Writing

Software, technology, sysadmin war stories, and more. Feed
Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Beeps, boops, clicks and ka-chunks of data processing

Anyone who used the Punter protocol on a C-64 should remember the visual aspects of downloading a file, particularly if it was big. Every few seconds, if everything was going well, it would print a "-". This line would grow and grow, and eventually it would fill that line and start another. If it went on for a really long time, it might even reach the bottom and start scrolling things up.

That's all well and good, but how many people remember the sounds which came with such a download? I'm not talking about the awful noises most of these programs used to make after it finished. I'm not even really talking about the whizz-whizz-whizz of your floppy drive spinning up and seeking around as the blocks came in.

I'm actually referring to the data transfer itself. Something in the way it worked actually caused the system to make a specific high-pitched whine. It actually had a bit of a pattern to it, and you could tell what was going on. It sounded a bit like a "eee-doot, deee dooooooooooooo", and it would print that dash right in the middle. It kept making this noise until the very end when it would make a few more staccato squawks and then finish.

I never bothered to find out if it was coming from inside the computer itself, or if it was leaking into the audio line and coming out of my monitor's speaker, but it was definitely there. If you paid enough attention, you could even tell when it was having trouble and when it might resend a block. Sometimes, you could even predict a really bad day when the call waiting signal fired off and you were about to be kicked offline. Dialing "*70" wasn't a good idea when you only had the one phone line in a house, after all.

Years later, I noticed that I could tell when I had received mail on one of my Linux boxes at home since it had a certain pattern of disk activity on a relatively noisy drive.. I later narrowed it down to the syslog() activity by sendmail coupled with syslogd's own tendency to force writes to disk. The "ka-chunk ka-chunk, ka-chunk" usually meant I had just received a message and should walk over and take a look.

I had a similar experience not long after that in one of my sysadmin gigs. All 1500 users were running Eudora and connecting to my mail server with POP3 regularly. This mail server happened to live on top of my desk, and it also had certain audible characteristics. It became possible to gauge system load just by how things sounded in my desk area.

Of course, none of this is news to anyone who's used an AM radio to pay attention to their (mainframe) job status. This was a little different in that you could hear system activity changes without any extra equipment, but the general utility remains.

I like to think of this kind of thing as "monkey level stuff". You just get a feel for what the normal sounds of a space should be, and when they change, you tend to notice. It's the sort of thing which could probably be explained away as an evolutionary advantage in the jungle.

Back when I first noticed this about my mail server, I wondered if there was a way to explicitly create sounds based on status. This led me to find something called Peep which aimed to do exactly that. It used a loop of nice ambient sound based on your load average and added different noises for certain events. I never actually ran it, but it was nice to see that other people were thinking about things this way.

I hate noisy computers, but I like having a subtle way to find out about certain events in specific circumstances. It's a weird situation.