Upgrading Tech: PC Workstations

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to purchase a PC / workstation for my office (I bought a pretty fast / powerful workstation many years ago and it’s still doing the job). But I’ve had to pick up some new tech for the studio over the past few years.

When we started to live-stream yoga classes, I needed to invest in some laptops. Realizing there was no need for a lot of permanent memory (these are are effectively single application Zoom streaming devices), I opted for devices with SSD memory: an I3 for the portable zoom cart, an I5 for the Studio A permanent streaming device (Zoom has some guidelines on device minimums). So far, so good on both accounts.

The laptops were inexpensive enough that I decided to invest in one for my own yoga room. Again, no significant need for on-board storage, so a device with an SSD promises to be faster (booting / memory access) and with the biggest potential failure point (the hard drive) eliminated. Amazing that memory tech has gotten so powerful and so inexpensive.

As we crawl our way out of the pandemic, the studio front desk POS workstations have become a bottleneck – two ancient tower PCs that have become slow, wonky, and more of a challenge for the new cast of staff and work-study, less patient or skilled at working with crappy tech.

Old (right) vs New (left)
The tower was actually the smaller and faster of the two front desk workstations.

Inspired by a mini-PC workstation in the back office (itself a few years old), I went to see what was out there – and what a pleasant surprise! I picked up two of these little dudes:

Mini PC with Windows 11 Pro (8GB DDR4/128GB M.2 SSD) Equip with Intel Celeron J4125 Up to 2.7GHz, Portable Desktop Small Computer, with Dual HDMI, Ethernet, Dual Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and 4K Support

Amazing how tiny these little guys are. The workstations have one purpose – run a web browser to access Mind Body, the web based client management service – no need for a lot of on-board memory or a hard drive. I had to hunt around a bit to find a device with SVGA output (the default is HDMI these days) but I wanted these to be plug compatible with the existing hardware without adapters. Max’d out the USB ports with a mouse, keyboard, bar code reader, and credit card swiper.

I went the extra mile and mounted the new devices on the side wall under the desk, keeping cables secured and nothing underfoot. The desk itself is custom-built, with screens mounted underneath a smoked glass cut-out.


The Shoemaker’s Children…

….go barefoot. An old proverb that speaks to those with particular skills and aptitude often taking care of their own stuff last. And usually the case with me!

I had a couple of basement outlets / lights go intermittent, I tracked it down to a particular outlet, and so far as a bad neutral (because the voltage tester was chirping on a “dead” outlet.

This noontime, I pulled a shelf away from the wall, pulled the outlet, and heard the familiar (and unsettling) crackle-crackle of arcing as a nearby light on the circuit blinked.

The sparky-monkey who wired the basement (no doubt the former owner) used those stupid / dangerous outlet holes to make connections (called “back-stabbing”) One neutral connection was high resistance, getting warm, and thankfully broke connection before anything caught fire.

I cut out the outlet, replaced with properly screwed down and wrapped around the terminal connections, and all better.

Best of all, since the circuit in question also powered my desktop computer, I got to listen to my UPS chirp while I made the swap (NASCAR-like) and returned the circuit to service with 12 minutes to spare (my UPS is oversized for the load, so lots of battery time).

Kicking It Old School

My Christmas present to myself this year – a 1974 Gottlieb Duotron pinball machine, courtesy of a local shop that once upon a time rented, sold, and serviced pool tables, juke boxes, and pinball / arcade games, but has transitioned to a warehouse full of relics and a small business in refurbing and selling old games.

Truth be told I’ve been virtually tire-kicking games for a while now – via Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist. I knew I was serious when I took down a folding table that had become a catch-all rather than a work space, replacing it with two shelving units – leaving plenty of space in my basement office for a game. And while I was a bit concerned with dissassembly, transport, and reassembly, the shop offered delivered and set-up. Sold….

The game was mostly working, with some small issues, so I’ve spent the last few weeks cleaning, tweaking, updating. Burned out bulbs, a few functions not working properly, replacing the rubber rings / elastics and some faded plastic bits. etc. It’s all up and running!

There is a significant industry out there for information and supplies. I was able to purchase a schematic and manual from an authorized source. I bought a kit of rings / rubbers curated for this machine as well as pop bumper caps. I purchased a spares kit (blubs, fuses, a new pinball, cleaner and polisher) and some LED lamps (to judiciously replace the incandescent bulbs, especially in the back box where the lamps tend to heat / damage the backglass artwork. I even found a site that recreates the instructions and replay / award cards so familiar to those who have played.

And, as an old school engineer who has been around long enough to have played this game new, and knows my way around a schematic, but never did a lot of work with relay / ladder logic, the game is an opportunity to break out a multimeter, jumper cables, and do some serious troubleshooting.

The ingenuity and complexity of these beast is amazing – stepper units to add bonus points, count players, track first and last balls, scoring reels, a motor with cams to trigger relays periodically. The Tilt devices alone are amazing.

So yeah, Merry Christmas to me. Something for an electrical engineer who does far too little engineering or troubleshooting work these days to mess around with!

The Shoemaker’s Children Go Barefoot (no more)

For someone who makes the bulk of her income working with power quality, my own computer systems have been fairly under-protected for many years.

I picked up a stand-by UPS (APC Model ES550) many years ago (maybe 10? hard to say, might have been my second device); it has served me reasonably well. And even though I’m well aware of the nature of stand-by UPS (time delay before inverter switches on, step wave inverter output) it’s done a pretty solid job of keeping my computer up and running.

A few days ago, my home office lost power for a bit – clocks were reset, the computer switched off – and I realized it was time to upgrade the office UPS. I picked up another APC – a line interactive, sine wave output model RS 1000MS – rated for 1000VA / 600W.

It’s got plenty of juice for my needs – sitting at about 20% of load / 37 minutes of battery time with my desktop, monitor, cable modem, and a small backup server and peripheral hard drive. I’m much enamored with the front panel LED screen and the PowerChute software. And while I have not set my computer up to hibernate at the command of the UPS, that’s a possibility.

I go back a long ways – when a buck a watt was perhaps a reasonable price to pay for a small UPS. So to get all this for about $150 – well, I’m not complaining.

And I took the time to run my house cable through the internal TVSS and the Ethernet from the cable modem back to the computer through the UPS – so I’ve got a better chance of surviving nearby lightning strikes / transients – related to both transient voltages and ground potential issues. I’m not at the point of driving a ground rod and connecting an external ground though. I’m down in a basement and close to the residence service panel, so not super worried about ground issues.

And I’ve also spent some time separating critical loads (computer, monitor, cable modem, exterior drives / servers) from less critical loads (printers, speakers), plugging these latter into the TVSS only outlets. And while I was down there with the system off, I spent some time untangling the cable spaghetti, wrapping and tying off cables, neatening things up.

Backups and Archives

We’re in the process of re-organizing our office back-ups and archives.

For a while now, we’ve had a 1TB D-Link mini-server, dual parallel drives, serving as a backup device. It’s been getting full – so we decided to review and revamp. Turns out a big chunk of that drive (700 GB, at the moment) is devoted to one client, and an archive of site data and reports that go back nearly 15 years. In the early days the data sets were relatively small (by today’s standards) – 10 or 20 MB maximum. But today, we regularly see data sets that exceed 1GB.

So, new plan, we picked up a relatively low cost, 4TB backup drive (USB connection) and are moving all of the customer data over there. There’s no real requirement for this data to be backed up permanently, it’s more of a “nice to hang on to” archive. That way, we can free up the 1TB drive (still nicely serviceble and redundant as an automated backup device) for everything else.

What this requires, however, is patience. In the process of copying 700GB of data from the network drive to the USB drive is taking some time (days really); it’s slowing down my main workstation a bit but not enough for me to set up something else to handle the chore.

Once the data gets pushed to the new drive, I’ll clean up the old backup drive, and also clear out some space on my main workstation and spend some time defragging the disks.

 

Engineering Templates

Popped up on Facebook this week; a friend posted some guitar innards and a commenter referenced engineering templates – and it was off to the races.

Picket 16101

Picket 1610I – A personal favorite by dint of the transformers and the Delta-Wye transformer windings

Which is more terrifying:

  • I’m of an age where I actually used these for their intended purpose?
  • I still have these?
  • I knew exactly where they were? They’ve sat waiting patiently in the hanging file folder I put them in when I started consulting in ’95.

Apparently one can still purchase these – although I’m not sure how many are sold. I’ve not seen a drafting table in use (except perhaps ironically) for many years.

Truth be told my love affair with these tools goes back much further – Dad worked in IT back when the Univac brand was on top of the industry, and weekend trips to his office meant a morning of messing around with programming templates, making punch cards, shooting big rubberbands (used to bundle punch cards or print-outs). Every year at xmas we’d get a dot-matrix, ascii art peanuts calendar – I found a pretty representative sample at Hackaday.

The Guru’s Cat

When the guru sat down to worship each evening, the ashram cat would get in the way and distract the worshipers. So he ordered that the cat be tied during evening worship.

After the guru died the cat continued to be tied during evening worship. And when the cat died, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be duly tied during evening worship.

Centuries later learned treatises were written by the guru’s disciples on the religious and liturgical significance of tying up a cat while worship is performed.

– Anthony De Mello, The Song of the Bird

A music festival where I’ve been a volunteer for nearly 25 years is doing their annual mid-winter pre-fest sales – selling a limited number of tickets at a reduced price. It’s a good way to carry the festival organizers over the winter, and to give regular festies a price break.

What’s NOT so good is how they do it – phone only, with a limited staff processing orders manually over a three day period. I’ve seen some posts on social media:

“After 111 attempts to get through, over a span of twelve minutes, tickets have been procured!”

Mine took longer than usual — 179 calls and 48 minutes (you re-dial faster than I do) . . .

and from one of the folks on the other end of the line:

FYI y’all S & A are working fingers off to accommodate youralls calls for tix & are very grateful for your wonderful patience

See, the thing is, this could be done online through eCommerce – put a limited number of tickets for sale (so you do not oversell) and for a limited time. Yeah, there’s a service fee (but probably not all that much higher than the credit card fees) and I suspect most customers would pony up an additional $5 or $10 per ticket to cover an eCommerce solution (and not have to dial in 100+ time). You could sell out your winter pre-fest stock without having to tie up customers, your staff, etc.

But….it’s been done this way for 25+ years and will probably always be done this way. Like the Guru’s Cat, sometimes we do things out of habit or tradition or inertia without stepping back and considering other options.

Spreadsheet Automation

We’ve spent some time recently putting together a spreadsheet for a client to review advance reservations for a local Dinner Train. It is intended to help management and marketing look down the road to fine-tune marketing and social media efforts.

The magic is the use of templates and macros – the spreadsheet is designed to quickly and easily import data obtained from an eCommerce platform (Shopify), and with the push of a button, to sort, filter, and copy the data so that the charts are automatically produced – in less than a minute, and by users who are not spreadsheet gurus.

Dinner Train Instructions

Step-by-step instructions embedded into the spreadsheet to ensure non-expert users and/or new users can work with the spreadsheet.

We set the spreadsheet and graphs up just once – and through macros, paste new data into the spreadsheet, so that the graphs are updated and ready for use without touching them at all.

DT Spring 10May16B

DT Spring 10May16C

DT Spring 10May16D

Just one of our many skills and services – if you have data that you’re having trouble making good use of, or are spending too much time on repetitive tasks to get your data into useful form, give us a shout. A few hours of work setting up an automated spreadsheet can yield huge savings down the road.

Autoclicker – A Handy Bit of Code

One of my annoying little work tasks involves scrolling through scores to hundreds of power disturbance graphs with Reliable Power Meter’s PAS software. Since RPM, now a subsidiary of Fluke, seems to excel at quirky ergonomic design, there is no way to set up the software to rapidly and easily page through the disturbance graphs so as to review each one. (there is also no way to extract low frequency transients or load generated transients from the data set, so looking at every single disturbance graph is required to be thorough, which I am, and sometimes there are 1000’s of images to review)

Can you say Repetitive Stress Injury?

But I found a neat software package from Valis Enterprises called Autoclicker that seems to help. With this, I can switch on the autoclicker, click the first graph, and simply watch as the events scroll at a programmable rate. With a small logging sheet so I can note events of interest to review later, I can review a full data set without wearing out my mouse or my wrist.

This hearkens back to the days when I was analyzing BMI-4800 data (large rolls of thermal paper) – I wanted to make a motorized roller / unroller to scroll through the data as well as re-roll the tapes afterwards. Never did get that one done.