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Monday, May 25, 2009

Working with your hands

The New York Times Magazine ran an interesting excerpt from a book called The Case for Working with Your Hands this past weekend. In it, the author expresses how directly working on a physical object is direct, honest and cleansing in a way that intellectual work (such as the deservedly maligned investment banking) is not.

To some large extent I agree with him, but I've also had exceedingly bad encounters with shadetree mechanics who wouldn't read a book or understand the principles behind them if it killed them. Here's an example: Bicycle Wheels. I started building them for myself after running into several issues with wheels built by bike mechanics.

What really annoyed me was that these mechanics always adopted a holier than thou attitude --- they would insist that what they were doing was correct, despite violating every engineering principle. Myth and lore would take priority over being correct and building solid wheels. For instance, mechanic after mechanic would insist that straight 14 gauge spokes were stronger that swaged spokes. They would insist that not tensioning the wheel up to maximum possible tension was better than doing so (even though wheel durability is directly correlated with spoke tension). I even recently got into an argument with a well-known wheel builder as to whether spoke prep/loctite was necessary for building strong wheels.

It was this kind of attitude that made me realize that no matter the myth/lore/experience of a shade tree mechanic (or even a reputable mechanic) --- someone who's a good engineer (even someone who's not a real engineer, such as a software engineer) who's willing to read up on prior art and apply himself really does make a superior mechanic, if that was what he wanted to do. So there's plenty of learning on both sides.

(And I have no doubt that investment bankers would make terrible mechanics)

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