Tuesday, April 26

It’s some time well after midnight. There’s a storm rolling in over the mountains and up from the south. On the radar, the colored splotches are over Boulder now and not quite here. There’s that heavy feeling to the air and the smell of flowers. The thunder is almost continuous, and you can hear rain on the trees though it’s not exactly raining. I’m sitting in my back room with a window open so I can hear. Someone’s windchimes are making intermittent noise and there’s a breeze where there wasn’t one a few minutes ago.

First thunderstorm of the year: This is a milestone almost as subjective as “first robin of spring”. As a matter of ritual observance, the computers are unplugged and I’ve lit a candle, although once the main body of the storm hits this latter actually seems like a reasonable precaution. The electricity here hasn’t gone out in a while. We’re probably due one of these days.

There are computers scattered all over the house, along with little piles of media and drives and miscellaneous knots of cables and random peripherals. Earlier tonight I realized I’d deleted (accidentally or by way of a bug in some busted-ass photo management software) a bunch of pictures I still want. That problem still isn’t quite resolved, but it sent me on one of those tangents into old-machine spelunking where you find yourself squatting on the floor late at night, staring into the dusty guts of something that hasn’t booted in four or five years, poking listlessly at cables.

Eventually I settled on trying a Dell system1 with a known-good (well, known-good a couple of years ago) motherboard and optical drive. That plus a not-too-badly-scratched Debian Wheezy install disc from a pile of old work papers was enough to get me a chroot shell2 on the SATA hard drive I’d been trying to read.

Eventually I remembered that there probably hadn’t ever been a bootloader installed on the thing to begin with because of reasons.3 To my surprise, this got me a bootable system:

# grub-install /dev/sda

I meant to grab a handful of files and move on, but I probably spent an hour just poking around the running system.

One way or another, I’ve settled on continuity as one of the things I value most in a computing environment. I fiddle with the knobs, but it’s been years since I made genuinely radical adjustments to what I see when I log in to a personal client machine. There’s a little text-based task bar of sorts with a few workspace names and some monitoring text, a clock, a couple of tray widgets. I recently tried to change up the arrangement of workspaces I’ve had since maybe 2010, spent a couple of weeks tripping over myself trying to switch windows, and went back to the status quo.

It’s always weird, knowing this, to step back even a few years into some older environment. The wall hangings and the furniture might be more or less the same, but it’s usually still a different room somehow. The parts that are made of host OS and applications change, related complications become encrusted in files and workarounds.

It’s funny how often it seems like a better room in some essential way.

Since I first started knowing about them for a living, computers have objectively gotten much better in a variety of important ways. (In this, they’re something like cars, camping gear, and American coffee.)

They also exhibit a real and sort of disquieting trend towards the accumulation of bullshit.

1 An Optiplex 745 with 2 gigs of RAM and a 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo. A corporate workhorse probably sold in the first place with Windows XP. Disappointingly, this one seems to have come without the 3.5" floppy drive, but I may have a working spare.

2 Wikipedia: A chroot on Unix operating systems is an operation that changes the apparent root directory for the current running process and its children. A program that is run in such a modified environment cannot name (and therefore normally cannot access) files outside the designated directory tree. The term "chroot" may refer to the chroot(2) system call or the chroot(8) wrapper program. The modified environment is called a "chroot jail".

3 I think, somewhat hazily, that I had another drive start to die and dropped this one in next to it, but (because of laziness, stupidity, or some weird hardware constraint I'm forgetting about) left the bootloader on the older drive.