Friday, January 8, 2010

Honing and Cleaning

There was a moment during the reconstruction of my boat when I discovered how much more quickly the project would go if I were to sharpen my tools routinely. When you get really moving on a project - when you get a nice rhythm going - it's hard to stop.

You want to keep pushing along and getting stuff done, and watching the thing take shape as you are working on it. I'm the sort of person who often skips a meal or forgets the passage of time if I'm buried in some project. This is true while writing, and certainly while solving network issues or writing code for an application.

But if you don't take a break to sharpen your tools, pretty soon you're pushing and pushing and getting nowhere. In the case of wood-cutting tools, the progress slows to a crawl, and acrid smoke might start to curl away from the wood and into your eyes. The strain on muscles and electric motors, not to mention the propensity for catastrophic accident, multiplies exponentially. I have scars on both hands to prove this.

OK, some of the scars are from when I was learning how to sharpen the blades. I slipped. Damn, ouch, and then the work really grinds to a halt. So quiet care is also important, as is knowing when you don't have it.

Ever since that time, when I realized how many cuts of hard white oak my saw could take before it needed a break and a file, I've enjoyed the sharpening work almost as much as the actual work itself. It can be a sort of meditation. A focusing of the mind.

I also enjoy cleaning paintbrushes, and still own some of the ones I used the very first year I owned the boat. I was a very young man back then. My hands show the cost of that exercise too, but still.

When I was paid to do network troubleshooting and design, I would feel a little guilty taking "company time" to read, study and research. There was always too much work to do, and well, to tell you the truth it's a big part of the reason I had to quit. Too many people pushing really hard and getting almost nothing done.

I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, as the saying goes, but at least I took some time out now and then to hone in on the best solution to balance all the competing needs, demands and expectations.

Driving often afforded the meditative time for this, when I wasn't on the phone. And also, to tell the truth, when they weren't even paying as much as I was saving the company right off the bottom line, it was time to even up the score. My personal boundary against charitable donations to the workplace was being enroached upon.

Enough whining! What I really want to take notice of is how the blooming of Information Technology in general destroys all metaphors for honing and cleaning.

In general, any tool you buy will probably not only seem less and less efficient as time goes by; just according to a kind of relativistic principle in comparison with what's coming out that's faster. But it will also actually be slower as the code gets fatter and fatter. This is true even if you're capable to resist the newer versions, since nearly each and every day your computer will demand to be updated against the near certainty of hacks and exploits against you.

This is all pretty much the opposite of sharpening your tools. It would be as if you had to change saws and not just sharpen the blade each time you started slowing down.

Of course lots of people I know can't be bothered to sharpen anything, and are attracted to the disposable version of all sorts of blades - not just the razor blades. Come to think of it, somewhere along the way, reading the stuff no-one actually reads which came with my prescription for blood thinner, I read that I wasn't supposed to use a sharp razor. I was supposed to switch to an electric one.

Sorry. I use an electric toothbrush because it keeps my gums pink. I like the nice feedback from the nice dental hygienist. But I draw the line at electric razor. It's too much trouble, takes too long, and is just another thing to worry about keeping charged. Not to mention which, I like the sound of the barber's strop, and am a tiny bit put off by the disposable straight razors the new guy uses.

On the boat, I learned that handplanes are actually just as quick - and much easier to control - than the powered kind. I learned that a sharp scraper offers a quicker job and much better control than a powered sander. The surface stays hard and true. There is no time saved in trolling around for nearby parking spots either, when you can just as quickly walk.

The nice thing about network applications "in the cloud" is that the speed factor has less and less to do with the machinery you run on. Prices reflect this too, as magically a new order of magnitude price drop appeared for network devices recently. Even my Kindle will surf the web in a pinch, and there's nothing fast about it. Its virtue is the long life of its battery, and the paper lightlessness of its screen.

And my book purchases subsidize the carrier costs for downloading, just as advertizing will one day again subvent the cost for Internet. Or, in precisely the way that newspapers only used to charge for the paper, maybe we'll still pay for Internet and the hardware will be loaned out for free the way our phones used to be. Maybe, when localized ads become useful again, and not just annoying globo-logo-boosters.

I'm not making any predictions. But tinkering with your PC, interesting though it might be, is not the same as sharpening up your useful skills, unless you're a professional like me. And even then, there's not all that much about it which is interesting any more. The machines have become transparent, and like the hotrods of yore, remain intersting only to retro-buffs.

OK, I will make a prediction. I predict that the skills which require honing will make a comeback. Local productions of live content will increasingly better the multi-media shows of the superstars. Designer life in skyscrapers will come back down to earth. People will get better at communication across the various divides of nation, agency, race and class.

This prediction is trivial; it will happen because it has to. The earth, eternally, will call back her own. But there will also be something more important which underlies this change. People will discover that the word "information" has lost all sense. Proliferation of shapeless bits, or shapely bits without meaningful content, or piling on of words and pixels and the beauty of natural worlds gone by has almost nothing to do with knowledge.

And so Information Technology, while it can empower mass literacy on the productive side, just the way the Gutenberg press signalled mass literacy on the receptive side, has almost nothing to do with the human ability to discern patterns among ceaseless noise. That requires a quiet mind. An ability to read slowly. Some refinement to taste.

Without those refinements - those honings - Information Technology can only enable acceleration in the concentration of capital, and massive bloomings of misery among geometrically exploding populations of humans reduced to beastliness.

The solution has always been recognized to be a matter of distribution, and not of capacity. Rates of reproduction slow as dreams move in to sight. And the center of gravity for dreams is not a slumdog win at the lottery. It's for life, liberty and the pursuit of that sort of happiness best represented by the local thrill of rooted dance.

I know from the proliferation of specialties in the medical industry that I have been both effectively removed from the process of improving care, and made the only person in any position at all to pull the pieces together. Economic imperatives have meant that my private physician will never visit me at home or at the hospital. My nurse will never bathe me or change my sheets. Even my temperature is taken by a specialist for that.

And nowhere is there any time for me to describe the quirks of my existence to someone well-enough trained to put these together with the mountains of research writings she must master to form some sense of what is really going on. Who knows? There may be new insight to be gained from some patient attuned enough to his own body to notice changes other from those which are clinically symptomatic.

But the cost to, say, set a bone now is so far away from reason that someone without insurance might reasonably be urged to get someone practiced in butchery to do it at home. Pay maybe 10 times the income the butcher might get from cutting meat on the assembly line. Sure, there are lots of things to check for using high-tech equipment. But really, the process has grown strange.

The economic logic which leads to overspecialization and endless outsourcing is not designed to lower your cost. It's designed to maximize profits as they become concentrated in the holding entities which will always deserve and get the bulk of government rescue funds. No matter the scope of the flood you might get caught in.

You and I don't need to live in palaces any more wonderful than the ones we already enjoy. We don't require 3D television to extend our wonder at the real world all around us. We don't need to push away the risks of living beyond the point of diminishing returns; to where there is no life worth living to be preserved. And we're certainly not interested in the perpetual me me me me me so loudly promoted by the fear-mongering religionists, the perpetual youth industry, nor the geek rapture techophiles. We find our me in relation. We let it go in time.

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