Steam Power

I just wound up my cuckoo clock and it got me thinking.

A few weeks ago my friend’s 13 year-old son came to stay with me for a couple of weeks and he was quite interested in my cuckoo clock (a gift from his mother, as it happens). He’d never seen a mechanical clock before.

Partly I think he was intrigued by the roughness of it – the fact that it only kept good time if you fiddled around with the length of the pendulum and adjusted it for the changing seasons. It amused him that you had to wind it up twice a day and if you pulled gently on the weight it would run faster. It was neat, he thought, how good the 3D interface was – you could almost believe it really was a little wooden cuckoo that poked its head out of the door every half hour.

But it made me sad, because he could see that here was a device that did something purely because one bit pushed on another bit. It excited him in a nebulous, yearning sort of way, as if somehow he was getting a tantalizing glimpse into some Great Truth that had hitherto been denied him by the education system.

And in a way he was. He knew nothing about clockwork. How could he? How often does a child bump up against an escapement mechanism these days? How is he or she to discover the relationship between cogs and multiplication? It’s all gone.

Or rather it’s all still there but we can no longer see it.

I love our digital age. I love the fact that a television is now a computer that merely simulates a television. I love gesture-driven interfaces and I love CPUs that run at microwave frequencies. But then I was able to know how it all works. I can still see in my mind the clockwork principles from whence these miracles arise, even though I can no longer see the cogs.

As a young boy I took locks and clocks to pieces, because that’s what was available. I found out why they went wrong when I clumsily broke some part or another, and often when they’d gone wrong I could put them right again. Sometimes I could put them together in new ways to do new things.

In my teens I graduated to old TV sets and ex-military radio receivers. My dad built me a shortwave radio with an 80-foot aerial, a single valve (vacuum tube), and a 90-volt battery (yes, 90 volts!). I could see the glow of the heater and feel its warmth. Unlike clocks and watches, which oscillate a few times per second, this was dealing with oscillations in the thousands and millions of times per second but it was still concrete enough to be within my ken. I could still sense what it was doing and how it did it, because I could take what I knew about clocks and relate it to what was going on in this glowing glass bottle and its associated capacitors (which themselves were nothing but rolls of paper and foil). The reactance in its tank circuit was a pendulum in my mind; the rectifying diode was a ratchet.

But all this has gone. There are no governors, no escapements, no gear ratios. The closest most children can get to direct contact with mechanical principles these days is a bicycle. If they ever go outside. Technology has become magic again.

Is it any wonder so many people believe nonsense nowadays? Is it any wonder people can’t grasp the true age of the earth, don’t understand climate change, can’t fix their cars when they go wrong? We’ve taken away all the things that allow us to understand our world. It has all become abstract and hidden.

When I sit here typing things on my PC, my mind still knows what is really happening inside the machine in terms of bits bumping into other bits. It’s not a mystery. I’m in control of it; it’s not in control of me. But this is in large part because I used to be able to take clocks to pieces. This is because I used to ride on steam trains. This is because I’ve poisoned myself, electrocuted myself and shortened my life by playing around with forces of nature that are now secreted away in mute plastic packages, beyond reach.

My whole conceptual framework is founded on concepts that I can see in my mind’s eye because I’ve felt them with my own hands. Mechanics provided me with the keys to unlock the natural world. Ratchets and levers and coils and damping and thrashing and flows and regulators are the building blocks of my understanding of the entire world. Without those I would understand very little.

What chance has a child, these days? What chance even their parents?

As Arthur C. Clarke put it, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But today that’s virtually ALL technology. What is it like to know how to use your X-Box but not have a clue what is going on inside it? You can take it apart, but what good does that do? You can stare at a CPLD or an MCU all you like, but nothing ever moves.

People cope. People live fruitful and interesting lives. But is it really any surprise that so many of us believe bizarre ideas? One arrangement of brass gizmos looks much like another if you don’t realize that one of them is an escapement – one of the greatest inventions of mankind. So why wouldn’t one “theory” of the creation of the earth look much like another? Who can separate creationist claptrap from the beautiful theory of evolution if they just look like different arrangements of arbitrary ideas? Who can understand that global warming sometimes means really cold winters if they have no underlying grasp of dynamics? It took until the 17th Century before William Harvey was able to elucidate the circulation of the blood in terms of pumps and pipes, but if nobody knows any more how a pump works, what use is this metaphor today?

I don’t know what we do about this. Perhaps I’m fretting about nothing – it’s perfectly normal for people, once they reach a certain frail age, to lament the loss of skills that their generation cherished. We still have brilliant young computer engineers, so someone’s getting a proper conceptual development somehow, even if they don’t get exposed to clockwork any more. But nevertheless, I think the lack of transparency in modern technology may have significant consequences for our conceptual development that we haven’t yet begun to unravel.

Time will tell, or at least it will if I remember to wind the clock.


About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

37 Responses to Steam Power

  1. I think it just means that in the future, only professionals will be able to design and manipulate computers, it seems analogous in a simple way to how only professionals can design and manipulate modern weaponry now, where once a kid could have played with his father’s bow.

    In other words, this is the natural progression of technology, and your perspective has probably been experienced countless times. Maybe you’re right in so far as it would be beneficial if we could maintain a personal connection to our technology, but it’s not as if this is the first thing that’s been lost from the grasp of the layman.

    What do you think?

    • stevegrand says:

      That’s true. What maybe scares me about it is not technology so much as our understanding of how things work in general. Leaving computer repair to experts is fine, but what about the things we leave to priests and politicians (although as you say, even that wouldn’t be the first time)? I confess I’m still wincing after spending an evening recently among “creation science” people and those who happily lap up every word they say. It blew my mind what little grasp of reality people had.

  2. Gary smith says:

    I too feel the same way, but for me it is even more strange, sad and somewhat terrifying due to the fact I am barely 25 and feel like my own generation has lost the concept of self repair and maintenance.

    Computers now fix themselves, no longer requiring the skill to edit MBR and partition tables. Televisions auto tune themselves, no longer requiring adjustments to single Hertz. The age of computing in my eyes has elevated itself to a almost asmovian level with machines people know how to use but not repair beyond the most basic and cosmetic of levels.

    Even expanding outside of this Zeitgeist of locked down computers, a large portion of people I know can recall down to infantismal details the lives of non-celebrities but are unable to grasp the simple knowledge of which continent is which (no that is not an over exaggeration) or how a simple machine carries out its purpose

    A line from a favorite song I have sums up your post and how I grew up “I can take apart the remote control, and I can almost put it back together “. This is my generations lost art, the art of almost being able to put something back together.

    Thanks for the post Steve, really made my night knowing I’m not the only one thinking this.

  3. nornagon says:

    What’s to say that a child can’t ‘sense’ the way a computer works just as you sensed the way your radio works? We learn and understand by building models in our head. Are complex clockwork mechanisms really easier to build models of than are computers?

    For what it’s worth, I have no idea how mechanical clocks work. But I have a strong sense for what computers do and how they do it. And I gained that sense by looking at computers and computer programs and asking questions, as a child.

    • stevegrand says:

      > What’s to say that a child can’t ‘sense’ the way a computer works just as you sensed the way your radio works? We learn and understand by building models in our head. Are complex clockwork mechanisms really easier to build models of than are computers?

      Not necessarily, no, but computers are perhaps easier to build models of (I’m talking about hardware here) if you understand clockwork! I sensed how radios work because I could SEE how clocks worked, and I could see the analogy.

      All I was suggesting is that clockwork and things like it provide a useful set of conceptual qualia – *concrete* examples of principles from which more abstract concepts can be built. Every concept we have in our minds is either concrete or abstract; primal or constructed. When I say “I’m feeling a bit down” I’m forming an analogy with a concrete concept that everyone experiences at an early age, and which under normal circumstances requires no further definition – the idea of things falling. We all know about rough and cold and bouncy and fluid, and we learn these in the sandpit when we’re infants. From these primitives we build all our higher-order concepts. The more primitives we have available, the more sophisticated the concepts we can construct. Ideas like leverage and gearing and ratcheting are close to being primitive concepts – we can SEE a ratchet in action and so it provides a concrete foundation for higher concepts. It’s hard to do that with the parts inside a Playstation. That’s not to say a Playstation or a digital watch provides NO anchors from which we can build new ideas, just that they’re not as concrete or self-evident.

      If we stopped infants from playing with dirt and hence grasping ideas like “fluid” and “hard” and “support” then they’d grow up incompetent. We understand all complex ideas in relation to simpler ones. I was just lamenting the loss of some pretty concrete and powerful ones in the form of cogs and ratchets. It’s like taking “for/next” out of our programming languages – it reduces the number of things you can say with that language.

      I didn’t mean to make it sound like I was talking about understanding technology per se – I mean that the opacity of modern technology may be hiding a bunch of useful primitives from which people used to be able to build more abstract ideas about life in general.

      • nornagon says:

        Ah, that makes sense. The learning curve for figuring out how to change the behaviour of a computer is certainly far higher than for a lever or a ratchet — so experimentation becomes much more difficult, and requires persistence before seeing any results (much longer if you want to see *intended* results…)

      • stevegrand says:

        Heh! I’m still working on the “intended results” part. 😉

        But I’m intrigued. Would you say you think in moving pictures? I do, and if I can’t see something in my head I can’t understand it. So most of my concepts are constructed by analogy from self-evident mechanical principles. Natural selection is a ratchet, American politics is a buzzer, the brain model for my game is what you get when you cross a map with a servomotor… It makes me good at dynamics but crap at mathematics, unfortunately. Other people think in other ways. There’s something about your description that makes me feel you might think in a different way. Something to do with the “figuring out how to change the behavior” part. How would you describe the way you think, if you don’t mind me asking?

      • nornagon says:

        I have a lot of trouble describing the way I think. I don’t usually think in pictures, and when I do, they’re usually static. I often think in terms of experiments, logic, and proofs — not high-order mathematical proofs, mostly things like “if X, then not Y”, and occasionally ideas like areas under curves. I think in terms of connections and relationships between concepts.

        All that said, I think I have only a very hazy idea of what my thoughts are really like: maybe I invoke my visual cortex heavily while thinking about a problem, or my language centres, or motor cortex. I’d love to get some MRI data on that 🙂

  4. qwayzer says:

    It’s clearly time for another book… a children’s book. 😉

  5. Does lambda-calculus count as a mechanism?

  6. gitxsanartist says:

    How can we do anything useful with our lives when everyone is playing “Angry Birds”.

  7. gitxsanartist says:

    How can we do anything useful with our lives when kids (and adults) spend all their time playing “Angry Birds”.

  8. Alan says:

    Lego is still alive and well.

    • stevegrand says:

      🙂 Very true! Shame they put it in little packs with detailed instructions, but you’re right; all is well with the world!

      • Andrew Lovelock says:

        Steve, I like your lament for loss of the mechanical primitive…

        I felt sad when I first saw Lego in small packs with instructions. Even worse was when pens and paper were ousted by “creativity” packs, with stickers or rubber stamps and other pre designed ‘artistic’ component kits. Assembling models to a blue print is a useful skill, but redefining it as creative is totally specious.

        Skills and craftsmanship have changed a lot too. They were occupations sometimes passed on through the generations, they were the stuff of surnames. A bow is very easy to understand and a basic one is pretty easy to make, but back in the day to make a state of the art long bow required considerable investment in skill and knowledge. Technology changes make skills redundant and the half-life of the average skill grows ever shorter. I may be getting old, but I remember the days when you used to touch up photographs manually in photoshop.

        Perhaps choice is the new skill, the DJ rather than the musician, being a photographer becomes choosing to tell your phone what kind of photographs you would like it to take.
        But I guess like everything else while choice is great, choosing is boring, error prone and hurts your head, and not everyone can do it, so once your phone converges with your personal total life designer, then you won’t need to learn, think, decide, understand or create any more.

        I have always thought mankind’s last role will be to shop. The West is now being propped up by China so we can carry on being their consumers and once the East really gets the hang of shopping the West is done.

        The same goes for new life, we will still be ok if they take over all of our manufacturing, research, art and design, it is when they start buying consumer goods that our job here will be over.

        Our ultimate role as shoppers is in part a consequence of human rights and democracy. These are very comfortable things, you have purpose, to vote every few years, and you have a right to sit there and get fat. It makes a nice environment to grow old in, but it is pretty damn passive. I think there should also be a intellectual duty act.
        Every person has a duty to question their beliefs on the grounds that no belief is the truth it is just a comfortable place to think.

      • stevegrand says:

        > but I remember the days when you used to touch up photographs manually in photoshop.

        Haha! You made me spill coffee into my keyboard!

        Beautifully put!

  9. Vegard says:

    I do remember exactly how I felt as a child when I played the GameBoy.

    I thought that somebody had drawn every possible screen (every possible arrangement of pixels on the screen) and that the course of events was determined by the timing and order of my input. The GameBoy itself merely recalled the right image for the right state.

    Which is not THAT far from the truth, except of course that the states of a game are not all explicitly created by the developers — they are composed from smaller “bits” (literally, too) of state, and only the rules governing transitions from one state to another are in fact provided by the developers.

    A lesson in combinatorics, perhaps? I knew that the number of possible states for any game would be very big, so I eventually, a few years later, concluded that my intuition must be wrong.

    • Gryphon says:

      If somebody had only been around to answer my similar questions about my own gameboy…!

      I think that’s the biggest barrier towards kids taking full advantage of all the cool things they have now. It’s the decline in adult competencies that’s rendering the information inaccessible to children. When adults refuse to treat their toys and computers as anything but mysterious black boxes, that’s what works against their kids. These things aren’t intrinsically black boxes, we just reassure one another that they are and that we might as well not bother…and that’s no kind of attitude for a kid to be around.

  10. Jeremy says:

    Not had time to read the comments, although here they are usually top quality too, just as your thoughts are, Steve.

    I think I first had an inkling of your topic here when 8 bit computers went to 16. I could no longer just peek and poke up to 255, and I realised that if technology was pulling away from a then-agile mind, then ‘adults’ would stand much less chance of staying ‘in tune’, and children would be less likely to even get started on certain learning paths in the future.

    Yes, Steve, I believe you need to be able to get into the machine and understand how things link up. Being able to recognise untrue statements or simple errors by understanding what lies behind is becoming less and less common. You may use an example I’ve had for years if you like: I ask – if I say that Mars goes around the Sun in 226 days, do you know enough to be able to say that must be wrong, even if you don’t know what the actual correct answer is?
    Some of what people use is factual knowledge, but it has to be combined with some knowledge of how things fit together in order to be able to answer that question.

    When you finish your current project, of which I unfortunately know far too little as I ‘missed the opportunity’, I think you would be an ideal person to try and help kids access the knowledge that they will hopefully still cherish decades later.

    Related homework tasks:
    find out why the 6 months of Northern Hemisphere autumn/winter are currently shorter than spring/summer,

    Extremely hard one:
    climatologists know of the Milankovitch cycles, but can you find one who actually knows where in each cycle we currently are, and in which ‘direction’ each is moving (towards max or min)?

    What age does a classroom group with multiple Internet access generally need to be in order to answer or partially answer these questions without help from a ‘teacher’?

    Having spent too much time writing already, I promise to read the other comments when I get the chance!

  11. I guess this is all about whether you need to reinvent the wheel in order to make a spaceship. O don’t remember who said it but I love this metaphor: ” we are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants” and I think it is all right. I can’t say how thing work where you are from (US? can’t remember :S) but when i learned technology in school we learned it all from the basic. We started with a battery, a lamp, a resistor and some copper cables and then progressed from there to programming microchips and creating everything from calculators to traffic light systems.
    I don’t know how a clock work, but i still don’t consider a computer to be a miracle. In my case i didn’t need to reinvent the wheel to build a spaceship.

    However(!) I do I’m worried about the generation coming after me, the children born around 2000, because they never get in contact with the basic components of computers, I started playing around with the components of my computer by upgrading them every now and then. However now kids only come in contact with portable computer which you barely even change batteries on (apple?) all kids see to day is a white box that can do everything.

    I don’t know were I’m going with this I appologize for than. But I guess I’m trying to say that I agree with you at the same time as i disagree with you (no I’m not on crack right now). Because I never needed to reinvent the wheel to understand thing, but that’s only because I got to see these components that the giants had constructed. Today kids only get’s handed an Macbook and when it breaks they get a new one, they never change cpu because the one they have is too slow. Kids today are standing on our shoulders looking up, without ever looking down. In order to understand a computer you don’t need to know how a transistor or a resistor work, just who to put them together. The only kids learn today is how to click one button to make everything work, and if that doesn’t work they buy a new one.

    God, I feel like I’m making no sense today…

  12. MrRatermat says:

    Wow, That’s a really lovely story your have there.

    In fact, That reminds me. Y U NO WORK ON STEAM POWERED AI?!

  13. talkingtostones says:

    It’s a bit tricky to respond to this post because I have the same lament, and yet it differs. I grew up without the opportunity to get my hands on mechanical things and learn how they worked and I have felt the lack of that my entire life. Especially as I would be good with such things. As a result of my lack of such experiences, my child is growing up now without exposure to such things because, although I know he should get that exposure, and want to give it to him, I don’t know enough about it to teach him the basics, start him off. The way I think, and my child thinks, are very different because we have not had that mechanical exposure. You grew up with a parent who exposed you to these mechanical things, and other relatives who gave you opportunities to learn, feel, touch, experiment, and take apart/put together mechanical items. So you have a fundamental life outlook that includes that knowledge, and your worldview, your analogies, make use of that, are built on it, to some extent. But we have, instead, had significant and deep exposure on a “how it works” level to other things, in other kinds of ways. My son can take apart any argument, any theory, any assertion, and understand the small working components, the core pieces, the fallacies, the authenticities, the logical consistencies and weaknesses, and put that information back together again in the same way, in a more-correct way, or in new ways, for example. He has a very deep grasp of the under-layers and structure of history and geography and how cultures and society interrelate. And he thinks in analogies, but they are not mechanical analogies in the same ways yours are because he has a different framework. Perhaps, if you and I were to engage in a competition on taking things apart, sensing how things work, putting things together in new ways, we’d tie if we each worked in our respective areas, but we’d probably each win in a competition in our own field or ones extending from it. I yearn for the mechanical knowledge, and lament its loss in society even more than just my own lack of it, but I grew up in basically the same time frame as you did, and my lack of that exposure while you had it was due to gender and life situation, not a change in the world over time. What I’m suggesting is that, perhaps, there are still children who are being exposed to these mechanical wonders, just as there were x (:>) number of years ago when you were a child, and still children who aren’t, just as I wasn’t. But as to your greater point, my lament is just as strong; the concern that a lack of understanding about how things work mechanically can indicate a lack of understanding about how things work in a bigger way. However, what you’re really talking about is the ability to think for one’s self, to make real assessments on the basis of experience, knowledge, and deeper understanding of fundamental principles. And, while I fear as much as you do that our children are losing that ability to think, and I know they definitely are not learning it in school (in fact, are having it forcefully drummed out of them), perhaps it’s not quite as bad as we fear. Perhaps we’re only noticing it in the areas in which we have our foundations and in which our outlooks are rooted, and we’re maybe missing its presence in other areas, other ways.

    • stevegrand says:

      That’s all very true. Of course, your son was the literary stimulus for this post but he doesn’t really need clockwork – for one thing he takes things to pieces anyway, and whichever way you did it, you gave him a perfectly fine hierarchy of concepts. I’d actually be fascinated to know what different metaphors and analogies people DO use in order to explain their world. It’s clear (from Nornagon’s comments, say) that there are many different ways to make a mind and many ways we can explain the world to ourselves. Mine just happens to be predominantly mechanical and maybe I’m overstating the case for cogs.

      I do wish more people (and specifically more girls) were given a chance to play with mechanical objects and ideally have their secrets revealed unto them, though. It’s not really anybody who reads this blog that I’m worried about – it’s the great unwashed masses. And in particular that part of society which tends towards magical thought anyway. If one accepts that a machine “just does stuff” without any obvious cause, then it’s easy to believe that the Devil just does stuff too. It’s all magic if you don’t understand it.

      • JohnMWhite says:

        The last line is, I think, the crux of your concern and mine as well. The OP could kind of come off as the traditional “kids today!” ramble of the older generation, though I certainly don’t blame you for worrying that the young generally have no exposure to how things work. I’m still young myself, and have noticed that many of my peers live in a world where all their devices are black boxes that just do or do not function, and that’s that. I was fortunate that my father was an engineer who was always fixing TVs, tinkering with radios and repairing his car himself, so I experienced a lot of exposure to how things work, and though I do not have the depth of knowledge I would like, it has stood me in good stead at learning to figure things out.

        I don’t accept that a machine just does stuff, I always want to have at least some understanding of why or how it does what it does. A great many people just do not seem to have this curiosity anymore, and it can lead to pretty concerning results. I hate to go down the road of politics and I’m not looking for an argument, but I have to say that I have noticed a certain element of magical thinking in young people and their relationship with Ron Paul. They just do not look at the man’s policies and their potential results, it is a black box to them as much as a PS3. He has applied a label of ‘liberty’ to himself and that’s enough for a lot of young people, who are not at all interested in seeing the inner workings and what this liberty would actually entail and for whom. It is a great example of the result of lacking in curiosity and simply taking things at face value – you can’t explain to a Ron Paul supporter what the policies actually mean, because they won’t look inside the box.

      • TalkingtoStones says:

        An article on point, you might find interesting:

      • dranorter says:

        Or that evolution “just does stuff”! Apparently a couple of years ago (well, 2009) a kid was born with 24 perfectly functioning/ well-formed digits (evenly distributed) and over the time since it got in the news, it’s been passed around in conversation, and morphed into a story told with the suggestion that evolution is shaping people to type better because of all the technology. With no understanding of how evolution works, people are willing to accept the idea that evolution can cause kids to be born with new adaptations to our environment.

  14. KVFinn says:

    Hey Steve,

    I love this post, but I don’t think your concern is warranted. Let me tell you: there are more kids doing more advanced things now than any time in the past!

    A 13-year-old heard I worked in computers and had some questions. He was trying to build some kind of door mechanism for his castle in Minecraft. My jaw hit the flaw when I realized he was teaching himself a ridiculous amount of chip design just to automate his world in Minecraft. You have to build everything out of raw logic gates and flip flops. Stuff I didn’t learn until the middle of college!

    Take a look what thousands (millions?) of kids are doing Minecraft:

    (Minecraft is possibly the most popular game in the world right now. Kids are CRAZY for it.)

    And for Notch’s next game those same kids are going to have to learn assembly programming to keep the lights in their spaceships on:

  15. ferretchen says:

    Thanks for yet another enjoyable post. I have had similar thoughts about computer science and engineering students who now typically do their combinational logic circuit training with FPGAs instead of individual gate chips. For all they know, it’s all simulation – why bother with hardware? Do they really understand what they are doing? However, the same thing could be said of any training – “Damn kids – things aren’t the way they used to be – in my day, we walked to school in the snow barefoot and liked it -” etc. There’s a fine line between “codgerdom” and rigorousness. I also think that no matter what the level of technology, some of it seems like magic. For instance, blowing electrons off of a filament by making it hot in a vacuum is magical and not entirely intuitive. You are intelligent and motivated enough to have made use of the technology that you had; but regardless of the details of the training materials, some people won’t develop that intuitive understanding, because they don’t care. If they do care a lot, they will understand no matter what – eventually. It’s the ones in between that I worry about, the ones who could be led to something but don’t get the chance.

  16. Johan Louw says:

    Your thinking is so fine it just blew my mind. After I received a copy of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, I realized why I became a physicist and also that I am without having realized it, a non-religeous Buddist. To clarify; It is about more than understanding the laws of nature and material things ( Although I love understanding all machines and processes of any kind), but its about the beauty and understanding of our amazing crazy wonderful universe, being part of it and in sync with the way it functions. If we forget this and get lost in material things we insult ourselves and our universe because we and the universe are much more than that. One day I hope we physicists will understand that matter is just a manifestation of space and processes that take place in it. We only need to figure out the details and the mathematics that describe it.

    • stevegrand says:

      Why thank you, Johan! 🙂 I really needed cheering up! Actually I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read “Zen and the Art…” It’s one of those things on my To Do list that keeps slipping to the bottom, so I shall fix that today and get a copy.

      “One day I hope we physicists will understand that matter is just a manifestation of space and processes that take place in it.”

      Woo-hoo! It’s very nice to hear that coming from an actual physicist.

      • dranorter says:

        Have you had any more thoughts in that direction? It’s been a while since you said something about maybe writing another book, on physics, but what little you said about it in Creation was very enjoyable and I’ve given it thought ever since.

  17. dranorter says:

    It’s funny, today I decided to finally read “Growing Up with Lucy” and I was just starting chapter three when I decided to see if there were any posts I’d missed on this blog. Chapter three starts out by talking about clockwork. 😛

    Anyway, I remember actually being introduced to gears in fifth grade, in the form of lego gears. We were definitely taught how they related to multiplication, though I don’t think many people understood it and we weren’t tested over it. The week we played with gears really excited me and I would go home and think about them. I really wanted to buy my own Lego gears because I had things I wanted to try out, but we didn’t have the money at the time and I don’t think I followed up on it.

    That was the same year I started playing Creatures (2), and within a year or two I was experimenting with programming, so I don’t thing lack of lego gears did my thinking any particular harm.

    One related thing it took me a while to learn, though, was that there is no such thing as a stamp of officialdom. A kid who can’t take apart clocks might feel any clock they make is not a ‘real’ clock like the ones that come out of factories, no matter how accurate it might be. In high school I felt that any program I wrote was not a ‘real’ program, and I went to college to learn to write ‘real’ programs. Obviously I did not learn that, since there is no such thing. Similarly the gloss and closedness of modern technology seems to teach people that there is some stamp of realness which big companies have access to, so that even people who do mess around enough to learn some good thinking on their own don’t know the extent of their own knowledge. We are always to ready to assume there must be more to it. This can easily lead to trusting others’ judgement above our own.

    To answer your question about thinking methods; my visual thinking is kind of abstract and not too useful, though I do think in moving pictures. I often think somewhat linguistically when trying to solve a hard problem, or I manipulate ‘objects’ in my head which aren’t very visual.

    • stevegrand says:

      Excellent point about the official-ness. It can even extend into thoughts generally – I used to have all sort of ideas that I now know weren’t stupid, but I assumed they weren’t “proper” ideas because the “experts” would be sure to know better.

      On the subject of clocks and amateurs, one of my favorite people from history, King Alfred the Great, was always being late for church, so he got off his butt and invented a clock. Turns out even kings can do it!

  18. Dick Lawrence says:

    When I was a kid I used to take apart old watches, then try to reassemble them so they would work … seldom succeeded. I was astonished at the size of some of the machined components, like the smallest screws, the size of a period at the end of a sentence in newsprint. (Bigger clocks would have been easier, but I didn’t have any to take apart).

    More successfully, I’ve been maintaining and operating (winding once a week) a church tower clock that dates to the 1860’s. The two patent dates engraved into the escapement brass are 1850’s. The design is by Aaron Dodd Crane, who was in every respect a mechanical genius.

    My career has been in digital logic design, but certain principles apply in both the electronic and mechanical realms; I introduce Mr. Crane’s design to interested strangers as a “loosely-coupled two-stage design” because that’s what it is.

    The cast-iron and machined-steel gear mechanism, powered by gravity’s influence on several hundred pounds of descending weights, moves the minute hand once a minute, and simultaneously winds a small spring powering the brass escapement mechanism, which runs the 8-foot pendulum at exactly 3 seconds per cycle. It’s a brilliant design and this particular example has run for approximately 150 years. And oh, by the way, it’s as accurate as most quartz watches. Someone has fine-tuned the position of a small threaded weight on the bottom of the pendulum to precisely the right point where it won’t lose or gain a minute over a month or more. I won’t touch that adjustment! (and how did they get it adjusted so precisely? this was before atomic clocks in Boulder CO, broadcasting the exact time; astronomical?)

    I’m convinced that Aaron Crane was smarter than most people in technology today. And I share your concern that kids growing up today have vastly fewer opportunities to take things apart and truly understand how they work.

    • stevegrand says:

      Lovely! I wrote a book chapter once about the relationship between clockwork and digital electronics. I based it on the cathedral clock in my home town, which was built in 1386. I guess it’s fair to say that we’re still doing the same stuff today as we were in the middle ages, but with rather better clock speeds! Thanks for the story – it must be great to have one foot in each camp like that.

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