Troubleshooters.Com Presents

Linux Productivity Magazine

Volume 2 Issue 9, September 2003

The Hand Me Down Linux Box

Copyright (C) 2003 by Steve Litt. All rights reserved. Materials from guest authors copyrighted by them and licensed for perpetual use to Linux Productivity Magazine. All rights reserved to the copyright holder, except for items specifically marked otherwise (certain free software source code, GNU/GPL, etc.). All material herein provided "As-Is". User assumes all risk and responsibility for any outcome.

See also Troubleshooting Techniques of the Successful Technologist
and Rapid Learning: Secret Weapon of the Successful Technologist
by Steve Litt

[ Troubleshooters.Com | Back Issues |Troubleshooting Professional Magazine ]

The hardest thing in life is to know which bridge to cross and which to burn. -- David Russell


Editor's Desk

By Steve Litt
It is the best of times, it is the worst of times.

It's the best of times. For $500.00 you can put together a screamer computer: Athlon 2000+, 512 of DDR, 80GB disk.

And it's the worst of times. You might not have $500.00.

Three years ago $500.00 was a day's pay for a technologist. With job cuts, foreign competition, and H1B visas, for all too many of us, it's now a week's pay. As if that isn't bad enough, taxes and expenses have risen dramatically. Free healthcare is a distant memory. Ballooning state and local taxes more than gobble up your share of the recent federal tax cut.

And your child needs a computer.

The solution is often a hand me down computer. If done right, hand me down computers save your budget. But if done wrong, they're a neverending money sink. Read on...
Steve Litt is the author of Samba Unleashed.   Steve can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

Help Publicize Linux Productivity Magazine

By Steve Litt
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For months I've publicized Linux Productivity Magazine, expanding it from a new magazine to a mainstay read by thousands. There's a limit to what I can do alone, but if you take one minute to help, the possibilities are boundless.

If you like this magazine, please report it to one of the Linux magazines. Tell them the URL, why you like it, and ask them to link to it.

I report it to them, but they don't take it very seriously when an author blows his own horn. When a hundred readers report the magazine, they'll sit up and take notice.

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Steve Litt is the author of Samba Unleashed.   Steve can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

The Hand Me Down Philosophy

By Steve Litt
It's simple enough. If you're a technologist, you need huge computing power. When computers with double your current computing power become reasonably priced, you buy one. This typically happens every 2 to 3 years. If you're a typical technologist, you've kept those old computers.

Your child doesn't need the huge computing power that you require. That super duper 1998 Pentium II with 128 MB of RAM seems like a joke today, but with a little more RAM and a lightweight Linux installation it can serve quite well as a child's computer. OK, it won't play the latest Super Dubby Doobie games, but it's great for web browsing, email, web authoring, computer programming, and the simpler games that come with any Linux distribution.

The trick is to adapt this computer for less than $150.00. After all, you can buy a high quality new computer for less than $500.00.


You can actually buy a new computer for less than $200.00. This is especially true with the new breed of pre-loaded Linux machines now becoming available. The problem is, to meet that price point, marginal components, especially motherboards, must be used. A computer likely to work when you get it home, and still be working 3 years from now, will typically cost $350.00 to $500.00.

The hand me down philosophy works hand in hand with Linux. In my opinion, Linux installs more easily, over a wider variety of hardware, than does Windows. I think anyone who has tried to install a network card in a Windows 98 machine would agree. Over the last four years, an army of programmers has written Linux drivers and hardware detection for almost everything. And because hand me down computers are in the 1 to 6 year old age range, it's likely that the hand me down will have nice, stable Linux drivers.

When handing down a computer, you follow a process. Here it is:
Steve Litt is the author of "Troubleshooting Techniques of the Successful Technologist".  Steve can be reached at Steve Litt's email address .

Sell the concept

By Steve Litt
If your son or daughter wants a computer to do the latest stuff, or if they insist on Windows XP, you need to do some selling before giving them that 300Mhz Pentium II with Mandrake 9.1 and IceWM.

One sales tool is example. If your kids see you using Linux and IceWM, they'll think it's cool -- especially if your kids are young.

Here's a dirty trick for you. Show your kids the games that come with Mandrake. Mandrake has some outstanding games, and they're very addictive. My kids like Linux primarily because of the games. Of course that backfires when you want them to use the computer productively. But it's a start.

Another tactic is to give them the choice. Either take this 300 Mhz Pentium II, or buy whatever computer you want with your own money. This is a way to find their priorities.

Perhaps you can simply "loan" them the computer. "Junior, until we can save up for your 8GHz Pentium 69 with Windows XP Super Expert Professional and 2 Terrebytes of Gigaherz RAM, I'll loan you my 300mhz Pentium II".

Whatever you do, sell the concept before going to the trouble of adapting a machine.
Steve Litt is the author of the Universal Troubleshooting Process courseware.   Steve can be reached atSteve Litt's email address.


By Steve Litt
In theory, obsolescence should give us a neverending supply of Linux computers. In theory...

In practice, certain technologies age to the point where they're impractical to upgrade. Have you priced EDO memory lately? Have you tried to replace a keyboard, power supply or motherboard on an AT case lately? Do you remember all the little tips and tricks to run your VESA video on your 486? Have you tried installing Linux on your Kaypro 2x? :-)

At some age, typically 4 to 7 years old, the price for parts and components exceeds the cost of a brand new computer. At that point your choices are:
  1. Use the computer "as is" in an application it can handle
  2. Cannibalize a large number of old computers to get all your old parts
  3. Cannibalize the computer for its parts
  4. Throw the computer away

Use the computer "as is" in an application it can handle

In the corner sits a 133 Mhz Pentium with 32 MB of EDO memory and a 500 MB hard disk in an AT case. Upgrading such a machine to handle Linux desktop computing duties would cost more than an Athlon 2000+ with 528 DDR and an 80GB drive.

So don't use it as a desktop computer. Install a network card and it becomes the ideal IPCop firewall. Or find a spare 8GB hard disk, flash the computer's bios to accept this "new huge" drive, and use it as a small office file server.

Or use it as originally intended -- as a Windows 9x box. Perhaps someone in your house is running Windows 9x on a 450Mhz machine with 128MB of PC133. Windows 9x is flaky and unstable, but it's a single user, video-in-kernel operating system that's very efficient on anemic hardware. If the win9x 450 Mhz box isn't used much, why not turn it into a Linux box and install Windows on the 133 Pentium?

Very old computers are often costly to upgrade. Many times the best course of action is to relegate the old computer to a task it can handle without a lot of upgrading.

Cannibalize a large number of old computers to get all your old parts

If you're anything like me and most of my friends, you seldom throw out computers. At any time I have about 5 video cards, 5 network cards, 5 old hard disks, and 5 sound cards hanging around, and maybe a few old computers in various states of cannibalization. New EDO memory costs $33.00 for 32MB and $72.00 for 64MB, but you might be able to scrounge the EDO you need right out of old computers in your closet. Using 3 bad machines to create one good one is the oldest trick in the world.

I have a 1996 150 Pentium (not mmx) with 96 MB of EDO, and in a pinch it can run desktop Linux.

Another trick is to get parts from people at your LUG. Geeks typically keep old computers and parts until either they change residence, or their wife gives them an ultimatum. When either of those two events happen, the Geek brings his old stuff to a LUG meeting and gives it away. Most of this stuff is junk that will just clutter up your house, but occasionally you'll find the exact component you need -- grab it.

Cannibalize the computer for its parts

If a computer is useless as a computer, don't throw it away without checking for needed parts. AT power supplies, EDO memory, IDE style video cards are rare and would be expensive to buy, but they're often right there in that ancient computer. Don't forget the motherboard -- that way if another old computer blows its motherboard, you can swap.

Put the old parts in antistatic bags and mark with what they are, and their specs. That way, 1 year from now, you'll be able to use them. In the case of old motherboards, try to keep their manuals.

Throw the computer away

Housing costs between fifty cents and a dollar per month per square foot. Sometimes it's penny wise and dollar foolish to use your house as a warehouse. With truly useless stuff, especially if it's big and bulky, the dumpster is your friend. There's little reason to keep AT style cases. Remove the power supply (if it still works), and throw away the case.

Some computers are so old as to be useless. Free up some space by tossing that 486-25 with 4MB of RAM. Maybe keep the power supply and the disk, but that's it. Motherboards without PCI slots are worthless today. Throw them out.

Be ruthless with intermittent components. If a motherboard intermittently fails, get it out of your possession. We may not earn what we used to, but even in these penny pinching days our time is worth too much to work around an intermittent component.

Steve Litt is the author of Rapid Learning: Secret Weapon of the Successful Technologist. He can be reached atSteve Litt's email address.

Mix and match parts

By Steve Litt
It's a rare computer that is totally suited to a task. Most computers, whether brand new or ancient, need some hardware tweaks to make them perfect for a job.

1997 computers were made to run Windows 95, not Linux. In retrospect, Windows 95 was incredibly efficient with memory and disk space. The 1997 computer typically has a fast enough processor for light Linux desktop activity, but its RAM, swap memory and disk space in general must be upgraded. Fortunately this isn't difficult.

It's a rare Geek who doesn't have an old 6GB disk hanging around. 6GB is almost worthless by today's standards, but it will host a complete Linux system and still have over a gigabyte left over for data. Be aware that you might need to flash the old computer's bios to get it to accept this "huge" disk. Flashing bioses is dangerous -- it can destroy the motherboard. But don't worry, the market value of this motherboard is less than five dollars.

RAM is a little trickier. If you're lucky it has PC100 or PC133 SDRAM. If so, you can upgrade with SD133 SDRAM at $50.00 for a stick of 256MB. Be sure to leave your old, slower memory in bank 1, and place the faster memory in higher numbered banks. That way when the computer boots up, it will access all memory at the speed of the slowest. Or better yet, if the original SDRAM is tiny, like 64MB, just take it out. Keep it to use for testing and the like.

If your computer has EDO memory, that's more problematic. The biggest sticks are only 64MB, and those cost $72.00. In such cases it's often best to scrounge memory from various machines. Remember to put the slowest RAM in bank 1. You might want to set your bios to access the RAM slowly if you're mixing various RAM. If intermittence occurs, try removing various sticks until you isolate the stick or combination of sticks giving the problem.

Ancient video cards with 2MB of onboard RAM aren't sufficient for modern Linux desktop activities unless you're running 640x480x256. Pentium class computers have PCI slots, and you can usually find PCI video cards with 4 or 8MB onboard RAM. Test all your video cards in the computer, boot, and read the sign-on message. Label all video cards with model and memory amount. You can often purchase a 4 or 8MB PCI video card dirt cheap at a computer swap meet from a member of your LUG.

In the old days, finding a network card to work with Linux was a chore. Today, in my opinion, setting up video cards in Linux is MUCH easier than it is in Windows. You probably have a favorite brand and model of $12.00 network cards -- use that in your Linux box. Or better yet, cannibalize a PCI network card off another computer.

You get the idea. Collect all the right parts until you have a working machine. Sure it takes a lot of time, but the days of Geeks having more money than time are a distant memory.
Steve Litt is the author of the Universal Troubleshooting Process courseware.   Steve can be reached atSteve Litt's email address.

Buy what's necessary

By Steve Litt
Almost invariably, you'll need to buy something. Doesn't that defeat the purpose of a hand me down computer? Not necessarily.

First, you might be able to buy it cheap. A $12.00 network card, a $35.00 CDROM drive, a couple $2.00 IDE cables -- these things are cheap -- buy without guilt.

But some things are expensive. Like hard disks. You can't pay less than $69.00 for a new hard disk, no matter how small it might be. It would be wonderful to pay $20.00 for a 15MB hard disk, but there's no such deal unless you buy it used, and then it might not work. What's a Geek to do?

Enter the world of trickle down computing. Let's say you have a Duron machine with a very nice 20GB disk that's getting full. You can spend $79.00 on an 80GB disk for the Duron box, and then use the 20GB in the 300Mhz Pentium II you're putting together. Trickle down works marvelously with computer monitors. Your 6 year old needs a monitor, and you have none. You can spend $199.00 on that new 19" flatscreen with .20 dot pitch that you've been salivating over for a year, and then give your wife your current curved screen 19". She gives her 17" to your 12 year old, who gives her nice 15" to your 10 year old, who gives his ancient 15" to your 6 year old. Yes, you spent $199.00, but besides your 6 year old getting a monitor, four other people got better monitors. Money well spent.

There are many great sources for used equipment. Most cities have at least one "computer swap meet" or "computer show". Larger cities have them monthly. Such shows always feature vendors selling used equipment. Here in Orlando, we have a dealer calling his booth "Junkfest". All sorts of used, untested, unguaranteed equipment sold at bargain basement prices. Like two 15GB drives for $10.00. I personally don't have the patience to shop at Junkfest, but many of my friends swear by it.

The local computer show always features several vendors selling used monitors. They're turned on and ready to look at. I'll often buy anything displaying a picture for $10.00. I'll go up to $25.00 or even $30.00 for a CTX. Here at Troubleshooters.Com, you can't get fired for buying CTX -- it's the best. When looking at a monitor, always wiggle the video cable and watch the screen for any intermittence. Most monitors first fail when the conductors in the video cable break, eliminating one or more color.

You can often get new components at a discount at computer shows. I always look for a local vendor so if need be I can return defective merchandise to his store without waiting a month or driving 1000 miles. Computer shows are especially good places to buy CD drives, hard drives, floppy drives, cables, and other low tech stuff not likely to have problems. Cruise the whole show, compare prices, then bargain.

Check out the sales outlets for the school systems. Many school systems are hopelessly hooked into Microsoft, meaning that when a new Windows version comes out they need to upgrade their hardware. Many times they sell the older hardware for pennies on the dollar. If nothing else, you can often buy a complete (but not necessarily adequate) computer for $20.00 and cannibalize the parts out of it. If you need an AT power supply and a stick of EDO memory, you could buy a computer for $20.00, cannibalize those two items, and you've gotten your money's worth.

Don't forget your fellow LUG members. LUG members buy, sell and trade equipment constantly.

The bottom line is this: You're handing down a computer to save money. Make sure you don't need to spend a lot to get it in shape.
Steve Litt is the author of Rapid Learning: Secret Weapon of the Successful Technologist. He can be reached atSteve Litt's email address.

Put it together

By Steve Litt
Many times putting together the hand me down computer is trivial. Perhaps it's already a Linux computer, and all you need to do is add a known good hard disk and network card. But sometimes it can be much more challenging.

Consider the computer I assembled for my daughter last weekend. I bought a case and CD drive, and took the rest from parts lying around. And many of those parts had been decommissioned for non-functionality or intermittence.

I started with a complete Chaintech motherboard, with Celeron 333 on a Pentium slot adapter, that had been decommissioned for intermittence. I figured that if the intermittence was caused by dirty connectors, lubricating connectors for the ram sticks,  daughterboards, and IDE cables would solve the problem. Unfortunately it was still intermittent.

Next I tried a PCChips mobo with 400Mhz Celeron, on a Pentium slot adapter, that had been decommissioned for a no-boot condition. It didn't boot.

Then I tried my final motherboard -- a $20.00 name brand board bought from a computer show. It sat around for 2 years, after which I couldn't get it to run with the above mentioned 400Mhz Celeron. This weekend I tried again -- same thing -- no boot. Just for fun I swapped in the 333Mhz Celeron with adapter and bang, it ran. But it was intermittent.

Armed with the fact that either the 400Mhz Celeron or its adapter was bad, I tried the 333Mhz Celeron with adapter on the PCChips motherboard, and it worked. I built the computer, eventually getting Mandrake Linux to recognize its built in sound and video.

If all the above sounds like a lot of work, consider how much work it would have been if I had installed each motherboard in the case. Dealing with unknown parts, I chose to first build the computer on the desk, using an antistatic bag to prevent mishaps. For such work I have a power supply with exceptionally long wires, making it easy to assemble a computer outside a case.

Building a computer from a variety of unknown parts is done with the following process:
  1. Assemble outside the case, connecting only mobo, RAM, Power supply, Video card, Processor, Processor fan, keyboard and monitor
  2. Get it to count memory
  3. Attach all the hardware outside the case
  4. Get it to run Knoppix
  5. Install a quick default version of your favorite distro
  6. Install and test in the case
  7. Install a complete version of your favorite distro

Assemble outside the case, connecting only mobo, RAM, Power supply, Video card, Processor, Processor fan, keyboard and monitor

Perform this work on one, or better yet several, motherboard sized antistatic envelopes. Make sure you have a clean and neat work surface. Have a good light available -- you'll need it to read markings on the motherboard. If you wear glasses, get your strongest pair.

To the motherboard, connect the power supply, processor, processor fan, memory, video card and keyboard. Connect the monitor to the video card. Don't connect anything else. At this point we want to test the motherboard and processor with the minimum extraneous variables.

Don't use a power supply installed in a case. That's VERY awkward and can easily lead to damage. Use a power supply with its own on/off switch. That way you can have the grounding benefits of a plugged in power supply, and yet turn off power to the motherboard.

Get it to count memory

Get the computer to count memory. On ATX motherboards, find the 2 pins you need to short in order to start the computer. When started, the power supply fan should spin. If the processor fan doesn't spin check its electrical connections. If it's connected to the motherboard, the problem could be in the BIOS setup. Quickly, before the processor heat sink heats up, go into the bios setup and set everything having to do with the fan and reboot.

Be careful on motherboards with built in AGP video. These typically have no AGP slot, and typically have something in the BIOS setup where you can set the primary video for either PCI or AGP. Don't set it to AGP, because that will disable any PCI video card at bootup. If you set it to AGP and the built in video goes bad, you cannot change this setting to PCI because you can't see the screen. You'll need to throw away the motherboard.

If you set it to PCI and don't insert a PCI video card, the computer will display on the AGP, but you can later insert a PCI video card if necessary. Note that if it's set to PCI and you insert a PCI card, the AGP video is no longer active. You can get both running by running X, but that doesn't help you at bootup.

If it doesn't count memory, try some of the following:
Beyond the preceding, continue to swap components to try for a combination of hardware enabling the counting of memory.

Once you can count memory, test repeatedly to detect any intermittence.

Attach all the hardware outside the case

Once the memory counting stability has been confirmed, turn off the power. Attach a hard disk to the primary IDE port and the CD drive to the secondary IDE port. Attach any other disks as necessary. Attach a network card and sound card, and any other auxiliary cards as necessary.

Once all the hardware is attached, once again verify that it can count memory. Note that depending on what's currently on the hard disk, it might boot an operating system partially or completely.

Once it can count memory, set up the bios to boot first from the CDROM.

Get it to run Knoppix

Before booting with Knoppix, set up a DHCP server on the subnet. This will enable Knoppix to give a network address to your network card, and therefore test networking.

With the system set to boot from CDROM, insert a known good Knoppix CD and boot. If you don't have a known good Knoppix CD, burn one.

What is Knoppix?

In less than a year, Knoppix has risen from obscurity to a must-have tool for anyone who works on computers. Knoppix is a Linux distribution on a single CD, bootable from that CD. By default, it doesn't touch the hard disk of the computer it's run on, making Knoppix testing quick and non-destructive.

Because it's designed to be a "boot and run" OS, Knoppix is VERY good at detecting and configuring hardware. What that means to you is that Knoppix is an excellent test for Linux hardware compatibility. If Knoppix doesn't operate the hardware, it will probably be hard or impossible for any Linux distro. If Knoppix operates the hardware, it's likely to work with any distro, although you may need to download drivers and do a little insmod/rmmod/lsmod work.

If it won't boot Knoppix, see if it will boot any bootable CD, if not, suspect the CD drive. If it boots other bootable CD's, suspect the Knoppix CD, especially if you see drive errors. If Knoppix boots but the boot errors out, troubleshoot appropriately. If it overdrives the monitor, reboot and then at the boot prompt press F2 to find the various "cheat codes" Try cheat codes like "screen=640x480" and "xvrefresh=60".

Once you have Knoppix running correctly, use its music clips to test the system's audio. Use ping commands to test its networking (remember, you previously set up a DHCP server on the subnet).

Press Ctrl+Alt+F2 to reach a CLI screen. In knoppix, this screen is user root, so you can do anything from that screen. Use the fdisk command and the mkfs command to format the hard disk, and verify that it's good and can be formatted. Once formatted, mount it and copy a few files to and from the disk. Verify its size.

You might want to try several video cards for best results. Strive for a video card producing a high resolution, deep color depth, pleasing display without visible flicker.

By booting Knoppix and verifying all hardware, you have tested your hardware without the need of a time consuming Linux installation. Once it works with Knoppix, it's time to install your distro.

Install a quick default version of your favorite distro

Then install a default, simple Linux installation. You want it quick and simple because you don't want to endure a 3 hour install just to find out about a hardware glitch.

Once again, verify all hardware -- video, audio, network, disks. It's very possible that although they worked under Knoppix, they won't work under your favorite distro. Knoppix is much more astute at detecting hardware.

So use Knoppix as a setup tool. Boot Knoppix, and use the lsmod command to determine which drivers are installed. Note that many drivers require other drivers to be installed, so there might be some trial and error involved.

While you're in Knoppix, copy your XF86config file to the hard disk, because it's very likely that the Knoppix created file is better than the one installed by your favorite distro. If so, you can always back up the original and copy the Knoppix version over it. Note that the Knoppix version might have a different filename.

Once you've installed Linux, repeatedly test and reboot the system to test for intermittence. Test audio, video, network, and some software. Use Gimp to verify color depth. Once the system seems good, it's time to put it into the case.

Install and test in the case

Be careful, use correct tools, have plenty of light, take your time. OBSERVE STATIC PRECAUTIONS! If the case's power supply has an on/off switch (things go better when they do), then turn it off and plug it into the wall. This grounds the case. If the power supply doesn't have an on/off switch, you must disconnect the power supply from the wall any time you're working on the system. This is why power supplies with on/off switches are so superior to those without.

Disconnect everything from your motherboard, then install the motherboard in the case. Once installed, connect the case's power supply to the motherboard. Attach the processor, processor fan, memory, video card and keyboard. Connect the monitor to the video card. Don't connect anything else. Verify that it still counts memory. If not, troubleshoot.

Next, attach and fully mount everything that was attached or connected in the out-of-the-case setup. Once so attached and mounted, boot the machine and verify that it behaves as it did out of the case. If so, you've completed your hardware task.

Install a complete version of your favorite distro

Complete installs take hours, so it's a waste of time performing a full install on a system for which you have less than the utmost of confidence. You've ruled out hardware as a problem, so you can attack any further problems as software problems -- a huge time saver.

Now that your system has been put through its paces, you can fully install with confidence. Here's where you carve up partitions just so, and install all the software you want. Configure to your exact specifications. You're


Congratulations. Starting with a pile of parts, you've crafted a working computer. You followed an intelligent process:
  1. Assemble barebones assemble it outside the case
  2. Get it to count memory
  3. Attach all the hardware outside the case
  4. Get it to run Knoppix
  5. Install a quick default version of your favorite distro
  6. Install and test in the case
  7. Install a complete version of your favorite distro
Steve Litt is the author of "Troubleshooting Techniques of the Successful Technologist".  Steve can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.


By Steve Litt
Naturally, when assembling a computer from a pile of parts, many of which are not known good, there might be problems. Troubleshoot:

1. Prepare
2. Make a damage control plan
3. Get the symptom description
4. Reproduce the symptom
5. Do the appropriate corrective maintenance
6. Narrow it down
7. Repair or replace the defective component
8. Test
9. Take pride
10. Prevent future occurrence

1. Prepare

Have all the necessary tools. Make sure your bodily needs are taken care of. Adopt the proper attitude, with unflinching rationality, forswearing panic and anger. Remember, it's not your job to fix it, it's your job to narrow it down.

2. Make a damage control plan

Luckily, you (probably) have no data on this computer, so you needn't back up. You do, however, need to observer static precautions, so review them in your mind. Promise yourself not to screw in parts that can drop while the system is powered up. Promise yourself not to troubleshoot if you get angry.

3. Get the symptom description

Is it intermittent or reproducible? Do you know of a sequence of actions you can take to reliably reproduce the symptom? If so, it's reproducible. Otherwise, it's intermittent. Are there any other other symptoms?

4. Reproduce the symptom

Make sure you've seen the symptom, so that you can recognize it later. If the problem is intermittent, physically manipulate all boards and cables to see if you can make it happen. If so, suspect that board or connection.

5. Do the appropriate corrective maintenance

Many computer problems are caused by corroded electrical connections. To fix that, I usually libricate those connections. So far my favorite lubricants are:
I like Breakfree better, but it once melted a hole through one of those cheap, clear plastic drinking cups. On the other hand, I've had some in a plastic pill bottle for over a month without any ill effects, but when using Breakfree it's important to note that it might not be safe for some plastics, so use sparingly. I have no evidence that Lube Job has problems with plastics, and in fact its advertisement says it's "Safe on plastics". With both, the best way to use it is to spray it into a small, open glass jar, and then apply to both mating connectors with your fingers. Both are very economical, and I use them on all memory sticks, PCI and AGP connectors, IDE/Floppy cables, and keyboard and mouse connectors.

Other examples of corrective maintenance would be observation of the symptom, writing down of error messages, and power cycling the computer. Use your nose to smell anything burned, use your fingers to observe CPU temperature. Listen for strange noises, and verify all fans are running. Also, if the computer is overclocked, clock it back to normal speed until the problem is resolved. Then, if overclocking was not a cause, you can re-overclock it (if you still believe that's safe).

6. Narrow it down

On intermittents, wiggle everything. On intermittents, try underclocking by 20% and see if the problem goes away.

Run with Knoppix, and see if the symptom is different. If so, exploit the differences. Try running under different users, including root (be careful), and see if the symptom changes. If so, exploit the differences. Keep devising diagnostic tests to further narrow the root cause scope.

Swap when necessary, or remove the suspected bad component, place in a known good computer, and see if it causes the same symptom. Better yet, perform a doubleswap in which the same component is switched between the defective and a known good computer, and see whether the symptom switches computers, in which case it's almost certain that's the bad component.

7. Repair or replace the defective component

This is self evident.

8. Test

Make sure the symptom went away, and test broad functionalities to make sure no new symptoms appeared. If possible, run regression tests against the last known good performance of the machine. If practical, undo the fix and see if the symptom reappears, and if so, redo the fix and make sure the symptom goes away. Such symptom toggling is highly suggestive of a valid fix.

9. Take pride

Computers and all troubleshooting create pressure and stress. Take a minute to brag about your fix, and maybe jump for joy or utter a little cheer. Doing so improves your mood and your ability to troubleshoot.

10. Prevent future occurrence

Write down the symptom and the fix, and any other lessons learned. Make this information available to others who might need it. Inform the user of the computer of any necessary precautions to prevent future occurrence.

Steve Litt is the author of the Universal Troubleshooting Process courseware.   Steve can be reached atSteve Litt's email address.

Life After Windows: The Other Side of the Mountain

Life After Windows is a regular Linux Productivity Magazine column, by Steve Litt, bringing you observations and tips subsequent to Troubleshooters.Com's Windows to Linux conversion.
By Steve Litt
The April 2001 Troubleshooting Professional Magazine repeatedly mentioned that the toughest Linux challenge was the initial conversion from Windows. Read other articles from IT the trade press and they stress the same thing -- the real expense is the conversion -- data conversion, application conversion, and retraining. Is this really true? What's life like after the conversion is complete? What's it like on the other side of the mountain?

As someone who converted from Windows to Linux 2.5 years ago, let me answer that question. The other side of the mountain is boring. Ho hum. Non-eventful.

The viruses infecting everyone else's computers -- they bounce harmlessly off mine. Microsoft's continuing license abuses, including forced audits -- they're a non issue here.

My Linux desktop computer is just a tool -- a tool fine tuned to work with my particular business. All my planning and design activities are done with VimOutliner -- a better outliner than exists under Windows. I do all my web design the way I've always done it -- Netscape Composer, although now it's called Mozilla Composer. Short documents are done with OpenOffice. Long documents are done with LyX.

LyX is sometimes hard to work with, but there's more than one way to skin a cat. For instance, the Instructor Notes for my troubleshooting course are written in LyX. I recently updated the Instructor Notes, and wanted slide numbers on each heading. But I didn't want to hardcode the slide numbers, because I change the slideshow frequenly.

After several fruitless hours trying to declare a new LaTeX counter and use it in my headings, I tried something different. Something that would have been impossible in binary format MS Word. I created each header referencing a specific slide to contain the the word "Slide" followed optionally by a number followed by a colon, all of which in LyX I colored blue. My script goes through the native LyX file, which is a text file, and for each such blue string, increments its own counter and plugs in the value. So when I run the script on the native data file, and then view it in LyX, all slide numbers are visible and correct. Try that in MS Word!

When book orders come in, I keypunch them into a Gnumeric spreadsheet. I fulfill orders by highlighting and copying the newly entered spreadsheet rows, pasting them into Vi, and running a Vim script to turn them into mailing labels. Using a spreadsheet for data is cool because it's an incredibly quick and intuitive input facility, and it enables you to quickly perform all sorts of ad-hoc reports.

But what happens when my business grows, and I need to hire a minimum wage assistant to fill the orders? That person certainly won't know VI. What then?

Once again, text format to the rescue. Gnumeric's native data format is XML, so I'll use an XML parser from the Apache Software Foundation to write an app that goes through todays entries and turns them into mailing labels. To further facilitate speed and accuracy, the mailing labels will include a line telling the books and quantities ordered.

Perhaps most telling is the view of the mountain itself. My wife recently asked me to create spam filters on her Win98 box. Having forgotten everything I knew about Eudora, I exclaimed "I sure wish you had Kmail!".
Steve Litt is the author of the course on the Universal Troubleshooting Process.  He can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

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