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Aug. 13th, 2012

Of Tech Support, Repairs, and Stories Users Tell...

This piece has been forming for sometime now and I'm going to start by paraphrasing the line from the old "Dragnet" TV show to the effect of "The stories you are about to read are true - names have been changed to protect the guilty...".
Doing computer repair and tech support on an informal part time basis has given me a chance to view users and their faults in a way has proven that the human capacity for self deception, wishful thinking, and stupidity knows no bounds...
Anyone who has listened to a user say "It just quit - I have no idea what happened!" knows that the user is likely not being truthful - especially when warranty repair is being requested. And if a laptop is involved things can really get interesting.

This exchange was overheard in an Apple store (via FailDesk) -
A woman brought in her laptop and started talking to an Apple tech guy about how "everything stopped working" and "the keys aren’t doing anything". He asked her to be more specific, but she just kept repeating herself, saying she had no idea why her laptop would stop working. Eventually, he took her laptop to the back, saying he would take a closer look at it. After a few minutes he comes back out with the backboard and fixes her with a stern raised eyebrow.
Tech: “Are you sure you don’t know why your laptop stopped working?”
Woman: “I’m certain! It just stopped!”
Tech: “Do you like drinking by any chance?” (the woman obviously thinks he is flirting with her, and says yes).
At this point he shows her the back case of the laptop, and you can see it’s just completely saturated with sticky red stuff. Her face just goes completely red and he says, “Well, that was an expensive glass of wine”. Turns out it’s going to cost her a ridiculous amount to get her laptop fixed, and she might as well get a new one.
Moral of the story - Laptops and liquids just don't mix! And alcohol merely makes a fatal (to the laptop and/or your reputation) mistake more likely...

Then there is the user that borders on being willfully ignorant and/or "has more important things to do" than learn basic computer operations then expects you to repeatedly walk them through an operation or better yet just do their work for them. I have gotten to the point with one such user that a reply to an email requesting help of RTFM (Read The F**king Manual) - or no reply at all - or not returning a phone call is almost a sure bet. The acronym PICNIC (Problem In Chair Not In Computer) was coined to describe this type of user.

Then there are the classic lines "I think it has a virus" and "It's really slow". These can mean anything or nothing at all. Recently, I had a complete Dell desktop system come into the shop to be rebuilt for donation to someone who would not otherwise have a computer. It is a machine of modest specifications - Windows XP Home, Celeron processor, 512MB of RAM - that should under normal conditions run reasonably well. Apparently the owner believed every pop up that said "Your machine has XXX viruses - let us fix it" and/or "Let our system utility help speed up your machine" and never said no to an offer. Multiple active anti virus apps, system utilities and tons of malware mean it boots in from 5 to 10 minutes if at all and waiting for a program to load and run makes the classic line about going out for lunch and a beer while you are waiting painfully close to the truth. Sometimes there really is a problem and since this isn't a high priority job I'll salvage her files and clean install Windows as time permits.

One final story is of a man whose machine has been in my shop repeatedly. It seems that every time it shows a sign of anything unusual out comes the restore disks and he would run them and then wonder why a version of Windows that was 5+ years old, with the original trial security software got clobbered so quickly as soon as he went on line! He never did really learn and would send me the machine periodically and pay the fee to have it fixed and updated - one thing he was though - a steady source of income and humor...

Finally in closing let me say that not all users are ignorant, liars, or have an attitude - most just want their problem fixed and are willing to learn from what went wrong so as not to repeat their mistakes. But the exceptions provide a rich source of at times sardonic humor and a reason to consume strong drink as we contemplate the foibles human nature.

OK - Time to get back to work...

Jul. 22nd, 2012

The Saga of Bruiser T. Bone

Just when you least expect it to happen a dog comes along who claims a piece of your heart. I didn't start out looking to acquire a dog but rather ended up involved through helping out my room mate Melissa when she decided that she just had to have a dog. Further, only a Chihuahua would do - to be named after the dog in the movie "Legally Blonde", and thereby hangs a tale.
My first contact with Bruiser came when I made the trip over east of Alton, Illinois to the breeder to pick him up as an approximately 3 month old puppy. Instead of the classic short haired, tan colored appearance you would normally expect the first difference is that he is brown and white with long hair. He has also gotten bigger than the average Chihuahua weighing in at approximately 12 lb. instead of the 4 to 8 lb. more common for this breed. His markings and build argue that there may have been a "Spaniel in the woodpile" somewhere back in his bloodline although the breeder maintains he is pure bred Chihuahua with all known ancestors being of that breed.
In retrospect, Melissa's plans started to fall apart almost from day one - she felt the weather was too hot/humid for her to ride along to pick him up on that miserably hot July day and so I went solo - at the breeder the poor little guy was understandably scared and nervous - freaked out would be closer to the truth - and in the process of holding him to calm him down a bond was forged - no matter who paid for him he decided there and then that he was my dog and that is all there was to it. Talk about high-jacking the affection of someone else's dog! Over a period of the next six months or so it became quite apparent that he had chosen his owner instead of the other way around. The final straw being at Christmas time when I had dinner guests in - some of whom Melissa refuses to associate with. Her plan was to seclude herself in her area of the house with Bruiser and avoid them but Bruiser had other ideas - at the first chance he had he "escaped" and voted for his preferred company with his own four paws! To say Melissa was royally pissed would be a massive understatement - she immediately stated an intention to sell him on Craig's list - a plan that I flat vetoed - as far as I was concerned he had his forever home and to put the affair to rest I paid Melissa the price that the breeder had charged for him and took sole ownership. Previously it had been a "joint" ownership since I ended up paying for many of the expenses of caring for him - food, pet care supplies, vet visits etc. He has since been neutered and micro-chipped - another thing that Melissa was against doing for some reason or another. Just as well in retrospect as it had become quite apparent that Melissa could not manage the cost of caring properly for him. And yet she wants to try again with another dog - somehow this does not bode well.
So what have I gained? A four legged shadow with a truly quirky disposition - thus fitting right in with the other members of the household. He is an inveterate beggar and if you have anything edible around he is automatically your best buddy! He is also an accomplished sneak thief that will chew up anything he can get away with - with my weird hours it is a good thing that either myself or Melissa is around to keep an eye on him! House training is another area where he is also "challenged" - with my weird hours establishing anything resembling a "regular" schedule is just not possible. In addition to the spaniel in him I've also got to wonder if there wasn't a none to picky cat somewhere in that woodpile too - he has developed a catlike habit of bringing dead mice to me and dropping them at my feet - some of them long dead "mummies" and some quite freshly dead. If he has caught any of them himself I don't know.
As for other habits he has shown - obviously as is common with his breed he has developed into a four legged alarm - anyone coming in the front gate or to the front door is announced as soon as they step on the porch. Equally he is the meeter and greeter for both residents and guests and demands "his" share of attention. Rare is the time I can unlock the back door coming in from work, errands, church, etc. without being enthusiastically greeted at the door - no matter what hour I come in! He has also adjusted to some extent to my weird hours and need to sleep at anytime day or night - when I turn the lights in the bedroom off and lay down for the most part he understands that it is quiet time and he will be found either on the bed with me or under it - either way keeping "guard" lest his "mom" be surprised by an intruder or some disaster. He also my backup "alarm clock" - if I don't wake up when the alarm goes off he starts fussing and barking until I do wake up! "Hey Mom it's time to get up - come on I need someone to play with!"
Then there is the matter of his name - originally it was just Bruiser - after the dog in the movie "Legally Blonde" but a friend made a fuss about how her dogs had a first as well as a last names - so, in the spirit of fun, I went her one better and gave him a last name and a middle initial to boot!
And so it is that I've had the pleasure and the pain of having to deal with a dog after many years without one - something I had planned to hold off on until I retired. Talk about best laid plans etc. On the balance, I think I'm ahead of the game. Also in case you are curious I will post a couple of pictures at some point - and he is my current avatar picture both here and elsewhere.

OK time to get back to work

Jul. 7th, 2012

Of Bent Pins, Hard Drives, and Paranoia

Sometimes when you do computer repair and mostly deal with folks who know the basics about computers it is easy to think that most people should at least be able to identify what the parts one is built up from are. And then there are those who should not get close to a computer without a gaurdian/keeper let alone open the case and try to work on/with the componets inside. And so the words of Clint Eastwoods "Dirty Harry" character come to mind " A man has got to know his lmitations...".

About a year ago I rebuilt a Dell tower for a guy where I work and upgraded it somewhat. Well, a few days ago he told me that he had decided to buy a new laptop and asked if I would interested in taking his old tower to strip for parts and/or rebuild for further use by someone needing a computer. He was understandably concerned that his personal information not be recoverable and said that he had removed the hard drive - my response was that I would secure wipe the drive to protect his privacy and and that he need not worry. His response was that he had already removed it but would give it to me separately. And so he brought in the tower and a day later a bag with the "hard drive" - good thing because what he had yanked out was the CPU - still attached to its heat sink - and the power supply. The damage to the CPU appeared to be minor - some bent pins that I should be able to straighten - the socket appears OK - I'll find out if there is damage from static etc. when I've put it back together and power up to "smoke test" it. Another project for a day off.

So what of the hard drive? How do you protect personal information from being recovered from a computer to be donated/disposed of? Removal and physical destruction of the hard drive is a viable option - but wasteful. Easier is using something like Dariks "Boot and Nuke" to wipe the drive and render any data unrecoverable. Most hard drive manufacturers have utility programs that will do the job also. The one I use most often, by Western Digital effectively returns the drive to a "like new" state - it must be initialized, have a partition table added and be formatted as needed before it can be reused. The program writes zeros to all sectors of the drive and nothing recoverable is left.

So, what was the fate of the tower? After some careful work with a steel ruler straightening the bent pins, removing it from the heat sink, cleaning both with some rubbing alcohol, carefully reseating the CPU in its socket, re-engaging the lock on the socket, new thermal grease, reseat the heat sink and lock it down, reconnected the power supply, and turned it on. No smoke from anywhere in the case, ( hence calling it the "smoke test") - and it worked! Guess those Intel Pentium 4 processors are a bit more sturdy than I thought! A lady from church will get this one with monitor, etc. and thus have a working computer she would not otherwise have - she is starting over after being in a shelter and a new machine is out of the question for her budget.

Jun. 23rd, 2012

Back Again

Been awhile since I've done an update here - the usual reasons, most having to do with working and earning a living as I get closer to retirement. Still a lot of turnover at work with the resulting need to continually train new people on the job - its getting to where we have trainees with 6 to 9 months service having to help train the newer people and that is getting scary. Does management care? Not so you would notice, quite the opposite in fact. And until or unless someone gets hurt/killed, we have major equipment damaged by someone with insufficient training, or end up in trouble with the various regulatory agencies over our performance I doubt they will.

On other fronts, things around the house have been quiet quite awhile now and with luck will remain so - Melissa and Terri are more or less peacefully coexisting and the stress levels have gone down - I am duly thankful for any and all blessings large or small! With Terri going into the nursing program at UMSL with the goal of getting a BS in Nursing (BS/N) and Melissa's health slowly but visibly getting worse neither one really has the time or energy for petty games.

There has been one addition to the household though - Bruiser T. Bone - a supposed to be pure bred long hair Chihuahua that looks as though he has a considerable amount of Spaniel blood in him. More on the story and his antics in another post though.

As for me - still slogging along slowly getting closer to my goal of being able to retire and finish my transition - having to continue to work in "Boy Drag" is really getting to be a pain in the you know where! With luck another 1 to 2 years should see the majority of my debts paid off and my pension income sufficient to pay the bills on a normal month. Also doing quite a bit of work with repairing and building computers for people at church and work - with a bit of luck that might provide a bit of extra income when I retire as well as something to do to, stay active and maybe bring in the odd dollar here and there.

All for now - break time is over and it is time to get back to work!

May. 5th, 2011

The Netbook Conumdrum - A Case Study

Sometime back I wrote about netbooks and how they were morphing into what to all intents and purposes were UMPC class laptop computers. That trend has continued and the small Intel Atom processor equiped laptops have pretty well taken over the market for small ultra portable computers. They are still lacking in some respects - mostly in keyboard size and layout and they have for the most part gone over to Windows XP or Windows 7 for operating systems instead of the modified Linux OS's that the breed started out with. Early last year after my sister grew tired of trying to get a Dell Mini 9 that came with an operating system that was based on Ubuntu to work for her she gave it to me. After much fiddling with it and not a little money spent on upgrading it has finally come into its own as a reliable small laptop suitable for casual use. What follows is a rundown on what it took to do it.
The Mini 9 as it came from Dell was/is a nice looking little package barely larger than the ASUS EEEPC 701 that originated the breed. But it was a miserable performer, compromised by an operating system that was a poorly done takeoff on Ubuntu 8.04 that lacked usable wireless drivers, had only 4GB of storage and 512 MB of RAM.
Having confirmed that the operating system as supplied by Dell was more or less unusable as supplied, the first move was to try a new operating system - Dell had sent a replacement "restore" disk with what to all intents was a pure version of Ubuntu 8.04 with the needed wireless drivers. When the computer manufacturer all but abandons the version of the OS that is supplied on a machine this says a lot about the problems with it. The "new" version on the restore disk was a major improvement and fairly usable - but I was determined to find something better.
Given the small size of the "hard drive" - for all intents and purposes a 4 GB flash drive, either a small linux OS like Puppy Linux or a severely trimmed down version of Windows XP ( using N-lite) were the only practical choices. Instead, I opted to try changing out the 4 GB solid state drive for something with a larger capacity. Thus the first major expense - a Run Core 32GB SSD made for the Mini 9. At the same time the RAM was increased to 2GB. Doing this eliminated the need to do a custom version of Windows XP - anything - even Vista or Windows 7 now fits and runs reasonably well. Also, since the Mini 9 has the ability to boot from a USB drive it is possible to set up a USB key or hard drive as a second drive and boot from it. Just be careful setting it up lest you make the Windows install unbootable without the extra drive attached.
So what OS am I now using on it? After a trial run with Vista Ultimate that ran OK but didn't leave enough space on the Run Core drive for much in the way of files the drive was formatted and Windows 7 Home Premium loaded. One thing that Microsoft did right with Windows 7 was trimming down the overall size of the install from that of it's Vista predecessors and there is enough room for my basic files - documents, photos, and a trimmed down music file are available when I'm using the Mini 9 away from home. I've also set up a USB drives to boot Linux Mint and Puppy Linux.
What was the point of going to all of this trouble? Main reason was to make this little machine as usable as possible and incidently have some fun along the way. It is now reliable and well suited for casual use away from home - browsing, email, watching ripped movies, listening to music, etc. Still has the limits/problems imposed by the small keyboard though so serious or prolonged use is not in the cards. If I was limited to one computer the Mini 9 would not be my choice.

Apr. 10th, 2011

Of Room Mates, Drama, and Life on the Green Line

As anybody who reads much of this journal will know by now, I have a tendency to take in MTF transgender folk who are on hard times as room mates. Sometimes this leads to interesting times and the odd laugh long after the fact. There was once a comedian that said comedy equals tragedy plus time and/or distance. Whoever it was that said it sure had it right. Some background here - relations between current room mates Melissa and Terri can be and usually are somewhat contentious at best. With that in mind, a couple of incidents.

Melisa having been outside on the back porch for a smoke starts to come in through the kitchen as is her habit - sees Terri heating something in the microwave - goes back out the door, down the back steps walker and all with a great clatter and muttered swear words - walks around the outside of the house - up the front steps - in the front door - to avoid going through three feet of the kitchen. Theatrics worthy of a drama queen - you bet.

Then there was the chicken affair - Melissa's church sometimes supplies her with groceries and she being the hoarder that she is tends to try to keep them in her room lest Terri have some benefit from them. She was told that a bag she recently got was all canned goods - what she didn't know was that there was a frozen chicken in there too. After several days the odor got quite overpowering and the result was a midnight trip to the garage with a sealed and very odoriferous trash bag by your truly - in my nightgown and robe to boot. You gotta check those bags more carefully kid... Add in that Terri is threatening to start clucking like a chicken when in Melissa's hearing and you have a formula for both humor and hard feelings.

Any places in Baghdad on the green line for rent? It might be more peaceful than here.

All for now,

Long Time Gone

Seems that it has been a long while since I posted here - I can only plead a busy schedule/life that if anything gets more hectic day by day. Still working in the same place and still training the parade of new hires who no sooner than they are able to work on their own with some small degree of safety get transferred to other plants/facilities. Just got notice that we are losing three people to other plants and you know what that means - time to put my teachers hat on again!

Still the same situation with the room mates too. Melissa and Terri are still at odds much of the time and the result is not unlike living on the "Green Line" in Beirut or Baghdad - never a dull moment.

I'll be back soon ( I Hope) to recount some further adventures with life, computers, and room mates.

All for now,

Jan. 30th, 2010

The Netbook Conundrum - 12/16/2009

Awhile back, in mid 2007 if memory serves a new class of notebook computer was brought out by ASUS that has come to be known as the "netbook". As originally designed, the netbooks had small 7 to 9 inch screens and reduced size keyboards. They also as a class had very small solid state "hard drives" that in reality were nothing more than flash memory chips/cards and usually a customized version of one or another Linux distribution for an operating system. One other characteristic was their price - compared to their nearest existing competition in the computer world of the time - the Ultra Mobile PC or UMPC - they were quite inexpensive. And people bought them as fast or faster than the makers could produce them. Sounds like a real success story and it was that indeed - the market for high priced UMPC's just about dried up overnight.

In the time since then they have started to morph into something very close to the UMPC in form factor. First screen sizes increased to 9 or 10 inches from 7 inches. Then they started to acquire real storage either as SSD's (solid state drives) or regular hard drives. The operating system changed to Windows XP on the majority of them - either full size or with a reduced footprint for the smaller machines. Then larger batteries and faster processors that have all but taken them to the size, weight and bulk of a UMPC. Unfortunately they have not acquired the one thing that a UMPC has that would make them truly useful for everyday work. And that is a decent full size keyboard that doesn't require Hobbit size hands to use for long periods or when you really need to get useful work done. On the netbooks I've had and used it has been necessary to carry a full size USB keyboard and mouse to use when anything beyond a quick email or web address need be typed. Now admittedly it lives in the car, not the case for the computer, but this still sort of defeats the whole reason for having and using a netbook.

This was brought home to me in the last few months after I found on Ebay several laptops of the UMPC breed and acquired a couple of them so cheaply as to be almost a joke. Both are from IBM in their X series - laptops that originally sold for $2500 to $3500 and up that went for $25 to 75 at auction. The difference in everyday usability is quite apparent the first time you use one and it didn't take long to decide to sell off my netbooks. With new installs of Windows XP or Ubuntu and some minor upgrading in terms of hard drives and RAM they are every bit as usable as the netbooks and a pleasure to work on. They are well worth taking a look at before you go out and buy a new netbook if more than casual work is on your agenda.

I guess you could say that smaller ain't always better. Enough for now - it's time for me to get back to work.

More Dumpster Diving - 11/15/2009

More Dumpster Diving

I've written before about the joys of dumpster diving and the tendency of some people to get rid of perfectly usable stuff rather than repair or recycle it. With the return of ex room mate Melissa coming close Terri and I have been working on getting the spare room under the kitchen ready for her to use - thus allowing for at least a reasonable degree of privacy for all of us when Melissa comes back into town. Truth be told I had started to rehab the room several years ago and had been working on it off and on. In exchange for her doing the needed work on the room Terri and dog Scooby get the use of it while she stays here. And there by hangs the tale of our latest adventures in dumpster diving.

One thing that was quite apparent was that we would need to find a bed and a dresser for use in the room - preferably cheap or free. New was out of the question - too expensive and nobody that we talked to at church had any leads to offer. But as Terri said "The lord will provide" and did he ever! So it came to pass that one day I came home from work to find a queen size mattress and springs in the garage and an old but with some repair serviceable dresser sitting in the basement. Seems next door neighbor Tammy was moving out and was going to put them out in the alley for the large item trash pickup. So instead of the alley the stuff provided the last necessary pieces to furnish Terri's room. Talk about a room full of recycled stuff - everything - bed, dresser, computer desk and monitor, easy chair, floor lamp, book shelves, is recycled either from the alley or various friends that were getting rid of something. A few of the things still need a coat of paint but once that is done we will have furnished the room for very little in the line cash outlay.

A wise old man once told me that "All good things come to him that waits - provided that him what waits knows where to wait for them!" Keeping your eyes open and being ready to take advantage of an opportunity when it presents itself doesn't hurt either.

About all for now - break time is over and it's back to work!

Me and My Shadow - 10/3/ 2009

It's been quite awhile since I've written or updated here - have been quite busy with work and life in general. One thing that has kept me jumping is my new trainee (shadow) at work. He's quite a handful and brings to mind a new and somewhat awkward puppy - all feet and ears but anxious to please. Now in a puppy this wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing - accidents on the carpet aside - but given the situation at work with being short handed it's been a trial keeping him safe and of of trouble. Problem is that the combination of his being a graduate of the SIUE Environmental Resources training program and his enthusiasm leave him prone to trying things that are well beyond his depth experience wise. Add in that he is still prone to getting confused about his whereabouts, the plant areas and equipment and you have a recipe for both high humor and disaster all rolled into one package. Several times he has come up on the radio wanting to "adjust" or "change" something that would have taken an entire area of the plant down or caused damage to equipment - the almost standard instruction now is "put your hands in your hip pockets and sit down until we get there to check things out". Small wonder that I've been tired lately!

On other fronts, things have been going fairly well. New room mate Terri is working out reasonably well. Shortly after she moved in we got news that her dog was having major separation anxiety problems. Since I have a fenced back yard the obvious solution was to bring him up to the house - so the fur kid makes three! Scooby Doo (I kid you not on the name) is well trained and housebroken and has been almost no problem. He is a cross between a German Shepard and a Miniature Pincher and quite territorial - the squirrels have a great time taunting him. Having him here also gave me a look at Terri as a human being - anyone that will give up their last cash (cigarette money) to buy a sack of food for a pet can't be all bad.

In what could be an interesting turn of events ex room mate Melissa is making serious noises about wanting to come back to Missouri despite her bad initial experience here. Seems that her return to California has not been a howling success and despite my having set some requirements that were intended to discourage her return she is about out of other options. Beyond my refusal to pay for a ticket back here or any shipping on her things, there is the requirement that she get herself enrolled in the Missouri welfare system. We found out last time that her California Medicaid coverage was of extremely limited use here and given her medical problems she needs coverage of some sort. No definite word that she is coming back for sure yet but it is looking more likely as time passes.

Thats about it for now - break time is over and I've got to go back to work

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