Geeking out

When it comes to desktop computers for me, either it rains, or it pours.  Mine never seem to behave correctly for very long, and since I build my own systems, I’m always tinkering with it, and trying to either fix something or keep it from crashing completely.

For the last six months, my issue has been with the monitor.  Or the video card that came attached to the motherboard of the desktop.  I think it was more the video card since I was able to use the monitor attached to my laptop, via an HDMI cable for a period of about a year.  My original issue was the desktop was misbehaving, I would power it up, it would run for about 30 seconds, then shut off again.  I spent the better part of a few days troubleshooting it, then decided it wasn’t worth my time and energy and shelved it while I used the laptop as a workaround.  I bought a 4-bay HD enclosure to simulate the storage on the desktop and for a time it worked ok.  It wasn’t the best configuration, but it was doable, and I wasn’t having too many issues.  True the desktop was basically a doorstop under my computer desk for a year, but it was out of the way and wasn’t causing an issue.  Every few weeks, if I remembered, I’d power up the desktop, it would go through its 30 seconds routine and shut down again.  And life would continue on.

Until one day when I powered it up, it stayed on and went through its complete startup.  Even to the point of starting Windows and just sitting there, as if it managed to fix itself.  I was, rather surprised to say the least.  Tech doesn’t fix itself.  At least not in my universe.  Maybe where Skynet™ is the dominant lifeform.  Not here.  Or at least I hope not.  Regardless, I didn’t take it for granted, I sprung into action and backed up settings, grabbed copies of programs and information I hadn’t been able to access for months (except for the really important stuff that I was able to pull from hard drives that I just physically removed from the tower and accessed remotely) and tentatively disconnected the laptop from the monitor, etc, and used the desktop again.  All the while thinking that maybe it was time to go to or and get a new barebones system to replace this one.

Except I didn’t necessarily want to make the expense and headache of setting up a new system.  Barebones builds don’t always go so easily.  I compare it to the Johnny Cash song ‘One Piece at a Time‘, since you’re marrying different components to one system, and they all have to work in concert with one another.  The selling company does most of the hard work for you, in that they crunch the numbers and decide which motherboard and chipset work together, and make suggestions if you want to up or downgrade, depending on your needs.  If you’re a gamer, you’re going to want a more powerful system (an overclocked chip more than likely, a beefier motherboard, power supply, and so on) much more so than someone that does a few things in a multi-tasking form.  In the intervening years, I’ve upgraded to a 64-bit system from the 32-bit I grew up with, being able to access more of the memory onboard of the computer, and things run faster with the advent of access to broadband Internet.  We’re not talking dial-up or even DSL anymore.  Although it’s not the ‘big-leagues’ either.

Getting back to the issue at hand though.  My monitor has been acting up for the better part of the last few months.  The display occasionally cuts out, then comes back with distorted colors, or it just blanks out completely.  At that point I have little recourse than to shut down the computer via the power button, something I don’t like to do, as the OS (Operating System) doesn’t have the ability to shut down things in sync, it’s more like using a big on/off button to turn off the power.  Everything shuts down at once and that’s not good for the system.  I’ve kicked around the idea that it might be the HDMI cable or the connection on the motherboard.  The MB is 8 years old now, it’s gone through thousands of power on cycles and it might be time to move on.  At this point, my interim solution has been to order a new video card.

I didn’t want to order something really fancy-schmancy, since this is an older computer.  I don’t need to run heavy-duty computer games, there are no 3D or 4K necessities or make the monitor do headstands or star jumps, it just needs to communicate accurately with the tower, and let me see what’s going on and manipulate, all the visual things one does with a computer.

That being said, I went with a $55 MSI GeForce GT 710 card.  It does have some gaming capability, but mostly I needed a durable card that could support HDMI and DVI connections (I rarely use VGA anymore) so in the future when I do break down and build a new system, the card can come along for the ride.

The day before yesterday after work I decided to install it.  I have a can of compressed air, so I used that as well to evict the dust-bunny colony that had taken up residence in the tower.  As it turns out I almost used up the entire can, there were so many inside.  It took a little doing to get the card installed, as I’ve never been very good with my cables inside a computer tower.  Cables going this way and that, not tied down or tied together, or tied much in any way, so airflow inside is predictably problematic.  With a bit of finagling though, I got it installed.  Buttoned up the tower, reconnected all the appropriate cables, hit the power button, and…nothing.  Oh no.  Did I accidentally screw up the tower?  Was there some static electricity discharge I was unaware of? (I didn’t wear my static strap, though I probably should have while working with the delicate electronics but invariably I almost always forget).  After about a minute of fumbling (and dropping the tower on my left pinky) I figured out while I was balancing on the power strip, I accidentally shut it off.  Duh.

Tried it again with the power on and voila!  Success!  The tower powered up went through its checks and the monitor came on without a whit of the previous problems.  Of course, the native resolution was off, but I think that was initially set very low in case someone has a smaller monitor.  It took only a moment or two to get it set appropriately and register the card with the home office.  It’s been working like a champ ever since and I have to admit the colors on the monitor haven’t been this crisp in ages.  Very pleased with my purchase and looking forward to seeing what this baby can do in the coming weeks, months, and years.

Change of the Guard

It was time.  Say adios to Odin & Loki and say hello to Calvin & Hobbes.

Ok, I realize that doesn’t make much sense when put like that, but here’s what it means.

Typically (almost) every year I change the passwords and SSIDs to my wireless router access.  On the current router there are two options; 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz.  For the past two years, we’ve had Odin & Loki.  (I was going through my Marvel phase).  Before that was Amadeus & Poughkeepsie [2018], then Hephaestus & Ares [2015], and finally my Harry Potter phase of Dumbledore & Severus_Snape [2013].  Prior to that I had a different router, and I don’t remember what the SSIDs were.  This year I was looking for a duo that was whimsical, and I didn’t want to get bogged down in minutae so I went with the venerable Calvin & Hobbes. [I could have gone with Opus & Binkley, but Wattersons’s duo came to mind first.  Maybe in 2021.]

Of course, when I change the SSIDs, since so many of the tech we have are dependent on the info being correct, I had to go through the house and change everything that connected to the router manually in order for it all to continue to work as it should.  For example; as soon as I changed things, the cameras on the outside of the house went offline, the lamp upstairs as well as the lights in the living and dining room stayed on, and didn’t turn off when they were programmed to.  Tablets, phones, my tv in the den and both Roku boxes went offline and needed to be updated to the new SSIDs.

When updating things of this nature, I tend to ‘beef up’ the security on them as well.  When I first started password protecting myself online, passwords were pretty simple.  Nowadays one has to be aware of dictionary based attacks, and keeping track of 500+ passwords is impossible.  Especially when you have to try to remember nonsensical strings of letters, numbers and special characters.  tabby#0645 is a lot easier to remember than something like JsWnY=4m&hz}Lv}.  Sure the second one is way more secure, but there’s nothing to link it to in your brain to remember what the heck it is.  Consequently, for the last 12 years, I’ve been using Password Depot, it has saved my bacon more than a few times, and now it’s available as an app for my phone, which allows me to access my passwords wherever I am.  Truly a game changer.

So, Calvin and Hobbes are residing in the house for the next year.  Things are locked down (in more ways than one) and we’re secure for whatever comes in the months ahead.

Oops, almost forgot.  The guest SSIDs are ‘GuestOfUs’ and ‘StrangeWomenLyingInPonds’.  If you happen to visit, ask for the passwords.

Speedy Delivery

Last night, my wife was having some issues with her gaming laptop.  The one she bought when she needed a new portable computer and decided to get this fancy-schmancy one that can be used for gaming (or hacking mainframes I fervently believe) and is a behemoth.

For whatever reason, it was dragging in terms of doing what she needed for it to do online and she asked me if it was on the fastest connection we had.  I told her, no, it’s not.  For one thing, it’s on WI-FI through the house network, so it’s only able to go as fast as the wireless connection allows.  If it were connected via hardwire to the router, it would be able to utilize the faster connection the wire provides.  After checking the wireless connection I confirmed she was using the 2.4 GHz connection (Odin) instead of the 5 GHz connection (Loki) through the D-Link router.

She asked if I had the password to the faster connection.  Of course, the answer is yes, but I don’t have the password memorized.  I change the password every six months, so I can’t remember it each time, I don’t have that memory capacity, and have no desire to memorize thirteen character alpha-numeric plus special character passwords ad nauseam.  I have a password program that does the work for me.  I’ve been using it for ten plus years and it’s been working just fine for the jobs that I ask of it.  Too, I can access it from anywhere through my smartphone, so that makes it useful out in the world, whether I’m near or far from home.  So again, the answer was yes.  I just had to go get it.

Once I accessed the password and put it in, something rather odd happened.  The connection was faster than I expected it to be.  I checked the throughput of the SSID, and it was telling me the connection speed was 868.9 Mbps.  That wasn’t right.  I only say this because I’ve been paying for a 100 Mbps connection for the last four years, and while there’s an option through my provider for a 1 Gbps connection, that option is $15 more per month.

Being the curious sort, I went to my desktop computer that’s wired to the router and checked the speed there.  Sure enough, it was reading 1 Gbps.  Odd.  I checked the speed through an online speedtest and got the same result that I normally get, that the speed is somewhere between 75 and 90 Mbps.  Which makes me even more confuzzled, since that’s what I’ve been paying for.  I’m thinking there’s some sort of problem on my end, as I figure the ISP is correct, or else I would have gotten a bump up in my bill.  I highly doubt with the current world situation they would bump up everyone’s speed and put more stress on the system.  If anything it would be the reverse, they’d slow down everyone because so many more people are logging on at this time, with only certain people’s back at work physically and so many more are telecommuting from home.  Or outright not working and spending time streaming movies, or other things online to pass the time while we all wait for either a cure or the coronavirus to pass on.

Either way, it’s something new to keep an eye on.