When the World (or Your Computer) Goes Dark

I bought my first computer in 1984. Well actually Michelle bought our first computer then because she was teaching and I was selling computers and couldn’t afford one. It was a Macintosh. That was 30 years ago. How did that happen? It seems like yesterday.

After 30 years, I’m sick of computers. I just want to grow food and cut firewood. I do not want to be involved with computers. I will still have to use them, but like going to the dentist, that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

My laptop is probably 9 years old. A while ago the track pad stopped working. I turned the laptop over and realized that the battery had gone all wonky and so I removed it and the track pad started working again. Then it started getting really slow and then I started seeing the “rainbow death spiral” or “beach ball of death” as I have since learned it’s called. It’s a little spinning multicolored disc that appears when your computer is working away. It’s means your computer is trying to do something but it is often a prelude of bigger problems to come. It’s a warning. It’s a shot across your bow in terms of backing up your hard drive.

I use Time Machine and backup to an external hard rive. I also burn DVDs periodically of my essential materials. I met an Apple Tech at my daughter’s wedding last summer and he commented that people are notorious for not backing up. And smart people too. He had a PhD student lose his thesis when his hard drive crashed. He hadn’t put it on a flash drive. He hadn’t copied it to an external hard drive (that would have cost him $50.) He hadn’t emailed it to himself in GMail so there was another copy. He hadn’t stored it on the cloud. Nope, just the one copy and it was gone … forever!

So when the day arrived when I tried to turn my computer on it and it didn’t start I was ready. I was sad, and I wish it hadn’t happened but I dealt with it.

Along with computers I’m sick of buying electronics… cameras, cell phones, music equipment … which all seems to die or become obsolete way too quickly. They build it cheaply because it will become obsolete quickly but the reality is that you end up with boxes of the stuff. So I wasn’t rushing out to buy a new computer, of any kind. We seem to have way too many old laptops lying around here.

Desktop computer

We bought our first laptop a few months after moving off the grid in 1998. At the time I was using a big, honking desktop Macintosh with about a 147” mega-desktop publishing monitor using a cathode ray terminal. Obviously I am just kidding about the size and the technology of my old desktop but the reality is that I could actually watch our off-grid battery voltage drop whenever that computer was turned on. It was that inefficient. So we bought our black laptop that still starts up and works fine today, albeit a wee bit slowly.

The next laptop we bought was a PowerBook G4. I am actually composing this blog on it. We probably bought it some time around 2003. It still works fine. I can even check my Gmail account with it. Oh it warns me the browser is no longer supported and evil things will happen to me, but so far no trolls have jumped out from the screen and absconded with my lucky charms. Michelle used this computer for years when we got our first Mac Book Pro with the 17” screen, which was pretty big for laptops at the time. Eventually I needed more horsepower so we upgraded to a new Mac Book Pro and Michelle got the old one.

A year or two ago the hard drive on Michelle’s old Mac Book died so we replaced it with a new model. Then my Mac Book started acting wonky and died. Well it sort of died. Most of the time it won’t start, but sometimes it will. At one point I was having a good run of 2 or 3 days with it working so I printed a bunch of our gardening DVDs knowing what a hassle it would be to get software working with a new computer on our printer that prints CDs. And then it lasted for a few more days.

laptop compputer

Which brings me to the concept of human inertia. This is where people get ensconced in a belief system, like that the electricity will always be on, or the water will always flow out of the taps, and there is nothing you can do to convince them otherwise. You can even experience an ice storm that knocks out power for a week, but once it comes back on, well, who wants to buy a generator anyway? We’ll probably never have another ice storm. I, of course, believe that all of these systems are large and complex and interconnected and not very resilient and prone to cascading failure, but that’s just me.

I can’t fault other people for being lulled into a sense of security. After about the 4th day of my dead computer coming back to life, I was using it to write a blog. I tend to write the title and first line, and then save it. Which I did. Then I blasted through the blog, a great blog. It was the one about my sew-on crest collection and why I should be the lead singer for Journey. I’m just so-so about some of my blog posts but this one was a great one. I laughed out loud. It was heartbreaking work of staggering genius.

When I was done I started proofing it. I tend to write and type quickly, which in many instances means that much of what I write is incoherent. Michelle finally read the riot act and said she wasn’t going to edit my blogs anymore until I went through them once. It was a good idea because there are many instances when I read stuff and even I can’t figure out what I was trying to say. And as I proofed the blog, it happened. The screen went blank. The power just stopped flowing and everything in RAM was gone. First I screamed, then I just wanted to cry because I had one of those sinking feelings that I hadn’t saved since I wrote the title. Sure, typing “cloverleaf S” is pretty instinctive, but I just wasn’t sure. For the first few days of the resurrection I was copying my files to a flash drive every 10 minutes or so, but after 4 days, well, it seemed to be working well again and that just seemed like a lot of effort.

And I waited while it rebooted, with dread. I had dread, not the computer. I don’t think computers feel dread. In fact if the computer could feel or think anything it would have been more along the lines of, “It serves you right you moron, because really, you knew I was about to go. I didn’t start most of the time, why would you possibly think it wouldn’t happen again?” But it did happen again and it reminds me that I must be patient on those many occasions when I ask someone how long they were without power during the 1998 ice storm. Inevitably the answer is something horrendous like 3 weeks or more, and then I ask what they’ve done to prepare for the next one and their answer is “nothing.” I understand.

This inertia is a tough nut to crack. Habits are hard to break. I understand. I’m the worst offender.

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4 Responses to “When the World (or Your Computer) Goes Dark”

  • Robert Hammond:

    You do have my sympathies. It happens to the best of us (or worse our spouse!) at the most inconvenient times.
    However in classic Mather style you are prepared, you have the backup Powerbook which will probably continue to churn away for another few years or so. Long after the new and improved Macbook Pro heads to e-waste.

  • Catherine:

    Once upon a time, I stored all on the hard drive. Low and behold, there was a bad storm, the electricity went out, computer went goofy (or whatever they do) and I lost all that I stored. Now, I put all on a flash drive, nothing is stored on the computer. It is a difficult and painful (and maddening) lesson, but one that I will never forget.

  • Gerrit:

    Ouch! We all know that feeling. I back up my Macbook to an external drive once a week. This tells me I should do that more often.

  • wouldn’t it be nice if you would have a barracks and charge (accept, invite) persons so interested in your lifestyle to grow, learn, contact in what you are striving to instruct those who wish know how and to help the way to live a self-sufficient lifestyle. I believe there would be many who would come and help and teach those who desire to enrich themselves in your way of loving the earth that was given us.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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