Behind the cash register at Smoke Shop No. 2 in downtown San Francisco, Sam Azar swipes a customer’s credit card to ring up Turkish cigarettes. The store’s card reader fails to scan the card’s 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 don’t know how it works, it just does,” says Mr. Azar, who learned the trick years ago from another clerk. Verifone, the company that makes the store’s card reader, would not confirm or deny that the plastic bag trick works. But it’s one of many low-tech fixes for high-tech failures that people without engineering degrees have discovered, often out of desperation, and shared.
Today’s shaky economy is likely to produce many more such tricks. “In postwar Japan, the economy wasn’t doing so great, so you couldn’t 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 Mr. Azar’s 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.
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 battery’s natural tendency to lose its charge.
If your home Wi-Fi router doesn’t reach the other end of the house, don’t 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. Follow the instructions at freeantennas.com/projects/template. Place the completed reflector — a small, curved piece of metal that reflects radio waves just like a satellite TV dish — behind your Wi-Fi router. It focuses the router’s energy in one direction — toward the other end of the house — rather 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.
That’s the spirit of folk remedies: They may or may not work, but what have you got to lose?