Category Archives: Hardware

Infernal Designs

Or: “Learn, guys.”

(With apologies to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett for stealing one of their lines, John Gruber for borrowing his idea, JerkCity for using one of their character names, readers for putting them through this, and… oh, God. Everyone, for everything. Except AT&T. For anything.)

Satan holds audience in one of his smaller, but still imposing, rooms. He sits on a throne hewn of flint, its lines simple and rectangular, its bulk as intimidating as its dark-gray matte.

Two of his aspiring imps, Atandt and Sissko, approach the throne to present their work, a small white device Atandt holds before him. Atandt smiles unctuously, but then, he always smiles unctuously. One suspects that he’d sleep with that expression, if he ever slept.

Sissko, on the other hand, just stares off into the distance. His hands are constantly moving, half-raised, seeming to trace out abstract shapes. Their styles, however, differ fundamentally: it’s as though the left and right hand are working to completely separate ends. Which they usually are.

Satan: Report.

Atandt clears his throat and begins.

Atandt: It’s a network box. It grants those who pay me $150 the functionality that they thought they were buying when they signed up for a two-year contract in the first place.

Satan: (Nods once, briefly.) And?

Atandt: It’s bound to a strict limit of ten devices, which you have to add through a web interface that connects to my headquarters, giving me insight into your associations.

Satan: (A ghost of a smile flits briefly across his face.) So the arbitrary limits are accompanied by potential violations of privacy. Nice. What else?

Atandt: By default, any voice communication still counts against users’ minutes, even though they’re like as not using bandwidth purchased from a completely independent party to transmit the packets. If they want unlimited minutes, they have to pay me an additional $20 a month.

Satan considers what he’s heard so far with one raised eyebrow. His earlier brief smile has lulled Atandt into a false sense of security.

Satan: Hmm. Go on.

Atandt: Well, that’s pretty much it.

Satan: (eyes narrowing) Excuse me?

Atandt: (caught off-guard) Sir?

With a speed that belies his size, Satan takes to his feet, his eyes glowing the deep orange of late-campfire embers. Smoke wafts ominously from his tightly-clenched left fist.

Satan: You’ve had months to work on this, time to study every major competitor’s submission, and this is the extent of your imagination? (His lips curl as he snarls the end of the question, revealing teeth whose clean perfection does nothing to dull the razor’s edge of their menace.)

Atandt: (stammering) S…sir?

Satan’s eyes glow brightly enough that both Atandt and Sissko are lit like beachgoers facing a sunset. Sissko looks vaguely nonplussed, as usual, but Atandt clearly realizes that the sunset he’s facing could well be his own.

Satan: Give me one reason why I shouldn’t snuff you out of existence right now! Besides force-feeding you rusted razor wire so I can add you to the Penance Abacus!

The thought of the Penance Abacus pales Atandt, his skin fading to an unhealthily dull brick red. He hears a voice from far away, and it takes him a moment to realize it’s his own.

Atandt: (softly, blinking) Our solution to the problem will require the user’s solution of a similar, but not identical, problem.

Satan: (still irate, but intrigued) Explain.

Atandt: (clinging to the loose thread that’s barely keeping him out of the abyss) We’ll insist that the unit can only be used in certain geographic areas. We’ll enforce that by building GPS into it, and requiring GPS confirmation of the unit’s position before enabling it.

Satan pauses thoughtfully for a moment, then sits back down. He tilts his head and purses his lips thoughtfully, idly drumming on the throne’s armrest with the claws of his left hand. Atandt tries not to flinch with every flare of ensuing sparks. Then, to both his and Satan’s surprise, Sissko speaks for the first time.

Sissko: Doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose of the whole thing? Requiring people who can’t get a solid cell-tower signal to get a clean GPS signal? Anybody with a fast, wired internet connection who’s stuck inside a building without some view of the sky will be screwed. (He realizes that the other two are staring at him the way automotive engineers would contemplate a colleague bemoaning that a proposed engine design would deliver at least 150 miles per gallon.) Oh. Right.

Satan: Is it feasible?

Sissko: Sure. Of course, it’d mean stripping other hardware features down to the bare minimum. (He notes that the other two are staring again.) So, uh, bonus.

Satan: (not yet convinced that Sissko is getting the picture) Describe the interface.

Sissko: Blinking lights on the front?

Satan nods once, prompting Sissko to continue.

Sissko: No built-in HTTP server or support for SNMP. No logging. Basically, no way at all to tell what the heaven is going on or what, if anything, is wrong.

Satan: (nodding more firmly this time) Good.

Atandt: (Now really getting into the spirit of the thing.) We’ll add a vague but long delay to the setup process. Tell users that after they’ve done everything on their end, they’ll have to wait for something on the order of two hours to see if things are working. (Thinks for a moment.) We’ll even instruct them, in the manual, to “relax” while they’re twiddling their thumbs, waiting to see if the blinking lights go solid.

Satan: And in the end, it’ll work?

There is a pregnant pause, at the end of which the three burst out laughing, Atandt so hard that sulphuric-acid tears start glistening in his eyes.

Atandt: (Wiping his cheeks dry.) No. But we’ll provide a technical-support number that they can call. It’ll answer with a completely confusing message that’ll make end-users think they’ve accidentally dialed some internal-service number.

Satan: Won’t there be a website that they can use to sidestep the support line?

Atandt: (Shrugging.) Of course. The support site and the promotional site will be one and the same. People trying to visit the former, in a desperate attempt to get running the hardware they already paid for, will be treated to a video ad that starts automatically, doesn’t have pause or mute buttons, and has a lady with a perky voice delivering the pitch. Not only will they harbor homicidal urges towards her after the third time she’s given her spiel, tops, but links on that page will open new tabs in the foreground, so that desperate attempts to click her away will only hide her in the background while she rambles on.

Satan regards Atandt levelly for a moment, briefly wondering if he should worry about the understudy’s seemingly bottomless well of perversity. Then he remembers that he’s the father of lies, and Atandt merely his prodigal son.

Satan: Won’t they try to return it?

Atandt: (Unctuous grin now back to full power.) What, and implicitly admit that I suckered them into buying a half-baked product? Again? Besides, it’s got firmware. As long as you dangle the hope in front of them that a future update might fix their problems, people will bend over for anything.

Satan: Hmm. Good point.

Sissko: Also, we’ll make sure there’s a port for an external GPS antenna. That way, at least some of them will burn just a little more time and money on the acquisition of extra gear that might make things work. So we foster false hope from both the software and hardware ends.

Satan: (leans back in the throne, contemplating them both, impressed despite himself) Well. After a bit of a rough start, you’ve accounted yourselves well. (He waves them off.) Carry on. Oh, and send Sony in on your way out.


Watching these guys climb their way up the outside and inside of pipes small and large, then shimmy into a small crevice for good measure, makes you think that this is pretty much exactly what the maintenance robots of the future will look like.

Hot Air

Recent acquisition of a hot-air rework station, and attendant attempts at surface-mount soldering, have taught me that, to paraphrase Frank Herbert, “God made SMD rework to train the faithful. One cannot go against the will of God.”

In truth, it’s more than a little gratifying once you start to get the hang of it. Spark Fun‘s excellent tutorials help quite a bit. But there’s a point, somewhere around the fifth time you’ve blown a component the approximate size of a fingernail clipping clean off the board, where you start to wonder whether maybe you wouldn’t be more fulfilled collecting stamps or something.

Things (I think) I’ve learned so far:

  • The fact that you’re working on a very small part does not automatically imply that you should use the small nozzle. The small nozzle produces faster airflow, which increases your odds of accidentally blowing a small part about.

  • Don’t overdo it when you dome a pad in preparation for soldering down a component. Soldering through-hole parts using an iron accustoms you to using lots of solder as you build joints. SMD is all about very thin layers of solder pulling components into place via surface tension. Excessively generous domes just get squished by your component’s lands, sending solder to places where odds are you didn’t want it.

If I succeed in my current rework attempt, I might actually attempt to build something new next.

The IEEE Comedy Hour

Yesterday I stopped by the Apple Store to buy a short, thin FireWire cable, just about the perfect length and weight for conveniently connecting the external drive I now use as the destination for my SuperDuper! backups.

The cable lists for $14, and was my only purchase: the Cisco employee discount of 8%, combined with the California State Sales Tax of 8.25%, conspired to produce a register total of exactly $13.94. I’m not sure I was successful in explaining to the bemused fellow behind the counter just why I thought that was funny.

It may be that I need more sleep.

On Second Thought, Maybe It Wasn’t Thirsty

Should you happen to, say, accidentally dump a healthy helping of Diet Pepsi upon your MacBook’s keyboard and find that, despite prompt flood-control measures, a column of keys has become unresponsive to user input, you may conclude that the time has come to open it up for cleaning.

If you’d rather not find your way into a $1500 laptop via a trial-and-error approach, then you’d do well to peruse iFixit‘s excellent, detailed, and exhaustively illustrated guide to stripping the computer down to its bones before picking up that jeweler’s screwdriver. Highly recommended.

Time, Time, Time

I’ve mentioned that PC clock hardware is a raging piece of shite, right? Ah, yes, I see that I have. Good. Then I don’t have to repeat myself. I just need to elaborate: it’s even worse than I realized. I thought that the uncorrected Linux box was in a bad way, but one of my Windows XP boxen appears to be gaining minutes a day. I’m hesitant to use a gratuitous explosion of profanity like “holy fuck” in a public forum, but little else comes to mind that’s capable of fully conveying my astonishment.

So: weekly synchronization with an external time server is clearly not going to suffice, and more-frequent synchronization might be considered rude by the target servers’ owners — especially since I’ve got my own perfectly servicable stratum 3 server at home. It’s therefore time for me to figure out how to make Windows talk to said server — often enough to keep its own sorry ass in some reasonable approximation of sync.

A bit of Googling later, I discover that there are Registry keys you can tweak to both add a server and change the polling frequency. I’ll have to play with them.

Some of these values may be more-easily manipulable using the command-line w32tm utility.

If all else fails, I can have the machine run its own instance of ntpd slickly packaged by the good folks at Meinberg. I’m sort of hoping it doesn’t come to that, though.

“It Is A Licence To Print Money!”

On Friday two weeks ago, Frank, Meghan, and I paid a visit to the Valley Fair Apple Store to see if the new iPod nanos had arrived. Just to, you know, look.

Because I am terminally lazy, I am simply going to shamelessly crib what I wrote elsewhere.

Important Safety Tip: Do not pick one of these up unless you are prepared to buy it. Once it is in your hand, you will not want to let it go. It’s like The One Ring of portable audio players. Touch its ensorcelled metal, and you instantly covet the Precious.

It’s not just that it’s small, although it is ridiculously so. Plenty of other portable players occupy roughly the same volume. But they don’t have the deceptively-simple perfection of proportion. The nano isn’t just compact: it’s a thin, flat slab that lies lightly on your fingers, with all the controls situated exactly under your thumb, in a way that strongly suggests that nothing else has any business being there again, ever.

Also, it’s not a stripped-down player with two buttons and possibly a small numeric monochrome LCD. It’s a full-bore iPod, with a bright, high-resolution color display, the full UI, and the scroll wheel that’s such an absolute delight to use.

I’ve been using technology long enough that I’d thought I’d gotten completely jaded about the notion that next year’s model will be half the size of last year’s, and do twice as much, but holding the nano, I feel like someone in Scheduling screwed up, and let the future arrive well before it was supposed to.

I almost feel sorry for everyone else making portable music players. It’s like a bunch of Shriners got together one fine Sunday morning to race their little go-carts, and some bastard pulled up to the starting line in a Ferrari. Doom.

Apple is going to be Hoovering up design awards for this one in the year to come the way I vacuum up spilled cat litter. They’re also, assuming they can meet consumer demand, going to want an extra shipment of leaf bags for all the cash they’ll be raking in. Apparently the black 4 GB model is so popular that Apple is already having to retool production to crank out enough of the things.