back to article PC lab in remote leper colony had wrong cables, no licences, and not much hope

Welcome back to On-Call, The Register’s weekly tale of – ahem – challenging support jobs that readers have encountered around the world. This week, meet “Mick” who told us about his visit to New Ireland, a remote province in Papua New Guinea. There’s decent surf out there, nice kayaking and dive sites featuring World War II …

Angel

not as good, but my 2cents

I had a minimum-wage+$1 at a local non-profit while my visa situation was getting sorted out. It was not my job to do IT, but when eventually the fan got hit and I was to be out by orders of the Jefe Maximos, my boss, a kind gentleman, took me to dinner and told me that, whatever else, in his branch he could expect that every employee would find a computer ready to operate, and thank you.

Oh well.

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Anonymous Coward

Real Software

As part of our burden to those Others, when I travel overseas I try to make some presentation for the local Computer Science kids, of course on the benefits of FLOSS.

I also carry a couple outdated original Microsoft CDs, and have those go around the room. Most usually no one in the room including the professors and IT staff had ever ever before touched a real holographic pretty CD from Redmond, this is the first time in their lives. Of course the Universities there are 100% Windows, etc.

(Actually that's the worst environment for FLOSS. Pirated is so cheap and widespread that, why bother?)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Real Software

Arrr me maties, no need to do activation on some M$ products!

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Re: Real Software

But will DOS even boot on modern hardware?

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Word ?

Why worry about Word ? In that remote kind of environment, get them a copy of Libre Office and get them started on that.

Of course, downloading it on-site might be something of a challenge . . .

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Ré causing, not curing chaos

Many years ago, a "boffin" was bragging to me (a mere apprentice), about how wonderful his computerised testing system was for checking the integrity of new food and drinks cans.

He was doing this while we were installing a new upgraded version of the motherboard to one of the canning lines in the factory; sadly, he was concentrating so hard on bragging, he forgot to switch the machine from "Test" to "Run" when he was finished; it was about 8-9 hours before anyone picked up on the fact that there had been no rejects for a while; by that time if was far too late to isolate the cans produced on that single machine.

18 production lines, producing 36 cans per second each, times 9 hours.........

Still, it kept about 30 people employed for 6 months, manually checking each and every can.

One other notable error by this guy; he gave me a circuit diagram - as tradition it was on a fag packet (B&H I think), and ordered it built. The idea was to try and do away with the circuitry and expensive transformer required to step down from 240v to 5v by using ultra low current devices and a simple resister to drop the unwanted 235v.

Sadly, he got the decimal point wrong, and on switch on, the drop resister blew straight through the board.

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Coat

Re: simple resister

Seems futile.

Mine's the one next to a blonde in a silver catsuit.

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Re: Ré causing, not curing chaos

"The idea was to try and do away with the circuitry and expensive transformer required to step down from 240v to 5v by using ultra low current devices and a simple resister to drop the unwanted 235v."

I took apart a defunct PIR detector. The power supply? A bridge of 1Nsomething-or-other diodes, a fractional watt resistor, a capacitor and a zener.

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Re: Ré causing, not curing chaos

Capacitive supplies ("droppers") have been the norm for absolute lowest cost stuff for a really long time now. There's nothing inherently "wrong" about them, but obviously they aren't immune to misuse.

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Mushroom

Re: Ré causing, not curing chaos

There's nothing inherently "wrong" about them, but obviously they aren't immune to misuse.

Except, of course, that you must not have ANY exposed circuit parts (switch, beeper, etc).

Mains voltage and all....

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NXM

Re: Ré causing, not curing chaos

I've used the simple resistor/capacitor drop method successfully. Great for low-current stuff like a PIR but no good at all for anything higher current. But where it works its simple, cheap, and more efficient than you'd think.

The circuit I disapprove of most are the touch-switch lamps which use a 0.5p resistor to isolate you from the mains. Yeah, really safe.

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Re: PIR

A capacitive dropper. Very common in cheap crap. OK as long as it's done well. Sounds like yours wasn't.

There should be two resistors. One in series with the capacitor (or the input side of the bridge) to limit inrush current in case it gets switched on at a mains peak. Otherwise the zener could get overwhelmed, leading to a bangy-bangy situtation. The other should be across the capacitor, to discharge it. Otherwise you can get a belt if you unplug it at a mains peak then accidentally touch the mains pins, leading to a cursey-cursey situation.

Of course, there can be other, more serious implementation errors. Although the capacitor/zener drops the voltage down to the (say) 5V the circuit uses, one side of the circuit is still half-live (live on alternate halves of the mains cycle) or even full live. Not a problem if the thing is double insulated. There is a potential [groan] problem if the thing is only single insulated and suffers a little damage. And a big fucking problem if your circuitry is like this Double-death gay Dalek camping light (courtesy Big Clive).

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Re: Ré causing, not curing chaos

"Except, of course, that you must not have ANY exposed circuit parts (switch, beeper, etc)."

Remember the old AC/DC transformerless radios? Probably running off a 2-pin plug. Serial heaters, quite possibly a live chassis... The good old days.

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Re: Ré causing, not curing chaos

Bloody Hell, that takes me back. As a teenager I tried to fix one of those. It had a dropper resistor wound into the mains flex...

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Re: Ré causing, not curing chaos

I know that, but this was a MUCH more complicated board, about 8" by 12" and featuring a number of TTL chips and transistors.

A version WITH a psu was already in production, but he had figured out that the transformer + transformer housing was half of the materials cost, so was trying to get it rid of it, by using low power versions of everything, and simplifying the circuit designs.

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Re: Ré causing, not curing chaos

"Remember the old AC/DC transformerless radios? Probably running off "
a 2-pin plug. check

Serial heaters, check

quite possibly a live chassis... check

But mostly I remember trying all sorts of different aerials to reduce the problem of fading while listening to Radio Luxembourg. "The good old days".

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TRT
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Re: Ré causing, not curing chaos

Electronics just isn't electronics anymore, without that edge of knowing that touching the wrong thing meant melting the end of your screwdriver at best.

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Re: Ré causing, not curing chaos

I was in a remote are of Aberdeenshire in the early 50s.

Being a pre-teen I thought as Luxembourg was 208 meters I needed a long aerial. Looking round one day I spied the telephone wires all nice and bare.

I connected the radio aerial to the top one from the bedroom window. I was the only one at school who could listen to 208.

Problem later. As the aerial wire blew in the wind it caught on the lower telephone wire and intermittently caused phone problems as the insulation wore away.

Telephone engineer and my dad were not impressed !

Shortly after I connected it to the bottom wire. Back to normality (?)

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Sounds perfectly normal

Where would we be if we didn't have dysfunctional management doing half-baked things and leaving the underlings to deal with the mess? Would we ever have had Dilbert, for instance?

Many years ago I was developing custom systems for Big Science. The Client had procured a shiny SGI 'puter, whose keyboard and screen were sheer luxury. But no compiler of any kind! I couldn't even bootstrap gcc to get hacking, and this wasn't an era when one could just download a binary package of anything. And the sysop job was outsourced to the lowest bidder (a well-known UK bigco).

Me: Can we please install a C compiler so I can get hacking?

Sysop: The C compiler is installed as standard!

Me: OK, so where do I find it?

Sysop: Oh, the usual place.

Me: Like the /usr/bin/cc that displays a release note advising me to install the compiler?

Resolving it took months, before finally getting the Client to sit down with both of us, see the problem for herself, and order that the compiler be installed! Meanwhile I had learned more esoteric shell scripting (now mercifully long-forgotten) than you'd wish on your worst enemy.

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Thumb Up

Re: Sounds perfectly normal

[SGI cc]

Resurrected an SGI system at work, for fun. I was SHOCKED to find no cc, this must be the only UNIX without one.

I have the CD, but the cc is licensed, so I have to figure out how to spoof the licensing to get it to work. Apparently, this is easier than convincing gcc to work under Irix...

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Re: Sounds perfectly normal

Resurrected an SGI system at work, for fun. I was SHOCKED to find no cc, this must be the only UNIX without one.

You mean like how AIX is the only Unix to make man pages an *optional* install?

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Re: Sounds perfectly normal

[SGI cc]

Resurrected an SGI system at work, for fun. I was SHOCKED to find no cc, this must be the only UNIX without one.

Solaris used to be, too, around the mid 90s. I had a boss bought an expensive Sun system and expected us to move our web suite to that (which was written in C++ at the time).

After a few weeks of pleading, he bought the C++ compiler, but not the C one.

As you can imagine, we decided that from now on we were going to start learning PERL. (Yes, it was the 90s and there was this funky new thing called the common gateway interface...)

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Re: Sounds perfectly normal

Oh come on.

echo \x00\x0a\x00\x82 > prog

chmod +x prog

Who needs a compiler?

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Silver badge

Re: Sounds perfectly normal

"I was SHOCKED to find no cc, this must be the only UNIX without one."

The Onyx Z8000 box had its software distributed on two QICs. The main one had the compiler so that was OK. The other tape was called the games tape and somehow we weren't supplied with it. That was the one with vi on it.

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Pint

Re: Sounds perfectly normal

"Resurrected an SGI system at work, for fun. I was SHOCKED to find no cc, this must be the only UNIX without one".

Bah, that's just a workstation with a greedy vendor.

How about a true crawling-horror Unix box with COBOL as its primary development environment ? For voice processing and IVR ?

Google "Periphonics VPS" if you dare.

Icon, because I had to make one of these things talk to a VAX many years ago and I'm still not drinking enough to forget that. (Let's just say I learned more about reverse LAT and $QIO than a sane man is meant to know)

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Re: Sounds perfectly normal

Yep, MIPSPro is indeed licensed software. GCC isn't too difficult to install however, check out Nekoware for a nice library of IRIX binaries, GCC 4.7 is amongst them.

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Linux

Re: Sounds perfectly normal

Back in the '80s we had as part of test equipment a Honeywell with the run-time system only. This was only run when the contractor involved was on site. Thanks to the front panel register switches it was possible to enter programs manually in machine code. Took a bit of time, mind, for anything bigger than 'Hello world" ;-) .

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Delivery

not much could be done on our visit other than note what was missing and try to get it shipped.”

Doesn't everyone just use Amazon Prime? Guaranteed next day delivery - or don't they include remote islands?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Delivery

"or don't they include remote islands"

That's what drones are for :-P

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Re: Delivery

No. Amazon is coming to Australia and New Zealanders are mildly excited as NZ and Oz are in a kind of mini EEC type arrangement. But it is not there yet and even when it is I expect delivery to New Ireland will depend on knowing a pilot/skipper who is going there and getting it shipped to them.

Usually Kiwis wanting Amazon stuff get it delivered to post office box sites in the US for onward shipment to get around customs. Box site sends the stuff as gift is basically how it works since they are not selling and did not buy. NZ customs are pretty strict. But don't try and import anything illegal. Pretty much all food and drink items are illegal to import without very specific licenses. Biosecurity.

Those honesty bins at international arrivals before you get to officialdom are your last chance.

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Re: Delivery

Amazon don't deliver to the Scottish Highlands (mainland) and Islands, never mind New Ireland islands...

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Re: Delivery

So you can arrive with alien organics in your teeth and intestines, but not in your bag. Some seeds can survive passage through the alimentary tract. I wonder if they post guards at the sewage plants.

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Re: Delivery

Up here there's no next day delivery for Amazon Prime or anything else for that matter. One of the very minor annoyances of living on an island 12 miles from mainland Orkney, far outweighed by the peace & quiet that comes from living on an island with a population of about 300.

visitstronsay.com

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gfx

Re: Delivery

Amazon prime ships to the Netherlands (from Germany) but next day delivery it is not.

Fortunately some firms manage to ship next day if you order it before midnight. Still have to wait for the mailman who drops by between five and eight pm.

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Re: Delivery

"Doesn't everyone just use Amazon Prime? Guaranteed next day delivery - or don't they include remote islands?

haha. After using Amazon for e-books for several years, they decided that my postal address is invalid, and now I can't even order downloadable stuff from them.

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Re: Delivery

"After using Amazon for e-books for several years, they decided that my postal address is invalid, and now I can't even order downloadable stuff from them."
Several decades ago, a friend changed his name by deed poll to Informal when he stood as a candidate for parliament. Until recently, The Book Depository in the UK had no problems delivering books to him here in Tasmania. Then they announced that AusPost refused to accept items for delivery to people with less than two names. Fixed by Informal becoming The Reverend Informal.

Perhaps a change to your address that won't affect delivery might work...

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Go

Incompentent or Deliberate - you choose

"The Chinese embassy had generously provided what had previously been a leper colony with a supply of laptops for the staff and a room full of desktops and screens for students,” Mick recalled. “Unfortunately, the desktops only had HDMI and the screens were VGA..."

So was it incompentence on the Chinese Embassy parts for sending desktops and screens which couldnt go together (and which obviously was never checked) or was it a deliberate attempt to force a little bit more business their way (or to a friends business) for repairs/upgrades/etc...

Occams Razor probably leads to the former, but personal experience (and my cynicism) leads towards the latter... What do you guys say?

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Re: Incompentent or Deliberate - you choose

Occams Razor probably leads to the former, but personal experience (and my cynicism) leads towards the latter... What do you guys say?"

It never ceases to amaze me how many well-meaning-but-clueless folks think about donating their broken old tat to schools in $LESS_FORTUNATE_COUNTRY, not realising that it's already useless (and will need a lot of work to make it work again anyway even if there's a remote chance it might ever be usable).

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Re: Incompentent or Deliberate - you choose

"...donating their broken old tat to schools..."

We make a point of NOT donating our old crap for this reason.

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Re: Incompentent or Deliberate - you choose

“Unfortunately, the desktops only had HDMI and the screens were VGA..."

So was it incompentence on the Chinese Embassy parts for sending desktops and screens which couldnt go together (and which obviously was never checked) or was it a deliberate attempt to force a little bit more business their way (or to a friends business) for repairs/upgrades/etc...

"Have them click on AliExpress and they can be knee-deep in HDMI-VGA adapters"

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Pint

The Chinese

A great bunch of lads.

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Re: The Chinese

A great bunch of lads.

Ah, go on

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Anonymous Coward

Re: The Chinese

"A great bunch of lads."

and lasses.

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A while ago, I visited a school in the mountains of Uganda. There was a bunch of fairly new PCs (they had flat screens) and the adult ed class was learning how to run Microsoft Office. I asked them what they were going to use their training for. They had no idea, since there were no office jobs and internet service was slow and expensive.

I left them some Ubuntu disks, haven't gotten any word as to what they did with them.

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sun chimes. CDs make nice tree hanging things. Won't discourage birds (or was it squirrels?), though, used my AOL CDs for the peach tree, didn't work

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Uses for AOL CDs

A friend made himself a nice suit of "fish scale" armor from his collection.

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Obvious.

If you're going to hand out Ubuntu CDs, make sure it's a current LTS version.

It doesn't need recent hardware to run, though I have doubts about physically old hard drives. If the machine can be fitted with a current-production SATA drive there's not likely to be anything dreadfully out of date. Fans also wear out, but can be replaced.

If you're making a donation. a new 500GB hard drive makes it not-junk, and also covers you against data security issues. Pop Linux on it, and you're also covered on licensing issues.

That bunch of machines in New Ireland, I wonder if they have on-board graphics hardware because I'd expect it to be VGA. Performance would be OK. Change the BIOS setting (some boards can autodetect) before you remove a graphics card.

Some people can likely think of ways to do these things better, but I reckon these are the things you need to get right for a worthwhile donation of old hardware.

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Who needs Word for word processing, specially if you consider Linux (in whatever distro) an alternative.

Just get LibreOffice (or OpenOffice) for Windows. Done. You can read and write M$ Office file formats and then some, the only thing that is missing is an equivalent for Outlook, but that might not be a loss after all. At least of Thunderbird hadn't trashed the calendar feature with one of the latest updates... :(

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