The Hard(ware) Stuff

In 1988 I bought myself a new computer, an IBM PS2-286 with MS-DOS 4 or 5, through a Purdue staff purchasing program, so that I could login from home to do my programming assignments instead of spending my nights at the computing center or the office whilst working full time and keeping up a home and family. I think I paid (or financed) $2500 for it. That total included a dot matrix printer. Back then we had 300 baud modems and used Kermit for telnet and file transferring purposes - instead of today's telnet and ftp clients. I preferred the external modems until modern day GUI's came along - I liked to see the little flashing lights that told me what my modem was doing.

The university computing center could get you copies of Kermit and had handouts that helped you set up your modem and your computer at home or in your office depending on the particular Purdue mainframe system you needed to dial in to. I got pretty savvy at using my own PC tools to write my programs and then transmitting them back in proper format for the mainframe programming environment. Which was good, because back then we had to take turns at the mainframe - in fact the system would automatically kick you off after an hour!

Since then I have procured computers from various venues. My second came from a local, reliable vendor who put together his own systems. It cost $2300. There were cheaper computers available with more bells and whistles, but at that point, I liked the local support - and in fact recommended a similar arrangement for my mother when she moved to Lafayette upon retirement. It has worked out very well for her. I specified and purchased my next two computers from Gateway over the internet, using their trade-in program. I also picked up a slightly used but extremely reliable Compaq laptop at Staples in NYC whilst visiting my aunt (so I could keep up with homework and email while on vacation.) Eventually I equipped it with network and wireless PC-MIA cards for travel and work. The Gateways and laptop cost around $1000 each. My last (and current) purchase, also a Gateway, a GM5420, purchased in June 2007 from Best Buy, cost a mere $820.00. The prices just keep getting better – you can’t say that about many things these days! And the price of external hard drives makes me want to cry – with joy! Imagine, just $120 for a 500 Gigabyte external usb hard drive. Heck, I just copied all my data over from my previous computer to the external drive and then connected it to my new computer and transferred everything in one fell swoop - and for less than one would have to pay for the Geek Squad to do it. Plus I ended up with all that handy extra storage to boot!

While I will NEVER (!) claim to be an engineer, I have done hardware and software upgrades on most of my computers. I upgraded my Gateway Performance 1000 from Windows ME to Windows XP Professional - no small task since I had to download and test new XP drivers for most of my peripherals (like my Smartmedia and Flash card reader for my Olympus C50550 digital camera) as well as updates for most of my software. My Iomega Zip 650 CD writer proved the biggest headache, but I did manage to find the cure. Previous to upgrading, I had installed an Adaptec Firewire Card for my digital Sony videocam - and during the upgrade, an Adaptec SCSI card to connect my recently acquired Polaroid SprintScan 4000 film and slide scanner. I had to get XP updates for those as well - and I held my breath until that scanner were up and running properly. It produces amazingly beautiful scans! I also upgraded my computer's RAM from 128M to 512M and installed a second internal 80G hard drive. During the two weeks my desktop system was scattered all over the dining room table, I had my laptop hooked to my printer and peripherals and the internet to keep up with email and assignments and to download software. The reason the process took so long was because of several interruptions, and because I always remember what my mentor Dr. Robert Santini (Director of Purdue's Chemisty Instrumentation Lab) told us many years ago - "Troubleshoot one layer at a time." Makes sense, doesn't it? However at today's speed of business, many organizations simply don't have that luxury. I can't say enough about Gateway's online support system through all of this. Just by going to their website and typing in my computer's serial number, I could download technical specifications and pictures and information about my entire system - whether I was looking for what kind of memory to buy, or how the current hard drive was jumpered and whether or not it supported 'cable select.' And Gateway's systems are extremely easy to open and to work with 'under the hood' - I don't think I even used a screwdriver.

I also had to install and configure certain software "hogs" to use my second hard drive. Fortunately or unfortunately, around that time, my old parallel inkjet printer broke, and while it was shipped away for repair under a 4 year maintenance agreement, I broke down and bought a new one! The new printer offered both parallel and usb hookups - so instead of having to daisy chain the printer and my old flatbed HP Scanjet 5100C 300dpi scanner to the parallel port (which Windows XP complained about), I connected my new printer - an hpdeskjet 960c - to a usb port and connected the old flatbed to the parallel port.

But all of that is ancient history now, as the multimedia machine I purchased this summer from Best Buy came with Windows Vista. I elected to keep my old computer for essential software and hardware that may be incompatible with Vista, particularly the Polaroid Scanner with its SCSI card and accompanying Silverfast scanning software. Now that we also have broadband access where we live, I have also bought a wireless router to provide broad band access to my household.

In the 20 years that I have maintained a computer at home - I don't think I've ever been without one for over two weeks. I do our finances and taxes and when my employers have the capability, I access my work email from home and even telnet to work. I could even mount my Purdue career account drive on my home desktop. In the early days, I ran remote control software (PC - Anywhere) from home that could control my PC at work! All this and I think I only once ever needed a 'house call' from an outside expert.

When I came to work for MMAD in 1988, I purchased, specified and installed all MMAD PC hardware and software. I also installed MMAD's first Apple Talk network (including the cabling), so that we could all share resources like the LaserWriter printer in the Manager's office. In the early nineties, we built a whole new Central Receiving Building and I was involved in helping plan for a Novell LAN that would hook the new building to the campus backbone and give us internet access. Seems like we were always pushing the edge in those days - for example we were the first on campus to use Goldengate (and a telephone) and then ftp to transmit financial information from a PC system to Purdue's mainframe accounting system - and our Novell LAN had mostly Macintosh clients in a broader computing environment of PC's.

At MMAD I also learned to program portable barcode readers and radio frequency units and set up the communications between them and their PC host. In 1994, I was again involved in planning for a Novell LAN to connect the University Health Center to the campus backbone. This time a Unix AIX 5000 box was involved as well. Along with my colleague Karen Weatherwax, I also had to reroute cables for the Health Center's old IBM System 36 mini-computer during construction and offices being moved. Along with Karen's natural talents, she was also married to an electrician - which helped her keep the cables from turning into a pile of spaghetti. I learned a lot from her as we moved and labeled cable!

In 1996, I went to work for the University Computing Center supporting the Instructional Labs. Here I got exposure to the vast underbelly of the Windows Operating System and Windows Registry in a complex and layered environment of nfs clients and unix servers which did mirroring and load balancing - especially when we had to upgrade the campus from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 and then to Windows 98. Watching how my colleagues (or wizards) broke down problems and met challenges was a real growing experience in the "Hard(ware) Stuff." Having been accustomed to doing "top down" systems analysis, design, and development using some of the latest "toys," I found myself spending the better part of one semester improving monitor refresh rates in the labs, as well as installing highly specialized software/equipment such as Jaws, Dragon Dictate, Arkenstone Openbook, Duxbury braille printer software, and Magic for several years for the ADA lab. The engineering approach gave me skills that to this day take me a long way toward resolving my own computer and software problems and questions and challenges. At the computing center, as in my other jobs, when I was confronted with tasks I never dreamed I would or could do, I discovered that a lot of barriers can be overcome simply by a change in outlook or attitude and that it was good to work with competent and highly skilled people! But of course I already knew that from having had the good fortune to work with those wizards in the Chemistry Department when the lab I worked in so many years ago got the first pc in the whole department. :)

Who would think that so simple a concept could open long- locked doors in a person's mind? But then role-modeling has always been a very effective means of instruction for me - I suppose it came from my Dad. He was a mining geologist who moved us in and out of the country and all around it. His modus operandi was "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

Of course he also happened to be Italian, so how hard was that? ;)

In case you arrived here through the back door ...