The HyperHandyman's Holisticism

"No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse. Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved." (Matthew 9: 16, 17)

This is a bit of a philosophical wander, but it might just prove to be a magic wand, eh? (sorry)

One of the most powerful fix-it techniques I have discovered is what I sometimes refer to as the "holistic repair" method, and sometimes the "give it a wipe with a greasy rag" way of making things work. When something doesn't work and I can't find out why, I try to put it back as near to its "as-built" state as I can. This works on a variety of technologies, from cars to computers, from clocks to water closets. It might seem to be obvious and simplistic, but since the device (presumably) worked when new, it is really very successful. Let me give a couple of examples to see where it has worked, and a couple of examples of where other methods did not work.

I used to repair computer equipment to component level, often without time to study the design of it in depth. Very complex electronic circuits can do the weirdest things when something somewhere is not making contact properly. Rather than spend hours working out which connection was faulty, I found it was usually much quicker to clean them all - putting the device back to its "as new" state. Keeping early print heads and guide rails cleaned and oiled (remember the greasy rag?) was also very effective. The up-to-date equivalent of this, now that many of the critical connections are safely locked away inside a few big integrated circuits, turns out to be rebooting a computer. The faulty connections are now logical ones inside the software. Restarting the program or rebooting the computer (restarting the operating system program) puts all the variables back to their factory default settings.

Cleaning a failing mechanical clock will often make it work. Simple, but effective. To a clock, dirty cog wheels and bearings represent a tremendous mechanical load that they were not designed to work with. And as for checking fuses in electrical equipment, well, it's something we always do, don't we? The clever ones are those who do it before dismantling the machine...

For examples of where not using the holistic approach failed, consider a problem I had with a car. Misfiring. Loss of power, reluctant to start. I thought hard and tested a few things and diagnosed a faulty high tension lead. (That's jargon for a wire that goes to a spark plug). I got a spare lead and proceeded to replace each of the four leads in turn to find out which one was faulty. The situation never got better. In fact it sometimes got worse. Argh! The holistic approach was to replace the set, which I did in that case only after realising that the leads were carbon cored and cracking inside more and more as I was moving them around to test them.

A common area for failure which can be avoided using the holistic approach is building repairs. Take, for instance, re-pointing old brickwork. Using the best, strongest cement just because it is the best is usually the worst thing to do. It helps to traps water in very porous bricks, but more dangerously, in time it can apply great pressure to the outer edges of the bricks and cause spalling (the breaking off of the outer face of bricks), or bowing of the walls. The holistic approach is to repair with near original materials, which after all, probably lasted at least a generation.

This concept of repairing older things with older materials is well known from ancient times, hence the quotation I started with.

Consider repairing broken wooden furniture. Wooden joints break or come apart for several reasons; too much strain, glue failure and shrinkage of the timber. My preferred approach where possible is to dismantle the joint. For glue failure, clean off old glue and reassemble with fresh glue. For wood shrinkage, reassemble with appropriate packing - softwood in a softwood timber, hardwood in a hardwood timber. Note that any parts added or renewed should be made from material that correlates with the age of the original if at all possible. Classic designs in furniture or buildings have generally evolved and been refined to make the best use of materials available. A dovetail joint, for example, is a stress distributing connection. A modern nail is not. Similarly older wooden products were made from seasoned (dried) timber. Dried timber is more likely to split when nailed. Old techniques for old wood, new for new.

This leads on to the trickiest repair question from a philosophical standpoint - is it worth repairing? Has the object suffered from too much strain. Was it badly designed? If so a redesign and build is called for. Or recycle it. Was it misused? If so, then it is probably worth trying to fix it. Has it been broken and repaired before? If the repair didn't work, undo the bad repair, then repair it again. Repatching patches is seldom worthwhile.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that the ultimate holistic repair is to recycle everything and start again. "And I saw a new heaven and a new earth..." Revelation 1: 1