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Date of review: 07-April-2000
Type Of Review: Articles/Editorials
It was the break before the exams -- March 1996. The $50/- I had paid Xinwei for the authentic commercial boxed set Linux was to be tried and tested for returns.
It was shipped direct from the US by FedEx. Xinwei had paid his own money for the entire shipment -- in excess of $2500/-. The University's procedure took too much red tape for a volunteer organization to be able to afford. Getting the latest versions to the local community was time-critical, and Xinwei was building a reputation for doing that.
(I did not know it then, but over the next year and a half, I was to serve Xinwei's function. After that I would begin to redefine my own role in the scheme of things, for the next 2 1/2 years.)
I was in the privacy of my hostel room. Here I could do anything, at any hour, any way I wanted. Here was my playground, my bed, my study place. Here was my solace from the wear and tear of a hyperactive hostel existence. Here was to be the place I would learn more about an operating system than I ever knew existed.
(Alright, to be precise, the place was not just "here", but here, there, over there, and again over at the other end. I was eventually to shift residence six times during my four year stint at the hostel (twice due to building maintenance works).)
In the floppy went. Disk error. Shit. Blame it on the humidity. In the CDROM went. The drive was borrowed from a neighbour until I relocated my own drive from home.
I was searching the CD. Reading the READMEs. Still looking for clues. I looked in the box again. There was a manual. I hated manuals. Impatiently, I flipped through it. Without reading much, I put it on the table. No time to waste on manuals.
Like any true computer science student, I was going to do the installation cowboy style, all by myself. Surely the programmers wouldn't have deliberately made it harder than it had to be. And anything the programmers thought was ok, was ok for me, the eager student of computer science.
I had lost my data so many times over the years, that a major surgical procedure was no big deal. And if I screwed up, I would be the one who did it, not some crappy virus. I would have come away having learned something, not the victim of some idiot programmer with nothing better to do than write scraps of malignant assembly code which goes around multiplying itself. If data loss was my own doing, then whichever way it turned out, the experience would be worth it.
An hour passed. I had read whatever documentation I could find on the CDROM that looked relevant. I read the README. Then I took a deep breath. I understood maybe a measly 60% of it. This was beginning to look like it was going to take more initiative, more common sense and more brainpower to install than any DOS or Windows proggie I had ever known.
I went back to the CDROM. I was about 45% sure that the first thing to do was to make the "boot/root floppies", whatever that meant. "Boot" I could understand; the DOS world used that term too. But "root" totally baffled me.
In went the blank floppies. Another 30 minutes passed. I was reading the documentation again, trying to figure out how the heck to actually make the floppies. But along the way, I decided I was wrong. The README said to run a program called FIPS. The other 55% of me was nagging, "surely they told you to run it for a good reason!"
And the reason was a good one, I knew it. It was to change the size of my DOS partitions to make way for the Linux ext2 (whatever that meant) partitions. That meant I had to risk losing data. And however I argued that the experience would be worth it, and however many times I had lost data before, there is always that old attachment a user has to his precious data.
I was reluctant to risk losing my data one more time.
Near dinner time. Floppies were done. Fingers were crossed. *gulp*
DO NOT use FIPS in a multitasking environment like Windows, OS/2,
If you use OS/2 or a disk compressor, read the relevant sections in
FIPS comes with ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY, see file COPYING for details
This is free software, and you are welcome to redistribute it
under certain conditions; again see file COPYING for details.
Press any Key
*gulp really hard*
Time to abort and read FIPS.DOC, just to be certain. You never know what gems programmers like to put in little inconspicuous-looking text files lying around. Like how not to screw up your DOS partition.
Halfway through dinner time. Nevermind that the food is getting cold. The hostel kitchen closes at 7:30pm. I have time. Half an hour? Surely I could install everything by then.
There was nothing interesting in FIPS.DOC, except how you should not sue the author if the software screwed your data. Very comforting. But I was used to that. My favourite editor (then), DOS QEDIT, had the same kind of disclaimer.
And so did Windows. And DOS. And every darn piece of software I'd ever seen, commercial or no. How professional the software industry is. Can't even promise you their own software works. And most of the time you paid money for it (even if bootleg).
Still, to see the same warning repeated several times in the documentation ("BACKUP YOUR DATA"), plus a run-time disclaimer ("ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY") meant that there must have been some really compelling reasons to warn the user.
Out came more floppies. Time to decide what to backup.
8:30pm. Shucks. Missed dinner. FIPS worked. It was actually easy. I didn't lose a thing. Good grief. Booting from a floppy, up came a welcome screen. Yippadeedoo! Linux booted!
Then a message said "Loading vmlinuz...". Damn. The welcome screen wasn't Linux yet. And whatever 'vmlinuz' was, it was big. I figured it must have been the equivalent of io.sys and msdos.sys (which I later learned is called the 'kernel' of the operating system).
Loads of text went by so quickly I didn't know what to make of it. For the first time in many years, I felt helpless in front of my own PC. PageUp/PageDown didn't work. There was no command prompt. Just loads and loads of text scrolling intermittently. But this was not the usual kind of helplessness. Hidden behind this helplessness was hope.
This was Linux. This was the thing that would supposedly turn my PC into big iron. I wouldn't have to scrounge around the department UNIX servers for scraps anymore. My PC would BECOME the UNIX servers. And as far as my PC was concerned, I was its God. I would be master of the big iron, and the big iron would be my slave. I would have the source code, the blueprints to the entire system. I would be able to know it to the guts and bone. I would become its architect. The wisdom of the ancients would be made available to me without limit.
Between me and my big iron, there would be nothing. No LINC to say "DUE XX-XX-XX". No clock to say "end of lecture". No lecturer or tutor to say "oops got an appointment". No examiner to say "time's up". This was my ticket to do it my way. This was to be my shot at greatness. At the time I did not see the full implications of it yet, but I could almost see it.
And I had no inkling how long a road it was to be before I even reached the surface of the "guts and bone". This was good. If I had known, I might have given up right there.
Like that first day in July 1995, the old fire burned in me again, stronger than before. I was to be an exemplary student, a genius. (Well, that turned out to be rather far from the truth over the next few years... ) An expert in this cool new OS. (Well, not exactly new. It was already 3 1/2 years old but I didn't know it then.)
I was ultra-careful. Disk partitioning time. I didn't know how to use this proggie called "fdisk", but that was normal. The command prompt said "m for help" so I did that. I did a little poking around. Then I said shit, this was cool. It recognized a HUGE number of other partition types. Operating systems I had never heard of in my life. It put the DOS/Windows fdisk to shame. And it showed you your WHOLE partition table! All the bits and bytes in it. And you could change the values however you wanted.
I created a new partition. Ultra-careful style. If I screwed this up, I risked losing all my data. After lots of deliberation,
Command (m for help): w
Writing partition tables...
"Error formatting swap partition."
What the... Scratch head. Time to reboot and read the docs again. Nothing there. Time to call Satra (my ISCS student mentor at KE7).
"Oh, you gotta create a swap partition."
"Oh, you must have forgotten to set the partition type. There's a command somewhere. It's chicken. You can handle it."
Back to fdisk. After some fiddling, I used the "L" option. Oh, there it is. Linux swap, type 82. I must have been so cock-eyed.
There was this checkbox that said "select individual packages" on the text screen. I said, "I'd better be sure what I'm doing." I checked it.
And found myself spending the next hour figuring what manner of beast "vixie-cron" was, what kind of bird "NFS" was, ... so I gave up and checked everything.
Apparently, that screwed it all up. Something like "insufficient space writing to /dev/XXYY". I figured that meant the partition was too small. Back to FIPS.
This process repeated itself several times before I finally got it right, and figured out that "select individual packages" wasn't exactly the most careful thing to do for a newbie.
It was past 2am. On Sunday morning. Weekends were the only time I had; all other spaces were taken up by studies or hostel activities. I was tired and hungry, but satisfied. It worked. All that trouble backing up data was useless. It worked, and my DOS partition was still there, in one piece. Now there were two Linux partitions next to it. (And no, this was NOT the way to partition Linux, but I didn't know it then.)
Time to stop. Time to hike down the ridge (including a flight of 128 steps) to the 24 hour NUH cafetaria for dinner. And back up again. The night air was cool. For the many foreigners who hung around on weekends, supper was just beginning at KE7.
I later learned that Red Hat 3.0.3 was considered "easy", and "for morons". Slackware was much harder to install in 1996, and FreeBSD was king of them all. Back then, if you wanted to be a hacker, you installed and used FreeBSD all by yourself, with zero assistance. Otherwise you were "dumb", or at most "average joe".
The way of the hacker initiate is a hard road. (Today I think maybe if you use HURD as your first UNIX-like OS all by yourself you get to learn quite a lot, and polish your will power a bit as well.)
I was fortunate. My ordeal was considered chicken. I could handle it. I wouldn't have earned any respect, but heck, I was nobody, and nobody didn't need no fraggin' respect from anybody.
I had my big iron all to myself.
At 3am on a Sunday morning, I was happy. Tomorrow would be a new day.
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