A desperate recommission

This is one of those stories that will either make you writhe with indignation, shrug in disbelief or shudder in horror.

Off and on for the past two years I’ve been the “host” (notice I didn’t say “owner”) of a vaguely unusual laptop — the Sotec e-note, which is unusual in that it’s a living, breathing and working K6-2, a true 450Mhz i586 machine. It’s not the fastest or prettiest machine of its generation, but it’s getting harder to find these in complete, working states.

I don’t consider myself lucky for that — after all, the machine is a catalog of computer abuse and misuse, with a battered shell, three quirky keys, noisy parts and, worst of all, a full-scale installation of Windows XP Professional bogging it down. It takes about five minutes for the thing to start and reach a desktop, and for the drive light to stop blinking.

It has more crudware installed on it than is proper for a machine of any era or OS, and the real software that is installed on it — things like Office and Norton Systemgunk — are just too heavy (in my personal opinion) for a lowly K6-2.

All that being said, I find it to be a great addition to the house arsenal, partly because it’s a true i586, and partly because it responds well when given the chance. Start times drop to under 20 seconds if you’re using a custom-built Linux system, and I can get Flash 10 and Firefox 3.0.x to work together at an acceptable level. Wireless networks, esoteric USB trinkets and all the standard hardware work fine … if the system is built up properly.

And some parts of it are actually in fantastic shape. The screen is immaculate. The touchpad has a clean and sharp feel, even though I don’t really like touchpads. It’s not so much unwanted, as unappreciated in some senses.

But technically it’s not mine. I am just “borrowing” it, because it otherwise sits unwanted on a shelf in the office. I have permission to use it, and since no one else is willing to give it any love, I experiment with it. Ubuntu, Crux, Lowarch, Mepis, Slitaz, Wolvix. … It’s the test bed. And it seems happy.

Now let’s switch gears for a second.

Remember that beleaguered desktop PC at work? The ~1.4Ghz machine that’s one-part office file server, one-part workstation and 90 percent malware? Well, in recent days its performance has fallen off so badly that it just continually reboots, never making it far beyond the login screen.

The staff, as you might imagine, is up in arms over its failure. There is some proprietary software that is needed for billing and account management, and that is, of course, only on that machine and now is, of course, almost inaccessible. There is some finger-pointing going on, as is always the case when something goes pear-shaped in an office environment. Someone installed games, supposedly. Someone installed outside software, others say.

Opinions differ. The office WoW geek — a 45-plus-year-old WoW geek, I should add — exhibits his regular lack of expertise on the subject by alternatively insisting it doesn’t have enough memory to run XP (it has 1Gb) or it has too many user accounts on it (it has around eight or ten). I think he can be comfortably ignored.

(As a side note to WoWers, be aware that some of your online counterparts are not only single white men cresting the “middle-aged” bracket, but are also sometimes woefully ignorant of the inside of a computer.)

For my own part I believe the issue is either excessive dust in the case, which is causing heat-induced hardware hiccups (that corner of the room is a tangle of wires, and as a result, rarely gets cleaned), or — more likely — just scrambled software. It’s probably the original installation of Windows, and probably an upgrade from some uglier version, like ME. Of course, I am biased, because I know how to spot a deficient-by-design operating system. 😈

Regardless of office scuttlebut, the fact remains that a machine that works fine when the operating system is supplanted with a clean one is literally on its last leg, and complete failure would be a catastrophic event.

And as a final, insult-to-injury revelation, the person I thought was a contracted computer technician who stops in the office at times to “maintain” the hardware … is actually just a friend of the boss who clicks a few buttons and installs yet another spyware scanner.

And now comes the sad part.

I mentioned to the boss that I still have his crappy laptop at home, and I can bring it back if he thinks it will ease the workload. I made the offer just as a gesture, never expecting him to accept it. After all, the laptop hardly works.

And he jumped at it. He has ordered another computer, a Dell laptop, to take over some of the responsibilities of the Prius, but in the mean time the K6-2 is back on the front line.

I’m horrified.

After all, this is a 9- or 10-year-old laptop we’re talking about. This is a machine that pauses every time you open a file because it needs to confer with Norton Systemgunk and update its virus lists. This is a machine that doesn’t have a working right-arrow key. …

But ours is not to wonder why. …

So I’ve swapped out the hard drive I was using for playtesting, replaced the original, adjusted the BIOS and test-booted the machine before folding it up, screwing everything down tight and bundling it up to take to the office. Old soldiers never die. They just keep marching.

Personally, I think it’s a sad day when you have to rely on a 450Mhz antique to take over office duties because of a mismanaged, poorly maintained, abused machine with no proper technician, account management, or even system setup.

But hey, he signs the checks. … 🙄

6 thoughts on “A desperate recommission

  1. Bryan

    I understand that the machine has some proprietary software that probably doesn’t play well with GNU / Linux, but could you offer to try to fix up the misused and underappreciated desktop monstrosity?

    I understand that technically it probably isn’t in your job description but, as you said, the Sotec you have isn’t going to make matters any better and the specs on that desktop sound as if they’re able to do the job (and do it well, I might add) should the machine be fixed.

    I suppose it’s all about where your job ends and where anotehr begins and how open the company (and you, for that matter) are to ‘double-dipping’ into different job descriptions. Being from the United States, I’m not sure what the societal standards on that would be way over where you are, but it’s apparent to me that you know your stuff and the machine needs someone that knows their stuff. 🙂

  2. Nepherte

    I think fixing and maintaining computers is what K.Mandla absolutely doesn’t want to do. Once you profile yourself as such a person in a company like that, you’re pretty much doomed to do nothing else but fixing stuff. It’s also not one of the most thankful jobs either.

    K.Mandla, correct me if I’m wrong 🙂

  3. K.Mandla Post author

    Well, unfortunately, you’re both right. I should take pity and do something about it, but I resent becoming the informal fix-it guy. My job is not necessarily related to computers, so anything I might do maintenance-wise would be way outside my job description. And really, in a business of any size, if you rely that heavily on your office equipment, you should contract a professional to fix them for you. I mean, we contract for regular carpet cleaning, why not tech services? 😐

  4. Tom

    Cautionary note. There’s a classic trap here. Offering to fix the machine shows you had the skills to break it! They would wonder why you’re offering, is it out of guilt? or was it a set-up for a pay-raise?

    Presumably you have the skills to set the ‘old-trooper’ laptop up as a dedicated server machine with linux and have it working much faster and more reliably than the better-spec machine ever did under Windoze. Again, beware of risking it.

    I mention the traps above because i have been unbelievably stupid in often falling into traps like that, resulting in dismissals and an appalling Cv. Luckily it sounds like you managed to get away with a good deed there but beware because “No good deed goes unpunished”!

    Work places often have a large number of “dead” machines lurking in cupboards, a bit of tlc could soon revive them. It is sad especially considering the “computer for every child” initiatives and such-like but is it worth making yourself the prime suspect the next time something serious goes wrong?

    Take care and regards from
    Tom 😦

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