A Few More Thoughts About Rick

Rick Markus was my father-in-law, and he died recently. He leaves behind a gaggle of grieving daughters, an autistic son, and a gun collection that will likely have to leave California. He also leaves behind a workshop filled with wondrous tools.

I love tools. I like to build things. But I am horribly, awfully slow at building things. In this metric, the old man far surpassed me. I was talking with The Boys about it this evening, and I said that before he could make a thing he had to make the thing that would allow him to configure the tool to make the thing.

But I left out a step. First, Rick had to make a thing to measure the precision of the tool he was going to use to make the thing that would enable him to make the thing. And once he had an empirical measure of the tool, the next step was to make a thing to compensate for the tool, to make the tool better, so when he made the thing he would use to make the thing, it would be right.

If you wanted to demonstrate the axiom “perfection is the enemy of progress” you need look no farther than the shed where he spent his time. His massive drill press would deflect under pressure; he addressed it. He rebuilt parts of his metal lathe (itself a fine specimen) to improve precision.

I am not the slowest person on the planet to get projects done. Or at least I wasn’t before Rick died. Maybe now I am.

He built, as far as I know, very little.

So now there’s this lathe, that he machined parts to improve, and I don’t know what to do about that. I don’t work metal; maybe someday I’d like to but that’s a different me in a different place. There’s that big ol’ drill press, also upgraded, waiting for someone who needs to drill a hole.

There are hundreds of tools in that shed, from the press and the lathe to boxes of taps and dyes. There is sheet metal tucked away, milled to absurd smoothness, that he picked up from the scrap heap when he was working with the x-ray lithography kids at IBM. He had no use for that stuff, but he just couldn’t let go of such an excellent piece of engineering. It’s hard to recognize that something that took so much effort to create is now simply scrap.

Is that a metaphor? If you want it to be, sure, knock yourself out. But keep it to yourself; if Rick heard your theory he would give you a sideways glance and say “ooooh-kay” and resume his story about solving the impossible problem of corruption in magnetic core memory, or the time he shortened the run time of a batch job at some data center by pointing out that the terminal had a bell.

It’s funny, contrasting the pragmatic and efficient solutions he found in his professional career against the optimizing-for-the-sake-of-optimization that marked the time I knew him. I think it comes down to this: when he was working for someone else, he optimized for what they wanted. Efficiency. Expediency. When he was working only for himself (or his family), only perfection was good enough.

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Tools I Used While Installing a New Range Hood

An almost-comprehensive list of the tools I (and the Official Sweetie) used to install a new hood over our cooktop.

  • box knife
  • scissors
  • extension cord (green, 2-prong)
  • Craftsman variable-speed drill motor
  • Ryobe “drill saw” (sucked)
  • safety goggles
  • drill bits (various sizes)
  • straight steel aviation snips
  • left-turn steel snips
  • right-turn steel snips
  • flashlight, large
  • flashlight, small
  • table lamp with zebra stripes, fluorescent
  • Skil saber saw
  • stud finder (go ahead, say the joke)
  • MacBook Pro, to search for other tools
  • 2014 Mini Countryman, to fetch tools
  • Malco duct crimper (surprisingly fun!)
  • pencil
  • tape measure
  • paper towel
  • hydrogen peroxide
  • disinfectant spray
  • gauze
  • first-aid tape
  • heavy work gloves
  • chisel (3/8″)
  • Black and Decker circular saw
  • extension cord (orange, 3-prong)
  • 12″ rail clamp
  • 1/2″ socket
  • 1/4″ socket
  • 3/8″ socket
  • socket wrench, small
  • large-to-small socket adapter
  • socket wrench, large
  • small metal stool (pink)
  • Tacx bicycle repair stand (the key piece!)
  • wooden shims
  • digitally-controlled Dremel motor
  • analog-controlled Dremel motor
  • router attachment for Dremel motor
  • cutting bit for Dremel motor (x5)
  • Beats Audio over-ear headphones (for ear protection)
  • pointy hole-punch thing
  • Dyson upright vacuum cleaner
  • ratchet-drive screwdriver handle
  • Philips-head screwdriver attachment
  • long Phillips-head screwdriver bit (in drill motor)
  • hacksaw
  • carpentry ruler combination square (you’d think there’d be a better name for these)
  • Iron Horse sawhorses
  • Wood rasp
  • towel
  • Band-aid
  • hammer

It always ends with the hammer.

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Tools I Used While Installing a Dishwasher

Tape measure
Box knife
Medium flathead screwdriver
Small flathead screwdriver
Pliers, electrician’s
Pliers, slip-joint
Pliers, long-nose
Pliers, groove-joint
Wire stripper (crappy)
Desk lamp
Flashlight (cheap and annoying)
Extension cords (3)
9/16″ crescent wrench
7/16″ crescent wrench
Drill motor
Medium philips screwdriver drill attachment
Drill-screwdriver extension
3/32″ drill bit
Mazda Miata (1999)
Credit card
Tote bag, canvas (No Kid Hungry)
Wood planer (antique)
Belt sander, small (belts all broke)
Belt sander, medium (borrowed)
Dremel motor with cutting bit
Mini Countryman (2014)
Circular saw
Dust mask
Vacuum cleaner
Goggles
Level, carpenter’s
Level, torpedo
Socket wrench, 1/4″ drive
Socket, smallish
Socket, very small
Pencil
Scissors
Packing tape
Duct Tape
Cardboard
Multi-tool (used by helper)
Bucket
Towels, cloth
Towels, paper
Topical antiseptic

Git ‘er DONE!

While I’m skeptical of the necessity of scraping the top off what appeared to be a perfectly good street and then laying down a nice new layer of asphalt, I do have to admire the efficiency of the crew working outside my office. The scrapers scrape, the haulers haul, and right behind them come the pavers. There is definitely a sense of urgency as they work.

It’s like they’re in a race with the Evil Russian Road Crew that wants to pave over the orphanage. Will they get there in time?

Pave! Pave like the wind!

Christmas Time, Tool Time – Advice for Tool-Givers

I just saw an ad for a tool that didn’t interest me much, but I noticed that the neatly-bearded spokesman in his flannel shirt was standing in what was declared by the subtitles to be the “Tool Research Laboratory”, or something like that.

The set was clearly NOT a tool research laboratory, competing with CSI:Miami for “Least Practical Lighting for a Place Where People Use Their Eyes On the Job” award.

But… Somewhere there actually is a facility where people work hard to produce new, better tools. The people sitting at the workbenches aren’t necessarily wearing flannel; many of them likely have advanced degrees and spend their recreational hours reading about new alloys and fabrication techniques.

An example challenge: Make a better wrench. No biggie, it’s just a tool that has quietly matured over the centuries. But now, with math and engineering and gol-danged science, people are making better wrenches. Most of the emphasis in this new tool revolution is on convenience and one-size-does-more designs, which are all right, but then you get an ingenious device that puts the force on the flats of the bolt, rather than the corners, allowing you to apply a lot more force. A genuine improvement on an old standard*.

Christmas is the time these devices get to strut on the television, as women try to find gifts for men who don’t seem interested in things that are knitted. (Hint: many of those guys are looking forward to holiday leftovers more than they are to the gifts. Because there’s something magical about holiday leftovers. Just sayin’.)

You know, upon further review that last paragraph was pretty sexist. To the guy looking to buy tools for his husband, or the woman trying to figure out how to leave some hints as she cleans the grime from under her fingernails, I say rock on, and don’t forget the leftovers. Forgive me as I perpetuate the stereotype with my use of pronouns to follow.

Hey, remember the SnakeLight? It’s just a rechargeable flashlight with a bendy section, but many years ago when I got one for Christmas I was amazed at how useful it was. There’s a whole SnakeLight product category now. That’s a win.

Finally, the promised advice for tool-givers: beware the one magical wrench that’s as good as a whole set of traditional wrenches. It’s probably not quite as good, and your tool-appreciating gift target already has a whole wrench set and knows how to use it. When Tool User opens the package during your holiday ceremony, he will likely exclaim with happy surprise, but you will know he’s faking it.

But later, in the shop, on many occasions that every-wrench-in-one device is the one your beloved tool user will reach for rather than take the time to find the exact right wrench out of his set. Well, unless your tool user is like me. I’m a frightfully slow worker, and part of that is not just choosing the right wrench, but getting it positioned optimally. So give me a wrench that can reach a nut I couldn’t reach before. That is the one that will make he hairs on the back of my neck stand up — almost as much as a turkey sandwich with all the fixins.

Oh, and battery-powered tools are fundamentally inferior to ones you plug into the wall. The 120 seconds lost to laying the cord and coiling it up again dwarf the loss of power, the time lost messing with batteries, and the general better performance of the tool. Hippies and true craftsmen agree: batteries are no good.

Go Tool Research Laboratory! I’d apply for a job there, but I’m wretchedly unqualified.

* I’ve never seen sockets that embrace this innovation. Get on that, Tool Research Laboratory!

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Real Men Know Colors

Long, long ago, a female friend of mine told me excitedly that she finally owned a car. Back then, that was a big deal. What kind? I asked, getting swept up in the excitement. “It’s yellow!” was her response.

Then I bought a car of my own, and I was bemused when the first question by many of the females around me was, “what color is it?”

Really? I mean, sure I care what color my car is, but that comes way behind a lot of other considerations. As I age the other parameters reshuffle, but color remains pretty low on the list.

And we all know the woman who wins the office football pool based on the colors of the team jerseys. Aye Caramba.

But men know colors. A grizzled old farmer tells his grizzled old pal that he bought a tractor, and if it weren’t unthinkable that grizzled old pal wouldn’t already know the answer, he might ask “what color is it?” Because with big tractors there are two colors. Green and orange. John Deere and Massey Fergusen. If it’s a smaller tractor it might be red. You will never see green and orange on the same farm. Hell, you’ll rarely see both in the same town.

Real men know their colors, where those colors matter. They can tell Makita Teal from Bosch Blue; at a glance Milwaukee’s red stands out next to DeWalt’s Yellow and Black, which is totally different from Stanley’s Black and Yellow. Bonus points if you know Northern Industrial’s Maroon and Gray, and the occasional less-than-tasteful neon green of Kawasaki.

If I were to go to a financier and ask for money to start a tool company, I would fully expect one of the first questions to be “what color are they?”

Postscript:
As I perused a tool catalog to make sure I’d got my colors right (and to look at tool porn), I noticed that both Klutch and Wel-Bilt are going for silver and black. Sorry, guys. Craftsman is predominantly black but has gold highlights, and they own that space. Silver and Black just says you don’t want to be noticed. When a carpenter is trimming the end of a 2×4 with his silver-and-black circular saw, no one will think about the brand of saw he’s chosen for the task. While I find Kawasaki’s color choice brash, there’s no doubt that their tools are not afraid to strut on the worksite. If you’re selling a tool, at a glance everyone who matters around the worksite should know what brand your happy customers chose. Money can’t buy that kind of marketing. Which do you think sells better:

“Bosch has great roller bearings.”
“Joe uses Bosch, and Joe knows his shit.”

How do we know Joe uses Bosch? Bosch Blue, that’s how. And it’s nothing like Makita Teal.

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