The Laboratorium
September 1998

The Cutting Edge of Tomorrow


We met on a plane from Chicago to Seattle; I'm ashamed to admit that I don't remember his name. I had the aisle seat; he was in the middle; the window seat was occupied by another fellow about my age who ended up sleeping against the window, leaving the two of us to each other's dubious company. I had been doing some technical reading, working through an explanation of decoherence and time-irreversible superoperators on density matrices with the deliberate slowness required to assimilate just about anything with heavy mathematical content. It's tiring work, and as the hours staggered by, my initial disinterest in conversation with the tough-looking customer to my right faded away.

I stretched and yawned. My erstwhile seatmate looked at the contents of my binder and commented on the fancy-looking math I was reading. He then went ahead with the next logical question on anyone's mind in such a situation, to wit, why? Computers, I explained, offering our decade's all-purpose excuse, I'm studying computer science. There followed the usual series of subsidiary questions. He listened to the answers, nodding politely at my explanations of how remarkably interesting computer science is, how strong a pull it exerts on the mind and the imagination, at the remarkable range of ideas it incorporates and gives rise to. He listened politely and then he began to speak.

Yes, computers are wonderful, he said, and certainly a great place to find a job. You need to specialize, he said, to pick some smaller area and focus. Computer repair, he said, now there's a specialty. You got your autoexec bat, you got your config dot sys, you check them and the settings. Remember how the cables are supposed to go, remember your different dot i-n-i files. You look at them and figure out what's wrong. That's it. Just your autoexec bat and your config dot sys and that's about it, that's all it takes to diagnose the problem. Yeah, that's a good way to make a living. You should look into it, he said.

Himself, now, he did NT work. Local Pepsi operation. Got an office, got a network. But it's all on paper. Someone types up a report, makes a chart of sales, then prints it out and that's how it shows up on his boss's desk. Then someone else makes some changes, types it all again, prints a new copy. He couldn't see how they got anything done. And these people, they've got their computers. But they act like these things are their own. Playing games, installing viruses, and when they're supposed to be working. So the place is going on one central NT network. Get all the charts and documents together, same database, all on-line. So that's what he does. He's a consultant, goes in and keeps the computers working for them.

But these people. What aggravation. He goes in, he finds the computers broken, he has to take off the games or find the viruses. They just don't seem to learn. Nobody spends the time learning how to use a computer any more. They just break them and he has to fix them. Don't know the first thing any more; these people smoke around their computers and the smoke gets in the cases so bad that when he opens them up, the chips and boards reek. Yeah, it's endless frustration working around people who don't understand how to use a computer, who just keep on breaking things all the time. So that's why he's quitting. Getting out of the business. Getting out of the computer world and into . . .

. . . knife sharpening. Yes. Knife sharpening. In fact, he reveals, he's flying back from a three-day seminar on various advanced sharpening techniques in Iowa. He's got some of the literature with him, in his bag, so he goes rooting around for it. First, he pulls out a crudely Xeroxed sheet with pictures of various barely identifiable medical tools on it, with prices typed under each one. This here dental probe. Takes two minutes on the wheel. Charge a dollar-fifty for that. A pair of retractors, oh, that'll take about fifteen minutes. Eighteen bucks. This scalpel? Oh, eight bucks for nine minutes or so of work. Yeah. These doctors and hospitals, they can use a scalpel once, and then are they going to go and sharpen it themselves? No, they're going to go get it sharpened by him. That's a two-hundred dollar scalpel, you bet they'd rather have it sharpened than buy a new one.

Yeah, hairdressers are the same. They use these expensive Japanese shears - here's a picture of the ends of hair cut with regular scissors, and here's one cut with this special kind, see how much smoother it is - and someone needs to sharpen them. Bevel cut? Seventeen dollars a pair. Need a special kind of wheel (and lo, here comes the catalog from which one buys the tools needed to set up a knife-sharpening operation) to do that. Here's the wheel, with diamonds embedded in it, and here's the guide you use to pull the blade along. Yeah, the machine costs fifteen hundred dollars, plus more for the special wheel. But once you get started, yeah (and now we're back to a pricing diagram with pictures of knives and their associated costs, like some bizarre game of Twilight Zone Squares - "I'll take the dual-ended scraper to block") it's a good living. Rent out those steak knives to restaurants, give them a new set every three weeks, sharpen the old ones and it's as good as new. And when the serrations get worn down, no need to replace the knife yet, this tool here will fix it up, good for another three months. Don't need to use it too many times before it pays for itself.

How did he get into the business, I ask him, trying my best to prolong his exegesis. Well, about six years ago, a buddy of his showed him the ropes, introduced him to some clients, got him started. This buddy's in it for real: down at Boeing, they can use a drill bit to drill into metal once, maybe twice, before it goes blunt. So they just toss the bit into a big 55-gallon drum. Every few weeks, his buddy drives over to the plant with a truck and picks up sixteen-eighteen of these drums. Got special machines for `em, cost twenty thousand dollars each, he's got nine of them, can sharpen three drill bits at a time. His wife, she counts them up, sorts them by size, enters in the numbers. Gets three, four cents each. Yeah, the two of them make a lot of money.

It's a good living, he explains. Got two kids, six and eight if I'm remembering correctly, and he wants to pass the business on to them. He works out of his basement and that won't change, he'll make pretty much the same as he does consulting, it's a good trade. And no dumb users, he's working with folks who appreciate a good sharp knife, know what they're doing with what he supplies them, are able to deal with him on competent and professional terms. Maybe he'll do a little locksmithing work on the side, seminar was also partly about that, some of the stuff they have (illustrated with reference to the appropriate professional catalog) will really scare you, these tools for popping a car lock out or getting around the window or making any key just from the code on the lock. Makes you not feel safe any more. But mostly just sharpening. Yeah, no more dumb NT; just knives from now on.

And that was that. We disembarked and he went off to catch his connecting flight to Yakima, leaving me to reflect on the reborn profession of the knife sharpener in this day and age. It's something you don't usually think about when slicing into a steak - that someone sitting above an expensive Taiwanese piece of machinery that boils down to greyish wheel, studded with tiny industrial diamonds and rotating at a frightful speed, someone basically immune to mind-numbingly repetitive work, someone for whom the steak knife is more important than the steak -someone, in short, like my seatmate on the plane - came before you and sharpened that knife to its razor-sharp edge.

Here's a man making good, consulting-grade pay, working in computers, your basic front-line G.I. in the computer revolution, turning his back on the Information Age and striking out for the Industrial. He's giving up the Future, with a song in his step and no regrets in his heart, for knife sharpening. It makes you think.