The End of RadioShack

RadioShack announced today that they have filed for Chap­ter 11 bank­rupt­cy. They will close about 2,400 of their stores with many of the remain­ing loca­tions being pur­chased by Sprint. This is more-or-less fit­ting, giv­en that the brand has basi­cal­ly gone from the go-to sup­ply store for elec­tron­ics parts to a cell phone reseller. I hon­est­ly can’t say that they no longer car­ried any elec­tron­ics parts, but I seri­ous­ly doubt it’s some­thing most of their loca­tions car­ried at all.

Ball's TV

Bal­l’s TV by Math­ew Warn­er on Flickr. These guys look like they could legit­i­mate­ly fix your old tube tele­vi­sion, though.

It’s dis­ap­point­ing news for some. Wired has as a sto­ry on how influ­en­tial RadioShack was in build­ing Sil­i­con Val­ley1. Steve Woz­ni­ak (Apple co-founder) recounts how some orig­i­nal tele­pho­ny hack­ing got he and Steve Jobs to go on to build com­put­ers:

He used [a Touch Tone dialer pur­chased at RadioShack] for the now-infa­mous Blue Box, which he and Steve Jobs used to make their own free calls with­out inter­fer­ence from Ma Bell. With­out RadioShack, there’s no Blue Box. And as Woz tells it, with­out the Blue Box there’s no Apple.

While it’s good to under­stand RadioShack­’s impor­tance in the hack­er / mak­er / DIY cul­ture that helped to spur inno­va­tors like Woz, it’s impor­tant to note that the RadioShack we all knew and loved died many years ago. They either did­n’t see the rise of mak­ers or sim­ply ignored it, in lieu of chas­ing mobile phone buy­ers. Admit­ted­ly, that was chas­ing the mon­ey at the time. Of course, it’s not served them well in the long run. And they com­pa­ny that brought IBM Com­pat­i­ble PCs to many homes across the coun­try (includ­ing my friend, TJ’s, when we were kids) got out of the com­put­er man­u­fac­tur­ing busi­ness ear­ly on.

Jason Soldering

The time my old­er broth­er & I fixed my wash­ing machine with a kit I ordered off the inter­net.

Even so, I think there’s nev­er been a bet­ter time to be a mak­er or a tin­ker­er. With a near­ly end­less sup­ply of free how-to videos on YouTube, count­less DIY and repair sites cater­ing to any­one with a screw­driv­er and some time, and amaz­ing online shops like Adafruit, some­one today has far more access to get start­ed build­ing what­ev­er they can dream up. So, for that, I can be ok say­ing good bye to RadioShack. Frankly, I wrote them off a long time ago.

  1. Also, they get it wrong about fix­ing mod­ern tech & gad­gets. I’ve repaired iPods and iPhones myself, with parts I ordered off the inter­net and by watch­ing YouTube videos.
    iPod Battery Replacement

    Replac­ing the bat­tery in an iPod Clas­sic.

    []

It’s About Time

One thing that has real­ly amazed me about work­ing at Bent­ley is just how spread out my com­pa­ny is. Not just in terms of branch offices, but even the var­i­ous staff mem­bers that make up a sin­gle team are spread in dif­fer­ent cities, even coun­tries and con­ti­nents. Short­ly after my first con­fer­ence call between myself, the West Coast of the U.S. and the East Coast of India; I real­ized that being able to quick­ly know the time in dif­fer­ent time zones was going to be a good idea.

Of course, the first thing I think of is those wall clocks over a 60’s news anchor’s shoul­der labeled: New York, Los Ange­les, Lon­don, etc. I thought: I won­der if there’s a desk-sized ver­sion of such a thing? Well, there is and to make a long sto­ry short: they’re all very expen­sive. So I fig­ured I’d get crafty and make my own time zone wall clock array.

World Clock Wall Board

My wall clock board — made for about $35 (bat­ter­ies not includ­ed).

There’s absolute­ly noth­ing fan­cy about this. I found some 8″, white plas­tic wall clocks at Office Depot for about $4 each. I’m pret­ty sure the clerk thought I was crazy when I bought the entire stock of six of them. Any­way, I found a fair­ly nice cork­board at Hob­by Lob­by to put them all on. The cork is too thin on the board, but it’s oth­er­wise a nice one that can eas­i­ly be used for — well, any­thing else a cork­board can be used for — should the time come when I don’t want the clocks any­more.

Wall Clocks Detail

Close up detail of the tags. Time Zone high­light maps are tak­en from the Time & Date pref­er­ence pane from Mac OS X 10.5.

I men­tion not want­i­ng the clocks any­more for a good rea­son. You see, there’s one thing with cheap clocks. It’s not that they don’t keep decent time (they do okay). It’s that they’re noisy. Our office now has a con­stant “ka-chung-da-da-chunk, ka-chunk-da-da-chunk.” that is get­ting more than a lit­tle annoy­ing.

I knew that was going to be an issue all along, so we’ll see how long it takes to make me go mad. In the mean­time, at least I know that I can call Kolkata, India right now with­out wak­ing any­one up.

Structured Cabling in This Old House

One of my lat­est projects for our near­ly 70 year-old home is to rewire all the low-volt­age cabling into a mod­ern, struc­tured sys­tem for our con­ve­nience and for home improve­ment val­ue. It’s going well, albeit very slow­ly.

As a lot of you know, what was once our home office is now a nurs­ery for our soon-to-be daugh­ter. It’s a very wor­thy sac­ri­fice, although it’s tak­en a heck of a lot more work than we’d ever expect­ed. Both in mov­ing all (and it is a lot) of our office stuff else­where as well as cre­at­ing a prop­er room for the baby.

Our Home OfficeThe Nursery

Before and after pic­tures of the clos­et sized room that has received so much atten­tion over the past few years in our home. Who would ever think we’d get so much use out of a 9′ x 12′ room?

Well, after we got our book­shelves, fil­ing, and com­put­er desk moved to an adja­cent guest room, we still had all our com­put­er and phone net­work­ing gear still sit­ting on the floor of the nurs­ery. Well, I don’t pre­scribe to the half-baked idea that WiFi can harm humans (and even if I did, I’d say it’s worth it) but a baby’s room just isn’t the place for hot, noisy net­work­ing equip­ment. I have had grand dreams of rewiring all the low-volt­age stuff in our house in a neat, mod­ern wiring sys­tem of struc­tured cabling but in case you were not aware, old homes weren’t built with that sort of thing in mind. Our house was lucky to have been built with elec­tric­i­ty in mind. Tele­pho­ny and coax cabling were an after­thought, much like the air-con­di­tion­ing and stor­age (we still don’t have lat­ter).

I decid­ed I’d move all the net­work gear down to the base­ment1. This first meant adding anoth­er out­let as net­work­ing gear has an affin­i­ty for elec­tric­i­ty. My friend Chris helped me with the wiring of that dur­ing his fam­i­ly’s recent vis­it. The next step was to place a pan­el on the wall for mount­ing the struc­tured cabling equip­ment to. I also added a shelf for the net­work­ing gear, as it need­ed a high (and dry), out-of-the way spot to live in.

Network Hub

Next comes the actu­al struc­tured wiring part. My project includes tele­pho­ny, coax cable for tele­vi­sion, and eth­er­net. The plan is to place a wall jack with one of each in most rooms. Ini­tial­ly, this will only be three rooms on the first floor: liv­ing room, sun room, and side room. Even­tu­al­ly, I plan to include the kitchen and three sec­ond floor bed­rooms, as well as a sec­ond jack set for the liv­ing room. The first phase is rough­ly 100′ of cable for each type and the sec­ond phase will con­sist sev­er­al hun­dred feet more, with like­ly some sort of con­duit sys­tem to the attic.

I’m attempt­ing to do this as cheap­ly as pos­si­ble. Main­ly because I’m cheap and also because I need pur­chase some spe­cial­ty tools in addi­tion to all the hard­ware. Even the cheap wiring tools are fair­ly pricey. Here’s rough­ly what the major mate­ri­als cost (note: pret­ty much every­thing came from var­i­ous big-box hard­ware stores unless oth­er­wise indi­cat­ed):

  • Elec­tri­cal Out­let in base­ment (wired off of junc­tion box I installed last year): $5 for new wall box­es and cov­ers. I had some extra Romex cable and the out­let itself already lying around.
  • Wall pan­el and shelf: $4.50 for a 24″ square piece of 1/2″ ply­wood. I already had the scrap 2“x4” to mount to the walls, brick screws for mount­ing, exte­ri­or deck screws for attach­ing the ply­wood, two cold-formed shelf brack­ets, and 1“x12” for the shelf from var­i­ous old­er projects.
  • Net­work gear: Linksys cable modem, Linksys/Vonage phone router, Linksys WRT45G router w/ 3rd par­ty Svea­soft soft­ware, Linksys NAS con­troller, sal­vaged 250GB SATA hard dri­ve in a bud­get USB exter­nal con­troller, a cheap 10-min. UPS, and a old­er surge pro­tec­tor. All of this was old office stuff we just moved, but prob­a­bly worth men­tion­ing for com­plete­ness.
  • Block 66 pan­el for tele­phone: $3.50, stand-off for cable con­trol: $3, 100′ of Cat 3 cable for phones: $16
  • Nine-way Coax split­ter: $18, 100′ of Coax w/ F‑type con­nec­tors ea. end: $20
  • Cat. 5e Patch Pan­el at Ama­zon: $28, hinged 2U wall rack-mount: $36 (ridicu­lous, but the cheap­est one I found), 100′ of Cat 5e cable: $28
  • Punch tool for 66 and 110 blocks: $25 (and absolute­ly worth it as it makes the tedious process very quick).
  • Three wall plates with three mod­u­lar holes: $1.50 ea., RJ-45 mod­u­lar plug: $5.50 ea., RJ-11 mod­u­lar plug: $4 ea., F‑type con­nec­tor mod­u­lar plug; $4 ea.
  • Wall pan­el jack box­es for exist­ing struc­tures and low-volt­age wiring (i.e. — open back box with clips that attach to drywall/plaster in place): $8 for pack of six.

My cal­cu­la­tions put the cost of each wall jack, adding up wall pan­el, mod­u­lar plugs, and cable to reach it, at around $25. The cost of the cen­tral cabling point is around $85. All things con­sid­ered, not a ter­ri­bly expen­sive project. It is how­ev­er, labor and plan­ning inten­sive. Each wall jack is a dif­fer­ent ani­mal. Giv­en our homes plas­ter and lathe walls, none of them are par­tic­u­lar­ly easy to tame.

The first step of the wiring was to install the cen­tral dis­tri­b­u­tion pan­els on the wall pan­el. The old­er-style 66 block used for the the phone pan­el is the most tedious to do, in my opin­ion. Par­tic­u­lar­ly in my project as the method of dis­tri­b­u­tion I am using requires many short jumpers across punch-down points. Hav­ing a mul­ti-tool for punch­ing down wires (mine switch­es between 66 and 110 blades) is crit­i­cal in my opin­ion for doing any sig­nifi­gant amount of this style of work. The 66 block is sim­ply more cum­ber­some than the more mod­ern 110 block used on the Cat. 5 eth­er­net punch pan­el.

The co-axi­al cable is about as sim­ple as it gets giv­en I used a spe­cial­ized cable strip­ping and crimp­ing tool for plac­ing the f‑type ends on the cable. Gen­er­al­ly the only method of cable tele­vi­sion dis­tri­b­u­tion is sin­gle-point hub, there are no jumpers or any­thing to wor­ry about. There are some sig­nal-boost split­ters avail­able for home struc­ture wiring but I found it was eas­i­er (and cheap­er) to sim­ply use the pow­er sig­nal boost wall block pro­vid­ed by my cable com­pa­ny. The hard­est part about work­ing with co-ax is the thick­ness and stiff­ness of the cable itself, par­tic­u­lar­ly when try­ing to pull it through some tight spots in walls.

The eth­er­net punch-down block, as I’ve said, seems to be a much eas­i­er and faster method of tying togeth­er a wiring sys­tem (of course, the equip­ment is near­ly ten times the cost). I don’t yet have a method of ensur­ing I’m meet­ing the Cat. 5 stan­dard, and such, trans­fer speed. How­ev­er, cur­rent­ly for our house­hold, it’s com­pet­ing against old­er pow­er­line and 802.11g speeds, so even if I can reach half of a 100MB trans­fer speed, it’s as good or bet­ter than before.

Phone Voice & Data Wiring in the Wall

Cut­away view of wall jack wiring.

So far, for the actu­al home wiring, I’ve only got­ten one jack installed. Every­thing went very eas­i­ly, although not par­tic­u­lar­ly fast. If you’re going to attempt to cut any holes in a plas­ter and lathe wall, though; use a high-speed rotary cut­ting tool (i.e. a RotoZip). You’ll have a much bet­ter time of it.


  1. We have a wet base­ment; that is, one which sim­ply allows ground­wa­ter to seep through the walls and then out through a big drain in the mid­dle of a slopped floor. It’s not as bad as it might sound, just not what most peo­ple (includ­ing us) are used to today. It remains to be seen if this is going to affect the elec­tri­cal equip­ment. How­ev­er, it’s yet seem affect the alarm sys­tem or less sen­si­tive elec­tri­cal items. []

I Am In Need Of A Nap

I’ll spare you all the “sor­ry I’ve not blogged in a while…” stuff and skip straight to the expla­na­tion of why I’ve been occu­pied with oth­er things. As some of you have seen on Flickr, we’ve been in the process of work­ing on our kitchen. It’s some­thing that we (and by that, I mean 90% Angela) have been want­i­ng to do for the past few years now. How­ev­er, going with­out a kitchen and work­ing des­per­ate­ly to get it back over the past few weeks has essen­tial­ly sucked the life out of me. I mean, left me com­pete­ly devoid of emo­tions oth­er than rage and self-pity.

In short: kitchen ren­o­va­tions real­ly suck, espe­cial­ly when you are try­ing to do a lot of it your­self.

I’m extreme­ly hap­py with how every­thing has come togeth­er. We still need to paint, but of course, we need to paint over half the rooms in the house. How­ev­er, the new coun­ters, floors, and appli­ances look great and Angela seems very pleased with them.

New Appliances

Not entire­ly done, but you get an idea of what the new kitchen looks like.

This is good, because I have begged her to not speak of or even hint at mov­ing for at least the rest of the year. Were the room larg­er, I would sleep in our “new” kitchen. After get­ting cut, burned, and shocked1 all in the process of work­ing on it, I feel a cer­tain sense of own­er­ship that does­n’t come from just pay­ing peo­ple to do things for you (although we did pay an elec­tri­cian and a plumber to do some of the work way out of my league). It’s not so much as pride in my work (as it’s not the great­est, by far) but more like the pride of father­hood.

Yes, that will seem like a stu­pid state­ment in about five more months but for right now, I dare any­one to come between my new kitchen and me; let alone threat­en to harm it. I’ll bite you.

  1. I stabbed my left thumb attach­ing a romex lock on the new garbage dis­pos­al, I burned my left mid­dle fin­ger with a Roto-zip blade, and I got shocked when I pushed a fish tape into a wire. All my fault and none were par­tic­u­lar­ly life threat­en­ing. I did curse a fair amount, though. []

DIY Weekend: Hardwood Flooring

Not too long after we moved into our house, Angela and I tore out the old car­pet in the sun­room and laid car­pet tiles. We were actu­al­ly very pleased with them; they’re good qual­i­ty car­pet and did­n’t wear out. How­ev­er, after get­ting a sec­ond pup­py who had a large yet weak blad­der (Mag­gie…), Angela quick­ly got tired of hav­ing to try and clean out the stains. She had want­ed hard­wood floor­ing in that room for some­time and last Sat­ur­day, my friend John­ny stopped by. We got to talk­ing and decid­ed that the next week­end (the past two days, that is) would be a good time for both of us to do just that. In order to max­i­mize our time, we went to the big-box hard­ware store to find some mate­ri­als.

We hap­pened to find some bam­boo hard­wood floor­ing. It was at a real­ly cheap price – rough­ly one third of typ­i­cal 5/8″ hard­wood – so we got five 24 ft2 pack­ets. Anoth­er great thing about bam­boo is that it’s fast growth mate­r­i­al, which is great for the envi­ron­ment (and also the wal­let).

Beginning New Floor

The bam­boo floor­ing over a 30lbs. roof­ing paper as a mois­ture bar­ri­er.

We got start­ed yes­ter­day morn­ing after help­ing John­ny bring over some of his tools: a miter saw, table saw (which we did­n’t need), air com­pres­sor, and nail gun (which we could­n’t have done with­out). We laid down some build­ing paper which prob­a­bly was­n’t nec­es­sary but i sup­posed to help with pre­vent­ing squeaks. We snapped out begin­ning line and then spent the next two hours get­ting the first two boards around the radi­a­tor laid. The rest of the room went much faster, though. We tried to spend some time get­ting the edges right and we cut off some of the old­er mold­ing such that it would set on top of the wood floor­ing, which looks much clean­er. We fin­ished up last night with all but three boards laid.

This after­noon, we went to the big-box hard­ware store once again to get some addi­tion­al floor edge mold­ing to go around the room. We used a 5″ edge mold­ing with a piece of quar­ter-round at the toe, sim­i­lar to what occurs through­out our house. It’s an edge fin­ish detail that is very for­giv­ing for un-even walls, which also occur in spades through­out this house. It also looks quite fan­cy and we end­ed up with real­ly nice fin­ish. That took about four more hours this after­noon and the fin­ished prod­uct is some­thing that we’re all real­ly pleased with.

Finished Product

The fin­ished prod­uct, except for now the room looks like it needs a fresh coat of paint even more than it did before.

Basement Stairs

The base­ment stairs project was this past week­end and it end­ed up being a com­plete suc­cess. Angela and I are both real­ly hap­py in how they turned out. I don’t real­ly want to write a play by play, but I thought I would at least write some about what we did and what all I learned.

Basement Stair - Circa 1938The New Stairs

John­ny and I had pur­chased all the lum­ber and planned out what we’d do the pre­vi­ous week­end, which helped save some time and ener­gy for real­ly get­ting down to the busi­ness of build­ing. My biggest wor­ry and the main rea­son I had put off doing this for so long (I’ve been talk­ing about these stairs since the first day we moved in) was that I knew it would be very impor­tant to replace them in a sin­gle week­end. If I could­n’t fin­ish before Mon­day morn­ing, I’d end up going sev­er­al days with no stairs (inside) down to the base­ment: where the laun­dry is. That would mess up the flow of things around the house and be oth­er­wise pret­ty dan­ger­ous. So, doing all the plan­ning and mate­ri­als pur­chas­ing in advance made a big dif­fer­ence and I’m going to try and spread out my projects sim­i­lar­ly in the future.

The Old Staircase (RIP)

Demo did­n’t real­ly take very long. I prob­a­bly took longer to haul all this up at the end of day one.

We got start­ed about 9:00 am on Sat­ur­day and sur­pris­ing­ly, demo­li­tion of the old stair­case took less than 30 min­utes. The entire thing was con­nect­ed to the struc­ture of the house by no more than four 10d nails. Two of which were nailed upwards into the fram­ing from below such that weight on the stairs tends to just pull them right back out, which is exact­ly what had hap­pened. So, in real­i­ty, for the past 68 years, two toe-nails have been keep­ing this whole assem­bly up. As an engi­neer, I can tell you that there’s real­ly no math­e­mat­i­cal rea­son for that to actu­al­ly work. Dumb luck and some sort of wedg­ing fric­tion com­bined to pre­vent any­one from being seri­ous­ly hurt for far longer than is real­ly sen­si­ble.

Even though it stretch­es what the build­ing code allows for, we used one of the exist­ing stringers as a tem­plate to cut the three new ones by. This saved us loads of time and headaches. Those stringers weren’t per­fect (and at 42.8°, real­ly steep), but they were fair­ly reg­u­lar and square. I drilled the cor­ner at each tread-to-ris­er inter­sec­tion to help cut down on over-cut. We just used a cir­cu­lar saw and a jig saw to cut the entire set of stringers and paid close atten­tion to get­ting every­thing right. We end­ed up with all the fram­ing mem­bers cut and ready to hang by around lunch-time.

Base Connection Detail

Base con­nec­tion detail

The next step was the bot­tom sup­port assem­bly. I decid­ed to use a fence-post base that had a thread­ed rod for height adjust­ment. This would pro­vide a real­ly sol­id base con­nec­tion, some­thing sub­stan­tial to frame every­thing into, and most impor­tant­ly, would allow us to raise the whole base up off the wet base­ment floor. Of course, this required drilling holes in the con­crete floor slab to accept the anchor bolts. I bought a 3/4″ ∅ bit for just this pur­pose but we quick­ly dis­cov­ered (actu­al­ly about 15 arm-numb­ing min­utes and 1/2″ lat­er) that my ham­mer drill sim­ply was­n’t pow­er­ful enough to drill that size hole 3″ into con­crete. We went over to the hard­ware cen­ter to rent a real drill: a Hilti com­mer­cial ham­mer drill. The least amount of time they’ll rent one is four hours. We drilled the two holes in about three min­utes. It actu­al­ly took longer at the rental counter than it did to do the work. Mon­ey well spent, in my opin­ion. The “epoxy” I used was actu­al­ly a Simp­son acrylic adhe­sive specif­i­cal­ly for this appli­ca­tion. It is fast set­ting (less than 25 min­utes at room tem­per­a­ture) and will like­ly sur­vive a direct nuclear strike on the house.

Awaiting Treads and Risers

Fram­ing com­plete

After get­ting all the fram­ing work assem­bled, we called it a day. We spent a lot of time fit­ting every­thing up before final assem­bly and although that (along with two trips to pick-up and return the drill) burned up our after­noon, it paid off in hav­ing every­thing fit togeth­er well once we did start ham­mer­ing nails.


Stair Tread

Round­ed stair tread detail.

The next morn­ing, we start­ed to work on the treads and ris­ers. John­ny had brought over his router and was able to add a nice round­ed edge to all the tread nos­ing. That is the sort of stuff you’ll actu­al­ly notice when you look at the stair and even though it prob­a­bly added an hour or so total, it was time well spent. The final result is a real­ly great look­ing set of stairs that we were able to walk up for a late lunch around two o’clock.


Handrail Attachment Detail

Handrail con­nec­tion detail.

We vis­it­ed our friend David’s house to bor­row his miter saw to cut the ends of the handrail plumb. Again, just detail­ing for aes­thet­ics, but the end result looks much nicer. We spent the remain­ing time put the handrail up. The first part of that was to build an assem­bly onto the steel col­umn at the base of the stairs. We used a step bit to drill into the steel flanges to accept three lag-screws. This took a lot less time than I had fig­ured on and the end result looks nice and is incred­i­bly sol­id (oh yeah, be sure and use cut­ting oil or you’ll prob­a­bly just end up weld­ing the bit into the steel). The rest of the handrail sur­prised us by just how dif­fi­cult it was to mount. Find­ing wall studs in a heav­i­ly plas­tered wall is near­ly impos­si­ble, but we man­aged to only drill a cou­ple of extra pilot holes. It was the oak handrail itself that was the biggest trou­ble. After two days of work­ing with rel­a­tive­ly soft South­ern yel­low pine, that oak was like try­ing to dri­ve a screw into steel or con­crete. Actu­al­ly, worse since both of those went much faster! We did man­age to get every­thing togeth­er just in time for when Angela arrived back home.

I fin­ished up the light I installed in the stair­well and now I just need to do some final clean­ing up. All in all, a great week­end project. I owe John­ny O. a great deal, as I could­n’t have done it with­out him. Here’s my idea for a cred­it card com­mer­cial, by the way:

  • Lum­ber and mate­ri­als: $230
  • Hard­ware and tools: $65
  • Equip­ment rental: $42
  • Hav­ing a friend who actu­al­ly wants to help build a stair­case: price­less.