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December 6, 2011

Filed under: tech»activism

Open House

Traveling in the modern age, no matter the distance, can be partially described as "the hunt for the next electrical outlet." The new stereo in our car has a USB port, which was a lifesaver, but each night played out similarly during our cross country trip: get into the hotel, let out the cat, comfort the dog, feed both, and then ransack every electrical socket in the place to recharge our phones and laptops.

I don't drive across the entire southern USA often, but I do spend a lot of time on public transit. So I've come to value devices that don't require daily charging, and avoid those that do. Until recently, I would have put my Kindle 2 in the former category, but over the last year, it has started discharging far too quickly--even after a battery replacement. There's clearly something wrong with it.

It's possible that the problem is simply three years of rough handling and being carried around in a messenger bag daily. Maybe something got bent a little bit more than the hardware could handle. I suspect that it's gotten stuck on some kind of automated process, indexing maybe, and as such it's not going to sleep properly. That has led to all kinds of voodoo trouble-shooting: deleting random books, disabling collections, even running a factory reset and reloading the whole thing. Has any of it worked? Um... maybe?

The thing is, I don't know. I don't know for certain what's wrong, or how to fix it, or if any of my ad-hoc attempts are doing any good. There's a huge void where knowledge should be, and it's driving me crazy. This is one of the few cases where I actually want to spend time providing my own tech support (instead of needlessly buying a whole new device)--and I can't. Because the Kindle, even though it's a Linux device under the hood, is an almost totally closed system. There's nowhere that I, or anyone else, can look for clues.

I was reminded of how much I've come to rely on open systems, not just by my Kindle worries, but by checking out some of the source code being used for Occupy Wall Street, particularly the OpenWRT Forum. That's a complete discussion forum written to run on a Linksys WRT wireless router--the same router I own, in fact. Just plug it into the wall, and instantly any wifi device within range can share a private space for discussion (handy, when you're not allowed to have amplified sound for meetings).

The fact that some enterprising coders can make a just-add-electricity collaboration portal out of off-the-shelf electronics owes everything to open source, albeit reluctantly. Linksys was forced, along with a lot of other router manufacturers, to release the source code for their firmware, since it was based on GPL code. That meant lots of people started messing with these boxes, in some cases to provide entirely new functionality, but in some cases just to fix bugs. That's how I ended up with one, actually: after we had a router crash repeatedly, I went looking for one that would have community support, as opposed to the original Linksys "release and forget" approach to customer service.

When something as faceless as a router can get new life, and clever new applications, through open source, it makes it all the more galling that I'm still having to play guessing games with my Kindle's battery issues. Indeed, it's frustrating that these "post-PC" closed systems are the way so many companies seem hellbent on pursuing: closed software running on disposable, all-in-one hardware. The result is virtually impossible to repair, at either the software or the physical level.

I'm not asking for open source everything--your microwave is safe. I'm not even necessarily arguing for strictly open source: I still run Windows at home, after all. I don't want to hack things for no good reason. What I think we deserve is open access, a backdoor into our own property. Enough of our lives are black boxes already. Ordinary people don't need to see it or use it, but if something goes wrong, the ability to at least look for an answer shouldn't be too much to ask.

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