For Home Repairs, Live Teachers Beat Modern Surrogates

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Ten feet above the landing, I have finally contorted myself into the proper position. I have the caulking gun, a rag, and paint thinner. There's only one problem. The caulk is coming out in globs, rather than an unbroken line. My seal's beginning to look like a modern sculpture.

Steve, my home-repair guru, should be here. But since it's his caulking gun and his ladder I'm using, it doesn't seem right to impose any further. Grimly, I continue caulking windows myself.

Downstairs, various technologies scream for my attention. I could watch one of myriad home-remodeling television shows to learn about caulking. I could fire up the computer and load the how-to software. Or I could crack open a do-it-yourself manual.

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These are modern ideas. For most of history, people have learned from each other. Babylonian law demanded that artisans pass along their skills. Later Roman and European craftsmen taught youths their trade. Today's drumbeat is far different.

No need for live teachers anymore, the technology promises. Watch this training film! Make way for Compu-tutor!

These are intriguing ideas. But are we really ready to be technology's apprentice?

The caulking is going better now. After those first two windows, I've discovered a new technique. I'm pushing the caulking gun rather than pulling it. Cleaner lines that way. Fewer globs.

For the record, the oldest tutor-substitute, the book, can't help. My Reader's Digest New Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual is mute on caulking techniques.

It would help to see someone doing this. Ever since the original ``This Old House'' TV series, millions of Americans have been doing just that. Can television teach us? Yes, the creators of these home-remodeling shows say.

Take ``Remodeling and Decorating Today.'' For seven years, it ran nationwide on cable TV. Each week the hosts of the show took viewers through a project: how to tile a floor, how to install a fiberglass shower unit.

Unfortunately, the shows were aimed at experienced do-it-yourselfers. At best, novices like me could get an idea of what a particular project entailed. Mostly that idea was: ``I can't do this.''

``I don't know that we can completely replace the wisdom and the experience of someone whose been doing it for 40 years,'' says Mark Palmer, an associate producer with Cinetel Productions, which created the show.

OK, what about software? It bridges the gap between print and video. New titles like Simply House and Home Survival Toolkit bring animation to highlight lots of text. Unfortunately, the animations in these early versions are often poor and incomplete.

Their more important advantage is the way they utilize a computer, says Stuart Gannes, publisher of Books That Work, which created Home Survival Toolkit. The software can do calculations for a project and offer users interactive databases to narrow down choices of, say, insulation. The software also allows do-it-yourselfers to visualize what their finished project might look like.

Eventually, Mr. Gannes says, such programs will help users build online networks of experts. But ``would that replace the guy in the pickup truck who came by at 3 p.m. to see how you were doing?'' he asks. ``No, life is just too complicated.''

Eventually, we may get robot helpmates, says Paul Cooper, a Northwestern University professor working with a robot that ``understands'' gears. It turns out that it may be simpler to program robots to tutor novices than to help an expert or do the work themselves, he says. In 10 years, perhaps, such a machine might help beginning employees analyze gearbox repairs.

For the moment, though, I'll stick with Steve. He's far more engaging than a computer screen and comes equipped with ladder and caulking gun.

* Send comments to CompuServe (70541,3654), Prodigy (BXGN44A), or via Internet (laurentb @delphi.com).

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