There are few things more disheartening to a nerd than trying to retrieve data off a hard drive that is in the process of failing intermittently. It’s like playing a kind of backwards slot machine: how much data will come off in this session? 10MB or 10GB? And how long until it fails catastrophically and you’re stuck with no way to get the data off entirely? Who knows!

Big hard drives are nice. What would be nicer is if a good backup strategy existed, beyond, “duh, buy more hard drives.” Um, yes. So I can have a collection of variably viable devices lying around the house, the failure of any one of which might leave me without access to my files. Yeah, okay, I know about mirrored RAID and all that other fun stuff, but damnit, you still need some kind of offline backup strategy!

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss tape.

Learn to suffer

I would really appreciate it if someone could explain to me why I shouldn’t just say “screw it” and spend $24.95 on a Flickr account instead of fighting with locally installed software. Because it’s the manly thing to do? Because struggling with someone else’s design choices builds character? Because I need to rebuild my sysadmin cred? I realize that I will quite rapidly devolve into one of Those People with a Flickr account, and that the true He-Man solution is templating and scripting and a lot of little HTML files and some more scripting glue to hold it all together and publish… but life is short, and so is my patience.

What to do, what to do?

Linux, free, time, worthless

So in the process of trying to make my desktop box marginally more useful while I await the arrival of a replacement power supply for my notebook (moral: I should not be allowed to play with electricity lest I make things go sparky-spark), I decided to try installing some software. Naturally, this involved upgrading stuff. Naturally, this involved looking for six packages to install one, and ensuring I had the dependencies for the dependencies. Naturally, me being me, I gave up and said “screw it” within about an hour. It wasn’t worth it.

Especially after I discovered that, oh, by the way, at some point in the last three years we changed glibc versions.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had a machine with an obsolete shared library, but it’s a lot like being in hospice care. You know you’re going to have to face the horrible truth at some point in the future, but you can put it off by patching stuff up or taking high-test analgesics. Eventually you’ll reach a point where you decide it just isn’t worth it anymore, and give in. Basically, nothing new will compile. Which means you’re SOL if you want anything fun or interesting.

I am told that Slackware’s upgrade path is marginally less painful than it used to be, inasmuch as it is theoretically possible to get away with updating everything to the latest versions without actually rebooting. (I’ll believe that when I see it, thanks.) And I guess I’m going to have to plunge in and do the upgrade, which is a dangerous thing for a guy who can’t update his kernel without hosing LILO and spending half an afternoon trying to remember which magic incantation makes LILO happy again. (I’ve forgotten again — really worrying.)

And yes, I fully understand that whatever hacker cred I used to have is fully gone by this point, and I am totally fine with that. This was driven painfully home the other day when I realized a Microsoft product was the most reasonable solution to a problem I was trying to solve, and it didn’t make me want to cry.. and that the “open source software” alternative made me want to think about buying a shotgun.

Frick on a stick

Following up on my post below– it turns out that indeed my warranty has lapsed, and I am therefore SOL. (Duuh-oy! I bet you didn’t see that one coming!) Dell doesn’t seem to think the existence of parallel problems in 5150 models with exactly the same power adapter is grounds to look after me and my problem, and they’re not convinced that the problem is in the power adapter anyway, so that’ll be $249 to ship the out-of-warranty machine back, and, if it turns out the power connector is shot, it’s another $499 for a new mainboard as well. I know I said this last post, but, YAY. So I guess now the trick is finding someone who has a multimeter I can borrow and test the adapter to see if it’s putting out the requisite power, since (a) I’m not willing to spend $90 on spec on the off-chance it’s the adapter and (b) I’m really not willing to spend $249 on spec if it’s not the adapter.

On the other hand: a Hmm Moment. If it’s not the adapter, the math starts to look a lot like $249+$499+$PITAT*=new machine. It’s not that I don’t like what the results of this math imply — I always like the idea of a new machine — it’s that I don’t want to spend the money on a new machine. Nor do I think I should have to — it’s not like there’s anything wrong with the existing one, save for the fact that the power adapter doesn’t want to work, it’s kinda heavy, and it might not be ready for Vista (oh no; I’m only half-kidding since I really want to play Halo 2 and suck hard at FPS on the Xbox or any other console).

Aggh. If it’s not one damn thing, it’s something else.

* PITAT: “Pain In The Ass Tax.” This is the amount, sometimes trivial and sometimes not, that you could, in theory, save if you were willing to put in the effort in a given situation. Sometimes it requires a lot of effort to save not-a-lot of money, and so this rhetorical device allows you to quantify the premium you’re willing to place on your time and effort. The PITAT in this case consists of the efford I have to put in to get the box to the shipping company and ensure I’m around to receive it, as well as the time I will be laptopless, as well as the inevitable frustration that will come with dealing with a technical support operation on this issue. To be sure, the PITAT in this case is a non-trivial amount of money, but we’re already into non-trivial amounts here anyway. One could easily argue the PITAT value of replacing is less than the PITAT value of fixing (though one could easily argue the reverse, too).

Put another way — the brutally honest way, I mean — it is in some cases a way of measuring how lazy you are, and how much more you’re willing to pay in order to support your laziness. I don’t think of it in those terms, of course; I think of it in terms of “how much of a premium am I willing to pay in order to not put up with whatever is likely to piss me off if I pay less.” Hence the Pain In The Ass Tax, not the Lazy Tax. (We already have one of those.)

This is my new favorite shopping argument “tool.” It effectively kills any discussion with your significant other over whether you’re a chump for paying more for something. “$8 for cheesecloth? We’ve got to be able to find that more cheaply.” “Lookit, I’m tired, I’m hungry, and I need to make the frakking coulis tonight, so I’m buying the damn cheesecloth and we’re going home. PITAT.” Bah-dum-dum.

Note to self: Stop posting after your nights and go to bed instead, idiot.

Something dark is coming

Allors, there is a problem with hallie the notebook. It complains that it does not recognize the AC power adapter type and petulantly refuses to acknowledge that it is plugged in — thus leaving me running on battery power. Needless to say, I didn’t recognize this until I went to plug the machine in because, of course, the battery was getting low. So now I have a machine with no power and no easy way to get my files off it so I can at least work on them on elissa or some other machine.

Naturally, this happened on a long weekend.
Naturally, this happened after EST-based tech support reps have gone home anyway.
Naturally, I own an obscure type of laptop that cannot be powered by the usual Kensington or Belkin universal notebook power adapters.
Naturally, the power adapter I need isn’t easily acquired locally; I have to order it over the net. (See previous “naturally” clauses for emotions that flow logically from this last position.)

The worst part is that I don’t even know if it’s the power adapter. I’d love to be able to find something that could provide at least some power to the machine so I could figure out whether I need a new power adapter or whether I need a new power jack on the back of the machine. I want to believe it’s the power adapter, since (a) that’s easy enough to replace and doesn’t involve sending the machine away and (b) the cord is awfully twisted and the plastic reinforcing against the brick is torn and ripped.

Now. Studies of Google suggest that this is a Known Problem with the Inspiron 5150/5160 line, and that the fault may lie in either the adapter or the mainboard, so YAY, that’s great, and it really narrows things down a lot. On the (bright? other? flip?) side, someone apparently launched a class action lawsuit against Dell for this precise problem and Dell settled, though only in the United States. Not, mind you, that this should make a difference from a corporate perspective — Dell is Dell, the problem is the problem, and one would hope that they’d have the good sense to replace my power adapter for free if they’re doing it across the border, too. But what do I know? I’m just a guy with no access to his files.

Note to self: This might be a good time to look into finding some kind of temporary enclosure for notebook hard drives, so I can at least do a rescue and get the useful stuff off the damn disk before I have to send it back and/or spend multiple days with a dark laptop. Grr.

OS garbage

Here’s something I don’t get: You know when, under Windows, you have a crash (an unusual event, I know), and you reboot the machine, and you discover that chkdsk has spawned a bunch of folders containing file fragments of whatever it was you were working on? How come it does this?

Seriously. I’ve yet to ever get any useful information out of those files. Even when it’s something obvious, like a Word document I was working on or somesuch, it’s always mangled with bits from other files and is totally useless. There isn’t even a good native Windows/DOS application for viewing these files. I don’t know a single person who ever bothers to sort through that junk to see if he can get something useful out of it; everyone just seems to blow the stuff up and cut their losses.

Given that behavior, why bother? Is it because chkdsk can’t handle the thought of throwing anything away? Is Microsoft a packrat’s best friend? What else is lurking in the filesystem that’s waiting to come out after a crash?