Volume 6, Issue 101; 20 Oct 2003

“A short, sharp shock.” And other bad things that can happen to your laptop.

He came safe from the East Indies, and was drowned in the Thames.

Thomas Fuller

This essay has had several titles. Among them: “It’s worse than that, it’s dead Jim,” “Clumsy oaf,” and “Oh, F*CK!”

The salient bit is really that I trashed my laptop. To really appreciate the creeping horror of this story, bear in mind the following: the night before I left for my road trip to the UK, I ran a full set of backups. The morning of my flight, I discovered that the backups had failed. I was flying without a net.

I arrived at the lounge in Heathrow on Tuesday morning with a dead battery (I’d already had several hours of train travel). I rigged up the power cable and the outlet adapter and turned to go get a cup of coffee. Unbeknownst to me, the power cable was wrapped around my foot. The cord gave way at the adapter, the adapter gave way a the wall, and the other end of the cord gave way at the back of the machine, but it still gave the machine enough kinetic energy to slip off the table. Gravity took over from there. (Luck: bad)

Inspection revealed no obvious damage: no cracked case, no shattered LCD, no plastic protruding where it shouldn’t. (Luck: good) It had been booting up at the time and when I got around to looking at the display I saw that it was awash in disk errors. (Luck: bad)

Eighteen hours of fsck later, it was clearly not recoverable. (Luck: bad) But I’d had the foresight to order a new disk near the beginning of that 18 hour battle (Luck: good) The dweeb that took the order agreed to ship it over night, charged me for overnight shipping, and sent it FedEx two day. (Luck: bad)

The disk was clearly destroyed, but it would just barely boot. In fact, it would boot far enough to initialize eth0 even (Luck: good), though lots of commands generated disk errors and bus errors. (Luck: bad)

The partitions on which I keep data and email were undamaged. (Luck: exceptionally good)

So I began copying data off the disk. Data rescued. Mail rescued. The ethernet connection is a bit unstable, it crashes after some large amount of data has crossed it (Luck: bad), but rsync recovers. (Luck: good)

Also rescued: /etc, /root, /usr/local/src (where my VPN sources resided), and /usr/src/linux/.config. (Luck: good) Trying to rescue /home generated disk errors (Luck: bad), but finally succeeded. (Luck: good)

Feeling, well, lucky, I decided to try rescuing all of /usr. That generated disk errors ending with “hda: interrupt lost”. This time, rebooting the machine generated more disk errors, aborting before eth0 initialized. (Luck: good. No, that’s not a typo. At this point I’ve successful backed up everything really important. Had I lost eth0 earlier in the day, that would have been bad luck. This is just inconvenient.)

The new drive arrived at last (Luck: good) and I discovered that my laptop will no longer boot from the CD-ROM or the floppy in the drive bay (/dev/fd0). (Luck: bad)

It will boot off the USB floppy (Luck: good), but of course no Linux distribution that I can find on the net will load anything but the boot image from that drive. (Luck: bad)

I managed to boot DOS off a floppy and run a DOS-based install command off an old Debian “potato” CD that I had lying around. So I did get the machine functioning again. (Luck: good) Part way through, LILO hung on me. (Luck: bad—no boot floppy, see?)

After another re-install, I switched to grub instead of LILO: no more hanging. (Luck: good)

So, 10 days after losing my last net connection, I am finally able to download mail again, 8163 pieces of it not counting whatever is waiting at Sun when I get the VPN up again. (Luck: good)

And I’ve rebuilt things to the point where I can publish essays again. Hardly my most pressing deadline, but I figured one explanation here would save me repeating it a bunch of times. (Luck: good)

Unfortuately, I noticed this morning that the desktop machine that serves was severely wedged: to the point where the keyboard lights were blinking. (Luck: bad)

And naturally (Luck: predictably bad) errors like this occur only at the worst possible times. Having lost several more days than anticipated, I find a frightening set of deadlines facing me in the next two weeks. Talk to you again sooner or later.

I’ll let you decide if that’s lucky or not.