Wednesday, January 21, 2009

if it's not one thing, it's another -- or it's nothing realistic at all

Hello, people. It's so good to see a new President inaugurated into office, and unlike most of the ceremonies that came before yesterday's this one actually had some spirit, some involvement from the citizens, instead of just being pomp and circumstance merely for the sake of expectation. It was a day! A day of celebration, excitement, joy, and enjoyment that everyone could share in. I watched the two swearings-in, followed by the next two hours of (in the words of the first President Bush, whispered to Barbara and caught by a CNN camera) "hurry up and wait". Then I went back to bed for another four hours because this boy does not live on five hours of sleep alone.

I have a serious stupidity or three to share. Here is the basic information which these apply to, which I will be repeating parts of in the context of the issues I am going to state: My new notebook computer has developed a new problem -- I hadn't touched it in a few weeks and had plugged it in the other day to charge, but it only looks like it is charging. The battery power remains at 0% after several hours. I have two other batteries, which the computer insists it cannot charge; the indications that it cannot recognise the batteries are a red light on the panel where it is usually green (okay) or yellow (charging) -- and a built-in utility in the computer's hardware [a BIOS feature for power monitoring] gives messages about not being able to identify the battery's manufacturer. Yes, the computer works fine when plugged in, but being a notebook the ability to run on battery alone is expected behavior. The same thing had happened to my older (Pentium 166) computer a few years ago; for whatever reason the recharging circuitry built into the mainboard can get fried if you leave it plugged in without using it for an extended period. I was looking up details about my issue on the Web, specifically "what does the battery charge light turning red mean?" because this isn't covered in the manual or anywhere on Dell's website. (That is a stupidity of its own.) creekside treehouse I rephrased this at some point to something about the computer not recognising or charging the battery. After several hours of searching and reading things, I concluded it the recharging circuitry gone bad. I have ordered a replacement motherboard off eBay for one-third to one-twenthieth of the standard prices; notebook computers are similar to automobiles in that a new engine costs more than the value of the car, so the scrapyards collecting such machinery make a killing parting out the "useless" item you may have given them for free.

Let's start with one that can be considered universal: We have come to rely upon Internet search engines to answer our questions, which usually isn't that bad a thing (though teachers and librarians are beginning to be annoyed by students whose only source of information for reports is Wikipedia, one that is often correct and definitely more up-to-date than books for subjects that evolve, but yet offers information that is as subjective, slanted, or incorrect as the writers and contributors make it). But as with any cataloging system, the question has to be asked before it can be looked up, and it has to be answered before it's worth looking up. Additionally you have to understand the issue or have certain keywords before you can attempt an effectve search. There is an unbelieveable number of websites devoted to technical issues and specific computer-related subjects. Complaint number one is the uselessness of web resources. An example: Someone on WikiAnswers, a site whose name implies you can find answers, described a similar issue about how their brand new battery is not recognised when plugged into the computer. WikiAnswers operates like a cross between Yahoo Answers (if you ever wanted a serious question answered by a 14 year old) and Wikipedia. The "approved" answer: Someone quoted from the optional battery charger's manual to tell how to, are you ready?, plug the battery into the charger. That's the sort of thing that makes me want to go into impromptu colorectal surgery; someone needs to be torn a new anus for such a totally "I didn't actually read the question" reply on an ANSWERS webpage. Another example: My search took me to Microsoft's public forums, because I figured they might have something useful. Now, I've been teching for ten years so I should know by now that this isn't normally the case, even if you have the specific error code Windows or Microsoft apps generate. I found four or five instances where someone was repeating the error dialog that I was trying to look up, so my heart leapt and my spirits rose -- and the response each of those questions received, repeatedly from different people, was "you're in the wrong forum, case closed." As you can guess, the question was neither forwarded to the right forum nor was it ever re-asked in the right one as far as my search could conclude. Final example: Approximately half of the times I saw the question asked, whether it was 'around' through Google or on Dell's own forums, there was no answer at all... years pass and not one response, or the singular responses don't add anything meaningful ("what operating system are you using?").

An issue specific to my day but seen frequently from others: Notebook computer batteries often have a little bit of circuitry built in that measures how much energy there is inside the cells so that the battery life can be estimated. No one wants to be going along, going along, going along then suddenly *blah* they're out of juice and the computer dies without warning. But Dell seems to have taken this to a bonus level: Complaint number two is stupid battery identification. A few years ago there was a flap about how printer maker Lexmark had put chips in the ink cartridges for certain models of printers, with the result being that if you ran out of ink you had to buy a new ink cartridge, because if you refilled the cartridge you already own and put it back in the printer would refuse to use it because it 'knew' that the cartridge had been emptied. [The fix was simple -- have a second cartridge, put that in to 'reset' the identifier the printer got from the chip, and then you could use your first, refilled, cartridge thereafter.] For the battery situation, it too has an identifier built into the battery circuitry, which contains a manufacturer code or something. The result is that if you put a battery not sold by Dell into the computer, it may be a good battery but you will get an error message saying it doesn't like the battery. Ahem. My issue is that all three batteries I own are Dell parts indeed, but two of them it claims are not (or that it can't recognise them as being such). One of these two I took directly out of the package, so it had never been used, which nullifies the first thing people said in the web results I found: "you have a worn-out battery, it needs to be replaced." Several other people who asked the question to get that response also were not using old batteries, so that battery identifier thing has jinxed other people on various models. (The second thing people said, "update your BIOS", didn't fix my issue and apparently has only resolved one person's issue on one specific laptop -- only because that error was an actual known bug on one model so Dell created a new BIOS version explicity to fix it.)

The third issue is, "okay, tell me more now!" Summing up, I came across something from a former Dell employee online which talked like the issue was so well known as to be boring (I know the feeling, regarding some software and devices I gave tech support on in the past), and he made reference to a "BIOS hack" he'd often administered that would turn off the battery identifier check. He said that the caviat was that while this would get rid of the battery-not-recognised error and even lead to longer battery life, it also meant less monitoring of the battery thus a higher chance of battery overheating. (And the computer industry has had several lawsuits over instances of batteries bursting into flames while in use. A flaming notebook on your desk or in your lap is not a happy thing.) This message was posted in 2005, so let's consider him long-gone. Okay, this sounds like the fix I need to get those two spare batteries in gear, presuming the one that is recognised but is not charging has gone to seed (which is a possibility, it's likely been in the computer since the notebook's original sale around 2001). Did he say what it was? No. Did he say where to find it? No. Can I find this in a Google search? No. Do I find anything useful about BIOS editing on Dells through Google? Only as pertains to changing the Dell logo at powerup to something else, or removing a security password that keeps nosy people out of the BIOS. I am annoyed. But like I said, I'm attributing my battery recognision failure to the broken charging circuit on the hardware and not to the batteries themselves or the BIOS (which isn't getting passed the data from the circuit) so I can put that annoyance aside for now.

I do have one other computer annoyance tangentally connected to the notebook but isn't related to the battery and charging system... Circuit City, the second largest retailer of electronics in America, has decided to close its doors, putting about 13,000 people across the country out of work. (And that's yet another stupidity of its own, with several bad consequences.) I went there to pick up some stuff on sale, though their discounts were not that good considering that their prices were higher than their competition and the key items I wanted were gone. One of the things I wanted was a 2 gigabyte USB thumbdrive, which they had at $25 and up. Uh, no. I went to Big!Lots which always has plenty of memory devices, and found a bin of Kingston DataTraveler 2gb thumbdrives marked $10. It rang up as $8, so excellent. Kingston is one of the major reputable memory makers so I had no second thoughts about buying one. I got home, tried it out on my main computer, and all is well. But then I plugged it into my notebook, and it went through this loop of saying it couldn't figure the device out then checking again with the same result. I did a little web searching and the Kingston DataTraveler 2gb came up with some frequency. Hmm, this could be why there was a bin at Big!Lots... not because it was passé (like my wife's 128mb JumpDrive, another purchase from them awhile ago; you don't see anything smaller than 512mb nowadays except at back-to-school sales) but because it was problematic. None of the sites in my search that mentioned this make and model identified a known issue or named fixes that worked for everyone; one did imply that not all computers have enough power going to their USB ports to make them work, and that's probably the case here. My notebook has only one USB port (two when it is docked), which rules out the first suggestion made, "if the ports on the front of the computer don't work, try the ports on the back." coyote on Elmhurst Road Since Kingston gives free support, I've submitted a ticket to them with the full details, and if the issue is as widespread as the help forums imply they best offer a solution rather than teching this in ways that I have already been covered or asking questions that have already been asked. Nothing annoys a computer geek more than having their relevant teching or provided data ignored by a scriptmonkey. Okay, there is one thing: when someone closes a ticket without any sort of attention, or the tech throws out a blunt statement like "is it plugged in?" as though the person were an idiot and closes the ticket. This does inspire impromptu colorectal surgery.

Update, 3pm: I got a reply back from the scriptmonkey -- gawd, I was hoping not to get a scriptmonkey -- who did a cut-and-paste reply saying this: Reboot, try a different port, and we don't support USB 1.1 devices. I'd made it clear in my original ticket that this machine only has one port (and repeated that the thumbdrive works fine on other computers and other thumbdrives work fine on this machine) and he should know by the model that it's a 2.0 device. I deleted the words "please try again" from the end of my reply before sending, but left the two para-sarcastic "as you read previously..." statements in. Since he didn't.

Hmm, this may be heavy on computer ranting but if you're reading this, you have undoubtedly encountered something on your machine that made you say, "but WHY is this problem happening?" The picture of the day was taken a mile or two from my house on a back road. I looked up at this little field I drove by that I keep wanting to wander with my camera and there was a coyote! I turned around, drove back slowly with camera at the ready, the critter got camera-shy and trotted off, and so I could only take one photo... and what does the camera's autofocus pick up on? The big canine? Nope. The two milimeter wide stem of a weed.

I'm a MAC user. Computer problems are very frustrating. I've found that MACs have less problems.
Your frustrations are evident in this post.
My experience with Macs and Mac techs is that indeed, they truly do plug-and-play correctly and have a higher reliability rate... with the caviat that when something goes wrong, it goes horribly wrong. :)
i have the same charging problem with my laptop. grrr..

modern cameras are supposed to be getting smarter about autofocus. i wonder how much we give up by ceding this work to the machine.
I'll put it all in the next entry, but the quick 'n dirty version: I bought a new mobo (an upgrade, really, the existing was was 400mhz and this is 500mhz) and it still wouldn't recognise two batteries or charge the third. Against all odds it could very well be the batteries...

I was unhappy to discover that my camera, despite having all sorts of user tweakable settings, has no means for user focus. That seems weird to me, that the most important function in any camera of any sort is the one you can't do yourself.

My previous camera was one step worse: It wouldn't take the picture at all if it couldn't pull a focus. I missed some really good low-light photos at my 20 year reunion for that reason.
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