Tuesday, May 12, 2009
On advantages of being a pack rat
by Larry Geller
This weekend I actually made use of some crap that I have zealously guarded and transported around several continents along with our household stuff. It’s terrible. Now one of my worst habits will be reinforced. All it takes is one success.
I actually used a small brass part to fix a broken heater knob and save myself a hassle finding a replacement (which wouldn’t last any longer than the original anyway). The brass part has rested patiently in a plastic bucket of assorted brass, copper and zinc junk for more than 40 years, just waiting to be of service to me.
Adults called it “collecting” and were allowed to fill their homes with mounted insects, tea cups, books of stamps, shot glasses, and even these days anything whatsoever with the “Hello Kitty” design. But we kids were discouraged from bringing assorted crap home, no matter how valuable it seemed to us in the moment.
I was a frustrated kid pack rat. So naturally, I wanted to fill my pockets with junk when I got older and free of parental controls. I still have a huge collection of Olympus cameras and accessories in storage. It’s no longer in use, but I still have it. And this smaller collection I’m about to describe.
My big rebellion took place at one of the IEEE shows in New York (that’s the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers). Those conventions preceded the consumer electronics shows we have today, and were just as large and crazy. In those days, though, manufacturers were much more willing than now to share samples of their products. So while today it’s not possible to bring home the latest iWhat unveiled in Vegas, in the old days, you could score some pretty fancy parts just for asking. And students were admitted to the show either free or at discounted admission. So the ROI was very respectable. They even gave you a free convention tote bag at the door to fill up.
The exhibitor I’m indebted to for the brass collar that reclaimed my broken heater knob is Gries Reproducer. Although originally founded to reproduce sound for talking movies in 1926, they moved somehow into reproducing metal parts through die casting. At one or more IEEE shows they simply brought truckloads of plastic and metal parts which they dumped into a big, shallow trough. I did fill my convention tote each day I visited the show. I lugged it all back to Brooklyn on the subway.
Back home I gleefully sorted the take into plastic cable hold-downs, thumb screws, brass contacts (great when a leaky battery destroys the contact in the battery holder of something), strange castings of all different shapes, ferrules, strain reliefs, and on and on. What fun! I had a huge collection of plastic screws, bolts and nuts. I still have it someplace…
Yes, 40 years later, one tiny piece of metal fit exactly around the split shaft of the heater knob, keeping it together despite its poor Chinese design. I gave thanks to the part for waiting around so patiently, and to Gries Reproducer, wherever they are and whoever has bought them up, for coming to my assistance when I needed some help.
I apologize in advance to whoever has to clean up my junk when I’m gone. As they toss it all they’ll mutter nasty things about an old guy who kept all this junk around the house. It’s not the old guy who did it, it’s the inner child, and nyah, nyah, I just proved I’m right.
It is a failing, but here in Hawai'i, when parts are often several days away via internet ordering it can be an advantage. I have several large shelving units of electronic parts in the garage, a couple storage totes as well, all carefully sorted and stored for years. The detritus of a career as an electrical engineer.
When my wife's LCD monitor failed a couple months back, I had the necessary capacitors on hand, it was repaired that evening. It will be a while before she makes any disparaging comments about my parts stash.
Most of my stuff is rapidly obsoleting itself. Fantastic that you could fix the LCD monitor so quickly, you also saved big bucks if it was out of warranty (which it must have been or why fix it yourself I assume).
I didn't mention it, but I needed a certain solvent glue to hold the knob together so the little piece that was breaking off would not continue to split. In my glue collection was a tube of exactly the right stuff. The price tag on it was ¥150, from Ito-ya on the Ginza. At least 27 years old. Still good. Worked fine.
Now, what we need maybe is a pack rat network, so if someone needs something, they can check around.
I wanted to thank you for this. It's been a while since you've posted a personal blog. One point I'd like to make is I think from a statistical mindset, it seems the younger someone is the less likely they are to collect parts or small things and more likely to collect useless fad consumer products bought on TV. I think that over the last 30-40 years consumerism has turned towards a purely throw-away culture. Most people I know would look at a failed LCD monitor dump it in the trash and buy a new one at Costco/Walmart/Best Buy. I don't think most high school graduates under forty know anything about the mechanical or electrical universe other than the intuitive male plug goes in female socket.
That is one of the tragedies of American education in the last 40 years. Americans have focused desperately on the quantity of test scores and missed the quality of a well rounded education. Our children are repositories of lost of meaningless science trivia and lacking in the ability to make anything themselves.
This is an excellent post. I'm not mechanically inclined, so I was glad when a family friend helped repair a shredder that we would have otherwise thrown away. A pack-rat network is a great idea. Andrew, I live on the Big Island; if I have an electronic-repair need, might I contact you?
Sorry, it would be an OM2. And it's been in a box for so long I doubt the shutter works or the lenses have any oil left. That part of my stash is badly neglected. The flash units are also so old that the capacitors are probably dead.