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The International Shipping Mess

International package shipments through the US Post Office have seen major disruptions in the past months thanks to COVID-19. It’s slower than a sad mule hauling a sack of letters. The delays have caused lots of headaches for BMOW customers and for me. To be candid, it’s a mess. It’s hard to understand, because some packages still get delivered quickly, but others are delayed for months with no updates to their tracking info.

The problem seems to be that the post office uses cargo space on commercial airlines, but since COVID-19 hit, international commercial airline traffic has been reduced to almost nothing. Huge stockpiles of outbound mail are piling up in warehouses, waiting for space on an outbound flight. The US Post Office has started shipping some packages by sea again, returning to the methods used decades ago. Even after the packages reach the destination country, they face additional delays due to lack of staff and extra safety precautions.

As of today, June 23, I estimate that at least half my international shipments are still experiencing major delays, and many shipments from 2+ months ago still haven’t been delivered yet. Most people have been patient in the face of these delays, but I’m approaching a decision point regarding how to handle severely delayed orders. It’s not my fault that COVID-19 has upended the international shipping landscape, but it’s not the customers’ fault either, and I can’t expect them to wait forever. Soon I may have to look at offering tens of thousands of dollars in refunds for missing shipments, which would be disastrous. My method of self-insurance anticipates that packages will occasionally get lost and need to be refunded, but it’s based on an expected loss rate about 1%, not 50% or more. Sending replacement shipments to everybody isn’t really an option, and the replacements would likely experience similar delays.

In the face of this shipping environment, I’ve considered temporarily halting sales outside the USA. I’m very reluctant to do that, because international sales are almost half my total order volume. And many international shipments continue to arrive as quickly as before, typically in a week or two. I haven’t been able to find a pattern that explains which shipments will be delayed, except that shipments going east (mostly Europe) and south (central and South America) are more likely to be delayed than shipments to Canada and shipments going west (Asia and Australia).

Another alternative might be to require customers outside the USA to pay for a premium shipping service like FedEx or DHL. Those services are slower than before, but should still be much faster than the regular post office. But the cost would be very high, perhaps $50 shipping fee for a typical package to Europe. For many orders, that would make the cost of shipping higher than the cost of the goods themselves. The complexity and hassle for me would also increase. My current custom-made shipping solution is tightly integrated with the US Postal Service and relies on living close by a local post office. I’ve done a few experimental shipments with DHL, and the time and care needed to send a single package is much greater than with the post office. Still, this may be the best option from among the unappealing options that are available.

If you’re one of the customers who’s been impacted by this, I’m very sorry for the delay, and thank you for your continued patience.

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Acrylic Cases Back in Stock

Acrylic cases for the BMOW Floppy Emu and ADB-USB Wombat are back in stock. If you’ve been waiting for one of these, your wait is over. The Floppy Emu cases were held up longer than expected due to international shipping delays, which continue to be a major challenge. The Wombat cases are made locally, but the manufacturer has mostly transitioned to making emergency medical protective equipment and is processing other work slowly. To compound the problem, the first delivery of Wombat cases were somehow mis-cut at 15/16ths the correct size. The whole batch had to be thrown in the trash, and new cases re-cut. Sometimes even the simple things are hard!

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Floppy Emu Update: Favorites, Lisa Fixes, and More

New features have arrived for the BMOW Floppy Emu disk emulator! This update has something for everyone.

 
Favorites Menu

If your SD card contains hundreds of disk images or many deeply-nested subdirectories, navigating through the contents of the card can become tedious and slow. For convenience, an optional Favorites menu can now be configured. At startup the Favorites menu will be shown instead of the standard File Explorer menu. If needed, you can exit the Favorites menu at any time in order to choose non-favorite disk images.

The Favorites menu is configured using a plain text file named favdisks.txt. This file should be placed in the top-level root directory of your SD card. In this file, list the path to each favorite floppy disk image, one per line. An example file is included with the Floppy Emu’s firmware update package, which can be downloaded from the BMOW web site.

 
Auto-mounting

The Macintosh and Lisa will wait patiently for you to insert a boot disk, but most Apple II computers will give up if a boot disk isn’t found within a few seconds after power-on. To make life easier, past versions of the Apple II compatible firmware included a simple auto-remount behavior. At power-on, the most recently used disk was automatically re-mounted, if the disk was inserted when the power was turned off last time.

This new firmware enables further control over the Apple II automount behavior, using an optional automount directive on the first line of the favdisks.txt file. This is just the word “automount” followed by a space and a single digit:

  • 0 – Never automount. The Floppy Emu will always power up to display your Favorites menu.
  • 1 – Always automount the first disk image listed in favdisks.txt
  • 2 – Automount the most recently used disk, if there was a disk inserted when the power was turned off last time.

Automounting is only supported for the Apple II floppy disk emulation modes. The automount directive has no effect in other emulation modes, or for Macintosh / Lisa disk emulation.

 
Lisa 2/5 Fixes

Unlike the Lisa 2/10, the Lisa 2/5 doesn’t have an IWM chip for processing floppy disk signals. It uses a collection of discrete logic chips to accomplish the same result. For several years I’ve struggled to understand why the Floppy Emu firmware works poorly with the Lisa 2/5, and now I finally have the answer.

To detect a “1” bit from the floppy drive, the computer looks for a high-to-low transition occurring somewhere in the 2 microsecond bit window. It repeatedly samples the signal during that 2 microsecond window, looking for a transition. It turns out that the IWM samples the signal at a higher rate than the Lisa 2/5 discrete logic. The high periods of Floppy Emu’s “1” bits were too short to be reliably detected by the Lisa 2/5 level-sensitive hardware. This firmware update doubles the width of the high period, and my Lisa 2/5 testers report that it’s now working smoothly.

 
Floppy Emu for Visually Impaired Users

Several small tweaks have been made to improve the experience for visually impaired users. A new appendix has also been added to the instruction manual, with a detailed description of the behaviors necessary to use the Floppy Emu without seeing the display. The favorites menu was initially developed as a tool for blind users, before being extended into a general-use feature. With the Favorites menu, any desired disk image can be chosen reliably by counting how many times you’ve pressed NEXT before pressing SELECT to insert the disk.

Today’s firmware update also introduces an optional emumode.txt config file, which simplifies the process of changing the emulation mode by reducing the number of button presses needed. If this file is present, then as soon as the emulation mode menu is opened, the Floppy Emu will automatically change the emulation mode according to the ID specified in the file. An example file is included with the Floppy Emu’s firmware update package.

 
Download the New Firmware

Mac/Lisa firmware: mac-lisa-0.8G-F15
Apple II firmware for Floppy Emu Model B and C: apple-II-0.2L-F25

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Windows 10 External Video Crashes Part 6 – Conclusion

For most of 2019 I was going crazy trying to solve unexplained problems with Windows 10 external video on my HP EliteBook x360 1030 G2 laptop. I bought the computer last May, with the idea to use it primarily as a desktop replacement. But when I connected an ASUS PB258Q 2560 x 1440 external monitor, I was plagued by mysterious intermittent crashes that slowly drove me insane. For the previous chapters of this story, see part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.

The computer worked OK during normal use, but problems appeared every couple of days, after a few hours of idle time or overnight. I experienced random crashes in the Intel integrated graphics driver igdkmd64.sys, though these stopped after upgrading the driver. The computer periodically locked up with a blank screen and fans running 100%. The Start menu sometimes wouldn’t open. Sometimes the Windows toolbar disappeared. Sometimes I’d return to the computer to find the Chrome window resized to a tiny size.

The crowning moment was the day I woke from the computer from sleep, and was greeted with the truly bizarre video scaling shown in the photo above. The whole image was also inset on the monitor, with giant black borders all around.

These might sound like a random collection of symptoms, or like a software driver problem, or maybe a typical problem with bad RAM or other hardware. But after pretty exhaustive testing and analysis (did I mention this is part 6 of this series), I became convinced the problem was somehow related to the external video. The problems only occurred when connected to external video, and when the external video resolution was 2560 x 1440.

I tried different cables. I tried both HDMI and DisplayPort. I tried RAM tests, driver updates, and firmware updates. I tried what seemed like a million different work-arounds. And I tried just living with it, but it was maddening.

 
Out With the Old

After seven months of this troubleshooting odyssey, in late December I finally gave up and replaced the whole computer. I purchased a Dell desktop, which is probably what I should have done in the first place. My original idea of using the laptop mostly as a desktop seemed attractive, but in actual practice I never made use of the laptop’s mobility. It functioned 100% as a desktop, except it was more expensive than a desktop, with a slower CPU than a comparable desktop, and with more problems than a desktop. For example, the external keyboard and monitor didn’t work reliably in the BIOS menu – I had to open the laptop and use the built-in keyboard and display. Waking the computer from sleep with the external keyboard was also iffy. I eventually concluded that a “desktop replacement” laptop isn’t really as good as a real desktop computer.

I’m happy to report that the new Dell desktop has been working smoothly with the ASUS PB258Q 2560 x 1440 monitor for five months. But what’s more surprising is that the EliteBook laptop has also been working smoothly. My wife inherited the EliteBook, and she’s been using it daily without any problems. She often uses it with an external monitor too, although it’s a different one than the PB258Q monitor I was using. No troubles at all – everything is great.

So in the end, everything’s working, but the problem wasn’t truly solved. Can I make any educated guesses what went wrong?

All the evidence points to some kind of incompatibility between the PB258Q’s 2560 x 1440 resolution and the EliteBook x360 1030 G2. Other monitors didn’t exhibit the problem, and other video resolutions on the same monitor didn’t exhibit the problem either. I believe the external video was periodically disconnecting or entering a bad state, causing the computer to become confused about what monitors were connected and what their resolutions were. This caused errors for the Start menu, toolbar, and applications, and sometimes caused the computer to freeze or crash. Was it a hardware problem with the EliteBook, a Windows driver problem, or maybe even a hardware problem with the ASUS monitor? With a large enough budget for more hardware testing, I might have eventually found the answer. For now I’m just happy the problem is gone.

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Sorry, Europe. International Shipping Woes

The Covid-19 virus has disrupted pretty much everything, including shipping of BMOW hardware. The impact on international shipments to Europe has been especially severe. Typical post office delivery times to Europe have exploded from roughly a week pre-virus to 1-2 months today. Shipments to Canada and Asia have also been delayed substantially. It’s very frustrating for everybody involved.

As of today (May 5), most of the Europe-bound packages that I’ve shipped since mid-March have yet to be delivered. Of all the shipments to Europe sent between March 12 and April 25, a whopping 81% are still in transit and haven’t yet been delivered. The most recent tracking information for many of them says “Processed Through Regional Facility: SAN FRANCISCO CA INTERNATIONAL DISTRIBUTION CENTER”. Many packages have been stuck with that same status for over a month.

What’s happening? Are the packages really still in some San Francisco post office warehouse? The tracking info provided for First Class Package International mail is imperfect, and sometimes it’s not updated further after the package leaves the United States. The packages may not necessarily still be at the San Francisco distribution center. In the past I’ve had packages get stuck for several weeks in the customs inspection of the destination country, and that might be what’s happening here.

Sadly there’s no way to get additional information on delivery status. US Postal Service First Class Package International shipping is the least expensive international delivery method, and normally it’s reasonably fast, but unlike FedEx or UPS or DHL there’s nobody to call and no meaningful recourse to track a delayed package. While it’s frustrating, there’s really no option other than to wait.

If your package is one of the many stuck in this limbo, then please accept my apologies. Thank you for your patience. And know that in the worst case if your package disappears permanently, I will replace it for you.

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Building a 12V DC MagSafe Charger

Now that I have a solar-powered 12V battery, how can I charge my laptop from it? An inverter would seem absurdly inefficient, converting from 12V DC to 110V AC just so I can connect my Apple charger and convert back to DC. It would work, but surely there’s some way to skip the cumbersome inverter and charge a MacBook Pro directly from DC?

Newer Macs feature USB Type C power delivery, a common standard with readily available 12V DC chargers designed for automotive use. But my mid-2014 MBP uses Apple’s proprietary MagSafe 2 charging connector. In their infinite wisdom, Apple has never built a 12V DC automotive MagSafe 2 charger – only AC wall chargers. There are some questionable-looking 3rd-party solutions available, but I’d rather build my own.

Step 1: Cut the cord off a MagSafe 2 AC wall charger. Yes that’s right. Being a proprietary connector, there’s no other source for the MagSafe 2. Fortunately I already had an old charger with a cracked and frayed cable that I could use as a donor. Snip!

The choice of AC wall charger matters more than you might expect. Inside the MagSafe 2 connector is a tiny chip that identifies the charger type and its maximum output power. The Mac’s internal charging circuitry won’t exceed this charging power, no matter what the capabilities of the power supply at the other end of the cable. Pretty sneaky, Apple! Official MagSafe 2 chargers come in three varieties of 45W, 65W, and 85W. My donor MagSafe 2 has the 85W id chip inside, so I can charge at the fastest possible rate.

After cutting the charger cable, inside I found another insulated wire which I assumed to be the positive supply, surrounded by a shroud of fine bare wires which I assumed to be the ground connection. I’m not sure why Apple designed the cable this way, instead of with two separate insulated wires for power and ground. The braid of fine bare wires was awkward to work with, but I eventually managed to separate it and twist it into something like a normal wire. I soldered the power and ground wires to an XT60 connector and covered them with electrical tape and heat shrink. I also repaired the cracked and frayed cable sections.

Step 2: Get a DC-to-DC boost regulator. The input should be 12V, with a few volts of margin above and below. But what about the output? What’s the voltage of a MagSafe 2 charger? My donor charger says 4.25A 20V, but I couldn’t find any 12V-to-20V fixed voltage boost regulators. Happily I think anything roughly in the 15-20V range will work. For comparison, I have a 45W Apple charger that outputs 14.85V and a 3rd-party MagSafe 2 charger that outputs 16.5V. I chose this 12V-to-19V boost regulator with a maximum output power of 114W. At 85W, I’ll be pushing it to about 75% of maximum.

Step 3: The moment of truth. Would my expensive computer burst into flames when I connected this jury-rigged DC MagSafe charger? I held my breath, plugged in the cable, and… success! Of course it worked. The orange/green indicator LED on the MagSafe 2 connector worked too.

Opening the Mac’s System Information utility and viewing the Power tab, I could see that my charger was correctly recognized and working. The “Amperage” status also showed the battery was charging at a rate of 1737 mA (positive numbers here indicate charging, and negative numbers discharging). This seemed low – with the battery at 12.2V, that implied it was charging at roughly 21W instead of 85W. But when I connected an AC wall charger in place of my DC charger, the charging rate was almost identical. Because my battery was almost 100% charged, I think the charging rate was intentionally reduced. I’ll check again later when my battery is closer to 0%.

Goodbye, inverter. With just a few hours of work, I had a functioning 12V DC MagSafe 2 charger. Time to sit back, enjoy a beer, and celebrate victory.

 
Checking the Numbers

I like numbers. Do you like numbers? Here are some numbers.

This charging method is about 95% efficient, according to the claimed efficiency rating of the boost regulator. I can also leave the regulator permanently connected, since its no-load current is less than 20 mA. In comparison, charging with an inverter and an AC wall charger is about 77% efficient (85% for the inverter times 90% for the wall charger). And an inverter probably can’t be left permanently connected, since it has a constant draw of several watts even when no appliances are plugged in.

My “12V battery” is actually a Suaoki portable power station with a 150 Wh battery capacity. How many times can I recharge my MacBook Pro from this? Checking the Mac’s System Information data, I infer it has a 3S lithium battery with an 11.1V nominal voltage. System Information says the battery’s fully-charged capacity is 5182 mAh (which means my battery is old and tired), so that’s 57.5 Wh. A bit of web searching reveals that a fresh battery should have a capacity of 71.8 Wh. That means I should be able to recharge my MBP from 0% up to 100% twice, before exhausting the Suaoki’s 150 Wh battery.

Is the charging current over-taxing the Suaoki? How much current am I actually drawing from it? 85W of output power with 95% efficiency implies about 89.5W of input power to the boost regulator. At 12V that would be roughly 7.5A drawn from the Suaoki battery. But the Suaoki’s lithium battery falls to about 9V before it’s dead, and at 9V it would take 10A to reach the same number of watts. The Suaoki’s 12V outputs are rated “12V/10A, Max 15A in total”, so in the worst case I’d be running right up to the maximum.

What happens if I charge my MacBook and charge a couple of phones from the Suaoki’s USB ports at the same time? Would this be too much? I wouldn’t be exceeding the maximum rating of the USB ports, and (probably) wouldn’t be exceeding the maximum rating of the 12V ports, but the combination might be too much. At 85W for the MacBook, and maybe 10-20W each for two phones, the worst-case total could be as much as 125W. The Suaoki manual says “the rated input power of your devices should be no more than 100W”, but I think this refers to the AC inverter, not the system as a whole. Powering 125 watts from a 150 Wh battery is a discharge rate under 1C, which seems quite reasonable for a lithium battery. It’s probably OK. Now, back to charging!

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