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June 10, 2009

Filed under: culture»internet»excession

It Ain't Broke

"You're a tinkerer," the IT guy says to me.

This is not entirely a compliment. I've just been describing how I had to hard-reset my phone yesterday, after a botched process involving root access, the application caches, and the Android marketplace. It was entirely my own fault, mind you, and completely predictable. Almost a week between purchase and the first reformat? For me, that is superhuman restraint.

The IT guy would probably appreciate this more if he didn't spend his workday cleaning up other people's computer messes, to the point where it's not terribly amusing any more. But he's not having to clean up mine, so instead he just tells me that I'm a tinkerer, in the same tone of voice that most people would say "oh, you're a chemical weapons engineer" or "oh, you have rabies." That's interesting, the tone says, maybe you could tell me more about it from a little further away.

I don't mind. I'm reminded of something Lance Mannion wrote about the his Uncle Merlin and the "tinker unit" a couple of years back:

Changing a light bulb, caulking a window, nailing down a loose floorboard on the deck, hanging a picture---these are all acts of puttering.

Tinkering is the self-directed, small but skillful, not necessarily necessary work of actual home repair and improvement. There's an experimental quality to tinkering, as well. When you sit down---or kneel down, squat down, or lie down and crawl under something---to tinker, you don't always know exactly what you're going to do. You're going to try something to see if it does the trick.

Tinkering includes the possibility of using a screwdriver, a wrench, or a pair of pliers, possibly even a voltage meter, and preferably all four. To putter, you might need a screwdriver, but usually you can get the job done with a hammer or a paintbrush.

If you go out to the garage to spray some WD-40 on the tracks of your squeaky garage door, you're puttering. If you install a new automatic garage door opener, you're tinkering.

Changing the oil on your car is a putter. Installing new belts and hoses, especially if the car doesn't really need new belts and hoses yet, is a tinker.

Pouring a new garage floor or rebuilding the car's engine are serious jobs that the words tinker and putter don't begin to describe.

I just changed the filter on our furnace. That was a putter.

But the furnace has been a bit balky the last couple of days and even refused to kick on last night until I went downstairs to tinker with it. I checked the filter, saw that I'd need to change it in the morning---Note: The label on the filter says 30 Day Filter and it means what it says---but for the moment all I could do was pluck dust off it and shake dirt out of it. I put new duct tape around the joints on the outtake pipes. Tripped the circuit breaker a few times. Heard a small, sad click and then an ominous and disheartening silence from the furnace. Went upstairs to re-read the troubleshooting guide in the manual. Heard the burners ignite at last, closed the manual, and went to bed, congratulating myself on a job well done.

That was tinkering.

He's talking about home repair and I'm talking a kind of generalized electronic interference, but they're the same thing. It's the "not necessarily necessary" part that links them. Tinkering is less about problems, more about projects and potential.

Affinity for tinkering is one way to sort the population, I think. Some people get it, some people don't. Belle is one of the ones who doesn't. She has learned to dread those times when a home purchase suggestion is met with the response "oh, we could just make one of those." She also watches with amusement when I find a new project--such as, a couple of weeks ago, when I decided to make a case for my old phone, since the one I'd been using was falling apart. I wanted one of those magnetic cases, but the ones for Blackberries are too short, and the ones that aren't too short are so wide that the phone would slide back and forth and drive me batty.

No problem, I said, and I dragged her to the fabric store, where I bought some jean rivets. Then I found one of the too-short cases online for a couple of bucks (plus shipping and handling, still a deal!), snipped the leather clasp in two, and used the rivets and a part of the old case to extend it just far enough to close around the Nokia. It was my first time riveting something. I really enjoyed it, and said so. Belle rolled her eyes at me.

To some extent, I can understand where she's coming from, since I've been there myself. My family also tends to be hands-on, which makes me suspect that it may be an inherited (or at least acquired) trait, and it's certainly a lot less fun to be involved in someone else's tinkering. Which is not to say that it holds no rewards: my dad recently sold one of his kayaks, and the buyer specifically requested the one with the nose art.

My goal lately has not been to eliminate tinkering, but to make sure it's channeled in productive directions. For example, one of my regular projects has been upgrading the video drivers on my laptop--I'm always seduced by the thought of a few more frames per second, or a slightly-smoother game of Team Fortress 2. Invariably, this has become a mistake: while the early Lenovo drivers might have been a bit buggy, at this point they've pretty much caught up to the hacked releases, and all I get for my trouble is a long night of restoring backups and rebooting. Better just to leave it alone, or at least find less tedious things to disrupt.

The nice thing about digital tinkering, as opposed to the home infrastructure kind, is that there are ways nowadays to make sure that all you lose is time. That's part of the reason I love mobile platforms and virtual machines: in both cases, mess something up and all you've lost is less than an hour, most of which is just restoring from the default image. If only there were a way to say the same for our apartment, since then I wouldn't have a large packet of rivets, a Dremel tool, a box of half-disassembled guitar pedals, and several yards of unused vinyl lying around.

Or maybe I just need the right project for them. Any ideas?

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