Don't Be A Gearhead

I own a Canon 40D with a couple of large constant-aperture lenses. I also own a number of coffee making equipment, from the Aeropress to a nice Rancilio Silvia V2. I have a computer with a fairly nice processor and a fairly decent graphics card, with a large amount of RAM and 3 SSDs. While these things are slightly older now, I acquired them when them when they were rather new. And the reason why I am telling this? Because this makes me sound like a gearhead.

Earlier today a friend asked me about coffee making – a hobby that I indulge in quite heavily. He asked me if I had any resources for quickly learning what coffee and equipment to buy. Naturally, I was curious and I probed a bit further. He hadn’t much experience in coffee, other than your bog standard instant coffee and store bought coffee. So my advice to him was to start by trying the coffee first – cut the sugar and milk, and learn to appreciate the original taste of coffee. Like tea or wine, coffee does contain many subtle flavours and aroma, and a keen attention to detail on the tongue and nose is required in appreciating coffee.

He very quickly brushed off that suggestion and then pressed on about equipment, claiming that only with equipment he could learn to taste coffee. I was not very approving of that attitude because it’s clear that the equipment were more important than having good coffee. This is what I call gearhead attitude, or being a gearhead – people who are more interested in the tools than the results the tools bring.

Now obviously there is nothing wrong with being a gearhead. The difference between good tools and bad tools are often very huge, and it’s common to geek out over the tools one uses. However, when excessive geeking out over the tools happen, there won’t be much result. It’s common to want to use the best tool for the job, but when the best tool for the job requires some basic knowledge that you don’t have, then it’s no longer the best tool for the job.

I’ve known many people who claims they’re interested in photography, and then promptly purchase a SLR. The resulting photos are usually poorly composed and poorly lit. They had essentially paid for an upgrade in sensor size, and that’s all. But while a larger sensor size will improve some photoss, good photos don’t only rely on a larger sensor size. The majority of good photography is a result of good composition and great lighting. These are things that can be learned using a normal digital camera or even a cellphone camera. Would learning the simple rule of thirds be so painful on a large screen iPhone? Wouldn’t “needing a SLR to learn photography” anything more than merely an excuse?

People put on gearhead attitudes for a number of reasons that I shan’t speculate on. However, I suspect a component of ego and possession of material wealth is at play. It was in my case. For a fleeting moment after I acquire new gear, I feel proud and that everyone else who didn’t have the same equipment were mere peasants and plebians. I could make any number of post-facto rationalizations after acquiring said equipment. I too suspect that there is also an element that one cannot learn a skill without the best equipment – as in, “I cannot make good coffee without an espresso machine”. Which in my opinion, is patent bullshit.

In my experience however, it doesn’t pay to be a gearhead. It’s better to learn the basics, and when your skills push the limit of your current available tools, then it’s time to change tools. The purpose of a tool is to be used and used well. It’s no point buying a La Marzocco Strada* My favourite machine amongst the machines I’ve had the opportunity with playing with, but I don’t necessarily have the skill or time to master it. It’s one of those easy-to-use-but-hard-to-master tools if you have no basic skills in making an espresso. What use is a pressure profiler if you do not know how the basics, like temperature affect your espresso? You still wouldn’t be able to appreciate good coffee if you don’t develop the palette for it.

This goes for software development as well. How often have we geeked out over the latest software development methodologies, or the latest machine learning algorithms, only to test it out and realize it’s not a good solution for the problem? This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be aware of the latest and best techniques. This simply means that better judgment needs to take place before switching tools.

Here’s a humblebrag: I’m glad to say for myself at least with physical equipment, that I bought all the things I mentioned above after I had learned quite a lot to the point where my then-current equipment was becoming a limiting factor. I had learned the relationship between ISO, aperture and shutter speed; and learned to a certain degree the basics of compositing a photograph before I made the jump to a SLR. By then the limiting factor had been the sensor size and the limited range of apertures my small digital camera could afford me, and I wanted to explore greater ranges. Similarly with coffee making. I had explored the different methods of making coffee, each with their own variables like grind size and temperature. I started with a blade grinder, moved to a manual burr grinder for over two and a half years before finally acquiring an electric burr grinder because grind consistency was becoming a limitation. I learned to write programs to run on my GPU before realizing I needed a better, more powerful computer to do what I want it to do.

All in all, I still think it’s quite prudent to push one’s skill to the limits of the current available tool before switching. Don’t be a gearhead. Don’t lose aim of your goal: to use the tool to do things.

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