One Night at the Fixit Clinic with Peter Mui
Written by JEFF GREENWALD
This sidebar is a supplement to Try This at Home: A Q&A with Kyle Wiens, Right-to-Repair Crusader
A white stucco building with blue trim rises on the corner of 48th and Shattuck, just a block from the hotspots in Oakland’s buzzing Temescal district. Built in 1933 as the Ligure Club—a social center for the area’s Italian garbage men—it later became the Omni: a live music venue that hosted concerts by Blue Oyster Cult, Ice-T, and (I’m not making this up) Skankin’ Pickle.
That version of the Omni closed in 1993. Three decades later, after years of mixed use, the cavernous two-story building has morphed into Omni Commons: a hive of high-ceilinged creative suites where pockets of quirky artisans work on projects ranging from mycology to quilting.
Once a week, from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., the Omni Commons hosts Tech Tuneup Tuesdays: a hands-on repair pop-up where DIY fixers assist all comers with “Lethargic Laptops, Twitchy Tablets, Batty Batteries,” and any number of other Neosilicate Age plights.
“Bring your project to work on,” invites the Meetup website, “or help others with their projects… This stuff is notoriously challenging to address, but we might just be able to help.”
Tech Tuneup Tuesdays are sponsored by Fixit Clinic, the brainchild of MIT graduate Peter Mui. Mui launched the clinic at U.C. Berkeley in December 2009. A longtime champion of the Right to Repair movement, Mui has several clinics running each week, around the San Francisco Bay Area and via Zoom.
One chilly Tuesday night, I showed up with my “project” in a Trader Joe’s shopping bag: a record player that no longer allowed the tonearm to move.
Trim and earnest, with short-cropped hair and a pin-striped shirt, Mui greeted me at the door of Omni Commons. “Fixit Clinic is a hobby of mine that has gotten way out of control,” said Mui, leading me into the labyrinthine compound. “I’m using it to test any number of other grand hypotheses about how we interact with each other in the built world of today, or in the world in general.”
As a kid, I loved a TV spy show called “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” The agents walked into an unpresuming dry-cleaning shop, where a hidden passage led them into the ultramodern U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. That’s how I felt as we emerged from a darkened hallway and entered a brightly lit room filled with electronic gear, hand tools, a laser cutter, an oscilloscope, hot glue guns, a wall of plastic bins holding “bits and bobs to fix anything,” and two cluttered workbenches where about eight participants bent intently over an array of objects ranging from circuit boards to a coffee maker. A portrait of Albert Einstein gazed benevolently over the scene.
Some of the crew were wearing headlamps, giving the assembly the look of a spelunking expedition. “It makes it an awful lot easier to work on things,” one of the technicians told me.
Mui was trained in electrical engineering and computer science; he’s also an armchair philosopher. The ethos of the Fixit Clinics reflects his personal conviction that the craft of repair offers a partial solution to the manufacturing gaps exposed by the Covid pandemic.
“The pandemic brought to head a lot of things,” he had told me earlier, over the phone. “Look at the breakdown of the global supply chain. So the interesting challenge is to create a balance against the globalization we’ve created in the last many years. Can we move back to a model that’s more circular, sustainable, and local? Can we figure out how to make the most of our durable goods? I believe that most of the goods we’ve acquired can be designed, built, serviced, and maintained in our local service areas, using locally available tools, materials, processes, and services.”
Before Covid struck, Mui hosted the FixIt Clinics in public libraries.
“When they closed, we migrated online,” he said. “The hypothesis was, ‘Can we actually affect repairs that way?’ And the answer was, ‘Heck yeah!’”
“Not only that; we were able to expand and provide clinics in remote areas where they would never have a critical mass of people or resources to hold an event. So little places—like a junior high school outside Missoula, Montana—can get help from global fixers around the world.”
At this point, the Global Fixers community on Discord has about 600 repairers from around the planet. “And it’s growing,” said Mui. We’re standing by pretty much around the clock waiting for someone to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a problem with this item, how can I get help?’”
For Mui, reviving a culture of repair is also about recognizing that there’s no “away” in our throwaway culture. “We’re consuming the resources of the planet faster than we can replenish them, or that they can be replenished,” said Mui. “And that’s causing all sorts of spiraling effects.” He drew a breath. “This planet is the one place in the universe that we know for sure sustains life. So we have this stewardship, if not to each other, to the planet itself. But we’re boiling our own frog—and we’re the frog.”
I found a place along the crowded workbench next to a hacker named E. He was trying to repair a red Waring blender that looked suspiciously like the one I had left on the curb a few weeks ago. He made room for my turntable.
Mui approached, having corralled a willing tinkerer. “Let me introduce you to Kent,” he said, “who will guide you through your journey of repair.” Kent, a tall and instantly likeable man with an empathic eye and a long ponytail, seemed a perfect fit. An illustrator and part-time hacker, he’s also a longstanding member of the California Historical Radio Society. He plugged the turntable in and watched as the tonearm jittered helplessly in place.
“Does it have to work?” he asked.
“I’d like it to work.”
“Well, before we begin,” Kent said, “there’s the possibility we’ll make it worse.”
Mui was more aspirational. “Sometimes, doing a fix, I think to myself: What if we were in the developing world, working on this device for the village clinic, and we absolutely had to get it working this afternoon, because lives are on the line? What would we do?”
Unfortunately for my turntable, lives were not at stake.
We began by removing the cartridge from the tonearm, to protect the needle and delicate wires. Kent then showed me how to remove the platter. This exposed a few openings, but we couldn’t really see what the problem was. “We’ll have to remove the base,” said Kent. Seven small brass screws later, the guts of the machinery were revealed.
It was amazing, how cheaply made the whole return mechanism was; it looked like a toy you’d find in a box of Cracker Jack. Moving the tonearm from above, we immediately saw the problem: The plastic arm that rotated the needle back into its resting position had snapped.
“We can glue it together with epoxy,” Kent offered, “but that might not work. If the tensions at work were strong enough to snap the original part, a jury-rigged part is unlikely to hold.”
For a desperate moment, it seemed like the record player was indeed a candidate for landfill. Then Kent had a genius idea. “We can rip the guts out,” he suggested. “All the stuff that has to do with moving the tone arm. You won’t have an automatic turntable anymore—but you’ll have a working manual one.”
“In other words,” I said, “we have to destroy it to repair it.”
“Something like that.”
It was an elegant solution. We pried off all the springs and levers holding together what was left of the mechanism, tossed them in the recycling bins, then reassembled the chassis and platter. Voilà: The turntable now spun perfectly, but I’d have to lift the needle onto each record myself. I saw it as a net win.
The conclusion of my “journey through repair” won an admiring nod from E, who glanced up from his dissected blender.
“With every little repair,” he reflected, “I feel like we’re pushing the needle of the Universe from broken to fixed.”
More Right-to-Repair Resources
In addition to Fixit Clinic, here are a few more repair-related resources:
- The Culture of Repair Project (a sponsor of Craftsmanship‘s Fall 2023 “Art of Repair” issue) focuses on advocacy and education, primarily by bringing repair skills and programs into K-12 schools and educational nonprofits.
- iFixit, featured in our story, “Q&A with Kyle Wiens, Right-to-Repair Crusader,” is the largest repair network in the world, with more than 100,000 product repair manuals in its database.
- Repair Cafe is a community coalition that started in Amsterdam in 2007, and has since spread around the globe. Visit their site to find out if there’s a Repair Cafe happening in your area—or learn how to start one of your own.
- Has Right-to-Repair legislation been introduced in your state? Find out at Repair.org, a global advocacy network devoted to shaping public policy.