Tag Archives: Damage

If You Can’t Fix It, You Don’t Own It!

I read an article recently about farmers raising the demand for older tractors. The reason? A new tractor can easily cost $100,000, and that’s for a mid-range model. That’s not the real issue, though. The real issue is when some $2 electronic doohickey fails right in the middle of harvest season; You can’t exactly tow your combine down to the dealer, so the factory has to send a specialist out to diagnose and repair it… And that $100,000 investment sits idle for several days, right when it’s needed most.

Farmers are, as a rule, very self-sufficient people that often repair their own stuff. But when your tractor, or your truck, is a rolling computer and you’re at the mercy of the factory and the dealer, that’s no longer possible.

The price of older tractors is going up because smaller farmers want something they can repair in the field, themselves, instead of waiting for the factory rep to show up in his own good time. No longer happy with just selling you the product, they want full control over it for life, Including telling you when it’s no longer fixable, because they’ve stopped supporting it.

Manufacturers like John Deere can get away with this because of something called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA for short.  As is true of many things, the DMCA seemed like a good idea when it was passed in 1998. It’s intent was to bring copyright law into the 21st Century by addressing things such as Operating Systems and digital files.

This law has since been excoriated as one of the worst attacks on Freedom, ever. It turns out that bypassing a manufacturer’s security on, say, a tractor’s on-board engine management software in order to repair it is considered by this law to be a breach of copyright, and thus a crime. If a farmer changes the engine timing on his own tractor, that makes him a criminal.

Because it turns out that Farmer Jones doesn’t own his own tractor. Oh, sure, he owns the chassis, engine, and tires, and he’s the one who has to make payments on it, insure it, and buy fuel and oil for it, but John Deere owns the software code that makes it run, without which it’s just a very expensive lawn ornament.

This needs to change. If I pay money for something, I expect to own all of it, and be allowed to modify it to my heart’s content. What if book publishers made it a crime to underline passages in their books and fold over the pages?

This is why there is an Open-Source movement. Open-Source means that anybody with the knowledge to do so may modify the code. The author of the code can still sell the software, so he still makes money, and he still owns the copyright (Like the book publisher), but if someone else needs/wants to modify it, it can be done, legally. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is at the vanguard of this movement.

More information:




For even more empowering technology info, read my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now!

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If you can’t stand the heat…

We’ve just been through another long, hot Summer here in Arizona. It’s easy to overheat your car, yourself, and even your computer.

Computers, like cars, produce a lot of waste heat, that needs to be gotten rid of somehow, before something burns up. Your car (unless it’s an old Volkswagen or Corvair!) does this with a radiator. A pump circulates water through the engine and then runs the hot water through the radiator where it is transferred to the air.

Volkswagen engine

Volkswagen engine

Computers cut out the middleman, and transfer the heat directly into the air, with the aid of a fan, in exactly the same way the aforementioned Volkswagen does. If you look inside a computer, you’ll see one or more objects with many fins on them, resembling the fins on the Volkswagen. The fins are there to expose more surface area to the air, improving heat transfer. Fans blow over the fins for the same reason a fan makes you cooler – they blow the hot air away and replace it with cooler air.



If the fan stops turning, the computer will rapidly overheat. A car has a dashboard light to tell you when it’s overheating, but computers don’t have an equivalent. What they will usually do instead, is either misbehave in some strange fashion, restart (rarely), or simply shut down without warning. If your computer runs for a few minutes then abruptly shuts down, and only runs for a few seconds when you restart it, there’s a good possibility a fan has failed. If you feel comfortable taking the cover off your desktop computer, you’ll see at least one fan on the main board, also one on the back of the computer close to where the power cord enters. Make sure all those fans are turning. Don’t touch anything inside the computer while the power is on.

There is an equivalent of the dashboard light for computers. A free program called Speedfan will give you a real-time temperature of the various components of your computer, and warn you if they’re getting too hot.

Fortunately, fans for desktop computers are cheap and easily replaced. Unfortunately, fans for laptop computers are still cheap, but difficult and labor-intensive to replace. Sometimes, you can get more life out of a fan by giving it a good cleaning with canned air, but you’ll only be delaying the inevitable.

Keeping your computer clean will certainly extend it’s life. I’ll have another article about physical cleaning soon.

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UPS without the Brown Uniform

Everyone who shops by mail or online knows what UPS stands for. In the context of computers, though, UPS also stands for Uninterruptible Power Supply. This is a nifty gadget that will instantly step in and continue to power your computer – for a few minutes – if you have a blackout or brownout. They have a big beefy rechargeable battery that makes this possible. If your computer is in any way Mission-Critical, consider getting one of these. The better ones have a USB cable that connects to the computer and can automatically shutdown or hibernate the computer in the event of an outage. This can be a lifesaver, especially if you forget to save documents frequently. They also often have surge protectors built-in.

Obviously, you don’t need a UPS if you use a laptop, as long as the laptop battery is working.

While a UPS is a nice-to-have computer accessory, it’s not the most important one. The only accessory that I consider Must-Have is the surge protector, or surge suppressor. This goes for computers (including laptops), Audio/Video equipment, and anything else expensive that has microchips in it, which is now just about anything.

All modern electronics have circuits in them that are very sensitive to variations in their power diet. The electricity from the power company can get all kinds of spikes and glitches in it, sometimes originating dozens of miles away. A surge protector is cheap insurance against such occurrences. Please be aware that surge protectors do not protect from lightning; nothing on the face of the planet will save you or your stuff if you get a close enough lightning strike. Nor will a surge protector protect from all possible power problems – but they do help a great deal in keeping your equipment working smoothly.

Buy the best surge protector you can afford. A power strip is not a surge protector, unless it says it is. If you paid $6 for a “Surge Protector,” all you really got was a glorified power strip with a minimal amount of protection. How do you know what’s best? The only measure of a surge protector’s ability to do it’s job is how much of a surge it can absorb. This is measured in a unit of energy called the Joule (Pronounced Jool – A Joule equals 1 Watt of power for 1 second). The higher the rating, the better. A rating of at least 1,500 Joules is a good starting point for an audio/video system. (TVs and home theater setups need surge protection too.) I recommend at least 2400 Joules for computers (Including Laptops). If there is no Joule rating on the box, don’t buy it.

After you’ve decided how many Joules you’re willing to pay for, then you can look at the number of outlets and any other features. Good features to have are lights that tell you the grounding and protection status. You should check these lights occasionally, because surge protectors do wear out, and an ungrounded surge protector is completely useless – They work by routing excess current to ground. If the protector doesn’t have a ground indicator light, buy an outlet checker at your local hardware store, and make sure any outlet your expensive stuff is plugged into is grounded.

If you have a DSL modem connected to the phone line, make sure the surge protector has phone jacks, and use them to protect your DSL modem. Many power surges come from phone lines. The same goes for Cable internet. Get a surge protector with Cable jacks if you have Cable internet, and another just like it for your TV and audio gear.

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That dog don’t hunt and that phone don’t Float

Almost the worst thing that can happen to an electronic device is getting wet. This is a far worse issue than just dropping your phone and breaking the screen. Today we’ll discuss treatment and prevention of water damage.

Water and electricity don't mix.

Water and electricity don’t mix.

There are several problems with water. First, it conducts electricity. That’s why they make fiberglass ladders for working with power tools. That means if your device happens to be on at the time it gets wet, power can go places it shouldn’t, and that can cause permanent damage.

Second, water is corrosive. It’s not very corrosive, but when you’re dealing with the tiny circuitry in modern electronics, it’ll wreak havoc if not dried off quickly.

Third, water will go places where it’s hard to get it out again without extraordinary measures like complete disassembly.

The survival rate for dunked electronics is no better than 50/50 even if you follow the instructions below, but you do have a chance if you act fast. (If you drop it in salt water, you are most likely up the creek!)

What to do if your electronic gadget gets wet

  1. Don’t press any buttons or switches!
  2. Immediately, right now, remove all power from it. That means unplug it if it’s plugged into AC, take the battery out if possible, and don’t wait to shut down normally. Take the battery out now, whether it’s a laptop, phone, or other device. More damage can be done by leaving the power on long enough to do “Start, Shutdown…etc” than by just removing power now.
  3. If the spilled liquid is sugary, salt water, or sticky, you might try rinsing it off with distilled water, if you have any available.
  4. Dry off the exterior of the device. Turn it upside down and shake it to try to get water out of crevices.
  5. Remove all removable parts such as covers, memory cards, etc. and dry them off.
  6. Place the device in a sealed bag with a desiccant such as silica gel, a commercial “Wet electronics/phone emergency kit,” or, if you have none of these, wrap it in a piece of cloth or paper towel and put it in a sealed bag with a couple of pounds of ordinary (Uncooked) white rice. Leave it in there for at least a couple of days.
  7. There are also specialists that have phone drying equipment. Check to see if any are in your area.
  8. Using a hair dryer or blowing with canned air is not recommended. Hair dryers may get too hot, and blowing may push water further inside the device, where it can no longer get out.
  9. Just in case you’re thinking about putting it in the microwave, NOOOOOOO!

If, after all this, the device turns on and works, you may still have bought yourself only a temporary reprieve. You should back up all data as soon as possible, because it might stop working for good at any time.

If you still get no life out of the gadget, it’s usually possible to get some or all of your data back. A laptop hard drive can usually be easily removed and copied to another device. Memory cards are generally not damaged by a quick dunking, and may work fine after being dried off. Smartphones usually back up to a cloud service, although they don’t always back up everything. If necessary, there are plenty of data recovery specialists in the yellow pages, but they will be expensive. You have to decide how much your data is worth to you. It’s always a lot cheaper to back up ahead of any disaster.

How to minimize the risk

  • Phones, cameras, music players: Always be aware of where your phone is.
  • There are waterproof phone cases available. If you’re going to the lake, make sure you get one that floats! Resist the temptation to test your waterproof case with the phone inside. Some are only rated for very shallow water, like puddles.
  • Don’t jump in the pool until you’ve checked your pockets (Unless someone is drowning!)
  • Check pockets carefully before doing the laundry.
  • Be especially careful when using the restroom. You wouldn’t believe how many people drop their phone in the toilet!
  • Be careful where you put your phone down. A small puddle of condensation from a cold glass can do as much damage as a dunking.
  • Laptops: Put your drink on the other side of the table, or on another table entirely, so if it does spill, it won’t spill on the laptop.

It never hurts to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, and have a plan for how to deal with it.

The $700 mistake!

Don't let this happen to you!It happens way too often. Today’s smartphones are wonders of technology, but there’s one little snag. That screen is made out of glass. Granted, it’s very strong glass, but it’s still glass. Drop it just once, and you may have bought yourself a big problem.
There is good news, though. First of all, most screens can be repaired. Please don’t just throw that phone away if you break the screen! A screen repair might cost you $100 (Varies with phone), but that beats $500-700 for a new one unless you’re in a contract and you’re up for an upgrade.

Gel Phone case

Gel Phone case

More importantly, prevent such things from happening in the first place:

  • Get a good Impact resistant case. Ideally, this should have a hard outer shell and a soft but firm inner liner-like a motorcycle or bicycle helmet. The “Gel” types seem to work well, and they’re inexpensive if you buy them from Amazon or eBay. If money is no object, you could get the various deluxe cases, such as Otterbox or Lifeproof.
    These are also usually water and dust resistant. Get a good screen protector while you’re at it.
  • Don’t try to cradle your phone on your shoulder the way you do with your home phone. It doesn’t work! This may be responsible for a lot of dropped phones. Use some kind of headset, speakerphone,
    Poor man's handsfree adapter

    Poor man’s handsfree adapter

    or just hold it the old-fashioned way. Headsets are not that expensive; Much cheaper than a phone repair.

  • If you carry your phone in a pocket or holster, get into the habit of always putting it in with the screen facing your body. That way, the screen is protected from the things you might bump into.
  • When you set your phone down unattended, such as on your nightstand, place it face down. I know it doesn’t look as cool this way, but you’re protecting it from things dropping onto it.

Remember, if you break your phone anyway, don’t just throw it away. That’s bad stewardship of your stuff. Get it fixed, or if you don’t want to do that, there are plenty of people who will accept it as-is for parts, and they may actually give you some money for it!