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> Separation of Functions
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Examples

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Now we come to the fun part, the examples. The most entertaining one, I think, is the case of the ball-point pens. When I think of something that I want to write down, I hate having to get up and look for a pen; I want to have one right there, in a known location, so that I can just pick it up and use it. So, what I do is, I buy identical cheap blue ball-point pens in large bunches, and keep one in every place that I might want to use a pen. There's one by the grocery list, one on the kitchen table, one on my desk, one next to my bed, and so on. In all, in my one-bedroom apartment, there are currently eight active pens, and each has its own function.

One of those functions deserves special mention. As I'll explain in a later essay, there are certain tools that are useful for de-sentimentalization, among them pen, paper, ruler, scissors, Scotch tape, and mini-stapler. At first I just borrowed the tools from my desk as needed, but of course that ended up being a nuisance … I'd be at my desk, and want one, and it wouldn't be there. So, eventually I was driven to separate the functions. I went and bought another roll of tape, gathered duplicates of all the other items, found a spare black bag, and made an official de-sentimentalization toolkit. That solved the problem, and also turned out to be very convenient for carrying the tools back and forth to my parents' house,

The lesson to be learned from those two examples is that if the original object is a cheap consumer product, then buying more of the same thing is a quick, simple way to obtain equivalent objects.

Actually, we can generalize that a little further. The product doesn't have to be cheap in absolute terms, it just has to be cheap relative to the value of separating the functions. That's why one household might have two televisions, or two cars.

The case of the scissors is also interesting. In my one-bedroom apartment, there are at least six pairs of scissors: one pair of large general-purpose scissors, one pair of medium-sized scissors in my de-sentimentalization toolkit, one pair of small scissors in my sewing kit, one pair of long thin scissors that I use for tidying up after a haircut, one pair of cuticle scissors that I misuse for first aid, and one pair of scissors in the Swiss army knife in my toolbox. The pair of pliers that doubles as a pair of wire cutters doesn't quite count. I've thought about getting a pair of scissors for the kitchen, to open the occasional naugatuck, but at the moment I just use the general-purpose ones. So, what's interesting about all that? Well, like the pens, the scissors have different functions, but unlike the pens, the scissors are specialized to their different functions … just the kind of thing that's discussed in The Evolution of Useful Things.

Finally, I'd like to give a few real examples of how photocopies can be used for separation of functions. (As you may have guessed, the case of the newspaper article was not a real example. I might have copied a newspaper article once or twice in my life, but not that I can remember.)

  • Even now, when I know better, it still often happens that I'll carelessly write two unrelated things—i.e., things with different functions—on the same piece of paper. Then, later, I'll need to separate the functions. Sometimes I'll just copy the part I need by hand (and also scribble it out on the original), and sometimes I'll cut or tear the paper in two, but once in a while the things will be so densely intertwined that it's easier to make a photocopy. (And I don't even have a copier at home!)

    If I'm on the phone, and I need to write something down, naturally I grab whatever paper is nearby and use it. That's probably the most common example of unrelated things. And, if I'm on a trip, usually I carry around a pen and folded-up sheet of paper so I can write myself notes, and that paper ends up being a mess of tiny little handwriting … part journal, part to-do list, part ideas for essays. That's probably the most egregious example of unrelated things.

    I'm pretty sure it was some multifunctional paper that I found in my old room that started me thinking about separation of functions.

  • I do still sometimes write actual letters on paper. If I'm really pleased with one, I'll usually make a copy so that I can read it again later.

    That's not just an excuse to be a pack rat, by the way … I really do read letters again later. Emails and essays, too. For several days after I've written something good, I'll think of a nice turn of phrase from it and then want to go back and read the whole thing.

  • I also still file my income tax returns on paper, and of course it's very important to keep copies of those.
  • Here's a strange example related to my tesseract model. Photocopying is cheaper than printing (why?), so when I wanted to make a bunch of models to play with, I printed out an original and made a bunch of copies. But, what functions was I separating? The first page produced the first model, the second produced the second, and so on, but were those truly different functions? And, why did I want more than one model, anyway? What function did the second model have that the first one didn't?

    I like my rhetorical questions, but that last one is too misleading to leave unanswered. The answer is, identical objects have identical functions, but a set of identical objects can have functions that none of the individual objects has. You can build things with N bricks that you can't build with one, or with N-1.

    Also, did you know that a photocopy is slightly smaller than the original, so that it will be sure to fit on the paper? As a result, you shouldn't use the original to make a model, because it won't be quite the same size as the others. (Plus, you should keep the original in case you need more copies.)

  • As part of cleaning my room, I had to decide what to do with all my old comic books. Some I still remembered vividly, and had to keep; some I didn't care about at all, and was happy to get rid of; but some I had mixed feelings about … I liked being reminded of the characters and stories, and remembering when and where I'd bought the comics, but I didn't care about the details, and knew I'd never read the comics again. The obvious solution was to tear out and keep a few representative pages, but that was monstrous and unthinkable; so instead I went and made a few copies.

    It really is almost unthinkable to me to tear pages out of a book, even a comic book. I frequently tear up newspapers and magazines to save things (i.e., to separate the functions), but books, never. I suppose the underlying reason is that it would be a waste, that any book has value to someone, somewhere, but I don't even get that far … I just can't think about it. The situation with the comic books was even worse than that, because I usually had consecutive issues. If I'd torn pages out of one, I wouldn't just have destroyed its value, I would have diminished the value of all the ones around it as well.

I know I said those were the last examples, but the point about comics reminded me of one more very important one. After I'd figured out which comics I wanted to get rid of, I wrote down all the titles and issue numbers, so that if I ever really wanted to, I could track down the exact same comics. References, citations, and links are extremely powerful equivalent objects!

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@ May (2007)