When Documentation Becomes Art

“Making an art out of your technological life is the way to solve the problem of technology.”

Robert Pirsig

I want to share this extraordinary video with you:

It shows a complete engine rebuild that took 11 months. The video’s author, Chris Herridge, says that the pictures were initially taken to aid reassembly: “Started out as just a collection of snaps as I stripped down an engine bought off ebay. (To replace my old engine, which had suffered catastrophic failure). The snaps were so that I remembered how everything went, so I could put it back together again.”

I’ve previously discussed the value of documenting your repair work in “The Way It Is And The Way It Was.” A paper and pencil may be low-tech, but a few key scribbles can save you hours of work in a fix-it project. Pictures are altogether more valuable: even in a “simple” machine the number of details can easily overwhelm your memory. Pictures are good at capturing a wider range of specifics (versus taking notes): often, it’s not apparent until the very end of a project which aspects are critical for the rebuild. Speaking of the very end, I like how the leftover parts exit with style at the conclusion of the video. Normally, this is where you get a sinking feeling in your stomach and pray to the gods in Valhalla that these remnants don’t matter!

Double assembly line - Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress, LC-USW33-055044-D)
Some things are best done at the factory…
(image: Library of Congress)

The video also shows the extraordinary amount of steps needed to build a complicated machine like an automobile engine. Watching this teardown and reconstruction, I’m reminded of the difference between the efficiency of repair labor and assembly-line labor. This project took 11 months, but I’m sure it didn’t take that long to originally build this engine at the factory from whence it came. I’ve witnessed and participated in a few classic car and motorcycle restorations: they are great learning experiences which reveal to you the stunning complexity of things we take for granted.

These lengthy rebuilds are taken on as labors of love, often with no deadlines, providing a nice contrast with the efficiency required of a professional troubleshooter. People always have the option to replace instead of repair, so fixing for hire needs to be done with surgical precision. It’s no surprise that many of the core troubleshooting strategies are designed to quickly narrow in on the problem, allowing you to focus your efforts exclusively on the part of the machine that is malfunctioning. The video makes it abundantly clear why isolation is so important: retreading the steps done at the factory, by yourself in your workshop, is very labor-intensive!

Finally, this isn’t the first time a troubleshooter has turned the documentation of a fix-it project into art. Clifford Stoll did the same thing with the notes he took while investigating anomalies in the computer systems at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Stoll’s logbook, which chronicled his cat-and-mouse game with the KGB-sponsored hacker Markus Hess, was the seed that became the bestselling book The Cuckoo’s Egg. How’s that for motivation to take good notes?!

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