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My Personal Rules For Undertaking An Attempt To Repair A Piece of Tech Without Expertise

Sometimes it feels worth making an attempt to repair some piece of technology even if I don't know anything (or not much) about how exactly it works or what's broken. Either something that used to work until I broke it or something that I picked up from the street because I didn't think it should be thrown on a pile of scrap and dismantled. A vintage kitchen helper found on the street, an expensive looking radio from the 1980s a friend wanted to throw away, an electric saw that worked for two weeks before breaking (which is when I understood why it was so cheap), a remote control that was powered while wet for a while, an annoying printer that tasted my boots to give it a reason not to work properly; You know, some thing that you don't know anything about, but since it's already broke, you may as well ruin it completely by taking it apart and not remembering which part goes where. I like taking that stuff apart (if I have the time) right after deciding to throw it out. That way it doesn't feel like I'm loosing anything except time, but I may gain knowledge of how it used to work and experience in taking apart devices.

Over time I gathered rules that I give myself when doing this, to minimise the possibility of wasting time and an easily repairible device. I ususally ignore at least some of those rules. But I believe that they are good and make sense. They are no special insight and nothing you couldn't come up with yourself. But I needed to think of them consiouly before I was able to take advantage of them. So I recommend adapting them when doing similar repair attemps that are above ones experience level.

1 - Wait until you have the (right) time.

If you're stressed, don't have a few hours to waste, can't stop thinking of something else, etc. then it's not the right time to make an attempt to repair a device that you don't know. Without taking my time, I tend to ignore the rest of the rules and end up with a pile of frustration and 20 pieces of an even more broken device than before.

2 - Clean your workbench before starting.

Whether you have an actual workbench or use a table or the floor, make sure you have the necessary space to line up different pieces, modules, boards, plates, springs, cables, etc. in an orderly fashion, the extra room you may need for a soldering iron and other large tools as well as a collection of smaller tools and then have enough space left to comfortably work on the device from all angles.

3 - Prepare a container for screws and other small parts.

It doesn't have to be one of these magnetic dishes. Sometimes it shouldn't be one, because cetain parts shouldn't be magnetised. But it should be capable of keeping at least 5 or 6 groups of parts separate. A medizine magazine works. Don't forget to label which screws are for what. That container should be out of reach of your elbow, tool's cables, etc. For large enough screws you can stick them in a piece of blank cartboard and scribble any sort of description, grouping information or remarks on it.

4 - Take pictures. Take more pictures. Take better pictures.

You may be able to remember how any part was positioned before you started working on it. But you may not remember all of them after an hour or two of tinkering with and looking at a completely different part. Also it's not uncommon to overlook a possible ambiguity in how parts go together. When you notice during re-assembly that you aren't sure which way an almost symmetrical piece of metal goes into another piece of mechanics, then you'll be happy to have good pictures.

5 - Make sure there is good lighting onto the work area.

This means more light than you would be comfortable with/need for watching something on a screen or navigating the room as well as light from the right angles (and not only from one angle). This helps with seeing small details better (or at all), increasing contrast between different parts, seeing e.g. markings and labels more easily. Thereby it prolongs the time it takes for you to become frustrated. If there isn't good lighting at your work area, best fix something up before you start so you don't have to fiddle with torches and phones jammed between books and a water botter or something while trying to do the actual work on the broken device.

6 - Stop before you're frustrated.

If it turns out to not be simple and quick to fix something (as it usually does) then it can be helpful to recognise the moment in which motivation starts for fall beneath the threshold that you require to continue working on the device properly. If you're getting sloppy it may be better to stop for now before you bend something out of shape, loose a tiny screw, fry some electronics or something like that. Especially if you're working on something that isn't completley broken, it's important to spot your frustration in time so you can still put it back together without breaking more than you were able to rapair.

7 - Do research before you start.

Even if you can't find any information at all about the specific device you have, there might good guides on how to do something on similar devices or you can look at people repairing the general kind of device that you want to work on, or read about common causes for your issue or similar issues. There usually are some tips to be learned from other people's experiences; Even if they were as inexperienced as you before they made a repar attemps. Nowadays most of those experiences are found on YouTube. For some areas it makes sense to search web forums or Reddit as well. Sadly, information on personal web sites are rearely presented by search engines.

An Example

I picked up a car radio with tape drive and 5x CD changer from a curve. After drying it (it was filled with rain) it worked, but the magnetic head sounded dirty and CDs weren't always recognised. After being annoyed by not being able to listen to CDs for the enoughth time, I opened up the device, cleaned the laser's lens, and it worked. That was lucky and I was glad that I ignored the advice from a more experienced person who said: "If you don't know exactly what you're doing, don't try to repair a CD player. You'll brek it even more." Then I started putting it back together because I had to remove some metal pieces to get to the laser lens. The phone that I used for lighting fell from the bottle I balanged it on and tipped a glass of water with the intention of destroying my laptop. Because I had put all the metal pieces onto one pile (onto other things on the desk), I wasn't sure which one I had to put on first. Since I hadn't taken any pictures I just tried it the wrong way first. Then I had to take two pieces off again because the order was wrong, during which I lost a spring of uncertain importance. When I wanted to put the last piece back on I noticed that I didn't have enough screws of the right size. Neither in the pile on the desk nor on the floor. After replacing some of the screws and distributing them in a way that made the whole thing look sturdy enough I put the lid back on, turned the device on again and was thanked by a crying DC motor that tried to rotate a long chain of gears, of which one seemed to be stuck. I tried to find which part blocked what by touching the gears in question while it was trying to move. There would have been safer ways to find the cause of the new problem. But I didn't have the patience. I touched the caseing with a PCB, the device went off and never back on again.

I think I don't have to list or point out how abiding to the above rules would have helped in this example.

I hope that you find joy in learning something from failed repair attempts wether you abide any of these rules or not.

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I don't need one of these newfangled camera phones. I don't need an update for my smartphone and I already have a camera that takes digital images.

Nokia 9300 and Sony Mavica FD-91 are a good duo if you ask me.

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I feel like I'm not using modern technology and other privileges that are available to me today to it's full potential. I think that nobody is even able to. I mean, I'm sitting here on a bench in the fields writing a blog entry and uploading it to "my" web server via SSH, listening to an independent web radio over the internet in-between browsing the web (that really is almost world-wide) for any information that interests me at that moment, with a "phone" capable of so much more than I would have thought 20 years ago even desktop computer should be able to do. But still, so much would be possible with today's technology (mainly the internet and small, battery powered devices). Humanity, what are you doing, wasting your own inventions? steeph, what are you doing wasting your time and resources on listening to some random person talking about something just because it fulfils your momentary desire for information about that topic while typing this sentence?

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No smart home for me, thanks.

I don't think I'm going to set up anything that could be considered smart home tech for me. There are such fun projects in it and it would be very satisfying to be able to control some things remotely (that is, I'd decide on and be able to change the interface) but it would also be yet another never-ending project for me. I have never planned to install anything of that kind but I already have so many ideas about what I would do if I would go smart home and how I'd set things up. Let's leave it at that. I have enough too many unfinished project already.

For example I have those universal keypads that were made for numeric keypads (+ a fey extra keys) of industrial machines. I have at least a dozon of them, maybe two. They are great: Good quality in every aspect, nice hard click, sturdy, customisable (buttons can be switched out or replaced by blank covers) and a simple matrix connector. It would ne great to have one of these next to every door, in or on every table, at the bedside, and maybe one or two non-stationary ones that would control everything that could be relevant from the location of each terminal.

Every terminal would have a micro controller connected to a network. I could update those controllers all at once with new firmware. The keypads would have several modes from where I could control devices and the lights (including color, at least in one room). Also for my blinking light projects and mood light that would be a nice way of turning on and off exactly those lamps, effects and glowing pictures that I want at taht moment.

But I won't do it. That's a decision.

PS: Does anybody want some great small keypads for DIY use?

Edit: I remember that I, when I previously talked about this topic, said that I don't start with this because the value I see it bringing to my life isn't large enough. I said that the one thing that could convince me that it's worth investing money and time into smart home tech would be a really very reliable way of sensing presence in a room as well as somebody approaching the entrance to a room. Basically, if the music or podcast that I was currently playing on my PC or phone would automatically be played in the room I'm currently in but not in any room I'm not in, except when I was about to walk into another room, then I'd maybe get in. If this would be really really reliable and affortable, then I'd reconsider my decision. Thermal based motion sensors aren't good enough for this. I'd probably need a dozen of them in each room. (Looks like I saved a dozen of the wrong things from being scrapped.) And to customise the software for my home would probably a small project on its own. I don't know of another sensor that could do this that wouldn't require me having at least some sort of device on me all the time.

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Another never finished electronics project: my electronic typewriter that would make a very nice retro style terminal but isn't one

Background story: I wanted to park my car at a certain small parking lot that's usually pretty full. I was lucky: There was a free spot. Or so it seemed. As I drove up to it I saw there was something lying in the middle of the free spot. Looked like somebody got rid of some scrap there. I got out and honestly I wanted to put the stuff to the back of the parking spot under the tree that was there. If somebody decided not to bring their scrap to the right facility for free for some reason that doesn't make me responsible to pick it up and bring it there, I thought. But when I saw that it was an almost new looking electronic typewriter, I quickly decided to take it with me instead. It was a Triumph Adler Gabriele PFS. As I read somewhere it came out in the late 2000s or early 2010s. So not as vintage as the name typewriter may sound. But definitely some old piece of tech that is obsolete now but has a nice character and conveys a feeling from a certain time. That and the fact that I've never had or even used one made me add it to my collection of retro tech (that I've never before called collection because it doesn't really deserve that name).

Back at home I examined and tested it and I would have cleaned it, but there was nothing to clean. The case of the internal transformer was cracked and the outer case had a deep scratch at the corner where the transformer is. Everything was working fine except for the 2.8" diskette drive. The rubber band had long been degraded. But the bigger problem was that the main motor didn't do anything else than heating up very quickly. I couldn't find a replacement easily and still couldn't find a good replacement when I searched more thoroughly later. So I've replaced the drive with an emulator so I could use SD cards instead of diskettes. That not only has the advantage of working right now but also of using a medium that is more reliable being handled by my clumsy self and available easily. New 2.8 " diskettes would cost more than SD cards and couldn't hold nearly as many and long documents.

Before the drive emulator worked I had to work a bit with the developer of its firmware. I was lucky that I had a logic analyser and that the project was actively maintained by a developer who cared for adding support for my typewriter. The interface for that model of Mitsumi QuickDisk drive was already supported before. But the reverse engineered parameters, especially the timing was just not exact enough for my Gabriele.

Well, that's the state the machine is in right now. I can use it, I can save documents to SD card, I can't read the original diskettes and I can't read the documents on a PC or create documents for the typewriter on a PC without writing software for it first. I'm not using it for anything. The best thing I could come up with on what I could/would want to do with it is to add an interface that allows me to use it as a text printer. It has a printball with all important characters (no ASCII line art though, sadly) and maybe completely switch out its software to give the machine a new purpose. The easiest way for me would probably be to ignore all the electronics that are already inside and add a microcontroller that handles the LCD, print head and communication with the outside. I still wouldn't have any use for that though. So additionally I would turn it into a serial or telnet or SSH terminal, maybe all three. That would be more fun. Vintage look, vintage keyboard, vintage feel overall, a display that is subpar because it's old technology but still good enough to do its job, and the ability to print text on paper. Yeah, that would be fun. But I still wouldn't really have a use for it. I have a laptop that can do that job better and the keyboard of the typewriter doesn't have as many keys as I'd want it to have.

So, I'm not going to do it, or anything else with it. Maybe some day. Or none. Got any better/additional idea what I could do with it?

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