Monday, April 26, 2021


People fix things often for reasons that go beyond cost.

Recently, I tried to fix a few things - succeeding in some cases, failing in others.  Repairing things isn't as simple as it seems.  You need tools, for starters, and usually spare parts.  But the main thing is, by the time something needs "repair" chances are, it may be worn out already.  And no matter how good you are at repairing, oftentimes, you do some damage to the unit when fixing it, and even if you don't, it never it quite as good as it was when new.

I wrote before about the Waddington Effect - how you can actually over-maintain things, and cause trouble by trying to "fix" something that isn't broken.  Or as Rednecks say, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it!"  There is a finite and real chance that every time you put a wrench to something, you may snap off a bolt, or cross-thread a nut when you re-attach it.  Even if you do it all right, bolts stretch when tightened, and threads wear when nuts are taken on and off again and again.   It is best to leave things alone, if possible.  In many cases, repairs just extend the life of something by a short period of time.

Unless you rebuild something from the ground up, that is.  But like with collector cars, even the rebuilt version isn't quite the same, and of course, if you ever actually use your meticulously restored car, it loses its value.  So you end up with a 4,000 lb paperweight.

The first thing I tried to fix recently was a sprinkler timer.  We don't have a sprinkler system yet, but seasonally, I put out a few sprinklers to keep the lawn green during the dry season.  We also use drip irrigation to keep specimen plants alive.  One of the timers died, and I took it apart - mostly to see how it worked.  I was hoping it was just a lime thing - clogged with lime and a little lime-away would fix it.  It was interesting how it works - it uses water pressure from the tap side to drive a hydraulic piston to open and close the valve. A small solenoid coil opens and closes a tiny orifice to allow tap-side pressure to drive the piston.  After taking it all apart and playing with it, I realized the solenoid had gone weak - it would move the piston, but not hold it in place.  So water would only dribble through the valve, which would not stay open.  Unless I could solder in a new coil, I could not fix it.  Not having a supply of cheap new parts made repair impossible.  A new timer was $29 at Home Depot, so if you factor in labor costs, it is not economical to repair such a thing.

The second item, shown above, was a small plant stand that Mark's great-grandfather, the one-armed carpenter (who lost an arm in a sawmill in Winn, Maine, nearly a century ago), made for his wife one day.  It was cobbled together from scrap wood and no doubt he would be amazed it was still around well over 70 years later.  Mark took a plant off it and it promptly collapsed, the top being three pieces glued together.  He was going to throw it away, but I thought I would take a stab at it.  I glued the top back together with Gorilla wood glue and then clamped it with some ratchet-strap clamps, carefully removing excess glue.  The next day, it was solid, but the legs were wobbly and the finish was looking tired.  So I re-stained it and gave it a coat of paste wax, and replaced the nails (!) holding the legs in place with some brass screws.  It is solid now and may last another 70 years - or, we'll see, anyway.

It was worth nothing, and simple to repair, requiring only shop supplies and no dedicated parts.  That is the problem with repair these days.  I can often find parts online for things like vacuum cleaners and small electrical appliances.  But the cost of parts often exceeds the cost of the item in question.   A part for a vacuum cleaner is $50 - is that worthwhile to buy, when the device cost only $99 at Walmart?  And since it is many years old, well, chances are, something else is going to break, so you are better off putting that $50 toward a replacement vacuum cleaner, which comes with that $50 part, plus all the other new parts.

Yes, it is sad - we live in a throwaway culture.  But then again, we always have.  Archaeologists often "dig" in trash piles of our ancestors to see how they lived.  They often find more interesting stuff in the garbage dump than in antique houses.  The latter have been made-over (by people like me, who use new parts and materials and change things slightly) and are not "authentic".  Or the old stuff like clothes and whatnot that were in the attic were ornamental things that people didn't wear on a daily basis but only on special occasions.  In the garbage dump, though, you see the stuff people actually used - and you also realize that "planned obsolescence" is something that goes back for centuries.

Simply stated, it isn't efficient to make something that will "last the ages" when it may be outmoded and outdated in a decade or so.  Not only that, the item "made for all time" weighs a ton and is costly to make.  Maybe your musket isn't a durable as all that, but in 20 years, you'll want to upgrade to a rifle anyway.  And besides, who wants to carry around some 100-lb blunderbuss that cost more than a year's wages?   Basic Engineering principals are nothing new.

My "new" used Galaxy S7 arrived - it is an "active" model that has a built-in fitness tracker.  An interesting gimmick, but what attracted me to it was that it was $80 on eBay and when I put my SIM chip in it, I had a working phone again.  My old phone went dead over time - first the camera stopped working intermittently, and then Google Chrome started crashing.  And over time, the camera stopped completely and Chrome crashed so often as to render the thing unusable.  I tried all the "fixes" online - re-partitioning the cache and whatnot.  Finally, it became a brick.

Sure, you could try to take it somewhere to "fix" it, but most places want $50 just to look at it.  For a phone worth less than $100, it isn't even worth my own time (and I wasted hours on it, too!) trying to make it right again.  Likely there was a fault in the internal memory, or the processor.  Those tiny, tiny transistors do go bad, over time.   It is just easier to move on.  Eventually, we will transition to a 5G platform, so this is a good stop-gap measure.   Smart phones are just not worth fixing, once they reach a certain age.

So, why do we play "Mr. Fix-it" if it is so pointless?  Again, learned helplessness.  If you are powerless in your daily life, you don't feel any control over your environment.  So you become depressed.  Putting "hands on" to things makes you feel like you have a modicum of control, and that you can manipulate your environment, even if it just something as dumb as fixing a broken worthless plant stand.

In this day and age, of course, there are fewer and fewer things you can fix yourself.  And part of this is by design, as manufacturers would prefer if you bought new rather than repair old.  But fixing an obsolete smart phone, as I noted, is not cost-effective. Even if the parts were free and you could solder in a new chip, the cost of even an hour of skilled labor isn't worth the value of an obsolete phone - you can just buy a working model for less.

It is like the misapprehension people have about collision insurance.  They buy a car for $10,000 and five years later, smash it up so that it needs $7,000 worth of repairs.  The book value is $5000 at that point, and the insurance company cuts you a check for that amount (minus deductible).  You can just go out and find a nearly identical car for less than the cost of repairing the old one.  Just as I went out and found a working Galaxy 7 for less than the cost of repairing my old one.

So no, it isn't always a grand conspiracy on the part of manufacturers - other than John Deere, of course - to lock you into their maintenance, service, and parts.  Deere is earning the ire of farmers who are finding out that when their fancy new tractors break, there is no one to work on them but the dealer, and no parts source other than the dealer - and that often, ill-trained dealer mechanics have no clue how to fix them.  If you do put third-party parts on the thing, it bricks like an old iPhone.

This sort of shenanigans isn't limited to farm tractors though. Deere sells lawn tractors which hype the feature of "cartridge oil changes!" For your convenience, rather than buy messy oil and filters separately and pour oil into the crankcase, you can buy a cartridge that contains oil and filter and simply snap it into place.  Of course, only John Deere sells the cartridges, unless some licensed third-party seller also has them.   It is like the Keurig of oil changes - you are locked into an ecosystem, whether you like it or not.

And apparently, some people like this.  My friends with Keurigs also have iPhones and iMacs -  they pay 2-3 times as much (sometimes ten times as much) for the same "technology" (coffee is apparently a technology now) as others pay to own more open-architecture products. Sure, they whine and complain when these things break down and are basically unfixable - and cost a lot to replace - but they seem to like the idea of always having "new" - getting a "free upgrade" to the latest-and-greatest smart phone, every three years.  And I guess if you can afford that, great.  A lot of people think they can afford that, I can't.  I used to think I could, too.

But beyond that, some of us like the idea that we can buy our coffee from anyone, even if they didn't pay a royalty to the Keurig people.  I can buy my roasted beans from some oddball guy who runs a coffee shop (but makes great coffee) without my choices limited to who is in compliance with an Intellectual Property license - and I say this as a (former) Patent Attorney.  It seems to me that so much of our "technology" today is creating Intellectual Property "moats" that prevent or stifle competition and limit choices for consumers.  Before they abandoned the printing business, HP pioneered the use of useless microchips in their printer cartridges. Their only "purpose" was to contain some copyrighted code, which was then read by the printer to insure the cartridge was "OEM" and not some third-party knockoff or worse yet, refilled.  We have technology that exists only to insure that no one can work on their own hardware.

And some folks say this is wave of the future - that in the future we will own nothing and lease everything.  You won't own a car - who could afford one?  You want to go somewhere, you call Uber auto-cabs, and in 20 minutes, a robotic car shows up at your door.  No oil to change, no tires to rotate, not even a windshield to clean or a body to wax.  Oh, brave new world!  Then again, no 40,000 dead on the roadways every year, either.  I'm not saying all of this is downside.

There are still things I can do, although every year, it seems the technology changes and my tools and knowledge becomes more obsolete. I can still sheetrock a wall - and frame it up, first.  But the plethora of new fasteners for sale is somewhat confusing.  Nails are so 30 years ago!  I went to the plumbing aisle to install a new faucet in Mr. See's studio, and was chagrined to see that compression fittings are now considered passe - everything was PEX and "Shark Bite" - the latter of which are nothing short of magic, but cost $12 apiece.  No one sweats copper anymore.  It just isn't done.  Even PVC and CPVC may have already had their day in the sun.

Maybe that is why Mark likes the pottery thing - a "technology" that hasn't really changed much in thousands of years.  You don't have to worry about clay becoming obsolete or being replaced with some proprietary format that requires a special kiln.   Well, not yet, anyway.

And yes, I will continue to tinker with things, although I am doing this less and less.  I will replace the struts on the F150 - a messy task I promised myself I would never do again after the last time.  But as a reader wrote, oftentimes people tinker with things not because they need to be tinkered with, but because people want something to do to keep their hands occupied - to stave off, perhaps, learned helplessness.

There are many things we didn't have to do, like paint the house and put in hardwood floors. On the other hand, if you wait until the house is falling down around you, it may be too late for a coat of paint. It is like hobbies - you don't have to make clay pots or do needlepoint - but it is mentally rewarding. The alternative - sitting around watching television and getting depressed - isn't all that attractive.

So yes, maybe there is a "need" to keep your hands busy, even if it is doing pointless or unnecessary things.  It is exercise - mental exercise.  You stop walking and exercising, your muscles will atrophy and your health will go downhill over time.  Maybe not right away, but eventually.

The need to tinker is present in all of us. It defines who we are.  We are a tool-making species, one of the few on the planet - and the most successful of all time.  Tinkering in the garage - or the kitchen, or the garden - isn't just wasted time, it is something we need to do.

UPDATE:  A neighbor throws away a box fan because it is dirty.  This is the second one I have overhauled.  It takes only a few minutes to remove the plastic grills, the fan blade itself, the handle and power knob, and any other plastic parts that snap on.  I scrub these with dollar store orange cleaner spray and they look like new.   I put painter's tape over the motor and clean the power cord and give it a light sanding and paint it with some leftover spray cans.  It comes out looking like new.  Handy to have when camping - it blows the bugs away.  Or on the porch this time of year when it is starting to get just a little muggy.

Sure, it is only a $18 box fan - probably easier to just buy a new one.  Then again, 20 bucks (with tax) is twenty bucks.  About an hour of my time and a can of paint I was going to throw away......not all that costly!