Saturday, July 26, 2014

Surprise Observing Run

Wednesday night the observer at the JCMT suffered enough altitude sickness to require coming all the way down from the summit. She thankfully suffered no lasting effects and was up and about the next day, but we at the JCMT were understandably hesitant to let her back on the summit so soon. This led to a scramble to find someone to cover for her shift Thursday and Friday night, and, the normal support scientists being unavailable for Thursday, is how I found myself volunteering and turning a normal workday into an surprise trip up Mauna Kea.

I'm currently writing this post from the control room of JCMT. Given how much trouble I had staying awake back in May -- after spending a day at Hale Pohaku at 9,000 feet to acclimatize and switch my sleep schedule -- I was worried that coming up one day and observing that same night would be even worse, but I've been pleasantly surprised to find that I've been much more awake on the whole (perhaps it was the afternoon nap? the cup of coffee at dinner?). By this point, at 4:30 in the morning, even that wakeful energy is starting to flag a bit, but I think I'll be able to make it through the night without too much trouble. Three and a half hours left to go (roughly)!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Computer Construction Compendium

This past Friday, as I mentioned in my last post, I put my new computer together. I've been collecting parts for it for over two months, and was quite excited to finally build it (I would have put it together a week earlier except a move and a vacation intervened).

It was a fun experience (if a little nerve-wracking at times), and luckily I had the presence of mind to take pictures throughout the build process. For instance, here's everything involved in the build at the beginning of the process:

Here you can see the gaggle of assorted parts I collected. I'm not going to point them out individually as you'll see most of them further on, so I'll just say that on this table you can see the case, the power unit, the CPU, the RAM, the HDD, the SSD, the video card, the water cooler, the optical drive, the card reader, and the additional fan I got. That's a lot to get through, so to start off with here's a shot of the most fundamental part: the case.

Here you can see the interior of the excellent case I found, the Rosewill Thor V2. There are three fans on the front (to the right), the back (to the left), and the top of the case. There's also a fourth fan in the panel that forms the left side which is off in the picture to allow access to the interior. That nest of wires there connects to things on the front panel like the power button, the forward USB connectors, and the headphone/microphone jacks.

After the case, the next most important part of a computer is the motherboard, which serves as the physical and logical connector for all the other parts of the computer.

This particular motherboard is the ASUS Z97-A. There are a lot of slots and connections on it, but it'll be easier to point them out as I add things to them, so let's move on the CPU, which sits in the square socket in the top-middle of the board. The CPU (which stands for Central Processing Unit, hence why it is also sometimes called the processor) is the calculation center of the computer, and the most important factor in how fast your computer is.

The socket actually comes with a little cover on it to protect the pins inside, which you can't see because I forgot to take a picture before putting the CPU in the socket. Instead of putting the pins on the CPU, Intel switched sometime in the last few years to having them on the motherboard, and having the CPU sit gently atop them (held in place by a little spring-arm). Here's what it looks like with the arm down:

I don't think the white lines do anything, I think they're just decoration.

The gleaming square metal surface there is the interface where the prodigious heat modern processors put out is conducted away by some form of cooler to keep them from overheating. The processor I got (the Intel Core i5-4690K, 3.5GHz) comes with a small fan+heat sink that is meant to sit atop the CPU, but  in the warm climate of Hawaiʻi I wanted to ensure that it wouldn't get too hot running some of the games I like, so I got something a little higher-caliber which you'll see later on.

After installing the processor, I installed the motherboard into the case:

With the motherboard screwed into place in the case, I could stand the whole assembly up and access the back of the motherboard to install the necessary infrastructure to attach the cooler for the CPU:

This backplate (which surrounds the CPU on the back of the motherboard) confused me no end for some time, as it didn't seem to fit the holes in the motherboard. I was worried because the manual for the cooler didn't actually say it was compatible with the CPU socket I had, and I was going off somewhere else I'd read it on the Internet. For the record, yes, the Corsair H90 self-contained liquid cooler does work with Intel LGA 1150 sockets; use the sockets marked 1156, and rotate it until the holes line up. That was what had me confused, as I thought it went on straight and spent some time fiddling around trying to get the holes to line up. Anyway, it did finally go in, as you can see. The rest of the cooler sits on the other side, and we'll see it later on.

Anyway, after that, comes the RAM (or Random Access Memory, the short-term memory of the computer):

The RAM is those two white modules there, next to the CPU. I went with two 4GB modules of Kingston HyperX FURY DDR3 RAM for a total of 8 gigabytes of RAM. I don't do a lot of stuff where more RAM would be useful, and I really liked the look of those particular card - they go very nicely with the white case.

After the RAM, I installed the video card - an NVIDIA GTX 750 Ti, by EVGA -

- and the Power Supply Unit (PSU), a KingWin Lazer Platinum Series 550 Watt unit. The "Platinum" in the name says that it has greater than 90% efficiency in certain circumstance (such as when you're using around 50-75% of its maximum rated power). The PSU is a very very important part of your computer - it's the part that provides power at the right voltage and amperage to everything else, and (in theory) takes the fall if you get a power surge. So don't skimp on it. The high efficiency is also nice as that means less power wasted as heat before it even reaches the rest of your parts.

And here are both of them installed in the case and motherboard:

(The video card is a little hard to see, but it's horizontal directly above the PSU.)

After this I installed the optical drive (a simple DVD/CD reader/writer) and the multi-card reader I got into the front of the case. They weren't anything special, so I just took a shot of them installed in the front:

(Optical drive at the top, card reader in the middle.)

I then installed the hard disk drive (HDD) and solid-state disk (SSD) into two of the bays for them:

For the HDD I got a Western Digital 1 terabyte “Blue” drive (a reliable brand, with tons of space), while for the SSD I got a Crucial MX100 512GB drive, which is pretty much the best price-per-gigabyte SSD out there at the time of writing, while still being large enough for what I wanted. My intention from the start was to install my operating system and programs on the SSD for its much faster loading times, while storing large files that don't need to load super-fast like pictures, music, and movies on the HDD. Having set it up like that, I can say that so far it's working well.

Finally, it was time to install the water cooler. This was tricky, because,'s probably easier to show you:

This is the Corsair H90 self-contained liquid cooler. The part that I'm holding sits clamped to the top of your CPU and conducts heat from it into water which a small pump circulates through those rubber tubes into the radiator you see lying on the table. It's a bit tricky to install because that "self-contained" term in the name means that it's all one piece.

This is actually a very useful thing, because liquid cooling used to require that you put it together yourself, buying the pump, radiator, and tubes separately and assembling them (and filling them) yourself. You can still do that if you want to get fancy, but when it comes to water and computers there are far too many things that can go wrong, so I opted for the pre-built system where the water is already inside it and never gets a chance to fry sensitive electronic components.

Anyway, despite wishing I had a third hand at times, I managed to finagle the cooler onto the CPU (using that backplate structure we saw near the beginning), and attach the radiator to the fan on the back of the case. Here's what that looks like:

Pretty slick if I say so myself. At the moment I'm not quite done with this, as at the moment the fan in the case is only pulling air through the radiator. I'd like to mount the fan from the first picture on the side you see here to push through the radiator as well, to get the maximum amount of air through to keep things as cool as possible. I didn't have enough screws to be able to do that, but it's just a matter of popping down to Home Depot and picking up the right ones. Luckily, the liquid cooling is effective enough that heat hasn't nearly been a problem, but I've got the fan so I might as well use it.

Anyway, sans that fan, here's a view of the completed build:

(The other side is a bit of a tangled mess of cables, as I wove them back and forth through the holes in the case to keep as few obstructions for moving air in the case as possible.)

Anyway, with that done, it was time to set the peripherals up and try it out (and boy, what a sweet, sweet thing it was to hear the fans begin to spin up and self-test lights begin lighting up the first time I pressed the power button):

And there you have it. I left the side panel off for this shot, but it's now back on so the attached fan can help keep things cool.

And let me tell you, I set out to build a powerful computer that would have no heat problems, and from what I've seen so far, I succeeded. I can measure the temperatures of all four cores in the CPU, and while idling they run about 30 degrees Celsius, which is just a bit warmer than room temperature (86 degrees Fahrenheit). Even after a few hours of playing something like Civilization V that would have my old laptop running too hot to touch within minutes I haven't seen temperatures go above the low 40's Celsius (~100 Fahrenheit), and the air coming out the back from the radiator is only just noticeably warmer than the surrounding air. I wanted to make sure my computer wouldn't overheat in the warm tropical Hawaiian air, and from the looks of things I've done so very well indeed.

I could write at length about the trials and tribulations I had getting my chosen operating system, Linux Mint Debian Edition, running on such new hardware, but suffice it to say that with the help of a friend from work much more knowledgeable than I we got it working after a few hours. I'm now on Linux, and - unlike when I tried it with Ubuntu several years ago - I'm already thinking of it as my main operating system. Again, I could talk a lot about it, but it's getting late so perhaps I'll save it for another post. Anyway, hope that was interesting for any would-be computer builders out there. A hui hou!

Edit (9/14/14): Just realized that I said I got the Western Digital “Black” HDD when I actually got the “Blue” one, which is one step down in performance and good bit cheaper (it's the consumer-oriented version, while the Black is more server- or enthusiast-oriented). I did originally pick out a Black drive before rethinking it and still had it in my notes.

Also, a few weeks after this post went up I finally managed to find the right screws and installed my Noctua 140mm fan in the case to push through the radiator. Check it out:

Noctua's fans' unique brown aesthetic doesn't really go with...well, anything, but but it certainly lives up to its billing as a quiet, high-quality fan. With that, I now have a total of six fans pushing air through this case and keeping it just a smidgen above room temperature.

I also finally caved and bought myself a second monitor (I'm spoiled from having two at work, with the attendant productivity boost it brings). It just makes it so much easier do certain things, especially thing involving photos (have GIMP open on one screen, file manager or browser open in the other, etc.).

I also had some strange experiences which I was able to diagnose as running out of RAM, which caused the computer to freeze. I found this exceedingly odd, as I have 8 GB in this system, the same as my old laptop, and it never had any problems like this. I then learned that Linux doesn't automatically set up a swap space on disk (something Windows does by default), so I was most likely swapping things all the time on the laptop without knowing it. I was able to set up a swap partition on my own (I was so proud!), but I've decided that since I have an extra two slots for RAM I might as well go ahead and bump the system up to 16 GB to allow me to work on large photo panoramas without having to worry so much about running out of RAM

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Back Again

I think this is the longest time I've been between posts on this blog so far, for a number of reasons: since my last post, I have a) moved houses, and b) gone on vacation for a week with nearly zero Internet access. I also finally got the Internet hooked up in my new place just yesterday.

I also, just yesterday, finally had enough free time (and all the parts) to construct the new computer for which I've been collecting parts for two months (I got the final part - the processor - in on Thursday). It was a lengthy process - the build alone took almost three hours, and I then spent three and a half more trying and failing to get Linux installed on it. I was finally able to accomplish that with assistance from a more knowledgeable friend and another five hours of work this afternoon, so yes, I'm writing this post on my new computer. Yay!

I had the presence of mind to take some pictures during the build, so when I have some time I'd like to write a post going over the process in detail. But for now it's getting late, so a hui hou!