Let’s Pedal Together in this New Year

“The end of history is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” – Mark Fisher

The older I get the less I tend to observe any New Years rituals. The boundaries between years seem more about human concerns than any effect of the sun’s course in the heavens. As proof I offer 2021, which kicked off with some crazy 2020 vibes. I’ll defer the hot takes on yesterday to people smarter than myself. Let’s just say I spent way too much time doomscrolling (coupscrolling?) over the past 24 hours.

When I finally went downstairs to the woodshop around 3 pm yesterday and turned on my makeshift mp3 player, the random shuffle served up weirdo Morrissey’s song “Spent the day in bed” which has the chorus, “Stop watching the news, because the news contrives to frighten you.” As if yesterday wasn’t frightening enough, we got news this morning that a close relative has tested positive for COVID.

In the past week my great desire was to get back to my urban homesteading/appropriate technology lane. A journalist called me on Tuesday to interview me for an article on urban homesteading in a pandemic. She asked me what I thought of as the most important activity in the homesteading tool basket. I said that it’s not growing vegetables or canning things it’s getting to know your neighbors and forming communities of mutual support.

I am very thankful that our neighbor Jennie, several years ago, started a monthly neighborhood happy hour. When we can all safely gather together again I strongly suggest you consider starting a regular neighborhood gathering as well. Drop an invite in your neighbor’s mailboxes and throw a potluck. Not everyone will come but, hopefully, enough will to form a network. Focus on just having a good time. Don’t worry about organizing something formal. Just hang out and have fun. If you live in an apartment get everyone in the building together. If you don’t feel like hosting all the time have the gathering rotate.

Post-pandemic we transitioned our happy hour to a once every other week Zoom meeting and an email and text thread. On the email thread a neighbor a block over said that it really means a lot to him to know that he has neighbors who care and support each other. I completely agree. We’re not just neighbors, we’re friends and I take great comfort when I go asleep at night knowing that I’m surrounded by people who know and care about each other.

Post pandemic we aren’t going to return to the old normal. I’m hoping that the new normal will be that we wake up from the nightmare of separation and work together. That work begins over cocktails and food by simply enjoying each other’s company.

In the meantime let’s all stay safe. The next few months will likely be challenging.

Busting Open an iPod Touch

Cracked screen next to new screen. Yes, this iPod is loaded with Art Bell episodes because I’m crazy.

I now know what the inside of an Apple iPod Touch 5th Generation looks like and I can’t get it out of my mind. Consider the feeling a mixture of demystification and empowerment, the sense that it’s within our power to take control of these tools that too often control us.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon repairing Kelly’s iPod Touch that’s been banging about a junk drawer for years since she broke the screen. I’ve found old Apple iPods and iPhones useful as mp3 players. In my shop there’s a iPhone 3 a neighbor gave me that, while it no longer functions as a phone, still works perfectly well as a jukebox and clock. While I have plans to use the iPod Touch as another mp3 player I was, frankly, more interested in just seeing how it works, what the inside looks like and gauging how practical it is to repair these devices.

I went to the iFixit website, reviewed the lengthy instructions, and bought their and tool kit and iPod screen replacement. While I like iFixit and have used the site in the past, I found their instructions for this particular device inadequate. The instructions showed how to take the iPod apart but not how to install the new screen. The instructions said to simply “reverse the steps” but it’s not as simple as that. In addition they suggested the unnecessary step of removing the battery. Thankfully, I found a detailed YouTube video from iCracked, a phone repair company which, as far as I can tell, doesn’t exist anymore.

I lost track of time doing the repair. It took hours of intense concentration and was one of the most tedious things I’ve ever done. While I had plans to document the repair, there was no way I could break my concentration to stop and take pictures. A lighted magnifier I found in the street was a necessarily tool as some of the parts bordered on microscopic. As usual with modern electronics, the hardest part is opening and closing the case. These devices just aren’t made for easy repair. Lately, Apple even made DIY or third party iPhone 12 repair impossible. Try to replace the logic board or battery on an iPhone 12 yourself and it won’t work unless you take it in to Apple.

To test the iPod I took a selfie. The look of worry and exasperation is real.

Apple’s minimalist design aesthetic, while making devices that are visually appealing, gets in the way of their use and function. This iPod is so sleek and slim that it just wants to slide out of your hand and break, which is how I came to this repair, of course. The funny thing is that in order to keep the thing from getting broken you have to buy a third party case. From a design perspective (not a capitalist one, of course) it would make more sense if this device had it’s own protective case incorporated into the design, which would also allow for a more repairable and spacious interior. The slim design, presumably so you don’t have an unsightly bulge in your Prada, means that the inside of these things are a tight packed tangle of tiny connectors and microscopic screws (in four different sizes, by the way).

While my iPod repair was difficult, at least now I know what’s involved and have a better feeling for how to open and close the case. Like any other skill, electronics repair takes practice. I’m thinking that the next time I have to throw out an unrepairable electronic device, that I should take it apart first to see how it works. I have a broken iPad mini and iPhone battery replacement up next on the repair bench.

It must be a special kind of hell to work on an electronics assembly line. Snapping in the tiny connectors, tightening those microscopic screws, and inhaling adhesive fumes is no way to live or work. An NYU student, Dejian Zeng, went undercover on an iPhone assembly line a few years ago and documented his life. His task was to screw in one of those infernal microscopic screws 1,800 times during a 12 hour shift. He was not allowed to listen to music or even talk with fellow workers while his bosses constantly asked him to go faster. The rest of the day he spent in a dorm room with seven other workers. I find myself thinking more and more about William Morris’ linking of the well being of workers with the environment and aesthetics. All are interconnected, and I’m thankful I don’t have to spend my days doing nothing but tapping in tiny screws while Apple executives get rich.

But back to my iPod repair–the bottom line is that, in the case of these small Apple devices, you can fix them yourself. My suggestion is thoroughly reading directions and watching multiple YouTube device breakdown videos. There’s also not one right way to do it. The best DIY repair sources go into detail on how to open and close the devices, which is, in my opinion the hardest part. If you get stuck I’d suggest stopping and sleeping on the problem. This is how I finally got the iPod closed.

Cracking open and understanding these objects could help us all demystify their control over our lives. One of the side effects of the pandemic will be, I believe, even more addictive and invasive technology. What if we were, collectively, to figure out a way to gain control over these things? To make them tools rather than becoming tools of the tools? In the coming years we must crack, hack, split open and reprogram our tools so that they serve us.

Special thanks to friend of the blog Michael W. who offered to help me with Linux and got me thinking about spending more time making these electronic tools work for me rather than me working for them. Micheal also tipped me off to a great post from Low Tech Magazine “How and why I stopped buying new laptops.”

100 Years

This year marks the 100th birthday of our house, or at least the centenary of when the first resident moved in as I think the house was under construction in 1919. I suspect it was a kit house produced by the Pacific Ready Cut Company. There’s a nearly identical house a block down the street.

The construction of our house took place at the tail end of the last bad pandemic. Apparently, LA city officials did a much better job 100 years ago dealing with the Spanish Flu. Our house’s birthday is overshadowed by the Fyre Festival that was 2020.

To commemorate our 100 year old bungalow I thought I’d post a few pictures I took this morning without tidying up for the photos. The one above shows the room I do most of my reading and pontificating in. There’s usually an unsightly pile of books next to my throne.

We’ve populated the house with a mix of furniture I built and a few antiques in the arts and crafts style. The original inhabitants of this house would have, more likely, had furniture that looks like this:

Our old house requires constant, daily maintenance. Something is always busted, wonky or dusty. As I run about fixing stuff I think of the ancient Greek philosophical conundrum of the ship of Theseus. The story goes that a ship leaves port and, in the course of the journey, the ship’s carpenter replaces every single board. The ontological question posed: is the ship the same ship that left port?

In the case of our house it’s mostly the same ship since the previous residents, thankfully, never did any misguided remodeling (nor did they do any needed maintenance). Nevertheless, our bathroom is a Disneyesque fiction. We gutted, retiled and switched out the cheap 80s fixtures. Essentially we put the room back to the way it was in 1920. Out went the cheap and shoddy shower and in went a clawfoot tub and shower curtain. The salespeople at the plumbing supply store thought we were crazy to do this. They were wrong. It’s fine.

Egyptian Court Apartments, San Diego.

Kelly and I have been living in 1920s buildings since we met in San Diego in the early 1990s. Our first apartment was in a spectacular, if rough around the edges, bungalow court with an Egyptian theme. While the outside was styled like something out of a Boris Karloff mummy movie, the inside looked exactly like what our house looks like now.

There’s a few things I’ve learned living in 20s buildings over the past 30 years:

  • People had less junk.
  • The 20s was cottagecore before #cottagecore
  • Other than the still working phone ringer box in our hallway there were no consumer electronics. Radios stations start popping up around 1921.
  • People in the 20s, because of previous public health issues including the aforementioned flu pandemic, liked clean tiled, somewhat hospital-like kitchens and bathrooms.
  • Double hung windows with weights and cloth cords are easy to maintain and can last for a hundred years. You can make them less drafty but that’s a project I haven’t gotten around to yet.
  • Electricity, a telephone, indoor plumbing and a two car garage must have seemed futuristic in 1920.
  • There’s a distinctive, musty-dusty 1920s building smell. I want it as a cologne.

Between our church, Sunset Boulevard’s commercial buildings, the Central Library and our local movie theater (another King Tut themed building), in the before-pandemic times it was possible for me to spend a whole day in pre-WWII buildings. I have to be honest and say that I prefer pre-WII vernacular buildings to more recent architecture. And I’d say that it’s well past time to bring back the King Tut architecture thing.

Kelly and I are very lucky to own a house in this very expensive city. Many people are facing eviction and homelessness due to the pandemic that has only worsened the housing crisis in LA. This holiday seasons let’s use this crisis to do something for those who don’t have a roof over their heads.