Happiness is … a working computer

dell-xps-630 (by StarbuckGuy)

There’s a Guantanamo Bay of the mind, where you can be held captive and tortured. It occurs at various times, but especially when your computer fails and attempts to fix it go awry. My son and I have just spent two days there, hoping to be freed, hoping the pain would go away.

It began innocently, when my son’s new Dell XPS 630i computer system arrived. His old system died the day before Christmas and because it’s so critical for what he does — electronic sound and music — we decided it was time for a replacement. We ordered a new Dell tower model spec’d nicely with big drives, state-of-the-art video card, and as much RAM as we could afford.

It took nearly a month to arrive, which made him pretty twitchy. He could use his portable for Internet and email, but it didn’t have the power to run his demanding music editing software or to easily hook into his synthesizers.

The day of arrival was filled with anticipation. We both agreed that he should assemble and set up the system by himself — for the practice of it and to reduce his dependency on me as the family’s computer doctor.

The Dell set up beautifully. It came pre-loaded with Windows XP, an important option for us. It was also shipped with a Vista DVD should we want to downgrade, but it won’t happen. Too much of my son’s hardware and software have known issues with Vista.

Things went swimmingly at first. He did a class job of installing and setting things up, but he made a simple error in loading one of his key programs. He loaded a later version than the one he normally uses, and it failed installing at 99%. Because it didn’t officially install, it couldn’t be officially uninstalled.

We nuked the files we could locate, and attempted to install the older version of his software, but the installation program wouldn’t run. Our theory was that the previous botched installation had put some crap in the Windows registry that prevented the older version from installing. Not knowing what to look for we did our best, but couldn’t solve the puzzle.

My son felt crushed. He felt stupid even though I assured him that he’d done everything 99% right and that that was something to be proud of. Didn’t help though. It was late at night, we were stressed, and we decided to leave it and resume in the morning.

I thought about it some more and wondered if a registry cleaner could rid his system of the problem. I downloaded a couple of free ones and moved them to a memory stick to try in the morning.

Unfortunately, when he emerged from his basement apartment the next morning, he’d already reformatted the C: drive and decided to reinstall XP from scratch. That’s certainly the cleanest way to proceed, but I was a bit worried about getting all the drivers working properly.

Fortunately the reinstallation went well and when the system was rebuilt to a basic level, he tried installing the right version of his software. It installed and ran normally. With everything seemingly ticking along fine, I left it to him to run the Microsoft updates and whatnot, and tweak the interface to his liking.

I walked to Starbucks and wrote yesterday’s blog entry. I was feeling warm and comfy. My son was on his way and my friend Rob Sawyer had all kinds of exciting news to share. Then my cell phone rang.

My son called to say he’d hit another problem, around networking. I knew it was something I couldn’t troubleshoot over the phone so I headed home where found him in despair.

I worked at the system over for awhile and seemingly got the network card working with Internet connectivity. However, when I cold booted the machine to have a fresh look, it took forever, and I got an incomplete Windows interface. Something drastically wrong. My son had not quite known what to do when he was trying to set up Internet and at one point he even installed the Netware client, in case that helped.

Worse, I couldn’t F8 into safe mode while Windows was booting. The installation was toast.

I offered to rebuild the OS to a functioning level, including Internet, and he gladly accepted. I can’t believe the pain I felt seeing his pain. He was afraid we’d never get it restored, but I assured him that if it arrived in working condition, it could be restored to working condition.

So, I put on my tech hat, sat in front of his monitor, and reinstalled Windows XP, starting with deleting the C: drive partition and creating it anew, with an NTFS format. Then, by the book, I installed XP and all the relevant drivers from the Dell drivers disc. By the time I finished, the system was running cleanly, the Internet card was working fine, and I ran all the Microsoft updates.

At that point I turned it over to him and he installed his software again, successfully. We were free at last.

The worst part is that it lowered his self confidence and he’d done only two things wrong. As he watched me troubleshooting and building, he said he’d done all that. I was impressed at how much he’d understood.

Today he felt better. We both agreed that the next thing he should install was a good game and have some fun with the computer. He was delighted at how smoothly the gaming software ran.

I think we’ve left GITMO behind, and he now accepts that he ‘almost’ had it. Things are good again. I’m sitting in Starbucks enjoying my cuppa with no cell phone emergency calls. I hope …

8 thoughts on “Happiness is … a working computer

  1. Hi! I found your blog on the NaBloPoMo January 2009 Blogroll.

    Setting up a new box is something I love doing, but I know the pain of watching someone struggle with getting theirs just right. My husband has never been much for computers and has been happy to let me do all the “geekery” over the last ten years. Unfortunately, he needs to gain a new level of user ability as his career is picking up and he’s gone back to school. It’s incredibly hard to watch that self-confidence waver when they have to call you in to help them, but I think you’re doing a great job by constantly turning it back over to your son – that will do so much for his confidence and actually learning. I’m a big believer in practice makes perfect for all things geek. Glad everything is finally up and running!

  2. Sarai,

    Thank you so much for dropping by. It’s amazing you found me in that very long list on NaBloPoMo. Are you blogging every day in January as well?

    I appreciate your comments very much. It’s a challenge being the computer geek of the family. It’s tempting to just fix things up for people, but it’s better, in the long run, to allow them to learn how to deal with their own systems, even if there are occasional failures. It is hard on their self-esteem, but when they finally get it right, they beam!

  3. Tell me about it! My desktop computer just stopped working, and although I have two working laptops, I feel vulnerable, as my best work has been done on that desktop.


  4. Hi Gene,

    I feel for you and your son. I’ve probablly gone through this over a hundred times in the last 10 years. I think your son should feel proud that he did as much as he was able to. There’s a fair bit of trial and error in learning how to work with computers “from scratch” and so he had a good learning experience. He’ll be able to do even more, if not all of it, next time.

    Yours truly,

  5. Matt,

    The good news is that the new system now runs really well and my son is back to his electronic-music creativity. He feels he learned a lot and I think he’s more confident.

    It sounds like you’ve worked on a lot of computers. Are you in IT?


  6. A major part of the trauma is “it’s brand new and I’ve ‘bricked’ it.” And the tiny, little voice goes “How could you be so stupid when everyone else has their machines working and they’ve been working for ages.”

    The reality of course is much simpler: sh*t happens. Or, as those of us in IT like to say (to ourselves): this is a teaching moment. And you clearly said that to yourself and then you clearly taught a lesson.

    I’m at an age where I know enough about hardware and software and their idiosyncratic natures that I am in awe when stuff works. I know it’s supposed to. But I know of so much that can go wrong that I am in awe when it doesn’t.

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