Fighting With Computers

When’s the last time you did battle with a computer? Some time ago, I’ll wager, as todays machines are so far beyond the crashing, unstable miseries of yesteryear as to be unrecognisable.

That is, unless you decide to use Linux (especially if you decide to use Linux on Apple hardware, a notoriously tricky combination, and even more so if you don’t know much about Linux). I’ve just tried exactly that, knowing very little, and I have engaged in battle for the first time in years. I’m no computer novice – I’ve been using them since I was six years old and have assembled my own PCs since I was twelve – but it’s been a while since I’ve had to do anything from a command line beyond a quick scribble of ‘msconfig’ in the run dialog on Windows to control what runs on startup.

Despite that, it didn’t take me long to get to grips with the basic terminal commands from the OS X side to create a (initially Linux Mint) bootable USB drive from a downloaded disk image. I triumphantly restarted my laptop, clicked the option to boot from the USB drive, and was presented with the enigmatically-named ‘grub’ – the Linux boot menu. Success! I went to launch Linux Mint proper and was presented with this.

black screen of failSuccess ‘t was not. Some further research later, I found that it was a graphics driver incompatibility and isolated the boot command that controls graphics drivers. Cue trying six different options, none of which worked, until I eventually managed to disable the whole lot and get to a desktop. Success! linuxmintAlas…success ‘t was not, although I was now able to install Linux and boot to it, which is kind of success I suppose. The ongoing issue is that it ate battery because all the heavy lifting had to be done by the CPU rather than the graphics hardware. Any change to the graphics driver settings to try and make it work results in a black screen. I spent hours trying to figure out how to get the graphics drivers to work without breaking the whole lot. I have yet to succeed. I tried installing Ubuntu (a whole different flavour of Linux) instead. It also did not manage to overcome the graphics difficulties (although it did, to its credit, manage to install the wifi all by itself).

That’s where I’m up to. I’ve learned a bit about Linux, booting stuff, and graphics drivers, and I could see how a far-more-computer-wizardly me would proceed from here (rebuild a custom kernel with i915 incorporated and blacklist the radeon drivers with some low-level code to cut power to the physical card), but I simply don’t understand enough about it to do so myself. Nevertheless, in a perverse kind of way I’ve enjoyed getting to grips with the dark underbelly of todays shiny operating systems – I remember well similar ups and downs in the past, when Windows wasn’t especially stable and every program you installed was a potential disaster-marathon waiting to happen. Rose-tinted restrospective, maybe: I’m sure it wasn’t fun at the time, but looking back now it just evokes nostalgia. Humans are happiest when they are tested, after all.

For now, though I need a break from being tested. I’m going to go play in the snow.




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