The Sweet Spot
On software, engineering leadership, and anything shiny.

Tales from the crypt

Now I remember why I love and hate assembling computers.

You’ve got to love the rush of building something cool. The anticipation of the new BIOS screen–blue letters on black indicating some really high memory size and clock frequency. You are your very own Dr. Frankenstein and the monster is about to liiiiiive…

But more frequently than not, it plays out like this: after scanning the electronics ads (Slickdeals, Dealnews, the ever-present Fry’s ads on the back of the San Jose Mercury) for what seems like years, you finally get the courage to splurge a couple hundred bucks on assorted parts. You’ve done your research; the heatsink fan doesn’t collide with the on-board capacitors, your brand of memory doesn’t have any motherboard compatibility errors, your motherboard manufacturer is of good repute and doesn’t, for the first time, have parts from some no-name Chinese manufacturer (okay, so this is me speaking here).

You get your parts, and spend a couple of hours putting it all together. You painstakingly push clips into place, apply thermal grease as needed, silently curse the motherboard powers-that-be that pack front panel pin connectors so closely together. Your fingers grow raw from turning the screwdriver so many times. You wonder to yourself whether you’ll somehow accidentally fry some component by putting it on the table, or whether if by accidentally scraping your screwdriver across the PCB you’ve just junked your expensive toy.

I’ll spare you the gory details. But essentially, what usually happens is you get it all Assembled Together after an hour or so and then comes the Moment of Truth: you push the power button to witness your machine come gloriously to life and, in a wonderful demonstration of Murphy’s Law, one or more of the following will happen:

  1. You witness a bright flash of light, then smoke rises out from the PCB.

  2. Your computer will beep at you. Continuously. The screen will stay off, just for dramatic effect.

  3. Midway through the OS installation, your computer will freeze.

  4. Your hard drive gets corrupted from a rogue reboot.

  5. Nothing.

By the way, these have all happened to me at some point(s) in time.

After aforementioned catastrophe, you exhale deeply, clench your fists and then proceed to Pinpoint The Problem.

Remember the Scientific Method? Remember how you had to isolate one variable–the independent variable–while keeping everything else at a “control”? Well here’s the part where you scrounge up all available parts and start switching them in and out, testing each component one by one to see which part the problem resides in.

I hate the Scientific Method.

Here’s where you begin the Gradual Spiral Into Despair. It’s the sinking feeling you get after a couple of days you realize that you still don’t know what the problem is. Look at you, a loner in your room surrounded by junky computer parts all over the place. You’ve got red eyes from lack of sleep and staring at monitors. You haven’t seen a human being in two days. And when was the last time you showered?

But it’s all worth it when you emerge on the other side, bruised and broken but victorious.

Here’s to the ones who nevertheless press on. Here’s to the ones who will rather take a bullet than give up on your rig. Here’s to the ones who scoff at light and food and warmth and human companionship. Here’s to you, True Geek. You’ve got your scars, now here’s your reward: Dual Cores of Computing Sweetness. It’s rather worth it, won’t you say? Right?

Hey, you still there?