Sunday, November 27, 2016

A successful tinkering check

In Dungeons and Dragons, there are two ways to repair something that's broken. You can use magic (such as the Mend spell), or you can make a "tinkering check," using your own knowledge and aptitude to try and cobble something together to make it work. You roll a die, then add a number that reflects your "tinkering skill," and if the total is above a certain number, you succeed in fixing your damaged thingamajig.

Of course, this is a lot easier to do in the game than in real life. In the real world, your success or failure doesn't depend on a die roll: you have to use your ingenuity to figure out a way to fix the thingamajig, and then put some actual effort into making it work. But, by the same token, when you succeed, it's a lot more satisfying than simply rolling well on a die. You know that you've fixed this thing by your own cleverness and the sweat of your brow, and that thanks to your efforts, you won't have to spend money on a new one.

Here's an example of how my husband, the Master Tinkerer, successfully tinkered a small item today. This little device from the drugstore is used for splitting pills, so you can take a smaller dose if that's all you need. Brian calls it my "pillotine." It has two parts: a base with a V-shaped plastic next that holds the pill securely in place, and a hinged lid with a blade attached. You raise the lid, tuck the pill into the V, and bring the lid down, THWACK—and if all goes well, the pill splits neatly in half.

I used this successfully for years, but recently I started taking a magnesium supplement that's a fairly large, fairly hard pill. Splitting several of those apparently put undue stress on the pillotine. One morning when I brought the lid down, instead of the pill giving way beneath the blade, the little plastic support in the base gave way beneath the pill. Turning it over, I found that it had cracked right below the place where the pill sits, and I wouldn't be able to use the gadget again until I found some way to shore it up.

I presented this problem to Brian, and he took the pillotine down to his la-BOR-atory to work on it. At first he considered just filling in the whole space below the damaged plastic part with a wedge of wood, but he realized that if he did that, any pressure applied to the pillotine lid would probably transfer through to the base and leave gouges in whatever surface it was sitting on. So instead, he started looking for something flatter he could glue to the existing plastic base. After rummaging through his collection of objects that appear, to the untrained eye, to be random useless junk, he found a small metal bracket about the right size to tuck into the base of the pillotine. He bent this into the appropriate shape with pliers, glued it to the plastic base with epoxy, and clamped the whole mess shut while it dried.

After several hours, we removed the clamp and gave the pillotine a test run. Rather than start out with one of the extra-tough magnesium supplements, I selected a different type of supplement, with a more elongated shape, which is usually a little easier to split. I lined it up in the V, brought down the blade, and THUNK! It split satisfyingly into two nice, equal pieces. We'll still have to test it once more on the tougher pills, but for now, it looks like it's as good as new—better, in fact, since its new metal base can hold up to more punishment than the original plastic one.

Now, to some people, this might seem like a lot of unnecessary trouble to go to over a gadget that only costs six bucks to replace. And sure, I'll admit that it would have been easier just to throw it out and buy a new one. But I think even for something as small as this, repairing it yourself is worth the effort, for three reasons:

  • It's less wasteful. Why send the pillotine to languish in some landfill, and buy a whole new one made from virgin materials, just because one tiny piece of it was broken? By repairing it, we were able to salvage all the perfectly useful parts—the plastic case, the hinged lid, and the metal blade—rather than spending money and natural resources on brand-new ones.
  • It's more satisfying. There's no skill involved in throwing an old gadget in the trash and buying a new one. But repairing it by the exercise of your wits and your hands is both an interesting creative challenge while you're doing it, and an achievement you can take pride in when you're done.
  • It keeps your tinkering skills in shape. By practicing regularly on little items like this, you can keep your wits and your hands in top condition. That way, when something big breaks that actually would cost big bucks to fix, you can feel more confident about repairing it yourself, because you've had plenty of practice. Or, to put it in Dungeons and Dragons terms: the more successful tinkering checks you make on small items like this, the higher your tinkering skill becomes, and the better your chances of succeeding at repairing the castle's catapult in time to do battle with the invading army of orcs. 
Admittedly, most of us don't have to battle armies of orcs in the real world all that often. But battling the high cost of living is a challenge we all share, and the more you sharpen your skills, the better equipped you are to deal with it.
Post a Comment