Maple fun.

I like Maple. I like Maple a lot. I _don't_ like it $129 a lot, though; feeding my family is more important. It is a fun tool, and I'm sure that coding it was a bear. Here's the problem: I need to use Maple for a project in my Calc II class. The instructor assumes (mostly correctly) that the students can just go to the lab and use the networked copy there. I, however, don't have the luxury of being able to spend hours at the college library.

So, I'm left trying to get to my 6:00 class early so that I can get as much done as possible. I tried just doing the graphs and complex stuff and then cutting and pasting into Word, but some of the symbols don't copy correctly. It's very frustrating.

Because the college licenses Maple for their site, any student can use it while plugged into the network. When you start the application, it checks for the license server, contacts it, and gets the OK to start. So, I dopped the executable onto my laptop and ran it. This was an improvement to using the lab because I could at least print the worksheet from my computer to a PDF. Unfortunately, I still had a lot of editing to do.

At the end of class, I hibernated my laptop and didn't boot up again until this morning. Lo and behold, I had left Maple running! So, until I close it, I should be able to keep working on my project and actually make some progress. Legally it might be a little grey, but morally I think it is OK. It's not like I can use the app willy-nilly. I didn't reverse engineer or crack anything. I'm not using it for commercial purposes. One way to look at it is that my computer is a part of the college network, I've just lost connectivity for a little while =).

It would be nice if Maple was a little more flexible with their licensing. They could probably talk me into maybe $15/quarter while enrolled at a qualifying institution or something like that. $129 is just too steep for a working student with a family.


Solder, wireless, and wingless birds

Here's a few more sites for your viewing and listening pleasure:

Solder Smoke: Ham radio and homebrew podcast. I've gone through a few episodes, and they get better as they go, although admittedly a good bit of it is over my head.

Wireless Networking in the Developing World: The free PDF available from this site is a great primer on everything 802.11 from basic radio physics to access points, antennas, and more.

Finally, an interesting piece. In Israel, an F-15 was involved in a midair collision with another aircraft. The F-15 lost the right wing and _still_ managed to land. The pictures are completely jaw dropping. Amazing. (warning, some popups).


The Greatest Risk

It may seem that I link a lot to content by Steve Roberts. I generally try not to draw too heavily on any one source. In fact, I was making a conscious effort not to post any of his material for a while. Unfortunately, as soon as you make a decision like that, you run into something you've never seen before. I won't post it in its entirety out of respect for Mr. Roberts, but here is the link and a brief excerpt:

The Greatest Risk

© 1988 by Steven K. Roberts
Nomadic Research Labs

(An excerpt from Computing Across America, 1988)

Everyone has at one time or another shrunk from a growth opportunity because with it comes the Unknown. The Unknown! What’s out there, anyway?

Disappointment? Derision? Danger? Defeat? Death?

Those are all bad, certainly, but none of them are nearly as bad as nothing. None of those things can possibly be worse than the horror or Complacency that creeps like a psychic tapeworm into the mind, demanding a steady diet of the bland to let it propagate and infect those nearby. It’s insidious, evil, and epidemic in America. It slithers out of TV sets; it crawls from the pages of popular media. It hides in classrooms and slips unnoticed into vulnerable young brains.
To be frank, complacency has been kicking my butt. I'm starting to dig my way out, however. Deciding to go back to college wasn't as much financial as I made it out to be. Granted, watching MacGyver on DVD had something to do with it, but in reality I just wanted to finish something I should have finished in the first place. I'm also now a Cubmaster in charge of six cubs. I was in scouts for six months as a kid, now I'm in charge of three tigers, two wolves, and a bear! No pressure, now =).

There's much more to read at Steve Roberts' site - go there and check it out. The "Miles With Maggie" series is a good read, as well.


Building a decent laptop from free and cheap parts - Parts III, IV, V, and Links

Here are the last four sections of my document on parting together a cheap laptop. Hopefully someone will see that they don't have to live without a laptop if they have some time and a little bit of money. For the record, my most recent machine cost about $30 out of pocket, although I had some of the parts already, have a junk pile at work to pull some of the other pieces (plastic bezels, that kind of thing), and have friends that love me - you know who you are =).

Part III: Beg, borrow, but don't steal!

Let's review: we know what device we are building and what we need to get the system to a minimum usable level. How do we best obtain the missing parts?

Obviously, the first thought is eBay. However, let us step back a notch. Do you have friends in IT? Friends who run through laptops quickly (read: sales, marketing, executives)? Start asking around and find out if anyone has extra parts you can bum off of them. Perhaps you will even score a complete, but dead, machine. A whole dead machine will be one of your best sources of parts, especially the little stuff (screws, spacers, shielding, insulation). Of course, finding a mostly complete machine may lead you to change your plans a bit.

Check to see what parts you have left to get. Now is the time to check eBay, craigslist, and so forth. Get a feel for how much the parts are going for. Don't forget to search for parts for compatible machines as well – you may find the part is cheaper when listed under a different model. You may find that your best bang for the buck is dead machines. This is pretty much your last chance to get out of this without a financial impact. If the required parts are too expensive, go back to finding cheaper alternatives, change your requirements, or give up.

Part IV: Assembling the system.

If possible, begin assembling your system as parts arrive. You want to test critical components such as the motherboard as soon as possible to judge the financial impact if they fail Repeat the examination process from Part II with each of the components you are planning on using. Parting together a system leaves some room for creativity. If you leave out a component (floppy drive, optical drive, internal speakers, and so forth), you can replace it with something else (USB hub, bluetooth controller, USB wireless, etc). At the end of this document there are a few links; the one to hackaday leads to a good article on being creative with the old hardware.

Break out the maintenance manual you downloaded earlier and start assembling. Be careful, and follow the directions whenever possible. Having to completely disassemble a mostly assembled laptop can be a little deflating. When you're done, you should have a more-or-less complete looking laptop.

Part V. Final Steps

All that is left to do is install your operating system and test the laptop. I usually recommend installing a recent version of Windows for testing purposes, and once assured that the system is functional, move to Linux or whatever version of Windows you have a license for and begin the fun of getting drivers and everything else working. Personally, I dual-boot Win2k and SUSE 10 on my system. Many people have good luck with Ubuntu Linux; I'm just not one of them.

Part VI: Links

http://laptops.hackaday.com/entry/1234000800056067/ - Project parting together two Thinkpad i-series laptops. Good tips for customizing any laptop.

http://www.makezine.com/blog/archive/2005/12/adding_internal_bluetooth_on_a.html – Add internal Bluetooth to a machine that didn't come with it originally.

http://www.macmod.com/content/view/404/101/ - When looks don't matter (or they do, depending on your taste)...

http://www.linux-laptop.net/ - Linux on Laptops, a good, specific guide to getting Linux running on different laptop models.

http://www20.tomshardware.com/howto/20050504/index.html – Tom's Hardware Guide article on building your own laptop out of barebone parts. This is the type of thing I alluded to at the end of Part I.
Well, that's it for this one. I may revise and repost it later as I think of ways to clarify my thoughts, but I think it should give anyone looking to go this route a few things to think about.

Building a decent laptop from free and cheap parts - Part II

Here's Part II. It should be noted that this is intended more for the semi-competent computer person. Most people could muddle their way through it, but may make (expensive) mistakes. It would certainly be a learning experience, though!


Part II: Start gathering parts

By now, you should have determined, generally at least, what kind of machine you are going to build. Is it a Thinkpad that's about two years old? Is it a three year old Dell? A year old Toshiba? Start the process by taking a quick inventory of the parts that you do have. Work from a high level here; we can worry about the little stuff later.

Hard Drive
Bottom Case
Top Case
Interface cards (NIC, Modem, etc)
Optical Drive (if you want/need one)
Floppy Drive (if you want/need one)

Inspect each of the parts for obvious physical issues. Check those thin ribbon cables for tears and breaks. If your LCD panel is not in a case, shine a bright light into it from behind and inspect it for cracks. Check the processor and hard drive for bent and broken pins. Check the motherboard for damaged ports and PCMCIA slots (look at the solder points and make sure none of them are broken. Put any that are damaged to the point of needing replacement to the side, but do not throw them out. Figure out how to fix anything that you believe you can (JB weld on the plastic parts, soldering on the easier ports, etc). You can work on the repairs as you're waiting on other parts.

Failing to check the ribbon cables caused me some grief on my most recent build; I had tested a keyboard a few months before I was ready to put my machine together, then put it on a shelf with my inventory of parts for the project. The day had finally arrived where I had all of my parts together. The machine was going together, but the keyboard wouldn't work! I pulled it out and looked; the cable on the keyboard had torn a quarter of the way through. I'm still not quite sure how that happened. It would have cost me $25 extra had there not been a spare on the scrap pile at work.

Now, go to the manufacturer's website and find the hardware maintenance manual for the device you're building. IBM's manuals are very good. Other companies vary from non-existent to OK. You'll want to look for an exploded diagram and/or parts list. Compare what you have to the diagram or list and look to see what you need to get this thing going. Print out the parts list and check off the working items. Cross off any items that you don't need to get the system to what you consider an acceptable state (internal speakers, for example). You now have a shopping list.


Tomorrow we'll do parts III, IV, V, and the links section in one shot. They're all pretty short.

Building a decent laptop from free and cheap parts

I may need to revise this document a few times, but here is the first version. It is purposefully vague in a lot of aspects; it's a guide, not an instruction manual. Today I'm going to post the introduction and Part I. All rights are reserved, copyright me, etc.


This paper is intended to describe some methods, techniques, and caveats for parting together a decent laptop at a minimum of cost. Why piece together a laptop from parts when a new one can be had for under $500? One reason is quality. That bargain basement Dell will be dead long before your two-year old model IBM Thinkpad. Cost is still a consideration. It may cost $300 to scrounge your parts, but $200 is $200, any way you shake it. Another consideration is performance. Do you really need the latest whiz-bang processor and a gigabyte of RAM? I doubt it. If you do, you probably aren't reading this document. The final aspect to consider is that you will know your laptop better than most. Although laptops are certainly more proprietary, you will be in much better shape to deal with problems with your additional knowledge than you would be otherwise,


This is a project which could end up costing more than you expected. An Ebayed part can fail to perform as expected, you can make a mistake about parts compatibility, and so on. Although just about anyone with some common sense who can follow directions can do this, the more time you spend on research, and the more experience you have, the cheaper it will get.

Part I – Which laptop to choose?

Due to the proprietary nature of laptops, you'll need to choose a base model to use. There are several factors involved in this decision. One of the most important factors is the commonality of the base machine. Generally speaking, you'll want to choose something that is popular/common. These are typically going to be the easiest and cheapest to build; think supply and demand. Once you start researching, you'll notice that many times the same laptop will be sold under different names.

For example, the Dell Inspiron 3800 is pretty much the same thing as the Dell Latitude Cpx series. The only difference of concern to us is that the motherboard of the 3800 was flashed with a BIOS that prevents the use of certain docking stations. This was a rather pathetic ploy by Dell to force anyone who wanted to use their high-end docks at the time to buy the higher-end laptop. Besides the BIOS and a small removable plate in the Inspiron, the machines are part-for-part 100% compatible.

Many other laptops will be largely part-compatible as well. IBM Thinkpad T20s, T21s, and T22s are all mostly compatible. The plastic, keyboards, processors, and memory all work. The key is to do some research.

Another thing to think about is what parts you already have, or what you can get cheaply. When I recently parted together a laptop for school, I looked at what I had. I had a large number of usable parts for one particular model. Given that budget was the key, and the machine that could be made with those parts was acceptable, I decided to base it off of that.

Keep in mind that some parts work across most systems of similar vintage. We've had 2.5” Parallel IDE drives for probably ten years now; only on the newest laptops will you find SATA drives. Memory will usually exchange between laptops of approximately the same age. Processors get to be a little tricky, but if you can fit it in the socket, it will usually work.

A final note: You will be tempted to look at so-called “barebones” laptops. Although these machines can be built to very high specifications, they will almost always cost more than an equivalent name brand machine. Remember: generic ≠ cheap in what we're doing here.
Part II will be coming tomorrow...


Some good stuff...

I tend to be a bit cynical when it comes to anything political these days, but hearing that Alito made the USSC made me smile. If the anti's refer to someone as "Machinegun Sammy", he can't be all bad.

James Rawles has a good post on SurvivalBlog today (if you're reading this later, check his archives) covering the Biblical case for preparedness. He addresses a number of the usual arguments in his typical clear, straightforward, and logical manner. Definately a good read.

Here's a good article I found linked to on AssaultWeb. I agree with one of the commenters on one thing; #7 conflicts with #2 and #8. I'd suggest making sure that any weapons that were used against you are out of reach of the bad guy, and that you make sure that several people (including non-cops, if possible), see them.

On a personal note, I'm doing well in both my classes. However, I just received the class schedule for next quarter, and it's garbage! There's only one class I can take that is directly usable for my degree (Calc III), and one that's useful, but not exactly the direction I want to go (Finite Math for Business and Social Science). I'll be taking them both since I have to stay full time, but I'm not happy about it. Their online classes are a joke, too. It seems like all this college is interested in doing is helping people in their fluff degrees, not real degrees like Math or Engineering. I was assured before I started with them that I wouldn't have any problems completing the degree doing nights/weekends/online/flex classes.

I have a couple articles floating around in the back of my head to write up, mostly to do with utilizing technology inexpensively. There's tons of cool technology out there today: MP3 players, Digital Video Recorders, wireless video cameras, digital cameras, laptops, PDAs, EVDO, wireless cards, etc. Several of those are bleeding edge technologies that are sure to break the budget. However, there are options for obtaining and utilizing this stuff on the cheap. This will (hopefully) tie in with my Emergency Computing theme.