Week 2: Iterations in difficult circumstances

The laptop was dead.

It turned on but froze before getting to the operating system's login screen. Nothing worked - waiting, rebooting in safe modes, stern looks, desperate sighs. I couldn't find out what broke, so I couldn't go about fixing things.

It was time to start over, and that's what I did. I formatted the hard drive and replaced my operating system with a fresh installation. I went with a 64-bit Xubuntu flavor this time - seeing that any attempts to re-install Lubuntu from the USB drive didn't seem to work.

The install went well, and I was soon able to start over. A blank slate, again (mostly), and hopes for a better ride this time!

There were several thoughts running through my head as I prepared to reboot my Punk Learning setup. Here there all are, in no particular order.

1. Backup should be a right, not a privilege

I was lucky to have access to other computers, and means of getting back to speed. It only took me 30 minutes to download and prepare the other operating system - I knew where to look, my broadband was quick enough to download it, and I had the second computer on which to do it all. After that was done, I could log in to my Standard Notes quite quickly, to pick up where I had started with my notes etc.

Not every learning situation is this privileged. And I'm aware that this could have gone much worse. Without backup, my laptop would probably be dead for a long while, and I'd struggle to get it running again - and even if I were to succeed, I'd still have lost the data.

This matters to everyone, but I think it matters even more to learners. Here's why.

2. It takes a lot to start from scratch

If this were to happen three months down the line, I'd probably be tempted to give up on this project. Even with the backups, I would feel like progress was slipping through the net, and I'd be anxious about losing something that wasn't backed up.

It could still happen. The laptop didn't magically become more reliable - it's still old and fragile! And when it does, it's a pain to start anything over again, or to try and find the place where I can pick up my learning.

Learners need encouragement and reassurance - no matter their age, location, or social context. Learners in privileged context can rely on this, sometimes (although it's easy to mistake the heady brew of always-on connections, notifications and badges for actual support). Learners who aren't so fortunate may need to find other ways to seek this out - or to build their own support networks. How could this be addressed?

3. Absolute minimal solutions still save the day

Even before I formatted and re-installed Xubuntu, I was already able to access my computer using one last trick - sort of. And I was super pleased that I could try this out.

TAILS is short for The Amnesic Incognito Live System. It's a pared-down Linux variety with extremely strong privacy protection. Loaded from a USB stick, it allows users even more privacy, encrypted web traffic, and lets you use computers without leaving many traces of your activity.

It worked on my fried-up old laptop. It connected to the internet via Tor. It allowed me to do the bare minimum. If this was an emergency, I would be able to get online, notify someone, and get organised / supported while I try to resuscitate my machine. At a pinch, I could probably even write and submit an essay for a last-minute assignment.

I was happy with this; I realised that very few other solutions would be able to still run on a computer in this state. I knew a re-install would be necessary, but I wanted to see if Tails would be workable, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was.

This is not everyone's cup of tea - Tails would come across as overkill, precisely because it's being marketed as the super-cautious, strongly protected operating environment. I think, though, that a different type of messaging could be possible - and that providing operating systems which help less privileged users / learners out of a tight spot (while also being privacy-focused and secure) could be the way forward. If, as a learner / teacher, I knew such solutions existed and could easily be employed, I'd be less worried about my hardware.

4. Still starting mostly from scratch

So, there we are. I didn't want this to be a blog about Linux adventures, but my computer made me blog about this again :) I hope it's not going to happen soon for a while.

Chess is going really well - dozens of Lichess games help me see patterns more clearly, and I'm actually more confident in making my blunders, losing with flair and rolling on to another game. Some of them I'm beginning to win :)

Everything else will need to be re-started this weekend.

Stay classy -


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