Thoughts, Words, Works

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I built my current computer, Trace, in November of last year (2009), which means that it's now a grand old age of 10 months old. This day, as I upgrade Trace's hardware for the first time, I feel somewhat nostalgic, and I'll take this opportunity to reflect and memorialize my last computer, Arcueid -- not even because of a special letter I received today from 5 years ago. Along the way, I'll talk about my experience migrating to Linux, the odyssey of driver support leading me to the eventual concenssion and purchase of a new nVidia GTX 460, and I may as well do like all the cool kids are doing and chat a bit about StarCraft II before it becomes passe.

Now, Arcueid was a computer I loved very much, and she lasted a very respectable 4 and a half years with a few upgrades here and there - bigger hard disks, more memory, eventually a new video card near the end of her life, though as she was stuck in the AGP era it wasn't much worth it. When I built Arcueid, I was a senior in high school, it was the year 2005, and I was serious about trying out this "Linux" thing on a computer that I wouldn't have to reboot every time I sat down or got up in case anyone else wanted to use it. Yes, this was the first computer I would truly have to myself, and I was so proud of it I wrote the specs in a that letter I mentioned earlier. So after I assembled the system and was pleasantly surprised to see the BIOS instead of smoke and flames, I popped in a fresh new Knoppix boot CD and started up. I was greeted by the mediocrity that was KDE in the year '05... and no internet. Yup, even with all the cutting edge software supposedly included in it at the time, drivers for my onboard LAN weren't in the cards. In fact, it sounded like they weren't going to be easy to find anywhere, with recommendations of experts saying the easiest solution was to buy a well-known network card instead. With that as a starting point, I decided that Linux wasn't ready for Arcueid's cutting edge hardware, and caved by installing Windows XP, but vowing to myself that next time - next time, I would make sure to buy parts that would work under Linux, and make the switch for sure.

Now, Windows XP didn't treat me so poorly on Arcueid. It crashed a lot less than on the old HP family computer, and even that crashed a lot less compared with when it ran Windows Me. I managed to get a lot of customization mileage out of LiteStep, which was always a little buggy but so very cool and so very worth it. And, who are we kidding - it's not like the explorer.exe shell it replaced was rock-solid. (If anything, Explorer crashed the most of anything!) And of course, I could continue to use my favorite software - Winamp 2.91, Miranda IM, Media Player Classic... Overall, I think it worked out well for me.

So I was reluctant to let her go, and overall, I didn't really have a need to, even as everyone else's computers got better around me. I could still -- usually, and just barely -- watch my anime in 720p, so that was all there was to it. But finally, last November, Arcueid suffered a hard drive failure, and I lost nearly 400 gigabytes of data. (Most of that was anime fansubs, which are easy enough to recover, but there was a lot of legitimately unique stuff that was lost there, too.) At that point, I said, it's about time, so I took some of the money I'd been setting aside from my new job and built Trace, my current PC. I asked around, found out what the popular and powerful hardware out there was, for the right prices, and ended up constructing a nice, big machine for myself. Yes, if there's one thing I mis-judged about Trace in the planning phase, it was the size of the case, which is titanic.

But there was a bigger mistake I made with the construction of this computer, when I chose to trust a friend of a friend rather than a random stranger online. I was committed to running Linux on this machine, so I sought a video card with good Linux drivers. The Radeon 5xxx series was all the rage at the time, so I was pretty excited to try one out, and I heard that its Linux drivers were pretty respectable. A goodly stranger on the Ubuntu forums named cascade9 tried to warn me but I failed to listen and bought the card anyway. And thus began 10 months of intermittently going through the same hell trying to get anything related to graphics to work properly. When I first installed Linux Mint, the newest drivers available on ATI's website didn't even support my card at all. I had to find a beta version for open testing, just to get out of "compatibility mode" graphics. Even then I was constantly having problems with one thing or another, and driver updates were a nightmare, especially since Linux Mint was usually chained to an older Ubuntu release and that meant that the repositories couldn't help me. When newer ATI drivers didn't support older versions of Xorg and vice versa, and both had some critical bug, then I was just SOL. I learned what DRI was and why that meant that you couldn't run mplayer's OpenGL mode and Compiz at the same time. And of course I had to use OpenGL because I got horrible tearing effects with any other renderer. At some point I switched to Arch Linux, which made it somewhat easier to match up working drivers and Xorg versions, but that could only go so far while during a time when driver updates would introduce new bugs more frequently than they would fix old ones. If you're curious, there's a wonderful nearly-100-page-thread on the Arch Forums where people discuss and try to debug their problems with ATI cards and drivers.

But the straw that broke the camel's back was StarCraft II. I was hesitantly hopeful for the game, and when I found out that it runs pretty decently on Linux, that hope budded into full-blown excitement. I beat the campaign. I played the game a not-insignificant amount at home and at work. I supplemented it with videos from Liquipedia streamed at work and at home. I talked strategy with friends. But I had this strange problem where it would periodically, for no apparent reason, completely crash and lock up my entire display and keyboard too. (I eventually discovered that I could soft-reboot the machine via SSH, thank goodness, though I probably did some damage to my filesystems by hard-cycling the computer more than once before I did find that out.) People on WineDB and the Arch forums told me it was probably my display adapter overheating. No other explanation seemed to fit. I began to hope that this was something the new drivers would fix. It wasn't. Instead, the newest drivers -- Catalyst 10.8 -- introduced a bug with fullscreening 32-bit OpenGL apps in a 64-bit system. StarCraft II ceased to run entirely.

Finally, I said, enough is enough. I'd had three ATI cards across my two computers (though I put an nVidia in my dad's - it had pretty poor support at the time, but that's probably more an Ubuntu problem than an overall nVidia on Linux problem) but I finally went online and bought an nVidia card. This time I asked the internet what card to use, and this time I listened. Installation was a snap - at most a very cautious 10 minutes to pop the old card out and the new card in, then uninstall some old driver packages and install the new ones. It went off with nary a hitch. I was back in a full, two-monitors-at-native-resolutions desktop in what felt like the blink of an eye. No segfaults when running the configuration tool. No black screen lockups. No tearing in my videos. It did take a couple tweaks to get StarCraft II running, but it worked. And it still works. I played six games in a row online without it crashing. I even won two of them. If I have a bias towards anyone, it's ATI, but this time around, nVidia has earned my money. Their card works in Linux without a hitch. ATI's doesn't.

As for that letter? It's dated 5-19-05, Dear Rome. Written in my scrawl from back then, a project from my 12th grade English class, held onto by my quirky but cool English teacher Mr. Burnett for 5 years and then finally mailed off to my future self, a little time capsule. The contents in the letter are nostalgic, but not foreign. If anything, they go to show how little I've changed since then. I think I may post the letter later, depending on how much of it I feel is suitable for revealing to internet at large. It's a somewhat private letter, but at the same time, it expresses thoughts that still run through my head even now. So probably I'll post a slightly edited version. Time will tell, and time is something I've already spent too much on writing this rambling post.


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