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When you have to do it yourself

Technology is great. It makes our lives easier and allows us to perform many tasks that only a few decades ago were almost impossible for us to do. It saves lives and is a benefit to society in that it allows our society to advance faster than ever before and this allows us to reach for the stars, literally.

But it is not perfect. We rely on it too much in many cases and we let it dominate our thinking. So much so that there are many things that we have built that exceed our capability to control. Take the fly by wire aircraft such as the Airbus. The system, designed to make it safe from human error, has resulted in our blind acceptance of that statement, a blind acceptance that has led to people dying. During a demonstration the pilot knowing in his mind he couldn’t crash shut the throttles off at low altitude and tried to stall it, the computer wouldn’t let him, everyone cheered but then they needed to climb to get over some trees. No airspeed, no power and the computer wouldn’t let them raise the nose to climb due to stall risk, they brushed the trees which pulled the airspeed down and the plane crashed. Human error but a blow to Airbus credibility. This trait is well known to humans, a Volvo is known as a safer car, so it gets driven less safely and more risks taken, not forgetting the Titanic, seat belts, crash helmets, etc.

I’m not a true luddite but believe in technology where it benefits not just for technologies sake. I’ve suggested to people who want a computer installed that it is just not cost effective or, in some cases, it is just not needed. Technology for technologies sake.

I do have several concerns with our slavish following of technology though. We see it being benign when it is not. It is used to control and monitor us as we have never been controlled before. Even bastions of freedom in the West are more totalitarian than the soviets were and we accept this monitoring without seeing the danger. In the same way we develop tools that are potentially dangerous but are made safe because of the computer controlling them. Computers programmed by fallible humans and then we allow them to be remotely accessed and updated. It is incompetent not to avoid this where we can. But scientists think everyone is not going to bother. After all why would someone remotely adjust someone’s pacemaker via bluetooth. The story in Stargate Atlantis where a scientist programs nanobots to cure a girl of leukaemia but after curing the main disease they shut her heart off to repair a minor problem with her heart. However the nanites know they can repair the physical damage so as far as their AI goes there is no risk. So later she her heart is restarted and the damage repaired but her brain is wiped and she is a vegetable.

It is only a story but shows how things could take a turn for the worst and remember we are developing these technologies as we speak. I advocate keep up with the technology but keep them simple. One lot for leukaemia and another lot for heart issues and each tailored to the peculiar risks for that task.

You may not be aware but we are actually past a technological crossroads. Most of the items built now are not controllable by you. Military aircraft are built to be unstable to make them maneuverable and need to be computer controlled to fly. Your car computer controls the throttle in the engine, sure you can put your foot down on the throttle but the system will limit the fuel so it does not exceed a certain CO2 threshold set at the factory, the acceleration can be controlled to be between certain ranges and the max speed can be limited. In the olden days you could open the engine, adjust the carburetor and adjust the settings as much as you wanted. Not now. The worse thing is this control doesn’t protect the engine though because a kinked pipe can reduce the oil enough to damage the engine but who cares, CO2 output is primary and it is made to override your wants.

Now, as with all things, we can send the control unit away to be programmed and we can bypass the original programming. People do this all the time with vehicle control units, X-Boxes, iPhones and various other items of equipment that put limits on what we want to do. You can buy interfaces for your computer to directly adjust the parameters in many units. There is a market for hacking into systems you can access. Watch the F1 racing and see the engineers with laptops adjusting the racing cars, suspension, fuel flow and a hundred other items via WiFi. Dynamic fine tuning. This is fine for us while our society is up and running but will not be after an event.

After an event we will be in big trouble. Diesel cars you want to convert to cooking oil will need to have the engine management systems replaced. The problem with this is the engine itself which is now designed to such fine tolerances that the fuel mix may run too lean and damage the cylinder linings. The engines being effectively tuned to a certain mix and the engine management system ensuring that that mix happens or it stops working. Clearly, gone are the days when you could throw anything into the fuel tank. This sort of engineering means that most engines will need a machine shop and I would guess there will not be a lot of them around after an event.

Even motor bikes now and trucks have engine management software in them. All to meet legislation limiting one thing or another, all requiring specific limits on what the engine can do and all finely tuned to a certain fuel and performance criteria.

And it isn’t just vehicles, compasses, sextants, etc. are replaced by GPS, a GPS receiver with no satellites is an electronic paperweight. Radios are limited by software to only allow scanning on certain bands and transmitting on others. Smart meters are in place limiting utility usage and although some of these units can easily be replaced some can not.

So how do we deal with this? We cannot buy any new cars without computer control systems, in fact with new legislation coming in many cars are being retired because they cannot meet the tighter specifications. Older cars are disappearing all the time as they are destroyed and not replaced when they fail their annual tests. Perfectly good cars scrapped simply because a new criterion is rolled out by politicians.

The issue I find is that there are very few vehicles that can be maintained by amateur mechanics. Anything pre 1978 seems to be OK as that was when many of these systems started to be introduced. Of course they don’t have power steering, ABS and many other refinements but they will work after an EMP, will work with a variety of fuels or with adjustment and more importantly you can repair them yourself with spare parts you have or, for some items, spare parts you can make yourself.

Find your vehicle, ideally a diesel, get it in working order and then mothball it. Collect some spare parts, or other vehicles and keep them as well. Not that long ago people who had the room had old cars in the grass on bricks that they cannibalised for parts. Remember though that now you have to SORN any vehicle you keep off road. If you buy one and reduce it to scrap I would declare that you have scrapped it to save a visit from the Stasi and a £1K fine.

You can do the same with a motorbike, a truck or any other vehicle you wish. SORN applies here as well. Whatever your choice of vehicle make sure you have at least one working unit and enough spares to repair every part and gather the knowledge of how to build new parts or fabricate spares.

Then of course there are the other items to be careful of. Obviously no GPS replacement is possible but you can learn the old ways. Plus radios, look for solid old radios that use valves and not computer components.

Examine everything you are thinking of storing. If it has electronics don’t forget EMP and if you can find an old solid pre transistor version consider getting one as a backup. Store spares as well if you can. Do this for everything you have and don’t lose out.

9 comments to When you have to do it yourself

  • Skvez

    Older diesel engines have low-pressure injection and big injection ports, these are very tolerant of poor fuel but tend to have high(er) levels of pollutants, particularly partially combusted compounds.
    New diesel engineers in order to reduce emissions need to better mix the fuel with the air, this is achiever by atomising the fuel better by injecting smaller and smaller pulses of fuel at higher and high pressure through smaller and smaller injection ports.
    These tiny injection ports are affected very quickly by a little gumming which stop them working.
    There is no practical way to convert a high pressure injection system to the low pressure injection system needed to run on anything other than very pure fuel.

    People often say “diesel engine will run on cooking oil” this is misleading, only old low pressure injection diesels will run (for very long) on ‘poor’ quality fuel like this, a high pressure injection system will gum up quickly and stop working (if it runs at all).

    Most of the pollution created by a car is caused by the cars creation or destruction, not by the exhaust. Thus an old car that fails to meet the latest emissions standards is still better for the environment than scrapping it and replacing it.
    However the legislation has been driven by car companies trying to drive up sales and the green lobby who fail to understand that they are actually making things worse.

    I don’t recommend valve radios, valves have a very short life and consume a lot of power. Buy a transistor radio or two and store one in a faraday cage if you’re concerned about EMP, still more reliable than a valve radio.

  • iaaems

    On the subject of EMP – would an occurrence of one of these knock out everyone’s electrified wrist watch? Practically every one you see for sale has a battery and does more than just tell the time. Would this be another example of overblown technological innovation? Or are these items more robust than I think? Get a good old wind up just in case though – if you can.

  • Skean Dhude


    That makes sense about the diesels. We need to bear it in mind.

    I’m with you on the scrapping part as well. It does annoy me the waste around green issues. Exactly the opposite of what they say they want. Although I do wonder if it is not part of the plan.

    Valves may have a short life but they are EMP proof and would be useful for us especially during EMP events.

    If I had the money, Radio till EMP, bring out valve version use it untilm broken or event clearly gone then back to saved on in EMP protection.


    The are effected now by magnetic fields so an EMP is going to get them. A wind up is a good idea, get a few, but a few digital watches in an EMP proof container would be a good idea. High tech would be a status symbol after an event.

  • Skvez

    A digital wrist watch is vulnerable to EMP (as it has transistors) but because of its very small size and self contained nature (no long leads to act as aerials and couple in electromagnetic energy) it’s likely to survive better than most electronics.
    An EMP is not an all-or-nothing event, there are levels of energy depending on distance from, strength of; and duration of the pulse.
    But even if it does survive the EMP eventually the battery will fail (probably 10 years maximum). A wind-up watch can last for generations if cared for. Longer if someone with the necessary skill can clean and lubricate it periodically.

  • kapncobs

    I have a 132-year old pocket watch that’s still going strong – I expect it will become my primary timekeeper in an event.

  • Skean Dhude


    Welcome. They certain made them back in the days. Old watches and clocks will be much sought after compared to modern ones but we must not forget metal fatigue and spare parts will be impossible to find. May be time to source what we can now.

    • kapncobs

      They still make mechanical pocket watches (which I feel are probably more resilient than wristwatches due to the larger size). They usually run around £50 for a quality movement. Personally, I’d stock up on watches as opposed to parts – watchmaking is extremely delicate.

  • mike

    point made really… the soviets during the cold war and i’m sure the chinese now etc… could land take off and repair their aircraft from plowed fields if needed,and be very easily repaired by basicaly trained squadies etc we cant. the u.s. tanks during the gulf war had a hard time due to the computerised transmition limiting slip in the sand which then stoppped or severely limited there movement. The basic british challenger apparently had no such trouble.
    Like you say about most things, the old adage “k.i.s.s.” springs to mind… “keep it simple stupid”!

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