Handheld electronic calculators were new (and expensive) when I was in high school, but were rapidly becoming ubiquitous. Most math teachers did not allow use of calculators in class. Invariably, students would grouse about the bans, and the teachers would reply with something like “someday you’re not going to have your calculator with you and you’ll need to do some math.” I began to think of these as “desert island scenarios,” as in ‘you’re stranded on a desert island with no calculator but you need to find the size of the piece of driftwood you need to make the rounded part of the “P” in “HELP.” How are you going to do that if you can’t do this math on paper?’ So I don’t have a calculator but I do have paper and a pencil and a compulsive need to make sure that my driftwood “HELP” message is letter-perfect.

This kind of thing comes up all the time. Recently, Josh and I have joked about the kinds of questions that seem to come up on job interviews and start to sound like “you’re stranded on a desert island with nothing but a computer, a power source, and a high-speed internet connection; how are you going to…” (Of course, they’re never actually phrased that way, but the implication is there.) Seems pretty unlikely.

Until this week.

I was at the island house. I needed a computer I could leave there to do remote performance and reliability testing and to manage some IoT devices (surveillance camera, cat feeder, weather station) without running everything through the Secure Cloud™. I hadn’t anticipated the need, so I didn’t have a computer I could leave. I could get a Raspberry Pi shipped to the local post office rapidly, but I only brought my laptop and a few cables. I would need to be able to boot the Pi headless (no keyboard and monitor), and modern versions of the Raspberry Pi OS ship with remote access (ssh and vnc) disabled by default. You can enable them, and even WiFi, by putting special files on the boot drive (a micro SD card), but that requires that you be able to read and write micro SD cards. I had thrown an old USB-C hub in my bag, but when I checked I discovered that the one I’d picked didn’t have a card slot.

Was I to be on a desert tropical island with nothing but a Raspberry Pi, my laptop, solar power, and a high-speed internet connection? (Yes, due to a rural broadband subsidy, there is a six mile long gigabit optical fiber that runs to my home, even though there isn’t even utility power.)

Fortunately, I could get a CanaKit shipped to me rapidly; it would arrive just within the time frame I needed to be able to get the computer installed before I had to leave for the airport. The kit came with a Raspberry Pi 5 with a case, heatsink, fan, power supply, cables, a micro SD card, and most importantly a micro SD card reader. I should be able to make this work!

The kit arrived on time (not something one can count on out there) and I was able to drive into town to get it.

So I was all set, until I discovered that the micro SD adapter didn’t work properly and wouldn’t let me mount the card. At all. It should be noted that though “town” is only six miles away, there isn’t a store there that would have anything remotely resembling SD cards and adapters. Yes, I know that even most drugstores carry such things these days, but there is no drugstore in town. The hardware store is amazing, so I checked there, but no. I racked my brain. I found an old cat-5 cable that had been connected to a comparatively ancient satellite internet system: this would let me bypass the need to program the WiFi credentials. There’s on old TV in the place and the kit came with an HDMI cable, so I’d have a display, but no keyboard. I absolutely could not come up with a way to get the Pi booted with an internet connection.

Within hours of returning to the mainland, I was able to get the Pi headlessly booted on the net and configured with the requisite code to make it accessible from the outside world. But now it’s 2,500 miles from where it needs to be.

The CanaKit folks were sympathetic and immediately shipped me a replacement card adapter but, of course, much too late. I’ll doubtless carry it with me the rest of my life, just in case I’m ever stranded on a desert island with only a Raspberry Pi, a micro SD card, a laptop, a power source, and a high-speed internet line.

—2p

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