Sunday, August 06, 2006

Passion or Greed?


I have been interested in hobbies since childhood. I don't mean to imply that I've had a plethora of hobbies - although in retrospect perhaps a case could be made for that. No, I have been interested in the pastimes of others, what and why they find certain activities interesting.

As people mature into adulthood, and the responsibilities of adulthood overwhelm one's child-like interests, many adults find themselves devoid of real hobby-like pastime activities, or perhaps substitute drinking and carousing and other adult social behavior for more innocent self interests.

Yet a certain number of adults retain their child-like interests in hobby activity. Here I'm referring to hobbies such as model airplanes or trains, or kite flying, or model rocketry: activities that require a peculiarly specialized focus, and a time-dependency for the accumulation of personal skills.

Yet however numerous are the distractions in daily life that prevent one's participation in hobbies (internet, sports, TV, etc) there seems to be enough interest and active participation to keep several good hobby shops in my local community open for business. And there are numerous large national hobby shop stores whose business model is focused on internet sales, as well.

What interests me is how one can oversee the creation and popularization of completely new hobby activities. Why is this important to me? For one, active participation in a hobby-like pastime seems to be indicative of a healthy, robust society-at-large. Societies on the brink of catastrophic social upheaval - one thinks of Iraq or Lebanon - are not the kinds of healthy soil to promote interest in such activities. Societies where hobbies can thrive are those where Maslov's Hierarchy of Needs have been fulfilled. The need to play and create is hardly possible within a people struggling to just survive and eek out an existence.

Second, as hobbies become mature activities, with a seasoned and experienced core of participants, and a manufacturing base to support the demand for specialized parts and supplies, they become pre-programmed activities, made easy and automatic by the consequences of mass production efficiencies, and the application of new technologies to the maturing marketplace. The hobby activity that once required handcrafted assembly and a skill set acquired through a journeyman's apprenticeship with an experienced, seasoned modeler mentor soon becomes ready-to-play, right out of the box. The requisite assembly skills are made obsolete by the efficiencies of mass production.

Hence the need to begin new areas of hobby activity, where a high volume manufacturing base has not yet been developed, and modelers are required to creatively adapt materials and techniques from other areas of manufacturing to their newfound, fledgling area of interest.

This was where I was at in the early 1970s, having been discourage from participation in the hobby of radio controlled model airplanes, and also having gained an interest in all things lighter than air - balloons, airships, Zeppelins. I imagined the creation of an entirely new hobby: RC model hot air balloons, where dozens of brightly colored balloons would fly under calm, early morning weather in luscious, grassy parks and fields.

Little did I know until recently that this hobby has developed into a mature and organized activity in Great Britain and Europe, especially in Germany. And I firmly believe that it speaks volumes about why such a hobby did not form in the United States, where much of modern hot air ballooning was developed. Americans, on the whole, are not interested in hobbies, especially new ones that require careful planning and hand crafted creation of complex flying systems out of nothing at all. We have been programmed as consumers, ever-dependant upon a sophisticated manufacturing base, to supply all of our demands with the least amount of effort as possible. We are no longer a culture of free, self-sufficient and independent people. This fact, I find, is borne out in the nature of the pastime activities that we engage in.

Yet I am constantly amazed at the existence of those quiet, hard-to-find hobbyists, engaged in arcane and diverse interests, little supported by a mature manufacturing base. I am referring specifically to model airships. Only in the recent last few years has there arisen a handful of manufacturers of micro-sized, indoor RC equipment and propulsion systems light enough in weight to facilitate control of indoor blimps and airships. And the internet has opened up the possibility that groups of people from diverse geographical areas can communicate and share their experiences and ideas. I find myself now communicating with a group of people I have never personally met, sharing images and ideas for model airships.

Yet my enthusiasm for model airships has been dampened by the realization that many of those who join internet discussion forums over the topic of RC blimps do so, not out of a core belief in the efficacy of such an activity as an outlet for creative energy - a true hobby - but rather are predominately interested in RC blimps for their commercial possibilities. These people who fill up the discussion forums are mere business rivals of one another, intent on seeking out the latest tidbit of technical information that might make their RC blimp operation competitive. Many others are fledgling commercial operators, naively intent on being mentored into a successful business venture by their direct competitors. These are people who have not succeeded in separating the intentions and motivations of the hobbyist from that of the ‘wannabe’ capitalist.

I find, therefore, that my interest in pursuing the RC rigid airship as a hobby activity is a solo venture. Those true hobbyists, not motivated by greed, are discouraged from pursuing the model rigid airship out of a misunderstanding of the technical requirements, assuming that such a flying model would necessitate an unduly large size, due to misassumptions about the weights and lifts involved.

To be sure, such a hobby is a true technical challenge. Keeping the airframe of such a model light enough so as to lift a propulsion and guidance system, small enough to be practically transported and stored, and strong enough to withstand the forces of handling and flying is no small feat. It involves the same kind of structured, systematic approach that an engineer would use in the development of any other real-world technical program.

And perhaps therein lies the crux of the problem: the layman hobbyist in America lacks the technical thinking skills of the layman engineer. We've forgotten how to think for ourselves, how to work out problems for ourselves. We don't believe that such a thing is possible unless we see it for sale on the shelves of some big-box retailer. We don't really believe any new thing is possible. Our confidence in self-discovery is nonexistent.

In the meantime, my model rigid airship project slowly moves toward completion. More and more notebooks become filled with notes and technical sketches. And this is as it should be. All is well.~

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~Joe

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