A very disinfected stethoscope

A couple of years ago I bought a Littmann 3200 electronic stethoscope. Love the thing. Fantastic (and adjustable) sound and recording capability and Bluetooth connection to upload those sounds to a companion app.

A couple of weeks back, the stethoscope started to glitch. Every now and then it would hard reset when I pressed the “-” button so I thought that was the end of it. I ordered a new one, planning on disassembling the old one once I had another good one. Today was that day.

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Is there life after Crashplan?

Dead Crashplan
Crashplan for home is dead

Now that Crashplan for home is gone, or at least not long for this world, a lot of people will need to find another way of backing up their stuff. It’s tempting to get angry, and there are reasons to be, but in the end you have to forget about all that and move on. Even though you may have months, or even a year, before Crashplan stops working, there is another reason you have to get something up right now, namely file histories.

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iPad Pro: it really is something else

I’ve had the iPad Pro and the Logitech Create keyboard now for a couple of days and it’s really very, very different from what iPads used to be. I’m coming from the first iPad Retina, so it’s been a couple of generations in between. 

I’ve never before succeeded in writing anything more that emails with a short “yes” or “no”, or maybe a sentence, from any iPad or iPhone. It simply never was worth the pain. Now, I’m writing this very blog post on the iPad Pro. Using the Logitech keyboard, of course (there are limits; I’m still not prepared to attempt using an on-screen keyboard).

I’m using 1Password for all my logins, and it used to be that any login would be an “oh, no, not again” moment, since it would require switching to 1Password, logging in to it slowly and painstakingly, painfully copying the password, memorising the user name, switching back to the original app, manually entering the user name, painfully (usually takes two or three tries) getting the password “paste” option, then pasting the password, then finally logging in. Now I can slide in the screen from the right, select 1Password there, open it with my thumbprint (YES!), select the username, copy it using cmd-C (!), switch back to Safari (or whatever app I’m in) with cmd-tab, select the password field (if it isn’t still selected) and hit cmd-V. Just like on a desktop or laptop. Most of the keyboard shortcuts we use on a laptop work, like cmd-tab, cmd-X/C/V, cmd-space for search. You’ve got cursor keys on the Logitech keyboard. They’ve also implemented cmd-arrow to go to the beginning and end of lines, and top and bottom of the document. Free at last!

My productivity on the iPad has gone up tenfold, from almost zero to near desktop level. It’s for all practical purposes as productive as a laptop, but with the added ability to be comfortably used for reading, and drawing/annotations with a pen (which I haven’t gotten yet).

I’m missing only a few apps on the iPad, most notably Apple Remote Desktop. I’m not seeing all that much justification, except for this, for keeping a Macbook Air. Especially since the Air’s screen is atrociously bad compared to the iPad Pro’s screen.

So, no, this isn’t just another iPad, this is a game changer. 

Another couple of years?

My Mac Pro is an early 2008. Over the last few years, it’s been losing function by parts. It’s like chip rot. First the firewire didn’t work right, lots of transfer errors. It may even have been that way from the start, but I always thought it was the LaCie drives or firewire hubs that screwed things up. So I stopped using firewire entirely.

Then the RAID gave me trouble, which turned out to be disk bay 1 being flaky. With or without the RAID card, bay 1 would give me disk errors even after replacing the disk. The bad disks worked fine in other bays, though.

The last couple of months, the machine started beach balling a lot, getting so slow I would almost scream. Dragging selections in Muse could take ten or twenty seconds to do, while they were instantaneous on my Macbook Pro. USB started to be flaky about a year back, with bad sound quality and dropouts using a USB headset. A few years back the upper DVD reader stopped working, too.

After a couple of months, I reinstalled OS X to no effect. Running TechTool Pro and Diskwarrior on the disk had shown no significant errors, but it took forever. Very slow disk reading. I then moved my system disk from bay 4 to bay 3, and the beach balling went away immediately. So now I was down to two functioning disk bays.

I’ve been eyeing the new Mac Pro, but the lack of serious disk space keeps me from going for it. And the price, of course. Decent alternatives would be a second hand 2010 or 2012 model. Or, I figured, trying to fix my 2008. The only thing I could think of as being the cause would be the disk cable harness (unlikely), the motherboard, or the power supply. You have to start somewhere, so I figured a new motherboard would be a good thing to do. Turns out you can get them for a decent price nowadays. I found a vendor on eBay that has a stack of them for $165, and they claim they’ve been tested before shipping. So I bought one, and got it less than a week later.

Today, I switched motherboards. It’s a pretty invasive thing to do to your Mac Pro, but you can do it in two or three hours without rushing it. Nothing broke, and I’m writing this post on that machine a few hours later and everything seems to work. I’ve moved the system drive to bay 4 and the machine remains snappy. No beach balling. I’ve installed a 4 TB in the previously really bad bay 1, and it seems to work normally. I’m having a glimmer of a hope this machine will work fine for another year or two, or maybe more. At least until Apple releases a decent modern replacement (if ever…). Below you’ll find a few pics of the process.

The new board arrived completely intact and well packaged in a sealed antistatic bag.

New motherboard in sealed wrap

Looks clean.

New board unwrapped

The machine before the slaughter. Note the unused (and unusable) bay 1. Bay 4 only serves for a slow drive with some old info. That slot is pretty slow in itself, hasn’t given any errors, but lots of huge delays (beach balling).

The machine before the slaughter

After removing the memory risers and the cards:

After removing memory and cards

Out goes the front fan:

Front fan cage removed

Then the turn comes to the memory cage. There’s a trick to this involving sliding the fan into the cage after releasing a few tabs. Read up on it carefully before attempting. iFixit has a good description.

Memory cage

Now it’s time to remove the three heat sinks. The two CPU sinks must be removed to get the main board out of the case, so you can just as well take the third sink (north bridge) as well.

Heat sinks

“Interestingly”, all the sinks are held in place by 3 mm in-hex screws. Three of these screws are right in between the three sinks so you need quite a long hexagonal screw driver to get them out. Luckily, the iFixit kit has both the right bit and an extender that was just long enough and narrow enough to get the job done. Most online sources say “flat screw driver”. Don’t believe them. It’s a hex you need.

Extender screwdriver with 3 mm hex bit.

The north bridge sink:

North bridge heat sink

One of the CPU sinks:

Lower CPU sink (B)

Time to disconnect the antennas. Do snap a pic first so you can look up which cable went exactly where. They’re nicely labeled, but there are no markings on the boards to correspond with the cable labels. Also, the antenna cable labeled “2” is over to the side somewhere and is not connected to anything. 

Airport and bluetooth boards

Now you have to take out the speaker assembly in the lower front of the case. There’s a screw holding the motherboard in place that you can’t get at otherwise. 

Speaker assembly

After disconnecting a truckload of connectors and carefully wiggling for a bit, out comes the old motherboard.

Old motherboard

A good use for old iTunes cards: scraping thermal paste from the CPUs and the Northbridge. (The north bridge isn’t necessary, since this one is on its way out, but its a good trial run for the processors.)

Scraping paste

Use a decent cleaner and lint-free cloth to remove the rest of the old thermal paste after scraping it off with the plastic card.

Dissolvant

One of the sinks after cleaning. Looks great!

Clean sink

The processors look fine, too, after cleaning:

Clean processors

Time to strap up before removing the processors:

Antistatic strap

An empty case with a lot of loose cables:

Empty case

Putting thermal paste on the north bridge and the CPUs. I’m using the procedure recommended on the Arctic Silver site. Except I unintentionally modified it to be messier. With this procedure, very little paste goes on the sinks.

Past on chips

And then you put back the motherboard, the sinks and all the rest. And cross your fingers and boot. Oh, your machine now has a new serial number, but really, who cares?

I used the opportunity to blow away all the dust from all the parts using compressed and dried air. This machine has never been this clean before. 

Razer Mako click of death fix

I have the Razer Mako speakers on my desk. They consist of this heavy, huge amplifier/bass unit and two smaller round treble speakers. It’s a great sounding system, but a lot of them fall victim to the “click of death”. This is a failure mode where the speakers give a regular clicking or popping sound, about once a second, and no other sound comes out of them. As the system warms up, the popping disappears and they function fine again. Until the next time you switch them off and the misery starts over.

With these symptoms, I was pretty sure there must be a failed electrolyte capacitor in the power supply somewhere. The problem is knowing which one. Searching on the net after schematics for the Mako, I found a lengthy and interesting thread about this on the Australian Whirlpool forum (go figure…) where the solution is described very well. Someone, somewhere, figured out which capacitor fails, which makes the repair quite simple.

So, here’s what I did, in pictures. Disconnect the base unit from power, satellite speakers and the control pad.

DSC 0001

Turn it over. You’ll find 11 (I think) screws in the bottom plate. Remove them all. There’s one in the middle hidden by the label, you have to remember to remove that one, too.

DSC 0002

Lift off the bottom. The motherboard is connected to a switch in the upper case, in the picture that is in the upper right. To the left you see that it is held down by the red and black speaker cable. That’s the one we’ll remove so we’ll be able to turn the motherboard over. Heat the two pads with a soldering iron and remove the speaker cable.

DSC 0003

Turn the motherboard over. You can do that even with the power supply cables to the power switch in place. The electrolyte capacitor we’re looking for is marked “C125” and is the one with the red circle in my photo below. It’s a 47µF/25V capacitor. The negative lead is the one marked with dashes and is on the side away from the heatsink, i.e. pointing downwards in my photo.

IMG 2462

Turn the board over again (without twisting the power cables too much), loosen the screw holding the plastic shield in place, and twist the shield away about 90 degrees, since the C125 solder points are otherwise hidden by the shield. I’ve circled the C125 solder pads in the picture below.

IMG 2465

With a lot of patience, heat, solder suction, and solder wick, remove the old capacitor and clean out the solder holes. (Yes, I realize this isn’t always easy, especially since one of the pads is the ground plane and needs more than a little heat, but I can’t teach you to do this in a short few sentences.) Anyway, try not to destroy the circuit board by using too much heat for too long. Use only a suitable regulated soldering iron for this. If you do this right, the end result will look like this from above the board (the negative lead for the capacitor is marked as a filled in white field, downwards in the image). You can see daylight through the holes here.

IMG 2470

Seen from the solder side:

IMG 2468

I didn’t have any 47µF capacitors, but I did find a 100µF/40V capacitor in my old stock. It’s very important that the voltage rating is at least as high as the original (25V). I figured that a higher capacitance would be ok, within reasonable limits (turned out it was). If you have to buy a new capacitor, splurge on the absolut best and most expensive you can find. The cheapest cost around 5 cents, while the most expensive can be as much as 15 cents. I’m not kidding. Of course, it may cost you 20 bucks to get it shipped and invoiced, though.

IMG 2471

A curious aside: an entire huge capacitor is missing here, replaced by a short. Wonder what the story is behind that.

IMG 2473

The new capacitor was quite a bit bigger than the old, but that’s not really a problem. Make really, really sure the negative lead is in the right hole, away from the heatsink, i.e. to the left in this image.

IMG 2475

Ready to solder on the other side. (When flipping the motherboard around, always check that you don’t twist those power leads too much.)

IMG 2476

After soldering and cutting the excess leads, you should have a good connection with no solder bridges. Don’t use too much solder, just barely enough.

IMG 2478

Rotate the plastic shield back into position and tighten the screw holding it in place (there’s a nut on the opposite side of the motherboard that you may need to hold still to do that).

IMG 2479

Reattach the speaker leads.

IMG 2481

All that remains is to put back the bottom plate and all the screws. There’s a really good chance your system will work fine, now. Mine did, with one exception: when switching on from standby, there’s a single sharp click from the speakers. I’m guessing it’s caused by my capacitor having an excessive value (100µF instead of the original 47µF). We’ll see if this turns out to be a problem or not.

Which new Mac Pro? The old one.

So with the new Mac Pro coming out, I’ve been torn between getting one of those or live with my old Mac Pro early 2008 for a while longer. Now, just estimating the price of the new Mac Pro, adding in a Thunderbolt drive storage and two Thunderbolt screens, the sum is way beyond what I can credibly argue myself into. And I’d be stuck with something that has much more processing power than I could invent excuses for, while still being a first generation product.

After a lot of arguing with myself back and forth, I decided to try to speed up my old Mac Pro with SSDs. I also have a bootcamp Win7 I would like to preserve if possible, which seems to preclude using regular SSDs, unless I use a lot of them. The solution seems to be a Fusion Drive (combined SSD and hard disk), where the bootcamp partition ends up on the hard disk proper.

The SSD I bought is an OWC Accelsior E2 480 GB PCIe card, and I combined it with one of my “old” Seagate Constellation ES.2 2 TB drives into a 2.1 TB Fusion Drive with a 300 GB Windows partition. I can access the Win7 through Parallels as a virtual machine, but without any speedup from the SSD (since Win7 is in its own partition), but right now I can’t boot from it. I moved it using Winclone, so I’m waiting on a response from them on how to proceed. Worst case, I can skip bootcamp, I don’t really need it.

But for all the other virtual machines through Parallels, and all the other software and files I have, the machine has become unbelievably snappy. The Fusion Drive has about 1 TB of applications and data on it, so the SSD part should be able to handle most daily tasks, once it balances out right. But already, I’m seeing some fantastic speedups.

Just to make you envious, see the screenshot that follows. Theoretically, I should be getting 800 MB/sec, but I’m pretty happy with what I’m seeing. Can’t really see how much faster the machine can get in actual handling. Seems it boots apps and opens files as fast as the screen can be written. Almost.

BlackMagic Disk Speed Test on Mac Pro 2008
BlackMagic Disk Speed Test on Mac Pro 2008

As a comparison, the test data from the “old” ES.2 2TB 7200 rpm drive that contains my old home folder, and which is still in one of the slots of the Mac Pro:

Disk Speed TestScreenSnapz002

In short, for a fraction of the money a new Mac Pro would cost, I got most of the benefit of one by adding this PCIe SSD card. (Nope, I have no relationship to OWC other than as a happy customer.)

The next step would be screens. I’ve got two 24″ Cinema displays, but with their 1920×1200 resolution, they’re getting cramped, especially when using the interface builder and storyboards in XCode. I’m still thinking it over, what to do about that. I already have an ATI Radeon 5870 card in the machine, so it should be able to handle bigger screens fine.

If all else fails, try Preview

I’m totally amazed at all the things Preview does in OSX Snow Leopard. I already use it for knocking out backgrounds, using the “Instant Alpha” tool in the “Select” dropdown. But what happened today is more interesting.

To my everlasting regret I got me a Canon Lide 60 scanner a couple of years ago. Canon’s hardware is pretty nice, but their driver support stinks, especially for OSX. This scanner costs me on average much more work than it should to keep going. Same for my Pixma 5200 Canon printer, by the way. Awful.

Anyway, I needed to scan a page from a mag to show on a slide. Hooked up the scanner, tried Canon Toolbox, and sure enough “Failed to open driver”. Internet next, user groups, downloads, complicated shit about uninstalling, reinstalling, rebooting the Mac Pro ten times. No joy. After a few hours (!) of this, I got an inspiration: hey, since I saw “Twain” mentioned, maybe Acrobat Pro 9 (CS4) could import it, instead of using Canon Toolbox? Sure enough, Acrobat found the scanner, looked it over, and promptly crashed.

And then I got my second inspiration: check out OSX Preview. And yes, that one worked. Not only that, but it automatically calibrated the scanner, proceeded to analyze the page, divided it into sections, scanned it, and served it up already partitioned into useful chunks. See the screenshots below. All the time I was just sitting there watching, doing nothing. The only thing I had to do was select the image and hit cmd-R twice to turn it the right way up.

Jeez, that innocent looking little Preview app is becoming mighty useful for any number of things.

I probably should mention that the driver I installed came in a file called “lide60osx11131en.dmg” to be found, somehow, on Canon’s support site. It installs both the drivers and the toolbox, but the toolbox doesn’t work.

An ode to Juniper

I have a Juniper SSG-5 and the school I’m doing the network setup for also got one identical unit on my recommendation. I wanted to set up a fixed VPN between the two but failed miserably, so I logged a support request with Juniper on my machine, which is still in warranty but without any kind of support contract. Oh, boy, do these guys have great service.

After just a day I got an engineer connecting to my system with desktop sharing software and we together went through a number of different configurations. It wasn’t really trivial, since the first config took us nearly three hours. Then I had another question of how to implement more finegrained control over the firewall policies in one direction, but not the other, which had us online another two hours using desktop sharing. The final result was perfect and I’ve learned so much more about the details of autokey VPN tunnels.

I’m totally blown away by the level and quality of support I got for this issue from Juniper. Maybe this particular engineer was exceptionally good and persistent, but I have the impression that it is more of a rule with Juniper. When I bought the SSG-5 I thought it was a little expensive, but after this experience, I’ve totally changed my mind. The support level and quality makes it worth the price hands down.

No, I don’t have shares in Juniper, but after this experience I think I may get some.