Sunday, November 23, 2008

Rant #1

Do you ever wonder about all the things we no longer fix or repair because it is not "cost effective"? Or the services that have disappeared because there is no demand? I do.

Intellectually, I understand the economics of manufacturing things that cannot be repaired. After all, it you are making a few million of something, and it costs an additional $5-10 to make each one if you design and manufacture it so that it is repairable, you will loose $10-30 million potential dollars. Not to mention the questions of reliability, etc. But emotionally, ...

 I can remember when TV/Radio repair shops were common and those items were repaired when they quit working. Now? Not so much. Talk to an automobile mechanic about major repairs to engines and you'll find the same trend to whole unit replacement that eventually lead to the demise of the TV/Radio repair shop. If the cost of labor and parts to repair is more than the cost of replacement (12 hours of labor + $200 in parts >> 2 hours of labor + $500 in parts), replacement it is. It is not long after this point is reached that the ability to even get the parts for repair disappears. After all, none of us wants to pay any more than we have to to fix anything. And if the thing in question is on a downward price curve, it makes more and more sense to upgrade rather than repair.

I worry about what we as a society are losing in the mix as repair becomes replacement. I cannot overestimate the number of my colleges in the technical fields who grew and nurtured their interest in the field by tinkering. The ability to reverse engineer and perhaps create alternative function  from old items was a keystone in their development of an interest in science and the scientific method. The reward of making something work that hadn't worked before led to learning the theory behind the operation and the science of the thing .

As an example, I grew up playing with old TV's and radios. I learned how to repair some of them, cobble several of them together into one working unit, and sometimes adapt the remaining carcass to some entirely new function. You'd be amazed what a high voltage section from a TV, an old neon sign transformer, and a few other parts can become in the tinkering mind of a teenager. It was how I built my first laser, explored electromagnetic induction as a means of propulsion, built bug zappers, etc. Now with one piece custom chips and other advances, there is nothing for the budding tinkerer to play with when the appliance quits working. There is nothing to be repaired because replacement is generally the one fix. And even that is often not possible because after a few years, you cannot find those custom chips,  It is not in the interest of the manufacturer to have more of them on hand than needed to ship the product. It is often economically saner to just ship another new unit than to even waste the time diagnosing the problem. How many of you have had the experience of buying a relatively high ticket item and having the manufacturer replace it with a different model when it fails under warranty? Quote unquote because the parts are no longer available?

My concern is that young people today do not get the same chance to tinker and explore. I know that some organizations are convinced that the lack of such experiences are behind the shortages in several technical fields. Some kids have adopted to tinkering with computers, but the feel and intellectual stimulation is different. And one major difference is that instead of learning science and the scientific method, they are often learning the artificial logic of a non-real universe. I.e. one designed by a game designer where the normal constraints of reality are relaxed or removed in their entirety.

Given that change in experience, moving from the hard rules of reality to the malleable and often whimsical rules of the computer or game, the ability to discern fact from fiction is declining. The young people I talk to have a hard time applying common sense and experience to determine the plausibility of any given statement. It leads to what I refer to as "tabloid science", where a claim in violation of scientific fact is made. And they believe it because they have no basis to rationally determine the plausibility of the claim. The effect is even more pernicious than it first appears, because with experience of the warped and arbitrary logic often shown in gaming and fantasy worlds, they have lost the ability to logically deduce consequences from posited truths. Without that ability, they cannot reason the consequences of the tabloid claim and then test those consequences. Scientific method - not in this group.


Post a Comment

You know you want to ... so just do it!!!

Related Posts Widget for Blogs by LinkWithin