Reinstalling Ubuntu, Repeatedly: A Field Guide

So, you’re sick of commercial operating systems.  It could be you’ve realized that Steve Jobs is evil, or that Steve Ballmer is insane, or maybe you’ve just decided you need something to feel self-righteous about.  Well, fortunately, Ubuntu is there for you.  And, despite the best efforts of open-source nerds to alienate everybody but themselves, Ubuntu is actually a usable alternative for the common man.  There’s just some stuff you’re going to have to deal with first, that you thought you were done with when adventure games died and the ’90s ended.

Part The First: Going Back In Time

To best understand the Ubuntu experience, you need to close your eyes. Imagine a time when grunge was just starting to take off, irony wasn’t a cultural condiment sprayed all over everything, and CGI was still terrible.  Yes, I am asking you to remember 1994.  Because when you install Ubuntu, you will suddenly, in a few important respects, be computing as if Ace of Base were still hitmakers and anybody cared about Jerry Seinfeld.

The most basic difference is that Ubuntu is a lot like Windows 3.1; it’s a command-line interface with a cuddly graphical interface fitted over it, kind of like those little finger condoms the doctor uses fitted over a gnarled, hideous finger.  Granted, Ubuntu is a lot more stable than Windows 3.1, which isn’t saying much since your grandma after a fifth of scotch is more stable than your average ’90s Microsoft product, but the principle still applies.

You’ll also have to get used to knowing exactly what you have on your computer and attached to it, right down to the serial numbers, and making sure there’s a driver for it.  This is way less of a problem ever since both Windows and Mac OS just became different flavors of Unix, and enough people joined the Ubuntu cause to write drivers for all the popular devices out there, but you still occasionally slam into this problem like it’s a Jersey barrier.  For example, I can’t use OpenBSD because, for some reason, there’s no driver in it supporting my wireless card.  Sure, some hippie will write the damn thing, eventually, but until then, I’m screwed.

We take it back, it’s less like computing in 1994 and more like buying a printer at any point in human history.

Part The Second: Choosing the Distro

Ubuntu and Linux come in many distributions, called distros because apparently nobody can be bothered to type out a word anymore.  There are many distros to choose from, but I’ll just save you some time here and tell you what to get: Ubuntu.  From the Ubuntu site.  Seriously.  Don’t even waste your time with anything else.

To explain why, precisely, I should explain what happened during my first attempt at installing Ubuntu, using the custom distro Easy Peasy.  I owned a netbook with XP at the time, and was forced to wipe it after getting Vundo, which is a virus seemingly created on the principle of seeing what would happen if a computer virus decided AIDS  was its role model.  I needed a new OS, and Easy Peasy was Ubuntu designed for netbooks.  Perfect, right?

Well, except for a few small flaws.  Like when I finished installing the OS and did something incredibly stupid: downloaded and installed the updates I was prompted to install, which broke the machine.

It was at this point I discovered Easy Peasy’s documentation consisted of a half-completed wiki and a lot of forum complaints ultimately answered in a snide, condescending way.  I reinstalled the system and studiously avoided upgrading, and everything was fine until the day I accidentally unchecked a box from the wireless menu and apparently stranded my machine on a desert island, unable to reach the networks it could see.

It took hours of research, not helped by the Easy Peasy site crashing, until I discovered what was wrong.  By unchecking a box, in the graphical interface, at the top level, far, far away from the inner workings of my computer…I had shut off a major chunk of programming that allowed me to access wireless networks, and to get it working again, I’d have to actually go in and monkey with the code.

Instead I installed Ubuntu 10.  It’s worked perfectly ever since.  That was a month ago; I’m sure the other shoe will drop next week.

Part The Third: Computer Troubleshooting as a Text Adventure Game

Remember text adventure games?  Where you told the computer “travel five steps north” or “look west”, and it told you what happened, usually your violent death, in text?  That’s what solving Ubuntu problems is like, something a close friend with advanced degrees in computer science told me once he was done laughing at me for installing Ubuntu.

Ubuntu’s documentation leaves a lot to be desired, as it was apparently written by people who write even their erotica in technical jargon (“He carefully fitted his 2.5Ghz GPU into her motherboard’s graphics slot and upgraded her RAM”, that kind of thing), but one thing that is helpfully clear is the commands you’ll need to type into your computer to fix whatever has gone horribly, horribly awry.  Because something will.  It’s lurking, waiting for exactly the right time to strike, just like your printer.

Yes, Ubuntu documentation provides the commands.  Which you will type.  And type.  And retype.

The problem with any computer is that it’ll only do what you tell it, so they have to demand precision.  It means you’ll be able to solve your problems yourself for once, but it also means that you will learn just why your IT department hates you.

Part the Fourth: Dealing With Knockoffs

For every popular, successful program, there is a knockoff for Ubuntu programmed by somebody who elevates their pet peeves to the status of religious dogma or has to break the program to distribute it without getting sued.  For example, Ubuntu’s default music player, Rhythmbox, was obviously designed by somebody who enjoys frames and resents iTunes for not having them:

I’ll give you a minute to laugh at my taste in music.

We good?  OK.  You see my point, though: that’s an agonizingly clunky interface.  You can get a smoother look, but that really is the default.  Pick on Apple all you want, their sense of design can be sorely missed when it goes away.  This is like Windows Media Player had a kid with iTunes,and dropped it on its head.

And every single Ubuntu program is like this.  Sure, you can download emulators like Wine and use the real programs, but for, say, music, that’s a huge pain in the ass.  So generally  you’re stuck with the hillbilly cousin of the program you want.

Part of this is just that open-source programs don’t have teams of designers to make everything pretty, but still, there are times when you wish they would, or at least get their significant others to offer some opinions.  Which leads to the ultimate point…

Part the Fifth: Ubuntu Doesn’t Need You, Doesn’t Like You, and Doesn’t Care If You Leave

The key difference between commercial OSes and Ubuntu is that commercial OSes want to make you happy.  Apple wants to appeal to your sense of style and make even the most abstract and scary computing process simple and painless, mostly by taking control out of the user’s hands, which enrages the kind of nerd who’d never buy an Apple product anyway, so Apple ignores them.  Microsoft just wants you to keep buying computers with Windows on them so they can keep collecting license fees and maybe squeeze an upgrade out of you before your Dell craps the bed.

Ubuntu doesn’t care.  This has its advantages in that you will never, ever, ever receive an email trying to upsell you, or receive an Ubuntu system bloated with crapware.  But the big disadvantage is that Ubuntu has, only begrudgingly, become “user-friendly” and is still infested with the kind of holier-than-thou douchebags who gave open-source a bad name in the first place.

Part of it is the documentation, which starts at “terrible” and goes downhill from there.  To be fair, Ubuntu has gotten much better: as mentioned before, the commands are right there, in plaintext, for you to type in, and it helps that after ten iterations they’ve gotten the usability thing down.

But it doesn’t want your money.  If you quit and get Windows, it’s not going to beg you to come back.  It’ll just ignore you.

And maybe that’s OK.  It’s nice to have an OS that doesn’t bug you constantly.  Although it wouldn’t kill all the smug nerds to spend a little more energy rewriting that documentation, instead of whining about other OSes.  We’re just sayin’.