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: The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale

The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the TaleThe Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale by Susan Maushart
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First, an observation; if you want a particularly surreal reading experience, read a book about forgoing screens on an ereader or tablet device, as I did. As the author describes giving up the iPhone, iPad, other i-prefixed devices, you can reflect on how for you do to likewise would mean not being able to continue reading. It’s a weird feeling.

Anyway, author Susan Maushart decides her family is too wired, too jacked in, too tuned in, etc. and decides to Thoreau (hah!) all away for six months of digital exile. It’s an interesting idea that gains a fair bit of traction when you read about various family members falling asleep with their devices; even as a ferocious gamer and person who spends most of his day tied to a screen at work, the Maushart house’s level of digital dependency felt extreme.

And yet. And yet.

It’s not going to come as a surprise that Maushart’s decision to cite Mark Bauerlein’s “The Dumbest Generation” immediately dropped my estimation of this book (for those who haven’t been reading my reviews that far back, Bauerlein was one of my most scathingly negative reviews I’ve ever posted). Maushart walks a finer line on the topic, but eventually she succumbs to the same age-ism of Bauerlein and points out that “no, things really were better in my day” even after pointing out that every generation since Socrates was “ruined” by whatever new technology came along (for Socrates, it was the written word and literacy that were ruining the youth of Athens). Many of the things that Maushart seems certain of about the relative merits of her youth to her kids’ youth seem to be little more than the trap that we all fall into as we get older.

Returning to the point about the fact that I read this book on a tablet; my larger problem with Maushart’s disconnection experiment is that never once is the subject of the content itself addressed. This isn’t a “well, just watch the documentary” argument, it’s good for you (most studies have shown that watching documentaries has a negligible positive cognitive effect), but instead realizing that not all screen time is created equally. The reality is that we are never again going to live in a society that is not infused with technology and as much as I love Walden Pond, a Thoreau-like existence is not feasible on a large social scale. Rather than trying to go without, we should be learning techniques to manage the role of tech in our lives.

Also, the fact that, despite all the amazing personal gains and achievements made during “the experiment,” very few pages are spent talking about the aftermath once the screens came back led me to believe that the effects were short-lived. Was the son still practicing his instrument religiously after the experiment was over? The book doesn’t say.

View all my reviews

Google Glass And What It Means For The Story I’m Writing

It’s making the headlines once again after a long radio silence and like all things related to Google Glass and the headlines, the news isn’t good. Google is ending its Explorer program for Google Glass and going back to the drawing board. This program, for those who don’t obsessively follow all things tech, was where a person such as you or me could write an application (including written essay!) to be allowed to buy your own Google Glass and test it out. It sounds pretty cool, except for the part where Glass itself costs $1,500. That price tag caused my attention to wander, but I also don’t want to pay more than $200 for a smartphone, so I might not be the best person to ask.

The reason why I’m concerned, however, isn’t because I was a Google Glass aficionado but because I’m concerned about what the Glass setback will mean for the trajectory of electronics that we carry with us daily. I first became interested in just how far our cultural obsession would go when I noticed that I literally haven’t been more than ten feet away from my smartphone since I bought it in 2011. I also read a study that claimed that a third of Americans would sooner give up sex than their smartphone device.

All of those things started swirling around in my brain and pretty soon I had the framework for the two novels that I’ve been working on since 2012: a not-too-distant future where instead of a smartphone that you need to charge and can drop and could lose, you get a nice little microchip implanted in your brain through a quick and painless process that can be done right there at the store. Of course, being a science fiction novel, things have to go horribly wrong with that idea, but at the time, I still felt that the trajectory was such that we were on track from going from devices we carry with us every day to devices that we wear on our bodies to devices that are actually inside us.

Does the lukewarm embrace (or even outright rejection) of Glass indicate that this path might not hold? Maybe. It’s also true that the first device in a completely new category doesn’t often win the race; the iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone by a longshot, but it’s the one that convinced everyone that smartphones were must-have gadgets. There are a lot of things that could be responsible for Glass faltering; I personally blame the price tag and the admittedly interesting but also convoluted Explorer program. Will Google keep going with Glass and try something else? Or will wearable computers seem like a dead end?

I really hope we haven’t reached a dead end, not because I’m a huge fan of the whole idea, but because I really want my story to still be relevant by the time I’m done writing it. Science fiction is littered with examples of stories outdated by the forward march of time but it would well and truly suck to be outdated before I’ve even finished the book.

But Does It Project A Tiny Blue Hologram?

I am enough of a nerd to admit this: if Cortana is the actual name of Microsoft’s personal data assistant, I want one. If it’s just the code name for the project, I will be disappointed.

I hear people talking to Siri on their iPhones all the time, but Siri doesn’t remind me of one of my favorite Xbox games. I want to have a brief moment of Halo fan-thrill every time I need to find out something.

“Cortana, find me a restaurant.”

“Cortana, what’s the weather like today?”

“Cortana, what’s the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?”

Is that dorky? Yes. Yes, it is.

Do I care? I still hold my hand out and pretend to be a Jedi every time I walk through an automatic door. You tell me.