Sonos to Earthlings: All Your Base Belong to Us. We’re with Trump on the environment, BTW

I’m going to have a grumpy old man rant here, but consumerism is getting evil. Any Sonos buyer renter should be made to play Life For Rent as the first confirmation their expensive new kit works, and to remind them they have a lease on it for about five years. Because despite what you may think, you don’t buy Sonos gear. You rent it for a one off purchase cost, and get an indeterminate term of usage. They get to switch your kit off at a time of their choosing.

if my life is for rent

Sonos is an egregious example of what’s been going wrong with consumerism for a while. Disguising a rental model as a capital purchase. Se also : PCP car ‘purchase’. My Dad was right, back in the day. If you can’t pay cash for your car, look for a cheaper one, it’s a wasting asset. However, Sonos is a deliberately wasting asset.

Back in the day, you got to buy your toaster, you plug the beggar in and welcome to several decades of toast. Now if you decided to get the burnt toast out with a butterknife after a particularly excessive night on the sauce like yours truly did as a student, then all bets are off.  1 Muppetry aside, you could anticipate decades of service.

Heck, you used to be able to change the element in a kettle. Audio gear tends to last a long time, once you are out of your twenties, where either you spend enough money to be able to turn the wick up without overloading the amp thereby trashing the tweeters, or your straitened living circumstances mean you turn it down. Small children and pets are a hazard to speakers, but then they are a hazard to lots of things.

The Ermine hifi has a Naim 250 that wasn’t new when I bought it, back in the early 1990s. My speakers date from then. I owned am AR SP8 preamplifier for over 30 years which was also secondhand when I bought it in 1984, but I sold it a couple of years ago because I moved to streaming my CDs from a NAS box, changing it for Naim streaming gizmo/tuner/analogue preamp.

I can see where Sonus scores – the Naim app has a foul user interface. But at least the back end uses open standards, and I have used an alternative Upnp browser. Mrs Ermine grouses about the control interface each time she tries to use it, But since she is prepared to stream crap from YouTube via bluetooth into the system which is does well, then she is happy because she can understand Youtube and it’s free. As long as I don’t have to listen to it its fine. I can’t stand listening to music in her mode, which is to play three quarters of a track and then jump to something else. But each to their own. I am sure this would be easier with Sonos.

Sonos is the antithesis of that sort of system. It is the Apple of the audio world – you plug it in and it Just Works. You pay for that with a locked in walled garden sort of system with the service life of a mayfly, not because it’s unreliable, but because of software designed to be obsolescent as they please. So you also pay for it with highly unethical business practices, which they borrowed from Apple, which is designed in planned obsolescence. Just that Sonos took it it a new level.

Two of the components of my 1980s/1990s system were secondhand. One served me for 34 years before I sold it and it’s presumably serving someone else. The other secondhand component is still in service. I had it refurbished once and repaired2 by Naim once, but for a piece of gear which has been serving me for getting on for thirty years it ain’t bad. It also had the decency not to take out my speakers when it failed, which is good in a power amplifier.

Sonos – and nothing I have is truly mine…

The Ermine doesn’t do Cloud. I loathe Cloud with a vengeance, because I have been suckered by it too many times. If it needs Cloud inherently, like a web server, that’s fine.

Sonos are taking this to a new level, however, and that’s because they have remote control of your gear in your home. I hate Cloud and Software as a Service3 and shit like that because if it needs Cloud so they can milk you again and again. No. Foul ‘ole Ron was right4. Buggrit, buggrem, spying on me with Rays.

I don’t have a mobile subscription. I don’t use Netflix, or Spotify, or any of that sort of thing. My CDs are ripped to the NAS and if I unplug the ADSL feed I can still play music. I don’t want service providers in my life unless there’s a good reason. Yes to electricity and gas and broadband. No to Alexa, Ring networked doorbells, Hive central heating controllers. And evil bastards like Sonus who use Cloud to brick your older equipment by remote control. Presumably you need a connection to them, else you could blackhole whatever Sonus gear phones home to. If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow as that fellow in the Nixon admin said. And you pay for that?

Sonos is hardware as a service. They want you to upgrade all the time. You aren’t going to be using your Sonos gear in 30 years. You’ll be lucky if you are using it in five. The piss-taking bastards say if you have an old component in your system then you can’t even upgrade newer ones. That’s just nasty. Oh sure, you can get a 30% discount if you set your old component to recycle mode, which bricks it.

Nobody recycles electronics. We send it to some Godforsaken part of the world for people to strip out the precious metals at massive cost to their health. At least if you ebay the sucker, then someone else gets to use it. My 30 year old preamplifier is still in service somewhere. WTF is wrong with Sonos? Nearly all of the challenges in audio engineering have been solved. You will need to change the head unit which gets your compressed cloud music as things change. The network bit and the distributed speakers and associated clobber presumably all run uncompressed audio. That’s not going to change for the next 30 years. Some of this Sonos crap you build into your house, for God’s sake. Do you really want to remodel your house because Sonos says so?

Sonos. Just say No

Because all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to stand aside. For that sake of your grandchildren. To stand against the needless waste. And to cut greedy bastards and shady business practices off at the knees.

I’d generalise this wider. I don’t tolerate Apple anything. Not because it doesn’t work, or doesn’t look lovely. Again, a controlled walled garden ecosystem makes for a far better user interface. It’s just that you get to pay a thousand pounds for your bloody phone or computer every five years, because the cheeky buggers orphan old equipment, just because they can. That’s when they aren’t slowing them down ‘to be easier on the elderly battery’. Here’s a radical idea, Apple – hows about making the damn battery replaceable, you know, like it’s been done for all the decades since battery-power shit was invented, until you decided to fetishise ‘thinness’ as an excuse to glue you consumer gizmos shut so not bastard can fix them. Evil bastards. And then you weep crocodile tears about how you really care about the environment and talk rubbish like this

downloaded from 23 Jan 2020, doesn’t square with my experience, in particular about updating older devices.

So WTF have you orphaned my damn Ipod Touch and glued the battery inside? Last as long as humanly possible, FFS…

And as for Sonos, the service life of audio gear should be measured in decades, not years. And nothing on earth at all should be intentionally made obsolete by remote control, you evil bunch of punks.

  1. The hot tip here is to unplug the thing first. I had assumed the switch was in the live side but it was on the neutral side despite this being a Class 1 device. Still, at least I got that slice of toast out, after the flash as the element vaporised. And we had a gas grill that you lit with a match. so we were still good for toast. And fish fingers. What on earth could go wrong, eh? 
  2. Turns out I could have fixed this myself. Symptom was it blew 10A mains fuses. I popped the lid and didn’t spot any charred components or magic smoke escaping, so I assumed the power transformer had a shorted turn, and these are a custom component I couldn’t buy. Turns out one of the discrete bridge rectifier diodes had failed short. My hasty assumption cost me a couple hundred quid, which served me right for jumping to conclusions ;) 
  3. Adobe Creative Cloud, we’re looking at you. Evil courses through Adobe’s corporate veins 
  4. Terry Pratchett, Discworld ISTR 

Maplin Electronics – if it’s under £100 and lasts a year that’s as much as you can expect

Way back in March 2012 Maplin sold me this 7″ TV from Maplin. My main application was lining up security cameras, but I also thought it would be useful for checking the weather forecast when in our campervan. As it was I didn’t realise there is no useful Teletext replacement on digital TV. A smartphone and the weather page on the BBC website is far more practical, unless you’re in parts of Scotland. And then you probably don’t get DTT service either.

Today I wanted to rig a camera looking at the massive Barn Owl box kindly provided by Suffolk Wildlife Trust at the Oak Tree farm because a barn owl is a frequent visitor, occasionally to be seen at the box and there’s loads of bird crap underneath it, and some owl pellets, or so I am told by people who know about this sort of thing. I get to see this, rather than a blue screen I’d expect with no signal

Maplin customer service is crap
One dead Maplin TV that they refuse to replace

So I take advantage of the glorious sunshine and take a wander through a couple of recs and the park, to it back to the store

And they refused to replace it or refund. It was the usual runaround, sorry sir, yes, I agree it’s a bit short for the TV to fail but company policy is yadda yadda. They suggested I contacted Maplin Customer Services, where I talked to Kirsty who repeated the story. I educated her as to the Sale of Goods and that this TV was not of suitable quality as consumer durables should last longer that a year and a bit and she more or less said “f*ck you, so sue us” I wish I had a recording, but since I used Maplin’s phone to avoid paying some usurous 0844 charge I couldn’t do that. Next time I will take one of those sucker pickup coils and a recorder.

I really try and avoid using the phone with big firms. If I have to deal with them then writing a letter is usually quicker and cheaper, plus it wastes less of my time. But if I do have to use the phone then I always record the call as a matter of policy.

This reminds me that there are added advantages to not buying consumer crap. Not only do you not spend money. You also don’t get the sort of deliberate frustration that companies like Maplin set up to reduce their costs by avoiding their legal obligation to supply goods of suitable quality.

I remember Maplin from a time when it wasn’t a purveyor of cheap Chinese crap but actually a supplier of useful components. They took a business decision somewhere in the 1990s to get out of the electronics hobbyist market and into the gadget end, and increased their prices to about one and a half times what they should be. And became a damn sight more successful 😉

Now I can’t really get too excited about the £70, but I sure as hell don’t like being taken the piss of. So I got onto MSE and looked at what I should have done and exactly how to put the letter which will be the next step. I suspect that Maplin take the Ryanair policy of customer service. They spend the money on training their staff to runaround complainants enough  that they give up, and in the end there’s only so much effort I’m going to put into this.

But it’s a little bit more than rolling over. I’ve taken MSE’s template letter, though I’m not going to threaten legal action fo a £70 TV, otherwise I think the people in Maplin’s complaints centre would be justified in having a titter.

The official Maplin policy seems to be –

If it’s under £100 and it lasts more than a year, that’s it, sunshine. It doesn’t owe you anything

Not only does this sort of shoddy approach contribute to the amount of e-waste, it’s also taking the piss. A TV is not a consumable item. Okay, 10 years is asking a bit long, but five years is a reasonable minimum service life to expect.


Why you shouldn’t break the ice on the birdbath with a hammer


It’s a bit parky round these parts, so I reloaded the spadgers’ nuts, which is more fun in the interludes between the snow rather than in the anticipated blizzards to come. I figured I’d break the ice on the birdbath, with a hammer.

The trouble is it was one of those plastic resin jobs, which is hollow inside. and despite being 2pm in the afternoon sun, the ice had frozen solid.

Damn. Any fule kno plastic gets brittle in the cold...
Damn. Any fule kno plastic gets brittle in the cold…

So I’m down one bird bath and the sparrows are SOL on water. It’s the second time I’ve knackered it de-icing it, the first time was breaking the ice with a spade a couple of years ago. It’s a curious hollow plastic construction. I fixed it the last time using Milliput, which is a sort of epoxy resin putty. The same trick could sort this break out too.

The right way to do this is with hot water from a kettle, but I was trying to avoid losing a load of heat to the latent heat of fusion of the lump of ice. I shouldn’t have been so tight, the bird bath holds probably about 5 litres, so I’d take a hit of 5 x 334 kJ or about 0.5kWh, about 10p these days. It would be several kettles’ worth of boiling water though to thaw it. Whereas now I’m down either £2 for some Milliput, or I may junk this and get a replacement.I’ve been coveting a cement/concrete one at a local hardware store for a while at £22.

The sides of this birdbath are a bit steep for the spadgers and I have to put a piece of wood in as a ramp in the breeding season to give baby birds a fighting chance of getting out. The trouble is many modern ones are resin again so I really need to learn to to stop using blunt instruments on the ice.  I could repair this with Milliput and then fill some of the bottom with concrete to make it shallower, but the £22 one starts to look like a better deal. Plus this is only as high as a cat standing on its back legs, which is poor design in a birdbath IMO.

So if you have one of these apparently solid birdbaths are are tempted to de-ice it with a blunt instrument, perhaps ahead of the Big Garden Birdwatch next weekend then learn from me

don’t do that 😉


where did we lose the basic skills of self-reliance to cope with financial austerity?

The Grauniad’s had a series called Breadline Britain about how dreadful life is for our increasingly financially challenged nation. Now I just about experienced Britain in the 1960s, as it was pulling itself out of the post-war austerity, and one of the things that strikes me about the difference between the Britain I saw as a child and that of now is that adults have become far less self-reliant. We have lost many basic skills that soften the issues of having less money, and it appears that many adults just don’t seem interested in learning. The second thing that strikes me is the appalling incompetence at household financial management. Perhaps it was easier for my parents’ generation because borrowing money was much harder in the past, so people had to live within their means or just lump it. And the last thing that is obviously wrong is people don’t seem to be asking themselves whether they can afford to have children before doing so. This lady has four children – on a family income of £44k. It isn’t hard to see why she is struggling.

People design in fixed costs into their lives without giving them enough thought. It first struck me when I reflected on a colleague who lived 25 miles away from work, where I was 6.5 miles from work. We were both higher rate taxpayers, and I calculated that he needed to earn ~£5k more than me, just to have the same disposable income. How’s that? Well, design in a 50 mile round trip instead of a 13 mile round trip. That’s an extra 37 miles he needs to drive, each and every day. That’s about £1300 a year in fuel alone. He’s putting 8100 extra miles a year on his car, with all the wear and tear that entails. I could keep my cars for 10 years and buy them well secondhand; he bought his cars new – in the service life of one of mine, he’d have put 80,000 miles on the clock, so that just wasn’t an option for him. I could bike to work when the weather was congenial. Taken in the round he was taking a hit that was probably equivalent to a salary cut of £5000 a year. And of course he was losing about an hour of his time each day.

Every time you pay someone to do something you can do yourself, you have to earn enough to be able to pay tax on the money you are paying out. If that person is employed, you have to cover the overheads, sick pay, employer’s contributions, the lot, whereas if you are doing it yourself, you do not have to earn the money and pay the tax and NI on it.

It is always much more expensive in cash terms to pay someone else to do something that you can do yourself.

Now that isn’t a reason to insource everything, because there’s the opportunity cost to the money you could be earning at the same time 😉 If you are hiring someone on minimum wage and you’re on minimum wage yourself, that is barmy – do your own cleaning. If you’re earning £50k then knock yourself out and hire the cleaner if it means you can earn £20 an hour net and paying them £6.19.

The cleaner on minimum wage is the obvious example, but there are more subtle costs. For instance, it’s more expensive to get Tesco to prepare your meals for you rather than do it yourself, which is why ready meals are more expensive than the ingredients, and if the cost is the same then the ready meal will contain ropey ingredients 😉

I was staggered at this bunch of Guardianistas who are struggling to feed two children and two adults on the meagre income of… £35,000 if you please, and they’re living with his parents! Let’s take a closer look. They were on a combined household income of £75,000. Now I have never lived in a household that had this much income – ever! I haven’t been in a household with two incomes for most of my life. The Ermine is not one of the 1%. So I ask myself how the hell these good people managed to get made bankrupt. She lost her job when they had twins. Now I appreciate that it’s not meant to happen that way but in general many mums leave the workforce for a few years after having kids, so the loss of that income was to be expected. Have they never heard of savings? Now they are complaining of not being able to afford decent food, and having to use ready meals. Mrs Ermine has examined that fallacy in this post and found it wanting – the problem there is food preparation skills, or the lack thereof, as well as a shocking lack of imagination and general get-off-your-backside-and-do-something smarts.

Now eating is one of those fundamental things that everybody needs to do. If you’re rich enough to afford ready meals, then have at it, but if you’re not, or you have the temerity to want your food to taste of something other than sugar. vegetable fats and monosodium glutamate, or maybe you are rude enough to want vitamins, then you have to re-acquaint yourself with the food prep skills that humanity has preserved across generations – until now. Sometimes I wonder if people realise that food doesn’t only come from supermarkets – it’s actually possible to grow some things yourself 😉 I particularly like the line

I’m not stupid: I know this is going to have a detrimental effect on my children’s health.

For God’s sake, woman, you’re running on £35,000 a year, and have more time, being unemployed. And yet you see fit to switch from cooking yourself to using ready meals? Where’s the rest of that £35k going, on the horses?

It is the loss of skills that will hurt people in future. In the past people grew food on allotments and in gardens, which saves a lot of money – Mrs Ermine qualifies that at about £2000 a year saved; for a basic rate taxpayer that’s equivalent to needing to earn about £3000 less every year! As an added bonus, although your veg will look gnarlier that Tesco’s, it will actually taste of something and be good for you, as well as filling you up.

Food does this – it just sprouts from the ground, despite what Tesco would have you believe, and here some citizens of Ipswich are taking advantage of that fact

There are other skills that could save people money. When I bought my first house, I had a problem with a stuck main intake stopcock under the kitchen sink. Now I could have called in a plumber, but because I had seen my Dad do plumbing, I figured I’d change this myself. I had ambitions of using a blowtorch and Yorkshire fittings but couldn’t reduce the seepage from the Water board stopcock enough to get enough heat into this, so once I got within 5cm of the inlet with some abortive attempts I sucked it up and used a compression stopcock. Job done. I replaced the guttering myself on that house – for the cost of an aluminium ladder and the materials, which was a lot cheaper than when I had that job done on this house; I was time-poor and wanted the soffit and bargeboads changed to uPVC which wasn’t within my capability. I fixed my heating system when the timer/programmer died and again when one of the motorised diverter valves died. I changed my own cold water tank, taking the opportunity to relocate the bugger to the apex of the roof to give a decent head of water to the shower, rather than run a power shower. I changed the water pump on my car, and replaced brake pads in the past. I did this because I grew up with the expectation that any halfway competent person who wasn’t rich would be able to do those – people just couldn’t afford not to.

More work, yes. More money, no – I can’t save any more money on heating 😉

Mrs Ermine asked me recently if I was going to run the wood stove in the day. I don’t generally, because the heat is preserved in the house from the evening before. I said no, because I didn’t want to spend the money. She looked at me as if I was crazy. “How’s that going to cost us more then?”. She was right – we don’t pay for heating, because we are prepared to chop up wood and pallets. I did some of that today. Heating less doesn’t save us money. But we need to chop up more wood.

In Britain we need to become more self-reliant. We need to learn how to cook decent food from ingredients that our grandmothers would recognise. We need to learn to fix some of the basics ourselves. We need to learn to go without if we haven’t got the money, rather than borrow money and have our future selves pay even more back. In the last decade or so we have outsourced a lot of these basics to outside agencies and to the welfare and benefits system, to try and buy our way out of needing to tackle the gritty basics of life. It’s time to roll up our sleeves, spit on our hands, and get to work relearning some of the basic skills our grandparents used to take for granted.

Where’d they print the instructions on this darn thing?

Knowing how to feed yourself and your children from food not sourced from supermarkets and food that doesn’t come with instructions printed on the back is a skill we seem to have lost somewhere. My mother’s opinion of supermarket veg was unprintable – she got that from Lewisham market stallholders who would get it from Covent Garden market in the early morning. Even as a student supermarket veg was tired and low-grade. Fortunately students don’t need veg 😉 The supermarkets have found how to make veg last longer by chicanery like de-oxygenated atmospheres in plastic packaging and the like, but they can’t get round the problem that the flavour of food fades with time, and most of it seems to fade in the first day or two. It’s why those stallholders got their produce from Covent Garden barrow-boys in the early morning – because they’d have got an earful from their customers if their produce tasted as poor as Tesco’s finest. But it was more faff, and somewhere between the 1970s and now we collectively decided that all the adults in a household should go to work, so we don’t have time to buy decent fruit and veg, or grow it, or cook our own food, or fix our own plumbing or any of those things that our grandparents took for granted.

We could afford the luxury of losing those skills in the last couple of decades. From the Guardian’s Breadline Britain series it looks to me that these skills are now being very sorely missed. We need to stop borrowing so much money and start living within our means. We need to think about whether we can afford to have as many children because it looks like some of the freebies there are drying up. And all in all we need to man up and start to take responsibility for the choices we make in our lives and skill up to be able to do more with less. The Guardian’s we never had it so bad is absolute bullshit. I grew up in a London of coal fires where only a single room in a house was heated in general, where most people didn’t have cars, and where people grew their own food and cooked it themselves.

Fridges had no freezer compartment – I recall the excitement when we got the first one with a two-star icebox – you could store frozen food in that but couldn’t freeze it I think. Respiratory ailments were widespread, because the damp and condensation were endless problems; I got bronchitis nearly every year until we moved to a house with central heating. That was not poverty in a Guardianista sense of the word – nearly everybody was like that. But what we did have was a broad base of basic skills, and good and reasonably stable communities. The move to paying for everything and having both adults working has atomised those communities and we have surrendered some basic skills for the blandishments of advertising. It would make the Guardianistas wring their hands in horror.

And yet there was some satisfaction and camaraderie there. People had hobbies other than watching television, and often these were creative, in quite eccentric ways. There may not be so much money about in future, but we have enormous advantages over those times, communications are far cheaper, the relative level of wealth in much higher.

The essential difference is that Britain in the 1960s, though it was far poorer than the Britain of 2012, was improving. It was better than Britain in the 1950s, and immeasurably better than the Britain that had endured its darkest hour standing alone against the Axis. The Britain of 2012 stands wanting compared to the Britain of 2006/7, and the Britain of 2015 will probably be wanting in material terms compared to today never mind 2007, for many people.

We probably can’t dodge that, but we can soften the blow by taking our lives back from the endless messages of spend spend spend. There is a certain reward in taking control of some of the variables, and pulling back from the money economy to improve our quality of life, rather than our standard of living. In a previous life, I used my meagre skills to grow tomatoes in the back garden. The crop was variable because I didn’t really know what I was doing, but for a lot of the time they were far better than Tesco’s Finest vine-ripened tomatoes-  because they had experienced th sun until the day they were eaten. Some simple pleasures can’t easily be bought, and perhaps we will find pursuing these more rewarding than chasing the admen’s plastic dreams. There’s something peculiarly short-lived about the enjoyment derived from satisfying a want that is created by marketing, because it is always a hostage to the next updated version. The stillness when the treadmill stops is a silence that is valuable in itself…



Where have the decent, middle ground consumer products gone?

In her book Cheap, the high cost of discount culture, Ellen Ruppel Shell observes the increasing polarisation of products. Globalisation is driving most of us towards the Poundland end of the market, with stuff that is cheap, absurdly cheap compared to earlier times, and a very few people who are either fanatics or have a lot of money towards the high end. As a result, the quality and reliability of a lot of products is, quite frankly, crap, though their functionality is pretty good. Nowhere is this more apparent than in electronics. Digitalisation, higher integration of components and Chinese manufacturing have all made it a lot easier to do many things in electronics, in particular adding features and functions. These are pushed relentlessly by marketing departments, and we often fall for it. The entire history of the iPhone is an example of featureitis gone mad. Just as well this makes the product cycle so short.  The vacuum tube kitchen radio my mother had in the 1960s operated from 1960 to 1976 ISTR. None of the replacements have lasted 16 years. There’s no point in making an iPhone last more than 5 years, it will be hopelessly naff by then in the eyes of consumers.

One of the advantages of taking an axe to consumerism is I get off some of this hamster wheel. The recent launch of the iPhone 5 left me as cold as the previous four launches. However, I still have the problem that stuff breaks down, and it seems that this is much more likely for newer stuff than kit I’ve had for a while. It makes me loath to replace something with a more modern replacement if it can be avoided, because capitalism seems to have hollowed out the middle ground. I either end up with cheap rubbish that fails me in my hour of need or top-end products that are often too fancy and too pricey for my requirements.

Demise of a faithful friend

This was brought home to me when my 10-year old Iriver IMP-250 mp3 cd player died. I don’t have an iPod because I don’t do portable music on the move, it’s kind of hazardous as a cyclist, and when I had my car it had a perfectly serviceable CD player 😉 However, the iRiver CD player was nice for the outdoor parties because a MP3 CD would run for several hours, and being a CD player meant we could take other people’s music too. Ipods seem unreliable in this kind of service as well as being a closed box without a computer- I constructed a switchbox to select different people’s iPods but the big problem seems to be iPod battery life plummets as it gets colder when the sun goes down, I will have to run a USB hub from the main battery in future to counteract this.

The iPod doesn't really like to party after sundown...
The iPod doesn’t really like to party after sundown…

All portable audio devices live on borrowed time, due to the hard life they lead and the inevitable drop-tests. Nowadays, to make manufacturing cheaper the connectors are mounted on the main circuit boards, which is a really bad idea. Pretty much anything I make myself uses connectors mounted on the case with wires to the circuit board, because the connectors take a lot of mechanical stress. Fixing the connector to the case stabilises it, and the wires to the board take out any residual strain. However, this is a very pre-1980s constructional style.

Transmitting the mechanical strain to the circuit board flexes the solder joints, which causes micro cracks and ratty intermittent connections. It’s why you should always try and use right-angled audio jacks on portable gear. Presumably Apple provide straight plugs so you break the iPod faster and have to get a new one, leastways the earbuds I observed on people’s iPods all had straight audio jacks.

This 10 year old iRiver was just dead. That sort of fault is good, the ones I hate are the intermittent ones where you never really know if you’ve nutted the problem. I took it to pieces and was faced with this

iRiver IMP250 innards. That's a lot of small parts, as its about 13cm across

iRiver IMP250 innards. That’s a lot of small parts, as its about 13cm across

In previous lives like at the BBC I’d fault find to individual components but that’s not going to happen with this, no circuit diagram and no service manual. You used to get one in the handbook of most consumer electronics until the mid 1970s when people expected to repair things if they went wrong.

Even if I had these there’s no fun in trying to unsolder parts here. That involves magnifying glasses, tweezers, lots of bad language and a fair chance of knackering some other part in the process. These things are assembled in the Far East by automatic pick-and-place robots, though an awful lot of module level assembly still seems to involve humans even on the iPhone 5.

the offending connector, black item on the left
the offending connector, black item on the left

However, there’s a good win in faulting consumer  electronics by knowing that 90% of problems are to be found in connectors or the power supply. Power supply problems are usually associated with smoke and visible damage. Connectors, however, aren’t so obliging. Probing on the circuit boards showed battery power wasn’t getting to the player, and nor was external power, and the problem was traced to the DC jack which switched the battery to the player when the DC jack wasn’t inserted. Or not, in this case. So I unsoldered it, cleaned out the microscopic switch contacts and reassembled the part, and the player came back to life, both on external and battery power.

iRiver IMP 250 working again, once more into the breach at the Christmas party then...
iRiver IMP 250 working again, once more into the breach at the Christmas party then…

Now I could have bought a current replacement for about £30 at Argos or a little media player secondhand from Computer Exchange for £20-ish. I had been on a previous reccy for that sort of thing but come away empty handed. I have to admit that I hat been tempted by a secondhand DJ CD mixer that looked like it could run off 12V, but then sense prevailed. Not only was I setting myself up for an audio earth loop fail, but in the end I don’t really want to be a live DJ. I want to talk to people at parties and maybe get hammered, not do a Paris Hilton 😉

Paris Hilton DJ-ing. It didn't go well, apparently
Paris Hilton DJ-ing. It didn’t go well, apparently

The price of freedom from consumerism is still eternal vigilance. There is still somewhere in the back of my mind the ad-man’s meme ‘if you just buy this product, your problems will be solved and life will be wonderful‘. No. All I want is what I had before, thanks, it’s worked well enough for  five parties outside, and if I’m going to spend money then I should change the old hi-fi speakers, which are clapped out from being a) overdriven and b) far too small for the job of running outside, which is why they’ve been pushed too hard 😉

Although the repair was effectively paying below minimum wage, I just didn’t want to add to the mountain of e-waste without trying at least to inquire what had caused this faithful old middle-range CD player(it cost about £120 in the early 2000s ISTR) to give up the ghost. Plus I know that once started, it will keep running outdoors past the 11 p.m point where dew starts to accumulate on metal surfaces, because the self-heating of the circuit boards stops the dew forming. It had been a surprise to me that dew forms in late evening and the small hours of the night, I’d always thought it was an early morning thing.

More digital casualties in the pipeline

The digital camera seems to be another terribly unreliable electronic gizmo in the modern world, particularly the point and shoot digicam. Digital SLRs seem okay, I even managed to keep one in good working order until I sold it to a colleague. Digicams, however, are a whole different world of hurt.

I learned photography with film, and one of the great advances in photography in the early 1980s was the autofocus lens. Manually focusing was fraught even with some visual aids and just one more thing to slow you down in capturing the moment. In the 1990s manufacturers made automatic exposure work properly most of the time, and then came digital, which after some early issues sorted many of the residual problems, in particular the running costs and latency of seeing the results. Digital SLR cameras reached a point  in the late 2000s where for the vast majority of people the main improvements were to be had behind the camera, not in front of it or inside it; a rotten photographer will take poor shots no matter how expensive the gear.

My old Canon AE-1P from the 1970s that I bought second hand in the late 1980s is still serviceable, as are the lenses. I’ve had five digicams fail on me with lens jam failures, a Fuji 1700, Canon Ixus 80, an Ixus 950, a Nikon 995, and I will have to take my Panasonic digicam to pieces to remove dust from the sensor which makes the camera useless at high f-stops (in bright light). That’s four down permanently and one fiddly repair job, in the course of ten years. I look at the cost of a digicam more as a two year rental, rather than as a capital investment. One of the advantages of digital was supposed to be you don’t have film costs any more. Looks like you still have the same costs, however, just in a different form as the gear falls apart in your hands as you use it. Money still has to made somewhere 😉

You can make a digicam last if you keep it in a box and only haul it out for birthdays, but the whole point of a camera is you take it to interesting places and put it in front of new vistas. Every time you switch the damn thing on and the lens comes out, it sucks in a little bit of dust and fluff, which eventually gums up the lens mechanism (Canon) or gets dust into the sensor (Panasonic). On a film camera that dust only affected one frame because it was advanced with the film. On a digicam you get this after a while.

dust on the sensor causing splodges in the sky
dust on the sensor causing splodges in the sky

The manufacturing effort seems to go in features rather than fundamentals. What’s so hard about making a digicam that doesn’t suck dust into the camera? It’s so much easier for Panasonic to say hey, this camera has got Face Tracking, than for them to say this camera won’t suck dust into the works so your pictures won’t gets spots after a year or so.

after taking the camera apart and decoking the sensor. Face tracking is obviously more important than, say using the CPU space allocated to Face Tracking for something useful, like saving the dust pattern and removing it from future images, for instance.
after taking the camera apart and decoking the sensor. Face tracking is obviously more important than, say using the CPU space allocated to Face Tracking for something useful, like saving the dust pattern and removing it from future images, for instance.

What the hell does anybody need face tracking for? If you are so drunk that you need the camera to find the face in the shot for you, then either you aren’t close enough or you don’t need to take that picture for uploading to Facebook because a) it might not be the right face and b) they’re probably as drunk as you are.

It’s hard to deny the sneaking suspicion of advanced decadence in Western capitalism here. Faced with the choice of making this kind of shot easier, or keeping the dust out of the sky, the obvious choice is sod the dust, help the Facebookers out even if they are a few sheets to the wind. Bless…

It isn’t just the digicams, either. I have a Canon 18-75 IS zoom lens which has developed a stock fault after 5 years. This was something that cost about £350 new ISTR, and I had expected to be a decent middle ground product. Those old Canon FD lenses for the AE1 are still going fine, forty years after they were made… There’s no point in sending off the lens to be fixed if this is a stock fault, it will only happen again. Just how common it is was brought home to me in that the replacement part was only £2 on ebay, however the process of taking the lens to pieces and changing the ribbon cable is fraught and likely as not to break something else. For £2 it’s worth a go, and I’ve become happier with dismantling ribbon cables that seem to be widespread in small gadgets after learning from some videos on Youtube and experience gained with the iRiver repair. If I screw up I guess I just have to take the £600 hit on the 15-85 replacement. Or take an extra £200 hit and go with the 2.8 aperture  17-55 and get closer to the subject at the long end. I was more often short of light than of reach in using the old lens 😉

I really miss the middle ground in many products. The AE-1P was a middle ground camera – it worked well and lasted, but that part of the market is evaporating fast. As a result I end up buying rubbish, just because I don’t think it will stay working. Tools seem to be another case in point –  you can get a set of 50 spanners for a tenner. Just don’t expect a 13mm spanner to stay a 13mm spanner after you’ve used it a few times. Fortunately I still have my old ones from the 1990s, before the Chinese got in on the act 😉 I want a pillar drill. The whole point of a pillar drill is precision, and I know if I buy something for £90 then mechanical precision is not what I’m going to get. However, I don’t need a 1kW three-phase pillar drill for a thousand pounds either. Something in between, say 800W for about £300 would match my usage, but it’s not to be had locally.

Bring back those mid-range products. Not everything is life is black-and-white where you need either something disposable or the very best. Often something well-built but less capable than the best is good enough. I don’t want to be endlessly buying junk, and throwing it out after a few uses. There’s got to be a place between the Trabant and the Rolls-Royce. As Ellen Ruppel Shell asked in Cheap

Why was there such a scarcity of things reasonably priced? It seemed that all consumer goods were cheap, like the Chinese boots, or extravagant, like the Italian boots. Where, I wondered, was the solid middle ground that offered safe footing not so many years ago?

Doom and Depression Death Spiral Deliberations

It’s all going down. The Euro is going to explode and Crash Mk2 is on its way. It’s hurricane season on the stock markets.

This is the sort of thing that could really change things for me. I haven’t got enough capital to become particularly rich, but I have cleared all my debts and cut my costs.

I have tried investing in a bull market – the late 1990s. Everybody wants to invest in a bull market like that – until it ends and they lose their shirts. I’ve also tried index investing into the post-dotcom crash over the 2000s. Though the circumstances were unfortunate, I had to liquidate in 2007, before the crash. Like SG, I was lucky and dodged a bullet…

After waiting a year, I am lucky enough to have started again into the teeth of this recession, and I expect it to turn to Depression over then next few years. I believe there is some possibility this is the denouement of Western industrial civilisation, in which case the stock market will never recover, because the assumptions that underpin industrial civilisation are beginning to unravel. In particular the myth of unending growth in a finite world is beginning to fail in the face of natural limits.

The Germans have a fine saying that “The good Lord sees to it that the trees do not grow into the sky”. Tragically, we have built this requirement for continual growth into the foundations of capitalism. Without growth we will see an erosion of jobs and will never be able to pay off debts.

However, I feel that this is not that time yet. Which is why I want to invest into this blue funk, because paradoxically it could change things significantly for me. If the market turns, and the assumptions of capitalism still hold, then the 5% or so of my working life earnings will be magnified by buying when stocks are on sale.

In the end it boils down to if I believe in the stock market as a way to get a return on money, then if I’m not prepared to buy into a bear market, then when else? Doing otherwise is illogical and being untrue to my values. I am aware that I may be throwing this last year’s salary into oblivion, but I feel the likelihood is a lot less than 50%.

So bring on that stock market death spiral. If I am right, my 5% of my working life will punch above it’s weight. I want to invest in a bear market, and I want to be still investing while I am still working, through the low-water-mark when all seems lost. And if the assumptions of capitalism hold, there will be a turning point.

If they don’t, well, so what? That year’s worth of income won’t buy me early retirement in the desperate times to follow, but some of the community and alternative non-financial investments may help soften the blow as living standards in the UK decline, and we focus once again on the needs of life rather than the wants.

Money isn’t everything. You need a certain amount of it in an industrial civilisation. Most of the wins are to be had in not being suckered into consumerism, to know when enough is enough, and what is necessary, what is nice to have, and what shouldn’t be bought even if you have the money.

Not buying crap and empty dreams is most of the personal finance battle, along with gaining an appreciation of the economic cycles. It’s one of the benefits of gaining experience as you get older. I was a child in the 1970s crises, though I observed the upside of it when my Dad bought his house outright in his late forties. I thought I would never find a job in Thatcher’s first recession of the early 1980s, but it did happen after six months.

I survived the negative equity and 14% mortgage rates of Thatcher’s second recession in the early 1990s, when it looked like house prices would never recover to the long-term norm of 3-4* salary (I know that sounds like a sick joke now, but reversion to the mean is a strong force, both from the upside and the downside. The problem is it tends to work over the 10 year period, which is a long time to put life on hold). What I lost of the first house I gained on this one.

So in financial crises it always looks like the world is going to end, it goes with the territory. And the bear argument always makes a better story. This crisis is probably different from others, inasmuch as it is the cumulative denouement of several recessions that were put off by inflating asset prices in 2001 and the mid 2000s, so we probably have got three recessions-worth of pain to go through anyway as all the stuff that was put off comes home to roost. Capitalism seems to need recessions to flush out irrational exuberances.

Added to that are the structural changes in the global economy, the barmy shenanigans un Euroland, increasing energy prices and the like. None of this is looking good, but it’s not clear to me that it amounts to a terminal death spiral. In the West we have been living above our means on borrowed money, so not only will living standards fall to something that matches the wealth we create, they will fall below that with the suckout from paying down debt. In the end you don’t borrow money from someone else, you borrow it from your future self. We are now that future self and it’s pay back time.

My aim is to do okay out of the Depression, for in such times what matters is to be truly debt-free, because money will be tight.

Need $100 - CASH ONLY

This guy needed $100 more than he needed a car in the 1930s. We will see things approaching this, I don’t know if we will see Hoovervilles in the years to come.

The way to tackle a Depression is basically to try and decouple as much as possible from the economic system. That means

  1. Eliminate debt – of any sort. The reason is that money becomes incredibly hard to come by, so servicing non-negotiable debts like mortgages becomes extremely onerous if your income falls or disappears. Where you can’t do this then prioritise mortgage debt over all else.
  2. Don’t rely on benefits of any sort. I am not sure that this will fall to 1930s era harshness, but it’s likely to be a lot less liberal than we’ve been used to
  3. Reduce costs wherever you can, particularly recurring costs (gym memberships, Sky or other pay TV, long mobile phone and internet contracts.
  4. Insource – do as much as possible for yourself  – whether it’s home repair, prepare and grow your own food or bringing up your own kids.

My policy is to avoid debt of any kind unless it’s underwritten by cash assets, and to minimise dependency on others, particularly the government and any benefits. The latter will come as a shock to a lot of people who have built the assumption of continuing benefits into their economic lives. Many of these will probably be scaled down or shed in the coming years because the government doesn’t have the income it used to have. We already see the straws in the wind with the clampdown on incapacity benefits and the steady increases to the state pension age.

There are other things to be done to improve resilience in the harsh times ahead.

One of those is to live healthier – in addition to the usual culprits of eating and drinking less and taking more exercise this is at odds with my financial goals. Financially, it would make sense to work a little bit longer, but I have seen all too often that as people get older their tolerance for the day to day low levels of stress in the modern workplace can break out in physical form. I am lucky enough to enjoy good health at the moment, but I have seen too many colleagues fall by the wayside in the last ten years of their working life.

In the hard times to come health spending will be less. Although we don’t have the health insurance fears in Europe that Americans suffer from, the quality and availability of health care will fall. It is also something that one should do anyway, but the stress of working life mitigates against living healthily in many ways.

Connection with the community is another aspect of life that may pay dividends in future. Rich societies become atomised because everybody can afford to buy in services and every house can have their own washing machine and lawn mower. However, getting to know other people gets you a wider range of skills and a deeper understanding of the way things work in your house, if these are your responsibility. I repaired my central heating system which failed for want of a zone valve with a replacement motor for less than £15, whereas I am sure getting in a heating engineer would probably cost more. Repairing things rather than replacing will probably become more widespread. Knowing other people and helping them out and being helped out by them makes a lot of things that are expensive or are a grunt a lot eaiser. We would have really struggled to raise a polytunnel between two of us, whereas many hands do make this easier and a lot more fun.

The next few years are going to be a rough ride. I could get slaughtered financially in it, and I’m aware of the risk. However, I also believe fortune favours those who are prepared to take a calculated risk, and this is mine. I’m not one of the pussies that when asked what is your attitude to losing money is “No, never, under no circumstances” and shovels all their money into cash. I’m prepared to take the hit if I screw up, on the grounds that the UK economy is going to be so shattered if I am wiped out that there’s precious little that would preserve wealth. Sometimes you have to do the best you can with whatever you have to hand.


temperature controlled heat mat success

The heat mat I fixed three days ago has delivered 😉 We’ve had lettuce seeds in a cold frame from two weeks to no joy so far, whereas a new batch with heat @ 20°C looks like a win in three days.

lettuce seedlings germinated in three days @ 20C

Now I just need to get a control on the Sankey propagator which uses four times as much power for an area about one-sixth of the size. For all that power it does raise the temperature to over 30°C which is unnecessary, and possibly slightly detrimental.

A rare dodgy piece of German engineering in this propagator heat mat

Germany has got itself a reputation for top quality engineering, so I was somewhat surprised to come across a pretty poor example of German engineering in terms of the Bio-Green Sahara heating mat. The mat itself is fine, and continues to do sterling service. It is foil with heating wire run through it, the aim is to stick this under seeds being propagated.

It addresses the fundamental problem that the UK is too far north for most of our vegetables, which were used to the more balmy climates of lower latitudes. So the seeds don’t really get the feeling that it is time to grow until too late in the year, when the temperature reaches what they expected in the Spring, but we get in Summer.

The heat mat comes with a thermostat with a remote probe

which DGF reasonably assumed to be connected with a wire. I had noticed that this damn thing was adding a pretty outrageous extra load to our daily power usage – it is a 65W heater, so if it were on continuously, then it would draw the same amount as the fridge, namely 24×65/1000=1.5kWh.

It was time to break this out again this year, and I took a look at it. The probe reminded me of the sort of thing used on a gas valve to stop the main gas valve opening until the pilot light is lit. These are often thermopiles driving solenoids these days but in the past they were a copper tube with a volatile fluid in it which vaporised on heating to increase the pressure. A capillary tube takes this to the gas valve and opens the valve under pressure.

True enough, this appeared to be the case here, and the device was associated with a disturbing smell of chloroform, which is presumably the active ingredient.

Now in a gas cooker you don’t expect to move the sensor, so having a rigid copper capillary tube is okay. But a heating mat that is described by some retailers as

These all new aluminium encapsulated versatile heatmats easily roll up when not in use.

should not be supplied with a device that is designed to be deployed to a fixed installation. Flex that sensor tube too often and the bugger will crack, releasing the chemical into the atmosphere so that the thermostat will never turn off. The manual really ought to tell you that this is extremely delicate and should not be flexed repeatedly.

The next thing that is painfully wrong is that they tell you to whack the sensor into the soil. Stands to reason, right, that’s what you are trying to control? Not so fast – there is a problem in that the delay between the heat getting to the sensor means there is a large overshoot, as the sensor tells the heater “turn it up, turn it up, turn it UP WHOA THERE turn it DOWN you’ve gone far too much turn it DOWN”.

For the mathematically inclined this is a control system and the lag mucks about with the poles on your Bode plot. I think that’s what I recall from uni. As an engineer it was a lot easier, the mantra was always get your sensor right next to the heater. Which is counter-intuitive because you are measuring not at the point of delivery, but it gets the delay down. You will get a static error due to the thermal resistance from the heater to the soil, but that’s better than ending up with large temperature swings. Industrial control systems use proportional control and may add rate-of-change and integrating loops to go for greater accuracy but these are seeds, they just want to feel they’ve been shifted southwards about 20 degrees of latitude.

The instructions should also have included the practical stuff to make an efficient plant mat, as well as how to avoid knackering the device. The heat only needs to go upto the seeds, rather than downwards, so the heat mat should be placed on an insulating substrate, otherwise energy will be used worthlessly in heating the potting bench. Celotex is probably ideal, but I used a couple of sheets of expanded polystyrene foam covered with aluminium foil. You obviously want to consider what happens under fault conditions with the heater on permanently and dimension accordingly 😉 The heat mat then sandwiches the heating cable in two sheets of thick aluminium foil, spreading the heat better.

For those looking to do this on a budget, this can be made using standard heating cable such as used for keeping pipes frost-free, with thick aluminium foil either side. If you are doing that using mains power, you should know the difference between class I and class II insulation and how that pertains to your construction. For UK / Northern Europe you’re looking at about a maximum power input of 150W per square metre, the thermostat will kick that back as required.

The thermostat probe then needs to be placed above the foil, rather than in the soil, and the whole lot covered in a thin layer of builder’s sand, on which the plastic modular trays with the seeds are placed. Since I am using this in a conservatory and don’t want the floor covered in sand I constructed a tray from some plywood and bits of pallets to contain the sand. The disadvantage of using wood from pallets is all the pieces are different widths which makes you look a rotten carpenter if you don’t have access to power tools to trim them to size, or the patience to do it with a jack plane. You can’t argue with the price, however!

tray with heater mat and sand

I was still left with a defective thermostat, so I replaced this sucker with a Dallas DS1820 digital temperature sensor and a 16F628 PIC microcontroller to drive a triac controlling the mains powered heating mat. It ended up looking more like a piece of laboratory equipment than a cuddly Bio-Green growing device, but is a lot more accurate. That system was originally part of a project to propagate sweet potatoes but the development time was a couple of weeks too long so I missed the start time and the tubers rotted 😦 My device had a second sensor and serial output because those sweet potatoes are finicky, this was something that originally grew in Mexico and South America. You are seriously taking the mickey trying to persuade them to think about growing in a chilly British March…

Temperature controller. It doesn't have the friendly curves of the Bio-Green devices so it looks like a piece of lab equipment but it is far more accurate.

For a propagator I don’t need 0.5C accuracy, so if we end up needing more of this sort of thing I may just use an analogue system using thermistors. I also had a Sankey propagator base I used to use for tomatoes, this is thermally balanced and could do with temperature control to save power and get more reliable, it can easily drift up beyond 30°C, which isn’t that great and makes the contents a sod to keep watered.

To save anyone who may come across this having to look the germination temperatures up, here are the values I swiped from a Plant Propagation lecture by the Organic Growers Alliance:

28°C Cucumber

25°C Aubergine, Pepper, Tomato

15°C Celery, Celeriac, Calabrese, Early Cabbbage, Brussels Sprouts

12°C Sweet Corn

10°C All others

All a fair amount of rant from a poor piece of engineering, though it says something for German engineering in general that the odd dodgy one stands out so much. Bio Green do make the electronic version of the device I constructed for about £50.


How Can We Have Forgotten How to Make a Decent Corkscrew?

Repairing things is part of frugal living, and far too much of what we buy is built only just good enough. Sometimes I wonder if the people who ‘design’ some products have ever used them.

My parents were into decent wine in the 1970s – this was unusual at the time as the British palate for wine was not noted for its discerning tastes. Revolting sickly-sweet whites like Blue Nun and Liebfraumilch were all to common in British homes. Somewhere along the line they purchased a fine corkscrew, and it served them well. I must have cadged this when I went to university, well, the sophisticated chap in London town has to have a decent corkscrew, natch, along with the other student paraphernalia like the frying pan and electric kettle.

My 1970s corkscrew

This has served me well for the ensuing three decades, but a couple of days ago it snapped – the stepped shaft failed in service, leaving the corkscrew part in a bottle of French Col de la Ser. Disaster – firstly no wine, and secondly, the loss of an trusty old friend. I extracted the corkscrew with a pair of mole grips and DGF and I got to our wine.

Some time ago, when stuck in a Scottish B&B on a rainy day we’d got ourselves a bottle of wine at Tesco along with a similar model of corkscrew. Frugality is served by having our wine in, but I don’t want to be caught short with a bottle of wine and no corkscrew – my days of cracking the neck off bottles had finished on graduation 🙂

I was rushed some £4 for the modern specimen, but the trouble is that it is a victim of style over substance. Consider the business ends of old and new, shown below

The 1970s corkscrew - this is a good 'un and works well
the 2000s corkscrew, this puppy just doesn't cut it

A moment’s inspection shows that the new one is pretty much a three-inch wood screw on steroids – the damn thing bores a hole into the cork, and the flutes on the side might just get enough purchase to hook out the cork. Or not, as happens all too often, when this puppy just acts as a large gimlet and comes out leaving a cork with a ragged hole in it. On the upside, it works a treat on plastic corks, but the less said about them the better.

Whereas the old-skool version has the flutes filed down so there isn’t a massive core boring a hole straight down through the cork, so the flutes gain maximum purchase. Although DGF had binned the parts on the principle that nobody fixes that sort of thing, I fished them out again.

The problem had been caused by fatigue in the stepped shaft which was made of some sort of sintered alloy which had bubbles or voids inside. It had given way at one of these voids, so I drilled a 2.5mm hole along the axis of the shaft and into the handle, tapped the hole at M3 and splinted the shaft pieces with a long M3 steel bolt all retained with some JB Weld. As long as 4 cm of M3 thread can hold, I’m back in business.

I’ve been on the lookout for a lever type corkscrew with the old design of corkscrew but all I come across is the new crappy design. That’s one of the downsides of globalisation I guess – there’s probably one Chinese factory making all the lever corkscrews in the world. And they’ve failed to road-test their product, or they have all plastic corks, or they don’t drink wine in China. There’s something satisfying about repairing this old friend – I hope it gives me another few decades of service 🙂