The Sixth Day

When a phone rings before 9 o'clock in the morning, the person on the other end is rarely delivering good news. Today was different, though. At 8:52am Nozomi's vet called to say that she was feeling energetic and had healed enough to return home. We could pick her up after 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Good news is always welcome, particularly when it involves a member of the family.

Since leaving Nozomi with the vet on Monday it's been difficult to concentrate for any length of time. On Tuesday I was permitted a 15-minute visit to see how she was doing, then a daily phone call for updates. Never before has Nozomi been away from family for so long, and I was worried that the absence would slow her recovery. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. Nozomi's recovery time was about normal for a dog of her age and, despite the boredom of being stuck in an air-conditioned glass cage with an IV connected to her leg for almost a full week, she seemed no worse for wear when we were once again reunited.

The vet who performed Nozomi's surgery showed us some photos from the procedure, from the first incision to the examination of the uterus to the confirmation of pyometra and subsequent removal of the organ. Given the amount of swelling, it's no wonder Nozomi was acting strange this past weekend and, based on what the vet had said, if we had waited until Tuesday to bring Nozomi in, she would not have survived to see Wednesday. The swelling was that bad.

After thanking the vet profusely and paying the bill1, we made our way home where Nozomi quickly took stock of the giant hole in the yard2, jumped into her bed, and took a nap. She's feeling better, but still not at 100%. Hopefully she will regain her regular exuberance over the coming days.

For the moment, she and I will have to hold off on taking any walks. Her wounds need a bit more time to recover and nobody is particularly keen on risking an infection. Nozomi's legs can only keep her body 5 ~ 8 centimeters off the ground, which means that grass will rub against her underside, which can carry things that irritate her weakened immune system. With any luck, she'll receive the green light from the vet to once again frolic in the park before June.

With Nozomi home safe and sleeping in her bed under my work desk, I hope we can all relax a little bit this weekend.

  1. We were told to expect a total cost of around $3,000 USD. The final bill was a little under half.

  2. The landscapers are extending the driveway, putting in trees, and laying grass.

The Longest Monday

This morning I woke up by hearing this: "Nozomi pooped on the floor again."

Every so often, usually shortly after Nozomi has her biannual period, this sort of thing happens. Because her body is recovering from the trials of being in heat, she will sometimes have a mess waiting for me in the morning. She's never scolded when this happens, because she and I both know it wasn't intentional. Today's mess was different, though. In addition to an uncharacteristically small amount of potent poop, there was urine and stomach acid on the floor as well. This means that she had a really rough night.

Yesterday, before going to bed, Nozomi and I sat together like we usually do in the evening. She was panting a little harder than usual, but I figured this was because of the recent temperature change. Until recently, the weather was pretty mild with 25˚C afternoons. Late last week, however, we hit 29˚C. Nozomi gets brushed quite often so that her fur is not thicker than it needs to be for the season, but she always pants more heavily as the mercury climbs during the months of May, June, and July. Thinking this was normal, I made sure her water bowl was full and went upstairs to bed. The mess in the morning made it clear that my assessment was way off.

After scrubbing the floor, cleaning her bed, and dealing with the mess, I brought Nozomi out to use the proper bathroom outside. Because she wasn't walking with a great deal of vigour, I carried her to a spot where she generally likes to relieve herself. She did, but with some effort. Returning home I set up her breakfast and replaced her water only to see that she climbed into bed and was not particularly interested in food.

When Nozomi isn't interested in eating, something is clearly wrong. Off to the vet we went.

Nozomi may be deaf, but she has a pretty good knack for knowing what's going on. For any typical trip to the vet, she will struggle and try to escape her fate. It never works, but 11 years of failure doesn't stop her from trying anyway. Today, though, she didn't even offer a glare. I could pick her up, put her into her carrier in the car, and drive the 9km to the same clinic we've used since 2011 without a single sign of concern. Again, something is clearly wrong.

At the vet's office she underwent an ultrasound, blood test, and other checks. The diagnosis was 子宮蓄膿症1, an infection of the uterus. To help her she would need immediate surgery. However, because this particular vet has for years pushed the idea of having Nozomi spayed and suggested that she might die otherwise, both Reiko and I were suspect of his claims this time. Animals, like people, have reproductive organs. It wasn't until recently2 that humanity started regularly spaying (and neutering) animals. So why would it make more sense to remove organs? God doesn't play dice. Nozomi's uterus was there for a reason.

The vet was pretty adamant, though. She needed surgery immediately, and only he could do it, and if we didn't do it right now she would die, and if she died he wouldn't care, because she's not his dog.

Yes. He said all of this.

A second opinion was in order.

There is another vet that Nozomi has been to from time to time when really sick. They're one of the highest-rated vets in the country and often have people waiting outside the clinic because the waiting room is at capacity3. We called ahead, explained the situation, and was given a slot to see a vet at 2:50pm sharp. We arrived on time and Nozomi was given yet another round of tests. Just like before, she didn't put up a fight. She didn't even try to resist. She just let all the people do their thing while focusing — if she can even do such a thing — on breathing. The diagnosis was the same: pyometra. She would need to have her uterus and ovaries completely removed immediately if she was going to see Wednesday.

The vet explained:

Her uterus and cervix have a bacterial infection that cannot be solved with medicine. For dogs like Nozomi, this is like having an appendix that is about to burst. If you wait even a few hours, there's a risk of the infection spreading inside the body where it cannot be contained. She must have surgery now. It's a little expensive …

I waved off the price. It didn't matter. Nozomi had her 11th birthday not two weeks ago. She still has plenty of time left to enjoy the parks around our house, the other dogs in the neighbourhood, and the attention she receives from so many of the people who see us together outside. I can always earn more money4. I cannot — and would never want to — replace Nozomi. There have been other dogs in my life, but none like her. And I will selfishly do what I can to make sure she's here for as long as possible, for as long as she can be here, while feeling as little pain or discomfort as one could hope for.

Nozomi was taken to the "hotel" at the back of the vet where she would wait three hours for surgery. Reiko and I were asked to go home as there was nothing more we could do. I signed the paperwork to authorise the surgery and absolve the vet in the event Nozomi didn't survive the procedure.

Then we went home.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

Eventually we distracted ourselves with dinner, which is one of the two times bad news usually arrives5.

And still we waited.

A little before 7 o'clock, two hours after the surgery was expected to start, we received a phone call. Nozomi was semi-conscious and recovering from her ordeal. The procedure was a success.

The twelve hours between the time I got out of bed to clean poop and the time when the vet called to say Nozomi was on the mend were perhaps the longest in recent memory. Nozomi has been sick before, sometimes terribly so, but rarely has half a day felt like a week of helpless waiting.

The voices of self-doubt that taunt me endlessly were conspicuously absent today. It's as if they knew better. But my conscious self filled in for their silence with this:

You can describe in detail how your computers work right down to an almost atomic level. You can explain how a star works. You can describe mathematically the properties of a magnetar from memory. But you can't do anything useful when someone you care about is sick.

I'm not a doctor. I have no idea how bodies work or what makes us alive beyond the basics that were taught in high school. All I can do is seek the help of experts when things get really dire. And, thanks to experts, Nozomi is recovering from her ordeal, minus some infected organs. So long as she regains her energy and appears to be on the mend, she'll get to come home before the weekend.

And for that, I am truly grateful.

  1. In English this would be pyometra.

  2. By "recently", I mean "within recorded history", which is arguably around 5,000 years. That's pretty recent in the grand scheme of things.

  3. Even before social distancing was a requirement.

  4. I understand that this is said with a great deal of privilege. However, even if I were not currently employed, I would find a way to cover the medical expenses.

  5. The other time bad news arrives is in the middle of the night.

Wading Back Into Freelancing

At some point around the end of 2019 I made the decision to wind-down the freelancing side business and focus on something different for a while. Unfortunately, that "something different" turned out to be just more time spent working for the day job. While this did result in earning more money than I would have through freelance contracts, the range of work was not nearly enough. One of the many things that I've come to enjoy when working with clients is learning of new ways to solve common problems, and codifying that in some sort of system, digital or otherwise. Last year was a wash for so many people, but 2021 is looking up. I've already had two former clients reach out to carry on with some projects, and I'm putting out feelers for more projects to see what opportunities might exist. Despite always feeling there's never enough time, I cannot help but feel the need to create new things that reduce friction in people's lives. It's pretty much the only thing I've ever been remotely capable of.

Working on the side often comes with a number of pros in the long run and cons mostly up front. There's the need to register a business with the government1, hire the services of an accountant twice a year, hire a lawyer within 90 days of registering to go over various legal expectations, obtain licenses and permits, and track financial data. All the things I grew tired of doing when freelancing last time. However, I do plan on being a little smarter about the legal requirements this year by making use of a company in town that specialises in these tasks for small businesses. I'll let the experts do what they do for a reasonable fee so that I can do what I do for slightly more than I used to charge … mainly because of the fees.

What I hope to achieve with this new foray into freelancing is a sense of accomplishment. While there are a lot of benefits to working with teams of smart people around the globe, I much prefer working with small businesses. People are just as focused on solving problems, but there's much more attention paid to efficiency and effectiveness. If something takes a little bit longer to get right, then the time can usually be accommodated with a small entity if it means saving money in the long run. I appreciate this approach a great deal and, by working with a smaller number of people, it's much easier to get answers to questions. Getting information from a company with 5 employees is much easier than a department with 50.

Of course, I do worry that I might once again bite off more than I can chew. As the years go by this body is much less forgiving of all-nighters. Perhaps some hard rules will need to be put into place again, like I did five or so years ago when it became taboo to look at anything with a glowing screen past a certain hour. If I force myself to put everything away — including the phone and tablet — by midnight, then it should be relatively easy to get into bed before 1:00am. With six hours of sleep every night, I generally wake feeling refreshed and ready to go the next morning.

This is wholly dependent on whether I can earn some freelance contracts, though. Right now everything is still in the early stages of discussions with former and potential clients. Once someone agrees to get started, then I'll put in the legwork to re-register Matigo Solutions with the local and federal governments.

  1. If I earn more than $2,000 per year, I will need to declare it on my income tax statements and collect tax from domestic clients.

Retired from the Help Desk

At the end of November I started to interact on the AskUbuntu Q&A site to help people solve problems they were having with my preferred distribution of Linux. Over the course of 112 days I answered 461 questions, earning 6,339 points and 42 badges. Looking at the monthly rankings, I took the number one spot for December 2020, January 2021 and February 2021. Clearly there were people who found my answers useful. Yesterday night, however, I pulled the trigger to delete my profile and forfeit everything that I had invested the time and energy into.

AskUbuntu Profile Summary

The first question people would naturally ask is "why?", likely expecting to hear about some sort of interpersonal drama or some other common reason for walking away from a community. Given that AskUbuntu is a Linux-focused community, and many Linux communities are not particularly known for having their arms wide open1, this might be the immediate assumption. However, aside from a couple of notes dropped in comments, there was almost zero interaction between me and the long-standing members who have been answering questions for years. The problem that I faced was this: I'm not patient enough to do Help Desk work.

Some of the question that people have asked over the last 100 days on the site have been genuinely interesting and have received some incredibly enlightening answers. I've learned far more about the Grub boot loader this year than at any point in the past. I've seen the correct method of asking someone for more details to answer a question. And I've even taken some of the criticism of my answers to heart to ensure that solutions are provided with supporting links to the documentation whenever possible. Despite my short tenure as AskUbuntu, I feel as though my technical writing has become a little more complete as a result, which will hopefully be reflected in all future documentation that I write. So, while there were a great number of positives, there was a recurring negative that had me questioning why I wanted to invest a few minutes of free time every day on something that wasn't of my own creation: the contemptuous self-defeater.

Self-defeaters are people who create their own problems. We all do this from time to time, but it becomes a bit much when the person who is seeking help derides solutions, refuses to provide information, then hurls insults. For the final two weeks on the Q&A site, this was pretty much everyone who had a question I could offer support on. The Help Desk — and just about any support job — is often a thankless task. For every dozen hostile people there will be one who thanks you2. Again, this is to be expected. However, looking at the number of hours that have been invested in providing the 461 questions and seeing how 318 of them had responses like "Didn't work" without any details3, or "Oh, I'm using Mint BTW, LOL", or never received any follow-up, I have to ask if my time wouldn't be better used blogging … or working on 10C … or maybe doing client work again.

Well, last night, I decided to start doing client work again when not working on 10C or blogging. However, just like everyone else on the planet, I'm still very much constrained for time. By keeping the profile on AskUbuntu, I would always be tempted to go back and answer a few questions here and there, sinking time into a potential solution that has a very high probability of receiving radio silence back from the person who asked the question. By deleting the profile and forfeiting everything that has been earned over the past four months, I can leave the site aside and invest my limited time into things that may prove more beneficial in the long run. This year I need to upgrade some of my server equipment and buy some software licenses for newer versions of tools that I use regularly. These things cost money, which means my focus should be on earning revenue. AskUbuntu, while an interesting place to learn more about the OS that I have relied on for over a decade, will not contribute anything towards these objectives.

Maybe when I will be a little less impatient after retiring. Until then, my time on the Help Desk will need to remain limited.

  1. This is usually a misconception that is played up in the tech press. Many Linux-focused communities are genuinely great with people who will bend over backwards to help strangers solve problems. The various "dramas" that get reported on often contain too many superlatives, which misrepresents the people, the communities, and the disagreements within or between them.

  2. The ratio that I've seen on AskUbuntu is closer to 4:1, which is pretty darn decent for a Q&A site

  3. I understand that not every solution I offer is perfect. But, if something doesn't work, at the very least provide an error message, or part of a log, or something that is actionable. Two words is not any way to drive out a solution from a stranger on the Internet.

Do I Want to Do This Again?

After the boy went to bed I did something I've thought about doing for ages: I spoke into a microphone for reasons other than work. There was a time many years ago when I couldn't stop working with audio files, be it creating, editing, or publishing. However, the boy came along and I moved into a global role at the day job. With more responsibilities than I could shake a stick at, all I could do was to focus on the people and things that needed the most attention. My hobbies had to take a back seat … for many, many years.

That said, this coming April will see some changes. They boy will be entering his second year of kindergarten and I'll be working on some very different projects at the day job. There should be, perhaps for a brief period, some free time at some point during the week to relax, unwind, and enjoy some of the pastimes that have been set aside.

This is assuming that I would like to get into them again.

s2e02 - Do I Want to Do This Again?

Ten Years of Crises

Ten years ago today, at 2:46pm local time, one of the biggest earthquakes in recent history hit the northeastern coast of Japan and shook the country so hard it could be felt almost a thousand kilometres away. A few hours later a massive tsunami rushed to shore along a massive amount of that same coast to subsume the buildings, objects, and people who could not — or would not — get to higher land. Entire townships were swept into the ocean as the waters receded, leaving scarred land littered with ruined equipment, debris, and death. More than 10,000 aftershocks have been recorded in the decade that has passed since The Great Tohoku Earthquake, and more take place every day. However, despite the depth and severity of this wound, the people of Tohoku — and the rest of Japan — have persevered, rebuilt, and carried on.

Five Years later, at 01:25am on April 16, 2016, Kumamoto was delivered a similar disaster. Just like the one in Tohoku, buildings were toppled, infrastructure destroyed, and entire villages cut-off from resupply for weeks. Because this one struck in the middle of the night, many of the casualties that took place were the result of falling objects and furniture. The quake was followed by hundreds of aftershocks and heavy rains, making rescue and repair operations far more difficult. However, despite the depth and severity of this wound, the people of Kumamoto — and the rest of Japan — have persevered, rebuilt, and carried on.

Aside from these two large earthquakes, the country has seen an incredible amount of destruction and pain brought on by smaller quakes, increasingly powerful typhoons, floods, and — recently — fires. Every six months there is another disaster in the news. However, despite these wounds, people have persevered, rebuilt, and carried on.

Very rarely have natural disasters affected the people I know personally. Reiko and I were living just outside of Tokyo when the big one hit ten years ago, and the resulting chaos1 made a return to the Tokai area a priority. Nozomi was so terrified by the constant shaking of the ground that she stopped eating for almost a year, requiring us to force-feed her so that she'd have something in her stomach. We were lucky, though. We managed to get through the challenges, find a new home, rebuild, and carry on. Many others — particularly domesticated animals — did not have the same opportunity.

Disasters are generally things that we try to forget. Who wants to remember pain? But after getting through 3/11 "inconvenienced but unscathed", I've approached the annual commemorations a little differently. The anniversaries are often presented as a way to remember those who lost their lives, their loved ones, their homes, and their livelihoods. While this is all very true, this is also a good time to remember the people who are still here with us. The people who went to the aid of others. The people who offered a stranger a brief bit of normalcy in the confusion2. It's important to remember those who left before us, but it's just as important to remember the ones who were there … and still here.

  1. To be fair, chaos in Japan generally means "empty store shelves and long lines everywhere".

  2. After the stores started opening up after 3/11, Reiko and I went to a grocery store to collect some supplies. There wasn't any running water anywhere and there was none to be purchased for any price. Nozomi refused to stay home alone out of fear of another quake, so I had to hold her in my arms just about every minute of the day. As dogs are not permitted in grocery stores even during the best of times, I stayed outside the shop while Reiko went in. There were two men in their 50s sitting on a bench and consuming a 6-pack of beer at a remarkable pace despite being well before noon. Nozomi and I sat next to them and we chatted about a bunch of things while people scurried around us in an attempt to secure resources. They offered me a can, which I accepted, and for a brief period of time we sat in our own bubble of normalcy despite the chaos around us. Reiko eventually emerged from the grocery store with a 2-litre bottle of water — no idea how she managed to get one — and some zero-prep food that could be had at anytime without water or electricity.

A Photo From the Future

A couple of nights ago, shortly after reading some classic Mr. Men stories before bed, the boy picked up a photo and asked me an interesting question. Young children often ask a number of interesting questions that adults never think about, but this one was rather unique in that it was the first time the boy showed an understanding for the fluidity of time.


Is this photo from the future?

Being four, he does have a rough concept of time. He knows that things happened before and that we live in the now and that we can enjoy long visits to the park in a few days. This question was looking well beyond days and instead at decades.

The photo in question is this one here, of my father and step-mother. The picture was taken maybe a year or two ago and has been on a bookshelf next to my bed since we received it. The boy has never met anyone from my family in person, though he does make an appearance during the occasional video call.

Dad & Henri

What I found interesting about the question, aside from the implications that come with a greater degree of temporal awareness, is that the boy could likely see some resemblance between my father and I and showed an understanding that we age with time. By looking at a picture of my father, seeing a resemblance, and having an understanding that the person in question was older, it seems logical to assume that the photo could be from the future. A four year old child knows we can have pictures of the past, so why not also of the future?

Dad, Henri, and I in Princeton, NJ

This second photo was taken almost exactly three years ago when I made the one and only trip to North America since moving to Japan. Yeah, I look a bit like my father, but I look a lot more like my mother … who I do not have any pictures of.

A Better Pastime

Last week the boy had his very first stage performance at school. As one would expect, this sort of thing gives parents a number of reasons to be less cautious with spending, particularly when that money spent can result in better-quality photos and videos. At the tail end of 2016 we picked up a Canon Kiss x7 DSLR with two lenses with the expectation that we would be taking lots of pictures of a new person as he grew up. This has proven to be a great investment as the image quality from this single-purpose camera is far superior to anything that I've seen from a cell phone1, but taking distance shots in a dim room — let alone an auditorium — has always been disappointing. The EFS 55-250mm macro lens that came with the camera is just not up to the task. So, with the purse strings loosened a bit, Reiko authorised the purchase of a prosumer-grade lens: a Sigma 100-400mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM.

To test the camera before the boy's performance, I took a number of shots at night after everyone was in bed. A photo of a living room lamp came out crystal clear despite being more than 6 metres away. Words on a thermostat could be zoomed into and read with ease from five metres. In areas of even more shadow, the lens captured enough light to take a relatively-good shot of some toys under a table. Things were looking good, but I wanted to try something interesting to see just how far the camera could get a clear shot.

I wanted a good, clear picture of the moon.

A quick image search online for pictures of the Earth's moon — or moons of other worlds in our solar system — will reveal millions of pictures, many with remarkable image quality, excellent colour balance, and near-perfect framing. These shots are all well and good for desktop backgrounds, but I wanted a photo that I took. Since I was a young boy I've always wanted a telescope. My parents couldn't afford to buy one, given there were five kids who needed food, clothes, and other necessities, and when I started earning money my priorities had changed to investing in computer equipment. However, times have changed. While the Sigma 100-400mm lens is not technically a telescope, it does have some pretty good range.

So off to the park I went, camera in hand, to take some pictures of our nearest celestial neighbour. This is one shot that I managed to grab with everything in automatic mode:

The Moon — Automatic Settings

Not a bad photo for an amateur holding a big lens in his hands rather than with a tripod. Not a great one, either. I needed to learn how to take pictures of bright objects at night.

Over the course of a couple days I read a number of photography and astronomy blogs to see how novices and professionals captured images of our moon. Patterns emerged. I quickly discovered that the first photo could never have been great because the ISO level was all wrong, as was the aperture, and the shutter speed. What I needed to do was this:

  • go all manual with the settings
  • set the aperture to f/11 or f/16
  • set the shutter speed to 1/100 or 1/125
  • set the ISO to 100
  • use a tripod2

My earlier attempts with automatic settings had all of these numbers wrong, which resulted in a large number of completely black photos with a solid-bright disc in the middle. The one semi-decent shot from the first night was just sheer luck.

So, armed with a little more knowledge, I went out to the park again tonight to see what sort of pictures could be acquired. This was the result:

Another Moon Shot

This isn't bad. Nor is it great. There's a lot of pollen and other pollutants in the atmosphere tonight. That said, this is a step in the right direction. Progress. Hopefully, by continuing to hone my skills with the camera and various lenses, I'll be ready to start taking pictures of really distant objects with a proper telescope in a couple of years when the boy starts showing an interest in planets, asteroids, nebulae, and more.

  1. Mind you, I don't know how far the image quality has come on premium phones in the last few years. They could be at near-DSLR level by now, knowing Apple, Sony, and Samsung.

  2. Subsequent trips to the park at night involved a tripod. That said, the lens is really heavy. A different mount to offset the new balance-midpoint will be needed in the near future.

Four Cans of Coffee

A common New Year pastime that people of all ages enjoy in Japan is kite flying. The tradition goes back centuries and, while people rarely build their own anymore, the distinctive sounds and bright colours of the simple wind catchers always draws a crowd. Not wanting to be left out, the boy asked if he could also fly a kite.

Sure. Why not?

A pair of yellow and blue kites were bought from the nearby mall and we made our way to a moderately empty baseball park where there was ample space and a good bit of wind. After a little bit of setup, we had flight! The sound of laughter and delight filled the park as a young person ran around, eyes to the sky, enjoying a simple pleasure that required zero glowing screens, LEDs, or batteries. The fun went in for at least twenty minutes, and I was capturing the moment with an old phone and even older set of eyes.

And then the crying started.

It took a second to see what happened, but the boy had lost his grip on the thread handle, meaning the kite was now travelling due North with zero resistance. A moment later it stopped travelling away from us but continued to buck and twist like an animal who was momentarily free, then once again constrained. The plastic handle was snared by a tree branch several meters above our heads. There was no escape for the kite anymore.

There was, however, a problem. Japan has a terrible habit of putting utility poles everywhere and running wires to and fro. Because the branch that held the kite was too thin to hold the weight of anyone older than 5, and because the height was much too high to send a five year old, we needed a way to recover the untamed sail before it wrapped itself around some wires. I tried using a makeshift hook that could wrap itself around the string lead to pull the kite to safety, but this proved to be futile. Within a matter of minutes, a brief lull in the wind sent the kite whirling around not one, not two, but four wires than ran from the utility poles to houses across the street; power and phone.

It was time to depend on the professionals.

Reiko called the power company who sent a pair of technicians out within an hour. As one would expect, the trapped kite had attracted a lot of attention and some boys from the neighbourhood were taking an interest in the operation. Fortunately there were no complications. The kite was returned, broken from the wind and with many sections of string in tatters. The boy was upset because his new toy couldn’t fly anymore. Reiko and I were relieved, because we weren’t asked to pay for the completely preventable rescue operation.

As a token of our appreciation, though, we did offer the two technicians a small reward for their efforts: four cans of coffee. Hopefully they could enjoy them while driving to their next mission.


In the final weeks of November last year I decided to once again re-join AskUbuntu as part of an attempt to "give back" for all the good that Ubuntu Linux has brought me over the years. 150 questions were answered over a period of five weeks, resulting in 2,100+ points, a slew of badges, and a couple of seasonal hats. The majority of the interactions were productive and people would sometimes build on my answers, allowing me an opportunity to learn more about the platform that has played an important part of my digital toolkit since 2005. Being the sort of person who tends to look for patterns, a couple of things stood out that seem to be incomplete with the popular distribution.

AskUbuntu Statistics

Linux has often been portrayed as a niche operating system that caters towards the technologically interested, but there are an increasing number of "normal people" who see the value in having something that does not come from Apple or Microsoft on their computers. What this means is that people from all over the globe are installing Linux on machines that were generally designed to be platform-specific devices; running MacOS if it were an Apple, or Windows if it were anything else1. While the various Linux distributions have made great strides in ensuring hardware compatibility, certain gaps continue to be a problem.

The first is networking. On any given day, there will be several people asking their very first question on AskUbuntu saying something along the lines of:

I just installed Ubuntu on my computer and the WiFi doesn't work. Help!


I plugged a USB WiFi dongle into my computer, and Ubuntu doesn't see it. Help!

After a bit of back and forth, the community can generally work out what a person needs to do to get their machine up and running on a wireless network. The steps can sometimes be incredibly easy, consisting of changing a setting in the BIOS or editing a file, or ridiculously complicated, requiring a person clone a Git repository and compile a driver from source before installing it manually. These are hardly great experiences for anyone, including the development teams that have invested thousands of hours to get device compatibility to where it is today. Believe me when I say that setting up a fresh Linux installation used to require an entire long weekend!

However, this shows that there is still a bit of work that can go into this one area, most likely via an application written by someone outside the main distributions. The required functionality would be pretty basic:

  1. scan the machine for network devices that are using the wrong driver or have no driver at all
  2. suggest the best drivers based on the device chipsets
  3. do the necessary work to get the drivers installed

This application would need to allow a person to also download all the necessary driver files alongside the main app so that a person with no network connection at all could get online in short order. The "problem" would be keeping up with all the various unofficial driver resources that have sprung up on GitHub, BitBucket, and other places to service devices that use RealTek and some less-common Broadcom chipsets.

Does something like this already exist? It's certainly a possibility. I have not seen it, though.

Another common issue seems to involve video drivers, with Nvidia hardware being the most-common devices cited. People report all sorts of issues and often receive suggestions that involve changing kernel settings, updating the bootloader to include various modes, switching drivers from community to proprietary or vice versa, and the like. Just like the WiFi issue, this isn't something that people should have to think about. There must be a way to automate the fixes to a certain degree as there are a limited number of video cards available2. Could an auto-detection & configuration tool be built that would work alongside the device discovery code that exists in the operating systems? Most likely, and it would be well-received if it could alleviate the stress a lot of people who are new to Linux feel when technical problems like these inevitably arise.

The third most common issue that I've seen is with people messing around with Grub, the bootloader, and losing the ability to load Windows or some other operating system that is also installed on their computer. This could be solved by making an image of the bootloader and writing it to a USB stick, ideally the same one that has the Ubuntu installation files. Then, when someone messes something up so badly they need to fix it, they can restore from backup. The Ubuntu Live environment does have a bootloader repair tool, but it does not always restore a bootloader to what it was, instead repairing it based on information it finds scattered across the system. The most common complaint is when the bootloader repair tool only restores access to one operating system because the other resides on a separate storage device.

Ubuntu, and most other popular distributions, have done a remarkable amount of work to make Linux a better, more polished system today than at any point in the past, but there's still a good deal of work to be done. It will be interesting to see if any of the issues outlined above are tacked in the near future … and that first one seems like a nice little challenge for me to pick up in the spring if it hasn't been solved by then.

  1. I'm excluding the Chromebooks for now, as that's a topic for another day.

  2. Yes, we're talking thousands, but it is still a finite number that involves a limited number of chipsets.