My New Workstation Build

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve built and tested my new workstation PC. My previous workstation was a Dell Precision T5600 (built circa 2012) with a 6-core Xeon, 24GB of RAM, AMD V5900 GPU, and 120GB SSD. The performance was still fine despite it being nearly a decade old, but it had two issues: It was looooooouuuud, and very power-hungry (200w at idle). So, it was time to be replaced.

Many moons ago I used to work in a computer store, so I’m used to building my own machines. Why didn’t I last time? Because I needed something in a hurry, and somebody had their old workstation for sale on Gumtree, and it seemed like a good deal (and for the most part, it was).

My requirements for the new build were as follows:

  • Silence at idle is a must. The fans can be audible, but not annoying, under load.
  • 16GB of RAM at least, with the capability of holding at least 32GB in the future.
  • On that note, it should be somewhat future-proof. I should be able to upgrade the motherboard, case, and storage independently of each other (something I couldn’t do with the Dell).
  • It has to look good sitting on my desk (completely subjective, I know).
  • At least 8 threads for compiling software with, but the option of replacing the CPU in the future.
  • Support for three 1920×1080 DisplayPort monitors.

And the parts I have chosen to make all this happen?

  • Case: Fractal Design Era ITX
  • PSU: Corsair SF450
  • Motherboard: ASUS ROG Strix B460-I
  • CPU: Intel Core i3 10100
  • RAM: G.Skill Ripjaws V 16GB (1x16GB) 3200MHz
  • SSD: Western Digital Black SN750 500GB

All up, the cost of the parts was around $1000 AUD.

One thing I found quite annoying picking the parts for this machine was that the vast majority of available performance parts were gaming-oriented. RGB lights plastered on everything and designed to look like something that has fallen off an army truck (which ironically does everything they can to avoid having RGB lights). In addition, most of the reviews online, both written and YouTube videos, were written from the stance of a gamer.

Take for example the Fractal Design Era case. Gamers hate this case as it has terrible cooling for the GPU. It’s a legitimate issue sure, but one only faced by gamers. If you don’t have a discrete graphics card in the system, then you don’t have this issue and the case is thermally fine. But the positive trade-off from that thermal design in the GPU area is that it’s an ITX case that looks like it belongs in a modern art museum. Look at it. It’s beautiful!

My other part choices are pretty standard. An i3 is more than enough (it’s got as much power as my old Xeon), 16GB of RAM is plenty (8GB would have been fine if not for Microsoft Teams), and 500GB of SSD boot drive (plus a re-used 4TB drive for storage) is fantastic and surprisingly cheap.

Did I meet my requirements? Yes. It’s silent. It only consumes around 25w at idle and around 150w under full load. I consider that a huge win. The new machine would pay for itself in 3 years with power savings alone. All the fans are zero-RPM enabled and will turn off under idle conditions.

It’s also future-proof. I’ve learned the hard way in my last two computer purchases (the Precision workstation mentioned above, and a Dell XPS 9350 laptop) that a lot of damage comes from tightly integrated components. If one thing breaks or is no longer up to the task, the whole thing has to go. The reason I bought the Precision was that the XPS only had 8GB of RAM, and I needed more so I could run SQL Server and Microsoft Teams at the same time (madness, I know). To mitigate the environmental impact, I bought the Precision second-hand, which raises a different set of issues. Now I had a powerful computer, but I also had a loud, power-hungry, and (yet again) non-modifiable system. This is one tiny peek into the world of throw-it-away consumable technology products.

In my mind, the best way to minimise the environmental damage of our computer use is to make sure everything we buy follows the established standards. They last the longest and can be re-used by interchanging with other things. Take for example the ATX standard. You could buy an ATX case from 1998 and build a modern system in it. In fact, people do that. It has changed that little.

My goal is to have this case and power supply for the next 10 years, and this motherboard for the next 5. I can see a CPU, RAM, and SSD upgrade in the future, but the core platform should last a good long while.

Bring Back The Ferries!

Last weekend, a new bridge was constructed across the Tasman Highway near the Cenotaph in Hobart. This construction meant the highway was closed all weekend, making it much harder for Eastern Shore residents to travel into the city (they could, it just took much longer).

The Salamanca Markets were kind enough to sponsor a free ferry across the harbour from Bellerive to Brooke St Pier on the Hobart Waterfront (here’s their page giving details of the ferry service).

We’re pretty excited because WE’RE ON A BOAT!

Given my enthusiasm for public transport, and given I was attending an event in the city in the afternoon, I thought we should check it out.

I also wanted to make sure that any person ‘investigating’ demand for a ferry service would know that it would be used. I need not have worried on that last point. I got chatting to a few people and apparently, there were hundreds of people lined up to cross into the city by 10 am in the morning. So great was demand that for a part of the day they put on two ferries rather than one!

Look at how happy these people are!

I’m well aware that a sunny, calm Saturday afternoon probably results in greater demand than a cold winter morning. To that I say: ferries (at least this one) have a bar – with coffee in the morning and a beer at night, it beats the bus!

All I know is, Hobart has proven that we’re keen for it.

You Can’t Optimise For Tourism

There’s been a bit of discussion recently following the Dark Mofo festival in Hobart. The Lord Mayor of Hobart, Ron Christie, is warning of the dangers of Dark Mofo and the welcoming of tourists into Tasmania.

I personally think Dark Mofo is a great festival that gets sleepy Hobartians out of their beds on cold winter evenings. It (and other arts events) should be encouraged.

But it did make me think more generally about tourism in Tasmania and what is healthy and what isn’t for the state. My hypothesis is this: you can’t optimise a place for tourism, because to do so ruins the reason the tourists come.

I’d like to cite an example. Last year my partner and I went to Vietnam, and we visited a town called Sapa. Sapa was a little mountain resort village surrounded by beautiful mountains, with beautiful hiking trails all around. And then they started building more resorts and other infrastructure for the tourists. And now the only people there work in the tourism industry, and it’s not real any more. I remember looking at the town square and remarking, “it’s like Vietnamese Disneyland.” It wasn’t fun to look at ‘villagers’ who lived in apartments and went out into the village to sell trinkets to passing tourists. It was a complete waste of time going because I didn’t experience a Vietnamese village, which was the reason I went in the first place.

Hobart is a bit more than a mountain village, but it’s also surrounded by beautiful mountains with beautiful hiking trails. It has an identity it has built up over the last few decades as a “clean and green” place, where nature is just left to be. The influx of tourists has caused a lot of angst between people who want to optimise for tourism (such as building resorts on the East Coast of Tasmania, or building a cable car up Kunanyi [Mount Wellington]) and those who want to leave the natural places alone.

The problem with leaving these natural places alone is that the tourists are going to come anyway. You’re damned if you do put in the infrastructure and let the infrastructure ruin nature, and you’re damned if you don’t put in any infrastructure and the nature just gets trampled. In this way, Tasmania’s natural beauty is bound to suffer in the future (unless we put in place limits on the number of visitors). We just get to choose the method in which it happens.

Back in the city (if Hobart can yet be called that), it’s a different story. Tasmania’s economy has suffered in the last couple of decades as our older economies (farming, mining and forestry) have shrivelled up. Only high-end agriculture (have you tasted Tasmanian cheese? YUM) remains as a viable source of income for the state. Then MONA happened, and everything changed.

Almost overnight, MONA changed Hobart. Tourism went from being a small part of our economy to the saviour (willing to bet David Walsh would love being called that) that was going to fix Tasmania’s economic woes. And for almost the last decade, it has done just that. It’s brought in visitors to both the summer and winter festivals, to the museum, and to Tasmania generally. It’s made Tasmanians feel better about being Tasmanian, and it’s made the mainland states stop making fun of Tasmania and start taking notice.

But MONA alone cannot save Tasmania, because MONA is tourism, and if tourism is all you have left, the tourists will leave too. And there in lies the problem for Tasmania: we need to find a new economy, something our state can do well at, and something that is in demand in the world today.

This isn’t a problem for the state government to fix. Besides the fact that the government couldn’t govern it’s way out of paper bag (and the opposition isn’t much better), it’s not something the government has in it’s power to fix. Yes, the government could hand out subsidies to businesses or provide grants or some other thing. But it’s the people of this great state (and I think it is great, despite it’s problems) that have to step up and do this.

But what is something that Tasmania could do well at? Well, we’re too far away from literally everywhere else to ship anything, so volume manufacturing is out. No point making trinkets here. We could (and indeed do) manufacture high-end goods, such as furniture and clothing for rich pricks the discerning customer. But half the time these high-end goods only get sold to passing tourists. I believe the reason for this is that a sole operator in a shed just can’t sustain marketing their product to the world. The only place where we have managed to do this is whiskey. If a viable large-scale high-end manufacturing business could be built in Tasmania today, it would propel Tasmania into the future.

Tasmania is well placed to do technology, because Hobart’s lifestyle currently offers a great deal to well educated tech people. Commutes are short (relative to Melbourne or Sydney), and our network infrastructure is the best in Australia. The cost of living is cheap, so starting a startup requires less investment here than elsewhere. And we’ve had a few successes. Procreate, Biteable and Popup WiFi are going great guns. But there’s a limit to the success we can have unless we can deal with two huge factors conspiring against us.

The first of these is education. Our public school system sucks, and our university is a joke (why UTAS sucks as hard as it does is an entire article in itself). We have some of the lowest literacy and numeracy rates in the country. What does the technology industry need? Knowledge workers who know how to read, write, and add things up. Education is the future of Tasmania.

Secondly, whilst the cost of living is currently low, and the lifestyle is currently good, that’s changing rapidly. Housing prices are sky-rocketing and availability is plummeting, making Hobart a much harder place to move to unless you’re very rich. Our commutes are getting longer as we build houses (slowly) further and further from the CBD, meaning we’re spending longer stuck in traffic every day.

We’re scared to build high-rise buildings in and near the CBD because it might ruin what makes Hobart special, and might scare the tourists away. I’d argue that not building the high-rise buildings is even worse, because if Hobart becomes a sucky place to live for the locals (and sitting in traffic makes you miserable) then the locals will go away, and the tourists won’t be far behind them.

There are other ways to make Hobart better for the locals. Public transport infrastructure is a big one, as is Health infrastructure (more hospitals, basically). At this point, you could throw money at basically any non-tourism infrastructure project in the state and it would be a complete success (they’ll invest it in roads, you heard it here first).

If you want to make Tasmania great again (urghh, I feel sick even saying it), then tourism isn’t the answer. It can’t be. We need to invest in our local population, and we need to invest in the infrastructure that makes our local population smarter, healthier, and happier. Economic prosperity will follow.

End rant.

Our Trip To America

Recently I had cause to visit the United States for a friend’s wedding, which was being held in San Francisco. Since the USA is so far from Australia, my partner and I figured we may as well do a bit extra in case we’re not back for a while.

In the end, we settled on starting in San Francisco, visiting Yosemite National Park, catching the California Zephyr (a train) to Chicago, the Lake Shore Limited (another train) to New York, and then fly home from there. Anybody familiar with my love of trains will know that this trip made me very happy!

While I won’t speak much about the wedding publicly, I will just say this: it’s one of the most amazing weddings I’ve been to. I was also asked to give a bit of speech at the reception, and I may have got a bit soppy. Oops.

Exploring San Francisco was cool, but the city has some incredible social inequality issues that it really needs to work through. We saw so many homeless people, as a proportion of their population it must be an incredible percentage. We did see a few of the sights, notably the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as doing a trip to Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite was quite possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, outside Tasmania. It was pouring down with rain half the day, and there were a few thunderstorms as well, but that just made it even more incredible. Despite all the people, there were plenty of animals, so we got a few bird pictures and I saw a SQUIRREL!

The next part of our trip was the trains from San Francisco to New York, right across the full breadth of the USA.

We saw so much of America, from mountains to canyons to plains to farms to suburbs, and met a heap of people along the way. I would totally recommend the California Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago to literally anybody and everybody. Worth every cent.

We spent six hours in Chicago waiting to change trains, and in that time we managed to have some amazing deep pan pizza. It’s entirely different to normal pizza, and it’s fantastic. Can’t wait to cook it myself at home. Chicago was a really cool city, we both wish we’d spent more time there, maybe a day or two. When doing research for the trip we couldn’t think of anything touristy to do there, but while there we were just struck by how nice the city is and how nice living there would be. Even the suburbs the train went through looked pretty nice.

The train was reasonably comfortable, but the cabin was very small, all of our luggage caused issues trying to keep track of everything and still have room to sit down. The meals were excellent, especially considering it was a) on a train and b) in the USA. The two-deck cars used west of Chicago were nicer than the single-level cars used further east.

I have literally a thousand photos from these few days, but here is a quick selection:

Finally, we spent a couple of days in New York City. We both loved our time there, it really is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. It’s intense, with so many people packed into such a small space, but at the same time there was a good amount of culture packed in as well.

We stayed in a lovely AirBNB in Brooklyn, in an area called Prospect Park. Whilst the place we stayed was nice, what really struck us was the neighbourhood around it. Easily walkable, with excellent public transport, a variety of different socio-economic groups living there, all things that most Hobart suburbs… lack.

Manhattan, of course, was amazing. We went to Central Park (big and green, and I saw ANOTHER SQUIRREL), Times Square (busy and horribly touristy), the 9/11 Memorial (incredibly moving), the Statue of Liberty, and so much more I can’t even think of it all. We packed a lot into the couple of days we were there.

We also ate a lot of excellent food – pizza, bagels, cheeseburgers, cheesecake, as well as a curry (of course).

Overall, we both loved our trip to the USA. I would totally visit again, however I’m not looking forward to the flights – the fifteen hours from LAX to MEL is a killer, even on a Boeing 787 (which, by the way, is a very lovely aircraft).

If you’d like to see the full album of photos, send me an email and I’ll share them with you!

Packing List for Two Weeks in Vietnam

I’m about to head off an overseas trip for two weeks in Vietnam (travelling via train from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi), and like a true millenial traveller I thought it might be interesting to show everybody what I’ve packed for the occasion.

The plan is to live out of my backpack for two weeks, which, based on previous conference travelling, is a very achievable goal. My partner is also taking a backpack (albeit one slightly larger than mine).

You’ll note that this trip is unusual in that my partner is ‘encouraging’ me not to take a laptop (presumably because it’s so unusual that I travel without a laptop). That’s not much of an issue these days as smart phones can do almost anything a laptop can do these days, just with a much smaller keyboard. This lightens the backpack considerably.

The other change from my usual conference packing list is that, due to Vietnam being a tropical country and our trip being during the wet season, I’m taking a lot of medical gear I wouldn’t bother with otherwise (mosquito repellant, antibiotics, gastro tablets, bandages, and so on).

Without any further ado, here we are:

Clothing

  • 5x T-Shirts (light colours)
  • 5x Underwear
  • 5x Socks
  • 1x Shorts
  • 1x Jeans (mostly for airports and trains)
  • 1x Raincoat
  • 1x Swimwear
  • 1x Pyjama Shorts

You’ll note that five changes of clothes is nowhere near enough for a two week holiday, so we’re planning on doing laundry two or three times while we’re away. From my experience in the Philippines in 2013, laundry facilities are everywhere in South East Asia, and it’s even ridiculously cheap to pay somebody else to do it, so it makes a lot more sense than packing a suitcase to last you the entire trip (and then dragging that around with you for two weeks).

Medical / Toiletries

  • Travel Medical Kit (bandages, etc)
  • Travel Towel
  • Hand Sanitiser
  • Toothpaste
  • Toothbrush
  • Mosquito Repellent
  • Sunscreen
  • Tablets

Other Items

  • Wallet
  • Phone
  • Passport
  • Keyring
  • Umbrella
  • Teabags (very important!)
  • USB Power Brick
  • USB Cable
  • Earphones
  • Luggage Tag
  • Luggage Locks
  • Sunglasses
  • Pens
  • Notepad
  • Staples (for changing SIM cards)
  • Foreign Currency
  • Travel Documents

And when it’s packed, it all looks like this:

I’m planning on doing a review of this bag (the Thule Crossover 32L) as it’s an awesome bag, both for commuting and (hopefully) for travel. I’ll probably write that once I’m back and have fully trialled it in every scenario.

For now though, it’s time to begin the travels!