The Northern Spy: tools and the Fourth Civilization
TweetFollow Us on Twitter

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 ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net 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: http://www.ArjayBooks.com
The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com
opundo : http://opundo.com
Sheaves Christian Resources : http://sheaves.org
WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net
WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net
nameman : http://nameman.net
General URLs for Rick Sutcliffe's Books:
Booksurge: http://www.booksurge.com
Fictionwise: http://www.fictionwise.com

URLs for items mentioned in this column
Heinlein and Sutcliffe: http://sheaves.org/sheavings/thecompleatchristian.html
BBEdit: http://www.bbedit.com
Scrivener: http://literatureandlatte.com
Word: http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/word

 
AAPL
$106.98
Apple Inc.
-0.36
MSFT
$46.05
Microsoft Corpora
-0.57
GOOG
$550.31
Google Inc.
+0.98

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Cocktail 8.0.1 - General maintenance and...
Cocktail is a general purpose utility for OS X that lets you clean, repair and optimize your Mac. It is a powerful digital toolset that helps hundreds of thousands of Mac users around the world get... Read more
LibreOffice 4.3.3.2 - Free Open Source o...
LibreOffice is an office suite (word processor, spreadsheet, presentations, drawing tool) compatible with other major office suites. The Document Foundation is coordinating development and... Read more
VMware Fusion 7.0.1 - Run Windows apps a...
VMware Fusion allows you to create a Virtual Machine on your Mac and run Windows (including Windows 8.1) and Windows software on your Mac. Run your favorite Windows applications alongside Mac... Read more
OneNote 15.3.2 - Free digital notebook f...
OneNote is your very own digital notebook. With OneNote, you can capture that flash of genius, that moment of inspiration, or that list of errands that's too important to forget. Whether you're at... Read more
Audio Hijack Pro 2.11.4 - Record and enh...
Audio Hijack Pro drastically changes the way you use audio on your computer, giving you the freedom to listen to audio when you want and how you want. Record and enhance any audio with Audio Hijack... Read more
Iridient Developer 3.0.0 beta 3 - Powerf...
Iridient Developer (was RAW Developer) is a powerful image conversion application designed specifically for OS X. Iridient Developer gives advanced photographers total control over every aspect of... Read more
TextWrangler 4.5.11 - Free general purpo...
TextWrangler is the powerful general purpose text editor, and Unix and server administrator's tool. Oh, and also, like the best things in life, it's free. TextWrangler is the "little brother" to... Read more
NeoFinder 6.6 - Catalog your external me...
NeoFinder (formerly CDFinder) rapidly organizes your data, either on external or internal disks, or any other volumes. It catalogs all your data, so you stay in control of your data archive or disk... Read more
Chromium 38.0.2125.111 - Fast and stable...
Chromium is an open-source browser project that aims to build a safer, faster, and more stable way for all Internet users to experience the web. FreeSMUG-Free OpenSource Mac User Group build is... Read more
Default Folder X 4.6.11 - Enhances Open...
Default Folder X attaches a toolbar to the right side of the Open and Save dialogs in any OS X-native application. The toolbar gives you fast access to various folders and commands. You just click... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Audio Defence : Zombie Arena (Games)
Audio Defence : Zombie Arena 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: A zombie shooter audio game. Made from gut-wrenching 3D binaural sound, for a new kind of weird immersion. You... | Read more »
RPG Asdivine Hearts (Games)
RPG Asdivine Hearts 1.1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $3.99, Version: 1.1.0 (iTunes) Description: SPECIAL PRICE50% OFF (USD 7.99 -> USD 3.99)!!! Travel alongside four companions and a cat in the adventure of a... | Read more »
Haunt the House: Terrortown (Games)
Haunt the House: Terrortown 1.0.1 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $.99, Version: 1.0.1 (iTunes) Description: 66.6% OFF! SPECIAL SPOOKY HALLOWEEN LAUNCH PRICE! 66.6% OFF! ...What was that sound? Is somebody there? | Read more »
SAS: Zombie Assault 4 Review
SAS: Zombie Assault 4 Review By Jennifer Allen on October 30th, 2014 Our Rating: :: FLAWED SHOOTERUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Shoot everything that moves in this fun, if flawed, twin-stick shooter.   | Read more »
Naailde the Witch Review
Naailde the Witch Review By Amy Solomon on October 30th, 2014 Our Rating: :: PITCH-PERFECT STORYTELLINGUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Marvelous storytelling, narration, and moving illustrations make this storybook... | Read more »
1st & Goal Review
1st & Goal Review By Andrew Fisher on October 30th, 2014 Our Rating: :: FOR THE D&D LOVING QBUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad 1st & Goal is a board gamer’s football game, a football fan’s board game, and... | Read more »
French Developer Pated Unveils Seashine
French Developer Pated Unveils Seashine Posted by Ellis Spice on October 30th, 2014 [ permalink ] French one-man studio Pated has unveiled Seashine, “a poetic journey into the abyss.” Players take on the role of a jellyfish strugglin | Read more »
Agents of Storm: Tips, Tricks, and Strat...
Calling all agents: Would you like to see what we thought of this rather pretty base builder? Check out our Agents of Storm review! Have you downloaded Agents of Storm, been bowled over by the graphics, and aren’t quite sure what to do next? Never... | Read more »
Any.DO 2.0 Hopes to Help Manage Producti...
Any.DO 2.0 Hopes to Help Manage Productivity Posted by Ellis Spice on October 30th, 2014 [ permalink ] iPhone App - Designed for the iPhone, compatible with the iPad | Read more »
Base Busters Review
Base Busters Review By Jennifer Allen on October 30th, 2014 Our Rating: :: FUN BUT RESTRICTED MIXUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Mixing up two forms of tower defense gaming and collectible cards, Base Busters is a fun... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Apple Regains Momentum As Windows Stutters An...
The latest smartphone sales data from Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, for the three months to March 2014, shows Apple performing strongly in the first quarter of the year, with sales bouncing back in... Read more
Worldwide Smartphone Shipments Increase 25.2%...
New smartphone releases and an increased emphasis on emerging markets drove global smartphone shipments above 300 million units for the second consecutive quarter, according to preliminary data from... Read more
Apple now offering refurbished 2014 15-inch M...
The Apple Store is now offering Apple Certified Refurbished 2014 15″ Retina MacBook Pros for up to $400 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and... Read more
Apple drops prices on refurbished 2013 Retina...
The Apple Store has dropped prices on 2013 Apple Certified Refurbished 13″ and 15″ Retina MacBook Pros, with Retina models now available starting at $999. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and... Read more
New 2.8GHz Mac mini on sale for $949, save $5...
Abt Electronics has the new 2.8GHz Mac mini in stock and on sale for $949.05 including free shipping. Their price is $50 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price available for this model from any reseller... Read more
Sale! 3.7GHz Quad Core Mac Pro available for...
 B&H Photo has the 3.7GHz Quad Core Mac Pro on sale for $2649 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $350 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price for this model from any... Read more
Mujjo Steps Up The Game With Refined Touchscr...
Netherlands based Mujjo have just launched their Refined Touchscreen Gloves, stepping up their game. The gloves feature a updated elegant design that takes these knitted gloves to the next level. A... Read more
Sale! Preorder the new 27-inch 5K iMac for $2...
 Abt Electronics has the new 27″ 3.5GHz 5K iMac on sale and available for preorder for $2374.05 including free shipping. Their price is $125 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price available for this... Read more
Simplex Solutions Inc. Brings Secure Web Surf...
New York based Simplex Solutions Inc. has announced the release and immediate availability of Private Browser 1.0, its revolutionary new secure web browser developed for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch... Read more
Save up to $180 off MSRP with an Apple refurb...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished 2014 MacBook Airs available for up to $180 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each MacBook, and shipping is free.... Read more

Jobs Board

Position Opening at *Apple* - Apple (United...
**Job Summary** Every day, business customers come to the Apple Store to discover what powerful, easy-to-use Apple products can do for them. As a Business Leader, Read more
Sr. Manager, *Apple* Deployment Programs fo...
**Job Summary** Apple is seeking candidates for a new position on the Education Content and Technology team. iPad and Mac is in the hands of millions of teachers and Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant (ASC) - Apple I...
…important role that the ASC serves is that of providing an excellent Apple Customer Experience. Responsibilities include: * Promoting Apple products and solutions Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant (ASC) - Apple I...
…important role that the ASC serves is that of providing an excellent Apple Customer Experience. Responsibilities include: * Promoting Apple products and solutions Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant (ASC) - Apple I...
…important role that the ASC serves is that of providing an excellent Apple Customer Experience. Responsibilities include: * Promoting Apple products and solutions Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.