My Breadboard Brings All The Boys to The Yard

When I’m bored on a Saturday, I sometimes like to go to Goodwill and buy a fork.

Just one.

Knives and spoons are also fair game, but forks are my favorite.

Often I’ll take a friend, if I have one handy, and she is the sort who does not immediately hang up when I ask for help buying a single used fork.

Everyone takes some persuading, at first, so I explain that it’s a really a game, with one goal: to pick the single best fork from among dozens or hundreds of random examples of the type. Having someone else along makes the game that much more interesting because, not only do you have to find the best one, you have to agree on it.

The point, besides having fun, is to practice appreciating the infinite variety that even the most mundane objects and experiences offer us. The thing itself costs maybe fifty cents, and if the hunting is good, can become a treasured prize and keepsake. Especially if you mud-wrestle for it afterwards.

My habit of staking out eBay for seemingly boring stuff — AA batteries, pull tabs, empty bottles — comes from a similar place. A solderless breadboard is ephemeral by nature, so most people never really stop to think about whether theirs could be better in any way. As long as it does the job without exploding or giving you anthrax, why waste time thinking about it? Honestly, I don’t have a good answer to that question. But the fact remains that I naturally tend to do so.

The object pictured here is the most amazing breadboard I have ever seen. I bought it simply because it turned up in one of my “boring” eBay searches and I doubted very strongly that I would ever see another like it. I paid twenty-five bucks plus shipping. I will let the photos speak for themselves.

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Seek Thermal Imager HTC DNA Hack

Close shot of bottom rear of HTC DNA smartphone with improvised reversing adapter attached between the phone and a Seek thermal imager add-on.

Possibly the best gift I received in 2014 was this Seek thermal add-on imager for my phone. Unfortunately, the device comes with a non-reversible micro-USB plug attached, and the single jack on my HTC Droid DNA is “upside down,” meaning the imager’s optic ends up facing the same way as the screen.

Otherwise, the thing works like a champ: app was easy to install, works well, plugged in and started up with no problems, etc. The hardware’s also pretty slick, and comes with a ruggedized keychain case so you can carry it around in your pocket. But it’s basically useless with the lens facing the wrong direction.

The Seek website recommends this six-inch male/female micro-USB extension cable for devices affected by this “backwards” problem. I bought one and it didn’t work. Again: Plug the imager directly into the phone port and it works fine; plug it in through a 6-inch USB cable—the one the manufacturer recommends—and it doesn’t. Neither the phone OS nor the imager app shows any sign of detecting the device. This was especially frustrating because the very first review on the Amazon page for this cable is titled “Works fine with the Seek Thermal.”

About this time I discovered, to my chagrin, that micro-USB extension cables come in various flavors depending on whether they are for charging/syncing the phone or allowing it to serve as a USB host (“OTG”). The hackers and engineers reading this will immediately understand my frustration at this idea—it’s an extension cable, for f*ck’s sake: All the contacts at one end should be connected to the corresponding contacts at the other end, with continuous conductors between them. Is that really too much to ask? Omitting certain conductors just serves to fragment the market and create artificial demand for multiple purchases from individual users. Nonetheless, on a lark, I bought the complementary “charging” cable and discovered that, unsurprisingly, it does not work either.

Getting really pissed off now, I hopped over to eBay and bought a US-made 6-inch micro-USB extension cable advertised as “ALL 5 WIRES CONNECTED,” which of course is what “extension cable” should mean in the first place.

Guess what? That cable didn’t work either. There was, however, now at least a glimmer of hope. Using the eBay cable, the phone OS would detect the imager’s presence just as if it were plugged directly into the port. But the imager app, itself, still showed the (now infuriatingly glib) prompt, “Connect camera to enable thermal imaging.”

Shown in the photo is what finally worked. I jumped over to SparkFun and bought matching male and female micro-USB breakout boards, then manually soldered solid-core breadboard jumper wires between the two. I did as neat a job as possible on my little homemade ribbon cable, then put a single twist in it to turn the lens in the right direction.

Now, finally, it works. But the whole experience has left me with an intense distrust of USB cables, and very impatient for the new reversible Type C micro USB connector to arrive.

Curb Score of the Year – 2012

This DeWalt DW911 jobsite radio was out by the trash bins on bulk pick-up day in my folks’ wealthy Austin suburb a couple months back. It’s got a nice AM/FM stereo receiver with an AUX input, decent speakers, and a port in the back to charge a DeWalt or DeWalt-compatible tool battery pack. If it’s not plugged into the wall, it can run off the battery pack instead of charging it. All that, plus DeWalt yellow. For which I am a complete sucker.

Anyway. Somebody threw it out, and I grabbed it. These cost like $100, new, and I’ve been eyeing them in the big orange store for years but could never really justify the expense. Unsurprisingly, this one didn’t work at all when I plugged it in. Getting the case open was a bit of a trick; it turned out to be glued shut along the seam. I took all the obvious screws out and would’ve wasted a lot more time and done a lot more damage looking for the “hidden” screws if some thoughtful soul hadn’t figured out the glue thing and taken the time to share their discovery on FixYa. Thanks, man! A few strategic whacks with a rubber mallet opened it right up.

Anyway, once I got it open, it turned out to be a fuse. I love it when that happens. And I even had the right spare on hand in my parts box. Happy.

The Case of the Rattling Awl

The first car I remember my parents owning was a 1977 Chevrolet station wagon—blue, with fake wood paneling on the sides. A few months after buying the car, Dad reports, something within the passenger-side rear compartment wall, near the spare tire stowage, began to rattle. Soon, the noise irritated him enough that he disassembled the interior paneling to find and silence it.

Which is where he discovered this tool, a hand awl, presumably lost or abandoned there by an upholstery installer on the assembly line. Dad, who has never been a big fan of organized labor, at least once advocated the latter theory, i.e. that the awl was abandoned in the car, on purpose, by a worker exploiting union regs to the effect that he or she could not be required to work unless provided with the correct tool. Being considerably more liberal, I am prepared to give that long-ago UAW member the benefit of the doubt and believe it was walled up by accident.

Dad put the awl in the top drawer of his toolbox and it’s lived there ever since, though the car it came in is now thirty years gone. It’s heavy, solid, and quite well made, with a turned aluminum handle and replaceable pommel- and tip-fittings. I used it just today.