A Bad Week Gone Good, Part 1: The Computer Breakdown

To say the last couple of weeks were a challenge is to understate the little bit of anxiety that has crept up in the morning with full knowledge that as soon as I got up it would be go go go. There was one week in particular that was not very good but not entirely bad either. This here is part 1 of that week’s episodes.

Disk0s2 is not an error you want to see. You don’t see it, mind you, until you run your fsck -ly command and that’s only after you actually find out how to get your Macbook to do any of that (restart computer, hold Alt / Option key, type in fsck -ly). If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re not alone. I was like you until about a week ago when my computer’s hard drive finally gave up it’s ghost.

There were signs that things were going wrong for quite some time. I was never sure when it would happen but  sometimes it would happen at the most inopportune times, such as just before class, and so I’d give it the holy shake down of curses.  No matter my cursing nor threats to send it out the window, whether it was a copying error or a crash or that little pinwheel just spinning spinning spinning, the computer always seemed to recover after a reboot. This time… it didn’t.

They say unless it’s broke, don’t fix it, but in the age of computers we must amend that statement to something along the lines of “just remember to back it up.” Luckily I’m not a 20 year old newb to computer break downs and have several backups so, at worst, I lose a month or so of work. Moreover, unlike when I was in university in the early 2000s, technology has advanced to the point where it’s easy to ask someone else what could be wrong either in person or, better yet, online. As long as you have another device (such as a cell phone) and an internet connection, you may use Mother Internet to ask Uncle Google what is wrong with your computer. Finally, hard drives are relatively cheap and easy to use so backing up isn’t all that difficult, you just have to remember to do it. Anyway, I do have several backups in various locations mostly offline but online as well. All that being said, the damage and fallout from this hard drive failure wasn’t as bad as previous experiences though, to be sure, it’s not something I want to go through very often.

So I queried Uncle Google and started trying to understand what I should do. My computer would start but it wouldn’t get past the intrdocutory gray screen. The solution is to restart the computer and hold down the Alt/Option key so you can enter some user special mode. There you can run a few disk checks one of is the fsck -ly command, which I read as “FUCK” before I thought maybe it was the computer people’s joke for “fucking sickly [computer]”. (It actually stands for “File System (Consistency) Check”.) So I got that going and let that run. The read out from the computer said it might take a while, maybe 30 minutes, so I set about doing other things while (I hoped) my computer fixed itself. But after about 45 minutes I started to think maybe something was actually really wrong with my computer.

The nearest Apple store is quite a ways away and I already knew what they say: the drive is gone, you have to replace it. Not only would an Apple HDD be expensive, but I would need a new OS on it too. I have lots of old programs on here and didn’t want to upgrade my OS because I knew that I would then have to upgrade all of my programs. So a trip to the Apple Genius Bar was something I was trying to avoid. Despite my best efforts to cajole, console, and threaten my computer back to life, nothing worked.

And so that’s when I messaged the one person I know who deals with this stuff…. my brother.

“Make an Ubuntu boot USB with another computer? [Or] Maybe just leave it off for a while. Not a good sign for the hard drive though.”

Comforting words. WTF is Ubuntu, how do I create a bootable, and why do so many tech guys say “just leave it off for a while”?

“Use Lili to make a USB.”

As an English teacher I have many “Lilly’s” in my classes as it is a popular name for Chinese girls right now. But anyway, where do I get Lili from?

“Internet.”

Of course. Now, my only access to Mother Internet is through my phone which has also been causing me some heart ache lately as it refuses to load some webpages. Now I needed to download some USB creator and Ubuntu, which turns out to be 1.09GBs.

My brother also suggested that I could freeze the drive. I was immediately suspicious of this method because freezing requires cold and when that cold thing comes back into room temperature, water droplets form, and water droplets on electrical components sound like a bad mixture. When I told him my concerns he agreed, it had never worked for any drive that he had tried it on. So I thought it best to scrap that idea. Things were not looking good and it looked as though the drive was done for; upgrading would be inevitable.

Anyway, I’ve never used Ubuntu before so this would be a new experience. To me, Ubuntu (a type of Linux operating system, which is just another type of operating system like Windows or Mac OS, but free) belongs in the realm of Matrix-y computer programming nerd stuff that I failed at in high school. To use Ubuntu, I thought, one needs special programming skills and a complex understanding of C++ or Unix systems that allow you to communicate with the brain of the computer.

Well, that’s not Ubuntu. After downloading the requisite programs (Lili USB Creator and the latest Ubuntu LTS (“long term support”, which means that the program is stable and working and people are actively fixing any issues with it)), I created my first ever bootable USB. Surprisingly, Ubuntu turned out to be a very clean and elegant operating system. Colourful, even. Plugging in my dead hard drive I was able to recover quite a few of my files and move them onto an external disk. So job number #1 was done: files were mostly recovered.

But the second problem was to get a new laptop hard drive and Mac OS. Although I could remain part of the elite and use Ubuntu 16.10 Yakkity Yak (that’s the name of this version of the operating system), I know I am a normal person and want a normal OS, such as Mac OS that runs real programs, not just open source programs. But I could go no further on my own. I needed outside help that was physically here in China.

It’s one thing to have your computer breakdown, it’s another thing to have it break down in a country where you don’t speak the language. Don’t underestimate this fear. All I needed was a downloaded copy of Mac OS 10.whatever to get my computer going and then I could figure out the rest. It was with this in mind that I slowly walked over to the tech guy’s store, silently praying that there would be no one else in the store to witness my butchery of the Chinese language.

The tech guy on campus knew I was having problems with my computer because I had gone to him earlier to use one of those tiny screwdrivers to remove my hard drive (when I was thinking about freezing it) so it was no surprise that I came back asking for a Mac OS install disk. Now, he kept asking if it was iOS and I said no, Macbook. Pro? he asks. Nope. 2008. Just a Macbook. 二零零八年苹果电脑 / er ling ling ba nian ping guo dian nao Macbook. “2008 Apple computer Macbook.”

He was confused, as if he wondered why anyone would have such an old system.

This is all in Chinese, by the way, and in Chinese, it helps to spell it out: M-A-C O-S. Ping guo dian nao, em-ay-see, oh-ess. And then I asked “how much” in English giving the universal sign of money.

This is when the one other person in the store finally perked their head up.

“Steven?!”

A former student. Shit. A witness to my terrible Chinese. Luckily she’s distracted by WeChat or Candy Crush or whatever so she couldn’t record any of it. I smiled and said hi.

“No money,” he says in heavily accented English. “Baidu!”

Oh, the glories of China and Mother Internet. To be fair, OS 10.9 “Mavericks” is the latest free release of the Mac OS. The newer ones you have to pay for, I think.

I guess he assumed I would be back because I never asked him to download it but when I returned the next day, he already had the bootable USB ready.

In the meantime, I had to get a new hard drive which meant shopping around online and ordering one… in Chinese. This is another new experience for me and one that I will write about next. Suffice it to say, I managed to order a new hard drive and it would be delivered the next day (the glories of living in Beijing!)

In the end, the tech guy plugged in the USB and then, seeing that my computer was all in English, soon handed controls over to me to complete the install. An hour later Mavericks was installed and I had my computer up and running again. He charged me 80RMB (~$15.26CAD) for his time and effort, which I gladly handed over to him, and now it was time to copy the old files over and re-install the programs I had on the other drive.

Goal complete. Computer mostly saved. Lessons learned. New OS experience. I learned a new Chinese word 系统 xi tong which means “operating system” in Chinese. And I would even learn how to order stuff online, which was quite an experience not only because is much of it in Chinese, but because it’s something my students talk about all the time yet I remain the old fuddy-duddy who prefers to buy in person with cash. But that story will have to wait until next time when I explain a bit more about how I am becoming a bit more a part of the Great Chinese Collective.