philosophistry economistry

I see that there are a number of ways to perceive most things. I have always liked the idea behind philosophy- the idea of attempting to make sense of the world. This is the basis of what we call science, now. Making sense of intangibles is something that starts internally and then branches off to any number of paths.

When I look out there at how people choose their world, it seems to be ordered by which path they chose to take. Each one gives a vista that is unique to its own meanderings. Once on a path there are many branches, and it is always possible to turn around and walk back, to take an earlier branch that can lead to a different perspective.

What I see in people is that there is a feeling that there is a race going on; whoever gets to the end of the path first wins, or you’re running out of time and there just isn’t time to ponder what-if’s as you go. Keep to the trail and don’t get sidetracked by those little paths that don’t go somewhere obvious.

Economics is something enormously important to the society I live in. In a way it is written into the landscape here. The founding of the country was, in a way, an economic choice; the argument that resounded with many was that of freedom of trade, freedom to build businesses. It was also a revolt against taxation, against a government that seemed too far away and that used the taxes to benefit those far away, with too little benefit here. And it was also a bunch of smugglers who were about to see their income reduced by a new scheme of that government that would benefit the general population, but at the expense of ruining their illicit trade- these are the people who funded the revolution.

It was also a rejection of monarchy. Freedom from the social mores, the layers of rank and privilege. This, too, was seen as a chaotic venture- if you don’t know your place, won’t you waste a huge amount of time trying to figure out where you stand in comparison to your fellow man? This was an argument against the idea of equality. While it seems that we made that choice, there appears to be a wish to see some as innately better than others, and the country has spent the past two hundred odd years codifying how to make sure that the better classes have legislative and legal rights to promote their interests above others. We have never gotten rid of that adoration of the royalty, and transfer it to whomever we can see as royal, special, better.

This seeps into our economic system in a number of ways. We have a study of economics that is famously difficult, famously deep and mysterious. We have “Game Theory” to justify actions and rules, sets of arbitrary scenarios to which rules of logic are tested and results tabulated to come up with what must be the most rational response, and at the same time, we are surprised when people on average don’t act rationally.

There is a tension between simplicity and complexity. For science to work, it is easiest to start of reductively; find the basic foundation that the rest is built on, and work from there. In some places this works wonderfully- in mathematics we have arithmetic, which can be applied to represent just about anything, so long as the right form of question is found. It can represent the entire world, at least so far as we can tell.

In some way, arithmetic is a tool that justifies mathematics as something that is infallible. And it is, to some extent. It works, and it works the same every time. I say it is a lot like opening your eyes; if you have sight, every time you open your eyes, you see. It works every time. But, mathematics is a lot more like comprehension than it is arithmetic- while you see something, and you can look at a rock and it will look the same every time, the closer you look, the more you realize that what you see is an ever changing understanding.

The basic concept of philosophy that became the scientific method is that you work on previous knowledge and test it. You look at the rock and say “it’s a rock”. Then you try to figure out what “rock” means, and start looking at what its properties are- hardness, density, structure. The closer and more intimate you get to “rock”, the more “rock” becomes a complex arrangement of different parts- first different types of rock, then the molecules, then atoms, and smaller and smaller. Coming to understand those leads to figuring out how the rock was formed- was it pressure? Was it lava? Was it lava and pressure? Chemical reactions between different things at different temperatures? It turns out that “rock” is structure, history, chemistry, any number of things, and it never really returns to simply “rock” after that.

This is a path. Once you have wandered down it, the vistas that you see have changed you and changed how you see the world. The way that you have been informed becomes structural to how you view the world around you.

In economics there is a similar path, but it is mixed up with the social mores. On the one hand are the rational rules, applied to moderate transactions. On the other is the legal and philosophical underpinnings of how the economics are recorded, metered, the prism through which the data is viewed.

From my perspective, much of our economics is based primarily on the relationship between only two parties- the seller and the buyer. This applies to work (wages, compensation), to banking, to fines. Caveat Emptor appears to rule the day, not just in warnings, but in the philosophy behind how our judicial system deals with money and banking; if you can be convinced to sign something, the economic advantage or disadvantage is held within that agreement, and it’s your fault or your gain.

As one person put it during a conversation, “usefulness has a very simple definition, one that provides a pillar of free-market societies: desirable for exchange.” I love this definition, as it is apparently simple, looks logical, and is about as close to a perfect fiction as is possible. The statement holds within it a range of privilege that is, from my perspective, stunning. This is permission for anything possible- and at it’s most simple definition, one that exists outside of societies, in a neutral space with no outside forces, it is true. Desirable for exchange means that one party has some use for the thing to be exchanged.

This is similar to the way that economic rules are phrased. “Right to Work” rules are a similar simple set of rules based on the idea that anyone is free to work for whoever they want, and any employer is free to hire or fire as they please. The concept is perfectly true for a society where everyone is perfectly equal and no one needs to work. I don’t know where that is, really. If you were born into a wealthy family, then those are rules that are perfectly justifiable for you; because you don’t need income, the employer has no power to influence you into a less than desirable position. On the other hand, most of the people in the world don’t have that benefit, and the less family wealth a person has, the less choice they really have in matters of work. At a certain real point, an individual’s choice is often either to live through crime or accept whatever terms are available to get a job because the barriers to starting a legal business are too high.

In the “useful is anything desirable for exchange” paradigm, this is a rational extension. The person needs a job to survive, and therefore any job offered is useful. Between the two parties it may even look beneficial all around- the employer gets a worker at a rate that allows for profit, and the person being hired gets income in exchange for work. Fine, it’s perfect- that’s Capitalism at it’s basic.

But, to paraphrase another person in that same conversation once said, Capitalism is a nearly perfect engine, if it is allowed to operate without influence. That point being that Capitalism works in a perfect world, but in a world where people stop looking at efficiency in what they are doing, and attempt to exploit other factors, the Capitalist engine winds up requiring controls to prevent too much exploitation on the basis of power, rather than efficiency.

Here in the US we have a stratified social order. It hasn’t been stratified primarily by inheritance for much of the history of the country, but it has always struggled with the urge toward royalty; the idea that families have better genes, and proof is in their economic standing. Families rise, and families fall, and every few generations there are dynasties that control the country to some extent. Our judicial system and our banking system are in a constant state of tension between the words of the Constitution and it’s warring principles that everyone is created equal, but money makes some more equal than others. Our economics looks at short term issues while ignoring long-term.

Access to capital is a great example- the more money you have, the less you pay for access to other people’s money. The less money you have, the more you pay for it. This makes some sense in that economic theory states that there is more risk in loaning to a person with less money as they don’t have the means to finish paying. This theory is proven by the data in that poorer people end up making payments late more often. In short term thinking, then, this is true- poor people are more risky for bankruptcy. But, because of the higher interest rate, the banks have recovered far more of their loans at any given time from a high interest (generally low-income) borrower than they have from the low interest (generally higher-income) borrowers. So the real losses are less, but the way they can are reported make them “higher” losses. This is a perceptual bias, and creates a self-reinforcing problem in that the person with lower income will suffer more and have a harder time paying the higher interest rate- we don’t really have any proof that this is structural to income, or if it is a problem created by the method of calculating “risk”.

It’s a problem of what path you are on. If you have mostly experienced beneficial returns from the economic system, then it looks like it is a pretty fair system that works well. If you’ve have mostly dealt with the opposite, then this looks like a broken system that punishes people for their lack of net worth. All too often, for those at the bottom of the economic scale the institutions that do make money or goods available on a loan basis do so at rates that no wealthy person can conceive of- rates that dwarf the person’s income, with penalties that are severe, and mostly legal now. These predatory companies are all owned and supported by people who live outside of the poor community, and they earn a very good rate of return, and get to pay fairly low taxes because they often get to claim full losses on loans that have been paid back many times over.

I think it’s a combination of the problems of people who are on paths and don’t want to look beyond what they see as benefits. In Seattle most prostitution is purchased online at about 4PM from an office computer, according to some recent studies. This is probably common. Those are all “useful” exchanges if one is deep down one path where the problems with that are on the other side of a hill that they rarely visit. Then it’s just something that two consenting adults do, and the buyer gets to remain blissfully unaware of what sort of exploitation the other is under- is it just easy money? Seems unlikely considering the stigmatism against sex work in this country. Is it voluntary? Perhaps, but only if voluntary allows for it to be the only thing that person can see to do. Is it abusive? Only if you look at the statistics and history of sex work; it isn’t that common for someone to go onto the streets alone to earn money through sex, most are brought to the trade by someone who has some level of power or coercion over that person.

Low income, low skilled work isn’t really all that different from sex work in that the person rarely sees another choice. The outside forces are certainly less- it’s unlikely that there is a Pimp there coaxing you to do something, and the work you do likely won’t be as socially unacceptable or with as much risk of violence. But it’s too simple to say that there’s another job that you could work. If all the jobs are similar, then there isn’t any real choice. If there are no lending institutions to help start a business and you don’t have family money, then it’s unlikely that is a viable option. If that is where you live, you are probably having to work to support yourself and/or your family, making school something other than an option.

This is simply not visible as anything but a concept to many people in this country.

The opposite is also true- when you grow up in poverty it is very hard to see the benefit to work that isn’t labor. You simply don’t have a conceptual ability to understand that someone can get paid for thinking, as opposed to laboring. They know that the people earning the highest incomes in this country don’t pick up shovels or hammers, they use a mop only if they have a whimsical notion that cleaning is a way to meditate. Useful is something that manages to pay the rent or unclog a toilet, not an idea or a concept.

I guess I am far more on that utilitarian side. What is useful has to have greater breadth than the exchange between buyer and seller. To my perception, that is a view of a person in a perfect little glade, or an idyllic island where the plant that generates their electricity and the farm that grows their food and the people that build their houses and vehicles and computers are all far on the other side of mountains. I am living closer to that glen than to the dark side of the mountain, but I didn’t grow up here. I grew up working, moving, struggling. I don’t have that belief that an idea should pay more than the shovel, and that puts me at a disadvantage in this type of economy, this sort of society, with the mores of this country.

For me to learn to live in that privileged glen, I have to give up the paths that I have walked down, leave the people that I have learned to care about, give up the morality of poverty, and I don’t really know how to do that. I don’t know how to un-see what I have seen, what I have learned, and to accept this life of caveat emptor. It seems there has to be another way. I can see the problems with embracing any one of these views- that it puts you on a path you don’t want to leave. But this path looks like it ends only in misery.

How did I get here?

I think it’s fascinating the reasons people have for starting a business, or for not starting one. I wish I understood the difference better between people who work for themselves and those who prefer to have a job.

To start with, I have noticed that many of the people I know who prefer to have a job don’t think of themselves as working for some one person in particular. The people I know at Amazon know that Bezos is up there, but I don’t get the sense that many of them think of him as their boss- he’s more like a figurehead or a mascot. Kinda like Bill Gates was at Microsoft. Not many worked for Bill, they worked for Microsoft.

My ex’s dad was an employee. Or, as he would say, he had a career. He didn’t like me because I was self employed and, in his eyes, that meant that I was someone who wasn’t reliable enough to create a career. I wasn’t made of the right fabric to be significant in a real place.

That, I believe, is one of the things that keeps some people in the role of employees- they have a path, they have a goal, and they know that these places will pay them to be on that path and will reward them at the end by supplying the necessary benefits to achieve that goal.

Some of us don’t have a path that they can see, much less a goal. That takes time, sometimes.

I started off my working life in the fishing industry in Southeast Alaska. It wasn’t a very normal beginning in any sense of the word; we were living on a small island and we were the only residents. It was about fifteen miles by boat to the nearest town, Elfin Cove. It is sixty miles by air (or around a hundred by boat) to Juneau, the nearest city, and the only real hospital near. My mother fell ill and we hitched a ride on a passing tugboat that was heading to Juneau. I still remember paddling out there in the blue plastic skiff we had, the salt spray and the rope ladder dragging in the water. When we got to Juneau Mom was admitted to the hospital and we (I have a twin brother) somehow wound up staying on the tugboat for a few days. We walked the docks and offered to clean people’s boats to get some spending money, and a couple people bit. We were cleaning a skiff when another fisherman, Harlan, came along and recognized us as the kids from the island.

He asked what we were doing, where our folks were. After hearing that our mother was in the hospital he left to see how she was doing. We went back to cleaning, finished up the job and were sitting on the tug when Harlan returned with a proposition. “I talked to your mom, and she said you can come fishing with me. You guys will be my deckhands. You can keep all the humpies (Pink Salmon), and I keep the rest.” That’s all we needed to hear, and off we went. By the end of the second day Harlan let us know that we were going to have to change the deal a bit as the only thing we were catching were humpies. I think we were a little disappointed, because we’d been keeping track.

Work has always been a place of skills acquisition for me. That first job was fascinating- we learned about charts and perused them when Harlan would let us in, looking at his hand-scribbled notes about catches, weather, and true depths. We learned to change out the bait at different times of day, about keeping track of what was catching, how to spot when we had something on the hook and how big it might be. We learned about cleaning the fish; this was an ice boat, and these would be prized fish sold whole at the markets, so we had to gut them perfectly. Harlan had shown us to keep the roe in a bucket, he kept the hearts and would fry them up with eggs for breakfast. The bloodlines were cleaned with a spoon, only the rounded side so you don’t rough up the lining.

When we returned to the mainland work had become expected. I washed dishes at my father’s bakery, worked at my mom’s short lived landscaping business, prepped and cleaned at my stepfather’s painting and drywall business. When we lived in farm country there was always work at the dairies and bucking hay, or picking filberts. Everything we did had some story, some skill to be learned. It doesn’t take long to figure out that the more you know the fewer ditches you’re being asked to dig.

In Seattle there were computers. My friend Noah had a bulletin board. This was in 1981 and the computers were cobbled together out of what parts we could scavenge or buy. Floppy discs and modems and purloined phone cards to cover the cost of roaming the world. I realized that I didn’t have much interest in computers then, but figuring out how to use them was fairly easy. If I’d been more interested I probably would have been able to make one of those “careers.

Instead I left school and fell back to fishing. Work the summer, travel the winter. I knew enough to know that even though the money was good in winter, the work was tough, cold, and filled with people who didn’t have anything else to do. Or they were making a career. Perhaps if I’d had some better captains I would have made a career out of fishing, but I wound up working for a couple bad apples and didn’t see a path to getting my own boat or even a job on a boat where it would be worth staying.

I am not afraid to try new jobs, new industries. I worked in restaurants- there, too, I didn’t make my choices on finances, but on what was available to learn. Instead of working the front of the house waiting tables or tending bar, I chose the kitchen where I traded learning how to use knives and how to cook during long hours for a fraction of the pay the waitstaff made in their 5 hour shifts.

Poor perception of the markets has been one of my achilles heels. In Portland I helped a friend set up his iMac. This was the first generation, and those introduced millions of people over the age of 50 to the magic of email. If only they could figure out how to set up the machine. From my perspective it was about as easy as computers get- it was all pre-loaded on the machine. All you had to do was follow the prompts. That was too much for people who pretty much wanted to play solitaire and send emails to their kids. Setting up one led to setting up another, and then people were offering me money to do it. Way too much money, in my opinion at the time. $60 to spend 1/2 hour working, and another hour explaining email while being fed coffee and cookies? Kinda like stealing money from babies.

That did lead to a job at Oregon Health Sciences University. One of the iMacs was owned by a secretary to one of the lead cancer research doctors and they were working on their Federal Cancer Research grant, one that they do every 10 years and designates them a Cancer Research Center. They needed someone to install, troubleshoot, and get a program going that would automate the footnotes and links. They had the program. I set it up in a morning, and then sat around making sure it worked for 2 weeks for them. Two weeks only because they wanted to be sure it worked. I got paid too much and was allowed to browse all the research papers and had full, free access to all the medical journals. That was payment enough. Again, a position was offered, but I couldn’t see the value in setting up programs anyone should be able to do- all they have to do is follow the directions and keep track of what it’s doing. It’s not rocket science. Except it turns out that it is rocket science, and has a lot of value for some reason.

All this is to say that I don’t make a great employee. What I see when I have a job is an endless procession of days doing things that are not very difficult but are complicated by politics. I started taking classes to get a Project Management Certification. That was fascinating. The points about project management were good, but basic; managing projects is all about front-loading everything you can, and if you can organize it and have all questions answered before you need them, then it’s a really easy position. In my opinion, the only reason a project manager is needed is if there is a lack of skills and ability in the people under the PM. What really turned me off about the class was that more time was spent teaching people how to discover who the important people were and methods of getting the attention of people otherwise too important to pay attention to you. I’ve got too much ego to have to worry that someone might be too important to talk to me.

Fishing was always a percentage job. You are an “independent contractor” and earn a share of the catch, less expenses (boat, fuel, food). Your value is in production and ability. A restaurant kitchen is much the same- your value is in how much you can do well. You don’t get paid for that skill, so you do it for your own satisfaction, especially as you know that there won’t ever be a bonus or respect given. That’s what I liked about kitchens, and why I didn’t stay in them- at some point you have to create your own kitchen or you become one of the production drones that the people with passion can’t stand; it’s the fear that you’re going to wind up being that one day. The IT jobs were dull, overly profitable for what was being done.

That line; “overly profitable” is my worst dilemma. I haven’t ever worked just for profit, and the idea of being over-paid has always been uncomfortable, as though I am doing something wrong. I know a lot of people who suffer from some variation on this theme- some of it’s not being sure that they are worth anything more than what they get, some of it’s just not being from a place where anyone earns enough to live on. My family was always on the edge, always moving, so some of it is the wages of poverty; not believing that you should have enough to be comfortable.

Which gets us awkwardly back to the question of why would someone start a business?

My first construction business was started because I wanted to become a better carpenter and there was no opportunity for me to learn from any company around me. I should say that I couldn’t see any company doing the work I wanted to do that would allow me to do it. I wanted to build better than the people I had worked for, I wanted to do custom woodworking. I wanted to follow a path that interested me, not the path someone else told me to take.

This was an offshoot of a fortuitous experience a few years earlier. I had been working as a bike messenger in Seattle and was tired of the grind. I needed to get out of Seattle, and decided I would take a bike trip. I went to San Francisco with my friends Al & Jen, with their newborn baby Elliot, and set out after a few days. I winded my way through Santa Rosa, Yosemite, Death Valley, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Santa Fe (where I wound up getting a job that took me back to the Grand Canyon to cook for a crew filming a Charmin commercial), and got snowed in in Taos.

In Taos I had the good fortune to meet Jonathan Taintor, a sculptor who had started out his career as a carpenter. John traded room and board for my labor helping him finish his house. He had a fantastic carpenter running the show for him who had retired a few years before and moved to Taos from Southern California. He had entered the trades working for German Cabinetmakers, then went on to be part of the post WWII building boom. He was highly skilled; he had run the renovation of one of the Hearst Mansions. He also gave me a book, “A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time” by John Brinkerhoff Jackson, a book that really opened my eyes almost as much as that job in Taos.

I wanted those experiences. I wanted to see what I could do. In Portland I had been working for a mediocre company that did everything, all of it under the table. That allowed me to learn how to do plumbing and electrical work. I shouldn’t have been doing it, but I learned how- I read books, learned how to calculate loads and load drop. That learning curve was enough to keep me there for a couple years, along with buying a house and getting married. As I learned more, though, I learned how much we weren’t doing to be better- we hit code, and did an average job, and that’s really all that the owner cared about. That and him not paying taxes, which meant I paid all my own taxes. I was also getting better at what I did, and as I was left on jobs to do them start to finish, the customers started requesting me. I became a reason why people came to the company, I was creating work. Eventually I had customers who wanted to fire the company, but wanted me to come back to do the work. They preferred my honesty.

I finally realized that the way to do what I wanted to do was to start my own company. I would do it legally, and do all my work legitimately. I could do work that was better than okay, learn how to do more things, and get paid for learning!

That business was really an education. Profit wasn’t my main motivation, education was. I wanted to build skills, and I learned how to find people who know how to do what I didn’t know. I found resources online. I built a stable of other small companies who were also interested in doing better work, and we would team up on projects. We all undercharged. I would make money on one job, lose it on the next. I learned how to do books better, and learned how to estimate.

I built my ideas about what a company should be through all of those experiences. I also learned that there is value in having respect for yourself. For me, starting businesses and working in new jobs has been about growing as a person. Some of it has been about trying to define where I am in this culture, in this society. That seems like a good enough reason to start a company.

Time, Cost, Quality

In a recent discussion the old saw “Time, Cost, Quality- pick any two” came up. This is a common triangle of choices that describes the main points in any sale of services and is based on the tension between the three elements; you can only emphasize two of these at any given time. In other words, if you want it cheap and fast you give up control of quality. If you want high quality and fast speed, you give up control of price. If you are concerned with price and quality, then you have to give up control of time.

Something has always bothered me about this triangle. Two of the choices are simple; time and cost are definable qualities. Everyone knows what a dollar is and everyone knows what an hour is. Time is an easily definable facet; it will be done in 6 hours or it will be done in 6 months. It will cost $100 per hour, or it will cost $50,000; these are fixed concepts that don’t rely on an individual to supply anything more than quantity. Quality is a whole different matter.

Quality is, in my experience, where the ability of the parties to agree parts ways most often.

What is quality? How do I know it is quality? What part does quality refer to? These are tricky questions all by themselves, and made more difficult by being points that have to be both defined and agreed upon. The service provider is hampered by knowledge and the particular blindness that can come with expertise- how do you find out what the customer knows and separate that from what the customer thinks they know?

To make this even more difficult, quality is a fluid concept that changes with education and proximity.

Coming to terms on quality is probably the most difficult part of creating a construction project. There is no strict definition of quality. There are a few organizations that have attempted to qualitatively define “quality”, such as AWI. This often means that there is a set of rules about how a project can be inspected, such as “flooring will be inspected from a standing position or at a distance of 6′.” Diamonds are graded on qualities of color and clarity, both being aspects that take experience and training to know how to do; the average person isn’t likely to be able to see the difference.

In services this becomes important because it means the client’s expectations change through the process. This may seem fickle, but it is really an aspect of knowledge. The client is often the one with the least knowledge, and as that grows, things that they didn’t think were important become important.

As a service provider this can be frustrating. On the one hand you may want to educate the client from the outset- to inform them of all the details and the decisions they will need to make. That takes a lot of time, energy, and unless the client is intensely interested in the product the subject likely isn’t compelling enough for the client to understand, no matter how many words you use. On the other hand you may want to be brief at the beginning and create a good change order process so the job can be modified as the client reaches plateaus of understanding and can answer questions. This often leads to piles of change orders and a final cost that is far above the original estimate.

I don’t know if there is any one answer is to this dilemma. It is lessened by familiarity- any return customer is already trained to some extent and will have an idea of what is to come. I think one of the best methods may just be to explain this to the client. Let them know that there will be changes, that those changes will become more significant as the project progresses, and give them an idea of how much you think the project will change. That’s where your experience comes in, and the honesty may help cushion the pain of additional costs.

Defining my self/business

The first time I started a business I just wanted to escape being an employee; to unfurl my sails and see where the winds of work and chance would take me. That worked well at the time.e I look back and see that the route I took was to simply try things.

I wanted to do woodworking, so I bought the equipment (slowly) and built my skills with each job, supplementing the physical work with words and conversation with others on how to do what I wanted to do. General construction was a lesser interest at first. I saw it mostly as a way to stay busy: siding, decks, and small remodels are abundant and seemed an easy job. I applied the same method of reading and searching out more experienced people to talk to while doing these jobs, and realized that the knowledge necessary to do that work well was vast and under-appreciated. I dug into the details and overcame my own biases about rough carpentry and the other apparently “simpler” work. I came to realize that most of it really is the foundation that the rest of the house hangs on, and the coat that protects it. The technical aspect of much of “rough” carpentry and construction is every bit as complex and skill intensive as the most intricate woodwork.

Skill is a synertgystic intelligence; the better one gets at one thing, the easier related tasks get and more knowledge becomes relevant. At some point everything becomes part of a whole. Today I see that learning how to be a prep cook illuminates how I organize a job- both are about expectations, projecting the work ahead and setting up to do that work efficiently. You don’t want to have to chop onions in the middle of a rush any more than you want to run to the lumber yard for 2×4 in the middle of framing.

I know the value of getting a rhythm while sanding cabinets as much from woodworking as from Longlining. Setting 10,000 hooks with snap gear has most of the same trouble as sanding a kitchen’s worth of 5 panel doors. Learning to loft eyebrow dormers and handrail fittings was simplified by drafting classes, years of sketching cabinets, and framing a camera shot. Perspective and practicing looking at the dimensionality of objects is useful in all of the disciplines.

Skills acquisition, then, is an easy path now. Not that I have nothing left to learn: instead, I have a much better idea of how much I don’t know and how much time it takes to gain those skills. This is a double edged sword. I want to learn so much, but I only have one lifetime. I can see more clearly what I might like, but also know that I have to choose between what I know I want and what I know I have time for.

This creates guidelines for the new business. I know that I can do the management part well enough to do any residential job. I know that I can do commercial, but I don’t have much passion for most commercial projects. I am good at working with third parties- subcontractors, architects, designers. I also have an idea of how I am willing to work with them. By this point I have the experience and skill to know that I will always be working among equals in residential construction- it will not be common to be in a room with anyone who has greater knowledge or skill in the whole.

Therein lies the dilemma- What do I want to do? It has the same quirks as choosing what I want to learn. As a generalist I will do more projects, but have less chance of using the skills I have acquired over the years. I will be mostly a manager. If I specialize into one thing I may be able to use some of the skills to their nth degree, but will be relegating myself to doing similar work all the time, and will be limited to the product of my own labor.

And then there is the question “how do I want to live”. I have always wanted to think of myself as an artist, a creator if interesting and possibly beautiful things. How can I integrate that as a goal of my new venture? I will be spending most of my days on this project- shouldn’t I make sure that I will be doing something I have passion for?

This is what most of my thinking recently has centered around. What is creativity? What is art? What is craft? Can I define my strengths and prejudices about these subjects so that I can define the place I would like to create within them? Can I define them well enough to explain to others who I am and, thus, what my company is?

It is tempting to just say that I want to be a prima donna. That I want to be an artist and demand that I get respect for just that. I have a history, a portfolio, even people who would agree that I create art. But that’s a shallow thing of itself. I am not an artist for art’s sake- I am too much of a Usarian: what I make needs to have purpose beyond beauty for me to feel satisfaction. But merely creating useful things is not satisfying, either. I am stuck between those demands. Struggling to find a balance between useful and aesthetic, respect and utility. Finding that balance is important to me. As well, the work has to be satisfying but with enough time to do the work while having the time to live. I would be lucky to find all that. Most of the world doesn’t get to have all those qualities, and I don’t expect to get them. It does seem like a goal to reach for, though.

What is Creativity, or My Problem with Heroes.

Spend enough time working making things and the idea of creativity may rear it’s confused little head.

What does it mean to create something? Is it the same thing to make something as it is to design it? Is it the same thing to have an idea and to make that idea take form in some way? Is creativity a solo venture, or is it something done by groups?

There has been a lot of literature on this subject. After all, the element of creativity is critical to industry. It doesn’t matter if you’re a software developer looking for the next big app, an auto-maker looking for the next great design, or if you’re looking for the next great shoe, you need creativity. Consistent creativity is the Holy Grail of any of those groups.

This is one of those areas where the concept starts to get fuzzy. Is creativity a way of being, a process, can it consolidated into a process? I think if we look at many parts of the public media one may become suspicious about whether there is really any creativity out there, or just clever people who are really good at figuring out popular culture? Perhaps the people who understand popular culture create it. K-Pop looks like an industry that manufactures the appearance of creativity, but it is a relentless and high quality product that is required for that industry. I have a hard time thinking that creativity doesn’t play a significant part in it.

Art is a place where creativity is an expectation. Picasso is a fine example of a relentlessly creative modern artist. He certainly created a lot of art that is held in high esteem. His fast sketches seem to me to cross the line between art and craft. Hey- a prejudice slipped in there. Is art more creative than craft, and why? Sketching is a craft, but doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of art. Although sometimes craft appears to be art- who can argue that the Taj Mahal is not a work of art?

So, what is creativity? Is it the act of creating anything? That seems to imply that a photocopier is a creative machine; creative, then, is a term of art…

Oxford online dictionary defines creativity as “The use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of artistic work”. That places it directly into the realm of art, but seems to be sorta vague again. What’s an “original idea”, and how do you prove it? It seems that limits creativity only to new, original ideas, which would eliminate almost all sculpture, for example. If you’re simply carving marble into shapes, and it’s been done before, then calling it original is a matter of perspective?

My working definition of creative a bit less restrictive. I think that a more realistic use of “creative” is having the ability to apply disparate ideas to new tasks. It is having the ability to apply lessons from different areas, resulting in solutions or results that may not be immediately apparent. For example, Escher using his drafting skills to create optical illusions. Or Frank Lloyd Wright applying Japanese building elements; Wright claimed that Japanese architecture was not an inspiration for his work, but when I look at it it’s a clear element. I believe that creative license is an applicable term, and probably more in line with his take on the question; he was not using the specifics, but using his own creative ability to use the lessons he learned or recognized in Japanese architecture to create his own designs.

This leads to a foundation of how I view creativity; creativity is a continuum. It may not be a conscious continuum, but it is the application of what has been experienced and learned to a task or problem. All of the famous artists I know of had very cohesive groups of supporters, mostly other artistic people. I think that these groups are a critical element of creativity.

The tech field has a number of company leaders who make the point that their job is to bring creative people together and give them a supportive place in which to create. That’s probably my favorite way to think about creativity; it is what happens when people with similar interests attempt to do something together.

We often do creative things alone. I made an inlaid sill recently that I think is a good example of creativity. It was unexpected, and contained elements that the recipient didn’t know I could do. I could explain it as a personal creation; I wanted to do something out of the ordinary, bring a surprise in that would be appreciated. But if I look at the process I can’t honestly say that it was an entirely original thought; I knew the person’s history and I used techniques and skills that I learned from other people, other jobs, and other disciplines. I had done straight string inlay, but never free-form curves. I had done a carved inlay before, but saw the idea first in a furniture book. I used hide glue and hammer veneered the inlay, a very old method of veneering.

When I made the S-shaped inside corners for a boat companionway I had never done anything like that before. I don’t see it as new or original, but I have been told that it is creative. I used an old tool, a scorp, to hog out most of the wood, and then scrapers and sanding paper, and also electric tools and finished it off using a pneumatic spray gun. I could have bought tooling for the shaper and saved myself days of work and it would have been more perfect, rounder… I used methods I learned from other people, methods I read about in books, and had to come up with some of my own solutions for how to join parts together, but they are the same solutions any experienced woodworker would have used.

I don’t think it is possible to be creative without others. Even if I am alone, what gets my creative juices flowing are the ideas I get from talking with other craftsmen, other artists. Some of what motivates me is the wish to use techniques others have mentioned, to create projects that reach to meet what I’ve seen. It is the culmination of the teachers that I have had, both intentional and unintentional.

Getting a bit more egotistical, I do think that this applies to all creative people. What we see when we are presented with someone as a creative genius is most likely a whole crowd of unnamed people who make up most of that person’s genius. When we talk about Bill Gates as a “genius”, we are using his name as that of a vast group of people. When we look at Frank Lloyd Wright, we are looking at the culmination of him, his teachers, and a few different design systems for home design. Sam Maloof brought techniques from outside of traditional furniture and used them to create traditional furniture designs, and then evolved them into his own designs.

Heroes are the face of movements. They are the spokesmen of some advance or change, but they are not the sole element. When I look at Ghandi I can’t forget that he learned so much by visiting Africa and observing what the people there did to fight against Apartheid. Phillip Johnson looks to me like the next step in an evolution of architects, engineers, and window builders of his era.

I suppose this is why I don’t have heroes; this is the problem I have with heroes.

I suppose I should be kinder and allow them their status. After all, they are the culmination of what came before. While they have had help getting to where they are, those names, those faces are what allows their group to gain fame and notoriety in the greater public. A Steve Jobs is not a real person any more than Sam Maloof or Frank Lloyd Wright- what they become are goals for people to reach for. The person inside that figure is someone more like your neighbor (and your neighbor might have a larger ego, or smaller) than like the public persona. It is highly unlikely that they really were creative in that definition above- it’s more likely that they were smart people who surrounded themselves with other people, and the famous person is the sum total of what happens when you gather a group of smart, talented individuals and give them the freedom and support to do what they want.

So, maybe that’s the hero that I could look toward. Make that the goal; to be one of the people who is part of or gathers together a group of people to do interesting things.


A quality of time

There’s a neat old saw that “they used to build houses better”.

I believe there is another way to look at it: all the bad houses have already fallen down.

One quality of time is that we forget that skills existed in the past. We have a tendency to wish that things were better in the past.

We remember best what we have known, and the most recent experiences are the most memorable. This is not to say that we know the present all that well, it just means that we carry our biases with us. This can lead to odd beliefs- the idea that the world was better “back then”, that the world today is “more dangerous” than the past, while at the same time experiencing the greatest overall safety and peace of any time in history.

When we think about the past we are often disregarding anything bad that happened then while thinking only of today’s problems. Alternatively, one may forget that all that we have today is a continuum from the past.

When we look at the built environment we often look with a pair of biases- one that we have the best technology that has ever existed and can create things with a precision previously not possible. The other is that we see these old buildings filled with incredible craftsmanship and take the belief that the comparatively plain buildings of today are because we don’t have the skills that existed then.

The problem with the former view is that we don’t give the skills necessary to build the past enough credit. We think that the lack of refined tools means there couldn’t be refined products. The good thing about this is that people are fairly easy to amaze by showing them craftsmanship from the past.

A problem with the latter view is that one may not realize that the buildings still standing today are the best built structures of yesterday. There are many buildings being built today that will easily last as long as the best built in history, especially when considering comparable materials.

The reason for this is really a combination of two things- we have better technology and can create buildings that will last longer with a lower level of skill required of the people building them.

Another is that we have vastly different skill sets today; looking at the amazing structures that were built, it is hard to compare the skill sets. We don’t have many carpenters who can use a hand saw or carve a capital quickly. On the other hand, most carpenters have several motorized saws and pneumatic nailers. They don’t need to know the geometry to lay out compound cuts because they have compound saws- all they need to know is the cut angles, and most have a computer that can calculate them.

We also forget that regular people living in houses in relative comfort is a fairly recent affair. Go back a mere two hundred years and you find that the majority of people shared their houses with their precious livestock (if they were lucky enough to own livestock). The resources they could spend on shelter were very limited and the consideration of comfort was not easily afforded. Those houses are mostly gone because they couldn’t afford to hire an experienced carpenter or mason to build them.

The churches and castles, the trader’s mansions that still stand today, those buildings were constructed using slaves and conscripted labor. The cathedrals and churches benefited from the quasi-voluntary labor of the trades building for the glory of God or Allah, of Zeus or Anubis. These were labors of love and conscripted labor, and we wouldn’t want some of those skills brought back. Who wants to see someone smoothing a Granite slab floor with blocks of stone and sand?

How about those skills?

We still use most of the skills from the past today, and we have technology that allows us to use mathematics at a higher level and more commonly than at any time in the past.

What we don’t do is longhand mathematics. We don’t need to because we have computers. We have architects who design most structures, and those that are built without an architect are inspected by engineers. Cabinet makers model their projects before building them. We do more before building than ever before, and that allows us to build at a level that a mere hundred years ago was only available to the wealthy.

But, what about the skills? We still have them. They aren’t as common throughout the trades because it isn’t required to have journeymen on every job any more. How the skilled trades were diminished in the US is another long story, but suffice to say that they haven’t been eliminated; there are still carpenters who know the sacred geometry of the French Compagnons and the German Zimmermanns, who know how to build traditional Japanese buildings, and Chinese temples. There are still shipwrights who can loft a boat.

These skills are not needed for most homes. They are expensive skills acquired over many years, and most of the people who have a strong understanding of them are working on the complicated, expensive homes or in the area of restoration or conservation. They are teaching in union and specialty trade schools, or training their employees who then go spread this information.

One trick of time is that it always seems that the past or the future is better than now. It is easy to suspect that there is something missing today, but most of the time what is missing is just outside of one’s experience.



IMG_1119.JPGInstalling roofing- cedar shingle.  This is a plywood roof, then felt, then a layer of battens running up the slope, then skip sheathing over that.  The felt is installed with shake felt, with insect screening at the eaves and rake. IMG_1159.JPG

A shot of the roof before the rake trim detail has been added.  The black staining is a mixture of vinegar and iron oxide that causes the tannin in the wood to darken.  The same process was used on the Pine car decking floor, then a coat of polyurethane to protect it.IMG_1162.JPG

A second shot, showing the 6×6 top plate that extends out to carry the overhang.  Copper flashing was added to protect the beam.IMG_1188

Door installed and siding finished, paint still in process.IMG_1189

A closer shot, with the deck and railing nearby.  The siding and rake details of the studio match the house and the deck.IMG_1192

This is what the floor looks like after being treated with the iron & vinegar solution and a coat of polyurethane.IMG_1193

That’s how dark the shingles can get.  We added a little roof over the wood pile to keep it dry.  Hung it off the existing fence.  Matches with the studio, which is heated by a small woodstove.