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The Linux Support Call HOWNOTTO

Windows ME, Stupid Scripts, Uppity Customers Making Demands

  • October 31, 2008
  • By Michael Hall
LinuxPlanet Classics: "No," the technician explained, "Linux is probably causing this problem and it needs to come off the machine." Michael Hall's classic battle with Dell tech support was first published July 16, 2001. Has anything really changed?

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."

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