Zen, Art, and Tools

I’ve been a Mac user since returning to the states in 2003, but I’ve been a Unix user for a few years longer. Originally, I was drawn to the Mac because it was a fantastic interface on top of a solid BSD Unix core, but as I grew more familiar with the platform, I became more drawn to the level of attention to detail. The Mac is a quality machine, but today I’m writing this on a Dell running FreeBSD.

This Dell is absolutely not a quality machine. They’ve shoved a 10-key number pad next to the keyboard, and as a consequence have had to move both the keyboard and the trackpad off center. The Dell is heavy, like a cheap plastic tank. The keys on the keyboard are flimsy, and the display is terrible. In short, this Dell is the epitome of everything wrong with the PC industry as a whole; it embodies a lack of caring. The hardware is not my primary interest today. Tomorrow I will bring the laptop back to work, attach it to my external monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and will rarely, if ever, need to touch the computer. What interests me today is the software.

I’m using the PC-BSD variant of FreeBSD, with hardly anything installed but the Xmonad tiling window manager. I have a few good fonts, and the excellent Solarized color scheme installed, and have configured Firefox and the rest of the Xmonad environment to be as quick and responsive as possible. There is very little about this setup that exhibits friction, and what does has only a matter of time before I find a solution. It takes some work, but it is fast, efficient, and built on top of a core quality operating system, FreeBSD.

I installed PC-BSD because it supported installing into a ZFS formatted hard drive by default, and correctly loaded the Intel video driver for this piece of crap Dell. ZFS will ensure that any data that I save to the drive is protected from corruption, and will make it very easy to back up to another machine or hard drive. I also have support built in for Jails, which provides some interesting opportunities for local testing and development. The user interface for this new system is not nearly as intuitive or friendly as my Mac, but that’s not the point of the system. It’s not meant to be a cheap knock-off or even a competitor to the Mac, if the Mac is a BMW M5, as the car analogy goes, than this is a BMW R60/2. One doesn’t buy and build an old motorcycle because they want an easy way to get back and forth to work. A car is far easier, a motorcycle needs special training, experience, and maintenence.

I’m finishing up the final chapters of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence, and seeing how the tagline of this site is “a discussion on quality”, I can’t believe it has taken me this long to get to this book. ZAMM is An Inquiry Into Values, far, far deeper than I intend to go. The book was published in 1974, but has some amazingly relevant thought on our relationship with technology, especially computers, today.

The result is rather typical of modern technology, an overall dullness of appearance so depressing that it must be overlaid with a vernier of “style” to make it acceptable. And that, to anyone who is sensitive to romantic Quality, just makes it all the worse. Now it’s not just depressingly dull, it’s also phony. Put the two together and you get a pretty accurate basic description of modern American technology: stylized cars and stylized outboard motors and stylized typewriters and stylized clothes. Stylized refrigerators filled with stylized food in stylized kitchens in stylized homes. Plastic stylized toys for stylized children, who at Christmas and birthdays are in style with their stylish parents. You have to be awfully stylish yourself not to get sick of it once in a while. It’s the style that gets you; technological ugliness syruped over with romantic phoniness in an effort to produce beauty and profit by people who, though stylish, don’t know where to start because no one has ever told them there’s such a thing as Quality in this world, and it’s real, not style. Quality isn’t something you lay on top of subjects and objects like tinsel on a Christmas tree.

Later, when discussing his motorcycle:

I don’t think I’ll ever sell it. No reason to, really. They’re not like cars, with a body that rusts out in a few years. Keep them tuned and overhauled and they’ll last as long as you do. Probably longer. Quality. It’s carried us so far without trouble.

I have a second book that has fascinated me for the past year, Hand Tools, Their Ways and Workings, by Aldren A. Watson. The book is beautifully illustrated by the author, and explains in detail what hand tools a person should have, how they work, how to maintain them, and how to build new tools using the tools you already have. I’m planning a project to build a sturdy workbench that I hope will outlive me, and perhaps I will pass it on to my son, and I’m planning on doing it entirely with hand tools. Why hand tools? Why not power saws and cordless drills? Because the projects are not about getting them done, it is about the doing. It is about caring enough about what you do to take time and use your hands to do it.

Hand Tools, FreeBSD, motorcycles, Apple, these things are all connected somehow, and by following along this path, I’m hoping to sort out the connections in more detail. For now, it is enough to understand that the relationships between quality work, quality products, and caring enough to do something the hard way are all there, waiting to be explored.