Computer Recovery

Part of this post is a laboratory notebook. I record 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

I am recording further issues in an addendum.


I recall Pirsig’s words on the subject of the laboratory notebook (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 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 had 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 them. 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 there 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 on my office computer. 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.

My problem

As for my recent problem with my used Asus Aspire S3 laptop, support for the Windows 7 installation that had come with the computer was going to end with the current year, 2019. Also, the laptop started crashing. I could still use it with an Ubuntu live CD—in my case, the live USB that I made. I used the live USB to write 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 did not know what to do, besides visit the shop where I had bought the computer. 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, file system consistency check, as told in “On Translation.” I quote my words from there:

an error message told me that the problem was in /dev/sda1, and I should run fsck manually; I somehow could not understand for a long time that what I was supposed to do was type fsck /dev/sda1, hit enter, and follow the prompts.

With Disco Dingo (or rather the hardware it ran on) thus repaired, I could go about my business 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 webpage (accessed from my mobile as needed) 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 this 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, in order to use the desktop computer there.

  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.


August 22, 2020

Since first composing this article, I have had hardware issues at least twice more. One of them happened today, and I could not remember exactly what I had done before, except that, as in the previous experience noted above, it involved fsck.

Today I edited a couple of files, without connecting to the internet. I took a break, putting the computer and myself to sleep. When I came back and plugged into the internet, the file I was working on wouldn’t save anymore. The file system had gone read-only. SpiderOak wasn’t managing to upload the changes that I had made and saved before the break. I was able to email to myself the file with significant changes, and also to upload it to Dropbox from the website.

I had the computer restart itself. When I looked again at the screen, there was a message about BusyBox (saying in particular that typing help would give me a list of available commands), and there was a blinking cursor next to the text, (initramfs).

The scene was familiar, but I could not remember what to do.

A web search with my mobile suggested typing exit, which would show where the problem was (such as /dev/sda1). Then I ought to be able to type fsck /dev/sda1/.

Typing exit didn’t work. I came back to the same command line with no new information.

I turned off the computer (maybe by holding the power key down). After turning it on again, I hit <F2> when given the option. This gave me the GRUB menu. I ran a memory test, which took 40 minutes or so, but uncovered no problem.

Back at the GRUB menu, I tried now starting Ubuntu. This time I was told there was a problem in /dev/sda1; so I ran fsck /dev/sda1/, typed y at the prompts and eventually a when this was offered. That solved the problem for now.

November 30 (Monday), 2020

Similar issue: file system became read-only. Tried restarting and pressing <F2> but was told to wait, and nothing happened. When I didn’t press <F2> I got a screen with a message like

error: attempt to read or write outside of disk 'hd0'. 
Entering rescue mode... 
grub rescue>

I’ve just copied the text from an Ask Ubuntu page that I looked at in my feature phone; but then the page did not seem very promising, and anyway the keyboard stopped having an effect.

When I restarted again, I got the “Busybox” page that I described above. I did what I wrote then, and it worked. I might note that restarting the computer and hitting <F2> then didn’t immediately give me the GRUB menu (and probably the same happened before); it gave me “that other menu,” exiting which gave me GRUB.

December 5 (Saturday), 2020

Same as five days ago, but didn’t get the “grub rescue” prompt. File system became read only; restarting brought the “Busybox” screen. Turned off computer by holding down the power button; then turned on, hit <F2>, exited that menu, chose a memory test (no errors found), then got the screen telling me to run fsck manually.

December 6 (Sunday), 2020

It happened again today. I found a relevant page, “How To Fix Busybox Initramfs Error On Ubuntu.” The same operating system is discussed Ubuntu 20.04; but not those other screens, with the “grub rescue” prompt, or initramfs but where exit doesn’t work. Also the restart wasn’t so simple. I was hung up on a purple screen with primitive “Ubuntu 20.04” text for a while, so I used Alt-PrtSc R E I S U B.

December 7 (Monday), 2020

I cannot precisely report everything I’ve been through with the computer. The following happened, possibly in the given order.

Following instructions on an Ubuntu help page, I installed the smartmontools package and ran the program smartctl, which gave me a report of “the most recent five errors”; the last of these (shown first in the report) had the serial number 6984. Seven thousand errors would seem to be a lot; but then the capacity of the disk is measured in hundreds of thousands of thousands, and in any case the disk is still usable (I’m using it to write these words).

I ran boot-repair as described on the linked Ubuntu help page. I didn’t upload the report anywhere. I got saved somewhere, maybe /root/, but I couldn’t reach it then, even with sudo, and it’s not there now.

Once when I was restarting the computer, and the splash screen of the manufacturer (Acer), the one offering the option to press <F2> was not going away, I just left it alone, and eventually at the bottom was a display of a file system check. The names of files being checked were displayed. No error was found.

Maybe to get the Grub menu from that screen, one should use not <F2> but Esc. But I have learned to edit the file /etc/default/grub and then run sudo update-grub in order to display the Grub menu automatically.

I also learned, from an Ubuntu help page on Grub2/Displays, to name a background image file in the grub file.

If from the Grub menu I choose “recovery mode,” the screen of options (one of which is to run fsck) is corrupted; still I can select fsck. So far, this quickly gives me a new screen, asking if I want to mount the file systems; and I cannot continue without saying Yes. Then I get a clean screen of options, but “unfortunately” fsck now does not work, since the file systems are mounted!

I have to infer that the program found no errors the first time around; it just didn’t say so. This is what happened when I used an Ubuntu Live USB. I used an Ask Ubuntu answer to learn to do the following:

  • In a terminal (which can be opened with Ctrl-Alt-T), run sudo fdisk -l to learn the device to check.

  • I guess I already knew I would be checking /dev/sda1.

  • Therefore I run sudo fsck /dev/sda1 (the linked page says to use fsck -f but there is no entry for -f on the man page for fsck).

So far, this says there are no errors.

I have learned to make a persistent Live Ubuntu USB using the mkusb program as described on a How-To Geek page.

December 8 (Tuesday), 2020

Yesterday I edited this post, adding the section above. But then today I couldn’t find the edited file in my computer. I also could not find the report created by smartctl that I had emailed to myself with the name smartctl-report-sda.txt: this is the report that seems to list the last five of almost seven thousand errors, though it also says,

SMART overall-health self-assessment test result: PASSED

I couldn’t even find the smartctl program itself. Now I installed it again, using

sudo apt-get install smartmontools

getting no warning that the program is already installed.

The edited file underlying this post must have existed, because it had been uploaded to the blog, and I don’t edit online with the WordPress editor. My current practice, initiated with the composition of “LaTeX to HTML” three months ago, is to edit a text (txt) file, using “Pandoc’s enhanced version of Markdown,” then to convert it to html using pandoc. I remember yesterday making the dates of my additions to this post into actual headings (rather than just italicized text) using the prefix ### (which at first would come back as \#\#\# when I used pandoc to convert from txt to html and back again; but eventually this problem was somehow fixed).

I have no clue how my computer could have reverted to its state as of Sunday morning (if that is what has happened), unless it has to do with letting a live USB take it over. First I made an old HP 8GB USB into a persistent live USB; then I did the same to the newer Toshiba 32 GB USB that I had already made into an impersistent live USB with Ubuntu 20.04 (for use on my wife’s new HP computer, which had come only with FreeDOS).

For teaching my class yesterday with Microsoft Teams (the program selected by my university), performance was better with the live USB than it had been with the computer’s own installation of the same version of Ubuntu.

Later I copied my SpiderOak Hive file to the live USB and installed SpiderOakONE itself. Synchronization took an hour or two (I didn’t explicitly time it), but this was not surprising; I had had a similar experience with changing computers at my university office.

Today on the live USB I went looking for the latest version of the present file. It wasn’t there; but then neither was the version that I downloaded from the SpiderOak copy of the computer’s own version the latest one that I expected.

Meanwhile, SpiderOak on the USB seems too slow to be practical.

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”?

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Evolution of Reality « Polytropy on February 17, 2020 at 4:50 am

    […] taught courses on the ordinal numbers. I took the photos with my feature phone, mentioned in “Computer Recovery” as an alternative means of web access to the laptop I have used to compose the present post. […]

  2. By LaTeX to HTML « Polytropy on September 9, 2020 at 10:51 am

    […] with the pandoc program, I have converted some mathematics from a LaTeX file into html. Like “Computer Recovery” then, this post is a laboratory […]

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