May 23, 2010
when tales become narratives, look out!
In a comment to an earlier post, commenter Gringo said,
I like hearing your computer tales.Talk about asking for it.
If it's tales you want, it's tales you'll get!
So onto the latest tales. I have now installed and tried out innumerable Linux distributions in various old computers, and thanks to the tricky but invaluable GRUB loader, I can choose from among them at bootup. When I began with these experiments I only had two Compact Flash memory cards (a 128Meg and a 256Meg), which would only allow one very small Puppy or Slax distro on each. I truly love Puppy, as it is brutally simple, easy to configure, and does the job without no muss nor mess. The three variations I've tried are your basic Puppy, the slightly more elegant Lupu Puppy (an Ubuntu-hybrid mongrel), and a charming new distro called Quirky, which I absolutely love. It's basic, user-friendly, and does what you tell it to do.
As anyone who has installed Linux into a computer with another OS knows, double or triple or quadruple booting requires the installation of a pre-boot loader, and the most common one is the GRUB. On bootup, it gives you a list of available operating systems, and you select the one you want with the arrow keys, hit Enter and it will boot. At least, so you hope. The problem with GRUB is that the latest version (GRUB2 -- which is what you'll get with Ubuntu) is not designed to be user-edited with ease the way the older one is, but instead has to be updated with commands, which is fine except when it fails to detect new installations or displays them incorrectly. When I added new systems after having installed GRUB2 along with Ubuntu, this failure to detect them forced me to go to a lot of trouble.
Not so with Quirky. It lets you take total charge of GRUB from start to finish, and it shows you the GRUB display entries when you install it, as well as any time afterwards. Now, if you're installing "competing" versions of Linux, none of this is a huge problem, but if you are trying to keep Windows, watch out! Windows is extremely fussy about the GRUB loader, and adding other operating systems is a great way to make Windows crap out. That's not because Windows self-destructs, but typically because the GRUB loader orders it to boot from wherever it is, whereas Windows only knows to boot from wherever it was. The result -- no Windows! -- can be a huge deterrent to the casual Linux user who thinks he can just install Ubuntu and keep Windows. Judging from some of the threads I've read, many a wannabe Linux user has been reduced to a sobbing "Mommy I want my Windows back!" status (something I suspect may perfectly well be intended by the Windows closed source narrative community).
To illustrate the nature of the problem (and this is assuming there are still any readers with me), if we return to my ten dollar salvage yard computer, once I was armed with a new 8 Gigabyte Compact Flash card I decided to do two things:
Perhaps I'm a glutton for punishment, but I managed to do both, and I feel duty-bound to report that adding Linux distros to the Windows hard drive was far more difficult than dealing with what should probably be called the flash-card-in-hard-drive-drag. The only difficulty I had with the flash card resulted from the Ubuntu GRUB2's failure to recognize Puppy as an operating system (something that would not have happened the other way around, btw) and insistence on booting Ubuntu without even showing the GRUB2 loader. I was able to fix this by booting into Puppy from a CD, then editing the GRUB2 "TIMEOUT" comment. Following that I installed Vector Linux on another partition, and thus I have a triple bootable "hard drive" made from flash memory. All three (Puppy, Ubuntu, and Vector) make the salvage yard computer run like a champ. (I had to add RAM for a few dollars, though, as the existing sticks were insufficient as well as error prone.)
Here's an inside view of the Compact Flash card impersonating a hard drive inside my computer:
The hard drive was much more complicated, because I wanted to make a full installation of Slackware (never an easy task -- especially when the machine has an NVDIA video card, as this one does), and I not only had to fight with the bad RAM, but I had to make room on the hard drive, which was complicated by the fact that this particular tyrannical and unconventional Windows installation dominated the entire drive in a most infuriating manner. It was divided into two logical drives, the first of which ("C") had Windows on it, and while the second ("D") at first appeared only to be a backup system, it actually was also the Windows boot drive, and could not be deleted, because it had NTDLR and boot.ini -- which XP has to have to start up. So, those two "drives" had to be left intact, with space created between them for new Linux partitions. Doing that and installing Linux OSes on them did not create Linux boot problems, as Quirky's easily configurable GRUB loader saw them with no problem, just as it saw Windows with no problem. However, just because the GRUB loader knows where Windows is does not mean that Windows knows where it is, and when I added new partitions between newly shrunken Windows partitions, the partitions' numbers changed. So, at bootup, the GRUB loader tells Windows to go find itself with this command:
find --set-root --ignore-floppies --ignore-cd /ntldrThat orders Windows to fire up its boot.ini file, but it does not change the information in the boot.ini file, which orders the Windows XP system (once in Partition 2, but now in Partition 4) to simply start itself up. So you have to edit the boot.ini, assuming you can figure out which partition Windows is now actually in. It gets crazy because the numbers are not what they might appear to be. In my case, the Windows system was now on Partition 4, but the boot.ini file ordered Windows to boot on Partition 2 -- where it no longer was. Worse yet, it appears to be on Partition 5 even though it is not! That is because when new partitions are added, they are assigned numbers in the order they are added regardless of their actual order on the drive. For those who have to have a picture, how the partitioned drive "looks":
What had been Windows drive C now says it's 5, looks like 2 and is actually 2, and what had been Windows drive D now looks like 5, says it's 2 but is actually 4. (The boot.ini is supposed to reflect what Windows "should" see under the newly reordered system, and had to be edited accordingly.) And of course, when dealing with hard drives with GRUB, you also have to remember that zero is one! Maddening.
Had I wiped the hard drive completely and started over, the whole thing would have been far less painful, but I just wanted to be able to keep an unwanted XP system alive. Not just so I could say I did, but to prove to my ultimate satisfaction that Windows is not in charge and does not "rule."
There is clear tension between Windows and Linux, and this touches on a political and philosophical issue that fascinates me, which is the tension between freedom and property.
I'll call it the Property Narrative versus the Open Source Narrative. And yes, there are many features about it that evoke that thing that I hate most of all, the Narrative Of All Narratives which we call the "Culture War." I don't think it's much of a stretch to observe that the "war" between closed and open source exhibits classic Culture War features. Yet fortunately, it does not divide itself neatly between "left" and "right," because when there is tension between property and freedom, it's tough to analyze that way. Moreover, some of my favorite right wing bloggers are Linux users (Clayton Cramer, for example).
What appeals to me about Linux is the idea that what is inside (and runs) your computer is not owned by someone else. Software is one of those gray areas between property and freedom, and the waters are further muddied by the fact that it's a form of speech. So, copyright law applies, and Microsoft and Apple are therefore fully justified in licensing and selling their software, as well as (as I must grudgingly admit), use the power of the police to thwart those who violate their property rights. This is problematic, though, especially when they want to go further, and insist on finding property rights in things which are embedded in Open Source software. Wars can result from such stuff, and it is wise for everyone to remember Hemingway's and MacArthur's warnings about "undefended wealth."
Moreover, when property rights are found in something, and those rights yield great profits, they can become expansionist and hegemonic, and greed can set in. When that happens, it is not always clear whether the hegemony was caused by a need for greater profits or by the philosophy that wealth has to be defended. Which is why a leading cause of the Civil War was not so much slavery per se, but its expansion into new territory. (As well as the obnoxious idea that free blacks were not free, but should be liable to become property.)
Geez, I'm getting off topic, as I only wanted to talk about installing Linux, which is completely harmless, right? And free! We all like freedom, right? No one wants to be a slave to some big company, right? Or is that sentiment akin to Communism? I hate to sound like a Commie just because I'm a Linux/Open Source lover, and I don't see why freedom has to come off sounding like Communism. All I want is the right to use this software without encroachment from the people who would argue that my right to use this software constitutes an encroachment. It's not as if I'm saying that private property is theft, but it's as if the closed source people want to say that free open source property is theft.
Hey, installing freedom* is a challenge.
* "Freedom to install" might sound more palatable. Even Friedmanesque.
UPDATE: Odd that I would be mentioning the Culture War in the context of Linux crossing the left/right divide, because a funny thing happened on my way to downloading Fedora. The Fedora download site was absolutely jammed solid, and after a half an hour I only had a measly 2% of a 654 Megabyte download, so I thought to check the Fedora mirror sites. I couldn't help seeing Liberty University (founded by Jerry "Blame The Homos" Falwell and home to leading anti-gay crusader Matt Barber) listed right there, with exactly what I wanted (the latest Fedora Live CD). It's not every day that Liberty University has exactly what I want, but this being Sunday, it occurred to me that Liberty U might not be one of the nation's leading Linux geek download sites and that I might get lucky. So I started the download and it just streamed right through -- at a screamingly fast rate of 20 minutes for the whole thing. I must give credit where credit is due. (Fortunately, it is not my responsibility to worry over whether Liberty and its servers violated the Sabbath -- or worse yet, helped enable a cultural degenerate like me who thinks Linux is cool because of some disgusting freedom fetish).
I'm telling you, it's creeping Cultural Marxism!
posted by Eric on 05.23.10 at 01:20 PM
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