Birthday garden trip

It's time for the obligatory annual birthday post!

My son and I in the rock garden

This year, we didn't do anything fancy.  We just celebrated with a simple picnic lunch in the park by Canadaigua Lake and a trip to Sonnenberg Gardens, followed by some ice cream from Cheshire Farms Creamery.  We also had cake from Phillips European the night before, so I didn't go without birthday cake.  (I guess that's a little fancy - they have exceptional cake.  My wife and I get cake from there for our anniversary every year.)

The Japanese garden and tea house

This was the first time I've been able to get to the gardens this year.  I had been hoping to go in June when the roses were in bloom, but that didn't work out.  The grounds are pretty big and I enjoy just walking around them.  It's nice to get out in nature, and the beautiful assortment of flowers and other plants they have enhances the experience.  

Inside one of the conservatory buildings

I was afraid we were going to get rained out this time, but we managed to time our trip perfectly.  Dark clouds were threatening when we had lunch, but the sun came out while we were at the gardens.  The clouds came back as we were on our way out of the gardens and headed to the creamery, but the rain didn't start until we were literally getting into the car after finishing our ice cream.  All in all, a very nice, restful day.

The garden maze

Coronavirus info for fellow New Yorkers

For my own future reference, and for the benefit of any fellow residents of New York State, here are a few links to some useful information on coronavirus cases.

The thing I like about these pages is that they're broken down by county.  We all know that the number of cases and infection rates vary by state, but it's important to remember that they also vary within the state.  This is useful for judging the relative risk of activities based on where you are.

In general, the more rural counties have lower infection rates than those with major cities.  In fact, the virus is practically absent from some of the more rural counties.  Does this mean you can just ignore the pandemic?  No.  But it's useful information to include in your risk assessments.  Maybe knowing that the infection rate in your area is very low will take some weight off your mind.  Or maybe you can take a vacation or a long weekend in a county with a very low rate and do some of those activities that you might not feel comfortable with at home.

But that's just my two cents.  As always with the pandemic, decisions have trade-offs and we're operating with incomplete information.  All we can do is to try our best to think clearly, assess the risks and rewards of the choices available to us, and make the best decision we can with what we have at the time.

Vacation chipmunk post

We have a bunch of stuff going on in the next week, so I'm taking a couple of days off for an early birthday semi-celebration.  In that spirit, rather than something technical, this week's post is about chipmunks.

If you haven't noticed, chipmunks are everywhere this year.  And it's not just your imagination.  Apparently there was a very large crop of acorns and other nuts last fall and this enabled a larger portion of the chipmunk population to survive the winter.  So now they've inundated the entire north east.  

A chipmunk eating out of a cat bowl near my front steps.

In a typical summer I would see a chipmunk once in a while.  They're definitely around in western New York, but they're normally a lot less common (at least in residential areas) than gray squirrels.  But this year I see them multiple times almost every day.  In fact, one even took up residence under our front porch.  Since I have a soft spot for them, and they don't seem to be bothering our plants, we put out an old cat dish and filled it with bird seed.  Needless to say, the chipmunk seems to appreciate this - the sunflower seeds were a particular hit.

A chipmunk sitting on my in-laws' back steps.

They've gotten pretty brazen, too.  The picture above is a chipmunk on my in-laws' back steps.  He had just been sitting up, staring down their golden retriever, as if mocking him for not being able to catch him through the glass.  Probably not a good habit for a chipmunk, but at least it's entertaining.

Though they're a pest to some, I don't mind the chipmunks.  Even if they do cause some problems, of all the plagues that have been unleashed this year, they're by far the cutest and most endearing.

More laptop repair

Following on my previous post, this last weekend I did a little more laptop repair.  I was successful again, but this time it was much easier.

This time my task was to fix up an old laptop for my son.  After a month off, it's time for him to get back to doing some school work.  He functions better when he has a regular schedule and the whole learning-from-home coronavirus pandemic thing really threw him for a loop.  So it will do him good to get back to a little Reflex math and Lexia reading, in addition to doing some writing on the computer.  (He hates writing, but seems to tolerate it better when he can type rather than print.  Plus he likes the "learn to type" program he was using.)

Well, to do that he needs a computer.  He was using the school laptop that he used in the classroom (you know, back when kids were allowed to go into the school - we still don't know for sure if that'll be a possibility for the fall), but we had to return that at the end of the year.  And since neither I nor my wife wanted to sacrifice our laptop to the cause, we decided the easiest solution would be to fix up the old MacBook Pro I had sitting on a shelf.  It's a 2010 model that we hadn't used in several years, but it was still functional.  It also had the benefit of being a retired web development laptop, so it had a decent amount of horsepower.  This may serve us well if he has to do distance-learning from home in the fall, because the school laptop he was issued was hideously slow.  It basically had the memory to run Windows 10, whatever central management software the school had installed on it, and just barely enough left to run one actual user application.  Any more than that and it started thrashing like crazy and ground to a halt.  And don't even think about letting it go more than a day without a reboot.

Anyway, shortly after setting about this task, I realized this laptop would need some hardware work.  There were actually two things wrong.  The first I already knew about: the trackpad was broken.  It tracked finger movement, but it wouldn't click, which made it fairly useless.  You could sort of work with it by turning on the "tap to click" setting, but that was highly limited and painful at best.  However, I figured that problem would be solved with a USB mouse.

The second problem was more immediate.  While creating an account and figuring out what to do software-wise, I realized that the bottom of the Macbook wasn't flat.  In fact, one side of the bottom panel wasn't even flush with the rest of the case.  At first, I figured maybe a screw had come loose, or that I'd opened it up for some reason and put the panel back on crooked.  But no.  It was the battery.

Bulging Macbook battery

That's the battery that I took out of the Macbook.  In case you can't see in the image, it's bulging to the point that the external plastic casing has started to break open.  It was actually putting so much pressure on the case that it was forcing it open.  So that had to be replaced too.

Fortunately, this was a much less involved operation than the Dell repair.  I don't know about the current models, but the 2010 Macbook Pros are built to be pretty easy to service.  No annoying plastic clips or other weird tricks needed to open the case - just take out the screws on the bottom.  I'm sure replacing the keyboard would be more difficult, but the battery and trackpad were pretty easy.  In fact, I was just able to follow the video below.

The only hard part was getting the trackpad out.  That's because one of the screws was hopelessly stuck and I managed to strip the head trying to get it out.  I eventually had to leave that screw in, remove the screws that fixed the support bracket to the case, and bend the bracket to get the trackpad out.  Then, after some struggle, I was able to work the stripped screw out with some pliers and a little WD-40.  I didn't have any other screws of the proper size, so I had to put the stripped screw back in the new trackpad using the pliers, which was a pain, but less difficult than getting it out.

All in all, it was a pretty painless repair.  The next part was just cleaning it up the software on the system.  The first thing was to upgrade OSX.  Since I hadn't used that laptop in years, it was still running Mavericks (OSX version 10.9), so I updated it to High Sierra (version 10.13), which is the newest one that supports the Mid-2010 hardware.  It's still two releases out of date (current is Catalina, v10.15), but it's better than nothing.  

The next step was removing all the old (and in some cases no-longer-working) software and upgrading the things that my son might actually need.  The two big ones were, of course, Chrome and Microsoft Office.  I also set up KeePassXC along with the Chrome plugin and created a password database for him to use.  He might only be seven, but it doesn't hurt to start instilling some basic security awareness.  Last but not least, I got a copy of MSP360 (formerly Cloudberry) Backup for Mac and set that up like the instances on our other laptops, so that he's all backed up.

So for an investment of a few hours time and about $110 in parts and software, my kid has a nice, working laptop.  I walked him through logging in, what applications are available, using KeePassXC, and the other things he needs to know for now.  It'll take a little practice for him to get used to it, since there's a lot there and he's never used a Mac before, but he took to it pretty well.  Hopefully this will be the beginning of a good educational experience for him.

My biggest laptop repair

I am very proud of myself.  Last weekend, I undertook my most extensive laptop repair yet, and it worked!

My task: replace the keyboard in my wife's laptop.  Now, this might not sound difficult, but the problem is that my wife has a Dell Inspiron 13 7359.  It's one of those convertibles where the screen will fold all the way around to turn into a quasi-tablet.  It's actually a fairly nice laptop, and it's got more than enough horsepower for her use.  The problem is that she's kind of tough on it and the keyboard was going bad.  In fact, it had quite a few keys that were either flat-out dead or very hard to press, to the point that the keyboard was basically unusable.  So it needed to be replaced.

The problem is that you can't replace this keyboard from the top.  The top of the case is all one piece and covers the space between the keys.  So you have to do it from the bottom, which means that you need to take literally all the components out of the case.  But it's not even that simple.  You can't just  take everything out and then unscrew the keyboard.  Noooo, that would be too easy.  You need remove a layer of adhesive plastic, which is on top of a protective metal plate which is glued and plastic-welded to the case and keyboard.  Then you can remove the glue that holds the keyboard to the case and replace it.  And, of course, then you've got to put back the plate and all the components.

The good news is that I managed to get through all that without too much difficulty.  I used the YouTube video above as a guide to disassembling the core components.  Then I took the advice from this iFixit thread to use use a soldering iron to melt the plastic welds (and also the glue).  I was able to use the soldering iron to go around the edges of each plastic weld and push the melted plastic to the middle of the post, as in the image below.  I used a small screwdriver to pry up the plate as I removed each weld. The soldering iron also easily melted the glue.  After replacing getting everything out, I was able to snap the new keyboard in over the plastic posts without too much trouble.  I used a little hot glue to hold it, then replaced the metal plate, using the soldering iron to spread the plastic from the welds back over the edge of the metal.  Probably not as good as new, but good enough to hold.  Then it was just a matter of putting back the sheet of adhesive plastic and all the system components.

Inside of the case with some of the plastic welds melted

The only part that I actually had any serious problems with was reconnecting the circuit board that houses the WiFi chip to the the motherboard.  For some reason, I just couldn't get the cable to stay put.  I'm not sure if it was just loose or if I wasn't getting it seated properly.  This was especially annoying because that board is what the power button is connected to, so the system wouldn't even turn on if it came loose, which kept happening in the process of putting the back cover on.  I eventually was able to get it to stay put with some tape, so at least it worked out.

In the process, I also upgraded the laptop hard drive from spinning rust to solid-state.  I used EaseUs Todo Backup Home version to and a USB hard drive enclosure to clone the existing system from the HDD to the SSD and just swapped in the SSD when I was putting the system back together.  It worked out great.  The drive cloning process was fairly painless.  It took around 45 minutes to clone the 500GB drive.  The only annoyance was the progress bar that stayed at 53% for half an hour before jumping to 90% when it was about to finish.  The software seemed fairly nice, but I didn't use it much - I really just needed to clone that one disk.  They have a free version, but sadly it does not seem to include the system cloning feature, so I just used the free trial of the paid version.  This does require you to sign up for a subscription and cancel before the trial ends, which is annoying, but not ultimately a big deal.

So now my wife can actually type on her laptop and it has a faster disk.  Total cost: $115.  That's probably less than I would have paid for just the parts if I'd taken it to a shop (which I don't know if they're even opened now).  The break-down was $20 for the keyboard, $70 for the SSD, $15 for the hard drive enclosure, and $10 for a soldering iron.  Yes, I had to buy a soldering iron.  I'd never actually used one before, believe it or not.  But I used it successfully and only burned myself once.  Not bad for a software guy, if I do say so myself.