Aug 12 2009

Love-Hate Relationship

Sometimes I hate computers.

That probably seems like a strange thing for someone in my line of work to say, but it’s actually true.  I enjoy software–creating it, debugging it, using it.  But all I want the hardware to do is work, so I can do my thing with the software.  If I’m thinking about the hardware, I’m probably cussing it because something’s stopped working.

A couple days ago, I decided to do a major upgrade on my system.  (More on that later.)  I started late in the evening, so I could do the upgrade and start some things building overnight.  So I shut the system down, blew some stuff out of it, and powered it back up to start the upgrade.  Nothing.  The fans and drives powered up, but it never got as far as sending a signal to the monitor.  Uh oh.  Checked all my connections, made sure I didn’t blow and cables loose, and tried again.  Uh oh.

So I started digging, pulling out components and swapping in old spare parts, to see if I could find the problem.  For some reason I suspected the CPU–probably because when I built the system I had to Conan the fan down so hard to get it to attach that I was afraid I might have crushed it.  Motherboards usually have beep codes they use to tell you about bootup problems, so you can look up the beep pattern to see what the problem is.  (Although motherboard manufacturers have the worst tech support websites in the world)  It wasn’t beeping at all, so that was no help.

After scratching my head for a while, I decided I should go to bed and look at it with fresh eyes in the morning.  That turned out to be the right move, because in the morning I found the problem pretty quickly: one of my RAM (memory) sticks was bad.  I had thought motherboards beeped on bad RAM, but I guess that’s only if they can’t see it at all.  I was also surprised because I paid for good Crucial Ballistix RAM with an excellent rating on NewEgg, but I guess anything can break.

Fortunately, this particular kind of RAM doesn’t have to be used in pairs, so I was able to put the good stick in and get back up and running.  A single gigabyte feels a little cramped, but not bad.  Now I’ve got an excuse to upgrade my RAM, which I really didn’t have with two gigabytes.  For the same price I paid for that 2GB a year and a half ago, I can get 8GB now.  That’ll rule!

The last computer I owned that I really enjoyed on a hardware level was my Commodore 128DCR.  Computers were solid back then; some people are still using 8-bit Commodores 25 years later.  It was possible to really understand what was going on inside them: what every chip did, how it was tied to the others.  I even had the C128 Diagnostics Manual, which gave a complete listing of every meaningful memory location and built-in software function.  There were thousands of them, but it was just possible to get your head around the whole thing and really know what it was doing with the ones and zeros.  I even did a bit of soldering once to change a drive number.  Now a single support chip on one component in my computer is more complicated than that whole system was, and I only have a superficial idea of what’s going on down at the hardware level.

Not that I’d want to trade back, exactly.  Those systems were a lot of fun, but I get a heck of a lot more done in 16,000 times the memory space and 6000 times the processor speed.  (I don’t think I’m 6000 times more efficient, though.)  But when I’m staring into a dead system, wondering if I’ve got a bad CPU–which I can’t even see because it’s hidden under a huge fan–it’s easy to be nostalgic for those simpler times.

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