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Category Archives: Hardware

It’ll definitely sting the checkbook!

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Filed under Hardware

Just stumbled across what has to be the hands-down coolest workstation yet.

It looks like a cross between the swiveling chair in the Millennium Falcon and the long abandoned gunner’s chair from “Alien”. It’s called the Emperor from NovelQuest.

image

That monitor arm thing? It actually electrically lifts those monitors out of the way to allow you in and out. Not sure how practical that is, since it’d require, what, a 20ft ceiling in your office.

No idea how much. It doesn’t go on sale till July ’08. But seriously. Wow.

Hack of the Day: Swapping Lines of a 2-line Phone Connection

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Filed under Hack of the Day, Hardware, Phones

Do you have two phone lines, but you want your modem to use line 2 when it only sees line 1? Or maybe you have a single line phone that you want to use on line 2.

You could go down to Radio Shack and pick up a 2 line phone. Or you could pick up a 2 line phone switch (that lets you switch between line 1 and 2), or even this 2-Line, 3-Way Adapter Jack.

But, that costs money, and if you’ve got a few minutes and a spare phone extension cord, you can probably rewire one in less time than it’d take to run to the store.

First, some background…

Like many people, I have two phone lines into my house, one specifically for my home office, the other, the family phone number.

If you’ve never looked before, a single phone line actually consists of a pair of wires, typically colored RED and GREEN.

If you have two phone lines in your house, (and usually even if you only have one active phone line, you’ll have wiring for two lines), the second line will consist of two wires colored BLACK and YELLOW.

From the front, the plug will usually look like this (note the 4 wire prongs inside the connector socket, the picture’s not great…)

image

But from the back, they’ll usually look like this (note: this is a 2 connector plug, so you can actually plug two phones in simultaneously). Here, you can easily see the RED/GREEN, BLACK/YELLOW pairings.

image

A normal phone will have contacts only for the RED/GREEN wire pair, which means you can only use it with line 1.

BUT, if you simply swap the RED/GREEN and the BLACK/YELLOW pairs, that single line phone can then be used on line 2.

This is trivially easy to do if you have a 2 plug wallplate like the above. In fact, on the wallplate above, the bottom plug has its wires cross-connected to the terminals on the top plug. For instance, note that the GREEN wire from the bottom plug is connected to the terminal with the YELLOW wire on the top plug. The same goes with the RED->BLACK connection, etc.

Then, when you’re ready to wire this back onto the wall, simply connect the RED/GREEN/BLACK/YELLOW wires from the wall to their original terminals on the top plug. You can now plug a single line phone in the TOP plug to connect to line1 or into the bottom plug to connect to line2.

But what if you don’t have this sort of wallplate lying around?

I happened to also have an 2 plug extension cord, the end of which looks like this:

image 

It has all 4 wires on both plugs, so again, the trick is to swap out the wire pairs on one plug, so that one plug is Line2/Line1 and the other is the normal Line1/Line2.

Mine had little tabs that you press in gently to release the two halves of the shell (be careful not to break them off):

image

Open it up, and pull the wire blocks back from the front half of the shell to look something like this:

image

One at a time, gently bend the loose wire prongs forward enough so they can be pushed back through the plastic block, push them through, and swap them with the appropriate other colored wire.

  • BLACK<–>RED
  • YELLOW<–>GREEN

These are thin wires so they bend easily,but they can break off easily too!

Do only one pair at a time to keep from mixing them up.

Also, you only need to swap pairs on ONE of the blocks, just leave the other as is so you can still access line 1 as line 1.

Once you have the wires in their new positions, gently bend the wire prongs back over like they were originally, put the blocks back in the front half of the shell, seat them solidly and then snap the shell halves back together.

Now label the plugs as to which is which:

image

To test, plug a single line phone into the unmodified plug and dial your line 1 number. If it’s busy, you’ll know it’s line 1. If you’ve got phone company voicemail, well, I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine which line you’re listening to<g>.

Then, do the same for the other plug and you should be calling out on line 2.

Personally, I like modifying the extension cord better, because it’s easier to remove and take it with you or move it about the house if necessary.

Now, why bother with any of this anyway?

Well, I happen to need to constantly connect to web session conference calls (usually via GOTO Meeting), and dialing the phone number, plus the conference access code, was beginning to be a grind.

So, I wrote a little VB.NET utility that monitors the clipboard for specific regular expressions (i.e. a phone number, GOTO Meeting ID or URL, etc) and can then dial the number through the modem and launch the URL all at one pop.

But I needed it to dial out on Line 2 (my office line) and, of course, the modem only sees Line 1.

I’ll be blogging about the utility itself soon, so stay tuned!

The Keybowl

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Filed under Hardware

I’ve played around with some strange input devices, including the Felix (now called the Altra MicroPoint), the Kinesis Keyboard, and a mouse with a trackball for a scroll wheel among the more notables.

But the Keybowl has to be the most, well, interestingly named of the bunch so far.

What is it?, well, here

image

You basically put your hands on the two “domes” and slide them around. The left hand is like an 8 way “shift” key, and they right hand selects a specific character from a set of characters depending on the position of the left hand dome.

For someone with limited hand mobility, I could certainly see some benefits, but it does look a bit, er, strange.

They should wrap it in knit.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Designing an Arcade Control Panel

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Filed under Arcade, Hardware

I’ve been looking for a good template to build an arcade control panel from (you know, joysticks, buttons, trackball, etc, using real, arcade quality components).

My goals are pretty lofty:

  • a 4 player panel
  • Spinner, Flight stick, etc
  • 2 trackballs
  • Diagonal stick
  • USB and/or PS2 compatible
  • Gotta have a little real wood somewhere (but not the top, that just doesn’t seem to look right)
  • Able to “plug into” a full-on cabinet one day (though I may never get there)
  • Preferably one piece (seems more stable and resilient to the beating it’s likely to get)
  • But not one big flat vast prairie of formica, like the SlickStick:

image

There are a lot of designs out there, including:

However, to me, Jeff Allen’s is hands down the most interesting.

He came up with a split level panel that puts the most often used sticks and buttons, plus the trackball on the lower level, and the lesser used controls, like the spinner, flight stick, etc slightly elevated so you’re not constantly banging into the other controls. This is Jeff’s picture:

image

I think I’ll pass on the red t-mold, but other than that this seems like very flexible and usable, yet clean and simple, design. Plus, I could easily see that top panel being “hot swappable”, if I ever decided to go for a real driving wheel or yoke, etc

Flying Saucer for Sale

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Filed under Hardware, Helicopters, Misc

Paul Moller (the aircar guy) has finally made at least one of his designs available for sale, the Volantor.

image

Ok, it’s a tad goofy looking, and at 125k$ plus, it’s bit out of, oh, damn near everyone’s, price range, but still, it is for sale.

Personally, I’m waiting to see the first M400 flying around.

image

The amazing thing to me is that this guy has been working on this idea since the 60′s, developing all sorts of technology in the interim to fund it (and contribute to it).

Dr. Moller, keep it up!

Sony MicroVault as MultiBoot System Tool

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Filed under Hardware, Utilities

With the success I had with getting a bootable image of MFSTools onto my old 1GB USB stick, why not go all out.

My local Fry’s has on sale Sony MicroVault USB sticks with a slide out connector.

image

I picked up a 4GB model for 37$ and am thinking a multi-boot setup with multiple partitions.

  • MFSTools, for all my Tivo adventures.
  • DOS6.2 with all my various boot tools, SpinRite, etc.
  • Ultimate Boot Disk, with various OpenSource DOS’s, plus some Linux stuff to, I believe.
  • A BartPE Windows XP boot partition.

Anything else that might seem useful?

Niceties about the USB boot disk option:

  • It’s fast
  • You don’t have a reburn a DVD to make a change to the configuration
  • The sizes are to a point now as to be actually useful

I probably won’t toss my trusty DOS 6.2 boot floppies just yet, ’cause some of my machines can’t boot to USB, but I suspect that will be changing over the next year or so.

Should Software Developers Know Hardware?

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Filed under Hardware, VB Feng Shui

I’ve worked in a variety of positions over the years, including staffing up entire development departments.

One element I usually insist on in new hires is a reasonably solid foundation of knowledge of basic PC hardware and Windows setup (I’ve generally worked in Windows shops, hence the bias there). Things like hard drive setup, FDISK, formatting, all the way to assembling normal PC components (i.e. box of parts to a working PC).

Granted, these days, it’s not particularly cost effective to actually build out  developer machines this way, but it seems to me that generally speaking, developers ought to know their way around under the hood, maybe not at the circuit level, but at least the component level.

Is this expecting too much? Not enough? I could always wimp out and say that it all “depends on the situation.” But I’m not talking about specialized hardware or device drivers. I’m talking about general business applications.

Or have computers become more like commercial airliners or helicopters, where the pilots fly, the mechanics fix, and never the twain shall meet?

When is a not Dead UPS, in fact, Dead

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Filed under Hardware

If you’ve spent any time at all on computers, you’re bound to know the frustration of working along, minding you’re own business and getting tons done when, blip, the lights go out for quarter second you’re staring at a black screen, trying to remember what exactly that last idea was that would save the world from destruction, if only you’d been able to write it up first.

A good UPS (Uninteruptable Power Source) can all but alleviate those problems.

But don’t do what I did. I was short on cash the last time this came up, so I picked up a Best Buy special for about 60$, a CyberPower 525SL for my server. Before that, I picked up a Belkin UPS for my workstation.

They worked ok, for a bit. But we got a power flicker yesterday that sent both machines into the black within about 2 seconds. And right at a most inopportune moment. My wife’s PC, on an older APC, never even noticed.

A UPS is one of those things that I almost hate spending money on. The batteries never seem last very long. They can’t be environmentally friendly, and yet you pretty much are guaranteed to throw them out on a regular basis.

But, I hate losing work too.

A little google research later and I’m off to Office Depot to pick up an APC XS1300. 178$ after tax. Big double sealed, hot swappable lead acid battery putting out 1300va for 780 watts. Very cool red LCD screen.

image Here’s a shot of the typical incoming voltage level.
image But here’s the interesting shot. That’s the current load, in watts. Pretty slick. Don’t even need a KillaWatt to measure.

My server reads about 107 watts on average, which surprised me a little because of the 1.5.gb ram, but mainly because of the 4 RAID drives, plus boot drive, plus an extra drive.

My new rules on UPS’s:

  • Make sure it has an easy to swap out battery. This APC’s is hot swappable, and requires no tools to get at. Looks like most APC batteries are hot swappable. The CyberPower and Belkin? Fugettabowdit.
  • Make sure it’s big enough to give you some lead time. Minimum 600 watts for today big Core 2 Duo rigs.
  • Make sure it speaks USB. Serial ports are a rare thing on modern MOBO’s and the chat between UPS and machine is pretty handy for shutting things down intelligently when you aren’t around.
  • Don’t even think about those el cheapo sub 100$ units unless it’s going under a TV or a cordless phone base station. Just the fact that replacing the battery requires tools and time should be the clue there. Wish I’d spent the money way back when.

Any good UPS horror stories out there?

BOOTMGR is missing

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Filed under Hardware, Troubleshooting

So I’m getting all set to upgrade my TIVO harddisk. I’ve downloaded and burned MFSTools, gathered all the various bits together, etc.

I thought, Hey, it’d be a good idea to try this out on a scratch HD first, just to make sure I know what I’m getting into.

So I grabbed an old 120GB drive, swapped it into my machine, and was going to reformat it as FAT32 and copy a few files on it, so act as a surrogate TIVO drive.

I swapped the drive in, restart the machine….

BOOTMGR is missing

Huh!??????

After some panicked Googling from my server, I discover that Vista has a nasty habit of writing the BootMgr sector to the “first” HD in the drive sequence according to how your BIOS is configured at the time you install Vista.

In my machine, the RAID comes pretty late in the boot sequence, so apparently, my spare 320gb drive that I was intending to use in my TIVO inadvertently picked up the Vista boot manager.

To avoid this whole mess in the first place, make sure when you install Vista, the ONLY HD that’s installed is the one you’re installing Vista onto.

However, if you’re like me, that’s not much of an option. Which leads to solution #2:

  1. Shut the machine down.
  2. Disconnect any “other” hd’s (other than the one that has Vista installed). If you’ve got a RAID, leave only those drives in the RAID connected.
  3. Find your Vista Boot DVD
  4. Put it in and restart, boot to the DVD.
  5. The Vista installer will start up and ask if you want to install in English, etc. Click Next. This won’t actually start installing Vista.
  6. The next screen, towards the bottom, has a “Repair your computer” option. Click it.
  7. Click the operating system installation (there’s likely only the one Vista installation listed). Click next
  8. In the System Recovery Options dialog, click Startup Repair.
  9. Restart the computer.

Worked for me.

Bootable USB Keys

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Filed under Hardware, Utilities

Maybe I’m jumping on the band wagon a bit late with this one, but it’s pretty slick if your machine’s BIOS will support it.

It IS actually possible to write a boot sector and boot files to those little 256mb+ USB keys that you can get in the gumball machine down at just about any local soda fountain or 10 cent store these days.

Why would you want to?

  • They boot a LOT faster than CD or DVD
  • They’re rewritable without any special considerations.
  • You don’t have to have special burner software to update them (other than what’s required to lay down a boot sector).
  • You don’t have to suck up an EIDE channel just to be able to hook up a CD to boot to.

It was that last part that hooked me. I’m in the process of upgrading a TIVO to 320GB and my shiny new iron only has 1 EIDE port (and 2 channels). One to the old TIVO drive, one with the new drive and, bang, nothing to boot to (You don’t want to boot to Windows with your TIVO drive attached, Windows like to stamp any drives that it can see, which can screw your TIVO drive all to hell).

With a bootable USB key with MFSTools on it, I can boot to the USB, and still have both the HD’s connected to copy and back up between them.

I know, I know. Grab an old machine with 2 IDE ports and my problem was solved. Well, the only old machine I have left is way, way old, and it’s bios doesn’t even recognize the 320gb drive I’m using to upgrade. The other, not so old machine, is just waiting to be hauled to the hazardous waste site, cause it won’t even give up a POST BEEP.

To get DOS or windows on the disk, you’ll need to format the USB Key with a boot sector. The easiest way I found to do that is this HP utility. It should let you format the drive and copy the boot sector over from a boot floppy. Once that’s done, you should be able to grab a copy of BARTPE and build up a fully USB KEY bootable copy of Windows XP, assuming you have a bootable CD of Windows XP. Well, it ain’t a “full” Windows XP but it’ll get you loaded and able to grab info of an otherwise unbootable drive.

To get Linux working, you gotta go deep. You’ll have to use SYSLINUX, and/or ISOLINUX to overwrite the DOS boot sector with a LINUX boot sector.

To get MFSTools working on the resultant LINUX USB key, you’ll need to get the ISO first. Mount it using something that’ll mount ISO images, like Elaborate Byte’s free and excellent Virtual Clone Drive. Then copy the whole thing down to the USB key. This won’t copy the boot sector, though. That’s what SYSLINUX was for.

Still won’t quite work though. You have to copy the contents of the ISOLINUX folder down to the root of the USB key. Then Rename ISOLINUX.CFG to SYSLINUX.CFG. That’ll allow the ISOLINUX image to boot to a ram drive like it does normally when booted from CD (at least, that’s the way I understand it, knowing what I know about Linux at this point).

If all that’s done right, and assuming that your machine supports booting from USB, and assuming you’ve configured the BIOS to allow it, reboot and feel the joy.

If it doesn’t work, take two aspirin, reboot and… be thankful Windows doesn’t require this sort of nonsense….???? Ok. I jest.

BartPE is a very interesting possibility because it’s relatively easy to build and you can add your own Windows tools to the mix (up to the size of your USB key anyway). Could come in very handy for recovery and forensics work. And USB Keys are more scratch resistant than CD’s. Plus, some have that nifty, switchblade action with the USB plug.

image or image

Oh, and one final tidbit for any security oriented people, check this out and see if you get any sleep that night.