Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ass Backward Into The Unknown

The internet was supposed to liberate knowledge, but in fact it buried it, first under a vast sewer of ignorance, laziness, bigotry, superstition and filth and then beneath the cloak of political surveillance. Now...cyberspace exists exclusively to promote commerce, gossip and pornography. And of course to hunt down sedition. Only paper is safe. Books are the key. A book cannot be accessed from afar, you have to hold it, you have to read it.
Ben Elton, Blind Faith

I'm not a Luddite completely I believe in refrigerators to cool my martinis, and washing machines because I hate to see women smacking their laundry against a rock. When I hear about hardware, I think of pots and pans, and when I hear about software, I think of sheets and towels.
Studs Terkel

As many of you know, in addition to writing I’m also an artist and woodworker.

I have a very large studio woodshop and when I’m not in front of this keyboard, you can usually find me covered in sawdust with the little ShopKat draped around my neck and purring in my ear.

A few months back I quit consulting work for the government and began writing and woodworking full time.

So far I’m enjoying the heck out of it.

If I had a motto it would be this: Never buy shitty tools, either do without, or save your money until you can afford decent equipment.

I believe in buying only quality tools, a trait I acquired at the knee of my dad who was himself an accomplished woodworker among many other things. And my shop was already well equipped. If you name a woodworking tool, likely I own it – probably several versions of it in fact.  And so I was well situated to embark on this new career.  But if you’re going to make woodworking an actual paying job, then you have to be able to produce quality products in volume.  With that in mind, I bought a very high end CNC (computer numerical controller) milling machine to do much of my prepwork.  That machine was expensive, very much so, but it has paid for itself many times over in the months since it arrived. It’s like having a diligent assistant who willingly tackles any job no matter how tedious and works without break or complaint.

Based on my experience with the CNC machine, at the beginning of this week I purchased an automated laser cutting/engraving machine.

It's being shipped from the manufacturer in Nevada and I'm impatiently waiting for it to arrive.

The laser is a 5th generation machine with advanced 4 axis capability and will extend my existing abilities and complement the CNC machine.

In comparison: Where the CNC machine can mill large 3D objects to an accuracy of 1/2500th of an inch and can do things other machines can't, the laser is limited to a bit over a 1/4 inch cutting depth but it can cut/engrave with surgical precision to an order of magnitude beyond the CNC machine (think a laser printer running at 1000DPI vice the usual 300DPI of a standard machine). This will vastly extend my shop's capability and my options as an artist and woodworker.

As an example, the laser will allow me to engrave the hand-turned pens I make, both with my own signature trademark and logo, and with customer personalization. It will also allow me to make very small and highly detailed parts for various projects and to create artwork (such as inscribed  rims and patterns on the bowls I turn at the lathe). My artwork will still be handmade, but now they’ll be enhanced by tooling I could not achieve otherwise.

That’s great, Jim, I hear you say in that puzzled tone you use when you have no idea where I’m going, sure. Lasers and robot, who doesn’t like that? But we come here for political commentary, so what gives?

Good question.

See, I’m technophile, I love shiny things. I’ve got a couple of dusty degrees in technology and computer science and I spent most of my military career immersed in technology that would no doubt boggle your mind.  So when it comes to art and woodworking, well, I have no problem crossing the streams. My woodshop likely has more computers in it than your house, and in my house … well, yeah, never mind.

And so I was discussing this purchase, the laser, with somebody I know, another woodworker.

He was appalled.

My friend said that these types machines (semi-automatic computerized systems) "dehumanize" the art.

He also advanced the common idea that machines take away human jobs.


Ah, the light dawns for you, does it? See? I wouldn’t let you down, gentle reader, I know why you’re here.


Machines dehumanize art.

I don't agree.

In fact, I strongly disagree. 

First, these machines are tools, nothing more. No different from a pen or a paintbrush.

They don't make art. I make art.

The machines just do what I tell them to do, no more, no less. They extend and enhance my abilities as an artist in exactly the same fashion a word processor complements a writer – something else I have a bit of experience with.

Scribbling down your novel on parchment with a quill and inkpot might make you feel like a "real" writer, but you'd be hard pressed to convince me that you're producing any greater "art" than you would with a laptop and a copy of Microsoft Word.  In fact, I think it's just the opposite, without those modern tools, word processors and spell checkers and the infinite knowledge base of the Internet, I suspect you'd miss out on some pretty amazing writing. And it isn't just writing, go check out the Deviantart website sometime, there's a lot of crap there but there's one hell of a lot of utterly fantastic artwork too, stuff that would not exist without modern tools.

Ditto many modern movies, say whatever you like about James Cameron's Avatar as a story, it was an incredible piece of art like nothing that had ever been made before and it wouldn't have happened without computerized tools. Same with Cameron's Titanic. Does that dehumanize Casablanca? Don't make me snort chocolate milk through my nose. It doesn’t even dehumanize Avatar or Titanic, both of which were nothing if not about humanity.

These machines are tools. Nothing more.

Certainly they can be used to dehumanize art.

But then again, so can a quill and inkpot - if somebody chains you to a desk and makes you write 16 hours a day with nib and blotter. 

Certainly these types of machines can be used to churn out mass-produced crap, and obviously they do exactly that.  But automation also reduces costs to such a degree that a struggling artist can afford to buy the basic mass produced tools (such as an inexpensive laptop and particleboard Ikea desk) in order to make "real" art one painful word at a time – and hopefully be successful enough at it that they can afford better tools in the future as a result.

In my shop, these machines allow me to create things I could never do by hand. Even when I had full use of my left hand and my eyes weren't middle-aged, I doubt that I could create precise patterns at 1000DPI resolution with hand tools.  Do I really need to create things at that resolution? That’s for me to decide, as the artist.

These machines also allow me to make more things at greater speed with repeatable results, i.e. they allow me to produce quality products at affordable prices.  Just as a word processor allows me to churn out thousands of words a day - because I can assure you that if I had to hold a quill pen in my damaged left hand in order to write, you'd be seeing 10 words per day, tops, and that sentence would most likely be unreadable and consist entirely of profanity because it hurts me to use a pen.

Second, I call shenanigans on the idea that these machines take away human jobs. 

They take away some jobs ... and make many others.

Do you know what a farrier is? Or a cooper? Or a miller? Or any of the various flavors of woodwright? These were once common occupations, so common in fact that people like yours truly here nowadays have surnames directly derived from our ancestors’ profession.

Now certainly you can make the argument that automation cost workers their jobs. This is true. When robots took over the assembly lines in Detroit, many human autoworkers became obsolete. But the part you're missing is this: The invention of the automobile itself removed a need for buggy whip makers, but it created thousands of new occupations.  And automated manufacturing meant the cars got better - vastly better (anybody remember 12 month or 12,000 mile warranties? When I was growing up, cars didn't routinely last 100,000 miles. Nowadays most high end brake pads last that long. My jeep has nearly 400,000 miles on the odometer and has never even had a ring job or a head gasket replaced. Ever). Better cars, better machines, meant more people could afford them and afford to drive them for greater distances and at higher degrees of reliability. Which gave people more options.

The company that built my CNC machine was a small startup, a few engineers who got together and took advantage of the new technology to create an entirely new thing. They now employ hundreds people directly and indirectly and their machines allow people like me to start our own small businesses. Same thing with the company that made my laser, hell, they began as a Kickstarter - something that would have been utterly impossible without dozens of threads of technology created by hundreds of people merging in new ways. 

With the coming maturity of 3D printing technology, this new Maker civilization will become the Tinkers of science fiction.

Are there dangers?

Of course.  All technology has both benefit and bane.

But my son will graduate from college in a few years with a business and engineering degree - paid for in no small part by the money I make writing on a word processor and doing woodwork with the help of advanced technology. He wants to make his own extreme sports equipment, he wants to start a company to do that. With the equipment in my shop he can realize that dream – at 22 years old. Could he have done it before the advent of affordable automation? Sure, people made hockey sticks and snowboards long before computerized systems were available. And people still do make art with a quill and inkpot. The world is a big place, there is room for infinite variation. But this technology gives our children options previous generations didn’t have.

These tools expand our ability, not detract from it. 

How we use them to shape our human future is up to us.

No, you can't just replace people with machines without regard for the consequences, but you can't stand still either.

The world changes, adapt or die.

How we face this change, in fear or with wonder, is in large part the basis for the political division that exists in America today.


... Luddites were those frenzied traditionalists of the early 19th century who toured England wrecking new weaving machines on the theory that if they were destroyed old jobs and old ways of life could be preserved. At certain times in his life each man is tempted to become a Luddite, for there is always something he would like to go back to. But to be against all change in the abstract is folly.
- James Albert Michener


  1. If you don't buy shitty tools, why do you use Windows?

    1. Because Windows isn't a shitty tool?

    2. I don't. I use a Mac. I left the shitty Windows environment 6 years ago and never looked back. Hell, I cut my teeth on a PDP-11 writing BASIC code to do even rudimentary stuff, moved on to a Trash-80, and really upgraded to a Commodore 64 (arguably the best PC ever built. I mean EVER). From there to an Amiga and paralleled with Apple IIes in the military designing document control software for the SCIF I had to keep track of. Didn't adopt a MS-DOS computer until 1989. Remember x-tree? c:> ? When the first version of windows came out I still would exit into the dos prompt to do anything because, well just because. I suffered immeasurably through the various iterations of Windows until, finally at the end of my rope, I switched to a Macbook Pro. And I've never looked back. So, with something like 40 years on computers spanning the mainframes of the 60s through today's computers I can tell you: Windows is a shitty tool.

    3. I had a :) in there that got lost.

    4. Why do MAC users always come off sounding so arrogant?

    5. Because it is essentially a religious argument (as I term it) and you have your own viewpoint. As a programmer for 40 years I have seen all these wonderful schisms, and despite my preferences, I just don't get too excited. A tool is a tool and whatever fits your hand best to do the job is what you should use.

    6. "It's a poor workman who blames his tools."

  2. On a more serious note, I'm in agreement with you on the labor shift that comes with mechanization. I've had jobs clearing toilets and fixing plumbing, as well as working on wooden boats. That's unlikely to be either outsourced or automated.

    That said, a great deal of drudgery has been eliminated. When my right-tending friends complain that the minimum wage will cause McD's to automate, I say "great". Those jobs suck and suck the life out of workers.

    More interestingly, even though we've come far in eliminating dangerous and body-destroying occupations, we haven't made the really radical step of working to eliminate "work". By that I don't mean that things don't need doing, only that the promised liberation of human beings from having to work at awful occupations for most of their awake time is at hand.

    You (and the others here might look into Frijtof Bergmann's "New Work" for a vision of what it could mean for people to be liberated from "employment". There's also a podcast/interview with Bergmann available at "The Partially Examined Life" philosophy podcast.

  3. I think you spoke for many artists/craftsmen. Occasionally, one hears "wow, you must have a great camera," but no one ever tells the painter, "man, you must have some great turpentine."

    1. No one ever tells the painter "Man, you must have some great turpentine." because they're not in the studio while you're working.

      That shit has made me see the face of GOD in my oils entirely too many times.
      One can never have enough ventilation.

  4. "If I had a motto it would be this: Never buy shitty tools, either do without, or save your money until you can afford decent equipment. "

    Mine is similar. 'Life's too short to use crappy tools.' Also, 'You can laugh or you can cry, so you might as well laugh.'

    1. My late father had a similar one: "Life's too cheap for short booze - get the good stuff!"

    2. The motto could go way beyond shitty tools.
      I remember as a kid sitting in an ice cream store that had a plaque on the wall with a quote, I think, from one of the two founders. Even fifty years later I remember it.
      "There are very few things in this world that can't be made a little worse and sold for a little less. Woe to the people who don't know this, for they will know the price of everything and the value of nothing."
      Woe to our country. The "low price leader," the country's biggest private employer, leaders in the race to the bottom AND in the income gap between owners and workers, Walmart, sure sells a lot of things made a little bit worse.

  5. My dad was an extreme cabinet maker. My fondest sensory memory from my childhood is the smell of cut wood. He would have loved to putz around with your new toys, er, uh, TOOLS! Bon chance!

  6. Love your post - here is an article on what happened when a 3D printer and modern medicine intersect: http://makezine.com/magazine/hands-on-health-care/

    Being able to have a physical, 3D representation made from 2D imaging is amazing, but then applying the results to improve the surgical technique used on the problem (instead of doing it the way it has always been done) is the kicker. Yes change happens, sometimes for the worse, but mostly for the better. Unfortunately, change scares us, and thus it is 'bad' at a gut level until proven otherwise.

  7. Your last comment, adapt or die, is the most telling part. It's something that some people (citizens & government employees alike) seem to have forgotten. I agree with you in that we need to progress, not regress. Onward & upward!

    One hopes that this next generation keeps that as one of the most important credos. Mankind needs to start spreading it's wings again, but in ways that help and enrich all of humanity.

  8. I once had the opportunity to toy with a very expensive, Fortune 500-owned 4-axis CNC during testing and commissioning. You are only limited by your imagination (tired cliche, of course). Oh, the places you will go!

  9. I do machine embroidery. I've had my work dismissed "just pushing a button". But it is my layout, my thread and fabric choices, my color sense, that make my work unique.

    There was the same outcry about the printing press, the loom, and the sewing machine...

    1. I just bought a BabyLock embroidery machine, Dianne. Looking forward to personalizing some of my art with it. :)

    2. Believe me, if I could afford it I'd buy the most high-end computerized Bernina machine. Can do lots with my old 1980's Bernina, but woo hoo...that embroidery!!!

  10. I'd like to see the machines take over even more jobs, leaving the rest of us more time to do actual satisfying work.

    1. It is good to see another thinking as I do. If you are interested, my comment (67) was written before reading yours. I will remember your shorter way of putting it. Very good!

    2. I have spent a lot of time trying to think of an economic system that would enable the accomplish of that. Regulated, uncorrupted capitalism that caused true equality, maybe? I doubt that could be accomplished. Too bad that technology is so far ahead of the average persons intellect. Maybe technology can be used to change that.

  11. And, may I say, welcome back, Jim. Hope you are refreshed and enhappied; We've missed you.

  12. However, one thing a spelling checker can't do is tell you when you've used "compliment" and you really needed "complement."

    1. Well, the technology is evolving quickly. Maybe it'll make proof readers obsolete soon....

      :) Thanks, Janet, I fixed it.

    2. I think it might have gotten "fixed" to complAment... should be complEment. :)

    3. Good, good, I see you're all paying attention. Okay then, I'll, uh, put it right now that I've confirmed that. Uh, good job, everybody. Carry on.

    4. While we're on typos, "All technology as both benefit and bane" sounds fishy to me. It might be a sentence fragment, or might be either "is" or "has".

    5. I think vice is supposed to be versus.

      (think a laser printer running at 1000DPI vice the usual 300DPI of a standard machine)

      As for the rest of it, there's a slow clap going on back over here. Couldn't agree more. Back when I used to be a teacher, getting the other teachers on board with new evolving technologies like Google apps was incredibly difficult, even though it made our lives easier, saved time, and could give better and more instantaneous feedback to the students. They didn't want to take the time to learn new things, because hell, writing comments by hand and giving them back to the kids the next day was good enough for the last four thousand years. Now, as a law student, I'm glad I embraced the technology early on, because the mobile office is basically going to be the rest of my life.

    6. "1000DPI vice the usual 300DPI" - another one the spell checker won't catch - vice should be versus or even just vs.

      Grammarly has a grammar checker for things like misused words.

    7. While vice is commonly defined as "a moral fault or failing" it can also be used as a preposition meaning "in place of" - from the latin vicis (change, alteration, or in the stead of).

    8. What I have noticed is that, some people, correcting others spelling and grammar, are doing so because of an inferiority complex. They feel the need to show others that they are not inferior. As long as I can understand what another is trying to say, it is okay. I'm okay, you are okay. If I am speaking , you know which word I am using, compliment or complement. Janet, I hope that you are truly trying to be helpful, and not one of those covering a feeling of inferiority. I have found that in myself, my perfectionism is probably caused by my not wanting to be seen as being inferior. It is at the subconscious level, but in my trying to analyze it, I believe it has to do with and inferiority complex. I believe that much of what we say and do is related to our not wanting to be seen as inferior or abnormal. Think about it.

    9. I wonder if there is anyone with perfect grammar and spelling ability? I know that I am about as far away from that ability as you can get. Therefore you will never see me questioning others ability, unless I do not understand them.

    10. BTY, Janet, this comment and my previous two, are definitely symptoms of my inferiority complex.:)

    11. Folks,

      Some of you may be new here, so you're unfamiliar with how I do business. I actively encourage my readers to point out the errors. If you see a typo, a missing word, an incorrect use of grammar, etc, speak up.

      I'd like the essay to be as correct as possible and I'm not good at catching the errors in my own work and I'm too goddamned cheap to hire a proofreader. I'm aware that I make mistakes and I'm not such an ass that I can't admit it (I'm an ass upon occasion, but not that kind of ass. I'd prefer the Emperor to parade down the street with his clothes on, if you get my drift).

      As such I've invited my readers to point out anything they think is an error. And I'm grateful for the help. Repeat, I am grateful for the help.

      So do me a favor and lay off bashing people for doing what I encouraged them to do. Thanks // Jim

    12. The only true error I've seen of yours lately is not telling us you were headed to Hawaii and taking us along:)
      Warms my heart, at least, that you are carrying on.

  13. Some people are afraid of progress. Some people embrace it. I am fascinated by the new stuff, all of it. I'm 68 years old, and I can't believe some of the things that have been invented. My mom died about 3 years ago, she also appreciated the new stuff. Imagine, she was born in the horse and buggy era. She drove a Model t to school. But, she read and read and read. She got 10 kids thru school. She never lost her appreciation for technology. I guess I'm doomed to be the same. Anyway, our ancestors used rocks, we use computers. All have the same value. The human mind and imagination are wonderful things! Keep up the good work.

  14. I am quite deeply concerned about two things vis-a-vis this. One, the employed people who do not have their hours deliberately limited by their employer often are expected to work way more than forty hours a week, and those who do have their hours limited often have them limited so as to reduce their benefits, and two, there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of people who for any number of reasons can't "earn" a living wage. I think the deliberate attempt to minimize the number of workers required for manufacturing was probably the biggest and original contributor to that issue, but it has snowballed from there thanks to automation and outsourcing. I don't see a good answer until a guaranteed annual income becomes politically viable, and unfortunately I think things will have to get worse before they get better.

    1. It is not the machines (including computers) which decided to cut work hours and benefits, but the people in charge. I would argue that it is conservatives who paradoxically most embrace automation when it can make them more money at the expense of their fellow human beings. Machines do not dehumanize people- it's up to people to do that... (Just like so-called "conservatives" will embrace big government in surveillance, military and homeland security, pass more regulations to close women's health clinics, allow monopolies in internet provision, and spend 1.8x more on contractors than civil servants in the name of fiscal economy.)

  15. Everyone knows that machines dehumanize art, all in a quest for unnecessary precision. That's why all reputable sculptors rub the stone with their fingers until it assumes the proper shape. Mallets and chisels: The one-two punch to the testicles of stoneworking.

    1. Yeah, photographers are entirely dehumanized sell-outs. Real artists just smear their own blood on the canvas until the picture emerges.

  16. I suppose Satan has the same philosophy about his Tools, eh? That would be why you are one and I'm not!

    So, soon we will be able to order wooden pens with entire Stonekettle posts micro-inscribed upon them?


  17. My daughter is one of those with work up on DeviantArt. And the college she attended offers a class in blacksmithing. Computer animation, fire and anvil... tools of the trade.

    1. She sounds like me! Cartoon art and blademaking.

  18. Beautiful essay, Jim. We come for the politics, stay for ShopKat, but enjoy it due to the fine work you produce.

    Nobody's harassing Chuck Close for using rigs to paint his jumbo-size near-photographic works, are they?

    (Though I have heard people wonder whether Stephen Hawking's voice system has become sentient and replaced him.... hrm...

  19. Really enjoy your writing would like to be added to your friends list on facebook but cannot figure out how at one time was technical but so obsolete now when went through A school had three days on transistors rest was tube worked in electronics for most of my working life but oh how the times have changed have lots of computers, tablets cell phones etc but sure do not know a lot. If you would like would appreciate if you could add me to your friends list. I lived in Wasilla for many years Thank you

  20. My father said every project buy a tool, but make it a good one. Cheap tools do the job once, but you'll always regret having them. And they tend to stifle the desire to get what you should have bought. I don't need a SECOND socket set. I'll just get better individual sockets when I need them. Then when you finally get a new socket wrench, it's like why the Fuck did I put up with this piece of hit for fifteen years? Cheap tools mean you're going to pay twice.

    Dr. Phil

  21. The more work that can be automated and done at higher and cheaper standards, the better.

    The problem with "jobs" is of course, totally political.

    We could have a 30 hour "full time" workweek, with mandatory 5 weeks of vacation time, while paying a higher wage/salary than we do now, virtually eliminating unemployment for people capable and willing to work.

    But that would, of course, be socialism. And socialism will kill all of us.

    Besides, if we aren't free to die in a gutter, bankrupt, from a curable disease, we aren't really free.

  22. Nick formerly from the O.C.January 15, 2015 at 8:34 PM

    Good stuff, as usual. I agree that one of the basic divisions today is how we look to the future. Some look to the future with hope, others with fear. Still others keep looking in the past trying to make the future into the past. Charles Stross had a good quote about that back in 2010, when he wrote: "Burkean conservativism tends to be skeptical of change, always asking first, 'will it make things worse?' This isn't a bad question to ask in and of itself, but we're immured a period of change unprecedented in human history (it kicked off around the 1650s; its end is not yet in sight) and basing your policies on what you can see in your rear-view mirror leaves you open to driving over unforseen pot-holes. To a conservative, the first priority is not to lose track of what's good about the past, lest the future be worse. But this viewpoint brings with it a cognitive bias towards the simplistic outlook that innovation is always bad."

  23. I simply love new "toys" of all kinds - kitchen items, computers, phones, tablets. I am known as the Gadget Queen in my neighborhood. I am limited only by lack of funds :)

    Keep up the good work and enjoy your new toys. Life is good, eh?

  24. As a longtime aviation professional, I anxiously await the technology that will supplant the Bell 212 and De Havilland Twin Otter, but I think their specialties will be obsolete before they are.

  25. Methinks though doth protest too much. Okay I cribbed that. Yeah and I posted from my laptop, but I could have used a quill if I knew what a nib was. Luddites are people too, my friend.

  26. I suspect that you don't have an ornamental lathe, but with the good tools you have I expect that you could make yourself one

    1. I have several lathes, none are ornamental. And I'm thinking about buying another one, bigger.

    2. An ornamental lathe? One that just sits there any looks pretty but can't actually carve anything? Like one of those faux spinning wheels that is actually a plant stand?

    3. An introduction to ornamental lathes...

      Some examples of what they can do...

    4. Rose engines are the beans; I'm going to build one some day. Art producing art. The funny thing is, I'll probably have to hire someone with a CNC mill to build some of the parts!

  27. Welcome back, Jim. I'm looking forward to your next evisceration. Of someone else, that is.

  28. When I went back to school (at age 30) for my marine engineering degree and license, the retired Chief Engineer (Steam Vessels of Any Horsepower) who taught my automation and controls courses opined, "The modern maritime industry's ideal engineroom watch is one man and a dog. The man is there to feed the dog. The dog is there to bite the man if he touches anything."

    (More practically - and the man did have his master's degree in automation and controls engineering - his introduction to the first course was "If you learn nothing else here, learn this: whatever the level of automation in your plant, you may safely assume that 20% of it is out of calibration, out of adjustment or out of commission at any given time. Use it, but don't stake your life on it.")

  29. We've lost far more American jobs due to the repeal of the Fair Trade Laws and NAFTA than due to mechanization, although I'll admit watching that TV show How Things Are Made that showed one man and a machine make an entire circuit breaker module that used to take 4 men was damned impressive, and robots meant you didn't have to hope your Chevy wasn't made on Friday anymore...

    1. You are correct, but no one made us buy American products, made by foreign workers, when we seen Americans losing their jobs. Now we have no choice. One would find it difficult to only buy American.

  30. Great essay, as always. =) The Luddite bits put me in mind of this quote by the physicist Richard Feynman regarding science vs. art (as opposed to technology vs. art):

    "I have a friend who's an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don't agree with very well. He'll hold up a flower and say "look how beautiful it is," and I'll agree. Then he says "I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing," and I think that he's kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is ... I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it's not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there's also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts."

    I am in agreement that you can't judge an artist's merit based on the kinds of tools which he chooses to use. That's just execution. The art lies in the idea, and the craftsmanship and attention to detail which the artist invests in the work. There can be just as much Art in a painting created with an airbrush or a digital image program as there is in one executed with more traditional tools and media.

    1. Richard Dawkins deals with this exact concept in "Unweaving the Rainbow". As a biologist I have long felt that I see way more beauty in Nature (because I understand to some degree how it all works) than any non-biologist, artist or not. (BTW, these are not fighting words. I'm just commenting on my own POV.)


  31. "How we face this change, in fear or with wonder, is in large part the basis for the political division that exists in America today."

    With both fear and wonder - and making intelligent choices that account for both edges of the double bladed sword is is our new technologies I'd suggest.

    "Do you know what a farrier is? Or a cooper? Or a miller? Or any of the various flavors of woodwright?"

    I think I know at least most of those, off the top of my head (no wiki or google promise!) I'd think a farrier was someone who made horseshoes for horses or fitted them; a cooper made barrels for holding things like wine and beer and other goods and also helped repair old naval vessels from the age of sail and a miller was one who provided flour ground from what, barley , maize /corn etc .. grinding the kernals to powder with stone milling wheels driven by water sometimes horses on a pestle type arrangement yes? The various flavours of woodwright I won't pretend to know but I will note that I gather at one stage they had different professions within making old bows - craftsmen who would shape and make the (wooden part of) the bow itself and then other different craftsmen who would string the bow.

    These noted, I'll also note that I reckon you are spot on here and well writ as always, Jim Wright. Thankyou and great to see you posting here again.

  32. With any craft, art, or work, there is a point at which someone else thinks you are taking it too easy.

    My two crafts are writing and knitting. As a writer I use a laptop and a modem, so I don't have a typewriter. But I was born before electric typewriters became the newfangled writing tool. In the past, a writer had to go buy ink. Before that they had to cut quills into pens (hence the penknife) and make the ink from whatever the hell you made ink from.

    As a knitter, I go out and buy yarn. I don't spin the stuff myself. In the past a knitter would have had to spin yarn and dye it, and then was probably frowned at by someone who bred and sheared their own sheep.

    Each previous generation thinks the next one has it too easy.

    But there is a problem with "adapt or die." Companies will not pay to retrain employees when big new technology comes in, especially if the employees are over a certain age. Even if the employee is willing to learn on their own (or has already learned) there is an age-ist attitude that makes it hard to find a new job if you have been pushed out of your old one in your late 40s or 50s.

  33. Ah, a fellow lefty.... Us and the Pres...

    A good Maxim of my Mom's I try to follow and which has served me well so far: Quality before Quantity. (In particular she was referring to clothing, furniture, kitchen gadgets and men.)

    As a writer and a scientist, I love new technology wisely utilized. It allows me to live and work in a remote area where less than 50 years ago it would have been impossible, or at least really uncomfortable and slow. The book that took me 10 years to write on a computer I would still hacking away at on if I was using the IBM I learned to type with. I can't imagine the technology my son will be using by the time he heads to college in less than a decade. (Have you seen the pen stand projected light computer screens and keypads in final development stages now?) OTOH, we all see how iphones and social media is affecting our youth currently. Did you know there is now a medical diagnosis for the spinal curve and muscle damage being cause by the texting slouch?

    One of the first things I learned about animal behavior is that for most creatures, mammals at least, change is very stressful. Yet life is nothing but change. Being able to cope and adapt. Deal with stress and unpredictability.

    I think this fact is starkly illustrated by our current political polarization. On one hand you have those who are holding onto, quite vocally, the past. And on the other side, are those who embrace change, progress and new ideas. Guess which group will be (as history has shown) more successful in the long run?

    Hope you have a great MLK holiday weekend.

  34. Yes, I get it. The technology that runs most areas of my life is a huge advantage over what it replaced. Technology has enabled the mass production and distribution of affordable goods to enrich (and sometimes overwhelm) the lives of ordinary people. We have incredibly much more "stuff" than our ancestors--even our grandparents--did, and our lives are generally less labor-intensive and more comfortable for it.

    It strikes me that we need a guaranteed income floor for people who lose their jobs when technology changes things beyond the ability of workers to cope. In some areas, changes seem to come almost overnight. Have you tried to buy carbon paper or photographic film lately? They're right up there with buggy whips--expensive specialty items used by very few. No wonder people are afraid of change, however necessary it might be in our lives.

    I hope, though, that there is always a place for the Luddites. My own hobby is hand quilting. It is a hobby, because very few could afford to pay even a minimum wage for the hundreds of hours that go into designing, piecing, and quilting a quilt by hand. I understand your fellow woodworker's point about machines dehumanizing art, because I enjoy the process of making a quilt far more than possession the finished product. But machinery has enabled other quilters to produce beautiful quilts in greater numbers in much less time than it takes for me to make a single quilt, and to sell them for reasonable prices if they wish. Similar objects, different skill sets, made for different reasons.

    That Other Jean

    1. If technology done away with the need to work, every one could do the work they enjoy, without wasting their time doing work to survive. Can you imagine the advancements that could be made in that kind of environment? Many are too small minded to see that.

  35. What are you supposed to do to be natural? Find a log in the woods and chew it into shape?? Buff it against your chest hair to smooth it out? Use the sweat of your brow to oil it? Us humans are tools users! Use your tools and have fun!

    I am a learning woodworker. I am planning on starting off slow and may never advance beyond simple power tools. All that I've ever made in past has been with handtools - ie. wood carvings with an exacto knife and small shelving units with hand tools. This doesn't make my 'art' more authentic than those who use table saws and routers, it is simply me doing my stuff, my way, with stuff I have. Part of it is skill and knowledge (or the lack thereof in my case! :) !) Part of it is that I like sitting on the patio with a chunk of wood and a knife to doodle a wood carving.

    As "That Other Jean" mentions, this applies to all crafts. I have started to learn quilting too and the first thing that I have learned is that I LOVE the piecework (putting the shapes together to make the front piece). I do not love the quilting (putting the batting and back piece on and sewing it all together). At all. I plan on supporting some local quilt shop with a machine to finish my piecework into actual quilts, and I do not see that as 'cheating' at all. Saying that, I have one quilt that I am working on that I am hand quilting... the kids picked out cat-print fabric. I pieced it and I'm now quilting it by handstitching outlines of cat shapes all over the work. About 60 different cat sillouettes. I am enjoying the project, it is art. I don't think I'll ever do it again because machines exist to do it better!

    And as Valerie DeBenedette mentions above about knitting, I also crochet and most of my yarn I buy or I would get nothing done! Sometimes I buy fancy wool, sometimes I buy the cheap stuff because it can be thrown into the washing machine. I also know how to take raw fleece, wash it, card it, and spin and dye it. That's really cool too, but is not 'better' than my store bought yarn and crochet art. It's simply a different form of fiber art. Yarn snobs really annoy me!

    I admit to not understanding why some people choose to do some forms of art.. ie. using knitting machines.... but not because of the products that they create. It is ART. They make lovely items and make them fast. With yarn though, I like the process as much as the product. The feel of holding the wool and watching it turn into something. But even though I do not understand the desire to use this machine, I still see the pleasure one gets out of creating art with it. It's just not my thing.

  36. My husband is a mechanical engineer who concepts and designs robots, primarily for the auto industry. If you have a car, it was most likely painted by one of his robots. He will often come home and head into the garage to work on a prototype part needed on a very short turnaround for the current project. He'll fire up his metal lathe or Bridgeport, or put on his welding helmet and make the part he designed on SolidWorks (CAD program). It will look like a jewel when he is done. If that is not being an artist I don't know what is.

  37. Part 1.
    “Second, I call shenanigans on the idea that these machines take away human jobs.
    They take away some jobs ... and make many others.”
    Sure, you’re right; these machines don’t take away human jobs. But you make it sound like all machines are created equal. Imagine (and it’s easy if you try) that smart machines, unlike the dumb machines you mention, will take away jobs, and not replenish them.
    Smart machines know when to work. They know what to do, and just as important, what not to do. When they break down, another smart machine comes along to fix them. If they need a spare part, they load the schematics into a 3D printer and print the spare part themselves. They. don’t. need. us. Scary? No, not really.
    Look at the Transportation industry – about 9 million jobs in the US alone, give or take. Let’s say a smart machine can do a big portion of these jobs, like trucks that can drive themselves, safer than we can, and for far less cost. What jobs will this make? None that I can think of. What other industries can a smart machine be cost effective in? Factories? You bet. They already are. What about Hospitals and the Food Service industry? They’re doing that too. What about lawyers? What is a lawyer’s main job? It’s Discovery. Guess what excels at going through page after page of boring, sleep inducing text, looking to discover that one needle in the haystack? You guessed it, smart machines. What about doctors? Smart machines can access over half a million medical case studies of diseases just like yours and develop a treatment plan exclusively for you, based on what’s been proven to work in the past…
    Smart machines, or robots, will take away jobs from humans, but I don’t think they’ll make many new ones. Robots will begin to replace robots. Should we be afraid of this? No, we should welcome it. I want my car to be able to drive itself. I want it to take me wherever I want to go in the morning and then have my car go back home and wait until I’m ready to be picked back up later in the day. I don’t want to pay for parking downtown, and I might even want to take a nap in the back seat along the way while my car does all of the work.

  38. Part 2.
    But if this happens some things need to change. What will the unemployment rate be like when robots get just a little better than they are right now and start to take our jobs? Knowledge doubles every 18 months, when it used to take 10 years. Soon knowledge will double in less than a day. I say this not to scare you, but to stress to you the point that robots will get better a lot sooner than we think. What will our unemployment be like in 10 years’ time? Our permanent unemployment rate could be, (and here the projections go wild-all over the chart), from 25% to 90%. Nobody knows exactly.
    If this happens (and I think some of it will) I’ll probably be out of a job. I want to work, but a robot will do it cheaper, and take no sick days, and need no insurance. I might not be able to afford to live anymore. I won’t have shelter, clothing, food, or medical care. If this happens, then I will die unless I receive some kind of help. Chances are, so will everyone who reads this.
    The question is, what should we do? Should we simply roll over and die because we’ve become obsolete? What if we all agreed on a shared work plan? Let’s say, as an example, that we have 25% unemployment. We could all work 75% of the time. We could take our usual allotted vacation, plus an extra 3 months off, with pay, each and every year. Sweet! But how would we pay for that? Should we demand some of the profits gained from a cheaper, robotic work force to help out everyone? Or maybe those that want to work will work, and those that don’t won’t. Should we support the ones that don’t work? What if they’re unemployed, but not by their own choosing? What if there is no work for them? Will we just let them die?
    I’m interested in what you think we should do if all this comes true?
    I’m tilting at windmills, but I’d rather have this conversation now before it ever happens, (if it ever does). I have to go back to work. My computer is telling me it needs my help, but I wonder, for how much longer?
    “Imagine no possessions
    I wonder if you can
    No need for greed or hunger
    A brotherhood of man
    Imagine all the people
    Sharing all the world...”

    -Imagine by John Lennon.

    1. Very, very good!! The hours I have spent thinking much the same. It is obvious that our present economic and political systems need to be changed, if the need for work no longer exists. We will need to provide for people wanting to work, not needing to work. The only thing even close is Communism, and man has already proven that he is not good enough for that. Mans greed and believing that superiority should translate into having more than others, makes it nearly impossible to find a not needing to work system. Maybe technology will force us into finding a way.

  39. Tell your friend that Mr. Roboto was just a concept album, and a kinda shitty one at that.

  40. Do you know what a farrier is? Or a cooper? Or a miller? Or any of the various flavors of woodwright?

    Yes to the center two, but in the latter case only because there's an actual antique but still operating windmill near where I grew up and in the former case because I came across the description at some point and liked the concept so it stuck in my head.

    ... But that's the point you were making, isn't it? A century or two ago these were professions that were quite literally vital to the economy; nowadays they're essentially trivia questions. And that's not a bad thing.

    As for myself, I'm incredibly lucky; the job I've got, the thing I discovered I'm really good at, would not have existed or been possible for me to learn or do if I'd been born so much as a decade earlier.

    Great article, as always.

  41. As an artist myself (I make knives, Batarangs and other sundry sharp and pointy things), I agree to a degree. I dislike CNC machines for blademaking because it really does take the artisan away from the art. Nothing artistic about punching in numbers and walking away while the machine does the work. Worse, if you buy the programs prewritten. Ugh.

    That said, I'm a big fan of powered grinders and sanders, Dremel tools and drill presses, and if I could afford and had a place for a power hammer, I'd be all over that as well.

    A Hand made knife should come from one of two methods; Hand forged or Stock removal. As much as I love hand forging, even I have to admit my age (53 this year), and physical ailments are catching up to me, I may not be able to forge much longer. But as long as the majority of the work I do is my hands on the steel, I feel I'm still imparting something of myself into the work.

    That's my .02 cents, anyways.

    1. I couldn't agree more....there is something to laying your hands on a piece of material and bringing it to the shape and dimension you wish. Look at a piece of Louis XIV furniture and try to imagine the level of artistry that it took to create with the tools available at the time.

  42. Thank goodness for "technology", Almost 50 years old. Facing divorce, and making a living. I learned "computers." Remember "Wang"? You learn ..... to keep up.... or you don't pay the mortgage, or whatever. I..... gratefully.... learned..... from "Wang".... to IBM.... and progressively to whatever..... I needed to know... to pay the bills. Progress.....is not standing still..... it's moving forward. Always...... moving forward. Learn....... or not...and suffer the consequences..... There, hopefully, will always be something.... to replace the "horse and buggy".... and those other lost professions....and "the only certain in life.... is change." JMHO.

  43. Good job of defending technology. I would like to add a little if I might. Here is something I tell those that want to go back to a time without technology. That time is before we picked up a rock to crack a nut or picked up a stick to use. Still want to go back before technology.? Another thing I would like to point out is that through technology the day should come when we no longer need to work. A time when we only work because we want to. Work for the fun of accomplishment. Work could be something everyone enjoyed, if it was doing what they want to do. I see a day coming when we are capable of turning energy into any matter we want to. Even today we have the technology and resources to allow us to only need to work for a short part of our lives. If we used our intellect to control the population, we could probably all be wealthy too. The need to have more than one another seems to be all that is stopping us.

  44. well, that was disappointing. I went to your 'store' to see some or your art and the store was closed.

  45. When someone challenges the notion that increased reliance on technology is good and think it has dehumanized certain tasks previously performed with simpler tools the simple and convenient response is to call them a Luddite.
    And it works every time, doesn't it?

  46. "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."

    The point is art is something created by human experience, that stirs something in the human mind.

    If I took a camera, and took a photo of Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini, then ran it through Photoshop softening a hue, tweaking the shape of the mouth, etc, would millions still flock to see it displayed as La Giaconda? Would Mona Lisa be as famous?

    What about those who paint the Mona Lisa now? Is that art in its own right, because of the skill, or is it just copying, no better than a photo? What of a photo of the Mona Lisa, is that art?

    I like to write. I have an unpublished novel sitting on this laptop. The use of Word makes it easier for me to write, to edit and re-edit until the writing is tight, However does it also mean the spirit of the writer is edited out, the particular cadence of the writing that comes from language?

    Back in the 70s a scriptwriter working on the pilot of a feature length TV drama realised he forgot one important line, and the response. Being the 70s he would have to retype the whole page, so he tacked it on the end, as an afterthought. If he had a word processor that character would never have had the character establishing moment, the persona that appeared absent minded, but hid a razor sharp mind. Columbo would never have turned at the last moment and said "Just one more thing, sir."

    If your machine is carrying out your will to a higher level of accuracy, that is PROBABLY art. If you are just saying 'design x here, it possibly isn't.

    As I type I have a print of the famous painting "Defence of Hougoumont Farm" by Robert Hillingford on my wall to my side. If I made a picture similar by using a computer to pose the figures, already correctly uniformed , and smoke added not by me painting smoke, but by defining source, density and wind direction. Would it be art. What if I took a Pixar style animation suite, told the computer to clothe the basic marionettes in historic uniforms, calculate how they should hang, then posed them like a diorama, with the computer doing the calculations of how uniforms hang, is that art? The computer does the shading, I merely direct.

    Would a straight photograph of Madame Gherardini be art. She just sits in front or the camera, and there is a click. How about if she sat in front of a lens that connected to a robot that could paint in the style of Da Vinci. It doesn't understand the style, but it can mimic it, like a lyre bird can a chainsaw? If the final result could be passed off as a Da Vinci, like forgers do, is that art?

    Can you define the difference between Twilight, 50 shades of Grey, The Great Gatsby and Hamlet?

  47. To Jim: My brother, a computer hacker/code writer/analyst from 'way back (the 1970s), has a hobby creating artistic renderings of math code, sorta like yet not like fractal imagery. He puts the math code on a memory stick and takes it to a machine shop where he can have his math code renderings laser-cut in wood or acrylic plastic, or both. He's made some pretty interesting clock faces from these creations.

    He'd doubtless be pretty envious at you purchasing your very own automated laser cutting/engraving machine, because it costs him about $100 for every one of his renderings to be cut in wood or plastic.

  48. "machines dehumanize art", or - as Pablo Picasso expressed it: "Computers are useless; they can only give answers".

    I often use variants of this quote (which doesn't seem to be completely accurate) to teach my colleagues about the fallacies of trusting the outcome of our weather models:

    "The nice thing about using computers is that they will always provide answers (i.e., numbers)."

    1. Anecdata; because of a case of measles when I was an infant, my fine motor skills are not what they could be. Mostly nobody can tell unless they see my handwriting, or the fact I can't draw a straight line even with a ruler. However, I make my living in part doing graphics with Photoshop and Illustrator. The computer allows me to create art that I never could have done elsewise.

  49. Let's not forget that technological advances are also what enable artistic achievement. There was no great art before there was agriculture because people had to spend their entire existence securing food and shelter. Once only a portion of the population was necessary to ensure everyone's survival, others could be devoted to carving the Sphinx and the Pieta, painting the Mona Lisa, composing the Jupiter Symphony, and writing Northanger Abbey.

    BTW, Jim, I know this isn't why you wrote this column, but........ Could you post a link to a website where we might view your wares and perhaps purchase them? Thanks.


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