My Personal Computer Viewpoint

What is personal computing today? Personal computers are moving away from the big desktop boxes that I have come to love. Love? Yes, because I could poke into their interiors and build one any way I desired. The “roll your own” days seem to be fading into history. I loved the electronics of PC computers. Case “Modders” used to put lights inside the case to see the stuff. For me it was knowing what activity all those components actually performed.

What has happened is my desktop has maxed out to all the so called performance I need. It does what I need it to do and it does it well. I seldom get inside except to blow out the dust. I don’t need another box.

That’s bad news for the computer makers. So thanks to Apple, they all have shifted focus to touch screen Star Trek like mini tablets that lock the users into both the hardware and operating system. That’s not a fault. It keeps everything working together. But the personal computer is solidly a user appliance. It has just become too complex for hobbyists to play with the internals at the chip level. It is a throw away when it quits working.

The play-with-the-hardware folks (like me) have had to shift to the Ardunio, Raspberry Pi, and Parallax micro computers. It is not time wasted. These tiny computers or at least ones like them form the basic structure of the huge world of embedded computers that really run our daily lives.

I work for such a controls company and in a micro processor control world that most people barely know about. It’s not the computer device you hold in your hand that runs the world. That hand held or smart phone is simply the display device (a window) into a far more distributed and powerful cyber-world than most people realize. That world keeps running when you close or shut off your personal viewer.

As I said, almost nothing electronic gets “fixed” these days. It is replaced. The private service tech working with electronics at the “component” or circuit level no longer exists. There are just too many components and multi purpose circuits to make “electronics” repairable at the parts level. It is cheaper to replace the board or entire system than it is to repair.

Electronic devices usually have exceptional life spans these days thanks to solid state components. But they are still vulnerable to many electrical failure modes.

A side note: The ultimate doomsday device is not a weapon of mass destruction. It is a super EMP device or worse yet, a tremendous solar flare that breaks through the earths magnetic force field that shields all the earth. We are totally dependent on electricity and the electronics it spawned. We don’t need a comet to hit the earth.

I had a lighting strike at my home. That EMP wiped out all my electronic devices. My ham radio equipment and even that quad computer I mentioned above were blown up. I installed a new motherboard and power supply in the computer. It was repairable. Because the lighting strike was an extremely localized event, I could get on another computer and order the parts I needed. The radios had to be replaced. I sent my complicated digital ham radio transceiver back to the manufacturer and they declared it unrepairable. It became a throw away. (I still hoard it in my storage for tinkering someday. Hams are like that…)

So one suggestion for present and future electronic and electrical engineers and designers is to decide how, and then rebuild the world’s electronic and electrical infrastructure to protect critical systems from the electron stuff that powers them. Actually we have been doing that for years, with fiber optics cable and devices. It’s probably too late to fix everything. It hasn’t filtered down to the consumer very well because… well… we are the consumers in a throw away economy. Old? Obsolete? Broken? Throw it away an BUY new. It’s good for the economy.

I believe the teenage years are when to become an enthusiast for what you like to do. That was me a long time ago – a.k.a. nerd, but in actual retrospect it was an engineering interest of how things work. It is a noble pursuit. In my day it was the bully-jocks who made a social issue of smart satudents seeking knowledge. It was their own social weakness and understanding they exposed. I was lucky and peer pressure was never was a problem. I could and did participate in physical activities as well as take things apart. I hope that is not still a discouragement for some.

I don’t need to play with PC designs any more, unless I just want too… Like I said, today they are now simply appliances. I make use them of course as they are a powerful tool. I believe the world of computing experimentation and design for young people and hobbyists is now in control systems. Robotics and drone control are the hot topics. So is 3D printing. Unfortunately these too are rapidly approaching appliance status. There is still a developing world of things that computing can help control.

My thought is start when you are young and follow your interest. A career is not something chosen to do after the fun days of college. It starts in life early and grows. College may not even be in your path. A career can shift and change and that is OK too. But I can see, even with the career changes I made, I have always been headed in the same direction.

So for me, the most fun has always been in the design and building, less in the operation.

  • I built radio control model airplanes more for the building than the flying.
  • I built ham radio gear more the design and the building than the operation
  • I built computers from near scratch more for the building than the operation.
  • I was involved in building experimental (human size) aircraft for over 20 years. (But I love the flying too.)
  • I have built a workshop full of machine tools and woodworking tools because I like to build and create more than use what I make. (Unless it is another tool.)
  • Computer control (CNC) has now dominated my machine tool operations.
  • I write blogs and build websites on these subjects because I like how the communication works behind the scenes.
  • In my working life I went from analog computer and radar controlled navy guns, to designing electro-mechanical (relay) HVAC control systems and then computer control systems and building management systems. It was always the design that spurred my way and I always wanted to be hands on.

I did go beyond the creative. I flew R/C model aircraft I built and was good at flying them. I became an R/C club president. I became a licensed private pilot and was involved in experimental aircraft (EAA) (the building again) for several decades. I was an EAA club president. I still love flying. I became president of my ham radio club. I wrote the newsletter for my 100 member Rotary club. I still love to publish on the Internet. My machine tools are now automated through computer control.

I can remember when just about everything mechanical was manual control. I remember before there was TV. I even remember steam locomotives. In my 20’s I helped develop the PC computer age. Life is good but moving so much faster than I remember as a child. (Summer lasted forever then.) I hope it is all for the good. I’m partly to blame, however so slight. I don’t want to change any of it.