An upgrade. And an upsell.

I bought a new radio for my venerable 2002 Honda Civic this weekend. I want to be able to listen to security podcasts on my commute, which wasn’t practical with my factory radio. So, off to the nearest car audio shop (Custom Sounds) I went, skipping both Best Buy and Audio Express. I looked at a couple of $119 decks, then the salesman mentioned an Alpine HD radio deck for $129, and a Sony deck with Bluetooth for $149. Bluetooth didn’t really interest me much, but HD radio seemed worth the extra $10. To me, the secondary HD stations seem more interesting than the primary ones. Then again, I’m the guy who skips right past the hits on U2’s The Joshua Tree and cues up “Red Hill Mining Town.” The stuff I really like generally doesn’t do all that well on mainstream radio.

But my main motivation was to get a radio with a USB port, so I can snarf down a few hours’ worth of podcasts every week to a USB thumb drive, plug it in, and stay in touch with the security world. Total overkill for an Alpine, but like the salesman said, Alpines aren’t crazy expensive anymore like I remember them being in the early 1990s. Read more

Model railroading with your Droid: Solving electrical issues

Electrodroid is an Android app designed for electronics hobbyists, but it has uses for model railroaders too. Its LED calculator is invaluable when using LEDs to light buildings, cars, locomotive cabs or headlights, or for other projects. Knowing the input voltage, you can then determine what resistors to use to protect the LED.

The voltage drop calculator is useful too, if less obvious. Read more

How to wire LEDs and other circuits risk-free

How to wire LEDs and other circuits risk-free

I see a lot of questions about how to wire up circuits, and unfortunately when people ask these questions on train forums, those innocent questions often devolve into heated and unproductive discussions focused on the math and physics involved, or other creative things that overcomplicate the project, and it scares off a number of people, often including the person who asked the question.

Usually what the person asking the question really wants is to not spend a whole Saturday soldering a circuit together, only to find out in the end that it doesn’t work.

So I’ll attack that issue. Here’s how to stage a circuit, find out in a matter of minutes whether it will work, and delay the soldering until you have something promising.
Read more

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.

Fixing stuff, computer and recording-related

A productive weekend. I’m writing this well in advance because I fully expect to have no time available the next couple of days. So I’ll talk about my weekend.
Rebuildng a 486SX/20. The power supply in Steve DeLassus’ old Leading Technology 486 that’s been serving as his Linux firewall/gateway/DNS cache for the better part of a year died last week. Unfortunately, he had one of the last of the true-blue AT clones–you oldtimers know what I’m talking about. You know, the power supplies with the lever switch on the side, rather than that cheap modern pushbutton? Well, good luck finding one of those power supplies these days. Pushbutton AT boxes are easier to find than dirt, but getting one of those to work in that case would have been a serious gerry-rig. So we picked up a new AT case/ps combo to transfer the contents into. All told, it took me a couple of hours to get the guts transferred to the new case and to get the system back up and running (it takes 5-7 minutes, literally, to boot–once it’s running it’s fine, but we’re talking a seriously underpowered computer here).

Fixing an Alesis ADAT. Say what? An ADAT is an 8-track digital tape recorder that records on SVHS tape. I’ve had one for a couple of years for odd recording projects, but when I took it to church Thursday and set it up, it made as much noise as John’s synthesizer (and it wasn’t nearly as pleasant a sound). It flashed a few error codes and ate the tape. Swell. ADATs are notoriously tempermental and unreliable. Unfortunately for me, it’s next to impossible to find anyplace to service them–the places I could find needed a week and a half to three weeks before they could even look at it. But I needed it Monday. Last time something like that happened, a computer was involved, and that was when I learned how to fix my own computers. So guess what I did? I learned how to fix ADATs.

An ADAT looks like a big VCR, and there’s lots of open space, so when I showed it to a former VCR tech I work with, he pointed out every potential trouble spot very easily after we popped the cover. So I went off to Gateway Electronics for some rubber restorer, tape head cleaner, and foam swabs. On the way back I drove past a music store with an Alesis sign in the front window. So I stopped in, because it’s best to calibrate an ADAT against an ST-126 cassette, and all I have are ST-120s. So I paid way too much for an ST-126, but they were kind enough to format it for me. So I spent a couple of hours Saturday afternoon ripping open the ADAT and cleaning it. I let it dry for a few hours, came home, popped in the fresh ST-126, and the ADAT didn’t complain. Good. I went ahead and cleared its internal memory and calibrated it against the new tape just to be on the safe side, and successfully recorded with it.

Fortunately for me, the ‘net is full of ADAT care and maintenance tips. It turned out my buddies and I did just about every possible wrong thing you could to the poor thing (letting it sit idle for months; leaving tapes in with the power off, running it without a UPS or power conditioner, using cheap tapes rather than high-grade ones, and in the case of one of us — not me — smoking around it). It’s now in my sole possession, so I expect it’ll do a whole lot better now. Normally they first need service after about 250 hours of use. This one has 45 on it and has needed service twice. I don’t intend to let it happen again.

Speaking of the electronics store… As I was digging around for solvents and swabs and chuckling over some of the other obscure gear in the place (there’s stuff there that was there when I first visited the store 10 years ago–scout’s honor), I couldn’t help but notice another customer. For one, she was young and female. Standard clientele at this place is mid-40s male. I’m out of place there. For two, she was gorgeous. For three, she kept walking up to the front counter with a handful of resistors, verifying their specs with the guy there. I can count on one hand the number of people I know who’ve ever built anything from discrete components, myself included. So I was mulling over what to say to her (of course) when her boyfriend walked up. Drat.

My songwriting debut. I couldn’t find my keys or my wallet this morning, so I didn’t make early church. It was just as well because I had this song running around in my head that needed to escape to paper. I’ve written exactly one listenable song that isn’t about something that’s either depressing or enraging (and that was a song about someone who has no self-esteem but should). For the video we’re producing, we need to have some backing music (which was why I was messing with the ADAT). And something tells me pastor would be less than happy if we used Love Songs Bite.

So we’ve got a talented musician who knows how to write music but not lyrics. And we’ve got a wannabe goth/punk songwriter who’s never written a happy song in his life tasked with writing the lyrics. The day before we needed them, they hit me. I don’t think they’re all that great, but they fit our need and John liked them, and the thought did occur to me that they do say more than a lot of the songs we sing do, and if John can work a good pop hook or two in there and we can get the rhythm section to drive it, it just might fly.

I probably should bring a Cars CD tomorrow for John to listen to, since of all the bands I know they probably most closely resemble our setup. Their sound was defined by guitarist Elliot Easton and keyboardist Greg Hawkes — and our two best musicians happen to be on those two instruments as well. Their other hallmark was the harmonies Easton, Hawkes, and Ben Orr did in the background. We’ve got people who can do that too. Or we can just get the choir up there. And I’m at least as disturbed as singer/songwriter Ric Ocasek was, but I’ll keep my neurotic lyrics to myself. And I’ll let someone else sing. We’ll skip that part of the formula.

Whew. That’s a lot of stuff. After all that, I should take the rest of the week off — but I know I won’t.

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