81. Treating old boilers with respect and dignity.


Rechargeable goat, at docking station.


I once worked at a large asylum type hospital which had several hundred patients. One of them became utterly convinced he had been appointed as a psychiatric registrar and dressed and behaved exactly like a junior doctor, right down to the large radio-paging bleep we used to wear in our top pockets. At the time he was accepted as just another character in the very rich tapestry of eccentric people who inhabited that place, like the man who used to put his head round the door in meetings and say, ‘they’ll get them, won’t they?’

Later on I was sad to learn he had eventually been deemed as a hazard to other service users and transferred to a secure unit. The penalty for impersonating professionals is high in some cases, though anyone can call themselves a therapist, or a professor for that matter.

At present, I’m in a similar pretend role. It’s unofficial you understand, there is no paperwork from Jobcentre Plus, but at present I’m on attachment to a gas engineer. Together we are trying to solve a puzzle. If I was Philip K Dick, I would call this story Fault Code Number Five. We are talking about carbon monoxide to dioxide ratios and looking at little graphs and readings on the multi-meter. I am nodding wisely, pretending I understand.

I’m satisfied that I’m attached to the best guy in the field. He is young, he is Rumanian, he scored top of his year at training school and he reads Balzac and Tolstoy. He is a friend of a friend, so he is reluctant to take any money, but I will find a way of paying him in the end. He seems to accept presents of cheese or wine. He was happy to accept one of my favourite screwdrivers too, on the basis that I had another exactly similar one.

Fixing a boiler is more exactly like fixing a person than either of us realised. Engineers use a mixture of inductive and hypothetico-deductive reasoning, just like doctors. First you identify the problem and the history of the problem.

Then you collect a set of routine information. That allows a good guess at the diagnosis, or possible range of diagnoses.

I noticed how he used the back of his hand to test whether a pipe was warm all down its length, much as a surgeon would check for inflamed tissue. He tells me that these flexible pipes sometimes get blocked and I think, just like blood vessels.

After that it’s a matter of getting more specific information, running tests designed to confirm or eliminate each possibility. According to the manual, fault code number 5 means a problem with the gas valve or the flame recognition device. The engineer dismissed the gas valve option with a mere quizzical look, much as I would dismiss a long shot diagnosis like Porphyria or Syphilis. Flame recognition seemed more likely, so he replaced that part. This is where experience tells. I’d have had no idea that gas valves hardly ever went wrong, whereas burner devices degrade over time.

Everything seemed good for a few days, until we suddenly felt chilly, and there it was again, fault code number 5. Luckily, this fault responds to pressing the re-set button, which is where we see a significant departure from treatment in human beings. Very few of us have a physical button for re-set, though there are electrical devices that can automatically shock the heart as and when required.

Computers used to have a tiny hole allowing you to re-set the device with a paper clip. I’ve always assumed there was a little button just inside the hole, but thinking about it maybe it’s more like Acupuncture. Possibly you can stick pins in various parts of computers to make them work better. Maybe we could stick a knitting needle into the boiler – it is metal cased but it has a soft underbelly – and give it a little twiddle.  I hesitate to suggest this to the engineer. There are safety guidelines against doing this, something to do with getting electrocuted. Besides, there is almost no evidence base for Acupuncture in machinery, just like there isn’t with people either.

I can’t help remembering that my dad used to tap the end of the cathode ray tube with a wooden spatula to get the TV going. This generated a great sense of anticipation for a favourite program, since we had to get the TV warmed up a good 15 minutes in advance. My dad never did a controlled trial of spatula tapping versus just leaving the tube to warm up by itself. He’d have been astonished that this far into the computer era we still have to turn things off and on again to get them to work, yes you Mr Sky HD+ box, if you are listening, which you probably are.

The next stage was to ring the manufacturers in Holland and take further advice. They suggested checking the earth connections and the burner gasket. Also there is software available allowing us to do a diagnostic test via the boiler’s USB port. This bit seems so much better than medicine. The manufacturer of humans provided very limited after sales service, no USB port and no guarantee whatsoever. What’s more, our original instructions are a bit tatty after falling into the Dead Sea.

We got so excited about the diagnostic software but the bubble burst when the manufacturer hinted that it’s output would simply say; fault code number 5, fault code number 5, repeatedly, like Revolution Number 9 from the White Album. (Though 5, instead of 9. Obviously.)

It’s true that Ghost in the Machine was the worst album The Police made, but I’m wondering if intermittent faults might indicate a haunting of some kind. I consider sprinkling it with Holy Water, but again, its against regulations, something to do with electricity and water not liking each other. I can’t imagine the engineer taking it well if I bring in a priest. Let’s stick to the medical model.

Which brings me to the punchline. The so-called medical model is much derided in mental health circles, as though some other model could replace it. In engineering there is no controversy about how to conceptualise the process of fixing. There is no-one advocating Alternative Engineering, Values Based Engineering, Recovery Engineering or other abandonment of reason. When your boiler catches fire no-one sends for an astrologer.

Perhaps that is because people are not machines. Except that we are.

Come to think of it, I still have that wooden spatula…