On the Inside

Posted October 6, 2013

Like many kids, I took my toys apart, stared at the guts, and then nervously attempted to reassemble them before my parents walked in. I loved the look of the exposed boards and chips, tidy wiring and the dozens of tiny transistors that did who knew what. I guess I also wanted to hack it, to make it say something it wasn’t designed to say, to somehow subvert the vast, invisible industrial mechanisms that brought it to life. Instead I settled on crude Rube Goldberg-esque bedroom contraptions which relied more on imitated Pee Wee’s Big Adventure concepts than any real electronics knowledge.

In high school I built my first PC, and by built I mean I picked out components from computer catalogs using a credit card and pushed all the pieces in place until it worked. I understood the basics of a motherboard, Intel 386 and 486 processors, RAM, and sweet Sound Blaster 16 cards, but had no idea what the various other chips did or what code made it run. While my friend studied BASIC and created fractal screensavers (which we later copied to desktops at Best Buy to, probably inaccurately, speed test the new Pentium chips), I played Sierra games and, actually, I’m not sure what else I did do. I fiddled. I tried to comprehend programming, but I could already tell it was going to be complicated in a way that wasn’t fun or easy for me. My brain just didn’t work that way. We traded pre-email messages on 3.5″ disks, sometimes using batch files to trigger Simpsons audio samples.

At the same time, I was entranced with arcade games, wondering what kind of magic were in those big boxes, how it differed from my home game consoles, and why the games looked so damn good (though recently after coming across Street Fighter II at a movie theater I realized how low-res those CRTs were). All of this was before YouTube of course. Now you can find a video of someone taking apart and explaining almost anything, with narration spanning the gamut of incredibly proficient autodidacts to chatty weekend hobbyists. From Game Boy Advance and SNES enhancement chips to Raspberry Pi clusters and endless arcade PCB videos. Watching the guy who is RGB modding my TurboGrafx-16 tirelessly repair old game consoles is endlessly fascinating.

Recently I picked up a copy of Inside the Machine by Jon Stokes and by page 20 I’m already struggling a bit. To simply grasp the fundamentals of computer architecture would please me. One day I’d like to play with a stack of arcade PCBs and a candy cab, and like owning an old car, it would be swell to know how to make minor repairs myself. But, realistically, I know my limitations; maybe reading and watching is enough for me. Playing with other people’s creations goes a long way.

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