Monthly Archives: May 2007

Linux on Dell: too little too late?

Great news: Dell now sells desktops and laptops with Ubuntu (a distribution of Linux) pre-installed. No MS tax! Hurray!

I’m planing to buy a new laptop this summer but I’ve been unhappy with my last Dell machine. So Dell is not quite high on my list of potential brands. Their move towards Linux could reverse this situation but they need to get their act together quickly. I’ve looked at the current offerings and I must say I’m not blown away by what is available right now. A laptop without bluetooth? Not in 2007. No way!

Apple is funny

Rewind a few years back at the time when one button mice were standard on Macs. Apple and Apple zealots were foaming at the mouth that multi-button mice like those found on PC’s were just too darn confusing for ordinary people. I’m keeping a friend’s Mac at my house while she’s on the other side of the world. Guess what I found? The Mac’s mouse now has multiple buttons. It just hides most of them but the are there. What happened to the notion that multiple buttons were too confusing? Do the Mac zealots have an answer to that one?

Hard drive woes!

Well, the 40GB hard drive on my laptop had died! I gotta say, my Dell Inspiron 600m is the least durable machine I’ve ever owned. Dell used to make nice, relatively rugged machines but quality has gone down a few years ago and it shows. This machine had had to have its power supply replaced, its mother board replaced and now the HD is crap.

I’m beating myself over the fact that I should have been much more proactive about this problem. Early this year, I was no longer able to boot my Windows partition. I just brushed that off since my main OS is Linux and circumstance led me to believe that the problem with not booting was probably due to software. I’ve used computers with hard drives in them for about 20 years. This is only the second time I have a drive die on me. In the same time-frame I’ve seen plenty of software problems so it’s not like a hardware problem is my first hypothesis when something goes wrong. Besides, Linux was still working fine and the Windows partition was still readable. In retrospect, I now think that that was the first sign of the ultimate demise of my drive.

I received a clearer warning recently when my drive started clicking periodically. It happened pretty rarely so I did not think much of it. It nevertheless caused me to do a backup of my data files but I did not take it as seriously as I should have. I should have backed up more than I did, saved more information about my Linux setup (which is pretty well documented except for one thing: I do not regularly backup the list of packages I have installed), shutdown the machine and jump onto the web to order a new drive. Everything would have been better if I had done that.

I’ve tried to revive the HD as best as I could but I think at this point I’m going to call it quits, except that I’ll try one or two things later. I’ve lost some data but nothing that warrants paying for recovery or that warrants spending much more time and money than I already have (a full 2 days of work spent on this; had to buy new tools to work with the drive). I’ve inspected the drive visually and did not see anything amiss. I’ve downloaded tools that try to talk to the drive at a low level but none of those tools are able to talk to the drive to any useful extent. The best info I got was that MHDD tells me that the drive is not able to find track 0 but that could be a problem with the logic board or a problem with the heads or the platters could even be damaged. I’ve downloaded some tools to upload new firmware but the drive is not alive enough to be detected properly by those tools. I’ve chilled and warmed up the drive but nothing worked.

I’ve stopped trying to fix this for the moment and I have temporarily accepted that this drive is dead. I will try a few more drastic tricks once I get my IDE to USB interface on Monday.

Fortunately, it is not a complete disaster since I have relatively recent backups of my critical data. It is annoying because I need to deal with getting a new Linux installation to the level I need to work. It is also annoying because I’ve lost part of my work on a paper I’ve been writing and I have completely lost the files of a recent scan job. I will be able to rescan later.

So what are the lessons learned? First, I should pay pretty darn serious attention to any unusual HD noises even if they are only intermittent. My past experience with failed hard drives involved spectacular failures. (As I said this is only the second time one of *my* hard drives that has failed in 20 years but I’ve seen other rare failures on very old hardware.) Those failures were very sudden and were very clear. This was more gradual so I was not worried enough. Second lesson learned is that I need to update my backup habits. I’ve been relatively good about it but not good enough. My current habits have been developed in an environment in which backups occurred naturally as part of my work routine. In those days, I would transfer my work environment between a laptop and one or two desktop computers on a nearly daily basis. My files ended up being replicated in 2 or 3 places at a reasonably short interval. My work environment changed since then because I now use one laptop pretty much exclusively. So nothing *forces* me to replicate my files anywhere else. So I backup whenever I remember to backup which is not often enough. I’ve also not paid enough attention to hardware advances. There are now much better and cheaper solutions that exist for backing up. I need to rethink my backing up strategy so that I can backup frequently and easily and integrate that into my work habits.

Fanciful interpretations

I’ve been thinking about how academics often produce fanciful interpretations of artistic works. As I was trying to fashion a patently absurd example, I came up with this:

Alien is really a movie about immigration. Forget the monsters, the gore, the fear. It’s all about the trials and tribulations of a misunderstood alien looking for acceptance in an unforgiving world.

Someday, I’ll post an in-depth analysis.

Cavalier computers: still not advantageous

May 17th, 2007. Advertisement on the main page of cavalier computers’ web site:

 Cav Comp

Same computer at Sony’s store:


Cavalier Computers sells it for $1349. Sony sells the same thing for ($1399-$100 = ) $1299. Why should I buy from Cavalier Computers? Every time I compare their prices with other stores, I find that they sell higher. The upshot of all this is that far from being a student-friendly shop, Cavalier Computers is taking advantage of its position to extract a premium from the students’ pockets.

Thanks, Cavalier Computers!!!

Buying a new laptop

Ok, I realize that my irritation with the process of buying a new laptop is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. I’m not dying of an incurable disease. I’m not dying of starvation. I’m fortunate enough that the problem of buying a new laptop can be a problem for me. I know that.

On with the actual story…

Last time I shopped for a laptop was about 3 years ago. Boy were times simpler then! It seems that manufacturers have gone out of the way to flood the market with “a maze of twisty little laptop models, all alike”. Should I get the HP Pavilion dv6000z or perhaps the dv2000t? Or maybe an HP Compaq would be better? If I turn to Toshiba, there’s a gazillion Satellites, Tecra and Qosmio (or whatever it’s actually called). I’m not kidding. Looking only at the Satellite models on the Toshiba web site, I find the following model numbers: A200 A205 P100 P105 P200 P205. Not that it means anything to me. There are some broad guidelines I can and do use to narrow down the field: an ultraportable would probably satisfy a CEO but not me or a bulky desktop replacement would satisfy a mother who has decided to replace the family desktop computer with a laptop but not me. But even narrowing down the field in this way leaves way too many options on the table.

I also like to get opinions from actual users besides just raw specs. So I have to go hunt those downs on opinion web sites. Consumer Reports (to which we subscribe) has just released new ratings for laptops but with the release of Intel’s Santa Rosa, those ratings are already obsolete.

I think I’m prey to the paradox of choice… What am I going to do?