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Old Hundredth

"Now then Alan," said James. "About this laptop computer of yours."

"Yes," I said suspiciously, "what about it?"

"As I recall, it started off with two serious problems," James continued. "You couldn't get the sound card to work, which meant that you couldn't listen to music on it, and the disk access was so slow that you couldn't watch DVDs on it either."

"True," I said, because it was.

"Well," said James, "it was so easy to get the sound working, that I really think it's time we addressed the last issue. You can't leave it only half fixed. It's very important that we get it to a state where you can watch DVDs."

James is a man who lip-syncs Muppets. Such men are deserving of respect. So I didn't laugh at him.

"It wasn't all that easy to get the sound working," I protested. "As I recall, you made me download heaps of arcane software from dusty, seldom-visited web sites. I had to blow the cobwebs off before I installed it and the wires going in to my modem were clogged with dirt for months. It cut my internet connection speed almost in half!

"And the instructions for using the software were written by Zen-Buddhist monks who were high, or possibly low, on mind-altering substances of indescribable complexity. They all stared intently into each others belly buttons and copied down what they saw scribbled on the fluff. All the sense was hidden in the spaces between the words. It took weeks for me to understand what it wasn't saying, and then implement it.

"And even when I did finally get the sound card to work, the only noise it made for a month was the sound of one hand clapping. That's a very boring sound, you know!"

"That's right." James nodded happily. "Easy."

Men who lip-sync Muppets also have access to esoteric dictionaries which contain strange definitions of words like easy.

I accepted the inevitability of my situation. "What do I have to do?" I asked.

"I'm glad you asked me that," said James. "Here is a Fedora Core 5 live CD. Use it well and wisely, grasshopper."

A live CD, for those of you who may not know about these things, allows you to run another operating system on your computer without making any changes to the original operating system on your hard disk. Everything runs directly from the CD. You can try things out and experiment wildly in the sure and certain knowledge that if everything dies a horrible death because of your extreme tweaks and twiddles, all you have to do is turn off the power and then boot up as normal from the hard disk and all your catastrophes go away as if they had never been.

I took the Fedora Core 5 live CD away with me to experiment with.

The next day James asked me: "Well? How did it go?"

"I have bad news," I said and his face fell.

"Oh dear," he said, "that's a shame."

"It worked perfectly," I said. "The disk responded as never before. It ran at super fast speeds. Cerenkov radiation flew from the slots in the side panel as data was read and written faster than the speed of light!

"I could play DVDs at twice the speed that they ran on the commercial DVD player plugged in to my television set.

"The sound card worked brilliantly. It played me the music that was played at the birth of the universe. Do you know what music everybody listened to on the day when the Big Bang first exploded?"

"No," said James.

"Bohemian Rhapsody, by Queen," I said, and James frowned, as well he might.

"All the hardware on my laptop responded to Fedora Core 5 as if it had been granted a new lease of life," I told him, gloomily. "It was absolutely perfect."

"Why is this bad news?" asked James, puzzled.

"There is no upgrade path from my current operating system to Fedora Core 5," I said. "I am going to have to install it from scratch and re-tweak and re-twiddle all the many thousands of customisations that I set up in order to give myself warm fuzzies whenever I log on. It's going to take weeks."

"Cheer up," said James. "It could be worse. You could have had to lip sync a Muppet instead!"

I bit the bullet that had been shot to me.

"What do you want me to do?" asked the install software.

"Blow everything away and install yourself," I told it. Obligingly, it did exactly that. While it was thus occupied, I painted a wall and watched carefully as the paint dried. There was a particularly interesting smear in the top left hand corner which appeared almost to spiral in on itself. It developed a fascinating crust that spread from the edges in towards the middle where it formed an irregular, crystalline skin…

"I've finished," said the install software. "Do you want to have a look at what I've done?"

I looked and it was good. The display on the screen was crisp and clear. The network connection was fast, and the sound card played sweet music. I tweaked a bit here and smoothed out a rough edge there. I clicked on a convenient icon which allowed me to set the background picture to a map of Middle-Earth and I clicked on another icon that encouraged me to put a rude message designed to frighten away trespassers on to the login screen. I played with a few more little customisations and then went on to the next major step in the process…

All the documentation that I'd read insisted that after I'd installed the system from the original distribution disks I should immediately attach myself to the internet in order to update the software. A lot of the packages had changed in the months since they were first issued. Many bugs had been fixed and exciting new ones had been introduced. Security updates that would stop people from hacking in to my system needed to be installed. It all sounded terribly thrilling and important and necessary.

I decided to go in to the office in order to make use of their high speed internet connection. I plugged everything in, switched everything on and incanted the correct magic spell. Things started to happen.

"I will now download and update 387 software packages," said the laptop, smugly. "This will take me about twelve hours, give or take a few minutes, so I suggest you go to the pub."

Twelve hours and several pints of Guinness later, things stopped happening and I made two interesting discoveries.

The first discovery was that all the documentation I'd read had lied to me – it had insisted that the default was to save all the newly downloaded files on the local drive in case I ever needed them again. In fact, the opposite turned out to be the case and after all the software had been updated, all the downloaded files were then carefully deleted. If I ever do need any of them in the future, I will have to download them again. Humph!

The second, and more important discovery, came when I was smitten with a sudden desire to change the picture in the background. I'd been using the map of Middle-Earth as a background for several years on several different computers and suddenly I was bored with it. I clicked on the same convenient icon that I'd used when I originally set the background picture. A message box appeared on the screen.

"The program that sets the background picture has crashed. Would you like to start it again, inform the developers or cancel the operation?"

Hmmm. Odd. I think I'll inform the developers.

"The program that informs the developers that the program that sets the background picture has crashed, has crashed. Would you like to start it again, inform the developers or cancel the operation?"

I'm sure the developers would like to know about that one!

"The program that informs the developers that the program that informs the developers has crashed, has crashed. Would you like to start it again, inform the developers or cancel the operation?"

This could be the start of an infinite series. I think I'd better stop. Perhaps I'll change the pointer that the mouse uses, instead.

"The program that changes the pointer that the mouse uses has crashed. Would you like to start it again, inform the developers or cancel the operation?"

Over the next hour or so I discovered that none of the housekeeping functions in the pointy-clicky environment worked any more. I couldn't change the picture on the desktop; I couldn't change the theme or the keyboard characteristics. I couldn't change anything at all, really. Those operations had all worked perfectly before I'd foolishly updated the system with all the latest and greatest versions. Now they all crashed as soon as I started them up. Bugger!

For the next week, most of the housekeeping GUI functionality remained flat, busted, broke while I considered what to do about it. It was very annoying. I could do all the proper computing that I needed to do inside the pointy-clicky area, so that was all right. I just couldn't change the way things looked and felt any more, and that was becoming very frustrating.

Eventually I reached a point where I simply couldn't stand it any more. I decided that I no longer had any choice. Since everything had worked perfectly on the initial install, I would just have to downgrade my system again and reinstall all the original pointy-clicky stuff from the distribution DVD.

"You want me to do what?" asked the software installation program in horror. "You've got to be joking! You want me to ignore all my instincts and downgrade all my shiny, new, up to date software?

"No way! Sod off!"

But I insisted and eventually it gave in and did what I told it to do, complaining all the while that I was causing it much unnecessary pain and suffering.

And now the pointy-clicky admin stuff is all working again. Phew!

I suppose the moral is, if it isn't broken, don't fix it. I really should have known that all along. I can't think why I didn't…

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