Friday, January 24, 2014

The Appliance

                   I call it the appliance. It is my latest winter project. Yesterday I came home with some rough cut poplar boards that I can't wait to get to. Kathleen, my wife, wants a coffee table. But every night is well below zero, and sanding and finishing are best done in an open space, if not outdoors under a shade tree. I have a big shed to build too, as I have given up on the garage, which I fear won't happen in my lifetime. Garage work is not the greatest idea for an old man anyway. These things, when they fall on you, are heavy. I don't mind working around cars or trucks when the wheels are on, if you know what I mean. Down Maine many a noble patriarch has been discovered flattened under a car that has fallen off the stands, lives prematurely squashed—what a way to die. Frankly, in this bad weather I am stuck inside staring at the appliance. It was a deal I couldn't refuse.
     I have heard stories about IBM servers dug out of a dumpster, tossed by those strange folks who are in a big hurry to take out the trash. I have always wondered why these pearls don't show up in a dumpster near me, Pablo.

The appliance, a good deal for $0.

       In an era of downsizing, when computers are made inches-by-inches square, a tiny solid state disk, a micro board, and nothing much else, the appliance is a behemoth. It goes back to the old vax days, when computers occupied the center of the stage and were offered air-conditioned cubicles to look mysterious in. They needed much personal attention; programs loop, spewing out streams of data filling up /tmp, error logs burst the boundaries of /var, all sorts of amazing and mysterious happenings. In my working days the keeper of the computer wore the polyester suit. That should tell you something. You saw him walking around like a shade performing dark and mysterious ministrations on all the black boxes spread around. His fingertips were like glue to the tiny screws, and keyboards worked for him with an unholy haste. To this day, though I have OS X in a Macbook Pro set up and ready to run on my second monitor, I'd rather struggle with the UNIX/Linux thing that has bothered me for the last ten years. Terminal is here, you launch an app, you find a file. dmesg is king, vi has her own peculiarities, emacs, tar, cat, cd, wget, mount, chown. Nobody bothers you. You have to have the right stuff.

Need a little room?

      Over the years I have collected a big junk pile of stuff. There are half-a-dozen IDE disk drives; an equal number of SATA. They have on them the facts, the ruinations and confessions of a lifetime. I need a giant case to put everything in. I need a video card to run multiple monitors. I need a BIG mobo to hook everything up. I need I/O.
      Now at first application of a large amount of energy the enormous Enermax dual-fan power supply spooled up like a jet taking off into the Java dawn overburdened with passengers and 2,000 gallons of Jet A. Seconds later, the upscale Abit V8 board greeted me with an amazing brilliance of shrieks and sirens. Then seconds later it quit; dead died the whole zoo. Upscale boards have check lights sprinkled at various stations and a small digital LED displays error codes. After the power dies, the caps retain enough juice to keep the error code display alive for five seconds or so. FF-, it read. Well, so I thought, I guess I've got that one figured out. But no dead board will light up and yelp the way this one did. It even appeared to be booting normally for a few seconds.
    The other problem was no onboard video chip. This meant that I could not attach a monitor to it which might reveal to me a little more about what was happening. Alas, I combed through the cardboard boxes of old computer parts, the wreckage of ancient computer times, and came up with a 1.7 volt AGP video card, which in normal time is equivalent to the tablets of Sumerian scripture. I snapped it into its PCI slot and then I had a vga outlet to connect to a CRT video I like to use for testing. So that was out of the way. The board was POSTING but shutting down before it could boot to bios.
    In life it is always a good idea to take care of the obvious first. The inside of the case and the surface of the board were lacquered by dust and grime. Some geeks put their boards into the dishwasher. I always thought that was a little rude. I prefer a sink of warm water and mild bubbly detergent. I have a small, soft brush. First remove the CMOS battery, wait a few minutes for the juice to drain out of the caps, and throw it in the sink. Don't scrub but twirl away nicely with the brush. Best remove the cpu, heatsink and fan, and wash them separately. After a few minutes you have a shiny, perfectly clean board and the heat sink is no longer plugged up with dust, and the whole works looks like it just came home from Best Buy. (I have heard some ubergeeks throw the board in the oven at 350 for twenty minutes. Now that is rude!) Set it aside somewhere out of reach of the cats for a few days, and when perfectly dry, reassemble. At some point it is wise to drop in a fresh battery. They are only a dollar at Walmart. Didn't take me long and the old Abit, a very expensive motherboard in its day, which reminded me in quality of certain modern EVGA boards, booted to bios.
     I continued to clean and scrub the case, which is, along with the old Apple G4 case, probably a classic case, I think everyone would agree. Perhaps it is a little over the top if form should reflect function, perhaps a little glossy? It would take some serious modding to install water cooling, the big thing nowadays, but though I have pondered the subject, I never could see much sense in putting water near a thousand dollars of electrical components. This computer I am going to build in this box will be on 24/7, running mildly beside my desk for the rest of my life, and I don't need downtime to clean up a complicated water cooling system. Eventually those tiny screws, which are such a burden on my old eyes, will become unmanageable. A completely toolless IBM system would be nice, but they are outrageously expensive.
       Once reassembled and juiced up, it booted to bios instantly, ran fine on an old Ubuntu disk. So now I had a machine. I was hoping to be able to hang on to the Abit board. I have several serviceable IDE disk drives, one of which is a Seagate Ultra, hardly used. There were two IDE connections and a floppy connector.  Also there were two SATA connections. The board, being so old—I say so old, I sound sort of nutty, it is nine years old—had not half the "connectivity"—God I hate these words geeks sling around—of a recent board. To make matters worse, the board would not even see my SATA SSD. If I wanted to Google for awhile, I might have been able to fix that, but it struck me as too boring. Again, back to the junk heap where I resurrected a disgusting $50 ECS board. Though disgusting it has SATA and HDMI connections and onboard Nvidia video, an IDE connection and six SATA slots. I have often thought of buying a video card for it, but it was always adequate, so I thought. When my grandson had it in his computer, he bought a video card for it immediately. Incidentally, if I asked nice, he might lend it to me. But every man worth anything has his own pile of computer junk and he might not want to part with it.
      Time now to boot into my decrepit UNIX system, my madness of writerly non-distracting software derived from FreeBSD. I am hidden with Pyroom on tty4. Once you get in, you can never get out. Well, not really. Man, the appliance is heavy! My wife laughs at me lugging it from my little workshop to the man cave, sixty pounds of overkill. Got it set up, boot time, there's the bios, then all of a sudden, nothing! Back to the workshop. I started pulling connections out of the board. Two connections later it booted. The story of my own personal OS is another story. There are lots of things he—the OS—really does not like to play with. He is very stuck up. I had plugged one of the disk drives into the wrong SATA slot. Couldn't remember what was the number. This was no fun, playing roulette with an OS. Finally, back to the mancave. Everything works except suddenly he has decided that he does not want to play with Memorex RW CDs!
      Ah well, I'll figure it out later. Time now to write. My monitor is black background under light, low contrast yellow text. I can stare at this monitor for hour after. This is what it is all about.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Jan 14, 2014—More on Winter Projects

My barn up the icy hill in the fog.

                            It has been a down time. I believe human beings are most closely related to animals that hibernate in winter. The weather has been awful, and my long country driveway is a sheet of ice. The town is down on sand; I have never seen the sandpile so low. I do not feel right about loading my truck with anything more than the standard four five-gallon buckets full, though numerous citizens do not share my inhibition. One fellow left with the rear fender of his Ford Ranger dragging almost on the road, he and a friend had shoveled into the pick up bed so much of our town's sand. What sand I do bring home is sufficient only to cover the main dooryard. If we get a snow storm, Clay, who has been plowing me out the last five years, will have to put on chains or risk getting stuck. Going for a walk is bothered by possibilities I do not want to test. Poor Sunshine is as afraid of falling as I am. The thought of hurting myself, breaking a bone on the ice, does not please me. At my age, or Sunshine's age (she is 13), a broken bone would take a long time mending. Then there is the problem of getting back into shape after the long lay off. Nothing about that amuses me. I'd run the risk of getting hurt again. There are the indoor projects I have been thinking about. Actually quite a few projects are a drag on my attention. A fellow gave me a neat Alienware desktop computer case.

There is in it a board and optical drives and floppy and so on. The board, a 2002 Abit ATX, in its day a very upscale board, appears to be broken. But it does not have on board video. The board is a lecture on why every computer motherboard should have some basic video chip on it, if only for testing. I don't know where the card went. But when I put power to the board, it lets loose such a cacophony of beeps and whistles that I am convinced it is still alive. I have a video card from about that period—I am a great one for hanging on to old computer junk—every time I have thrown something away it has come back to bite me. It is worth a try. The DIMMs—a fancy name for RAM—are buffered ECC, so you can tell this is not your regular piece of junk. It has 2G of memory. The power supply seems to work, although that is sometimes hard to judge. I hooked up the video and turned on the power, and more beeps and whistles, and the error code—there is a digital error code reader on the board—does not mean imminent death. Still the video does not power up the monitor which remains blank. In other words, the board did not boot to bios. Although the fan was running over the CPU heatsink, the heatsink itself was jammed with dust, and I theorize that the CPU was immediately so hot that it shut itself off, and thus all the sudden shrill sirens. So getting another computer going is one project. Besides, I am waiting for the botany to hit me. Usually about mid-winter seeds drag at me. I immerse myself in seed catalogs. What am I going to plant this spring, if I live so long? And of course a trip to the nearby used book store has turned up a volume of Stephen Crane's short stories. (Lord, how many library books do I have out? Five!) I have always read Crane with interest. Once it seemed to me that he had quite a few worthwhile things to say. In other words, he had done thinking beyond his age. But as I have gotten older, though I still find him interesting, I detect superficiality, as if he had picked up and copied his notions rather than struggle with them on his own. His style bothers me; where did he copy it from?; doesn't it seem stale? Fresh thinking demands fresh containers. Perhaps it is my winter mood. Who am I to criticize an American classic? Oh, in my present idleness I have this and that to say about everybody. Yeats, for instance, got a round overhaul from me just yesterday afternoon. Was that the reason why my mother preached against idleness. Idleness or no, though I kept a copy of Gray's "Elegy" on my desktop for several days, I was unable to read it through, try again tomorrow, maybe. What I really want to do is take a walk. Maybe Sunshine and I can pussyfoot through the woods some way. Best turn to winter work. I am in the mood for screws rather than words. The caps on that historical Abit motherboard seem fine. Now I have dusted it off, perhaps it will POST and boot and I'll while away the afternoon running an old Debian distro, an icy winter's tribute to a technological era gone past like lightning.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Cat Story

Lately my wife and I have been having this conversation.
       I say: "You don't care that we have god knows how many wild cats around the house." There were ten but I like to exaggerate for emphasis. But they were wild all right. (She calls them feral, as if that were some sort of excuse.) "They are pissing and shitting all over the place and destroying the house, and we have to get rid of them. But oh no, why should you care?"
      "I have done everything that I can think of to get rid of those cats, but the shelters are full up to the ceiling and nobody will take them."
      "You know why," I say. "It's because you love animals. Babies and animals. And you really don't want to get rid of them."
      And so on the conversation goes.
      And I am walking away, because I have had enough with cats, feral or otherwise. And now she is mad at me for walking away in the middle of everything. After a short break we start up again. "You know I don't want the truth, I just want to get rid of those cats."
      "Okay, you call the dog officer. He won't do anything."
      "Okay. I will."
      In a few minutes I'm on the phone with the dog officer. "Oh, I've got fifty feral cats to pick up," he says. "I'll put you on the list." Which is exactly what he said two months ago.
      "Just a minute. We're old, I'm retired. They're tearing up my house. I have to get rid of them. I'll donate." My wife is in the next room and she is beginning to giggle. She thinks this is funny.
      "Well, ten cats," says the dog officer, "that's two thousand dollars."
      So that's a fine story. They are going to spend two thousand dollars on ten feral cats! I mean, it's not my fault they reproduce the way they do.
      "Two thousand dollars," I repeat, croaking.
      My wife thinks this, if it were not nonsense, is getting funnier and funnier. She always did have a great sense of humor.
      "I think I can catch them," I groan. "It may take awhile."
      So the dog officer says what he always says. I'll call this and that. Friends of feral felines. He mentions numerous places to call. Friends of feral felines is on vacation till mid January. Cats don't reproduce till spring. He claims this to be a positive. It seems to me these big animals I am feeding every day are in a perfect mood for breeding anytime now, hard winter or no. I could easily have forty or fifty kittens on my hands by May. The thought is an absolute nightmare.
      I'd like to blurt out, "I'm gonna kill the bastards. I'm gonna move them into the deepest darkest forest along the border of nowhere." You hear about these people all the time never realizing what a fix they are in. Cats are like Chucky: they die hard. And anyway I can't do that. I guess that means I am fortunate, because you hear that people who try to end their personal cat nightmare by poison or "drop off"—I love that phrase—do on occasion get caught and they are beset by a swarm of feline lovers so they never see the end of it. Technically it is against the law. You can do jail time. I'm trying to calm down. "Well what should I do?"
      Again. "I'll call around." He mentions the fifty other wild ones.
      "Okay. Maybe you can pitch the donation?"
      I suddenly imagine a rock hard faced woman, they are feline lovers, you see them on the TV all the time, laughing at what an idiot I must be.
      "Okay. Well. Bye," the dog officer says.
      So that's the end of conversation. Now what?
     But my wife has an idea. "If we catch them and spay or neuter them, and we agree to take them back, they might go for it."
      "How about half of them. Five? We take back, maybe?" A long time ago we used to have five cats. They lived up in the barn with the goats. That's where I fed them. Then one of our goats died suddenly, and somebody thought it might be rabies, so he took all the cats, and we never saw them again. (It wasn't rabies, but I always thought I got lucky. Dairy farmers used to be a big help. There was always a little milk around, the cats managed the rats, and the cows managed the cats. But where are the dairy farmers?) I thought if we did get this bunch back and if I fed them in the barn and they stayed there, they might get friendly, and I might be able to put up with them. What happened to those cats many years ago I was never sure, but they never came back, and the way I look at it, it was a lot more enlightened time.
       But that is my theory. The majority have become assaulted by a sort of madness in which a tiny, loud minority can hold a majority at bay through terror. While a few quake and grumble and squawk, the majority is silent, not even a quiet rebuke forthcoming. The irrational lives next door.
       I wish I knew where these cats came from. I see them streaking here and there every time I drive into the dooryard. We did have a problem at one time, then the cats went away, and now they are everywhere.
       Our house cats are of course neutered. They each had a litter, but the kittens were eagerly sought after and gone in a day or two of weening. It is always charming to see young children and adults, too, walk out the door in total delight hugging a sweet, peaceful kitten. My wife claims I live in la-la land. She is tired of it. She has wanted a divorce because of it for the last thirty years.
       I wonder where this story will end. We men are weak. But I have often seen cats wandering the darkness on my way to work. There are six or eight of them, only one of me. Men are weak, cats are strong. Sounds like a good subject for a TV mini-series.