Steel and Grease

For the first time in a long time…paper-shredder-cutting-blades

I got to take a mechanical device apart, get my hands dirty and fix something. It felt great!

While removing the material from the rollers of a jammed office shredder may not be the most difficult or important repair I’ve ever done, it felt good to be troubleshooting and manipulating a piece of machinery. Opening the case, unscrewing the brackets that held the sharp-pointed steel rollers and putting it all back together so everything meshed was a refreshing return to using my hands and my tools to physically repair a broken device.

My interest in computers and my aptitude with fixing them have roots in something that used to get me in trouble when I was a kid.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the way things work.  Cars, appliances, you name it; if it “did” something, I wanted to know how. The problem being, in order for me to figure out how something works I had to be able to see through the plastic and metal skin to the internal organs of the radio, toy, or appliance that Mom had just bought. Being born without X-Ray vision I had to resort to something less exotic and get out my screwdriver.

There were times when my mom would come home to find me on the floor, with something in pieces around me, trying to figure it out.  She would get upset at me, of course. Partly because she didn’t want me breaking something we just got, but also because she didn’t want me to hurt myself. What Mom didn’t know was that had she came home a little later, the device I had in pieces would have been reassembled and functioning as if I had never taken it apart. What she also didn’t know is how many other things I had dissected and put back together.  Then again, I might be surprised with how much my mom knew and never let on. Either way, it wasn’t until I got a little older that I started to put my prowess for dismantling and reconstructing to good use around the house.

It was when something broke that I really started to think about how that thing worked. When a toy stopped moving, a radio stopped tuning, or a lamp no longer switched on I would be free to play with the internal components to see why.  In my previous dissections of working devices, I was (mostly) careful to only pry open what I could put back and (generally) put things back the way they were. But when something malfunctioned, it was time to turn, push, bend, and otherwise modify the parts to see if I could make it work again. Finding and replacing the problem component in a broken vacuum cleaner gives you a better understanding of how one works than you can get from simply looking inside. I comprehended how the system worked better when I had to analyze why it stopped working. This process of troubleshooting became invaluable to me when I started working with computers.

Figuring out why a service will not start, why a user can’t access a website, or why an email won’t go through all force me to rely on the troubleshooting skills I acquired inspecting and repairing stuff around our house. I have the tendency to see a service like email as a machine.  Services, protocols, and data are motors, gears, and wheels that allow the machine to do what it does.  Examining the process as if the components were physically interacting with each other gives me a logical framework and allows me to find where the system has broken down.

The last few months have found me at my desk, trying to figure out why a service isn’t working and my fingers have been bored of the keyboard and mouse. I yearned for the feel of a ratchet in my fist.  Cracking open that shredder and manipulating the pieces of that machine made me a little nostalgic for when I used to take things apart with a screwdriver when something was broken. My hands smell like steel and grease and I love it.