Computer Recovery

I record here how I fixed my computer, because

  • I am pleased to have been able to do it, and

  • I may have to do it again.

Briefly, when Windows on my laptop failed, I installed Ubuntu, but this failed. Somebody else installed Ubuntu again, and this worked for a while before failing. I managed to fix that problem for myself; but later an upgrade failed. Now I have fixed that.

Computer on table by window at dawn

This post is some kind of laboratory notebook. I recall Pirsig’s words on the subject (ZAMM, chapter 9, bold emphasis mine):

Actually I’ve never seen a cycle-maintenance problem complex enough really to require full-scale formal scientific method. Repair problems are not that hard. When I think of formal scientific method an image sometimes comes to mind of an enormous juggernaut, a huge bulldozer—slow, tedious lumbering, laborious, but invincible. It takes twice as long, five times as long, maybe a dozen times as long as informal mechanic’s techniques, but you know in the end you’re going to get it. There’s no fault isolation problem in motorcycle maintenance that can stand up to it. When you’ve hit a really tough one, tried everything, racked your brain and nothing works, and you know that this time Nature has really decided to be difficult, you say, “Okay, Nature, that’s the end of the nice guy,” and you crank up the formal scientific method.

For this you keep a lab notebook. Everything gets written down, formally, so that you know at all times where you are, where you’ve been, where you’re going and where you want to get. In scientific work and electronics technology this is necessary because otherwise the problems get so complex you get lost in them and confused and forget what you know and what you don’t know and have to give up. In cycle maintenance things are not that involved, but when confusion starts it’s a good idea to hold it down by making everything formal and exact. Sometimes just the act of writing down the problems straightens out your head as to what they really are.

I used to maintain a lab notebook about installing and using Greek fonts in LaTeX. This was on my departmental website in Ankara. Other persons found and used the page (and told me so).

The random Ubuntu user may not find the present post, since Ubuntu problems are already covered on many webpages. However, none of those pages told me just what I needed to know. One of them came close, but I didn’t know that it did until, hesitantly, I tried out what it proposed.

My recent problem was with a laptop, an Acer Aspire S3. The model means little to me, but people seem to supply such information when asking for help. I bought the device used from Evrensel Bilgisayar, on Harzemşah Sokağı, where a sighting of an image of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party outside a café inspired “Impressionism.”

Evrensel bilgisayar means “universal computer.” The name is expansive, but the shop is small, and the Acer laptop was the only used one for sale at the time. It seemed OK to me, and my programming friend agreed, so I bought it. The keys were labelled with letters both Latin (in the QWERTY layout that I learned to touch-type with) and Cyrillic.

I hope not, but maybe the computer was hot. When a flat in our building was broken into, the thieves took laptops, so there must be a market for these. We thought our flat was being broken into, one night while we were in bed. A drunken neighbor was only trying his key in the wrong door.

My new laptop’s operating system was Windows 7, in Turkish, though the keyboard had none of the specifically Turkish letters, Çç, Ğğ, Iı, İi, Öö, Şş, Üü. I knew where they would be, if I used the Turkish layout, which I normally install anyway, along with polytonic Greek and US international, in addition to the standard US layout.

I decided to live with the Windows, though at the office I had used GNU/Linux since the aughts.

I had wanted to use Linux since being a postdoc in Ontario at the end of the millenium. Somebody lent me a CD for installing Red Hat Linux on my office computer, but I hesitated to take the risk. The lender offered to do the installation himself. He partitioned my hard drive, sending the existing Windows system into one half of the drive; but then he hit a roadblock. The CD did not recognize the monitor, or something like that. The person made a phone call, but this did not help. Then he said he had to go. I had to live with half a computer. A then-friend made fun of this; she thought it was my fault for getting somebody else to work on my computer.

As an assistant professor in Ankara, I got one of our department’s computer assistants to install Linux in my office. The first installation was of Knoppix; eventually, Ubuntu. When Ayşe and I moved to Istanbul in 2011, and my new office computer ran Windows 7, I finally installed Ubuntu for myself. However, I used Wubi, the Windows-based Ubuntu Installer, so that I was still somehow running Ubuntu within Windows. I had not the nerve to jettison the latter, since the university offered no support for anything else.

Why use GNU/Linux at all? The reasons are practical and moral. As a graduate student in the 1990s, I had learned to use Unix, and commands in Linux are the same. It’s not a big deal to learn the corresponding commands in Windows, when they exist; but then Windows does not encourage use of a command line anyway. Windows also blurs the distinction between one’s own computer and the web, as by letting a “shortcut” take you to either place. In general, I like the GNU Manifesto as I understand it; probably I first encountered it in the emacs editor, which I used to write my dissertation. I enjoyed a talk by Richard Stallman in Ankara in the aughts. Unfortunately Ubuntu cannot be endorsed by the Free Software Foundation; maybe some day I can move to a system that is.

As for my recent problem, support for Windows 7 was going to end with the current year, 2019. Also, my laptop started crashing. I could still use it with an Ubuntu live CD—in my case, the live USB that I made. This is how I wrote this blog’s posts on the last ten books of the Iliad, while Ayşe and I were at the beach in September. Back in Istanbul, I installed Ubuntu on the laptop itself, using again the live USB, now wiping out Windows.

The installation worked only once. When it failed, I ended up running fsck, file system consistency check, as told in “On Translation.” At first, I either did not know, or did not know how, to do this. I took the computer back to the shop where I had bought it. When I picked it up the next day, Gökben Hanım had installed Ubuntu again. This worked for a while.

Her installation was of 19.04, “Disco Dingo,” the latest Ubuntu version. I had been using 18.04, “Bionic Beaver,” the latest LTS (long term support) version. Somehow I never saw 18.10, “Cosmic Cuttlefish.” Neither did I fully understand the numbering and naming conventions, until preparing this post: “18.10” refers to a release date in October of 2018, but before this was known, the developers needed some other name.

My computer eventually crashed again. As I recall, the file system become read-only, and a web search suggested a hardware problem. Probably this had been the reason for the first Ubuntu failure, but I didn’t know then what to do, other than visit the shop. This time I somehow learned to use fsck, as described.

I could go about my business with Disco Dingo for a few weeks. Then, after updating my system, I was invited to upgrade to 19.10, “Eoan Ermine.” Almost a gigabyte would have to be downloaded over my wireless modem, but my monthly quota of 12 GB was high enough to allow this. The quota had been 8 GB, until we found out that, by agreeing with Turkcell to subscribe for twelve months, we could raise the limit to 12 GB. Apparently we could have been doing this all along, after signing up for wireless service at the beach, a few hours before the coup attempt of July 15, 2016.

When I approved the upgrade through a GUI, the new Eoan Ermine files were downloaded, no problem. The actual installation of the files failed, and the computer became unusable, until I spent a day figuring out what to do.

I had nothing to lose on the laptop; everything was backed up with SpiderOak. However, just installing Ubuntu 18.04 again would be shameful, not to mention wasteful of my time and of the energy that had gone into downloading that gigabyte of new files.

Buying a new computer would be another waste.

I thought there might have been another hardware failure. I ought then to be led again to the message about using fsck. Turning on the laptop, I would get a GRUB menu (GRand Unified Bootloader); I just could not use it to open Ubuntu, even in read-only mode. I could run a memory test though. This found a couple of errors, but I could see no way to fix them.

Back at the GRUB menu, I could press C for a command line. A page called “How to Use GRUB Rescue on Ubuntu 18.04 LTS” told me some things I could do then. I tried them, as best I could, though without ultimate success.

All along, I was able to use the Live USB that I had used before. However, I had not realized that I could use the USB to get access to the system installed on the computer itself. The webpage called LiveCdRecovery did not make it absolutely clear. I decided to give the instructions under Update Failure a try anyway. Suitably modified, they worked, as follows.

  1. The instructions say, “Boot the Ubuntu Live CD.” I had already done this, in order to read them in the first place. Less conveniently, I could have read them on my primitive feature phone (a Nokia C3-00 from 2011), or on Ayşe’s laptop; or I could have taken my own laptop to the office.

  2. “Press Ctrl-Alt-F1,” one is told. I did, and nothing happened. Looking around on the web, I couldn’t see that the key combination would do more than give me a command line. I already had an icon that would open a terminal, and I used this to enter the remaining commands in the present list, exactly as given (usually I cut and pasted them).

  3. sudo mount /dev/sda1 /mnt

  4. sudo mount --bind /dev /mnt/dev

  5. sudo mount --bind /proc /mnt/proc

  6. sudo mount --bind /sys /mnt/sys

  7. sudo chroot /mnt

  8. apt update

  9. apt upgrade

Before going through the last steps, I ran apt update independently, without the mount commands. The updating involved files with “bionic” in their names. Evidently then the USB’s own system was being updated.

When I ran apt update after the preliminaries above, I saw “eoan” where “bionic” had been. This gave me confidence to go ahead with apt upgrade. Come to think of it though, I don’t know why I did not see “disco.” Maybe I did, but didn’t notice; I had not been aware that the old installation was called Disco Dingo.

The apt upgrade command installed the gigabyte of files that I had already downloaded. The process complete, I turned off the computer, removed the USB, and turned the computer on again. There seemed to be some action, but ultimately nothing but a blank screen. I did what I had learned to do when Ubuntu froze up in the office: hold the Ctrl and PrtSc keys while typing the letters R E I S U B in turn. This worked to re-start the computer, and this got 19.10 working, at least in some primitive mode. After another re-start, everything seemed fine, and I could use the laptop to compose this article.

One Comment

  1. Posted November 2, 2019 at 5:19 pm | Permalink | Reply

    It seems there must be a more efficient way. How much time did you use from start to finish in getting your computer up and running, “fine”?

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