Tinkering & Puttering

Some working definitions:

Tinkering: iterative, leisurely modification to a system(s) toward a particular goal (i.e. tinkering with settings, tinkering with a draft)

Puttering: idle activity, confined generally to a particular area with no particular goal (ie. puttering around in the garden, garage, or area of knowledge)

I’ve been doing a bit of each of these lately. I’m always “working on a project” and they might or might not have a particular goal. I think this distinction, to give myself permission to not even try to accomplish anything is very useful.

Lately, a project I’ve been tinkering with is getting Linux installed on an ~2010 Macbook Air, which has been fun. There’s no stakes, just seeing if I can get it running and do anything at all with old hardware and new software. (and maybe try and optimize the battery life, since I replaced the battery around the time it stopped getting MacOS updates.) I’ve installed Nix, a new-to-me type of Linux, along with xfce for a low-resources GUI. I’d like to write a script that puts the machine in low-power mode when on batteries: lowers screen brightness, turns off bluetooth and wifi, drops you out of xfce into a shell and maybe under-clocks the processor. These are all goals but again, they ought not exert any pressure on me, I am just having fun, learning and tinkering. This approach can be applied to fiddling with options screens, which is its own subgenre of tinkering and worth much more thought than I can give it today. It also applies to my half dozen unformed hobby programming projects which I have made notes for. Worth looking at if something like ChatGPT can jumpstart a bit of that, as with kottke.org’s Q&A site or the wonderful Braggoscope index to In Our Time. I’m a begginner programmer, so copying code from ChatGPT isn’t much different than copying from tutorials or Stack Overflow.

Giving myself some time that’s even less structure, that’s devoted to puttering, is perhaps nearly as important. I did a bit of this last night when I decided not to do any dishes and ended up organizing some things on my computer, making notes in my office for a project, adding some books to my Storygraph to be read pile and starting a new book I hadn’t explicitly wanted to read until just that moment.

I’ve recently read and again been frustrated by a Cal Newport’s book, in this case: Digital minimalism. There are helpful ideas here but it’s whose chosen format (contemporary self-improvement non-fiction) is doomed to get in the way of the goal of the book. Anecdotes got in the way of reasonable advice, which amounted to thinking carefully about (and systematizing) how you use technology, and mostly social media in your daily life. Setting aside those criticisms there’s some good advice buried in it. Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing which came out in the same year, takes a more personal, narrative and ultimately appealing approach to offering similar advice.

Cat in Eakins’s Yard [via the Smithsonian] (and an artist I’ve heard of but who I don’t know nearly enough about)

Hope you enjoy this historical cat as I have and that you get out take some time to tinker and putter.