Woe to computing woe – an ode to Roberta

January 10th, 2010

After my last post, I was not sanguine about the fate of my favorite tower. Having swapped out four live disks, three optical drives, two hard drives and two memory sticks, that meant the problem could only be the motherboard or the processor (there’s also the power supply, but this really doesn’t look like a power problem). Either way, it’s more work than I’m willing to put into this tower when I have two other theoretically-intact towers.

The first runner up is an Dell I got interning in a scrap shop. It’s 2.6 GHz with like 256 MB in memory. I consoled myself by saying that with a memory upgrade, it’s almost as good as my favorite tower – a 2.6 GHz Pentium with 1 GB (before memory woe) and a bus speed of 800 MHz. I don’t know the bus speed on the Dell, but I surmised it was at most half that. After waiting a good 10 seconds just to get past the bios screen, I decided the bus speed was probably about 2MHz.

I had no idea what was on the hard drive, or even if I’d left a hard drive in there, but I wanted to see if it it ran. I don’t remember what it did, but it didn’t work, so I took the optical drive out of my favorite tower and put it back into this one (from which I’d originally stolen it). I put in one of the disks and waited. I don’t remember what the error was, but it was different than it had been on the other tower, which was encouraging. After a couple more live disks failed, I gave up on this tower and moved on to my last resort: Roberta.

Roberta: 566MHz with 64 MB RAM.
Roberta was my first computer. She was a gift from my mom in 2000. I thought I was just keeping her for sentimental purposes, but I dug her out of the closet and out of retirement. I laughed when I saw her “Designed for Windows 98” sticker on the front. I laughed again at her hardware as I plugged things in: the dialup modem wasn’t integrated; I remembered somebody from ResNet installing the network card during first semester at Humboldt. The funniest – and slightly worrisome – observation was that she only had one USB port. I had a vague recollection that it had never worked quite right, but I didn’t know if that was because she ran Windows 98 at the time or if there was something defective about the hardware.

I didn’t remember what – if any – operating system I’d left her with. The sounds she made as she booted were like nostalgic music. I looked in my hardware drawer and noticed the piece of metal that cradles her hard drive, conclusively answering my question: no, she did not have a hard drive. I grabbed it and the first hard drive off the stack. As I fit the drive in the metal, I noticed the label I’d affixed to the hard drive years ago, “Roberta’s O.” I took this as a sign that all was coming together well, and I’d soon be cruising the information superhighway at 566 MHz.

I booted again to see if I’d left an operating system on her hard drive. I had not. It occurred to me, as I selected the install disk to try first, that none of the operating systems I had on hand would run on 64 MB of memory. Even Puppy and Damn Small Linux require twice that. But I went forward in the name of adventure.

She showed me something interesting: she had all the same error messages as the first tower. The only thing in common was the four disks – all of which were burned from my spindle of CD-RWs that I’ve been burning and reburning for years, then burned on my laptop.

I got out a brand new disk from my CD-R spindle, slapped Debian on it and rebooted my favorite tower. Two hours later I was moving my data from the external hard drive on to my brand new Debian install.

Getting DVDs to play is always my least favorite part of a new Linux install. While contemplating keeping the old Fedora 9 installation, I spent hours fruitlessly trying to get it playing DVDs. Fortunately, there is a Debian multimedia repository. Fifteen minutes later I was watching my latest Netflix disk while my files copied in the background.

I am SO happy to be running Debian again it makes me squeal out loud. I haven’t been this giddy since the library finally filled my hold on Breaking Dawn. It feels like being reunited with an old friend – all thanks to my even older friend, Roberta.

Tags: ,

One Response to “Woe to computing woe – an ode to Roberta”


  1. Who says:

    I was reading this in a hopeful way, I remember hearing much about Roberta, towards the end I was also getting kinda giddy for you. There’s nothing like having old friends come through in a big way. Glad things worked out. I’ll be calling you soon.

  2. Pingbacks/Trackbacks