Saturday, November 10, 2012

Thoughts In Sandy's Aftermath

I've encountered the following Heinlein quote more than once these past few days:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” [From Time Enough For Love]

This has been offered as a slap at the many thousands who've found themselves severely impeded by the effects of Superstorm Sandy: without power, low on gasoline, possibly without a home.

There are any number of conservatives who regard Heinlein as a genius's genius: the fount of all wisdom and never to be gainsaid. Well, sorry, lads and ladies, but he's not. He was a science fiction writer of considerable ability, a fair degree of insight, and a conservative bent. He was brighter than average, beyond all doubt. But like most of us, he was often wrong -- and his advice, particularly the crop culled from the abovementioned tome, is a mixed bag at best.

The operative word in the quote above is should. That makes it a matter of evaluation and opinion.

I've called should "my favorite word" for quite some time. In my position, I used to get a lot of "shoulds," as for example:

  • "The server should be able to handle that load."
  • "The simulation should be capable of automated operation."
  • "That degree of resource consumption should be within capacity."

In response to which I posted the following over my desk, in very large type:

WARNING: In the Land of Should:
  • All programs work on the first try;
  • All programs do everything and take no time to develop;
  • Even the most complex programs take up no memory or disk space, and require no operator familiarization!

YOU HAVE ENTERED THE LAND OF IS. Welcome. We hope you enjoy your stay.

Here in the Land of Is, we endure some rather unforgiving constraints. They're called the Laws of Nature. One of those laws is that men will languish in poverty unless they specialize. In response, we learned a little trick called the division of labor. It's the foundation of modern life.

Because of the division of labor, not all of us have to be farmers. Not all of us have to be butchers. Not all of us have to be mechanics. And thank God, not all of us have to pitch manure or write sonnets -- and there are most definitely persons who should be forcibly restrained from attempting either. By dividing the necessities and desiderata of life into specialties and allowing individuals to trade the fruits of their respective gifts, we have developed an economy of unexampled power, and produced a degree of prosperity many of us simply don't appreciate.

That sort of prosperity is not available under any other scheme of economic organization.

But hark! Specialization in response to the division of labor produces...specialists: Persons who are highly competent at one particular undertaking, and mediocre or worse at most others. A division-of-labor economy assumes that specialists of the many sorts we occasionally need are: 1) out there somewhere, and 2) available at need. Inasmuch as each of us is a specialist of some sort, no other assumption is plausible or workable.

What made Sandy so devastating wasn't that the relevant specialties -- construction; electrical work; heating; etc. -- all ceased to exist. Clearly that didn't happen. But because of the intensity of the storm, because of our geographical dispersion, and because the storm interfered seriously with transportation and fueling, a sufficiency of specialists of the most important sorts were unable to rush to the aid of those worst affected.

(I could go on about how government has worsened such matters by inserting its snout into disaster relief, but I'll spare you...for now.)

It will always remain possible that a natural disaster of Sandy's magnitude or worse will disrupt our normally smoothly functioning division-of-labor economy. To set aside reserves with which to cope with reasonably foreseeable developments is prudent, and to be encouraged. But ask yourself this:

What fraction of your life and resources would you have had to invest in preparation -- the mastery of all the required specialties -- if, like the unfortunates in Breezy Point, you had been reaved of all you own and deprived of power, heat, and transportation, but were required to re-establish yourself without outside help or undue hardship?

The Gentleman Adventurer who sets out to explore Proxima Centauri would probably need all the skills Heinlein tabulated...well, except for that business about manure and sonnets; some perversions should be kept secret in perpetuity. The rest of us can get by fairly well with our individual specialties even in troublesome conditions, as long as transit and communication remain reasonably practical. When those requirements fail, I suppose we can all revert to hunter-gatherers and move into riverbank caves.


TJIC said...

Personally, I can do pretty well without power: despite living less than 10 miles from downtown Boston, I've got a woodburning stove, two firewood sheds I build myself stacked with two cords of split hardwood, a chainsaw, splitting maul, and sledgehammer to harvest more wood in the aftermath of a storm, a generator and a transfer box I wired myself, a week's worth of food, 50 gallons of water, etc.

That said, "being good with my hands" and "being prepared" are hobbies of mine, and there's an opportunity cost. I did not pursue a PhD, or achieve greater career success with time that I spent mastering the tablesaw, the multimeter, and the chainsaw.

I acknowledge that other people make other choices.

pdwalker said...

Allow me to disagree with you for a moment.

The quote you are quoting comes from the "Notebooks of Lazarus Long", a character who had lived about 2000 years by the time his collected thoughts were gathered and recorded by his descendants

So these are the thoughts of the character who had the time to learn and master these things, or are they actually the thoughts and actual beliefs of the writer himself?

I don't know as I never had the good fortune to actually know him. Maybe he thought it was a good idea or ideal, but for now, I'll just assume it is what Lazarus believed, not necessarily what Heinlein thought was gospel.

rickl said...

I'm in suburban Philadelphia. I didn't suffer any damage, but my power was out for three days, which is the longest outage I've ever experienced.

My workplace got power back after a day, and while commuting I saw utility trucks from all over the place, like Mississippi Power, Gulf Electric (Alabama), and Pike Electric (North Carolina). I think it's very cool how utility companies come to each other's aid during disasters. If a hurricane hits Florida, PECO trucks from Philadelphia will head down there to help them out.

(Pro tip: Buy a Ray-O-Vac headlamp or equivalent. It's an LED flashlight that straps to your forehead and runs on 3 AAA batteries, and leaves your hands free for both reading and cooking. It cost $12.99 at Home Depot, and it's the best purchase I've made in a long, long time.)

Mark Butterworth said...


I've pitched manure. A lot of it. And I've written sonnets, very good ones. Oh, how you've hurt my poor feelings. Sniff. Sniff.

How shall I ever recover? Sniff.

pdwalker said...

Memorialize it in in a sonnet, of course. "An ode to pitching manure". Put your hurt to words and let it all out.

Dan said...

Specialization in one or a handful
of areas of interest does not preclude humans from becoming competent in many other areas.

I myself am a specialist in the production of radiographic images of ALL types. My highly developed skills learned over years of practice allow me to provide a physician with much needed information quickly and accurately in the safest most efficient manner for a'd far prefer me imaging your body with radiation than some lackey shuffled off the streets and give a few hours quick hands on instructions. I also am a network administrator for the radiology imaging systems of my healthcare org. Another highly specialized skill.

In addition to these other specialties I am a competent gunsmith. I can build an AR from parts in less than an hour, I can bed a stock, I can mount and sight a scope and I can fix many of the myriad things that can go wrong on a firearm.

I also have adequate construction skills...I and one other person using just hand tool built a 35x40
RV garage with 16' walls including doors, windows, stucko and roof....just the two of one 4 month summer.

I can perform maintenance and upgrades to many 4 wheel drive vehicles....want your jeep lifted?
I can do that for you.

I can weld.
I can wield a chainsaw and drop a tree.
I can suture a wound.
I can sew on a button.
I can skin a deer.
I can do A LOT of necessary things.
And I'm an average guy of at most
above average intellect.

Sorry Francis....Heinlein has it correct. Men SHOULD be able to do
lots of different things....some better than others of course but he should be at least competent in many arenas of life.

Francis W. Porretto said...

How nice for you, Dan. Would you prefer a medal, or a chest to pin it on?

Quite a lot of readers have written to differ with me on this. All of you, without exception, have made a point about all the outside-your-specialty skills you’ve acquired. Fine; that was your choice. But as I said in the post, the operative word is should, which makes the whole thing a matter of highly personal, completely subjective evaluation.

He who dismisses others who have made other choices about how to apportion their time and energies, because they have applied their own personal, subjective “shoulds,” exhibits contempt for them – and to sniff that “Specialization is for insects” might just be the supreme expression of that contempt. It constitutes one of Heinlein’s gravest sins.

I prefer to spend my time among persons that don’t puff themselves up about their superiority in this or that dimension. So feel free to go play “Survivor” with your own friends; I have no use for your pretensions to Renaissance-Man status or your contemptuous exaltation of self over others.

KG said...

"..but he should be at least competent in many arenas of life."
Should he?
Being highly specialized in something implies being successful at it. Being successful at it means the specialist can afford to buy the services of those skilled in other things.
To reach the top in most specialties requires a single-minded focus on that objective and time spent dabbling in other pursuits often is time that would be better spent on the objective. With the added advantage that the plumber or mechanic he then employs would in turn be a specialist and a damn sight better at the job than the well-rounded dabbler.