Durable Technology7 min read
It was still windy in New York as I was thinking of writing this. Last week, a storm passed though most of New England, including New York, and my area saw quite some damage. Since I live in an apartment some floors up, I was mostly spared, with the exception of a bit of lights flickering and Internet pauses.
My biggest concern was the windows blowing in during high winds or debris strikes. A worry that was more acute during Hurricane Sandy. Naturally, I wanted to experience the winds first hand because of my weird proclivities so I had one of the windows open the whole time. I didn't step outside this time since I'm not totally mad yet.
While the wind was raging, I was reviewing the technology that supports my lifestyle.
The largest power drain at my place is the fridge. In hot months, the AC is on par. Apartment life is largely impossible without AC, especially in upper floors when bombarded by the Sun, due to the way buildings are usually constructed here. Likewise, a cold fridge is hardly a luxury since most of the food we get is perishable and only economical when purchased in bulk.
While heating in winter isn't so much a concern for me due to concrete being a fairly consistent thermal mass and rising heat from lower floors, it's a huge concern to my neighbors close to the ground floor. There isn't much direct sunlight there to make use of the thermal mass. My fridge has a microcontroller that's a mystery to me since I don't want to take it apart. Likewise, there's one in the AC that keeps a timer and temperature sensors going.
A lot of the technology we rely on to stay connected and comfortable is also extremely fragile. Our quality of life depends on so much of it working flawlessly that I fear we're largely spoiled to some degree. I won't miss the era of struggling to find clean water and food or not being able to reach friends and family any time of day. But I'm sure there's a happy middle to self-sufficiency where we're less reliant on the infrastructure we take for granted.
It's ironic that I have a significantly smaller buffer to survive in civilization than when I'm out camping.
I enjoy mild discomfort in small doses while outdoors. I consider it an acceptable trade for peace of mind in solitude, but I also enjoy being comfortable most of the time. I'm used to a certain living standard that I don't really want to lose. I also don't want to pay a high price for it, moral nor fiat.
I also enjoy meeting and chatting with friends, much more than I used to back when I was younger. The Internet gifted and robbed the joy of detached communication, but I still want to keep that option.
While brainstorming all manner of connectivity and sustainability ideas can be fun, at some point, I really do need to put my foot down and decide what I actually need vs what's just nice to have. I do know at at least some of the structures I'm planning to build will have power, but maybe not all. At least one will have running water. All will have sensors to give me status on temperature and any potential damage during bad weather and such to ensure I can intervene in time.
I had already decided that I'd like to have some manner of mesh connectivity, but I realized that this is ripe for over-complexity and so I must be careful about the time I devote to this versus the rewards I'll actually reap.
I remembered the story of the ancient Commodore Amiga, first released in 1985, running a school AC and heating systems for more than 30 years.
While hardly perfect and prone to some failures owing to its age, I view this as a remarkable triumph in simplicity and durability. The weak parts have all been moving components, such as the mouse and hard drive. And the monitor, which is prone to EMF sensitivity and requires high voltage flyback transformer for the electron gun in the CRT. These components notwithstanding, the rest of the system is vastly more resilient than I would have expected. It's also a testament to the skill of the programmer who initially wrote all this software.
The systems and processes that enable my comfort should probably be left in the "low-tech" side in lieu of better features and speed. What I've noticed repeatedly is the benefit of engineering for loose tolerances, both in signals and user handling. And the benefit of designing for harsh environments. It's not unusual to see ancient computers running industrial control processes for decades. We seem to have sacrificed durability for features somewhere along the way and I'd like to get it back.
I've briefly toyed with the idea of a "smart cabin", but immediately dreaded the thought of coupling technology too tightly to my lifestyle again. I think the best kind of technology disappears into the background while performing its duties. There are also the privacy issues of smart-as-a-service and I distrust anything from a connected company. Not just because I don't know what information they collect and sell, but also what information will be walled off at a future date with built-in obsolescence.
An alternative, along the same lines as my DIY writing computer, is to make my own durable technology as best I can. While there are varying definitions of "durable", I'd like to start by reducing my reliance on things that are hard to repair with rudimentary tools, require some specialized technical knowledge
that is also hard to obtain. And I'd like to avoid things that need such high tolerances that conducting repairs in the middle of the woods in a cabin is out of the question.
So I'll need to practice welding some more and try to improve my carpentry skills. I'll also need to brush up on practical electronics. In terms of material, I'd like to limit plastics to the essentials that can't do without them while returning to wood and recycled metal whenever possible. I'd like to make all my constructs last as long as possible with minimal maintenance and replacement.
It's highly unlikely that I can make my own fridge, but I'm sure I can enable monitoring. Likewise, temperature control could probably be managed with off-the-shelf components, especially for the structure that has running water. The last thing I need is burst pipes due to freezing temperatures. If I go the wood heating route, manual intervention will be absolutely necessary, but I'd like to know when temperatures drop so I'll be ready to start a fire and keep it monitored so I don't burn the thing down. If I go the solar heating route, I'd like the vanes connected to thermal mass to open at the right time. These need not be mutually exclusive.
I'd also like to keep tabs on the composting toilet since I'm the forgetful type.
I think I would like to build my own durable technology going forward with simple electronics and replaceable, easily sourced, components. I absolutely do not foresee DIY semiconductor manufacturing in my immediate future, but I do see a path to some general purpose, simple computer that can be programmed for specific tasks and run on little power and oversight. On that subject, my favorite video series is by Ben Eater, in which he goes over each component of a simple 8-bit CPU built with discreet logic chips and hand wiring.
The series is quite long, but it's quite possibly the best visual explanation of any CPU on the Internet.
This is a custom architecture with its own instruction set that's specifically geared toward teaching computing and operations. It's a great starting point to build on, but I'd like to make something more capable which can be programmed to handle additional hardware. I've been looking at the RISC-V instruction set as a possible starting point for a durable, general purpose computer that can handle most automation tasks that I'm likely to need.
To that end, there's another video series I've been watching by Robert Baruch which specifically is a RISC-V computer with DIY registers made from RAM chips and such.
Although, he takes a different direction than I expected, this is a great introduction to RISC-V and how it may be implemented. The true value of the series to me is learning the intricacies of the instruction set, which I feel will be far more prominent in the future. I found the ALU design video showing the operation of the Arithmetic and Logic Unit very illuminating.
I think I'm confident that this is the path to a general purpose computer to handle my day-to-day tasks in limited automation that I don't feel needs much fiddling once programmed and can be left alone. Possibly for years on end.
I don't see myself abusing any technology I'll utilize for the heck of it or leaving it all at the mercy of the elements, but living in solitude is bound to let the things I make encounter some harsh conditions from time-to-time. I'd like to start down a path of reasonable comfort and maintain my lifestyle choices in the future as I withdraw into the woods. To me, this is the essence of "Rustic Cyberpunk".