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© Rakhesh Sasidharan

On comparative advantage and doing things yourself

Today I got the answer to a question that had bothered me many times.

The question was this: I work as a System Administrator and encounter plenty of users who are clueless about computers and don’t seem to want to learn anything about it. I understand the cluelessness but I don’t understand their disinterest in learning. Because the way I see it computers are a tool aiding them in their tasks and isn’t it better they know their tools and at least a basic understanding of how it works, it’s problems, quick fixes and workarounds? Of course the fact that they are not bothered to pick this up is what gives me a livelihood and so I shouldn’t complain, but still…

The logical answer I used to give myself was the economic theory of comparative advantage. In a given amount of time these users are more productive doing their actual work rather than fixing or learning computers, and so it makes sense for them to be illiterate about these tools. They are better off using that time to learn their field and leave it to engineers like myself to understand and fix computers. Somehow that answer didn’t feel right though.

Today, at my in-laws home, I volunteered to fix a broken door. Houses in Kerala often have a door frame with a mosquito net on it. This allows residents to keep the main door open and this door frame closed – letting air etc flow from out to into the house, but keep mosquitoes out. In my in-laws case, however, the net had come out and they were waiting for the net people to come and fix it. I too never bothered with it until a few minutes ago, when perhaps due to having just finished the excellent “Superman Earth One” and so feeling intellectually stimulated and hence enthusiastic to try things out, I had a look at the frame to see what was wrong. Turns out it was simple. The net is held into the frame by a rubber padding and that had come out due to the dog thrashing against the net; all I needed to do was put the net in place and push the rubber back in. Not an easy task – due to the heat and the blood sucking mosquitoes outside! – but not too difficult either. So I spent about 15-20 mins fixing it and now I am pleased about a job well done.

Doing this however made me realise why the comparative advantage explanation wasn’t satisfactory for me. Yes, in the time I fixed this net I could have learnt some PowerShell or read the latest features of Windows Server 2012 R2 – and that would probably be a better use of my time as well – but the thing is doing something else (like fixing this net) too helps me in a different, unmeasured way. I know more about the door now, I have a sense of accomplishment, and I think more importantly doing a physical activity switched my brain from a bookish mode to a physical mode and so gives me a different perspective on other things too. Probably it won’t in this case, but maybe if I had some problem in my head such a change of context could have spurred my brain to take a break from it and tackle it differently. And that’s why I didn’t like the comparative advantage theory. It doesn’t take into account all the unmeasured factors and so the explanation wasn’t satisfactory for me.

In the case of my office, if the users took some time to learn their computers better perhaps that would lead to a better understanding of the system and its limitations for them. Perhaps this might lead to them being able to better explain to IT what they need. Perhaps they will appreciate computers more and in turn be more productive. And perhaps they will stop treating computers (and by extension technology) as some new fangled thing that they don’t understand and which only alienates them from work and others. Perhaps…

I am reminded at this point by the Chautauqua in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. The author mentions similar points though much more eloquently. We need to expand our reasoning systems to include technology. We don’t, and that’s why it feels alien to us. Replace technology with whatever one is doing. It applies to work such as fixing doors, motorcycle maintenance, computers, cooking, cleaning, and so on.

Wet Shaving

Today I want to write about shaving.

The past few days I have been experimenting with “wet shaving”, which is the traditional form of shaving where you use a shaving brush and razor. I was inspired to try it by an article I read some time ago, coupled with boredom and a general dissatisfaction with my current shaving methods.

I used to hate shaving. For many reasons. One, I felt like I was being cheated by Gillette and others into using expensive razors with low blade life that I had to change frequently and weren’t giving me a good experience. Two, the process of shaving itself was so boring and mechanical. No involvement to it, you just shave shave shave and are done with it. This leads to a lackadaisical attitude while shaving with the result that most of the time my shaves weren’t perfect. Three, a combination of the previous two points – I wasn’t happy with the quality of the shave. It wasn’t as smooth as I wanted it to be, and usually within half a day of the shave I’d find plenty of rough patches on my face.

I experimented with alternatives of course. Tried disposable razors for a while – that took care of my first issue (expensive blades that need regular changing) but the quality of the shave wasn’t any better, and worse disposable razors tend to be less accommodating and so there’s more chances of nicks and cuts on your face. Still, I used to alternate between disposable razors and regular ones just to spice up things.

I also tried electric razors for a while but they weren’t much fun. Took ages to get a decent shave and then too it wasn’t as smooth as I wanted it to be. Electric razors are useful for trimming and styling but I never got used to them for regular shaving.

Now on to traditional shaving. I don’t have any of the “good” equipment mentioned in the article coz I live in Oman and you don’t have that many options here. I wonder if anyone here even does traditional shaving – maybe just the low class people who can’t afford disposable razors either! That’s the impression I get from the limited (and cheap) razors available here.

This limited variety is fine I think. I managed to get a short razor – short in the sense the handle is short unlike lost other razors I have seen. And I got some random shaving brush and also shaving cream and blades by a SuperMax (no particular reason for choosing this brand, I had seen their disposable razors before so it wasn’t unknown to me). All this doesn’t really matter though, I think, because the big thing about traditional shaving is the experience. Unlike all other shaving techniques where it’s just a mechanical task you complete as soon as possible, traditional shaving is more involved and (to me) is sort of like a meditation. You are “in the moment” of shaving. Your mind is focused on the task and your thoughts are concentrated on what you are doing. With each stroke you pay attention and that lends the meditation feeling I was referring to.

I spend about 10-15 minutes shaving this way. And usually put on some relaxing music in the background. The net effect is some time to myself where all I do is spend quality time with myself and my face, pampering the face for a good shave and enriching the mind with calm and peace. It’s not like I spend this time thinking much. Rather it’s the absence of thoughts and the state of just thinking nothing but the shaving is what I am referring to. A zen state of mind.

I just finished reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance” the other day and a lot of what the author talks about makes sense in this case too. Life nowadays is about a subject and an object. It’s about us doing something just for the sake of it – in a mechanical way – without really being in the moment with it, without being one with it, and that’s why life seems so hollow nowadays and we feel things like technology are alienating us and degrading the quality of life. That resonates in the case of shaving too in this case. Previously I used to shave mechanically, but now I am in it. And that gives great peace of mind. To be in that state when shaving I have to start with peace of mind, so the influence of the shaving extends to before the event too.