Trust in the Age of Automated Machinery

What's the point of having a blog if you can't embarrass yourself in public with it?

This morning, I turned on my laptop — just to check the weather and pay a bill, nothing special. I'd used it last night to read the news and catch up on blog-reading, and I'd installed one update, but nothing untoward happened, and everything shut down fine.

Startup was not going fine.

The hardware check would go okay, GRUB (a thing that manages booting in Linux desktops) would start alll right, I saw a message saying that my kernel (the core part of the operating system) was "alive" and starting up... and then the screen would go black, the hard drive light would stay on, and... nothing.

No problem, I thought, maybe it's just doing a hard drive check. I'll wait a few more minutes, and then I'll reboot if there's still nothing happening.

Nothing happened. I powered down, waited a few seconds, and then tried again.

Same thing. So I tried again.

Same thing.

This is when the low-grade panic set in. I'm still organising my stuff in my new apartment, and I have no idea where my emergency recovery CD is. Sure, if I were desperate I could plug in my old desktop machine and burn an emergency CD on that. Once I found its power cord and my blank CDs, anyhow.

I decided to do what I always do in cases like this, which is houseclean for fifteen minutes. The washroom reeks of bleach even now, but hey, those mildew stains are fading away very nicely.

While I was rinsing off the grout around the bathtub, I thought about the laptop. Although a dying hard drive couldn't be entirely ruled out, it didn't act or sound like it to me. A dying operating system was more likely. I've used Slackware, Red Hat, and Ubuntu, and have never had an installation fail unless I deliberately did something stupid and destructive to it, so this seemed unlikely, but it was possible. Maybe that update I ran the night before had thrown something out of whack.

Right, back to the computer. GRUB has an option when it is starting up whereby you can press the Escape key to make a bootup option menu appear. I chose "recovery mode" for the latest kernel version.

What "recovery mode" does is show you all of the messages from the various hardware checks, daemons, services, and whatnot as the operating system loads up — everything that happens before you see the screen to log in. Normally these go by too quickly to pay attention to, and besides, who cares if nothing is going wrong?

I watched the messages go by. I didn't understand them all, but they all ended with "OK", which was a good sign.

Then a message came up saying, "System started more than 35 times without a hard drive check", which forces one to happen. I know Ubuntu does this, so that was fine. Hard drives are the only essential moving part on a computer (not counting the power button), and they tend to die faster than other components. It's a good idea to have them checked regularly.

This hard drive check took about five minutes, but was successful. Then GRUB asked me how I'd like to proceed. I decided to do a normal boot, since nothing had come back with an error message.

And then everything started up fine — no changes, no heroic measures.

Diagnosis: The machine would have started up fine before if its owner hadn't kept panicking and shutting if off before the hard drive check had a chance to finish.

Moral of the story: When in doubt, use "recovery mode" for reassurance.

Real moral of the story: Using Linux after Windows is like being in a good relationship after a bad one — you have to learn how to trust all over again without hurting the other party. I mean, I was ready to do a data rescue followed by a completely new installation, just because everything was working the way it should be.

Really real moral of the story: I need to lay off the caffeine and relax already.