A brief history of my computers

You have to understand what computers were like in 1982. You either had to spend as much money as you would buying a crappy used car, or you got something that was a glorified calculator.

I was making about $12,000 a year at the time, so I chose the calculator. My first computer was a Timex-Sinclair 1000, with an expansion module that brought the memory up to 16K and a Panasonic tape recorder connected to it. Graphics, such as they were, were blocks in black and white. I typed in most of the programs I used. I fed the output to my black-and-white TV set. It was amazing and wonderful.

One of the first games I actually bought was an adventure game by the clever name of ‘Adventure.’ The first time I loaded it into my computer, typed a command and had the computer respond was as though the heavens had opened. The computer was talking to me! It wasn’t, of course; it was a simple database that was feeding back data based on what I typed, but I didn’t know the difference at the time.

I moved on from there to a Commodore 64, and then I got a disc drive that held a whopping 256K of data. I began playing Infocom adventure games and again felt like a monkey discovering fire.

From there, it was a Sanyo PC (which ran MS-DOS but was not IBM compatible), then a PC clone I built from parts, and ever since then, my main computer has been an ever-evolving Frankenputer. My current machine is a dual-booting Windows and Linux Mint rig, with an AMD Ryzen 5 3600 processor and two SSDs (one of which holds a terabyte and looks like a small stick of gum). It’s got 16 gigabytes of memory (my first hard drive held 10 megabytes) and about a gig and a half of storage overall. A computer like this would have taken up an entire heavily air-conditioned floor when I was a kid, and I haven’t even gotten to the video card yet.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’ve been playing with these things for nearly 40 years. It seems like I picked them up for the first time a couple of years ago. And the more powerful they get, the more transparent they become — they’re tools that do things now, not ‘PCs’ that need constant hand-holding.

So here’s to the microcomputer. Long may you wave.

Toy upgrades

(Warning: Geek content follows.)

Over the past few months, I’ve been doing a part-by-part upgrade of my home Frankenputer. I’ve built my own machines since the mid-1980s and it’s frankly become easier, although this go-round of upgrades was characterized by an early motherboard death and a CPU cooler that cemented itself to the processor, almost ruining both. Still, that’s way fewer problems than I had Back in the Day, when I might plug a half-dozen cards and dozens of individual memory chips into a motherboard during an upgrade. I always started then with the assumption that my computer might be down for a week.

The upgrades included my first new CPU and motherboard in at least three (and possibly more) years…and a problem immediately became apparent. My beloved NZXT quiet case, which I had been using for more years than I can remember, had become a heat trap for the new generation of gear and was looking really old. In particular, my AMD Ryzen 5 3600 processor was radiating heat to nearly the danger zone when it was under even mild stress, and the cooler that came with it wasn’t taking care of the problem. And the old-school case had very limited ways of routing cables, so I had a spaghetti junction of wiring floating over the motherboard.

So I went looking for a modern case. You can spend obscene amounts of money for one now, or you can buy an El Cheapo with seemingly paper-thin steel, but I wanted one that would serve me in several ways. First, as always, it had to be quiet. Second, it couldn’t be too big: I doubt I’ll ever use a motherboard bigger than a Micro ATX again. Third, I decided I wanted a windowed case with a little bit of RGB lighting (not too much) just for grins, even though the computer sits on a shelf under my desk and I can barely see it. Fourth, it had to be good-looking. Finally, it had to be under $100.

After a ridiculous amount of navel-gazing, I settled on a be quiet! Pure Base 500 tower case with a tempered glass windowed side. It came in at $80. I also added a Cooler Master RGB tower cooler to help solve the CPU heat issue.

Computer case

The case was lined with insulation on every side except the window and was crazy-configurable. A lot of thought obviously went into the configuration of this case and I very much like its looks. In terms of bolting things in, everything was straightforward and easy to figure out, although a beginner might find any case a challenge at first. I particularly appreciated the many options for routing wires; the days of spaghetti construction are over for me.

Mounting the tower cooler was a mild challenge. The instructions are all exploding-diagram illustrations, and I have some kind of weird visual dyslexia involving this method, and I kept screwing on the cooler mounts the wrong way (it’s designed to fit a lot of different processors). But I played with it a bit until I got it right, and it wasn’t really frustrating. Normal healthy humans probably will find it even easier.

I did run into one other issue: I can only put the double-width video card into the first motherboard slot because it otherwise covers up the (single) expansion port where the wireless network card is mounted. However, that made it impossible to plug in the cable that activated the USB 3.0 ports on top of the case — the card leaves a tiny opening that’s inaccessible with a vertical cable. I’ll either pick up a right-angle adapter to address that problem or get a USB dongle for the wireless and move the video card to the other available port. I also have a USB 3.0 mini-hub, so I shouldn’t run into any port shortages.

Stripping the old case and mounting all the stuff in the new one took about three hours, but I very much took my time so I wouldn’t have to retrace too many steps (a strategy that worked out). Everything booted up with no problems, and my CPU temperature sensor immediately dropped by 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit).

I haven’t fine-tuned everything yet, but there is a little noise coming from the case that is bothering me. I chased it and discovered it was caused by the power supply exhaust — and there’s absolutely nothing the case can do about that. The fans in the case are whisper-quiet — I’d actually remove the case hard top and go with the alternative grid screen top to improve airflow even more, but I’m always stacking things on top of my PC anyway.

I’m still playing with the RGB but I suspect I’m going to get bored of that pretty quickly. Having a windowed case still lets me admire my work if I disconnect the RGB (grin).

Overall, I’m very happy. The case is quiet, keeps my computer much cooler than its predecessor and looks good. The wiring is much, much neater. The overall look is very modern. This should serve me for quite a while.

The State of Play

I remember how bleak I felt in late March, when the U.S. was reporting about 20,000 new coronavirus cases a day and most of those were along the East Coast. Like pretty much everyone, I was in no way prepared for the possibility of a pandemic, which seemed old-timey and Black Death-ish and the kind of thing that science had put in its rear-view mirror. And of course, I was wrong abut that.

I was in an area that was getting hit fairly hard. Almost immediately, the mocking came from areas that weren’t hit hard, especially from knucklehead governors in some lightly affected areas. Their scientists were telling them the same things we were hearing, but those elected officials weren’t seeing that kind of threat in front of their eyes, and the cost of not doing business was high. So, naturally, being knuckleheads, they apparently decided their residents had special superhuman abilities. They ignored the obvious warnings, opened businesses back up and went about the hard work of infecting everyone around them.

They’ve certainly been successful on that front. By July 3, the U.S. had skyrocketed to 57,000 cases a day and now has passed 3 million cases overall. The knucklehead governors and their citizen-victims have been forced to retrench, which is sort of like trying to put the genie back in the bottle, and the genie sure as hell isn’t going to help with this process.

Business vs. life isn’t a question of balance. It’s a false choice. Once you make a decision that ignores basic health practices and you choose to endanger the lives of your citizens, they don’t forget what happens next. You can open all of the restaurants in the world, but it won’t matter if people won’t go in them. And they won’t believe you any more when you try to convince them they’re safe (or in danger), either. You end up with the same business outcome and a far worse one when it comes to lives, the credibility of government, and basic human decency.

Not that any of this will stop some people who lust for power, or have built a propaganda-based business model. They will continue to be disconnected from reality, with results that are hard not to call murderous now. Still, at some point, you stop being ashamed of these cartoon characters and start being ashamed of people who continue to buy what they’re selling.

There’s a way to fix a lot of that in November. You should vote as though your life depended on it, because it very well might.

The quiz — and the answer

I posted this quiz on Facebook. Although I think its conclusions are at least debatable, it’s still fun — or it was until people started threatening me with lifelong ostracism and potential dismemberment:

I didn’t want to post the solution there because the quiz is making the viral rounds, and I didn’t people to randomly run across the answer. So if you’re seeing it here randomly, don’t look down the page because I’m about to reveal the answer and how to get to the solution. Ready?

Ready?

Ready?

Here we go.

THE CLOCK:

The hour hands of the clock in the first line, added together, equal 21. This one has no deception at the bottom; the clock adds up to 9 down there, too.

THE CALCULATOR:

1+2+3+4 (the numbers shown on the calculator displays on the second line) = 10. Three calculators with those numbers in the second line thus add up to 30. However, the numbers on the calculator at the bottom add up to nine (1+2+2+4). Thus, the value of the calculator at the bottom is 9

THE BULBS:

15+15-15=15. However, note the lines coming out of the top of the bulbs, then note that there is one fewer line coming out of each bulb at the bottom. Each line is worth three (if the bulbs above have five lines, 5X3=15). This means that the bulbs are the bottom are 4X3, or worth 12 each.

THE ORDER OF OPERATIONS:

This part causes endless complaining (and I don’t recall ever being taught this, but I sucked at math). But this is a Real Thing: When there is ambiguity in an expression, multiplication and division get higher precedence than addition and subtraction. After THAT, you calculate from left to right. What does that mean here?

If you figure out the numbers at the bottom of the quiz correctly, what you end up with is 9+9×36. A lot of people will do these from left to right, i.e., (9+9)x36, which is 648. But the order of operations says to do the multiplication first when the relationship between the numbers is ambiguous, so this is actually 9+(9×36). Let’s solve: 9×36=324. 9+324=333. 333 is the answer.

It’s not my quiz. Don’t shoot the messenger.