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January 27th, 2008


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09:51 am - Adventures in Linux (or, Saving Six Study Program Documents from Certain Doom)
Not long ago, I actually got "real" internet access at home. This consists of the cheapest possible DSL connection that I could possibly obtain: $15/month, which I split down the center with Tina. Since it's on my phone bill, it's not an extra bill, just more like an extra feature.

I also received red_sput's computer from my parents at about the same time. He had run into the classic confusing issue of "Windows just shuts down before fully booting," which indicated that there was some sort of issue with his WinXP installation. I offered to look at it, but he bought a new computer back in November, so it wasn't really urgent.

When I pressed the power button, the computer sprang to life, and I watched in amusement as the entire thing booted and popped into Windows with no problems at all. "I have it working," I told my father, who had seen it not work before. "What did you do?" he asked. "I turned it on." "Huh, nothing else?" "No," I said, "nothing else. There's a magical aura that tech support people have that makes it impossible to replicate an issue once the computer is in their hands. I have that aura."

It turns out that the issue was a combination of spyware, viruses, and (as I soon found out) a faulty hard drive.

Since then, I've been playing around with the machine (and am currently typing on it). I've used it for all sorts of things, from gaming to updating the Three Cranes site. But two days ago, I heard that ominous clicking on boot.

The hard drive had gone. Gone, daddy, gone.

While there was nothing of actual importance on this machine, I did have some ADF Clergy Training Program work saved on this machine and it was not yet backed up. While I can always re-write some of this stuff, I was kicking myself for falling victim to something I've told many, many Dedicants over the years: back your work up!

As a result, I went back to a solution I used last time a hard drive died: Linux.

Those who know me know that I'm pretty much just a Windows user. I don't deal much with Linux or even Macs. Linux doesn't frighten me, but I stick with Windows because I don't feel like occasionally booting back into it to play Diablo 2. No, really: that's my primary reason. And honestly, Windows is generally improving over time. (Well, that last statement was true until Vista, which I don't have experience with yet.)

But when a hard drive fails, and you still need the computer, it doesn't matter to you what you use. And who knows, maybe you can recover something.

When my last hard drive failed (the clicking is indicative of a hard drive issue that simply cannot be fixed without replacing the hard drive), I asked around a bit about recovery, and was told about a Linux platform called Knoppix that boots directly from CD. In other words, you can run this baby without even having a hard drive installed in your computer.

Knoppix has a number of recovery tools installed as well, as it is obviously suited to recovery processes, but its primary vocation is to act as a complete operating system. I would only discover how useful this O/S could be later, though.

I had originally downloaded a version from 2004. The recovery process I had engaged in a couple of years ago had borne no fruit, primarily because the hard drive was so far gone that no data could be recovered under any circumstances. I ran it on red_sput's machine this past week, though, and found that it had a lot more potential than I had initially thought.

I commented on my music entry a few days ago almost exclusively from this machine while running Knoppix. I played chess against my computer, and a version of NetHack is installed on it as well. I was able to answer Grove e-mail and my own personal mail, and even browse most of my favourite sites. I discovered in that time that it's more than the recovery tool I thought it was, but also that it's a fully-functioning O/S.

I ran into some issues with the older version of Knoppix originally on this new machine: some things just didn't work, and I had to get creative at certain points during boot to make it work (fortunately, I have enough exposure to a variety of O/S boot processes, and enough knowledge of Linux and how it works to do this). Because of this, I decided it was time to upgrade. So, while at work, I downloaded the latest Knoppix .iso and popped it onto a CD.

Knoppix 5.1.1 worked out for a while. I was impressed with its very clean startup and sensical options for just about everything I might want to do. I was missing a few features of the old version of Knoppix I'd had, but no big deal: I'd take an easier boot that anyone could do (I share this computer sometimes with Tina) over some of those features.

But soon, I noticed that I was having problems with certain programs, particularly web browsers. Konquerer (the flagship browser) couldn't log into sites, and had a weird re-sizing issue with its tabbed browsing (each time you switch tabs, it resized the window, which is infuriatingly annoying). IceWeasel (Mozilla's FireFox browser for many Linux systems), on the other hand, just stopped working at random points. I couldn't isolate any sort of issue: tabbed browsing didn't kill it, nor did any specific site, nor did anything else. Instead, everything seemed to kill IceWeasel. And as much as I appreciated Knoppix's streamlined error process initially (i.e. "we're not going to tell you what happened; we're just going to make it disappear."), that got really, really old very quickly with IceWeasel.

Some of the games were missing or replaced with versions I didn't care for, too, such as NetHack (which was pretty cool). I also realized that I was getting tired of being told what to do during boot and shutdown in this new version: I appreciate them trying to make it easier, but there's a point where I want to scratch my head until I figure it out, if that's necessary. Getting stumped is part of the charm of using Linux, after all. But "Remove this CD before re-boot!" is an annoying command when you have a bootable CD in the drive.

I think the final straw was that no one thought to add in support for some of the most popular sites on the Web. YouTube, MySpace, and FaceBook all use flash extensively, and there were no browser plugins whatsoever for watching videos online. I understand why (flash and the plugins are not on GNU GPL, generally speaking), but if the goal is to create a fully functioning O/S, well, we're missing something.

In short, I think that the older versions of Knoppix are what I recommend and will probably stick with if I actually have to do anything in the future.

For the really short term, though, I'm just going to get a new hard drive for this bad boy and use my flash drive to back everything up until this one finally craps out. While it's on its last legs, I did manage to get back into Windows and boot from the hard drive. I noticed yesterday that the hard drive had appeared in Knoppix, meaning that it's working temporarily. So for now, the machine is intact. Sorta.

Did I mention there's also a c-clamp holding the monitor together?

I love computer repair and support. It can be so. . . ghetto.
Current Location: Southeast of Disorder
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: "Mac the Knife", -JB with Frank Sinatra

(16 comments Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:heimskringla
Date:January 28th, 2008 06:21 pm (UTC)
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I went from using Slackware on my desktop to Windows XP several years ago, and the reasons I don't use Linux are somewhat similar to yours, but it is a good thing to have around when a system is in need of recovery.

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