The Ridiculous Rudy the Roomba Story

I have a Roomba. Yeah, I know, they’re silly, don’t do a very good job, and you have to pretty much childproof your entire house as if you had a two year old when you have one of these things because it will try to eat electrical cords, cell phone chargers, throw rugs, get stuck under furniture and generally try to destroy itself if you allow it to. It also is horrible at cleaning up cat barf. It is also brain dead because it can’t find it’s own charging dock and just sits there complaining when it’s battery runs low.

Still, I got the dopey thing, so I use it. When I remember I have it, anyway.

So, the other day I’d tracked grass in all over the kitchen, and I go ‘ooo, Rudolph can do this for me!’.

I call him Rudolph. The Roomba, I mean. Rudolph the Roomba. Hey, don’t look at me, his parents named him, not me.

So I fire up Rudy and send him on his merry way, and about 10 minutes later he stops dead and starts yelling about something. I come running in expecting to find him wedged under the refrigerator, or maybe he tried to suck up one of the cats and they beat him up or something.

But no, his little side brush thingie fell off. It’s that little arm like brush that sticks out the side to get along edges and into corners and stuff. Screw fell out and he tried eating his own brush, the idiot. Just what I need, a robot that is fond of self-canabalism, right?

Okay, so I pry the brush out of his gizzard, and then… Okay, where’s the screw? It’s a teeny, tiny, almost microscopic little screw, judging from the size of the hole, and it’s nowhere to be found. I looked around on the floor, even dumped out Rudy’s little dirt catcher thing. Not there. I figure he must have already digested it. Or one of the cats ate it.

No problem, I’ll get another one. Off to the trusty Internet to go look for Roomba parts. This isn’t an uncommon problem. Someone must sell these screws, right?

Uh, well, no. Seems not. You can get replacement brushes, which seems a bit silly because the brush part never wears out. Usually they get wrecked because it falls off and the Roomba eats it. I don’t need a brush. And most of the brushes for sale seem to be conspicuously missing the screw. Brushes you can get all over. They’re cheap. They don’t come with screws, as hoards of complaining product reviewers proclaim in their one star reviews because they didn’t need the damn brush, they just needed the damned screw. And even the brushes that are advertised as coming with the screw, don’t.

I scoured around and finally found out place that offered the brush and the screw. They specifically mentioned, twice, that they included it. So I ordered it. Whopping $6.95 or something like that. It arrives two days later. It comes in an unpadded envelope labeled “replacement battery”. Folded in half. Ripped, shoved into another envelope, also ripped, with a mailing label in Sri Lanka or somewhere. That, in turn, is shoved into a third envelope, which actually has my name on it.

And, of course, it doesn’t have the screw.


I dig some more and try to find the actual size of the screw to see if I can buy some locally. After almost half an hour of Google searches I finally find a forum somewhere, where someone actually found this precious secret known only to the Zen Roomba Masters of Lower Passaic New Jersey. This is one tiny, tiny screw. No one around here has it. I finally resort to the internet again. I find someone else who had the same problem got his hot little hands on a whole box of the damned screws, and out of the kindness of his heart, is sharing them with his fellow Roomba owners. For $5.

So, I know people. Really, I do. I don’t just sit here complaining about my cats all day long. I do have a life, people. Sort of.

So I start making some calls. I have a friend who works for a military contractor. Seriously. They make battleships or submarines or bomb proof attack trucks or giant robots or something. He’s always really vague about what they actually make there,

So I tell him I’m looking for this tiny, tiny screw, tell him the size. Hell, I can get you those, he tells me. I’ll get you a box of ‘em. I’m like, well, I’m not going to have the NSA or the CIA or the FBI or the ARRP or one of them alphabet agencies showing up on my door or something. He says don’t be an ass, we get ‘em from Home Depot. Six bucks for a box of ‘em.

A meeting is set up in a dark parking lot. Money exchanges hands… Well, okay, it was a Starbucks and he was on his lunch break, so maybe that part isn’t really accurate.

So, the damned screw fits! Wow! Rudy is back on the job again!

But now I’m sitting here looking at a box with 4,999 teeny, teeny screws…

IDC: Smartphone shipments flat for the first time; Samsung widens lead over Apple in Q1 2016 | VentureBeat | Mobile | by Emil Protalinski

Smartphone vendors shipped a total of 334.9 million smartphones worldwide last quarter. This figure is up just 0.2 percent from the 334.3 million units in Q1 2015, marking the smallest year-over-year growth on record. We saw hints of this in yesterday’s Apple earnings report, when the company reported an iPhone sales drop for the first time.

Source: IDC: Smartphone shipments flat for the first time; Samsung widens lead over Apple in Q1 2016 | VentureBeat | Mobile | by Emil Protalinski

That cell phone sales have flatlined shouldn’t surprise anyone. The advances in technology that drove a lot of sales has slowed to a crawl. Where once each generation of phone being released offered impressive improvements in ease of use, processing power, storage, etc., the last few generations of phones have offered almost nothing new to the users. Most of the improvements made over the last two or three years have been incremental, almost unnoticeable to the user; slight improvements in the cameras, a bit better screen resolution, slightly faster processors, small increases in available memory.

So with most, if not all of the improvements to the phones now being so slight as to be virtually unnoticeable to the end user, why bother to upgrade? The only reason I upgraded to an iPhone 6 was because my ancient iP 4 was on its last legs, and I got one hell of a good deal on it. Otherwise I’d still be using it. My wife is still quite happy with her elderly iP 4, and she’ll keep using it until it expires because there is no reason for her to change.

The same thing is happening in the personal computer industry. Sales are flat, even declining, because there have been few, if any, new technologies introduced that people want or need.

The Rise and Fall and Rise again of HeathKit and Radio Shack

The story of the rise and fall of companies like HeathKit and Radio Shack is a fascinating and complex subject. I’m going to restrict this to the comeback of both companies. One is almost certainly doomed to failure. The other might manage to hang on and perhaps even succeed.

Let’s look at HeathKit first.

I began getting emails from the company that were a bit, well, odd and, frankly, stupid. Vague announcements that said nothing, press releases that seemed to promise a lot but if you actually read the words, said, well, nothing… They had a web site! Hooray! But there was, well, nothing on it. They kept issuing press releases that promised new kits, upgrades to old kits… Sort of? If you ignored the fact that the tiny, tiny type at the end hinted that, well, maybe not…

Finally, at last, HeathKit is back! Hooray! Yippee!

Yeah, well, don’t get out the champagne just yet, because after all the years of the hype, all of the build up, all of the promises, what we got is this…

Screen Shot 2016 04 04 at 4 06 00 PM

Yeah, that’s it. An AM radio kit. Oh the joy, oh the rapture… Break out my blood pressure pills someone before I faint…

An AM radio kit. For $150.

Note the ultra clean, modern hipster design that eliminates all those unnecessary bells and whistles. Like labels. Or a dial indicator to tell you what frequency it’s tuned to. Or a volume control. Or some kind of indication that the thing is even turned on.

Well to be fair, you don’t need a volume control, I suppose, because it doesn’t have a speaker.

Oh, there’s a speaker for it, or there will be one “real soon now”. A powered amplified speaker. At extra cost, of course. Oh, goodie…

Meanwhile, just plug your headphones into one of the two (Yes, Two! Count them! Two!) headphone jacks.

And all of this can be yours for just $150! Damn, where did I put my blood pressure pills…

Oh, brother… Look, I am going to be brutally honest here. This is just ridiculous. Look, I could literally build this radio out of parts from the junk box in the basement for nothing. Even if I had to buy all of the parts brand new it would cost me less than $30. And for that I’d throw in a speaker and some labels.

But, you say, they must be selling something besides just this, right? Their entire inventory can’t consist of a single radio?

Well, no. Not really. You can get some parts for an old nixie tube clock, a ‘stealth’ VHF antenna that you could build yourself for half the cost, and copies of old HeathKit manuals, and that’s about it. Oh, and little plastic cups for a wind speed indicator.

Now let’s look at the remains of Radio Shack. Yes, it’s still around. While large parts of it were sold off during the bankruptcy, it entered into some kind of partnership with Sprint, and it looks promising.

One of the biggest problems Radio Shack had was it’s entry into the cell phone market. Now the problem when you’re a brick and mortar store that sells cell phones is that people know where you live. In other words, if something goes wrong, they come pounding at your door and demand you fix it. Right now!

This takes up a hell of a lot of time on the part of the sales staff. Which means they can’t take care of people who actually want to buy stuff. Almost every time I’ve been in a Radio Shack store, anywhere, in the past few years, I’ve never been able to actually get someone to take my money.

Seriously. I’d be standing there with whatever little gadget or part I wanted, money in hand, right there at the cash register, and I’d end up giving up in disgust and putting it back and leaving after standing there for ten, twenty, thirty minutes, and all because   the staff were trying to activate phones, or trying to explain why your dropping your phone in a toilet is not their problem or whatever.

Needless to say, this business model was not very successful. It’s hard to make money in retail if your staff is too busy with non-paying customers to even ring up a sale.

But Sprint is now taking over the cell phone part of the business, and will have their own staff in the stores. Radio Shack will, I’ve been told, be Radio Shack once more, selling dopey little gadgets, toys, and even actual real electronics parts and tools.

And it may actually be happening because I ran into this…

IMG 0364

Yes, it’s a kit. A Radio Shack branded kit. In this case a Theremin, but there were a half dozen more on the rack along with this one. And there were parts. And soldering kits. And multimeters. And breadboards. And power supplies. And, of course, the usual selection of goofy, stupid and sometimes fun little gadgets.

I picked it up for $20 because, well, come on… A theremin? Admit it. You’ve always wanted one.

Now, you can imagine which one of these companies I think has a better chance of successfully resurrecting itself.

Making Something Useful For A Change

One of the things you believe when you get a 3D printer is that you can justify the cost by making useful things with it. Well, generally speaking you quickly forget about that idea, because A) it means you have to learn how to use a CAD program and you don’t have the time or ambition to do it because you’re as lazy as I am, and B) There isn’t much out there in pre-existing .STL files that’s of any practical use for the average person. So you end up printing cute little ornaments, weird statues, and lots and lots of pencil holders…

But I finally had a chance to make a real part for a real thing!

Eldest son has, I’m afraid, inherited my fondness for ridiculousness, and has been playing around with laser cutters of late, and needed a peculiar type of nozzle for some kind of air handling system of his laser engraver. So we came up with this…IMG 0343

The nozzles came out about as close to perfect as you can get, except for the one on the far right, which is a result of the filament breaking for some reason about 75% into the print run.

Damn thing actually fits. Amazing…


Old vs. New: The Descent of Publications Into Mediocrity

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I’ve had the good fortune of obtaining, over the years, a few choice issues of old magazines and other publications, and it is irresistible to compare the modern version of those publications with their descendants. Some of these more technically oriented publications like QST and CQ have been around for a long time indeed, with QST going back around 100 years, and CQ having been around for fifty or more.

One thing that becomes glaringly obvious as soon as you open one of these old magazines is just how incredibly bad their descendants have become, at least from a technicians point of view.

Open a QST or CQ magazine from the 1960s, and you’ll find yourself quickly overwhelmed with circuit diagrams, schematics, mathematics, construction articles… If you had a basic knowledge of electronics, could read a schematic and follow instructions, you could build yourself one hell of a nice set of communications equipment just from the articles in the magazines. Not just transmitters and receivers, but linear amplifiers, antenna tuners, a wide variety of essential testing equipment… Just from reading the magazines you could build all of it if you had the ambition to do so.

There were articles about improving commercially made equipment, fixing quirks in existing equipment, modifying it to get better performance. Articles about converting military surplus equipment for ham use.

When’s the last time you saw an article in CQ or QST showing you how to build a complete receiver, a complete transmitter? A full blown linear amplifier? 

The list goes on, and on, and on… Articles explaining everything from basic radio theory for novices to material that would challenge the experts. It was all there…


QST is, frankly, hardly worth the effort to open. It seems to be devoted almost entirely to “radio sports” (now there’s one of the most ridiculous uses of the term ‘sport’ I’ve ever heard), DX expeditions begging for money to fund a half million dollar trip to an island so small it only exists at low tide, and the ARRL’s attempt to turn amateur radio into a division of FEMA. About the only thing I read is The Doctor Is In column and the advertising.

CQ is a bit better, but not by much. At least it isn’t under the delusion that ARES is the only thing keeping the country from descending into chaos.

It’s sad to say, but I’ve learned more about electronics and radio from publications dating back to pre-World War II than I ever have from their descendants.