The Other White Screen of Death

Auset, before the white screen of death

On Sunday, August 12th, I walked into my office as usual, settled into my chaise lounge, and turned on my computer–only to be faced with a brightly glowing but entirely blank white screen. Not the white of an empty Microsoft Word page, but a total absence of any signal whatsoever coming into my screen.

Auset, while still working, on the chaise in my office last September

My Asus G72GX “gaming powerhouse” laptop, the machine I used for all my work, had been rendered completely useless.

WordPress users will be familiar with “The White Screen of Death,” a problem that occurs sometimes when installing or updating themes or plugins. Everything on the front end of your site goes blank and you usually have to go in and undo whatever you just did by FTP.

This was The Other White Screen of Death.

I’d been having trouble with Auset’s screen for quite some time. At first it started with a bit of a flicker visible when the machine was in a half-asleep state, particularly if the brightness wasn’t turned up all the way. Research suggested this was often an issue with Asus laptops, though in fact I’d never had any trouble of the sort with my Asus Eee PC. I tried updating drivers, but to no avail.

The problem got worse over time, until it became almost constant. I suspected a short in one of the wires connecting the screen to the board. I’d had this problem on a previous computer and the repairman had not been able to fix it for long. You can replace a number of parts on laptops (I had to replace the CD drive on Enna), but a new screen on a machine more than two years old? Not so much.

So I was already thinking about getting a new machine at the time Auset decided to seek oblivion, even though I’d only bought her in 2010. In addition to the problem with the screen, there were some other issues.

One was just an annoyance: if I unplugged the machine, used it on battery power, put it to sleep, and then plugged it in again, she would refuse to wake up properly. In fact, I would have to unplug her, remove the battery, hold down the power key for 30 seconds, and put her all back together before I could reboot. It nearly gave me a heart attack the first time it happened, not long after I got the computer, but thereafter it was only tedious.

The other issue was more serious. For some reason Auset (her name is an attempt by Egyptologists at recovering the original pronunciation of the name of the goddess we know as Isis, which had turned into something like Îst by the time the Greeks encountered her) constantly had her fan spinning at top speed, and though she wasn’t burning hot to the touch, it’s not really a good thing when you can hear your laptop from downstairs and across the house…at a time when no one is actually using it. We’d resorted to putting a cooling stand underneath her, which kept the fan from spinning up, but didn’t solve the noise problem.

So yes, I was ready for a new laptop. Just not right that minute.

Most of my computers have lasted longer than Auset did. Impressed as both my husband (who picked her out) and I were when we first got her, as much by her solid build as the 6 GB RAM, fast processor, multiplicity of ports, and flashy appearance (he especially liked the backlit keyboard, which I didn’t care about since I don’t work in the dark), and as happy as I’ve been with the Asus Eee PC 1000H I bought in 2008, she didn’t turn out to live up to her name, at least when it comes to immortality. I might buy an Asus laptop again, but not without reading a lot of reviews first.

In this case, however, Stefan decided that I HAD to have a Clevo. He has a laptop that’s really too big for a lap, a three-drive RAID-equipped monster he bought for a staggering sum a couple of years ago. (It was intended to allow him to do real work while away from his famous office, though he always refused to work when he was visiting me, and that was the only time he was away from his office.) Clevo produces custom-built laptops sold under a number of different labels, all aimed at the power user.

I got my new computer from Sager Notebook, a California-based company with peculiar requirements for credit card purchases. (They want the delivery address to match the billing address. Pardon me, but I don’t want my $1700 laptop left on my doorstep. I want it sent to the UPS Store where I get all my business mail.) Other than that little oddity, however, they were easy to deal with, and got my new machine built and delivered in a week.

That gave me just about enough time to come up with a new name. I have a habit of naming computers after mythological or historical figures. The very first one, in 1993, was a PowerBook 145B (screen in 256 grays and all of 2 MB RAM), I called Prometheus. That was the name of the company that built my blazing-fast 1440K modem (remember the days?), but more importantly, I was a classicist and knew that Prometheus had not only brought fire to humanity, but also (at least according to Aeschylus) introduced writing. That seemed appropriate for the machine I was going to write my doctoral dissertation on. (If you’re curious, I got about 200 pages in, but had to quit due to health problems before I finished.)

It was therefore natural to call the second computer Epimetheus, after the slower younger brother of Prometheus. (Epimetheus was also the husband of Pandora.) Epi was a Compaq (I forget the model number) most notable for having one of the first TFT color screens. I was starting to feel the lack of color in certain areas, especially once I started dating a 3D graphics guy. (Yeah, the same one I’m married to now.) I still used Prometheus for most of my writing and indeed for hand-coding web pages, but when I had to do something involving photos, there was Epi.

By 1998, when I returned to the US from England, I had a new machine that I used for almost everything. I’d sold Epimetheus to a colleague for a pittance and bought an unknown-brand Windows 95 notebook that was larger, stronger, faster, and so on and so forth. I called her Eloniel after a character in a book I might one day get around to writing.

Prometheus was nearly obsolete by then, though the real problem was some damage I’d done the floppy drive while attempting to remove a disk that was stuck. (Yes, there was a time when laptops had floppy drives. El was the first one with a CD drive.)

In 1999 I supplemented El with a Sharp Mobilon Pro Handheld PC that ran Windows CE. He had fabulous battery life (about 12 hours), weighed very little, and worked just fine for simple things like e-mail and word-processing. The only trick was transferring files from him to a real computer, which had to be done by infrared. I called him Vamana, after the dwarf avatar of Vishnu, since this little computer was like a small instantiation of my larger one, and I used him for many years to come.

El stood me in good stead for the next year or two, but eventually she developed screen problems–rather dramatically in the middle of a conference, if I remember correctly. I was able to have her repaired a couple of times, but after about 6 months gave up on it as a lost cause and bought Keramat after reading a writeup in PC Mag. Though I’d never heard of the Enpower brand, the 34104 had won an Editors’ Choice award.

These were still the days when computers had 4:3 screens, and Kera’s, like her predecessors, was only 14.1″, with a 1024 x 768 resolution. Kera probably weighed only a little more than Prometheus. You can see that by comparison with a modest-sized cat, she wasn’t very big.

Gray cat on Enpower 34104, 2005
Enpower 34104 with cat for size comparison. This cat managed to make the computer do amazing things by walking across it.

Kera lasted me a good four or five years before a malfunction with her power connector eventually put an end to her. (There were only so many times it could be re-welded.)

When first I attempted to get a replacement machine, I ran into an eBay swindle, and had to spend some time getting my bank to get my money back. I later managed to buy a decent-quality used Dell Latitude, which I called Astarte. Like Kera, Star ran Windows XP. She had a very solid power cord, all of 500 MB RAM, and you could swap out her CD and floppy drives.

Dell Latitude
Astarte has proved to be a solid machine, functional despite obsolescence.

Amazingly, she is still with me, or rather, with one of my friends, who needed to borrow a Windows machine. Her one USB port is a bit wonky and she’s definitely showing her age, but she’s still running.

After Star came Enheduanna (Enna for short), an HP Pavilion dv8040us. Enna was my first 17″ laptop. She weighed 8.1 lbs if you didn’t count the power brick, but you’d be silly not to count it, since the battery life was pretty short. But as a desktop replacement machine, she was great. I named her for the first author whose name was ever recorded, an Akkadian princess from the third century BCE, the daughter of Sargon the Great.

HP Pavilion dv8040us with human and cat for scale
If Misty couldn’t sit on the computer, she would sit on me as I used the computer.

It obviously wasn’t practical to carry Enna around all day at a conference, so in 2008 I bought the Eee PC I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I named her after another En-priestess, Enheduanna’s niece Enmenanna, but I always call her Mena. She has been to a lot of conferences. The small keyboard could get to be a bit tough on the hands after a while, but she actually had almost the same specs (apart from screen resolution and processor power) as Enna.

Outer case of Asus Eee PC 1000H with stickers
Mena has traveled far and wide with me, but she was starting to slow down.

By 2010, Enna’s 1 GB RAM was starting to seem inadequate, and indeed she was performing so slowly that it seemed it might be time for more than a reinstall. It was then that Stefan persuaded me to get Auset. And at first, Auset was wonderful, but her path was not to be a happy one.

So we placed our order from Sager only a couple of days before Stefan’s new MacBook Retina was due to arrive. Once he had the Retina firmly in hand, Stefan passed his MacBook Air on to me. This machine came with a name already: Helium. While most of my machines have been either male or female, Helium seems persistently neuter, though I plan to add some Barsoom-themed wallpaper in order to personalize it a bit.

It’s been a very long time since I used a Mac for much, so I had a somewhat frustrating week, but I could see what an advantage the Air would be over the netbook. For one thing, it actually weighs less despite its 13″ screen. But I was entirely ready to set aside for travel-only duty once my new machine arrived.

Mac Air and 17" Sager, closed
Helium looks especially petite posed next to Eskay. The crossbones are Stefan’s idea; the WordPress stickers are mine.

I spent some time pondering names and eventually settled on Shyama Kali (Eskay for short). “Shyama” (which as near as I can tell has two rather than three syllables) means “black” or “blue” in Sanskrit. That is, the dictionaries say black, but paintings of Shyama Kali usually show her with blue skin.

This is the Kali who got so caught up in her dance of destruction (after polishing off some of the enemies of the gods) that she was on her way to destroying the world, but Siva lay down in her path. When she felt her husband’s body beneath her, Kali came to herself again. That may be why Shyama is the compassionate face of Kali, though one might not expect that from looking at the paintings. It seemed like a good name for a machine that was black, and very powerful, but not meant for acts of destruction.

Eskay, my new 17.3" Sager notebook
From this angle, Shyama Kali is both black and blue.

Eskay is a thing of beauty. For one thing, she isn’t shiny. Auset was very pretty with all that gloss and glitter, but shiny surfaces just attract fingerprints, so why cover the body of your laptop, where you’re going to be putting your hands all day, with a glossy surface? It makes no sense. For another, she weighs substantially less than Auset; something about battery construction, perhaps, or having one of her two drives be an SSD. And I suppose 16 GB RAM doesn’t weigh anything to speak of.

For a third, there’s the 1920 x 1080 resolution (almost too sharp). Having a screen that stands still would be impressive enough, but this screen really is gorgeous. I have, however, had to adjust all the fonts. I didn’t like tiny fonts anyway, and about 6 months ago I started wearing computer glasses. (You can see the nice matte grain of Eskay’s surface pretty well in that shot, too.)

Sallie's computer glasses posed atop the Sager notebook
I started wearing computer glasses in April after my doctor suggested they might help with the migraines. Prior to that, I didn’t even know such a thing existed.

I got used to typing on Eskay much faster than I got used to typing on Helium–I still mess up when I try to hit the enter key with my pinky on that darn Mac keyboard. I’m absolutely thrilled with her, and I mean to keep using her for a long time.

We got the three year warranty, just in case.

Sallie
WordPress fangirl, ghostwriter, linguistic alchemist, podcast consultant, and accidental vapor advocate. Married with 2 cats.

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