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Make something! Fix something!

Clive Thompson: I’m sitting on the floor of my apartment, surrounded by electronic parts… It’ll look awesome when it’s done. If it ever gets done — I keep botching the soldering. A well-soldered joint is supposed to look like a small, shiny volcano. My attempts look like mashed insects, and they crack when I try to assemble the device.

Why am I so inept? I used to do projects like this all the time when I was a kid. But in high school, I was carefully diverted from shop class when the administration decided I was college-bound. I stopped working with my hands and have barely touched a tool since.

I can relate a little too well.I think part of the reason I was misunderstood for so much of my career was because I used to do stuff like this. I still remember the day when a new OS arrived for my Amiga 2000. It came on a ROM chip (remember those?) and some floppies to install. I had the Amiga completely disassembled, sitting on Dad’s orange OMT table in the basement. Dad came downstairs, his eyes got big and his jaw dropped, he pointed, and then looked at me. “You going to be able to get that back together?”

I barely looked up. “Yep,” I said, continuing whatever I was doing.

Granted, the Amiga’s design made it look like an onerous task–you had to remove the power supply, the assembly that held all the disk drives, and at least one plug-in card to get at the ROM chip I needed to replace. But at this point, I’d disassembled at least a couple of PC/XTs even further than that. It wasn’t long before I’d replaced all those parts that were strewn about Dad’s table and fitted them back into the case, just as they all belonged. I powered it up, and immediately knew I was successful–all those royal blue screens of Amiga DOS 1.3 were replaced with the gray screens of 2.1.

Dad watched me put it back together, and although he didn’t say much, I think he was impressed.

That wasn’t the only modification I did to that computer. Amigas operated a bit differently in Europe and in North America because of the differing video standards. Software designed for European Amigas didn’t always run right. There was a soldered jumper on the motherboard to switch between PAL and NTSC operation. I bought a small slide switch from Radio Shack, soldered a couple of wires to the motherboard, and ran them to the switch, which I hung out an opening next to the mouse port. Elegant? Not at all. Functional? Totally.

There were tons of homebrew projects for Amigas in the early 1990s. Some worked better than others. But you learned a lot from them. And I think that’s part of the reason I look at things differently than people who grew up with Macintoshes (a closed black box if there ever was one) and PCs. Sure, people have been assembling their own PCs from components for 20 years now (ever since PC Magazine declared on a cover that you could build your own PC/AT clone for $1,000). But there’s a subtle difference between assembling components and modifying them. No two 286 motherboards were the same, while the design of Amiga motherboards tended to change very little, giving lots of time for people to study and learn to tweak them.

So while the PC owners were swapping their motherboards, we Amigans were tweaking ours to give ourselves new capabilities on the cheap. And in the process I think we were learning more.

So I agree with Clive Thompson that I’m a lot less likely to take a salesperson’s claims at face value. And I think that gave me a lot less patience with people who are. With only one exception I can think of, I always worked well with (and for) people who’d taken a soldering gun directly to a motherboard or programmed in assembly language. Thanks to these rites of passage, we had a much better idea of how things worked. And it gave a certain sense of skepticism. Commodore’s own engineers didn’t know the full capability of the machines they built. So if the engineers who design a system can’t know everything about it, then what on earth can a mere sales drone know?

And that’s why I’m reluctant to buy anything that’s just a black box if I can avoid it. What if it breaks and needs to be fixed? What if I need to change something about how it looks or works? And besides that, if it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, I don’t want to just throw it out and buy a new one–I paid good money for it!

But I have my limits. A few years ago I checked out some books on repairing Lionel trains from the library. The books suggested using mineral spirits to clean out the old grease and oil from a motor and bring it back to life. That would be good advice, except for one thing: I had no idea what mineral spirits were (a kind of paint thinner), or where to buy them (a paint store or the paint aisle of a hardware or discount store). And have you ever tried to punch it into Google? Trust me, in 2003, there weren’t many answers. The Wikipedia article didn’t exist until 2005.

I’m sure there are lots of people who are laughing at me because I didn’t know what mineral spirits are. But I’ll bet you that if you were to go find my 120 or so high school classmates and separate out the males who lived in the suburbs whose fathers were white-collar workers, the overwhelming majority of them would have no idea what mineral spirits are either. Why not?

Because when we were growing up, we were college-bound. People like us didn’t need to know what mineral spirits are. We needed to know things like the fact that there’s no such thing as the square root of a negative number. (Yes, I know that’s not a correct statement–but those were the exact words of my Algebra II teacher, and those words cost me a lot a couple of years later.)

I even remember one time, a group of us were talking about something, and one classmate’s name came up. “He’s going to end up being a plumber,” someone snickered.

Never mind that the last time I had to call a plumber, my plumber most certainly made more money than I made that year, and he probably got a head start on me because he didn’t have to go to college for four years either.

One of the reasons plumbers make a good living is because so many people don’t even know how to shut off the water valve when their toilet leaks, let alone how to go about fixing that leaky toilet. For the record, I can shut off the water valve, but I don’t know how to fix the toilet. I’m hoping they’ll show me on This Old House sometime.

My gripe with DIY books today is that the authors don’t necessarily realize that there are one or possibly even two or three generations of readers who may very well not know the difference between a wood screw and a machine screw. They don’t learn it in school, and Dad might or might not know, but in an age when fewer couples marry and divorce rates are sky high, is Dad even around to tell them any of this stuff?

Today, I couldn’t care less about imaginary numbers. But I’m reading old DIY books, desperately trying to learn the lost arts of making and fixing things. Thanks to Disney and other useless companies, I can’t use a computer to locate digital copies of anything newer than 1922. That’s a shame, because it condemns all of the DIY books of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s to obscurity. They won’t be reprinted because there isn’t enough market for them, they aren’t worth the expense of hiring a lawyer to find out if they somehow slipped into the public domain before the laws started really changing in the 1970s, and they’re scarce enough that you won’t always find them where old books lurk, making them a bit more difficult to borrow or purchase.

That all but eliminates a golden age, limiting me to 1922 and earlier. But admittedly it’s very interesting to read how people made and fixed things in the decades immediately before and after the turn of the previous century. So many books today start out with a list of exotic and expensive tools before they tell you how to do anything. One hundred years ago, people didn’t have as much money to spend on tools, and since things like electricity weren’t necessarily always available, there weren’t nearly as many exotic and expensive tools to buy either.

I found an incredible quote in an 1894 book by Charles Godfrey Leland, a teacher and author from Philadelphia. “It is much better not to have too many implements at first, and to learn to thoroughly master what one has, and to know how to make the utmost of them. This leads to ingenuity and inventiveness, and to developing something which is even better than artistic skill.”

That’s not just good advice for metalworking, which was the subject of this particular book. That’s an excellent philosophy of life.

Unfortunately right now I have more time to read than I have to tinker. But I think once I have a little time to tinker again, I’ll be able to make some nice stuff. And maybe someday when someone says they don’t make ’em like they used to, I’ll be able to smile and say that I do.

Sorry I’ve been AWOL lately

The last few days I’ve been having a really hard time concentrating due to headaches and stuff like that. So although I’ve had time to sit down and write, I haven’t really been able to actually sit down and do it.

I’m going to see the doctor on Monday. I’m really hoping that my osteopath will act like an osteopath and do OMT on my neck this time, rather than giving me more harsh drugs.

I’m in debt

It’s official. I’m a debtholder.
And a homeowner.

And after the brouhaha around my downpayment, I understand why my mom’s whole side of the family hates banks. It’s my money! Not yours! Gimme!

So here’s what I learned:

1. Banks don’t talk to each other. That’s fraternizing with the enemy.

2. In this age of computer automation, it can–and will–still take days for a check to clear. Give your brain-dead financial institution a week to sort it out. Don’t count on them getting into the 20th century before your closing date. (Yes, I am aware that it’s now the 21st century.)

3. Try to keep your money in the same institution as your family members, just in case they need to quickly loan you what you put in limbo by writing a check (ha ha!). You know that computer system it refuses to use to quickly transfer money to and from other banks? It will use it to at least check account balances and verify that the money you say is there really is there.

4. Keep as little of your money as possible in banks. My stockbroker/money manager/whatever-you-want-to-call-him gets money to me faster than my banks do. And he beats the tar out of the interest rates a bank pays.

5. You say it’s your money? Possession’s 9/10 of the law, pal.

But anyway, that’s over. I signed my name a few dozen times and around 8 pm I got a key. I drove over. I had a few things with me.

My mom wanted to know what the first thing I’d bring in was. Well, I figure you’ve got two hands. So, since I’m the greatest writer who ever lived, I brought a bronzed copy of my book, Optimizing Windows, and the Nov. 1991 issue of Compute, which contained the first published article I got paid for.

Actually, several of my friends are under orders to shoot to kill if I ever do anything like that. And, for the record, the greatest writer who ever lived was F. Scott Fitzgerald.

So what’d I really bring in?

In one hand I brought in a pewter cross I received on March 18, 1999, the day my membership became official at my current church. (But its main significance is it’s the only wall-hanging cross I have.) I hung it above the fireplace. In the other hand, I brought a framed copy of my dad’s senior picture. I set that on the mantle.

Then I brought in some old stuff. I brought in the sign that hung outside my grandfather’s office (“Dr. Ralph C. Farquhar Jr., Osteopath”), and I brought in a box. The contents of the box:

An apothecary that had belonged to my grandfather
A medical instrument that had belonged to my grandfather (whatever that thing’s called that he uses to look in your ears)
My great-grandfather’s microscope
Dad’s camera (a Minolta) and a couple of Kodak lenses
Dad’s wallet
A can of Farquhar’s Texas-Style BBQ Seasoning

I arranged those on the mantle as well. They look good there.

Unfortunately, since my dad was a radiologist, it’s hard to find anything that symbolizes what he did for a living. But soon I’ll be getting the OMT table that had belonged to Dr. Ralph and then to my dad. OMT is an osteopathic practice similar to what chiropractors do. Dad used to give OMT treatments to his friends after work in our basement. So the OMT table is going in the basement. Then, this house will be home.

How to get my job

I’ve had a couple of people ask me in the past couple of weeks how to break into the computer field. It was a tough question. I literally got into fixing these things because I couldn’t find a repair shop in St. Louis that I felt I could trust. So I started trying to fix them myself. I might break it beyond repair, but one time we had a repair done that cost more than replacing the unit outright would have cost. So what did I have to lose, right?
I took my Commodore 128 apart a few times. Usually it was for an upgrade, but once it was to clean the keyboard because keys weren’t working anymore. It was an adventure, and I had to learn how to solder first. My dad’s friend Norb taught me how. He was a building inspector. No wonder I still solder like a plumber, even to this day. So I de-soldered the 6 connections I had to in order to get into the keyboard, removed the dozens of tiny screws, cleaned up the printed circuit board, put it back together, re-soldered those connections, reassembled the computer, and held my breath. It worked. Cool. It didn’t impress the girls, but it saved me at least 50 bucks.

It was my uncle’s approach. I remember riding with him to an auto parts store once, then watching him work on his truck. “I don’t know what I’m doing when it comes to cars,” I said.

“I don’t let that stop me,” he said. “I just have to do it.”

His truck cost more than any computer I’ve ever owned.

Later on, I got an upgrade ROM for my Amiga 2000. So my dad came home one day to find me hovering above my Amiga, which was sprawled across his OMT table. The cover was off, the power supply was out, and the drive cage was out, and there I was, slowly prying out a chip with a screwdriver. Dad gave me a nervous look. “You gonna be able to get that thing back together?” he asked me. “Sure,” I said. I didn’t tell him how many times I’d had it apart before. So he stood there and watched me as I finished extracting the chip, popped the new one into place, and re-installed the power supply and drive cage.

Eventually I got smart and realized I shouldn’t be experimenting on computers that I cared about. XT clones cost about 20 bucks when people wouldn’t just give them to you, so I got a couple. I ripped them apart, figured out how a computer was really put together, and reassembled them. And yes, I even took parts from one and put them in the other to see what would happen. I was pretty sure it would work. It did. Eventually I did something stupid (I don’t remember what anymore) and I killed at least one of those XT clones, but it wasn’t important. I’d learned a lot from them, and I was only out 20 bucks. That’s assuming I wasn’t given the thing outright–I don’t remember that detail anymore either.

I needed that skill the next year. I was living in a fraternity house, and the power supply died in the house computer. I knew enough by then to diagnose it, and I headed off to the local computer shop for parts. They didn’t have any power supplies that would fit, and the motherboard was nonstandard. But they had a lineup of barebones systems sprawled across the floor. A bare 386 cost about $200. I knew the rest of the system worked. So I talked it over with the treasurer, then came back with a house check and bought a 25 MHz 386DX. I took it home, popped the case on the house computer, pulled out the video card and all the I/O cards, installed them in the 386, and found the computer wouldn’t recognize the hard drive. We eventually worked through that one (it turned out we had one of the very few 8-bit IDE drives ever made, and that 8-bit controller did not get along with our 386 one bit) and we got a working system up and going.

By the time I graduated there were at least half a dozen guys in that house capable of doing that job. Times changed (swapping a motherboard was much more of an endeavor in 1993 than it was in 1997, because by then so many components that had once been discrete and configured by jumpers were integrated and configurable through the BIOS Setup), and I’d like to think most of them learned at least a little something from me.

That summer, I got a job selling computers. An opportunity arose when the store technician developed a difficulty showing up for work. They never fired the guy, but since he was only there half the time, I got to be the tech the other half. When he was there, I learned a lot from him.

The next school year, I got wind of a job opportunity on campus. The journalism department had a batch of 300 new IBM PC 330s and 350s. Every last one of them needed to be unboxed and upgraded with extra memory and a NIC, then plugged into the network, where one of the more experienced techs could do a push install of OS/2. I got the job, and I learned a ton from those guys. These are guys who had seen prototypes of the IBM PS/2 Model 80, and who occasionally had to whip out a soldering gun and make a change to the motherboard with an engineer from IBM on the phone. You bet they had a lot to teach me.

That part-time job eventually grew into a full-time job when those guys recognized that I was willing to work hard and willing and able to learn.

That approach worked really well for me. But I had the advantage of being young and being able to wait for opportunities and take them as they came. I also had the advantage of growing up with the things (the schools I went to had computers and taught computer classes, all the way back to when I was in the second grade) and messing with them for the majority of my life.

Realistically, I don’t think that approach would work for an adult with minimal computer skills and a family to support. Or at least it wouldn’t work on a quick timeframe. I’ve tried to teach 24-year-olds starting from ground zero how to do this. It didn’t work very well.

It’s a lot easier to teach someone how to write.