Tinkering. One of those lovely, evocative words which seems to have a whiff of quaintness about it.

In a Google+ post today, in the comment stream for this article, someone used it and made an interesting remark. Regarding the whole “messing around with computers” meme, he made the point that “our parents” tinkered around with electronics, since everything was discrete components and ICs had not really got going. Then computers themselves came to the hobbyist, and they all started tinkering around with software. And he was really asking what do us types tinker around with today…?

Which is both a good question and, for me, a very evocative point, since I am one of those “our parents” mentioned. I’m on the downhill side of 45, so when I got into electronics ICs were just beginning to come in to the mainstream. ICs were something which had 8 or 14 legs on them, contained a bunch of NPN or PNPs, and could take a bloody good scalding while you nuked them into place with your appalling soldering technique. Fancier stuff was out there, but you treated it with caution since it cost a lot… an analogue filter or (wowser!) an ADC. Esoteric. If it didn’t have a model number beginning with 74… I probably couldn’t afford it. Early CPUs of course were appearing too (Z80, 6502, and so on) but they were kinda “special” and separate – not electronics. They were to do with computers. Which of course one duly got into. Tinkering around with assembler. Tinkering around with device drivers. Tinker tinker tinker.

But today it seems harder for kids to tinker around with electronics and IT. It’s become so sophisticated and advanced that only a very few seem to get into it. They write a spreadsheet macro and call it “programming”. Which sounds elitist and snobby (“Humph! That’s not REAL programming…”) but really is born of a memory of the sheer fun and excitement of “ye good old days” tinkering with bit shifting and binary complements.

I end up wondering if this is simply a function of getting older, and happens to every generation (“Pah! Call that music… kids today!”) or true… I watch my kids grow and do ask myself how they can tinker with electronics and IT… And haven’t yet seen how. A tribute to how far and how fast the industry has come, but maybe a shame for the young ones.

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