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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