In Search of Solder and a Sense of Achievement

Chris Davies - Nov 27, 2010
In Search of Solder and a Sense of Achievement

Should all geeks have soldering iron burns on their hands if they want the title? Probably not; after all, another hallmark of the ideal geek is an affinity with code, making software do amazing things. They come in all shapes and sizes, then, but there’s a special, envious place in my heart for those to whom resister colors are meaningful rather than decorative. I look at the sometimes-useful, sometimes-bizarre, invariably brilliant projects documented on MAKE; I look at modders and DIY tinkerers like jkkmobile, slotting HSPA modems where manufacturers never intended them to sit, and I wish I could be trusted with a soldering iron and screwdriver set to do the same.

[Image credit: Windell H. Oskay]

It’s about longevity, I think, the desire to create something less ephemeral than words on a screen. Perhaps it’s the odd sense of pride that leads parents to stick the awful pictures their children have drawn up on the refrigerator, even though the people they crayon look like bloated sausages with sticks protruding, and the colors are all wrong. My battery-powered gizmos would likely be wretched, and pointless, and poorly put together, but they’d be my own little track record of (mediocre) achievement. I certainly don’t expect the amateur electronics I might come up with to be snapped up by the Science Museum, any more than I could hope the British Library might decide it’s their moral obligation to future generations that my writing should be preserved in a mink-lined, magnetically shielded hard-drive caddy.

Space, though, is my problem, and time, or at least the agreeable use of them. Decide to spend your days writing – or blogging – and all you need is a patch of land for your laptop, a tiny footprint indeed. I’ve a suspicion any physical projects I took on would expand to a far greater degree, monopolising the dining table, a couple of cupboards (I’m a hoarder already, so imagine factoring in hundreds of lengths of “might come in handy” wire, “too useful to throw away” LEDs and “blimey, nice action on that one” switches, not to mention potential project boxes, lengths of breadboard and those brilliant multi-hand “solderer’s friends”) and plenty of time I already don’t spend with family and friends because I’m too busy wading through Twitter, Techmeme and NetNewsWire.

I’m also over-ambitious. I don’t want to make a simple radio, or an array of Knight Rider style blinking lights; I’m not interested in a DIY plant moistness monitor. I look at the open-source robotics we gleefully write about on SlashGear, and the sprawling, beguiling synths and odd instruments, and I want to immediately wade into waters I’ve nowhere near the skills for. That ridiculous ambition also stops me actually buying anything: do I spend a few hundred on a robot kit I’m probably going to botch, break or simply give up on, because I don’t know which end of an Arduino is which? No, so I make more mental shopping lists instead.

Blogging is cost-effective, and it’s relatively straightforward too. Problem is, along the way it’s too easy to spend all your time writing about, rather than doing, the things that interest you. Given the public holiday just gone, it seems topical to be thankful for the audience we – I – have here, for the times they agree with us and the times they disagree, for the tips they send in, for sharing the things they find exciting and the ways in which they make us think. This time next year, though, I hope I’m also thankful for the new soldering iron burns on my fingers, the shoeboxes filled with nameless components, and the line-up of pointless gizmos on the windowsill, blinking their LEDs at me gleefully.

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