My computer broke down

There are two types of people: those who make backups and those who will experience a system breakdown. Fortunately I was in the former category, but it was still a very tedious and stressful experience. Every problem is also an opportunity to grow and throw off dead weight, so I used the opportunity to upgrade the hardware and switch my operating system.

What happened

At some time in early October my computer froze while I was using it. Just a kernel panic I figured, an uncommon occurrence, but not big deal. Just reboot, right? Well, that's where the trouble began. I was not able to get a graphical session running, except for “safe mode”, whatever that might be. The problem: safe mode lacks hardware acceleration, so it might as well be a text-only mode.

I decided to just do a complete re-install of the OS since I did not feel like diagnosing the issue. After all, it had been running for a couple of years, and probably had a bunch of cruft accumulated from various PPAs and stuff. If only I had know the rabbit hole I was about to go down.

The first issue was that my Kubuntu USB drive would not boot, probably because of the same reason Kubuntu would not boot properly off my internal hard drive. Oh well, I have been wanting to switch to Void for quite a while, so I might as well do it now.

Enter the Void

Void is a rolling release minimal GNU/Linux distribution. That means all packages always contain very recent releases and it comes with the bare minimum of software out of the box. No graphical environment, just a TTY, a shell, the vi text editor and enough to hook you up to the network. (There are also flavours which come with complete desktop environments, but real men go for the pure TTY experience)

One thing I really like about Void is its documentation. You get a proper user manual instead of just a wiki. Installing Void was pretty straight-forward thanks to the manual. One must be able to use vi though, as that is the only editor installed by default, and thus the only way of editing text files.

My first problem was getting the WiFi working. For whatever mysterious reason my router's configuration did not play well with Void. Probably because it was still using WEP encryption which is almost as bad as no password at all. Why was I using WEP? I don't remember. Maybe WPA was hard to set up, maybe because I wanted to play the Nintendo DS online (which I did for a total of like five times). I just never bothered with changing the configuration.

Anyway, so I first had to change the WiFi settings of the router. But that requires a graphical web browser, so I had to somehow get my hands on another computer with a running GUI. After I did that I tried logging into my router interface, but for some reason the web interface was about as responsive as a dead snail, making it unusable. So I needed to get my hands on another router as well.

Eventually, after an entire day of fussing around with operating systems, USB drives and W-LAN routers, and with help from the friendly people on the Void IRC, I had the network connection working. My sunday was ruined, but from now on it would be smooth sailing. Just install Xorg, a nice desktop environment and slowly build up my old configuration.

Back to the toaster

I just could not get a graphical environment working. It was Monday already and my day was spent staring at a screen all day at work, then coming back home and staring at a screen (monochrome this time) for even more hours trying random tips from the internet to get graphics working. In the end I had to give up.

I suspect that either my graphics card or my mainboard were broken. The computer was quite old, so I decided I might as well take the opportunity and get complete upgrade. But of course I would not just go and buy a PC off the shelf, loaded with proprietary bloatware that might as well be malware at this point.

But what should I do in the meantime? I needed some kind of computer. That's when I remembered an old PC stashed in the basement. I dubbed it the toaster because it was small and pretty cheap even ten years ago. It even originally came with FreeDOS as its operating system. So here is what I did: I opened up the case, unplugged the S-ATA cables from its hard drive and optical drive, and hooked up the hard drives from my computer, leaving the case open and the cables dangling out there.

The best part: this Frankenstein hack-job worked really well. I got a graphical KDE Plasma environment running on Void and it was really smooth. By all conventional logic such an old computer, which was underpowered even when it was new, should have been junk. But there I was doing my everyday work without any issues. The only problem was the web. So-called modern web development is an atrocity, loaded with Javascript, trackers, advertising, client-side computation and whatever technological abuse some web-dev hipster could throw at it. It really makes you think, doesn't it? How many of our appliances could still be kept instead of being thrown out, if software did not keep getting more and more bloated.

Life in the Void

I have be honest: I don't really understand why people love Void so much. It's just a distro, I set it up, I configure it and then I use it. Perhaps that actually is the appeal of it. With Kubuntu it was all just magic, I inserted my bootable live USB drive, clicked a few buttons, and had a working OS. How does it work? What components are included? I don't know. On Void since I connected all the parts I know what is inside. I actually feel confident when editing a configuration file.

Void uses runit as its init system instead of the more common systemd. I could never figure out systemd, it did so many things at once. I was able to figure out runit in a few minutes because it re-uses what the OS already provides whenever possible. A startup script is just a shell file, a service is just a directory, and enabling a service just means symlinking the service directory. If you know how to use Unix you already know 90% of how to use runit.

And as I mentioned above, it has an actual user manual.

I think I have my new computer set up pretty well now and I have settled into Void. Knowledge of Unix is a prerequisite when not using one of the flavours, but you don't have be a systems administrator either. It is nice that I can now finally use recent software in a sane way instead of jumping through hoops or using crap like snaps and flatpaks. Maybe I will be able to contribute some packages of my own eventually.

My new computer

I had the choice between either building my own or having it custom-built for me. I chose the latter. The way I see it, having it custom-built was more expensive, but in return I get local customer support, I can just hop on my bike and have a technician look at it in person, I get a warranty for the entire machine, and I don't have to put up with a different retailer for every individual part. If I was still a student with less time than money I would have gone for the former, but age and time changes priorities.

An advantage of a custom computer is that I can choose to omit certain parts from the build. For example, my SDD was still quite new, and the optical drive was fine, so I just omitted those from the new configuration and salvaged them from the old computer.

Finishing thoughts

There were three main sources of stress: Uncertainty, the anxiety of missing out on something important (like an email), and the lack of time.

Uncertainty means I did not know what the problem was; if you do not know the problem, how can you know the solution? Is it a software issue? Did the hardware fail? If it is a software issue, then throwing out the old hardware and buying new one won't do you any good.

Fear of missing out could be alleviated by having a second computer or another device I could get work done on. Luckily the toaster was able to fill in that role eventually, but there are limits as to what it could do.

Lack of time is perhaps the biggest stress factor. If you have spare time you can calm down and investigate the problem in detail, search for a new device to buy, dig through stashes of spare parts... but if you don't have time then nothing can help you. Even money becomes useless because you still need time in order to make an informed purchasing decision. You can always get more money one way or another, but you can never get more time.