Klaus Zimmermann's Corner

Spooktober Scary Computing Stories: The Night of the Living Dead Computer

October is almost over, and with its cooler weather and orange-themed stuff there tends to be a collection of Halloween themed resources around the internet, complete with scary horror stories.

I don't exactly consider myself a good novelist and I don't know many good spooky stories, but this year I decided to do something different, and try my hand at storytelling mixed with a dollop of computing lessons. The result is this: the Spooktober Scary Computing Stories series. This is story #1 of I don't know how many, but that should keep readers entertained and perhaps even share a lesson or two with them.

So, gather closer around the fireplace, children, for tonight I'll tell the story of The Night of the Living Dead Computer.

Frankenstein scene, but the creation is actually a Dell Laptop

Twas on a gloomy October night much like this one many, many years ago, when I was a young aspiring man in my college dorm. My trusty computing companion of many years (a Dell D620 Latitude laptop) was as usual sitting on my desk, juggling between the class assignments and a few games in between. I've had known this lad for many years throughout my High School, and knew exactly where it would excel or fail in its capacity - a real intimate relationship, if you may call it.

That fateful evening, however, everything would change. I had left old friend on while going out to the cafeteria to get some dinner as usual, but as I came back, I noticed something was wrong. His screen was not off and sleeping as usual, but instead emitted a faint dark grayish glow. It was the sort of light that indicated that it wasn't completely off, but also really struggling to keep itself on. Old chap did not respont to my keystrokes or mouse movement, and despite his fans working hard, it didn't seem that he was going to go anywhere from that point. My heart started pounding faster.

I resorted to the old but sure trick of computing: the hard-reset. I mashed the power button and watched old chap plop off and restart. C'mon, this should be the CPR it needs to get back up. I have stuff in there that I need! But after it passed the POST screen, the same ghastly gray glow appeared and it got stuck there again. This ain't good, I thought, while fruitlessly attempting to do it again and again. It was lifeless.

A few minutes in, and I realized that it was hopeless. Old chap had suffered a stroke of sorts, and would not be coming back as he used to be in this world. I was off to arrange its proceedings and have it formatted by and reinstalled back from the campus IT support desk when a figure, emerging from the shades on the corner of the dorm hall, called on me. It was my dorm room neighbor, whom many saw as a mysterious sorcerer of sorts when it came to computer technology.

A computer problem, I see.

Carrying Old Chap's lifeless chassis in my arms, I turned slowly to face him.

It is a pity that so many face the same issue and think their computers are hopelessly broken, as if dead. Yet, the reality could not be any further than this. Besides, it's too late in the evening at this time to try the IT support desk.

I squinted while he approached me with this mysterious tale.

Pity what happened to him, but know that uou do not have to replace your old friend, and I dare say, not even have to resort to the quackery of this place's IT support. What I can offer you is the chance to have your friend back in almost the same shape as before through the means of little known but extremely efficient... potion.

My neighbor drew out a bright red USB stick from his pocket and motioned me to it. Inscribed in it was a name of what I could only think as an ancient powerful spell: Ubuntu.

Apply this and your dear friend will still have another chance...

As I reached out to take the mystery stick, the neighbor pulled it back to himself with a final warning:

Mind ye, however... that your friend might not come back exactly like his old self. Though powerful, the effects of the potion may work... in mysterious ways sometimes.

Contemplating lifeless Old Chap one last time, I drew in a deep breath and took the red stick in my hand. I was ready to do this.

"Excellent. Take him back to your room and plug it in your friend. His hard drive may have failed, but that's not the end of him. Boot from the stick and ye shall see a new mysterious, but powerful world..."

And as he spoke this, the neighbor faded slowly into a dark corner, leaving me alone into the light of the deserted dorm hall.

I immediately went back into my room and cleared my desk. That was it, I was going to bring Old Chap back to life, and I was going to do it now. I put him back into the power socket and plugged the stick into the USB. But before I could even push his power button, my rational mind was already pounding me:

This can't be, how will a computer come back to life simply from a tiny USB stick? It doesn't even have a working hard drive! How can it even load anything useful at all?

At that point, I had nothing to lose, so I drew a deep breath and slammed the finger into the power button. Watching the POST screen come up was straightforward enough, because after all, I had seen Old Chap's boot sequence countless times. What came up afterwards, however, was beyond my wildest of dreams.

A dark screen with nothing except an orange-brown circular logo and the word UBUNTU greeted me with a loader prompt that looked nothing like old Windows XP's boring scrolling bar thing. Mesmerized, I then watched it turn into a brown-purple background with the sound of drums beating that startled me. How can this be happening? How can all of these come from a tiny USB stick? I thought to myself while watching the mysterious thing unfold itself.

Upon the finishing of Old Chap's new booting process, a two-bar brown-purple desktop greeted me. What is this thing? It ain't no Windows that I know of! I thought. Though very different from what I had seen so far, the interface seemed unexplicably familiar. Could this be a Mac of sorts? And most impressive of all: Old Chap seemed so... light and so goddamn fast! What sort of black magic resides in this USB stick?

I then saw a familiar icon there on the desktop - Firefox. That same browser I use in Windows, but here? Well, let's open it... wait, it's already open? How the hell! In Windows it'd surely have taken way longer. It's browsing the web much like it did before, a spotless experience I'd say. But the freakiest of all: it's not touching the hard drive at all! My dead computer has come back to life!

"And now you, too, can see it," my neighbor spoke from the shadows behind me, "that it is not because of a fragile and ephemeral hard drive's failure that our hardware is deemed dead. That is but a lie, an illusion perpetuated by those who seek to profit from your ignorance." He walked to my side, resting his hand next to Old Chap's now working chassis. He pointed at the screen.

"The world of Linux isn't always exactly like what you are used to seeing and experiencing in terms of computer. But often we find that this 'different' is rather for the better."

Linux? What did he just-

"Ah, yes, GNU-slash-Linux. A sane, elegant operating system for an elegant user." He sighed. "If only more of such 'users' were a little more open-minded towards trying new things!"

I noticed there were indeed some things I found strange about this Linux system Old Chap was running. What is this OpenOffice thing? Why is this Explorer thing to find files called Nautilus? Is it an obscure Jules Verne reference? Questions, questions...

He continued: "What your old friend is running at the moment happens to be a distribution of it, oriented towards beginners. It's called Ubuntu."

"B-but just how? How can a computer work without having a hard disk? That's like a human not having a brain or something," I ask.

"There's more to a computer than just a failed a hard drive, even if that's all that your previous operating system allowed you. You can boot it from almost anything. Once you know it, you'll be limitless to have your old friend do everything it can!" Said my neighbor.

He leaned his weight on the desk and motioned to Old Chap again. "Alas, but you so far have only sensed a small taste of all its capacity. To really dive in and experience truly what freedom and power await, you should take the plunge into the next level. No more live medium. You will perform a full install of Linux!"

I almost choked. "A-a what?"

"Yes, a frugal installation straight to a Hard Drive! For there's no other true way of immersing yourself in it. But you will need to procure a new Hard Drive to house your new OS. Take this and make a backup. See what you can salvage." He tossed me a USB key that he fished out of his pocket. And with that, my neighbor walked out into the corridor, disappearing into the shadows.

I took a look at Old Chap and its newfound vitality. It's speed and efficiency. Power. A power I have never had tasted until now. And at that moment I knew what I had to do. Old Chap will need a new hard drive, but it will contain nothing of his old ways. Him and I had just been initiated into Linux, and there was no coming back from now on.

How about that for some Spooktober fiction eh? I'm not sure if I have a hand for writing fiction, but guess I could try. And with this being freely licensed, you are free to extend at will the story.

There are definitely some lessons to be taken away from this whole story. I think the biggest one is this: you almost never can really, really brick a (general use) computer. Pretty much anything can be fixed by yourself with a new medium and reinstalling the OS (even Windows).

Caught some incurable sort of malware? Reinstall and you're right. Partition table messed up? Reinstall is usually the easiest way out. Hard drive failed? Guess what. You can even try to salvage (some) data from your older OS install to minimize a little the damage. The only reason why I would take any computer of mine to a repair shop is if some bizarrely complex hardware damage happened (of the likes of logic boards frying or water damage) and I have to replace something really hard inside. Otherwise, I am my own tech support.

A second, but perhaps equally important one: back up your stuff, and check your backups frequently! Had I been cautious with my backups in first place, maybe this story would've turned out much more differently. Perhaps it would've been just a matter of saying shucks and rolling back to the most recent one in a new medium. But my seemingly complete loss at that critical moment left me with a hole in the stomach right then.

A small silver lining at that moment, however, was that I had a clean slate, a stage where I could build from the ground up without any fear of breaking something.

a drawing of Tyler Durden holding soap in black and white
Sort of a "It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything" moment I guess?

And third: "scary" is oftentimes an euphemism for "I don't really understand it." Typing commands in the command-line is pretty scary for someone who only knows how to point and click. Skydiving is pretty scary for me, who never did it. Social interactions can be scary if you're not well used to them.

So is Linux really necessarily harder to use or scarier than Windows? Or is it just that you've grown used to having Windows everywhere you go (school, home, work, etc) but not Linux? Is FreeBSD really harder to use than Linux? Knowledge changes everything.

Have you ever had a "disaster" of this sort happen to you so that you could begin anew in terms of computing? How did you get started with Linux? Let me know on Mastodon!

Happy Spooktober for everyone producing this theme's content, and hope that you've enjoyed my piece of fiction. Who knows, do you think I should write more of these? Let me know.

This post is number #39 of my #100DaysToOffload project. Follow my progress through Mastodon!

Last updated on 10/26/22