Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Toshiba T1000 Teardown

My favourite rare treat at Free Geek is taking apart unusual old equipment. (See e.g. Industrial Computer Teardown.) Forgive me for posting this stuff as frequently as I possibly can -- it's fun, it's interesting and I love writing about it.

Toshiba T1000 Cockpit View

Monday, December 13, 2010

Volunteer Who's Who, Take 1

One of the reasons I started this blog is because I wanted the volunteers to get to know each other, even if they volunteer on different days or only see each other occasionally. Being a geek by nature, however, it's a lot easier for me to talk hardware than people. It's taken me a few weeks to muster the courage to start what I hope will be a series of short interviews with volunteers around the place. I started with Kirby, who many of you will know from his usual post on Tuesdays at the build bench.

Kirby does battle with Dell drive rails

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Building ThinkStations

We had a fleet of ThinkStations arriving into build fodder sometime last week and a number of them were built and ready for testing when I arrived at Free Geek today.

Thanks to this week's builders, they were a pleasure to give a final once-over, and a number of them went to the store for sale today. Good work, folks!

I don't know if anyone else noticed, but they have angry robot faces on the back.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What happens to hard drives at Free Geek?

When a piece of equipment comes in through the warehouse gate, the first priority is re-use: if there's a reasonable expectation that it can be given a second chance at usefulness, a piece of gear will get cleaned up, tested, and sent out again to a volunteer or a grant recipient, or sold through the thrift store.

There are several risky aspects in re-use – for example, those universal Windows stickers bearing serial numbers. If a machine is sent out without that sticker being removed, it could be used to install a pirated copy of Windows. The Windows license remains with the original owner and cannot be transfered. This potentially puts Free Geek Vancouver in a position of legal liability.

Another common example is hard drives. When a machine is received at Free Geek, it almost always contains a hard drive with software and user data on it – and on a typical machine, that is almost certain to contain private information, from names to resumes to credit card information to who-knows-what. One of the most common questions asked by donors is – what happens to all that data? How can Free Geek Vancouver be sure that it's treated responsibly?
40GB IDE hard drives, clean and tested and ready for Ubuntu to be installed

Friday, October 22, 2010

Industrial computer teardown

One of the main reasons I volunteer at Free Geek Vancouver is to get myself up to my elbows in old gear. My introduction to computer hardware came from several sources: Value Village, dumpster-diving as a 12-year-old for Commodore 64s behind my elementary school, tearing apart whatever parents of friends brought back from the office, but primarily it came from the BC Tel Pioneer Surplus Store. This was a warehouse run by old-timers where people affiliated with BC Tel (now Telus) could rummage through decades of detritus and take it home for pennies a pound. Visually, it looked a lot like Freegeek does.
Here be geeks.

Through the 1990s the warehouse, unfortunately, succumbed to homogenization. Gradually desktop computing took over from custom hardware and what was once a bizarre assortment of obscure telecom gear morphed into just another bunch of superannuated desktops.

I'm incredibly lucky to have had the chance to take some of that old gear home during that pivotal period of change in the world of computing. Growing up, my suburban basement was filled with pieces of these relics -- teletypes, an enormous WANG word processor, daisy-wheel printers, relay banks, electronic charting devices, stereo equipment, and more.

Free Geek of course deals almost exclusively in computer gear and most of what comes in is middle-of-the-road -- neither new nor old enough to be exciting. But occasionally something pretty strange comes in. When that happens, a volunteer will fall in love with a piece of old gear at Receiving only to have his or her heart broken when it's generally scrapped, functional or not, for being unsaleable. For a long time, there was a museum collection but it grew to fill whatever space it had -- first a corner of the warehouse, then an outside storage locker -- and nobody quite knew what to do with it.

Of necessity, FGV is currently pretty ruthless -- the mandate doesn't extend to a museum and there is simply no room for the stuff to collect. (Incidentally, if anyone wants to spearhead a better policy, please bring it to the fg-general mailing list! We're all ears.)

On Thursday an old industrial computer came in. Interesting, yes. Unusual, yes. Valuable, no.

Pentium-class industrial computer

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Welcome to the Free Geek Vancouver Volunteer Blog! This is a volunteer-run (i.e. unofficial) blog describing the daily experience at Free Geek Vancouver and the week-to-week projects and changes that are going on there.

My name is Alec Smecher and I've been volunteering with Free Geek Vancouver for several years. If you've been there on a Thursday, you've probably met me, either at the build bench, or network device testing, or in various other corners of the building. I served on the Free Geek Vancouver Board of Directors from 2009 to 2010.

My goal with this blog is to extend the social experience at Free Geek Vancouver beyond the walls of the building and the regular hours that we spend there. For example, I typically volunteer on Thursdays and would love the chance to interact with the weekend warriors. I hope to capture some interesting projects here and encourage people to participate. Finally, I hope to make a place for volunteers to receive some kudos for the work they do improving Free Geek Vancouver and generally helping to keep the lights on.

Comments and contributions are welcome. This is a work in progress and will take shape over the coming weeks.

Alec Smecher
Volunteer, Free Geek Vancouver