Monday, December 07, 2009

A comment on hobbies past....


Despite the artwork at the top, this particular entry isn’t about the TRO itself. So if you came for an update, sorry.

Well, all right. David Dryburgh just shot me another update on the last interior plate and it’s coming along nicely. I love the sketch stage – it’s where the artist and I can get together and make the tweaks and changes which culminate in a finished piece. I have not heard from Lee Madison, but as you can see from the header art, he’s got some good ideas and is hard at work on them.

No, I really got on this today to kinda lay something out that has been bugging me for a while. See, when I was a teenager, a man named Don Bruce let me into his house at the top of Horizon View (in Lake Forest Park, at the top of Lake Washington, city of Seattle). That was 1978. I noticed some interesting electronic bits on his workbench and asked him if he could teach me how to make electronic gadgets too.

Long story short, he did and here I am, thirty years later wondering what happened to the hobby. I recall clearly in the mid-1990s modifying an Original Series Star Trek Communicator purchased at a Trek convention to record sound, flash lights and turn on when you flipped the antenna grid open. With a sound delay, you could order three to beam up and a voice would respond “three to beam up, aye”. People were amazed; but then, this was the era of Steve Job’s NEXT computer.

Now you have telephones that are the same size as that prop communicator. They take pictures, store reams of music, connect with the Internet and of course, make phone calls and permit texting. And for all practical purposes, they are disposable. That is, the turnover rate for these amazing powerhouses is driven by fashion more than obsolescence. I still can’t get it through my head that they are disposable technology, but I suppose it goes a long way towards explaining why one of my favorite hobbies is pretty much dead, at least as a hobby.

I don’t think you younger readers have any idea what it’s like to go to the store and pick up a copy of Popular Electronics, or Radio Electronics, or any of the plethora of other such magazines. Not that any of you would, but there it is. I can still recall slipping into a bookshop in the early 1990s to pick up a copy of RUN magazine, for the Commodore computer. I am not used to the idea of the Commodore being ‘retro’, but I suppose the ability to learn BASIC and program your own computer is quite old-fashioned. As is the notion of opening up your computer, desoldering a chip from the motherboard and installing a socket for a new chip – or even just replacing a CIA chip which blew out when a static spark fried it (the mouse for the C-128 was infamous for that). Hotrodding a computer these days is quite different from when I was a young man.

I think that is the part that really bothers me. I still get a kick out of electronics, but now the only things folks will pay cash money for are custom electronic projects for things you will never, ever see on the open market. Such as Union Class Dropships.

The question is, who will do these things when I am fifty-five?

There is no one to pick up the challenge. There is not even the desire. Industry’s capacity to manufacture more and more complex electronic gadgets on a scale which makes them as disposable as a ballpoint pen has pretty much squashed that. But the issue goes deeper. I saw an advertisement tonight for a ‘smart phone’, something which is quite common now. The trouble is, I have no idea what the hell I would do with all that functionality – and a good part of it seems dedicated to ephemeral things like social networks, pictures of things no one really cares about, and connecting to an Internet increasingly obsessed with the inconsequential. The last time I was presented with a machine that did vastly more than I needed was when I bought a PC-XT clone in Hong Kong – in 1985. I never used it, never needed a computer to do anything until 1988, when I got a Commodore C-128. That was when I began writing and programming and tinkering with electronics in earnest.

Yes, I know, BattleTech can be counted among the things of little consequence mentioned earlier. But think about it – BattleTech is one of the few places where you can find people writing actual stories, assembling and painting miniatures (and in some cases even designing them) and designing new machines on paper for the game itself. These are also hobbies I love. I am wroth to see them go. There is nothing I can do about electronics – I have friends who know more than I and have done better things, but there is no new blood, no teenagers eager to assemble a crystal radio or a metal detector or even (gasp!) a blinky box. They are pretty much gone.

So too are the model builders, the control-line flyers and other relics of the distant past. Oh sure, the boys have fun when I break out the airplanes and get those Cox engines revved up. But they are not inspired to create their own designs, to learn about air foils and where the center of gravity should be relative to the wing chord to get a balanced plane. It’s enough to see them having fun, I suppose. But check out the websites for these hobbies and you will see that most of the participants are in the 30-60 age group.

It may be that I lack the skill to pass on the spark, to infect others with my fascination and pleasure. My own father tried for decades to interest me in the outdoors and camping, and while I love to do those things, I am not inspired to take them up on my own. The tent, the camp stove, the sleeping bags – all languish in storage until the day arrives when my son is gone and I am too old to do such things on my own even if I wanted.

You know, I created that Union Class Dropship for the Catalyst Games GenCon 2007 table. It got plenty of admiring comments, and I did a good job. The company bought it from me in the end. But something bothers me. My partner on the project, Bill Burt, stenciled my name and email address prominently on the side of the table for GenCon. I eagerly awaited the people who would contact me to find out how it was done.

Not one email, folks. Not one person expressed the slightest interest in how it was done. They were impressed, certainly, but no one wanted to try something like it on their own.

I think I mind getting old because of the things I have to leave behind. There is nothing wrong with any of those hobbies – my son could, if he wanted, make a solar-powered radio in a nice cigar box and it would work as well as the one you can get in the gumball machine. But people have changed, at least on the outside. And there is no one to share my experiences.

On the one hand, I value the internet. I know how much it has changed everyone’s life, and mostly for the better. You would not be reading this blog, for instance. But I have a confession to make, and it is this – every time I see a new internet virus or threat, a tiny part of me stands up and cheers. I know what terrible things would happen if the world-wide web collapsed. But deep inside, a part of me secretly wishes the Internet *would* go away – forever.

Yeah, I know. A terrible thing to wish for, just to resurrect a few outdated hobbies. Like I said, it’s there and it’s not practical, but I see people devoting more and more of their lives to manipulating pixels and I wonder if it’s actually going anywhere. When you spend increasing amounts of your time tweeting and posting on Facebook, eventually there’s no time left to actually do stuff – and you’re left to tweet about the dreck and humdrum of a daily life which, at bottom, is really not that different from everyone else’s.

With the exception of this entry and a few digressions in the past, that’s what I have tried to avoid with this blog. It’s a place that actually serves a purpose, and will continue to do so as long as it’s needed.



Doug said...

Remember, the Internet is the root of all evil :).

Anonymous said...

Some of us would love to do stuff like that, but there just isn't time anymore :( I love battletech, always have, tried to play locally but all the players sucked hard and the games were just die rolling contests. Instead I play computer games.

I did find a large hamster ball at a pet store the *exact* size of a 1/300 union, and another for a 1/300 confederate. Haven't done anything with them yet tho :(

I have wondered the same things about computers in general. What happens when nobody knows assembly anymore to write the *really* low down code? What happens when people just treat their computers as "magic boxes", at some point I just think what you can know will top out.

Dan Eastwood said...

>Not one email, folks ...

That's because we were too busy gawking to even notice there was an email!

Steven Satak said...

Yeah, but no one even asked. I was correctly identified on the forums, folks knew who had done the work. No one asked, no one expressed even a bit of interest in how it was done, or how they could do the same.

It was cool, sure. But cool doesn't do much anymore. People forget quickly in their hurry to catch the next cool thing. We are surrounded by cool stuff, or at least things we are told by the nice man on TV are cool.

And these things change on a weekly basis, certainly not long enough for someone to develop the desire to recreate these things on their own.

I've taught a thing or two to other modelers concerning electronics. But none of them are involved in BattleTech.

Anonymous said...

if you think electronics hobby is dead, you are crazy.

Steven Satak said...

I think electronics as a mainstream hobby is indeed dead. Note that most of what those e-zines talk about takes for granted that you have already gotten into the hobby and have been to some kind of school.

Those 'zines are for hobbyists already made, not new ones. Snap-together electronics does not an enthusiast make, either. One bright spot is that Radio Shack has begun reprinting the Green Book ('Getting Started in Electronics') by Forrest Mims III. I have noticed that it no longer costs $5, but is now $15 - and there is not a single electronic kit there for beginners which requires them to learn to solder.