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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Fri, 30 Aug 2013

Sinclair ZX-81: I used to have one of these

I used to have one of these Sinclair ZX-81 computers. It plugged into the TV, allowed you to enter programs in BASIC, and save and load those programs and others via a cassette tape recorder.

It was a computer, and it cost .

I had two of the 16K memory modules that plugged into the back. They shorted out more often than not and crashed the computer.

I even subscribed to a Timex-Sinclair-related magazine that offered programs you could type in. Most didn't work. Maybe it was due to typing errors on my part, but you never know.

I eventually put the whole lot into a box and sold it off at a garage sale.

Maybe not so curiously, I think we should still be able to buy computers for . You sort of, kind of can do that.

Thu, 21 Feb 2013

Aftermarket replacement battery on the cheap for the Lenovo G555

I've had the Lenovo G555 for about 2 3/4 years at this point, and I've had another part fail -- the battery.

A laptop battery losing its ability to hold a charge after two years is by no means unusual.

Laptop batteries can be pricey. I've seen them go for -- and that's for a computer that's worth maybe .

When my LCD power inverter went when I had the Lenovo for about two years -- a bit early -- and I was able to replace what is usually a part by spending and change on eBay, I decided to look around before committing to a new battery.

I saw aftermarket batteries going for anywhere from to . That's quite a range. Some claimed to be better. Those offered a two-year warranty. Most of the time, it would take another to in shipping to complete the transaction.

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Wed, 21 Nov 2012

Is touchpad sensitivity to blame for erratic behavior?

I'm still trying to get to the bottom of the erratic cursor movement when the Alps touchpad in my Lenovo G555 laptop is in tap-to-click mode.

Having found that this happens only rarely in GNOME, I've tried to find the differences between touchpad configuration in GNOME 3 and Xfce (version 4.8 is what I'm running in Debian Wheezy).

Running a diff on the files has produced a few differences, but nothing that affects sensitivity.

So I've been delving into the many settings of Synaptics and Alps touchpads -- all accessible through interfaces meant for Synaptics touchpads, by the way.

In most modern Linux distributions, you can control the touchpad through the synclient utility. While man synclient helps in figuring this out, you need to look at man synaptics much more closely. That's where the keys to the touchpad-controlling kindgdom really lie. They tell the truth, but that's where they are.

One thing I did was write a couple of scripts that turn tap-to-click on and off. I don't think these needed to be in /usr/local/bin, but I put them there anyway. They did need to be executable. In Xfce I made program launchers on the desktop that call both of these scripts so I could turn them off and on, using the touchpad's tap-to-click when I want and turning it off when it's annoying me.

There are usually system utilities that can help you do this, but they're usually a few menu clicks away, and Xfce in Debian Wheezy -- at least the way I have it set up -- doesn't offer to toggle this behavior for me. And the scripts with launchers are faster anyway.

I'll go into detail about all of this in the near future when I have all of the settings more set.

For now I'm experimenting with touchpad sensitivity. There are a few parameters that seem to control this, and I began by focusing on FingerHigh.

I raised the number to reduce the sensitivity of taps on the touchpad, meaning it takes a harder tap to actually register a tap.

Here is how I set it in the terminal: $ synclient FingerHigh=35

I think the default value was something like 12. When I got to 40, tapping pretty much stopped working. So I'm working with FingerHigh=35 for now.

Another parameter I've been experimenting with is PalmDetect, which is supposed to ... detect your palm.

Once I get the scripts in better shape, I will both publish them on this site and in a publically available repository.

This kind of command-line tinkering and extremely simple scripting is not at all complicated. It's the kind of hacking anybody can do.

Touchpad sensitivity is a problem I've seen not just in the Lenovo G555 but in Windows 7 as well as in Linux, and the lack of control that users in Windows have over behavior of the hardware is a terrible situation.

Mon, 15 Oct 2012

Raspberry Pi single-board $35 computer's RAM doubles from 256 to 512 MB

The all-the-rage Raspberry Pi single-board, ARM-based computer is a great device for embedded uses -- I'm eager to turn one into a print server -- but isn't well-appointed as a desktop substitute.

News that its memory is doubling to 512 MB (H-Online, RaspberryPi.org) and that all boards are being assembled in the U.K. instead of China while the price is sticking at is welcome.

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Sat, 06 Oct 2012

Google Chromebooks are looking better and better

Even though I guess I'm a "power user," I'm starting to agree with Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols' idea that Google's Chromebooks are a compelling choice.

If you're comfortable with Google services and doing everything in its cloud, or if you're doing it anyway, these devices are cheap enough, starting at , and due to their light Ubuntu-derived OS boot right away and run acceptably fast. They have a six-hour battery life. From an updates and security perspective, they're virtually maintenance-free.

If you lose one or it breaks, you just move on to a new one. All your stuff is in the cloud.

I'm pitching them to my company. Very soon now, we'll be able to do just about everything we do with a Chromebook. It's cheaper than an iPad, way more usable for things like writing, and the tight integration with Google is a win for those already committed to the search giant's services.

Sun, 30 Sep 2012

Better-late-than-never review: The ZaReason Limbo 6000A desktop computer running Linux Mint 12

I get offered products for review here and there. Usually those products are hard for me to get excited about.

But a computer built for Linux, assembled in Berkeley, California, by the well-respected ZaReason?

That was exciting.

Cathy Malmrose of ZaReason contacted me through Larry Cafiero, Linux advocate and my Digital First Media / MediaNews Group colleague. Soon enough, the ZaReason Limbo 6000A was on its way to the L.A. Daily News office.

The lowest-priced Limbo 6000A runs a very reasonable . The box sent to me included a few key improvements that brought the price up to .

I know what you're thinking. I could put together my own box from Newegg/TigerDirect parts, or buy a cheaper computer from Dell, HP, Acer, etc. ...

But if you buy from ZaReason (or System 76, or the other Linux- and BSD-loading builder-dealers out there), you are getting systems on which all the hardware is guaranteed to work with free, open-source operating systems. You get actual support. And you don't run the risk of putting together a box from scratch that might not even POST when you turn the power on, not to mention fail to work with the Linux distribution of your choice.

(Rear of the ZaReason Limbo 6000A)


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Fri, 28 Sep 2012

The $99 supercomputer: Adapteva turns to Kickstarter for funding to get its massively parallel, fully open Raspberry Pi killer off the ground

Above: Adapteva's video of the prototype Parallella board running Ubuntu.


First netbooks died, killing off their Linux origins before that. Then big OEMs flirting with desktop Linux went from bang to whimper with nary a marketing push.

But the bright, shining light in open source hardware -- software-wise anyway, as the hardware ain't all that open -- has been the Raspberry Pi single-board computer that runs Linux, sips power and has a great deal of the world busy crafting enclosures, fine-tuning OS images and basically geeking out.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But there will be competitors. Others that want to take the throne.

Chief among complaints about Raspberry Pi is the presence of closed-source chips on the board.

Well along comes Adapteva with an idea for a massively parallel collection of CPUs on a chip (either 16 or 64), also (electrical) power sipping but this time funded by Kickstarter and promising way more processing power, plus a fully open hardware design, all for (for 16 cores) or (for 64 cores).

That's if they get that Kickstarter money and get the project off the ground.

People are thirsting big time for these "supercomputing" ARM platforms, something cheap enough to play a niche role yet powerful enough to actually do some things.

The Parallella Project is looking for ,000 out of Kickstarter to produce the 16-core chip. If things blow up and they get million, they'll produce the 64-core version.

According to the Ubuntu Vibes write-up linked to above, the 16-core version will deliver 13 GHz of CPU performance, and the 64-core version will push 45 GHz. All that in 5 watts of power.

And they're pledging to open-source the hardware if this Kickstarter thing works out.

Tue, 31 Jan 2012

Laptop overheating, causing thermal shutdown during prolonged, CPU-intensive tasks

I've had my Lenovo G555 laptop (AMD Athlon II at 2.1 GHz) for nearly two years, and recently I've been experiencing thermal shutdowns while running prolonged, CPU-intensive tasks in Debian Squeeze.

Perhaps ironically but probably totally explainable, watching Flash video is not one of these tasks. I can watch Flash-delivered content in Hulu all night, and the Lenovo is fine.

The laptop overheats and shuts down when doing two things:

  • Java-heavy tasks like listening to networked, software-defined-radio sites like http://w4ax.com

  • Rendering videos in OpenShot

Two things that are very CPU-intensive, indeed.

So what did I do about this?

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Fri, 28 Oct 2011

Thinking out of the server box: HP ProLiant MicroServer

By way of Planet Debian, I found Vincent Sanders' article on the HP ProLiant MicroServer he bought for use at home instead of a dedicated NAS appliance.

This is by no means a blade server. It's a squat little box. And the HP ProLiant MicroServer line starts at .

Here are general specs from HP:

What's new

  • Faster processor -- AMD Turion II Neo 1.5GHz
  • Choice of preinstalled OS's includes Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials

Features

Simple to Own and Easy to Use

  • Server performance but at a PC price
  • Designed to make adding drives or peripherals a minimal effort
  • At a 22 dBA noise level, it is quiet for ergonomic working environment
  • Space-saving; ideal for the small office

Proven HP Dependability and Support

  • HP has built a reputation of dependability by conducting some of the most rigorous and thorough testing in the industry
  • System testing and process control ensures only the most dependable products for the customers
  • Worldwide network of HP trained service

Reliability and Expandability

  • Error checking and correction (ECC) memory minimizes the likelihood of memory corruption
  • RAID 0, 1 prevents data loss and ensures around the clock reliability
  • Up to four LFF SATA pluggable hard disks and up to 8 GB of RAM

That's pretty interesting. It's small, all right. The ECC memory is very server-ish. And not everybody wants or has a rack set up to stuff a server into. This can sit on a table or shelf somewhere.

While there is a model, the best deal seems to be the version with double the RAM (2 GB). The system ships with a smallish 250 GB drive, but the whole point is that you can buy drives for the four bays and just plug 'em in.

Vincent bought his HP box to run Debian, which is what I'd be doing. The HP PDF lists the following as "supported" OSes:

  • Microsoft Windows 2008 Standard Edition R2
  • Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials
  • Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL)

It doesn't say which versions of RHEL will run, but I imagine that 5.x and 6.x are good to go. And if it runs Debian Squeeze, it will probably run a current Ubuntu release as well.

Looking back at Vincent's original article, he has what looks to me like a somewhat complicated RAID setup for his four 2 TB drives, with 1 GB of ext2 in RAID 1 across four drives for /boot, ext3 with LVM in RAID 5 for the rest of the data, plus a small partition at the beginning for GRUB. I'm a little bit hazy on exactly how one does this.

He cites reports of reliability problems in ext4 as a reason for choosing ext3 for the big RAID partition. I'm running ext3 with LVM in my Debian Squeeze laptop, and it has been 100 percent solid.

I really need to read up on RAID and configuring Linux servers with RAID and LVM ...

Tue, 27 Sep 2011

Mac OS X 10.7 Lion supports some older HP scanners, but not the one I'm trying to get working; Apple rant follows

Long story short, I'm setting up a shiny, new iMac with OS X 10.7 (aka Lion) for my graphic artist mother whose 2003-era G5 decided to die catastrophically and quickly.

Once I figured out the ancient SpeedStream modem's PPPoE issues with her formerly SBC, currently AT&T DSL connection, got her Ethernet-equipped HP LaserJet 4000n printer on the same network as the iMac (once I figured out the printer's IP address through printer-top button-pressing voodoo), all that remained was bringing the HP Scanjet 6300c scanner to life.

It shows up in the detailed view of "About this Mac." But no software is automatically downloaded (that's how OS X 10.7 configures printers and scanners, apparently, and it dealt with the LaserJet 4000n that way).

The USB-connected scanner appears to be dead. To OS X 10.7 anyway.

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