Friday, August 26, 2011

The Four Blokian Elements

Aristotle and Plato. These
guys were NOT HANDY.
Ancient Greek philosophy holds that there are four essential things in the world:  Earth, Air, Water and Fire.  Aristotle proposed a fifth, "Aether," which due to its complete non-existence set back human progress by thousands of years.  Indeed, it still hinders us today because there are intelligent (though misinformed) people around who believe the universe contains some kind of aether or absolute reference frame, long after such notions have been absolutely proven otherwise by precise measurements.  You know who you are, physicist at UWA, who of all people really ought to know better!

See, the problem was that Aristotle and his Greek ancestors were philosophers, not scientists.  It's like having your pool man do your taxes, or your accountant tune up your car.  Things work out better if everyone sticks to what he or she does best.

Don't misunderestimate me - I think Philosophy is great.  It is perfect for getting at questions that cannot be otherwise untangled.  But if a simple experiment can settle the question, it belongs entirely to Science, and to Science alone.  Pose the question in a testable format (called a "hypothesis") then do the experiment or make the observation.  Then do it again.  Then get someone else to do it.  Then have someone else do it again.  If the results agree, the question is settled.  End of story.

The best thing about Science is that every answer brings up two or three new questions.  The even better best thing about science is that in the long run our knowledge ALWAYS increases.  The stupid thing about Science is that on the whole people who do it are lousy communicators.  They use too much jargon, and when they find something out to an unassailable degree of certainty, they ironically call it a "Theory,"  thus confusing the public mind into assuming there is still appreciable doubt on the matter.  Well, I have a "theory" that scientists should look that word up sometime.

I also think something needs to be done about this old and useless idea of the four Greek  elements, which clearly are rubbish.  Not only are they interchangeable with each other, but fire for one is obviously a product of the others rather than a thing in itself.  Plus, have you ever been able to build something useful from these so-called "elements?"  Me neither.  Do they assist even conceptually in any attempt to design things that work better?  I suggest that they do not.  Besides, just look at their economy today.  Clearly, these hopelessly incorrect ideas have not helped the Greeks accomplish much of anything in the last couple of millennia.

Boys are natural born engineers, scientists and craftsmen, provided our educational system minds its own business and leaves them alone. By nature, boys will work out for themselves how things work and how to make things that work.  They instinctively understand that there are four types of objects, meeting four unique requirements and accomplishing four basic ends.  Never mind what the things are made of, the important thing for accomplishing goals is how things work. Also, these four elements have nothing to do with abstractions (lies, really) like earth, air, water or fire.  This is why many attempts to educate boys in the finer points of Greek Philosophy end in failure.

If a bloke, therefore, comes away from school untarnished with failed philosophies and urban myths (Edison invented the light bulb?  nonsense!), he will become a successful builder, tradesman, engineer or scientist.  Such people retain from their early childhood an understanding of the Four Blokian ElementsRocks, Sticks, String and Glue.

Everything that must be made can be made from these four functional elements.  Successful Blokes understand when to use which element, and how to combine them to make things that actually work.  When something fails, a Bloke can immediately see that the problem was in having too much or not enough of one of these four elements.

Rocks.  Rock is three-dimensional, solid and unchanging in shape.  It can support tremendous compressive loads.  If a rock crushes, you needed a bigger rock, simple as that.  If a thing is too heavy, it contains too much Rock element, and you should look to see where rocks can be replaced by glue, sticks or string.  Aircraft designers for example continue to this day to trim away rock-ish or rock-acting material, replacing it with lighter, stronger stick-ish or string-ish materials.  Rocks are not great when it comes to pulling things or where any bending is involved.  But for a stationary object capable of carrying tremendous loads, Rock is your answer.  

SticksDouglas Adams honored the Stick as the Second Most Useful Thing Ever.  It is obvious he had an instinctive understanding of the Four Blokian Elements.  Sticks are light, two-dimensional (except when they're not), they resist bending (one thing neither rocks nor string can do), and they can keep things up in the air.  Bridges are essentially a long stick spanning a river.  Sticks transmit motion and force from one place to another.  In the case of a bridge, a stick rests on two rocks, one on either side of the  void to be spanned.  The stick transmits the rocks' "holding things up" property out to the middle of the river, giving you some of its support and allowing you to virtually levitate in mid-air!   

A spear, an example of stick-ness, is a way of telegraphing stabbing movements over to an enemy.  With a spear you can make a hole in someone who is trying to make holes in you without having to be there in person.  You can be up to four or five feet away at the time of the poking, thus avoiding any direct participation in all that tedious business of hurting, bleeding, and dying.  Unless your enemy also has access to a long stick.

In a car, what is essentially a stick transmits the drive power of the engine to the wheels of the car, meaning that you can put the engine in a good place for engines to be, while simultaneously keeping the wheels in places that work really well for wheels.  

String.  This element does not keep its shape, is very light for its strength, cannot support like rocks or push like sticks.  Instead, string mainly pulls.  String is only strong in one direction (is in fact a one-dimensional object), but is flexible enough to direct that strength wherever it is needed.  String can be rigid like a steel rod or stretchy like a bungee. String can wrap around things, be woven into fabrics (making two-dimensional string!), can reinforce sticks, and even be incorporated into rocks, making them more string-like or even stick-like in their pulling and bending capabilities.  The four Blokian properties combine readily without essentially changing what they are.

Glue.  The essence of glue is that it puts things together.  Glue can assume any shape, can be rigid or squishy, and can be made of almost anything.  Cement is like glue before it hardens and becomes rock.  Welding is like gluing metal together with metal.  Glue is also like actual glue, squeezed out of a tube, but it is also the sticky side of tape.  Duct Tape is just string and glue sold as a combination of pure Blokian Awesomeness.  There are thousands of kinds of glue, and blokes spend a lot of time working out just which is the right glue for a given situation. 

Xanthorrhoeoideae or
"Grass Tree," one of many
which I personally own.
There is even a kind of really useful glue produced by this Australian plant of the subfamily Xanthorrhoeoideae of which there are currently 28 known species.  (I am glad this isn't a podcast, because I have no idea how to pronounce that word. Hell, I can't even mispronounce it.)  It is a distant relative of the Yucca plant, the Joshua tree, and for some reason, Asparagus.  

More examples of the Blokian Elements in action:

A hammer is in essence a rock attached to a stick, using string or glue.

A wheel is in essence a rounded rock on a stick.  If you need to take into account the bouncy-ness of the tyre, your mental image of the wheel instantly changes from that of a rock on a stick, to some air-filled glue-covered string on a stick.

Click it!
A sailing ship is an amazing collection of string and sticks, with rocks for ballast and glue plugging the leaks, all powered by air.  One of the most incredible engineering feats in human history.

So why isn't air also a Blokian Element?  Because a bloke does not need to provide, fashion, hunt down or invent air.  That's why.  It is not something he needs to be concerned about, because it's not his responsibility to make.

When a bloke makes something, he has to know where to place the rock, where the sticks go and the best way to arrange them, when and where string is needed, and how to glue it all together. When building The Shed, for example, the sand under cement slab had deeper footings dug into it where the support columns would be.  That is precisely because there needed to be more support (rock) right at those spots for the columns that were going to be there.  When someone understands these four functions and what they do, everything he or she makes turns out more successful. 

Fixing the mower last Thursday.
As an engineer, I've been deep inside the guts, physically and mathematically, of all kinds of things, from buildings and bridges to spacecraft, robots, giant steam turbines, pianos, engines, dams, vehicles, mines, motorways, refrigerators, stereos, and factories.  Every part, bolt, screw, beam, cable, gear, wheel, capstan, plate, rod, gusset or ferrule can be examined for how it functions dynamically as each of the four Blokian Elements: Rocks, Sticks, String and Glue. By doing that, I get a front-row seat for understanding how the technology works and how to improve it.  It also means I have a massive advantage over say, ancient Greeks, when it comes to assembling flat-pack furniture, putting up a child's swing set, fixing a broken lawnmower, towing a car out of sand, or engaging in massive projects like The Shed.

As magicians of the man-made world, blokes who "get" the Four Blokian Elements can literally build circles around old Greek philosophers with their pointless hand-waving speculations.  I remember absolutely nothing about a very funny 1983 Neil Simon movie called Max Dugan Returns, other than the following mis-quote:

"Philosophy pays, as long as you have the right one."

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