Sunday, June 25, 2017

Birdhouses & Submarines

As some may recall, I wrote a book. (Still waiting for that call from Oprah…) The book is about how technology has become democratized and how all technology eventually ends up in the hands of the masses—and when the masses get hold of it, some great (and also a few not-so-great) things tend to happen: we build and invent and innovate in ways the creators of the technology may never have considered.

Well, one of the things the book talks about is information, and how (due largely to the invention of the computer and the Internet) information has also been democratized: that is, many, many more of us have easy access to more information than ever. (We also democratized misinformation, but that's a subject for another post.) Simply put, information is now at the fingertips of many more people than ever before; for those people, laziness is the only reason for not knowing the answer to any number of factual questions. (A couple of caveats here: First, I realize that this technology—and therefore this information—is not available to everyone; there are still plenty of people without decent [or any] Internet access, and people who can't afford computers. I mean, there are people without access to decent food and safe water; a MacBook and fast Internet access is WAY down on their lists. Second, not everything can be answered via the Internet, and the very definition of "facts" can become a bit fuzzy—especially when it comes to interpreting those facts. So, I'm no Pollyanna, just so you know, and I'm not saying that this is, to quote both Voltaire and Kris Kristofferson, "the best of all possible worlds.")

My granddaughter got to meet Kris
Kristofferson at last summer’s family
reunion. Too late to meet Voltaire, I
suppose; maybe I’ll give her a copy of
But back to information access. It will help in this exercise for the reader to understand that I'm a dork. A complete klutz. A home repair disaster on a massive scale. Generally speaking, I can't build things. I can't fix things. I have built birdhouses in which no self-respecting bird would ever live. I once installed a garbage disposal in such a fashion that whenever the disposal turned on, so did the blender on the nearby counter. I have made multiple trips to Home Depot or Lowes so that I could buy materials to "fix" a wall or a sink, only to discover that my feeble attempts at repair, far from saving me money, had actually added to the final cost, because I then had to hire a pro to undo my repair attempts so that the wall or sink or whatever could be repaired the right way. (This is not merely expensive, it's embarrassing.)

Sadly, though I have many friends and several brothers-in-law who are irritatingly good at this sort of thing, I'm a bit of a hopeless case.

BUT… I now have access to information. Lots and lots of information. I have Google, I have YouTube, I have digital access to a vast network of experts of various stripes, and all of them are positively eager to tell and even show me how to do stuff. If you enter "how to" into Google's search field, you get well over 3 billion results. If you enter "how to build," you get about 244 million. "How to fix" will net you about 99 million hits or so. If you wander over to YouTube (which, not surprisingly, is owned by Google) and enter "how to adjust a carburetor," you'll see that there are some 89,000 videos on the topic. (Which is amazing, considering that cars don’t even use carburetors anymore. Must be a lot of people repairing lawnmowers, older cars, and motorcycles.)

Now, you do need to learn to separate the wheat from the chaff, of course. Not all of these results are useful, accurate, helpful, or even truthful; but a great majority of them will help you get that wall built, that truck tuned, or that dishwasher fixed. (My wife once found a random part lying in our antique dishwasher. It seemed like an important part, the kind of part that a machine built to wash dishes would need. I was about to call a repair person, but by the time I got around to it, Lesley had used the Internet to track down the name and purpose of the part and read up on how to reinstall it. Result, one working dishwasher and no bill. It was a homeowner's triumph, and a serious savings, although I do occasionally have to listen to the story of how Lesley fixed the dishwasher while I dithered.) And the range of topics is incredible; there are almost 500,000 videos on building and setting up a saltwater aquarium! Are there that many people raising sharks and octopuses and such?

See this beautiful birdhouse? This is NOT the birdhouse I
built. You can tell because it’s straight and well-made and
stable, and because any bird would be proud to call this
birdhouse home. Image by Frank Vincentz,used under
the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.
Anyway, we now live in Oregon with Lesley's mom, and I've made it my goal to be helpful around the house. Up to a point, this is easy. I can sweep off the deck. (We live in a forest only about 120 yards from the ocean; 8 billion pine needles fall on the house and surrounding area every time there's a puff of wind.) I can clean and organize. I can haul and move and drag stuff around.

But the other day, something awful happened. The kitchen faucet began to leak. It was terrifying. At first, I'd hoped it was a temporary thing. Maybe it would heal or something. Maybe it was simply possessed by evil spirits, and they would move on after a few days and go haunt someone else. (I made a list of people whom I thought could use a good haunting, and left it near the sink. Didn't seem to do any good.)

It kept leaking. In fact, over the next day or so, it began leaking worse; obviously something had to be done. I offered to build a birdhouse for it, but that didn't seem to help. Eventually, I knew I was going to have to try to fix it.

So, I turned to technology. First, I used Amazon's shopping app and trained my smartphone's camera on the wayward faucet. The app recognized the faucet, one of those fancy Moens with no discernible seams or protuberances, and no obvious way of taking it apart, short of smashing it with a sledgehammer or wood-splitting maul. (Which I was willing to do, but it occurred to me that Lesley's mom might not like that idea.)

But now that I knew the make and model, I went to YouTube and discovered two things: First, these things leak like crazy. Almost every one of these fancy (and expensive!) faucets eventually leaks. And second, it's easy to fix the leak! Dozens of YouTubers (I can't type that without thinking of potatoes) have made videos about how to disassemble Moen faucets. (There's a trick to it. At the very bottom of the handle is a set screw, but the opening is hidden by a small plastic cover of the same color as the faucet. If you pry that off, you can use a 3/32nd Allen wrench—yes, it has to be a 3/32nd wrench, exactly—to remove the set screw and thus the handle. Then just tighten the plastic bolt that has come lose, and which is causing the leak. Keep in mind that it's plastic; don't over-tighten it.)

 One of the dastardly faucets that caused me so much grief.
Image courtesy of Moen.
So, the Internet saved me, and all because when Vint Cerf and Sir Tim Berners-Lee and all the other Internet pioneers created what we used to call the "information superhighway," they made it possible for people to share information about their problems and, more importantly, also about solutions to those problems.

So, now I'm thinking of building a submarine. I'm sure there's a YouTube video about how to do that. (Spoiler: I was right.) 

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