Mar 10

Rite of Spring

Spoilt_for_Choice In the spring an old man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of vacuum tubes strewn across the De Anza college parking lot, and thankfully the Silicon Valley Electronics Flea Market is there to accommodate. I’ve noticed the days getting longer and it’s just about time to set our clocks forward, but I was caught completely by surprise by the return of the flea market. Thankfully folks as close by as Sunnyvale and as distant as NYC were tweeting about it last night so I forced myself to bed by 1AM so I could make the early morning trek to Cupertino.

I wasn’t kidding about the old man part. In case there was any doubt about the target demographic, you should know that the flea market opens “pre-dawn”. That’s the actual statement of when it opens from the website. They do make a half-hearted concession to those of us who need something more concrete to enter into our calendars with the clarification that the opening is “around 5:00 AM”. Emphasis on “around”, presumably, because they also say vendor spots are handed out on a first-come first-served basis and there’s definitely a hierarchy of quality in the spaces. Tubes

I rolled in around 7:30 to a packed parking lot and started scavenging. One of the first places I saw was the stall pictured to the right. It was literally like someone just poured a few hundred vacuum tubes out of the back of a dump truck. There were all shapes, sizes and vintages. It was beautiful. The vendor seemed happy I decided to take a picture and he pointed proudly to the pile saying “There’s something for everyone in there.” Within the context of the particular group of folks assembled in that particular parking lot on that particular morning, truer words were never spoken. When the day is over does he pack them up with a broom and a dustpan – if not, I don’t want to know the truth. I can’t imagine it any other way.

I didn’t need anything specific, so I spent the morning browsing. The word “need” is a poor one to toss around carelessly here. While it is true I didn’t need any specific parts for a project, I did feel need but more in the way a character from a William S. Burroughs novel might. Vintage radios, 19th century scientific instruments and antique telephones all sang their siren song to me but the last thing I need is another hobby/addiction so I stuck with fairly practical purchases.

Knobx Stuff

I got some really nice knobs from the knob guy (specialization, here as in the Serengeti Plains, is the key to survival). My favorite precision machine parts guy wasn’t there, but I did find another source to pick up some stepper motors and ballscrews to do some linear motion projects. I also got some proto-boards and PCB drill bits from one of the large corner vendors who is always there.

GoesTo100 Dynamite

Like any flea market, you’re expected to haggle and purchasing more than 1 of any item is an automatic discount. I had the fastest and most successful haggle ever today. There was a vendor with a box of LCD display boards – they had 3 buttons and a 16×2 character LCD display on them. I asked how much and was told $3 each by one guy, then an older guy (the owner?) swung by and said he’d go $2 each if that was OK with me. So I said I’d make him feel even better and buy them for $1 each. We settled on 4 for $5 and the entire negotiation took about 7 seconds. The joke’s on me, however. When I got home I opened up my “LCD Panel” drawer to discover 2 of the exact same part sitting in there. I must have gotten some last year from the same guy, but I almost certainly got a better deal this time around so I’ll take that small victory.

There’s usually some familiar faces to be seen and I ran into Garrett from macetech.com who makes smart RGB LEDs I use a lot. He told me about some projects he did for the Olympics – those glowing floating colored orbs in the closing ceremonies among other things. What I didn’t see at all this time around was any vinyl LPs, so my wife didn’t get anything.


If you live in the Bay Area and don’t mind waking up not too long after “pre-dawn” you should make some time the second Saturday of the month to pay a visit: http://www.electronicsfleamarket.com/

Jul 09

One Man’s Trash…

Electronics Flea Market

I’ve lived in Silicon Valley for over a decade but until this weekend have never attended the monthly Electronics Flea Market at De Anza College in Cupertino. The fact that it’s on a Saturday and starts at 5AM may have had something to do with it. But this Saturday I set my alarm and was on the road by 6:30 headed south on 280.

I rolled into the parking lot around 7AM and the place was packed. At first I felt a bit out of place — lots of the cars had big HAM antennas on them and most of the folks were walking around with badges indicating their callsigns. I found myself gravitating towards the booths selling nicely packaged goods. There were plenty of guys who looked like they just opened up their trunk and dumped all their electronic trash into the parking lot, but walking up to such a stall was a commitment. I wasn’t actually looking for anything, so picking through junk and discussing Morse code or sidebands or whatever with some wild-eyed graybeard was a bit much at this hour of the day.

About an hour later I came upon a guy who scrounged all sorts of precision mechanical parts from surplus scrap he bought. This guy’s stall was pure gold. He had a box of stepper motors and servos that must have had a hundred random parts in it. I’ve been to Halted and Weird Stuff and on a good day maybe they have 10 steppers and half of those would be some bullshit 50V monstrosity that you’d use to open locks on the Panama Canal or something. But here were so many 5V and 12V servos I literally got tired of looking through them. I picked up a few steppers and then saw something that literally made me stop dead in my tracks. There were about a dozen beautiful precision slides that were perfect for a 2D plotter project I’ve been wanting to do. They had amazing linear bearings and were Billy Dee Williams – smooth as hell and good looking too. I got 3 of them for $25, which was enough to build my plotter and about a 80% off what these things would cost new.

After that I began to channel my inner junk man and scrounged in all the piles of crap I could find. You come to a flea market like this to get great deals on random junk, not to save 20% on something you could buy in a store. As I browsed I realized something else. I’ve become my father.

Childhood Dreams

When I was a kid I’d always wake up early on Thursday and stare out the window. It was the most exciting day of the week — trash day. I’d wait until the garbage truck came and then would chase it down the street watching the trash men do their glorious work. I declared to anyone who would listen that when I grew up it was my intention — nay, my destiny — to be a garbage man. My parents got a kick out of it and would make me tell the story whenever we had guests over. The reaction was always the same…laughter at my childlike foolishness. What they didn’t know is that there was a kind of logic to my mania. My enthusiasm for the work all came down to one simple thing: I loved the hydraulic lift that emptied the big trash hopper into the back of the truck. If by same cruel twist of chance they had just emptied it before reaching our house I might have to go the full length of the block before seeing its exquisite mechanical ballet played out. But it was always worth it. Even then it was all about the machinery and technology for me.

My dad, on the other hand, was all about collecting crap. He would routinely come home with his pickup (a Chevy El Camino, an uncharacteristically stylish vehicle that he bought off someone who was both cooler and in desperate need of cash) full of stuff he picked up from the trash at work. My dad worked as a plumber for government housing in Long Beach, so basically he was bringing home stuff that people who lived on welfare found disgusting enough to throw out. Our garage was stuffed so full of junk that it had become legendary in our neighborhood. Kids from school would come over for tours of the garage.

My dad was the kind of guy who would stop in the middle of the street to pick up a screw or washer. You couldn’t really fault him as he grew up in the great depression and experienced true poverty. He was like an overweight balding Scarlet O’Hara who had vowed never to go without a 6 penny nail again, and thus would always pick up this junk which would get added to an empty coffee can or pill bottle. There was no organization or sorting, so the detritus would end up in a random vessel where it might find itself cohabitating with a section of garden hose, a rusty spring or some other treasure. My father was not a disorganized person, but the rate of incoming effluvia was so great that he simply couldn’t keep up with it. However, his inherent desire to categorize demanded that he label each can and box and this is how our garage became stacked to the rafters with containers labeled "To Be Processed."

In recent months I’ve become interested in making things…not software programs or other abstractions but real things that you can touch, feel and explain to the elderly. In so doing I’ve become more aware of the utility of things like washers and springs, and the rarity of things like gears and a good timing belt. The other day I came across an aluminum angle bracket in a junk drawer and my delight was as if I found $20 in the pocket of an old pair of pants. In fact, such treasures are legion once you start looking for them and they can accumulate rather quickly. So now I have in my office a cardboard box of random items…that are….you know….to be processed.

Something For Everyone

I came home with a decent haul and was as proud of myself for what I didn’t buy (LEDs…I caressed many of them but managed to not buy any more) as well as what I found:

  • The aforementioned bad-ass linear slides for $25 
  • A pair of nice 12V steppers for $5
  • A handful of aluminum sprockets for a buck
  • About a dozen nice bearings for 50 cents each
  • A nice set of mini tweezers, a mini screwdriver with 8 interchangable bits and 4 mini-clamps for around $5
  • 5 albums for my wife who collects vinyl, including The Monkees, ELO and Moody Blues. There were several folks selling albums for one or two bucks and one lunatic who wanted $8 for a Fleetwood Mack album.

I’ll definitely be back to collect more items to process in the near future.