Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Another Old Computer; Hanging On To Old Things

Where does this connection with old machines come from?  If something still works, I cannot let it go.  It's a neurosis.  Anything I buy, I'm wedded to for life.  If it breaks down to the point that I have to throw it out, the procedure involves full funerary rites and a day or more of mourning.

So we go to the dump, where there's inevitably some machine with some life left, a scrap of utility just begging for use and attention. 

I'm an animist: I infuse unfeeling things with human motives and assume they desire for my attention.  In a world full of people, this isn't a healthy inclination. 

But PEOPLE made the THINGS, though, and it's in their honor that I want to preserve them.

* * *

I'm determined to keep this old Sony laptop going, despite the fact that I have two newer machines, one much faster, one much smaller, all already configured the way I like them.  You'd think I was using the opportunity to diddle around with an old computer as an excuse to avoid getting real work done. 

I'd agree with you, if I wasn't already working a full-time job. 

I bought this Sony back in 2001 (according to the diary entry I wrote the day I got it home) and on it have written hundreds of emails and blog entries and the greater half of two different novels (both of which are waiting to be finished).  The machine's a bit bulky by today's standards, and there's a drone and a chirp to the fan I'd forgotten about.  But the noise is reassuring rather than distracting, and the bulk actually makes it fairly comfortable to work on.  It has feet that fold down to elevate the back.  Why doesn't my Mac have those? I'd trade one core of its CPU for a more comfortable typing angle.  And the screen, though a little low-resolution, is almost as tall as it is wide.  I'd forgotten how much more comfortable that is than widescreen.  I'm convinced widescreen is just a conspiracy by manufacturers to make us all purchase new TVs, so that in a few years they can remind us how much we really preferred the older square displays, and then sell us another one.

Back to the Sony: A couple of years ago the hard drive went on it.
It was cradled way in the heart of this beast, and I took out over a dozen screws before I found the two that let me in, but there's nothing you can't get to without a jeweler's screwdriver and some patience.  A replacement hard drive cost me less than $20 (including shipping) and doubled my capacity.

Doubling the system memory cost me about the same.  This is where the machine is maxxed out, at 256 MB.  But it now runs Xubuntu (Ubuntu's lightweight cousin) without complaint.  It can handle Youtube, DVDs, mp3s, and mpegs.  The addition of a nine dollar wireless card made it convenient to use around the house.  So now it does just about everything that I need a computer to do. 

If I could just clone myself, I could actually use all these old computers.

What it won't do is play a video in one window while performing web searches in another and scanning rss feeds to blogs in a third.  It will do all those things, just not simultaneously and well.  I still need to think for half a second about the next thing I want to do before I click on something.  So it's effective as an attention-focusing machine.  It's a nice, intermediate step between the typewriters and the MacBook.  And now I want to spend all of my time with it.

Yeah, it's a bit creaky, but we're all about creaky here in this 300 year old stronghold (cottage) we call home. 

* * *

There are people who drive cars and people who love cars.  The latter will obsess about them all day and spend every spare minute under the hood, checking their compression ratios, upgrading their spark plugs, and popping in shiny bits of hardware that might make a quarter-second difference in their accelleration - and not always for the good! 

These people don't even need particularly nice cars.  I'm no gearhead, but I love that I can open the hood of my Honda Civic and see just about every part in there.  That engine looks like something I could disconnect and replace, if I wanted to.  It's certainly not too big for one strong man to lift alone.  The Civic is a cheap car, and because of this, and despite this, there are legions of kids who soup them up and race them and use them for all kinds of things they were never designed to do.  Looking under that hood, I see the opportunity for hours and hours of happy, amateur fun. 

Any simple, modular system compels you to learn about it.  It feels like a moral imperative, to me: once you've paid for something, you should explore its every use, set out across the possibility space unlocked by its structure and function, and discover the marvelous little surprises that others may have missed. I don't know how I got this way.  Maybe it was all the hand-me-downs I got as a child: the 1950s Minolta camera in 1984, the 1970s Olympia typewriter in 1988, the original 1980 IBM PC in 1993.  The lesson was: something new's just going to break anyway.  Get something old, and if it's lasted this long, it'll last even longer.  Find a way to take this old thing and have some fun with it. 

So now I can't stop messing around with Linux.  This nine year old computer runs so much better than when it was new, just with the introduction of a couple of cheap parts and a different pattern of ones and zeroes written on the hard drive.  This seems miraculous.  It feels like Sony ripped me off when I bought it, and now I'm ripping them off by not buying another.

* * *

The Wife has found a similar pleasure in cooking. 

We're sold so many prepackaged goods that we suffer sensory overload walking into the grocery store.  There's so much premade stuff to choose from that folks are almost thankful for the advertising that tells us them to buy.  But by limiting her purchases to cheap, basic ingredients, she's been able to prepare meals that are surprising, delightful, and delicious.  We'll be out of time before she discovers every last thing she can do with butter, flour, sugar, and eggs.  (If Monsanto doesn't use patent law to make cooking your own food illegal before that.) 

Look at this flour.  Just look at it!  Same as it was 3000 years ago, and you can use it to bake a cake no one thought of before.

* * *

The Wife and I have opposing but complimentary approaches to computers and cooking. 

I could care less about how things work in the kitchen, so long as the end result keeps me from getting hungry.  Fortunately she has discovered great joy in the complex chemistry of meats, wheats, and beets, so I'm not required except in the capacity of taste-tester.  "What's wrong with the thing that makes the water hot?" I might ask her.

"The kettle?  It's right on the stove."

"No, the microwave."

Turns out it was unplugged.

On the computer, she doesn't give a damn what operating system or even application she's using, so long as it gets her words and pictures up in the order she chooses.  I'll look at a program like Photoshop and think, "This can do *anything* with pictures.  Let's go through a dozen tutorials and learn what they are."  She's too busy for tutorials, because she's actually building things with her tools.  She might ask, "Winston!  What's the thing I'm supposed to click on to make the thing happen? The picture thing?" 

I might tell her, "It's the red thing, got a 'P' on it."  And I'll know if I was right if they house stays quiet.  (We have a sort of intercom system in this house.  It's called: "A small house.")

Or this conversation:

"How do I set up the tables in my website so the side part doesn't move while the other side goes up and down?"

"You mean frames?  You want to build a website with frames?"

"I don't care what they're called.  I just don't want this part to go up and down!"

Her desktop gets so cluttered with shortcuts and files and links that it makes my obsessive little heart bleed.  But where I'd spend a day tidying up, running antivirus software, and defragmenting the hard drive, she'll install a forum and open an Amazon store. 

That tells you something about who has the better priorities, I guess.


  1. You seem a genius with computers - lucky your wife has you. She seems a genius with kitchens - lucky you have her. 'Opposing but complimentary' - beautiful. (Linda)

  2. I love those conversations of yours! :)
    And I think you two supplement each other very well. And I also feel the same as you do with old computers and cars. I also have a house full of old computers (and one server, that is almost dying), but as long as they are working, I won't let them go. I have a laptop just like yours, great for surfing and viewing photos, it stays behind the sofa and has wireless ADSL connection, we even take it with us into the garden. So when we sit in the sofa and discuss something then we can just grab it and google it or look at my website, or find the photos in question. You simply cannot imagine how many trashed computers I have made into one that functioned and given it away to family and friends. My oldest car is 40 years old and my newest is 10 years old!