Spring, and a nerd's thoughts turn to Linux

It's Spring in Silicon Valley - El Nino's rains have brought magnificent displays of wildflowers to the oak woodland of the foothills that edge the valley. Cassie, my Australian Shepherd dog, has sensed the change of season. She is even more raring to hit the trail than normal, and normal usually means about 5:15am.

So, perhaps I'll be forgiven if Spring has gotten to me. You see, in my bi-weekly e-mail exchange with the editor of this column, I offered that I was thinking deeply about how technological standards are becoming more important than, say, the law, in driving behaviour norms. But, secretly, unbeknownst to my poor unsuspecting editor, Spring was working its magic on me.

For I was not sitting by night, deep in the World Wide Web, researching my topic. Nor was I by day reflecting mightily as I plied the foothill trails, my faithful dog at my side, wading through knee-high Californian poppies, Baby Blue Eyes, wild irises and polygonum cuspidatum compatcum.

No, friends, I was hacking a Linux box. Linux, for the uninitiated, is a free clone of the Unix programming language, which runs on PC hardware and is named after its creator, Linus Torvalds. Linux has grown to some six million users since its release a couple of years ago, and it has been used to create the film Titanic, among other things.

So, it's Spring, but there was the money, too. I consider it an honour and a privilege to write this column, but, even better, a cheque periodically finds its way from London to me out here at gulker.com.

Last year, said cheques were more than completely spent on a 50th birthday party for my very deserving spouse (she puts up with moi, after all). I had absolutely no idea what 17 otherwise respectable, accomplished career women could do in one weekend, either to George Gaines' beautiful Highland Ranch or his stock of fine Roderer champagne (not to mention the ranch's antique furnishings, its horses, their tack, the nearby town of Philo, California, or even the Redwood forest of the surrounding Anderson Valley).

It suffices to say that once all tariffs were paid, damages covered, bail forfeited in lieu of court appearance and local municipalities variously assuaged, 1997's proceeds were shot, and then some.

In fact, I had just finished paying for the last chair, broken somehow during the culminating evening's gala, when my own birthday rolled around this past March.

As luck would have it, a cheque from The Independent arrived the same day, as if on cue. My dear spouse, perhaps feeling a little guilty over the extent of liabilities for her own birthday, said: "Do anything you want with it, dear."

Now, I felt pretty sure that "anything" probably didn't mean "a weekend at the Mustang Ranch" (Mustang Ranch being a notorious brothel in the neighbouring state of Nevada) and, anyway, the cheque wasn't that big.

So off I went that rainy afternoon to Fry's Electronics in Campbell, deep in the valley's silicon heart. Fry's, you should understand, is a Silicon Valley institution whose three locations sell everything for the discriminating nerd.

Miles of tall shelves hold computer chips, potato chips, circuit boards, chocolate bars, soldering irons, Jolt Cola, Unix documentation, personal hygiene items, hard disk arrays, toys, software, rock 'n' roll CDs, Internet routers and girly magazines, to name just a few of the items on hand.

Every Fry's Electronic's store has a different decor: the one in Campbell has an ancient monument theme with large, Hollywood movie-lot idols and columns. I ducked in under the faux-ziggurat entrance and grabbed the nearest cart, shopping list clutched in sweaty palm.

Where Spring drives some to passion, and others to hot-blooded action, in Silicon Valley, nerds are driven to the parts bins at Fry's. The selection changes frequently, meaning you have to think on your feet as you cruise the processors, motherboards, power supplies, disk drives and RAM, not to mention countless special deals.

A yellow sign beckoned "Manager's Special - PCI motherboard and Pentium 133MHz CPU - $138.99" (about pounds 88). A covey of nerds circled, most of whom held an open box under their armpit while carefully inspecting the motherboard in their hands, an item of Taiwanese manufacture.

I looked over the 40 or so other motherboards offered, then walked to where the CPU chips were displayed in a locked glass case. I did the math - yup, the Manager's Special was a heck of a deal.

So I loaded the Via 580 VP motherboard into my cart, and flagged down a salesperson for a voucher good for the Pentium, to be picked up at the checkout counter.

With the heart of my new machine decided on, the real fun began. From the thousands of competing items, I chose a 3.1-gigabyte EIDE Hard Drive, $209, a SIIG PCI Video Card, $39.99, a NDC Ethernet Card, $29.99, a Sony Floppy Drive, $29.99, a Hitachi refurbished 16-speed CD-Rom Drive (IDE), $39.99, two 16-megabyte EDO RAM chips at $36.95 each, a Pentium chip cooling fan, $24.95, a Fry's Instant Exchange guarantee, $19.95 (in case I fried the motherboard), and (my only splurge) a jet-black Antec computer case with 300-watt power supply and green LED CPU-speed readouts for $99.99.

Putting this all together has taken time, not to mention installing the Linux operating system (perhaps worthy of a column in itself), so my editor is just going to have to understand - no toney, high-minded column this week.

After all, chief, it's Spring!