Sunday, July 5, 2015

The New Goliards

It has been more then a little while.

The lost decade may finally be over, maybe.  Some things have changed and other things haven't. If nothing else the ambiguity is here to stay. Work has become a collection of hard skills extruded onto the moving build plate of the modern economy.

With this in mind please humor me as I make reference to my own convolute path around the reel and onto the plate. I've somehow managed to make it into engineering school. Ten years ago I turned my nose up at the notion. Algebra was the absolute worst, no matter how much I tried (or didn't) I couldn't seem to figure it out. I did well with and liked geometry and surprise surprise I was good at wrenching on matrices but for whatever reason I was dense on all those pesky subtleties of Algebra.

Looking back it is all quite farcical, calculus really does make your math-life easier. The fact remains though that some important things have changed. The order demands a curious sort of skill, The Polytech. There is always a place for research; yet, for those of us engaged in the simple substance of stone cutting the rules have been radically altered.

What has stayed the same? In reality all trades are a collection of related skills and different crafts mix different skill levels of work. Calling someone a, "Sheet Metal Mechanic" may be useful for polite society but the title, like all titles, is ambiguous. What kind of "Sheet Metal Mechanic" do you mean? Do you work on cars or buildings or planes - HVAC systems perhaps? Each of these categories represents a different subset of skills that are all collected under the umbrella.

By now you have to be wondering why the title mentions The Goliards. What does a bunch of wandering 12th and 13th century clergy have to do with craftsmanship?

Critics of the Order

The Goliards are analogous to the modern engineering and trade student in some surprising ways. Just as the world was unsupportive of the Goliards so to is the modern economy unsupportive of those who accept it uncritically. "Disruption" carried the day and it washed away those who were not supple and strong. We have seen a similar deluge this last decade.

Technology does not go quietly into that good night. It hangs around in a cloud of acrimony: it must either be maintained or broken down for scrap. Striking this old infrastructure is labor intensive and dangerous, there is a natural apathy around such endeavors. It is in this environment that the modern polytech student arrives. Math is just the tip of a very malformed iceberg.

The frozen wastes of technology ply the depths of the surrounding science. The only way one can enter such a harsh environment is through rigorous preparation and training. The singular - comfortable - distinction between the "Office" and the "Shop" is no longer placid nor still. Everyone must fight for balance and the prudent individual will collect the right blend of skills to handle either environment.

Yet this preparation must not be unquestioned. This stormy order and frigid society cannot last.

Mind the Gap

Lots and lots of invective has been directed at those who made a bad career decision (like art school or the military). It has been rather painful to watch and frankly its time for it all to stop. Who among us would so proudly declaim one's neighbor? Sadly this is what the old order has done decimating its own job pool.

Caught on the wrong side there is little choice but to do whatever it takes. This process could involve multiple degrees, code camps, or, if nothing else, a dogged tenacity and a quick wit. Whatever the path taken it is not singular. Every single individual who will crawl out of the economic sewers will do so with polytech. No singular skill is purchase enough.  

Turning to my own experience I would have never had the opportunity I have now without my trade degree. There is a paucity of what might be called "street" or "shop" wisdom among those striving to the profession. Now mind you I am not talking a thing about "how to" such individuals are not lacking for knowledge or tool use. What they are lacking is the rough-cut human wisdom that comes from fighting one's way up from the bottom.

For all the talk of startups it seems that it is in many ways all just that - talk. The gap isn't in any one particular skill - it lies in the heart and spirit that unites them. Those who are truly hungry will find each other and the rest will continue to follow a singular path - right to the precipice edge.

The New Goliards

The way forward, the way to further innovation is simple. The problem is not: the education, the economy, or the artful turning of phrases; it is in finding effective ways to motivate individuals. The spirit of the Goliardic Journeyman must be re-ignited. There must be efforts to support those who are a little rough around the edges and have taken a few scars. These are the only individuals who will have the tenacity to ensure that the talk becomes action. Even if this offends the existing order.

Cathedrals aren't built overnight, they start with the first stone - the sharp edged cornerstone. Someone must have genuine skill to cut that stone.  


Friday, August 30, 2013

Cathedrals in the Sky

Our modern expectations are nothing short of astounding, and no, I'm not talking about anything related to the internet. I am talking about the modern expectations that our cars, planes, and other long standing technologies perform consistently and effectively. We may live in a "disposable society" but the modern trends in civic manufacturing (such as commercial aviation) stand in contrast to the forced obsolescence of the modern computing revolution.

Cathedrals in the Sky 

Recently I have been watching documentaries on the Airbus A380. The engineering challenges for such a Cathedral in the Sky are nothing short of immense. The amount of work it takes to produce such an airplane remind me very much of the efforts taken to build the great cathedrals.

Huge modular parts are made globe-stretching distances apart before these parts are then shipped, often at high cost and in unique fashion to one location for final assembly. It is a massive amount of human labor, augmented with mechanical technology, that sees these operations through.

Cathedrals of the older eras were built mostly with experience and certainly not with notions of engineering theory. Such a Master Mason of that day would not be surprised in the least by the division of labor and organization require to build the many massive modern projects; from skyscrapers to jumbo air planes. The master masons were the planners of their day, and in that day human and individual labor was viewed in a much different light then it is today. The whole notion of a strict planner was not an idea that many writers of that day were comfortable with.

Drucker's Stoncutter's

It is with this in mind that I would like to once again draw upon Peter F. Drucker's recounting of the stonecutters.

In Drucker’s version, when asked what they were doing, the first stonecutter replied:
“I am making a living”.
The second kept on hammering while he said:
“I am doing the best job of stone cutting in the entire country.”
The third stonecutter, when asked the same question said:
"I am building a cathedral"
Managers and thinkers like Drucker, and Rao  have a tendency to eschew the idea of a narrowly focused, second stonecutter, subject matter expert; one with "too much" skill is a problem to them for whatever inane reason, I'm here to tell you that such notions are deleterious to our society.

I keep coming back to this story perhaps because it is so emblematic of the many problems facing our economy right now. We have many many mis-trained unqualified "cathedral builders." (You might have heard them referred to as "over-qualified" yet the fact remains over-qualified is simply a more polite term for "dis-qualified"). It is important here to note the metaphor of Drucker's story. I would like to latch onto this. It's just a metaphor.

Perhaps unfortunate for thinkers like Drucker and Rao we as a species still engage in massive scale engineering projects. The Airbus A380 is one among many. I don't need to recount the entirety of modern attempts to build big, I shouldn't have to. YouTube has countless channels devoted to such efforts, from the Emma Maersk to the 747 Any number of these massive projects, despite the many improvements of the modern age could not and would not have been possible without the modern equivalent of a narrowly focused tradition of craftsmanship.

Modern Stone Cutters

Welding Turbine blades isn't a task that can be easily automated. Tolerances must remain tight but the space between blades is minuscule. So as much as Drucker hated the, "Best Stonecutter in the Town" he would be out of luck should he seek to hire either the first or the third welder. In this sort of circumstance, when people's lives matter, you don't want either a clock puncher or a smooth political player who knows just what to say to the boss when he walks by.

This is where I start to wonder what exactly Drucker meant with his story. He latches onto the idea that the third stone cutter has, "vision" yet with such an example I think this interpretation is overly generous. The example in itself doesn't really provide an adequate amount of data to definitely claim the third stonecutter was truly visionary. To be fair to Drucker I think he was using this example as motivation for executives. But even still I don't think the story as recounted is really that convincing. After all in this modern economy of, "the next killer app" Drucker would likely fire the third stonecutter as well.   

It would be easy to argue that the modern age has supplanted the need for craftsman. The number of graduates with Humanities and Social Science degrees and their subsequent problems finding work in the economy speaks to this notion. People still need the second stone cutter.

Many modern tasks, even those that require great precision are easily automated, and indeed many many tasks on the Airbus A380 are augmented with technology yet you can't escape that even in the modern age craftsmanship in its truest sense is still needed. Yet the type of craftsman who can weld turbine blades doesn't come by this skill over night nor does the master machinist who finish the parts.  In all these instances depth of knowledge is paramount. One cannot just walk into these craftsman jobs. Turbine blade welders and micron shaving machinists take years of hands on learning and they all are analogous to the second stonecutter.

The modern educational system, in America at least, eschews this very idea of apprenticeship, and manual on the job learning. Rolls-Royce (the manufacture of the A380s engines) is a British company and I from what little I know the British and the Europeans in general seem to have a much greater respect for craft then we do here in the States. 

The Virtues of the Second Stone Cutter

Many people, including the likes of Harvard view the second stone cutter as "incomplete" and "lacking vision." Yet this long standing view of our educational establishments dangerously places "vision" above measurable skill. So Harvard may see it a problem if it produces too many of the second stonecutters. Yet for the rest of the non-ivy-league world these sorts of vapid ruminations have a damaging influence. These "visions" are just that, mirages lodged deep in the heart. It is no wonder industry sees the current educational climate as ineffective at producing quality applicants, humanities academia, rather then focusing on simple problem solving always insist its students add their two cents towards the intractable problems of our age.

Yet the problems don't stop there, in this economy there aren't even enough of the third type of mason, the one just earning a living. For many many people in many different lines of work "vision" isn't what is desired for either fulfillment or "destiny" or any other of the poorly conceptualized ideologies of the ivory tower.

No, much of the educational establishment has forgotten the virtues of the second stone cutter. Too many people today want to skip the hard work, the sweat, and the toil that come with being genuinely good at something.

Being genuinely good is the traditional level that a craftsman operates at. It goes without saying these craftsman will never be peer to the generalist executive. Why would they want to be? The no skill beamer-driving "big-buck" executive will never respect the time and practice (measured in years) that it takes to be genuinely good at something. The second stonemason and the great craftsman is the man you hire because he is that craftsman and his skill is vital to the success and safety of your 15 million dollar state-of-the-art super-jumbo aircraft engine. What executive can ever claim he has had a measurable impact on the physical operation of such expensive equipment? In this sense the second stone cutter rises above the first, and third stone cutters. The executive can say whatever he likes about the character of the second stone cutter, but he is rightfully speechless when presented with the outcome of his steady craftsmanship.

What I am getting at here should be obvious to those who engage in and learn craftsmanship; perhaps this lesson is lost now on all the over-educated would-be executive types: "Vision" is nothing without substance. And as conventional wisdom rightly tells us we don't trust our lives with poorly crafted products. As long as this economic fact exists there will forever remain the need for the second stone cutter.

Now if I can only convince enough people, and educational institutions to stop focusing on the lessons of the third stone cutter and focus more on the forgotten lessons of the second.

So what about "Vision"

I don't want to be misunderstood here, I'm not against one having a vision or a dream or a desired outcome. We all have them and we all should act upon them; however, what I want to make absolutely clear is that a sloppy idea, or an inarticulate vision is nothing short of a worthless waste of time, and it will neither enrich you or improve the lives of those around you. These sorts of cathedrals in the sky plummet when subjected to test or measure.  

I view the humanities side of academia in this light. They are great at producing philosophy and study after study; yet both are simply vapid sources of further contention. The only substance to such matters is the money that the politicians and the public assign to those philosophies and endless social studies.

Skill on the other hand is a sort of substance all its own. In these instances "Vision" is both easier to come-by and more easily attainable, a good mechanic is more likely to be able to envision a custom car shop then say an English major. By the same token you might argue that the English major could be a better writer, but if that were true. I think it goes without saying, my point is that the good mechanic has his place and that place is much needed in addition to being standardized and well measured. There is however no similar standardized (or "needed") place for a graduate of English.

In the end both the English major and the Mechanic suffer for our society's inability to focus on the lessons of the second stone cutter. The English major because no one cares about them upon graduation, the least of which the former professors, and the mechanic because that English major will now forever look down upon him or her and those engaged in other such craftsmanship related professions. The Modern Language Association could perhaps do better and seek to find a place in society for its the graduates of English.

You are probably laughing right now, and for good reason. It is quite sad really, is it not? God forbid the MLA, or for that matter any other humanities organization actually seeking to establish some sort of apprenticeship or job transition for the countless numbers of humanities graduate each year. 

America needs a rebirth of the real apprenticeship, be it in the trades or in the office, otherwise we as a country are destined to produce graduates who are not qualified for anything; except perhaps entrepreneurship, and surely it is obvious that this is not a choice we as a nation can sustain, it's not working now.

Friday, December 21, 2012

What the Books Don't Teach You


Where has the skill of self-teaching oneself new skill gone?

As someone both interested in reading and in technical matters I have a tendency to keep a lot of technical books around. These books usually fall into one of several categories: references, pocket volume, text books, and perhaps most well known and sought after, how-to guides.

Now, in light of my growing experience, I find myself addled by many of the reviews that I am reading below listings for how-to books. It's an odd sort of affliction to find fault with reviews of how-to books; yet, I think that some of those reviews are emblematic of the wider trend away from individualism, self-sufficiency, and good old fashion work ethic. Before we go down that road, let me also say, other more slightly informed reviewers also seem to hold unrealistic expectations of what might be found in those how-to books.

 I think the best place to start is under Amazon's listing of Monster Garage's How to Weld Damn Near Anything. The book is explicitly a "how-to" and many of the reviewers have much to say about the book.

Here  F.L. Busch complains.

The intro states that this book will "tell you, step-by-step how to make perfect welds every time". I didn't find that to be the least bit true. In the entire book, which has chapters on selecting equipment, prep work, gas welding, TIG welding, MIG welding, and jigging, there were NO step by steps. I don't think there is anyway you could go buy a welder and even begin to learn to use it with this book. I don't think the book should make that claim.

Busch puts in very succinct language that he expected a book of step by step procedures. Now given Busch's review I think he has some technical knowledge of his own. I just wonder why he bought into the obvious hyperbole of the title. I guess I would have thought that he should have figured by now that the "how-to" book itself is never meant to be a complete picture.

Further down in the reviews we read of welding newcomer, Zach,

Ok this is the first book I have purchased on welding and I have never welded before. Figured this book would be on the same track as me since I wanted to learn about automotive welding. So if you're like me and you buy this book expecting to learn the ropes on that stick welder in your garage than this book is more like a gateway. Trying to read about welding from square one with this book made me feel like I lied on a job application and was in over my head.

This, ironically enough, is the flip-side of the same complaint that we read above from our more seasoned veteran.

As a student at welding school myself, I can't help but see that both reviewers have unreasonable expectations. Busch and Zach both, based upon their reviews want a text-book, yet why are they both trying to kick it around with a puny "how-to" book?

The answer I think is complex. I think part of the problem is that these how-to books often, at least in the technical sense, occupy ambiguous areas of shared understanding. These books are outside the purview of a traditional pedagogy, yet their titles imply an instruction, or guidance of sorts. Yet, it is also clear that these technical how-to books are not cookbooks either, they are something altogether their own.   

If you look at reviews of a "how-to" books long enough you start to wonder why people continue to buy them even as such reviewers simultaneously articulate a sort of ambiguous love-hate relationship with those texts. What is it about these texts that will make a veteran scoff and a newbie feel over his head?

I think it is in part is due to our Western-educated scientific-notion that imbues our society with the collective malaise that, "its all been done before." The veteran wants to further his knowledge yet he, having gained his skill through his own practice, is skeptical of a more pedagogical text. The newbie just the same is scared by that same pedagogical depth.

Ironically enough, people buy how-to books in the  fruitless hope that they will teach something that books don't teach you.

This whole notion is categorically impossible, yet it doesn't stop the Discovery Channel or the author from trading on the respective authority.

The Half-Wrench

That's enough browbeating. Some of you might have spotted it already, but one of our reviewers, Zach, unwittingly, points us in the right direction.

you better be real good at developing a base knowledge of something on your own

This to me is the essence of the Craftsman. Many technical processes, such as welding, seemingly have endless depth. You can always get better, always improve.

This is what sends seasoned craftsman like Busch towards how-to books, they are drawn by the hope of learning a new technique, or an improvement on one they already know. Yet you rarely find comprehensive breakdown of technique in how-to books.

Yet those who wrench-it part time don't always feel they have the luxury of time to spend on exploring perceived "bland" corners of their craft, such as learning how to lay in a pretty or x-ray quality bead. Thus given their other societal constraints and commitments they do the best they can and seek a panacea and short-cuts in how-to books.

One Ring to Rule Them All

This all bring me to my final point, our educational society, as it stands today is more interested in the stitching together of Tolkien-esque shared-narratives then it is with the development of innovative potential from the ground up. The system is a grand thunder-storm minus the spark from the ground of innovation - that might trigger a current of actionable knowledge.

I can say from experience that the modern humanities higher-education system more or less rejects the whole domain of "Western" craftsmanship. Over the years and before my time, lets say from the 1950s to about the 1990s, people have done just fine with that system as it was. However, that system stopped working some time around the turn of the millennium.

We as a society had gotten along just fine just studying the Western Tradition up until the 1990s; yet, this was at the collective expense of knowledge and skill with both practical science and skilled craft-technique.

What we have today are how-to books that are never really intended for Educated Joe/Jane and thusly "How-to" book reviewers' complaints are to me expressive of the worst part of the epidemic. These people want the subject to be cut into something that it is not, an easily digestible 1 or 2 hour fix.

The simple truth, now no longer understood or taught in America, is that you can't always find a book to teach you what you need to know! Somethings are only learned in practice.

To me this is everyone's loss in our over-educated society. We have people who can write, essays, (yes like this one), yet who do not have a firm grasp on the skill of how to develop skill, or as Zach puts it, "developing a base of knowledge of something on your own." How-to books will never give every little detail, they always show a constellation of dots that the reader must connect themselves.

Unfortunately we have developed, as a society that is coddled, into thinking that because its all been done before it must be in a book somewhere. This is a false and dangerous assumption. There is no book that teaches you how to connect the dots on the personal scale. Society's golden, and cryptic Ur-narrative would be pulled by some on the internet towards one center or another. Yet our problem isn't with the big picture or debating its direction, rather, we need more people skilled with craft to find the creative, practical ways to address existing problems with their hard earned technical skill.

Let me be the first to tell you, that is What the Books Don't Teach You.    



Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Three Facets of Craftsmanship

Craft as a term in common usage is closely associated with “artisan” work. This common definition leads management-production types to associate any use of the word craft with these sorts of individual efforts and private workshops. Philosophical works such as Sennett's The Craftsman though acknowledging the breadth of the idea of “craftsman” have a tendency to, purposefully, ignore the operative thoughts of craftsmen. Some consultant-types, such as Venkatesh Rao, use the term craftsman synonymously with backward-looking, idiot, or clueless. Either way all these commenters talk a great deal about the idea of craftsmanship without quite acknowledging or really caring that some people still rely on physical productive skill to provide their daily bread.

There are three functional facets to the idea of craftsmanship. The break out is pretty simple and should be immediately recognizable, they include: Artisan or Common Craft, Technical-level craft, and Professional-level Craft.

Most of the academic or scholarly work on the subject of “craft” ignore these distinctions and let their resulting judgments bleed into all three categories.

Common Craft is that craft which is more commonly known as DIY. Often Common craft is very similar in methods and practice to either technical or professional levels, however common craft is also most likely to have no standards associated with it. A crass way to refer to this is "redneck engineering".

More often then not almost anyone around has practiced some measure of common craft. This could be fixing a car, or welding a small mail box together or the like. In the end what makes this distinction most important is that it has the lowest standards. No one will be hurt should the mailbox welds start to corrode. Quite often in these homespun situations the “minimal” is all that is sufficient, and the most economical solution.

Unfortunately many educated people carry with them an unrecognized prejudice when it come to matters of craft. I think this is mostly due to these same tendencies being imbued in wider American Culture. Manufacturing, in modern times, is seen as lower then most office work.   

However no matter the distinctions practitioners of common craft are not engaged in any sort of dangerous or high-stakes work that would require outside safety standards (for both the craftsman and the future client, aside from that which protects the builder) to be introduced. The next facet sees the introduction of these external standards of safety.

All of this is also not to be misconstrued that any of the common crafts aren't valuable. Common craft is, after all, the base on which all the higher levels of skill are built. It is notable that many professional-level craftsman often do a great deal of high quality work outside of the strict regulations of their day job.

Technical Craft is that practiced by those on certain assembly lines and lower levels of skilled crafts. Though the word technician in modern usage seemingly also encompasses skilled craftsman I would like to draw a distinction. Assembly line works who perform one part of a few small parts of a larger production operation are said to be technicians. In many plants there are quite literally two levels: The higher-skilled, better payed craftsman, and the less skilled lower-payed technician.

Good examples include those mechanics that strictly change oil, or line workers who assemble products on a strictly enforced speed standard. These workers often perform work with the help of machines that have been specially designed and pre-programmed and the technician often is just trained to operate that one piece of a much larger process.

This over-specialization of technicians is what technically makes them "unskilled" or "low skill" workers. Their working knowledge only has depth in one narrow area of a craft. This is best visualized in classic image of an assembly line worker.

NOTE: Many job listings often do not make this distinction. Often times skilled labor jobs will be listed with “technician” as the title. When the job may demand professional-level craftsmanship.

There is also some matter of debate over the classification of certain jobs such as: Auto Mechanics, HVAC mechanics, and other repair mechanics . Many professional mechanics that I know certainly wouldn't call themselves craftsman. They all simply prefer to be called mechanics and the jobs are almost universally listed under the label “technician”.

These jobs require more use of analytical skill then do assembly technicians. And the distinction between mechanical and “skilled” are to my mind minor. The main difference rests in what mechanics are not expected to do, and that is to actually fabricate parts. The skilled craftsman such as a welder, machinist, or carpenter actually produces a product from raw material and does not draw the part from a stock of already produced parts.

Skilled or professional craftsman are those who sit at the top of the crafts. Unlike the technician who is overspecialized and the DIYer who lacks any depth of process knowledge the craftsman understands multiple processes and the associated standards that go with them. To this end the actual craftsman might help engineers and designers when it comes to optimizing a production process. As many plants and production sites have very uniquely crafted tool sets that need to be maintained. Everything from electric motors, engines, to miles upon miles of steel piping.

For example, many people know how to weld but there are fewer skilled welders capable of welding to established civic standards. The bridge construction project is a good example as to why such welders are considered skilled and why their skills are also invaluable to industry as a whole.

I am not sure why but it seems all to often when reading accounts about the problems of craft these necessary civic standards are overlooked in the name of a pristine academic model. Sure its easy to say that craftsman are "too" involved or care "too much" about their process; yet such statements belie the fact that it is a professional craftsman's civic duty to take such great personal care in his work.

Vision and Excessive Vision

Despite my quibbles with parts of Richard Sennett's approach in his work, The Craftsman, I do think that he has gotten more right then wrong. He has some wonderful examples of modern visionary excess. Wherein massive building projects lacked on the ground perspective. Here the modern craftsman finds his place a part of larger vision of which his focus is narrowed just as an assembly line workers is.

I too have these concerns in terms of the growing acceptance of knowledge work. The work in and of itself does not let the workers have any vision of their own. Now many modern consultant-types have devised elaborate explanations for the soul-crushing that goes on inside of these offices; visions from lowly drones are still perceived as a threat by those actually running things.
This is all well and good on some level, you will never escape the need for an office or the need for a skull-crusher to be in charge of it all. Yet missing from Rao's critique is the ignorance that The Office, is not the only office. There exists a much maligned term, shop office, that without it there would be no basis for any of the antics that are had on, The Office.

A well maintained shop office keeps everyone on the floor aware of the company's expectations and the goals for that days work. Poor supervision in this department can lead to lost productivity, poor employee relations, or in the worst cases complete failure of the company.

The Well Tested Craftsman

One of the most overlooked aspect of a craftsman's working life is that of the the requirement to perform objectively verifiable work at exacting specifications and thus provide the employer a proper test of sound judgment and ability. In this manner a craftsman is not only taking pride in his own work, but also in the standards set forth for him by society.

This truly objective standard of work sets the craftsman apart from his fellow in the office. Most offices have few, if any, true objective standards; and the few objective standards that do exist are the butt of one of the greatest in-jokes of all time; classically glamorized in the movie Office Space by the ever changing 'TPS' reports.

The best way that I can characterize the drastic difference between corporate and shop offices is through a welders bend test. For those unfamiliar with the process here is a brief description of a standard bend test. While corporate offices worry about promotions, job satisfaction, and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, the shop office quite literally puts people to work.

Two small pieces of metal or pipe are cut and ground to represent a small segment of a larger industrial weld. These smaller pieces, called "coupons" are welded in the exact same manner as one would on an industrial welding job. There are numerous variations depending upon what type of job one is doing; plate or pipe and sometimes other more complex tests are assembled. After the welder has finished all welding on the coupon it is cut apart and the resulting sections of the coupon are bent in opposite directions one for the root one for the face. The test is passed only if no cracks appear in or around the welded area.

Now where is the allowed variation you ask? Well there may be minor differences in techniques used to manipulate the electrode, or set the amperage while one welds. Thus different welders might use minutely different techniques to achieve he same effect. In the end such minor variations don't matter as the weld either passes of fails the test as assigned. There is no partial-correct purgatory here; when it comes to the verification of the required skill, you either pass or you fail and that is that. This easy and objectively verifiable skills test is thus grounds for both employment.

I'm tempted here to revisit the story of Drucker's stone cutters. It easy to see why Drucker is only concerned with his workman's ambitions. The executive on the shop floor, has himself nothing but ambition, he has no idea what is going on and in such in a moment of weakness allows his own psyche to become troubled by the supposed threatening ambitions of his own workman.

Now it is also easy to see why office workers revolt over their own standards. Their standards represent something much more sinister. These standards can be, especially when it comes to knowledge work, only a thin line between sanity and deep anger. I suppose it isn't proven fact, but I imagine many people enjoy seeing the fruits of their labor. This is often difficult in the context of an office. Sure numbers fly by every October but numbers themselves are intangible. They are simply information and as such they have little use beyond that which they are intended. The office worker is thus stuck daydreaming an excessive and destructive private vision. This excess of vision hurts the company and it hurts the worker as well.

The Craftsman, on the other hand, has no choice but to share, at least in part, the vision of the company. The Craftsman must take what exists in the minds above him and either create from scratch or else facilitate the completion of that vision. This can affect office workers of any sort, but it is most prone to more senior persons. Quite often work that is done by these people can be shifted around and about by the bigger bosses. To much shifting and and an employee will simply lose sight of their value to the company.

It is often too easy to become too involved in a vision and not involved enough with action. The Office really shows that this is common understanding, there isn't much action at all inside an office! Excess vision and politics, it all shows the reality of office work even as that reality is reviled.

So personally I view vision as good, but it almost seems that in the age of the Internet that this is all we are supposed to rely upon. What we need is not more superfluous vision, as it is harped upon almost daily on the news channels, but instead realistic action. Many differing visions are battling it out on the Internet. Yet, sometimes is better to act on a good plan rather then wait for a perfect plan.

I for sure am tired of hearing about science fiction, singularities and advances yet-to-come. I would like to see real action taken now, and not necessarily from the government. We must be the ones to act. Yet in order to do so we must stop following and buying the empty-yet-still-excessive visions and illusions sold to us by prior generations of Internet and technology prophets. Too bad no one really cares about those who maintain the equipment that facilitates modern technological existence.  

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Craftsman, Engineers, & Scientists: A General Survey of Sensibilities

Basic Assumptions

The modern scope of American industry is nothing short of fascinating. The advances of the last century alone are astounding...
I will spare you any further cliches. It is true, the technologies and processes of manufacturing have greatly evolved over time, now encompassing an unprecedented American ability to produce.

With this rise in production has come a slew of academic ideas on what the American Worker is to expect relative to his job, and what the American “consumer” should expect relative to his paycheck. This is a massive subtopic, consumerism and its relation to craftsmanship, and I plan to get into at a later date. However take this as tacit acknowledgment that advanced industry and craftsman in those industries play a very important part in this.
However, regardless of the modern industrial advancements, the fundamental relationships among the public persona of well established roles and players within industry have remained more or less the same over time. Right product, right time, right place, right cost.
Manufacturing, in its way, has always been all about numbers, (this is about the only thing management literature gets right on the subject) yet the existence of this modern production force does not unduly affect the basic function of the industrial craftsman.

In the most basic of terms, the pre-modern craftsman only worried only with his/her personal production output from his own modest shop. Imagine here a blacksmith making a whole town's horse-shoes. Now, in contrast, the modern craftsman builds or maintains the equipment of sustained production. Imagine a mechanic tearing down and servicing a generator. Though involving different skills and knowledge sets the fundamental “persona” of the craftsman remains unchanged.

Craftsmen from any historical time frame are called upon by others to make use of their hands and heads towards the greater benefit of larger, at times, corporate, bodies. This is another possible avenue for further expansion. However, the idea of collective groups and how individual laborers interact with and within them is an already crowded field. I do not intend to slip towards public policy or social theory. We as a society are already overburdened with it as it is.

So despite the perverted inclination for current academics to view "craft" as strictly "artistic" or “social” their refusal to acknowledge industrial craftsmanship in and of itself does not hinder its reality.

The apparent resiliency of the industrial apprenticeship is very important to me, and the economy has shown the tremendous weakness systemic to Academia. Suffice it say that I attended a "good" school and graduated with a Lib Arts degree. I didn't stay any longer then one normally would. Now I am one of those down-and-out in the current economy.

There is growing data as well that suggests it is fruitless to obtain a law degree or another more generalist academic degrees. And this reality has rekindled a spark for making things.
So, leaving justification behind, what exactly do I mean when I refer to "public persona" When I refer to a "public persona" I am referring to the idea of "persona" from Cicero, wherein people and their personalities can be understood as a composite of choices, circumstances, and shared human facility,

Roughly paraphrased, the four persona are:

1) "Common Persona"
--> The shared rational (reasoned) nature common to all humans

2) "Personality Persona"
--> Who we are by virtue of our innate temperament

3) "Moment Persona"
--> What chance or circumstance makes us ("how we rise to the moment")

4) "Public Persona"
--> That most closely associated with personal effort, who we "chose" to become (^1)

In this view we can account for all the varied factors that form a composite of a person.

This post will focus on three traditionally recognized public persona: the craftsman, the engineer, and the scientist.

General Remarks Regarding "Management" and “Management Literature”

I have already addressed some of this in the intro, but I would like to flesh out some of the vapid tendencies, “management literature” has in its choice view all industrial leadership as fundamentally the same.

Ultimately management literature is only about the standard power-relationship paradigms of the time when it is published. This of course always misses the finer points of process in whatever industry may be in question. All to often all matters are reduced to the lowest common denominator of “The Office”. This is very unfortunate, simply discussing “power distribution” among the office ignore whatever chemistry, engineering, or process that goes on on the production floor. In such a way management literature relegates itself to what Venkat Rao at the ribbonfarm refers to as the Clueless.

Such literature ignores the differences in knowledge and experience required in the leadership styles and requirements of the lead craftsman and the leadership of the lead engineer. Why should we view such very different leaders as similar? Indeed why bother having a plant or process superintendent altogether?

It is in this gapping swath of ignorance that I wish to discuss and describe such organized and managed structures in-and-of themselves and how those structures and the people within them interrelate. This is what management literature claims to do already. Yet as is clear to anyone who works outside of an office, leadership or functional models based strictly on the office are inadequate to describe or elucidate the richness of objectively verifiable craftsmanship.

Indeed, how does a scientist interact with the lead craftsman, and the lead engineer? This is the heart of what I would like to address. Industry and manufacturing unlike many "office-space" structured companies makes a number of robust distinctions among its managers and their duties. And these differences take advantage of the skills inherent in the each public persona. Why the Druckers of the world continue to ignore such distinctions is beyond comprehension.
Such "office space" problems of traditional management literature do exist in the industrial environment, but it is disingenuous to reduce these situations into cliches of power like those of Drucker's Stonemasons.

Drucker's Stone-Cutters and the Errors of Management Literature

I generally get bent out of shape whenever there is talk of Drucker's now iconic quotable on the stone-cutters. I am responding in part to a modern take on this story by Venkat Rao @ ribbonfarm under the heading of  The Genealogy of the Gervais Principle. He blocks a quote from The Essential Drucker,

A favorite story at management meetings is that of the three stonecutters who were asked what they were doing. The first replied, “I am making a living.” The second kept on hammering while he said, “I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire country.” The third looked up with a visionary gleam in his eyes and said, “I am building a cathedral.” The third man is, of course, the true “manager” [we are more likely to call this person 'leader' in 2010 - vgr] The first man knows what he wants to get out of the work and manages to do so. He is likely to give a “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.”… It is the second man who is a problem… there is always a danger that the true workman, the true professional, will believe that he is accomplishing something when in effect he is just polishing stones or collecting footnotes.  

Rao in his commentary essentially conflates craftsman with his own definition of "clueless." Now given the way our society treats its top craftsman I think both Drucker and be extension Rao erroneously place great craftsman in the "clueless" middle.

I guess Rao hasn't watched either the speed channel, or the discovery channel lately. In modern America where knowledge work has become the norm and fine craftsmanship has become somewhat of a lost skill, we as a society have elevated our craftsman and their skills. We give these skilled professionals TV shows and those without TV shows run well-to-do companies that craft aftermarket parts.

It is unfortunate really, but this is ignorance is itself a function of Drucker's ideas of management. The Dilbert principle is obviously at work if we elevate the visionary, "I'm building a cathedral" stone cutter. After all, the "best stone cutter" wants him gone since the visionary more then likely doesn't know how to cut stone properly. Now in the new found position of prominence he may demand that everyone start cutting stone improperly! Sure it might save a few dollars in the short term, but what of the eventual collapse of the cathedral? Such calculations are not part of Drucker's ruminations.

Vision in leadership can only take you so far.Yes, you need vision to be a good leader, but Drucker (with his stone-cutters) and those in his wake seemingly think that this is all that is required. Leadership and management, despite the ideas today, cannot be separated. Leadership of its own accord leads to cutting of corners and improper workmanship.  (and probably contributed to the boom in litigation!) Required Obsolescence and multiple devices are the new norm.

All we have to say for this is that this is the epitome of modern production Druckerism. It's no wonder that there is such a of self-loathsome quality when one tweets the revolution! You can't lead a revolution by demanding people follow the status quo!

(NOTE: Later on I plan on addressing the moment persona of a "manager" and how it interacts with public persona. Suffice it to say here that "manager" itself is not, or perhaps more precisely, should not be a "chosen" or "publicly" assumed persona as the mere ability to chose to be a corporate "manager" may (depending on the individuals actual public persona undercut the very meaning of the word manager...but this is a whole other issue in itself)

A brief note on non-scientific academics and their ideas on industry.
I suppose here I should mention the obvious. Not all who have ideas on American industry are those of scientific or technical inclination. This is the realm of the public persona of a social scientist or social theorist. Having some matter of low level experience in the liberal arts discipline I remain skeptical of the value these “soft” disciplines provide to the shop floor.

Cognitive tests, surveys, and statistics abound, all are the arbitrary markers used by those bound to the office chair. These tests grant office authority figures a mistaken impression of “objectivity” when in fact the developed “facts” are no more or less arbitrary then the personalities that inhabit the actual work-space. This is after all the space where such works as the Rao's Gervais principle find their home.

However, if we chose to leave the broad-based “socialized office” theorems aside, I feel we may open a fruitful avenue for further exploration. Just as long as it is clear that the only “objectivity” worth dealing with is the objectivity of the hard sciences. Humans do not act objectively and therefor their feelings and motivations cannot be objectively quantified, they must be addressed from the horse's mouth.
Personally, I wish to avoid the trap of talking, “objectively” as would a social scientist. As an individual, in the interests of transparency, I think my biases should be clear and it is up to the reader to account for that biases within the act of reading.
Social science leaves behind too much for the eyes of the beholder...

A Note on the General Survey of Sentiment

It is right to say that each persona is mutually dependent on the others.

Like anyone else who is writing about broad categories I will make broad generalizations. Now, as I pointed out above I am working within a rubric of an individual's four persona and as such In what follows, unless otherwise noted, I am generally referring to the "public" persona.

In this way I leave a grand space for individual temperament and innate or trained skill that allows an individual to stretch beyond his or her public role in ways that seemingly cross the theoretical "public" persona boundaries.

In fact, I rely on this discursive element in my following explanations. This empathetic, cross discipline dynamic is essential to the advancement of any industrial or other innovating practice.

The Public Persona and Their Sentiment

1) The Craftsman,

--> "This works, here it is"

2) The Engineer,

--> "This should work, here's a picture with the calculations"

3) The Scientist,

-->"This is what we know, here's an equation"

The Craftsman

The Craftsman in public are the people who know the harsh physicality of a job: the "wrench" of an operation. This is the much chided realm of "experience." Academicians love to bash this sort of hard won knowledge as "low", irrelevant, or worse.

I don't understand this propensity. After all an academic might be able to describe in great detail what happens both physically and chemically in a weld pool, but that explanation can't help him actually lay-in code quality root bead and filler pass that will pass x-ray inspection.

Tell an academic this and chances are you will be met with a stony hubris-laden silence. He will feel insulted and more likely then not insist on unwarranted, and undeserved umbrage. How dare you insinuate that he does not know everything about which he professes.

Of course not all academics are so dismissive of craftsmanship, Richard Sennett to name just one. These other thinkers on the obverse of our own hapless academic straw-man seemingly place too much stock in the concept of “craft” itself. Generally these people in-so-far as they refer to social concepts of the craftsman seem to have little interest in the on-the-ground reality of craftsmanship as career.

Indeed, those academics speaking in favor of "craftsman" do not earn their living through the practice of a craft, whatever they practice themselves is forever secondary to their primary profession of an Academic. And because of this these academics remain stuck-upon the narrow aspects of the relation "craft" has to aesthetics.

Admittedly good craft has its own aesthetic; however, that aesthetic is not the end itself. A working craftsman is not in the business of making art, he or she instead pursues the craft itself and that craft puts food on the table. The beauty that the academics laud actually comes from pride in one's work, and a job well done.

Pride. This is one area in which a craftsman, in general, will best both the engineer, scientist, and professor. This pride comes from the the experience the craftsman has. He/She KNOWS the work is sound, and that it has been independently verified (possibly by the engineer and scientist!)

So when all is said and done the craftsman lives on his individual skill and experience and it is a shame that many (academics especially) in society view this hard won experience with scorn.

The Engineer

The Engineer occupies a unique position. Here is a discipline that in many ways serves as a communicator. The engineer takes the knowledge that is developed within one or more fields and he/she applies it to a practical problem.

A good engineer should have a strong grasp of both the abstract realm of science and a similarly strong grasp of the practicalities of the craft(s) that apply. So perhaps the Engineer isn't a Certified welder (CW) but hopefully he's handy enough to lay down a good bead on his own home-based projects.

Of course this idea of an engineer coming off the floor is a foreign concept in modern industry. There are few programs now to promote capable craftsman to positions of greater responsibility within the engineering departments. This is a shame given how closely Engineers and craftsman often work. Neither can work without the other and it would be advantageous to the discipline as whole to seek relevant experience.

This matter mirrors similar problems in other realms of the American society. Sure the engineer CAN stay in his office, but what good do the drawings do if they don't match reality?

This wider margin for error that Engineers enjoy has played out many times. Make the wrong calculations, or fail to make the right ones you get Tacoma Narrows, The Hindenburg, or Hyatt Regency.

To this end the engineer plays a large role that may either advance craft, or abuse it. It is certainly a great responsibility.

The Scientist

The scientist is vested with the responsibility to advance collective understanding of a process or phenomena. This of course grants this persona with the most latitude and choice when it comes to what narrow section of understanding to study.

Scientists, as a result of their station, may pursue two general directions. They may either ruminate on the purely theoretical (such as string theory) in an attempt to increase academic knowledge or they may pursue the combination approach mixing theory and practice in varying amounts attempting to directly advance practice. Keep in mind that there is also a practice of theory, but calling that practice a “craft” breaks down the distinctions we are attempting elucidate.

Depending upon the academic, or industrial area of research this may or may not involve the assistance of either an engineer or a craftsman. Though as I've identified earlier the tendency is for the academy to avoid delving directly into matters of established practice, this is generally left to the academic engineers and chemists and their research into the improving of manufacturing and chemical industrial processes.

Each chosen discipline must be aware of the limitations and strength of the others. The three of them, barring private scuffles of personality, in general have well established custom when dealing with the others.

In the future I hope to elucidate some of this custom, and present a compelling alternative to the way we have been trained by The Academy to view the future of our work. “Knowledge work” may be in now, but it cannot be sustained indefinitely. I would go so far as to say that the economy in its current state speaks to this reality. Sure anyone can be a knowledge worker, but one look at the “management literature” of today and you can tell that “work” has the least to do with modern academic and technical ideals of society.

Addendum: Motivation for craftsman centered writing.
An example of job induced hubris.

At trade school you hear lots of stories from the craftsman-instructors. One of my favorite involves an engineer who refused to go down to the floor to assess the situation before drafting his work order. The gist of which follows:
Craftsman: "I can't build this"
Engineer: "Why not? I drew it."
Craftsman: "The drawing is wrong."
Engineer: "I don't see how. I used the updated prints"
Craftsman: "There's something in the way"
Engineer: "Well it can't be. It's not on the drawings!"
Craftsman: "Have you even bothered to look at the site? There are new process pipes there now."
Engineer: "They're not on the drawings! Stop being lazy! Get out of here and go do your job."
Craftsman: "Look I told you why I can't build it! Come down to the floor and see."
Engineer: "Look, I've got a lot to do and I don't have time for this. Go do your job"
Craftsman: "Forget it, I'm going to find someone who will listen."
Here the Engineer has failed to do his job and the power relationship prevents corrective action in lieu of going above or outside the customary command structure.

(^1)paraphrased from; Sherman, Nancy. Stoic Warriors pg 53

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Welcome to Tech-Nicality!

A blog about the confluence of old and new technology.

I am currently a student attending a local trade school, studying a number of industrial practices, including: welding, machining, manufacturing and mechanics. I am attending school in an attempt to find gainful and fulfilling employment: this is why I simultaneously pursue many skills. In this way, I view my experience as typical of many people locked out of the current economy, you have to play with the hand you're dealt.

Up until very recently (say roughly the last century) the word "technology" would never be used to describe software. In the old use of the word it would reference traditional industry complete with the required corporations, logistics and other considerations. The modern debate in American popular culture seemingly has lost sight of this. On one side we have a "technology" lobby that is seemingly opposed to everything about the old system. On the other side we have an expectant population raised to think of "work" as something done only inside of a cubical.

The reactions to this reality have played out in various forms over the years. We have seen the popular TV show, "The Office" and a movie, "Office Space." There are countless other bloggers who herald the pros, cons, and corruptions of this reality. Yet though it all popular culture remains blissfully unaware of its common root in industry.

HTML, FTP, and TCP-IP have made many trade related publications and opinion message boards  readily accessible . Yet it I have a distinct impression that such "information" , "knowledge" , and "political viewpoints" found on these message boards are wilfully ignored by the leading voices of new technology and culture. This is even as such cultural leaders feign solidarity with those whose voices and speech they seek to repress on their own websites.

This is, of course, an egregious double standard where "Web Searches" very existence is leveraged as an excuse for snarky critiques of tradition, and other older forms of industry and communities of skill. It often borders on elitism the way fealty is demanded (through Google or Wikipedia no less) by some of these groups and leaders.

I have no idea if there are any engineers or engineering students out there and writing along similar lines that I will attempt here. What the reader should be aware of is that I am currently NOT training to be an engineer. I am writing as one who is engaged in pursuit of the traditional apprenticeship and I plan to blog all the way till at least my completion of that apprenticeship and the award of full status within my chosen, "community of skill."

As always, I invite those who might have differing opinions, additions, or corrections to add their input where they see fit. I will probably still spend the next month or two ironing out layout and fixing kinks and developing an agenda.

I hope to write as often as time allows but do keep in mind that I am not a "full-time" blogger.