Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Build your own Computers!

Building your own computer is fun! I've been doing it off and on for 30+ years. As a student in the 90's it was a good way to stretch my budget. Today I like selecting the exact parts that go into it, and I enjoy putting it together.

What's more, building a computer is easy. I really mean it; a new computer is a total of about nine parts, case included, and the only tool you need is a Philips screwdriver.  Mostly things just snap or slot into place, with no way of doing it wrong.

And we have the internet to help us out. It's full of Youtube videos, forums and blogs that can help you answer every question, from what parts you should get to the finer points of installing your operating system.

Here's an overview of what goes into a desktop computer:


All the major parts that go into a computer. Laptops, tablets and smartphones all have basically the same organization, but most components are integrated instead of being separate in order to save space and reduce cost.

The CPU is "the computer". Everything else is just there to help it do its job. It needs memory for running programs and processing data. It needs storage — today usually an SSD (like a USB stick but much faster) — where you install and save stuff so it doesn't disappear when you shut it off.

The CPU gets really hot, so it needs a cooler to keep the temperature down. This is usually a fan with a heatsink that bolts on top. And often (but not always) you need a separate graphics card that generates the graphical output  you see on screen.


Here's my motherboard, an AsRock Taichi X570. If you think it looks, well, colorful, that's a current trend. A lot of home PC builders like to bling out their computers, so parts are full of LEDs and cool-looking designs. You have to pay extra to get a motherboard without it. Me, I don't mind either way.

At the top you can see the four slots for memory. Below that is the large square CPU socket. To the lower right you have three PCI connectors, were things such as a GPU is connected. The panel of connectors to the left will be exposed outside the case and give you networking, sound output, USB connections and so on.

You mount all of this onto a "motherboard". A modern motherboard comes with a lot of things already built in: sound, network hardware, sometimes also Wifi and Bluetooth and more. When I was young(er) you often had to get all that as separate add-in cards. Things have gotten easier.

This all goes into a case, together with a power supply. With the motherboard in place you can connect all power cables, fans and the outside case ports (this can be fiddly and take a lot of time if you want to make it neat and clean). Finally you install an operating system (I'm partial to this one) and you're done.

 
My storage is an SSD (solid-state drive - think really fast, big USB drive) that connects to the motherboard with an M.2 connector. The M.2 connectors sit underneath a panel on this motherboard. The drive is the small narrow board sitting at an angle in the middle of the picture. When you close the cover it's pushed down and held in place by a cover screw.

Later, you probably want to go into the settings on the motherboard and change a few settings that will make your machine a good deal faster — again, there's lots of information and friendly communities on the net that are happy to help you.

All parts come with detailed instructions, and include all the things you need. The Noctua CPU fan I got, for instance, comes with a tube of thermal paste (you add a drop on the CPU to make a better heat connection with the cooler) and a long, thin screwdriver to reach the holding screws when you install it.


The CPU is in place. This is really easy: you lift up a latch (the metal stick next to the socket), drop in the CPU — it goes in with no force at all — and close the latch again. Just make sure the CPU is the right way up; there's a triangle mark next to the socket, and a triangle mark on the CPU. Match them up and you're fine.

Easy but nerve-wracking. The CPU has about a million (OK, about 150) tiny, soft metal pins on the back, and if you bend one of them you might permanently break the CPU. And if you break it, you broke what may be the most expensive component of your computer. Be very careful.
 

So, why, exactly, would you want to do this? You can go buy a computer, bring it home and start it up in minutes. Why bother?

Is it cheaper? Yes, to a point. If you're building a really cheap system you probably don't save much. For a high-end computer you can potentially save a fair bit. But that's not the main reason to do it.

You get the freedom to choose the exact parts that *you* want, and set it up the way you like. You can find a prebuilt computer with about the same specs as my new one. It may be about the same price or perhaps a bit more expensive. 

But it will have slower memory. It will have a cheaper, noisier cooler that might not be able to cool the CPU enough to let it run at full speed. It will have a cheaper-looking case with noisy fans and worse airflow. It will have a slower, smaller SSD for storage. When I build my own I get a faster, higher-quality computer for less money.


The memory is in place on the lower right; look up in the motherboard manual what sockets to use, then simply push the sticks in until they click. The gigantic thing in the middle is the Noctua air cooler, two radiators with a fan in the middle to push air through it. There's just barely space enough to fit it on the board and into the case. But it is very efficient and very quiet.


 

But the main reason, for me, to build computers is that it's fun. It's fun to read up on the current state of the art; it's fun to pick and choose parts; it's fun to plan the build. And it's really fun when it starts up the very first time without breaking anything. It's fun.

This is really no different than spending time and money to customize your car, or plan your autumn wardrobe, or hunt for rare commemorative coins. It's a hobby, and doesn't need any justification beyond the enjoyment we get from doing it.


Here's my finished computer mounted in its case. A 16 core 5950x CPU, 32GB memory and 1TB SSD storage, running Ubuntu, in a low-key case. The GPU that sits below the cooler is my older RX570; I'll probably upgrade in another year. This is very understated by the way; many builds are much fancier than this.

Do I, strictly speaking, need this? No, no more than anybody needs a fancy car, or sports bicycle or a Gucci bag. I do want it, though, and I enjoy both building it and using it.

If you want to get started, you don't even need to build a full desktop. If you just want to dip your toes in the water, you can get a "barebones"-style device: a tiny PC with a motherboard, CPU and cooler already installed. You just add memory and an SSD and off you go. 

They are really capable machines that easily handle web browsing, office work and light gaming. You could use one as network storage for your other computers. I use an ancient one as a web server and backup storage. And they're so small you can literally mount them on the back of your monitor (they usually come with a mounting bracket). This is an AMD CPU-based one from ASRock I'd love to have for myself. 

If you want to know more, I would start with r/buildapc. It's a Reddit community dedicated to building PCs with literally millions of members. They are friendly and helpful, and there's a great Wiki with lots of information. They are focused on gaming PCs, however. If you're looking to do something else you need to take that into account; they will tend to recommend very fast (and very expensive) graphics cards you don't need for instance. You can also search Youtube for "build a PC" and get lots of good videos. Here's a shorter video, and here a longer one, but there's just lots and lots of them out there.


Sunday, May 9, 2021

Win some, lose some

Japan has finally joined the developed world in offering a decent amount of mobile data at a not-ridiculous price. We just switched this month to an IIJMio plan with 20G data per month for about 2600 yen. Even better, as before the unused data will carry over one month, so in a while we could potentially use up to 40G in a month if we had to. 

This changes everything, as they say. 20G is enough that I don't need to know or care exactly how much I use every day. No pressure to find and use some dodgy public Wifi whenever we go somewhere, and I can tether my laptop to my hearts' content. I might even get a Spotify subscription now that I could actually use it away from home.


About as close as we got to other people. It's a nice place for a quiet holiday.

We spent the last few days of Golden Week at a small hotel in Onna. It's pretty secluded, and there's not a lot of people around. The natural beach is too shallow and rocky to draw many people (but is great for watching marine life), and we had a room with a kitchen so we didn't even visit the restaurant. We spent the last three days literally cooking, reading and taking long walks on the beach. The cliche is real.


No underwater camera this time. I did manage to capture this cuttlefish (or squid? Not sure) in the shoreline with my usual camera. This area is pretty great for casual marine life observation.

Alas, no silver lining is ever without a cloud. My phone decided to die on me while we were away. I've ordered a new phone (a Nexus 5) and it should show up later this week. Meanwhile I'm without a phone. I'm sure it's good for my moral fiber or something but it is also bloody frustrating. At first I got the urge to check it maybe every fifteen minutes or so; I've mostly lost that reflex now.

Worse, I realize now how dependent I am on that phone. I couldn't log in to my Google account (or to my work account) since I need my phone for 2-factor authentication. I can't use PayPay to pay for stuff, and I can't use Line to stay in contact with people. I can't record my running sessions, or check the weather, listen to podcasts, find a recipe, look up a Japanese word, read the newspaper...


The last (backed up) picture from my phone. At least the breakfast was delicious.

On the bright side, I did have plenty of time to read. Specifically, I read "Project Hail Mary" by Andy Weir (of "The Martian" fame). It's difficult to say much without giving away the plot, but if you like your science fiction properly sciency — if you enjoy, say, Dragons Egg, or The Martian, or anything by Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov — then you'll probably love this one. Expect lots of danger and close escapes, vaguely plausible future science, and some instantly likeable characters. It's a fast, engaging read; perfect for a few summer days at the beach or by the pool. Do read it.


Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Zero To Coffee

I have a coffee plant. I've had it for about 7 years and it is now chest-high. Two years ago it bloomed, and shortly after it produced a few green cherries. 

 


My coffee plant is a little worse for wear. A typhoon will do that to you.


But a typhoon almost killed the plant — we were travelling and the plants were all outside — and it nearly killed the plant. This is why it looks so bare and lopsided; it lost most branches in the typhoon.

 


You get these delicate, beautiful white flowers along the branches for just a few days. Each flower is blooming for perhaps only a day or so. My plant doesn't really have the strength to put out a lot of flowers, but the ones I do get are beautiful.


Amazingly, it recovered and last spring it once again put out a few beautiful white flowers for just a week or so. A couple of weeks after the end of the bloom it produced about a dozen cherries. They have been maturing over winter and I harvested them a few weeks ago. In all I got 11 cherries. This is fine; I'm just happy the plant is alive and able to produce any at all.

  


Each flower site will bud a few cherries like this. They take about 8-10 months to turn red and ripen fully.


The coffee "bean" that we use is the seed of the coffee cherry. There's a couple of ways to process coffee, but the most common is the "wet process", or "washed coffee". There is also a "dry" or "natural" process; and a "semi-washed" process but wet process is most common.  

 


My bountiful harvest! 11 cherries.


You dump the cherries in water and remove any floating ones (I don't; I'm not willing to lose 2 out of 11 beans); remove the skin and most of the pulp; ferment for 24-36 hours to make the remaining slimy mucilage easy to remove; wash; then dry for at least a week. I've checked out several web pages and videos, but the best one is this: How To Wet Process Coffee

Wash and depulp

 


You remove the skin and pulp. Inside you find two stones like this. You can see that they're still coated with a slimy, tough mucus-like substance. The fermentation lets enzymes from the skin dissolve the coating. You can use the pulp to make tea if you like.


We wash the cherries and remove the pulp. Normally you do this with a machine, but as I doubt Ritsuko would agree to getting a coffee depulper for a total of 11 beans, I do it by hand. You effectively lightly crush the cherry so the skin and flesh splits open and you remove the seed inside. Each fruit usually has two seeds each; if you only have one that makes it a "peaberry". Peaberry coffee is beans that were a single seed. I got a total of 24 beans (I think two of them had three beans).

Ferment

The pulp is gone but the seeds are still covered in slimy mucilage. Wash them, then leave in water for a day or a day and a half. Enzymes from the skin will break down the slimy mucilage so we can easily wash it away.

Wash the beans a few times, rubbing them together to remove all the gunk left on the surface. I should have left them to ferment another half a day I think; there was still a bit of mucilage stuck to them at the end. I guess that makes this a "semi-washed" coffee.

Dry the beans

 


Dry beans. They're coated in "parchment", a dry shell similar to the shell of a peanut or pistachio.


The beans need to dry for at least a week in an airy place. Real coffee producers dry them on a fine net or cloth suspended above ground in the sun. I just put them on a clean tea towel and make sure I rotate them every day.

Dehulling and Roasting

 


I manually cracked open the parchment with my fingernails and removed the bean. With a bigger harvest I'd need a better way to do it. One way is apparently to stuff them into a hose or inner tube, then roll and crush them from outside.


The beans are dry. They still have two layers outside the bean itself: the silver skin and the parchment. The parchment is like a woody shell outside the beans itself, and we need to remove it before we roast. There's various ways, from specialized machinery, to using a bicycle inner tire. For 24 beans, though, the easiest way is to just pry open each bean with a thumbnail then remove the bean itself.

 


Green beans. If we let then sit they'll slowly turn light grey, which is how you usually see them if you buy unroasted beans.


The final amount is 2.6g of green coffee. That's not a lot. These beans are small and have fairly low density as they've grown near sea level. That means they'll roast really quickly. I knew that, and I still managed to over-roast them a little; it went so fast towards the end. We got 2.0g roasted coffee beans in the end. I let it sit for 3 days to degas a little.



Roasted beans. A bit dark for my taste; they're small and light so they went from a light roast to this in maybe 20 seconds or so.


Enjoy our Coffee

 

We've ground the coffee. It's a small glass and it's close up, so it looks much coarser than it really is. Still, a better grinder would have been nice to have.
 

 

Time to enjoy the fruits of a year of (very little) work! But how do you even brew 2g of coffee? Carefully, is the answer. I ground it medium:ish with my crappy manual grinder into a clear glass, then poured 34g of water just off the boil on top for about 1:17 coffee to water. That's a bit more water than I usually use, but will help discern the flavours in the cup. After a couple of minutes I poured it though a fine sieve into an espresso cup (then split in two so Ritsuko could also taste).

 


A well-deserved cup of coffee.


How did it taste? Surprisingly good! It's not bitter, there's a fair amount of body, and quite a bit of sweetness. More of an earthy coffee rather than a floral one. I'd be happy to enjoy a full cup of this coffee if I could. I don't know the species, but the balanced flavour and lack of aftertaste makes me think this is Arabica, not Robusta.

Finally, just as I was preparing the coffee, my plant has put out a new round of flowers. It seems I'll get to enjoy another cup again next year!

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Not Going to Osaka

I'm not going to Osaka. I mean, I'm not going to lots of places — Kuala Lumpur, BorĂ¥s and Adis Abeba to name a few. 

No, this is more specifically not going to Osaka for Golden Week, like we did last year. We had planned a two-week holiday at home in Osaka. We'd take care of some errands, go walking around town, cook and generally just relax. COVID, and Japans lethargic approach to it, effectively put a stop to that today.

 


A Shisa lion at Naha airport

Japan has overall managed to keep cases fairly low. This has really mostly been through the willingness of the Japanese public to go along with voluntary restrictions, and a general sense of caution even when the government does something headlessly dumb such as campaigns to promote domestic travel and eating out last autumn. Those campaigns caused the previous surge in cases.

We now have another surge, and this time it's different. Cases in Osaka has risen to over 1000 per day, and Okinawa is not much better off. Tokyo is reporting fewer cases, but they are also testing a lot less. The rise this time has been far more sudden and more dramatic than previous surges, and restrictions doesn't seem to even slow the rise.

One reason is a sense of virus fatigue. Very understandable; I feel it too. But another reason is that apparently 90% of new cases now is by the British strain; a strain that is more contagious, and more dangerous if you catch it. Several areas are now at the limit of what hospitals can take care of and there's no drop in sight so far.

Will vaccines help us? No. Japan doesn't have the vaccines we need. They've so far vaccinated a fraction of the medical workers (around 0.8% of the population), and they're talking about possibly vaccinating the most vulnerable elderly by end of June. That seems unlikely. Why doesn't Japan have vaccines? Good question.

One answer is that Japan didn't seem to have entered any international cooperation agreements and was very slow ordering vaccines from foreign makers. And that, in turn, seems to have been due to some nationalistic desire to have a domestic vaccine. Which is not forthcoming, as domestic makers have been hobbled by a lack of funding the past decade or so, and never stood a chance to create a vaccine in time.


Life goes on. Tourists still visit. And as Ritsuko says, we're lucky to live in a place pleasant enough that people are willing to risk travelling in a pandemic just to come here.

So, it looks like we will spend Golden Week during another emergency declaration, with a more aggressive virus and no relief in sight. And that, frankly is better done on Okinawa than in Osaka. At least we can get outside into quiet areas without people here on the island. In Osaka we'd be stuck at home.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

I get boxes

Delivery people have been giving me boxes lately. Small boxes and big boxes; cheap boxes and expensive boxes. I now have all the boxes.

Five years ago I built my current desktop PC. It's working (mostly) fine, but it's getting a little long in the tooth and it's time to build a new one. My plan is to build a new, shiny computer here on Okinawa; then bring my current desktop back to Osaka. With a second computer there I won't need to bring a laptop along every time I go back.



What I imagine my new computer will be like.

This cunning plan has only one slight flaw: this is the worst time in a decade or more to get a new computer. Because of COVID, supply chains and industrial production has been disrupted the world over, and it's particularly bad for complex electronic components such as CPUs, sensors and RF components (Wifi, bluetooth and so on). Products from smartphones to cameras have been delayed or cancelled, car plants sit idle, and computers are of course especially affected.

At the same time, the pandemic has increased the demand for laptops and desktops. Lots of people now work and study from home and they all need computers to do that. And when you're stuck at home with little to do, a gaming PC or game console seems like just the thing to relieve the boredom. PC sales are increasing for the first time in ten years.

How bad is it? I've tried to get a new laptop at work since late November. The order has been cancelled twice due to a lack of parts, and five months on I still don't know when I will finally get a replacement.


Concerned cat does not approve of the current component shortage.


Still, if you persevere you can get lucky. I've been looking for the AMD 5950X CPU, but it's been constantly sold out online (you can get it at 25%-50% markup from a scalper, but I don't want to give them my money). However, I also kept an eye on the stock at our local store (called "GoodWill"), part of the PC Koubo chain. The physical stores have a separate supply channel, and visitors can't snap up stock instantly. And they get regular supply drops of this CPU.

About three weeks ago the shop in Chatan got a shipment of the 5950X. We drove over, waited with ~6-7 other people until they opened (I'm not the only one monitoring the store page), and walked out with a 5950X, at MSRP - no scalpers or shady resellers and no inflated price.

I've since ordered the other parts I'll need for a working computer: a motherboard, memory, an SSD, a CPU cooler, a PSU and a case to put everything in. It all finally arrived this week, neatly packed in boxes on my workroom floor.

 


A pile of boxes. Put them together and you have a computer. Put them together wrong and you have some expensive junk. Don't put them together wrong. With that said, it's actually pretty easy.

One item is conspicuously absent: I didn't get a GPU. If other parts are hard to get right now, GPUs are effectively impossible. Cryptocurrencies are booming, and some them can be profitably mined with consumer GPUs. The major PC builders - the likes of Dell and Lenovo - get a lot of them to fulfil the demand for PCs. Then currency miners and scalpers hoover up everything they can get their hands on, through bulk buying and by using bots to grab anything that shows up online.

It's not just the newest graphics cards either. You can't get anything. I bought an RX570 8GB on sale about two years ago, for about $180. Today Amazon sells used cards for $380, and new cards go for $700 and up.

I gave up. I'm not going to spend weeks trying to find a current-generation GPU, then pay several times what it's normally worth. I'll use the RX570 for now, then buy a new card in a year or two, once the COVID-related shortages fade and cryptocurrencies crash again.

Meanwhile I will put together my new computer this week, and once it (hopefully) works I'll move over my stuff from the old one, and prepare that one for shipment back to Osaka. 


Saturday, March 13, 2021

Happiness

 Happiness is love. Real happiness is a working hot water heater. 

Now we know :)


Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Valentine's Day

 Valentine's Day and as every year, Ritsuko gave me a little something:


Chocolates and a Line prepaid card. The heart knows what it wants.


The chocolates are really tasty; each one is a different experience, with contents ranging from whiskies to fruit liquours. I'm having several weeks of enjoyment from these!

The other thing was a 1000-yen Line prepaid card. Line, for those that aren't familiar with it, is the most popular messaging app by far here in Japan, with group chats, phone and video calls, news, games and even a cashless payment service. And stickers.

Stickers are insanely popular. Large stickers, small stickers, animated stickers, customizable stickers... You get some for free, but if you want more you buy them. Anybody can put up sticker sets on the service, and some sticker creators manage to make a full-time living from Line stickers.

I've only every used the default selection. That marks me as a tight-fisted cheapskate, and the prepaid card is a not-very-subtle nudge to just get myself some fresh sticker packs already. Which I have! They were fun to select and they're fun to use. Might have to get some more...