The quest for physicality

Originally published 2005 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Most nerds are starved for reality.

Grit. Vividness. Dirty nails and grazed knuckles.

A true Asperger Syndrome case may crave not these things, but more normal humans do.

This, of course, is why so many nerds rock-climb and mountain-bike or, for those of us religiously opposed to strenuous exercise, build model cars and planes (R/C, naturally).

Sure, the gadgetry involved is fun (the three great joys in life are sex, gadgets and dressing up; only sado-masochists and very advanced rock climbers get to do all three at once), but the real juice of the thing is the physicality of it. The creation of something you can pick up that does a job makes a darn nice change, no matter whether that job is generating power to run your house in the bush, or flying through the sky, or only categorisable as "whatever".

A brisk walk is my idea of strenuous exercise, but I still kind of miss having a real job.

Real jobs involve doing physical things with physical objects. Whether you're flipping burgers, selling books or painting hot rods, you've got things you can touch, kick and throw, and you're doing stuff with them.

I don't have a real job. My job, for the large majority of my working hours, involves sitting in a chair and pushing a mouse. I usually get to do things a lot more interesting and/or entertaining than the average cubicle zombie's activities, with the occasional detour into Junior Scientist territory - but the chair, mouse and lack of natural light are common factors.

It's pretty easy to tell when a fry-cook's working and when he's goofing off, but those of us who don't have real jobs can seem productive when we're actually just noding on Everything2, or something.

Every cubicle-jockey worth his or her salt knows that you can get away with doing pretty much anything as long as you don't look happy about it. That could be the definition of a non-real job, actually; the job ain't real if your boss can be looking right at you and, as long as he can't see your screen, think you're working, when you're actually watching Revenge of the Cybermen while playing NetHack In Space.

After the first decade or so of this, you kind of want to do something. Preferably involving power tools.

Hence, case modding.

J. Random Nerd doesn't necessarily see any reason to start modifying his Corolla, but turning a boring beige business box into a disco-fever photon aquarium is quite another matter. It's a task of manageable dimensions, there's no (very) heavy lifting, most of what small risk there is comes in nice neat Dremel-branded packages, and the result is an actual physical work of creativity. Unlike that elegant tweak to the CMS that made it 23% faster under heavy load, but upon which nobody commented.

And then, there's under-pressure running repairs.

In one sense, it sucks when computers stop doing what they're meant to do. Your dominion over your silicon-based serfs is imperfect. Your space-time continuum is fractured. Your fragile nerdly masculinity, assuming you for biological and/or temperamental reasons have some, is threatened.

And fixing the problem is important. It's a production server. It's the box you do your work on. It's time for you to join your clan in a six hour tournament.

This, of course, makes fixing the problem much more fun, especially when you do it in a quick and dirty way.

When that machine that kept quitting tasks at random, bluescreening, and blackscreening (in increasing order of impressiveness) suddenly starts behaving itself immaculately when you offload serving one directory of files to another system, kick its CPU voltage up 0.1V above stock, and Blu-Tack a new fan in pointing at the drive array, it's like figuring out a counter-intuitive problem in an Infocom game.

You haven't really found the problem, as such. You haven't reached a truly elegant solution. But everything is working now. Your kung fu has triumphed.

There's satisfaction to be had from participating in a really hard-fought multiplayer game, or from getting your file storage schemas really just so, or from finally getting the darn site to render perfectly in 16 different browsers. And we geeks can seek out new realities that mundanes can only dream of - MOOs, Roguelike games, 3D action titles projected over the whole wall, and of course the Zen of programming.

But you don't get the same satisfaction from looking at smoothly flowing LAN traffic as you get from looking at, say, your new scratchbuilt R/C warbird.

Especially since you know, for a fact, that the warbird has at least as many invisible faults as the LAN, which are similarly just waiting for the right combination of circumstances to deliver you into frustration. And possibly deliver the plane into the ground for immediate re-kitting.

When virtual reality finally goes all Gibsonian on us, fixing LANs will be this much fun.

In the meantime, though, that workbench in the garage is a sanity-saver.

Other columns

Learning to love depreciation

Overclockers: Get in early!

Stuff I Hate

Why Macs annoy me

USB: It's worth what you pay

"Great product! Doesn't work!"

The virus I want to see

Lies, damned lies and marketing

Unconventional wisdom

How not to e-mail me

Dan's Quick Guide to Memory Effect, You Idiots

Your computer is not alive

What's the point of robot pets?

Learning from spam

Why it doesn't matter whether censorware works

The price of power

The CPU Cooler Snap Judgement Guide

Avoiding electrocution

Video memory mysteries

New ways to be wrong

Clearing the VR hurdles

Not So Super

Do you have a license for that Athlon?

Cool bananas

Getting rid of the disks

LCDs, CRTs, and geese

Filling up the laptop

IMAX computing

Digital couch potatoes, arise!

Invisible miracles

Those darn wires

Wossit cost, then?

PFC decoded

Cheap high-res TV: Forget it.


Dan Squints At The Future, Again

The programmable matter revolution

Sounding better

Reality Plus™!

I want my Tidy-Bot!

Less go, more show

In search of stupidity

It's SnitchCam time!

Power struggle

Speakers versus headphones

Getting paid to play

Hurdles on the upgrade path

Hatin' on lithium ion

Wanted: Cheap giant bit barrel

The screen you'll be using tomorrow

Cool gadget. Ten bucks.

Open Sesame!

Absolutely accurate predictions

The truth about everything

Burr walnut computing

Nothing new behind the lens

Do it yourself. Almost.

The quest for physicality

Tool time

Pretty PCs - the quest continues

The USB drive time bomb

Closer to quietness

Stuff You Should Want

The modular car

Dumb smart houses

Enough already with the megapixels

Inching toward the NAS of our dreams

Older than dirt

The Synthetics are coming


Game Over is nigh

The Embarrassingly Easy Case Mod

Dumb then, smart now

Fuel cells - are we there yet?

A PC full of magnets

Knowledge is weakness

One Laptop Per Me

The Land of Wind, Ghosts and Minimised Windows

Things that change, things that don't

Water power

Great interface disasters

Doughnut-shaped universes

Grease and hard drive change

Save me!

Impossible antenna, only $50!

I'm ready for my upgrade

The Great Apathetic Revolution

Protect the Wi-Fi wilderness!

Wi-Fi pirate radio

The benign botnet

Meet the new DRM, same as the old DRM

Your laptop is lying to you

Welcome to super-surveillance

Lemon-fresh power supplies


Internet washing machines, and magic rip-off boxes

GPGPU and the Law of New Features

Are you going to believe me, or your lying eyes?

We're all prisoners of game theory

I think I'm turning cyborg-ese, I really think so

Half an ounce of electrons

Next stop, clay tablets

A bold new computer metaphor

Won't someone PLEASE think of the hard drives?!

Alternate history

From aerial torpedoes to RoboCars

How fast is a hard drive? How long is a piece of string?

"In tonight's episode of Fallout 4..."

How hot is too hot?

Nerd Skill Number One

What'll be free next?

Out: Hot rods. In: Robots.

500 gig per second, if we don't get a flat

No spaceship? No sale.

The shifting goalposts of AI

Steal This Education

Next stop: Hardware piracy

A hundred years of EULAs

The triumph of niceness

The daily grind

Speed kings


Game crazy

Five trillion bits flying in loose formation

Cannibalise the corpses!

One-note NPCs

Big Brother is watching you play

Have you wasted enough time today?

The newt hits! You die...

Stuck in the foothills

A modest censorship proposal

In Praise of the Fisheye


The death of the manual

Of magic lanterns, and MMORPGs

When you have eliminated the impossible...

Welcome to dream-land

Welcome to my museum

Stomp, don't sprint!

Grinding myself down

Pathfinding to everywhere

A deadly mouse trap

If it looks random, it probably isn't

Identical voices and phantom swords


Socialised entertainment

Warfare. Aliens. Car crashes. ENTERTAINMENT!

On the h4xx0ring of p4sswordZ

Seeing past the normal

Science versus SoftRAM

Righteous bits

Random... ish... numbers

I get letters

Money for nothing

Of course you'd download a car. Or a gun!

A comforting lie

Give Dan some money!
(and no-one gets hurt)