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Woodworking Philosophy, Computer Science

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Blog entry by madcomsci posted 07-14-2014 02:15 PM 983 reads 1 time favorited 6 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Most people can’t see a connection between computer science and woodworking. Why would they? Woodworking is perceived as being old fashioned, messy, low paying, and woodshop classes are for those high school students who just aren’t going to make it in college. Haven’t we all seen The Breakfast Club, and remember the “nerd” character driven to tears, and contemplates suicide because he couldn’t get his elephant lamp to work. That movie came out nearly thirty years ago and this scene still drives me nuts. How much effort has been spent reinforcing these dumb stereotypes? Let’s clear that junk out of our minds and take a big dose of reality.

Computer science is the study of difficulty, cost, and complexity. It isn’t about toiling away in ultra modern labs and turning flashes of genius into billion dollar companies. Getting wealthy comes naturally when you build something that everyone in the country will pay for. I hope I’m not the only one noticing that Apple doesn’t build cell phones by hand in a California garage. If you agree, you just did some basic computer science in your head. You can build a computer out of wood in your garage but it would be difficult, consume valuable time, and it would be so complicated that getting it to work would be a nightmare.

At this point, I’ll bet you are as confused as I was. Computers are built from billions of perfectly reliable parts that all do exactly what you want them to, every time, forever. Wood is made from trees that are all different, and they don’t care what you intended to make from them. Wood has built in complexity. This is why we have plywood. Plywood is an attempt to manage complexity and create a material that is more predictable. We have to remember that at some point in the past, plywood didn’t exist. Someone had to invent it, and was probably told by at least one person that it was a stupid idea. Plywood saves money and made building things easier and faster, but it wasn’t an obvious idea.

We all do computer science whether we notice it or not. The most interesting thing I learned studying computer science is that most problems have been solved, often before computers as we know them today existed. Sort things quickly, find the fastest way to get things done, find the cheapest way to do something. Even organizing a shop is a process that has been studied. There are even problems we know how to solve, but it takes so long that finding the best answer is pretty much impossible. I won’t go into too much detail, but sometimes the best approach is to just do the most obvious thing. Thinking about it might be harder than doing it.



6 comments so far

View paxorion's profile

paxorion

864 posts in 794 days


#1 posted 07-14-2014 02:40 PM

You’d be surprised how many engineers and scientist pick up woodworking or metalworking as a hobby. The interest in woodworking as a subset of the maker movement is a sign of it. One (such as myself) may argue that there is a difference between fine woodworking and a maker movement inspired woodworking craze.

PS: I’m an engineer/scientist type…and I use the same “brain cells” for my day job and evening/weekend hobby.

-- paxorion

View madcomsci's profile

madcomsci

5 posts in 162 days


#2 posted 07-14-2014 03:46 PM

Paxorion, I’m not surprised at all, and I’m well aware of how many craftspeople I have met along the way. What does surprise me is how many perfectly capable minds seem to fear building things. Is this “maker movement inspired woodworking craze” the people I see “upcycling” pallet wood into “rustic” stuff? :) Not my cup of tea, but I’m not too bothered by it.

View Dan Lyke's profile

Dan Lyke

1489 posts in 2874 days


#3 posted 07-14-2014 03:50 PM

I got a chuckle out of “Computers are built from billions of perfectly reliable parts that all do exactly what you want them to, every time, forever.”

Complex systems are never reliable, and whether it’s the propensity of that bad capacitor manufacturing process that infected so many computers and components in the mid naughties, to sun spots, AM radio stations, or just plain copper oxidation screwing up network connections, there are all sorts of ways for computers to be non-deterministic. I mean, beyond the fact that humans are just lousy at building fault-tolerant systems that scale, and yet somehow we still manage to do it.

But recently I’ve stepped into my shop to do some consulting work on a product which spans the two worlds, and one of the things I’ve been struck by is how the two spaces have almost changed place: When I started computing, 1k of memory was a usable address space. That’s less than a millionth of the memory of your modern desktop computers. We programmed them in machine language, translating mnemonics like “LDA” into hexadecimal numbers like “A9” by hand. Even as computers grew, we could build test harnesses to find when they weren’t doing what we wanted and re-play them to the state where things went wrong.

Meanwhile, while computers were a way to encapsulate complexity into a system that could be easily reorganized, mechanical systems had a fairly high failure rate. Cars were lucky to get a hundred thousand miles. Bearings needed regular service. Plywood delaminated.

Now, when I go into the shop I can understand how the components go together. Wood movement is quantified, for different species and cuts. Adhesives have been pretty well explored. Modern bearings are amazing. And computers have evolved into complex system with many distributed processors, across the globe, using terabytes of RAM and petabytes of memory.

So in a way, retreating into the shop is a way to simplify the systems I’m working on, to look at a finite set of parts that interact and solve those simple interactions, rather than my day gig, which involves looking at hugely complex systems and trying to figure out how to keep humans from mucking them up.

-- Dan Lyke, Petaluma California, http://www.flutterby.net/User:DanLyke

View madcomsci's profile

madcomsci

5 posts in 162 days


#4 posted 07-14-2014 04:09 PM



I got a chuckle out of “Computers are built from billions of perfectly reliable parts that all do exactly what you want them to, every time, forever.”

Complex systems are never reliable, and whether it s the propensity of that bad capacitor manufacturing process that infected so many computers and components in the mid naughties, to sun spots, AM radio stations, or just plain copper oxidation screwing up network connections, there are all sorts of ways for computers to be non-deterministic. I mean, beyond the fact that humans are just lousy at building fault-tolerant systems that scale, and yet somehow we still manage to do it.

Yeah, I may have simplified the idea in order to make a point. If a chemist was on here trying to communicate how to make a good finish or glue, I’d be interested in that. Too often I think people assume that new ideas come from some guys toiling away inside the companies that gave us the old ideas. I’m a computer scientist and woodworker. Somewhere along the way I got sick of explaining that I don’t build computers out of wood, and I don’t make woodworking apps.

View Ger21's profile

Ger21

680 posts in 1880 days


#5 posted 07-15-2014 01:24 AM

Saw this somewhere else.

The Maker Movement – Reinventing the wheel, the hard way.

-- Gerry, http://g-forcecnc.com/jointcam.html

View Woodbutchery's profile

Woodbutchery

279 posts in 2334 days


#6 posted 07-16-2014 10:14 AM

In the end, it’s all about relationships.

Almost everyone does their best to try to relate one thing to another. “She reads, she likes science fiction, she must like science”, or “He’s a musician and she’s a musician, so let’s get them together so they’ll have something in common to talk about.” It’s an attempt to compartmentalize knowledge, an activity with an action, a similarity with a desire to stay within one’s “tribe”.

I’ve been working with computers in various roles for decades, and a while back I was bit by the woodworking bug. It was painless, and has resulted in many hours of relaxation and happiness once I found a way to side-step the anxiety of perfection and finishing a project now, Now. NOW! We all have our reasons for taking up this hobby (for those for whom it is a hobby), and every one of them is valid. Those close to us; family, friends, workmates, will attempt to make their own line of logic on why we do what we do. Some will spend more grey-cells on it than others. In the end, it is our satisfaction and the happiness generated in the work along the way that keeps us in our hobby.

-- Making scrap with zen-like precision - Woodbutchery

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