Friday, April 25, 2014

Hot tubs and computers

Here we are in pristine wilderness, so far from civilization that I can’t raise a single radio station.  Forget about weather reports, I can’t even raise the shortwave God stations.  That’s how far we are from the rest of the world.  So WTF is wrong that I am fixing bloody computers?

My kids are young enough that they don’t remember when computers used to be mechanically suspect out of the box.  It used to be that if you unpacked them and they started up on their own and ran for a couple of weeks then you could pretty well count on them to keep running.  I did some computer sales and troubleshooting so I’m not completely clueless.  I have however come to the point where I assume that the problem is NOT the hardware.  Because typically it isn’t.  Part of that attitude is driven by the fact that Microsoft routinely pushes “updates” that don’t work.  That flood of software induced problems overwhelms any memory of the occasional hardware glitch that we may have and feeds our perception that the hardware always works.  By comparison to the software, the hardware simply does ALWAYS work – there is no doubt that computers have become extremely reliable.

So hardware wasn’t my first thought when our new touchscreen HP started acting up.  In fact I went so far as to let it go online and do a couple of updates early in its life.  It seemed so lonesome when it was unconnected to the internet.  It kept sending me plaintive little messages about how it missed its friends and wanted to chat with them in order to improve itself.  And I think those early online episodes actually helped it be a better computer.  Early in its life it would routinely forget that it was supposed to be a touchscreen computer and we would have to break out the rat to run it.  After I let it do one particular update it quit doing that and has performed perfectly in the touchscreen department.

Lately though we’ve had some issues with the GPS input to the charting software.  Now realize that this GPS input comes off a Garmin mushroom external antenna, down a very long wire from the flybridge, goes through a COM to USB adapter and enters the HP through a USB port.  So there’s several potential failure points before that information gets to the computer.  Occasionally we’ll be running along, typically after a three or four hour cruise, and the ship position on the charting software will become erratic.  Typically when that happens the charting software reacts by selecting the next waypoint in the route.  That’s not a particularly helpful solution because typically I have strategically located the waypoints to avoid things like rocks, islands, shallow water, large land masses ….. etc.  So when the charting software suddenly leaps ahead to a waypoint that may be several miles in our future it can occasion a sharp turn from the autopilot into an island or a reef.  I guess that’s why its important to have a human brain in the equation somewhere at all times. 

Initially I thought the problem was the GPS antenna and I guess it still could be.  Its difficult to troubleshoot that effectively without disconnecting a lot of little tiny wires in awkward locations.  I also considered that it might be some kind of USB driver conflict and tried running with a minimal complement of USB devices attached.  That didn’t seem to do anything.  Up until yesterday simply rebooting the computer seemed to be an effective cure.  You know – the universal Windows cure - “when it doubt, reboot.”

Yesterday we had a couple of occasions where the entire computer screen went blank and subsequently wouldn’t boot up again.  That made me think that perhaps my problem was actually hardware, unlikely as that might seem.  So yesterday afternoon I tore into disassembling our new HP all in one computer.  Its pretty difficult to get inside them compared to the old square box computers that I was accustomed to tearing apart 20 years ago.  But I got inside without having to resort to the dremel tool.

Once inside I found a particularly lame method of grounding out the USB ports that I believe may have been our problem.  Time will tell I guess but its a piss poor system, even if its not the problem.  There’s two USB ports side by side with metal jackets on them and an RJ45 port next to them, metal jacketed as well.  They’re all just jammed into the plastic housing and they take their case grounds through a flimsy bit of stainless steel spring with tabs that touch each port and another flimsy tab that touches the metal case further on.  The whole works is held in place by plastic tabs.  I rubbed all the metal with a pencil eraser and bent the flimsy tabs so they would push harder against the metal they are supposed to be connecting but I’m sceptical that anything I did would constitute a long term solution.  A soldering iron may be called for but that would likely void any warranty that may remain so I held off on that final step.

The bay that we were heading for while dealing with our computer issues is up near Bella Coola.  Its called Eucott Bay and it sits in an obviously geologically active region.  There’s a mountain to the northeast of us that looks to be topped with lava flows.  We’re here because there are hot springs here.  Last night we sat in a little pool in the rocks with probably 100 degree water.  There’s an old iron pipe coming out of the mountain that dribbles water into the pool and you can adjust the temperature in the pool by stuffing a stick in the end of the pipe.  Too cold?  Take the stick out.  Too hot?  Put the stick back in.  It works well and it is surprising how fast the pool warms up when you take the stick out.  We could tell where the hot springs were as soon as well pulled into the bay because Marilyn spotted the steam rising from the mud where the overflow leaves the hot pool.


The little speck in the bay is Gray Hawk – the foreground is the natural hot tub on the beach at Eucott Bay.


Hot water comes out of the mountain through that old iron pipe – there’s a piece of stick that you shove in the pipe to reduce the water flow when the pool gets too hot.  And it gets REALLY hot on a warm day.  The first night it was kind of cold out so it took a lot of hot water but the next night it was piping hot even with the stick in the pipe.


This gives a little better perspective of the pool and the bay.  Gray Hawk looks pretty tiny in the middle of the bay.

No comments: