Fiddlers Mending Pans

As we all know I grew up in the sort of quaint place that fairytales – and fantasy books – wax poetic (and often pathetic) about.  So it will surprise absolutely no one if I tell you it came with the necessary accouterments of proverbs and picturesque sayings.  (Because, to allude to my son’s Ninja Nun comic, the touristry ministry gives you seven kinds of h*ll otherwise.)

One of those charming proverbs was something along the lines of (tries madly to remember) “Why would you want, fiddler, to learn to play the harmonica?”  and, with total disregard for one-men-bands, this was supposed to allude to the fact that if you do something well you should stick to it, and not go haring off in search of new work, and different experiences.  (There was also something about potters not mending pans.)

As charming as it is to think that this served people well in a long-forgotten time of stability when a son followed his father’s footsteps into a profession, world without end, I’ve read enough to suspect that this was not ever really true.  I mean, do some sons follow their father’s professions?  Sure.  Talent tends to run in families, so if your father is a brilliant mathematician, or a really good farmer, (or both) chances are so are you.  But here’s the thing, there’s a good chance that the son won’t follow the father’s profession exactly the SAME way.  Chances are that the son will follow it sideways, with a twist, more so, less so…  The sons who just – to extend the methaphor – follow their father’s furrow to the end, always strike me as a little sad, a little… manque, like something is missing of the essential spark of life that animates other people.

And there’s reason to think those sons (and daughters) are not the majority and never were.  Even in the middle ages there were laws in almost every European country saying that a son had to do what the father did, at least in those professions considered essential.  At least, once the plague opened opportunities of advancement in Europe and broke the chains of feudal serfs, everyone seemed to hare off to better their status.  Laws, of course, didn’t work to keep them back on the farm.  (Laws, most people tend to forget, don’t work without heavy enforcement, and then often don’t work as they’re meant to.  Take the minimum wage law (please.) Because it contravenes economic fact, it has resulted in a flood of illegal laborers.  But that’s musing for another day.)  But they did leave us a useful testimony to the fact that life was never as stable as we’d like to think it was.  The golden age back there only seems so to us because we know how the struggles that consumed people at the time will end.

However, I will concede, if anyone is interested – you, back there, stop pretending to sleep.  That’s such a fake snore! – that we’ve entered a time of marked and tumbling change in most professions.  Disruptive change.

Not all change is disruptive, see.  Oh, I know, twentieth century.  Oxcart to moon landing, yeah.  But look, in the essentials, the automobile was just a faster and safer and more affordable (because no horses to maintain) form of carriage.  And most people (more’s the pity) never got close to going to the moon.  Manufacturing got faster and cleaner and better.  A lot of things got cheaper.

I’m not going to pretend this didn’t change lives.  Of course it did, and I experienced a lot of that change myself, over a compressed time.

What I’m going to say is that it didn’t change the processes of life, or not as much as we expect, or at least not in most professions.  Yeah, if you were an old buggy whip maker, you might have retired early, and your apprentices might have gone to study mechanics.  Heck, to read, say the Miss Marple stories by Agatha Christie in sequence, tells us how much the texture of life changed before and after the war.  But Mis Marple didn’t suddenly have to learn to knit using a computer, say.

Now, this is a gross generalization.  A lot of professions, particularly towards the end of the twentieth century, had to learn to knit using a computer, to work that metaphor further.  But by and large, the processes set at the end of the nineteenth century for “how life works” continued the same way.  Yeah, now a woman as well as a man might go out of the house to earn her living.  But even that is not that out of the pattern, since women in the lower classes worked in the factories since the industrial revolution.

And that’s why I think you need to go back to the industrial revolution, to its total upending of what had been a centuries-old way of life, to see the equivalent of what we’re going to: villages which had been stable for centuries were suddenly emptied by people leaving for town to work in the factories; young people who had always started working at ages that seem impossible to us now, suddenly were at least thought to be better off in school (and most of them ended up in school, after a while) because the industrial revolution required workers trained to work in groups and to obey and be punctual; work became something you did outside the house, instead of in the house, often with the participation with the family.  Etc. etc. etc.

The only thing that made the industrial revolution slightly less (a very little less) frightening than what we’re seeing now is that it was slower.  Or at least it seems so to us, from where we’re standing.  (And even then, the fast pace of change and the fear and angst it occasioned, particularly among those with power but more generally too, ended up giving us the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars and, generally speaking, rivers of blood – I’m very afraid we won’t emerge on the side of this without experiencing the equivalent, but that’s a musing for another article.)

From where we’re standing, only biblical type phrasing seems appropriate, only the Bible – is for some reason – quite lacking in metaphors having to do with machinery and tech.  So, I’ll have to make do and tell it onto you verily (yea!): Brothers and sisters, the day is coming, roaring like a freight train, and when the day arrives, of our way of life there won’t be left stone standing upon stone.  (Yes, today I am devoted to stretch all metaphors till they scream, why?)

Call it singularity, if you want to.  I won’t because the word comes freighted (trains again) with ideas of immortality and brain jacks, and I really can’t be having with that just now.  But the essence of the singularity as something past which everything is different, so different that understanding before and after is very difficult, is there.  Yes, I think change will be that extraordinary.

Now, perhaps I’m silly, because I’m a writer and right now my profession is getting hit on the snout with the rolled newspaper of catastrophic change in tech.  (Mostly for the better, mind.  But the better doesn’t seem so, when we’re in mid-change.  Security is gone and we must adapt faster.)  But it seems to me that most of your professions are in for it, too, and not far behind mine.  Oh, I don’t think heavy manufacturing is close to changing that much yet – except a lot of it is already done by robots.  Doctoring is probably safe for a while longer.  But things like… teaching.  Uh, your time is coming, roaring like a freight train.  And don’t get me started on a bunch of other professions.  At the end of this, we’ll be able to write a scene like at the beginning of City (by Clifford Simak.)  You know “And sometimes the children asked, what is a teacher?  What is a movie studio?  What is a publishing house? What is a freight train?  Historians told them to be quiet.  These words were just made up and the stories just metaphors, to be enjoyed and not thought over.”

So, what can we do?  Besides try to make sure that this time – unlike the last catastrophic tech change – we don’t end up wading in blood up to our metaphorical ankles?  (It might be out of our hands, but its our duty as humans to try to prevent it.)

We can tell the proverb about fiddlers and harmonicas to take a flying leap.  You see, what makes this change so difficult, right now, is that we’re in the air, with all our paws (what, you don’t have paws when you leap? Odd that!) flailing, not absolutely sure where we’ll land, or how to brace for impact.

As with any leap, the way to make things easier is to look ahead and set ourselves where we can fall standing on all four paws and ready to run, attack or cower as needed.  And in this over-stressed metaphor world, seeing what’s ahead means learning as much as possible about the tech that’s causing the change.  And following the lives of those who are ahead of us in the leap.  (Thank heavens for blogs.)

In the interest of the first, I, the world’s least technologically inclined fiddler must now learn to play the harmonica of tech.  (NOT a real harmonica, for those of us who know of my inverse musical talent.)

I am headed for Oregon this weekend, to take Kris Rusch’s and Dean Wesley Smith’s Think Like A Publisher workshop, part of which involves the tech of making ebooks.  Yes, of course I am terrified.  Look, after weeks of my nooddling with the attempts to put up a donate button, my husband did it for me yesterday in about seven minutes (Look, there, on the sidebar to your right at According To Hoyt, though I don’t intend to mention except while posting the free novel.)  The problem is when faced with most tech stuff my brain stops being able to think linearly and, instead, spins in a tight circle upon itself.  But never mind that.  I’m sure it was very hard for Og, who had just used stones picked up from the ground to get his mind around the flint-chipping thing.  But if Og didn’t manage it, the young men with their sharp flints left him behind (hopefully alive, I make no promises for the morals of cavemen) and killed and ate all his normal hunting prey, so that Og was left to finish his miserable life eating only grass and berries.

Berries are okay, but I don’t like grass.  And I really like steak.  So I will muster this flint chipping before the lack of knowledge destroys me.

And, lest you think I’m done abusing metaphors: the fiddle player will one way or another become a one woman band and march over the horizon to mend some pans.

Crossposted at Mad Genius Club

25 thoughts on “Fiddlers Mending Pans

  1. What Sarah is saying is MOST true, and we would be wise to heed her warning.

    Trust me, once you get used to the head rush, the feeling of free fall, the wild tossing and turning, the ride gets pretty interesting.

    For various values of “interesting.”

    I’m standing at the tail end of a 30-year career in the graphic arts. When I started, in my 20s, the company I work for had one “computerized” device, a machine that could be controlled by means of a magnetic tape. But “programming” it consisted of going through the motions with the record function turned on. Sort of like recording a macro in Word. Except that, back then, Word didn’t exist. Hell, Microsoft barely existed, and nobody’d heard of them. (This was 2 years before the introduction of the PC.)

    I was very proud of the fact that my TI calculator had more computing power than NASA’s most advanced spaceship.

    Now. Well. The industry has been most thoroughly computerized — what’s the inverse of “decimated.” You know: one in ten? What’s the term for “killing nine in ten to serve as an example for the remainder”? It’s that bad. There are specializations from that time that simply don’t exist any more. Whole classes of enterprise wiped out in the relative blink of an eye. I still have some of the hand tools from then on my desk, although they don’t get nearly the workout these days.

    And you-all have the results of THAT change on YOUR desks. Macintoshes. Adobe Creative Suite. Microsoft Office. Calibre. Kindle. Yes, Kindle is an end-product of the desktop publishing revolution — that killed the printing industry.

    Verb sap.


  2. Thank you, Sarah. I am one of those engineers who always “just loved history.” Consequently, I have always enjoyed finding out about the story of my family.
    We came to northern England fron one of the Northlands in the mid eleventh century with the Vikings. We have no hint as to whether we were Viking Lords or a lackies in a Lord’s entourage. However, we seem to have been predominantly knights and minor nobility along the Scottish border or in English occupied France until the mid 1300s. At that time we suddenly repudiated the titles and knighthood. We shifted into the private class and prospered greatly.
    That presents a mystery. Did we get kicked out of the King’s service? Were we far sighted? What? It was a big change made suddenly.
    You reminded me of the probable answer. After 300 years of dying for our leige lords with only modest returns the black death presented great opportunities for the daring.

  3. Destress. Relax. You have done FAR harder things in your life. What makes tech hard for many people — and probably this includes you — is simply unfamiliarity.

    I occasionally get to help an older person learn tech. They have even more of an instinctive fear, because they think they’re too old to learn new stuff. So I counter that with an example most of them know: Dick Van Dyke. When he was at what might be retirement age in other careers, he wasn’t finding much acting work. The creative business ebbs and flows, of course. So he had time on his hands. One day he saw a Commodore Amiga (that gives a clue to the time frame here) showing off its animation capabilities. He was amazed, because he was in the business (his first gig was as host for a cartoon show, actually) and he knew how much work that animation used to be. So he went out and bought that little computer. He studied it. He learned how it worked. In his sixties, he taught himself computer animation. He attended conferences, even exhibited his works. And when fortune turned again and he got the “Diagnosis Murder” series, he actually did an animation of a motorcycle crash for one episode. So he’s now a PROFESSIONAL computer animator.

    If Dick Van Dyke can learn computer animation in his sixties, you can learn the simple stuff Dean and Kris will be teaching.

  4. about Teaching as a profession.

    I saw an interesting article a couple of months ago about a school where the teacher assigned the lectures to be viewed online (from the Kahn Academy at home and dedicated the classroom time to homework.

    I spent a year in school at a private school where there weren’t any ‘classes’ as such, instead each student had a cube and there were short (20 page or so) workbooks on every subject. Each student worked through the workbooks in whatever order they wanted, at their own pace, and when they finished each workbook they took a test to see if they had learned the material and then progressed to the next one (and for people like me, they had to make a rule that I had to do at least one workbook in the subjects I didn’t like for every couple that I did in the subjects that I loved

    I think these general approaches are going to combine lead to the leaders of the future.

    on the one hand, you have a very small handful of people who can lecture in a way that is FAR more productive, so we will leverage those people by recording the lectures and making them available over the Internet.

    then you need people who can work one-on-one with students, helping them with their problems, This is a very different mindset (as anyone who has attended college lectures can attest), and it also requires a vast array of different skills and approaches, depending on the student. So the instructors who will have the continuing contact with the students will be far more like tutors or coaches than what we think of as teachers today.

    the biggest problem with this future is that students who are not interested in learning will find it very easy to not learn and fall through the cracks If parents and ‘coaches’ do not push them and eventually convince them to do the work.

    but the days of guaranteed employment and captive classes of students are numbered (at least for the good schools, like everything else run by the government, the lowest rung of schools may not change for a long time)

    1. “on the one hand, you have a very small handful of people who can lecture in a way that is FAR more productive, so we will leverage those people by recording the lectures and making them available over the Internet.”

      Exactly. The “performers” will be the new lecturers, giving mostly multi-media recorded performances with lots of bells and whistles. Those people will get the PhD’s and do the “content.”

      Which will mean that all those people who used to get PhD’s will get something like a education technology support degree with an emphasis in their chose field. These will be your day to day “managers.” One small problem. The Ph.D. comes with a great deal of prestige, but the entry barriers, time, money, etc. are high. If the pay for the “performers” goes up, that’s good, but there will be remarkably few of those positions.

      There could be a need for thousands of the support people, but how well will those jobs pay? Currently those jobs are done by T.A’s and they get paid nothing, or next to nothing. Will people really sign up for those jobs? Or will we continue the system of near indentured status for adjuncts and grad students that we do today?

  5. Sarah, you may be aware that one of the best selling books of English history was produced by a fellow who mended pans for a living. While in prison for the crime of being a Baptist, John Bunyan wrote “Pilgrim’s Progress.” His trade was that of “tinker” and mending pans is what tinkers did. Think of this while you’re tinkering about with ebook software. Hopefully, you won’t be imprisoned for anything, but let’s hope your sales parallels that of the 17th century pan-mender.

  6. *takes advantage of the Donation button; fails at tech enough to leave a “witchfinder” note on it; runs off to an appointment*

  7. Have fun in Oregon! I’ve taken the class twice (because tech changes so fast) and they walk it through in a really easy-to-understand way. But pay attention to that rule about having something to takes notes on (I used an iPad rather than paper because I can more easily search a computer file), because there will be things that make perfect sense when you’re doing them but not so much once you get home. Extensive notes are your friend! And trying to flip between screens on your computer really does not work.

      1. Sarah,

        Respectfully: don’t! Or bring the digital recorder, but take the notes by hand anyway. As long as note-taking doesn’t distract you from participation, the notes have value.

        Research that I’ve read (and no, I don’t have links handy, sorry) says the act of translating what you learn into some other form — notes, an outlne, diagrams, a comic strip, whatever — involves more of your brain, and so you learn it better. In my classes, I call this the Outline Effect. Even if you can never read your own notes, you benefit from taking them.

        Related to the Outline Effect is the Echo Effect: explain your notes back to someone else who can provide feedback. By translating them again, you process them through your brain again; and then the other person’s feedback sheds light on areas you still don’t understand fully.

        I wish someone had taught me these study skills during my academic career. I spent every night reading the textbook and watching my GPA sag. My roommae spent every night outlining the textbook, and his GPA soared. But I was too dumb to realize the difference. It took me ten years after college before someone explained what I had wrong.

      2. Martin,
        that works for some people, but I’ve also seen many people so busy trying to take notes that they don’t understand what’s being explained (or at least not understanding it well enough to ask questions while they are in the class and can get the answers)

        like writing approaches, different people are different 🙂

  8. Look, after weeks of my nooddling with the attempts to put up a donate button, my husband did it for me yesterday in about seven minutes […] The problem is when faced with most tech stuff my brain stops being able to think linearly and, instead, spins in a tight circle upon itself.

    You already did the two most important things.
    – identifying the problem, here not being tech savvy enough
    – delegating the solution, here to someone who is tech savvy

    Your solution did deviate a bit from the standard – calling for the children. 😉

    Next time maybe ask a bit earlier, less chance getting dizzy or frustrated. 🙂

  9. As someone who is seeing his second career disappear from underneath him, I can relate.

    I used to file and catalog slides for a living.

    Kodak stopped making slide machines in 98, slide film in 2004.

    Today I’m a teacher. There are about 2000 tenure track positions in art history around the country today. (and about 5,000 PhD’s trying to get them.) Right now distance ed is awful, but In about 10 years, when they finally get it down and it feels more or less like a lecture, the total need for art historians in the U.S will collapse to about 200. Smaller colleges will opt for a subscription to a consortium that will provide them (and 100 other colleges) with a superb teacher with a full staff. Even if the subscription is 20,000 annually. That’s less than a third of the salary and benefits of a typical starting professor.

    Even now, most of the teaching at all colleges is done by adjuncts, so we’ve already prepped the battlespace.

    The survivors will be the “stars” the ones who figure out how to market their personalities into dramatic canned multi-media lectures, and the techies, the ones who can manage five screens showing the skype images of 500 students beamed back from their ipads.

    Most of us are not stars or techies, though.

  10. In some fields it is an advantage to not be well-versed or particularly well-suited. “Thinking like a publisher” is the wrong approach and will just enable you to (badly) follow the leaders.

    The key is to think like a reader.

    Worry less about your incapabilities; instead work to leverage your capabilities. Be like the baseball pitcher who never could throw the ball straight, so he invented the curveball. (Yeah, probably a honking big lie, but it is such a comforting lie!)

    1. RES — “think like a publisher” refers, I THINK to the cover, how to present things, etc. There is a mind set. I’m JUST learning it through helping Amanda with NRP now and then.

      1. Think like a publisher is about learning the skills to publish your own work, but also biz tips and history of publishing and the best ways to make money while pursuing control of your own careers. It is hands-on and theory all in one. It gives the tools to innovate without having to recreate the wheel.

      2. To clarify, I was not, am not disparaging the “Think Like A Publisher” workshop (BTW, my grammarian hat is rather old and worn, but shouldn’t that be “Think As A Publisher”?) — it is undoubtedly very useful. I merely grabbed it as a handy example for the point I tried (apparently less eptly than hoped) to make: the best “outside the box” thinking often comes from people who never climbed into that box in the first place.

        Abusing the workshop title a little more, I respectfully submit that what writers need to focus upon is not how to replicate the services publishers provide to writers. Rather, writers should focus on the services (elements, components) desired by readers. Focusing on the publisher side of the equation will have you selling bound dead trees but as we are seeing there is a vast market of readers who are only interested in the words, not the delivery system, and are quite happily devouring pixels where once they consumed ink and foolscap.

        Rethink publishing while you’re learning to think like a publisher.

  11. FYI – Word translates to Kindle – poorly. Pdf’s are worse. Going through HTML is a bear for novel length documents.

    If you don’t know some HTML, learn it, or better yet, invest in inDesign and use the kindle plug-in or plug-ins for other e-readers.

    Much better tool and not at all difficult to learn.

  12. One way I know that Amazon is having an impact on publishing: the change in design for book covers.

    Book covers used to be elaborate affairs with lots of illustration, particularly fantasy and sci-fi covers. Now, even those are moving to minimal designs that emphasis the title, the author’s name, and a simple thematic element that can be seen from across the bookstore. (Twilight’s cover’s are a perfect example of this trend, so is Hunger Games.)

    I couldn’t understand exactly why until I thought about publishing on kindle, then it hit me. It’s the only design that reads well at both full and thumbnail sizes on Those elaborate covers just disappear at smaller than 200 pixels, but those bold titles and simple theme elements shine right through.

    Designers are changing their designs to fit the new environment. I wonder if anyone else has noticed this?

  13. Speaking of elaborate covers, I have often wondered if the cover designers even bothered to read the book. So many times the picture on the cover totally contradicts the word pictures drawn in the book. How often have you read a book with a heroine who dresses demurely but is depicted on the cover in Xena, Warrior Princess outfit, or a man is depicted in the male version of said outfit, while he is nondescript in the book? Or my personal favorite, an Edgar Rice Burroughs book where the green martians on the cover are depicted with not only the wrong number of eyes, but the wrong number of arms, and horns instead of tusks.

    1. Yeah there’s no excuse for that, but…as someone with a former life as an illustrator (and most of what I did was technical illustration, you know those textbooks with the red corpuscles flying around? Yeah, that was me.) I do have to say something in their defense. Most of what they give illustrators to go on is just gibberish. And even when the author is present, it doesn’t always help, sometimes it’s worse!

      “Draw me a rock. No, a BIG rock…no that’s too big!, Now it’s too round…”

      (Grumble grumble.)

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