Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Battle With Windows

As I intimated a couple weeks back, I intended to get cuddly with Windows 7. I received in the mail a cheap copy thanks to my .edu email address, and was waiting for the right time to re-partition my hard drive and give it a spin.

Of course, these things are never simple. I knew there were some hangups going in - for one, if you're running anything other than Windows and you install it without first formatting your hard drive accordingly, it will eat your other Operating System(s). Windows doesn't like to coexist peacefully. Whereas Ubuntu, when you install it on a Windows machine, can actually reformat your drive for you as a part of the process (and in practically no time), I had to load a Debian Linux "Live CD" in order to partition the drive in preparation for Mr. Gates's latest baby.

That was a long process, but it went off without a hitch. My next step was to actually load Windows on the machine. Interestingly, Windows reboots during the installation, which threw me off. After installing the base operating system, but before installing hardware drivers and basic software, Windows needs a breather. Ubuntu does no such thing, of course, powering through from OS to hardware drivers to basic software to whatever else you need sans reboot. Only at the very end does Ubuntu need to gather itself.

That's not a big deal of course, but it did lead to an awkward moment where I almost started the whole installation process over (prompting another reboot so I didn't lose my progress). Eventually Windows was installed, and functional. And like the Puritans in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, the first thing we had to build in WindowsTown was the jail. That is, the virus checker.

I've been using Ubuntu for over a year now, so I had almost forgotten the whole anti-virus problem. Not only is a Linux virus much more difficult to make (for the same reason an OSX virus is more difficult: Unix is a better model than the registry), all the people who code the viruses probably use Linux in the first place,* so there's not really much of a threat. From my Windows days I recalled that AVG makes a decent free anti-virus program, so I loaded that, and then Windows let me go about my business.

* Or, alternatively, all the people who code the viruses work for McAffee and Norton, in which case a Linux virus isn't profitable. I know, a bit conspiracy-theoryish, but of all the outlandish conspiracy theories you hear, Norton-as-virus-maker is far from the most absurd.

Or, rather that was the plan. It turns out that the version of Windows I purchased was an upgrade version - a fact that Microsoft didn't exactly go out of their way to publicize - and so when I went to enter in my product key like a good little corporate citizen, it was rejected. Turns out I need a previous installation of Windows in order for my key to be valid. Something told me my Ubuntu partition wasn't going to cut it.

I still get to use Windows 7 for 30 days without a key (yippee?), but my purchase is essentially worthless to me (though I'm sure I have family willing to take the upgrade at least, so it won't be a total loss). As I considered my options - from trying to find a crack for the activation to a pirated key to simply paying for the full version, I decided I would take a step back and move onto the really tricky part of installing Windows on a Linux machine: recovering Linux.

Despite the separate partitions of my hard drive - one of which still contained my old, reliable Ubuntu - Windows completely destroys the boot-loading program (called GRUB) that comes with Ubuntu. As many Linux users say, Windows eats the GRUB.* Har-har.

*I should mention, though, that GRUB is a wonderful little program. For example, I was having some minor troubles with my wireless card after upgrading from Jaunty Jackalope to Karmic Koala (the two latest Ubuntu distributions), and GRUB made it easy for me to boot to an older Linux kernel without having to reinstall the OS. That allowed me to use my wireless card and find a fix for the newer kernel. That's like your Time Machine on OSX, or System Restore on Windows, only without actually rolling back your OS permanently (just for a boot cycle). Brilliant.

Only it's no laughing matter, because when you reboot, you boot directly to Windows, no passing go, no collecting $200. Nothing. In order to restore Ubuntu you have to actually load the OS from a CD - something Windows, I'll point out, is incapable of doing - and run through some complicated terminal-based nonsense to reinstall GRUB. Only that didn't go so well for me, because my GRUB was having a hard time finding my OSes. My next boot cycle took me to a text prompt shell for GRUB, which I really had no idea how to deal with.

So I booted back to my partitioning CD, played around, eventually wiped the Windows partition (because it was complicating matters) and restored the whole hard drive back to Linux control. The Imperial uprising had been squashed... by the rebels? Except Mr. GRUB was still unhappy. More surfing the web on my Palm - thank goodness for Internet on the phone - found a way to load my Linux kernel through the GRUB shell, and I finally found my way back to the promised land of Ubuntu, where I can safely repair my GRUB in a more user-friendly interface.

The moral of the story here is so simple no one cliche can adequately capture it. So here's three: Sometimes you just gotta dance with the girl that brung ya; don't change horses in the middle of a stream; if it ain't broke, don't fix it. If you dance with a broken horse in the middle of a stream, on the other hand...

I said it before and I'll say it again, Ubuntu is the best OS I've even used. The OpenSourceGods obviously were unhappy at my infidelity on this Friday night / Saturday morning, and punished me with a long and convoluted flight through Microsoft's house of proprietary mirrors and text-prompt Hell. But unlike Orpheus, I managed to bring my Eurydice back safely from the underworld, and despite two re-partitions, an install and uninstall of Windows, and more GRUB than I can stomach (am I right?), my original Ubuntu installation remains intact, undamaged, beautiful as the day it was born. And still faithful. "Never again, my dear," I said to it upon finally seeing the Karmic Koala splash screen at 2 in the morning, "Will I be led astray. We were meant for each other."

1 comment:

  1. Paul, I finally carved out a couple of hours to check out your blog. As Scott said back in September, "Write On"! My observation is that your blog posts are not as "heavy" as the email from the St. Johns era, and I mean that in a good way. Very enjoyable, and I will check back in from time to time. Congrats on the impending change in your marital status as well!