Tinkering, Hacking & Jamming

I love telling the story of my Dad and his satellite dish.

In the early 80’s, my Dad inherited a used satellite dish. In those days, a satellite dish wasn’t the size that could neatly tuck under the eaves of a house like they are today. These things were stick-in-an-Arizona-desert-and-search-for-signs-of-intelligent-life-SETI size monsters.

The deal with the dish (and why my Dad got it for free I imagine) was that it didn’t have a tuner, so whenever you wanted to find a new satellite signal, you had to manually move the dish and try to fine tune the puppy. This led to a lot of  “Got a clear picture yet?” yelling from our backyard to the house.

Well, being the resourceful guy my Dad is, he hit upon an idea. To rotate the dish, all you need to do is move the dish back and forth – forward and reverse – and it will track across the horizon.  So, he grabbed an old reversible drill and started hacking.

Fast forward a week and he had constructed a “tuner”; half of the reversible drill sat beside his LazyBoy in the basement while the other half of the drill was attached (via a 50 foot cable) to the satellite dish in the backyard. Whenever he wanted to move the dish, he simple reached down from the comfort of his chair, flipped the drill switch forward or reverse, and hit the trigger. Outside in the backyard, the dish tracked across the southern sky, moving from signal to signal.

It was a brilliant hack that worked beautifully (until the satellite companies began locking the free signals, but that’s another story).

Tinker Town

My Dad was able to build this because he tinkers. Still does. And I don’t know why I am always surprised when I notice one of his traits in myself. After all, he’s my Dad. But I tinker, too. He builds canoes our of fiberglass, I play with JavaScript libraries. He tunes a Skidoo, I tweak a WordPress theme.

I tinker with the web. Which is one of the reasons why I find myself  following the work of Mozilla more closely these days. Mozilla is like Popular Mechanics for web tinkers, and (with the launch of their Webmaker site) is spreading the joy of tinkering with the web with tools like Popcorn, X-Ray goggles, and Thimble – tools that make creating, remixing and tinkering with the web fun for adults and kids.

Tomorrow, thanks to the initiative of one of my co-workers Emma Irwin, I’ll be helping out at the first of (hopefully) many kids Hack Jams in Victoria. We’ve got a full house of 24 kids joining us at the UVic lab (thanks to Valarie Irvine at the TIE lab at UVic for getting us space), and will be spending a Saturday morning hacking and remixing the web.

If you are interested in organizing an event like this, Mozilla makes it easy with some excellent event guides. Hack away!


Satellite © Copyright Colin Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Tinkertown used under Creative Commons license


Clint Lalonde

Just a guy writing some stuff, mostly for me these days on this particular blog. For my EdTech/OpenEd stuff, check out https://edtechfactotum.com/.