Tinkering isn’t dead, but it is changing

When Radio Shack announced its bankruptcy, I read more fears that the age of tinkering is dead than I read laments for the store.

I follow the logic, because Radio Shack was the only national store chain that ever tried to cater to tinkerers. But I don’t think people abandoning Radio Shack means tinkering is necessarily dead. I have plenty of indications that it’s still very much alive, but it’s also very different from how it used to be.

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More about Pfsense, the alternative to the crappy consumer router

I spent some time over the weekend playing with Pfsense, and I can’t say much about it other than it does what it says. I didn’t throw a ton of hardware at it–the best motherboard I have laying around is a late P4-era Celeron board, and the best network card I could find was, believe it or not, an ancient Netgear 10/100 card with the late, lamented DEC Tulip chipset on it. Great card for its time, but, yeah, nice 100-megabit throughput, hipster.

If you actually configure your routers rather than just plugging them in, you can do this. Plug in a couple of network cards, plug in a hard drive that you don’t mind getting overwritten, download Pfsense, write the image file to a USB stick, boot off the USB stick, and follow the prompts. Then, to add wireless, plug in a well-supported card like a TP-Link and follow the howto. Read more

Book scanning on the (relatively) cheap

Ars Technica has a fascinating article on the trials and tribulations of building a book scanner from a kit.

They lament the lack of software support, however–namely, a program to convert the image files generated by the digital camera into a PDF. Should I point them in the right direction? Why not? The key is Imagemagick, of course.
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The good (or at least decent) $89 tablet

Right around a year ago, I wrote about the difficulties of making a good $100 tablet. But then, today, I read on Slashdot about someone finding a nice $45 Android tablet in a Chinese bazaar, then finding a similar unit at Fry’s back home in the States, priced at $89.

That raised a couple of questions. First of all, what’s the tablet?

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What to do about a router dropping connections

A former classmate and coworker contacted me with a question.

My router is about 5 years old. I have a cable modem and a router. The cable modem is fine. The router keeps connecting and disconnecting from the internet…used to happen occasionally, now happens all the time. I reset it and it works for a while, then disconnects. Is it time for a new router or do you think something else is going on?

I see two options. Read more

Gary Kildall and what might have been

Gary Kildall and what might have been

I didn’t have time to write everything I wanted to write yesterday, so I’m going to revisit Bill Gates and Gary Kildall today. Bill Gates’ side of the DOS story is relatively well documented in his biographies: Gates referred IBM to Gary Kildall, who for whatever reason was less comfortable working with IBM than Gates was. And there was an airplane involved, though what Kildall was doing in the airplane and why varies. By some accounts he was meeting another client, and by other accounts it was a joyride. IBM in turn came back to Gates, who had a friend of a friend who was cloning CP/M for the 8086, so Microsoft bought the clone for $50,000, cleaned it up a little, and delivered it to IBM while turning a huge profit. Bill Gates became Bill Gates, and Kildall and his company, Digital Research, slowly faded away.

The victors usually get to write the history. I’ve tried several times over the years to find Kildall’s side of the story. I first went looking sometime in 1996 or so, for a feature story about Internet misinformation I wrote for the Columbia Missourian‘s Sunday magazine. For some reason, every five years or so I end up chasing the story down again.
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Do you need faster Internet, or just TCP Optimizer?

A longtime reader wrote in this week recommending TCP Optimizer. I’ve used this program off and on for years, but don’t seem to have ever mentioned it on the blog.

I talked about similar programs in my book, but TCP Optimizer works with all modern (and many ancient) versions of Windows, and it can make a tremendous difference. It’s a small, self-contained program that doesn’t require any installation, the way programs ought to be.

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Buy online, manufacture at home

The way we buy things (or don’t buy them) has changed a lot in the last decade or so. We stopped buying CDs. Now that our Internet connections are fast enough, we’ve really slowed down on buying movies, too. And the emergence of practical e-readers means a lot fewer people are buying books now too. All of this is part of the reason why there’s probably a Borders closing near you, and there are suddenly a lot less of what we used to call record stores too.

But there’s something even bigger looming overhead. 3D printing. Ars Technica has a piece about its legal implications.  Rather than rehash that, I’d rather talk about some of its other implications, including why you should care at all.

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Installing Windows off USB

I sure wish I’d seen Wintoflash a few weeks ago.

It’s simple. Insert a Windows CD or DVD (anything from XP to Windows 7). Plug in a blank USB flash drive (or one you don’t mind erasing). Answer a couple of questions, and after a few minutes, you have a bootable USB stick that installs Windows. It will be much faster than CD or DVD because flash media has much faster seek times.

So what could be better? Well, slipstreamed and customized Windows of course.First, go get ctupdate and run it to get all the current hotfixes and service packs for whatever version of Windows you use.

Next, use Nlite to easily slipstream in all those service packs and hotfixes. While you’re at it, you can remove whatever non-optional inessentials you want. All the games, Media Player, Movie Maker, Outlook Express, and stuff like that are fair game. If you feel brave, you can even (horrors!) remove Internet Explorer.

Rebuilding a PC used to take most of a weekend to do, but with an up-to-date installation on a USB stick, I think the task could take an afternoon, as long as the target computer is new enough to support booting off USB.

And to a tinkerer, it could be very nice. Speeding up installation and modification would allow a tinkerer to be more aggressive with Nlite in terms of changes. Make a fatal change, and it’s no big deal–just back out of the change and reinstall, and in about 15 minutes you’re up and running with a new configuration.

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