Years ago (late 2005), when I was in the middle of moving back to San Francisco, a good friend of mine gifted to me his ThinkPad T41. He was about to go traveling and had acquired one of those new amazing netbooks that hardly anyone uses these days, additionally his company didn’t seem to want the T41 back. I was going through a transitional phase in my life, what with moving and all. The new (to me) laptop was quite an important gift in how I’ve shaped into a bit of a hacker over the years. It’s safe to say I wouldn’t be so into the open source movement if it wasn’t for this machine.
Before moving back to SF, I had multiple machines I interfaced with. A much slower (yet so slim and light, they don’t make them like they used to) and beaten up ThinkPad 570 (which now is somewhere at Noisebridge, along with its mate that I cannibalized for parts), a clogged up large desktop machine with two over 17″ heavy CRT displays, an extremely disorganized server box. All three of these machines ran Windows in some form or another. I had 3 other desktop machines where I experimented with FreeBSD and various Linux distros, but they were so old and run down that I hardly ever touched them. Windows seemed to work and that was that, and back then having multiple computers was a normal thing for myself and friends I knew.
When it came to be time to start packing things away, preparing to transplant myself to a newer (smaller and up 2 flights of stairs) dwelling, I was loathing the notion of relocating all of my computers. That was around when the T41 fell into my lap, the friend simply asked me to wipe the drive before using it for anything. My mind was blown. The machine was much faster than my laptop or desktop, it had ports, it worked, it was pretty awesome. I named the machine Morocco, after the first destination my friend was about to travel to.
I don’t know why I decided to install Linux onto it, but Ubuntu was turning into a thing back then, and it seemed like a fun experiment to do before I tossed my other machines. Well, it stuck, for a long time. I don’t think I ever got around to install Windows natively on that machine, ever. Eventually I either got rid of the other boxes or converted them to some form of Linux. In the end I donated the desktop machines and CRTs to some nonprofit that a friend was a part of. All I had left was this ThinkPad and a really tiny home server (Shuttle when they were still producing cheap hardware). Some how that purge made me feel like an adult at that point.
The T41 saw its fare share of action, thankfully being built like a tank it didn’t give a damn what happened to it. During a Fire Arts Festival, we had some epic computer failure. In an emergency I plugged Dance Dance Immolation into Morocco, and after about 30 minutes the USB ports got fried (and as it turns out the machine suffered the same fate a year or two ago under its previous owner, and had gotten serviced). I replaced the power board due to the power port becoming faulty. Plastics cracked, the exterior got more scuffed, covered in stickers. Thing kept on ticking.
I learned many life lessons about administrating a Linux desktop machine, and how there’s a very thin and sharp line with burning time between fixing a computer constantly and using a computer as a tool for creativity. I eventually got really frustrated with the state of Linux on desktops and how more of my time was going towards fixing Linux every 10 minutes than doing fun things on it, like playing with photography.
During a party while playing music the machine marinated in a puddle of Gatorade over night while trying to frantically put itself to sleep, over and over again. Found it with almost no battery life left, some how still running but full of liquid electrolytes. I quickly pulled battery and started taking it apart, draining the machine, noticing that metal bits here and there had shifted in color from the exposure to the liquid and electricity. Dried it as best as I could, put it together, wouldn’t turn on, started freaking out. I panicked, quickly went window shopping for a new machine that would have good Linux compatibility, realized how much of a fool I was at thinking such I thing would exist at the time. A friend recommend I try switching over to a Mac. It took a good solid 2 hours of research and a tiny bit of peer pressure, but sure enough the next day I was the owner of a new 15″ MacBook Pro.
I regret making that switch now, but I still continued to touch Linux boxes here and there. That and I can’t ignore how I wouldn’t be into photography as much as I am now if I hadn’t found Lightroom then. It also made me appreciate GNU based tools so much more. Anyhow, that phased lived on for about 3 years and 2 different piece of Apple hardware, I became increasingly more paranoid about damaging my precious pieces of Cupertino hand crafted aluminum egg shells, and fearful over running anything that might break OSX to the point where I need to either reinstall or go to an Apple Store since I can’t simply debug that stuff by hand. The first one just flat out died and wouldn’t power on one day (also at the Fire Arts Festival), the second one grew some very obnoxious issues that Apple wasn’t willing to address nor would they give me the means to debug myself. And so 1.5 years ago I switched back to Linux by picking up a ThinkPad X220 and running Debian on it, I’ve been rather happy since then. Linux on the desktop is very much a working thing now, with minimal upkeep.
The ThinkPad T41 continued to live on. After about a month or two of drying and a surface mount resistor replacement, the machine booted back up like nothing was wrong. I’ve used it as a dummy kiosk for events, hardware to run projects, a networking router on playa. The BIOS battery eventually gave out, it’ll continue to boot up but I can’t get into the BIOS to alter boot up drives as it’s now asking me for a password. I got Debian up and running on a 2nd machine and swap the drive back into the T41, to be used as a guest or loaner machine. Friends have used it as a simple web browser here at my house, and I loaned it off to another friend who was in need of a Linuxy machine to do work on Zoa, a Flux Foundation for Burning Man project, while her new ThinkPad X230 was in transit from China (to replace her own ancient ThinkPad which had also just recently died).
I got the machine back this past weekend and wanted to do a distribution upgrade before charging the battery and setting it aside for use by visiting friends later. Sadly the machine no longer wants to boot off of the internal hard drive. I’ve tried other drives, but alas I think there’s something now terribly wrong with the IDE controller. After working on it all this morning, I’ve decided the time has come for Morocco, time to move on.
The pace at which technology moves now, we’ve stopped growing attached to the devices we interface with. Now we more focus onto our data and the services that hold them, using desktop computers, laptops, tablets, smart phones, simply as a window to reach out and hold that data close. Running off of the T41 really pushed me into doing more fun and interesting stuff with Linux, and made me learn how important the free open source software movement is (well also in part by switching over to Mac). To some extent that machine symbolizes freedom to me, from closed software and from a past life I no longer live attached to multiple objects and ways of thinking.
Thanks to the friend who gifted the laptop to me, and thanks to the machine itself, that was a good solid 7 years.