About rsts11

Big data integrator/evangelist I suppose. Formerly a deep generalist sysadmin and team lead, still a coffee guru, and who knows what else...

Fry’s Electronics is dead

How’s that for a spoiler of a headline?

After a day or two of rumors, a Bay Area TV news report last night confirmed that Fry’s Electronics, a mainstay of Silicon Valley electronics sourcing and more for almost 40 years, would cease operations today, February 24, 2021.

History of Silicon Valley Indeed: Is Fry’s Electronics Dying? | rsts11

Revisiting Fry’s Electronics a year later | rsts11

Fry’s confirmed this on their website early on Wednesday, February 24.

Many locals have seen the stores dry up, but there were still some goods they were useful for; I myself bought a few flash drives and SSDs for mining rigs and appliance builds earlier this months.

I’ve seen a few outlets declare that Fry’s fell to the pandemic, but people who’ve paid attention know this was not the core cause. The stores failed to adjust to competition, both local and online, over the past decade. Despite being the prime source of technology in the Bay Area for decades, they didn’t really keep up with the tech, internally or in the competitive environment.

The cascade through the consignment transition and then through the pandemic didn’t help, but there was a lot more going on long before COVID-19. A couple of friends joked that if they’d just sold toilet paper last year at this time, they would’ve been even more rich and weathered the storm, but like the failure to capitalize on the last two Black Friday sales opportunities, they missed the boat on perma-work-from-home.

Ironically, Micro Center, who are doing well in other parts of the country, failed in Silicon Valley around the turn of the century for similar reasons to Frys’s – failure to compete with what was at the time a very unique retail environment in the Bay Area. In today’s market, they might be able to make a comeback if they can find an affordable location (maybe the Fry’s building in Sunnyvale could be refitted with some windows and fewer ceiling leaks?).

For now, Silicon Valley denizens will have a choice of national websites like Amazon, Newegg, Zones, and the like; the local Best Buy stores; and Silicon Valley’s “other” local computer store, Central Computers (founded in Sunnyvale decades ago like Fry’s). For electric and electronic components, we still have options like Anchor Electronics (also a South Bay staple for around 40 years) and Excess Solutions (which has adjusted and expanded three times in the last 20 years or so).

For the past year or two, a trip to Fry’s for me has been an exercise in controlled disappointment, similar to vintage computer and car aficionados who might drive past the building where their favorite was invented, designed, built. Even more than before, I’d likely leave with nothing purchased, and the 64 empty registers would remain silent. Now they’ll be silent forever.

Money Pit: 3D Printing Part 3 – OctoPrint and OctoPi

This is one topic in a series of what I’m calling “money pit” projects. To be fair, it’ll be money and time pit topics, and nothing that you’d really have to get a second mortgage on your house to do… but things always get a bit out of hand.

This project is the 3D Printing project. Expect it to be an ongoing series, and I’m hoping to have some friends join the effort and offer their feedback as well. Links and prices are accurate as of November 2020, and may get updated in the future… but don’t count on it.

See the previous parts for the lead-in to this project. From here we’ll get into the enhancements and early printing.

Octopi / OctoPrint

The first day or two, I was running out to the garage to check on prints, and shuttling the included 8GB MicroSD card back and forth to load print files onto it. Since the only storage the printer has is this MicroSD card, I couldn’t add files during a print run, and it got somewhat tiring.

Enter OctoPrint and OctoPi.

OctoPrint is an open-source management program and web front-end for many/most 3D printers. It communicates with the printer over a USB cable. It can be installed on a Linux, Windows, or MacOS computer. However, you might not want to dedicate a full-sized computer to this task.

OctoPi is a Raspbian (Raspberry Pi Debian image) based distribution with Octoprint and the video streamer software included. you just need a Pi 3B or later board (and case and power supply) and an SD card with OctoPi installed. Older boards will work, but with the camera option or other intense plugins (like gcode viewers) you won’t like it according to the folks behind OctoPrint and OctoPi.

When you’ve installed OctoPrint / OctoPi and connected it to your printer, you’ll be able to see the status of the printer, the active print, environmental details, and (with a camera like the PiCam or any supported USB camera) the actual motion of the printer.

You can also upload gcode files to the OctoPi instance, storing them on the internal storage of the Pi. Note that you lose some of the progress details on the Ender LCD display (and the power outage recovery feature) but

There is a thriving plugin ecosystem as well, so if you want to run multiple cameras, have a fancier gcode previewer, or add all sorts of other features, the options are there.

Building your OctoPi

We’ll look at options here for your Raspberry Pi board, flash card, cable, camera, and case.

You can buy pre-collected kits from various worldwide sources on the Octoprint website, but you may be better off just building your own.

Amazon of course has a number of starter kits from CanaKit and Vilros that would be good choices, from a $60 CanaKit Pi3B+ kit with case and power supply or a Vilros Pi 4 kit from $64.

If you’re planning to mount your OctoPi to the printer (see below), you will probably just want the Pi, maybe a fan, and a power supply. CanaKit still sells the 3B with a 2.5A power supply and two heatsinks for $48. There’s a 3B+ board only for $41.90, but for a buck more you can get the 2GB Pi 4B or go to $55 for the 4GB Pi 4B.

I have not felt limited by my 3B non-plus Pi, but it probably doesn’t hurt to go with a newer board if you’re going to be buying it new anyway.

You will want at least a 16GB MicroSD card (U1 Class 10 or better). I had a 64GB Samsung Evo card ($12.45) handy so I put it in there, so I probably won’t run out of space anytime soon. And OctoPrint contains a web-based backup option to save your entire image, or you can access your files via ssh/scp/rsync however you like.

You will need a mini-USB cable (yes, mini, not micro) to connect to the controller on the Ender 3 Pro printer. The AmazonBasics USB 2.0 A-Male to Mini-B cable is fine for this, or anything you may have from ancient cameras or other devices. A 3-foot cable should be enough, unless you’re mounting your OctoPi pretty far away.

Caveat with the Mini-USB cable: The printer’s motherboard and display will remain powered by your Raspberry Pi over this cable, even if you turn off the power supply to the printer. You can tape over pin 4 in the USB-A connector if you prefer, or you can use a buck converter to power it from the printer’s power supply to have it turn off when you shut off the printer. You can also script USB power control on the Pi itself if you prefer. This will probably be more of an annoyance than an actual problem, unless your printer is anywhere that you might want darkness.

You will probably also want a camera. I went with the official Raspberry Pi Camera v2 with case/stand ($32.99). If you know you’ll be using a 3d-printed camera mount, you can go with a camera without the case for more like $24. You can probably use most modern USB webcams as well; I connected one of the old Cisco-branded Logitech ball cameras during a period of quirkiness from my PiCam. The tiny ribbon cable on the front of the Pi camera had come loose, so the camera wasn’t being recognized by the Pi. Easy mistake to make.

Mounting your OctoPi to the Printer

As far as mounting the OctoPi to your printer is concerned, there are a couple of options. You don’t have to mount it on the printer; I had mine sitting on a nearby computer case originally, and it worked. But with the rails of the printer having convenient slots for things to be attached, why not attach them?

Single rail – mount on one of the upright rails (i.e. over the power supply – don’t block the Z rail though)

  • robstall on Thingiverse has an Ender 3 Pro Z Axis Raspberry 3 B Case and Camera Mount that I’m halfway using and will probably migrate to. The camera mount attaches to the frame without removing any pieces, snapping over one of the rails. The case easily mounts above the power supply keeping your Picam cable out of the way.
  • Tested3D on Thingiverse has a Raspberry pi 2/3 base with 2020 Slot, a compact single rail model that has the Ethernet and USB ports sticking out above the level of the case.
  • lainchy has an Ender 3 OctoPi 3B+ case that uses screws/bolts and bits to attach to the rails, good for placing under the LCD display control panel. .

Double rail – mount on the right rail to the left of the LCD panel (or the left rail facing the other way if you prefer)

Of course you can use any other type of case and mount it separately from the printer if you prefer. In that case, pick any of the thousands of Pi cases to fit your needs.

Setting up Octoprint

For the most part, OctoPrint is plug and play. You’ll choose a printer profile to match your printer, check the Features settings to fit your preferences, make sure undervoltage detection is enabled under Pi Support, and enable the webcam if it isn’t pre-enabled. See the Octoprint site for more details.

You may also want a mobile app for the OctoPrint system. I use OctoPod for iPhone and OctoRemote for Android myself, but there are other options out there. In the settings menu you’ll go to Application Keys and set up a key for each client, using the app to scan the QR code in OctoPrint’s menus to enable access.

Note that you must have network access to the OctoPi to use these clients (or the web interface for that matter; if you leave the house you won’t be able to control the printer over the Internet unless you have the printer exposed (BAD IDEA DON’T DO THIS) or unless you have a VPN into the network your OctoPi is on (beyond the scope of this post series of course).

What’s next?

At this point you’ve set up your printer, made or purchased a couple of essential upgrades, and configured your OctoPi for web-based (or app-based) control of your printer.

You’ll probably want to install a slicer (a program that turns STL model files into GCODE which your printer uses to actually print the objects). Creality Slicer is included on the microSD card that came with the printer, but you may find Cura or other products to be more useful when you outgrow it.

For the first spool or two, just use Creality Slicer to prep your prints, and see how it goes. You can resize objects, combine items into one print batch (as long as they fit the bed), and change temperature and layer settings as needed as you get used to the printer.

Some common starting prints that can be fun include:

  • MatterHackers’ Mascot Phil A Ment – you may want to resize this, and it can be a good test for new filaments or beds.
  • #3DBenchy – called the “jolly 3D printing torture-test.” It has a dozen or more interesting characteristics for testing your printer setup.
  • You might consider printing 2010’s Pi Zero rack, designed to hold six of MJW’s Raspberry Pi Zero W cases and then print a case for each filament color/style you have. Good use for the intriguing $10 Pi board, in case you can accumulate a few of them.

If you’ve found a test print that you like, feel free to link to it in the comments. And watch for the cluster series, which is why I ended up buying a 3D printer in the first place.

Quick Take: Different ways of acquiring cryptocurrency

With this past month’s stock and crypto activity (various stocks heading for lunar orbit, Bitcoin breaking US$40,000, etc), a lot of people have started looking for ways to buy cryptocurrency (and stocks).

In a lot of forums, they’re being hit with misleading or outright false information. I’m here today to give you some pointers and context, and help you understand the cryptocurrency options available to you.

Nothing in this post is provided as investment advice or recommendations to conduct any financial transactions. There is risk in any of these processes, and you are on your own for that.

If you choose to use one of my referral links to sign up for one of the services mentioned, I’ll either get a share or two of a cheap stock, a few bucks worth of a stock, or sometimes a cash bonus. And I’ll appreciate your support. (Note that promos can change, and I may not come back and update these promos later; see the respective websites for active promotion terms)

  • SoFi Invest (fund an active account including crypto with $1000, and we’ll both get $50 worth of stock) (crypto available)
  • SoFi Money (fund an account with $500, and we both get $50 cash) (Virtual money management account, linkable to Invest and other services)
  • Robinhood (sign up and link a bank account, and we both get a free share of stock) (crypto available)
  • Webull (fun an account with $100 and get at least one stock share, maybe two) (crypto under tags like BTCUSD, ETHUSD, no DOGE)
  • Public (app-only, complete application and get a free amount of stock up to $16, must hold the value of the free stock in the account for 90 days) (no crypto, just stocks)

What is cryptocurrency? Do I get an actual physical bitcoin?

Cryptocurrency is a virtual currency that is created through a process called mining, and can be transferred and converted to other currencies (including “fiat” or what some would call “real” money). You don’t get a physical bitcoin (or ethereum or anything like that), and if you’ve seen one of those metal “Real Bitcoin Coin” items at a store, you’ve just seen a souvenir with little to no value and no association with any bitcoins.

Many cryptocurrencies have developed value, primarily through people giving them value and accepting them in transactions. This isn’t entirely unlike paper money – a piece of green and white paper alone doesn’t have any value, but when a nation accepts that that piece of paper is worth a certain amount and uses it in trade, it suddenly has value. 

The cryptocurrencies you’ve probably heard most about are Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin, and (lately) Dogecoin. Bitcoin is the grandfather of crypto, and has been around since 2009. The others have come along since, to address perceived shortcomings or scaling issues with Bitcoin. 

Ways to acquire cryptocurrency

The common ways to acquire cryptocurrency are mining, direct purchase from an exchange, or indirect purchase through an investment firm.

Mining cryptocurrency

Mining is a process where you use computing power and special software to work mathematical problems out. This can be done with CPU power, GPU (video card) power, or custom built ASIC power, and some methods are better for certain coins. For example, mining Bitcoin today requires the custom ASIC rigs to be anywhere near profitable. Ethereum is GPU-mineable, although there are some ASIC miners. If you’re going to mine, check out my miner article from a couple years ago, and browse some of the mining sites like bitcointalk for more information and guides. 

Direct purchase from an exchange

What I’m calling “direct purchase” is going to an exchange site and buying currency there, to be placed into your wallet (the virtual repository for your cryptocurrency). Bittrex and Coinbase are among the most popular in the US and elsewhere. You can use these sites to convert currencies (i.e. turn 1 ETH into ~0.04 BTC or vice versa), or you can purchase cryptocurrency with your own currency (i.e. turn US$34,205 into ~1 BTC).

Some sites take bank transfers, instant debit card transactions, or even credit card transactions, but note that buying cryptocurrency with a credit card may result in a cash advance transaction to your card (with fees, interest charges beginning immediately, and limits for transactions)

It may also be possible to purchase cryptocurrency in a person-to-person transaction. For example, if you want to buy 1 ETH and I have 1 ETH available, I might sell it to you directly and send it to your ETH wallet address. Not everyone knows someone with cryptocurrency though, but it’s an option if you do. 

Indirect purchase through an investment firm or bank-like firm

Many of the smaller consumer level investment platforms (including Webull, Robinhood, and SoFi Invest) offer a way to buy cryptocurrencies through their systems. Paypal offers this option as well, and you will probably find some of the larger investment firms offering crypto services too.

With these options, you don’t need a crypto wallet or an exchange account, just a regular investment account with that company and some money in your account. 

If you visit forums for some of these companies, though, you’ll find people saying “it isn’t real crypto if you don’t have the keys to the wallet.” This is partly true, in that you can’t transfer cryptocurrency to/from your crypto wallet, or make crypto payments from SoFi Invest, Webull, or Robinhood directly. But it is still cryptocurrency, and you can still profit (or lose) from the movement of the currency in these accounts. 

Which should I do?

That’s up to you. Really. 

If you plan to transact business using crypto directly (i.e. you want to buy pepper sauce from Pex Peppers with ETH or DOGE), you’ll want to mine or use an exchange.

Mining is great if you have a lot of GPUs handy and free or cheap power. At the current price of Ethereum, you can probably break even on a current model GPU (if you can find one in stock) in about 4 months of mining. If you built a rig three years ago, you can probably dust it off and bring it back up and do even better. But the price of Ethereum (and other currencies) can go way up or way down. So consider the risk, as well as your tolerance for heat, noise, and power bills. 

Buying through an exchange is a good way to convert “cash” to crypto, if you don’t want to mine, or if you’re taking your mining rig down for maintenance or a move or the like. You can also use an exchange to sell cryptocurrency and convert it to your own currency and even move the funds to your bank. 

If you just want to treat it as an investment vehicle, and hope to profit off the movement of the currency, a bank or finance company is a fine option. You don’t have to worry about the security of your crypto wallet, and transactions are usually faster and less complicated with a SoFi or the like. You can’t transact with businesses or individuals in crypto this way, but for a lot of people in the crypto market, that’s not a problem. 

There’s nothing keeping you from doing two or even three of these methods. I mine with GPUs in a spare room, buy crypto in order to rent hashing power from a marketplace, and hold a bit of bitcoin in an investment account. It all depends on your priorities and your patience. 

Should I buy DOGE or BTC or ETH or WhopperCoin?

I can’t tell you that. For most of my readers, you probably shouldn’t, but I wanted to level the information playing field so you’d understand the options if you choose to do so. 

There’s nothing keeping you from enjoying the DOGE memes and continuing with your investments as they already are, of course. 

Where do we go from here?

I’m going to go check my DOGE wallet. Let me know in the comments what you’re doing with crypto these days, and if you have any questions that are not related to investment advice, which I cannot and will not provide. 

And again, if you choose to use any or all of the referral links above, I thank you. 

Ten years of rsts11.com

On January 28, 2011, I launched this site to move beyond occasional tweets about technology, and to save things for future reference.

Dozens of times a year I’ll wonder which exact motherboard was in a system I built, or what vendor I regretted seeing sink into the ground like a big ol’ glowing gopher, and a quick glance on this site cleared things up for me more often than not.

Once in a while, I find something to post that makes a difference for someone else, whether it’s technical, soft topics, or even travel related (over on rsts11travel, which came four years ago this month).

As always, I have a draft folder full of content waiting to be drafted into service. Some new projects have come up, and some old ones have warranted a refresh, so as I get some stuff sorted out at home, I’ll get some posts out in the open for your enjoyment and education.

If you have suggestions or ideas, or even hardware you’d like to have evaluated, reach out through the comments here or our contact page and I’ll see what I can do.

And if this blog has helped you over the years, feel free to send me a virtual coffee at https://ko-fi.com/robnovak (the $3 suggested donation actually covers two Nespresso pods and then some, so it’s like buying us both a coffee, but I’ll drink yours for you).

Some longer anniversary posts from the past:

[Featured photo is from the Duran Duran 80s greatest hits album Decade, available at Amazon and everywhere old music is sold.]

I didn’t think I’d be able to say this so soon… (He’s baaack at Tech Field Day!)

As many of my readers know by now, my time at Cisco came to an end last month. When I decided to leave Disney and come to Cisco 6 1/2 years ago, there were two main things I knew I would miss about being in the “real world” — Disney cast member discounts, and being a Tech Field Day delegate.

Well, there’s no change on the Disney discount front, but this week I’ll be back as a TFD delegate for Tech Field Day 22 the latter half of this week.

Riding in the limo at SFD5 in 2014 – four of the five people pictured will be at TFD22 this week with me

How did you get to this point?

In May 2014, I posted a two part post on storage vendors (“These 3 hot new trends” part 1 and part 2) from Storage Field Day 5, my last full event as a delegate. A month later, I moved to San Francisco for most of a week thanks to TFD sponsors, to participate in my second Cisco Live event and to interview for a position with Cisco.

I was offered the job the day I got home from the event, and a little under a month later I got badged at Building 9 and began the 6+ year adventure in mega-vendor sales engineering. But as a vendor, I wasn’t terribly welcome among the Tech Field Day delegations, although I was still invited to the parties, and managed to qualify for the roundtable at SNIA’s Storage Developer Conference in 2017. I did continue my participation with Interop over the years, leaving my Cisco ears (instead of my Disney ears) at home, and even attending a Cisco briefing during one of the events, in the former Playboy Club at the Palms in Las Vegas.

What is Tech Field Day? Do I need a ham radio?

If you’re new to Tech Field Day, the idea is pretty much the same as it’s been for over ten years, even if the participation venue has moved from conference rooms to Zoom. Stephen Foskett, founder of Tech Field Day and Gestalt IT, brings together independent analysts, practitioners, geeks, and javelin catchers to meet with companies producing something in the tech sphere.

From the huge established names (like Dell, HPE, Cisco) to companies just coming out of stealth and talking to the public for the first time, you get to see companies facing unstaged questions in realtime, discussing the product or service, the decisions behind them, and how people who might actually use the product or service see it rather than how the company’s marketing and PR team want it to be seen.

And unlike most press conferences and analyst events, anyone on the planet (pretty much) can tune in, watch and learn, and pose their own questions through social media to be answered. There’s no registration required, no event fees, and if you missed a company you can go back and watch within a couple of days.

Pro-tip: If, like me, you’re on the tech job market, Tech Field Day’s archives can be a great resource for learning about companies you might be interested in working for. Just go to the main page and search for a company name. Not everyone is in there, but you can get a good feel for the companies that are, from what they do and how they’ve evolved over the years to how well they understand their product and the market they’re competing in.

So what’s different for you this time?

Tech Field Day 9 in Austin, Texas (June 2013)

After five full delegate events in person, and seven roundtable/TFD Extra events (details), I’ll be back as a different kind of delegate, for obvious reasons. TFD22 looks to be the largest event yet, with twenty-five delegates. No, really, 25 delegates. The nine presenting companies will be split up into early and late shfits to accommodate delegates from around the world, and since none of us are traveling to an in-person location, we can focus on presentations in our own time zones… and some of us will be hopping onto the other shift’s events as well.

The early shift, for my European and Eastern colleagues, will feature Commvault, Veeam, VMware, Quantum, and Red Hat. Their sessions run from 5-10am Pacific, and while I’d love to see them live, I’m not sure 5am is a time I believe in just yet.

You’ll find me in the late shift (11am-3pm Pacific), meeting with MemVerge, Riverbed (who I last visited here in Sunnyvale for SFD2), Illumio, and oddly enough, Cisco. I only see three names among the other 24 who I’ve shared TFD events with, but about half of them are in my online circles and I’m looking forward to meeting the others.

If you’d like to watch along with us, check out the TFD page for livestreams on several platforms starting Wednesday morning, December 9th. You can click on this garishly-large TFD logo to get there if you like. And if you miss the sessions you wanted to watch, they’ll be posted on the same link within a couple of days for you to watch at no cost.

Feel free to follow along on Twitter and ask your questions – tag with the hashtag #TFD22 and the delegates will try to relay your questions to the presenters.