All posts for the month June, 2016

This is one of my favorite passages from Cryptonomicon, which I think about every time I see a machine struggling with its task.

Now when Bobby Shaftoe had gone through high school, he’d been slotted into a vocational track and ended up taking a lot of shop classes. A certain amount of his time was therefore, naturally, devoted to sawing large pieces of wood or metal into smaller pieces. Numerous saws were available in the shop for that purpose, some better than others. A sawing job that would be just ridiculously hard and lengthy using a hand saw would be accomplished with a power saw. Likewise, certain cuts and materials would cause the smaller power saws to overheat or seize up altogether and therefore called for larger power saws. But even with the biggest power saw in the shop, Bobby Shaftoe always got the sense that he was imposing some kind of stress on the machine. It would slow down when the blade contacted the material, it would vibrate, it would heat up, and if you pushed the material through too fast it would threaten to jam. But then one summer he worked in a mill where they had a bandsaw. The bandsaw, its supply of blades, its spare parts, maintenance supplies, special tools and manuals occupied a whole room. It was the only tool he had ever seen with infrastructure. It was the size of a car. The two wheels that drove the blade were giant eight-spoked things that looked to have been salvaged from steam locomotives. Its blades had to be manufactured from long rolls of blade-stuff by unreeling about half a mile of toothed ribbon, cutting it off, and carefully welding the cut ends together into a loop. When you hit the power switch, nothing would happen for a little while except that a subsonic vibration would slowly rise up out of the earth, as if a freight train were approaching from far away, and finally the blade would begin to move, building speed slowly but inexorably until the teeth disappeared and it became a bolt of pure hellish energy stretched taut between the table and the machinery above it. Anecdotes about accidents involving the bandsaw were told in hushed voices and not usually commingled with other industrial-accident anecdotes. Anyway, the most noteworthy thing about the bandsaw was that you could cut anything with it and not only did it do the job quickly and coolly but it didn’t seem to notice that it was doing anything. It wasn’t even aware that a human being was sliding a great big chunk of stuff through it. It never slowed down. Never heated up.

In Shaftoe’s post-high-school experience he had found that guns had much in common with saws. Guns could fire bullets all right, but they kicked back and heated up, got dirty, and jammed eventually. They could fire bullets in other words, but it was a big deal for them, it placed a certain amount of stress on them, and they could not take that stress forever. But the Vickers in the back of this truck was to other guns as the bandsaw was to other saws. The Vickers was water-cooled. It actually had a fucking radiator on it. It had infrastructure, just like the bandsaw, and a whole crew of technicians to fuss over it. But once the damn thing was up and running, it could fire continuously for days as long as people kept scurrying up to it with more belts of ammunition. After Private Mikulski opened fire with the Vickers, some of the other Detachment 2702 men, eager to pitch in and do their bit, took potshots at those Germans with their rifles, but doing so made them feel so small and pathetic that they soon gave up and just took cover in the ditch and lit up cigarettes and watched the slow progress of the Vickers’ bullet-stream across the roadblock. Mikulski hosed down all of the German vehicles for a while, yawing the Vickers back and forth like a man playing a fire extinguisher against the base of a fire. Then he picked out a few bits of the roadblock that he suspected people might be standing behind and concentrated on them for a while, boring tunnels through the wreckage of the vehicles until he could see what was on the other side, sawing through their frames and breaking them in half. He cut down half a dozen or so roadside trees behind which he suspected Germans were hiding, and then mowed about half an acre of grass.