Connecting computers in 2021

It’s kind of crazy how complicated it is to hook up computers, screens, and other things in 2021.

The story starts with my old work laptop. This was a 2018 MacBook Pro. It had four Thunderbolt 3 ports on it. On the bright side, with all the ports the same, and two on each side, you could plug it in pretty much any way you liked. But most devices I needed to connect to didn’t have fancy USB-C connectors on them, and that meant that I needed a dongle. Specifically, I had a dongle that went from USB-C on the laptop to an HDMI port, an ethernet port, and a couple of USB-A connectors. It got the job done, and like I said, the fact that all the ports on the laptop were identical meant that I could put it on either side of the desk, and plug the power and dongle into whichever side suited best.

After working from home for a while I got an external display which had a built-in USB hub. This meant that I could buy the right cables, get rid of the dongle and plug my keyboard and mouse into the monitor. So, the computer now had power going in one side, and out the other side, one USB-C to USB-B connector (running to the monitor’s hub), and one USB-C to DisplayPort to provide the video.

The monitor in question is a BenQ whose model number I can’t remember — maybe PD2700U or something like that. It’s claim to fame is that this USB hub it has can be switched from one computer to another, acting as a kind of integrated KVM (Keyboard, Video, Mouse) switch. So, I grab a USB-A to USB-B cable, and a DisplayPort to Mini-DisplayPort video cable, and run them from my Linux box. This means that I can have both the laptop and the Linux box plugged into the monitor at the same time. When I want to switch between them, I hit a button to toggle the video input from Mini DisplayPort (the Linux box) to DisplayPort (the Mac), and another button to flip the upstream connected to the USB hub, thus moving the keyboard/mouse from one machine to another. It’s not the slickest, fastest, or smoothest transition, but it is pretty easy and surely beats yanking cables out of sockets and plugging in others.

Later on when I started doing more work on the Linux box via SSH (because it is powerful) from the Mac (because it is comfortable), I added an ethernet cable into the mix, via a small USB-C-to-ethernet dongle. So, I ended up using all four USB-C ports, two on each side, but the overall set-up was pretty tidy.

Anyway, I leave that job and the work laptop goes back to its owners. I decide to get my personal laptop working with the monitor. This one is a mid-2015 MacBook Pro: no USB-C connectors or anything, it has a couple of old-school Thunderbolt ports (same form factor as Mini DisplayPort and can connect to it), a couple of USB-A, an HDMI, and a MagSafe 2 socket for the power. Now, the MagSafe is on one side, the left, which means you don’t have the same degree of freedom when it comes to powering it. But I didn’t really have much choice about that, so I soldiered on. I had a Thunderbolt-to-ethernet adapter from the old days, so I was able to use that, but it suffered from the same problem as the MagSafe connector: the two Thunderbolt ports are both on the left, which meant that I had to do some cable rerouting to get things where they needed to go. Finally, I bought another USB-A to USB-B cable to plug this thing into the hub on the monitor, and a Mini DisplayPort to HDMI so that I could transmit video. Once again, I had a basically dongleless set-up (unless you count the tiny ethernet adapter). All was well in the world, or at least adequate.

The story concludes (for now) with a new work laptop). This one is a 13" model with exactly two USB-C connectors on the left side and nothing else. The horror! In order to plug this thing into the monitor, the monitor’s hub, ethernet, and power, I need four ports. But wait, I also need to a YubiKey, so make that five ports. I look on the Apple Store to see what brands have Cupertino’s blessing, without really having any intention of buying from there, but at least wanting to find out an endorsement for something that can be expected to work well. I hit Amazon and am dismayed, but not really surprised, to see approximately 692 different models of "dock", "base", "dongle", "hub", and so on, all purporting to do more or less the same thing in an infinitude of different variations. I wade into the swamp that is the review section and come out disappointed. Even the $300 "Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Dock Pro" (the same one from the Apple Store) is drowning in negative feedback, although in this day and age of bots and paid reviews, who knows how much of it is real. After a little bit of "review" reading from what are supposedly tech reporting outlets, some YouTube "review" viewing, I think I’m going to get something like the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock reviewed here.

I hate dongles, but the reason we have such tiny laptops nowadays is that manufacturers like Apple have offloaded a lot of the stuff that used to be inside them into the hands of third-party peripheral makers. The trend probably isn’t going to change, so may as well lean into it. The idea of one of these "docks" is that you plug one cable from it into your laptop, and you can charge the laptop from the dock. So, you don’t even need to juggle a power brick. The YubiKey can go into the one remaining port, and everything else hangs off the back of the dock. In my case, that will be a USB-C (Thunderbolt) running video to a DisplayPort socket on the monitor, a USB-A cable running up to the hub on the monitor, and the thing even has an ethernet socket on it, so I won’t need that dongle any more. Given the cables I have, I could also do Mini DisplayPort (Thunderbolt) to DisplayPort, and USB-C to the hub; it doesn’t really matter. This one isn’t quite as pricey as the Belkin, but the cheapest I’ve seen it for is somewhat north of $200. Not really surprising, I guess… as I said above, they’ve effectively taken a bunch of stuff that used to be inside the computer and externalized it into a separate structure, so you’re actually buying a little "chunk of computer" and one that hopefully won’t uglify your desk too much. Good thing I have a nice cable raceway screwed behind my desk to hide all this stuff away.

My goal in this post has been to illustrate the rather staggering complexity of getting computers to connect to things. Consider the variety of connections and combinations that we’ve seen in in this post — just five short years that span three Mac laptop models from mid-2015 to 2020 — and how when you add a monitor, a hub, and another computer into the mix, things get quickly out of hand. As much as I have hated every step of the way, I must begrudgingly admit that Apple probably did the right thing by streamlining the ports on their machines in the name of making things slimmer and simpler. Even MagSafe, which I loved, isn’t so great when you only have one of them on one side of your computer. Having everything be Thunderbolt/USB-C makes things massively simpler. The place where I wish Apple hadn’t cut corners, though, is in the number of ports: having just two on one side of the machine is simply not enough. A dock ends up being a decent solution (and sure beats having a half-dozen dongles), but is sure would be nice if a pro laptop would come with not just two ports on each side (or worse, on one side only), but three on each side. I can’t really conceive of any realistic situation where having six USB-C ports wouldn’t be more than enough. Now I just hope that this simple USB-C-only modality sticks around for a while before things start getting complicated, again, because I think I need a break before I get back on the merry-go-round.

How to vote in the Madrid elections on 4 May 2021

I was originally going to post this on Twitter but their web UI only lets you prepare 25 tweets in a thread before posting. I’d rather not cut this one short, so here it is as a blog post. My goal here is to explain my thought process for deciding who to vote for, starting from the basis that my main goal is to prevent the (likely) outcome of Ayuso returning to power.

Ayuso became president in 2019 despite her party, the PP (Partido Popular), only securing 30 seats in the election, out of the 132 total seats in the Asamblea de Madrid. It was the PP’s worst performance ever in Madrid in their 26 years of uninterrupted government, coming as it did after a string of corruption scandals afflicting the party. This ultimately brought to an end the presidency of the leader of the PP at the national level, Mariano Rajoy, in 2018, via a motion of no confidence.

The PSOE (socialist) party had 37 seats in comparison, having won more votes than any other party by a large margin (28.67% of the vote compared with 16.69% for the PP), but couldn’t form a majority coalition government. Together with the two other parties on the left, they had 64 seats. On the right, Ayuso was able to form a majority in conjunction with the (only nominally) centrist Ciudadanos party, and the far-right Vox, totalling 68 seats in all. Now, if you like Ayuso or tend to vote to the right, I doubt a Twitter thread or a blog post is likely to change your mind, but I’m at least going to have a shot at explaining why I want to see her and the PP out the door.

Madrid has had right-wing governments continuously since about 1991. Decades of cutbacks and privatization have left public schools and hospitals in a sorry state. On the flip side, Madrid has become somewhat of a fiscal paradise for the rich, with many forms of taxation eliminated or reduced. Inequality is significant in Spain, and Madrid is no exception. If you’re a centrist who believes that an occasional political "changing of hands" from one party to another is a useful way to prevent the excesses of either side from playing out too far, then it is clearly time for a change in Madrid.

And if you’re consistently left-leaning, you’re horrified at the effects of sustained, regressive spending cuts, and can’t figure out why so many Madrileños seem so happy voting for politicians who very obviously represent the interests of only the richest sliver of society. Voting is optional in Spain, and the wealthier, right-leaning classes tend to vote much more actively, allowing them to have an outsized impact in the election results despite their status as a privileged minority. I guess the less wealthy classes have just lost faith in politicians and political parties in general, or they don’t believe that their vote can make a difference. Making matters worse, this year, left-leaning voters face an additional obstacle: Ayuso called the election to take place on a normal working Tuesday, which means that school classes are cancelled. If you don’t have a private nanny, or an idle family member to look after your kids in order for you to vote, voting in 2021 is going to be harder than ever. Postal voting is an option, but the window for that has now closed.

I explained my overall political stance in a post a while back, but the "TL;DR" is basically that I am left-libertarian motivated by a concern for social justice and fairness, and I’ve been in that place for about 25 years now, even as the fringes of the left and the right have adopted ever more radical positions, and the political "mainstream" on both sides of the aisle has become increasingly neoliberal pretty much everywhere in the developed world that you might care to look.

And yet, as much as I am personally persuaded by leftist thinking, I can also appreciate that there are reasonable arguments to be made in defense of conservative politics. My go-to example of a conservative proponent doing the latter would be Douglas Murray (not a politician but rather a "public intellectual"). There are many things he says that I don’t agree with, but I have deep respect for the way his arguments come from a position of "good faith". Sadly, I find far too few examples of his ilk out there in the public space, and even fewer actively involved in politics or journalism.

So — out of the kindness of my heart — let me try to make the most favorable interpretation that I can of Ayuso’s politics, assuming that she is acting in good faith out of a set of sincerely held beliefs. Ayuso believes in small government. She believes the most efficient mechanism for deploying assets in service of the public good is through private enterprise. She and her predecessors in the PP have engaged in a sustained program of privatizations and cutbacks designed to transfer the management of public health into the private realm. Fundamentally, I think Ayuso (in common with her fellow party members) trusts the market, she believes in the power of individual initiative, individual responsibility. She probably considers "all men to be created equal", and attributes differential outcomes to differential levels of effort, of different moral fiber, grit, and determination.

The dark side of all this is that there is an implied (and sometimes explicitly stated) set of complementary beliefs. That the poor are somehow responsible for their own fate, just as how the wealthy and successful must be enjoying the well-earned rewards of their effort and personal merits. Not just that a large public sector is a sign of waste, but that the people who rely on it present a parasitic drain on society, on the fruits of the hard-working and morally superior ruling classes. Ayuso is on the record saying that people in desperate need of food hand-outs are "mantenidos", a word with distinctly negative connotations and implications of being a unproductive drain on the rest of society. Her campaign message is an emotional appeal to the value of "getting up at the crack of dawn" (implying hard work), traditional values and customs (going to church mass and bull fighting), and personal freedom.

She has very little to say about what she plans to do if she gets her wish of being able to govern "alone", with out the bothersome impediment of having to cooperate with Cuidadanos. Incredibly, the letter she sent to all registered voters in Madrid consisted of a single portrait photo accompanied by the word "Liberty" in large type on an otherwise blank page. Even the far-right party, Vox, whose program is more about drumming up fear of "communism" than elaborating policy, spelled out a list of things they wanted to do and why in their letter. At first I thought this was an insult to the intelligence of her supporters, to think that they should be so easily manipulated by such an obviously content-free, emotional appeal (I mean, who doesn’t like "freedom"?). You might think that Ayuso’s advisers have told her that it’s best if she keeps her mouth shut (perhaps that’s why she agreed to appear in only one debate), because she’s in a good position and there’s only one way to go from here (down); but the real truth is that most of the people who vote for the PP already have their mind made up — it’s quite simply unnecessary for Ayuso to persuade them. They know they subscribe to the same ideological beliefs as Ayuso’s party. The details simply don’t matter.

If all of this weren’t concerning enough, the polls suggest that, if Ayuso wins, it will be via a coalition with the far-right Vox, something that the vast majority of PP supporters are apparently perfectly happy with (basically, they don’t care who’s in power, as long as it isn’t those nasty "communists" who are going to raise taxes, strip people of their freedom, and rack up a mountain of economy-destroying public debt).

At this point I’ve established some basis for why I don’t want to see Ayuso getting reelected. Like I said earlier, I don’t really know if a post like this is going to change anybody’s mind, but I still feel compelled to share it. The way I see it, the reason why the left sometimes wins and the right sometimes wins (in general, not in Madrid) is that the answers aren’t actually indisputably clear. If there weren’t any grounds for dispute, we wouldn’t have well over a century of modern political struggle played out in this subtle and changing thing we call "the political spectrum". While it is easy to find the unthinking and uninformed almost anywhere in that landscape, there are also examples of intelligent, well-intentioned human beings who can articulate their positions in a reasonable form all over the place. In short, it’s complicated. It’s all well and good to have an opinion, but you have to admit that their must be at least a seed of truth in a wide variety of political positions, even if they’re not right all the time. And a corollary to that is that, whatever your beliefs are, they’re probably not reflective or reality 100% of the time. I just know that, if I’m going to be wrong, I’d rather be wrong in the direction of trying too hard to defend fairness, to protect the disadvantaged, and to combat structural inequality, even if it isn’t all that we think it might be.

So with that out the way, let’s get into the details of how elections actually work in Madrid.

Madrid uses a proportional voting system. You vote for parties, and each party has a list of candidates. The more votes a party gets, the more seats they win, which means more people from their party go in to occupy places in the assembly. These electoral lists that the parties have are effectively ordered choices. The presidential candidate is at the top of the list, the list itself contains more than enough names to cover even the best-case scenarios that might occur in landslide wins. Often, as a symbolic gesture, the final person on the list (who will never actually enter the assembly in any kind of realistic scenario) is chosen on the basis of propaganda value. For example, it might be an influential person already in government at another level. This year, the PP announced that its list would be closed out by José Luis Martínez-Almeida, the current Mayor of Madrid. Obviously, he’s busy being Mayor and has no intention of leaving that role. His presence on the list is a symbolic gesture of solidarity and support.

There are two big gotchas to this system of proportional representation using electoral lists. The first is that there is a "5% rule"; any party that doesn’t get at least 5% of the vote is excluded from consideration. This is presumably to stop the Assembly from splintering into an ineffective mess of tiny parties or individuals incapable of making legislative progress. But there is a real risk for voters and for parties here. A voter voting for a party that does not make the threshold is effectively throwing away their vote. And for parties which suffer this fate, it is basically a death knell. They are unlikely ever to make a comeback from this kind of electoral ignominy. At the time of writing, it seems like Ciudadanos is going to suffer this fate, as the electorate effectively punishes them for their perceived political opportunism (wherein they seem willing to switch their "bets" and arbitrarily cross ideological boundaries in the name of accessing power).

The second big gotcha with this system is that there are rounding errors. It’s nigh on impossible that the distribution of votes will line up in such a way as to allow integral allocation of seats. The mechanism used in Madrid is "the D’Hondt system". The direction of rounding tends to favor large parties and coalitions. That is to say, voting for a smaller party may bring the downside risk that your vote is somehow less powerful than the vote of a citizen voting for a larger party. The algorithm is described as "the least proportional of all proportional voting systems, but also the most stable one". Whatever, it is what it is, and its parameters are the ones we have to work within.

In practical terms as a voter on the left, you have three options. These are the PSOE (socialists), Unidas Podemos (a newer party, and much farther left), and Más Madrid (newer still, a spin-off of Podemos with a more pragmatic/green tilt). All else being equal, given the nature of the D’Hondt system, a vote for the PSOE is "safer". Safer in the sense that the distortion in the D’Hondt system is likely to make a vote for the PSOE weigh ever so slightly more than a vote for Podemos or Más Madrid. Given that the overall tendency of Madrid is to vote for the right, you don’t want to dilute your left vote. We’re kind of tired of losing here! You might not like the PSOE’s policies, but if your goal is to maximize your chances of getting rid of Ayuso, it makes sense to vote for the PSOE.

But things got weird before and after the election was called. It’s not quite so simple as all that.

First of all, the election was called with great haste to preempt an incoming motion of no confidence. It seems that Ciudadanos was on the brink of teaming up with the PSOE to throw Ayuso out before her term ended, but it backfired on them tremendously when she beat them to it by calling the election first. All the polls indicate that Ciudadanos is going to get punished in the elections as a result of this perceived betrayal and act of opportunistic politicking. It seems likely that they’ll basically get wiped out. Many who voted for them will switch their vote to Ayuso.

As much as I would have loved to see Ayuso thrown out in the middle of her term, I think that these hijinks seldom achieve any useful effect. They often do more harm than good, serving only to further polarize and radicalize the debate. (Just look at all the good not one but two Trump impeachments did.) Unless the leader in question did something scandalously bad, and you have a bullet-proof case for it, a motion of no confidence is probably a bad idea. A rare counterexample in which it actually worked is the already cited motion of no confidence that put an end to Rajoy’s national government in 2018.

The next thing that happened was that the leader of Unidas Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, announced that he was — no shit — quitting the vice-presidency which he held in the national government in order to take the fight to Madrid. Geez. In general, I find him to be articulate, and his arguments to be intelligent and persuasive, but I don’t think I could ever cast a vote to somebody who quits an elected position a little after year into the job. It simply doesn’t matter how important he might allege that the fight for Madrid may be. It seems transparently clear that the real reason he’s getting out of the federal government is that he has been frustrated and disappointed by the amount of power that Podemos has been able to wield as a minority partner in the coalition government. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy.

In response to this, Ángel Gabilondo says, "con este Iglesias, no" ("not with this Iglesias"). Obviously overplaying his hand there. Just because he might want to keep all the power for the PSOE doesn’t mean that he can turn his back on a necessary ally. The only way the left is going to end two-and-a-half decades of conservative rule is going to be by acting in unison. Of course, things change quickly in politics, and he has since softened his posture, but it’s really disappointing that he made an unforced error like that.

So, D’Hondt tells me I should be voting for the PSOE, but I’ve just seen their candidate make a royal fuck-up before the campaign has even started, and furthermore, he is focusing his message on the notion of "serious government" and continuity (ie. a promise to make no changes to the tax system after until the next election, if he wins it, two years from now). I find this utterly lukewarm, like tepid bath water. Of course, I’d be thrilled to see Gabilondo as president if it meant getting rid of Ayuso, but I cannot be excited about him, and at 72 years of age and with the measured tones of the university professor that he is, I can’t see the rest of the public getting all that excited either. (In comparison, Ayuso and Iglesias are both 42 years old, while Mónica García — the Más Madrid candidate — and Rocío Monasterio — the Vox candidate — are both 47.)

Gabilando has since changed his posture about teaming up with Iglesias, which unfortunately just makes him weak in the eyes of his opponents, even if it is a necessary and good thing for the left. And such an easily avoided error. Sigh… He could easily have done exactly what Íñigo Errejón, spokesperson for Más País (the sibling party of Más Madrid, but operating at the national level), did, which is to say that he was open to dialog with anybody at all "with no red-lines and no vetoes", in the name of forming a government that avoided a right-plus-far-right coalition. Simple pragmatism! That’s what I want to see in my political representatives: a get-it-done attitude and a commitment to multi-party dialog in the name of benefiting the people; a refreshing change from the ultimatums, the hostage-taking, the rage-quitting, and the threats.

I start listening to more things from Errejón, of whom I already knew a bit from his time in the national congress. And I start learning more about Mónica García, the candidate in Madrid. It soon becomes clear to me that the party farthest to the left (that of Iglesias) is spending its time hurling accusations of "fascism" against the right, and the parties on the right are hurling back accusations of "communism" in return. And just about everybody is engaged in a vacuous debate about how their side is the guardian of "democracy" or "liberty", or any of a number of abstract words with strong emotive connotations. Meanwhile, the PSOE is really closer to being a centrist party than anything else (in contrast to Ciudadanos, which is "centrist" in name only, and really more like a watered-down version of the PP; let’s call it "PP Light"). Among the entire political spectrum, Más Madrid is the only one that is consistently talking about concrete issues that will make a difference in people’s lives. It’s the only one not spending most of its time engaged in political circus.

Now, you’re probably never going to find a party whose platform you agree with 100% in every aspect, and Más Madrid is no exception. I think in some senses they may be trying to do too much. Their program, for example, includes no fewer than 876 proposed measures(!), ranging from improvements to universal public health care and education, environmental initiatives, investments in research and investigation, and many, many others, in 13 categories. I honestly don’t have time to review them all, but as I scan through the ones that matter most to me, and sample others, I get a sense that this party comes about as close as I could reasonably expect to embodying my political preferences, even though there are surely things in there somewhere that I don’t consider to be optimal.

As such, even though D’Hondt tells me I should vote for the PSOE, I figure it’s also important to use your vote to send a message to the others parties on the left. In this case, a vote for Más Madrid is telling the PSOE that its offer of continuity and "seriousness" just doesn’t cut it. We want more. And it’s telling Podemos that their fervent commitment to an intellectually pure form of leftism isn’t compelling either, because they spend more time getting into fights with their political enemies than making a case for why their policies would benefit the majority. So, Más Madrid it is.

And I made this decision before it was cool to like Más Madrid. Just sayin’. Mónica did pretty well in the debates and the polls now show clear movement towards her party as people get to know her and hear more about the program. Meanwhile, the PSOE’s share of the voting pie continues to shrink. Whatever happens, I have a feeling that this election will be Gabilondo’s last as presidential candidate, unless, by some kind of miracle, he actually wins. Next time around, he’ll be 74.

Now, the left has a long uphill battle to fight if they’re going to win against the right in a community that seems to vote so consistently for Ayuso’s party, but we mustn’t give up hope. It’s easy to say "the right always wins in Madrid", but that would be a mistake. It’s the kind of statement that seems like an inevitable truth until one day the sun rises and it ceases to be true. I don’t know if 2021 is the year that it is going to happen, but I sure hope it is, and I’m going to do my best to make it happen. Obviously, I only get one vote (shame, that, isn’t it?) but I’m volunteering for Más Madrid in a small way, and one of the things I’m doing will be to represent Más Madrid as an "apoderado" (ie. somebody who monitors the voting process at a voting station on election day).

I hope this was helpful, and if you want to talk about any of this, come find me on Twitter; it seems like a lovely place to have a chat.

Building a PC

Back in the late 90s I was making plans to build a PC based on the original AMD Athlon processor, basically because I wanted a better game-playing experience than I was getting on my Mac. I regularly read AnandTech and Tom’s Hardware. I knew about northbridge and southbridge chipsets, about Intel codenames like "Willamette", "Northwood", and "Prescott" (fun fact: these chips used 180 nm, 130 nm, 90 nm processes, respectively, which is kind of mind-blowing when you think that AMD is currently using a 7 nm process in its current Zen architecture), and about rumors and future roadmaps.

In the end, I never followed-through on it. If I had been flush with cash I surely would have run out and done it, but I was pretty busy completing my undergraduate studies (and failing to complete my postgraduate studies). And I wasn’t flush with cash: I’d sunk a significant chunk of my meagre student savings into a series of Apple machines, so found myself slowly becoming more heavily "invested" — quite literally — in that ecosystem.

The arrival of Mac OS X and pushed me further along that path. It wedded the power and flexibility of UNIX with the thoughtful and delightful UX of Apple’s once-great Human Interface Guidelines. Apple enjoyed a brief moment of performance parity or even superiority with the G3 processor, reducing the incentive to get a PC. By 2006 Apple had released its first Intel iMac, solving the performance deficit that had developed by that time, and I didn’t think about wanting a PC for a long time. Not until Apple had shown itself to be hopelessly committed to thinness at any cost and started pumping out laptops with garbage keyboards, useless Touch Bars, and crippling thermal throttling issues.

So here we are in 2020 and I am at last putting together a Linux PC, finally fulfilling a 20-year-old wish. I had an outsized amount of fun today setting up case fans and doing cable management. I don’t even have all the pieces at this time, so I’m just doing what I can. Some people say building a PC is like "Lego for adults", and I can see why. I’m sure it wouldn’t be so fun if I had to do it every day as a job, but when it’s a once-a-decade thing, or even rarer than that, it’s quite interesting and therapeutic.

I’m not switching to Linux, I’m just relaxing the "one machine at a time" limit that I’ve stuck to for the last 15 years. I’m keeping my mid-2015 MacBook Pro (still my favorite Mac laptop ever) running macOS 10.13 High Sierra (sticking to the oldest supported version of macOS that I can, because I feel like Apple has lost its way with the subsequent releases). There’s too much software on the Mac that I’m not in a position to walk away from yet. But I’m complementing that with a beefy desktop machine that will be great for doing development work because — unlike my Apple machine — I can load it up with RAM at non-extortionate prices, and it won’t labor under the burden of devastating thermal throttling. You can put together a very high-end self-built PC for prices that barely get you admission into the Apple store.

Here’s the thing though: when I started to look into the state of the PC world, I was horrified to discover just how complicated everything had become in the 20 years since I was last up-to-date. I mean, I don’t know if it really is more complicated, but it’s true that pretty much everything I once knew has been rendered utterly irrelevant.

Let’s talk numbers. If you’re going to build your own PC you need to pick 7 "main" components (CPU, motherboard, case, memory, GPU, disk, power supply) and the number of combinations is staggering. This is not to speak of equally essential "extras" like keyboards, mice and displays. The decision tree fans out with alarming rapidity: you pick AMD or Intel, which leads you to choose a generation and a model within that generation, which implies a socket choice but then you need to pick a motherboard and therefore a chipset and vendor. So there are two CPU vendors, but dozens of CPUs, and many more motherboard vendors. Even when you’ve locked in a CPU vendor (eg. AMD, because you want a Ryzen CPU) and therefore a socket type (eg. AM4), as well as a motherboard vendor (say, Gigabyte) and chipset (say, X570), you still have about 17 AM4 X570 motherboard choices from that vendor alone. Maybe this 80-minute-long analysis of all just those boards will help you navigate the various tradeoffs between cost, feature-set, build quality, and son on…

A similarly bewildering array of choices remains with respect to RAM, GPUs, cases, and every other category listed above, as well as some additional "auxilliary" things that I didn’t even mention, like CPU coolers and case fans. One of the reasons why desktop PCs are so much more powerful than laptops is that the larger form factor permits some incredibly effective (and large) cooling systems that mostly make thermal throttling a non-concern, as well as providing you with the tools to push into over-clocking territory if that kind of things floats your bloat. Do you want to go with air-cooling or water-cooling? If air-cooling, which vendor and model do you want to go with for your CPU cooler? How many case fans do you want? What size? From what vendor? Are you going to go with 3-pin or 4-pin connectors? What’s the difference? Which ones will be intake and which ones will be exhaust fans? What’s your stance on negative vs positive pressure? What do you think about filtering? If you go with water-cooling, do you want an "all-in-one" thing or a custom loop? From what vendor? How big do you want your radiator to be? Do you want more than one? What kind of thermal paste will you use? And how much? Will you go with "liquid metal" or something non-conductive?

And I’m only scratching the surface here. You probably don’t only care about thermals and pricing, but probably noise too. So what kind of case should you get? Want something relatively closed and sound-insulated, or something relatively open which maximizes airflow and allows you to run fans slower and quieter? Choices like these proliferate everywhere you look.

You watch some YouTube videos to guide you on your way, but that doesn’t necessarily help at first, because it just overwhelms you with evidence of how much you don’t know yet and may never know. And even when you see expert PC builders that have literally millions of subscribers, and whose full-time job consists of building PC from components and reviewing them, there is no shortage of mishaps where you get to see how their newly built machines won’t boot, or the components prove to be incompatible, or they commit a human error that ends up frying or breaking some fragile component. Visit a forum like the "buildapc" subreddit and you’ll find yourself in the company of countless confused others who are trying to fix a screwup or dig themselves out of a hole.

My advice here would be to take it slowly if you can. I’ve gone from feeling horrified and extremely doubtful that I’d be able to select a compatible set of components at a good price and successfully assemble it, to being relatively comfortable with the idea. The key element has been that I am not in a hurry: I’ve been able to immerse myself into the PC subculture on YouTube over a period of months, to the point where not only are the names and numbers familiar to me, but I’m also aware of most of the things that could go wrong and what to do to mitigate the risk. I’m not saying I’m an expert yet — I probably never will be; I’m just saying that I feel comfortable now with the idea of trying this.

The good news is that there is a reason why channels like JayzTwoCents, Gamers Nexus, Bitwit, Linus Tech Tips, and Paul’s Hardware all have north of a million subscribers (and in some cases much more). And those aren’t even the only ones, there are many technology channels that have multiple millions of subscribers, and a host of others with hundreds of thousands. YouTube won’t hestitate to recommend them to you once you get started.

One of the reasons why these channels are so popular is that human beings love getting themselves all worked up about new stuff, but in addition to that, the content on these channels is often quite entertaining, usually interesting, always rich in information, and sometimes packed with wisdom, insight, or humor. All of which is to say that if you’re not in a hurry to learn how to build a PC, you can go deep into this content over a lengthy period, to the point where you can navigate a site like PCPartPicker without feeling utterly lost.

So I’m doing a slow build of a PC, ordering parts when the price is right and the availability is there. Nobody can get their hands on AMD’s new Ryzen 5000 series CPUs (or their new GPUs), and to be honest, that’s totally fine, at least for me. It seems that lots of components are in short supply now anyway, partly because these big product launches trigger demand for all other components as people build and upgrade systems, but also because of the pandemic, which has led people to make investments in systems for working and being entertained from home.

Looking on the bright side then, the constrained supply helps spread out the cost over weeks or months, and gives you an extra buffer in which to learn more about building a PC; you even have time to read the manual that comes with your components with a level of patience and attention to detail that you probably wouldn’t have if you had a screwdriver in your hand, surrounded by a wall of boxed components, on a mission to complete your first PC build in a day.

This long baking process has definitely helped me steer clear of some potential issues. For example, letting the decision about which case to buy simmer for several weeks gave me the time I needed to change my mind a few times and eventually settle on case that is not only versatile enough to let me explore the trade-offs between sound isolation and air-flow, but also to find something discrete that doesn’t have any of the tempered glass side panel and RGB nonsense that seems to be all the rage nowadays, but which I find totally absurd (and which would make my partner want to kill me if I ever brought something so garish and unsightly into our house).

Right now I’m probably about 50% of the way towards a finished system, and having to work towards it like this for so long is going to make me appreciate it in a way that I have never appreciated the Macs that I’ve owned. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate those; it’s just that I appreciated them in a different way. I treasured them like beautiful, fragile, works of art. One of the reasons is that when something goes wrong with them, you can’t really fix them — at least, you can’t fix them easily. Apple doesn’t want you to open the case. They deliberately go out of their way to make them nigh on impossible for mere lay people to repair, ostensibly in devotion to the Church of Thinness.

The PC, on the other hand, is like a pickup truck. The power supply has a 10-year warranty on it. The case is brutishly ugly, placing functionality and build quality above aesthetics. If I need to upgrade the PC in 5 or more years from now, I know the case will still be totally adequate. In short, the PC brings to the hardware a large part of the freedom to maintain and modify that I’ve enjoyed on the software plain since forever (despite Apple’s efforts to circumscribe that freedom over the years).