Saturday, April 7, 2007

Looting CompUSA

I woke up this morning to feel an unexpected downdraft of warm air. Wait - is that the heater going? Holy crap.

This is bad because I'm allergic to certain house dusts, and the heating system seems to be a source of that kind of dust. I always get sick if the heater is running. Normally I would have the vent closed to prevent the allergens getting into my room, but until yesterday it was quite warm, and I can have the vent open for the A/C without ill effect.

I had heard a cold front was coming, but I can't believe it came as far down as Houston, and got as cold as it has. It triggered the heater, and now thanks to my allergy I have a case of the crud and a sore throat to keep me company for the next few days.

Despite not feeling well, I went ahead with my favorite Saturday pastime, which is to hit up the electronics and computer and book stores in order of their closing times. First I go to EPO electronics until they kick me out at 5 pm, then I wander CompUSA like a friendly ghost until they kick me out, and then on to Barnes & Noble which caters to night-owls and has a Starbucks to boot.

After reading about a foxhole radio made from a slinky, I decided I want to build my own radio (though not out of a slinky). Some of my most memorable electronics experiences involved building crystal radios and one-transistor radios from Radioshack kits when I was a pre-teen, but ultimately I became frustrated with the radios' unpredictable behavior and changed my focus to digital logic instead. I now realize that most of the unpredictability must have stemmed from my poor understanding of necessities like proper grounding techniques and controlling parasitic capacitance. With the experience I have now, I figure I could build some much better receivers and have some fun with it again.

That's why I went to EPO today - to get parts. EPO is a giant electronics store in south Houston. Like Radio Shack used to be but much better. It's an electronics geek's dream - they have components, kits, tools, testers, surplus junk, everything. It's like walking into the pages of a Digikey catalog.

I was surprised to find that they don't carry crystal radio kits. Not one. I guess nobody builds them anymore. Shame. They do have some other radio-related kits, but not what I was looking for. They also had a confusing array of ham-radio kits, but I'm not licensed to transmit ham radio and I wasn't sure which receiver to get either.

I was intrigued by a phase lock loop experiment kit they carry. It uses a digital phase lock loop chip (PLL) and a PIC microcontroller to give you a push-button, digital control over what frequency is generated. It was meant for sending, not receiving, but I thought, what if I run the output of an antenna amplifier (also available as a kit) into the phase lock loop chip? Then maybe I could make the PLL lock to a radio station by typing the station's frequency into the digital control.

It's a hell of an idea but the cost quickly got out of hand. The PLL kit is already expensive, and the antenna amplifier was downright overpriced for something so simple. Then I realized I needed some sort of "mixer" chip to compare the PLL output back to the antenna input, in order to skim the actual sound off the incoming signal. (The PLL locks you with the phase of a signal but the actual sounds of AM radio come from the signal's amplitude.) I found a general-purpose IF mixer chip that looked perfect for the job, but it was expensive too. I was expecting to spend, say, $35 tops today on a weekend project. Instead I ended up with an armload of parts that came to $90 and I didn't even know if the circuit would work or not, it was just based on a hunch!

I would have loved to test the idea, but I also need to be more careful with my money. Not to sound arrogant by comparing myself to the great man, but I live like Nikola Tesla did. I'm chronically broke, spending money on inventions instead of food. I'm trying to get away from that. When the items rang up to three times what I expected, a glimmer of rationality seeped in and I wondered, "when did my $10 crystal radio project become a $90 digital synchrodyne?" I stammered to the cashier that I couldn't afford it and made an embarassed and hasty exit with the items still on the counter. Sad. It would have been a fun project. Maybe some day I'll make enough money to do some of them.

My next stop was CompUSA. I more than half expected it to not be there anymore. When I first came to Houston, the CompUSA store here was the first one I had been to - they don't have them in the small town I'm from. Murphy's law dictates that since I liked the store, it would naturally have to go out of business soon. The CompUSA company decided this branch isn't bringing in enough profit, and decided to close it up. They've been having a going out of business sale for a month now.

They didn't seem very serious about it last time I was there. Most things were only 10% off. You call that a going out of business sale? Can you even call that a sale? I did get a great deal on a hard drive that time, but I decided to wait and see how much further the prices drop before I buy anything else.

Things have changed quite a bit since the last time. The store looks like a warzone! Now most things are 40% off, half the shelves are stripped, and people aren't so much shopping the store, as looting it. Everything is for sale, not just the products but the shelves too, for goodness sake. One of the store managers asked me, "Why don't you take a basket?" "Oh, good idea," I said. I picked up a shopping basket and behind it was a sign that said, "Why don't you take a basket? Only $4 each." Gee golly, they are serious.

This would be a good time for me to pick up a GPS navigator for my car. I probably burn $200 a year extra gas just from getting lost. The trouble is, I'm dead scared of blowing my money on a crappy GPS system when I could have a better one if I wait. They had some $200-range GPS units for sale at the CompUSA but they were all no-name brands. One didn't turn on at all, and the other could play music but reported "application .exe file not found" when you tried to view the map! This doesn't inspire my confidence in them.

"Even in the future, nothing works!" - Spaceballs.

You know that's the trouble with consumer electronics. Ultimately the manufacturers of these devices are collectively shooting themselves in the foot by sacrificing quality to save manufacturing cost. They've lost the consumer's trust. Even if you're willing to spend the extra money to buy a good product, how do you know you're actually getting something better? Are you really getting a quality piece of equipment, or did a major trademark just slap their logo on a craptastic piece of outsourced junk? Even for an engineer it's hard to tell unless you could look inside the case. Uncertainty is the real reason Americans buy tons of cheap plastic crap and fund a Walmart on every street corner. Given the choice between spending a little money on something cheap and crappy, or risking more money on something that might be better, the same, or worse, people will choose the devil they know and go with cheap over risky every time.

I felt rather bad for the people working at that store. I mean, here are all these shoppers, me included, acting like sharks in a feeding frenzy, yet the staff are being uncharacteristically polite to everyone, and no one is commenting on the larger tragedy that, at the end of this month, a dozen people will be unemployed. I asked one of the younger sales associates about it and he shrugged apologetically and said, "stuff happens". "Are they going to move you guys to another store, or just throw you out on the street?" "Well one guy was going to get reassigned but he quit instead, and there's one other person who got another position." "So, the rest of you...what happens?" "We get a severance package and...that's the end of it."

There were some crazy deals going on, like a TiVo version 2 for $100 and also a laser printer for the same, but I decided to forego the expensive items today and buy more smaller items. I got a USB floppy drive for my laptop for $23, and a book called "The Multi-Boot Configuration Handbook," which looks interesting. I also completed my collection of Swiss-tech keychain tools. I have so many tools on my keychain that I don't keep my keys on it anymore. I need to invent a utility belt that holds keychain widgets! It'll have to be inconspicuous, too, so my girlfriend will not be too embarassed to be seen in public with me.

Of course, what I really want is a Swiss army knife the size of a, well, just look at it! It's huge and it has every blade Wenger makes, but at $1200 it definitely costs more than the sum of it's parts. Kudos to them for having the balls to make something this cool, but they're totally undermining it by calling it "only a collector's item". I would really use this thing. That's got me thinking - how hard is it to hack a Swiss army knife? Why not buy a bunch of smaller Swiss Army knives, break them into pieces, and put together one big one with just the blades you like? Why not make it so the blades are easy to add and remove whenever you want? Then you can have a modular, customizable Swiss Army knife that's as wild and crazy as you want it to be.

I envision setting up an online web store where geeks could buy knife parts to combine together. You could buy blades for $5 each, custom handle-plate designs, and screws and nylon washers to put the knives together. They'd all be interchangeable but every person could have a unique knife, and you could accessorize to no end. A true geek toy.

Too bad the people who make the real Swiss Army knives would sue me out of business.

After CompUSA I went to Barnes & Noble. I've gone longer than usual without buying any books lately. It's not that I don't find books I'm interested in - just the opposite. I can't go to Barnes & Noble without finding a stack of books as tall as I am that I simply must have. I can't afford them all but I can't choose any to remove. So I end up getting none.

But I tell you I have never regretted buying a book. Never. For instance, I spent $143 on a stack of C# books two years ago - that $143 turned into a few thousand I made as a C# programmer right after that.

So I decided it's high time I bit the bullet and actually spent some money on programming books again. (Money has been the thread tying this entry together, I just noticed. It must be on my mind today.)

I had been thinking about getting a book on Ruby for ages now. I decided to get only one and get the rest later. I was drawn to The Ruby Way by Hal Fulton because of its Taoist references (I'm a big fan of the Tao Te Ching, and also The Tao of Programming), but ultimately I settled on the classic Pragmatic Programmer's guide, Programming Ruby, because the writing in it has a light-hearted tone that lifts my spirits. Yes, the old edition is available online, but there is more in the second edition and I still like to read from a real book instead of a computer screen.
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