technique with me, even if the implication was that my method was not-so-good. Not to be cliche, but it's all about the journey, because there really is no final destination. And there's no benefit in not being nice to each other along the ride.