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Friday, August 31, 2007

Rheinbach Afterthoughts, pt. 2, Open Source Pipemaking

Biz news - New pipes are up! There are new Talbert Briars and new Ligne Bretagnes. There were also a couple of new mortas, but they both sold almost immediately. I'll be very curious to hear what people think of the new smooth Talberts, and somebody should pounce on LB #07-32 very quickly as that is one extremely neat finish for the money.

Some time back, I jotted down a note to myself to write a blog entry inspired by the book Wikinomics. The book is an interesting look at the new world of mass collaboration, and our newfound ability to vastly improve our performance through information sharing. It's a bit idealistic in places but the core truths are there - The success of open source projects like Wikipedia and Ubuntu are becoming major challenges to the established commercial alternatives, and they're doing it via free cooperative info-sharing rather than the cloistered, secretive world of old-style corporate think.

What the hell does this have to do with pipes?

Not that long ago, pipemaking was a fairly secretive process. Individuals had their own techniques and that was that - If you wanted to learn, you begged at the door or became an apprentice or got a job sweeping floors in a factory. In the late 90's, I opened a section on my website devoted to explaining and teaching pipemaking techniques, with pictures and step-by-step information. I never in my wildest dreams imagined the sort of impact this would eventually have. I caught some flack for it at the outset, from pros who didn't want to face part-timer competition, but the concept of information sharing for the betterment of all is too strong to go away. Answering questions quickly got too much for me to handle while trying to run a business, so I shut it down around 2002, but Tyler Beard picked up the idea and expanded it with dramatic improvements until it became the Pipemakers' Forum. History repeated itself and it ate him alive also, eventually spurring him to pass the torch of forum op to Kurt Huhn, on whom bets are currently being taken.

Mark Tinsky remarked to me in 2001 that, "Man, these new guys are getting good really fast these days! It used to be you had to make pipes for twenty years to get this skilled." I think a lot of this is due to the internet information sharing that we've all participated in. It's had a profound impact on the pipe scene, in both good and bad ways. The Good - Everyone has gotten better, and we get better faster, and this makes all our pipes better which benefits collectors who get better value for their money, wherever they turn. The Bad - We've gained roughly ten thousand part time pipemakers now who compete for food money with the full-timers, who already have a hard enough time making ends meet to pay their bills without having to be compared to some guy who can put 500 hours into a single pipe and sell it for $100 because it's just pizza money to him.

And then there's the Ugly - Namely, that you can teach some people everything there is to know about an art, and they'll still turn out bad work because they just don't have the eye for it...

There are still tiers. I share a lot of info and am happy to help, but there are things I keep private and only share with other professionals who share equally with me (A worthy point. I've encountered, all too often, guys who want to ask every question in the book but clam up the first time you ask a question in return. Info-sharing goes both ways, and these are the people who'll never get another explanation out of me). This is the most potent and effective information sharing, because no matter how much you learn, there's still a lot more to be learned, and odds are that someone else out there has been wasting his shop time researching just the thing you're ignorant about.

The latest and most fascinating entry into the internet pipe scene is our very own wiki, the Pipedia. It's an incredible idea, and is fast shaping up to be the ultimate resource for anyone entering the pipe world. I think in a few years, we'll wonder what we ever did without it, and I believe it will equally benefit both newbie and pro. I've even got my own wiki page, how strange! Pipedia could very well become the joint venture that keeps pipes on the world map. Because, after all, there's always more to learn...