Saturday, February 12, 2022

No More Black Boxes

In 2007, at age 28, I made the very characteristic, but very fated move to go into business with my best friend. It failed, as one might suspect, and we broke up as friends, also probably suspected.

It was a silkscreening business. He was the printer and artist, I was the business muscle. No matter what kind of smarts I brought financially, I could never actually print the shirts, and if my friend had a procrastination and organization problem due to his bipolar disorder, which influenced, or was self-medicated by his weed addiction, the shirts never got made, or got made poorly, or were late for our customers. He needed me on the team to help him, he said. But what he really needed was $12K to get a better printing machine, a six-table setup that he thought would springboard the business to success. We rented a U-Haul and drove it from New York City to Bethlehem, PA to pick up our brand new machine at Vastex. I made peanut butter and banana sandwiches for us for the ride down. We left at 6am. We lived together, sharing a one-room studio in the Bronx, no A/C, sleeping on side-bys-side futon mattresses on the hardwood floor. I left the business three months later. The business was going nowhere. We could barely cover our rent. I wouldn't talk to my friend for three years.

What I vowed after that experience was that if I ever owned another business, I would learn how to do everything myself, so I wouldn't have to rely on anyone. Looking back, I should have learned how to print the shirts, if I really cared enough to save the business.

When I owned my second business, a baking business, I did just that. I could do, or figure out every position in the bakery, from bread mixer to slicer to pastry to financials. No longer reliant on other people, I trained all of my own employees on every position. I currently have thirty of them, and we do about $2 million in sales a year.

But the linchpin, the bottleneck of my business, are the machines. Without a working spiral bread mixer, we cannot produce dough. Without a working oven, we can't bake bread. As much as I have tried to learn everything about my business, I've never been a mechanically minded person. When a refrigerator or an oven broke down, I always called a guy, and how quickly we could get up and running depended upon his skill and availability. Over the years, I've probably spent over $150K in mechanical repairs alone. We have a lot of old machines. Our mixer, a Kemper, probably dates back to 1960. I love these old machines, for their simplicity. They are a window into a simpler time in mechanics, before everything became digitized and computerized. Our mixer's electronics, if you could call it that, is just a set of physical switches. There is not even a digital readout. There is something about machines born before the handheld calculator and the digital watch. They have souls.

But I digress. Two days ago, our mixer went down. Fully locked up. The dough hook, that curvy metal thing that looks like a corkscrew, would not turn. At all. We were dead in the water. Our normal mechanic was booked up for the week. No mixer, no bread. I called a neighbor who was the retired mechanic for the bakery. He agreed that if I provided the muscle, he would show me how to break the machine apart (thanks Gene!!). We started with the dough hook, then the flywheel, inspecting the drive shaft, the pulleys, and the bearings. Finally, we found the culprit. The aging motor had locked up. It had done so once before, in the aughts, and been rebuilt. I disconnected the electrical. With assistance, we hefted out the 150-pound motor, placed it on a cart, and brought it to a local motor shop. Understanding my plight, they broke the motor apart, replaced the worn bearings, and put it back together. The motor went back in the machine, and we re-assembled it from the guts on up. When the flywheel and the belts magically turned, I was ecstatic, elated, and that's saying a lot for a depressed person like me. I've never read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but I imagine that euphoria when seven hours of hard labor turns into a working machine is likely what the author was going after. I was intensely grateful. I had a newfound appreciation for the complexity and importance of technology. I never thought I would ever be able to repair a machine like our mixer. What it showed me is that there is no such thing as black boxes.

Every family has something they call a "junk drawer", or something like it. It's a loosely organized area that requires some fishing to find anything. Maybe it is a closet. Maybe it's an attic, or a crawlspace, or a shed. But everyone has some place that is disorganized and exists only as an abstraction of mixed up parts. That is what machines are to me, and what they are to many people. Many folks go to their auto mechanic without the faintest idea of how to repair their cars. Their car exists as that black box, and the prospect of a lengthy, involved, or expensive repair fills them with dread and anxiety. But whether it is replacing brake pads, rotors, a muffler, or dropping an engine, these are just mechanical things that either fit together, or they don't, and the skill of the mechanic determines how fast or how well it will be replaced.

For me, it doesn't make economic sense to learn to repair my own car. I have a bakery to run, a family to raise, and perhaps more importantly, I don't want to do my own car repair. I don't want to learn, I don't want to buy the tools, and I don't want to spend the time. I don't want to get dirty. So I pay a guy, and whether I drive or not is fully reliant on him, just as I would otherwise have been fully reliant on my mechanic to fix my mixer.

We live in an interconnected world, one now on steroids due to the influence and rapacity of global capitalism. There was a time when ordinary people did home repairs. Less so now. In the outsourcing of everything, we are fully reliant on someone else for virtually everything, from the clothes we wear, to the food we eat. We were generalists. We are now a nation of specialists. Humans used to make and mend their own clothes, and they used to grow their own food. No longer. Now all we have is a loose system of "junk drawers", people we can call when things go awry to fix everything, and hope the job gets done right. We even have therapists and medications to fix our besotted brains, which just don't seem to function as well as in prior generations. Maybe they're overloaded with images and thoughts of our cell phones, and out of RAM or disk space.

What I am saying is that the agency I felt in taking apart that Kemper mixer can be applied to everything. We know enough about the human mind to say that there are truly no more black boxes. If we want to fix something, we can fix it, it is only a question of our determination.

Politics is a great, and curious example. I despise Trump, I find him to be a vile human being. He decidedly was one of the worst presidents on record by any measure, and left our nation reeling and feeble after just four years of proto-facist chaos. Yet half of our voting public voted for him. How could that be?

Rather than write off those voters as black boxes, one would have to understand their brains, perhaps even at a biological, neuronal, or hormonal level, to understand how Trump could hold attraction for them. There is no shortage of academics and pundits who have tried to explain away Trump, but until we have a better handle on the self-annihilating (suicidal?) voter, we'll never have the opportunity to remedy the situation so we never have another one like him. I feel committed to undoing these black boxes. Our future, and that of our children depend upon it. The long list of ills mounts every day. The environmental climate is deteriorating. We must act, we must learn, and if it means breaking apart the brains of those who are greedy and stupid, metaphorically or literally, let it be done.

And then, the mixer broke again the next day, and all my pride evaporated, and was replaced with familiar dread. The motor still worked, but because the driveshaft was bent, we couldn't mix more than 150 pounds of dough. The motor simply wouldn't displace sufficient force. For my efforts, I received not a full solution, but a half-solution.

Ultimately if the mixer goes down completely, we can buy a new mixer.  There is no alternate world we can move to if we destroy the Earth. If we lose a single unique life to climate change, there is no replacement for that human being. People are not expendable, and neither is the environment. There is no Plan B.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Ari. I love this blog post. So much to think on.