Brain dump, June 2022

As much as I’m relishing the decline and fall of crypto, I’m not as keen on the decline and fall of the U.S. economy. There seems to be a particularly head-in-the-sand-style disconnect between the state of the economy and how it’s being covered in the news. My savings are down about 25% for this year, as well as the savings of most of my friends and family. Prices are up by at least 20% overall, for pretty much every class of products. I have no idea how the reported “8% inflation” numbers are arrived at.

And yet, when I open the news, the headlines read, “Could a recession be on the way?!” “Stocks plunge, stoking worries of recession!”, etc. I understand that the technical definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of negative growth, but what is it called when there’s a recession’s worth of decline in a single quarter?

Digitized a few old VHS tapes for a friend. This was done using my trusty Sabrent USB-AVCPT adapter, which accepts either S-Video or RCA input, coming from a VCR borrowed from another friend. This adapter is quite old, and therefore is no longer supported on Windows 11, but thankfully still works perfectly in Linux without any custom software. To perform the conversion:

  • Launch VLC, select “Media -> Convert/Save…”, then go to “Capture Device”.
  • Select “TV – analog”, then for the Video input select /dev/video2, or whatever the last video device is, and for the Audio input you must paste the name of the ALSA/pulseaudio device that corresponds to the adapter.
  • The audio device can be found by going to the Playlist in VLC and looking at the list of “Devices” on the left. From there you should be able to find the audio device and look at its properties, which will give you the device name.
  • Back in the Convert tab, once both Video and Audio devices are typed in, click Convert; this will take you to the final step before conversion. Make sure to enable “Deinterlace”, since the output from VCRs is usually interlaced.
  • Select a suitable “Profile”, such as “H.264 + MP3”.
  • Select a “Destination file” to which the video will be written.
  • And finally click the Start button (and simultaneously the Play button on the VCR)!
  • When the tape is finished playing, click the Stop button in VLC, and the video will be complete.
  • Be kind and rewind the VHS tape before ejecting it. Immediately upon ejecting the tape, throw it in the trash.

When selecting the “H.264 + MP3” profile, I tweaked the video quality to be 2 Mbps, since the default was a rather low 800 kbps, considering that we’ll have 720×480 resolution at 30 fps (NTSC). I would have liked to see a playback of the video while it was converting, so I enabled “Display the output”, but this didn’t seem to work, and just got stuck on the first frame. That’s fine, since I just let the tape play until the end and then checked that the conversion was successful. Each tape was converted to around 2 GB of video.

Brain dump, April 2022

Recovered data for a client from a Sony AIT3 tape (model SDX3-100C, 30GB). This was done using a Sony SDX 700C SCSI drive, under Linux using the usual mt and dd commands, although I had to specify a 64KB block size (dd -bs 64k) to read it correctly. The annoying thing was the format of the backup, which took a little time to reverse-engineer, but probably came from an old version of Retrofit, from a Mac workstation. This is now integrated into my swiss-army-knife backup decoding repository.

Another client needed to convert an obscure video codec into a modern format. The codec turned out to be Media 100, which is still in existence (?) but is completely unsupported in modern video players, including ffmpeg and mplayer. Fortunately the Media 100 software itself is still downloadable and can be installed on older versions of macOS. Once installed it’s possible to create a blank project and import the video clips into it, and then export them as a more common format. It also looks like QuickTime version 7 (still available for download and installable on older macOSes) can play Media 100 videos.

I received a couple of Iomega Ditto tape drives from a generous donor (a “2GB” drive and an “Easy 800” drive). Unfortunately both of these drives were suffering from the “melting rubber wheel” issue, which is when the rubber roller which drives the tape turns to sticky goo. When using this type of drive for the first time, make sure to inspect the rubber wheel and verify that it’s nice and firm. If touching the wheel makes an indentation, or if the rubber comes off on your finger, replace it and do not try reading any tapes with it!

The solution that worked for me to resolve this issue was PlastiDip, which I learned about from this webpage and this video. First make sure to remove any of the old rubber, and then perform successive “dips” of the capstan, which will accumulate more and more layers of rubber, until it matches the desired thickness.

When the drives were fixed, I was able to use them successfully to read some Ditto 2GB tapes, as well as some older QIC-80 tapes, using the Ditto Tools software (which looks like just a rebranded Colorado Backup) running in Windows 98, on an old ThinkPad laptop, communicating with the tape drive over the parallel port.

Finally moved away from using Dropbox entirely, and switched to using Syncthing. The breaking point was when Dropbox started to litter my removable USB drives with configuration files, because apparently that’s the only way for Dropbox to know that I don’t want my removable drives backed up.

Of course the drawback is that Syncthing doesn’t back up to the cloud; it only syncs across one or more devices that I own, which are currently online. For now, though, this will probably work just fine, since I usually have at least two devices powered on at any given time, including my desktop workstation, my laptop, and my phone.

A retro laptop like no other

A while ago a came across an old Compaq LTE 286 laptop. When they were first released around 1989, these PCs were somewhat groundbreaking because they were the first to be compact enough to resemble the “notebook” form factor that we take for granted today. Unfortunately this particular unit was pretty much beyond repair, and my attempts to restore it to a functional state were fruitless.

However, I realized that I could do the next best thing: remove the guts of the laptop and replace it with a Raspberry Pi! Who needs a “modern” Raspberry Pi-powered computer, when we can put one in a 30-year-old case? That’s right, if we look inside, that’s no ordinary Compaq LTE:

Let’s walk through all the components we see in the above image:

  1. The original display of the Compaq LTE was 9 inches in size diagonally, and had an unusual aspect ratio of 2:1. The closest modern replacement I could find is a 9-inch TFT display, ordered from AliExpress for $30, which has an aspect ratio of 16:9. This means I had to cut away some of the plastic to accommodate the extra vertical real estate of the new screen, but I don’t think this impacts the aesthetic too much.
  2. My main goal was to use the original keyboard from the old laptop with the new Raspberry Pi internals. But the original keyboard simply has a proprietary FPC ribbon cable (flexible printed circuit) that goes directly to the old motherboard. How can we possibly use this with a modern setup? Never fear: there’s a clever solution devised by Frank Adams that uses a microcontroller with a bunch of GPIO pins to translate any arbitrary ribbon-cable keyboard into a USB keyboard! The bundle of wires that you see here is an adapter I fashioned that breaks out the ribbon cable into wires that can be soldered onto the microcontroller.
  3. This is a Teensy LC microcontroller ($12) that takes the raw keyboard switch inputs and translates them into a USB keyboard device, usable by any modern computer. The microcontroller simply listens for high/low state changes on a predetermined matrix of GPIO inputs that corresponds to character codes on the original Compaq LTE keyboard. Not my finest soldering job, but it works perfectly well.
  4. HDMI driver board that came with the TFT display. This is using a 50-pin extension cable that is long enough to go all the way up to the display itself. The driver board is not thin enough to fit in the plastic enclosure of the display. The board is drawing power from the 5V pin on the Raspberry Pi.
  5. Panel-mount USB extension cable for powering the Raspberry Pi. It’s mounted in the location where the old serial port used to be.
  6. The Raspberry Pi (model 3B) itself, secured to the bottom of the plastic case using Velcro™. The microSD card is actually accessible (using tweezers!) through the floppy drive cover of the original case.

I also just added one other thing: a panel-mounted USB and audio port combo, which pass right through to the Raspberry Pi:

The whole thing works amazingly well as a retro gaming laptop! My happy place is playing old DOS games using the venerable DOSBox emulator, but the state of retro emulation for Raspberry Pi is much broader than that, and this beauty can handle all of it.

Notice the faint red glow of the power LED shining through the floppy drive cover.

And of course it also works as a general-purpose Linux PC, with WiFi, Bluetooth, and everything else you’d expect:

Someday, if I’m feeling particularly masochistic, I’ll see if I can let this be my daily driver for a while! But for now, just a few more minutes of Commander Keen: Goodbye Galaxy!

Brain dump, January 2022

There’s a HAM radio enthusiast living in Belarus (and previously Russia) who designed a telegraph keyer and named it after my grandfather, Lev Naumovich Pekler (Лев Наумович Пеклер), after meeting him briefly at the polar research base (Остров Голомянный) where he was stationed. Unfortunately this model is no longer in production, and has been superseded by newer designs, available from his website.

Our cat Bissel was featured as part of the “best cat breeds for apartment living” in The Spruce Pets.

Played around with the Lichee Pi Zero and the Lichee Nano boards, which are nifty and powerful little things. Here are links for getting started with the Zero, as well as SD card images for booting it. And here the documentation for the Nano, and how to get embedded Linux working on it. I simply developed a few random scripts that drew patterns on the framebuffer (i.e. a TFT screen attached to it). Quick tip: to disable the blinking cursor when drawing to the framebuffer:

echo 0 > /sys/class/graphics/fbcon/cursor_blink

Software update round-up

It’s high time to give some love to a few of my older and less-maintained software projects, and bring them up to date with a few much-needed and requested features!


DiskImager is a tool that I’ve used “internally” for a few years now to read and write raw disk images. I’ve simply never found the time to polish it up and make it production-ready, until now. This is a small standalone tool that will dump the contents of any drive connected to your PC to a file on another (larger) drive. It can also write a disk image file to a physical disk. Furthermore, when selecting a disk image to write to a physical disk, you can choose from several types of image formats (besides raw images) including VDI, VMDK, VHD, and E01.


The FileSystemAnalyzer tool has gotten a huge number of bug fixes, as well as these enhancements:

  • Improved compatibility with FAT, exFAT, NTFS, ext4, and UDF filesystems in various states of corruption.
  • Improved previews and metadata for more file types.
  • The main file tree view now has columns with file size and date, similar to Windows Explorer. These columns are clickable to sort the file list by ascending or descending order of the column type.
  • Directories can now be saved from the file tree view (recursively), in addition to individual files.

Outlook PST viewer

The PST viewer tool has been updated to be more compatible with a wider range of PST files from different versions of Outlook, and to be more forgiving of corrupted PST files. There is also a new option to save individual messages as .MSG files.