Wednesday, June 8, 2011

R & R

My title doesn't refer to "Rest and Recreation"--a topic for another time. I'm referring here to what mechanics and engineers call "Remove and Replace". This is what might be called the "module" concept of constructing and servicing various devices. I'll use my late freezer as an example. I say "late" because it died last summer, in the middle of a heat wave, presenting us with us with seven or eight cubic feet of defrosting food. My mechanical intuition (which often exceeds my mechanical ability) told me the motor had burned out. The freezer, a small reach-in, was venerable; we were its third owner. I called my father for information. He has forgotten more about mechanical and electrical things than I'll ever know. He told me the motor was part of the compressor unit. In other words, the whole unit had to be replaced; this would cost more than a new freezer. So, in this case, "R & R" meant remove the freezer and get another one.

I find this to be a sign for much of our culture. I knew something was up when I was was twelve. My friend David and I were busy buying our weekly supply of candy from Sav-On in Lancaster. It was about 1960. I saw a new display above the candy: Bic disposable lighters. My father was a Zippo man, involved in rituals of fluid, wick, and flint. As I eyed the colorful plastic lighters, I felt a deep premonition, somewhere in my bowels, that all was not well. I told David that nothing good would come of this. The disposable culture had begun.

I am not against "progress"--far from it. (Though I am not a "progressive"--another column.) What I am against is modularizing our lives and quashing ingenuity and practicality. This mouthful simply means that everything in life cannot be reduced to parts or units that can only be replaced when they fail, never repaired or rebuilt. Thus, curiosity and tinkering can't fix what can't be taken apart. We still triumph sometimes. Two examples: One of my cars had rear wheel bearings that were "sealed". You were supposed to buy new bearings (for a lot of money) and throw the old ones away. I forced the bearing shells apart, found the bearings to be okay, greased them, and put them back together. They worked fine. The oven in our stove was refusing to light. It was nearing Thanksgiving, and my wife was quite upset. I went online and found schematics for the "igniter" circuit (no pilot). I bought a new igniter and got a young friend to help me install it. Gloria was happy; the turkey got roasted. Cost: $90.

The throw-away culture and the R & R principle are one and the same. Progress is like a drug. It should be used when necessary. Drugs, however, often have side-effects; some are addictive, and require ever-larger doses for diminishing returns. For two final examples, I will return first to the automobile. I was taught by my father to do as much of my own maintenance and repair as I could. This way you saved money and knew what you were driving. You can still work on your car, a little, but much of the engine is beyond the abilities and equipment of the average shade-tree mechanic. Modern cars contain increasing amounts of gadgets and electronic devices. Whether we need these things or not, we can't work on them. R & R.

My final example is computers. I use them; I like them. I have assembled my own (with a little help from my son, Thomas). Mine is a desktop. I have tried a laptop--my hands are too big. I haven't tried one of the tablets. We are being told desktops are obsolete. I can't work on a laptop, let alone a tablet. Parts are much more expensive than the ones I have put in my desktop. Perhaps there is no solution or alternative to the throwaway culture. We can't turn the clock back . . . too many people. At some point, the clock will stop working. Then the craftsmanship of its Maker will come back. A quote from T. S. Eliot: "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?"


mathnerde said...

There are still tinkerers still out there. Taking things apart and creating new stuff. There is an "Owner's Manifesto" that states "If you can't open it, you don't own it." There is open source software (almost all of what I use fall into this). And the beginnings of an open hardware movement (one example is the Arduino And as for your desktop... Lots of folks hook other keyboards to their laptops, and a low end server is a possibility. Those will never be laptops. So while I can sympathize with your view (on this) I do find there is still (some) hope out there.

roseofsharon said...

Hooray to you for saving Thanksgiving! You have the know how on taking things apart and fixing them. I don't have that ability so I take things in to get fixed but find as you stated it is cheaper to replace the item.
One morning my curling iron would not heat up. Horrors! I had to go to work having a bad hair day. Well, my husband at the time has the ability to take things apart and fix them so he decided to fix it while I was gone to surprise me. I was sooo happy. I plugged it in, it heated up, I wrapped a section of my hair around the cylinder,counted to 10 as usual, pressed the release handle and guess what happened?? My hair fell on the counter!! It burned off. Apparently there is a temperature sensor that regulates the heat. It took quite a while for that strand of hair to grow back.