Stripe, Mohawk, Brainy, Linux, Windows
This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #158. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
Wide but shallow.
Our living room TV is connected to a computer that is Frankensteined together from older parts stuffed into a mini ITX case barely able to contain it all. I’m not certain that the graphics card is of much use but it’s in there humming away, big fans blowing as we stream shows or occasionally games from the more robust computer in the other room. When it works it sings, but when it doesn’t, my limited knowledge is tested and I fear gremlins are loose.
Computer technology is a vast field with so many sub-areas of focus and learning, seemingly too much for any individual to become an expert in without sacrificing almost every other area of their life. Whether it’s hardware, software, or networks, each is a chain of machines and processes along which any single error can bring down the entire system. It’s a miracle any of these has run as long as they have, and we are best not considering that miracle and its ties to nuclear armament systems and whatnot. Better to concern ourselves with the gremlins in our own home, for now.
Here the most recent gremlin attack came in the form of a computer that suddenly crawled to a near halt. It would turn on, but it wouldn’t really shut down, just get stuck on a loop. Rainmeter (a program used to put a bunch of fun junk on my desktop) wasn’t starting and the Explorer file system seemed to be on strike. My brain was empty so I hit up the hive mind, which revealed command line instructions to clean the hard drive, search for corruption and realign the binary elements. But the gremlins were ahead of this preliminary attempt at resolution – preventing me from clean restarts, or booting up from my Windows 10 installation USB drive, aka my own personal nuclear option.
Of course, I forgot the first step of flushing gremlins from the computer: unplug all your USB shit. I only did this because I was dropping the Win10 USB in every spot I could in case the motherboard was faulty (a wee gremlin problem from years earlier, a dusty recollection in my greying grey matter). In doing so I removed a USB HDD used to store old DVD rips, and wouldn’t you know it, the PC sprang back to life with Rainmeter and Explorer in tow again.
This wasn’t exactly a solution – clearly the gremlin has merely been cast into the hard drive, which played its videos on a Mac laptop without shutting down the entire show there. So, the problem remains, crawling around somewhere between a corrupt file or a possible mechanical failure or a cable losing connection or a solder point that has failed or perhaps just user error and plugging into incorrectly powered USB ports or a virus downloaded despite self-proclamations of good internet habits. Worlds of options, with only A/B testing and swapping various bits and bobs that I’m lucky enough to have collected.
The truly sick part of all of this is probably how much I enjoy it. More often than even playing games nowadays, I find myself with a dumb problem that I can’t wait to just web search and throw shit at. For a long time, it was running Linux on the TV PC. Installing the OS (usually Pop!) was always smooth as silk, but threads quickly got snagged after that. Being open source, most Linux distros and their attendant Firefoxes and Chromiums don’t play nice with the digital rights management plug-ins required to use the various streaming sites. There are ways around this, but it’s not just a click of course – the cost of open-source software is learning just a smidge more about what’s going on and then copy+pasting the command line you dug up from some random forum into the terminal and hoping for the best.
I love the idea of Linux and stuck with it far longer than many others in my position. Which is to say, to someone with just enough knowledge (and desire to not spend money on more gadgets than necessary) to get himself into trouble, it’s software built by gremlins and used by gremlin hunters. Finding solutions that work is often more immediately satisfying than using the system I was working on. Until I hit that wall of gremlins after their pool spawning party, and an update borks my taped together solution for streaming, or the system keeps forgetting to send sound to the stereo instead of just the TV, or I can’t get the controller to work when streaming through Parsec (dealing with two computers at once, a gremlin paradise). I broke down, I went back to Windows.
Which, as detailed above, isn’t a perfect solution in itself. The joy of squashing gremlins isn’t complete eradication. I don’t necessarily want the dance to be over, but I’m not interested in fumbling my steps for too long either. Despite the challenges of Linux, I’m regularly drawn to the mission and potential of open-source software. And Windows is crawling with its own gremlins, claws out, ready to bring a night of streaming crashing back down to earth.
Levi Rubeck is a critic and poet currently living in the Boston area. Check his links at levirubeck.com.