Archive for the ‘electronics’ Category

As Radio Shack Lays Dying — A Love Letter

March 5, 2014

Once the go-to shop for American geekdom, Radio Shack is closing another 1000 retail outlets. Some blame Amazon, the internet, a dumbed-down consumer even, but Radio Shack really has no-one to blame but themselves.

Radio Shack, we were once friends, lovers even, so take this as friendly advice: abandon your current, worthless PR efforts (after the firing squads are done, anyway) and re-engage with your core market. Or… just die. Preferably quickly.

That sounds harsh, but that’s how things are now.

Regarding your PR: does Toys’R’Us buy ad-space in the ‘Journal of Injection Moulded Plastics’? Of course not.
So why does
 Radio Shack buy ads in magazines catering to electrical engineers? A smiting is warranted by this abject idiocy.

Also, is this lame ‘Do It Together’ campaign the best you can do, a shitty logo with nothing to back it up? How does this engage anyone that doesn’t already shop at Radio Shack? ‘We’re Doing Ourselves’ would have been a more appropriate slogan. Those behind this wasted effort should be fired, and I’m not just talking about the ad agency. All it takes is one glance to see that somebody at Radio Shack didn’t have their thinking cap on… or just quit trying. 

Your core market:  the DIY folks — the enthusiasts, tinkerers and crackpot inventors. You know, like those ne’er-do-wells named Wozniak and Jobs? The polite term is ‘Maker’ now and if you can bring yourself to become a useful resource to them, the Makers can save your feckless corporate ass. 

Drop the appliances and cellphones and all that other crap that every other retailer kicks your butt at and focus on the Makers that nobody else is serving. This market is yours to lose.

Cast your minds back to the Tandy Leather stores, the sister shops to the old Radio Shack. The joke used to be that fetishists were keeping them in business. But if you drop over to their website, take a look at their in-store class schedules.  Hmmm, that’s a tool of engagement that Radio Shack never offered. Interesting. And predictive. 

I know you’ve tried carrying a few fun products like Arduinos and Basic Stamps (hidden between the mountains of bullshit, toys and iPhone cases), but there is a big difference between putting a product on your shelf and actually engaging potential customers for that product. You already know this, right? Well, do something about it!

Everything wrong at Radio Shack can be fixed. If you need some ideas (and you really-really do, old chum!), here’s a few freebies:

  • Sponsor local school Chess Clubs and Science Fairs. This is where Makers and geeks come from!
  • Hold some kind of in-store intro classes. If they don’t know how to use it, they won’t buy it! Of course, you’ll need someone with a clue to teach these classes, so…
  • Get to know your local Makers, maybe even hire a few of them: think ‘seed crystals’! These folks network and scheme and organize. Use them!
  • Make ‘The Shack’ a meeting place for those techie losers… just like in the old days. Knowledgeable staff and espresso would help.
  • Sponsor your local hackerspace(s)! A few resistors and some soldering irons would make a big splash for little cash!
  • Quit doing everything you are doing now that doesn’t work and THINK for a change!

Regarding your stupid Super Bowl ad: Makers don’t give a fuck about your shitty store fixtures… but I’d bet they would compete to design and fabricate some very sweet custom fixtures for their local ‘Rat Shat’. Just sayin’.

Amazon and other online sellers are slaughtering small retailers. They used to say the same thing about big box stores. But guess what? You can’t stream a hands-on experience. I had a coffee seller tell me that they didn’t bother with an on-line presence because that’s not what sells coffee. Same thing with Makers and their tactile, muscle-memory, wiggle-that-wire meatspace. You cannot put that experience or that face-to-face learning down a wire, not even a coaxial one. That’s what Radio Shack has to stick to if it wants to survive.

Do you get it, old friend?
We don’t like watching you die from self-inflicted wounds.
You can fix this… and your shareholders and the Makers would be thankful if you did.


Jetcopter Cyborgs Appear on the Shore

September 12, 2013

Alex Jones is crying out for Pharaoh to let his sheeple go… but the Crazy keeps getting louder! Homosexual juice-boxes, weather control, clockwork elves and those unblinking eyes following him everywhere!! AIEEEEE!!!

All hail the Georgia Guidestones! “Let these be Guidestones to an Age of Reason” reads the capstone in classical Greek, Sanskrit, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Babylonian cuneiform.

These totally awesome rubber-bands are my costume this Halloween!

Bashar Al-Assad Tries Tiny Bit Of Sarin Gas On Self To See What It’s Like (The Onion)

South African performance artist, Steven Cohen thought it would be a reasonable idea to dress in a bird-like costume with a rooster tied to his penis on a long ribbon and shimmy around the Eiffel Tower. The Paris police did not agree.

Tennessee Rep. Phil Roe’s proposal to require that SNAP beneficiaries be limited to foods that meet the tougher Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) standards (which exclude junk food) might pass if nobody in the GOP figures out that teh Poors might live longer because of it.

Say nice things about the NATO HERF program, it’s starting to look useful (for stopping NWO cyborg jetcopter elite machine elves in their tracks):

We are ‘GO’ for the Tulsa Mini Maker Faire!

August 16, 2013


(Update: This Saturday, 28 September is the big day. I’ve been nervously watching the weather forecasts and trying to optimize my load-out for the possibility of clouds and/or rain. Since my original plans were for solar, electrical and chemical manipulations of matter, rain is decidedly counter to my plans, so I’m hoping it won’t be happening.  If it’s overcast, maybe I won’t be able to cook hot dogs with the Fresnel spiral solar concentrator, but the electro-etching and stove-top brass making demo can still happen. A full downpour will put a damper on pretty much everything. Keep your fingers crossed!)  

My theme is “Make It: Cheap and Dirty” – or – How to do stuff you shouldn’t be able to do… for next to nothing!”  I’m placing a heavy emphasis on re-use, re-purposing and the “it isn’t junk unless you don’t use it” principle.

I’m going with more an “open play” format than a fixed spiel. Sure, I’ll have some handouts of the how-tos that ran in Steampunk Magazine, some basic “Ohm’s Law” level electronics theory, some link-lists of fun/educational stuff and I’ll have some of my cheap/dirty projects on hand to show how little refinement is required to get usable results. Mostly I’ll be demonstrating simple methods of making-tweaking-hacking things and generally trying to get people used to the idea that tinkering is rewarding! 

My updated agenda:

  • Fire up the ‘Eurosealer’ and clothes iron to illustrate plastic fusing techniques to improvise a rain-shelter from plastic grocery bags and drop-cloths (and possibly floatation devices, as required)
  • Turn dull, everyday bronze pennies into golden BRASS pennies for the kids (and others), just to break the ice
  • Talk about the cheap tools I just can’t live without, the beauty of pawn shops, garage sales and why “cheap” can be “best”
  • Give a quick rundown of some of my favorite household chemicals and the amazing things you can do with them (with demos), applied dumpster-diving, constructive cannibalism, why you should never throw away a “wall-wart”, general Q&A and other cheap-simple-dirty topics, tips and tricks
  • Etch some printed circuit boards with cheap, simple and surprisingly “green” chemicals, demonstrate electro-cleaning and galvanic etching
  • Provide a hands-on soldering tutorial and demo ‘surface mount’ soldering without special tools (you got a hot air gun, toaster oven or electric skillet?)
  • Share a couple of really cheap/simple solar concentrator designs (Update: no sun, no point- information only)
  • Assure you that you can take on that ‘Wild Blue Project’ you’ve been putting off, extoll on the value of creative failure and the benefits of a ‘Stop Planning and Just Do It, Already!‘ attitude

More than this I cannot say at this time.  If you’ve got any ‘idears’ to add (I’ve got eight hours, 8!) let me know early so I can be prepared!

I’m certain that this will be a whole lot of fun and I hope you’ll all come by to say howdy, and be sure to visit Dana Swift@Swift Science (he explained digital electronics to me the only time it ever stuck, back when I still fit my Star Trek uniform), the Tulsa Garden Railroad Club (my very oldest friends!) and all the other fine presenters at this, the very first Tulsa Mini Maker Faire!

An Electric Memorial Day

May 27, 2013

It was called the GE Elec-Trak: a home sized electric tractor that was built the 70′s.  It has a large following of enthusiasts that restore and use them. (Thanks, John Robb!)

Google X just bought Makani Power, makers of a really odd-ball airborne wind turbine system. Google CEO Larry Page approved the acquisition, but as Google X’s director Astro Teller notes, Page said that X “could have the budget and the people to go do this, but that we had to make sure to crash at least five of the devices in the near future.”

Electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is the boogie-man threat that just won’t die. The Heritage Foundation even promotes “EMP Awareness Day” and Congress empanelled a Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack in 2001 (and reauthorized it in 2006). There’s even an “EMP Caucus.” No, I don’t know if they wear little tinfoil hats at their caucus meetings. Why would you ask something like that?

Hey, China has cranky hacks just like Tom Clancy! Sites like give a glimpse into the union of Chinese sci-fi and war fanfic. Welcome to the strange underground world of Chinese military fantasy novels. (Spoiler alert: Japan always loses).

Speaking of cranky hacks, anyone remember when Sen. Coburn was all agitated about (imaginary) rampant lesbianism in SE Okla public schools?  Well, it turns out he’s said a lot of kooky things, like that silicone breast implants make you healthier, for instance. He’s a lousy doctor, a batty senator and a miserable human being to boot! Here’s a little lullaby for Senator Coburn, because Jesus thinks he’s a dumbass.

There’s been a very small study published claiming that electro-neural stimulation improves math learning. The military has been investigating it for years with interesting results. If anyone is interested in experimenting, I’m working on a USB-based DIY unit. Leave a comment if interested.

Here’s a time-capsule of one of the great minds praising the chronic: Carl Sagan Extols the Virtues of Cannabis (1969).

I can’t decide if Brunelleschi was a freaking genius or just one sick son-of-a-bitch.  Perhaps both. An elaborate practical joke by the master of Renaissance mind-fuck.

Could 3D Printed Food End Hunger Once and for All? My bet is it will just streamline the process at Mickie D’s. “I can’t believe it’s not food!”

Ed Yong explains new research on the signal pathway of itching. It doesn’t seem to be a subset of “pain” at all!

I want to be too big to fail. Explains my waistline.

To see Joseph Stalin as brooding revolutionary rather than mass-murdering dictator, check out Fuck Yeah Young Stalin. But for the really sexy side of the valiant struggle of the urban proletariat there’s Cosmarxpolitan.

The lovely Hannah Peel covers OMD’s “Electricity” accompanied by a hand-cranked music box.

Parchment PCB Toner Transfer: Updated

November 13, 2012

I finally got some time today to assess a new (to me) twist on etching my own PCBs at home: the “toner transfer no-soak” method from Dustin Andrews’ instructable. The advantages of this method are it is 1) faster and 2) cheaper (two of my favorite things). I’d previously been using fairly expensive ink-jet photo paper for my transfers, but the new method uses baking parchment, which is MUCH cheaper.

Dustin’s method also included treating the copper-clad with tarnish remover, which seemed to work very well indeed. After a fairly cursory scrubbing and rinsing of the slab, I gave it just a wipe-down with the Tarn-X, rinsed&dried and got a very credible transfer of my design using a hot iron. No soaking and waiting for the photo-paper to slough off, just cooling the copper before peeling off the parchment, and voilá, a good transfer.

Now if I’d only remembered not to mirror the art work for the back of the board… but, like I said, it’s been a while.

Update: Have done a little more work with the parchment-transfer method, and I have a few more observations.

First off, I’ve been using “Reynolds® Parchment Paper” brand of baking parchment, which has a very slight texture. I’ve get better results if I use a press cloth to distribute the pressure, instead of just mashing it with the iron directly. This is the result from a limited sample, your mileage might vary, etc.

The biggest bummer involved with toner transfer is finding what works for you, and the recursive cleaning after a failed transfer. Your copper has got to be VERY clean for any toner transfer to work well. We’re talking MOLECULAR clean here,  not even any fingerprints! A very good scrub with abrasive cleanser and a thorough rinse with hot running water are minimum steps to success. Add the sloshing around in tarnish remover and another hot rinse if you have troubles. Add a good wipe-down with clean acetone if you still have trouble.   Persevere and you will succeed!

Always let the iron heat up at least 10 minutes before transferring your artwork (since some irons can take a while to heat up), apply a lot of pressure and never use the steam setting! I picked up a separate “PCB iron” at a thrift shop for a few dollars after leaving some residue on m’lady’s GOOD clothes iron (don’t do that!).

PCB Toner Transfer: Parchment Rocks

November 4, 2012

I finally got some time today to assess a new (to me) twist on etching my own PCBs at home: the “toner transfer no-soak” method from Dustin Andrews’ instructable. The advantages of this method are it is 1) faster and 2) cheaper (two of my favorite things). I’d previously been using fairly expensive ink-jet photo paper for my transfers, but the new method uses baking parchment, which is MUCH cheaper.

Dustin’s method also included treating the copper-clad with tarnish remover, which seemed to work very well indeed. After a fairly cursory scrubbing and rinsing of the slab, I gave it just a wipe-down with the Tarn-X, rinsed&dried and got a very credible transfer of my design using a hot iron. No soaking and waiting for the photo-paper to slough off, just cooling the copper before peeling off the parchment, and voilá, a good transfer.

Now if I’d only remembered not to mirror the art work for the back of the board… but, like I said, it’s been a while.

Saturday on Earth

October 20, 2012

The Salt Lake Tribune endorsed President Obama for reelection Friday, with an editorial that was highly critical of Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the adopted ‘favorite son’ candidate for Utah. A vicious shunning of the paper by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will inevitably ensue.

Syria is the prime suspect in car-bomb assassination of Lebanese intelligence head Wissam al-Hassan, a high-profile al-Assad foe. A Syrian-directed car-bomb also killed Rafiq Hariri, the influential former prime minister, in 2005.  Outrage over Hariri’s death triggered protests that helped drive out the Syrian troops that had occupied Lebanon for nearly three decades. Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said Saturday the explosion is linked to al-Hassan’s recent investigation, in which he exposed an alleged plot by Syria to unleash a campaign of bombings and assassinations to sow chaos in Lebanon.

Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA), serial dickhead, has once again sacrificed national security for party politics, by disclosing the identities of several Libyans working with the U.S. government. Once again, “Attention GOP: this stuff is secret, so keep your idiotic blatherings private!”.

Ever heard of a “Stingray”? Also known as an IMSI spoofer, these systems covertly dupe all cellular phones within a specific area into hopping onto a fake network, where their encryption can be disabled and unique identity codes revealed that can be used to track a person’s movements in real time. The FBI would like to keep them a secret, but the Electronic Privacy Information Center is taking legal action to force the prompt disclosure of Bureau records concerning Stingray devices and their use. Security researcher Chris Padgett publicly demonstrated the technique in 2010, and a DIY drone-based platform for cell site spoofing and WiFi sniffing was demonstrated in 2011.

Two men in Rome have stumbled onto an ancient Roman tomb while trying to retrieve a runaway cat. “The cat managed to get into a grotto and we followed the sound of its miaowing,” he said. Inside the small opening in the cliff the two men found themselves surrounded by niches dug into the rock similar to those used by the Romans to hold funeral urns, while what appeared to be human bones littered the floor. Archaeologists called to the scene said the tomb probably dated from between the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD. The cat, of course, gets no credit by name at all. Typical.

Learning from the chaotic multiple chargers required by the proliferation of cell phones, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has voted to adopt the J1772 Revision B combo plug as the standard plug for use in electric and hybrid vehicles sold worldwide. Hallelujah! A breath of sanity!

Good news for Science: radiocarbon dating just got more accurate, thanks to Japanese lake sediments.

On a sad note: “Big Tex”, the beloved 52-foot-tall cowboy who’s watched over the State Fair of Texas for decades, caught fire Friday morning and was quickly burnt to a crisp. He was 60. Fans of ‘Tex-kitsch’ around the world mourn his passing.

Free or Cheap EDA Tools

September 17, 2011

Since I got so many interesting responses to the “Why does Mentor Graphics SUCK so Very, Very Much?” post, I wanted to explore some of the low-cost alternatives to “big CAD”.
Not everyone starts learning this stuff in college or on the job. Lots of people (like myself) started out as hobbyists, and how many amateurs can open a vein and produce the  kilobucks for Big Name EDA packages (like “maxiPADS” or whatever), with their a la carte features and rapacious licensing that cost the price of a good used car to use for a year?

So let’s talk about no-to-low cost alternatives.  The list got started in the comments of the “Mentor Graphics SUCK” post, but I’ll restart the discussion with a few of my faves:

  • EAGLE by CADSoft is a reliable option. I did my first FCC approved design using it, so I can say it works well .  The free lite version lets you do small boards with a limited pin-count. It has a short learning curve, many user contributed parts libraries can be downloaded, and it’s parts creation scheme isn’t too onerous once you get used to it.  The layout portion isn’t bad at all, either (I had this kidney-shaped key-fob transmitter to lay out, but once I imported a  .dxf of the outline it went very smoothly).  I used the free version for a long time, then bought the pro version and was never sorry about it.
  • I did a few small projects using an online layout and PCB fabrication service called Pad2Pad. It’s for laying out straightforward PCBs and getting an instant quote. No schematic capture, though. Still, the pricing wasn’t at all bad for my micro IR proximity detector and your can play with delivery times to slew the cost per board. Good for short prototype runs or one-offs (if you don’t want to smell up the kitchen doing your own etch).
    They have a sister site called, which lets you design simple mechanicals in a variety of materials and processes and get instant quotes.  I thought they were both very nifty ideas for the home inventor types out there.
  • Just today I  read about Upverter, a new “cloud” toolset for schematic creation.  I don’t see any layout options there yet, but it’s just in beta now. It’s worth a look.
    This crew is feeling our pain from the sound of their “Our Story” tab:  “They experienced just how terrible electronic design was and swore to just forget about hardware and spend the rest of their lives writing software”.  Preaching to the choir, gang, and well worth a link from me!

So what nifty-keen software tools or services have caught your eye?
Share your secret finds!