Behind the cash register at a shop in downtown San Francisco,Sam Azar swipes a customers credit card. The card reader fails to scan the magnetic strip. Azar swipes again,and again. No luck.
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 dont know how it works,it just does, says Azar,who learned the trick years ago from another clerk. Verifone,the company that makes the stores card reader,would not confirm or deny that the plastic bag trick works. But its one of many low-tech fixes for high-tech failures that people without engineering degrees have discovered,often out of desperation,and shared.
Todays shaky economy is likely to produce many more such tricks. In postwar Japan,the economy wasnt doing so great,so you couldnt 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. So people looked for ways to do with what they had.
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.
Today,Americans are finding their own tips and tricks for fixing misbehaving gadgets with supplies as simple as paper and adhesive tape. Some,like Azars plastic bag,are open to argument as to how they work,or whether they really work at all. But many tech home remedies can be explained by a little science.
Remote car key
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. Pozar explains,You are capacitively coupling the fob to your head. With all the fluids in your head it ends up being a nice conductor. Not a great one,but it works. Using your head can extend the keys wireless range by a few car lengths.
Dry ink cartridge
If your printers 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. The hair dryer trick can squeeze a few more pages out of a cartridge after the printer declares it is empty.
Cellphone 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 website. 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 phones battery. That makes it run down faster. To keep the phone cooler,carry it in your purse or on your belt. This same method can be used to preserve your battery should you find yourself away from home without your charger. Turn off the phone and put it in the hotel refrigerator overnight to slow the batterys natural tendency to lose its charge.
Longer Wi-Fi reach
If your home Wi-Fi router doesnt reach the other end of the house,dont rush out to buy more wireless gear to stretch your network. Instead,build a six-inch-high passive radio wave reflector from kitchen items,like an aluminum cookie sheet. Place the completed reflectora small,curved piece of metal that reflects radio waves just like a satellite TV dishbehind your Wi-Fi router. It focuses the routers energy in one directiontoward the other end of the houserather than letting it dissipate its strength in a full circle. No cables,no batteries,no technical knowledge required. Yet it can easily double the range of your network.
Too much flash
If your cellphones built-in camera flash is much too bright,washing out photos,tape a small piece of paper over the flash. Experiment with different colours and thicknesses of paper to tone down the flash from superbright white to a more pleasing glow for evening photos.
Crashed hard drive
Ifno,make that whenyour PCs hard drive crashes and cant be read,dont 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 on his Windows Secrets website.
Many hard drive failures are caused by worn parts that no longer align properly,making it impossible to read data from the drive. Lowering the drives temperature causes its metal and plastic internals to contract ever so 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.
You need to clean a skipping DVD or music CD,but as a bachelor you dont 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. The bottle of alcohol-based mouthwash in your medicine cabinet is likely to do the job as effectively as a bottle of expensive DVD or CD cleaning fluid.
Thats the spirit of folk remedies: They may or may not work,but what have you got to lose?