MJD 59,323

This entry is part 17 of 19 in the series Captain's Log

Yesterday, I was testing a new bench power supply I just bought. I tested it with a multimeter, then connected it up to a motor, to make it go brrr for fun. It’s the sort of thing I haven’t done since grad school, decades ago.

As I was tinkering, I was idly wondering about whether there was any fodder for blog posts in what I was up to. I don’t mean Maker posts. A lot of people write about Maker stuff, and do it a lot better than I ever could. I mean riffs on Life, the Universe, and Everything inspired by tinkering with a new power supply.

Most of my writing to date has been inspired by things like working in an office, consulting, watching TV and of course, reading words written by others. That stuff is good fodder for riffs on Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Though I’m having a lot of fun rediscovering engineering with a middle-aged mind, I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to mine tinkering for insights on Life, the Universe, and Everything. Tinkering In, Words Out, TIWO, is a tougher transformation than SIWO: Symbols In, Words Out. Which is why it’s an interesting challenge.

Possibly it’s just me getting used to once again looking at the world through a long unused lens, but I think there’s more to it. There seems to be some sort of mutual inhibition function between tinkering with ideas with words and tinkering with stuff with atoms. Digital bits, as in programming, are somewhere in between.

While tinkering, you’re thinking a lot of mostly nonverbal thoughts. In this case, I was wondering about what the floating ground terminal was for, noticing how the sound of the motor was changing pitch at different voltages, observing the voltage deadzone between the motor starting/stopping as you turn the voltage up/down, thinking of ways to measure rpm and torque easily, and so on.

Depending on how you think about it, there’s either nothing to say about this sort of mundane tinkering stream of consciousness, far from Archimedean eureka moments, or there’s enough to merit several thousand words of prose. And I don’t mean how-to and instruction manual type stuff.

You could, for instance, write about the edifying, soul-uplifting effects of working with your hands. You could write satire about cliche mid-life crisis activities like tinkering in a home workshop, triggered by too much time spent in the world of symbols. You could wax philosophical about materiality, and sensory-experiential mindsets. You could write some poignant poetry about the smell of multimeters in the morning.

And of course, you could write about the actual activity itself, like the not-in-textbooks metaphysical subtleties lurking beneath apparently well-understood things like voltage and current. That is the sort of thing Brian Skinner has been blogging about on here lately.

But the thing is, whatever you think you might want to say, you have to stop the physical tinkering and start the verbal tinkering. You have to switch context from subsymbolic to symbolic ways of experiencing the world.

Physical activity radiates plenty of cues from which verbalized thought can begin, but to actually follow a verbal train of thought you have to stop the physical stream of activity, and think with symbols again. The context-switching is much more drastic than between two symbolic-domain activities.

I suspect the blue-collar/white-collar divide is about more than pre-modern class boundaries being perpetuated by industrial forms of organization. The prototypical activities involve different sorts of cognition.

Physical tinkering is basically 5-sense environment scanning at a very high bitrate driving tactile action that’s much more complex than producing symbol streams, aka typing. The literal Fingerspitzengefühl — finger-tips feeling — is more complex and less available to ensnare with words. And if you force it, either the words will suffer, or the skill will.

While tinkering, you’re logging a lot of information, and even though most of it is very low-salience, processing it is fundamentally different than working with streams of symbols. Symbol tinkering is very low bitrate, but the acrobatics it can sustain are much more complex. Physical tinkering is a Big Data computation for the human brain, while symbolic tinkering is ordinary computation. Reading and writing of course is mostly symbolic. Writing about social stuff and interactions with other people is also mostly symbolic, though of course there’s a world of non-verbal detail to observe if you want to.

Programming is somewhere in between subsymbolic and symbolic tinkering, and is harder to turn into Life, the Universe, and Everything fodder than either. Maybe that’s why movies and TV shows have struggled the most with portraying lives lived amid code.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. I think the biggest way that tinkering — or programming, for that matter — contributes to thinking about Life, the Universe and Everything is in discovering new Ways In Which Things Work. That makes your library of metaphors richer, which later makes it easier to think new thoughts.
    But yeah, your brain is busy when you’re tinkering and doesn’t have time for thinking deep thoughts. Once your widget design is complete and it’s time to assemble N more of them, though, your mind becomes more free to fart about with symbols while your hands work.

  2. Lots of programming lends itself to Life, The Universe and everything. Just read some rants on type theory or functional programming for a quick taste. For instance, human beings usually like to break up problems into their parts and work with these smaller parts. Composing these smaller parts, and then abstracting them away, is how we can build so much. So you can talk about object oriented programming as heavily focused on abstraction in this manner.

    Or say you are doing experiments with oscillators. You can talk about how synchronization of oscillators are a phenomenon that would benefit from the opposite of abstraction, because focusing on the smaller problems muddies the bigger picture. This is true in general for complex systems like the immune system for example, where it is really important to pay attention to the whole. Unlike functional programming paradigms, where functions are written such that they are required to have no side effects, complex systems almost always do.

    These are just small examples. There’s many many more.

  3. Ribbonfarm_Fan says

    Is looking for a potential blogpost in anything we do a good thing? Even while you are doing it?
    Shouldn’t we try to do it for the enjoyment we get in it?