(Mis)Adventures with Linux

A while back, I wrote about getting on MySpace and how I was wondering if it was worthwhile.

I am beginning to think it was.

I’m back in school now, trying to learn enough to help me get a job. I’m hoping that job with be in computer networking, and one thing that became clear to me was that, at least as far as servers and the hardware that keeps the Internet going, the Linux operating system has a major presence. So, I figured, if I’m going to have to deal with this stuff, at least a little bit, it might be a good idea if I learned something about this operating system.

There are times when I just ain’t too bright, and I am beginning to think this is one of those times!

Linux, at least at it’s base, is a “command line” operating system, or OS. For those of you out there who, like me, are old enough to remember back before Windows, back when, if you wanted to make a computer run, you usually ran DOS, Linux is kinda like that…..only a whole lot worse! Linux is obscure, multi-layered, confusing and just generally hard as hell to get your head around. I am slowly beginning to get some sort of a feel for it, but it’s more like I can feel the rope sliding through my hands and I know there’s not a whole lot more of it left than like I’ve got a firm grip on things.  Linux has another oddity to it, one that might help you understand why it hold such a place in the operations of the Internet: it’s free. You can Google the word and come up with a long list of places where you can go and download all manner of different “distributions” of Linux (think various versions of Windows, each with slightly different characteristics). I was even given a CD of it last year by an instructor, which should tell you how cheap it is. This is because Linux is considered “open source”, software that is written, debugged and supported by the users. It’s a powerful idea, and the OS is supposed to be rugged and fault-tolerant (meaning it doesn’t curl up it’s toes as easily as Windows can still do from time to time).

The above statement comes with a proviso: when it’s properly installed!

Actually getting Linux up-and-running is not an easy thing. Many of the distributions need detailed information on the machine they’re being installed on, things like the precise specifications of the CPU, or the way that the mother board talks to things like USB devices, or even what chipset is used in your video display system. Some make it a bit easier, with installation software that can (supposedly) use the same internal software in your computer to find out all the information it needs to get up and running. It’s the details, however, that can come around and bite you in the ass, and believe me, they bite hard and have good teeth.

When I decided to load Linux onto my desktop machine, I used the Ubuntu distribution, to be precise, the 9.04 version. I’d had it setting around for several months, though, and in the meantime, Ubuntu had come out with a newer distribution, 9.10, and the first thing my older version did when it installed was to tell me that a newer version was available, and to suggest I upgrade. Well, the software is free, I’ve got the speed now to make it so that the software would actually download this year, so what the hell, let’s DO it. Once I gave the okay, the software said it would take a couple of hours to download the new OS, clear away the current version, and get everything all installed, so I let it run and got doing other things.

When I came back, the OS was waiting, ready to finish the install of the new version of Linux, only needing my final approval. So I gave the okay, sat down, and watched as the install finished. Once it was done, I had to fill in things like my name for a username, plus a password (Linux is also very, very good about security), and then the new OS started up. All I could think was “WOW!!!”: a Windows-like environment, complete with mouse, icon-based control of different functions, and enough goodies in the way of accessory software to make me almost drool. I was thinking I had one sweet deal, a new OS I could use both to learn and also to actually get something done. Things were looking good……

Yep, you guessed it, now was the time when those pesky details turned around and sank their fangs into my ass. It wasn’t anything obvious, no sudden puff of smoke rising from the computer or anything quite that dramatic, but it was disturbing. I’d be working away, surfing the Web, playing with some of the neat toys (that version of Linux had a kick-ass chess program I loved!), and suddenly, with no warning, the computer would stop doing anything. The cursor would move around the screen when I shoved the mouse around, but I could click until my finger got sore and nothing would happen, nothing at all. That wouldn’t be bad, but like an ordinary Windows machine, the only way to shut the machine down is to click on the button on the screen to turn the computer off. So, here I was, with a computer that was doing nothing but setting there, making noise, using up electricity, but that was it. I guess I am lucky, I have the power strip that controls my machine where I can reach it easily, so when I couldn’t get the machine to shut off any other way, I just turned the power off to it. I was seriously tempted to just wait, to see if I could live with the odd problem and maybe figure out why it was doing what it was doing.

Here, absolute stupidity, at least on my part, stepped in.

You see, with mine being an older version of Ubuntu, developments had gone to the point were an entirely new version of the OS was available. This was not compatible with my current, updated version, and from time to time I’d get updates for my old version, along with a notice for the newer version. One of these hit about the time I was starting to wonder what was going on, and not thinking too deeply, I decided to give my computer the okay to go ahead and upgrade to the new distribution.

Mistake. BIG mistake. Okay, HUGE mistake!

When I gave the okay, it was getting late in the day and the software said it would take at least a couple of hours for the new OS to download, clean up from the old version, and install itself. With no desire to set around watching the computer chuckle to itself, I decided to let it take care of the details and I’d check the results in the morning. So I went to bed and got some sleep, thinking I’d have a nice, shiny new OS to play with when I got up the next day.

Boy, was that wishful thinking!

When I went to the computer the next day and turned on the monitor, I was somewhat amazed to find that it would not, in fact, respond to anything at all, but remained stubbornly black. After trying just about everything I knew, and swearing a blue streak, I killed the power to the computer yet-again and started it back up. What I found out was that the new OS had crashed during install, and I didn’t know enough to even begin to figure out why. Now is where things got interesting. I did the classic move in our modern age, I Googled Linux help and found a site that was supposed to be the best, linuxquestions.org. There seemed to be tons of material there, plenty of knowledgeable folks, so I signed up and made an introductory post telling a bit about myself and mentioning my problem. At the same time, I also posted to the computer section of MySpace telling of my latest (mis)adventure with Linux. What followed was a lesson in how cyberspace can be deceiving. The “experts” on linuxquestions.org proceeded not to offer advice or help, but to lecture me on how ignorant I was and how I should learn more, lots more, before I even bothered to ask any question of them. At about the same time, the folks on MySpace started to reply with advice and suggestions, including a link to a blog post someone made dealing with the precise problem I’d been having with my earlier installation. It turned out that, despite reading the information Windows uses to know what hardware is present on a system, Ubuntu expected certain hardware minimums, and if those weren’t present, it would default to it’s own choice. That this would not work with certain, shall we say, older hardware (yes, like my machine) and could cause it to behave oddly is something that is not mentioned up front. So my machine loaded the new OS, tried to work with it, but eventually the incompatibility between it and what Linux was expecting caused Linux to crash. To their credit, I notified Ubuntu of the problem, and they in turn pointed me to some not-too-easy-to-find notifications addressing the problem. So I now know how to get things fixed. All credit to the kind folks on MySpace, and none to the self-described “experts” on linuxquestions.org.

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