Test Points 1/30/23

Thoughts with Richard Bleil

Her name is “Shelley”.  She’s my monster computer that I built myself with all of the fastest and most powerful components available, all purchased individually.  I call her “Shelley” after Mary Shelley and her powerful monster of Frankenstein (whose name is not “Frankenstein”; in the movie the monster never was given a name). 

I’ve been working with computers since, quite literally, the ‘80’s.  I’ve never actually put an entire system together before, but I’ve replaced multiple components and know enough about them that I can pretty much do anything necessary.  I custom-built this system specifically for research.  I intentionally skimped on things like video and sound, and kicked up processor speed (including the ability to “over clock” the CPU), memory, and hard drives.  I know a lot of gamers would drool at the system as a base for a gaming system, but it will be used for computational calculations and research.  It’s meant to run continuously (so I am trying to figure out how to turn off the automatic update feature, but it looks like I’ll have to disconnect it from the internet) as some of my calculations can take several months, or even years, to complete. 

Troubleshooting computers is very different today from when I was just a young puppy.  Today, it’s a matter of trial and error.  The “error codes” given don’t provide much information at all.  I knew I was having some kind of memory and loading problem, but that’s more or less useless trivia.  The way I determined the problem was with the motherboard was through experimentation, removing certain components and seeing if it changed anything.  In this way, I ascertained that the problem were not the memory boards, so it had to be either the CPU or the motherboard.  Of course, you cannot remove these to see if it fixes the problem because, no, it won’t.  Maybe if you had a spare.

My friend, when he was in the air force, told me of a technique a colleague of his had in finding the problem with a rather critical computer.  The system kept blowing an internal fuse (back when boards will had fuses built in) and after following all of the usual trouble-shooting techniques, all of which failed, his friend simply hard-wired the fuse closed and let it run.  He knew that eventually the board that was causing the problem would pop (quite literally explode), which it did.  To fix problems these days, you simply remove the board and replace it with a new one.  Fortunately for him, when the board blew, it didn’t take out any other, and potentially more critical, boards with it.

I worked on a quarter million dollar analytical instrument called a GC/MS when I worked industrially.  It had a very advanced computer (for the time), and it was very buggy.  Back then, though, systems such as this came with sophisticated owner’s manuals complete with electronic schematics and detailed debugging information.  The circuit boards were built with “test points”, little metal protrusions designed to be able to put the leads of a multimeter to them and measure either voltage or resistance at that point.  They were somehow labeled, and the manual listed sets of these test points and what the measurement should read.  If it was off, you could tell where the problem was and knew how to fix it.  Even then, you often would have to replace a board, but sometimes it required soldering as well.  And, yes, I can solder. 

It was a different era of user-serviceable instruments.  Corporations were more interested in making equipment that could be maintained by the owner and that would last for a considerable amount of time.  These days, it’s all about making people pay for service or to buy new equipment to keep that cash flow coming.

When I put this computer together, I had apparently done everything correctly, except that I managed to bend some pins in the process.  Now, I’ve had problems with bent pins in old computers in the past, and I’ve corrected the problem by bending the pins back in shape.  There is a danger, though, that doing this will damage or even break the pin, and even if it works you’ll create a weak point that may slow the system down or eventually even break later on.  Because of my intended use of my new system, I opted to buy a new motherboard.  To be sure, though, I took it to the BestBuy Geek Squad where I am a member of their service program.  They had the tools to diagnose the system and they discovered the bent pins.  It was nice of them to verify my suspicions before I spent (a rather significant amount of) cash for a new motherboard.  What I did not expect, however, was the additional service.  They did tell me that they would run the diagnostic, but then they offered to replace the motherboard.  I was pretty frustrated at this point, and because I was a “total tech” member, it didn’t cost me anything to have them do so.  Plus I knew that if there was another problem it wasn’t my fault, and I could either have them or the motherboard manufacturer fix the problem.  In the process, they also did cable management (which I did not know how to do, so while it would have worked it would have been rather ugly), and even offered to install the operating system (which I declined).  This service pretty much paid for my subscription fee, at least for this year.  I am happy that they take their customer service so seriously. 


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