The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

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In Memory of Some Old Junk

Over the last few years I have insisted on doing the conscientious thing with electronic waste — refusing to discard it with the other household rubbish, keeping it instead for recycling at our local tip. Of course, the rather predictable result of this was that we accumulated boxes upon boxes of batteries, compact fluorescent bulbs, dead mobile phones, old televisions and computers, and the occasional piece of old scientific equipment.

I'm different…
I'm different…

We finally got around to getting rid of it all yesterday, and amongst the pieces of useless garbage were two things I found difficult to part with.

The first was an old, yellowing (yes, yellowing) PC — the first one I ever bought with my own money. I named it Brad, and Brad dual-booted RedHat Linux 5 (yes, back when the community desktop release was actually still called RedHat) along with Windows 2000. This was also my first foray into using Linux. I had to hand-tweak the LILO command-line to get it to boot RedHat off an Ultra-ATA/66 hard drive and the kernel crashed hard every time I used a dodgy USB drive but I was okay with that because I wanted to see what I could do with it! (As it turned out, very little, because come on… RedHat FIVE. I later installed 6.1, which allowed me to curse RedHat’s package management and play Globulation.)

The second was a laptop that I bought while doing honours in physics. The most satisfying thing I ever did with it was also the first thing I did with it — erasing every byte of the Windows XP installation and installing Debian Woody (3.0). (I also completed my physics honours project, engineering final year project and a bunch of other stuff on it, but whatever.) I won’t tell you what I named it though.

Perhaps it’s strange that I would get so attached to these things, since I’m an electronic engineer. It’d be like a carpenter getting sentimental about offcuts, or a surgeon feeling empathy for humans. But my desire to keep these objects — objects that moved house several times and outlasted relationships — is also coupled with an innate desire to not see them wasted (or running Microsoft code).

I later refurbished Brad and used it as a computational server for the number crunching needed for my engineering project. The laptop was also occasionally repurposed as a wireless-to-ethernet NAT router. I’ve taken both of them apart at times to recover or wipe data from old hard drives. It occurred to me that this is the first time since I’ve owned either of them that they’ve sat unused for more than a few months.

But that aw… not yet feeling I got every time I moved house wasn’t just my MacGuyver-league ingenuity and resourceful nature speaking up. It really did make me truly sad to think of these marvels of tech going unused before they were actually useless. We take weird kinds of rocks, give them performance enhancing chemicals and then they can add up, take direction from our hands, and field system calls from RedHat’s frickin' useless package manager. Those two machines were with me throughout some of the most emotionally tumultuous blah blah blah monumentally important blah blah blah entire life, and they just didn’t quit.

They’re gone now though. Hard drives erased and dropped respectfully into a multiskip. Brad, «laptop hostname redacted»… I’ll miss you.

I did everything you asked.
I did everything you asked.


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