Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

Emergency Computer Repair Brings Potential Legislation to Mind

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 11:52 PM

In the spring of odd-numbered years, it’s my task to upgrade the operating systems on my computers. It sometimes goes uneventfully.

Since January 1998 I’ve used the Linux operating system. Since June of that year I’ve used the K Desktop Environment, which is a graphical user interface similar to and in my estimation better than Windows. (I even wrote a book about it.) Linux comes in many flavors, called “distributions,” and for some years my distribution of choice has been one called Ubuntu. It is based on the Debian variety of Linux, in the minds of many (including me) the purest of the distributions, and like Debian it has a regular, twice-a-year release schedule. Some people (I was once among them) eagerly snap up and install the very latest release the day it comes out.

In even-numbered years the spring release has a special designation. It’s called an LTS release, for Long-Term Support. It is supported and maintained for five years from its release, particularly as to security. That stability comes in exchange for always having the latest stuff (though the latest stuff can be installed independently). I decided to upgrade every two years anyway, not five, to take advantage of newer developments, and in odd-numbered years, to let the LTS distribution’s bugs get worked out before I commit to it.

So last week I began the upgrade process. My new Linux is Ubuntu 20.04 LTS: The numbers indicate it was released in April 2020. The first machine to receive the upgrade was my tiny GPD Pocket computer. This thing is a marvel. It is smaller than an old VHS tape cassette, yet it has a full keyboard, a ThinkPad-style pointing device (as well as a touchscreen), and all the bells and whistles of a full-sized computer. It looks like an Apple MacBook that was accidentally put in the dryer and got shrunken. It came with Windows 10 installed, which I instantly replaced with Ubuntu 18.04 LTS. I got it so that I could edit and transmit pictures on deadline from the sites of news events. At The Athens News office, I’d plug in an external monitor, keyboard, and trackball and it would do the job of a desktop machine, too. Pretty cool, huh? Alas, you can’t get one anymore; the newer models are aimed at gamers and such.

The upgrade went very smoothly. Sure, there were a few things that needed to be reconfigured, and there will continue to be as I happen upon them for the next couple of months, but basically everything worked. And then —

Well maintained, lithium-ion batteries last a long time. When I began the upgrade the battery in my little GPD Pocket was good for seven or eight hours’ work. (The battery life applet read 12 hours or more, but as with EPA mileage numbers, that was a fantasy.) After the upgrade, the battery applet said that my battery was shot, functioning at only 1 percent efficiency. A full charge, it said, would provide power for no more than 40 minutes. I charged it, ran it, and sure enough, it began beeping and hollering after about half an hour.

Did my battery happen to pick just that time to die? I wondered. A web search produced some reports of the GPD Pocket’s battery just up and dying. One person found that disconnecting the battery for an hour or so then reconnecting it restored it to full life. Others said this worked for them, while some said it didn’t.

I decided to give it a try. This was a nontrivial process, because the thing has a permanently installed battery that’s not easily accessible. I had to open up the device, which required me to remove (and keep track of) six very small Phillips-head bolts. Then I needed to remove a plastic clip that held the copper heat sink in place. Only then did I have access to the tiny, fiddly, and awfully delicate battery connector. A little contemplation led to a way of disconnecting it. So I disconnected it.

Then, not knowing if I’d wrecked the thing, I had supper, watched the news, and thought of anything else I might do before returning to the project. Anxiety-driven procrastination is a class unto itself. Reconnecting the battery was not easy. It required precise alignment, and I couldn’t see what I was doing because the connector itself was in the way, but it finally seemed seated. I reinstalled the plastic clip, the back, and — ha! I didn’t lose any! — the six little bolts.

It worked! The battery was back to registering the 12 hours a full charge should register. But there’s a larger lesson here and it affects more than me and my cute little computer.

What if the little trick from Reddit hadn’t worked, as it hasn’t for some? A new battery would be needed. But wait: though the GPD Pocket was the latest and greatest just three years ago, it isn’t made anymore. It has no repair or parts depot. Taking the number from the battery, I might have been able to order one, from China, for ~$100, with no guarantee it would work. Then I would have had to try to pry the old battery from the silicon sealant that holds it in place — destroying it in the process — and if in the course of doing that I didn’t manage to wreck the computer, try to fit in the new one.

With electronics and many other products currently made, we’re supposed to use ‘em until they break then toss them and buy new ones. This is fine if it’s a stick of gum but not if it’s, say, a $1000 cellular telephone, or a portable computer.

Thus we have the “Right to Repair” movement. We’ve heard a little about it and we’re likely to hear more. Right-to-repair legislation is being considered this year in 25 states. In my estimation we should favor its overall goals. though the devil always finds his way into the details.

Scratch the surface and you’ll discover that such supposedly consumer-friendly companies as Apple vigorously oppose your right to repair gadgets you’ve gotten from them. Nor is it just electronics. John Deere won’t cough up the software codes needed to fix its tractors. (To say nothing of John Deere software that tracks farmers’ every move — like that found in every new automobile — which is an obscenity but a different obscenity.)

Admittedly, it’s unlikely that any legislation could force an obscure Chinese computer maker to make repair parts and instructions available, but the issue goes far beyond that and if right to repair becomes a standard, it would be a competitive advantage for foreign companies to comply even if they didn’t have to. Here, disaster was averted because I found an obscure online post. Not everyone is that lucky.

This week I’ll upgrade the Linux on my desktop machine. And this time it will involve lots of customizations and replacement of my boot drive, because the current one keeps telling me it’s going to die soon (after seven years of near-continuous operation, never mind the vagaries of American Electric Power).

But now if I hit a snag, next week’s column can get written on my tiny GPD Pocket.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at dep@drippingwithirony.com.

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