Monday, October 12, 2015

The Joy of Repair

My first personal computer was a Compaq Presario. It came with a 333Mhz processor and 128MB of RAM, and that's back when we actually bothered to distinguish between RAM and HD storage. However much we scoff at the humble specifications today, it brought me much joy. Yet it is of happy memory less because it was the gateway to encyclopedias, cutting edge audio compression–mp3s– and SimCity 2000, than for being the first computer, and perhaps first thing of any kind, which I completely and utterly destroyed.

Through no fault of my own, truly. Windows 98 was a poor operating system by today's standards. It crashed opening files and saving files, on startup and shutdown–you name the task and it could take the whole edifice down. That kernel was a' poppin' by the hour, I tell you. And so I tweaked: drivers, settings, configuration files, libraries, html, javascript... you name it. Thus I learned.

Alas, Compaq of happy memory didn't have the cleanest supply of power for much of its early life, and I'm sure my ignorance of the issue hastened its demise, but the more it crashed the more I tweaked. I added fans and heatsinks galore, more than could possibly be useful. I added a bootloader to dual-boot OSs and customized the startup screen. Then the decadent accouterment of new graphics and sound cards, a spiffy CD-Writer–32x!–on and on. How many times did my parents find me surrounded by the innards of the poor dissected beast strewn around my room. Thus I learned.

The Macbook Air on my desk today is doubtless the cheapest and best computer I've ever owned. It's never malfunctioned in any significant way and it's safe to say I've learned nothing from it. There is good in that, not only because I paid for it and I don't want junk but also because I have work to do and I need it to function. Yet something has been lost, both of my youth and of my education, to which two minor recent incidents returned me.

A few months ago, getting in my car during a heavy rainstorm, I noticed an unusual dark patch on the interior ceiling of my car. Ahh, a roof sopping with aqua frigida. Driving home I wondered what to do. I'd never tinkered with let alone worked on my car before, nor anything so expensive and full of voltage and combustible liquid. Yet at every swipe of the wiper all I could think of was my own ignorance and impotence. I then remembered it, the turquoise power button on my Compaq Presario. Two hours later, at 12AM, I'm sitting in my car, and with screwdrivers, rags, wrenches, pliers, and parts of every shape and size strewn around the cabin, I had taken the interior ceiling apart. Having taken off my shoes to preserve the seats I open the sunroof and stand up through it, poking my head up against the tarp I've thrown over the car to prevent the rush of water. Failure ensued, for in the darkness I could not find the failing seal.

The next day I trace the leak–by pouring water through every crevice and hole I could find–to an unsealed gap between the sunroof's drainage trough and the conduit which houses the cable which opens and closes the ceiling panel. Caulk flows and joy ensues, a special joy not known since the vim and vigor of my computer-modding days. Moreover, I learned about my car for the first time.

A more recent incident on a smaller scale is illustrative too I think, precisely because of the low stakes. There was surely no way it was worth my time to fix my water pick. I surely lost money in the repair as an exchange of my time. Still I'm more than a little pleased with myself, less because I fixed a trivial device than because I improved it. You see it wasn't tough to split the little handle open and reconnect the tubing, but it was rather tricky to improve the mechanism which held the interchangeable head in place. It was loose and drippy of late and so upon further consideration of both my pride and orthodontic health, I realized I could improve the device. All I needed was a spring and a little flexible padding, so I of course took apart the nearest pen and shaved some rubber off an eraser. A little crazy glue later and huzzah! Good as–nay, better–than new.

These are small victories to be sure, but they make me wonder whether our magic boxes–our cars and phones and computers–hide as much knowledge as they reveal. Technology developed to perfection, like art, hides its process, yet unlike art technology's end is outside of itself. If it is misused it is useless, whereas art by being useless, so to speak, invites understanding for it can do nothing else.

I'm not advocating Luddism or praying for  technical disasters, but merely suggesting that when the door to a process usually closed to all but the inventor is opened, that the occasion might be a happy accident and an opportunity for a little ingenuity. We don't all have jobs which hold such opportunity, and we might be wise to tackle a few problems outside our typical ones. Those routine tasks feed our vanity as we master them and the exclusion of new challenges dulls our sense of wonder and adventure. Don't run to the experts to fix it all. Specialization is for insects.

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