What Happened to my Laptop

For the people who wanted to know the chain of events causing the laptop problems in the last post:

  1. Safe search won’t disable, and login for regular Google services is broken.  I decide it’s a cookie conflict between Google services and file a bug report with Google.
  2. Google says “can’t reproduce”.  I discover that clearing private data doesn’t actually work right, and after some testing, go to file a bug with Firefox.  They ask for my version number.
  3. I notice my Firefox is out-of-date, and decide that it might be a quirk of this version of Firefox+Ubuntu.  I go to upgrade Firefox in Synaptic before filing the bug.  I don’t have the notifier running and haven’t updated in a while.
  4. I upgrade a package in Synaptic, but it turns out I just upgraded the meta package and not the actual package (or something.)  A more seasoned Synaptic user says “why not just run regular upgrades like a normal person?  It’ll fold Firefox into it.”  On any other day, this would have been good advice.
  5. I start the upgrade.  It’s churning along nicely, and I locate my cookies file and start examining it.
  6. My battery monitor disappears.  This is normal enough, actually.  I try to start it back up and get a notice about a broken configuration file.  Uh-oh.
  7. My nm-applet disappears.  That’s a little stranger, but neither applet is very reliable in my ion3 setup.
  8. At this point I find that my cookies file is malformed in some way, and that if I move it manually (rather than using the in-browser ‘delete cookies’) the original bug disappears.  Don’t know how that happened, but it’s solved, so I cancel the bug report with Mozilla.
  9. I go to edit the cookies file in emacs, and get a message that emacs can’t start.  Uh-oh.
  10. The upgrade fails with a bunch of package incompatibility messages.
  11. I start to feel alarmed.  I link an apt-guru friend a screenshot of a relevant part of my Synaptic window.  He says, “one of those version numbers looks wrong.  You’re running Hardy, right?”  I am.
  12. I open my sources.list (using nano, since emacs is broken.)  After a bunch of spaces at the bottom, I see something bad: A Debian repository.  I’m running Ubuntu.
  13. I don’t know how I added it.  Maybe I was on the wrong system and didn’t notice the prompt.  Maybe I was trying to install one specific package from Debian (via apt, for some reason) and forgot to take it out.  I honestly don’t remember.  But since I hadn’t updated in a while, it hadn’t come up.  But now I’m in trouble.
  14. I remove it, update my lists, and do a grep to see how many of my packages have upgraded to Debian versions.  750-1000 or so.  I paste the results back to some friends.  One of them looks, shakes her head, and says my system is like that guy in Star Trek after the transporter accident.
  15. Over the next few days, we try pinning packages back to the Hardy version and downgrading.  There are conflicts all over and lots of ninjinuity is required.  Sometimes the system won’t boot properly, claiming kernel module problems, which turns out to be because somewhere in this process my initramfs got misconfigured.  But eventually, everything is put back in working order (except, for some strange reason, gnuplot, which refuses to install the main binary file.  I compile it from source.)
  16. Watching the system boot successfully, I go to pour some milk and cereal in celebration.  I shake up the milk jug a little.  The lid is loose.  It spills all over the keyboard.  The system stops booting and the cycle of horror starts again.  (And yes, if I’d gotten a Lenovo when you all suggested it, I’d have a spill-proof keyboard with drains.  That’s my plan for the next time something horrible happens to my laptop, which should be any day now.)

152 thoughts on “What Happened to my Laptop

  1. “I remove it, update my lists, and do a grep to see how many of my packages have upgraded to Debian versions. 750-1000 or so.”

    How exactly did you do this? It sounds like something that would be useful. Is there an ‘aptitude show which-packages-came-from-where’ command?


  2. There are, like, four of you with horrible spilling on your computer stories, which is weird to me. My macbook has fallen off of my kitchen counter and out of my bike basket while it was moving and I’ve spilled boxed wine on it (trying to put some in a water bottle and missed the opening for about 20 seconds before I realised) and the worst problem is some dots on the corner of the screen. I feel like my computer is a small tank.

    (Now that I’ve been all pleased with myself, something awful will happen today and cause my laptop to catch on fire or something…)


  3. You could always buy a notebook from a company that offers support for the OS your running. For example, stop using Ubuntu and buy a MacBook, if anything goes wrong you could just stop by your local genius bar.


  4. Eeek! #16, stay away from Lenovo T61 series. Shitty support and drivers, contantly crashing and everything no matter what OS is used…. ugh so tired of this damn laptop.


  5. I have a Lenovo, bought it this summer.

    I am currently using a wireless keyboard because even Lenovos are not immune to spilled milk. My t and y keys, as well as backspace and a few more, are no longer functional.

    When I first spilled it, the effects were random and strange. Multiple keystrokes from different keys from a single press, etc.


  6. A couple of tricks with apt config if you get into this problem again. If you pin the release you are aiming for (Hardy in this case) to >1000 then apt will auto-downgrade to that release. apt-get -f install / apt-get dist-upgrade _should_ then downgrade everything that got accidentally upgraded.

    If you do ever want to install things from another repo, what I really do recommend is pinnig the whole release low (normally you’d pin Hardy to 700 and then Debian etc to 500) and then you can explicitly install packages by version (apt-get install package=version) or repo (apt-get install package/repo or apt-get install -t repo package). 500 will allow packages which are only available in Debian to be installed automatically. If you pin to below 100 then you always have to explicitly install them.

    You can then pin individual packages higher.


  7. Eek!

    *Goes to remove Debian source from apt-get and Synaptic *

    I added them so I could download the library that MIT Scheme requries… It’s buggered in the Ubuntu repositories.


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  9. My T61 tank survives USB-dongle-bending falls to the ground just fine, an also doesn’t catch fire when left on for a couple of hours in a backpack. I haven’t tried spilling anything on it yet.

    Ian, I don’t know what you’re talking about. What crashes, what unsupported drivers? Did you get the model with NVidia video? That would explain it, I guess.


  10. I used to tell a similar story about how back in 1998 Linux killed my monitor. I’ve forgotten the details, but I know I was upgrading to Corel’s newest release to fix a bug in whatever distro I was running, but they required a newer VESA-compliant video card to run a 5-second animation in the installer (grrr), and through some miscommunication between me, the new video card and the plug-and-play monitor, the sync rates got mixed up and when it tried to test the monitor, a small puff of black smoke came out the back and the screen never turned on again. Later it ate my hard drive. Sigh.

    For all that I love to mock Microsoft, they do a pretty good job of making software that works for just about everybody. But since that’s impossible, I’m now a Mac fan. Small pool of software, small pool of hardware – everything works. I do miss the Linux community though.


  11. This is disappointing. All this stuff could have been avoided. I’ve never spilled anything on a computer (except for hair on keyboards), and the most recent time I ever knew anyone intelligent mess up their packages was when a friend tried to upgrade Debian during a thunderstorm. As a direct result, that system is no longer running Debian. Rules:

    1. Plug in your computer when upgrading critical components. Use a UPS if it’s a desktop, or at least don’t do it during thunderstorms. If you must do anything (non-critical) during a thunderstorm, remount sync. Yes, that’ll hurt your compile performance. Maybe link important packages statically, if that’s an option and you’re paranoid. I know I keep a statically-linked copy of e2fsck around.

    2. Use a distro that has a better-designed package management system. You may even learn what most of the packages do, which is nice to know. I routinely had trouble with packages on Debian, as well as RH-derived systems before that, with “trouble” meaning reinstalling. I’ve gone strictly Gentoo on my Linux boxes for the last few years, and never had anything I can’t fix. You don’t want to fix package problems? Make routine backups or use a different OS (one that doesn’t really upgrade, but, rather, makes you reinstall every 6-12 months anyway…gee). Back up the stuff that took you the most time to configure, be it Xorg.conf or whatever; many small files can be painful to lose.

    3. To Marty: why does failing to load X make your system a “brick”? If that’s really so, you should boot to the console, perhaps by default. X wasn’t always so easy to set up. Remembering the command “startx &” is not hard, and you can get started on work faster if you don’t wait for your favorite window manager every time you boot, anyway. Even FVWM2 takes an aggravating amount of time to load on an old P4 I’ve got laying around.

    4. Certainly don’t eat near your computer. Try not to drink there, either. Particularly alcohol. That’s asking for trouble. I’ll refrain from any “cup-holder” jokes. If you happen to be doing this in your room (where most of *my* computers usually are), your mother probably told you you shouldn’t be eating there anyway. If it only took you 5-10 minutes to eat, you wouldn’t feel the need to program/surf/whatever simultaneously anyway. Sorry if this one sounds particularly harsh, but it already annoys me that my roommate eats in his room, so I’m taking it out on the faithful readers here. 🙂

    In retaliation for my post, I’ll probably lose something important today, but I’ll enjoy this while it lasts…


  12. Another vote for Gentoo here 🙂 Haven’t had any major problems since I installed it this time around (last time was like five years ago, and it was rough).


  13. Ubuntu/Debian tip:
    For best reliability, don’t use the GUI package managers like Synaptic. Go to console mode and use apt-get or aptitude.
    And don’t try to do anything else while it’s running.


  14. another vote for gentoo, here. With the exception of the laptop I’m typing on (been too lazy to argue with Vista so I can dualboot on it) every machine I own or have owned in the past 5 or 6 years uses gentoo. Once you take the time to learn the system, it’s easy and simple to manage. Yes it requires work and patience, but anything that is expensive or even performance critical deserves it. Portage is a sheer dream and manages your packages almost flawlessly. It even warns you if anything needs to be taken care of anytime you use emerge for anything after a fairly recent emerge –sync .
    I could suggest LFS as a joke, here, on that note, but certain people take it seriously. (So do I actually, but I have a sense of humor. 😉 )


  15. “Ninjinuity”

    “Ninja” is Japanese for a soldier with the equivalent of special-ops training

    “Ninjin,” on the other hand, is Japanese for carrot.


  16. Remembers me on my old time with Windows 3.11/Win 95/98. I think it was 10 years ago.


  17. I had a MacBook but it had one glitch after another (the first battery wouldn’t charge, the screen had jittery lines over it after it restored from sleep) so I returned it and got my money back.


  18. Wait, people are recommending Macs? OS X does everything wrong that a Unix-like OS ever could, is tightly locked-down, and proprietary to an extreme. Mac hardware is low quality, overpriced, filled with proprietary crap, and just not a good idea to buy.


  19. I’ve noticed lots of weird behavior if you try to do stuff during an update. Once while I was updating Firefox, the current instance of Firefox lost its ability to search, and dialog boxes opened with no content and in minuscule dimensions. All this went away when I restarted.

    It’s not usually necessary to restart anything because of updates, but sometimes it helps.


  20. I love how Linux fans have the same answers for every problem:

    * Switch distros!
    * Use the command line, foo!
    * Get different hardware!

    You guys never change. 🙂

    Again: I love Linux, and I miss it, but I don’t miss dealing with the sytem administration any more than I miss dealing with malware on Windows.


  21. Two words: disk imaging

    From time to time I do the following:

    1. buy a new hard disk
    2. make a full backup
    3. take out the old disk, and put it in a safe place
    4. put in the new disk and do a bare-metal restore

    If this works, I have a new disk running AND the old disk represents a know-working emergency boot disk. If the restore fails to make the new disk bootable, then I know I had better fix the problem with my backup BEFORE it’s needed for real.


  22. I don’t feel *quite* so bad about *accidentally* running ‘sudo chmod -r 777 /’ for several seconds before noticing my horrible mistake. That is NOT fun to try to recover from.


  23. I had a similar problem with an X update gone wrong.

    X decided it needed to know which of my video cards was connected to a monitor or else it would throw a fit. This meant that after updating one day and turning off my computer I got it back on and was met with the disappointment of a terminal emulator. It took a week and the installation of naim and lynx to get my computer back on its feet. KDE still ran funny for weeks.


  24. We all hate Windows more or less. I figured out that when using Linux, it’s your fault when something won’t work or will crash, so I decided to buy a Macintosh instead and blame Apple for all the faults 🙂 Problem solved!


  25. Yeah, I’m gonna get flamed, but:

    I have no such problems with my Vista box. I want new software, I install it. It works. No farting around with conflict-this and upgrade-that-module.


  26. And that’s why I loathe GNOME and all the rest of it. X11 with WindowMaker is all I need. And a few days to tweak standby/resume/wifi scripts.

    Seemingly for no reason I was thinking that I wanted to watch the Matrix trilogy again… and the I read today’s comic 🙂 thanks for remembering 😉


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  28. @commandar:

    >> Gentoo? To save time on package administration?

    Neither of us ever said a word about saving time. Please read.

    But I will say it now. It DOES save *administrator* time. It may not save *CPU/IO* time, but that’s what computers are for…doing boring stuff for you while you do other things. When stuff works, but takes awhile, *I* can work on a paper or something in the meantime (maybe with an SSH terminal on another screen to keep an eye on if I’m paranoid). When stuff routinely breaks, as I see posts about time and again here with these prebuilt packages, *you* have to spend time fumbling around, changing repositories, etc., AND it doesn’t give you as much opportunity to learn what it all does so that you know when something critical is about to be changed.

    Even if you don’t agree with my reasoning, the results speak.


    You really shouldn’t mix drugs (or do them period…), so please wait until you’re off the first one before you do “it TOO”.


  29. @Jemaleddin

    Comparing package management with malware is a bit silly. Package management failures are usually either the user’s fault, the maintainer’s fault, or someone who “admins” the distribution’s fault. Malware is the fault of someone who shouldn’t even be involved. But I think you know that.

    >> don’t miss dealing with the sytem administration

    I would have said the same thing a couple years ago, but for two problems:

    1) I hated doing the sysadmin stuff on other distros

    2) I used to love MS, until they went down the Trusted Computing tube. I didn’t particularly care about all the anti-competitive stuff people got worked up about, though I’m not saying I was right or wrong. I may only be delaying the inevitable by using their products less, but I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

    @LoneMarauder :

    >> I have no such problems with my Vista box. I want new software, I install it. It works. No farting around with conflict-this and upgrade-that-module.

    Good, if you like it. The reason is that service packs have no granularity. They were tested as a whole. Hotfixes are meant to be applied in order, so even that granularity is a bit fake, somewhat analogous to incremental backups.

    It’s generally not recommended (though MS offers the option) to upgrade between Windows versions, and most people will wind up wiping their Windows box every 6 mo to a couple years, even if they’re putting the same version back on. I know I did it occasionally with 2000 (to be fair, it was probably the fault of other SW vendors), before finally putting XP on last September. (Incidentally, I have yet to need any “feature” of XP that wasn’t in 2000, but I digress.) I do keep Windows around, and it has its pros and cons.

    I don’t remember the details about moving between different “versions” of Debian (sarge, etc.), but, for those who do, was it as bad as moving between different versions of Windows?


  30. @Michael

    I agree that Gentoo is very good at package management, and is a very reliable OS. I migrated away from it over the past few years due to the internal issues and questions about its future, as well as some of the lag they had for a while in package versions (also seen in Debian, unfortunately.) But claiming that someone would need to use a system with “better package management” than Ubuntu is a little funny, because you’re really just trying to say “use Gentoo.” Apt works great, the Ubuntu repositories are *generally* well maintained, and I would argue that it has the best overall package management out there for pre-compiled binaries. In my opinion, it handles dependencies even better then Gentoo. You can break the package management in any Linux distro, and for a laptop or casual desktop, waiting for Gentoo packages to finish installing is overkill.

    @Rob Funk
    I’m surprised you should say that considering I’ve never had trouble with using Synaptic. I use apt-get more often because at work I administer 15 or so Ubuntu servers, but I’ve really had no qualms with Synaptic and use it on my home machines all the time. It’s really the first pm GUI that I’ve ever liked. I even install it in Kubuntu, because the pm GUI that comes with it sucks. I will concede that it is not a good idea to do a complete version upgrade via synaptic (e.g. 8.04 – 8.10). Better to stick with the CLI for that.


  31. I find “shaking of the milk jug” behavior peculiar. This is usually reserved for those folks who spent a significant amount of time living on a farm. When you take milk directly from the bulk tank it has all the creamy goodness still in it. As the milk sits in the fridge, the cream separates out and sits on the top. A seasoned farmer will shake the pitcher after retrieving the milk from the fridge every time to ensure they don’t get a glass full of heavy cream.

    Store bought milk doesn’t suffer from this problem (Vitamin D or whole milk maybe…). So why are you shaking the jug? Is there dairy farming in your history that we don’t know about? Is this what you were trying to clear from your browser history?


  32. I once discovered by hazard something that can fix whatever problem u have with packages in the world

    i once updated my “libc6” package to a newer unstable version to test some sort of new software, and then it didn’t work, and when i removed it to install the older one, i found out that i had to nearly remove 90% of my ubuntu packages with it, and then reinstall them with libc6 to be configured with

    it was a pain in the ass, but however,, next tiemn your packages get messy, remove libc6 and reinstall it with everything…


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