/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Thu, Nov 10 2016
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  • A visit to the crapgadget impulse aisle with Meh.

    A visit to the crapgadget impulse aisle with Meh.

    I have a soft spot for crapgadgets. During my first stretch living in Silicon Valley, one of my favorite ways to spend a Sunday was to get a friend to drive me to Fry's and just buy a whole whack of stuff from the impulse aisle: stuff that some optimistic entrepreneur had made an unsuccessful bet on, sold off to a jobber, who then split it into lots that were sold on to import/export places that eventually dumped it into Fry's: black-and-white digital cameras without a viewfinder (I called it the "point-and-pray"); stuffed bootleg Windows 2000 logo plushies; digital walkie-talkies that looked like the Incredible Hulk.

    When our sponsor Meh sent me a huge box of the crap they sell from their virtual impulse aisle, I experienced the familiar emotions of those long-ago days, the stench of optimism ruthlessly crushed by the marketplace. Some of the items in that box might have made it if they'd had a lucky break -- if Kanye had released a short video showing him doubling over with laughter wearing a giant pair of Nike-Jordan-adjacent plush slippers; if a hot Youtuber hit the powder at Snowbird wearing a pair of goggles with an integrated sports camera; if last summer's record-breaking heat had been broken by a last-minute shipment of lithium-cell-powered misters. But they didn't, and so now they're in the impulse aisle.

    Being in the impulse aisle isn't a source of shame. It just means you caught a bad beat. Virtually everything -- marriages, countries, companies, products, people -- fails (eventually). The meritocratic delusion says that successful things did the right thing and unsuccessful things did something wrong. Every lottery winner believes that they picked the right numbers because they were amazingly smart. The reality is, beyond a certain level of competence, things succeed because of random chance.


    Random chance put these gadgets in the impulse aisle. The impulse aisle is a place where the shrewd can find some canny bargains. I'll leave it to you to decide whether these four items are duds or diamonds in the rough.

    1. Cardiff Skate Company S1

    With these over-shoe roller-skates, Cardiff promises "Step on, strap in, skate away," though the manual admits that you'll have to sit down the first couple times you put them on (it also warns you never to skate downhill). I put 'em on and took 'em off a few times and I think I'd probably have to be a lot more spry and more confident before I could slip them on, but that said, it only took a minute or so to fit them over my shoes.

    They were surprisingly easy to skate on. I'm a moderately competent ice-skater, and I found the experience very similar (unlike, say, the Heelie shoes I tried desperately to master, but gave up on after my fourth bruising fall). The docs advise that you can brake just by lifting your toe. This did not work as advertised for me, and I ended up mostly braking by steering into the grass on the side of the sidewalk. My neighbors swear I looked great.

    The wheel configuration for these things is pretty futuristic, and also doubtless accounts for their marvellous stability (the fact that I didn't fall once is a minor miracle that begs for an explanation and I'm settling on the wheel config). Setting the side-wheels under the heel and then putting vertical wheels at the very back and front is pretty similar to the wheel-distribution for kids' scooters -- the kind my daughter had before she graduated to a faster two-wheeled model -- and the similarity can't be a coincidence. If that design can be stable enough for a toddler, it can be stable enough for me.


    2. The Beginning by Kozy Soles

    Somewhere out there is a sneaker-head who's dreamed all their life of a pair of giant, plush Air-Jordan-alikes to wear around the house. I am not that person. Not only am I indifferent to Air Jordans, I like my slippers open-heeled, sheepskin-lined and not plush, because I wear my slippers to take out the trash and get the laundry off the line in the rain, and plush slippers don't mix well with the great outdoors, plus slipping your foot into their cavity requires sitting down and getting the heel right, and that is not the Slipper Experience.

    The best thing I can say about these slippers is that -- like the S1 skates -- they fit on my enormous size 12 clown-feet without complaint.


    3. The Fogger by Real Gear

    The Fogger: a reservoir that you fill with water (20 minutes/fill), a pump that runs on a lithium cell (5-7 hours/charge), and a fine misting head. Use it to fog yourself on a hot day, and, assuming the ambient humidity isn't too awful, you'll cool off through the miracle of evaporative cooling.

    This is solution in search of a problem. Don't get me wrong, evaporative cooling is a straight-up miracle -- I've passed many comfortable days in the desert thanks to an evaporative cooling towel around my neck, and you'll never separate me from my swamp cooler. But for just a couple bucks, you can buy a spray bottle with a fan attachment that runs on AA batteries and has a spout so you can use it as a water bottle. The mist won't be so fine, but if you're in public and you're spraying yourself with water, then you're probably not too finicky about showing some beading and droplets.

    That all said, there are two significant problems with this design that makes it a near-certainty that the Fogger won't last more than a single season. The first is that the power-socket has a little rubber gasket covering it that isn't attached to the device, meaning that while you're charging your Fogger, you have to track the location of a tiny speck of black rubber the size of a newborn's pinky-nail -- and the documentation helpfully notes that it is absolutely essential that this be replaced before use.

    The other problem is that Foggers have to be filled with distilled or reverse-osmosis filtered water, or the hose crusts up with mineral scale and stops working (you can buy replacement packs of hoses). Even if you have a big jug of distilled water at home (and who doesn't?) you're not going to get distilled water for refills on long hikes or at a double-header in the bleachers.


    4. All Sport HD Camera Goggles by Liquid Image



    I live in Los Angeles, and even though it's November, it's 90' F outside, so I have no practical way to evaluate these camera-equipped ski goggles apart from wandering around a bit looking like a refugee from Burning Man (which, technically, I am) and shooting sneaky videos of the people in my neighborhood.

    Alas, I wasn't able to do even that, as the goggles would not take a charge or power up when disconnected from their USB cable. I'm not the only one who's had this problem, and I'm chalking it up to an old battery that sat in a warehouse for too long.


    Assuming that you still want to try one of these (and you have better luck than me on the battery front), here are some things to keep in mind.

    These goggles have a few significant demerits. First is that they didn't ship with a micro-SD card, and it's been so long since I've owned a gadget that took an external memory card, I had to order one and wait a couple days before I could evaluate them.


    More importantly is that these require a special USB cable that is totally unlike any of the approximately 50 different USB cables my existing stable of devices use. This would normally be a deal-breaker for me, because things that need special cables quickly become inert lumps of e-waste when (inevitably) I lose or break the special cable. I don't imagine the snow-side pro shop carries USB cables with a never-before-seen connector that happened to be going cheap in Guanzhou the day the manufacturer specced out their bill of materials.

    The final fault is an odd one: these goggle come with far too many accessories -- adapters for motorcycle helmets, extra lenses, dozens of lens-protectors, random bits of plastic whose function is a total mystery. This kind of fiddly-bit overload always gives me gadget anxiety because there's absolutely no way I'm going to keep track of it all, and I'm 100% positive it'll turn out that I absolutely need one of these dinglewhackers at some moment in the future. It's nice of the manufacturer to think of all these eventualities, but it also makes for a giant pile of little dinguses during the unboxing and a nagging sense of having missed something important.


    Thanks for the box of future ewaste, Meh.


    (Image: lyzadanger, CC-BY-SA)

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