“On two occasions, I have been asked [by members of Parliament], ‘Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’…I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.”
— Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864), p. 67
Computers. When designed properly, they do precisely what they are told. They do not interpret, they need to be explicitly instructed on what exactly to do. However, when you get them going, they give you incredible capabilities. During WW2, people would have sacrificed armies to obtain the computing power in your cell phone. Even a simple flip phone has more power than all the computers in existence at the time. Charles Babbage could have revolutionized history, had manufacturing been up to the task — William Gibson’s novel The Difference Engine posits just such a future. (It was the beginning of the Steampunk genre)
There is a corollary to that power and control. If a computer you set up screws up, there is no one to blame but yourself.
For a fair number of geeks like myself, building your computer represents almost a rite of passage. People trade tips on building the fastest, most reliable machine — install your operating system on a solid state drive, use only a trace of thermal paste on the CPU, check the benchmark reviews on graphics cards before you buy it, make sure to push hard when installing modules on your motherboard. For a lot of us, this is similar to the old days of refurbishing cars and spending your weekends under the hood. Each new build has stories and lessons to pass on.
On my first build, I ran into an odd failure to boot. After troubleshooting it with a friend, we found that I had used too many screws to secure the motherboard to the case, grounding the circuits. I had literally screwed over my computer. A little work with a screwdriver and I was in business.
Another time, I rescued a couple of computers from being trashed at work, wiped the hard drive, and installed Linux on them. Linux is popular among geeks because it is free (both as in speech and as in beer), it tends to use less resources (like a lightweight, efficient engine), and it also tends to give you much more control over your computer. The first, which I installed Xubuntu on, became an excellent work/email/web browsing computer for my best friend’s mom. The other, on which I installed Linux Mint, currently serves as a Netflix and DVD player, hooked up to my TV.
My most recent computer rebuild was another rescue — a rare high-end computer that was about to be thrown out. After getting clearance to take the machine, I faced a fair number of challenges. For one, some of the RAM had gone bad and needed to be replaced. That actually resulted in the computer turning off and on again like it was possessed. A quick order of two 8GB DDR3 sticks fixed that problem nicely. I ran into a bizarre difficulty as the DVD/CD combo drive would not read the disks I had — except for one. Turned out, the DVD reading laser was shot, but not the CD reading laser. A quick order of a new DVD drive fixed that problem nicely.
Last but not least, Windows 10 would not install, citing a bizarre error which normally occurs to people installing a different way than I was. A new install DVD and unplugging every other drive turned out to be the trick. Thus, I created a $1,500 machine for around $150, plus spare parts I had lying around. I’m writing this post on that machine right now.
As for what I will be doing with the vast computing power at my disposal, well:
“The only legitimate use of a computer is to play games.”
— Eugene Jarvis, Supercade, MIT Press, p.14 ISBN: 0-262-02492-6