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Started: 2003-12-04 16:14:58

Submitted: 2003-12-04 16:57:00

Visibility: World-readable

Five years ago, my parents figured out that "the family computer" (which I had already dubbed Enterprise, installed Linux on, and left the keyboard in Dvorak when I headed back to my freshman year at ucollege.edu after Christmas break) was aging a little too much and elected to replace it with a brand-new Pentium II with a shiny "NEC" on the front of the over-curved plastic cover and the latest and greatest version of Windows: the peak of consumer-grade excellence, Windows 98. It featured a DVD drive, which I thought was a most excellent feature, three and a half years before I managed to get one of my own.

As time progressed, this computer became Willy's computer (especially after everyone else in the family got one (or occasionally two) of their own), which (under pressure from his naming-obsessed older brother) he eventually dubbed Nimitz. When I came home from working on my senior project summer last year, I repartitioned and installed Linux, which Willy was greatly excited by, mostly because he got to use the GIMP, but also because the three-year-old shovel-ware install of Windows 98 was showing its age.

Sometime in the spring of this year (most likely in the month of May; if I tried hard enough, I could likely figure out exactly when and why) Nimitz started behaving badly. It all started when (as near as I can determine) the motherboard's disk controllers croaked and died, refusing to boot successfully from even a boot floppy. I scratched my head over this and eventually decided to acquire, from eBay, a similar-vintage motherboard and chip. I was successful in acquiring one at a low cost, and it worked for a short period of time, but it had issues of its own; by the beginning of August, I realized something was wrong. memtest86 revealed that its cache would fail in some circumstances. (Quite possibly just one bogus bit, but one bogus bit is a bad thing.) Nimitz crashed randomly, data corrupted itself, and other ungood things happened.

I contemplated this in the back of my mind until the beginning of September, when Willy had started school again and wanted a working computer, especially for his video production class. Equipped with a budget, I headed to the etailer then known as GoogleGear and ordered the cheapest Athlon chip and motherboard I could find, and a 1394 card.

The hardware arrived that week, so one evening I headed back to my parents' house, dropped by CompUSA to acquire a chip fan, and swung back home to borrow Ziyal's extra half-gig of ram. I camped out in the alcove that used to be my home, and swapped the hardware. A kernel recompile or two later and I got the previously-installed testing Debian working. I took Nimitz home that night (or the next; I can't recall at the moment) and installed a slightly extra-legal copy of Windows 2000 over the weekend, during which process I discovered that the 256 meg sdram I was using was either bad or being used improperly; the install cd wouldn't load until I plugged in Ziyal's extra half-gig ddr ram. I took Nimitz back to Willy's desk, plugged it in, and showed Willy the voodoo secrets of digital video transcoding, and other exciting things.

All was good... for a week. Willy called one night reporting that he had rebooted Nimitz and now it was complaining about a bogus NVRAM checksum. I contemplated this, didn't really want to drive twenty minutes, one way, back to my parents' house, and instructed him to reset the BIOS memory using the handily-located jumper on the motherboard. All was good for at least twenty-four hours, until Nimitz failed to boot the next time. I eyeballed Nimitz, couldn't coerce it to do anything after unplugging everything from the motherboard, and took it home for further analysis.

The next night, I was struck by my current non-plague condition that continues to refuse to fully reveal itself. (The follow up to that changelog is an entirely different story, although fortunately not nearly as long as this changelog.) I had no extra energy to do anything useful like diagnose sick hardware until coming back from Lincoln, when I plugged in a pc speaker (in the age of sound cards, the chassis' original manufacturer had seen no need to include one) and heard eight short beeps. I tried various combinations (unplugging peripherals, removing the motherboard from the chassis, swapping power supplies, swapping ram), and nothing made any difference. I e-mailed the motherboard's tech support early the next week and failed to get any response.

At the beginning of November, Willy finally figured out that I wasn't actually doing anything to resuscitate his computer and started bugging me about it. After concluding that I have some sort of phone anxiety (calling anyone other than the small number of people on my wireless phone's address book makes me nervous and may take half a day to convince myself to make the call, then the rest of the day to recover from the experience; this made my recent and unlamented period of unemployment exceedingly difficult) and wasn't going to be able to do anything about it, Gem graciously stepped in and, in exchange for a lifetime of back rubs, volunteered to be my tech support liaison. She called the previously-mentioned etailer and the motherboard's manufacturer and learned that she needed to e-mail them first, which I had done a month prior and not gotten a response. She e-mailed them again and, several days later, got back the response: eight short beeps meant either that something was wrong with the motherboard, or the video card. Since half of my tests had been with the video card unplugged, we concluded it was the former. Gem got an RMA number and I hiked over to the nearby UPS Store that evening to send the offending motherboard back to California.

(All of this would have been easier had the manufacturer bothered to print their bios error codes in the manual, or have them available online, or answer my e-mail the first time around.)

Monday evening when I descended upon my parents' house with Ziyal to spend the week, I spotted a second-day air box sitting on my mother's desk with the exact form factor I would expect the motherboard to be in. Surprisingly enough, it was in fact the motherboard. I managed to leave all of Nimitz's components on my desk in my apartment, so I couldn't actually put Nimitz together until I picked them up on Tuesday. Nimitz functioned quite well from that point forward, although it won't boot to Windows 2000, which will require some tweaking. After a Debian update and a kernel recompile, I handed Nimitz over to Willy for his enjoyment.

I'm fully expecting Nimitz to fail again Sunday evening, after I've headed home and the week is about to start again. But with any luck, the Nimitz saga might be fairly boring for the next couple of years.