Friday, July 1, 2011

Running on (Soldering) Fumes

I'm a bit under the weather this week. Did get a lot of soldering done, though; repaired...

Two laptop computers
A power supply for same
A pair of headphones
A half-dozen wireless microphone elements
A portable heater

Just got some more parts in the mail and the next half-dozen wireless microphone elements are on the table. If I can find time around making microphone bags, creating sound effects, setting up speakers, programming the sound board...

As I struggle to make the new novel move foreword, I realize the DIY philosophy is important to me, and is going to be a part of it. Heck...the protagonist of my first novel was a machinist, and even though it wasn't that kind of story she managed a couple of nice hacks (including a McGuyverish improvisation at the climax that almost got her killed but ended up saving the day.) And this works in with my desire to show some of the Bay Area, where I live, and some of the circles of people that interest me. Maker's Faire. The Crucible. Boutique stomp-box makers. Luthiers and Early Instrument builders. Experimental music.

Theater is after all my vocation and there has always been an element of improvisation and re-purposing and dumpster diving in it. It is not at all unusual to have to do something that properly belongs in a trade or craft -- bending wrought iron, painting in oils, running plumbing, making hair appliances, etc. -- and not having the funds to get a professional. So we end up being self-taught stitchers, electricians, welders, woodworkers, and so on. And not infrequently a show will bring you in contact with new materials and new skills you have to pick up (usually quickly!)

I am not up to writing an essay on the DIY philosophy right now. I've got a cold, collapsed on the sofa after a meeting and only woke up because I am starving. I have until the saffron rice is ready to write this.

But let me try to share a couple of things you should have to be a Maker.

1) A careful confidence. You start with assuming the thing is possible. That you have the mind to learn the skills, that your fingers are sensitive enough to carry them out. The more different kinds of things you learn to do, the more this confidence that you CAN pick up a new skill will grow.

2) I said "careful" for a reason. You also need humility. You respect that there are people with skills and you commit to learn from them. You also must have a healthy doubt in your own ability. Recognize your limitations, recognize your comfort zone, and more than anything else be aware that many of these things can maim or kill you. It is not saying too much that you must assume there are hidden dangers you haven't even imagined, and you treat the process with respect and look for mentors to try to show you where those dangers are.

3) Look forward to failure. Many people never attempt things because they don't want to fail. Many people will hang on to a broken thing, never daring to try to fix it for fear they'll make it worse. Word; if it don't work, and it's too expensive to take it to the shop, YOU CAN'T MAKE IT WORSE. You can't get less than useless. At the absolute worst case you will still learn something from opening it up (even if the thing you learn is "Hey, those things can't be repaired, can they!" Be aware of failure, be prepared for it, intend to learn from it. Maybe the first throw will be awful. If you studied why it went bad, the next throw is merely bad. And, eventually, you either make a pot you like...or you realize pots aren't for you, but in the process you've added more general knowledge and manual dexterity. Which brings us to:

4) The more you do, the better you get. You will never be perfect. You will never know it all. Start small if you can, work up. With each project you will not only get better, you will become a better judge of how big a project you can attempt.

And this essay is already longer than I intended, but some examples from this week:

The power supply. It had a loose wire. It sometimes worked if you jiggled it. It was long out of warranty, and expensive enough to be worth investing a few hours trying to repair. The fact that it sometimes worked meant that, in all probability, it was all in good working order (except for the one loose connection.) So the first step is, as with all repairs, crack the case and look inside.

I don't think that case was supposed to be opened. But since it was broken already, I couldn't make it worse. I took a razor saw and cut it apart. Inside, the problem was nicely obvious; the plug wiggled, and there was a nasty black mark of the sparks from a loose connection. Clean with some emery paper, re-solder, squeeze the case back together along the cut line, and drip CA glue into the crack. It may not look quite as nice, but it works as well as if it just came from the factory.

Actually, better. While I was inside, I slapped a meter on it and verified it put out 24 VDC in operation. Looked up the right ballast resistor and purchased a bright green LED. Soldered up the LED and confirmed you could see it through the case when lit. And soldered it inside before sealing the case. Now the power supply has a light to tell me if it is plugged in or not.

Headphones. One muff stopped working. Manipulated it, and it worked for a moment then stopped again. Again, obviously a loose wire. Plugged them in, turned up the volume, and carefully felt along the entire exposed wire that went from one side to the other. The bad spot was inside a swivel. Fortunately, I have a bunch of scraps of similar wire around from repairing all those wireless microphones. The only issue was feeding the new wire through all the little plastic parts.

Heater. Stopped giving heat, but the fan still works. Had a three-position switch; fan only, low heat, high heat. Pulled it apart. On visual examination the heater element looks fine. No loose wires, no discoloration. Traced the circuit; the thermostat and safety switch are "upstream" of the fan. That is; there is nothing specific to the heater element that might be broken. Except for the switch. So as an experiment, cut the wires and wired the element in parallel with the fan. It works. So went back, spliced the heater on to the first switch position (I don't need a "fan only" setting anyhow) and boxed it back up.

Laptops. My working laptop went dark suddenly. Tried to restart, wiggled the power cord. Magic smoke came out. This is not a good sign. The thing about the laptop is, I worked my way up to it. I did RAM a long time ago -- that's easy. Getting to the HD is a little tougher; you have to open up the back. Swapping the optical drive was next; that's even more connections you have to remove. Each time, you see, was a small step beyond my current comfort level.

Popped the keyboard and, yes, a nice scorched area on the motherboard and several of the SMD components are toast. This is not going to start again. Assuming the HD and other parts are still good, I went on eBay and found a "stripped" laptop of similar model (no HD, no RAM, etc.)

Swap the parts over, including my good optical drive. Lights up, goes into boot cycle but can't find the drive. Hrm. Stick a boot CD in. It boots. Drive is still invisible. Pull the drive, stick it in an external case. Drive reads good. Just for a lark, see if the laptop will boot from the external drive. It does. Stick it back in. No boot. But now there's an error message, and the system profile has an unknown device on the SATA bus.

Pry the drive out again. And THIS time I notice the other side of the connector, on the new mobo, is loose.

So I tried to re-solder it (and I am NOT set up for soldering SMDs). No joy, but doesn't work, and I really can't make it worse at this point. So back to eBay, order a new mobo, and stick the drive back in the external case again to boot from that and rescue some files I needed to work on.

New mobo shows up. Now I'm really out of my comfort zone...have to pull and swap a laptop motherboard. But as it turns out, it is just like a drive....just even more screws, even more connectors, even more little things that get caught and have to be carefully wiggled free. The boot CD is still in the drive and when I power up, it boots from that. But still no HD!

At this point I'm firmly in repair mode, though; I booted with the back off, half the component still uninstalled, and bits of sticky tape holding it together in lieu of putting all those fumbly little torx screws back in. So...the one thing I haven't swapped recently is the bit of cable that leads from the HD to the mobo. I swap this. It boots! Finish the smoke test, box it back up.

And since I've got a pretty good idea what's going on now, I stick the mobo from the second computer (the one with a busted SATA connector) into the original laptop (the one with the charcoal-colored motherboard from which all the magic smoke has leaked). Stick a spare HD I have lying around into the external case...and after some struggled, convince the boot CD to install a clean system on to it. I promptly christen the reborn laptop "Ood Laptop," as it is now carrying its brains outside its head, on the end of a gray USB cable.

And it is now time to eat.

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