Adventures In PC Building

There are a number of adjectives I could use to describe the computer I’m using to type this post. In particular, ancient comes to mind and maybe venerable, if we’re feeling generous. My current computer started out life as a pre-built HP Pavilion, I think was the model? Let me put it to you another way; I left all the little stickers on the front of the case from when I first got it. Here’s what those look like:


ATI Radeon and Intel i7 . . . okay, sure, fine whatever. Windows Vista, okay, wait, what?

That is correct, friends. This particular computer started life as a Vista machine. To be fair, I think I purchased it about a month before Windows 7 launched because I remember it came with a free upgrade to 7, which I immediately pounced on and was happy to do so.

That i7, by the way? That’s an i7-920. If you haven’t kept abreast of what’s current in CPUs, most of them are in the 8000-9000 range now.

Over the years, various components died out, as will happen. A friend replaced the original video card for me. I remember thinking he had some sort of mystical knowledge, being willing to open the case and actually move components around. It seemed supernatural. Let’s keep this feeling in mind. We’ll be coming back to it shortly.

I don’t even remember how much RAM it started with and I’ve lost track of how many times new RAM got stuck in there. Currently, it’s at 8 GB and I believe the motherboard maxes out at 10 GB, which I remember thinking was a magical number in 2009.

I’d played around with the with idea of doing my own PC build for years, but I never really committed. It seemed like I was always able to squeeze just a little more life out of this machine.

I think it was last year that the hard drive died. I didn’t know that’s what died, only that one day it didn’t turn out. I took it to a repair shop and they inspected it and told me the hard drive was toast. “We could rebuild it,” the guy said, “for about $2,000.”

I looked at him. I looked at the computer, which, even when it was brand new, out of the box, was worth maybe half that price.

“It’s just the hard drive?”

“Yeah, it’s totally dead.”

“Okay, then.”

I took my machine home and now, having decided there was nothing to lose by playing around inside it, cracked open the case and taught myself how to replace a hard drive.

Turns out? It’s super fucking easy. The hardest part was remembering which screws held all this shit together.

I popped out the hard drive, popped in a new one that I’d gotten for like $30 bucks, installed Windows 10 on it, and just like that, my computer was back. Then I copied all my data from my backup drive which I judiciously keep and everything was back to normal, and GFY repair guy and your $2,000.

That shop was also terrible because both times when I went there, nobody bothered to come to the desk and I had to walk into the back area to get any service, because the guy was playing video games. In retrospect, that should have been a sign. Also, they marked up the inside of my case with a sharpie and I’m still grumpy about that, too.

By the way, I know it’s the data equivalent of your dentist telling you to floss more, but for the love of God, get an extra drive and run regular backups!

Since then, I realized that a lot of what I thought was some sort of mystical knowledge was actually just more of the same thing we’ve been doing all along when it came to the Internet or blogs or whatever else. You just start playing around with stuff and see what happens.

For me, though, I needed the permission to fail that was only granted by the fact that without attempting anything, the computer was going to be dead anyway. For many, many years, I never wanted to try to get inside the hardware, because what if I screwed something up? What if I shorted out a component? The fact that I’d been able to buy this computer at all had stretched my finances back then and without a backup or the funds to replace something, it was too scary to imagine something going wrong.

But once the pressure was off, once it was a matter of “well, it can’t get any more not-working, so why not?” An entire world opened up to me. All of a sudden, it was okay to disconnect the power supply, which holy shit I really should have been doing more often because the design of this particular computer has this one corner that escaped all my regular cleanings over the years and when I took it apart and cleaned it, I came away from the experience looking like a coal miner, I’m not even kidding.

The mystery was gone. I realized what others have said; that for as cool as it sounds to “build your own PC,” it’s basically just LEGO for grown ups.

That’s when I slowly began to accumulate parts and pieces here at there. Nothing crazy. A friend gave me a spare case. I’d gotten a video card for cheap after prices finally stabilized after the Bitcoin boom. I actually tried to stick it into my HP, just to see if there was anything left I could squeeze out of this old rig, but the 2009 power supply just didn’t have the right connectors. I think by then, we were just down the the PSU, the mobo, and the CPU as the original stock components.

So, with that in mind, I finally put the final touches on my build and ordered the rest of the parts yesterday. My needs are pretty simple. This will be a budget build, although compared to trying to play games on a 2009 relic, the difference is going to be pretty cool. Getting a realistic understanding of my needs was one of the final hurdles; I’d do some research on different parts, tell myself that I needed the biggest and the best and suddenly holy shit, my list of parts is up to $2,000.

But what’s most striking to me about this experience is where I am now with regards to the resources and attitude towards this project.

I don’t want to say I was ever poor. I don’t think that would be accurate. But for much of my adult life, I was financially insecure. If something broke, it had the potential to be a catastrophe. I once had to leave a Subway without my food because my credit card was maxed out and my debit card was empty and I wasn’t going to get paid for a few more days.

Having the ability to recover from potential mistakes gives me the freedom to experiment, which helped me learn and grow.

Join us next week, when I try to put all of this together and probably do something really dumb, like short out my mobo because I didn’t clear the static electricity or something, and we’ll see how fucking sanguine I am then.

But that’s the thing, right? Because no matter how much it might be a frustration if something goes wrong with this project, there’s no scenario where it becomes a catastrophe. There’s something deeply satisfying about knowing that.

Review: Snowden

SnowdenSnowden by Ted Rall
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s always hard to get a decent review on a book about such a divisive figure, simply because there will be a sizable contingent that will rate based on their feelings about the subject (for or against) rather than the merits of the work itself. With that said, I’d like to note that I’m generally pretty pro-Snowden. I’ve read a few other books about him and I think the revelation of the extent of the surveillance state was an important one.

But this isn’t the book to get a deep or nuanced understanding about the Snowden leaks. Here, we have Snowden the superhero, Snowden the caricature. Snowden is depicted as unambiguously good, while politicians like Obama, Clinton, Feinstein, and others are evil schemers (Rand Paul is the only positively depicted politician, interestingly).

This isn’t a simple story of good guys and bad guys. It’s not black and white, though this book very much wishes you to think so. Snowden took personal responsibility! The most important thing is personal sovereignty! Seriously, I absolutely hate it when a book assumes that I’m too stupid to understand the important bits, so those important underlying messages need to be spelled out in bold text. Yeah, it’s a cartoon. Doesn’t mean you need to assume I don’t understand the big words.

I was left shaking my head and rolling my eyes, and again, this is from the perspective of being pro-Snowden coming into this book. I assume if you’re in the anti-Snowden camp, you probably couldn’t get through the book without bursting into flame, but that leads to an interesting question; who’s this book for? I didn’t buy into it and I’m actually in agreement with the author’s general premise!

Why did Snowden leak those secrets? This book argues it’s because he’s a fundamentally good person, the only person who spoke up whenever everyone was going along with the crowd. The word “sheeple” doesn’t show up in the text, but I can’t help but imagine previous drafts where it appeared several times.

It’s possible that the author is correct and Snowden did what he did out of patriotic duty and a sense of personal responsibility. Or maybe he had visions of fame and recognition, a hunger for a place in history. Maybe it was both of these things, or neither, or several others. Humans are complicated and messy creatures. We are, all of us, saints and sinners, fallen angels and rising apes. We do things for many, many reasons and I resist the urge to create simplistic heroes and caricatures of complex issues.

Snowden is important. His leaks are important. Discussions about the nature of surveillance are important. But they are not simple and I resist agreeing with any work that seeks to paint them as such. If you’re curious about Snowden’s story, this isn’t a book that I’d recommend, because even though I do agree with the core premise, I don’t buy into its depiction or execution.

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Review: In the Beginning…Was the Command Line

In the Beginning...Was the Command Line
In the Beginning…Was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s entirely possible that “Neal Stephenson thinking about stuff” might be one of my favorite genres of non-fiction.

This little book is an oddity. It’s a seventeen-year-old look at the state of computer operating systems, but it’s also essays, musings, and other thoughts. Hence my earlier point: it’s Stephenson thinking about stuff.

And for anyone else, that would be a criticism. But Stephenson is fascinating. You can tell by his work that when he becomes interested in a topic, he throws himself headfirst into it with the velocity of a BASE jumper. He does his homework. And his research. And his dissertation. He tends to know what he’s talking about.

Even so, what’s the value of a book that, in timeline terminology relative to the speed of computers, is somewhere between cave paintings and the emergence of cuneiform tablets? Certainly, these observations have no bearing on the state of computers and operating systems today. Google doesn’t exist at the time of these writings. Apple hadn’t yet made its triumphant return under Steve Jobs. Microsoft was the evil empire with an antitrust case to fend off. It was a different time.

And that’s why I enjoyed this book so much. It’s a little time machine, a look back at the heady days of the late nineties, just as this whole “computer thing” was starting its ascent into the stratosphere. It was written about a year after I received my first computer, which caused me to reflect on how things were back then. More than once, I marveled at Stephenson’s observations as I read his book on a tablet in ebook format, with that strange little thrill that yes, sometimes these gadgets really do feel like the future has arrived.

This book, more than anything, is a glimpse at the digital zeitgeist from those bygone days. Apple fans can remember the dark times while Linux fans can enjoy Stephenson’s musing on how it really is the superior tool for superior minds. Windows fans . . . well, get ready to endure some light griefing. Hey, it was the 90s. Early versions of Windows really were pretty bad. The blue screen of death and the three fingered salute (ctrl-alt-delete) didn’t become early memes for no reason. If you’re interested in the pop side of computer history, here’s a book that will take you down memory lane (assuming you were alive in the 90s). Stephenson’s a masterful storyteller, so you know that it’ll be worth it.

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Thinking about whether the world might actually be a computer simulation isn’t anything new. We all went through that particular existential crisis after we saw the first Matrix. I have a secret hypothesis that this is why the second and third Matrix films were so lackluster; it was an effort to get everybody to stop thinking about whether or not we’re actually all just brains hooked up to a computer.

To be fair, this is something we’ve been wondering about probably as long as we’ve had the ability to wonder about much of anything. Plato wondered about it. Anybody who has vivid dreams wonders about it. It’s ingrained in the human condition.

Interestingly, there is real scientific research that’s being done on this stuff. I’m not sure if it’s possible to prove a simulation hypothesis, but we certainly have a lot of reasons to infer one, just by the fact that we’re getting better and better at creating simulations ourselves. Considering the fact that consciousness is one of those things we don’t really understand, is it possible that consciousness will arise out of a computer game character? I certainly think it’s possible, albeit unlikely for a long while. But some day? Certainly.

What if we do end up proving that reality is a simulation in a computer?

I’m trying to imagine how that makes me feel. On the one hand, it doesn’t really change anything: all my experiences are going to be the same. Reality as I know it is already so many electrical impulses being transferred between the neurons in my brain. The revelation of a simulation would just mean I wasn’t interacting with those electrical signals in quite the same fashion.

On the one hand, it might even be encouraging to realize that our world is a simulation. Simulations, after all, are built for a reason and while fiction likes to say this reason is to enslave its occupants, that seems like a very expensive way to do what chains and metal bars do already. It seems more likely to me that the reason for the simulation’s existence would be benevolent or at least indifferent to us; certainly not malevolent.

Would that be an improvement, to find out that there really is a power and intelligence behind the reality that we perceive?

There are other benefits to a simulated world. It might mean never having to experience the heat death of the universe and the realization that everything in reality is doomed. It might be a strong reason to believe our consciousness goes somewhere after death.

On the other hand, to find out that everything, absolutely everything, was a simulation would remove a lot of the mystery and wonder out there. Certainly, we’d be able to wonder about the simulation itself, who built it and why, but we’d no longer be drawn to the most distant stars and dream of being the first ones to visit them. The world would become a much smaller place.

There’d probably also be a lot of suicides if it turns out we’re all in a computer simulation. Maybe. I’m not really sure; one thing I try to never underestimate is the resilience of the human spirit.

It’s something that is very interesting to think about, whether or not this is ever proven to be true.