This morning I was reminded of Marc Maron and JB Smoove’s wacky conversation about fiddling, on Maron’s WTF podcast.
I was outside early, like 5:00 a.m. I take short walks around the house at that time, lighting the way with a small flashlight, careful to stay on the sidewalk to keep my feet dry. It’s a simple, low-level thrill to stand outside in total darkness and look up at the sky. The flashlight probably makes me look sneaky. A neighbor looking out the window might mistake me for a prowler. But at that hour their houses are dark. I have the night all to myself. If need be, and if there’s a partial moon or less, or better yet no moon in the sky, I go to the edge of the driveway and pee in the bushes, feeling like a natural man.
This particular morning I was outside because, back inside the house, having my first cup of coffee, I’d heard the swishing sound of our sprinkling system going on. I don’t trust the system. It’s irrational not to, I know. I programmed it, I’ve tested it in broad daylight. It works. At 5:00 a.m. it starts on the front yard and works its way around the house, ten minutes on each station, three days a week. But out there, under the cover of darkness, I picture busted sprinkler heads and water squirting straight in the air, or heads designed to rotate that are stuck gushing water in one direction, an appalling waste of water, an irritating waste of money.
I went outside to investigate, sweeping across the front yard with my little light. All systems go. Next I entered the garage under the cover of darkness, lighting my way to the system control panel, opened the box and saw: station 6, two minutes of water remaining.
As always, I noticed the wi-fi icon, next to it LNK READY. An invitation to modern-modem man. I should fiddle with this thing, I thought to myself.
Fiddling, according to Maron and Smoove, is an artless, dicey, often doomed investigation that involves taking something apart. “You gotta separate fiddling around with it from fixing it,” Smoove notes. To which Maron adds, “If you’re not a professional fiddler, you’re going to have a mess, and you’ll have to have a fiddler put it back together.”
I wanted to fiddle with the irrigation system because I might want to control it with my phone. For that to happen, the control panel needs to shake hands with the wireless signal in our house, which will enable a second digital handshake, between the control panel with an app on my phone.
LNK READY. There it was. But was I ready?
Behind the knobs and display, I got to the guts of the system. Lots of wires. I do not love wires. Only a fool fiddles with electricity. I found red, green, yellow, orange, tan, and black wires. In the system’s little door, this invitation: “REMOTE accessory.”
All I needed was the Rain-Bird LNK2WIFI WiFi Module – 2nd Generation LNK WiFi – Compatible with All WiFi Controllers Including ESP-ME3, ESP-TM2, ESP-Me WiFi.
Sounded like fun. Fiddle-worthy? How hard could it be?
I have some experience with this stuff. I was an early adopter teaching writing with computers at the college. This was before Windows. At the time there was the pre-Mac Apple world of computing and there was the DOS world. Pre-Mac Apple got an early lock on the education market. In the division in which I taught, we had two Apple computers—for 36 full-time instructors and twice as many part-time.
In schools back then–this would have been the early 80’s–you would see one computer, usually an Apple, in the back of a classroom. It was a sign of progress and innovation, I think, enabling schools to boast: we’re thinking about the future: we have a computer in every classroom. The problem was what to do with it. Kids, more often kids than teachers, fiddled with the machines, figuring out how to have fun. It took decades for pedagogy to catch up with tech.
The operating systems of these early computers were primitive and code-dense. You had to tell the thing what to do. This was the pre-mouse period of pre-pull-down menu programs. Point and click had not been invented. You told a computer what to do with keystrokes. I wrote a doctoral dissertation on one of the college’s Apple 2GS computers. For every formatting decision I made—italic, bold, underline, bullets, enumerated list, indent, block, left or center justify—there was code you entered into the page, which, if you did it right, the system did not show when you printed your document on the slow, very noisy dot-matrix printer. (It took three hours and two print cartridges to print my dissertation.)
The wizards at the college, and the other early adopters, most of whom were in the business department, went DOS. I taught in one of their labs (there were three total at the time) full of inexpensive clones, DOS machines that my guru friend Micah knew inside out. “Let me show you something cool,” he would say. How to use DOS commands to copy files and move them from a floppy disk to the network, how to format text, how to manage files, create folders, move files between folders, how to delete files.
I fiddled around a lot, acquired enough working knowledge of DOS to be relatively competent and independent. One day fiddling around, I accidentally deleted all the programs, the operating system, and every file from the hard drive on my laptop. I’ll never forget the haunting void on the screen, a blinking DOS prompt (C:\) and nothing else there. Fiddle at your own risk.
A universe later, to control our irrigation system with my smart phone, I order the remote accessory I need on Amazon. It arrives the next day. I would rate my confidence level medium-high—I ought to be able to get this thing to work—but I’m careful opening the package and the box. You never know. I’ll fiddle with it. I’ll fiddle around for a couple days. If I can’t get it to work, I’ll put the accessory back in its box, back in its bag, and send it back to Amazon for a full refund. Feeling good about getting my money back. Feeling the annoyance and sting of a digital defeat.
Recently the Wall Street Journal took American universities to task. “Colleges Spend Like There’s No Tomorrow.” The Journal looked at financial statements at 50 state universities nation-wide and found that spending increased on average by 32 percent from 2002 to 2022. Is 32 percent a lot? A cursory look at city, state, and federal general funds would find a similar (if not greater) increase over 20 years. Do institutions spend like there’s no tomorrow? Much of this spending occurs because there will be a tomorrow, and institutions make plans, and expenditures, to be ready for it.
For example, as an early adopter of computer tech in the classroom, I was asked to attend a conference to learn more about this new thing at the time called the Internet. The academic VP was preparing for the future.
At this point, I think I was still dialing up AOL at home. At the college we now had mice in a few glitchy networked classrooms, pull-down menus, laser printers. And Micah.
Go, the academic VP said to me, and learn what you can.
What was the Internet? How did we get it? What would we do with it when we got it? It was coming. We needed to get ready for it. So I flew to Research Triangle in North Carolina, where I was handed a 700-page tome, everything you needed to know about the Internet and were afraid to ask. Sessions were presided over by geeky tech types who provided detailed, often tortured answers to these questions in vaguely English terms. Evidently I needed to know about BPS, Bitnet, FTP, Gopher, IRC, PPP, TCP/IP, Telnet, USENET, ethernet, LAN, WAIS, HTML, http. It was overwhelming. I slept two nights in a hotel, ate six meals, drank a few beers with a few other be-nighted instructors, and came home overwhelmed and confused.
Well? the academic VP said to me back at school.
This is going to take a while, I said, this Internet thing. We would need a whole team of fiddlers. And we would have to spend some money.
The package arrives on our porch around 8:00 p.m. The Rain-Bird LNK2WIFI WiFi Module is a little thing, about the size of a pad of butter. I figure it will be best to fiddle with setup in broad daylight.
Next day, in a couple hours, I get it to work. Kind of. The controller shakes hands with our wireless signal. I download the app that shakes hands with the controller. “Congratulations!” the app tells me. “You can now access this controller from anywhere in the world.” I’ll have to learn the app, its icons, its controls, its options. When I do, theoretically, in downtown Detroit or downtown anywhere, provided my phone works, I will be able to tell our sprinkling system to wake up and sprinkle or take the day off. That’s what I want. That’s what I think I want.
The following day, with rain in the forecast, I figure I will make some digital adjustments in the system program. Please don’t sprinkler in the rain. I open the Rain Bird app, tap on it, and see an error message. The app can’t connect, I should check my internet connection, possibly the wireless signal is weak, re-boot my phone, re-boot Rain-Bird LNK2WIFI WiFi Module. Get help.
Out in the garage that morning, I sit on an overturned Home Depot bucket with my laptop on my knees, fiddling with the control panel and the interface.
I might be able to fix it, to get it right, if I buy a range extender to make sure I have robust Internet service in the garage. That will be another thing to fiddle with. How hard do I want to work? And for what? What I have learned from the Rain-Bird LNK2WIFI WiFi Module, when the app is working, is that the control panel on the wall in the garage detects rain on its own and gets along perfectly well without interfacing with me.
I pack up Rain-Bird LNK2WIFI WiFi Module and send it back to Amazon.
It’s digital defeat. And I’m okay with that. It was fun fiddling. The day I return Rain-Bird LNK2WIFI WiFi Module, a package arrives in the mail with my Vital Fitness Tracker, which will count steps and calories burned, distance walked; monitor sleep, heart rate, and blood pressure. I download the app. I take a long walk (15454 steps!). I go to bed eager to see sleep data. The next morning this message appears on the app. “No sleep data. Did you wear the device to bed?”
Yes, I did. So, I guess I’ll have to fiddle with it.