Isaac Asimov wrote a short story called I’m in Marsport without Hilda (found in the excellent collection Asimov’s Mysteries) in which the protagonist, Galactic Service agent Max, finds himself in the Martian town without his wife. He decides to take advantage of this by spending his time in the company of Flora, a woman of questionable repute, only to be sidelined, for a bit, by an urgent work assignment. Even so, the story really focuses on his anticipation of his date with Flora.
This weekend, Jared signed up to volunteer at the Chezy Champs Robotics Competition in San Jose which meant that I was up early Saturday morning to drive him down to the south bay. His team wasn’t competing in this event so he was on his own, though he was well known to the other teams there, especially Team 5700 from the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts here in San Francisco.
As we had nothing else on the Calendar on Saturday, I decided to take my time getting back. Jared needed to be at the competition by 8:30am and Rachel and I agreed I didn’t need to be back in The City until noon or so. That gave me three hours in the heart of Silicon Valley all to myself. Like Asimov’s Max, I fully intended to take advantage of this and engage in some hanky-panky of my own. The excitement of impending shenanigans was intoxicating.
My vice, however, was not a woman but the venerable nerd hangout, Fry’s Electronics. After watching a few matches (and Jared hard at work), I plotted a course for the nearest Fry’s. Although I had a short shopping list — a micro HDMI cable, some spade terminals, wire, and, hopefully, a Raspberry Pi Zero — my real plan was to wander the aisles looking for inspiration and exhilaration.
Sadly, like Max in Asimov’s unexpected ending, my trip was to end in disappointment and frustration.
Unfortunately, the shelves at Fry’s were strangely barren. Most aisles had rows and rows of hooks with only a few lonely items lost among the empty pegs. I managed to find a few terminals that would work for me, but came up empty on everything else, including — perhaps especially — inspiration.
Fortunately, all was not lost. I left Fry’s and decided to visit Excess Solutions, an electronics surplus store that had acquired an old favorite of mine, Halted Specialties. A short drive took me to one of the last purveyors of all the strange parts and components, used and new, that the crazy inventors and mad scientists that have made the Valley such an exciting place over the years might need for their next wild idea.
To be honest, I’m nowhere near smart enough or inventive enough to even walk through the door of a place like Excess, but they let me in nonetheless. I wandered up and down the aisles, looking at resistors, rectifiers, and other random bits and bobs. Occasionally, I could identify an item or its use or recognize a piece of historic note. Sometimes, I would reach out and touch an item, hoping it would make its purpose known to me, admiring its functional beauty but, alas, I was to remain in the dark.
This was the birthplace of The Next Big Thing, perhaps built from the ashes of some other, previous Next Big Thing. I stared at the components, the workings of which, for the most part, I didn’t understand but which I yearned to be able to put to use in my Next Big Thing.
I did find some screws I wanted to put to use in my HPi. They weren’t exactly right but would suffice until the correct ones arrived in the mail. My 24 M2.5x3mm and 6 M2x4mm screws totaled up to 72 cents; I dropped the 3 cents in change into the penny bowl next to the register as payment for the small bag we put the screws in. Although I’m not truly what the kids these days call a “maker”, I felt for one brief moment as if I were one of them.
Although it wasn’t the visit to Marsport I had looked forward to, I did have an adventure of sorts. I look forward to the next time I get to spend a bit of unsupervised time in the playground of technological wizards.