Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen

by , under tech

Monday mid-afternoon the doorbell rang. LAPTOP!

First impression: oh wow. Wonderful, wonderful non-reflecting screen (which was just about the only gripe I had with the dear little old Helix: one doesn’t want to stare oneself in the face all the time while writing). Decent Lenovo keyboard. Matte black case that’s just asking to have a huge Kiki sticker stuck on it.

It started Windows 10, of course. The first thing I did was disable Cortana. Computers shouldn’t talk, and preferably not listen either. After all, it’s not Star Wars, I can read and type. Then I got as far as the “select your country” menu and asked Spouse “I don’t have to do this, do I? It’s not as if I’ll ever want to run Windows 10”. Now if it was Windows 8… probably the least exasperating version of Windows since 3.11. “No, of course you don’t,” he said.

The second thing I did was reboot with an OpenSUSE (they change their capitalisation every couple of years, I wonder what’s next) USB stick in the slot.


When I pressed Enter at startup where it says “press Enter to change boot options” or something like that, it did see the USB stick but I couldn’t select it in the menu: it kept booting into Windows. There was nothing for it but to finish the Windows install and choose “boot from a different device” in the advanced settings (Spouse had seen all of this before, I don’t think I could have figured it out on my own.)

Spouse went out for half an hour while I kept trying. Several episodes in which I was late to press Enter, or hit a wrong key, and booted into Windows again. When I got back into the boot menu, it could still see the USB stick and I still couldn’t select it. When Spouse came back I was on the tenth try. He went and googled: yes, other people had had the same problem! Apparently the boot loader couldn’t handle a 16GB USB stick. He did have a 4GB USB stick, with Neon on it, and yes, it worked with that! Not that I wanted to use Neon or indeed any flavour of Ubuntu, but any Linux is better than no Linux, right?

But! OpenSUSE has a web loader and that fits on a 4GB stick. Success!

Then I made a fatal mistake. I didn’t know it was a fatal mistake at the time, because I’d done the same thing several times before without any deleterious effect.

Rather than giving Windows a little box to kick its heels in, I completely destroyed it. “There is another operating system on this disk! If you accept these settings you will not be able to boot this other operating system!” Well, yes, if I remove Windows I will not be able to boot Windows, what of it? I’m not ever going to use it anyway. “Destroy!” I said, and clicked Accept.

Formatting. Watching the web loader fetch the other 4GB of stuff. Watching it install, slightly more interesting than watching paint dry because it tells you what it’s doing. “Remove the installation media and press Enter.”

I removed the USB stick and pressed Enter.

Nothing happened. Well, something happened: I got the boot menu again. Without the USB stick this time, because I’d removed it as per instructions, but with “Windows boot loader” listed. This time, I couldn’t select anything. And, of course, because I’d just destroyed Windows I couldn’t boot Windows.

Spouse took over from this point because he’d solved similar problems before. Tweak BIOS settings (no effect; I’d tried several different permutations already, but he also tried the ones I hadn’t dared touch). Try OpenSUSE again. It installed like a breeze but still couldn’t boot. Apparently destroying Windows had also done something detrimental to the boot loader.

Not for the last time we considered sending the laptop back because a laptop I can’t have Linux on is no good to me, but I liked the thing and didn’t want a different laptop, I wanted this one with Linux on it! “I’ll give it another day,” Spouse said. “See if we can get an emergency Windows to put on it.”

Both of us had been too preoccupied to cook so we went to the Italian around the corner. Then we tried to get a Windows recovery image but the site didn’t recognise the serial number, or perhaps it was too dark to read the tiny dim letters and numbers, but I really couldn’t make anything else of it. Spouse got the laptop to bypass the bootloader by starting from the USB installer, but that didn’t look like a permanent solution even if I got one of those teeny-tiny USB sticks.

We went to bed. I woke up at 1:30 with a stuffy nose and a sore throat, remnants or recurrence of the cold that stopped me going to church on my birthday, tossing and turning with worry (I don’t remember what exactly I worried about, except that it wasn’t about the laptop), so I got up and did some more of migrating Spouse’s blog on the Helix — I may finish it on that because the workflow I developed for it depends on the touchscreen. Night tends to cause hyperfocus, so when I looked at a clock again it was 5:45. Going back to bed now would definitely make me oversleep, and that would have been awkward because it was Tuesday when the Domestic Goddess comes and wants to vacuum the bedroom, so I dressed in swimming clothes and went swimming at the normal time. That woke me up all right.

I came home to Spouse who’d managed to acquire a Windows recovery image. Without the serial number: the site didn’t know it at all, even in a better light which only served to confirm that we’d got it right the first time.. But the Thing still wouldn’t read USB sticks larger than 4GB. “I have a spare hard disk!” I said, a 80GB one, which I put in the cradle that usually houses my backup disk, but apparently that fell under “larger than 4GB” and it wouldn’t boot either.

All this time I kept a running commentary on Mastodon and people came with all kinds of suggestions, most or perhaps all of which were things we’d tried already. A web search found 2 people with the same problem and 1 person who had solved a similar thing on a different model of Thinkpad in 2016.

Spouse found a way to restore Windows! And restored Windows! I’ve never been so glad to have a running Windows 10 computer. Not that I did anything with it — I’d completely ceded control to the local expert. He installed Ubuntu 17.10, gave Windows 60GB, rebooted.


I’ve never been so glad to have Ubuntu. Any Linux is better than no Linux. And it was ridiculously easy to upgrade that into Kubuntu with the newest Plasma. It’s still not OpenSUSE but at least it’s KDE.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have moved all my dot files: the OpenSUSE settings, at least I think it was that, made several applications hiccup and sometimes even crash. But that seems to have got itself mostly ironed out now. I set my hostname to tylenay, not to any of the words for “Thing” in exotic languages that I’d contemplated because none of them were pretty enough. I changed my temporary password to my usual password so muscle memory worked again. (Muscle memory makes me futilely poke the screen occasionally, but I’ll get used to that, too.) I changed the background to the castle in Valdis. I went through all the settings and changed the time and date format to en-GB to avoid my mail replies having an English header with Dutch dates (which the last OpenSUSE reinstall on the Helix had caused and I’d been too lazy to fix).

I went to bed at a normalish time. I slept without worry. I woke up at a normalish time. Everything still worked.

Glory, hallelujah!

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