[Photograph of Neil Fraser]

Neil Fraser

For the past decade I've been a software engineer at Google in California.  In my spare time I've created a mélange of open-source software.  I've also built some rather unusual hardware.  On rare occasions I've even been known to write something interesting.

Fixing Code-a-Pillar Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Code-a-Pillar is a neat educational toy that allows young kids to snap together modules (e.g. turn left, turn right, move forwards) to create a long caterpillar that executes its program and rolls around the room according to its directives. Here's Fisher Price's 44 second promotional video. Cool toy.

Unfortunately, Code-a-Pillar will stop working after a while. Online reviews are full of people complaining that all it does when switched on is move forwards three very short steps, then blink its eyes red. I was unable to find any solutions online. So I disassembled it and eventually found the problem.

The USB connector at the back of the drive module is designed to pivot up and down. There are four thin wires that run between the connector and the logic board. These wires flex back and forth, and eventually the ends break. Once this happens, the onboard computer can no longer detect any of the connected programming modules, thus Code-a-Pillar has no programming and does nothing.

The solution is to restrip the wires, resolder them, and apply a nice solid blob of hot-melt glue as a strain relief. Now the wires will bend across their length, not at the point of the solder connection.

While you have Code-a-Pillar open, take this opportunity to clean the drive wheel.

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