About Mike Knewtson

Mike Knewtson is an experienced Software Architect. He has extensive experience in building engineering solutions for Oil and Gas Applications. He has a long time interest in Agile Software Processes. For the last 12 years, Mike has worked at Schlumberger. Mike enjoys photography and astronomy.

Another Kind of Surgery


When I attended the Microsoft Professional Development Conference in 2009 (PDC 09), there was an “Oprah moment” during the keynote when we heard that we would each go home with a brand new convertible, touch screen laptop, loaded with the latest Microsoft software to play with. Here’s a picture of mine. It’s a model 1420p by Acer, but it’s commonly called a PDC09 machine. I don’t believe it was ever sold publicly, though a few thousand were give to attendees of the conference.

Over the last few years, this machine has served me very well, and I’ve upgraded the memory and hard disk so that it is a pretty decent little machine. Solid block sealed cases are very elegant, but it’s also very nice to be able to get inside and do some minor hardware upgrades.

The convertible feature for this machine means that you can flip the LCD panel around and lay it down flat so that it becomes a nice two-point touch tablet PC. This is a very cool feature, and one that becomes even more cool now that the release candidate version of Windows 8 is available, since it works very nicely on a touch screen.

A couple of months ago, I noticed the wireless network card didn’t seem to pick up a signal anymore, even when I know the signal was strong.  Luckily, some parts for these machines are starting to show up on eBay now, so I was able to pick up a replacement wireless card for about $15.  It was easy enough to replace, but it didn’t seem to fix the problem.  Sigh!  I gave up and bought an external USB wireless N card and kept right on using the machine

Then, in the middle of a two-week trip to Beijing, the display suddenly stopped working.  I could still use the machine by attaching it to with an HDMI cable to my hotel TV, so I could tell that the machine was still fine otherwise.  The touchscreen even still worked, though it was hard to correlate the touch on my dark LCD with the image on the TV.

I wasn’t ready to give up on the machine, and I began to think (hope really) that the problem might be in the cable that connected the main system and the LCD display.  I found a video cable for the system advertised on eBay, so when I got home, I placed an order.  The video cable was a rather nasty looking beast, so I should probably have been frightened off.  Here’s a picture of it.


When I received it, I managed to find a system maintenance manual for the machine online.  It was over 200 pages long, and it looked like replacing the video cable would mean disassembling most of the machine!  Now I was really scared.  If you want to take a look at the manual, it’s here.

I started the LONG disassembly process.  When I got to separating the LCD at the hinge, the problem became clear.  Here’s a picture of the cables:


It turns out that the hinge is designed to turn 180 degrees in one direction, and then BACK 180 degrees in the same direction, but the stops on the hinge are not very strong, and it’s possible to keep on rotating in the same direction instead.  It looks like over the years I had managed to do this a few times until the cables had been twisted and nearly snapped completely through.  The video part of the cable had snapped already, and the touch screen part had managed to hold on.  Also running through this hinge were four wires connecting the wi-fi/bluetooth radio antenna to the transmitter cards.  This also explains why my wi-fi had stopped working.  It had been the “canary in the coal mine” telling me another problem was coming, but I didn’t understand it at the time.

IMG_6744 by mike_knewtson
IMG_6744, a photo by mike_knewtson on Flickr.

Here’s the system after I was able to disassemble it far enough that I could actually replace the cables.  Looking at the mess on the table, my confidence was getting pretty low that the thing would ever work again.  Also, I couldn’t think of any way to test anything except to put it all back together again and hope, so I knew I was going to be investing  bunch of hours before I would get any more information.



Finally, I was able to get the new cable in place and start re-assembling, but I didn’t have a new set of cables for the wireless antennae, so I decided to patch in some small pieces of wire by soldering them in.  Not much room in the case for excess wires, though, so I had to work a bit closer to the electronics than I wanted.  here’s an intermediate view of this part of the job.


After a bit more soldering and wire-stuffing, and many screws and small plastic connectors later, I was ready to try the machine again.  And…

No joy!  The screen was still black.  Sigh!  I looked at the service manual one more time and tried some recommended trouble shooting techniques.  One of them was to re-seat the memory modules (DIMMs).

After reseating the DIMMs, all was well!!!!  The machine lives again, the display and the touch screen work as before, AND the wi-fi is working again.  Luckily, a happy ending,  as there were many places the process could have gone badly.

I’ve learned my lesson about how to flip the screen though.  I won’t be rotating through my stops anymore, as I’d hate to have to repeat this process.

Here’s one more shot of the machine.


There was only one tiny screw lost in the process. Completely vanished.  Luckily it doesn’t seem to be rattling around inside the case, so it was probably just eaten by the carpet. And these tiny plastic pieces seem to be orphans. I have no idea where they came from, but they can’t be very important.


If you are interested in even more pictures of my machine in various disassembled states, you can see my Flickr set here.

Pi Time

It’s 3:14 am as I type this.  Pi time.  It’s shift change time.  Linda has had a few hours sleep in bed, taken care of the dog, and returned to the hospital to tag me.  She will now be with Mary Ellen as she sleeps and I will get some sleep here at home.

Mary Ellen has been recovering well, but she has had very little “awake time.”  This is probably for the best, as she has a lot of fresh pain to manage.  The very good news is that her breathing has not been so shallow his time around, which means she has not been awakened frequently by alarms and parent’s reminders to take “deep breaths” so often.  Morphine has been her friend.  When she does wake up, it’s to say “ouch” and gladly press the green button again.

Mary Ellen has had some nausea to deal with this time, which is no fun at all.  But the second anti-nausea medication they tried seems to have done the trick.  She still hasn’t really had anything but a bit of water since before midnight on Monday though.  We ordered a cup of tea for her dinner.  It’s all she wanted.  But, it grew cold while she slept and she never had an opportunity to enjoy it.

There is much more to tell, but it’s for Mary Ellen to tell, herself, when she is awake again.  So far, she’s made two brave attempts to scribble something down for me to transcribe to her blog.  However, she faded after a few partial sentences each time.

And so, like Linda and I, you must wait patiently for Mary Ellen’s recovery.  Thanks so much for all the kind thoughts and prayers.  It’s what we can do for now, and it’s enough.

Focusing on the Essentials

As I write this, my daughter Mary Ellen is in second surgery for a tumor in her right femur.  She is writing about her experience this time in her own blog, which you can read here.  My other daughter is 1000s of miles away on a wonderful trip to Africa.  Although I am much closer to Mary Ellen, I feel just as helpless to help her at the moment as if she were also on the other side of the earth.

Right now, all my training and experience is no help for her.  Her health and safety is entirely in the hands of Dr. Lin and the good team of professionals at MD Andersen Cancer center.  I am left to be supportive in other ways.  In basketball, we used to refer to this as “working away from the ball” by which we meant that you had an important job (getting open, being ready) even when you weren’t controlling the action moving the ball yourself.

Today my job is to focus on the essentials.  I have the second bedside shift in recovery, so my job this morning was to sleep in so I would be ready.  My jobs this morning are feeding myself, taking care of the dog, and leaving the house in a reasonable state.  I am also doing some praying.  Later today, my job will be just to be there for Mary Ellen and to do whatever is needed.  Despite how I spend the bulk of my days usually, these really are the essentials.  It’s a bit challenging to really have a grateful heart at the moment, but I am grateful for the opportunity to focus on the essentials.  It helps me remember what is really important.

A Twisty Maze

Completing the Maze

Anyone who’s been around computer technology for a long enough will immediately recognize the phrase “A Twisty Maze” as being from the early computer game called Adventure or Colossal Cave.  This was a text game where the user wandered through a great cave by typing simple instructions like “go north” and the computer program would describe what you see in the vast underground labyrinth.  At a certain place you could wander into “a twisty maze of passages all alike” and it would be very difficult to find your way out from there.  The usual trick was dropping some things you were carrying so that they would be added to the description of the room if  you managed to go in a circle and come back to the same place (which wasn’t hard to do).  You can read more about Adventure in this Wikipedia article.

When I was an undergraduate at MIT, I clearly remember spending hours and hours playing Adventure on the MIT timesharing system using a line-printer terminal in the back hallway at my fraternity (Chi Phi).  This could have been considered research into the current state of the art of computer intelligence, but was actually just a way to avoid doing the reading and problem sets I was always supposed to be doing.

When I started this blog, the “Twisty Maze of Passages” was the obvious theme.  I have a variety of interests: computer technology, astronomy, photography, poetry, faith.  I will probably end up blogging on all of these eventually, and the only thing that really connects them is my own twisted brain.

I hope something here might be interesting to you.  If so, drop me a line or post a comment.  Perhaps we can find our way by what we leave for each other, just like an Adventure in the Colossal Cave.

About the Banner Picture

My current banner picture is a photo of the recent transit of Venus. I took this while I was visiting Beijing on a business trip. I carefully created solar filters for my binoculars and camera lenses and took these along so I would be ready. I arrived the evening before the transit and selected a position near the hotel with a nice low horizon, since the transit would happen early the next morning and I would try to get some shots before I went into the office.

When the time was approaching, I found that I could barely see the sun through the clouds and haze in the eastern sky. Although I could see the sun OK with my naked eyes, it was so dim that I couldn’t find it at all through the solar filters. Eventually, I decided that I would stop the camera down and try it without using the filters. This proved to work pretty well, and I was able to get several photos of the transit using only the hazy, polluted Beijing air as a filter. My banner picture is one of the better shots. You can see the Venus clearly enough, The texture of the clouds is also faintly visible at the edges of the sun image.

You can see the rest of my Venus transit photos in my Flickr sethere:



The Dart Thrower

I have been a Dart Thrower in a room full of balloons
My desire has only been to clear the air between us
And I have tried to have true aim
But I know my focus has been too much on popping balloons
You know how much I enjoy the Pop! Pop! Pop! as my darts find their targets
Red One…. Pop! Blue One… Pop!
But now, after all my darts are thrown, I see you standing there
Dart-scarred and bleeding
With your hands full of knives, unthrown
And I feel sick and sad
And I realize how lucky I am not to be
In an empty room full of broken balloons