The Corner

Survival of the Tinkerer

Masses of e-mail on my “tinkering” post yesterday. Main points.

(1)  Keep tinkering alive!  It’s not only John Ratzenberger who’s trying to keep tinkering alive. There are lots of programs, websites, clubs, competitions. A few passed on from readers:

(2)  Tinkerproof automobiles  So far as tinkering with cars is concerned, in the words of one reader, echoing many others:

Consider that the barrier to entry has increased when it comes to things like cars. It used to be that one could just roll down to the library, grab the manufacturer’s manual for the car, pick up a socket wrench, and go to work. Now cars have pretty advanced computers in them that need equally sophisticated diagnostic equipment, the cost of which is out of reach for your average hobbyist car guy.

[Me]  That’s not going to get any better as we head into the nanotech society. Machines you can open up and fiddle with are disappearing fast. Domestically, the VCR may have been the last. We had a VCR repair shop in my village until a couple of years ago. No more. Ever see anyone tinkering with an iPod? (Well, there was that kid who reconfigured his iPhone, but he is plainly a genius.)

On the matter of cars, another reader adds:

Also, while I suppose that I could change the oil in our cars, what would I do with the used oil when I’m done? I would have to wait for the annual HAZMAT day to dispose of it legally.

(3)  Code tinkerers  Many readers protested that kids nowadays just tinker with computer code instead of machinery. (Especially, added a couple, with the spread of open-source software.)

That’s a definite no-sale for me, and I write as a guy who can attain flow via both coding and DIY.

They are just not the same thing, only the same verb. Fiddling with code is mental, it’s symbol manipulation. Building, making, and fixing complicated physical objects is different. You’re in touch with the raw material of the world, and with all its cussedness and peculiarity and solidity. Something is lost, I’m sure.

The old military adage that “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy” applies to most of our intellection. Thinking things through abstractly is of course a wonderful thing to be able to do, but you will always get failures when you test against reality. Every engineer knows this.

(4)  Gardening  Several readers told me of the great hands-on pleasure they get from gardening. It’s a kind of tinkering, I guess; and it adds to the ordinary cussedness of physical objects the extra cussedness of the natural world. Ma Nature is a great joker.

Winston Churchill told Siegried Sassoon that the natural occupations of humanity are “war and gardening.”

(5)  Sons of Martha  I had a sprinkling of letters from engineers bemoaning their low pay and status. One of them pointed me to Kipling’s poem on this theme, “Sons of Martha“. Engineers are still doing Martha’s penance, apparently.

(6)  Upbeat in Colorado  To end on a cheerful note, here is an e-mail from a reader in Colorado.

Derb — Recently I drove to an industrial area of Denver to weld a coworker’s car. The place was a paradise of unwise automotive projects. So many guys spent their evenings there that it became a social scene. Word would spread of some interesting diversion, and projects would halt as people gathered to watch.

Last week was my introduction to high power model rocketry. This was a different crowd, heavily salted with engineers. While pyromania was visible among the Denver motorheads, here it stood front and center. Some of these guys had married pyros, so I got to meet two girls, about 4 and 6, who were the most adorably enthusiastic pyros I’d ever seen. Perhaps personality researchers should add a sixth major axis, and find out just how heritable such traits are.

I agree that such activities are less common than a generation or two past, but I challenge you to find another nation that can better ours in tinkering.

[Me]  I want to believe it, Sir.

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