Chris Gulker: The View from Silicon Valley

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The Independent Online

He's a physician, a PhD, and an astronaut. I remember him as one of the more serious fellows in the class behind me. His name is Lee Morin, and Nasa recently chose him to install a part of the International Space Station that has 475,000 parts, weighs 27,000lb (12,270kg), and cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Nasa says it picked Lee because of his qualifications as a scientist, a doctor, as a particularly dextrous weightless worker, and, perhaps most astonishing (in my mind) his uncanny knack with Windows NT.

In fact, I'm told that Lee is known as "Der Pingmeister" in the astronaut corps for being the go-to guy when your Nasa standard-issue Windows NT laptop won't work. It occurs to me that Lee matches the astronauts in Arthur C Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey: the Right Stuff with a PhD.

Clarke foresaw that mortals in 2001 would be having computer problems, but he thought it would be more in terms of dealing with talking, sentient machines than trying to get your PC to boot. My hat's off to Lee for all his accomplishments, but I am in awe of his NT skills – and I'm a guy who's built no fewer than four Linux machines from scratch, mostly out of the cheap parts' bins at Fry's (Silicon Valley's geek superstore).

I've networked them, firewalled them, equipped them with webcams and published websites on them. But none of this prepared me for Windows. Last week, my wife wanted to be able to visualise how we might remodel our kitchen. So off I went to Fry's, for a software package that would make it easy to layout the room and see what happens if you move the fridge over here, and the cabinets there. I cruised the Mac aisle first, but found only a rather dated package.

Windows software is often cheaper and usually offers a wider choice; sure enough, I found a $69 package (with $10 rebate) that would do the job. Since I didn't have Windows running anywhere on's 12 computers, my next stop was to pick up a copy of Windows XP– I thought it would be a nice contrast to Mac OS X, recently installed on my Macs.

But the professional version of Windows XP cost $400: even to upgrade my copy of Windows 2000 Professional would cost $200. It didn't seem like a good deal to spend $200 to run a $59 software package, so, grumbling about Microsoft and monopoly, I figured I'd just install Windows 2000.

Back home, I put a new hard drive in my Linux machine, and dug out the Windows 2000 installer disk, figuring this would be easy. If you can install Linux, then Windows should be a piece of cake, right?

Wrong. Windows 2000's text-only installer is positively archaic compared with current graphical Linux installers, not to mention nearly devoid of help files. And, try as I might, it absolutely refused to install Windows alongside Linux. Worse, after an hour of frustration, I cancelled the install only to learn that Windows had overwritten the Linux boot sector, leaving a machine that wouldn't boot at all.

The final straw came when I finally installed Windows over Linux: Windows wouldn't identify my video card – Linux had just worked with it out of the box. So, Lee, when you're done orbiting, could you come over? I've got a little Windows problem...