Monday, February 23, 2004

Men and their urge to fiddle with cars and/or computers, and more discussion of my own computer needs

When I was a kid, there was a certain sort of young man who you would see with his car on his driveway, and he would have the bonnet up (or he would be underneath the car) and he would be constantly fiddling with the endine, or he would have much of the engine disassembled next to the car. In those days cars were relatively simple devices, and it was possible to figure out how they worked, do their own maintenance, and tweak their performance largely by doing so. And of course there was lots of empty space under the bonnet. It was possible to actually reach in and get at the components of your engine.

Improvements in engineering and the computer revolution have largely killed this. Cars are now full of complicated electronics and sealed box components. Many simple devices (eg a carburetor), have been replaced by more complicated equivalents (fuel injection). There is little empty space, and everything is pushed so close together that it is hard to take apart and put together again. While men still love their cars, car maintenance has become a far more specialised task.

However, something else has come into being, which is the standardisation and compatibility of computer parts. Many men now are frequently to be found with the side of their computer's case open, fiddling with the insides, changing boards and cards, and in extreme cases doing things live overclocking the CPU to tweak it and make it run better. Once again, the insides of desktop computers have lots of open spaces, and lots of places where it is possible to fiddle.

This attitude seems very similar to the old fiddling with the engine of your car business. There is something very male about it. I am not sure if it is the same people who would once have done one who now do the other, however. I would have never bothered with car engines and the like - they are just too dirty and require too much physical effort - but the urge to fiddle around inside computers is for me a strong one.

But perhaps this is going away, too. The percentage of computers sold that are laptops is increasing. Whereas they were once largely just a business tool, they are becoming a major consumer product as well. The growth in readily available wireless networking is making them more attractive as a product too, even if you don't take them out of your house. (Being able to take your computer out the back garden with you is more valuable than you realise until you try it). And laptops are like modern cars. The parts are squashed very close together and there is no space. There are fewer parts that are interchangeable between different brands. You can't get inside and fiddle.

As regular readers know, my only computer is a laptop, and I like this and find it tremendously useful. Fiddling inside computers is largely something I do to the computers of my friends. There is a certain risk in this (for 20 minutes or so last week, this computer would not boot and it was my fault because I had bumped an IDE cable while removing a PCI card. Fortunately, it was easily fixed) but one does also earn kudos after fixing something that does not work. When I have a larger place to live and more money, I think I will build myself a desktop machine from scratch so that I have something to play with / run my entertainment system, and I can use the laptop after that mainly for portability purposes. But the desktop machine will be largely an indulgence. The present laptop on steroids does satisfy all my computing needs for now.

The thing that is a minor irritant is the amount of plugging in that is necessary when I place my laptop on my desk. Power, USB devices (via a single cable that goes into a hub), speakers, Firewire devices (if I had any) all have to be plugged in. Connecting printers, speakers and the like via WiFi is still a nuisance and quite expensive, although it can be done. Wireless USB is thought of but not quite there. Bluetooth has been promised a lot, but Bluetooth devices are not ubiquitous. What I want is wireless of some sort to more or less come as standard with all hardware, so I never have to plug anything in except to the power. We are not there yet, but we are tantalisingly close.

Update: I have just been playing around on my old laptop not on steroids, which was my only computer until December. It has an 550 MHz Intel Celeron, an 800x600 screen, 64Mbytes of RAM, a 5GByte hard disk, CD-ROM only, no ethernet or wireless (although I did run a USB ADSL modem off it, so a fast internet connection was something I did have, although only 64Mbytes of RAM meant that the computer was constantly swapping stuff in and out of RAM and the connection thus was not optimised, shall we say). How did I ever live with this? The new machine has a 1.4GHz Pentium M, a 1920x1200 screen, 512MBytes of RAM, a 60GByte hard disk, a DVD-ROM/CR-RW combo drive, 10/100 ethernet, and 802.11b/g wireless, amongst other things. I continue to be deeply happy with the new machine.

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