Sunday, July 1, 2018

The art of manliness

A few weeks ago Shimano released XTR M9100 - their latest and greatest off-road groupset. 12 speeds out the back and a new freehub standard means XTR M9000 is dead. Not dead dead. But dead to the marauding horde of cycling gear-heads with money to burn and ride data to upload. It wasn’t that long ago when Shimano was railed for making every groupset update incompatible with the previous one. Up until the mid 1980s stuff attached to a bicycle frame was backwards compatible with the stuff that came before. Then Shimano came along with index shifting and the rear cassette and from that time on pedalling with Shimano’s new stuff meant stumping up for the lot and dumping all your old stuff. Critics and cynics (and every Campagnolo fan) had a derogatory term for it: “planned obsolescence” they cried. Things are different now. Just about everyone is on board. 

The modern world is a complex, sophisticated place. Technological advances have, by and large, also made it a better place. But technology that supersedes the one before is often not designed to be backwards compatible. That would result in a compromise - a compromise in the product’s performance and/or the price point it needs to hit to meet the market. Anyone who has had to fix a light fitting, a plumbing fixture, or any mechano-electrical device will know just how hard it is to get something new to work with something old be it a decade old, or, in some cases, just a year or two. The more complex it gets the more likely it will be replaced than fixed. And this applies even if you call a specialist in to do the job for you. 

But you’re a man. And men have to be able to do stuff. Stuff that’s just hard enough to require some effort yet simple enough to fully understand. Solvable stuff. Having the right tools is a good place to start. 

Every man should have a tool kit. General purpose tools for the general stuff, specialised tools for special interest pursuits. “Handyman” tools have been getting more specialised as technology pervades the home. Regardless, every home with a man in it should have a set of spanners, some Allen keys, some screwdrivers, pliers, a hammer, a saw, a Dremel, and a drill. And if the man is old enough there should be a tap reseating tool somewhere about. In a new house resplendent with quarter-turn and half-turn taps he won’t be using it much. 

Specialised tools, on the other hand, are made to work on very specific products. If you ride a bicycle then no doubt you own a chain breaker and a crank puller. Chain breakers and crank pullers have no utility beyond the job they are designed to do, but put them to task and they are a perfect match. Even a blind monkey could use them. That’s the point. Specialised tools are so good at doing their job that there’s little wiggle room for making errors. But docking a spaceship by tractor beam doesn’t carry the same kudos as winging it by hand. And, remember, you’re a man.

So be a man. Go fix something sufficiently hard that failure is a distinct possibility. Stop fiddling with your bicycle. Go fix the leaking toilet that’s been bugging you for the past couple of weeks. 

Start by taking the top of the toilet cistern off. First remove the plastic push button by pulling on it, or twisting it, or otherwise trying to lever it off. Then work out that you have to grab the plastic roundel with a multi grip to break years of calcium build-up in the threads. You’ve marred the roundel even though you protected it with a rag. Never mind. Pandora’s box is open.

Take a look inside. It doesn’t look anything like the replacement bits you saw at the local hardware store. There’s an inlet, an outlet, a float, and lots of plastic bits and rubber seals. Something’s gone wrong between the inlet and the outlet so you open another toilet cistern to check out what a working one should look like. Well, whaddayaknow - it’s completely different on the inside to the one you are working on. After an hour of dismantling various bits and bobs you decide that it’s probably best to replace all the internal hardware. Modernity makes consumers of us out of necessity rather than by choice. Or so you tell yourself. You get out your callipers and tape measure and jot down the size of the inlet and outlet pipes as well as the cistern’s internal dimensions. You then decide that it’s even better to take the whole thing to the hardware store with you. 

It’s much simpler now. There might be hundreds of plumbing spares but only a small range of standard replacement parts for toilets. You choose the bits that should fit this particular cistern and head back home to get the job done. Once home you get out the strap wrench and try to remove the back nut on the existing outlet valve. It’s stuck. Like completely jammed. Now it’s time to get out the Dremel. Take extreme care that the cutting disc does not strike through the plastic outlet and into the ceramic tub. Not sure if the disc would cut or crack ceramic but three hours into this job is not the time to find out. Finally the inlet valve (with float) and the outlet valve (with fancy dual flush) is installed and tested for leaks. A few tweaks later and the cistern is back onto the bowl and locked down. But the cistern lid doesn’t fit. And you can’t seem to adjust the variable height of the inlet valve when it is locked in place. You read the instructions. For the first time. Then dismantle the whole lot and start again.

About ten minutes later the job is done.


Sure, fixing the toilet ain’t manly like felling thousand year old redwood with a cross cut saw and an axe.. By yourself. But it’s about as good as it gets for modern day city folk who spend more hours in a suit than out of it.

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