Don’t throw that away: how to stay sharp and be productive

This marks the straw that broke the camel’s back.  This marks one too many times that I’ve heard sweeping statements of opinion masquerading as fact.  The last time I point out how my point of view contradicts someone else’s and I’m dismissed as an ‘exception’ when I have exactly as much experience and data to argue my point.  This is quite an over-reaction to a recent Hackaday post but as I get maybe 50 visits a day and am not trying to build readership I really don’t care.

Now, similarly to the article that sparked this, well, it feels like it’s going to be a rant.  I will preface this by saying that for some people having only a couple of things sitting around with which you can build things may be fine.  If you’re the sort of person whose creativity and desire to build stuff can wait until amazon or, god forbid, china post can deliver you the parts to build your latest creation then this article is not for you.  This article is for those of us who get struck with inspiration to make something and will make do with whatever’s around just to see it work that night, or weekend, or month (god damn you china post).

<afterthought:  This post uses the word ‘I’ a lot, and that’s because there is one point of view from which I can speak, my own.  I won’t pretend otherwise.>

It’s taken me a long time to reap the fruits of my hoarding.  When I started out I was saving BIOS chips off motherboards and broken VCR heads.  Over time what was useful and what was not became apparent and I threw out all the stuff that was not useful.  You may think I’m stepping on my premise very early on, but let me define what I mean.  I am not advocating for keeping trash around.  You may use a gum wrapper in a clever hack now and again, but that’s no reason to save them all.  I’ll get to my reasoning in a bit, but first: some concrete examples.

One particular point where I found that what I had collected wasn’t worth keeping was when I opened up a box of old salvage and finally realized what that old VCR head was.  I had saved one going very far back which meant it had a fiberglass PCB on the bottom, and careful examination showed it to be a fairly nice slip ring bearing.  I could use this to pass several signals through a rotating shaft.  This is a cool find indeed, but the younger version of me (not knowing exactly how I might use it) had broken the PCB in just the wrong place which made it useless even with my improved skill level.  I do not have pictures of this example of waste that I held on to but eventually threw out, but thinking back I’m willing to bet I could have made use of it today since my soldering skills have vastly improved since then.  This is an example of how I decided to save something that I wasn’t sure how I could use, I then realized it was garbage, and I’m now thinking that if I’d held on to it a little longer it could have made some project a whole lot easier.

As I age (I assume most of you do as well) I find my skills increasing with electronics design, assembly, and reverse engineering.  This means that the newer and older eras of technology that I’ve salvaged become more useful to me as I grow more experienced.  There was a time where I would cut the controller chip off a VCR VFD and wire up to all the pins individually.  I’d then put it in a box for when I felt like figuring out how to make a driver for it.  Now I tend to research the driver chips and only break the circuit where the least amount of modification is necessary to make the circuit do what I want.   These are both valid methods of using some unique technology, I just favor the one which takes more research and less work these days.  This may be because of a revolution in information availability that has come about in my lifetime.

At age 10 I had no use for old motherboard bios chips, but over the years I’ve found out how parallel addressing works, bank switching, and tons of other cool stuff.  I happen to have a UV lamp that I can use to erase some of the older chips (thank you electronics goldmine surprise box) and a programmer that can do almost anything.  That, coupled with the fact that atari 2600 cartridges were basically just an eeprom on a board made it very easy to burn custom roms (several per rom with some dip switches even).  When it’s 10pm and you’d like to burn an atari rom for an event the next day there isn’t exactly time to wait for digikey to ship you the exact part you need, and you come away more educated if you have to figure out how things work rather than just putting together a kit.

When you create a workspace there have to be specific goals in mind.  What is the need that it serves? Is it to be able to make 50 wiring harnesses in a week for a new client’s prototype, or could you be asked to whip up one really unique device.  Is a large stock of a small number of components critical to your daily activities, or will one of each do until you get around to scrounging/ordering more?  If you’re the person to whom standards are important then by all means buy 10 5v power supplies and have them waiting for a use.  I’ll have my assortment of various things and if I need more or less I’ll use a dc-dc to go up, or a zener/linear regulator to go down a tad.  If I need AC I know for most of my power supplies I can just crack them open and take of the rectifier, they’re not the most efficient, but they are versatile with a little know-how.

I’m advocating for keeping all sorts of odd stuff, but that’s not to say it shouldn’t be sorted.  Sorting is one of the most important things I’ve gotten good at.  My method includes lots of fishing tackle boxes full of cr2032 holders, piezo speakers, trrrrrrrrrs jacks and plugs, reed switches, ferite cores, d-sub connectors, buttons, switches, antennas, light bulbs, and other errata that has been collected over the years.  I don’t have a ton of each thing, but they all seemed useful at one point in time and by now I’ve accumulated enough knowledge to be able to use just about all of it if the need arises.  There’s a bin full of fuses.  I seldom have exactly the right size or shape, but if I want a modicum of protection in a new hack I’ll throw one in-line to see if I’m in the right order of magnitude.  Most of the things I have accumulated and then thrown out I didn’t know what I would use it for originally, but once I learned a bit more it became apparent that it wouldn’t help me much in the middle of the night hacking sessions.

The method I use for storing/pitching things:

  • Do I know what I would/could use it for right now?
  • How soon may I want to use it?
  • If I get rid of it, how easy will it be to get back? How fast can I find another?
  • What will I do with the space it frees up?
  • How soon do I want the use of the space it takes up?
  • How hard is it to get rid of?

Let’s take a couple of examples:

Tektronix 555, salvaged from my college, needs lots of work but all there and in beautiful condition.

  • Do I know what I would/could use it for right now?
    • re-cap, try to restore to working, not all that useful but very cool
  • How soon may I want to use it?
    • it’s been years, I’ve lost interest, not very soon
  • If I get rid of it, how easy will it be to get back? How fast can I find another?
    • not too hard but it is in nice condition, and shipping will be murder even if I find one
  • What will I do with the space it frees up?
    • not much, put up a better workbench in the garage
  • How soon do I want the use of the space it takes up?
    • not soon, 3 or 4 projects come before the workbench there
  • How hard is it to get rid of?
    • I don’t want to drive to hamvention or have to meet up with someone from the tektronix rescue list

Conclusion: it can stay for now.

HP 16500B logic analyser, bought from auction for $20 with shit tons of probes and clips and the HP-UX terminal box.  I converted it to CF card for the sake of the hard drive.

  • Do I know what I would/could use it for right now?
    • it’s a bit of a learning curve but a cool tool, who else has a 100 channel 500MHz logic analyser?
  • How soon may I want to use it?
    • eh, I don’t do much work that needs that stuff, the address decoding is only useful for vintage processors
  • If I get rid of it, how easy will it be to get back? How fast can I find another?
    • if I give it to a friend not too hard, if I have to buy another one I won’t get that good of a deal again
  • What will I do with the space it frees up?
    • at the time I was moving, so small footprint was good
  • How soon do I want the use of the space it takes up?
    • moving, so, soon
  • How hard is it to get rid of?
    • I convinced a friend to take it, I just sent it back with him when he visited

Conclusion: let him hold on to it

These stories can go on and on.  Apple ][ GS? given to a fan.  TRS80 COCO2, with box, same thing.  Apple //e (is that how the kids these days do it?) given to friend who thought it was cool.  I usually can’t be bothered to sell things, that takes effort and usually nets a poor profit for my effort.

Moving on to intentionally acquiring things I have no immediate use for.  This is a thing I find essential to building a truly useful arsenal of quality tools/possessions.  When I bought a house I picked up all the essentials I needed as I found I was missing them.  I got brooms, chairs, cutlery, plates, kitchenware, toiletries, but eventually I stopped buying things at my local target or meijer.  Once I had the essentials, then I could focus on the things I didn’t need in everyday life, but that I would want eventually.  Let’s start with a vacuum cleaner (already had a shop-vac), toaster, and stand mixer.  These things aren’t essential so I could spend the time picking out quality, or just cool things that I wanted to own rather than something I was forced into based on need.

Vacuum cleaner.  I already had a shop-vac so this wasn’t a super-pressing need but I knew I would want one eventually.  After my initial research I came up with four possibilities:

  • A Kirby, big heavy, indestructible, and featured in ‘Brave Little Toaster’
  • The Compact C-8 or similar, featured in ‘Gattaca’ and made of a very strong/light alloy
  • A Hoover Constellation, a canister vac that is also a hovercraft for hard floors
  • Central Vacuum system, seems cool and another box to tick on amenities the house has

I decided on the hoover since no one I knew had ever heard of it and it was a concept I liked for my house being full of hardwood floors.  I picked one up for $25 from craigslist and got another attachment at an estate sale for $2.  The one I have doesn’t hover but the repairs needed to fix that don’t seem major.  Even if they end up being insurmountable I will have learned a lot about how they work and that’s half the fun.

My toaster I didn’t spend as much time on, but some research brought me to the Sunbeam T-9.  It has a cool art deco feel, looks a lot like the origin of the toaster in Fallout 4, and reminds me of the Brave Little Toaster.  Mine I got off e-bay for about $45, I know it has the original cord because it’s fabric and paper insulated which was fun when I put a new end on it.  After cleaning it with Quick Glo as recommended on Jay Leno’s Garage (also a product around forever, so it’s probably effective) the shine is a mirror finish.

These are things that I did not need immediately, but would certainly want eventually.  This goes the same for me and tools.  I pick up screwdrivers, hammers, chisels, saws, and basically anything I think I’ll end up buying anyway.  When I get the stuff it’s usually at an estate sale or auction.  I choose to buy older stuff because I know that those products didn’t just fall apart a year after they were bought, they’re several times older than me and will likely keep on being useful after I’m gone.  It’s not just the cost of estate sale tools (which can be quite a steal) but the quality.  If you get an old american forged wrench it will likely last you a lot longer than a modern Chinese cast one.  This even applies for tools with a lifetime warranty.  Do you want to be driving down to Sears every month because the plastic handle cracked off your pliers, or do you want it to just keep working?

I will admit to picking up some tools that I ended up not having a use for.  I got into yankee screwdrivers and basically never got out again.  I love them, the ease of use, the speed without power tools.  I have a friend that picked up a new set but considering I paid a quarter for mine and $7.50 for the bit adapter I don’t regret forgoing the whole modern set and blow-molded plastic case.  I’ve even got one without the spring in it for more precision work.  The ones I regret getting were at an antique mall and had a broken latch.  That means they can not be reeled in and stored easily.  These are basically useless to me considering I already have two good ones.  I recently had a friend ask to look at the mechanism with the intent to copy it, I just offered him some of my scrap ones to cut up.  Eventually, if you have enough patience and space someone will be able to make use of the interesting stuff you’ve collected.

Now, what about when the idea strikes you, and you have to order something? as I remember hearing on the radio (Splendid table, about buying a Tagine), if you’re going to buy one, buy two (or from ‘Contact’ “why build one when you can build two for twice the price”).  The reasoning I heard on the radio was that since there’s an equally small number of things you can do with either of the two major sizes you can get, you might as well get both since you’re apparently serious about using them.  My mentality is similar but has to do with our wonderful global economy.  Example: I want to build a raspberry pi into an amazon echo to try out the echo in my home automation setup.  Problem: the pi has no native analog audio in.  Solution: an $0.89 or best offer usb sound card that takes a month to get here.  I know other people with raspberry pis.  I have multiple raspberry pis.  I would rather spend $0.89 now on one I may never use than wait another month for a second one to come in (even though I can get one locally for $10).  I bought 5.  For that amount of money it was worth it to me to have them in case inspiration struck in the middle of the night (or in the middle of the fracking Chinese new year).  I found someone’s project that used mqtt that they ran on a cheap little router that I could never source locally.  I bought 2  3 (they just came in, apparently I ordered 3) because they are that cheap.  When I bought my little esp boards I got 12 because I didn’t know the supply chain and didn’t trust that they would stay that cheap (I was right, they used to be $2.40).  This all plays into my ‘how easy is it to get another one’ mantra.  I have so many unfinished projects that if I can buy something that will help me finish it then I usually will.

Speaking of unfinished projects, I love those.  I have so many things that I have started but never finished either due to lack of time, skill, interest, resources… I can pick up any one of them and have something interesting to do for a day or two.  If I hit a roadblock I just write down what stopped me, commit and push to github, and pick up another thing.  One thing that is very serious to me is a project that was started in high school.  Imagine a mouse with a built in flash drive.  Not very cool, but it could be useful if you were interested in pen-testing, or just wanted to keep your favorite games a secret from your teachers in school.  The implementation is simple: take a usb mouse, a usb hub, and a usb flash drive.  Strip the hub of all the ports, flash drive too.  Solder wires from drive to hub.  Solder hub in-line with mouse cord.  Cram into mouse.  Done.  Simple? It took me at least 4 years to figure out what we did wrong with that one.  When I cam across that failed project in college it just made me mad how a simple hack could have stumped me.  Looking over it I instantly saw the problem.  I traced the wired for data, and power just fine. The ground had used the SHIELD OF THE USB PORTS as a jumper to get around the board.  Without the ports installed the circuit was open.  Closed the circuit and it all worked.  I will admit it felt like a silly mistake, but that happens on all sorts of scales.  If I can’t figure out a problem, just box it up and wait until I get smarter.  It’s a hobby, I can go at whatever pace I like.

Sometimes it feels like both sides of the same coin.  I want to standardize on one processor so my code is portable, but I have differing needs so I may as well use different parts.   I try to use up the oldest things first, not the unique things that exist as curiosities, but the things losing support.  Use that atmega168, that atmega1280.  Try to find an OS that can make use of that beagle board, panda board, beagle board XM, beagle bone white before no modern image can easily run on it.  Use the things that will get harder to use later.  Make a project that’s easy to finish and stick them in it, glue them down, and forget about them.  Got an old arduino duemilanove? Make a DMX spoofer with it (needs the old FTDI chip).  The possibilities are literally endless, and using a board for something well below what it was designed for helps with stability.  You don’t have to code efficently if there’s twice the ram and flash you will ever use.  Forget shift registers or muxes if you’ve got 60 pins to play with.

I was stymied for so long on lack of money to finish projects, then lack of parts.  I now only lack the interest or skill which only go up as time goes on.  If I find that I need some space to fit new and more interesting things then of course I’ll make way.  If the thing taking up space needs to go, maybe that’s the motivation I need to dive in and finish it,  I have a pile of wood to build shelves, maybe the assortment I have won’t make the most efficient shelves but it will use up some of my spare parts.  When you’ve resigned yourself to not needing something at all then you end up not worrying about it’s use being a waste.  So many of my projects are overbuilt because I had old, robust hardware to start with and in their new job the wear on them will be so little it doesn’t matter that I only had enough parts to build one, that’s all the ones I’ll ever need.

I find myself motivated to finish projects if they’re easy in the aspects that I don’t find interesting and challenging where I like to wallow.  Don’t be afraid to buy parts you might not need, don’t feel bad for holding onto  things you don’t know how to use. Just keep learning and you might thank yourself some day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: