Tool-Building Mammals

It’s often said of us humans that we’re the only “tool-using mammals”. While not exclusive to the hacker community, a bunch of us are also “tool-building mammals” when we have the need or get the free time. I initially wanted to try to draw some distinction between the two modes, but honestly I think all good hackers do both, all the time.

We were talking about the cool variety of test probes on the podcast, inspired by Al Williams’ piece on back probes. Sometimes you need something that’s needle-thin and can sneak into a crimp socket, and other times you need something that can hold on like alligator clips. The infinite variety of jigs and holders that make it easier to probe tiny pins is nothing short of amazing. Some of these are made, and others bought. You do what you can, and you do what you need to.

You can learn a lot from looking at the professional gear, but you can learn just as much from looking at other hackers’ bodge jobs. In the podcast, I mentioned one of my favorite super-low-tech hacks: making a probe holder out of a pair of pliers and a rubber band to hold them closed. Lean this contraption onto the test point in question and gravity does the rest. I can’t even remember where I learned this trick from, but I honestly use it more than the nice indicator-arm contraptions that I built for the same purpose. It’s the immediacy and lack of fuss, I think.

So what’s your favorite way of putting the probe on the point? Home-made and improvised, or purpose-built and professional? Or both? Let us know!

15 thoughts on “Tool-Building Mammals

  1. ‘humans that we’re the only “tool-using mammals”’ …… What about the chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, otters and beavers that use tools?

    1. I’m guessing that author meant “Tool-building”, but even so, the industrious beaver builds a tool of sorts – it’s dam, for helping to catch fish. Many other animals modify stick for hunting.

      1. Yeah, there are plenty of examples of animals *making* (or building if you like) tools to solve a problem.

        A classic one is crows (technically avian) bending wire into shapes to hook something:

        Beyond that there are tons of examples of tool using animals.

        I am not sure what Elliot was trying for with the title ‘tool-building mammals’, but I am disappointed to click and find the article covers only one species and is more about one thing (a probe) that a particular animal built.

  2. Getting a friend to help, who may or may not be a tool, is probably a uniquely human thing. Except maybe velociraptors if that movie is to be believed. Seriously though just making my dad come over to help hold a thing or something dumb makes a lot of hassle jobs so much easier.
    So to answer question. A helper is my favorite hack job.

  3. One trick I use is to solder “crimp tubes” onto my board. Crimp tubes are a jewelry finding available at most craft stores; they are tiny 2mm x 2mm tubes of brass or silver. Putting the probe tip in the tube keeps the probe from sliding around. It works particularly well for those scope probe grounding springs. There is always a decoupling cap near my probing point; solder a crimp tube to the ground side of the cap and you will have no problem with the spring sliding off.

    1. There are also commercially available pin sockets that fit/solder into a 1.1mm via but have a tiny sprung element inside them for holding relays that’ll fail and need to be replaced. They do pretty well for hanging onto a scope probe. We put in some 2.54mm spacing header pairs signal/ground for scope probe + ground, and it’s convenient if you have the space.

  4. I designed some little 3d printed tripods with a collet closer kind of action on one of the three legs, so you can push a scope probe through and tighten down the nut and it’ll hang onto the probe, with the other two legs holding it up. But honestly it’s too light and doesn’t stay in position very well. I just REALLY don’t want to be putting conductive materials on top of my running board, where any sort of issue could end up with a big fat short circuit. I think I like the ones that use loc-line flexible/jointed plastic pipe the best, but usually they kinda have the same problem, with a weighty steel foot to keep them from falling over, but the reach isn’t big enough for the boards I work on so I have to wrap the base in polyimide or something.

  5. Big Tangent:
    Most people don’t actually know what “tool use” really means.
    Sure, picking up a stick and poking something with it makes it a tool.
    But it goes WAY deeper than that, and the implications are fascinating.
    Knowing what tool use actually means, explains a lot of behaviors, and makes some failures head-smackingly obvious.

    When we use a tool, that tool becomes PART of us.

    Think about it.

    When you brush your teeth, are you holding a stick and moving it around, to move the connected bristles in contact with your teeth?
    Or are you moving the brush where you want it?

    When you are driving a car and taking a left turn, are you pressing your foot against the pedal to slow down, then turning the wheel to make the car’s wheels turn, then letting the wheel return to center and pressing the other pedal to accelerate?
    Or are you simply slowing down, turning, then accelerating?

    The car is PART of you.
    YOU slow down.
    YOU turn.

    Do you want an example of a problem caused by not accounting for tool use?

    Quick Time Events (QTEs) in video games.
    I don’t have an X button. I have a block.
    When I want to block…I block.
    I don’t think about the controller in my hands, remember that x blocks, then remember where x is, then push x.

    The character IS me.
    That is how humans work.

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