277: Long Light

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Long Light
You can look at practically any part of anything manmade around you and think "some engineer was frustrated while designing this." It's a little human connection.
Title text: You can look at practically any part of anything manmade around you and think "some engineer was frustrated while designing this." It's a little human connection.


This strip depicts a common experience to most people - becoming frustrated with a device, system, or rule that appears to be badly made or have no purpose other than to frustrate the user (in this case, a traffic light that seems unreasonably, inexplicably long). One temptation we might have in these cases is to blame the designer of the system. Here, the designer appears and testifies to the amount of effort that went into the design, considering many factors. He challenges Cueball to come up with a better solution, the implication being that without a similar amount of training and effort, any naive solution would have flaws the designer would be happy to point out. This demonstrates to Cueball and the reader that just because they were unlucky enough to encounter something in a way that was inconvenient for no obvious reason, doesn't mean there is no reason at all.

Of course, all of this has occurred after the designer leapt out of nowhere onto the hood of the car, so he may not be entirely stable. This is elaborated upon in the final panel, where the designer finally admits that red light won't change until Tuesday, but since this comic was published on a Friday, the timing scheme really was absurd after all. It is also possible that the designer has intentionally changed the light specifically to make Cueball wait for a couple of days, or to stop himself from being flung off of the hood of the car.

The title text returns to the original point, reminding us that designers work hard and often encounter complex problems in doing their jobs. Their frustration may also be in part from the knowledge that future users will blame them for unavoidable problems and undervalue their work. With a little empathy, we can find a human connection to these problems, rather than let them drive us crazy.

Randall returns to the theme of the unseen contributions of engineers in 1741: Work.


[Cueball in a car, sitting at a red light.]
Cueball: This light always takes forever. I'd like to smack the idiot who designed this intersection.
[An engineer steps up onto the hood of Cueball's car.]
Engineer: Hi.
Cueball: Who the hell are you?
Engineer: I designed this intersection.
Engineer [arms spread outward]: You're right - I should have just made the light shorter! Never mind the hours of simulation and testing I did. Never mind that this intersection interacts with it's neighbors in a complicated way and it took me a week to work out timing sequences that avoided total jams.
Engineer: Clearly, I'm a crappy engineer and you have a better solution. Go on, show me your proposed timings.
Cueball: Get the hell off my hood before I start driving and fling you into traffic.
Engineer: You can't. Light's red.
Cueball: Well, when will it change?
Engineer: Tuesday.

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The driver seems to know that the light always takes forever and yet there he is. Sometimes people get what they deserve. -- (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

when I'm at a long light like this, I don't blame the engineer of that light, I blame the city planner who decided to put that light at that intersection when a different system would have worked better (one that adjusts to time of day and/or uses sensors to notice that someone's waiting and there's no traffic). just sayin' 13:42, 25 April 2013 (UTC)

Not that will necessarily see this, but there are traffic engineers, who design intersections (not only the types, number, and arrangement of individual signal assemblies and sensors in a given intersection, but also any timing or sensor-based relationship with other intersections and several other things not signal-related). I think the engineer in the comic is one of these traffic engineers (maybe that's what ...16.171 is calling a city planner?). It's not the one that designed the actual assembly of bulbs, lenses, circuits and housing that makes up a given "signal" - which would also no doubt be an engineer (somewhere in the civil/electrical area I might venture to guess)Brettpeirce (talk) 18:28, 18 February 2014 (UTC
I am a traffic engineer, and there are lots of reasons why intersections are designed as they are, and lots of reasons why they don't live up to expectations. Aside from the inherent difficulty of predicting traffic, there are issues centring around when the intersection was designed and when the user experiences it (this can be decades), the availability of data on the subject (in all but the densest/busiest areas most people would be surprised how little data there is, I think), and just the sheer expense of some "simple" solutions. For example, ...16.171's jurisdiction may not consider worth ~$100 000 to put in a sensor just so the occasional driver who wants to turn left from a low-volume approach only waits 20 seconds instead of 22:27, 26 May 2015 (UTC) 06:44, 27 April 2014 (UTC)Doesn't mean Cueball can't reverse away to get the engineer off his . Unless it's a one-way street.

Or there's another behind him that we can't see because of reasons of artistic brevity. -Pennpenn 04:50, 6 February 2015 (UTC)

The biggest reason traffic lights are a pain is that they're money makers for the robber barons of a given area. A huge proportion of them impede traffic far more than, say, a roundabout would. But you can't really ticket people at a roundabout. Anyone who doubts that city planners are willing to make your life worse in order to make more money, think of how much evidence there is of traffic cameras causing more accidents instead of fewer, and yet because they're a cash bonanza the protection rackets keep expanding their use. — Kazvorpal (talk) 05:48, 1 November 2019 (UTC)

Wrong. Traffic lights and intersections are designed to ensure as free a flow of traffic as possible, while also keeping safety considerations in mind. RED LIGHT CAMERAS on the other hand, are designed as a cash cow for whatever local jurisdiction installs them. You are conflating the two, that is wrong. --The Cat Lady (talk) 14:47, 13 August 2021 (UTC)

The punchline gets funnier based on how far away you are from the forthcoming Tuesday. Only share this comic on Wednesdays. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

LOLing right now as it's monday and I scrolled down to see when it was posted (Friday) 19:04, 24 October 2016 (UTC)

It looks like the engineer comes out of the bumper :) 20:15, 10 November 2016 (UTC)