With our balls clean

035 February 14, 2015 -- (asphalt tech)

The following is a loose translation of a short story published about four years ago on the old blog. The title is a pun on a famous Romanian communist movie called "Cu mâinile curate", which doesn't seem to have an English translation, so I'll ask you to take it with a pinch of salt. The translation of the text itself is also not without its flaws, but I believe it has some historical value, which is how this writing has found its place here.

I'm not sure how many people have pondered this, but life was not at all impossible before Google, the Internets and all that other balderdash most of us enjoy nowadays during morning coffee and as a replacement for evening reading... not to mention all the stuff happening in between the two, some of them outright outrageous.

Given that I quite vaguely remember those olden times1, but also because I haven't had the chance to put on paper the story of how I've ended up here and now, I feel compelled to extend the post on Trilema as much as I can. Allow me to unwind the tape to the times before personal computers were a thing, when the guys at UPB were designing, and the guys at ICE Felix were producing so-called "home computers"2.

It was about 1992 when I had one of those at home, specifically a HC90. Well, said computers aren't much different from a simple keyboard, which actually had embedded the whole hardware except the display and storage. Their trademark was their shell, no more and no less than a BASIC interpreter, while saving and loading data was done using magnetic tape, so that loading a game took quite some time, as I couldn't do much else given my age and the thing's performance -- especially the former. I was just beginning to learn reading then, so one of my first readings comprised two green BASIC volumes3, which taught simple problems such as drawing primitive shapes on the screen and performing various computations. So that's how I spent my first computing years, mostly in front of a black and white tube-based Snagov TV.

PCs appeared in my life relatively early, some time around the year 1995. My folks' workplaces already had 80486s with turbo buttons which set the frequency from 33 to 66MHz. That was also the first time I saw how 5-and-a-quarter inch floppy disks looked, and a bit later I got to play Prehistorik and Lotus III -- quite a while after playing the first Lotus Esprit on the HC -- in front of a monitor with a radiation filter, on the computers we had at school.

Then in 1997 my folks bought me my first grinder4, and only I know how much I stood cleaning those mouse balls that were of dubious origin to say the least, and of course, the dust from the CPU cooler. I clearly remember how 16MB of RAM weren't enough for Carmageddon, so I bugged my dad to buy another 16. Then desktop PCs evolved pretty fast in the following years, so I got a Pentium with MMX5 and then a Pentium II, III and IV in six years or so. My last Pentium desktop was a Pentium D that I only changed this year with a Haswell, although I've been through a few laptops, most notably the Sandy Bridge i5 ThinkPad X2206. Finally, as far as servers go, I've always kept the Bricks as well as The Tar Pit on a home server, currently an older 45nm Xeon on an HP board that does its job well enough for my needs7.

I don't have that much to tell about peripherals. I went through a shitload of Winmodems, one worse than the other, while I cursed most of the old graphics boards from Intel for not allowing me to admire Lara Croft in the wholeness of her nudity, at least until I got my first Riva TNT2, which sadly burned during an intense Quake 3 match; nowadays it often smells of burning while I play The Witcher 2 on a GTX 760, but the card holds its horses pretty well. Other than that, I've had the privilege of wearing out a HP LaserJet 4 and then a 5 that actually talked PostScript, which you usually see in an office running as a standalone server. I don't see anything of the sorts nowadays, but maybe I'm just nostalgic.

Of course, I could spend days chattering about this whole tech yadda: my first overclocking was a step away from frying a CPU; back in the days when CRTs were still the best monitors I had a 17-inch EIZO that was perfect for any type of graphics processing, from photo editing to modelling, and so on and so forth. I managed to get my hands on some of the lowest-end hardware and a only a few pieces that were simply awesome at their time. And that's how I got past Y2K with my balls clean, same as I'll go past Y20388 and whatever's gonna come next.

  1. That is, about twenty years ago, give or take a few.

  2. In all fairness, the computers in question were Amstrad ZX Spectrum ripoffs in almost every respect, from the CPU to the actual motherboard design. Heck, they say that even the operating system was illegally copied, 'cause no one gave, or gives, a damn about copyright in communist countries.

  3. L. Dumitrașcu, Învățăm microelectronica interactivă, translated as Learning interactive microelectronics, or better yet, Learning microelectronics interactively. Some bookstores still claim to sell it, although I doubt they're in stock anymore; I'll probably donate my copies to a museum at some point.

  4. It certainly sounded like one, to be honest...

  5. What they call SSE nowadays.

  6. In terms of quality, that's nowhere near the ThinkPads IBM used to make. Also, X220 was probably the last sane build of its series, given that now they tend to make it more and more like an "ultrabook". No thanks, if I wanted a MacBook I'd get one of those, not a more expensive knock-off.

  7. Amusingly enough, at the time when I wrote the initial article I was boasting the IBM Pentium III server that meanwhile went dead and buried after about ten years of variable workloads. Also meanwhile, Intel started making processors that you can safely run without cooking scrambled eggs on them; oh well, that's history for you.

  8. I doubt there'll be many 32-bit systems running ten years from now, let alone in 2038.