Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Junk and I -or- From Scrounging to O.S. Design

The guy who got his people what they wanted
GiraDora foot-powered washing/drying machine
There they were in the moonlight, beckoning:  two large-size rectangular green plastic milk containers, in excellent shape.  Just about the most useful thing you can find for free after firewood.
The trash-collection night (Sunday) pickers have finally discovered our neighborhood, which can be pretty rich in useful items due to people moving in and out all the time and the old folks getting rid of things.  In fact, weeks earlier I'd scooped up two small oriental rugs, in perfect condition and just the size for inside the exterior doors.  One is even from Turkey (the other, probably Kohl's).  So, before the little pickup truck arrived on its rounds, I ambled over to do some primo recycling.
I had a similar Harrisburg Dairies square container that I had used for decades as a step stool and tool carrier (I think it's at Zach's place now), but these were stamped with New Jersey dairies' logos (imported!) and had more possibilities.  Soon there were attached end-to-end and mounted on the garage wall to hold all those plant pots that I'd tripped over before.
I do love scrounging and repurposing.  It's creative, definitely a treasure hunt, and provides the satisfaction of something homemade.  Over the years I've made a number of outdoor pieces, planters and tables, from leftover treated wood found nearby while they were still building.  To put them together, I dipped into the sizeable collection of fasteners and odd metal pieces I picked up off floors while on construction sites  in the communications biz.  I really admire the strong  furniture some craftspeople make from limbs and branches; there is a tool to make the joints easily.  Just might do that someday.
Toward the end of my eight years at the science museum, there seemed to be no money to design and build new exhibits (maintenance of the existing ones and a personnel structure heavy on overpaid chiefs using it all up), so I went into rebuilding with supplies on hand along with scrounging.  A friend knew the eccentric landlord of a three story Victorian apartment house with a chock-full basement nearby in downtown -- it looked pretty much like the Addams family's home --  so we went over and came back with a neon sign transformer, just what was needed to make a "Jacob's Ladder" exhibit.  The 1/4" clear plexiglas for the case to house it safely was picked from the store fixture trash pile at the loading dock in our building's basement.  Radio Shack had closed, so I also got enough plywood from their pile to make six bookshelves for myself at home, along with a dozen orange Formica-covered shelves to install in the basement.
Old industrial and agricultural metal parts can be remade into striking light fixtures which look and are a lot sturdier than what's sold at retail (and, yuck, made in China).  And going even further into working with existing components, people are developing "Open Design" projects like a bike-powered recycling machine to grind up and separate metal out of thrown-away electronics (see or  The principles of Open Design are usefulness, durability, low cost available parts, and above all, non complexity ("Any fool can make something more complicated, but it takes real genius to make things simple again").
More important than the well-publicized effort to provide inexpensive solar-powered laptops to the Third World (still a cool idea, though) is solving widespread problems concerning the availability and safety of water.  Two students from Los Angeles' Art Center College of Design went to a barrio of 30,000 people outside Lima, Peru to create the GiraDora, an under-$40 foot powered washing and drying machine.  People there were wasting hours a day hauling water up to hand wash clothes, which were then getting mildewy because drying was slow and space to do it limited.  The user sits atop this portable (making it possible to carry it to the water source) machine and turns the agitator with the feet to save back strain from bending over as in hand washing.  After emptying the water, the clothes are spun almost dry the same way.  What's intriguing about the GiraDora beyond its usefulness to those who are ground down by what are simple tasks in the developed world, is its easy adaptation to many other modes of life, be they onboard boats, at cabins or tiny apartments, or for RV living.  And if you are among the few already living off the grid, what a find this would be.
So go out and get your scrounge on.  Let me know what you find.


Monday, October 15, 2012

When New Gets Old

Steampunk search engine?
We made our annual trip to apple country (Adams County, PA) last weekend, specifically Hollabaugh Brothers Fruit, where you can dig into massive crates of apples that are refilled all day.  The new varieties like Honeycrisp and Nittany are too good -- I mean, just perfect.  Nothing wrong with the old ones either (except for the mass-market long-range shipping creation, the Red Delicious, which is the first but certainly not the second part of its name-- you won't find it here).
The cider makes me think a little while I'm enjoying a big cup of it and gazing out at the sturdy trees.  Still picked from ladders, still good for you just as they are without the ministrations of a multinational corporation...little round miracles.  An ancient once said you must respect the intelligence that a seed possesses.  Compared to the smart phone in your pocket, which can produce nothing, it is astonishing.

What things are best done in the old way?  What old objects and methods do you know that delight you?  A short while ago I had reason to use my 100-year-old jack plane to make a piece of pine fit.  It took three short sessions, and the paper-thin shavings piled up while the air filled with a fragrance as naturally perfect as the apple's.  I cleaned it off and put it away, on its side, not resting on the precious leading edge of the blade.  The handles are real Indian rosewood, the hardware solid brass.  It says "BAILEY" at the front, a name like many others respected back in the day and forgotten now.  There aren't many who could look at it and see that the blade is a "butcher weld" and that is why it cuts, when adjusted and sharpened correctly, better than anything made since.

We might rationally know what's best or just be emotionally attracted or attached to certain things.  We may be blinded by pride in our specialized knowledge or just by unexamined prejudices.  Feelin' ain't thinkin,' our Dr. Spock side might say; it is amusing to step outside ourselves and examine what we value and why.  A few iconoclasts still use straight or safety razors, can't abide automatic transmissions, or sport a fountain pen.  Some things have class above and beyond practicality; the mechanical watch or camera has history and shows great levels of artisanship.  They wrap function in beauty and can be repaired and used by subsequent generations, if those ideas warm something inside you.  Ansel Adams didn't need digital.

It took a long time for us to get rid of the dependable and inexpensive landline phone (because of unending spam calls), but the Asian-made instruments we've had for decades were all short-lived pieces of unrepairable junk.  You can call me over the hill, as Bob Seger sang, but the wall-mount rotary dial (OK, its pushbutton successor was good too) Western Electric model that graced most kitchens for decades was as good as telephones ever got.  Even if dropped on the floor, I never saw one in a home needing replacement or repair.  And if disaster or small children struck, you could get parts and rebuild them (I did that many times for an exhibit at the science museum that used two of them, and had no trouble restoring them fully). 

Except for the peer pressure, no one is actually stopping you from taking notes on paper with a wood pencil, holding and reading a real book, using paper maps, washing dishes with your hands, or cooking from scratch with real ingredients.  I read that LP records are being released in increasing quantities, but have never seen them for sale new.  Ironic -- you might have to order them online.  I don't miss checks or cassette tapes, but they were midpoint technologies; cash and LPs are solid old school.  And we miss our old Atari. 

I'm with you if you're thinking about slowing down to do some things the old way.  If you're driving by in a manual-shift car with crank windows, you'll warm one old but still servicable heart.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Buyer's Remorse

Can you spot the fatal flaw that made this a bad buy?
Mr. Carlin, a good buy in philosophy.
If you are living on limited resources, a bad buy hurts a lot more than one made when you're in a comfortable state.  The unfortunate fact is that the first condition probably describes your younger years when you are short on the experience and knowledge to appraise a decision wisely before making it.  I can think of two times when I really screwed the pooch in this area. 
In June of 1967 I decided that a VCU degree would be worth about what I was paying for it (not much), so I enrolled in the summer session at the University of Richmond to get a leg up on credits, knowing that paying for the full semester in the fall would strain my self-financed educational budget (i.e., 80% of income) to the limit.

Within a few weeks, I saw that what I thought I wouldn't like about UofR was looking to be all too true.  I had my motorcycle for transportation, an expense I couldn't really handle, but it was a long way from my Fan lodgings and there did not seem to be anything available in the nearby tony area.  I thereby learned that the parking situation mirrored American social structure neatly:  everyone but fraternity and upperclassmen dorm residents was relegated to a pine grove, far from any classes and a mess to navigate in bad weather.  I had a nasty accident due to wet pine needles, loose gravel and one of those big pine trees.  After repairs, I parked nearer classes in safe places and instantly got tickets galore.  And phys. ed. was a requirement (mandantory Baptist chapel had just ended, though), which was a waste of my already scarce time and money.  And I had thought the indifferent student part-timers one had to deal with during registratrion at VCU were bad -- the old biddies in the office at UofR were like the love children of Rush Limbaugh and SNL's Church Lady!

I'd decided on a philosophy major, which wasn't available at VCU at the time.  The initial class was on the English trio of Hobbes, Hume and Berkeley.  It's been decades, but I still can't see why the study of these fossils had not been relegated to the senior level of courses, where you could have avoided them by picking another specialized area you had some interest in.  Even at the time, ignorant as I was, I wondered why we weren't starting where it all started, with the Greek atomists, Thales first and foremost.  I was paying for this with my $1.15 an hour gross income, not a scholarship fund or parents, and I felt then and now that I'd made a lousy buy. 
Broke after the fall and spring 1968 semesters, I sold the cycle and returned to VCU after negotiating a payment plan.  Spending more for presumably a better product got me exactly nowhere.

Needing a car that provided both economy and carrying capacity, in the late 70s I bought a 1969 Volkswagen 1600 Type 3 Variant, known as the Squareback.  It was priced reasonably, looked like it had been pretty well cared for and not been in an accident, and more than fit the requirements.  Plus, it was dark blue, not one of those usual yeccch VW colors.  That was all I had to go on; today we have the Internet and Consumer Reports, and with little effort, can look past the surface and identify what is actually a good buy.
Those listed under "Worst Used Cars" are off the prospects list immediately.  Bullet dodged.
What I did not know (like the silent snake in the grass, that's what gets you) before it was too late was that VW's new "Einspritzung," or Bosch fuel injection system, was nothing but problematic as the cars aged (otherwise, all I replaced were a belt and a few light bulbs).  At 90,000 miles, the FI system's race was run, and it left me stranded in bad neighborhoods and rain several times.  I hauled new, valuable audio and videotape equipment that wasn't my own for my job at the public school system, so the car sitting in a desolate areas made me pretty nervous -- with no cell phone or AAA to the rescue.  That said, I did love the Squareback otherwise.  So simple, just enough room for everything, and nice looking, too.  That unreliable fuel injection system may be why you never see such an excellent old car around anymore.  Well, that and rust.

So we either learn the essential lesson that being unprepared and uninformed is going to cost us, or we don't.

I'll let Consumer Reports and CarFax guide you expertly on major vehicle purchases, and in the area of philosophy, I'd recommend either Mr. Carlin (now on YouTube) or a young fellow by the name of Michael O. Church, whose blog is more than well worth digging in to.  Look up for brilliant essays on American social structure, the three phases of the U.S. national identity, or an argument for the survivial of the spirit.  For the price of your Internet connection, that is a very good buy. 

Oh, and Smartwool socks for winter.  Great buy.