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.

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