DIY and its virtues

I just read a good essay in the New York Times – “A Nation that’s losing its Toolbox” by Louis Uchitelle (July 21, 2012).  He laments the loss, not only of factories and good manufacturing jobs, but also “mastering tools and working with one’s hands is receding in America as a hobby, as a valued skill, as a cultural influence that shaped thinking and behavior in vast sections of the country. ”  He says that manufacturing is important, not just to create jobs and reduce the trade deficit and help us out of the recession, but “a growing manufacturing sector encourages craftsmanship and that craftsmanship is, if not a birthright, then a vital ingredient of the American self-image as a can-do, inventive, we-can-make-anything people.”

Maybe the shift from manufacturing jobs to the service sector was because of higher pay, higher status or less physical exertion.  Or is it a cultural thing.  In an earlier post I referred to German technology and competitiveness which is unbruised by Asian competition. The author quotes Richard Sennett, a NYU sociologist  “Corporations in Germany realized that there was an interest to be served economically and patriotically in building up a skilled labor force at home; we never had that ethos.”

Some books resonate with me.  I enjoyed  “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew Crawford and now, at long last, I am reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”.  Lots of delightful quotes – here the author (at page 44) comments on how different two motorcycles of the same make, model and year can turn out years later  “Each machine has its own, unique personality ….This personality constantly changes, usually for the worse, but sometimes surprisingly for the better, and it is this personality that is the real object of motorcycle maintenance.  The new ones start out as good-looking strangers and, depending on how they are treated, degenerate rapidly into bad-acting grouches or even cripples, or else turn into healthy, good-natured, long-lasting friends.”

It is probably the case that now we have progressed beyond the intricacies and quirks of carburettors and manually actuated devices to computer controlled fuel injected vehicles and other digital devices, that the personality of machines has been buried and they all act much the same, except where grossly abused.  And with this transition we have lost some of the connectedness we once had to the world around us.

I remember some 30 years back I had a large tube tv, long on its legs, which regularly began to flicker erratically after 10 minutes use.  I concluded there must be some failing part which malfunctioned when it got hot.  I bought a can of compressed cold spray, opened the rear, switched on the tv, waited 10 minutes and, taking good care not to come in contact with any high voltage wires, sprayed each component, largest first.  To my delight when I sprayed one particular tubular device, the flicker on the tv disappeared.   I waited, the component warmed up, I sprayed it again and the flicker disappeared.  It was then a simple matter to remove the component, go to the electronics store, order a replacement and solder the substitute in place.  Presto – easy fix.  I will not try this on modern tv’s and even replacing the spark plugs on my truck (manifolds and various devices have to be first removed) fills me with apprehension.

So maybe also, the advent of new technologies has reduced our ability and wish to tinker, as we did in the past and, because they cost relatively so much less than did products of the past, our incentive as well.

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