Hackaday Links: February 10, 2019

Last month was NAMM, the National Association of Musical Something that begins with ‘M’, which means we’re synthed and guitarded out for the year. The synth news? Behringer are making cheap reproductions and clones of vintage gear. There’s something you need to know about vintage gear: more than half of everything produced today has a Roland 808 or 909 drum machine (or sample), a 303 bass synth, or a 101 mono synth in it. Put an 808, 909, 303, and 101 on the same table, connected to a mixer, and you can make most of the electronic music from the ’80s and ’90s. And Behringer is cloning these synths. Neat times. But there’s a problem: Roland is trademarking these drum machines and synths, with trademark filings in the US and Germany. These are ‘trade dress’, or basically the beautiful red, orange, yellow, and white buttons of the 808 and the digital cyber silver plastic aesthetic of the 303, but there you go. It’s round one in the Roland v. Behringer match, may the first person to give me an 808, 909, 303, and 101 for a thousand dollars win.

Synths? Sure thing. Here’s a stash of New Old Stock 8580 SID chips, the ‘synth on a chip’ found in the Commodore 64. The price? $50. [ben] bought one of these, and the card that came with it said,  “We purchased these chips in 2006 and they’ve been stored in our climate-controlled storage area ever since. Even still, we found a handful of them that didn’t pass testing. Treat them with care!” Yes, a bunch of SID chips for sale is noteworthy, but at $50 a piece for 1980s technology, can someone explain why a chip fab isn’t cranking these things out? If there’s one ancient piece of silicon where the demand meets what it would cost to spin up the silicon line, the SID is it. Where are the modern reproductions?

Excited about making an electronic badge this year? Seeed is offering badge sponsorships for 2019, with an offer of a 5% discount on PCBA, and a 10% discount if you put the Seeed logo on the board. I might be a little biased, but Seeed is a place where you can just ask, “hey, you guys do clear soldermask?” and they find a way to do it.

The best way to tell if someone is rich isn’t by seeing if they have an i8 parked outside their mansion, or just a piece of junk with an M badge. It isn’t whether or not their filet mignon is wagyu or just Kobe, and it isn’t if they’re cruising the skies in a G650 or just puttering around in a Cessna Citation. No, the best way to tell if someone is rich is to notice their AirPods. Yes, Apple’s wireless headphones (which are actually pretty good!) are the best foundation of a class division these days. The best class signal since private railroad cars now has a problem: people are printing their own AirPods. [Brady32] over on Thingiverse has modeled AirPods, and now the design is being given away for free. The horror. Now anyone can print out their own little bits of white plastic, stick them in their ears, and tell the world, ‘I’m better than you. Don’t bother talking back, because I obviously can’t hear you.’

Raspberry Pi has a store! Yes, everyone’s favorite single board computer now has an ‘experimental space’ in Cambridge’s Grand Arcade. The Beeb is saying this store is ‘bucking the retail trend’, yes, but any retail trend doesn’t really apply here; brands have storefronts, and it’s not about revenue per square foot. Makerbot had a store, and it wasn’t about selling printers. Microsoft has stores. Sony built a mall to advertise the original PlayStation. While the Raspberry Pi brick and mortar store will probably never make any money, it is an indication the Raspberry Pi foundation has built a valuable brand worthy of celebration. Here’s some pics of the store itself.

Did you know Hackaday has a retro edition? It’s true! retro.hackaday.com is a lo-fi version of Hackaday without CSS or Javascript or any other cruft. It’s hand-written HTML (assembled by a script) of the first ten thousand or so Hackaday posts. The idea is that old computers could load the retro site, just to prove they could. [Matthias Koch] has an Atari PC3 — Atari’s PC compatible with an 8088 running at 8Mhz, 640k of RAM and a 20 MB hard drive — and got this thing to pull up the retro site. Good work!

What is the current state of 3D printing? What is the current state of 3D printing videos on YouTube? Oh boy we’re going to find out. [Potent Printables] did an ‘analysis’ of 3D printing videos published to YouTube, and found the category riddled with ‘clickbait’, without giving an operational definition of what ‘clickbait’ actually is, or how it’s different from any other content (because who would make a video that doesn’t have the purpose of attracting viewers) Anyway, there’s a problem with the YouTube algorithm, and 3D printing blogs are copying it, filling the entire hobby with disillusioned beginners, or something. After defining ‘The Most Viewed’ as not being a news or documentary footage (okay, that’s fair), having at least three printing videos, not clickbait, and gives the designer proper attribution, [Potent Printables] found a list filled with [Maker’s Muse], [3D Print Guy] and other channels who do 3D printing work, but don’t put 3D printing in the title. This is great; 3D printing isn’t a fascinating new technology that’s the first step towards Star Trek replicators; we’ve slid down the trough of disillusionment and now 3D printers are just tools. It’s great, and in 2018 things are as they should be.

Exploring an Abandoned Toys “R” Us

If someone asked me to make a list of things I didn’t expect to ever hear again, the question “Do you want to go to a Toys “R” Us?” would be pretty near the top spot. After all of their stores (at least in the United States) closed at the end of June 2018, the House of Geoffrey seemed destined to join Radio Shack as being little more than a memory for those past a certain age. A relic from the days when people had to leave their house to purchase goods.

But much to my surprise, a friend of mine recently invited me to join him on a trip to the now defunct toy store. His wife’s company purchased one of the buildings for its ideal location near a main highway, and before the scrappers came through to clean everything out, he thought I might like a chance to see what was left. Apparently his wife reported there was still “Computers and stuff” still in the building, and as I’m the member of our friend group who gets called in when tangles of wires and sufficiently blinking LEDs are involved, he thought I’d want to check it out. He wasn’t wrong.

Readers may recall that Toys “R” Us, like Radio Shack before it, had a massive liquidation sale in the final months of operations. After the inventory was taken care of, there was an auction where the store’s furnishings and equipment were up for grabs. I was told that this location was no different, and yet a good deal of material remained. In some cases there were no bidders, and in others, the people who won the auction never came back to pick the stuff up.

So on a rainy Sunday evening in September, armed with flashlight, camera, and curiosity, I entered a Toys “R” Us for last time in my life. I found not only a stark example of what the changing times have done to retail in general, but a very surprising look at what get’s left behind when the money runs out and the employees simply give up.

Continue reading “Exploring an Abandoned Toys “R” Us”

Geoffrey the Giraffe’s Last Call of Toys for Hacking

Many of us in the United States frequently browse the shelves of Toys R Us for things to hack on. Sadly that era will soon end with the chain’s closing. In the meantime, the entire store becomes the clearance shelf as they start liquidating inventory. Depending on store, the process may begin as soon as Thursday, March 22. (Warning: video ads on page.)

While not as close to hacker hearts as the dearly departed Radio Shack or Maplin, Toys R Us has provided the hacker community with a rich source of toys we’ve repurposed for our imagination. These toys served various duties including chassis, enclosure, or parts donor. They all had low prices made possible by the high volume, mass market economics that Toys R Us helped build. Sadly it was not able to keep its head above water in the low margin cutthroat competition of retail sales in America.

As resourceful consumers, we will find other project inspirations. Many projects on this site have sourced parts from Amazon. In commercial retail, Target has started popping up in increasing frequency. And no matter where new toys are sold, wait a few years and some fraction will end up at our local thrift store.

We’ll always have some nostalgia for Geoffrey the Giraffe, but toy hacking must go on.

Bye Bye, Maplin

Well, that was quick. Four days ago we mentioned that the British electronics retail chain Maplin was being offered for sale, and today it has been announced that no buyer has been found and the company is going into administration.

We dealt with all the nostalgia for what was roughly a British equivalent to Radio Shack in our previous post. Perhaps now it’s time to look beyond the jumpers-for-goalposts reminiscences about spaceships on the catalogues for a moment, and consider what this means for us in 2018.

It’s fairly obvious that a retail model for selling either electronic tat or components is no longer viable in an age of online ordering and availability of almost anything at knock-down prices for anyone prepared to wait for a packet from China. This applies on both sides of the Atlantic, but for British retailers, the killer combination of very high rents and local business taxes makes it particularly difficult. Maplin were extremely convenient when you needed a part immediately, but the universal reaction from Hackaday readers was that they were overpriced. It’s the same story that has cleared away numerous chains in other sectors, and the toxic view that retail property is still the goldmine it might have been in decades past is largely responsible.

Despite all that, there must still be some demand for electronic components at a retail level even if the economics no longer support a showroom model. Perhaps a trade counter operation might have better luck, it will be interesting to see whether suppliers such as RS Components or CPC expand their networks to try to capture that business. Whatever happens, we’ll keep you posted.

Maplin For Sale

If you are an American Electronics Enthusiast of a Certain Age, you will have misty-eyed reminiscences of the days when every shopping mall had a Radio Shack store. If you are a Brit, the name that will bring similar reminiscences to those Radio Shack ones from your American friends is Maplin. They may be less important to our community than they once would have been so this is a story from the financial pages; it has been announced that the Maplin chain is for sale.

Maplin started life as a small mail-order company supplying electronic parts, grew to become a large mail order company selling electronic parts, and them proceeded to a nationwide chain of stores occupying a similar niche to the one Radio Shack fitted into prior to their demise. They still sell electronic components, multimeters, and tools, but the bulk of their floor space is devoted to the more techy and hobbyist end of mass-market consumer electronics. As the competition from online retailers has intensified  it is reported that the sale may be an attempt to avoid the company going into administration.

It’s fair to say that in our community they have something of a reputation of late for being not the cheapest source of parts, somewhere you go because you need something in a hurry rather than for a bargain. A friend of Hackaday remarked flippantly that the asking price for the company would be eleventy zillion pounds, which may provide some clues as to why custom hasn’t been so brisk. But for a period in the late 1970s through to the 1980s they were the only place for many of us to find  parts, and their iconic catalogues with spaceships on their covers could be bought from the nationwide WH Smith newsagent chain alongside home computers such as the ZX Spectrum. It’s sad to say this, but if they did find themselves on the rocks we’d be sorry to see the name disappear, but we probably wouldn’t miss them in 2018.

One of the things Maplin were known for back in the day were their range of kits. We’ve shown you at least one in the past, this I/O port for a Sinclair ZX81.

Footnote: Does anyone still have any of the early Maplin catalogues with the spaceships on the cover? Ours perished decades ago, but we’d love to borrow one for a Retrotechtacular piece.

Maplin store images: Betty Longbottom [CC BY-SA 2.0], and Futurilla [CC BY-SA 2.0].

Linger Keeps You Around After You’ve Gone

We’re not sure if this is art, anti-snooping guerilla warfare, or just a cheeky hack, but we do know that we like it! [Jasper van Loenen]’s Linger keeps the SSIDs that your cell phone (for example) spits out whenever it’s not connected to a WiFi network, and replays them after you’re gone.

Some retail stores and other shady characters use MAC addresses and/or the unique collection of SSIDs that your phone submits in probe requests to fingerprint you and track your movement, either through their particular store or across stores that share a tracking provider. Did you know that you were buying into this when you enabled “location services”? Did the tracking firms ask you if that was ok? Of course not. What are you going to do about it?

Linger replays the probe requests of people who have already moved on, making it appear to these systems as if nobody ever leaves. Under the hood, it’s a Raspberry Pi Zero, two WiFi dongles, and some simple Python software that stores probe requests in a database. There’s also a seven-segment display to indicate how many different probe-request profiles Linger has seen. We’re not sure the price point on this device is quite down to “throwie” level, but we’d love to see some of these installed in the local mall.  Continue reading “Linger Keeps You Around After You’ve Gone”

RadioShack Demise Could Signal the Rise of Mom-and-Pop

No matter how you feel about RadioShack, for many hackers it was the one place that components could be sourced locally. Upon hearing that the stores are being shuttered (at least for those seeking non-cellphone items) we wondered if someone would rise to meet the maker market. The answer may actually be mom-and-pops — independent stores owned by people passionate about hacking and making.

tinker-and-twist-boothAt SXSW Create in March the Hackaday booth was right next door one such establishment. [Martin Bogomolni] is hard at work launching his brick and mortar store called Tinker & Twist. In the video below he speaks briefly about the concept of the store, which focuses on curating the best products and tools available and stocking them locally.

The store will be located in a shopping mall in Austin, Texas. But it takes about 100 days launch a storefront considering the permits and build-out. [Martin] decided to take the store to the hackers by exhibiting (and selling products) at SXSW Create. How else would you do this than by building a store-front as your booth? The store’s sign was CNC routed from rigid foam, and combined with a set of columns and storefront window. We stopped by late on the last day of the event and they had been having a great weekend. What started as a very well stocked set of shelves looked nearly bare.

Tinker & Twist is just the most recent in a growing trend of standalone stores focusing on hackers and makers. Our friends at Deezmaker in Pasadena, CA gave us tour last year. They’ve married the concepts of hackerspace, small-run manufacturer (in the form of their 3D printers), and retail store all-in-one. These types of examples make us quite happy — it’s been years since RadioShack was tightly focused on those actually building things. We hope to see more stores like Tinker & Twist up and running to support and enhance hacker communities everywhere.