Sunday, September 06, 2020

Changing computers

Few tasks in life present me with the kind of broad, constant anxiety I feel when migrating to a new computer.

I am in the process of one of these migrations as I write this -- countless progress bars move imperceptibly in the background, as hundreds of thousands of small files are copied from an aging mechanical hard drive to a new solid-state drive. 

I am always worried I am forgetting some critical bit of data or software, that next week I will go to look for something and realize I neglected to think about one particular application or folder or license or something. Or that one or both machines will simply stop working.

The last time I switched to a new computer was over 5 years ago. For the first time in 20 years, I had purchased a custom-built and pre-assembled computer, instead of building my own, like a straight player. At that time, I made decisions with the intent of making this process easier in the future -- all of my critical data is (supposesed to be) on a single hard drive, which I can simply remove and plug into the new system, where it will be copied to a newer, faster, more reliable drive, and then left there as a back-up or vault.

But of course, it is never that simple, is it? Windows or Mac, there are always problems. Software scatters important files everywhere -- configurations, presets, preferences. Some of these are simply tedious to recreate. Others require detailed notes and hours of work. 

I have a Trello card I thought was comprehensive, but I keep adding things to it. Cubase templates. Deauthorizing plug-ins. Enormous digital sample sets. I guess I need all that stuff?

The first computer in a place I lived was the family Apple ][. The day it arrived, there was a massive thunderstorm and the power went out in our house. But the family was so excited that we assembled the machine by candlelight. Over the years that machine would get modifications -- I wired in an external speaker. We added disk drives and a video card. 

In college, I switched to the then-new Macintosh, as required by my school (and graciously deeply discounted by the manufacturer). Graphical user interfaces. A mouse. A fundamentally network-based computing experience, complete with email, chat, server storage, and network printing. Way ahead of its time. 

After my college Mac was stolen in an apartment robbery, I switched to PCs, and spent the 90s learning the ins and outs of Intel's 8086-based architecture and the rapidly evolving world of Microsoft Windows. My first PC ran Windows 3.1, which lived on top of DOS and had its own separate arcana to master: The ISA bus. Autoexec.bat tweaks. Resolving conflicts between devices. 

I'd build a new machine every few years as processors leapt forward in speed and capability - 386 to 486 to Pentium to Pentium II and beyond. Graphics went from CGA resolutions (16 colors! 320 x 200!) to VGA to SVGA to a dizzying array of variants, finally adding primitive 3D graphics, which often required their own separate cards. I spent a lot of time at Fry's Electronics.

I'd recycle some parts (CD-ROM drives had a good run) across machines and discard other technological dead-ends. SCSI drives are indeed fast and cheap, but they sound like jet engines at speed and run nearly as hot. Firewire might have been technically great, but was never really supported on the PC.

One time I wired up the power switch wrong, and when I turned my PC on for the first time, blew the breaker for the house -- perhaps the most dramatic thing that could have happened when I pressed the button.

But most of the time, those initial boots are the opposite, and are disappointing non-events. I push the button. Nothing happens. No beeps. No POST (power-on self test). I sit there, back hurting, knuckles bleeding and bandaged from scraping across sharp components and case edges, and start wondering what the problem is. Wiring? Badly seated card or CPU? Insufficient power supply? Did you fry something?

Eventually I would figure it out. The sense of fragility of the complex machine diminishing exponentially over successive successful boots. I'd stare at the deep blue of the various Windows configuration screens updating, tweaking, waiting. Within a week or two, the new machine would hit its stride, and worries would fade into the background.

So it shall be with this new beast. The progress bar tells me it has over 65,000 files to go. Time remaining: More than 1 day. 

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