Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A story: When the eMachine blew up, I had no idea I was about to build a computer

I got up a couple hours before sunrise, turned on the light on the landing upstairs outside my home office, and pushed the power button on my 10-year old eMachine (a computer brand from the nineties with a well-earned bad reputation.) There was a flash of blue from the back of the computer desk. The room filled with smoke.
  That was the death of the machine. There's a power supply in every computer. It's the one electric (as opposed to electronic) component. They're designed to blow up before anything else in the machine. I put four of them in the eMachine over the years.
  That left me with a real problem. I need a computer. I left my profession (and the nice salary) to pursue a dream of writing books. I was in the middle of writing Sexton, and wasn't about to stop. We're on the Dave Ramsey plan--which means we don't use credit cards unless it's an emergency. My wife did not see the death of my computer as an emergency, and I agreed. Agreed with a tear in my eye, but I agreed.
   So I 'stole' her computer. Her computer was no prize either, but she wasn't using it and I needed one. Her computer was my old--and I mean old--Compaq Presario. It was 10 years old and running Windows 98. I took the DVD and CD R/W drives out of the dead eMachine and stuck them in the Compaq. Windows 98 didn't have a clue what to do with the "new" equipment. Using borrowed computers, I found drivers for Windows 98 for my flash drives, my DVD drive, my CD-RW drive. I babied that computer. I maxed out the memory with used RAM chips purchased for $15 a piece at the local computer shop.
   I wrote, designed, and published 5 books on that old Compaq.
   A couple of months ago, after a couple of months of having the screen go dark in the middle of a paragraph (or action scene), the Compaq kicked the bucket. It was a slow death, a grinding death...a boring death. No blue flash, no sound of me screaming "Is that you, Lord?" when smoke and light appeared from the back of the desk.
   I hoped it was the power supply. Got in the car and drove to the local computer shop with the dead power supply in hand. Cords dangling, I lifted it above the counter to show the store owner what I needed. It was a different store than the one that sold me the memory chips. That one closed. This new store (and the owner and I are now mutual admirers of each other) didn't know how to take me.
   The owner looked at the dead power supply in my hand, then at me. His eyes said what he didn't dare. They said, "Are you nuts?"
   The answer to his question at the time was a resounding, if silent (yeah--it's a contradiction) YES. He said they don't make power  supplies that small anymore. He offered to sell me a "box" that included a power supply for $70, which was $10 less than a power supply by itself.
   "Then what do I do?" I asked. I was afraid of the answer, though I knew what it would be.
   "Just take everything out of your old box and stick it in this one." His reply showed he had confidence in me that I didn't share.
   "How do you move a motherboard?"
   "It's easy. Just unscrew it and put it in the new box."
   Shoot. I figured I could do that easily enough.
   I did. I took the motherboard out of the old Compaq. There were wires I didn't know what to do with. I wrestled with it for days, trying various combinations, etc. I cussed. I whined. I might have tossed a screwdriver or two.
   In defeat, I took the box back to the computer shop. The owner greeted me with skepticism when I said there must be a problem with the box. He took one look at my Compaq motherboard and said, "See this corrosion, and rust, and ooze?"
   "This sucker is dead."
    Completely ignoring my pale face and the fine sheen of sweat on my forehead, he handed me the motherboard. I decided to save it for a souvenir. It's on a shelf in my stairwell now. A place of honor.
   For $75 he sold me a motherboard. It's used, but it has an Intel Pentium 4 chip--far newer than any computer I've ever owned. He tossed in half a gig of RAM for free. Sold me a 40 Gig hard drive for $15.
I put it all together, and it worked. At least I think it worked, but I couldn't really tell. I didn't have an operating system. No Windows. I'd been using the Compaq restore disk (yeah, the decade old restore disk with Wnidows 98), but because the Compaq was dead, the restore disk figured out I wasn't using a Compaq and wouldn't give me anything.
   Rescue came from my mother and stepfather. They sent me one of their old computers. That one worked until I tried to rid it of a particularly nasty virus and wiped out the Windows 2000 it was running. I'll fix that computer later. I can! I know what I'm doing now...
   I was able to get a Dell restore disk to give me Windows XP...trial version. It let me load Windows XP, but it wouldn't let me activate it. This new computer isn't a Dell and Windows XP knows it. I tried to buy a copy of XP (I don't have the horses in this computer to run Vista, and I'm not interested in Vista yet.), but they don't sell XP anymore. The Windows people aren't dumb--they want me to buy Vista.
   Three days ago, I ordered a copy of Windows XP from an online retailer I'd never heard of. I recommend them, by the way. The site is www.elecsurf.com and they came through for me with shining colors.
    Today I installed Windows XP--the legitimate version with the valid product key and easy activation--I ordered from them for $88.98, including an install CD and shipping charge.
   That brings the price of my computer to $242.68. I'm not going to count my labor, my cussing, and the occasional jumping up and down while screaming "hot diggety!" in the price. Those things were free.
   Sure, some would say I could have bought a used system for that price. Others would say I should have just started saving money to buy a new, better, more current machine. They're not wrong, those good people... They're just not me. I think now I have a better insight into why people refurbish old cars or build cars. It's because they can. I built a computer by accident, sure. But I also did it just to see if I could.
   I intend to keep this system for a long time. It's mine. It's paid in full. I made it.

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