Sunday, May 11, 2008

pin factories and such

Via Marginal Revolution, came to a post by Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics on specialisation -- linked, on the one hand, to our failure to see a connection between our patterns of behaviour and (say) global warming, and, on the other hand, to the system which enables one to fritter away hours, days, weeks, months at the keyboard snacking on food produced by the sweat of someone else's brow.

Dubner quotes the Babylonian Talmud:

Ben Zoma once saw a crowd on one of the steps of the Temple Mount. He said, Blessed is He that discerneth secrets, and blessed is He who has created all these to serve me. [For] he used to say: What labours Adam had to carry out before he obtained bread to eat! He ploughed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound [the sheaves], he threshed and winnowed and selected the ears, he ground [them], and sifted [the flour], he kneaded and baked, and then at last he ate; whereas I get up, and find all these things done for me.

And how many labours Adam had to carry out before he obtained a garment to wear! He had to shear, wash [the wool], comb it, spin it, and weave it, and then at last he obtained a garment to wear; whereas I get up and find all these things done for me. All kinds of craftsmen come early to the door of my house, and I rise in the morning and find all these before me.

I come across this while trying to sort out logistics for bringing things out of storage in the UK and transporting them to Berlin; have been putting this off for 4 years, because the piano needs a Luton van with a tail lift. A Luton van is the smallest available size of box van, a size just manageable for someone who has never driven anything larger than a car; I have driven one before (this was how I got the piano from London to the North in the first place), but that did not involve taking it on a ferry and driving a vehicle from drive-on-the-left Britain across drive-on-the-right Europe and back again.

The things in London went into storage when I went to NY in 2003; my editor had said I could work directly with the designer on my poker book, but he wanted to use his own designer. So I went to NY, and we negotiated a contract, and I could not get my publishers to provide the designer. The things in Leeds went into storage in 2000; my second agent, Andrew Wylie, had made tough noises when we met, claiming that the agency would bring ruthless efficiency to bear on -- this is the kind of thing that makes that book by Graham Greene look so good. Don't tell me about the past, tell me about the future.

It's a glorious day.

I had been thinking a while back that I would like to do an intensive course on driving an HGV, which can be done in Britain in a month for about £800, thinking how exceptionally helpful it would have been if I had been able to learn this at school. Thinking how much better off just about everyone would be if they were taught how to drive large vehicles with manual transmission at school. Asking myself: who expects to get through a lifetime without transporting stuff?

I've been spending a lot of time on Powerpoint, which the sort of job I might apply for tends to require. It makes driving an HGV look good, but the kind of job that calls for Powerpoint pays better. Have also been spending a lot of time on Excel pivot tables. These are moderately entertaining, especially when combined with MicroCharts, but I then get distracted and start playing around with Hadley Wickham's ggplot2. Had faintly hoped Powerpoint would look less deeply silly if I got to grips with it but it doesn't. Spent a long time working with hangul in Adobe Illustrator. Any wp program will let you select text and format it (Mellel will let you do more than most), but you can't select one element of a syllable in hangul, which the program perceives as a single unit: you must go into Illustrator, create a text box, type hangul, select with the Select tool, convert to outlines, select the element using the Direct Select tool, create a new layer, move the element to the new layer, and hey presto! format it. Question not the need.

This is what the hangul looked like when I was cutting and pasting and colouring in by hand back in 2005, pre-Illustrator:

There is one slight problem, which is that the font directly above (Seoul) is on my old Mac but not the new one and allegedly cannot be installed there. In a separate but related incident InDesign crashes when I try to open it in Leopard, but can't be installed on the old Mac (still on Tiger) because it does not have enough RAM. It will be obvious to the meanest intelligence that the author of this blog is precisely the sort of person who should leave design to the sweat of someone else's brow.

It's a glorious day.

You can type Chinese, Japanese and Korean in vanilla Illustrator, but it can't handle Greek, Russian, Arabic or Hebrew: you need the Eastern European version for the first two, the Middle Eastern version for the second. Same for InDesign. Poor head.

I read an agent's blog a while back (never a good idea); he thought query letters should not pose a problem for writers, because the query letter should simply express the writer's passion for the book. This is always hard to deal with. Quite a lot of working on a book feels pointless and stupid. Why am I sitting inside on a glorious day working on the deeply silly Powerpoint, mildly amusing pivot tables, delectable ggplot2 or possibly useful Illustrator? It's a glorious day. And even if (as I think) all these socially embedded means of presenting information show something interesting, and even if something even more interesting were to emerge if I dug deeper, how exactly is all this supposed to work in a book? This is the question I should be thinking about, no doubt, but instead I am wondering how long it will take to get Leopard on speaking terms with InDesign and whether it is worth adding more RAM to the old Mac.

So time goes by, and perhaps, in the end, there is a book for which hundreds of practical problems have been resolved - a feature that took hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to fix, maybe, turns up on two or three pages. And other features that took hundreds of hours to get right turn out to be wrong for the book, but there was no way of knowing that ahead of time. The author is about as likely to be enthusiastic as a marathon runner who has just collapsed at the finish line. And the author is likelier, unfortunately, to like dealing with technicians - people with some kind of expertise, people obsessed with details, people who can reduce the amount of time it takes to get something right, freeing up time to go outside on glorious days.

Too much shadowboxing. Mr Ilya is seeing the world.


selfdivider said...

I love the first 삼성 cut & paste! I keep staring at it... so good...

thomaspa said...

ok, got a photo to go along with the previous mental image from your description... indeed, very cool! mwwah. beats a desk job... (which is easy to say sitting comfortably at a desk)