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By Jack Ganssle

Mr. Fixit

Published 2/24/2005

Most summers we take our 32 foot sailboat to the Bahamas or Caribbean. Though St. Thomas is only a few hours by air from Baltimore, we're pretty happy to average a meager 5 knots under sail. It takes us two weeks to get there, two weeks of sailing 24 hours a day, many hundreds of miles from land. I took my previous boat across the Atlantic a couple of times, once spending 29 days non-stop aboard alone.

Non-sailing friends can't imagine how we stay occupied so far from land, TV, shopping malls and the Internet. But the time passes quickly, it's a chance to be lazy, to think, to navigate with a sextant (a delightful retreat from the GPS age), chat on the ham radio, and most of all to read.

Even better: things break. Sails chafe or tear, the engine needs a never-ending amount of attention, wires corrode, and electronics fail.

One of the reasons I love ocean sailing is the chance to be completely self-sufficient. Repair shops just don't exist in mid-ocean. If you can't fix it you live without it. It's the perfect environment for an engineer who wishes to master, well, everything. The successful ocean sailor is a diesel mechanic, plumber, rigger, sailmaker, electrician, navigator and even chef.

I just wish I could master fishing. You should have seen the one that got away. actually they all get away.

We live in an age where technology looms large. It dominates all facets of our lives. Decades ago shade-tree mechanics routinely repaired their own cars. Now specialized technicians swap computers and troubleshoot a mind-boggling array of sensors. Few of us, even us techies, really understand what's under the hood of a modern automobile.

I remember a time when people fixed their own TVs. Yank all the tubes and take them to the drug store's tube-tester; swap the one that reads "bad." No more. PCBs sprout custom SMT-mounted chips with hundreds of leads. Schematics, if they're available at all, show big square boxes that represent complex ICs interconnected with an infinity of wires.

Today many people are intimidated by their technology. One of my uncles doesn't even own a screwdriver; he calls for service if anything goes wrong anywhere. An insurance guy, he's a tech-user without the slightest concept of how things work.

And that's a shame. He - and so many others - are more or less victims of technology, supplicants to the elite who know how to repair and even operate the latest gadgets.

Modern boards awash with surface mounted components can defeat even the most knowledgeable engineer who's looking for a fault. But it makes sense to at least make an effort at repairing equipment. Maybe there's a lose cable, or a simple power supply problem. For me, and for many other engineers I know, we feel diminished when defeated by some inscrutable gadget that defies repair.

The open source movement continues to fascinate and puzzle me. People claim that with the source at hand they can fix bugs themselves without waiting for some uninterested corporation to take action. Part of me recoils in horror from this - hey, I don't want to fix a compiler! I need one that simply works. Yet that open spirit closely mirrors my approach to hardware.

My 17 year old bought a car, a 1977 VW microbus whose engine was seized. His pals all frowned and said the thing would never run. They were wrong; we rebuilt it and he's now on the road. Nagging problems surface, though, and he's learning to jump in with a sure hand and big toolbox. At the moment the fuel injection is erratic, and it's too cold to spend a lot of time outside troubleshooting the thing. We traced the problem to a temperature sensor, but replacing that part doesn't cure the problem.

So we ran wires from the sensor to a potentiometer mounted on the dashboard. As the engine warms he manually leans the mixture appropriately.

And most importantly, he's learning that there are many solutions to problems. I keep telling him, and the local kids who gather fascinated to watch the latest project, that it's only a car, only a computer or software, a sailboat or a VCR. We're smarter than the machine.

What do you think? Do you dig out the tools when something breaks or not? Are there a couple of screwdrivers and pliers in your desk drawer, immediately at hand in case of need?