Bad Juju

First it was the cable internet connection. Then it was the living room PC I use as a music server. And then it was the Terminix report. This was supposed to be the Phoenix vacation where I dabble a little at the chores and relax a lot. It turned out to be more work than I signed on for. It sounds like “bad juju” to me.

I first heard the term “bad juju” on Deadliest Catch, the Discovery series on king crab fishing in the Bering Sea. The captain used the phrase. He and the crew had a bad day. I looked the term up on the internet. In Western vernacular it seem to stem loosely from a West African concept meaning “bad luck”. Supposedly it is attributed to a malevolent force, such as a voodoo hex.

When I called Cox Communications, the cable people, their computerized phone system danced me through the Diagnostic Waltz – “take all the time you need, and say ‘continue’ when you’re done” – but I had already done all the checking of power, plugs, modem light status, and so forth. I lied to the computer. You know the drill. Just tell it what it wants to hear.

Finally it let me connect to a real person. I told them I just installed a brand new cable modem, because I was pretty sure the ancient original modem was crapping out, and I gave them the MAC address of the modem so they could hard-code it into their system. But they still couldn’t see my modem. “It has to be between the wall and your computer”, he said. So we scheduled a service call for Tuesday morning.

Thinking about that later, I found a short piece of coaxial cable out of a closet, and tried the substitution test. The modem worked. It had to be the cable, then. But, cautious old bird that I am, I decided to wait before canceling the service call. I waited several hours and canceled it.

I also called the Terminix people and got an appointment for Wednesday morning. I recently saw evidence that the house has termites. But how soon did I catch it?

And I left the computer on all night.

The next morning I could see in SETI-BOINC’s message log that it had downloaded more work during the night, and the internet was still open. Guess that solved THAT problem! Well, half an hour later, the internet went out again.

Meanwhile, I’d discovered the evening before that the living room PC wouldn’t start. Power connected, you press the Start button, and nothing happens. Absolutely nothing. No hard drive lights, no motherboard beeps, no fans, no BIOS, no nothing.

I tried a different power outlet. I tried a different power cord. I removed the case panel and saw that the motherboard light was glowing green. Unplugging again, I checked for loose connections. Still nothing. What if it was the Start switch itself?

The Start switch on the front panel of a PC is just a spring loaded temporary contact switch of the kind engineers call “make-break”. Depressed once, it briefly completes an electrical circuit to activate some other component, like a switching circuit, or a starter relay on a car. It doesn’t carry the real current load, it just sends a signal. Unless physically abused, there’s not much that can go wrong with it. And you don’t keep spares in a parts box.

So I carefully unplugged the tiny blue and white power switch lead wires from their motherboard pins, and shorted across those pins. That’s all the switch does. But it didn’t start.

That means it had to be either the power supply, or the motherboard itself. But, mind you, I didn’t do a damned thing to them — it worked two weekends ago, and didn’t work Tuesday. If it was the power supply, why was the motherboard light on? If it was the motherboard, how could a motherboard fail while being left “off” for two weeks?

Here’s my theory:

Normally in Phoenix we don’t just power off the computers. We shut off the electrical outlet that feeds it. And I cover the equipment with plastic to protect against the dust that still manages to blow in from the dry desert dust storms.

But in the living room, that PC is connected to a plug strip with the stereo, which gets power all the time even when off. So, the PC power supply is “on” all the time too, energizing the motherboard enough with several different voltages to it can activate all systems when the Start button is depressed. Just because the motherboard light is green doesn’t mean the power supply is able to deliver all the voltages to power the fans, hard drives, peripherals and motherboard itself. That’s why the motherboard has a 20 or 24 pin power connector, instead of only two pins.

And the living room gets up to 120 degrees between visits in the summer when the air conditioning is off. And that PC was sitting under a plastic shroud. I think the poor power supply cooked itself to death.

I bought the new power supply at Fry’s, a Vantec 380 watt (hey, it’s an older mobo) and installed it. That solved the problem. And now it has its own plug strip, and no plastic shroud.

The story never ends there, does it? I had to hit the PF1 key to get BIOS to continue to boot. Floppy drive failure. I’d forgotten: I’d bought a new Sony floppy drive months ago – Sony is the only brand that lasts more than a week, which is why it costs about twenty bucks instead of about seven. I could have installed the new floppy while I was in there, but heck, I forgot about it. Wait a minute, the old floppy IS a Sony. And the new one has the same issue, whatever it is.

The termite guy came out and I signed the contract for about a grand. A crew will be out Saturday to kill the subterranean termites in their nests.

And I write this on NotePad, since the internet wasn’t available when I started this post. A nifty old program called Neotrace pings all the circuits between here and kingdom come. When everything works, there’s about 15 nodes between this house and (the server’s in Utah). When I started this post, the first node was, and there was no response. Then I got all 15 nodes and downloaded the email. Then I got no responses again.

If you’ve been in this situation yourself, you’re asking, do I have cable TV, and is it working? Yes, and yes.

Maybe it’s the termites.

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One thought on “Bad Juju

  1. When you don’t understand something, 50 percent of the time nature hasn’t yet supplied you with key data. The rest of the time, you’re not thinking about the data that was supplied.

    While installing the new power supply 20-pin motherboard connector, I disconnected the cable ribbon to the floppy.

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