Thoughts while rebooting

I’m using my business laptop, on a plane, on battery. I passed through security with flying colors, remembering to put my pocket change and tooth fillings in a separate ziplock bag before submitting to the metal detector and the steely-eyed stares bored cud-chewing of the TSA goons, but what didn’t show up on their X-ray machines was that my laptop is possessed by demons from the depths of Hell. I look out the window at corn and soybean fields seven miles below. There’s nothing else to do. I can’t even put the damned laptop to sleep now.

You see, I’ve just made the mistake of installing a small piece of software, written by a company with its heels dug well into the 1990s, the bad times when everything you did to a Windows machine involved a reboot. As near as I can tell, this fine package (a C# parser generator whose name I will not disclose) dropped some help files, some sample code and a simple executable into the Program Files folder, then had a panic attack and prompted with a “Reboot now?” dialog and a helpful countdown timer. I was a dozen keystrokes ahead and the installer saw me type [Enter], and quicker than snot out of a toddler with a week-old head cold the laptop was shutting down and I was screaming inside.

I don’t know when booting a computer became an event of epic proportions. I’ve helped write several OSes that were interactive and doing honest work in the amount of time it takes a present day BIOS to figure out that there’s a disk available to boot from. Once today’s systems are past the initial power-on hazing ritual, booting the OS is like reenacting the construction of the pyramids. Civilizations rise and fall as legions of threads and helper processes move massive heaps of code into place. But like all construction work I’ve seen, most of the workers involved aren’t doing a damned useful thing. They stand around jawing to each other, and if the boss shows up they start aimlessly moving things around, looking busy. The foreman: “Don’ worry, we’ll boot dis thing and still leave ya wid 20% of the battery. That’ll be plenty for ya. No? You maybe want it to be 15%? Guido, getta load of dis guy! He likes his battery. Haw haw haw.”

Finally I’m able to log in, and things do not look happy. The CPU is still pegged, the laptop’s fans are running full tilt, and the hard disk sounds like a set of maracas tied to an amphetamine-popping epileptic. The stewardess stops by with a sandwichette and offers dilute coffee. “No thanks,” I say. I don’t add: I’m battling the forces of outer darkness. I’m not stupid. Instead I say, “Can you please tell the Captain that we have a situation here in 27-C?”

Instantly she looks professional. “What, a laptop? Condition seven?”

“Yes. And getting worse.” Indeed, the laptop is becoming alarmingly warm.

“Yes sir!” She hustles off to the cockpit, and a minute later I’m escorted by one of the flight crew to the spare seat in First Class, the one right next to the priest who is always available on business-class flights. He’s that anonymous age that men of the cloth have when they’re halfway between looking too young to have any experience and too old to understand what a boot sector is.

He closes the curtain. “What do you have here, my son?”

“Out of control WBEM scanning and virus detection, some SNMP oids that have gone recursive, and the usual IT-installed crapware.”

“Ahhh. Just a moment.” He sends a high-voltage prayer further up into the stratosphere. It is apparently answered immediately, because the laptop is surrounded by a momentary blue glow and its hard disk stops chattering. “An easy one, son.”

“Thank you, Father.”

“Not like last week. Some benighted Ubuntu user tried to invoke M-X ghost-of-stallman on approach to SFO.”

“But, wait a minute, Stallman isn’t dead.”

“No, but every Emacs session for fifty miles thought he was, and went into mourning. There’s a reason we don’t let people use customizable interfaces under 10,000 feet. The only thing that can handle that,” he smiles and shakes a tiny vial on a chain around his neck. “Water from Lourdes. Do you need anything else?” He gets out his card reader. “The church has a special on access violations this week.”

“No, thank you again, Father. Is Corporate Amex okay?”

“Fine, son.”

– – – –

Back in my seat and in a comfortable editor session, I reflect on my past years’ experience with Vista. I run it on several different machines, and mostly what I’ve found is that the ones that are heavy with IT crapware are pretty miserable, but the ones that I’ve set up without work pretty well. On the IT-ridden machines I regularly have to swab out twenty megabyte log files, logs from things that I didn’t even know were running on the machine, and when I find something like “ArScnr38” running I have no idea if it’s spyware or something that an IT monkey stuck on my laptop to scan my Excel spreadsheets.

It’s hilarious when four different scanners are fighting for disk access. No wonder our drives are dying after like a year in service. I don’t work late, so I can only imagine what the buildings sound like at 3AM when Windows Update goes into its happy dance and reboots every single workstation.

“Shhhh… wait for it.”

“What, Dad? I’m sleepy.”

“Any second now…”

clikclickClickClikCLIKCLICKCCLLIICCKK-CLICK-***KA-CHUNGGGKGKGKG!!!!!***

“Wow! Do the lights flicker like that in every time zone?”

“That was nothing. Wait until they all ask the DHCP servers for an address!”

As I was saying, at home, the worst I’ve have to deal with is the crapware from minor league players, like the miserable bloatware that Creative and Nero spam to the desktop, or the unasked-for media players that assign themselves lord, master and gatekeeper of my music collection (how many of these damned things do we need, anyway?).

The IT philosophy of bloat appears to be: “Screw the user, we own the machines, and if they can’t get work done with them then they can’t do any damage. More scanners! And loggers! And Java-based enterprisey things with fucked-up XML configuration schemas! If there’s CPU or disk space left we’re not doing our jobs; we have to pay for that call center expansion somehow!”

The consumer-ware philosophy of bloat is equally uncaring and fear-based, but with a twist:

“Figby, we need to ship a media center with our mouse driver.”

“Yes. Oh yes. You’re the marketing guy. You’re my hero. You are the font of wisdom, the center of –”

“Yes, I am. Now, it has to look like the media thingy we did last month, except that we have reports of users being able to recognize the controls behind all the chrome and widgets, people were actually able to find their music and play it, and the MPAA called and said they didn’t like that, so we’ve brought in a new user interface design consultant to help us out.”

“Oh, yes, that’s simply great!”

“Mongo, this is Figby. Figby will show you where the keyboard is. No, no, Mongo, that’s the radiator –”

“Mongo like type.”

“He’s all yours, Figby. Done by tomorrow, right? By the way, Mongo is trained not to let anyone leave until the bug database shows zero unresolved bugs.”

“Mongo WANT *TYPE*!”

And my battery is completely done for.

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9 Responses to Thoughts while rebooting

  1. Matthew Hall says:

    Yet another great article 🙂

  2. Anthony says:

    Epic rant. I am still giggling like a school girl from your description of the OS booting.

  3. Boy, I was laughing so hard reading this that I drew some concerned looks from colleagues around me.
    Would I not be reading this on a corporate Vista machine, the tears in my eyes would _only_ be of joy. Thanks for the entertainment!

  4. Paul says:

    Nice writing!

    I’m avoiding Vista so much that I switched to a Mac as a primary machine instead of upgrading or getting a new PC. I’m in love. Virtualization has come quite a way if you absolutely must work in Windows (XP!) like I do from time to time.

  5. spangle says:

    cool! worth some laughs in the morning!

  6. The One True Josh says:

    The expanding startup is one thing, but I continue to be amazed at how long it takes things to shut DOWN. Easily twice as long, though at least it ends up quieter.

  7. Well written, very humerous, and I’ve been there.

  8. John says:

    Classic. Your description of the boot process could be turned into a modern day epic. Haha.

  9. Grego says:

    I remember having and old Kaypro II CP/M computer, and it would boot the bios faster than the video signal would stabilize. Getting the CP/M prompt would also take only a few scrunching sounds from the floppy disk.

    Today’s mobile phones, especially the smartphones have probably 100 times the CPU, but still manage to boot 10-100 times slower.

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