Resurrecting Lorelei

Yesterday I reformatted my computer.

As many of you may be aware, I am a rather. . . serious computer user. I'm not going to die from refusing to eat while I play StarCraft, but I am, shall we say, involved. I'm going to wax poetic about computers now, so if that sort of thing bores you, here is a more entertaining alternative. If you like bad puns and talking pigs, that is.

When I built my current machine from individual components with my own two hands in the fall of 2003, I did it with a love borne out of understanding and need. I had previously been working with a very faithful but then-ancient 400 MHz monster running Win98. I named him George when I rechristened him to serve as a friend's computer. George and I had been through hell and high water since the summer of 1999, and I had formatted him several times, and nearly lost everything when the boot sector on his hard drive crashed completely in the Fall of 2002. Being a poor college student, I bought a 60 gig replacement that would become Lorelei's heart to get me through the year, and planned to build a new machine from scratch the following spring.

There's a funny story about George. When my father and I first assembled him on our kitchen table, we intended to install Windows 95, because we had a copy handy, but we found that some of the motherboard features gave us serious trouble if we didn't use a newer operating system, the then powerhouse Win98. So we ordered a copy of Win98 online (cheap), and with George sitting assembled, booted, and ready with a copy of DoS (6.1, I think?) on board, waited for over a week for the software to arrive.

During that time I pulled out a box of ancient DoS games that few of you are likely to remember, and installed them on George. After all, he had nothing better to do. Games like Warcraft (The original one) with system requirements that read like a role-call for high-end computer components circa 1992. A 20 MHz processor! 8 megs of RAM! George, at the time, though brainless, was running a 400 MHz K6-2 for a processor, and 64 megabytes of PC100 RAM. The system requirements for these games were less than the square root of his speed and power. In some cases I couldn't scale the "CPU slowdown" factor enough (if any of you remember that gem of DOS games designed to execute on slow machines--the game speed scaled with the speed of the hardware on which it was run) to make the games playable. The characters in RTSs would flash from one side of the screen to the other, and heaven help you if you tried to control the cannons in Scorched Earth. They spun like tops.

Once I had a copy of Windows 98 installed, and had added the software that brought my computer into the correct half of the decade, I was set. George faithfully served as my primary computer through my last year of high school and three long years of Engineering school.

There's one other interesting note about George. One of the bearings in his power supply failed in my first year of college, and would slip from its track and rattle like a vibrator or electric razor gone mad. The only solution I found for this horrible racket was to lean or walk around to the back of the machine and strike the rear PSU fan cover with a metal object. My friends were usually both surprised and confused the first time they saw me physically beat my computer to make it work, but I'd usually just shrug and grin. At times, working with George was a lot like flying the millennium Falcon. You just had to expect weird stuff to happen and require innovative solutions like hardware abuse.

By the time George began to give up the ghost, I would miss him. He was the first computer that I really thought of as "mine". But, I needed new hardware. For one thing, George was lagging behind more and more. He was now so far past prime that he was becoming almost laughable. For another, I had a legitimate boxed copy of Windows XP pro that I had won in a programming team competition the previous year burning a whole in my pocket. And for a third, the 60 gig drive spinning in George's center was crippled with a jumper to run at no more than 32 gig--all George's aging motherboard could support.

It was time for fresh blood, and fresh power. I need a fresh machine.

And so, out of my need, Lorelei would be born. I mentally created an image for myself of the computer I wanted. Powerful. Sleek. Full Featured. Robust. Sexy. I had been out of the high-end gaming arena for years, and I wanted her to run the latest games and development applications. Due to my then burgeoning music problem (which would later evolve into a full-fledged media addiction) I needed something that would support good sound. As a result of my ultra-positive experience with USB keys and my then-recent interest in Digital Photography, I wanted something with USB 2.0 and Firewire support onboard.

I started hitting up friends for information about motherboards. Researching the cost of the new Geforce4 Ti graphics cards. Reading Tom's Hardware daily to see the latest reviews. Checking Pricewatch daily to create cost estimates. I had worked all summer and I had the money for system waiting and ready. When I arrived at school, I made my decisions and ordered all the parts.

The specifications weren't the cutting edge for September of 2003. They were reasonable. A full featured Asus nForce2-based Motherboard with 512 megabytes of Crucial RAM and an Athlon XP 2600+ processor. Windows XP pro. A Logitech Z-640 5.1 speaker audio system. A new 52x CD-RW drive.

And when she had come together and first hummed to life on my desktop, I chose a name for her that I felt was fitting: Lorelei. It comes from a German word meaning "Ambush cliffs" and refers to the Germanic version of the Greek legend of the Siren. The tale tells of a beautiful maiden who would sit on a dangerous rock in the river Rhine and sing sweet songs to the sailors, causing them to get distracted and run aground on the rock.

So Lorelei was given life in my room of Mercer Hall 306, and became my new computer.

This time last summer, I filmed a weekend get-together of Martial Artists from the forum. To house the resulting six hours of video, I bit the bullet and purchased a new 200 gigabyte hard drive. I also scavenged my father's old DVD drive when he purchased his new DVD burner, and so rounded out Lorelei's home-theater capabilities.

Aside from those two additions, Lorelei's specifications have remained largely unchanged since I built her. She's been a faithful machine. She saw me through my last year of school as well as the releases of Tron 2.0 and Half Life 2. She processed my first entry into this very blog and welcomed my move from Internet Explorer to Mozilla Firefox. She stored and categorized my ridiculous media library faithfully and kept track of my document archive--which dates back to 1998 and has survived migrations and multiple reformats across multiple computers. She has served daily as an aide, stereo, distraction, helpmeet, mailbox, artist, game console, secretary, theater, and worker-bee. If she deserves any nickname, it should "My Girl Friday" because she's been a faithful, loyal, and hard working companion.

But like any computer running a modern operating system, the longer the machine is used daily, the more burdened down it becomes with the digital detritus of the computer world. Installations of software get replaced with new alternatives. Registry modifications that force load-on-startup are executed by unscrupulous vendors when you download their plugins. The system becomes more and more bogged down.

So this week I decided to format Lorelei and start over.

I carefully moved all of my prized digital possessions onto the 200 gigabyte hard disk drive over the span of 2 days, sorting and organizing as I went. My media archives of video, audio, and images was carefully transferred. Next my driver collection and a folder full of install files for various software--powertoys, media players, and applications.

After making a final sweep of all the "My documents" folders, I carefully removed the 200 gigabyte hard drive from the system entirely (I know too many good men who have lost years worth of work and data by partitioning or formatting the wrong drive during a system overhaul) and rebooted, entered the BIOS and prepared to boot from CD.

Lorelei is back online now. It was the most painless overhaul I've ever done. I installed Windows XP and Service Pack 2, then installed the latest motherboard and videocard drivers and got online without a hitch. Once online I updated Windows XP with all the latest myriad of security releases. Now I'm going through the laborious process of getting the machine back just the way I like it. A system tweak here. A minor change there. Another media player to install. Another powertoy to play with. Along the way I downloaded more recent drivers, installed newer versions of Media Players (Winamp 5? When did that happen? I was still running 2.93!) and sought out some extra improvements that Lorelei didn't have before, like a better e-mail client (Mozilla's Outlook Express Clone, Thunderbird).

In short, I brought my Lorelei back from the dead, and she's better than ever.

post script: Over the next couple weeks I'm going to make this blog more computing-focused. Stuff inspired by the overhaul will appear for a while: Hacks and tweaks to improve performance and minimize Windows XP's annoying habit of hand-holding. Articles about good and bad software design. Musings on the possible futures of computing. A couple of link days devoted to powertoys and improvements. I'll try and be sure mix it in with other, less technically minded fare for my readers who don't find that sort of thing interesting. But most of you have probably already long since gotten bored with this particular entry and wandered off, so I doubt you'll see this note.

Thursday, August 18, 2005


Anonymous Mrsgollum said...

thats really wierd i did a google search on my name and it lead me here. My name is Lorelei Mercer.

Huh. what irony!

3:30 AM  

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