Friday, April 07, 2006

The brute malice of things

Some people are born engineers, and I am not. I’m too convinced that insensate objects have intentions - not rationally convinced, obviously, that would be ridiculous, but somewhere in that deeper area of knowing that we share with hedgehogs and frogs, I know that things do things on purpose.
This became irrefutable - my primitive conviction, not the conscious agency of objects - when this morning I shut a high vertical hinged cupboard door on my own head, and didn’t attack it. Not attacking it was the crucial bit of the proof. Reflecting afterwards, I realised that that cupboard door had been left unpunished not because flailing out with my fists above my head would have been ineffective and perhaps dangerous, but because I accepted that the blow to my head was not the cupboard door’s fault. Whereas when the corner of the hood of the extractor fan strikes me woundlingly on the temple I don’t behave like a wishy washy liberal, I clout it back; a ringing blow to its smug white enamel top; or rather I used to until I realised that the reason the light over the hob failed every three weeks (the time it takes me to forget the exact location of the extractor hood) is that the lamp filament was shattered by every punitive percussion.
J kindly shares my views on the bad behaviour of inanimate things. Once when I was going to bed my jersey was being particularly recalcitrant, you know the way they do, somehow tangling it’s sleeve round my neck and then knotting it. When I’d finally extracted myself from this gratuitous bit of knitwear judo, I flung the garment down on the chair with enough force to remind it to behave better in the morning. J had come in from the bathroom during the tussle and was leaning against the doorframe, apparently trying to suppress a coughing fit. When she was better she said, in a tone of mild shock, “My goodness, was your jersey being unruly?”
Nobody likes being struck or curtailed in their movements, but I also have a particular hatred of metallic or other loud objects which fall off shelves and clatter in a clangorous way. They seem to me impudent and insulting and so I swear at them, face to face, obscenely and personally, and kick them if they are within kicking distance.
Given all this it is unsurprising that I am not much of an engineer. And it is one of the qualities my son M has inherited, it seems. Other not-born-engineers will recognise the predicament. You decide to fix something because it can’t be that difficult. At some point, much further along a much longer timeline than you thought possible, the thing you are fixing arbitrarily self destructs in a way that is going to be difficult and embarrassing to explain to the expert you are going to have to take it to to get it sorted out. So you take desperate measures - usually involving a lump hammer, a rusty chisel and an old bit of scaffolding.
This, minus the scaffolding, is what my son had done. The seat pin on his bike was jammed in. To cut a long story short, hours and a lump hammer and chisel later, he had succeeded in mangling it and then getting it stuck as far down the seat tube as it would fall, resting on the bottom bracket (the technicalities of this are irrelevant, just recall one of your ten most embarrassing moments). This meant that the new seat post sat on top of the old one - manageable, but not ideal adjustment wise.
If I wake up at three in the morning, and I often do, my brain is ready for mathematical problem solving. As I failed GCSE maths the first time (five good GCSEs, that’s a joke), this is very perverse of my brain (I once almost had to get out of bed at four thirty to look up Euclid’s proof that there are an infinite number of prime numbers). But sometimes I can persuade it to solve non-mathematical problems, and in the small hours of that morning I realised that if I rammed a tapered broom stick down the seat tube and jammed it in the offending seat pin (a hollow cylinder) I might be able to get it out.
I explained my plan at breakfast. There was a general air of scepticism, rather indelicate; urban mythic trips to A&E to have intrusive objects removed were alluded to. I remained calm.
Unfortunately there was no broomstick of the right size lying about but - maybe I am usually too impatient, and the solution to an engineering problem cannot be forced but depends on a convergence of the right agents in the fulness of time, and here there was the common miracle. The previous weekend M had cut some small branches off a eucalyptus tree, and, like love at first sight, my eye lit on one that I knew, suitable tapered with a kitchen knife, would fit increasingly snugly within the seat post’s circumference the harder I shoved it down.
The brusque insertion and delicate extraction had to be repeated many times before I got the exact technique, but the whole thing only took about an hour and a half. It’s true that in the end I had to resort to a monkey wrench and some serious torque. But no damage was done to any components. The new post slid in all the way, should that ever be required on truly desperate descents. And if by the end of it the bike felt as warm a glow towards me as I felt towards it, then another affectionate link between man and metal has been forged.


Pedro Terán said...

I've pretty much enjoyed this one!

Jago said...

Hi Pedro, glad you're still around. I have a printout of Visión idealista de la ciencia here which I am going to settle down to read. Aah, but I've just seen there's more stuff on your blog. Excellent.