Low-tech fixes for high-tech problems

Low-tech fixes for high-tech problems

As customers begin to queue, he reaches beneath the counter for a black plastic bag. He wraps one layer of the plastic around the card and swipes it again. Success. The sale is rung up.

“I don’t know how it works, it just does,” says Azar, who learned the trick years ago from another clerk.

It’s one of many low-tech fixes for high-tech failures that people without engineering degrees have discovered, often out of desperation, and shared.

Today’s shaky economy is likely to produce many more such tricks. “In postwar Japan, the economy wasn’t doing so great, so you couldn’t get everyday-use items like household cleaners,” says Lisa Katayama, author of Urawaza, a book named after the Japanese term for clever lifestyle tips and tricks. Popular urawaza include picking up broken glass from the kitchen floor with a slice of bread, or placing houseplants on a water-soaked diaper to keep them watered during a vacation trip.

Mobile losing charge

If your cellphone loses its battery charge too quickly while idle in your pocket, part of the problem may be that your pocket is too warm.

“Cellphone batteries do indeed last a bit longer if kept cool,” says Isidor Buchanan, editor of the Battery University Web site. The 98.6-degree body heat of a human, transmitted through a cloth pocket to a cellphone inside, is enough to speed up chemical processes inside the phone’s battery. To keep the phone cooler, carry it in your purse or on your belt. You can even turn off the phone and put it in the hotel refrigerator overnight to slow the battery’s tendency to  lose  charge.

Suppose your remote car door opener does not have the range to reach your car across the parking lot. Hold the metal key part of your key fob against your chin, then push the unlock button. The trick turns your head into an antenna, says Tim Pozar, a Silicon Valley radio engineer.

Dry ink cartridge

If your printer’s ink cartridge runs dry near the end of an important print job, remove the cartridge and run a hair dryer on it for two to three minutes. Then place the cartridge back into the printer and try again while it is still warm.

“The heat from the hair dryer heats the thick ink, and helps it to flow through the tiny nozzles in the cartridge,” says Alex Cox, a software engineer in Seattle. “When the cartridge is almost dead, those nozzles are often nearly clogged with dried ink, so helping the ink to flow will let more ink out of the nozzles.”

Cellphone in the toilet

It could happen to anyone: you dropped your cellphone in the toilet. Take the battery out immediately, to prevent electrical short circuits from frying your phone’s fragile internals. Then, wipe the phone gently with a towel, and shove it into a jar full of uncooked rice.

It works for the same reason you may keep few grains of rice in your salt shaker to keep the salt dry. Rice has a high chemical affinity for water. So, water molecules will be soaked up into the rice rather than beading up inside the phone.

If your home Wi-Fi router doesn’t reach the other end of the house, build a six-inch-high passive radio wave reflector from kitchen items, like an aluminum cookie sheet.

Follow the instructions at freeantennas.com/projects/template. Place the completed reflector — a small, curved piece of metal that reflects radio waves just like a satellite TV dish — behind your Wi-Fi router.

It focuses the router’s energy in one direction rather than letting it dissipate its strength in a full circle. No cables, no technical knowledge required. Yet it can easily double the range of your network.

You need to clean a skipping DVD or CD, but as a bachelor you don’t have any sissy cleaning fluids? Soak a washcloth with vodka or mouthwash. Alcohol is a powerful solvent, perfectly capable of dissolving fingerprints and grime on the surface of a disc.

Crashed hard drive

If your PC’s hard drive crashes and can’t be read, don’t be too quick to throw it out. Stick it in the freezer overnight.

“The trick is a real and proven, albeit last resort, recovery technique for some kinds of otherwise-fatal hard-drive problems,”writes Fred Langa.  Lowering the drive’s temperature causes its metal and plastic internals to contract slightly. Taking the drive out of the freezer, and returning it to room temperature can cause those parts to expand again.

That may help free up binding parts, Langa explains, or at least let a failing electrical component remain within specs long enough for you to recover your essential data.
That’s the spirit of folk remedies: They may or may not work, but what have you got to lose?

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