Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Why DIY? - Part 3 - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Things are little slow right now on the tinkering front. So during this period of downtime I'm going to spend the next few posts exploring the "whys" and the "what fors" of tinkering around.

As technology continues to improve, get cheaper, and ultimately become more popular the older technology gets pushed aside and tends to find its way into our landfills. Some of it just stops working, but much of it is just old and outdated even if it's still perfectly usable. Obviously the best option for dead electronics is to send it to a reputable recycling center (not the ones that just ship the junk to China to poison them, but the good ones that really recycle it).

But some of this e-waste can also be reused or repurposed. The hacker community is filled with people who take apart old electronics and reuse them in new and interesting ways. Turn a dead low energy light bulb into a short wave radio. Convert your old and tired laptop into a digital photo frame (a project I've been trying to get underway). Old Macintosh computers into fish bowls. Turn an old XBox into a home media server. Older (but not super old) computers may not be able to run Windows, but Linux is making it possible to continue to use such computers with a modern and stable operating system. Many people have given new life to dead printers or scanners when they turn them into robots or even 3-D printers.

Some people have saved up more electronic junk than they know what to do with, but also may be short on other things they need to complete a project. In comes The Great Internet Migratory Box of Electronics Junk to save the day.

And that's just electronics. There are many great uses for scrap wood, metal, plumbing, old clothing, or even drier lint. I've got a used cookie tin and a metal paperclip box just waiting to be used in some future project. With a bit of imagination and creativity junk can be turned into treasure. This is good for the environment and good on your wallet.

Part 1 - Fun!
Part 2 - Economics
Part 4 - Education
Part 5 - Making Connections

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Why DIY? - Part 2 - Economics

Things are little slow right now on the tinkering front. So during this period of downtime I'm going to spend the next few posts exploring the "whys" and the "what fors" of tinkering around.

In my last post I stated that my primary drive for DIY is fun, I should correct that and clarify that it is my primary drive for tinkering. There are plenty of things I DIY (or would that be DMS - Do MySelf) that I don't really consider fun, primarily to save money. I pack a lunch to work, I mow the lawn, we clean the house hourselves, etc. I don't really consider these things to be real "DIY" though. They're more like things most people do, but some people pay someone else to do it.

The decision to DIY or not-DIY in order to save money comes down to how much we value our time over our money. I mow my own lawn because the time I spend each Saturday is worth less to me than the money I would spend on hiring the job out to someone else.

DIY isn't always cheaper though. There can be tool expenses that can sometimes be more than the cost of labor. If you're not careful and have to do things over, make a wrong cut, or cause more damage your costs could be much higher than if a pro had done it. Injuries can also cause the costs to go way up. I don't like to do anything on our roof just because I'm worried about falling. I had a pro install our fence because I value my back comfort over his costs. I've had trees removed by pros because the cost of a tree falling on a house when I didn't know what I was doing is much more expensive than the cost of the pro.

What about hidden costs or postponed expenses? A DIYer who patches up a leaky drain under a sink with caulk (true story) may save a few pennies now, but it's still going to need to be fixed right eventually. Might as well do it right the first time. Some fixes if not done properly can cause more damage or even harm someone. An improperly wired outlet. Painting over mold. Hiding water damage. While I think everyone should do what they can to do things themselves, it just isn't always appropriate. I fear the DIYer who doesn't really know what they're doing.

How does DIY effect the economy? I read a post on the Make: Blog the other day that referenced an article in the New York Times about the DIY ethic eroding service businesses. This article bugs me by the way it puts a negative spin on DIY. It states that when we come down on hard times and do things ourselves instead of paying someone else to do it then other businesses suffer, implying a spiral effect on the economy. Sure, service jobs will suffer. But things will ultimately balance out. If people stopped buying fish and went fishing themselves the fisherman might eventually be put out of work, but he can always adjust to the economic climate and start selling fishing equipment.

If I need the igniter replaced on my furnace and I opt to spend $55 on a replacement part and do it myself (this happened a couple weeks ago) instead of spending $300+ on a repairman, it is true that I have denied that repairman work. And if everyone did this he would eventually be out of a job. But a) not everyone will do this, b) I'm sure the repairman is resourceful enough to find other means of profitable gain, and c) the $250+ I saved doesn't fall in a hole and disappear - it gets spent on other things and continues to crank the economic engine.

But enough about the article. If you want to see more on this subject then I encourage you to read the comments in the Make: Blog post I linked to above. There are several very good comments.

In my next post I'll address another economic factor to DIY: "reduce, reuse, recycle." If you can think of anything else please feel free to say your bit in the comments.

Part 1 - Fun!
Part 3 - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Part 4 - Education
Part 5 - Making Connections

Monday, January 19, 2009

Why DIY? - Part 1 - Fun!

Things are little slow right now on the tinkering front. So during this period of downtime I'm going to spend the next few posts exploring the "whys" and the "what fors" of tinkering around.

Part of my interest in any hobby is exploring why that hobby interests me. I suppose it's all a part of self discovery. From as far back as I can remember I've always liked to tinker. That was one of the things that drove me to study mechanical engineering. I loved to take things apart and see how they work. I still do. But even more fun is being able to put it back together and get it working again. Or even better...put it back together to serve another function. Improve on it. But learning how things work is only a part of tinkering. I get a great deal of satisfaction in creating something and having it turn out as good as I imagined. Whether I design it myself or follow someone else's design, it's always exciting to see it all come together. Everybody has their own reasons for joining in the DIY movement. I have several.

I don't know if my parents recognized the interest in me and helped to foster it, or if they were the reason I developed the interest in the first place. My dad is very much into ham radio and anyone who knows anything about hams knows they are tinkerers through and through. I recall several of my dad's DIY projects. Some made it to completion, some only part way. Model rockets, planes, trains, and automobiles. Bee keeping and gardening. Electronics, wood working, and even cooking. My mom also seemed to have passed on the DIY gene with her sewing, crafts, gardening, cooking, and artistic talents. My brothers and sisters have some tinkering talents of their own. It seemed like just a natural thing to do around our house. Maybe it was a combination of nature and nurture.

I remember tinkering around in the garage and storage rooms admiring the abandoned projects and wondering how they might turn out someday. Or seeing old discarded projects and wishing I could have been there to see how it was made. I also got to join in on the fun and take on projects of my own as I was taught some of the tricks of the craft. I had many toys while growing up that encouraged imagination, design, and construction. But which came first, the interest or the toys? Having kids of my own now and seeing how they only take to the things they are interested in regardless of how much we might try to steer them towards what we want, I can only conclude that everything around me only fed an interest that was already inside me.

In the posts to come I will be exploring other reasons for DIY: economics, reduce and reuse (a subset of economics), education, making connections, and maybe others I haven't thought of yet. But for me, my main reason will always be...because it's fun!

Part 2 - Economics
Part 3 - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Part 4 - Education
Part 5 - Making Connections

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Knack

Saw this on the Make blog and thought it was worth a post here...

I love it. (You know...I love the Dilbert comic strips but the cartoon seemed to fall flat for me, but this clip is awesome.)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Little Brother

I'm not much of a reader. Not that I don't like to...I would just rather do something else instead. In the past year I've read a total of 2 books. So why do a book review on a blog about geeky tinkering?

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is a must read for every geek out there. If you aren't a geek but know a geek, get this for them. If you're a teen who likes to use computers but is afraid of calling yourself a geek, you'd still really like this. It was written by a geek for geeks, specifically aimed at teens but adults will love it too. I got this book for Christmas, and once I started reading it was very hard to put down. I read the first 1/4 a little bit at a time for a few days, then one day I just found myself unable to stop and finished off the remaining 3/4 all in one sitting.

It's a story of a 17-year-old hacker in San Francisco who, at first, uses his skillz for purely selfish reasons or to help out his friends. Not so much for committing felonies, although he does enjoy the usual misdemeanor. He knows the rules and knows how to get around them. And he knows tech like he grew it himself. But things take a really sharp turn in his life when [spoiler omitted] and he finds himself turning his tools against [spoiler omitted] to save himself, his friends, and his city. It's a story of the little guy taking on a world that's turned against him.

Usually, fictional tech is so far off from reality that most who know better just groan and roll their eyes. (See Hackers or The Net.) But Cory did it right in this book. Most of what he talks about does exist, or could exist today. And based on the political atmosphere, it very well could be happening right now. But his use of some not yet available tech gives it more of a "very near future" feel.

It also provides more than just fictional entertainment. It has real world applications. After just about every chapter you want to grab the nearest computer and Google some of the things he talks about just to learn more. It introduces some security concepts that the average person isn't usually aware of, but in this world of identity theft and computer vulnerabilities everybody should be more familiar with. If only to protect themselves.

Get it. Read it. Love it. You'll thank me.

In the back of the book Cory lists many of his favorite reads. Books that inspired him that he recommends to his readers. So now I've got a list of books to go read. Not only has this book inspired me to do some more tinkering, but it's given me a little poke to do some more reading. Maybe I'll read more than 2 books this next year.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


Welcome to the Tinkering Lab!

Although I consider myself to be a maker, I sometimes feel I don't measure up creatively. I also like to think of myself as a hacker, but that conjures up images of computer vandals. I also lack the skillz. I'm a weekend warrior with no time. A tech geek with no budget.

So let's just call me a tinkerer.

This blog will be my dumping grounds for general tinkering and geek-foolery. I want to have a place to document projects so that others may share in my fun. Or so I can just have someplace to turn to see "now how did I do that again?"

Topics may include: linux, model rocketry, home theater, tools, computers, cars, woodworking, tech toys, hacking, home remodeling, ham radio, cooking, movies, or even origami. Whatever tickles my geek.

One downside to being a tinkerer is that there is often a limited attention span to any one project. Sometimes I may have 3 or 4 projects started sitting on a back burner. Sometimes a project may be put on hold while I deal with other responsibilities in life. So maybe, and I hope, this blog will help me to be able to return to those shelved projects and even help me to grow my tinkering passion.

P.S. The older posts appearing here have been relocated from my other blog.