Geeks With Blogs

Manual Labor

I find occasional manual labor projects oddly satisfying. I’ve spent the majority of my career sitting behind a desk programming, or otherwise working on a computer. Putting a little bit of muscle behind a task gives my mind a chance to wander. Working on something manually taxing allows me to think of things out of order and without context. It gives me time to think about relationships.

The Art of Wandering

Relationships allow me to go from one topic to another without worrying that I’m becoming divergent or distracted. In fact, I guess the act of becoming divergent is what I’m really after when my mind is wandering. I’m after the distraction that I get when I’m using my legs, arms, and hands to do the work, instead of my head.

Wandering involves starting with a topic or idea that I hear in a song that I’m listening to while I’m working. Or, sometimes it starts with a comment that I make to myself with regard to the task I’m doing. Many times I am thinking about things that I’ve worked on the past week, or people that I’ve talked to. Regardless, wandering always seems to start with a single thought or idea.

Making Connections

Once I have a single thought or idea in my head, my first inclination is to find the humor in it, or to try to make it funny in some way. For me, humor involves forming a relationship between a starting topic and something else. Webster’s online dictionary defines humor as discovering or expressing and then appreciating the ludicrousness or absurdity of situations.[1] My humor could be called rather ironic, so many of my interpretations involve puns and distortions of reality. English is a great language for this process, in my opinion, since it is so inaccurate. There are lots of words and phrases in English that mean one thing in one context and something else in another. And, there are lots of words that are close in spelling and pronunciation. As a result, it’s not difficult to change the meaning of a topic or thought, giving rise to the discovery of new thoughts and relationships.

After making connections in a humorous or absurd fashion, and discovering new thoughts and relationships between topics, I give these new thoughts and topics some consideration. After repeating this process a handful of times, I’ve discovered that there are epiphanies lurking in the shadows of the relationships that I’m exploring…which leads me to tiling the floor.

Tiling the Floor

I spent the weekend tiling the floor of my basement. A few weeks ago I turned up our water pressure (yeah, I know.) Fortunately, there was a poorly constructed sleeve leading from our well to our pressure tank. Notice that I said fortunately. For a couple of years I’ve been talking about removing the carpet and doing something different with our basement. It’s amazing how motivating forty gallons of water can be!

The process of tiling a floor is not difficult. To tile a floor, you need water, mortar, grout, some handy tools, a sponge, some rags, and some tile that you might find aesthetically pleasing. Of course, this explanation is greatly oversimplified. Since my point is revelation and not particularly tile, just a broad overview of the process will suffice.

So, you start by mixing some water with the mortar. I don’t get too carried away with measurements when I’m doing this type of work, so I mix in enough water to give the mortar a sticky consistency. The test that I use is to mix the mortar and then hold up my trowel. If I have the right water to mortar mixture, then the mortar will cling to the surface of the trowel and it’ll have a consistency close to that of toothpaste. Once you have the mortar mixed, you lay it down with a special trowel that has grooves in it, you lay the tile on top of that. (The trowel with grooves in it helps you apply roughly the same amount of mortar to the entire surface, so that your tile will set evenly.)

Setting the tile is fairly easy, especially if you’re not making any complicated patterns or cuts. If you’ve done a good job at selecting your tile, then it will be beautiful regardless of the intricacy of the layout. After the tile is set, and you have let it cure for a day or so, then starts the hard work. Now you’ve got to grout it to fill in around the edges of the tile. For me, grouting is a very arduous process.

Grouting involves mixing the grout with water until it’s about the consistency of Malt-O-Meal cereal. Then, you plop the grout onto the tile in blobs and use a tool called a float to work the grout into the grooves between the tiles. During this process you are spreading the grout all over the tiles. If you let the grout dry on top of the tiles, you’re in trouble, so I like to keep the tiles wet with a spray bottle as I’m working.

After covering the tiles with your grout and carefully working it into the grooves between the tiles, you let it sit for a while until the grout has a chance to set up. (You’d better keep that tile wet!) Finally, you go through the cleaning process to clean off the excess grout. Cleaning the tile involves carefully washing the top of each tile repeatedly with a sponge or rag until it’s clean. All the while, you’ve got to be careful not to mess up your grout lines in-between the tiles.

Many would agree, I’m sure, that tiling is a very arduous and taxing process. I’m completely wiped out physically after a few days of tiling. My knees hurt, my arms hurt, and I’ve lost skin from my knuckles. During this process, though, I’ve discovered a few things.


While tiling my basement I came to several conclusions, or ideas. These ideas are philosophical, which gives me the distinct advantage that I am not actually required to prove any of them. (I have, though, distorted some facts to support these conclusions and included references where appropriate. J) You may call these epiphanies or revelations. Or, you may not. Regardless, here is what I was thinking about while tiling my basement this weekend.

Revelation #1 – Sometimes seeing in the light requires spending some time in the darkness…

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this topic, since it is not the main point of my post. To me, this revelation has profound implications. For example, can you truly empathize with someone that has a disability, if you don’t have a disability yourself? Or, can you counsel someone regarding their marriage, if you’ve never been married? Can you effectively lead or manage people, if you’ve never been a follower? Spend some time in the darkness and you will see in the light a lot more clearly.

Jennifer Rothschild, in her book Lessons I Learned in the Dark, says that we should look for the people who walk well and follow them.[2] People who walk well have spent time in the dark.

Revelation #2 – To make something beautiful, sometimes you need to spread crap all over it and then wipe it off…

The tile in my basement is absolutely beautiful. To make the tile beautiful I had to cover it with this nasty sticky mud and then spend hours cleaning it off. Even after I thought it was clean, the tile would start to dry, I would see a film covering it, and would have to clean it again. Again, not the main point of my post, so I’ll just point out a few examples that appear to support this claim.

the Holy mud company says this about their holy mud, “our masks won’t cleanse your soul, but they’ll do wonders for your skin.” That’s kind of funny, if you think about it.[3]

Saint Patrick reportedly said that he was like a stone lying in the mire and he who is mighty raised him from the mud and placed him atop the wall.[4]

Revelation #3 – Beauty does not equal perfection… (b != P)

Now we come to the point of the post. At the end of this train of thought leading me into the darkness of the mud and back out again into the light, I discovered that b != P. Beauty is not the same as perfection. Let me explain in more detail…

Beautiful Examples

While beauty is subjective, I believe that given enough time anyone can provide a sufficient number of examples to prove my point. For the purpose of this post, I’m choosing some of the things in life that I find most beautiful.

Wood Grain

I find great pleasure in looking at my kitchen cabinets, entertainment center, and hardwood floors. Something appeals to me about the patterns and the flow apparent in the grains of the wood. The Brazilian Cherry stain applied to the wood, as well as the super glossy finish, accentuates the wood’s stunning appearance, especially when bathed in the sunlight that shines through the dormers in the morning. Maybe it’s the organic feeling that wood exudes, or the strength that it pervades. In any case, I imagine that few would argue with the idea that wood is very beautiful.

Yet, when you look critically at wood and wood grain you discover countless imperfections; countless imperfections, the sum total of which is possibly the beauty and pleasure that you experience upon examining the whole. The plant…the tree…and indeed the forest is not perfect, yet their beauty undeniable. b <> P

Golden Mean

The golden ratio, or golden mean, is a mathematical construct used in music, art, science, advertising, architecture, etc. It is all around you and it’s likely that you see it or hear it every single day of your life, even if you don’t know what it is. Golden mean is used to describe the relationship between a whole and two parts when the ratio of the two parts is the same as the ratio of the sum and the largest part, as shown by the diagram below.[5]


Although not to scale, the illustration is meant to represent that c divided by a is equal to a divided by b, or c is to a as a is to b. Fascinatingly, this ratio appears throughout nature. For example, you can find this ratio approximated in the separation of the spirals in sea shells such as the nautilus.[6] You’ll also find this ratio approximated by some proportions of the human body (research Leonardo da Vinci.) And, finally, the ratio between successive numbers in the Fibonacci sequence, which is utilized in music and many other domains[7], oscillates tightly to and converges to the golden mean.

Surely such brilliant elegance is worthy of being called beautiful; however, the golden mean is an irrational number. image




As you can see, the golden mean is as imperfect as it is beautiful. b != P

Prime Numbers

Prime numbers serve as the basis of all other natural numbers. Integers greater than one are the products of prime numbers.[8] Primes are beautiful in my opinion because they cannot be divided by any other numbers except themselves and one. They are unique. Dr Chris Caldwell, editor of Prime Curios!, calls them beautiful and states that prime numbers are key to the Internet revolution.[9] (They are used as a basis for cryptography algorithms protecting our transactions over the net.)

Julie Rehmeyer states in her article regarding the largest prime number known up to September of 2008, “Its size is mind-boggling. With nearly 13 million digits, it makes the number of atoms in the known universe seem negligible, a mere 80 digits.” She goes on to say, “But [the number’s] true beauty is far grander: it is a prime number.” I’m apparently not the only one to view primes as truly elegant and beautiful. As beautiful as primes are, their distribution has so far proven to be imperfect.[10] b != P


This observation comes from personal experience. My experience comes from interactions with PaperWise users through escalations and other points of contact regarding image quality. I’ve seen our users scan images from 200dpi (dots per inch) to 600dpi (dots per inch.) The lower the quality, of course, the less resolution the resulting images have. Lower resolution images appear “blocky” or pixelated.[11] Users report that these blocky or pixelated images are of lesser quality, and hence less clear, than the original documents. Naturally, this is true because the human eye sees at a resolution of about seventy four megapixels.[12] The only way to truly cure the pixelation is to scan at that resolution or greater.

What’s interesting about this, though, is what we do to make images appear clearer. To make images appear clearer to users, we effectively smudge or blur the images. We call this process of blurring or smudging images anti-aliasing. This is done merely for display in PaperWise and the technique fools the users’ brains into believing there is more visual information in the images than there really is. In effect, you could say that we’re making the reproductions less perfect to fool the eyes and mind into believing that they are more aesthetically pleasing. b != P


So, after giving this concept of b != P much more attention than it probably deserves, I’ve come to the philosophical conclusion that beauty is not equal to perfection. What does this have to do with paper, document management, and workflow? Nothing specifically, except just to say that a beautiful or elegant solution is not necessarily a perfect solution. While we are not perfect, by any stretch of the means, our solutions are often times beautiful and elegant.

You may also find a copy of this blog article posted on the PaperWise blog.  (


[2] Lessons I Learned in the Dark, ©2002 by Jennifer Rothschild, p.30











Posted on Tuesday, September 8, 2009 2:05 PM Musings | Back to top

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