Homo Reparans Runs Amok: Repairing My CD Changer
I like to listen to music while I am driving, especially when I am the only one in the car, or on longer trips. So when I first got this car with a CD changer, it was quite a treat. I could load six CDs, which was roughly three hours of music, all at once, and I usually did not have to swap out any CDs for the whole trip. It was one of the conveniences in the car I appreciated the most. Unfortunately, the CD changer had been acting up lately. Since I was not planning to give up the car, and I certainly preferred listening to music of my choice while driving, something needed to be done to the CD changer, unless I wanted to dig up my stash of old cassette tapes and hope that they would still work fine.
At some point in time, I started mulling over whether I should just bring the car back to the dealer and let them deal with it. The good thing about this was I didn’t really have to do anything, just pay up when I got my car back. Then I looked at my options. Besides the car dealer, I could also try to find a repair outfit that specialized in auto audio equipment. The problem was I didn’t even know where I could find such a shop. The couple of places I had gone to, a Best Buy store and another outfit on Main Street, were more prepared to sell me something than do repairs. Then there was always the last resort, I could get my hands dirty and try to fix it myself.
In her book Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World, Elizabeth Spelman wrote about the cultural expectation that men should be handy, tinkering with repairs on the home front. She actually poked fun at men’s sometimes over-zealousness, or even obsession, to prove their “domestic masculinity” (Spelman, 29). There is undoubtedly something of a homo reparans in our genes, human beings make their mark on Earth largely because of their aptitude for devising and wielding tools, which are subject to wear and tear. So repairing broken tools and improvising new ones used to be a valuable survival skill. But as tools evolve into gadgets, as function is increasingly overshadowed by convenience and style, modern tools and appliances have evolved to such an extent, through the incorporation of electronics and such, that they require an attending new breed of specially trained repairmen. There is simply no more room for the occasional amateur bricoleur to hone their repair skills.
To make matters worse, the combination of mass production, innovation, and capitalistic competition have resulted in an “unplanned” obsolescence of products, whose useful life cycle is often less than a year. With a seemingly endless supply of newer, better, and sometimes even cheaper products, old models are usually retired or discarded, relegated to the “…junk heap…” (Spelman, 5). A prime example is the mobile phone. Even with the conscientious efforts to “recycle” used and obsolete phones and putting them to good use for the underprivileged in the less developed countries, the amount of waste and the problem of disposal of hazardous materials, batteries for example, has become one of the emblems of environmental pollution. Spelman said “[r]epair is conservative” (Spelman, 124), but more importantly, repair is conservational. As long as a product serves its primary function, repair usually consumes fewer natural resources (as distinct from money) than replacement. So whether it was a desire to prove my domestic masculinity, or the lure of homo reparans, or simply in defiance of conventional wisdom, I decided to try repairing the CD changer on my own.
My preliminary research on the internet has turned up a weblog (Fang) and a thread on a car owner forum (Alpine CD) for two other brands of car, but the same CD changer judging from the posted images; and several YouTube videos (Alpine lrd2, bmw m3, BMW/Mini, DIY, Mercedes, ROVER). The owner website for my car (The OFFICIAL) yielded mainly problem reports or complaints, and short on solutions. Similarly, I could not find anything helpful in terms of books, encyclopedias, or car repair manuals. While Spelman hinted that although repairers might not have the level of I.Q. similar to those of the respective inventors, they, especially the ones who are worth their salt, would have some level of familiarity and understanding approaching, and possibly even surpassing, that of the inventors (Spelman, 11), it occurred to me that I knew very little about the mechanics of a CD changer, and I thought an understanding of the general principles behind the device might at least be pertinent for this project. So I tried to find out as much as I could about CD changers for cars in general, and from browsing through the internet and watching YouTube videos, I decided to concentrate on the Alpine model which resembled the one in my car. I found an entry for the CD player on Wikipedia online (CD Player). It contained quite a bit of background information, but only a brief section on the CD changer, a reference to the patent for the optical disc encoding of audio/visual data using a laser, granted to James T. Russell in 1970 (Analog to digital). Following up on the reference, I discovered that patent documentation was about as interesting as legal documents, but the diagrams did give me an idea of what the invention was all about (Fig. 1).
I sought the assistance of Mr. Thomas Melwin at Morris Library to help me track down other patents pertaining to the CD changer technology. Initially, he could only come up with a couple related to the CD player, but a few days later, he found a patent held by Sony Corporation for an audio CD changer (Disc players), and it was referenced by several other patents filed by Alpine Electronics, Inc. This diagram from the filing did show some resemblance to the CD changer I was about to repair (Fig. 2).
However, encyclopedic summaries were too general, and the information in the patent descriptions was far too technical to offer me many practical pointers. After culling the internet, all I could come up with were several YouTube videos (BMW/Mini, Alpine lrd2, ROVER). There was even one explaining how to clean the unit, getting rid of any potential debris, or aged lubricant that might gum up the mechanical components (DIY). These were by far the most helpful bits of information I could find after several days of searching. One of these videos shows the extraction of the unit itself (Mercedes).
Following the example in this excerpt, the first issue I ran into was the screw securing the changer to the glove compartment. Instead of the regular Philips or slot head, this one happened to be a Torx. As luck would have it, I was able to find a cheap Torx driver set after digging around my toolbox. (For once, at least I could justify my wanton shopping sprees to my wife!) Having gone past the exotic screw, I was able to pull out the changer, and discovered that the unit was tethered by two connections, one for power and the other for the “signal”. The tiny power connector was made of plastic and not particularly strong. Notwithstanding the nonchalance and casual ease displayed by the guy in the video, I could not get a good enough grip on the connector and I dared not pull on the two skinny wires in case they might break loose. Using a pair of needle-nose pliers, my very first try managed only to break off a tiny piece of plastic! I was almost ready to give up at that point, but then I decided to push ahead. I found a small piece of fabric and used it to “cushion” the hard metal of the pliers against the plastic connector. Then after several gentle tugs, I finally managed to unplug it. The signal connector turned out to be more straight-forward, held in place by a spring-loaded catch, and with just one click I was at last able to free the unit from the car.
The changer was a rectangular box with a sliding door in the front, through which the cartridge holding the CDs could go in and out. A metal bracket mounted with screws straddled the top of the changer, and it was this bracket that held (by a single Torx screw) the CD changer in place inside the glove compartment. A smaller box screwed to the back of the changer held the power and input signal sockets (from which I unplugged the two connectors to free the unit from the glove compartment). After removing the bracket and a closer examination of the changer, I began the process of removing the outer metal casing, which was secured with Philips-head screws. The first thing to do was to “pop out” the plastic front plate with the sliding door, but after removing the four screws securing the cover, I discovered that the smaller “sockets” box at the back of the cover had a “connector ribbon” attached to the circuit board at the base of the changer. This made it difficult to remove the cover. In order not to jeopardize the obviously delicate and vital “umbilical cord”, I had to first remove the “sockets” box at the back and lay it down, still attached to the base. After that, I was able to remove the cover without further complications. With the top cover removed, I was looking at some sort of metal “cage”, with various slots, levers, and cogwheels, like in the picture below (uncredited image found on the internet, but it bears a similarity to the schematic diagram in Fig. 2).
The CD changer consisted of two parts side-by-side, a cartridge holding the CDs on the left, and on the right-hand side the CD player, on a movable platform that could be raised or lowered into six preset and finely calibrated positions that aligned with the six retractable trays in the cartridge. When the CD player platform was elevated to the respective position adjacent to the tray holding the CD, an extended “arm” would pull out the tray (with the CD) into position, as can be seen from the excerpt below.
However, without the proper power supply and the accompanying control interface, I would not be able to witness nor fully test whether the CD changer was functioning properly once I had disconnected the unit from the car. This is a vicious circle: As I am not in the repair business, nor an amateur hobbyist, I do not have a workshop, and the necessary kinds of tools to help me do the job; and without the “appropriate” tools, it makes the job so much harder. In any case, I could only plunge ahead and try my luck as an “apprentice” homo reparans.
Still, even with the cover removed, it presented a very limited view of the inside of the unit; but to tell the truth, I really had not much of an idea of what I was looking at, or looking for. When the CD changer first started acting up, the cartridge would not eject, so I was listening to the same six CDs over and over. Now without power, pushing the eject button did nothing, which was not surprising. Then I started probing through the narrow openings under and around the cartridge, and all of a sudden the cartridge popped out. I was overjoyed (that I got the cartridge out) yet unfulfilled (not knowing how it was accomplished). After “re-assembling” the unit and then connecting it back to the car, I found that I had successfully dodged a bullet. Nevertheless, I had a feeling that I had merely postponed the inevitable. Sure enough, several days later, the changer stopped working altogether, as the dash displayed “NO CHANGER”, and the cartridge would not eject either.
The second time around, the whole process, up to removing the cover of the changer, went much smoother, but I could not repeat my trick of ejecting the cartridge. Out of sheer frustration, I got daring, and started trying to “dis-assemble” the unit as far as prudence would allow me. I could see that the “changer” was actually mounted inside the metal outer cage with two springs, one on each side, and four rubber “shock absorbers”. One end of each spring was attached to the actual changer inside, the other to a metal lever that appeared to be designed to “sit” in a number of slotted positions, as can be seen in the picture below (Fang):
I tried shifting the position of the lever, and even went as far as unhooking the spring from the changer. I was aware that none of these could have a possible connection to the “NO CHANGER” error reported by the electronics in the car, but out of desperation, and a general curiosity about this neat piece of machinery, or even just for the sake of having “done something” (dared I venture the word “repair” here?) I just needed some justification for my seemingly futile endeavour. I even considered disconnecting the “umbilical cord” so that I could hold up the “box”, turn it over, and get a more thorough look at it; but remembered a blunder I made while trying to fix my laptop computer. (There was one similar, but smaller, ribbon connecting the keyboard to the motherboard of the laptop, and I broke the tiny plastic “catch” that locks the ribbon in place. Luckily, the components in the laptop were so densely packed that the ribbon stayed in place, or must have, for otherwise my laptop would have stopped working.) Finally, it was with a load of apprehension, not even a shred of confidence, and a vague sense of hope, that I re-assembled the unit and connected it back into the glove compartment. I was literally holding my breath when I turned on the sound system, then the music played.
It was worth all those days of research, hours of “sparring” with this “beast”. I had overcome the inertia that came from decades of complacency and lethargy. I had earned my badge as a bona fide homo reparans. I could still remember the awe and longing I felt as a teenager, reading about various inventors and scientists. Scientific American and Popular Mechanics were two magazines that I pined for while growing up in Hong Kong. Young people nowadays are glued to their video games and smart phones. Who would still have time to take apart a discarded alarm clock, fiddle with home-made transistor radios, or even daydream? This reminded me of a lament quoted from a book review in The New Yorker by Spelman in her book: “’Americans [are] infantilized by labor-saving devices and a service industry that has put even the smallest mending or cleaning task into the hands of professionals…’” (Spelman, 7). Vanishing fast also are the garage hobbyists, tinkerers, and bricoleurs, lest they might garner the ire of the professional repairman and handyman, as women were ridiculed and shunted for taking away jobs from the mechanics and factory workers half a century ago.
Looking back, I am still not entirely sure what exactly fixed the problem. This frustration of mine harks back to my initial apprehension and reluctance about taking on the repair task myself. Spelman said “[r]epair destroys brokenness” (Spelman, 134), which was sort of tautological and trivial. However, in any repair project, there is a very real danger of wreaking more havoc than making things better. Most repair jobs begin with a process of disassembly, taking things apart until one gets to the root of the problem, before there is any hope of making things better again. With my CD changer, I needed to disconnect the unit without breaking the flimsy power socket, and remove the top cover without damaging the “umbilical cord”. Then even if I were able to eject the cartridge, or otherwise correct “the problem”, I could have broken something else and rendered the CD changer inoperable. It was this fear of “collateral damage” that also contributed to the inertia that stood in my way in the beginning. On the other hand, having gone through this “exercise” a couple of times has given me a little bit of confidence, that should something go wrong again with the CD changer, I would be much more comfortable with flexing my homo reparans muscles again. Therefore, in the end, even though my little project has not really taught me anything specific regarding the problems or symptoms that started it all, I realized acquiring repair skills is not any different from, say, learning how to ride a bicycle: Opportunity and determination. I did not learn how to ride a bicycle until I was fourteen, so I hope it is not too late for me to try proving my mettle as a practicing member of homo reparans now. Life is full of serendipity, I might not have understood what actually fixed the problem, but I am glad about my decision and cannot help getting a little bit of satisfaction out of my efforts. As icing on the cake, I can also congratulate myself for not adding another twenty pounds of garbage for Mother Earth.
I would like to thank Prof. Harris for designing such a wonderful class, and introducing me to an eloquent and thought-provoking writer, Elizabeth Spelman. Who knows English 110 can be so much fun! Please don’t forget about the “Writing Geeks”, Professor, I want my desserts too. I am indebted to Megan, our GTA, for her valuable comments and suggestions, least of all for introducing me to the “OWL”. I have enjoyed working with my group, Nick, Kelly, Alicia, and Natalie, who shared their writings (thus part of themselves) with me. Last but not least, I want to thank my better half, who coaxed me out of my cocoon to start taking classes at the University.
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