When I was a child, I had a small screwdriver. I used it to undo every screw that I saw. One day, my grandmother gave me an old alarm clock, a mechanical one, the type that you needed to wind up every day. It had three little screws in the back, so I took it apart. Within minutes, the alarm clock had turned into an empty case, two hands, a round piece of glass and a pile of beautiful shiny brass sprockets. I loved those sprockets. They looked like new, no scratches, shiny, mysterious. I played with the sprockets for a while, using them as spinners.
By taking the clock apart, I had learned what’s inside an alarm clock. I had not learned how an alarm clock works, although from the parts I had a rough idea. So after a couple of weeks, I took my parent’s alarm clock and took the screws at the back out. But rather than taking out more screws, which would make the mechanism of the clock fall apart, I watched the sprockets while they were still turning and ticking. It didn’t take me long to see how it worked: a spring pushes a sprocket very slowly, the sprocket pushes another sprocket a bit faster, and so on, to the 6th sprocket that pushes a lever that makes a tiny flywheel go back and forth. The flywheel has a little spring that pushes it back after a full turn. The flywheel is there to prevent the main spring from unwinding in a few seconds: as it takes the flywheel half a second to make a turn, the sprocket that pushes the lever can only move one position in half a second. Which makes one hand make one turn every hour, and the other hand one turn every twelve hours.
My mom was angry when she found out: I now knew how an alarm clock worked, but I couldn’t yet put it back together. It took me two more alarm clocks before I managed to make it work again. The next morning, my dad arrived in the office an hour late.
I learned three things. From the first clock, I learned how to take a clock apart and I learned what parts it consists of. This I call “observation”. From the next clock, I learned how it works. This is “creating a mental model”. The mental model allowed me to see the clock working with my mind’s eye. From the fourth clock I learned how to put a clock back together. I call that “reconstruction”.
In his seminal book “The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, Robert Pirsig explains how a motorcycle can only work well if the mechanic working on it loves their work. The mechanic can only love their work if the device and its parts are well made. The alarm clocks I took apart were well made and the parts were beautiful. I sat looking at them in awe. In much the same way, I imagine, Pirsig, who was his own mechanic, would look at the shiny parts of the engine of his bike. As if they were exotic flowers or beautiful butterflies.
Five years ago, I bought a new espresso machine. Not one that’s automatic, but the real thing: you need to grind the coffee with a separate grinder, you put in the coffee manually, you turn the holder to exactly the right position and you lift a lever until the cup is half full after about ten seconds. If you do it exactly right, you get a substantial layer of crema. Makes you feel like a barista.
After about two years, I decided the machine needed maintenance. I had cleaned it regularly, but I felt it was not running as smooth as it used to. I ordered a spare parts package from a web shop, I bought a few spanners for the rather large nuts on the machine, and I started taking it apart. “It” as in the group head, the thing in the front of the machine that actually makes the espresso. Fortunately, the web shop where I bought the parts pointed me to a video that showed me in which order I should unscrew the parts. It also had an explosion drawing of the group head.
I put all parts aside as I took them off, trying not to mix them up. After this, I knew what parts the group head has and how to take the thing apart. I hadn’t yet figured out how exactly it worked. I cleaned the parts, I replaced the washers and rubbers by new ones from the package, and I replace some of the metal parts by their replacement parts. However, I found that not all replacement parts were identical to the parts in my machine. Also, for some parts there were multiple slightly different replacement parts. For one part, none of the replacements exactly matched the original. All metal parts were made of shiny brass, I loved watching them, touching them.
I managed to put the group head back together. But after I switched the machine on and had waited for it to warm up, no coffee would come out. I took everything apart again, cleaned the parts thoroughly, checked carefully which part should go where, put it back together, but stilll no coffee. It needed more thinking. No coffee coming out can have several causes: the water supply is blocked, the inlet valve is stuck, the passage to the shower (the grid in the front where the water touches the coffee) is blocked. I had checked all those, except the last part. So I took of the shower parts, I removed the sprayer, I switched on the machine. Water came out. I put the sprayer back in, still water coming out. Shower back in, still water coming out. Coffee in the holder, now coffee was coming out. It must have been dirt in the sprayer that I removed by taking it out and rinsing it.
By trial and error, I had made the machine work, but I still didn’t have a full mental model of how the thing worked. So far, I had only finished the “observation” part.
A few days later, I noticed that the machine made a good espresso, but the water outlet underneath wasn’t working. This outlet does the following: when you lift the main lever up, the machine starts producing coffee, when you put it down coffee stops coming out and the outlet valve lets out water and steam to quickly reduce the pressure. This later part didn’t work, meaning I couldn’t properly rinse and clean the machine. Oh well, as good coffee came out, I was happy.
Until last week. Coffee came out on the side, something had gone terribly wrong. As it had been another two years, I figured it was time for another revision of the machine. I ordered spare parts again, and I took the group head apart. Which was hard, because lack of proper rinsing had made coffee get stuck all over the group head, hardening it by pressure and temperature, and I had to take out the shower by force, totally destroying it in the process. I had a new one, fortunately. Now, taking the head apart for the second time, carefully observing, I started to develop a mental model of the mechanism. It didn’t take long to clean the parts up, replace some of them, and to put it back together. I looked at the springs, and I decided I had switched two of them in the previous revision, causing the water outlet to malfunction. I put everything back together and switched the machine on. No coffee, and a water gulping out of the outlet. After “observation” and “mental model”, it was now time for proper “reconstruction”.
I took the machine apart again, and assembled the parts one by one, checking if they actually worked. I put in a rod, then lifted the lever and felt the rod come up as it should. I put in a valve, put my finger on it, put down the lever, and I felt the valve open. One by one, I checked all individual parts in a “dry test”. Until there were two things left to test. One, if no coffee comes out, the sprayer may be blocked. So I went through the shower and sprayer test routine. Everything worked ok. The last thing to be tested was the outlet valve. If that opens too easily, no pressure builds up, no coffee comes out, and water gushes out of the open valve. I removed the outlet valve, put it back in, removed it again, trying to feel the pressure of the spring keeping the valve closed. I decided that this must be the issue: if the spring is too short the valve doesn’t close with sufficient pressure. I took a longer spring from my spare parts box and put it in, and presto! after warming up the machine, it made me a beautiful espresso with a full layer of crema. Finally. I made three in a row.
Now, this is not a course in espresso machine maintenance. What I’m trying to say is this.
There are two ways to learn how things work. One, you read books and manuals, you go to school, you attend classes and trainings. In your first assignment or job, you work under supervision of a seasoned espresso machine mechanic, and after a few months, they trust you with the machines by yourself.
Or, you are a hacker. Hacking means you let curiosity guide you (if you’re a cat, be carefull with curiosity). A hacker has no fear of taking a screw driver or a spanner to a device and take it apart. A hacker has no fear of just typing commands in a shell window and figure out how a computer or router works. I am the hacker type of person. I have unlimited curiosity, and I am good at creating mental models of things by just observing them and taking them apart. I have taken apart about every type of device I have ever owned. A car, a motorcycle, a bike, a computer, a laptop, a smartphone, a power supply, a hard disk, kitchen applicances, a washing machine, everything. As a child, I took out the screws of a wall outlet, making my mom’s heart skip a few beats. When I was 9 years old, I took apart an old radio, forgetting to unplug it from the outlet. Fortunately, the radio was full of dust so my fingers were extremely dry and it didn’t kill me. I took apart an old vacuum cleaner my grandma gave me, when I was ten years old. I took the motor out, mounted it on a stand, switched it on, then got scared of the speed it developed and switched it back off. Later, in college, I learned that a vacuum cleaner has serial electric motor that develops infinite speed if run without a load. It explodes if you don’t turn it off in time. Lucky me I turned it off in time.
Hacking is not learning how an espresso machine works. Hacking is about learning how to figure out things. It is a higher level of learning: it is knowing how to quickly learn by
- mental model creation
Hacking is not limited to technology and machines. It also works in an organization. If you want to learn how a company works, you can read it’s documentation and annual reports and you can interview its people. Or, you just join them and observe from the inside, create a mental model by working with them, then after you saw the many flaws in the ways they work, you go to the board and tell them how to reconstruct.
Hacking is a useful skill that children have. Every child is curious, every child takes things apart. Then, at a very young age, we teach them to stop doing that. We give it lego, so it can build something and then take it apart. We give it puzzles, that it needs to reconstruct before it can take them apart. If it takes apart a doll to see what’s inside, we get angry at the child. We un-teach children their natural curiosity. We take away their ability to teach themselves how technology works. We take away their independance. I was lucky enough to have parents and a grandma who found it amusing to see my curiosity and my drive to experiment.
Today, devices don’t have sprockets, they have a chip. They don’t have screws, they are just clicked or glued together and need to be thrown away when broken. I say, we should bring back mechanical alarm clocks, for the sake of our children. We should bring back appliances with nuts and bolts that teach our kids how to hack and fix things. We should teach kids curiosity is good, and fun.
Because it is.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig