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Editor's Note: The Support Call HOWNOTTO

Let them truckers roll, 10-4.

  • July 16, 2001
  • By Michael Hall

Portland, Oregon is something in the vicinity of 3000 miles away from Charlottesville, Virginia. I drove all 3000 of them in a 17 foot U-Haul the week before last. It's not a bad drive, either. The obligatory stop in Wall, South Dakota netted a collection of Jackalope placemats and moody cowboy art, which brightened up the second half of the trip considerably.

Part of the grand strategy involved in the move cross-country was to use my Dell Inspiron 3800 to stay in nominal touch with the rest of the world when I stopped each night. It's a good laptop, recently expanded to 256MB of RAM, with a Mobile Celeron 600. I've used it on several road trips, sung its praises to others, and generally enjoyed it. It once even spent a few months productively chugging away as an NFS and IMAP server when I didn't have anywhere to go in particular and needed something to host mail and MP3's for the household LAN.

On the evening I was in Sheridan, Wyoming, though, it decided to take a dive, reporting at boot that it only had half the RAM I knew it contained. I rebooted, it reported an accurate count, and I forgot about it. Forgot about it, that is, until it began to reboot at random. Depending on the circumstances, it would reboot and report the correct amount of RAM, or reboot and not report the correct amount of RAM, but it seldom stayed running for more than five minutes without spontaneously rebooting.

A useful random bit of advice for anyone interested in their own cross-country move I can offer is that if your mail-gathering device suddenly proves unable to gather mail, it's an awfully good idea to unsubscribe to the Linux kernel mailing list... especially if you have a two week wait until you can shed your dialup connection in favor of DSL. I didn't do this and suffered horribly on arrival in Portland.

The warranty on the Inspiron is pretty straightforward: if it's broke, I have a year of them coming on out to fix it wherever I happen to be. I called Dell support full of high hopes: after all, it was forgetting how much RAM it had, the diagnostics (and some RAM stick swapping) revealed there was nothing wrong with the RAM in it... oughta be a quick one.

Still Screaming? Then the Cure Worked

Our first HOWNOTTO, then, is to assume that tech support for any company cares what you think or what your diagnosis is. Much the same way Army medics have special troubleshooting flowcharts for the human body, support technicians have a program of their own. Much like Army medics, they don't care what you think, or how much you cry as you undergo whatever cure they have in store for you. I know about Army medics and their troubleshooting flowcharts because I saw one pulled out when I reported a paratrooping injury that involved being unable to lay down or turn my head more than five degrees to either side without screaming. My own diagnosis, without the benefit of the flow chart, was "painkillers, lots of them." The medic and his flowchart agreed that a cautious regimen of Motrin in miserly amounts and a quick return to duty would help with the screaming.

The cure, in my particular case, first involved running some diagnostics that came on a CD. I pointed out that I'd already run all the diagnostics, but the tech shrugged this off and asked me to run them again. In the spirit of cooperation and out of a desire for a quick resolution, I booted the CD, ran the diagnostics, made small talk with the tech, before reporting that no... by gosh... there was nothing wrong with the RAM I had in the machine.

The second step of the cure, then, involved a session with debug.exe. I then did the second HOWNOTTO of this column: I admitted that I wasn't running Windows on this laptop, and hadn't, in fact, ever run Windows on it. Its first bootup was into an install CD for Debian. That made the cure all the more painful, because the tech became suddenly pleased with the fact that the "cure" actually entailed overwriting the partition table on the machine and reinstalling WindowsME.

I am, by nature, not a contentious sort of person. "Go along to get along" is my creed, and I can count on one hand the number of times I've raised my voice in anger or strident dissent in the past four years. In this instance, I remained true to my nature, but not before offering, in fairly polite tones, the following bit of insight into the situation:

"I've had this machine for close to a year now, and I really have tweaked the Linux installation I've got on here to a point where it's very nice. I've explained that the real issue is appearing before the bootloader ever appears at startup... it's plainly a hardware problem of some kind. Maybe we could reconsider this step?"

"No," the technician explained, "Linux is probably causing this problem and it needs to come off the machine."

Not "My special flowchart says I have to," just "Linux is probably reaching out from the hard drive, where it sits as nothing more than a collection of magnetic potential unkissed by so much as a single read head, just waiting to influence the hardware before GRUB can even find it, or the hardware can even acknowledge the existence of GRUB for that matter (deep breath)... Linux is reaching out in that manner and wrecking your laptop and it must come off."

Our next HOWNOTTO is, then this: When Confronted by a Technician Who Believes Linux Has Special Hardware Warping Powers, Cooperate With His Demand to Reformat Your Hard Drive and Start Over.

I'd backed up my machine, so I wasn't worried about losing anything in particular (even though I knew it wouldn't be quite right after I restored it, because things never are), and I quietly went along. As the Windows ME install began, we sat talking. The tech then became impatient and said I seemed to know what I was doing and didn't need help through the Windows installation:

"This probably fixed your problem, though... Linux probably just caused it."

I expressed polite doubt, but told him I'd certainly keep an eye on the machine for a few days to ensure that his cure worked. Sensing closure to the call he chirped "So did this call resolve your problem?"

"I don't know," I said. "I don't think so, but we'll take a few days to find out."

Faster than he could spit out "ThanksforcallingDell" he hung up, clearly miffed that I hadn't said "Why yes, I bet that now that Linux is all gone from my machine, everything'll work great!"

I walked out of the room, had lunch, and came back as the WindowsME install was wrapping up. I rebooted the machine for the last time of the install, it forgot it had half its RAM, and spontaneously rebooted before I could even finish the Beck demo that comes with the Windows Media Player. Linux, no doubt, reaching from beyond the grave.

My next call to Dell was considerably sharper in tone. The technician wanted to reinstall WindowsME again, which prompted the thing I should have said in the first place:

"I'm going to seem very hostile to you until we establish a relationship that involves you listening to me."

After a little more firmness, a final run of all the diagnostics on the disk, and some hard words, a third technician (who had to keep getting off the phone to report to a supervisor who could, evidently, tell him what to say better than he could say it to me) agreed that I must have a hardware problem and that a certified technician would be on his way the next day.

From that point on out, the Dell folks behaved splendidly. A technician did come, the motherboard on the laptop was, indeed, replaced, and it works great now, a mere 60 days shy of slipping out of warranty.

So, what's the harm done?

The laptop, for one, still has WindowsME on it and I'll be spending some time getting rid of it, and even more time trying to put things back to the way they were. There's also a technician out there in Dell-land somewhere who thinks it's o.k. to tell customers they don't know what they're talking about, and that Linux is able to make machines forget how much RAM they have in the middle of their POST. I can fix the Windows problem quickly enough given a little time to invest in a fast Linux install.

The technician is a different story, though, and the issue of fixing him is a little murkier because I've been in situations close enough to his own that the only thing I can really blame him for is pretending that he'd diagnosed Linux as my problem when he was likely reading a script from a monitor that told him that whatever was on the hard drive was going to have to come off. Some will say he needs to be eviscerated publicly as a Redmond mole, or at least punished for his ignorance. I think he needs to be punished for pretending he had decision-making authority, and I need to be punished for playing along with him instead of demanding to talk to someone who did have that authority in the first place.

Fellow Linux Planet columnist Dennis Powell offered the best insight, though, and one I think I'll keep in mind for next time: companies continue to make the assumption that any sort of high-handed behavior on their part is perfectly excusable in the name of their own efficiency. The fact is, though, that I paid a goodly sum for that laptop when I bought it, and the service I receive ought to be better than "we don't care what the facts are -- just do whatever we say no matter how small an amount of sense it makes, and no matter how inconvenient it is to you." This sort of thinking is marginally acceptable in places like the military, where enlisted people openly abuse each other as schnooks for enlisting in the first place knowing full well that they'd be subjected to some miserable indignities. It's no good, however, out in "the world," as we wistfully used to call that special place where all the civilians are polite and respectful to each other, and where, if you give people your business, they treat you as something better than a moron.

If there's a next time, things will turn out a little differently. In the mean time, for those who approach things like me, generally willing to play ball to stay on the good side of random strangers, consider this HOWNOTTO a fairly thorough list of guideposts in your regimen of self-improvement. It may be the only way you can keep that Linux install intact.

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