The Koan Of Fail

When I set up to record the Thingamagoop 2 sample, there was a small problem.

It has a phono jack on top for plugging in headphones, or for connecting to an amp, mixer or digital recorder. When you plug a 1/4″ plug into it, the speaker is disconnected, which is handy when you don’t want to wake the neighbors.

When I plugged my digital recorder in, the speaker shut off as expected, but the recorder didn’t hear anything either.

Hurm.

It’s nice when everything works the first time, but you don’t necessarily learn much when that happens. There is a certain value to failure.

This is a growing theme in the maker community. And I’ve only recently come to accept it. Because I really hate to fail at the things I do.

I had a Radio Shack 150-in-1 project electronics kit as a kid, and I spent hours putting wires into little springs and making blinking lights and siren sounds. I had books on electronics and built projects from them. I knew what the individual components (resistors, capacitors, etc) did, but I had no idea how to combine them to do useful things.

Years ago, I built an analog synthesizer from a kit. The goal was to get a synth with lots of knobs and controls (I used it to make Happenstance), but I talked myself into buying it by telling myself that I would learn a lot by building it myself. I got a lot of soldering practice, but I didn’t learn too much about synthesizer design. Partly because I put it together correctly.

Don’t get me wrong – it didn’t work. I followed all of the troubleshooting steps in the instructions and all of the measurements were right. The wonderful support people at PAiA Electronics offered to troubleshoot it for me. It turned out that the one microchip in the circuit was bad. And that was the one part I didn’t really have a way to check. They replaced the chip and returned the working synthesizer to me. They even included a note saying that it was the neatest non-working assembly job they had ever seen.

If some of those measurements had been wrong – if I had put parts in the wrong place, I might have had to figured out a little more about the circuit to determine what was wrong. I might have figured out where each section of the circuit was.

The Thingamagoop circuit board is very clearly labeled. All the ground connections are clearly indicated. There are schematics on the web site, and Dr. Bleep seems happy to answer questions and dispense help via e-mail.

The Thingamagoop 2 worked fine until I plugged something into the audio jack. The audio out passes through the jack on the way to the speaker, and that connection is broken when a plug is inserted into the jack. With no plug, the signal makes it all the way to the speaker, so all the wires were connected.

Using a cut-off audio cable and a multimeter, I realized that I had connected the speaker to the output. I had connected the audio out to the wrong side of the jack.

Because I didn’t leave a lot of slack on the wires, it was a bit of a pain to desolder and reconnect the audio jack. But once I got done, everything worked perfectly.

So what did I learn? Mostly about the audio output and how this particular jack works. It’s a small thing, but when I build something that needs a switched audio jack, I’ll think about the Thingamagoop 2 and know what to get and how to use it.

But more importantly, having broken and fixed my Thingamagoop 2, I feel a sense of ownership of it than I would if I had just purchased a finished anthropomorphic synthesizer from a store.

The irony of our consumer culture is that despite the fact that we buy so much, we own so little of it. We have come to think of ownership to mean that we have paid for something, but the maker community tends to think of ownership in terms of being able to do things with stuff. If one is not able to tinker with, or repair something, despite having paid for it, then one is effectively leasing it on terms that limit its use. Make Magazine has a motto – “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.”

This reminds me of John Locke‘s view that ownership comes from the application of labor. Meaning you only own it if you’ve worked on it. And you can’t work on it if you can’t even open it.

I worked on the Thingamagoop 2 while building it. My failure to put it together correctly the first time gave me further opportunity to work on it. If I somehow manage to break it, I have the confidence to at least attempt a repair.

When designing from scratch, failure can be more instructive. Especially in creative tasks, where things going partly wrong can give you new ideas for things to try in the future. The best failures are accidental successes. Is that one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies? If not, I propose it for a future edition.

Thomas Edison supposedly said of his efforts to invent a storage battery, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. “

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