J.C. is a hopeful and currently unpublished Canadian author. Something happened and words appeared. More to follow.
I operated on a computer last Wednesday. It wasn’t the first time; I’ve now done about ten over the past five years. When I was all done, I felt as though I had accomplished something. I had done something important and of value with my day! In retrospect however, it’s not much of an achievement.
For those not familiar with the process, it is a strange one, mixing moments of finesse, brute force, ‘oh-shit’s and, in my case, blood. I wish I was kidding about that last one.
The process always begins with the case. Mine is a prototypical black box that is far too large to sit under or on my desk. It has all manner of cut outs, perforations and plastic cladding one would expect on most cases. It is well built and well machined. In spite of that it has more sharp edges and rough corners than you would reasonably expect. More importantly, it extracts a price every time I dare to even dream of inspecting its innards through anything but the faded plastic masquerading as a window. The case is also utterly ruthless, without pity or remorse about collecting, and it always expects to be paid up front.
Having pulled out the beast and wrestling it onto its side, I won the initial skirmish at the expense of a cut below my shinbone and one on my finger. Fuck. Hope springs eternal but at least this time they’re not deep enough that I’ll need bandages.
With payment out of the way, I delved into the heart of the machine establishing my plan of action. My purpose this time was straightforward and seemingly simple, but complex in execution. I was here to replace the central fan, install some RAM and two hard drives. That doesn’t sound so bad, right? Let me explain why everything about that last sentence is hugely disingenuous.
First, I will need to remove the original fan from its preferred parking spot atop the computer chip. Barely adequate to the task of drawing away the heat, the new one is a clear upgrade but the work is delicate. The chip is a square roughly the size of a saltine. Costing hundreds of dollars and made of silicon with a metal plate on top, the underside is literally comprised of hundreds of little pins, all of whom have a bespoke socket on the motherboard. Bending one of these pins can, and often does, require the complete replacement of our little silicon wafer. Installing these chips is absolutely nerve-wracking and it makes the most awful grinding sound as it is latched in to the motherboard. Thankfully, I was not here to undertake that task and the original fan was easily dispatched.
Next, I need to remove the motherboard. The motherboard is the spine of the whole machine. Long and flat, with protruding metal and plastic placed with seemingly little rhyme or reason, it’s an awkward piece with unequal weight distribution. It’s also fastened with 9 of the smallest screws you can imagine.
Dear reader, I am not a small man. I do not have delicate hands.
Cursing my decision to do this at all, I manage to somehow disentangle the motherboard and remove it with minimal mysterious clinking. I only dropped 3 screws, a new record! Corralling all the screws into an easy to find location (some of them reluctant to come as they snag onto the board) I can only hope I haven’t broken anything.
I move the board onto a piece of shipping cardboard pretending to be a workbench and consider my next move. The new fan, unlike the old one, has a back plate that needs installing before I can mount the fan. I cannot avoid installing the back plate now but the fan I could install once the board is back in the case. I decide against it as it would be unsecured on its own without the fan installed and I will have my hands full navigating the mess of wiring that remains in the case. In theory, this should be the easy part. Riiight, in theory….
Imagine if you will a multi-level parking garage of 50 stories. Now imagine the engineers had devised a method to split it perfectly in the middle so it becomes two equal towers. They’ve also managed to remove the outer support pillars so that all the support is provided by a pillar in the middle of the cut, one for each side. Finally, imagine the whole thing a foot tall by 4 inches wide and instead of parking spots, delicate metallic leaves made of the thinnest of metal sheeting sprouting from the central columns. It is properly known as a heatsink and draws the immense heat created by the chip up and into the leaves allowing the fans that hang off of it to cool them in the process. It is exceptionally pretty craftsmanship, beautifully built but very delicate and thus vulnerable to just about any sudden pressure or hit. Oh, and it sits on the brain of the computer, the chip. You know that hyper-sensitive-don’t-ruin-it-at-your-own-peril-you’ve-been-warned-thing I mentioned earlier? Now, I get to attach this delicate monstrosity to the top and pray I don’t ruin both in the process!
To make matters worse, there’s a thin coating of thermal paste that needs to be removed and replaced before the new heatsink can go on. This, I’ve never done. Fuck. Normally the custom heatsink is put on when the chip is first installed but for a variety of reasons, it wasn’t in the cards then. I wish it wasn’t in the cards now.
The solvent came squirting out in higher volume than I anticipated and quickly but unevenly spread across the surface of the chip. Thankfully, by some magic, it didn’t spill over the edge down into the socket. I would be a much poorer man today if it had. My first attempted wipe lifts most of the paste. I try again with better results. As I was hesitant to put much pressure or to wipe with any kind of lateral force though, smudges remained. This was a problem as I still had to put on a second solvent and the new paste. I stop here for a moment to contemplate my options and was reminded of a quip one of my good and long-lost friends was so fond of:
‘In for a Penny, in for a Pound’
So, resolving to deal with the consequences, I try a third time with a bit more vigor. The grinding of my teeth was matched only by that the chip. They still hurt. There’s no way to check for damage at this stage, so on I went.
The heatsink fit beautifully onto the back plate’s protruding pins and I lower it onto the chip, the new thermal paste not squelching as anticipated. It really is an astounding piece of engineering. Threading the special screw-driver down between the towers, I begin to tighten the screws onto their fittings. Any give at all will cause problems. It slips. The screwdriver falls. Not once, but twice as I try to secure the screws as tight as they will go. Remember, I do not have delicate hands. Thankfully, I don’t damage the leaves. Hopefully, I didn’t damage anything else.
Feeling the motherboard flex under the added weight, I swiftly but carefully load it back into the case. Back on its mounts, I begin the process of screwing it back into the case. I only dropped 2 screws this time but had a small moment of panic when I realized I had to tip the case to recover one of them.
For those keeping track, that’s five ‘oh-shit’s’ so far.
Navigating the case to connect all the cabling around the monstrosity now permanently perched above my chip was an interesting experience but thankfully without incident. The installation of the two sizeable fans that accompanied the heatsink is also without trouble. I’m learning all about due care and attention as I go. The drives were similarly installed without much in the way of excitement. Sure I miscalculated and had to rewire the whole section but that’s barely worth mentioning. Why do I keep doing this to myself?
The ram on the other hand, was not without incident. In general, it’s a simple install. One I’ve done dozens of times over the past twenty years. It’s potentially the easiest thing to do. The general process is to line up the stick with the appropriate slot and push and push and push until the plastic fittings click into place. To be clear, it’s no small effort. The whole board flexes underneath. It’s a bit surreal at first but you quickly become accustomed to it. Well, as it turned out this time, I hadn’t lined it up; I was pushing it directly into the space between the fittings.
Here I was pushing and pushing, waiting for the click to confirm it was seated and nothing was coming. Furthermore, in my haste I had put pressure on the module next to the one I was trying to put in causing it to lean far more than I was comfortable. Oh-shit. After all that work earlier, was I going to ruin it all on the home stretch? Pulling out the stick, I inspect it, the one next to it and the board. No sign of stress, thankfully. I line up again and it goes in without incident, confirming it is now seated with a satisfying click.
There’s no need to waste time reviewing my work. It’s either done and it works or it’s not and it fails. Computers won’t wait around to tell you. You’ll know right away. I plug in the bare necessities and make my way to the power button. I pause a moment. There’s always a small hesitation.
What if it catches fire or worse yet, is unresponsive?
Penny and Pound and all that, I take a breath and push the button.
I have it cycle a few times, self-diagnose and stress test it. It’s working. That it does so without errors or failures is the cherry on top.
Quickly, panels on, wrestle it back into place before it changes its mind!
You might be thinking, ‘so what? That’s it?’ As I wrote earlier, it’s not much of an accomplishment. The computer has no productivity software of any kind and is used mainly as a glorified internet, Netflix, videogames machine and an expensive one at that. I didn’t even write this piece on it! For my two hours of work, it’ll run flawlessly (I hope) for about five years and I’ll go through the whole thing again. Writing this took much longer and will prove to be equally unimportant in the long run. I’m perfectly content with that knowledge however as the purpose of the exercise, the story and this piece, was to highlight the accomplishment we can find in those little things we love doing even if they serve no greater purpose. There’s value in that on a deeply personal level.