Back to basics and eating an elephant in the woods.

CamshaftLinkinwbComplexity deconstructed can reveal a beautiful simplicity.

We stood with an intense air, both of us silent and both of us with our our gaze and thoughts focused totally on the object that lay on a low table in front of us. It was a wheel, a rear wheel from my bike to be exact, and it wasn’t working as it should. How can a wheel not work you may ask, if it’s round and intact and has air sufficient to keep the tyre in an appropriate shape then what could possibly go wrong?  Well, many things it transpires and in this particular case it turned out to be four small studs that transferred power from the chain to the wheel itself and from there to the ground. On this particular bike there could be around 100hp passing through on it’s way to the road  and these small pins are meant to play their part in the process.

One though, had snapped off.

This was not in itself a disaster, the bike still worked, but its progress was accompanied by clunk when either accelerating or braking and the reason was not hard to fathom, for all four had worn loose in their locating holes leaving the recesses  a blunt oval shape rather than perfectly round as should be the case. The pins were moving in their location and it was just a matter of time before they all sheared off or the wheel cracked under the constant hammering. That was the problem, but what was the solution?

My companion in studying the offending item was an engineer, we were standing in his workshop surrounded by the mills, presses and lathes that are the tools of his trade, Several ideas were suggested and if not actually dismissed they were modified and moulded until a consensus was reached as to a course of action that was most likely to prove successful. Essential to this process was close examination of the other components involved in securing the wheel to the bike; the locating collar,  the various washers and castellated nut, and of course the axle itself which, when stripped almost entirely down to its bare self, became a thing of complex beauty with each polished surface, cut spline or drilled centre representing a function that caused this inanimate object to engage with others and so produce a whole of smooth movement and purpose.

It is this ability to deconstruct and examine the elements that constitute the complete item which is the key to so much in engineering and many other human endeavors besides. Examining shapes and materials, selecting form to suit purpose and design to serve duty is the role of engineers and many others besides, in fact, all who are united by the common aim of taking the homogeneous and instilling it with character, a fact brought home to me when I was fortunate enough to share a meal with a French gentleman who had chosen a life of simple but intense experience over one of ambition and material wealth.

The food was prepared in front of us  as we sat at a small table in what could best be described as a unfinished conservatory, Grated carrot, tomatoes fresh from his plot and cheeses and pates that had been thoughtfully selected from the local market. He would handle all with a reverence, giving each a solemn weighing in his weathered hands before pronouncing as to whether the rind was over aged or the blood too generous amongst the fats, his words were attentive to the experience and his intelligence in the materials he handled beyond doubt. I think it the most splendid meal I have ever eaten.

That same mood of assessment and calculation was obvious back in storm swept Tipperary as each part of the bike’s axle was  picked up and scrutinised in a manner so reminiscent of the French gourmet.  This was the mark of the artisan, the signature of the true craftsman, and it is not something that may be bought or downloaded, it is the product of experience and many years of association with the materials to be worked upon. It also very unfashionable in the world of IT driven commerce which teaches us that rapid and accelerating rates of change are the norm and to be welcomed as something wonderful. We are not to allow ourselves the time to consider the detail but we are to  go with the flow, accept the whole as if there is no alternative and rejoice in the hollow and often unfulfilled promises of eternal happiness if we just subjugate ourselves to the featureless digital soup that surrounds us.

The bike is now fixed and the meal remains a highlight of my times in France and what they both have in common is the attention to detail, In modern life we are so often urged to step back and admire the finished facade, not to worry our silly heads about the  process or ethos which brought it into existence but simply luxuriate in the latest new thing, until the next new thing comes along that is. But does this add to the sum of human contentment? We have see the tragedy of not attending to the details as countries are bankrupted by irresponsible banking and multinational corporations have no fear of the regulation that is supposed to curtail the habits that damage our environment, and yet we continue to ignore the circumstances which brought these disasters about.

The good of the human race will, I believe, be better served if we actually start to engage with the tress again rather than admire the forest. If there is an elephant that needs eating then we must do it piece  by piece rather than just throw our hands up in horror at its enormity. We must be brave enough to question and challenge rather than accept and kowtow. It’s not impossible, nor is it a particularly tall order for details by nature are small, we can handle them well if taken singularly, and it is the mass accumulation of those details which is most likely to change the world if enough of us engage on our own terms rather than the terms of  those who would control us.