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Why the hell they are writing a spec with a commercial product name rather than the material contained in it is beyond me. If the contractor knew they were looking for a certain kind of clay rather than cat litter, this would be nearly impossible.



The problem seems to be that they didn't know exactly what they looking for, or how to describe the set of acceptable clay-like substances.

This is an physical-science example of the "justification problem" -- chemistry isn't computer science, we don't design all out components from the elemental level; we discover and hack molecules, and identify them by interpreting their behaviors (boiling point, what color smoke is produced when mixed with some other stuff, etc) , and then we slap on a label that we hope is correct). It's all a very statistical science, not irrefutable logic.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regress_argument


You realize that you've just described the way 99% of software engineering works in the real world, right?


how to describe the set of acceptable clay-like substances.

Given the context, I would have hoped something involving a mass spectrometer or something similar rather than buying something purely on the basis that it is known to have the property of being suitable for cats to urinate into and then hoping that they don't ever change the mixture on any products in the range.


I bet the thinking was something along the lines of "kitty litter is an inert absorptive material", and nobody really thought much about the differences between types of kitty litter, and whether or not they were truly inert.


Easy for me to play armchair manager after the fact, but it really sounds like they need to just supply the barrels and the "cat litter" to their clients. No spec, no shopping, no confusion, no substitutions, fewer humans and organizations in the loop, etc.


Even so with the stakes this high they should not just trust a contractor. They should also be doing constant (not random spot check) testing at the point of use.




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