This is a standard phone holder/mount, with a suction cup:
My wife bought it for me in early 2020, when I was talking about doing more road trips and exploring. If that had panned out, I might have been doing something like this newsletter a year earlier. But within a couple of weeks of those musings, the pandemic began in earnest!
Anyway, I’ve been using this in my car for almost three years. It came, as many of these mounts do, with a very sticky adhesive layer over the suction cup, to help it stick. Initially the glue was very sticky but also very firm. However, after three summers, the glue had begun to break down, and became soft and gummy. Finally, one hot day recently, the mount fell off, leaving an awful sticky mess on the windshield.
It wouldn’t adhere to the glass anymore, so I cleaned off the residue with rubbing alcohol, which makes quick work of most adhesive residues, and then I managed to peel the half-melted glue layer off the suction cup. “Now it ought to stick,” I thought. I placed the clean suction cup on the clean windshield, pressed the lever to set the suction cup, and…absolutely nothing happened. It would not stick at all.
I assumed the spring or lever had somehow broken, and I very nearly threw the whole thing away. I think most people would call it quits here. But I decided to keep it for parts, because I planned to buy the same one. But I didn’t do that, because the reviews were very mixed, including a lot of people complaining about the glue, or about the suction cup wearing out and failing to stick after some period of time. (Based on the reviews, it seemed to fail for many customers even sooner than mine had.) Other models from other various brands seemed to all have the same issues.
At this point, I realized the thing to do was fire up YouTube and see if there was a fix. First result: a guy claiming all you had to was thoroughly clean the suction cup with warm water and air dry it (so you didn’t leave cloth residue). I had my doubts, and I was right.
Second video: a fellow who said heat was the answer. Boil some water, pour it in a bowl, and submerge the suction cup in the just-boiled water for 15-20 seconds or so. The problem, he explained, was that years of sitting in one position on a hot/cold windshield stiffened the rubber up, and it could no longer form a seal. The boiling water would soften it up, and then it could seal again.
Now I had my doubts here too, but I was more hopeful. It wouldn’t be the first device for which boiling water is the answer. Famously, the Nintendo NES’s cartridge connector, which loosens up over time and fails to make an electrical connection between its pins and the contacts on a game cartridge, can be boiled to “reset” the metal pins to their original tightness.
So I boiled water, poured it in a bowl, submerged the suction-cup end of the mount for about 20 seconds, dried it off, and tried levering it down onto the countertop. Beautiful, firm, tight seal!
Curiously, if you let it sit awhile, the rubber will stiffen again, and it will continue to not seal. But if you actuate it while it’s still soft, it will stay mounted even after the softening wears off. With an occasional need to re-boil and remount, it sits on my windshield again.
Now this isn’t quite a repair; the real repair would be changing the suction cup, which, due to the design of the mount, is difficult or impossible. It’s more like what the internet calls “redneck repair” or “ghetto repair,” depending on which term of derision you prefer. These are terms for stopgap fixes of various sorts.
I like to think of this differently, as something like “mechanical literacy”: a familiarity with physical things and how they work. Cooling a home with windows and box fans, woodworking, disassembling electronics, understanding springs and levers and pulleys and solder joints; this kind of thing. It’s a species of self-reliance, a way of avoiding having to replace a broken piece of junk with a piece of junk that will break any day.
I’ve always thought consumerism betrayed a sort of helplessness. And I wonder if some of the snark or hostility towards various forms of self-reliance really comes from insecurity. I wonder if people who are really consumeristic don’t like being reminded that they don’t have to do it. Throwing away your 10-year-old laptop that still works is burning the pinch of incense to the god of consumerism.
Look, I understand people replace things because it’s difficult and time-consuming to fix them these days. It’s harder and more expensive than it used to be, for most items. We have a lot fewer “handymen,” partly because products are harder to repair, and partly because their costs have fallen. When it’s cheaper to buy new than to fix, or if you’re busy and your time is worth more than the cost of a product, it just makes sense.
So part of this is outlook and philosophy—buy less, make do—but part of it is making that easier. We don’t have a lot of real consumer advocacy anymore, as a distinct political idea. The “Right to Repair” movement is one of the few examples of this. They’re doing very good work, for farmers (tractors), and regular consumers as well as repair professionals (cars and electronics). They view our status quo vis-à-vis consumerism/planned obsolescence/throwaway society not as a natural outcome, but as a political problem.
This makes me think of something I wrote about urbanism:
“Walk to the store” or “take transit” or “shop locally” should not be like “eat your vegetables.” We will not browbeat people into behaving the “right way” out of a sense of obligation or abstraction. These things should be pleasant. They should be competitive options on the merits.
I think a lot of critics of urbanism/walkability/etc. think that what we’re saying is, essentially, “eat your vegetables”—that we agree with them that these things are inferior and inconvenient, and that we simply want to make their lives more inconvenient. For the vast majority of urbanists, it is the exact opposite. We believe these options have been artificially rendered inferior, by bad policy, and we want to restore the competitiveness and convenience of alternatives to driving everywhere/big-box retail, etc.
I think people similarly think buying less/living simply/etc. is “eat your vegetables” or “lower your thermostat.” The idea that these can be better, more convenient, more joyful ways of living don’t seem to occur to their detractors—and sometimes to their advocates.
I would like to live in a “better” way, vaguely speaking—it’s rewarding to fix things and learn how they work, or to plant a garden, or to get around sometimes without a car. And I would like it to be easier.
A Repair Journey Through Low-Cost Manufacturing
Thank you for reading! Please consider upgrading to a paid subscription to help support this newsletter. You’ll get a weekly subscribers-only post, plus full access to the archive: over 600 posts and growing. And you’ll help ensure more material like this!
Check out free and paid subscription options!
Tim Hunkin has a Youtube series called "The Secret Life of Components" that is wonderful for those with this inclination: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLtaR0lZhSyANYB0Xxb9OSp47pHuQmj3Ol
These skills definitely come in handy in many ways from the mundane (I just want my phone holder to work) to the serious (think knowing how to fix things in Kustler's "world made by hand") and everything in between including the values "being cheap" and "reducing consumption". I naturally have this inclination being an engineer (in a former career anyway), but mechanical literacy is a great way to put it for everyone.