Budget Birthday Gaming PC Build

My son decided that he wanted to build a gaming PC for his 11th birthday earlier this month. It’s been years since I have done a PC build, but I was pretty sure I could remember/figure out how to attach pieces together into a functional PC.

We started the process with a shared (OneDrive) Word Doc. I wanted my son to do as much of the research as possible. He had a pretty good handle on all of the necessary components from endless gaming Youtubers explanations of their rigs. When he had to make a choice (AMD vs. Intel), he searched for opinions online with references to the software he likes to use. His target workloads included Minecraft, Unity Game Development, & Blender modeling.

My son did a first-pass at a materials list, including a 8th-gen Intel Core i5-8400 CPU, ASUS Radeon RX 560 video card, 16 GB of RAM, 1TB Hard Drive, Case, Motherboard, Power Supply and all the trimmings. I had him run through the wattages for all of his planned components to make sure that we were well in spec for the power supply.

The next step involved me putting the list through a “Dad lives by a budget” reality check. The Intel Core i5-8400 was trimmed back to an Intel Core i3-8300. The ASUS video card and Motherboard were swapped for slightly cheaper Gigabyte equivalents. The RAM was scaled back to just 8GB. I added a Bluetooth and Wifi adapter to the list for flexibility in setup/accessories, and also a copy of Window 10 Pro, so that he’d be able to use Remote Desktop to access the new machine from his much less powerful laptop.

The final Materials List looked like:

Case: DIYPC DIY-F2-O Black/Orange USB 3.0 Micro-ATX Mini Tower (Amazon Link)
Motherboard: GIGABYTE B360M D3H LGA 1151 (300 Series) Intel B360 (Amazon Link)
CPU: Intel BX80684I38300 65W Core i3 i3-8300 Processor (Amazon Link)
Memory: Patriot Signature 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4 2400 (PSD48G2400KH) (Amazon Link)
Video Adapter: Gigabyte Radeon RX 560 GAMING OC 4G REv2.0 (Amazon Link)
Hard Drive: Seagate 1TB FireCuda Gaming SSHD (ST1000DX002) (Amazon Link)
Power Supply: Thermaltake Smart RGB 500W 80+ (Amazon Link)
Operating System: Windows 10 Pro (Microsoft Link)
Extras: Plugable USB Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy Micro Adapter (Amazon Link)
EDUP Wifi Adapter ac600Mbps Wireless Usb Adapter (Amazon Link)
Arctic Silver Thermal Compound AS5-3.5G (Amazon Link)

Everything was ordered and delivered before my son’s birthday, just waiting for him to dig in:

componentsAssembly was a breeze. The case had ample room for working. I provided a few pointers for making sure that the pre-installed stand-offs were positioned properly for the motherboard, and the ordering of install to make things easier. The new BGA socket for the processor was so much easier than the omg-did-i-bend-a-pin sockets of yesteryear.

We had a slight struggle with the Hard Drive because our initial attempt had the mounting frame even with the drive, which meant that the drive was not set in far enough that the case could close without pressing on the hard drive power cable. Correcting this was made harder by the fact that the hard drive was positioned to block the flexible part of the frame from bending to allow it to be removed from the case frame. This was remedied by some careful brute force.

Most every component and connector just went where they fit. My son handled all of the odds and ends with the motherboard’s included connector map. This case and motherboard actually matched pretty well for all the connectors. HD Audio header, all the remote USB ports, and each and every light and switch had a proper home. We even connected a tiny little speaker that was included in the motherboard package, “just in case” it was needed for POST beeps.

Once everything appeared to be in place, we connected the new box to a TV that we use as a monitor, and a keyboard and mouse that were birthday gifts from relatives, and hit the power.

The box hummed to life, orange LED lighting and fans spinning, and then a few second later everything cut off. Then on. Then off again. I hit the physical switch on the power supply so that we could get our bearings.

Next test we didn’t change anything, but took careful notice of all the fans. All spinning, so at least we weren’t cooking the CPU. Yet.

Next test, we unplugged pretty much everything non-essential on the motherboard, removed the video card and swapped the monitor over to the build-in HDMI connection and tried again. Same results.

Next test, one RAM module out: same. other RAM module out: same.

At this point I’m thinking that we’ve got a bad power supply, a bad motherboard, or a bad CPU. We disconnected the power supply, jumpered the green wire to ground, and applied power. It was nice to hear the power supply come to life and not power down after a few seconds. I didn’t check voltages, but I was pretty sure that we had a working power supply now. So basically at this point, I’m pretty certain that the motherboard is telling the power supply to cut off for some reason.

As I’m hooking the 24-pin power back to the Motherboard and trying to think of what to try next, I notice a lonely unpopulated 8-pin connector above the LGA1151 socket that looks to be another power connector. On closer inspection, it’s labeled “ATX_12V_2X4” and it most certainly is another power connector. When we were first hooking up the power supply, we’d checked all over the video card to see if it had and extra power socket (it doesn’t), but somehow missed this on on the motherboard. My son hooked up the extra power connector with one of the many available lines from the power supply and tried again… Success! We now had a booting computer! After seeing the BIOS menu come up, we powered down and my son set to work re-installing everything that had been removed in the name of troubleshooting.

After everything was hooked back up, the computer booted successfully again, and my son started the process of booting from a prepared USB to install Windows 10.

All in all, the build was a major success. My kids typically use cheap, modestly powered laptops for schoolwork and games, and this beast way outperforms all of them for the things my son cares about most (i.e. bragging about frames-per-second on Minecraft).


Passmark shows that our modest budget PC holds it’s own pretty well at 3126.9:


Project – Card Skimmer Detector via Make

It’s summertime, which means the kids are on and off camp throughout the summer.  We’ve done a few projects in the past with Raspberry Pi and Arduino, and this project for a Card Skimmer Detector came across my feed from Make.

Not content with just following instructions, I ordered a slightly different display than the one used by Tyler Winegarner for the article.  I’m hopeful that it’s similar enough, and a quick review of the driver referenced in Tyler’s code seems positive.

Two of my kids will attempt to get this going on Pi Zero W’s with preinstalled headers from Adafruit, and I’ll dig in with some soldering required.  I also ordered some small piezo speakers and a USB GPS receiver that I might try to integrate.  I pre-printed a handful of basic Pi Zero cases from mynameishamish via Thingiverse but will probably design something more custom after we see how the project comes together.

Reading List: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up To Us

On the flight out to Seattle on Sunday, I finally finished up Tim O’reilly’s overtly named What’s the Future and Why It’s Up To Us. In a coincidence of timing, this morning I also scanned across Jeff Atwood’s reference to an observational call to action (from Pamela Druckerman) in the following tweet:

The book was a deep read on how Tim has observed transformative change occurring in recent decades.  There are ample examples, including very current trends in politics, technology, and economics, where the reader is walked through the development of a new mental map to understand why the change made sense.  It’s often the case that looking back on disruptive changes, they seem obvious and inevitable, but it takes a spark of ingenuity or genius to build that new map without the benefit of hindsight.  The challenge that the book hopes to instruct, is to identify opportunities for reframing our own views in ways that lead to constructive, but disruptive change.

Tim has been well positioned to observe and report, and includes anecdotes and quotes from key players in past significant disruptions.   There are also many references to traditional business authors, like Drucker and Collins that will be familiar to many MBA students, including critical takes on some widely held beliefs about what makes business tick, especially in the United States.

Beyond understanding the processes of disruptive change, the book spends quite a bit of print developing ideas about what types of changes are good for people, good for humanity, and good for the future.  In what seemed like an echo of this theme in the book, this morning I sat through an amazing keynote by Microsoft’s Satya Nadella which included a professorial call to action for developers to build the future that humanity needs by embedding privacy, security, and ethical choices in the systems and AI that we build for the future.

This book is a great read if you want to gain some knowledge about historical twists and turns in the technology industry, to slightly reprogram your brain for how to look out for disruptive change, and prepare yourself to help make a positive impact on the future.

Waking me up to complain about a low battery is terrible UX

If you design a product that might wake me up in the middle of the night, you should meet the following bar: I, or someone I love, must be in danger.  Not a hypothetical “If the power goes out and if something in the house is still managing to produce CO without power” type of danger, but something more actual and imminent.

Smoke and CO detectors seem to have been designed with a severe disregard for how the customer will react to the various interaction points other than a true emergency.  I can remember several times in my adult life when a chirping detector has induced me to get out a ladder in the middle of the night and climb up to check on various possible sources of the chirp, all in a semi-alert state.

Last night, the culprit was a CO detector that happened to be plugged in to the wall in our master bedroom, perhaps about 3 meters from where I sleep.  The acoustics of the alert sound on this device seem to have been designed to make it echo and reverberate around the house, which is great for an a alarm, but again is horrible for a low battery warning.  In my efforts to find the noise that only repeated every minute or two I got out two different ladders, stood on the ladder near the upstairs smoke alarm, then the downstairs one, then climbed into the attic to check that one, then stood in the room listening for the chirp again, then up to the attic to see if maybe there was another alarm up there that I didn’t know about.  Thankfully my wife happened to look down at the right moment and correlate a chirp with this CO detector plugged in to the wall.

I know that I should have probably replaced the battery at some point, but honestly I had totally forgotten about this particular detector.  It’s one of 3 CO detectors in our house, and I’m pretty sure that it’s been 3 or 4 years since the battery was changed because it runs off house power and the battery is just for power failures.  The end result of this particular warning was that the device was unplugged and batteries removed so that we could get back to sleep.

This morning as I tried to get back to sleep I was wondering how many middle-of-the-night ladder injuries are attributable to low-battery chirps.  I’m guessing that the low battery behavior is probably design-by-regulation and that manufacturers like First Alert don’t have a lot of latitude to make this better, but I see that Nest Protect is trying to solve the UX gap, although at quite a premium on price.

Recovering from a lost SSH Key File on Amazon EC2 Linux Instance

Recently I went to log in to an EC2 instance and I realized that I could no longer find the private key file that I needed to connect via SSH.  I looked around the Internet for recovery instructions and found some complicated pointers regarding creating a snapshot and then an AMI then using that to create a new instance.  This seemed like overkill, and I couldn’t get it to work when I tried it anyways (The new instance always stalled at 1of 2 Status Checks and I couldn’t connect).

On a whim, I decided that the key file had to be somewhere on the image and that I could probably find and replace it.  I was successful so I thought I would outline the steps here for others.

Warning, the following comes with a “Worked on my machine” guarantee, which basically means that you shouldn’t try this unless you understand what’s going on.

For the sake of keeping things straight, I’ll refer to the instance with the lost key as Instance A.

  1. Create a new instance with the same Linux build as the instance you need to access.  Create a new key pair.  Remember to actually save and back up the private key this time.  I’ll call this new instance “Instance B”.
  2. Shutdown Instance A.
  3. Detach the root volume from Instance A.  Note where it was attached, usually /dev/sda1
  4. Attach this volume on Instance B, note the mount point.  It will probably be something like /dev/sdf. Some Linux distros will actually use /dev/xvdf instead of sdf.

  5. Connect via ssh to Instance B.
  6. Run: sudo mount /dev/xvdf /mnt (using the device that was noted when you attached)
  7. cd to ‘/mnt/home/ec2-user/.ssh’  (this will be ‘/mnt/home/ubunto/.ssh’ on Ubuntu builds, may be different for other distros)
  8. Run: ‘sudo mv ./authorized_keys ./authorized_keys.old’
  9. Run: ‘sudo cp ~/.ssh/authorized_keys .’ (<- This is the magic.  We’re copying the Public Key from the .ssh dir of the currently logged in user to the correct location on the mounted volume.)
  10. ‘cd’ back to home
  11. Run: ‘sudo umount /mnt’
  12. Detach the volume from Instance B and then attach back to Instance A as /dev/sda1 (or other original mount point as noted in step 3).
  13. Now restart Instance A and you should be able to connect with SSH.
  14. After you’ve successfully connected back to Instance A, you can Terminate Instance B.

Running through sudo and doing chown and chgrp may not be necessary if your UID’s and GID’s match between Instance A and Instance B.