Digital Power Tools

This past week, I spent some time cutting a hole in the wall in between our kitchen and our family room. It’s a project we’ve been talking about for a long time, and we considered lots of different ways of doing it before we actually got down to it. We were concerned about the cost, and also about the possibility that this was a weight-bearing wall and what to do about that.

In the end, we went with a relatively simple approach: just remove the drywall, plaster and lath, but leave the structural elements as they are, resulting in a hole that connects the two rooms nicely (the effect we were going for) without having to hire a contractor or do anything crazy. What you see above is the half-finished state of the project.

It’s amazing what you can do with some basic tools — in this case, a saw-zall (aka reciprocating saw) a circular saw, and a hammer.  I’m by no means a professional contractor, but I’ve got some tools and have done enough DIY projects to feel comfortable with the basics.  Most of the time, I make a bunch of mistakes the first time through doing something, and do it a little bit better the next time through.  (in this case this is illustrated clearly — I cut the jagged hole on the left on day one, and the nice, square hole on the right on day two).  But the point is, it feels great to be able to manipulate your environment using tools.  To make.  To build.

Where I’m going with this is that it’s the exact same thing in the digital world.  Every time I fire up a Terminal and execute some linux commands, I get the same feeling I get when I break out the circular saw.  I’m not a professionally trained programmer either, but I’ve picked up a bit of it over the years, almost entirely through reading books, reading online, and building stuff.  Being able to actually get your hands dirty and manipulate the digital world is a really great feeling, and it feels as fundamental to me as using IRL power tools to do a household project.

For instance, here’s the python script that powers the “latest activity” section of the civiccommons.org homepage:

You can argue that the era of the DIY handyman is winding down —  cars are too complex to really maintain on your own, etc.  But I’ll put forward that the era of the digital handyman is in full force and growing.  Thanks to the existence of open source tools and the “view-source” nature of the web, it’s easy to peek under the hood, figure out what’s going on, and tinker to your heart’s delight.  Of course, you can get yourself into all kinds of trouble doing this — the same way you can when you start cutting holes in walls — but that’s OK as you know when it’s time to call the electrician!

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