Restoring the Original Black Box: Our Western Electric 534A Subset

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Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa invented a word, “Thomasson,” for a “useless and defunct object attached to someone’s property and aesthetically maintained.” The term is named, somewhat unfairly, after baseball player Gary Thomasson, who spent the last two seasons of his career in Japan nearly tying the league strikeout record despite being the most highly paid player in the country at the time.

When we bought our house in 1998 it contained one genuine Thomasson in a dark corner of the hallway: a phone ringer box. Somehow, over the years, the previous residents never bothered to remove the box but did feel the need to touch up the metal with a not so good black paint job.

The box in question is a Western Electric 534A ringer box. Candlestick phones in the 1920s did not have enough internal space to squeeze in a ringer so the bells were mounted in a separate box in a central location in the house. This particular ringer box was manufactured between the years 1918 and 1930 and replaced earlier wooden models. Phone expert Ralph O. Meyer speculates that the Western Electric 534 ringer box may be where we get the term “black box” from (flight recorders are bright orange, not black). Ringer boxes and the phones that went with them were also one of the first consumer electronic devices.

There’s a handsome variation on this box. Add a dial, transmitter and receiver to the 534A and you’ve got a wall or “hotel” phone:

Image: Kenton's Antiques.

Image: Kenton’s Antiques.

Ever since we moved in to our house, I’ve wanted to “un-Thomasson” our Western Electric 534A and make the bells ring again. In an earlier attempt at repair I, unfortunately, lost a few of the parts. But thankfully, after some library and internet research I figured out what was missing and got the box ringing again. For the one or two phone geeks in our audience, I replaced the missing capacitor with a new 1uF mylar/film capacitor in series. The capacitor prevents the phone line from going off-hook while allowing the ring signal to go through. I also had to replace a spring and adjust the spacing between the bells. Since these boxes were owned by the phone company, solidly built and meant to be fixed (unlike the cheap crap we buy these days) all of the adjustments to the ringer were relatively easy to make.

For your listening pleasure I posted a video of the interior of our ringer box in action. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what it sounded like when the phone rang in 1920s:

And, yes, I will be making this available as a ringtone in about a week. Though, I’ll note, you probably won’t be able to fix your iPhone 96 years in the future.

Does your old house still have a ringer box?

The Degrowth Paradigm

Jim Merkel's garden, "poop palace" and power station. Photo: CBC.

Jim Merkel’s garden, “poop palace” and power station. Photo: CBC.

Now in its 50th year, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Ideas show, hosted by Paul Kennedy, tackles controversial topics thoughtfully and in-depth. On the latest episode, a rebroadcast from 2013, Ideas looks at a topic NPR wouldn’t touch with a 100-foot pole:”degrowth.”

As engineer and degrowth advocate Bob Thomson puts it,

Growth has become an element of faith. It’s so deeply ingrained into our cultural narratives. Growth is something that is seen as necessary, where in actual fact, we could probably be a lot happier with less consumption.

The show begins with an interview with Jim Merkel, author of Radical Simplicity, Small Footprints on a Finite Earth and concludes with a visit to the radical degrowth activists of Catalan, Spain.

To those of you who haven’t jumped on the podcast bandwagon yet, I’d suggest Ideas as a start.

The episode I’m talking about, “The Degrowth Paradigm,” can be found here.

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Science, Blogging and Peaches

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Allow me the privilege of taking myself to task. Last week I proudly proclaimed that I had solved the squirrel problem once and for all by covering our peach tree in bird netting. A week later I’m not so sure of my pronouncement.

The simple problem is that there’s no scientific control in my little backyard study. On Friday, Kelly and I took the netting off the tree and picked most of the peaches. Guess what? The peaches we left on the tree are still there. At least for now, the neighborhood squirrels are eating something else.

Now let me dream for a moment. Imagine if Elon Musk would stop his silly attempt to put people on Mars and would, instead, fund research into more down to earth subject matter: how best to grow tomatoes in a backyard? Does tap water kill sourdough culture? Does hugelkultur work? These are, of course, the sorts of subjects our underfunded Extension Services could look at if they had more resources. Right now they have to concentrate on commercial agriculture with backyard horticulture taking a distant second.

Until Musk has that low-tech road to Damascus experience, we may have to crowd-source some answers ourselves. While still anecdotal, I really appreciate your comments on my posts. It may not be scientific but it’s a start. And, of course, it’s always good to remember that great Socratic lesson: that we don’t know and may never know the answer to a question especially when it involves something as complex as life. In short, we may never outsmart the squirrel.

But I think we could do a better job leveraging our experiences using the power of the internet. While I don’t have the educational background or temperament for this, let me put this idea out there: how about putting together crowd-sourced experiments and observation into backyard food production? It seems like some great apps could be developed to do this.

What do you think? What are the first questions you’d like answered?

Harry Partch: Woodworker and Composer

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Back in the 1990s, in a cramped out of the way basement deep in the bowels of San Diego State University, I got to hear a pure, mathematically perfect musical interval for the first time. The sound came from a pump organ, modified by musical heretic Harry Partch. The organ was under the care of Danlee Mitchell, who kept Partch’s idiosyncratic legacy alive after Partch died in 1974. Once you hear just intonation you can’t un-hear the compromise that is modern “equal” tempered tuning (for an in depth explanation of the difference between just and equal temperament, this documentary explains it all). Let’s just say that hearing that “perfect” perfect fifth, was one of those moments that caused me to question everything I thought I knew about music.

But Partch pushed beyond just tuning. Why do we have only 12 notes in a scale? Why not 43? Here’s Partch explaining and demonstrating his 43 tone scale:

Since you can’t go down to your local music shop and buy 43 tone musical instruments, Partch had to get crafty. He described himself as “a philosophic music-man seduced into carpentry.” And, over the years, he built many beautiful musical instruments:

The Quadrangularis Reversum.

The Quadrangularis Reversum.

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Gourd Tree and Gongs

Partch was a master of up-cycling, making use of military and industrial surplus. Below, his “cloud chamber bowls” made from the tops and bottoms of 12-gallon Pyrex carboys found in a UC Berkeley radiation lab.

Cloud chamber bowls.

Cloud chamber bowls.

Here’s Partch talking about the cloud chamber bowls and playing them:

You can see all of Partch’s instruments here.

Partch’s music can be jarring at first. Then it grows on you. I think my favorite Partch composition is Daphne of the Dunes. It sounds like an artifact of an ancient culture that never (but should have) existed:

Partch pushed the cultural envelope so far that he’s often labeled (I think, disrespectfully) as an “outsider”. We should instead see him, both as carpenter and composer, as a visionary.

So to the person who suggested we do a music post, this one’s for you!

Root Simple Reader Survey Results

Many thanks to all of you who took the time to fill out the survey. I had to close it when we reached the maximum number of responses (100) without having to pay for a Survey Monkey subscription. And apologies for not checking to see if the survey worked on a smart phone (it didn’t). That was one of the important lessons: always optimize for phones. Hopefully this website works on your phone. If it doesn’t please let us know.

Now for the results of the survey:

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We’ve set a goal to put out three to six blog posts a week plus a podcast. I have a hard time knowing if we’re putting out too much or too little. There’s a paradoxical problem with a DIY blog. If we’re gardening or in the garage making something we’re not writing and vice versa. It’s been difficult to find the right balance. Looks like you’re all good with where we are.

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When we first began this blog ten years ago the standard advice was along the lines of, “people are distracted so make your posts short.” Lately, the common wisdom is that blog posts should be long and footnoted. We decided to split the difference, though we’ve kept posts on the short side. It looks like you agree (though the unscientific part of this poll is that the folks who want them shorter or longer may not read this blog anymore). I am going to try the occasional longer post. And sorry about the typo on the question–I need an editor!

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We began the podcast knowing that many of you would not listen to it. I’m fine with this. There are several blogs that I love and read that have podcasts that I never listen to. That said, many more people listen to our podcast than show up for book tour appearances. We’ve been averaging around 1,200 downloads per week, though it’s hard to tell how many people listen all the way through.

But the real reason we do the podcast is that it’s a way to have a conversation with and listen to other people in the movement. Writing can get lonely and solipsistic. It’s easy to lose perspective. The conversations we have on the podcast change the written content on the blog in a positive way. Unfortunately, the podcast takes a lot of time. We have to book guests, conduct the interview and spend, on average, four to five hours editing. It looks like we could step back to one podcast every other week instead of every week. That will give us more time for the blog.

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It would be a lot easier for the Root Simple PR department if we just stuck to one topic like, say, chicken health or DIY lotion making. That’s what bloggers are “supposed” to do. But this blog began as a way to celebrate those of us who are “Jack (or Jill) of all trades and master of none.” It looks like you agree. But we do need to do more gardening posts and spend more time building things.

In the “other” category many of you left very kind comments as well as great suggestions (I’ve never once blogged about DIY music in spite of the fact that I have a degree in music).

Again, thank you for your help and support over the past ten years. The eclectic topics we cover attract really nice people who want to make the world a better place. We are fortunate to have you as readers and listeners.