Computer blues

No, not a grumble: a story with a happy ending.

Back in 2008, when the Asus eee-pc notebook came out, I got one of the first. I have written elsewhere about how it was indispensible on my Forder tour of New Zealand, and for various other things. This was a nice machine: built to be used by small children, it was as near to indestructible as a common computer can be, built to be thrown around the room. No disk drive, no moving parts. However, this was also a drawback: it had 2Gb of memory which had to function as RAM and RAMdisk. So not feasible to install TeX on it. You could increase the storage by putting a card in the slot. Also, it ran Xandros (a version of Linux), heavily disguised, rather than Windows, and CTRL-ALT-T would produce a terminal window.

I have a very good Acer laptop now, but it is a bit bulky for taking to conferences, and quite infeasible for taking on a walk. So I decided to try to get a more up-to-date notebook.

Amazon offered me one, via their Marketplace associates, a company called BlueAnteater. I think this company comes out well from this story, although there was a glitch. First they emailed me to say that the machine had failed its test; they could offer me another (with Windows) or my money back. I said I didn’t want Windows, so they came back with an offer to install the flavour of Linux of my choice. I opted for Ubuntu.

The machine came very promptly indeed, and straight out of the box it seemed to work fine. As the company had promised, it was a pleasing shade of dark blue. It had 2Gb RAM and 130Gb hard disk, and had Windows and Ubuntu 13.10 installed.

But of course, I needed to install a few more things, most notably TeX, GAP, and Dropbox.

I am the sort of person who sits watching the screen while TeX installs. I noticed that some program I had never heard of, which seemed to have nothing to do with TeX, was not installed properly. Like a hole in a tooth, this seemed to provoke the downloader to return often to this program, without any progress. So when it had finished, and it offered me the chance to install upgrades, I took it.

Unfortunately, the download failed – maybe I did something wrong, who knows? – and I was left with a computer that hung after I had entered my password.

I feel unreasonably pleased by the fact that I didn’t immediately panic and phone the company or send the machine back. I slept on it, and the next day (the wet Sunday of the bank holiday weekend) I had a plan.

I went online with my other computer and found how to make a Ubuntu boot USB stick, which I then did. Putting this into the notebook, it booted into a cut-down Ubuntu, and one of the options it offered was a complete re-installation of Ubuntu 14.04, overwriting everything. I thought this was the safest course, so accepted. Added advantage: the Windows partition was reclaimed, so more usable space on the disk.

From then, everything proceeded flawlessly. Ubuntu installed, then my essential programmes installed. This would probably not have been feasible a year ago, but they have upgraded the connections in this little corner of north-east Fife to fibre-optic, and in the mornings I can get download speeds of 1.5Mb/sec, so it didn’t even take too long. Synchronizing Dropbox, however, took rather longer, as I have over 40Gb there now. (I tried to forestall this by loading the Dropbox folder from a recent backup. Not sure whether this saved any time at all.) On Tuesday I put eduroam on and got it working.

The re-install also allowed me to give the computer a more meaningful name. All three of my current machines are named after mathematicians who have influenced me: Erdős, Seidel, and Higman.

So now I have a machine which is both a fully usable computer and a portable notebook/organiser.

Incidentally, I can’t find BlueAnteater on Google (it offers me various cartoons such as “Snuffle my blue-nosed friend” or a meat packing company in Broxbourne instead), so this is an indirect way of giving them a feedback comment.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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