Own your stuff

When  I go to a garage sale one of the first things I look for are old tools. I once bought about 15 screwdrivers from an angry lady selling her husband’s tools.  I didn’t need any more screwdrivers, and I wasnt buying them to use as screwdrivers.  One of the first things you learn in gunsmithing school is simple toolmaking.  There are a lot of things you have to do for which either nobody makes a special tool, or the special tool is insanely expensive.  Sometimes you need a special tool for a job you’re only going to do once in your life.  When these things come up I typically find myself at the grinding wheel with an old screwdriver.  What was once a Philips head becomes a retaining spring remover.

I can grind the head off a screwdriver with fear of violating the screwdriver’s Terms Of Service and without fear of receiving a Cease & Desist from Craftsman.  The screwdriver is mine – I own it.

It’s too bad this doesn’t apply to everything you spend your hard earned money on.  Sony once told us in their EULAs that when we bought a CD we were in fact licensing the music, not purchasing it.  You’re only buying the plastic the music is delivered on.  This enabled them to create a bunch of rules about what you could and could not do with those tracks.   Apple now embeds “authentication chips” in iPods, so third-party manufacturers can’t make iPod accessories without buying a special chip only available from Apple.  Microsoft included DRM in music sold through its MSN music store, then pulled the plug on the store leaving everyone who bought music there SOL.

There are plenty more examples like this to be found on the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) website.  My point is when you buy something, you should own it.  It’s sounds absurdly simple until you realize how often it isn’t true.

There was a time, too long ago for my readers to remember, when things broke and you fixed them.  It was a time before “No User Serviceable Parts” stickers were being printed.  Things broke and people took the screws off the back, found the broken bit, replaced it, and reassembled.  It was a time of ownership.

But now our gadgets are far to complicated to repair, and the manufacturers don’t want us in there anyway.  Opening most devices requires you to break a “Warranty Void if Seal is Broken” label.  And it’s not just iPods and Kindles – even in gunsmithing school I learned about the trend of gun manufacturers to design out user serviceable parts and make everything in component form.  Instead of replacing a firing pin gun makers would rather sell you something like a “firing pin assembly” – a larger mechanism that includes the firing pin, associated springs, maybe the sear, and some other bits that weren’t broken. Not exactly the interchangeable parts Eli Whitney had in mind.  But in this case it’s not greed driving the change, it’s lawyers.

But you can  take back your hardware without breaking the seal.  You might break the TOS or the EULA or whatever, but screw them.  You bought your iPod, it’s yours.  Inside your iPod, your Kindle, your mobile phone, your calculator, etc are the instructions that tell it how to work – the firmware.  On many devices the firmware is updatable so the manufacturer can send you bug fixes or add new features.  Itunes automatically updates your iPod regularly.  If the manufacturer can send new code to your hardware, why can’t you?

Fire up my iPod Nano and you’re not likely to recognize what you’re seeing at all.  My iPod supports over 15 different file formats, including Ogg/Vorbis.  I have volume normalization, themes, and games – including Doom!  I’m running Rockbox, an open source firmware for mp3 players.

I also have an old Canon digital camera, so I was really excited when I heard about the Canon Hack Development Kit.  You put the CHDK on an SD card and restart the camera.  There is no permanent change to the camera.  It adds features like RAW support, USB control, a customizable OSD, Motion detection, SD card benchmarking, and more.

Just as you can run alternative firmware on your music players and digital cams you can also add a lot of functionality to your wireless router. Lifehacker has a great article called Hack Attack: Turn your $60 router into a $600 router. Instead of simply updating to the newest Linksys firmware you can completely change to Tomato or dd-wrt.

These are just a few of my favorite examples.  As usual, I’m just trying to get you thinking about this topic. Own what you buy. Use it as it pleases you.  Just like we often hear coaches yelling from the sidelines at Jiu Jitsu tournaments – “DON’T ACCEPT!”

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