In Which I Repair to My Secret Lair

In my last post, I sang the praises of a well-populated junk box.  Now, I’d like to turn to the topic of tools, and more generally, of repair.

Repair.  The dictionary tells us that to repair is “1) to restore to a good or sound condition after decay or damage; mend: to repair a motor.”  It’s just a matter of fixing things.

I enjoy repairing many things.  Back in the days when CDs had not yet been displaced by MP3s, I used to regularly cruise yard sales looking for stereos the CD players of which had gone out of alignment.  Fixing them was generally easy, and immensely satisfying.

Side Note:  One of my first jobs in college was fixing tape decks and video cassette decks for the Walter Library language lab.  It so happened that the tape I was given to use in diagnosing the cassette decks had Bob Dylan’s New Morning on one side, and Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon on the other.  Turned me into a folkie for life!  Nothing was as cool as fixing a broken tape deck, then popping in that cassette and hearing the opening notes to one of those songs.

But my career in repair had actually begun long before.  My Dad fixed things around the house, including some things I’d never have had the guts to do.  He soldered copper pipe with a small torch, he rebuilt, fiber-glassed and painted a wooden runabout motorboat in our garage; he rebuilt a wooden gaff-rigged sailboat in the backyard almost from scratch.

My skills lay in a different direction, but he was the inspiration.  When I became a ham radio operator at 13, knowing how to fix things was part of the game, and he gave me leave to do that.  One time my transceiver (a Henry Radio Tempo One, like the one shown below) crapped out.

It simply died one day and wouldn’t turn on after that.  The fuse in the power supply had blown.  I replaced the fuse and it blew instantly!  So…what to do?

My Dad used to bring home old equipment that the University was throwing out.  A few months before this, he had brought home an oscilloscope.  Not many 14-year-olds had one of those!  Anyway, shortly after he brought that home, I built a device called an “octopus” from a diagram in QST.  I had built a tool:

an implement, especially one held in the hand, as a hammer, saw, or file, for performing or facilitating mechanical operations.

My Dad knew that, due to the tubes (yes!  vacuum tubes!  look it up yourself) in this radio, there were significant voltages (500v at around 1A; yow).  But he had worked with me enough to trust me.  Equipped with my octopus and ‘scope, I searched for and found the problem:  a bad diode in the power supply.  Total cost?  $1.00 or so.  Cost to have a technician even look  at my radio?  I think it was $27, which in those days was a lot.

And so I repaired my rig.  First I used tools to find the problem, and then I used tools (a soldering iron and some needle-nose pliers) to fix the problem.

I love buying tools.  When you buy a tool, it should (and does) give you a sense of power.  No matter what the tool is for (and I have some pretty obscure ones) the purpose is to allow you to do something that you otherwise could not.

Tools can be minor; I have a patch kit, and I love to repair bicycle inner tubes.  I feel like a fisher must feel, mending her nets (but do people even mend nets anymore?) .

Tools don’t have to be physical.  Back in the day, as they like to say (and by “day” I mean around 1986) I “fixed” a computer program called Perfect Writer (actually, one of its subcomponents, called Perfect Formatter).  The University of Chicago required footnotes to be separated from text wit a solid line (a line of underscores); PF was programmed to use a dashed line (a line of hyphens).  I used a software tool called DDT to find and fix the problem.

Five or six years ago, the built-in microwave oven over our range stopped working and instead made a buzzing noise.  I did some research and discovered that the most likely cause was the tube that provided the microwave radiation.  Of course, it was at the back of an oven suspended over a range and surrounded by cabinets.  Removing it didn’t seem like a good idea.  But a trip to Sears got me a right-angle ratcheting screwdriver for about $9:

And with that tool, I was able to remove the tube, find a replacement, and get the oven working again, all without having to remove it.

Tools make repairs possible.  And because you can use them over and over again, they are incredibly empowering.  The first time you use it, the tool pays for itself not only by helping you fix something, but by helping you learn how, and even more, by building confidence in your own capabilities.

When I moved away from home, I started getting gifts from my Dad.  Tools.  One time it would be an electric drill; another, a set of screwdrivers or wrenches.  A ratchet wrench set (neat!).  I have these.  They give me the power to fix everything from bicycles to microwaves, from gas ovens to CD players.

But repair is becoming a lost art.  This was starting even when I was in college in the ‘70s.  When there was a problem with the video decks, we swapped module cards in and out until we found the problem, then sent the bad cards off to JVC or Sony or whoever.  We didn’t really repair the decks.

Today, the logical extension is here.  Got a problem with your DVD player?  Throw it out.

I think that’s too bad, really.  Thanks to technological advances like surface-mounting, there’s much that we cannot, as a practical matter, repair.  But there are many parts in any given device that can be repaired.  And I’m not at all sure that we should accept complicated devices that require a disposable approach.

Right now, there’s a big move in bicycles toward electronic shifting.  It’s pretty cool.  Instead of pulling a braded steel cable using a lever, you push a button and a tiny electric motor moves the bicycle chain from gear to gear.  This means you don’t need to worry about running cables, and adjustments are much easier.  But.  Just try to repair it.  You can’t repair it in any meaningful way because it’s computer-based.  If the shifting doesn’t work anymore, you take your bike to the shop, the shop swaps out the module that doesn’t work, tosses it in the trash, and orders a new one.

I prefer my world slightly simpler:  a steel cable stretches or breaks?  I replace it with nothing more than a 10mm nutdriver or a 5mm Allen wrench.

But why do I prefer it simpler?  Don’t I want the advantages in precision that complex systems bring?

You bet I do.  Very much.

But that precision comes with a cost, and I fear that cost is part of our humanity.  Part of being human is to repair—fix, heal.  The Hebrew word for repair and healing is Tikkun.  It’s what humans do.

I’ve noticed, with some sadness, that although I’ve made my workshop available to them, and though I’ve tried to teach them, my children do not have the same interest in and appreciation for repairs that I do.   It’s easier to replace than repair.

Perhaps I’ve failed them, or perhaps they understand that the world in which they live does not readily admit of repair.  I hope I’s not the latter.  I would much prefer to have been a bad parent than to leave my children a world in which it isn’t possible to set things right.

EDIT:  Late last night, not long after I posted this entry, I received the following email from my oldest son:

For the record, I have a giant TV sitting in my living room that cost me $12 total, because I was able to do research, figure out what was wrong, and isolate the parts (a bunch of crappy capacitors) that needed to be replaced.

Mea culpa.  I had entirely forgotten this son’s repair-fu.  He once hacked together a computer out of spare parts, and later built the family’s “media center” PC.  I will ask his permission before writing about his earliest attempt at mechnical repair, however!  

On the other hand, neither his older sister nor either of his younger brothers seems to have any leaning toward repair work.  Ah well, I guess 25% ain’t bad.


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