Happy birthday, Rubik’s Cube!

Rubik’s Cube turned 40 this week. In a reflection of how much faster the world moves today than it used to, I remember Rubik’s Cube from the early 1980s, when it was a big, national craze. I had no idea at the time that it was invented in 1974 and took six years to reach the U.S. market. I asked for one for Christmas in 1981, and so did everyone else I knew. We all got one. And none of us could solve it. Granted, some of that may have been because we were in grade school, and the early years at that. My best friend’s older sister, who was in sixth grade or so, had a book, and she could solve it with the book’s help.

It was even the subject of a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon. I only watched it once or twice. It turns out it’s not easy to make engaging stories about a six-sided puzzle. There were tons of cheap knockoffs out there too, but unlike the knockoffs of today which are generally regarded as better, the 1980s knockoffs were generally worse. After a year or three, the craze died down. We moved in 1983, and I don’t remember anyone in our new town talking about Rubik’s Cube. Mine ended up in a drawer. I’ve looked for it a few times over the years, but never found it. Read more

How to lower your train accessories into your table

One of the first articles I remember reading in a train magazine (I don’t remember if it was Classic Toy Trains or a competing rag) was titled “Put your accessories in pockets.” Basically, it advocated cutting holes in your table, putting a board beneath the hole, and putting the accessory in the hole to even it up with the ground level on your layout.

It’s a great idea–more on that in a minute–but it really didn’t go into much detail about how to do the cutting part.

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The rise and fall of Shack, and how to fix it

Wired has a nostalgic piece on the not-quite-late, not-quite-great Radio Shack. I think it’s a good article, but it glosses over part of the reason for the store’s decline.

It blames computers.But blaming computers ignores Tandy’s long and successful run in that industry. Most Apple fanatics and other revisionist historians conveniently overlook this, but when Apple launched the Apple II in 1977, Tandy and Commodore were right there with competing offerings. I don’t know about Apple, but Tandy and Commodore were selling their machines faster than they could make them.

As demand for home computers with color and sound grew, Tandy released its successful Color Computer line. And after IBM got into the PC market, Tandy became one of the early PC clone makers. They made businesslike PC/XT and PC/AT knockoffs, but their most successful machine, from a sales perspective, was the Tandy 1000. The Tandy 1000 started off as a clone of the IBM PCjr, but whereas the PCjr lasted about two years in the marketplace, the Tandy 1000 became a lasting standard for home PCs that could run IBM business software as well as entertainment titles with color and sound. It was everything the PCjr should have been, and it resulted in IBM software often being relabeled “IBM/Tandy” in stores.

In the 1980s, Tandy was definitely one of the big five companies. The first computer I ever used was a Tandy, in 1982. But the next year, I changed schools, and that school had Commodore 64s, so my allegiance changed. But I really think it was Tandy, more than any other company, that was the undoing of my favorite company, Commodore. Tandy’s computers weren’t any better than what Commodore had. And Commodore computers were sold at Kmart, but Tandy computers were sold at Radio Shack, and the prices were comparable. You had to go to St. Louis to buy a Commodore 64 or Amiga, or order it through the mail. But even in tiny Farmington, Missouri, which was a town of about 8,000 in the middle of nowhere, there was a Radio Shack on the edge of downtown where you could walk in and buy a computer.

Admittedly, the computer industry did change, and eventually it outgrew Radio Shack. By the early 1990s, when I did my stint selling computers at retail, the computer section of the store where I worked was larger than the typical Radio Shack store. Just the computer section. We sold four or five brands of computers and generally had at least four models of each brand, with an entry-level machine, something near top-of-the-line, and a couple of mid-range models in between.

If you wanted cheap, we had Packard Bell and Acer. Tandy couldn’t compete with them on price, though its machines were generally of better quality. But if you wanted quality, we had Compaq and IBM, which generally were better quality than Tandy, and by the mid 1990s, they’d gotten religion on price too.

And on the odd day that we couldn’t beat Radio Shack on price and or selection with the computers themselves, we had a much larger selection of monitors and printers, not to mention the aisles and aisles of books and software.

And if you didn’t live in the big city, another alternative sprung up in the early 1990s. You could pick up the phone, dial an 800 number, and order a computer from Dell or Gateway 2000. Just like ordering pizza, they’d build a computer to your specifications and deliver it to your door. You wouldn’t have it the same day like you would by going to Radio Shack, but you’d pay less, and you could get exactly the processor speed, hard disk capacity, and memory that you wanted.

There just wasn’t any way for the Tandy/Radio Shack model that had worked so brilliantly for about 15 years to compete with those two new models.

Eventually Tandy sold its factory to AST, a mid-range brand that fell by the wayside late in the decade but for a while was a retail juggernaut. Initially Radio Shack switched over to selling AST PCs, and later replaced them with Compaq and IBM, but there was never enough room in the store for more than one or two models.

In retrospect, I think the best thing Radio Shack could have done in the late 1990s would have been to go back to its DIY roots, selling computer components like cases and motherboards to people who wanted to build their own PCs rather than settle for what larger retailers offered off the shelf. It’s not a large segment, but it’s a niche that the large retailers have never had much success catering to. (The exception being regional chains like Fry’s and Micro Center.) And while the independent clone shops almost without exception can offer better advice, better selection, and, probably, better prices, Radio Shack is almost always closer, and the clone shops can’t compete with Radio Shack’s hours. Radio Shack is open on Sunday, and it’s open until 9 PM on other days.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I was tinkering with a PC in the evening or on a Sunday, needed something, and Radio Shack was the only place open. So I went, whether I thought they’d have what I needed or not. Sometimes they actually had what I needed.

If Radio Shack wants to reverse its sagging fortunes, I’m not sure that it’s too late to take that DIY road. Stock a book on building PCs and a book on upgrading and repairing PCs in order to grow that market. Limit the selection in order to accommodate the limited space in most stores, but carry one or two of everything that’s needed to build a PC, or to upgrade or repair a PC when the competition is closed.

Deciding exactly what to carry could be difficult, but a safe and non-creative approach would be to just pick a couple of price points and sell whatever they can find at that particular price point while remaining profitable. Keep it simple, using multiples of $25. Have computer cases priced at $50 and $75. Have power supplies for $25, $50, and $75. Have hard drives for $75 and $100. Have a motherboard for $100, and CPUs for $50 and $100. AMD or Intel? Carry both, or see if one or the other is willing to cut a deal to have an exclusive.

And this also opens the door to oddball gadgets and adapters, like 20/24-pin ATX converters, ATX power supply cable extensions, USB cable extensions, USB hubs, serial, parallel, and PS/2 to USB converters, and other small, profitable niche adapters. And if there’s room, of course they can carry an Ethernet switch, Ethernet cables in a variety of lengths, and perhaps even cable and DSL modems.

They can take the same approach to selling computer components as they’ve always taken to selling discrete electronics components. When I need a resistor or an LED, I can get it a lot cheaper by ordering it online or by driving to an electronics supplier. But I can be at Radio Shack in five minutes, and they’re open late and on weekends, so I usually end up going to Radio Shack and putting up with their cellphone pitches.

If they’re still able to eke out a profit selling resistors and heat sinks by virtue of being the most convenient option, I think they can do even better selling computer components the same way.

And that would still leave room in the store for cell phones, the odd adapters and components that no other major retail chain sells, and cheap R/C toys.

I think it’s a better plan than officially unofficially renaming itself to Shack (next door to Hut, where you buy pizza) and harassing customers about cell phones at the checkout.

What’s wrong with American manufacturing and industry

I read a disheartening story today. It’s the story of an entrepreneur, making models out of his garage and selling them. A competitor took a liking to his models and started selling crude copies of them, made in China. The competitor is so much larger than him, he can’t afford to sue.

There’s something even more sad than this story, however. It was some people’s reaction to it.The whole thing started out as hearsay on a train forum. Someone noticed a striking similarity between two companies’ competing products. Fans of the larger company rushed to its defense, and someone who claimed to know someone came in with claims about the larger company copying the smaller. Eventually the person who designed the originals chimed in and confirmed that yes, the designs were his, right down to the placement of the cracks on the sidewalk being identical.

He went on to say in very human terms who it hurt. He’s a guy in southwestern Missouri who could make more money as a draftsman, making buildings out of his home for the love of making buildings. He sells the design to another small company in Maine who buy materials, produce parts, and assemble them into kits for sale, employing a handful of Americans along the way.

And, if sales deteriorate too far, eventually he may have to go back to work as a draftsman. Which most likely means some other draftsman will be looking for a job.

Buying the crude, cheap Chinese-made knockoffs from the other company hurts the designer. But not only that, it ripples over to the manufacturer/distributor and its suppliers, all of whom are employing Americans who are just trying to earn an honest wage working for small businesses.

But the copies sell for about half the price.

To some of the people hearing this story, the end–half-priced models–entirely justifies the means. The cheap copy is, well, cheaper, and more convenient–requiring less assembly and being easier to find, since the larger competitor sells its products in more stores–so that’s all just fine and dandy. Who gets hurt doesn’t matter as long as the purchaser is happy.

Maybe the guy just likes jerking people’s chain, or maybe he really believes this, but he was painting the people who felt empathy for the designer as the ones with the problem.

Others present an easy solution: Sue. Well, he’s not stupid. One look at his models should tell you that. He looked into that. The problem is that a one-man operation can’t hope to compete with a company that sells $50 million worth of product per year. Imagine what happens if the larger company generates a mere 100 hours’ worth of billable work for the smaller company’s lawyer, at $400 per hour. That’s a $40,000 legal bill. If the kits sell for $75, their wholesale price is less than 25. That means he has to sell 1,600 kits to cover the legal bill. And in the meantime he also has to sell enough kits to pay himself enough to pay his mortgage, utilities, and put food on the table.

If that $40,000 doesn’t sink him, maybe the next 100 hours’ worth of work will. All they have to do is delay the trial long enough to make giving up look like the best and most reasonable alternative. They don’t have to be right, and they don’t have to win. They just have to make sure the other guy runs out of money first.

Now I know the majority of Americans have no interest in wood and tin 1:48 scale models of general stores. But the wonderful thing about American capitalism used to be that someone working out of a garage or spare bedroom could make niche products and sell them to the people who want them without breaking any laws. It’s one of the ways our ancestors got ahead in life.

I’m not sure my son’s generation is going to have those same opportunities. Not when a big company can come steal products from guys like Dale in Carthage, Mo. with no fear of recourse, and self-centered consumers will gladly snap them up, just because they’re cheaper, even if they know they’re buying stolen property.

People can blame Barack Obama or George W. Bush or Bill Clinton or NAFTA or unions or any of the other usual scapegoats for being the reason why jobs are hard to find. But none of those guys caused the predicament that Dale in Carthage, Mo. is in.

That’s purely the fault of the people who buy knockoff products, with a narcissistic, end-justifies-the-means attitude, and the people who tolerate it.

But it’s a lot easier to blame the politicians than it is to look in the mirror.

Dvorak is at least partly right about the gaming industry

The big-time gamers are all up in arms over John C. Dvorak’s assertion that the game industry is dying. But he’s right an awful lot more than he’s wrong.

The games aren’t nearly as original as they used to be.Let’s track the evolution of the first-person shooter. Games where you run around in a maze and shoot everything that moves aren’t new. Castle Wolfenstein was a huge hit for Muse Software way back in 1981. The premise was simple: You’re trapped in a castle full of Nazis and your job is to shoot everything that moves and escape. Simple enough.

Was it the first game of its type? I don’t know. I don’t even know for certain that it was the first popular game of its type. But it at least proves the idea is is at least 24 years old as of the time of this writing.

Eleven years later, Wolfenstein 3D was published and released. It took the same premise and put it in a 3D setting. Its inspiration was obvious. And like its famous predecessor, it pushed the limits of the time: You needed a pretty advanced CPU to play it, and the better your graphics and sound cards were, the better gaming experience you got. In the early 1990s I remember people bragging about the slowest computer they managed to get to run Wolf3D.

A year or so later, Doom was released. It was considered revolutionary. The graphics and sound were better, and it required a better computer, but as far as a plot went, all one had to do was replace the Nazis with monsters and give the main character a larger assortment of weapons.

And that’s pretty much where we stand today. There is no revolution here. Each generation adds more eye candy and another layer of complexity, but the basic premise isn’t really changed since that 1981 game. Some people like that kind of thing and others don’t. Dvorak clearly doesn’t. I never really got into it much either. Once I got over the initial wow factor of seeing a computer-generated 3D world, I found I just didn’t enjoy it. I had a brief fling with a 3D FPS called Redneck Rampage. It used a recycled game engine, just replacing the original setting with a backwoods theme and replacing the characters with rednecks and aliens and playing off every stereotype in the book. I enjoyed the game mostly because I thought it was funny. Once the jokes wore off, I quit playing.

Whether this genre has been worked over to death depends on whether you like this sort of thing, I guess. And maybe that’s where Dvorak is wrong. Neither he nor I see the originality, but people enjoy the games and keep buying them. I don’t see the originality in country music either–to me, the songs pretty much sound alike, and the words are all about pretty much the same thing–but the country music industry is huge and it ain’t exactly shrinkin’, y’all.

Hrumph.

But maybe this is just a sign of a mature industry. One of my high school writing teachers was fond of pointing out that Shakespeare never wrote an original plot in his life. But the stories seemed new when he put new and compelling characters in new settings along with those tired old plots.

Some people will get bored with the FPS games and move on to another interest. Others will keep at it, no matter how bad or unoriginal the games get. The only question is whether the audience will grow or shrink as a whole over time, and if it shrinks, how profitable the genre will become.

I think part of the problem for both Dvorak and me is that we’re both old enough to remember the early 1980s, when new games would come out and the new games really did seem new. All told, a total of about 900 games were released for the Atari 2600, and of those, about 100 were really common. (Of the remainders, a very large percentage of them were knockoffs or sequels and some of them were so bad that they sold terribly, so nobody saw them.)

Most of us who lived through that time and were really into technology saw those 100 or so games and enjoyed them.

There’s another difference too. Those games were a lot simpler. That’s both good and bad. A really avid gameplayer will probably master the game too quickly and get bored with it. But a more casual gamer can pick it up and learn it and enjoy it.

A really good Civilization player will probably enjoy Civ3 more than the original because it’s more challenging. But I’ve come to prefer the first two, because I can still pick up the original and play it well. If I spent ten hours a week playing video games, it might be different.

The gaming industry hasn’t completely lost me. There are still a handful of games I enjoy: the Civilization series, the Railroad Tycoon series, and the Baseball Mogul series. I haven’t bought the new Pirates! yet, but I’m sure I will if and when the price comes down because I loved the original.

But I only pick up one or two of those games per year anymore, and I probably don’t play them for more than a few weeks when I do.

Since my fiancee enjoys racing games where the two of us can race, if I’m ever out somewhere and I see two copies of a cheap racing game that looks decent and offers network play, I’ll get it and a couple of USB steering wheels. I imagine she’ll want to play a lot at first, and then it’ll become something we do occasionally when we might otherwise go to the movies.

The gaming industry changed, and in doing so, it lost John Dvorak and it’s probably written people like me off too, because I only spend $50 every two or three years on games.

Dvorak seems to think the gaming industry needs people like him. And that’s the only point he makes that I’m not wholeheartedly ready to agree with. The gaming industry is very different now than it was when I was 15 and playing games a lot, but it’s also a lot bigger.

Tin litho buildings for a traditional pre-war train layout

Note (1/4/2017): I wrote this blog post many years ago after deciding to try something different.

The approach to train layouts has changed a lot over the years and I assumed in the 1930s it was similar to the 1950s. I’m no longer certain it was. That said, if you want to know about how to make a 1950s-style layout that looks prewar, I have blog posts about vintage tin buildings and newer tin buildings that describe what I found after years of searching. If you want to know what’s available for you to buy for your own layout, check out those two links.

If you want to hear my questions that started my research, read on below.

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What day is it again?

Passing a few minutes before a movie started tonight, my girlfriend and I went into a nearby store to look around. And what did we find?

Christmas stuff.

Am I smoking crack, or is it still August?I probably shouldn’t encourage them, but I bought some stuff. Many of those collectible holiday village sets happen to be sized about right for O scale Lionel trains. Those that aren’t are usually sized about right for HO scale. I doubt it’s an accident. Around 100 years ago, J. Lionel Cowen convinced everyone that a train belonged around the Christmas tree. These days, ceramic villages and figures are more popular than the trains, and the big brands are every bit as overpriced as anything Lionel or MTH have made in the past decade, but they’re still sized so they’ll look right if a Lionel train escapes from the attic and ventures into the neighborhood. New traditions have a better chance of usurping older traditions if they fit in with them first.

These weren’t Lemax or Department 56. They were cheap knockoffs. This particular series of knockoffs pairs up O scale-sized figures with HO scale-sized buildings. Not my thang. I’m anything but a scale bigot but half-sized buildings get on my nerves.

But I bought a few figures. They came four to a package for a dollar. You’re lucky to pay less than $4 per figure at a hobby shop. For my four bucks, I got 16 figures.

Yes, the figures are dressed in heavy coats and there’s snow on the bases they stand on. So I won’t have them on the train layout at the same time as my open-top convertible 1:43-scale cars. But the availability of the figures makes it just as cheap and easy to make winter scenes, just like the 50-cent Homies figures make it cheap and easy to make summertime scenes.

Useless trivia answer: If you’ve ever wondered where 1:43 scale toy cars come from, they come from trains as well. The British decided that O scale should be 1:43, and Hornby decided it would be nice to be able to sell cars with which boys could populate their cities. The cars became popular toys in their own right, and the 1:43 scale was copied by other companies, so 1:43 scale cars lived on long after Hornby stopped selling O scale trains.

End useless trivia.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Useless Christmas merchandising in August. I decided I wanted 16 vaguely O scale figures in winter dress more than I wanted $4.24.

But I passed on the wreaths and the holly. I can’t think of any good use for those in my basement.

What needs to happen for Linux to make it on the desktop

I saw an editorial at Freshmeat that argued that there’s actually too much software for Linux. And you know what? It has a point.
I’m sure some people will be taken aback by that. The number of titles that run under Windows must number into six digits, and it’s hard to walk into a computer store and buy Linux software.

But I agree with his argument, or at least most of it. Back in my Amiga days, the first thing people used to ask me was, “What, do you not like software?” Then I asked why they felt the need to have their choice of 10 different word processors, especially when they’d just buy pirate Microsoft Word or WordPerfect anyway. (Let’s face it: Large numbers of people chose PCs in the early 90s over superior architectures was because they could pirate software from work. Not everyone. Maybe not even the majority. But a lot.) I argued that one competent software title in each category I needed was all I wanted or needed. And for the most part, the Amiga had that, and the software was usually cheaper than the Mac or PC equivalent.

Linux is the new Amiga. Mozilla is a far better Web browser than IE, and OpenOffice provides most of the functionality of Microsoft Office XP–it provides more functionality than most people use, and while it doesn’t always load the most complex MS Office documents correctly, it does a much better job of opening slightly corrupt documents and most people don’t create very complex documents anyway. But let’s face it: Its biggest problem is it takes an eternity to load no matter how fast your computer is. If it would load faster, people would be very happy with it.

But there is nothing that provides an equivalent to a simple database like Access or Filemaker. I know, they’re toys, and MySQL is far more powerful. But end users like dumb, brain-dead databases with clicky GUI interfaces on them that they can migrate to once they realize a spreadsheet isn’t intended to do what they’re trying to do with it. Everyone’s first spreadsheet is Excel. Then someday they realize Excel wasn’t intended to do what they’re using it for. But you don’t instantly dive into Oracle. You need something in between, and Linux doesn’t really have anything for that niche.

People are constantly asking me about a WYSIWYG HTML editor for Linux as well. I stumbled across one. Its name is GINF. Yes, another stupid recursive-acronym name. GINF stands for “GINF is not Frontpage.” How helpful. What’s wrong with a descriptive name like Webpage-edit?

More importantly, what was the first non-game application that caught your fancy? For most people I know, it was Print Shop, or one of the many knockoffs of Print Shop. People love to give and receive greeting cards, and when they can pick their own fonts and graphics and write their own messages, they love it even more. Not having to drive to the store and fork over $3.95 is just a bonus. Most IT professionals have no use for Print Shop, but Linux’s lack of alternatives in that department is hurting it.

Take a computer with a CPU on the brink of obsolesence, a so-so video chipset, 128 megs of RAM and the smallest hard drive on the market, preload Linux on it along with a fast word processor that works (AbiWord, or OpenOffice Writer, except it’s not fast), a nice e-mail client/PIM (Evolution), a nice Web browser (Mozilla), and a Print Shop equivalent (bzzzt!), and a couple of card games (check Freshmeat) and you’d have a computer for the masses.

The masses do not need 385 text editors. Sysadmin types will war over vi and emacs until the end of time; one or two simple text-mode editors as alternatives will suffice, and one or two equivalents of Notepad for X will suffice.

Linux’s day will eventually arrive regardless, if only because Microsoft is learning what every monopolist eventually learns: Predatory pricing stops working once you corner the market. Then you have to raise prices or find new markets. Eventually you run out of worthwhile markets. So in order to sustain growth, you have to raise prices. Microsoft is running out of markets, so it’s going to have to raise prices. Then it will be vulnerable again, just like Apple and CP/M were vulnerable to Microsoft because their offerings cost more than Microsoft was willing to charge. And, as Microsoft showed Netscape, you can’t undercut free.

But that day will arrive sooner if it doesn’t take a week to figure out the name of the Linux equivalent of Notepad because there are 385 icons that vaguely resemble a notepad and most of them have meaningless names.

Beware the leaky capacitors

In case you haven’t heard about it elsewhere, there are some recent motherboards having problems with leaky capacitors.

Basically, the problem is the electrolyte in the capacitors becomes chemically unstable, the capacitor pops and starts leaking, the capacitor stops doing its job, and system stability falls out of the sky.

An EE can do a better job of explaining what a capacitor does, but in my very limited electronics background, every project I ever did used capacitors to eliminate noise or smooth out current.

Abit has come out and acknowledged the problem, but other manufacturers are also said to be affected, including Asus. So this isn’t a problem limited to cut-rate boards, although it wouldn’t surprise me if the cut-rate boards also are affected, because the issue stems from cheap Taiwanese knockoffs of a costlier Japanese design.

Identifying problem boards can be difficult, because the affected caps generally are unlabeled, but not all unlabeled caps are problematic. And, as you can see, my usual advice of sticking with a big-brand motherboard doesn’t save you in this case.

I recall a few years ago an article on one of the newsy tech sites like Cnet or ZDNet said some older models of Soyo motherboards could develop this problem. At the time, Soyo declined to comment. So this isn’t exactly a new problem. If anything, it seems to be cyclical.

If you do have a board that develops the problem, you can probably get it replaced under warranty. If not, a skilled technician can de-solder the bad caps and replace them with higher-quality ones. One technician who performs the service charges $50, which seems very fair to me for de-soldering and re-soldering 28 connections.

It’s definitely not a good first electronics project to try yourself though. If it’s something you want to learn how to do, practice on an old, obsolete motherboard or modem or sound card first. And, naturally, I won’t claim any responsibility.

If you develop the problem, this could also be the excuse you’ve been looking for to upgrade, seeing as it’s getting easy to find new motherboards for $60 or so.

You can read more about it in this IEEE Spectrum article.