Derb has decided to side with John Ratzenberger, who is on a kick to keep tinkering alive.

I think they’re both right. Understand; I wrote most of this without bothering to actually read Derb’s article. The first couple paras of Derb’s were enough to set my fingers in gear, because it’s something that’s been nagging at me for years, now. I was amazed to bang out the thoughts as they occurred to me, and then come up for air and actually read his article and find so much similarity in our line of thought.

I myself grew up in a mechanics’ household. I don’t think he was ever a professional mechanic, but my Dad was one of those people who could keep a car running on the fine edge for years after most people had given up on the automobile, had it towed to the junkyard, and get themselves into a newer one. He could listen to the description of a problem, visualize what was happening, and have the solution identified in his mind faster than anybody I ever knew, including most professional mechanics.

While I think I inherited a lot of his ability in terms of envisioning solutions, and his love of just plain tinkering with stuff, I’m sorry to say that I never got around to picking up a lot of the talents that he had with automobiles. Oh, sure, I can diagnose automotive problems with the best of them. Repairing most of the problems anymore, particularly where it involves the engine and drive train, I don’t know so much about anymore, mostly because of the amount of electronics that go into the average car and truck anymore. for example, I could tell you that the engine I’m listening to is running a little on the rich side, or that your ignition didn’t sound spot on, and so on, but repairing that problem, well, that’s another matter. THe way cars are anymore prevents a lot of repairs, frankly. The general advantage for me these days is that I can tell the mechanics what’s wrong, when I take the car into the shop. That’s a point that John himself brings up…. Cars are nigh on impossible to tinker with anymore. Electronics, too. I used to tinker with Stereo gear. CD’s and now MP3 players changed most of that. The big amps and huge investment in turntables and speakers then I made is just another group of anachronisms sitting around my office.  Mostly my big fancy amplifier and speakers are driven by my MP3 player, anymore.  it’s almost like we’ve been successful in engineering our way out of the next generation of engineers.

I think I translated a lot of that ability from what I learned about 60s and 70s vintage automobiles, to computers, code, and frankly electronics of all sorts.

Understand me clearly; I’m not suggesting that I am better at this particular aspect than anybody else, what I’m suggesting is that tinkering, as John Ratzenberger correctly points out, is vital to that visualizing process. It helps us to understand how things work, and helps us to envision new solutions for all the problems. It is what gave us America’s spirit of invention during the first part of the last century. It is those kind of people that gave us a successful space program. That’s why I always considered the hobby of amateur radio to be very important to the aid and development of our communications systems. I still think that that particular hobby has a role to play, going forward, though I consider it to be in a transitional stage… like every other kind of tinkering, anymore.

Derbyshire pooh-poohs the idea of computer coding being the next level of tinkering. I’m not sure I agree. It most certainly is less than a physical relationship. But again, I have to lean on my own anicdotal experience… so, I’ll let you in on a little secret; When I code… When I program a computer to do something for me. I like considering, and picturing in my head, the various elements as physical elements. I code, so as to arrange those physical elements in a spatial relationship. I guess we could picture it as a flow chart… it’s as close a picture of my envisioning as you’re going to get.

Where Derbyshire and I agree, however, is that there is a massive difference between the physical tinkering and electronic tinkering lets say, via code. I have often thought that my ability in the physical world as taught to me by my father gave me a leg up on the coding world. That, because it gave me a means to visualize what I was doing… To understand the relationships that I was creating with my code. I wonder sometimes how people without that background visualize their code. I don’t know if I could do it that way.

I’ll tell you something else that might not be exactly intuitive. I have the notion that blogging, such as it is is an extension of our desire to tinker with things that interest us. It’s an outlet. A creative outlet, certainly. But we as humans like to think about the way things work, and I think that blogging of all sorts, helps us to form our thoughts and our ideas about how things work, as we bash them into words and paragraphs and set them in the photons for everyone to read. The web, you see, was something that everybody could get their hands into, and get them dirty at it. it was something that after getting your hands dirty with it, you could stand back and look at it and say. “I did that”.

And, perhaps, that is the most important part of all to this discussion,  a feeling of accomplishment. The tinkerer, can always go into his workshop and point at projects that he’s done and be proud of them. The sense of accomplishment has a tendency to engender further experimentation, further successes, and yes, further failures, too. After all, those tend to go hand in hand.  To be perfectly candid, I wonder if our lack of tinkering, and the successes that that kind of thing brings, isn’t what’s brought us along this transitional road, from independent accomplishment to Dependencyville.

The American tinkerer today, has taken on something a bit different aura. The last 20 years or so, he’s kind of viewed as a lovable crank like Dr. Brown in “Back to the future”. Time was, though, where just about everybody had some kind of project that they were working on. Growing things, the electronics, even consumer electronics, (ever heard of Heathkit?) and of course the 60s muscle car you’re a brought forward an awful lot in the way of tinkering with automobiles. A lot of that fell by the way in the Jimmy Carter gasoline prices. We moved in consumer electronics from tubes and discrete components to transistors and then to integrated circuit chips, which are approximately is interesting to build with as watching mold grow on bread. Watching the neighbors car rust. And of course, counting dandelions on the front lawn. As we moved in that direction of increased technocracy, individualism within that technocracy became harder and harder to maintain or it finally it got to be such a struggle, where most people just said the hell with it.

Okay, I know, I’ve been talking a lot about myself, and perhaps spending too much time in the areas that aren’t earthshakingly interesting. Thing is, without those experiences to lean on, I’d have no way of explaining any of this to you.

The point I’m making here, is the idea that I think we’ve lost something as a society, as a culture, and as individuals, when we sacrificed tinkering in the name of efficiency, or whatever it was that we sacrificed it for. It was the source, frankly, of the can-do attitude that made us as successful as we were, as a nation, as a culture, as a people. Derb tends to agree:

To anyone under forty, a garage is a place to keep your car, and a basement is a rumpus room for the kids. Yet the U.S.A. sprang up out of garage and basement tinkerers, small workshops, teen boys fixing up their cars on a Saturday morning. Everything from the aeroplane to the personal computer started in someone’s garage.

Take a walk down your street on a Saturday morning. See any young guys fixing up their cars? No, they’re all indoors playing Grand Theft Auto and texting each other.

If no American ever again paints anything as good as Cole’s Garden of Eden, my guess is that the republic will survive anyway. If we give up tinkering, we might survive, but only as a bureaucratic empire of paper-pushers and lotus-eaters.

And this is the poison pill in the left-liberal cookie. Everybody must go to college! Never mind that tinkering stuff. It’s not worthy of full-fledged Americans, who have grander destinies as lawyers, doctors, and … community organizers … hospital diversity consultants … professors of literary hermeneutics. That’s where the future lies! Throw away that wrench — hit the books!

This cast of thought, utterly dominant among liberals, and by no means unknown among conservatives, scares me much more than Iran’s bomb.

[It scares Charles Murray, too. I understand he has a book coming out this summer that touches on these things.]

I make no prognosis here. I have no prediction of the future of tinkering. I merely identify the relationship between it, and our national accomplishment.

Now, you’ll pardon me; I’ve got to fix that longwire antenna in the backward. I want to try and catch Radio Vilnius this weekend.


(Edit, Bit, a few typos)

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