This Week: Pittsburgh, Mifi vs Wifi, Radio Shack, Make Magazine & Halloween

<RAMBLE> This week was just chock full of unexpected stuff. Whereas I had thought I was going to be at home learning about virtualisation in support of an upcoming project I got word that some kind of software sorcery was required at the site of troubled project in Pittsburgh. By the end of the day Wednesday, and with very little notice, I was ensconced in the Omni William Penn hotel in down town Steel Town.

The William Penn is Pittsburgh’s oldest hotel. It’s beautiful inside the lobby and common areas. It’s an Omni so the rooms are well appointed with great beds & flat screen TVs. Being older the rooms aren’t all that large, but they are nice.

Internet access is by way of wifi which costs $9.95/day. Normally I wouldn’t care about such matters as I’d have my trusty Sprint Mifi along in my bag. Part of the argument in getting my employer to pay for the Mifi every month is that I don’t pay for broadband by the night in hotels anymore.

However, thinking that I was going to be around the office all week I loaned the Mifi to my brother-in-law who was roughing it at his wife’s rural hometown working on a minor renovation project for the week. He was killing some vacation time in a place with no ‘net access or even TV. That’s very dull after dark, so I offered him the use of the Mifi for the week.

The Wifi at the William Penn was ok…not great..but not terrible. It’s curious how often the wifi service itself is sound, but the backhaul infrastructure is lame. I don’t know how many times I’ve connected to hotel wifi only to find that the captive portal that they force to use to logon was overtaxed or simply dead.

This week it wasn’t that bad. I could fetch & send email, check the blog and read news online. I tried to ftp a 600 MB zip file to a server in the UK. That process ran for 6 hours but never completed.

Even as I was trying to upload that file Thursday evening I was reading that Clear is about to launch 4G wireless service in Pittsburgh. Clear/Sprint 4G service is starting to show up in the places I go often. It’s rumored to be near launch in NYC. I think that I’ll end up replacing the 3G Mifi with a dual mode 3G/4G USB dongle. The only question is when.

Speaking of Wifi, the airport in Pittsburgh has free wifi. It seemed decent. I used that to connect to Friday’s VUC call via the PhoneFromHere.com Java widget (in wideband!) and an Etymotic wired headset. I managed to hear most of the call before my flight left at 1:50pm.

Earlier in the week, when it wasn’t raining, I walked from my hotel to my customer site. It was a pleasant walk in the cooler weather…only about ten blocks. The path took me past someplace that I hadn’t thought about in a long time…a Radio Shack store.

When I was a kid Radio Shack was a magical place. Each store was floor to ceiling covered in the component parts of electronic wizardry. Myriad blister packs of wonderful and mysterious things like capacitors, resistors, transistors, op-amps & logic chips. When I was around seven years old I would rather play with rolls of wire, batteries, lamps and LEDs than anything else. And tools of course.

The coming of the Radio Shack catalog met with hours pouring over the pages. It was a reference guide to many projects that I would dream about but rarely build.

In my professional life Radio Shack has saved my bacon on a handful of occasions. I’d be in some strange town to do a demonstration and find myself short of a couple of BNC video cables or adapters. Radio Shack would generally have them on-hand. Usually really cheap ones, but priced like they were platinum plated.

Today’s Radio Shack is pale substitution for the place I used to love. It’s more a cell phone shop than anything else. They hardly offer any electronic components anymore. I guess there just wasn’t any demand for such items. It’s hard to see how they could go wrong selling six two-cent resistors in a blister pack for three dollars. There’s a lot of margin there. I suppose that there’s more revenue to be had selling a $3 AC adapter for cell phone for $30.

Radio Shack seems to have the best deal on T-Mobile’s new G2 phone, but only for new customers. As an existing T-Mobile customer I’ll probably pay $199 for the phone. But I’m waiting until I can actually lay hands on one before I make the commitment.

I didn’t realize it, but I kind of miss Radio Shack….as it was back then.

The spirit of Radio Shack of old I now find in MAKE Magazine. I’m a charter subscriber and have been since its inception. I must applaude Tim O’Reilly for creating MAKE. It fills a gaps that’s been left by the whithering of Popular Mechanics, Popular Electronics, and the like. MAKE is inspiring in the same ways that a 200-In-One electronics kit was when I was kid.

Most of all I admire MAKE because it encourages us to get up off the couch and build something. This speaks to my soul.

Halloween is coming. Around here Halloween is a big deal…as big a Christmas for most families. It’s a time forbuilding things…MacGyvering stuff together into spooky displays. It’s the reason we own most of the audio gear that we do, and a PC-based lighting controller, too.

In Houston Halloween comes just as the summer is passing. It’s getting cooler and I want to do more things outside. This weekend we’ll be building the spider web. That means a full day spent with about five hundred feet of Sisal rope (dyed black) and several hundred small black tie wraps. Then strings of orange lights wound around the whole thing.

The spider web is about 24 feet tall and fills the gap between the edge of the house and a big Pine tree in the front yard. This is the sixth year for the spider web. It originally came about when my wife brought home an 8’ inflatable spider. I simply could not put it up without giving it some kind of proper context in the yard.

The point of all of this…if there is one…is that this weekend I’m going to put down the mouse, back away from the PC and go build something outside. It’ll be something frivolous, but that’s ok. Heck, that’s the point. </RAMBLE>

  • Great article Mr Graves!
    Over here in the UK we used to have Tandy stores which sold Radio Shack parts. We also had Maplin Electronics. Tandy started getting rid of anything vaguely hobbyist and mostly sold remote control toys. When Tandy went the way of so many businesses, Maplin took over the mantle and turned most of their shops over to consumer goods rather than electronics.
    It’s a shame to see these places go as children no longer feel the excitement of trying to build projects from magazines and saving their meagre pocket money to buy the correct resistors and capacitors. How many of us have the finger burns to remind us of when we learnt to solder?
    Keep up the good work with the site. I find it so informative and entertaining.
    Mike

    • Thanks for the comment. It’s nice to know that others sometimes share my thoughts in these areas.

  • Just wanted to say great blog! Pittsburgh is a great place, and the Omni is a nice hotel.