The Northern Spy: tools and the Fourth Civilization
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The Northern Spy: tools and the Fourth Civilization

By Rick Sutcliffe

The Spy’s tools provide this month's entertainment, both for his consistency and their diversity. You see, his two sons recently had their birthdays, and predictably, they got tools.

After all the well-equipped householder needs his drills, saws, screwdrivers, hammers, power strips, sockets, the box to organize it all, a good work bench and proper ladders. Now, no matter that one is a software engineer, and the other a high school math and history teacher -- how else can they get jobs done around the house?

The Spy himself has built two houses for his family, helped construct a church, and assisted said sons and others in reno projects on various scales, particularly with electrical work. He's also done not a little auto and tractor maintenance. So he's acquired hand tools, power tools, air tools, and mechanic's tools; tools for building, wrecking, and repairing, for house, car, lawn, and garden; tools for plumbing, electrical, framing, finish carpentry, drywall, siding, brick laying, floor installation, shelves, and woodwork.

His parts drawers number in the hundreds, yet most projects do seem to require at least one trip to the hardware department. Buy a few extra of that oddball machine screw why not, just in case. But at that, his shop is modest, even for a hobbiest. Home made router table -- yes. Saper and planer -- no. Small compressor -- yes. Framing nail gun -- no. Compound sliding mitre saw -- yes. Floor mounted drill press -- no. Portable table saw --yes. Professional cabinet maker's version -- no. Small tractor and tiller -- yes. Front end loader and harrower -- no.

Now, to the point. Why does he have seven kinds of hammer, five staple guns, four drills, a dozen or more saws in both hand and power, numerous chisels, and more screwdrivers than you can count? Because in tools, simplicity and specialization matter. A good professional's tool does one or two jobs better than any known alternative. If you want to do something else, use another tool.

You don't use a ball peen hammer for framing, a staple gun to loosen bolts, a reciprocating saw to make fine cuts in mouldings, a quarter inch drive socket on wheel nuts, a large propane torch for soldering a circuit board, welder's pliers to press ethernet outlets, a garden rake for grass, a chain saw on gyprock, a Robertson bit in a torx screw, or a fine knife as a screwdriver or prybar.

A hammer drill has a different problem domain than a brace and bit, an impact driver, or a wood drill. Ditto a laser level and a bullet level, a wood chisel and a cold chisel, a machine screw, gyprock screw, deck screw, and indoor wood screw, interior and exterior paint (and stain), a putty knife and a taping knife, a notched flooring mastic trowel and a bricklayer’s trowel, a finishing nail, spiral nail, ring nail and a common spike (bright or galvanized)--never mind that a half inch number eight wood screw and a number seven metric five centimetre machine screw ain't the same wee beastie as a self drilling cap-style sheet metal screw or a set screw, and a lag bolt is a screw that isn't even called a screw.

Yes and there are dozens of types and grits of sandpaper, nearly a hundred varieties of screwdriver bit, and more than that of sockets, the latter coming in metric and SAE for numerous bolt head measurements, four drive sizes, at least four different points, two or more lengths, and both impact and non-impact rated. Throw in articulators, hex style bits, stars, extenders, adapters, half a dozen ratchet handles and a breaker bar or two, and you've overflowed the largest roller chest drawer. Moreover, there are many other kinds of wrenches, not to mention pliers. In his parts drawers, the Spy must have at least thirty kinds each of roll bar, key, cotter pin, and o-ring, and half a dozen spray heads for his pressure washer.

It should be obvious that by contrast to the simple speciality tool, bit, or part that is best at its one (sub-)job, general-purpose multi-tools are things you slip in your pocket or glove compartment for quick-and-dirty work in emergencies or going camping. They don't rate precious space in your tool belt or box for serious projects.

Equally obvious ought to be that having multiple programming languages does serve a purpose, despite appearing like a zoo to the historian of such matters. Fortran still has a following, if for no other reason than its extensive numerical analysis, linear algebra, and other mathematical libraries. Likewise APL/J for its plethora of built in operators. Despite the diminishing problem domain, PROLOG is still useful in AI, and simple languages like Pascal, Modula-2 and Java for teaching. There may be more functioning lines of code in COBOL than any other language, and people still use JCL and RPG.

Ada failed not because it came out of the military establishment, but for the same reason as PL/1. By trying to be all things to all people, it failed the test of a focused, and therefore useful tool. C++ has a similar problem, and is today used only because of its enormous installed base and because it grew into its unmanageable complexity. Had it begun where it is now, it wouldn't have been accepted. Even a general purpose language ought to be simple to learn, teach, and use. It should at minimum be reasonably orthogonal, reasonably context free--for the lack of which VBA earns honours as the least well-defined notation of them all.

The same is true for our computing hardware and software tools. In the long run, the Swiss-army-officer's knife approach to computing can only be taken so far before it is doomed to failure. On the hardware side, this means that, despite some convergence and overlap, there will always be different uses for pocket devices, under the arm slates, portable computers, and larger iron desktops. Where we keep and use these different devices in part predetermines the problem domain for which they are capable of being useful.

One might tinker away at some writing on the airplane and in the hotel room, but for day after day serious writing of 10K words or more, the comfortable desk chair, ergonomic keyboard, large trackball, and the biggest, highest resolution monitor one can afford are so incomparably better they put the mobile little brother in the shade.

On the other hand, web browsing shouldn't even be done as work. Catching up on the news via a collection of RSS feeds into a reader is an ideal occupation to redeem a pot stirring, bus wait or train ride. And, a pad or pod is a perfect container for those twenty English Bible translations, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew with notes, and half a hundred references commentaries with which you dissect the sermon on the fly, instead of having to wait till you're home and done Sunday dinner. Adding another hundred volumes weighs nothing in the briefcase, and if you're on vacation, throw in a few dozen novels to while away the time while soaking up some rays. Who takes a desktop to either venue?

A medical professional making rounds in a hospital needs something bigger than a pod/phone, and the iPad (no other slates are worth mentioning) is the perfect replacement for the bound notebook, for it can connect to the hospital database, whose memory, unlike the human -- another specialization) is at least usually more consistent, even if it may not always be correct if not updated properly by all involved.

Thus, there will also always be differences between pocket and professional operating systems and applications, and between varieties of applications for purposes that are only loosely similar. Writing letters, memos, and small documents ain't the same problem domain as writing novels, or creating code, and its not likely that a text processor optimized for one will be comfortable for practitioners of another. It is even less likely that anyone could produce an application to do all three even passably well.

Indeed, this is why the Spy uses BBEdit for code production and web sites, NisusWriter Pro for the bulk of his general purpose documents, including this column, and Scrivener to write novels -- and unless traveling to a board meeting, does all these things on a desk, not with an iDevice (yet performs much of his browsing on the latter). It goes to the heart of why he regards Excel as best in its speciality class, but cannot abide Word for its bloated and confusing attempts to be all things to all writers that render it mediocre at best for anything.

It probably explains (in part) the genius of Steve Jobs, who though he ostensibly dictated closed box one-size fits-all devices, actually differentiated his product line so that one size targeted all parts of a specific problem domain, but not every problem domain.

An iPhone isn't an iPad isn't a portable Mac, isn't a desktop. Ditto apps. Converge features all you want, but there are several tools there, each with their own uses. Buy the ones useful for the kind of problems you want to solve, and leave the others on the store shelf.

The Fourth Civilization (wo)man is that semi-mythical someone the Spy has talked about many times before, most notably in his September 2004 column and in the article on the compleat human being at the Sheaves URL mentioned below. (Caution: the latter site contains graphic and explicit Christian language of a kind some readers may deem offensive. If in that category, rely on your memory of Heinlein's discourse on the human being elsewhere and skip the Spy's elaboration to the Christian Human being.)

In brief, Heinlein at some length described the Human being as a generalist, and concluded "Specialization is for insects." The Spy offers a new version (now to be the Spy's eleventh law) adapted for technology, whether low or high.

Effective fourth civilization professionals are educated as generalists. They train and specialize via their appropriate choice of tools.

Intentionality is assumed in tool choice--one reason why the Spy sides with Penrose rather than Minsky of the issue of artificial intelligence (computing tools will always be just as dumb as a bag of hammers). Note also the part on education. In general, this means a Liberal Arts education so the citizen of this age is a broadly literate, informed, and capable problem solver. In the specific instance of a programmer, it means that the one-language hacker who learned his skills at Joe's computing school (meeting Tuesday nights above his garage and machine shop) may be able to work as low-level code slingers in the industry for a time, but will never perform like, promote so easily, or even outlast the liberal arts university graduate with a broad problem solving and software engineering mindset and a degree in computing science.

That's why the Spy plies his day job as professor of computing science and mathematics at Trinity Western University. Hey folks. It's not too late to sign up for the fall.

--The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several organizations, including in the corporate sector, and participated in industry standards at the national and international level.

He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and six novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to Participate and you could win free web hosting from the subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.

URLs for Rick Sutcliffe's Arjay Enterprises:
Arjay Books:
The Northern Spy Home Page:
opundo :
Sheaves Christian Resources :
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URLs for items mentioned in this column
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