Saturday, February 26, 2011

One piece at a time: Parts 2 and 3

One of the basic pieces of the computer, of course, is the storage. This has manifested itself in a number of different ways across time. The first computer I ever had use of was a TRS-80 that was bought by McLish School back in the late 1970s. Originally, its storage was just the RAM. You keyed in the program and if you kicked the plug out of the wall you lost it. Eventually, we used a cassette to save programs on. In order to put more than one program on, you had to listen to the sound on the tape, which was not unlike listening to a fax machine, and wait for a gap. Once David Stewart, who was in the grade below me, didn't leave enough of a gap between his program and mine and I lost the end of one. It didn't bother me; it's not like I've remembered it for 35 years or anything.

Then came the five-and-a-quarter-inch floppies and then the three-and-a-half. I am leaving out a few details like the double-sided, double-density disks, but the point is we've gone through some changes on storage technology.

Last Saturday, I ordered the hard drive for my twelve-year-old daughter's computer. You can look at it here. It is a one terabyte drive. Let's get some perspective on this. That TRS-80 held 4 kilobytes before it was upgraded. Those three-and-a-half-inch floppies that were just the cat's whiskers when they first came out were one megabyte disks. My first serious computer had a 320 megabyte hard rive. At some point, we started talking in gigabytes. Now this is a terabyte drive. So we have a progression of units kilo, mega, giga, and tera. Usually, we talk about each of these steps being a factor of 1000, but it is really a factor of 1024 because the computer world works in powers of 2 and 2 to the tenth power is 1024.

The 1 terabyte drive I am getting for my daughter holds about a quarter of a billion times more information than that old TRS-80.


Now, as I said, those three-and-a-quarter-inch floppies cost a buck back in the day. They held one one-millionth of what this one terabyte drive holds. It costs $60. That works out to $0.00006/megabyte. The growth in businesses offering to store your data in the Cloud makes sense in those terms. The disk space at least is practically free.

By way of contrast, I feel real richer when I say that if I'd bought this much storage on those floppies it would've cost $1,000,000. And that many floppies side by side would stretch half way from my house in Pittsburg, Kansas to Tulsa.

I had set out a one part a week pace, but Lydia had a hard day on Thursday so we rushed the process a bit and we bought her motherboard. I looked at all the deals taking cost versus utility into account again and bought this one. It was only as I was writing this up that I discovered this was exactly the same one I'd bought for my own itty-bitty box. This is quite affirming in its unconscious consistency, but it's kinds of disappointing as I was wanting to work with a different one.

In any case, this process has made me think about the future of computing. My desire over the years has always been for a bigger computer. I wonder if that is just a function of the fact that I started out working with such a small one that it wasn't useful. The desire for a larger computer was really a desire for a more useful computer.

Now we are in a more mature age where we use our computers as communication devices. It seems to me--and I claim no originality in this--that we are moving towards a day when storage will be largely on the Cloud and we will have small hand-held devices like our cell phones to interface with that cloud on a personal basis. I suppose those of us who do a lot of writing will want a keyboard and a big monitor, so there will be docking stations. Those who use computers for presentations will have a special sort of interface as well, but I've not thought about that as much.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

One piece at a time: Part 1

After I built my itty-bitty Ubuntu box, I began to explore possibilities for this new design. For a user whose needs were modest, the smaller mini-ITX motherboard and associated smaller CPU were not a handicap. They were a right-size alternative to what "the man" wants to sell you.
I began to think of my middle-schooler whose computing needs (and I use that word in its pre-teen sense) are quite modest. She has my old iPod and the Smiley Virus (I mean Miley Cyrus) and the Justa Beaver CDs that she has ripped there unto. She has whatever Disney sites she likes to peruse. Then there is the school district's PowerSchool page. That is it.
She has been using her eldest sisters old laptop which is coughing up blood mucus and whose sclera have turn yellow. It is laying back upon a pillow and has taken on a preternatural glow.
The idea occurred to me that it would be fun for the two of us to build a computer for her. At this point it looks to me like her itty-bitty hands with those long, thin fingers would be quite useful inside a mini-ITX computer case.
Buying all of the pieces at once so soon after having built my first mini-ITX computer would put too much strain on my marriage and my credit card, and besides there is nothing like teaching about the delay of gratification--if I don't know about it at least my children should--so we decided to be like Johnny Cash and build it one piece at a time.
The first piece is the case. If you take a look at it I am sure you will agree that it fits my middle-schooler's personality. It arrived this week.

We will report on the rest of the pieces as they arrive.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

My itty bitty Ubuntu Box

It was scary because it was all so easy. First I ordered the parts:
Then they all came just as they said they would. First the motherboard and the memory, then the case, and finally the optical drive. At the same time, I had been working with Ubuntu. I had downloaded it back when I was working on my Windows Home Server. It was there on the hard drive on my laptop. I first put it on a thumb drive just because the possibility of booting from a thumb drive seemed so cool to me. Then I burned it on a CD just in case the BIOS on the motherboard wasn't up to it.
Then came Saturday morning. I woke up having slept like the righteous dead at approximately 6:30. The computer was together by 8. I didn't shower, but I did shave; I did make coffee and eat breakfast. I did put the previous day's dishes in the dishwasher. (We'd had a plumbing emergency on Thursday with the dishwasher.)
The point is that it all went together like a puzzle.
The case is the size of a 4-slice toaster. Seriously. It is red and as cute as a button. The mini-ITX board with the Atom CPU is square and a smidgen over six-and-a-half inches on a side. It all plugged in nicely with the various wires: power, SATA cables, USB cables, and front panel wires. Having learned previously the hard way, I took great care with the front panel wires, but there was a nice, color-coded schematic that came along with the motherboard.
Then I put in the hard drive, which I'd bought last September at Wal-Mart, and then the optical drive. This is where the smallness of the case and the strength of the design came into play. It all fit easily. I did stop to think it out; this is something else I have learned. But it all fit.
I'd thought ahead to put the SATA cables on before I even thought about the drives. There would've been no way my huge hands could've gotten in there to put them on with a hard drive in the way. If I ever put more memory in, I will have to take both of the drives out. This is just how it is going to be.
Anyway, the process was somewhere between stacking toast and the second round of Jenga in complexity.
Then I install Ubuntu Linux.
I'd never done this before. I didn't know what to expect. I stuck in the CD, turned it on, and it booted to the optical drive. It began installing. At various points it stopped to ask questions. Once I thought it was stuck but I was patient and it continued. Then it came time for the final restart and it did stick at the BIOS screen. I figure that was more of a function of the BIOS than Linux, so I just turned it off and turned it back on. (Having screwed-up and restarted a lot has given me an inner calm that allows me to do stuff like that.) It worked.
It has now been about 24 hours and I am happy. Ubuntu Linux looks a lot like MacOS on the front-end. I might just be saying this because I am a PC user, but it is my opinion.
Some issues that I've discovered that might matter:
  • it doesn't work with iTunes and
  • it doesn't do Netflix.
These are things I've discovered as I am now contemplating building a machine like this for my youngest daughter. Her iPod and TV are very important to her.
All said, it was a nice couple of hours, but those who've been inspired should read earlier in the blog about the failures.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Challenge of the itty-bitty computer

Having successfully upgraded my wife’s old computer into a Windows Home Server and then, buoyed by my success in that area, having gone on to build a Windows 7 computer for my mother-in-law, my heart was at ease. I had conquered worlds. I had learned new curse words, words which had, up until that point, only had a shadowy theoretical sort of existence. I had been a successful computer builder.

But as with the rich fool in Luke 12 verses 16 through 21, who said, “I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones,” I keep pushing for something more. My eyes kept sweeping over the web sites of New Egg,, and TigerDirect. I was looking for trouble. Seek and ye shall find, as the Good Book says.

It all begins with a motherboard. And I will continue calling them motherboards. Calling them System boards dehumanizes further an already technical field. The Big Motherboards are denoted by ATX. This hearkens back to the old AT computers if you are old enough to remember them. The ATX motherboard represents the first step forward from them. These boards are somewhat largish at 12 inches by 9.6 inches. The motherboard I removed from my mother-in-law’s old IBM was an ATX. A micro-ATX (mATX) motherboard at 9.6 inches square is smaller and easier to deal with.

Imagine my joy when I discovered the mini-ITX motherboard which is 6.7 inches square. Imagine my joy as well when I discovered that I could get it from New Egg along with a CPU for $69. Extend your imagination to unbounded possibilities by thinking what I might do if I also came upon a mini-ITX case with a power supply for $49.99. Then, and you are NOT going to believe this, imagine me finding one gigabyte of compatible memory for $19. Put this together with the knowledge that I have a leftover one terabyte SATA hard drive that is just setting around.

Yes, you are there aren’t you? You know what is going to happen. It’s like in the teen horror flick when the scantily clad teenagers are alone in the boat house. Not only will they get naked, not only will they have sex, but they will also be pinned together with a harpoon while their bodies are still entwined.

I ordered all of the parts immediately because who could imagine making any sort of computer that cheap, and this one will be so small and cute to boot.

The question that the experienced will ask at this point is obvious. It is so obvious not only do they know to ask it, they know the solution. The questions is: what about the operating system. You forgot to include it in your calculations. It is easy to do and any of the versions of Windows floating around will likely cost more than all of these parts put together. But this is the beautiful part. Ubuntu Linux is free. Furthermore, all of the cool young Geeks worship at the throne of Linux.

If I build an Ubuntu box, then I will be young like them. My hair will turn once again dark. The aching in my joints will go away.

The case for this is red by the way. It all becomes rather clear that this computer building mania I am going through is a mid-life crisis. Better a computer than a Corvette; better Ubuntu than a blond.

I will keep you posted as matters develop.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Death by driveway

My wife Jean and I shoveled our drive this morning. I’d never done this as a boy in Oklahoma as it didn’t snow very frequently and when it did snow it didn’t stay long. (Have I ever mentioned how much I liked that aspect of Oklahoma?) But Jean and I moved here, and whatever things were gained, and there were things gained to be sure, this was one of the things what was lost. It shows just a little bit more often and when it does it sticks around just a little bit longer. This change was enough along the axes of frequency and longevity that we needed to get snow shovels.

Yesterday Jean and I spent the bulk of the day in a successful effort to save the greenhouse over at our hobby house. Jean’s dad had used the house next door to us for storage and projects. One of those projects was a greenhouse made of clear plastic sheeting. When we went over yesterday to check it out, there was a foot of snow on it and it had already torn in one spot. We took an hour to get the snow off. We came back after lunch and another 4 inches had built up on it. We got that off. We came back just before supper and got the two inches that had accumulated off. Because of all that there was no time to shovel the drive. Of course that would’ve been useless anyway as it was, and as you have gathered, still snowing.

Fortunately the wise and merciful leadership at the university cancelled classes and closed nonessential services (me and Jean) today too. This enabled us to shovel the drive today. It took us from a little after 8AM to about 11:15 AM. The high temperature during this interval was 9 degrees. Now I know some of you who read this may have the urge to tell me that you have toiled longer at lower temperatures. Keep it to yourself. It will not make me like you; it will not impress me other than to make me think you are a one-upping little toad. Versteh?

Being who I am, I’ve done some calculations. There was about 15 inches on the drive. Less some places, more other. For the sake of a conservative estimate, let’s say it was an even foot. Let us also estimate that this melts into one inch of water. My drive is 90 feet long (Vern Morton told us we would regret such a long drive for just this reason) and 8 feet wide. Water has a density of 62.4 pounds per cubic foot. When you do all the math, this works out to 3744 pounds of water. Since we are friends, let’s call this two tons.

When we came in after this, I look off my toboggan cap, and my hair was soaking wet. I had sweated through my hair at 9 degrees Fahrenheit. At the same moment, I stepped on my daughter’s wet socks on the floor and they stuck to me, frozen. There was something about that moment. I realized I was at a state of being I had never achieved before.