Yet another computer to play with

So… after 6 years of having laptops as my main computers, I suddenly decided to build myself a nice new desktop system. I’m not sure why now… but the more I thought about the projects I want to do, the more I realised they would be much easier to do on a Linux box with plenty of RAM and disk space and a reasonable amount of processing power (especially Project X-ray, Project Buster and Project Bits). I still had my old desktop machine, but it had been left unused for so long that I realised I was going to have to replace pretty much every bit of it now (new processor and RAM wouldn’t fit on the motherboard, so the motherboard was going to have to be upgraded as well, then the old IDE hard disk and DVD drive wouldn’t connect to the new motherboard so they’d have to go, the graphics card was ancient enough to be AGP rather than PCI Express, and even the power supply unit was lacking some connectors a modern machine would need). But despite all of this, I still found it would be cheaper to keep the old case and replace the guts of it than to start again.

I started with a pretty minimalist system: just a new motherboard with onboard graphics and sound, 8GB RAM, a quad core AMD CPU and a 2TB SATA hard drive. The new power supply unit was one I bought for my Dad’s old PC which then turned out not to actually be the source of his problems after all, and everything else (DVD drive, card reader, etc.) can be hooked up via USB – I might add more stuff inside the box later on.

The old case – I got this in early 1998 and it’s served me pretty well!

The new motherboard arrives, with RAM and CPU already installed. Unfortunately they’d installed the RAM in the wrong slots so only half of it was visible til I swapped it around, but that was still outweighed by not having to faff around installing the CPU and cooler myself.

I found it amazing that brand new components can fit into an almost 15 year old case and all the screw holes and connectors still line up perfectly. Almost nothing in the PC world lasts that long!

Success! Originally I’d been planning to dual boot Xubuntu Linux and Windows 7 on it, but the more I thought about it the more I realised I probably didn’t need Windows at all, so Xubuntu it was.

Although I’ve probably spent much more time using Windows overall, coming back to Linux still feels like my spiritual home, in a very geeky sort of way… like returning to your native country after years away; no matter how fluent you get in your new language, it’s never quite the same. It just feels like I understand it and am in control and find all the stuff I want to do easy, in a way that Windows never really feels, especially for coding. I love that I can install package after package in a few minutes using apt-get, and that I was able to copy and resize all the photos for this blog post in a single shell command (sure, you can install the UNIX shell on Windows too, but it doesn’t work as well, it’s not integrated deeply into the system the way it is on Linux). Not to mention no activation worries, no virus worries, and hardware that hasn’t worked for years in Windows (like my scanner) suddenly becomes usable again.

So far I am loving it. There have been very few problems apart from having to swap the RAM around, and the card reader I took out of my Dad’s old PC not working (I suspect that, like much of the hardware that’s spent a long time in his room, it’s probably died of smoking). Even though this kit would probably have hardcore gamers sniggering with derision, it still feels amazingly fast after years of using primarily Windows laptops. It has USB 3 ports so copying my files from my external drive was very fast as well. The sound quality from the built in 7.1 sound chip is much better than I expected, so I might not need to replace it after all. I’ve discovered some very nice new software (including a video editor, one of the things I was worried I might need Windows for). Although I decided not to dual boot with Windows, I did try installing Windows XP in a VirtualBox VM. This worked amazingly easily and allows me to run some old music software that hasn’t worked properly since I upgraded to Windows 7.

The only problem is, I’ve rediscovered Day Of The Tentacle after finding the CD while I was looking for something else, so my hopes of being productive on my projects may be out the window for a while.

Oh, and since you ask, yes it does have a name :). It’s called Luna. Not after any particular Luna, but I thought it sounded cool and I do quite like Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter as well as the Pet Shop Boys song Luna Park. So Luna it is.

(This wasn’t actually the first blog post I’ve written on Luna. That honour belongs to the Berlin post).

Ich war ein Berliner

So, Berlin. The last and most unexpected of my June trips. I was kind of conflicted when work announced that they were sending me there. On the one hand it was yet another thing to do in an already very hectic month, and it would mean more time apart from Laura, and only one day back in the UK after Sweden before having to rush off again. But on the other hand I love Germany, so I decided to embrace it and take advantage of the fact that work were paying for my travel. I did something I haven’t done before and booked myself into a hostel for an extra two days after the meeting, intending to do some proper sightseeing.

Maybe age 32 isn’t the best time to suddenly discover you really like going round European cities and staying in hostels… but it could be worse, and by this point I’m so used to doing everything at the “wrong” age that I might as well just go with it. People are so chilled out and friendly! They actually talk to you and it feels like you’re part of a community of sorts just by hanging out at the hostel, unlike hotels that seem so impersonal and soulless and tend to be full of stressed out, sour-faced business travellers who just want to be left alone (I fully admit to being one of them myself on previous work trips). I think I will be doing this more often! That four weeks of annual leave that I don’t know what to do with is beckoning…

On Saturday morning I visited the former East Berlin to see Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and one of the largest surviving sections of the Berlin Wall. The guidebook only gave it a passing mention (which surprised me), but I felt drawn to it for some reason and felt I wanted to go there. As it turned out, I found it unexpectedly moving. I’ve been to places that have great historical significance before, but probably never to anywhere that’s changed quite so profoundly during my own lifetime (I can remember the news reports of the wall falling and German re-unification, though wasn’t old enough to fully appreciate what it meant at the time). The streets could be a part of any European city now… clean, safe, full of smart shops and camera-toting tourists. It’s mind-boggling to think that when my parents were here Berlin was split by miles (sorry, kilometres) of concrete and barbed wire, and that they could have been shot on sight for even trying to take the same route that I so casually strolled around on my visit. Afterwards I bought genuine (I hope?) pieces of the old Wall in a souvinir shop for two of my more politically minded friends and family. I was surprised how hard it was to see the former course of the wall in most places – there has obviously been a lot of redevelopment since.

One of the few surviving sections of the Berlin Wall

Apart from my little walk around the East, it was too hot to do very much else except visit a very nice bathing lake (Strandbad Wannsee I think it was called) and sit at pavement cafes drinking cold German beer. So that was what I did.

(Sometimes when I see warning or instruction signs, I can’t help but imagine what potentially amusing event might have led to that sign being put up. A shop I passed with metal hooks on the wall outside had a big sign saying “nur für Hunde!” [only for dogs] and it made me wonder what other creatures/things/family members people must have been tying up there in the past that made them feel the need to put the sign up. Similarly the “Swimming costumes must be warn at all times!” sign at a pool I used to go to… there must be a story behind that).