Zen and the Art of Linux Maintenance

As I sat watching the Ubuntu upgrade work its way through the packages, at some point the computer became unresonsive to mouse clicks. I ended up having to do a hot shutdown in the middle. As you might imagine, this completely and utterly hosed my Linux partition.

You might wonder why I keep banging my head against the wall of Linux, despite my rantings about it. So did I. As I sat starting at the kernel panic message, however, I realized something:

As much as I complain, part of me enjoys putting up with this stupid operating system, even though it long ago exausted its utility by causing me to spend so much of my time that it was no longer worth any amount of avoided software cost.

As an engineer, I like to tinker and fix things, and Linux gave me the opportunity (or rather, forced me) to delve into the workings of the OS in order to manage it. Linux provided me with the illusion of feeling useful and productive on a regular basis as it required me to put my knowledge to work fixing the never ending litany of problems.

But as I sat looking at a hosed partition, I had the embarassed, hollow feeling that I’d really wasted an extraordinary amount of time focused on my computer as an object of inherent interest, as opposed to an expedient for actual useful work. My linux machine had become a reflexive endevour, largely existing for its own purpose, like a little bonsai garden that I tended to with wearing patience.

And now what do I have for it? I have some profoundly uninteresting knowledge of the particulars of one operating system, and a munged disk that’s about as practically useful as a bonsai tree. (Yes, my actuall work is backed up, but it’s never trivial getting everything exactly the way you had it with a new system install, no matter how much you backed up.)

This was all good, though, because it ripped from my hands something I didn’t have the good sense to throw away. Rather than huddle down with an install CD and try to fix my little Linux partition, I just let it go and started to get back to work, actual work in the outside world, using Windows.*

It feels good. I’m done with operating systems as a hobby, tired of indulging technology for its own sake. One must not get too attached to things.

*I’m not trying to insult OS X, which I think is probably better than Windows. I just don’t have a Mac at work. (I can only fight one holy war at a time.)

17 responses to “Zen and the Art of Linux Maintenance”

  1. Uh, John, did you bother to verify the integrity of the install disk before you installed the operating system?

    The nice thing about Ubuntu is once you getting it working after alot of hassle, its solid and secure. Windows requires just as much hassle and will never be stable or secure.

    • Very good question, Pete. No, I didn’t bother to do that, and I should’ve. Fortunately, it turns out that wasn’t the problem, or I would feel really stupid. (I later used the same disk to do a successful clean install.)

      I disagree that Windows is as much hassle or less stable. I suppose it comes down to anecdote, but Windows goes through far more testing and has far more resources to be used for development, and in my experience they get something for it. I’ve never had a Windows install go badly. Never had Windows get corrupted to the point where things wouldn’t start.

      In some ways, Linux is pretty cool, because you can really tweak things. In some ways, it’s a terrible idea, because you can really tweak things. I actually like Linux, but I don’t think using it to save money is a good idea. I like actually doing things with a computer, not to it, and in my experience you get a lot more done with Windows or OS X, partly because there is actually software available for it. If you could get a better product by not paying people to build it, I’d be really surprised, and a bit worried about my job prospects.

  2. Unless you actually verified the disk how do you know the second install was “clean”?

    As far as thinking Windows is more stable than Linux, that is completely insane. Linux systems routinely run for years without needing a reboot. I had a Unix sparc-station at Tech which was never rebooted in the 4 years I was there.

    “Paying people” in no guarantee of results either. If it were, Fannie Mae would be one of soundest financial institutions in America.

    It has been my experience that hackers are the best engineers.

    • Because it worked. Even with a verified disk, how do you know the actual read from the disk at the time of install is without error? There are checksums in the packages, and on in the raw data on the disk to begin with. The point of verifying the disk is to avoid problems ahead of time if the disk is written badly, and to make sure you don’t have a tampered version. Mostly the latter.

      Windows is based on UNIX, too. VMS, I believe. Windows can go forever these days, too. And Linux and SunOS don’t share a shred of kernel code in common, so that’s a meaningless comparison. The question is how long you can run desktop Linux without some component of Gnome going to shit. (Same with Windows, too, but at least when parts of Windows die, they are smart enough to restart themselves.)

      I agree paying financial weenies doesn’t matter. They’ll fuck up either way. But paying engineers for their time is often the only way to get them to do something boring like actually properly test an install script. Linux has brilliant elements, but its development is marked by nearly zero discipline.

    • Now that you’ve had some more time to play with the open source golden boy, still think Linux is so stable? How often do you have to restart the machine to get sound working again? Notice GNOME starting to get flakey after a few days of uptime. Here at, Micr…where I work, we have a saying “Linux doesn’t crash, it just approaches zero speed asymptotically.” Windows crashes like a real man. It goes strong up until the moment it explodes.

    • “Because it worked.”

      NO No no.

      I give you good reasons why an error-free install is sufficient verification (e.g. checksums on the packages) and you quote “Because it worked?” My conclusion was entirely consistent with the reasons I gave. Do you have any information to the contrary? I’d like to know, because I always assumed errors would be detected, at the very least, during install.

      Windows is based on UNIX, too

      Have you completely lost your mind?

      Nope. The initial design of Windows NT was based on DEC’s VMS (written by the same group), and VMS was a bastard stepchild of UNIX. With Windows XP, all Microsoft consumer operating systems are based on Windows NT. True there’s not a shred of AT&T code in Windows, but neither is there any in linux. Both operating systems have rock solid kernels built on the UNIX model, though. Windows does a lot of high level stuff wrong, but their low level stuff is damn good. A lot of people in the FOSS community spend their time creating free versions of Microsoft products, like Office and .NET. Nobody argues Microsoft doesn’t do a lot right, they just hate the company and have an ideological problem with paying for software.

  3. Ubuntu appeals to me and I have run some decent installs of it on laptops over the years but after an 8.0 installation didn’t agree with my fairly standard 2005-era IBM Intel computer I decided to give up on it altogether for a few years.

    I don’t care what an OS is based on – it’s not my problem, I don’t ever use the command line for anything, and all I am doing is checking email and making music recordings and facebooking and such. I just need something that stays on, doesn’t crash much, plays well with peripherals, etc. Hence I am now fully committed to XP pro, and done with the tinkering w/Ubuntu phase until further notice.

    • Thanks for writing, Andy. I would’ve responded sooner, but I spent the last two days trying to fix networking on Ubuntu. (I’m writing this from Vista.) I agree with your focus on what you can do versus what you’re doing it on.

      Focusing on the OS seems like a good way to waste a lot of time. Which I have. But I’ve repented. Unfortunately, I keep feeling compelled to try Linux because MIT makes some software site licenses only available on Linux. Also, I suffer from a bad case of engineering OCD, which means when something breaks, I have to try to fix it. So Linux is like a bad drug, except without all the productivity.

  4. I’ve actually used VMS while working on VAXs….can’t say it reminds me of Windows.

    I think your argument that Window is Unix based because it was VMS influenced which in turn was Unix influenced is a bit of a stretch.

    Out of curiousity and engineering OCD run the Ubuntu verification and see what it says.

    • I agree Windows looks nothing like VMS, or UNIX for that matter. I was just talking about the kernel, which is actually pretty well done. Everything on top of that is pure shit, I agree.

      Unfortunately, I chucked the install disk after I used it. I would’ve been interested to see the results of the test, too.

  5. Hi Jon,

    Okay. After working through all the comments, I see that someone has pointed out that BSODs are mostly a thing of the past in Windows computing. And I very rarely reboot my Vista machine. I’d say I reboot about every other month and that’s usually becuase I’ve installed some update or application.

    I have an email correspondent that I periodically spar with about Macs. It’s not Macs per se that I have a problem with, it’s the cult-like attitude of the people that buy Apple/Mac products. That being said, I wouldn’t mind trying a version of OS X for the PC. If it really is so much better, and ‘just works’ like so many culti – er, users claim, let the Cupertino boys try engineering it for the massive hardware base that Windows is compatible with.


    • That’s not entirely fair! If part of the reason Macs are reliable is that Apple made a business choice to control both hardware and software, you have to give them credit for that. It’s like saying “Well, sure Windows sucks, but Microsoft made the poor decision to support an infinite combination of hardware so you have to spot them some points for being stupid and trying the impossible.” Sure, I’m impressed, but I’m not going to buy it.

  6. Hi Jonathan, I was looking on Google for some opinions on MASOCHISM and LINUX. Reading your post I can only say: I share your opinion.

    I was hardly able to finish any decent work or major tasks on my Ubuntu install. It still exists, it works, and I might get back to it one day. But I never was able to maintain an advanced system state like in windows – with all the plugins, media software, flash- and mp3 codecs, etc.

    I will continue booting into Ubuntu every other day. But right now I just enjoy the benefits of commercial software.

  7. This is great. Before I even read past the first sentence, I just want to say, I came upon this site as the first result in Google upon typing ‘installing linux is masochistic’; something that has been playing on my mind to some small degree ever since I quit trying and tweaking endlessley almost every distro available, and not coming coming close to the the raw performance and ease of use Windows 8 provides. Linux users are the classic example of being part of a scene for the sake of it, or as some badge that is meant to mean something important. Join Greenpeace or something and put an OS back on your computer that works. The 80$ or whatever Windows 8 costs is nothing compared to the 20 hours you will spend configuring almost any distro to do even the event the simplest of things. And even if you do get close to getting it to function nicely, OOPS, large file transfers take 10 hours each, a glaring fundamental problem that no one is looking to fix. I feel better.

  8. I have been tinkering with the concept that Linux is a conspiracy concocted by IT specialists to ensure computers mainly remain broken to ensure a a future income/position of respect in society, in an emerging age where computers are becoming so easy to use that fixing them is/has become more of a blue collar occupation.

    Talking to some of the moderators in chat support for the likes of sabayon/gentoo, Archlinux, I intuited the great and wearied regret, the resign of savage battle-worn warriors, who’s self worth is very much linked to being able to have a well-running linux distibution, something a kin to having a solid understanding of quantum physics.

    End rant.

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