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It has been more than one and half months since I have read any book. Was involving in developing some stuff @work, so was completely immersed in it. Decided to read this book on a beautiful Saturday.

Came across this book in an NY times article and was looking forward to read the book, as it was relating to an aspect which is close to my heart, hacking.Hacking in geek’s jargon is ripping apart software, packages, libraries, things and understanding stuff at level 0. In some sense,I guess there are two types of people, first kind who do not want to get their hands dirty a lot and would rather assemble, manage a set of people to accomplish some task, second kind are those who want to hack things and build things from scratch. By the kind of education I have undergone, I should be doing the former but I have found joy in the latter activity. In that sense, I could relate to the author was a Chicago Phd , academic, whom one would expect to write papers, do research and be a professor. Instead he chooses to become a mechanic. Why ? This book answers that question and much more. Author has organized the book in such a way that it traces author’s experiences from being a young apprentice in a repair shop , to being a PhD from Chicago, to working in a cubicle, to finally coming round the circle to repair shop again.

ImageSeparation of Thinking from Doing

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The author traces the dichotomy that has been built in to the society, courtesy the industrial clock-work mentality. In the so called knowledge worker world, it seems to many of us that knowledge , thinking etc is crucial and implementation can be done easily..outsource the code, break down the task in to process and decouple the process in to a simple components which require less skilled labor. Interesting the word, “compensation”, comes from the fact that work which required high skilled engagement of both physical and mental faculties is reduced to a few mundane repeatable steps and the worker has to be compensated for robbing of this kind of work and replacing it with some less engaging work.
This essay is a call towards picking up a trade and working on that trade for a long time to understand, engage and produce something of value. According to the author, nowadays everybody is called an Einstein, be it a best buy worker, or a management consultant. However it is easy to forget the fact that Einstein or Rembrandt are , what they are because of their commitment and submission to something in the initial stages and subsequently mastering it over a long period of time.

ImageTo be a master of one’s own stuff

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The ideology of freedom is at the heart of consumerist culture; a promise to disburden us of mental and bodily involvement with our own stuff so we can pursue ends we have freely chosen; For some of us, we don’t even know what end we are pursuing, whether the end is a figment of imagination based on current circumstances, whether it is changing etc. Anyway coming back to this so called freedom from DOING and INVOLVEMENT, robs of the experience of having a direct responsibility of things.

A true gem of a statement in the book :

To be master of your own stuff entails also being mastered by it

 

There are umpteen number of examples quoted which go on to make this point that by subjecting oneself to being mastered by something else, one can experience joy. Be it music, where the rigid rules of keys and notes need to be submitted to, before novelty can be displayed. Learning a new language is also akin to submission. Let’s say you are learning French and like any language it goes by a set of rules. Only by submitting to the rules, one can enjoy the experience of the language. If you have ever written a software library, developed a UI, developed a software, built a system, the initial days are usually where the language/syntax etc is your master. You have to obey it or get kicked( debug errors). But once you know the rules, then it’s like heaven. You can play with the code, components, rules and create something innovative. The more low level language, the more joy it brings to your work. Imagine the difference between building a library using C/C++ vis-a-vis building something using point and click interfaces. There is a ton of difference in doing things at a lower level than merely working using the surface level pre-built things.

 

In today’s world, autonomy , individualism, freedom are the buzz words where every individual strives to be an individual, in the literal sense of the word. He/she picks and chooses from an array of choices available and tries to establish an identity for oneself. Marketing, is hell bent on showing how customization is the new cool thing.. If one ponders a bit, one realizes that the marketing jargon is doing something else to us. It kind of equates picking and choosing relevant things to freedom. Nope, we are merely selecting. We are not tinkering with the details, which means we are still operating at the surface and are disconnecting ourselves with the true nature of the system that we are interacting.

The best thing mentioned in the essay is about Yamaha warrior 2007 ad:

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Life is what you make it . Start making it your own

The picture shows a guy in his home focused intently on the warrior. He’s not smiling for the camera. He’s lost in his work. Underneath the caption is written in small font, You only get one shot at life- may as well make it mean something!.
This sort of joy obtained by hacking things is never obtained by mere selection of pre built things, like wearing a good helmet, having a good rear mud guard etc. Joy , as suggested by the ad is only obtained by close tinkering of the machine to suit one’s likes and dislikes. and such a close tinkering provides JOY and not superficial selection is what the entire essay is about.

ImageEducation of a Gearhead

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The author narrates his experience as an apprentice in a repair shop in California. His interactions with Lance , Chas makes him work on things and allows him to ponder about the different worlds, one at home where his dad is a mathematical physicist who deals with beautiful abstractions, the other world is the mundane repair shop where utilitarian aspects triumph abstract things. Being in close proximity to repair personnel, he realizes the importance of attentiveness while repairing vehicles. The same set of data can be give different signals to different people based on their involvement levels. Spectator skills won’t do. I get the same feeling when people merely sit around the fences and trying to guess the next hottest startup, next hottest trend….Why sit as a spectator? Shouldn’t one not get involved in the game ? Well, as they say , different people get attracted to different types of dispositions.

Pure Mathematicians and Builders fall in one category. If you think about it, the builder and mathematician builds something out with a specific mental image of something. If the theory or building falls, it is entirely the responsibility of the creator. However motor repairing skills / doctor’s skills are very different. They are inherently dealing with things they have not built. They are looking at fixing things which means the realizations of the problems are stochastic( This word was used by Aristotle to describe specific kind of arts which require attention and openness to things as they are). A specific write up in Robert Pirig’s Zen and art of motorcycle maintenance is also mentioned to bring home the point that ” At work, being good-natured , friendly , easy going and UNINVOLVED is useless” . In our lives we come across so many people such as described above who are good in nature but don’t involve themselves completely in any specific activity and hence appear as spectators. It isn’t fun to watch spectators as much as to watch players hitting the runs. Well, I believe it is better to play the sport and than watch either spectators or players 🙂

 

The point of this essay is that practical world needs a person to be involved, attentive , make the work personal. At the same time, develop a paradoxical feeling of being unimposing of their views / assumptions etc on the things they come across. A true statistician would say , form a null hypothesis and test it out. However that needs to be appended with another aspect, ” develop a personal connection to the thing you are testing, only then there is fun, joy and in the end utilitarian.

ImageFurther Education of a Gearhead : Amateur to Professional

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This essay recounts the tension between engaging in work completely Vis-a-vis client’s budget constraints. There are instances when the author spend more than required time , reason being a obsessive drive towards perfection. Not always was the client intent on spending money for all the hours spent. There are cases when the client needs the motorcycle to just run and give him just enough service in his budget constraints. Working in abstractions is good in ivory towers but not in real world where different people have different agendas in your work.

ImageThe Contradictions of the Cubicle

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This note contains author’s experiences as a knowledge worker and sheer paradox between the quality of work and intellectual status the work offers. Author goes on to talk about the degree inflation, the so called corporate culture where most of us seek an identity, a place where in the name of team work, management creates more vague notions of work satisfaction. There is also a comparison between Site crew and a team at a office which shows the vast differences between the two. A clear objective measurement and sense of achievement is usually seen in a trades job, whereas in a big company, the contribution one makes is often difficult to measure and it could be result of a ton of random forces beyond your control.

ImageThinking as Doing

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Author makes a strong case that tacit knowledge that is obtained from years of understanding, tinkering can never be replaced with algorithms, computer systems. I don’t necessarily concur fully with the view of the author as I believe systems and raw computing power can be used as an effective aid for understanding. Lets say before the advent of statistical software, simulating and understanding various aspects probability distributions, stochastic processes would have been very difficult. High frequency trading which permeates the world of finance would have never flourished had there been no money produced by those systems.

However I do agree to the point that our society gives more importance to thinking rather than doing. However increasingly the lines are blurring. A feedback loop is the key and a person who is involved in both the steps is the person who is going to do something productive. Confining to only one part of the loop is not going to be effective, point in case are technical writers in IT companies. They write documentation with out ever writing a line of code, with out ever building a user interface. Result : Reams of useless English documents which serve as no purpose. Yes , indeed tacit knowledge which is gained by doing is somehow thought to be replaced by computers/ processes in a few fields,is a shaky ground which will collapse soon if not now.

ImageWork , Leisure and Full Engagement

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I felt that the last essay is the best essay of the book, because it probably echoes a similar feeling that I have about work and life. Examples quoted in this essay are numerous. Why does a mortgage banker work like mad and looks forward to Climbing Everest holiday? Why does corporate jetsetting consultant thirsts for a vacation in australia, Amazon’s rain forests etc ? There are a class of people who live dual lives. In one part of their lives, they work and accumulate money. In the second part of their lives, for some it is weekends, for some it is end of year vacation, they release their pent up need for feelings and action are linked together. However there are a set of trades where one can live in one unified world where work and life intermingle and have a meaningful relationship between them. There are so many wonderful points made in this essay that my summary would do no justice to it. I conclude that finding work as a way of life is crucial to live a joyous life, else an individual is forever living in 2 worlds, one in which he/she makes money, and the other in which he connects with himself!

This become reminds me of Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham. Excellent in prose and to the point , where the central message of the book is to work on things which offer you to mix thinking and doing.