Saturday, September 06, 2008


DIY - On the Bench

Sometimes things break fast, all at once. More often though, they degrade, and then, seemingly all of a sudden, they don't work at all. It sneaks up on you. Such was the case with my car stereo last week.

If you take a look at this blog you'll note I'm a big fan of podcasts. I also spend a good deal of time in my car, either commuting to work or heading up to D.C. once or twice a month, which can be a 3+ hour drive, depending on the traffic. This is why I really, REALLY love being able to run my iPod into my car stereo; hours and hours of audio books, podcasts, and of course, music. If you're in the same boat, you've no doubt explored the numerous solutions for connecting your mp3 player - expensive interfaces that work really well (but only for newer cars), FM Transmitters (they never work well), and then the good old line-out-line-in solution. This works best for me in my '97 Accord, but has one weak point: a one-inch connector that juts out the front of the stereo and is easy to hit when tossing bags in the front seat, when dogs are jumping around the car, etc. This is bad because the only thing that's holding that connector to the rest of the car is a few points of solder - not really designed for "strain relief".

So, as I anticipated, it finally happened; something knocked the connector and one day, seemingly all at once, no more iPod in the car. Tragic, no? In truth, I had felt this coming on. The whole thing felt dodgy from day one, and about a month ago I had lost the Left Channel. I wasn't sure this was my input jack but was too lazy to pull the stereo all the way out to check the harness and had a gut feeling it was probably that faceplate jack, which I didn't know if I could fix anyway.

With nothing to lose (except a half-hour of time and about $100 on a new stereo) I decided to take the damn thing apart to see if I could make lemonade out of these lemons. I'd often thought this could all be put together in a more secure way, and if I just bought a new stereo, well, I'd be starting over with the same weaknesses.

30 minutes later it was all put back together, plugged into the car, and sounding better than it had in months.

DIY - Finished repair of car stereo faceplate

It's often billed as a "guy" thing but I find an inherent pleasure in taking things apart, even better when I can find the success (rare in my case, I'm no mechanical genius to be sure) of actually fixing something. It was a Zen moment to be on the bench with this silly little stereo, and it got me thinking about the process, and what can be learned by trying something you don't know you can finish:

1. Have the confidence to try things: Success breeds confidence, breeds success, and so on.

2. Go back to the foundation: whether it's mechanical or creative, such as a piece of writing, a musical composition, or a graphic design, we often find ourselves going down roads where things just aren't working anymore. I often find the prospect of "undoing" work daunting, it seems so inefficient, to just throw away all that effort. More often than not though, it's this thinking, and all that non-functioning, interfering material that is getting in the way. Trash it, go back to the bones, and start again, at the start. Many times this is the only way to get where you really wanted to go.

3. Have the right tools for the job, the most important one being patience. I started with a well-lit workspace, magnifying lamp, forcep tweezers, a variety of small screwdrivers, and a good soldering iron. Most importantly, not rushing and enjoying the process allowed me to put the tools to use in an efficient and effective fashion.

4. Anticipate that the results might be better than you expected, or worse: I could afford to lose this stereo (I considered it lost anyway at this point), and my first instinct was to just go buy another one. As mentioned, I'm no mechanical genius, but I've had limited and rewarding success in the past with these kinds of projects. At the outset of this project I had in fact forgotten that half the stereo wasn't working anymore, so when I fired it up I was shocked to hear it sounding better than it had in months - giving me the full stereo signal instead of just half. Again, the major lesson here for me was that when you try things you're not sure of, you may be truly surprised by what you can accomplish

5. See point #1. Wash, rinse, repeat.

So, there you have it. A small project with big life lessons. And I've got my iPod back in my car for the next trip to D.C.

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