Putting Linux on a Payphone Is Like Giving a Mouse a Cookie

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Putting Linux on a Payphone Is Like Giving a Mouse a Cookie


Jamie Zawinski was going to throw a party. This party would be particularly fun, outfitted with a hacker/Tank Girl theme. This old payphone had done its job well at previous parties as a simple passive decoration on the wall, but Jamie was interested in kicking things up a notch. He wanted the phone to actually do something, on theme, when you picked it up.

To do make this old payphone into something functional, and hopefully amusing, Jamie decided it needed to run linux, which in turn meant it needed new guts. Much like the old story “If you give a mouse a cookie“, this task kept ballooning to degrees that Jamie probably didn’t foresee in the onset.

This one portion should give you a pretty good feel for the unending rabbit hole that this project turned into. You see the new hacked USB key pad that Jamie cobbled together needed to be re-assembled, with new connections going where the original-paper thin cable had resided. This was no easy task.

Here’s an excerpt:

Yeah, those are sewing needles.

First: let me draw your attention to the plastic shim holding those needles at 1mm spacing. Let me draw your attention to how hard it was to manufacture that thing. Though I have 0.5mm drill bits, I had to tape them to make them fit into the dremel at all without just vanishing. And even though I have a drill-press stand for my dremel, my first plan of drawing a pattern then lining up the drill and dropping it was totally not working at all. So in the end, I just eyeballed it: drop the drill; lift ever so slightly; give the plastic the slighest kick with my fingernail; drop the drill again. It only took me three tries to get it right!

Second: though those are the thinnest needles that I had in my house at the time, they weren’t thin enough to fit into the socket. So I had to file them down. It was like I was making the world’s tiniest shivs. I turned the dremel sideways, put a sanding wheel on it, and held the needles to it until they were flat and about 0.1mm thick. I was doing this while wearing a 20x magnification monocle, so all of this action was taking place with my face so close to the spinny bit that I had to exercise great care to avoid sanding off the tip of my nose.

When I described this to a friend he said, “So basically, you’re looked like some guy I have to find to send me on a side-quest in Fallout.” Pretty much.

What a ridiculous and monumental effort, all for just one step in getting this defunct phone functional. And you know the worst part? It didn’t work. Much like that mouse wanted milk after eating the cookie, this project wanted more of Jamie’s time and effort. Go over to the project page to read about the entire project.

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I get ridiculously excited seeing people make things. I just want to revel in the creativity I see in makers. My favorite thing in the world is sharing a maker's story. find me at CalebKraft.com

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