The Fixpoint used car checkup checklist

Filed under: Hardware — Jacob Welsh @ 18:39

Relatives are looking into buying a used car, so I've dug out the checklist that served me well enough the last time I did this just over ten years ago, and expanded a bit.

I gather the major trends since that time have been toward ever flimsier materials(i) and integration of complex electronics into core vehicle functioning.(ii) Nonetheless, the basics won't have changed much.

Used cars are, of course, the canonical example of what economists call "the market for lemons": there's an inherent asymmetry of information in favor of the seller, so buyers are rightly distrusting and won't pay what a car might well be worth, so the good ones are less likely to go on the market at all, leading to more distrust and so on. The only way out, such as it is, is to mitigate the asymmetry; that is, by having a clue. If you don't have strong mechanical knowledge yourself, be sure to get the vehicle checked by a mechanic you trust.(iii) If the seller won't let you, move on.

That said, you can still learn things and save time by doing as thorough a pre-check as you can on your own. When going to check a vehicle, be sure to bring:

  • Pen and paper
  • Flashlight
  • Paper towels for checking oil
  • Tire pressure gauge

Inquire as to the vehicle's history (single-owner is preferable). Are service records available? Has it been involved in an accident (not necessarily a dealbreaker if it was minor, but definitely affects the price)? Has it been in a flood (dealbreaker)? Is the title clean? If possible in your market, use a service like Carfax to corroborate these. If buying from a dealer and looking for a warranty, what's the current status or cost of extending?

Of course there's the question of whether it fits your needs: cost, comfort, safety, size, storage space, power, looks and so on. If you're into hybrids for some weird reason, note that like all batteries, the hybrid battery degrades over time, but is much costlier to replace than a conventional lead-acid starter battery.

Moving on now to the the parking lot self-check; first the exterior:

  • Check the body lines (silhouettes, reflections) for dents, and panel paint colors for unevenness (i.e. indicating undisclosed repairs).
  • Check gaps (door and hood perimeters) for even width.
  • Check tires: tread wear patterns; sidewall damage; that they're a matched set and of a reputable brand; pressure; spare; changing tools (jack and lug wrench).
  • Look for corrosion, particularly on the exhaust system.
  • Under the hood: check belts, fluid levels, and that all caps are present. (This is a good basic safety check before even taking a test drive. I was once shown a car with no detectable oil level!)
  • On the (cold!) engine, remove oil filler cap and check its underside for suspicious residues.
  • Check that door handles have little free play and the doors can lock and unlock manually. Check opening and closing of doors, trunk, hood, gas door and gas cap.
  • Check suspension by bouncing each corner (gently but firmly). There shouldn't be a repeated bounce.


  • Check presence of owner's manual (glove compartment) and manufacturer label (driver's door jamb).
  • Check odometer.
  • Check all electrical components: headlights, high beams, fog lights, turn signals, emergency flashers, taillights, brake and backing lights, power locks, power windows, HVAC, seat adjustment, mirrors, wipers and pump, sunroof, stereo.
  • Check condition of seats, headrests and seatbelts.
  • Check for smells and signs of moisture. If there's a foul smell: it's probably never going away. If there's a pleasant smell: what's it covering up?
  • When cranking, check for smoke (suggesting oil leak) and excess noise or vibration.
  • Check dashboard warning lights and gauges.

On the test drive:

  • When safe, check acceleration; there should be no hesitations.
  • Check for smooth shifting, reverse, and downshifting.
  • For manual transmission, check for clutch slip (e.g. floor it in second or third and check that tachometer doesn't outpace speed). Check synchronizers on first and second (i.e. smooth engagement from neutral immediately after disengaging clutch; these do wear out and it's fine to do without but takes more finesse.) For automatic, check that shifting is responsive enough for your taste.
  • Check main brakes and handbrake.
  • Check handling on turns.
  • Check performance of suspension on bumps if possible.
  • Check cruise control.

Good luck, and may you find a suitable mechanical beast to serve you for years to come. Take care of it and it'll take care of you!

  1. For fuel economy and the environment, of course. Surely not because the consumer can't afford steel anymore, nope, couldn't be that. [^]
  2. This mirrors the constant push for convenience at the cost of technical comprehensibility and robustness seen in the computing industry proper, as well as the near extinction of the manual - once "standard"! - transmission at least in the US market. [^]
  3. In Latin America I never met anyone who knows a mechanic they trust (though to be fair, I wasn't looking very hard). In the US, cars tend to be both more affordable and more essential, while the poor are - for so long as the dwindling reserves of government largesse hold out - not actually all that poor, so virtually any long-term resident in a given location will have their war stories and recommendations, so this part of the search is easier. [^]


JFW's 130 top Trilema picks to date

Filed under: Bitcoin, Hardware, Historia, Lex, Paidagogia, Philosophia, Politikos, Software, Vita — Jacob Welsh @ 16:25

Inquiring minds have asked of me to please shed a bit more light on what this Republic thing and that Popescu fellow in particular are all about. Is there more to it than the ravings that first meet the eye, of sluts and slaves and scandalous sexual predations and every "ism" and trigger word known to man or woman? What's the value I see in it that keeps me coming back? And what's the plan for this world domination thing anyway?

I gave the most accurate response I could, if not the most helpful: see, all you gotta do is read a couple thousand articles in multiple languages averaging maybe a thousand words each, a couple times over, and likely a bunch of the imported cultural environment and extensive chat logs besides, and then all will become clear! At least as clear as it can be so far. At least I think it will. But what would I know, I'm a long ways from being there.

Well great, so couldn't I at least give an executive summary? Not exactly an easy task either. Short of that, here's an attempt at picking some of the especially interesting, informative or significant articles on Trilema from my reading so far, a map of sorts of enticing entries to the rabbit hole.

The very unfair process that articles went through to make this list was as follows:

  1. I extracted an initial set of 957 items from my presently accessible browsing history, using some CLI magic.(i)
  2. I narrowed the list to those where I believed I recalled something of the article, going off the title alone. This brought it down to 424.
  3. I further selected based on roughly the above "interesting, informative or significant" standard in my subjective perception, again by memory from title alone.(ii) I also ended up skipping some that would have met this by way of having especially horrified me; not sure if I've done anyone any favors thus, but there it is.

The ordering within each publication year is merely alphabetical (because I can't quite see a pressing need to do it better in this context).

Enjoy... if you dare. What can I say, it's not for everyone.










  • The slap and human dignity
  • Fin.

    1. You know Firefox keeps this in a SQL database, yes? Because they told you about it in the manual, and documented the schema and all? [^]
    2. At times I was overpowered by the temptation to go check, with the inevitable expenditure of time on re-reading which, useful as it can be, I hadn't planned on getting drawn into just now. And while my shiny tools got this down to a minimal "this button to keep, that button to skip" flow, they were entirely powerless to speed up the thinking. [^]


Uruguay parte 3: encontrar, destruir y proteger

Filed under: Hardware, Vita — Jacob Welsh @ 17:47

Continued from Parte 2.

Upon meeting at Aaron's castle, we chatted briefly then got down to the business of picking out my purchases from the pile and loading the rackmount items onto his trusty fold-up hand truck. I passed on the pile of cables, nuts and bolts as these could be procured easily enough anywhere and the weight adds up quickly. We gathered a complete set of Supermicro rails and he demonstrated their mechanical robustness compared to the more complex and jam-prone interlocks on the Dell rails. He also lent me a bathroom scale and set of finer screwdrivers to help with my packing job.

Then we rolled down the Rambla with the iron, by a route perhaps more direct and certainly with less curbs to navigate than I'd come by. I stupidly neglected to get pics of the intrepid couriers. We got some curious looks but no questions; Aaron explained that while the locals are friendly toward strangers, they're culturally inhibited from initiating contact.


The trip could have been done by cab, but with the pleasant weather, reasonable distance and helpful host there was really no need. On arrival to the hotel the concierge caught our attention; I was half-expecting some lecture about how we were using them the wrong way, but rather she was helpfully directing us to the parking entrance where there'd be fewer stairs to navigate.

As expected based on measurements, the first server fit in hardshell suitcase with just enough room to spare for some padding. Behold the sweet Opterons, RAID card and true random number generators (which turned out to be mounted by advanced technology of double-stick tape).


The second server fit likewise in softshell.


The highest-value item, whether by weight, volume or replacement cost, was a Russian teapot. Well actually, the contents of a box that once held a Russian teapot: another 18 of the aforementioned TRNGs.(i)


Aaron headed home while I worked on packing. He asked if I wanted to help with his duty of data destruction on former customers' unclaimed storage media. Of course I did, not least of all for the chance to learn from a pro (I learned he once worked for a data recovery firm). We reconvened and went out in search of a pentalobe - apparently the latest wave of screwdriver DRM - for SSD disassembly. We found none at three or four places, but his shop was well stocked otherwise with implements of creative destruction; the aluminum cases proved susceptible to prying and ripping with pliers.

The biggest surprise was the hard disk platters, which we'd both expected to be made of glass, that merely dented rather than shattering on hammer impact. We roughed up the surfaces as best we could with sandpaper then left them to cook outdoors in a mild chemical bath of tomato sauce (with an excellent smelling touch of basil!), Coca-Cola and salt (fluoridated at that, apparently a local thing).

The hammer also proved ineffective for the SSD boards, mostly just ripping the plastic bags we tried to contain them with. The pliers again prevailed as the boards would bend or crack after some flexing, exposing the thin IC packages which could be snapped into flakes.

This time I had stupidly left my camera back at the hotel so perhaps Aaron can provide destruction pics, but here's the setup the next day with chip remains soaking in their own salt bath, to be dispersed across multiple dumpsters.


Having worked up a good appetite we headed to Expreso Pocitos for dinner. It had recently been named the best in the area, mostly on account of the competition going out of business. Apparently the restaurant landscape in Soviet Uruguay is quite flat, with little variation in menu or prices. Their idea of a basic pizza is just crust and sauce; if you order with mozzarella they figure that means you want it drowning in the stuff. Portions are consistently generous. Water is only served bottled, despite the tap water being safe. Service at least here was not remotely attentive.


Here as generally I tried to ask my host as many pertinent questions as I could think of, and enjoyed the conversations. General topics included the country and city, their economy and politics, our own Republic, ourselves, and computing. I observed his ability to pick out interesting details from large topics and integrate information from differing fields. One topic I recall might be summarized as the usability hazards of insufficient context in text-only computing interfaces.

After dinner I resolved to get my packing done for real so we could enjoy Sunday for tourism. A particular difficulty was the Ubiquiti Networks EdgeSwitch, a 48-port beast with 500W supply for Power-over-Ethernet capability which weighed in at 6 kg. I didn't have an immediate need for such a thing but had picked it up cheap since I was making the trip anyway. My first thought was to move a server PSU to carry-on, after a pic to note the wiring and RAM sticks I removed to get at its screws:


This didn't quite save enough weight though, so next was opening the switch, which in a strange laptop-like style required removing a great many small screws.

Remember, kids: if you see an open power supply like this with mains-voltage capacitors that may have been recently powered, short out their terminals e.g. using a screwdriver with well insulated handle prior to handling, as they can pack a nasty shock.


As there was nothing heavy inside I could remove yet re-package adequately for carry-on, and the switch didn't seem worth the marginal cost in overweight fees, I opted to leave it behind for either the next guy or the dumpster divers ("nothing is ever really thrown away here", says Aaron.)

I disassembled the server rails a bit further, allowing me to bundle them up to minimize chances of damage. I had brought my roll of the proper kind of tape for these jobs, plain old Scotch magic tape.


Fully mummified rails:


One server got bubble wrap for its first layer; the other (not pictured) got my old mattress pad.


Some sound-absorbing foam pads I happened to have at home proved excellent secondary padding and space filler.


Some $3 pillows made fine space filler to finish it off.


To be continued with proper tourism.

  1. jfw: asciilifeform: do you know the origin of this zavarochnyi chainik box (if my translit serves)?
    jfw: otherwise, safe travels and enjoy that real olive oil, sadly I didn't manage to grab any
    asciilifeform: jfw: it's a teapot ( the kind where make concentrated tea and then can make quicker at teatime by pouring in cup + hot water )
    asciilifeform: standard item in household of tea maniacs
    asciilifeform: jfw: how didja end up with a ru teapot ?
    jfw: that's what I'm wondering! 'tis what the FGs were stowed in. BingoBoingo?
    jfw: (I didn't end up with the teapot, merely the box.)
    BingoBoingo: jfw: I acquired the teapot at Tienda Inglesa
    BingoBoingo: That's the box it came it.
    asciilifeform: pretty great
    BingoBoingo: It just happened to be the right size for FUCKGOAT packing
    jfw: BingoBoingo: ha, neat. RU teapot from English shop in Uruguay.
    BingoBoingo: Layering happens [^]

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