The Magic of Tinkering

The ability to tinker with something completely changes your perspective about what’s possible. To take something apart and put it back together in different ways to see what might happen. This is a story about a curious kid in rural America tinkering and playing with the things he loved.

It started with video games. Since about 5 years old I’ve been an avid gamer. I went to Mario elementary and graduated from Final Fantasy VII High. So, even at a young age I was no stranger to digital creativity. I was enthralled.

But I didn’t have an understanding of how the game companies made what I was playing. It was a black magic box. The creative process interested me, but I didn’t know how to plug in to it.

It was one way road. An entertaining one way road, but what I yearned to do was create my own characters and my own worlds to explore. So, for a while I stayed content, exploring the digital world in my analog way.

I had been on this planet for a decade when I discovered Shining Force, a 16bit Sega Genesis title. The instruction manual had character illustrations and stories, inspiring me to create my own. I would fill notebooks full of new adventurers, warriors, and wizards. I gave them code names, weapons, armor, and spells.

Bedroom walls adorned with long rows of graph paper, mapping out new 2D levels for Sonic the Hedgehog. Paper explorations of new world maps for Zelda and Final Fantasy. Here was a kid captivated. But, there was no accessible way to join creativity to platform. A gap between what I imagined and what I experienced persisted.

This was until I was about 14 and received my first computer from my Uncle Ken. I’ll remember him as the blue eyed, bald headed uncle who would visit once a year, with a love for gin. Bombay Sapphire. We weren’t super close, but for some reason he decided to give me an old computer of his.

The computer was a decade old Pentium 486, and I’ll always be thankful. We couldn’t afford a computer, so without his gift my life may have taken a different path. His donation completely altered my outlook on the world and what was possible.

That 486 was my first portal to the Internet. Max download speed of 28kb. Screaming. Even today, high speed Internet is still somewhat difficult to get where I grew up. Never-mind the download speed, I had access to a world of knowledge.

My limitations were no longer the geography and economy of rural Missouri. The faucet was only dripping, but there was running water where before there was none.

With patience, wells ran over. I explored both the good and the bad. Chat rooms and scientific forums, academic research and essays, lock picking and porn. For better or worse, the Internet doesn’t judge. It only provides.

Not too much later, I discovered fractals. They were a big deal for me. They were one of the first examples of editable computer generated art I stumbled across. I was able to see and adjust the results in real time, both input and creative output on the same screen. They were beautiful and amazing, and best of all, I could tinker and create my own.

For those who don’t know, fractals are images created by math. They are repeating patterns created by an equation. Viewable at any desired level of zoom in or zoom out, their detail continues.

Nature made them before people did. You can see them when you’re flying at 30,000 feet and look down on to the snaking veins of river tributaries. You can see the same pattern when you stand at the side of the same river and look to the small eroded areas of the bank. You can see them in a tree. Trunk to branch, to twig, to leaf. Ever diminishing, a pattern persists, independent of size.

Young mind, meet blown.

I downloaded as many fractal generation programs as I could. Some were several megabytes in size, so I had to start downloading before I went to sleep. Upon waking, I would check my download queue for the treasure dug from the night.

These programs would let you adjust variables for shape, color, complexity, etc. By exporting or screen capturing, I could save each unique fractal as a piece of digital art. Adjusting a number here or there meant new and beautiful images. The math made the art, but I moved the math. I was a maestro.

I was tinkering and learning. I experimented and explored different settings for hours. I felt like some sort of demigod. Changing my environment, creating worlds of dizzying complexity. Worlds on par with the the structure of the universe and my own vascular system.

Fractals were the first thing I can remember that got me hooked on the magic of computers. But not because of their inherent beauty, it was because they allowed me to tinker. They allowed me to explore by trial and error.

Fractals led to pixel art in MS Paint, a robust program in skilled hands. Next was world building in Daggerfall, and theme mods for WinAmp. After that, learning to lock pick and basic phreaking from the Anarchist’s Cookbook. In retrospect, kids should maybe not have access to that. Finally, “acquiring” my first copy of Photoshop.

A weird winding path which led me to where I am today: a self taught user interface designer. Or in language for my Grandma: I make things for computers. Every day, I get to help brilliant people build new digital products. Each one unique and complex like the fractals I experimented with as a kid. And it all started with an old yellow computer with 20MB of RAM in the middle of nowhere Missouri.

There’s magic in letting kids tinker.

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