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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Now Is Der Time On Schprockets When Ve Dahnce

“Mechanical Principles,” from 1930, by Ralph Steiner.

It’s another world. A mechanical world. A machinist’s world. Newtonian. Euclidian.

A few years ago I took my father to see a B-24J Liberator bomber like the one he flew in. It wasn’t an elegant machine. There was a B-25 and a B-17 at the airfield, too, and they both looked kinda sleek compared to the B-24. Dad’s plane was a sort-of flying dump truck.

We went inside the thing, and I found it jarring that I understood everything I was looking at, just by looking at it. There were wires and cables and tubes running hither and yon and they were all about as complicated as a hammer and nail. The ammo boxes were wood, and the machine guns just shot out of a open window on the side, like a well-armed barn would have.

Lots of things seem complicated to the modern eye because they’re unfamiliar, not because they’re sophisticated; just the opposite, mostly. Simplicity stuns people now. I can walk into a 150 year-old house and nothing in it surprises me. Most of it is simple, if not barbaric, compared to a lot of stuff in a brand new house. The old stuff is vastly superior in many ways, too. Sprockets go round and round when you turn the crank if the power goes out, unlike a 486.

It’s not just mechanisms that amaze many if they’re too simple to recognize nowadays. My wife sits next to my son, before a window and a calendar and a little flag, and slides sheets of work under his nose, one after another, as he sits at an antique school desk that cost five dollars at a flea market. People ask her, “Yes, but how do you educate him?”

Sprockets work.

7 Responses

  1. Wonderful. "Yes, but how do you educate him?" Sounds like a question that could have been asked of Henry David Thoreau many years ago!

  2. May be they don't recognize education (as opposed to whatever it is they do in public schools) because they've never actually been exposed.

  3. Lots of things seem complicated to the modern eye because they're unfamiliar, not because they're sophisticated; just the opposite, mostly.

    So much of modern tech is effectively hidden from the eye. The keyboard I'm typing this on is much more mechanically simple than a typewriter, but how it transfers the keystroke information to the computer, and the computer applies this or that protocol to translate the keystrokes into information the computer understands, and then translates that into information the screen displays on the monitor that you understand – how that works your hand & eye can't just intuit.

    But it all serves the human world where knowing the difference between education and school has not much to do with any kind of mechanical or electronic complexity.

    Anyway. One mostly obsolete tech that confounds me is vacuum tube driven electronics. I can grasp how transistors work much more easily than I can how a pronged glowing light bulb could be wrangled into predictably controlling complex electronic equipment.

  4. We as Americans by the grace of God have been blessed with all the necessary tools to grow our children toward the perfection that we reach out for as parents. Stripping away all the complexity we find it is the time and dedication that matter most. It is akin to the electric moment when one recognizes the value of compound interest or the value of the simple reinvestment of dividend income over time. The key is listening to experience and building on the wealth and opportunity that simplicity brings to our very being.

  5. Two things–son either wants or is willing to learn. His teacher is there for life, and she's the cook, if he wants to eat well. OK, that's 3. NO ONE EXPECTS the Spanish Inquisition.

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