Home-made Pies Are Still The Best

I recently received the best wages I've ever earned - for writing.

I wrote a (flame) letter to the editor of a trade magazine I get for free at work, "Government Computer Magazine" which, as you might guess, is only of interest to computer types who work for governments.

I was flaming a column in the April issue that particularly offended me. The editor called the next day, to say he thought it was funny and well-spoken, and that he wanted to pay me twenty cents a word to run it as a column in the June issue. And so he did. (Later on, I realized my letter attracted the editor because it was it was a flame with juvenile invective - sometimes editors like a feud between columnists. But that's another story.)

The cheque came to $227.20, for about an hour writing the original letter, and three or four more polishing it up before sending him a revised version, with tighter sentences. That's fifty bucks an hour. Now I know why professional writers refer to all other jobs as "honest work".

One thing struck me as odd: I didn't put any more effort or heart per sentence into writing for pay than I do for free right here in the pages of the CUUGer. After all, I couldn't; I always try to write well, as a matter of pride.

The same goes for programming with most real programmers I know; one may toss off a quick & dirty when it's just to run a few times for yourself, but if a lot of other people are going to be using it - and especially if they're going to see the code - just about every programmer becomes a perfectionist.

That's why I get suspicious whenever I hear that failure to enforce copyrights well enough to let programmers, writers, musicians, and other "intellectual property" content-providers make big bucks, will lead inevitably to a dearth of content.

The funny thing about some products is that commercial enterprises can't produce them with quality, because it doesn't pay; you can only get them for love, not money. My wife and I went to a favourite pancake restaurant last Sunday for brunch; the Smitty's on 16th Ave at 45th St. West is family-owned, has had much the same staff for years, and never fails to produce a flawless breakfast no matter how busy they were (Father's Day at 11 AM was no exception, though it was a madhouse). As we stood in the lineup, I noticed the pies in their display. With compressed, shiny crust and commercial, sugar-loaded, runny fillings, they were that same restaurant quality you get in truckstops - a glaring exception to the otherwise outstanding food there.

To pass the time, I quizzed my wife to the point of irritation about how much work it is to produce the light, delicate crust pies she learned to make from her (farm cook) mother. I learned that

  1. It takes an hour of careful work to make a pie;
  2. You can't make more than enough dough for two or so in one batch;
  3. The process does not lend itself to automation - only a human eye watching, and hand feeling, the dough, can know when it is perfect.
So great pies would just have to cost $9 a slice for a restaurant to make a profit on them - and people won't pay it, so you get berry-sugar sludge in greased cardboard instead. (OK, five-star restaurants do have great pies and do charge $9 a slice; they are 1% of the restaurant market.)

I got to thinking about how there are a lot of things that still have higher quality when home-made, in this age of supposed mass-production and automation. My wife also makes a lot of clothing - there are tailors, but short of the big bucks for a professional tailor, you just have to put up with the always-imperfect fit of mass-produced clothes.

Some things people still do for themselves, not just because of a preference for the quality, but because the production of quality - and indeed artistic expression - is a pleasure in itself; they don't think of the "work" as work. Cooking is a prime example. So are most kinds of art. And so is software.

Free software is thriving. This week, I just found that the latest GNU emacs port for Win95/NT has hit the Net, and now you can spawn processes from it, meaning ftp, telnet, news, and e-mail from within it, on a corporate network, or via PPP from home. Everybody's excited about Linux and FreeBSD, and sober, conservative consultants are recommending them ahead of NT (which supposedly cost hundreds of millions of dollars to create!) in various mission-critical applications for busy corporations. In applications and utilities, today's free software probably exceeds the variety, functionality, and stability of all the $500 packages available when Lotus and Microsoft were passing their first billion in stock value.

Music enthusiasts and worshippers of the written word feel the same about the small independents in each of their arts, compared to the big commercial names in the same fields - to the point where "commercial" is an insult among them. Over half of the most revered names in any field seem to have lived and died in poverty, obviously labouring at painting or music for the love of it.

Ruination of intellectual property enforcement would change the development of art and entertainment and software dramatically - maybe even significantly for the worse.

But it would not destroy them. Like good cooking and clothing that fits, they will be healthy and vigorous as long as people enjoy doing good work and being praised for their efforts.

Roy Brander


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