Category Archives: Up close and personal

Fixing and fixability as attribute and philosophy

Matthew Crawford’s The Case for Working With Your Hands has made the top of the NY Times website, and well deservedly so. His argument is that physical work, especially diagnostic worked involved in solving technical problems, are as fulfilling and intellectually stimulating as any desk job, though the hours may be longer and your fingers dirtier. For instance, you have think about your angle of attack not just in terms of the likelihood of being right, but the cost of finding out:

The attractiveness of any hypothesis is determined in part by physical circumstances that have no logical connection to the diagnostic problem at hand. The mechanic’s proper response to the situation cannot be anticipated by a set of rules or algorithms.

There probably aren’t many jobs that can be reduced to rule-following and still be done well. But in many jobs there is an attempt to do just this, and the perversity of it may go unnoticed by those who design the work process. Mechanics face something like this problem in the factory service manuals that we use. These manuals tell you to be systematic in eliminating variables, presenting an idealized image of diagnostic work. But they never take into account the risks of working on old machines. So you put the manual away and consider the facts before you. You do this because ultimately you are responsible to the motorcycle and its owner, not to some procedure.

Sounds like a good consultant to me. And the right kind of academic.

Buying an old Mercedes has certainly taught me something about expertise. I first tried taking it to the largest Mercedes dealer in Boston, whose reps took in the car wearing white coats and were utterly useless: The customer service rep had never heard of this particular model (it was the flagship at the time,) the computer system could not deal with cars before 1982, and come to think of it, the rep didn’t know much about cars in general. The mechanics seemed to be looking for a place to stick the computer diagnostic tool, nearly destroyed the suspension and tried to solve problems by "Easter Egging" – i.e., replacing parts until the problem disappears. Eventually I found a company that had both the knowledge of the car and the diagnostic philosophy required – to listen to the problem and determine what it is based on the few symptoms a car really has to give. What a relief – and what a fulfilling job it must be to work like that.

A colleague of mine remarked, a few weeks ago, that "nobody repairs anything anymore." A few years ago I bought my wife a nice everyday watch, a Seiko with a stainless steel chain. The chain broke, she took it in, and was told that the cost of fixing the chain would be so high that it would be better to just replace the watch. The watch was not designed to be repaired.

What little work I have been able to do on my old Mercedes has been joyful, since the car is designed to be fixed – the screws are solid (no plastic clips that rot over time) and accessible, everything is laid out with some logic, and if you sit down and think about it, you can figure the technology out (with, for me, the exception of the automatic gear boxes, which I don’t understand and wouldn’t have the tools and space to do anything with anyway.)

Crawford continues:

Some diagnostic situations contain a lot of variables. Any given symptom may have several possible causes, and further, these causes may interact with one another and therefore be difficult to isolate. In deciding how to proceed, there often comes a point where you have to step back and get a larger gestalt. Have a cigarette and walk around the lift. The gap between theory and practice stretches out in front of you, and this is where it gets interesting. What you need now is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules. For me, at least, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.

Put differently, mechanical work has required me to cultivate different intellectual habits. Further, habits of mind have an ethical dimension that we don’t often think about. Good diagnosis requires attentiveness to the machine, almost a conversation with it, rather than assertiveness, as in the position papers produced on K Street. Cognitive psychologists speak of “metacognition,” which is the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. It is what you do when you stop for a moment in your pursuit of a solution, and wonder whether your understanding of the problem is adequate.

This is one reason I sometimes envy people who do "mere" programming for a living – the ability to have problems that have solutions, tell you when they are solved, and reward the laser-like focus both on the detail and the broader reflection (and abstraction) necessary to see the bigger picture. The problem-solving I am involved with on a daily basis is less a question of understanding what to do than it is a question of finding a way to express the solution in a way that convinces those who hold the key to it to actually do it. Assertiveness certainly helps, but, boy, would I love to just tinker for a while.

Anyway, I have but scratched the beginning of Crawford’s argument, but hey, I think I have gotten the gist of it. The rest I leave you to read on your own.

Wheels…

Since I am staying in the USA for the spring semester, I have to buy a car (though renting a car is cheap here, it is much less expensive to buy one.) At first, I thought I would just buy a car and sell it when I leave – either a very cheap one that I could just get rid of, or something nicer that I could sell back to a dealer.

Then it occurred to me – why not buy a car which I could take back home to Norway when I am done here? After all, cars are expensive in Norway, and shipping one across the Atlantic is $2000-3000, depending on the size and type.

Now, this is more complicated than it sounds. Import duties on a new car average 200% in Norway, they are prorated for age, but the larger the engine and heavier the car, the higher the duties. So even though nice used cars are ridiculously cheap in the States, the taxes would make the car more expensive than just getting it in Norway.

But there is one loophole: Cars older than 30 years are called "vintage" and subject to a mere 25% sales tax. So I have been trying to find a nice 30 year old car, which I could drive for a few months in the States (so I find out whether there was anything seriously wrong with it) and then ship back to Norway. The requirement was that a) it should not be too expensive (so a Ferrari or something more exotic is out of the question,) b) be reliable (that rules out Jaguars and American cars,) and c) have more than two seats, since there are children and dogs to be transported (and that rules out all those nice Mercedes SLs which are quite easy to come by.)

image So what did I end up with? Well, here it is, a 1977 Mercedes 450 SEL 6.9 (known to car enthusiasts just as a "6.9",) silver paint with a nice blue leather interior and a truly fearsome engine. It has 140K miles on it and a few spots here and there that will need to be fixed, but it as been well maintained, image runs really well and will allow me to tool around Boston and environs with some style. After all, this particular model was more costly than a Rolls Royce when it was launched.

The car handles like a sports car although it is a rather large sedan. This is the first time I have had a car capable of producing instant tire squeal and effortless (and silent) acceleration past 100 mph. As for gas consumption, let’s think about that some other time. I still have to take it to a body shop to deal with some dings and a few rust spots that need welding, but if things work out, I should eventually have a rather stylish vehicle for summer driving back in Norway.

Mercedes 6.9 009 Update February 23: Have now driven the monster for three days (including going through a hail storm in Connecticut.) It does take a bit of getting used to – especially the large steering wheel, which feels like a bus wheel though it has power assisted steering. The climate control is excellent: Set it and forget it. And I find that, despite the zip, it induces the same kind of driving that I used to do with my old Chevrolet Caprice Classic model 1980 back in the mid-90s: Low-stress ambling down the highway, listening to WBUR (one of Boston’s PBS radio stations) and eventually getting there. But this time without the seasickness in curves and with plenty of power to pass other cars, should I feel the urge. Aahhh, relaxation…. I have ordered a chauffeur hat, so I can sneak into the limo line when picking up people at airports….

Incidentally, the picture on the left is of Tom Rossiter, who runs The Stable Ltd, where I bought the 6.9. He has a wonderful collection of what he terms "interesting" cars, so a visit to Gladstone, NJ, is highly recommended.

One of the saving graces of this year…

…is that Anthony Daniels (more commonly known as Theodore Dalrymple) was born in 1949, is less than 60 years old, and thus capable of producing for many years yet. Read him when he discusses imprisoning criminal heroin addicts, when he goes against a former Lord Chief Justice, when he points out the dangerous absurdity of monitoring people’s racial status ("a fragile ego maketh a glad authority"), when he warns against borrowing for consumption more than a year before the financial crisis.

What language, what logic. To quote Horace Walpole via Dalrymple: The world is a comedy to those who think, and a tragedy to those who feel.

Oh, how I wish for a Norwegian pen like his.

Myers-Briggs and me

Typealyzer is a service that classifies your blog (and, by extension, you) into the Myers-Briggs personality classification framework. Based on Appliedabstractions.com, I am an INTJ, which is fine by me, though I thought I was more over towards ENTJ:

image

OK. Not sure I have difficulty communicating, but that may just be that I mostly sit by myself pontificating to the wall or similar-minded people who find my communicating style compatible. Anyway, what I really liked was this brain chart:

image

In other words, little chance that I will survive in a world like the one described in Ben Elton’s Blind Faith….

(Hat tip to Vaughan and Kimberly for this one.)

ME in The Economist

There is a good article on Myalgic encephalomyelitis in The Economist, accurately (as far as I can tell) reporting the current state of research and the growing realization that this disease does in fact have a biological basis and is not the a syndrome of malingering from people wanting attention.

ME is a harrowing experience for those that suffer it and a drain on energy, social life and economy of their families. A complicated, exclusionary diagnosis and the fact that the loss of energy puts the patient in an especially weak position vis-a-vis the medical bureaucracy means that many suffer more and longer than they should. It is not being "burned out", "hitting a wall" and is not caused by stress or depression. It might cause depression in the patient, on the other hand, from being in a continually exhausted state.

A diagnostic test would help enormously. At present, a patient can go for years without adequate treatment because many doctors do not recognize ME/CFS as an illness at all. If the illness can be diagnosed fast, the patient can be helped faster – and will face less of a challenge understanding and making the surroundings understand what the problem is.

Masterstudies.com

Masterstudies logo

I am involved (board member) in an exciting startup, a company called Masterstudies.com. We offer potential students a way to find suitable MBA and other Master level programs, and universities and business schools a way to find good students.

So far it has been a fun little project which has involved helping to specify functionality and interface, interacting with the very competent management, and talking to investors.

I think the company has something very useful to offer – there are literally millions of people around the world trying to find their way among the thousands of MBA and other Master level programs in business and related areas. One of the ways we differentiate ourselves from the competition lies in the way universities can specify what kind of leads they want – if you want details, contact our CEO, Linus Murphy.

We have spent the Fall making sure the product is good enough (partially with input from some of my students) and the database large enough (currently at 6,700 different programs) and now is the time to softly launch. There are still bugs to work out, but prospective students can now sign up, fill in their details, select schools and programs based on their preferences. Even though we have not marketed it at all, the traffic figures are promising, the number of leads sent per day is in the hundreds and it is rather exciting to see the details flying by – we are getting leads from all over the world.

I am rather optimistic that this company will succeed in providing value both to universities and students. In the words of our intrepid chairwoman, the student-to-university market is one of the few inefficient markets left, and it is high time someone does something about that. That’s us!

So – why don’t you check it out and tell me what you think?

Reality check

I have lived in the US for six years, have worked for US companies since 1994, have a daughter who is an American citizen, and consider the country my second homeland. Can somebody please explain to me how something as bizarre as this came to be? Most (come to think of it, all) people I know over there consider President Bush somewhat out to lunch, but the proposal to "reinterpret" Article III of the Geneva convention is, quite simply, evil. Not to mention that the President’s articulation of whatever it is he is trying to say leaves a lot to be desired:

This is not the America I know and love. At least a number of US politicians – from both sides – seem to recognize that.