gizbot (gizbot) wrote,
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Unfinished Adventures in Installing Linux on my Laptop.

Last Saturday, I went to SVLUG's Installfest. I spent about three hours trying to install Linux on my laptop. Instead of recording the few bits of new trivia, I thought I'd record the actual steps in the hope that others may profit from my effort.

This chronicles my attempts to install Ubuntu, version 5.10 on my laptop. Ubuntu is a popular Linux distro, in part because of their policy of giving away free CD's. My laptop is a Hewlett-Packard ZV6000 model, 512 MB, Athlon 64 CPU, and an ATI video card. It currently has one large partition for Microsoft Windows XP. After several hours, I still do not have an installation, and have more information.  

To set items in perspective, I have been a language geek, developer and designer, but never a system administrator. I used to run Linux on desktop machines, and have never installed Linux on a laptop. For those of you unfamiliar with the experience, system administration is an art that involves knowing just enough of a variety of hardware, software, and systems knowledge. Courage and patience are rewarded, and breadth over depth.  System Administrators appear to spend much of their time experimenting and verifying their hypothesis.

The Plan :   Every project starts with a plan, even a one line one. My plan was "Make my laptop dual boot with the current Windows XP and the current version of Ubutnu."

The Preparation :  The night before the InstallFest, I set up my external drive, an Iomega 300GB, and backed up most everything. My laptop has a small 60GB drive, so everything fit. I used a simple file copy, and used the Windows back-up utility to back up the system files. I really have no idea if I can resinstall Windows from scratch with what I have. My machine has no floppy drive.

The only other preparation was note the location of the InstallFest, pack my bag with a spare network cable, a power strip, and my notebook.

The InstallFest:  I had never been to one of these meetings. I found the correct Google building, signed the usual entry NDA, and was escorted to a conference with about twenty people with laptops. As a random side note, the Google NDA did not need to be signed for this visit the software recognizes hitting the ESC to refuse it.

The atmosphere was very informal, and one of the people offered some media.  Some people had helpfully written down some common Linux commands and locations of log files on the blackboard.

Attempt One: Ubutnu Live Default :   First, I chose to use the 'Live' versions until I had a consistent configuration. Many modern Linux distributions can boot and run from CD-ROM, allowing you to work on configuration problems or explore Linux without risk to the existing operating system. Once a 'live' version configures correctly, making a permanent installation and making the system dual-boot is a separate issue. I wrote down the time and a note in my notebook, inserted the Live CD and booted.   I came to a screen using F1-F7 to view different help screens and a prompt. I followed the suggestion that I just type "Live".

Note that this little prompt is a first introduction to the argot of Linux.  There is no list of valid commands and options.  There are hints in the help screens and the error messages from typing random characters.  If you want to find help on this program, you need to know it is the "bootstrap", not the "bootloader", "second stage bootloader", or "init" program.   The keyword "bootstrap" does not appear on any of the help screens. This is an aspect of the Zen of Linux:  "One must know some of the answer before one can search for the question."
 
After typing "Live", and hitting return, the system started to boot. The screen started scrolling lines including "starting /init/vmlinux....done" and continuing with more lines scrolling off the screen.  The is more of the argot of Linux. Any argot has many words that sound familiar and mask a deep understanding. The lines scrolling off the screen each referenced a whole subject of knowledge. A friend from college learned much of his system administration skills from spending months figuring out what each and every line meant.

After scrolling for a few seconds, the screen went blank.  After waiting a reasonable interval, I wrote down the result in my note book, rebooted, and look for other options.

The blank screen is a point of the Zen of Linux: "A failing is only an error in the eye of the beholder."   That the screen goes blank and stays blank without explanation is not seen as an error or bug by everyone.  If you see it as a error, you are welcome to  write your own installation code.

Attempt Two: Ubutnu Live with Additional Settings :  The second attempt was to read all the options on the various help screens and try again. The help gave an option for running a memory test, which I did.  The online screen also suggested using "live vga=771" if I had screen problems on a laptop. I made an entry in my notebook and started again. This time, the text scrolled by and I made it to a text GUI asking for keyboard preferences. What happened? What did the line mean? I marked it for exploration for a future time, and continued. One other aspect of the Zen of Linux: "One can do what one does not understand."

After selecting language and keyboard options, the screen went flashing by with status messages again. One was a failure, written in red, that scrolled off the screen too fast to read. The system cleared the screen and came up with a text GUI dialog that said "There was trouble starting your X windowing system, would you like help debugging it? Yes Ubutnu Linux $ No."   Yes, that was a command prompt right in the middle of the text GUI. It had crashed, or at least behaved differently than expected.   Oddly, on successive attempts with the same settings it either crashed differently or degraded into using cyrillic characters for window borders.

At least I had command prompt. As an old Unix user, I knew how to reset the terminal ("stty sane") for the odd line feed problem. This worked, though more and less then failed to see the screen size, but vi was good enough to look through the error logs in "/var/log/".  X was seeing my display driver as "ati". I made some attempts at configuring my XServer to use a less specific interface, but hampered by a lack of knowledge of the X server restart keys, the six text consoles of Linux, and the unique structure of the X initialization files. I didn't even know which of Xinit, XStart, start, init, and X was the correct command to start windows on this system. 

Some of the mystery of the error was removed, but not enough. This lead to another point of the Zen of Linux: "How mysterious the error depends on the mysteries one knows." It is easy to reset the terminal and look at log files if you already know how.

Attempt Three:  Finding Help Online:  Looking for help I rebooted into my working Windows XP and Googled message boards. Lots of talk, mostly along the lines of "I had this problem." followed by "It worked for me." or the occasional "You need to run these cryptic lines of code without explanation.".    There are dozens or hundreds of separate Linux help sites on the web, many hoping to be definitive.   Detailed explanations and careful organization are not the norm here.   Overall, my specific Google search was a total loss:  I would need to know more before I could search for an answer. Welcome to another point of Zen: "One cannot jump into the middle of one's journey."

Attempt Four:  Asking for Help:  I asked for help from the helpful person who had supplied the installation CDs.  He looked at the problem and suggested using Knoppix, a different distribution.  Knoppix booted similarly, and made it into X Windows.  My mouse, a Synaptics touchpad, was not recognized.  One of the touchpad drivers was built into Ubutnu, but not this distribution.  A hint was that the X display driver for Knoppix had changed to 'VESA,, and some other X identitifiers had changed, because the ATI driver is built into Ubutnu but no Knoppix. The helpful person also tutored me in the magic "ALT-F1 through ALT-F8" keys.

I started getting passed to people considered more knowledgeable about Linux, much like going through tiers of technical support.  The final tier, recognized as a local guru, looked over my installation and gave these pronouncements:
  1. The laptop is too new for the ATI driver to work. ATI has proprietary drivers not distributed with Ubutnu. After a year or so, the old driver source code is made available. This is in contrast to NVIDIA which never releases its driver source. After you get it working with VESA, run a series of cryptic commands to get the current drivers.
  2. The Athlon is a 64 bit architecture and the vido drivers will never work on the 32 bit Ubutnu I was installing. I should install using the Ubutnu 64 bit edition.
  3. Making a dual boot system will require hours to defragment my drive, so odds for it working today are low.
Now, I have no idea if the guru is correct.  I took a 64-bit edition Ubutnu CD home and tried again. I have yet to make it past the first "blank screen of death" on the new CD. I have looked into deffered research items, defragmented my hard drive, and picked up more random knowledge.

Conclusions:  The first conclusion is, of course, that more effort will be required before getting Linux on my laptop.   I did learn a number of aspects to the Zen of Linux.   The Zen to Linux must be accepted, or one could find one that had already accepted it.
  • "A failing is only an error in the eye of the beholder."
  • "One must know some of the answer before one can search for the question.."
  • "One can do what one does not understand."
  • "How mysterious the error depends on the mysteries one knows."
  • "One cannot jump into the middle of one's journey."

I'll try again next InstallFest or when the 32-bit Ubutnu media arrives.
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