The Tao of ComPoohTing by Jonathan Sturm

The following was my first magazine article on computing published in an Australian magazine called Your Computer. I wrote it in October 1991.

The recent article in YC about backing up brought a wry smile to my face. I only just lost three months of work (I am a technical writer). What? A wry smile? When is Robert M. Persig going to write "Zen and the Art of Computer Maintenance"? Maintaining sanity and owning a computer seem remarkably similar to listening for the sound of a single hand clapping. Perhaps I am no longer sane, hence the smile. Lest you, dear reader, fall into the same potholes in the road that I did, read on.

My first computer was a Tandy 200. Expensive and short on features (like a decent word processor and memory), it nevertheless gave me a taste of what writing with a computer could do for me. My computer-wise friends scoffed at my little laptop, its inadequate screen and its manufacturer. Rip-off, they cried. For the money you spent on that, you could have bought a "real computer". Foolishly heeding their well-intentioned advice, I purchased a second-hand XT clone. Yes, I was overjoyed with the power at my fingertips. I revelled in the delight of my new word processor, Borland's Sprint. And I don't care what anyone says, it is unrivalled as a writer's tool. Borland is also the only company in the computer world to provide me with real support. They sent me 12 replacement disks all the way from USA to fix a minor bug that I complained about. The distributor had told me "it's your fault for not setting the printer switches correctly".

gratuitous illustration

But back to the real story. The XT died, somewhat dramatically. It appeared that there was a motherboard fault. A quick call to the distributor ascertained that they "no longer sold, or supported that brand". Gulp! However, I was now in DOS-Land, not Tandy-Land, where bits and pieces can be swapped between machines. I promptly ordered a replacement motherboard that, despite the airline strike, arrived two days later.

Upon opening the computer, I discovered that the new motherboard, despite being dramatically smaller than the old one, was not going to fit. The number and spacing of the slots was wrong. Argh! I ordered a new case. The airline pilots were not to be caught napping this time. The case took over a week to arrive.

With some suspicion, I fitted the new motherboard in the new case, much smarter and easier to open than the old. Surely, this was it. But no! The power supply would not fit. Desperation! I ordered and eventually received a new power supply. It fitted. I booted the machine, and for the first time in weeks, managed to write something. I had been spoiled. Who wants to bang away at a typewriter, cut a document apart with scissors, tape it back together and retype the whole blessed thing?

My joy was short-lived. The hard disk became inaccessible. "Invalid drive C:" A week at the repair-shop and the drive card was replaced by two, one for the hard disk, and one for the floppy drives. I had become the proud owner of a 3.5 inch drive while awaiting repairs. Being an hour's drive from civilisation, I spent the next two weeks on the phone, trying to access drive B:. I tried DIP switching, DRIVPARM, New-Age healing crystals, prayer and contemplated violence. The supplier of the floppy controller finally admitted that a new floppy controller could just do the trick. It did. Relief!

Short lived relief. The computer died. A week in the repair shop and I was told that the BIOS chip had expired. They did not have an exact replacement (it was from Phoenix), but a Samsung BIOS should meet my needs. Argh! It didn't. After trying several other Samsung and AMI BIOS chips, crashing my machine at random intervals, needing internal DIP switch changes to shift from CGA to MDA, or vice versa, a Phoenix BIOS was finally found. Great! But by this time I was thoroughly disillusioned with my XT, I hungered for more memory and speed. I was also somewhat disillusioned by the computer supplier. 

A Mac-using, down-with-DOS, friend put considerable pressure on me to buy a Mac at this time. How I wish I had heeded his advice. But I was wedded to Sprint, and I now knew DOS backward (it's SOD). I had no intention of struggling with an unknown operating system. God damn it! I wanted to write. 

I tried another computer supplier, the very one that had sold me Sprint. There was a special on Zenith ATs and, I was assured, they were just about the most reliable machine going. Sure it cost a lot more than Taiwanese rubbish that would continue to let me down, but which was worth more, the computer, or my data? I shelled out the readies. It was (and still is) a little beauty. The CPU crawls along (by today's standards) at a mere 8 MHz, but the chips that support the CPU wring every last ounce (gram?) from it. 

I set the 2 Meg of extended memory up as 1 Meg of cache and 1 Meg of RAM disk. Accessing my thesaurus and spell checker was no longer a tedious wait. Formatting a long document no longer meant making a cup of coffee, thanks to the speedy hard disk. But wait! That hard disk shouldn't have been accumulating bad sectors at the rate of one, or two a week, should it? "It's just the drive bedding-in", I was told. I ran a low level format, and they all quietly disappeared. Only to reappear, every now and then, over the next month. Then the machine died. 

I returned my prize new possession and contemplated some other occupation, but my paranoia had hardened into implacable obstinacy. Deja vu! It was a motherboard fault, and a replacement took a mere fortnight to occur. The hard disk continued its game of losing bits of data from time to time. Suspecting everything, I ran a bog standard configuration and gave up the 40 character file names the 4DOS replacement for COMMAND.COM had given me. But it was all to no avail. I was working hard to catch up on lost time, so I phoned the computer store and said that when I was up to date, I wanted the hard disk replaced as quickly as possible. I limped through the last fortnight, booting from a floppy disk, before the hard disk finally expired completely. The replacement took a fortnight. Having all these hassles not only taught me a lot about DOS computing, I had learnt to back-up my files regularly and consistently. I had learnt not to rely on DOS back-up, PC-Backup earnt the guernsey hands down. A rival back-up utility had consistently refused to back up particular files. ASCII files, what is more. Don't ask me why. Or why a particular set of files refused to copy from a sub-directory to a floppy on a friend's hard disk, but copied perfectly OK after being moved to another subdirectory on the hard disk. DOS is like that, mysterious and subtle.

Back to backing-up, though. Claude Almer, a software writer in Sydney, wrote a wonderful program called Lazyback. On my Zenith, I enabled "boot from hard disk only" in the CMOS setup so I could leave a floppy more-or-less permanently in the drive. On boot-up, Lazyback copies all files pointed to in a supplementary file, even ZIPping them if requested. This means that data loss is confined to the last session between boot-ups. For those unable to disable booting from a single floppy, Claude includes a Boot-past utility that transfers the boot-up from the floppy to the hard disk with his cALMER Utilities.

Back to my main story. All was well with the world. The replacement hard disk was noticeably faster than the old, and rigorous testing with a utility that tests the hard disk failed to find a single bad sector. I had two off-site back-ups (regularly updated) and two on-site back-ups in case of faulty diskettes. Things couldn't go wrong now, could they? Oh yes, they could! The floppy drive went on strike. Returning the computer back to the now most unpopular supplier resulted in the prompt (three days) replacement of the floppy drive. Unfortunately, the drive still misbehaved, telling me that I had to insert a floppy if I wanted to read it. "Drive door not closed". Couldn't it see that I had put a diskette in its slavering maw? 

I wearily returned the computer and telephoned the distributor to complain. Not angrily, mind you. I had lost all capacity for anger over the last three years. I appeared to have been given only a certain amount of it when I was born, and now it had all been used up. The distributor blamed the computer store, the computer store blamed the distributor. The distributor promised prompt action and the computer store said that the additional eleven-day wait for my computer to be repaired was the distributor's fault. As recompense, all of the internals, barring the hard disk and power supply, were to be replaced. The motherboard would have to be a12 MHz, not the 8 MHz since there were none left. Did I mind? No, a faster motherboard is what we all dream of, isn't it? Perhaps in my case I dream of reliable motherboards somewhat more frequently than faster ones, but this seemed a step in the right direction.

When I got the machine back, I discovered that no back up more recent than three months old could be read by the replacement floppy drive. The motherboard was still an 8 MHz job; it was too good to be true to expect a better one given the lack of service I had experienced over the past few years. Lest you think that my tale of woe is due to lack of care on my part, here is the subsequent history of my first two machines. 

The first was diagnosed as having been a time bomb, waiting to go off for four years. One of the chips had been inserted incorrectly, and a pin fell off when it was withdrawn. The replacement chip did not allow graphics, so it became an MDA only machine and has reputedly not missed a beat since I sold it eighteen months ago. The second has also given its new owner sterling service. The Tandy, now the proud possession of my interstate son, has never missed a beat. 

In discussing all this with a friend in the computer industry, his advice is to buy a very cheap Taiwanese clone every six months. Holding on to a machine any longer, you lose too much when you resell. He firmly believes that there is no correlation whatsoever between price and reliability, or service. In fact, the best service appears to come from the lower end of the market. His cheap Taiwanese clone was replaced in its entirety, on the spot, when it failed dramatically in the first few weeks of ownership. 

My advice? Take up Zen Buddhism. It's much cheaper and has proved its reliability over several thousand years. Me? I am going to write "The Tao of ComPoohTing", but at this rate it's going to take several lifetimes.

Back to Site Map