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Archive for February, 2013

In the beginning, so to speak, the computers were in large buildings, and indeed sometimes they were the building itself.  In some ways they were like the particle accelerators of today, things that had a substantial presence in the landscape not only because of their size but because they consumed the output of a modest-sized power plant to run them. They made the wires hum, literally.  And they were employed in only the most important work: code-cracking, Big Science, and collecting taxes.

Thanks to the replacement of vacuum tubes first by transistors and then by integrated circuits, relentless engineering progress has brought us computers you can hold in your hands and cost only a couple of hundred bucks.  Computing power that would have been a state secret even in the Korean War is now deployed to shoot out emails to your cousin, balance your checkbook, and share the exploits of your cat with the world.  This is good, and progress, and I’m not knocking it.  But as the tasks we employ our computers on has broadened to include the mundane, so our computers have gradually become mundane — just formless boxes that we kick around under our desks. What was once the building has become in our perception visually little more important than a wastebasket.

The original IBM PC was a corporate-decor-friendly beige box whose size and shape arose from the size of the internal components, especially the mother board and the front-facing diskette (later fixed disk) drives.  They were invariably plunked down in the middle of the desk with the monitor on top so operators could conveniently load and remove 5 1/4″ floppy diskettes, which held about 250,000 bytes.  Nowadays, only optical drives (CDs and DVDs) drive the form factor and these are falling out of favor, replaced by terabyte hard drives and network connections to vast farms of cloud storage.  We never place monitors on them, they are virtually 100% towers, standing on end.  Yet todays machines are virtually the same size and shape as the original of 30 years ago, but have been shaded off into uniformly dreary dark gray and black, with variously-decorated front panels of translucent plastic showing the occasional status light blinking away.  They are utterly forgettable and ignorable.

But this is wrong — modern PCs are miracles of engineering and construction, and they perform miracles for us day-in and day-out, and it’s unfair for them to be just pushed into the background.  At least, they don’t have to be.

We expect computer cases to do only a few things.  They protect the innards from the occasional careless kick, bump, or coffee-spill.  They keep the data and power cables from being snagged as people pass by.  To some extent they protect the circuits from static electricity, especially in the winter.  And they provide a convenient space for all the component advertising stickers and inventory labels that everyone feels the need to festoon them with.

Cases do not protect against dust, although this is commonly believed to be so; in fact, they are vacuum-cleaners and dust-catchers par excellance.  Cases often create cooling problems because they restrict airflow, thus necessitating multiple fans that then suck in all manner of dust and pet-hair that ultimately interfere with cooling even further, and circuit failure from thermal overload  resulting from blocked cooling is quite common.  Note that Apple, which is noted for design excellence, bypasses this completely by clamping heat-generating circuits directly to an internal framework of aluminum alloy which then becomes a heat-sink, eliminating the need for any fans at all.  But such design excellence — the melding of form and function — is an exception.

It doesn’t have to be!  The greatest example of this is the physical packaging of the Cray supercomputers of the 1970s.  They were six-foot-tall cylinders of smoked glass containing the actual processing circuits, fanned out around a central bus, with convenient bench seats arrayed around the base, within which were the I/O circuits and power supplies.  Spare, elegant, and they could be put in the lobby for visitors to admire, yet their form was dictated by the need to keep their interconnect cables as short as possible.  Seymore Cray was an engineer, and he employed engineers, yet the machines were beautiful as well as powerful.

So if we want to move away from the gray-box-on-the-floor packaging, what would we do?  If it should look some other way that better reflects its surroundings or it’s purpose, yet be totally practical, what would that be?

First, I ignore those bizarre situations where the innards of a PC have been jammed into anything with an available cavity, from mailboxes to toilets to statues of clowns.  They’re just hiding the PC somewhere and while they may be funny or cool social commentary about their job or life (the toilet, for example), they really don’t rank as considered design.  Similarly I am ignoring what is amazingly common, simply covering the existing case with a wood panels and then trumpeting this as some kind of artistic statement.  They might as well just cover it with wallpaper, and in many cases that would have been a better plan.

We then seem to have two remaining approaches: first to rearrange and wrap the circuits in a completely different form, perhaps almost sculptural, that downplays but doesn’t deny the inner computer, yet makes it something pleasing to look at so you don’t feel obliged to put it on the floor, or second to celebrate the computer by showing off the circuits in some pleasing way that reminds us that this is a technological product but one with it’s own distinct aesthetic that we embrace as reflective of our technology-mediated culture.  I have examples of both approaches on my Pinterest board here: http://pinterest.com/jimirick/pc-cases/

Whatever the aesthetics, the end-product must work as a computer: it must provide access to peripheral ports, it must be maintainable, and it must have adequate cooling for all it’s anticipated power regimes.

My own efforts in this have been focused on the second alternative, to find a way to overtly celebrate the technology yet completely break out of the enclosed-box paradigm.  My current project involves turning the case as it were inside out, leaving just a central spine, onto which I have attached all the various components right out there in the open.  The mother board is on one side, and everything else is arrayed on the other.  The spine and base are made out of mahogany, cherry, hard maple, and walnut, thus contrasting the sleek industrial look of the components with the ancient and handcrafted feel of the wood cabinetry.  Where there must be fittings or screws, I have used brass ones to contrast nicely with the dark wood.  The doorbell button above the optical drive is the on-button.

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There are only two fans: one in the power supply unit, and the other over the heat-sink of the CPU chip.  Because they are not enshrouded in a monstrous box, they both run at essentially idle and the machine is eerily quiet.  It will, of course, accumulate dust, but the cased machines accumulate dust, too, you just can’t see it until it does some damage to the works.  And because the case fans would be moving air at higher speeds, the level of dust inside is larger and denser.  But you don’t have to look at it, although your repairman might.

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Peripheral side.

As to the pure esthetics of it, some people don’t like to look at circuits, they prefer boxes or perhaps the Apple “inscrutable slab” look, and feel that my machine is like “looking at the mayor without his pants on,” and to them I can only say, well, look somewhere else then.  I’m proud of how it looks, I like the circuits and heatsinks and cables, and I’m not tempted to put it on the floor, ignore it, and occasionally kick it.  So there.

For any resident technoids, this machine is built around a Gigabyte GA-Z77X-UD3H motherboard matched with an Intel i5-3570K unlocked-clock quad-core CPU, and has 8 GB of DDR3 memory and a 1 TB Seagate Barracuda disk.  It dual-boots Windows 7 and Ubuntu Linux desktop.  I have named it Machine Des Moines, after Des Moines, our family ghost, because as I pointed out to him it has a case, but you can see right through it.  He was honored.

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Tuning the BIOS on the prototype.

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I just got through building myself a new desktop PC.  It’s a combination of the techno and the craftsman — a hot new unlocked 3rd-generation quad-core Intel i5 on a Gigabyte motherboard using the cool Intel Z77 chipset, but without any case.  That’s right, all the boards, cables, fans, and drives are mounted on a vertical wooden spine with nothing around them, hanging out there for everybody to see, bare and uncovered.  Kind of like doing the Bay to Breakers ride in San Francisco: hey, here’s all my stuff, like it or look somewhere else.

But this isn’t about building hardware, it’s about remembering the smug satisfaction I had when I hit the “on” button (an old round brass doorbell button) for the first time and all the engines lit.  I paged through the many Gigabyte BIOS configuration screens and saw all the stuff I could twiddle and reset, it was great.  Digging, getting inside things, looking behind the “user interface” and into the minds of the designers, this makes it all worth while.  Hacking it, making it truly mine.  Works for me, big time.

And in that context, it’s disturbing to see how the term “hacker,” which to me is a good and honorable word , is so often used to describe techno-criminals of the worst sort.  Some crook exploits a known exposure in software that a few idiot users have not patched, and steals passwords or vacuums their bank account, and they cry that they were “hacked.” They really weren’t hacked, they were robbed with a computer after they failed to take the most basic precautions to prevent it.  There is a profound difference between hacking and theft.

I suppose it’s useless to try to stop this wretched misuse of the word, once the general press locks onto a name for something they don’t understand it’s all over but the self-righteous pontification.  But I try; if somebody calls me a hacker I am silently pleased, and I hate to see a perfectly good word turned into a criminal classification.

I recently did find a really good description of what a hacker is, in my terms, and I pass this on for your edification, here.  If you want to hack, here’s the real deal from one of the experts.  What struck me, though, was that one of his suggestions was to become a better and more fluent writer in your own native language, because:

If your writing is semi-literate, ungrammatical, and riddled with misspellings, many hackers (including myself) will tend to ignore you. While sloppy writing does not invariably mean sloppy thinking, we’ve generally found the correlation to be strong — and we have no use for sloppy thinkers. If you can’t yet write competently, learn to.

He also points out that “attitude is no substitute for competence,” which is true to the core, and more surprisingly “develop an analytical ear for music,” and “develop your appreciation of puns and wordplay.”  Guess I’d agree with these, too, from my personal experience.  QED, the essence of being a hacker is no longer to be a reclusive, socially-disabled monomaniac.  Perhaps this reflects the almost overwhelming penetration of technology into our society.  The population of potential hackers is now much larger and includes all kinds of otherwise-normal people.  I’m for it.  Hacking is too much fun and way too important to our national future to be a closed community.

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