Category Archives: Technology

Baked motherboard to go

I’ve got a Toshiba Tecra M4 Tablet PC.  Actually, I’ve got two of them.  And neither of them have worked for about five months now.

I started with one, about two and half years ago.  It was my primary PC for a year and a half, and I used it to develop software first in Microsoft ASP and VB.Net and later in Ruby onRails.  It’s a great computer, with a 1400×1050 high-res 14″ screen that can rotate into tablet mode and be drawn on, a fairly quick processor, not too heavy, and generally just a nice computer.

I used it to start coding on the website. I used it to take notes in tablet mode.  I used to build a messaging/networking system that I sold to a meeting registration company. I used it to train in Flight Simulator while I got my pilot’s license.  I even installed Ubuntu on a separate partition and used it to code in Rails.  Its a great Linux laptop.

Then one day I booted it up and the video display went crazy, almost like the matrix.  I rebooted – no dice.  External monitor didn’t work either, and not even the BIOS screen came up correctly – which is really bad news, since this means it’s likely not the OS or the video driver. Yuck.

It was out of warranty, so I did some Google searching and found many others with the same problem.  The problem was a cooked video card, which is discrete but is soldered on the motherboard.  It seems to happen a lot with the Tecra M4, since the fan on the video card doesn’t come on enough and lets the card get very very hot.  The solution was a complete motherboard replacement, to the tune of $550-$600.

I still needed a computer to work on the website and although I was still contracting with them, I was preparing to start working full-time as a regular employee, so they bought me a new computer.  I went to a Mac, and got a nice shiny white Macbook.  This was a truly great computer: lighter, faster, and OS X was much better for developing in Rails.

But I wasn’t quite ready to give up on the tablet.  So I looked on eBay and found a used Tecra M4 for $500.  I figured I would buy it, swap the hard drive out and it would be my computer again.  I would then have two batteries, two power bricks, and a machine I could canablize for parts.   So I ordered it, and a week later was back in action with the tablet. I even installed Vista and it worked great.  The handwriting recognition in tablet mode was spookily good.

About seven months later, I had the same problem with the video.  The matrix was back – no BIOS, no external monitor, nothing.  Another fried video card.  I still had my Macbook of course, so I resigned myself to forgetting about the tablet, cursing Toshiba’s engineers, and set both Tecra M4s on my bookshelf, next to my vintage 1999 Palm Pilot, and cell phones of bygone eras.  It was a totem pole of retired hardware.

Until yesterday.  Something struck me – I had an urge to get the tablet back in action.  So I did some more Google searching, and found some people suggesting the video card could be resurrected with — heat.  A similar issue with XBox 360s was discussed and people had pictures of XBox motherboards in their ovens, next to pancakes on their griddle, and so on.  Yes, blasting it with exactly the same thing that killed it was supposed to bring it back to life.  Heat gun, oven, hair dryer, whatever you had.

The theory is that the overheating of the video card due to a poorly designed fan and heatsink causes it to become separately slightly from the motherboard.  The heat gun causes it to sink back in and become resoldered.  Sounds like a load of crap, but like the other folks talking about it in the forums, I went through the “what the hell?  its busted anyway!” thought process.

So last night I took one of the Tecra’s apart, covered the rest of the motherboard with aluminum foil for shielding, uncovered the video card, and did some computer baking with a heat gun.  You know, the tool you use to strip wallpaper.  I pointed it at my computer (see the photos below).

The motherboard
The motherboard
Cooking time
Cooking time

After cooking the video card for a bit and feeling the warm glow coming from the motherboard, I shut it off.  I knew it was time when Karen said “it smells like something is melting!”.   I watched a couple innings of the Phillies-Yankees game while I waited for it to cool.

I popped in the hard drive, flipped it over, turned it back on, and voila – the tablet is back in action!

Its alive
It's alive

Unbelievable.  The Internet has told me something useful.  And now I can browse said Internet on my resurrected tablet PC.  Not sure how long it will last…but it’s better than a dead tablet.  Next project: connect the power cord for the fan on the video card to the USB power, so it runs continuously (like it should).  Or maybe just get one of those laptop cooling pads.

PS. I did the same thing on the ‘backup’ tablet PC that I got off eBay, and it also worked, although there are still some odd colors when Windows come up.  But at least it boots and is not totally dead.  Maybe it just needs some more quality time “under the gun”.

PPS. I still like the Mac better.

Email – savior or bane of our existence?

Do you dread coming back from vacation to find the buckets of work email waiting for you?  Do you secretly use your iPhone/Blackberry/etc. while on vacation just to “clean out your email a bit”.  Do you think all of this email is making us smarter or able to work better?  And…what did people do 20 years ago when email was almost non-existant in the workplace?  People still did stuff, the economy still grew, right?  I mean, we built rockets to fly people to the moon before we had laptops, web browsers, Mathematica, and email!

I don’t know the answers to most of these questions…but I do know that the good use email is wonderful and a great time saver, and the poor use of email is a time waster, a morale killer, and sometimes bad for your career.  People do things like blindly reply-all over and over again filling up everyone’s mail box, CC their boss just in case, say angry things they would never say in person, and more.  So how do we define the difference between good and bad email.

Characteristics of bad work email:

1. Bad emails tend to have a lot of people on the TO or CC line.  Unless its a group announcement of some kind, this usually signals the sender doesn’t know who the relevant people are and is just blasting it out.  Equivalent to standing in the lobby and yelling out your message.

2. Bad emails tend to have information instead of knowledge.   As my friend from high school put it, information is simply data without a clear understanding of its significance, while knowledge is the useful application of accumulated data.

3. Bad emails tend to have no clear indication on whether action is expected from the recipient.

Characteristics of good work email:

1. Opposite of the above three items.

The key challenge is to deal with the daily deluge of information from all sources: email, Twitter, Facebook, newspapers, TV, websites, Digg, and so on. Sifting through all this raw data, analyzing it, discovering patterns, ignoring the noise, and not spending too much time acting on irrelevant information is critical to the survival of any information worker or professional.  Improving our use of email is one way to reduce the mental clutter of our daily work existence and hopefully moving us closer to spending time generating knowledge instead of just more information.

Time to try a new task management application

About a year ago I started using an iPhone 3G and had to find replacement applications for a Sony Clie NX-70 Palm based device I had been using for 5 years (yes, it was and still is really that good).  The Datebk5 app I had been using was pretty nice and the iPhone was missing a heap of capabilities in comparison, most noticeably in task management.  So after learning about the Getting Things Done (GTD) system from David Allen’s book a year earlier, I bought OmniFocus for the Mac and then the iPhone.  In a nutshell, GTD advocates you list “projects” you are working on (e.g. “submit ACME proposal”, “clean garage”), “contexts” in which you can do things (e.g. “on the phone”, “email”, “writing”, “running errands”), tag all your tasks with these two attributes and place them in an order in which they need to be done (e.g. “write proposal” followed by “buy envelopes” followed by “mail proposal”).  This allows you to focus only on the next action required instead of on the inifite amount of items most of us have in front of us at any given time.  By staying focused and making small progress daily and not becoming overwhelmed by the big picture, you have a greater chance of “getting things done”.  The idea of “contexts” is that you when you decide it time to make phone calls, you look at your “on the phone” context list, and start doing things on it, regardless of project.  Its a relatively simple system, but I’m not sure it works for everyone.  I tend to not really think in contexts, and thus task management systems based around GTD (like OmniFocus) start to get in your way.

So after using OmniFocus for a year and generally not really enjoying the experience, I’ve recently starting using the web-based ToodleDo app, along with its corresponding iPhone app.    ToodleDo lets you use many of the methods of the GTD system (it has contexts, and folders, and status, etc.) but is flexible enough that you can only use what you want.  I have to say, I’m enjoying it much more (and its much less expensive too, as in free for the web app and only $4 for the iPhone app, compared with nearly $100 for both OmniFocus products if you get them at full price).  I think the feature of ToodleDo I like the best is the “hotlist”, which is a compilation of items you have deemed important via priorities, due-dates, flags, and so on.  It cuts across projects and contexts and is just a nice list.  For those of us that don’t think in pure “project” or “context” terms like GTD advocates, this simple feature alone is really useful.   And the bonus is, all your tasks are on the web, so you can find them from any computer.  Hooray for competition.