Thursday, October 26, 2006

Disaster Strikes - Not

I was mildly discommoded yesterday. Twenty years ago, I would have been in a world of problems. SOL we used to call it. The reasons why I am back in the clover, more or less, instead of breaststroking through the septic, are poorly understood by the chattering classes. And by "poorly understood," I'm being polite; I really mean: they haven't the faintest clue about which they speak, and would destroy everything good about what I'm about to to tell you, while sumultaneously excacerbating all the problems attendant to it.

What happened? A very important tool broke, and at an inopportune time.

There really is no opportune time for this sort of thing, but when you're working 12 hours a day or more every day trying to keep up already, calamities such as this can make a weak man look for a length of rope, an overhanging limb, and a chair. What the hell am I going to do?

The majority of all construction concerns, whether they be atelier furniture or condominiums you're building, is logistics. You heard me. The skill part is way down the list.

How are you going to get the things you need, when you need them, and thereby make something that satisfies the logistical needs of others. The filigree is nice, but it ain't important.

If you're a framer for house construction, you have to know what you're doing, cutting and nailing-wise, but it ain't rocket science. How are you going to get a 35 pound sheet of plywood up on a half built roof using high school dropouts and non-english speaking persons is the rub. And how are you going to make sure that that sheet of cdx you need isn't on the bottom of $40,000.00 worth of other lumber you ordered. How do you get it to the job on time, but no so early it gets stolen for the neighborhood kid's treehouses before you even begin? Logistics, people. It's all that matters.

As I was saying, the machine quit on me. A puff of smoke came out of it. Smoke signals in woodworking always translate the same: Don't even plug that thing in again. The "blue screen of death" in woodworking actually involves death sometimes, so you don't flirt with it.

I've been in this game a long time now. This used to happen in the field or factory, and you'd spend prodigious amounts of time, effort, and treasure trying to get another machine in place, or get the smoker fixed. You had no cellphone or computer; you' d call from a landline, never getting the person you needed, trying to find the thing you wanted, driving around, and all the while your projects languished. You'd have to tell all your customers that the job was delayed, we're waiting for such and such a part to come from (fill in the blank) and in the meantime we're all sweeping the floor and sharpening our plane irons.

Someone in China wants to make this tool for me. Someone that can negotiate transnational contracts and shipping wants to broker a deal to make and ship the things. Somebody wants to drop enormous coin in advance to buy and distribute the item all over these here United States, so there will be a big stack of them everywhere. Somebody wants to go through all the hassles of finding, permitting, building, and maintaining enormous box stores all over the landscape so I the average Joe can get to the things they're selling. Someone wants to drive a big truck all over the place day and night to deliver said items while we're all sleeping. And some clerks want to stand there and scan the box when I finally get there. Don't even get me started about all the information various parties wanted to supply me with on the internet, more or less free of charge, about the who, what, where, when, and how damn much it's gonna cost.

That's a lot of people who want to do things. I'm sure I've forgotten all sorts of people in there too, who are obscure but important to me. That's understandable, because no one knows who's important to them anymore. It's just not knowable. And tinkering with the process whereby a willing seller hooks up with a willing buyer because you think you know better than everybody what everybody needs, is where the chattering class comes in.

They don't think the guy in China needs that job. They don't think the importer should be able to do that. They don't think that truck should drive all night - or at all. They don't think consumer goods need to be so cheap. They don't think that warehouse should be built. They don't think those clerks make enough money to bother working in that big box store. They don't think... why am I bothering to list all this? They don't think anybody needs anything they don't need, and only if it's offered in a format they understand and adheres to their cranky worldview.
Yes I do need it. Everybody in that endless concatenation of events and people need what we got, and what we especially don't need is you mucking up our lives by saying we don't know what we need.

I purchased a replacement for a tool I've been using --hard-- for 15 years. The new one cost 1/2 of what the old one cost, and that's not even adjusting for inflation. And it works better than the old one did, even when it was new.

I lost most of a day because of this. Twenty years ago I could have lost the better part of a week or more, and pulled out some of my hair in the bargain. And whoever sold me what I ultimately got would have performed the highway robbery pricing routine on me to boot.

Busybodies, get out of our way, we're working here.


Pastor_Jeff said...

Episode #164 of Sippican Cottage's continuing series, "Why America Rocks."

And I mean that as praise.

I came here after reading some comments you had made on Althouse, wanting to know more about who this guy was. I found something you had written about the importance of natural light, wood, time-tested designs, and the essential wisdom of common people who will figure out how to do it better if we'll just let them.

Keep at it, my friend.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

I love capitalism, too.

Pogo said...


It reminds of the article I, Pencil, which notes that despite the fact that no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make a pencil, pencils get made anyway, and you can buy them cheaply, right now.

Via the market.

Editor Theorist said...

Great Stuff Sipp - another one that has lodged in my brain (NB: oblique reference to Robert Frost just there).

I'm telling a couple of family and friends about this piece.

SippicanCottage said...

Ah, what lovely people drop by the cottage from time to time.

PJ-Keep at it? I am reminded of the remark of a laconic,unimpressed visitor to Niagara Falls:

"Isn't it a wonder, all that water rushing over the falls?" they are asked.

They answer: "Harrumph. What's to hinder it?"

Ruth Anne- The mistake people make is they think capitalism is a system devised by man. You and I know it is what happens when there is no system devised by man. A series of useful institutions springs up if freedom is allowed, and they are misidentified as the thing itself.

Pogo- That one is a favorite of mine. Of course it all goes back to Adam Smith and the pinmakers.

Editor theorist-Robert Frost is enjoying a resurgence lately. He has been considered dreadfully square in the interim from the 1960s to now, at least around here. I've always found his poems profound in a simple way, instead of deliberately obscurantist like most modern poets. We were taught poems like Mending Wall and so forth as schoolchildren. Now they get Maya Angelou.

You are very kind to recommend me to others. I find it the most gratifying of compliments.

Annie said...

"They" just need locally grown organic arugula.

I'm very struck by what it's like to shop in Whole Foods. Most of the upscale countercultural types who shop there are anxious and rude. If you make a friendly remark about the bread they're buying, how good it looks, they give you a dirty look, like you've invaded their expensive privacy. They exude entitlement, get-out-of-my-way importance (like in The Little Prince-- "I am concerned with matters of consequence!"), and anhedonia -- for all the wonderful textures they're surrounded by and can afford, they seem too anxious about correctness and purity to enjoy pleasure.

I don't like Wal-Mart much because it's so devoted to standard brands, doesn't price them THAT spectacularly, and, unlike supermarkets with their house brands, has nothing in between Scott Towels or Brawny and really crappy generics labeled in Spanish. But I like the people who shop there a lot better.

SippicanCottage said...

"They" just need locally grown organic arugula.

I know you were being wry to make a point, but you have no idea how prescient you are.

I live in a great big swamp in southeastern massachusetts. It's full of mosquitoes, and those mosquitoes are full of Eastern Equine Encephalitis.

We used to spray harmless insecticides to kill such beasts. No more. The sane people around here tried to get some spraying going, but the usual lotos eaters protested. One woman- I'm not kidding-got up at a town meeting and said that if they sprayed insecticide, that the locally grown organic carrots she likes wouldn't be organic anymore. They prevailed.

Two people have died of EEE in the surrounding towns here. One was a little child. Their obituaries in the paper were very: So I guess that happened. No dots with a lack of bug killing are connected.

It's a kind of psychosis, this brand of paranoia about everyone and everything - except what is manifestly dangerous.

XWL said...

For those nostalgiac for the old ways of delays and interminable frustration there is Europe.

(I would have modified Europe with the adjective, always, but that's in some doubt . . .)

(also, I'm thinking this post is link-worthy besides just being praise-worthy, just have to think of the right juxtapositions and settings)

Janet said...

Hmm. I love arugula. Organically grown is even better, but I don't turn my nose up at my father-in-law's... I can't afford organic, but I'd buy it if I could. And I would smile back at you in the grocery store.

Hazy Dave said...

Not to throw cold water or disagree with anything you wrote, but do you think the tool you just bought will last as long as the old one? Not that 1991 was some Golden Age of tool manufacturing, but I know the pressure to take a nickel out of something's manufacturing cost, even if it makes it break down 10 days after the warranty expires rather than 10 years thereafter. Does it seem cheaper or flimsier? Or do you have to go back to the sixties to get one that's overbuilt to a very fine degree?

SippicanCottage said...

hazy dave- That's an interesting question. I've long experience with motors in tools. American motors have always been brutes. Really built like tanks. A washing machine motor from the 1960s would run forever if the rest of the parts from the washer would last.

The new one is the same brand and the comparable model as the old one. They are Japanese brand made in China and inexpensive. I've been using it, hard, for two days now.

In every way I can see, it's better. I can't find any aspect of it that seems inferior to its predecessor. I don't know if it will last as long. The old one really gave me good service.

There are really bright engineering people working in obscurity making these machines. I think the continuity in the product, with occasional improvement until the design itself is obsolete is the key. They don't try to redesign it every year with new chrome fins.

Bill said...

Does your rant apply to nails?

I've bought a couple boxes from Home Depot (finishing nails) and these suckers are bending like they're made of pot metal.

They're made in Mexico.

I've had a belt sander go belly up on me after two uses (out of warranty since I bought it several years ago) and a palm sander burn out before its time.

I'm not saying you're wrong, necessarily. The replacement sander works much better (from a Japanese company, Koyobi?) and the belt sander was too powerful for my home projects anyway.

Meanwhile, my American made circular saw's still going after 27 years, and we've got a mid-70s chest freezer that's still operating.

So in the end, I'm praising capitalism in general, not globalization. And since I live in Hershey (where they just cut 900 local jobs so they could hire Mexicans in their new plant south of the border), I've become a little more jaundiced about its benefits.

SippicanCottage said...

Hi Bill- I must admit, 99% of the nails I drive are pneumatic. A fantastic dream to a man who pounded nails all day in the past.

You are correct in your assessment that american made motors from forty years ago were outstanding. I am using a circular saw from the early 1960s that my parents used before me. But the only tool I've purchased recently that quit almost right away was a Porter Cable sander. They're made in America. I've got tools and machinery from all over the world and it's all pretty good now. And cheap.

The tools that I have at my disposal now are like a a kind of dream compared to 25 years ago. I remember lugging an enormous radial arm saw onto jobsites for an old employer, and thinking how unattainable that would be to own myself. Now every person at a construction jobsite shows up with a sliding compound miter saw that puts it to shame. Fantastic.

I have a great deal of sympathy in particular for people whose lives are disrupted by the creative destruction of an open economy. Mine certainly has been from time to time. But in general, people's livelihoods are always at risk for obsolescence, and enormous opportunities have presented themselves too. You can't have the opportunities without the risk.It's the nature of the beast. And expanding economies make us all richer.

Papa Ray said...

I have a little first and second hand knowledge about tools, tools used in construction and such.

My father in law worked as a carpender/contractor/all around build/fix/anything guy for fifty years. My son is now a contractor but started as a helper for his Grandad, 20 years ago. I have built and fixed stuff for free for all my friends and myself and have for 35 years.

Tools are only as good as their parts, parts such as bearings, switches, brushes, armatures, windings, wires, metals, etc.

America makes very few of these parts anymore. Even if a tool (or car) is made (assembled) here in the states, most likely the parts or assemblies come from another country.

Some countries make great parts, some don't, some sell cheap, some don't. the teck for some parts has come a long way..bearings for sure, as you used to have to actually oil the dang things.

But the manufacturing of parts in this Repubic is almost a thing of the past.

The manufacturing of complete items is almost a thing of the past.

The jobs that went with them...well, they are a thing of the past.

Sure I like going out and buying five battery operated tools from Sears (with their trademark Craftsman logo) cheap, but on the job they just don't last as long as they should.

Oh...ok, cheap? so they shouldn't last so long?

Well, maybe your right, you can just pop down and buy and new one (or if your a hard nose, make them give you a new one) and be off.

But, when your in the business of building, fixing and such, that trip and the hassle just don't seem to make up for it.

I would (and everyone I know in the construction business) would rather pay more for a more reliable tool made in the U.S.A.

Ain't gona happen, the Unions ruined all that, and what they didn't ruin, the Federal Government did.

Papa Ray
West Texas

Bombast said...

Bill asked

Does your rant extend to nails?

Try Hurriquake nails. They ARE more expensive - the number Bostitch throws around is they add $15 to the cost of a 2000 sq ft house. But they are amazing.