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Analog Angle Article

Old tools, new tools, what works, what doesn’t

I recently saw an article in the The New York Times that the portable Olivetti manual typewriter used by author Cormac McCarthy since 1963 to write more than a dozen novels, several screenplays, two plays, two short stories, countless drafts, letters and more was being auctioned for charity. Hey, if he can write books which win the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award with a manual typewriter . . . . then, good for him, I say. I have seen similar situations when I visit engineers in the test and prototype labs, as well as evaluation labs, using fairly old equipment mixed in the newer items, and the old units are still working hard and well.

It makes sense: if you have something that works, works well, and has well-understood idiosyncrasies, keep using it. (It doesn't hurt that it also saves money, of course). At the same time, sometimes, you have to know when you making so many accommodations for that old unit's foibles, or lack of features and interfaces, that it is time to say goodbye. You certainly shouldn't develop an attitude that just using old equipment and keeping it going somehow makes you a “better” person than the engineer who has the latest equipment; this is usually not a contest of who can do more with less.

Apparently, some authors develop a sense of smugness and moral superiority that they use an old-fashioned typewriter rather than a PC and software. My response is that if the typewriter is makes you a better author, why not go all the way and use a quill pen and parchment? Or a stone tablet and chisel, for that matter?

There is a little-realized consequence to using a typewriter versus today's word-processing tools. Since editing and retyping so relatively difficult with the former, you tend to spend more time thinking about what you are about to write rather than shoot something off, and then subject it to endless revisions; or say “I just to this quickly, and fix it later”, which often never happens. But one legitimate response to this supposed virtue is that you can't try, assess, readjust, and re-try easily, and that cycle is often key to prototype debug and development, especially for subtle problems where you are probing “in the dark” until you can form and test a viable hypothesis.

There are pros and cons to each tool we use, and the ease and difficulty of using it. The right one to use is the one that helps you solve the problem effectively and reliably, and enables you to work smarter. It is not the one that makes you think you are better than the rest of the engineers. You have to put the emotions aside and look coldly and objectively at what you are trying to accomplish, and merge that with your experience, expertise, and, yes, even hunches.♦

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