Friday, April 24, 2009


I have a growing, or perhaps surging sense that the single word we need to revive from the past, and embrace, is maintenance.

It seems like a boring word, and to some extent, that's the point. It is a concept that has all but disappeared from our society: to keep things working, to fix things that are broken, to battle entropy.

The word that seems to drive us today instead is growth.  You hear it everywhere, and it is put forth as though it is a good thing.  Companies are supposed to grow.  People are supposed to have growth experiences.  The economy is supposed to grow.  Why, exactly?  What's wrong with it staying the size it is, but getting better?  Do we really want everything to grow?  The population, the debt, the size of our bodies?  If the goal were to maintain our economy, people would be finding ways to make it a little better here and there, a little more efficient, give it a fresh coat of paint, keep it going into the future.  Bubbles grow, then they pop.  That's why they refer to these economic downturns as bubbles.  Nothing grows indefinitely without a "correction".  But why, then, do we incessantly pursue growth?

I say that maintenance is the new growth.  If you can't keep track of, repair, nurture, and get full value out of the things you own, you own too much.  If you can't keep your life exactly as it is, indefinitely into the future, into retirement, even as things change, then you're in a spiral of debt.

Maintenance is what used to be required for healthy machinery, automobiles, and relationships.  But the zerk fittings have disappeared from everything in our lives. Things aren't designed to be fixed, or maintained. The phrase is "planned obsolescence" but I think that's too polite a term. "Throwaway society" might be better. How about a corporate slogan like, "We make products that suck, so you have to throw them away in a few years, and we do it on purpose."

For me these days, my happiness is proportional to my ability to maintain.  I sometimes come to work and sweep the floor, or work on repairing an aging hydraulic lift truck, or organize some hardware in the shop. Is that related to forward progress?  Am I just dithering?  I don't think so.  I think that maintenance and readiness are keys to success. I think that sweeping a large floor with a push broom allows for a kind of thinking that sitting in front of a computer does not.

It is interesting to me that our economy is now "broken" and we're considering how to "fix" it, when nobody remaining in this country has the skills any more to fix anything.  Maybe what we should be doing is figuring out how to throw our economy into the landfill and buy a bright, shiny new one, with a warranty.

I'm with Oscar Rogers: somebody needs to FIX IT!


Chaim Rubin said...

Wax on - wax off.

The more things change the more they remain the same. The Puritan ethic: Use it up; make it do; wear it out. In reforestation, they breed trees that grow as fast as possible. But the wood is not as dense and strong as the natural tree. Bummer. Once for a science fair my daughter sprouted beans in cups. One set of cups was kept under the lights nonstop. It grew faster and taller than the controls, but the weight of the leaves bent and broke the spindly stem.

Programming as a metaphor for life. You seem to have been blessed with many development projects. In new developments, the last domino doesn't fall till long after QA is through with it. How many generations of programmers have since fought and died over those projects, now that the organizations and systems are mature?

I don't know about you, but when I was a tadpole, maintenance programming was the janitorial work of programming. It was the worst of all worlds, the crap end of the stick, lowest paid, lowest level on the food chain, responsibility without authority, the work given to beginners. It was in those days I developed my personal definition of 'class':
People who clean up their own messes.

Development programming was a promotion. Whee! No more responsibility! I'm exaggerating of course. A little.

Development causes Y2K -
Maintenance cleans it up.
Development writes spaghetti code -
Maintenance has to detangle it
Development builds undocumented complexity and obscurity and chaos -
Maintenance has to rebuild it, even reconceive it
Development... 'You da man!' -
Maintenance... 'What's the big deal?', as if all the heavy lifting has been done already.
Development has the sex -
Maintenance changes the diapers
Development is Yang -
Maintenance is Yin

And so on. All under deadlines and impatience and ingratitude and crisis conditions.

For this was the saying created - "If you don't have time to do it right, you always have time to do it over".

Chaim Rubin said...

The bigger issue you are addressing and the root of the problem is the attitude of entitlement that some people get the good stuff, and other people's destiny is the problems and the dirty work. The seed of the solution lies in awareness of that. The dirty work is everybody's problem. When that becomes true, the people that do it won't be treated like dirty people and people will then be more motivated to do it. Wash a dish and make the world a better place.

'Fix it' implies that it once worked. Maybe it never worked, and the chewing gum holding it together just lost its spit. But at least it did fly. Somebody just turned off the ignition switch (credit) in midair. The plane is fine, but without the motion it's not a plane anymore. Everybody is trying to fix the plane when what is needed is air flow, let's call it cash flow. Whether an economy travelling on air is a good idea in the first place is the key to 'fixing it'. You talk about time-shifting elsewhere. Living on credit is a form of time-shifting; not a good one. To that extreme, sometimes the time never comes.

Watch that video again and substitute Obama for Bush. What has really changed? Is there more hope now? At the time of writing the financial headlines every day are 'Have we hit bottom yet?' Where's that out-of-the-box outsider creativity and stuff. Before the election is was so simple: Bush is a doofus, and Obama is intelligent to brilliant. All we need is to stop being stupid. Right?

Well, yes. But why hasn't it happened? For the same reason that third and fourth and fifth generation programming languages have not solved the productivity problem. Make one thing simpler and sweep the complexity under the rug someplace else - i.e. make it somebody else's problem. Here the branches are out of control, there the pointers are out of control, now the classes are out of control. So appoint a goat, a class librarian whose 'responsibility' it is to follow the elephants around and sweep up the dung.

But let's not just carp; if the precipitating cause of the crisis was impending defaults on mortgages, thus threatening mass repo's and bank defaults, why not just simply guarantee those mortagages and keep the cash flow going while the institutions retrenched. Defaults are still a small (if growing) percentage of the market. What was the rush? Nobody died. There was no hurricane or volcano or earthquake or tsunami. No time to think it through? Like the man said, find a problem and fix it. The ultimate problem was cash-flow, not poor sales. So ensure cash-flow. Don't blow up every system and institution around.

If banks had to be bailed out, why not hire them as agents to give loans on a non-profit as-needed basis rather than as Santa Claus? If auto makers needed to be bailed out, why not just buy their inventory on sale on a non-profit basis for every federal, state, local and military fleet requirement. Cash flow.

OK, post fatigue.