Archive for the 'Hardware' Category

An update: Remy’s Datamini PA40

A few people have asked for an update about Remy‘s Datamini PA40, the rehabilitated 286 machine I mentioned back in April. If you think you were jealous then, you’ll be positively viridian now.

Pac-Man on a 286-era laptop computer is enough to make any geek writhe in ecstasy, but that’s not the only thing it does. Remy sent this explanation:

The Datamini PA-40 which I emailed you about earlier has found its use. It is being used as a kitchen computer. Who needs a touchscreenfridge for that?


My girlfriend makes the shopping lists on it, in WordPerfect. Quite handy, most of the time I need to work early (in a hospital) so when I come back home I read the list she made. I know most people do it on paper but this is just more awesome.


Furthermore while I’m cooking I try to update my Magic: The Gathering card database in Lotus 123. I have a main spreadsheet for it which I normally use, but it is funny to see that when an OpenOffice file is converted it still opens quite fast while fitting on a floppy. :P

I know I have too many computers as it is, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking for something to compete with that one. :twisted:

Not with a whimper but a bang

There are times in life when you have to accept the prevailing winds, recognize the signs, acknowledge that there may indeed be higher powers at work in the universe, and that their plans may take precedence over your own.

I was willing to forgive a row of suddenly lifeless keys, or the rattling fan, or even the thixotropic 4200rpm hard drive. But the list of hindrances mounted quickly, and even in its last burst of beauty, it was obviously time for the Celeron to retire.

That fan rattle has only gotten worse over time, and the spindle or casing or whatever is loose is clacking like a pebble in a blender. At some point soon I really expect it to break completely, although that might be a blessing considering the quiet that would probably follow. Probably.

And without a long string of function and number keys at the top of the keyboard, it’s tough to use. That Arch system I set up a day ago to show off fbterm et al. took a long time to get into place, because I couldn’t use some of the keys I needed to configure stuff. It’s difficult to point your network card at a router when the station ID includes the number “7,” but your 7 key isn’t responding. :roll:

To add insult to injury, the CD drive is kicking back errors now, and it’s usually on CDs I am sure are error-free. Discs I have used in two or three machines in recent history are suddenly suspect, like a Debian install disc. But it’s never the same package or part of installation that reports an error — it’s random and inconsistent. Hmm.

Worst of all though, my Debian Etch boot floppy is now jammed in the drive. I don’t know if I should be angry at the loss of the floppy or the sudden futility of the entire floppy drive. I know what you’re thinking: “It’s a floppy drive.” But hey, that was more useful than you would think.

I admit I bought the machine looking for an underdog, and I got what I paid for. Sound is weak, the hard drive is slow and 64Mb of memory is useful only to someone like me. Just about the only redeeming quality — and this alone is rather surprising — is that the screen is in such good condition.

My brief, two-day solo flight with this machine reminded me that a solid large-size screen with a decent resolution is quite pleasant to look at. My day-to-day computer use is generally with porthole 800×600 machines or with 1024×768 machines compressed into 12″ frames, so this was a nice change.

I had a lot of plans for it, but I feel no remorse. It’s a half-eaten machine with only a few redeeming points, and the month or two it lived with me was a nice swan song. It almost tasted a little fame too, if grafting together a terminal environment with wallpaper decorations and drawing a few clicks can be called “fame.”

It’s time to heed the signs, acknowledge the greater plan for the universe, and set this one free. Who knows, maybe someone wiser and more patient than I will discover it, and it will go on to become even more famous. ;)

Testing a theory of usability

I made a comment a few months ago about conceivably downscaling everything and learning to live off the fat of the land … plus a 300Mhz Pentium II-era machine. Well, it’s time to put my money where my mouth is.

For the record, the computer you see in that picture is a Celeron, running at 300Mhz with 64Mb of memory. The hard drive is 4Gb and it’s running Arch Linux with screen-vs and fbterm. The usual array of software is installed, with very few exceptions (I think I left out freecell :roll: ). This machine has a single USB1.1 port, is using the finicky Corega ath5k-based wireless card and I have a CD reader as well.

It’s definitely the technology of the last century; I had a faster computer than this before the dials turned on 2000. And in addition to being something of a thumbsucker, I have the added joy of a row of lifeless keys which means the teeny-tiny external keyboard is in the picture too. Luckily I have an ancient USB hub that I got nobody-knows-where, so I can expand on that one port, to a small degree.

If you’ve been visiting this site for a while, you’ll remember that, about a year and a half ago, I shoved everything into the closet and ran at 100Mhz for a week. This is not an attempt to reproduce that experiment, particularly because after that stunt, living at 300Mhz isn’t even a tiny challenge. This is really just a test run of sorts, to get an answer to my theory that 300Mhz would be a bottom-of-the-barrel compromise between practical and minimal, for me at least.

And this is nowhere near as spartan an arrangement as before. I still have my Thinkpad on the other side of the room, playing music and seeding torrents, and I control that through ssh. I will still be checking this site with another computer, to make sure no one is dumping spam image links in here (I learned my lesson :roll:). And I have my addiction to Warzone 2100 v2.3 to feed. :mrgreen:

But maybe for a day, maybe for two or three days, or maybe for a week, I’ll give this a try. A banged up, beaten down, ugly, cantankerous and somewhat functional Celeron with a dozen years of service under its belt might not be a dream machine for most people, but that doesn’t mean it can’t do something useful around the house. … ;)

An antitechnoegalitarianizationist manifesto

I am not a fan of the new world order, the push toward socializing the Internet and using it as a surrogate for established and credible forms of communication. I don’t think bloggers are journalists, I don’t think Facebook is any kind of substitute for actually talking to a person, and I don’t think playing World of Warcraft with your children counts as quality family time.

That might make me old-fashioned, but I don’t really care if I get that label. I started out on this planet before there were personal computers, cellphones, global positioning systems and permanent total artificial hearts, and I actually feel bad for people who didn’t see it when it was cleaner, simpler and less impersonal.

So I wasn’t joking when I said that I thought less of people who babble endlessly about their preferred social networking medium. In my mind, human interaction is interaction between humans, and the computer as an intermediary layer isn’t the same. I see people every day who are latched to a computer at home, ride a bus to work with their face pressed against an iPod, and then scurry to attach themselves to the nearest computer at work, only to look at the same Facebook page they were looking at 20 minutes earlier.

Honestly, I feel pity when I see that.

“Web 2.0″ and the press to “techno-egalitarianize” also convinces people they are capable of certain roles, when in fact they are mucking things up royally. This goes back to the blogger-journalist delusion, where anyone with a spellchecker and a 56Kbps connection is suddenly H.L. Mencken. I’ve met a lot of really, really bad writers in my time, and a lot of really, really bad journalists too. Sometimes they are one and the same.

It may be a fact that spending five hours a day at a computer terminal induces insomnia and depression. There might be a biological connection, and there might not. But reporting a study as news three full years after publication is not journalism, and not even correct. Then linking to an article that is seven years old, written about a completely different study … well, that just goes beyond sloppy.

Playing reporter with your cellphone camera and a Twitter account only further undermines what little credibility there is left in journalism — and given the frothy tripe disgorged by CNN, Fox News and other American “news” organizations, it’s painfully thin anyway. It’s true: It’s a free world, and if you think you have what it takes to be Margaret Fuller or Seymour Hersh, none of us can stop you.

In the mean time the rest of us, the other six billion people on the planet, will be particularly careful about what we read. On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, and if there is a chance that a dog has announced the new desktop look for Ubuntu 10.10 by linking to a mockup uploaded to a wiki page by a kid living in his mom’s basement in Manchester, then we should all be skeptical from the start. Caveat emptor.

I’m no Luddite. I remember life before the CD, the VCR and the microwave oven, but I don’t recommend going back to it. Arbitrarily smearing technology over every aspect of humanity does not advance the human experience. And for goodness sake, don’t let your family relationships devolve into playing World of Warcraft together. That’s an artificial heart, by definition.

And yes, the fact that you are reading a blog should be terrifically ironic to you. I might, after all, be a dog. :twisted:

More stories of stuff

It’s teeny-weeny post day here at K.Mandla’s house, where I clean up all the little dashes of information that seem to cling to my list of things to write about. A long time ago I told you about Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff, and it’s worth mentioning again. At the same time if you want something a little more powerful and a little more artistic and a little more focused, see if you can find a copy of Manufactured Landscapes in your local video store.

For a full-length motion picture that hopes to avoid outright condemnation of materialism, it’s a surprisingly powerful film. It’s not new, and it’s fairly low-key, so you might have to special order it. It will take a different tack from Leonard’s online work, but the ideas and general motive are the same.

P.S.: Thanks to pkm for reminding me of it.

Managing my addiction

If you’re like ing, and it seems like I buy a new computer every month and call it a torrent slave, I can understand that. But just for the record, this is the state of affairs in late April, 2010.


I only have four, although that alone is embarrassing to say when people ask. I am always tempted to lie and say “one,” since there’s only one here that anyone would consider to be a “contemporary” computer. The others … well, I’ll just say that no one wants them but me. :|

I split the arrangement a day ago, when I ran into a few small issues with the latest addition to the horde. My plan to replace the drive in that computer with a larger, quieter, quicker one ran aground when one of the screws holding the palmrest in place refused to pull from its brace. I see no good in cracking the case just to replace the hard drive, and so as an alternative, I use an external USB drive to actually hold downloaded files.

And since network transfers between machines are not particularly fast between the older wireless cards, I can actually gain more in letting the torrents download directly to the USB drive, then unplugging it and transferring it into the X60s via USB2.0. Plug it back in and remount it, then restart rtorrent.

The problem there is that it makes it rather inconvenient to keep it on an upper shelf in a closet, more than 2 meters overhead and with the plug at the rear of the machine. And since the difference between wired connections and wireless connections are not that great for me, I would do just as well to save the high-strung Corega card I used in the closet, and put another wired card into it, and keep it close to the router.

At the same time the Thinkpad I usually use for “entertainment” is having trouble with mplayer and the framebuffer these days, so really, all it does is play music or download from Jamendo. So it too could stay close to the router, and I can control both remotely from the Pentium. screen allows me to detach sessions from both or either, between logins or from day-to-day, and run everything in separate tty windows. (The in-house IP numbers end in 3 and 4, so I start tty3 and tty4 with inittab, as a mnemonic. :P )

This is probably all very complicated to imagine and more information than you really needed, but the long and short of it is

  1. the Pentium controls both Celerons via ssh plus screen over wireless,
  2. the Celeron Thinkpad handles my music collection,
  3. the new Celeron is a wired torrent slave and NFS “platform,”
  4. and writes everything to the external USB
  5. that I pop out when I want to transfer stuff to the X60s.

One of the nice side benefits of this arrangement is that it frees up a lot of desk space. Plus, both Celerons are set at the BIOS to ignore power management, so I can close the lids and they continue to run, or I can cut power selectively with wall-socket-switches (the 100-yen store is great for gizmos like that).

So the torrent machine is powered alongside the network, and stays up more or less indefinitely. The radio and the Celeron Thinkpad are on a separate plug, so if I leave the house I shut down the laptop and cut the power to the adapter and radio while the network and NEC machine stay on.

Of course the downside of this is, I look at that shelf and say, “Hey, I have space for at least three more laptops on there, if I just move the radio a little bit. …” :roll:

And yes, I know my radio sucks. I am a geek, not an audiophile: It was a junk hand-me-down that I got for free. Sound is good enough for me. What were you expecting from a person who owns three computers worth less than $10 combined? :mrgreen:

Sometimes a problem is a good thing

Sometimes problems are good things. I mentioned a long time ago that my sometimes-used Corega CG-WLCB54AG2 wireless card has begun acting strangely, showing rapidly blinking lights instead of the previous “normal” behavior, which was one light as a power indicator, and one flashing light to show activity.

At the time I took it as a sign that I had misconfigured the kernel somehow in Crux, or hadn’t made a clean transition between But I was somewhat intrigued to see that, on a completely different machine running Arch Linux, the lights also flash madly and without reason, much as they did with my kernel.

So if I can assume that the Arch overlords know what they’re doing (and in my experience, they usually do), I can probably also assume that the problem back in January wasn’t mine, it was in the kernel, and still is. It doesn’t seem to affect the card’s performance, but it is interesting that its behavior is the same in both distros.

Similarly, I ran into problems a few weeks ago in Crux where mplayer playing against the framebuffer was causing hard lockups when the terminal went to blank mode. In other words, after watching a DVD rip for about 20 minutes, when the blank timeout expired, instead of shifting to an all-black screen with the movie overlaid on the framebuffer, the screen went black everywhere, the system locked and there was no recourse except to power down completely.

I didn’t mention it then. Because again, I assumed this was my error in somehow misconfiguring Crux or the kernel or mplayer or something else in between (I don’t remember what was updated before that happened). But after trying an Arch installation on the same machine and configuring the system in much the same way, I see the same lockups in the same versions of the same software.

So maybe I didn’t make a mistake, maybe the mistake was somewhere else down the line, and I just inherited it. I should probably be perturbed that these things don’t stay fixed — occasionally the mob seems to think they are entitled to a perfect experience, each time — but it doesn’t really bother me. Things seem to iron themselves out over time.

Until then I shall be double-checking my home-grown systems against the “professionally” built ones, to see where I actually went wrong, and to see where I actually went right. ;)

Nothing to scoff at: Arch Linux, 300Mhz Celeron

This time I have no excuse. This time I went into the recycle shop with an eye for anything in the US$10-$20 range, specifically to serve as a torrent slave. And this is what I walked out with.

This is an NEC LaVie NX LW30H/6, serial number s98-3089-0: a 300Mhz Mendocino Celeron with a whopping 64Mb of memory, a cramped 4Gb hard drive, CDROM, floppy, PCMCIA ports, stereo sound and best of all, one USB1.1 port. Physical condition is only fair-to-middling, with a lot of physical use, a few stray marks and a missing cushion or two on the bottom. But aside from that, no cracks, broken keys, scratches on the screen or other damage or abuse. If I was still repainting machines this would be a strong candidate.

In case you’re interested, or in case you’re cruising past this page a decade from now, trying to find out what exactly was in the LW30H/6, here’s what I can tell you:

  • 298.378Mhz Celeron (Mendocino). I love how accurate /proc/cpuinfo is.
  • 64Mb, I assume PC100, but I didn’t actually check yet, and I don’t know how important it is for me.
  • ESS ES1968 Maestro 2 sound card. Sound is a little faint, but laptop speakers always sound rotten, and I didn’t buy it for a stereo.
  • Floppy drive. You laugh, but that is valuable in this house.
  • Hitachi DK238A 4.3Gb hard drive. Small and slow. At least it’s not noisy.
  • Japanese keyboard, of course. Actually I’m not particularly fond of this one, because it pushes some of the outlying keys (PageUp, PageDown, and so forth) into strange locations. It’s a bit cumbersome if you are used to them in specific places.
  • Intel 440BX/ZX/DX, which means PIIX4 for ISA, IDE and USB connection.
  • NEC CDROM. It works, and that’s all I know.
  • NeoMagic NM2160 MagicGraph 128XD against a flawless 1024×768 screen. I had to clean through a few layers of grime and fingerprints, but the final results were nice and clear.
  • Texas Instruments PCI1221 Cardbus support. Which means I can use the faster PCMCIA wireless card in this, instead of relying on pre-Cardbus hardware, like I do with the Pentium.

Performance-wise, it’s nothing to howl about. The drive is slow, the processor is slow, memory is occasionally tight, but other than boot to a desktop and run a background instance of screen-plus-rtorrent, the demands are low. I see no need to put too much effort into this one. This is exactly what I had in mind when I went in the store.

Arch Linux makes it acceptably light and fast, and with the addition of a very lightweight desktop, it’s a working-class computer. As you can see I added the old ath5k-based PCMCIA wireless card, which gives it decent download speeds, and the entire graphical desktop, plus nfs and ssh can all run in under 30Mb of memory with a little swap used. Triggering rtorrent and screen-vs over ssh takes care of the actual “work,” and all the rest is cake.

I have no rationale for installing a full WindowsXP Classic-ish IceWM desktop, except that it was the quickest way to get the applications in place and see if the graphical arrangement was working. I haven’t used anything except Arch on it yet, and to be honest I probably won’t. (Actually that’s a lie, since I used a Kolibri floppy to see if the drive was working … and it is. ;) )

That’s about all, really. This one is headed straight to the closet, to take over from that half-working Dell 600m I had a few months ago. I came to miss having that access point in the house, as well as a single machine to handle torrent downloading. I will probably supplant the drive with the WD Scorpio, which is just lying around these days. Might as well put it to use, and provided it will start, it’ll be good for serving up Ubuntu 10.04, which is due in another 10 days or so. That’ll be a good test case. … ;)

Restoration of the week: Remy’s Datamini PA40

Today I have permission to share a few pictures from Remy, who has restored an ancient Datamini PA40 and needs suggestions on software for a 286-based machine.


Remy says the insides include a 12Mhz processor, an EGA color display, 655,360 bytes of memory (that’s 640K, if you’ve forgotten the conversion), with no extended memory and a 44Mb hard drive using some sort of compression. DOS 5 is apparently on board, and uses only 88 bytes while running. ( :shock: Now that’s lightweight.)

The photos show Hack (not NetHack — Hack) for DOS running, and Remy said he also found Adventure, Tetris, Rogue and a Boulder Dash game, but the last one didn’t seem to recognize the arrow key input. :| An editing program called (not surprisingly) EDIT is apparently also available.

I love projects like this. The best part is this photo diary showing the disassembly, scrubbing (literally) and reassembly. It might be amusing to think of scouring circuit boards and casings in your bathtub, but trust me on that point: It’s usually the easiest way. If you have a machine and you’re wondering how to rehab it, this is a fairly good tutorial on ripping one apart and putting it back together, too. ;)

Remy said Slackware 3.3 boots from floppy but hangs at LILO, FreeDOS/Balder hangs at start too, and Minix 2 also fails. PocketLinux prints a message asking for a 386 or higher CPU, and a few other generally-recognized-as-low-end distros seem to draw the line at the 386. If you have any ideas or suggestions, I am sure Remy would be thankful, and I would be curious too.

In the mean time I’ll be kicking myself for turning down a leftover 286 machine about a year ago, mostly because I wasn’t sure I could get anything done with it. I don’t know why, but apparently I forgot that the point isn’t always to get something done. Sometimes it’s just, as Remy said, that “a modern core2duo does not have the charm of my 286. :P”

Another one-disk wonder: DexOS

At times I am still amazed by Linux distros or even full-blown independent operating systems that scale down so completely and cleanly as to fit on a single floppy disk. KolibriOS was one, and I make a point of keeping that around as a note of what is possible with so little, and on nearly any hardware.

I got an e-mail a day ago that reminded me about DexOS, which is another one-disk wonder. You’re probably still wondering what the point is, when floppies are so far out of date as to be completely irrelevant. Well …


What you see there isn’t even DexOS’s main goal, which is to serve as a kind of media platform if I understand it correctly. An entirely different GUI is what you get on startup, which you can get a look at in the screenshot gallery (I had some screenshot issues, hence Qemu … sorry :oops: ). In the space of a floppy — scratch that; in less than the space of a floppy, because the running system reports only a hair over a megabyte used, there are a couple of arcade games, a media frontend, networking and USB frameworks, a Web server, a basic Windows-esque GUI, screensaver, gif/jpeg/bmp support and more.

Looking at home page, there is more available with the goal of allowing you to build a few things on your own. The forums show a rather active community too, with posts and replies within the past few weeks, along with screenshots of a promised version. So this isn’t a stalled project, by the look of it.

It’s definitely something that will require a little elbow grease though. KolibriOS was for the most part an entire desktop compressed into a floppy, where DexOS obviously has a different goal in mind. Don’t expect to fire this up on your Pentium II and watch YouTube videos over your wireless connection. A tool for every job.

Check out the wiki if you think this is appealing, or if it might work as a platform for your own personal attempts to conquer the world. I can at least promise that it won’t monopolize your system resources, like some operating systems can. :twisted: :roll:


Visit the Wiki!

Some recent desktops

May 6, 2011
Musca 0.9.24 on Crux Linux
150Mhz Pentium 96Mb 8Gb CF

May 14, 2011
IceWM 1.2.37 and Arch Linux
L2300 core duo 3Gb 320Gb

Some recent games

Apr. 21, 2011
Oolite on Xubuntu 11.04
L2300 core duo 3Gb 320Gb

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