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.

How To Succeed As An Auto Mechanic: A Practical Guide

Hello, prospective mechanic. If you’re reading this post, there’s a minuscule chance that you’re actually considering a career spent repairing and maintaining that most of wondrous of machines, the automobile. If you’re not that person, please feel free to continue reading; I imagine this information will be useful to you as well. Somehow.

I’m your friendly(ish), average potential customer. I know a little bit about my vehicles. I know enough to install a new radiator on my own. I know to keep my oil checked and changed regularly. I can change my oil myself on my motorcycle.

I know that my 2001 Isuzu Rodeo is getting on in years. She’s about to hit 180,000 miles and I have to tell you, those have been some hard miles. I’m not her first owner (I’m probably the third or fourth, having picked her up for cheap when she was at about 120,000 miles). I haven’t always been the best owner, but I try.

With that said, please allow me to educate you on what I feel are a few basic tips that will help you to transform me from a potential customer to a paying customer and maybe, just maybe, into a returning customer. Here are a few simple steps for you to follow, aspiring auto mechanic:

  1. Don’t nag. Don’t scold me for the shit that I didn’t do. Yeah, it sucks that most of your job is going to be cleaning up the messes of people who don’t realize that car engines prefer to have oil in them and that sometimes you have to change that oil, or whatever. But scolding me for not getting a transmission flush at 100,000 miles? That’s not going to endear you in my heart, even if you’re entirely correct. (Although in my case, I didn’t own my vehicle when I passed that milestone). At this point, I’m willing to take my business to a mechanic specifically if he or she doesn’t guilt trip me about all the things I’m failing to do. I get enough of that from my doctor and my dentist, thanks.
  2. Try not to miss the forest for the trees. I went a little poetic here, so let me explain. If I bring my aging, slowly dying, fourteen-year-old, high-mileage car to you because my transmission is acting up, try to keep that in perspective as we’re conducting our business. Do I really look like I’m in a position to drop 3.5 grand into getting the transmission replaced? I didn’t pay that much when I bought the vehicle, and it sure as hell isn’t worth that much now! Consider the possibility that this sort of thing is wildly unlikely to happen. I’m more likely to respect and like you (and thus become a loyal customer) if you give me some realistic options or if you’re just flat-out honest with me about it. And no, telling me that I’m getting a good deal because the transmission is used and has “only” 100,000 miles on it doesn’t make it better.
  3. Don’t hard sell. Here’s a tip and it’s one that’s true whether you’re running an auto repair shop or a video game store or a restaurant.

    Don’t. Fucking. Hard. Sell. Me.

    The first time you do that is the last time you get my business. Don’t tell me that I need to replace my sticking shifter lever RIGHT AWAY BEFORE IT BLOWS UP ON ME, because you know what? It’s been doing that for over five years. It’s been doing that since I bought the car. It’s not high on my priority list. All that this particular warning does is set off my bullshit detector that you’re trying to hard sell me. And once that happens, I’m moving on.

    Don’t hard sell. Realize that there are many people like myself who just want to conduct our transaction as painlessly and with as little hassle as possible. Don’t push the warranty deal. Don’t push the extended plan. Don’t try to push for something I obviously don’t want. Yes, I realize that for many of these things and many businesses, the corporate overlords are forcing you to do them. Sometimes it’s not your fault. But sometimes it is.

With these simple tips, I think you’ll find the loss of revenue from that initial repair job is more than compensated from the loyal business I’ll bring to your establishment over the next several years. The initial loss will further be offset by the fact that I’ll tell everyone I know about how much I like working with you, thus driving more business in your direction. Everyone is happy.

On an unrelated note, does anyone know a good mechanic in the Tucson area? I’m looking. Thanks.

Thoughts After Installing A New Radiator In My Isuzu

My car radiator developed a leak about two months ago, although leak is the wrong word. Leak implies a slow, steady drip and what really happened could be better described as “torrential, geyser-like, and/or relentless.” Due to the poverty imposed by paying for my grad school course out of my own pocket, I parked the car for a few months and became a motorcycle-0nly commuter. This decision was advantageous for several reasons!

  1. Riding a motorcycle is fun.
  2. Riding a motorcycle is very inexpensive. $8 for a week’s worth of gas is awesome.
  3. Riding a motorcyle makes you look cool.

However, this decision was made in early October and while the rest of the country might be experiencing the prelude to winter that is autumn, for us desert rats, October is still basically summer (except it’s not actually summer, because it’s “warm” rather than “Nazi-face-meltingly hot”).

When November rolled in and the temperature began to plummet, the good reasons for taking the motorcycle to work each day were gradually eclipsed by the fact that it’s very, very, very cold at eighty-five+ miles per hour when the thermometer is a blip above the freezing point of water. So fixing my Isuzu was something that was always on the back of my mind, though the cost of paying to have it done made it untenable.

Unless I did it myself!

Last week, I bought a new radiator. This past weekend, with qualified adult supervision (i.e. somebody who knows what the hell he’s actually doing), I found myself on my back in the dirt, wrenching and torquing and sawing and doing my best impression of “guy who can fix his own car.” Here are a few things that I learned during the process:

  • You know how in Indiana Jones movies, the ancient switches and traps still function after thousands of years? That’s bullshit. It took me almost an hour to pry off a basic metal clamp because after twelve years, it had merged with the tube it was clamping. The tube and the clamp were as one. There’s no way an ancient stone pressure plate is going to slide down just because you picked up the treasure it was supporting.
  • If you can’t get a metal clamp off after an hour of screwing and pulling (how very deviant sounding, but it’s really not), it’s okay to take a hacksaw and cut the damn thing off, since you’re replacing the tube anyway. This is immensely gratifying.
  • I had no idea radiators and transmissions were even connected, but it turns out, they are!
  • Old transmission fluid is really, really gross when it splatters on your face and collects in your hair.
  • On the positive side, you’ll fit in with the motley citizenry of South Tucson when you go to buy replacement clamps because the first set of clamps no longer fit due to all the screwing and pulling you did earlier.
  • The first store you go to will sell you the wrong clamps.
  • The second store will have the right clamps, but will try to get you out of there as quickly as possible because you look and smell like a derelict.
  • When it’s all said and done, you’ll feel absolutely awesome because you saved a few hundred dollars on labor.
  • You’ll feel better still because of the strong feeling of self-reliance in doing your own work.
  • You’ll be grateful to the person who supervised your efforts and made sure you didn’t accidentally hacksaw the brake cable, or something.
  • You’ll cry out in rage and despair when you realize the next day that now you are leaking transmission fluid from somewhere.

Looks like it’ll be another cold ride tomorrow until I can get that fixed. Sigh.