Great Byte North

Breaking up the Ship of Theseus

July 03, 2023

I'm a repairer. I enjoy fixing things. Nearly everything I own I've taken apart to a certain extent. Over the years I've come to understand more about this obsession for me and it really comes down to:

  1. A desire to learn.
  2. A desire to waste less
  3. A desire to preserve

My early desire to fix was because of a desire to understand and learn how things were built. Often this is still where the inspiration comes from for me.

The desire to waste less is a secondary reason in many cases. I worry about the garbage we generate daily and wish to reduce my overall impact.

The desire to preserve is a more emotional one, as I think most preservation is. For me often this comes from not wanting to let go. I hold onto objects because I feel an emotional connection to them, they remind me of events or people just the way that scents or photographs do for others. This is part of the reason why I have only owned one car. It's 24 years old now and I have no plans to let it go, I'll just keep fixing it.

As a professional in the field of electronics I also have unique opportunities to repair that most people do not. I am able to talk with experts and learn how to do repairs on complicated electronics myself. This is in some ways no different than learning machining so you can fix something. However there are things that even I cannot fix and indeed nobody on earth can fix: Micro-circuits.

This realization started when I decided I'd really like an iPod classic, 5th generation. I bought a couple broken ones thinking that surely I, a person with experience in electronics design and fabrication, can repair them. However with complicated components failing like amplifiers, processors, etc. and each one being unique and no longer in production, there is little to nothing I can really do short of amalgamating mutliple units together to attempt to create a functioning one. With the complexity of modern solding this is also rather difficult. A board with BGA SMT components on both sides is much more difficult to reflow, as even the manufacturer would have glued the components down to keep them from dropping off. This creates additional complexity as at a minimum flux is required under the components to allow the solder to reflow and wet properly. Clearly this level of complexity, even in the mid 2000's, is not a maintainable level. Not that this is news, but everything is disposable when it has complex microelectronics in it.

I recently asked Jack Ganssle about the recyclability of embedded electronics and if there's been any progress. His answer was no, and that this isn't something that's likely to ever happen. This matches my own thoughts, there just isn't any incentive from governments or consumers to do it. Plus it's a hard problem to solve because of the high level of integration that prevents repairability. Our relentless march for "progress" is a major part of this problem. In the days of 74 series logic it was easy to replace components as they were relatively standard but now devices are frequently made obsolete. This is a major difficulty even in developing new designs, often at work we need to replace obscolete parts even before the design is finished.

I think this is why I often shy away from adding complexity to a project these days. Unnecessary complexity only adds maintenance costs and a likelihood of something failing.

I'm not sure what the answer is since we're in a continual arms race for superior technology. Perhaps it's world peace.

Tags: Writing, Repair, Electronics

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