Goodbye, digestive system.

I think, in retrospect, this might be one of the things I look back on fondly, but wonder what, really, WHAT, was I thinking? This Saturday, at 3PM Eastern time, I will be participating in a Hot Ones-inspired wing challenge, with good friends and streamers.

If you’d like to see me suffer, tune in either at my Twitch channel or Zeb’s. It’ll be good times! (Face melting not guaranteed!)

Interurban Rail

Did you know that Michigan has an interurban rail system? No? Because it doesn’t. But it used to.

I’ve long considered myself a bit of a buff when it comes to public transportation, but this weekend, at a holiday party in Grass Lake, MI (outside of Jackson), I learned that there was a whole section of local transport history that I was completely ignorant of.

We took a break (!!!) from the holiday party to go and visit the Lost Railway Museum (!!!) and the kids had a great time (!!!)! It’s a donation museum, and has two interurban rail cars that are in the process of being restored. It’s got a video presentation all about the history of interurban rail, why it was popular, and what put it on the chopping block.

Can you ring the bells on the cars? YES, YOU CAN! And holy cow, did my kids ring that bell. I may have also done a small amount of ringing. I cannot be blamed, the switch is in the floor, shut up it was awesome! Also, wicker seats!

To know that a system like BART existed before the advent of the inexpensive automobile, and that it was both frequently-used and popular enough to involve two competing companies, here in Michigan, has given me hope. Not only can it be done, but we’ve done it in the past!

Check out the museum’s page here, and drop by if you’re in the area. I highly recommend it.

Chip off the old block

It was a proud moment for me when my youngest son brought home a laptop from a garage sale, and said that we should fix it. According to my wife, he talked my repair skills up to the family running the sale, full of pride in his Dad. My wife had grabbed a second one out of the bin, just in case my son’s didn’t work. At $5 each, it was a hell of a deal, and all the buttering up helped a great deal. So, of course I said I’d do it!

The laptop he’d picked out was a Compaq CQ62. Single-core Intel Celeron processor, 2 GB of RAM, and a 256 GB spinning hard drive. The other was a Lonovo Chromebook N22, with mysterious Google magic inside. Maybe also hardware. Neither came with power cords, and the batteries were drained, so of course they didn’t boot up. I ordered some very inexpensive replacement cords from Amazon, and set to cleaning the laptops. They were both missing keys, but that was a worry for after confirming that they’d boot. There was a lot of dust, and some grime on the Compaq’s boards that might’ve been water damage, or might’ve just been storage ick. The Chromebook was sealed together tightly enough that I didn’t want to poke around too much, lest it never fit back together again.

When the power adapters arrived, there was great happiness! Both laptops not only booted, but heir batteries held a charge! The garage sale lady had been honest, and storage hadn’t wreaked too much havoc. For the Compaq, I restored from the factory default, which sped it up a great deal. I upgraded from Windows 7 to Windows 10, and the laptop behaved just as snappily. (Shut up, it’s a word!) While watching it chug through updates, I used the task manager to see if there were any resource choke points. Lo and behold, the CPU and RAM were keeping up like champs. The hard drive, on the other hand, was SLOW. Far slower than a spinning drive should be. It passed both the quick and long tests for its manufacturer, but that took ages as well. So, I cloned the drive to a 120 GB SSD that was living in another project computer.

Everyone, I/O speed has way more impact on a machine’s behavior than it has any right to. The difference in behavior was staggering. Windows 10 – fast. LibreOffice – fast. Minecarft – responsive. Roblox – responsive. Steam – hell yeah, I’ll install! YouTube, Twitch streams – smooth! Our only disappointment was a long shot: DC Universe Online. It loaded, and ran, eventually. In the end, it just wasn’t playable with the graphics hardware. He was totally fine with it, and was just happy that it worked. Score!

The Chromebook was even easier. It booted, updated ChromeOS, and just ran. Double-score!

All that was left were the damaged and missing keys. I ordered some replacement from, and they… well, some of them popped right on. Some, due to the design of the keyboards, were a bit of a struggle. Unfortunately, they didn’t fix the problem, so I guess those keys were damaged in the layers of the keyboards themselves. Back to Amazon for replacement keyboards! When they arrived, all it took was a couple of YouTube how-to videos, a couple of screwdrivers, and a couple of hours to replace them both. Did they work?

Yes! The Compaq is fully functional and in my son’s room. The Chromebook is on my wife’s chaise lounge, and works for web browsing, app install, and streaming – both Netflix and Amazon. We spent between 40 and 50 USD, and ended up with two functioning laptops. A fun time, and completely worth it!

Giving Up and Making Progress

I’m a little frustrated, and a little irritated. MyMateVince is using Anker power bricks to supply power to many of his mobile projects. Anker themselves said that the power brick I ordered would supply the juice I needed. But, dang it, I couldn’t get it to work. I couldn’t get more power out of the USB ports than the standard amperage, and I couldn’t figure out how to trigger their PowerIQ to open up the floodgates. So, finally, after all of the tries in the previous post, and a few more, I gave up and contacted support

Assembled and updating

Support immediately told me that it was not possible with their current generation of power bricks. There may or may not have been some slamming of my head into my desk. I will neither confirm nor deny. The battery is now being returned for a full refund.


This led me to table the idea of powering the first version by battery, and instead focus on a portable, if plugged in, version. Which led to re-assembling the machine, updating the software, and confirming that all the things still worked with all the other things. And they did! The games run even better now that Steam is pushing so hard for more Linux compatibility, some visual artifacts have disappeared, and my available library has more than doubled.

Mocking up the case

On top of that, my friend noticed that the mount plate (that piece of metal that the motherboard screws into) was attached to the case with several spot welds. I was confused by how this mattered, until he pulled out his drill and started drilling out the weld points. A butter knife and some elbow grease later, and the plate was free of the case, and available for us to use. We can now mount the motherboard on one side, and affix it to the case on the other.

Speaking of cases, my friend and I began considering. And, when he considers, it’s more like he starts mocking it up on the spot. He just happened to have this small sheet of steel lying around, and got right to bending it. So far, the only thing that we disagree on is the speaker placement.

I’m right, of course. :)

Nerding in parallel

Did I promise to give an update if and when I worked on the portable Steambox project again? I did? Well, here you go! We worked on it! And ALSO on something else.

Again, things came down to power. This project needs a battery pack that can power both the screen AND the motherboard, and at different voltages and amperage. We’ve got some bits and bobs that should have done the job, but none quite did All The Things. So, I went back to my thinking at the start of this project, and looked for a consumer battery pack that would do what was needed. And, after an email chat with a representative, I found the Anker PowerCore AC. I picked it up and… didn’t test it. I’d given the power cords to my partner in crime, so to speak, and he was out of the country for work. Well, last week, he came back.

Whatever tells the Anker power pack to increase the amperage to support faster charging isn’t happening with the screen. It’s getting the 5 volts and 100 milliamps, but isn’t getting the quick charge IQ goodness. So, the screen tries to turn on, fails to get enough, and turns off. So, we needed to find a way to check if the battery pack could put out what was advertised.

Tech mess

My friend set up the following power chain: Anker A/C port, router plug, power-over-ethernet injector, RJ45 cable, step-down converter, D/C cord into screen. And it worked! The screen turned on and stayed on! So we know for a fact that the power supply can do the needful, at least out of the A/C port. Now we need to figure out a way to either trigger the battery pack to engage its fast charging, or combine the power from two USB ports to support the screen. We’ll see which way it goes.

Tech mess

The other project is re-purposing an old Dell PowerEdge server into a moderately useful gaming box. It’s currently got one Xeon quad core processor running at about 2.5 GHz, and has a slot for another. It’s got 8 gigs of RAM, and can go up to a whole lot more. My friend had thrown in a 5 year old video card with 1 gig of VRAM, that had sat in its box since he picked it up. It’s got a 500 gig hard drive, but it’s one that came with the server and is a bit slow. Windows 10 runs on it, and runs pretty well, which wasn’t a surprise. It’s done a really good job of scaling down to old hardware since its release, and hasn’t reversed that trend, which I’m thankful for.

Our first test was Minecraft, cranked to full everything, and it ran smooth as butter. Next, we installed Everquest II, a game that the end user (my friend’s wife) plays, and I hadn’t played in about seven years. My login still worked! My characters were still there! I had a succession of “what the crap” moments, and tooled around the winter area in which I spawned, and figured out that anything over “Balanced” graphics quality wasn’t going to be smooth. But! The game worked! For old time’s sake, I let off a PENITENT KICK! and took a photo.