Saturday, December 17, 2011

Festive Meets Nerdy

I like vacuum tubes. Have I mentioned this before?

I have a mental registry of small projects that involve vacuum tubes and one long-standing idea is a Christmas tree ornament. Here's how it goes.

(This involves fire, broken glass, and probably all of the chemical horrors of the 1950s. Say your prayers, wear eye protection, and Don't Be Stupid.)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Ghetto Tablet

This came into FG a number of weeks ago and, like many curios, wandered its way around the mezzanine getting prodded by volunteers. Nobody quite knew what to do with it but nobody was willing to scrap it.

This is probably the closest thing available to a modern tablet computer -- made about a decade ago. I've spent altogether too much time in the last week or two getting it working.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Audiophile silliness, now on a motherboard!

A couple of weeks ago I got hollered over to the dismantle bench -- "you have to see this" or something of the sort. Here's what they had inside the case:

It's the usual mess of wires and junk -- but way at the back, there's something that you will probably never again see on a motherboard.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Happy Binary Day!

It's 11/11/11 (and shortly 11:11:11) -- so happy binary day! This celebration just goes to show that we learned nothing from Y2K and still use two-digit years when it's convenient, but then again, 2011/11/11 just doesn't look quite as pretty.

I'd propose that we keep the powder dry for a real celebration in 2048 -- that's 100000000000 in binary. We won't roll over another digit like that until the year 4096.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Firmware and Bad Ideas

Geoff and Brian came across a strange situation last Thursday and called me over for a look. They were working on building a machine, and were experiencing a very Hallowe'enish phenomenon: a ghost disc.

They had installed an apparently working LG DVD drive into the machine, but every time they closed it without a disc inserted, a phantom disc called "Bluebirds" would show up on the desktop.

At first I thought it might be a PEBKAC -- a friend one listened in embarrassed confusion to most of a Frank Zappa album not realizing that she'd accidentally stuck two discs into the player at once. But to give Geoff and Brian some credit, it was nothing of the sort.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Macintosh Autopsy

This is what science fiction used to look like:

...but then again, so was this.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Proxima Desktop Projector 2400

I like old video projectors. They've been around in some form since the dawn of television -- the old CRT-based ones were technically the same as televisions with the brightness cranked so that they'd throw an image onto a screen. These evolved into huge three-tube monstrosities that you can now get for the price of a hernia.

But when the LCD display came along things got more interesting. In the late 80s someone started manufacturing little units that sat on top of a classroom-standard overhead projector. IBM's Thinkpad 755CDV laptop from 1995 could have the back of its display stripped off so that it could be similarly used to project an image.

By the end of the 1990s digital projectors had taken a familiar shape and dropped massively in both weight and price... but in the meantime there were some weird species in circulation. I already wrote about one (see the end of the article). Here's another. Excluse the blurry photography.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Worst Computer Of All Time

I've slagged a few computers here for being knock-offs or badly designed -- and I got called out by a commenter on that last one, who basically said "hey, I used one and it wasn't that terrible." And I can't disagree with the guy. Our old cadaver powered up dutifully, dead hard drive notwithstanding, and I don't doubt it would run reliably for another quarter-century.

On the other hand, there have been lots of computers sold with much more serious problems -- laptops with exploding batteries, untrustworthy hard drives, defective motherboard capacitors, computers that had to be dropped periodically, and awful quality drivers, not to mention this infamous scam.

All of this makes the maligned Zenith Eazy PC look pretty good. But this got me thinking: what is the worst computer of all time? Everyone loves a good train wreck -- so if you disagree, please submit your own. But my money is on the IBM PCJr.

Cropped from Marcin Wichary's photo (Some Rights Reserved)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Advertising Fantasy vs. Reality

The Fantasy:

If you buy our laptop (and it would be nice if you bought our camera too), you will be transformed into a glamourous, Photoshop-perfect blonde with an exciting career that allows for copious time spent lounging on the white sands of a seaside paradise in revealing clothing.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Vacuum Tube Hacks

Hi all,

Here's a collection of mini-hacks I've been collecting for a while. The theme: vacuum tubes.

Q: Alec, why are vacuum tubes awesome?
A: Get out. I refuse to answer stupid questions.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Field Trip: Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin

 Hi all,

I took a side trip to the German Museum of Technology,, and hereby declare it to be Nerd Heaven.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Commodore C286LT Laptop Teardown

Hi all,

I'm about to disappear to Europe for a couple of weeks (whee!) and will try to visit something interestingly nerdy while I'm there -- the Berlin Computer Game Museum? A small computer museum at Humboldt? But in the meantime, here's a teardown in the oddly fertile vein of 286 laptops.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Webster Chicago Wire Recorder

Hi all,

I was going to save this for a rainy day but I'm too excited to get it posted because it's pretty awesome.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Donation of the Day

I complain too often about people donating perfectly good gear just because it lost its glitter when the plastic wrapping came off. Sometimes a donation comes in that redeems my faith in human nature.

This note came in with a couple of laptops. It reads:

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Cassettepunk MP3 Player: How to do it

Hi all,

Here's a few words on how this hack (the second one, that is) was done. This is a reconstitution of some old notes I made during the process.

This focuses primarily on the software side -- the hardware side can be pieced together from the photographs, aside from the one hardware modification to add a second USB port to the WL-HDD device.

This post contains no pictures and a lot of grisly detail. You have been warned.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cassettepunk MP3 Player

Hi all,

Time for another hack. I've been doing these for a few years and though they're pretty diverse there are some common threads: one, they often involve music; two, they involve a particular niche of time after something has ceased to be useful but before it's gotten interesting as an antique. Call it "Cassettepunk".

Friday, August 19, 2011

Free Geek 2011 AGM

Hi all,

Free Geek held its 4th formal Annual General Meeting yesterday evening at the Maritime Labour Centre just down the street. In Free Geek fashion we dismantled the orderly rows of chairs, ignored the raised podium and microphones, and sat in a circle. The AGM is the yearly changing of the guard where the old board of directors steps down and a new board is chosen. Here's one quick report on how it went.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Know Your Volunteers: Harley and Isaiah

This week I was zipping around the warehouse with fistfuls of parts, looking for the right power supply for any of the half-dozen ancient palmtops that I was trying to work my way through, when I saw this pair working at the Printer Test station:

Harley and Isaiah

I love seeing kids at Free Geek Vancouver. We're contributing to the Nerd Army of the Future.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The $100 Home Theatre

Let me start by warning that although this post is about a successful project, it begins with a eulogy for a much-cooler project that met an untimely end.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Field Trip to the Mothership

Well, it finally happened -- I've been promising myself a trip to Portland for a long time. It's been on my radar for many reasons: it has great live music, a micro-brewery scene bordering on religious fanaticism, and currently plays mecca for cycling culture, urban experimentalism, and more. I'd like to think it's Vancouver's cooler, laid-back older sister -- and a vision of what Vancouver could be if it were just a little more relaxed and a lot more affordable. But my main reason for visiting Portland was to tour the Free Geek Mothership -- the place where it all began.

Image courtesy of Jason McHuff; Some Rights Reserved

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Link Round-up

I'm about to disappear for a week -- hopefully part of the trip will be a visit to Free Geek in Portland, though as usual I'm very late to organize anything -- but before I do, here's a round-up of the various odd places that stories on this blog have gotten to.

Read more below the break.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Geeks and Knitting

Somehow knitting is suddenly subversive and cool -- from yarnbombing to knitted zombies to sock wars it screams of a previously-uncool niche suddenly discovered and embraced. But there is something irredeemably nerdy about it. I chatted with one of our volunteers -- also a knitter -- about this and discovered a few odd parallels.

Yarnbombing outside JJ Bean on Commercial

Friday, July 15, 2011

Bylaw success!

Last night's Extraordinary General Meeting (back-story here) was attended by a little under 20 people -- the current directors and a staff member or two, but as it should be, mostly volunteers.

After a brief bit of discussion and some easy comedy at the expense of Robert's Rules, the motion to amend the bylaws was tabled and passed unanimously.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Directors and Bylaws

Original: Jon Himoff Some rights reserved

Wait! Don't run screaming because of the title!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Field Trip: Vancouver Mini-Maker Faire

This past weekend saw the first Vancouver Mini-Maker Faire down at the Great Northern Way Campus. Both of these noun strings might be of interest to you Free Geek types, so read on to find out a little about each.

Post Contains At Least Two Giant Mechanical Spiders.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

On Power Switches (Part 2)

I wrote about power switches here and was working up to some broader numbers that take the discussion out of the individual household and into the greater infrastructural realm. Each household has a few things kicking around that are always on, or can only pretend to be turned off, and the cost is a handful of watts -- who cares, really? Well try multiplying that by millions of households and the costs mount up.
Source Some Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Mystery Laptop

I wrote here about the difficulties laptop manufacturers had in the late 1980s combining hard drives and battery power, and made the suspect statement that the Macintosh Portable in 1989 was one of the first to feature both.

I might have found a better contender. It's definitely a strange one:

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Another hack: Wiretap picture frame

Hi all,

I enjoyed putting together the last write-up so much -- and got so much positive feedback -- that I'd like to follow up with another one. This is something I built a couple of years ago and has been gathering dust since then. Here it is:

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Old Gear Lives On: A Hack (Part 2)

Hi all,

I've wanted to document the technical side of some hardware hacking for quite a while. Here it is, continuing from the less-nerdy first part.

The project: Turn a 286-based Compaq Portable III into something more modern.

The motivation: to be honest, my sole motivation here was to be able to haul it down to Cafe Prado, a thou-shalt-be-at-least-this-hipster-to-enter coffee shop on Commercial. Nobody's allowed in without at least a Macbook Pro and I wanted to plunk this beast down on a reinforced surface and see what happened.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Old Gear Lives On: A Hack

For some unaccountable reason, the Compaq Portable III is one of my favourite computers. When you first see one, you're not sure if you're looking at a printer, or a disk array, or what:

Friday, May 27, 2011

A day in Drive Enclosure Hell

I hoped to celebrate my return to Free Geek after a few weeks' travel by hunkering down at the laptop table, but as usual, fate had other plans. A woman came upstairs looking for help, bearing in her hands a USB drive enclosure:

Looks innocent enough, right?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Blog Tune-ups

 Hi all!

With apologies for the short break in postings -- I'm currently in Morocco suffering from overnourishment and an excess of sun, if you must know -- I'd like to gather some feedback on the blog and suggest a few changes.

Suffering in Morocco

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Laptop Graveyard

In one of the dark corners of the warehouse is (what I call) the Laptop Graveyard. This is where laptops go to die -- well, maybe.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A moment of sympathy for the user

This Thursday one of the staff members asked me to help a customer who had purchased a laptop several weeks prior and was having ongoing difficulties with his wireless card. The customer eventually arrived on a bicycle, bearing the offending device. He seemed to be naturally pretty tightly wired, and having spent the previous evening attending Windowless Wednesdays only to encounter another problem shortly thereafter, his patience was strained.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Field trip

I'm in California this week -- suffering in the rain while apparently Vancouver is blanketed in unending sunshine. Meanwhile, here's what a pair of white gloves look like after an hour of volunteering:

That's why you wash your hands before you eat your sandwich! See you next week.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Technological Atavism

Sometime in the early 1990s I came into possession of a Wang word processor -- one of the ones with 8" floppy drives. I tried to find out about that particular model, but quickly learned that you have to be careful how you search for pictures given this subject matter.

My favourite things at Free Geek are the technological neanderthals -- the also-rans and could-have-beens. I've posted numerous times about obsolete laptop teardowns and the strange shapes that portable computers tried out before the bog standard laptop emerged. (And who knows how long that'll last -- personally I'm not sold on the idea of tablet computing just yet, but who knows.)

A strange one came into Free Geek over the last week.
In the words of Alan Jackson (ugh) -- what's so crazy about that?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Phone Tech Nostalgia

Anyone else remember when these were the coolest things ever?

Friday, March 4, 2011

On Power Switches (Part 1)

I've long wanted to write about power switches, but I'm pretty sure it's going to come out with more than its fair share of "get off my lawn, you kids" old-manishness. Forewarned is forearmed.

Let's go back a few decades. In the 1980s, and back beyond that into the mists of time when chips were wood and bits were for horses, the power switch used to look like this:

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Friday, February 25, 2011

Know Your Volunteers

As promised, I'm gradually interviewing volunteers I meet working at various stations. This is Anna, who was working at the hard drive wipe and Ubuntu install stations on Thursday.

Friday, February 18, 2011

New & Busted vs. Old & Boring

A cynic would say that almost everything that's donated to Free Geek can be broken into two categories: New & Busted, or Old & Boring. Meaning that if something really shiny comes in, chances are good that it won't work.

This used to be pretty shiny and now it pretty certainly doesn't work. We will never know what events befell this computer before it got to Free Geek. Hard drive failure leads to lost thesis leads to anger management crisis? Fell off a desk and under a truck? Placed too close to an MRI machine?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Zenith Eazy Pc Teardown

Somewhere on the West Coast of Vancouver Island...

I played hookie from Free Geek this week and hung around Vancouver Island. Fortunately I saved up a teardown for just such an occasion.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Laptops Continued

Tiny dog, tiny netbook
Caelan, Aaron and I spent the day working on the laptop station. (Thanks, guys!) Lots of work left to be done -- organizing and documenting, not to mention tearing through the tremendous amounts of stock -- but we got two or three laptops down into the store, matched a few more with power supplies, and prepared a half-dozen more for scrapping.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Dinosaurs and Cockroaches

This was going to be a New Years' post, but since it's almost February, I think I'll give up singing Auld Lang Syne and go instead with an evolutionary metaphor.

The equipment we receive as donations at Free Geek spans around 30 years. That covers a lot of revolutionary change, from the advent of the home computer itself, to the explosion of the IBM PC format whose heritage dominates the equipment that we deal with, to the Internet age, through to the increasing domination of wireless and portable computing. And a thousand smaller revolutions in between.

Sometimes it's interesting to note what hasn't changed in all that time. And sorry, folks: I realize that this is going to be a really nerdy post.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Laptop Station Chaos

I spent a Thursday working at the laptop station in the Mezzanine and I suppose it's no surprise to anyone that it's a mess.
OK, it's not the laptop station, but this would make a great tombstone. Whoever wrote this note, you're awesome.
In the interests of constructive criticism, consider this not so much an indictment of the laptop station as a celebration of how far the rest of Free Geek has managed to organize itself. Anyone remember what it was like a few years ago, when we first moved into the new space? Or further back, when we were in the old space near Science World? My memory is fuzzy going any further back than my last cup of tea [currently approx. 15 minutes], but I remember that waves of junk swept over every horizontal surface as though deposited by the tide twice a day, only to be fought back by diligent volunteers just in time for the next onslaught.

Both the Mezzanine and the Warehouse have been looking consistently sane, and the store is no longer a knee-deep snarl of wires. And I'm not making light of the amount of work that this takes: Free Geek takes such a bizarre assortment of equipment that there can't possibly be a proper place for everything. It can only be kept clean (in my opinion) by constantly paying attention to all the little corners where stuff can collect. So let me begin by saying: congratulations to all involved for apparently taming the lion.

The laptop station is a bit of a sore spot in the middle of all of this...
Laptop Station. Amelia Earhart is believed to be somewhere in this pile.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Thursday's Mystery Device

Last Thursday there was a bit of a disturbance at the Receiving desk -- a batch of old equipment arrived in boxes, and one of the boxes turned out to have a dead mouse in it. (The meaty kind.)

The box also contained this:
Mystery Device
At first glance, this appears to be an ancient scanner, filthy and discolored from exposure to sunlight. When it failed to actually be a scanner (i.e. there was nowhere to stick paper into it), I rescued it for further investigation. This turned into a really fun teardown.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Network Device Testing Redux; Open Source & Volunteering

Last week I bemoaned the state of Network Device Testing. Here's how it looked one week later:
Network Device Testing, One Week Later

In summary, not bad, not great. It looks as though motherboard testing has partially migrated to the right-hand side of the desk, and a limited amount of junk accumulated again.

I spent most of the day working with a volunteer on Network Device Testing, teaching him how the station works and talking about volunteering, software development and the open source world. He is interested in studying software or hardware engineering and wanted to know about the prospects for both in Vancouver.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Sisyphean Task no. 1: Network Device Testing

Some days feel like progress, and other days feel like swimming in molasses. Today was a molasses day.

Network Device Testing: Before