Quote of the Day: Computers

 

“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

Published in Technology
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There are 50 comments.

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  1. Moderator
    OmegaPaladin Post author

    Feel free to share your stories of computer building or otherwise monkeying around with your household difference engine.

     


    This geektastic post on Computers (and the art of building them) is part of the Quote of the Day series, the best way to get started writing on Ricochet. A large portion of Quote of the Day posts end up on the Main Feed.

    There are plenty of openings in April, so why don’t you sign up today?

    • #1
    • April 4, 2019, at 6:36 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  2. Thatcher

    While I understood everything you said, and I have assembled a few PC’s in my time, this dinosaur will stick to playing with his internal combustion engines.

    The world is still analog, and I am too old for relearning all of them newfangled digital tricks.

    (actually it’s the software that I loath, not the hardware it operates on…..)

    • #2
    • April 4, 2019, at 6:41 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  3. Member

    GLDIII Temporarily Essential (View Comment):

    (actually it’s the software that I loath, not the hardware it operates on…..)

    For me it’s the other way around, and I’ve been telling people that for about 40 years.

     

    • #3
    • April 4, 2019, at 6:56 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  4. Thatcher
    She

    Fine post. Time for a shoutout to Babbage’s sidekick, whom he called, The Enchantress Of Number,” and the poet Byron’s daughter, Lady Ada Lovelace.

    https://www.sciencefocus.com/future-technology/how-ada-lovelaces-notes-on-the-analytical-engine-created-the-first-computer-program/

    Two books I like:

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Soul_of_a_New_Machine

    and

    https://www.amazon.com/Analytical-Engine-Computers-Past-Present-Future/dp/0688004881

    The second one, which may be out of print, is a wonderfully readable little book about the history of modern computing and the personalities of the men who got use here.

    • #4
    • April 4, 2019, at 9:08 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  5. Member

    She (View Comment):

    Fine post. Time for a shoutout to Babbage’s sidekick, whom he called, The Enchantress Of Number,” and the poet Byron’s daughter, Lady Ada Lovelace.

    https://www.sciencefocus.com/future-technology/how-ada-lovelaces-notes-on-the-analytical-engine-created-the-first-computer-program/

    Two books I like:

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Soul_of_a_New_Machine

    and

    https://www.amazon.com/Analytical-Engine-Computers-Past-Present-Future/dp/0688004881

    The second one, which may be out of print, is a wonderfully readable little book about the history of modern computing and the personalities of the men who got use here.

    I have Tracy Kidder’s book on my bookshelf, but it’s been 30 years since I read it.

    • #5
    • April 4, 2019, at 9:52 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  6. Member

    She (View Comment):

    Two books I like:

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Soul_of_a_New_Machine

    How did that go? “Not everything that’s worth doing is worth doing well?” Something along those lines.

    • #6
    • April 4, 2019, at 10:07 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  7. Thatcher
    She

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    Two books I like:

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Soul_of_a_New_Machine

    How did that go? “Not everything that’s worth doing is worth doing well?” Something along those lines.

    We did reach a point, Mr. She and I, when we were building our own house, where “East/West, done is best” became our motto. Something similar, I think.

    • #7
    • April 5, 2019, at 3:20 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  8. Member

    She (View Comment):
    Fine post. Time for a shoutout to Babbage’s sidekick, whom he called, The Enchantress Of Number,” and the poet Byron’s daughter, Lady Ada Lovelace.

    But oh ye lords of ladies intellectual,
    Inform us truly – have they not henpecked you all?

    Lord Byron.

    • #8
    • April 5, 2019, at 4:15 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  9. Member

    I’m a partner in a small IT business and do most of the hardware work. One of our clients does heavy video editing and wanted an upgraded machine and had quite a bit of money he was willing to spend on it. What we ended up with we dubbed the “Beast.” An i9 processor (16 cores), 128GB of DDR4, a 1TB SSD (OS), a 2TB SSD (scratch drive), a 4TB SSD (Storage) and a 1080ti 13GB video card. We, of course, had to “test” it for a few days before delivery. Turned out to be such a good combo that we gave a demo to some other clients and wound up building four more. My wife, on the other had, said no.

    • #9
    • April 5, 2019, at 4:53 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  10. Moderator

    My first build started out as an attempt at a refurb / upgrade. I had gotten a Pentium II 233 HP Pavilion desktop in 1997 to replace my prior Pentium 90. Fun computer, but within a year it was just proving too slow. I knew the MOBO wouldn’t take a faster P2, or any more RAM, and it lacked the then-new AGP slots for video cards (HP was notorious for their non-upgradeability at the time, and the computer was a gift anyway). I was in rural PA at college at the time, an nowhere near any decent computer stores, but enter the Tiger Direct catalogs. Got a new motherboard and graphics card on order, figuring I’d splurge on the new CPU at a later date.

    New board was great, and I could re-use the CPU and RAM. One problem – the ATX power supply from HP had power leads only long enough to reach their own MOBO, not the new one. What followed then was a series of upgrades, part by part, until everything was replaced except (oddly enough) the power supply. For that one I took it home, soldered wire extension splices into the leads, covered them with heat shrink tubing, and was good to go. Only finally ditched the power supply when I at last upgraded the CPU and swapped in a new graphics card.

    That lasted about 18 months until, keeping the chassis, I swapped in a new motherboard. By this time I had essentially liberated everything from the original Pavilion, and so rebuilt it back as it had been when I first got it, and that became my newlywed wife’s computer through most of law school. As my own was upgraded bit by bit over the years, the older swapped out parts respawned as other computers that often ended up first in the hands of relatives, or later as much-needed computers when we were starting our business.

    But I haven’t built anything in over a decade now. I don’t game anymore and so am not on a horsepower quest anymore either. And beginning with Windows Vista I could see the direction the Windows OS was going (less direct control over the machine, lots more interference, a terrible UI, constantly changing and hiding controls, treating every user as a potential software pirate, and endless nagging “helpfulness”), and moved over to Macs, where I’ve stayed since (using VMWare to handle what I still need to do in Windows). Linux was tempting, and I played around with it for a while, but time is too limited for me to want to spend hours tinkering with OS installs and hardware debugging – I’ve just got better things to do. It was a fun ride for those years, but my personal computer needs and wants have gotten a lot simpler, while my work computer needs have gotten a lot more complicated so mostly I contract for IT services for work (I cannot afford to spend hours, as I used to do, repairing or debugging employee systems anymore).

    • #10
    • April 5, 2019, at 6:27 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  11. Coolidge

    Back in 1990 (wow I’m old) I decided to build a 386 system. I did this primarily because I wanted to understand more about the hardware, not to save money; it’s fortunate that that was my goal, because I ended up spending about $3000 on that project. It was a high-end system for its time, so I probably would have paid about the same amount to buy it prebuilt, but I certainly didn’t save anything.

    But it was an enjoyable (and sometimes frustrating) process. Somewhere I still have the detailed journal I kept, recording moments like the first time I hooked up the power supply to the bare motherboard, powered it on, and was rewarded with a beep code (presumably complaining that there was no RAM and no video). When I look back at that stuff, I’m amazed at what we used to have to deal with: configuring jumpers on hard drives, IRQs, I/O cards, DIP switches. It’s a wonder any of it worked. Having been through that process once, I see no reason to go through it again. I’d rather buy a machine that works out of the box.

    But I’m glad I had that experience, because it provides an interesting baseline for appreciating what we have today. Recently I had my work MacBook serviced, and the technician pointed out to me the tiny module (small enough to carry in a shirt pocket) that was its built-in solid-state drive. Back in 1990, the equivalent unit that I installed in my 386 box was larger than a brick and about as heavy, and it had a storage capacity roughly one-six-thousandth that of the MacBook’s SSD.

    And yet I continue to take these things for granted.

    • #11
    • April 5, 2019, at 7:40 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  12. Moderator

    Calling @hankrhody – I think Hank would have some things to add here.

    • #12
    • April 5, 2019, at 8:40 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  13. Member

    My first computer was built from a kit ordered from the UK, the Sinclair ZX81. I found a guy in Denver who built a mail order RAM add-on that brought it up from 2 K to an eye-popping 16K of RAM. I used a small B/W TV for the display and a reel-to-reel tape recorder as the storage device. The GW-Basic language was built-in. And when I bought a cassette with Visicalc on it, I regarded myself as cutting edge.

    I graduated to a 286 with two (count ’em, two) 20 MB hard drives. Lots of tinkering, upgrading adventures with subsequent devices. I spent a lot of time on BBS’s over dial-up connections. My first email sent over Fidonet had a kind of Sci-Fi buzz when I got a response–only two days later. I have owned TRS-80, Commodore and a string of what were then called “IBM-compatibles” and horded parts. I had subscriptions to early AOL and Compuserve. I was in awe of the Apple II and regarded Windows 2.0 as revolutionary but I still used the Dos prompt for a long time instead of the fancy graphic interface.

    By the time the AOL/Time-Warner merger was announced in 2000 I was stunned that the Time-Warner guys (a) seemed to have a rather rudimentary grasp of the internet and believed you could only get there through some super-constrained portal service like AOL and (b) were purchasing a company that only owned dial-up capability when all the wishful thinking about streaming would have to involve ISPs who actually possessed that kind of high-speed infrastructure. I don’t think there was anybody at the conference table who had ever used the internet in the raw much less assembled the device that got them there. 

     

     

     

    • #13
    • April 5, 2019, at 9:10 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  14. Member

    Dave of Barsham (View Comment):

    I’m a partner in a small IT business and do most of the hardware work. One of our clients does heavy video editing and wanted an upgraded machine and had quite a bit of money he was willing to spend on it. What we ended up with we dubbed the “Beast.” An i9 processor (16 cores), 128GB of DDR4, a 1TB SSD (OS), a 2TB SSD (scratch drive), a 4TB SSD (Storage) and a 1080ti 13GB video card. We, of course, had to “test” it for a few days before delivery. Turned out to be such a good combo that we gave a demo to some other clients and wound up building four more. My wife, on the other had, said no.

    Jealous.

    • #14
    • April 5, 2019, at 9:12 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  15. Contributor

    OmegaPaladin:

    “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

    You’d think that, but try dropping a typo into your google search. Think, if you will, of the old married couple. “What are you looking for?” “Nothing!” “Well it’s not there, it’s under the thing.”

    That’s what Alexa et. al. is shooting at; a system that understands what you mean, not what you say. It’d be ever so much more helpful than the stuff we have now.

    • #15
    • April 5, 2019, at 9:32 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  16. Contributor

    Dave of Barsham (View Comment):

    I’m a partner in a small IT business and do most of the hardware work. One of our clients does heavy video editing and wanted an upgraded machine and had quite a bit of money he was willing to spend on it. What we ended up with we dubbed the “Beast.” An i9 processor (16 cores), 128GB of DDR4, a 1TB SSD (OS), a 2TB SSD (scratch drive), a 4TB SSD (Storage) and a 1080ti 13GB video card. We, of course, had to “test” it for a few days before delivery. Turned out to be such a good combo that we gave a demo to some other clients and wound up building four more. My wife, on the other had, said no.

    Don’t let the Disney version fool you; women aren’t at all understanding about beasts.

    • #16
    • April 5, 2019, at 9:32 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  17. Moderator

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    By the time the AOL/Time-Warner merger was announced in 2000 I was stunned that the Time-Warner guys (a) seemed to have a rather rudimentary grasp of the internet and believed you could only get there through some super-constrained portal service like AOL and (b) were purchasing a company that only owned dial-up capability when all the wishful thinking about streaming would have to involve ISPs who actually possessed that kind of high-speed infrastructure. I don’t think there was anybody at the conference table who had ever used the internet in the raw much less assembled the device that got them there. 

    That one was such a strange head-scratcher at the time. But it seemed to me that Time Warner had banked on the notion that the early adopters of AOL would stick with it far longer than they actually did, as most of the people I knew who had moved onto direct-dial access (broadband being still hard to source then) were the computer geeks like me, while those who stuck with AOL (or Compuserve, or the other portal-based services) were not exactly computer savvy. In short, I think TW thought AOL would provide steady income and a built-in user base far longer than turned out to be the case.

    • #17
    • April 5, 2019, at 9:33 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  18. Moderator

    I remember getting a fun book The Happy Hacker in about 2001. The author had an entire chapter on how to talk your ISP (she assumed in her book that this would still only be a portal service) on how to ask for root access to bypass such portals.

    • #18
    • April 5, 2019, at 9:35 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  19. Thatcher
    She

    I came to computing via an IBM 5100, learned BASIC by programming in text games like “Hunt the Wumpus,” and we then moved to the Atari 400 and 800 series, which we amped up with a disk-drive, a printer and a few other peripherals. My contribution was to map and wire up an external keyboard, so that we didn’t have to use the nasty little membrane keypad that came with the original model. We loved that little setup, had most of the cartridges, and were regular readers of COMPUTE! magazine, and members of the the local Atari Club. We used to design and program our own games, as Atari had “player-missile graphics” for animation and effects, and you could do some really nifty stuff with them. Most of our fellow members at the Club were quite odd. (Not us, though.) I miss those days.

    When I worked for MCI Mail for a time, from home, my terminal was a TRS Model 100, with an acoustic coupler and dot matrix printer.

    The first laser printers I tangled with were about the size of a washing machine, and had 128K of memory. First IBM PCs had 64K of memory. And no hard drive option till the XT came along. The costs, for what you were buying were absolutely mind-boggling, compared to what we pay today.

    It was such a different world. And so exciting. I’m not sure what the next frontier will be, but posts like this lead me to hope there’ll be one.

    • #19
    • April 5, 2019, at 9:43 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  20. Contributor

    She (View Comment):
    text games like “Hunt the Wumpus,”

    Hunted Wumpus

    Guess where they got the inspiration for that Magic card…

    • #20
    • April 5, 2019, at 10:04 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  21. Thatcher
    She

    Hank Rhody, Meddling Cowpoke (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):
    text games like “Hunt the Wumpus,”

    Hunted Wumpus

    Guess where they got the inspiration for that Magic card…

    I smell a Wumpus!

    • #21
    • April 5, 2019, at 10:36 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  22. Member

    She (View Comment):
    The costs, for what you were buying were absolutely mind-boggling, compared to what we pay today.

    I remember that I had an extended or expanded memory (I can’t remember which, nor can I remember the difference) card in one of my early computers. I went to my local computer supply place and told them I wanted two megabytes of ram when it got down to $100/megabyte.

    • #22
    • April 5, 2019, at 11:18 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  23. Coolidge

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    Feel free to share your stories of computer building or otherwise monkeying around with your household difference engine.

     


    This geektastic post on Computers (and the art of building them) is part of the Quote of the Day series, the best way to get started writing on Ricochet. A large portion of Quote of the Day posts end up on the Main Feed.

    There are plenty of openings in April, so why don’t you sign up today?

    OmegaP: Computers: they live, they breathe, they sabotage.

    When I don’t need mine in any essential way, it is there on the desk purring away and doing everything I ask.

    When it is absolutely essential that the computer be working in an excellent manner, it then decides it is time for updates and stalls. Or else it opens to a screen I haven’t seen in five or six years, that asks me if I wish to return to boot mode, shoe mode, or dirty old sock mode, et al.

    Should I make the wrong choice, I need to hope the on-call computer tech that works for us is available sometime in the next decade.

    • #23
    • April 5, 2019, at 11:38 AM PDT
    • Like
  24. Member

    OmegaPaladin: 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.

    In fact, you can run a simulation of the WWII Colossus machine on your phone’s browser.

    https://www.codesandciphers.org.uk/anoraks/lorenz/tools/

    (Or, you used to be able to. The site appears to be broken.)

    • #24
    • April 5, 2019, at 11:46 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  25. Member

    I’ve built two computers in my lifetime. Kinda fun, but not really my thing. My last build looks cool, though, and its keeping us entertained with all the power intensive games available in humble bundles (not very intensive).

    My joy in fiddling with computers is excel spreadsheets, vba, and programming in general. I don’t like learning the new language or the feet wetting, but I enjoy the pool once I’m in. All my pride comes from finding out how hard simple things that the user takes for granted (like a series of drop downs that change based on the first selection) are to program and then doing it… like my dynamically filtered vba list built on a single, dewey decimal list of insurance coded industries. (So much pride!)

    I’m learning wpf and mvvm right now, intending to start with some drag & drop geography games for my oldest.

    • #25
    • April 5, 2019, at 12:19 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  26. Contributor

    Stina (View Comment):
    My joy in fiddling with computers is excel spreadsheets, vba, and programming in general.

    Yeah, it can be a lot of fun, as long as you’re the one making the design decisions.

    “Hey, the committee thinks that you should make the buttons change colors based on whether they’re active or not to provide an additional visual resource to the person using the calculator.

    • #26
    • April 5, 2019, at 1:11 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  27. Contributor

    While I’m at it, I was idly considering last night as I drifted off to sleep, how I’d go about implementing Tetris on an Excel sheet. It could be done, but definitely falls under things best left undone.

     

    • #27
    • April 5, 2019, at 1:19 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  28. Member

    Hank Rhody, Meddling Cowpoke (View Comment):

    Stina (View Comment):
    My joy in fiddling with computers is excel spreadsheets, vba, and programming in general.

    Yeah, it can be a lot of fun, as long as you’re the one making the design decisions.

    “Hey, the committee thinks that you should make the buttons change colors based on whether they’re active or not to provide an additional visual resource to the person using the calculator.

    Excel programming is a lot of fun. I never did any serious/serious programming, but I did some fairly serious. I wrote a concrete estimating program that I was proud of. I didn’t have to worry about committees because it was for myself. But I do it so seldom that I have to relearn the program every time I try it.

    • #28
    • April 5, 2019, at 1:21 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  29. Moderator

    Hank Rhody, Meddling Cowpoke (View Comment):

    While I’m at it, I was idly considering last night as I drifted off to sleep, how I’d go about implementing Tetris on an Excel sheet. It could be done, but definitely falls under things best left undone.

     

    Also falls under “things you’ll still probably try to do”.

    • #29
    • April 5, 2019, at 1:26 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  30. Member

    OmegaPaladin:

    “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

    Our daughter can apprehend that kind of confusion. She deals with it frequently. She is the Excel Queen for several departments in her company (a benefits and retirement management company), including a couple that have people out in the field who run financial simulations for customers. Her biggest challenge is not the Excel programming itself, it’s trying to make the input and output screens sufficiently idiot-proof that there is minimal chance of the field salespeople screwing up the simulations. 

    She got her start at the company identifying and fixing errors input by customers who were not following instructions.

    So she has had lots of experience with people who expect her programming to fix their input errors. 

    • #30
    • April 5, 2019, at 1:47 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
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